After getting dominated by Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers bullpen in a one-hit, 1-0 loss in Game 1, the Red Sox have the misfortune of facing the presumptive AL Cy Young award winner, Max Scherzer, in Game 2. If there is a silver-lining to be found, it is that Boston is sending Clay Buchholz to mound, and Buchholz’s 1.74 ERA was the best of any starter to pitch at least 100 innings and a full run better than Scherzer's 2.90 mark (though to be fair, Scherzer did pitch over 100 innings more than Buchholz). With these two squaring off on the mound, another tense, low scoring game is a reasonable possibility and if that is the case, the Red Sox biggest advantage could be their exceptional ability on the basepaths.
The Red Sox were third in the American League in stolen bases with 123. 73 of those came from the duo at the top of the lineup, with Jacoby Ellsbury notching an MLB-leading 52 and Shane Victorino stealing 21. The Red Sox didn’t just steal a lot of bases, they stole them with exceptional efficiency, swiping bags successfully 87 percent of the time. Combining that skill with their ability to take extra bases on batted balls, the Red Sox added 11.3 runs on the bases (per Fangraphs), the fifth highest total in baseball. The Red Sox stole six bases in the ALDS and they took two more in the first game against Detroit. Given Detroit’s struggles in controlling the running game this season, we should see plenty more in the series.
While the Red Sox were among the best on the basepaths, Detroit catchers may have been the worst at controlling the running game. Only two teams allowed more stolen bases than the Tigers, who saw 128 thefts against them but their 18 percent caught stealing rate was worse than everyone but Washington, who had 42 fewer runners test their catchers. Primary backstop Alex Avila was the main culprit in their poor showing against runners, throwing out just 17% of catchers this season, a dramatic drop from his 28 percent career rate. Back up Brayan Pena was also below league-average at 24 percent. This Red Sox advantage won't be nearly as extreme in Game 2 though. Of all the Tigers starters, Scherzer was the most difficult to steal against allowing just 64 percent of stolen base attempts to succeed.
Stolen bases aren’t the only concern for the Tigers in this match-up. Facing an unhittable Anibal Sanchez last night, Shane Victorino reached base in the first inning when Avila failed to block a Sanchez’s slider in the dirt on strike three. Jacoby Ellsbury pulled off the same unlikely feat in Game 1 of the ALDS, giving the Red Sox two plays in the postseason that come as close you can get to stealing first base. Taking first on strikeouts isn’t much of a useful strategy but another play or two like that could be an important factor if the two teams are continually locked up in one-run games. Detroit catchers allowed 63 wild pitches (5th most in the AL) and 14 passed balls (6th in the AL), so the Red Sox can look for extra bases even without the risk of a steal. Once again, however, Max Scherzer was the exception on the staff. He was only responsible for just one wild pitch this season, making this the least likely time for Boston to get a free base from the Tigers' catching deficiencies.
This relatively minor advantage for Boston could be the difference maker for the Red Sox over a long, tightly contested series. With two exceptional arms facing off in Game 2, another close match is a strong possibility and if that comes to pass, all eyes should be on the Red Sox base stealers. However, if there is ever a time in the series when Boston base runners need to be especially careful, it is when Scherzer is pitching. The Red Sox can still exploit their advantages on the bases here, but this game isn’t the time to suddenly become reckless.
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