Yankees pose matchup issues for Tigers

Originally Published: October 1, 2006
By Keith Law | Scouts Inc.

LAW'S SERIES PREVIEWS
AL Division Series
• Tigers vs. Yankees
• A's vs. Twins
NL Division Series
• Dodgers vs. Mets
• Cardinals vs. Padres
This is the matchup the Yankees wanted -- and the Tigers absolutely did not want. The Yankees line up extremely well against Detroit, which comes into the postseason with some major questions about its young starters. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman have limped to the finish line and look like they're exhausted, with both guys losing their command over the past few weeks.

The Yankees have long been vulnerable to scrappy teams that put the ball in play, but the Tigers are the antithesis of the '02 or '05 Angels; if the Yankees can produce offensively against the Tigers the way they did all year, they should take the series.

Curtis Granderson
Granderson
When the Tigers are up

• Don't blink or you'll miss them. The Tigers posted the worst OBP of any team to make the playoffs, and to make matters worse, they racked up the second-most strikeouts in the American League this year, led by leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson's AL-high 173. But Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson both struggle more against contact-hitting teams, so swinging early and often plays into their hands.

• Expect the Tigers to try to run on Jorge Posada, who has a long-standing reputation as one of the worst defensive catchers in the game (although he did have his best year since 1998 in throwing out runners).

• Watch for lots of off-speed pitches from the Yankee starters. The Tigers are an extreme fastball-hitting team, so the Yanks' general pitching plan will be to work more with off-speed pitches, using the fastball only to get ahead or to get a strike when needed.

When the Yankees are up

• The Tigers had reached the playoffs on the command of their starting pitchers, but Verlander and Bonderman both appear to be out of gas. That is music to the Yankee hitters' ears; the Yanks' top six hitters wait for their pitches and make opposing pitchers work. Big innings early, particularly when those two pitchers start, are on the agenda.

Hideki Matsui
Matsui
• Keep an eye on Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, both of whom have come back sooner than expected from injuries that could affect their swings.

• Tigers manager Jim Leyland probably will try to get reliever Joel Zumaya involved in any close game, and he's the one guy on the Tiger staff who can shut down any lineup one time through, as long as he throws enough strikes. It'll be interesting to see how he fares against the patient Yankees' offense.

• With the possible exception of Jeter, the Yankees aren't likely to run much, given Pudge Rodriguez's arm and reputation and the fact that they should be able to score plenty of runs without resorting to too much little ball.

Nate Robertson
Robertson
Keys for the Tigers

• Left-handed starter Nate Robertson may be the most important player on the Tigers' roster. The Yankees are still a good offensive team against lefties, but nowhere near the juggernaut they are against righties. Kenny Rogers isn't that tough on left-handed hitters, so it falls to Robertson to steal a game for Detroit.

• It's almost impossible for a Tiger to change his stripes this late in a season, but if the Tigers' coaching staff can teach the hitters that there's no rule mandating a swing at the first pitch of each plate appearance, it would go a long way. Their lack of selectivity will deprive them of opportunities to beat up on the back end of the Yankees' pen, which has question marks across the board.

• Putting the ball in play is also critical; the Yankees' defense is one of the club's few clear weak points, but you can't take advantage of a mediocre defense if you don't make contact.

• Turning two: The Yankees create a lot of double-play opportunities, the result of putting men on base, hitting the ball hard and having a lot of below-average runners in the middle of the lineup. The Tigers have a very good infield defense and two pitchers who try to get ground balls (Robertson and Rogers). Reducing the number of batters their pitchers have to retire would be an enormous boost, given how powerful the Yankees' lineup is.

Mariano Rivera
Rivera
Keys for the Yankees

• This series is the Yankees' for the taking. If they play their game -- working the count, getting guys on base in front of the mashers, and getting six or seven innings from their starters -- they'll win.

• That said, the most important thing for the Yankees is to limit their bullpen's exposure. No one in front of Mariano Rivera is within hollering distance of reliable, and they have a lot of guys who throw hard, flat fastballs, which are just what the Tigers like to eat. Getting those six or seven innings from their starters is key, and if someone offers eight, they should take it.

• Don't get cute. The Yankees are the big favorites here, so any divergence from what got them here, such as a sudden interest in manufacturing runs, reduces their chances of winning the series.

Prediction

The Tigers had plenty of chances to avoid this series, and they're going to regret losing two to Toronto and three to Kansas City in that final week. The current pitching lineup has Verlander, a rookie who's had a hard landing over the last few weeks, pitching in Yankee Stadium, with Jeremy Bonderman so shaky of late that he's relegated to Game 4. The Yankees are too strong, and while they may need four games to pull it off, I'm going with the Yankees in three.

Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.

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