The 2006 Detroit Tigers led all of baseball with a 3.84 ERA. The 2006 New York Yankees led all of baseball with 5.74 runs scored per game. The Tigers had a slightly above-average offense (5.07 runs per game vs. 4.97 league average), while the Yankees had a slightly above-average pitching staff (4.42 ERA vs. 4.56 league average). Does pitching and defense trump hitting in the playoffs? I guess we’re going to find out.
The Tigers and Yankees have never met in the postseason. Then again, since the playoff system began in 1969, the Tigers have only made the playoffs three times, and it’s their first postseason appearance since 1987. The Yankees, on the other hand, have been in the playoffs for the past 11 seasons, and it probably would have been 12 had the 1994 season not been interrupted. It’s the playoff veterans versus a team that has barely a handful of players who have even seen the postseason.
To say the Yankees’ lineup is formidable would be a vast understatement. The Yankees led the American League in OPS (.824) and Gross Production Average (.279), and there’s not a weak spot in the lineup. From Johnny Damon leading off to Robinson Cano hitting ninth, no Tiger pitcher will get an easy out at any point in time during this series. If there’s one small chink in the Yankees’ armor, it’s that they’re slightly worse against left-handed pitching (.800 OPS) then they are against right-handed pitching (.833 OPS). The Tigers will be pitching to the Yankees’ weakness with Nate Robertson throwing in the first and fifth games and Kenny Rogers in game three.
The Tigers, on the other hand, were simply an okay hitting team. Their on-base percentage came in slightly below average (.329) and was actually the third-worst in the American League. Their slugging percentage (.449) was slightly above average; the net result is a very close-to-average GPA of .260.
The Tigers’ big three are Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen. As those three guys go, so go the Tigers. The Yankees don’t have a big three—they have a big 10. They’ll probably have one guy who would be the fourth- or fifth-best hitter on the Tigers riding the pine for the Yankees. The Yankees are even putting Gary Sheffield at first base just so they get as many good hitters in the game as they can.
Pitching and Defense
The last time the Tigers led the league in ERA was 1984, which was also the last year the Tigers won the World Series. This season, all four of the Tigers’ regular starters were in the top 20 in WHIP, due in large part to the defense. The Tigers led the league with a .704 Defensive Efficiency, and they finished with a league-leading +60 fielding rating. Their infield defense was particularly good with a +74.
The Yankees gave up over a half run per game more than the Tigers did during the season, but they weren’t blessed with the Tigers’ defense. The Yankees and Tigers had the same strikeout rate (6.3 per nine innings), walk rate (3.1 per nine innings) and home run rate (1.1 per nine innings). This all worked out to a near-equal Fielding Independent Pitching ERA (Tigers 4.36 vs. Yankees 4.45). So it’s not necessarily the arms but the players behind them that are making the difference.
Each team has one great reliever and after that it’s a crap shoot. Joel Zumaya and Mariano Rivera are the two studs. For the Tigers, Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones have been just as inconsistent as Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth. This could really come into play in Game Four for the Yankees when Jaret Wright pitches for the Tigers. Wright hasn’t even averaged five innings a start, so there’s one game in which the Tigers have a solid chance of getting to the weaker links in the Yankees’ pen.
Head to Head
The Yankees won the season series 5-2 against the Tigers by a combined score of 38-23. The only pitcher to notch two wins for either team was Randy Johnson. One was a 4-0 shutout in May in which Johnson and the Yankees’ pen held the Tigers to two hits. Wang combined with the pen to throw a four-hit shutout against the Tigers in August. The Yankees also ran up the score against the Tigers in an 11-6 pasting. Both Tiger wins (7-6 and 5-3) were relatively close games.
Despite only two wins separating the Tigers and Yankees, the Tigers’ troubles in late August and September have pushed them into the role of underdog. I do think some of the matchups favor the Tigers though. Wright is a weak link in the Yankees’ rotation, and Justin Verlander is probably a step up from an aging Mike Mussina. If the Tigers can pull those two games out, it means they only have to beat Wang once. So I’ll go out on a limb and say the Tigers will beat the Yankees in five games. Then again, I could be delusional because the Tigers haven’t been in the playoffs since I was in high school.