Saturday, October 6, 2012

Yanks-O's ALDS Preview: 3 Things That Will Decide The Series

(Hey, remember this?)

There wasn't nearly as much drama and work involved as I was personally hoping for last night, but the Orioles sent the Rangers packing and the Yankees now know who they'll play in their divisional round matchup tomorrow night.  As a divisional rivals, the Yanks and O's saw plenty of each other this season.  They played to a 9-9 stalemate in their season series, with the Yankees taking 5 of the first 8 and Orioles winning 6 of the last 10.  That record and those trends mean little now, as the slate is wiped clean for this 5-game series.  But they can give some insight as to the type of things we should be looking for to make predictions and a decision on who will ultimately win.

These teams have a lot of similarities, and there aren't many points of comparison where one has the clear advantage over the other.  The Yankees are the deeper and more talented team on paper, but the O's have played with that undefinable "it factor" all year long, and that is reflected in their undeniably impressive 1-run game and extra-inning records.  I expect this to be a close series and a competitive series, and after the jump are the 3 things that are going to decide who wins.

1) Limiting The Big Bats

Both of these teams can do a lot of damage offensively, evidenced by them finishing 1st (Yankees- 245) and 2nd (Orioles- 214) in MLB in total team home runs this season.  But they're also teams that went through prolonged periods of weak offensive output, and both are prone to being shut down with relative ease and no warning by any opposing pitcher.

The all-or-nothing nature of both offensives is reflected in the numbers; only 2 Yankee regulars have wOBA values higher than .350 (Robinson Cano .392 and Nick Swisher .360), and only 1 Oriole does (Adam Jones .360).  The rest of both teams' lineups are defined by things that contribute to that nature: Nick Markakis' injury, Mark Teixeira's short recovery and recent return, J.J. Hardy's BABIP and lack of walks, Alex Rodriguez's lack of power, Manny Machado's lack of experience, Raul Ibanez's knack for big hits, and Mark Reynolds', Chris Davis', and Curtis Granderson's knacks for striking out.  Pitchers attacking those weaknesses and focusing on really shutting down the better offensive players mentioned above could go a long way.

That will be easier said than done for Baltimore's pitchers.  Both Cano and Swish come into the postseason swinging the bat well.  Swish has 21 hits and 14 RBI in his last 14 games, and Cano is probably the hottest hitter in baseball right now, coming into Game 1 tomorrow with a 9-game multi-hit streak intact.  Jones, on the other hand, has just 2 XBH and 14 strikeouts in his last 10 games dating back to a 9/24 doubleheader against Toronto.  Both Jones and Cano swung the bat well against each other's pitching in the regular season; Swish posted just a .538 OPS in 60 AB.  Whichever team's pitching staffs can do a better job of keeping these guys in check will have the advantage in limiting the runs and a better chance of keeping the entire lineup in check as a result.

2) Which Bullpen Blinks First?

Much in the way that their offenses are similar, there are a lot similarities between both bullpens.  They both have closers who were unexpectedly lockdown this season, they both have hard-throwing righty setup men in front of them, they both have some effective, strikeout LOOGYs, and they both have above-average middle relief depth.  The Yankees' big 3 of Rafael Soriano, Dave Robertson, and Boone Logan strikes out more guys than the Orioles' big 3 of Jim Johnson, Darren O'Day, and Brian Matusz, but the O's guys issue fewer walks and have been just as effective in their roles.

Where the Yankees have the advantage might be in the experience department.  Guys like D-Rob, Logan, Joba Chamberlain, and possible last Yankee relief selection Derek Lowe have plenty of playoff experience in and out of pinstripes.  For the majority of Baltimore's big bullpen arms, this is their first playoff rodeo, and it remains to be seen how they'll adapt and handle the added pressure of the postseason.  Pedro Strop, one of the Orioles' biggest bullpen contributors this season, started to unravel in September, giving up 13 hits, 10 walks, and 6 ER in 8.1 IP, and he was horrible against the Yankees.  In fairness, it's worth mentioning that Rafael Soriano's playoff resume is short and not all that impressive.

The relief corps for both of these teams was a strength this season.  They pitched a lot of innings, and a lot of high-quality innings at that.  Some of those high innings counts could come into play  (looking at you, Boone Logan), as could the previously-mentioned postseason pressure.  In a 5-game series, it doesn't take much to have one bad pitch become a big mistake.  The first bullpen to falter, and possibly cost its team a game, early in the series could end up being the deciding factor if this thing goes 5.

3) Down To Earth or Up To Potential?

The Orioles rotation for this series is likely going to be Jason Hammel in Game 1, Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2, and then Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman in Games 3 and 4.  While they've all made some good starts and come up big in spots, the argument can be made and statistically supported that this group as a whole hasn't pitched as well as their records and ERAs might indicate.  Only 1 of them, Hammel, strikes out more than 8 batters per 9 IP, the other 3 are barely over 7 K/9, and each of them allows more than 2.50 walks per 9.  Tillman and Gonzalez each have FIP values over a full run higher than their ERAs, and Chen pitched really poorly in September, a sign that he could be running out of gas in a season where he's closing in on 200 IP.  Chen and Tillman have also both already been hit hard by the Yankee lineup this season.

The Yankee rotation hasn't pitched all that well against Baltimore this season either.  Both CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes have gotten smacked around in 7 combined starts, giving up 9 HR, 10 BB, and 51 H in 41 IP.  But Hiroki Kuroda pitched well against them in 2 starts, and Game 2 starter Andy Pettitte, arguably the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, has yet to face the O's in 2012 and could dominate the free-swinging lineup if he has his offspeed command.  "Dominate" is a key word when comparing the Yankee rotation to that of Baltimore, because that's what this Sabathia-Pettitte-Kuroda-Phil Hughes rotation is capable of doing.  They strike out more batters than the O's, they give up fewer walks, and they can all have swing-and-miss, complete game stuff if they've got everything working.  We've seen all 4 of these guys come out and completely overmatch teams this year, some of the best lineups in baseball.  They're more than capable of doing it against this lineup.

It comes down to Baltimore's rotation possibly being in over their heads and falling back to earth in a postseason series against a deeper lineup and the Yankees rotation possibly firing on all cylinders and coming out and handcuffing a young, free-swinging lineup.  If either of those things happens, the series is over and the Yankees win.  If it doesn't, however, all the rest of the similarities between these teams come back into play and things balance back out.  Pitching wins in the playoffs, and that will be no different in this series.

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