Whether the two teams involved care or not, this isn’t just the 1999 World
Series; it’s the series that will determine the Team of the 1990s. The
Yankees’ claim to Team of the 1900s, however, is safe.
The Yankees have a clearly superior lineup. They led the majors in
.281, while the Braves were eighth at .267. Despite starting below-average
players Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius,
their core of OBP machines at the top of the lineup–Chuck
Knoblauch, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams— gives them
the best offense in baseball. Jeter and Williams were 2-3 in the American
League in EQA this year, at .336 and .331 respectively.
As we observed prior to the ALCS, the Yankees’ soft spot may be Joe Torre’s
insistence on playing Martinez and Paul O’Neill against left-handed
starters, and not pinch-hitting for them against left-handed relievers.
Both players had significant platoon splits in 1999:
Tino Martinez vs. RHP: .353/.472 Tino Martinez vs. LHP: .315/.428
Paul O'Neill vs. RHP: .390/.517 Paul O'Neill vs. LHP: .246/.297
These splits aren’t sample-size flukes, either: they’re consistent with the
rest of their careers. The Yankees will face the Braves’ only left-handed
starter, Tom Glavine, in Games 1 and 5. Unlike Boston, which had just
Rheal Cormier in the pen, Atlanta is carrying three good left-handed
relievers, which could hamper the Yankee offense in close games.
Additionally, as the Mets were in the NLCS, the Yankees are a team that
generates runs off a great team OBP and walk rate. The Atlanta starters,
though, do not walk many hitters, something that hurt the Mets’ run-scoring
last week and could have the same effect on the Yankees in the World Series.
The Braves struggled to put away the Mets in large part because they
couldn’t score runs. Right now, this is not a good lineup, with OBP
problems at most spots and some truly bad hitters–Walt Weiss,
Bret Boone–masquerading as starters. I suppose if Eddie
Perez continues to hit like a ticked-off Babe Ruth (.523/1.000 against
the Mets), the problem is minimized, but I won’t be holding my breath
waiting for it.
Bobby Cox isn’t helping himself by using Weiss instead of Jose
Hernandez, who completely disappeared during the NLCS. Cox even put
whatever is left of Ozzie Guillen into Game 4 as part of a
double-switch, rather than use Hernandez. The decision may have cost him
the game, as Guillen turned John Olerud‘s three-hopper up the middle
into a two-run single to lose the game.
Hernandez isn’t an All-Star, but he’s the best offensive shortstop the
Braves have. As badly as the team needs runs, he should be in the lineup in
every game. Even if he is, the Braves won’t have as formidable a lineup as
Neither team has an effective bench, although the Braves have some
quantity, with 16 position players on the roster. Too many of those are
ineffectual, however, such as Guillen and Jorge Fabregas, and while
the Braves really could use an extra pinch-hitter, we won’t see Randall
Simon in the World Series. Look for the Braves to use the bench mainly
to run players through the shortstop and catcher spots in the lineup.
Braves’ outfielder Otis Nixon has taken a considerable amount of
abuse from analysts, and had a terrible year at the plate. But he has one
specific skill, speed, that has some value in situations where one run can
make the difference. Yankee closer Mariano Rivera is notably slow to
the plate, and Joe Girardi doesn’t throw very well. In a series that should
have a number of close, low-scoring games, it wouldn’t surprise me to see
Nixon play a key role at least once.
The Yankee bench mostly gets used in blowouts, as Torre is carrying two
utility players without specific skills, Luis Sojo and Clay
Bellinger. Chad Curtis is a good leadoff pinch-hitter,
pinch-runner and defensive replacement. With Shane Spencer off the
World Series roster in favor of Jim Leyritz, there’s a good chance
Leyritz platoon with Ricky Ledee in left field. Whichever designated
hitter doesn’t start–Chili Davis or Darryl Strawberry–is a
significant offensive threat off the bench. Obviously, both players will be
available in the non-DH games.
What makes these two teams great is the breadth and depth of their starting
rotations. The Braves, of course, have built their team around their staff for
most of the decade. The Yankee rotation, while less-heralded and not as
effective in 1999, has been just as important to them the past two seasons.
This postseason, both rotations have been effective. The Braves have gotten
a 2.31 ERA and seven innings per start from their starters, while the
Yankee rotation has been even better, posting a 2.01 ERA in just under
seven innings per start. There’s no reason to expect the World Series to be
any different: look for both teams’ starting pitchers to be effective and
work deep into games. There’s really not much to choose between them.
As good as the Yankee rotation has been, their bullpen has been even
better. Except for Hideki Irabu‘s take-one-for-the-team outing in
Game 3 of the Division Series, they have not allowed a run in the
postseason. Mariano Rivera hasn’t allowed a run since late July, and
Torre has his full complement of setup men in Jeff Nelson, Allen
Watson, Mike Stanton and ALCS hero Ramiro Mendoza.
The most interesting tactics of the postseason have involved Bobby Cox’s
use of his bullpen. The Braves are carrying just nine pitchers, and Cox has
used starters John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood and Greg
Maddux out of the pen in the past three weeks, with varying results.
While the focus has been on the pitchers he has used, what’s more
interesting is the ones he hasn’t. It’s become clear that Cox doesn’t want
any part of Russ Springer or Kevin McGlinchy unless he
absolutely has to bring them in. His decision to use Smoltz with a four-run
lead in Game 6 of the NLCS made that clear. It’s a strange decision, as
both Springer and McGlinchy–especially McGlinchy–were effective in 1999.
While I have applauded Cox’s aggressiveness in using his best pitchers in
close games while disregarding "roles", I have to say it appears
now he’s gone too much in this directon. If you’re not going to use
McGlinchy with a four-run lead, exactly when are you going to use him? Cox
seems to be effectively working with a seven-man staff, a tactic that, if
continued, will eventually hurt him.
On the other hand, Cox does have what Jimy Williams didn’t: a complete set
of good left-handed relievers. As I see it, Mike Remlinger and
Terry Mulholland are going to be the keys to this series, forcing
the Yankees into bad matchups and getting important outs in the seventh and
eighth innings. Again, these are going to be close games, more than likely
low-scoring ones, and winning the tactical battles is going to be critical.
The Braves are better-suited to doing so than either of the Yankee
opponents so far.
Both bullpens are loaded with quality arms, and both teams have top-tier
closers. With the teams so closely matched, the performance of the bullpens
and how each manager handles his relievers are going to be the determining
factor in who wins the World Series. At this point, I see that as an
advantage for the Yankees.
The Braves are a superior defensive team, primarily due to their excellent
outfield of Gerald Williams, Andruw Jones and Brian
Jordan. Only shortstop Walt Weiss and platoon first baseman Ryan
Klesko are below-average defensively, and Atlanta brings good glove man
Brian Hunter off the bench late in games to cover for Klesko. This
is a unit that saves the Braves runs.
The Yankees are an average defensive team at best. Bernie Williams is the
team’s best glove; he’s not the center fielder Jones is, and he’s flanked
by worse outfielders in Ricky Ledee and Paul O’Neill. In the
infield, Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing problems are a constant concern, and he
and Derek Jeter are merely adequate at turning double plays.
Neither team makes much use of the stolen base, so the throwing arms of the
catchers shouldn’t come into play very often. As mentioned above, though,
the combination of Mariano Rivera and Joe Girardi could leave the Yankees
vulnerable late in a close game if the Braves elect to run.
It won’t be a sweep. Other than that, this series is about as unpredictable
as any postseason series we’ve seen in quite some time. These are the two
best teams in baseball, with the two best pitching staffs. The Yankees have
an offensive edge, but the Braves can counter that with a better rotation
and the ability to attack the Yankee lineup with their bullpen.
I’ve believed all year that the Braves are the best team in baseball, even
with the injury to Javy Lopez that really changed their offense. But
here, in the last week of October, seeing everything that Bobby Cox has
done the past few weeks and looking at how the two teams stack up
head-to-head, I’m not sure the Braves are the best team in baseball in a
seven-game series against the second-best team in baseball.
This will be the best World Series since the one that started it all for
the Braves, their 1991 seven-game loss to the Minnesota Twins. And
unfortunately for Atlanta fans, the outcome will be the same. Yankees in
seven, and it’s going to be one great nine-day ride.