MLB Playoff Predictions: Divisional Series Pitching Matchups

After a final two weeks of baseball so wild and crazy Nickelodeon would want to make a game show out of it, we’re finally down to eight teams. Structurally flawed teams like the Red Sox and Braves petered out, while teams built around strong starting pitching and consistent offense have survived. Starting Friday, four best-of-five divisional series will begin. On the line: the chance for an AL or NL pennant. Who’s moving on and who’s moving home? Here’s my take (home-field team first).

New York Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers

Justin Verlander will win the Cy Young and has won the AL’s pitching triple crown, but he won’t be starting at home: he’ll be starting at Yankee Stadium, where he’s 0-2 with a 4.00 ERA in three starts. Verlander’s never really dominated the Yankees. CC Sabathia, meanwhile, will make both his starts at home, where he’s 26-7. Sabathia beats Verlander in Game 1 in front of a fired-up Yankees stadium.

Sabathia will start Game 4 on short rest while Verlander would start Game 5 on regular rest. Sabathia can probably beat Rick Porcello – a B+ pitcher (14-9, 4.75 ERA) at best – in Game 4. The Yankees are a statistically stronger and much faster lineup (almost 100 more stolen bases than the Tigers). Combined with the better bullpen, the Yankees have the edge in close games.

With the Yankees’ three-man rotation, rookie Ivan Nova will have to pitch twice, including once on the road. Nova has proven he’s the real deal this season, but there’s no way Verlander loses twice. Which means that to beat the Yankees, the Tigers need Doug Fister (11-13, 2.58 ERA) to beat Nova in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. I don’t see it happening. Fister has a 6.00 ERA against the Yankees, and he’s never won at Yankee Stadium.

Max Scherzer could very easily beat slow-throwing, 34-year old Freddy Garcia in Game 3 at Comerica Park, but it’s won’t be enough. Verlander might be the best pitcher in the majors, but the Yankees’ rotation runs much deeper. Prediction: Yankees in 4.

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Sabathia, Yankees Bullpen Strand 16 Red Sox Base Runners

Darnell McDonald throws his bat after striking out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning as Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli pumps his fist during Tuesday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

All good things must come to an end, including CC Sabathia‘s winless streak against the Red Sox this season and Boston’s explosive offense. Sabathia allowed just two earned runs in six innings Tuesday night at Fenway, and the Red Sox left 16 men on base, losing to the Yankees, 5-2. Boston now leads New York by just a half-game in the AL East.

Sabathia Keeps Runs Just Out of Reach

Sabathia lived on the outside corner Tuesday night. Lefty, righty, it didn’t matter: Sabathia pitched just about every batter away. While this generated a lot of base runners – 11 in six innings – it also meant few opportunities for that one big run-scoring hit. Adrian Gonzalez struggled most with this strategy, striking out swinging against Sabathia three times on breaking balls down and away. Gonzalez finished the game 0-5, the only Red Sox starter without a hit.

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Overpaying Always Better in Baseball

Sabermetrics can help, but if you can't afford relievers who don't allow multiple grand slams, you're rarely going to win. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Oakland A’s missed out on a three-game sweep against the Yankees Thursday because their bullpen allowed 16 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. I followed the game during the final chunk of my drive home from the Midwest with my new car. With me was my mom, and she asked me if this blowout loss was because there just aren’t enough good pitchers to combat all the great hitters in the MLB. A decent question, but a better one is, “Why do teams like the A’s perpetually fall short against the Yankees?” The answer: money, plain and simple.

Skyrocketing free-agent contracts and negotiations have created a situation where every free agent is overvalued. It doesn’t matter how good you are– your contract will to at least some extent be overblown. The reasons for this lies in the current baseball trend of signing young talent to long-term deals before they reach free agency. The assumption underlying it: once a player reaches free agency, he will always take the highest salary available, perpetually favoring big-money teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets, who can afford to overpay for talent.

This strategy may keep young players in the system, but it indirectly creates free-agent classes with fewer players competing for more jobs. This favors the players immensely: If there are only four first basemen available in the off-season, and at least four teams need a first baseman for the following season, then each player only really competes against three other players for that big paycheck. Teams feel they need to solve their problems immediately, so they overpay for those who can immediately fit their needs. The MLB has become short-sighted, always favoring the immediate solution over the long-term.

A perfect example of this is John Lackey, whom the Red Sox signed following the 2009 season. They were still pissed over the Yankees swiping Mark Teixeira the previous off-season, a move that seemed too similar to the Alex Rodriguez fiasco five years prior. The Red Sox wanted to show they could make big, splashy signings as well as the Yankees, so they went after Lackey, who was the best free-agent starting pitcher available.

It didn’t matter that Lackey’s 2009 season wasn’t actually all that good. His 11 wins were the fewest since his sophomore season in 2003. His 3.83 ERA was the highest it had been since 2004. His 176 1/3 innings were the second-fewest since his rookie season. His strikeout-walk ratio had dropped each of the last two seasons. Who cares? The Red Sox wanted the best pitcher available, and they paid $82.5 million to get him. Excluding his recent winning ways (a product of Boston’s lethal offense, not his pitching prowess), how’s that working out?

The Red Sox have the money to sign players to contracts above and beyond what the players are worth, which is good, because every free agents gets paid this way these days. The A’s however, have always been a team with no money, a team that tries to win cheap. The central premise of “Moneyball” was that Billy Beane found a way to win more games over three years than any team ever had before by using sabermetrics to find valuable players who slipped beneath other teams’ notice. Beane used a sort of “baseball calculus” to determine how valuable each player was to his team, and whether that player was worth what the agent was asking.

Thursday’s game showed the downside of this strategy. Statistically, individual relievers contribute the least to a team’s success across the season. While it’s important to have one “bullpen ace” (not necessarily the closer), it’s far more important to have a lineup that can get on base and at least two (or even three) high-quality starters. Given a super-limited budget like the A’s, the bullpen is often crippled to divert resources to more valuable parts.

That crippling puts extra pressure on the Oakland starters. If they can’t go deep, the team suddenly has to entrust its win to its weakest part. Against a team that can afford to overpay for multiple relievers who are just above average (like the Yankees), the A’s usually fall.

Sabermetrics may have initially provided a means for low-budget teams to compete with big boys, but that time is over. In this free-market atmosphere, it’s the teams with the big budgets who usually win.

Long Red Sox-Yankees Games Not Beckett’s Fault

Josh Beckett might take his time pitching to the Yankees, but their speed and power make it necessary. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

In recent years, Red Sox-Yankees games have morphed from simple baseball contests into battles so epic in size and length you could probably get through half of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and still catch the ninth inning. Baseball is inherently slow, and these extra-long games make it even more monotonous. Few have seriously tried to speed up Red Sox-Yankees games, the notable exception being umpire Joe West.

With Sunday’s 3-2 extra-innings Red Sox victory, which took 4 hours and 15 minutes, many critics have begun to lay the blame at the feet of “entitled” pitchers like Josh Beckett, calling for measures as drastic as a pitch clock similar to basketball’s shot clock.

Beckett certainly takes his time between pitches, but is he really to blame?

Beckett Works Faster Than You Think

Games Beckett has started this year have averaged 3:27. A bit on the long side, sure, but a whopping six of Beckett’s starts have gone to extra innings. As the team’s ace and most consistent pitcher, Beckett often finds himself matched up against the best pitcher on the opposing staff. The Red Sox have averaged just 3.7 runs in games started by Beckett. Low-scoring games often mean extra innings.

Removing Beckett’s extra-innings games (21 total extra innings), average game time drops to exactly three hours. If you’re an NL baseball fan – where the pitchers having to hit usually means a full inning of quick and easy pitching – transitioning to the AL, that might seem like a long time. Longtime AL fans know that with the DH making lineups stronger one to nine with fewer sacrificed at-bats, three hours is downright breezy.

Beckett is also a slightly faster pitcher when he faces the Yankees, extra-inning slogs like Sunday’s notwithstanding. In 28 career starts against the Yankees – including two with the Marlins in the 2003 World Series – Beckett’s starts have averaged 3:23.

Beckett has been victimized by great opposing pitchers, extra-inning games and occasionally rain. Beckett can’t control any of these factors, so blaming him for the length of his games is ridiculous.

With the Yankees, Caution is Wise

Even if Beckett takes too long with his pitches against the Yankees, there are some compelling reasons why:

  • The Yankees are patient: The Yankees lead the majors with 441 walks this season. They have the 11th-fewest strikeouts with 785 (seventh in the AL). They rank second behind only the Red Sox in on-base percentage at .344. The Yankees are very good at discerning a bad pitch from a good pitch, and if their hitters are going be that deliberate in their at-bats, shouldn’t Beckett be as deliberate with his pitches? Beckett takes his time because he doesn’t want to risk even a single bad pitch. Which is good, because…
  • The Yankees are powerful: The Yankees lead the majors with 153 home runs, 12 more than the second-place Red Sox. More than that, their offense this season is built around their power. They aren’t an offense that strings together five or six hits and walks, but rather clobbers teams with a lineup in which every hitter is threat to go deep at any moment. Sunday’s game was exactly like that: the Yankees scored just twice, but on solo home runs from their one- and nine-hole hitters, who saw a combined six pitches in two at-bats. The Yankees can score quickly, so it behooves Beckett to make sure every pitch he makes is what he wants and where wants it. Except he can’t just pitch them outside all the time, because…
  • The Yankees are fast: The Yankees lead the AL with 119 steals and are tied with the Rangers for highest success rate at 76 percent. Teams have stolen 16 bags off Beckett (11th most among AL starters) and been caught only four times (bottom 40 percent in success rate). If Beckett takes his time on the mound with Yankees on, it’s because he knows they want to run, and his slowness gives them a good chance of doing so successfully. So he holds the ball as long as he can to disrupt their timing and increase his chances for a fly out or a double play.

Beckett isn’t as slow as people say he is, but he has good reason for taking his time against the Yankees. Beckett owes nothing to a bored and easily distracted t.v. audience, and the fans in the stands want more than anything else to see the Red Sox win. If Beckett’s pace increases the Red Sox’s chances of winning, then how can anyone naysay him?