Playoff Preview: White Sox-Red Sox

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
Boston             95     67     .586     910     805     91-71
Chicago            99     63     .611     741     645     92-70
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
Boston             5.62     .281     .357     .454     339     199     653    1044
Chicago            4.57     .262     .322     .425     253     200     435    1002
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
Boston             4.97     .276     .335     .441     352     164     440     959
Chicago            3.98     .249     .310     .397     275     167     459    1040

This series is being billed as “Small-ball” versus “Moneyball” in a lot of places, but like most descriptions of the White Sox’s success this season that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, here’s a stat to chew on while announcers fall all over themselves praising Chicago’s ability to “do the little things” this year: The White Sox hit 200 home runs this season, while the Red Sox hit 199. Yes, the go-go White Sox out-homered the powerful Red Sox.

Of course, that’s not to say Chicago has the better offense. Boston does everything else—hit for average, smack doubles, draw walks—at a significantly higher level, which is why they scored 23% more often than Chicago this season. If this series can be labeled as anything, it is hitting versus pitching. Like last year, the Red Sox are an offensive juggernaut that led baseball with 910 runs. And in what has been one of the most overlooked aspects of the 2005 season, the White Sox went from ranking 10th in the American League in runs allowed last season to ranking third this year.

Considering how offense-friendly Chicago’s home ballpark is, an argument could be made that the White Sox had the best pitching/defense in all of baseball this year. Yet somehow the fact that they ran and bunted a lot while scoring 17% fewer runs than they did last season is seen by many as the source of Chicago’s success. The reason the White Sox are in the playoffs for the first time since 2000 is their ability to prevent runs, plain and simple. Just take a look at the eight pitchers they figure to lean heavily on during the postseason:

STARTERS               IP      ERA        RELIEVERS              IP      ERA
Mark Buehrle        236.2     3.12        Cliff Politte        67.1     2.00
Freddy Garcia       228.0     3.87        Neal Cotts           60.1     1.94
Jon Garland         221.0     3.50        Dustin Hermanson     57.1     2.04
Jose Contreras      204.2     3.61        Bobby Jenks          39.1     2.75

Four starting pitchers who each tossed over 200 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA and four relievers who had ERAs of 1.94, 2.00, 2.04 and 2.75, respectively. And if Chicago needs to delve a little deeper into their pitching staff at some point, they have Brandon McCarthy (67.0 IP, 4.03 ERA) available as either a starter or a long reliever, and Damaso Marte (45.1 IP, 3.77 ERA) available as a lefty out of the bullpen.

Heck, if Marte was on the Red Sox he’d be their second-best reliever. Here’s the group Boston will likely go to battle with:

STARTERS               IP      ERA        RELIEVERS              IP      ERA
Tim Wakefield       225.1     4.15        Mike Timlin          80.1     2.24        
Bronson Arroyo      205.1     4.51        Mike Myers           37.1     3.13
Matt Clement        191.0     4.57        Jon Papelbon         34.0     2.65
David Wells         184.0     4.45        Chad Bradford        23.1     3.86
Curt Schilling       93.1     5.69

Boston’s starters were neither as durable or as effective as Chicago’s, and Matt Clement (6.00 ERA in September) and Curt Schilling (5.69 ERA for the season) each enter the postseason as question marks. Bronson Arroyo will likely shift to the bullpen, joining Jon Papelbon, Mike Myers, and Chad Bradford setting up Mike Timlin. That’s not a relief corps that inspires a whole lot of confidence, although Timlin, Papelbon and Myers have certainly been effective down the stretch. Still, the odds are that the Red Sox will have to call on Tim Wakefield to pitch in as a reliever at some point.

One potential advantage the Red Sox have when it comes to this clash of great pitching versus great hitting is that the White Sox’s pitching staff is primarily right-handed. Mark Buehrle is the only lefty in the starting rotation and he’ll start just one of the five games in this series, and unless the White Sox use Marte more than they did during the second half Neal Cotts will be the only southpaw getting regular work out of the bullpen. That plays slightly into Boston’s hands, because the Red Sox are a stronger lineup against righties.

Their raw team totals show a team that is capable of knocking around both right-handed pitching (.279/.354/.454) and left-handed pitching (.284/.361/.452), but the Red Sox enter the postseason without platoon partners for Trot Nixon and John Olerud. Jay Payton began the season platooning with Nixon in right field, but he was shipped to Oakland for Bradford when he complained about his lack of playing time. Gabe Kapler was brought back from Japan to step into Payton’s role, but he tore his Achilles’ tendon in mid-September.

That leaves the Red Sox with few options when facing a southpaw, as left-handed hitters David Ortiz, Johnny Damon and either Nixon or Olerud will likely be left in the lineup. Meanwhile, against right-handed pitchers the Red Sox can stack the lineup with as many as seven hitters—Damon, Ortiz, Olerud, Nixon, Bill Mueller, Jason Varitek and Alex Cora—who bat from the left side of the plate. Because of that, manager Ozzie Guillen will be making a mistake if he chooses to start righty Jose Contreras in Games 1 and 5 instead of Buehrle.

Interestingly, Boston holds the same advantage when it comes to their pitching against Chicago’s hitting. Like the White Sox, the Red Sox have a primarily right-handed pitching staff, with David Wells and Myers as the only lefties who figure to play key roles. But while Boston’s lineup is built to take advantage of facing lots of right-handed pitchers, Chicago’s mostly right-handed regulars hit significantly worse against righties this season.

                      GROSS PRODUCTION AVG
                    vLHP     vRHP       +/-
Juan Uribe          .287     .224     -22.0%
Aaron Rowand        .278     .240     -13.7%
Scott Podsednik     .269     .242     -10.0%
Joe Crede           .272     .245     - 9.9%
Tadahito Iguchi     .274     .258     - 5.8%
Paul Konerko        .315     .298     - 5.4%
Jermaine Dye        .285     .271     - 4.9%
Carl Everett        .238     .251     + 5.5%
A.J. Pierzynski     .206     .252     +22.3%
TEAM TOTALS         .263     .248     - 5.7%

Whereas the Red Sox can trot out six to seven left-handed hitters when facing a righty, the White Sox have just three regulars—Carl Everett, Scott Podsednik and A.J. Pierzynski—who hit from the left side of the plate. Seven of Chicago’s nine everyday players hit worse against righties than lefties this season—four of them significantly worse—and the White Sox were 5.7% less productive against right-handed pitching as a team. Throw in the fact that their left-handed bench options are guys like Timo Perez and Geoff Blum, and you can see why this could be a crucial factor in the series.

One advantage that the White Sox do have in this series is that three of the five games will be in Chicago. Chicago’s offense is extremely dependent on home runs, even more so than Boston’s, so getting an extra game at homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field plays to their strength. Meanwhile, Fenway Park actually supresses home runs a bit, while creating more non-homer offense than any other ballpark in baseball. Considering how much better the Red Sox are at doing everything but hitting the ball out of the ballpark, the fewer games played in Boston the better for the White Sox.

The White Sox clearly hold an overall pitching advantage, particularly in the bullpen, and should be in good shape if they can keep the games close entering the late innings. The problem is that I’m not confident in any team’s ability to hold Boston’s lineup in check, and I’m not confident in Chicago’s ability to score enough runs to keep pace if the Red Sox are putting runs on the board. My crystal ball says the White Sox will win a couple of one-run games, as they’ve done all year, but the Red Sox’s bats will break through three times to take the series.

Red Sox in five.

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