September 28, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Red Sox - Athletics


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
Oakland 96 66 .593 768 643 .588 .254 .7263
Boston 95 67 .586 961 809 .586 .287 .7005

Oakland 4.74 .254 .327 .417 176 317 556 898
Boston 5.94 .289 .360 .491 238 371 620 943

Oakland 3.97 .246 .311 .376 140 248 497 1017
Boston 4.99 .263 .325 .414 153 327 488 1141

I guess this series is sort of like the Sabermetric Super Bowl or something.

On one side, you've got the A's, led by Mr. Moneyball himself, Billy Beane. On the other side, you've got the Boston Red Sox, led by The Boy Genius, Theo Epstein, with help from Bill "The Godfather of Sabermetrics" James and Voros "DIPS" McCracken.

The sad thing about this matchup for me, and I suspect many sabermetrically inclined baseball fans, is that one of these two sabermetric-darlings will be knocked out of the playoffs in round one. Of course, I guess that makes the good news that one of these two teams will be playing in the ALCS.

But which one will it be? Ah, that's the big question. On one hand, you've got the Red Sox, who, if you believe everything HBO has to say on the subject, are cursed forever. On the other hand, as great as Billy Beane and the A's have been over the last few years, the next time they get out of the first-round will be the first time. Has there ever been a first-round tie, with neither team advancing? Nah...

Of course, this isn't just a series us "statheads" can get all excited about. It is also a matchup of the best offense in the American League against the best pitching in the American League. You've got Pedro, Manny and Nomar versus Hudson, Zito and Tejada. I think this is not only the most evenly matched first-round series, it is also the most compelling matchup.

I always enjoy seeing the old baseball cliche that "good pitching beats good hitting" tested, and this series will certainly do that. If ever there was a matchup of good pitching versus good hitting, this is it.

The Red Sox led baseball in almost every hitting stat that matters. They scored 961 runs, 54 more than the second highest scoring team, the Atlanta Braves. They also led baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles and extra-base hits. The only major thing that they didn't lead MLB in was homers, where they finished second with 232, 5 behind the Rangers.

Meanwhile, the A's led the American League in ERA and their 3.63 team-ERA was second to only Los Angeles' 3.17 in all of baseball. The A's pitching-staff also led the AL in opponent batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. They had 3 pitchers finish in the AL's top-10 in ERA and their closer, Keith Foulke, led the league in saves.

Of course, part of Oakland's great pitching comes from the fact that they play in a very friendly ballpark for pitchers. At the same time, there is reason to believe this Red Sox offense may not be quite as scary as the overall numbers would have you believe, at least not in the post-season anyway.

Check out Boston's offense at Fenway and on the road:

          RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      HR      2B

Fenway 6.56 .316 .392 .527 111 216
Road 5.29 .263 .328 .456 123 155

When the Red Sox leave Fenway, they go from an extraordinary offense to merely a good one. Their batting average drops nearly 20% and their on-base percentage and slugging percentage each drop by about 15%. Most importantly, their runs per game drops about 20%, from 6.56 per game to 5.29.

There is no doubt that this current Boston offensive-attack is perfectly designed for playing half their games in Fenway Park. The only problem for now is that they will no longer be playing half their games in Fenway Park, at least not if this series (or the next one) goes the distance.

Games 1, 2 and 5 of this series will be played in Network Associates Coliseum, which, as I said earlier, is one of the top pitcher's parks in the league. It's got huge foul territory, a spacious outfield and a very obvious lack of a gigantic green wall down the left field line.

For the first two games of the series, the A's would seem to have a big edge. Not only are they playing at home, where they are 57-24 on the year, and not only is Boston's offense significantly worse on the road, the A's will be starting Tim Hudson (my pick for AL Cy Young) and Barry Zito, two of baseball's best pitchers. Of course, the Red Sox have this guy named Pedro starting Game One, so Oakland's advantage in the opening two games probably isn't quite as big as it seems.

After Pedro goes in the first game, the Red Sox have an interesting setup. They will go with Tim Wakefield in Game Two, followed by Derek Lowe in Game Three, at Fenway Park. Their likely Game Four starter is John Burkett, although I suppose there is a chance that, depending on how the series stands at that point, they could go with Pedro on short-rest.

The reason that is an "interesting setup" (aside from the fact that Burkett stinks) is that Lowe is the pitcher they would almost certainly classify as their #2 starter, yet he isn't pitching until the third game. I suspect the Red Sox reason for this is that Lowe has been significantly better at Fenway this year than he has been on the road.

          GS        IP      ERA

Fenway 17 115.0 3.21
Road 16 88.1 6.11

Normally, I would dismiss a split as severe as that as somewhat fluky, but Lowe is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball, which leaves a lot of room for the effect a ballpark could have on him. Maybe they forget to cut the infield grass at Fenway when he pitches or maybe he just likes pitching with the shadow of a wall over his shoulder, who knows. Whatever it is, it has made a huge difference this season and it also made a significant difference last year (2.10 ERA at Fenway, 3.04 on the road).

By the way, Pedro Martinez has a 1.57 ERA on the road this season and he is likely to get two starts this series, both away from Fenway. Be afraid, be very afraid.

If the Red Sox can get out of Oakland with one win in the first two games, I think they will take a commanding advantage in the series. Their offense is incredibly strong at Fenway and it looks as though they'll be going up against Ted Lilly in Game Three. As well as Lilly has pitched in the second-half (7-2, 3.00 ERA), the thought of Ted Lilly + Boston's offense + Fenway Park cannot be an appealing one for an A's fan.

I still haven't heard definitively whether or not Mark Mulder has any chance of playing in the first round, but I'm going to assume he won't. Without Mulder, the A's could either go with Hudson on short-rest in Game Four and Zito on short-rest in Game Five, or they could give the Game Four start to rookie Rich Harden. I love Rich Harden as a prospect and I think he has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. That said, he's got a grand-total 74.2 major league innings under his belt and he has been very hittable this season. If the A's throw him into Fenway Park for Game Four, he may not come out alive.

I suspect Oakland will go Hudson - Zito - Lilly - Hudson - Zito, in which case you've got two starters going on short-rest against the best offense in the league in the final two games of the series. I guess it's "pick your poison" either way, with a rookie in Fenway or guys on short-rest. Mulder being injured really is a gigantic loss for Oakland.

If Boston is able to win one of the first two games in Oakland and is even only able to split in Boston, they would still be coming back to Oakland, with Pedro Martinez going in Game Five. In that situation, I simply refuse to go against Pedro, whether he ends up pitching against Barry Zito on short-rest, Tim Hudson on full-rest or Walter Johnson on rest-in-peace. 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 five.

Red Sox Websites:

The Sons of Sam Horn

Bambino's Curse

Out of Left Field

Universal Baseball Blog, Inc.

Portland Sox Fan

El Guapo's Ghost

Musings from Red Sox Nation

The Joy of Sox

A's Websites:

Elephants in Oakland

Barry Zito Forever

Baseball Gal's Ramblings

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