Welcome to the fourth and final installment of Yankeeist's 2010 ALCS Series Preview, in which we'll be taking a look at a few specific factors that could influence how the series plays out. In case you missed parts 1, 2 and 3, please click on the following:
Yankeeist's 2010 ALCS Series Preview, Part 1: Head-to-Head Overall Team Numbers
Yankeeist's 2010 ALCS Series Preview, Part 2: 25-Man Roster Comparisons
Yankeeist's 2010 ALCS Series Preview, Part 3: The Pitching Match-Ups
Four advantages for the Rangers
1) Clifton Phifer Lee
2) Clifton Phifer Lee
Yes, Cliff Lee accounts for two advantages all by himself, even if he doesn't get around to pitching a second time in Game 7. And if he does, I don't want to know about it. We've spent scads of time all season talking about how awesome Lee is, not to mention even more time on him yesterday, so no need to rehash everything here, but let's just say without Lee the Yankees would probably sweep the Rangers.
3) Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Vladimir Guerrero. With Josh Hamilton not operating in peak form, these are the Rangers' three primary offensive threats, and each of them are fantastic hitters. The Yankees will have their work cut out for them trying to contain this trio, though they were able to shut down two-thirds of Minnesota's big three of Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and Delmon Young, and hopefully they can limit the damage once again. Vlad in particular has always been a thorn in the Yankees' side; as noted yesterday he was the Angels' best player in last year's ALCS, hitting .370/.393/.593, including a huge home run off Andy Pettitte in Game 3.
4) Baserunning and speed. As Cliff Corcoran noted in the first part of his ALCS preview, the Yankees were last in the majors at throwing out base stealers this season, with a 15% "success" rate. On the other hand, the Rangers were sixth in the majors in stolen bases. The Rangers were also tied for third in the AL in Extra Bases Taken %, 1st in the AL in scoring a runner from first with a single, and 3rd in the AL in scoring a runner from second on a base hit. None of these highly specific stats are necessarily predictive of anything that will happen in this series, but they do underscore the Rangers' aggressiveness on the basepaths, and Texas could very well exploit Jorge Posada's relative inability to control the running game -- something Minnesota didn't do.
Four advantages for the Yankees
1) Alex Rodriguez hasn't even started hitting yet. After a mammoth September, A-Rod was relatively quiet in the ALDS. Look for that to change, as Alex gets to hit in two of his favorite places -- The Ballpark (.331/.413/.645 career and .316/.409/.632 in 2010) and Yankee Stadium (.310/.397/.597 career and .294/.368/.553 in 2010) -- for an entire series.
2) The Rangers have barely seen the Yankees' top three pitchers this season. Also, the Bombers have CC Sabathia. I know I thought that Minnesota not having seen Sabathia all season was going to be a huge advantage for the Yankees, and while it didn't end up being quite as significant as I might've thought, Sabathia was still able to limit the damage to four runs over six innings. Once again a Yankee playoff opponent has had minimal exposure this past season to their top three pitchers -- Sabathia and Andy Pettitte only faced Texas once back in April and Phil Hughes only tossed one scoreless inning of relief -- and unless the Rangers, unlike the Yankees, aren't fazed by guys they've never/seldom seen before I have to imagine that will factor in positively for New York.
3) They have the best offense in baseball. While good pitching beats good hitting is never more true than in the postseason, it's still difficult even for the best teams to completely stifle elite offenses. In 2009, the Yankees had the top wOBA in baseball and won the World Series. In 2008, the Phillies had the best wOBA amongst NL playoff teams and won it all. In 2007 the Red Sox had the second-best wOBA in the AL and won it all. Admittedly, 2006 is a bit of an outlier here, as the two World Series teams, the Tigers and Cardinals, combined for an average wOBA of .331 -- exactly league average that season. In 2005, the Red Sox and Yankees had the top two wOBA in baseball but were both dumped in the first round, so there's another example where this doesn't necessarily pass muster.
But again, in 2004, the Sox had the best wOBA in the game and won it all, and in 2003 the Yankees made it to the World Series with the second-best offense in the AL . Though they were beaten by some stellar pitching on the Marlins' end, that series was also defined by an awful managerial move, a starting pitcher who bailed out of his Game 5 start and a team that looked flat-out exhausted after its seven-game war with the Red Sox. Not to take anything away from the Marlins, but the Yankees were almost certainly the better team in that series. Anyway, the point is that sure, great pitching will beat great hitting more often than the other way around in the postseason, but it sure doesn't hurt to have the top offense in the league.
4) They're better than the Rangers. I know at the end of my 25-man roster comp I said that the teams were very evenly matched. While that hasn't changed, when taken as a whole the Yankees are a superior team to the Rangers. Not that citing regular season won-loss records is particularly germane to a postseason conversation, but the Yankees finished one game behind the best record in the American League in the toughest division in baseball. The Rangers got to beat up a pitiful AL West and were never in serious jeopardy of losing their playoff spot, and still managed a record five games worse than the Yankees. The Yankees had the best pythag record in baseball (97-65 vs. 91-71); the most third-order wins in baseball (95 to Texas' 88); the best run differential in baseball despite two arsonists named A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez responsible for nearly 40% of the team's starts; the highest cumulative batter fWAR in the American League; and of course, the top wOBA in Major League Baseball.
So after four even more exhaustive ALCS Preview posts, it's prediction time once again. As I said prior to the DS, this Yankee team is very much capable of beating any and all comers. They also quelled a lot of our fears with a dominating performance against the Twins, playing some of their best baseball of the season. After poring through the numbers, the Yankees and Rangers seem to be even more closely matched than the Yankees and Twins were, which is kind of amusing considering how badly it seemed everyone wanted the Bombers to land Texas in the first round.
Ultimately though the Yankees will win this series, it's just a matter of how many games it takes. I expect they'll win the first two games in Texas, extending the Rangers' winless streak at home, while Cliff Lee will once again own them in Game 3. The A.J. Burnett-Tommy Hunter game is the true wild card here, but as Stephen at TYU (and Fangraphs' Matt Klaassen) noted, Hunter is basically the Rangers' version of Nick Blackburn, which is good news for the Yankees, even if they do have the completely unpredictable Burnett on the mound. Sabathia on regular rest will also take Game 5, and so this thing could well be wrapped up in five games. Still, we'll go with an official prediction of Yankees over Rangers in six games, just to be safe.