October 1, 2002
Anaheim Angels vs. New York Yankees
This is a match-up of opposites in many ways, not the least being the teams' post-season histories. The Yankees have won the World Series 26 times, including four of the past six years. To achieve a similar level of dominance, the Angels would have had to win 10 championships in their 41 years of existence. Instead, they enter the playoffs with the most meager post-season tradition of any Divisional Series participant, with three first-round exits in as many tries.
The Angels have overachieved all season, baffling prognosticators and overcoming a 6-14 start to win 99 games and the Wild Card despite playing in the game's toughest division. Meanwhile, the Yankees methodically chewed up AL East competition, posting better than a .600 record every month except June. They overhauled the Red Sox about a week before the All-Star break and weren't seriously challenged the rest of the year.
Both clubs enter the series with their houses in order. Despite some undue nail-biting last week, the season played out perfectly for Anaheim. By clinching the Wild Card before the final weekend, while at the same time trailing Oakland by enough to not have to try to win the division, the Angels were able to rest their regulars and set up their rotation. The Yankees were in an illusory battle with the A's for the league's best record the last week of September, but didn't engage the troops in a fashion that would cause them to enter October in disarray. They finally secured the home field advantage on Sunday and weren't forced to play a makeup game against the Devil Rays on Monday, a contest that would have had as much tension as cold spaghetti.
The series will feature two of the top four offenses in the league, with the Yankees leading the loop in runs scored and the Angels pulling up in fourth place. However, the two teams took vastly different paths to reach those lofty heights.
Anaheim is a batting average-dependent club, topping the AL in hitting while finishing in the lower third in walks and home runs. Finishing the campaign with over 100 fewer strikeouts than the next closest offense in baseball, their game is to lay the bat on the ball and force the defense to make the play. Much of the team's run scoring prowess was due to hitting well with runners in scoring position and making "productive" outs. To win, they'll need that to continue since Yankee hurlers are stingy when it comes to free passes. Any of you interested in reliving your college days by shot-gunning a beer when an Angel batter walks probably won't need to purchase more than a six-pack for the whole week.
Conversely, don't try that stunt when New York is at bat unless you have a designated driver. Primarily due to the addition of Jason Giambi, the Bronx Bombers led the Junior Circuit in both walks and home runs. One through five, their lineup is one of the most dangerous in recent memory. Unlike the Paul O'Neill/Tino Martinez squads that could be effectively neutralized by a lefty starter, this year's version is well balanced from both sides of the plate.
You often see more one-run strategies in a nine-inning playoff game than in a typical regular season week. In any given game, the Angels could fill the quota by themselves. The Halos led the league in sacrifice bunts, while the Yankees generally eschewed giving away outs for bases. To score runs, the Angels are going to have to string together hits and advance runners. Expect Manager Mike Scioscia to use every tactic at his disposal to accomplish this, while Joe Torre and the Pinstripes are more likely to wear pitchers down, wait for a mistake pitch and play for the big inning.
Again, two very different units, with the Angels striving for the versatility to handle any situation, while the Yankees have some guys who can hit the occasional bomb.
Mike Scioscia's entire bench will likely see action at one time or another during the series. The Angels pinch-hit more than any team in the AL, and anybody in the bottom five lineup slots except Troy Glaus could be called back to the dugout depending on the situation. Scioscia took advantage of the 10-man pitching staff to add burner Chone Figgins to the playoff roster and revive the Herb Washington role. The only reserve who will get any starts is Shawn Wooten, who will DH when a southpaw takes the hill.
As for the Yankees... is this the best bench money can buy? Sure, it's a far sight better than when Luis Sojo and Clay Bellinger's biggest October contributions were expelling carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, but it offers little besides a possible platoon advantage for the last two spots in the order. Of course, Joe Torre would just as soon end the game with the same nine that began it, so this is probably unnecessary hand wringing. Nick Johnson will be the designated hitter on the days when Jarrod Washburn isn't pitching. With Shane Spencer nursing a bad hamstring, any other contributions will come from John Vander Wal, who was at one time the best pinch-hitter in baseball.
During the regular season, the clubs sported similarly effective rotations, with Anaheim boasting a team SNVA of 5.7, followed closely by New York at 4.3. However, their talent distributions are quite different. The Yankees received positive contributions not only from the four well-established starters listed above, but also from Orlando Hernandez. Meanwhile, the Angels best work was concentrated in three hurlers--Washburn, Kevin Appier and Ramon Ortiz--with a late-season contribution from rookie John Lackey.
Trying to take advantage of that fact, Scioscia is paring down to a three-man rotation, while keeping open the possibility of using Lackey in Game 4 if the Angels are ahead in the series. With plans for only three days rest between starts, the Yankees' plate discipline and Scioscia's willingness to use his deep bullpen, it will be a minor shock if any Anaheim starter works beyond the sixth inning. Washburn, Appier and Ortiz are all flyball pitchers, so there is an ever-present danger of the Yankee sluggers clearing the fence. The trio needs to make the Yankees earn their baserunners to minimize the damage. A generous strike zone from the home plate umpire would work to their advantage.
In contrast to Scioscia, Torre had a difficult time deciding who to drop from the rotation to reach four starters. Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina have both had down years by their standards, while Hernandez was the team's third best starter and comes with a history of post-season successes. This embarrassment of riches forced Torre to swallow hard and move El Duque to the bullpen. Any and all of New York's four starters are very capable of a lights-out performance during the series. The Angels free-swinging ways should help enable them to hand the ball over to the relievers late in the game.
Although reflected in the pitching numbers, it's worth noting that the two staffs have vastly different glovemen behind them. Anaheim boasts the best defense of any of the eight teams in the playoffs. Their strong group of outfielders, including two legitimate center fielders in Darin Erstad and Garret Anderson, is a dovetail fit for the staff's flyball tendencies. Catcher Bengie Molina's bat makes the Angels faithful long for Jorge Fabregas, but he does a good job of shutting down the running game.
Alternatively, New York's pitchers aren't helped by the only below-average defensive unit still playing baseball. That Yankee pitchers punch out a lot of batters helps mask this Achilles heel, but it's something that could be exploited by a contact-hitting team like the Angels. In non-Pettitte starts, Anaheim will try to steal on Jorge Posada, who was below average in throwing out base thieves. However, the Yankees defensive ratings don't differ dramatically from the units that patrolled the diamond in recent Octobers, and the team from the Bronx has managed just fine, thank you.
The bullpen is a major strength for both teams. Anaheim had the American League's best relief corps in 2002, with New York finishing a few notches down the list. However, there really isn't much separating the two, since the Yankee relievers who fanned the flames didn't make the post-season roster.
Not only did Mike Scioscia assemble a great Angels bullpen using mainly spare parts, but he also had the stones to revamp it over the last month of the season, moving Brendan Donnelly into the primary setup role and recalling hard-throwing Francisco Rodriguez in mid-September. Rodriguez dominated down the stretch, evoking California dreams of Fernando Valenzuela in 1980. Rodriguez' performance and the shortened 10-man staff bumped veterans Al Levine and Dennis Cook from the playoff roster, showing that Scioscia isn't going to let sentimentality dictate his decision-making.
As with the reserves, baseball fans will become very familiar with the entire Angels bullpen over the course of the series. Anaheim's relievers could log nearly as many innings as their starters and not point to a pitching meltdown. Look for Scioscia to take a cue from Torre and have closer Troy Percival work more than one inning, something that happened only four times during the regular season.
The big question mark on the Yankees side entering the series is the soundness of Mariano Rivera's right shoulder. One of the great post-season players of all-time, Rivera was on the disabled list most of the last half of the campaign. Since being activated 10 days ago, he has looked sharp, but won't be pulling any of his famous two-inning stints against the Angels. With Steve Karsay in the fold, that shouldn't be a major problem. The bigger concern is whether Torre will keep using Rivera even if he isn't effective.
If all goes according to script, Ramiro Mendoza will pick up any middle innings before handing it over to the short men. With Hernandez and Jeff Weaver at the far end of the bullpen, that means the Yankees have nearly 350 innings of 3.50 ERA pitching that could go untapped. However, should they ever trail by a large margin early, they have the ability to shut the Angels down and piece together a comeback.
Both teams are carrying just one left-hander in the bullpen. That's happy news for haters of endless relief parades. Scott Schoeneweis' late game target will be Giambi, while Mike Stanton has Garret Anderson in his sights.
Though Anaheim won just five fewer regular season games than New York, this match-up is viewed as the David versus Goliath pairing of the four Divisional Series. Some are comparing the Angels to the 1995 Mariners club that beat the Yankees in a thrilling five game series. It isn't an accurate assessment. The Angels are a better and more complete ballclub; however, they aren't playing the 1995 Yankees, either. With 103 wins and the ability to dominate a game on both sides of the ball, this is the best team to emerge from the Bronx since the 1998 juggernaut.
It's clear from how Scioscia set his roster that he is hoping for a low-scoring series. If he starts employing one-run strategies too early in the games, he virtually guarantees the Angels will fulfill half of his wish. Torre is too patient and experienced to be lured into such a trap, and the Yankees have too many weapons to be kept at bay for three games.
Yankees in four.
Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.