Wednesday, October 7, 2009

(AP Photo)

By Zach Stoloff - Columnist

Unfortunately for me, this is a family-oriented site which won’t allow me to throw out profanities.

But rest assured that if I were able to freely use such derogatory phrases, I’d be heaving more than a few expletives at ESPN’s Pedro Gomez for the absolutely baffling preview he wrote of the impending Angels / Red Sox series.

Mike Lowell over Chone Figgins?

With all due respect to someone who has accomplished far more in their career as a sportswriter than I likely ever will; are you bleeping kidding me?

Chone Figgins will never be the prototypical third baseman. However, he is (arguably) the best leadoff hitter in baseball, while slugger Lowell barely managed an .800 OPS in the games he was actually able to play—and that’s to note nothing of the fact that all those injuries which have limited his playing time have also severely limited his (formerly) great range at the hot corner.

Figgins, meanwhile, was only second in the league in runs scored, reached base more than anyone else in baseball, and could well end up winning his first Gold Glove this offseason. Leadoff hitters are important, right? Ultimately, Figgins fulfilled his role with his team infinitely better than did Lowell.

So while I agree that Lowell and his health may play a big role in determining the outcome of the series, and that a primed and healthy Lowell vastly improves Boston’s chances; is he really the better player going in to this series?

It’s no secret that the Sox have owned the Angels in the playoffs this decade, but some of Mr. Gomez' individual picks in terms of position-by-position matchups for this series have nonetheless left many Angels fans scratching their heads. Subsequently, there’s a rather large elephant in the room, so I’ll just come out and say it:

East Coast Bias.

If journalism is supposed to be truly objective, then Pedro Gomez ought to know—having covered baseball full-time since being assigned to the Oakland A’s for the San Jose Mercury News in 1992—that what happens one season has little bearing on the next.

These are two teams with different makeups than in 2004, 2007, and 2008, individual players find themselves at different stages in their careers, and what has happened in the past should have no influence on making comparisons entering the 2009 playoffs.

While I may write for a self-described Angels fan site, I am also a journalist. I believe this playoff series deserves a more objective treatment than it has received from the Boston-and-New-York-loving sports media. Let’s take a look:

Position Players
Catcher: Mathis and Napoli vs. Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek
It’s been written about by nearly every sports journalist how the Angels are chomping at the bit to start running against the Red Sox backstops. It ought to be very much a concern for Boston. The hope is that Martinez’ bat makes up for any defensive deficiencies, but the Angels are probably going to run wild. Mathis and Napoli, as always, will split the catching duties. And while it’s hard for some to understand why Mathis gets playing time over Napoli’s vastly superior bat, remember: why do guys like Charlie O’Brien and Brad Ausmus play such long careers? Because handling pitchers is a skill the average fan can’t perceive, but it’s still important. Advantage: draw

First Base: Kendry Morales vs. Kevin Youkilis
In 2008, Youkilis broke out to become one of the better-known hitters in MLB, more than for just his legendary patience at the plate. Morales, on the other hand, came in to this season a virtually unknown quantity, but has become the Angels’ best power threat, putting up the second best slugging percentage in the AL. Though Youkilis is the more patient hitter and better defender, Morales’ carries the (slightly) bigger stick, and first base has never been considered and integral defensive position. In terms of postseason experience, Youkilis may have more of it, but has he ever survived eleven attempts seeking political asylum? Advantage: draw

Second Base: Maicer Izuris and Howie Kendrick vs. Dustin Pedroia
While Maicer Izturis has undoubtedly enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2009, and Howie Kendrick has been one of the best hitters in the second half after suffering disastrously before the All Star break, Dustin Pedroia is the reigning MVP, and this season lead the American League in runs. Moreover, his style of game is very much akin to the gritty play of David Eckstein; except with much more talent. The Angels have a great tandem at second base, but Pedroia is the best in the business there. Advantage: Red Sox

Third Base: Chone Figgins vs. Mike Lowell
I’ve already spent far too long discussing this matchup. Pedro Gomez, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Advantage: Angels

Shortstop: Erik Aybar vs. Álex González
The Red Sox did much to improve this position by acquiring Álex González from the Cincinnati Reds, but his offense has probably surpassed their wildest expectations. Aybar, conversely, came into this season not sure if he would still be sharing the shortstop duties with Izturis, but has thoroughly established himself as one of the best in the game on both ends of the ball, subsequently winning himself an everyday role. Advantage: Angels

Left Field: Juan Rivera vs. Jason Bay
Rivera’s numbers always looked good in limited duty, good enough, in fact, to warrant regular playing time. Now that he’s gotten it, he’s established himself as a key power cog to the Angels lineup. Bay, however, despite alarming streakiness over the course of the season, is still a top-flight hitter who fits well in Fenway, and is far and away the better defender. Advantage: Red Sox

Center Field: Torii Hunter vs. Jacoby Ellsbury
If not for an unfortunate groin injury caused by his own selfless play, we’d probably be calling 2009 Hunter’s finest season, and possibly be interjecting his name into the MVP race. And while Ellsbury has become the ‘Sox everyday centerfielder, his speed is heads and tails his best asset. Otherwise, he’s a so-so leadoff hitter, not reaching base as much as you’d expect, nor as good a defender as the man he replaced—CoCo Crisp. Advantage: Angels

Right Field: Bobby Abreu vs. J.D. Drew
This all comes down to which Drew shows up. While he’s capable of carrying a team at times, and always an unnervingly patient hitter—much like Abreu—he can also look like the most apathetic man in Major League Baseball. Abreu, meanwhile, did in 2009 what he does every year: drive in 100 runs and get on base at a nearly .400 clip. Nonetheless, Drew’s .522 slugging percentage shouldn’t be overlooked—nearly .100 points higher than Abreu. Advantage: draw

Designated Hitter: Vladimir Guerrero vs. David Ortiz
Here is the tale of two hitters resurrecting themselves in the second half. However, while Ortiz’ first half was downright abominable, that only made his second half all the more impressive. Guerrero’s latter half, meanwhile, has gone largely unappreciated, but even his post-All Star number are remarkably similar to Ortiz’. He my not look pretty doing it, but adjusted for 500 at bats, Guerrero would have made a good run at continuing his streak of seasons with at least 25 home runs and a .300 batting average. The sports media pays more attention to Ortiz, but look at the stats. Advantage: draw

Starting Rotation
This comes down to the question of what do you like better; the Red Sox’ front two guys, or the Angels’ depth one through four. Boston has the advantage in games one and two—no team in baseball can match that leadoff punch of Lester and Beckett. However, Lackey and Weaver are fine pitchers, minimizing the advantage. In games three and four, the Angels can throw out two lefties, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders, who have great histories at Fenway. Matching up against the untested Clay Buchholz and possibly Lester on short rest, the Angels advantage in those latter two games is bigger than the ‘Sox in the first two. If the Angels aren’t playing catch-up in the series, that could be huge. Advantage: draw

The biggest difference makers here are clearly the closers. Simply, Papelbon trumps Fuentes. However, what’s underappreciated right now is how much both team’s setup roles are unsettled. Two lefties—Darren Oliver and Billy Wagner—are the clubs’ only real consistencies in that role. Saito, Okajima, Bard, and Delcarmen all have question marks next to their names for the ‘Sox, as do Jepsen and Bulger for the Angels. Going into this series Boston has the advantage, but here’s guessing that this series will come down to how well the bullpens perform. Advantage: Red Sox

Intangibles? What intangibles? If I were more sentimental perhaps I’d mention something about the Angels playing for Nick Adenhart (which, don’t get me wrong, would make a great story if they advance), or the Red Sox being in the heads of the Angels. Unfortunately, I don’t believe those sorts of things have anything to do with what happens on the field in 2009. We don’t need no stinkin’ intangibles.

So there you have it. By 6:37 P.M. tomorrow all of this guessing and speculating will be meaningless. There’s nothing left to say besides: Go Angels!

And oh yeah, shame on you, Pedro Gomez.
Love to hear what you think!


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