The American League Division Series gets underway on Friday afternoon, as the Boston Red Sox host the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1.
These two AL East foes know one another intimately from years of intra-division battles and plan to exploit that information en route to winning their series opener.
Considering the probable starting pitching matchup, as well as these teams' lineups and managerial styles, we'll identify which specific keys should determine the outcome.
*Stats provided by FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Tampa Bay's Matt Moore has the repertoire to be truly dominant. His fastball, curve and changeup are all effective pitches—when located correctly.
Therein lies the problem: Moore struggles to repeat his delivery. That's why he has posted an underwhelming 4.5 BB/9 this year, uncorked an AL-worst 17 wild pitches and seldom stayed on the mound into the later innings.
Being precise at the start of each plate appearance would have such a more positive impact on Moore's performance.
However, that's easier said then done. Moore ranked dead last in first-pitch strike percentage (50.9 percent) among all 145 MLB pitchers who logged at least 100 innings this season.
Boston's lineup resists temptation about as well as any in the majors. Only the Tampa Bay Rays themselves and the Cleveland Indians chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone in the regular season than the Red Sox. Of course, getting ahead in the count against Boston's batters would make them more likely to go fishing for pitches.
Surprisingly, the 24-year-old excelled against the AL East champs in 2013, shutting them out on July 22. Moore landed on the disabled list shortly after that, however. Since returning to the starting rotation in September, he has been even wilder.
According to FanGraphs, Jacoby Ellsbury has dominated against fastballs this season.
Boston Red Sox batters saw the sixth-lowest percentage of fastballs this season, but took advantage of every opportunity.
Manager John Farrell's offensive juggernaut scored 99.7 runs above average against heaters. By comparison, that's nearly three times as much as the Tampa Bay Rays (36.6 wFB) and a light year ahead of the Los Angeles Angels, whose 65.1 wFB ranked second in the majors.
Boston's excellence in this metric stems from its plate discipline. By laying off undesirable pitches, the Red Sox worked their way to the highest percentage of 3-1 counts in the majors. In those situations, you can usually expect the next pitch to be straight and over the plate.
As Brooks Baseball noted, Matt Moore's velocity has dropped significantly in 2013. If Boston's regulars know the four-seamer is coming, they won't have issues in catching up with it.
Matt Moore and Jose Molina cannot let this become a track meet.
In 15 total innings against the 2013 Boston Red Sox, Matt Moore didn't allow any baserunners to steal their way into scoring position, but that stat can be misleading.
Boston only had nine baserunners in those two matchups against Moore. Several of those batters had reached on extra-base hits and therefore had no motivation to advance further. The others were discouraged to try for second base because the Tampa Bay Rays had jumped out to early leads in both games.
Actually, that was a trend throughout the summer for Moore. The Rays went 21-6 in Moore's starts, which was largely attributable to the average support of 5.57 runs he received per game. Only seven baserunners tried steal against him, but all were successful in advancing.
Overall, the Red Sox stole 123 bases, easily the highest total among the eight remaining playoff teams. They also led baseball in stealing efficiency. Moore has only caught 13.3 percent of basrunners attempting to steal since arriving in the majors.
The lefty has to pay attention to whomever gets on base Friday afternoon by stepping off the mound and trying for pickoffs. That is especially true in the early innings with the score still close and the crowd amped up.
Fenway Park will bombard Moore with boos, but he must show thick skin.
David Ortiz doesn't let Tampa Bay's positioning affect his approach.
The Red Sox have been noticeably less productive against left-handed pitching this year. Making solid contact ought to be especially difficult against someone with Matt Moore's swing-and-miss ability.
On top of that, Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon will try to give Boston even more to think about by implementing dramatic defensive shifts. As MLB.com's Jason Mastrodonato writes, probable Game 1 starters for Boston such as Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have all seen defensive shifts in the past. Maddon tweaks his infield's positioning based on their spray charts and his pitcher's strengths.
However, those sluggers need only worry about hitting the ball with authority. There's no alignment to defend against line drives that thud halfway up the Green Monster.
Meanwhile, Boston's weapons at the top of the order such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia have enough speed to occasionally beat out grounders, regardless of whether or not a Rays fielder gets a glove on them. Once on base, their reputations as efficient base stealers will force Maddon to tone down his shifts.
The Red Sox should approach the Rays as they would any other opponent. That's what enabled them to win 12 of 19 contests against Tampa Bay during the regular season.
Unlike his younger counterpart on the Tampa Bay Rays, Jon Lester isn't going to beat himself.
The longtime starter has been his staff's best pitcher since July. Lester located nearly two-thirds of his pitches for strikes during his final 16 outings of the season, maintaining a 2.38 BB/9 in the process and, not surprisingly, a 2.89 ERA.
The Tampa Bay Rays cannot go into Game 1 hoping that the former All-Star will tire. In 11 of 33 starts this season, Lester has thrown at least 115 pitches and, historically, his performance hasn't dipped in the later innings. Moreover, he'll take the mound on five days' rest. He has been at his best in 2013 under such circumstances.
Teams beat Lester by capitalizing on mistakes over the middle of the plate, especially early in the count. Longer plate appearances favor him because, according to Brooks Baseball, he'll diversify his pitch selection with two strikes to induce awkward swings.
Although Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara have solidified the back end of Boston's bullpen, there's certainly damage to be done against the middle relievers. They include slumping right-hander Junichi Tazawa, as well as Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, both of whom have been used as starters.
Just the sight of Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara infuriates Rays skipper Joe Maddon.
- Uehara for 2013 vs. Rays: 0.00 ERA, .059 BAA, 13/2 K/BB in 10.2 IP
- Uehara for career vs. Rays: 1.91 ERA, .154 BAA, 46/5 K/BB in 37.2 IP
- Current members of the Rays vs. Uehara: .115/.159/.244, 2 HR, 30 K in 82 PA
Let's translate those stats into English. The Japanese right-hander has been virtually untouchable in 2013, Maddon's staff has always struggled to prepare players to face him, and the disciplined batters on the Tampa Bay roster are particularly overmatched against someone who relentlessly pounds the strike zone.
Uehara is extremely well rested with just 28 pitches over two appearances over the past week-and-a-half. If John Farrell's club leads Game 1 going into the eighth inning, he ought to signal for his 38-year-old closer and wannabe gym teacher (h/t Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com) to slam the door on the Rays.