Sox vs. Rays.
By all accounts, the Rays are the better team, right? Better record, took the season series, despite the Red Sox’ far superior run differential and better overall numbers. If this sounds familiar, you are absolutely right. It was exactly the argument in the run-up to the series against the Angels.
Irresistible force (intangibles), meet immovable object (run differential).
So who has the advantage? Well, the Sox arguably showed in the ALDS that regular season dominance means little, and that teams who are better constructed to rely less on luck are more likely to win a postseason series.
Let’s take a look at advantages vs. disadvantages on the side that is arguably most important for the playoffs: Pitching. Particularly, I’m curious how the Sox’ and Rays’ starters fared over the three to five starts they each had against each other this season.
Now that the postseason rotations are set, let’s crunch some numbers, look at the games in which they appeared, and see who has the edge, game by game. We might even make a prediction at the end.
Against the Rays this year, Sox bats weren’t too hot: .253/.347/.409, which is better than most teams did against Tampa (113 sOPS+) but terrible by Boston standards (88 tOPS+). The Red Sox hitters we’re most likely to see put up the following lines against all Rays pitchers:
- J.D. Drew (47 PA): .324/.447/.649
- Jason Bay (18 PA): .235/.278/.765
- David Ortiz (41 PA): .243/.300/.595
- Dustin Pedroia (82 PA): .296/.378/.451
- Kevin Youkilis (76 PA): .232/.382/.429
- Coco Crisp (41 PA): .324/.415/.382
- Jacoby Ellsbury (73 PA): .292/.347/.369
- Jed Lowrie (36 PA): .179/.361/.214
- Jason Varitek (61 PA): .167/.246/.259
- Mark Kotsay (22 PA): .158/.273/.158
The aggregate of these lines doesn’t look as bad as the total. Kotsay and Varitek were horrible, and Lowrie showed no power at all, but even he reached base at a fair clip, and everyone above him was at least respectable. It helps that two starters from the beginning of the season are no longer on the roster: Manny Ramirez hit .200/.308/.311 against the Rays in 2008, and Julio Lugo hit .194/.326/.278.
Conversely, Rays pitchers allowed a 4.44 ERA to Boston, with a WHIP of 1.42, 78 walks and 121 strikeouts in 162 innings. That’s actually not so good either — arguably the ERA is below where it should be given those peripherals.
Here are the pitchers we’re most likely to see during the ALCS (and who have a decent number of regular-season innings), and how they did against the Sox this year:
- Andy Sonnanstine (13 IP): 0.00 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 2 BB, 12 K
- Grant Balfour (10.1 IP): 1.74 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 4 BB, 8 K
- J.P. Howell (12.2 IP): 2.84 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8 BB, 9 K
- Dan Wheeler (7.2 IP): 3.52 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3 BB, 6 K
- Matt Garza (22 IP): 4.50 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7 BB, 10 K
- James Shields (20 IP): 5.85 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 5 BB, 17 K
- Scott Kazmir (18 IP): 9.00 ERA, 2.11 WHIP, 14 BB, 14 K
You know, that’s not all that impressive. The Rays are going with a Shields-Kazmir-Garza-Sonnanstine rotation. The only pitcher to shut down the Red Sox consistently is the one who will only be able to start one game in a seven-game series.
Let’s reverse this and look at the Rays before we turn to the specific matchups.
The Rays hit .233/.325/.379 against Boston, so much worse than the Sox did against Tampa. Their line was below average both for their team and for the league. Here are the hitters we’ll likely see the most:
- Carlos Pena (63 PA): .314/.429/.647
- Akinori Iwamura (78 PA): .319/.385/.551
- Evan Longoria (59 PA): .245/.372/.367
- Greg Gross (55 PA): .204/.291/.408
- Carl Crawford (52 PA): .234/.308/.362
- Jason Bartlett (70 PA): .254/.286/.328
- B.J. Upton (47 PA): .128/.255/.256
- Eric Hinske (51 PA): .159/.275/.205
- Dioner Navarro (68 PA): .190/.250/.206
- Cliff Floyd (29 PA): .125/.276/.125
Only Pena and Iwamura were above average against the Sox. In fact, they’re the only players who were even average or slightly below. How does a lineup perform so badly against a team and still win 10 of 18 games? Well, you might remember the one-run-game record between these two (5-0 Rays) and note our initial dilemma of run differential vs. intangibles/luck.
Here’s how Sox pitchers fared against the Rays: 3.35 ERA, 1.34 WHIP with 74 walks and 156 strikeouts in 161.1 innings. Again, much better than Tampa Bay. Specifically:
- Hideki Okajima (6.2 IP): 0.00 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 1 BB, 9 K
- Jon Lester (20 IP): 0.90 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 6 BB, 19 K
- Josh Beckett (35 IP): 2.06 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 5 BB, 37 K
- Daisuke Matsuzaka (15 IP): 3.00 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 11 BB, 17 K
- Jonathan Papelbon (5.2 IP): 3.18 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 0 BB, 6 K
- Justin Masterson (14.1 IP): 5.65 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, 10 BB, 13 K
- Tim Wakefield (15.1 IP): 5.87 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 8 BB, 7 K
Unlike the Rays, where their low ERAs are stacked in the bullpen, the Sox have Lester, Beckett and Matsuzaka all allowing ERAs of 3.00 or below. So the Sox’ batters did better against Rays pitching, and the Sox’ pitching did better against Rays hitting than vice versa in both cases.
In Game 1, the matchup will be Matsuzaka vs. Shields.
- Matsuzaka vs. current Rays, career (146 PA): .218/.322/.347, 4 HR, 13 RBI
- Shields vs. current Sox, career (119 PA): .270/.319/.414, 3 HR, 11 RBI
In Game 2, it’s Beckett vs. Kazmir.
- Beckett vs. current Rays, career (215 PA): .257/.302/.421, 7 HR, 17 RBI
- Kazmir vs. current Sox, career (291 PA): .266/.370/.447, 9 HR, 29 RBI
In Game 3, say hello to Lester vs. Garza
- Lester vs. current Rays, career (126 PA): .264/.341/.409, 4 HR, 11 RBI
- Garza vs. current Sox, career (115 PA): .198/.278/.347, 4 HR, 12 RBI
And, finally, in Game 4 Wakefield vs. Sonnanstine
- Wakefield vs. current Rays, career (325 PA): .259/.323/.412, 8 HR, 35 RBI
- Sonnanstine vs. current Sox, career (129 PA): .282/.333/.444, 3 HR, 17 RBI
Ok, one last piece. Let’s take a closer look at these matchups and who has the edge.
Matsuzaka will kick off the series for Boston. He held Tampa to one run on July 2 — but went only five innings and walked five. The bullpen blew the lead, and the Sox lost, 7-6. On Sept. 9, he again only lasted five innings. This time, he gave up three runs in an eventual 5-4 loss. Five days later, he got the win despite again lasting just five innings. He threw 101 pitches despite allowing just five baserunners and striking out seven. The Sox won, 13-5.
Shields, on the other hand, started the year against Boston with a bang, shutting out the Sox on two hits April 27. But the Sox tagged him for seven runs in 3.2 innings in his very next start. He was in the process of being tagged again on June 5 when he hit Coco Crisp with a pitch that started the brawl that led to his ejection and suspension. Finally, on June 30, Shields turned in a solid performance (2 ER, 6.1 IP) in picking up the win.
There’s no evidence Matsuzaka will go any longer than five innings for the Sox, while Shields has been as hot-and-cold against the Sox as you can possibly get. For their careers, they’ve allowed similar lines against each other’s teams. Consider this a draw.
Beckett pitched a stellar game on April 27, giving up two runs and striking out 13 in seven innings. The Sox lost, 3-0. His next start, he wasn’t as strong but still went eight innings, giving up four runs and picking up the win. In June, Beckett was dominant again, giving up just one run in a win. In two starts against Tampa in September, Beckett allowed just single runs in each, but the Sox lost both times.
Kazmir’s first start of the season came in May against Boston. He was unimpressive in four innings, taking the loss. In July, he gave up four runs in five innings in an eventual Tampa win. On September 9, he finally threw a quality start and picked up the win, but six days later, he was shelled in that 13-5 loss that at the time was viewed as the day the Rays may have lost the AL East.
The edge here goes clearly to the Red Sox. Not only has Beckett been better in his career when facing the Rays than Kazmir has been against the Sox, he had far superior starts in 2008. (We assume good health, of course).
The Red Sox’ new ace was acelike against the Rays all year long. 6 IP, 1 ER in May, 6.1 IP, 1 ER in June, 7.2 IP, 0 ER in September. Wins in all three starts — and all of them at Fenway.
Garza, meanwhile, has been decidedly mediocre. He did well in a July 1 start in which he allowed just one unearned run in seven innings, but Garza never made it out of the sixth in his other three appearances against Boston. He never allowed fewer than three runs, and on Sept. 17, when the Rays needed him most, he couldn’t make it out of the fifth, although the Rays wound up winning the game.
Again, the edge is clearly to the Red Sox. Lester is simply the better pitcher — maybe not in his career matchups with Tampa, as the numbers above show, but certainly this season. Oh, and don’t forget he’ll be pitching in Fenway during the day, when his left hand will be coming straight out of the sun-splashed white shirts of Fenway’s center field bleachers.
Wakefield has not been good this year against Tampa, a team he used to own (might have something to do with their being good). And he’s only been good in the postseason once — in 2003. In April, Wakefield gave up four runs in six. In July, he was decent — two runs in seven — but took the loss. In September, he was bombed, giving up six runs and removed with one out in the third in that 10-3 loss.
Meanwhile, Sonnanstine has inexplicably turned into Cy Young when facing the Red Sox. His ERA+ for the season is exactly 100, and that includes the aforementioned 13 scoreless innings (well, zero earned runs, but one unearned run in each game) thrown against Boston this year. His ERA would be 4.69 without those two starts. The Sox managed to avoid him all season, but in back-to-back September starts, he shut the Sox down. He received no-decisions each time — and the Sox should have won the first of those games (the Papelbon meltdown) — but the fact remains he’s the Rays’ best pitcher against the Sox.
The Rays have the obvious advantage here. Thankfully, Joe Maddon feels Sonnanstine should only pitch once if this series goes seven games. No complaints here.
As we said, this is another series where run differential bumps against intangibles. The Red Sox trounced the Rays for eight games, winning every game by at least three runs, while the Rays took eight of their 10 wins against Boston by two runs or less. The bullpens certainly had a lot to do with that. In games in which the teams’ relievers factored in the decision, the Rays went 7-0. The only Sox reliever with a win against Tampa this season is Justin Masterson — who was starting that game. On the other hand, in games where the starters received the decisions, the Sox went 8-3. (And how amazing is it that there were no games in which the starter for one team and a reliever for the other received decisions?) The question that should concern Rays fans and comfort Sox fans: Is Tampa’s bullpen seven games better than Boston’s?
So if this is a series decided by the starters — and playoff series certainly rely on starting pitchers far more than a typical regular-season series — the Sox should win. On paper, they have incredibly strong matchups with Lester against Garza and Beckett against Kazmir, a 50/50 shot with Matsuzaka facing Shields, and only one real weak spot in Wakefield against Sonnanstine. That gives them an excellent shot at doing exactly what they need to do: Split the first two in Tampa, win at least two at home, split the last two back in Tampa.
But if this turns, as it did seven times in 18 games this season, into a battle of the bullpens, the Rays have a strength there — perhaps not as big, but in a seven–game series, you only need one or two games. It certainly makes the prospects for winning Matsuzaka’s chronically short starts very dim. As a result, the Sox could find themselves with their backs against a wall come Game 4 or Game 5 if Lester or Beckett stumble.
Nevertheless, I don’t expect either to falter — at least, no more than Garza or Kazmir. I see the series as likely to be tied after four games, with the Sox holding the key 3-2 lead heading back to Tampa, where Beckett will have the opportunity to clinch.
My pick? Sox in six.