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October 17, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Three Recap: Tigers 2, Yankee 1

by Ben Lindbergh

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The wind at Comerica Park was blowing in from center on Tuesday night, which was a bit heavy-handed of Mother Nature, given how beleaguered the Yankees' batters have been even under ideal conditions. Tasked with taking on the best pitcher in baseball, their lineup already reeling from six straight low-scoring games, the Yankees could have used a little help from Linka. Instead, they faced another factor conspiring to keep scoring down, albeit one that probably favored extreme fly-ball pitcher Phil Hughes more than it did Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

Not that Verlander needed much help. Coming off two 11-strikeout starts against the A’s in the ALDS, he added eight scoreless innings to a streak that stood at 15 frames to start the day, before giving up a leadoff home run on a hanging curve to Eduardo Nunez in the ninth.* That run, the only one the Yankees would score, was the first they’d pushed across since Raul Ibanez’s Game One homer 20 innings before—the second-longest scoring drought of their season, after the 22 innings they went without a run from May 1st through May 3rd.

*Which really confused CC Sabathia:

There’s no shame in mustering only one run against Verlander. Over the past two seasons, the righty has allowed no runs or one run in 40 percent of his starts (in related news, he’s probably about to win his second straight Cy Young award). At home, with the aforementioned breeze blowing in, a little light rain, and a game-time temperature of 53 degrees, he was even less likely than usual to run into trouble.

Despite the results, though, this wasn’t vintage Verlander. Yes, his fastball velocity followed the typical upward trend:

Inning

Avg. FB Velo

1

94.3

2

94.3

3

95.3

4

94.7

5

94.5

6

95.5

7

96.2

8

97.2

9

97.9

Or, in graphical form:

He even dialed it up to 99 twice against Nunez in the ninth, including one pitch that led to the night’s most GIF-able swing.

On average, his fastball sat at 95.5 miles per hour, above its seasonal mark. He threw it a little more often than usual, and he got 16 outs with it—tying a season high—allowing only one hit. However, Verlander didn’t miss many bats. In his 132 pitches (yes, 132—more on that in a moment), Verlander got only eight swings and misses, including one foul tip by Cano, recording a season-low-tying three strikeouts. In his first two starts of the postseason, he threw 121 and 122 pitches, respectively, and induced 19 and 16 swinging strikes. He had eight or fewer in only four previous starts this season, all of them in outings with significantly fewer total pitches.

What Verlander did get a lot of was foul balls—35 of them, to be precise, tying a season high. Why so many fouls and so few whiffs? The velocity was there, and the movement seemed to be, too. It’s possible that Verlander’s location was a touch less precise than it usually is, but it seems to me that the Yankees’ lineup did a good job of spoiling his pitches, showing an improved plan at the plate after the hack-tastic approach we saw in the first two games of the series.

Joe Girardi made some changes to that lineup for Game Three, benching Alex Rodriguez in favor of Eric Chavez, sitting Nick Swisher and starting Brett Gardner for the first time since April 17th, and starting Nunez over Jayson Nix. Benching A-Rod and Swisher might seem like a reactionary, ill-considered switch on the surface, but the Yankees seemed to have fairly sound reasons for each of the moves they made. Nunez is slightly superior to Nix offensively, and starting him had the intended effect. Rodriguez is 0-for-18 with 10 strikeouts against right-handers this postseason, and Chavez hit them well all year. Eighteen at-bats is a tiny sample, but A-Rod also struggled against right-handers during the regular season. Still a small sample, sure, but some small samples might be predictive—if the Yankees know Rodriguez is still feeling the aftereffects of a broken hand, or have any other reason to think he might underperform his projection beyond “he’s looked bad,” starting Chavez is a defensible move.

Swisher, too, has been in an awful funk, and with a fly-ball pitcher in a big ballpark, the Yankees wanted Gardner’s glove in the whole game. They also wanted someone who could make contact. As Girardi explained before the game:

Gardy likes to grind out his at-bats, he likes to see a lot of pitches and make a pitcher work. We are hoping he can do it against Verlander, get on, and cause him to rush a little bit.

He did all of that except for the “getting on” part. Granted, that was probably the most important part, but Gardner did see 23 pitches in four at-bats. Nunez saw nine pitches in the at-bat that ended with his homer. Chavez saw 16 in three at-bats. If Verlander were a normal pitcher—the kind who throws 100 pitches and is out of the game—he would’ve been gone after seven innings, which would have been quick, considering he’d allowed only three baserunners. The problem with trying to run up Verlander’s pitch count is that you can follow the game plan perfectly and still fail to get him out of the game. In his pre-game press conference, Jim Leyland said, “[Verlander] can throw 130 pitches.” He threw 132. Verlander had the highest max pitch count (136) and the highest average pitch count (116) of any pitcher during the season, so this was nothing new. It’s just another way he can beat you: even without his best stuff, Verlander wins the war of attrition.

Compared to Verlander’s effort, the rest was detail, but detail is important in a 2-1 game. Jim Leyland’s lineup was the same and likely will stay the same as long as the Tigers keep playing, aside from the usual Quintin Berry/Avisail Garcia and Gerald Laird/Alex Avila platooning. Delmon Young hit a big home run that just barely cleared an outfield fence for the second time this series. Miguel Cabrera doubled in the winning run on a ball that Curtis Granderson seemed to get a late jump on—one wonders whether Gardner would have had it had he started in center. Phil Hughes left after three-plus innings with a tight lower back, though he found time to allow his customary home run before he did. David Phelps followed, allowing an unearned run, and that was it for the Tigers: Clay Rapada, Cody Eppley, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain combined for four scoreless innings to keep the Yankees within theoretical striking distance.

The only controversy came in the ninth, when Joe Girardi caused a stir by not pinch-hitting for Ichiro Suzuki (with one out) or Raul Ibanez (with two outs) with Rodriguez in the ninth against Leyland’s lefty closer du jour, Phil Coke. Coke is far better against lefties, with a multi-year TAv split of 79 points and a single-year split of 110. Raul Ibanez is as awful against southpaws as Coke is good, so Ibanez vs. Coke was a very low-percentage play for the Yankees, recent heroics aside. Naturally, there was a great disturbance on Twitter, as if millions of voices suddenly tweeted in terror at the thought that Ibanez would bat and were suddenly silenced when he came to the plate.

If Girardi had gone to A-Rod, Leyland likely would’ve summoned Joaquin Benoit, who’s even tougher on right-handers than Coke is on lefties. A-Rod should be better against Benoit than Ibanez against Coke, but only assuming that he’s healthy and as likely to succeed now as he would’ve been at any other point in the season. Even after factoring in the pinch-hit penalty, the on-paper difference is still significant. So we're left to wonder whether Girardi knows something important that we don't, and if he does, why Rodriguez has faced right-handed pitching at all in this series. There seems to be some inconsistency here, at least, unless it was A-Rod's most recent at-bats against righties that convinced Girardi to avoid him at all costs. 

The better move might’ve been pinch-hitting for Ichiro with one out and Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Ibanez due up. Even if A-Rod—or Swisher, if Girardi wanted to burn two bench players at once to avoid hitting A-Rod against a righty—had made out against Benoit, the Yankees would have had the platoon advantage for the rest of the inning. The problem there is that Benoit is excellent against opposite-handed hitters, too, so the edge either way isn't as clear as it might seem. Whatever Girardi had done, a comeback probably wasn’t in the cards.

The Yankees haven’t just failed to win a game in this series—they’ve haven’t had a lead. No one would have expected them to limit the Tigers to two runs in Game Three, three runs in Game Two, and four runs in the first nine innings of Game One and be down 0-3, but that’s how good Detroit’s pitching has been. The Yankees might be slight favorites in Game Four, thanks to CC Sabathia, but the pitcher they’ll face tonight, Max Scherzer, won’t be any easier to beat than the last three. Eight years after Boston came back to beat the Yankees from an 0-3 deficit in the 2004 ALCS, Yankees fans find themselves in the unfamiliar position of rooting for their team to be more like the Red Sox. More likely, though, they’ll go the way of every other team in baseball history that has ever faced four straight elimination games.

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,  Tigers

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