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October 12, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Five Preview: Orioles at Yankees

by Daniel Rathman

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With a pitching matchup of two no. 4 starters in a hitter-friendly ballpark, Game Four had the ingredients to become a slugfest. Instead, the Orioles and Yankees combined for only three runs in a 2-1, 13-inning Baltimore win that set the stage for Game Five this afternoon. To get you ready before first pitch, here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for the winner-take-all Game Five:

Orioles (Jason Hammel) vs. Yankees (CC Sabathia) – 5:00 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Yankees 70.4 percent, Orioles 29.6 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Orioles vs. Sabathia (L)

Yankees vs. Hammel (R)

Nate McLouth, LF (L)

Derek Jeter, SS (R)

J.J. Hardy, SS (R)

Ichiro Suzuki, LF (L)

Adam Jones, CF (R)

Robinson Cano, 2B (L)

Matt Wieters, C (S)

Mark Teixeira, 1B (S)

Mark Reynolds, 1B (R)

Raul Ibanez, DH (L)

Chris Davis, RF (L)

Nick Swisher, RF (S)

Manny Machado, 3B (R)

Curtis Granderson, CF (L)

Lew Ford, DH (R)

Russell Martin, C (R)

Robert Andino, 2B (R)

Eric Chavez, 3B (L)

That PECOTA favors the Yankees in what, at least compared to most other games during the first round, can be labeled a landslide should come as no surprise. Joe Girardi’s team is playing at home, has its ace on the mound, and fields a lineup replete with power threats, while O’s will pin their hopes on Hammel and a starting nine that will likely include journeymen outfielders McLouth and Ford. But the model, like most others, has been underestimating these Orioles since Opening Day, and the star-studded Yankees are nowhere near peak form.

Well, the hitters aren’t, anyway—Sabathia and the pitchers have mostly done their part. The big lefty tossed 8 2/3 innings in New York’s Game One victory, allowing only two runs on eight hits and a walk, while striking out seven. And yet, the Yankees could not seal the win for Sabathia until Orioles closer Jim Johnson served up a five-run, ninth-inning rally. Considering that Cano, Rodriguez, Swisher, Martin, and Granderson combined to go 1-for-24 at the plate in Thursday’s loss, Sabathia may need to be even sharper for the junior circuit’s no. 1 seed to avoid an upset.

In most cases, when a pitcher records 26 outs and holds the opposition to two runs, there is little cause for concern. But one thing stands out in the above pitch breakdown from Brooks Baseball: Sabathia’s four-seam fastball sat at 91.87 mph—a notch below his 93.06-mph regular-season average—and he induced only one swing-and-miss in 39 tries, about half his regular-season whiff rate of 4.8 percent. The 32-year-old overcame the lack of oomph on his heater thanks to a sharp slider and changeup, as well as a quality sinker that resulted in 15 groundball outs. But a slower fastball puts greater emphasis on command, and if Sabathia’s four-seamer does not regain its normal velocity, his margin for error will once again be reduced.

Fortunately for Sabathia, though, Baltimore’s mashers have looked as out of sorts as New York’s. Jones and Wieters are just 4-for-36 in the series, with only one extra-base hit between them, and Davis went 0-for-6 with a hat trick on Thursday night. On a night when the big bats fell silent, the heroes were Machado and Hardy—whose doubles produced the winning run in the 13th—and McLouth, who collected more extra-base knocks in Game Four than his aforementioned middle-of-the-order teammates have amassed in four games.

The left fielder’s reward? He gets the nod in the Matchup of the Game. Including Game One, a single plate appearance on Sept. 8, and a meeting on Aug. 31, 2008—when he was a Pirate and Sabathia was leading the Brewers’ charge with a spate of three-days’ rest assignments down the stretch—McLouth is 2-for-8 against Sabathia with a double and three strikeouts. In those eight trips to the box, McLouth has seen almost as many sliders (19) as fastballs and sinkers (21), and Sabathia held true to that balanced approach while limiting McLouth to a 1-for-4 outing five days ago.

If Sabathia can keep McLouth off the base paths and keep the pressure on the already pressing Jones and Wieters, he should deliver a worthy encore to his Game One performance. Otherwise, he’ll need help from his offense, which put eight men on in 5 2/3 innings against Hammel in the opener, but only plated two of them.

The 30-year-old Hammel, who was making his first start since leaving with an injury on Sept. 11, was uncharacteristically wild in Game One, tying a season-high with four walks.

Interestingly, his pitch breakdown shows the exact opposite problem from Sabathia’s: an inability to elicit swings-and-misses on his breaking pitches. Hammel turned to his slider and curveball 36 total times on Sunday, and while the Yankees took or fouled off 14 of them, they did not whiff.

Of course, Hammel figures to be sharper tonight, with a postseason outing now under his belt and the rust of four weeks away from the mound having worn off. And that means the Yankees will have to earn their runs with homers or multi-hit rallies, the former previously a strength, the latter a problem all season.

Girardi’s starting lineup for the series finale is anyone’s guess, and should have most Yankees fans glued to their beat writers’ Twitter feeds in the hours before the game. Will Rodriguez and Granderson start? Will Jeter’s ailing foot be healthy enough for him to play short? Will the batting order be juggled yet again? All of those questions should be answered by midday, and we will rerun the above PECOTA simulation to reflect the actual lineup once it’s posted.

One Cinderella story, the Athletics’, came to an end at the hands of Justin Verlander and the Tigers last night. Now, the Orioles’ magical tale is at Sabathia’s mercy, in a pitching-dominated series where a single crooked number could seal the deal.

Update (1:47 p.m. ET): The Yankees lineup is now updated to reflect the actual one. According to PECOTA, the differences resulted in a 1.9 percent drop in 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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