Imagine for a second that time travel is possible. Imagine that you could go all the way back to a simpler time, back to April of 2011. It was a special age. Our innocence was still protected. American television networks hadn’t yet aired episodes of programs blatantly ripping off Mad Men, let alone cancelled them, and Terry Francona’s job security was unquestionable.
Back then it would’ve been difficult to believe that the seasons of the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers would boil down to a single game to be played in early October. And even if you had a crystal ball back then, I doubt it would’ve been clear enough to predict that the two starters for tonight’s games, with their respective teams on their metaphorical backs, would be rookie standout Ivan Nova and the surprisingly successful Doug Fister.
However, here we are, on October 6th, getting ready to watch Game Five of the ALDS between these two clubs. As such, let’s take a closer look at the two players who are likely to have the biggest impact on tonight’s outcome.
First up, Yankees starter Ivan Nova. New York’s Rookie of the Year candidate put up solid numbers in his first fullish year in the Majors, but nothing that approaches spectacular even when you stop to consider that Nova is all of 24 years old. As the second most valuable starter on the Yankees, behind C.C. Sabathia this year, the young right hander put up a league average FIP and walk rate, while striking out fewer of the batters he faced than an average pitcher. He didn’t miss a lot of bats either, putting up a below average swinging strike rate while allowing batters to make more contact on his pitches than any other starter on the Yankees. Fortunately, a below average BABIP combined with a high ground ball rate hid this fact to a degree.
His repertoire over the course of the season went something like this:
Nova was slightly more successful against right handed batters this year, despite a higher opposing batting average. He walked less and struck out more batters on the right side compared to the alternative.
Judging by the use of his arsenal, Nova doesn’t change his approach all that much when facing right handed or left handed batters. His strikeout rate slips marginally against left handed batters going from 14.3% to 13.5%. More noticeable is his walk rate which goes from 6.9% against right handed batters to 9.3% against left handed batters.
It’s worth noting that in his last twelve starts, following a brief stint in Triple A, Nova has used his curve a little less, while depending on his slider a little bit more. The change has resulted in a few more swinging strikes, but not enough to raise his totals above the league average (H/T Jamal G in the comments section).
It’s also worth mentioning that Miguel Cabrera, more than any other Tigers hitter, matches up incredibly well against a right handed pitch-to-contact hurler who relies heavily on a four seam fastball, but with all due respect to the rest of Detroit’s lineup, the same is true no matter what type of pitcher the team faces.
That’s why the Tigers will have to hope that Doug Fister, who came to the team in a deadline deal with the Seattle Mariners, can withstand the Yankees lineup better than in his previous outing, technically as a reliever, in Game One. The 27 year old right hander had an impressive season buoyed by a low BABIP, a minuscule HR/FB rate and a slightly below average strand rate. Like Nova, his lack of swinging strikes would indicate that he doesn’t miss a whole lot of bats and his contact numbers, slightly higher than his counterpart tonight, confirm this.
This was his repertoire over the course of this season:
Fister’s splits are close, but as is to be expected, he is a little bit better against right handed batters than left. He has a minuscule walk rate against righties, but a higher strikeout rate against lefties. However, overall, his FIP is twenty points lower and he’s less likely to give up a home run against right handed batters. If anything, this is likely a slight bit of good news for the Yankees lefty heavy lineup.
As you can see in the above chart, Fister obviously relies more heavily on his fastballs against right handed batters, but because his 4-seamer and 2-seamer are similar in terms of velocity, he forces far more swings, and theoretically induces more poor contact, with his 2-seamer than an average pitcher. As a pitch-to-contact type, who throws in the high eighties and low nineties, “bad contact” is absolutely key to Fister’s success.
The counter to that is that Fister relies more heavily on his off speed pitches against lefties. His ability to throw the changeup for strikes makes it by far his most effective pitch against left handers, prompting a well above average whiff rate, which is surprising for a pitcher with Fister’s reputation for not missing bats. However, the right hander is more prone to use his changeup after falling behind in the count rather than as a strikeout pitch with two strikes.
For the Yankees, Fister is a dream match up for the likes of Brett Gardner, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. Both Gardner and Granderson are patient, and all of them are good fastball hitters, who can also turn on a changeup once they manage to get ahead in the count. As left handed hitters, all would do well to time themselves for a changeup coming their way after they get ahead in a count, especially after a first pitch fastball that misses the strike zone.
Overall, we have two similar pitchers. Nova throws a bit harder, and Fister has a bit more trickery in certain situations, but both guys are going to rely on poor contact, help from their defense and a large amount of good luck. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Yankees have a lineup with more batters that can take advantage of that type of pitcher on the mound. The team’s notoriously patient approach at the plate combined with a lefty heavy lineup that loves that short porch in right field makes New York a hands down favourite in a spread sheet world.
This is the part of the article where I cover myself to a degree and inform you that we do not live in a spread sheet world and “anything can happen.” While that remains true, I have a very hard time imagining a world in which the Detroit Tigers beat the New York Yankees tonight. It’s been popular to write about the effect that the 24 hour rain delay in Game One is having on this series, making Sabathia and Justin Verlander unavailable to start today, and with good reason. An entirely different outcome would likely be anticipated if Verlander was going tonight instead of Fister.
It’s unfortunate that luck (or in this case, weather) can play such a role in the outcome of a series, but this is baseball after all, where as much as we can write and think in likelihoods, a loose squirrel’s random route through a ball diamond can shift everything askew. No squirrels tonight, and the Yankees will be waiting for the Rangers to visit on Saturday.