October 7, 2003


2003 Playoff Preview:



Red Sox - Yankees

Team

W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
New York 101 61 .623 877 716 .600 .280 .6977
Boston 95 67 .586 961 809 .586 .287 .7005
Offense

RS/G AVG OBP SLG HR 2B BB SO
New York 5.41 .271 .356 .453 230 304 684 1042
Boston 5.94 .289 .360 .491 238 371 620 943
Defense


RA/G AVG OBP SLG HR 2B BB SO
New York 4.41 .266 .313 .408 145 323 375 1119
Boston 4.99 .263 .325 .414 153 327 488 1141

As a lifelong Minnesota Twins fan, I obviously wanted very badly for the Twins to defeat the New York Yankees in the first-round. As a sabermetrically inclined baseball fan or a "stathead" or whatever you want to call a guy who thinks on-base percentages are more important than stolen bases and RBIs, I found part of me hoping the Oakland A's would win their matchup with the Boston Red Sox, simply so Billy Beane could finally get out of the first-round of the playoffs.

But let's face it, this is the matchup almost everyone wants to see and, despite my Twinsfandom and my respect for Beane and the A's, I am willing to say that this is, in fact, the best possible matchup in the American League.

If Oakland was completely healthy, I believe they are just as strong and perhaps stronger than the Red Sox, but they aren't. Mark Mulder missed the end of the season and all of the playoffs with a hip injury and Tim Hudson apparently thought he was part of the cast of "Road House II" last week and hurt his pitching arm enough that he had to leave his Game Four start after just 9 pitches. The A's are the walking-wounded at this point, so if anyone was going to challenge the Yankees in the ALCS, it was going to be the Red Sox.

In my opinion, Boston-New York is the best rivalry in all of baseball. There are some other good ones of course (Detroit-Tampa Bay springs immediately to mind), but none match the intensity and emotion of Red Sox-Yankees and none have the same history.

As a Minnesotan with absolutely zero allegiances to either Boston or New York, I will be cheering for the Boston Red Sox in this series. And really, unless you are a Yankee fan, I don't see how you could possibly not root for Boston.

The Yankees are like a winning-machine, producing division titles and World Series championships at assembly-line paces. Meanwhile, for the most part, the Boston Red Sox have played second-fiddle to them for the better part of the last century. They've been a very successful franchise for large stretches at a time, but they have always been the lovable losers, as opposed to New York's "Evil Empire" of winning.

And who among us doesn't root for the underdog? These two teams may be essentially equal in talent, but there is no doubt who the favorites in this series are. I think all this talk about a "curse" is about as close to complete bulls--- as something can get, but the fact is that the Red Sox haven't won a whole lot since 1918, and the Yankees are going for their 27th World Series title this year. As the great Ric Flair said so many times, "If you want to be The Man, you've got to beat The Man."

Of course, this isn't your typical underdog situation. It's not exactly a case of a school bully picking on some scrawny, helpless kid. It's more like the school bully picking on a slightly smaller and slightly less hated school bully. Like if David took a vacation and Goliath fought Goliath's little brother. It's like a fight between the Crips and the Bloods, except one is wearing pinstripes and the other hasn't won a World Series since 1918.

Sure, Boston has a $100 million-dollar payroll and sure, they won 95 games this year, but the Yankees have a $160 million-dollar payroll and they won 101 games. And sure, the Red Sox have typically been one of the better teams in the American League, but the Yankees have been even better.

As far as I can tell, the pitching-matchups for the series look like this:

Game One       Yankee Stadium       Tim Wakefield       Mike Mussina

Game Two Yankee Stadium Derek Lowe Andy Pettitte

Off Day

Game Three Fenway Park Pedro Martinez Roger Clemens
Game Four Fenway Park John Burkett David Wells
Game Five Fenway Park Tim Wakefield Mike Mussina

Off Day

Game Six Yankee Stadium Derek Lowe Andy Pettitte
Game Seven Yankee Stadium Pedro Martinez Roger Clemens

If that is the way it actually happens, fate could not have drawn it up any better.

Obviously the Red Sox would like to start Pedro Martinez in Game One, but that's not an option. Being able to start him in Game Three, at Fenway, and then in a potential Game Seven is not a bad thing either. And the thought of a Boston-New York Game Seven, in Yankee Stadium, pitting Pedro Martinez against Roger Clemens is making me nervous just thinking about it. That first Pedro-Clemens matchup at Fenway in Game Three might be mildly entertaining as well.

Aside from any games Pedro ends up starting, New York has a significant edge in starting pitching. Derek Lowe had a decent year and seems to be pitching very well right now, so the two Lowe-Andy Pettitte matchups look fairly even, but the Yankees have a huge edge in the Tim Wakefield-Mike Mussina matchups, as well as the Game Four matchup of John Burkett and David Wells.

I was incredibly impressed by New York's starting pitching against the Twins. Of course, dominating Minnesota's lineup is a whole lot easier than doing the same against the Red Sox, who have the best offense in all of baseball and perhaps one of the best of all-time. That said, the Red Sox hitting looked anything but dominant against Oakland.

I think a huge factor in this series will be the bullpens. Boston's bullpen has taken a lot of heat all year long and, despite their adding a bunch of quality arms at mid-season, their relief pitching situation is far from perfect. Their closer for most of the year, Byung-Hyun Kim, pitched in one game against Oakland, lost his job and the confidence of his manager, and now appears to be out for the ALCS with a "shoulder injury."

Scott Williamson struggled after coming over from Cincinnati, but pitched well in the ALDS. He pitched in all five games, doing extremely well in the first four, before falling apart when asked to close out Game Five. Mike Timlin has probably been Boston's most consistent reliever all season and he did very well against Oakland. He will be called on to be Boston's other right-handed "ace" reliever, along with Williamson, doing the job Kim was supposed to fill.

Beyond Timlin and Williamson, they have Alan Embree, who should be good for a couple of left-handed batters per game. Aside those three guys, Boston really doesn't have anyone else they appear comfortable trusting in any sort of a close game. And you can only count on Derek Lowe coming in to save the bullpen so many times before his arm simply explodes.

Meanwhile, the Yankees, as always, have Mariano Rivera available to shut things down from the 8th inning on. Rivera looked absolutely unhittable against the Twins and everyone knows about his post-season track-record. The rest of the bullpen isn't as impressive or reliable as in year's past, but it's still not a bad group. Joe Torre can mix and match Jeff Nelson, Gabe White, Felix Heredia and Jose Contreras, although I don't know that I would feel any more comfortable with that group than I would with the Timlin/Embree/Williamson trio.

At some point, the Red Sox are going to have to rely on someone other than Timlin, Embree, Williamson and Derek Lowe to get some outs after a starter leaves the game, and whether or not the guys at the back of the bullpen can get the job done may end up meaning the difference in this series.

I really think these teams are about as evenly matched as two teams can be, and the unbelievable emotion and intensity that will be involved in all of these games should make this one of the most exciting post-season series in recent memory.

If the Red Sox can take one of the first two games in Yankee Stadium, I think they will be in a great position to win this thing. I don't like John Burkett's chances of shutting down New York in Game Four, but the Red Sox should have a good shot at winning the other two games in Fenway.

If they can take one in Yankee Stadium and 2/3 in Fenway, they would head back to New York up 3-2, with Derek Lowe going against Andy Pettitte in Game Six. Even if they lose both at Yankee Stadium or lose 2/3 in Fenway, they should still be able to head back to New York, meaning Derek Lowe versus Andy Pettitte in Game Six is looking like a huge matchup either way. In fact, both Lowe-Pettitte matchups will be huge in this series.

The interesting thing is that both of those matchups will take place in Yankee Stadium, and Derek Lowe has been a completely different pitcher at Fenway and away from Fenway this season.

             IP      ERA

Fenway 115.0 3.21
Road 88.1 6.11

Lowe's ERA was also significantly better at home last year.

While I don't doubt that there is something about Fenway - tall infield grass, the Green Monster, etc. - that Lowe uses to his advantage, I think the real issue with him is whether the game is played on grass or turf. Lowe is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball, so having tall grass in the infield as opposed to fast turf can make a huge difference. And, sure enough, check out these splits:

             IP      ERA

Grass 182.0 3.86
Turf 21.1 9.70

There are obviously some sample-size issues with those numbers, but I think it's still very significant. Last year, Lowe's ERA was 51% higher on turf than on grass and, in 2000-2002 combined, he had a 3.15 ERA on grass and a 5.74 ERA on turf.

So, while Lowe's overall road numbers are awful this year, I think the real issue is the playing surface, and Yankee Stadium has grass on the infield, just like Fenway. Lowe is Boston's second-best pitcher right now and he has pitched very well (and often) in the post-season. Whether or not he can continue to do well is going to be a huge factor in this series. He needs to win at least one of his two starts against Pettitte, and if he is able to give them a couple of innings out of the bullpen between starts, that would also help ease the pressure on Boston's bullpen quite a bit.

To win this thing, the Red Sox need Derek Lowe to come up big, they need their bullpen to be at least reasonably reliable, and their offense needs to dominate like they did during the season.

For the Yankees, I don't think they will have much trouble scoring runs against non-Pedro pitching, so they simply need to play solid defense and rely on their veteran starters and Mariano Rivera to get the job done against a very dangerous Boston offensive-attack.

Personally, I am hoping that this series goes the full seven games. Not only would that mean seven great games to watch, it would also mean the chance to see Pedro and Clemens pitch the deciding game, in Yankee Stadium, with a trip to the World Series on the line. It just doesn't get any better than that.

If we are all lucky enough to see that happen, I go back to what I said about Pedro Martinez in my preview of the Oakland/Boston ALDS series:

"Pedro is still Pedro and I'll only believe he loses a deciding game when I see it, and even then I will be skeptical."


Red Sox in seven.


*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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