I'm not sure anyone expected the Boston Red Sox to be playing in the American League Championship Series back in Spring Training -- let alone have home field advantage throughout the playoffs -- but here we are. The Red Sox are well ahead of the schedule most fans expected when general manager Ben Cherington cleaned house last August, as the offseason moves that most fans viewed as stopgaps have turned into key cogs in a well-oiled machine.
We've got two of the most storied franchises in baseball facing off in the playoffs for the first time, and this series should be a doozy. Here's what to expect from the Red Sox in the next four to seven games.
How did they get here?
Coming off their worst season since 1965 in 2012, the Red Sox blitzed their way to their first American League East title since 2007. They jumped out to an 18-8 record in April and nearly went wire-to-wire, save for a two week stretch in May where the New York Yankees were inexplicably winning baseball games. When things got a bit hairy at the end of August -- they were tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the division lead as late as August 25th -- they went on a 21-10 tear to win the division by six games.
After clinching the league's best record, the Sox were matched up with the Rays in the ALDS. Other than Jose Lobaton golfing a walk-off home run for the Rays into an actual tank of rays, the Red Sox completely dominated the series. They outscored Tampa 26-12, out-hit them .286 to .225, and bested the Rays' on-base percentage by over 100 points in the four game set.
At the plate
The big bats in Boston's lineup need no introduction. Should-be Hall of Famer David Ortiz led the team by hitting .309/.395/.564 with 30 home runs and 103 RBI in just 137 games. He continued to mash in the playoffs, hitting 5-for-13 with a pair of homers in the ALDS. Dustin Pedroia had a bit of a down year, hitting .301/.372/.415 with nine homers, his lowest total since his first full(ish) season in 2007. His .787 OPS this year was the lowest mark of his career. Despite the offensive woes -- I'm using that term very lightly, Sox fans -- he continued to play his usual spectacular defense at second.
Of course, the fact that Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino were complete pests at the top of the order all season long helped those big bats succeed. Ellsbury bounced back nicely from an injury plagued 2012 season, hitting .298/.355/.426 with nine homers. He also led the league with 52 stolen bases. Victorino swiped an additional 21 bags while hitting for an .801 OPS with 15 homers. He led the American League with 18 hit-by-pitches this year and added four more in the ALDS. His stolen base total, along with his .351 on-base percentage, dwarfs anything we saw from Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter in 2013.
If you're looking for any overperformers in this lineup, Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamacchia might be your guys. Napoli hit 23 home runs and put up a .367 wOBA, but it took a .367 BABIP and 24.4% line drive rate to do so. His career figures -- .310 and 19.4%, respectively -- suggest that this could be a mirage going forward. He went 2-for-13 with four walks and four strikeouts in the ALDS. Meanwhile, Saltalamacchia acquitted himself nicely for his upcoming free agency, putting up a career high .804 OPS in 121 games.
One name you probably won't see very often in this series is that of Xander Bogaerts. Recently named the top prospect in the International League, Bogaerts was only given two plate appearances in the ALDS despite the Rays using left-handed starters in two of the four games. Some Boston pundits are speculating that he may start Game 2, however. Stephen Drew has handled the duties at short this year, putting up a .777 OPS in 124 games. He was just 2-for-15 in the ALDS.
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks didn't have great overall numbers this season, but he rebounded from an early season demotion to the minor leagues by hitting .276/.329/.476 in the second half. He may still be vulnerable to Tigers pitching, having struck out in 24% of his plate appearances since returning to the big leagues and 26.2% overall this year.
The other Boston bats that will see significant playing time this series are lefties Mike Carp and Daniel Nava. Jonny Gomes may be in the mix too, though he has struggled against Tigers pitchers in the past. Carp put together an .885 OPS with nine home runs in 243 plate appearances, most of which came against right-handed pitching. If John Farrell figures out that it's a good idea to start him over Napoli at first in this series, the Tigers may be in trouble. Napoli has decent numbers against righties, but a 35% strikeout rate doesn't mix well against the Tigers' arms. Nava has put up good numbers in the Sox outfield, and he is all but guaranteed to put together a 10-pitch at-bat at some point in this series just to get on your nerves. Yes, you specifically.
Advantage: Red Sox
Miguel Cabrera's health is the difference here. If Cabrera is healthy, the Tigers are a more dangerous lineup purely because of the damage the top half can do each time through the order. With him battling this injury -- whatever it is -- Boston's depth gets the edge.
On the mound
Left-hander Jon Lester will get the start for the Red Sox in the first game of the series opposite Anibal Sanchez. He had a bit of an up-and-down season, but was rock solid in the second half with a 2.75 ERA, 2.77 FIP, and 1.19 WHIP. He shut down the Tigers in a September start at Fenway Park, allowing one run in seven innings with nine strikeouts.
Clay Buchholz and John Lackey are slated to start games two and three, though I'm seeing conflicted reports on which guy is starting which game. Starting Lackey in Game 2 would be a better move for the Sox, giving him two possible home starts in this series. Lackey was stellar at home this season, allowing a 2.47 ERA and 5.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts. Buchholz missed a good portion of the season with a shoulder injury, but was excellent when he did take the mound. He was 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA, 2.78 FIP, and 2.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 starts this year.
Rounding out the playoff rotation is old nemesis Jake Peavy, who the Red Sox acquired in the midseason trade that brought Jose Iglesias to Detroit. Since joining the Sox, Peavy has a 4.04 ERA, 3.74 FIP, and 1.16 WHIP in 10 starts. He is scheduled to start Game 4 against Doug Fister.
We knew this going in. The Tigers' starters will need to carry the load once again to give the offense some time to work against Boston's underrated pitching staff. It's unfortunate that the Tigers won't get a second matchup against Peavy, though I'm sure Farrell wanted to avoid that familiarity when setting his rotation for the series.
In the pen
Success! An equally shaky bullpen! Ok, Boston's pen might be an arm or two deeper than Detroit's, but it's definitely not the same animal the Tigers dealt with in Oakland. Koji Uehara is currently enjoying one of the best seasons from a closer ever, taking over the job shortly after Andrew Bailey served up a walk-off homer to Jhonny Peralta back in June. Uehara struck out 101 batters and walked nine -- yes, NINE -- in 74 1/3 innings.
Behind Uehara is left-hander Craig Breslow, who put up a 1.81 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 59 2/3 innings. He was even more dominant down the stretch, allowing three runs (two earned) in 27 2/3 innings since the All-Star Break. He is anything but a LOOGY, however. In his eight big league seasons, he has allowed a higher batting average and slugging average to left-handed hitters. This season, lefties had a .704 OPS compared to righties, who had a rough go with a .581 OPS.
Right-hander Junichi Tazawa might be the only other reliable arm left in their pen. He posted a 3.16 ERA this season while striking out over a batter per inning. He also allowed just 1.6 walks per nine innings. Behind him, the Sox squeezed just two combined innings out of Brandon Workman, Franklin Morales, and Ryan Dempster during the ALDS.
The Red Sox have a better back end of their pen, but neither bullpen is particularly deep and I think Rick Porcello can do more for the Tigers than someone like Dempster or Workman will for Boston. Plus, Phil Coke's addition gives Jim Leyland another bullet to use in late innings against David Ortiz.
For Boston, this series is all about what Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino can do at the top of the lineup. The Tigers were able to hold Coco Crisp hitless in three of the five games in the last series, and the A's number two hitters combined to go 2-for-20. When on base, both Ellsbury and Victorino can cause havoc, especially against a battery that couldn't throw anyone out during the regular season. Forcing Pedroia and Ortiz to come to the plate with the bases empty has to be a focus for the Tigers pitching staff.
If the Tigers are to be successful, they will need their left-handed hitters to step up. Prince Fielder was a decent 5-for-18 in the last series, but all five hits were singles and he didn't drive in a single run. Meanwhile, Alex Avila was hitless in the final four games of the series (though he did draw a walk in each game). If Prince and Avila combine for zero RBI again, there's a good chance the Red Sox are the ones celebrating at series end.
It doesn't always seem to happen, but we have the two best teams in the American League facing off with a trip to the World Series on the line. The marquee matchup will be the Tigers' pitching staff against Boston's formidable lineup, but the other matchup will probably have a bigger impact on which team moves on. If the Tigers can continue the momentum they seemed to gain when Jhonny Peralta moved into the lineup in the middle of the ALDS, they may be able to gain the upper hand in an otherwise dead-even series.