Playoff Prospectus: Yanks-Indians

My preview of the Yankees-Indians series, which starts this evening, is up at
Baseball Prospectus. Yankee fans reading this may not be too happy to know that I’m picking against the Bombers. As a fan, I won’t be unhappy if I’m wrong, but as an analyst, I’m basing the call on a few things:

• The Yankee rotation is in disarray:

Make no mistake: this Yankee rotation and its deployment may be the team’s downfall in this series. As good as Wang is, he’s shown a decisive enough home-road split (2.75 home/4.91 away this year; 3.04/4.62 career) to prefer that he not start in Cleveland once, let alone twice if the series goes five games. Pettitte has enough postseason experience (34 starts, 212 innings, 4.08 ERA, 14-9) to add a line to his resume virtually identical to his 2007 stats. With his days of tipping pitches hopefully behind him, Yankee fans can hope he’s the stone-faced killer of their 2003 run, because they’ll need him to be.

The problem is Clemens, who has just one start (six innings) since September 3 due to elbow and hamstring injuries. The 45-year-old hurler has an unenviable recent track record in recent postseasons, one marked by early departures due to injury, departures that often left his club up the proverbial creek. Forget the glowing report out of Tampa after his simulated game on Tuesday; the decision to start Clemens feels more motivated by salary than common sense.

If the Yankees shadow Clemens with rookie Philip Hughes — who pitched well against the Indians on August 10 (6 4 1 1 1 6) and really hit his stride in September (2.73 ERA in five starts) — that leaves Mussina exposed. The 38-year-old Moose served a two-week exile in the bullpen in late August after three consecutive disaster starts. He posted three solid starts but was bombed during the season’s final weekend. Unless he gets enough separation between his mid-80s fastball and his offspeed offerings, his outing could be every bit as nasty, short, and brutish as that of Clemens. A better alternative would be to start Hughes in Game Three, come back with Wang in New York in Game Four (short rest might actually help his sinker), and send Pettitte to the hill in Game Five.

• The Yankee bullpen lacks a lefty to face the top of Cleveland’s order [lefty Grady Sizemore, switch-hitter Asdrubal Cabrera (more effective versus lefties), lefty Travis Hafner, and switch-hitter Victor Martinez (more effective versus righties), and their righty options don’t match up well:

Elsewhere, Torre and company have opted to forego carrying even a token lefty, bypassing Ron Villone, who handled lefty hitters at a .239/.311/.343 clip. This leaves the Yanks at a significant tactical disadvantage. Beyond Rivera and Chamberlain, neither veterans Vizcaino (.265/.362/.427 versus lefties) and Farnsworth (.273/.379/.445) nor live-armed rookies Ohlendorf (.293/.371/.504 in Triple-A) and Veras (.273/.368/.394) handled lefty hitters very well. The Yanks’ only means of mitigating this is to deploy Chamberlain (.132/.195/.211) against the top of the Indians’ order, and at best they get to do this one time through instead of twice.

• The Indians’ bullpen, on the other hand, matches up well versus the Yanks:

For the Indians, the story is happier. Their bullpen ranked second in the league in WXRL, just a few whiskers behind Boston. Borowski led the league in saves, but with a sky-high ERA thanks to early-season bombings, including a six-run one by the Yanks on April 19. Since mid-May, he’s pitched much more respectably (3.91 ERA, 40/10 K/BB and 6 HR in 50 2/3 IP), right in line with his QERA. The real key to the Tribe bullpen is setup man Betancourt, who trailed only J.J. Putz in individual WXRL; he pitches in situations nearly as high in leverage as closer Borowski (1.87 to 2.09) and sometimes for multiple innings, justifying his usage in the set-up role rather than endowment with the less flexible Scarlet C. His splits are eye-popping: 80/6 K/UIBB overall, 41/1 at home.

Beyond that pair, rookie southpaw Rafael Perez ate lefties alive this year (.145/.209/.241), and was no slouch against righties (.213/.257/.324); he looms as a key figure in this series given the Yankee lineup’s lefty tilt. Any stint of three batters or longer is likely to bring him in contact with two tough lefty hitters, and he’s capable of tossing multiple innings as well. Fultz gives Wedge a LOOGY to deploy in the middle innings, if necessary. Though unconfirmed at press time, the presence of Laffey makes sense for long-relief purposes. Closer aside, there’s a decided edge to Cleveland here based on matchups.

One reader already took issue: “Don’t you think your undervaluing offense a little here? The Indians clearly have the better top 2 starting pitchers but the Yankees seem the perfect team to combat them with an incredibly patient offense that can push them out of the game early.” Clearly this fellow has fond recollections of the way the vaunted Yankee offense patiently waited out the Tigers’ pitching in 2006 and the Angels’ in 2005.

If the Yankees do roll, I’ll gladly eat crow, but the prediction is pain:

The Yankees have a threatening offense, but they appear to have committed to a much less than ideal rotation alignment, and they’re at a clear disadvantage when it comes to late-inning matchups. The one-two punch of Sabathia and Carmona could easily push their team to the brink of victory before they even hit the Bronx, where the Yankees will need some good fortune simply to get quality starts. Indians in five.

Catch the rest of it at BP, where it’s today’s freebie.

• • •

I focused most of Tuesday’s chat on the end of the regular season and what to expect in the postseason. A few of the better exchanges:

ntf8888 (Austin): [Matt] Holliday for MVP?

JJ: The NL MVP race is a very, very tough call. I’m a believer that the award has to go to to a player on a contender, which leaves us with numerous candidates.

Going into the weekend I’d have said David Wright gets the call, but I’m haunted by his screw-up of the forceout on Friday night. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are imperfect candidates, Rollins for his .340-ish OBP, Utley for missing a month, Howard for missing time and playing bad defense that holds his WARP1 down at 6.4. Holliday has very good numbers (fourth in WARP1 at 10.1, behind Pujols at 11.3, Wright at 11.2, and Peavy at 10.9), and while he had several key hits this weekend, he also had a near-fatal defensive lapse that leads one to wonder about the validity of his +13 FRAA.

In the end, I probably stick with Wright, who was still hitting the stuffing out of the ball even as the team faded. But I can understand Holliday before Rollins, who’s probably the popular favorite.

James (MD): Jay, do you think a case can be made that in the playoffs, the strength of your bench and the very back of your bullpen is the most important? Teams are going to clearly lean on their 4 best relievers pretty much every night, and they will have to use their bench, especially in the NL. Philly has a great bench with Victorino or Werth, a versatile defender/pinch runner in Bourn, and then a defensive specialist in Nunez and a guy who can hit into the gap in Helms. Couple that with Myers, Romero, and Gordon, how could anyone pick against the Phillies at this point?

JJ: Intuitively that makes some sense, but systematically speaking, it’s not the case. Nate Silver and Dayn Perry looked at this for Baseball Between the Numbers and found that the quality of the closer was one of only three statistically significant factors in forecasting the outcome of a short series. The other two are staff strikeout rate and the quality of team defense. Nate calls this the Secret Sauce, and he ran the numbers for this year’s teams.

In a short series where off days make up about 1/3 of the schedule if not more, bullpen depth tends to play less of a factor except in cases where a starter makes an early exit (Roger Clemens, I’m looking at you). Benches are far more important in the NL, where pinch-hitting for pitchers is a factor, but the Creeping La Russaism move to 12-man pitching staffs has shortened too many benches and left managers without a proper counter to that third lefty.

As for picking against the Phillies, I like their bench, but as great as their run has been, their staff and bullpen still make me very nervous. I’ve been heartbroken by Tom Gordon one too many times to have much faith in him.

Jim Clancy (Exhibition Stadium): Why is the Mets’ collapse from this year so much “worse” than clunkers before it–like the awful and touched-by-Satan collapse of the Blue Jays in ’87 (despite their having at least one stellar right hander)? I mean, to hear people talk now, no one else ever collapsed so brutally as the Mets did this year. Even this year’s Padres might qualify as similar.

JJ: From the Postseason Odds perspective that Clay Davenport invented and Nate Silver applied in his fine “Blowing It” article last week, the Mets’ potential collapse ranked second behind only the 1995 Angels. Home field advantage for those final seven games, and quality of competition (all of them against sub-.500 teams) come together in an almost perfect storm.

In the Jays’ case, four of those seven losses came against the Tigers, who won the division at 98-64, and the other three were against the Brewers, who wound up 91-71. Three losses were on the road. As bad as it is, from a degree of difficulty standpoint, it’s much more understandable than the Mets.

But from a more subjective standpoint that paints Willie Randolph as History’s Greatest Monster, it comes down to a rather bloodthirsty New York media ready to seize upon any sign of weakness because it sells papers in a hypercompetitive market. See Alex Rodriguez, September-October 2006.

I did pick the Yankees over the Indians during the chat, but as noted, it was in writing the piece that I reversed myself.

As for MVP and other award arguments, you can cast a virtual ballot in the Internet Baseball Awards voting between now and October 12. I’ll post my ballot here once I’ve voted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree