The World Series begins tonight, It pits the team with the best record in baseball this year — the New York Yankees — against the defending champions — the Philadelphia Phillies.
These two teams have met only once in the World Series. That happened in 1950, when the “Whiz Kids” from Philadelphia lost to the Yankees in four games, three of which were very low-scoring affairs. Neither the sweep nor the total domination of pitching is likely to occur this time around.
For the past few years, I’ve previewed the World Series. My analyses have been okay, I hope, but also somewhat superficial because I don’t follow baseball closely enough these days to have in depth knowledge of the teams.
This year, I asked my colleague Josh Waxman to provide his analysis, and he agreed. Josh is a close, keen observer of the game. And although he’s an ardent Yankees fan, I think he has provided a balanced analysis. I’m grateful to him for writing the following:
I would like to thank Paul for giving me the opportunity to write about my favorite team, the Yankees. One of the best things about having my office next to Paul’s is getting the opportunity to hear him talk about his memories of baseball’s past. I know that Paul lost some love for the current game after the 1994 strike, but I’ve been trying for the past several years to get him excited again about baseball today.
I think that the Yankees-Phillies match-up has the potential to be a really good series. The Phillies match-up very well with the Yankees, position-by-position. In fact, a strong argument could be made that Phillies have the advantage over the Yankees at 1B, 2B, and all three OF spots (each of the Phillies OFs were All-Stars this year). Offensively, I would view the two teams as pretty equal. Both hit a lot of home runs this season, which could make things interesting with two home run-friendly ballparks. However, the Phillies hit significantly better with runners-in-scoring-position in the postseason than the Yankees (who actually had an 0 for 26 streak with RISP in the ALCS). The Yankees will need to improve on that number against the Phillies, or they could be in trouble.
That being said, I think there are four keys to this World Series for the Yankees:
1. The Bullpens. And, specifically, Brad Lidge for the Phillies and Phil Hughes for the Yankees. For most of this season, Lidge was one of baseball’s worst closers after being perfect last season in save situations. However, Lidge has recaptured his 2008 form so far this October. If the Phillies are going to win the series, they will need a strong performance from Lidge, particularly since the Yankees will counter with the greatest closer in baseball history in Mariano Rivera. It bears noting that when the Phillies faced the Yankees for three interleague games in late May, Lidge blew saves in back-to-back games at Yankee Stadium, including one where he gave up a game-tying home-run to Alex Rodriguez. The Phillies need the October Lidge, not the May Lidge, to show up.
In contrast, Phil Hughes of the Yankees was dominant in the regular season once he became a full-time relief pitcher (1.40 ERA) and provided the Yankees with a strong bridge to get to Rivera. But Hughes has struggled mightily in the playoffs (5.79 ERA). If Hughes can return to his regular season form (and Joba Chamberlain can return to his 2007 form as a dominant reliever), the Yankees can shorten the game to six or seven innings, which would give them a huge advantage over the Phillies.
2. Pitching Rotations and Scheduling. Phillies fans were likely rooting for the ALCS to be extended to a seventh game so that Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia would start that game, rather than starting game 1 of the World Series against Cliff Lee. By virtue of the Yankees finishing off the Angels in six games, the Yankees have the opportunity to start Sabathia three times against the Phillies, albeit on short rest the final two times (where Sabathia has traditionally excelled, including this postseason). However, the question then remains what to do about the remainder of their rotation. A.J. Burnett should start game 2, and Andy Pettitte game 3. But if you throw Sabathia in Game 4, then the Yankees would need to decide if they want to pitch Chad Gaudin in Game 5, or go back to Burnett on short rest, followed by Pettitte on short rest in Game 6. Having your starters pitch on short rest in the last four games of the World Series is a risky proposition, particularly when one is brittle (Burnett) and one is 37 years old (Pettitte), but I think it is ultimately what the Yankees will decide, because pitching Gaudin is scary, but also in part for the reasons expressed in #3 below.
3. The Yankees’ Left-Handed Pitching Versus Ryan Howard. Ryan Howard had an absolutely monster year, with a .279 batting average, 45 HRs and 141 RBIs, with a very strong post-season so far. However, if you are a pitcher, you would much rather face a hitter with a .207 BA, .298 OBP, and .356 SLG (Howard’s numbers against LH pitchers), than a hitter with .320 BA, .395 OBP, and a .693 SLG (Howard’s numbers against RH pitchers). Howard is simply a different hitter against LH pitching. (Two of the other Phillies power hitters (Utley and Ibanez) are also left-handed, but both actually have a higher OPS (On-Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage) against LH pitching.)
As a result, I expect the Yankees to start the LH Sabathia three times in the World Series and the LH Pettitte twice, in an effort to neutralize Howard. Moreover, I expect that Yankees LH relievers Phil Coke and Damaso Marte (neither of whom has allowed an earned run so far in the postseason) will be called upon to face Howard in crucial late-inning situations. The success of the Yankees LH pitchers to get out Howard and the other LH Phillies hitters will be critical to the Yankees’ chances for victory in the Series.
4. A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez has been a surprising success story this October, doing his best to make Yankees’ fans forget his many years of post-season futility. It seems that the adage for this Yankee team is: as A-Rod goes, so go the Yankees. His return from hip surgery in May marked the turning point for the Yankees’ season. A-Rod simply looks locked in right now, and was by far the most dominant hitter in the first two rounds of the playoffs. There is no better sign of respect for a hitter than when he represents the tying run and is intentionally walked with no one on base in the ninth inning, which happened to A-Rod twice during the ALCS after his game-tying home run off Brian Fuentes in Game 2.
If A-Rod can continue his torrid hitting in the World Series, the Phillies will have a hard time containing the Yankees’ offense. Conversely, if A-Rod cools down, then someone else on the Yankees needs to step up. One effect of the ALCS going six games is that the Yankees hitters like A-Rod only had two days off before the start of the World Series. I know that Phillies fans were hoping that the ALCS went a full seven games, but the Phillies might have been better off if A-Rod was given the opportunity to cool down by having to wait a week between the LCS and the World Series, as the Phillies were forced to do by finishing up the Dodgers early.
Overall, I think that the Yankees’ advantage in the bullpen with Mariano Rivera and their potential to throw LH starting pitchers in 5 out of 7 games in this series give them a slight edge over the Phillies. As a result, I’m picking the Yankees to win in seven games.