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September 30, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Preview: Yankees vs. Tigers

by Jay Jaffe

Why the Tigers Will Win
Led by AL Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander, who won the league's pitching Triple Crown by leading in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250) as well as innings (251), the Tigers' rotation stacks up surprisingly well. Weighted according to an historically-based workload distribution, their run prevention abilities as measured by a combination of ERA, Fair Run Average, and Fielding Independent Pitching rate as the AL slate's best by a whisker, while the Yankees are a distant third. Verlander gets all the attention, but Doug Fister pitched like a frontline starter down the stretch, posting a 1.79 ERA and an unreal 57/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10 starts and a relief appearance after being acquired from Seattle at the July 31 trade deadline.

Why the Yankees Will Win
Despite the question marks about the depth of the Yankees' rotation, the fact that ace CC Sabathia is set to pitch Game Four on three days of rest gives his team a leg up. The big man has done so seven times, most of them high-pressure assignments, with a 2.41 ERA and 8.5 strikeouts per nine. Four of those turns came consecutively with the Brewers down the stretch in 2008, though he ran out of gas in the Division Series; two others came back-to-back during the 2009 postseason, when he helped the Yankees to a world championship. Tigers manager Jim Leyland has already said he won't pitch Verlander under the same circumstances; the Tigers' ace has never done so.

Most Glaring Contrast Between These Two Teams
The Yankees led the majors in the Guillen Number, the percentage of runs scored that came via home runs, at 42.8 percent. By comparison, the Tigers ranked 10th in the AL at 33.2 percent. Some of that is a product of ballparks; Yankee Stadium, which ranked second in homers, is shorter down the lines (318 and 314 feet, respectively) than any AL park besides Fenway, while Comerica Park, which ranked ninth, is the league's longest and second-longest (345 and 330 feet), with the league's longest distance to center field as well (420). The discrepancy also owes to personnel; the Yankees load up on lefty sluggers and emphasize plate discipline; they led the majors in both homers (222) and walks (627), while the Tigers ran seventh and fifth in those categories (169 and 521, respectively).

Game One Matchup: Justin Verlander vs. CC Sabathia
Hands down, this is the opening round's best pitching matchup; clinching early granted both teams the luxury of lining up their rotations. While the Yankees can send no less than six lefty hitters against Verlander—Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, switch-hitters Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, and switch-turned-lefty Jorge Posada—the Tigers' ace limited such hitters to a .174/.233/.271 showing in 2011, for an OPS 113 points below what he did against righties. Furthermore, both Teixeira and Swisher struggled against righties, to the point that the former was just dropped from third to fifth in the batting order. By contrast, the Tigers have just one lefty (Alex Avila) and one switch-hitter (Victor Martinez) in their lineup, largely neutralizing Sabathia's ability to stifle lefties (.207/.253/.301 compared to .273/.324/.384 against righties).

Game Two Matchup: Doug Fister vs. Ivan Nova
Whereas the series opener will be a battle of power pitchers, this pairs two finesse-oriented ground-ballers. Fister yielded a league-low 0.5 homers per nine, though much of that owes to pitching half his games in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field and Comerica Park; he gave up just three homers in 114 2/3 innings at home. He's no park effects-based pony, though, ranking fourth in the league in walk rate (1.5 per nine) and fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.9). Nova was stingy with the homers as well (0.7 per nine, seventh in the league), and his strikeout and walk rates improved markedly after a month-long stint at Triple-A when he was squeezed out of the rotation: from 3.6 walks and 5.0 strikeouts per nine before to 2.4 and 5.7 after.

Game Three Matchup: Max Scherzer vs. Freddy Garcia
This study in contrasts stars Scherzer, a power pitcher (8.0 strikeouts per nine) with mid-90s heat who struggles to keep the ball in the park (1.3 homers per nine), against Garcia, who once fit a similar description but has remade himself as a high-80s soft-tosser who doesn't miss many bats (5.9 per nine) but who at one stretch went 10 starts without giving up a single homer from June 12 through August 7. The former certainly needs the advantages of spacious Comerica, where his homer rate is a more reasonable 0.9, but he's been pounded by lefties (.281/.345/.496)—a vulnerability of Garcia's as well, but one that Detroit is less equipped to exploit. The bigger concern about the latter is his 5.92 ERA and 2.6 HR/9 in five starts since returning from a cut finger in late August.

This Probably Won't Happen But Could
From July 1 onward, knee surgery and a thumb sprain limited Alex Rodriguez to just 26 games and a .212/.322/.333 performance, ending his record 13-year streak of reaching the familiar 30-homer and 100-RBI plateaus. The Yankees went 40-25 (.615) with him out of the lineup, compared to 57-40 (.587) with him in it, but if he needs to sit due to his thumb woes—something he did 10 times in the team's last 19 games—the Yankees will be hard-pressed for backups Eduardo Nunez (.265/.313/.385) and Eric Chavez (.263/.320/.356) to muster the lost offense. For what it's worth, both the player and his manager say he's healthy enough.

A National Audience Will Learn This About Baseball
The Tigers had the majors' best record in September at 20-6, which helped them run away with the division title. However, contrary to popular belief, late-season records have virtually zero correlation with post-season performance. In a study I conducted two years ago, I found no significant link—no correlation above .05—between a team's record over the final 7, 14, 21, or 28 games and their first-round success. If anything, there existed an ever so slight inverse effect when using late-season records to gauge how far a team advanced.

Yankees' Secret Weapon
It might be a mistake to assume that the 39-year-old Posada is toast. He hit a respectable .269/.348/.466 against righties this season while going just 6-for-65 against lefties, and while he got the starting nod as the DH in such circumstances just 12 times in the team's final 50 games, his .258/.343/.516 in that span (including pinch-hitting appearances and a couple starts at first base) doesn't exactly square with the notion that he's all washed up. Furthermore, he's now paired in a platoon with rookie Jesus Montero, who in his brief big- league career has hit .500/.556/.625 in 24 PA against lefties, and .216/.310/.568 with four homers in 42 PA against righties. Don't be surprised if Girardi changes course mid-game, or gives Montero a start despite the platoon disadvantage if he thinks it will aid the offense.

Tigers' Secret Weapon
While the strength of the Yankees' late-game bullpen (Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera) is well-known, the less-heralded Tigers' trio of Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit, and Jose Valverde are no slouches either. Valverde didn't blow a single save all season, Benoit overcame an early rough patch to whiff over one batter per inning, and the rookie Alburquerque didn't allow a single homer while whiffing an AL-high 13.9 per nine. Consider this tale of the tape:

Team

HR/9

UBB/9

SO/9

After 6

After 7

Tigers

0.5

3.6

10.1

71-5 (.934)

77-0 (1.000)

Yankees

0.4

2.7

10.5

81-11 (.880)

87-8 (.915)

 Series Prediction: Tigers in five, because the Yankees' advantage as lefty-killers—they hit .281/.360/.427 against them, for the AL's best OPS by 20 points—is neutralized by the Tigers' all-righty rotation options.  

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Tigers

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