First of all, one factor that will come into play right from the beginning is the new format the ALDS is taking for this season. Because of the desire to shoehorn the wild card round into the existing postseason schedule, the ALDS was altered from a 2-2-1 format to a 2-3 format, with the higher seeded team opening on the road and finishing at home. What this means is that, in addition to the change in opening venue, there’s only one off day in the midst of a five game series instead of two, so the Game 2 starter can’t pitch Game 5 on normal rest. You either have to use four starters for five games or have two guys throw on short rest. It’s an exceedingly goofy way to do things, but such is life until it changes back next year, and it’s going to affect everyone more or less the same way at least. Though the Yankees have been pretty aggressive at being willing to use C.C. Sabathia in that (potential) Game 4 to tighten up their rotation.
Being in the same division, the Yankees and Orioles have obviously seen each other a lot already in 2012. The head-to-head results are just about as inconclusive as can be, however, as the two teams went an even 9-9 against each other, while both teams went just 3-6 in their own home stadiums. There’s no guidance in the run differential either, as the Orioles outscored the Yankees by a total of two runs over those 18 games. The Yankees may look a lot better than the O’s on paper, but on the field they’ve been just about dead even over the course of the season, and indeed played to a 2-2 split in their last series against one another.
There’s a sort of superficial similarity between these two offenses in that they rank 1st and 2nd in the American League in home runs (though the Yankees are well ahead of them, with 245 long balls to the O’s 211), but when you dig a little bit deeper they’re much different than you might have expected. First and foremost, the Orioles are much more strikeout prone than the Yankees. The Orioles’ team strikeout rate of 21.3% was the third highest mark in the junior circuit (and just 0.4% lower than the second place Rays), while the Yankees 18.9% mark ranks around the league median, eighth highest overall. The Yankees also rank as the A.L.’s best overall offense, leading the league in both wOBA and wRC+, while the Orioles are actually a touch below the league average, with wRC+ of 95. The biggest factor in that differenec/ Getting on base. The Yankees finsihed at the very top of the A.l. with an OBP of .337, while the Orioles ranked fourth from the bottom at .311, and were just two points better than the second to worst Blue Jays.
Of course, none of this makes a whole lot of difference in a best of five series, and both teams have hitters with power throughout the lineup that can change the complexion of an entire game with one swing of the bat. Keeping both lineups from leaving the yard is going to be task number one for both pitching staffs.
If there’s an aspect of the game where the Yankees should have an advantage, it’s in the starting rotation. The Yankees boast arguably the three best starters on either roster in C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte, and should have favorable match ups in every game that’s played. The Orioles, on the other hand, will put out a rotation of castoffs and rookie Chris Tillman, an assemblage of misfits that has never the less carried them into the ALDS and, at times, held down the Yankees.
We don’t have confirmed rotations. yet, but a few things seems certain. Sabathia and Phil Hughes will start games one and four, respectively, for the Yankees, with Kuroda and Pettitte pitching games two in three in some order. Joe Girardi hasn’t announced what that order will be, and my guess is that Pettitte will start game two with Kuroda going in Yankee Stadium just because of their respective recent schedules. It really doesn’t make much of a difference though. Obviously, Sabathia would be slated to come back for a Game 5 if the series goes the distance.
The Orioles’ situation is much more interesting. Jason Hammel, their best starter when he’s been healthy, is supposed to be ready to pitch this weekend, and the early rumors have been that he’ll start Sunday’s first game. That would be a pretty gutsy choice, given that Hammel hasn’t made any rehab appearances and hasn’t pitched in a game since September 11, and has made just two starts since July 13. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’ll make a start in this series, but throwing him out for the very first game seems like a risk, if for no other reason than that it would complicate a potential Game 5 if he can’t fight through the rust to pitch effectively. The bad news for the Yankees is that Miguel Gonzalez would be lined up to make a start on his normal rest Sunday and has absolutely baffled the Bombers this year.
Beyond Hammel and Gonzalez, I would imagine that Tillman is a lock to start either Game 3 or Game 4, and after his surprisingly solid performance against Texas, Joe Saunders will probably get the final sport over Wei-Yin Chen, who struggled in the season’s final month despite being Baltimore’s most consistent starter during the regular season.
Again, this would be the one area of the game where the Yankees seem to have the clear advantage, but last night served as a stark reminder that having the better pitcher on paper doesn’t guarantee you anything. It’s all about making pitches, and the Orioles have guys who have been able to do that in big spots throughout the second half.
The Orioles’ bullpen has gotten nothing but praise this season, and with good reason. Counting last night, Baltimore is an incredible 75-0 when leading after seven innings, thanks to their back end duo of Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson, who lead the league with 51 saves in the regular season. What’s more, Buck Showalter has been able to plug in new guys when others faltered, specifically getting Darren O’Day to step up as a set up man when Strop faltered down the stretch. The rest of the bullpen features former top pitching prospect turned lefty specialist Brian Matusz, as well as Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton, who were also young starters the Orioles supposedly had their hopes pinned to early in the season. Rookie Steve Johnson gives them an effective long reliever if he’s not included in the starting rotation.
While the Baltimore relievers have gotten the kudos all season, the Yankees have a core of top relievers who can go head to head with anyone. Assuming Rafael Soriano‘s recent yips were just a blip, he and David Robertson are as good a back end duo as any in baseball, while Joba Chamberlain and David Phelps give them a dup of middle relievers who can both get out and pitch more than one inning if the situation warrants. The biggest question for the Yankees probably relates to their left-handed relievers. Joe Girardi figures to use Boone Logan over Clay Rapada in big spots, but Logan has made more pitching appearances than any other reliever this season, and at times he appears to be showing the effects of being worked so hard. His ability to neutralize Chris Davis late in a game could prove to be a crucial factor in the balance of power between the two teams.
The Yankees are the better team on paper, and have better high end talent and depth, but by now we might as well concede that none of that matters when the Orioles are involved. They’ve defied the odds through the course of a 162 game season, and did it again in a high stakes atmosphere on Friday night. I’m certainly not saying that they’re the favorites in the series by any means, but they won’t be a pushover either, especially with the first two games of the series taking place in front of what promises to be a wild crowd in Baltimore.