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October 17, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Notebook

by Jay Jaffe

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"Heard this: nobody has ever won a postseason series after trailing 1-0, not even the Yankees." That was my sardonic tweet from somewhere just before the seventh inning of Friday night's ALCS Game One. The Yankees trailed the Rangers 5-0 at the time, with Texas lefty C.J. Wilson baffling the Bronx Bombers to that point, limiting them to three hits and no runs. Meanwhile, the Rangers had jumped all over CC Sabathia, chasing him after four innings and five runs.

In the heat of the moment, my sarcasm was completely lost on some friends as well as complete strangers, as sarcasm often gets lost in the twitscape. A few followers chimed in with examples to the contrary, as if I hadn't been watching post-season baseball closely for 33 seasons—beginning with the 1978 World Series; look that one up, kids—and writing about it for 10. As if I hadn't paid attention to the nine times over the past 14 seasons in which the Yankees had lost Game One but gone on to win a series, including the 2009 World Series. Or had somehow forgotten that such an indignity had been perpetrated on them five times in that span, most famously by the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS. Please, I read the papers.

In the interests of equivocality, I had honestly meant to repeat said tweet once the Yankees stormed back to score five runs in the eighth and emerge with a stunning 6-5 win, though a tidal wave of high fives and strong ales held me back. But regardless of their short and brutal post-season history, the same thing held true for the Rangers: a 1-0 series deficit is hardly a burial, and on Saturday they rebounded with an emphatic 7-2 win to even the best-of-seven at one game apiece.

Thus far, the two teams' rotations have been a study in contrasts. For the second and third time in five post-season games, Yankee starters failed to deliver quality starts; both Sabathia and Phil Hughes failed to complete five innings, the kind of erratic performances that the Yankees saw so much of during the second half, particularly from A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez. Sabathia has apparently been thrown off kilter by long rest (seven days for his Division Series start, eight for his Championship Series one), coming into the games "too strong" and messing up his mechanics. While one can't take his small sample of sterling short-rest numbers too seriously in discerning trends, it's clear the big man's not a big fan of waiting around: 

Split

IP

ERA

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

3 Days

26.7

1.01

0.0

2.0

8.8

4.3

4 Days

1271.3

3.60

0.8

2.7

7.3

2.8

5 Days

589.3

3.44

0.8

2.9

8.1

2.8

6+ Days

239.7

4.02

0.9

3.5

7.4

2.2


Given just over a full season's worth of starts on long rest during the regular season, Sabathia's peripherals suffer across the board, with his homer and walk rates both rising and his strikeout rate falling. On the other hand, he did slightly better in two long-rest starts during the postseason last year (three runs in 15 innings) than he did on short rest (four runs in 14 2/3 innings), so success under such circumstances should hardly have been so unattainable.

As for Hughes, after spotting his fastball so well against the Twins, he simply couldn't put Ranger hitters away on Saturday. Check out the difference in two-strike performance:

Team

#

K

I/P

O

H

TB

Twins

15

6

8

5

3

3

Rangers

12

3

8

3

5

10


(Abbreviations: K is strikeouts, I/P is in play, O is outs, H is hits, TB is total bases). Twins hitters managed just three singles on the eight two-strike pitches with which they made contact; elsewhere, they collected just one other hit all night. Rangers hitters teed off, collecting five two-strike hits, four of them for extra bases, and they rolled up five additional hits as well.

Of course, it didn't help that catcher Jorge Posada let Hughes down in the first inning when he failed to recognize Josh Hamilton's half-assed stolen-base attempt for what it was, the front end of a delayed double steal. Hamilton got a late jump and pulled up short of second base, and by the time Robinson Cano received the ball, Elvis Andrus had broken for the plate; Cano's rushed throw drifted wide to the first-base side, and the Rangers had their first run. The TBS announcers called it a "college play," but it was the kind of move the late-Nineties Yankee juggernaut used to pull off once in awhile, so shame on Posada for not being hip to the gambit. It was also the kind of aggressive baserunning—the so called "antler plays"—which helped the Rangers get by the Rays in the first round, particularly in the decisive Game Five. Thus the Rangers got on the board in the first inning not only without getting a ball out of the infield, but without making contact with more than one of Hughes' 28 pitches (!), since Andrus, who had chopped an infield single past Hughes, had gone to second on a wild pitch and had then stolen third.

While the Yankees' starters have been flailing, the Rangers' power duo of Wilson and Colby Lewis stepped out from the shadow of Cliff Lee and his no-short-rest controversy with a pair of strong performances. Wilson dominated over the course of six shutout innings before yielding a solo homer to Cano in the seventh; he failed to retire two hitters in the eighth, one on Brett Gardner's flying leap into first base for an infield single, the other Derek Jeter's well-smoked double which ended his night. All hell broke loose afterward thanks to Rangers manager Ron Washington's decision to get cute with his bullpen by making four pitching changes—twice replacing lefties with lefties—as five straight Yankee hitters reached base, but Wilson could hardly be faulted for that; when he departed, the Rangers' win expectancy was still at 86 percent even with Jeter at second base.

Lewis did an admirable job of flushing away the previous night's frustration with a nine-pitch first inning, and he was relatively economical from that point onward, getting the Rangers' offense back into the batter's box quickly to face the flagging Hughes. The only Yankee hitter who gave him particular trouble was Cano, who bashed a double off the center-field wall to lead off the fourth inning, by which point his team trailed by the all-too-familiar 5-0 margin, and again with a solo homer in the sixth; he's now hitting .429/.429/.857 in the postseason, pummeling lefties as well as righties. After the first hit, Cano took third on a wild pitch; Lewis controlled the damage by striking out both Nick Swisher and Posada—two of the six Ks he'd collect on the afternoon—but he surrendered a sizzling smash down the first-base line that bounced off Mitch Moreland's glove and into foul territory. Berkman was caught off base after making a wide turn at first for the final out, and the Rangers still held a 5-1 lead. They extended it to 7-1 before Cano's homer, and soon afterward, Lewis' day ended, one out shy of a quality start but with his team holding a 95 percent shot at winning, a job well done.

A few other notes:

• I went into further depth regarding Wilson and Lewis at Pinstriped Bible on Thursday. Though they emerged as contenders last year after a nearly a decade of mediocrity driven by almost uniformly horrendous starting pitching, the Rangers' evolution from a staff that puts the ball into play and hopes for the best to one which can miss bats consistently owes plenty to the bold gambles the organization took in converting Wilson from a useful reliever to a starter and taking a flyer on former first-round bust Lewis. The Rangers jumped from 12th in the league in strikeouts in 2009 to fourth in 2010, and the strong efforts of that duo helped them overcome poor seasons from Scott Feldman, whose 2009 success owed to his defense, and free-agent bust Rich Harden, neither of whom made the post-season roster. Not that the Rangers haven't made numerous other smart moves to get to this point over the past few years—the Mark Teixeira trade and the subsequent promotion of Andrus to upgrade the defense being two of the more notable ones—but the rotation moves are a big part of the reason why they're here.

• With every passing day, Posada looks more unplayable behind the plate. After setting a career low with a 15 percent caught stealing rate during the regular season, he dodged a bullet against the sluggish Twins, who didn't attempt a single steal against him in the first round. The Rangers, who were about 18 runs better on the basepaths than the Twins according to Equivalent Baserunning Runs metrics, are a much more aggressive team; they're already five-for-six in stolen bases during the series, with the lone caught stealing coming via Kerry Wood's unlikely pickoff of Ian Kinsler on Friday night. You can bet that they'll be running more on Posada now that they've seen how hapless he is behind the plate. Backup Francisco Cervelli, who caught just 14 percent of attempted stolen bases, is hardly better.

• With Sabathia's short Game One start, Yankee manager Joe Girardi now faces a quandary as to whether to bring him back on three days' rest for Game Four or pitch Burnett as originally announced. While recent history certainly suggests Sabathia can handle the task, the problem is that unless Girardi simply pushes Burnett to Game Five, he's faced with bringing back Hughes on short rest, and then Pettitte as well, because who the hell is going to pitch this year's model of A.J. Burnett for the first time in more than two weeks in a Game Six? While I suspect we won't have an inkling as to which way Girardi will swing until after Game Three, the wheels are already turning on this one.

• One of the ironies of Friday night is that the Rangers' big blow came via Hamilton, who posted the lowest OPS against lefties in 2010 of any of the number two through eight hitters in the Rangers' lineup. Hamilton hit just .271/.331/.458 against southpaws in 2010, right in line with his career mark, though he did homer against them about once in every 23 plate appearances. His ungodly performance against righties (.401/.447/.716) is a big reason why the Yanks walked him four times on Saturday, twice intentionally, and for all of the things that went wrong for the pinstripes, only once did a run score after those four walks, that via the double steal.

• The Yankee DH duo of Marcus Thames and Lance Berkman is again doing damage. After going a combined 4-for-11 with a double and two homers (one apiece) against the Twins, they're a combined 3-for-8 with a pair of RBI singles as the DHs thus far in the ALCS. Thames did strike out as a pinch-hitter with two outs and two on in the sixth inning on Saturday, but you can't fault Girardi's move to use him once Washington called upon lefty Clay Rapada to replace Lewis and face lefty Brett Gardner; the Yankees trailed by five runs at the time and needed a big blast to get back into the game.

• Likewise, David Murphy made the Rangers' outfield corner platoon look good on Saturday when he smashed a towering solo homer off Hughes in the second inning and then ripped an RBI double in the third. The Murph owns a career .288/.354/.487 line against righties, and when you pair that with Jeff Francouer's playable .299/.343/.481 career line against lefties, you've got a potent spot in the lineup instead of two incomplete ballplayers. Credit Washington for realizing that, and for getting the platoon advantage in all eight of the duo's plate appearances thus far in this series.

 • By splitting their two games on the road, the Yankees have effectively seized home-field advantage in the series, for what little that may be worth, as three of the remaining five games will be played in the Bronx. On the other hand, as Kinsler noted, "It's a five-game series now. We have Cliff Lee to pitch two of them. That doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?"  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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