Yankee Desperation and the Everything Game

They can pretend otherwise, but the Yankees are desperate. The continuation of their season depends on winning a single game, and, fate being what it is, they’ll have to do it against the best pitcher in baseball.

On the final day of the regular season, this Yankee fan prayed for a Texas loss. If the Rangers fell to the Angels, it would put them in a tie with Detroit, and the Yankees would play Texas in the first round by virtue of the tiebreaker. Instead, the Rangers scored two runs in the top of the ninth and beat the Angels in a game that was largely ignored amid the chaotic collapses of the Red Sox and Braves. It meant the Yankees got Detroit and Justin Verlander. Disaster.

In last week’s post about valuing the regular season, I mentioned the following stats:

1. In the 66 playoff series (not including the World Series) since 2000, the team with homefield advantage is 32-34.

2. In the same sample, the team with the superior regular season record is 31-31-4, with the four coming when two teams with the exact same record met.

That won’t stop the experts from using home-field advantage and regular season wins to justify their predictions, but it proves that neither factor makes a lick of difference in the playoffs. Anyone who picked the Yankees to beat Detroit on those merits (and there were plenty) was misguided, and I’ve witnessed enough Yankee playoff losses over the last decade to feel pessimistic.

After I confronted my friend Craig with those numbers, he spent the day trying to find a correlation for playoff success. He finally hit paydirt when he looked at the ERA+ (a stat that adjusts ERA to ballpark conditions, with a score of 100 considered average) of a team’s top three starters and top three relievers. The team with the superior stats in those categories won 63 of 77 series (including the World Series) since 2000, a correlation of 82 percent. The study was informal and pretty imperfect — it should be weighted to starters, who throw more innings — but in general it tells us what we already knew; pitching wins championships, and the dregs of a team’s staff matter less in the playoffs.

It was unwelcome news for the Yankees. Here were the probable starters for each of the first four games, with ERA+ in parentheses.

Game 1: Justin Verlander (170) vs. CC Sabathia (147)
Game 2: Doug Fister (139) vs. Ivan Nova (119)
Game 3: Max Scherzer (92) vs. Freddy Garcia (122)
Game 4: Rick Porcello (86) vs. A.J. Burnett (86)

If the Game 1 match-up repeated for Game 5, that gave the Yanks a pitching advantage in just one game. In the bullpen, on the other hand, the Yankees fared better:

Detroit:

Jose Valverde (183)
Joaquin Benoit (139)
Phil Coke (92)

New York:

Mariano River (232)
David Robertson (410)
Rafael Soriano (108)

But starting pitching matters more, and the weight of the numbers favored Detroit. With that in mind, Game 1 was the “Everything Game.” If Sabathia couldn’t steal one from Verlander, and the Yanks went down 1-0, there was very little chance of a comeback. Ivan Nova had an incredible second half, but I didn’t know if someone so young could be counted on in the playoffs (I was wrong), and I had no faith in Freddy Garcia to win in Game 3 (I was half-right). Then the Yanks would be stuck with Burnett in Game 4, or forced to bring Sabathia back early. Either scenario favored Detroit, who could withhold Verlander for a potential Game 5.

Then the rain washed it all out. With the teams tied at 1-1 after two innings on Friday’s, the weather intervened to stop play for the night. That meant both Sabathia and Verlander had their starts deferred until Game 3. The pundits found themselves divided as to who this new development favored. The remainder of the weekend didn’t provide a clear answer, as Nova out-dueled Fister and won the resumption of Game 1 and Max Scherzer evened the series for Detroit against Garcia in yesterday’s Game 2.

I think the small advantage goes to the Yankees. By erasing Verlander Friday, the rain ensured that he could only start one game. And make no mistake; Verlander is the highest-caliber weapon in the series. Sure, Sabathia is also gone, but he’s a lesser light, and the new Game 5 match-up is Nova vs. Fister, a game the Yankees already won.

But mostly, I think it’s irrelevant. I still think Game 1 is the Everything Game, only now it’s happening in Game 3. If Detroit wins, the Yankees will have to count on the perpetually unreliable AJ Burnett to win a game on the road. That sounds suspiciously like a season-ender. If the Yanks win, on the other hand, Ivan Nova will pitch in Game Five at home regardless of Burnett’s latest implosion.

There’s also the case of the disappearing bats. Max Scherzer made 33 starts in the regular season, and the fewest hits he gave up in a game were four. Again, that was his lowest total. Yesterday, pitching against the best offense in baseball in their house, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and left the game with just two hits conceded.

This, too, is becoming a common Yankee phenomenon. Aside from his brilliance during the 2009 World Series run, A-Rod has been a postseason albatross for the Yankees, and he’s already 0-8 this year. Mark Teixeira, who was part of the choke alert issued last week and might be the worst pressure performer in baseball, came into the series batting .170 as a Yankee in the postseason. He’s 1-7 thus far. In fact, Robbie Cano and Jorge Posada are the only Yankees hitting the ball consistently hard in the first two games, a situation that doesn’t seem to fit with a team that scored 867 runs in the regular season. And it certainly doesn’t bode well with Verlander on the near horizon.

But that’s playoff baseball. Stud pitchers win games, and Detroit has a distinct advantage. To be fair, the Yankees knew this coming into the season, which is why they tried everything possible to land Cliff Lee. But that failure puts them on the brink of another. Forget the records, forget homefield, and forget offense. Whether the experts realized it or not, the Tigers were always favorites. The best pitcher in baseball takes the mound tonight with a chance to prove the point, and it’s going to take an heroic effort from Sabathia to save the season. The Yankees might not know it yet, but it’s desperation time. This is the Everything Game.


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Filed Under: CC Sabathia, Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander, MLB, New York Yankees