ALDS Preview: Tigers-Yankees

The Yankees and Tigers square off in the Bronx tonight (the Yankees always seem to end up with the night game, don’t they?) with what should be the marquee pitching matchup of the Division Series — Justin Verlander versus CC Sabathia. Here’s a fun fact: both pitchers are very good. A second fun fact: you should be excited to watch them. But you didn’t click on this story to read that — you already knew that. So let’s get into the stuff you did come here to read, shall we?

When the Tigers are at bat:

Tigers Hitters Yankees Fielders Yankees Starters
1. Austin Jackson Starting Pitcher –> LHP CC Sabathia
2. Wilson Betemit# C Russell Martin RHP Ivan Nova
3. Delmon Young 1B Mark Teixeira RHP Freddy Garcia
4. Miguel Cabrera 2B Robinson Cano
5. Victor Martinez# 3B Alex Rodriguez
6. Alex Avila* SS Derek Jeter
7. Jhonny Peralta LF Brett Gardner
8. Magglio Ordonez CF Curtis Granderson
9. Ryan Raburn RF Nick Swisher

Fun fact: The Tigers top four hitters by wRAA were better than the Yankees’ top four by nearly 17 runs. That has a lot to do with Miguel Cabrera of course, but it’s a quick example of how he isn’t going at this alone. The Tigers also got good-to-great seasons from Alex Avila, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. But unfortunately, it takes awhile to get to them, as the composition of Jim Leyland’s lineup has been far from optimal — and that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt in batting Wilson Betemit second, as Ordonez has batted second with semi-regularity down the stretch. It would be a mistake to bat Ordonez second. First, Ordonez was dreadful this year — he had an OBP of .300 or better for only 12 days this season. Second, this is a pretty right-handed lineup, and Betemit has more late-inning value batting in the two-hole, as he will make it more difficult for Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi to play matchups.

There is the chance, of course, that Ordonez only plays in the CC Sabathia game(s) of the series. Just as it was during the season, second base, third base and right field could be revolving doors throughout the series. No matter the permutations though, the lineup will skew both right-handed and to the dancing-Molina-brother side of the speed scale — the Tigers attempted the fewest stolen bases in the Majors this year, and it wasn’t close. Now, you might say, no big deal, the Tigers were eighth in ISO, they can just take and rake, right? Well, Leyland didn’t see it that way, as only two American League teams sacrificed more than did Detroit. Leading the sac bunt parade was Austin Jackson, who tied for sixth in the Majors (non-pitcher division). Don’t expect that to stop in the ALDS, as Alex Rodriguez can be best described as rickety at this point, and Mark Teixeira, while a good fielder overall, has never been a good fielder of bunts (-1 rBU this year, -7 career).

A-Rod isn’t a bad fielder overall either, which is more than can be said for Jeter. He is the Yankees’ liability on D. Granderson and Cano get mixed reviews, though personally I tend to side with how they have been graded in this year’s Fans Scouting Report, which is to say above-average but not elite. That description seems apt for the whole team as well, there are no major weaknesses outside of Jeter.

As I outlined on Tuesday, the Yankees are going to go to war with Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. There was some hub bub this week about Garcia’s track record against Detroit, but that is mostly nonsense. Much of the good portion of his track record was built on the 1999 and 2005 seasons, and newsflash — these Detroit Tigers look nothing like those teams. Having said that, Garcia and Nova are pretty good matchups versus the Tigers. Both throw sliders — a pitch that has been the Tigers’ aggregate achilles heel — and neither flash their changeup as much as A.J. Burnett does, which works out well in this series. The Tigers, as a team, mercilessly crush changeups — their 1.95 wCH/C mark was the highest mark for any one team against any one pitch this year.

Hidden Talent: Wilson Betemit vs. RHP
In 99 plate appearances with the Tigers, Betemit stroked righties for an impressive .396 wOBA. With the Yankees only carrying two left-handed pitchers on their staff, Betemit won’t have to subbed much for offensive reasons, and if he is able to continue that production, he will make life difficult on New York.

Key Player: Ryan Raburn
Big things were expected of Raburn this year, and on the whole, you’d have to say he didn’t deliver on them. But after a dreadful first half, Raburn caught fire in the second half, hitting .341/.393/.574 after the break. Even with the hot streak, Leyland remained skeptical, as Raburn didn’t play every day down the stretch. For the season, Raburn has been much more effective against lefties than righties, so there is the concern that he will play right into the Yankees’ hands, but his performance likely makes or breaks the lineup. If he produces, Leyland can ride his hot hand. If he doesn’t, there isn’t another player on the roster capable of his type of power from the keystone.

When the Yankees are at-bat

Yankees Hitters Tigers Fielders Tigers Starters
1. Derek Jeter Starting Pitcher –> RHP Justin Verlander
2. Curtis Granderson* C Alex Avila RHP Doug Fister
3. Robinson Cano* 1B Miguel Cabrera RHP Max Scherzer
4. Alex Rodriguez 2B Ryan Raburn RHP Rick Porcello
5. Mark Teixeira# 3B Wilson Betemit
6. Nick Swisher# SS Jhonny Peralta
7. Jorge Posada# LF Delmon Young
8. Russell Martin CF Austin Jackson
9. Brett Gardner* RF Magglio Ordonez

This season, 28 teams saw 24,229 pitches or less, and two teams saw at least 600 more than that. One of those teams is trying to pin their failures on the best manager their team has ever seen or ever will see. The other is the Yankees. But while the Yankees are a patient lot, the strength of the four Tigers who will comprise their postseason rotation has been their efficiency, so it’s strength against strength, which is just how October should be.

Whereas the Tigers’ lineup tilts righty, the Yankees’ is perfectly balanced — three righties, three lefties and three switch-hitters. The biggest weakness in the Yankees’ lineup this series will be Derek Jeter. While Jeter has come on in the second half, he has been stepping-in-a-pool-of-soda-in-a-dark-movie-theater-while-wearing-flip-flops bad against righties the past two seasons. In 939 plate appearances against them, Jeter is a woeful .231/.321/.327. And since the Tigers have nothing but right-handed starters this is going to be an issue, especially with Jeter firmly ensconced at the top of the lineup. Elsewhere, A-Rod got back on track in September, so he should be fine.

What may not be fine is the Tigers’ defense. With Avila, Peralta and Jackson, Detroit is strong up the middle, but elsewhere they could be in some trouble — Raburn at second, Betemit at third, Ordonez in right and Young in left were all at least five runs below average this year. Again, much of this will depend on how and how much Leyland mixes and matches. One area where the Tigers will be able to hang tough is the running game. While the Yanks were the sixth-most efficient team in trying to steal bases, Avila had the ninth-best caught stealing percentage (min. 600 innings caught). But at the end of the day, the key will simply be whether or not the Tigers’ pitchers can keep the Yankees off the base paths.

Hidden Talent: Curtis Granderson vs. LHP
I don’t think it’s possible for the Yankees to have a hidden talent, but if there is one, it’s Granderson against lefties. With Girardi moving the always-red-hot-in-the-second-half Cano to the three-hole, it puts two lefties back-to-back in the lineup, something that Leyland is likely to try to exploit late in games. That might have been a good strategy in past years when Granderson couldn’t hit lefties, but this season Granderson has touched them for a sterling .400 wOBA.

Key Player: Russell Martin
Martin sizzled out of the gate this year, but despite a brief return to competence in August, he has mostly fizzled. The good news for Yankees’ fans is that he has been better against righties this year. He is going to play because of his defense, but if he can’t hit, he could create a big escape hatch for Tigers’ pitchers at 8-9-1 in the lineup, and may compromise some of Girardi’s flexibility in how he deploys Jesus Montero.

Benches and Bullpens

Tigers Bench Tigers Bullpen
OF Andy Dirks* CL Jose Valverde
3B Brandon Inge RHP Joaquin Benoit
UT Don Kelly* RHP Al Alburquerque
IF Ramon Santiago# LHP Phil Coke
C Omir Santos LHP Daniel Schlereth
RHP Ryan Perry
RHP David Pauley

Every member of the Tigers’ bench — Omir Santos excepted — is likely to get, if not a start, then a good chunk of playing time. Raburn only finished about 60% of the games that he started, and Ordonez only 26%, so defensive caddying may be prominent. Andy Dirks is the closest thing Detroit has to a burner off the bench, but that’s not saying a whole heck of a lot — Dirks has an 81% success rate as pro, but has never stolen more than 22 bases in any one season, and only had seven attempts in 70 times reached base in Detroit this year.

Just as you are likely to hear talk of Garcia’s prowess in Detroit, you will also be subjected to talk about Jose Valverde’s shiny 100% save percentage this season. And just like Garcia’s splits against Detroit, Valverde’s save percentage is near meaningless. For the second straight year, Valverde had a BB/9 north of four, and his strikeout rate has fallen south of nine for the first time. After turning into a ground-ball machine last season, Valverde has almost completely reverted to the fly ball pitcher he used to be, but combined that with good fortune in a low home run rate. There’s a good chance that his luck is about to run out. The bullpen did catch a break with Al Alburquerque returning to action just before the season ended, and Joaquin Benoit improbably lived up to the dollars he was paid this year, as his fastball and slider were both sixth-best per 100 pitches among qualified relievers. Pair those two with Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke, who were pretty good in handling lefties this year, and you have a solid bullpen.

Secret Weapon: Al Alburquerque
Alburquerque found his stride early with the Tigers, and has only been better as the season has progressed. He hasn’t thrown a lot down the stretch, as he was inadvertently concussed during batting practice in August (honestly, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often), and also had a hip problem towards the end of the year, but he looks to be healthy now. He hasn’t allowed a run since the break, and his control has been better as well. What’s more, he’s no stranger to work, as he recorded at least four outs in more than a quarter of his appearances this season.

Yankees Bench Yankees Bullpen
IF Eric Chavez* CL Mariano Rivera
OF Chris Dickerson* RHP David Robertson
OF Andruw Jones RHP Rafael Soriano
C Jesus Montero LHP Boone Logan
IF Eduardo Nunez RHP A.J. Burnett
C Austin Romine RHP Cory Wade
RHP Luis Ayala

The Yankees get to take advantage of an extra spot here by virtue of the fact that they will use one less starter — I have Austin Romine listed here, but would not be surprised to see Phil Hughes or Bartolo Colon rostered out of respect. Either way, the Yankees’ bench looks to be superior to Detroit’s. Andruw Jones has been as mashtastic as ever this year. And then there’s Montero, who figures to work his way into some significant at-bats.

The bullpen is also strong. Anytime Mariano Rivera is the second-best reliever on your team, you know have something special, and that’s what the Yankees have had this year in David Robertson. Robertson isn’t nearly as efficient as Rivera (who is?), but he has been just as effective, stranding runners at a ridiculous 89.8% rate. Like Rivera, he is also devastating against lefties. Though not as good as that duo, Boone Logan (3.65 FIP, 3.12 xFIP) has been formidable against lefties as well — Logan may be strictly on Avila duty this series. Righties have fared similarly poorly against Rafael Soriano and Cory Wade, and Burnett and Luis Ayala will also be around just for funsies.

Secret Weapon: Chris Dickerson
You thought I was going to say Montero, right? No, sorry, he’s not a secret. But resident speed burner Chris Dickerson has the same 80% stolen base success rate that Dirks does, but with a longer, more distinguished track record, as he has more experience in the Show. But with the depth the Yankees are going to carry, they can afford to freely pinch-run for Posada, A-Rod, Swisher, Teixeira and Martin with Dickerson and Eduardo Nunez — who is the poor man’s Dickerson in terms of stolen bases. Dickerson though, actually has value elsewhere, as he can flash some leather. He will likely see some time in every game, similar to how Gardner did in 2009 — some pinch-running, some defensive caddying — in the late innings.

In stacking things up, I see the Tigers having an advantage in the rotation…and that’s it. The Yankees have the better lineup if for no other reason than its best hitters come up sooner. They also have the better bench and the better bullpen. What’s more, since Verlander won’t go on short rest, there is a lot of pressure on the Tigers to win two of the first three, because the last thing they want is a Sabathia-Rick Porcello matchup with their backs against the wall. I don’t think they can pull it off. Detroit wins Doug Fister’s start, but that’s it — Yankees in four.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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11 years ago

I think you transposed Cano and Teixeira in the Yankees’ lineup section. Cano is a lefty and bats fifth while Teixeira is the switch-hitter who bats third.

11 years ago
Reply to  Greg

So I see that Cano was moved to the three hole, but he’s still a lefty.