Yesterday the Yankees experienced something that hadn’t happened since 2007: they lost a game in the divisional round of the playoffs. The previous loss ended their season and drove the them to seek new management. This loss brings neither consequence. In fact, this loss could have been seen as inevitable, since the Tigers are not the Twins and therefore will not lay down in the ALDS. Make no mistake, though: despite what you might hear, the Yankees are still in prime position to advance.
If you’re the type that pays attention to what the traditional media writes, you might think the Yankees are in poor position now. After all, there are just three games left, and Detroit plays two of them at home. Detroit also starts their ace and presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, in the first of this fresh three-game set. Combine that with closer Jose Valverde’s prediction, that the Tigers would take the next two games, and you have a recipe for Yankees defeat.
That is, you’d have a recipe for defeat if the above paragraph wasn’t filled with tripe. Valverde’s statement means nothing. He’s teetered on the edge of defeat all season without actually experiencing it, and he could easily cause his team to lose one of those next two games. As for home field advantage, we’ve seen so many postseason instances where it has meant nothing. Yes, the home team does generally win more games than the away team. But when we narrow the field to the best four teams in the league, and we set the standard to a mere five-game series, that goes out the window. There’s no sense in quoting the odds for that type of sample.
(In fact, only two World Series participants in the last five years have swept the LDS: the Yankees in 2009 and the Rockies in 2007.)
In Justin Verlander the Yankees face one of their toughest challenges of the year. There is no doubt that Verlander will win — has already won — the 2011 AL Cy Young Award. His numbers stood out in every way, from his gaudy innings total to his minuscule ERA. But if we dig just a little deeper, we can see that his opponent tonight, CC Sabathia, hasn’t lagged far behind. So while the Yankees will face a tough challenge, so will the Tigers.
Verlander threw more innings, struck out more per nine, walked fewer per nine, and allowed fewer runs than CC Sabathia. Those surface numbers certainly make his Cy Young case. Sabathia did perform better than Verlander in one aspect: suppressing home runs. He allowed just 17, while Verlander allowed 24. Sabathia’s home run total is even more impressive when we look at that one game against the Rays, in which he allowed five solo shots. We can’t remove them from his record, since they did happen. But we can put that in perspective and note that he allowed just 12 homers in his other 32 starts.
Still, that isn’t the greatest difference between Sabathia and Verlander. That difference occurs when we examine the quality of opponents each faced. Sabathia faced the ninth most difficult hitters in the AL this season. That is, only nine pitchers in the AL faced tougher hitters than he did, as measured by overall opponents’ OPS. Unsurprisingly, seven of the eight pitchers ahead of him pitch in the AL East. Ivan Nova ranks 13th on that list, Bartolo Colon 14th, and A.J. Burnett 17th. Verlander’s name doesn’t appear until No. 39. His opponents combined for a 2011 OPS of .739, to CC’s .760. Verlander might have performed better, but CC turned in his impressive performance while facing tougher hitters.
The feeling that followed yesterday was a strange one, indeed. The last time Yankees fans felt it, the pain of a playoff series went with it. This is not the case this time around. In fact, the Yankees are still positioned to win this. Detroit’s greatest weapon goes tonight, but his greatest foil goes opposite him. Even if Detroit does squeak out Game 3, they’ll throw two hittable pitchers in Games 4 and 5. It might feel odd, this losing in the LDS thing, but it’s far from the end. It might even be the beginning.