ALDS Preview: Red Sox vs. Angels

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Here we go again.
For the third straight season, the wild-card winning Red Sox and AL West champion Angels will match up in the ALDS. The Red Sox have gone through the Angels on the way to their last three World Series visits in 1986, 2004 and 2007. They also won last year’s series, only to lose to the Rays in the ALCS in seven games. Before the Angels salvaged Game 3 in last year’s ALDS, the Red Sox had defeated them in 11 straight postseason contests, dating back to Game 5 in the 1986 ALCS.
While the 2004 and 2007 series seemed like routs, the 2008 ALDS was well played. The Red Sox won the first two on the road 4-1 and 7-5, but the Angels bounced back to take Game 3 in 12 innings, winning 5-4. Boston won the finale on 3-2 on Jed Lowrie’s single in the bottom of the ninth.
2009 ALDS Probables
Game 1: Jon Lester vs. John Lackey
Game 2: Josh Beckett vs. Jered Weaver
Game 3: Scott Kazmir vs. Clay Buchholz
Game 4: Joe Saunders vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka
Game 5: Jon Lester vs. John Lackey
The Yankees have chosen the longer ALDS series, leaving the Red Sox and Angels to use four-man rotations. The first look at the matchups suggests that the Red Sox are going to have the advantage in Anaheim and the Angels in Boston.
Lester vs. Lackey
Lackey’s struggles against Boston are well known, but his worst outings have come at Fenway. He’s 2-5 with a 5.75 ERA in nine starts in Boston and 1-2 with a 4.45 ERA in five starts at home. In the postseason, he’s gone 0-2 with a 3.66 ERA in three starts against the Red Sox (one in 2007, two last year). The Angels scored a total of three runs in those three games.
Lester’s postseason career opened in brilliant fashion. In his first start, he pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings to beat the Rockies in the clincher of the 2007 World Series. He then yielded just one unearned run in 14 innings to win twice against the Angels in the ALDS last year. The ALCS didn’t go so well, as he was beaten twice, but has a 2.25 ERA in 36 career postseason innings.
The Angels have given Lester big problems in the regular season. He’s 1-1 with a 7.78 ERA and a .393 average against in four starts versus the team. Still, all of those came before last year’s dominant postseason performance. Lester has been one of the AL’s very best pitchers for four months running, going 11-3 with a 2.40 ERA in 21 starts since the beginning of June. He finished third in the league with 225 strikeouts.
Lackey was also on a nice run, though he stumbled in his final three starts. He ended the year 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA. He was down to 3.47 following a solid outing in Boston on Sept. 15, but he allowed 12 earned runs over 13 innings in his following three starts.
Beckett vs. Weaver
Beckett’s postseason star lost some luster when he amassed an 8.79 ERA in three starts against the Angels and Rays last year. However, he was dealing with a torn oblique then and he’s still 7-2 with a 2.90 ERA lifetime in October. Unfortunately, he’s again not at his best headed into the ALDS. Beckett opened the year 14-4 with a 3.10 ERA, but he’s gone 3-2 with a 6.02 ERA since. He just missed a start with back spasms.
Weaver’s recent performance has also left a great deal to be desired. He started off 7-2 with a 2.08 ERA, but he went 9-6 with a 5.01 ERA in his last 20 starts. He was better than that during September, coming in with a 3.11 ERA, but he was helped somewhat by an easy schedule, as his wins came against the Royals, Mariners and A’s. Weaver did impress in his starts against Boston did year. Both came during his spectacular first two months. He allowed one unearned run over 6 2/3 innings to win April 10 and one run over seven innings in a no-decision on May 12.
The start for Weaver will be just the second of his career in the postseason. He lost to Boston after allowing two runs over five innings in Game 3 in 2007. The Angels left him out of their postseason rotation last year.
Kazmir vs. Buchholz
It looked like the Red Sox have overcome their issues with Kazmir when the left-hander went 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in four starts against the team in 2008. However, Kazmir won both of his starts against the team this year and those came when he was a struggling Ray. He had a 1.73 ERA in his six starts with the Angels after posting a 5.92 ERA in 20 outings to begin the year. Kazmir is 8-7 with a 3.59 ERA lifetime against the Red Sox. He’s faced them 23 times, nine more times than he has any other team.
Just when the Red Sox were beginning to find some confidence in Buchholz, he went and turned in two stinkers at the end of the year. On Sept. 29, he gave up five homers and seven runs in five innings against the Blue Jays. On the final day of the season, he allowed six runs over three innings versus the Indians.
Before that, Buchholz was 7-3 with a 3.21 ERA. He’s still allowed one or no runs in seven of his last 11 starts. He’ll be pitching in the postseason for the first time in his career.
Saunders vs. Matsuzaka
The Angels can start a 16-game winner in Game 4. Saunders finished with a 4.60 ERA, but that was mostly the result of a bad midseason run in which he was pitching with a sore shoulder. He had a 3.26 ERA in April and May and a 2.55 ERA in eight starts after coming off the DL in mid-August. He’s also 4-1 with a 3.24 ERA lifetime in eight starts against Boston.
Matsuzaka just recently secured his postseason rotation spot. In four starts after returning from a second round of shoulder issues, he went 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA. One of those wins came against the Angels, as he blanked the team for six innings on Sept. 15. He’s still putting plenty of runners on base — his WHIP since returning is 1.40 — but he’s remarkable in his ability to pitch out of jams. For the year, he has a .398 average against with the bases empty and a .254 mark with men on. He hasn’t allowed a hit with the bases loaded since 2007. In the postseason, he’s 3-1 with a 4.79 ERA.
The offenses
The Angels and Red Sox are second and third respectively in the AL in runs per game, behind only the Yankees. One would expect the Red Sox to have modest advantages in OBP and slugging, which the Angels would then make up for with the speed and situational hitting. However, there isn’t much of a difference. The Red Sox have a .352 OBP and a .454 slugging percentage, compared to .350 and .441 for the Angels. That’s not accounting for the difference that Fenway Park makes in Boston’s numbers.
The Angels do hit for a higher average, of course. They led the American League at .285, while the Red Sox came in at .270.
We’ll see how much of that advantage carries over to the ALDS. Vladimir Guerrero, Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick have made a habit of wilting under the spotlight. Kendrick will likely only play against Lester, with the Angels preferring Maicer Izturis at second base for his defense. We don’t really know about Kendry Morales yet, but the Red Sox did hold him to a .200 average, no homers and two RBI in nine games this season. He fanned 12 times in 35 at-bats.
The Red Sox will have their full complement of players ready for the ALDS, though whether Mike Lowell (hip, thumb), J.D. Drew (shoulder) and Alex Gonzalez (hand) are truly healthy remains in question. Drew, at least, did his best to show he’s ready by smacking two homers on Sunday.
Also important for Boston is that both David Ortiz and Jason Bay are entering October rather hot. Ortiz hit .284/.390/.557 with six homers during September, while Bay came in at .299/.390/.598 with seven homers. Dustin Pedroia is also showing signs of life, having homered on both Saturday and Sunday.
Numbers
Angels won season series 5-4
Angels outscored Red Sox 44-40
Runs per game
Angels: 5.45
BoSox: 5.38
Runs allowed per game
Angels: 4.70
BoSox: 4.54
Bullpen ERA:
Angels: 4.49
BoSox: 3.80
Defensive efficiency
Angels: 17th in MLB
BoSox: 18th in MLB
Overrated angle
Angels basestealers vs. Red Sox catchers
It will certainly be a big subject on the telecasts. Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek are poor throwers, and the Angels have several guys who can steal a base. The Angels probably will do plenty of running if they can get a lot guys on base. But if they can get a lot of guys on base, they’re likely to fare well regardless.
What won’t get as much play is that the Red Sox should have some success there, too. The Angels stole 23 more bases than the Red Sox this year, but they were caught 24 more times. In fact, they led the league in times caught at 63.
Jeff Mathis, who has been doing more catching than Mike Napoli because of his defense, threw out 26 percent of basestealers this year. His career mark is 23 percent. Napoli was at 22 percent this year and 23 percent for his career. Combined, they allowed 126 steals and threw out 41 runners.
Martinez is expected to be Boston’s top catcher in the postseason, with Varitek perhaps not playing more than once a series. Martinez threw out just two of 19 basestealers for the Red Sox. However, 10 of those 17 successful steals came in Tim Wakefield starts and Wakefield won’t be pitching against the Angels. With conventional pitchers on the mound, Martinez has allowed seven steals in eight attempts over 27 games caught with the Red Sox.
So, yeah, the Angels should have an advantage here. Whether it’s a significant one will hinge on their ability to retire Jacoby Ellsbury. In the end, it typically comes down to who gets the most guys on base, not what the players do once they’re there.
Underrated angle
Banged-up Angels bullpen
Brian Fuentes’ struggles have been well publicized, but the Angels still had to be feeling good about the way things were setting up with power right-handers Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger mowing down hitters. Unfortunately, that’s all changed of late. Bulger, who had a 2.03 ERA in 31 innings from July through September, gave up two runs on Saturday and then complained of right shoulder tightness. He had a similar issue in late August that caused him to take a week off. Jepsen, who has given up eight runs in eight innings, has been experiencing dead-arm issues, according the Angels.
If those two aren’t 100 percent, then the Angels figure to have major problems in the latter innings. They may well end up giving key frames to Ervin Santana, who was left out of the rotation despite hurling a shutout against the Rangers in his final start of the season. It’d be risky, given Santana’s lack of experience as a reliever, but the payoff could be big.
Prediction
Red Sox in 4
With a number of question marks following in the rotation, the Red Sox will badly need Lester to set the tone in Game 1. Lester, though, has already made a habit of coming up big in his young career. He’s the better pitcher than Lackey, and even in Lackey’s good outings against the Red Sox, he always allowed a couple of runs.
If the Red Sox prevail in Game 1, then they can afford another off outing from Beckett or Buchholz, if not necessarily both. Their home-field advantage is as big as any in baseball, which should help a bunch in those Game 3 and Game 4 matchups that would seem to favor the Angels.

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport was made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez attempted to defect to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.