Wednesday, September 24, 2008

JD Drew is back!

No, seriously, I mean that exclamation point. The Red Sox are a better team with him in the lineup than with some combination of Coco, Ellsbury, and Kotsay.

The Sox clinched a playoff berth last night, and will almost certainly start the postseason in Anaheim, next Wednesday or Thursday. In 2005, the year they were swept in in the divisional round by the ChiSox, no Red Sox fan was surprised: that wasn't a very good team. But this year, like last year, I don't think there's any reason to doubt their ability to repeat. Sure, they're not prohibitive favorites (no one is), but no one will be surprised if they win it all again this year.

Given the way the Divisional Round is scheduled (2-2-1 format), the Sox might get a chance to use their Game 1 starter in Game 4, and their Game 2 starter in Game 5, given which of the two schedules they are assigned to. While Beckett is the clear-cut Game 1 starter, one could make the case for either Lester or DiceK for Game 2. If one were to only look at DiceK's headline stats, you'd say wow, what a pitcher: 18-2, 2.80 ERA, 149 Ks. Hell, were it not for Cliff Lee's insane year, he might even be talked about as a Cy Young candidate. But I'm sure that pretty much every Sox fan would feel much more comfortable, in a must-win game, with the ball in Jon Lester's hand (15-6, 3.26, 148 Ks). Even digging deeper into the stats doesn't tell you why Lester is more trusted than DiceK, as their WHIP and OPS against are as similar as their headliners. I guess there's an implicit bias against walks (DiceK walks a ton of guys, but gives up fewer hits), because they are damn frustrating to watch. But from any objective standpoint, it is hard to say that one is clearly superior than the other. Given that DiceK tends to pitch better on the road (game 2) and Lester tends to pitch better at Fenway (game 3), I imagine that's the way Francona will use them, but really, it is hard to say that one is any better than the other. Of course, if one used stats alone, then based on this year's performance Josh Beckett would be your game 3 or possibly even game 4 starter.

Another decision that needs to be made is how to allocate the 25 guys you're allowed to carry. You certainly don't need 5 starters, and depending on the schedule you're dealt, you might not even need 4. Let's start with the knowns:
Starters (3): Beckett, DiceK, Lester
Outfield (5): Bay, Crisp, Drew, Kotsay, Ellsbury -- given Drew's back issues, they have to carry 5
Infield (6): Lowell, Lowrie, Pedroia, Youkilis, Cora, Casey
Catcher & DH (3): Varitek, Cash, Ortiz
Bullpen (5): Papelbon, Okijima, Delcarmen, Masterson, Lopez

So that's 22 definites out of 25 spots. But there's still Wakefield, Byrd, Timlin, & Aardsma to take care of. One of (Wake, Byrd) is your game 4 starter, while the other is your blow-out/extra-inning guy. I'm not really sure what role Timlin would have, so he may be the odd-man out. Last year, the Sox did carry an extra catcher, so they may do that again this year. I suppose the reasoning is that both Varitek and Cash are black holes at the plate, and you'd like to be able to pinch-hit for one of them in a crucial situation (especially when you have good pinch hitters, like Casey & Kotsay on the bench), but if you only have one back-up, you probably can't.

As for lineup construction, if you assume that either Crisp or Ellsbury will be in CF for a given game (and I'm not sure how Francona will decide when to start which one, as they're pretty similar), I don't want our CF batting lead-off. If you'll remember back to mid-August, before Drew went down, Tito had him leading off quite a bit, making for a nice L/R combo of Drew, Pedroia, Ortiz, & Youk, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing that lineup make a comeback for the playoffs.