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October 15, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Two Recap: Tigers 3, Yankees 0

by Ben Lindbergh

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The tableau in the Yankees’ clubhouse after ALCS Game Two was telling: in a room packed with high-profile players, the greatest gaggle of reporters was gathered around the team’s hitting coach, Kevin Long. They had just filed in from the interview room, where Girardi had said, “We have to make adjustments.” Now they wanted to know what those adjustments would be. Standing just in front of Derek Jeter’s loudly vacant locker, Long fielded questions about why the Yankees haven’t hit over the first two games of this series or the last four games of the ALDS, and what they planned to do about it. At times, the exchange grew testy.

“Do you get the feeling that they’re taking the pressure into the batter’s box with them, feeling the collective failure?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

You’re the hitting coach.”

It’s easy to see why Long might be a bit sensitive—he’s been nowhere near the batter’s box, but the Yankees’ struggles are still in some sense his own. At the height of George Steinbrenner’s compulsive tinkering with his team, a hitting coach probably wouldn’t have survived a string of playoff games marked by so little scoring. The Yankees, who were widely believed to be the best-hitting team when the postseason started, have batted just .205/.277/.326 in seven games since. And since their five-run outburst against Jim Johnson in the ninth inning of Game One against the Orioles, they’ve hit .191/.254/.307 in 245 plate appearances. That’s a .561 OPS, the same as Dee Gordon’s this season. When Gordon posted a .561 OPS, he lost his job to Luis Cruz. The Yankees would kill for Luis Cruz.

If Long had any answers, he’d have given them to his hitters. So he mostly spouted the usual clichés you hear when a team isn’t hitting—guys are trying to do too much, the Tigers are making good pitches, we are who we are and hopefully we’ll get this thing back on track. Gorged on mostly meaningless quotes, the gaggle dispersed to the far corners of the clubhouse in search of further self-flagellation.

Curtis Granderson was asked if he could remember a time when all the Yankees’ big bats had struggled like this simultaneously.

“I’m sure it’s happened at some point in time,” he said. “I honestly can’t remember off the top of my head. But there’s times where you don’t go ahead and score runs, and that’s what’s happening now.”

It probably has happened at some point in time, but not in 2012. There was the stretch of eight games from May 15th to May 22nd, when the Yankees scored 18 runs. But even then, they hit .212/.285/.345. There were the six games from April 30th to May 5th, when the Yankees scored 13 runs and hit five homers—exactly as many runs as they’ve scored and home runs as they’ve hit in their past six games this postseason. But over that span, the Yankees hit a relatively robust .246/.283/.372. The current stretch of six games is the equivalent of more than seven games, since the Yankees have played 10 extra innings this October.

In my Division Series recap, I noted that the Yankees had swung at and missed a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone than they did during the regular season. They’re still doing that. And as Ben Badler noted on Twitter, the Yankees hitters’ hips are flying open as they try to pull outside pitches—particularly, perhaps, Robinson Cano, who’s now 0-for-26 since his double in ALDS Game Two after finishing the season with a .615/.628/1.026 triple-slash line in his last nine games of the regular season. (Joe Girardi’s take on Cano’s hitless streak: “It is odd.”)

Of course, the Yankees’ offensive struggles can’t be blamed entirely on their own failings. As Mark Teixeira noted, opposing pitchers have “tons of time to prepare” for their postseason starts, and postseason pitchers tend to be pretty good to begin with. As Teixeira’s scouting report indicates, the Anibal Sanchez the Yankee saw yesterday could have made any lineup look bad:

Hitting the corners, keep the ball down. Staying away from us mostly, coming in for effect, coming in just to kind of keep us off enough. But he had three pitches working today. Actually four pitches—he threw me a really good curveball, he doesn’t throw a lot of big, slow curveballs. But he had the slider, he had the changeup, and obviously the fastball up to 95.

In most cases, time is all it takes to bring a gifted offensive team’s bats back to life, but the Yankees are two games away from, as Darren O’Day put it during the ALDS, “making tee times.” To make matters worse, those games will be started by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who may have been the AL’s top two starters in the second half of the season. Teixeira called facing Verlander “a fun challenge,” but it wouldn’t be fun to be down 0-3. So what can the Yankees hang their hats on?

“When you’re not winning games, a day off helps you,” offered Long. And if the day off didn’t help, he added, maybe the change of scenery would. “There’s a lot of guys getting booed, and certainly that’s not a fun feeling, so maybe getting on the road will help us out.”

Teixeira echoed the second sentiment.

“There’s no surprise that right field here is shorter, and left-handed hitters tend to pull more here,” Teixeira said. “That’s just the way it is. When it’s going well, it works for you and you can score a lot of runs, but sometimes you pull off the ball. So maybe the bigger field will help us to stay in the middle of the field a little bit.”

It’s a shame that the Yankees’ invisible bats—and a lack of bullpen support, exacerbated by some questionable calls by Girardi—overshadowed Hiroki Kuroda’s performance. Starting on three days’ rest for the first time in the majors, with a career-high innings total already under his belt, Kuroda struck out 11 and walked none in 7 2/3 innings, further cementing his status as one of the offseason’s best signings.

Of course, Kuroda wasn’t quite good enough, but it would’ve taken a shutout just to get the Yankees to extra innings. Relying on a change of date and scenery smacks of desperation, especially against Verlander, but right now, flimsy hopes—and the knowledge that good hitters usually hit, eventually—are all the Yankees have.

***

The eighth inning gave us a new addition to the pantheon of postseason baseball’s blown calls:

Watch Omar Infante’s eyes light up like a kid’s on Christmas morning as he goes from thinking he’s been a very bad baserunner to realizing he’s somehow been called safe:

According to Girardi, second-base umpire Jeff Nelson said Infante’s hand had reached the base before Cano’s glove reached him (Nelson recanted after the game). Girardi argued the call initially and then returned to the dugout, but after seeing the replay—and after a base hit scored Infante—he picked up the argument again, eventually getting himself ejected.

As Girardi noted, Nelson was in position to make the call, so you can’t fault him for his effort, though you can wonder why he didn't make the correct call. If the call had been made correctly, the inning would have been over, and the game would have remained 1-0. The Yankees likely still would have lost, but it’s impossible to say for sure. As Girardi said, “It is different if it’s 1-0 than 3-0. It’s a lot easier for a reliever to relax. He knows if he makes one mistake, it is still 3-1.”

Between that call, the blown call at first base that cost the Yankees at least one run in Game One, and the frustration of watching his hitters vainly hacking away, Girardi was worked up enough to make some strong statements about instant replay after the game.

In this day and age when we have instant replay available to us, it’s got to change. These guys are under tremendous amounts of pressure. It is a tough call for him because the tag is underneath and it’s hard for him to see. And it takes more time to argue and get upset than you get the call right. Too much is at stake.

The replay review Girardi has in mind would not be limited to so-called “boundary calls.” “Let’s have instant replay,” he said. “And not just home runs, fair, foul. Let’s have instant replay.”

Girardi called instant replay “an easy thing” that “takes 30 seconds.” Girardi’s predecessor and Major League Baseball’s current executive vice president of baseball operations, Joe Torre, said MLB is “sensitive to it” and “looking into it.” His comments came a few days after Bug Selig was quoted as saying that he thinks MLB will institute replay for fair/foul and catch/trap calls by next season. Expanded replay certainly hasn’t come quickly, but it’s going to get here eventually. And when it does, we can stop wondering what would have happened had the plays been called correctly.

***

One of the off-the-field stories over the first couple games of this ALCS has been the empty seats at Yankee Stadium, but to hear some of the team’s players tell it, they wouldn’t mind if fewer fans showed up, if the ones who are there are going to be so darn mean to them.

“To go through a stretch like this where it’s kind of a negative attitude, a negative-type setting, it’s tough,” Nick Swisher said. “A lot of people saying a lot of things that I’ve never heard before. For example, I miss that ball in the lights, and the next thing you know, I’m the reason that Jeter got hurt. It’s kind of frustrating.”

The way Swisher has played both this postseason and during the previous three has been kind of frustrating for Yankees fans—he’s hit .158/.249/.283 in the playoffs in 174 plate appearances with the team—so it’s not surprising that he’s hearing from them. Swisher, who normally interacts with the right-field fans through the game, gave them the silent treatment in Game Two in retaliation for their remarks and offered only a half-hearted salute to the Bleacher Creatures during their pre-game roll call.

“I’m one of those guys that, you know, give me a hug, I’ll run through a brick wall for you, man,” Swisher said. “But right now it just seems like there’s a lot of—I’m trying to find the way to word this. It’s tough. It’s really tough. Because you want to go out there, you want to play for your city, you want to play for your team, just right now, it’s just really tough.

“That’s the last thing I ever thought in this ballpark that people would get on you that bad,” Swisher added, before getting a little more maudlin: “It hurts. Sometimes I’m a sensitive guy, and some of the things people are saying really get under your skin a little bit.”

Booing one’s own team seems counterproductive—if anything, one would think, it makes players less likely to improve enough to escape the cycle of boos. And as Swisher said, “It’s not like you’re trying to go out there and do bad on purpose.” That said, complaining about the booing seems like the worst way to get the booing to stop.

Not only are the fans saying mean things to Swisher, they’ve also taken to mooning him.

***

Sometimes this is what two called strikes look like, which helps explain why Cano went hitless in at least one of his last 26 at-bats:

***

I noted in my Game One recap that Jim Leyland would likely make a change at closer after Jose Valverde’s second disastrous outing of the postseason. Leyland did, and I wrote about it at greater length here.

***

Curtis Granderson Clubhouse Audio

Nick Swisher Clubhouse Audio

Mark Teixeira Clubhouse Audio

Raul Ibanez Clubhouse Audio

Hitting Coach Kevin Long Clubhouse Audio

Joe Girardi Interview Room Audio

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

14 comments have been left for this article.

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