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Collision Course

Oct. 02, 2006
Oct. 02, 2006

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Oct. 2, 2006

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Collision Course

Is another Subway Series inevitable? Sure seems to be, but this is October, when there are higher powers than even the pulverizing offenses of the Yankees and the Mets

Rarely have thebest teams in each league been more obvious heading into the postseason thanthey are this week--and not in a half century have both those favorites beenfrom New York. Whether or not Bud Selig, Fox TV executives, fans in theHeartland and John Rocker want to hear it, the World Series figures to be likea grotesquely thick pastrami on rye: pure New York and difficult for anout-of-towner to stomach. ¶ At week's end the Mets and the Yankees were at thetop their leagues in wins; first in the NL and second in the AL, respectively,in run differential; and--this does not go unnoticed in a year in which a newrevenue-sharing system is being negotiated--had their leagues' largestpayrolls. Says one National League general manager of the teams' financialadvantages, "It's fantasy baseball. It's a joke."

This is an article from the Oct. 2, 2006 issue Original Layout

In 2000, when theYankees and the Mets met in the first Subway Series since the Bronx Bombersbeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956, the upstart, wild-card Mets bowed in fivegames. The rest of the country largely ignored the Series; TV ratings fell22.5% from the Yankees-Braves Fall Classic of the previous season. Only theGiants-Angels series in '02 and the White Sox' sweep of the Astros last yearhave drawn smaller audiences.

These Mets,though, have a distinctly different look from their 2000 forebears. WithYankees-like investments in free agents over the last several winters (pitchersTom Glavine, Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner, and centerfielder CarlosBeltran), they blew unchallenged through a weak league. "I don't think anyteam other than the Mets can knock off the Yankees," the NL G.M. says."I know it's baseball and anything can happen, but put it this way: It'sNew York's World Series to lose."

Says an AL G.M.,"The Mets should come out of the NL, but that league is playing for theright to lose the World Series. I don't see enough dominant starting pitchingout there for anybody to shut down the Yankees."

With anunrelenting combination of patience and power on offense, the Yankees are sodeep that manager Joe Torre will not pinch-hit for any of his nine regulars.That puts his lineup in a class with that of Cincinnati's 1976 Big Red Machine,which swept the Yankees in the World Series without platooning or pinch-hittingfor a nonpitcher, and that of the '53 Dodgers, who lost the Fall Classic in sixto the Yankees without replacing any of its eight position players foroffensive purposes.

Who hasfrontline, experienced pitching to thwart the Yankees? The staffs of theirlikely AL obstacles--the Tigers, Twins and A's--are 4--7 combined in playoffstarts, with A's lefty Barry Zito accounting for three of those wins. Moreover,the closers for those clubs have a total of one save and 5 2/3 postseasoninnings. "If we play our game, I'll take our chances," Yankees G.M.Brian Cashman says. "We have a very talented and a very motivated teamthat's a lot more balanced than the last few we've taken into the postseason.We run the bases better, play better defense and find [more] ways toscore."

Similarly, theMets figure to dominate their half of the bracket. Their most glaring flaw is avulnerability to lefthanders. But if Philadelphia doesn't seize the wild card,the Mets would face no lefty closers and only one southpaw starter: 43-year-oldDavid Wells of the Padres.

For all that,fans west of the Hudson River shouldn't tune out yet. The three-roundpostseason format, which debuted in 1995, introduces so much unpredictabilitythat half of the last 12 World Series teams didn't even win their owndivisions. And of the last six Series champions, three did not finish in thetop third of their league in run differential. Dismayed at the idea of a SubwaySeries? Here are some limbs you might go out on.

Mariano Rivera'sright forearm
The Yankees' lineup is at once arguably the most menacing in baseball historyand overrated--at least when it comes to October baseball. In the book BaseballBetween the Numbers, Baseball Prospectus studied every playoff team from 1972through 2005 and concluded, "There is literally no relationship betweenregular-season offense and postseason success." It found that the threemost important postseason factors are a team's ability to strike out batters,its defense and its closer (chart, left). In other words, during the postseasonthe prevention of runs matters more than the accumulation of runs. The Yankees'chances, therefore, hinge less on their lineup than on the health of theircloser, Rivera, who missed most of September with forearm soreness. Torre lovesto deploy him in the eighth inning during the postseason, but he can't do thatif Rivera hasn't fully recovered.

Johan Santana'sleft arm
The Twins' ace is the best starting pitcher in the postseason, and he'll gotwice in a five-game, first-round series. Santana can shut down any offense,leaving the less imposing trio of Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser and Matt Garza towin one of the other three games. Silva and Bonser, however, have pitched wellin September, and with their hard-throwing, shutdown bullpen, the Twins rate asa better postseason pick than the Yankees when the Baseball Prospectus formulais applied.

While not asdominant as Santana, Zito would have to play a similar role for Oakland, thoughhe has struggled against the Yankees (a career 3--9, 5.20 ERA). With his highstrikeout rate and low batting average against, Rich Harden, Oakland's ace whenhealthy, is an intriguing possibility as a shutdown starter. But after missingthree months with right-elbow trouble, Harden's sharpness and durability are inquestion.

Pedro Martinez'sright calf
Like Harden, the Mets' No. 1 starter will have only three tune-up outings afterincurring a strained right calf. But with their deep, ground-ball-crazy bullpenand productive offense, the Mets don't need Martinez to be dominant. "Allwe need is six good innings or so," G.M. Omar Minaya says. Still, Martinez,who restored credibility to the franchise when he signed after the 2004 season,is an emotional touchstone for the team. New York's vincibility increases if hegets cuffed around because he can't push off the rubber or finish hispitches.

The Phillies'left arms
At first glance the Phils, who led the NL in runs through Sunday but were 12thin runs allowed, appear to have the worst profile for the postseason. Accordingto Baseball Prospectus, 20 teams made the playoffs from 1972 through 2005 withbelow-average run prevention. Sixteen of those 20 teams lost in the firstround, and only two reached the World Series (the 1982 Brewers and the '93Phillies, both of whom lost). But that profile is somewhat misleading:Lefthanders Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Randy Wolf made only nine starts in aPhiladelphia uniform before the All-Star break. Hamels and Moyer have pitchedbetter than the league average in most key categories since the middle ofAugust, when the Phillies took off. Then there's righty Brett Myers, who's thekind of flamethrower capable of running a postseason table the way Josh Beckettdid for the '03 Florida Marlins.

Which brings usto the power of the timely hot streak. The 2002 Angels hit a scorching .320 inthe postseason. The 2004 Red Sox, after being down to their last licks, ran offeight wins in a row. The 2005 White Sox, who nearly squandered a 15-gamedivisional lead in the second half, went on a 13--1 tear in October.

That's why eventhe Phillies, who were 16 1/2 games out of first place with a barely .500record on Sept. 2, could strut around last Friday night with nearly as muchconfidence as the fat-cat Yankees and Mets. After hitting his 58th home run andslipping into a Deacon Jones NFL throwback jersey, first baseman Ryan Howarddeclared, "We're more relaxed than ever. We're having fun outthere."

Added shortstopJimmy Rollins, "I keep quoting Jay-Z: 'I will not lose.'"

It's that time ofyear when anything seems possible--even if nothing's more likely than a NewYork--New York World Series.

The SecretSauce

A BASEBALLPROSPECTUS analysis of every playoff series since 1972 revealed threefactors--what BP calls the "secret sauce"--that most reliably predictpostseason success. The sauce's ingredients are 1) a staff's strikeout rate, orEquivalent K/9 (EqK9), which adjusts for a team's league and ballpark; 2)quality of defense, or Fielding Runs above Average (FRAA), an estimate of theruns a team's fielders have saved or cost their pitchers relative to the leagueaverage; and 3) strength of closer, or Win Expectation above Replacement(WXRL), which measures the wins a team's closer has saved against what areplacement-level alternative would've done. These indicators pointed to thematchup between the Astros and the White Sox in last year's World Series, aswell as to the unlikely titles of the 1990 Reds and 2002 Angels. Here are thesecret-sauce rankings of the nine contenders at week's end, with their overallplace among the 30 MLB teams in parentheses. (A team's composite score is thesum of its EqK9, FRAA and WXRL rankings.) --Nate Silver

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PHOTOENVISION/CORBIS (SAUCE BOTTLE)PHOTOJOHN BIEVERHELP WANTED The Tigers need a speedy recovery from the up-and-down Granderson.