In most postseason match-ups, the talent difference between the opponents in not great, certainly not great enough to make any outcome of a five- or seven-game series a shocking result. When trying to justify why your favorite team will overcome its opponent, it’s usually easy to pick a few things it does well, emphasize those, and hope that’s what actually winds up deciding the series. When you are up against the Yankees, though, things you do better are tough to find. The Yankees are an excellent ball club, and it’s hard to find things they don’t do well.
A lot has been said about the Angels being lucky over the last few seasons, to the point where it gets annoying to an Angels fan. True, they have consistently outplayed their Pythagorean record, but in this series, the Angels are playing a team that was even luckier than they were in the regular season.
Based on runs scored and allowed, the Angels “should” have won 92 games; they actually won 97. The Yankees, however, “should” have won 95, and actually won eight more, 103. What does this portend for the 2009 ALCS? The answer is the same as the relationship between you and your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate: Absolutely nothing! Which is what the Yankees are about to become.
In the previous series, I noted the balanced offense the Angels had. All starters plus top sub Maicer Izturis had an OPS+ of at least 100, all hit at least .270 and eight of 10 hit over .290. The advantage of having no easy outs in the lineup was never more evident than in Game Three against Boston, when with two down in the ninth and the ninth-place hitter up, the Angels were able to get the last three runs they needed.
The Yankees bring balance in a slightly different form. All their regulars hit at least 13 homers, seven of the nine hit more than 20, and one guy who fell just short, Derek Jeter, hit 18 while turning in the best all-around season on the 2009 team. The Yankees hit 244 home runs, four more than the 1961 Yankees of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, and 71 more than the Angels.
At least the Angels do other things well offensively: The Yankees outscored them by only 32 runs overall. If the home run were neutralized (play with a dead ball, move the fences back 50 feet) the Angels would have an edge offensively, but in the new Yankee Stadium, the home run is going to be a factor.
As in the Boston series, the Angels have superior starting pitching depth, but the Yankees have the top pitcher in the series, this time C.C. Sabathia. However, Sabathia has a bit of a history of running out of gas in the postseason. He has a career playoff ERA of 6.54; his biggest problem has been lack of his usual control. Bad news for the Angels: That trend may be over: He walked zero Twins in his ALDS start.
A.J. Burnett is as inconsistent as they come. He pitched a great game against Minnesota, so he must be due to get knocked out in the third inning, right? The Angels saw him on Sept. 23 and put 10 base runners on in 5.2 innings. He also struck out 11 that game, and allowed just two base runners to score.
Andy Pettitte is still a solid, above-average pitcher who has more postseason starts than anyone in history. The question mark is in the No. 4 spot. Joba Chamberlain in August and September lasted fewer than five innings in seven of his 11 starts. That’s not all his fault—the Yankees wanted to limit his innings—but he pitched pretty badly in that stretch, with a 7.52 ERA. He pitched out of the bullpen against the Twins, so I’m not sure if he’ll get the call for Game Four. The Yankees also could give the ball to Chad Gaudin or, as manager Joe Girardi has hinted, bring Sabathia back.
John Lackey and Jered Weaver pitched incredible games against the Red Sox. Lackey, a free agent after the season, has an extra reason to pitch great against the Yankees: He’s not just trying to beat them, he’s auditioning for them. Scott Kazmir pitched great down the stretch for the Angels. His start against Boston was worrisome, not as much for the results (despite five runs allowed, his six innings kept the Angels in the game) but his failure to miss bats. He struck out only one batter. Joe Saunders is a smart, solid pitcher who pitches to contact. Right now, he seems like a much more dependable option than his probable opponent, Chamberlain.
Altogether, about even, slight advantage to the Angels, since Chamberlain is the pitcher most likely to overwork his bullpen.
The Angels crew allowed only one run in 6.1 innings against Boston. The bullpen was shaky at the beginning of the season after manager Mike Scioscia had to rebuild from scratch. His top three from last year either left through free agency, got injured for the season or regressed to the minors. It took a while, but especially late in the year after the starting pitchers stabilized (preventing the bullpen from having to cover five or six innings) the Angels were able to get dependable late-inning work from Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger and Darren Oliver. Brian Fuentes, his quick work of the Red Sox notwithstanding, can scare you a bit as a closer.
For the Yankees, the discussion starts where the ballgame ends: Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of all time. At 39, he has declined not a bit. Over his career he’s pitched 121 postseason innings with an ERA of 0.74. Zero point seven four. Grok that. The 121 innings, as I learned on Tango Tiger’s blog, came in just over a combined 200 playoff days. Two hundred days is about the length of the regular season, so that means Rivera is likely to give you twice as much work as he would in a regular season series.
In 79 postseason games he has allowed more than one run only twice, and only one of those times did he cost the Yankees a win (Game Seven, 2001). Phil Hughes is an outstanding setup man, and if Chamberlain stays in the bullpen, he’s likely to excel in that role, as he did in 2007.
Advantage Yankees, and it’s a big one.
This is one area where the Yankees have improved. The 2002 and 2005 teams that lost to the Angels were terrible defensive teams. This team is solid, though not quite as good as the Angels in team UZR (+12 Angels, -18 Yankees). Mark Teixeira is one of the best at first base, but Kendry Morales improved over the course of the season and is nearly his equal. Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez are not bad, but don’t have quite the range of Chone Figginsat third or Izturis/Howie Kendrick at second. Jeter had his best defensive season, a tremendous and surprising effort for a 35-year-old (Cal Ripken at the same age was ready to move to third). Jeter does not have the cannon arm or youthful athleticism of Erick Aybar, but is very reliable, no longer a statue on balls hit up the middle, and always in the right place at the right time.
In the outfield the Yanks’ Johnny Damon still has good speed and no arm, while the Angels’ Juan Rivera lacks speed but has a cannon. In the rest of the Angels outfield, Bobby Abreu is a below-average fielder, and Torii Hunter remains a highlight waiting to happen in center, though he doesn’t throw well anymore. For the Yankees, Nick Swisher doesn’t look good in right, but makes it up with great hustle, and Melky Cabrera is about average in center with a very good arm.
This one is close, with a slight edge to the Angels.
The Angels stole 148 bases, led by Figgins (42). The Yankees stole 111, but did so more efficiently (only 28 caught-stealing compared to 63 for the Angels). Abreu, Hunter, Aybar and the second basemen are all threats to run for the Angels. For the Yankees, Jeter led the team with 30 but the biggest threat is pinch-running specialist Brett Gardner (26 in limited time). Damon, Cabrera and Rodriguez pick their spots well, combining for 36 steals in 40 attempts.
The Angels went first base to third on singles 127 times, most in the league. The Yankees were second with 107. The Angels scored from first on doubles 42 times, third best in the league. The Yankees were fifth with 40. And the Angels scored 161 times from second on singles. The Yankees were third with 125. Both teams are sometimes aggressive to a fault: The Angels led the league with 78 outs on bases, and the Yankees were second with 70.
It would be wrong to say these Yankees are a station-to-station club. Despite having an old roster with tremendous power, their record shows an excellent baserunning team, aggressively taking extra bases at every opportunity. But they are merely good. In this category, the Angels are the masters.
Over the past 12 years, the Angels have won the season series against the Yankees eight times. Their head-to-head record in that time is 62-50, Angels. They won both postseason series played, with a combined game record of 6-3 in favor of the Angels. Of course, in light of the Angels’ sweep of Boston, history doesn’t mean much.
Every team wants to win the World Series, but this Angels team seems especially driven, playing with tremendous intensity against Boston, though at the same time perfectly under control. They were especially motivated to not lose again to the Red Sox. They have gotten past that, but I can’t imagine that they’ll relax until they win the whole thing or give their best trying. Scioscia won’t let them. Hunter won’t let them.
The Yankees will be driven as well. They have the nine-year year world championship drought to deal with. They need to erase their postseason frustration with the Angels almost as much as the Angels needed to with the Red Sox. This will be an intense series.
I’ve probably given more advantages in this analysis to the Yankees than the Angels, but the Angels will win. They will win for Arte Moreno, the greatest owner in sports, they will win for Nick Adenhart, who should have been here in more than just the hearts of his teammates, and they will win for Vladimir Guerrero, who might be playing his final games as an Angel.