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October 23, 1999

World Series Prospectus

New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves

by Joe Sheehan

Whether the two teams involved care or not, this isn't just the 1999 World Series; it's the series that will determine the Team of the 1990s. The Yankees' claim to Team of the 1900s, however, is safe.

Lineups

The Yankees have a clearly superior lineup. They led the majors in Equivalent Average at .281, while the Braves were eighth at .267. Despite starting below-average players Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius, their core of OBP machines at the top of the lineup--Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams-- gives them the best offense in baseball. Jeter and Williams were 2-3 in the American League in EQA this year, at .336 and .331 respectively.

As we observed prior to the ALCS, the Yankees' soft spot may be Joe Torre's insistence on playing Martinez and Paul O'Neill against left-handed starters, and not pinch-hitting for them against left-handed relievers. Both players had significant platoon splits in 1999:

1999 OBP/SLG

Tino Martinez vs. RHP: .353/.472 Tino Martinez vs. LHP: .315/.428

Paul O'Neill vs. RHP: .390/.517 Paul O'Neill vs. LHP: .246/.297

These splits aren't sample-size flukes, either: they're consistent with the rest of their careers. The Yankees will face the Braves' only left-handed starter, Tom Glavine, in Games 1 and 5. Unlike Boston, which had just Rheal Cormier in the pen, Atlanta is carrying three good left-handed relievers, which could hamper the Yankee offense in close games.

Additionally, as the Mets were in the NLCS, the Yankees are a team that generates runs off a great team OBP and walk rate. The Atlanta starters, though, do not walk many hitters, something that hurt the Mets' run-scoring last week and could have the same effect on the Yankees in the World Series.

The Braves struggled to put away the Mets in large part because they couldn't score runs. Right now, this is not a good lineup, with OBP problems at most spots and some truly bad hitters--Walt Weiss, Bret Boone--masquerading as starters. I suppose if Eddie Perez continues to hit like a ticked-off Babe Ruth (.523/1.000 against the Mets), the problem is minimized, but I won't be holding my breath waiting for it.

Bobby Cox isn't helping himself by using Weiss instead of Jose Hernandez, who completely disappeared during the NLCS. Cox even put whatever is left of Ozzie Guillen into Game 4 as part of a double-switch, rather than use Hernandez. The decision may have cost him the game, as Guillen turned John Olerud's three-hopper up the middle into a two-run single to lose the game.

Hernandez isn't an All-Star, but he's the best offensive shortstop the Braves have. As badly as the team needs runs, he should be in the lineup in every game. Even if he is, the Braves won't have as formidable a lineup as the Yankees.

Bench

Neither team has an effective bench, although the Braves have some quantity, with 16 position players on the roster. Too many of those are ineffectual, however, such as Guillen and Jorge Fabregas, and while the Braves really could use an extra pinch-hitter, we won't see Randall Simon in the World Series. Look for the Braves to use the bench mainly to run players through the shortstop and catcher spots in the lineup.

Braves' outfielder Otis Nixon has taken a considerable amount of abuse from analysts, and had a terrible year at the plate. But he has one specific skill, speed, that has some value in situations where one run can make the difference. Yankee closer Mariano Rivera is notably slow to the plate, and Joe Girardi doesn't throw very well. In a series that should have a number of close, low-scoring games, it wouldn't surprise me to see Nixon play a key role at least once.

The Yankee bench mostly gets used in blowouts, as Torre is carrying two utility players without specific skills, Luis Sojo and Clay Bellinger. Chad Curtis is a good leadoff pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and defensive replacement. With Shane Spencer off the World Series roster in favor of Jim Leyritz, there's a good chance Leyritz platoon with Ricky Ledee in left field. Whichever designated hitter doesn't start--Chili Davis or Darryl Strawberry--is a significant offensive threat off the bench. Obviously, both players will be available in the non-DH games.

Starters

What makes these two teams great is the breadth and depth of their starting rotations. The Braves, of course, have built their team around their staff for most of the decade. The Yankee rotation, while less-heralded and not as effective in 1999, has been just as important to them the past two seasons.

This postseason, both rotations have been effective. The Braves have gotten a 2.31 ERA and seven innings per start from their starters, while the Yankee rotation has been even better, posting a 2.01 ERA in just under seven innings per start. There's no reason to expect the World Series to be any different: look for both teams' starting pitchers to be effective and work deep into games. There's really not much to choose between them.

Bullpen

As good as the Yankee rotation has been, their bullpen has been even better. Except for Hideki Irabu's take-one-for-the-team outing in Game 3 of the Division Series, they have not allowed a run in the postseason. Mariano Rivera hasn't allowed a run since late July, and Torre has his full complement of setup men in Jeff Nelson, Allen Watson, Mike Stanton and ALCS hero Ramiro Mendoza.

The most interesting tactics of the postseason have involved Bobby Cox's use of his bullpen. The Braves are carrying just nine pitchers, and Cox has used starters John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood and Greg Maddux out of the pen in the past three weeks, with varying results.

While the focus has been on the pitchers he has used, what's more interesting is the ones he hasn't. It's become clear that Cox doesn't want any part of Russ Springer or Kevin McGlinchy unless he absolutely has to bring them in. His decision to use Smoltz with a four-run lead in Game 6 of the NLCS made that clear. It's a strange decision, as both Springer and McGlinchy--especially McGlinchy--were effective in 1999.

While I have applauded Cox's aggressiveness in using his best pitchers in close games while disregarding "roles", I have to say it appears now he's gone too much in this directon. If you're not going to use McGlinchy with a four-run lead, exactly when are you going to use him? Cox seems to be effectively working with a seven-man staff, a tactic that, if continued, will eventually hurt him.

On the other hand, Cox does have what Jimy Williams didn't: a complete set of good left-handed relievers. As I see it, Mike Remlinger and Terry Mulholland are going to be the keys to this series, forcing the Yankees into bad matchups and getting important outs in the seventh and eighth innings. Again, these are going to be close games, more than likely low-scoring ones, and winning the tactical battles is going to be critical. The Braves are better-suited to doing so than either of the Yankee opponents so far.

Both bullpens are loaded with quality arms, and both teams have top-tier closers. With the teams so closely matched, the performance of the bullpens and how each manager handles his relievers are going to be the determining factor in who wins the World Series. At this point, I see that as an advantage for the Yankees.

Defense

The Braves are a superior defensive team, primarily due to their excellent outfield of Gerald Williams, Andruw Jones and Brian Jordan. Only shortstop Walt Weiss and platoon first baseman Ryan Klesko are below-average defensively, and Atlanta brings good glove man Brian Hunter off the bench late in games to cover for Klesko. This is a unit that saves the Braves runs.

The Yankees are an average defensive team at best. Bernie Williams is the team's best glove; he's not the center fielder Jones is, and he's flanked by worse outfielders in Ricky Ledee and Paul O'Neill. In the infield, Chuck Knoblauch's throwing problems are a constant concern, and he and Derek Jeter are merely adequate at turning double plays.

Neither team makes much use of the stolen base, so the throwing arms of the catchers shouldn't come into play very often. As mentioned above, though, the combination of Mariano Rivera and Joe Girardi could leave the Yankees vulnerable late in a close game if the Braves elect to run.

Overall

It won't be a sweep. Other than that, this series is about as unpredictable as any postseason series we've seen in quite some time. These are the two best teams in baseball, with the two best pitching staffs. The Yankees have an offensive edge, but the Braves can counter that with a better rotation and the ability to attack the Yankee lineup with their bullpen.

I've believed all year that the Braves are the best team in baseball, even with the injury to Javy Lopez that really changed their offense. But here, in the last week of October, seeing everything that Bobby Cox has done the past few weeks and looking at how the two teams stack up head-to-head, I'm not sure the Braves are the best team in baseball in a seven-game series against the second-best team in baseball.

This will be the best World Series since the one that started it all for the Braves, their 1991 seven-game loss to the Minnesota Twins. And unfortunately for Atlanta fans, the outcome will be the same. Yankees in seven, and it's going to be one great nine-day ride.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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