March 2009

One mystery remains before Yankees start season


arodblogpbible033109.jpgNOW OUR REVELS ARE ENDED, KIRK
With the demotions of Alfredo Aceves, Dan Giese, and Brett Tomko, all but one of the spring’s competitions and mysteries have been resolved. Brett Gardner (3-for-4 today) is your center fielder. Xavier Nady is your right fielder. Jon Albaladejo is in the bullpen. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui are more or less ready to go. Mariano Rivera seems more than ready to go. Southpaw Phil Coke should make the team, and he looks like he’ll be a weapon. Joba Chamberlain started the spring in the rotation and will finish the spring in the rotation. Any time a setup man blows a lead all season long someone will second-guess his being there, even if he’s 16-1 at the time, but he’s in the rotation. All that remains to be determined is the identity of the reserve infielder, a player who may only cling to the roster until Alex Rodriguez returns. Assuming no major injuries and a timely and effective return for Rodriguez (which is assuming a lot, but let’s go with it), that player should only have minimal playing opportunities… Unless, as I hopefully speculated yesterday, Joe Girardi is brave enough to use a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.

KEPPINGER (A BRIEF NOTE)
Earlier this spring I touted Jeff Keppinger as a player who would make a useful A-Rod substitute and post-Rod utility player. While not a defensive standout at any position, he’s adequate around the infield and has a far better bat than either Angel Berroa or Ramiro Pena. Today, the Reds dealt him to the Astros for a player to be named later. As the Astros’ farm system is drier than my aunt’s Thanksgiving turkey, the PTBNL isn’t likely to be anything special, which is to say that the Yankees, had they been in on Keppinger, likely could have topped the offer without giving away anyone of real significance. As the Yankees found out last year, the better your bench players, the better the club’s insurance against injuries to star players. I wrote yesterday that Ramiro Pena could be a fine late-inning defensive substitute, but if he has to start for two weeks the Yankees will suffer greatly. You can’t just look at these reserves as guys who are only going to pinch-run and start once a month when someone needs a day off, and you certainly can’t take the health of your players for granted. Jose Molina should have taught the Yankees that. He’s the true example of what happens when a star player gets hurt, not Erick Almonte.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
It was a bad couple of days for ex-Yankees as Gary Sheffield (499 home runs) and Mike Stanton (1,178 games, second all time) hit the release pile. The Tigers are now free to rotate some useful players, like Marcus Thames and Jeff Larish, through the DH spot. In a spot of good news for a former Yankee, it looks like utility infielder Nick Green has made the Red Sox, Julio Lugo being out and Alex Cora being a Met… Amazing that Alfredo Simon, a pitcher with a career 5.04 ERA in the minors (and a 23-40 career record) will be in the Orioles’ rotation… Chan Ho Park is the Phillies’ fifth starter; in other news, the Phillies will not be defending their championship. They also released Geoff Jenkins, who was made redundant last season after Jayson Werth emerged as an everyday player… The Marlins are going to start Emilio Bonifacio at third base; here’s hoping they enjoy their .350 slugging percentage at the hot corner… Dear Royals: Why Sidney Ponson?

Pitch-perfect spring bodes well

mo_250.jpgPROMISING PORTENTS
This winter, the Yankees redesigned their pitching staff. While Spring Training statistics and results are generally unreliable and not worth becoming overly excited about, it is at the least a good omen that, through 30 contests, Yankees pitchers have the lowest ERA in the business at 3.41.

Again, exhibitions, with their half-games for regulars and weird weather conditions (the wet and wind in Florida, the dry, heated environment in Arizona) don’t give us a very reliable picture, particularly in a year in which the WBC diluted Spring Training games by sucking off scores of Major League regulars. Further, some of these very effective innings have been pitched by the likes of Brett Tomko and Kei Igawa, who are unlikely to persist in their excellence were they even to make the team, while others were hurled by Phil Hughes and fellow prospects ticketed to the Minors. Even with these caveats, the bulk of the Major League staff has performed well.

There remains much that we do not know and cannot know, such as the long-term viability of pitchers who are traditional health cases, such as A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, or those that are recovering from injury, like Mariano Rivera (although if all healing pitchers looked as good as Rivera has this spring, most of them would be lining up to go under the knife). Still, so far so good. The offense has been good too, though the numbers aren’t as impressive as those of some Cactus League teams that basically play on the surface of the moon.

NOW THAT BRETT GARDNER HAS WON THE CENTER FIELD JOB…
…I’m wondering if he will ever hit another home run. There is something to the idea that he got a running start on the center field competition by lashing out at cold pitchers early in the spring campaign. Even if true, nothing is taken away from the consistency he’s shown, if consistency can be said to apply to 23 games and 55 at-bats. What is most striking, though, about the now-finished center-field competition is what decided it. In the end, Melky Cabrera played almost as well as Gardner did. To date, each has had 55 at-bats. Gardner has hit .364/.426/.636. Cabrera had hit .345/.419/.491. Each has drawn six walks. Gardner’s offensive edge comes down to one more hit, one more triple, and two more home runs. The differences aren’t significant, especially if Gardner’s power surge was truly an artifact of early spring. What’s left are a few things you can see in the statistics, such as Gardner’s speed, showing up in that extra triple and three more stolen bases, and his superior defensive capabilities. Once you throw in Cabrera’s poor 2008 and Gardner’s strong finish to the same, which disposed Joe Girardi towards him, it becomes clear that Cabrera would have had to out-hit Gardner by a significant margin to make this a real competition.

Gardner’s hold on the job is about as secure as Priam’s hold on Troy; there are enemies at the gate as long as Cabrera remains on the team. In the pressurized world of the Yankees, all it would probably take to throw the doors open to Cabrera is a 2-for-20 in the first games. It’s doubtful that Gardner will be shown the same tolerant patience that the Yankees lavished on, say, Kyle Farnsworth, or Cabrera himself.

Unless Cabrera’s nice spring represents some unexpected development in his abilities, I don’t expect him to get too many chances as a Major League regular from here on in, barring injuries. Every team has players like Cabrera, not particularly special talents who become regulars for a year or two out of need or inertia. Sometimes they play well for a time and fool you into thinking they could be more than the sum of their abilities suggests, but ultimately something better comes along and they are replaced. If they move on to other organizations, where that same need does not exist, they have a difficult time breaking into the lineup. Ultimately they become bench players or journeymen Minor Leaguers.

This is, on the whole, the fate of players whose offensive contributions are built around batting average, and when I say batting average I mean .290 and not .330. To be productive, the .290 guy has to hit .290 or better. The problem is, there are always years in which, due to luck, he will hit .260, and then the fellow is below average. That’s Melky, except that in 2007, when he hit .273, he was below average. Last year he hit .249, and he was a weeping wound. He’s still young enough to rebound and even find some consistency, but the odds are against it. Such a development would require him to find both the physical tools and the internal drive to exploit them. That’s asking a lot of a player, to grow his body and his mind.

THE UTILITY JOB (A BRIEF NOTE)
This corner is all for anyone but Angel Berroa, who is the anti-hitter, and if it’s a young guy so much the better. In case you haven’t checked out the 23-year-old Ramiro Pena, he’s a career .258/.316/.319 hitter in 334 Minor League games through the Double-A level. If Girardi is prepared to use Pena as the purest of defensive replacements, putting a bat in his hands only in blowouts, that’s not a problem. However, if injuries force Girardi to turn to the bench for any length of time, the Yankees will have to look elsewhere–Jose Molina is a better hitter at this moment. That said, Pena is a strong defensive player, reputed to have great range. It would be fascinating if Girardi had the guts–the sheer, General Patton chutzpah–to shake a NY institution to its foundations and utilize a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
The White Sox waived Jerry Owens, which apparently makes Dewayne Wise their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. Tough to score too many runs when your leadoff man has a .290 OBP, which is what the Sox just signed on for… The Tigers picked up the speedy Josh Anderson from the Braves, which takes Anderson from shooting for Braves starting center fielder, a position for which he was under-qualified, to reserve outfielder on the Tigers and probable regular defensive replacement for Carlos Guillen in left. That’s something he can do… Really curious to see how Jason Motte does as Cardinals closer. He’s a converted catcher who can dial up his fastball, and his Minor L    eague strikeout numbers were amazing, with 110 Ks last year in just 67 innings… Rays owner Stuart Sternberg talked about holding the line on payroll in an <A HREF=”http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/article987949.ece”>article</A&gt; this weekend. If the Rays’ budget isn’t going to rise along with its players’ salaries, than this particular threat to the Yankees is going to be short-lived, like Connie Mack’s 1929-1931 A’s. 

To the mats with reader mail


Damon-3-27-250.jpg1: LET’S START WITH THE GRUMPY ONE FIRST
You really are something. You make the biggest deal in the world out of minor differences in Swisher (hero) and Nady (zero) yet totally discount the importance of swapping Jeter and Damon in the order. If I wanted to bore you I could come up with 10 factors — physical, mental and record based — that could change the dynamic of the Yankee lineup — or not. But to be so disdainful of how we earthlings waste our time obsessing over swapping a Hall of Fame No. 2 hitter with one of the better career leadoff men of the past ten or so years… Yes, I understand that none of this matters in the grand scheme of the universe — other than Nick Swisher, of course.– javamanny

Hey, I did allow for the possibility of a placebo effect, which takes care of your “physical, mental, and record-based” factors (what’s a record-based factor, anyway?). The point remains that small lineup changes, and maybe even big lineup changes, are more about psychological than real-world benefits. Many studies have been done of this subject, and the results consistently show that the difference between the least-optimal lineup (leadoff with the pitcher or Jose Molina or someone like that) and the best is only a few wins. The difference between the optimal lineup and the second-most optimal lineup or the third-most optimal lineup is nonexistent. As I said yesterday, it’s always possible that someone muscles up and hits .350, and when that happens, you or someone like you will write in and say, “See? It’s all because of the lineup change!” But you won’t really know. Given all this, swapping Jeter and Damon isn’t a significant move at all.

What is not nonexistent, however, is the impact on the bottom line, wins and losses, created by the manager’s decision to play one player over another. At his 2006-2007 best, Swisher’s offense and defense combined to make him a six-win player. At Nady’s normal rate of production–that is his whole career except for the first 89 games of 2008, he was a one-win player. This is anything but a minor difference.

Let it not be said that we don’t agree on anything, javamanny. I am definitely “something.”

2: I KNOW BECAUSE ROD SERLING TOLD ME SO
Just imagine in the spiral bands of the Milky Way Galaxy we have a speck of dust orbiting a star we call the Sun in which there is a Nick Swisher and a Jeter and Damon flip flop. Makes you wonder what might be going on in the M31 Galaxy — although I am beginning to suspect Arod is an android.–midcoaster

That was kind of my point. Flipping one lineup spot is about as infinitesimal a change as you can make… Also: A-Rod is a cookbook.

3: FAIR ENOUGH, I SUPPOSE
Steve – Love you, man, but you wasted about 250 words on this topic without ever saying anything analytical or insightful about the pros/cons of such a move. I’m leaning toward pro for the following: 1) I agree with others about Jeter’s increased propensity for GIDP; 2) no one has mentioned the lefty/righty thing: with Gardner projected in the 9 hole, that would give you l-r-l in the 9-thru-2 spots (nice!); 3) Damon is more of a pull hitter – with Jeter on first base (and the first sacker holding him on) this increases the likelihood of more ground ball hits by Damon in the 1st-2nd hole; 4) Finally, I also generally agree with the points about Damon’s bigger power/run production potential. O another note, did you just imply that – Swisher was a better option in center than Melky? Nick Swisher? Come on… –budboy

You raise some fair points, budboy (as did the others who raised them), and all of them may mean something to the bottom line this year, but what value in terms of wins and losses do you want to assign to them? I will concede that many small things can add up to a big thing, so perhaps Joe Girardi has made a move that will pay off in some way, but a lot of dominoes would have to fall in precisely the optimum way for it to mean very much at all.

As for Swisher in center field, sure, some of the time, if the Yankees are smart about it. When CC Sabathia is pitching, probably not, when Chien-Ming Wang is pitching, sure, and with the other three guys you check which way the wind is blowing before making a decision.

4: ANOTHER POSSIBLE SOLUTION
Just wondering, how suicidal would it be to platoon Nady and Gardner? Now before you jump down my throat thinking I want X in center, stop and breathe. Against righties, run Gardner in center and Swisher in right. Against lefties, Swisher roams center for six innings giving way to Gardner and Nady starts in right until Swisher slides over (assuming a lead.) The preponderance of right-handers would mean, what, 35 partial games in center for Swisher?? I think this set would be the team’s strongest getting the most PAs for the best on-base guy and Nady shots vs. lefties. –Greg D.

It makes sense to me, but Joe Girardi may not want to think that much. See also the adjustments for the starting pitching made above–Sabathia is more of a fly ball pitcher, so you might want your best ballhawk on the field for his starts, regardless of the opposition’s hander. Of course, that would be Gardner and Swisher regardless, but the world ain’t logical or we wouldn’t be talking about this.

Much ado about nothing


Jeter-3-26-250.jpg
Via mlb.com:

 

Girardi said Thursday that he will use the rest of Spring Training to try out Derek Jeter as his leadoff hitter and move Damon to the No. 2 hole, believing that the Yankees may have accidentally happened upon something to increase production.

 

Probably not, Joe. Assuming something like consistency out of both hitters, the main change will be that, if you persist with that batting order through all 162 games, Jeter will bat about 20 more times than Damon. The lineup synergies don’t really exist, although there could be a placebo effect. The fun thing about this decision is that we will now get into the “after, therefore because” territory of logical fallacies. If Jeter hits .350, some people will cite the move as a reason. If he hits .250, the move will be the reason too. In the former case, he’ll be getting more fastballs. In the latter, he’ll be trying too hard to work the count. The same thing will go for Damon, and for the offense as a whole–if the Yankees are more potent this year, it will be cause of this change. It almost certainly won’t be, and if you think about it, there’s no reason that it should be–why should flipping one spot in the batting order lead to a vastly different outcome? It’s like saying that if you fry an egg with your left hand on the skillet instead of your right, the egg will taste better. It’s an insignificant change.

 

It is with matters such as this that we keep busy during our time here on planet Earth.

 

SO IS IT GARDNER?

Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Yankees “appear open to moving Cabrera.” This would seem to be an amazing bit of non-news, but if accurate, it does suggest that Brett Gardner will get the bulk of center field time going forward. Meanwhile, Cabrera is having a fine spring–in today’s game he went 2-for-4 to raise his batting average to .313 and also swatted his first home run (as did Nick Swisher, but enough about that). Melky’s skill and tool set is such that he’s going to have to hit over .300 to contribute, and if you believe he can do that in the regular season, grand. Be aware, however, there are very few true .300 hitters. Even for those batters who often reach the mark, there is a lot variance in there–some years of .285, which in Melky’s case would not be all that valuable, some years of .310, which would be. You end up taking the good with the bad with batting average-based players.

 

There are some teams who are so poor in the outfield that it makes sense for them to take a look at Melky’s spring, believe a little in spite of themselves, and take a flier on catching a rebound year. The Yankees are not in that position–they have better choices in Gardner and even Swisher. It now falls to Brian Cashman to figure out which teams are window shopping (the White Sox?) and see if he can get them to give up a bit more than they would prefer.

 

OFF TO RUTGERS

Tonight at 6 PM. Scroll down for details; hope to see you there.

Remembering Johnny Blanchard

johnnyblanchard_250.jpgFAREWELL, JOHNNY BLANCHARD
Johnny Blanchard had a tough road to the Major Leagues with the Yankees. Three things got in his way: Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and the United States government.

The lefty-swinging Blanchard turned pro as an 18 year old in 1951, and broke out the next year at Joplin, batting .301 and leading the league with 30 home runs and 112 RBI. It seemed like the Yankees had another potential impact player on their hands, but at that moment the military swooped in and claimed Blanchard for two years. These would be two crucial missed years in his development, as the Yankees were in the process of deciding if Blanchard was an outfielder or a catcher, and Blanchard could have used the time to cement his backstopping skills.

Instead, with the gap in training and the roadblocks that were Berra and Howard, Blanchard spent his time in the upper Minors both catching and playing the outfield — in the Majors he would prove to be a Casey Stengel-style super-sub, not only catching but playing first base, left field and right field as well. Though Stengel would only have Blanchard for parts of two seasons, and there was less room in Ralph Houk’s scheme for such players than there was in Stengel’s, the Old Man might have gotten Blanchard 400 plate appearances a year. Houk got him about 250, and it’s very difficult for a player to achieve any consistency in such sporadic playing time.

After his hitch, Blanchard picked up where he left off, at least offensively, batting .281 with a league-leading 34 home runs for Binghamton of the Eastern League in 1955. He got a brief call-up that September, but he seemed to stagnate a bit at that point. A return to what was essentially the Double A level at Birmingham didn’t do anything for his development, and a two-year stay at Denver in the American Association, while superficially productive, don’t impress given what we know about playing at altitude. The Yankees were seemingly not impressed either, or felt that with Berra and Howard there was simply no room, so Blanchard was 26 by the time he got a sustained shot at a Major League job. Even as Berra began to transition to part-time catching and outfield work, there weren’t many opportunities to play. Blanchard was set to have been baseball’s greatest power-hitting bullpen catcher.

This would be how he was remembered if he hadn’t had such a terrific season for the 1961 Yankees. He was an important part of that championship, a 109-53 ballclub, batting .305/.382/.613 and socking 21 home runs in just 243 at-bats. Everything went right for him. He killed the ball whenever he started, and though not a great pinch-hitter in his career, he was great that year, going 7-for-26 with four home runs. On July 21, 22 and 26 he set a record by homering in four consecutive at-bats — a ninth inning pinch-hit grand slam at Fenway Park that erased an 8-7 deficit, another ninth-inning shot the next day, this one a solo shot that tied the game at 9-9 (the Yankees would go up 11-10 later in the inning and win the game). Houk didn’t find a reason to use Blanchard in the next four games, but he started on the 26th at home against the White Sox and pitcher Ray Herbert. Blanchard batted fifth behind Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. After Mantle hit a two-run shot in the first, Blanchard followed him with a solo shot of his own. That was home run No. 3. The fourth game leading off the fourth inning. Not bad work for a part-time player.

Blanchard also had a terrific World Series in 1961. In Game 3 he pinch-hit for the pitcher in the top of the eighth with the Yankees trailing, 2-1. A solo shot changed that, allowing for a Maris shot leading off the top of the ninth to give the Yankees a decisive 3-2 lead. With Mantle hurting, Blanchard started Game 5 in right field, batting cleanup. The game was all Yankees, going into the books as a 13-5 victory. Blanchard keyed the rampage with a two-run homer in the first, and added two other hits in the ballgame.

You might imagine, and Blanchard might have imagined too, that ’61 would have meant more playing time, or at least more of a regular platoon role, but it didn’t work out that way. Howard and Berra were still around, and Houk didn’t see Blanchard as an asset behind the plate anyway, largely shifting him to the outfield in subsequent seasons. Simultaneously, the big home runs of ’61 worked against Blanchard’s approach at the plate. “I was going for the downs, swinging for the long ball,” he told Peter Golenbock. “I’m not up there to punch the ball around. No, I didn’t need that.” This did mean more home runs — he hit 29 in 464 at-bats split across 1962 and 1963, but it also meant that he hit only .228; a line drive might be caught or land safely, but a fly ball that doesn’t leave the park is almost always an out.

Blanchard’s approach also meant the end of his pinch-hitting prowess. Few players are consistent in that role, but Blanchard’s big swing seemed to ensure that he wouldn’t be one of the few who are. He batted .120 as a pinch-hitter in 1962, .071 in 1963, and .258 in 1964, albeit with just one home run. He barely played in the last three World Series of the Yankees dynasty. In May, 1965, he and pitcher Rollie Sheldon were dealt to the Kansas City Athletics for the punchless reserve catcher Doc Edwards. It was a pure giveaway, one that exemplifies just how emphasis was placed on batting average in those days; despite the low averages, inability to hit left-handers, and lack of definitive position, Blanchard’s power and versatility made him a very useful player, particularly at Yankee Stadium. Even as his career with the Yankees declined, he still had his moments. When Maris went out of the lineup in mid-1963, Blanchard got most of the starts in right field, batting .302/.357/.603 with six home runs and 17 RBI in 17 games.

His was not a great career, and on another team, it might not have been a particularly memorable one, but the great thing about the Yankees is that they’ve had so many spotlight moments that players like Blanchard, who never established themselves as stars in the traditional sense, were still able to become historic players through their important roles in the pageant of 26 championships. Blanchard goes to his reward in good company, and the Yankees were in good company with him.

ONE LAST APPEARANCE FOR NOW
Those of you who live in the glorious Garden State, tomorrow beginning at 6 p.m., Jay Jaffe, Cliff Corcoran and I will be appearing at the Rutgers University Bookstore (Ferren Mall,
One Penn Plaza, New Brunswick, N.J. — just across the street from the train station, for anyone who wants to take mass transit) to talk baseball and sign books and veal cutlets. We will also be joined by my pal Allen Barra, whose biography of Yogi Berra I have already recommended to you. He’ll be signing those too, I imagine. If I know Allen and myself it will be a fun, rambling evening of baseball talk. Hope to see you then, because after that I plan to wrap myself in blankets for awhile and heal up my annual tour cold — and write more! More! More! More! 

Secretly building trade value

girardi_cashman300_032409.jpgI HAVE THIS FRIEND NAMED ADAM … And whenever I write here that Brian Cashman or Joe Girardi say something completely indefensible, something like, “Xavier Nady is the starting right fielder,” he writes me and says that I’m too quick to criticize and that there’s a secret plan afoot that will set matters aright. Adam hasn’t actually issued his usual warning this time around, but he must have gotten through to me in the past (maybe it was regarding Kyle Farnsworth, though I’m still not certain), so I have decided, in my best Pollyannaish way, to believe that Mr. Girardi is building Mr. Nady’s trade value. There are teams out there, hungry, less discriminating National League teams, that might like to have an X-Man of their very own. There is a master plan at work of such savage cunning that the terms “Pinstriped Weaselry” don’t do it justice. You heard it here first: some club is gonna get suckered.*

(*The foregoing may prove to be a work of pure fantasy. Management is not responsible for any personal items left unattended in your vehicle.)

Meanwhile, my pal Rob Neyer proves that great minds think alike:

So, let’s see … younger, better against right-handed pitching, better fielder, better baserunner … gee, why would you want to give that guy a regular job?

Oh, don’t worry; it’s not as bad as all that. Considering all the Yankees’ creaky old geezers, there should be plenty of at-bats for a (relative) whippersnapper like Nick Swisher. These sorts of things do tend to find their natural balance, eventually. But with the questions about Alex Rodriguez’s availability and the tough competition in their division, one might reasonably wonder if “eventually” will come soon enough.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
When I saw the headline, “MLB bans Pichardo 50 games”, the chain of association rapidly led me back to the Royals righty of the last decade Hipolito Pichardo, and thence to the short-lived Yankees lefty Hipolito Pena, who I recall as being distinctly more hippo-like than his listed 6’3″/165 pounds. The Yankees received Pena from the Pirates in 1988 in exchange for Orestes Destrade, an underpowered first baseman (later broadcaster) who the Yankees seemed to have no use for, given that it seemed like Don Mattingly had the better part of 10 good years left. No disrespect meant — I’m sure it means something noble in Spanish, but forget being a boy named Sue, I can’t think of anything more frightening than being a boy named Hipo … Seth McClung actually pitched well for the Brewers last year. That’s hard to believe, but it’s harder still to accept that he might sub as closer for Trevor Hoffman … It’s difficult to think of a player, aside from a Buck Weaver or Shoeless Joe Jackson, who has fallen as hard and fast as Andruw Jones … With third baseman Jack Hannahan likely to be squeezed off of the Oakland roster, the Yankees could take a run at the glove man. He won’t hit much but is a lefty bat and a strong fielder … The White Sox may regret signing Gavin Floyd to a four-year, $15.5 million contract. The same luck on balls in play that affected  Swisher in a negative fashion last year benefitted Floyd. He’s due to regress and in a hurry … If I took all the decisions I’d ever made because they seemed like good ideas at the time and stacked them one on top of the other, I could climb that pile and just scrape the bottom of the moon with my fingertip.

ONE LAST GO AT PHILADELPHIA
Final warning, and aren’t you relieved: Jay Jaffe and I will be at the Penn Bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania (3601 Walnut St.) this evening at 5 PM. I hope to see some new and familiar faces there tonight.

What, this movie again?

melky_250_032009.jpgIn today’s New York Daily News, Mark Feinsand writes:

[Melky] Cabrera, who looked to be fighting for a roster spot more than a starting job, stayed the course and tried to let his play speak for itself. Apparently, his strategy worked.

“In this game, things aren’t always going to go the way you want that day or the next day — or maybe for a week — but Melky didn’t panic,” Joe Girardi said. “He just kept doing his thing, which is a sign of maturity.”

[snip]

“I’m happy with the way Melky is playing; he’s really started to swing the bat,” Girardi said. “They’ve both played at a very high level. Gardy started a little quicker, but to me, they’re both playing at a very high level right now. It’s been a fun competition to watch.”

As Einstein said, and every man of woman born has since repeated, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Cabrera has been a regular player for three years now, and the Yankees have received three years of below average, declining results. He does not hit for a high average, and since he has little power and no particular love of taking ball four, he produces almost nothing at the plate.

The counter argument here is that Cabrera, now 24, was a young big leaguer and still has room to develop. Perhaps, but (1) at 24 he likely has sailed past the point that a breakout can reasonably be expected and (2) if there is a breakout, where is it to come? Should we expect a player who has never hit more than eight home runs in a season to whack 25 of them this year? Should we expect a fake switch-hitter who cannot bat right-handed (.251/.319/.329 career) to become a reliable .310 hitter? Should the Yankees project that a player who has averaged 50 walks per 162 games played to add another 25 of them to the back of his baseball card?

Now, these things could happen. Cabrera hit for power last April before quitting completely, and maybe whatever alchemy allowed him to be a slugger for one month could reconstitute itself over six months. Not likely, but it could happen. He could hit .300 just on luck. That happens too — every year some player sees an abnormally high (or, in the case of Nick Swisher last season, low) percentage of the balls he hits fall in. He could take more walks based on the understanding that if he doesn’t make every effort not to throw away his at-bats, he will forfeit millions in future salary.

If these things happen, swell — the universe is a capricious place. It giveth and taketh away and sometimes gives us cash bonuses we don’t deserve after we’ve helped cause a global financial meltdown. Such unpredictability is what makes life here so exciting. Betting on such events, however, is never a wise policy, especially when one requires offense to win a pennant, and particularly when one’s MVP just had his hip operated on and your team will require every iota of additional offense to support its gold-plated pitching staff.

It is hoped, and perhaps it is even probable, that Joe Girardi is not entirely serious in what he is saying, and he is merely trying to keep both players pumped or to stoke Cabrera’s trade value by exaggerating his performance this spring. We know that Girardi isn’t stupid and that he can be disingenuous. In this case, he may be letting the latter quality do some of Brian Cashman’s work for him. If that is true, then he’d better hope that potential partners don’t look too closely, as this spring Cabrera has batted .250/.341/.361. It’s more of the same-old, same-old, a movie we’ve seen before.

Post-script: today’s game in Fort Myers, Fla., wrapped up as I tossed these words onto the page. Brett Gardner went 1-for-3 with a stolen base. Cabrera did not play.

ONE FELLOW WHO DID PLAY
Austin Jackson. He hit his second home run of the spring and is now batting .303. Jackson has played consistently well this exhibition season, but I’ve been reluctant to say anything about it because generally he’s been coming into games late and doing his damage against roster fodder. That said, something is better than nothing, and you would have to think that he’s positioned himself to get an early jump on a Major League career should any injuries befall the Major League outfield cadre. That’s a fantastic development for the Yankees as — here’s one cliché that is completely true — you can never have too much depth.

NO ONE EVER LEARNS ANYTHING
I don’t like to single out other writers in this space so I’m going to be oblique here, but there was a piece published today that praised Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins for accepting a change in batting order position from leadoff to third, while castigating Jose Reyes of the Mets for reacting with less enthusiasm to a similar proposal from his manager. There’s a very simple problem with this line of thinking: Ramirez isn’t necessarily right and Reyes is definitely not wrong. The difference between the most optimal, second-most optimal, and eight-most optimal batting order in terms of generating offense is very, very small. To conceive of batting orders in this way is an act of ignorance and naivety. The batting order is more accurately viewed as a mechanism through which the manager distributes playing time. The leadoff hitter will play (come to bat) more than any other player on the team. The No. 2 hitter will have approximately 20 fewer turns than the leadoff hitter. The No. 3 hitter will have 20 fewer turns than the No. 2 hitter, and so on down the order.

Take last year’s Yankees team as an example. The leadoff spot came to the plate 762 times. The second place in the order batted 14 fewer times. The third spot batted 32 fewer times. If we drop down to number nine, we see a gap of 140 plate appearances from first in the order to last. Jerry Manuel of the Mets was proposing that one of his worst hitters, Luis Castillo, bat 40 or so more times this year than Reyes, one of his best hitters. Fredi Gonzalez is proposing a similar reduction in Ramirez’s playing time. Whatever the small effect of batting order changes, there is no way to justify voluntarily giving up the equivalent of eight to ten games worth of times at bat for one of your best hitters.

These days it is rare that a piece by a fellow toiler in these fields seems so wrongheaded that I am obliged to write about it, but this one got to me, being an excuse to take a cheap shot at Jose Reyes over an idiotic suggestion by his manager.

THE PLACE WHERE MY FEET ARE
None too soon for my somewhat fragile constitution, the book tour comes to a close next week with two appearances. First, Jay Jaffe and I will be in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 24th at 5 p.m., at the Penn Bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania (3601 Walnut Street, Philadelphia). Second, Jay, Cliff Corcoran, and I will be at the Rutgers University bookstore (Ferren Mall, One Penn Plaza, New Brunswick, N.J.) on Thursday the 26th beginning at 6 p.m. On both occasions we’ll be talking baseball in any of its multifarious forms. I am very much looking forward to seeing you. 

Joba psychology, revisited

Siwsher-3-16-250.jpgIn case you didn’t check out today’s action, Joba Chamberlain pitched three shutout innings. Can we stop panicking now? There’s something truly weird about the Psychology of Joba, by which I mean not what goes on in his head, but what seems to go on in ours when he pitches. It seems like a sizable percentage of the population might feel more at ease if he was simply sealed in plastic and never allowed to pitch again. If you don’t use him, he can’t get hurt. There is a kind of denial at work here. Injury risk can be mitigated, but short of a perfect prescience, they cannot be prevented.

In other news from the game, Nick Swisher went 3-for-4 and Xavier Nady went 2-for-4. Swisher’s spring on-base percentage is now .389, Nady’s .267. I don’t expect anyone around the Yankees to care, because consistency at hitting usually trumps consistency at getting on base, even though better to start with the latter and hope for the former than the other way around. There’s still some time, though, for Swisher to show enough for the Yankees to make the right decision.

Finally, Brett Gardner knocked a triple today, took a walk, and scored two runs. Spring Training statistics are meaningless for the most part, especially this year when camps have been decimated by the WBC, but if consistency of hitting is part of what Gardner had to show, he’s done that so far, and he’s also demonstrated far more thump than before with six extra-base hits–the guy continues to lead the Yankees in home runs this spring. Again, that’s not something to get too excited about, as Angel Berroa is tied for second with two, and also leads the club with a .429 average. Heck, the Ransom of A-Rod is batting .400. It doesn’t promise much of anything, but it’s all good to see.

Another one from the comments
And from a frequent commenter, letsgoyankees, this one on this morning’s entry regarding the dynasty teams:

I agree with almost every point you made except pitching and defense. These (today’s) Yankees have great pitching and a very good defesne! Weren’t we lin the top three last year in errors (correct me if I’m wrong!)? Think about it…A-Rod, Tex, and Jeet all have gold gloves (that’s right, I said I think Jeet is still a good shortstop.I’ve argued it in the past and I’m not changing my stance now.) and Cano is pretty good. Yes, he makes a lot of errors, but only because he has great range. He’ll fix the error porblem. At cathcer we’re suspect with Posada but with Molina we have perhaps the best defensive catcher in the league! Our centerfielder, be it Gardner or Melky, will be an excellent defender. And Damon (minus the chicken arm) and Nady aren’t terrible. And our pitching staff speaks for itself. Our defense is pretty darn good!

Letsgo, you’ve got to let go of errors. Not making errors is part of having a good defense, but a bigger part is simply how many balls in play a team turns into outs. If the pitcher doesn’t strike out the batter or give up a home run, and the batter puts the ball between the lines, what happens next? For most of this century, the Yankees have not been very good at collecting those pesky grounders and flies. Commonly referred to as defensive efficiency (DEF), this is the most basic aspect of defense and also the one that, if improved, can yield the most dramatic results: in 2007, the Rays ranked dead last in the majors in turning balls in play into outs. They shuffled some players around and jumped to first in the majors–you know what happened next. In 2008, the Yankees were 25th in the majors; in 2007 they ranked 13th; in 2006 it was 8th; in 2005 it was 22nd; in 2004 it was 20th; in 2003 they ranked 28th; in 2002, 23rd; in 2001, 25th; in 2000 they ranked 13th.

And that leaves me with these questions: if the Yankees defense has been so good, why are so many balls finding holes? If Derek Jeter is such a great shortstop, why don’t the balls he gets to show up in the numbers? It can’t be all balls over Bobby Abreu’s head–the responsibility has to be shared out, to varying extents, around the diamond.

A quicky from the comments

bernie_250_031609.jpg“Remember when the Yanks were winning the World Series that we never had an MVP winner on our team (1996-2000)? We had guys who knew how to perform as a team.”

Steve, could you get your Webmaster to fix it so that any time somebody types some version of those quoted sentiments, they automatically get an electric shock through their Web connection? Thanks! — lorodov

I’m pretty sure your suggestion would have been legal just a few months ago but wouldn’t pass muster with the current Justice Department. Congratulations: you’ve actually made me miss the old guys. I didn’t think that was possible… I’m trying to figure out the best way to say that the MVP vote is just a poll of a bunch of guys who write about baseball and may or may not reflect the best player in the league in a given year, often not. That no Yankees player received an MVP award in the years 1996-2000 is not evidence that they received no MVP-level performances during those years, but that the voters had their heads up their — how to put this politely — fundaments.

Bernie Williams played at an MVP-level in the four years under examination — a center fielder who hit .324/.410/.551 in the years in question, winning a batting title and (deserved or not) four Gold Gloves as well. In two of those years, 1996 and 1998, the award went to the cranky corner outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who had a ton of home runs and RBIs, but when you look at Williams’ more important defensive position and superior ability to reach base it rapidly becomes apparent that Bernie was the superior player.

Derek Jeter would have been deserving of an MVP award in any of the three years from 1998 to 2000, and I will always contend that he should have won it in 1999 rather than Pudge Rodriguez’s double play machine. Rodriguez was not one of the 10 best hitters in the AL that year. Jeter was, at least by one measure, the best.

Jorge Posada’s 2000 season (.287/.417/.527, 151 games) lacked the RBIs usually associated with an MVP winner, but was of that quality given that it was produced by a catcher. Tino Martinez’s 1997 had all the hallmarks of an MVP season — 44 home runs, 141 RBIs. He finished a distant second in the balloting to Junior Griffey.

There were several players throughout, including Paul O’Neill (through 1998), who made star-level contributions to those Yankees teams. They were very deep clubs, with talent spread nicely around the roster, but they weren’t some gutty version of the Pittsburgh Pirates, grinding it out with a bunch of mediocre players. These were Cadillacs, not K-Cars, and we haven’t yet discussed the pitching or the defense, the latter of which was surprisingly effective in those years, far, far more effective than anything the current unit has done or will do.

Sure, the media liked to celebrate Scott Brosius, Joe Girardi, and the like, and no doubt they played their part, but without the big guys they would have “known how to win” right into fourth place. The Yankees need their stars. In the absence of Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees are down on just one on offense. Citing the 1996-2000 teams as evidence that one is enough fails the exam before you even pick up your pencil.

MORE FROM ME…
…After today’s game. In the meantime, this week my travels take me to Washington, DC, where I’ll be doing two events on Wednesday. First, Jay Jaffe and I will be hosted by the Georgetown Lecture Fund at Georgetown University at 4:30 p.m. This event is open to the public, if public I have. The location is McShain Lounge at McCarthy Hall (Building 42), 27th and O Street NW.

Following rapidly on the heels of that, Jay, Clay Davenport, and I will be traveling to one of my favorite tour events, the great independent Politics & Prose bookstore, for a 7 p.m. chat ‘n’ sign. The address: 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW. They usually have pizza and beer available. I’m not sure that that will be the case this year, but we can hope.

Finally, I’ve continued and will continue to update Wholesome Reading. Warning: Politics (and a Harold Reynolds reference)!

Notes from around the league

german300_031309.jpgRANDOM BITS FOR A RANDOM FRIDAY
… Because I definitely feel 13th after a very busy week.

?    The Cubs signed Esteban German to a Minor League contract, so those that wrote suggesting he’d make a good depth addition for the Yankees and a possibly useful Alex Rodriguez substitute, forget it. I don’t think it’s a huge loss unless he’s going to go back to walking 50 times in half a season.

?    Remember last week I said that A-Rod’s injury wasn’t the last injury, just the first, and the Yankees would have to survive the cumulative weight of those losses? Now, we have Robinson Cano’s sore shoulder and Damaso Marte’s pectoral muscle. In both cases, the injuries could be nothing or could be something. There’s no reason to worry too much about Marte because the Yankees have the pitching depth to get by without any one reliever, but Cano would force the Yankees to fall back on some pretty weak choices. For any team, as ever, the emphasis must be on the farm, the farm, the farm, the farm, or eventually you’re going to get hit and not be able to cope. Thank you, Uncle WBC!

?    Has anyone who was lukewarm on the Mark Teixeira signing before the event yet conceded that in the absence of A-Rod that signing may very well save the offense, and thereby the season? By the way, Chase Utley had the full-on version of the surgery that Rodriguez is splitting in two back in November. He has yet to get into a game.

?    A-Rod replacement speculation: the guy the Yankees should be looking to make a force majeure kind of move on is J.J. Hardy of the Brewers, who may lose his job to Alcides Escobar at some point in the near future. He can hit enough to play third and is young enough to play short after, just in case, you know, the Yankees ever have any defensive weakness at that position.

?    Before someone asks about catcher Rob Bowen, who the A’s are shopping, there is no evidence he would out-hit Jose Molina. Yes, Molina is a better hitter than somebody.

?    Big loss for the Rays in having Fernando Perez hit the bench for three months with a dislocated left wrist. Perez isn’t an impact player but is a nice complimentary part. Matt Joyce hasn’t played yet due to his own injuries, and B.J. Upton is still working his left shoulder back into shape. Gabe Kapler is going to end up playing a lot more than might be good … Too much of Justin Ruggiano and his amazing capacity to strike out, too.

?    Transcript from today’s chat, with lots of Yankees questions, some politics, and scattered other baseball musings.

?    Those of you in the District of Columbia, I’ll be making two appearances there next Wednesday, along with BP compadres, Clay Davenport and Jay Jaffe. First, I’ll be hosted by the Georgetown Lecture Fund at 4:30 p.m. (open to the public). Following closely on the heels of that talk will be one of my favorite yearly events, a trip to the Politics & Prose bookstore at 7 p.m. For address info, see this page.