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Previewing the American League playoffs

Thearon W. Henderson

There's an "American" league now, and they play with special rules and strategies. Who will represent this strange amalgam of baseball organizations in the World Series?

Grant: Let's start with Rays/Red Sox. It's weird for teams to play in the LDS after playing 40 games per season in an unbalanced schedule. Do you think that makes a difference in the quality of play one way or another?

Rob: What's really weird is that they played each other so often this year that Ben Zobrist and Big Papi shared penthouse apartments in both cities. So much for the fraternization rule!

Grant: You know what you get when you Google "St. Petersburg penthouse"? Pretty bad-ass. I approve.

Okay, so the Red Sox are the favorites. They have the homefield advantage. They have the better regular-season record. They have the fur.

But think of it like this: If the season were 200 games long, it wouldn't be out of the question for the Rays to do to the Red Sox what the A's did to the Rangers. And I still think the Rays' pitching is better. It's just a matter of whether it's better than the Red Sox' hitting.

Rob: First, the hitting. The Red Sox led the American League in scoring. They led the American League in scoring overall, in scoring at home, and in scoring on the road.

<insert obvious groupie joke here>

Wait. Belay the middle part of that. The Red Sox were second in home scoring, six runs behind the Tigers. But the Red Sox did score nearly a full run per game more than the Rays. That's an awful lot, and even the Mighty Delmon Young can't make up that difference all by himself.

And the pitching? Both teams were dead on the American League average in road ERA. The one good thing you can say about the Rays is that Roberto Hernandez won't be starting any games; take him away, the Rays' starting pitching looks quite a bit better. So maybe their pitching is slightly better. But between David Price starting just once in the Division Series and Clay Buchholz's comeback, the difference is ever so slight. I just have a hard time coming up with any reason at all to actually pick the Rays. As much as that might be. Am I missing anything?

Grant: Yes. Maddon Fever.

I'm just too used to the idea of the Red Sox as a last-place team, I guess. And I'm really struggling with this new, low-offense paradigm when it comes to team evaluations.

Like, the Braves had all these guys with unimpressive BA/OBP/SLG numbers but good OPS+ marks. Must be because they're in a pitcher's park, right? But Turner Field played like a hitter's park this year. I"m all twisted around. Which is to say, I can't figure out if the Rays are surprisingly competent at the plate, or if they're feckless. Because Tropicana is a cavern. Maybe we're not giving them enough credit.

Rob: Well yeah, but that's why we look at (among other things) road numbers. But FanGraphs' wOBA tells basically the same story, with the Red Sox easily leading the American League and the Rays in the middle of the pack. I suppose if you're looking for a ray of hope, you might point out that the Sox have a fair number of guys who are probably over their heads, statistics-wise: Saltalamacchia, Drew, Victorino, Nava, Carp ... Maybe it goes without saying that a team hitting this well is probably due for a fall, at least a slight one. So the apparent difference between the two hitting attacks probably isn't as large as it seems. It's large, though.

Grant: Yeah, I'll remove Nava and Carp from the calculus, but you're probably right. And it's not like the Sox are throwing Jaime Navarro out there in Game 2 and hoping for the best. The Red Sox are probably the slightly better team. But why didn't we see this in the offseason? Was it just Lester/Buchholz uncertainty? Or is it the idea that John Lackey is back and just as good as ever, which is just bizarre.

Rob: Well, that's a different subject. The pitchers were just ridiculously unpredictable. With the hitters, it's largely a matter of guys like Ellsbury and Pedroia being healthy all season. Along with Napoli and Victorino stepping right into the lineup and doing well. But it wasn't that hard to see the Red Sox doing a lot better this season; just not this well. They looked like an 85-win team before the season, and instead they're a 97-win team. So let's split the difference and say they're a 91-win team. That's pretty good ... and exactly how many games the Rays won (not including Game 163).

So they're the same? No. The Rays' outperformed their run differential.

Or you can look at this entirely differently! According to Baseball Prospectus's third-order wins, the Red Sox are actually a 99-win team ... and the Rays are a 96-win team. So they probably are closer than their run differentials suggest. But again, when you include the Sox' home-field edge and Price's relative unavailability, edge to Red Sox. Sorry, underdog-lovers.

Grant: When in doubt, go with home-field, I guess. But don't forget about the Danks theory and Jon Lester. The Rays are going to non-platoon the Red Sox into oblivion!

(Maybe not.)

(Probably going with Red Sox.)

Let's go to the A's/Tigers rematch, then. Last year, the A's had to face an unhittable Justin Verlander twice. Max Scherzer has been just as good this year as Verlander was last year (or close enough), but does he carry the same kind of fear-me gravitas? Thinking he doesn't.

Rob: Well, since you brought it up, let's check where the Tigers' four postseason starters rank in the American League, according to FanGraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement ...

One (Scherzer)
Two (Anibal Sanchez)
Four (Justin Verlander)
Eight (Doug Fister)

Here's the good news for the A's: The Atlanta Braves won one World Series. Here's the bad news for the A's: Their ace comes in 13th on that same list. I mean, I love Bartolo Colon. He's so cuddly and stuff. But if we're talking about gravitas ...

Grant: Susan Slusser wrote a great piece on Colon for the Chronicle. Highly recommended. But, yeah, the Tigers have a crazy-deep rotation. I'm not sure if I buy they have four of the ten-best in the AL, but I'm not going to argue too strenuously at the notion.

I really liked the package the Mariners got for Fister, too. Turns out that I'm horrible at this.

I'll give you the Tigers' rotation, but what about the A's offense? They were third in the AL in scoring, and they play in a national park. The last time the A's scored this many runs, Frank Thomas was hitting .270/.381/.545 as a DH and Barry Zito was winning 16 games for them. That's before you get into the league-wide drop in offense. This isn't a pitch-first team.

Rob: Well, I'll give you the A's hitting ... but not by much. Actually, maybe not at all. The Tigers finished with a significantly higher wOBA: .341 to .327. Then again, there is this: MIGUEL CABRERA HIT ONE HOME RUN IN SEPTEMBER. Basically, the A's need the league's best hitter to keep not hitting.

Grant: Call him Mike Seaver, because he's having groin pains!


The league's third-best hitter is on the A's, though. Josh Donaldson. How much do you believe in that? And has he already surpassed Rich Harden in career WAR? No .. about eight off. Getting there, though.

But I'll still stick with the A's. Call it a hunch. Call it a feeling. Call it Jemile. Feels like I've been watching a bunch of overdog A's teams lose over the last decade. I'll stick with an underdog one moving on this time.

Rob: You do what you have to do. I've got the Tigers in five, Red Sox in four. With Red Sox going off to the World Series unless their starters are wiped out in a tough series against the Rays.

Grant: A's in four, Red Sox in five, and the A's in a World Series! Maybe if there's another earthquake, the housing market will collapse. I'd like that. Sorry, people negatively affected by an "earthquake." I need a backyard.