Heading into the 2013 MLB postseason, the Boston Red Sox profile as the favorite in the American League due to a relentless offensive attack that wears down starting pitching, forcing opposing managers into early pitching changes thereby limiting their ability to go with a shorter bullpen rotation.
During the regular season, Boston ranked at or near the top of many offensive categories. The following chart shows why they will be so difficult for opposing staffs over the next month.
Before you point out the simplistic nature of the idea, take a look back at Boston's season. Not many teams had success against the Red Sox offense, but the two that did, Kansas City and Oakland, did it by sharing the same values that the AL Wild Card team will need to take into October.
In 13 games against the Royals and Athletics, Boston went 5-8. In the 149 games against everyone else, Boston was an impressive 92-57.
Before chalking up those numbers to small sample vs. big sample, random moments in a long season or the byproduct of factors outside of the offense's control, consider this: Boston averaged 5.41 runs per game in the 149 contests against everyone outside of Kansas City and Oakland. In the 13 games against the opponents in our study the number dropped to 3.53.
The four respective series against Kansas City and Oakland occurred in April and August, ruling out a bad week or two in a certain part of the season. These games were random in the grand scheme of 162, but worth another look when assessing what the wild-card winner needs to do when entering Fenway Park later this week.
In total, seven starters (James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen, A.J. Griffin, Bartolo Colon, Brett Anderson and Jarrod Parker) toed the rubber for the 13 contests in discussion. During their time on the hill against the Boston lineup, those seven starters posted 58 strikeouts to 19 walks. That number was good for a better than 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
For the entire season, opposing pitchers totaled a 2.2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Red Sox lineup. Probably unbeknownst to most baseball fans, Kansas City and Oakland uncovered the secret to keeping Boston's offense at bey: limit free passes.
Of course, strikeout-to-walk ratios can be misleading when one factors in power pitching. Outside of James Shields' eight-strikeout performance against Boston in late April, no other starter between the Kansas City and Oakland staffs recorded more than seven strikeouts. Among the 13 starts studied, the starters for those two teams averaged fewer than five punch outs per outing.
The key was also limiting free passes that drives up the collective on-base percentage for Boston's lineup.
Due to a lineup that will work deep counts and take walks, Boston boasts eight regular hitters who finished the season with OBP's of at least .333. Including interleague games and the at-bats of part-time players, Boston posted a .349 on-base percentage.
While the lineup is dangerous when pitches are left out over the plate, extensive damage is done when those hits are accompanied by walks.
Boston's 2013 lineup reminds me of the late-'90s New York Yankees. While there is power (David Ortiz) and speed (Jacoby Ellsbury), the strength of the attack lies in the consistent hitting approach up and down the lineup. Those Yankees—as did the 2013 Red Sox—wore down opposing starters this season who attempted to be too fine, too precise and too perfect with their control.
Pitch recognition in October is the difference between a five- or a seven-inning outing for a top starter. As those great Yankee teams showed over and over again, batting two extra innings against relievers can be the difference between a win and loss in October.
With the American League Division Series set to begin this weekend, here is a look at the command and control numbers for the potential starters in the rotation for each AL wild-card contender.
As you can see, both teams have pitchers (David Price, Corey Kluber) with impeccable SO/BB numbers. Those are the types of arms that can shut down Boston and swing a series to the side of an underdog.
Of course, both teams have top-of-the-rotation arms (Matt Moore, Ubaldo Jimenez) who have bouts of inconsistency with control and command. They can dominate poor or mediocre lineups but will need more than just raw stuff to navigate Boston's fierce lineup.
The blueprint is set for the American League wild-card winner to walk into Boston and make the ALDS a series. By attacking an excellent lineup with strikes, the Red Sox greatest strength will be diluted, potentially evening the American League postseason field.