Several million words have been written in the last few years about why teams win in the playoffs — or more precisely, why the playoffs are different than the regular season. Most of it can be summed up in a few words: Setting your starting rotation and having a deeper bullpen.
Over the last eight years, the Yankees haven’t had much of a rotation to set because they’ve lacked an ace. This year they have one, C.C. Sabathia, but most of the teams that may face in the postseason will have at least two. Which means that they Yankees will have to reply more heavily on their other strengths, hitting and bullpen depth, if they’re going to win it all.
Let’s start with the bullpen…
One of the differences — perhaps the main difference — between the regular and postseason is the use of the bullpen. In most regular season games, a team which gets behind in, say, the fourth of fifth inning, is not only going to lose but lose big. Most managers simply aren’t going to commit their better relievers unless it’s late in the game and they’re either winning or tied.
The postseason changes those priorities: relievers are used earlier and for longer stints, and the bullpen is bolstered by the addition of the starting rotation’s fourth and fifth men. This season, for the first time since 2001, the Yankees have a layered bullpen that can match any other team in the American or National League. This has been Joe Girardi’s most valuable contribution as a manager. Joe Torre’s Yankees teams floundered in the postseason because the starters weakened early and the middle relievers couldn’t hold the game close till Mariano Rivera arrived.
This year’s team finished fifth in the league in overall ERA at 3.91, but that doesn’t tell the whole story: once Phil Hughes was committed to be the set-up man, the Yankees relief corps quickly established itself as the best in baseball. And if they had committed to return Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen a few weeks sooner, they would have been even better. That might work out well anyway — with just two pitches, a fastball and hard breaking slider — to worry about, Joba might well revert to his old bullpen form. If so, the Yanks could well shorten most of their postseason games to six or even five innings.
This assumes that number two and three starters, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, are at least competitive for five or six innings. If the Yankees have a weakness, they’re it, though the two were a combined 27-17 with a 4.11 ERA during the regular season. If Burnett and Pettitte can last into the sixth inning and hand the bullpen a lead, the Yankees will probably win it all.
Over their last seven postseasons since 2001, the Yankees at-bat and in the field, have always seemed to be at least a player short. This time they almost look like they have a player too many. For the first time in years, the Yanks have bench strength, particularly in Brett Gardner as a late inning defensive replacement and a sensational base runner (26 stolen bases, many in key situations, like the rubber game in the last series against the Angels). So much so that they can probably afford the handicap of using Jose Molina, one of the worst hitters in baseball (.217 and one home run in 52 games) at catcher when A.J. Burnett pitches. They have a much better hitting catcher and a much quicker one, too, in Francisco Cervelli, if they choose to use him.
The Yankee batting order is the best in baseball. Through most of the postseason games will be Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez followed by, probably, Hideki Matsui, either Robbie Cano or Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera. They might be juggled in the order, but it hardly matters. Four of them are switch hitters, and one of them, Matsui, hits lefthanders as well as righthanders. Collectively, they’re the best 1-9 in baseball. The Yankees led the major leagues in home runs, runs scored, on-base and slugging, and their numbers were nearly as impressive on the road as they were at Yankee Stadium — which means that any postseason opponent will have a harder time winning at Yankee stadium than the Yankees will in their home park.
And they don’t just hit with power, they work the count and chew up the pitch counts of opposing staffs — they led the majors with 663 walks (though only slightly ahead of the Colorado Rockies and Boston Red Sox), and they run the bases and steal just about as well as any team in either league. (Their 111 stolen bases is only 11th in MLB, but their success rate of 80% is just one percent behind the leaders, the Phillies and Rangers.)
The Yankees are solid or superior to all of the postseason contenders in every important phase of the same except one big one: the strength of the second and third starts in the rotation. On paper, at least, they should have more than enough power, speed and depth to overcome this. Should they go all the way? Yes, they should. If they play up to their potential, it shouldn’t take them but one extra game to win all three postseason series, no matter who their opponents are.