08 October 2008

2008 American League Championship Series Preview

American League Championship Series (ALCS)

The Boston Red Sox (95-67) will meet the Tampa Bay Rays (97-65) Friday night for the first of a best-of-seven series to decide the Junior Circuit pennant winner. Despite the fact that the Red Sox finished two games behind the Rays in the AL East, the odds are considered to be slightly in the Red Sox favor, for a number of reasons.

First of all, the Red Sox finished best in the American League in Run Differential, scoring 151 more runs than they allowed over the course of the season. Tampa Bay was only +103, and therefore would have been expected to win only 92 games rather than 97, based on the Pythagenport expectations. It's worth noting, however, that the best run differential in MLB belonged to the Chicago Cubs, who were swept by the lowly Dodgers. Things can happen.

The Rays have the best Relative Power Index, an indication of how well they did and how strong their opponents were, but they just barely edge out the Red Sox, so that's probably a moot point. Besides that, nobody on the Tampa team is an MVP or Cy Young candidate, so there's really nobody that you'd have to single out as an opponent to focus on beating.

Baseball Prospectus' Secret Sauce would suggest that the Red Sox, ranking 1st overall, should win this series, as the rays ranked just 6th in the majors, slightly ahead of the (ick) Royals. Secret Sauce is a metric that incorporates teams' adjusted strikeout rate, defense and the strength of their closer into a single number, which is the sum of the ranks of those three, so lower = better. Boston's total of 16 (6th in defense, 1st in K rate, 9th in closer strength) is the lowest in MLB, while Tampa (1+10+21, respectively) didn't rate nearly as well.

It's an interesting thought, though somewhat limited in its usefulness, as you might expect. You see, Secret Sauce adds up dissimilar items into a single number, without giving priority to one or the other. While it makes sense that teams that play good defense, strike out more batters and have a good closer will win more in October than other teams, the Secret Sauce number doesn't acknowledge the impact of these separate skills. having the best closer in the league, for example, doesn't do you much good if you never have a late lead to protect, as the Dodgers found out in 2004.

Last year's World Series winner, the Red Sox, ranked first overall in Secret Sauce, and by a healthy margin. Meanwhile, the NL representative in the October Dance, the Rockies, ranked 20th overall, but first in fielding. That defense, perhaps, got them all the way to the World Series, but wasn't enough against a team that could hit and field and pitch like the Red Sox. Since 1993, only three teams that have led MLB in Secret Sauce wound up winning the World Series, but two of them were the Red Sox, in 2004 and 2007. The other was Arizona in 2001, and it's worth mentioning that the 1998 and 1999 Yankees finished a very close second each time.

At least one if not both World Series teams has been ranked in the top four in Secret Sauce every year since 1988 except 2003 and 2006, that is, nearly 90% of the time, and Boston's the only team left from that quartet.

Tampa Bay won 10 of 18 contests between the two teams in 2008, but curiously enough, both teams showed significant home field advantages in the season series. In their nine games at The Trop, the Rays went 8-1 against Boston, scoring a total of 42 runs and allowing 33. By comparison, Boston went 7-2 at Fenway Park against the upstart Rays, and they dominated in those contests, 54-25.

Thanks to their record, the Rays have home field advantage in this series, but that's only one game's difference. Therefore, I think, if the Red Sox can win one game in St. Petersburg, the series will never make it back there. They'll finish off the Rays in Boston, 4-1.

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