What to look for in the Division Series

Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees

Game One Det @ NYY Sep. 30, 2011
Game Two Det @ NYY Oct. 1, 2011
Game Three NYY @ Det Oct. 3, 2011
Game Four* NYY @ Det Oct. 4, 2011
Game Five* Det @ NYY Oct. 6, 2011

Pitching match-ups: Since both teams secured their postseason spots well in advance, the Tigers and the Yankees had the luxury of resting their Game One starters. Tonight, Justin Verlander, Detroit Tiger and AL Cy Young Award favorite, will be matched up against the Yankees’ CC Sabathia.

Both pitchers had an excellent regular season, with Sabathia showing he’s still a solid workhorse while succeeding in one of the most competitive divisions in baseball. However, Verlander’s 24 victories and a nationally televised no-hitter on May 7 against the Toronto Blue Jays probably gives him the edge when awards are handed out this offseason.

Below are some selected full season stats of both pitchers.

CC Sabathia 8.72 2.31 .318 46.6 11.2 3.00 2.88 3.02
Justin Verlander 8.96 2.04 .236 40.2 10.2 2.40 2.99 3.12

They are pretty evenly matched, though since August Sabathia has been hounded by a high BABIP, which has allowed opposing teams to compile double-digit hits in five of his last 10 starts.

During that same span, Verlander has given up more home runs than usual. In his last 69.1 innings dating back to Aug. 6, he has watched 10 home runs sail over the wall. Looking at the data supplied by HitTracker, these 10 were classified as either “plenty” or “no doubters” and would have easily cleared most major league fences.

The second game should see Detroit calling on Doug Fister against the Yankees’ Ivan Nova. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello should get the call as Detroit’s Game Three and Four starters. On the Yankees side, manager Joe Girardi announced that he’ll go with three starters in the ALDS, with Freddy Garcia slated to start Game Three and Sabathia set to return on three day’s rest if Game Four is necessary.

Both bullpens figure to be solid, especially with Detroit’s Al Alburquerque harnessing his command since returning from injuries. He and Joaquin Benoit will be heavily used but the key will be for Jose Valverde to continue finding success despite some statistical warning signs: His K/BB ratio is 2.03 and his FIP (3.55) and xFIP (4.01) far exceed his 2.24 ERA.

Surprising roster moves: The Yankees could be carrying only 11 pitchers with the addition of Chris Dickerson to the active ALDS roster. Since the Tigers’ lineup isn’t too left-handed heavy, the team figured it was unnecessary to roster either Raul Valdes or Aaron Laffey as a second lefty-specialist.

The Tigers seem to have no surprises with Carlos Guillen expected to sit out with a calf strain. This should allow manager Jim Leyland to grab one of his favorite futility… er, utility players. I know Andy Dirks forgot to bring his lucky bat when the Tigers were putting on a laser show this month, but he does bat left-handed and that has to translate into value somewhere.

Keys to success: With everyone bemoaning the state of the Yankees rotation, it’s no surprise that Girardi decided to use a three-man set with A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon and Phil Hughes as likely shadows. Sabathia has long claimed to feed off the adrenaline of do-or-die starts on short rest (and the small data samples do confirm this), but we’ll see if he has enough gas in the tank if the Yankees advance.

The Tigers have been one of the better offensive teams, hitting .310/.374/.519 with a .384 team wOBA during the final month of season. Part of this was fueled by the league’s highest team BABIP of .357 and the second-highest team homer-per-fly ball ratio of 15 percent. Knowing how fickle these stats can be, especially at a team level, it will be a tall order to expect this kind of production to continue.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Game One TB @ Tex Sep. 30, 2011
Game Two TB @ Tex Oct. 1, 2011
Game Three Tex @ TB Oct. 3, 2011
Game Four* Tex @ TB Oct. 4, 2011
Game Five* TB @ Tex Oct. 6, 2011

Pitching match-ups: With David Price used in Wednesday’s finale, the Rays announced that rookie Matt Moore will be the Game One starter, with James Shields set for Game Two in Arlington. Price will get the call on normal rest for Game Three with Jeremy Hellickson as the logical candidate for Game Four.

Prior to the Moore announcement, Jeff Niemann looked to be the de facto starter. Niemann was always a dicey option to start the first game due to the alarming frequency of home runs he has surrendered the past two months. In September, Niemann has given up six home runs in only 23.1 innings, which translates into an alarming 2.31 HR/9 as well as a 28.6 percent HR/FB ratio.

But putting this into further perspective, let’s eliminate the higher-than-usual home run rate from Niemann’s bloated September ERA of 6.94. That leaves us with an xFIP of 3.94. Niemann has pitched better over the second half and that huge divide between his ERA and xFIP is proof that a quality pitcher exists somewhere in that 6-foot-9 frame. Wade Davis was also a possibility, but his struggles against right-handed hitters this season (4.70 K/9; 3.48 BB/9; 1.41 HR/9; 5.37 FIP) should squash that idea, especially with a potent lineup as right-hand heavy as the Rangers.

On the Texas side, C.J. Wilson has been a consistent ace this season. Wilson will start Game One at home with fellow southpaw Derek Holland next. They’ll be followed in some order by Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis. Lewis hasn’t been quite as effective as he was last season, but he does have value on the road. Most of Lewis’ troubles have been due to the long ball: He’s allowed more home runs this season, with a HR/FB rate of 12 percent, despite similar peripherals to last season.

High fly ball pitchers like Lewis rate closer to 12 percent and this should be normal as we go forward. However, he has struggled to keep the ball in the park at home (15.8 percent HR/FB; 2.14 HR/9) compared to away (8.5 percent HR/FB; 1.09 HR/9). He is still effective against right-handed batters since his slider grades above average according to weighted pitch type values, but his other off-speed pitches haven’t been as effective.

Surprising roster moves: Rangers manager Ron Washington has rostered three catchers, including with Matt Treanor, which will sacrifice an extra arm in the bullpen. No surprise that the Rangers decided to place Alexi Ogando in the bullpen, but the addition of Scott Feldman is interesting since he will probably factor in as the long relief option, allowing Ogando to see action in later, high-leverage innings.

As of this writing, the final roster for the Rays has yet to be released but the team was reported to be leaning toward 14 position players and 11 pitchers. With Niemann pushed into a long relief role, it figures that Wade Davis will be the odd man out in this series.

Keys to success: Like last season’s ALDS, this is a rematch between new-school and old-school ideologies. The decision to name an unproven rookie like Moore is one that only the Tampa Bay Rays would have made. I could not imagine any other team making that call.

On the other hand, Washington’s possible decision to go full time with Josh Hamilton in center field and David Murphy in left would seem short-sighted to a team like the Rays, since it negates the defensive value of a player like Craig Gentry, who should be used in center especially when the team is opposing a left-handed starter.

I’m having a hard time believing that Murphy will play left field full time, especially with his career wOBA of .286 in 511 plate appearances against left handed pitchers.

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Game One STL @ PHI Oct. 1, 2011
Game Two STL @ PHI Oct. 2, 2011
Game Three PHI @ STL Oct. 4, 2011
Game Four* PHI @ STL Oct. 5, 2011
Game Five* STL @ PHI Oct. 7, 2011

Pitching match-ups: The Phillies are hoping to take advantage of what has been considered the best rotation in baseball, with Roy Halladay named as the Game One starter. Cliff Lee will follow at home for Game Two, followed by Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in St. Louis for Games Three and Four.

Finding a weakness in this rotation will require a lot of nit-picking. This unit is solid and should perform as expected.

Former fifth starter Vance Worley should find a place in what has been criticized as a very uneven bullpen. At the top, Ryan Madson has been excellent in the closer’s role while Antonio Bastardo and Brad Lidge provide excellent support. Michael Stutes can be a bit up and down but he has found his bearings in the final few days of the season. Not much to see after that.

With the Cardinals having needed to win their final few games, their rotation may look a little thin at the top with Kyle Lohse given the keys for Game One. Edwin Jackson, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia round out the rest of the staff.

Lohse won’t miss a lot of bats and his season low .269 BABIP did help his overall numbers, but he did pitch very well in September, posting a 7.52 K/9 and 1.71 BB/9 with a 2.04 FIP in four starts. He started the season very well but ran into some struggles from June through August: 4.74 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.42 HR/9, 4.89 FIP in 81.2 innings. It is reasonable to wonder which version of Kyle Lohse we can expect come October.

Over the past few seasons, Jackson has shown the ability to handle opposing left-handed batters well. This could come in handy on Sunday.

Surprising roster moves: The Phillies are said to be mulling the idea of adding Joe Blanton to their active roster. Blanton has pitched only n seven innings during the final month, but manager Charlie Manuel will find a way to talk himself into including him among the 11 probable pitchers.

Keys to success: The health of Matt Holliday will be important for the Cardinals this week. When his hand injury occurred on Sept. 14, many figured Holliday would be shut down for the remainder of the season, but things changed over the past 48 hours. If he is still having trouble gripping a bat, it will be better to remain with Allen Craig, who has been tearing the cover off the ball in September (.327/.364/.692; .448 wOBA in 55 plate appearances).

On the Phillies side, the ability of their starters to control the game will dictate how far this team goes in the postseason.

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers

Game One Ari @ MIL Oct. 1, 2011
Game Two Ari @ MIL Oct. 2, 2011
Game Three MIL @ Ari Oct. 4, 2011
Game Four* MIL @ Ari Oct. 5, 2011
Game Five* Ari @ MIL Oct. 7, 2011

Pitching match-ups: The D-backs will open with Ian Kennedy as their Game One starter with Daniel Hudson taking the mound for Game Two. When the team returns home, it’s assumed that Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter will be the starters for Games Three and Four.

Saunders and Collmenter gave up a high frequency of home runs in September, but both were able to survive off a low BABIP (.258 for Saunders; .253 for Collementer). That and a low walk rate—less than two per nine innings—helped keep the damage from escalating. This could be a problem as they get ready to face one of the better offensive teams in the National League.

The Brewers announced that Yovani Gallardo will be the Game One starter with Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf following in that order.

Despite a 4.35 ERA in September, Gallardo was dominating during his final five starts, posting a 14.23 K/9 and 2.03 BB/9. Greinke also finished well, with 9.75 K/9 in his last six starts.

Surprising roster moves: The D-backs figure to roster 11 pitchers, with lefties Wade Miley and Zach Duke as possible long relief options. On the Brewers side, Marco Estrada should factor in on what has been an incredibly efficient bullpen down the stretch. However, nothing should qualify as too surprising unless the D-backs decide to activate Jarrod Parker via the 60-day DL loophole.

Keys to success: Despite their success in 2011, the D-backs have the distinction of leading the National League in swinging strike percentage at 10 percent (this is a statistic that is provided by Fangraphs that measures the percentage of pitches a batter swings and misses on). With the team facing two of the top K/9 performers this season in Gallardo and Grienke, things could get troublesome during key situations at the plate.

Defense and starting pitching were two of the main elements that made the D-backs contenders. Manager Kirk Gibson would be wise to keep this in mind when he assembles the final roster.

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