MLB Postseason Preview: Rangers vs. Yankees

New York Yankees (95-67) at Texas Rangers (90-72)

OVERVIEW

Fresh off the franchise’s first playoff series win, the Rangers take on the Yankees, who once again swept the Twins in the first round. Oddly, the Yankees’ sweep of the Twins may have been a closer—or at least more exciting—series than the Rangers-Rays five-gamer. The Yankees came from behind in each of the first two games (with Mariano Rivera of course saving both) before finishing the Twins off at home. The Rangers and Rays, meanwhile, played only one close game in five—a Game 3 win for the Rays. Two great starts from Cliff Lee and another from C.J. Wilson (combined for 2 ER in 22.1 IP) were enough to put the Rangers in their first ever ALCS.

THE LINEUPS

If you expected the Rangers’ lineup to be led by MVP-candidate Josh Hamilton and veterans Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Young (not that anyone would be foolish enough to think that), then you were probably surprised by the ALDS: Those three combined to hit .175 with only two extra-base hits. Of course, that does include Young’s three-run home run in Game 2, which came after a controversial checked swing call and essentially put the game out of reach, but the three were mostly quiet in the series. On the other hand, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler each hit over .400 with three home runs, while Elvis Andrus hit .333 and stole three bases, showcasing Texas’ offensive versatility.

The Yankees, though, had the best offense in the Majors during the season, scoring 72 more runs than the Rangers. They showed just how deep and effective they were against the Twins: Every hitter to appear in the series had at least two hits and one RBI. Particular standouts were Curtis Granderson, who was 5-for-11 including a big two-run triple in Game 1, and Nick Swisher, who was 4-for-12 with two doubles and a home run. If there was a weak spot in the lineup, it was probably Derek Jeter, whose .286 average in the series was better than his season average, but not exactly fear-inducing. Jeter, though, has great career numbers against the Rangers’ two frontline lefties (1.042 OPS vs. Wilson in 17 plate appearances, 1.071 vs. Lee in 41).

THE ROTATIONS

Speaking of those frontline lefties, the performances of Lee and Wilson were the brightest spots of the Rangers’ win over the Rays. While Lee’s dominance was nothing new, Wilson thrived in his first postseason start. And since Texas had to use Lee in Game 5 in Tampa Bay, meaning that he won’t be available until Game 3 of the ALCS (Lee has never pitched on short rest in his career), the Rangers will be relying on Wilson in Game 1. And while Wilson has been good this year, his propensity to throw a lot of pitches combined with the patience of the Yankees lineup (on September 10, Wilson threw the Yankees lineup 75 pitches in just three innings) means that the Rangers may have to rely on their middle-relief corps of Darren O’Day, Alexi Ogando, and Darren Oliver. Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter, who were less impressive in the ALDS, will likely start Games 2 and 4.

Going into the postseason, the Yankees’ rotation was perceived by some idiots to be CC Sabathia and a bunch of question marks. In fact, Sabathia was the worst of the three starters against the Twins. Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes each threw seven innings and allowed fewer earned runs and baserunners than Sabathia did in six, giving Yankee fans at least a little bit more confidence in the back of the rotation. There is still, of course, the specter of A.J. Burnett, who is slated to pitch Game 4 and liable to implode at any moment (Burnett actually hit a batter in a simulated game this week), but the Yankees can hopefully rely on their other three starters and limit the damage Burnett can do.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

TIM: First off, on Lee: Is it that big a deal he’s starting Game 3 instead of Game 1? I mean, he probably wasn’t going to pitch three times in the series anyway (b/c he doesn’t pitch on short rest and Hunter is a good enough fourth starter), and now Texas has a huge advantage in Games 3 and 7 (they’re close to locks in those two games, whereas it would have been closer to a tossup with Lee against Sabathia twice).

JOHN: The difference is this: He wouldn’t have started three times, but he almost certainly would have started twice. It’s true that the Rangers’ odds in a potential Game 7 go way up with Lee on the mound, but the odds of them getting to a Game 7 go way down with him only pitching once in the first six games. Of course, all of this changes depending on how the first two games go. If the Rangers win two or even one of the first two games, then having Lee available for two of last five is as big an advantage as you can have.

TIM: We’ve talked about the following strategy before, and I think Cincinnati actually used it in the NLDS: Why not match up one of your weakest pitchers with their strongest? We can jokingly say the Yankees should start Burnett against Lee because they’d lose anyway, knowing they can’t do this because of a potential Game 7. But if you’re Texas, why not throw Colby Lewis in Game 1 and save Wilson for Game 2, where he’d have the edge over Hughes? In this scenario, Texas arguably has the pitching edge in four games instead of two.

JOHN: I’ve always been a big fan of this strategy, and it works particularly well when you have someone like Edinson Volquez this season or Burnett last season—pitchers who are erratic but potentially brilliant. If Burnett pitches like he did in July (granted that’s extremely unlikely), then he can match even Lee’s best. The problem with this strategy is that I think it’s better in theory than in practice. For one, like a lot of over-managing, it’s an example of putting all your eggs in one basket: If Sabathia pitches poorly and the Yankees win anyway because they got to Lewis, or Hughes out-duels Wilson, then the plan has backfired. Perhaps more importantly, though, the plan involves intentionally lowering your odds of winning a game, which is something most managers are (understandably) reluctant to do, especially in the postseason.

TIM: After the Division Series (and I mean “series” plurally, as in all four), can’t we just come out and say home-field advantage in baseball means absolutely nothing? Or do you think Texas will finally win a home playoff game for the first time in franchise history?

JOHN: It’s not really that home-field advantage means “absolutely nothing”—as I said in the Division Series previews, every team plays better at home—but that other things in baseball, specifically the pitching match-ups, matter far more. In football and basketball, when the actual rosters of the team don’t change from day-to-day, home-field exerts more influence, but the difference between the Rangers on the road and the Rangers at home is obviously much less the difference between Cliff Lee and Tommy Hunter as your starting pitcher.

TIM: What do you, as a Yankees fan, take away from that series against the Twins, other than the fact that being a Twins fan must be largely depressing?

JOHN: Other than the performance of Kerry Wood, there wasn’t a lot to be concerned about as a Yankees fan in the Division Series (Sabathia didn’t pitch well, but he’s been so reliable that I’m not especially worried about him yet). As for the Twins, that must have been a rough series. It was pretty clear that neither Joe Mauer nor Jim Thome was completely healthy, and a lot of breaks, like the non-called strike on Lance Berkman, went against them.

TIM: How does the Yankees’ dominance of Minnesota compare to their dominance of the Rangers last decade?

JOHN: There are some similarities, including similar records (Texas was 1-9, Minnesota’s now 2-12) and the fact that both teams seemed like perennial winners of a weak division that stumbled against better competition. There are three key differences, though: The first is that the Twins have lost to other teams (the Angels in ’02, the As in ’06), so they don’t seem as singularly demonized as Texas, who only ever lost to the Yankees. Also, the Twins did get one series win this decade (the ’02 Division Series), so they didn’t seem quite as pathetic as the Rangers. Most important, though, is that the Rangers always seemed to lose to great teams: Every time the Yankees beat them, they won the World Series. Only once (so far) have the Yankees done that after beating the Twins.

TIM: When you think of the Rangers, do you think of them as being red, or do you think of them as being blue?

JOHN: I always think of them as red because that was the dominant color of the late-90s teams—they didn’t even wear blue then. Plus, there’s the whole George W. Bush/Red State connection. Don’t we have too many blue teams in sports anyway?

TIM: Since games in the season series have been so close, it seems reasonable to suspect that the bullpens will play a large role in this series. Who has the edge in the ‘pen?

JOHN: I’ve got a fair amount of confidence in the Yankees bullpen, which has been a big strength of the team since the All-Star break, but the Rangers’ bullpen has also been effective this season. The Two Darrens (O’Day and Oliver) have sub-2.50 ERAs, and Alexi Ogando has electric stuff. Most importantly, Neftali Feliz has been a great closer. He caught some flak for allowing the Rays to go up big in Game 3 of the ALDS, but the lead had already been blown when Ron Washington brought him into the game and I think that, along with being asked to pitch more than one inning, probably upset his rhythm. In the end, though, the Yankees have Rivera, so I think they get the edge.

TIM: Any concern over the Rangers’ success against Mariano Rivera?

JOHN: Lets be clear about this “success”: Only two hitters in the Rangers lineup have more than eight plate appearances against Rivera, and those two (Young and Guerrero) have combined for exactly one extra base hit against him. Rivera did lose twice in Texas this year, including a blown save on Sept. 11 when he hit Francoeur with the bases loaded, but that was the beginning of a brief hiccup—the first of three blown saves in six opportunities—in an otherwise stellar year. Ultimately, he’s Rivera and I’d trust him with a one-run lead against anyone.

TIM: How dare you talk about the Rangers’ lineup and not mention former Met standout, Jeff Francoeur and #frenchtober?

JOHN: Yeah, how could I forget him after he reached such a career milestone this season?

TIM: Are you scared more of Texas’ power bats — the Hamiltons and Vladys and Cruzes — or its speed and ability to manufacture runs, especially considering the Yankees’ main defensive weakness may be their pitchers’ covering first base?

JOHN: I know it’s a cop-out to say “both,” but with Texas you’re really talking about the same guys. Cruz stole 17 bases this year and Guerrero scored from second on a groundout in Game 5 of the Division Series, so they’re dangerous at the plate or on the bases. As for the Yankees “main defensive weakness,” it’s clearly their inability to throw out base-stealers, and while the Rangers aren’t as aggressive as the Rays, I’m sure they’ll find ways to take advantage of Posada and Cervelli behind the plate.

TIM: If I were to be less mutually exclusive and we were to consider both aspects of the Rangers’ offense, doesn’t that make Ian Kinsler their most dangerous player?

JOHN: Well, like I said, they have a lot of power hitters with above-average speed, not just Kinsler. At the same time, Kinsler’s three home runs scare me. The last thing this team needs is for its fourth-best hitter to get on a roll.

TIM: What do you expect from Josh Hamilton, and will Robinson Cano at least win the AL MVP in the court of public opinion in this series?

JOHN: It was hard to tell if Hamilton’s struggles in the Division Series were due more to his injury or to rust from missing most of the last month. As opposed to Mauer, who struck out at an extremely uncharacteristic rate, seemed to give away at-bats, and struggled in the field, Hamilton played like he usually does, only worse. I wouldn’t count on him hitting .111 again in the ALCS. With that said, Cano is great against Texas. He hits .360 at the Ballpark in Arlington and his career average against the Rangers staff—.304—is pretty great when you consider that 40% of those at-bats are against Lee. So while I don’t expect a bad series from Hamilton, I do expect a big one from Cano, to maybe swing popular opinion more in his favor.

TIM: Let’s play a little game. I’ll throw out a pitching line, and you tell me whether you’d take it from A.J. Burnett right now.

7 IP, 6 ER.

JOHN: This is probably the worst-case scenario: A line like this would mean that Burnett was mediocre, but not bad enough to get pulled early, so that he stuck around long enough to implode late in the game, presumably putting the Rangers ahead with very little time to come back.

6 IP, 6 ER.

JOHN: This is trickier, because a line like this might mean he struggled early but labored through to get six, saving some of the bullpen, and giving the Yankees four turns at bat to come back. Still though, 6 ER is too much to take.

6 IP, 5 ER.

JOHN: With one fewer run, though, I’ll take it.

5 IP, 5 ER.

JOHN: This line probably depends on the state of bullpen by Game 4. If any three of David Robertson, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, and Wood are well-rested, then I can deal with this (particularly since having Sabathia in Game 5 means you probably won’t need much middle relief then), but if this line means an inning or two of Sergio Mitre, then I’m worried.

5.1 IP, 3 ER, Bases Loaded, Your Choice of Dustin Moseley or Sergio Mitre.

JOHN: Wait, if it’s the sixth inning, why would we bring in Moseley or Mitre? I’d actually be fine with this, but I’d bring in Robertson or Logan, depending on who’s up.

5 IP, 4 ER.

JOHN: I’m pretty sure this counts as a Quality Start for A.J. I’d take it, but with similar reservations about the bullpen.

4+ IP, 2 ER, Runners on First and Second.

JOHN: This is close to what I’m expecting from Burnett, and I can’t tell if I’m being optimistic or pessimistic. This would mean Burnett didn’t lose the game for us, but it also means leaning very heavily on the bullpen. I’ll take it.

3 IP, 0 H, but 2 ER on a series of hit batsmen and wild pitches.

JOHN: This would be almost too entertaining to turn down.

1 IP, 0 ER, Leaves with Injury.

JOHN: Take it! I actually would rather Moseley start this game anyway, so if Burnett gives me a scoreless inning and hands the ball to Moseley, I’m fine with it.

TIM: Ballgame over, American League Championship Series over, ____ wins?

JOHN: Ah, the sweet sounds of John Sterling. I think the Yankees take the first two games, first in a low-scoring game behind CC and then by getting to Colby Lewis and giving Hughes his customary run-support. When the series comes back to New York, the advantage will swing back to Texas, with Lee presumably throwing a perfect game on one pitch or something, and A.J. Burnett getting knocked around. CC wins a pivotal Game 5 and the Yankees finish the series in six games, preventing Texas from getting its first home playoff win.

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