October 7, 2012
Orioles-Yankees Division Series Preview
Try to put Jeffrey Maier out of your mind, no matter how many replays of him and Tony Tarasco you see over the next few days. Yes, the last time the Yankees and Orioles met in October was quite some time ago, and no, they haven’t moved in the same competitive circles much since. We didn’t expect this matchup six months ago, or six weeks ago, or even six days ago. But the Orioles have won just one fewer game to get to this point, and the two teams have split their season series so far. They'll start a new series this evening in Baltimore. Is it finally time to stop worrying about run differential and learn to believe in Baltimore?
The Orioles’ offense is the poor man’s Yankees’ offense (which is not to say that Peter Angelos is poor). Both teams score their runs the same way: via the home run. The Yankees (48.4 percent) and Orioles (47.3 percent) scored the highest and second-highest percentages of their runs via the home run this season. That led to a lot of hand-wringing about both teams’ ability to score in October, when the caliber of pitching improves and teams supposedly can’t “sit back and wait for the three-run homer.” However, as I wrote earlier this season, there’s nothing to the idea that teams that rely on the home run lose a disproportionate amount of offense in October. Expect to see plenty of balls fly out of Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards in this series.
However, the fact that both teams can go deep doesn’t mean they’re equally potent at the plate. The Yankees walk considerably more and whiff considerably less, which makes a major difference: the Bombers’ .279 TAv is the highest mark among the remaining contenders, while the O’s .259 TAv tops only the Braves’ and Reds’ (though they were at their best offensively at the end of the year).
The Yankees’ strength starts at the top, where Jeter defied Father Time with his best offensive season since his MVP-caliber 2009. Ichiro’s success in pinstripes allowed the Yankees to push Granderson and Swisher, who split most of the season in the no. 2 slot, down in the lineup. Rodriguez suffered another season of declining playing time and production—be prepared for plenty of boos in the Bronx if he gets off to a slow start in the series. Joe Torre made a reactionary and ill-advised move when he batted a slumping A-Rod eighth in the 2006 ALDS, but Girardi would be justified were he to slide him down to seventh. Cano was my third-place pick for AL MVP, and the return of Teixeira (who’s still at some risk to reinjure his calf) gives the Yankees all of their offensive weapons in the same lineup, something they haven’t had often this season. Martin and Ibanez (against righties) at the bottom are something like league average, which is about as bad as this lineup gets. The Yankees can easily avoid batting same-handed hitters back to back, making it difficult for opposing managers to neutralize them with a situational arm, though they are about 20 points of OPS weaker against southpaws as a group.
McLouth has been unexpectedly competent for the Orioles since he signed with them in June after being released by the Pirates, Machado has been better than anyone could have expected a 20-year-old with no experience above Double-A to be, and Wieters and Davis have done their best hitting of late, but this is still a lineup with only one hitter who makes opposing pitchers quiver (the bad kind of quiver, not the "opposing pitcher at the plate" kind). The Orioles’ lineup has no platoon split to speak of and is probably even less susceptible to matchups than the Yankees’, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.
Nunez will likely get the Game Two start at DH against Chen, the only lefty in the O’s rotation. He has a .302 TAv against southpaws this season, but A) it’s a very small sample (55 PA), and B) it’s all BABIP-based. Yankees scouts like Nunez, but in light of his limited defensive value and lackluster past production, it’s hard to see why. Chavez is the likeliest candidate to pinch-hit for Martin at some point in the series, which would get Chris Stewart—like Martin, a plus framer behind the plate—into the game. Gardner, who missed most of the season with a right elbow injury, will play the Dave Roberts role, coming off the bench as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner—a role in which his 82 percent career stolen-base success rate will serve him well. He and Nunez give the Yankees some semblance of speed, which—Ichiro aside—is in short supply in the starting lineup. Nix is the jack of all positions who seems like a lock to make the roster after recovering more quickly than expected from a hip flexor strain. Notably absent as a result of Nix’s return is Andruw Jones, whose second half this season (.142/.256/.255) looked nothing like the 2011 second half that convinced the Yankees to bring him back (.291/.416/.612).
Sabathia showed some unaccustomed signs of strain this season, serving two stints on the DL and reaching the 200-inning mark—which he usually blows by with several starts remaining—without an out to spare. His velocity declined by roughly a mile and a half per hour, and perhaps as a result, his home-run rate rose to a career-high .99 per nine innings. His other peripherals remained strong, however, and he finished the season with three straight eight-inning outings and a 28:4 K:BB, which restored Yankees fans’ faith in his ability to be dominant. He’ll pitch Game Five, if necessary.
Sixteen years ago, a 24-year-old Andy Pettitte started Game One of the ALCS against the Orioles. One year ago, a retired, 39-year-old Andy Pettitte threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game Two of the ALDS against the Tigers. And on Monday, a 40-year-old, unretired Andy Pettitte will start Game Two of the ALDS against the Orioles. Something seems off about that sequence of events, but Pettitte is no nostalgia act. Pettitte didn’t make his first start until mid-May, and he missed almost three months after a line drive fractured his left fibula in late June. But when he was active, he pitched as well as he had in any season since his early 30s. Pettitte already holds the all-time records for postseason starts, innings, and wins, and the memories of all those Pettitte starts past have given some Yankees fans the sense that even when he’s pitching poorly, he’ll find a way to limit the damage and grit his way through five or six innings. That’s not necessarily the case—Pettitte has made five playoff starts in which he failed to go four innings, and seven in which he allowed five runs or more—but on the whole, Petitte has pitched to a 3.86 ERA in the regular season, and a 3.83 ERA in postseason play. Given the heightened level of competition in the playoffs, merely sustaining the same ERA in October is an accomplishment.
Kuroda for one year and $10 million proved to be one of the winter’s best signings—he likely would have started Game Two had Girardi not wanted to get him a little extra rest (and avoid giving Pettitte too much). Phil Hughes spent another season as something of a cipher—he looked good in the middle months of the season but struggled early and late. Hughes allowed 1.65 HR/9, second only to Ervin Santana among qualified pitchers, so we could see some fireworks in Game Four (although oddly enough, Hughes has given up most of his homers on the road).
A healthy Hammel is a big boost to Baltimore—the righty was one of the biggest surprises of a surprising season, and the team’s most effective starter when healthy. The sinker he’s picked up this season has made him the best groundballer in either team’s rotation, and the most likely to keep the Yankees’ home-run bats at bay. Although he hasn’t appeared in a real game since September 11th and will be wearing a knee brace, he’s simulated enough games and had enough bullpen sessions that he doesn’t expect to be on a pitch count.
Chen and Gonzalez are league-average-ish arms, at least the equals of Hughes, but no matches for the top three starters in the Yankees’ rotation. That leaves Tillman, who had so much success down the stretch that it seems likely he’ll get the call in Game Four. While he’s not exactly a ticking time bomb, his .221 BABIP was the second-lowest among starters with at least 80 innings pitched this season. Showalter hasn’t officially announced whom he’ll start after Gonzalez, and he might be best-served by going back to wild-card game starter Joe Saunders, who gave his manager no reason to regret his choice.
The popular notion in New York that Mariano Rivera has been the most crucial component of the Yankees’ success since the mid-90s may have taken a bit of a blow in 2012, as Soriano stepped up in his absence and delivered a season that resembled (if not quite equaled) vintage Rivera. Of course, all it would take is one blown save in October to make Yankees fans miss Mo a lot more. David Robertson remains an elite setup man whose season was seen as somewhat disappointing only because of how good he was in 2011, and Chamberlain has shown signs of his old dominance, finishing the season with 11 consecutive scoreless appearances. Logan and Rapada give the Yankees a couple left-handed options with McLouth, David, and Thome at the plate. Logan, who led the AL in appearances, is more often allowed to face right-handed hitters, while Rapada, who pitched for the Orioles last season, fits the true LOOGY mold. One of the few questions about Joe Girardi’s plans for the roster was whether Lowe would get the nod over Cody Eppley; Lowe has pitched well out of the pen for New York and would give Girardi a go-to arm when he needs a groundball.
As Derek Carty and I discussed in a pair of articles prior to the play-in game, the bullpen has been the difference-maker for the Orioles, helping them to their extraordinary success in one-run and extra-inning games and giving them a 74-0 record when leading after seven innings. Yankees relievers threw the fewest innings of any AL team’s; the Orioles’ relievers threw 30 more innings than any other postseason club’s (though that’s the sign of a shaky rotation as well as a capable relief corps). Of course, while the Orioles’ pen holds the obvious edge in performance to date, they aren’t immune to regression: as Derek pointed out after Jim Johnson’s shaky ninth on Friday, the Orioles’ closer is hardly an unhittable force.
Brian Matusz, who’s held lefties to a .175 batting average and a .194 TAv in 123 plate appearances this season, will see plenty of Cano, Granderson, & Co., and Darren O’Day, whose submarine delivery has made him almost as effective against righties, can neutralize Jeter and Rodriguez. Luis Ayala has backed up what looked like a fluky year for the Yankees with an even better one for Baltimore, as he seems to have recovered the pinpoint control he showed for the Expos and Nationals early in his career. And then there’s Tommy Hunter, whose four-seamer averaged nearly 97 mph out of the bullpen in September after averaging about 90.5 as a starter in April.
The Orioles’ defense converted 69.8 percent of balls in play into outs in 2011. That figure improved to 71.5 percent this season. That might not sound like that much, but with over 4500 balls in play allowed, it amounts to roughly 78 extra outs. If you think the Orioles’ run differential is underwhelming now, imagine what it would look like if all those outs had been baserunners instead. The Orioles’ error rate dropped in the second half, for which Buck Showalter credited the arrivals of Manny Machado (a natural shortstop stationed at third) and Nate McLouth and the improved play of Mark Reynolds at first. For what it’s worth, Reynolds’ -15.1 FRAA doesn’t match his rehabilitated reputation. Make of single-season FRAA totals what you will (as long as “what you will” comes with a sizeable grain of salt), but J.J. Hardy’s 19.6 ranked third among all players.