The New York Yankees haven’t won a game started by an opposing left-handed pitcher in a month, not a good way for the defending World Series champions to prepare for the postseason.
In Major League Baseball’s year of the pitcher, the Yankees aren’t alone among teams who may have trouble finding offensive punch as the playoffs get under way today. The Yankees are the second-favorites to win the World Series behind the pitching-rich Philadelphia Phillies, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Both the American and National leagues suffered power outages this season. NL pitchers’ earned run average of 3.98 and AL’s 4.10 ERA each were the lowest since 1992, according to Baseball-Reference.com. There was an average of 1.90 home runs hit per game, the lowest since 1993 (1.78). And pitchers threw five no-hitters, including two perfect games for the first time in one season since 1880.
The numbers are a result of efforts to counter steroid use in baseball by developing more power pitchers with strikeout capability, according to Ron Darling, a baseball analyst for the New York Mets who is working for Turner Sports’ TBS to call postseason games. The steroids are now gone or heavily curbed by testing and the power arms remain, he said.
“We’re seeing that generation of pitcher now,” Darling, 50, said in an interview two days ago with Bloomberg Radio. “Whether it’s H20 with the Phillies -- Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt -- or Cliff Lee or CC Sabathia, we’ve just seen some of the best pitching we’ve seen in baseball in a long, long time.”
Fans at major-league ballparks this season saw a record average of 14.12 strikeouts per contest, topping the previous high set last year of 13.82.
“This year has more importance for more teams in pitching than years past of any playoff teams I can remember,” former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, a TBS analyst, said on a conference call with reporters. “There’s only a couple of balanced teams that can win with offense and not necessarily have to win with their pitching.”
The Phillies had baseball’s best record at 97-65 this season. They were led by 2003 Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, 2008 World Series Most Valuable Player Cole Hamels and three-time All-Star Roy Oswalt, and are a 9-5 favorite to win their second championship in three years, according to the Las Vegas Hilton Race and Sports Book.
The defending-champion Yankees have 3-1 odds, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays at 7-2, and the Minnesota Twins and San Francisco Giants at 8-1. The Texas Rangers are listed at 10-1, the Atlanta Braves are 15-1 and the Cincinnati Reds are 18-1.
Halladay went 21-10 this season and is among the favorites to capture another Cy Young Award as his league’s best pitcher. He’ll be on the mound today when the Phillies host the NL Central-winning Reds (91-71) in Game 1 of their best-of-five division series.
Edinson Volquez, who went 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA during the regular season, will start for the Reds. They’re the only playoff team that doesn’t fully rely on their starting pitchers, Smoltz said.
“They seem to be more of the team that’s going to have to outscore the other team, use their whole array of pitching,” he said. “They don’t have front-line starters that seem to jump out at you, where the other teams seem to have that.”
Lee, who joined the Rangers from Seattle in July, and the Rays’ David Price will meet this afternoon in a battle of AL division winners. Lee, who led Philadelphia to a World Series appearance last season, went 12-9 with a 3.18 ERA as the Rangers claimed the AL West with a 90-72 record. Price went 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA as the Rays finished 96-66, beating the Yankees by one game in the AL East.
The Yankees (95-67), who went 0-9 against left-handed starters in September, will send Sabathia (21-7, 3.18 ERA) to the mound tonight in a division series opener at the Twins.
“Some teams just get into a little bit of a funk against left-handed pitchers,” said Darling. With Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter hitting from the right side and Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada switch-hitting, he said, “you would think that left-handers would be so vulnerable.”
The Twins will try to extend that slump when they send lefty Francisco Liriano to the mound. Liriano was 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA as the Twins won the AL Central at 94-68.
The Braves, who went 91-71 to earn a wild card as the NL’s best second-place team, open their series tomorrow at San Francisco. The Giants (92-70) won the NL West.
Both teams feature strong pitching and average hitting. The Giants, who will start two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum in Game 1, had a 3.36 team ERA this season, the best in baseball. Atlanta was third with a 3.56 ERA, while the Braves were 13th in runs scored and the Giants 17th.
“It might be like soccer scoring,” Smoltz, 43, said of the Atlanta-San Francisco matchup.