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October 2, 2006

Playoff Prospectus

Tigers versus Yankees

by Rany Jazayerli

On the morning of August 8th, the Detroit Tigers were the toast of baseball, a full 40 games over .500 at 76-36, leading the AL Central by ten games, leading the Twins by 10.5 games, leading every other team in the majors by at least eight games. And then, that very morning, some moron wrote this article, and ruined their season. The Tigers immediately lost five in a row, nine of 12, 13 of 18, and 31 of their last 50 games, one of the worst late-season performances by any playoff team in history, a stretch capped off by getting swept at home by the lowly Royals, allowing the Twins to back into the AL Central crown despite losing two of their last three games to the White Sox.

It also set the Tigers on a course for Yankee Stadium, where they open the postseason against a New York squad that led the league in offense all seasonů and that was before Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui returned from injuries in September. It's Cinderella vs. the Evil Empire, and forget about the stroke of midnight-the sun is already coming up.

Or is it? The White Sox nearly blew their playoff spot last season, finishing the regular season on a 12-12 stretch, and then went 11-1 in the playoffs. The 2000 Yankees finished the regular season on a 3-15 bender, including six losses by ten runs or more during that stretch; they went 11-5 in the postseason. Both teams wave very large flags at their ballparks commemorating the occasion. Can the Tigers flip a switch, right the ship, and recapture their early-season form? Anything is possible, but one thing is certain: they picked the wrong team to try to turn things around against.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Tigers

CF-L Curtis Granderson (.260/.335/.438/.269/23.4)
2B-R Placido Polanco (.295/.329/.364/.245/8.4)
1B-L Sean Casey (.272/.336/.388/.223*/-2.0)
RF-R Magglio Ordonez (.298/.350/.477/.282/28.4)
SS-B Carlos Guillen (.320/.400/.519/.314/67.0)
C-R Ivan Rodriguez (.300/.332/.437/.267/22.7)
LF-R Craig Monroe (.255/.301/.482/.265/9.2)
DH-R Marcus Thames (.256/.333/.549/.292/20.1)
3B-R Brandon Inge (.253/.313/.463/.266/10.1)

* : Tigers only

Yankees

CF-L Johnny Damon (.285/.359/.482/.292/41.0)
SS-R Derek Jeter (.343/.417/.483/.320/79.2)
RF-L Bobby Abreu (.287/.424/.462/.325*/48.5)
3B-R Alex Rodriguez (.290/.392/.523/.315/50.4)
DH-L Jason Giambi (.253/.413/.558/.331/46.3)
1B-R Gary Sheffield (.298/.355/.450/.285/6.7)
LF-L Hideki Matsui (.302/.393/.494/.310/12.8)
C-B Jorge Posada (.278/.375/.494/.302/37.2)
2B-L Robinson Cano (.342/.365/.525/.304/48.1)

* : Yankees only

The Tigers' lineup has been compared to the one the White Sox sent out there every day on their way to a championship last year, and it's a better comparison than you might think. Like the White Sox, the Tigers' greatest asset on offense is their power: with the exception of Polanco, everyone in the lineup has 20-homer ability. Like the White Sox, the Tigers are heavily right-handed, to the point where opposing teams should be able to exploit this one-sidedness in the late innings. And like the White Sox, the Tigers need that power to overcome their inability to take walks. The Tigers hit 203 homers this season and walked 430 times, contributing to a season line of .274/.329/.449, numbers eerily similar to the Chicago's 200 homers, 435 walks, and .262/.322/.425 line last year.

If anything, the Tigers have a better offense now than the White Sox did then, with 822 runs scored (5th in the AL) compared to the White Sox's 741 (9th in the league). And unlike the White Sox, they play in a park poorly suited for power, particularly from the right-handed hitters that are found in abundance in their lineup. This may help explain why the Tigers actually had a better record on the road (49-32) than at home (46-35).

One problem with this comparison is that the White Sox didn't win a championship based on their offense. The other, far bigger, problem is that the Tigers' lineup is simply no match for the Yankees, who can make a case for having the deepest nine-man lineup in postseason history. If you measure a team's depth by the performance of the worst hitter in their lineupů who is the Yankees' worst hitter, anyway? Is it the #9 hitter, who finished the season third in the league in batting? Is it the #8 hitter, who finished second in the majors (behind only Joe Mauer) in OPS among catchers? Purely by EqA, it's Gary Sheffield, but he played in only 39 games all year. The 1998 Yankees laid waste to the countryside with Chad Curtis and Tim Raines sharing responsiblities in left field; you can make the case that this Yankee squad is tougher in the 7-8-9 slots than their compatriots from eight years ago. The other relatively recent contenders for best postseason lineups-the mid-90s Indians, the 2001 Mariners, the 1984 Tigers-all received below-average offense from one or two positions. The 2004 Red Sox might give these Yankees a run for their money, at least until they traded Nomar Garciaparra.

Put it this way: every hitter in the Yankees' lineup is substantially better than the Tigers #3 hitter. Of course, so are most of the hitters in the Tigers' lineup. Which is another point in the Yankees' favor, in that their lineup is constructed much more rationally than Detroit's is. The Tigers insist on batting Casey in the #3 spot because he's a first baseman and has hit .300 a couple of times in the past, I suppose. Polanco bats second because that's where the singles hitter with good bat control is always supposed to bat, even if that means a lot of groundballs with a man on first base-Polanco hit into 18 GIDPs despite missing a third of the season. Carlos Guillen led the team in batting average, OBP, steals, was second to Thames in slugging, and switch-hits to boot, but he's sub-optimally placed in the #5 hole.

I don't know where else to put this piece of information, so I'll stick it here: Guillen's single in the 11th inning on Sunday, in his final at-bat of the season, capped a 4-for-6 day which raised his batting average to .32044. Why does this matter, and why did I list his average to five digits? Because in 2005, Guillen hit .32035, making this the sixth year in a row he has increased his average. His late-season charge made it seven seasons in a row. Guillen is the first player in modern major league history to increase his batting average (in ANY number of at-bats) for seven consecutive seasons.

Meanwhile, the Yankees start their lineup with two tremendous on-base guys with excellent speed, and then they get to Abreu, who stole 30 bases and led the majors with 124 walks. Essentially the Yankees lead off with three leadoff hitters, followed by two hitters who combined for 72 homers, then arrange their lineup in decreasing order of offensive prowess. It's almost beautiful in its deadly simplicity.

The Yankees have two potential weaknesses. First, their lineup does lean to the left side a fair amount, a tendency the Tigers will do their best to exploit with half of their rotation consisting of left-handers. On the other hand, the Yankees went 31-17 (.646) when facing a southpaw, better than their record against right-handers (.579). So never mind.

That leaves just one ray of hope for Detroit: as Nate Silver revealed in Baseball Between The Numbers, there is essentially no correlation whatsoever between a team's regular-season offensive performance and their ability to win in the postseason. Against an offense as relentless and experienced as the Yankees, that's a pretty thin ray to peg your hopes on.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Tigers

INF-R Omar Infante (.277/.325/.415/.259/5.8)
INF-R Ramon Santiago (.225/.244/.262/.182/-5.0)
C-R Vance Wilson (.283/.304/.441/.249/1.9)
INF-B Neifi Perez (.243/.260/.316/.152*/-13.2)
OF-L Alexis Gomez (.272/.318/.388/.255/1.0)

Yankees

OF-B Bernie Williams (.281/.332/.436/.270/11.1)
OF-B Melky Cabrera (.280/.360/.390/.270/7.2)
1B-R Andy Phillips (.240/.281/.394/.235/-7.9)
INF-R Miguel Cairo (.239/.280/.320/.228/-4.8)
C-R Sal Fasano (.217/.267/.360/.180*/-7.4)

The Tigers rely on their starting lineup pretty exclusively, which is a good thing given that their bench is populated with a bunch of one-talent players particularly the singularly no-talent hack that is Neifi Perez. Their most important bench player is Infante, who is capable of filling in all around the infield and has recovered from his disastrous .222/.254/.367 showing last season. If nothing else, he provides excellent insurance in case Polanco's shoulder acts up again. Vance Wilson is one of the game's better backup catchers, but they will have to pry the ball out of Ivan Rodriguez's cold hard fingers before he gets a shot at playing time. Carrying both Santiago and Perez is a complete waste; apparently the Tigers want the option of having someone to play shortstop so that they can move Guillen to first base if the need to pinch-hit for Sean Casey arises in the late innings. And with Marcus Thames battling the flu, the Tigers may need to use Infante at DH to start the series.

The obvious question which follows is that if you plan to pinch-hit for Casey, don't you actually want someone who can hit lefties on the bench? Like, say, Chris Shelton? Shelton was left entirely off of the postseason roster, even though he hit .273/.340/.466 on the season, and outhit Casey against both LHP and RHP. Yes, he's hit .256/.318/.363 since April-that's still better than Sean Casey's performance (.249/.291/.373) with the team. The Tigers have done many things right this year, but their overlooking Shelton's talents down the stretch is not one of them.

The Yankees need their bench even less than the Tigers do, but on the off-chance they need some help, they can call on Bernie Williams against a left-hander, against whom he's hit .318/.383/.538 this season. Andy Phillips' main role is to be Gary Sheffield's legs on base and glove in the field, so you can expect that he will likely see a number of defensive innings in the series. The other guys can expect to be graded on the quality of their high-fives and butt-pats, and the speed at which they jump out of the dugout to celebrate a teammate's home run.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Tigers

LHP Nate Robertson (3.84, 208.2, 5.7)
RHP Justin Verlander (3.63, 186.0, 6.1)
RHP Jeremy Bonderman (4.08, 214.0, 5.3)
LHP Kenny Rogers (3.84, 204.0, 5.5)

Yankees

RHP Chien-Ming Wang (3.63, 218.0, 5.5)
RHP Mike Mussina (3.51, 197.1, 5.1)
LHP Randy Johnson (5.00, 205.0, 2.4)
RHP Jaret Wright (4.49, 140.1, 3.7)

The Tigers' decision to use Kenny Rogers in relief on Sunday eliminated him from consideration for starting Game One (and possibly Game Five) of the ALDS, but it actually makes sense when you consider two things. First, Rogers has a terrible track record at Yankee Stadium, dating back over a decade; since 1994, Rogers has a 5.74 ERA in 215 innings at Yankee Stadium, and most of that came as a member of the home team. Teams have been so reluctant to pitch Rogers there that since leaving the Yankees after the 1997 season, Rogers has only made four starts there. In those four starts he surrendered 24 runs in 22 innings. Second, Rogers is practically unbeatable when pitching in Oakland-since the start of the 1995 season, he is a ridiculous 23-1 with a 3.17 ERA in 278 innings at Network Associates Coliseum.

By holding Rogers back until Game Three or Four, the Tigers figured they would improve their odds of winning with him either way: if they faced the Yankees on the road in Games One and Two, they'd rather hold him back for a home start; if they host the A's in Games One and Two of the ALCS, they'd rather use him in Oakland.

Nate Silver's research on postseason success suggests that there are three main factors that influence a team's playoff hopes, and one of those is pitcher strikeout rate. On that basis, the Yankees may be in trouble with Chien-Ming Wang potentially starting two games in the series, given that he struck out just 76 batters in 218 innings all year. His K/9 rate of 3.14 ranks dead lost among the 80 major-league pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Wang is a bit of an odd duck, though, with his extreme groundball tendencies-his 3.06 G/F was third in the majors. He compensates for all those singles by getting GIDPs by the bushel (33 of them this year) and shutting down the running game (9 SB, 11 CS). He resembles no one so much as a right-handed Tommy John. For what it's worth, in 14 postseason games John went 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA in 88 innings.

Nevertheless, you have see Wang as beatable, and if the Tigers rough him up in Game One, the whole complexion of the series changes. They're going to have find a way to elevate the ball against him, but with a lineup full of slow groundball hitters like Polanco, Casey, and Ivan Rodriguez, they could easily wind up with 11 hits and no runs in seven innings.

While the conventional wisdom is that you beat the Yankees with left-handers, and both ballparks in this series favor left-handed pitching, the key for the Tigers may be getting a dominant start from either Verlander or Bonderman, both of whom are classic power right-handers who can be unhittable when they're on. Unfortunately, neither appears fully healthy. Verlander has a 5.82 ERA since August 1st, and just had a start skipped for the first time in two months, presumably to keep his arm fresh. Bonderman has a 4.87 ERA since the All-Star break. Fatigued right-handed pitchers plus a lineup full of stud left-handed hitters should equal lots of runs plus a couple of early exits.

The Tigers do have the deeper rotation, and this may come into play in Games Three and Four if they can salvage a split in New York. Randy Johnson is 43 years old, posted the highest ERA of his career, and has a trick back. He's also the sole left-handed starter against a Tigers' lineup chock-full of right-handed power. Jaret Wright is, well, Jaret Wright. If there is an Achilles' heel to the Yankees' championship hopes, it is here.

Bullpens (ERA, IP, WXRL)

Tigers

RHP Todd Jones (3.94, 64.0, 2.3)
RHP Joel Zumaya (1.94, 83.1, 5.0)
RHP Fernando Rodney (3.52, 71.2, 2.2)
LHP Jamie Walker (2.81, 48.0, 0.7)
LHP Wil Ledezma (3.58, 60.1, 0.1)
RHP Jason Grilli (4.21, 62.0, 0.1)
RHP Zach Miner (4.84, 93.0, 0.0)

Yankees

RHP Mariano Rivera (1.80, 75.0, 5.3)
RHP Kyle Farnsworth (4.36, 66.0, 1.9)
RHP Scott Proctor (3.52, 102.1, 1.8)
LHP Mike Myers (3.23, 30.2, 1.0)
xHP Brian Bruney (0.87, 20.2, 0.5)
RHP Cory Lidle (4.85, 170.2, -0.1)
LHP Ron Villone (5.15, 80.1, 0.7)

The Tigers have been playing Russian Roulette with the ninth inning all season, choosing to entrust their leads to Todd Jones all season even as it became clear that his 2.10 ERA in 2005 was a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated fluke. With only 28 Ks in 64 frames, Jones simply doesn't strike out enough batters to be relied upon as a shutdown closer.

Detroit compensates with perhaps the best set-up man in baseball. Joel Zumaya is probably the hardest thrower in the major leagues right now, and it's not simply for effect: his 1.94 ERA and 97 Ks in 83 innings make him a genuine high-leverage middle-innings weapon. Fernando Rodney is a quality third man, and Jamie Walker is one of the most consistent, and almost certainly underrated lefty specialists in the majors-this is his fifth straight year with an ERA under 4. Wil Ledezma was a much-hyped Rule 5 pick a few years ago, and has come on strong in the second half to give the Tigers a quality second option from the left side, one they will most definitely need in this series. The Tigers chose to leave 2006 first-round pick Andrew Miller off of the roster; he would have given them a third left-handed reliever. On its own terms, this isn't a bad idea-Miller walked ten men in 10.1 innings since his call-up-but Miller couldn't help but be more useful in a pinch than Zach Miner, who has a 6.71 ERA since the break, and was last seen giving up five runs in a third of an inning to the mighty Royals.

Stop me if you've heard this before: the Yankees have an edge in the ninth (and eighth) inning. Mariano Rivera had the luxury of taking three weeks off to rest his arm for October, and since returning has thrown four scoreless innings with six strikeouts, it seems clear that he's healthy, and a healthy Rivera is simply the best relief asset carried by any team into the playoffs. Farnsworth and Proctor are capable if unspectacular middle relievers, and if the Tigers need to retire Granderson or Casey in a tight spot, they can call on either Villone or the sidewinding stylings of Mike Myers.

It's important to note that the Yankees do not have that shutdown right-handed reliever who grinds right-handed batters into submission, the way the Twins do with Pat Neshek. Rivera is famously much harder on left-handed hitters than right-handers, and in fact every right-handed reliever on the Yankees' roster had a reverse platoon split this year. But hold the phone-once upon a time, Cory Lidle was that guy, a right-handed reliever who could get groundballs and was especially tough on same-sided hitters. Lidle starts the series at the back end of the bullpen, but don't be surprised if he winds up being the guy the Yankees go to against the bottom of the Tigers' lineup in a key situation in the middle innings.

Defense

The Tigers' defense was their unsung strength all season, and Polanco's return helps solidify a defense that led the majors in Fielding Runs Above Average this season. FRAA is another of those three factors that most determine playoff success, so this could be a key for the Tigers. Brandon Inge is a web gem waiting to happen, while Ivan Rodriguez still ranks among the toughest catchers in baseball to run against. The Yankees' front three hitters (Damon, Jeter, Abreu) combined to steal 88 bases in 109 attempts this year, but with Rodriguez behind the plate, Joe Torre would be well-advised to keep his charges from getting too frisky at first base, lest they run themselves out of a rally or two.

The Yankees defense is slightly above-average (they ranked 13th in the majors in FRAA), which represents a tremendous improvement over Yankees teams of recent vintage. Key to that was replacing Williams with Damon in center, and however frosty their relationship is off the field, there definitely appears to be some synergy between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield-Jeter's defense stopped ranking towards the bottom of major league shortstops the minute his foil arrived in town. The Yankees' nightmare scenario involves Gary Sheffield costing them in a key situation with his inexperience at first base. Posada has had one of his best years at throwing out potential basestealers, but aside from Carlos Guillen, the Tigers don't have the speed to test him anyway.

Managers

What can be said about Joe Torre that hasn't been said before? He has repeatedly shown himself to be gifted at handling the diverse personalities of a team with a $200 million payroll and the talent (and ego) to match. Which makes the decision for Torre to go on record to talk about Alex Rodriguez in such a pointed manner for Sports Illustrated so surprising; no doubt Torre thinks that the public criticism will light a fire under his third baseman, but if he's wrong, it could backfire in a very public and humiliating way. In terms of the on-field decisions, Torre is smart enough to know that he's got an offense best handled in a laissez-faire way that calls to mind Cito Gaston's inactivity with the 1992-93 Blue Jays. Torre also understands better than any manager in baseball that the way you use your closer in October is completely different from the way you use him the other six months of the year.

Jim Leyland is no push-over. Along with Torre, he is one of only six active managers (the others are Terry Francona, Ozzie Guillen, Mike Scioscia, and Tony La Russa) with a world championship on his resume. [Ed. note: Bobby Cox makes seven.--JSS] Leyland's greatest asset is that he understands his players well enough to put them in the best possible position to succeed; his tactical ability is not in Torre's class. Leyland has a long history of trusting young and inexperienced players in clutch situations, which bodes well for Detroit if it means he will be aggressive about using Zumaya at every opportunity.

Prediction

Look, we can sit here and tell you the Yankees are favored to win the series, and of course they are, as every pundit in America will tell you. Or we could look cute and predict the Tigers to pull the upset, and risk looking like morons in a week. The bottom line is that while the Yankees are the favorites, even heavy favorites, that means less in a five-game series than most people realize. The Yankees have, what, a 65% chance of winning the series? Even that might be generous. The Yankees won exactly two more games than the Tigers did this season, and while the Tigers were awful down the stretch, Nate Silver showed that a team's winning percentage from September 1st on is actually negatively correlated with their postseason performance.

So the Tigers can win. To do so, they will probably need most of the following things to happen:

  • First, they need a dominant performance from one of their power right-handers, likely Justin Verlander, who will be working on nine days' rest in Game Two. Good pitching really does beat good hitting in the postseason, but it's going to take great pitching to beat the hitters the Yankees throw out there every game.
  • They need to steal one of the games in the middle innings, and that means riding Joel Zumaya hard and putting him away wet. Zumaya threw at least two innings in four of his last five regular season outings, but hasn't thrown on back-to-back days since mid-August. Leyland needs to take the reins off this week; if the series goes five games there's no reason Zumaya shouldn't throw eight highly-leveraged innings.
  • They need to stay out of the double play against Wang long enough to put a couple of crooked numbers on the scoreboard against him in either Games One or Five.
  • They need to take advantage of Randy Johnson's weakened state and pound him to an early submission, pulling out Game Three, and ideally wearing out the Yankees' bullpen before Games Four and Five.
  • One of their right-handed hitters needs to shock the world by touching Mariano Rivera for a key hit somewhere along the line.
  • They must keep Neifi Perez away from the field at all times. I recommend the Grand Hyatt on 42nd St. myself.

If the Tigers can pull off three or four of these things, they should be in good shape to pull off the upset. It says here that they won't, not with the team's greatest strength-their pitching staff-showing signs of wear and tear, particularly in the rotation. Yankees in four, but I wouldn't mind being wrong just this once.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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