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Yankees vs. Twins ALDS Breakdown: The Starting Rotations

This is Part 3 of this now-four-part look at the Yankees' ALDS matchup against the Twins.

Part 1: The Lineups
Part 2: Bench and Defense

As for the rotations . . .

Game 1:

L – CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.66 K/BB)
L – Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 3.47 K/BB)

The conventional wisdom says that the Yankees need to win all of CC Sabathia’s starts this postseason because of the sorry state of the rest of their rotation, but while Sabathia is certainly a legitimate ace who gives his team an excellent chance of winning every time he takes the hill, in the postseason, he’ll more often than not be matched up against pitchers of a very similar description, such as Liriano.

After essentially losing three seasons to Tommy John surgry (due to inactivity, rehabilitation, and poor performance), Liriano finally reemerged as an ace this year, four years after his captivating 2006 debut. He never really lost the ability to strike men out, but he struggled with his control and seemed to be leaving the ball up too often last year, resulting in a lot of fly balls, many of which left the park. This year, his strikeouts are up, his walks are down, and he’s getting the majority of his outs on the ground. That last has combined with his new home ballpark to give him the lowest home-run rate in the American League. Liriano allowed just nine home runs all year, none of them to a left-handed batter. He also allowed less than a hit per inning despite a .336 opponent’s average on balls in play. That means he’s actually been even more effective than his results would suggest, and with the Twins defense restored to its peak condition (http://www.pinstripedbible.com/2010/10/06/yankees-vs-twins-alds-breakdown-bench-and-defense/), he could indeed be more effective in this series. Then again, Liriano seemed to fading a bit down the stretch, posting a 4.69 ERA and allowing seven of those nine home runs in his final ten starts and posting a 6.98 ERA with five home runs allowed in his final four.

Sabathia, too, had some struggles down the stretch, allowing five or more runs in three of his last seven starts. Of course, he also thrice threw eight innings with one or no runs allowed, which largely negated the impact of those three duds on his overall numbers. Sabathia did not face the Twins during the Regular season. Liriano faced the Yankees twice in three turns in May, both times striking out seven in a quality start, both times losing due to poor run support as the Twins were stymied by Andy Pettitte.

Edge: Yankees

Game 2:

L – Andy Pettitte (11-3, 3.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.46 K/BB)
R – Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 4.8 K/9, 3.16 K/BB, 7 CG, 2 SHO)

The alliterative Pettitte and Pavano are the alpha and omega of “True Yankee”-ness (as absurd a concept as that might be), which makes it particularly painful to point out just how good Pavano has been this season. His seven complete games and two shoutouts tied him for the AL lead in those categories. He walked just 1.5 men per nine innings and over a 15-start stretch from May 29 to August 13, he went 11-2 with a 2.79 ERA. The good news is that if he was that good then, he had to be worse before and after to get to the final numbers you see above. Indeed, Pavano went 2-4 with a 5.26 ERA over his final eight starts of the regular season, allowing nine home runs in those eight starts and striking out just 3.40 men per nine innings.

Even more confusing, it’s the reliable workhorse Pettitte who enters this series as a huge question mark due to injury and absence. Andy was having his finest season as a Yankee when a groin injury bounced him from his first start after the All-Star break. He didn’t return to the big club until September 19, and though he looked sharp in his return start and seemed to get stronger as that game went along, he was lit up in his next start and complained of back trouble afterwords. Pettitte had seven days off after that disaster outing against the Red Sox and his back didn’t seem to be an issue in his season finale at Fenway, but his results were still disappointing. Though he struck out eight Red Sox in four innings, he also allowed three runs on nine hits, many of which were hit hard. Those last two starts could have gone a lot better, and because of his struggles he hasn’t thrown more than 88 pitches since coming off the disabled list. That leaves open the question of whether or not he’ll be able to pitch deep in to Game Two even if he is effective.

In choosing to start Pettitte instead of Phil Hughes in Game Two, the Yankees chose the past over the present, choosing Pettitte based on what he has done in former postseasons moreso than what he’s likely to do in this one. That the Game Two assignment came packaged with the start in a potential double-elimination Game Five surely played into that logic as well. They also wagered that the advantage they would gain by having the lefty Pettitte start two games against a lineup built around lefties Joe Mauer and Jim Thome would be more significant than the risk involved in starting the homer-prone Hughes at home in Game Three. There’s no way to compare what would have happened to what will, but if Pettitte continues to struggle and Hughes gets taken deep in Game Three, not only will that decision be heavily second-guessed, but the Yankees will likely be headed toward a first-round exit.

Edge: [I can’t bring myself to write Twins here, but I don’t think it’s the Yankees]

Game 3:

R – Phil Hughes (18-8, 4.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.52 K/BB)
L – Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.23 K/BB)

Phil Hughes has really been two pitchers in 2010:

Home: 4.66 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.13 K/BB, 1.7 HR/9
Road: 3.47 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.32 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9

By starting Pettitte in Game Two, the Yankees chose the home Hughes over the road version. That guy’s not awful, but he requires a lot more run support than the other guy. Fortunately, the Yankees scored 5.84 runs per game at home this season (compared to 4.77 R/G on the road). That’s the one thing being overlooked by the complaints about the decision to pitch Hughes at home (which I have made as loudly as anyone else): everyone scores more runs at Yankee Stadium.

Duensing pitched just three innings in the Bronx this year, but that was enough for him to give up a home run to Derek Jeter, who despite his overall struggles still killed lefty pitching this year (.321/.393/.481). Duensing was actually the Twins Game One starter in last year’s ALDS, primarily because the Twins burned all of their better starters while completing their overtaking of the Tigers in the Central. This year it has been injury, to Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, that has pushed Duensing into the ALDS rotation. Duensing spent the first half of the regular season pitching in relief, posting a 1.67 ERA, before being moved into the rotation in place of Game Four starter Nick Blackburn on July 23. He has made 13 starts since, going 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA. In those 13 starts, he only twice failed to complete six innings, never failed to complete five, allowed more than four earned runs only once and more than three only thrice. On the season as a whole, his road ERA has been 1.27 runs higher than his home mark, but his home mark was 2.00.

Edge: Twins

Game 4:

L – Sabathia

R – Nick Blackburn (10-12, 5.42 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 3.8 K/9, 1.70 K/BB)

Duensing replaced Blackburn in the Minnesota rotation in late July because Blackburn had a beastly 6.66 ERA at that point. Blackburn was demoted to Triple-A. Made four strong starts there, then returned to the big-league rotation in late August to post an even 3.00 ERA in eight starts, the only dud among them being a disaster outing against the Royals, of all teams. Not included in that breakdown is that Blackburn had a strong May, going 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA. Included among those five starts were two, seven-inning quality-start victories over the Yankees. One at home, one in the Bronx, neither of which saw him give up a home run.

Edge: Yankees

Game 5:

L – Pettitte
L – Liriano

Edge: Twins

Based on these matchups alone, the Twins will win this series in five games, but remember the Yankees have had the edge at the plate, in the field, and on the bench, and we still have to discuss the bullpens (though don’t get your hopes up there). Still, it’s clear that the Yankees can’t win this series without lucking into a win in either Game Two or Three, and they’ll still have to win both of Sabathia’s starts