Note: Given the fact that a hurricane is expected to hit much of the east coast this weekend, bear in mind than at least one if not more of these games is likely to be washed out, so the probable pitchers, game times and even dates on which these games will be played on are likely to change.
Oh, to be Buck Showalter. We’ve already covered the myriad ways in which this has been a disappointing season for the O’s and their skipper, so no need to rehash all that here. All you need to know as the Yankees and Orioles embark on a five-game set this weekend (the Yankees’ first five-game set since the still-unbelievable Boston Massacre at Fenway Park back in August 2006) at Camden Yards is that the Orioles have gone 8-14 since dropping three of four at Yankee Stadium last month (and are 1-9 against the Yankees this year), though it’s not for lack of hitting. The O’s have played mostly played to their season wOBA of .318 in August, hitting to a .320 wOBA on the month. Once again pitching continues to be the culprit, as Baltimore’s pitchers have put up a 4.58 ERA/4.20 FIP/4.23 xFIP during August, a bit better than what they’ve been on the season (4.84/4.55/4.25).
On offense the Orioles are Adam Jones (121 wRC+), J.J. Hardy (121) and Mark Reynolds (114). Nick Markakis (102) and Matt Wieters (103) are barely above-average. Wieters (214) in particular has been laser-hot over the last two weeks.
Of course, the Yankees, coming off their biggest win in years, have put together their most insane offensive month in quite some time — their current wOBA of .395 (150 wRC+) is their best since July 2007, when they also put up a .395 (142 wRC+). They’re unlikely to finish the month out that high, but wow. Nearly everyone has been absolutely raking over the last two weeks, with nearly every member of the everyday lineup above a 131 wRC+ during that time period save Brett Gardner and Alex Rodriguez.
The O’s have also imported a couple of familiar faces since they last saw the Yankees, trading for former Ranger Tommy Hunter and former Blue Jay and soft-tossing lefty Jo-Jo Reyes, to take the places of the injured Jake Arrieta and demoted Chris Tillman. Both men have pitched pretty poorly since joining the O’s, and the Yankees have shown in the past that they can handle both hurlers well (they last saw Hunter in Game 4 of the ALCS, while they’ve hung 12 runs on Reyes across 8.1 innings this season). Unfortunately for the O’s, Brian Matusz has been rocked pretty hard since returning from AAA, while fellow rookie hurler Zach Britton was of course utterly annihilated last month at Yankee Stadium and still appears to have yet to find himself.
The Orioles also don’t have a single starter with positive run values on their fastball, which is a major problem for them considering they are playing five games against the best fastball-hitting team in the Majors.
Probable Pitching Match-Ups
In tonight’s opener, everyone’s favorite Yankee A.J. Burnett faces Tommy Hunter, in a rematch of the aforementioned Game 4. Hunter’s taken a step backwards after a semi-solid 2010 campaign, seeing his ERA increase by more than a run, though his FIP has actually gone done by more than a run. This is due to the fact that Hunter has somehow managed to slice both a full home run and walk off his peripherals, as his HR/9 has fallen from 1.48 per nine last season to 0.45 and BB/9 from 2.32 to 1.35. However, Hunter also strikes out no one, with a comically low 3.60 K/9 (and it’s shrunk even further to 2.28 since he’s donned an Orioles uniform). As you might expect with someone who pitches to contact, he has an above-average BABIP and weak strand rate. The one thing that might keep Hunter in the game is the fact that he throws a cutter 28% of the time — it’s his only above-average pitch — and the cutter’s given the Yankees more trouble than any other pitch this season (-6.5 runs above average). Of course, assuming the Yankees can get to Hunter without too much trouble they’ll probably have to score at least 10 runs considering A.J. Burnett is pitching.
Tomorrow afternoon’s first game (1:05pm start time) has Ivan Nova toeing the rubber against Brian Matusz. Despite the fact that the Yankees have played the Orioles a zillion times this season Nova’s only faced them once, in a great start that looked like it was going to get out of control early and that he recovered from to post 7 innings of two-run ball. Nova seems to be gaining some momentum as a possible Game 2 starter in the playoffs, which is not something I ever would’ve thought would happen prior to the season, but it’s getting harder and harder to argue with the results. Matusz is a classic Yankee-killing lefthanded slop artist (avg. fastball velo. 87.4mph), in the midst of a rough go of it after a breakout 2010 campaign, and so hopefully the Yankees get the crappy 2011 version of Matusz and not the one from last season who performed quite well against them (8 ER in 24 2/3 innings).
Tomorrow evening’s game 2 (7:05pm start time) sees Freddy Garcia making his return to the rotation against Zach Britton. Chances are the Yankees won’t be dropping 6 ER in 1/3 of an inning on Britton this time around, although he’s the most fastball-heavy (72%) starter on the team, which probably doesn’t bode all that well. Freddy shouldn’t have too much trouble with the O’s lineup, although it’ll be interesting to see how crisp he’ll be after missing a couple of turns.
Sunday afternoon’s (1:35pm) contest features Bartolo Colon versus Alfredo Simon, who’s actually been one of Baltimore’s better pitchers this season and is easily the toughest assignment of the weekend. Simon actually has one career start against the Yanks, throwing five innings of four-run ball on April 7, 2009, in a loss. He doesn’t strike many out and has a below-average home-run rate, though his relative lack of walks has kept his FIP just under 4.00. Simon has a blazing fastball (avg. velo. 95mph) of both the four- and two-seam variety, as well as a splitter that he throws to lefties far more often than righties, a slider (though Fangraphs has his slider as a curveball) and a cutter. The fastball speed reminds me of the recently-faced Felipe Paulino, although Paulino’s secondary pitches were of the offspeed variety, whereas Simon doesn’t appear to mix speeds as much, depending on whether you believe Joe Lefkowitz’s pitch classifications or Fangraphs’. Colon’s been serviceable but far from the dominant pitcher Yankee fans were spoiled with during the first half, but again, he’s fared well against the O’s, and hopefully he’ll bring back the two-seamer to keep hitters honest.
And the Monday evening (7:05pm) finale sees CC Sabathia opposing Jo-Jo Reyes. Reyes stinks; there’s just no way around it. Surely the O’s have someone in their system who can do better than a 5.44 ERA/4.95 FIP/4.62 xFIP with a below-average K rate and a severe home-run problem (1.36 per nine). Reyes — whose “fastball” average 89mph and who also throws a high-70s change, mid-70s curve and mid-80s slider, doesn’t even get groundballs (40%). Fittingly, Reyes gets to face the Yankees’ best pitcher. This one almost seems too good to be true, and so it probably is.
In any event, calling a five-game series is likely an effort in futility, but on paper the Yankees really shouldn’t lose a single game. They’re just way, way better than the Orioles. But we all know baseball works in mysterious ways, and the likelihood of any one team sweeping another in five games is probably pretty slim, and so the Orioles will undoubtedly pick up at least one this weekend, and maybe even two. But that’s it — the Yankees will almost certainly win at least three of this five-game set.