Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Arms Race

With the Yankees in the rearview mirror, the Red Sox have appeared on the horizon and are bearing down very quickly on the Tribe. Whereas the New York team was the beneficiary of a good deal of hype while holes and team weaknesses were overlooked, this Boston team is infinitely more deserving of the comparable hype bestowed upon it.

Thanks to a talented and deep starting pitching staff (something the Yankees were sorely lacking); the Red Sox rely on an approach similar to that of the Indians. They ride their horses until they can turn the ball over to the slotted arms in the bullpen. If a chink exists in the Red Sox armor, it can be found in that bridge to their excellent closer, Jonathon Papelbon, in the 9th inning. However, unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox have a rotation talented enough to limit the number of innings thrown by their suspect middle relievers as Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka (recent struggles considered), and Tim Wakefield (recent injury considered) are all capable of going 6 to 8 innings and limiting the potential blow-up by a middle reliever wearing Rec-Specs.

The Boston pitching staff led the AL in ERA at 3.87, Batting Average Against at .247, and OPS against at .705 this year with most of that success starting with...well, the starters:
Boston Starters 2007
ERA – 4.21 (2nd in AL, behind Cleveland)
Batting Average Against - .257 (1st in AL, tied with Toronto)
OPS Against - .725 (1st in AL)
WHIP – 1.30 (2nd in AL, behind Toronto)
K – 772 (2nd in AL, behind Tampa)
Shutouts – 13 (1st in AL)
IP- 991.2 (4th in AL, behind Cleveland, Chicago, and Toronto)

Luckily for the Tribe, the Indians’ rotation falls lock-step in with Boston in most of these important categories:
Cleveland Starters 2007
ERA – 4.19 (1st in AL)
Batting Average Against - .274 (7th in AL, behind too many to list)
OPS Against - .738 (3rd in AL, behind Boston and Toronto)
WHIP – 1.31 (3rd in AL, behind Toronto and Boston)
K – 646 (9th in AL, behind too many to list)
Shutouts – 9 (3rd in AL, behind Boston and Seattle)
IP- 1021.1 (1st in AL)

Seeing those numbers comparatively, when the strength of the Indians is obviously their rotation, certainly puts the quality of the Boston rotation and the success that they’ve found throughout 2007 into a proper perspective. The Red Sox aren’t letting over-the-hill hacks and unproven quantities toe the rubber – their rotation is talented, battle-tested, and (much like the Indians) has the ability to keep an offense at bay until the Red Sox offense can build a lead for them.

So what parts come together to form this well-oiled machine that is the Red Sox rotation and how does it compare to their scheduled counterparts for the first 4 Games?
Game 1
2007 stats: 19-7, 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 241 IP, 209 K, 37 BB
2007 vs. Boston: 0-1, 1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 7 IP, 7 K, 0 BB
2007 September: 4-0, 2.37 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 38 IP, 33 K, 6 BB
2007 ALDS: 1-0, 5.40 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 5 IP, 5 K, 6 BB

2007 stats: 20-7, 3.27 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 200.2 IP, 194 K, 40 BB
2007 vs. Indians: 1-1, 1.80 ERA, 0.53 WHIP, 15 IP, 14 K, 1 BB
2007 September: 4-1, 3.18 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 34 IP, 36 K, 6 BB
2007 ALDS: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.44 WHIP, 9 IP, 8 K, 0 BB

What a beauty.
If this match-up doesn’t excite you, admit that you’re not a baseball fan.

C.C.’s line in the ALDS doesn't do justice to the job that the Crooked Cap did in battling his way through a postage stamp strike zone and keeping the Indians in the game long enough to get to Wang’s (non)sinker and the Yankee bullpen, allowing the Tribe to take the all-important Game 1 at the Jake. Against the Red Sox, C.C. will look to continue the success that he’s enjoyed against them (and really all of the AL) against a balanced Red Sox lineup that tends to be RH heavy (outside of Papi and Drew, everyone else is RH or a Switch Hitter). But the side of the plate shouldn’t matter much to Sabathia, who sees this stage as a new platform by which to solidify himself, alongside Santana, Beckett, Webb, and Peavy, in the “elite” class of pitchers in all of MLB, much less “big-game” pitchers.

Speaking of “elite” and “big-game” pitchers, they don’t get much better than Beckett. Beckett is everything that C.C. and Carmona are, with some hardware on his ring finger to show that he’s been there before and is not intimidated by the bright lights of the big stage. His Game 1 in the ALDS against the Angels only confirmed that Beckett is at the top of his game when relishing the spotlight and pressure of the postseason. Beckett was the tough-luck loser in the phenomenal 1-0 game against Fausto earlier this year (after which I said that “the teams are on a collision course with destiny to determine the AL”) and he completely shut down the Tribe on that memorable night.

The Indians’ hitters will have their hands full with Beckett on Friday night and getting to him for even a few runs may be the determining factor in who has the early advantage on Saturday morning.

Game 2
2007 stats: 19-8, 3.06 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 215 IP, 137 K, 61 BB
2007 vs. Boston: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 8 IP, 6 K, 2 BB
2007 September: 5-0, 1.78 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 35.1 IP, 27 K, 9 BB
2007 ALDS: 0-0, 1.00 ERA, 0.56 WHIP, 9 IP, 5 K, 2 BB

2007 stats: 9-8, 3.87 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 151 IP, 101 K, 23 BB
2007 vs. Indians: 1-0, 1.29 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 7 IP, 10 K, 0 BB
2007 September: 1-2, 3.16 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 25.2 IP, 15 K, 2 BB
2007 ALDS: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7 IP, 4 K, 1 BB

As if Game 1 wasn’t juicy enough for you – how about matching up the (arguably) best pitcher in the league right now and the grizzled veteran who has led two teams to World Series trophies with no signs of slowing?

If THESE two pitchers don’t get you revved up for Saturday night, you may actually hate baseball.

Carmona’s emergence as one of the top (probably 3 to 5) pitchers in all of baseball has likely been the most enjoyable aspect of the season for me. Fausto has baffled and frustrated hitters, growing stronger as the season wore on; culminating (thus far) with his masterpiece against the Yankees in Game 2 as he shook off the midges (that unhinged lesser pitchers) like an angry bull swats away mere annoyances, focused instead on the task at hand. Carmona faced the Red Sox once this year, in the aforementioned classic against Beckett at the Jake, dominating them as he has the entire league. If one sense of doubt is able to penetrate the confidence in Fausto it’s that his virtuoso performance against Boston came in friendly confines (as did Game 2 of the ALDS) and the last two times he visited Fenway, both games (two links in there) ended rather badly for him, giving the Fenway Faithful some ammo to try to get between the big RH’s ears.
Let’s hope that Fausto the Bull simply shakes his head and goes charging at everything he sees that is Red at full speed (and sinking), ultimately taking out the target.

Facing off against Carmona, though, will be the 40-year-old innings eater that talks a big game and usually backs it up. Schilling saved himself this season by sitting out until he felt he was completely healthy and got stronger as the season rolled on, preparing himself nicely for the postseason (unlike another older icon not worth mentioning). Schilling has compiled a postseason resume that is rivaled by few, going 9-2 in 16 games with 1.93 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP with 108 K to 23 BB over 116.1 IP. To illustrate his status as a stabilizing force for a playoff team, consider that in the 10 postseason series that he’s pitched in, his teams have won 8 of the series, having not lost since his 2002 Arizona team dropped the NLDS. Schilling is a power pitcher who will strike out hitters with an economy of pitches as he tries to continue his impressive postseason success.

Just like the look of Game 1, the Indians will try to get to Schilling for a few runs to allow Fausto to work his magic against the Red Sox lineup in what figures to be another low-scoring game.

Game 3
2007 stats: 6-9, 4.32 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 152 IP, 93 K, 55 BB
2007 vs. Boston: 0-1, 7.50 ERA, 2.33 WHIP, 6 IP, 1 K, 4 BB
2007 September: 1-2, 4.14 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 37 IP, 31 K, 14 BB
2007 ALDS: 0-1, 10.80 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, 5 IP, 1 K, 0 BB

2007 stats: 15-12, 4.40 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 204.2 IP, 201 K, 80 BB
2007 vs. Indians: 1-1, 4.26 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 12.2 IP, 9 K, 3 BB
2007 September: 2-1, 7.62 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 28.1 IP, 27 K, 14 BB
2007 ALDS: 0-0, 5.79 ERA, 2.14 WHIP, 4.2 IP, 3 K, 3 BB

Finally, in Game 3, the hitters for both teams my be able to stride to the plate with some confidence that they can reach base or (gasp) get a hit with the idea of crossing home plate not feeling like a pipe dream. Both starters had lousy ALDS appearances and will hope that the adjustment period for the hitters after the first four pitchers in Games 1 and 2 (“hey, I can hit THIS”) lasts long enough for them to sneak a lead to the bullpen.

Jake’s ALDS start began as one would hope a Westbrook start goes – groundballs, some hits, a few double plays, and some quick innings. But the ball got up on Westbrook and the Yankees capitalized as his sinker ended up around their belt at about 90MPH, something that doesn’t bode well for the Indians' chances. The Red Sox lineup of patient hitters battered Jake in their game against him this year (though he did last 6 innings), so there won’t be a shortage of Boston baserunners. Westbrook’s ability to minimize damage and Wedge’s ability to recognize the correct moment to replace him with some combination of Jenny and The Raffies is tantamount to the Indians maximizing Jake’s effectiveness in Game 3.

For the Red Sox, they throw a pitcher in Dice-K who will allow baserunners via the walk (80 BB, 6th in the AL), but also strikes out a good number of hitters (201 K, again 6th in the AL). Matsuzaka will miss a lot of bats in Game 3, but some of that will be tied to the fact that the lumber will still be sitting on the Tribe hitters’ shoulders before their trot to 1B. The patience that the Indians hitters displayed against the Yankees is vitally important to their success in this game as running up Dice-K’s pitch count could result in an appearance by the youngsters in the Boston bullpen (Manny Delcarmen and Jon Lester) who are making their first foray into the ALCS or an extended appearance by Boston’s whipping boy, Eric Gagne, assuming that the Indians would be able to get to Dice-K early enough.

With the way these two pitchers enter the ALCS, Game 3 looks like a game that will depend on the ability of the two teams’ middle relievers (those not named Papelbon, Okajima, Perez, Betancourt, or Borowski) to keep their teams in the game. With the starters in Games 1 and 2 figuring to go deep into their respective starts, the managers should have a full complement of arms to determine how the middle innings (5 through 7) affect the outcome.

Game 4
2007 stats: 6-9, 4.32 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 152 IP, 93 K, 55 BB
2007 vs. Boston: 1-0, 1.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 6 IP, 1 K, 0 BB
2007 September: 1-2, 4.14 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 37 IP, 31 K, 14 BB
2007 ALDS: 1-0, 3.60 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 5 IP, 2 K, 2 BB

2007 stats: 17-12, 4.76 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 189 IP, 110 K, 64 BB
2007 vs. Indians: N/A
2007 September: 1-2, 8.76 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 24.2 IP, 12 K, 7 BB
2007 ALDS: N/A

Call this the “Black and White Game” because with both of these pitchers, you’re either getting a terrific start that nobody can figure out how it's happening (like Byrd’s Game 4 performance or if Wakefield’s knuckler is fluttering) or the bullpens get involved around the 3rd inning because Byrd’s not hitting his spots and Wakefield is either incapable of throwing strikes with his knuckler or the opposing team is teeing off on his non-knuckler offerings.

Byrd blew conventional wisdom out of the water on Monday night, blurring what you think should happen and what does happen as he fooled the Yankees (whom had crushed him in the regular season) to swing off-balance or just miss solid contact. Considering that Byrd had a successful outing against the Red Sox this year, who knows what he’ll do in the playoffs. He’ll have the love of a Jacobs Field crowd, perhaps apologetic for questioning his Game 4 start, to give him a couple of extra MPH on his fastball (to make it 85 or 86). Beyond that, frankly, who knows?

Wakefield is recovering from a back ailment that kept him off of the ALDS roster; but, unlike most pitchers who rely on torque and power for their success, it won't have a huge impact on Wakefield, who is all about the knuckleball. If his knuckleball is fooling hitters to swing and miss or if it’s dropping into the strike zone and setting up his fastball, Wakefield is tough to beat. However, if Wakefield’s back flares up or if his knuckler proves to be ineffective (it will become apparent fairly quickly), the Red Sox will have to dip into that bullpen again to save Game 4.

The X factor for this pitching match-up is how the series looks after the first three games. If the Red Sox need a victory, Beckett (who has done it before successfully) will go on 3 days rest. It will be interesting to see if the Indians are facing elimination (strike the thought from your head), how Wedge will approach the game. Would he still give the ball to Byrd and “stay the course” or would all bets be off as the “back-against-the-wall” mentality takes hold?

After the starters, Boston and Cleveland both rely on some dependable back-end relievers (leave your JoeBo comments to yourself) and Boston will hope that the rest of the bullpen (Lester, Delcarmen, Mike Timlin, LHP Javier Lopez and Gagne) can turn the ball over to Okajima and Papelbon. If you think that Indians’ fans are concerned about The Big Borowski, Red Sox fans are terrified of seeing Gagne in any game and have their reservations about Okajima’s ability to get the ball to Papelbon in the 9th with a lead. Okajima faded down the stretch and was shelved in anticipation of the playoffs. He came out in the ALDS to spin 2.1 scoreless innings in the ALDS, so his troubles may have been rectified with some rest.

When Papelbon enters the game in the 9th, he brings with him 37 saves, 84 K in 58.1 IP, a 1.85 ERA, and a 0.77 WHIP. So, yeah…he’s that power arm out of the bullpen with the killer instinct that every team dreams about coming out of the bullpen. The Indians were able to touch him up for a run in one of his two appearances against them this season, but he converted both saves. Ultimately, the key to reaching the Red Sox bullpen is to keep Papelbon tied to his seat in said bullpen by getting to the preceding arms.

The Indians’ bullpen thrived in the Yankee series and Wedge should continue to ride Jenny, the Scarecrow, Senor Slo-Mo, and (breath drawn in) JoeBo to close out the games in the ALCS. Outside of those four, any appearance by Aaron Fultz, Tom Mastny, or Aaron Laffey promises to be filled with uncertainty and means that the game is likely lost and Wedge needs someone to eat innings.

When it’s all said and done, these two teams are almost looking in a mirror with each other pitching-wise with studs at the top of the rotation, quality (but not overwhelming quality) in the #3 and #4 spots, and lockdown relievers in the bullpen.

No obvious holes exist on either team’s staff and the ones that are possible (weak middle relief for the Red Sox, concerns about Westbrook and Borowski for the Tribe) can be avoided (the Boston starters could go deep into ballgames, Borowski could continue to surprise us all) or ones that don’t figure to sabotage the entire series (Westbrook, if he struggles in Game 3, would only get 1 start).

The ALCS promises to be a pitching-heavy affair, with the little things or something arbitrary or even controversial being the difference in the games. Obviously, the offenses of each team are going to have some bearing on the outcome; but, in the playoffs – where pitching means everything – the Red Sox and Indians have met their equal on the battlefield.

Indians…what is your profession?


Unknown said...

Please check out this Boston Red Sox video comic strip....

t-bone said...

Two great back-to-back posts on the USS Mariner, the site that has been clamoring for Seattle to hire Antonetti for a few years now.

Cleveland/Seattle Comparison

John Hart GM tree (fascinating, 3 of 4 LCS GM's were with Hart here!!!)

t-bone said...

Here's another John Hart family tree story...