The Angels haven't made it this far since 2005; the Yankees 2004, so we not only have the two best teams in the American League in 2009 squaring off in a best of seven, but two of the best teams of the decade, both hungry for another championship and with a lot to prove.
This series seems preordained to go the distance, given the similarities in offensive prowess -- the Yankees batted .283/.362/.478 to the Angels' .285/.350/.441 in the regular season -- and pitching, although the Yankees appear to have a bit more of an edge on paper (NYY had a staff ERA of 4.26, 1.35 WHIP and ERA+ of 104; LAA staff had an ERA of 4.45, WHIP of 1.41 and ERA+ of 102). Both teams also performed somewhat similarly in their just-wrapped ALDS sweeps, with the Yankees posting an out-of-character .225/.288/.431 line with a 1.55 ERA, 34 strikeouts and a .257 BAA, and the Angels with a more robust .258/.346/.409 line and a 2.33 ERA, 16 strikeouts and a .158 BAA.
That the Yankees have home field advantage should help the Pinstriped Nine, given how well the Yankees have played at home this year and also taking into account the team's struggles at the Big A. Additionally, playing the Angels instead of the Red Sox also boosts home field advantage, ensuring that both the team and Yankee fanbase won't have to put up with anywhere near as many annoying rival fans as a Boston game would draw to the Stadium and in bars across the city. As anyone who has been to a Yankee-Red Sox game can attest to, there are always far more Boston hats in the seats than anyone wants to see; I can't imagine there are many New York-based Halos fans. And if you do live in New York and are from L.A., at least root for the Dodgers. Cheering for the Angels is like being a Mets fan.
So now it's time for our quick-and-dirty position by position rundown, with 2009 regular season stats. This time I'm substituting wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) for OPS. I've been a huge OPS proponent for as long as I've been aware of the statistic, but as many have recently pointed out, OPS is not the be-all end-all measure of offensive prowess that a lot of folks (including myself) have made it out to be. Its primary flaw is that by combining OBP and SLG, it does not accurately reflect a player's true value, for you could have two players OPSing .800, with one posting an OBP of .400 and SLG of .400, and the other an OBP of .300 and a SLG of .500. Not that a SLG of .500 is bad, mind you, but a .300 OBP is pretty putrid, and most people would probably take the guy who's getting on base at a .400 clip.
As per FanGraphs, "wOBA is a linear weight formula presented as a rate statistic scaled to On Base Percentage. Essentially, what that means is that average wOBA will always equal average OBP for any given year. If you know what the league’s OBP is, you know what the league’s wOBA is. Usually, league average falls in the .335 range – it was .332 last year, but offense was down around the game in 2008, which may or may not continue.
So, why should you care about wOBA? What makes it better than OPS or any of the more famous rate statistics that measure offensive value? The beauty of wOBA lies in linear weights. Essentially, every outcome has a specific run value that is proportional to other outcomes – a home run is worth a little more than twice as much a single, for instance. What wOBA does, as all linear weights formulas do, is value these outcomes relative to each other so that they are properly valued."So there you have it. People way, way smarter than me have created a statistic that -- while not perfect -- seems to be the closest metric we have to the overall evaluation of a player's offensive contributions, independent of baserunners or how many outs there are.
To give you some additional context, A-Rod's 2009 OBP was .402, while his wOBA was .405, good for 10th-highest in all of baseball. So just in case you were worried (although at this point the ALDS really should have quelled any of your doubts), rest assured that A-Rod is still one of the best players in baseball.
But I digress.
Angels: Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis, .272/.350/.492; wOBA .362 and .211/.288/.308; wOBA .267
Yankees: Jorge Posada, .285/.363/.522; wOBA .378
Mike Napoli's numbers surprised me -- he actually has the fourth-highest wOBA on the Angels, so he's clearly no slouch at the plate. Jeff Mathis, on the other hand, is almost Jose Molinian in his offensive ineptitude. In any event, Posada is the best offensive catcher in baseball (non-Mauer division), so Jorge gets the nod here. Of course, Molina and his nonexistent bat seem a near-certainty to again catch A.J. Burnett in game 2, due to both the duo's relative success in the first round as well as the fact that the Angels are absolute freaks on the basepaths.
Angels: Kendry Morales, .306/.355/.569; wOBA .382
Yankees: Mark Teixeira, .292/.383/.565; wOBA .402
This is very close, and if Joe Mauer didn't exist in 2009, Morales (along with Big Tex) might have had a case for MVP. Regardless, Tex is even better, and the huge leadoff base hit in the bottom of the 9th and walkoff bomb in Game 2 of the ALDS played huge roles in advancing the Yankees to the next round.
Angels: Howie Kendrick, .291/.334/.444; wOBA .341
Yankees: Robinson Cano, .320/.352/.520; wOBA .370
Without looking up the actual numbers, I feel like Howie Kendrick has something like a .400/.450/.500 line all-time against the Yankees. Kendrick is another one of those annoying-as-hell players (see Cabrera, Orlando, and Kendrick's teammate in peskiness, Figgins, Chone) who seem to get a hit against the Yankees in every single at-bat. Kendrick isn't a bad player, but his talent level is definitely below that of Robinson Cano, who actually had the 2nd-best wOBA among two-baggers in the AL after Ben Zobrist, which means he actually out-wOBA'ed both the Grittiest, Guttiest, Scrappiest Player This Side of David Eckstein and Ian Kinsler.
Angels: Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, .312/.353/.423; wOBA .339 and .300/.359/.434; wOBA .348
Yankees: Derek Jeter, .334/.406/.465; wOBA .390
Erick Aybar posted the first above-average OPS+ of his short career this year (101), while Maicer Izturis also notched a career year (106 OPS+). I'm convinced these guys would suck on any other team, but since they're Angels, they get base hits every at bat. Jeter obviously smokes both of these dudes any which way you slice it (I haven't bothered to look up defensive metrics, but it's probably a wash), and his resurgent year has continued into the playoffs. If Jeter continues to hit the way he has, the Yankees have a very good chance to take this series quickly.
Angels: Chone Figgins, .298/.395/.393; wOBA .358
Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, .286/.402/.532; wOBA .405
Chone Figgins is a pain in the neck, plain and simple. He has no power, but he can certainly work a walk, as evidenced by that .395 OBP. As previously mentioned, he also has a knack for getting timely hits against the Yankees, so his value in my mind is greater than what the numbers are telling me. Regardless, the Yankees have A-Rod, who is awesome and made good on a number of bloggers' predictions (myself included) that he was ready to break out this postseason. As mentioned previously, A-Rod was arguably one of the ten most valuable players in baseball this year, despite missing more than a month's worth of games.
Angels: Juan Rivera, .287/.332/.478; wOBA .348
Yankees: Johnny Damon, .282/.365/.489; wOBA .376
The forgotten man in the Javier Vazquez trade, never in my wildest dreams did I think Mr. Braceface himself Juan Rivera would become a mostly above-average outfielder when healthy, but that's pretty much exactly what he's done. I was actually at the 2003 game where Rivera recorded his first Major League hit, and while he flashed some ability here and there that year, I wasn't particularly devastated when the Yankees shipped him off along with Nick Johnson. If anything, I was far more crushed at the loss of Nick the Stick, who, when not spending inordinate amounts of time on the disabled list, is still one of the best OBP guys in the game. It can be fun to play the What If game with some of the moves and non-moves the Yankees have made over the years (I plan to dedicate a post to this sometime in the offseason), but trading Johnson, Rivera and Randy Choate for Vazquez is pretty emblematic of the sloppy way the organization was being run during those disastrous 2003, 2004 and 2005 offseasons. Vazquez seemed like the right idea at the time -- and the Yankees probably gave up on him too soon -- but this was likely a trade that, given a second chance, Cashman probably doesn't make again.
In any event, Rivera has become a pretty important cog for the Angels -- he'll never be a superstar, but he seems to come through with a big hit when they need it, or at least that's my perception based on watching him play against the Yankees. Johnny Damon, as I addressed in the last preview, had a monster season through August, but has since fallen off a cliff, and didn't get any better in the ALDS. He also looked awful in the field on the Brendan Harris double in Game 2. Still, if Damon can find his stroke, he's more dangerous than Rivera at the plate and on the bases.
Angels: Torii Hunter, .299/.366/.508; wOBA .379
Yankees: Melky Cabrera, .274/.336/.416; wOBA .331
This is the one position on the field where the Angels crush the Yankees. A lot of people thought Hunter was on the decline going into free agency two years ago; however, at age 33, he just put up the best OPS of his career. Though Hunter has hit the Yankees well in the past, I'm not terribly concerned about him -- at least, not as much as old friend Bobby Abreu.
As for Cabrera, it should be noted that Brett Gardner (.337), Eric Hinske (.350) and even Mariano Rivera (.353, obviously in the smallest sample size ever, although still pretty hilarious) all posted better wOBAs than Melky. That's all I have to say about that. At least Melky plays a better left field than Johnny Damon.
Angels: Bobby Abreu, .293/.390/.435; wOBA .367
Yankees: Nick Swisher, .249/.371/.498; wOBA .375
The Yankees correctly let Abreu walk after the 2008 season, as Cashman read the market perfectly. That the Angels got Abreu and his .390 OBP for a song might have been the steal of last winter. While there really wasn't a place for Bobby on the 2009 team (especially given the Yankees' inclination toward a less porous defense), it's hard not to look at his final line and be a bit jealous. That being said, Swisher did a terrific job in right field this year, and his ability to work the count makes his at-bats a pleasure to watch, even if he did look a bit off his game in the ALDS. I ended up taking a lot of heat for picking Swisher over Kubel last round, even though their stat lines were very similar (for the record, Kubel actually out-wOBA'ed Swisher in the regular season, so I'm willing to admit I may have been wrong in my initial assessment, although Kubel also out-K'd the entire world in the ALDS). This one's pretty tough, and it'd be easy to go Abreu here, especially after the ALDS he just had, but I'm going to go Swisher again here.
Angels: Vladimir Guerrero, .295/.334/.460; wOBA .343
Yankees: Hideki Matsui, .274/.367/.509; wOBA .378
Vlad has been a beast throughout his tenure in LA, although he began to decline a bit last year. While injured for part of this year, he managed to get into 100 games that resulted in the lowest OPS and OPS+ of his career. Formerly one of the more fearsome hitters in the game, the Yankees' strikeout staff should be able to exploit Vlad's propensity to swing at everything. Vlad also used to have one of the best (albeit not very accurate) arms in the game out of right field, but injuries have forced him into full-time DH duty. Matsui's defense has also been taken out of the equation, although no one was ever going to write odes to his play in the field. However, Matsui was arguably the second-best designated hitter in the league this year, and his .378 wOBA would rank third-best in the Angels' lineup.
So our tally on the offense is Yankees: 8, Angels: 1.
This seems extremely lopsided in favor of the Yankees, although obviously some of the matchups are closer than you might think. One thing I didn't really point out was that no regular on the Angels batted lower than .272 (Mathis), while the eight other men in the lineup batted .287 or higher. That's rather mind-boggling. So they don't take a ton of walks, but they sure do hit the ball. And we all know what happens when the Angels get on base. This is a Mike Scioscia-led team, after-all.
Game 1: CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.37 ERA, 133 ERA+) v. John Lackey (11-8, 3.83, 119 ERA+)
I can't recall the Yankees having too much success against Lackey in the past. You know he'll be pounding the strike zone all game and probably won't yield any walks. It's hard to wear out a guy who doesn't throw too many out of the zone, but the Yankees need to do whatever they can to get to the Angels' bullpen in these games, as that appears to be their primary weak spot. While Sabathia labored a bit in his last start, he eventually settled in and ended up registering a great outing. Sabathia's also the best pitcher on either staff, and given that he'll be starting Games 1, 4 and 7, the Yankees' World Series hopes will be riding on this very large man's shoulders. If Sabathia is on his game the Angels should have an equally tough time scoring -- last time I predicted 7 innings of 2-run ball, and was only off by a 1/3 of an inning -- and Game 1 may very well be decided by the respective bullpens. If so, I like the Yankees' chances of taking it down.
Game 2: A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04 ERA, 110 ERA+) v. Jered Weaver (16-8, 3.75 ERA, 121 ERA+)
I still have trouble taking anyone related to Jeff Weaver seriously, although Jered has improved every year in the majors, and at this point is probably better than presumptive staff ace Lackey. He surrendered 4, 3 and 5 runs in his three starts against the Yankees this year, and I don't recall the Yankees having too much trouble with him in the past, so Weaver may actually be the most hittable of the Angels' top three starters. With Burnett, it's the same deal as last time. If good Burnett shows up again, we should have ourselves a good old fashioned pitchers' duel. Unfortunately it will be hard for the Yankees to send Burnett out of the game by the 6th or 7th inning with much of a lead with Molina getting the start -- unless Weaver really falls apart -- but what are you gonna do.
Game 3: Andy Pettitte (14-8, 4.16 ERA, 107 ERA+) v. Scott Kazmir (10-9, 4.89 ERA, 93 ERA+)
The Yankees have had their issues with Kazmir in the past, and I don't expect them to magically figure him out now. However, similar to Burnett, it does seem like Kazmir has both "good" and "bad" versions (at least in 2009), and the Yankees have to hope that lousy Kazmir turns up in Game 3. While Steve Lombardi points out that Pettitte has served as an Angels' punching bag during the last few years, Andy was masterful in the ALDS, and given the role he's been on since July, I expect he'll turn in another quality outing.
The Yankees will pitch Sabathia on short rest for Game 4, which I have no qualms about as the alternative is Chad Gaudin. The Angels could counter with Joe Saunders (16-7, 4.60), who had a terrific outing in his last start against the Yankees. Saunders really isn't all that intimidating, and if they do get to face him I hope that the Yankees decide to revert to their normal selves and be far more patient this time around, as they were jumping all over the first pitch in seemingly every at-bat to no avail. Games 5, 6, and 7 would then presumably be Burnett v. Lackey, Pettite v. Weaver and Sabathia v. Kazmir, although the Angels might shuffle their rotation if it gets that far.
As far as the bullpen goes, we saw a slightly less invincible Phil Hughes in the ALDS, although he didn't exactly get lit up. There's some concern over the seeming abandonment of his curveball, but I expect that to be among the countless topics the Yankees are discussing this week, and I'm sure Phil will be ready to go. Coupled with Joba Chamberlain, Game 2 hero David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' back end of the pen as presently constituted is as close to a sure thing as it gets in baseball. I want no part of Damaso Marte in round 2, and I suppose Phil Coke can be brought in for one batter depending on the situation, but outside of the first four guys mentioned in this paragraph, I really don't trust anyone else to get high-leverage outs.
I touched on the Angels' bullpen briefly earlier, and again, it's the one area the Yankees may be able to take advantage of. Kind of ironic given that it was such a huge strength for the Angels for much of this decade, but such is the volatile nature of the relief pitcher. Brian Fuentes is nowhere near the closer Joe Nathan is, and the Yankees just lit the latter up like a Christmas tree, so I'm not overly concerned about getting to Fuentes if trailing late.
So, are you still with me? Good. What does all of this tell us? On paper, the Yankees have the superior offense and pitching, although it's far from a blowout. Still, the Yankees are certainly talented enough to beat the team that's given them more problems than any other group in the league in the last 14 years. Basically, if the Yankees pitchers do what they're supposed to do, and the hitters continue to get timely hits, the Yankees will win the series. I know that's the most obvious statement in the world, but it's true. Punted starts and a teamwide slump will result in another series loss, simple as that. But again, this year's Yankee team is the strongest and deepest in years, and they're more primed than they ever have been to finally put the Angels to bed.
ALCS prediction: Yankees, 4-2.
Other playoff previews
RAB: The Starters | RAB: A tale of two managers | Pinstriped Bible Part One | NYDN: Five Ways NYY can beat LAA | RAB: The Infields | RAB: The Bullpen | RLYW: Angels | Pinstriped Bible Part Two | NY Daily News | RAB: The Outfields | RAB for YES | Bronx Banter | More to come