While there are still a few pennant races to be determined, we have a pretty good grasp on at least one series that will open next Tuesday – the Red Sox and Angels will be squaring off, as Boston’s the very likely wild card entry and the Angels will almost certainly finish with the league’s best record.
This is a tough draw for the Angels, because despite not winning their division, it’s pretty easy to make a case that the Red Sox are the best team in the AL this year. They have the league’s best run differential (+165), and no one else is particularly close. They’ve scored more runs than each of the other AL playoff teams (only Texas scored more often overall) and they’ve allowed the second fewest runs, 12 behind Tampa Bay.
On top of that, the Red Sox are built extremely well for the playoffs. Their big weakness this year was the #5 starter position, which was filled by a variety of players at different times. Overall, the starters beyond Beckett/Lester/Matsuzaka/Wakefield pitched 231 innings and had a 4.81 FIP, compared to the 3.91 FIP that the four playoff starters managed to total.
In addition, the best innings of the #5 starter group came from Justin Masterson, who has been terrific out of the bullpen for the Sox, giving them another RH setup man to bridge the gap to Jonathan Papelbon. With Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, and Manny Delcarman, along with Masterson and Papelbon, the Sox have five quality relievers for high leverage situations.
Assuming that the nine main pitchers for Boston log a significant majority of the playoff innings, the Red Sox probably have the best playoff pitching staff of any team headed into October. Beckett’s a legitimate #1, Lester and Matsuzaka are inconsistent but occasionally brilliant, and Wakefield’s knuckler makes him one of the best #4 starters around.
This isn’t to say the Angels don’t have a chance – they have a good team with some quality arms themselves, but their reward for having the AL’s best record is a date with a team that is probably superior in most ways. If the Angels end up bowing out in the first round, it won’t be because they couldn’t handle the pressure – they’ve just drawn a better opponent.