This morning, I talked with Butch Stearns over at the Pulse Network about the baseball goings on. We discussed the Terry Francona/Theo Epstein situation (comparing it to Brian Cashman/Joe Torre post-2007) and of course, the upcoming ALDS matchup between the Yankees and Tigers. Watch here and enjoy!
But, unlike many power pitchers, both pride themselves on pitching deep into games. They ranked second and third in the AL in innings per start in 2011 (behind James Shields). Each also commands a four-pitch arsenal that includes an A++ breaking ball. Verlander throw his curve relatively hard (79.3 MPH, #11 among MLB starters) and often (18.3%, #14). Sabathia also works in his slider frequently (21.3%, #19), but depends upon its incredible movement, rather than velocity (82.4 MPG, #56).
I hypothesize that one reason both pitchers have gained an even greater level of dominance in 2011 is the increased utility of their second breaking pitch. Sabathia came into the league in 2002 with a curveball. When he developed his slider under Carl Willis in Cleveland, he gave up the curve all together. In 2011, he’s brought it back, especially as a “get me over strike” against right-handed hitters. He doesn’t use it often (6.2%), but it adds another element of surprise that keeps hitters off balance.
Verlander, similarly, has been increasing his use of the slider (to 8.4% in 2011). He also throws it primarily to righties. Perhaps, more accurately, he throws it at righties, as he usually keeps it inside and off the plate. The pitch also works to further upset the hitters’ timing, as Verlander’s slider clocks at between 85 and 90 MPH, substantively faster than the curve, but significantly slower than his fastball.
While the Tigers have generally feasted on left-handed pitching this season (.783 OPS), C. C. is not just any lefty. Delmon Young, Ryan Raburn, and Ramon Santiago – all among the Tigers usual lefty-killers – have not had any such success against The Big Sleep. It may be an obvious gameplan, but Sabathia must avoid facing Miguel Cabrera in crucial situations. Miggy is 9-for-16 with 2 HR, 11 RBI, 4 BB, and only 3 K against C. C. on his career. Victor Martinez has has won a few battles (2 HR, .520 SLG), but C. C. is still winning the war (.296 OBP).
Brennan Boesch‘s injury and the ensuing Magglio Ordonez resurgence (.419/.444/.558 in September) is also worth noting, as Maggs has had modest success against C. C. (.822 OPS), although much of the damage was done when they were much younger and much different players.
From Verlander’s perspective, the greatest threats are Derek Jeter (.357/.455/.393) and Jorge Posada (.333/.462/.476). Posada had a double and a pair of RBI and Jeter had a pair of hits against Verlander in April, so these track records aren’t entirely out of date. Nick Swisher has 3 career HR off Verlander, but also 19 K and a .259 OBP.
The Yankees best assets may be Aura and Mystique. On his last two trips to the Stadium, Verlander caught a mild case of the yips, walking 9 in 11 innings. He only walked more than three batters in a start twice in 2011, both times against New York. On each occasion he had to be replaced after six innings, two of only eight starts in 2011 that he failed to get through seven. Patience could be the Yankees greatest virtue. Detroit has a pretty good bullpen, but I think they’d still rather see a fresh Al Alburquerque than the presumptive Cy Young.
When the Yankees announced they were signing Russell Martin after he was non-tendered by the Dodgers, I was thinking one thing: He’s a placeholder for Jesus Montero. Once Montero was ready–maybe around May or June–Martin would shift to the backup role, Montero would catch, Cervelli would go…somewhere. Well, it didn’t happen that way, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Martin caught fire coming out of the gate and ended up as a pretty valuable player for the Yankees. He added good offense for a catcher, he played good defense, and the pitching staff seemed to like working with him.
At the plate, Martin had two phenomenal months. April featured a .420 wOBA/164 wRC+ and August saw Martin hit to .391/144 marks. Russell was just about average in May (.320/96), but was sub replacement level in June (.241/42), July (.264/58), and September (.289/75). Overall, this added up to a .325 wOBA and a 100 wRC+. Compared to the league, then (w/o adjusting for position), Martin was exactly average with the bat.
fWAR pegged Martin at 3.0 wins above a replacement player and valued his performance at $13.7. With all his contract incentives (performance bonuses based on games as catcher: $50,000 each for 30, 35; $75,000 for 40 and each additional 5 games through 120 via Cot’s), Martin will be paid a total of $5.375M in 2011. Subtracting his salary from the fWAR dollar value, the Yankees got a surplus of $8.325M from Russ this season.
If the Yankees were to let Martin go right now, I think we could all be pretty satisfied with what they got out of him. However, I don’t think we’re going to see that happen. His salary is likely to go up, whether through arbitration or a contract, but 2011 proved that Martin can still be productive over the course of an entire season. He may not catch 120 games next year like he did this year, but I think we’ll be seeing Russell Martin in pinstripes for at least one more season.
- Bartolo Colon is the most obvious snub. I can’t say I’m that surprised, but on the other hand I’m not sure there’s necessarily a good reason for preferring Burnett to Colon. If Colon has pitched his last game as a Yankee, I’d just like to say that it was a lot of fun watching him pitch this year, and that the Yankees aren’t where they are now without him. Thanks Bartolo!
- The Yankees did indeed leave Austin Romine off of the roster, so they aren’t carrying a true backup catcher. With Jorge Posada starting as the designated hitter in the series, that means Jesus Montero is the primary backup catcher, with Posada the emergency option.
- Maybe it’s just me, but this looks like a bench that really lacks speed, which is a little odd for a postseason bench. Nunez is really the only good option for a late game pinch runner. I really don’t understand the point of bringing Dickerson over Greg Golson. Dickerson isn’t an automatic out against right-handed pitching, at least, but if he’s batting at all something has gone wrong.
- That is a deep bullpen. As long as the starters don’t let any games get out of hand early, Joe Girardi has a lot of options and a lot of different ways to lock down the second half of a game or so.
Justin Verlander turned in a tremendous season atop the Tigers’ rotation, going 24-5 with a 2.40/2.99/3.12 pitching slash line (ERA/FIP/xFIP). Amongst pitchers who reached the 200 IP plateau, his 4.39 K/BB was second in the AL (behind Dan Haren) and his whiff rate of 10.2% was third (behind CC Sabathia and James Shields). He was also the owner of the highest average velocity amongst AL starters this year, clocking in at 95.0 (CC was third at 93.8). He has four legitimately nasty pitches—fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup; all four were working in 2011, with his wFB/C and wCB/C coming in at career highs (the value in runs ascribed to 100 of each pitch thrown). I won’t get into the CC/Verlander argument here—Brian’s work on the topic can stand pretty well on its own—but I’ll highlight Verlander’s one bugaboo: his BABIP of .236 is ridiculously low, nearly 50 points below his career average. What’s that mean? Well, it means he’s had a good deal of luck on his side. Add luck on batted balls to an on-its-own spectacular season, and you get what Verlander did in 2011. Jim Leyland has publicly stated that Verlander will not pitch game four, but if the Tigers enter that game down 2-1, the roar to start their ace over Brad Penny or Rick Porcello will be deafening.
There are very few teams in Major League Baseball on which Miguel Cabrera would be relegated to second place, and there’s an argument to be made that in fact, he was more valuable than Verlander in 2011. To illustrate the point, his 7.4 WAR topped Verlander’s 7.0 (Right, Hippeaux?) Put simply, Cabrera’s a beast. His .436 wOBA was barely topped amongst American Leaguers by Bautista’s .441, and absolutely smoked the second runner up; Adrian Gonzalez came in at .406. His .448 OBP was tops in the league, buoyed by his .365 BABIP (there’s that luck thing again), but also by his 15.7% walk rate, good for second in the AL. While he hasn’t had quite as much power as he had in 2010, his .241 ISO (isolated power) is roughly in line with his career numbers through 2009. Oh, and he happened to win the AL batting title this season.
The Supporting Staff
Doug Fister will likely be the second starter for the Tigers. The lanky righthander came over from the Mariners midway through the season, and you can bet he’s glad to be in Detroit. Despite an outstanding 3.33/3.27/4.03 pitching slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP as above), Mister Fister went a depressing 3-12 in his 21 starts with Seattle this year. Since the trade, he’s been outstanding, going 8-1 with a 1.79/2.49/2.75 pitching slash. He isn’t possessed of the greatest “stuff”, winging his fastball in around 90 MPH, and complementing his heater with your typical slider, curve, change repertoire. He’s also raised his K/BB from 2.78 in a Mariners’ uniform, to a superhuman 11.40 in Detroit. The dude has walked five batters in ten starts. Sheesh. If there’s anything Fister has done very well, it’s getting batters to swing at balls outside of the zone. His mark of 36.8% is tops in baseball. I tend to be skeptical of improvements on small datasets—but I imagine the Tigers would be thrilled to get a performance in line with his time on the Mariners. Even if his last 10 starts prove to be a mirage, Fister is a legitimate playoff starter, and is certainly better than the Yankees’ options.
Up next is Max Scherzer, who you may remember as the gent who served up two homers to Jorge Posada back in April. Scherzer brings the heat, averaging just over 93 MPH with his fastball, and complements it with a slider and a changeup. While his strikeout rate dipped slightly this season, so did his walk rate, and as such he ended up with a strong 3.11 K/BB for the season. Unfortunately for him, this came along with a rise in his HR/9 rate (1.34, compared to his career average that had been around 1.00.) I’d call Scherzer the biggest wild card on the Tigers’ staff.
If it comes to it, and Leyland sticks to his word, the fourth starter will be Rick Porcello, of the 4.75/4.06/4.02 pitching slash line. He doesn’t strike out a ton (4.84 per nine) but neither does he hand out a lot of free passes (2.38 per nine). Overall, he’s a qualified “meh.” That is to say, he’s not a bad pitcher–but he doesn’t hold a candle to the Tigers’ top three starters. Starting him over Verlander in game four of a playoff series strikes me as a fireable offense.
Backing up Cabrera, the Tigers have young catcher Alex Avila, who bashed his way to a.295/.389/.506 slash line, thanks partly to the combination of an increased FB rate and an increased HR/FB rate. The .365 BABIP didn’t hurt, either. Old foe Victor Martinez will be at DH, and while he hasn’t shown the power that he did in 2009-2010, he’s still getting on base at a .380 clip (and his .330 AVG was good for 4th in the AL). Jhonny Peralta is the last dangerous hitter that Detroit will field, sporting a .353 wOBA. Brendon Boesch is
a bit of a mystery, but has been decent at the plate this year out for the season following surgery on his injured thumb (hat tip to reader/commenter Pat). The rest of the lineup is pretty terrible—Ramon Santiago, Austin Jackson, Don Kelly, Brandon Inge, Magglio Ordonez, Delmon Young, and Ryan Raburn all carry dismal wOBA’s peaking around .310, well below league average. Wilson Betemit…well, despite decent performance in limited playing time this season, he’s still Wilson Betemit.
In the bullpen, expensive closer Jose Valverde has netted 49 saves this season, but his numbers are somewhat middling for a closer. His 2.24 ERA masks a 3.55/4.01 FIP/xFIP, as he’s been lucky both on balls in play and homerun rate. The Tiger’s bridge to Valverde is strong, though. Joaquin Benoit has followed up his tremendous 2010 in Tampa Bay with a strong 2011, slashing 2.95/2.96/3.29. Aside from a little HR/FB related luck, he is what he looks like, and that’s a good pitcher. Al Albuquerque is a lot of fun to watch, striking out a whopping 13.92 batters per nine, but giving up more than 6 walks as well. Crazier, he has yet to give up a homerun in 43.1 major league innings, a trend that is excessively unlikely to continue. To be honest, he looks a lot like our own Joba Chamberlain did, throwing two pitches: a 95+ MPH heater, and a toxic slider that gets a silly number of swinging strikes. His 15.5% swinging strike rate is ridiculous. Old friend Phil Coke is the last competent reliever we’re likely to see out of the Tigers’ pen (particularly against lefthanded batters), sporting a 3.71/3.35/3.24 slash line.
This is a good team, one that didn’t make the playoffs by accident. Being able to lean on Verlander twice in a five game set makes them yet more dangerous. The Yankees are the stronger team by most metrics–but they’ll need to show up ready to play if they don’t want to go home early.
For previous installments of TYA’s 2011 ALDS Preview, please see the following:
The Yankees will send CC Sabathia to the hill for his 6th career Game One start with the Bombers. Sabathia has a 3.41 ERA over 31.2 innings across his five previous Yankee Game 1 starts, although that figure drops to 1.67 if you take out his uncharacteristic 4 IP, 5 ER performance against Texas in last year’s ALCS.
Here’s Sabathia’s season line, along with some selected splits:
It’s no secret that CC put up arguably his best season in pinstripes this year, though he did appear to be somewhat out of sync during the season’s final month and a half as the Yankees expanded their rotation to six men. Following his August 1 start against Chicago, Sabathia’s ERA sat at 2.55 and batters had hit .233/.285/.309 against him. Since then, he finished the season throwing to a 4.30 ERA over his final nine starts, with a batting line against of .314/.358/.502. While I wouldn’t read too much into that, it’s still worth noting that the irregular rotation turn probably had a slight negative effect on Sabathia. Given that Sabathia received all that extra time off in between starts, I’d expect he’ll be ready to throw on three days’ rest throughout the postseason as often as the Yankees need him to.
Sabathia continued to be murder on lefties this season, and was 11% better than the league average against righties. Sabathia — unlike every other member of the Yankee rotation — saved his best work for Yankee Stadium, making it that much more important that the Yankees were able to secure home field advantage through the first two rounds.
Not that it matters much, but CC saw the Tigers twice this year, beating them on Opening Day but losing a month later in Detroit. The Tigers hit him pretty well this season, and they were one of only four AL teams that he performed below-league-average against.
Sabathia throws a mid-90s four-seamer, low-80s slider that sometimes looks like a curveball, mid-90s sinker sinker and mid-80s changeup. While his heater is a solidly above-average pitch, Sabathia makes his living with the slider, which induced a whiff 18.1% of the time, compared to the 13.0% league-average rate. His changeup is his other big swing-and-miss offering, with an 18.2% whiff rate against 12.1% for the league. The hard sinker enables him to get an above-average number of groundouts, and that combination of elite strikeout stuff with a near-50% GB% is a big part of the reason why Sabathia’s one of the best pitchers in the game.
When he’s ahead in the count, Sabathia will try to get righties to either chase a heater or a slider, while lefties will see the slider even more frequently, especially on 0-2 (70% of the time). If he’s behind he’ll still rely primarily on the fastball-slider combo, though he’ll sneak a sinker in there as well. CC pretty much scraps the changeup entirely against lefties regardless of count, as one would expect.
Sabathia will be opposed by presumptive American League Cy Young Justin Verlander. Verlander has four career postseason starts, all of which came during the Tigers’ American League pennant-winning 2006 campaign. While Verlander was very good that season, five years later he’s become one of the top five pitchers in all of baseball.
Here are Verlander’s 2011 splits:
Verlander crushed his opponents this year, finishing with the lowest ERA in the AL (2.40), 4th-lowest FIP (2.99), second-lowest xFIP (3.12, behind only Sabathia) and third-best K/9 (8.96). Verlander also had for all intents and purposes the fastest fastball in the league (average speed of 95mph, second only to Alexi Ogando‘s 95.1mph), a fastball that was also the most valuable in the AL per Fangraphs’ pitch type linear weights (30.5 wFB). Interestingly, his rotationmate Doug Fister ranked 2nd, at 25.5, which could make the first two games of the DS quite frustrating for the Yankee offense.
With arguably the best four-seamer in the game, you better believe Verlander’s going to be throwing it a ton, although it’s almost surprising he doesn’t utilize it even more frequently. But that’s part of what makes Verlander so good — when you’re being fed a diet of 97-98mph fastballs, it’s quite difficult to then time a 79mph curveball, 87mph changeup or 86mph slider. Of those secondary offerings the changeup is his best swing-and-miss pitch, though the slider is also above-average in that department as well.
If there’s a downside to his game, Verlander’s more of a flyball pitcher than Sabathia, only getting a groundball 40% of the time. As such, he can occasionally be a bit homer-prone. Verlander will throw any one of five pitches against righties, going in for the kill with the curve and slider; while the fastball-changeup-curveball combo is primarily how he sits lefties down. If he falls behind in the count, the odds are pretty good that the hitter will see a heater regardless of which side of the plate they stand on.
How the two pitchers compare
You certainly didn’t need a string of tables to tell you that these are two of the top pitchers in all of MLB, but it’s pretty remarkable how close their numbers actually are. In all reality, the only real difference between CC’s and Verlander’s years was that Verlander experienced exceptionally good fortune on balls in play, with a career-low .236 BABIP and career-high 80.3% strand rate helping drive that AL-leading ERA. Aside from those numbers, the two pitchers’ peripherals are nearly identical and in fact, CC and Verlander both accumulated matching league-leading 7.0 fWARs despite Verlander throwing nearly 14 more innings.
None of this is to take away from the exemplary season Verlander has turned in, but his bottom line certainly benefited from a bit of luck, considering his .285 career BABIP. Sabathia, on the other hand, turned in a season ostensibly every bit as good as Verlander’s despite a BABIP almost .030 points higher than his career mark of .291!
Now it’s possible CC’s BABIP was the result of him posting the second-highest LD% of his career this season — 23.1%, up from a career-low 15.1% last year — at the expense of some of the ground balls he got last year. In which case, “unlucky” may not be entirely fair. However, on the flip side, a jump in LD% of nearly 10% from one season to the next — especially when Sabathia had only eclipsed a LD% of 20% one other time in the previous seven seasons — still seems fluky to me.
While past performance is of course no way indicative of future results, it’s worth noting that for as great as Verlander is, anecdotally it doesn’t seem like the Yanks have ever really been straight-up shut down Roy Halladay and/or Cliff Lee-style by the big righty. The numbers appear to back this up, as Verlander has a 3.97 career ERA against the Yankees across 56.2 innings of work. The Yankees won both games Verlander started against them this season, scratching out three runs over six innings both times, and that’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect from a locked-in Yankee lineup facing Verlander.
Sabathia’s also had some difficulty with Detroit here and there, having thrown 41 innings of 3.95 ERA ball against the Tigers since joining the Yankees. He also threw six-innings of three-run ball (though only two earned) in that aforementioned Opening Day matchup against Verlander, and gave up four runs over seven in Comerica.
While either pitcher is certainly capable of annihilating their opponent’s offense, I’m inclined to give Sabathia the slight edge in this match-up, due primarily to his overall excellence at Yankee Stadium. Seven innings of three-run ball or less should do the trick.
Last night, I co-hosted a 1-hour radio show with Mike Silva of New York Baseball Digest. We covered a host of topics from the amazing final day of regular baseball, our expectations for the Yanks in the ALDS, the prospect of adding an additional Wild Card team, and some other issues surrounding the teams including a Deadspin rumor that nobody else has touched. Mike and I always have fun when we do these shows, and the hour flies by. You can give it a listen here.