(Just about) everything you’ve learned during the past 162 games is wrong.
As countless commentators have said, regular season success is no guarantee when it comes to the postseason and when a series is condensed to five games, the role of chance becomes exaggerated. Since 1995, when the Division Series were introduced, 16 Wild Card teams have advanced past those series while the teams with the best record in both leagues have advanced 21 times.
Obviously, being a Wild Card team doesn’t automatically mean that team has the worst record, but it is a good stat to throw out there in showing how open the field is.
My opening line isn’t exactly an invitation to teams to ignore regular season strategies, but it shows how impossible it is to apply all forms of habitual strategy, since variance is much more magnified. Managers need to walk a fine line in both assessing and disregarding seasonal stats to gain any useful edge. The stats to focus on are open for debate.
In a five-game series, a few bad breaks—a misplaced fastball or a costly fielding error, say—can decide between winners and losers. Look at last season’s throwing error by Nick Punto against the Yankees or Matt Holliday’s infamous and failed “crotch catch” as examples. Looking at UZR scores, both Punto and Holliday were considered above average and, seemingly, posed no defensive liability over a full season, but in a short series these moments stick out.
That said, let’s look at each team, in the 2010 postseason and talk about what needs to be done in a short series, beginning with the American League today.
Looking over the AL teams, what is striking is the relative lack of depth in each rotation. Beyond each having a certified ace, the quality level quickly drops off as teams scramble to mix and match for these short series.
New York Yankees
After spending last offseason acquiring Javier Vazquez and securing a one-year deal for Andy Pettitte, the Yankees were probably expecting to have a much deeper rotation heading into the playoffs. They were wrong, but manager Joe Girardi will have it easy since CC Sabathia will be called upon to pitch at home on short rest if a Game Four emerges.
Optimal rotation vs. Minnesota:
CC Sabathia (would start Game Four on short rest)
Phil Hughes (would start Game Five on normal rest)
Since the schedule allows the second starter to pitch Game Five on normal rest, the benefits of using Hughes in a ballpark notorious for being the stingiest at allowing homers is a no-brainer. Against Hughes, opponents have hit .248/.312/.443 at Yankee Stadium opposed to .238/.288/.336 away this season. That’s a big difference in terms of slugging and a stat the Yankees would be foolish to ignore.
As a front line starter, Sabathia has seen his strikeouts per nine innings decrease for the second consecutive season but with an uptick in groundball percentage (career high 50.7) he is still very effective. I don’t see anything too troubling about Sabathia: He is still an important cog but I could see him performing quite well and still imagine the Yankees being knocked out of the playoffs
The main question surrounding Pettitte is health and getting back into game shape. Since returning from the DL in mid-September, he has made three starts and worked his pitch count up to 88 on Oct. 2 at Boston.
Things to watch for:
* See if Mariano Rivera’s career low K/9 numbers affect him in the playoffs. At 6.75, Rivera has turned into more of a contact pitcher this season, which is fine given his control. However, it could be problematic given his below-average ability to hold baserunners combined with Jorge Posada’s defense, especially with less than two outs.
* Will the numbers revert for Joba Chamberlain in the playoffs? He has been hounded by a few ill-timed homers in high leverage situations, but according to his 2.88 FIP he is pitching much better than his 4.33 ERA indicates.
* Kerry Wood is looking like an all-star with a high K/9 rate of 10.73 and an ERA of 0.69, but if he runs into any trouble just know that his 6.23 walks-per-nine rate and abnormally high 98 percent strand rate are to blame.
The emergence of Francisco Liriano has given the Twins the legitimate No. 1 starter they lacked last season. This season, Liriano has pitched well against the Yankees. In two starts against New York, he has pitched 13 innings and struck out 14 while walking only two batters.
Things to watch for:
* The starting rotation’s groundball rates. If they can keep the ball on the ground against the Yankees, things could fall into place. The Twins have one of the worst outfield defenses, according to UZR scores, and with Liriano, Pavano and Duensing all scoring in the 50 percent groundball range, they may isolate the Yankees power.
* Scott Baker’s health. Baker’s shoulder woes should keep him off the mound against the Yankees. This may be a blessing, especially with his high homer per flyball rates.
Tampa Bay Rays
What about James Shields? He will be mentioned as a possibility when the series expands in the next round, but I would expect the Rays to send out Price on short rest in Game Four. (So far this season, Price has made 15 starts on only four days of rest and pitched well overall. Since that settles this as a three-man rotation, would choosing Niemann over Shields be the best choice?
For those who follow FIP, it’s become apparent that this elusive stat has been a fan of Shields all season. Most of this has to do with his high K/9 and low BB/9, but his main troubles have come from his high frequency of homers allowed while allowing only a 39 percent fly ball rate. Obviously, some flukiness is going on. On the opposite end, Niemann has also been bitten by the fluky bug: He has a HR/9 rate to similar to Shields’ at 1.30 without being much of a flyball pitcher (39.4 percent).
Optimal rotation vs. the Rangers:
Against the Rangers, it would be best for the Rays to go with Shields as the Game Three starter on the road. Sure, the match-up isn’t ideal, but Shields’ substantially higher K rate may give the team a better chance at single game success than with Niemann.
Things to watch for:
* The Rays will be entering the postseason with the best defense in the AL according to UZR scores. To some this may not seem like much since one error can be magnified in a short series. but in terms of amateur predicting… it should carry some weight.
* The triumvirate of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour makes this a very effective bullpen; however, the inclusion of Randy Choate as their only viable left hander points to major weakness that could be attacked. Therefore, it’s imperative that LHP Jake McGee is included in the ALDS roster.
It’s interesting how preseason favorites like Rich Harden and Scott Feldman have fallen out of favor with this team. It is also a credit to the Rangers’ depth that C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter can capably hold down this rotation behind deadline trade acquisition Cliff Lee.
Depth aside, there are still question marks surrounding the health of this rotation. After becoming a Ranger, Lee was hounded by back stiffness but reports say he is past it and is expected to start the postseason at full health. Despite his five-inning fiasco at Oakland a few weeks ago, Lee pitched very well in September (posting a 7.71 K/9 and a 1.93 BB/9).
A major question mark will be Wilson. His walk rate creeped up in September to 4.45, but he was able to keep his HR/9 very low at 0.56 despite allowing a line drive percentage of 23.7 during the month. On a positive side, through September, Wilson came in with a high ERA of 5.85, but his FIP was more than two points lower at 3.61.
Things to watch for:
* At first, there was some speculation that the Rangers were going to go with a strict three-man rotation throughout the entire postseason. This would have been ridiculous, since Lee has never pitched on three days rest, but how effective is he on four days of rest? In his career, opposing hitters have hit .269/.318/.420 after four days. If the Rangers find themselves down two games to one entering Game Four, then pitching Lee becomes a necessity, but if they are up two to one should they go with Hunter and save Lee for a possible Game Five at full strength?
* Derek Holland has been very effective in short situations since September, recording a 10.80 K/9 and a 1.80 BB/9. Obviously this is an incredibly small sample of five innings and barely worth a mention, but this past month has also shown major strides by Dustin Nippert and Darren Oliver as other capable options leading up to Neftali Feliz.
* Darren O’Day has been excellent in terms of K/9 and BB/9 (8.8 and 1.93, respectively) since September began, but a HR/9 of 3.86! Ouch!