Monday, October 03, 2005

For the second time in four seasons, the Angels will meet the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. Last time, things worked out pretty well for the Angels, but the teams have changed. Will the story remain the same?

                          Pythag  Park-Adjusted  
Angels 95 67 761 643 94 68 794 671
Yankees 95 67 886 789 90 72 864 770
Angel Stadium played as a rather significant pitchers’ park this year as the Angels and their opponents only scored 91.8% as many runs in Los Angeles of Anaheim as they did in road games. Yankee Stadium, by contrast, inflated run scoring by 5%.

This doesn’t do much to change our evaluation of the teams, however, as the park tendencies underscore what we already know to be their strengths. The Angels excel at run prevention, while the Yankees are one of the most offensive-minded teams in baseball.

Using the Pythagenpat system, we see that the Yankees appear to have overperformed to get to their 95 wins, though the Angels are within one win of what would be expected. Of course, what has happened until this point doesn’t necessarily represent what will happen, but the Angels appear to have had the stronger regular season.

Here’s how the teams’ frontline position players match up, using Baseball Prospectus' Equivalent Average for hitters (.260 is league average, and the figure is park-adjusted); that's Caught Stealing Percentage for catchers and zone rating for fielders:
              Angels                   Yankees
Pos Player EqA CS% Player EqA CS%
C BMolina .269 .313 Posada .272 .302

1B Erstad .246 .913 Martinez .265 .879
2B Kennedy .264 .836 Cano .261 .818
3B Quinlan .228 .753 A-Rod .338 .733
SS Cabrera .243 .843 Jeter .293 .831
LF Anderson .254 .864 Matsui .293 .820
CF Figgins .272 .859 Williams .241 .860
RF Vlad .324 .880 Sheff .303 .820
DH Rivera .254 Giambi .333

C JMolina .223 Flaherty .137
IF Izturis .235 Womack .209
OF Finley .224 Crosby .227
DH Kotchman .284 Sierra .216
As we all know, the Angel starting lineup is a bit more complicated than that; on any given night, Legs Figgins might play at third (.822 ZR) with Finley in center, and Izturis (.722) also gets an occasional start at the hot corner. Kotchman gets his share of starts at DH, though Ruben Juan Rivera has been hot of late (379/400/586 over the last week), probably buying him some playing time. It’s also notable that Rivera is probably the Angels’ best defensive outfielder, certainly in left, where he had a .917 ZR and notched 3 assists in a mere 289 innings (32 games worth); Garret only managed 4 assists in his 106 games in the field.

Looking at the above, the Yankee offensive advantage is clear. They have better hitters at practically every position, with only Vlad, Adam Kennedy, and Figgins v.CF besting their counterparts. The Angels pick up some on defense, but that advantage is partly negated when Rivera is consigned to DH in lieu of Garret Anderson playing in the field.

Another way the Angels help make up for the gap is with the bench. Though postseason series often come down to frontline talent more than depth, the fact that Mike Scioscia can mix and match his talent might come in handy in a close game. Jose Molina is a better defensive catcher than his brother, making pinch running a pretty good option. Casey Kotchman is a better hitter than anyone on the Yankee bench.

The Yankees will look to Tony Womack for pinch running duties, Ruben Sierra for late-inning thunder, and Bubba Crosby as the Dave Stapleton to Bernie Williams’ Bill Buckner. That’s not exactly Murderers’ Row.

Let’s take a look at the pitching side, with park-adjusted ERA and Baseball Prospectus' Pitching Runs Above Average (a park-adjusted figure):
                Angels                            Yankees
Pitcher IP ERA /Adj RAA IP ERA /Adj RAA
Colon 222.7 3.48 3.63 18 Mussina 179.7 4.41 4.30 4
Lackey 209.0 3.44 3.59 16 Chacon 151.7 3.44 3.15 23
Byrd 204.3 3.74 3.90 7 Johnson 225.7 3.79 3.70 17
Washburn 177.3 3.20 3.34 18 Small 76.0 3.20 3.12 13
Santana 133.7 4.65 4.85 -6 Wang 116.3 4.02 3.92 4

K-Rod 67.3 2.67 2.78 24 Rivera 78.3 1.38 1.35 40
Shields 91.7 2.75 2.87 19 Gordon 80.7 2.57 2.51 16
Escobar 59.7 3.02 3.15 7 Embree 52.0 7.62 7.62 -17
Donnelly 65.3 3.72 3.88 3 Sturtze 78.0 4.73 4.61 -1
One reason the Yankee run prevention has been so bad this season is that they were searching for a combination that made sense. They suffered bad performances and injuries from Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, and Jaret Wright, and firmly established that Al Leiter was done. They eventually found some degree of salvation from Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small. So when we look at the season totals for the Yankees, we have to realize their pitching is better right now than it has been over the course of the season.

However, there is every reason to believe Chacon and Small have been pitching over their heads. Chacon’s strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Yankees was a poor 40:30, and 40 strikeouts in 79 innings isn’t too hot, anyway.

Aaron Small was even worse, striking out only 37 men in 76 innings, with 24 walks. These guys are winning by letting their opponents hit the ball, hopefully on the ground, and letting their defense take care of things.

Do any of the Angel pitchers have misleading statistics? Jarrod Washburn (94:51 K:BB) and Paul Byrd (102:28) are the only finesse-type guys in the rotation; Byrd can get away with the low strikeout rate because of his superlative control.

At the top of the bullpen, Gordon/Rivera might be the only combo in baseball that has a definite edge on Shields/K-Rod. That difference is solely Rivera’s otherworldly excellence; Shields’ higher ERA than Gordon’s may partially be due to the overwork Shields suffered from in late summer.

Once again, where the Angels gain on the Yankees is depth. Kelvim Escobar has been a shining bright light since coming off the DL to save the bullpen, and Brendan Donnelly, though inconsistent, is still a solid pitcher. But the rest of the Yanks bullpen has been a mess, and getting the leads to Gordon and Rivera can be a struggle.

The Angel strategy is clear: keep the game close to the late innings, and get to the scrubs of the Yankee bullpen before they can pull out the big guns. Constantly apply pressure to the Yankee defense with aggressive baserunning, and try to get guys on base for Vlad.

The Yankee gameplan: blast the Angel starters out of the game, not allowing the bullpen to factor in. Let Gordon and Rivera take care of the rest.

The obstacles to the Angel strategy: the Yankee offense is powerful, no matter who they’re facing, and Joe Torre adapts his bullpen strategy in the postseason, giving a ton of innings to his top guys.

The obstacles to the Yankee strategy: the Angels have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, and the Yankee defense is not particularly well-suited to the Angels aggressive style of offense – Bernie Williams has a poor arm in center, Sheffield has little range in left, and Matsui often looks clumsy in left; Posada is also not the best at throwing out basestealers.

The Angels cannot afford to get in a shoot-out with the Yankees. The Yankees are stacked with power, but the only slugger on the Angels is Vlad. Garret Anderson has been fighting injury all year, finally turning it on in the last few days. Continued power from Garret and Juan Rivera will go a long way toward an Angel victory.

The Yankees cannot afford for their starting pitchers to get knocked around early. They don’t have the bullpen depth to get the game to Gordon and Rivera if that happens, and will be faced with trying to come back against a deep and rested bullpen. The starters have to keep the team in the game, allowing the Yankee offense chances to outslug the Angels.

The Angels are 6-4 against the Yankees this season. As you are sure to hear several times over the next few days, the Angels are the only team to have a winning record against the Yankees from 1996 through the present.

The truth is the Angels could easily have been 8-2 against the Yankees, as you will soon see. The Lads went into the Bronx immediately following the 18-inning loss to Toronto which wasted the bullpen. The Angels blew two leads in that Yankee series, leads that usually would not have been blown – though obviously the Yankee offense and its comeback ability should not be underestimated. The Yankees actually outscored the Angels 49-47 this year, largely due to the A-Rod game.

Let’s take a look at each game the Angels and Yankees have played this season:

April 26, at Yankee Stadium: Yankees 12, Angels 4
This was the game where A-Rod erupted against Bartolo Colon, knocking in 10 runs with 3 home runs. The Angels also suffered from errors by Dallas McPherson and Legs Figgins.

April 27, at Yankee Stadium: Angels 5, Yankees 1
Even Steve Finley homered off of Mike Mussina in this game. Jarrod Washburn pitched well, handing the lead to Scot Shields in the eighth to finish off the win.

April 28, at Yankee Stadium: Angels 3, Yankees 1
John Lackey out-dueled Kevin Brown, pitching out of several jams and handing the ball to the bullpen in the sixth. This was actually a pretty big turning point in Lackey’s season, as he dropped his ERA from 6.64 to 5.61, putting it into a freefall that continued pretty much unabated.

July 21, at Angel Stadium: Angels 6, Yankees 5
Vlad Guerrero entered this game slumping, but got the last word with seventh-inning grand slam off of Tom Gordon that overcame a 5-2 deficit.

July 22, at Angel Stadium: Angels 6, Yankees 3
This time John Lackey got the best of Al Leiter, though he pitched another arduous game that relied on the bullpen to hang on to the lead.

July 23, at Angel Stadium: Angels 8, Yankees 6
The Angels were able to win this shoot-out with the help of a three-run homer from Vlad. Ervin Santana beat Kevin Brown, with the Angel bullpen once again holding on.

July 24, at Angel Stadium: Yankees 4, Angels 1
Jarrod Washburn pitched well for six innings, but Hideki Matsui got to him for a two-run homer in the seventh, and Mike Mussina ably turned away the Angels’ few chances to score any runs.

July 29, at Yankee Stadium: Angels 4, Yankees 1
Coming off a 2-1, 18-inning loss in Toronto, the Angels needed a big start from rookie Ervin Santana. He obliged with a solid 6 1/3 innings, notching his first career road win. But – the Angels had to use Donnelly, Shields, and Francisco Rodriguez, each of whom had pitched the previous night.

July 30, at Yankee Stadium: Yankees 8, Angels 7
K-Rod tends to pitch poorly when asked to pitch three straight days, and this game is a big part of that pattern. Asked to protect a 7-5 Angel lead in the ninth, Frankie struggled to find home plate, walking four men before Hideki Matsui won the game with a double.

July 31, at Yankee Stadium: Yankees 8, Angels 7
The Angels led 7-6 in the tenth, but the Yankees had loaded the bases with two outs. Gary Sheffield hit an easy bouncer to Orlando Cabrera, who just … dropped it. Inexplicably, Sheffield was credited with the hit (just mentally drop his RBI total by one, because it’s one of the worst scoring decisions I’ve ever seen), the Yankees tied the game, and Tony Womack singled through a drawn-in infield to score Matsui and win the game in the eleventh.

The one thing we can pretty much guarantee: there will be some hard-fought games.

Look at each game the teams have played thus far. With the exception of the A-Rod explosion, these have been close games that come down to one big hit or fielding play. Despite their contrasting styles, the Angels and Yankees have played each other ferociously.

The Yankees and Angels both come into the series hot, adding to the expectation of an exciting series. Obviously, either one of these teams are good enough to win the series. It’s going to come down to a few plays here and there, who executes better, who gets the big hit, who records the key strikeout. It should be baseball at its finest.

And the Angels are gonna kick some ass.

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