Players To Watch: Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia
Detroit's Justin Verlander and New York's CC Sabathia both pitched their teams into the ALCS with complete game victories in all-or-nothing Games 5 and were key factors in two of their team's three wins in the first round. Along the way, they established new Division Series records for for innings pitched (17 2/3 by Sabathia) and strikeouts (22 by Verlander).
Yet, neither had to step up his game for the postseason as both finished the regular season in a similarly dominant fashion. Verlander allowed just two runs in his last four regular season starts and Sabathia completed eight innings in each of his last three. In these two pitchers we have a pair of Cy Young award winners and likely Hall of Famers who are pitching at the top of their game. Here are the numbers from Sabathia's last five starts and Verlander's last six, including both ALDS starts for both pitchers:
Key Matchup: Andy Pettitte vs. the Tigers' gauntlet
The book on pitching to the Tigers is not to let their superstar third- and fourth-place hitters, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and lefty slugger Prince Fielder, beat you. Even Sabathia will have to pitch carefully to those two, as both have impressive career numbers against the Yankee ace (a 1.117 OPS for Cabrera and 1.098 for Fielder).
However, Andy Pettitte, who will start Games 1 and 5 for New York, has an even greater challenge as the two right-handed batters who are likely to follow Cabrera and Fielder in the lineup against the left-handed Pettitte flat-out own him. Delmon Young, who has faced Pettitte more than any other member of the Tigers, is a whopping 13-for-24 (.542) against Pettitte in his career, while Jhonny Peralta is 7-for-18 (.389) with six of those seven hits going for extra bases, three of them home runs, adding three walks for good measure. Neither has struck out more than once in a combined 45 plate appearances against the Yankee veteran.
Pettitte hasn't faced either hitter since 2010, a result of his 2011 retirement and second-half ankle injury this season, but none of them are all that different now than they were then. While small sample warnings certainly apply, those numbers (Peralta's slugging percentage against Pettitte is 1.111) are pretty overwhelming. What's more, while Pettitte appears to have gotten the better of Cabrera in their matchups, a lot of that is the 0-for-8 Cabrera took against Pettitte as a rookie in the 2003 World Series. In 12 confrontations since then, the last coming way back in 2008, Cabrera has a 1.250 OPS against Pettitte, Fielder is 1-for-2 career against Pettitte.
When healthy, Pettitte has been outstanding in his comeback this season and turned in a strong seven-innings in his lone ALDS start, but the Tigers look like a bad matchup for the 40-year-old, which could be bad news for the Yankees given his prominence in their rotation in the wake of Sabathia having to pitch Game 5 of the Division Series.
Stat To Know: Hitless Wonders
A lack of hitting defined the Yankees' series against the Orioles so much so that the Yankees were able to win the series despite hitting just .211/.278/.333 as a team, but did you realize that the Tigers hit just .252/.293/.337 in their series against the A's? The Yankees had more players in vicious ALDS slumps that dragged their series batting averages below the Mendoza line (Robinson Cano: .091, Nick Swisher: .111, Curtis Granderson: .158, Russell Martin, after a hot start to the series: .176, Rodriguez: .125, Chavez: .000). Six of the top seven hitters in the Tigers' lineup -- Austin Jackson, Cabrera, Fielder, Young, Peralta and Andy Dirks -- had an OPS of .668 (via Cabrera's .250/.318/.350 line) or worse in this year's Division Series against Oakland.
Roster Snapshot: Alex Rodriguez, platoon third baseman
Joe Girardi's decision to bench Alex Rodriguez against a right-handed starter in favor of lefty third baseman Eric Chavez had no real impact on Game 5 of the Division Series. Chavez went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts, but the Yankees won anyway, making the decision an afterthought. However, the Yankees are now starting a new series against a team that has only right-handed starting pitchers, which makes one wonder if Girardi will stick to his new strategy of platooning Rodriguez and Chavez, or if he will return Rodriguez to his former status as a default starter. Chavez having gone 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in the Division Series might suggest the latter, but here are some numbers which argue the other way.
Rodriguez vs. Game 1 starter Doug Fister (career): 1-for-9, 2 BB, 3 K
Rodriguez vs. Game 2 starter Anibal Sanchez (career): 0-for-3
Rodriguez vs. Game 4 starter Max Scherzer (career); 1-for-12, 2 BB, 4 K
Both of the hits above were singles. Those are tiny samples, but they certainly don't argue for Rodriguez's reinstatement. Then there's this:
Rodriguez vs. Game 3 starter Justin Verlander (career): .267/.405/.600 in 37 PA, 3 HR
Rodriguez's success against Verlander isn't ancient history. In fact, most of it is from this season, when he went 4-for-6 with two home runs and a walk against Verlander this season. Again a tiny sample, but still worth noting.
If Girardi decides to start Chavez in the first two games of this series, that's consistent with his decision making in the last three games, which has seen him shy away from hitting Rodriguez against right-handers. Controversial though it may be, that decision has a sound foundation. Chavez, who is the better fielder of the two, hit .298/.365/.543 in 274 plate appearances against righties this season, while Rodriguez hit .256/.326/.391 against them in 356 PA. However, if Chavez doesn't show some signs of life at the plate in the first two games and Rodriguez still doesn't start Game 3, there's something rotten in Denmark.
X-factor: Short Rest
Per the above, the Tigers, who wrapped up their Division Series on Thursday, have set their rotation. However, the Yankees' rotation outlook is far less clear. We know that Andy Pettitte will start Game 1 Saturday night, but things immediately get complicated on Sunday when the Yankees' options are starting Hiroki Kuroda on three days of rest or calling on a fifth starter, most likely rookie David Phelps.
The outcome of Game 1 could be the deciding factor there. If the Yankees go with Phelps, they can start Kuroda and CC Sabathia on regular rest in Games 3 and 4, but they might be hesitant to give Phelps the ball if they're already down 0-1 in the series. Of course, if they start Kuroda on short rest in Game 2, their options for Game 3 become Sabathia on short rest or Phil Hughes. Complicating matters, if they do start Kuroda and Sabathia on short rest in Games 2 and 3, they'll have them available on full rest should the series go to Games 6 and 7. However, if they start them on full rest in Games 3 and 4, they'd be on short rest for Games 6 and 7, with the alternative there being Hughes or Phelps in Game 6 followed by Kuroda on full rest or Sabathia on short-rest against a fully-rested Verlander in Game 7. That last scenario would have the team's top two starters, Kuroda and Sabathia, combining for just three starts, while their fourth and fifth starters, Hughes and Phelps, combine for two. Thus, no matter how the Yankees set up their rotation, it will be less than optimal.
The good news for the Yankees here is that Sabathia has experience pitching on short rest and has actually excelled at it in the past, both in the regular and postseasons. In four regular-season starts on short rest, Sabathia is 3-1 with a 1.01 ERA, and in two postseason starts with three days of rest, he is 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA. That's a combined 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA in six career starts on three-days rest. That's a small sample, with the last such game coming in the 2009 World Series, but given that Sabathia threw more than 30 fewer innings than usual this season due to a couple of disabled list stays and has been dominant over his last five starts, that history should give Girardi the confidence to start him on short rest once in the ALCS in order to get his rotation back on schedule.
The trick is the 37-year-old Kuroda, who has never started on short rest in the majors and spent most of his career pitching once a week in Japan. Kuroda has to pitch on short rest once to avoid possibly giving Phelps two starts. The question is whether Girardi would rather have Kuroda do so in Game 2, thus preventing Phelps from starting at all and allowing Kuroda to pitch a potential Game 6 on full rest, or if he'd rather let Phelps start Game 2, throw Kuroda and Sabathia on full rest in Games 3 and 4, and hope that Games 6 and 7, when those two would have to pitch on short rest, aren't needed.
Prediction: Tigers in six.