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Breaking down Yankees vs. Indians

The Yankees' regular season success vs. the Tribe means nothing
10/03/2007 11:07 AM ET
By Jonah Keri / Special to YESNetwork.com

The Indians are a formidable first-round opponent.(AP)
Whatever your rooting allegiances, you have to love the American League Division Series, pitting the Yankees against the Indians. You've got the shoo-in MVP; a top Cy Young candidate; an unhittable rookie phenom; a starter having a monster breakout season; the best offense in baseball; and a team hungry to break a 59-year streak of futility. It's just a shame these two teams have to meet in the first round, instead of in some parallel universe World Series.

The Yankees led the majors in run scoring by a wide margin this season. In fact, their edge over the second-place Phillies marked the biggest gap between the best offensive team in baseball and the second-best one since the 1982 Brewers — affectionately known as Harvey's Wallbangers — wreaked havoc on opposing pitchers. We know the old stand-bys. Derek Jeter's as consistent as any player in the game, and Jorge Posada's having the best year of his career, no mean feat for a player whose resume is approaching Hall of Fame standards. Alex Rodriguez was easily the best player in the game in the regular season, and Robinson Cano and Bobby Abreu bounced back with big second-half performances after some slow starts.

Still, there are some chinks in the armor. Melky Cabrera is a below-average leadoff man who struggles to get on base, hence his place in the eighth spot; Johnny Damon has shown signs of injuries and age this season; Doug Mientkiewicz is in there because of Joe Torre's first-base defense fetish, and because Jason Giambi and other candidates haven't been appreciably better. One area of concern is Hideki Matsui. His balky knees could prompt Torre to bench him in favor of Shelley Duncan for Game 1. They'll also likely restrict him to DH duty the rest of the time, and could hurt his hitting if Matsui can't generate his usual leg drive with his swing. Expect to see some mixing and matching with Duncan, Giambi and others, with the outfield, DH and first base slots potentially in flux.

Batting Orders (AVG/OBP/SLG)
Yankees
LF Johnny Damon (.270/.351/.396)
SS Derek Jeter (.322/.388/.452)
RF Bobby Abreu (.283/.369/.445)
3B Alex Rodriguez (.314/.422/.645)
C Jorge Posada (.338/.426/.543)
DH Hideki Matsui (.285/.367/.488)
2B Robinson Cano (.306/.353/.488)
CF Melky Cabrera (.273/.327/.391)
1B Doug Mientkiewicz (.277/.349/.440)
Indians
CF Grady Sizemore (.277/.390/.462)
2B Asdrubal Cabrera (.283/.354/.421)
DH Travis Hafner (.266/.385/.451)
C Victor Martinez (.301/.374/.505)
1B Ryan Garko (.289/.359/.483)
SS Jhonny Peralta (.270/.341/.430)
LF Kenny Lofton (.296/.367/.414)
RF Franklin Gutierrez (.266/.318/.472)
3B Casey Blake (.270/.339/.437)

The Indians finished a more modest eighth in runs scored this season. But a quick look at the season-ending total can be misleading. After months of suffering through the decline phase of Trot Nixon's career, the Indians upgraded by handing the right field job to young power threat Franklin Gutierrez. When Josh Barfield didn't pan out at second base, the Indians inserted rookie Asdrubal Cabrera, who's provided solid on-base ability in the No. 2 spot in the order. Perhaps most importantly, Travis Hafner came on strong at the end of the year. Shaking off injuries and a decline in production, Hafner hit .316/.414/.551 in September, numbers that were much closer to his career norms than what he'd put up during the season's first five months.

Combine those upgrades with All-Stars Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore and solid contributions from first baseman Ryan Garko, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and a bottom of the lineup that offers no easy outs, and you've got an offense that can compete with the Bombers, even if they're not quite as strong overall.

Starting Pitching (W-L, ERA, FIP — which uses the same scale as ERA but strips out the impact of defense, park effects and other factors the pitcher can't control)

Yankees
Chien-Ming Wang (19-7, 3.70, 3.92)
Andy Pettitte (15-9, 4.05, 4.00)
Roger Clemens (6-6, 4.18, 4.28)
Mike Mussina (11-10, 5.15, 4.11)

Indians
C.C. Sabathia (19-7, 3.21, 3.27)
Fausto Carmona (19-8, 3.06, 4.05)
Jake Westbrook (6-9, 4.32, 4.37)
Paul Byrd (15-8, 4.59, 4.77)

The best starter for either team by a significant margin is C.C. Sabathia. He gives the Indians a sizable advantage in Game 1, as well as a potential Game 5. Meanwhile, Fausto Carmona has had one of the best breakout seasons for a young pitcher in recent memory. The bottom two components of the Indians' rotation, groundball specialist and former Yankee Jake Westbrook and veteran Paul Byrd, can keep Cleveland in ballgames. But the way this five-game series is set up, the Indians' best bet may simply be to hold serve in their home games, with Sabathia getting two starts and Carmona one. For all the talk of the Yankees holding a 6-0 edge against the Indians this season, that record doesn't include any games started by Sabathia against New York. The AL's best pitcher (arguably) against the AL's best offense should make for some great theater.

The Yankees' rotation was the source of greater debate heading into this series. Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina aren't nearly the pitchers they used to be. Mussina in particular has struggled for much of the year: He yielded line drives on 21.6 percent on the balls hit in play against him this year, a career-high figure that suggests opponents have been hitting him harder than ever. Time will tell if going with Mussina's veteran experience was a wise move in lieu of rookie Phil Hughes' superior stuff and much shorter track record.

Meanwhile, Clemens has battled injuries this season and probably won't be 100 percent even if he does make his expected Game 3 start in his return from a cranky hamstring. Pettitte may offer the best combination of past post-season success with current ability — his Game 2 match-up with Carmona could be a beauty. Meanwhile, Wang will need to do what he does best: Keep the ball down against the Indians' sluggers. If his command is on and he's inducing groundballs, he can hang with anyone, even Sabathia.

Relievers
Mariano Rivera remains one of the elite closers in baseball, with a terrific 74-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season. But he's slipped a bit, even if it's just half a notch: Like Mussina, Rivera's also given up more line drives in '07. Luis Vizcaino has been functional as a bridge to the back of the bullpen. Question marks abound for most of the rest of the bullpen — Joba Chamberlain being the one, huge exception. The rookie righty has been one of the great stories in the game this year, yielding just one earned run while striking out 34 in 24 lights-out innings. Torre has wisely relaxed the Joba Rules for the playoffs, meaning he'll have his best reliever available to go on back-to-back days. The Yankees shouldn't only use Chamberlain when they're leading, though. Down by a run or two in the seventh inning, Chamberlain would give the Yankees a great chance to come back by keeping the Indians' bats at bay.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first for the Indians. Despite his 45 saves, Joe Borowski is one of the shakiest closers on any postseason roster with a 5.07 ERA and elevated 21 percent line-drive rate. In a tie game or with a one-run lead against the Yankees' potent lineup, the Indians shouldn't feel too confident.

Now the good news: In Rafael Perez and Rafael Betancourt, the Tribe might have the best pair of set-up men in the business. The righty Betancourt carries a 1.47 ERA and an 80-to-9 K:BB rate into the postseason; the lefty Perez sports a 1.78 ERA, and like Betancourt has allowed less than one baserunner per inning.

Benches
No obvious advantage on either side. A healthy, productive Giambi would be great, but he doesn't appear to be that player anymore. Wilson Betemit does offer some pop and versatility off the bench, and could be a useful fill-in if something happened to one of the Yankees' regulars. For the Indians, Jason Michaels has had some success hitting lefties, and could pinch-hit for, or even platoon with, Lofton. Kelly Shoppach has more pop than most backup catchers — the Indians haven't been afraid to have Shoppach catch and shift Victor Martinez to first when the need arises.

Wild Cards
Two factors which some pundits have mentioned in the Yankees' favor: playoff experience and their strong record against the Indians during the regular season. On the playoff experience front, you can point to the 2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins and 2005 White Sox as three of many examples of teams that won it all without much of a postseason track record.

As far as the Yankees' 6-0 regular-season record against the Indians goes, all kinds of caveats apply. It's a small sample of just six games, and most anything can happen in just six games. Sabathia didn't pitch any of those games. And to offer another recent example, the Cardinals went just 4-8 against the Mets and Padres in the 2006 regular season, only to knock both teams out in the playoffs en route to winning it all.

Prediction
All things considered, the Yankees might very well be the better team on paper here. But the best team doesn't always win in the playoffs, as we've seen time and again. The Indians can run out Sabathia twice and Carmona once at home if the series goes the full five games. If they earn a split in the Bronx against the shaky duo of Clemens and Mussina, they'll have a big edge. But even if they don't, holding serve at home would win the series for them. By the slimmest of margins, I'm picking the Indians in 5.

Jonah Keri is a contributor to YESNetwork.com. He writes the weekly "Keri the 10" column for ESPN.com's Page 2. He's also the editor and co-author of the new paperback edition of Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. Email your questions and comments to jonahkeri@gmail.com.
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