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October 4, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Three: Not Such a Pitchers' Duel

by Jay Jaffe

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On Sunday, it was Miguel Cabrera, one of the league's best hitters, beating Freddy Garcia, a back-of-the-rotation survivor. On Monday, it was Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, and Don Kelly outlasting CC Sabathia, the Yankees ace, with Delmon Young delivering a late kick to the sternum of the Bronx Bombers' bullpen. By stars and by scrubs, the Tigers have taken a 2-1 lead over the Yankees in the AL Division Series, and they stand one A.J. Burnett start away from knocking the league's number one seed out of the postseason.

Game Three wasn't the pitchers' duel between Sabathia and Verlander that we might have expected in that both aces surrendered four runs. Perhaps it was the aftermath of Friday's suspended game or home plate umpire Gerry Davis's strike zone or the nearly 500 innings the two hurlers have under their belts already this season. That isn't to say the game was a dud, however; prior to the considerable late-inning drama, both pitchers were tenacious in their efforts to overcome their mistakes and figure out what was working. In the end, Verlander found a groove; Sabathia did not.

That was not entirely unexpected. In my series preview, I had noted that while the righty Verlander would face no fewer than six Yankee lefty hitters (three natural and three switch-hitters), he torched lefties this year at a .174/.233/.271 clip for an OPS 113 points lower than against righties. Sabathia, on the other hand (literally) would face just one lefty in Alex Avila and was hit much harder by righties (.273/.324/.384) than by lefties (.207/.253/.301) this season. That contrast was a big reason why I predicted the Tigers would win the series in five games.

Early on, however, it was the Yankees who had the upper hand. Verlander had allowed one run on zero hits in the only inning he threw on Friday night; here, he allowed two hits and a run before even recording an out, giving up a first-pitch single to Derek Jeter and then a triple to Curtis Granderson. One strikeout later, Granderson came home on an Alex Rodriguez grounder, giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead against a pitcher who not only allowed all of nine first-inning runs this season but only once allowed more than one after May 2, when these same Yankees plated a pair en route to a win.

Given this surprising bounty of runs, Sabathia tried his best to give it back. Actually, that's not fair. I was at a bar watching the game, and so I couldn't hear much of the telecast, take notes, or check the Internet, but the widespread consensus according to my admittedly partisan Twitter feed and Yankees manager Joe Girardi was that Sabathia was getting squeezed. Mike Fast, who knows far more about this topic than just about anyone (he's a must-follow on Twitter), observed that the uncorrected PitchF/X data—visible via TBS's on-screen graphic as well as MLB's Gameday and Brooks Baseball's up-to-the-minute graphs—reflected a strike zone shift of a couple inches towards the third base side and a couple of inches low, a rather extreme example of the park effects that can confound the system and turn viewers at home into La-Z-Boy La Russas. At the same time, Fast also noted the tendency for most umpires to call different strike zones for left- and right-handed batters, a difference that appeared to have unequal consequences favoring the right-heavy Tigers and working against the lefty-heavy Yankees. Fast concluded that there were really only two egregious calls by Davis, one in favor of each pitcher, with Sabathia getting the benefit of a low strike one call to Inge in the fifth inning and Verlander getting a high strike three call against Robinson Cano in the eighth.

(At Fast's behest, Brooks added a new type of plot showing the deviations of the strike zone).

Sabathia couldn't find a comfort zone with Davis's strike zone and walked three hitters in the first inning, running up his pitch count to 28 in the process. He kept the Tigers off the board thanks to a Santiago double play and a strikeout of Victor Martinez and needed another double play to erase a leadoff walk of Magglio Ordonez in the second. The Tigers finally broke through in the third when the .197-hitting Inge poked a double to left center, Austin Jackson walked, Santiago and Young single, and a double play off the bat of Cabrera plated a run, tying the score at 2-2. By that point it was clear that Sabathia couldn't put hitters away with two strikes; he had reached two-strike counts on eight out of 14 hitters and from there had thrown 17 balls (resulting in four of his walks), nine foul balls, and allowed an RBI single and a groundout while recording just two strike threes. Sabathia's failure to put Inge away with two strikes to start the fifth—even with the help of a low strike one pitch—continued the trend; after a Jackson sacrifice, he scored on a Santiago double to left field, giving the Tigers the go-ahead run.

Verlander, meanwhile, was picking up steam. After the 22-pitch first inning, he needed just 37 pitches to work through the next four frames, facing just 13 hitters and getting the benefit of two double plays. His fifth-inning performance—in which he struck out Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Brett Gardner on a total of 10 pitches—was as dominant an inning as you'll see in this postseason, even though the Yankees mustered just three futile swings between them; Posada didn't even take the bat off his shoulder. At that point, the Tigers' one-run lead looked like 10.

Sending Sabathia out for the sixth inning left Girardi open to second-guessing. The big man's pitch count was only at 99 at that point, but he had allowed 11 out of 23 hitters to reach base. In Girardi's defense, of the next three hitters, two of them (Kelly, who had entered the game for Ordonez in the top of the sixth, and Alex Avila) were lefties sandwiched around righty Jhonny Peralta. On the other hand, the Yankees' A-list relievers were more than rested thanks to his reluctance to use them the day before; milking four innings out of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera, perhaps with a spot of lefty Boone Logan, was certainly feasible and probably preferable on a night where his starter was clearly laboring.

Girardi chose to send Sabathia to the mound, and on the first pitch, Kelly bunted one past him on the second base side for a single. It didn't help that the big man's follow-through carried him to the other side of the mound, but with his bulk and his loss of balance, he looked sluggish and punch-drunk chasing after the ball—an enduring image of the Yankees' futility on this night. Two pitches later, Peralta smoked one off the left field wall for an RBI double, and the Tigers had a 4-2 lead. One sacrifice bunt later, Sabathia's night was done, and Soriano came on to finish the frame.

Down two runs against a pitcher whose high-90s velocity was picking up as the game went on, the Yankees seemed to be cooked after Mark Teixiera and Nick Swisher made two quick outs to start the seventh and Posada fell behind 0-2. The latter had put together good at-bats all series long; even with his previous turn's non-swinging strikeout, he had reached base in six out of 10 plate appearances, and here he battled back for a walk. Two pitches later, Martin took a 100-mph fastball in the ribs, giving the Yankees their first runner in scoring position since the first inning. Up came Gardner, who had been pinch-hit for the day before when the Yankees had two on and were down four runs. This time, Girardi stuck with him, and Gardner battled to a full count before ripping a two-run double into the left center gap, tying the score. Alas, Jeter struck out to end the threat.

Girardi stuck with Soriano, who had needed just eight pitches to get the final two outs of the sixth. When Soriano came back on for the seventh, it was the first time all season he'd sent the mercurial righty back to the mound after sitting between innings. He would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids, by which I mean Young, who pounced on a 95-mph, first-pitch fastball and hit his second solo home run of the series for a 5-4 Detroit lead.

The Yankees still had their shots. Rodriguez, hitless so far in the series but with two RBI, drew a seven-pitch, two-out walk in the eighth inning, pushing Verlander's pitch count to 116 and all but ensuring that Jim Leyland would have to call upon closer Jose Valverde, who had thrown 34 pitches while allowing two runs in an adventurous non-save situation the day before. That would happen, but not before Verlander got his due from the umpire via the high strike three to Cano—a 99-mph fastball that went into the books as the righty's 11th strikeout on the night. It wasn't a work of art, but Verlander's gutty performance was a reminder that you don't earn the title of ace if you can win only when your best stuff is working.

In the ninth, Valverde made it interesting by issuing a one-out walk in the ninth to Posada, who yielded to pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez. Martin hacked at Valverde's first pitch and flew out to right, and while Nunez failed to advance on the flyball, he promptly stole second as Gardner drew a four-pitch walk. With the game on the line, up came Jeter, who had gotten two hits on the night but had also grounded into a double play and struck out. He fell behind 0-2 on a foul and a take, dodged a fastball coming towards his noggin, took a low and inside splitter, and finally, inevitably, flailed at a 94-mph wedge of high cheese as Valverde went into his hyperactive clown act.

And so the Tigers have pushed the Yankees to the brink in a series that has had eerie parallels to their 2006 matchup: the rain in New York, the split, the Tigers taking Game Three when the Yankees' ace lefty showed up with less than his best stuff. The pitching matchup for Game Four, Rick Porcello versus Burnett, isn't exactly one for the annals given the two pitchers' numbers; here's what I wrote the other day:

The 34-year-old righty had an ugly season, putting up a 5.15 ERA thanks to an ugly 1.5 homers per nine. While he pitched to a 4.15 ERA in September, that's misleading; he yielded 1.9 homers per nine in his five starts (two quality starts, his first two in over two months), with a FIP of 4.75, right in line with his 4.81 mark for the season.

The Tigers don't exactly have the ghost of Hal Newhouser to call upon for Game Four, but they had already planned to use Rick Porcello as their fourth starter in this series. Porcello posted a 4.76 ERA and a 4.14 FIP; he was strafed for a .318 BABIP. He did put together a superficially encouraging September, with five straight quality starts and a 3.55 ERA; his .278 BABIP helped cover for a dip to 4.4 strikeouts per nine.

At this point, a loss for the Yankees on Tuesday night will be seen as emblematic of their season, the $200 million team coming up short even with an $82.5 million pitcher starting their must-win game, in part because their $161 million pitcher showed up to the biggest game of the year with less than his best stuff. That's an oversimplification that shorts the Tigers, of course; they have the upper hand right now because they've tamed the Yankee offense, which has scored seven runs in the past two games after piling up nine in Game One. They've gotten the better starting pitching of the two teams, and the benefit of better decisions, or at least fewer mistakes, out of their manager. They're one win away from pulling off a result that would seriously shake up the AL playoff table.

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:  Yankees,  Righty,  Gutty,  The Who,  Double Switch,  The Call-up,  Call-up,  Two Strikes

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