Welcome to the fifth and final installment of TYA’s 2011 ALDS Series Preview (at least, final before the ALDS actually starts), in which we’ll be taking a look at a few specific factors that could influence how the series plays out. If you haven’t already done so, please see TYA’s previous playoff preview posts:
Keys for the Yankees in the ALDS
1) Get the bullpen a lead. For as pleasant a surprise as the rotation was for much of the year, the 2011 Yankees were also the beneficiaries of the best bullpen in baseball this season, leading the AL in ERA and all of MLB in strand rate, and boasting the third-best FIP and xFIP in the American League (behind only the Red Sox and White Sox). Much of the bullpen’s excellence was due to the emergence of David Robertson as perhaps the best relief pitcher in the game, complementing a just-as-excellent-as-ever Mariano Rivera to form a near-flawless 8th-9th inning endgame for the Yankees. Rafael Soriano finally began to look like the pitcher the Yankees
wasted spent $12 million a season for after he returned from the disabled list in early August, giving the Yankees one of the best 7th-8th-9th combos in the game. Additionally, Cory Wade and Boone Logan have provided strong work in middle relief, and even Luis Ayala proved to be far more serviceable than anyone could have expected. Rookie Hector Noesi managed to give length as both a mop-up and long man, and even latecomers Raul Valdes and Aaron Laffey managed to turn in representative work, though none of that trio made the ALDS roster. If all of those weapons weren’t enough, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett will all be available out of the ‘pen, and I’d expect Joe to either without hesitation should Freddy Garcia — or Ivan Nova for that matter — find himself in early trouble.
2) CC Sabathia. The Yankees will need to do everything they can to win Sabathia’s Game 1 outing. While an 0-1 deficit is far from insurmountable, Ivan Nova isn’t yet a lock to turn in a stellar Game 2 performance, and if Nova’s off his game the Yankees could find themselves in an unfortunate hole fairly quickly. The pitching has exceeded expectations all season, and I see no reason why that can’t continue to happen, but given the uncertainty behind Sabathia his start looms rather large.
3) Ivan Nova. Similarly, for as helpful as it would be for the Yankees to take the first game, winning Ivan Nova’s start in Game 2 is arguably even more important, as it will determine whether the Bombers take a commanding 2-0 lead, leave the Bronx with a split or find themselves heading to Detroit in an 0-2 hole. Only once in the Wild Card era have the Yankees lost the first two games of the ALDS at home (2001 against Oakland) — though they did rather incredibly go on to win that series — and it would be a tall order to expect the team to go into Comerica Park and win two straight to force a Game 5.
In a season full of surprises, Nova’s emergence as the second-most reliable starter in the Yankee rotation was perhaps the biggest, although for as strong a year as Nova ended up turning in (3.70 ERA/4.01 FIP/4.16 xFIP, 2.6 fWAR), the inability to finish hitters off with a strikeout (sub-6.00 K/9) leaves Nova eminently susceptible to the whims of the batted ball. While he displayed quite a knack for the grounder — and in fact posted the fifth-best GB% among AL Starters — evoking comparisons of Chien-Ming Wang, if those grounders start finding more holes Nova could find himself in trouble. Although to Nova’s credit, anecdotally he seemed to display an ability to really bear down in tight situations, and his numbers with runners on base would seem to bear this out.
I don’t think anyone truly knows what to expect from Ivan Nova in a Game 2 start in the playoffs, but he’ll be able to calm a lot of nerves if he can turn in something approximating a quality start.
4) Shake off the September rust and remember that they are one of the best offenses in baseball. A month after posting one of their best monthly wOBAs in years, the Yankee bats quietly went silent in September. Little was made of the Yankees’ month-long offensive malaise since they managed to keep winning and lock up the best record in the AL, although in fairness the numbers were a bit artificially depressed as Joe did whatever he could to ensure his veterans got the rest they needed. Still, the team’s September wOBA of .316 was their second-worst month out of the 66 months dating back to the beginning of the 2001 season, and their second-worst September heading into a postseason since 2001, when they wOBAed .303. Of course, they made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series that year, but also only hit .183 against the Diamondbacks across those seven games. As an additional point of comparison, the 2009 World Champion Yankees wOBAed .370 in September.
Despite the offense’s September swoon, the 2011 incarnation of the team is way better offensively than the 2001 version. Additionally, there also doesn’t seem to be any definitive correlation between the way a team performs in the final month of the season and how it fares in October, so it’s likely that any worrying about the offense is all for naught. Still, we’ve seen the bats fall into collective comas before (see American League Championship Series, 2010), and it’d be great to see a big offensive showing the first round to remind everyone what this team is capable of doing.
5) Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira. As Mike noted on Monday, Swish and Tex have more or less been offensive zeroes over the last two postseasons (Swisher: .234 wOBA in 2009; .306 in 2010; Tex: .271 in 2009, .240 in 2010), and these two heavy hitters are going to have to produce to complement Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, who have both been locked in all year and also carried the Yankees offensively in last year’s postseason.
6) Home field advantage. The Yankees once again played spectacular baseball at home in 2011, going 52-29 (which was actually the same home record they had last year; they went an insane 57-24 during their first season at the new ballpark) and tying Texas for best home record in the American League. Securing home field advantage through the first two rounds is always significant, and for the Yankees it seems to play a particularly important role, as no Yankees team has made it to the World Series as a Wild Card (though they’ve only been the WC thrice, in 1997, 2007 and 2010). Additionally, the Yankees have enjoyed home field advantage through the ALCS in five of their seven pennant-winning seasons since 1996 (they began the 2000 ALDS on the road against Oakland, and the 2001 ALCS kicked off in Seattle). They’re 9-3 in the postseason at New Yankee Stadium, and are 46-24 at home since 1996. I think it’s safe to say the Yankees like playing in the Bronx in October, and I’d expect the Yankees to continue their excellent postseason play at home, unless of course they wind up in an extra-inning game.
Keys for the Tigers in the ALDS
1) Return to Detroit with a split. If the Tigers can split the first two games a la 2006, they’ll negate the Yankees’ home field advantage and have a chance to wrap things up at Comerica, a place where the Yankees have played less-than-inspired baseball for much of that stadium’s existence (22-25 all-time record since the stadium opened in 2000, and more recently, 10-12 since the beginning of 2006 — not including losing both games they played at Detroit in the ’06 ALDS).
2) Justin Verlander. Much like the Yankees will try to do with Sabathia, the Tigers will need their ace to dominate the Yankees in Game 1, especially if Jim Leyland is being truthful about not wanting to bring Verlander back on short rest for a potential Game 4.
3) Non-Miguel Cabrera hitters. Cabrera is obviously a major key, but the Yankees are going to have to be ultra-careful with the way they pitch to the league’s most fearsome hitter, which will likely mean Victor Martinez and Alex Avila coming to the plate with numerous opportunities to drive a pitched-around Cabrera in.
4) Get the bullpen a lead. The Yankees and Tigers are mirror images of each other in many ways, and it’s no different at the very top of the bullpen pecking order, as Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Jose Valverde are just as nasty as the Yankees’ big three. The one bonus for the Yankees here may be that they won’t have to experience a Joel Zumaya-type coming out of the ‘pen and absolutely blowing them away with 100mph fastballs in a 2006 ALDS redux, though Alburquerque throws very hard. If Detroit’s starters can get their bullpen a lead in the 7th inning, it’ll likely be game over for the Yankees, who, in an unexpected about-face from many of the Yankee teams of the past decade, struggled to hit bullpens across the league all season (tOPS+ of 83 for Innings 7-9), and actually experienced five-year lows in their run-scoring totals for both the seventh inning and ninth inning.
Conclusion and Predictions
As has been made readily apparent by now, we have two extremely evenly matched teams in this ALDS. We all know that anything can happen in a five-game series , and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see either team sweep the other or the series go to a fifth game — something the Yankees haven’t had to experience since 2005.
Detroit seems to be the trendy pick for this series, which appears to be at least partially due to the perception that the Tigers finished their season in more emphatic fashion than the Yankees did. If the Yankee bats go silent and the pitching bombs, then we’ll likely be looking at the sequel to the 2010 ALCS.
However, if the Bombers play to their talent level, I believe they’re a slightly better team than Detroit — not to mention the fact that the 2011 Yankees have basically been outperforming expectations all season — and I think the Yankees will win the ALDS 3-1.
Here are some other staff predictions:
Steve Shaka: Yankees in five
Matt Warden: Yankees in five
Mike Jaggers-Radolf: Yankees in five
Matt Imbrogno: Yankees in five
Eric Schultz: Yankees in four
EJ Fagan: Yankees in three