I hate this question. However, it’s an inevitable one that baseball fans will continue to ask because until you know who your team’s postseason opponent is there isn’t really much else one can do aside from debate whether one team would be “preferable” to the other.
The reason I hate this question is because there’s no good answer. There are no “easy” teams to play in the playoffs. If a team is good enough to make the playoffs, then they’re a good team. The general consensus among Yankee fans on Twitter and elsewhere seems to be that Texas would represent an easier go of it in the American League Division Series, due primarily to their plethora of left-handed starters — a subset of pitchers the 2011 Yankees have crushed better than anyone in Major League Baseball this season.
While the thought of facing multiple lefthanders does seem appealing on its face, it’s not as if the Ranger southpaws the Yankees would be facing are chopped liver. C.J. Wilson turned in a top five season among all starting pitchers in the American League, a year that was worth a career-high 5.7 fWAR and that will make him a very wealthy man this offseason. Matt Harrison (3.8 fWAR) and Derek Holland (3.4) have both turned in top-20 fWAR seasons. And even though he had a down year (and he’s righthanded), the sting of Colby “Cy Young” Lewis completely owning the Yankees in last year’s ALCS is still fresh in my mind. None of this is to say the Yankees can’t beat these pitchers; we’ve seen them do it. But I don’t think a match-up with Texas is some kind of slam-dunk win for the Bombers.
As for Detroit, many have expressed a great deal of concern regarding the prospect of having to face Justin Verlander twice in a five-game set. To that I say, what about the Tigers, who may have to face CC Sabathia twice in a five-game set? I doubt Detroit fans are licking their chops at that prospect. Verlander has no doubt had a great season, but if the Yankees do end up drawing the Tigers in the first round, you’ll see in my forthcoming 2011 ALDS Game 1 preview that in actuality Verlander’s and Sabathia’s years really weren’t all that different, and in fact, Verlander benefited from a healthy dose of batted ball luck (2nd-lowest BABIP in the AL), whereas Sabathia’s BABIP came in nearly .030 points higher than his career number. The Yankees have also shown something of a propensity to actually be able to score some runs off Verlander — if we were talking about Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, then yes, I’d be running for the hills, but for all of Verlander’s excellence, I don’t think he alone will be the difference-maker for Detroit.
I’ve also seen people nervous about the prospect of facing Doug Fister in Game 2. Really? I know Fister’s been fantastic as a Tiger, but here’s who he’s faced since coming over to Detroit in the beginning of August: Texas, Cleveland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland, Kansas City, Cleveland. That’s four starts out of 11 facing the Indians, and only two starts against the AL East, neither of which came against the division’s powerhouse offenses. I’m not saying Fister isn’t a good pitcher, because he is — you can’t luck into a 5.6 fWAR season — but he’s probably not this good. Though it’s a small sample size (18 innings), the Yankees haven’t had too much difficulty with the soft-throwing righthander, hitting him to the tune of .316/.342/.539 and a 6.00 ERA. Additionally, while the prospect of facing a junkballer in the playoffs would’ve sent shivers down my spine a year ago, the 2011 Yankees for the most part vanquished that bizarre bugaboo, faring better against Finesse pitchers than both the “Power” and “Avg. Power & Finesse” varieties. While there’s always the possibility of Fister pulling a Doug Davis, I can’t say the idea of facing Fister seems significantly daunting.
The member of the Detroit rotation that does seem somewhat daunting is Max Scherzer. Even though he had what appears to be a disappointing season following his strong 2010 campaign, Scherzer’s been exceptionally tough on the Yankees since coming over to Detroit, with a 2.78 ERA over 19 innings representing the fourth-lowest ERA among starters who have made a minimum of three starts against the Yankees since the beginning of the 2010 season. The fact that the Yankees actually got to him for six runs in 5 innings way back at the beginning of the season yet he still boasts a sub-3.00 ERA against the Bombers underscores how much he’s dominated them.
Ultimately, I don’t have a preference as to who the Yankees face in the ALDS. Both the Rangers and the Tigers are excellent teams that, like the Yankees, have robust offenses and somewhat less-certain rotations following their aces (and despite the fact that many seem to prefer the Rangers, one could make the case that Texas has the deepest rotation of the three, with four different starters posting 3.0-plus fWAR seasons. Both the Yankees and Tigers boast just one starter apiece with that distinction — Verlander and Sabathia). More than anything I’d just like to know who the Yankees are facing, so TYA can get going with our 2011 ALDS Preview pieces.
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