MLB Division Series Preview: Baltimore-NY Yanks

The New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles will be the last of the four MLB Division Series matchups to get underway early Sunday evening from Camden Yards. TheSportsNotebook breaks down the series, looking at each team’s ability to get on base, hit for power, along with their starting pitching and bullpen. And we conclude by setting the series in context, with a historical note, the view of Las Vegas and a final prediction.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Wearing on pitching staffs, drawing walks and getting on base has been a hallmark of the Yankee offenses going back to the days of the Torre Dynasty (1996-2000), and this year has been no different. New York is first in the American League in on-base percentage, thanks in large part to Robinson Cano and his .379 number. Ichiro Suzuki has made a solid contribution since his acquisition at the deadline, at .362 and Nick Swisher, always a grinder in his at-bats, is in the same neighborhood.

But though the Yankees are the best, they have players turning in subpar years, especially Mark Teixeira at .332. Alex Rodriguez ‘s .353 is good, although well below what  we’re accustomed to seeing from him. New York could use Teixeira to return to form and A-Rod to answer any questions about an irreversible decline. Curtis Granderson has also had a very poor year in this regard at .319, while Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez are liabilities.

Baltimore is only ninth in the American League so this has been a trouble spot for their offense all year. They’ve been better in the second half of the season when the team’s overall play made a decisive upturn, but the loss of Nick Markakis is a very tough blow. Markakis has a broken thumb and the Orioles would have to at least win this series before he could think about a return. Nate McLouth, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds are all respectable, but that’s about it. The Orioles are not an offense that keeps constant pressure on.

POWER: The Yanks are again the American League’s best when it comes to slugging percentage and again it’s Cano leading the way with a .550 slugging percentage. For all Granderson’s problems getting on base, he’s still hit for power at .492, while Swisher and Teixeira have made solid contributions. Here though, the dimensions of Yankee Stadium require some skepticism about the power numbers and how they’ll translate on the road or against a visiting team that finds the Bronx short porch inviting. A-Rod’s numbers are sharply down at .430. But the Yanks can counter with depth in their power, including Ibanez and Eric Chavez off the bench. While we might not be sure just how good this offense is, we can safely say they’re always a threat to hang a crooked number.

Baltimore has produced the muscle, ranking sixth in the American League in offense, and improving as the season went along. Chris Davis and Adam Jones both cleared the .500 mark for slugging percentage, and the team got solid power contributions from Manny Machado, and now has Jim Thome reasonably healthy for the postseason. Thome hit eight home runs in 40 games this season and the Orioles need him to find the short porch in right when the series shifts to New York on Wednesday. Matt Wieters is a threat to do the same, and no one in New York is going to forget Mark Reynolds, who’s hit seven of his 21 home runs against the Pinstripes.

STARTING PITCHING: This is the area where New York has the opportunity to take the series by the throat, if Game 1 starter C.C. Sabathia can get in lockdown mode. The same goes for Andy Pettite, always a gamer in October and Hiroki Kuroda, the most consistent New York starter all year. But the fourth spot is inconsistent, as one never knows what they’ll get from Phil Hughes or David Phelps and while Sabathia has pitched well in recent outings, it has to be in back of every New York fan’s mind that the big fella had what was—for him anyway—an average year at a 3.38 ERA and the late-season surge came after a beatdown in Baltimore and against subpar teams.

But what the key three starters have is postseason experience, particularly Sabathia and Pettite and you can’t rule out their ability to meet the moment.

We have no idea what Buck Showalter’s rotation plans are. The most consistent starter all year has been Wei-Yin Chen, who won 12 games with a 4.02 ERA, but his September outings haven’t inspired confidence. Whereas the hottest pitchers are young Chris Tillman (2.93) and Miguel Gonzalez (3.25). By Game 3, Showalter could back to wild-card game winner Joe Saunders.

And speaking of wild-cards, a big one is the status of Jason Hammel, whose 3.43 ERA in 118 IP marked him the team’s best starter when healthy. Hammel had lights-out performances against the Yankees and Rays in September, but has been hindered by a knee problem. Word on the street is that he’d be available and I’d have to think Showalter would give him a shot if that’s the case.

BULLPEN: New York’s bullpen is good, but it is not deep, with only two pitchers I’d really consider reliable in setup man David Robertson and closer Rafael Soriano. You can’t be quite sure what you would get out of Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan, and X-factors would be Ian Nova and Derek Lowe if Joe Girardi went to them in long relief.

But ultimately this is now the acid test of how much New York will miss Mariano Rivera. Over the long haul, a team can compensate for the loss of a closer—especially a team with a $19 million setup man in Soriano ready to step in. And Soriano has had a great year, with 42 saves and 2.26 ERA. But Mariano was the master of October. How will Soriano handle the biggest moments, including being asked to pitch in tie games, something closers normally don’t do in the regular season.

Baltimore’s got depth on top of depth in its pen, with Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton and Darren O’Day all having sub-3.00 ERAs in setting up for Jim Johnson who piled up 51 saves with a 2.49 ERA. Then add in that natural starters like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta have pitched better since going to the bullpen. Then let’s mix in Steve Johnson and Zach Britton, spot starters, who would be available in relief on top of whichever of the five starting pitchers noted above gets dumped into the pen for this playoff series.

The concern I would have with the Baltimore pen is the same as I have with New York’s—how are they going to handle October. Johnson loaded up the bases on the wild-card game before finally closing out Texas. Strop, the setup man with the best stuff, looked like a very nervous kid in a big series against the Yanks in September. How will things go in tense situations in the Bronx, which is what winning this series would have to ultimately come to.

HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Get ready for a lot of footage of Jeffrey Maier, the then 10-year kid who impacted the 1996 ALCS battle between these two teams when he saved Derek Jeter from a deep flyout, by reaching over the wall in a tie game, and taking the ball from Oriole outfielder Tony Tarasco. Only the umpire gave Jeter a home run, breaking an eighth-inning tie in Game 1. We can also add in 1980, prior to the days of the wild-card, when the teams gave the country a battle of sustained excellence in an AL East race. The Orioles won 100 games, but New York won 103.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: To no one’s surprise, the Yankees are favored at (-160), meaning you need to put down $160 if you want to win a $100 by betting on Pinstripes. Oriole backers can get (+130) and make 30 percent more than their original bet. Baltimore may be the underdog, but given the recent history of both teams and the general perception that the Oriole success has driven by a magical ride in one-run games, I’m surprised the Yankees aren’t favored a little more heavily, particularly given they’d only need to pick up one win in Camden to turn the series into a best-of-three in the Bronx.

THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PREDICTION: I don’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m picking Baltimore. As recently as yesterday, when I did a playoff preview podcast with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network,  I took New York to win the World Series. Although that wasn’t with a lot of conviction and prior to their wild-card win, I wouldn’t have touched any of the four teams that played the one-game knockout.

But the more I look at it, the more I’m convinced the Oriole starting pitching can at least keep games competitive into the fifth and sixth inning and if that happens Baltimore can play the same game they did on Friday night in Texas—turn into a battle of bullpens. The ability of Sabathia to Pettite to rise to the occasion, the possibility that the Oriole pitchers might show their youth in the heat of the moment has to be respected. But Baltimore’s been playing better baseball than New York for about three months now, and I think they win this in five games.