The position-by-position comparison is a tired old trope, but it's fun as hell, and it's actually a decent way to compare two teams. Or it almost is. Rather than compare two teams by position on the field, I prefer to compare them by position in the lineup. This corrects for teams that have, for example, power-hitting shortstops that hit in the middle of the order and banjo hitting first basemen who hit at the bottom. Rather than compare the apples and oranges of, say Alex Rodriguez and Casey Blake, I'll compare Rodriguez to the Indians cleanup hitter and Blake to Doug Mientkiewicz. I reserve the right to fudge the lineups just a smidge to produce better comparisons, though in this case I only need to swap Hideki Matsui back up to the fifth spot, where he hit often enough this year anyway. Also included below are comparisons of the pitching staffs. The Yankee lineup (save for the flop of Matsui and Posada in the order) and roster below reflect those announced by the team. The Indians have yet to announce their roster, so the below is my best guess.
This one is closer than the stats might have you believe. Johnny Damon struggled through the first half of the season with a variety of injuries, compounding his problems by resisting (and ultimately avoiding) his first ever trip to the disabled list. Looking like a very old 33, Damon lost the center field job to Melky Carbrera by June 1, and by July 20, he was hitting just .234/.338/.322. It was then that Joe Torre finally decided that starting Damon at DH wasn't sufficient, that he needed full days off as well. Damon did not start the first game of the Yankees' double-header against the Devil Rays on July 21 and, almost as if the lack of rest was wearing him down mentally as well as physically, Damon flipped the switch in the nightcap and hit .319/.369/.493 over the remainder of the season. Looking at his monthly splits, Damon has improved every month since June as he's slowly healed up from his rough first half. I'll still give the edge to Sizemore, who, at 24, is still making improvements in his game that are not health related (he drew nearly twice as many walks this year as he did in his rookie season in 2005, and is no longer a liability against lefty pitching), but with Damon back at full strength and performing like he in his first year as a Yankee, it's very close, especially when you consider that, despite Damon's early struggles, Sizemore struck out nearly twice as many times as Johnny this season.
This one is the mismatch the last appeared to be on first glance. Cabrerra didn't become the Tribe's starting second sacker until mid-August, when the team finally realized that they could no longer both fight for the division and wait for offseason acquisition Josh Barfield to break out. Cabrera, who was acquired from the Mariners last June for Eduardo Perez, spent most of the 2007 season playing shortstop for double-A Akron while posting a hitting line not unlike Jeter's above. Of course that was at double-A, and Cabrera had never hit like that before in his life save for a short stint at A-ball in 2005. Nonetheless, the Indians figured anything was worth a try, and were pleasantly surprised when the 21-year-old Venezuelan thrived at second base, hitting .308/.361/.477 over his first month in the big leagues. He cooled off over the final two weeks, of course, so it's anyone's guess how he'll perform in the postseason with just 159 major league at-bats under his belt, but it's safe to say he's unlikely to out-perform Jeter. The Yankee captain was hobbled in the second-half of the season, suffering from a nagging knee injury that sapped his power, but he rallied in September to hit .311/.363/.495 and finished the season with a 15-game hitting streak during which he hit .386/.397/.653. What's more, Jeter's poor success rate on the bases was largely a first-half phenomenon. Jeter was a mere 7 for 14 on the bases in the first half, but stole 8 of 9 successfully in the second half. Perhaps his sore knee forced him to steal with smarts rather than with speed.
Abreu and Hafner are a particularly apt comparison as both typically rank among the best hitters in the game, but suffered through uncharacteristically poor seasons this past year. Abreu was abysmal through the first two months of 2007, hitting just .228/.313/.289 in April and May combined. He turned it on from there, however, hitting .309/.396/.520 over the last four months of the season. Hafner's season is more difficult to parse as he struggled almost all season long, but bookended those struggles with outstanding April and September performances. Hafner--who, prior to this season, was practically a carbon copy of David Ortiz, only without the major media attention and postseason opportunities--hit just .235/.357/.395 from April 26 through Sept 3, but kicked off the season with a .373/.494/.627 outburst and wrapped it up with a .327/.427/.570 stretch. If Hafner carries that hot hitting into the postseason (and there's no reason he shouldn't--it's representative of his overall abilities, and Hafner, who tied Don Mattingly's record of six grand slams in a single season last year, is hardly a wilting flower in big spots), then the Tribe have the advantage in the three-hole. Another reason the advantage goes to Cleveland here is that Abreu has been awful against lefties this season (.262/.329/.349), while Hafner, though also a lefty, has had no platoon split to speak of.
Poor Victor. Someone had to matchup against Alex Rodriguez, and Victor was indeed both the Indians' cleanup hitter and their most productive batsman this season. It's really not fair, however. The Tribe's only hope here is that Alex Rodriguez stumbles again in the postseason. The key for Alex will be to take his walks. In 2005, the Angels pitched around Rodriguez, but Alex, trying to carry his weight, expanded his strike zone and went a-hacking. He still posted a .381 on-base percentage in that series, but his trying to do too much led to his hitting into a lot of unnecessary outs. Rodriguez hit six home runs in six games against the Indians this year, including that game-winner off Joe Borowski back in April, and there's little doubt in my mind that the Indians will pitch around Rodriguez at every opportunity. It will be Alex's job to take his base and trust his teammates to knock him in. The second reason this matchup is unfair is that Martinez is a catcher and has likely worn down over the long season. Indeed, he did most of his hitting in the first half, posting an OPS 126 points higher before the All-Star break than after. Incidentally, Alex Rodriguez, who already one of just four men in the 40-40 club, is just the fourth man ever to hit 50 home runs and steal 20 bases. Willie Mays (51-24 in 1955), Brady Anderson (50-21 in 1996), and Ken Griffey Jr. (56-20 in 1998) are the only others.
Joe Torre is batting Jorge Posada ahead of Hideki Matsui in Game One, and for good reason. For the purposes of these comparisons, however, I'll keep Matsui in his usual five-spot as this matchup works particularly well. Ryan Garko is a converted minor league catcher who has hit at every level and took over the major league first base job last year after Cleveland traded both Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard to Seattle in separate deals. This year, he started out in a complex platoon with Casey Blake that involved Blake playing right field in place of Trot Nixon against lefties and first base against righties, but that only lasted about a week. Garko has been the man ever since, save for days when Victor Martinez takes a break from catching and plays first (since Victor was the Tribe's best bat this year, they couldn't afford to give him full days off).
The comparison between Matsui and Garko works so well not only because of their similar numbers above, but because both have been ridiculously streaky this year. Hideki Matsui hit 25 home runs during the regular season, but 13 of them came in July. Meanwhile, here are Garko's monthly OPS marks: .710, 1.064, .573, 1.149, .697, .808. The good/bad news there is that both of these guys are entering the postseason cold. Garko's .808 OPS for September is almost entirely slugging as he hit just .234 on the month, which dragged his on-base percentage down to .308. Hideki Matsui has performed similarly of late, though with more of his production coming from walks as his power has been sapped, in part due to a gimpy right knee which he had tapped (and drained) on Sunday. The possibility of Matsui feeling better in the wake of that procedure, Matsui's history of coming up big in big games, and his slight edge in the stats above (which is largely the result of Garko's inherent platoon disadvantage as a right-handed hitter) would seem to give the Yankees an advantage here, but I'm calling it even.
This is also a bit unfair. Posada was the second best hitter on the Yankees this season. I could rejigger this by putting Posada against Hafner (advantage Yankees) and Abreu against Peralta (advantage Yankees), but to a certain degree this method of comparing hitters by their batting order slots also evaluates the utility of the two teams' lineups. Thus the edge to the Indians in the three-hole, and the huge advantage for the Yankees here. I still can't figure out if the most amazing thing about Posada's season was that he did it as a 35-turning-36-year-old catcher, or that he was actually better in the second half than he was in the first (.325/.398/.503 pre-break vs. .355/.463/.598 after). This matchup makes a certain amount of sense as both are strong-hitting players from the far right of the defensive spectrum, but despite a modest comeback this season (the result of corrective eye surgery and the absence of some personal problems that effected him in 2006) the 25-year-old Peralta still isn't the player he appeared to be at age 23. Final note: Posada, who played in 144 games this year, his most since 2000, hit a blazing .395/.511/.632 in September. Wow.
This is perhaps the least apt comparison of the bunch. Lofton is a sullen 40-year-old outfielder whose strengths are getting on base and stealing bases. Cano is a carefree 24-year-old infielder whose offensive value is almost entirely derived from his excellent bat-handling abilities and his surprising power stroke to the gaps. In his third season, Cano also confirmed the fact that he's a second-half player. He's now hit .334/.366/.540 in the second half in his three seasons combined compared with .295/.327/.440 in the first half, with the difference this year being even more extreme. Cano's best month was July, but he's been excellent in the two months since. Lofton, meanwhile, did most of his damage over the first four months when he was with the Texas Rangers (his 11th different organization). Since coming to the Tribe at the trading deadline for minor league catcher Max Ramirez, Lofton has been below league average. He's also spent much of that time platooning with Jason Michaels, who hit .287/.359/.441 against lefties on the season while Lofton hit .313/.386/.452 against righties on the year. That's an effective platoon, but Cano still holds the easy advantage here as he hit .343/.396/.557 in the second half.
Those stolen base numbers are roughly analogous as Gutierrez has had about half as plate appearances as Cabrera this year. A year and a half older than Melky, Gutierrez rivals his throwing arm, but has a very different approach at the plate. Melky, at his best, is a short, pesky, switch-hitting, high-average hitter with enough patience to get good pitches to hit and pad his OBP, and enough power to stretch a fair share of his well-placed doubles into triples. Pete Rose is not an inappropriate comparison. Gutierrez, is a long, lanky hitter who has a beautiful swing that leverages considerable power when everything lines up correctly, but has difficulty making that happen. An early-career Alex Rios is not an inappropriate comparison. Melky took over the Yankees's center field job on June 1 and hit .325/.375/.482 over the next three months, but then suffered through his second awful September in as many major league seasons (2007: .180/.236/.220; 2006: .253/.349/.330, but .179/.256/.231 over the final two weeks). Perhaps Melky is still adjusting to the longer major league season, as the minors wrap up at the end of August. If so, he's dead meat and should sit in favor of Damon in center, Matsui in left, and a Giambi/Duncan platoon at DH. Of course, Matsui's knee might have something to say about that. Melky was squeezed out of last year's ALDS by the returns of Matsui and Gary Sheffield (he went 0 for 3 across two games in the Yanks' loss to the Tigers), so there's no real evidence that he can or can't pull out of his dive given the boost of the postseason.
Gutierrez took over the right-handed part of the Tribe's right-field platoon with Trot Nixon in June and by August had pretty much assumed the position full time after hitting .301/.342/.544 in June and July combined. He then hit .245/.306/.436 over the remainder of the season, in part because he really does need a platoon partner. I'd be all in favor of letting Gutierrez figure out righties in 2008, but the postseason is not the time for that. Still, I give the Tribe the edge here as Melky's just stopped hitting altogether.
First of all, yes Doug Mientkiewicz. Not only is he the hot hand and the preferred defensive choice behind groundballers Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, but he's had a better season at the plate than Jason Giambi, albeit in a smaller sample (both have an OPS+ of 112, but Mientkiewicz has hit for a much higher average, a similar on-base percentage, and has the edge in slugging). That said, Minky and Blake are similarly overrated white guys. In fact, did you know that Blake is actually older than Mientkiewicz? The Indians are younger than the Yankees throughout the top six spots in the order, but the Yanks are younger in these bottom three spots. Blake is a late-bloomer who went through three different organizations, including the Twins twice, before winning the third base job with the Indians in 2003. In 2004 he showed growth at the plate and in 2005 he was moved to right field in order to keep his bat in the lineup while protecting the Indians from his terrible defense at the hot corner where the Indians installed Aaron Boone. He's since proven to be a streaky hitter and a terrible defender no matter where the Tribe puts him, which wound up being third base again this year after Andy Marte hit the DL just 15 games into the season. Blake had a great May and finished with a strong September, but hit just .245/.302/.367 from June 18 to August 30. Of course Mientkiewicz didn't play at all in July or August after suffering a broken wrist in a collision with Mike Lowell at first base on June 2. Minky had gotten off to a dreadful start in April and hit something approaching Blake's line above in May, but since being activated with expanded rosters, he's hit .429/.510/.619 which includes a .459/.545/.676 mark since he reclaimed the starting first base job mid-month. Obviously he's no where near that good a hitter, but he's better than Blake in almost every facet of the game and that recent hot streak proves that he can get just as hot as Casey. Advantage Yankees.
Benches (All stats EqA except as noted)
Jason Michaels (LF/RF/CF): .258
Chris Gomez (1B/3B/2B/SS): .240* (.218 EqA with CLE)
Trot Nixon (RF): .254
Kelly Shoppach (C): .272
Josh Barfield (2B): .220 or Ben Francisco (LF/RF): .266
Jason Giambi (1B): .269
Shelley Duncan (1B/RF/LF): .282
Wilson Betemit (1B/3B/SS/2B): .268* (.230 with NYY)
Jose Molina (C): .208* (.260 with NYY)
Bronson Sardinha (RF/LF/CF/3B/SS/PR): .287
Jason Giambi over Jason Michaels? Yes. Wilson Betemit over Chris Gomez? Yes. Shelley Duncan over Trot Nixon? Amazingly, yes. Jose Molina over Kelly Shoppach? Not really, but Molina's been great since coming to the Yanks, hitting .318/.333/.439 in pinstripes. The 14th-man spot is really anyone's guess. Josh Barfield has been atrocious at the plate this year and, outside of a single game in the outfield in A-ball five years ago, has never played a position other than second base. Ben Francisco is what I thought Shelley Duncan would be, an all-or-nothing righty bat that will either homer or strikeout (Shelley's been much better than that). Sardinha not only looks like a taller, leaner Melky Cabrera, he's also a very similar hitter, though his swing is more likely to produce power than Melky's. Sardinha can play essentially any position, but is primarily here to pinch run. I give the Yanks the edge in four of the five bench spots, and a huge advantage with a more flexible bench that's also better at the plate. It's almost too bad they have less need for it than their opponents.
*Since full season EQAs for multi-team players are not available I'm using Gross Production Average (GPA=[OBP*1.8+SLG]/4) in it's place. GPA is on the same scale as EQA (the batting average scale), and is often very similar despite not containing any adjustments.
In the one year that you could make a decent argument for a rival closer over the Great Rivera, he matches up against Joe Borowski, who has an ERA over 5.00, a scary home run rate, and doesn't even average a full inning per outing. Mo, meanwhile, has far better peripherals than his struggles this season and his first ERA over 3.00 since his rookie season would lead you to believe. That's because his struggles aren't due to a lack of stuff, but rather a lack of command. Every so often, Mo just can't hit Posada's glove and he gets hit around. That happens more than it used to, but still not all that often as per the above stats. That the save percentages for these two are so similar and that Borowski has 150 percent as many saves as Rivera is a perfect example of why the save is both a useless statistic and the baseball equivalent of a kicking a field goal in football.
Rafael Perez (L)
Aaron Fultz (L)
Aaron Laffey (L)
The grass is always greener, but beyond the sensation that is Joba Chamberlain, I have to favor the Indians here. Rafael Betancourt was the best setup man in the majors over the entire season, and Rafael Perez, who finally stuck on the roster in June, was nearly as good in the second half (1.49 ERA after the All-Star break). The Indians pitchers also last longer, and include among their number three lefties, which should be especially troubling to Bobby Abreu. Speaking of Abreu, note the strikeout rates of the top four men on the Cleveland list. That's a bad match for the Yankees, whose two, three, and four hitters each hit triple digits in Ks this year, and who's best bench bats (Giambi, Betemit, and Duncan) are also prone to getting rung up.
Both teams have a rookie starter as a long man, and both are largely inexperienced out of the pen, though Hughes is more so, having made just one relief appearance as a pro, doing so two years ago in A-ball. Both also have three other rookies on the roster. Chamberlain, easily the best of the dozen hurlers listed above, and Perez are of no concern, but the other two Yankee rookies are essentially September callups who pitched well in very very small samples after rosters expanded. The Indians' middle-relief rookies (Mastny, who actually closed for the Tribe toward the end of 2006, and Lewis), are here based on much larger samples and, relative to Jose Veras at least, far superior performance. Not that I would have preferred Ron Villone or the shell of Edwar Ramirez, mind you, just that these pickings are slim for the New York nine. That just leaves the VODEs (Veterans OF Dubious Effectiveness). The Yanks have two, the Indians have just one, and that one is a seasoned LOOGY. Advantage Tribe . . . maybe. If the Kyle Farnsworth's newfound effectiveness for the windup can overcome his history of postseason implosions, the Yanks gain considerable ground. If Luis Vizcaino's arm can cling to a few more weeks of life, they gain even more. Both are unlikely, however.
What this really comes down to is how much these pens will need to contribute. The Indians may be able to survive a lot of pitching changes. The Yankees, however, are in trouble if they have to deviate too far from the formula of Starter-Joba-Mo. That's why I saved the rotations for last. We'll do these in pairs rather than as groups, and I'll skip the stat lines in favor of my usual pregame analysis:
Chien-Ming Wang vs. C.C. Sabathia
Wang will have to pitch on the road in Game One and in a potential Game Five. That's a disadvantage right off the top. It's not that Wang can't pitch well on the road. He turned in a gem in Detroit on August 25, and seems to be comfortable on the mound in U.S. Cellular as he pitched a pair of gems in Chicago this season (of course, the White Sox couldn't hit dirt with a shovel when he faced them in the first half of the year). It's just that more often than not, Wang scuffles on the road. He has a 4.91 ERA on the road this year (vs. 2.75 at home), and that trend is actually getting worse each season rather than better. Perhaps it's pitching on a familiar mound. Maybe the Yankee Stadium grounds crew softens up the dirt around home and waits until after his starts to cut the grass. What ever it is, it's trouble. Much is being made about the fact that the Yankees haven't faced Sabathia since September of 2004, but the Indians didn't see Wang at all this year. Last year they failed to score against him in 7 1/3 innings in the Bronx, but pushed five across in 5 1/3 innings at the Jake. Like I said, trouble.
Sabathia was good in 2004, but over the past two seasons he's been one of the best pitchers in the game, with nearly identical ERAs of 3.22 and 3.21, K-rates around 8 per 9IP, and an ever-shrinking walk rate which shriveled up to 1.38 this year. Sabathia's dominance was held back by an early-season oblique strain last year. This year, no such issue. His K:BB rate is a Schilling-like 5.65 and he's averaged a tremendous 7.08 innings per start. Not that Sabathia isn't capable of a stumble. It's just that it's been two and a half months since he's done so. Thirteen of Sabathia's final 14 starts this season were quality starts and the one that wasn't saw him strikeout 13 in seven innings and allow only four runs. Over those last 14 starts, Ol' Crooked Cap has gone 7-3 with a 2.41 ERA. The Tribe holds the clear advantage in this matchup.
Andy Pettitte vs. Fausto Carmona
Pettitte dominated in his first ten starts after the All-Star break (8-1, 2.79), but has been hit or miss since, posting a 5.86 ERA in six starts. Pettitte faced the Indians once this year, holding them to two runs in 7 2/3 innings at the Jake during that great stretch of ten starts. Coming off a season of disastrous relief work, Fausto Carmona gave up six runs in 4 1/3 innings in his first start of 2007. He then held the Yankees to two runs in six frames in his next start and never looked back, which is good, because if he did he would have seen the Yankees win that game on Alex Rodriguez's three-run walk-off homer off Joe Borowski. Carmona was the one giving up the homer to Rodriguez and taking the loss when the Bombers came to the Jake in August, as Phil Hughes outpitched Carmona's seven-inning, four-run effort. That's was a mere speedbump, however, as Carmona went 5-0 with a 1.78 ERA in September. Carmona's success is largely due to a tremendous 3.28 groundball-to-flyball ratio, which ranked third among ERA qualifiers this season (behind Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb), and is more extreme than any Chien-Ming Wang has posted in his three major league seasons, and more than twice the rate of Pettitte's merely moderate groundball tendencies. Pettitte has the postseason experience and the reputation for being a postseason stopper (in 2003, his last postseason with the Yanks, Pettitte won Game Two in all three rounds of the playoffs, each time following a Game One Yankee loss), but on regular season performance, the advantage is the Indians' once again.
Roger Clemens vs. Jake Westbrook
Westbrook's ground ball rate took a tumble in 2007, though it was still better than 2:1. Westbrook himself stumbled badly early, missed nearly all of May and June to injury, then returned to post a 3.54 ERA the rest of the way, only twice failing to complete six innings in 19 starts, and only twice allowing more than four earned runs in a single game. Clemens's strikeout rate took a tumble in 2007, and the 45-year-old Rocket has only made one start since September 3 due first to elbow pain caused by compensating for blisters on his feet, then due to a tweaky hamstring and the Yankees preference to let the old feller heal up completely rather than risk aggravating the injury in a meaningless game. Overall, Clemens has been decidedly unspectacular. After throwing a pair of eight-inning, one-run gems in early July, Clemens has gone 4-3 with a 4.55 ERA over 11 starts with a pedestrian 5.92 K rate, 1.86 K/BB ratio, and 1.45 WHIP. He did, however, raise his game to post this line in two starts against Boston down the stretch: 12 IP, 4 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 HR, 8 BB, 6 K. Okay, it was good until the walks and strikeouts at least. The point being that the old fart may still be able to gut out a clutch performance. That's about the extent of it though. Clemens hasn't faced the Indians this year. Former Yankee Westbrook was roughed up by the Yanks in April when he was terrible, and allowed four runs in seven innings in a loss in August, when he was better. Still, the edge again goes to the Indians.
Mike Mussina vs. Paul Byrd
Neither of these guys are really fooling anybody. Mike Mussina posted a 4.97 ERA through his first 16 starts, then put up a 2.84 over his next four (including a gem in Cleveland), then pitched his way out of the rotation (quite an accomplishment for a man with his résumé) by posting a 17.69 over three stinkers. Pitched once in relief of Clemens (poorly). Returned to the rotation in Clemens' absence to post a 1.37 ERA in three starts, then finished things off with a dud against the Orioles. Those last dozen outings altogether add up to a 5.40 ERA and his season mark was 5.15. That's really what Mike Mussina is now. Paul Byrd's season wasn't quite as volatile, but it was similarly uninspiring. Byrd did hurl a pair of shutouts in the second half against the Twins and White Sox, but the first was followed up by a complete drubbing at the hands of the Yanks, who bounced him after two frames after scoring seven runs. Over his final five starts, Byrd went 1-3 with a 6.83 ERA. Byrd also tanked a start against the Bombers in Game Three of the 2005 ALDS when he was with the Angels, though Randy Johnson and Aaron Small tanked worse and the Yankees lost that crucial rubber game. At any rate, I'm giving the Yankees the edge here, but it's about as small as can be.
So what have we learned? The Yankees run roughshod over the Tribe on offense, but fall short on the mound. Can the Indians superior pitching stop the Yankees superior hitting? Things have gone that way for the Yanks in recent postseasons, but there's something that tells me that the Bombers just might squeak this one out.
**WXRL is a complex, but informative statistic. The acronym technically stands for Relievers Expected Wins Added, but is better remembered as Win eXpectancy adjusted for Replacement level and Lineup. The statistic tallies a reliever's effect upon his team's Win Expectancy (also known as Win Probability) then compares that to a replacement level pitcher while also adjusting for the strength of the actuall hitters faced.
For those unfamiliar with Win Probability, say a visiting team has a two run lead in the bottom of the ninth with the bases empty and one out. At that moment they have a 95.9 percent chance of winning that game. If the pitcher gives up a home run in that situation, reducing his lead to one-run, he drops his team's Win Expectancy to 90.8 percent, thus he's docked 5.1 points. If he strikes out the batter in that situation, to put his team one out from a win with a two-run lead, he improves his team's Win Expectancy to 99.6 percent, thus he's credited with 3.7 points. WXRL tallies all these pluses and minuses and adjusts them as stated above. It is a counting stat, not a rate stat.