Rays versus Rangers
The tactical matchup between Texas’ Ron Washington and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon figures to be a particularly interesting in-game chess match. That’s because both managers have so many moving parts in their lineups, making this a series where you’ll see in-game offensive tactics actively used to score, and not just in reaction to pitching changes.
True to his past track record, Maddon is one of the league’s more aggressive skippers with the running game, not simply in terms of stealing bases, but also ranking among the most likely managers to have his runners moving. Washington might appear relatively conventional in the aggregate, but he’s equally aggressive when he has Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler or Craig Gentry on base. Because both clubs run with those who can and don’t with everyone else, they rank close to the top in fewest outs made on the basepaths.
One thing that stands out is Maddon’s willingness to swap in pinch-hitters to mix and match with his two established platoons at catcher shortstop; no AL manager has come close to using as many pinch-hitters as Maddon (137 times). Maddon’s tactical aggressiveness on offense has been rewarded with a .382 OBP from his pinch-hitters, which reflects what he’s using them for: Not to drive runners in, but to create scoring opportunities.
Washington’s willingness to start Mike Napoli behind the plate should expand his opportunities to pinch-run with Gentry (or Endy Chavez) or Esteban German, not just for Napoli but also first baseman Mitch Moreland, with Napoli rotating out to first base; add in the decision to carry two backup catchers, and Washington will have plenty of opportunity to get tactical with the back end of his lineup if he needs to.
With Washington’s decision to lead off their series with lefties C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland on the mound, it’ll be especially interesting to see how Maddon employs right fielder Matt Joyce (.657 OPS vs. LHPs, .866 vs. RHPs) -- starting him locks him into a lineup position where he won’t be an asset early on, where bringing him in off the bench would be a key mid-game move. The roster decision> to carry Jose Lobaton, Elliott Johnson and Sam Fuld instead of Justin Ruggiano or Brandon Guyer as possible platoon partners -- both slugged better than .550 vs. lefties at Triple-A Durham -- for Joyce could prove unfortunate.
Which brings us to bullpen usage, another area that should be interesting. One criticism of Washington from last October was his refusal to bring Neftali Feliz into games earlier than the ninth, but that was when he lacked for many alternatives. This year, Jon Daniels has supplied Washington and Feliz with a superb collection of set-up men, especially with the trades for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, so that complaint isn’t going to be relevant this time around.
Maddon’s bullpen usage pattern stands out in stark contrast, but he’s worked wonders with the unlikely collection that Andrew Friedman assembled last winter. Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta make for an unconventional late-game tandem as is, but the Rays have used loose committee arrangements before. Maddon is the league’s most aggressive manager at pulling his relievers quickly but using them often -- Rays relievers average a league-low 15 pitches per game, and no AL manager used his relievers on consecutive days without rest more often than Maddon this year (112 times). That might sound like a recipe for burning out the bullpen, but with a rotation that goes deeper into games than any other in the league, it has proven sustainable.
One thing it would be surprising to see? Either manager ordering a pitchout, because Washington and Maddon were two of the three managers in the AL least likely to call for one, the other being Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire.
Tigers vs. Yankees
Jim Leyland’s bid to win a World Series in two different leagues owes plenty to a certain consistency in how he runs a lineup and a pitching staff. On offense, Leyland does more with his lineup card than he exerts influence with in-game tactics. Part of that is a matter of the personnel he has on hand, and adapting to it. The Tigers don’t run much, but they don’t have many people to run with. He bunts a bit with key defenders like Austin Jackson and Ramon Santiago, but he isn’t nuts about it.
Instead, Leyland makes his impact through who plays, and when. He’s built productive platoons in the past, and his third-base combo of Wilson Betemit and Brandon Inge or his mixing and matching in right field are just the latest examples. Leyland has long been an active practitioner when it comes to employing defensive replacements, particularly in the outfield corners and at second base, usually as a matter of getting Magglio Ordonez’s glove off the field late in-game, and bringing in Santiago’s leather at the keystone, with superutility players Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly moving around as needed. Multi-positional bit parts like this are another Leyland staple -- remember John Wehner? -- long before seven-man bullpens made them appear necessary for everyone’s roster. It’s the sort of space-saving that affords carrying third catcher Omir Santos.
On the other hand, Leyland has adapted to the times, especially with his willingness to take starters out early. Where he used to have one of the slowest hooks in baseball, he’s much more conventional these days, although he still prefers to leave starters in past 110. He also been fairly conventional in his bullpen usage, not working anyone too hard or without rest especially often, but that’s given him an especially well-stocked pen in October, with closer Jose Valverde getting great support from both right- (Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque) and left-handed set-up men (Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth). By including Brad Penny for long-relief chores, he also has the flexibility to pull a starter early if he feels the need -- another gambit that he’s been willing to resort to more often than most.
Joe Girardi’s not a manager with a ton of hands-on in-game signature moves on offense, but he hardly has to resort to them. If not for Leyland’s comparatively frenzied pace of bringing in defensive replacements, looking at aggregate numbers alone might make you think this is the one tendency you’d notice most frequently from Girardi, but it’s less about achieving a defensive advantage as it is about pulling his regulars out of games already handily won or thoroughly lost.
No manager in the postseason has used fewer lineups, and with the kind of offense the Yankees crank out, there’s not much need for tactical chicanery. He stills more than most, but that’s a function of setting Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson loose, but he has Eduardo Nunez available to use as a pinch-runner, and in the past Girardi’s proven willing to turn to speed off the bench.
What will be especially interesting to follow from the New York side of things is whether or not Girardi will show a quicker hook with his non-Sabathia starters than he did last year. That’s obviously on everyone’s radar when picking a post-season rotation after his ace has been cause for concern for months, but it’s especially relevant after last year’s “inning too far” from A.J. Burnett in Game Four of the ALCS, when few people present thought sending Burnett out to the mound for the sixth and a one-run lead was advisable.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that in 2011 Girardi rates among the AL leaders in what Baseball Info Solutions’ “Slow Hooks” (calculated using pitches thrown and runs allowed, indexed against league average), but perhaps past experience will have some influence on his choices by the time Freddy Garcia’s start in the third game rolls around.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.