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October 17, 2001

Playoff Prospectus

Seattle Mariners vs. New York Yankees

by Joe Sheehan

Fans in New York and Seattle are happy. Fox is giddy. For many people, though, this matchup is a minor disappointment, with the Yankees' incredible comeback denying an ALCS matchup between the two best teams of the 2001 regular season.

The series we did end up with pits two teams with similar strengths, both well-suited for short-series baseball. The Mariners get an opportunity to defeat the team whose ghost they spent the year chasing, and add to their argument for being one of the greatest teams in baseball history.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

Seattle Mariners

RF Ichiro Suzuki (.350/.381/.457/.311)
SS Carlos Guillen (.259/.333/.355/.261)
2B Bret Boone (.331/.372/.578/.329)
DH Edgar Martinez (.306/.423/.543/.346)
1B John Olerud (.302/.401/.472/.320)
CF Mike Cameron (.267/.353/.480/.307)
LF Stan Javier (.292/.375/.391/.292)
3B David Bell (.260/.303/.415/.260)
C Dan Wilson (.265/.305/.403/.257)

New York Yankees

LF Chuck Knoblauch (.250/.339/.351/.263)
SS Derek Jeter (.311/.377/.480/.308)
CF Bernie Williams (307/.395/.522/.321)
1B Tino Martinez (.280/.329/.501/.286)
C Jorge Posada (.277/.363/.475/.293)
RF David Justice (.241/.333/.430/.271)
DH Paul O'Neill (.267/.330/.459/.283)
3B Scott Brosius (.287/.343/.446/.281)
2B Alfonso Soriano (268/.304/.432/.265)

The Mariner lineup is what they're expected to trot out for Game 1 against Andy Pettitte. Against the Yankee right-handers, Mark McLemore goes to left field and bats second, with Mike Cameron sliding back to sixth.

Lou Piniella has made one change in the latter part of the season that isn't serving him well, moving Bret Boone into the #3 slot ahead of Edgar Martinez and John Olerud. Boone is the best slugger and worst on-base man of the three, and really should be hitting behind at least one, and ideally both, of the other guys. The order that held for much of the first half--Martinez, Olerud, Boone--makes the most sense from an offensive flow standpoint, and provides Olerud, a platoon player at heart, some protection against Mike Stanton.

Getting Carlos Guillen back helps offensively more than you'd think. McLemore just doesn't hit left-handers at all, and while Guillen isn't anything special, his .295/.351/.410 against southpaws obliterates McLemore's .169/.307/.239. Both numbers are fairly reflective of the two players' career performances.

The Yankees won't change very much. Against Jamie Moyer, it does look like Joe Torre will use the Randy Velarde/Shane Spencer options available to him, benching Paul O'Neill and David Justice. For my money, Justice's career history of hitting left-handers warrants playing him ahead of Velarde, especially if it makes the Yankees less vulnerable to a pitching change.

The thing to watch is the way the late innings lay out. The Yankees have a run of four right-handed hitters in Scott Brosius, Alfonso Soriano, Chuck Knoblauch, and Derek Jeter, a big juicy target for the Mariners' sidearming set-up man, Jeff Nelson. It would not surprise me at all if four or five of these games looked a lot alike in the late innings, with Arthur Rhodes pitching to the three through seven slots, and Nelson pitching to the four righties.

What can the Yankees do about this? Adding Nick Johnson to the roster would at least provide a left-handed option to bat for Brosius or Soriano. Frankly, Jeff Nelson vs. Alfonso Soriano seems like the kind of mismatch usually reserved for Georgetown's basketball schedule. Charlie Manuel watched helplessly three times as Nelson went through the bottom of his lineup. In a series likely to be decided by very little things, Torre can't afford to do the same.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Seattle Mariners

UT Mark McLemore (.286/.384/.406/.306)
OF Al Martin (.240/.330/.382/.267)
OF Jay Buhner (.222/.340/.400/.273)
IF Charles Gipson (.219/.282/.312/.226)
3B Ed Sprague (.298/.374/.436/.298)
C Tom Lampkin (.225/.309/.348/.248)

New York Yankees

C Todd Greene (.208/.240/.281/.194)
2B Randy Velarde (.278/.356/.424/.278)
OF Shane Spencer (.258/.315/.428/.265)
UT Clay Bellinger (.160/.207/.383/.206)
UT Luis Sojo (.165/.214/.190/.165)
UT Enrique Wilson (.242/.283/.343/.223)

As I write this, there are some questions as to what each team is going to do with their roster. The Mariners will probably add a pitcher, which would mean one of Jay Buhner, Ed Sprague, or Charles Gipson disappearing. My money is on Sprague, but it doesn't matter: the Mariners only use their bench to hit for David Bell and Dan Wilson when they absolutely have to.

Elsewhere on the site, there's a rant about the way Joe Torre has constructed his bench for the playoffs. Again, it's unknown whether Torre will make any moves, but there's simply no way four backup infielders--and, yes, I know Clay Bellinger plays the outfield, too--are going to be useful, and there's a clear need for someone like Nick Johnson, to at least create some friction for Jeff Nelson.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA, IP)

Seattle Mariners

Aaron Sele (0.9, 215, 3.60)
Freddy Garcia (2.7, 238 2/3, 3.05)
Jamie Moyer (2.2, 209 2/3, 3.43)
Paul Abbott (0.3, 163, 4.25)

New York Yankees

Andy Pettitte (0.4, 3.99, 200 2/3)
Mike Mussina (3.9, 3.15, 228 2/3)
Orlando Hernandez (0.1, 4.85, 94 2/3)
Roger Clemens (2.0, 3.51, 220 1/3)

Two five-game Division Series put both teams off-kilter, with a first-game matchup of #3 starters.

The way things shake out appears to favor the Yankees. Aaron Sele was hammered in his Division Series start, while Andy Pettitte pitched well in Game Two against the A's. The Mariners' best pitcher, Freddy Garcia, is now matched up on short rest with the Yankees' ace, Mike Mussina, going on full rest. The Mariners have a clear advantage in Game Three, but give that back in Game Four.

Overall, the Yankees' hopes in this series rest almost entirely with their rotation. They have to be encouraged by the success the Indians' starters, an inferior group overall, had in shutting down the Mariners' lineup: a 3.68 ERA for the series. Their own starters pitched exceptionally well in the Division Series, covering for an offense that worked only sporadically.

Both teams want to lead heading into the seventh inning, turning the game over to their amazing bullpens. It's fair to say, then, that whichever team's starters do that job the best is probably going to win the series. Right now, the Yankees look to have an edge in that department.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA, IP)

Seattle Mariners

Kazuhiro Sasaki (14.1, 66 2/3, 3.24)
Arthur Rhodes (23.9, 68, 1.72)
Jeff Nelson (18.4, 65 1/3, 2.76)
Norm Charlton (9.2, 47 2/3, 3.02)
John Halama (8.8, 29 1/3, 1.84)
Jose Paniagua (-6.3, 66, 4.36)
Joel Piniero (7.5, 75 1/3, 2.03)

New York Yankees

Mariano Rivera (20.5, 2.34, 80 2/3)
Ramiro Mendoza (20.0, 3.75, 100 2/3)
Mike Stanton (14.4, 2.58, 80 1/3)
Sterling Hitchcock (N/A, 5.63, 70 1/3)
Jay Witasick (-9.3, 3.30, 79)
Mark Wohlers (-1.3, 4.26, 67 2/3)

The Mariners lost the ALCS to the Yankees last year mostly because their bullpen failed. In particular, Arthur Rhodes had about the worst week of his career, coughing up seven runs in two innings over four games, including the series-clinching shot to David Justice in the sixth game.

As mentioned above, the Yankees' lineup looks vulnerable to the Jeff Nelson/Arthur Rhodes tag-team work that Lou Piniella has been employing three days a week since April. Beyond that, Piniella is expected to add an 11th pitcher to protect against more ineffectiveness by Aaron Sele or Paul Abbott, and frankly, Joel Piniero did a great job in the regular season.

The Yankees can match the Mariners arm-for-arm in the late innings, with Mariano Rivera, Mike Stanton, and Ramiro Mendoza. Torre's use of Rivera as a two-inning closer has worked so far, but he has yet to need Rivera on back-to-back days, and it's unlikely that he can get more than three innings from Rivera on consecutive days. How, or whether, he adjusts his use of Rivera accordingly will be an interesting subplot.

The Yankees can't hold a candle to the Mariners' bullpen depth. Mark Wohlers and Sterling Hitchcock were pretty good postseason pitchers in the heyday of the Spice Girls, though.

Defense

Carlos Guillen's return to shortstop patches the one real hole in the Mariners' defense. The Ms ability to turn batted balls into outs was a huge part of their success this season. They don't make many errors, and more importantly, they get to a ton of balls. Mike Cameron's misplay in Sunday's game was an aberration in what has been a great defensive season.

The Yankees have a number of players with inflated defensive reputations, notably shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter's athleticism, awareness, and strong arm mask his lack of lateral range, particularly going to his left. Bernie Williams and Scott Brosius have been superior defenders in the past, but now show diminished range. Tino Martinez has good hands at first base, but doesn't move well.

Chuck Knoblauch is a disaster waiting to happen in left field; at some point, he's going to cost the Yankees an important run or four. If nothing else, Torre needs to start getting Clay Bellinger or Shane Spencer on the field as a defensive replacement in the late innings.

Since these teams were 1-2 in the American League in stolen bases, it's worth noting that both catchers, Dan Wilson and Jorge Posada, threw out 28% of the runners who tried to steal on them.

The Managers

Lou Piniella has become a very good manager of pitching, particularly of his bullpen. He has the weapons, of course, and the presence of Bryan Price hasn't hurt at all, but this iteration of Lou Piniella would be unrecognizable to baseball fans circa 1996. Offensively, he's a bit too enamored of little ball for my taste, but given his personnel, his pitching, and his ballpark, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate context for that style of play. At this point in his career, it's hard to imagine Piniella blowing the series from the bench.

Joe Torre is bulletproof. He could activate Willie Randolph and Mel Stottlemyre for this series and be met with praise for his commitment to veterans. Give him some credit for switching gears during the Division Series, as much as it must have killed him to turn away from "his guys" to play the Spencers and Velardes of the world. One more effectiveness-over-loyalty decision--Nick Johnson on the roster ahead of an infielder--would go a long way towards helping the team. Like Piniella, Torre has the weapons to be a good manager of the bullpen, and his aggressive use of Rivera in the Division Series was appropriate.

People looking for managerial hijinks are encouraged to look elsewhere. The National League Championship Series, perhaps.

The Call

Were both teams entering the series from a standing start, I believe the Mariners' edges in bullpen depth and in the lineup would outweigh the Yankees' small edge in the starting rotation. However, the Mariners are further off rotation than the Yankees are right now, and the decision to start Freddy Garcia on three days' rest--something he hasn't done all season--strikes me as the kind of thing that could blow up in their faces.

These are likely to be six-inning games; granted, the Mariners bullpen blew two eighth-inning leads in last year's ALCS, but there's just no reason to expect any of the big six relievers in this series to be anything but exceptional. With that said, I think the Yankees have the better team for the first six innings of three of the first four games of this series.

Lee Guetterman's old team in...

OK, OK...

Yankees in six, Mussina wins the MVP. The Curse lives.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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

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