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October 9, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Two Recap: Orioles 3, Yankees 2

by Ben Lindbergh

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If the Yankees’ win on Sunday was a statement, it wasn’t one that made much of an impression on the Orioles. A day after seeing their closer savaged by the Yankees’ bats, the Orioles responded with a patented One-Run Win™—their 30th of the season—to even the series. Wei-Yin Chen wasn’t dominant, but he was adept at avoiding the big blow. Andy Pettitte crafty leftied and veteran moxied his way through seven innings despite not having his best breaking stuff or command, but the O’s timed their hits a bit better and had a couple more balls bounce their way. That was enough for a lead, which—this time—Baltimore’s bullpen preserved. Jim Johnson, who appeared to have a much better feel for his sinker, redeemed himself for Sunday’s sloppy effort with a perfect ninth.

The Orioles can’t be upset about splitting their home games, though the task ahead of them—winning two out of three on the road, with Hiroki Kuroda on Wednesday and a Game Five Sabathia start looming—will be even harder. Still, if Game One showed that the Orioles’ formula for regular-season success isn’t foolproof, Game Two demonstrated that they’re not out of their depth. As Colin Wyers joked on Twitter, the Orioles’ Pythagorean Record for the ALDS is .264. Is anyone surprised that they’re outperforming it again?

On to the bullet points:

  • Someone could write a doctoral thesis on Wei-Yin Chen’s four-seam fastball. Seemingly to a man, every hitter who faces him says his fastball looks two-to-four miles per hour faster than its radar reading. Maybe it’s his high arm angle or deceptively low-effort delivery. Maybe he releases the pitch particularly close to home plate (like David Robertson does). Maybe it’s the contrast between his four-seamer and changeup. Whatever the explanation is, many other pitchers with average velocity could benefit from the same ability.

    Here's one more workable hypothesis: the effectiveness of Chen's four-seamer could have something to do with how high he throws it. High four-seamers tend to get hit for homers—which has been a problem for Chen—but they also induce more whiffs. And here's Chen’s most frequently used two-pitch sequence this season: one high four-seamer followed by a second high four-seamer.  

    Those red and brown boxes on the right—each of which represents a block of 100 at-bats—indicate that he’s gone back to that sequence more and more often as the season has progressed. Chen can’t succeed when he relies solely on his fastball—as Daniel Rathman pointed out yesterday, the Yankees hit him hard on September 7th, when four out of every five pitches he threw were four-seamers. Last night, 63 percent of his offerings were fastballs, which was just enough to avoid falling behind hitters and not so many that he became completely predictable.

  • The Darren O’Day-Brian Matsusz righty-lefty pairing continued to impress, as the two combined to bridge the gap between Chen and Johnson with 1 2/3 scoreless innings. O’Day came in to get A-Rod and struck him out for the second straight night, while Matusz added another K of Curtis Granderson. (Oddly, Showalter brought Matusz in to face Cano, only to have him issue an intentional walk to get to the switch-hitting Swisher.) The showdowns between a team’s top situational arms and its opponents’ sluggers are some of the most exciting storylines in postseason play. O’Day knows he’s going to face A-Rod, and A-Rod knows he’s going to face O’Day. You have to figure each player has spent considerable time studying the other’s tendencies, preparing for a face-off that won’t last more than a minute or two but could easily alter the course of a game. And then we get to watch all that preparation play out, not once but multiple times, as each adjusts to what happened the last time they tangled.

    How good has Matusz has been against left-handed hitters? Here are the five relievers with the lowest rate of innings pitched per appearance in 2012 (minimum 30 innings overall), along with the TAvs to which they’ve held lefties:

    Name

    IP/G

    TAv vs. LHB

    Randy Choate

    .48

    .194

    Javier Lopez

    .51

    .183

    Tim Byrdak

    .54

    .207

    Clay Rapada

    .54

    .194

    Joe Thatcher

    .57

    .228

    These are the most specialized of the specialists, the guys who have the job of going into games, getting lefties out, and leaving. That one task doesn’t give them many chances to contribute, relative to their teammates, which means they have to be really good at the one thing they do to preserve their place on the roster. Matusz has been just as good at that that thing as they have—like Choate and Rapada, he’s held southpaws to a .194 TAv. The difference is that most of his work against lefties this season came as a starter, which makes it all the more impressive.

  • This was the 20th Yankees-Orioles game of the season, and the first in which neither team hit a home run. Bold prediction: a home run will be hit in Game Three.
  • Prior to Game Two, Curtis Granderson had batted everywhere from first to seventh in Joe Girardi’s lineups this season, but he hadn’t batted eighth. On Monday night, with a lefty on the mound and Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira in the Bombers’ fully operational lineup, he added the “batting eighth” badge to his collection. Granderson hit 43 home runs this season. The seven other players who batted eighth for playoff teams in Game Twos combined for 42. Yeah, the Yankees can hit.
  • Alex Rodriguez missed some more fat fastballs, but he did hit a couple balls hard. According to Craig Sager, who occasionally doubles as a reporter as well as a wearer of suits, he spent much of the day working with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long on putting more weight on his back leg. Maybe that will help his timing, but it still seems like the Yankees would be better served by batting him lower in the lineup. At this point in his career, it doesn’t make much sense to give Rodriguez five plate appearances if it means Robinson Cano gets four.  
  • Pick a point, any point, in a game: how well a pitcher has pitched through that point tells us a lot less than we think about how he’ll pitch after that point. In most cases, we shouldn’t expect a pitcher who’s been unusually good for the first, say, six innings to pitch any better than usual in the seventh. And by the time a starter gets to the seventh, hampered both by fatigue and the familiarity of opposing batters, “the usual” is worse than what you’d expect to get from an average reliever. Showalter let Chen start the seventh after 96 pitches; by the time he’d allowed a leadoff double to Eduardo Nunez, he’d thrown 102 and was about to embark on his

    fourth time through the order. Buck left him in for two more batters, one of whom, Derek Jeter, hit an RBI single. It could have been worse. I was surprised to see how long Showalter left Joe Saunders in the wild-card game, and extending Chen was the same story. Baltimore has a good bullpen, and in October, Showalter shouldn’t be afraid to go to it early. Without a quicker hook, he’s going to get burned.

  • It’s easy to imagine most one-run games going the other way, and this one was no exception. In fact, most of the hits by both teams came very close to not happening. We're gonna need a montage:


    Game of inches!

  • Ichiro is inherently interesting. He managed to reach base multiple times without hitting the ball out of the infield, and his acrobatic approach to home plate in the top of the first was the most memorable play of the game. It was also another example of a few inches making all the difference—as Mitchel Lichtman pointed out, Ichiro had only a passing acquaintance with the baseline as it was.

    Unfortunately, reading Ichiro’s explanation of his thought process during the play wasn’t quite as exciting as the play itself: “I knew that if I just ran into home, that it would be an out. So, if I did this, then maybe I might be safe, is what I was thinking.” Ah, now it all becomes clear.

  • If you’re wondering why Derek Jeter continues to win Gold Gloves despite being historically bad at defense, the answer—well, one of the answers—is that he doesn’t make many errors. It’s much more noticeable when a player gets to a ball and lets it go by than it is when he doesn’t reach it at all. You rarely hear anyone say something non-glowing about Jeter’s glove when he’s not getting to balls, but when he’s bobbling them (as he did in Game One) or throwing them away (as he did in Game Two), even he isn’t immune to criticism. However, that doesn’t happen often: 20 shortstops have played at least 4000 innings at the position over the past five seasons, and only four of them have made fewer errors than Jeter. His hands are just fine—it’s his lack of quickness that causes problems. Poor range is the heart disease of defense: it’s the leading cause of difficulties, but it often goes undiagnosed.
  • One of the shortstops who made fewer errors than Jeter over that span is J.J. Hardy, who has both good hands and good range (he ranked third in the majors in FRAA this season). Hardy made a rare fielding error in yesterday’s game, but he also made a more notable error on the basepaths.

    Rodriguez deked Hardy into thinking Jeter had fielded the ball—which, in light of Jeter’s range, speaks highly of his acting skills—but Hardy erred in even looking at A-Rod. His eyes should have been on third-base coach DeMarlo Hale, who never stopped waving him home. So that was another time that the game could have gone differently than it did, though things evened out an inning later, when Mark Teixeira’s sore calf forced him to stop at third instead of scoring on a Granderson single and enabled Chen to get out of a jam unscathed.

  • I’ll be covering Game Three from the Stadium instead of my couch, which means that not only will I be wearing pants, I’ll be milling about with a bunch of other writers in a room full of pantsless players. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to ask as your emissary, I’m all ears.  

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

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Yankees,  Orioles

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