The A.J. Factor

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I take the term “must win” quite literally, as in win or go home. It’s the engineer in me. If a loss won’t send you home for the season, then it’s not a must win because you have a chance to comeback in the future. Simple, right? Some games are obviously more important than others, like tonight’s game, which is more important that yesterday’s. The Yankees have three chances to win two games, and you want to win with CC Sabathia on the mound tonight to make life easier tomorrow, when A.J. Burnett starts.

We all know what Burnett has done for the last two years. He’s been awful and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. We’re talking 377 innings with a 5.20 ERA (80th out of 83 qualified starters) and a 4.80 FIP (also 80th). It’s bad, unfathomably bad. Because Burnett’s been so bad the last two years, it’s pretty natural to feel like tonight’s game is a must win because tomorrow’s game is an auto-loss. It’s not thought, we know that. Burnett might be terrible, but there’s no such thing as an automatic loss in this game. That’s part of the reason why I refuse to see tonight as a must win, and the other part is Rick Porcello.

Younger and definitely in possession of higher long-term potential than Burnett, Porcello has been pretty awful over the last two years as well. In seven fewer starts than A.J. since the beginning of last season, the New Jersey native has a 4.83 ERA (79th out of those same 83 qualifiers) and a 4.18 FIP (66th). If you’re a believer in xFIP, the two are basically equal (4.17 vs. 4.13). Sure Porcello finished the season strong (3.50 ERA in seven starts), but he faced six different teams in those seven starts, and all six were non-contenders (a combined 100 games under .500). Factor in ballparks, divisions, yadda yadda yadda, and the two have performed just as awfully over the last two years. Tigers fans are dreading Porcello’s start the same way we’re dreading Burnett’s.

Now, all that said, obviously it’s tough to trust Burnett to throw even a respectable start tomorrow, which increases the importance of tonight’s game. You don’t want the team’s season to be in his hands, really I don’t want it in anyone’s hands but Sabathia’s. Sabathia to Mariano Rivera, that’s how my ideal win or go home game plays out. Game Four is not an auto-loss though, just like his last start wasn’t a loss even though everyone expected one against those oh so might Red Sox. Game Three tonight is very important, but Burnett looming in Game Four is just one reason why.

The Most Important Game

The playoffs are such a different dynamic than the regular season. The regular season is this long marathon where you’ve got to think about the long-term, keeping people fresh for August and September and knowing when to take your foot off today’s gas for tomorrow’s commute. The playoffs are not like that though, everything has to focus on right here, right now because you don’t know what will happen next game, next inning, next batter.

“Tomorrow is big,” said Alex Rodriguez after Game Two. “Going back to when I first got here, we always thought that Game Three was the biggest. It’s almost like hitting; the 0-0 pitch is the most important, then the 1-1 pitch becomes the most important. Same goes for a series.”

When Joe Torre was managing, I remember hearing him say that he felt Game Two was the most important game of the series, which is why he always tried to line Andy Pettitte up for that start. The idea was that if you were down in the series, you could even it up. If you were up, you had a chance to really put your foot on the other team’s throat. Either way, A-Rod‘s theory and Torre’s theory are both wrong. The most important game is today’s game, regardless of what number game it is in the best-of-X series.

No one has any idea what will happen tomorrow or the next day. You might think you know based on the pitching matchups and whatnot, but you don’t. I promise you, you don’t. And I don’t either. No one does. That’s why planning and managing for tomorrow in a short series rather than focus on what’s happening at the moment can be a season killer. Saving your top bench bat for a ninth-inning pinch-hitting appearance rather than using him in the seventh, limiting your top reliever to three outs instead of five or six today so you have him again tomorrow … all prime examples of what not to do in the postseason. It’s all about right now, which is why October is so different than April through September.

Joe Girardi went with Luis Ayala in the ninth inning yesterday for that reason, because he was basically saving his top relievers for today (and tomorrow). I didn’t like it, but what’s done is done, and the Yankees are now in a real nice position going into Game Three. Rafael Soriano and David Robertson are very well rested, to the point where asking each guy to get six outs tonight would not be insane. Mariano Rivera, despite Saturday’s three-pitch appearance, is well rested as well, and I don’t see why he couldn’t get four or five outs if needed. Of course that luxury is born out of a poor process, which is bringing in Ayala yesterday. Girardi can’t control results, he can’t make guys execute pitches or hit line drives to the gaps, all he can do is put his players and his team in a position to succeed. He didn’t do that with Ayala yesterday, but the trickle down effect is that it (theoretically) helps the team today, in the most important game.

Division series loss an unfamiliar feeling

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.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 3rd, 2011

Regular Season Record Last Week: 0-3 (12 RS, 22 RA)
Regular Season Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East
Playoff Record Last Week: ,,1-1 (12 RS, 8, RA)
Schedule This Week: ALDS Game Three @ Tigers (Mon.), ALDS Game Four @ Tigers (Tues.), Weds. OFF, ALDS Game Five vs. Tigers (Thurs., if necessary)

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