Tuesday, October 2, 2007

ALDS Preview: Pitching

96 versus 0-6: that’s what most of the shallow analysis surrounding the ALDS seems to stem from. I’ve heard Cleveland referred to as the “other team” multiple times, as if they aren’t even worthy to play the mighty Yanks. Six games do not define a team. It seems like other fans and the media always focus on certain points (especially that season series) when comparing New York and Cleveland, but many are just not represented accurately.

I keep hearing about New York’s overwhelming offense, veteran pitching, playoff experience, and that old Yankee mystique. Is Cleveland really the underdog here? Hometown bias aside, I just don’t buy the Tribe being outmatched here. To try and answer this question, I’ve broken down each team and re-examined aspects of the season series.

Starting Pitching

New York’s calling card this season has been its offense, but the pitching staff should not be overlooked. Fans tend to hype up the playoff experience of New York’s starting rotation, but their true ace, Wang, has seen only three seasons. The Yanks’ trio of Clemens, Pettite, and Mussina has playoff experience to spare, but are not as nearly as dominant as they once were. A rotation with those guys would be downright horrifying…three years ago. Whether or not these guys have enough left in the tank to significantly elevate their game for the postseason (quite possible) remains to be seen, but they are certainly mortal.

I don’t believe it’s been decided yet, but I think Mike Mussina will get the nod over Phil Hughes, so he’s included in the table. I’m basing this partly on the experience of Mussina and on the logic Joe Torre may use in managing his rookie phenom. Expect Hughes to fill in for long relief if Clemens or Mussina can’t make it deep into a game.

What I wanted to know was how the style of New York’s four starters was reflected in their season stats. I pulled some fancier stats this time to try and figure out how each pitcher would be attacking the Tribe. You can get a good sense of how each pitcher operates and where they’ve had success. I’ve also included Cleveland’s rotation as a more familiar benchmark for comparison.

Wang 199.3 2.75 4.91 1.29 2.36 4.9 2.8 .42 3.5
Clemens 99 3.29 5.17 1.31 1.27 6.3 2.9 .83 3.8
Pettitte 210.3 4.17 3.47 1.42 1.50 6.1 2.9 .61 3.7
Mussina 152 4.88 5.48 1.46 1.16 5.4 2.1 .82 3.7

Sabathia 241 3.13 3.32 1.14 1.28 8.3 1.5 .79 3.7
Carmona 215 3.36 2.73 1.20 2.88 6 2.7 .70 3.6
Westbrook 145.7 3.94 4.83 1.40 1.92 5.5 3.4 .81 3.8
Byrd 192.3 5.68 3.51 1.38 .87 4.1 1.3 1.25 3.4

Note: GO/FO = groundout / flyout ratio; P/PA = pitches per plate appearance. All stats taken from BR and THT.

How do the rotations stack up? I was a little surprised at how similar some of these numbers turned out to be. NY tends to walk batters more (2.67/G) than Cleveland (2.25), but this is not necessarily a big advantage if you remember how Byrd’s outings tend to go. Byrd may not walk many, but the number of hits and homeruns he surrenders make his walk totals somewhat deceiving. Cleveland also has more power in their rotation, striking out 5.97 per game, while NY strikes out 5.67 per game. Again, there’s a catch; Carmona and Westbrook strikeout their share of batters, but don’t need a high K rate to be successful. Carmona and Westbrook can stifle bats with the groundball and double-play just as effectively.

I realize data from a large, 162 game sample size may not translate well (if at all) into a condensed, five game series. Despite this, you can’t just ignore the ERA splits. I believe New York’s rotation will fall as Wang, Pettitte, Clemens, Mussina, which would nullify the ugly splits for Pettitte and Clemens. As the ace though, Wang could end up pitching in Games 1 and 5 (if necessary), which means his 4.91 road ERA could end up working against him. With Sabathia on the mound and his 3.13 home ERA, this should make for an intriguing match-up.

The thing that really puts Cleveland’s rotation a giant step ahead of New York’s is how their top two pitchers compare. Cleveland’s two aces (Sabathia and Carmona) are significantly better than New York’s (Wang and Clemens) no matter how you split it. It’s kind of obvious, but I believe the potential of facing Sabathia and Carmona four times in a five game series is huge. Granted, Sabathia would be throwing on three days rest in a potential Game 4, but if Cleveland has their backs against the wall such a gamble could be what turns the tide in their favor.

Filling out the rotations, Pettitte and Westbrook are comparable, but Pettitte definitely gets the edge on paper. Byrd wins the stat war with Mussina, but Mussina is an interesting case. Mussina’s problem of late has been consistency; he’ll throw a quality start one week and get burned the next. Considering the Tribe would only see Mussina once, he could be a wild card in that match-up. Not to say Byrd couldn’t pull a quality start out of his hat, but we tend to know what’s coming with Byrd; he’s been consistently average.

Overall, the rotations are a closer match then anticipated, but Cleveland’s 1-2 punch is just too much to handle in a short series.


I wasn’t sure how deep I should go into the bullpens given my limited knowledge of how NY actually manages theirs. What I do know are the questions facing each bullpen going into the playoffs.

How will each team deal with middle relief if a starter falters?

Cleveland has one good and one dominant arm in Jensen Lewis and Rafael Perez. Both are capable of going multiple innings in a pinch, with Perez splitting most of his time backing up Betancourt in the 7th and 8th innings. I don’t see Perez straying from the last three innings, so look for Lewis or even Fultz to take the 6th. Lewis essentially earned his playoff roster spot after posting a .69 ERA with 15 K in (*small sample size alert*) 13 IP. Cleveland’s long relief corp rounds out with Aaron Laffey, who should see most of his time in emergency relief where the starter can’t go 6 innings.

New York’s middle relief is a bit murky, but I’d bet money that Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes win the role on the playoff roster. Both are starters by trade and provide a strong safety net for the likes of Clemens and Mussina, neither of which is guaranteed to make it through five innings. Kennedy has just three starts (against sub-.500 teams), while Hughes sports a 2.73 ERA in 5 September starts. Despite the undefined roles of many of New York’s relievers, they have plenty of viable options in middle relief.

How will the kids handle the pressure of the playoffs?

This is the keystone for each bullpen, in my opinion. Raffy Perez and Joba Chamberlain have played crucial roles for their respective teams to this point. Both have experience pitching in tough situations and throw some of the nastiest stuff in either pen. Perez’s experience in these tough games significantly outnumbers Chamberlain’s, but the playoffs are a whole other degree of pressure to some guys. I honestly can’t say how either will react to pitching in the postseason, but it could end up as a decisive pitching match-up for the series.

What will Borowski do?

Save games, of course. Moving on…

That’s all for now, but I’ll check out the offense in Part II of my ALDS preview tomorrow.

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