Why the Yankees Will Win: The Orioles don’t have a Robinson Cano. Adam Jones can get into hot streaks where he’s a bit like their version of Cano, but not quite at the same level, nor is he – this is crucial – left-handed. With Nick Markakis out, Baltimore’s most threatening left-handed hitter is Chris Davis, who finished the season on fire, with 10 home runs in 103 September at-bats, but he’s a strikeout machine, a slugger, not an all-around threat. The Orioles don’t have anything like CC Sabathia either. Wei-Yin Chen, their only left-handed starter, looked gassed at the end of the season. That means the Yankees don’t have to worry about their left-handed hitters being neutered, their switch-hitters getting turned around, and Andruw Jones in general – which is why he was left off the postseason roster. Though the 2012 Yankees were hardly the regular-season equivalent of the 1927, 1939, 1961, or 1998 editions, with several players turning in disappointing seasons, they are still a deeper, more consistent club overall than their rivals to the south.
Why the Orioles Will Win: They’re a better team than their overall record and statistics indicate given the added depth the starting rotation received over the course of the season (Chris Tillman wasn’t a force at the outset, for example) and changes such as the promotion of teenager Manny Machado to the majors. Machado hit only as well as you might expect a non-Harper/Trout 19-year-old to hit, but the shortstop’s defense at third was a revelation. Sure, the Orioles’ starting pitching doesn’t compare to the Yankees’ top three of Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda, but they don’t matter that much given the strength of their bullpen, which includes not only surprising closer Jim Johnson, but the set-up combination of sidewinder Darren O’Day (who held right-handed hitters to .200/.262/.323) and Brian Matusz – the dramatically failed starter was a revelation in the ‘pen, where he opposing hitters to .114/.170/.182, albeit in a small sample. Finally, Orioles such as Jones, Davis, and Matt Wieters are just as capable of going a team-carrying hot streak as any Yankee.
Key Stat: It’s 28. That’s the number of sacrifice bunts Yankees position players executed during the regular season. It works out to one every six games. Joe Girardi mostly stays away from the small-ball stuff during the regular season, but in October his evil alter-ego, Coffee Joe, sometimes emerges to make wild pitching changes, unbridled substitutions, and order sac bunts with maniacal abandon. If you see more than one bunt in this entire series, you’ll know that Coffee Joe is in charge and the Yankees are in trouble.
Infield Position by Position Comparison
Russell Martin – Martin had a pretty dreadful year at the plate until a September hot streak finally got his batting average above the Mendoza line. His .211/.311/.403 line isn’t very impressive, especially considering that his defense of late has left a lot to be desired. Martin hits lefties better than righties (138 vs. 75 wRC+, respectively), but the Orioles may end up starting only one lefty in the series in Wei-Yin Chen unless Joe Saunders earned himself another start because of his great start against Texas.
Matt Wieters – Wieters is a dangerous power threat in the middle of the Orioles’ lineup with 23 dingers on the year. Like Martin, he finished the season strong, but the real advantage comes from his superior defense. Base runners who choose poorly will try to steal on Matt Wieters at their own risk. Please do not run on Matt Wieters.
Mark Teixeira – Tex missed a good chunk of time to injury this season, and is likely still trying to find his rhythm at the plate. He did hit a home run in his first game back against the Boston Red Sox, but followed it up with a poor showing the rest of the series. He’s a wizard on defense, though, and if his calf is fine, he’ll still be able to contribute a lot with his glove. Hopefully his home run power shows up, too.
Mark Reynolds – Reynolds has plenty of power, but he’s also prone to racking up plenty of strikeouts. He’s not Tex on defense, but Reynolds is hardly a statue at first base, so he will come up with the occasional strong play. The Yankees need to find a way to keep him in the yard, which they certainly didn’t do in the most recent matchups of the regular season between the two teams when he burned them with home runs multiple times. Reynolds was hit on the hand by a pitch in the Wild Card game, so it’s worth watching to see if that will impact his hitting at all in the series.
Edge: Yankees, but it’s pretty close.
Robinson Cano – Cano ended the regular season as hot as anyone could be, capping off what was the best year of his career so far with a 148 wRC+ and a 7.9 WAR. He also managed to put up a career-high in home runs with 33 on top of some vastly improved defense. If he isn’t already the best second baseman in baseball, he’s certainly close. When Cano is on a streak like he was to finish the season (24 for his last 39), opposing pitchers can only hope to contain him.
Robert Andino (vs. LHP) and Ryan Flaherty (vs. RHP) – Andino, best known for his death blow to the Red Sox last season, hit .216/.295/.312 off of left-handers this year. His platoon partner in Flaherty managed a little better, with a .355 SLG and six homers off of righties, but his .258 OBP isn’t anything to write home about. If there is one infield position that the Yankees have an obvious advantage, it’s here.
Alex Rodriguez – A-Rod’s season has been disappointing by his standards, managing to hit only 18 home runs and put up a 116 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR. It’s possible that the lingering effects of the broken hand he suffered on a HBP by Felix Hernandez are hampering his production at the plate. Rodriguez has managed to run the bases better this season than he has recently with 13 stolen bases. He’s managed to get on base at a .353 clip this season, even if he hasn’t been driving in runs the way we expect him to. A-Rod is known for his hot streaks, and now would be a good time to get one of those started.
Manny Machado – The rookie has seven home runs in his 51 games since being called up, but his real contribution is his sparkling defensive abilities, even playing away from his usual shortstop position. He truly has the edge over an aging Alex Rodriguez in that department, but his .294 OBP to this point is a little less than impressive. There is a reason Machado is such a highly regarded prospect, and he certainly has the ability to hit and hit well. The difference in offense may come down to who is hot at the right time.
Edge: Yankees, but it’s pretty close.
Derek Jeter – Jeter led all of baseball with 216 hits in what was a great rebound season for the 38 year old. His 15 home runs and 116 wRC+ were his best marks since his 18 home runs and 134 wRC+ in 2009. Jeter definitely turned back the clock at the plate this season, but his defense is still a real weak spot. Nearly everything hit right to him will result in an out, but nearly everything hit more than two or three steps away will result in a base hit for the opposition.
J.J. Hardy – Hardy hit an unimpressive .238/.282/.389 with a 77 wRC+ this season, but that came along with 22 dingers for the shortstop. Where Hardy especially excels is with his defense, which makes up a bit for what he isn’t able to do offensively. Like we’ve been used to from our own shortstop, particularly in the past, Hardy has a bit of a double play problem, hitting into 21 this season.
Edge: Split. Do you value really good offense or really good defense more?
Overall Infield edge: Yankees, though the Orioles’ players are close at a couple positions.
Outfield/DH Position by Position Comparison
Curtis Granderson – Hitting 43 homers in a season is an impressive feat, but Granderson took a step back in nearly every other offensive category in '12. He can change a game with one swing of the bat, and will need to in order for the Yankees to advance.
Adam Jones – This was the breakout many expected of him, and his best years could still be ahead, which is a scary thought. Jones reached 30 homers for the first time (32), and set career highs in steals (16), average (.287), and OPS (.839).
Edge: Orioles by a thread
Ichiro Suzuki – The Yankees got a glimpse of vintage Ichiro upon his arrival (.322, 5 HR, 27 RBI, 14 SB), especially in September when it really mattered most (.385). Theoretically, this may be his last shot to win a championship, so he's sure to give it everything he has.
Nate McLouth – What a find he was for the Orioles after watching his career spiral into obscurity with the Braves since the 2010 season. He rebounded nicely down the stretch (.268, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 12 SB), and finds himself as a key part of the O's offense atop the batting order.
Edge: Yankees, but it's closer than you'd think.
Nick Swisher – He's been a model of consistency since arriving in New York, and posted his typical season numbers (.272, 24 HR, 93 RBI, .364 OBP). He's had trouble translating regular season success to the post-season since joining the Yankees, but has the experience necessary to find ways to succeed.
Chris Davis – It was a great season for Davis, who had been written off as a Quad-A slugger with the Rangers a year earlier. His 33 homers and 85 RBI led the Orioles, making him a dangerous hitter for Yankee pitchers to navigate around nightly.
Edge: Yankees, Swisher's consistency and track record are too hard to ignore, despite the breakout by Davis.
Raul Ibanez/Eric Chavez – The Yankees caught lightning in a bottle with Ibanez (.240, 19 HR, 62 RBI), and have received solid performances from Chavez (.281, 16 HR, 37 RBI in '12) since he arrived last year. Both men are professional hitters who know how to pick up key hits in big spots.
Jim Thome – The veteran slugger missed a chunk of time due to a herniated disk in his neck, but returned in late September to provide a boost to the Orioles lineup. Despite only hitting eight homers this year, the power is still there. He'll be looking to add to his career post-season home run total (17).
Edge: Yankees. If Ibanez finds himself with a glove in his hand, this advantage immediately disappears.
Overall Outfield/DH edge: Yankees.
Starting Rotation and Bullpen Comparison
Game 1, Oriole Park at Camden Yards
CC Sabathia: The big lefty missed a few starts, but he still had a pretty typical CC season with 200 innings of 3.38 ERA/3.33 FIP baseball, numbers very similar to his '09 campaign, albeit with an ERA+ 13 points lower at 124. Most notably, he had the best K/BB ratio in the AL at 4.48, his highest mark since his Cy Young season of '07. He has a 3.38 career ERA at Camden Yards, but this year's version of the Orioles roughed him up for 13 runs and 24 hits in three starts this year. He did finish the season strong though, pitching eight innings and reaching Game Scores of at least 71 in each of his final three starts.
Jason Hammel: The Orioles dealt the disappointing Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies in a scarcely-noticed February trade to acquire Hammel, and it has paid huge dividends for the Buckmen. He's only made two starts since July 13th due to arthroscopic surgery on his knee, but he was was one of only three Orioles to make 20 starts and he pitched to a 3.43 ERA/3.29 FIP, compiling the highest WAR among Oriole pitchers (2.9). He has a 3.94 ERA in three starts against the Yankees this year, but he's surrendered 18 hits and only reached six innings in a start once.
Edge: Yankees. CC is the more reliable option and it might be hard for Hammel to shake off the rust against a patient offense.
Game 2, Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Andy Pettitte: 2012 was a great comeback season for the 40-year-old southpaw after a year of retirement, at least until Casey Kotchman broke his ankle in a start on June 27th. He only pitched 12 games, but his 2.87 ERA and 146 ERA+ were the best marks among starters. Although he only gave up a combined three runs in the three starts after the injury, they were against the Twins and Blue Jays, both below-average offenses by September. It's hard to know what to expect from Pettitte at this point against a tough playoff team like the Orioles, but the guy knows how to pitch, even on days when he's not sharp.
Wei-Yin Chen: Just one Oriole made more than 20 starts--the 27-year-old rookie from Taiwan who earned some Rookie of the Year consideration early on for his 3.36 ERA through mid-June. As the AL began to figure him out though, Chen seemed to alternate between good starts and bad starts. For example, he held the Yankees to three runs in 6.2 innings on September 1st, then was blasted for seven runs in 4.2 innnings on the 7th. He relied on his defense to carry him, as evinced by his 4.42 FIP and just one 10-strikeout game all year, which came against the free-swinging Athletics.
Edge: Yankees. Unless he drastically changes his approach, Chen might struggle again with the Yankees, and it's difficult to bet against a guy who's started and won as many Game 2s as Pettitte.
Game 3, Yankee Stadium
Hiroki Kuroda: What can you say about Kuroda that Yankee fans don't already know? He's been a tremendous asset to the team, making a perfect transition from the NL West to the AL East while accumulating career-highs in innings (219.2), ERA+ (126), and rWAR (5.2). He has sharp control, as his 2.09 BB/9 was better than all but five AL pitchers. Kuroda did seem to tire somewhat in September, as his ERA for the month was 4.71, and his high workload is one of the reasons Girardi bumped him back to the Game 3 start at Yankee Stadium. He was also much better at home (2.72 ERA) than on the road (4.23 ERA), and he pitched 15.1 innings to a 2.93 ERA in two home starts against Baltimore.
Miguel Gonzalez: A late-blooming rookie at 28 signed on March 4th, Gonzalez emerged in the Orioles rotation on July 6th after dominating in AAA Norfolk with a 1.61 ERA and 0.716 WHIP. He continued his solid pitching in the pros, impressing with a 3.25 ERA and 130 ERA+, though not striking out nearly as many batters as he did in AAA. In addition to a decent start at Yankee Stadium on July 30th, a seven innings of shutout ball there on August 31st likely helped make Buck's decision to start Gonzalez in Game 3 easier. He could give the Yankees fits again in Game 3 if he's on his game and keeps the walks down.
Edge: Yankees, but not by much. Kuroda might have fared well at home and had the best overall season for a Yankee starter, but he only narrowly gets the edge over Gonzalez, who the Yankees have struggled against and actually led the Orioles in rWAR at 2.9 in just 105.1 innings. He's a threat.
Game 4, Yankee Stadium (if needed)
Phil Hughes: The "Masterchef" certainly makes things interesting on the mound, and the 35 dingers he surrendered in 2012 were the second-most in franchise history. 22 of them came at Yankee Stadium, where he will start Game 4 if necessary. Dingers have always been and will likely forever be Hughes's biggest problem. Fortunately, there were certainly parts of Hughes's season to like much more than previous campaigns. He's vastly improved his control, and both his 2.16 BB/9 and 3.59 K/BB were among the top ten marks in the AL. Hughes has managed damage control better than in recent years, evinced by an August 1st start at home against the Orioles in which he put 11 men on base but gave up just one run. Inconsistency dogs him though, and he pitched to a 4.76 ERA in four starts against the Orioles in 2012.
Joe Saunders/Chris Tillman: Buck has not yet announced who he would start in Game 4 yet, but he has two decent options in Saunders and Tillman. Three days ago, the choice would have been easier, but Saunders's solid start in Arlington against the Rangers in the Wild Card playoff game might force Buck to consider giving him another chance. He's been both good and bad since they traded for him on August 26th, and he had a completely mediocre Game Score of 50 in 5.1 innings during a Yankee Stadium start on September 8th. Traditionally, the Yankees have hit Saunders hard (5.82 ERA in six starts), and as an Angel, they beat him in the 2009 ALCS as well. Tillman began 2012 in the minors after disappointing in the pros for three years, but once he returned on July 4th, he led the rotation in ERA (2.93) and ERA+ (144). The Yankees have always hit him hard, as he has an ERA of 8.16 against them in seven starts, but as Saunders proved in Texas the other day, past failures can be deceiving. It would be hard to fault Buck for going with either option since both have equal pros and cons.
Edge: Split. This one is a pure toss-up that very likely be decided by the bullpens. Hughes's propensity for giving up the longball could quickly hurt the Yankees at any point, and neither Orioles option is very promising.
Yankees: The 'pen pitched to a 3.43 ERA/3.62 FIP while striking out batters at a rate higher than any non-Ray team in the AL (8.92 K/9). The 3.20 BB/9 was less-than-ideal, but better than most teams. Despite some hiccups and an inevitable jump from an amazing 1.08 ERA/1.84 FIP in 2011 to a 2.67 ERA/2.48 FIP in 2012, Yankee fans should feel reasonably comfortable with the eighth inning in the hands fireballer David Robertson. His strikeout rate fell from 13.5 K/9 to 12.02 K/9 in '12, but more importantly, he dramatically cut his walk rate to a career-low 2.82 BB/9. Rafael Soriano was stellar thanks to a Rivera-like season with 42 saves in 46 opportunities and a 2.26 ERA/3.32 FIP. Getting the ball from the starter to Robertson and Soriano could be a challenge though, as middle relievers Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan have both had some struggles. Don't be surprised if they end up getting a "regular season '09 Hughes"-type boost from rookie David Phelps, whose curveball has been as impressive as his 2.76 ERA. The 'pen is rounded out by LOOGY Clay Rapada and recently-resurgent former starter Derek Lowe.
Orioles: The secret to the Orioles' astounding 2012 success in one-run games (29-9) and extra-inning affairs (16-2) is their superb bullpen. They were second in the league in ERA (3.00) and BB/9 (2.87) with an unlikely cast of characters led by All-Star closer Jim Johnson. The 29-year-old notched a league-high 51 saves in 54 opportunities, locking down the ninth with a 2.49 ERA/3.25 FIP while walking only 1.97 per nine innings. It is worth noting though that he pitched more than an inning just twice in 71 games, so he might not last long in an extra-inning game. With shutdown relievers Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, and even Tommy Hunter though, they might not have to worry about that. Also watch out for Brian Matusz, now a LOOGY with a mission to silence Robinson Cano.
Edge: Orioles, but the gap might not be as wide as you'd think.
Overall Pitching Edge: Yankees, but only in innings 1-6.