Yanks’ depth picked up the slack in ALDS

It's a team effort. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

One of my favorite baseball truisms is that your best players have to be your best players if you want to succeed in the postseason, and there’s no better example of that than the 2009 Yankees. Alex Rodriguez got big hit after big hit, CC Sabathia took the ball as often as possible and dominated each time out, and Mariano Rivera nailed down every win along the way. If a team’s best players aren’t doing what’s expected of them, it’s very difficult to win in a short series. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the 2010 Yankees.

The Yanks more than doubled up the Twins during their three game ALDS sweep, outscoring them 17-7 (10-3 after the fifth inning). Other than the first six or so innings of the first game, the series really wasn’t all that competitive, as the Bombers imposed their will on the Twinkies pretty much every step of the way. Surprisingly, they did that with minimum production from three key players: Derek Jeter, A-Rod, and Brett Gardner.

Jeter, the leadoff hitter and supposed spark plug for the lineup, reached base a total of four times in 14 trips to the plate, all on singles. His batting line was an uninteresting .286/.286/.286, and he never even reached third base, let alone score a run. In fact he only made it as far as second base twice, the first time on Curtis Granderson‘s bunt in Game Two, the other on a stolen base in Game Three. Jeter did single in the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of Game Two, but that was pretty much the extent of his offensive contribution during the series.

Gardner led the team in on-base percentage during the season (.383), but he only reached base a total of three times during the ALDS, picking up two singles and a walk in a dozen plate appearances. Both hits came in Game Two, the walk in Game One, and he stole just one base. So right there, you have the two key offensive cogs, the two guys that are supposed to get on base for the meat of the order, falling short of expectations.

More surprising than the lack of production out of Jeter and Gardner was A-Rod’s rather quiet series. He finished the season on a torrid hot streak (.306/.375/.649 with 12 homers in his last 28 starts), but  singled just three times and walked once in the ALDS, driving in the first Yankee run of Game Two with a sacrifice fly. That’s the only run he drove in during the series, and even though his mere presence in the batter’s box and on-deck circle changes the game, Alex certainly didn’t have the same impact in the ALDS that he did last year.

And you know what? None of that was a big deal. The Yankee lineup has no soft spots, so they were able to absorb the struggles of Jeter, Gardner, and A-Rod and not miss a beat. Granderson had five hits including a huge triple in Game One and a big double in Game Two. The designated hitter platoon of Marcus Thames and Lance Berkman combined to go 4-for-11 with a double, a walk, and two homers. Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira put their subpar 2009 postseasons behind them and combined for a .320/.371/.680 batting line, and Robbie Cano picked up A-Rod with a .333 batting average and zero single strikeouts. When one guy struggled, two others picked up the slack.

Most teams would have been dead in the water if their leadoff hitter and cleanup man failed to produce, not to mention their top on-base guy and basestealer. The Yanks have tremendous offensive depth and a circular lineup that can hurt you one through nine, certainly strong enough to offset three poor performances in a five game series. At some point, hopefully soon, Jeter, A-Rod, and Gardner will get back to doing what they’re capable of, and that should scare the crap out of the rest of the league.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 11th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-0 (17 RS, 7 RA) swept Twins in best-of-five ALDS
Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card
Schedule This Week: ALCS Game One (Friday @ Rangers or Rays), ALCS Game Two (Saturday @ Rangers or Rays)

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Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

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Cutting out the cutter the key to Game Three

Right at 'em. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

All season long, one of the staples of Phil Hughes starts were complaints about him relying too much on his fastball and cutter. Batters seemed to foul the pitches off at will, yet he continued to throw them deep in the count instead of trying to get swings-and-misses or weak contact on offspeed pitches. The changeup that supposedly won him the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training all but disappeared until a late season cameo. It worked fine for the first few weeks of the season, but after that it was a bit of a struggle.

Hughes threw his four-seam fastball 63.6% of the time this year, the cutter 16.4%, and the offspeed stuff the remaining 20%. He was even more predictable with two strikes, throwing either a four-seamer or cutter almost 85% of the time (I have it at 84.75%, unofficially). When you’re throwing some kind of fastball four out of every five pitches, it’s easy to see why hitters fouled off more than a quarter of his total pitches this season. Hughes simply got predictable, even more so the second and third times through the league.

On Saturday night though, Hughes and catcher Jorge Posada changed up their plan, but not by incorporating more offspeed stuff. They threw more four-seamers and fewer cutters, go with straight power over deception and movement. Just seven of the 99 pitches Hughes threw were cut fastballs, and five of those came in the first four innings (two in the same at-bat).  The 18 curveballs he threw equals his regular season usage of the pitch for all intents and purposes, ditto the two changeups. It was a very straight forward attack plan, go right after them with the four-seam fastball and dare them to hit it.

There’s two reason why this approach worked. One, Hughes’ fastball was just that good that night, both in terms of life and location. That was obvious from the very first inning. Second, the Twins are nothing more than a league average hitting team against the old numbero uno, clocking in at just 0.05 runs above average for every 100 fastballs they see. In fact, they’re essentially league average against cutters (+0.36) and curveballs (-0.25) as well, so when the opponent has no discernible weakness against the specific offering, just stick with the pitcher’s strength. No reason to over-think things.

I think that Game Three was a bit of an outlier for Hughes with regards to his pitch selection. You certainly don’t want him or any pitcher to throw 70% four-seamers or more on a consistent basis, but for that one night it just all came together. He had plenty of oomph on it, was able to command it to both sides of the plate, and he was staked to a big enough lead that he could be fearless with the pitch when needed. He’ll be well rested for his first ALCS start, whenever that may be, so with any luck he’ll show the same kind of crispness next time out.

Open Thread: Yanks win even when they don’t play

Evan Longoria (3-for-4, 2 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI) was the Yanks' best player today. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Yankees wrapped up their ALDS victory last night, but they won big today as well. The Rays topped the Rangers by the score of 5-2 this afternoon, forcing a Game Five on Tuesday night with Cliff Lee taking on David Price. That means that neither pitcher will be able to start Game One of the ALCS on Friday, and the earliest they’ll be available is for Game Three. Yeah, both could start Game Two on three day’s rest, but so far both clubs seem to be against pushing their aces like that. Either way, thanks for the win Tampa, you served your purpose. I wish you no luck in Game Five.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. The Reds will send Johnny Cueto to the mound to save their season against Cole Hamels and the Phillies at 8:07pm ET (TBS), while the Eagles and 49ers are the late NFL game (8:20pm, NBC). Talk about whatever you want here, just don’t be a dick.

Oh, and send in some mailbag questions using the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar. We spaced on that last week and we need some fresh post-ALDS questions. Thanks.

Yanks taking off Sunday and Monday

With six full days until the ALCS starts, the Yankees are taking advantage of the break by giving everyone today and tomorrow completely off. Everyone will then report to the Stadium on Tuesday for workouts and bullpen sessions and batting practice and all that stuff.

You’re going to read a lot of articles and blog posts and comments about how all the time off will be bad for the Yanks, but I disagree. This isn’t their first rodeo, it’s a veteran team (both players and coaching staff) that’s done this just last year (when they had five days off between the LDS and LCS) and knows what they need to do to prepare. Even players that weren’t with the club last year like Curtis Granderson, Lance Berkman, and Marcus Thames, have playoff and World Series experience in the past. The rest is a good thing, I’m not concerned about anyone rusting over.

500 words on Joba Chamberlain

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Even when the Yankees sweep an easy playoff series, controversy somehow manages to find the team. After all, baseball fans and reporters who face five and a half days without baseball have to find something to talk about during the downtime. The topic of the week, as it often is, will be Joba Chamberlain.

During the ALDS, only 18 of the Yanks’ 25 active players saw game action, and only seven pitchers — three starters, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Kerry Wood and Boone Logan — reached the mound. Absent among those was Joba Chamberlain, the once and, hopefully, future pitching stud. Of course, since Joba is Joba, that he didn’t pitch in the ALDS has elicited analysis of the moves and predictions of a Joba-less future for the Yankees.

The why of it is simple: Joba Chamberlain wasn’t in the Yanks’ plans for the ALDS, and the situation for him to pitch never arrived. In Game 1, Joe Girardi used his close-game staff. After CC Sabathia left in the 7th, Boone Logan came in for the lefties and David Robertson for the righties. For the 8th with a two-run lead, Girardi gave the ball to set-up man Kerry Wood, and Mariano got the ninth. In Game 2, Andy Pettitte went 7, and Wood and Mo closed out a three-run game. Joe Girardi’s strategy was not a mystery.

For Game 3, the circumstances changed. After Phil Hughes‘ utterly dominant seven-inning outing, the Yanks had a 6-0 lead with six outs left. For the first time in the series, Girardi could have moved down the depth charts. He could have gone to Joba, but in the past, Girardi’s M.O. for playoff-clinchers has been a no-nonsense one. Mariano Rivera is always on the mound, and the top relievers get the ball before him. It’s not a surprise then that Girardi never went with Joba.

The Yankees and Joba had a difficult relationship in 2010. After he struggled as a starter at the end of 2009, Chamberlain spent the year in the bullpen, and he ended the season a 4.40 ERA but 77 strike outs in 71.2 innings. He cut his walk rates and his home run rates but seemed to meltdown at the wrong time. Still, over his final 30 appearances, Joba sported a 2.15 ERA and a 6:1 K:BB rate. He was a very good reliever down the stretch, but he hasn’t moved up on the depth charts.

Once the Yanks’ 2010 campaign is over, the team will have to address Joba’s future. As Ken Davidoff highlighted yesterday, Joba is arbitration-eligible this year and is due for a raise. As the Yanks showed with Melky Cabrera, they’re willing to trade players who are making more than the team feels they are worth, and Davidoff believes the Yanks will listen to offers on Joba and may be willing to include him in a trade.

But for now, there’s plenty of baseball left, and Joba will have his time to sink or swim. That he didn’t pitch in the ALDS simply means that the team’s other hurlers did their jobs and nothing more.