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Friday, October 22, 2004

Tale Of The Tape

You knew this was coming, dear readers. I'm going to try to break this down as objectively and rationally as I can, but the signals are so mixed that I had to go with my gut and my heart on this one. I'm 6-for-6 so far in picking winners of the baseball playoff series, so we'll see if I can make this a perfect 7-for7. This one really could go either way.

Offense
First, the offenses: (AVG/OBP/SLG)
Boston: 282/360/472, 949 runs, 222 HR, 68 SB, 1189 K
St. Louis: 278/344/460, 855 runs, 214 HR, 111 SB, 1085 K

These are both outstanding offenses. The Red Sox score half a run a game more than the Cardinals, but that's playing half their games in Fenway and with the benefit of the DH. Especially when you consider that Busch Stadium is a slight pitchers' park, you could argue that the Cardinals have even more clout than the Red Sox.

Is there any reason to believe either offense is even better than these numbers? Yes, in both cases. Larry Walker was added to St. Louis late in the year, and most of the season his spot in the lineup was occupied by some combination of Ray Lankford and Marlon Anderson. Trot Nixon missed a majority of the year, and for much of that time Gabe Kapler was an everyday player. Aside from the brief period where Nomar Garciaparra played shortstop, Pokey Reese played there nearly every game. Though Nomar is a better hitter than Cabrera, Cabrera is an improvement on the April-July Nomar and Pokey aggregate. Kevin Youkilis filled in well for Bill Mueller, so his short mid-season injury didn't affect the numbers much. None of the Red Sox changes is as big as Walker, but they are bigger in the aggregate.

Position by Position
C: Matheny vs. Varitek. Not even close; Varitek is among the best hitting catchers in baseball, Matheny among the worst. Big edge to Boston.
1B: Pujols vs. Millar/Mientkiewicz/Ortiz. Albert Pujols is the biggest offensive force in either lineup, which is saying a lot here. Ortiz may (gulp!) play 1B in St. Louis, and he's a force at the plate, but... Edge to St. Louis, big edge if you count the other two guys for Boston only.
2B: Womack vs. Bellhorn. Apples and oranges. A middling traditional leadoff man having his best season vs. every statgeek's dream scrub middle infielder, having a breakout season. Neither is a great defender. Womack is speedier, more versatile and is less likely (as is anyone) to strike out in key situations...but Tony Womack isn't going to hit many game-winning home runs. Womack hit 40 points higher, but that was a pretty empty high batting average. Given how I expect this series to go, namely, where small-ball would be foolish, I'd rather have Bellhorn. Slight edge to Boston.
SS: Renteria vs. Cabrera. Renteria is somewhat better defensively and faster, Cabrera has shown slightly more pop lately. Both are good players, but Renteria is the one I'd rather have. Slight edge to St. Louis.
3B: Rolen v. Mueller. Bill Mueller may be a good hitter, and he may have won a batting crown last season, but he's not nearly as likely to be the difference maker as Scott Rolen is. Edge to St. Louis.
LF: Sanders vs. Ramirez. Reggie Sanders is somewhat more likely to drive pitchers nuts once he's on base. Manny Ramirez is way more likely to be on base in the first place, and cause some serious trouble at the plate. Edge to Boston.
CF: Edmonds vs. Damon. ALCS Game 7 notwithstanding, Johnny Damon just isn't the monster hitter Jim Edmonds is. Can you picture Damon hitting 40 homers? Me neither. Edge to St. Louis.
RF: Walker vs. Nixon. (Nixon often struggles against lefties, but the Cardinals don't have any in their rotation.) Slight edge to St. Louis.
DH: David Ortiz. Without worrying about David Ortiz trying to field, at least in home games. This is Reason #2 for why I'm picking who I'm picking to take this series. Fenway Park is a tough place for visiting teams. John Mabry has had a nice season as a super sub, but he's no David Ortiz. Big edge to Boston.
Bench: The Cards have speed on their bench, but no one quite like Dave Roberts. The Sox can match the Cardinals in pinch-hitting options, and have a good group of defensive replacements. Even.

We'll call this a draw and wait for the fireworks to start tomorrow night.

Pitching

Boston: 4.18 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 768 RA, 447 BB, 1132K, 159 HR
St. Louis: 3.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 659 RA, 440 BB, 1041 K, 169 HR

These are both good pitching staffs for their respective leagues. The Red Sox let half a run more in per game than the Cardinals, but that, at the risk of repeating myself, is while playing half their games at Fenway and having to face a DH most of the time, rather than a pitcher trying to bat. Despite these facts, the Cardinals have surrendered the long ball more often; that may prove important.

There's not a lot to choose between most of the spots on these pitching staffs. St. Louis has a somewhat deeper bullpen but there are questions about Jason Isringhausen's effectiveness. Keith Foulke appears to be the stronger closer, but Mike Timlin and situational lefty Mike Myers have been shaky at times. And Steve Kline isn't available, so that means Tony LaRussa has to choose where to use Ray King late in games judiciously. Terry Francona has had to use anyone and everyone in the Boston bullpen to keep the momentum of four straight wins against the hated Yankees, every last one a must-win game. Everyone remembers the hitting heroics of Ortiz and Johnny Damon, but the relivers were outstanding in 5 of the 7 games.

Woody Williams and Jeff Suppan have performed well in the post season, Matt Morris and Jason Marquis not so much. They have no true aces but all four of their starters are capable of getting hot and keeping even the best lineup in check for at least a little while. The Red Sox are going to start knuckler Tim Wakefield in Game 1, and no one really knows what to expect. Francona will have Bronson Arroyo ready in short order if things start to go awry; his questionable use of Pedro Martinez in his fiasco of an unecessary and ill-advised Game 7 relief appearance will be questioned even more intensely if Wakefield struggles. The prospect of rolling the dice with Derek Lowe in Game 4 is similarly fraught, though it came up with a winning roll twice against the Yankees, and two of Lowe's best starts this season were in NL parks.

The key to this whole series, of course, is Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. One team has them, the other team doesn't. Pedro had a rough season at times but was money nearly every time he didn't face the Yankees or Orioles, who probably know him too well now. And after Game 6 of the ALCS, are you going to bet against Curt Schilling?

Position by Position
Game 1: Wakefield vs. Williams. Edge: St. Louis
Game 2: Schilling vs. Marquis. Edge: Boston
Game 3: Martinez vs. Morris. Edge: Boston
Game 4: Lowe vs. Suppan. Edge: St. Louis
Bullpen: Foulke - Timlin - Embree - Myers - Arroyo - Leskanic - Mendoza
vs. Isringhausen - Tavarez - King - Eldred - Calero - ???

Conclusion

Home field is a big deal in this series. In Boston, Cardinal pitchers can't feel too good about that wall in left field while pitching to a lineup that is as relentless from 1-9 as any ever constructed. In St. Louis, Francona has to be nervous about Ortiz at first, Ramirez in left, and Damon's arm in center - not to mention having to bat pitchers who aren't used to hitting.

Boston's most obvious path to glory is to take 3 (out of 3 or 4) at Fenway Park and 1 of 3 in St. Louis. They can end the series early by taking a second game on the road and/or sweeping the first two at Fenway. The Wakefield start makes this Sox fan nervous, but St. Louis has played five playoff games on the road thusfar and lost all but one of them, and to two lesser teams to boot. Winning in five may be too much to expect but within the realm of possibility since the Red Sox are 4-2 on the road in this postseason. Two bad starts in the wrong place by the Cardinals dooms them to an early exit.

For the Cardinals, the best-case scenario is a five-game series where they steal Game 1 (or Game 2) and hold down the fort in St. Louis, where they have yet to lose this postseason. That's not particularly likely, but they do have a good shot at taking a 3-2 lead into Fenway where they only need to win one of the final two games. Needless to say, that would put a lot of pressure on the Red Sox.

I think this one goes seven. The scene: Fenway Park. Halloween night. Nearly a full moon. St. Louis would have Matt Morris or Jeff Suppan on the mound, who would be hoping to hold the Red Sox - at Fenway - down long enough to get the game to Ray King, Julian Tavarez, and/or Kiko Calero, who in turn give way to closer Jason Isringhausen. Boston counters with Pedro Martinez, the combination of Timlin and Embree, and Keith Foulke in the ninth. Another year, and perhaps you could say you'd bet on the side of history repeating itself.

This incarnation of the Red Sox (call it the Pedro-Nomar-Manny Era for lack of a better term) have faced the specter of playoff elimination no fewer than 14 times, and 11 of those times they lived to fight another day. (During the same period, St. Louis is 4-3 in elimination games.) For four straight games, two of them in the very bowels of the enemy lair, Red Sox hurlers, running on fumes, with no tomorrow to look forward to, stared down a Yankee lineup every bit as potent as this St. Louis one, and made them blink. You want to bet against these guys now? In Fenway Park?

Me neither. Red Sox in 7.


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