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October 4, 2005
New York Yankees vs. Los Angeles Angels of AnaheimBig markets spending big on big names win big, producing a big first round series that involves lots of big players, several of whom are still awfully good. Beyond the two good-but-flawed ballclubs, this is the ALDS matchup that most resembles a Wold Cup matchup, courtesy of each team's single-name superstar, A-Rod for the Yankees and the ever-underrated Vladi with the Angels. But while this might be last-chance sweepstakes, it isn't Celebrity Death Match, with each team's fate riding on that of their best player. Both teams boast star talent in their lineups, rotations, and bullpens, but beyond that and their shared reputations for star power, this is a fascinating mismatch. Although the series between the two Sox teams is getting top billing as the classic confrontation between old school, "inside" baseball and "Moneyball" sensibilities, this is the matchup between baseball's best base-stealing team and the squad with the most homeruns. The real difference between these two clubs is between their two pitching staffs, where the Angels have relied on a balanced crew of starting pitchers and a deep bullpen, while the Yankees have been coping with a patchwork staff all season. Which team is best positioned to attack the other's weaknesses?
New York Yankees
SS-R Derek Jeter (.309/.389/.450/.303/68.2)
Los Angeles de Los Angeles of Ana-angeles-heim
3B-B Chone Figgins (.290/.352/.397/.279/36.5)
The Yankees are one of the two best lineups in the game, leading the Red Sox in Equivalent Average and homeruns while trailing them in runs scored. But if you're the sort of offensive snob who prefers maximum bloodletting in short doses, you should prefer the Yankees' top-heavy murderer's row through the front six. There isn't much that needs to be said about the seasons A-Rod or Sheffield have put up, and even if Jeter's power game dropped a tick, he started drawing walks again at a significant clip, more than evening up whatever he might have lost to Father Time. Jason Giambi's comeback has gotten all due credit after his 14-homer July, but hitting 13 more in the two months since isn't exactly a slump. What doesn't get brought up so much are the declines of some of the building blocks of the last decade. Bernie Williams has lost a lot in every phase of the game, and Posada only managed to slug .409 against right-handed pitching. So while this is as good as it gets, it's also something of a short-sequence offense, in that it's the front five that really put the runs on the board and who got this team here.
To give credit where credit is due, Cano capped a nice rookie campaign with a hot September. It was a good thing for his sake, since it saved him from a challenge by Red Sox refugee Mark Bellhorn. Cano's a good example of the virtue of having a ninth-slot hitter who can get the ball in play with power; I know it's all supposed to go out with the wash from a sabermetric point of view, but there's something nice about having a hitter who can punish a mistake there. Cano's also locked into the lineup, essentially for defensive purposes; it's the two spots ahead of him where Joe Torre might do something creative. But that's speculative, since Torre might be no more creative than simply pinch-hitting Ruben Sierra for either Martinez or Williams, and consider that good enough for guv'ment work.
The name of the game here is really seeing which manager makes the larger mistake with his DH slot. The Yankees seem stuck looking no further than yesterday, which leaves them pondering a choice between Martinez and Ruben Sierra (with Giambi moving to first and out of the DH slot), and probably overlooking Matt Lawton. However, the Yankees have offense coming out of their ears through the first six slots of the lineup, so fidgeting over what little a Sierra or a Bernie Williams might contribute makes for small beer relative to the far more desperate decision Mike Scioscia has to make. There is no justification for having Kotchman out of the lineup against any opposing right-handed starter, but the Angels are even more stuck on their memory of Erstad's occassional usefulness than the Yankees are about their veterans. Scioscia instead needs to focus on their desperate need for runs, and address that by getting aggressive with his lineup card, not his in-game management. If Anderson's bad back forces him to DH, the fallback decision cannot be to bench Kotchman, not when they may well be stuck with whatever is left of Finley's defensive reputation getting three or four plate appearances per night.
Beyond making sure he leans heavily on Kotchman, Scioscia needs to recognize that he can help himself in other, little ways. For starters, he can skip over the current fashion of alternating left-handed and right-handed bats: the Yankees don't have a left-handed reliever they can hurt you with if you stack your lefties. It would make sense to get Kennedy at the top of the order, and Erstad (if he must play) and Cabrera at the bottom, ahead of only Finley. Stacking their bats almost in order of their relative quality makes some sense, if only to keep the Cabreras and Erstads from costing you runs. At least the Angels can say that Bengie Molina is one of their best hitters without generating any derisive laughter, and his setting career highs in batting average, OBP and SLG hasn't gotten as much attention as it deserves because of the three weeks he missed at the start of the season with a strained quadricep.
A big difference between the lineups is in their basepath behavior. Fronted by Figgins in the leadoff slot, the Angels led the majors in stolen bases (159, 22 more than the more highly touted Go-Go White Sox) while nabbing them at a nifty 74% clip, good for the ninth-best success rate for a team. The Yankees haven't been all that passive on the bases this year, even with Tony Womack riding pine: Jeter and A-Rod have combined for 35 steals in 46 attempts, but they're the only baserunners Torre takes risks with, and the Angels do an exceptional job controlling the running game. So if there's going to be a basepath commando in the series, odds are, it's going to be an Angel. If Figgins plays as well against the Yankees now as he did during the season (.487/.535/.590), the Angels will be able to create opportunities for themselves and get into that middle relief staff the Yankees almost wish wasn't there at all.
DH-B Ruben Sierra (.229/.265/.371/.231/-2.2)
3B-R Robb Quinlan (.231/.273/.403/.241/-0.9)
Crosby's a maybe, depending entirely on how skittish Joe Torre feels about Bernie Williams trying to cover center field in a close game, the outcome of which might end any talk of tomorrow. I think it would make more sense to keep him than Womack, but this is basically pointless to worry about: Womack might pinch-run, and Crosby might do some defensive replacement work, but the real travesty will be when Torre manages to forget that he has Matt Lawton around. Don't laugh, he did exactly that with Kenny Lofton last October, and it ended up hurting the Yankees. Mark Bellhorn might come in if Torre took leave of his senses and brought in Sierra for Cano, but otherwise figures to spend the next week watching some baseball, alongside Lawton.
The Angels bench has better all-around depth, but the primary value of their reserve outfielders, Rivera and DaVanon, is as alternatives to Erstad, or replacements if Anderson can't play. The guy who offers some significant value as a spot-starter and pinch-hitter against left-handed pitching is Quinlan. After beating southpaws to the tune of .289/.318/.542, it seems overkill to bring him in against the Yankees' lefty relief "help," but he should also start against Randy Johnson in Game Three, with Figgins moving over into center, and Finley to a well-deserved spot on the bench. Third catcher Josh Paul might somehow squeeze in at the last spot on the Angels' bench, but it would be a waste of a roster spot better spent on a reliever who might get his moment of glory finishing up a blowout, and sparing one of the better relievers some extra work going into the next game or series.
Rotations (IP, ERA, SNLVAR)
The Yankees are at a disadvantage as far as pitching, but they've known that was the case relative to all of the other contenders since June or July. While Torre could try to push Johnson up to pitching on three days' rest to start Games Two and Five, and Mussina to make a Game Four start, even that would still leave them outclassed in trying to contend with the Angels' starting pitching. They'll most likely roll the dice with journeyman Aaron Small in Game Four, hoping that his 10-0 record isn't merely a historical anecdote to make Tom Filer fans take note. But even beyond the risk that Small represents, the Yankees just don't match up well in terms of performance, and marquee value doesn't get it done. Mussina has one quality start in more than six weeks, but the Yankees are hoping that the aging ace resembles the guy who gave them two quality starts in three against the Angels this season. That, plus Randy Johnson similarly remembering his former glory, and Shawn Chacon's never-ending carpet ride, and everything will be great, right? Although I can see Johnson torching the Angels in his start, I'm just not sold on the proposition that Chacon will be able to rely on his defense to keep him out of trouble against a team that likes putting the ball in play, and add in his tendency to be a bit wild, and I guess I see him going choosing this particularly unfortunate moment to go pumpkin on us.
In contrast, the Angels have their rotation lined up the way they want it. That might deserve some second-guessing if you dig into Colon's failures against the Yankees (15 runs allowed in 11.2 IP this year), or consider that Lackey and Washburn were both stronger in the second half:
Pitcher IP HR R/9 K/9 WHIP Lackey 98.0 5 2.9 8.4 1.2 Washburn 66.0 7 3.5 4.9 1.1 Colon 99.0 15 3.7 6.2 1.2However, that's still pretty good stuff across the board. Beyond Colon, the three starters they'll use (and even fifth starter Ervin Santana) all performed well against the Yankees this year, and given that both stadia are pretty good parks to pitch in, I don't see anything unusual beyond the Colon factor. If Scioscia doesn't get carried away with notions of owing Colon a leash long enough to hang himself with because of his 21 wins during the regular season, this is one of the few rotations from which you could reasonably expect a quality start more often than not against the Yankees.
Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)
RHP Mariano Rivera (78.1, 1.38, 5.2)
RHP Francisco Rodriguez (67.1, 2.67, 5.6)
Torre simply cannot afford to let any game's outcome rely on anyone besides Rivera and Gordon after the sixth inning. Yankees fans will have to hope that he realizes that there's no point in reserving Rivera for save situations in road games, and instead thinks in terms of turning to Gordon in the seventh and Rivera during the eighth if he's got a narrow lead. Even then, it's a bit troubling that Gordon has been smacked around by the Angels, blowing two saves in six appearances against them this year, and that's without noting that he's gotten more hittable and less overpowering down the stretch.
Although not as profligate as Mike Scioscia with the IBB, Joe Torre might try to defang Vlad with a few free passes, covering for his lack of a reliable middle reliever. As is, from that grab bag of the final five, Torre doesn't have a lot to pick from. Sure, F-Rod was famous once upon a time, and Leiter and Embree have rings. So what? Leiter and Embree may both grace the roster for the situational relief duties that Torre seems to feel they can fulfill, but Embree lets lefties slug .530, while Leiter gets flattened by your average righthanded hitter at a .295/.429/.451 clip. When picking your poison, these are choices between bedlam and chaos.
The Angels pen was already pretty solid, but now it's being reinforced by Kelvim Escobar's return to health. Lest we forget, however he cranky he may have been having to try to save games in outings longer than an inning, he's looked sound down the stretch, and gives the Angels a key third man in the pen to back K-Rod and the rubber-armed Shields. K-Rod won't get to reprise his 2002 role as the ringer who rang up the Bronx Bombers, but Shields has been just as hard on the Yankees, and combined with Escobar, the Angels have the talent to shut down even an offense as dangerous as the Yankees over the last three or four innings of a game. That strength in turn frees up Donnelly and token situational lefty Christiansen for earlier work within games, although Donnelly hasn't been quite as effective since being caught cheating by Frank Robinson back in June. There is danger to getting too excited about Christiansen, since he's not the sort of specialist who can overpower Giambi, and attempts to use lefties to beat Godzilla with men on have left the LOOGYs generally flattened with a Tokyo-like regularity. Against soutpaws, Matsui's hit .354 and slugged .579 while leading the team in PAs against them. If Christiansen's use is limited to erasing Tino Martinez and drawing out Torre's feeble counter in Sierra, that's enough.
Taking a quick gander at the Defensive Efficiency Ratings report, it seems clear that while the Yankees may not be the worst defensive team in the league, they're also clearly not among the best, while the Angels seem reliably mediocre. With DER, it's worth keeping in mind that, like yet another tepid episode of Will and Grace, however broadly suggestive it may be, it doesn't really get much more descriptive than the hint it gives us. In terms of specific strengths and weaknesses, both teams have their virtues and their problems on the diamond. The Angels boast a pretty good infield defense when Figgins is at third base; his struggles at the hot corner last season appear to be a thing of the past. When Scioscia really has to get Finley's bat out of the lineup and put Figgy in center, the Angels are well-served by him there as well, although it does involve giving up some defense at third with Quinlan there. Preliminary defensive stats for Finley indicate he may not have much defensive value either these days, but putting Kotchman at first costs them nothing in the field relative to Erstad. Vlad Guerrero and Juan Rivera both have the arms in an outfield corner to freeze Yankee baserunners, not that the Yankees can boast of many burners.
In contrast, the Yankees have issues afield which can be exploited. Outfield defense is basically little more than a necessary evil, and the best that can be said for the infield is that it's probably adequate with Cano at second. It does seem that Jeter's had an exceptional season at shortstop, by his standard or ours, but I guess I'm cautious after watching a few too many badly-played games in October from him afield. Tino Martinez has been almost as ineffective as Giambi at first base, pretty much mooting the question of whether or not they get a worthwhile defensive boost by having El Tino out there. Another source of trouble will be Jorge Posada's limitations as far as deterring the running game against an Angels team that will run. Some of the Yankees relievers are particularly bad at holding baserunners, which may cause no end of trouble.
Generally speaking, it may seem as if we underplay the virtues of getting the ball in play, but the Angels are among the league's best teams when it comes to getting hits out of their plate appearances:
YEAR TEAM PA H Hit Percentage Rank 2005 ANA 6185 1519 .246 4th 2005 NYA 6406 1552 .242 8th 2005 AL 86967 20932 .241 --Now, admittedly, that's a freak-show stat, but the Angels pride themselves on doing things a bit differently, and they're aggressive about getting the ball in play. They're also generally more successful at it than most. (If you're curious, Boston ranked third in this particular stat, which does reflect well on them; however, before we get too excited about this, the league leaders were Tampa Bay and Detroit.) Although it may not be the weapon of choice, when it comes to hitting, it does reflect that there's more than one way to skin a cat. The intersection of the Angels' willingness and ability to get the ball in play safely and the Yankees subpar defense bodes for a replay of Anaheim's... er, the Angels' victory in the ALDS matchup between these two teams in 2002.
Generally speaking, these are two very different kinds of manager. Where Joe Torre loves to leave his lineup set, his tactics simple, and his final half-dozen players anonymous, Mike Scioscia has used his entire roster, generally to good effect, and enjoys putting pressure on opposing defenses with one-run gambits in general and the running game especially. Scioscia particularly loves the intentional walk, leading the AL in issuing 51 free passes, but Joe Torre's not far behind with his 41, good for fourth. Given that Torre doesn't have a lefty reliever worth using, while Scioscia has the slender benefits that Jason Christiansen has to offer, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the Angels who actually end up getting burned by an IBB against a team which frankly generates more than enough baserunners already. In contrast, if Scioscia isn't starting Kotchman, the intentional pass might be Torre's best way to avoid losing a game in the seventh or eighth innings to Vlad Guerrero.
What Torre has in the way of specific tactical weapons is pretty limited. He'll pinch-hit Sierra, to generally poor effect. He does have Womack to use as a pinch-runner for Martinez or Giambi should he absolutely have to have an insurance run. It would make for a nice twist on last season's Dave Roberts moment, but Torre might understandably wish to forget a winter of having to hear all about Roberts, let alone his team's decision to sign Womack. Hopefully, Torre won't let Jeter bunt the Yankees out of the series, and can instead be judged by how well he handles (or avoids most of) his bullpen.
I don't see a re-enactment of last year's ALCS, or even the 2002 ALDS between the two teams, where K-Rod was the hero of the hour. The Yankees don't have the rotation to reliably get them through the first seven innings, while the Angels' starting pitching should be good at keeping games tight. The Yankees don't have the pen or the bench to give them any additional benefits in a tight game, while the Angels do. Torre's tactical laziness in recent postseasons contrasts unfavorably with Scioscia's willingness to use his bench to compensate for a weak lineup. I'm sure the series will involve lots of hat-gnawing in the Apple and "hero of the day" Rally Monkey heroics across the entire Angels roster. Basically, I see a lot of the key moments coming in the seventh inning on a nightly basis, and on that basis, I'm picking the Angels of Los Angeles of Anaheim in five, with the Yankees scoring at least one last home blowout in either Game Three or Four before losing the final matchup.