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October 5, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Four: Yankees Even it Up

by Jay Jaffe

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If momentum is the next day's starting pitcher, as Earl Weaver liked to say, then the Yankees went into Game Four of the AL Division Series against the Tigers with a distinct lack of it. Down 2-1 in the series and fresh off a loss in which they played their ace, CC Sabathia, the best the $200 million juggernaut could offer in a potential elimination game was A.J. Burnett. Though he helped the Yankees win a World Championship in 2009, the enigmatic and often frustrating $82.5 million righty has put up ERAs above 5.00 in each of the past two seasons while tying for fifth in the majors with 13 disaster starts (more runs than innings pitched). This wasn't how Joe Giradi had drawn it up; his initial plan was to use just three starers, with Sabathia returning for Game Four on three days' rest. Friday's suspended game scuttled those plans, and so this start loomed as an inevitability for four cliché-filled days.

For the first three months of the 2011 season, Burnett had pitched a whole lot more like the guy the Yankees thought they were getting when they signed him in December 2008 than the guy who so often let them down in 2010. Through 17 starts (eight quality) through the end of June, he posted a 4.05 ERA, good enough to get by. Just as the Yankees began to shuffle their rotation, bringing Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon back from the disabled list and exiling Ivan Nova to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he began to falter, and by August, things were ugly. He went through a span of 12 starts without a single quality start, notching a 6.91 ERA in that span, and after a promising 11-strikeout showing against the Mariners on September 13, he was knocked out early by the Twins his next turn before mustering a reasonably strong showing against glassy-eyed Boston over the final weekend of the season.

On this night in Detroit, Burnett was far from a disaster. Helped by a spectacular play by center fielder Curtis Granderson—who had himself quite a homecoming—he summoned his best start in at least three months, holding the Tigers to one run over five and two-thirds innings. The Yankees broke the game open late, claimed a 10-1 win, and sent the series back to the Bronx.

As lopsided as the final score was, Burnett's early work had disaster written all over it, to the point that Girardi had Cory Wade up and throwing before he got out of the first inning. Overthrowing and struggling to get the feel of his curveball, he issued walks to leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera (the last two balls intentional), and number five hitter Victor Martinez to load the bases with two outs, setting up a short night. When number six hitter Don Kelly, playing right field instead of Magglio Ordonez, smoked a ball to deep center field, the Yankees appeared as though they might be ushered out in the first round for the first time since 2007, but Granderson made a running, leaping catch to haul in Kelly's drive and keep the Tigers scoreless.

Burnett didn't exactly cruise from that point, though after conferring with pitching coach Larry Rothschild between innings, he did settle down, retiring six of the next seven hitters on a total of 23 pitches. By that point, he enjoyed a 2-0 lead, as the Yankees broke through against Tigers starter Rick Porcello. In the top of the third, Jorge Posada was grazed by a pitch, Russell Martin followed with a single, and one out later, Derek Jeter drove a ball to deep center, just over Austin Jackson's head. Martin nearly ran up Posada's back on the way home and made an outstanding, headfirst hook slide around Alex Avila to avoid the tag.

Burnett got a key out to end the third. Delmon Young drew a two-out walk—a pitcher passing 3.9 per nine has to recruit some hackers to keep that rate up—but Burnett responded by getting ahead of Cabrera 0-2, and the slugger meekly grounded out to end the threat. The importance of that became clear when Victor Martinez crushed a 3-1 fastball right down Broadway for a solo homer to lead off the fourth. "A.J. gonna A.J." as the all-too-familiar refrain went on Twitter. One out later, Jhonny Peralta doubled to left field, and it looked as though the Yankees' luck with their wobbly starter had run out; Phil Hughes started warming up in the bullpen. Fortunately, the bottom of the order, Avila and Wilson Betemit, loomed as an escape hatch; a combined 0-for-16 to that point, they remained hitless for the series following a comebacker from the former and a strikeout from the latter.

The Yankees gave their starter more breathing room in the fifth. Consecutive singles by Martin and Brett Gardner were interrupted by the hiccup of a facepalm-worthy Jeter bunt straight back to Porcello along the strip of dirt connecting the mound to the plate; the pitcher alertly threw to Betemit at third to get the lead runner. As he'd done in the first, Granderson picked the Yankees up again, this time by roping a double to right, scoring Gardner. Porcello intentionally walked Cano to load the bases, challenging Rodriguez, to that point 0-for-2 on the night and an ugly 0-for-12 in the series, albeit with three walks and two RBI, neither of them trivial at the time. Porcello got ahead 0-2, but Rodriguez poked the next pitch to center, not deep enough to go out, but plenty far enough to plate the run and extend the Yankees' lead to 4-1.

At that point, it began to look like it was the Yankees' night, particularly when Burnett erased a leadoff single by Jackson with a double play. Again Burnett avoided having to face Cabrera with men on base when he got Young, good ol' hacktastic Delmon, to ground right back to him for a seven-pitch inning. Five innings of one-run ball with a three-run lead—that was as much as anyone might have dared hope for from Burnett. Girardi was playing with house money—and a largely rested bullpen—after that.

Nonetheless, extricating Burnett would be key. Cabrera led off the sixth by working the count to 3-2, then hit a sharp liner that Jeter speared. He retired Martinez on a grounder to short, but Kelly singled after getting ahead 2-0, and finally the call to the bullpen came. Girardi tabbed Rafael Soriano, who had gotten five outs on a total of 22 pitches the night before but had surrendered a homer to Young. His first pitch was tagged by Peralta, a potential double to left center field, but Granderson, in a play that topped even his first-inning grab, laid out in a full dive to catch the ball, holding onto it even as he knocked the wind out of himself. If you missed it, trust me, it will be on the highlight reel.

Porcello yielded to Phil Coke in the seventh. With the help of Dan Iassogna's high strike zone, the 22-year-old righty had notched five strikeouts for the night; tellingly, four of them were looking. While he'd kept the ball in the park and thrown first-pitch strikes to 17 out of the 26 hitters he faced, he gave up a pair of big doubles, each with two men on base—enough to put him on the short end.

Coke worked a scoreless seventh opposite Soriano, but Leyland left him in too long, and the Yankees broke the ballgame open in the eighth. Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, a trio that had combined to go 3-for-39 to that point, hit consecutive singles, with the middle one an infield dribbler to third base that refused to roll foul. Faced with a lefty for the first time in this series, Girardi called upon the welcome sight of rookie Jesus Montero to bat for Posada. That triggered Leyland to counter with Al Alburquerque, who had yielded a grand slam to Cano in Game One; here he continued to make a hash of things, first by balking in a run, then by surrendering an RBI single to Montero and walking Martin. For the season, Alburquerque allowed just three out of 31 inherited runners to score; in this series, he has allowed five out of six.

The Yankees kept the line moving against lefty Daniel Schlereth, who like Coke, Jackson, and Game Three hero Max Scherzer came to the Tigers in the three-way Granderson deal. Suffice it to say that the trade continued to pay dividends for New York as Schlereth yielded a pair of singles and a wild pitch, running the score to 10-1. All that was left was to fill out the box score with the likes of Ryan Perry, Hughes, and Boone Logan.

And so the Yankees evened the series, reclaiming home field advantage and setting up a Game Five rematch between Ivan Nova and Doug Fister, who squared off on Saturday night once Game One resumed. Burnett found himself a little redemption, enough to know that if the Yankees advance, he’ll get another start, one that won’t have his manager or the team’s fans covering their eyes with quite the same level of fear. Tuesday night’s effort didn’t justify Burnett’s big money contract, but for the first time in a long time, the Yankees got something good for their money—good enough to extend their season for one more home game in the Bronx, at least.

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,  A.J. Burnett,  The Who,  Phil Hughes,  The Call-up

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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kmbart

On the first catch by Granderson it should be noted that he took a first step TOWARDS the plate and then went sideways before finally deciding to race back to where he had to make a leaping grab. (The announcers mentioned it, so it must have been pretty obvious.)

How was Dan "That's Iassogna with one 'eye'" overall? The remark about Porcello's high strikes doesn't touch on whether AJ also benefited or if One-Eye had his usual bad game behind the plate.

Oct 05, 2011 05:35 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I think Granderson said after the game that he misjudged the ball initially, which upped the degree of difficulty.

Burnett got 15 called strikes to Porcello's 18. Looking at the Brooks Baseball Fastmap (a strike zone map of what was actually called vs. LH and RH batters, drawn to the specs of our own Mike Fast: http://bit.ly/pIte98), it appears that Porcello got a few more calls on the outer edge against lefties, and more of the borderline pitches against righties as well. Still, I don't think there were nearly so many complaints as Gerry Davis' zone the night before.

Oct 05, 2011 07:54 AM
 
dodgerken222

Key play of night was Leyland having #2 hitter Ramon Santiago attempt a sacrifice in the first with one on, no out. (Santiago popped up, but that's irrelevent). Because if you have two pitchers with ERAs around 5, you want to play for one run. Because giving away outs to a struggling pitcher is always a good idea. Kudos to the Hall Of Fame manager. Of course, he was matched in stupidity (almost) by Gerardi having Jeter bunt in the 5th with two on, nobody out and the Yanks up 2-1. (He bunted into a force, but that's irrelevent, too). Gerardi also issued an intentional walk to Cabrera in the first, too. Because with Burnett's 25 wild pitches, you want more baserunners. Because the Yanks couldn't come back from being down a run to Porcello. Unbelievable.
Finally we have Kirk Gibson, with Aaron Hill up, two on nobody out. All the announcers are talking about not if, but where Hill will bunt. Gibson, however, obviously has a three-digit IQ, and Hill swings away. (called out on strikes, but etc..etc.). Later in the inning, Miguel "Babe" Montero is intentionally walked,and Goldschmidt homers. Earlier in the day, Carlos "Babe" Ruiz is intentionally walked and Francisco hits a homer.
Kirk Gibson wouldn't even intentionally walk Fielder early in the Series and he took hell for it in the media. These other managers die by intentional walks and giving up outs via bunts, and criticism is non-existent. We obviously still live in the pre-historic age with most managers. Thank God for Kirk Gibson.

Oct 05, 2011 06:56 AM
rating: 9
 
Mike W
(830)

Girardi is one of those managers who thinks if a strategy is available, it should be deployed. Like LaRussa with pitching matchups.
On the other hand, Girardi's team is stocked with inferior ballplayers, so it's entirely reasonable that he thinks they can't match up, and need some sort of strategic edge. Oh, wait . . .

Oct 05, 2011 07:44 AM
rating: 0
 
buddons42

Came here to say the same thing about Santiago's bunt. Because anytime you've got a shaky pitcher in an elimination game who just walked the first batter you should definitely give him a free out. Absolutely indefensible.

Oct 05, 2011 07:53 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

That was bad, though not as bad asJeter's bunt, which actually cost more than the out at first, though he was let off the hook by Granderson's double. But yeah, giving up outs.

I've referenced this a couple of times on Twitter, but there's a great Brian Eno lyric I think of when I see excessive bunting: "Wasting fingers like I had them to spare." (From "Mother Whale Eyeless," on the absolutely killer Taking Tiger Mountain).

Oct 05, 2011 07:59 AM
 
ScottyB

Completely agree on everything except the 1/2 intentional walk of Cabrera. Burnet was already in a 2-0 hole, a walk is probably better than the other probable outcomes in this one specific circumstance.

Oct 05, 2011 08:46 AM
rating: 0
 
Mike W
(830)

Some bad D by Detroit in the third. On Martin's single, Peralta displayed Jeter-like range on a ball two steps to his left. Then on Jeter's double, Avila got caught receiving the throw two feet in front of home plate, reaching for it, and making the tag late. Why do cstchers do this so often, and why don't they get hammered for it so they stop doing it?

Oct 05, 2011 07:41 AM
rating: 0
 
randolph3030

If I'm understanding your complaint correctly, this "in front and swipe" technique was something that Pudge Fisk came up with after losing 1975? 74? to a broken leg while blocking the plate. He felt that he would be able to preserve his lively-hood while still giving himself a good chance at the out. He, if I remember correctly, felt that he missed a lot of balls because of that short hop that comes about three feet in front of him on throws from the OF...if he could get to that ball earlier it would take care of the hard part (receiving the ball) and then he could be a shortstop applying the tag. Seems logical to me.

I wish I could remember where I read this.

Oct 05, 2011 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Interesting, I had not heard that about Fisk. Google did find this preservation of a Peter Gammons tweet:

Peter Gammons:
Carlton Fisk almost ended his career with a home plafe [sic] collision in '74, learned to sweep tag and went to Cooperstown.

Oct 05, 2011 08:09 AM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Twice, I believe both times against Martin, Peralta displayed falldown range as the ball went right past him. His defensive numbers have improved since switching teams, and somewhere I remarked that those plays looked more like Cleveland's Jhonny Peralta than they did Detroit's.

As for Avila, I think that positioning is so he's not guaranteed a collision at the plate. But yeah, maybe even six inches or another foot back and he gets the tag.

Oct 05, 2011 08:06 AM
 
Randy Brown
(189)

I think the Avila's positioning was mainly due to the throw itself - he caught it just before it bounced a second time. If he lines up at home plate, the ball gets to him slower and he has to field an in-between hop.

Peralta? Yeah, not a good night. The one you refer to was a double-play ball, too.

Oct 05, 2011 08:38 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

The game-changing plays by Granderson are Exhibits A and B (Perralta's bnagative plays may be C and D) of why I give "extra credit" to up-the-middle players on my IBA ballots every year, compared with corner types.

Oct 05, 2011 08:49 AM
rating: 0
 
gtliles82

Can anyone explain why Leyland wasn't fired on the spot for handing in a lineup card where Santiago hit 2nd and Kelly hit 6th? Austin Jackson also led off but, considering he's been blackholing the top of the Tigers' order for two years, that was expected.

Oct 05, 2011 08:53 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Jackson's BABIP dependence is hardly ideal, but he's actually been about average for an AL leadoff hitter when you take his two years together. Last year he hit .294/.345/.407 where the average AL leadof hit .267/.330/.364; this year the worm has turned, and he's at .249/.317/.374 compared to league average .265/.326/.395. Because no other regular on their team has any speed whatsoever (Jackson stole 22 of their league-low 49 bases and had 11 of their 34 triples), it would have taken more outside-the-box thinking than Leyland can probably muster to put somebody like Peralta or Avila in the leadoff spot. That's in part on him, and again, partially a roster construction problem.

Oct 05, 2011 11:09 AM
 
flyingdutchman
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

I just hope we can hold on for our 40th pennant and 28th World Championship! C'mon Yankees, make my November the happiest I've had in two years!

Oct 05, 2011 09:02 AM
rating: -5
 
DetroitDale

I have to think that if you're tempted to bunt your #2 hitter in the second inning I think the bigger problem is not your willingness to throw away outs (though that's still an issue) but that you have a guy in the 2 hole that you don't think you can trust. Granted options are limited with Brennan Boesch hurt but Magglio's average hasn't atrophied anywhere nearly as bad as his power and he does have a knack for getting clutch hits (his game 4 homer against the A's in '06 is likely the main reason he got to come back this year). That seems to me a better option for the 2-hole than your leper with the most fingers at 2nd base.

Which brings us to the real problem, Santiago starting as 2nd base at all is a problem, a comedy of errors starting with kicking Polanco to the curb for no good reason, rushing Scott Sizemore than giving up on him, then hoping against reality that Carlos Guillen has a year of middle infield left in him or that Will Rhymes can hit. Given this string of midjudgements by the otherwise brilliant Dave Dombrowski, Leyland was left with the unenviable choice of Ryan Rayborn or Santiago at second. Rayburn hits better when left alone (something the team will never do) but his defense is a bigger train wreck than Peralta's.

Say what you will about Leyland's tactical missteps and I've said plenty, the real problem is they had an inferior lineup going in and it's been further hobbled by injuries. The fact that they so easily beat the self destructive Indians and White Sox to get this far doesn't change the fact they brought a knife to a gunfight, and their only hope to avoid rapid lead poisoning is the pitcher that failed on game 1 part 2

Oct 05, 2011 10:26 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I've said several times on the air this year that the second base situation is something that the Tigers have won in spite of, and that they erred by not giving Sizemore a full shot at the job. This team has overcome some fundamental roster construction flaws to get to this point however (the contracts of Guillen and Ordonez, the overreliance on ball-in-play pitchers with a less-than-stellar middle infield), and I do think Leyland deserves more credit for managing around those flaws than he does criticism.

Oct 05, 2011 10:59 AM
 
flyingdutchman

The Sizemore error is made worse because not only did they not give him a full shot at the job, they undervalued him to the point where he was traded for a middle reliever in Purcey who gave them a 7.23 ERA, a 2.96 WHIP, and 22 walks in 18 innings before being demoted. I'd rather have Sizemore out there right now, but failing that, I wish Dombrowski had gotten anything close fair value for the trade.

Oct 05, 2011 12:14 PM
rating: 1
 
gtliles82

If you're Leyland, and you determine Santiago needs to be in the lineup (I don't think he should be but he has a very good glove), why not just play him at SS so you can put Peralta at 2nd? Brings back memories of Asdrubal Cabrera toiling at 2nd so Peralta could give the Indians below-average SS defense for years.

Oct 05, 2011 12:44 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Over at Pinstriped Bible, I've got a notebook regarding a few points about this series: http://bit.ly/qF4iBu

Starters and relievers, lefties and righties, Granderson's defense, and a bit more about Burnett vs. Cabrera and Martinez.

Oct 05, 2011 17:45 PM
 
dodgerken222

1965: Cy Young winner Sandy Koufax shuts out Minnesota in Game 7 on two days' rest.
2011: Cy Yooung winner Justin Verlander is "unavailable" to pitch even one iniing is decisive ALDS game on two days' rest.
How far we've come.

Oct 05, 2011 20:39 PM
rating: 0
 
Randy Brown
(189)

I think there is a big difference between the last game of the World Series and the last game of the ALDS, with potentially two more series to follow. If the Tigers were playing an NL club tonight instead of the Yankees, I betcha Verlander would be available.

Oct 06, 2011 07:02 AM
rating: 0
 
jnossal

Dodgerken, as a Tiger fan, I'm come as far as hoping to get more than four years of ace pitching out of Verlander.

Oct 05, 2011 20:50 PM
rating: 1
 
dodgerken222

Just for the record, Koufax won the ERA title five years in a row, and the year before that he won 18 games. The Dodgers in those years won three NL titles, two World Championships, and missed another title by one game. I'd say that's getting pretty good mileage out of a pitcher's career. More recently, Randy Johnson won three games in the 2001 Series, and I remember Pedro Martinez coming in a LCS game and throwing six shutout innings. You don't get that many shots at a ring, and coddling an ace pitcher isn't the way to win it. Look, I'm not saying to start Verlander, but to rule him out of pitching an inning is just stupid. What if the game goes 14 innings or more...are you gonna send Brandon Inge to the mound to protect your precious Verlander?

Oct 06, 2011 09:38 AM
rating: 0
 
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