The Red Sox are set to do battle with the Angels later this week to decide who gets to play for the American League pennant.

ALDS Los Angeles Angels vs Boston Red Sox

Boston and Los Angeles are certainly familiar with each other, having done battle in the 2004, ’07 and ’08 DCS. In fact, Boston went 9-1 in those games and the Angels’ futility extends all the way back to 1986 and Donnie Moore. Do the Angels have a chance to put their Boston voodoo behind them or will the Sawx manhandle L.A. all the way towards what seems to be an inevitable date with the Evil Empire? Mike Silver profiled the Angels’ hitters last week, concluding that “with even just a casual look at the Angels’ roster, it’s pretty clear why they took home the AL West title. Their lineup is deep, has no holes, and possesses good depth.” On the flip side, an evaluator that Buster Olney spoke to said:

“When you look at the numbers, you’d think that the Angels have a good lineup, but they have a lot of guys who can be pitched to. They have a bunch of rug rats. [The Red Sox] are going to pound the crap out of Kendry Morales with fastballs. Vladimir Guerrero has made a tremendous career out of turning on inside fastballs and driving them, but now you can beat him with the classic approach right out of the book — hard stuff in, soft stuff away. Torii Hunter is still what he always has been, a pretty good player who is essentially a mistake hitter.”

The pitching side of things is rosier. John Lackey, Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir make for an enviable front three.  On the other side, Boston is dealing with nagging injuries to Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and backups Nick Green and Rocco Baldelli. Beckett and John Lester are one of the best starting pitching duos in the game with the suddenly-capable Clay Buchholz and rejuvenated Daisuke Matsuzaka behind them. The offense is over it’s midseason funk, with Victor Martinez providing the depth and bat that the team dreamt Mark Teixeira would be. So who’s going to beat who in October? Let’s look at game by game situations with pitching matchups* and then offense, defense and the bullpen before we make a decision.

* All pitching matchups probable, but speculative.

Game 1 @LAA: Jon Lester (15-8, 3.41 ERA, 32 GS): Lester has a career 36 innings under his belt for the postseason, spanning 2007-8. His ERA is 2.25 in that span, defeating the Angels in Games 1 and 4 of the 2008 ALDS — pitching seven innings each time. In his career, he’s made four starts with  7.78 ERA against L.A. in the regular season. Talk about Jekyll and Hyde! Okay, you can breathe easy now: two of these starts came in his rookie year of 2006. The Angels haven’t seen him at all this year, so will have to deal with Lester’s sudden breakthrough as a strikeout pitcher — he has 225 whiffs under his belt this year.

John Lackey (11-8, 3.83, 27): Mr. Lackey has his Boston demons to exorcise. In 14 career starts against Boston, Lackey is 3-7 with a 5.25 ERA. Fortunately, he gets to stay away from Fenway Park (unless there’s a Game 4 and the series is one that only requires three starters) — he has a 5.75 ERA in those unfriendly confines. He tossed a gem against Boston on September 15, going 7.2 innings and giving up two earned runs while walking 3 and whiffing six. Despite pitching gamely against Lester in the 2008 postseason, he took the loss both times, even with a 2.63 ERA to peddle.

Quick take: Push.

Game 2 @LAA: Josh Beckett (17-6, 3.83, 32): The gunslinger finished 2009 on a down note. He was getting Cy Young consideration before the flu wiped out his August. Now, he’s dealing with back spasms that caused him to miss a start and show rust in the opening innings of Saturday’s game. He was still able to post a career-high in innings pitched with 212.1, the third time in four years (all with Boston) he’s headed over 200 innings. He never got higher than 178.2 with Florida thanks to the humidity affecting his blister problems (of which have been a rare problem in Boston). Said back spasms made him a liability in the 2008 postseason, but still boasts an impressive resume in October of a 2.90 ERA in 87 innings. He made two starts against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, posting a 4.50 ERA but impressing with a 12/2 K/BB ratio. Jered Weaver (16-8, 3.75, 33): Nice season for Weaver, who racked up 211 innings. At 26, he’s really starting to come into his own. He’s a baby when it comes to the harsh lights of October, though. In 2007, he went five innings against Boston, taking the 9-1 loss after giving up two earned runs and laboring through 95 pitches. He appeared in relief during Game 3 of 2008, pitching two scoreless. He’s had two starts against Boston this year, and has shone: 13.2 innings, 12 whiffs, three walks, 0.66 ERA. Ah, but his second half shows a 4.47 ERA, although most of the damage came in July — he cranked out a 3.11 ERA in September. Weaver’s main problem going head to head with Beckett will be strikeouts: Beckett whiffed 199, Weaver just 174 while posting a 2.8 BB/9. While a solid ratio, I’m more confident in Beckett’s ability to get through Anaheim’s lineup with the K working for him. Quick take: Would be a slight edge to Beckett, but the back spasms worry me. Push.

ALDS Los Angeles Angels vs Boston Red Sox

Game 3 @BOS: Clay Buchholz (7-4, 3.74, 15 prior to Sunday’s tuneup): (Note: all statistics do not include Sunday’s final game.) Buchholz first showed up after the All-Star Game and looked just like the 2008 Buchholz: a maddeningly inconsistent pitcher. Surprisingly, he’s been one of the more effective pitchers since those first several starts, although his hiccup in Toronto last week was concerning. Buchholz has shown himself to be easily rattled, and I have to wonder how he’ll perform under the bright lights. Fortunately, the Angels haven’t seen him on the year, so they’ll have to adjust on the fly. Add in Buchholz’s preference for pitching at home (3.83 ERA at home, 5.86 away) and things are looking bright.

Scott Kazmir (10-9, 4.86, 26): Those season numbers are somewhat misleading. Since joining the Angels, Kaz has a 1.73 ERA in six starts, although just a 2-2 record to show for it. I’m totally not surprised: I was against the trade when it happened. I thought Kaz was trending back to his old self after battling injuries. He’s certainly not this good, but he’s also better than that overall line. He’s also a notorious Red Sox-killer and would rather not subject myself to the splits that would prove that to be the case. Even though the game would occur at Fenway, Kazmir has plenty of experience pitching in front of the hometown crowd.

Quick take: Buchholz’s last two starts scare me too much. I’m going Kaz.

Game 4*: Daisuke Matsuzaka (4-6, 5.76, 12): Dice-K missed most of the year with shoulder problems and then spoke out against Boston. Those feelings have been soothed, and Dice has looked like a new man since returning in September. For the month, he’s posted a 2.22 ERA, walking 12 and whiffing 20 in four starts. Five of the 12 walks came against the notoriously patient Yankees, so his control is actually better than it has been in a long, long time. He actually did battle against the Angels recently, back on Sept. 15.  He went six innings, walking three, striking five out, and allowing just three hits en route to a scoreless outing.

.Joe Saunders (15-7, 4.62, 30 prior to Sunday’s tuneup): Saunders took a step back after a 17-7, 3.41 campaign in 2008. Further concerning matters are his numbers against right-handers, as they took him to town for a .288/.349/.488 line. Dustin Pedroia, Martinez and Mike Lowell all salivate. Ah, but he has been effective against lefties. Sad faces for Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz. (If Rocco Baldelli is healthy enough to play, don’t be surprised to see him in the lineup.) Saunders likes home cooking, like Buchholz. He has a 4.12 ERA at home and an ERA north of 5 on the road. Waaait a sec… ain’t he pitching in Fenway? He’s been hot recently, posting a 2.78 ERA in his last five starts. (Beckett: 4.14.)

* If the Yankees choose the schedule that requires four starters (which they won’t), this is the matchup you’ll see — unless one of the teams brings back a starter on short rest. If the schedule is the one with three starters, you’d see the Beckett/Lackey matchup again, barring surprises. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said the Yankees plan on choosing Series A — three starters.

Quick take: No hesitancy in tabbing Boston here.

Game 5: See Game(s) 1 or 2 as needed.

The offense: Boston squeaks by Los Angeles for the No. 2 offense in the league: an .804 OPS to the Angels’ .792 (pending Sunday’s final outcome). The Angels have a much better batting average (.285 to .269) but Boston kills it on OBP and holds a slight edge in slugging. The Angels have a .787 team OPS against lefties, with Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu and Kendry Morales the prime culprits. What the Angels gain in OPS against right-handers, they lose in recent history. Boston’s team OPS in September was .795, fourth in all of baseball, while the Angels sank to 14th at .737. That said, in August, the Angels had a .833 OPS. Too bad Boston beat them in that area, too, with a .851 OPS. Let’s turn to the elephant in the room: running. Stealing, to be more precise. Back when I stuck a fork in Jason Varitek, I quoted the following:

Varitek’s arm has simply abandoned him. The game should bring clarity to the fact that ‘Tek can’t gun them out anymore. Before this year, Varitek’s worst rate was 22 percent, met in 2006 and 2008. For his career, he’s at 24 percent. Victor Martinez is also at a career 24 percent, and has caught just 14 percent on the year. However, the two years prior to that checked in at 32 and 37 percent, so he can gun them out. No one’s ever going to consider Martinez the next coming of Doug Mirabelli (I still remember when he had just come over to Boston and promptly threw out several base runners in a game, wowing the crowd) but it’s clear that the Yankees and Angels will run with reckless abandon against Varitek. You can’t have that. Statistically, this year, they would run with abandon on V-Mart as much as Varitek.

Granted, the quote is generally focused on Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez will be catching, but I wanted to make note of the fact that even though V-Mart’s caught stealing percentages are poor this year, there is evidence — recent evidence — that he can at least hold his own. The Angels will make him prove it, of course. The Yankees clearly showed everyone that second base and sometimes even third can be there for the taking and you can bet the Angels will run rough-shod. You can also bet that the Red Sox will be game-planning for this. Expect to see pitchers holding the ball, waiting for a mistake. Expect quick pickoff throws, perhaps a pitch out or two.

Quick take: Boston possesses the more polished lineup, but the Angels have the wheels to cause headaches.

The defense: There is no easy way for me to really get into the nitty-gritty of this, but I’ll give you what I can. Boston’s defense has become one of the best in the league thanks to Alex Gonzalez’s arrival. While the season Ultimate Zone Rating/150 (this statistic and John Dewan’s plus/minus rating are considered the most accurate defensive metrics at the moment) for Boston is at -2.3, I bet the tune would change if I could find splits over a certain period of time on UZR/150. The Angels, by the way, are at 2.2. Juan Rivera and Chone Figgins are excellent in left and third, respectively.

On Boston’s side, Alex Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew are excellent. Boston is in the negative scale thanks to Jason Bay, Mike Lowell and Rocco Baldelli. However, Lowell’s numbers have been steadily improving. I have no way to quantify this because the awesome Fangraphs Web site doesn’t have UZR/150 splits, but I anecdotally have noticed Lowell’s UZR/150 (currently at -10.2) consistently improving the further he gets away from hip surgery.

Quick take: I’m going to rank the defenses the same, because I hesitate to make a proclamation over what I feel is not enough evidence to make a case for either team, and just enough to consider them both fairly equal.

The bullpen: Boston has a bullpen that can bail out starting pitching in October. Oakland made a late charge to finish with the best bullpen ERA in the AL (thank you, Michael Bowden and Hunter Jones) , but Boston settled in at second with a 3.82 ERA. How good is Boston’s bullpen? Well, it boasts two closers who don’t close: Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. It boasts one of the best bullpen arms over the last three years in Hideki Okajima, and two closers-in-waiting named Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard. Oh, and that Manny Delcarmen ain’t half bad either… if his mechanics are right. Wagner was used on back-to-back days to close the season out, readying him for October while Jonathan Papelbon has been on a hot streak, with everything finally clicking right. This bullpen is imposing.

For the Angels, the bullpen isn’t as dominating as years past, but seems settled with Brian Fuentes and Kevin Jepsen finishing games off with Jason Bulger (injury alert!), Matt Palmer and Darren Oliver also turning in good seasons. The thing is, “settled” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” That’s obvious when the bullpen ERA is 4.53, ranked 11th out of 14 teams. Fuentes is a closer, but isn’t exactly elite. Jepsen has been bombed since coming back from a dead arm. Bulger (if healthy), Palmer and Oliver are all good, but would all jockey with Manny Delcarmen for the final spot in Boston’s ‘pen. If Boston can get into the bullpen early, Angel players will be able to book their golf reservations early.

Quick take: This is likely the X-factor, given that everything else is largely a push. The scales are tipped — so heavily, I think the scales need to get on ‘The Biggest Loser’ — in Boston’s favor.

All told: Admit it, you skimmed the entire article, which I slaved over, just to get to the prediction. It’s okay. A few notes before I get to the predictions…

  • Predictions are not worth the paper they’re written on. Or in this case, the screen they’re printed on, although the analogy isn’t quite as effective because we go from paper worth cents to a screen worth a couple hundred bucks. Whatever. They’re completely unreliable. While regular season predictions usually end up generally right, you can forget about consistently accurate postseason predictions. So try to keep that in mind when hearing all these thrillion (yes, I just made up a number there to depict how many there are) predictions around: they’re all bunk.
  • These teams are extremely well matched-up. Boston has the psychological edge, but the Angels have the “nobody believed in us!” and the “we have something to prove” edge. What Boston has going for it is its 95 wins in an impossible division — I bet you Toronto would have been in the thick of the race in the AL Central. And I didn’t even consider the NL. Meanwhile, the Angels won 97 in a semi-competitive West. All that aside, the pitching matchups, the offense, even the defense, are similar.
  • MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Angels

    Home-field advantage may prove the key here. And not the home-field advantage you think. Here’s the thing: Boston is 39-42 on the road, the Angels are 49-32 at home. (Boston is 56-25 at Fenway, the Angels are 48-33 away.) This shows the Angels as a very well balanced team, but the playoffs changes things entirely. For example, other than the deep playoff run in 2002 with the Rally Monkey and Thunderstick fad, I’ve never quite felt the Angels’ possessed a home-field advantage past being able to bat in the ninth inning. Maybe if they were in the ALCS or World Series again, there would be an advantage. All I have to go on is the three previous ALDS series, and there was no true ‘hometown advantage.’ We all know about the advantage Fenway provides, and the Angels do, too. Remember when the Angels came to town and Boston pulled off a stirring win at the hands of Brian Fuentes? Fuentes even said that he felt the umpires were influenced by the hometown crowd.

    This is where the home/road balance actually hurts the Angels. They’re the same team regardless of if home or away. Unlike Los Angeles coming into a very hostile environment at Fenway, Boston will be coming to a relatively peaceful scene in Anaheim against a team that doesn’t show any particular favoritism towards playing at home. While Boston has a road record below .500, all they need is one of three games for the pendulum to completely swing in their favor. This road record might — and probably will — come into play in the ALCS and World Series, but in this situation, I don’t think it’s a concern.

Boston wins 3 games to Los Angeles’ 1.