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October 15, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Two Recap: Tigers 3, Yankees 0

by Ben Lindbergh

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The tableau in the Yankees’ clubhouse after ALCS Game Two was telling: in a room packed with high-profile players, the greatest gaggle of reporters was gathered around the team’s hitting coach, Kevin Long. They had just filed in from the interview room, where Girardi had said, “We have to make adjustments.” Now they wanted to know what those adjustments would be. Standing just in front of Derek Jeter’s loudly vacant locker, Long fielded questions about why the Yankees haven’t hit over the first two games of this series or the last four games of the ALDS, and what they planned to do about it. At times, the exchange grew testy.

“Do you get the feeling that they’re taking the pressure into the batter’s box with them, feeling the collective failure?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

You’re the hitting coach.”

It’s easy to see why Long might be a bit sensitive—he’s been nowhere near the batter’s box, but the Yankees’ struggles are still in some sense his own. At the height of George Steinbrenner’s compulsive tinkering with his team, a hitting coach probably wouldn’t have survived a string of playoff games marked by so little scoring. The Yankees, who were widely believed to be the best-hitting team when the postseason started, have batted just .205/.277/.326 in seven games since. And since their five-run outburst against Jim Johnson in the ninth inning of Game One against the Orioles, they’ve hit .191/.254/.307 in 245 plate appearances. That’s a .561 OPS, the same as Dee Gordon’s this season. When Gordon posted a .561 OPS, he lost his job to Luis Cruz. The Yankees would kill for Luis Cruz.

If Long had any answers, he’d have given them to his hitters. So he mostly spouted the usual clichés you hear when a team isn’t hitting—guys are trying to do too much, the Tigers are making good pitches, we are who we are and hopefully we’ll get this thing back on track. Gorged on mostly meaningless quotes, the gaggle dispersed to the far corners of the clubhouse in search of further self-flagellation.

Curtis Granderson was asked if he could remember a time when all the Yankees’ big bats had struggled like this simultaneously.

“I’m sure it’s happened at some point in time,” he said. “I honestly can’t remember off the top of my head. But there’s times where you don’t go ahead and score runs, and that’s what’s happening now.”

It probably has happened at some point in time, but not in 2012. There was the stretch of eight games from May 15th to May 22nd, when the Yankees scored 18 runs. But even then, they hit .212/.285/.345. There were the six games from April 30th to May 5th, when the Yankees scored 13 runs and hit five homers—exactly as many runs as they’ve scored and home runs as they’ve hit in their past six games this postseason. But over that span, the Yankees hit a relatively robust .246/.283/.372. The current stretch of six games is the equivalent of more than seven games, since the Yankees have played 10 extra innings this October.

In my Division Series recap, I noted that the Yankees had swung at and missed a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone than they did during the regular season. They’re still doing that. And as Ben Badler noted on Twitter, the Yankees hitters’ hips are flying open as they try to pull outside pitches—particularly, perhaps, Robinson Cano, who’s now 0-for-26 since his double in ALDS Game Two after finishing the season with a .615/.628/1.026 triple-slash line in his last nine games of the regular season. (Joe Girardi’s take on Cano’s hitless streak: “It is odd.”)

Of course, the Yankees’ offensive struggles can’t be blamed entirely on their own failings. As Mark Teixeira noted, opposing pitchers have “tons of time to prepare” for their postseason starts, and postseason pitchers tend to be pretty good to begin with. As Teixeira’s scouting report indicates, the Anibal Sanchez the Yankee saw yesterday could have made any lineup look bad:

Hitting the corners, keep the ball down. Staying away from us mostly, coming in for effect, coming in just to kind of keep us off enough. But he had three pitches working today. Actually four pitches—he threw me a really good curveball, he doesn’t throw a lot of big, slow curveballs. But he had the slider, he had the changeup, and obviously the fastball up to 95.

In most cases, time is all it takes to bring a gifted offensive team’s bats back to life, but the Yankees are two games away from, as Darren O’Day put it during the ALDS, “making tee times.” To make matters worse, those games will be started by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who may have been the AL’s top two starters in the second half of the season. Teixeira called facing Verlander “a fun challenge,” but it wouldn’t be fun to be down 0-3. So what can the Yankees hang their hats on?

“When you’re not winning games, a day off helps you,” offered Long. And if the day off didn’t help, he added, maybe the change of scenery would. “There’s a lot of guys getting booed, and certainly that’s not a fun feeling, so maybe getting on the road will help us out.”

Teixeira echoed the second sentiment.

“There’s no surprise that right field here is shorter, and left-handed hitters tend to pull more here,” Teixeira said. “That’s just the way it is. When it’s going well, it works for you and you can score a lot of runs, but sometimes you pull off the ball. So maybe the bigger field will help us to stay in the middle of the field a little bit.”

It’s a shame that the Yankees’ invisible bats—and a lack of bullpen support, exacerbated by some questionable calls by Girardi—overshadowed Hiroki Kuroda’s performance. Starting on three days’ rest for the first time in the majors, with a career-high innings total already under his belt, Kuroda struck out 11 and walked none in 7 2/3 innings, further cementing his status as one of the offseason’s best signings.

Of course, Kuroda wasn’t quite good enough, but it would’ve taken a shutout just to get the Yankees to extra innings. Relying on a change of date and scenery smacks of desperation, especially against Verlander, but right now, flimsy hopes—and the knowledge that good hitters usually hit, eventually—are all the Yankees have.

***

The eighth inning gave us a new addition to the pantheon of postseason baseball’s blown calls:

Watch Omar Infante’s eyes light up like a kid’s on Christmas morning as he goes from thinking he’s been a very bad baserunner to realizing he’s somehow been called safe:

According to Girardi, second-base umpire Jeff Nelson said Infante’s hand had reached the base before Cano’s glove reached him (Nelson recanted after the game). Girardi argued the call initially and then returned to the dugout, but after seeing the replay—and after a base hit scored Infante—he picked up the argument again, eventually getting himself ejected.

As Girardi noted, Nelson was in position to make the call, so you can’t fault him for his effort, though you can wonder why he didn't make the correct call. If the call had been made correctly, the inning would have been over, and the game would have remained 1-0. The Yankees likely still would have lost, but it’s impossible to say for sure. As Girardi said, “It is different if it’s 1-0 than 3-0. It’s a lot easier for a reliever to relax. He knows if he makes one mistake, it is still 3-1.”

Between that call, the blown call at first base that cost the Yankees at least one run in Game One, and the frustration of watching his hitters vainly hacking away, Girardi was worked up enough to make some strong statements about instant replay after the game.

In this day and age when we have instant replay available to us, it’s got to change. These guys are under tremendous amounts of pressure. It is a tough call for him because the tag is underneath and it’s hard for him to see. And it takes more time to argue and get upset than you get the call right. Too much is at stake.

The replay review Girardi has in mind would not be limited to so-called “boundary calls.” “Let’s have instant replay,” he said. “And not just home runs, fair, foul. Let’s have instant replay.”

Girardi called instant replay “an easy thing” that “takes 30 seconds.” Girardi’s predecessor and Major League Baseball’s current executive vice president of baseball operations, Joe Torre, said MLB is “sensitive to it” and “looking into it.” His comments came a few days after Bug Selig was quoted as saying that he thinks MLB will institute replay for fair/foul and catch/trap calls by next season. Expanded replay certainly hasn’t come quickly, but it’s going to get here eventually. And when it does, we can stop wondering what would have happened had the plays been called correctly.

***

One of the off-the-field stories over the first couple games of this ALCS has been the empty seats at Yankee Stadium, but to hear some of the team’s players tell it, they wouldn’t mind if fewer fans showed up, if the ones who are there are going to be so darn mean to them.

“To go through a stretch like this where it’s kind of a negative attitude, a negative-type setting, it’s tough,” Nick Swisher said. “A lot of people saying a lot of things that I’ve never heard before. For example, I miss that ball in the lights, and the next thing you know, I’m the reason that Jeter got hurt. It’s kind of frustrating.”

The way Swisher has played both this postseason and during the previous three has been kind of frustrating for Yankees fans—he’s hit .158/.249/.283 in the playoffs in 174 plate appearances with the team—so it’s not surprising that he’s hearing from them. Swisher, who normally interacts with the right-field fans through the game, gave them the silent treatment in Game Two in retaliation for their remarks and offered only a half-hearted salute to the Bleacher Creatures during their pre-game roll call.

“I’m one of those guys that, you know, give me a hug, I’ll run through a brick wall for you, man,” Swisher said. “But right now it just seems like there’s a lot of—I’m trying to find the way to word this. It’s tough. It’s really tough. Because you want to go out there, you want to play for your city, you want to play for your team, just right now, it’s just really tough.

“That’s the last thing I ever thought in this ballpark that people would get on you that bad,” Swisher added, before getting a little more maudlin: “It hurts. Sometimes I’m a sensitive guy, and some of the things people are saying really get under your skin a little bit.”

Booing one’s own team seems counterproductive—if anything, one would think, it makes players less likely to improve enough to escape the cycle of boos. And as Swisher said, “It’s not like you’re trying to go out there and do bad on purpose.” That said, complaining about the booing seems like the worst way to get the booing to stop.

Not only are the fans saying mean things to Swisher, they’ve also taken to mooning him.

***

Sometimes this is what two called strikes look like, which helps explain why Cano went hitless in at least one of his last 26 at-bats:

***

I noted in my Game One recap that Jim Leyland would likely make a change at closer after Jose Valverde’s second disastrous outing of the postseason. Leyland did, and I wrote about it at greater length here.

***

Curtis Granderson Clubhouse Audio

Nick Swisher Clubhouse Audio

Mark Teixeira Clubhouse Audio

Raul Ibanez Clubhouse Audio

Hitting Coach Kevin Long Clubhouse Audio

Joe Girardi Interview Room Audio

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

jnossal

Let's be fair, the home plate umpire was calling those low and outside pitches strikes all game long, for both teams.

So Swisher is a senstive guy who needs a hug? He's not long for New York, is he?

Oct 15, 2012 10:01 AM
rating: 1
 
Shaun P.
(676)

The home plate umpire should be calling the strike zone according to the rule book, regardless of who it benefits.

And I'm pretty sure Swisher won't be a Yankee next season - but I think that's more because he allegedly wants a "Jayson Werth-like contract" and the Yanks have repeatedly said they will be under $189M in payroll for 2014, than because of his lack of postseason performance.

Oct 15, 2012 11:54 AM
rating: 0
 
jnossal

I agree. But it isn't like the umpire was favoring one team over the other, the implication given in the Cano example.

Oct 15, 2012 13:31 PM
rating: 0
 
ruben398

The strike zone has been terrible, and seems to have really neutered left handed hitters. I'm surprised that the hitters haven't taken up the balls/strikes call for computerized umpiring, or at least a challenge system similar to tennis. I would imagine that if you gave the pitcher and hitter one challenge each per PA (with a second one if you are right on the first), the strike zone would get fixed really fast. It says something that the biggest problem with that suggestion is that right now there would be a successful challenge on almost every single at bat which would slow the game down.

And this is just my perception, but a bigger strike zone would seem to favor the team with better pitchers who can utilize it. That call was being made in the A's/Tigers series as well, and while Jarrod Parker did okay with it, Justin Verlander was virtually unhittable popping 98mph gas 8 inches off the plate.

Oct 15, 2012 16:58 PM
rating: 1
 
apbadogs

This. In what other sport do officials so blatanly ignore a rule in the rule book? If an ump calls a strike just above the belt the batter nearly has a coronary.

Oct 16, 2012 05:10 AM
rating: 1
 
Justice

Wow, it looks as though Detroit is going to win the AL flag in 2012, maybe in a four game sweep over New York. To the naked eye, the Tigers do not appear to be a very good defensive team but they sure have some strong starting pitching. The Tigers' quartet of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez is likely the best of the starting rotations of the remaining playoff teams. And the Tigers' starters have pitched very well down the stretch.

Bill James once said that a championship team nearly always will have a deep starting rotation. Let's look at the AL this year. The L.A. Angels had a great staff on paper but Dan Haren and Ervin Santana were too inconsistent. The Chicago White Sox had good starters but they were primarily young (Chris Sale in his first season as a starter; Jose Quintana, one year removed from single A; and Hector Santiago), coming off injuries (Jake Peavy) battling injuries (Gavin Floyd and Phil Humber) or injured (John Danks). The Yankees have an all-time great starter in CC Sabathia but it gets thin after that. Hiroki Kuroda pitched well and Phil Hughes pitched well at times. The Yanks did not have much starting depth beyond those guys. Detroit's starting has some years under its belt and was at its best when it counted the most.

I see the Tigers and White Sox each sporting good pitching in future years and battling each other for an extended stretch. But for 2012, it is the Tigers who won the AL Central and who are about to win the AL crown.

Oct 15, 2012 10:39 AM
rating: 1
 
flyingdutchman

Another moron takes away an out from his home team because he is manically obsessed with catching a baseball (as a Tigers fan, okay, I'll take it, but still). Okay, let's hear it, Richard...

Oct 15, 2012 10:41 AM
rating: -2
 
Richard Bergstrom

It's too soon to rehash an argument I already made unless I can figure out a way to add something different like sarcasm.

Oct 15, 2012 16:53 PM
rating: 1
 
flyingdutchman
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Yeah, sorry to get all high 'n mighty, Richard. Fans are just fans, and they'll do stupid stuff. I guess we just shouldn't say anything about it, judge them in any way, or try to make any point about their behavior, no matter how much it illegitmately affects the outcomes of baseball games. Cause ya know, we'd all do the same, right?

Also, as I recall, Richard, the unwarranted sarcasm came from you. I wish I had as much time to sit and criticize legitimate comments on baseball websites all day. Then maybe I'd be just as good a debater as you are!

Oct 16, 2012 10:30 AM
rating: -4
 
Richard Bergstrom

Actually, I was pretty busy that day but since you mentioned me by name, I felt it was only appropriate to reply directly. And thanks for the comments about my debating skills, though I'll admit, I'm not as grounded in the numbers as some others on this site are. Generally, I am pretty busy (though I also type fast) and type up comments while waiting for code to get done spinning. I also do things besides go on the computer (FYI I have a life) so, perhaps if I focused on here, I'd become an even better debater?

In closing and in all seriousness, I'll admit I sometimes I get sarcastic, sometimes I get flippant and sometimes I get silly (hence the parody), but I don't try to insult people directly. I may say "what you wrote is stupid" but I won't say "you are stupid". If I've offended you personally, I do apologize, but I don't hate you, I don't dislike you and if apologizing doesn't try to relate to you better what my intentions are when I participate in BP threads, well, that makes me a bit sad but I will manage to get along in life.

Oct 17, 2012 16:22 PM
rating: 1
 
DetroitDale

A couple days ago, Mitch Williams on MLB Network commented on a screen display of the three big hitters striking out on Fister pitches. It was initally put up to point out, as Lindbergh does here, that all three guys swinging at bad pitches. Williams, after echoing that point, also noticed that the position on their shoulders was opening up and not shortening their swing to make contact. This is, Mitch continued, not a good strategy against guys like Fister because they're not gonna give you pitches they can drive.

The Yankees used to be great at making these adjustments, but now they aren't, and even if they do it now, against Verlander and Scherzer in spacious Comerica, it may already be too late.

I'm renewing my prediction from the previous post (minus the conditional win in game 2 that's happened) Verlander does his thing Tuesday and Wednesday, Mad Max grabs the broom and sweeps what's left of the Yanks out of town.

Oct 15, 2012 10:42 AM
rating: 2
 
whatevergong82

Interesting series so far, but the main thing is that the Yankees simply to put it haven't been hitting at all. You don't win if you don't score, and the New York Yankees are hitting lousy at the very worst time.

If they don't get at least 2 wins in Detroit when the series resumes Tuesday, they are done.

Oct 15, 2012 14:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

"But even then, they hit .212/.285/.345."

Over 8 games, isn't that basically the same as the "191/.254/.307" since Jim Johnson in Game One? The words "even then" make it sound like it's an improvement. Over 240 plate appearances that's, what, a seeing-eye double of difference?

Oct 15, 2012 16:51 PM
rating: 0
 
andrews

The entire article is about the New York Yankees?

Oct 16, 2012 04:32 AM
rating: 0
 
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