Pitchers dominate October but one ace usually not enough
Justin Verlander is a lock for the Cy Young and opens the ALDS against New York
Teams with a clear ace still need help if they want to advance in the postseason
In CC Sabathia, the Yankees have a strong ace of their own to face Detroit
"You don't want to face him in a short series."
Ever since MLB went to the current postseason format in 1994, one of the most common analyses has been to identify the team whose best player is one of the most dominant starters in the league and argue that you want no part of that team because of that one starter. The surface-level logic is seductive; a great starting pitcher has a chance to dominate two games in a best-of-five, meaning that if the rest of the team can just win one of the other three games, it can spring an upset.
That last part is important, of course. No one wants to play, oh, the Phillies this year, but it's because they're the best team in the league, not because they have Roy Halladay. They have Halladay and Lee and Cole Hamels, not to mention Chase Utley and Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins. That's not what we're talking about here. To be the team in this scenario, you can't be the best or even the clear-cut second-best team in the league. You have to be a bit of an underdog, but one with some bite. This year, we're talking about the Tigers, and we're talking about Justin Verlander, the right-hander who should win his first Cy Young Award this season, who led the AL in just about everything, who is just that much better than fellow Detroit starters Doug Fister and Max Scherzer that you could say the Tigers' hopes pretty much ride on his right arm.
Are the Yankees doomed? The track record indicates otherwise. In the Division Series era, here are the most notable "don't want to face" guys, and how things turned out for their teams:
Randy Johnson, Mariners, 1997: Johnson finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting in his first 20-win season, and was the only great pitcher on a team that also featured Jeff Fassero and Jamie Moyer. Johnson started Game 1 of the Division Series against the Orioles -- and Mike Mussina -- and was eminently faceable: five runs on seven hits in five innings pitched, part of a 9-3 Mariners loss. Johnson would pitch better on three days' rest in Game Four of the series, but not as well as Mussina did, losing a 3-1 decision that eliminated Seattle.
Johan Santana, Twins, 2004: Santana's first season as a full-time starter produced league-leading figures of a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts, earning him a Cy Young Award and helping the Twins win the AL Central. Just as Johnson had seven years earlier, that got Santana a matchup with Mike Mussina, now with the Yankees, in Game 1. Santana was amazing, throwing seven shutout innings in a 2-0 Twins win. Three days' later, with Minnesota down 2-1 in the series, he was asked to do it again and did, posting five innings of one-run ball and leaving with the Twins up 5-1. His bullpen would allow four runs in the eighth and go on to lose the game, 6-5. Santana did everything he could to make the Yankees regret their seed, it just didn't work out.
Cliff Lee, Phillies, 2009: Lee's numbers as a Phillie weren't exceptional -- 3.39 ERA in 12 starts after a July trade -- but since the start of the 2008 season the lefty had established himself as a superstar and upon arrival in Philadelphia he became the clear No. 1 on a Phillies team trying to defend its World Series title with a shaky pitching staff. Lee owned the Rockies in Game 1 of the Division Series, going the distance while allowing one run on six hits. Five days later on full rest -- the format got a bit wacky there for a while -- Lee allowed one run in seven innings before tiring in the eighth and giving up two, with the help of Ryan Madson. The Phillies would come back, win the game, and eventually lose to the Yankees in the World Series
Cliff Lee, Rangers, 2010: Everything that applied to Lee in '09 was evident in '10. While the Rangers had walked away with the AL West crown, they were not considered favorites against the AL East's Tampa Bay Rays. Lee, who was again dealt at midseason and who again had just average numbers for his new team, almost single-handedly won the Division Series for the Rangers: 16 innings pitched, two runs allowed, wins in Game 1 and the clinching Game 5, a complete shutdown of the team that had been the best in baseball all year long. Lee would throw a shutout against the Yankees in the ALCS, swinging a 1-1 series to the Rangers, but then lose both his World Series starts, getting hammered in Game 1 and allowing the Series-deciding homer in Game 5.
There are some other examples of this that aren't listed here. In 2008, the Brewers were the "don't want to face" team because of CC Sabathia, who had come over from the Indians at the trade deadline and almost single-handedly pitched the Brew Crew into the wild card. Sabathia was ridden hard down the stretch, and the need to use him on the season's final day made him unavailable to open the Division Series. This makes him ineligible for this discussion. (Sabathia, perhaps gassed, was hit hard in Game 2 and the Brewers lost to the Phillies in four games.) Great pitchers like Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez played for great teams, the best in their leagues or close to it, and don't quite fit the mold.
The Lee experience is what people are talking about when they say you don't want to face a guy. The Rays were the better team heading into last year's ALDS, and Lee threw two haymakers that were the difference in the series. He then helped break a Yankee team that was also better in the regular season. That's the path the Tigers are looking to trod here -- to get two great starts from their ace and fake it in one of the other three games.
The problem with the plan becomes evident in looking at the other examples. Often, as is the case this year, the guy no one wants to face ends up looking at someone just as good. Johnson and Santana both ran into Mike Mussina, a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher who was one of the most underrated postseason pitchers of his time. Verlander faces off against Sabathia tonight, a matchup that, with all due respect to Verlander and the year he's had, is no better than a toss-up. No one really wants to face Sabathia, either. Even when the ace comes up big, as did Santana and Lee, the nature of modern baseball means that they'll probably be asked to rely on the bullpen; both lefties saw great starts wasted by their teammates in the 'pen. And sometimes, even a great pitcher has a bad day; the Rangers' loss in the '10 World Series can be traced to Lee's awful fifth inning in Game 1 in AT&T Park. Texas was never quite the same after that.
I don't doubt that the Yankees aren't excited about seeing Verlander, but they've got a pretty good counter in Sabathia, and the history suggests that Team Do Not Want needs more than just the one big arm to make headway in October.