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October 3, 2000
New York Yankees vs. Oakland Athletics
This series shapes up as an interesting experiment. How important is positive momentum going into October? The Yankees set a new standard for backing into a division title, losing their last seven games and 13 of their last 15. The A's, however, drove from out of a playoff spot to a division title in the last ten days of the season, winning 11 of 12 games and 19 of 22.
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)
(Ed. Note: For players who played for multiple teams, their EqA only reflects their performance with their current team.)
DH Chuck Knoblauch (.283/.366/.385/.257)
CF Terrence Long (.288/.336/.452/.267)
Both these lineups are approximations. The Yankees could do just about anything with their six through eight spots, depending in part on whether Chuck Knoblauch plays second base or DH. If he can't play the field (or if Torre elects not to try), one of Luis Sojo or Jose Vizcaino becomes a fourth cipher in the lineup. The Yankees can't really afford the three they have, so draw your own conclusions.
The Yankee problem has become comparable to that of division rival Boston. Despite some truly great players at the up-the-middle spots, the inability to get adequate production from the corners hamstrings the offense. Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius are simply not championship-caliber players anymore. It's a tribute to the greatness of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada that they finished sixth in the league in runs scored with 871. Their team EqA was .260, 14th in the majors.
The A's have more or less settled on the lineup above, but you could see Miguel Tejada lower in the lineup or right-handed hitters Olmedo Saenz and Mike Stanley in the 1B/DH/RF slots against Andy Pettitte. While Saenz can contribute, Stanley is pretty much done.
The A's EqA of .272 was fourth in MLB, and they scored 947 runs, third in the AL (shy three runs and one game played of the #2 Cleveland Indians). While they have a reputation--one we've pushed hard--as being a tremendously patient team, Jason Giambi is the only regular with an OBP above .360.
The difference is that the A's don't have as many lineup holes as the Yankees. While Jeremy Giambi is an inadequate DH, he may lose some at-bats to Piatt, and Ramon Hernandez had a bad year in the #9 hole, so it's not quite a nine-man lineup. It's still a better one than the Yankees'.
DH Jose Canseco (.252/.377/.444/.271*)
3B Olmedo Saenz (.313/.401/.514/.309)
The Yankees' bench has improved from horrific to passable, but the team still carries a couple of players who won't be playing unless they absolutely have to, Clay Bellinger and Chris Turner. There is no backup center fielder, either, so if Bernie Williams's nagging injuries force him to DH (or the bench), things unravel quickly.
What Joe Torre can do with this bench is hit for his second basemen at will. He has three, plus Knoblauch, and three players who should never appear in the field in Jose Canseco, Glenallen Hill and Luis Polonia. There will be no reason to allow Jose Vizcaino or Luis Sojo to bat in any situation with a runner on base past about the fourth inning.
What the Yankees could really use is a crash course for Hill in first-base play. This would enable the team to bench Tino Martinez, one of the worst first basemen in baseball, and get another bat in the lineup. It won't happen of course. Yankee fans can only hope Torre at least hits for Martinez is game-critical situations.
Art Howe has moved away from the reflexive platooning of Eric Chavez and Ben Grieve, so it's not automatic that we'll see Saenz or Piatt once a left-handed reliever comes into the game. His bench is fairly strong, with some good hitters in Olmedo Saenz and Jeremy Giambi and a quality fourth outfielder in Ryan Christenson. Contrast Howe's backup infielder and catcher with Torre's, and it becomes obvious which team is playing with 25 men.
Rotations (Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacment, ERA)
Roger Clemens (3.8, 3.70)
Gil Heredia (2.2, 4.12)
If you're a Yankee fan looking for reasons to be optimistic, here they are. Because the A's had to go down to the wire, their best two starters will be unavailable for the first two games of this series. They'll lead with a passable #3 and #4 in Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier. If they can split the first two games, though, they'll be in the driver's seat.
The Yankee rotation is the key to the series, in my opinion. Unlike in past years, when Torre could go to his pen early and often, the Yankees are going to have to get seven innings a game from his starters. The bullpen, down Ramiro Mendoza and with everyone but Mariano Rivera ineffective of late, just can't be relied on for three or more good innings a night.
Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA)
Mariano Rivera (14.0, 2.85)
Jason Isringhausen (7.2, 3.78)
This is not your typical Yankee bullpen. While Jeff Nelson had his best regular season in years, he struggled in September and what the Yankees will get from him in the playoffs is a mystery. Mike Stanton's story is much the same, and as you can see, the rest of the bullpen isn't exactly inspiring.
Having Denny Neagle out there, at least for the first series, could be an interesting factor. On the one hand, he's a left-hander capable of going three or four innings. On the other, he's a flyball, homer-prone pitcher going up against a lineup that loves to go deep. He's familiar to David Cone and Dwight Gooden as a skinnier Sid Fernandez, one of their teammates on the Mets. The 1988 Mets.
The A's sport the best seventh- and eighth-inning pitchers in baseball, with Jeff Tam and Jim Mecir setting up Jason Isringhausen. Izzy appears to be the nominal closer again, but Howe can let either of the other two finish a game if Isringhausen is tired or if he simply wants to let an effective pitcher keep pitching.
Having two good right-handed setup men who can pitch multiple innings has freed Howe from obsessing over platoon splits. It's also lessened the impact of having only one left-handed reliever, Mike Magnante,
A subject neither team really wants to get too deeply into. The A's are a poor defensive team by reputation, but the addition of Terrence Long in center field improved the outfield considerably. You can take the walks-and-power players a bit too far, and adding Rich Becker between Ben Grieve and Matt Stairs was "too far". Grieve is as bad as you've heard, probably the worst defensive player on an AL playoff team.
The A's are OK in the infield, as their best defender plays the most important slot. Miguel Tejada's offense gets most of the attention, but he's developed into a quality shortstop with a strong arm. It's a good thing, because he plays between two below-average infielders in Eric Chavez and Randy Velarde.
The Yankees don't have a much better defense. Only Bernie Williams and Scott Brosius are above average, and both of them have slipped from their Gold Glove peaks. The Yankees, collectively, have poor range and good hands, the formula for an overrated defensive team.
The A's are clearly the better team, but being forced to play the series backwards, with their top two starters not appearing until Games Three and Four. Of course, this means that Howe can ride Jeff Tam and Jim Mecir hard in the first two games, knowing they get a day off and then at least a chance for a long start on Friday.
Overreacting to the Yankees' 3-15 finish would be silly, but what I'm seeing elsewhere--dismissing it completely--doesn't make much more sense. Tom Ruane's work indicates that there isn't a lot of carryover from a team's finish to its postseason play; then again, it also shows that almost no postseason team has ever had a run like the Yankees did over the past three weeks.
The A's will win in four, as Mecir and Tam do a neat Nelson/Mendoza impersonation in the first two games for a split and Hudson and Zito shut the Yankees down over the weekend.
Joe Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com.