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October 11, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Four Preview: Orioles at Yankees

by Daniel Rathman

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Game Three was about Joe Girardi’s decision to pinch-hit Raul Ibanez, and Ibanez’s story was this: three pitches seen, two home runs hit, one victory delivered. The Yankees are a win away from bouncing the Orioles and advancing to the ALCS. Will they wrap up the series tonight? Here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Four:

Orioles (Joe Saunders) vs. Yankees (Phil Hughes) – 7:30 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Yankees 68.1 percent, Orioles 31.9 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Orioles vs. Hughes (R)

Yankees vs. Saunders (L)

Nate McLouth, LF (L)

Derek Jeter, DH (R)

J.J. Hardy, SS (R)

Ichiro Suzuki, LF (L)

Chris Davis, RF (L)

Mark Teixeira, 1B (S)

Adam Jones, CF (R)

Robinson Cano, 2B (L)

Matt Wieters, C (S)

Alex Rodriguez, 3B (R)

Jim Thome, DH (L)

Nick Swisher, RF (S)

Mark Reynolds, 1B (R)

Russell Martin, C (R)

Ryan Flaherty, 2B (L)

Curtis Granderson, CF (L)

Manny Machado, 3B (R)

Jayson Nix, SS (R)

Baltimore’s Cinderella story has been one of the year’s finest, but PECOTA expects the clock to strike midnight on its season tonight. Of course, the system had similar feelings about the O’s chances in their one-game wild-card playoff against the Rangers, and we all know how that turned out.

Saunders, who once again gets the ball with his back against the wall, navigated the Rangers’ potent lineup with aplomb on Oct. 5, outdueling Yu Darvish by holding Texas to just one run in 5 2/3 innings. It was his first victory in hitter-friendly Arlington, and a similar approach may serve him well at Yankee Stadium, where Saunders owns a 5.82 ERA in six starts. 

What, exactly, is that approach? As the pitch-numbered plot above, from Brooks Baseball, shows, Saunders tried to coax right-handed batters into chasing pitches off the outside corner every time he earned a first-pitch strike. The Rangers obliged often enough, enabling the southpaw to cruise deeper into the game than most anyone expected despite inducing only five swings-and-misses on 72 pitches.

A-Rod is one righty who has given Saunders trouble in the past, and he is certainly motivated after being pulled from Game Three in favor of the now-revered Ibanez. That’s why Saunders versus Rodriguez is the Matchup of the Game. The third baseman is 7-for-16 lifetime against the southpaw, with two doubles, two home runs, one walk, and four strikeouts.

As you can see in the table on the afore-linked Matchup Tool page, Saunders has primarily attacked Rodriguez with his fastball and sinker, using those two pitches a combined 71 percent of the time. The explanation for his reliance on the hard stuff may lie in the homers, both of which came during the 2009 regular season, on a curveball and a changeup. Saunders has thrown a first-pitch fastball or sinker in each of the last seven times he has squared off with Rodriguez, so don’t be surprised if A-Rod sits dead red in early counts. The southpaw might be wise to mix things up to keep Rodriguez off balance.

Meanwhile, Hughes ended the regular season on a low note, allowing at least four runs in each of his last three starts, which came against the relatively feeble Blue Jays and Twins. He faced the Orioles four times, twice in September, and logged a 4.76 ERA over 22 2/3 innings. The 26-year-old’s Achilles heel, both at Yankee Stadium and against the Orioles, is the home-run ball: he served up five to Baltimore and 22 in just 98 2/3 frames in the Bronx. 

Here’s Hughes’ PITCHf/x plot from his loss to the Orioles on Sept. 2:

One might be tempted, based on this chart, to encourage Hughes to keep the ball down—but that’s a futile suggestion: the righty lives and dies in the upper half of the strike zone. When he hits Martin’s glove, on the edges of the zone, he gets by. When he doesn’t, he gets in trouble, as he did in that outing against the Orioles, when Reynolds smacked two home runs. When you live with Hughes, you live dangerously, and the righty’s command could prove pivotal in Game Four.

Update (4:11 p.m. ET): The Yankees lineup is now updated to reflect the actual one. The change resulted in a 0.6 percent increase in New York's win probability.

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

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