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October 19, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Like Drinking Coffee with a Fork

by Jay Jaffe

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In the end, the defining moment of the 2010 Yankees' season may well turn out to have come on July 9, when a proposed deal with the Mariners to acquire Cliff Lee fell through, and Lee was rerouted to the Rangers at the last minute. Though the 31-year-old lefty scuffled for a stretch during his regular season stint with Texas due to a balky back, he's been lights out in the postseason. On Monday night in the Bronx, he lived up to his billing as a difference maker, limiting the Yankees to just two bare singles over eight innings while striking out 13, the latest in a rapidly growing line of dominating postseason performances. The Rangers now lead the American League Championship Series two games to one.

In running his postseason record to 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA and astounding 67/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Lee simply smothered the Yankees. He didn't allow his first baserunner until Mark Teixeira walked in the fourth inning, didn't allow his first hit until Jorge Posada singled in the fifth, and let just one man, Brett Gardner, even get to second base, that after a leadoff single in the sixth and a stolen base. He fell behind in the count 2-0 just three times all night, went to 3-1 just once, threw as many as three balls to a hitter just three times. Meanwhile, he got two strikes an amazing 20 times against the 27 batters he faced. Only five of those 20 wound up putting a pitch into play. Nine of them went down swinging, four of them looking, some of them while curled up in the fetal position. Lee collected at least one strikeout in every inning he pitched, and put the Yankees hitters away with five different pitches, his four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, curve and changeup. As Willie Stargell famously said about Sandy Koufax, trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.

Lee's opposite number, Andy Pettitte, pitched a rather brilliant game himself, yielding just two runs on five hits over seven innings while striking out five. His 110 pitches marked his first time above 90 since July 8, the day before that fateful non-trade, and just 10 days before his groin injury threw the Yankees rotation into disarray. He made just one mistake on Monday night, and it may even be a stretch to call it a mistake. With one out and one on in the first inning, he fell behind Josh Hamilton 2-1 and threw an 84-mph cutter which caught him off guard and off balance; Hamilton swung early but was able to slow down his swing and poke the ball off the end of his bat. The ensuing 346-foot homer was perhaps less emphatic but no less devastating than his three-run shot off CC Sabathia in the first inning of Game One. Facing a pitcher who had allowed just two runs in his two previous starts, it was a mountain of runs for the Yankees to overcome.

The irony, of course, is that both of Hamilton's homers have come against lefties, against whom the lefty swinger hit a rather ordinary .271/.331/.458 in 2010, while scorching righties like he was Ted ******* Williams (.401/.447/.716). The rest of the righty-heavy Rangers lineup featured hitters in the two through eight slots with batting averages above .300 and OBPs above .360 against lefties in 2010, yet they managed just four singles against Pettitte, three of them by Michael Young, whose nine-pitch at-bat in the first preceded Hamilton's blow. At no time in the first eight innings—Pettitte's seven plus a spotless one from Kerry Wood—did they have two runners on base. It was Pitchers Night in the Bronx.

Or at least it was until the ninth inning, when it turned into the 1977 Commemorative South Bronx Fire Night. The Rangers pounded the Yankees bullpen for six runs while batting around against Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Sergio Mitre. Hamilton led off with a double against lefty (!) Logan, Robertson allowed consecutive singles to Vlad Guerrero and Nelson Cruz, and after a strikeout and an intentional walk to load the bases, Bengie Molina, Mitch Moreland and Elvis Andrus all hit safely, with the latter, who slugged a bare .301 during the regular season, collecting just his second extra-base hit since August 31. Yankees manager Joe Girardi erred, in that he absolutely should have called upon Mariano Rivera to hold the two-run deficit and give the Yankees a shot at tying the game with a bloop and a blast or some other short sequence combination against Neftali Feliz. The young Rangers closer had walked five and yielded one dinger in 2 1/3 innings over the course of his first three post-season appearances, but by the time he came in, he had eight-run cushion, and the Yankees were absolutely dead in the water.

So Lee and the Rangers have at the very least guaranteed themselves a return trip to Texas to play more baseball. They've been firmly in command of this series for all but one inning, as their three starters in this series—C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis being the others—have now held the majors' most productive offense to just five runs in 20 2/3 innings while yielding 12 hits and whiffing 23. The Yankees are hitting a collective .194/.288/.296 for the series, and if you subtract Robinson Cano's performance, it's .163/.273/.198. Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are a combined 3-for-35, with a Swisher double and five walks the only additions to that bare line.

The Yankees now find themselves between a rock and a hard place, forced to send disaster-prone A.J. Burnett to the mound in Game Four despite his 6.61 ERA since August 1. On a positive note, Burnett did fare relatively well against the Rangers, holding them to a .232/.303/.319 line in three starts totaling 18 innings. The alternative would have been for Girardi to bring back Sabathia on three days' rest, but that would have either only forestalled the inevitable Burnett start or forced both Phil Hughes and Pettitte to come back on three days as well. If only the Yankees had gone out prior to the trade deadline and gotten another reliable starter...

As for the Rangers, they're hitting a robust .291/.371/.476 in this series, with seven different hitters collecting extra-base hits. The top of their order—Andrus, Young, and Hamilton—is hitting a combined .351/.454/.595, and when you combine that with the .333/.391/.381 line the Rangers have gotten from their eight and nine hitters, you've got the lineup turning over a whole lot of times. They'll send their own rotation's weak link in Tommy Hunter to the mound for Game Four, and while Hunter is a pitch-to-contact type (4.8 K/9 overall this year), he did notch eight strikeouts in five innings in his sole start against the Yankees this year, and had seven in his four-inning start against the Rays in the Division Series. This could well be a game where both starters get knocked around en route to a slugfest; at the very least, you can bet on a lot of work for both bullpens, since neither starter is likely to go deep.

The one remaining note I have for the night is the inevitable discussion of Pettitte's Hall of Fame case, which re-emerged in the wake of another strong post-season outing. As much as I've loved watching him pitch in pinstripes, I simply don't see it yet. While Pettitte's regular season won-loss record is a gaudy 240-138, that's a product of run support; he's gotten an average of 5.5 runs per game over the years, and let's not forget the BBWAA hasn't voted in a starter with less than 300 wins since Ferguson Jenkins in 1991. Pettitte's 3.88 ERA would be the highest of any Hall of Fame pitcher, and while his 117 ERA+ is just one tick behind that of Bert Blyleven (118), the latter has 63 percent more innings over the course of his career, and 64 percent more strikeouts. That ERA+ is comparable to the likes of the enshrined Gaylord Perry, Dennis Eckerlsey, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton and Jenkins (all in the 115-117 range), but all except the converted reliever Eck have at least 47 percent more innings than Pettitte.

Furthermore Pettitte has just three All-Star appearances and one top-three finish (but four top-five finishes) in the Cy Young voting. He holds a suite of post-season record for pitchers with his 19-10 mark, 42 starts and 263 innings compiled over the course of 13 trips to the playoffs—eight to the World Series, five rings)—but he's also taken his lumps, and his 3.83 ERA in October isn't exactly Gibsonesque. Unless you give him an enormous amount of credit for his post-season work and wave off some of those duds—seven disaster starts, including his harrowing 2001 Game Six World Series debacle, where everybody outside the Yankees dugout figured out he was tipping his pitches—he falls short. His case winds up looking a fair bit like Jack Morris (254-186, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 7-4, 3.80 ERA in the postseason, no Cys, a high of 52.3 percent in 11 years on the ballot). The JAWS system doesn't look at either pitcher very favorably; with the average Hall of Famer coming in at 70.3 career WARP, 47.7 peak WARP (best seven seasons), and 59.0 JAWS, Morris was at 36.2/27.3/31.8 during last year's ballot evaluation. Meanwhile, Pettitte entered the year at 44.7/30.0/37.4. He added 3.1 WARP during his injury-shortened year, and while adjustments to the WARP system have now upped his career total to 58.1, his peak score is virtually unchanged, leaving him at 44.5 points. 

Which isn't to say he won't get into Cooperstown eventually. My money's on whatever version of the Veterans Committee still survives 30 or 40 years from now making the call in his favor. But right now, I'd be hard pressed to vote for him if I'm going by my head instead of my heart.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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