A Great Start for Lee, A Rough Start for the Yankees

Well, Game One of the World Series didn’t go so well for the Yankees. From my writeup at Baseball Prospectus:

In yesterday’s chat, Bronx Banter‘s Alex Belth asked me, “Is there any particular pitching match-up that you are looking forward to in the series?” I responded that the matchup I was most looking forward to was between CC Sabathia and Ryan Howard, particularly given the prospect of the big man pitching three times for the Yankees in a seven-game series, and the slugger’s less-than-sterling reputation against southpaws. “I think that matchup will tell us something about what’s going to happen over the next four to seven games,” I wrote.

If that’s the case, the Yankees are in trouble. Howard stepped to the plate with two out and a man on in the first inning on Wednesday night. Sabathia had gotten quick outs on a Jimmy Rollins bunt and a Shane Victorino popup, and was one strike away from retiring Chase Utley when he suddenly lost the strike zone with three straight balls. Though he got ahead of Howard on a called strike, the slugger roped his second pitch into the right field corner for a double, and Utley might have scored had it not been for Nick Swisher playing the carom perfectly. Sabathia then walked Jayson Werth to load the bases, and only escaped the inning when Raul Ibañez grounded a 3-1 pitch to Robinson Cano to end the threat.

During the first two rounds of the playoffs, Howard went 2-for-11 against lefty pitching, but those two hits were huge, a two-run double off Clayton Kershaw in Game One of the NLCS which expanded the Phillies’ lead from 3-1 to 5-1 and chased the struggling southpaw, and a two-run homer off Randy Wolf in the first inning of Game Four. The Phillies as a team got just 14 hits off of lefties during those first two rounds, but seven of them were for extra bases, including five homers, producing an uneven .194/.322/.444 line.

They only got four hits off Sabathia in seven innings, as he settled down after that shaky 27-pitch first frame, but two of those were solo homers by Utley. Which isn’t to say Sabathia was all that sharp. In marked contrast to Andy Pettitte’s religious devotion to first-pitch strikes in Game Six of the ALCS (20 out of 25), the big man got ahead of just 12 of 27 hitters, at one point starting with ball one to seven hitters in a row, including Utley on his first homer.

The two Utley jacks would have been enough, given how well Cliff Lee pitched for Philadelphia. In this battle of former Indians Cy Young winners who were traded the following summer — Mark Shapiro’s worst nightmare, basically — there was never any doubt who had the upper hand. Lee dominated, striking out seven of the first 14 hitters he faced: Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira (twice), Alex Rodriguez (twice), Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. He also made two plays in the field which showed how in control he was, visibly sneering while making a basket catch on a sixth-inning Johnny Damon popup that scarcely forced him to budge from his landing spot, and snaring an eighth-inning Robinson Cano grounder behind his back.

The record shows that Lee only got first-pitch strikes to 16 out of 32 batters, but he went to 0-2 eight times, whereas his opposite number only got there four times. The irony is that Lee also went to 2-0 seven times, while Sabathia only got there five times, and thus ran up his pitch count. There wasn’t all that much separating the two pitchers, and over the course of a seven-game series in which the two starters are slated to pitch on three days’ rest in their next two turns, it may count in the Yankees’ favor that Sabathia, the experienced one in such matters, threw only 113 pitches, while Lee, who’s never taken the ball on short rest, threw 122 pitches. Whether or not that’s a strike against Charlie Manuel remains to be seen.

Despite Lee’s dominance, the Yankees still had a chance to keep things close. In last night’s BP roundtable, I suggested Joe Girardi bring in Mariano Rivera to face Utley and Howard in the seventh inning after Phil Hughes walked both Rollins and Victorino to start the frame given the persistence of Rivera’s favorable reverse platoon split due to the break of his cut fastball against lefty hitters. Girardi didn’t, because managers don’t think like they did twenty or thirty years ago, when they would call their top reliever into a ballgame when they felt it was on the line, regardless of inning. Firemen, they were called, because they were there to put out the fire instead of merely collect the last three outs and the statistical cherry on top, and we wore an onion on our belts as was the style at the time… Check the postseason game logs of Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers; Bob Lemon and Dick Williams weren’t afraid to call their numbers early, and that’s part of the reason they won championships. In any event, even given the emphasis we place on better bullpen management at BP, at least a few of my colleagues disagreed, both at the time and in retrospect. As Joe Sheehan wrote today, “You’re not going to start using Rivera as if he is Dan Quisenberry and we’re all hanging out in Lee jeans and Adidas with fat laces.” Girardi went to lefty Damaso Marte, who got two outs but allowed Rollins to advance to third on a fly ball to right field. Giriardi again could have called upon Rivera, but no, he went to David Robertson, who spent the first two rounds as the low man on the totem pole. The kid walked Werth to load the bases, then surrendered a two-run single by Ibañez that was essentially the ballgame.

The Win Probability Added figures at FanGraphs, the Yankees’ chances at winning stood at just 14.8 percent to start the inning given the 2-0 deficit. They dropped to 9.9 percent after the two walks, climbed back up to 14.9 percent by the time of the second out, and crashed to 4.3 percent with Ibañez’s hit. Thanks and good night.

Anyway, I have the good fortune of holding a ticket to tonight’s Game Two, which pits Pedro Martinez against A.J. Burnett. Joe Girardi has already announced that he’ll start Jerry Hairston (an Enrique Wilson-like 10-for-27 lifetime against Pedro, for the third-highest batting average of any active player with at least 25 PA against him, though the two haven’t faced each other since 2004) in right field instead of Nick Swisher, who’s mired in an 11-for-77 slump with two homers and four RBI dating back to September 16. He’ll also start Jose Molina again instead of Posada, though Molina was helpless to prevent another early-inning meltdown by A.J. in Game Five of the ALCS. The righty’s struggled at the beginning of games this year:

Split        HR    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS  
Pitch 1-25 8 .263 .356 .441 .797
Pitch 26-50 5 .249 .330 .378 .709
Pitch 51-75 7 .232 .329 .400 .729
Pitch 76-100 5 .262 .319 .406 .725
Pitch 101+ 0 .174 .371 .174 .545

If a personal valet catcher can’t prevent that from happening, then what the hell good is he? I guess we’ll soon find out.

Oh and on the subject of Pedro’s ancient history, in the second half of today’s BP column I take a look at the history of pitchers who started a postseason game for their teams after making less than 10 appearances for them during the regular season. Lots of recognizable names dot the list — Don Sutton, Tommy John, Rick Reuschel, David Cone, David Wells, Ramon Martinez, Oliver Perez — but Martinez’s face-off with Vicente Padilla marked the first time two such pitchers faced each other. There’s no real take-home as to what to expect tonight, but it was fun to research nonetheless.

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