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October 14, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Two Preview: Tigers at Yankees

by Daniel Rathman

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After a spirited ninth-inning rally, the Yankees lost Game One—and Derek Jeter, who fractured his ankle and will miss the rest of the postseason—in the 12th inning. Can Joe Girardi’s team bounce back and prevent the Tigers from racing out to a 2-0 lead? To answer that question, here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Two.

Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) vs. Yankees (Hiroki Kuroda) – 4:00 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Yankees 57.4 percent, Tigers 42.6 percent

Odds with Derek Jeter: Yankees 58.5 percent, Tigers 41.5 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Tigers vs. Kuroda (R)

Yankees vs. Sanchez (R)

Austin Jackson, CF (R)

Ichiro Suzuki, LF (L)

Quintin Berry, LF (L)

Robinson Cano, 2B (L)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (R)

Mark Teixeira, 1B (S)

Prince Fielder, 1B (L)

Raul Ibanez, DH (L)

Delmon Young, DH (R)

Russell Martin, C (R)

Andy Dirks, RF (L)

Alex Rodriguez, 3B (R)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (R)

Curtis Granderson, CF (L)

Alex Avila, C (L)

Nick Swisher, RF (S)

Omar Infante, 2B (R)

Jayson Nix, SS (R)

From a mathematical, tangible perspective, just how costly is Jeter’s injury to the Yankees? PECOTA pegs the decrease in their odds of winning Game Two at 1.1 percent, all things held equal except the downgrade from Jeter to Nix. That’s not an insignificant difference, given how closely matched New York and Detroit are, but even without their captain, the Yankees are favored to even the series.

Of course, PECOTA is not omniscient, and it was unaware when spewing out these odds that Kuroda will be starting a game on three days’ rest for the first time in his major-league career. The decision to use the 37-year-old right-hander in Game Two comes in spite of his having thrown 105 pitches over 8 1/3 innings in Game Three of the Division Series, and is especially surprising in light of the fact that pitching coach Larry Rothschild advised Kuroda to save energy by nixing his between-start bullpen sessions last month.  

Kuroda, who allowed 17 hits but only five runs in 13 1/3 innings over two regular-season starts against the Tigers, has made only one appearance on short rest since coming over from Japan in 2007—a relief outing on July 12, 2009, the day before that season’s All-Star break. That trip did not work out well for Kuroda, who coughed up three runs on two hits and a walk in just 1 1/3 innings of mop-up duty. The context was entirely different, but if anything, it reinforces the risk that Girardi and the Yankees have chosen to take by putting their starting pitcher in uncharted waters in what many perceive to be a must-win game.

After a week off between his regular-season finale and his first playoff assignment, Kuroda returned to the mound fresh, a fact highlighted by the rebound in his fastball velocity:

The righty’s sinker sat between 93-94 mph in the outing, and he maintained that velocity into the ninth inning, enabling him to effectively complement the hard stuff with his slider and splitter. That was not the case in Toronto on Sept. 28, when Kuroda’s fastball tailed off as his pitch count ticked above 85, topping out at 92 mph in the middle innings. The Blue Jays knocked him around for 10 hits (six of which went for extra bases) in 5 1/3 frames that day, and their lineup was far less imposing than the one Jim Leyland will field this afternoon. Kuroda’s sinker velocity is something to keep an eye on, both in the early innings of Game Two and as the contest progresses; the radar gun readings may dictate the length of his leash just as much as the results.

That brings us to the Matchup of the Game: Cabrera versus Kuroda. Detroit’s third baseman went 3-for-6 with a double and a home run off New York’s starter in their two regular-season meetings this year, and he is now 4-for-9 with two big flies in their big-league encounters. Interestingly, though, the Tigers have advanced to within three games of the American League pennant with only minimal contributions from their MVP candidate: Cabrera is 6-for-24 in the postseason with two doubles and a walk, good only for a .250/.357/.333 triple-slash line that more closely resembles Jamey Carroll’s typical output than his own.

But the 29-year-old slugger could get going at any time, and his track record of success against Kuroda ought to worry the Yankees, especially if the righty is pitching with less than a full tank of gas. Cabrera’s home run on June 2 came on a poorly executed slider, belt-high and right down Broadway, but his double earlier in that game came on a knee-high sinker tailing back over the outside corner. If Kuroda does not have his usual velocity, expect him to try to keep Cabrera off-balance by pitching him backward, or to use his slider and splitter exclusively. He can’t afford to be too careful, though, because Fielder, another sleeping giant with just six hits in 27 postseason at-bats, is 5-for-15 lifetime against Kuroda and equally able to punish mistakes.

On the other side of the ball, Sanchez, who came over from the Marlins in July, was lit up in his only meeting with the Yankees. He was charged with seven runs on seven hits, two walks, and two hit-by-pitches in a season-low three innings of work, a rude awakening in his third American League start. Granderson delivered a single and a three-run homer while batting sixth in that game, and he may be in line for a promotion to the two-hole in Girardi’s batting order, with Ichiro likely to supplant Jeter in the leadoff spot. 

Assuming Sanchez does not go the distance, though, the real drama figures to unfold when Leyland turns to his bullpen, which looked as leaky as ever in Game One. As ESPN’s Jemele Hill tweeted, it’s difficult to trust Jose Valverde to close a door right now—only mild hyperbole considering that the ninth-inning man has coughed up seven runs in his past two assignments, including last night’s game-tying meltdown and the Athletics’ walk-off surge in Game Four of the Division Series. Valverde’s primary setup man, Joaquin Benoit, barely escaped the eighth inning unscathed, and Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel are best used in specialist roles.

Navigating that mess will be Leyland’s greatest challenge for the rest of the postseason. Girardi’s most formidable task, meanwhile, will be rallying his troops in the absence of their on-field leader. We’ll get our first look at how both skippers handle those duties this afternoon.

Update (1:56 p.m. ET): The Yankees lineup is now updated to reflect the actual one. There was no change in their probability of winning the game as a result of the new order.

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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