My stat of choice is again VORP, which answers the musical question, “How many runs above the theoretical journeyman Triple-A player did the player contribute?” VORP does not include defense, but we’ll talk about that.
Remember that this is just a ballpark estimate. On any given day, Player B can be better than Player A, even if Player A is the best player overall.
RYAN HOWARD (47.7 VORP, 9th among 1Bs) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7, 5th)
Let’s begin with the obvious. A switch-hitter, Teixeira is a career .281/.371/.547 hitter against right-handed pitchers and a career .309/.394/.537 hitter against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Howard is a career .307/.409/.661 hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a typo: he slugs a Ruthian .661 against righties, with a home run every 10 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers are a different story. He’s a career .226/.310/.444 hitter against them, striking out about 40 percent of the time, with a home run every 18 at-bats. This year was worse than the norm, with Howard slumping to .207/.298/.356 against left-handers, hitting just six homers in 222 at-bats against them (while slugging .691 against righties).
Some would say that this makes Howard a platoon player who has been overextended into a regular role. I would argue that in most years his home run rate against southpaws still works out to 30 over a full season, so he would still be worth playing against the majority of southpaws. Still, Howard’s potency can be greatly reduced by employing left-handed pitchers against him, and he’s the one player where Joe Girardi can enjoy his Coffee Joe propensities to their fullest extent. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, there is no time after, say, the fifth inning that Howard should be allowed to face a right-hander.
Howard gets a bad rap on defense, but he’s not Dick Stuart out there. He’s also not Teixeira, but there’s some decent ground in between those two extremes. One interesting difference between the two is that playing in the National League, Howard had to do a lot more throwing than Teixeira, fielding 21 bunts to Teixeira’s five. Despite showing great range off the bag, Teixeira somehow did less throwing this year than at any other time in his career. Still, the quality of Teixeira’s defense shows in where he threw the ball. Though he had only 49 assists, 29 of them were on plays away from first base, whereas Howard, though he had 95 assists, had only 26 plays away from first base.
There aren’t many better hitters against right-handed pitching than Howard. Teixeira, assuming he can finally dig out of his postseason slump, is the more versatile offensive and defensive package. This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but if the Yankees aren’t careful about how they handle Howard, this could easily go the other way.
CHASE UTLEY (61.7, 1st) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)
Though he’s been a four-time All-Star, Utley is one of the game’s great unsung players, an MVP-quality player on a great team that has never won an MVP award, or even come close. He hits for average, for power, takes a goodly number of walks, pumps his on-base percentage with 25 HBPs a year and is also one of the best baserunners in the game. A left-handed hitter, lefty pitchers only slow him down a little, and his offense isn’t a product of Citizens Bank Park. On the flipside, offseason hip surgery — he had A-Rod’s problem, but went through the whole surgery rather than the partial treatment Rodriguez successfully pursued — may have dragged his defense down from superb to merely above average.
Cano had his best year in the Majors save for a glaring problem hitting with men on. Cano can fire off line drives almost at will, leading to his strong batting averages, but he forgets himself in important situations, widening his already generous strike zone. This leads to swings with less than his usual authority. It has been a career-long problem. To Cano’s credit, after a tough start to the postseason, he came up with some important hits in the last three games of the ALCS. Cano has vastly improved as a fielder over the years, but lapses of concentration are still an occasional problem. Charlie Manuel would do well to remember that southpaw relievers don’t trouble Cano too much. EDGE: PHILLIES.
PEDRO FELIZ (3.5, 29th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)
Due to a hot start to the season, Feliz hit about as well as he’s capable of these days and even drew the second-highest walk total of his career, but he’s still a glove man who gave his team very little with the bat. He hit .323 in April, then gradually cooled, or maybe it’s better to say he melted, then evaporated, hitting just .225/.254/.367 over the final two months. The Phillies can buy out the last $5 million of Feliz’s contract for $500,000, and given that he’ll turn 35 next year and hasn’t come close to even average production since 2004, they might give it some serious thought if they can identify an alternative. Feliz is a career .252/.288/.417 hitter against right-handers. Normally sort of competent against lefties, he slumped to .208/.278/.385 against them. Feliz has been a poor postseason hitter in his career, and although he did hit a triple and a home run against the Dodgers, it seems unlikely he’ll turn into Jeff Mathis in this series. As for Alex Rodriguez and his recent accomplishments, I think you know about them.
JIMMY ROLLINS (19.3, 10th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)
“J-Roll” gets treated like a star player, but he’s not one. Because he’s a durable leadoff hitter who never walks, he bats more than anyone else (including, in 2007, more often than anyone in history). Because he hits the ball with authority in those many at-bats, he piles up high totals in the counting stats, lots of hits, doubles, and triples. It pays to remember that all those extra-base hits are diffused through that crazy number of plate appearances, and that at his best he’s below average at getting on base. This year he hit the ball in the air more, but he’s not really a power hitter and the change dropped his batting average to .250. Since batting average makes up most of his on-base percentage, his OBP dropped to a miserable .296, especially crippling for a leadoff hitter. Rollins did come on a bit in the second half, hitting .272/.306/.495, but these numbers shine only in comparison to his pathetic .229/.287/.355 first half. He posted a .266 OBP against lefties this year, but that hasn’t always been his pattern — i.e. Coffee Joe shouldn’t decide Rollins merits the Chone Figgins treatment. Parenthetically, did Figgins play his way out of the Yankees’ rumored plans with his 3-for-23 during the 30 Days of ALCS? Let’s hope so.
Rollins has won two Gold Gloves, but he’s not going to remind you of Ozzie Smith — he’s okay, not great. Add in that he has not hit at all this postseason (and didn’t hit much in the last two either) and the guy playing opposite him is an annual Fall hero who is coming off a great year, one he’s continued into the postseason, and (bonus) is currently at his best with the glove and you have an EDGE: YANKEES.
Catchers, outfield, managers, Game 1 and 2 starters and a prediction.
THE SECRET SAUCE
My pals at Baseball Prospectus have a little congeries of stats we call the Secret Sauce. Introduced in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers, to which your humble host contributed a chapter and a little page about the relationship between stats and Stephen King’s “Cujo,” the Secret Sauce ranks teams by how well they do in the three key areas that correlate to winning postseason games. As explained here by sauce-master Nate Silver, they are:
1. A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2. A good closer.
3. A good defense.
I won’t get into how these ranking are derived, because they involve some of those esoteric statistics that I suspect make many of y’all’s eyes glaze over. Still, we can appreciate what the rankings say by looking at some more commonplace measures. Here is how the likely postseason teams fare, in reverse order:
No. 20 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies have been strong in strikeouts, both in the rotation, where Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have done their part, and particularly in the bullpen, but the pen has been a disaster overall, accounting for the team’s low ranking here. As of today, Brad Lidge and Charlie Manuel are still trying to figure out what the former’s role will be going forward, which is a problem given that the season is nearly over. You wouldn’t want to say that Lidge has gone Steve Blass on the Phillies, but six walks and two home runs per nine makes a compelling case that he has. The Phillies can at least take justifiable pride in their strong defensive infield of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz.
No. 13 TEXAS RANGERS
The Rangers, second in the American League in runs allowed (4.41 per game; the Mariners lead at 4.36), are third from last in strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests a lot of balls in play. The reason that this is a particularly bad thing in the playoffs is pretty basic: In a regular season game against the Baltimore Orioles, your team might fail to get a lot of strikeouts but nothing happens anyway, because when they hit the ball it goes “piff,” not “boom!” In the playoffs, where the best offenses are usually to be found, balls in play tend to do real damage. Note that AL starters are averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings; Rangers starters are whiffing 5.6.
The Rangers have been solid on defense, with the second-best record in the league of turning balls in play into outs (that’s how they survive the weak strikeout rate). Frank Francisco has been effective, if not a lights-out closer. Neftali Perez’s crazy debut doesn’t enter into these calculations, but you can’t forget about him when talking about the Rangers’ end game.
No. 11 THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA, USA
The Angels get knocked down on the power pitching angle, as overall they are a tick below average in strikeouts per nine, and in defense, which has been just average or a little below. Call it the Bobby Abreu Effect. Closer Brien Fuentes leads the AL with 40 saves but has also blown six, and right-handed hitters are slugging .462 against him. None of this is a reason to take the Angels likely, as Jered Weaver and John Lackey, combined with their fine offense, should be able to keep them in at least the first two games of any short series. Still, this is not Mike Scioscia’s usual flavor of team.
No. 10 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals get strikeouts from starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. The rest of the rotation, and even closer Ryan Franklin, allows the opposition to put more balls in play than is typical. Joel Piniero, who would be the third starter in any playoff scenario, gets by on exquisite control (just one per nine innings) and a high groundball rate. Franklin, formerly an unexceptional starter and reliever, leads the NL in saves with 37 and has a 1.67 ERA and it’s deserved — he’s actually done a good job of stranding inherited runners as well as keeping runners off base in the first place. He’s blown three saves all year long. While the bubble could burst at any time, particularly in October, at this point you have to take Franklin seriously. Cards’ defense has been problematic at times, especially at second base, where converted outfielder Skip Schumaker is making a game effort at competence.
No. 6 COLORADO ROCKIES
The Rockies are about average as National League strikeout rates go, in part because Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook drag down the numbers. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa do get batters to swing and miss. The bullpen has also been solid in the swing-and-miss department. The real problem right now is overall depth, with Cook and Huston Street injured. Both are supposed to be back ere long. One potential equalizer for the Rockies is former starter Franklin Morales who (shades of Phil Hughes) has moved into the pen and has been throwing bullets from the left side. When their park is taken into account, Rockies fielders have been solid if unexceptional. Street has converted 33 of 34 saves and has even held left-handed batters in check, a problem for him in the past.
No. 5 DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, just 4.5 per game. Their strikeout rate is roughly average, with only starter Justin Verlander, who leads the league with 230 strikeouts, really jumping out in that department. The Tigers have been an average to slightly above average fielding club, with few standout performances (Clete Thomas has been strong in right field, though he can’t hit like a right fielder) but no truly poor ones either, and overall they rank in the top half of the AL in turning balls in play into outs. Desperation closer Fernando Rodney has blown only one save all year, but walks too many batters for comfort against strong postseason lineups.
No. 4 BOSTON RED SOX
We begin with Jonathan Papelbon. We continue to the staff overall, which is tied with the Yankees for the league lead in strikeout rate, propelled by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Papelbon. We conclude with a defense that has been surprisingly weak. The outfield has been defensively shaky, the infield has lacked a shortstop of any defensive quality until Alex Gonzalez came over, and Kevin Youkilis has had to play too much third base, not to mention a couple of scary games in left field.
No. 2 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Joe Torre’s guys have perhaps the best defense in the game this year, which is a novel thought for those of us used to watching even Tommy Lasorda’s good teams juggle balls. They lead the NL in turning balls in play into outs, receiving fine defensive performances around the infield (though Orlando Hudson has not been at his best) and from center fielder Matt Kemp. Manny Ramirez is the exception that proves the rule. They are third in the NL in strikeout rate, an advantage that doesn’t wholly disappear when you start adjusting for park effects. Starter Chad Billingsley is whiffing eight per nine innings, lefty Clayton Kershaw 10, and closer Jonathan Broxton 13.6. It should be noted that the rest of the pen is not particularly intent on the strikeout, a possible vulnerability. Broxton has blown five saves in 39 chances, which is shaky by today’s standards.
No. 1 NEW YORK YANKEES
I probably don’t have to give you much detail here. The Yankees are tied for the league lead in strikeout rate, have the most reliable closer in the game, and ra
nk third in the league in turning balls in play into outs. The high rankings in all three categories boosts the Bombers to the top of this list.
None of the foregoing guarantees anything, but it’s a reassuring indicator. Historically, teams with large helpings of these qualities have gone far in October. The Yankees haven’t had all of the elements line up in the same place at the same time in quite a few years. In fact, the last time the Yankees came this close to the top of the Secret Sauce list, the year was 1998.