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October 10, 2000

Playoff Prospectus

New York Yankees vs. Seattle Mariners

by Joe Sheehan

A rematch of what remains the only good thing to come out of the new playoff format, 1995's Yankee/Mariner series. No Joey Cora this time, so we're unlikely to see anyone go from home to first by way of Redmond.

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.)

New York

DH Chuck Knoblauch (.283/.366/.385/.257)
SS Derek Jeter (.339/.416/.481/.304)
LF David Justice (.286/.377/.584/.312*)
CF Bernie Williams (.307/.391/.566/.308)
1B Tino Martinez (.258/.328/.422/.248)
RF Paul O'Neill (.283/.336/.424/.252)
C Jorge Posada (.287/.417/.527/.310)
3B Scott Brosius (.230/.299/.374/.219)
2B Luis Sojo (.286/325/.422/.240*)

Seattle

LF Rickey Henderson (.238/.362/.327/.259*)
CF Mike Cameron (.267/.365/.438/.284)
SS Alex Rodriguez (.316/.420/.606/.344)
DH Edgar Martinez (.324/.423/.579/.339)
1B John Olerud (.285/.392/.439/.294)
RF Jay Buhner (.253/.361/.522/.296)
3B David Bell (.247/.316/.381/.242)
C Joe Oliver (.265/.313/.490/.269)
2B Mark McLemore (.245/.353/.316/.248)

Lou Piniella has taken to rotating his bench in fairly aggressively, so you'll see a fair amount of Stan Javier, Carlos Guillen and even Raul Ibanez. None of these guys help the team much, save perhaps Guillen, but playing them isn't the worst thing Piniella is doing.

Nope, the most noticeable bad idea is the extreme little ball he's playing. The Mariners led the American League with 63 sacrifice bunts this season, and Piniella has started laying it down at almost every opportunity. In the Division Series, he asked both John Olerud and Alex Rodriguez to put down sacrifices, which is self-destruction on the order of hiring Stevie Wonder as a crossing guard.

Of course, since the Mariners advanced to the ALCS on a bunt, look for lots of them over the next two weeks, along with happy talk about how moving runners is the key to the Mariners' success.

Give credit to Joe Torre for what he did, moving Paul O'Neill down to the #6 spot and bumping his best hitter, David Justice in to the #3 spot. If nothing else, this means the Yankees have bunched their best hitters (Justice between Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams) which could help them have a quick rally or two.

This is still a Yankee team carrying too many poor hitters. For all the talk of Luis Sojo as the "MVP" of the Division Series, he's a problem in the lineup, as are the three aging veterans who have anchored the offense all year, O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius. It's a fair fight, though, with the Ms carrying Joe Oliver, David Bell and Mark McLemore. All told, this will be a much different series than a Chicago/Oakland series would have been.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

New York

DH Jose Canseco (.252/.377/.444/.271*)
DH Glenallen Hill (.293/.336/.600/.336*)
IF Jose Vizcaino (.251/.308/.303/.211*)
IF Clay Bellinger (.207/.288/.370/.222)
C Chris Turner (.236/.320/.303/.206)
PH Luis Polonia (.276/.309/.427/.244*)

Seattle

C Dan Wilson (.235/.291/.336/.215)
IF Carlos Guillen (.257/.324/.396/.248)
OF Stan Javier (.275/.351/.401/.264)
OF Al Martin (.285/.338/.452/.268*)
OF Raul Ibanez (.229/.301/.329/.224)

Neither team has an impressive bench, and while Piniella will rotate some of his guys in if he wants to load up left-handed hitters (look for it in Game 2, probably Orlando Hernandez's start), Torre will mostly use Glenallen Hill if he wants power at DH, and the other guys as pinch-hitters for second basemen or replacements for second basemen.

As with most postseason series in the AL, the bench is really a minor factor. You can give the edge to the Mariners here mostly because they can exploit a platoon differential if they want, and because they have a couple of guys in Javier and Al Martin who can steal a base in a pinch-running role, especially against a Yankee bullpen that doesn't hold runners that well.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement, ERA)

New York

Denny Neagle (3.3, 4.52)
Orlando Hernandez (3.1, 4.51)
Roger Clemens (3.8, 3.70)
Andy Pettitte (3.0, 4.35)

Seattle

Freddy Garcia (1.2, 3.91)
John Halama (-0.6, 5.08)
Aaron Sele (2.3, 4.51)
Paul Abbott (2.2, 4.22)

It's a tribute to the Mariners' pitching depth that they could lose someone like Jamie Moyer and not really miss him. John Halama will get his start and the team will be none the worse for it.

The Yankees will begin the series off rotation, as Denny Neagle makes his first start this postseason. Neagle was simply brutal in September, as his home-run tendencies flared up. The Mariners have more than enough right-handed power to exploit Neagle's problems, and facing him twice in the first five games is a real positive for Seattle.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA)

New York

Mariano Rivera (14.0, 2.85)
Jeff Nelson (16.3, 2.45)
Mike Stanton (10.6, 4.10)
Dwight Gooden (3.0, 4.71)
David Cone (-0.5 SNWAR, 6.91)
Randy Choate (-1.2, 4.76)

Seattle

Kazuhiro Sasaki (14.2, 3.16)
Arthur Rhodes (15.6, 4.28)
Jose Paniagua (11.7, 3.46)
Brett Tomko (1.9, 4.68)
Rob Ramsay (1.5, 3.40)
Jose Mesa (-9.5, 5.36)

Baseball writers everywhere got their paradigms shifted violently when the Mariners' bullpen, and in particular Jose Mesa, put on their three-act play Dennis Eckersley, The Sober Years. Not that the rest of the teams didn't play well, but it was the job that Mesa, Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki did that put the Mariners where they are right now.

Can they keep it up? Well, another 13 shutout innings may be asking a bit much, but they were quietly effective all season. The three days off between games was a godsend for the Mariners, espcially when you contrast it with how hard the Yankee pen worked over the weekend.

On the other hand, Mariano Rivera hasn't given up a run in the postseason since Sandy Alomar went deep off him three years ago. He's still a one-pitch pitcher, and the one pitch, a cut fastball with more movement than Richard Simmons on a double mocha, is still basically unhittable. Joe Torre has been better about using him in the eighth inning, even having him start the eighth in Game Three of the Division Series.

Both bullpens are strengths. Right now, the Mariners are a better bet from the sixth through the eighth, but there's no pitcher left in the postseason I'd rather have getting three outs than Rivera.

Defense

The Yankees are an old team, and their defense reflects that. They have good hands and below-average range, particularly on the corners. A particular problem is right field, where Paul O'Neill is now both old and injured, with a bad hip that slows him even further and interferes with his one good tool, a strong throwing arm.

One thing I'm looking forward to is seeing how the Yankees play the Mariners' bunts. The A's basically lost Game Three of the Division Series when Ramon Hernandez threw a Luis Sojo sacrifice into center field, costing the A's at least one run in a game they lost by two. The Yankees have the kind of players at the corners in Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez who, despite a lack of lateral range, can make plays and turn sacrifices into forceouts or even double plays. Jorge Posada, a lousy plate blocker, is fairly good at fielding balls in front of the plate.

The Mariners didn't face this kind of defense against Chicago; how this plays out, and whether Piniella changes his strategy accordingly, could be an important part of this series.

Seattle has a diverse mix of strong defensive players and guys who are out there because there are no better options on the roster. Mike Cameron is what Mariners fans always thought Ken Griffey was. He needs to be, because when the Mariners play Jay Buhner and Rickey Henderson, his responsibilities extend from foul line to foul line.

In the infield, the Ms have quality defenders in Alex Rodriguez and John Olerud playing with guys wearing gloves in Mark McLemore and David Bell. Both McLemore and Bell have good hands, but neither moves well. Carlos Guillen's high error total while learning third base keeps him out of the lineup, but playing him at third and platooning McLemore and Bell at second base would upgrade the team on both sides of the ball.

The Call

The Mariners seem to have small edges everywhere, which should add up to a win in the series. That said, the A's looked a lot better than the Yankees a week ago, and the Yankees were able to get just enough runs to support squeak past them.

I'm inclined to go with the Yankees here, and for reasons that may seem a bit strange for a BP writer. After five postseasons and nearly 50 October contests, the Yankees do know how to win playoff games. And I don't mean that in the sense of "intangibles".

I mean that they get enough runners on base to have a few rallies, they get good starts from their best pitchers, they they use their core relievers to get through the seventh and eighth and they drop the one hammer they have on teams to win. You don't get to pick on #5 starters and long relievers in the playoffs.

Every time it looks like something is going to get in the way of that, they go out and win games with exactly that formula. See Game Two and Game Three of the Division Series for examples. October is different, and the Yankees have the tools to win when it's different.

On the other hand, so do the Mariners. Their pitching staff very closely resembles the Yankees' and they have a better offense, even with Piniella mistaking it for that of the 1912 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Whoever's bullpen pitches better goes on. I'll take the Yankees in six.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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