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October 22, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Notebook

by Jay Jaffe

Ode to CC: It was hardly a work of art, but CC Sabathia withstood a barrage of Rangers hits to give the Yankees six innings of two-run ball in Game Five, his best start of the 2010 postseason, and a critical one as far as helping New York stave off elimination and send the series back to Texas.

Sabathia didn't have a single 1-2-3 inning on Wednesday, but he also didn't walk a hitter; he got two double plays, and he gave up just two extra-base hits out of the 11 he surrendered. Only four of the hits, all singles, came with runners on base, and only one came with a man in scoring position. That was in the sixth, when three straight singles loaded the bases, but the third one, Jeff Francouer's poke to right field, was well played by Nick Swisher, who fired back into the infield to prevent David Murphy from scoring. Murphy scored on a Matt Treanor ground out during the next at-bat, but Sabathia came back to strike out Mitch Moreland to end the inning and his evening. In fact, of Sabathia's seven strikeouts, three of them ended the inning with runners on base.

In the early innings, I got into a playful but somewhat heated discussion on one of my radio hits—I did three of them during the course of the game—regarding Sabathia's post-season performances. The Ohio-based host's contention was that Sabathia was a post-season bust, and it's true that the overall numbers (4.79 ERA going into Wednesday, 4.66 now) aren't great. But that ERA is distorted by his ugly 2007 showing with Cleveland (15 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings, the source of the host's main beef) and a brief bombing with Milwaukee (five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings) which came during his fourth consecutive start on three days' rest. He pitched well during his lone playoff start in 2001, but more importantly, he was stellar last year, yielding two runs or less in four of his five post-season starts, putting up a 1.98 ERA while averaging 7.3 innings per start, making two starts on three days' rest, and earning a World Series ring.

The host wanted to wave that five-start stretch off and draw a straight line between his 2007-2008 failings and his rough go thus far in 2010, but as I said, "You can't ignore the elephant in the room, and CC's a pretty big elephant." I think he finally agreed. Nobody's suggesting Sabathia belongs in the class of Cliff Lee, and he's got a ways to go to live up to the example of Andy Pettitte, but it's not like he hasn't come up big at some points during his post-season career. Wednesday was one of those points.

The Battle of the Lefties: The Rangers came into this series with a lineup well-suited to handle the Yankees' lefties, and handle them they have thus far, pasting them at a .324/.367/.494 clip with four homers in 79 plate appearances. Surprisingly enough, it's been Josh Hamilton, the one player in the lineup's two through eight slots who hits righties better than lefties, who's done the most damage. Hamilton has gone 5-for-10 with a double and three homers, one off Sabathia, one off Pettitte, and one off Boone Logan. The one saving grace for the Yankees southpaws is their 23/5 K/BB ratio in those 79 plate appearances, compared to a 17/13 K/BB ratio in 117 PA against righties while being strafed at a .311/.402/.515 clip.

Meanwhile the Rangers' lefties have done a good job of handling Yankees hitters, holding them to a .194/.293/333 line in 123 PA. Even if you subtract Lee from the equation, they're still at .232/.344/.414, though the Yankees actually have more walks (14) than strikeouts (13) against those non-Lee lefties. The Yankees have hit the Rangers' righties for a .264/.371/.509 line with three homers in 62 PA, just about half as many opportunities as they've had against lefties.

The Teixeira Situation: The loss of Mark Teixeira for the rest of the postseason due to a Grade 2 hamstring strain leaves the Yankees scrambling to figure out their first base situation. Despite being matched up against lefty C.J. Wilson after a dreadful .171/.261/.256 season performance against southpaws, Lance Berkman started in Teixeira's place in Game Five and had good at-bats. He walked on four pitches in the second inning as Wilson's command began deserting him, and came around to score from second base on Curtis Granderson's single and the ensuing Little League-like play. He flied out to end the third after a six pitch at-bat in which he'd gotten ahead 3-0; the only pitch he swung at was the one he put into play. In the sixth, he hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to plate the Yankees' sixth run against Wilson. In the seventh, he struck out against lefty reliever Michael Kirkman, but only after an eight-pitch at-bat in which he battled back from an 0-2 hole.

Berkman's day in the field was a bit rockier, most notably when his legs went out from under him on the warning track as he tried to chase down a foul ball off the bat of Ian Kinsler in the fourth. He fell flat on his back and snapped his neck but luckily didn't hit his head on the hard surface, though without the benefit of replay that wasn't initially clear. The Yankees trainers used smelling salts to chase away the cobwebs when he came back to the dugout, and Berkman changed from plastic spikes to metal ones to get better traction on the notoriously slick foul territory.

Assuming he's healthy enough to play on Friday, Berkman remains the best choice to start against righty Colby Lewis; he still did a reasonable job against righties (.267/.393/.453) in 2010 to remain a threat. That would leave manager Joe Girardi likely to use Marcus Thames as his DH; Thames has been considerably less successful against righties over the course of his career (.236/.296/.480 compared to .264/.333/.505 against lefties), though he did hit .268/.347/.549 against northpaws in 2010 given a small sample of just 95 PA.

If Berkman can't go at first base, the only other players on the roster with major-league experience at first are Thames (44 games with Detroit from 2007-09, 33 of them in that first year), Swisher (255 career games there, including 26 with the Yankees in 2009-2010) and Jorge Posada (28 games during his career, but just six innings there since 2008). The most optimal backup plan would appear to be starting Swisher at first base and using Austin Kearns—assuming the Bureau of Missing Persons can find him, given that he hasn't played since October 2—in right field while DHing Berkman. Putting Thames in the field and Swisher at first, as Girardi did in the wake of Teixeira's injury, weakens the defense significantly at two points, and let's not even discuss the idea of a configuration which would put Posada at DH while allowing Francisco Cervelli another shot behind the plate.

Platoony Tunes: Both teams began the series with key platoons that have become somewhat blurred by injuries, the Yankees with their Thames/Berkman DH platoon, the Rangers with a Jeff Francoeur/David Murphy outfield corner platoon which saw both players in the field once Nelson Cruz departed Game Five with hamstring tightness (Cruz says he'll be back for Game Six). Thus far Thames and Berkman, each of whom took up some of what would have been Teixeira's at-bats in non-platoon roles in Games Four and Five, are a combined 4-for-22 with three walks but without an extra-base hit. Murphy and Francoeur are a combined 5-for-19 with four walks, a double, and a homer, with all of the goodies belonging to Murphy, most notably the two extra-base hits from Game Two.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have gotten surprisingly good results from their catching tandem despite a more or less ass-backwards approach regarding their platoon strengths. Bengie Molina and Matt Treanor are a combined 7-for-18 with a walk (Treanor), a double (Molina), two homers (one apiece) and seven RBI (as many as team leader Hamilton). The owner of a lifetime .193/.275/.267 line against lefties, Treanor has faced Sabathia in both of his starts due to his pairing with Wilson; he had hits in both games including a homer and an RBI ground out in Game Five. Molina, who has hit .265/.296/.384 against righties in his career and an even worse .213/.253/.292 this year, had the big three-run blow off A.J. Burnett in Game Four; he also collected a single and was hit by a pitch against the Yankees' starter. Earlier in the series, he doubled against Phil Hughes.

Some other numbers:

• The Rangers have outscored the Yankees 32-18. That's a .760 Pythagorean winning percentage, so suffice it to say the Yankees are still lucky to be down only 3-2. The Yankees have led for only 9 1/2 out of 45 innings.

• The Yankees are just 8-for-50 (.160) with runners in scoring position. The Rangers are 17-for-48 (.354).

• The Rangers are winning the balls in play battle, holding the Yankees to a .257 BABIP, while enjoying a .372 BABIP.

• Hamilton and Robinson Cano have tied a record shared by eight other players with four homers in an LCS. Cano has just five RBI to show for the series because the Yankees' two through four hitters in front of him—Swisher/Granderson, Teixiera, and Alex Rodriguez—were just 3-for-42 with zero extra-base hits and seven walks in the first four games. In Teixiera's absence, Cano is now hitting third, a wise move given that he's hitting .387/.406/.871 this postseason.

• Prior to Game Five, Swisher's Game Two double was the Yankees' only extra-base hit not collected by Cano or Derek Jeter. In Wednesday's onslaught, Rodriguez, Granderson, and Posada all collected doubles, and Granderson and Swisher both added homers to that of Cano.

• The Rangers have nine stolen bases in 11 attempts this series, with a pair of pickoffs by Kerry Wood the only times they've been caught, meaning that neither Posada nor Cervelli have caught them once. Both of those pickoffs were critical, however. Ian Kinsler was caught off first base when the Rangers were down by a run in the eighth inning of Game One, and Elvis Andrus was caught off second in Game Five with his team trailing by four runs but with Hamilton at the plate. As smart as the team's aggressive baserunning has been over the course of this postseason, those plays have been more than a little dumb.

• The Rangers' pitching staff has a 3.48 ERA in the series, 4.03 from the starters (along with a 30/10 K/BB ratio), 2.40 from the relievers (despite a 13/12 K/BB ratio). After allowing four out of eight inherited runners to score in Game One, the bullpen has let in just one of 12 since.

• The Yankees' pitching staff has a 6.55 ERA in the series, 7.00 from the starters (with a 22/10 K/BB ratio) and 5.82 from the relievers (with an 18/8 K/BB ratio). The pen has also allowed three out of five inherited runners to score.

• Since going to a best-of-seven format for the LCS in 1985, just six teams (the 1985 Royals, 1986 Red Sox, 1996 Braves, 2003 Marlins, and the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox) have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win. Furthermore, just four of those teams (those Royals, Marlins and 2004 Sox, plus the 1991 Braves) have come back from 3-2 by winning the final two games on the road. Even without worrying about the particulars of Lee, the deck is stacked against the Yankees.

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

Related Content:  Yankees,  The Who,  Four Homers,  Pickoffs

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