Left field: Juan Rivera vs. Johnny Damon
What is more important in a left fielder, hitting or defense? Juan Rivera is a good hitter who, according to UZR, plays excellent defense. Johnny Damon is an excellent hitter who plays terrible defense. That depends on how highly we value defense. Is poor defense acceptable from a hitter like Damon? Or will we look to the Mariners for an example of how a top defense can make your pitching staff remarkably better?
According to WAR, Rivera’s combination of solid offense and excellent defense is preferable to Damon’s superior bat and terrible glove. Damon has 54 more plate appearances, meaning his offensive counting stats are that much higher than Rivera’s. Still, WAR has Damon at 2.8 and Rivera at 3.5. (And yes, WAR works.) In other words, the runs that Damon creates with his bat are to an extent negated by the ones he allows with his glove. Rivera is on the positive in both aspects.
Damon is going through a prolonged and pronounced slump, ending the season poorly and then going 1 for 12 in the ALDS. The good news is that he can break out of it at any time. But when will that be? Meanwhile, Rivera went 3 for 11 with a double against the Sox. Last time these two teams met in the postseason, 2005, Rivera went 6 for 17 with a double and a homer.
Edge: Angels. Damon’s slump removes any qualms I had with giving this to Rivera.
Center field: Torii Hunter vs. Melky Cabrera
Torii Hunter has always been known for his defense. But, like Derek Jeter, he’s more known for his flashy plays. UZR has never liked Hunter, rating him as lowly as -13.0 (in 2008), and not above 4.5 since 2003. His -3.5 mark this year is one of his best. This runs contrary to public perception, and it raises a good question. Is UZR that horribly flawed, or does our perception of Hunter mask the poorer aspects of his defense? I’m not prepared to answer that, though I’m apt to lean towards the accuracy of UZR.
As it pertains to the series advantage in center field, it doesn’t mean much. Hunter is a far better hitter than Melky, more than making up for the defensive gap. WAR agrees, with Hunter at 3.8 and Melky at 1.6. No further deliberation is required.
Right field: Bobby Abreu vs. Nick Swisher
Bobby Abreu is getting a lot of attention this postseason, perhaps undeserved. He’s had a good season, but it wasn’t MVP-caliber, as one sports writer claims. Seven AL right fielders produced higher WAR values, including Nick Swisher. So why is the media fawning over him?
It’s probably because the Angels got such a great deal. The free agent market was depressed for no-defense, mid-30s outfielders, and Abreu’s best offer was for $5 million plus $1 million more in incentives. He clearly outperformed his deal. But what about Swisher? He made less money than Abreu this year, and the Yankees acquired him for Wilson Betemit, who was DFA’d during the season and then granted free agency a week ago. That’s a pretty good story, especially after Swisher’s poor 2008, isn’t it?
Abreu and Swisher are pretty even according to wOBA, though it comes from different components. Bobby hits for better average, gets on base more, and steals a lot of bases. Swisher has the advantage in power, and it’s a decided advantage — his Iso is .249, compared to Abreu’s .142 mark. Swisher also plays better defense. WAR values Swisher at a win over Abreu, and I’m apt to agree. Bobby’s a useful player, but I’ll take Swisher.
The Yankees have a clear edge in the infield, at least offensively, but the Angels have as clear an edge in the outfield. Defensively, the two teams are more evenly matched in the outfield than the infield, though Damon’s poor defense drags down the Yanks.
The Yankees’ fly ball tendencies should play well against the Angels. Their outfield defense isn’t bad, but it’s not as good as their infield. The Angels have a similar advantage, a groundball-hitting team against a team with questionable infield defense, and better defense in the outfield.
The teams are constructed differently, but the Yankees and the Angels seem pretty evenly matched. The Yankees have strengths that play to the Angels weaknesses and the other way around. These were the two best AL teams during the regular season, the way the ALCS should be. Now please, just let it start.