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Why Rays possess Red Sox’ kryptonite: The truth about Red Sox and left-handed starters

10.04.13 at 1:40 pm ET
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Rays left-handers David Price and Matt Moore could pose a problem for the Red Sox. (AP)

Rays left-handers David Price and Matt Moore could pose a problem for the Red Sox. (AP)

The Red Sox enjoyed a year of tremendous consistency, and so it should come as little surprise that the team experienced comparable success against both left-handed and right-handed starters. The team had a .602 winning percentage in games started by opposing right-handed pitchers and a .593 mark in contests where the opposing starter was a left-hander.

On the surface, that balanced performance would suggest that the team should not have particular discomfort with the idea of facing Rays left-handers Matt Moore and David Price in Games 1 and 2 (and, potentially, Game 5) of the best-of-five American League Division Series — particularly given that the team won 10 straight games against left-handed starters from Aug. 21 through Sept. 14, before a three-game dip in the season’s final two weeks, after the team had effectively clinched the division.

But the reality was that, against the top half of left-handed starters — a group that includes Price and Moore — the Sox were typically overmatched. Their 10-game winning streak did include a pair of impressive wins against some of the better lefties in the game (Price and Hyun-Jin Ryu), but the victory over Price was a credit primarily to the Sox’ pitching, on a night when Price allowed two runs in eight innings while punching out nine and walking none. That sort of dominance was par for the course among the better left-handed starters in big leagues.

Put another way: There were 32 left-handed pitchers this year who logged at least 150 innings. Here they are, sorted from best to worst ERA:

Rk Player ERA
1 Clayton Kershaw 1.83
2 Madison Bumgarner 2.77
3 Cliff Lee 2.87
4 Hyun-jin Ryu 3.00
5 Francisco Liriano 3.02
6 Chris Sale 3.07
7 Travis Wood 3.10
8 Mike Minor 3.21
9 Matt Moore 3.29
10 David Price 3.33
11 Gio Gonzalez 3.36
12 C.J. Wilson 3.39
13 Patrick Corbin 3.41
14 Derek Holland 3.42
15 Jorge De La Rosa 3.49
16 Jose Quintana 3.51
17 Jeff Locke 3.52
18 Wade Miley 3.55
19 Cole Hamels 3.60
20 Andy Pettitte 3.74
21 Jon Lester 3.75
22 Eric Stults 3.93
23 Jason Vargas 4.02
24 Scott Kazmir 4.04
25 Tommy Milone 4.14
26 Mark Buehrle 4.15
27 Felix Doubront 4.32
28 Paul Maholm 4.41
29 Erik Bedard 4.59
30 CC Sabathia 4.78
31 Dallas Keuchel 5.15
32 Joe Saunders 5.26
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
Generated 10/4/2013.

So, if one limits the Sox’ performance only to the top 50 percent (16 of those 32) starters, what happens? Some hellacious numbers.

The Sox had 15 contests against the top 16 left-handed starters from that group. The team actually did reasonably well overall, going 8-7, but that was largely despite the performance of the lineup against those lefties rather than because of it. In those 15 games, the opposing starters had a combined 2.37 ERA. Sox hitters against that sweet 16 of left-handed starters had a shockingly bad .213 average with a .255 OBP and .298 slugging mark.

Of course, one would expect the top tier of left-handed starters to dominate everyone, not just the Sox. And to a degree, that’s true — but they didn’t do so to the extent that they shut down Boston. As a group, that gang of 16 had a combined 3.11 ERA on the season — but against the Sox, they performed to a level exceeded on an individual level only by Kershaw.

That represents a considerable difference from what the Sox did against top right-handed pitchers. There were 64 right-handed starters who threw 150 or more innings. Against the top 32, the Sox basically played them to a draw (going 14-13) but their road to victory was typically paved by a lineup that did some damage to those starters, regardless of pedigree. In 27 games, those starters had a combined 4.78 ERA, with a combined batting average of .290, an OBP of .350 and a slugging mark of .414.

The Sox hit better-than-average right-handed starters. They did nothing against the upper 50 percent of left-handed starters.

That doesn’t mean the Sox can’t win. It simply means that there’s a likelihood that, if the Sox do want to beat the Rays, they’ll have to follow a similar formula to the one that worked so well for them in the regular season, when they won 12 of the 19 meetings between the two teams. The Sox likely must outpitch the Rays, just as they did during a regular season in which they had a 2.93 ERA against Tampa Bay that represented the Sox’ best ERA against a division opponent since 2002, and the best ERA by any one AL East team against any single division opponent in 2013.

“We feel if both sides, and in particular when we look at our starters and pitchers, if we pitch to our capability, this should be a close played series,” said Sox manager John Farrell.

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