An eternity ago, the Detroit Tigers played the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 of the ALDS. The Tigers scored three in the first inning and Max Scherzer defended the lead by allowing no runs on just one hit through six. In the seventh, however, a Yoenis Cespedes home run followed a Moss infield single to tighten the score as Scherzer’s pitch count rose to 118 to end his night.
His ace done, Detroit manager Jim Leyland was forced to navigate through the eighth with a one-run lead. After the anticipated swap of Alberto Callaspo for Eric Sogard, three straight switch-hitters were due up for Oakland. The trio was overall weaker against left-handed pitching and Jim made the percentage move by bringing in Drew Smyly. The left-hander struck out Callaspo and Jed Lowrie around a walk to Crisp. That brought up Donaldson, who had dismantled lefties at .335/.412/.631 during the regular season, and Jim again made the percentage move by calling on Joaquin Benoit, who easily retired Donaldson on an 0-2 popup and then struck out the side in order in the ninth to seal the deal. Leyland’s by-the-numbers managing provided Smyly with a significant role in the Game 1 win.
What might Smyly’s job description look like in Round 2? The high-powered Boston offense outscored every other major league team by more than 50 runs in 2013. Their attack was rather pedestrian against left-handed pitching with a .330 wOBA that ranked 5th in the American League. But Boston’s .355 wOBA against right-handed pitching was the best by a major league team since the World Champion Yankees produced .364 in 2009. This might seem like bad news for a Detroit team with a stable of right-handed starters, but we’re all well aware that the Tiger rotation is not staffed by ordinary right-handers. Nevertheless, only three right-handed starters, none Tigers, made it at least 8 innings against the Red Sox this year and one was R.A. Dickey in a losing effort in which he allowed five earned runs. It’s a safe bet that the Detroit bullpen will get some work in this series.
Now let’s look more carefully at the Boston offense. We’ve pointed out that they destroyed right-handed pitching. But when Red Sox right-handed batters matched up against right-handed pitching, they hit a middling .255/.326/.404. This corresponded to the sixth best OPS in the AL for this split and the .404 slugging percentage does not exactly conjure up images of baseballs flying off and over the Monster.
So what’s going on? If you’re following the numbers, you realize that Boston’s left-handed batters must have enjoyed some good times at the expense of right-handed pitchers. And they did. Boston lefties hit .304/.377/.506 over 2,443 PAs against right-handed pitching in 2013. How good is this? The last team to send at least 1,500 lefties to the plate against right-handed pitching in a season and produce a better OPS+ for this split was the World Champion Big Red Machine in 1976. Morgan (.349), Rose (.343), and Geronimo (.327) had the top three left-on-right batting averages (> 400 PAs) in the NL that year and Griffey Senior’s .316 ranked sixth. That’s good company. Boston lefties did indeed enjoy some very good times against right-handed pitching in 2013.
A small consolation is that these Boston hitters who kill right-handed pitching aren’t nearly as good against left-handed pitching. The Red Sox used the same lineup in both ALDS games where the Rays started a right-hander with the handedness sequence going L-R-R-L-R-S-S-L-R with Shane Victorino being slotted as a right-handed batter based on his recent preference.
David Ortiz in the 4 has a monstrous 133 point wOBA advantage when hitting against right-handers so it makes sense to attack him with a left-hander when feasible. The 6 through 8 spots (Daniel Nava (S) , Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S), Stephen Drew (L)) in the order also provide a unique opportunity for opponents. All three hitters had at least a 90 point wOBA advantage against right-handers. If you don’t speak wOBA, the average batting line of the trio against left-handed pitching is an abysmal .222/.289/.332 while against right-handers it’s a robust .300/.379/.502.
If a lefty can also get through Middlebrooks (.273/.328/.455 versus LHP in 2013) in the 9, then there’s another big advantage to be gained against Jacoby Ellsbury in the 1 who struggled against lefties (.246/.323/.318) but pounded right-handers (.328/.374/.489). Red Sox manager John Farrell’s best right-handed options off the bench against lefties are Jonny Gomes who hit a less-than-scary .236/.347/.447 (190 PAs) against LHP and the X-factor, Xander Bogaerts.
If Boston goes with the same lineup, it would make sense to use Smyly either against Ortiz in high-leverage or against 6 through 8 (or even 6 through 1) in each game. This unless the score is lopsided or a starter can somehow get the ball to Benoit. Given the extreme splits, Leyland may also be tempted to give his other lefties the chance to affect an outcome. On top of Smyly’s contribution, there’s at least a quantum mechanical chance that we’ll see Jose Alvarez or Phil Coke nail down some meaningful outs as well. And this is a good thing because, after all, Tiger fans haven’t had nearly enough tense moments this October.