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October 2, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

The Left Turn Not Taken

by Jay Jaffe

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"I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque." Bugs Bunny

It was the kind of decision most managers make on autopilot. Starter struggling in the middle innings, big lefty hitter coming up to the plate, time to bring in the left-handed specialist. Tigers manager Jim Leyland opted to deviate from the script.

Not that the script itself hadn't already taken a few turns. For one thing, the struggling pitcher down 4-1 in the sixth inning of the AL Division Series Game One, Doug Fister, wasn't his starter; he had come in to start the bottom of the second inning in relief of Justin Verlander upon resumption of the suspended 1-1 game from the night before. Aided by a Jorge Posada baserunning gaffe, Fister had overcome a shaky initial frame to retire 10 Yankees in a row into the fifth before a Curtis Granderson single and a Robinson Cano double—one the umpires had to review to make sure it was not a home run—but he was in bigger trouble here. Through 29 pitches he'd gotten two outs but had yielded two runs and loaded the bases when Cano's turn arrived.

The 28-year-old Yankee second baseman has shown virtually no platoon split since the beginning of 2007: .303/.348/.494 against righties, .306/.351/.505 against lefties. That's held true this year as well, as he hit .296/.347/.537 against righties, and .314/.354/.525 against lefties. Faced with such facts, Leyland overlooked his two lefty relievers, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth, and called upon the wonderfully named 25-year-old rookie righty Al Alburquerque, who in his 43 1/3 big-league innings this year struck out an AL-best 13.9 per nine, didn't allow a single homer, and held lefties to a .176/.291/.176line in 81 plate appearances. Those numbers went out the window with Alburquerque's second pitch, an 85 mile per hour slider that Cano smacked for a towering grand slam to right field, breaking the game open to give the Yankees an 8-1 lead.

Asked later why he went to Alburquerque, Leyland had no regrets. “To me, that’s one for everyone else to second-guess. To me that was a no-brainer. If Granderson would have gotten a hit, I would have brought in Schlereth. But after he didn’t, we loaded the bases. Left-handers are hitting .177 off Alburquerque, .200 off Schlereth… Alburquerque has a tremendous ratio of swings and misses… I felt that’s one of the reasons he’s been so valuable for us is he gets both righties and lefties out.”

Not only was the grand slam more than enough for the Yankees to cruise to victory, it allowed them to avoid dipping too deeply into their bullpen in a series whose first travel day has been washed away by Mother Nature, necessitating four straight games played in two cities. Ivan Nova, who came on in relief of CC Sabathia, shut out the Tigers for six innings on two hits before tiring in the ninth and departing after 101 pitches. Nova needed a bit of help from his friends to escape a couple of jams. In the fifth, upon issuing a one-out walk to Alex Avila and a single to Ryan Raburn, Jhonny Peralta's sharp single up the middle sent the Tigers' catcher barreling home. Granderson relayed the ball to Derek Jeter, whose perfect peg home just beat Avila, who  was tagged by Russell Martin before he could get low enough into his slide.

Those were the only two hits Nova allowed until the ninth inning, when Delmon Young's comebacker deflected off his leg. Manager Joe Girardi and the Yankee training staff came out to the mound to check on the pitcher's condition, and while they allowed him to continue, his night was over when he walked Miguel Cabrera and gave up a single to Victor Martinez. Luis Ayala got just one out while allowing two inherited runners to score via singles, forcing Girardi to call upon Mariano Rivera to protect a 9-3 lead with two outs and the bases loaded. It wasn't a save situation, but given that it had taken more than 24 hours to get to this point, one could perhaps forgive Girardi's antsiness. Rivera, acting like a man who had better places to be, dispatched Wilson Betemit with just three pitches to give the Yankees the upper hand in this five-game series.

For much of the night, it looked as though this would be a low-scoring affair. Beyond the two runs carried over from Friday night—Detroit's on a solo homer by Young in the top of the first inning, New York's on a strike three wild pitch to Jeter that allowed him to reach safely, a walk, and a couple of ground outs in the bottom of the first—just one other run, on Cano's fifth-inning double, had been plated through five. The Yankees had squandered a shot at a big inning in the second, when they put two runners in scoring position with a leadoff single by Posada and a double by Martin. Brett Gardner's grounder to third baseman Brandon Inge caught Posada in no-man's land, and the man who our Equivalent Baserunning Runs stat rates as 52 runs below average over the course of his career was meat. Fister recovered to strike out Jeter and Granderson, beginning a dominant stretch in which he whiffed five out of seven hitters.

By the numbers, Fister is not a particularly dominant pitcher; for the year, he struck out 6.1 per nine, 29th out of 42 AL ERA qualifiers. However, he allowed a league-low 0.5 homers per nine, and issued just 1.5 walks per nine, fourth in the league. His strikeout and walk rates took a dramatic turn for the better when he was traded to the Tigers at the July 31 deadline; his walk rate dipped from 2.0 per nine to 0.6, while his strikeout rate rose from 5.5 to 7.3. Only once in his 11 starts with Detroit did he walk more than one hitter; seven times he walked none en route to an eye-popping 57/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

What changed? Looking over his PITCHf/x splits from TexasLeaguers.com, it appears he added an extra mile per hour of velocity across his repertoire, though that could just be a park effect. He nearly doubled his swing-and-miss rate on his two-seam fastball (from 4.4 percent to 8.3), upped his swing-and-miss rate on his curveball (from 8.9 percent to 12.2), and threw about 30 percent more changeups—the pitch which yields his highest swing-and-miss rate at 13.2 percent—after the trade than before.

Not all of that worked tonight, alas. After retiring 10 straight hitters, Fister allowed seven of the next 10 to reach base in the fifth and sixth, via hits on his two-seamer, his four-seamer, and his curve. He also walked two hitters, his first two since September 11, and the first time he'd walked two in one inning since July 21, when he was still with Seattle. Posada drew a one-out walk following Teixeira's leadoff double to the left-field corner, and after Martin grounded out, the floodgates opened. Gardner singled on a curveball that Fister later said he intended to bounce—Leyland called it his only bad pitch of the night—plating two runs to run the lead to 4-1. With second baseman Ryan Raburn covering second on a hit-and-run, Jeter singled through the vacancy on the left side to send him to third, then stole second himself before Granderson's walk loaded the bases.

That rally should give the Yankees some amount of comfort should they face Fister again in Game Five. They head into Sunday afternoon’s Game Two with a slight advantage caused by the weather, in that the two starters scheduled to throw in Detroit will instead do so in the Bronx. Going for the Tigers will be Max Scherzer, a fly-ball-oriented fireballer who posted a 3.80 ERA while allowing 0.9 homers per nine in spacious Comerica Park, but a 5.23 ERA and 1.9 homers per nine on the road, a fairly extreme split. The Yankees' Freddy Garcia’s ERA and homer rate were both higher at home than on the road (3.98 and 1.1, versus 3.27 and 0.8), though much less drastically so.

 After the game, Girardi went most of the way toward settling the Yankees’ rotation questions by saying that he’s planning on bringing back Sabathia for Game Three against Verlander, and “probably” A.J. Burnett for Game Four. Yesterday, I read the addition of the latter as a disproportionate negative for the Yankees relative to their initial plan to bring their ace back on three days’ rest. Upon further review, it appears that the Scherzer switch somewhat counterbalances that. With a 1-0 series lead and the knowledge that they can get to the Tigers' Game Five starter, the Yankees have clearly secured the upper hand.  

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,  Managers Of The Year,  Doug Fister

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