Why are the Angels starting Saunders in Game 2?By
Unlike the Yankees, the Angels will change up their postseason rotation order for the ALCS. As we learned yesterday, the Angels will start Joe Saunders in Game 2 in place of Jered Weaver, who started Game 2 against Boston in the ALDS. Manager Mike Scioscia’s reasoning is that he wants a lefty to pitch in Yankee Stadium to somewhat neutralize the Yankees power threat to right field. That’s a fine tactic, but why would Saunders get the nod over Scott Kazmir?
Scioscia didn’t elaborate on the decision, noting only that Saunders “has the tools to succeed in that stadium.” This is quite the vote of confidence from the Angels’ skipper, considering Saunders has yet to pitch in the new Yankee Stadium. Even in the old park, Saunders started just one game, allowing two runs over six innings. So why would Scioscia say that he has the tools to succeed in a place he has almost no experience pitching?
Before hitting the DL in early August, Saunders was having a terrible year. Through 136.2 innings he had allowed 81 earned runs for a 5.33 ERA. Even more pathetic was his 72:51 K/BB ratio. The DL stint seemed to help, though, as Saunders finished the season strong, allowing just 14 earned runs over 49.1 innings and improving his K/BB to 29:13. The knock is that just two of those starts were against playoff teams. Saunders got hit pretty hard by the Red Sox on September 16, though he did pitch well against the Yankees in his next start, allowing two runs in 8.1 innings.
The problem with evaluating Saunders based on his late-season run is that it’s exactly that: a late-season run. Teams call up their minor leaguers in September, which creates a different environment than we see from April through August. Bench players get more playing time, especially on non-contenting teams. And, lo and behold, five of the eight teams Saunders faced since his return from the DL had no shot at the playoffs. That makes it difficult to evaluate his performance post-DL. For all we know he could be the same pitcher as in the first half who happen to get lucky down the stretch.
(Remember, there’s a reason that more no-hitters are thrown in September than any other month.)
If we assume that the DL stint fixed whatever was wrong with Saunders, perhaps the decision makes a bit more sense. In his breakout 2008 season, Saunders pitched much better on the road, a 2.55 ERA and .643 OPS against, while pitching to a 4.27 ERA and .736 OPS against at home. The difference was mostly in home runs: he allowed 13 at home and only eight at home (in an equal sample of 99 innings each). Both his strikeout rate and walk rate were better at home, though.
Mike Scioscia surely knows his pitchers better than I do, but given the performance evidence it seems like a questionable decision to let Saunders pitch Game 2. It assumes that his 2008 breakout season is a true indicator of his ability, and that his late-season surge is a better indicator than his early season struggles. It’s tough to make a case for either claim. Saunders, a lefty with fringy stuff, doesn’t appear to be a guy who can sustain a 3.41 ERA. Even in 2008, his FIP was 4.36 and his tRA was 4.49.
It makes sense that Scioscia doesn’t want Weaver to pitch at Yankee Stadium. He pitched there twice this season and surrendered nine runs over 13.1 innings. In 16 career innings at the old Stadium, Weaver wasn’t much better. He allowed 10 runs in that span, including six home runs. As Dave Allen notes, Weaver’s extreme fly ball tendencies make him a liability at Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees mash fly balls over the wall. (Though, in good news for the Yankees, his extreme fly ball tendencies, at whichever park, help negate the Angels infield defense.)
If Weaver is scheduled to pitch Game 3 in Anaheim, why not flip-flip him with the ALDS Game 3 stater, Scott Kazmir? Despite his early-season struggles, he pitched well against the Yankees this year. Over 19.2 innings he allowed just seven runs, striking out 14 to just four walks. He’s been a Yankee killer for the most part, allowing just 26 runs over 87.2 career innings, with 86 strikeouts and 39 walks — but more importantly, just five home runs. The only knock is that he performed poorly at the old Yankee Stadium, allowing 14 runs over 25 innings. So perhaps that’s why Scioscia chose Saunders.
Keeping Jered Weaver away from Yankee Stadium is a good tactic for the Angels. However, in choosing his Game 2 starter, it appears Scioscia got a little too cute. Instead of going with his No. 3 starter, he’ll go into battle with a guy who didn’t start in the ALDS. More importantly, he’s starting a pitcher who was terrible most of the year, and only made a run when most teams were out of contention. This is good news for the Yankees, though. Instead of facing Kazmir, a perpetual nuisance, they’ll face Saunders, whom they should hit a bit easier. The decision also means that they’ll face Kazmir just once, in Game 4.
We won’t know how it will play out until the game happens, but from the ivory tower, it seems that Scioscia made the wrong call.