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September 21, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

September Song

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week's three-game series between the Yankees and the Rays in Tampa Bay featured three rather thrilling one-run contests played in an electrifying, playoff-like atmosphere. Given the apparent tension of the seesaw battles, one could be forgiven for thinking that the games were do-or-die, with their outcomes having a strong bearing on which team would play into October and which would be consigned to an early start to hunting season.

One look at Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds would have told you otherwise. The Yankees, who entered the series with a half-game lead in the American League East standings, held a 97.9 percent shot at reaching the playoffs. The Rays, by dint of a much easier schedule down the stretch, held a 99.3 percent shot. Playing the part of vanquished foes at an undisclosed location were the Red Sox, 7 1/2 games out of first place and with just a 2.1 percent chance; lacking Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Cameron—all done for the year due to injuries—their odds were probably even lower than that.

So in the grand scheme of things, it would be tough to pretend that a September Yanks-Rays series actually mattered much; barring either team repeating the 2000 Yankees' stretch-drive imitation of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, both teams will reach the postseason, and both those games and this week's four-game series in the Bronx represent nothing more than jockeying for position. Players and managers from both clubs have dutifully said otherwise, that their goal is the division title and home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs rather than the backdoor invitation via the wild card, but watching the way Yankees manager Joe Girardi ran his bullpen in the opener of last week's series—a taut pitchers' duel between David Price and CC Sabathia which remained scoreless through the first 10 innings—reveals otherwise.

While the Yanks had come in off a rough stretch of having been swept in three grueling games in the Texas heat, Girardi was clearly more concerned with making sure his pitchers were rested. After using Kerry Wood and Boone Logan—two pitchers who've been the key to the Yankees bullpen's second-half resurgence—following Sabathia's eight stellar innings, Girardi passed up the opportunity to use Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera, all with at least a day's rest under their belts, in a tie ballgame on the road. Instead he went with mop-up men Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre; the latter yielded a game-ending home run to Reid Brignac, the first hitter he faced. "Maybe you have to lose the battle to win the war," lamented pitching coach Dave Eilland of the A-listers' unavailability. Meanwhile, the Yankees' lineup for that series was without Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, both of whom received cortisone shots, where they might have played under more meaningful circumstances or with 25-man rosters instead of larger ones padded by September call-ups.

Given the persistence of home-field advantage throughout the regular season—home teams win at about a 54 percent clip—you'd think it would more matter in the postseason, particularly with the AL's four likely invitees holding stellar records at home; the Yankees and Twins both shared 49-25 records at home through Sunday, while the Rangers were 48-26 and the Rays 46-29. In fact, the tale of the tape is a mixed bag. According to Joe Sheehan, since 1998, when Major League Baseball began seeding playoff teams instead of using a pre-set rotation, teams with the home field advantage have won 45 of 84 series (a .536 winning percentage). That figure suggests an even larger HFA, since the math on a four percent HFA comes out to a 51.3 percent chance of the home team winning a Game Seven. On the other hand, home teams are just 9-10 since 1998 in the small sample of decisive Games Five and Seven. More damningly, as many wild-card winners—who don't have home-field advantage in either of the first two rounds—have gone on to reach the World Series as have No. 1 one seeds in that time span, with eight apiece.

Whether or not home-field advantage for the playoffs was on the line, Monday night's matchup in the Bronx was elevated into a gala affair, as the Yankees had chosen the first night of their final regular-season homestand to unveil a monument to deceased principal owner George Steinbrenner, who passed away on July 13. Following the introduction of Steinbrenner's four children and several grandchildren to the crowd of 47,437 came a video tribute that bore a suspicious resemblance to the one which played during the team's July 16 pre-game tribute to the Boss (also a game against the Rays, one won in emotional fashion by a Swisher walk-off homer).

Next came a procession of current Yankees players and coaches, the Steinbrenner family, commissioner Bud Selig, and a cavalcade of pinstriped alumni, including not only Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson but also Roy White, Lee Mazzilli, Tino Martinez, David Wells, and even more notably, Joe Torre and Don Mattingly. Three days after the announcement of the latter as the successor to the former's position as Dodgers' manager, both took advantage of the team's off day to fly in for their first visit to Yankee Stadium since their unseemly 2007 departures; prior to the game general manager Brian Cashman met privately to mend fences with Torre, as the two hadn't spoken since then. Both returning heroes were greeted with the warmest ovations of the night from the near-capacity crowd.

After much ceremony, a massive plaque—seven feet by five feet, weighing in at 760 pounds—was unveiled; the thing easily dwarfed the headstone-like monuments to Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, to say nothing of the lesser lights whose smaller plaques adorn the back wall of the dark, dusty and colorless excuse for a forgotten garage which the Yankees have turned Monument Park into in their new stadium. The team stood silently as the plaque's inscription was read then Frank Sinatra's "My Way" played during the family photo ops (son Frank Jr. would sing "God Bless America" in the seventh inning). The final scene of the festivities was a poignant one, as the lone figure of Mariano Rivera still gazed reverently at the monument before the participants dispersed.

As for the game itself, the night's matchup featured Matt Garza on the hill for the Rays and Ivan Nova for the Yankees, a rematch of the one game the Yanks won down in St. Petersburg last week. The Yanks had battered Garza for nine hits, two homers and six runs in 4 2/3 innings, the second time this season they'd roughed him up; for the year he'd allowed 10 runs and four homers in 11 2/3 frames against them. The rookie Nova had been unable to hold the 6-0 lead to which he'd been staked; in his attempt to net the kid a "W," Girardi fiddled while Nova burned away the entire lead in the fifth inning, abetted by a complicit bullpen.

The first five innings whizzed by, though Garza had far from his best stuff; his velocity was down a tick or two, his command spotty. He served up a two-run homer to Curtis Granderson in the third inning, the 28th he'd allowed of the season, third in the AL behind teammate James Shields and the Yankees' Javier Vazquez. Furthermore, Garza failed to notch not only a single strikeout but a single swing-and-miss through the first four innings. He finally got both after Mark Teixeira took a checked swing just a little too far in the fifth, but by then he'd almost lost the plot entirely, loading the bases with no outs thanks to a Ben Zobrist error, a ground-rule double down the right-field line by Derek Jeter, and a walk to Granderson. The Yankees added another run via an Alex Rodriguez sacrifice fly to left field, and Garza then intentionally walked Robinson Cano to reload the bases, a move which backfired when Swisher worked a five-pitch walk to plate the Yankees' fourth run. Garza finally escaped his mess by getting Lance Berkman to pop up.

Meanwhile, Nova, who's enjoyed something of a breakout season thanks to added velocity, continued to stake his case for a post-season start by yielding just one hit and one walk over the first five frames while striking out four, all of them on curveballs (three swinging, one looking). Alas, he got into trouble during the sixth inning, just as the Rays' lineup turned over for the second time. That's a continued problem for Nova, who's held hitters to a .225/.259/.392 showing in their first two plate appearances and a .391/.517/.435 showing in their third time up—an indication that his stuff may only go so far at the major-league level. "I've been doing the same thing I'm not supposed to do and I've got to figure it out," he'd say sheepishly after the game.

Like Garza just half an inning earlier, Nova loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth via singles by Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist sandwiched around a walk of John Jaso. The Rays scored their first run when Francisco Cervelli's mitt got in the way of Carl Crawford's swing; what looked initially like a swinging bunt and an out turned into a catcher's interference call by home-plate umpire Tim McClelland. They added another on an Evan Longoria grounder, but it came via an around-the-horn double play whose completion ended Nova's night. The starter had another run charged to his room when Logan—who after weeks of strong work has begun pitching as though he's suddenly remembered he's just Boone Logan—surrendered a dying quail to Dan Johnson, then walked Matt Joyce. The bases were reloaded when Teixeira misplayed Carlos Pena's dribbler down the first baseline into an error.

So, with a 4-3 lead with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning, Girardi again demonstrated his disregard for this particular battle's importance by calling upon Gaudin and his 5.28 ERA rather than Chamberlain (who'd thrown just 11 total pitches in two appearances on Saturday and Sunday, his only work since September 15), Robertson (23 pitches on Sunday) or the bullpen-exiled Vazquez (no activity since September 10 in Texas). To absolutely nobody's surprise, Gaudin walked B.J. Upton to force in the tying run before retiring Jason Bartlett on a fly ball. If it was an audition for a post-season role it was an inauspicious one, though to be fair, that was also the first inherited runner Gaudin has allowed to score (out of eight) since his nightmarish return to pinstripes back on May 27. "I liked the matchup. Liked his stuff against Upton and Bartlett," Giriardi would say after the game while acknowledging Chamberlain's unavailability.

Surprisingly, even with the league's best bullpen waiting in the wings, Rays manager Joe Maddon elected to return Garza to the hill for the bottom of the sixth despite his loss of the strike zone; he'd thrown 45 balls and 39 strikes to that point. The Yanks seized the opportunity, as Gardner legged out an infield single to short and then Cervelli scooted a ball through the left-side hole once Bartlett broke to cover second base. Jeter followed with an RBI single up the middle, taking second when Upton unsuccessfully tried to nab Cervelli at third base. That was it for the increasingly hapless Garza, and on came the normally reliable Grant Balfour, who didn't fare much better. He fell behind 2-1 to Granderson, then surrendered a towering three-run homer off the right field foul pole, thus restoring the Yankees' four-run lead. It was Granderson's second homer of the night and 11th since retooling his swing in mid-August; he's hitting .273/.372/.578.

The Rays kept trying to claw their way back into the game. With Roberston on in relief of Gaudin, both Jaso and Zobrist singled, the latter with a smash off Jeter's outstretched glove as he leapt into the air. Cano made a nifty spin play on Crawford for a force out, but Longoria scored Jaso via a sac fly. Robertson departed in favor of Wood, who closed out the seventh and pitched a 1-2-3 eighth before handing over to Rivera, who'd blown the save the day before in Baltimore and wasn't exactly in top form on this night. After shattering Jaso's bat on a ground out, Mo yielded a run via a Zobrist ground-rule double and a Longoria blooper then hit Johnson with a pitch to put the tying run on base with two outs. But Rivera ultimately nailed the door shut, giving the Yankees a  1 ½-game lead in the AL East standings and a 62-38 edge in the chances of taking the division.

Ultimately, however, the big beneficiary of these not-tremendously-meaningful September matchups between the Yankees and the Rays may be the Twins. They are a major league-best 44-18 since the All-Star break and now have 90 wins, one less than New York but one more than Tampa Bay. As the AL East's two heavyweights tenderize each other with body blow after body blow, the soon-to-be-crowned AL Central champs may be the ones having the last laugh—until October, of course.

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