Around The Bases Vol XX: American League Divisional Series Preview PT II

sox-angelsIt feels like déjà vu all over again. You can’t help but get the feeling we’ve been here before, several times. Oh, wait. We have. Just last year, in fact. And the year before. And many of the same players were in the same positions. Of course, some have grown older, and some have been replaced, but for the most part, the principals remain the same.

So here we are, in yet another version of the Boston Red Sox vs. the Angels of Southern California. While it’s true that this is a new season, we cannot talk about this particular series without at least mentioning the history of the past few years. Since 1986, these two teams have faced each other in four playoff series. The Red Sox have won each of them. More importantly, since Game 7 of the 1986 ALCS, the Red Sox have only lost 1 game, while winning 9. The Red Sox have knocked the Angels out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the last 2 seasons.

Here at Around the Bases, we will take a look at this American League Divisional Series, and see if history will repeat itself for the 3rd straight season or if the Angels have a shot at redemption. This season is a little different than past seasons for the Angels. They are playing with a purpose that they’ve never had before. Their season is dedicated to teammate Nick Adenhart who was killed in early April by a drunk driver, just hours after pitching the best game of his all too short career.

Last week, when the Angels won the AL West, they paused to remember their lost teammate as they stopped their on field celebration for a moment and all ran en masse out to the outfield where his picture is emblazoned on the wall. After gathering around the billboard, they all took turns touching it and giving it high fives.

The remembrance continued back in the clubhouse as they sprayed champagne and beer all over each other. They took Adenhart’s jersey, which has been hanging in the dugout during every single game this season since his death, and made him part of their team celebration also by pouring champagne and beer all over it as well. Just a way for teammates to show their love and bring him into their celebration. They will be playing this off-season with heavy hearts for a teammate that they haven’t forgotten, but they also have a purpose that they haven’t had in the past as they keep his jersey in the dugout to remind them who they’re playing this season for.

Game 1 will be the same match-up as last season’s Game 1 and Game 4: The Red Sox will send out Jon Lester and the Angels will go with John Lackey. Last season, Lester won both contests. In 14 combined innings, Lester gave up zero runs on 10 hits and had 11 strikeouts with 3 walks. Lackey took a loss in Game 1 and no decision in Game 4. Over the two games, gave up 4 runs on 11 hits, including a HR to Jason Bay in the first game, in 13.2 innings with 6 Ks and 4 walks.

This season, Lackey was an uncharacteristic 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA. It was his lowest win total since 2003 (10 wins), his 2nd year in the majors, and his highest ERA since ’04 (4.67). It was still good enough for the 12 best ERA in the AL. He definitely improved over the 2nd half of the season, lowering his ERA almost 2 whole runs, from 4.93 in the first half to 3.05 in the second half. He faced the Sox once this season and took the loss while giving up 2 runs on 8 hits over 7.2 innings.

Over his career, the current Red Sox have hit a combined .298 against him. DH David Ortiz is .333 (11-for-33) with 3 HR, 2 doubles, 1 triple, and 10 RBI, but also 7 Ks. On the other end, catcher Jason Varitek is 5-for-27 (.185), with 3 doubles, but 11 Ks. That is probably one of the several reasons he is benched tonight in favor of Victor Martinez, who is 10-for-21 against Lackey (.476).

Jon Lester finished the season with a 15-8 record, with an ERA of 3.41, slightly off the mark of 16-6, 3.21 he set last season. Since the All-Star break, he’s 7-2 with a 2.82 ERA. He has not faced the Angels this season. However, in his career, with the exception of the post-season, they have done well against him. Outfielder Vlad Guerrero has a .400 average with one double, and Gary Matthews Jr. is 3-for-6 (.500) with 2 HR. For Matthews, it’s either feast or famine because his other 3 at bats are all strikeouts. And both Torii Hunter and Eric Aybar have each faced Lester three times and each have 2 hits (.667).

Game 2 is what this series is going to hinge on. The Red Sox will send out Josh Beckett, and not to put too fine a point on it, but much of the success of their post-season depends on how healthy he really is. Beckett has had some major problems with his back over the past couple of months that has completely knocked him out of Cy Young contention. Over the past couple of weeks, he has had some treatments, and he seems to be back on track. For the sake of the Red Sox, he had better be.

Beckett finished the season 17-6 (tied for 2nd highest wins in AL) with a 3.86 ERA. He also had 4 complete games and 2 shutouts. Those, and the 212.1 innings he pitched were all career highs, as well as his 199 Ks. Most of those stats were compiled in the first half of the season, when he was still relatively healthy. He went 11-3 with an ERA of 3.35. In the 2nd half, his ERA shot up to 4.53 and his record was only 6-3. He faced the Angels twice this season, once in April and once in September. Oddly, the game he lost was in April. Over the two games, he gave up 7 runs on 15 hits.

Beckett typically shines in the post-season and is considered to be one of the premiere “big game” pitchers in the league. In 12 games, he’s 7-2 with a 2.90 ERA with 96 Ks and only 20 BBs. Although, a lot of those stellar numbers were from the ’07 Championship season. Last season he went 1-0 in 3 games, but had a very high 8.79 ERA and gave up a combined 7 HR to the Angels and Tampa Bay Rays.

The Angles will counter with Jared Weaver who finished the season 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA (9th in AL). Weaver led the Angels staff in ERA, WHIP (1.24), Ks (174), innings pitched (211), and tied for most wins (7th in AL). In 2 games against the Sox this season, Weaver went 1-0 with a 0.66 ERA. He gave up only 1 earned run on 8 hits over 13.2 innings with 12 Ks and 3 BBs. The Red Sox only batted .174 against him. J.D. Drew has done well against Weaver, going 6-for-17 (.353) in his career with 1 HR. Ortiz has done well also, going 7-for-20 (.350) with 2 HR.

When the Angels traded away superstar slugger Mark Tiexiera, conventional wisdom thought they traded away much of their power with him. But they brought in Kendry Morales to replace him, and they lost almost nothing. This season, Morales finished 6th in the AL in HR (34), 5th in RBI (108), 2nd in SLG percentage (.569), and 8th in OPS (.924), leading the Angels in each category. Plus he batted .306, good enough to be ranked 12th in the AL. The Red Sox pitchers have handled him pretty well this season. In 9 games, he has zero HR and only 2 RBI, and his .200 average is the 2nd worse against any team in the AL (.172 vs. White Sox). He went 0-for-7 against Beckett in the two games he pitched.

One player the Red Sox will have to watch out for is Erik Aybar. Aybar led the team in average this season (.312), and hit .346 against the Red Sox. He went 1-for-4 (.250) against Beckett this season.

The Red Sox have not done great against the Angels in hitting. This season, they’ve only batted .257 against them as a team or individually. One exception is left fielder Jason Bay (36 HR, 119 RBI, both 2nd in AL). In 9 games, he has batted .313 with 4 HR and 12 RBI. Most of the rest of the starting lineup has barely managed to bat .275 against Angels pitching this season.

The other area that the Angels really have a huge advantage is on the basepaths. They are faster than the Red Sox, and the Red Sox are awful at throwing out runners trying to steal. Varitek has only caught 16 out of 108 baserunners, by far the worse percentage in baseball. By comparison, Angels’ catcher Mike Napoli has thrown out 21 out of 74 runners. Martinez has thrown out 9 of 56 runners.

The Angels ranked 3rd in the majors in stolen bases (148) while the Red Sox ranked 5th (126). Chone Figgins (42 SB, 17 CS) and Bobby Abreu (30 SB, 8 CS) were the main culprits for the Angels. Jacoby Ellsbury (70 SB, new Red Sox record, 12 CS) was the main base stealer for the Sox.

Where the Red Sox have an enormous advantage is the bullpen. Largely considered the best in baseball during the regular season, that notion is only amplified during the post-season. Closer Jonathon Papelbon isn’t quite Mariano Rivera, but he’s well on his way. In 25 post-season innings over 16 games, he hasn’t given up a run. For those of you who have trouble with the higher math, that’s a post-season ERA of 0.00. There isn’t a pitcher out there who can match his level of intensity when he’s on the mound. He’s only given up 10 hits and 6 walks for a post-season WHIP of 0.66. This season, he had 38 saves (4th in AL) and a 1.85 ERA (3rd in AL among relievers w/min 60 innings).

The Angels closer, Brian Fuentes, led the majors in saves this season (48), but it came with a very high ERA for a closer (3.93). In 10 post-season games (9.2 innings pitched) with the Rockies last season, Fuentes had an ERA of 6.52. He gave up 7 runs on 14 hits. This season, against the Red Sox, he appeared in 4 games, saving 2 and blowing one save, earning a loss. He gave up a total of 3 earned runs on 7 hits in a combined total of 3.1 innings pitched.

While the Angels have a couple of advantages, it’s not going to be enough. The bottom line is that Red Sox have better pitching, and a much better bullpen, and that’s going to be the ultimate difference.