ALDS Game Two: Yankees @ Twins

Last night’s Game One win gave the Yankees a nice advantage for the rest of the series. They’ve taken homefield advantage away from the Twins, and they have a tiny little bit of wiggle room should Andy Pettitte falter in Game Two this evening. Pettitte has been so-so since coming off the disabled list, struggling with his command more than his overall stuff, and it’s resulted in a lot of deep counts and high pitch counts early in the game. Pay attention to his location early on. If he’s keeping the ball down and generally hitting the catcher’s mitt, he’ll be fine. If he’s up in the zone and missing by a considerable margin, we could be in for a long night.

As for the rest of the Yanks, they’re going to take their shot against Carl Pavano, arguably the worst free agent signing in baseball history. Well, not this current version, I mean. Pavano had a very nice season in Minnesota (4.02 FIP), and ironically enough has been a bit of a workhorse for Ron Gardenhire, completing seven of his 32 starts. He was able to do that because he’s ultra efficient, throwing just 14.2 pitches per inning during the season. That’s the exact same amount as Roy Halladay, and trails only Cliff Lee (14.0) for the best in baseball.

That said, Pavano hasn’t been very good down the stretch, similar to Game One starter Francisco Liriano. He pitched to a 5.26 ERA in his final eight starts, allowing hitters to post a .314/.339/.507 batting line. Pavano struck out just 4.76 men per nine innings this season, so the Yankees are going to have plenty of chances to put the ball in play. They just have to make sure they don’t get overanxious and swing at Pavano’s pitches, make him come to you. It sounds crazy with such an extreme strike thrower on the mound, but if they start hacking early in the count, they’re falling right into his trap.

Make sure you check out Joe’s Game Two preview at FanGraphs, ditto Zach Sanders’ version for the Twins. Here are the lineups…

1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Curtis Granderson, CF
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Robbie Cano, 2B
6. Nick Swisher, RF
7. Jorge Posada, C
8. Lance Berkman, DH
9. Brett Gardner, LF

Andy Pettitte, SP (11-3, 3.28 ERA)

1. Denard Span, SP
2. Orlando Hudson, 2B
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Delmon Young, LF
5. Jim Thome, DH
6. Michael Cuddyer, 1B
7. Jason Kubel, RF
8. Danny Valencia, 3B
9. J.J. Hardy, SS

Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA)

This one is scheduled to start a little earlier than yesterday, at 6:07pm ET. Ernie Johnson, John Smoltz, and Ron Darling again have the call on TBS. Enjoy the game.

Matching up the Yankees pitching and Twins hitters, Game 2

Well, that sucked. (Paul Battaglia/AP)

The Twins might feature the same lineup tonight as they did last night, but the match-ups will not at all be the same. Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia might throw with the same hand, but they feature completely different repertoires and they attack hitters in different ways. So while the general match-up numbers might be the same, we need to get into more specifics in order to break down this game.

At this point in his career, Andy Pettitte is no longer a ground ball pitcher. Previously he’d keep the ball on the ground roughly half the time, but for the past two years he has been around 43, 44 percent. Thankfully for thim those have turned into more fly balls than line drives. Even better, those fly balls haven’t been particularly well-hit, since his HR/FB ratio is actually down from where it was earlier in the decade.

In my FanGraphs preview I looked at the Twins hitters against pitchers similar to Pettitte. Since they haven’t faced him that often we can’t learn much from those small samples. The samples when including three other pitchers — Brett Cecil, John Danks, and Mark Buehrle — aren’t adequate by any means, but it should give us a better idea than if we used Pettitte’s numbers alone. Here’s the grim table.

Pettitte and similar pitchers have trouble dealing with the righties in the Twins lineup, plus Denard Span. The only saving grace is that the Ron Gardenhire tends to break up his lefties and righties. So while Span might set the table, the next two hitters don’t tend to fare as well. Still, we could be in for a night similar to last, where the righties Young and Cuddyer lay into some pitches.

(Of course, this isn’t necessarily more significant than any other way to preview the game. By the numbers Curtis Granderson was the least likely guy to get a big hit against Liriano. It’s just a different way to look at it.)

Also working in the Twins favor is general success against two types of pitchers. As a team this year they hit .272/.344/.420 against fly ball pitchers. Even if Pettitte’s fly ball rate doesn’t necessarily classify him as a fly ball guy, the Twins have hit average pitchers to the tune of .287/.351/.457. They also hit average power/finesse guys well, at a .277/.341/.431 clip. Pettitte might seem like a finesse guy, but given the criteria (top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks for power, bottom third for finesse) I’m pretty sure Pettitte fits in the middle. If he does fall into the finesse category it gets even worse, as the Twins hit .279/.345/.444.

The numbers certainly line up in favor of the Twins. Carl Pavano seems to pitch well every time he faces the Yankees, which is infuriating on a number of levels. That’s the only reason I’d be upset with a loss tonight. They won Game 1 on the road, which gives them an advantage. If they head back to New York tied it’s a pretty favorable situation. But not if it is the result of Carl Pavano’s pitching.

Yankee adjustments doom Liriano

For the first five innings of last night’s game, the Yankees were at the mercy of Francisco Liriano. They attempted to start a rally in the third inning when Brett Gardner walked and Derek Jeter singled with no outs, but all that appeared to do was anger the Twins’ lefty. He retired the next three batters with ease, emphatically ending the threat by getting Alex Rodriguez to swing-and-miss at three straight sliders. Those were the first three batters of a stretch in which Liriano would retire ten in a row, but after that things went downhill for him.

True to form, Liriano killed the Yankees with his slider and changeup early on. He threw those two pitches a combined 51.4% of the time this season, and stuck right with that plan for the first five innings and one batter. By my very unofficial count, Liriano threw 34 offspeed pitches out of the zone to the first 19 batters he faced, getting the Yanks to chase a whopping 15 of them. That’s broken down into eight swings-and-misses and seven with contact, whether it be a foul ball or a ground ball or whatever. Either way, Liriano was keeping the Yanks off balance by mixing his pitches and making them look like strikes before they darted away from the zone and turned into ball.

“[Liriano] really went to his offspeed pitches tonight,” said Nick Swisher, who started the sixth inning by chasing a changeup and a slider out of the zone for a leadoff strikeout. “We made a little adjustment.”

The hit that started it all. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Liriano, who averaged just 97.5 pitches per start this season, had thrown a very manageable 80 pitches through Swisher’s strikeout. Mark Teixeira, perpetually susceptible to changeups down in the zone, knew what to expect from Minnesota’s ace after he’d gotten him on (yep) a changeup in his first at-bat. Liriano threw a first pitch change and got Tex to swing-and-miss on a pitch that was both off the plate and below the zone. Tex made one of those little adjustments Swish talked about, and jumped all over the second straight changeup down in the zone, yanking it down the leftfield line for a double. With a man on second and his pitch count approaching 90, the Yanks forced Liriano to abandon his comfort zone.

A-Rod walked on six pitches as the next batter, four of which were fastballs. He took a slider for a strike and then a changeup down for a ball (as David Cone likes to say, he just spit on it) before Liriano went back to the heat. Robbie Cano got two fastballs in his two pitch at-bat and singled in the Yanks’ first run. Even though Marcus Thames followed that with a strike out for the second out of the inning, Liriano didn’t throw him a breaking ball until he got two strikes on him. The next batter, Jorge Posada, fouled off a first pitch slider in the zone, but he then took two straight fastballs for balls. Liriano tried to get him to chase a slider down for a strike, but again, Posada just spit on it. The next slider was a mistake pitch that was left about thigh high, and Posada lined it over Orlando Hudson’s head for a single and another run.

Joe covered Curtis Granderson‘s sixth inning at-bat this morning, but the pattern is important. Liriano got a called strike on a slider that hugged the outside corner of the plate, a borderline pitch. As he did with Posada, the lefty went to two straight fastballs after the first pitch breaking ball, and again both went for balls.

Liriano knew what was up at this point; the Yanks weren’t going to swing at his offspeed stuff unless it was a hittable pitch in the zone. After getting crushed with sliders and changeups early, the Yankee lineup simply took those pitches away. They swung at just one of six offspeed pitches out of the zone after Swisher’s strikeout, and that was the strike three to Thames (who had to be in protect mode with two strikes, swinging at anything close). Liriano’s fourth pitch to Granderson was another fastball, this one missing badly and eventually clanking off the wall in right-center for a two-run triple. For the sake of completeness, Liriano Jose Mijares retired Brett Gardner to end the inning one batter later, throwing him nothing but fastballs during the seven pitch at-bat.

As we’ve seen them do numerous times this season, the Yanks adjusted to the starting pitcher’s game plan the third time through the order. Liriano’s slider and changeup are both among the very best lefthanded offspeed pitches in baseball, but in that sixth inning the Yankees just took them away by simply not swinging. Swisher called it a little adjustment, but it was a little adjustment that reaped huge benefits.

How Curtis Granderson failed before he succeeded

There is a new postseason hero for the Yankees. Curtis Granderson‘s two-run triple might not have been Scotty Brosius or Tino Martinez big, but it was definitely Alex Rodriguez big. Bigger, maybe, since Granderson gave his team the lead. It capped a four-run sixth inning that would restore faith in the Yankees and ultimately drive a Game 1 win. But it didn’t come very easily.

Granderson actually had a chance to do some damage in the first inning. He came up in the exact same situation as he did in the sixth: men on first and second with two outs. Liriano must have had plenty of confidence when facing Granderson — he had allowed just four hits, including one home run, in the 25 times he faced him — because he opened with a fastball right down Broadway.

Granderson rightly took a hack, but just couldn’t get the fat part of the bat anywhere near the pitch.

It wasn’t poorly struck, but it did go right to Michael Cuddyer at first for an easy inning-ender.

Granderson’s second at-bat was a bit more interesting. This time it appeared as though Liriano had a plan. He started with a fastball away for ball one, but then came back with a slider that, according to the home plate ump, nicked the outside corner for strike one. He went back to the slider on the third pitch, putting it a bit lower than the last. Curtis held up. Again the slider came on pitch four, and again it was away. This gave Granderson a 3-1 advantage, but then Liriano came inside with a fastball. Granderson just managed to foul it away. On the 3-2 pitch Liriano again turned to the slider. It ended up right where the previous fastball did, and while it appeared as though it missed Mauer’s glove, it didn’t miss by much. Granderson had no chance.

When Granderson came to bat in the next inning the Yankees had just scored two runs. Given Liriano’s history against Granderson, Ron Gardenhire left him in rather than going to lefty reliever Jose Mijares. He started repeating his plan from the previous at-bat by working Granderson away. A slider nipped the outside corner for strike one, but then Liriano missed with two fastballs away. In the previous at-bat it wasn’t until the fifth pitch that Liriano came inside. I’m not sure if Granderson recognized that, but it did appear as thought he was ready to jump on that outside fastball. It didn’t hurt that Liriano missed his spot.

This time Granderson was able to center the ball on the barrel, and what resulted was a home run in 28, maybe 29 ballparks. Thankfully, the ball hung up long enough for even Jorge to make it around from first base. That gave the Yankees a lead not more than a few minute after the game seemed hopeless. Even though they gave one back the next inning, Granderson’s hit changed the tone of the game.

Fun fact: The last time Granderson hit a triple in the postseason came in 2006 in the ALDS…against the Yankees. That one also gave his team the lead. The Yanks and Tigers were tied at three heading into the seventh, but Mike Mussina allowed the go-ahead run on that Granderson triple. The man who scored the run: Marcus Thames.