Monday, October 02, 2006

Let the Season Begin

What a dang surprise. Just about everyone was preparing for a Yanks-Twins ALDS, what with the Tigers leading by a game and holding the tiebreaker with four to play. And although the Twins won just one of their last three, they managed to overcome the Tigers, currently embroiled in a five-game losing streak, including the final three to the Royals.

I have to say that this bodes considerably well for the Yankees. All the hoopla this week was about how the Yanks stood the worst chance in a short series against the Twins, who have the only truly dominant starter of 2006. This scenario works out even better if the Yanks can knock off the Tigers in three (completely feasible, considering the only two losses to the Tigers this season came in the ninth inning while Mariano Rivera was unavailable—and that whole messy business of them being swept by the 100-loss Royals). The A’s and the Twins look to have at least a four-gamer on their hands, and for them to go to a fifth game would mean Johan Santana would only be available for one game in the ALCS, unless they’re willing to start him twice on three days rest.

When facing the Tigers, let’s make sure not to make the mistake of thinking they’re the Tigers from season’s beginning. Those Tigers are not these Tigers. On July 1, they were at 55-26; on August 1 they were 71-35 and 7.5 games up on the second-place White Sox. And on October 2, they finished the season 95-67. Yes, that means they went 24-22 over the last two months, and 40-41 over the last three. To reiterate: 55-26 in the first 81 games, 40-41 in the final 81 games. In contrast, the Yankees were at 46-35 on July 4th, when they hit 81 games. They finished the season 97-65, meaning they went 51-30 in the second half.

For my opinion of the Tigers, I’ll refer to the bit I wrote for Was Watching:

Justin Verlander is a rookie and already in uncharted innings pitched territory. Kenny Rogers is Kenny Rogers, which means he folds at even the slightest hint of pressure. Nate Robertson is largely unproven. That leaves Jeremy Bonderman, whose near 4.00 ERA doesn't really put him at a dominating level.

That isn’t to say that the Tigers pitching staff will flop. Rather, it’s to highlight their shortcoming and prove that they’re not going to run through the playoffs with the same pitching effectiveness as they did the regular season. That problem becomes compounded when you look at their offense.

Now, their total run production wasn’t bad, but in the all-important stat, on-base percentage, the Tigers ranked 12th in the AL with a .329 mark. Translation: the Tigers make outs at an extraordinary rate, which is detrimental in the playoffs, when the impetus of each game is to make outs as infrequently as possible. When you have a finite number of outs, they become much more valuable. In a battle to avoid making the 81st out of the series, the team with the .363 OBP should outlast the team with the .329 OBP.

The only strike against the Yankees at this point is the questionable nature of the pitching staff. Chien-Ming Wang isn’t exactly playoff-proven, and he’s the ace going in. Following him is Mike Mussina, who should be reliable, but is always susceptible to a mid-game meltdown. Randy Johnson is far from a certainty. His balky back (a great term, if not overused) has his Game Three start in question, but the indication now is that he’ll start. Even then, we can gander back to the 2005 ALDS, when Randy’s abysmal performance really killed the Yanks. And then comes Jaret Wright, who, if there is a God, won’t start in the ALDS. Though, when you get to the LCS, the need for a fourth starter will certainly arise, and it looks like (to paraphrase Randy Quaid) Torre will be Old Mother Hubbard, with only Wright in the cupboard.

Still, the Yankees are the team to beat this year. The LDS, while obviously not a shoe-in, shouldn’t pose a huge problem, barring a pitching meltdown. The LCS, however, could be troublesome, with the pitching-heavy A’s or the Santana-ful (I made that up) Twins at hand. But, we’ll worry about that in a week.