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Yankees, Tigers Make American League Feel Normal Again

Of the four teams that made it into the American League Division Series round, two were lovable underdogs, teams no one expected to get anywhere close to that far. Around spring training, the Orioles were projected to finish last in the AL East, as they are just about every year. The Athletics were projected to finish last or close to last in the AL West, well behind the elite-level Rangers and Angels. No one expected the Orioles or A’s to make any noise, so when they did, people got swept up, and they were two incredibly easy teams to root for in the first series round of the playoffs.

And both of them got eliminated, leaving us with the Yankees and the Tigers to fight over the AL pennant. The Tigers played in the ALCS as recently as 2011, and the Yankees played in the ALCS as recently as 2010, so something about this matchup doesn’t quite feel so fresh. Granted, the Tigers and the Yankees have faced their adversity, too. The Tigers were multiple games out of a playoff spot in the middle of September. The Yankees not only had to fight off the Orioles, but they also had to deal with major injuries to Mariano Rivera, Michael Pineda, and Andy Pettitte. It’s been an easy road for neither team, but because people long expected both the Yankees and the Tigers to make the playoffs, this matchup doesn’t feel as appealing as it could’ve been.

Not that the Yankees or the Tigers really care. The average baseball fan presumably would’ve preferred at least one of the Orioles and A’s, but they’re done now and there’s no use crying over spilled underdog baseball teams. The Yankees and the Tigers are what we have, you’re probably still going to pay attention, and it turns out these teams have a lot of really talented players on them! So let’s talk a little bit about what we’re going to see, and what we might see, maybe.

Here’s that disclaimer again about how this will be a short series, and anything can happen in a short series, and so on and so forth. The Wild Card game is one game. The first round is a best-of-five. The second round is a best-of-seven. That might lead one to believe that a best-of-seven is a rather long round, but statistically speaking, the samples are still tiny. This series will not conclusively reward the better team between the Yankees and the Tigers. Some weird players might step up and look like superstars. In five games against the Nationals, Daniel Descalso just batted .316 with two home runs. In five games against the Yankees, Nate McLouth just batted .318. Let’s not any of us make predictions, except that this series will last at least four baseball games, and no more than seven baseball games.

Here are some of the details of those four to seven baseball games:

Game Visitor Home Date Time (ET)
Game 1 Tigers Yankees 13-Oct 20:00
Game 2 Tigers Yankees 14-Oct 16:00
Game 3 Yankees Tigers 16-Oct 20:00
Game 4 Yankees Tigers 17-Oct 20:00
Game 5* Yankees Tigers 18-Oct 16:00
Game 6* Tigers Yankees 20-Oct 20:00
Game 7* Tigers Yankees 21-Oct 20:00

As you already knew, the series gets started right away Saturday evening. Now for some of the basics, like last time. The Yankees this season finished 95-67, with a +136 run differential that was the best in the American League. They got rid of the Orioles in the first round in five games. The Tigers finished 88-74, with a +56 run differential that was worse than Chicago’s. They got rid of the Athletics in the first round in five games. The Yankees posted a 113 wRC+ and a 92 ERA-, while the Tigers posted a 105 wRC+ and a 91 ERA-. Now, wRC+ is subject to imperfect park factors, so we don’t want to pretend like it’s super precise, but as is, the Yankees posted the highest wRC+ in all of baseball, a point ahead of the Angels and six points ahead of the Cardinals. The Tigers tied with the Rangers and the Brewers.

The Tigers’ ALCS rotation has already been announced, and it’ll go Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer, then Fister, Sanchez, and Verlander again if necessary. All that’s been announced on the Yankees’ end is that Andy Pettitte will start Game 1. Beyond that, Joe Girardi isn’t saying anything. One might speculate that after Pettitte will come Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia, and Phil Hughes. There’s a chance David Phelps could start Game 2 instead. Let’s operate under the assumption that we’ll see the first group of four. Then the Tigers’ four average out to a 3.39 ERA, 3.33 FIP, and 3.41 xFIP, while the Yankees’ four average out to a 3.45 ERA, 3.81 FIP, and 3.62 xFIP. Slight edge to the Tigers, which becomes a little less slight if you include Phelps. Turns out it’s good to have Justin Verlander on your team.

The Tigers’ rotation really is phenomenally underrated, possibly as a consequence of the team’s defense making it look worse than it is. It’s also possible that it isn’t underrated, and that the numbers were helped from having faced lesser competition, but just based on the statistics the Tigers’ starters look great as a unit. Everybody’s going to be rested, whereas for the Yankees, they’ll have to think about Sabathia on short rest, and Kuroda also on short rest. Another thing about the Tigers’ rotation is that it’s completely right-handed. This brings us to Alex Rodriguez.

Joe Girardi pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez, and then outright benching Alex Rodriguez, became a huge story that threatened to envelop the entire Division Series round. That subject isn’t going to go away, either, with the Tigers’ righties lining up. Now, this is significant, in that Rodriguez is a very highly-paid player who is exceptionally accomplished. Usually you don’t see a player like Alex Rodriguez sit on the bench come playoff time. But just based on the numbers, and leaving out emotion and psychology, it makes a lot of sense to sit A-Rod down. At least, it doesn’t not make sense. All you have to believe is that Eric Chavez is a better play against righties than Rodriguez is.

Regress all the numbers and you probably favor Rodriguez. It’s a question, then, of how much you regress. Chavez has historically been much better against righties than lefties. Rodriguez had a lot of trouble against righties this season. Additionally, Rodriguez missed some weeks with a fractured hand, returning in early September. Here is a split of some potential consequence:

Rodriguez, pre-DL: 76% contact
Rodriguez, post-DL: 67% contact

The samples are nearly 700 swings and nearly 300 swings, respectively. And on top of diminished contact frequency, Rodriguez has shown diminished contact quality, with less power since coming back to the team. Rodriguez might not be fully recovered, which makes sitting him even more sensible. An Alex Rodriguez who isn’t 100 percent is an Alex Rodriguez you don’t regress back to the mean.

One shouldn’t simply overreact to a playoff slump. Rodriguez was slumping in the ALDS, and Curtis Granderson was slumping in the ALDS, then in Game 5 Granderson came to life. But this slump for Rodriguez has been going on longer and so we’ll just see what Girardi does. Against righties, Chavez makes sense, and he’s probably the better play. Not by a huge degree, but by some degree. Good luck to Girardi trying to manage all this with grace, because starting his superstar third baseman might actually reduce the Yankees’ odds of winning.

Expect the Rodriguez situation to get more attention than it might warrant, probabilistically. It’ll get attention because it’s unusual. It won’t matter that the difference between Rodriguez and Chavez is still realistically pretty small. Come playoff time, the media is not about proportional coverage.

Changing gears, we saw Jose Valverde melt down against the A’s in the ALDS. The A’s specifically said afterward that they were hoping to get to Valverde with a bunch of lefties. Valverde this season posted a 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio against righties, which is fine, but he posted a 1.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties, allowing a .317 wOBA. Valverde had a similar split last year, too. His contact rate is climbing and now Valverde is something of a vulnerability. The potential is there for the Yankees to take advantage of Valverde being a strict closer, because the Yankees have a good number of lefties and switch-hitters. The most challenging thing for the Yankees will be getting through the Tigers’ quality starters. There’s a drop-off in the bullpen, and the closer’s hardly a classic closer at all. If Jose Valverde pitches with a lead in this series, then the door is still open.

Just for fun, and changing gears again, I decided to mess around with something I never really mess around with, by which I mean batter vs. pitcher splits. I think we can all agree that Justin Verlander turned into Justin Verlander! in 2009. Since 2009, Verlander has faced Ichiro 33 times. Ichiro’s come away with nine hits, zero walks, and a dozen strikeouts. Those strikeouts stood out to me because Ichiro does not strike out very often. Over those 33 plate appearances, Ichiro has swung 65 times at a Verlander pitch, and whiffed 14 times, for a 78-percent contact rate. That’s well below Ichiro’s average, and roughly even with Verlander’s average. I’m not saying I think there’s anything real meaningful in here, but if you’re going to look at batter vs. pitcher splits, you might as well get granular, since that’s where any signal probably lies. Seems like Ichiro has trouble hitting Justin Verlander. More than you might expect. Neat!

It will be interesting to have a Yankees vs. Tigers series that might only feature Sabathia and Verlander one time each, barring a Game 7. In the event of a Game 7, of course, that would be a potential pitcher’s duel for the ages, and the teams would have the right guys going with the highest possible leverage, but many series go four-to-six games so we’ll see a lot of the other pitchers. Detroit’s are good. New York’s are not bad. They’re almost just as good.

That should get you as prepared as you need to be. I don’t need to say anything about Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder because you know about them and they’re healthy. One might look at Fielder’s ALDS numbers and conclude that he’s slumping, but remember that in the same game he was robbed of both a home run and a double, so he’s actually fine. The Tigers’ lineup is more top-heavy while the Yankees’ lineup is more deep, and while the best of the Tigers is better than the best of the Yankees, the worst of the Yankees is better than the worst of the Tigers. The Yankees aren’t going to have much of a bench if Chavez starts and Rodriguez is below 100 percent, but the Tigers aren’t going to have much of a bench, either, and this is the American League. The benches probably won’t decide this series, although they could.

Most everybody probably wanted to see the Orioles, the A’s, or the Orioles and the A’s. That’s because, while people are afraid of change that affects their lives, they welcome change that doesn’t. The Orioles fell short and the A’s fell short, and in their places we have two other really good baseball teams, one of whom will shortly represent the AL in the World Series. Who’s that going to be? Haha, nice try, you almost got me. I don’t know! That’s who.