After the wild and crazy Game 1 of the ALCS between the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, I had a lot of thoughts on the game and needed to talk them out. So I turned to Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster (and Tigers fan) Jesse Goldberg-Strassler. Here’s our conversation.
Ben: So in looking at Doug Fister’s performance Saturday night, I was struck by how off his control was. This is a guy who has built his success the past couple of years around severely limiting his walks. When Detroit traded for him in mid-2011 and Fister exploded to the tune of an 8-1 record, 1.79 ERA and a terrific 0.839 WHIP, the righty used a sensational 11.40 K/BB to his advantage. Fister walked only five batters in 70.1 innings! This year, he was still great (3.70 K/BB, 37 BB in 161.2 innings). But four walks in 6.1 innings, against the Yankees lineup? That’s playing with fire. Fister should count himself lucky that the defense (and, arguably, the umpires) picked him up.
Jesse: You neglected to mention the six hits Fister also allowed, plus the error by Omar Infante. That’s 11 baserunners in 6 1/3, and not one of them scored.
To your point: Calls at first base have been rather difficult for the umpires in this postseason, haven’t they? (This is where instant replay would be so easy. Yankees challenge the call, instant replay official in the booth takes a look, call overturned. Simple.) Taking the umpiring rulings as gospel, which I’m more apt to do whenever the team I’m rooting for ends up victorious, credit Doug Fister for making key pitches at necessary times and credit the notoriously poor-fielding Jhonny Peralta with a pair of crucial plays.
I would put Doug Fister’s wildness in the same category as Raul Ibanez’s three remarkable home runs. Hey, weird things happen in the playoffs. Pete Kozma turns clutch. Nick Swisher can’t hit. Heck, 1925 American League MVP Roger Peckinpaugh committed eight errors in that season’s World Series. With the spotlight burning and the pressure level high, it’s a different environment.
Ben: Props on the Peckinpaugh reference; he was an integral part of one of the greatest and craziest World Series ever (the 1924 Washington Senators – New York Giants tilt). And you’re right that instant replay would make the games more effective, particularly with the Cano call at first. Still, that’s a perennial issue, and one the Yankees can’t really blame for their Game 1 loss.
You mentioned Swisher as a guy who’s gone punchless, but how about Curtis Granderson? Other than his power numbers, Grandy has regressed in a big way this year, and batting .130 in the playoffs so far is just a continuation of that. Have the Tigers not completely won the trade that brought Granderson to New York? Austin Jackson’s WAR alone exceeds Granderson’s from 2010-2012, Max Scherzer is nearing elite levels when he’s on his game, and Phil Coke is a valuable arm out of the pen. At this point, Granderson is little better than Jay Bruce, and unlike Bruce, Grandy is on the wrong side of 30.
Alex Rodriguez, too, has given more fuel to his critics who still believe he can’t come through in the clutch. He has been wretched in the postseason this year (.105 BA, 0 XBH, 0 RBI). At this point, Yankees fans would surely like to see him out of the Bronx, but is there a team out there willing to eat his salary a la Carl Crawford?
Jesse: Yes and yes.
Yes, the Tigers have won that three-way megatrade, though it’s going to be interesting to keep tabs on Ian Kennedy from the Diamondbacks’ side of things. In the National League West, anyone can be a contender in any season. Still, the Yankees are the Yankees. They received intriguing power production from Granderson the last few seasons; when the time comes to let him go, they’ll move on with another big-name, big-power talent. Besides Robinson Cano, the Yanks haven’t kept a homegrown superstar for a while (though they’re still hoping for guys like Ivan Nova to keep blossoming). They can and will continue to trade their prospects. Sometimes it works out for other teams, as with Austin Jackson, and sometimes it doesn’t, as with Sterling Hitchcock. (I’m intrigued to see what sort of sophomore season Jesus Montero puts forth for Seattle.)
And, yes, when the Yanks give up on him, there will absolutely be a team willing to acquire A-Rod. It’s an annual baseball tradition: There is always a team ready to bid against itself and overpay for a player everyone else is eyeing cautiously. Albert Belle found the Orioles, Barry Zito found the Giants, Jayson Werth found the Nationals, C.J. Wilson found the Angels, Heath Bell found the Marlins. Stupid is as stupid does. One desperate owner changes the landscape.
Speaking of Heath Bell, the idea of the big-money closer fascinates me in a rubbernecking-at-an-accident sort of way. From the Royals throwing money at Mark Davis entering 1990 to the Mets falling all over themselves over Francisco Rodriguez entering 2009, there’s something mystical in the off-season about the “lights-out closer” that vanishes in a hurry once the season starts and the blown saves pile up. And then there’s “Papa Grande” himself, Jose Valverde, who could not be more reviled by Michiganders if he wore an Ohio State jersey out to the mound. There’s no reason he should pitch again this postseason, is there?
Ben: I can think of two reasons:
1) As an experiment to see how loud Comerica Park can get with boos, OR
2) To essentially put Valverde “in the stocks”, letting him get pelted with baseballs and/or rotting produce.
Seriously, it’s mind-boggling that we haven’t discredited the closer role. With the exception of Mariano Rivera (when healthy) and Craig Kimbrel, there’s really not a closer in baseball about whom I think “game over” when he comes in. Valverde, in particular, stands out as a guy who lacks what it takes to succeed, at least in my mind. He can’t seem to strike guys out at the same rate as in previous years (6.26 K/9 is his lowest mark EVER), and his walk rate hasn’t tumbled precipitously either. At this point, Leyland needs to turn to either Octavio Dotel (who seems to be ageless) or Joaquin Benoit for the duration of the postseason. Valverde has no verve or confidence. Most damning in my mind is his extreme fly-ball rate. When you get a ground ball only 34% of the time, you can survive in extreme outfields like Comerica and Petco. Yankee Stadium, with that short porch? No chance.
As big a worry as Valverde is for the Tigers, New York is much harder hit by the loss of Jeter. If it were only Jeter’s talismanic value, that would be one thing. But Jeter has had a terrific season to boot. His OPS and batting average are at their highest marks since 2009, and he was actually worth a damn in the postseason (.364 BA/.891 OPS in the ALDS). Now the Yankees will try to replace the Captain with Jayson Nix, who is capable but mediocre. Is Jeter the most irreplaceable Yankee?
Jesse: I don’t mind the idea of a “closer.” Watching teams in the minors over the past eight seasons, it’s fairly clear that there are pitchers who can pitch well only when there’s no pressure. If the game isn’t close, they’re untouchable; if the game is on the line, however, their collar gets awful tight and their stuff gets erratic. Conversely, some pitchers are much better when the pressure’s on. (I think hitters also become different people in different situations, particularly in how discerning they’ll be and how much they’ll shorten up their swing in order to stay alive and get a better pitch.) So the idea of a closer is a good one — bring in your best non-starter to record the most crucial late-inning outs — but the human factor means that the role is fragile, especially since wins and losses are easier to associate with closers than any other players.
There’s no way Detroit should turn to Joaquin Benoit, who is consistently getting barreled up in every inning he pitches. Octavio Dotel? Al Albuquerque? Sure. Just not Benoit or Valverde.
With regard to Jeter, maybe. Frankly though, I’m not too certain that there truly is an irreplaceable Yankee on this team. (Perhaps C.C. Sabathia?) This is not a top-heavy offense like Detroit’s or San Francisco’s where the vast majority of the runs produced come through the middle of the order. Whether the Yanks win or lose the World Series was not going to depend on Jeter anyway; it’s reliant upon whether the rest of the offense wakes up and whether the bullpen can continue to pitch effectively. That remains the case.