May 2009

Three pitchers, two rotation spots

joba_052809.jpgBEWARE THE SWINGMAN
Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes. Three pitchers for two rotation spots. Each time one pitches well, or pitches badly, or pitches at all, the argument starts up again as to how  to best dispose of each of them. The drumbeat becomes insistent, as if there had to be an answer right now, as if there’s a switch for each player, with position A “starter,” and position B, “bullpen,” and as long as the switch is hovering between the two something is not right in the universe.

In truth, there is a third setting, “neither,” which worked for baseball for years and year, in an era in which a stifling uniformity hadn’t removed the possibility for all creativity or initiative in the way teams are run and constructed, before a self-defeating overspecialization of relief pitching had caused Major League staffs with detritus that would previously never have escaped the minors. Players objected to the uncertainty and the suppression of their individual numbers, but the Yankees won approximately 14 pennants by keeping that switch in neutral.

With more quality pitchers than they had rotation spots, Yankees managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel planned a more complicated pitching staff, using certain pitchers against certain teams, skipping the lefties in Fenway Park, or going out of their way to use them in Detroit, letting them rest against the clubs that hit them well. It worked terrifically. The 1939 Yankees, on the short list for greatest team of all time, used nine starters. Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez largely stayed in rotation, but every once else swung between the rotation and the bullpen. Only Ruffing threw more than 200 innings, this in a season where the league leader in innings pitched came in just under 300. Most of those pitchers found out they were starting when they reached the clubhouse and found a ball under the cap in their locker.

In the 1950s, Casey Stengel initially had a rock-solid rotation fronted by the famous trio of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat, augmented by Tommy Byrne, and soon joined by Whitey Ford. Starts were distributed in a fairly standard manner.  As those pitchers faded, the rotation became more elaborate. In 1953, the world-champion Yankees had only one pitcher, Whitey Ford, make 30 starts. Twelve other pitchers took turns. The 1954 rotation is like a Jackson Pollock painting. In most seasons thereafter, the Dynasty staffs look a lot like that of 1939, with two pitchers — usually Whitey Ford and somebody — staying in rotation and everyone else being called upon as needed. In 1958, Ford made 29 starts, Bob Turley made 31, and no else made 20. Ford and Turley both pitched over 200 innings; no one else pitched even 140 innings.

The insight here is that some pitchers are better in 150 innings than they would be in 200, but would be wasted throwing only 80 innings out of the bullpen. Thus you have a sixth starter, or a seventh. Present-day baseball doesn’t have a place for that kind of pitcher, though Joe Torre did have one for awhile in Ramiro Mendoza. Everyone is a specialist, either a starting specialist or a relief specialist. That’s fine for some — you want to get every inning you can out of CC Sabathia — but as for almost everyone else on the planet, one-size-fits-all solutions, or even two sizes, are too limiting.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what I don’t know in presenting this argument:

1.    How changes in the schedule affect a team’s ability to play fast and loose with its pitchers.
2.    How changes in pitcher usage affect a team’s ability to swing their pitchers.
3.    The impact of swinging on pitcher health.
4.    Whether the pitchers would stage an outright rebellion over such variable usage.

Factor #2 is of particular interest. The complete game is now virtually dead. While the great Yankees managers, particularly Stengel, were willing to go to the bullpen as necessary, they were still far more likely to let a starter finish up a game than any manager would be today. Just pitching a year at random, the 1958 Yankees threw 53 complete games. This was just a bit above average for that season. Last season, the Yankees had one. This means that while McCarthy or Stengel could anticipate that roughly once or twice a week nine of their ten pitchers would get a complete rest, meaning the swingers who recently started wouldn’t be called on to relieve, thereby allowing them to rest or leaving them available for the next spot start. That is obviously impossible today.  

Assuming that these factors can be dealt with, or safely ignored, the Yankees really don’t need to be making aggressive decisions about Wang, Chamberlain, or Hughes short of just doing what seems most productive on a day-by-day basis. That any of them have a specific role on the team should be of greater interest to the pitchers themselves than a dispassionate Yankees management. That means that any of them could be a starter, a reliever, or both. Remember, just because things are presented as they way there are doesn’t mean they’re the way they have to be. Pitcher usage in baseball has always been highly mutable. We haven’t yet reached optimal usage, and in some ways may be running away from it. Those saying that the Yankees are not using their pitchers the right way need to stop being so dualistic and realize that there is no right way, only the way they’re being used right now.

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A pinstriped win, no matter what

jorge_250.jpg

NO MATTER WHAT
HAPPENS, IT’S GOOD FOR THE YANKEES

The next two weeks are going to be a fascinating, possibly
decisive time for the Yankees. First, they should have Jorge Posada back on
Friday, which means they’ll have something like their full offensive complement
for the first time all year–Brett Gardner 
substituting for Melky Cabrera for the next several days
notwithstanding, though Brett is actually out-hitting Melky in May,
.357/.449/.619 to .321/.348/.429, so you can’t say the lineup is suffering too badly
for his absence.

The Yankees then take their reconstituted offense into
battle against the Indians, a team that’s no pushover but has real pitching
problems–even during their recent little winning streak, they were pounded more
often than not. Following four games at Cleveland,
where the Indians are 10-11, they go home for three against the Rangers, a
dangerous team but one that is not nearly so dangerous on the road due to their
low on-base percentage. Yes, their power hitters are going to knock a few balls
out of Yankee Stadium II, but so will the Yankees, and they should have more
runners on when they do so.

The Rangers are followed into New York by the Rays, 12-16 on the road and
suffering from a rapidly unraveling pitching staff. After that series, the Yankees go to Boston, where they get another chance to make
some kind of statement against the Red Sox. Before the Red Sox get to that
point on their journey, the Sox have three games at Toronto, which means that no matter what
happens, one team next to the Yankees in the standings will be losing. Then it’s
off to Detroit,
where the Tigers are a tough 15-7 and currently lead the American League in
lowest run average. Finally, they entertain the Rangers at home while the
Yankees are grappling with the Rays. This could be the moment where the Red Sox
see the race slipping away. Their starting pitching is surprisingly poor. Josh
Beckett has now had five straight quality starts, but there are still problems
beyond him, like getting Daisuke Matsuzaka under control, Jon Lester fixed, and
figuring out how to get rid of Brad Penny so one of the kids can come up and
presumably have an ERA under 6.00. They have let David Ortiz kill them all
season long, and replacing him is going to be a painful and divisive thing to
do. This organization is endlessly resourceful, and they won’t just fall apart,
but they have real problems right now.

As for the Jays,
after the Red Sox, they host the Angels for three and the Royals for three,
both winnable series but neither sure things, followed by four games at Texas, which won’t be
easy at all.

 
THE BULLPEN: A QUICK
WORD

Remember Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell. Better by far to
give Mark Melancon a long look before dealing the farm for a Jose Veras
replacement.


MAKE IT STOP!
Are we done with Angel Berroa yet? Has anyone yet explained
his purpose? Does he have incriminating photos of someone?

It’s a small thing, a very small thing, the 25th
man, but then, remember what Joe Torre did with Homer Bush in 1998. Flexibility,
or for that matter a useful hitter off the bench, would allow the Yankees to
win more games. This would seem… obvious.

 

THE AROUND (AND
ABOUT)

Giants 6, Braves 3:
Randy Johnson threw six strong innings for victory No. 299 (one run, three hits,
no walks, five strikeouts). You’d rather not see him back into 300, and some of
his recent starts have been rough. He’s an amazing physical specimen: in 52
innings, he’s got 54 strikeouts, 9.35 per nine innings. The man is 45 years
old, and there are many, many 25-year-olds who don’t get that many batters to
swing and miss. Only 12 pitchers have thrown as many as 100 innings in a season
at Johnson’s age or older. At 45, Nolan Ryan struck out 8.98 batters per nine
innings. Phil Niekro struck out 6.10 as a 46-year-old Yankee in 1985. There
have been five geriatric seasons in the 5.00s, including Satchel Paige’s 5.93
in 1952. (Paige was a lot further above his league average than Niekro was
above his.) Johnson has the second-largest differential between his rate and
the league strikeout rate after Ryan.

 
Angels 3, White Sox 1:
Everyone pitched well, even Gavin Floyd and someone with the last name of
“Weaver.” These things happen. In fairness to the last-mentioned, he currently
ranks second in the league in ERA, about a run and a half behind Zack Greinke.
Obligatory former Yankees watch: Bobby Abreu went 2-for-3, as did Juan Rivera,
who is now batting .293/.335/.415, which is kind of like current Brett Gardner,
but without the speed and defense or the promise of improvement.

 
Padres 8,
Diamondbacks 5
: After a miserable, miserable, rehearsals-for-retirement
start, Brian Giles has hit .295/.407/523 over his last 14 games, throwing in
nine walks. It’s something, though 14 games is hardly definitive. Good to see
the Padres bounce back over .500 after their recent winning streak was
terminated; usually a fringe team that starts acting dominant for a couple of
weeks will quickly demonstrate the way gravity works (as in, what goes up must
come down).

Twins 4, Red Sox 2:
Solid work all around by Twins pitching in this one, including three innings of
scoreless relief, 1 1/3 by Jose Mijares, a rookie lefty with a
ninth-inning-worthy fastball-slider combo currently working the middle frames…
Another two-hit day for Ellsbury; if you get your batting average up high
enough, eventually it won’t matter if you don’t walk or hit for power. Said
batting average is higher still than your current .307; see Dernard Span–the
difference is a few more extra-base hits and about 14 more walks in exactly the
same amount of playing time.  

 
Mets 7, Washington 4: A
wild, wild night for Johan Santana, who still seems on pace to win that elusive
third Cy Young award. Three straight wins for the Mets with a lineup that for
the Yankees would be missing Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada. It’s
the Nats, of course, so thank the Lords of Good Timing, but all credit to the
Mets for being able to execute… And Daniel Murphy, who banged a home run off a
rather idiotically placed sign.

 
Reds 6, Astros 1:
Seventh straight loss for the Astros, who are starting to get to the place
where a 100-loss season becomes a real possibility–something that has never
happened in what has been a generally successful franchise despite never having
had a champion. From 1969 through last year, the club had won 175 more games
than it had lost… It’s not clear who they can trade, as the few exciting
players are signed to outsized contracts, and they have no impact-level
prospects, so the journey of the ‘Stros, not just through the rest of this
year, but into the next, is going to be an interesting one. As C-3PO said,
there’ll be no escape for the princess this time… Remember I was talking about
Phil Hughes and quality start percentage a couple of days ago? Bronson Arroyo
is at 60 percent, but his ERA is over 5.00–in his three losses, his ERA is
13.83.

 
Indians 12, Rays 7:
The Rays continue to lead the AL
in runs scored per game, but their pitching is like Cerberus’s chew-toy. That
they are hitting so well despite their injuries and a B.J. Upton who ranks as
one of the most futile hitters in the biz is amazing. The regression of the
hurlers is less so, and was widely predicted, though I for one was not so quick
to believe it. I certainly had higher hopes for control artist Andy Sonnanstine,
who has not been so controlling this year. As we saw with Ian Kennedy, a
similar pitcher last year, this model of hurler is either all right or all
wrong–their (lack of) stuff doesn’t allow for a middle ground. The good news
for the Rays is they have some alternatives, such as David Price (now up with
the club) and Wade Davis (not yet).

 
Marlins 6, Phillies 2:
Sometimes even the champions lose to a pitcher named Burke Badenhop, though not
often. Forty-five thousand watched this one at Philadelphia, and as Casey Stengel liked to
say, the attendance was robbed. If Ryan Howard was hitting better than
.227/.303/.455 (four home runs, 88 at-bats), they’d at least have more to talk
about during these Badenhop bow-downs.

 
Mariners 6, Athletics
1
: Nomar Garciaparra heads back to the disabled list. Just thought I would
point out the biggest non-news of the day. I’d also like to point out that
Mariners infielders are hitting .236/.280/.375 as a group, and that’s counting
Russell Branyan. With his fourth cought stealing, Ichiro equals his total for
all of 2008.

 
Dodgers 8, Rockies 6:
Andre Ethier had better hurry and find his stroke, because if Juan Pierre is
still hitting .400 when Manny comes back, even I’m going to have a hard time
arguing that he should be benched–that Pierre has allowed the Dodgers to feel
so little pain over Ramirez’s banishment is one of the stories of the year. The
story of the game was that Joe Torre’s pen bent but didn’t break.

 
Cubs 5, Pirates 2:
Notable mainly for Carlos Zambrano’s ejection-worthy explosion and the
relocation of the Cubs to a game over .500.

 
Tigers 8, Royals 3:
Another strong start for Rick Porcello, though the low strikeout rate is still
troubling. Kyle Farnsworth threw a scoreless inning in the loss, his usual spot
for scoreless innings.

Orioles 12, Blue Jays
10
: Add Nolan Reimold to the list of possibly invigorating youth the
Orioles are now playing with–next year, the AL East could be an even more
difficult place to win a pennant than it is now, though pitching is still going
to be a problem by the Bay. As for the Jays, by the All-Star break we’re not
going to remember they were ever in the race.

 
Cardinals 3, Brewers
2
: In which the Cardinals take control, largely due to their busy bullpen,
though Todd Wellemeyer was solid for five. You wonder if LaRussa’s hardworking
relievers can keep up the pace for the rest of the year, though to be fair he
has spread out the work… Albert Pujols has just one home run in the last two
weeks.  

 
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Reading

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Too many double plays

LET’S KILL TWO!
If the Yankees hitting into three key double plays on Tuesday night bugged you, if you were awake to be bugged, then know that it’s about par for the course for these Yankees, who have gone for the two-outs-on-one-swing sale in about 11.6 percent of their opportunities this year, the seventh-worst rate in the majors this year. The Mariners lead the majors, hitting into a double play in 13.6 percent of their chances. This is kind of amazing, as the Mariners also have the lowest on-base percentage in the majors. They reach base less than anyone else, then kill the few runners they get faster than anyone else.

jeterblog_pbible052709.jpgWhat’s fascinating about the Yankees’ poor performance in double play situations is that for the most part, it’s not the regulars who are doing the damage. This year, the average AL batter is hitting into a twin killing 10.6 percent of the time (the NL rate is almost exactly 10 percent). For example, Derek Jeter has hit into four double plays in 25 opportunities, which is 16 percent. That looks bad, but it’s not, really — one fewer and he’d be right at the league average. The same goes for Melky Cabrera, who has also pounded into four DPs in 25 chances. Brett Gardner, with two in 17 chances, is at the league average, which is surprising given his speed, but less so when one considers that he hits more ground balls than any Yankee except Derek Jeter. The worst Yankees regular is Robby Cano, who has hit into five in 28 chances, or 17.9 percent, but again, that’s not a horror-movie number — Geovany Soto and Mike Lowell are at 30 percent in a significant number of chances (29 and 40, respectively). Several Yankees have actually done a terrific job at staying out of the double play. Nick Swisher, last night’s DP villain, has hit into only two in 33 chances. Johnny Damon has only two. Hideki Matsui and Mark Teixeira are both around six percent.

It’s actually the guys who haven’t played much, or played too much due to injuries, that are driving the Yankees’ into a high number of twin killings at bat. Together, Cody Ransom, Xavier Nady, Kevin Cash, Angel Berroa, Jose Molina, and Francisco Cervelli have hit into 11 double plays in 44 chances, or 45 percent. There’s not much that Joe Girardi can do to address the situation except not play those guys — he already calls as many or more hit-and-run plays as any manager in the game. Unfortunately, he hasn’t always had the choice not to play them, and the existence or continuation of Ransom, Cash, Berroa, and Molina as Yankees was the general manager’s call — but now we’re away from talking about the double play and once more in the realm of depth, so never mind.

In the short term, it’s little consolation that the Yankees blew a chance to take first place in part because of missed offensive opportunities, but at least you can be sure that it was a bit of a poorly timed fluke on the part of two of the three. There’s also an “on the other hand,” which is that when Jorge Posada comes back the team’s double play rate will actually pick up, because Posada runs like the 37-year-old catcher he is. Fortunately, Posada does other things with the bat that more than make up it. You can’t say that about the 11-for-44ers above.  

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Orioles 7, Blue Jays 2: Just over 10,000 showed up at Camden Yards to see the Orioles deal the Jays their eighth straight loss. During the streak, Jays batters are hitting .251/.306/.331, which is very bad but isn’t too different from what Padres hitters did during their recent winning streak. Of course, the Padres had great pitching, whereas the Jays have allowed nearly six runs a game. No doubt you’ve heard that Matt Wieters finally comes up on Friday. With Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis the Orioles are finally changing, and none too soon… I’ll talk more about Wednesday’s game in our next entry, but it should be noted that the Jays dropped their ninth straight to the Orioles in daytime action, the pen being unable to follow up Roy Halladay’s strong start. The Jays are now just four games over .500 and the division is wide open.

Mets 6, Nationals 1: The Nats DFA’d Daniel Cabrera. As Bill Ladson reported at MLB.com, GM Mike Rizzo said, “I looked at the execution of the performance and it wasn’t up to par. I was tired of watching it.” You have to appreciate a candid GM. Among other things, this should inoculate the Yankees from having to face the spectacularly tedious Mr. Cabrera during interleague play (as Bob Uecker said in “Major League,” “Ball three… Ball four… Ball eight…”). Adam Dunn homered again… Just sayin’. Another home run for Gary Sheffield, and he’s now batting .291/.430/.535. Talk about getting something for nothing, and a needed something now that the Mets are in the position of having to play 20-year-old prospect Fernando Martinez, who hasn’t actually looked very prospect-y in years.

Reds 6, Astros 4:
Another three-hit night for Miguel Tejada, but that was most of the fun as Roy Oswalt is no longer the lucky rabbit of yore. Among the most unexpected events in baseball this season: a Laynce Nix renaissance in left field for the Reds, which is kind of like a Rod Stewart renaissance taking over for the late Joe Strummer in a Clash reunion tour. It’s just not something you’d ever think about.

pavano_052709.jpgIndians 5, Rays 1: Can’t tell a lie — Carl Pavano killed. Four Indians hit home runs, three of which probably shouldn’t have been in the lineup, but sometimes you win with your worst foot forward. Both of these clubs lost key players yesterday, with Jason Bartlett hitting the DL with a sprained ankle, and Grady Sizemore may take a seat with a left elbow that’s feeling poorly. The Indians shuffled Matt LaPorta off the roster to get another center fielder up to the bigs, so my criticism of them yesterday was in error.

Phillies 5, Marlins 3:
The much-denigrated (at least by me) Joe Blanton had one of the best starts of his career, shutting out the Marlins for seven frames, striking out 11. That has far more to do with the Marlins with Blanton, as their defining characteristic as an offense is the strikeout. Make that double if Hanley Ramirez’s groin sidelines him for more than 30 seconds.

Cubs 6, Pirates 1: Cut short by rain, and you can expect that Lou Piniella danced in it, maybe more like Roger Daltrey closing out “Quadrophenia” than Gene Kelly — this win got the team that was going to end the 100-year-old dry spell to the break-even point. Elements of the Cubs that haven’t disappointed this year: Kosuke Fukudome, Ted Lilly, Johnny Evers. Evers in particular has done exactly what was expected of him.

Cardinals 8, Brewers 1: The Cards are pitching at about 20 percent above league average, the mark of not only a good pitching team, but a staff on the verge of having a great season. Whether the Cards can improve that much more I don’t know, but in this division they might not have to. Extra-credit to Adam Wainwright for his solo home run, thereby batting in as many runs as he allowed in seven innings.

Twins 5, Red Sox 2: One of the season’s great flukes — Nick Blackburn striking out seven Red Sox. Blackburn never strikes out seven anybodies. Jacoby Ellsbury has a 21-game hitting streak going, during which he’s batting .333/.366/.417. During the streak, he’s stolen 10 bases, been caught four times, and has driven in four runs.

Royals
6, Tigers 1:
How does Jose Guillen have a .412 OBP? Not “how”– that’s like asking where babies come from–I mean, “Why?” …KC shortstops, principally Mike Aviles (now on the DL) are hitting .183/.214/.250 this year. With anything from the position, they might be leading the division right now. It also hurts that David DeJesus is having the worst season of his career. Haven’t mentioned another fine Zack Greinke start, and I won’t, except to say that for some, “potential” is a curse. It’s grand to see someone survive it.

Dodgers 7, Rockies 1:
And there was much gnashing of teeth in Denver given the club’s .400 winning percentage, or maybe it was just losing to Eric Milton (and congratulations to the former Yankees’ draftee for making it back). Andre Ethier in May: .190/.298/.266, following up a .306/.423/.553. Shades of Melky ’08! That’s not to suggest that Ethier won’t be back, but that Melky should have been, or maybe that we just don’t know what turns a hitter on or off–the recipe is probably something like one-third mental, one-third physical, and one-third luck (sprinkle lightly with shredded cheese, serve over pasta).

Diamondbacks 6, Padres 5: Thus endeth the Padres’ winning streak, as Max Scherzer strikes out 10 in seven innings…  Mark Reynolds is just off of last year’s 204-strikeout pace; he’d finish with 202 in the same number of at-bats. Scherzer is only 2-7 in his brief major league career, but his ERA is 3.21, and he’s K’d 119 in 106.2 innings. Of the current roster, Scherzer and Justin Upton will be part of the next great ‘Backs team, but you can’t be certain of anyone else. At .173/.220/.313, Chris Young has to be one of the biggest failures to launch in recent baseball history, a kid who came up with all the tools but didn’t develop a centimeter from where he started.

White Sox 4, Angels 2:
Big day for the Nix family, as Jayson hit two home runs to go with Laynce’s one. What is it with that family and the letter “y?” Big Scrabble fans? Bart Colon’s win pushed his quality start percentage up to 33 percent, still well below average… Bobby Abreu hit his first home run of the season.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: The A’s did all their scoring in one frame, Jason Giambi driving in two runs on a single as the Seattle pen tossed away six shutout innings from Jarrod Washburn. With Kenji Johjima off for a long stay on the DL, the M’s didn’t call up Jeff Clement, batting .309/.382/.533 at Triple-A Tacoma. The guy has his limitations — he’s an offensive catcher with a big swing — but given that the M’s are by far the worst offensive club on the circuit , you’d think they would go for a little more offense. Oddly, for a team that can’t hit, the Mariners have tried the fewest hitters in the American League. They’re standing pat, even though their lineup looks a lot like that of the ’54 Pirates.

Giants 4, Braves 0: And nothing to say about it except, “Lincecum!” Also, every time I load up the news on the Internet, there’s something about “Jon and Kate.” I have not the foggiest who they are, and don’t think I’m going to try to find out. Jon, Kate, Bread, Circuses — there are bigger fish to fry, like baseball (?).

A world of extremes for Hughes

WHAT IS THIS, RED LOBSTER?
I understand that it was Memorial Day, but red caps? Red is a patriotic color? You go whisper that at Joe McCarthy’s grave and see if his rotted hands don’t shoot up out of the ground and drag you down under the dirt. Besides, the Yankees just looked plain undignified.

aceves275_052609.jpg… On the other hand, if you win all your red-cap games by 10 runs, maybe red caps can be fashionable.

PHIL HUGHES, SO NEAR AND YET SO NEAR
Assuming the Yankees don’t use Thursday’s day of rest to skip a rotation spot — and Joe Girardi hasn’t done that so far this year — Mr. Hughes will next pitch Sunday at Cleveland. He’s made one career start at Jacobs Field and did very well, throwing six innings of one-run baseball back on August 10, 2007. The Indians don’t have quite the same roster now — Hughes won’t be striking out Kenny Lofton twice this time around — but the meat is the same. Cleveland has one of the league’s most strikeout-prone lineups this year, something that could play into Hughes’ hands. Parenthetically, they also sent down Matt LaPorta, one of the top power prospects in baseball, who had mostly rented space on their bench over the last few weeks. Very wasteful, especially when the players currently in his positions, Ryan Garko and Ben Francisco, are not current or future world-beaters …

Back to Hughes: Monday in Texas was just a taste of his abilities, and the trick for the Yankees and Hughes himself will be to exploit his talents more consistently. I know that seems obvious, but Hughes has been either all or nothing in his brief career. When Hughes is on, he’s been dominant. In his eight career wins, his ERA is 1.44. In his losses, it’s 11.53. Now, all pitchers have this sort of split between their best days and their worst, but Hughes has been particularly extreme. The difference has largely been one of control: On the bad days, Hughes can’t get his pitches over, his walk rate shoots up, and the home runs follow. That said, when it works it really works; a more typical ERA in winning games is something in the 2.00s. The Right Stuff Hughes is overwhelming. On yet another hand, part of a starting pitcher’s job is to give his team to win whether he has the stuff to pitch a no-hitter or not. Hughes isn’t there yet.

Hughes should eventually have fewer days when he’s just a glorified batting practice pitcher, but it’s difficult to say when things will click into place, or if further Minor League experience would be a help or a hindrance. The only thing that’s certain is that the upside is huge and there’s no sure way to get at it except to keep trying. Right now, bad days have actually outnumbered the good (with “in between” outnumbering both). American League pitchers make a quality start just under half the time this year — the rate has stayed fairly constant since 2005. For his career, Hughes’ rate is 33 percent. When he’s good he’s very good, when he’s bad he’s worse, and if he could just shift a few of those bad ones onto the good or even “Mr. In-Between” pile (the guy Johnny Mercer said you don’t mess with), the Yankees would have a star on their hands.

It could be that Texas was the beginning of the shift, and that Cleveland will be continuation of it, or maybe Hughes struggles again and the counter resets. Patience is obviously warranted.

BRIAN BRUNEY HEADS BACK TO THE DL …
… Another stay for Brett Tomko. The battle for relief help as the trade deadline nears is going to be intense. Many of the teams that have dropped out of their division races have done so in large part because of their lack of quality relievers. Sure, the Nationals will trade you one of their relievers, but do you want one? (Nightmare scenario: Ron Villone’s scoreless 11.1 innings this season suddenly makes him attractive trade-bait.)  Sure, the Rockies may want to move Huston Street, and there might be a couple of other semi-attractive hurlers out there, but it’s definitely going to be a seller’s market. As I stated in a previous entry, the Yankees would be best off if they aggressively sorted through the David Roberstsons (welcome back, Dave) and Mark Melancons of the world now so they know whether they have to go hard after relief help or they can save their chips for bigger game. Thus my minor-key carping about Tomko: he’s not part of the solution set, and he’s taking up the roster spot of someone who very well may be. Who better to spend trash time innings on, a 99-year-old vet or a kid who might show you something?

MORE FROM ME
?    For those with access to Baseball Prospectus, I’ve got a bit up on the worst offenses of all time, springboarding from the current Giants. No Yankees on the list, though I could have dragged in the 1913 team, I guess …

?    Wholesome Reading has been updated, with more to come on the evolving Supreme Court and Prop 8 situations. Warning: Politics!

Feels like home to them

Arod-5-25-250.jpgThe Yankees have now played over 20 games both at home and on the road. At home, the Yankees have a hit a home run every 17.9 at-bats and are scoring 5.61 runs per game. On the road, the Yankees have homered every 27.4 at-bats and have averaged 5.43 runs per game. The change is small but significant. Overall, the Yankees are second in the league in home runs per at-bat, almost even with the leader, the Texas Rangers. The road rate is more of a piece with that of the Red Sox, Tigers, Rays, and Twins. The Yankees are not a product of their generous new home park, but without the winds of Yankee Stadium the offense would look like one of several solid efforts, rather than a league-leading collection.

The Yankees will get a boost in the power department when Jorge Posada returns–as nice a job as Frankie Cervelli has done hitting singles (he’s been better than could have been expected and yet still far from an offensive asset), he’s no power threat–and have already seen Alex Rodriguez raise their home run rate at third, but as things stand now, theYankees have allowed 42 home runs at home and hit 45. Adjusting for the differential in at-bats between the home team and visitors means that in equal playing time, the Yankees would lead their opponents 48-42. In the long term, that differential may prove to be insufficient, particularly in a playoff situation against an opponent which may have great power potential of its own. The Rangers, who the Yankees play in Texas starting today, come in next week, and we’ll see what the park does for a team with a great deal of power. The Phillies, another powerful club, hit six homers in two games before running into CC Sabathia on Sunday

At the trading deadline, the Yankees will undoubtedly have their main focus on relief pitching, but barring a major acquisition, the solutions to the club’s inconsistencies in the pen are likely to be found within the organization. Alfredo Aceves has helped solve the long relief problem, and before long Mark Melancon or David Robertson will finally click and give the club some reliability in the middle innings–keep in mind these two pitches have thrown a total of eight big league innings between them this season, and their problem was not necessarily hittability but what one assumes was a jittery loss of control. The club can better tolerate this transient tendency towards walks now that Jon Albaladejo and Edwar Ramirez have been sent into exile. There is also the possibility that Phil Hughes could work out of the bullpen for awhile when/as/if Chien-Ming Wang is ready to pitch with his old aplomb. The time to work through this is now.

If the bullpen problem can be solved internally, then Brian Cashman will be freed to give the offensive one last, persuasive boost. There will be candidates. With Washington’s nigh-historic record, Adam Dunn (.284/.420/.594) could be on the move again later this year, and just as I argued the Yankees should have been in on him last winter, they should be in on him at the trade deadline. He would be a massive upgrade on Hideki Matsui at DH and add the ability to play the field (nominally, but that’s still more than Matsui can do just now). Even if Matsui’s current slump–he’s batting .191/233/.368 in May, is 8 for his last 50, and is also batting .220/.313/.407 on the road–proves to be transient, he’s washed up in New York, a superannuated free agent after the season. If he finishes the season as a pinch-hitter, it’s no loss to the Yankees because he won’t be back. Dunn is signed through 2010, and at a million-dollar discount over Matsui’s current salary.

In 470 at-bats stretching back to last year, Matsui has hit 14 home runs. Given the reality of their park, the Yankees need more power, power to match cannonade for cannonade with the opposition. Picking up Dunn would be one way to reach past parity to superiority in the battle of warheads and throw-weight–you know, nuclear explosives. The Rays and Jays are likely locked into their current rosters, but you know the Red Sox won’t hesitate to deal, especially when they finally exhaust their patience with David Ortiz. If the Yankees put their focus in the wrong place, they will get left behind.

ACTION JACKSON NOTE
Austin Jackson went 4-for-5 against Pawtucket yesterday to raise his rates to .354/.440/.444. He is also a perfect 8-0 in stolen base attempts. There are two negatives in the record: no home runs in 144 at-bats, which should change at some point, and 40 strikeouts in 39 games, which perhaps argues that the high batting average is a bit of a fluke. Still, at this point Jackson is just someone else’s pulled hammy away from the big leagues.

An unrelated minor league note: Shelley Duncan should really be in the major leagues. Sure, he’s 29, has no defensive position, and won’t hit for any kind of average, but the Yankees’ bench is very limited and Duncan would bring it a touch of power. There’s no argument for Angel Berroa to be in the big leagues, especially when there’s not an alternative like Duncan around. Both are journeymen, but one of the two can actually do something useful.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Royals 3, Cardinals 2: I don’t know how many of you readers were around when Brian Bannister’s daddy Floyd pitched for the Mariners and the White Sox. He was a hard-throwing lefty who had trouble with consistency–some days he was untouchable, others he was wild and a bit prone to the home run–and you always felt like he could have been a bit better. Brian is a soft-tossing righty who always makes you feel like he could be a bit worse. As such, when he overcomes the Cardinals, his own manager (Horacio Ramirez again, the Royals’ Brett Tomko), and his own lack of stuff, it feels like the triumph of the little man. If only Bannister could strike out Bernie Madoff… The Cardinals get Rick Ankiel back and really need him to rake, because Albert Pujols is looking very lonely with Ryan Ludwick hurt and everyone else slumping–he’s getting the Bonds treatment now, walk him nearly every time up and take your chances with whichever anorexic bat is coming up next.

Rangers 5, Astros 0: Houston got a 4-for-4 from Miguel Tejada in this one, boosting his rates to .345/.370/.520–didn’t think the old boy still had it in him. He’s now hitting .378 in May. Obviously, such performances only can get you so far when the rest of the team is being shut down by Brendan McCarthy. Speaking of being shut out by McCarthy, which really isn’t something in McCarthy’s bag of tricks, Rangers fielders lead the AL in defensive efficiency, turning 72 percent of balls in play into outs.

Pirates 4, White Sox 3: In which the Pirates finally get their revenge for the 1919 World Series–they weren’t invited. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but I will take the opportunity to note that the 1919 Pirates were managed by a football coach and yet also carried three future pennant-winning managers, two of them Hall of Famers: Casey Stengel, Billy Southworth, and Charlie Grimm. They also had a fourth Hall of Famer in the fast Max Carey. Carey, Southworth, and Stengel actually made for a pretty potent outfield, at least against right-handed pitching, but Carey missed more than half the season with some kind of illness… Jeff Karstens allowed Brian Anderson his first home run of the year on this one.

Nationals 8, Orioles 5: No Nick Johnson in this one–he was scratched due to “stomach discomfort.” Naturally, we’re sympathetic–I ate some bad mussels once and had the worst three days of my life–but when you’re “Nick the Sick” you don’t get the benefit of the doubt; the Red Sox aren’t going to trade real pitching for you if you’re hooked on Nexium. As noted above
, Adam Dunn played first and drove in six runs on two homers. The miracle of this gtame is that the Nationals actually got three scoreless innings out of their pen, which has to have a lot more days like this to avoid a “worst in recorded history” rap. Adam Jones hit home run #10; looking forward to seeing the kid make his first All-Star team… Congratulations to the Orioles on the release of Adam Eaton, who has rarely helped anyone.

Braves 10, Blue Jays 2: It’s good to see Brian McCann (3-for-4, two home runs) have a big game after all his ocular problems… The Jays’ pen was the culprit in this one, giving up eight runs, seven in the seventh, after a solid five innings by Scott Richmond… Good for the Braves to get a win with both Chipper Jones and Yunel Escobar on the bench.

Marlins 5, Rays 4:
In addition to possible loss of Akinori Iwamura, which the Rays are in decent shape to withstand, should it turn out to be a long-term thing (more on this tomorrow), it needs to be said that the name “Brignac” reminds me of the rock monster that Tim Allen fought in “Galaxy Quest.” Fascinating that of the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, only the last have gotten a solid contribution out of the designated hitter spot. The Red Sox are pretending that David Ortiz’s season-long slump hasn’t held them back, but they’re 7-8 in one-run games. That’s one place where the evidence contradicts that stance… Scott Kazmir to the DL, Troy Percival to the retirement home?

Red Sox 12, Mets 5:
And the Red Sox go into first, because, among other things, the Blue Jays are just a bunch of birds, and not in the nice, Swinging London sense of the word. Unusual to see a first baseman bat leadoff, but the Mets have nothing else to do with David Murphy, who is batting .158 this month, and their batting order is so contorted by injuries that they’ve really had to vamp. Strange to say it, but Gary Sheffield (.320/.452/.500 this month) has really helped.

Padres 7, Cubs 2:
The Pads have won nine straight games. Er… what? How can you be a breakfast chain and not serve fresh-squeezed OJ? You know who I’m talking about. Oh, the Padres. They’ve reached .500. During the win streak they’ve hit–ready for this?–.209/.315/.356. However, the pitching staff has allowed 16 runs in the 88 innings of the last nine games, or 1.64 per game. It helps to play the Giants, a team which may yet rank among the worst offensive teams in history, but the Cubs and the Reds have less of an excuse, except perhaps that the Cubs aren’t really the Cubs right now.

Twins 6, Brewers 3: You cannot stop Mauer and Mourneau, you can only contain them, or feed them bits of cheese and hope they’ll be satisfied–.438/.525/.875, what is that? Does Mauer say “Shazam!” or “Kimota!” before an at-bat (or maybe… Kaji Dha)? Sincere condolences to Delmon Young (and Dmitri, too) who lost their mother last week.

Athletics 6, Diamondbacks 2:
Josh Outman, another potential super-hero for Mauer’s league, has now pitched nine games and is 2-0 with a 2.90 ERA, a lot better than Joe Blanton. If there were accuracy in labeling laws for baseball, Blanton would have to replace the “t” in his name with a “d”… About time for a change of scenery for Travis Buck (.205), who might still have it in him to hit, but apparently won’t get to it in Oakland… Note Justin Upton’s home/road split. He’s hitting .320/.392/.612, which is a very nice thing for a 21-year-old to be doing, but more to the point, it’s not all Arizona hot air–he’s batting .359/.407/.705 on the road so far.

Angels 10, Dodgers 7: In which Joe Torre pushed a fading Chad Billingsley too far, but then proved to have been correctly a-feared of his bullpen, as they heaped on the humiliation.  The Angels’ pen kept trying to give it back, too, helped by your favorite ex-Yankee, Bobby Abreu, who went 2-for-4 with a triple but also made a sliding non-catch that put his team in serious jeopardy late. He still hasn’t homered and is batting only .303–Brian Cashman made a good call in not retaining him, not offering arbitration, and in general saying a Bartleby-ish “I prefer not to” whenever anything involving the Vacillating Venezuelan was concerned. (“Vacillating” on fly balls–“Do I catch it? Do I not catch it? Is it too near the wall? Is the wall too near to it?”)
 
MORE FROM ME
Back to politics: Wholesome Reading has several new entries, and at popular request no less.

Phillies-Yanks should be interesting …

OPENING WITH AN IMPORTANT PARENTING QUESTION
If you’re driving your third grader to school, and you and she are cruising down the road singing “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” are you being a bad parent? It’s good to instill independent thinking and a healthy disrespect for authority, right? Next time, we’ll probably work on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters, and You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I wonder if there’s a cover by those Australian guys with the colored uniforms …

philles300_052109.jpgWANG IS BACK/THE PHILLIES ARE HERE
… And given that he’s going to be hanging in the ‘pen in a long relief role, you’d hope the Yankees won’t actually need him. With the way the Phillies hit and A.J. Burnett’s propensity for high pitch counts, they very well might … This is actually a fascinating series, the champs against the Yankees. That part is obvious. Within it, though, you have some wonderful matchups, particularly Cole Hamels against CC Sabathia on Sunday, some terrific hitters that the Yankees don’t ordinarily see, such as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Actually, they used to see Ibanez quite a bit; he’s a career .281/.338/.418 hitter against them in 74 games — which is nothing compared to the way he murderized the Nats last weekend. The Yankees also get to see how their new ballpark’s walls do against the team that’s leading the Senior Circuit in home runs. On Saturday, keep an idle brain cell on Andy Pettitte’s reverse split — lefties hit him quite well, which at the very least Howard, who can often be neutralized by southpaws (although he can still hit their mistakes quite a long way), should be right in the game against him.

Finally, keep in mind that the Phillies have played nine games against the Nationals and three against the Padres. That’s 12 of 39 games against less than quality opponents. This will particularly show up in their pitching, which hasn’t been pretty to begin with, looking fairly vulnerable to Yankees’ bats.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Phillies 12, Reds 5: Trying to identify the best hitter in the Phillies lineup is like trying to pick the best Cole Porter song — there are too many choices, and it really depends on which version you’re catching on a given night. My pick is Raul Ibanez, but Jimmy Rollins went 4-for-6 last night and you might pick him, or prefer “You’re the Top.” You could be wrong, though, because the correct answer is also Chase Utley (3-for-4 with a double and a home run) and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” You might not be surprised by this, but in preparing this comment, I burned 20 minutes watching Ethel Merman clips on YouTube, including three and a half minutes of biography narrated in Japanese. My world of free association is strange, but mostly I enjoy it. On the Reds’ side of the ledger, the good news for the day is that Joey Votto isn’t going the way of the vertiginous Nick Esasky. That’s so much more than a consolation prize.

Tigers 4, Rangers 3: It looks more and more like the Rays moved on Edwin Jackson just when he was finally ready to blossom, but that was a move born of financial, not baseball, considerations. The Rangers took six walks and still lost — no doubt they’ve learned their lesson and will never do it again. I’m curious about who told Jim Leyland that Clete Thomas is his No. 3 hitter. Then again, given injuries and Magglio Ordonez’s personal leave, I’m not sure who his No. 3 hitter should be either. Al Kaline? On an unrelated note, it occurs to me (still distracted by YouTube) that if Nol Coward had only sung “Mad Dogs and Baseball Players” we would have had a great explanation of the need for night games.

Twins 20, White Sox 1: I can’t even use a football joke, because how did the Sox score one point in a football game? Two points I could have worked with. In anything but a response to yesterday’s rant on the Twins’ No. 2 spot in the batting order, Ron Gardenhire moved Joe Mauer up there and got 3-for-4 with six RBIs, including a grand slam. See what happens when you use your brain for something other than making up dirty pictures?

Indians 8, Royals 3: It’s not that Carl Pavano outpitched Zack Greinke, it’s that the Royals aren’t serious. How else to explain consecutive losses out of the bullpen by Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson? You’d be better off throwing darts at your Minor League rosters — right down to the rookie leagues — and calling up whoever you land on than foisting these retreads on the fans and your players, who are presumably making a serious effort to, y’know, bring some glory back to your once top-of-the-line franchise.

Rays 6, Athletics 5:
Fun to see Adam Kennedy put a little spark into the A’s lineup, and a bit sad and desperate, too … Ben Zobrist is now 4-for-11 with three home runs as a pinch-hitter.  Also, scratch another ballpark concept for the Rays. This one was sunk due to location issues rather than financing; the latter battle hasn’t even been fought as of yet. In that sense, the delay is good for the Rays. They can hope that flush times return before they nail down a new spot. And good luck with that.

Rockies 9, Braves 0:  Aaron Cook is the Wang of the West, and if he pitched elsewhere more would know it (4.14 career ERA in 457 career innings).  Beyond the whole not-scoring thing, it was a disastrous night for the Braves, as promising pitching prospect Kris Medlen appeared to go mental in the fourth inning. The bullpen heaped it on after that, with Todd Helton slamming a slam off of Medlen’s immediate relief, but the real worry is not that failure but that of a kid suddenly forgetting how to pitch.

Nationals 5, Pirates 4: In this reenactment of the 1925 World Series, a rookie named Stammen plays the part of Walter Johnson, except not nearly as good, and Nick Johnson steps in for Joe Judge — and that’s as appropriate a comp as you’ll find, as Judge even tended to miss 30 games a year on various injuries. All it took for the Nats to enjoy their reversal of fortune was a taste of Gorzelanny, as the Pirates got nostalgic for the kind of losses they suffered in that distant time known as last year.

Diamondbacks 4, Marlins 3: A nice start for Max Scherzer, who hasn’t won as many games as he’s deserved. Chad Qualls saved his 10th game, striking out the side. Qualls has a chance to make the All-Star team, which would be appropriate given that though he has rarely occupied the glamour role in a bullpen, he’s one of the most consistent relievers in baseball. The Marlins got a great start out of Andrew Miller, and Dan Uggla hit another home run, but Mark Reynolds took the bullpen deep and that was that. Twelve home runs now for Reynolds, and he’s actually hitting them more often on the road. Go figure.

Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 1: Wake up, Dorothy! Wake up! As John Lennon sang, the dream is over — he don’t believe in Jays, just him, Yoko and him. Patchwork pitching and an overachieving offense can only keep on for so long before the other guys, with their real pitchers and home run hitters, start to chip away. In other words, the Jays are the Potemkin village of baseball. It says something that Jon Lester hasn’t been able to pitch at all lately, but he had no problem keeping the Jays off the board. Meanwhile, Peter Gammons reports that the Red Sox might be talking with the Nats about the aforementioned Nick “The Joe Judge” Johnson as a way of bumping David Ortiz out of the lineup. That would be bad news for the Yankees indeed.

Brew
ers 4, Astros 3:
Lance Berkman and Cecil Cooper got tossed arguing a close play at the plate. It’s good to see some animation out of Houston that goes beyond one frame-per minute Hanna-Barbera-style motion hieroglyphics.

Cardinals 3, Cubs 1: Important divisional game, both teams showed up, with the difference coming down to Albert Pujols. The Cubs just don’t have the fire power right now, not with Aramis Ramirez out, Derek Lee looking old, and Milton Bradley apparently taking the year off. On the other hand, Yadier Molina batted cleanup for the Cards last night, so we really are down to the great man theory of history here. In baseball, one player cannot carry a team to a pennant over the course of a season. One game is a different matter. Even then, we haven’t discussed Adam Wainwright, who held the line for 8 2/3 strong frames.

Padres 3, Giants 2: If things persist, the 2009 Giants may well go down in history as the worst offensive team of the modern era, worse even than these Padres, whose ballpark holds down their hitting (though even without it they would still be miserable). We’re talking worse than some expansion teams. They don’t have to make it worse, though, by maintaining Brian Wilson as their closer, a job he’s clearly not up for … The Padres fail at another attempt to move Jake Peavy, succeed in throwing away Jody Gerut, which isn’t the same thing as far as payroll is concerned. You’d wonder if Adrian Gonzalez would be the next out the door, but his contract is actually rather modest by the standards of baseball (not so modest by the standards of, say, your salary or mine, but you knew that).

Angels 3, Mariners 0: The limp to the finish in the AL West is going to be one of the more fascinating things to watch over the rest of the year. The Rangers are strong but limited, the Angels are limited but are generally smart about the way they do things, and they’re getting healthier. As in the AL East, whoever upgrades fastest bestest is going to win this thing. Does Arte Moreno have the dough to take on the poison pill in Peavy’s contract? It’s not clear that he has the prospects, but after the White Sox debacle, prospects may no longer be the main concern.

A personal message to Polly Tompkins

polly_300.jpgIT GOES WITHOUT SAYING, BUT I WANNA SAY IT ANYWAY
I wasn’t at last night’s game, so I missed the opportunity to say this in person: Polly Tompkins you have a friend at the Pinstriped Bible. As Kevin Goldstein said to me over five years ago: kick cancer’s [rear end]. I can’t pass that along enough times.

And if you ever want to talk baseball with someone who has had the smallest taste of what you are going through, feel free to drop a line anytime.

(Editor’s Note: Watch Kimberly Jones’ interview with Polly here.)

QUICK REACTION TO THE (POSSIBLE) JAKE PEAVY TRADE

At this writing, not all the details have been iced yet, like who the Padres are getting back. In a way, it doesn’t really matter, because anytime a club trades a talent like Peavy it’s almost certainly going to lose the deal, because you’re trading something proven for something speculative. The exception is the miserable Yankees trades of the 1980s, like Doug Drabek for Rick Rhoden, or Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. The Yankees traded something speculative for something fading, and their upside was far from guaranteed, whereas Peavy is an ace still in the center of his career. That’s why the Yankees have come away looking good on many trades of the Brian Cashman era, say in the Chuck Knoblauch deal. The Twins couldn’t get equal talent, so they hoped to make up in volume what they were giving up, and that’s just not going to happen 99 percent of the time — the very rarity of stars means it’s unlikely that you’ll get one back when you deal one no matter how many players are taken in as part of the package.

As for the White Sox, at 5 games out, it’s certainly not too late for them to climb back into the AL Central race, and their starting rotation could certainly use help, particularly after the very dramatic flame out of Jose Contreras, but it’s really their offense that needs the most help. The Pale Hose are batting .245/.315/.386 as a team, a scary bad place to be in this era. They need an entire infield, or even just one hard-hitting infielder more than they need a pitcher. Perhaps now they will play more low-scoring games, but they won’t necessarily win them.  

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Detroit 5, Rangers 3: The Rangers are real, but not as real as say, the Emerald City sets in “The Wizard of Oz.” They could still well win the division and probably should, but they do have real problems on the road. The batters don’t walk at all, and away from their uncomfortably friendly ballpark (all the walls in Arlington are close talkers), they don’t do much to reach base — they were batting .241/.284/.425 on the road going into this game. Yes, the power is real, but solo home runs can be like a pen-pal you’ll never meet — as the Tigers showed by hitting two solos and a two-run shot off of Matt Harrison in this contest.

White Sox 7, Twins 4: One item left over from the Twins-Yankees series that’s driving him half insane (and I was already halfway there) was the extensive on-air discussion of Ron Gardenhire’s difficulty in finding a number two hitter who can hit. Is your heart breaking, yet, thinking of poor Gardy staying up nights, eyes red-rimmed from tears as he struggles to make out that card one more time? True, Twins No. 2 hitters are batting just .190/.254/.250 on the season. False that we should feel sorry for them, because there’s a very simple solution: STOP LISTING BAD HITTERS IN THE SPOT. Twins No. 8 hitters are batting .304/.381/.348 for gosh sakes. Sure, it’s just shuffling the problem around, but at least Gardenhire can bury the problem instead of giving it the second-most plate appearances on the team. The real issue is not the No. 2 spot, but that Twins’ second basemen can’t hit, yet Gardenhire feels obligated to bat them second. Compulsive nerve-twitching isn’t thinking… In other news, it seems like wherever Francisco Liriano was heading in 2006, he won’t be going back there.

Marlins 8, Diamondbacks 6: Somehow I find it annoying to type “Diamondbacks,” and I’ll be doing it a minimum of three times today. It beats digging ditches, I know that, so really, I’m not complaining. I still feel like Miguel Montero could help a contender if the D’backs felt like, y’know, rebuilding. On the Marlins side, Chris Volstad had less than his best start but still struck out nine in six innings and came away with a win. What a novelty, a sinker-ball guy with strikeouts.

Diamondbacks 11, Marlins 9: No doubt Justin Upton will take a 4-for-7 with two home runs; that’s a week’s production for some players, a month’s if you’re talking about Jose Molina. At least Upton is a superstar in the making; it’s harder to explain Felipe Lopez hitting .323/.379/.484. Depressing: a Hayden Penn start. More depressing: Hanley Ramirez going 0-for-9 in the doubleheader.

Braves 12, Rockies 4: Wow. The Braves score 12 runs, Javier Vazquez allows fewer than 12 runs — it’s neat when things go according to plan. Of course, you don’t get a pitcher as wild as Jorge De La Rosa every day, and even if you did, Francoeur still wouldn’t take a walk. Cheap shot? Sure, but willful, obstinate stupidity is also cheap these days (with prices so low they’re practically giving it away, promising you a 200 percent annual return on all the money you didn’t put in). I promise I’ll put away this particular stick for at least a few days, especially because it’s more fun to cheer “professional hitter” Matt Diaz’s 3-for-4. He’s up to .288/.369/.466 and he’s not got one-third the talent of some other guys we could mention.

Pirates 2, Nationals 1: At least everyone pitched well, up to a point. Hilarious note of the day: Nats move Daniel Cabrera to the bullpen. We’ve had lefty specialists and side-arming righty specialists. Meet the walks ‘n’ wild pitches specialist.

Athletics 7, Rays 6: Connie Mack said he was very pleased with the way Jimmy ***** played third today, and… Any team with an offense that has an adjusted OPS below 80 is historically poor; the A’s OPS+ is currently 78. Nonetheless, something is crazy wrong with Scott Kazmir, so they get to score for a change. Another positive development: Matt Holiday is hitting .278/.489/.568 over the last 14 days. And when Daffy Duck asks, “Do you want to trade him now, or wait ’til you get home?” you know exactly what to say…

Reds 5, Phillies 1: Here’s another clue for you all: the Walrus was Jamie Moyer. Oh, come on — he’s not too young. Check out the cover of “Abbey Road” — he’s “the pitcher.” You can just spot him peaking out of the trunk of the VW Bug.

Red Sox 8, Blue Jays 3: You’ll never fail like common people… The big noise is over Big Papi’s initial home run, but I dig Kevin Youkilis coming back with a 3-for-5 to push his average back over .400 (.404 to be exact). Even bigger, as we pointed out here yesterday, as that Brett Cecil failed his first test against a real offense. If the Red Sox revealed the little man behind the curtain, well, it’s not necessarily curtains for the Jays, but it could be — this way to the egress.

Astros 6, Brewers 4: In my theology, the Astros don’t win enough games to get within two games of .500, so I object to this result on religious grounds — especially when their manager makes an elementary mistake and turns in the wrong lineup card, costin
g his team an out on a batting out of order charge… Not sure that playing Casey McGehee helps the Brewers either offensively or defensively; you’d like to see Mat Gamel and some aggressive defensive subbing get a shot at hitting their way past any leather problems; the Macha-men hit well, but not so well they can afford to punt on a position…

Indians 6, Royals 5: Sid Ponson takes the loss in relief. I’ve often said that if you stabbed yourself in the fork every day for a year, you’d eventually get used to it and perhaps even miss it when you finally stopped. Ponson is like being stabbed in the leg with a fork. What a strange way to run a ballclub.

Cardinals 2, Cubs 1: Last night, Milton Bradley made a baserunning gaffe, getting doubled off of first base. Lou Piniella said, “You know what happens when you’re not scoring runs? Invariably, people try to overdo, and it leads to mistakes.” Casey Stengel, Piniella’s managerial grandfather through Billy Martin, said exactly the same thing, except that his version was, “When you’re losing, everyone commences to playing stupid.” Meanwhile, on the crimson side of the field, Chris Carpenter takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He’s more machine than man now, but he keeps coming back. You have to admire that; unlike the old days, the players have the option now to take the money and hit the sofa.

Padres 2, Giants 1: Fighting for scraps in a division that’s already over with.

Mariners 1, Angels 0: Any Santana trumps a Jakubauskas. It says that in Hoyle’s. The only exception: Wednesdays. Note: Bobby Abreu and his toe headed out early. Still no home runs for Bobby, and he’s down to .300/.400/.364, which is not unhelpful, but more like peak Luis Castillo than peak Abreu.

Dodgers 2, Mets 1: Being swept hurts, getting a one-run, seven-inning performance from Livan Hernandez and still losing just kills, because you don’t know if you’ll ever get anything like that out of his spot again. Carlos Beltran was the only Met who actually hit, but no doubt the bashing on ESPN continues. Playing guys out of position, having an old team, these things aren’t worthy of criticism, but the center fielder who is hitting .370, him we’ve gotta crucify. Truly, this is the way of the world. 

Pitching, bullpen and depth are still problems

THE LAWS HAVE CHANGED
The timing of today’s installment is brought to you by the drive-through line at the local major pharmacy chain store. I suppose there’s no rule book that establishes basic courtesy for the drive-through line, but “drive-through,” taken as literally as you can take it under the circumstances, suggests you drive through, without stopping if that were possible — just roll down the window and the clerk heaves the bag at you. Anything transaction takes would seem to require more standing around than that should require a trip inside the store. It’s just common sense and a bit of courtesy. If you need to discuss the history of Western civilization with the pharmacist, park it. You won’t be idling up clouds of exhaust while holding hostage those who just want to pick up or drop off a prescription. Think about it: would you order French fries for 100 at the McDonald’s drive-through? Better yet, would you ask for a treatise on the potato starting with the primal atom, then order? If you’re guilty of this, please turn yourself in immediately.

REVIEWING THE LAST ENTRY (WITH A FEW REACTIONS TO THE COMMENTS)

I missed a day due to a bad reaction to some medication — I know I’ve quoted Mickey Mantle’s “Kid, don’t be like me” many times before, but it’s worth saying again. Not everyone chooses how they get cancer, and I sure as heck ain’t complaining about surviving it, but my time is no longer my own, ironically so I can be sure of having more time. Hey, you over there! Drop that cigarette! This is not a lifestyle you want to choose! Got it? I’m begging you here. Anyway, that gave the last post a chance to sit around while the Yankees won their seventh straight game in grand style. Before we get to that, stats for the winning streak: .271/.358/.521 for the offense, with 13 home runs, one every 18.2 at-bats. The batters have also picked up a walk every 8.9 plate appearances — the league is taking a pass just once every 11 PAs. On the pitching side, the club has allowed just 21 runs in its last 66 innings.

After five straight wins, I wrote (as you can see below) that it wasn’t yet conclusive that the Yankees had turned a major corner (is there such a thing as a minor corner?). You can pull five games out of any team’s schedule and get a picture of that team that isn’t necessarily accurate, even — or especially — if they are all wins or losses. As the old saying goes, you never look as good as when you’re at your best or as bad as you do when you’re at your worst. Now, since I wrote those words, the Yankees have tacked on another two wins to make it seven straight victories, and those doubts can be eased a bit. And yet, yet, yet, the walks by the pitching staff, the bullpen, the lack of depth are all problems that the team will have to overcome in more than seven games, but over the rest of the season.

Pointing this out isn’t negativity, it isn’t pessimism, it’s your humble old commentator trying to do more than cast runes and read chicken entrails. I’m all for feeling good and going with the flow and enjoying it while it lasts, but I don’t like being taken by surprise, particularly when it’s my job not to be taken by surprise. As such, my method has to be to take theories like, “The Yankees have won seven in a row, so it’s a straight line from here to the next championship” and test them looking for strengths and weaknesses. I figure out what I can, then report back to you so you can test your judgment against mine.

Speaking of which, “4everbronx” says, “Whew, it’s a good thing they didn’t lose those games…What would your reaction have been?”

Almost the same. One-run games are, on the cosmic level, coin flips. This seems especially true when a team’s bullpen is as questionable as the Yankees’ pen has been to this point. If we were talking about a hypothetical pen with Bruce Sutter handing off to Rollie Fingers handing off to Dennis Eckersley (or maybe even Jeff Nelson to Mike Stanton to Mariano Rivera), I would be more accepting of these games as indicators of a repeatable skill on the part of the club. Perhaps now that Brian Bruney is back they will be. For the most part, though, when you look over the history of the game, one-run decisions aren’t something you can extrapolate from.

mark_bible_blog_052009.jpgObviously it is better for the Yankees to have won these seven games than not, but prior to that they weren’t exactly burning up the league. The Yankees have played 39 games, not seven, and those other 32, however mixed the results, can’t be totally discounted. If the Yankees of the last seven games are substantially different from the Yankees of the previous month’s worth of games, we have to be able to articulate why. I can give you two reasons, actually: A-Rod is back, and Mark Teixeira is finally hot (Teixeira claims the two are not unrelated). However, that doesn’t address the pitching side of the equation.

Despite this, as I suggested in that last entry, some will want to view this winning streak as a matter of character. A seemingly irate “yankee apologist” writes: “As a D-1 college baseball player whose career was derailed by injury I can tell you first hand or anyone else who ever played the game at a high level a win is a win no matter how it happens. If you don’t think that these wins have anything to do with grit and a never say die attitude coupled with some big hits from some key guys (damon, arod) then you’re not watching. If u think damon and arod were the beneficiaries of wind aided homers then that’s a joke. These wins build character and ingrain the players’ minds that this can happen for them at anytime they are trailing late.”

Apologist, I completely buy the last line quoted above. It clearly does and has helped the mood around the team. That the players believe that this is a repeatable thing no doubt helps them repeat it — sometimes. We know, though, that it’s not repeatable all the time or even frequently. Come-from-behind wins in baseball are far more rare than is commonly thought. As such, while winning this way is exciting for everyone, participants and observers alike, it’s not the easiest way to win. Oh, and your saying, “i know u love to call out commenters for bad grammer and spelling and what not, but im so stoned on valium i dont care to spell check, so ridicule me if u want, but ill soon have a law degree so im kinda smart” is perhaps the single best thing that anyone has ever written to me in the ten years the Pinstriped Bible has existed.  

As long as we’re delving into the comments, there are a couple on F. Cervelli to take before we close for now. “Paulp15” asks, “So Steve, have to reconsidered Cervelli yet? Or maybe I should ask if you feel you have enough to base an evaluation on him yet? Personally, I think he’s better than Molina, and has shown the ability to lay down a sacrifice, which would be fine for the bottom of the order.” Paulp, I like him better than Jose Molina and Kevin Cash, that’s for sure. Still, it’s bad practice to get carried away by 27 at-bats and 10 singles. It’s certainly better that he’s hitting .370 than if he was hitting .270 or .170, but it’s .370 with no power and no walks, and I promise you he’s not a legitimate .370 hitter. Except for the occasional Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn, no one is. The question then becomes, when he stops hitting .370, what does he have left to give? This is also, to a lesser extent, the Robby Cano question. With Cervelli, his very limited minor league track record shows very limited power but some selectivity, so you hope that there will indeed be something useful in his bat, but you’d like to see him actually do it. It’s still too early to come to any conclusions, especially optimistic ones. O
n defense, I have no complaints — he’s thrown very well and has been an athletic, active, mobile presence.

Walk-offs: Transformative or transient?

damon_250.jpgJOHNNY DAMON ARMY VS. THE WINKIE GUARD
It’s very difficult to tell when an event you’re witnessing is a matter of luck or true talent. The Yankees are now 6-2 in one-run games, baseball’s best record in such games. This record, propelled by a series of last-minute, walk-off wins, has propelled a five-game winning streak. In the process, the Yankees have been transformed from a rather flat-looking 15-17 team into an electric 20-17 club that seems a good threat to surge to the top of the division. However, it is not certain if what we’ve seen was truly a transformative moment or just a transient moment.

As Bryan Hoch reported at MLB.com, the last time the Yankees made walk-off hits in three consecutive games was late August, 1972, and the last time they had three consecutive walk-off wins against the same club was way back in 1931. You won’t find those years listed on the Bathroom Wall of Champions in right field at Yankee Stadium II–the 1972 club was a mediocre outfit that went 79-76, brought down by weak pitching. The 1931 club boasted a spectacular offense (Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey–you know, those guys) and won 94 games but finished 13 games behind an Athletics club that had, relative to its league, one of the best pitching staffs of all time. In the long run, the big walk-offs did not prove to be steps on the way to a championship, but merely trivia for us to discover at moments such as this one. From our vantage point in the midst of the battle, we can’t know, won’t know until the end of the season, which we’re looking at now, harbinger or happenstance.

Some will be tempted to grab hold of these moments as evidence of superior character, fortitude, dedication, conviction on the part of the Yankees or the specific players attached to them. The presence of Alex Rodriguez on the last will probably suppress the urge on the part of some, but they’ll bend the rules this once while also handing out Medals of Courage to Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon and the Cowardly Lion. “What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk?” Damon asks hopefully.

Those that want to take the cosmic dice roll as a prism through which to view character are welcome to do so, and maybe once in awhile they’ll even see something that’s worth talking about. However, they would be wise not to place any bets on outcomes. The very rarity of these events–the vast majority of the time, the team that goes to the bottom of the ninth losing takes a loss–argues strongly that the last three days are not evidence that the Yankees have turned a corner. While it would be unfair to deprive Damon, Cabrera, and A-Rod credit for their timely hitting, especially Damon, who has been a monster in the clutch (and has also taken to YS II like he thought it was the House that Damon Built), but given similar chances if the next ten series the Yankees play, it’s unlikely that they’ll repeat the feat even once.

We see luck at work on a broader scale when looking at team records over the course of a full season. In a given season, a team’s record in one-run games does not carry over to the next year. Balls drop in on a one-time basis. The wind blows out when you need it only now and again. Now, it does seem to be true that sometimes the wind favors a particular team (fortune favoring the foolish, as Shakespeare wrote) for an unlikely span of time, even the length of a season. Maybe the Yankees have that kind of luck going for them this year, but judging by their lack of ability to deliver key hits before this recent surge, that seems to be asking a lot.

What really jumps out about the last five games after all the drama is pushed aside is the performance of the pitching staff. Its performance was only superficially good. In the 48 innings spanning those give games, the Yankees have allowed just 14 runs, less than three a game. That’s seemingly spectacular, given both the league environment and the performance of the staff to that point in the season. However, there is, here’s that word again, a lot of luck in all of that run prevention. The Yankees walked 32 batters in those 48 innings, six per nine innings, the rate rising to 6.6 over the weekend against the Twins. This is nothing new–the Yankees lead the league in walks allowed and in walks per nine innings (4.3). Given that they are also allowing an average number of hits per nine innings and the second-highest rate of home runs allowed per nine innings, all of these baserunners are more often than not going to translate into big numbers for the opposition. If that didn’t happen against the Twins on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, well, the Twins are not much more than an average offensive team. After Justin Morneau, Jose Mauer, and Jason Kubel, there’s a lot of dross in the their lineup.

Similarly, over the last five games the offense has scored five runs a game. Yes, the hits have been well timed and have included a ton of extra bases, among them four triples and eight home runs, but this is exactly a league-average mark. Give the Yankees an extra bump for facing one of the league’s two best pitching staffs in Toronto in two of those games and you still don’t have cause to rate the lineup as any better than it is.

This entry is not meant to rain on anyone’s parade, especially since for Yankees fans the last three games were no doubt orgasmically exciting. Nothing can take away from that. Nor should the enthusiasm and optimism generated by the current five-game winning streak be taken for granted. It should merely be noted that that the Yankees have miles to go before we can view these events as evidence that the team is ready to pass the Red Sox and Blue Jays. While some will want to call it proof of talent and others character, it’s possible, as Cole Porter wrote, that it was one of those bells that now and then rings–just one of those things.

The around (and about)

nathan_250_051509.jpgTwins 6, Tigers 5: It has to be special for the Tigers when Justin Verlander strikes out 13 in 6.1 innings and they still lose. The Yankees get to face a Twins team emboldened by a dramatic sweep of their divisional rivals, including a walk-off grand slam on Wednesday and the explosive uprising against Verlander on Thursday. The good news is that the three pitchers the Yankees get, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey, have all been beatable this year, so while the Twins have a number of hot hitters right now, especially Joe Mauer, on the rampage since he finally got healthy, they may be able to beat these fellows by putting the ball in play (walks are a different matter — Blackburn and Slowey don’t do walks). It would also be good for the Yankees if Phil Coke is healthy, because some spot southpaw relief against Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel could go a long way in this series. Could Zach Kroenke be helpful, maybe as a court of last resort?

Brewers 5, Marlins 3: Almost unnoticed, the Marlins have dropped a game under .500. I’m still waiting for a word or two from some colleagues who prematurely jumped onto the fish cart. Nothing wrong with the Marlins that surrounding Hanley Ramirez with a real team wouldn’t solve… Trevor Hoffman still hasn’t allowed a run, has eight saves. It’s just nine innings, but it’s always good to see an older Hall of Famer do well.

Dodgers 5, Phillies 3: Russell Martin is 17-for-36 this month. It’s pretty much all singles, but every little bit helps when your Manny has gone… The Phillies lost, but the game held some very glad tidings for them, as they got a terrific start from Cole Hamels. If they’re going to win, he has to be healthy and at the top of his game… Who turned off Chase Utley? He’s having Robby Cano’s May.

Rangers 3, Mariners 2: Matt Harrison has had four solid starts in a row, including consecutive complete game wins. In his last 30 innings, he’s struck out just 18, which is a problem, but he’s also walked two, which isn’t. Chris Davis hit a walk-off shot off of Brandon Morrow (Morrow the closer isn’t working out, and Morrow the starter isn’t going to happen, that leaves Morrow… the deep-sea explorer? ), and even if he does strike out 210 times this year, we all gave up on him too early.

Cubs 11, Padres 3: It’s just a reflection of how bad the Padres are, but it’s still somehow impressive that the Cubs can be reduced to playing their B team (Soriano, Theriot, Fukudome, Hoffpauir, Soto, Reed Johnson, Scales, Miles) and yet still were able to score 11 runs. Ten walks in a regulation game will help with that. Meanwhile, Adrian Gonzalez hit his 14 home run, Kyle Blanks waits in the minors, and which contender needs a first baseman badly enough that they would restart the Padres in exchange for one? If the Giants went for it, they could sure make things tough on the Dodgers…

Astros 5, Rockies 3: In fairness to Ed Wade and his various man-crushes, I’m obligated to report that Michael Bourn is currently batting .317/.382/.439. If that’s not just dumb luck, then someone should give hitting coach Sean Berry a Man of the Year award. Of course, the same could be said for the Yankees and Melky Cabrera. Note also Wandy Rodriguez’s terrific start (4-2, 1.90 ERA, 48 strikeouts in 52 innings) and that LaTroy Hawkins just picked up his fifth save. Perhaps the Yankees should have been more patient.

Angels 5, Red Sox 4: Sure it was a 12-inning game, but one so rarely sees a hitter go 0-for-7 and leave 12 runners on base. That the hitter in question was David Ortiz has to be disturbing for the Royal Rooters. The Red Sox are in a delicate place, but at some point they’re going to have to shuffle things around. It would no doubt be easier if Kevin Youkilis was healthy, and perhaps Ortiz will get that much longer to turn things around. Papi is an all-time team great, but even team greats can’t stick through .208/.318/.300… The Angels got Ervin Santana back, giving them another weapon towards making a run at this very soft division.

Cardinals 5, Pirates 1: The Pirates score once on 12 hits, a double, a triple, and three walks. They hit into three double plays and were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. Scary Fly Ball Guy Jeff Karstens gave up a Scary Fly Ball to Colby Rasmus and that was decisive. The Pirates are now six games under .500. All credit to the oversized Cardinals bullpen, which shut down the opposition after starter Mitch Boggs was pulled in the fifth.

Indians 11, Rays 7: Three of the runs were unearned, but make no mistake, James Shields was pounded, as were those famed explorers Nelson & Balfour. There’s still a run in the Rays, but lately it’s harder to believe that it’s coming…. Victor Martinez’s 4-for-5 raised his average to .400. It seems like the odd day at first base has been liberating for him. Note the Indians still playing around with their defensive alignment. Would have been nice to have gotten this sorted out during spring training, when everyone was asking, “Hey, Eric, when are you going to get around to sorting this out?”

Orioles 9, Royals 5: All I can think of just now is, “Matt Wieters is batting .280/.368/.500 in May.” Oh, and Kyle Farnsworth pitched a scoreless inning of relief down by four runs.

Mets 7, Giants 4: A roller coaster ride of a game in which the Mets stole approximately 46 bases (are they trying to show up ol’ Bengie Molina?) but still finished the game chasing after their own bullpen, just like old times. David Wright stole four bases, continuing his unexpected transformation from Mike Schmidt to Paul Molitor. Sure, he’s been caught stealing in six of 15 attempts, but in at least one of those the umpire really blew the call, so it’s all working out okay. Really! My XM receiver ran out of juice in the car today, so I spent some time listening to sports talk radio for the first time in awhile. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar David Wright. It’s unfortunate that he’s signed through 2012 or 2013 (the latter season a team option), because I feel for player and fans alike that they won’t be rid of each other any time soon.