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October 10, 2001

Playoff Prospectus

New York Yankees vs. Oakland Athletics

by Gary Huckabay

About a month into the season, the Oakland A's were 8-18, and the New York Yankees were primarily worried about the Boston Red Sox. As late as June, speculation was that the A's would ship first baseman Jason Giambi to the Yankees at the deadline, as they were hopelessly behind the Emerald City Juggernaut.

Well, the Red Sox disintegrated, the A's have been the best team in baseball for a couple of months, and neither the Yankees nor the A's has gotten here by the expected route. Starting tomorrow, they'll be facing each other for five very short games in what could be one of the closest matchups in memory.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

New York Yankees

LF Chuck Knoblauch (.250/.339/.351/.263)
SS Derek Jeter (.311/.377/.480/.308)
CF Bernie Williams (307/.395/.522/.321)
1B Tino Martinez (.280/.329/.501/.286)
C Jorge Posada (.277/.363/.475/.293)
RF David Justice (.241/.333/.430/.271)
DH Paul O'Neill (.267/.330/.459/.283)
3B Scott Brosius (.287/.343/.446/.281)
2B Alfonso Soriano (268/.304/.432/.265)

Oakland Athletics

CF Johnny Damon (.256/.324/.363/.254)
DH Jeremy Giambi (283/.391/.450/.303)
1B Jason Giambi (.342/.477/.660/.388)
RF Jermaine Dye (.282/.346/.467/.286)
3B Eric Chavez (.288/.338/.540/.303)
LF Terrence Long (.283/.335/.412/.270)
SS Miguel Tejada (.267/.326/.476/.281)
2B Frank Menechino (.242/.369/.374/.277)
C Ramon Hernandez (.254/.316/.408/.260)

Two teams on different sides of their peaks, one hoping to mature rapidly, while the other is looking for Dorian Gray's phone number.

The really surprising thing about the Oakland Athletics in 2001 is how few of their players have demonstrated the plate discipline that the A's are so famous for. Yes, the A's led the AL in free passes with 640, but check out the distribution of those walks:

Guys named Giambi and Menechino: 271 vs. 1362 AB
Rest of the club: 369 vs. 4211 AB

Across the board, the A's hitters were either right at or under that one walk per ten at-bats line. Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Terrence Long, Johnny Damon, and Ramon Hernandez didn't demonstrate improved plate discipline with their maturity, at least this year. Tejada went through streaks where he chased everything in sight, trying to yank the ball over the left-field wall. At least three different versions of Eric Chavez appeared throughout the year, all of them far better on defense than ever before, and the one at the end of the season looking like an MVP candidate for 2002 (39 for 103 with 10 home runs in Sept/Oct). The A's started swinging more during the initial part of the season when the strike-zone change was getting publicity, and never really stopped.

The Yankees fought injuries, nagging and otherwise, for the bulk of the regular season. Joe Torre works magic with his postseason lineups and changes, and he'll have to dance around nagging injuries to people like Paul O'Neill, but he has a consistent, sequence-based offense to lean on, and he'll do exactly that. Both these clubs have had their spots locked up for some time, and with the unfortunate extra time off, the Yankee nicks and cuts have likely had sufficient time to heal.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

New York Yankees

C Todd Greene (.208/.240/.281/.194)
1B Nick Johnson (.194/.308/.313/.234)
2B Randy Velarde (.278/.356/.424/.278)
OF Shane Spencer (.258/.315/.428/.265)
OF Gerald Williams (.201/.262/.308/.214)
UT Clay Bellinger (.160/.207/.383/.206)
UT Luis Sojo (.165/.214/.190/.165)
UT Enrique Wilson (.242/.283/.343/.223)

Oakland Athletics

C Greg Myers (.184/.290/.437/.256)
3B/1B Olmedo Saenz (.220/.291/.384/.243)
OF Ron Gant (.258/.345/.452/.268)
OF Eric Byrnes (.237/.326/.500/.290)
UT F.P. Santangelo (.197/.341/.254/.238)
UT Mark Bellhorn (.135/.210/.243/.178)

There are some ugly looking spare parts on both sides. Torre will be salivating over facing the soft underbelly of the Oakland bullpen, which probably means a fair amount of pinch-hitting and defensive switches, with Shane Spencer getting a look or two at Mike Magnante and/or Mark Guthrie. The Yankees will likely have an edge in depth, being able to pull Spencer, Nick Johnson, Randy Velarde, and Todd Greene off the bench, all of whom have something to offer in the right circumstances.

The A's aren't as well-situated in terms of fleshy objects resting on pine. They've got a bench full of guys with really only one dimension. Greg Myers can swing hard and occasionally kill a pitch from a right-hander or draw a walk, which is a nice thing to have, but when the right-hander that matters most is Mariano Rivera, well, it's a longshot to say the least. Ron Gant is the A's best bench player, and will likely platoon with Jeremy Giambi, starting Game 2 against Andy Pettitte. F.P. Santangelo, Mark Bellhorn, and Olmedo Saenz are all one-trick ponies, either as flexible subs or lottery tickets against Mike Stanton. I think Art Howe would rather be looking at the Yankee bench than the A's bench, so he'll be leaning hard on the A's regulars.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA, IP)

New York Yankees

Roger Clemens (2.0, 3.51, 220 1/3)
Andy Pettitte (0.4, 3.99, 200 2/3)
Mike Mussina (3.9, 3.15, 228 2/3)
Orlando Hernandez (0.1, 4.85, 94 2/3)

Oakland Athletics

Mark Mulder (3.4, 3.45, 229 1/3)
Tim Hudson (2.5, 3.37, 235)
Barry Zito (2.5, 3.49, 214 1/3)
Cory Lidle (2.1, 3.59, 188)

This is certainly the deepest series in either league in terms of rotation starters, but it may not matter. The only real question is the health of Orlando Hernandez, and all indications are that he's ready to go. There really aren't any question marks to speak of, with the possible exception of how the A's hitters respond to Pettitte. Howe may choose to roll with a platoon or two, probably starting Gant over Jeremy Giambi, and possibly shifting the lineup around a little bit, perhaps moving Frank Menechino to the top of the order or something. Six of the top 15 or so starters in the AL are in this series, and any one of them has the capability to set the tone for the game and the series very quickly.

The Yankees may have an edge here in terms of simple fatigue. Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina have thrown this many innings before--they're mature physically and mentally. For Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, if we're not in uncharted waters yet, we're certainly headed that way. Cory Lidle has never thrown 188 innings before, so it's possible that we might see the Oakland rotation get tired and give way to a comparatively shaky Oakland bullpen, a scenario that would have to make Yankee fans pretty happy.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA, IP)

New York Yankees

Mariano Rivera (20.5, 2.34, 80 2/3)
Ramiro Mendoza (20.0, 3.75, 100 2/3)
Mike Stanton (14.4, 2.58, 80 1/3)
Sterling Hitchcock (N/A, 5.63, 70 1/3)
Jay Witasick (-9.3, 3.30, 79)
Randy Choate (8.1, 3.35, 48 1/3)
Mark Wohlers (-1.3, 4.26, 67 2/3)

Oakland Athletics

Jason Isringhausen (11.3, 2.65, 71 1/3)
Jim Mecir (5.9, 3.43, 63)
Jeff Tam (17.4, 3.01, 74 2/3)
Mike Magnante (5.6, 2.77, 55 1/3)
Mark Guthrie (4.8, 4.47, 52 1/3)
Erik Hiljus (1.4, 3.41, 66)
Chad Bradford (1.7, 2.70, 36 2/3)
Luis Vizcaino (1.9, 4.66, 36 2/3)

Advantage, Yankees. In spades. Mariano Rivera might be the most valuable postseason player in the history of baseball. His numbers in the postseason are as gaudy as they come, and the Yankees have the arms to get the game to him in Stanton, Ramiro Mendoza, and the filler guys they finally decide on come Wednesday morning. If the Yankee starters can hand off a two-run lead after six innings twice during the series, the Yankees will advance and play the Mariners.

The A's have the true spit-and-bailing wire bullpen. Some might claim that this is where they pay the price of being a low-payroll club, but that analysis doesn't really hold. The reliable arms in the A's bullpen aren't expensive. Chad Bradford, Jeff Tam, Jim Mecir after his knee surgery--all have been excellent at filling their roles, and all cost very little.

The main concern for A's fans is in former Dallas Green victim Jason Isringhausen, who's caused more heartburn in Oakland than The Gingerbread House. Isringhausen leaves no stone unturned in his quest to make saves exciting, including blowing nine of them in 43 opportunities. Against patient hitters, Isringhausen is extremely vulnerable. To top off the A's bullpen worries, Jeff Tam, probably their most reliable setup man and groundball fiend, is a last second decision because of a "sore shoulder."

The Call

The Yankees are a better team than people are giving them credit for. These teams are fairly evenly matched, and the Yankees were supposed to be too old and slumping last year, too. The A's are not as good a team as they looked down the stretch, pounding on clubs like Texas, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. The only clear advantages I can really point to are the Yankee bullpen and the A's defense; bench strength in the postseason can be massively overrated.

I think this series might come down as much to the home plate umpire as anything. If Mussina and Clemens get the Tom Glavine strike, I don't think the A's order will be able to adjust, and the Yankees will take the series. If the umpires call the high strike, but don't give that extra two to four inches outside, the A's won't have to worry about Mariano Rivera.

A's in 5.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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