Tonight’s ALCS opens deep in the heart of Texas, and the Rangers will be looking to settle the score for three recent postseason eliminations suffered at the hands of the Yankees. Even though the storyline seems similar to the just completed ALDS against the Twins, the challenge facing the Yankees this time around should be much greater.
Offense Comparison, Season Totals
Texas Hold ‘Em
If the numbers above look familiar, it’s because the Rangers offense is very similar to the Twins’, but with one significant exception: speed. Unlike the plodding Twins, the Rangers stole 123 bases in 161 attempts and have a lineup that can include as many as six stolen base threats. That could be bad news for the Yankees, who trailed the league in nabbing would-be base stealers, particularly in games started by the right handed Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett. Lost amid all the talk about the Rangers’ speed, however, is the fact that the Yankees actually do that part of the game better. Not only did the Bronx Bombers flex their muscles in 2010 with 201 HRs, but they also stole 103 bases in 133 attempts, a success rate six points better than the Rangers’. Nonetheless, the Yankees will need to do a better job holding runners close in late game situations as the Rangers are undoubtedly planning to test the arm of Jorge Posada.
Ironically, one area in which the Rangers do standout is in terms of the number of sacrifice bunts employed. In a sure sign that these aren’t your daddy’s Rangers, Ron Washington had his offense lay down a sacrifice in a league leading 53 situations. Considering the Yankees’ overall offensive superiority, if Washington continues to play for one run, he could be putting his team at a disadvantage.
Key Offensive Players
A popular misconception about the Rangers is their lineup is vulnerable to right handed pitchers. However, the team actually had a much higher OPS against them (.772 vs. .718 versus lefties). A big reason for that split was Josh Hamilton, whose OPS against righties was a sparkling 1.163. Also pitching in against righties have been David Murphy (.847) and Mitch Moreland (.869), but Hamilton’s real partner in crime has been Nelson Cruz (.941). Because Cruz also handles lefties with ease (.976), his presence in the lineup serves as a much needed counterweight, regardless of what kind of pitcher is on the mound.
In a lineup as deep as the Yankees, it’s hard to single out any one hitter, but in this series, it could be Robinson Cano. In 2010, Alex Rodriguez pummeled the Rangers to the tune of .360/.515/.720 in 33 plate appearances, including eight walks. As a result, you can bet Rangers’ pitchers will be loath to let Arod beat them. As his protection in the lineup, Cano is likely to find himself in several key situations, and his performance in them could go along way in determining the Yankees’ success in the series.
Pitching Comparison, Prospective Starters in 2010
Note: Cliff Lee’s numbers with the Seattle Mariners are not included. The statistics for pitchers tentatively scheduled to throw a second time have been counted twice.
Return of AJ
The Yankees emerged from the ALDS with fewer questions about their starting rotation, but the ALCS reintroduces perhaps their biggest concern…A.J. Burnett. The Yankees enigmatic right hander is currently scheduled to go in game four (although he could be pushed back if the Yankees decide to use Sabathia on three days rest), which coming on the heels of Cliff Lee’s start in game three, could make Burnett’s performance a pivotal factor in the series. It would be wrong, however, to let one start by Burnett overshadow the matchup advantages that the Yankees will enjoy because of the Rangers’ need to hold Lee back until the third game, especially if Burnett is opposed by Tommy Hunter, whose pitch-to-contact approach from the right side doesn’t usually bode well against the Yankees.
Key Pitching Matchups
Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia will not be facing each other in the ALCS. Instead, CJ Wilson will square off against Sabathia. Although Wilson had a very good season, he was 0-3 with a 5.65 ERA in 14 1/3 innings against the Yankees. There will be no such margin for error against Sabathia, who has yielded only a .533 OPS against to the current Texas’ roster, so the Rangers need Wilson to reverse that trend. Meanwhile, the Yankees should feel a little more comfortable with their counter to the Ranger’s ace. Although Lee has arguably been one of the most dominant postseason hurlers, Pettitte has been the most prolific. Interestingly, many of the big name hitters in each lineup have done well against both lefties, so each confrontation could be more about limiting the damage than shutting down the opposition.
Colby Lewis has mostly relied on a fastball and slider combination to fuel his successful return to the majors, but that plays directly into the Yankees hands as the Bronx Bombers rank third and first, respectively, in terms of runs above average generated against each pitch. What’s more, Lewis’ tendency to allow fly balls could also get him in trouble against the power laden Yankee lineup. Opposing Lewis in a games 2 and 6 will be Phil Hughes, who also is also prone to the fly ball. Unlike Lewis, however, Hughes’ has a more diverse arsenal, and the Rangers have not been particularly successful against his cutter/curveball combo. Ultimately, who keeps the ball in the park most could determine the outcome of the games in which Hughes and Lewis pitch.
Yankees’ Starters vs. Current Rangers’ Batters
Rangers’ Starters vs. Current Yankees’ Batters
Whose Pen Is Mightier?
Both the Yankees and Rangers featured strong bullpens. In fact, their performance was nearly identical. In Texas’ first round series against the Rays, however, the much relied upon trio of Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland and Darren Oliver struggled a bit, so if their woes carry over to the ALCS, the late game advantage could swing in favor of the Yankees. Although Mariano Rivera remains as the Yankees ultimate late inning edge, it should be noted that the Rangers hung two blown saves on the great closer back in September.
Bullpen Comparison, 2010 Totals
On defense, both teams feature outfields with plus range along with infields that are somewhat below average, although both Cano and Feliz appear much better to the eye than defensive metrics like UZR/150. The Rangers’ greatest advantage in the field is behind the plate, at least on nights when Bengie Molina is catching.
Prediction: Yankees in Five
The Yankees and Rangers are evenly matched in pitching, both starting and the bullpen, and defense, but the Bronx Bombers do have a decided edge with the bats. As a result, the Yankees should have more of a margin for error against pitchers not named Cliff Lee. That luxury, combined with Sabathia’s historic dominance over the Rangers, should be enough for the Yankees to wrap the series up in five games. If that doesn’t happen, you can bet the Yankees will want to get it done by game six because even with Pettitte slated to go in the finale, the specter of beating Lee with all the marbles on the line seems daunting.