Baseball BeatOctober 16, 2009
ALCS Smackdown: Angels vs. Yankees
By Rich Lederer and Jeremy Greenhouse

The Los Angeles Angels, champions of the AL West, and the New York Yankees, champions of the AL East, are about ready to step into the ring to battle for the American League Championship, or what some refer to as the heavyweight championship of Major League Baseball.

We'll let Michael Buffer introduce the combatants in the ALCS Smackdown, a preview designed to be informative, entertaining, and edgy.

"In the home field corner . . . wearing the navy blue pinstriped trunks . . . with a record of 103-59 . . . from Pelham, New York . . . Jeremy 'Touching Bases' Greeeeeeeen-house." (Jeremy dances around the ring with his arms held high.)

"In the visitors corner . . . wearing the red and white trunks with dark blue trim . . . with a record of 97-65 . . . from Long Beach, California . . . Rich 'Baseball Beat' Lederer-er-er-er." (Rich stares down his opponent while shadow boxing, showing a quick left jab and a powerful right hook, which is not to be confused with A.J. Burnett's curveball.)

"Let's get ready to rumble®!"

The bell rings several times and Jeremy and Rich walk to the center of the ring to listen to the referee's instructions. They touch gloves and return to their respective corners for last-second words of advice from their handlers.

The bell rings and Jeremy and Rich come out fighting with the latter getting in the first jab of the bout.

Rich: Let's be honest, Jeremy, your Yankees can't be too happy that the Angels beat the Red Sox in the American League Division Series last week. I mean, I gotta think everyone was secretly rooting for ... gasp ... Boston to beat the team that absolutely owns the Yankees, no?

Jeremy: I don't think my body could have physically handled the stress of another Yankees vs. Red Sox ALCS. But my question is this: how long does a team's "ownership" of another team last? Under Mike Scioscia, the Angels have seemingly established the ability to outperform their Pythag and to dominate the Yankees. But I like to think this Yankees team is different from years past, and even if Scioscia is still employing his same old philosophy, his players have changed and his team relies on different strengths and weaknesses.

Rich: A club's ownership of another team lasts until they no longer own 'em. Under Scioscia, the Angels are 53-38 (including postseason) vs. the Yankees. The Yankees don't have a losing record against any other AL team during that same span. While many players have come and gone on both sides, there's no denying that Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera & Co. are tired of losing to the Angels.

Jeremy: And the Angels have a total of zero holdovers from their first year under Scioscia. I'm not here to talk about the past, or random samples of ten games a year, for that matter. Let's take a look at some recent history. Since June 24th, incidentally the date when Brian Cashman flew down to Atlanta to rally his team, the Bombers are 67-27. That's historic. Let me repeat that. 67-27, having scored 135 more runs than the opposition over that span. Looks like Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Mo & Co. are tired of losing, period.

Rich: I wouldn't want to talk about the past if I were in your shoes either. As for recent history, I didn't know the season started on June 24th. In honor of your GM, maybe we can date everything in that subsequent period with a BC next to it. This guy sounds more like General Sherman to me. It makes for a good story to say that the Yankees marched through Georgia and the opposition after that although it excludes the fact that the Angels still won four of seven games in head-to-head competition during this "historic" streak. Let me repeat that. Four and three, having scored 44 runs to the Yankees 34.

Jeremy: But you're not denying that the Yankees are the overall superior team. And the Angels aren't getting a pitching advantage until Jered Weaver starts Game 3. Might Scioscia be over managing in an effort to avoid throwing Weaver, a righty flyball pitcher, at the New Stadium? The Yankees actually hit lefties slightly better than righties this year. I think Scioscia might be out-thinking himself this time.

Rich: Well, if Scioscia is over managing or out-thinking himself as it relates to the starting pitchers, I believe it has more to do with not going with a three-man rotation like Joe Girardi. I'd like to see John Lackey pitch on short rest in Game 4 so he can start Game 7 on normal rest. Instead, it appears as if Big John will be pitching in Games 1 and 5 only. However, if there's a lesson to be learned from the Red Sox series (or the Dodgers-Cardinals NLDS), it's that we tend to overestimate the value of starting pitching on a game-by-game basis in the postseason. These match-ups are close enough that I'm not particularly worried about any of them.

Jeremy: You're not worried about Joe Saunders, the fifth best starter on the team, possibly pitching twice in a seven-game series?

Rich: Not really. Saunders was a much more effective pitcher when he returned from the disabled list in late August. In his final eight starts, Saunders was 7-0 with a 2.55 ERA while greatly improving his strikeout (5.3 K/9), walk (2.4 BB/9), and home run (0.9 HR/9) rates. The fact that you've labeled him as the Angels' fifth-best starter says more about the team's pitching depth than anything else.

Jeremy: Well if we're overestimating the importance of starting pitching, then what are we not valuing properly? I hope it's offense, because I know the Yankees have the Angels beat there, too.

Rich: The Angels. The sabermetric community has been undervaluing the Angels for years. As you noted, Scioscia's clubs have consistently outperformed their Pythag, yet this fact tends to be scoffed at or virtually ignored.

Jeremy: So how should we value the Angels? What, specifically, are we missing?

Rich: The Angels have a style, a brand of baseball that differentiates them from the masses. Dare I say they manufacture runs as well as anybody else? They apply pressure on the opposition by putting the ball in play and running the bases aggressively, including stealing bases at opportune times and going from first to third and second to home on a single more often and at a higher rate than any other team. I find it interesting that the Angels ranked 3rd in OBP and 21st in striking out but only 18th in GIDP. Moreover, they placed 17th in BB and 11th in HR, yet scored the second-most runs in MLB. How can that be? If you want to lay it all on luck or an unsustainably high BABIP, so be it.

Jeremy: I won't peg that all on their high BABIP. But I think the Yankees can do a good job of shutting down their manufacturing of runs. Chone Figgins, who represents a very significant share of those Angel advantages you're referring to, will have to face lefties in two-thirds of his plate appearances, and he's hit .246/.325/.305 against southpaws this year. As lefties, CC Sabathia and Pettitte also do good jobs shutting down the running game, and when A.J. Burnett is on the hill, hopefully Jose Molina will be back there to cut off Angel baserunners. And by the way, the Angels did lead the league in those extra base taken stats you cited, but they were also first in outs on bases. Baseball Prospectus' baserunning metric puts it all together and has them at only a run above average this year.

Rich: Sabathia and Pettitte are 0-4 in five starts with a combined ERA of 7.06 against the Angels this year. As for shutting down the running game, the Angels stole five bases in seven attempts against these two lefties. Figgins is 10-for-34 with six walks in his career vs. CC and AP. As for Molina, you'll be giving up a lot more on offense than you'll be gaining on defense whenever he starts. You do realize that he was the Angels' third-string catcher for 6 1/2 years, right?

Jeremy: Did you see CC and Pettitte pitch last week? 15 strikeouts to one walk combined. I'd love it if the Halos tested the historic batter-pitcher matchups and batted Chone leadoff.

Rich: Oh, Figgy will lead off against CC and Pettitte, for sure, as well as vs. AJ. You can take that to the bank. He batted first in all 158 games he played. The splits haven't been quite as pronounced in years past, but you're correct in noticing that he's much more effective hitting from the left side than the right. That said, he's performed well against the two southpaws that matter most in this series and is 5-for-12 with two extra-base hits vs. your other starting pitcher. For those of you who are scoring at home, that's 15-for-46 with 6 BB vs. the Big Three. But, hey, everything but the Yankees' $200+ million payroll is just a small sample size. Out of curiosity, do you know if the Yankees are close to signing Jason Bay or Matt Holliday in time for the League Championship Series?

Jeremy: Don't need them. But I've heard John Lackey's wife has her heart set on New York.

Rich: No, that was Mark Teixeira's wife. The Teixeiras are from the east coast. Lackey, on the other hand, is from Texas. Moreover, he and his wife live in Newport Beach. I don't see them giving up that lifestyle for the Big Apple unless, of course, the difference in money is gargantuous. You know, like the Yankees' and Angels' payrolls. The Yanks pay Tex $20 million per season and the Halos pay Kendry Morales $600,000 for almost the same production. Go figure.

Jeremy: I wouldn't expect the same production from them this series. Like Figgins, Morales struggles hitting right-handed. Teixeira, on the other hand, if you found a hole in his game last year, I'd love to hear it. Only a .455 wOBA and 6.3 UZR in 54 games while with the Angels.

Rich: Teixeira can flat out rake. I would have loved it had he stayed with the Angels. But he didn't and we move on. Turning first base over to Morales hasn't been such a bad thing though and freeing up money to sign Bobby Abreu (1 x $5M) and Juan Rivera (3/$12.75M) on the cheap has worked out just fine. As for turning Morales and Figgins around, that brings Howie Kendrick (.351/.387/.532 since his recall on the Fourth of July) off the bench and leaves Torii Hunter (.336/.400/.578 vs. LHP) and Rivera (.333/.385/.645) licking their chops. Bring those lefties on.

Jeremy: I find Abreu and Rivera are a very interesting contrast of players. Rivera hits for power but can't get on base, while Abreu has lost his power but still finds his way to first. Rivera posts great defensive numbers. Abreu, not so much. But oddly, Rivera dogs plays non-stop and Abreu does nothing but hustle.

Rich: That fits. The Angels are a well-balanced ballclub. "What makes them tough is they hit, they pitch, they run, they steal, they play defense, good bullpen, good closer, good manager. I think that pretty much wraps it up." Hey, those aren't my words. Your captain said that. Not me.

Jeremy: I'm shocked, shocked to hear Derek Sanderson Jeter say something generic and diplomatic.

Rich: Yeah, he's a really swell guy. I can't wait to hear Tim McCarver slobber all over himself. Thank goodness, FOX only shows Timmy in the booth from the waist up.

Jeremy: But how about all those gritty Angels who play the Angels' brand of baseball? Thank goodness I mute my TV every time the Angels execute a sacrifice bunt. And the Rally Monkey. The horror.

Rich: Ahh, you're just jealous. However, I feel for you as I know it's tough to root for a slo-pitch softball team. Maybe the next New Yankee Stadium can be a real ballpark.

Jeremy: In slo-pitch softball, there's a limit on the amount of homers that can be hit. For this Yankees team, I don't know. And didn't Sky Andrecheck show that teams tend to benefit from playing their home games in quirky parks? I don't see why anybody should apologize for the Yankees taking advantage of their new digs.

Rich: Well, Jeremy, the smackdown is about to end and the showdown is about to begin. There's not much more I can say at this point other than the Angels and Yankees are not only playing for the right to represent the AL in the World Series but perhaps for the Team of the Decade. May the best team win.


Another split vs lefties is Erick Aybar:

325/356/448. Maybe he should lead off against lefties with Figgins 9th. I know it won't happen. Scioscia's not going to change things now. Aybar's splits are consistent for his career as well, 307/341/410. He's a rare switchhitter who hits better righty.

I dunno about Abreu hustling in the outfield.. as a Yankee fan I saw him lazily running around right field for a few years, he doesn't have a great arm and doesn't break on the ball as well as he did when he was younger.. he is however an upgrade defensively over Swisher, who sometimes looks drunk out there... I think it is gonna come down to the bullpens and in my opinion I would rather have Phil Hughes out there instead of Kevin Jepsen..

Great read guys! Thanks for doing this.

As a long time Angels fan (I'd say long-suffering, having watched baseball for 30 years now, but 2002 cleaned that up nicely) who lives in NYC and grew up following the local teams, I'm looking forward to this one. The Yankees are, IMO, the better team, but the Angels are very good and both teams seem to be hitting their strides.

Here's to days without rain and GO HALOS!

Well done by both of you.

Rich, you bring up points that I think ALL analysts are missing.

The Yankees DO have superior overall numbers...against the White Sox Blue Jays Royals Tigers Mariners Rangers etc etc. The Angels, though, have superior numbers to the Yankees in almost every category...head to head. And they are playing each other, aren't they?

"Figgins can't hit lefties." That's OK, because he CAN hit YOUR lefties.

"Saunders is a bad choice to pitch Game 2 against the Yankees." Except he shut them down for 8 1/3 innings about three weeks ago. Yes, Alex and Derek have had success against him. So has Posada, but Posada won't be playing in Game 2. And Teixeira? 2-16 lifetime. Ouch.

"Kendry Morales' numbers are much lower vs. LHP's." Except CC Sabathia. He's 3-9 with a double against THAT lefthander.

Does this mean that will continue? Of course not, but it does mean that analysts touting the Yankees numbers against everybody else...well...bores Angel fans...

So far, the Yankees' overall superiority over 162 games seems to be trumping the Angels' statistical edge in their 10 head-to-head games (which they split 5-5, BTW). Who knew?