ALCS Preview: The startersBy
For the third time in the last eight years, the Yankees and Angels will lockup in a postseason series. This time they’re meeting in the American League Championship Series, so a trip to the World Series is directly on the line. Much will be made about how the Angels have handled the Yanks in recent years (53-38 head-to-head in the Scioscia Era), but these are different teams with different players kicking off a brand new series tied at zero.
We’ve already taken a look at the managers, so let’s move on to the guys that will set the tone each game, the starting pitchers.
Game One: CC Sabathia vs. John Lackey
Prior to 2009, Sabathia’s postseason career was nothing to look at. Lackey, on the other hand, has a pretty impressive playoff record. As a rookie, he won Game Seven of the 2002 World Series on three day’s rest, and in total he’s made 10 postseason starts (and two relief appearances) with a 3.02 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP, both considerably lower than his regular season stats. However, Lackey missed parts of the last two seasons with arm injuries, and he’s walking more batters while striking out fewer now than he did in his heyday. Against the lifeless Red Sox in the ALDS, Lackey threw 7.1 scoreless innings.
Sabathia, on the other hand, is no chump. He’ll start Game One with 236.2 innings already on his arm, which is what he’d thrown through Sept. 20th last year. He settled down very nicely after a rocky first three innings against the Twins in the ALDS, temporarily shaking that postseason choker tag. Regardless of that nonsense, Sabathia has similar walk, strikeout, and homerun rates as Lackey, but he’s much tougher to hit, holding opponents to a .233 batting average against. The Angels struggle against quality fastballs, so Sabathia is the ideal guys to kick off the series.
Game Two: A.J. Burnett vs. Jered Weaver
Weaver, like Lackey, feasted on the punchless Red Sox in the ALDS, tossing 7.1 innings of two-hit, one-run ball. His walk, strikeout, homer, and hit rates are all similar to Lackey’s, but he’s already 39.2 IP over his previous career high set last year, so fatigue could end up being a factor. He also struggles against lefties, who’ve got close to a .200 point OPS advantage off Weaver than righties. The Yankees have also proven to be a tough assignment throughout his career, hitting him up for a .263-.341-.558 batting line, resulting in a 5.88 ERA in seven career starts.
With his personal catcher behind the plate, Burnett walked a tightrope in his first career playoff start last week. Giving away free passes at a rate of five every six innings isn’t going to cut it, especially since an Angels team that will run wild on the basepaths and hits extremely well with men in scoring position. However, Burnett has the same advantage as Sabathia in that he’s a power pitcher, though he had one good and one bad start against the Halos this year. This one might be a wash.
Game Three: Andy Pettitte vs. Scott Kazmir
It’s amazing to think that because of Tampa Bay’s run to the Fall Classic last year, Scott Kazmir had made as many postseason starts (6) as CC Sabathia. His postseason track record mirrors his regular season struggles over the last two years, however Kazmir has rediscovered some of the velocity that made him so highly touted a few years ago, and you know that all those years in the brutal AL East means he won’t crap his pants when the Bombers roll into town. Pettitte, well there’s not much to say about his postseason track record that hasn’t already been said a million times over. You have to favor the Yanks here.
Given the schedule of the ALCS, both teams could deploy their top starter on three day’s rest in Game Four, then again on full rest in Game Seven. It makes sense for both clubs to do that regardless of how the first three games play out, because they both sport inferior fourth starter options.
The Yankees used Chad Gaudin and Joba Chamberlain as their number four and five starters down the stretch, though Joba was effective in short stints out of the bullpen in the ALDS, and you get the feeling that Joe Girardi likes having that extra power arm available late in the game. That makes it likely the team would turn to Gaudin for a potential Game Four start.
Despite his success in September (3.54 ERA, team was 5-0 in his five starts), Gaudin’s weakness is that he has trouble getting lefthanders out because he’s so fastball-slider heavy. On the year, he’s held righties to a .224-.293-.380 batting line, but lefties rocked him to the tune of .296-.408-.415. On any given day the Angels can run pencil six lefties into their lineup (well, Bobby Abreu plus five switch hitters), obviously not a good matchup for Gaudin. Regardless of how effective Chad was down the stretch, CC Sabathia on three day’s rest is better than anything else the Yankees have.
As for the Angels, they could go with southpaw Joe Saunders in Game Four, but he’s just as shaky an option as Gaudin. After his breakout 2008 season, Saunders allowed 15 more hits, 8 more homers, and 11 more unintentional walks in 12 fewer innings in 2009. He also battled a shoulder injury, putting up a 2.55 ERA in eight starts against weak competition to finish the year after coming off the DL. Like Gaudin, Saunders has a significant platoon split, holding lefties to a .696 OPS while righties pound him for a .829 OPS. Unlike Gaudin, Saunders doesn’t strike anyone out (4.9 K/9), which plays right into the Yankees strength because they struck out less than all but three teams this season (one stupid little strikeout away from that being just two teams). Again, John Lackey on three day’s rest is a superior option.
It’s entirely possible one of the two managers will try to get cute with a 3-0 or 2-1 series lead and go to their fourth starter, but in a potential seven game series against one of the three best teams in the league? I want my ace taking the ball as much as possible. Assuming the the Yanks go with Sabathia in Game Four, you have to give the Yanks the edge when it comes to the rotation because of the ability to trot out premium hard throwers in five of the seven possible games.