There’s no rest for the weary, as the New York Yankees just completed the Division Series against Baltimore on Friday and the Detroit Tigers got a plane back from Oakland in the wee hours of the same morning. But the pursuit of the pennant begins immediately, as the American League Championship Series starts Saturday night in the Bronx.
TheSportsNotebook previews the ALCS, looking at each team’s ability to get on base, generate power production, along with their starting pitching and bullpen. We’ll also mix in some historical context and see what the smart money in Las Vegas thinks. On Sunday morning we’ll do the same for the National League Championship Series matchup between St. Louis & San Francisco, a series that opens later that night.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: This is an area that should be a big New York edge, at least based on regular season numbers. The big caveat is that in the first round of the playoffs, everyone except Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira did nothing. Robinson Cano hit just .091 in the five games against Baltimore. For now, the benefit of the doubt has to given to the 162-game body of work, but if Detroit’s pitching can open the ALCS in a similarly strong way, we have to assume a trend is underway.
Detroit got what they needed in the series win over Oakland, getting contributions from Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta and Quintin Berry. The Tigers are heavily reliant on the combination of leadoff man Austin Jackson and catcher Alex Avila, along with big guns Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. None of them really impressed against Oakland, although playing all five games in pitchers’ parks didn’t help anyone.
POWER: New York has the superior season numbers, but the two teams are close enough that we can attribute this to Yankee Stadium being an extreme hitters’ park and Comerica Park in Detroit having a vast outfield. Fielder and Avila, who each bat from the left side, are threats to hit the short porch in right. Cabrera is a threat anytime, and while he only had five hits and a walk in the Oakland series, we should note that two of the hits did go for extra bases and there was never a time when the Triple Crown winner seemed completely out of it.
New York, on the other hand, has a lot of power hitters that look out of it. The Alex Rodriguez story is well-known, with his struggles so thorough that he was pinch-hit for in Game 3 and benched in Game 5. Cano’s struggles were noted above. And the Yankees have to hope that Curtis Granderson’s home run on Friday night is a sign of things to come, because the centerfielder has otherwise been in a slump going back several weeks. Teixeira is hitting, but it’s all singles.
In short, there’s a lot of names and some long resumes in this lineup when it comes to power hitting, but other than Game 3 hero Raul Ibanez—and Cano, who was scorching hot at the end of the regular season—there’s little in the way of recent performance.
STARTING PITCHING: Just as we elevate the Tiger hitters and knock down the Yankee ones because of their home park dimensions, now we have to do the reverse. If New York’s starting pitching—C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettite, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes—could turn in shutdown efforts in a series played entirely at hitters’ parks, what will they do in the middle three games at Detroit?
Conversely, will Detroit’s starters be able to translate their strong success of late to the tighter dimensions of the Bronx? The shorter park means pitching to contact is dangerous. Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez, the Games 1 & 2 starters, need to get their pitches down in the zone or balls that have been long fly outs at forgiving Comerica will be short home runs in the merciless Bronx. And on the flip side, pitch-to-contact hurlers like Pettite and Kuroda will be in great shape at Comerica.
The playoff schedule gave Detroit a huge break. Both Verlander and Sabathia were forced into Game 5 starts in the Division Series, but the Tigers played Thursday and the Yanks on Friday. This in turn means that Verlander can go Games 3 & 7 of the ALCS on full rest. The only game Sabathia can pitch on regular rest would be Game 4. I’d find it hard to believe that Joe Girardi won’t push the big man for one start on short rest and get him in twice, but a fluke of the schedule clearly played in Detroit’s favor.
BULLPEN: Neither team is deep in the pen, but New York is more reliable on the back end, with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano making a better 8th/9th inning tag-team that Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. The potential of Detroit’s Al Albuquerqe gives them an X-factor that could change the situation. Overall though, we’d have to call this area for the Yankees, though both teams will push the starters as long as they can.
HISTORICAL NOTE: For two of baseball’s historic franchises, the best history is surprisingly recent. The three most significant meetings were all in the last 13 years. We can go back to last season, when Detroit won Game 5 of the Division Series in Yankee Stadium. In 2006, the Tigers also ousted the Yanks in the Division Series round.
Finally, in 1999, the movie For Love Of The Game featured Kevin Costner as a Detroit pitcher who threw a perfect game at New York and denied them the pennant. Cynics will say that didn’t actually happen, but is it really a coincidence that since the movie’s release, Detroit’s beaten New York in the postseason twice? Call it the Costner Curse.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: As of now there are no odds posted for this series at BetDSI.com or Scoresandodds.com, the two sources I use for betting information. The ALCS starts at 8 PM ET on Saturday, so it’s safe to assume the numbers will be there by early afternoon. If I had to guess, the Yankees will probably be a narrow favorite—maybe somewhere from (-105) to (-115). Wait, am I now predicting the lines in addition to predicting the games? I need to stop.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PICK: If this plays out on the field the way it does on paper, this series is going to be a nail-biter, the kind of which both teams already survived. I think the park effects factor is the most intriguing storyline, since we get to see how Detroit’s hitting and New York’s pitching will function in more favorable environments when they go on the road.
Assuming that’s a wash, it gives an edge to the Yankees, since I’d rather have good pitching than good hitting, and they have the better bullpen. If all things were equal, I’d say New York in six, possibly seven.
But all things aren’t equal. I think this is the October where Justin Verlander pushes himself to a new level of big-game pitching, something he’s already off to a fine start with. He’ll win Game 3 in his home park. And as good as C.C. was against Baltimore, even if those two face off in the Bronx for Game 7, I’m not going against Verlander. That’s why I’m picking Detroit to win this series in seven games.
Let’s just take that in though—if Girardi opts for pitching Sabathia on short rest in Game 3 (intentions are unannounced, but this is the most logical move unless the Yankees win the first two), that would set up a showdown of the aces in Yankee Stadium for a Game 7. Kevin Costner would have to take a back seat, because that would be too good to be true.