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October 4, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Yankees versus Indians

by Jay Jaffe

A repeat of a matchup which produced some thrilling postseason baseball back in 1997 and 1998, this Divisional Series matches the American League's two hottest teams since the All-Star break, two teams that didn't earn their postseason berths until putting together a finishing kick that separated them from the rest of the pack. For the Indians, this marks a return to glory, their first division title since 2001 after a run in which they'd made the playoffs six years out of seven. For the Yankees, though their nine-year run atop the AL East came to an end, this marks their 13th straight postseason appearance, a streak that predates Joe Torre.

Neither team's presence here is exactly a surprise. PECOTA foresaw the Yankees winning one more game than they actually did, albeit with an offense that wasn't quite so potent. The Indians topped their projection by six games, and while their offense didn't quite meet expectations, their pitching was a revelation-allowing fewer runs than any AL team besides the Red Sox-thanks in part to breakout seasons from Fausto Carmona and Rafael Betancourt. The latter was part of the league's second-best bullpen according to WXRL, helping to cover for shaky closer Joe Borowski and to compile a 46-35 record in one- and two-run games, a key factor in exceeding their third-order win total by 7.6 games.

The Yankees swept the six-game season series, but it's a mistake to get too attached to that result. The three games in April saw a battered New York rotation get by with Chase Wright, Kei Igawa, and Darrell Rasner, and a lineup teeing off on a struggling Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, and Borowski (who squandered an excellent performance by Carmona). Three more in August found a fuller-strength version of the Yankees rolling, but they didn't face Game One starter Sabathia at any point.

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

Yankees

LF-L Johnny Damon (.270/.351/.396/.279/17.8)
SS-R Derek Jeter (.322/.388/.452/.300/53.3)
RF-L Bobby Abreu (.283/.369/.445/.294/27.9)
3B-R Alex Rodriguez (.314/.422/.645/.355/96.6)
DH-L Hideki Matsui (.285/.367/.488/.301/32.4)
C-S Jorge Posada (.338/.426/.543/.338/73.4)
2B-L Robinson Cano (.306/.353/.488/.292/40.5)
1B-L Doug Mientkiewicz (.277/.349/.440/.281/5.8)
CF-S Melky Cabrera (.273/.327/.391/.263/9.8)

Indians

CF-L Grady Sizemore (.277/.390/.462/.306/53.8)
2B-S Asdrubal Cabrera (.283/.354/.421/.280/7.6)
DH-L Travis Hafner (.266/.385/.451/.300/30.7)
C-S Victor Martinez (.301/.374/.505/.308/55.0)
1B-R Ryan Garko (.289/.359/.483/.294/27.8)
SS-R Jhonny Peralta (.270/.341/.430/.275/26.3)
LF-L Kenny Lofton (.296/.367/.414/.287/24.5)
RF-R Franklin Gutierrez (.266/.318/.472/8.3)
3B-R Casey Blake .(270/.339/.437/.275/17.6)

The Yankee offense is the postseason's 800-pound gorilla, a beast capable of bludgeoning opponents into submission. After a slow start (21-29), the Bronx Bombers turned on the heat, scoring 6.34 runs per game as they put together a 73-39 run over their last 112 games. Overall, they finished with 968 runs, not only tops in the majors but the most of any Torre-led Yankees club, edging the 1998 model by three runs. They also led the majors in all three triple-slash stats (.290/.366/.463) and Equivalent Average (.279), and paced the Junior Circuit in home runs (201). Theirs is an offense to be reckoned with, one with a ton of firepower, and the ability both to put up crooked numbers in a hurry and to wait out opposing starters, wearing them down until they can tear into the soft underbelly of an opponent's middle relievers.

Their offense also has a decent amount of speed and baserunning smarts. Five players-Damon, Abreu, Rodriguez, Jeter, and Cabrera-stole at least 13 bases, with the first three going a stellar 76 for 91 (83.5 percent). Overall, the Yanks were fourth in the league steals and attempts, if only sixth in success rate (75.5 percent). Like most Torre teams, they're prone to the temptations of small-ball; their 41 sacrifices tied with Cleveland for the league's second-highest total, but among the regulars, Cabrera (10 sacs) is the only player to do so with any great frequency.

As good as the Yankee offense is, it's also a far more uneven one than your average Torre-era pinstriped club. Rodriguez enjoyed a stratospheric, MVP-caliber season, leading the majors in home runs (54), runs (143), RBI (156), total bases (376), slugging percentage and VORP. The latter is the 22nd-best VORP since 1959 if only the fifth-best of A-Rod's career. With last year's postseason struggles and his pending contractual opt-out endlessly recycled by the media, the spotlight is clearly fixated on him. Jorge Posada remained locked in all year, only once going more than two consecutive games without a hit. A campaign that might draw MVP consideration in any other year, his ranks as the third best among catchers since 1959.

But the rest of the lineup, powerful as it is, didn't fare quite as well. Damon, Abreu, Giambi, and even Jeter all saw their VORPs decline by at least 20 runs, and both Matsui and Cano declined significantly on an MLVr basis even as their playing time increased. If Rodriguez (who homered six times in six games versus the Indians) and Posada are slowed by Cleveland's pitching, it's even more imperative that other hitters pick up the slack.

The big wrinkle is the condition of Matsui's right knee, which was drained of fluid on Friday; Will Carroll has him yellow-lighted. Torre has indicated Godzilla will likely serve as DH with Damon playing left, a lineup the Yankees used with some frequency in the second half. That will probably force Giambi, hobbled by plantar fasciitis all year, to the bench since he's less than an ideal first baseman (18 games, 85 Rate); Mientkiewicz, who enjoyed a hot September (.429) after coming back from a wrist fracture, will likely get the call. Furthermore, against southpaw Sabathia, Matsui (0-for-9 lifetime) and/or Minky (5-for-22) may sit, with Torre floating the possibility of starting Shelley Duncan.

As for the Indians, don't confuse this offense with the Jacobs Field juggernaut of their late-Nineties run. The Tribe ranked sixth in the league in runs scored (811), seventh in EqA (.261), and fifth in both OBP (.343) and SLG (.428). They put it in play even less often than the Yankees (67.4 percent of the time, 10th in the league; the Yanks were eighth at 69.3 percent) and strike out a lot (1149 Ks, fourth in the league). They're the circuit's least-successful team at stealing bases (63.4 percent), a fact that didn't stop them from finishing seventh in attempts.

Along the lines of the Yankees, the Indians' offense features key players-Hafner and Sizemore-whose 2007 seasons paled in comparison to previous years. Hafner ran a close second to David Ortiz in composite VORP from 2004-2006 (214 to 211), but he dropped nearly 50 runs off last year's total and slugged just .383 from June through August; knee problems may have had something to do with it. Luckily, he returned to his old, threatening self in September, hitting .316/.414/.551. Sizemore upped his OBP by 15 points over his impressive 2006 campaign but lost about 70 points of slugging, which mainly manifested itself in a pronounced home/road split (.306/.426/.487 at home, .250/.355/.438 away). That drop-off was countered by a stellar season from Martinez, the majors' second-most productive catcher, and by a nice bounceback from a subpar 2006 by Peralta.

Wedge's outfield corner choices have evolved with the season. Where left field was initially the domain of a David Dellucci/Jason Michaels platoon, Dellucci went down with a torn hamstring that required surgery in late June, and GM Mark Shapiro reacquired Kenny Lofton from the Rangers at the July trading deadline. Lofton didn't hit nearly as well as he did in Texas (.259 EqA, compared to .301), but drew the bulk of the playing time during a 36-20 finishing kick that sealed the AL Central for the Indians. As for right field, once Trot Nixon confirmed himself unfit for regular duty, Franklin Gutierrez moved in. Gutierrez began starting with more frequency in mid-June, and by the beginning of August won the job outright, having hit .296/.336/.528 up to that point. He lost some luster over the final two months, hitting just .245/.306/.436 and striking out in nearly 25 percent of his plate appearances.

The other lineup spot that's seen significant evolution is second base, where 21-year-old Asdrubal Cabrera was recalled in early August after breaking out to hit .310/.380/.448, mostly at Double-A Akron. Shifting from shortstop to second base, he supplanted the struggling Josh Barfield and came up big down the stretch.

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

Yankees

1B-L Jason Giambi (.236/.356/.433/.284/7.3)
INF-S Wilson Betemit/player> (.229/.333/.454/.273/7.2)
C-R Jose Molina (.257/.274/.340/.226/-2.7)
OF/1B-R Shelley Duncan (.257/.329/.554/.297/4.4)
OF-L Bronson Sardinha (.333/.417/.333/NA/NA)

Indians

C-R Kelly Shoppach .261/.310/.472/.272/8.3)
INF-R Chris Gomez (.297/.325/.374/.254/1.4)
2B-R Josh Barfield (.243/.270/.324/.220/-13.6)
OF-R Jason Michaels (.270/.324/.397/.258/0.4)
RF-L Trot Nixon (.251/.342/.336/.254/-4.2)

As Yankee benches go, this is a good one by latter-day Torre standards, lacking charity cases like Enrique Wilson, Bubba Crosby, or Wil Nieves. It's still unlikely to be much of a factor, aside from spotting Giambi at DH or (shudder) first base until the inevitable pinch-runner or defensive replacement comes along in the later innings.

Betemit can play all four infield positions credibly, covering the team in case of catastrophe (Jeter mauled by an alligator that escapes from the New York sewers, perhaps) or potentially keeping a big bat in the lineup at DH if somebody bruises a knee (or is mauled by a much smaller alligator). As a switch-hitter, he provides pop off the bench (one homer ever 20 PA), though he's much stronger against righties (.227/.341/.474 this year) than lefties (.239/.300/.370)-a trend that's persisted throughout his career.

Duncan has pop and little else, having pounded seven homers in 83 plate appearances during his late season audition after bashing 25 in 387 PA at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The 28-year-old underdog may find his way into the lineup against Sabathia, and while he's relatively untested defensively, that mostly means he hasn't provided highlight film-worthy gaffes like brother Chris. Sardinha, a first-round bust from 2001, is around strictly for pinch-running purposes and as a reminder of the bad old days of Yankee drafting, while backup catcher Molina will concentrate on keeping the bench planks from warping.

The Indians bench isn't better than the Yanks, but it may get more mileage in this series; Wedge used more pinch-hittters than any other AL manager, and they did well (.276/.360/.418). The plethora of off-days almost certainly precludes a Shoppach start that would bump Martinez to first, but it's a neat bit of flexibility to have just the same. Gomez will probably spell Garko at first base in late innings, though he can fill in elsewhere around the infield as well. Barfield is mostly along for the ride, as a show of faith that the team hasn't completely given up on him even after promoting Cabrera.

Michaels is a fine lefty masher (.287/.359/.441 this year) who's been overexposed in a larger role; he hit just .252/.285/.351 versus righties, a less-than-ideal situation that made up 47 percent of his PA. His problem is that the Yanks don't have many lefties to mash; he may start against Pettitte. Nixon may be more trouble than he's worth; he gives the team a lefty bat off the bench, but he no longer has the pop to be much of a threat, and if the situation is important enough to mandate him working a pinch-walk, he'll need a pinch-runner, too.

Rotations (IP/ERA/SNLVAR/QERA)

Yankees

RHP Chien-Ming Wang (199.1/3.70/6.0/4.23)
LHP Andy Pettitte (215.1/4.05/5.3/4.26)
RHP Roger Clemens (99/4.18/2.6/4.15)
RHP Mike Mussina (152/5.15/2.6/4.28)

Indians

LHP C.C. Sabathia (241/3.21/6.5/2.99)
RHP Fausto Carmona (215/3.06/6.8/3.70)
RHP Jake Westbrook (152/4.32/3.3/4.14)
RHP Paul Byrd (192.1/4.59/2.5/4.54)

Make no mistake: this Yankee rotation and its deployment may be the team's downfall in this series. As good as Wang is, he's shown a decisive enough home-road split (2.75 home/4.91 away this year; 3.04/4.62 career) to prefer that he not start in Cleveland once, let alone twice if the series goes five games. Pettitte has enough postseason experience (34 starts, 212 innings, 4.08 ERA, 14-9) to add a line to his resume virtually identical to his 2007 stats. With his days of tipping pitches hopefully behind him, Yankee fans can hope he's the stone-faced killer of their 2003 run, because they'll need him to be.

The problem is Clemens, who has just one start (six innings) since September 3 due to elbow and hamstring injuries. The 45-year-old hurler has an unenviable recent track record in recent postseasons, one marked by early departures due to injury, departures that often left his club up the proverbial creek. Forget the glowing report out of Tampa after his simulated game on Tuesday; the decision to start Clemens feels more motivated by salary than common sense.

If the Yankees shadow Clemens with rookie Philip Hughes-who pitched well against the Indians on August 10 (6 4 1 1 1 6) and really hit his stride in September (2.73 ERA in five starts)-that leaves Mussina exposed. The 38-year-old Moose served a two-week exile in the bullpen in late August after three consecutive disaster starts. He posted three solid starts but was bombed during the season's final weekend. Unless he gets enough separation between his mid-80s fastball and his offspeed offerings, his outing could be every bit as nasty, short, and brutish as that of Clemens. A better alternative would be to start Hughes in Game Three, come back with Wang in New York in Game Four (short rest might actually help his sinker), and send Pettitte to the hill in Game Five.

Things may not get that far if the Indians pitch up to their potential. Sabathia and Carmona finished 1-2 in the AL in pitching VORP, both earning a place in any Cy Young award discussion. Sabathia is a power lefty with pinpoint control, one who may cause Torre to shuffle his lineup a bit; the Yanks lose 50 points of slugging versus lefties. Much will be made about the Yanks having knocked him around in the past (1-7, 7.13 ERA), but he hasn't faced them since 2004. Carmona, who bounced back from a nightmarish rookie season and usurped Cliff Lee's spot in the rotation, is the Indians' equivalent of Wang, a sinkerballer with great stuff who can pump it into the mid-90s but mainly relies on getting quick groundball outs.

From there the returns diminish. Westbrook, a former Yankee farmhand, is a groundballer as well, albeit a decidedly less gifted one. His first half was marred by an oblique injury that helped cement Carmona's spot in the rotation; his second (3.44 ERA and a crisp 6.5 innings per start) was a considerable improvement. Byrd is a soft-tossing flyballer who rarely gives up a walk (1.3 per nine) but is supremely hittable; opponents batted .301/.329/.473 against him this year. It's doubtful Wedge would bypass him to throw Sabathia on three days' rest (something the big man has done just once, back in 2001), but doing so would still leave Carmona on normal rest for a Game Five.

Bullpens (IP/ERA/WXRL/QERA)

Yankees

RHP Mariano Rivera (71.1/3.15/3.699/2.46)
RHP Joba Chamberlain (24/0.38/1.848/1.81)
RHP Kyle Farnsworth (60/4.80/1.142/4.96)
RHP Luis Vizcaino (75.1/4.42/2.081/5.14)
RHP Philip Hughes (72.2/4.46/1.5 SNLVAR/4.42)
RHP Jose Veras (9.1/5.79/0.372/6.09)
RHP Ross Ohlendorf (6.1/2.84/0.140/2.04)

Indians

RHP Joe Borowski (65.2/5.07/2.776/3.81)
RHP Rafael Betancourt (79.1/1.47/6.845/2.68)
LHP Rafael Perez (60.2/1.78/3.142/2.62)
RHP Tom Mastny (57.2/4.68/0.596/4.64)
LHP Aaron Fultz (37/2.92/0.187/4.91)
RHP Jensen Lewis (29.1/2.15/0.629/3.21)
LHP Aaron Laffey (49.1/4.56/0.8 SNLVAR/3.96)

The cast changes, but the story hasn't changed since Jeff Nelson departed after the 2000 season: the Yankees struggle to build a bridge between their rotation and Rivera, one of the game's elite closers. As a team they finished just eighth in the league in WXRL, and played a large role in the team's 36-44 record in one- and two-run games. Neither Farnsworth nor Vizcaino nor Scott Proctor functioned as consistently reliable setup men, so after trading Proctor to the Dodgers, the Yankees dipped into their farm system and converted starter Chamberlain to a relief role, instituting the now-infamous Joba Rules in order to protect the 21-year-old phenom's arm. The Rules were clear, and clearly designed to protect the pitcher from Torre's tendency to wear effective relievers down to the nub: no mid-inning entries and no pitching him on consecutive days; one day of rest was required for each inning thrown.

The result was a dramatic success. Mixing triple-digit heat and filthy breaking stuff, Chamberlain allowed only one earned run in 24 frames, striking out 34 while walking just six, and becoming a folk hero in the process. In the final week of the season, the Yanks tested the Rules, bringing in him in mid-inning once, and pitching him on consecutive days once. The world went 2-for-2 in not ending, which may clear the way for a more conventional usage pattern in the postseason, but expect Chamberlain to be on a short leash. If he throws two innings one day, he almost certainly won't be available the next.

Which places a good deal of pressure on the decidedly frustrating Farnworth, who at least seems to have shaken himself out of complacency by pitching out of the windup lately; in four innings he's allowed one hit (a solo homer) and struck out three while walking none. The Yanks need him to step up, since Vizcaino has been suffering through a dead arm, causing a double-digit September ERA (10.13). Elsewhere, Torre and company have opted to forego carrying even a token lefty, bypassing Ron Villone, who handled lefty hitters at a .239/.311/.343 clip. This leaves the Yanks at a significant tactical disadvantage. Beyond Rivera and Chamberlain, neither veterans Vizcaino (.265/.362/.427 versus lefties) and Farnsworth (.273/.379/.445) nor live-armed rookies Ohlendorf (.293/.371/.504 in Triple-A) and Veras (.273/.368/.394) handled lefty hitters very well. The Yanks' only means of mitigating this is to deploy Chamberlain (.132/.195/.211) against the top of the Indians' order, and at best they get to do this one time through instead of twice.

For the Indians, the story is happier. Their bullpen ranked second in the league in WXRL, just a few whiskers behind Boston. Borowski led the league in saves, but with a sky-high ERA thanks to early-season bombings, including a six-run one by the Yanks on April 19. Since mid-May, he's pitched much more respectably (3.91 ERA, 40/10 K/BB and 6 HR in 50 2/3 IP), right in line with his QERA. The real key to the Tribe bullpen is setup man Betancourt, who trailed only J.J. Putz in individual WXRL; he pitches in situations nearly as high in leverage as closer Borowski (1.87 to 2.09) and sometimes for multiple innings, justifying his usage in the set-up role rather than endowment with the less flexible Scarlet C. His splits are eye-popping: 80/6 K/UIBB overall, 41/1 at home.

Beyond that pair, rookie southpaw Rafael Perez ate lefties alive this year (.145/.209/.241), and was no slouch against righties (.213/.257/.324); he looms as a key figure in this series given the Yankee lineup's lefty tilt. Any stint of three batters or longer is likely to bring him in contact with two tough lefty hitters, and he's capable of tossing multiple innings as well. Fultz gives Wedge a LOOGY to deploy in the middle innings, if necessary. Though unconfirmed at press time, the presence of Laffey makes sense for long-relief purposes. Closer aside, there's a decided edge to Cleveland here based on matchups.

Defense

The Yankees finished the season with a .696 Defensive Efficiency rate, good enough for fifth in the AL but just 14th in the majors. According to the all-important Secret Sauce rankings, their defense as a whole (Fielding Runs Above Average) was +27 runs, good for fifth in the majors. That looms large behind a staff that ranked 12th in the league in strikeouts.

Behind the plate, Posada endured a subpar year that no doubt had something to do with so many green pitchers parading through the ranks. After nailing 37.2 percent of baserunners last year, he dropped to 23.9 percent this year. Other than against Sizemore, who stole 33 in 43 attempts, that's unlikely to be much of a factor in this series. The possibility of Giambi at first base is a fright, but with Mientkiewicz and Betemit able to spell him defensively, Torre can limit the damage. Elsewhere in the infield, the numbers offer a puzzle. Cano, whose play at second base has never drawn raves, is 26 runs above average according to the FRAA numbers (adjusted for all-time flavor), but an alternative system like Revised Zone Rating views him less charitably. Likewise for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez; FRAA says they're more or less average, RZR places them near the bottom of the league.

Getting Matsui out of the outfield in favor of a Damon-Cabrera-Abreu alignment has certainly been a factor in the team's overall defensive stats and in-season improvement. Cabrera is +15 runs according to FRAA, and in an admittedly limited sample size, the Rate stat says Damon is 13 runs per 100 games better than Matsui in left.

The Indians were seventh in the AL and 16th in the majors in defensive efficiency at .693, while their +14 FRAA placed ninth. Martinez showed vast improvement defensively, jumping from -20 FRAA to -2 as his caught stealing rate rose from 18.0 percent to a respectable 32.0 percent. Still, Rodriguez, Damon, and Abreu may try to exploit his arm, particularly in a close ballgame.

Asdrubal Cabrera was a huge improvement over Barfield in the field as well as at the plate; on a Rate basis, it's 13 runs per 100 games. As with last year, Peralta's defensive numbers on FRAA are extremely good (+19) but RZR has him last in the league, below even Jeter. Blake is a bit above average at third, Garko well below at first. Wedge will likely compensate on the latter front by turning to Gomez in the late innings. Outfield-wise, the left field corps finished 16 runs above average for the year, with even Lofton turning in a positive showing. In right, Gutierrez is a huge improvement over Nixon

Managers

After winning four World Series in his first five years on the job, Torre has gone 0-for-6. His teams haven't broken out of the Divisional Series since 2004 and haven't been to the World Series since 2003. With his contract expiring, an unsuccessful showing here may be his last stand. Unlikely to pull a self-spiting stunt like batting a struggling A-Rod eighth this time around, his biggest challenge is patching his pitching staff through this series. In order to win, he'll have to put aside past loyalties and be quick with a hook in case geezers Clemens and Mussina struggle, and he'll have to hope for the best when calling the numbers of relievers who could shorten games to six or seven innings with the Chamberlain/Rivera tandem. It's a tall order any way you slice it.

Wedge, on the other hand, is in uncharted territory. Maligned for the team's late-season fade in 2005 and then their completely underwhelming showing in 2006, the 39-year-old skipper has earned his wings this year. Unlike in those two seasons, he used his bullpen and his bench effectively, and patched through early-season rotation struggles from Westbrook, Lee, and rookie Jeremy Sowers, discarding the latter two when better options emerged. He showed no hesitation in remaking his club late in the season, integrating Lofton, Cabrera, and Gutierrez into the lineup on the fly. The result was a team that blew past the Tigers by winning 31 of their final 43 games. That momentum may not mean much on a statistical level, but it does have his team's confidence up.

Prediction

The Yankees have a threatening offense, but they appear to have committed to a much less than ideal rotation alignment, and they're at a clear disadvantage when it comes to late-inning matchups. The one-two punch of Sabathia and Carmona could easily push their team to the brink of victory before they even hit the Bronx, where the Yankees will need some good fortune simply to get quality starts. Indians in five.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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