Matchup to Watch: Prince Fielder vs Andy Pettitte
The Yankees getting extended to the limit by the Orioles pushes CC Sabathia back to either Game Three (on three days rest) or Game Four (on normal rest), but the Yankees still have an excellent left-handed starter lined up for Game One – Andy Pettitte. In fact, Pettitte was the toughest left-handed AL starting pitcher for left-handers to hit against this year , and Prince Fielder’s problems with lefties aren’t talked about enough. For his career, his .262/.344/.456 line against southpaws makes him just a decent hitter when a lefty is on the mound, and with Pettitte making two starts and potentially being available out of the bullpen in a potential Game 7, he’s going to see a lot the Yankees toughest LHP.
Yankees X-Factor: Eric Chavez
It seems likely that Alex Rodriguez’s benching was not a one game thing, and so Chavez is going to take over as the Yankees primary third baseman against right-handers. That makes the match-up against Detroit even more interesting, as their entire rotation is right-handed, so Chavez is going to play a large role in this series. If he produces anywhere near the level he did in the regular season — when he was worth +1.8 WAR in just 313 plate appearances — he can be a major factor, but his years of struggles prior to 2012 suggest that he might not be suited to an everyday role at age 34. Will Girardi be comfortable using Chavez every night? Can he perform without regular rest? These are not questions that we know the answer to, but might go a long way to determining the Yankees playoff future.
Tigers X-Factor: Doug Fister
With Justin Verlander slotted in for Game Three, Fister is going to take the ball to open the series and has a chance to establish himself as a true frontline pitcher. His breakout since coming to Detroit has gone a bit under the radar, but Fister was excellent for Detroit this season, posting an ERA that was 17 percent better than league average despite pitching in front of one of the league’s worst defenses. His transformation has come with the change from being a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower into a guy who can get strikeouts with both his change-up and his curve, and now Fister is one of the more underrated starters in baseball. The Yankees scored seven runs off of him in 9 2/3 innings in last year’s ALDS, but Fister’s a better pitcher now than he was then, and he’s going to have a big stage on which to show it.
Yankees Key Reliever: Boone Logan
As a team, the Tigers posted a 109 wRC+ (#3 in AL) against right-handed pitching but just a 96 wRC+ (#9 in AL) against left-handers, the largest platoon split of any team AL team. Logan didn’t get a ton of work in the ALDS, but he’s going to be called on quite often to neutralize Detroit’s left-handed thump. Logan is a good left-on-left reliever, but his command problems against right-handers makes him tough to use for more than one batter at a time.
Tigers Key Reliever: Jose Valverde
Valverde’s meltdown in Game Four of the ALDS didn’t help put to rest any concerns that Detroit had about their relief corps, and the Yankees are a nightmare of a match-up for Valverde. We chronicled his struggles against lefties in the ALDS preview, and the Yankees have a line-up that is heavy on left-handed power. Jim Leyland is unlikely to make a switch in his closer role at this point, but I wouldn’t trust Valverde to get Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher out. His ability to hold close leads against left-handers is almost certainly going to be tested, and could easily determine who advances to the World Series.
Yankees Key Bench Player: Alex Rodriguez
Even if Girardi gives him a start or two to keep him engaged, A-Rod’s biggest impact on the ALCS is likely to come as a pinch-hitter. He’s 0-14 in his career in that role, but Chavez and Ibanez both struggle mightily against left-handed pitching, and he’ll likely be called on to hit for either or both to counter a Phil Coke appearance. He might be the world’s most expensive pinch-hitter, but he’s also going to be Girardi’s best option off the bench, and could make a real difference in that role.
Tigers Key Bench Player: Does Not Exist
Jim Leyland has a starting nine, and barring a natural disaster or a return of the bubonic plague, those guys are going to win or lose the series for Detroit. Only two of the Tigers reserves — Avisail Garcia and Gerald Laird — even managed an official plate appearance in the first round, and both started because they’re part of the Tigers regular line-up against right-handers. Don Kelly ended up hitting a game-winning sac fly after being inserted as a pinch-runner earlier in Game Three, but that’s about the extent of bench usage that you’re likely to see from Detroit.
Most Important Stat: Tigers winning percentage when anyone but Justin Verlander starts – .511
The Tigers are a great team when Verlander starts and an average team when he doesn’t, but because he pitched in Game Five of the ALDS, the Tigers are going to have to rely on the rest of their roster to get them to the World Series. Verlander will only get two starts on normal rest if the series goes to seven games, so if they trail 3-2 headed into Game Six, they’ll have to choose between a short-rest Verlander or playing an elimination game without their ace on the mound. If the series goes seven, they’ve got a great chance to advance, but getting it that far while only getting one start from the game’s best pitcher is going to be a challenge.
Modest Proposal: Make Max Scherzer the closer.
Scherzer is an excellent starting pitcher, so this shouldn’t be seen as a demotion due to any issues with his performance. Instead, this would be an attempt to maximize his impact on the series. Scherzer’s slotted in to start game four, where he’ll likely be opposed by CC Sabathia, so there’s a decent chance the Tigers will lose that game no matter who pitches. By repurposing him as a dominating relief ace, the Tigers can likely get just as many innings out of Scherzer in relief as they could by giving him one start, and realign those innings to come in games that they have better chances of winning. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyley could each throw 2-3 innings in Game Four, gaining the platoon advantage early, so they wouldn’t be punting the game entirely, but would be doubling down on their opportunity to win the games when New York doesn’t have their ace on the hill.
Prediction: Yankees in six.