April 2009

Angels vs. Yankees: 20-game watch

20-GAME WATCH: ANGELS VS. YANKEES
                  W-L    R/G  AB/HR PA/BB SB CS AVG    OBP    SLG
ANGELS    9-11    5.1    36.6    11.7    21    3    .280    .343    .425
YANKEES  11-9    5.8    24.2    9.4    16     2    .275    .355    .464
                                    
                 ERA    RA    H/9    BB/9    SO/9  HR/9  OAVG  OOBP OSLG
ANGELS    4.81    5.42    10.5    3.3    5.7    1.0    .295    .355    .421
YANKEES  5.64    6.09    9.1    3.8    7.3    1.3    .265    .347    .451

When was the last time the Yankees played the Angels in a four-game series and you felt like it wasn’t going to be an uphill battle the entire time? It feels like decades. Last year, the Yankees went 3-7 against the Angels, 3-6 the year before, 4-6 the year before, 4-6 in 2005… The Yankees went 6-3 against them in 2003, and that’s the last time they’ve been able to touch them. The year before that, the Angels manhandled the Yankees out of the playoffs, so even 2003 was very much an island in a stream of blood.

angels_250.jpgThis time things would seem to be different. The Angels took a few steps backwards over the winter. Though Kendry Morales is crazy hot right now (.379/.419/.862, three homers over the last seven games), he’s not a replacement for Mark Teixeira. Brian Fuentes isn’t K-Rod. Injuries are a huge problem. Mike Napoli can’t stay in the lineup. Vlad Guerrero is out for the long haul, and Gary Matthews is having to play every day. Neither Erick Aybar nor Chone Figgins are hitting, but manager Mike Scioscia won’t give Brandon Wood a try, not that he’s a lock to hit with any consistency given his big swing and middling strike zone judgment.

The pitching has been dramatically thinned by injury as well as the tragic death of Nick Adenhart. The Yankees are going to see only two of the team’s top starters in this series, Jered Weaver in Game 2 and Joe Saunders in Game 4. Anthony Ortega is a rookie without a strikeout pitch. Matt Palmer is a 30-year-old journeyman who has been in the minors since 2002. He too has strikeout rates that are unsustainable in the major leagues. The Yankees should be able to go three-for-four against the Angels. It won’t be easy, it never is, but they’re not the special team they once were.
 

The Rodriguez discontents

arod_250_043009.jpgThe latest leaks from Selena Roberts’ A-Rod takedown have hit the newsstands, and it’s just endless fun. I mean that sarcastically. I guess it was sadly inevitable that Rodriguez’s “I only used steroids from 2003 to 2005” line was going to be challenged. As I wrote here at the time, Rodriguez’s entire press conference didn’t pass the smell test. Perhaps he should have checked with Roberts first to see if she had more on him before he went out and put the two of them in conflict again.

About the best we can do at this point is to point out again that just about every conclusion drawn about steroids and other so-called performance enhancers is that the enhancement is entirely suppositional. They make you get bigger — provided you work out like a nut. As the book apparently suggests, they can cause gynecomastia, or breasts in males. What they cannot do, and no one has ever proven they can do, not even Barry Bonds, is hit for a higher average or more power. I know that sounds nave at first glance, but if you think through it reasonably it becomes clear that the size of your muscles are not determinant in baseball. There has to be other stuff going on for a player to succeed, things that require skills and precision. None of that changes the fact that the use of such substances is unethical at best and illegal at worst, and if you want to further revise your opinion of Rodriguez downward a few notches, be my guest.

I suppose that the news that Rodriguez sometimes tipped pitches to pals will get more play at this point, but I wonder if it will be merited. There is an old tradition, going back to the game’s earliest days, of sometimes giving a friend a gift in a game that’s already been decided. You can find countless anecdotes about this kind of thing in baseball history books. What we don’t know is (A) is such a thing still considered acceptable behavior in baseball, and (B) were Rodriguez’s pitchers in on it? If they weren’t, they might have a bone to pick, or a bat.

In the end, there’s not much left for us to do — us being we the spectators and A-Rod — except to persevere, to hope that the past is in the past. If he lacks character, that’s fine. No one says you have to have him over to dinner and he’s probably not going to try to date your daughter. A lot of the great stars were not good people. Some have posited that it was exactly that quality, principally narcissism, that made them great stars. Drive has to be fueled by something, and it might as well be self-regard. In the meantime, the Yankees need him, need him to play like he’s always played (except for the part about runners in scoring position). If he’s clean, this will all go away long before Roberts’ book is remaindered.

And if not, it’s going to become spectacularly tedious, especially at any time that the Yankees aren’t winning and people are looking for stories.

I LOVE MY WIFE
I was looking over Joba Chamberlain’s fine line from last night when my wife came into the room. I pointed out the box score — seven innings, three hits, one run, three walks, six strikeouts, a win. Stefanie looked at it and said, “Yes, but he’d be even better in the bullpen!” and walked away laughing. What made this doubly wonderful is that not only do I have a satirical spouse, which you can’t get just anywhere, but you can find people writing exactly that — no matter how good Joba was in a particular game, he would always have been better doing something else.

I’ll be back later with some additional thoughts on Joba, the season debut of 20-Game Watch (usually 30-Game Watch but we’re not there yet), and the Around section. 

Scouting Porcello and explaining Joba

porcello_250_042909.jpgCHIEN-MING WANG’S DAY OFF
(A PHIL HUGHES FILM)

Having seen the real Phil Hughes for the first time since that wonderful, fatal start in Texas, the Yankees face another important test as next generation starters Joba Chamberlain and Rick Porcello (born in Morristown, N.J.) face off in Detroit. The former first-round pick has had mixed results in three starts; he’s been competent, not dominating. As in the Minors, his strikeout rate has been light (the Tigers restricted his repertoire in the sticks, but that shouldn’t be a problem now).

However, he has a bit of the old Chien-Ming Wang kicker: his fastball sinks, resulting in a high grounder/fly ball ratio. The trouble has been that when Porcello — who, we should note, is so young he can’t legally buy a drink — is that when he misses his mistake leaves the ballpark. He’s given up five home runs in just 18 innings. Over 20 percent of his flies allowed have left the park, a crazy high ratio. Note that these are the only extra-base hits he’s allowed and that he’s been stingy with the walks, so when he doesn’t elevate, it’s just like trying to build an inning against Wang Classic — it takes three singles to score a run, four to score two, and that’s difficult for any team to do before they make three outs.

The Hutt also has something to prove tonight, as some mediocre starts combined with poor work by the relief corps has renewed calls for Chamberlain’s bullpen parole to be revoked. The basis for the argument revolves around reduced velocity, but that’s not really at issue. In 12 starts last season, Chamberlain struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings. In his career as a reliever, he’s struck out 11.9 per nine innings. This doesn’t seem like a significant tradeoff given that in the latter case the Yankees were getting two innings of Chamberlain and in the former they were getting five, six, or even seven. The team gains multiple innings, gives up one or two strikeouts because Chamberlain is trying to save his stuff, as Christy Mathewson said, for the pinch. Fair enough.

This year, Chamberlain has made three starts and has struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings. The league average is 6.7. The change in role from relieving to starting does NOT account for this difference, especially given Chamberlain’s starting strikeout rate of last season, or, for that matter, his strikeout rate as a starting pitcher in the Minor Leagues. Chamberlain could be hoarding his stuff like an obsessive-compulsive squirrel going through a fit of paranoia about winter in Nome, and it still wouldn’t account for what is practically a 50 percent drop-off in K rate. In short: if things don’t change for Chamberlain tonight against the Tigers, the Yankees may be forced to confront another pitching problem.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Just a little experiment in format today…

? White Sox 2, Mariners 1: It’s got to hurt when Chris Jakubauskas throws a comple game and you still lose. Meanwhile, only the fact that it’s the first game of a doubleheader excuses Jerry Owens (.091).

? Seattle 9, White Sox 1: And in Game 2 the Sox confront the reality that they’ve been playing baseball for eight hours and have scored only three runs. On the other side of the field, Endy Chavez is down to .305, which means he’s gone 4-for-27 over his last seven games. No one could have expected that. Note also Felix Hernandez, 4-0, 2.38 ERA. — and still just a few weeks past his 23rd birthday.

? Braves 2, Cardinals 1: When you consider the Braves’ batting order, you realize that they’re missing a big hitter, and it’s not just that catcher Brian McCann is on the disabled list. They were in on Garrett Anderson when they should have been in on Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez, and in the latter Ted Turner days, when they were both rich and rational, they would have been. Instead they settle for pot luck in a pot luck division — that is, maybe they’ll win and maybe they won’t, but it could have been a sure thing. On the Cards side, Yadier Molina got me wondering, through an indirect route, what the record for fewest runs scored/most plate appearances combo was. It turns out there are many candidates who were worse than his 485/37 last year, for example 1972 Angels shortstop Leo Cardenas, who batted second, sixth, and seventh and scored just 25 runs. He came to the plate 602 times. With .223/.272/.283 rates not much is going to happen. Molina was much better than that. I remain baffled that Del Rice batted Cardenas third 17 times that year, but my faith in the laws of physics is reassured by the Angels’ going 5-11 in those games. In all others, they were 70-69, which says something.

? Rangers 5, Athletics 4: It wasn’t Mexican Swine Flu, but seemingly every Athletic to get into this game got hurt. It’s not surprising when Nomar Garciaparra twists an ankle and heads for the DL, and the loss is only a blow to notional depth given that even when Eric Chavez is playing, he’s not playing (and he’s not playing now). Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when most valuable Athletic Mark Ellis heads for the DL is well, but that’s where he’s off to as well after straining his calf… The decisive run in the game came when Jason Giambi let a grounder go through his legs. In 100 years of Giambi in pinstripes, I can remember many misplays, and I’m sure plenty of them contributed to losses, but it’s harder to recall a game where the connection between Giambi’s iron glove and a loss was so obvious… The A’s are hitting .233/.310/.314 overall, which makes the Hitless Wonder White Sox of 1906 look like Murderer’s Row.

? Angels 7, Orioles 5: Dave Trembley was ejected for arguing a balk in this one, and his fury was something to behold, and unsurprising given just how quickly his team is falling away after the Yankees gave them some false hope in the opening series… Batting .196/.226.294 on April 21, Howie Kendrick has turned it on, going 8-for-19 with three doubles and two home runs in his last five games (.421/.450/.895). He’s taken but one walk on the season, though, and until he has the same awakening that Robbie Cano has apparently had, he’s only going to be as good as his batting average.

? Indians 9, Red Sox 8: The winning streak had to end sometime, just as the Indians are due to win one or two. It only hurts because the Sox made three errors in the game, resulting in three unearned runs, and they got kicked with Brad Penny on the mound and they have better options whenever they want to use one. Dear Cleveland: Kelly Shoppach has regressed, as ever he was doomed to do, you’re back to catching Victor Martinez again, and Matt LaPorta is tearing it up in the Minors. Heck, Ben Francisco isn’t hitting either. Why Ryan Garko? Love, Steve.

? Phillies 7, Nationals 1: I was asked if it was too soon to start playing “Nats Math,” where you start figuring out scenarios where they might lose 110-120 games. I don’t think it is, if only because it’s difficult to see where they’re going to find ways to improve. There’s only so much talent trading a damaged Elijah Dukes or a benched Josh Willingham or an impotent Austin Kearns is going to bring you. 

Phil Franchise feeling the heat

hughes_250.jpgNO PRESSURE, KID
Only Phil Hughes can save the Yankees’ season, or so it seems on the eve of his first start of 2009. It’s a dramatically unfair place for a 23-year-old to be, but somehow, some way, the Yankees need to get this season started. It’s ironic that the Yankees bent over backwards to make Hughes unnecessary this past offseason. They didn’t want to depend on him. Now, until they see consistency from their other starters, not to mention anything at all useful from Chien-Ming Wang, they’ll feel lucky to have him to depend on.

The irony here is that pitching wasn’t necessarily the problem last year. With patience, the Yankees might have continued to mature their youngish staff and gotten by. The offense was the sector that looked to be problematic going into this season. As it turns out, the correct answer is, C: All of the above. As has been the case since the decline of the last dynasty, inattention to depth has beggared the big club and could continue to do so all season long.

That’s the injury front. More interesting is the club’s weird inability to hit with runners in scoring position. As you’ve no doubt heard, the team is hitting .223/.320/.346 in such situations. Robinson Cano, who has been so good overall, has batted .192 with runners on, and he has had more runners on in front of him than any other Yankee. He’s hitting .419 with the bases empty. Johnny Damon has hit .200, Hideki Matsui .125. Damon has come up with 11 runners on third, tied for most on the Yankees, and still has just seven RBIs on the season. The two center fielders have been execrable, with Brett Gardner hitting .143 in 14 at-bats and Melky Cabrera hitting .083 in 12 at-bats. It would help if the club could stay out of double plays. They’ve grounded into 18 in 154 possible opportunities, a slightly above-average rate. Below average would obviously be better. The worst culprit on the Yankees has been Melky Caberera, who has hit into three GDPs in eight possible situations, or 38 percent. The league average is 10 percent. The best is Mark Teixeira, who hasn’t hit into a single twin-killing in 22 opportunities.

This situation is almost certainly transient, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Playing with the most basic run estimators suggests that the Yankees have failed to score about 10 runs that they might have scored had their hitting with runners on been more representative.

HERE LIES AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER

Steven Jackson sent back to the Minors to make room for Phil Hughes. Eight games and nary a touch. Way to show confidence in the kid, Joe.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

?    It was very odd seeing Barry Bonds calmly chatting in the booth during last night’s Dodgers-Giants game. Having recently read “Game of Shadows,” I was conditioned to believe that he was more likely to kill someone than have a normal conversation.

?    Dexter Fowler looked like he was going to be a valuable player for the Rockies even before he stole five bases off of the Padres on Monday night. Ironically, though he had 101 steals in 334 Minor League games, it didn’t look like baserunning was an area in which he might distinguish himself. Over the last two seasons, he stole 40 bases but was caught 19 times, an unimpressive rate. The last time a Yankee stole five bases in a game? It’s never happened. The Yankees have had a player steal four bases in a game 18 times, most recently Tony Womack in 2005.

?    Scary Fly-Ball Guy Jeff Karstens gave away three baseballs to the Brewers on Monday in just five innings. That’s the problem with being a Scary Fly-Ball Guy: eventually they either have to take you out of the game or risk a national ball shortage.

?    Emilio Bonifacio: now batting .266/.301/.342. Welcome to Replacement Level Theatre.

?    You’d think that former Nats GM Jim Bowden being of such low repute would buy Manny Acta some time in Washington. The mess there isn’t his fault.

?    I find that Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” is kind of depressing for a bouncy pop standard. I like when that happens, when concert-goers are swaying and singing, “La la la life is brutal and unfair!”

?    I know Matt Wieters has barely played, but with Gregg Zaun 6-for-50 and the franchise flailing at the box office (just 10K at Camden last night) can they wait much longer to bring him up?

MORE FROM ME
Today at Baseball Prospectus, in an article open to non-subscribers, I discuss the anxiety problems of 1930s catcher Babe Phelps and compare them to those of someone I’m very close to… Me. 

The weekend from hell

jobabiblegoldman042609.jpgTHE WEEKEND FROM HELL
Of all the troubling events of the past weekend in Boston, perhaps the most ominous development was Joba Chamberlain’s Friday evening start, in which he pitched like a much older man, walking four and striking out two. Naturally, various broadcast crews spent the weekend wondering if this meant that Chamberlain should be sent back to the bullpen, where he threw harder. Guys: reduced velocity and a loss of control does not indicate that a pitcher is starting or relieving. Reduced velocity and a loss of control indicates that something is wrong. Any argument that Chamberlain is now hoarding his stuff as a starter is purely suppositional and highly unlikely, and Chamberlain’s role is less important at this moment than the possibility that he might be hurt.

MY LATEST THEORY
Steven Jackson is on the roster purely so the Yankees can bring a full complement of players out to the foul line during the national anthem. It is painful to watch Joe Girardi manage games so as to get them into the hands of his so-called dependable veterans, pathologically avoiding the kids now on the roster. This is 180 degrees removed from the Girardi of a year ago, who did so much to revamp the bullpen after years of Joe Torre kiting from veteran to veteran. For some reason, Girardi doesn’t seem to be willing to do it again. Yet, the team isn’t winning and the pen isn’t helping, so whatever he’s trying to do in getting those pitchers reestablished, and in some cases re-reestablished requires rethinking.

WHY THE YANKEES STILL NEED TO ACQUIRE ANOTHER THIRD BASEMAN

Because even if Alex Rodriguez comes back tomorrow, he could be out again the day after. That could be for any reason, not just his hip. A pitch could fracture his hand in his first plate appearance of the season, and the Yankees would be right back where they were. This is what we call insurance. You don’t think your house will burn down tomorrow, but you pay the insurance, just in case. There will be no time this season where it will be safe for the Yankees to have so little depth at the hot corner, just because life is unpredictable. Meanwhile, playing Angel Berroa at third clearly means you’re not altogether serious about winning. Playing Cody Ransom meant that too, but it was marginally worth trying — though not without a safety net. It is stunning how little Yankees management learned from last season’s injuries.

PROBABLY WISHFUL THINKING, BUT…
…If Sidney Ponson could hold the Tigers to three runs over eight innings, as he did on Sunday, the Yankees should be okay in this series.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
?    In a previous entry, I said that no one can win the NL East. Allow me to add the AL West to that formulation as well.

?    Dear Angels: Can the Yankees offer you 1.5 pitchers for your own apparently despised 3B/SS Brandon Wood? With affection, Brian Cashman. Dear Rockies: Can the Yankees offer you .5 pitchers for your own redundant third baseman Jeff Baker? Respectfully, Brian “Manpower Shortage” Cashman. Dear Mike Blowers: All is forgiven. Please come home. With sincere regret, Brian “I Didn’t Work Here Then” Cashman.

?    Best wishes to Braves All-Star Brian McCann as he heads for the DL trying to cure his blurred vision. We know from bad vision at the Pinstriped Bible, and we feel for you, Brian. McCann is apparently off for a second Lasik surgery.

?    Gavin Floyd was battered by the Blue Jays on Friday night. Given Floyd’s unrealistically low batting average allowed on balls in play last year, forecasting a regression was one of the easiest calls of the offseason…

?    I love allmusic.com, because sometimes you just have to know how many bands have covered “Daydream Believer,” “Coconut Grove,” or “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”  

?    Sometimes I think, “Where would the Royals be without Zack Greinke?” Then a voice answers, “Where are they with him?”

?    On the eve of a new Bob Dylan release, a reminder that if you haven’t been with the man on his last three albums, “Time Out of Mind,” “Love and Theft,” and “Modern Times,” you’ve missed a remarkable career renaissance. I’m not certain of Dylan has changed with the times or the times have become strange to the point that Dylan is now able to sing from a timeless American dimension in which civil war soldiers commiserate with hoboes over the Great Depression, both admiring the singing of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, who are playing just down the line at the next soup kitchen. Many of these songs are fatalistic, but simultaneously reassuring. In the early ’60s, Dylan was an entertainer. In the mid- to late-60s he was angry. It was harder for him to find relevance from the mid-70s through the 90s, but now he’s memory, and boy, do we need memory. “I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense/I can see what everybody in the world is up against/Can’t turn back, you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far/One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are.” Funny thing about history; you can only mourn what you’ve lost if you know what you had, and who in modern times has any use for the lessons of history? Thus the next line of the song: “Sugar Baby, get on down the road/Ain’t got no brains no how/You went years without me/Might as well keep going now.”

?    One good sign for Alex Rodriguez is how well Chase Utley and Mike Lowell, both veterans of recent hip surgery, have been hitting. The Yankees have seen the latter’s work firsthand…

?    It seems odd how quickly the Twins decided that Carlos Gomez was a defensive replacement rather than a starter, especially when Mike Cuddyer and Delmon Young aren’t giving them anything special at the plate. Just because Cuddyer is the rare Twin under a sort-of pricey contract doesn’t mean he has to play. As for Young, at this point the hype, always out of balance to the actual product, should no longer blind anyone to the realities of the player. The Twins, by the way, possess several mediocre third baseman that can actually play third base, and yet they have no current use for. Just sayin’.

?    In case you missed it, Carl Pavano got hammered Saturday. He’s now 0-3 with a 9.50 ERA. Somehow, though the thrill isn’t quite as sweet given that the Yankees passed up their own opportunity to thrash him…

?    Charlie Manuel benched Jimmy Rollins on Sunday because “He’s not swinging good.” While it is true that Rollins is batting only .162/.205/.235, unless you really think he needs a mental health break, or he’s doing some Manny-style sulking thing that we don’t know about, do you bench a former MVP and three-time All-Star? You figure a ten-year vet will work his way out of it…

?    Are we off the Marlins’ bandwagon yet?

?    Given that Reds’ left fielders have combined to hit .171/.275/.300 to date, why not run Micah Owings out there every once in awhile? Is Laynce Nix really going to do that much better?

?    Chris Davis of the Rangers has a seven-game hitting streak going, in which he’s hitting .304/.360/.739 with three home runs, including two in his last two games. His strikeout-walk ratio in that time is 12-1, so he’s not over his troubles yet, but at least he’s holding his own for now after his miserable start. Note also Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s eight-game streak (not counting a no at-bat appearance as a defensive replacement), during which he’s hit .407/.429/
.630. His strikeout-walk ratio I during the streak is 10-1. Hey, Rudy Jaramillo: what are you teaching these guys?

Right the Wang, go with Hughes

wang_250_042409.jpgWILL YOU, WON’T YOU, WILL YOU, WON’T YOU JOIN THE DANCE?
That’s the question being asked about Chien-Ming Wang today, as the Yankees ponder what to do with their unpleasantly elevated groundballer. Despite yesterday’s extended Spring Training action, which featured an uncharacteristic 11 strikeouts, the Yankees’ brass were not impressed by Wang’s work against the Phillies’ most minor Minor Leaguers. Reports from the front suggest that Wang’s velocity was down and his sinker was still not operating at its proper depth. Every human capable of typing is now intimating that Phil Hughes (3-0, 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings, three walks, 19 strikeouts) will take his scheduled Tuesday start against the Tigers.

This is as it should be. You can throw out Wang’s strikeouts against toddlers and tyros in the Minor League depths — however screwy Wang’s main offering is right now, a Major League-quality slider and changeup is tough for a kid to beat. The Yankees weren’t looking for an artistic success here, they were looking for sinking heat, and they didn’t get it, at least not to their satisfaction. The Yankees are talking about building up Wang’s arm strength, but one wonders what they can truly do about it if Spring Training wasn’t a good enough opportunity for Wang to recoup. Further, if Wang’s arm doesn’t snap back, can Wang find a way to be successful at a lower velocity?

As I pointed out in a previous entry, despite the groundball fillip in Wang’s very vanilla game, history is working against him. It is very unusual for a pitcher with such a low strikeout rate to survive for any length of time — everything has to work perfectly for the balls they allow in play not to kill them. The only pitchers to throw over 1,000 career innings since 1990 with a strikeout rate of 4.5 or lower: Carlos Silva, Kirk Rueter, Ricky Bones, Bob Tewksbury, Brian Anderson, Zane Smith, Mike Moore and Steve Sparks. Pitchers with a lower strikeout rate relative to league in 500 or more innings, 1990 to present: Aaron Cook, Jimmy Anderson, Rueter, John Doherty, Silva and Horacio Ramirez.

Entering this season, Wang had the lowest ERA of any of these pitchers by more than half a run, though if he pitched at sea level, Cook would probably be right there with him. Ironically, Cook has also been battered this season — not to the extent that Wang has, but a 10.22 ERA still qualifies as a battering — for the same reason: his previously healthy groundball/fly ball ratio has crashed, presumably because he too is elevating his pitches.

The great advantage that Wang had was that, in allowing only about six percent of hits against him to go for extra bases, it was very difficult for the opposition to build a rally. He took doubles, triples, and home runs out of the game, meaning that in order to score even one run in a frame, the opposition had to hit three to four balls through Derek Jeter before Wang got three outs. With Wang having lost or misplaced this skill, the opposition has the potential for explosive innings restored. We should emphasize “lost” before “misplaced,” because this season’s breakdown may only be the culmination of a breakdown that was forming right from the beginning. Wang’s line drive rates have been rising and his groundball rates falling consistently since 2005.

Hughes is a strikeout pitcher. He took his lumps last year and he may take them again, but that is the way of young pitchers. John Danks was 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA as a 22-year-old in 2007. Last year he went 12-9 with a 3.32 ERA. Jon Lester’s ERA in his first 27 appearances was 4.68 … Jim Palmer’s ERA in his first two seasons was 3.54, which sounds great, except that the league ERA was lower than that.

Hughes will reward patience, be it for the Yankees or some other team in the event that patience is in short supply. Should he be able to avoid a permanently stuff-altering injury, his ability to get batters to swing and miss means that someday the length of Wang’s entire career will fit within the span of his, and that will be true if Wang can fix himself now or not. It will also give the Yankees a pitcher better adapted for postseason action. In evolutionary terms, Wang’s overspecialization limits his horizons. If Tuesday does turn out to belong to Hughes, it could, finally, represent the dawning of a new age.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Joe Torre may have another special team on his hands in Los Angeles (though it might not be too difficult looking special in this year’s NL West), and if they succeed, he’ll have the last argument in his already-signed, sealed, delivered Hall of Fame bid: that he couldn’t work with young pitchers (Chad Billingsley, for starters, is putting the lie to that). I’m still not convinced he wouldn’t get suckered in by Juan Pierre if Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier weren’t all hitting like it was 1930. Still, that’s my inference, not his action, so all credit to him. Also all credit to him for going to Jonathan Broxton for a 1.2 inning save in a close game (2-0) at Houston last night.

? Good for the Angels, beating the Tigers despite requiring a spot-start from extreme journeyman Matt Palmer, 30, after Darren Oliver hit the disabled list.

? In spite of myself, I am starting to believe that Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz — .320/.407/.622 in 46 games between this year and last — is for real.

? I think we owe it to Adam Eaton to point out his rare good starts. Last night he pitched 7.1 innings against the White Sox, allowing two runs, walking none, and striking out nine. The O’s should trade him while he’s hot. 

Melky madness

melky200_042309.jpgLOGICNESS
Melky Cabrera failed as a starter but has hit four home runs as a role player, so the Yankees should make him a starter again. If he doesn’t play well when starting, they can make him a role player again, and if he hits a few more home runs coming off the bench, they can make him a starter again. If he slumps, they can always put him back in the reserve role. Assuming he does well there, he might be ready for another shot at starting, and … and … and …

There are three possibilities right now:
1.  The last 26 Cabrera at-bats outweigh the previous 1500 or so, and Cabrera has become a slugging outfielder.
2.  Cabrera is having one those transient streaks, like the one he had precisely a year ago.
3.  The Yankees have found a job for Cabrera in which he can actually be useful.

There is no reason to rush Cabrera into the lineup given that the upside is mostly nonexistent, while the downside includes damage to Brett Gardner’s career. Not that Gardner needs any extra help with that. He’s played terrific defense and runs the bases well, but the walks aren’t there, and since the power isn’t going to be there, the walks have to be there if he’s going to hit enough to play. Gardner is 15 games in, and needs more time to rediscover his patience. If he can’t get there, perhaps he’s not the answer this year, or not ever. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Cabrera is the answer either. Cabrera could very well be more valuable in 250 at-bats than in 500, and that’s not a missed opportunity for the Yankees, it’s seizing one.

sabathia250_042309.jpgSABATHIA
… At least he’s done better than in his first four starts this year than in his first four starts last year. The difference, of course, is that this year he has 253 regular innings in his rearview mirror, plus postseason action. It’s early yet, so we’ll see if this is the refractory year or “first four starts phobia” is just something the big man has to get through.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

?    Took my children to the toy store last night. All the Jake Peavy action figures were on clearance.

?    The Jays’ Ricky Romero just hit the DL with an oblique strain. That leaves them with Roy Halladay and prayer. There’s an offensive correction coming soon, too, and then the division’s more natural order will restore itself.

?    Let’s say the Mets’ Daniel Murphy stays at his current rates for the rest of the season, finishing at .315/.367/.407. Does that much offense equal that of a conventional left fielder with average defense? Almost certainly not. Meanwhile, if Mike Pelfrey and John Maine are held back by injuries and Livan Hernandez is Livan Hernandez, there’s just not enough pitching in the organization to make up for it. Of course, the way the Phillies, Braves, Nats, and now Marlins are going, it’s becoming apparent that no team can win the NL East — or more accurately, the first team to identify and fix its biggest weakness will be the winner.

?    Marcus Thames is out indefinitely with a rib cage strain. Traded by the Yankees to the Texas Rangers for Ruben Sierra. Though he has his flaws — he’s no fielder and he doesn’t walk — platoon players with his kind of power are hard to find. He’s played 434 games since leaving the Yankees. The Yankees got 231 games of .249/.295/.429 out of Sierra during his second stay with the team, most of which was contained in a very hot May ’04. Not a move that Brian Cashman wants to frame and put on his mantel.

?    Brandon Inge hit his fifth home run last night. Career as a catcher: .199/.260/.330, which makes him perhaps the worst-hitting catcher ever. As a third baseman: .258/.329/.430, plus defense. Hmm …

?    Yes, but how many home runs has Bobby Abreu hit?

?    The Yankees can at least feel comforted that Cliff Lee pitched well against the Royals, too. At 6-10, the Indians remain in deep trouble.

?      I find it a continual source of amusement that the “new” Jeff Francoeur has but one walk and a .328 OBP. As Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “If this is tea, please give me some coffee; if this is coffee, please give me some tea.”

Return of the Giambino

giambi_250_042109.jpgTonight we get to see Jason Giambi’s return to the Bronx. I’ve seen some hostile comment in the press about Giambi, but beyond general disapproval of Giambi’s juicing, this anger is misplaced.

No, the Yankees didn’t win any championships during Giambi’s stay, but the team had many faults that had nothing to do with its first baseman-DH. As for the man himself, Giambi’s limitations were known to the Yankees when they picked him up, and it was apparent back in December, 2001 that the seven-year length of the contract was likely to bite the Yankees. As I wrote at the time, a player who isn’t terribly mobile at 30 — and the Empire State Building has moved more in the last 50 years than Giambi has in his whole career — is going to be a statue at 35.

Put the juice aside, because if anything is clear from the past few years it’s that no one inside baseball was ignorant of what players were doing to maintain their amazing physiques. I’m not saying that the Yankees necessarily had specific information that Giambi was juicing, but that they had to know it was a realistic possibility that anyone they acquired was doing some chemical dabbling. It wouldn’t have been practical for the Yankees to rule out acquiring all players suspected of having fun with pharmaceuticals, because the culture had been so thoroughly corrupted.

Thus: for their seven years of dough the Yankees expended, they got five very good years and two injury years. Injuries happen, and as I said, the cause is immaterial, or simply a predicable consequence of what was happening in baseball at the time. Giambi hit .260/.404/.521 with 209 home runs (tenth on the club list). He hit over 40 home runs twice, and over 30 three times, hit .300 once, and had more than 100 walks four times. Yankees who outhit Giambi in a career of more than 2,500 plate appearances, relative to league (as measured by OPS): Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, A-Rod, Charlie Keller and Reggie Jackson. That’s it, for the whole history of the franchise. That’s a successful signing. Did he field well? No, but he shouldn’t have been expected to. Did he run the bases? Nope, but he never could. Did he age? Yes, as do we all. Was he Reggie Jackson in the postseason? No, but he hit fairly well.

Though he was friendly the few times I talked with him, Giambi isn’t one of my favorite players. The steroid culture hurt baseball, and basically all for vanity’s sake, and his relative lack of production when DHing forced the Yankees into some disadvantageous defenses. Yet, to say that Giambi robbed the Yankees is a stretch. He was no longer an MVP-level player after 2002, and maybe he was never a guy to teach a class on professional ethics, but he was one of the most productive hitters the club ever had. That’s what the Yankees paid for and that’s what they got.

YANKEES RAINOUT THEATRE
No game yesterday means no home runs to increase our wonder and paranoia about the new ballpark. In the last day we’ve seen several articles attempting to account for what may be a small-sample fluke. AccuWeather.com talked about changed wind flow. Occasional YES-guest Tyler Kepner of the New York Times reported on Greg Rybarczyk’s finding that the contour of the right field wall means that the right-center field wall in Stadium II is effectively nine feet shorter than the one in Yankee Stadium Classic. Either explanation works to explain the new park’s dynamics, although the wind best explains what I felt I was seeing last Friday, balls finding a second gear as they reached their apogee. An intriguing thought: what if it’s both?

Meanwhile, the combination of rainout and off-day on Thursday means the Yankees get a no-brainer opportunity to bag on Chien-Ming Wang’s next start. Fangraphs.com lists the average velocity of Wang’s fastball is at 90.5 mph, down from an average speed of 91.8 mph a year ago and 92.7 mph in 2007. I don’t know if that one mph decrease is significant in terms of the batter experience, but just on a superficial basis, the mild drop would seem to give credence to the Yankees’ argument that the problem is mechanical, not physical. You would expect that if a pitcher isn’t throwing the ball with ease, his velocity is going to be negatively affected, and you would expect that if he figures out the problems he’s having with his release, he might find that missing mile again.

Another data point is the charting of Wang’s release point made possible the PitchFX tool at Brooks Baseball (thanks to Marc Normandin for pulling the information together). It seems that Wang’s release point is about six inches higher than it was a year ago. Six inches doesn’t seem like much in real-world terms, but when you’re dealing with a sinkerball, the extra elevation could be the difference between the batter getting on top of the ball and pounding it into the ground and hitting solidly on a line to the outfield.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

? Justin Masterson didn’t miss a beat as he shifted to the starting rotation for the Red Sox. Meanwhile, shortstop Jed Lowrie is going to go for surgery and could be out for six weeks. One wonders if they’ll live with Nick Green or try to make a move. They have a few interesting minor league shortstops, but none would seem to be ready to jump up to the Majors. Argenis Diaz, the Double-A shortstop, is supposed to have terrific range but probably won’t hit.

? Masterson’s fine pitching knocked the Orioles a game under .500, where they’ll probably stay. That is, they’ll stay under .500, not they’ll finish at 80-82 or something. When the Yankees were in Baltimore, the O’s were talking about a new, winning attitude. I wonder if they’re still saying things like that. Tonight’s rookie starter is Brad Bergeson, a control guy whose upper-level strikeout rates don’t portend much, unless he manifests a Wang-like groundball rate…

? Nice Major League debut for the Nats’ Jordan Zimmerman, who beat a Braves team that has struggled to find its hitting shoes in the early going. The newfangled bullpen held the lead, too. You wonder if any clubs have put in a call on a resurgent Nick Johnson (.381/.458/.429). The Angels, maybe? Kendry Morales is batting only .227/.277/.318, and while he’s going to come around and do better than that, he won’t out-hit a healthy Johnson. A momentarily healthy Johnson. Johnson if he’s healthy, when he’s healthy. Which is sometimes. Occasionally. Alternating Tuesdays. Check your local TV listings for details.

? Ross Ohlendorf had a fine start against the Marlins, holding them to two hits in seven innings. It’s nice to see Olhendorf come around and exploit his sinking stuff, but I think there is going to be more of this kind of thing for the Marlins in the future. In the game they walked once and struck out six times, and their lineup suggests there’s going to be a lot more than that. Meanwhile, the Pirates go a game over .500, once again endangering their 16-year losing streak. Their record in those years: 1104-1419 (.438).

? The Mets signed Wily Mo Pena. If he makes it up to the big club, it will be interesting to see him wandering about in Citi’s big outfield. Imagine the Hebrews in the desert, with more grass and less sand. 

Yankee Stadium II: The Sequel

stadium300_041709.jpgQUICK FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Today I’m making my first trip to the new Yankee Stadium. I opted to give Opening Day a pass: I’m not much for crowds to begin with, so heaping an extra helping of humans on top of the throngs that are normally here just seemed like a bad idea. Part of this reluctance springs from my partial blindness — it’s very difficult to navigate through crowds when you can’t see half of them coming. Intriguingly, when you can’t see people coming, they act like they can’t see you coming. Not for the first time, Douglas Adams was right. I also figured that nothing worked the first day at Disneyland, so I’d give the Pinstriped Magic Kingdom a day to shake the bugs out.  

I’m skipping around the page as I write these words, so it will be hard for me to construct a strict chronology, but just so you get a sense of the action, at this moment in time the Indians are batting in the top of the fourth and Joba Chamberlain, in imitation of CC Sabathia on Thursday, is trying to burn through his entire allotment of pitches in less than five innings. He’s already over 70, thanks to four walks and four strikeouts. That means that among my first-time experiences in the new ballpark will be an early appearance by the Yankees’ middle relievers. My cup runneth under.

The superficial impression given by Yankee Stadium II: The Sequel is that you’re in the old ballpark, albeit a version that has been cleaned up, reshaped a bit so that it’s more capacious, more comfortable. As wide as the new concourses are, it’s still not easy to thread the crowds (as per the above, if it were easy, I would know), but the flow of traffic is still far superior to the cramped cattle chutes of the old ballpark, and thanks to the openness of the design, the air is actually breathable. In the old ballpark, if you were exiting the stands after a long, hot afternoon at the ballpark and happened to get behind some socially untrained fellow who had been stewing out there with you, albeit without the aid of deodorant (roughly 10 percent of the crowd at any game, it seems), your hair might fall out before you were able to escape. That should be less of a problem now.

I pause here to note that Melky Cabrera just crushed a ball to right field, the Yankees’ third shot of the game in that direction. The ball seems to really take off when hit in the air that way, but I can’t tell if that’s an artifact of the new park or because the Yankees are legitimately crushing them.

The similarity of YS II to the old ballpark — meet the new stadium, same as the old stadium — still seems like a missed opportunity. The original Yankee Stadium helped bring ballparks and sporting events into the modern era. YS II could have reinvented the stadium for the 21st century in the same way. The new building is nice enough, but it’s not groundbreaking and new in the way it could have been, and given what it cost, probably should have been.  

I pause again to register a complaint. There have been eight walks and more than 200 pitches in this game, and it’s only the fifth inning. This is like watching Tommy Byrne face Steve Dalkowski. At this writing, the Yankees are trailing by two, and you can blame either Joba, Sabathia, or Joe Girardi. Chamberlain had no control today, and after he labored through the fourth inning, it seemed pretty clear that little would be gained by letting him come out for the fifth. I know that would be a quick hook, but Joba had already thrown a day’s worth of pitches, and in a compact amount of time. While the worries about Joba’s health, and pitch counts in general, are often overblown, there’s something to the idea that a pitcher throwing 100 pitches in five innings may be more of a strain than his throwing 100 pitches in seven innings. Unfortunately, Girardi was not inclined to make a move until he was forced to, and maybe, given the work of the bullpen lately, his reluctance is understandable.

The field does its best impression of the old park, but the stands seem to press in a bit more. Perhaps it’s the giant television in center field, Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith beaming stats, fan videos, and commercials into our apelike brains. Derek Jeter’s face flashes on the screen, two stories tall, and the urge is to scrape before the neon god. Though the upper deck is visibly withdrawn compared to its old, aggressive tilt, almost perpendicular to the field, the bowl seems cozy. That’s only when you look straight out to center or into the power alleys. The lower seats are further away from the action (and not nearly filled).

Robinson Cano just launched the Yankees’ fourth blast to right field. The ball soared out like Werner Von Braun had stuffed some solid rocket fuel into it. Again: Power, or park effect? In the time it took me to ask that question, we have seen a Melky groundout (helpless as always against a left-handed pitcher) and a rare Cody Ransom single. Every day, a new bit of history.

One thing I do enjoy like about the new location is that it actually sits next to human habitation, not just the elevated train tracks and various bars and souvenir shops. Unlike the old building, you can walk completely around the new park without running into a security checkpoint, and as you get around to the building’s rear you see trees and apartment buildings (which have clearly traded down from their old park setting). The stadium seems less an island now, and more a part of the neighborhood. There is also light when you arrive at the ballpark, something you didn’t get crossing under the tracks in front of the battleship gray of the old park.

Vinnie Chulk just chulked the ball down the right field line, allowing the Yankees to tie the game. The crowd roared, but as you have heard, YS II does seem to be a quieter park than its late uncle. Perhaps that’s because the lower dish is only partially filled, perhaps it’s the distant upper deck. The sound system is geared up to overcome a much higher level of crowd noise than seems to exist here.

In a development that I imagine will be of scant interest to most of you, thanks to the reduced territory behind home plate, the press box is even closer to the action than it used to be, and we have better dining facilities as well. Note to self: Do not sample press box pretzels until they’ve had at least five innings to warm up. I will share one special thrill with you, though, one of the reasons that I am blessed to have this job. When I entered the press box for the first time, I asked one of the Yankees media relations staffers to point me to the chair reserved for YES. He pointed to an older gentleman in a baseball cap. “He’s in your seat,” he said, “just ask him to move.” I approached the seat, and saw the man clearly for the first time: it was the great Roger Angell. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to ask Roger Angell to move anywhere. I took the seat next to him. We chatted throughout the game, comparing lists of top Cary Grant films (more about that last in my next entry).

One other note: It’s good that they got the retired numbers out where they can be viewed, but (1) they’re tiny and (2) they’re on a somewhat grubby tile wall, as if they grew in someone’s shower with the mildew. Guys, you’ve got to treat the history of this franchise with at least as much respect as you treat your advertisers, if not more.

As we go to the top of the eighth, the game is tied, 5-5, Cabrera having just popped out with two runners on. We can forgive this given that he had already homered in the game, but did he have to leave Ransom to lead off the next inning? Consumed with feelings of dread, I will sign off for now.

Pitchers, Ransom need to step it up

ccsabathiapblog041609.jpgOPENING DAY U-TURN
The pomp of the first Opening Day at Yankee Stadium: The Sequel was all well and good, but in the end the club has to execute. The Yankees confronted a 2-7 Indians club led by Cliff Lee, a potential flash in the pan who had been thoroughly mistreated by his every opponent in Spring Training and his first two starts. The Yankees bowed, in part because the offense stranded 27 runners, in part because Jose Veras and Damaso Marte (who hasn’t been the same pitcher with the Yankees he was prior) played arsonist, and if you’re looking for a third culprit, point to CC Sabathia, who negated his ability to throw 120 pitches by burning through them in less than six innings.

Thanks the amazing nine-run seventh inning pitched by Veras and Marte, pitching will receive the bill for this afternoon’s debacle, but the offense could have changed the complexion of the game at any time. Despite getting the first hit at YS: TS, Johnny Damon stranded five runners. Despite hitting the first home run at YS: TS, Jorge Posada stranded six. Special credit must go to Cody Ransom. Ransom’s first at-bat came in the second inning with one out and Robby Cano at second base. The third baseman struck out. In his next at-bat, in the bottom of the fourth, he batted with Hideki Matsui on first base and flew out to right field. He came to the plate again in the fifth with runners on first and third. He grounded to short. Runners were on first and second with two outs in the bottom of the seventh when Ransom struck out again. Finally, with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees just looking for some dignity, or maybe a miracle comeback, Ransom grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. He left nine runners on base, and presumably because the Yankees are carrying 13 pitchers and no bench players, Joe Girardi let him.

The Yankees’ 5-5 start is discouraging, but it’s not as depressing as is Ransom’s first 10 games as A-Rod substitute. Ransom is not a kid. He’s a 33-year-old vet. He has had six shots at a big league career since 2001 without ever catching on. We are likely looking at his last chance to have at least a single season in the major leagues, first as Alex Rodriguez’s substitute, then as his caddy. The odds were against Ransom succeeding, because his long experience in the minors showed that he would not hit with enough consistency. Despite this, his small-sample hot streak of last fall gave hope that he could make it. This is the kind of player who is great fun to root for. Unfortunately, Ransom is now 3-for-30 with 10 strikeouts, and it is difficult to see how the Yankees can afford to keep playing him, however quickly A-Rod is expected to come back, or even how they can retain him on the Major League roster once Rodriguez is active. Thursday’s defeat had many fathers, but any kind of contribution from Ransom early on might have meant a different complexion to the game.

matsui275blogpbible.jpgMeanwhile, despite the best efforts of Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano, the rest of the offense has yet to click into gear. The Swisher-free components of the outfield have been a total loss, and there’s a danger that that could be a season-long affliction. Hideki Matsui has looked very sluggish, and Mark Teixeira’s wrist and penchant for slow starts has crippled his numbers. Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have hung in, but four bats is well short of an offensive load. Take out the 11 runs the Yankees scored against Baltimore in the third game of the season and the club is averaging just 4.2 runs of offense per game. You don’t want to hit the panic button after 10 games, and some of the elements will heat up a bit, even Ransom — but heat is relative. They may not heat up enough to make a truly potent offense. That’s something that Brian Cashman is going to have to watch.

SHAWKEY-SABATHIA
Sailor Bob Shawkey was the first starting pitcher at Yankee Stadium, and CC Sabathia will go down as the first at YS: TS. What was not noted today was that Sailor Bob’s history with the Yankees was contentious. After a very good, just-south-of-Cooperstown career, Shawkey became the manager of the Yankees in 1930, replacing Miller Huggins, who had died during the previous season. The club went 86-68, finishing third, and Shawkey was viewed as a failure because former teammates like Babe Ruth wouldn’t take him all that seriously (one wonders who Ruth did take seriously). In an especially coldhearted move, the Yankees replaced Shawkey with Joe McCarthy but didn’t bother telling him. Shawkey happened to walk into GM Ed Barrow’s office as McCarthy was heading out and put two and two together. “It was a dirty deal,” Shawkey said. In anticipation of Yogi Berra years later, Shawkey cut off all contact with the team. He didn’t return until the threw out the first pitch at the renovated Yankee Stadium  — 45 years later. He was 85 years old.

I wonder if the opening day crowd of 2054 will get to see a first pitch from a 73-year-old Sabathia. Try to hang on if you can. I’ll try too, and we’ll talk about it then.

SKINNER

Always interesting to see who gets a hand and who doesn’t when players are announced individually. There wasn’t even polite applause for Indians coach Joel Skinner, who caught for the Yankees for three seasons. I guess fans have forgotten his amazing inability to make contact — in 556 at-bats with the Yankees he struck out 158 times, hitting .214/.299/.253. In comparison to Skinner, Jose Molina is Mickey Cochrane. Maybe they do remember, but are still mad that the Yankees gave up Ron Hassey for him…

…They definitely remembered Carl Pavano. That was clear.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

  • Another depressing bit: many fans and pundits held out hope that this would be the year that Royals’ third baseman Alex Gordon really took off. Instead, he’s headed for surgery with a cartilage tear in his right hip. No word on when he’ll be back as of yet.
  • I keep forgetting to mention Dewayne Wise separating his shoulder  and thus exiting the Chicago White Sox’ lineup. He was another player, like Nady (though a far lesser talent than Nady), whose use I railed against. As with Nady, I’d rather he take a seat than take a surgeon…
  • Unless Tony LaRussa gets caught taking betting tips from Pete Rose, he’s going to the Hall of Fame. If he manages to keep his Cardinals winning at anything like their present (8-3) rate with the roster he has, he’ll have gone an extra length towards earning his plaque. Of course, today’s game against the Cubs was their first against a team of any real talent.