Monday, October 6, 2008

Lopez was the wrong reliever in the 12th

Two snippets from Terry Francona's pregame meeting with the local media that seem relevant in the aftermath of Sunday's Game 3 loss to the Angels in 12 innings at Fenway Park:

On the use of Tim Wakefield and Paul Byrd, starters bumped to the bullpen thanks to the days off afforded the Red Sox during the American League Division Series: "That will depend on how our starting pitching does. That's completely up to how our starting pitching does. It's a little irregular. The Angels are doing the same thing; they sent two starters to the bullpen. You haven't seen their guys, and you haven't seen ours. Games get crazy -- you get into extra innings, and all of a sudden, you're using somebody that, you know. It's hard. They're not used to it. But they have to be ready because if they get into a game, it could be the 12th inning and your season is riding on it."

And one more -- this actually was in response to a question about how he hasn't felt the need to lift Jason Bay for a defensive replacement the way he used to do so for Manny, but it's interesting nonetheless: "Sometimes, you can overmanage."

Here's the situation: Jonathan Papelbon pitched innings 10 and 11 for the Red Sox but clearly was done after his punch-out of Gary Matthews Jr. to end the 11th inning. Byrd and left-handed specialist Javier Lopez both were available to start the 12th inning. For Los Angeles, starter-turned-reliever Jered Weaver already was in the game; he'd pitched the 11th and would end up pitching the bottom of the 12th, too.

Francona, though, opted against going straight to Byrd, who would be in for the duration. Instead, he brought in Lopez to face the smoking-hot Mike Napoli (with Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar also scheduled to hit).

After the game, Francona explained the move this way: "If we started Byrd out, and then we came through the middle of the order with the lefties and we go to Javy and we keep that game going, we have a guy that's a situational left-hander. We've already used Cash (who is Wakefield's personal catcher), so that means we'll go to Byrd, like they did with Weaver. Once we get to Byrd, we would have let him pitch for a while."

But Napoli hits right-handed. Kendrick hits right-handed. Aybar is a switch-hitter, but his average from the right side (.289) is significantly better than his average from the left side (.252). Lopez, meanwhile, has seen right-handed hitters hit .289 against him in his career as opposed to .238 for left-handers.

Only when you get to Chone Figgins, also is a switch-hitter, do you get to someone you could even start to consider a lefty. Figgins is a better hitter, though not by a substantial margin (.298 to .271), from the left side of the plate. After Figgins comes Garrett Anderson, the only pure lefty in the lineup -- and he was five hitters down the road. Lopez is, as Francona said, a lefty specialist -- and he'd faced more than four hitters in barely more than one-fourth (18 of 70) of his appearances this season.

Anderson, for what it's worth, still ended up getting a hit off Lopez, albeit a slow roller through a hole in the right side of the infield. Then again, his career average against left-handers (.291) is almost identical to his average against right-handers (.299).

The other option would have been to go to Byrd and handed him the ball for the duration, the way Mike Scioscia already had done with Weaver. Byrd hasn't fared well against lefties in his career -- they hit .311 against him, as opposed to .241 for righties. But in a lineup almost bereft of left-handed hitters, that seems like a chance you'd be willing to take. As a starting pitcher, after all, Byrd is more than used to going through a lineup and pitching to everyone, right-handed or left-handed.

Maybe it still would have ended badly for the Red Sox. Maybe it won't even matter -- with Jon Lester scheduled to go on Monday, the series could still end in four games. But the Red Sox are well aware of the dangers of giving a team that's down a chance to get up off the mat -- they rallied in five-game series against Cleveland in 1999 and Oakland in 2003, not to mention the epic and unforgettable American League Championship Series in 2004.

The Angels are alive. It's possible -- though certainly not guaranteed -- they wouldn't be if Paul Byrd had pitched the 12th -- and maybe the 13th and 14th -- for the Red Sox.

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