October 14, 2010
ALCS Preview: Rangers vs. Yankees
From 1996 through 1999, the Joe Torre-led Yankees and the Johnny Oates-piloted Rangers faced off in three American League Division Series, the first three times the latter franchise had ever reached the postseason. The Yankees won nine of those 10 games, holding the Rangers to a lone run apiece in their 1998 and 1999 sweeps. Times have changed, however, and while the Yankee machine has simply kept rolling, racking up four pennants and two world championships while missing the playoffs just once since their last meeting, the Rangers endured a dark decade before reemerging as AL West champions thanks to the shrewd deal making of general manager Jon Daniels and the fruits of their well-stocked farm system.
The Yankees already flattened a familiar opponent to get to the ALCS, sweeping the Twins for the second time in as many years, and answering questions about the fitness of their rotation in the process. They've been idle since winning last Saturday night, giving them time to line up their starters to their best advantage. Meanwhile, the Rangers earned the franchise's first post-season series win ever by going the distance against the team with the best record in the major leagues, taking an odd five-game set from the Rays in which neither team won a home game. Ace Cliff Lee tossed a masterful 120-pitch complete game in the finale, but the shorter gap between that victory and the start of the ALCS ensures that he won't be available to start Game One, a significant concern.
As noted at the outset of the Division Series, the Yankees led the majors in scoring for the fourth time in five years, producing 5.3 runs per game (and an AL-best .273 True Average) thanks to a combination of an MLB-high .350 OBP and a powerful lineup playing in a ballpark where more homers were hit than anywhere this side of Toronto (1.38 per team per game). They put the ball in play less often than any AL team except for the Rays (68.7 percent) and scored 38.1 percent of their runs via the longball, ranking third in the AL in the Guillen Number standings for the second year in a row.
The Yankees lineup is deep; 10 different hitters collected at least two hits and one RBI in the three-game ALDS. With three switch-hitters and an effective DH platoon, they punish pitchers of either hand with equal efficiency; the above configuration, which will face southpaw C.J. Wilson in Game One, posted a 117 OPS+ against lefties this year, while their lefty-laden lineup managed a 118 against righties. That said, they get to those points via different routes.
Derek Jeter put up career lows in all three triple-slash categories while producing the majors' highest ground-ball rate, and he was the only Yankee not to walk or score a run in the ALDS. While his lousy performance against righties (.246/.315/.317) makes him one of the few places opposing pitchers can hide, he's still a legitimate threat against lefties (.321/.393/.481). Nick Swisher, who reworked his swing and traded some deep-count-inducing patience for a more aggressive approach, is still visibly hampered by a bruised left knee, but he wielded a big bat against the Twins, with two doubles and a homer. He's more patient against lefties (.294/.415/.433 this year, with a homer every 54 PA) but more powerful against righties (.287/.331/.551, with a homer every 17 PA); he may be moved down to sixth against the latter as he did in Game Two, with Curtis Granderson moving up to the two slot. Mark Teixeira led the league in runs scored (113) while ranking third in walks (93) and fourth homers (33), posting Teixeira-like numbers following a god-awful April. Coming off his widest platoon split since his rookie season with the Rangers back in 2003, he's a bigger threat against lefties than righties (.278/.413/.528, compared to .244/.342/.457 against lefties).
Rodriguez, another former Ranger, posted his best month of the season in September/October, hitting .295/.375/.600 with nine homers after returning from a late-August calf strain. He was uncharacteristically vulnerable against lefties (.217/.314/.441) in 2010. Cano reached the 200-hit plateau and set career standards for both power and patience during an MVP-caliber season. In addition to a searing .337/.400/.544 line against righties, he hit lefties about as well as any lefty in the league (.285/.343/.514); only four other lefties with at least 100 plate appearances posted a higher OPS. Marcus Thames, who dealt the knockout blow in ALDS Game Three via his homer off Brian Duensing, is generally a lefty-masher extraordinaire (.300/.352/.454 this year); he held his own when injuries pressed him into service against righties to the point of showing a reverse platoon split (.268/.347/.549), but he'll yield to Lance Berkman here. Jorge Posada, who hit just .149/.286/.234 since a September 7 concussion scare, had several tenacious at-bats in the Division Series and appears to be all right. As a switch-hitter, his tendency mirrors that of Swisher: more powerful against lefties, more patient against righties. Granderson got a chance to show that the results of his work with hitting coach Kevin Long—which led to a .261/.356/.564 line with 14 homers from August 11 onward, more longballs than anyone in the major leagues except Jose Bautista in that span—weren't a fluke, lashing four hits in the Division Series, including big extra-base blows in both Games One and Two. His quieter swing has particularly shored up his weak performance against southpaws (.286/.375/.500 in 64 PA, compared to .206/.243/.275 in 107 PA prior). Brett Gardner is coming off a record for the highest rate of pitches per plate appearance since data began being kept in 1988 (4.61), though there's concern that his patience stems from a bruised wrist sustained in late June; he hit .321/.403/.418 prior to the injury, .232/.363/.340 afterwards, with both his strikeout and walk rates rising by around 50 percent.
The Rangers ranked fourth in the league in scoring at 4.9 runs per game, but much of that owed to playing in their hitter-friendly ballpark; they ranked just seventh in the league with a .263 True Average. They put the ball in play more often than all but two AL teams (73.7 percent), and led the league in both batting average (.276) and sacrifice bunts (53), scoring just 32.7 percent of their runs via homer, the eighth-highest rate in the league. Unlike the way I diagrammed it earlier this week, their lineup now looks a touch more formidable against lefties (a 122 OPS+) than righties (a 113 OPS+) so long as Ron Washington dials back the platooning.
With just 15 doubles, three triples and no homers, Elvis Andrus posted the second-lowest slugging percentage of any batting title qualifier, and the lowest isolated power (.036), along with numbers which were virtually identical against righties and lefties. He's a threat to steal, but not a particularly efficient one, getting nailed in 15 of 47 attempts. Michael Young has been caught in a late-season slide (.252/.279/.365 since August 1); though he homered in ALDS Game Two off Chad Qualls, he went just 3-for-20 without a walk over the five-game series. He was particularly strong against lefties this year (.322/.374/.497) but much less imposing against righties (.270/.314/.425). Josh Hamilton, who missed four weeks in September due to broken ribs but still led the league in batting average, slugging percentage, and TAv, appears to be struggling to regain his timing, going just 2-for-18 in the Division Series while facing a steady diet of off-speed stuff. Interestingly enough, he did start all five games in center field, something he'd done just twice since August 19. Unlike the rest of the two through seven hitters in this lineup, Hamilton was merely ordinary against lefties (.271/.331/.458), but absolutely unreal against righties (.401/.447/.716 in 389 PA); given that the Yankees have just one lefty reliever in Boone Logan, don't be surprised if manager Joe Girardi has a righty reliever pitch around him in order to face Vladimir Guerrero, who was fairly ordinary against righties (.287/.328/.482) while absolutely impaling lefties (.338/.395/.536).
Coming off a breakout season marred only by three separate trips to the DL for left hamstring woes, Nelson Cruz tore apart the Rays in the Division Series, going 8-for-20 with an extra-base hit in each game (two doubles, three homers). He was about equally effective against both righties and lefties, and as he showed in Game Five, he can run, stealing 17 bases in 21 attempts. Ian Kinsler, who missed about two months of the season with ankle and groin injuries, posted the highest OBP and lowest SLG of his career, but he rediscovered his power stroke in the Division Series, pounding three homers while going 8-for-18. Perhaps due to those injuries limiting his sample sizes, he had the largest platoon split of any of the Rangers regulars not named Hamilton this season, scorching lefties at a .376/.473/.484 clip but hitting a relatively meek .258/.353/.389 against righties. Jeff Francoeur, while an utter joke as a regular, is quite playable as the short half of a platoon, hitting .300/.363/.442 against southpaws this year; his presence in the lineup bumps Cruz to left field and David Murphy (or Julio Borbon) to the bench. Bengie Molina, who came over in June to save the Giants' season while covering for the dissolution of the Rangers' once-promising young catching corps, posted career lows in both batting average and slugging percentage. He drew four out of five starts in the Division Series, knocking a homer in Game One and stealing a base (just the fourth of his career!) in Game Five. Whatever his flaws as a hitter, he's a much greater threat against lefties, raking them at a .350/.412/.420 clip this year and posting a career OPS 135 points higher against them. The rookie Mitch Moreland, who spent the initial two months of his big-league career being shielded from lefties, drew the Game Five start against David Price, exiling dead-weight Jorge Cantu to the bench.
Mercifully, the spaced-out schedule has left the Yankees less reliant on their bench than during the regular season, sparing post-season audiences the replacement-level stylings of Ramiro Peña and the frenetically spunky but mistake-prone Francisco Cervelli, at least up to this point. The former is quite rightfully limited to pinch-running duty at this stage, but the latter is a threat to draw a Game Four start in tandem with A.J. Burnett, with Posada possibly shifting to DH to avoid starting behind the plate for three games in a row, something he did just once after May 3. Cervelli has served as Burnett's personal catcher for most of the season, a connection that somehow hasn't registered amid the Yankees brass' search for answers to the enigmatic hurler's woes.
The primary moving part here is Berkman, now a hazard against lefties (.171/.261/.256) but still enough of a threat against righties (.267/.393/.453) to serve as a platoon DH. After returning from an ankle sprain to hit a slappy but useful .299/.405/.388 in September/October, he bashed a home run and a double in Game Two of the Division Series. Greg Golson is around for pinch-running and defensive replacement purposes; he spotted for Swisher in the late innings of Games One and Two in the latter capacity. Austin Kearns has essentially been relegated to a role as cheerleader by Granderson's resurgence, particularly against lefties.
Despite beating Price in Game One of the Division Series, Washington showed a willingness to switch things up by ditching Cantu, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts as the starting first baseman, in favor of Moreland—and with good cause, given that Cantu's performance backslid considerably in 2010. His strikeout rate rose, his walk rate declined, he showed less power, and his performance against southpaws completely cratered (.234/.286/.362, down from .283/.344/.459 from 2007-09).
As for the rest of the gang, the light-hitting Matt Treanor started Game Two of the Division Series against righty James Shields, making a pest of himself by walking once and getting plunked twice. He's vaguely playable against righties (.244/.335/.341) but worse than useless against lefties (.137/.175/.233); his main virtue is an ability to stop the running game, throwing out 28 percent of attempted steals. Andres Blanco didn't see action in the Division Series and is basically vestigial. While he had some hit-lucky success against righties this year (.302/.359/.379 off a .341 BABIP) he's got just one career stolen base to his credit, ruling him all but out of the pinch-running game. The speedy Borbon got the horse collar in his Game Two start in left field, then came off the bench two other times; with 34 steals in 45 attempts over his career, he can be a weapon as a pinch-runner, but he's a liability with the stick. Murphy is a much more vital part of the roster, likely to start in left field against righties (against whom he hit a very playable .298/.368/.479 this year, consistent with his career work) while Cruz shifts back to right and Francouer grabs some bench. Very quietly, Murphy 14 bases in 16 attempts for the highest rate of success on the team.
Last year, the Yankees rode CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Burnett all the way to a world championship, but this year's rotation reached the postseason in precarious shape, having put up a 5.24 ERA in the second half (5.91 aside from Sabathia) with Pettitte making just three late-season starts after returning from a groin injury, Burnett putting up the worst season of his career, and young Phil Hughes hitting a wall as he pushed his odometer higher than ever before. One three-game sweep later, things look a whole lot better. While Sabathia's start—on seven days of rest, longer than he prefers—was something of a slog, Pettitte exhibited vintage post-season form with seven strong innings, and Hughes shut the door brilliantly with seven shutout innings at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees had planned to return with Sabathia on three days' rest for Game Four of the Division Series, but here they've decided to go with a four-man rotation rather than asking the big man to work on short rest twice in a row for Games Four and Seven. That means a start for Burnett, whose 2010 season has seemingly been one disasterpiece after another. The good news is that he fared relatively well against the Rangers, throwing seven shutout innings against their early-season lineup (including Borbon, Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden), on April 17, tossing another seven solid frames against a more representative lineup in a losing cause on August 10 (Murphy took him deep), and throwing four innings and allowing two runs before a 58-minute rain delay forced him from the game on September 11. Burnett was pummeled fairly equally by hitters from both sides of the plate (.286/.376/.444 versus lefties, .285/.355/.473 versus righties). For some reason, he's had a touch more trouble against same-handed hitters over the last few years than opposite-handed ones; call us when you figure out why, because we're as baffled as anyone.
Amid another typically strong season (first in the AL in wins at 21, sixth in strikeouts at 197, seventh in ERA and SNWP), Sabathia showed a rather atypical reverse platoon split (.232/.295/.354 vs righties, .261/.318/.360 vs. lefties) due to a BABIP against lefties that shot up more than 100 points (to .361) beyond his 2009 rate. Pettitte's platoon splits were more extreme than usual, likely due to the smaller sample size; he smothered lefties with a zeal rarely shown before (.186/.226/.256) while getting a bit knocked around by righties (.283/.346/.434). He still hasn't gone beyond 88 pitches since July 8, but he looked plenty strong against the Twins while effectively mixing in his four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and curveball. Despite his long history of Game Two successes, he's being pushed back to start Game Three this time around, which lines him up for a potential Game Seven. That gives Hughes a bit more room to work, ballpark-wise, though despite concerns about his homer-prone nature in the Bronx, he rarely allowed a hard-hit ball against the Twins, spotting his fastball effectively while backing off his initial plans to use his changeup and cutter. He was much more homer-prone against lefties than righties (one for every 23 PA, compared to one for every 43), particularly from late June onward, when he began relying more on his curveball than the cutter, though his overall platoon differential wasn't all that wide (.253/.292/381 vs. righties, .235/.311/.417 vs. lefties).
If the Rangers' blueprint to beat the Yankees has a shortcoming, it's in their inability to get Lee to the mound twice in anything but a seven-game series. Forced into a Division Series that went the distance and unwilling to pitch their ace on three days' rest, something he's never done before, the Rangers won't be able to return to him until Game Three, nor will they bring him back before Game Seven—a surprising bit of skittishness given both the hurler's desire for the biggest free agent pitcher payday since Sabathia and the looming specter of old-schooler Nolan Ryan as the team president.
In any event, though Lee's second-half stint with Texas—following a near-trade to the Yankees, as if this series needed another storyline—was marred somewhat by back woes, he's coming off a spectacular season in which in which he posted the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio of the past half-century (10.3). He was brilliant in the ALDS, whiffing 21, walking none and allowing just two runs in 16 innings, and he now owns a 1.44 ERA in seven career post-season starts while averaging eight innings per start. Interestingly enough, he showed a reverse platoon split for the fourth time in the past six years, stifling righties at a .227/.243/.348 clip; lefties found a few more holes to hit .281/.294/.411.
As for the rest of the gang, the Rangers' first two starters for this series reflect bold gambles won to get to this stage; Wilson is a converted closer, Colby Lewis a former first-round bust who honed his craft in Japan. Both are power pitchers who can miss plenty of bats but run up some deep pitch counts, which may hasten their exits. Wilson led the league in walks allowed (93, 4.1 per nine), though it didn't cost him as much as his SIERA suggests, in part because he was able to use lefties as an escape hatch, holding them to the lowest OPS of any major league starter (400, on a .144/.224/.176 line, without a single homer allowed in 171 PA); righties were better able to wait him out, hitting .236/.333/.346. He's coming off a dominant ALDS Game Two start (6 1/3 innings, two hits, seven Ks). Lewis ranked fifth in the league in strikeout rate (8.8 per nine) while walking considerably fewer hitters than Wilson (2.9 per nine), but his five walks in Game Three forced Washington to pull him after five-plus innings despite not allowing a run. Unsurprisingly, he was stronger against righties than lefties (.216/.264/.363 vs. .239/.319/.374). Tommy Hunter, a righty whose success at pitching to contact owes plenty to help from a strong Rangers defense (.257 BABIP this year, .277 last year), is the weakest link here; despite his low strikeout rate (4.8 per nine), he whiffed seven Rays in his Game Four start but was chased after allowing three runs in four innings. He's slightly tougher on righties (.231/.273/.435, compared to .272/.326/.437 vs. lefties) but more vulnerable to the longball against them as well (one in every 21 PA, compared to one in every 30 PA vs. lefties)
The Yankees wound up fifth in the league in WXRL thanks to a strong late-season showing; their 5.5 WXRL and 3.28 FRA were both second-best in the league after the All-Star break. Kerry Wood's July 31 arrival was the key, as he took over eighth-inning duties from the spotty Joba Chamberlain, yielding just two runs and letting one out of 10 inherited runners score in 26 innings despite an inflated walk rate. He was a bit shaky in the first round, bookending one spotless inning with six baserunners in two partial-inning appearances. David Robertson, who led the team with a team-high 1.5 WXRL (and a 2.31 FRA) after the break, pitched only two-thirds of an inning against the Twins but stranded a total of four baserunners. He's obviously ahead of Chamberlain in the pecking order now, given that the latter, who did have a stronger second half (1.1 WXRL, 3.10 FRA) after a disappointing first half, didn't even pitch in the Division Series. Boone Logan became a key component of the bullpen via a strong second half (25/8 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings, 7/23 IR/IS), holding lefties to a .190/.286/.215 line. The Yankees opted not to carry a second lefty (in this case Royce Ring) against Minnesota, but Logan rose to the occasion, retiring two out of three hitters in Game One and needing just one pitch to pop Jason Kubel up in Game Three. Dustin Moseley and Sergio Mitre are around as long relief options, particularly in the case of another early exit by Burnett. The former pitched credibly for six innings in a September 12 start against the Rangers only to have Girardi push his luck with what became a three-run seventh and a blown quality start. The latter fared much better as a reliever than as a starter (2.59 FRA in 40.1 innings, compared to 8.15 in 13 2/3 innings), low strikeout rate notwithstanding.
As for the 40-year-old Mariano Rivera, after another typically strong campaign (seventh in WXRL), the greatest closer ever and the greatest post-season performer ever (0.72 ERA across 136 2/3 post-season innings, with a 108/21 K/BB ratio) shook off a late-September slump to close out all three games against Minnesota. He got four outs in Game One to quell any queasiness Girardi might have had about using him for longer than an inning; dating back to 2007, nine of his last 18 post-season appearances have required him to get more than three outs, and he hasn't faltered once.
The Rangers ranked second in the league in WXRL (10.4) and first in FRA (3.61) thanks in large part to a strong season from the rookie Neftali Feliz, who ranked third in the league individually. Batters hit just .176/.246/.269 off him, with lefties even worse (.127/.214/.195) than righties. He was a bit rough around the edges in the Division Series, walking two hitters while closing out Game One, then yielding three baserunners and allowing one run of his own and one inherited runner to score in their Game Three loss.
With the loss of Frank Francisco due to a strained rib cage muscle, Darren O'Day moved up in the pecking order and made four scoreless appearances in the Division Series. Unlike most sidearmers, he showed very little platoon split in 2010, holding righties to .181/.233/.309 and lefties to .229/.289/.271, though the latter constituted less than one-third of his workload; perhaps not eager to push his luck, Washington limited him to one-third of an inning in three of those ALDS games. The venerable lefty Darren Oliver, who started a post-season game for the Rangers against the Yankees way back in 1996, saw action in three ALDS games. He's Washington's favorite setup man at this juncture, though he showed an even stronger platoon split in 2010 than he normally does (.200/.234/.295 vs. lefties, .281/.344/.421 vs. righties). Dustin Nippert and Alexi Ogando are the team's two middle-inning righties; the latter has mid-90s heat to offer, but Washington has yet to turn him loose, using him primarily in lower-leverage spots during the season and limiting him to just one-third of an inning against Tampa Bay. Of the other two lefties, Derek Holland, who spent most of the year in the minors, is the long man; he tossed four innings in relief of Hunter in Game Four after working an inning of middle relief in Game Three. He punishes lefties (a regression-ready .130/.167/.196) but gets punished by righties (.277/.366/.452). Michael Kirkman, a tall 23-year-old who fared well in a late-season trial, has multi-inning possibilities as well; he also misses more bats than Clay Rapada (9.0 IP, 4.00 ERA, 2.11 rFRA, 0.0 WXRL, 12 percent K rate), though at press time no final decision on the roster's last lefty had been made.
The Yankee D ranked a strong second in the league in both raw Defensive Efficiency (.713) and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (1.70). The FRAA numbers credit Teixeira and Rodriguez with the top seasons among the infielders, with both Cano and Jeter slightly below average—a finding somewhat at odds with what UZR and Plus/Minus say. Those two systems both see Cano as slightly above average, Tex and A-Rod average-ish, and Jeter well below average, which clashes less with commonly held wisdom but still fails to credit the entire unit for the strong overall showing. The outfield is a stronger unit thanks to the rangy Gardner and Granderson playing side by side; that duo and Swisher all fared well across the big three systems. Gardner had nine assists thanks to the occasional successes when runners challenged his arm, which is generally considered fairly weak; Swisher (10 assists) is the stronger-armed of the two. Behind the plate, Posada's defense rates as a concern; he threw out just 13 of 85 runners attempt to steal (15 percent) and had eight passed balls in just 83 games. Cervelli, despite allowing just two passed balls in his 90 games, is hardly better; he nabbed just nine out of 64 stolen base attempts (14 percent) and made a whopping 13 errors, tied with Jason Kendall for the league lead, with five more than anyone else.
The Rangers ranked fifth in the league in raw Defensive Efficiency (.705) but first in PADE (2.16). In the infield, both Kinsler and Andrus rate as well above average in Plus/Minus and FRAA, but closer to average in UZR. Moreland scores out as average to below average in a limited sample, while the story is less happy for Young, who's solidly below average according to Plus/Minus and UZR, and just a hair below average via FRAA. In the outfield, the limited 2010 data suggests Hamilton can still carry center field adequately, while Murphy is essentially average in left, and Cruz a plus in right, showing good range though making just three assists. Behind the plate, the once-impressive Molina has been slipping since 2008; he threw out 24 of 103 on steal attempts (23 percent), though he did allow just four passed balls.
After guiding the Yankees to their 27th world championship last season, Girardi again managed to keep a loose atmosphere around the Yankees, staying calm in the face of major slumps from Teixeira, Rodriguez, Jeter, and Granderson, and playing key injuries to A-Rod and Posada very conservatively. He didn't call upon small-ball tactics very often; the Yankees ranked just 11th in the league in sacrifice bunts (33) and eighth in stolen base attempts (133), Still, they were fifth in stolen base percentage (77.4 percent), and fourth in Equivalent Baserunning Runs (2.5). Over the course of a full season, he once again did a strong job of assembling a working bullpen out of chaos, and in the Division Series, he was able to keep his Coffee Joe tendency to overmanage his bullpen in check. He gets high marks for taking advantage of the post-season schedule to distribute as many innings as possible among his top pitchers, stripping his rotation down to a three-man core when possible and maximizing his use of Rivera.
In his fourth year at the helm, Washington weathered the storm generated by the revelation that he tested positive for cocaine last summer to pilot the Rangers to their first playoff appearance since 1999, not to mention their first post-season series win ever. He built a solid multi-position platoon in the outfield and took advantage of the sudden plethora of power arms to upgrade his pitching staff significantly, integrating Wilson and Lewis—both of whom had significant question marks coming into the year—into his starting five and fearlessly anointing the rookie Feliz as his closer. He got a little happy with small-ball tactics, as the Rangers led the league in sac bunts (53) and ranked fifth in stolen base attempts (171) but just eighth in stolen base percentage (71.9); on the other hand, the team was third in the league in EqBRR (10.1), and they practically stole Game Five from the Rays thanks to smart, aggressive baserunning.
The Rangers lineup's strong performance against lefty pitching suggests they could give the Yankees' lefty-tilting rotation plenty of trouble in a short series. Nonetheless, the fact that Lee could make just one start in this series unless it goes the distance—and that the Rangers lineup's advantage will be present in just three of the six games under such circumstances, since Pettitte is now lined up for a potential Game Seven—is a significant impediment to their chances of upsetting the defending world champions. The bet here is that Lee won't get his chance to carry the team to glory: Yankees in six.