Posted October 13, 2012

ALCS game 1 preview: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees

ALCS, Alex Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees
Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte has made a record 43 postseason starts but only six of those have come in a Game 1. (Icon SMI)

Tigers at Yankees

Series: ALCS, Game 1

Time: 8:00 PM ET

TV: TBS

Starters: Doug Fister (10-10, 3.45 ERA) vs. Andy Pettitte (5-4, 2.87 ERA)

Roughly 24 hours after finishing off the Orioles in the Division Series, the Yankees go back to work, facing the team that ended their 2011 season. Both the Tigers and the Yankees rode their aces to victory in thrilling five-game first round series, but the quick turnaround to the second round means that Detroit’s Justin Verlander and New York’s CC Sabathia won’t pitch until Game 3 or 4 — the latter would have to work on three days’ rest to oppose the former — and won’t get a second turn unless the series goes seven. Thus the ALCS will be a greater test of rotation depth, with the Yankees faced with the necessity of having to employ a fifth starter — David Phelps or Derek Lowe, given the decision to leave both Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova off the roster — to avoid moving Hiroki Kuroda up on three days’ rest as well.

That’s a problem for another day, however. For this one, Yankees manager Joe Girardi gets to call on the most familiar of options in Pettitte, the all-time leader in postseason starts (43), innings (270) and wins (19). The 40-year-old lefty threw seven strong innings in his Game 2 Division Series outing against the Orioles, allowing three runs while striking out five; his 98 pitches were his highest total in four turns since returning from a 2 1/2 month absence due to a broken fibula. Pettitte works with a four-seam fastball that averages 88.3 mph, a sinker, the majors’ most effective swing-and-miss cutter, a curve and a changeup (the latter exclusively to righties). He showed a wide platoon split (.245/.308/.372 against righties, .202/.230/.286 against lefties), with the caveat that in his 75 1/3 innings, he only faced 87 same-side hitters; for what it’s worth, his 2009-2010 split was even wider (.269/.334/.412 vs. .192/.226/.268, with 378 PA against lefties). Within the small sample of his season, his 8.2 strikeouts per nine was his highest rate since his injury-abbreviated 2004 with the Astros, while his 56 percent groundball rate was his highest mark since 2001. He didn’t face the Tigers this year, and has faced Prince Fielder for just two plate appearances in his career; oddly enough, it’s Delmon Young (13-for-24, four extra-base hits) and Jhonny Peralta (7-for-18, six extra-base hits) who have proven most vexing against him; Miguel Cabrera is 4-for-20 with a pair of homers, but the two haven’t squared off since 2008.

Going for the Tigers is Fister, who threw seven strong innings against the A’s in Game 2 of the Division Series, striking out eight while allowing just two runs. Though he missed seven weeks during the season due to a recurrent intercostal strain, the 28-year-old righty continued the breakthrough he showed upon arriving in Detroit in mid-2011, setting career highs in strikeout rate (7.6 per nine) and groundball rate (53 percent) while maintaining outstanding control (3.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Fister works primarily with a sinker that averages 89.5 mph, a cutter, a curve and a changeup. He showed a sizable enough platoon split (.220/.297/.314 versus righties, compared to .270/.300/.434 against lefties) that opposing managers stacked their lineups with lefties; 57.5 percent of his plate appearances came against the latter. He faced the Yankees on Aug. 9, throwing 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball, a stronger outing than he managed in either of last year’s two Division Series starts, when he threw a total of 9 2/3 innings; he was knocked around for six runs in the resumption of the waterlogged Game 1 opener but wobbled through five innings and got the win in the decisive Game 5.

Fister’s splits — and indeed, the orientation of Detroit’s all-righty rotation — mean that the Alex Rodriguez problem isn’t going away; the 37-year-old third baseman sat for the entirety of Game 5 while lefty Eric Chavez went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts. The latter was much stronger against righties this year; his .908 OPS (on a .298/.365/.543 line with 16 homers in 274 PA) against them tied for 11th in the league among those with at least 250 PA from that side, while the former hit just .256/.326/.391 in 356 PA vs. righties before going 0-for-12 with nine strikeouts against them in the Baltimore series. Beyond that, however, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and ALDS hero Raul Ibanez are much stronger when facing righties, though it remains to be seen if they’re as welcome a sight in this round; Cano hit a searing .360/.423/.685 vs. them in the regular season but went just 1-for-13 against them in the first round, and Granderson (1-for-9) and Swisher (2-for-10) struggled against that side as well. Expect Ibanez to get the DH call, and note that while Tigers manager Jim Leyland called upon southpaw Phil Coke out of the bullpen in the first round, second lefty Drew Smyly, the roster’s long man, didn’t pitch once. Coke, who was lit for a .396/.446/.604 line in 115 PA when opposing righties (compared to .263/.313/.373 in 130 PA vs. lefties), may well be saved for a key matchup with Cano or Granderson rather than simply forcing Girardi to his bench elsewhere.

Though Fielder, Alex Avila and Andy Dirks are Detroit’s only lefty regulars, the Tigers hit just .253/.329/.395 as a team against lefties — and went 27-26 in games they started, including a split in the ALDS — compared to .275/.337/.434 against righties. Fielder hit just .289/.363/.445 with six homers in 248 PA against southpaws, while Avila was so dominated by them (.176/.304/.235 in 103 PA) that Leyland may opt for righty Gerald Laird (just .204/.275/347 in 109 PA against lefties himself), as he did against Oakland’s Tommy Milone and Brett Anderson in the previous round. As a whole, the team didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in the Division Series (17 runs on .252/.295/.337 hitting, with just two homers), but then neither did the Yankees (16 runs on .211/.278/.333 hitting). None of the Tigers’ hitters come into this series in anywhere near the funk — or surrounded by such controversy — as their pinstriped counterparts; every Detroit regular collected at least three hits in the first round.

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