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October 23, 2010

One-Hoppers

ALCS Notebook: You've Never Been This Far Before

by Jay Jaffe

Another strong start from one of the Rangers' power arms. Another shaky turn from one of the Yankee rotation's question marks. Some hard-hit balls by the middle of the Ranger lineup, and stellar stops by their defense on the rare occasions the Yankee hitters squared one up. Questionable decisions by Yankee manager Joe Girardi regarding intentional walks and bullpen selection. A new American League champion — so new, in fact, that they're heading towards their first-ever World Series, where they'll face an as-yet-to-be-determined opponent.

The Rangers finished the job of unseating the defending world champion Yankees on Friday night, as Colby Lewis pitched eight strong innings, yielding just one run and three hits while walking three and striking out seven. He held the Yankees hitless through the first four frames, and rarely allowed a hard-hit ball. All three of the Yankees' hits were for extra bases, but all of them came with nobody on base, two of them with two outs. The Yankees collected just two line drives all night, two less than they managed against Cliff Lee in Game Three. Both came off the bat of Alex Rodriguez; the more notable of the two was snared by Elvis Andrus, who went up the ladder to make an impressive leaping play to lead off the second inning.

Lewis got just 13 out of 23 first-pitch strikes not including balls in play, but he was able to get strikes with both his four-seam fastball and his slider. He was economical, needing more than 14 pitches just once (in the fifth inning) in his first seven innings, and topping out at 102 pitches.

After allowing a first-inning run via a leadoff double by Andrus — his second of the series, after collecting just one in all of September and one in the first round against Tampa Bay — a single by Josh Hamilton and a ground out by Vladimir Guerrero, Phil Hughes kept the score at 1-0 into the fifth inning. But just after the Yankees tied the game in the top of the frame, he was undone by a tactical error — an intentional walk issued to Hamilton — which backfired when Guerrero smashed a two-run double, and was exacerbated when Nelson Cruz immediately greeted reliever David Robertson with a two-run homer (more on which in the notes below). Game, set, match, taxi to the airport; no magical five-run comebacks were to be had this time around.

To the notes...

Bad Intentions: One can make a strong case that this series turned on intentional walks. The Yankees, who received just one of them all series, gave out eight of them, including four in Game Six. Five of them went to Hamilton, two to David Murphy, one to Nelson Cruz. Three of those intentional walks immediately backfired, and two of them were game-breaking. A.J. Burnett's two-out pass to Murphy in the sixth inning of Game Four was followed by Molina's three-run homer, a blow which turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead en route to the Rangers' third win of the series. Hughes' two-out pass to Hamilton in the fifth inning of Game Six (the second of three the slugger would receive on the night) was followed by Guerrero's double, which turned a 1-1 tie into a 3-1 lead which the Rangers never relinquished; in fact, they quickly extended the lead to 5-1.

The Rangers also scored a run immediately following Robertson's one-out pass of Murphy in the ninth inning of Game Three, when Molina singled to bring home the second run amid a six-run rally. They added another on Friday night when Kerry Wood passed both Hamilton and Cruz in the seventh inning, with the former scoring on a sacrifice fly by Ian Kinsler. Add it up and that's 14 runs scored in four of the seven innings in which an intentional walk was issued — a showing that has something to do with the ensuing pitch execution, but more to do with the fact that an intentional walk is a much-overrated gambit even under the best of circumstances. No matter how often the walks blew up in Girardi's face, he made like Wile E. Coyote and kept ordering them from the Acme Catalog of Bad Ideas.

Two-Strike Hitting: As Larry Koestler of The Yankeeist blog pointed out prior to Game Six, the Rangers hit .251/.298/.392 with two strikes against them through the first five games, a fantastic showing well above the AL average (.181/.251/.275) and their own regular season performance (.201/.263/.293). Hughes actually fared well in two-strike counts in Game Six, surrendering just one hit — Andrus' first-inning double — and one walk in the eight he faced while notching three strikeouts. Still, all too often the Yankee pitchers failed to deliver the knockout punch.

Bombed Bronxers: In the end, the Rangers administered as severe a postseason beating to the Yankees as the pinstriped ones have suffered in almost a decade. They outscored the Yankees 38-19, with all four of their wins coming by at least five runs. The 19-run differential was the largest in Yankee postseason history save for the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks, but despite the final 23-run margin in that one, that seven-game duel at least went down to the final pitch. This one wasn't nearly so close.

The Clean-the-Plate Club: As a team, the Rangers hit .304/.378/.512 with nine home runs. They battered the Yankees' lefty pitchers (.324/.367/.527) as well as their righty ones (.293/.385/.504). They hit .328 (19-for-58) with runners in scoring position. They got extra base hits from nine different players. They stole nine bases while only being picked off twice. Series MVP Hamilton hit .350/.536/1.000 with four homers, Cruz .350/.435/.800 with two homers, the catching tandem of Molina and Matt Treanor .318/.375/.636 with two homers.

By contrast, the Yankees hit just .201/.300/.370 with six home runs. They were feeble against the Rangers' lefties (.194/.293/.333), and not much better against their righties (.210/.312/.420). They went just 8-for-53 (.151) with runners in scoring position. They got extra base hits from seven different players, but just four of them outside of Game Five. They stole only two bases while being caught once. Aside from Robinson Cano (.348/.375/.913 with four homers), the team hit .181/.306/.295 — able to draw walks, but unable to capitalize with any consistency.

The Mound Matches: The Rangers' starters put up a 3.50 ERA while averaging 6.2 innings per start and exactly one strikeout per inning. Lewis and C.J. Wilson combined for a 3.85 ERA while both giving the Rangers one quality start, with the former missing a second one by just one out in an already-lopsided game. Thanks to their solid performances, the team didn't even need Cliff Lee to make a second start, thereby rendering a lot of the pre-series handwringing — and here I plead as guilty as the next man — a moot point. Meanwhile, despite Ron Washington's repeated failure to find high-leverage work for closer Neftali Feliz, his bullpen supplied a 2.25 ERA, and let in just one inherited runner out of 12 over the last five games of the series. The staff was aided by a defense which held the Yankees to just a .242 BABIP and turned in big play after big play.

Meanwhile, the Yankees' starters were clobbered for a 7.10 ERA while averaging just 5.3 innings per start and 7.1 strikeouts per nine, and delivering just two quality starts. Their best one by far, delivered Andy Pettitte in Game Three, went for naught up against Lee, and it's fair to ask whether the Yanks would have been better leaving Dandy Andy in his typical Game Two slot. Sure, the home/road splits may have favored Hughes avoiding Yankee Stadium, but they said the same thing about Pettitte. The logic that Hughes had been especially good in Texas because he chased a no-hitter there three years ago was an appropriately steamrolled small sample size; Hughes was torched for an 11.42 ERA in his two starts, allowing 21 baserunners in just 8.2 innings, and failing to reach the five-inning mark either time. Meanwhile, the Yankee bullpen was roughed up for a 5.75 ERA while allowing four out of six inherited runners to score; that mark was 6.75 if you exclude Mariano Rivera, whose deployment was yet another area in which Girardi made a mess; he notched just one save, never pitched for more than one inning, and pitched while the Yankees were behind at the wrong time. Not helping matters, the Yankee defense was scorched for a .361 BABIP.

Moving on Down the Line: So it turns out the Yankees are who we thought they were: a 95-win team with glaring weaknesses that the right team could exploit, and the speedy, righty-heavy Rangers did so both at the plate and on the basepaths. Despite the huge dollars already invested in their rotation, they face a winter where they'll need to shore up a unit that put up a 5.24 ERA in the second half, and answer questions about the roles of young arms Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, the latter of whom has gone from shutdown setup man to the leader of the mop-and-bucket brigade in just three short years. They need to re-sign free agents Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, the latter after a career-worst season — a negotiation that could become an inevitable public relations nightmare — and to face the fact that they were lucky to get even this far given that every hitter in their lineup save for Cano, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner declined from 2009. They've already begun facing what Ken Burns termed "the hard facts of autumn," but they'll do so out of the spotlight as the World Series begins.

Meanwhile, after ending a 10-season playoff drought, the Rangers have defeated the AL's two winningest teams, notching both their first postseason series win and their first pennant in the 50 years of their franchise's existence (the first 11 of those in Washington). Their franchise's turnaround is already an impressive one, particularly given that it was not all that long ago that one could rip general manager Jon Daniels for getting smoked on his high-profile trades of Alfonso Soriano, Francisco Cordero, Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young and John Danks. Since then, the Rangers have come out ahead in trading Mark Teixeira (Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz and three others which haven't panned out as well), Edinson Volquez (Hamilton, quite possibly the AL MVP) and a package centered around prospect Justin Smoak (Lee), to say nothing of the success they've had with rebuilding their farm system and adding Wilson and Lewis to the rotation. They're worthy AL champions and they'll have a well-rested Lee available for Game One, a possible Game Five, and perhaps out of the bullpen in a possible Game Seven, since starting on three days' rest doesn't seem to be in the cards. What lies beyond that for Lee in his pending free agency is a matter for another day. For now, congratulations to their players, their organization and their fans on a long-awaited and well-earned success.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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