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October 13, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Recap: Yankees Defeat Orioles

by Ben Lindbergh

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One night after the American League’s other surprise team saw its season brought to end by Justin Verlander, the Orioles suffered the same fate courtesy of CC Sabathia. If you’re a Yankees or Tigers fan (or an executive at TBS or FOX), you’re probably pleased with the way things turned out. If you’re anyone else, you might be mourning the underdogs. Like the A’s, the Orioles pushed their opponent to the brink: all told, the Yankees outscored the O’s by just four runs in 23 head-to-head games this season. But in the end, the better team advanced.

The Yankees scored single runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh—aside from their five-run outburst in the ninth inning of Game One, all of their scoring in this series came in dribs and drabs. DH Raul Ibanez, starting for the first time since Game One, got the Yankees on the board with a grounder up the middle that barely skipped by second baseman Robert Andino, scoring Mark Teixeira from second.

Texieira was on second because he’d led off with a single and then stolen it. The steal was unexpected—both by Baltimore and by Ibanez—which is why it worked so well. Teixeira had never so much as attempted a steal in his 35 previous postseason games, and he’d been nursing a tender calf that had visibly slowed him up earlier in the series. He’s averaged just two steals per season in his 10-year career, and stole two in 2012. In other words, he’s about the last player on the roster one would have expected to change a game with his legs, unless it was by being too slow to score, as he was in Game Two.

When Teixeira has tried to swipe a base, though, he’s succeeded almost 78 percent of the time. According to Girardi, he and Teixeira had discussed the possibility a day or two before, and Girardi had told him, “If you think you can get it, go ahead, go get it.” The Orioles weren’t holding Teixeira on, and he picked the perfect pitch to run on: a 76-mph curveball.  It was a smart small-ball play by a player and a team better known for their big bats.

The next inning, Derek Jeter drew a one-out walk, and Ichiro Suzuki drove him in with a double to center. Cano struck out looking, and Hammel intentionally walked Mark Teixeira, putting men on first and second with two outs. With the left-handed Raul Ibanez due up, Buck Showalter brought in southpaw Troy Patton. That led to one of a couple times in the game I would’ve done something differently than Joe Girardi did. Ibanez disappeared into the dugout during the pitching change, and I expected to see Alex Rodriguez emerge. Benching A-Rod in order to set up a platoon advantage over the Orioles’ starter was defensible, but calling on him here—the mirror opposite of the late-inning move that led to such success in Game Three—seemed like the obvious move to me. Instead, Girardi stayed with Ibanez, who struck out swinging on a curve in the dirt.

If Girardi wouldn’t want Rodriguez over Ibanez with Patton on the mound, pinch-hit penalty and all, I wonder when he would want him. Is A-Rod’s hand still hurt? Has Girardi’s confidence in him eroded to such an extent that he wouldn’t want him at the plate even with the platoon advantage in his favor? If so, will we see him starting at all in the ALDS against the Tigers’ all-righty rotation? And what about 2013?

Okay, A-Rod rant over. With one out in the seventh, Curtis Granderson homered to deep right. Granderson entered the game 1-for-16 with nine strikeouts, but with the right-handed Hammel on the mound, Girardi resisted any temptation to bench him. As the skipper explained, “a lot of his struggles were off of lefties, and he had some pretty good at-bats off Hammel over at their place and during the course of their season.” Leaving Granderson in the lineup didn’t rise to the level of a good move, but benching him would’ve been a bad one.

I could give you plenty of glowing post-game quotes about Sabathia’s performance, but they’d sound a lot like the things people said about Sabathia after Game One, or after his five starts in October 2009, or after his performance down the stretch in 2008 that propelled the Brewers into the playoffs. Sabathia likes to take the ball in big games, and he generally pitches well in those games because he generally pitches well, period. He was even more overpowering in Game Five than he had been in Game One, facing just one over the minimum (Nate McLouth, naturally) and throwing only 82 pitches through the first seven innings.

The closest the O’s came to scoring to that point had been Nate McLouth’s near homer with two outs in the sixth. From where I was sitting, I thought the ball had landed fair, and the replays I saw at the park seemed to suggest that it had grazed the foul pole. After subjecting the clip to Zapruder-style study at home, though, I’m convinced that the umpires made the right call when they reviewed the replay and let the initial call stand. Crew chief Brian Gorman said “There was no evidence to overturn the decision,” and I’m inclined to agree.

In the eighth, things got interesting. Matt Wieters led off with a single, and Manny Machado walked on five pitches. Sabathia’s control appeared to be slipping. He rebounded to strike out Mark Reynolds (whose career-low regular-season K rate didn’t carry over to the ALDS), then allowed an RBI single to Lew Ford and an infield single to Robert Andino that loaded the bases. That brought up Yankees nemesis McLouth, almost the only Oriole who hit in this series. Sabathia struck him out on four pitches. That brought up J.J. Hardy, a right-handed hitter. David Robertson was warmed and standing in the bullpen, waiting for a summons that wouldn’t come.

After the game, Girardi was asked how close he came to pulling Sabathia. He said:

If Hardy gets a hit there, I am thinking of pulling him there.  He had done a good job on Jones, but I just wanted to make sure that the inning didn't get away.  But I had Robby up for Hardy, and that is the first guy I might have brought him in for, not before that.  CC was going and it was his game. 

I would’ve called for Robertson, but Girardi’s way worked: Sabathia got Hardy to ground out, ending the threat. You’d think, having come so close to taking Sabathia out in the eighth, Girardi definitely would have made a move for the final inning. But while he did have Rafael Soriano warming and prepared to come in at the first breath of a baserunner, he stuck with Sabathia, who retired the side on 10 pitches.

After the game, Girardi explained where his confidence in Sabathia came from:

He wants the ball and he is very strong. You know, I talk about CC as being one of those big, strong pitchers that usually gets better as the game goes on. I mean, that’s who he is. And you think about the eighth inning and that’s where we saw the highest velocity all night from him, and he has a way of being able to step it up when he gets into a jam, too.

Girardi didn't credit his gut, stomach, or heart, as he did when explaining how he decided to pinch-hit for A-Rod in Game Three, but I still wondered whether what he said about Sabathia's ability to improve as the game goes on was mostly manager-speak for “I left him in because he gives me warm, fuzzy feelings.” (After all, he also said, "It's his game, because he's our ace.") As it turns out, though, Girardi was right about Sabathia dialing it up in the eighth. The three hardest fastballs he threw—all 95 miles per hour—came in the eighth inning, two against Robert Andino and one against McLouth. And while Sabathia might not actually get better as the game goes on, he does seem to decline less than the league as a whole:

 

AL (AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS)

Sabathia 2012

Sabathia Career

1st PA in Game

.250/.310/.399/.709

.240/.278/.393/.671

.233/.291/.363/.654

2nd PA in Game

.263/.323/.422/.745

.253/.299/.429/.728

.257/.313/.393/.706

3rd PA in Game

.272/.330/.444/.774

.244/.299/.373/.673

.248/.311/.373/.684

Couple that with the benefit of resting the bullpen with games scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, and Girardi’s decision to extend Sabathia starts to make more sense.

Most of this series was so low scoring that the winning team hit .211/.278/.333. The Orioles hit .189/.229/.269. There was plenty of good pitching, as we’d expect in October. But what part did poor hitting play? According to one “rival scout,” it played a big part:

To see what the stats had to say, I checked the PITCHf/x plate discipline numbers for each team’s hitters in Games One through Five and weighted them by pitches seen, giving me aggregate rates for the Yankees and Orioles. Then I weighted the same players’ regular-season statistics by the distribution of pitches those players saw in the ALDS, making it possible to compare each team’s regular-season and division-series plate discipline.

Yankees

Period Zone Rate Swing Rate Contact Rate Z-Swing Rate O-Swing Rate Z-Contact Rate O-Contact Rate Swinging Strike Rate
Regular Season 49.6 45.7 80.5 63.7 28.0 87.6 63.8 19.4
Postseason 47.4 48.0 80.1 65.1 32.6 90.6 58.6 19.7


Orioles

Period Zone Rate Swing Rate Contact Rate Z-Swing Rate O-Swing Rate Z-Contact Rate O-Contact Rate Swinging Strike Rate
Regular Season 50.2 46.6 77.6 63.3 29.7 85.3 61.1 22.4
Postseason 47.5 47.7 77.7 63.6 32.6 85.2 67.1 22.3


Both teams saw a lower percentage of pitches in the zone during the ALDS than they did during the regular season. Rather than let those balls go by, though, they swung more often, both inside and outside the strike zone. When the Orioles went outside the zone, they actually made more contact than they had against out-of-zone pitches from April to September. But when the Yankees expanded the zone, they paid the price for it: their swing rate at pitches outside the zone rose by nearly five percentage points, and their rate of contact on those pitches fell by about the same degree. The Yankees are a better offensive team than Baltimore, and they had better results in this series, but their approach at the plate was poor.

Thanks to CC Sabathia, Major League Baseball gets to have it all: the appearance of parity and competitive balance provided by the Orioles and A’s, and the ratings and revenue bonanza guaranteed by the Yankees’ continued presence in the postseason. And as for the fans—well, we get to see Verlander try to pump fastballs past Robinson Cano, and Sabathia squaring off against Miguel Cabrera. I can think of worse ways for the ALDS to end.

***

The winning clubhouse at the end of a series isn’t a great source of insightful quotes, but I captured some audio anyway as the champagne sprayed and the Jay-Z played:

Nick Swisher Clubhouse Audio

Curtis Granderson Clubhouse Audio

Mark Teixeira Clubhouse Audio

Russell Martin Clubhouse Audio

Joe Girardi Interview Room Audio

CC Sabathia Interview Room Audio

Andy Pettitte Interview Room Audio
 

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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:  Yankees,  Cc Sabathia,  Joe Girardi,  Orioles Playoffs,  Alds

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