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Friday’s Child: Losing it?

Went to two Yankees-Rays games this week and they couldn’t have felt more different, nor could my writeups pertaining to them. On Monday, I sat in the pressbox as the team welcomed Joe Torre and Don Mattingly back to Yankee Stadium for the first time since their unseemly departures and unveiled their massive, ostentatious monument to the late George Steinbrenner. While Ivan Nova kept the Rays at bay, the Yankees chipped away at Matt Garza and broke the game open thanks to a pair of Curtis Granderson home runs after the Yankees temporarily blew a four-run lead. On Thursday night, the Yanks coughed up a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning amid an unbelievable seven-run meltdown behind CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain, and in doing so, emerged with merely a split of their four-game series.

At the outset of the series, here’s what I wrote:

So in the grand scheme of things, it would be tough to pretend that a September Yanks-Rays series actually mattered much; barring either team repeating the 2000 Yankees’ stretch-drive imitation of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, both teams will reach the postseason, and both those games and this week’s four-game series in the Bronx represent nothing more than jockeying for position. Players and managers from both clubs have dutifully said otherwise, that their goal is the division title and home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs rather than the backdoor invitation via the wild card, but watching the way Yankees manager Joe Girardi ran his bullpen in the opener of last week’s series—a taut pitchers’ duel between David Price and CC Sabathia which remained scoreless through the first 10 innings — reveals otherwise.

While the Yanks had come in off a rough stretch of having been swept in three grueling games in the Texas heat, Girardi was clearly more concerned with making sure his pitchers were rested. After using Kerry Wood and Boone Logan — two pitchers who’ve been the key to the Yankees bullpen’s second-half resurgence — following Sabathia’s eight stellar innings, Girardi passed up the opportunity to use Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera, all with at least a day’s rest under their belts, in a tie ballgame on the road. Instead he went with mop-up men Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre; the latter yielded a game-ending home run to Reid Brignac, the first hitter he faced. “Maybe you have to lose the battle to win the war,” lamented pitching coach Dave Eilland of the A-listers’ unavailability. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ lineup for that series was without Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, both of whom received cortisone shots, where they might have played under more meaningful circumstances or with 25-man rosters instead of larger ones padded by September call-ups.

Given the persistence of home-field advantage throughout the regular season — home teams win at about a 54 percent clip — you’d think it would matter more in the postseason, particularly with the AL’s four likely invitees holding stellar records at home; the Yankees and Twins both shared 49-25 records at home through Sunday, while the Rangers were 48-26 and the Rays 46-29. In fact, the tale of the tape is a mixed bag. According to Joe Sheehan, since 1998, when Major League Baseball began seeding playoff teams instead of using a pre-set rotation, teams with the home field advantage have won 45 of 84 series (a .536 winning percentage). That figure suggests an even larger HFA, since the math on a four percent HFA comes out to a 51.3 percent chance of the home team winning a Game Seven. On the other hand, home teams are just 9-10 since 1998 in the small sample of decisive Games Five and Seven. More damningly, as many wild-card winners — who don’t have home-field advantage in either of the first two rounds — have gone on to reach the World Series as have No. 1 one seeds in that time span, with eight apiece.

Re-reading the piece, I’m pretty sure I undersold the value of winning the division; more importantly, so have the Yankees. Because their road is considerably harder now, as I wrote today at Pinstriped Bible:

Had [Sabathia] and the bullpen been able to convert that into a win, they’d have taken this week’s series with the Rays 3-1 and secured a split of the season series at nine games apiece. More importantly, they would have held a 2.5-game lead in the division with nine games left to play. A 5-4 record the rest of the way would have required the Rays to go 8-2 to achieve a tie, though that still would have given the latter the division title based upon a better intra-division record.

…[W]hile the Yankees still hold a half-game lead over the Rays in the AL East, they’ve got the much tougher schedule of the two teams the rest of the way… Ignoring home-field advantage for a moment, the weighted winning percentage of the Yankees’ remaining opponents is .538, while that of the Rays is .401 — the equivalent of a 22-game difference between the two slates over the course of a 162-game season, or roughly the gap between the Red Sox and the Royals.

Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds, which factor home field advantage, scoring environment, run components and quality of opposition into a Monte Carlo simulation of the remainder of the season — BP colleague Tommy Bennett explained the complicated-sounding system very well a few weeks back — show the Yankees with a 38.4 percent chance of winning the division and the Rays with a 61.6 percent chance. A mere two days ago, those numbers stood 74.5 to 25.5 in New York’s favor.

As I go on to point out, the Twins have now pushed their way into the best-record picture; they’re a half-game ahead of the Yankees at the moment, and a full game ahead of the Rays, plus they’ve got an easier schedule the rest of the way as well (.479 via the Tigers, Royals and Blue Jays). The bottom line is that the odds suggest the Yanks are likely not to have home field advantage in any round of the playoffs, and will need help from others in order to have it for one round. They’re going to have to step up considerably if they want to repeat as champions.

How good are the Twins? Good enough to break the Yanks’ and Rays’ 1-2 monopoly atop the AL Hit List, which has been in place since the April 23 edition, though the two teams have swapped places a few times. Here’s how the top three shake out this week:

[#1 Yankees] Grand, and Not So Grand: Curtis Granderson’s two homers lead the Yanks past the Rays on the night they unveil a massive monument to the late George Steinbrenner and play host to prodigal sons Joe Torre and Don Mattingly. Granderson is hitting .261/.358/.543 with 11 homers since retooling his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long in mid-August, and Derek Jeter is riding a 12-game hitting streak (.327/.410/.404) thanks to Long’s help as well. Alas, the Yanks are unable to do more than secure a split of the series with the Rays, and in losing the season series, their odds of winning the division plummet from 74 percent to 38 percent in two days.

[#2 Twins] Don’t Call Them Twinkies: After battling all the way to a 163rd game in each of the past two seasons, the Twins rally to surmount a three-run deficit and become the first team to clinch their division, winning their sixth AL Central title in nine years. They’re 16-4 this month, and now a half-game ahead of the Yankees for the league’s best record. Danny Valencia bops three homers in a four-game span; the 19th-round 2006 pick, who was once seen merely as an organizational player is hitting .332/.374/.463, and the team is 48-23 (.676) with him in the lineup.

[#3 Rays] Back-End Blues? After losing the first two games of their series in the Bronx with the Yankees, the Rays move into the driver’s seat by taking the next two; although they’re a half-game back in the AL East, they’ve now got 62 percent chance of taking the division thanks to a much easier schedule the rest of the way. Still, there’s plenty of cause for concern given the rotation’s recent performance, as Jeff Niemann, James Shields, and Matt Garza have combined for an 8.36 ERA in 11 starts this month while averaging just 4.7 innings per start. Niemann has been particularly brutal since returning from his DL stint, with a 14.43 ERA, 7.0 BB/9, and 2.8 HR/9 over five starts while averaging less than four innings.

The NL Hit List was a lighter-hearted affair, with some of the best bits in the middle:

[#7 Cardinals] Jack the Ripper: Former Cardinals slugger Jack Clark brands the 2010 squad “quitters” with “poopy in their pants,” (yes, really) while Tony LaRussa alludes to Clark’s own checkered history. The Cards are now 13-25 since their sweep of the Reds, and while the lineup’s big guns haven’t stopped firing during that span (Albert Pujols, .294/.395/.625, Matt Holliday .331/.396/.556, Colby Rasmus .302/.425/.523), they’ve reaped what they have sown with a regressing Jon Jay (.220/.288/.283), a Replacement Level Killer-worthy Brendan Ryan (.212/.248/.263) and the half-eaten remains of Pedro Feliz (.208/.227/.255), to say nothing of the clearly trouser-loading Felipe Lopez (.132/.231/.191), who’s released for repeated tardiness.

[#10 Mets] Flushing Follies, Part 647: As the Mets continue traveling their road to nowhere in ignominious fashion (seriously, did they play this week?), Jerry Manuel takes issue with Joe Torre’s tepid expression of interest in managing the Mets. Without asking the obvious question (“Why in the #$%@ would a septuagenarian future Hall of Fame manager leave one disasterpiece to step into an even bigger one such as this?”), Manuel questions Torre’s integrity while conveniently forgetting his own scruples-free pursuit of predecessor Willie Randolph’s job. Sadly, the laughingstock Manuel and his superior Omar Minaya’s days are likely numbered in Queens, which could leave the Hit List with a dearth of comic material. Then again, if they hire Wally Backman to replace Manuel, we’ll be just fine.

There’s one more BP-related link for the week, but I’ll save that for the next post.

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