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October 16, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

Yankees versus Angels LCS

by Eric Seidman

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Whether due to the simplicity in casual conversations or the attractiveness of identifying the major component of team-wide success, combining several aspects of play into a tidy unit has become fairly commonplace. Most teams, however, are multidimensional, and many instances of such identifications are simply incorrect, based on reputations and not actual facts. Did the Twins really succeed through small ball and the manufacturing of runs, or was it simply assumed that they did based on using Nick Punto and a general lack of familiarity with their roster beyond Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau? And did the Yankees really not execute the little things throughout the season just because they could bop the ball all around the yard? I raise these questions because, for at least the next week, we are going to hear about how different the Angels and Yankees are in terms of their respective styles of play.

This may have been true if the current incarnation of the Yankees was playing the Angels circa 2005, but while many will lead you to believe this is a David vs. Goliath type series, in actuality the matchup more closely resembles JV Goliath vs. Goliath. These aren't your father's Angels, and despite the Halos' winning record against the Yankees since 1996-which is sure to surface about as regularly as those Lopez Tonight ads-what Paul O'Neill did against Chuck Finley is largely irrelevant to this series. Past success in small samples is in no way a concrete indicator of what to expect here, and aside from the roster turnovers this decade, this current Angels team is vastly different than in years past.

Long renowned as a slap-happy team that implements timely strategies, this bunch of Angels simply reeks of pure firepower. Their statistics might pale in comparison to the Yankees' in certain regards, but not to the rest of major league baseball. The Angels ranked first in the majors in batting average (.285), third in on-base percentage (.350), fourth in slugging percentage (.441), fourth in Equivalent Average (.267), and second in runs scored (841) despite a mid-pack finish in total home runs. Mike Scioscia may preach hit-and-runs, sacrifice bunts, and aggressive baserunning, but at the risk of sounding like Johnny Cochran, make no mistake, this team can rake. The Yankees bested the Angels in all of the aforementioned categories aside from batting average, but the differences were not drastic enough to label this series a mismatch in any way.

The Yankees have the high payroll, the calm and collected attitude, and the future Hall of Famers. The Angels' salaried players aggregate to 56 percent of the Yankees total, might be seen as scrappy and energetic, and a few of them lack notoriety. In spite of the reputed difference, each team has enough offensive firepower, and both have enough questions regarding the pitching staffs. Put together, it should make for an incredibly entertaining series that, clichés aside, could go either way, without either potential victor shocking anyone.

Lineups


Yankees                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
SS-R Derek Jeter         .334/.406/.465  .309   68.1
LF-L Johnny Damon        .282/.365/.489  .297   35.5
1B-S Mark Teixeira       .292/.383/.565  .317   50.2
3B-R Alex Rodriguez      .286/.402/.532  .319   48.8
DH-L Hideki Matsui       .274/.367/.509  .298   29.8
C-S Jorge Posada         .285/.363/.522  .301   33.0
2B-L Robinson Cano       .320/.352/.520  .292   45.9
RF-S Nick Swisher        .249/.371/.498  .299   27.5
CF-S Melky Cabrera       .274/.336/.416  .266   14.0

Angels                    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
3B-S Chone Figgins       .298/.395/.393  .284   37.8
RF-L Bobby Abreu         .293/.390/.435  .293   35.7
CF-R Torii Hunter        .299/.366/.508  .297   40.9
DH-R Vladimir Guerrero   .295/.334/.460  .270   15.6
LF-R Juan Rivera         .287/.332/.478  .274   22.5
1B-S Kendry Morales      .306/.355/.569  .299   39.9
2B-R Howie Kendrick      .291/.334/.444  .268   16.5
C-R Jeff Mathis          .211/.288/.308  .214   -9.2
SS-S Erick Aybar         .312/.353/.423  .271   29.7

What's left to say about the Yankees' offense? With Melky Cabrera in the lineup their lowest individual EqA checks in at an above-average .266 ,and his name gets penciled in due to the accompanying 'CF' tag. Aside from the revolving door in center if Brett Gardner (and his .272 EqA) starts, Cano's .292 EqA ranks lowest on the totem pole among their everyday players, and when a triple-slash line of .320/.352/.520 constitutes the worst offensive performance, it's safe to say your team is in tip-top shape. NuYankee Stadium garnered a homer-happy reputation earlier in the season when balls were soaring out at record paces, but the homers subsided in the second half and the park ended up rating more neutral than not.

With Teixeira, Swisher, and Posada, the Yankees will not fall prey to anything like what the Rockies experienced against the Phillies in having half of their lineup neutralized by the opposition's starting rotation. Sure, the handedness of the Halos' hurlers may result in these switch-hitters turning around, but they hit from both sides for a reason. Additionally, small-sample comparisons of plate appearances from each side are unlikely to hold up in a paired-samples t-test, designed to test the differences between averages, so do yourself a favor and don't fall prey to the fallacy that and any switch-hitter is drastically worse from one side unless the phenomenon is observed over an ample amount of trips to the dish. The Yankees exhibit patience at the plate, knock the ball around the yard, and bombard opponents with a barrage of seemingly never-ending power. The payroll may be high but in no way does that negate their talent.

Their counterparts were no slouches offensively either, with every non-catching regular batting his way to an average between .287 and .312, and regular starting catcher Mike Napoli's .272 is nothing to fret about either. They take a hit with Jeff Mathis behind the dish for John Lackey much like the Yankees will when utilizing Jose Molina as A.J. Burnett's personal catcher; otherwise, every regularly scheduled hitter in this series is above average. Similarly to the Yankees' attack, the Angels boast a slew of switch-hitters in Figgins, Morales, Aybar, and Maicer Izturis (when he starts at second for Kendrick), with their only one true lefty being Abreu. Morales played the role of big thumper this season, knocking a team-high 34 balls out of the yard in his first full season; from 2006-08 he managed meager .249/.302/.408 rates in 407 plate appearances, the types of numbers that predicted more of a Kotchman-esque season as opposed to the breakout success on display all year.

Their home-run total as a team falls well short of the mark set by the Yankees, but the Angels are littered all over the OBI% leaderboard. They are not playing small ball, but rather running the bases very aggressively and reaching base with great efficiency, allotting much more opportunity to swipe bags and take the extra base. Oddly, though, the Angels do not score all that well per our equivalent baserunning runs report, with stolen-base efficiency emerging as the primary culprit. Though they racked up a high tally of steals, the Angels' baserunners were caught a relatively high number of times. Remove that aspect from the overall baserunning mark and we see that the team performed quite well in advancing on hits and grounders, a more person-dependent skill as opposed to one affected by the opposing catchers. With Posada behind the plate in three of the first four games, expect to see the Angels take any extra base they can. Even with Molina behind the dish with Burnett, it is worth testing to see if his performance lives up to a reputation earned, ironically enough, with the Angels.

One curious element of the tactical menu is the Angels' allegiance to the hit-and-run. Though a swing on a stolen-base attempt does not always equate to a hit-and-run play, the league-average stolen-base attempts during which the batter offered at the pitch was 36, while the Angels dramatically exceeded that mean with 63 such attempts. Their 70 percent success rate on steals shook down to 75 percent when the batter did not swing (against a league average of 78 percent) and 58 percent on swings (where the league average was 56 percent). Their split in this regard is not as noteworthy as the Dodgers, as Jay Jaffe pointed out, but the abnormally high volume of stolen-base swings leads me to believe that Scioscia likes to take advantage of his hitters' ability to make contact by expediting the bag-swiping process with hit attempts.

Benches


Yankees                     AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
CF-L Brett Gardner         .270/.345/.379  .271   10.1
UT-R Jerry Hairston Jr.*   .251/.315/.394  .251    4.0
OF-S Freddy Guzman**       .223/.272/.294   Bad  Worse
C-R Jose Molina            .217/.292/.268  .203   -6.2
C-R Francisco Cervelli     .298/.309/.372  .232   -0.7
*: Combined full-season stats
**: Minor league stats

Angels                    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
C-R Mike Napoli          .272/.350/.492  .284   25.8
2B-S Maicer Izturis      .300/.359/.434  .278   22.3
OF-S Gary Matthews Jr.   .250/.336/.361  .250    1.9
4C-R Robb Quinlan        .243/.275/.339  .212   -5.1 @ 1B
OF-S Reggie Willits      .213/.256/.238  .197   -6.5 @ LF
C-R Bobby Wilson**       .226/.268/.340  .208    NA
*: Translated minor league performance

Napoli and Izturis figure to be swapped into and out of the lineup based on matchups, and in Napoli's case, depending on who's that day's pitcher. As Christina noted in the Angels-Red Sox Prospectus Preview, the addition of third catcher Bobby Wilson allows Scioscia to use both Mathis and Napoli, bringing in the latter whenever Lackey departs, or pinch-running for either in a tight situation. The latter two aspects can also be applied to Little Sarge, who is certainly a better defensive outfielder than Abreu even if his highlight-reel catch with the Rangers a few years ago left false impressions in the minds of fans, but he also has value as a pinch-runner.

Joe Sheehan called this Yankees bench the strongest they have carried into the postseason in a decade, but that was when it had Eric Hinske in the mix, instead of this series' decision to add Freddy Guzman for pinch-running assignments. Cervelli's addition works similarly to that of Wilson, allowing Girardi to bring Posada in after A.J. Burnett exits the game without leaving the backup catching options used up. Cabrera and Gardner will alternate between the lineup and the bench, but while the Angels could conceivably swap Izturis for Kendrick without missing a beat as far as their lineup's effectiveness, do not expect to see Hairston with any regularity aside from a late-inning platoon plate appearance.

Rotations


Yankees              IP      ERA  SNLVAR  SNWP
LHP CC Sabathia     230.0   3.37   6.4    .582
RHP A.J. Burnett    207.0   4.04   4.7    .529
LHP Andy Pettitte   194.2   4.16   4.2    .520
RHP Chad Gaudin*    147.1   4.64   2.2    .472
*: Full-season combined statistics

Angels               IP      ERA SNLVAR  SNWP
RHP John Lackey     176.1   3.83   3.9   .540
LHP Joe Saunders    186.0   4.60   2.5   .481
RHP Jered Weaver    211.0   3.75   5.9   .568
LHP Scott Kazmir    147.1   4.89   3.0   .507

Neither of these teams had to worry about a fourth starter in the division series, sweeping their opponents out of the playoffs, but both Scioscia and Joe Girardi were forced to make a decision here regarding their rotation. The aces were of course no-brainers, as CC Sabathia and John Lackey will square off tomorrow night, meaning that the Angels will once again be operating without their best possible offensive lineup in the first game of the series. Mathis caught many of Lackey's games this season and Scioscia, a former catcher, seems to have bought into the idea that Mathis can truly make a difference behind the plate, at least for his ace. Color me skeptical that Lackey's success down the stretch reflected anything other than his simply being a very good pitcher; he might not be as sexy as Sabathia or the other Cy Young Award contenders, but Lackey is a legitimate front-end rotation starter, and a much more difficult first-game opponent than, say, Brian Duensing.

The Angels have made a rather odd decision for the second game, opting to send out Joe Saunders as opposed to Scott Kazmir. Scioscia made it no secret that he wanted a lefty in either of the first two games, a justifiable decision given Jered Weaver's fly-ball propensities, but the chosen lefty is what has raised some eyebrows. In six games since joining the Angels, Kazmir has a 1.73 ERA, a K/BB nearing three to one, and a 561 opponent OPS, a solid stretch of performance that actually extends backward into his Rays days a few starts. Add in his final three starts pitching for Tampa Bay, and Kazmir finished the regular season with nine starts and 56 innings of 2.25 ERA baseball, surrendering a mere three dingers while putting together a 47/16 K/BB ratio. Kazmir represents a better option on the road than Saunders, but will have to wait until the fourth game to make his impact felt.

Saunders also performed well down the stretch, but his 4.9 whiffs per nine and pitch-to-contact mentality will cause the Yankees' hitters to salivate. Though he managed to drop his ERA from 5.27 to 4.60 over the final few weeks of the season, going Lackey-Kazmir-Weaver-short rest Lackey likely carries with it the best potential for the Angels to gain an edge in the starting pitching department, where the Yankees definitely do not have a clear cut advantage. Starting Weaver in his more spacious and friendly confines is the right move, even if he is technically their second-best starter. Avoiding the small sample of his seasonal performance against the Yankees, Weaver is a right-handed pitcher who sported the lowest ground-ball percentage in the major leagues this season, and he's someone who will have to pitch against a lineup featuring six lefties (including the switch-hitters). That recipe for disaster should be slightly mitigated by holding him off until the third game.

The Angels have seemingly committed to using all four of their starters whereas the Yankees appear more likely to go with Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte before rinsing and repeating. Though Girardi might not publicly proclaim his plans, I would be very surprised if Chad Gaudin started Game Four for the Yankees on the road in Anaheim, and given that Chamberlain will be used exclusively in the bullpen, it might have to take a 3-0 Yankees lead to even get the Gaudin option taken seriously. Using Saunders at all, let alone over Kazmir may negate any advantage the Angels could have gained here, but tremendous top-to-bottom starting pitching is not something either of these teams have going for them.

Bullpens


Yankees                  IP     ERA   WXRL   rFRA
RHP Mariano Rivera      66.1   1.76   6.03   1.80
RHP Philip Hughes       86.0   3.03   3.84   1.27*
LHP Phil Coke           60.0   4.50   1.79   4.32
RHP Alfredo Aceves      84.0   3.54   2.49   3.67
RHP Joba Chamberlain   157.1   4.75   2.00   5.60
RHP David Robertson     43.2   3.30   0.17   4.67
LHP Damaso Marte        13.1   9.45  -0.05   7.19
*: Relief-only FRA

Angels                   IP     ERA   WXRL   rFRA
LHP Brian Fuentes       55.0   3.93   2.67   3.91
LHP Darren Oliver       73.0   2.71   2.18   2.89
RHP Ervin Santana      139.2   5.03   1.74*  0.00
RHP Jason Bulger        65.2   3.56   1.71   3.00
LHP Kevin Jepsen        54.2   4.94   1.48   4.57
RHP Matt Palmer        121.1   3.93   0.88   2.65
rFRA: Relief-only FRA
*: SNLVAR + WXRL

The Angels are similar to the Phillies in the sense that their bullpen has a good amount of raw talent that has either missed time or severely regressed, creating a sticky situation in which they have to hope that their starters can go deep into games even given the caveat that starting pitchers the third or fourth time through the order are generally less effective than a fresh reliever. Brian Fuentes has been the closest Lidge-like doppelganger in the American League, and Scioscia has not restrained himself from expressing his disappointment in this regard. With the promising Jose Arredondo failing to live up to said promise and former stalwart Scot Shields lost to them since May, the Angels have had to rely on Darren Oliver, Kevin Jepsen, and Jason Bulger, all of whom are more suited for situational duty as opposed to legitimate set-up assignments. The inclusion of Ervin Santana helps ease the pain of a less-reliable bullpen, as he will be able to dial his fastball up a few notches as well as handle a larger workload. Then again, if Santana is forced to pitch multiple innings the Angels won't be anywhere near their optimal situation.

The most stark contrast of these teams can be found here in the quarters just beyond the outfield fence, as the Yankees second-tier of relievers is arguably more talented than the Angels' cast of characters. David Robertson, Damaso Marte, and Gaudin would be acceptable bridges to the Sandman but the Yankees also have Aceves, Hughes, and Chamberlain, giving them six non-Rivera relievers, all capable of shutting down the opposition, and at least three relievers capable of handling those pre-ninth inning situations that have the potential to be more crucial than the final frame. The Yankees don't need Rivera to come in for two-inning saves with this bullpen, as the dropoff from him to the set-up men is not nearly as substantial as in years past. While the Yankees will try to chase the Halo starters from the game to get to the rather shaky underbelly of the bullpen, the Angels should be hoping they get to see Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte several times as opposed to the fresh faces Girardi can call upon.

Defense

The Yankees have been known as an offensive club this decade, bringing in the top sluggers from around the league with the idea that their skills with the bat could more than make up for runs given up through sloppy fielding. This isn't anywhere the same team they had on the field in 2005, however, when they sent out arguably the worst statistical fielding team to ever make the playoffs. Captain Jetes was, at worst, an average defending shortstop this season, a tremendous upgrade given his checkered past. Teixeira replaced Giambi, Swisher helped move Matsui permanently into the designated hitter spot, and the combination of Cabrera and Gardner in center also paid dividends. That isn't to say they eradicated all of their weaknesses afield, as Johnny Damon represents a weak-armed black hole in left, and Jorge Posada's defense has eroded so much so that many Yankee fans are actually OK with Molina's occasional presence behind the plate. Prominent fielding metrics paint the Yankees as average with their gloves in the aggregate, which is a welcome result given their recent ineptitude.

There honestly is not much to say about the Angels defense, as aside from Juan Rivera and Chone Figgins nobody really stands out. Abreu has always been horrid in terms of his range, but saw an inflated overall result this year given his very strong arm. Torii Hunter isn't the same player he was four years ago, but is not a liability to the team in center field. The non-Figgins portion of the infield-Morales, Kendrick, Aybar, and Izturis-neither shone nor stunk, even if the energetic attitude of the latter two make scouts gush. The Angels ranked near the bottom of the league defensively, but the Yankees do not necessarily have a clear-cut advantage here. Neither team is that defensively strong, to the point that the advantage here could come in the form of decisions and mental mistakes from the likes of Cano, Izturis, and Aybar.

Managers

In a postseason where teams like Phillies carried eight relievers only to use two of their starters as their first arms out of the bullpen, Scioscia has opted to carry but a handful of relief options, a few of which are better suited for a mere batter or two per appearance, with a couple of others capable of handling a much larger workload given their experience starting. The stolen-base numbers quoted above indicate that he is no stranger to the hit-and-run play, and while the Angels ranked near the top of the league in offensive categories that may have been foreign to their success in years past, he has not eliminated the basepath aggressiveness or small-ball style in the least. Just because the team can rake now does not mean they are one-dimensional, and Scioscia clearly understands that being able to attack a team on several fronts is a master key of success. The most interesting aspect of Scioscia's strategy will be how he reacts with Jose Molina behind the plate for the Yankees. Will he make any concessions to Molina's reputation, or act no differently and let Molina prove his reputation is still merited?

In the opposite dugout, Joe Girardi has been criticized by many for attempting to micro-manage a team so chock-full of talent that simply sitting back and letting the players play might have been more optimal. Perhaps his love affair with bunting or swapping fantastic reliever for fantastic reliever serves more to make him seem less expendable given the rostered talent, but the Yankees do not need to alter their approach to produce runs. Their hitters are capable of moving runners along via productive outs or more productive successes without literally giving plate appearances away. Like Scioscia, he understands that the backup catcher designated to handle a specific starter should be lifted once said starter exits the game, and while some have questioned whether or not Girardi can keep up with Scioscia's tactical reputation, doing so would indicate a change in approach for an 103-win team, which is suboptimal in and of itself.

Prediction

I have picked the Yankees to win the World Series in each of my last three chats, and while I won't be terribly surprised if the Angels pull out a series win and advance to the grandest of stages, I fear their starting pitching will not be able to quiet the powerful Yankee bats. This will lead to Scioscia having to alter his intended usage of the bullpen, off of whom the Yankees are more than likely to feast. The Angels aren't going to go quietly, but I do not see this series lasting longer than five games, with the Yankees advancing to the World Series. Winning four of five games does not imply any sort of dominance as each could be within one run, but the areas in which the Yankees hold advantages outweigh those of the Angels. The Angels are an immensely talented team and could certainly win this series, but I have seen nothing in the form of concrete evidence capable of swaying my long-standing prediction.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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