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Following the single most exciting night of regular-season baseball in our lifetime, the American League Division Series start Friday with two compelling matchups and the promise of more drama. The American League’s two best pitchers, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia, highlight a Tigers-Yankees series that figures to be a lot tighter than the annual Minnesota Twins ritual sacrifice we’re used to seeing. Meanwhile, the Rays head to Texas to renew last year’s ALDS matchup, this time as underdogs against a loaded Rangers club.
Who will prevail? There can be only two.
DETROIT TIGERS VS. NEW YORK YANKEES
Lineups (via MLBDepthCharts.com, baseball-reference.com, and a sprinkling of educated guesses)
The skill that would seem to most favor the Yankees doesn’t look nearly so lopsided upon closer inspection. The Tigers ranked fourth in the AL in runs scored this season, trailing three teams with potent offenses, but also much friendlier hitters’ parks in Boston, New York, and Texas. It’s incredibly odd that Justin Verlander got so much MVP hype on the idea that he was a one-man team. Even if you acknowledge Miguel Cabrera’s greatness (second in MLB in wOBA behind only Jose Bautista), this isn’t a two-man team, either. Not even close. Avila’s still a no-name to casual fans, but his rate stats compare favorably with anyone in the Yankees’ lineup short of Granderson. Peralta has enjoyed an offensive revival since Cleveland tossed him overboard. Victor Martinez hit .330 and he might be the third-best hitter in the lineup. There are holes, to be sure, but even then, Jim Leyland has options. He might start Magglio Ordonez, hoping to take advantage of a recent hot streak. But he can mix and match with Andy Dirks and Don Kelly. Ryan Raburn is a lefty-destroyer who can play multiple positions.
Where the Tigers trot out relative unknowns who can mash, the Yankees feature a cavalcade of All-Stars and Hall of Famers … several of whom are either well past their prime or producing less than you’d expect. A-Rod has battled multiple injuries and the expected regression with age; ditto Jeter sans injuries; Teixeira had a pretty pedestrian season for someone who blasted 39 homers; Posada is better than his full-year numbers indicate since he’ll be platooned from his superior left side, but he’s not the impact hitter he once was. Granted, Granderson is a top-10 (maybe top-five) MVP candidate, and Cano’s a beast from a middle infield slot. But this team can be pitched to, if you have the right arms to do it. Fortunately for the Tigers …
… they match up even better with their starting rotation. The gap between Verlander and Sabathia isn’t as large as you might imagine given the two pitchers’ win totals, but Verlander is still as dominant an ace as you could hope to have for the playoffs. But the real difference-maker is the steal at the trade deadline, Doug Fister. I was wrong, wrong, wrong about Fister, attributing his moderate success to pitching in Safeco Field in front of a defense that, at least before this season, graded out well. Even the biggest Fister backers couldn’t have anticipated his Detroit breakout, though: 1.79 ERA, 2.41 FIP, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 11-to-1 and just four homers allowed in 70 innings for the Motor City Kitties (vs. far more modest numbers in Seattle). If the Tigers are willing to start Verlander on short rest, they could go with their ace in Games 1 and 4, and a fully rested Fister for Games 2 and 5. If they go that route, they cut pedestrian fourth starter Rick Porcello out of the equation and live with one outing for Max Scherzer, a hard-throwing righty with good stuff, but also a touch of gopheritis. Jim Leyland has said he won’t start Verlander on short rest, but Leyland’s always had a bit of poker player in him. Start his best two guys in every game but one and the Tigers start to look dangerous.
We’ve mentioned Sabathia’s excellence — it’s funny to have a 6-foot-7, 300-pound pitcher making $161 million pitching for the Yankees be overlooked, but that’s been his plight this year. One reason we could see Verlander go on short rest in Game 4 is that Joe Girardi has already tipped his hand, tapping his ace to make that start. That leaves Ivan Nova as the ticketed starter for Game 2 and a potential Game 5, and Freddy Garcia for Game 3, both terribly unlikely scenarios just a few months ago. Nova has been a poster child for a pitcher outperforming his peripherals all year long, with a strikeout rate just a tick over 5.0 per 9 innings and more than 3 walks per 9 IP. But he’s also a legitimate worm-burner, posting a ground-ball rate of nearly 53 percent, helping him keep his homers down in a park that can destroy righties with the short porch in right-center. Garcia’s been a pleasant surprise all year long, and asking him to pitch into the sixth and keep the Yankees in the game is a reasonable goal.
The Yankees rank seventh in team defense this season, thanks almost entirely to Brett Gardner, who’s saved an amazing 26 runs more than the average left fielder, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. The Tigers are considerably weaker with the glove, especially if you’re skeptical of Jhonny Peralta’s out-of-nowhere strong defensive numbers this season.
Jose Valverde’s Saves Streak Of Glory notwithstanding, the back of the Yankees bullpen beats Detroit’s, given that Mariano Rivera is a never-aging creature from Planet Gorgulon and David Robertson has been ostensibly unhittable all year, slapping up an absurd 13.5 strikeouts per 9 innings. As is the case with most teams, the Yankees’ middle relief can be had, putting the onus on Detroit’s hitters to knock Nova and Garcia out of the box early and face the likes of Rafael Soriano, Cory Wade, and Boone Logan, all capable pitchers but below elite level.
One potential late-game matchup to watch involves Andruw Jones and Phil Coke. Jones has been a terror versus lefties, hitting .286/.384/.540 against them this season. He probably won’t start any games this series with the Tigers’ top four made up entirely of right-handers. But if Leyland brings in Coke to face, say, Posada or Gardner in a high-leverage situation, Joe Girardi could play a major trump card.
Also, worth watching: How the Yankees’ home run porch in right-center plays out for the Tigers. Though Detroit’s offense has been underrated, the Tigers get most of their production from the right side. This could create a disadvantage, given how easily Granderson, Cano, and Teixeira can clear the wall on any given night.
Though the Yankees bring their usual Yankees aura into this series, the reality is these teams are more evenly matched than their reputations might suggest. The biggest variable here could be Leyland’s willingness to start Verlander on short rest, giving his top guys a potential four out of five starts, same as the Yankees. Verlander and Fister have been on fire throughout the second half, and have given the Tigers a marked advantage, one that could carry them to victory. We’re betting on Leyland to do the right thing, put his best guys out there, and steal what might be considered a minor upset. Tigers in 5.
TAMPA BAY RAYS VS. TEXAS RANGERS
Lineups (via MLBDepthCharts.com, baseball-reference.com, and a sprinkling of educated guesses)
That Rays lineup is written in the lightest of pencils, and is a best guess at a lineup versus lefties rather than righties. The Rangers figure to start three left-handers, with Colby Lewis the only projected righty. A year ago, that would have been a problem: The Rays struggled so badly against lefties in 2011 that they started the oft-injured Rocco Baldelli, who managed just 25 plate appearances all year and retired at the end of the season, in Game 1 of the ALDS. This year, they fared better against southpaws (.749 OPS) than against right-handers (.714 OPS), with Sean Rodriguez in particular hitting like an All-Star against lefties and like a pitcher vs. righties. Matt Joyce is a wild card here, normally doomed to ride the bench against lefties but a possible starter unless Joe Maddon gifts playing time to replacement-level utility man Elliot Johnson. Desmond Jennings has gone ice-cold after a torrid start to his rookie season, posting an ugly .504 OPS in September after delivering a scorching 1.026 mark in August. Meanwhile, Wednesday-night hero Evan Longoria has been unconscious lately, hitting .289/.454/.589 in September and clubbing 17 homers in the past two months. Look for the Rays to platoon, take extra bases whenever possible, and do anything else they can to scratch out runs with their fairly limited offense.
The Rangers have enough speed to get aggressive on the basepaths too, but they’re also loaded with power, and could present a fierce challenge to the Rays’ top starters. Texas destroys lefties and righties pretty equally, but the hordes of big righty bats (Beltre, Napoli, Kinsler, Cruz, Kinsler) will force Tampa Bay’s two lefty starters (more on that in a minute) to get creative and possibly throw more changeups than usual. Beltre has been out of his mind since coming back from injury: He was named AL Player of Month for September, hitting .374 with 12 homers in 24 games. With Beltre and Cruz back to full strength, this is probably the fiercest and deepest lineup in the league.
Say this for Joe Maddon: He’s got big freaking balls. No Game 1 playoff pitcher has ever thrown as few starts (one) or innings (9.1) as the guy the Rays are trotting out to start the ALDS, Matt Moore. The small sample of results has been impressive, with Moore fanning 15 and walking just three over that stretch, flashing the incredible swing-and-miss stuff that made him many people’s top minor league pitching prospect at midseason. He’s a high-variance pick, someone with a far shorter track record than Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann, the two starters who’d be fully rested for a Game 1 assignment. But the Rays just pulled off the biggest September comeback in baseball history, and they have a 22-year-old pitcher who probably has better raw stuff than all but a handful of pitchers on the planet … so what the hell, let it ride. James Shields will be the best Game 2 starter this side of Cliff Lee in the playoffs, having racked up more complete games than any AL pitcher in more than a decade. David Price got lit up by the Yankees in Wednesday’s clinching game, but he’s been very good for most of the year, his losing record a function of criminally bad run support. Hellickson is another rookie, but also a very worthy fourth starter. If the Rays are going to make a run this year, they’ll need their starting pitching and defense to continue the great performance they’ve flashed all year long.
The Rangers lack the name recognition that the Rays enjoy in their rotation, but Texas’ starters have been very effective in their own right. Playing in a pitcher’s hellhole in Arlington instead of at the very forgiving Tropicana Field, they got 128 mostly solid starts from their top four. C.J. Wilson played second banana to Cliff Lee last year, then emerged as a true ace this year, ranking among the league-leading starters in Wins Above Replacement (fourth) and FIP (eighth) while hiking his strikeouts and chopping his walk total. The fortified Rangers bullpen also takes pressure off Texas’ starters: Get through six innings, especially with the frequent days off that the playoffs provide, and you’re set with the back of that bullpen. The Rangers might be known for their fearsome lineup, but their steady improvement in run prevention is what has elevated this team to elite status.
The Rays rank second in team defense this season by UZR, the Rangers sixth. Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria are usually the two best defensive third basemen in the league, and Ian Kinsler and Ben Zobrist also rank near the top of the league at second (in Zobrist’s case, right field, too). Throw in both teams’ ability to steal (the Rays lead the AL in steals, while the Rangers rank fourth) and run the bases and you’ll likely hear multiple references to throwback baseball, baseball played the right way, and other tropes that announcers enjoy using.
Aside from the Tigers’ getting Fister and the Phillies’ snagging Hunter Pence, you could argue that the Rangers’ landing Koji Uehara and Mike Adams to shore up the seventh and eighth innings was the biggest upgrade made by any team at the deadline. Those moves should also save Ron Washington from himself: Time and again in last year’s playoffs, Washington hewed to the closer orthodoxy that plagues MLB managers, choosing to use his far less talented setup men in the highest-leverage situations while keeping dynamite closer Neftali Feliz on ice. No such problems this year, with Feliz free to focus on closing while two pitchers who’ve outperformed him this year get to do the dirty work. The Rays’ eighth- and ninth-inning guys were signed for just more than $4 million combined this offseason, and Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth have excelled at their new roles. If Farnsworth’s elbow starts barking again the way it did earlier this month, the Rays now trust young, hard throwers like Jake McGee and Brandon Gomes to come through in tight spots, leaving Peralta to close if necessary. Tampa Bay still can’t match Texas for bullpen dominance, but they won’t get hurt by their relievers either, the way many expected after the Rays lost their top six ‘pen men from last year to trades and free agency.
If you’re looking for a deep sleeper of an equalizer, try Joe Maddon. His decision to start Moore is aggressive and bold enough already. But with the help of a cadre of talented analysts and scouts, Maddon also plays matchups to a T, be they lefty-righty or ground-ball-fly-ball. He’ll shift against hitters with heavy ground-ball pull tendencies, platoon and pinch-hit to squeeze every last drop out of a spotty lineup, and coax his team to wins it might not otherwise get. If there’s any justice, Maddon will win AL Manager of the Year. If there’s any hope for the Rays, their skipper and his advisers will need to steal a few advantages to make up for the talent gap between the two clubs.
We know all about the Rays’ ability to find that Extra 2% advantage — the past three weeks demonstrated that over and over again. But unlike last year, when Tampa Bay matched up well with Texas in every facet except in the Cliff Lee department, this year’s Rays team has been forced to pull out miracles with a payroll $30 million smaller than it was in 2010, culminating with a comeback that the New York Times‘ Nate Silver labeled a 278 million-to-one shot. The Cinderella ride ends here for the Rays, as Texas marches on in its quest for a second straight AL pennant. Rangers in 4.
To read Rany Jazayerli’s look at the NLDS matchups, click here.
Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.
Previously from Jonah Keri:
Can the Rays’ Surge Top the Red Sox Collapse?
How Television Could Launch a Rangers Dynasty
How Do the Angels Keep Winning?
The Road Map for a Cubs Resurgence
Six Teams You Don’t Want to Face in the Playoffs
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