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The ALCS Preview

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The Rangers, for the fourth time in franchise history, must get through New York to advance in the playoffs. There's no reason to think they can't do just that.

Magic Number: 8

What. You didn't think you'd get to go to the World Series without exorcising a few demons, did you?

100% of the Rangers' post season excursions have featured trips to Yankee Stadium, and their most successful run yet will be no different. Despite what the national media is telling you, the Rangers are not destined to lose this series, either. That doesn't mean they're necessarily the favorites they looked to be against Tampa, but they have every chance to go to the World Series.

Think of it this way: Yes, the Yankees were better this season. From a true performance standpoint, they were something in the neighborhood of eight wins better. However, if the Rangers get full seasons from Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz, the way they played when they were in the lineup, that ground is mostly made up. Further, if you switch out the innings given to the back of the Rangers' rotation all year and give them to Cliff Lee, the difference in performance between the Yankees and Rangers becomes just about negligible. Now, Hamilton, Cruz and Kinsler certainly don't seem like good bets to play full seasons and the Rangers didn't have Cliff Lee all year, but they have all of them right now. So, in a healthy seven game set against the Yankees, the difference is not likely very big at all.

Not to say the Yankees aren't daunting.

Anyway, there is only one American League Championship Series played every year. For the first time ever, that series will involve the Texas Rangers.

Isn't that cool?

FanGraphs' Top Five Yankees In 2010

  1. Robinson Cano, 2B: 696 PA, .319/.381/.534, 7/-0.6 DRS/UZR, .389 wOBA, 6.4 WAR
  2. Brett Gardner, LF: 569 PA, .277/.383/.379, 17/21.9 DRS/UZR, .358 wOBA, 5.4 WAR
  3. CC Sabathia, SP: 237.2 IP, 7.46 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 3.18 ERA, 3.44 tERA, 3.54 FIP, 5.1 WAR
  4. Nick Swisher, RF: 635 PA, .288/.359/.511, 6/-1.5 DRS/UZR, .377 wOBA, 4.1 WAR
  5. Alex Rodriguez, 3B: 595 PA, .270/.341/.506, -5/-1.8 DRS/UZR, .363 wOBA, 3.9 WAR

Unfortunately, I don't have the time to dedicate to the ALCS preview that I did to the ALDS, and I apologize for that (unless you're a big fan of brevity). There's a glossary of stats at the bottom of the preview if you see anything you're unfamiliar with.

Cano's season has been well publicized, and it deserves to be. He's had a great year. Many seasons, like the year Dustin Pedroia won, he would probably belong as the favorite for the MVP. Gardner's year has been a lot less publicized, but he's combined well above-average offense with some incredible defense.

Sabathia, like Price in the last round, has managed to get a bit overrated this season, but he's still had an extremely good year. He should absolutely not be getting Cy Young attention based on an antiquated concept like crediting wins and losses to a pitcher, but he'd be the top starter on most teams in baseball. That said, his year was pretty close to Colby Lewis, who no one seems to give any attention at all. It should also be pointed out that Sabathia is far from an automatic loss in the post season. How much of his career 4.41 post season ERA is on him I'm not sure of at the moment, but it goes to show even an elite pitcher can be scored on come October. And Sabathia is not as elite as his former teammate that just dominated the Rays.

It's a surprisingly big drop off from these five and Mark Teixeira for the Yankees this season, with most of the rest being mediocre at best. That's interesting for how good the team ended up being, but when you have guys like Marcus Thames, Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns -- who many teams would call starters -- as depth, things are probably going to go well.



Probable Yankees Lineup

  1. SS Derek Jeter
  2. RF Nick Swisher
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. 3B Alex Rodriguez
  5. 2B Robinson Cano
  6. DH Marcus Thames/Lance Berkman
  7. C Jorge Posada
  8. CF Curtis Granderson
  9. LF Brett Gardner

The above chart compares each likely starting offense for most of the series in terms of weighted On Base Average (OPS with better weights on an OBP scale). Two things stand out. The first is that Josh Hamilton was, by far, the best offensive player in 2010 participating in this series. The second is that the Yankees offense is stacked. The only person who was below average in 2010 was Derek Jeter, and he was close. In fact, of the people like to see most of the playing time this series (Thames is the DH on the chart), every Yankee was over .350, an extremely impressive mark. Pitchers going against the Yankees never have a down moment, a player who they can take a break with and still be safe most of the time, and that, coupled with their patience, makes them a brutal lineup to navigate.

There are a few platoons likely to be seen in this series. Firstly, the Rangers are hanging on to Jorge Cantu and, I assume, will be playing him against lefties. If they don't, I don't expect Mitch Moreland to hit lefties much better than Cantu, however. For that chart, though, it underrates the Rangers a bit, since Cantu's total wOBA is what shows up. Moreland has put up a .357 wOBA overall, and in the games where the Rangers will be facing righties -- which should be games two, five and six -- the offense will likely be better off.

Second, for the Rangers, is David Murphy and Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur, overall, also does not look very good up against Jorge Posada, but he's put up a .341 wOBA against lefties this year, which is all he should be facing. David Murphy meanwhile has had a .358 overall and a slightly-better .364 against righties, which is all he should be facing. Using the two of them as a platoon split also makes the Rangers a little weaker when more than half of the games are started by lefties, but it brings them a lot closer to their Yankees counterpart than Francoeur's overall offensive rates suggest.

For the Yankees, their platoon in the playoffs has been at DH with Berkman and Thames. Thames and his .365 wOBA overall is represented up there, while Berkman has hit .345 (in Houston and New York). Weirdly, Thames, who will face the Rangers lefties, has actually had a reverse split this year, going .354. That appears to be a fluke, though. Berkman, also, has hit worse against righties, with only a .236 wOBA this season. That, too, seems to be a fluke. For the final simulation, I'll be including the platoons as well as their career split difference, rather than the weird small sample size splits they've shown this season.

Make no mistake, the Yankees offense is the most lethal in baseball. When healthy, though, the Rangers are almost as rough on hitters. In fact, when you take these two lineups -- including the platoons (4/7 of the time against lefties and 3/7 of the time against righties) -- adjust for the ballpark and apply some regression for players with small samples, the 2010 Rangers lineup comes up just one tenth of a run per game behind the Yankees in expected output. That's not even a full run advantage for New York in a seven game series.

That hinges, however, on Josh Hamilton. These comparisons and projections expect Hamilton to be healthy, something he didn't seem to show against the Rays. While the Yankees have hitters across the lineup, to perform to the offensive expectations that have Texas close to New York, the Rangers will need Hamilton to continue to hit like one of the best hitters in baseball, or someone unexpected (like Molina in the ALDS) to step up and hit significantly better than they did in 2010. Further, if someone gets hurt, the Yankees' depth will cause a much smaller loss in offense than the Rangers would face. If everyone is healthy and hits close to their expectations, the offenses in this series care close, but the Yankees have the smaller margin for error.



Probable Starters

  1. LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
  2. RHP Phil Hughes vs. RHP Colby Lewis
  3. LHP Andy Pettitte vs. LHP Cliff Lee
  4. RHP A.J. Burnett vs. RHP Tommy Hunter
  5. LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
  6. RHP Phil Hughes vs. RHP Colby Lewis
  7. LHP Andy Pettitte vs. LHP Cliff Lee

This chart compares each probable starter in terms of Fielding Independent Pitching. Much like the Rays series, pitching is the Rangers advantage in this series. And, much like the Rays series, that feels weird to say.

Sabathia and Wilson should be matching up in game one in Arlington and game five (if necessary) in the Bronx. From a FIP standpoint, it's a very close match-up. In fact, once you consider the fact that he plays half his games in a severe hitters' park, it likely favors Wilson from that angle. I've mentioned Sabathia's overratedness this season already. However, this may, also, be overrating Wilson. While his 3.58 FIP is very nice, his 4.20 xFIP suggest he's been very lucky on the rate of his fly balls that haven't turned in to home runs. I expressed concern over this in the ALDS preview and he went out and dominated game two, anyway. This makes game one a huge matchup, as there is a pretty big question mark (relative to most players) next to Wilson. He may be as good as CC Sabathia and the Rangers may have the edge in game one, or Texas may be pretty big underdogs in their first game at home. A lot of this series rides on how much truth there was to C.J. Wilson's HR/FB rate in 2010.

Sabathia is a high strikeout guy, getting more than 7.5 per nine innings, but he also gives up nearly three walks per nine; he's vulnerable to the free pass. He gets his fastballs over at around 94 miles per hour, relying on them nearly two thirds of the time. He pairs them with a change-up that comes in around seven MPH behind his heater and a slider in the low 80s, both of which he throws about 15% of the time. His last pitch is something like a power curve that gets less movement and more velocity than the standard curve, but that's rarely seen these days.

Lewis vs. Hughes in games two and six represent two great opportunities for the Rangers to win. Both games are in Arlington, and Lewis has been the better pitcher by a fairly comfortable margin in 2010. While game one is a questionable game that will be huge for either victor, losing one, let alone both, of the Colby Lewis starts would be incredibly damaging for the Rangers, and would mean they'd have to take a game that strongly favors the Yankees in order to have a hope in the series.

Phil Hughes is a solid young pitcher with a bright future, but is clearly the weakest pitcher both in terms of 2010 and track record in this series outside of game four. He's a very extreme fly ball pitcher that will be starting games in Arlington, a tough order, and also a good bet to hand out a few walks. Hughes is an almost-all-fastballs kind of guy, throwing his four and two seamers combined nearly two thirds of the time, both sitting in the low 90s. He fits with them a cutter around a fifth of the time that comes in about five miles per hour slower and has, very little movement. He also has a curveball with extreme bite he pulls out roughly as often as his cutter. Despite the movement profiles, the cutter has been a much more effective pitch out of his two secondary offerings.

Lee vs. Pettitte in games three and seven are hugely pivotal. One, of course, is the decisive game. The other is a game on the road that happens to favor the Rangers. Pettitte is a post season legend, but in 2010 he was "merely" decent while Cliff Lee was, much like the previous two seasons, one of the absolute best pitchers in baseball (and is becoming a post season legend himself). In game three, Lee will be going on the road with a chance to either salvage the series for the Rangers (0-2), give them a sizable advantage (1-1) or give them a massive advantage (2-0). Oh, and don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you it's a big deal that Cliff Lee isn't starting game one. Even if you assume both of his starts are wins, the Rangers would still have to win two games elsewhere. What order those wins come in is mostly irrelevant. There are some small came theory changes made by where you start what pitchers, but, for all intents and purposes, as long as Cliff Lee starts two games on full rest, it's irrelevant which two he starts.

Andy Pettitte is still a good pitcher. In fact, other than allowing more fly balls and upping his strikeout rate, he's pretty much the same pitcher he's always been, outside of a few elite seasons here and there in his prime. He gives around a third of a time to secondary pitches that confuse me. Some seasons there are a lot of cutters, some seasons a lot of two seamers and some seasons a lot of sliders. I suspect he mostly has a cutter and a two seamer, leaning on the low-80s cutter the most. He never threw anything this year that FanGraphs identifies as a slider. His primary fastball struggles to hit the 90s and his curveball doesn't have a whole lot of break, but that doesn't stop him from being effective.

Hunter vs. Burnett is the game where each team starts someone who isn't good. It's a pretty ugly game that will hopefully not be the clincher, or the nation will be underwhelmed. As far as the starting pitchers, it presents a fairly close match-up, with Burnett having the edge in raw FIP, but that edge shrinks as you consider fly ball luck and home park. With the game at home, however, it still likely favors the Yankees. I'm not at all certain, though, that if the Yankees are down in the series they won't go ahead and throw out Sabathia on short rest.

Burnett has absolutely fallen apart this year, with his home run rate continuing to climb over recent years and his strikeout rate falling off a cliff in 2010. His Pitchf/x profile claims he suddenly developed a knuckle curve and stopped throwing a regular curve, and he began throwing a two seam fastball he never threw before. Either he's changed his pitches or suddenly has no control over what he's always through. I'm betting on the latter. He's also steadily lost velocity on his fastball, dropping from the mid to low 90s over the last few years.

The bullpens are pretty close, probably slightly favoring the Yankees with Frank Francisco out. The Rangers look a bit deeper, while the Yankees are very strong on the back end with Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera. Rivera, of course, is the greatest closer ever born and has one hell of a post season track record. The Rangers, of course, proved a couple times this year that even Mariano Rivera can be beaten.



The defensive chart, as usual, is subject to some small sample size issues and is just merely an estimate of how this series starters have played in 2010. There's not a lot of evidence the Rangers' platoons will dramatically change the defense, either.

Brett Gardner's Ultimate Zone Rating in left field is certainly awe inspiring, but, overall, the Rangers are likely the better defense. Splitting the difference between the UZR and Defensive Runs Saved, the Rangers come out looking around half a run saved better over a seven game series. Not a dramatic difference, but that's better than having the disadvantage. More importantly, it makes up a lot of the difference between the two offenses (when healthy), allowing the Rangers' pitching a chance to take control of the series.


Who has the advantage over the ALDS length? The Rangers for getting to play more live games, or the Yankees for having more rest? I don't know, and I'm not going to come up with an answer, I just felt like asking.

With some regression to the elements all discussed above, along with park adjustment, and with the platoons and homefield advantage included, the Rangers should actually be expected in a neutral setting with these lineups to outscore the Yankees ever so slightly, to the tune of around 0.3 runs for the entire series. Both teams should come in expecting to score around five runs a game, more, obviously, against the Burnetts and Hunters and less against the Lees and Sabathias.

Putting the Rangers' lineup against the Yankees' run prevention -- specifically as they should show up in the individual games -- can give us a pythagorean expectation for each match up. Game one looks like a fifty-fifty toss up if Wilson's home run rate is regressed, but favors the Rangers if it's not. The difference between Wilson's FIP and xFIP makes roughly the same difference in pythagorean record, in fact, as homefield advantage does. The rematch in game five comes out looking decisively like a Yankees win around 60% of the time though, again, less so if Wilson performs closer to his FIP than his xFIP (and even less so if he repeats game two of the ALDS).

Game two and six, by virtue of being in the same park both times, favors the Rangers around 57%. Once again, those games are pretty big for the Rangers. Much like over the course of a season, you have to win the games where you're the better team or you're stuck playing catchup somewhere else. It will be hard to feel good if the Rangers can't win game two.

In a neutral setting, Lee vs. Pettitte favors the Rangers just as much as the Lewis games. Game three in New York still favors the Rangers, but they could only be expected to win around 53% of the time on the road. At home, however, game seven looks like the most one-sided potential game of this series, with the Rangers looking to have close to a .620 record in that matchup.

Game four is fairly close in a neutral setting, but favors the Yankees around 55% of the time in New York. Along with game one, it likely serves as the biggest swing game of the series outside of one of the teams pulling off a sizable upset elsewhere while also avoiding an upset at their expense.

Plugging all of that in to a simulation designed by Steve Sommers gives us this distribution of wins for the Rangers.


The bar all the way to the right is the big one, and I firmly agree with what it says: this ALCS is a toss up that ever-so-slightly favors the Yankees, with New York winning just under 51% of the time. I think it may favor New York even more than that, given their depth and questions about Hamilton, but there is absolutely no reason to just assume one team or the other is going to win this series. That may be no fun for our confidence, but isn't hearing me say that a lot better than hearing ESPN tell you Yankees-Phillies is a done deal?

The Rangers are swept here less than 1% of the time and manage to win at least two games (if all seven are played) more than 94%. Meanwhile, not only do the Yankees have fewer question marks and thus probably more chance for dominance, but the order of match-ups makes it more likely for the Yankees to make this series look one sided, as two of the Rangers' three best chances to win come in the back end of the series. But, that just means surviving long enough to return to Arlington would favor the Rangers quite a bit.

When a series is this close, though, small things make a difference. For example, I've discussed the difference between Wilson's FIP and xFIP. XFIP was used for the projection, but just going halfway between the two numbers alone shifts the series towards favoring the Rangers. If the series is a toss-up under the assumption that Wilson was fairly lucky, than the more he proves he wasn't lucky the more the series favors the Rangers. Meanwhile, Hamilton continuing to hit terribly without someone else stepping up would be extremely difficult to overcome even with Wilson pitching fully to his 2010 FIP. In a small sample just about all baseball players have question marks, but Wilson and Hamilton have probably the biggest for the Rangers right now, and how they respond is huge for this series. Hamilton, so far, has not done much encouraging, but Wilson has.

I know the following is not in-depth analysis, but it's what this all comes down to: we'll just have to wait and see. This series is a coin flip. Declaring one team decisively favored one way or the other is silly. In a week we'll know how it turned out, and with some (but not necessarily much) luck it will have turned out pretty well.

If, somehow, it doesn't, just remember the summit the Rangers finally scaled this season, how great this year has been, and that losing the Yankees is nothing to be ashamed of. The next week will be some of the biggest games in franchise history, but whatever happens, this should be a year remembered fondly.

As always, go Rangers.

Glossary: WAR, DRS, UZR, wOBA, FIP, tERA

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.