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October 18, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Monday ALCS Pitching Matchup

by Matt Swartz

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Cliff Lee: 3.18 ERA, 3.03 SIERA
Lee’s post-season mystique seems to grow by the start, and he now will carry that into a pivotal Game Three for the Rangers. Lee had an incredible pair of performances to carry the Rangers past the Rays in the ALDS, and the Texas needs him to come up big again in the ALCS. In two starts this postseason, Lee has allowed no walks but struck out 21 batters in 16 innings pitched; he has only allowed two runs, and gotten two critical wins for the Rangers.  Lee had a pair of wins in last year’s World Series for the Phillies over the Yankees as well, though he did struggle with a big lead toward the end of his second start in Game Five. Even still, Lee is one of the very best pitchers in the league and presents a major challenge to the Yankees. As I wrote before his Game Five start in the ALDS, this is exactly why Jon Daniels traded for Lee with only a couple months remaining on his contract—the value of a big-time ace in the postseason is high. If Lee can pitch the Rangers even further into the postseason, this will come out looking like a win for Daniels.

From his Game Five ALDS start: Lee actually improved his strikeout rate in 2010, increasing it from 18.7 to 22.0 percent, while dropping his walk rate from 4.4 to a microscopic 2.1. Lee's batted-ball rates were average yet again, but he was able to keep runs off the board thanks to his incredible walk rate. The key to beating Lee is getting hits because he is not going to let you on base on his own, as he walked only 18 hitters all year. Although Lee struggled with back problems later in the season, he is a pitcher who can completely dominate if healthy. For the Rangers, who are significant underdogs in any AL series, having a pitcher like Lee who can dominate a game twice each series is exactly how they can pull off some upsets.

Andy Pettitte: 3.28 ERA, 4.00 SIERA
Pettitte won yet another playoff start in Game Two of the ALDS. He pitched seven innings, allowing only two runs, thanks to four strikeouts and just one walk. Pettitte has now been tasked with pitching against a far better pitcher than Carl Pavano, however; he goes up against perhaps the best pitcher in the American League. Still, Pettitte has a better lineup behind him and he is good at keeping the Yankees in games—and we have certainly seen what the Yankees’ bats can do when they stay even within anything resembling striking distance. If Pettitte can maintain a close game and keep the ball down in the strike zone, he could help give the Yankees a huge win at home.

 From his ALDS start: Pettitte’s ERA dropped by nearly a full run from 2009 to 2010, though his shortened season this year was actually pretty similar to last year in terms of skill level. His SIERA only fell from 4.33 to 4.00. His walk rate did drop from 9.0 to 7.5 percent, and his ground ball rate went up from 44 to 46 percent, but his strikeout rate held steady at 18 percent. Pettitte is not a pitcher who regularly pitches ahead of his peripherals, either. He has become a pretty average pitcher over the last few years. However, his numbers in 2010 have been buoyed by a .265 BABIP with men on, and a .230 BABIP with runners in scoring position. The result is what looks like an improvement from the 38-year-old southpaw, but the reality is that he is now quite beatable.  

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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