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October 12, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Four Recap: Orioles 2, Yankees 1

by Ben Lindbergh

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For the second straight night, the Yankees and Orioles went to extra innings after pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez extended the game with one swing. This time, though, that swing produced a grounder to first, preserving a tie instead of erasing a lead. And this time, the Orioles got back to Baltimore basics and added another one-run victory to their tally, running their extra-innings record to 17-3.

For the second straight elimination-game outing, Joe Saunders went 5 2/3 innings and gave up one run, which would be a neat trick if he could keep doing it. Phil Hughes allowed leadoff walks in three of his first four innings (and a leadoff homer to Nate McLouth in the fifth), but made it through 6 2/3 mostly unscathed, striking out eight. After the starters were done, the game became pitching-change porn, as each manager sought every available situational edge. The Yankees used every member of their bullpen, and the Orioles used every member of theirs save for Chris Tillman, who has yet to make a major-league relief appearance. Between them, the two teams totaled 16 pitchers, an almost unprecedented number for such a low-scoring game. Normally, when that many pitchers are used, it’s a sign that some of them pitched poorly; the only regular-season game since 1950 (and almost certainly ever, given the relative scarcity of relievers in the first half of the century) in which this many pitchers allowed this few runs was in 2010, and that one took 20 innings. Girardi and Showalter weren’t messing around, and until David Phelps faltered in his second inning of work, their pitchers weren’t either. It’s a shame the game didn’t last a little longer—a few more innings, and we might’ve seen Nick Swisher and Chris Davis reprise their roles as relievers.

All told, it took 43 innings for the Yankees and Orioles to complete the first four games of their division series. Only two of those innings ended with one team more than one run ahead of the other: the ninth inning of Game One, when the Yankees scored five runs to put the Orioles away, and the sixth inning of Game Two, when a Mark Reynolds RBI single briefly gave the O’s some breathing room. That means that almost every pitch in this series has been thrown with the knowledge that it could lead to a lead change, especially in light of the fact that these two teams (usually) hit so many home runs. If you can’t relax with Ryan Flaherty at the plate, you can’t really relax at all. That kind of constant pressure isn’t easy on players, and it isn’t easy on fans, but if you like your postseason series low-scoring and filled with good pitching performances, there’s been a lot to like about this one.

All those even innings probably wouldn’t have been possible with a few more clutch hits, but clutch hits have been hard to come by. The Yankees went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Game Four and are 6-for-28 in the series. The Orioles went 1-for-11 w/RISP in Game Four and are 6-for-31 on the series. Girardi credited good pitching. J.J. Hardy suggested that some hitters might be pressing, in which case things could get worse in the most pressure-packed game of the series, but Hardy might be making too much of a small sample. Or maybe not!

The Yankees have hit .214 with runners in scoring position in this series. That’s bad, but it’s also about three hits away from excellent. They hit .176 w/RISP for the entire month of May, then rebounded to raise that mark to .283 in the second half. Whether the current lack of clutch hits is a product of great pitching, pressing, or inopportune timing, there isn’t much either manager can do but keep calm, carry on, and hope for high-leverage hits.

The Yankees and Orioles have split their 22 matchups this season, so the game that decides their division series will also decide their season series. Whatever the outcome of Game Five (which PECOTA sees going New York's way), it will be easy to imagine this series having gone a lot differently. We could say the same about the Orioles' season.

Bullet time:

  • Girardi pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez for the second straight day, this time not with Ibanez (who did pinch-hit for Jayson Nix in the ninth, but choked by not hitting a homer), but with Eric Chavez. However, that move didn’t come until there were two outs and no one on in the 13th, with Jim Johnson on the mound. What seemed to be an opportunity even more ripe for pinch-hitting presented itself with one out in the eighth, runners on second and third, and Rodriguez due to bat against Darren O’Day. Girardi chose to let A-Rod hit and was rewarded for his faith with a strikeout that left the potential winning run still stranded at third. You’ll never believe what happened next: Rodriguez got booed.

    If you’re wondering why Girardi would pinch-hit for A-Rod in the 13th, but not in the eighth with the go-ahead run 90 feet from home, here’s what he had to say for himself after the game:
    I know if I pinch-hit, they’re going to walk the lefty that I bring in. And you’ve got O’Day that’s got the sinker. The one thing I want to try to stay out of is a double-play situation. You’ve got the infield in, you just want to put a ball in play, you’re probably going to get a run and we weren’t able to do it.
    There’s also the possibility that Girardi doesn’t want to see Rodriguez hit against Johnson, which probably isn’t something he would want to say publicly. Girardi seems to be a big believer in his ability to suss out how well suited a batter is for a plate appearance against a particular pitcher from video of their previous matchups, and the A-Rod/Johnson encounter in Game Two that I highlighted yesterday couldn’t have inspired much confidence.
     
  • There’s a strong case to be made that Darren O’Day was the MVP of Game Four for the Orioles. O’Day took the ball after a parade of relief pitchers who stayed in for only one or two outs, retired two batters to get the O’s out of a jam in the eighth, then stayed in for the entire ninth and 10th. He did have five outings of exactly two innings—all of them scoreless—this season, but he hadn’t gone beyond six outs since 2008. Thanks to the length and the leverage, his Win Probability Added was twice as high as any other player’s, and his strikeout of Rodriguez in the eighth—the third time in this series that he’s gotten A-Rod to swing through strike three—lowered the Yankees’ chances of winning by more than any other play prior to Machado’s leadoff double in the 13th and the J.J. Hardy double that drove him in.

    As Aaron Gleeman pointed out on Twitter, O’Day has never been a prized possession. He went undrafted out of college and was left unprotected by the Angels and claimed by the Mets in the 2008 Rule Five draft. Then the Mets let the Rangers claim him off waivers, and later, the Rangers let the Orioles do the same, even after two successful seasons in Texas. Maybe this is the moment when O’Day gets his due.

    What interests me most about O’Day is that while sinkerballers and pitchers who throw sidearm or submarine tend to have large platoon splits, O’Day’s multi-year TAv split is only 17 points—exactly average. I asked O’Day how he can throw like he does and still be effective for multiple innings against opposite-handed hitters.
    That’s something I really worked on, because I used to have that problem. If you look at me, I pitch quite a bit up in the zone, and there aren’t a lot of guys who throw submarine or sidearm that do that. I think it just adds another dimension to the strike zone, up, down, and fast and slow. I just try to change eye levels, and just get outs, really. It’s something I worked on really hard, and it’s something I take pride in.
    It’s hard to spot a clear progression in his split stats—his platoon split this season is almost exactly what it was in his rookie year. And it seems like there would have to be more to it than his explanation suggests. Maybe O’Day doesn’t want to give away the secret to sidearm success, maybe I’m bad at asking questions, or maybe he’s better at doing things than he is at explaining how he does then. But being a sidearmer isn’t necessarily a death sentence against opposite-handed pitchers: Joe Smith, listed as the most similar pitcher to O’Day on Brooks Baseball, has a platoon split of just five measly points. And then there’s Pat Neshek, listed as O’Day’s second-most similar pitcher, who has a platoon split of 66 points. It’s going to take some research to get to the bottom of this, so stay tuned for an article about sidearmers, submariners, and platoon splits in the dead of winter when we’ve all forgotten what actual baseball games look like and started researching Joe Smith.

    After Game Two, I called “the showdowns between a team’s top situational arms and its opponents’ sluggers… some of the most exciting storylines in postseason play.” During Game Three, I called A-Rod-O’Day the new Ali-Frazier. So I also asked O’Day if he prepares any differently for matchups with hitters like Rodriguez and Jeter in the playoffs than he would during the regular season.
    I certainly take into account what I did against them during the season. I watch a lot of video. But I’ve really leaned on Matt Wieters a lot this year, just to remember. He caught 12 innings last night, 13 tonight. But you ask him tomorrow about one pitch in the seventh inning, and he’ll know it. He’s just kind of got that memory, it’s just like a databank. So he remembers, and he says, oh, Jeter, two nights ago I faced him and started him off with this, so I’m starting him off with that. So it’s really giving Matt a lot of credit for that.
    Matt Wieters: maybe not quite the hitter we hoped he would be, but a damn good defensive catcher.
     
  • Also earning an “I struck out A-Rod in the ALDS” shirt was Tommy Hunter, who got Rodriguez to whiff on a fastball right down the middle in the sixth (these days, the preferred way to get A-Rod out). The exciting thing about that fastball was that it went 97 miles per hour, which still isn’t something we’re accustomed to seeing. Before his move to the bullpen, Hunter’s fastball averaged just over 91. Now it averages just over 95. I asked him if he knew the whole time that he had it in him.
    I threw pretty hard when I was in college. I mean, it’s nothing new. I don’t know. I feel good coming out for one inning, and I let it eat. … Everybody’s going to throw harder in that role. I’ve always been able to throw pretty hard. Going back to college, I was a closer in college. So it’s nothing really new to me, I knew I could do it. But it’s a little different starting a game than coming in the fifth, with all the adrenaline and everything like that. I’ve just been able to let it eat lately, and it’s been coming out of my hand pretty good.
    In summary: you and I were surprised to hear about Tommy Hunter’s new fastball. Tommy Hunter was not.
     
  • First midges, then trampolines, and now bat shards. Every object, inanimate or otherwise, is out to get Joba Chamberlain.
     
  • I would guess that Derek Jeter will be back at short for Game Five, for better or worse, but it’ll be interesting to see what Girardi does with Rodriguez and Granderson (who’s 1-for-16 with nine strikeouts) against the right-handed Jason Hammel. As usual, he declined to give any indication of which way he was leaning after the game. Leaving A-Rod in the fifth slot would be a defensible move, but if he starts, goes 0-for-3, and gets pinch-hit for again, Girardi will lose a lot of the goodwill he gained by pulling the pinch-hit strings perfectly in Game Three.

    *UPDATE* A-Rod is benched for Game Five, and Ibanez gets the start at DH.  
     
  • Both managers said they would take an “all hands on deck” approach to Game Five, even with the first game of the ALCS scheduled for Saturday.

Darren O’Day Clubhouse Audio

Tommy Hunter Clubhouse Audio

Nate McLouth Clubhouse Audio

Jim Thome Clubhouse Audio

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Yankees,  Orioles

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