The big question entering tonight’s match-up between Chien-Ming Wang and John Lackey concerns whom Joe Torre should start at first base, designated hitter and in center field. I’ll take the third part first. Torre should start Bernie Williams in center, there’s really not much debate to be had. Wang’s ground ball rates are so extreme that Williams could play the entire game without having more than a chance or two in the field. Most of the action Bernie’s likely to see will come on base hits, most of which either shoot through the holes to the corner outfielders, or will be grounders up the middle (assuming they can get past Wang himself) that will be hits long before Bernie gets to them, and which Bernie will be charging anyway, reducing the length of whatever throw he’ll have to make. Thus there’s no need to force the Yankee line-up to carry Bubba’s bat against a man many consider the Angels’ best pitcher entering this series.
Before I get to the 1B/DH situation, let’s explore that belief. Among the four men in the Angels’ ALDS rotation, Lackey is first in K/9 (8.57) and homers (a mere 13), and second in ERA (3.44), but last in BB/9 (3.09) and WHIP (1.33, tied with Jarrod Washburn). None of those numbers are terrible. What they really tell us is that there’s no clear ace on this staff. I still believe Bartolo Colon has the most potential to be dominant, as he was last night after the first two innings. An argument could even be made for Paul Byrd, who despite missing the entire 2003 season due to injury, has been a top-line pitcher ever since his break-out campaign with the Royals in 2002 at the age of 31.
What has everyone so excited about Lackey is likely his age and potential for improvement. Just 26, Lackey experienced a dramatic up-tick in his strikeout rate this year to combine with a two-year decrease in home runs allowed from 31 in 2003 to just 13 this year. He also recovered from a shaky April to post a 2.57 second-half ERA, going 8-1 over the season’s final three months
That said, I doubt Jason Giambi had those stats in mind when he remarked after last night’s game that Lackey was sure to win a Cy Young award if he kept improving his game the way he has. Nor do I think Giambi was basing that evaluation on his personal experiences hitting against Lackey. Giambi is 10 for 20 with a double and a pair of homers against Lackey, which is one reason I think the Yankees can afford to stick him at DH tonight. Giambi’s production may decrease when he sits between at-bats, but his success against Lackey should counteract that. Meanwhile, though Tino Martinez hasn’t actually been all that much better than Giambi in the field this year (91 Rate to Giambi’s 88, with both men at -8 Fielding Runs Against Average), the sheer volume of ground balls the Angels are likely to hit tonight will likely expose Giambi’s inferiority in the field, no matter how slight. For evidence, all we need to do is look back to Wang’s last start.
The only problem with starting Tino at first is that unlike with the centerfield situation, where Bubba can come in as a defensive replacement if Wang hands a lead to the bullpen (and make no mistake, Bubba should come in as soon as Torre takes the ball from his starter unless the Yankees are behind—Bernie has hit a solid 5 for 17 against Lackey with two doubles and a homer), Torre can’t move Giambi into the field in the late innings without sacrificing the DH. Still, I think it’s worth a shot. Yes, Ruben Sierra has gone 3 for 8 against lackey with a home run, but that makes even the other tiny samples I’ve quoted seem large. What’s more, the Ruben Sierra the Yankees have this postseason is not the same one that produced that line against Lackey, even if the Angel starter has only been in the league since 2002. Sierra missed most of the season due to a pair of injuries and has yet to find his stroke since returning. It would be a Scioscia-level mistake for Torre to put Ruben’s name in the line-up regardless of how well he matches up against a given pitcher.
Tonight will be Lackey’s first postseason start since his Game Seven win as a rookie in the 2002 World Series. He’s faced the Yankees twice this year, picking up a win both times and assembling this line: 11 2/3 IP, 12 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 0 HR, 5 BB, 12 K. The one thing to watch out for with Lackey facing the Yankees is that the Yanks have been able to make him work, both times driving him from the game in the sixth due to a pitch count over 100. Indeed, Lackey is the one Angel starter that the Yankees can effectively work the count against (Byrd, for example, is almost Wellsian in his refusal to issue a base on balls). The only problem there is that the Angel bullpen is so dominant that the Yankees actually decrease their chances of scoring by driving Lackey from the game after the fifth inning.
As for Wang, this is not only his first postseason start, but also the first time he’s face the Angels. Of course, as a rookie, Wang’s season has been full of firsts, and he’s taken them all in stride. The lone exception being a brief bout of nerves in the first inning of his previous start against the Red Sox, but, other than a brief issue with his control, he pitched well enough to win that game, holding the majors’ best offense to three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. My only concern is that the Angels are exactly the type of team that can cause trouble for a groundball pitcher such as Wang. They make a lot of contact, which is fine as Wang pitches to contact, but they also have a lot of speed throughout their line-up. The only team that really managed to get to Wang this season was the Devil Rays. Of course the D-Rays got to all of the Yankee pitchers, but against Wang it was their speed, not their power that was the problem. The Devil Rays were the only team other than the Cardinals (against whom Wang was abandoned by his defense) to collect more than a hit per inning against Wang this season.
Game time is 10 p.m. eastern. If the Yanks can pull out another win they’ll return home with a chance to sweep with Randy Johnson on the mound.
Here are the line-ups. Torre got it right again. Scioscia drops Erstad behind Molina and Rivera, but there appears to be some confusion as to where Anderson and Rivera are starting [Update: Anderson's in left again, Erstad is actually hitting ahead of Rivera, cleary YES's Angels sources are not as reliable as their Yankee sources]: