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Bullpen, bench, managers round out ALCS preview

The team that wins the battle of little things takes the series
10/16/2009 12:26 PM ET
By Joseph Pawlikowski, Mike Axisa and Benjamin Kabak/ RiverAveBlues.com

Rivera was 44-for-46 in save opportunities while posting a
1.76 ERA. (AP)
Baseball is a game where the little things matter. Most playoff series previews focus on the impact players -- the star hitters and ace pitchers -- because they have the most direct influence on each game. But as a game unfolds, a team's bench and bullpen come into play. Those minor players can rally a team to victory or doom them to defeat. The manager controls these aspects of the game, so it is only fitting that the three entities are previewed together.

Joseph Pawlikowski, Mike Axisa and Benjamin Kabak from River Ave Blues analyze the 'minor players' as the Yankees and Angels prepare to begin the American League Championship Series.

The Bullpens
A bullpen is only as good as its closer, and here the Yankees have a strong advantage. Mariano Rivera again defied age this year, posting a phenomenal 72-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66.1 innings. Brian Fuentes got the job done for the Angels, but he allowed 78 baserunners in just 55 innings, and created pressure situations for himself all season. He recovered in the ALDS to record two saves against the Red Sox, but he allowed two runs in two innings over four appearances against the Yankees this season.

Rivera also has a clear edge in postseason experience. He has pitched 121 postseason innings, second most among current playoff participants only to teammate Andy Pettitte. He has allowed just 10 runs in all those innings, striking out 100 to 17 walks. Fuentes never pitched in the postseason until Colorado's 2007 run, and he pitched poorly in the final two rounds, allowing seven runs over 7.1 innings in the NLCS and World Series.

The Angels relief corps suffered a huge blow in late May when their long-time setup man Scot Shields suffered a knee injury that would cost him the season. Jose Arredondo got the first shot at replacing Shields, but faltered and wound up back in Triple-A and is not on the playoff roster.

Luckily for manager Mike Scioscia, Jason Bulger stepped up and was fantastic in Shields' absence, posting a 1.99 ERA and a .172 batting average against while striking out 52 in 54.1 innings from May 2 to Sept. 23. The problem is that he walks a lot of hitters for a late inning reliever, 30 in 64.1 innings this year. Baseball America ranked Kevin Jepsen the team's sixth-best prospect coming into the season, and he fulfilled some of his promise this year. Both Bulger and Jepsen can throw heat, dialing it up to the mid-90s, and they've been effective late game options for the Angels down the stretch.

The Angels also use veteran lefty Darren Oliver as a late-inning weapon who can face both lefties and righties. He holds righties to a lower batting average and less power, but tends to get a bit wild against them -- 18 walks issued in 170 plate appearances. Against lefties he does a better job of keeping them off base, just four walks in 123 plate appearances, but allows too many extra base hits, three home runs and eight doubles among 30 hits in those 123 PA.

The Yankees have their own pair of hard throwing setup men now that Joba Chamberlain has joined Phil Hughes in the bullpen for the playoffs. Hughes was masterful as a reliever this season, holding hitters to a .456 OPS against in 51.1 innings. Chamberlain has looked good since returning to the 'pen, and while it's unreasonable to expect him to repeat his 2007-2008 performance, with his stuff all he needs to do is throw strikes to be effective.

Hughes struggled in the first round, allowing two runs on five hits and a walk in just two innings. Much of the damage against him came after he had already recorded two outs, so the key for Hughes will be finishing off the Angels, allowing Rivera to start the ninth inning fresh. The Yankees do not plan to move Chamberlain, who allowed no runs on two hits in 1.2 innings in the ALDS, into the eighth-inning role. It appears the Yankees plan to use Phil Coke as their primary lefty, mostly to face other lefties, while Damaso Marte will likely only pitch if a starter exits early. - Axisa

Bench
The Yankees are limiting their bench in the ALCS, replacing pinch-hitter Eric Hinske with pinch-runner Freddy Guzman. That gives them two speed weapons in Guzman and Brett Gardner. The Angels will counter with Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr. They also have Maicer Izturis, who could split time with Howie Kendrick at second, and both could be called on to pinch-hit. Robb Quinlan rounds out the Angels bench, but shouldn't see much, if any, playing time.

Matthews, in the third year of a five-year, $50 million contract, had yet another disappointing season for the Halos. He was not able to crack the starting lineup, and has generally been considered one of the poorer signings of the past few years. He still serves a purpose for the Angels, though. In 103 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Matthews has a slash line of .358/.476/.556. He also hit .455/.571/.727 in 14 pinch-hitting appearances. Scioscia will not hesitate to use him off the bench in pressure situations.

Gardner will be the key to the Yankees' bench. Melky Cabrera will probably start in center field throughout the series, meaning Joe Girardi can deploy Gardner, who stole 26 bases in 31 attempts this season, at will. A solid if not stellar outfielder, Gardner can then substitute for Johnny Damon or Nick Swisher to shore up the outfield defense late. If his spot comes up again in the order, Gardner is no slouch with the bat, getting on base in nearly 35 percent of his plate appearances this season.

The most important aspect of each team's bench is the third catcher. Both Girardi and Scioscia use their backup catchers, Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis, in certain games. Their starters, Jorge Posada and Mike Napoli, are much better hitters, and are candidates to pinch hit for the backup catcher once the starting pitcher exits the game, or otherwise in a critical spot. Carrying the third catcher leaves each manager with a contingency plan. Beyond that, as Girardi showed in Game 2 against the Twins, it also creates pinch-running opportunities. After Posada singled in the 10th, Girardi sent in Gardner because he had Francisco Cervelli to finish the game at catcher. Scioscia will have a similar opportunity with Bobby Wilson. - Pawlikowski

Managers


Joe Girardi led the Yankees back to the postseason in his second year at the helm. (AP)
Scioscia and Girardi have a lot in common. They were both defensive-minded catchers known for playing hard and coming prepared. As managers, they both sport identical .556 winning percentages although the Angels' skipper has compiled his over 10 seasons while Girardi has just three years of experience in the dugout.

When these two teams faced each other, they played to a draw. Yet, despite their respective successes, Scioscia and Girardi approach the game differently. We can see it in the way the Yankees draw more walks, hit more home runs and rely less on the small ball approach embodied in bunting, stealing and hitting-and-running than the Angels do.

Offensively, the Angels' differing approach is clear from the get-go. The Yankees hit a franchise-record 244 home runs this year and slugged .478 as a team. The Angels hit 71 fewer home runs and slugged .441. Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins both drew more than 90 walks, but only one other player on the team had an on-base percentage above .360. Of the Yanks' starting nine, only Cabrera and Robinson Cano sported OBPs below that .360 mark. The Angels like to swing and run; the Yankees like to wait and mash.

Strategically, Scioscia takes advantage of his team's speed. He attempted 171 stolen bases this year, and his runners were successful 127 times good for a 74.2 percent success rate. Girardi's Yankees were better base runners but more cautious for it. The Yanks attempted 124 steals and were successful 101 times or 81.5 percent of the time. The Angels went 9 for 11 in double-steal situations while the Yanks were a perfect 4-for-4.

Scioscia will also play small ball far more often than the Yankees do. Girardi asked his players to sacrifice 49 times this season, and 21 of those sac bunt attempts came with the pitcher batting during Interleague play. The Angels tried to sacrifice 64 times with non-pitchers trying 41 times. Percentage-wise, 57 percent of Yankee bunts were by non-pitchers while 64 percent of Angels' bunt attempts were by non-pitchers. Scioscia will, in other words, play for one run.

Where this series may very well be decided, though, is in the bullpen. Girardi made 461 pitching changes as compared to Scioscia's 434, and the Yankees got better results for it. Yankee relievers did not allow runs to score in 301 of those appearances or 65 percent of the time. The Angels did not allow runs 62 percent of the time. While that pure difference is seemingly small, the Yanks' pen went 40-17 with a 3.91 ERA while the Angels' relievers were 27-23 with a 4.49 ERA. As Mike noted, the Anaheim pen is definitely a weakness. - Kabak

Read more from the River Ave. Blues team at RiverAveBlues.com.
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