Sox shoot for Hous­ton

Boston Herald - - SPORTS - BASE­BALL NOTES Michael Sil­ver­man

Now that the “Eau de 2011” has stopped em­a­nat­ing from the Red Sox, it’s time to be­gin the deep dive into what’s in store for them next month.

The Red Sox ap­pear locked in to fin­ish the reg­u­lar sea­son as the third-best Amer­i­can League divi­sion win­ner. That could change de­pend­ing on that sea­son-end­ing four-game se­ries with the Astros — whom the Sox trailed by five games as of yes­ter­day — at Fen­way Park, but for the sake of re­al­ity, let’s ask Equifax to freeze the stand­ings where they are. If they do thus fin­ish be­hind both Cleve­land and Hous­ton, that would be a shame for Red Sox play­off for­tunes. No play­off con­tender is bet­ter at home (46-28, .621) and few are worse on the road; short of an up­set by the wild card win­ner, win­ning away from Fen­way will be an Oc­to­ber ne­ces­sity due to lack of home­field ad­van­tage. You can’t pick your op­po­nent in the play­offs, but scout­ing them is manda­tory. With­out over­look­ing the im­pos­si­ble-to-ig­nore Indians, a team no one wants to face at the mo­ment, it’s worth ex­am­in­ing the pros and cons of each po­ten­tial Divi­sion Se­ries op­po­nent, with an em­pha­sis on the Red Sox’ more likely and more beat­able op­po­nent, Hous­ton.

Pros vs. Astros

The age-old recipe for suc­cess in the play­offs is strong pitch­ing, timely of­fense and air­tight de­fense. The Hous­ton pitch­ing is top-notch, ar­guably a tick be­hind the Red Sox staff, and their of­fense is no con­test best in the league.

De­fen­sively, how­ever, the Red Sox hold a de­ci­sive edge. In the big three FanGraphs’ de­fen­sive cat­e­gories — UZR, De­fen­sive Runs Above Av­er­age and De­fen­sive Runs Saved — the Astros rank 14th, 14th and 13th in the AL. The Red Sox are 1st, 1st and 2nd.

Of all the com­par­isons and matchups, that’s the stark­est dif­fer­ence you’ll see. A de­ci­sive edge in a cat­e­gory that nearly al­ways rears its head in the play­offs.

The Red Sox’ out­field de­fense is the best by far in both leagues. The Astros are 10th-best in the AL. In the in­field, the Red Sox rank higher at all four spots. Jose Al­tuve is hav­ing an MVP-cal­iber sea­son with his bat, but he has been a be­low-av­er­age fielder for most of this sea­son (and much of his ca­reer). Dustin Pe­droia places fourth in UZR at sec­ond base this sea­son.

When it comes to ro­ta­tions, it’s ob­vi­ous Justin Ver­lan­der rep­re­sents a boost as im­por­tant to the morale as the bot­tom line of the Astros. The Red Sox’ ro­ta­tion com­pares fa­vor­ably as far as over­all ERA and WAR though, and the teams — along with the Indians — have the three best WHIPs and strike­out rates.

The dif­fer­ence maker is in the walk rate. The Hous­ton starters rank 11th in the league, the re­liev­ers 10th. This year’s ver­sion of the Red Sox don’t draw as many walks as their pre­de­ces­sors, but still rank sixth. Plus, they tend not to strike out. Wait­ing out Astros pitch­ers for hit­table strikes or tak­ing a free base is a bat­tle which should work in the Red Sox’ fa­vor.

Cons vs. Astros

We’ve al­ready noted WAR and ERA, in which the Astros’ ro­ta­tion and bullpen rank third be­hind Cleve­land and the Red Sox.

The Aug. 31 ad­di­tion of Ver­lan­der is hard to mea­sure since he’s so new, but there’s no way to over­state what a 1-2 of Dal­las Keuchel and Ver­lan­der could mean. That’s for­mi­da­ble, and the Astros have good op­tions be­hind in Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh and Char­lie Mor­ton. The Red Sox of­fense is the No. 1 area of con­cern head­ing into the play­offs, and if the Astros’ start­ing pitch­ing can set a dom­i­nat­ing tone against the Red Sox lineup, this se­ries will be done quickly.

No lineup in the league can put as much pres­sure on a pitch­ing staff as the Astros can. This is an of­fen­sive pow­er­house, rank­ing first in runs per game, WAR, dou­bles, bat­ting av­er­age, on-base per­cent­age and slug­ging per­cent­age, plus low­est strike­out rate — even lower than Cleve­land and the Red Sox. They don’t walk much (11th in the league), but they are hit­ting their way on base and knocking those run­ners home. The Red Sox don’t walk many bat­ters any­way and have the sec­ond-best strike­out rate of any team in the league, and it’s im­per­a­tive for the pitch­ers and de­fend­ers to be at the top of their game.

One more rea­son for any team to be wary of the Astros? Hur­ri­cane Har­vey helped rally the team and the com­mu­nity. As the “Bos­ton Strong” 2013 Red Sox can at­test, it’s never wise to down­play in­tan­gi­bles in Oc­to­ber.

Pros vs. Indians

This sec­tion will be short. The Red Sox do hold an edge on Cleve­land when it comes to the three big de­fen­sive cat­e­gories, but it’s only a slight one; Cleve­land de­fend­ers, over­all, are not too far be­hind, but still, it’s some­thing.

Pitch­ing- and of­fen­sive-wise, the Indians hold the edge on the Red Sox. Not to di­min­ish Cleve­land’s su­pe­ri­or­ity in the bullpen and ro­ta­tion, but the dif­fer­ences are not vast. The Red Sox pitch­ing staff is their strength and that’s not an il­lu­sion.

The Red Sox did beat the Indians 4-of-7 times dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, outscor­ing them 46-39. The games were en­ter­tain­ing. Some­times close, some­times blowouts, but the Red Sox do un­der­stand what it takes to beat Cleve­land. The Indians were not this hot when they last played the Red Sox, but the Red Sox need to cling to any shred of hope they can lo­cate.

Cons vs. Indians

This sec­tion will be longer than the pre­vi­ous, but not by a lot. It won’t take too long to enu­mer­ate the ways in which the Indians are bet­ter than, well, vir­tu­ally ev­ery other team.

Of­fen­sively, the Indians hold al­most as much of an edge as the Astros do. No other team in the league draws walks at a higher rate than the Indians, and only the Astros strike out less of­ten. Their OPS trails the Astros by a healthy mar­gin, but leads the Red Sox by an even health­ier mar­gin.

Be­cause of that high walk rate, the Indians of­fense poses just as stiff a chal­lenge to Red Sox pitch­ing as the Astros. Maybe even more.

Pitch­ing-wise, the Indians are as good as it gets. Corey Klu­ber is ev­ery bit the match for Chris Sale, ex­cept Klu­ber’s en­ter­ing Oc­to­ber at his very best while Sale is off his peak. With Car­los Car­rasco and Trevor Bauer back, this is a for­mi­da­ble group of starters that tops what the Red Sox have.

With Andrew Miller back, their bullpen goes from real good to out­stand­ing. Given how mas­ter­ful Terry Fran­cona is at mak­ing pitch­ing moves in the post­sea­son, it’s al­most un­fair the num­ber of tools (not pe­jo­ra­tive) the man­ager has at his dis­posal.

The 2017 Indians took a while to hit their stride, and all wor­ries aside about reach­ing their peak too soon, this is the most bal­anced and tal­ented team in the AL. Prob­a­bly in both leagues. They are slightly bet­ter than last year’s team, which as we all know came so close to top­ping the Cubs.

This year, they are the Cubs. The Red Sox should want no part of them.

Ban­ner mo­ment

That folks got so bent out of shape about that racism ban­ner at Fen­way Park only con­firms the ne­ces­sity of con­tin­u­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about race. And yes, that means ad­dress­ing the topic when it in­ter­sects with sports. Which is of­ten.

One per­son un­furls a ban­ner, an­other takes a knee, some­body else wants to change a street name and an­other per­son speaks her mind about the Pres­i­dent. On and on it goes. Good. We can all dis­agree about the con­tent, style and de­liv­ery of the mes­sage, but these times of­fer way too many ex­am­ples of dis­turb­ing, warped and dan­ger­ous deeds and be­liefs when it comes to neigh­bors do­ing unto neigh­bors what they want done unto them­selves. It would be folly to ex­pect si­lence and it would be folly to want si­lence. Free­dom of ex­pres­sion is still al­lowed, most of the time and in most places. It doesn’t need to be in the field of play dur­ing an ac­tual Red Sox game at Fen­way, but should Fen­way be one site where the con­ver­sa­tion about race should be held?

Ab­so­lutely. This con­ver­sa­tion didn’t just start, and it’s not close to end­ing.

The Price of relief

Putting David Price in the bullpen is such a no-brainer. Even at three-quar­ters health, Price is bet­ter than al­most any­body else in the bullpen — that’s why he’s a starter — and it’s bet­ter to get some­thing from him in Oc­to­ber than noth­ing.

Also, as far as click-bait goes, is there any bet­ter an­gle than Price pitch­ing in the post­sea­son? Even with an as­ter­isk as a re­liever, Price en­ters the cen­ter ring again. It’s much more fun hav­ing him there than any­where else. Maybe it will bring him some fun as well.


COM­ING FOR SEC­ONDS: Dustin Pe­droia and the Astros’ Jose Al­tuve will cer­tainly be smil­ing if their teams avoid the ram­pag­ing Indians.

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