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October 16, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Three Preview: Yankees vs. Tigers

by Daniel Rathman

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There’s being down 2-0 after two home games in a best-of-seven series, and then there’s being down 2-0 after two home games in a best-of-seven series with the reigning Cy Young winner and MVP on the mound against you in Game Three. That’s the scenario the Yankees are facing. Do they stand a chance? Here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for Game Three:

Yankees (Phil Hughes) vs. Tigers (Justin Verlander) – 8:00 p.m. ET
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Tigers 64.6 percent, Yankees 35.4 percent

Projected Starting Lineups

Yankees vs. Verlander (R)

Tigers vs. Hughes (R)

Brett Gardner, LF (L)

Austin Jackson, CF (R)

Ichiro Suzuki, RF (L)

Quintin Berry, LF (L)

Mark Teixeira, 1B (S)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (R)

Robinson Cano, 2B (L)

Prince Fielder, 1B (L)

Raul Ibanez, DH (L)

Delmon Young, DH (R)

Russell Martin, C (R)

Andy Dirks, RF (L)

Eric Chavez, 3B (L)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (R)

Curtis Granderson, CF (L)

Alex Avila, C (L)

Eduardo Nunez, SS (R)

Omar Infante, 2B (R)

It should come as no surprise that PECOTA expects the Tigers to win behind their ace and push the Yankees to the brink of elimination. They will, after all, be sending Verlander to the mound at Comerica Park, where the righty amassed a 1.65 ERA over 15 regular-season starts and held the Athletics to one run in seven innings in the Division Series opener. But the model does give Joe Girardi’s team a fair shot to spring the upset, staying—perhaps foolishly—bullish on New York’s big-name offense and comfortable with Hughes’ ability to hold his own against Detroit’s.

Verlander is no stranger to the Yankees; he faced them three times during the regular season, watching the Tigers lose the first two of those matchups, and then exacting revenge with a season-high 14 strikeouts over eight innings on Aug. 6. Here’s Verlander’s pitch chart from that dominant outing:

Before going any further, it’s important to note that Rodriguez was on the disabled list with a fractured hand at this point in the season, and with Chavez taking his place at third, Girardi’s lineup featured seven left-handed batters. Keeping that in mind, you can see that Verlander pounded the outside half of the zone, especially with his changeup, which never settled between the knees and letters on the inner half. That one-sided approach might have made the 29-year-old more predictable, but it also enabled him to take advantage of the Yankees’ pull-happy lineup, and judging by the strikeout total, the latter factor won out.

Comerica Park is significantly tougher on left-handed pull hitters than Yankee Stadium, where the short porch in right field turns cans of corn into round-trippers. Verlander compounded that stadium-created challenge by forcing Granderson, Teixeira, and Swisher to catch up with high-90s heat—and those three boppers went 0-for-13 with eight strikeouts. Expect him to pitch them the same way tonight.

New York’s third basemen, Rodriguez and Chavez, posed a more formidable task. A-Rod had no trouble with Verlander on April 27 at Yankee Stadium and June 3 in Detroit, going 4-for-9 with two home runs, one to the opposite field and the other to left-center. And Chavez filled Rodriguez’s shoes admirably with a 3-for-4 effort, including two doubles, in the aforementioned August encounter. If Girardi bases his lineup off of each player’s track record against the opposing starter, as he is typically wont to do, Chavez figures to play the hot corner while Rodriguez serves as the designated hitter, leaving Raul Ibanez—who is 3-for-29 lifetime versus Verlander—on the bench but available to pinch-hit. 

Ironically, Rodriguez, who is 3-for-23 in the postseason, should find a friendlier crowd at Comerica than he did in the Bronx. But if there ever were a perfect time for him to turn 42,000 more fans against himself, this would be it. And that’s why he gets the nod in the first Matchup of the Game.

Both of the above-linked home runs came on fastballs, one away and the other middle-in, and Rodriguez—for all his deer-in-the-headlights body language and out-of-whack swings—can turn on even the hardest heaters if he’s looking for them. Well aware of the recent history between them, expect Verlander to establish the fastball before mixing his pitches in deeper counts, something he did not do in either of the at-bats where Rodriguez took him deep.

But the Tigers starter isn’t the only one with a nemesis in this game: Hughes has one, too, in Rodriguez’s opposite number, Cabrera. The MVP hopeful has gone 9-for-22 is his past encounters with Hughes, smacking two doubles and four home runs. No active hitter with at least 20 plate appearances against the Yankees righty can claim an OPS within 100 points of Cabrera’s 1.504. And that’s why he gets the nod in the second Matchup of the Game.

Hughes and Cabrera have locked horns in five straight years, and both are in different stages of their careers than when they first squared off in 2008. Cabrera has since developed into one of the best hitters in baseball, while Hughes has evolved into a more mature pitcher, with a deeper arsenal than he featured in his first tour of The Show. If you look closely at the approach Hughes has employed against Cabrera over the years, a noticeable trend begins to emerge.

Split the list of 24 plate appearances on the Matchup Tool page into two parts at number 15—the second of two home runs Cabrera authored on April 3, 2011. Each of the first six hits Hughes allowed to Cabrera came on a pitch other than his fastball—four on curves, one on a cutter, and one on a slider. The second home run came on a fastball, but it was a letter-high challenge pitch at 88 mph, the equivalent of batting practice for an elite slugger like Cabrera.

Now look at plate appearances 16 through 24: 32 pitches, 28 fastballs, three curves, and one cutter. At first, this approach seemed to catch Cabrera off-guard, as he went 0-for-6 with a walk and only hit one ball out of the infield. But in their most recent meeting on Aug. 7, Cabrera caught on, going deep on a belt-high heater, and then doubling on a poorly-placed curveball when Hughes opted to try an off-speed pitch again.

Time to throw a wrinkle into the story: Hughes has a new weapon at his disposal, one that he did not have two months ago, and one that is considerably sharper than the version Cabrera thumped last April. That weapon is a slider, which Hughes revamped with pitching coach Larry Rothschild in late August, and gradually unveiled in September and October.

The Hughes who will toe the rubber in Detroit tonight may not be the same pitcher the Tigers knocked around for four runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings on Aug. 7. That Hughes had only two offerings to use against right-handed hitters—a fastball and a curve, as shown by the plot above. And that was the Hughes who showed an extreme reverse split during the regular season, when righties teed off to the tune of an 875 OPS while lefties scuffled to a 563 clip. 

Fast forward to Hughes’ Division Series start against the Orioles:

Hughes eschewed the ineffective curveball when facing right-handed hitters—most notably, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, and Mark Reynolds—and instead complemented his fastball with the aforementioned slider. The result: righties went 1-for-11 with a walk and five strikeouts

Apart from Fielder, the Tigers’ most potent offensive threats—Jackson, Young, and Cabrera—are right-handed. Jim Leyland’s lineup is precisely the sort of group that gave Hughes trouble throughout the regular season. How the new-look Hughes fares against them tonight will determine whether the Yankees have a chance to beat Verlander or must find a way to avoid a sweep on Wednesday.

Update (5:20 p.m. ET: The Yankees lineup is now updated to reflect the actual version, which includes a slew of significant changes. The new order resulted in a 2.5 percent decrease in the Yankees' probability of winning, according to PECOTA, though the players involved obviously have not performed as well on the field as they were expected to on paper.

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

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