Tampa Bay vs. Boston: ALDS 2013 Position-by-Position Breakdown

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2013

Tampa Bay vs. Boston: ALDS 2013 Position-by-Position Breakdown

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    When the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox open play in the American League Division Series at 3:07 p.m. ET in Fenway Park on Friday, there will be no surprises in store for either side. After spending the last six months battling for AL East supremacy, few teams know each other as well as the Rays and BoSox do.

    You have to go back five years to the 2008 ALCS to find the last time these division rivals met in the postseason, a series that went seven games and ended with David Price picking up the save in Game 7 for series MVP Matt Garza.

    But that was then. Now, Garza is in Texas, Price is one of the game's premier starting pitchers and anything is possible in this five-game. Which team is going to come out on top?

    To figure that out, we first need to look at the talent on both sides of the field and figure out which side has the advantage around the horn. We'll look at regular-season numbers, head-to-head numbers, past playoff performance and skill of the key players involved.

    Let's take a look at how it all shakes out.

    *Defensive statistics courtesy of FanGraphs; all other statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

    *Reserves are only mentioned if likely to make more than a cameo appearance in the series.

Catcher: Jose Molina vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Jose Molina (TB).233.290.59416 (2)182263
    Jarrod Saltalamacchia (BOS).273.338.80454 (14)6543139

    Jose Molina is an excellent game-caller who does a terrific job of framing pitches, but he offers little to nothing at the plate, where he struggles to get on base and doesn't have much in the way of power.

    While Jarrod Saltalamacchia pales in comparison to Molina defensively, he's a solid defensive backstop and is eons ahead of Molina when it comes to producing at the plate.

    Against most other opponents, Saltalamacchia's inability to control the running game—he allowed an MLB-high 89 stolen bases—would be a major problem. But Tampa Bay isn't a running team, with only 73 steals on the season and just two players—Desmond Jennings (20) and Ben Zobrist (11)—who stole at least 10 bases. That makes Saltalamacchia's biggest weakness far less of an issue.

    Both teams have capable backups, with Jose Lobaton swinging a livelier bat than Molina and David Ross a better defender than Saltalamacchia, but Boston has the clear advantage behind the plate in this series.

    Advantage: Boston

First Base: James Loney vs. Mike Napoli

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    James Loney (TB).299.348.77846 (13)754477
    Mike Napoli (BOS).259.360.84263 (23)9273187

    When comparing the starting first basemen in this series, it comes down to a matter of personal preference.

    Do you prefer your first baseman to be a smooth fielder and consistent contact hitter with limited power, like James Loney? Or would you rather have a smooth fielder with big-time power but who is as apt to go down on strikes as he is to go downtown, like Mike Napoli?

    Napoli is a better defender than Loney, leading all qualified first basemen in UZR/150 (13.3) and posting 10 defensive runs saved, six more than his counterpart in the Rays dugout. That, coupled with his game-changing power, gives him the edge over the more consistent but less dangerous Loney.

    Advantage: Boston

Second Base: Ben Zobrist vs. Dustin Pedroia

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Ben Zobrist (TB).275.354.75651 (12)717291
    Dustin Pedroia (BOS).301.372.78753 (9)847375

    He's a solid all-around player who fields the position well and has a knack for getting on base.

    We could be talking about either Ben Zobrist or Dustin Pedroia with that statement, and while their regular-season numbers are incredibly close this year, historically Pedroia has been the superior hitter in the postseason:

    Zobrist17.237.298.6253 (1)24/10
    Pedroia28.252.344.80414 (5)1814/12

    Zobrist's production drops off significantly in the playoffs, and it's that drop-off that confirms what we already know: Ben Zobrist is good, but Dustin Pedroia is better.

    Advantage: Boston

Third Base: Evan Longoria vs. Will Middlebrooks

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Evan Longoria (TB).269.343.84274 (32)8870162
    Will Middlebrooks (BOS).227.271.69635 (17)492098

    The impatience and inconsistent approach at the plate that forced Boston to demote Will Middlebrooks to the minor leagues earlier this season has returned, with the 25-year-old hitting only .138/.153/.259 over his last 15 games.

    Not that a sensational hot streak, like the .368/.434/.621 slash line that he posted over his first 26 games upon his return to Boston back in early August, would have helped him in a head-to-head battle with Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay's franchise player.

    Longoria is better than Middlebrooks in every aspect of the game, especially in the field, where Longoria is widely considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the game (16.2 UZR/150 in 2013, fourth-best in the majors). With a track record of producing in the clutch, he needs to produce if Tampa Bay has any chance in this series.

    Big Advantage: Tampa Bay

Shortstop: Yunel Escobar vs. Stephen Drew

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Yunel Escobar (TB).256.332.69837 (9)565773
    Stephen Drew (BOS).253.333.77750 (13)6754124

    Yunel Escobar might be the best defensive shortstop in the American League, but Stephen Drew is no slouch with the glove—and his power makes him a more dangerous hitter than Escobar.

    That said, neither one has done well against the other's team this year, with Escobar hitting .231 with a .650 OPS in 19 games against Boston, while Drew has an even worse .188 average and .575 OPS in 18 games against Tampa Bay.

    It's a push between the two, with Drew's power advantage and Escobar's edge with the glove canceling each other out.

    Advantage: Even

Left Field: David DeJesus vs. Jonny Gomes

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    David DeJesus (TB).251.327.72940 (8)383979
    Jonny Gomes (BOS).247.344.77130 (13)524389

    Both teams employ a platoon in left field, with David DeJesus and Matt Joyce (.235/.328, .747 OPS, 18 HR, 47 RBI) splitting time for Tampa Bay and Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava (.303/.385, .831 OPS, 12 HR, 66 RBI) handling the duties for Boston.

    While Tampa Bay has the advantage defensively, with DeJesus being the best defender out of the group, he leaves something to be desired at the plate, as does Joyce, who hit .089 (5-for-56) over his last 21 games of the season.

    Neither Gomes nor Nava is a plus defender, but the two are significantly bigger threats at the plate than Tampa Bay's duo, giving the Red Sox a slight advantage at the position.

    Advantage: Boston

Center Field: Desmond Jennings vs. Jacoby Ellsbury

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Desmond Jennings (TB).252.334.74851 (14)5464115
    Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS).298.355.78148 (9)534792

    Both Desmond Jennings (hamstring) and Jacoby Ellsbury (foot) enter the ALDS with injury concerns, but healthy or injured, Ellsbury is the superior talent both at the plate and in the field.

    MLB's stolen base leader with 52 swipes in 56 attempts, Ellsbury can impact the game in multiple ways, none bigger than in the field, where his 12.9 UZR/150 and 13 DRS put him among the five best defensive center fielders in the game.

    Jennings might have slightly more power than Ellsbury, but he's a below-average defender and doesn't use his speed to cause problems when he gets on base, with only five of his 20 stolen bases on the season coming after the All-Star break.

    Advantage: Boston

Right Field: Wil Myers vs. Shane Victorino

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Wil Myers (TB).293.354.83136 (13)533391
    Shane Victorino (BOS).294.351.80143 (15)612575

    The likely American League Rookie of the Year, Wil Myers has a world of potential and has become a dangerous hitter in the middle of Tampa Bay's lineup.

    But Shane Victorino has years of experience over his younger counterpart, and the veteran has re-established himself as one of the game's premier defensive outfielders this season, leading all right fielders with a 35.3 UZR/150. Additionally, his 24 DRS trailed only Arizona's Gerardo Parra (36 DRS) for the MLB lead at the position.

    His defensive acumen, along with his quality numbers at the plate, gives Victorino the edge over Myers.

    Advantage: Boston

Designated Hitter: Delmon Young vs. David Ortiz

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Delmon Young (TB).258.329.7806 (3)769
    David Ortiz (BOS).309.395.95970 (30)1037688

    While Delmon Young has been solid in his return to Tampa Bay and has a tendency to elevate his game in the postseason, hitting .280/.330/598 with nine home runs and 16 RBI over his last 22 playoff games (dating back to 2011 with Detroit), he can't compete with David Ortiz.

    Big Papi remains one of the premier sluggers in baseball, one that led Boston in batting average, OPS, home runs and RBI during the regular season. 

    Big Advantage: Boston

Starting Rotations

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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Tampa Bay65-473.811.24965.12.687.40

    (See bottom of slide for individual pitching matchups)

    Led by reigning AL Cy Young Award-winner David Price, Tampa Bay brings a young, talented rotation into the series that is capable of hanging with the more experienced starters that Boston will be countering with.

    Matt Moore and Alex Cobb are two of the brightest young arms in the game, as is Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 7.1 K/9), who is likely to throw out of the bullpen after hitting a bit of a wall toward the end of the season, failing to pitch out of the fourth inning in either of his final two starts.

    Jeremy Hellickson will take Archer's place in the playoff rotation, and while his overall numbers on the year aren't good, he found success against the Red Sox, pitching to a 3.44 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in three starts against the AL East champions.

    Boston counters with four veteran starters, including a pair of resurgent southpaws in Jon Lester and John Lackey, both whom are worthy of consideration for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.

    While it's tempting to call this a tie, Tampa Bay emerges with a slight advantage due to Price and Cobb's dominant performances down the stretch that helped get the Rays into the postseason.

    Advantage: Tampa Bay

    ALDS Pitching Matchups

    Expected StartPitcher (Throws)W-LERAWHIPIPBB/K
    Game 1 (TB)Matt Moore (L)17-43.291.30150.176/143
    Game 1* (BOS)Jon Lester (L)15-83.751.29213.167/177
    Game 2* (TB)David Price (L)10-83.331.10186.227/151
    Game 2 (BOS)John Lackey (R)10-133.521.16189.140/161
    Game 3 (TB)Alex Cobb (R)11-32.761.15143.145/134
    Game 3 (BOS)Clay Buchholz (R)12-11.741.02108.136/96
    Game 4 (TB)Jeremy Hellickson (R)12-105.171.35174.050/135
    Game 4 (BOS)Jake Peavy (R)4-14.041.1664.219/45

    *Game 5, if necessary, would pit David Price against Jon Lester.


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    2013 Regular-Season Stats

    Tampa Bay27-243.591.21498.23.509.30

    Few managers are as good at managing their bullpens as Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon, who uses a bevy of talented middle relievers to near perfection.

    Joel Peralta (3.41 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9.34 K/9) and Jake McGee (4.02 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 10.77 K/9) have been better than their numbers would indicate, while southpaw Alex Torres (1.71 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.62 K/9) has thrived as a long man out of the pen.

    Closer Fernando Rodney hasn't had the superhuman season that he had in 2012, but he's been solid, pitching to a 3.38 ERA and 1.04 WHIP while striking out more than a batter per inning and converting 37 of 45 save opportunities.

    For Boston, Koji Uehara has thrived since taking over as closer, converting 21 of 24 save opportunities while pitching to a minuscule 1.09 ERA and 0.59 WHIP and averaging more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings of work, making him one of the team's best offseason acquisitions.

    Left-hander Craig Breslow (1.81 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 4.98 K/9) and righty Junichi Tazawa (3.16 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.48 K/9) have been excellent, but the rest of Boston's bullpen has been shaky at best.

    Advantage: Tampa Bay

ALDS Prediction

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    While Tampa Bay may have the edge in the pitching department, it's nowhere near a big enough advantage to erase the massive advantage that Boston has on offense, both with its starting lineup and bench players.

    No team in baseball scored as many runs (853) or had a higher on-base percentage (.349), OPS (.795) or run differential (plus-187) than the Red Sox did. Couple that with Boston holding home-field advantage—and owning the American League's best home record (53-28), and the Rays find themselves behind the proverbial eight-ball before the ALDS even gets underway.

    Prediction: Boston wins in four games