Friday’s Child: Pre-ALCS Edition

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for yours truly covering the Yankees and their march into the postseason at both Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible. Since I last touched base here, I wrote 5,000-word Playoff Prospectus previews for both the Division Series against the Twins and the League Championship Series with the Yankees. I also covered all three of the Yankees’ ALDS games for BP, and delivered the year-end Hit List as well as a tome on A.J. Burnett’s penchant for disaster starts (and a more Yankee-flavored angle here).

Over at PB, I wrote about how the Twins were the more favorable matchup for the Yankees in the ALDS, covered a few pre-series roster and rotation decisions, delved into the possibility of the Yankees carrying second lefty Royce Ring, noted three keys to the ALDS, penned a Carl Pavan0-inspired retrospective of ex-Yankee hurlers facing the Yanks in postseason, took a look at how the Yanks were winning the battle of the lefties in the ALDS, figured the Rays as the more favorable matchup for the Yankees in the ALCS, provided three keys to the ALCS, and spun “A Two-Step Tale of Texas Turnaround,” about how pitching and defense turned the Rangers into contenders. Somewhere along the way, I also took time out to give a hearty plug to friend Alex Belth’s book, Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories,  culled from the Bronx Banter series he curated in late 2008 and featuring yours truly as well as numerous other writers of much bigger name.

With the Twins series now ancient history, I’ll stick to the matchup with the Rangers for a few excerpts. From the PB keys:

1. The Rangers’ lineup is well-constructed to battle the Yankees.
In CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees could throw as many as four high-quality left-handed starters at the Rangers. Luckily for Texas manager Ron Washington, he’s got no shortage of quality right-handed bats to counter that. In fact thanks to a multi-position platoon involving the outfield corners, the Rangers can field a lineup with just two lefties, Josh Hamilton, who hits third, and first baseman Mitch Moreland, who will hit eighth or ninth. Lefty outfielder David Murphy is most likely to start in left field versus righties, with Nelson Cruz in right field, but against southpaws, the much-maligned ex-Met Jeff Francoeur starts in right, with Cruz sliding over to left. Frenchy (who incidentally got off a nice dig at the Mets today: “I always wanted to know what it was like to play meaningful baseball in New York and I’m going to have the opportunity.”) is absolutely clueless against righties (.256/.296/.403 career), but he’s quite playable against lefties (.299/.343/.481 career), something neither Braves manager Bobby Cox nor Mets manager Jerry Manuel ever bothered to figure out…

Revising the back-of-the-envelope calculations I ran the other day, the Rangers’ lineup comes out with a composite .312/.377/.460 line and a 123 OPS+ against lefties based upon their 2010 splits, compared to a .287/.348/.456 line and a 113 OPS+ against righties. By comparison, the Yankees are basically even against both hands (.274/.363/.455 with a 117 OPS+ versus lefties, .274/.357/.465 with a 118 OPS+ versus righties). For the Rangers, leadoff hitter Elvis Andrus showed no platoon advantage in 2010, but every one of the Rangers’ two through eight hitters except for Hamilton are stronger against lefties, with batting averages above .300 and OBPs above .360.

On the Yankees’ rotation, from the BP preview:

The Yankees had planned to return with Sabathia on three days’ rest for Game Four of the Division Series, but here they’ve decided to go with a four-man rotation rather than asking the big man to work on short rest twice in a row for Games Four and Seven. That means a start for Burnett, whose 2010 season has seemingly been one disasterpiece after another. The good news is that he fared relatively well against the Rangers, throwing seven shutout innings against their early-season lineup (including Borbon, Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden), on April 17, tossing another seven solid frames against a more representative lineup in a losing cause on August 10 (Murphy took him deep), and throwing four innings and allowing two runs before a 58-minute rain delay forced him from the game on September 11. Burnett was pummeled fairly equally by hitters from both sides of the plate (.286/.376/.444 versus lefties, .285/.355/.473 versus righties). For some reason, he’s had a touch more trouble against same-handed hitters over the last few years than opposite-handed ones; call us when you figure out why, because we’re as baffled as anyone.

Amid another typically strong season (first in the AL in wins at 21, sixth in strikeouts at 197, seventh in ERA and SNWP), Sabathia showed a rather atypical reverse platoon split (.232/.295/.354 vs righties, .261/.318/.360 vs. lefties) due to a BABIP against lefties that shot up more than 100 points (to .361) beyond his 2009 rate. Pettitte’s platoon splits were more extreme than usual, likely due to the smaller sample size; he smothered lefties with a zeal rarely shown before (.186/.226/.256) while getting a bit knocked around by righties (.283/.346/.434). He still hasn’t gone beyond 88 pitches since July 8, but he looked plenty strong against the Twins while effectively mixing in his four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and curveball. Despite his long history of Game Two successes, he’s being pushed back to start Game Three this time around, which lines him up for a potential Game Seven. That gives Hughes a bit more room to work, ballpark-wise, though despite concerns about his homer-prone nature in the Bronx, he rarely allowed a hard-hit ball against the Twins, spotting his fastball effectively while backing off his initial plans to use his changeup and cutter. He was much more homer-prone against lefties than righties (one for every 23 PA, compared to one for every 43), particularly from late June onward, when he began relying more on his curveball than the cutter, though his overall platoon differential wasn’t all that wide (.253/.292/381 vs. righties, .235/.311/.417 vs. lefties).

From the Two-Step piece:

The turnaround began last year, when the influence of team president and Hall of Fame hurler Nolan Ryan began to take hold. The Rangers took a page from the 2008 Rays’ blueprint and made a significant commitment to upgrading their defense by promoting 20-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus directly from Double-A. The team’s Defensive Efficiency, their rate of converting balls in play into outs, rose from .670 (last in the league) to .699 (second), a 29-point jump that took a backseat only to similar plans by the Mariners (who improved by 30 points) and Reds (32 points) and ranked among the top 10 year-to-year turnarounds ever.

This was particularly important because the 2008 and 2009 Ranger pitching staffs put tons of balls in play, as they ranked 13th and 12th in the league in strikeout rate, respectively. Even with just a total of 31 starts from two pitchers (swingman Dustin Nippert and rookie Derek Holland) with K rates above the league average (6.9), the Rangers jumped from 79 wins to 87, and they remained in contention until mid-September. The improved defense helped Kevin Millwood (5.6 K/9) post his first ERA under 5.00 in three years, turned Scott Feldman (5.4 K/9) into a 17-game winner, and gave Tommy Hunter (5.1 K/9) a foothold in the rotation for the first time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they poached one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game, Mike Maddux, from the Brewers to oversee their staff.

Pitchers who don’t miss many bats aren’t great bets for long-term success, while those who do more often are; one need look no further than all-time strikeout king Ryan, who pitched until he was 46 and was still striking out a hitter per inning until his injury-abbreviated final season. For that reason, the Rangers still sought to upgrade their rotation. They traded Millwood to the Orioles and decided to convert C.J. Wilson, their top lefty reliever and sometime closer (2.81 ERA, 10.3 K/9 and 14 saves in 2009), into a starter. They took a free-agent flier on oft-injured by occasionally electrifying Rich Harden, and signed one Colby Lewis to a two-year, $5 million deal.

…The Harden move was a flop; the 28-year-old righty was rocked for a 5.58 ERA while making just 18 starts in an injury-laden season. But the Wilson and Lewis gambits paid off big-time. The two power arms ranked among the league’s top 25 in SNLVAR while tossing more than 200 innings, with the former leading the staff in both (4.7 SNLVAR, 204 innings) while putting up a 3.35 ERA, tops in the rotation. Though Wilson led the league in walks (93, or 4.1 per nine), he whiffed 170 (7.5 per nine), and generated plenty of ground balls while yielding just 10 homers (0.44 per nine, second in the league). Lewis notched 196 strikeouts (8.8 per nine, fifth in the league) while walking just 65 in 201 innings (a K/BB ratio of 3.0) en route to a 3.72 ERA.

Amid those excerpted pieces, I also wrote bits for both BP and PB about the Rangers’ chances of winning the series being damaged by the fact that they won’t get to pitch ace Cliff Lee until Game Three and not again until a potential Game Seven because unlike the Yankees’ big man, Sabathia, Lee won’t pitch on short rest. Never has before, wasn’t asked to by the Rangers, and didn’t volunteer, either. Some people have taken stabs at explaining, with or without fancy probability-based math, why this is or isn’t a big deal to the Rangers’ overall chances of winning the series, though for my money nobody has answered the question definitively.

I think it matters, based upon the following logic:

  1. The Rangers’ best chance of winning the series is in getting two starts out of their best pitcher, Cliff Lee.
  2. As the rotation lines up, their unwillingness to place Lee in the position of pitching on three days’ rest — which could bring him back for Games Two and Six if he does it once, or Two and Five if he does it twice, with the slight possibility of being available out of the bullpen for Game Seven — means they’ll get just one start from Lee in the first six games.
  3. In the Wild Card era (1995 onward), only about one in four seven-game series have gone to seven games. Wild Card era ALCS have averaged 5.8 games in length, with six ending before six games, and only four going the distance. Include the NLCS and the average is 5.73, with 12 ending before six games and only eight going the distance. Include the World Series during that timespan as well and the average drops to 5.6, with 20 of the 45 ending before six games and only 11 going the distance, 24 percent.

Independent of anything involving the actual abilities of the two teams, the odds strongly favor something less than a seven-game series, and I have to think that works in the Yankees’ favor. They’ll have their hands full with the Rangers — there’s a reason I tabbed the Twins and Rays as the more favorable matchups, though at Pinstriped Bible I was distinctly in the minority on the ALDS front — but I think they’ll prevail.

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