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October 13, 2012
ALCS Preview: Tigers and Yankees
After all that funny business, the American League ultimately settled into a scenario quite easily predicted all along: the Tigers against the Yankees in the ALCS. Not that there aren’t still surprises, even with the A’s and Orioles eliminated. The Tigers, for instance, aren’t the 1,000-run Tigers, but a club built on starting pitching good enough to win even when the offense is scoring only three runs per game. And the Yankees are, by choice, fielding an A-Rod-less team in the most crucial moments. There will be plenty of narratives in this series: The inevitability of Justin Verlander; the Triple Crown winner trying to punctuate the end of his season; the Yankees’ first postseason without Mariano Rivera; slumping veteran stars on the Yankees; the many overachieving adjectives about Derek Jeter; and, as always, Alex Rodriguez. They’re fine narratives, even if they’re not the ones we underdog-lovers were rooting for.
Detroit’s offense was mostly tamed by Oakland’s pitching staff, which struck out 39 Tigers, walked seven, and allowed two home runs in 44 innings. The lineup’s perfectly balanced lefty-righty march had sliiiightly more success against Oakland’s bullpen, but this is a collection that thins out quickly after the fourth hitter. Detroit needs to get an outlandish contribution from their two big bats, a model that worked well during the season before Cabrera and Fielder hit just .220/.273/.341 against Oakland. Typically, we talk about Yankee Stadium as a haven for left-handed power, but Cabrera’s opposite-field punch might play just as well there, where he has hit seven home runs (and slugged .872) in 56 career plate appearances. Four of those home runs have gone the other way. Late-blooming Andy Dirks has emerged as the announcer’s favorite underdog in this lineup, but he’s not all fluff: his .302 TAv would be the second-best in the Yankees’ lineup, and he has played himself into an everyday role thanks to a minimal platoon split. You’ll hear good things about late-blooming Quintin Berry, too, but the June surprise hit .220/.284/.305 in his last 200 plate appearances of the regular season. Austin Jackson helped the Tigers post the AL’s second-best OBP out of the leadoff spot, though he, like the big-boned benefactors batting behind him, posted a sub-.300 figure in the ALDS.
The Yankees’ offense is so good that Joe Girardi can even consider benching Alex Rodriguez; is there another team in baseball that could boast this luxury, 2-for-16 with nine strikeouts or not? Martin is the only member of the lineup with a line below the league average, and even he was above that standard in the second half. Neither Ichiro nor Jeter is still a jackrabbit at the top of the lineup, but Jeter’s OBP this season nearly matches Jackson’s if you include their ALDS performances. Teixeira’s balky calf was strong enough to steal a base against Matt Wieters in Game Five. When a right-hander starts, the Yankees can put Eric Chavez (.908 OPS against them) and Raul Ibanez (.812) in the lineup for a seven-lefty lineup. Pair that with the Yankees’ ballpark and you can understand how the team slugged .461 against righties this year, which, for comparison’s sake, is about what Nelson Cruz and Adrian Gonzalez slugged this year. The Tigers will throw four right-handed starters, and only one lefty-specialist reliever. Prepare for ironic “Too many homers!” tweets.
Jim Leyland left Brennan Boesch off the division series roster in order to fill his bench with “versatility and pinch-runnability and things of that nature.” Presumably that means he wanted Danny Worth (who plays middle infield, like Santiago, but who doesn’t run notably well) or Don Kelly (who played at least an inning at six positions and can catch in a pinch, but who doesn’t run notably well). Each did pinch-run once, and when you look at the Tigers’ starting lineup—lotta heft after the top two spots—you can appreciate the value of even an adequate runner. Santiago didn’t play in the Oakland series, but he's the best defensive replacement for an infielder. Garcia can hit the ball forever, and managed to get into all five ALDS games: twice starting, twice pinch-hitting, once entering as a defensive replacement. He and Berry are almost totally handcuffed to each other, and if the game is close you can bet that one will eventually replace the other for a better matchup.
The Yankees played five very close games and seven extra innings against Baltimore and used Brett Gardner just twice, which shows how hard it can be to find the perfect spot for a pinch-runner. Eric Chavez will likely start a game or more, which puts either Ibanez or Rodriguez on the bench; whichever of the three sits instantly becomes the best pinch-hitter in the series and the sort of late-innings power option managers long for. The Yankees’ lefty tilt, and the Detroit staff’s righty lean, could mean Chavez batting for Martin in close games, and Stewart is a perfectly adequate replacement behind the dish in such cases. As for Nix and Nunez, the former is better with the glove and the latter will hit more; together, they form a sort of reserve platoon. [Updated: Nunez was replaced on the roster by reliever Cody Eppley for the ALCS.]
The Tigers won 63.6 percent of the games that Justin Verlander started this year, but you’d swear going into each of his starts that they are 90 percent or better to win. Here’s the most simplistic way to phrase the stakes of these games: The team that wins Verlander’s starts will probably win the series. Hmm. The team that wins any individual game is about 66 percent likely to win a series, so maybe that’s not such a bold statement. Perhaps a better way to frame the Tigers’ rotation is like this: Justin Verlander gives them a clear advantage in any game he starts. A deep rotation keeps them from being decisive underdogs in any of the other games, though.
Verlander threw 16 innings and allowed one run against Oakland, mercifully nipping any developing narrative about his inability to be an ace in the postseason. He had previously allowed an ERA of at least 5.00 in each of his five postseason series, and after a leadoff home run to Coco Crisp his career postseason stats were: 5.57 ERA, 48 Ks, 20 BBs, eight homers, 42 innings. The next 58 batters he faced, of course, were overmatched: 22 strikeouts, six hits, 36 swinging strikes and no runs. The best hope for an opponent this week might be praying that Verlander's home/road splits are more than statistical noise, as he has a 2.11 ERA at home over the past three years, but 3.42 on the road. Game Seven, Verlander’s second scheduled start, will be on the road.
Doug Fister’s pitch selection is like a European parliamentary election: something has to get the most votes, but there’s no true majority. Rather, he’ll use five pitches frequently, and the ratio can vary significantly from game to game. His two-seamer is his most useful pitch, but against Oakland he threw more curveballs and changeups than usual and, perhaps consequently, turned in the fourth-lowest GB/FB ratio of his season. That’s safe in Oakland, against Oakland; against his ALCS opponents, he’s likely to stay as far away from anything that can land over the wall as he can.
Anibal Sanchez is an effective, low-beta innings eater. Of his 31 starts this year, more than half produced a game score higher than 50 (average) but lower than 65, with nearly a third producing a 56, 57 or 58. For a low-walk, medium-strikeouts pitcher, he’ll still manage to throw a lot of pitches, which matters less with rested October bullpens on call.
To pick the best possible starting point, Max Scherzer had a 2.53 ERA, 11 strikeouts per nine inning, and nearly five strikeouts per walk in his final 19 starts. Right-handers are completely useless against him, which is great news for people who like to see Alex Rodriguez benched.
The Yankees are, quite frankly, getting screwed by MLB’s playoff schedule. While the Tigers ended their series by winning Game 5 on Thursday, the Yankees had to wait until Friday to get their final victory. The result: while Verlander can start games Three and Seven on regular rest, CC Sabathia will have to pitch on short rest once if he wants to pitch in the series twice. Sabathia is hot at the right time, at least. In two ALDS starts, he pitched 17 2/3 innings, striking out 16 and walking three. Miguel Cabrera, for what it’s worth or not worth, is a career .357/.474/.643 hitter against him, in 38 plate appearances. Miguel Cabrera has a lot of splits like that. Just, whenever you need a factoid, flip on Miguel Cabrera’s player page and start picking at the splits.
It’s plausible to conclude that a year off did Andy Pettitte’s arm some good. He had the third-best ERA+ of his career, and between the time off and the injury-shortened season, there’s little worry about fatigue. Well, maybe some worry. His three September starts saw him induce just four, three, and three swinging strikes, the lowest numbers of the year for him. (He got just six in a fine ALDS effort.) Since Pettitte turned 32, he has made 13 postseason starts; he has completed six innings in 12 of them and threw 5 2/3 in the exception.
I was going to make the case that Hiroki Kuroda is vastly underrated, with an ERA+ just a shade below Matt Cain’s over the past three years. But just a shade below Kuroda is Doug Fister, so maybe this string of thoughts should rightfully be a few paragraphs up. Phil Hughes seems like a pretty good pitcher who is unjustly maligned by his demanding home fans, until you reach the Home Runs column of his stat page and you realize the flawed pitcher he really is. His velocity tapered off a bit in the second half, but he mixed in plenty of great starts (including his ALDS outing), so it’s not like the Yankees are counting on a lost cause.
Everybody knows that the Yankees' weakness in October is their starting pitching. Everybody just knows this. It’s a known thing. The Yankees' starters in the ALDS averaged eight innings per start, with a 2.04 ERA. So.
Detroit had the 10th-best bullpen ERA in the AL, and the 13th-best OPS+ against them, and more than any team remaining in the postseason will try like heck to avoid “shortening the game” with early relief appearances. Every pitcher listed above except for Smyly pitched against Oakland (Porcello retired one batter), but overall the Tigers’ bullpen threw just nine innings, compared to 14 for Oakland’s relievers. Valverde has now allowed 10 runs in just under 14 postseason innings; as a Tiger, it’s nine in nine innings. That’s not predictive, but it might have some psychological impact on Jim Leyland; Detroit’s starters might be the only ones going through a lineup a fourth time this week. Righties hit Phil Coke for a .396/.446/.604 line this year, so the team that splits up its lefties will either be absolutely delighted by the results or baffled by the fleeting nature of small-sample splits.
The difference between Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano is a lot smaller than the gap between Soriano and Valverde, so the Yankees won’t have any deficit in handling the ninth inning. Robertson had a huge ALDS, and his pitching-to-relative-contact this year makes him a bit less scary, from the Yankees’ perspective. Those two guys made as many appearances, and pitched twice as many innings, as the rest of the bullpen put together in the past week.
Defense is not the Tigers’ strong suit; they were the league’s fourth-worst team in defensive efficiency, both raw and park-adjusted. Fortunately, or perhaps consequently, Tigers pitchers strike out more batters than anybody. Fifty Athletics struck out in 155 official at-bats. Not that it means much, but to satisfy your curiosity, Tigers defenders held Oakland to a .265 BABIP in the ALDS.
The Yankees have the edge here, but faint praise indeed. The best that can be said about the Yankees is they are strong up half of the middle, with Martin doing good stuff with pitches on the corners, and Cano very strong at second. The worst that can be said is that they’re very weak up the other half of the middle.
Leyland too is known first and foremost as a leader, but BP2012 says that he rests “comfortably in the upper tier of major league managers,” noting his willingness to adapt his tactics to match the personnel he’s given. Some of his lineup decisions in last year’s playoffs were head-scratching (batting Don Kelly second?), but the order he’s been running with lately is solid enough. As long as he doesn’t try to get too clever, Detroit will be in good shape.
As Ben wrote following Game Three, Girardi went with his gut for the defining move of his managerial career; it paid off, and how. What follows might be uncharitable toward Mr. Girardi, but there’s certainly some danger in having such a move pay off. It could start convincing a guy his gut has more power than it truly does. On the other hand, Girardi knows the game, seems to have the respect of those around him, and had the stomach to stir up the inevitable A-Rod controversy that surrounded that decision. Managing fearlessly might be the best skill for October, when the instinct to avoid second-guessers (so many more media!) can otherwise lead to the worst small-ball impulses and uncreative roster usage.
The Yankees have the home-field advantage, but the Tigers have the scheduling advantage. Maybe it comes down to whether you think Alex Rodriguez is a problem to be managed or a valuable major-league baseball player. Yankees over the Tigers.
Derek Carty contributed to this preview.