June 2009

Hinske Ball!

hinske2_250_063009.jpgThe Yankees made a solid move today in acquiring veteran left-handed hitter Eric Hinske from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hinske, a former Rookie of the Year (Toronto, 2002) was a solid reserve presence on back-to-back pennant winners with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and the Tampa Rays last year, and now has the chance to add a third postseason team to his resume.

Able to play all four corners, Hinske has some power and is willing to take more than the occasional walk, so he’ll fit right in with the Yankees. He’s a career .254/.337/.436 hitter, which is not a good figure for a corner starter but you’ll take it for a four-corner reserve. No fun against southpaws at .221/.298/.363, Hinske’s numbers against opposite side pitchers are .264/.347/.456.

The 31-year-old gives the Yankees the kind of valuable bat off the bench they haven’t had in some time. That he can play third base is key. If Alex Rodriguez is going to take days off, this is a better choice than Cody Ransom and about a thousand times better than Angel Berroa. Hinske is not a very good defensive third baseman, but his ability to hit the ball with some authority should ease the pain of those Rodriguez rest periods.

With Rodriguez swinging a hot bat, it seemed as if Rodriguez and Joe Girardi were going to make a point of forgetting their previous agreement about off days. This happened last week — after skipping one game in Florida, Rodriguez played in eight straight games and started seven straight. One wonders if Brian Cashman looked at the trouble that Mike Lowell has been having lately — he had 15 CCs of fluid removed from his hip yesterday, also received a shot of a lubricant, and today was placed on the DL — and wisely concluded that he’d better give Girardi a real alternative to Rodriguez at third base before they killed the presumptive team MVP.

This is not a criticism of Girardi. As I wrote here last week, Girardi has been given conflicting imperatives: win now, win every day, and then, somewhere down the line, don’t kill A-Rod. Given that the alternatives to Rodriguez were spectacularly weak, it’s hard to blame Girardi for prioritizing his first mission at the expense of his second. Breaking Rodriguez might not get him fired, but failing to reach the postseason will. You understand why his instinct, even if on a subliminal level, would be to gamble on the slugger triumphing over pain instead of hoping that Berroa, Ramiro Pena, or Ransom might deliver a big hit, or even a small hit. If the Yankees were 3.5 games ahead instead of behind, the decision to bench Rodriguez would be easier on Girardi, but they’re not.

Ironically, Girardi could end up back in the same head space, only for different reasons. Again, Hinske is not a great defensive third baseman, and it’s possible that he’ll be a bit rusty. He hasn’t played very much third base since 2004, making just 21 appearances at the hot corner (three this year). The Blue Jays bumped him off of third base for Corey Koskie and then Troy Glaus, while in his Boston and Rays stops he was behind Lowell and Evan Longoria, so he had to get into the lineup in other ways. A few well-timed misplays and Girardi’s sense of well-being might get shaken enough that he’ll be reluctant to entrust Hinske with too much hot corner time. Still, if he times the Hinske starts so they don’t coincide with Chien-Ming Wang’s games, the Yankees should be okay. It’s also not as if A-Rod has been excelling on the fielding job; the bad hip would seem to have limited Rodriguez’s range.

In exchange for making Girardi’s life more interesting, the Yankees only had to give up Eric Fryer, the Minor League outfielder acquired for Chase Wright, who does not project to be more than a role player in the Majors, if that, and righty pitcher Casey Erickson, a 23-year-old Sally League reliever.

In his career, Hinske has had the unusual honor of being both a surprise and a disappointment. A 17th-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1998, Hinske raked in the Minor Leagues, batting .285/.380/.511. His defense troubled the Cubs, though, and so even though they were in desperate need of a third baseman at the time, they palmed him off on the A’s for Miguel Cairo. This was a Hall of Fame-level dumb move, as Cairo didn’t last even a full season in Chicago, and in any case he was Miguel Cairo. The A’s held Hinske in the Minors for a season, then sent him to the Blue Jays for Billy Koch. This was a Hall of Fame-level smart move, as the A’s got 44 saves out of Koch in 2002 and then flipped him to the White Sox for Keith Foulke, who was even better. Meanwhile, Hinske played third for the Jays, hit 24 home runs, and won the Rookie of the Year award.

The Jays rushed right out and signed Hinske to a five-year contract, but Hinske was unable to follow up on his production. His walk rate slipped, and his power and batting average went along with it. His 2003 season was subpar and his 2004 was miserable. By 2005 he had been moved to first base, which was an odd decision for the Jays to make given just how bad he had been the year before. He bounced back to some degree in 2006, but by then he was already slipping into utility work.

Kudos to Brian Cashman on this one. Adding a player who slugged .465 a year ago really gives the Yankees the added A-Rod protection they’ve needed all season. The move comes a bit late, but it’s a good one. At this writing, the Yankees haven’t announced the roster move they’re making to get Hinske a spot in the dugout. It should be Brett Tomko who goes down, but it’s hard to imagine the Yankees reducing their staff to 11 pitchers, so one assumes that Pena is headed for the sticks.

ON REFLECTION, IT SEEMS UNLIKELY THAT BIN LADEN THINKS MUCH ABOUT BUCKY DENT, BUT THE POINT STILL STANDS
I’m normally pretty happy when publishers drop a free baseball book on me, but in the case of a new book on, well, something to do with Bucky Dent, they can leave me out. On Saturday, I received an unmarked envelope bearing only my address and a mint condition 1978 Topps Bucky Dent card. There was no return address.

I subsequently have learned that this was done on behalf of a forthcoming book. Now, look: as I said, it’s cool to get free baseball stuff in the mail, but sending mysterious envelopes with no return address to a fellow’s home is no way to go about it. This is, I am told, supposed to be viral marketing. That term is ironic, because that’s what it made me think of — viruses. It occurred to me the second after I unsealed the stupid thing that you’re not supposed to open unidentified mail, that not too long ago there was a freak sending anthrax all over the place, that every once in awhile some fringe reader expresses hostility that goes beyond a mere friendly disagreement about baseball, and that I have a wife and two young children in the house. I was not amused. I was worried, and I kicked myself for unsealing the envelope. The Bucky Dent card was no solace: sometimes bad things come in attractive packages, and anonymity would seem to be something of an antonym for publicity.

So hey, marketing geniuses: if your goal was to trouble me on a perfectly good Saturday and make me associate your book with anonymous anthrax mailings, congratulations. You did your job. Next time, be intelligent enough to include a return address and a flyer so it’s clear what the heck you’re trying to accomplish. I wish the author all the success in the world with his book, and this should not be construed as reflecting upon his efforts. In fact, I hope he does so we
ll that next time he’ll be associated with a better, smarter set of publicists.

MORE FROM ME
Reflections on relief pitchers at Baseball Prospectus

Appreciating the Mo masterpiece

rivera_250.jpgMO, MO, MO (497 MORE MOS TO GO)
You can’t follow the Yankees without appreciating Mariano Rivera. He’s superhuman and yet human, approachable and professional. No doubt you’ve read a thousand thoughts along the same lines already today, so instead of heaping on more superlatives, let’s look at the actual record in all of its glorious length. Indeed, length is the key. What makes Rivera great is not only his rare dominance with one special pitch, but for just how long he’s maintained his high level of performance. Many closers rocket up the pop charts, but few have anything like the staying power of Rivera. Generate a list of the top 200 single-season performances of the last 55 years by a reliever (I’m using the context-sensitive wins added, or WXRL) and count everyone who appears on the list more than twice and this is what you get, ordered from lowest to highest:

3 Bruce Sutter
3 Eric Gagne
3 John Smoltz
3 Keith Foulke
3 Lee Smith
3 Lindy McDaniel
3 Randy Myers
3 Rollie Fingers
3 Stu Miller
4 Billy Wagner
4 Dan Quisenberry
4 Francisco Rodriguez
4 Joe Nathan
4 Trevor Hoffman
4 Troy Percival
4 Tug McGraw
5 Armando Benitez
5 Goose Gossage
9 Mariano Rivera

This is a fairer reflection of Rivera’s dominance than something more basic like seasons leading the league in saves-Rivera has done that only three times in 15 seasons. It’s not the number of saves that matters, it’s the quality of the performances, and no one has been as good as often as Rivera has. Twenty-four pitchers appear on the list only twice. There is normally a lot of turnover in the closer department, just as there is for all relievers. There is also much variability depending on how pitchers are used by their managers. Rivera has stuck there like no other pitcher in history. Throw in his extraordinary postseason work, his humanity and professionalism, and this is one inner-circle Hall of Famer that no one will be able to second-guess on induction day.

NADY BE GOOD (EVERYONE’S FAVORITE GERSHWIN TUNE)
The future is now, but in order to win the American League pennant, the Yankees will need to fight the future. No doubt few readers pity Brian Cashman, but he’s in the difficult position of needing to win this year while also thinking about how the Yankees win next year and in the years going forward.

While this page never roots for a player to suffer injury and never will, the removal of Nady for the season (if confirmed) helps to clarify the outfield picture for the rest of the season, or at least until the trading deadline. Nady had some value, but on the whole, 30-walk a year players who don’t also hit .330 or slug .500 are to be avoided. Nady is a stopgap-level player. The Yankees needed that kind of help last year, but don’t this year. The Yankees, particularly Joe Girardi, devoted a lot of air to Nady’s contribution in 2008, but it would seem that the first impression was a lasting one, because .268/.320/.474 isn’t memorable by the standards of corner outfielders. There was a reason that Nady played for four teams in four seasons from 2005 to 2008. The Yankees would have found out why at their own peril. The troubling aspect of the affair was that they seemed willing, if not eager, to do so.

Ironically, they might need Nady-style assistance next season. With Nady’s contract up, that might be the end of him as a Yankee, but one could imagine the team signing him to a low-base, make-good contract, because the outfield shelves could be bare this winter. The contracts of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon are up, and the arguments for bring each back are not strong. Matsui’s lack of mobility constricts the Yankees’ roster while his declining bat adds less than the team would should get for paying that price. Given his age, a multi-year contract would also be dangerous even if one expects a bounce-back next year, even if Matsui returns to Godzilla-style smashing in the second half (not that Matsui has been above Rodan-level in the U.S.).

Damon has obviously had a good year, and a couple of big nights in Atlanta and Queens have helped bring up his road numbers. Still, he too is 35, and there’s no guaranteeing that his Yankee Stadium II power boost is more than an ephemeral event. Last year, at 34, Damon was better than he had ever been before. This year he’s been better than that. That’s an unusual progression and one not likely to sustain itself over the course of another three-year contract, and perhaps even not over another two.

Thus, by the end of the World Series, three of the five current outfielders (counting the gimpy Matsui) could be in the wind. The free agent possibilities are not promising: Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay (if the Red Sox don’t extend him, which seems unlikely), Carl Crawford (a team option of $8.25 million seems likely to be picked up), senior citizen Vlad Guerrero, a long-ago Cashman crush vetoed by ownership, Randy Winn… There’s not much. Help won’t be coming from that direction.

Perhaps by the end of the year, Brett Gardner will have cemented himself in center field for a time. Melky Cabrera is not a sufficient bat for a corner, though the Yankees may choose to see him there, and at present levels, he can hit enough to be a rotating jack of all trades, though it should be noted that he’s going to be increasingly expensive in the coming seasons. As far as the farm system goes, you know about Austin Jackson (currently in a mini-slump). With two home runs, he doesn’t seem like a corner outfielder. A Jackson, Gardner, Cabrera outfield would be strong defensively but not very powerful. Swisher, who is signed through 2012, suddenly becomes very important in any conception of next year, not to mention this one.

This leads to an interesting question. If Matsui and Damon are truly to be gone next year, if Jackson is to be among the possible replacements, is it in the Yankees’ best interest to get him at least 100 plate appearances of Major League time this year? The answer is almost certainly “not yet”–while Jackson has had a solid season, his lack of power and moderate selectivity don’t portend production at the big league level. Remember, in the Majors the batting average is likely to slip, which leaves a medium walk rate and, at least this year, little in the way of power. This would change, though, if Jackson surged and/or Matsui or Damon began to slide. Then the needle that swings between present and future would be stuck exactly in the middle of the dial. 

Subway Series strips the mystery away

jeter_250.jpgSUBWAY AGAIN (AGAIN)
It’s time for another tired interleague match-up. I realize that I’m acting the wet blanket, but after years of record-distorting play and such scintillating league crossovers as Astros-Royals, it seems to me that a great deal of the attraction of any interleague rivalry, particularly Yankees-Mets, was the impossibility of ever resolving the debate, because Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez were never going to be in the same game together short of the odd spring training confrontation. The argument could never resolve and everybody could be right–unless, the tantalizing, always just out of reach World Series confrontation materialized. Then it would all be settled at the highest possible level, under the greatest possible tension.

Interleague play stripped the mystery away. Now we know that most meetings between the Yankees and Mets are just like any other game. Maybe the fans feel a bit more jazzed than usual, but in the end, the only thing at stake are some empty bragging rights, now immutably concretized in the drab facts of the box score, and the usual one-game-in-the-standings stakes. In the latter case, the stakes are no different than any midweek game against the Orioles. By the time the two teams finally did meet in a World Series, interleague play had let the air out of the confrontation–it was nothing we hadn’t seen before, as recently as that July.

So here we are again, 12 days after the last time. Admittedly, the last time was exciting, or at the very least strange, with Luis Castillo’s inexplicable dropped pop-up, the unheralded comeback of Fernando Nieve (“comeback” might be a misnomer given that he was never really here), and an unprecedented battering of Johan Santana. Parenthetically, since striking out 11 in six innings against the Nats on May 27, Santana hasn’t struck out more than three batters in any start; in 30.1 innings, his strikeout rate is 4.2 per nine. The Yankees won’t be seeing Santana this series, so that’s just a point of interest.

The Yankees will be seeing Mike Pelfrey (tonight vs. Sabathia), old pal Tim Reddding (Saturday vs. Burnett), and Livan Hernandez (vs. Wang). Pelfrey is a really interesting case. The 2005 first-rounder had a breakthrough season last year, but this season has been choppy to say the least, with his strikeout rate dying a tormented, painful death. Despite this, he was was winning thanks to decent run support. Beginning with his second start of May, he reeled off five very solid appearances, limiting batters to just six walks and one home run in 34.2 innings. His strikeout rate bounced back up into the fours, which isn’t good but was sustainable given the high number of ground balls he was getting. He was, shall we say, Wang-ing it. Just as quickly as they came, the  good times ended, June bringing a 7.08 ERA as Pelfrey’s control has wandered, giving hitters more chances to put the ball in play with runners on. Nor has the Mets’ defense done him any favors in this period.

Redding you know from his brief pinstriped experience, a journeyman with a capital “R” for “Replacement level.” He was actually a bit better than that last year, but not by much. This year he’s back in the submarine, sailing below the surface of useful. He’s given the Mets three quality starts in seven tries, but remains a fly ball pitcher without a strikeout pitch, a very bad combination. Hernandez was roughed up by the Yankees in Castillo’s dropped-egg game. What I said then remains true now: his pitching as well as he has was wholly unexpected given just how badly he was treated in both leagues last year. Despite his low-ish ERA, he remains very hittable, averaging 10 safeties per nine innings pitched, and his home run rate is on the high side. He’s pitched well in two starts since the Yankees last saw him.

There is no reason that the Yankees could not sweep this series given the pitching matchups, but that was also true of the Nationals series and we know how that went. However, the Mets are at a further disadvantage, because their many injuries have reduced their list of star-level players to just one — David Wright. He can be enough–he went 5-for-12 against the Yankees the last time around, and has continued to hit well since. However, his power continues to be mystifyingly absent–it has now been 15 games since his last home run. During that stretch he has hit .383 with five doubles, and only four RBIs.

The most remarkable aspect to Wright’s season is that he continues to have a batting average on balls in play of nearly .500 (currently it’s .469). A high percentage of his balls in play, 27 percent, are line drives, which would correlate with a high BABIP, but not this high. In comparison, Scott Rolen has a higher line drive rate and his BABIP is only .354, while Jason Bartlett is leading the majors with an almost 30 percent of his balls in play being liners and his BABIP is “only” .405. It is extremely likely that Bartlett’s BABIP will decline as the year goes on, perhaps by 70 or 100 points, and spectacularly likely that Wright’s will fall off by even more. That leaves the Mets with an interesting problem, because if Wright’s NL-leading average has been due to an overlarge share of luck, and not due to a change in approach by the batter, purposeful or otherwise, then when did his power go, and what happens to his production when some of the singles start to get caught?

As we will likely see tonight when the Yankees put balls in the air and watch what would have been home runs in the Bronx ballpark settle harmlessly into gloves, some of the power outage has been engendered by the Mets zombie tribute to Ebbets Field (ironically, a bandbox–Mickey Mantle used to say, and he meant this, that he would have hit a thousand home runs had he played there), but not all of it, as Wright has hit but one home run on the road this year.

SWISHER/NADY

After a 1-for-6 on Thursday, Nick Swisher apparently gets a mental health break today. It seems as if his place in the lineup is safe, however, as Xavier Nady has had a major setback in his rehab. No confirmation of the damage yet, and I’ll reserve comment until we get the straight dope. I’m waiting for someone to hit my inbox with “Melky should be the everyday right fielder.” It hasn’t come yet, but it will. 

Joba, Swisher make their cases

joba_250.jpgINSTANT KARMA’S GONNA GET YOU
It was a very strange ballgame last night. It began with the Yankees looking like they were going to lose a perfect game, or at least get shut out, and ended with Mariano Rivera striking out four straight batters for the save, eight runs on the scoreboard. It was the first Rivera appearance in about a year, and it was vintage stuff, one you’ll want to remember if you prize the career of this future Hall of Famer. It didn’t come in a playoff game, but it doesn’t matter–the cutter was really darting in on the lefty hitters, perhaps as much as we’ve seen all year. For one night (and hopefully many more), the Lone Ranger rode again.

As was pointed out on last night’s broadcast, Joba Chamberlain has now made 14 starts, seven at home and seven on the road. At Yankee Stadium: the Musical, Joba is 0-2 with a 5.18 ERA. Intriguingly, he’s striking out more batters at home, 9.8 per nine innings, than he is on the road (7.0). But he’s also walking six batters per nine innings in the House that Ruth Didn’t Build but Would Have Really Loved to Hit In, and it was speculated by the YES-men that he’s just a bit scared of allowing balls in play at home. This seems like a reasonable explanation given the results on the road–4-0 with a 2.74 ERA (3.59 runs allowed). He’s struck out fewer batters, just seven per nine innings, but perhaps he’s not trying nearly so hard to do so. This more restrained approach has resulted in fewer walks, including none last night, and longer outings.

I’m not certain how the Yankees solve this problem, but I do know this: Chamberlain’s road record is yet another nail in the “Joba-to-the-bullpen” argument. If this is what he can do in a neutral environment, average six innings a start and allow fewer than three runs–that’s more than good enough. Few pitchers can do that, and if Joba can just smooth out his home-park problems, he’s going to contend for a Cy Young Award some day. Sure, the strikeout rate is lower than it was in the pen, but still healthy enough that you don’t have to worry about his health, and beyond that, arguing about the number of strikeouts, seven or nine, is just quibbling. The average AL starter averages 6.4 Ks per start. Joba is fine.

Nick Swisher answered yesterday’s discussion about him here with another home run, and it’s tempting to let that be the final word for now. The guy is second on the Yankees in on-base percentage (to Mark Teixeira), fourth in slugging, but he leads the club in road slugging, road doubles, and road home runs by a wide, wide margin–he and Hideki Matsui are the only hitters on the team that haven’t seen their numbers grossly distorted by the House that Ruth Didn’t etc. He leads the team in walks, and the only reason that hasn’t resulted in a higher number of runs scored by Swisher personally is that he’s been buried in the bottom half of the order. There has been an awful lot of Ransom and Molina up behind Swisher.

Some in the comments for yesterday keep talking about how these are “just” numbers. They’re right. They’re “just” numbers, which means they are “just” a record of WHAT HAPPENED. If you want to deny that Swisher has been on base all those times, fine. You want to deny he’s the team’s leading hitter on the road, that’s fine too. You could go further and deny that getting on base leads to runs, which leads to winning. People deny all kinds of things that seem like settled science. Heck, the Flat Earth Society was active until quite recently.

Unfortunately, there is a payback for stubborn ignorance, and it comes in the form of lost baserunners. That means more outs with fewer runs scoring, and that means more losses– although you can deny that outs without runs leads to losses if you want to. You can deny anything, including the fact that you’re breathing, or thinking.

And once you bench Swisher, you can even deny the slipping place in the standings. You’re mad at the wrong Yankee.

FUTURE YANKEES TO LOVE AND/OR DISTRUST
The rosters for the annual Futures Game prospects showcase were announced today, and the Yankees have two representatives on the World Team, catcher Jesus Montero of the Trenton Thunder and lefty Manny Banuelos of the Charleston RiverDogs. I know you’ve heard plenty about the former, the too-young-to-drink slugger who might be less than a year from a big-league call-up, but Banuelos has yet to get much press (and for good reason–Montero is a special hitter, while Banuelos is a good prospect, but one potential pitcher among many). In 12 starts this year he’s put up a 2.51 ERA, walking just 14 in 61 innings while striking 58. Going into the season, Baseball America ranked his as the team’s 14th-best prospect, right behind Brett Gardner, commending his mechanics and solid fastball while noting his offspeed pitches still have awhile to go. He’s three levels away from the bigs, so this is probably your one chance to see him for awhile if you don’t happen to live nearby. The chance to see Montero speaks for itself. 

To the mats with reader comments

TO THE MATS WITH READER COMMENTS

Just a couple of quick ones from this morning’s entry:

Frequent correspondent let’sgoyankees says:

Good article, but I want to make one point…Melky should not be taken out in favor of Gardner. Swisher should. He plays awful defense and is a terrible baserunner. Since both he and Melky are slumping, those other two categories have Swishy beat. Swish is a useful player but he should be platooned. He’s exposed playing every day.

And Charlie F responds:

swisher_062409.jpg

Swisher does NOT play awful defense. He plays incredibly UGLY defense, but he’s actually quite a good defender. His UZR/150 is above average as is his range factor per game. Don’t confuse ungraceful and lumbering for bad.

To which I, your humble servant, will add that there’s not a lot that’s pretty in Swisher’s game, but he’s a productive player and one the Yankees can’t afford to take out of the lineup. Even when his bat went on vacation in May, he still drew 19 walks, making for a .311 on-base percentage despite a .150 batting average. This month he’s hitting .267/.397/.500. You show me a team that benches a guy with those rates and I’ll show you a team that needs its head examined. Swisher has faults, and when a team is not playing well, those faults — the strikeouts, sub-Speaker agility in the outfield, become exaggerated. This happens to every team in a bad place — the urge to punish someone strong, and it frequently seizes on the wrong player. Swisher has been productive against both lefties and righties, has hit well by any reasonable standard, and has left something to be desired only at Yankee Stadium II, where, despite his struggles, he has posted a .373 on-base percentage. He’s part of the solution, not the problem…

…And yet he’s still going to lose playing time to Xavier Nady. That’s the way of things, and it’s depressing.

…If anyone wants to talk about this or anything else, I’m about to begin a chat (1 PM EST) at
Baseball Prospectus.

Bombers hitting into double plays too often

BY GEORGE
We open today with a Steinbrennerism. Though many of the Yankee owner’s most acerbic comments have been well publicized over the years, this one is more obscure. Criticizing an umpire’s calls in July, 1979, the Boss said, “He’s with an excellent crew, but he fits like a $3 bill in the cash drawer.” I dedicate this Boss bit of wisdom to Angel Berroa, whose strange reign on the Yankees roster as a non-utile utility player may come to an end later today, when Cody Ransom comes up from Scranton.

angel_062409.jpgIn 14 games in Pennsy, Ransom has done his usual Ransom-y job, batting .250/.346/.477 with two home runs while striking out an unsustainable 12 times in 44 at-bats. Ransom is a fun guy to root for (this seems like a necessary qualifier to issue each time this subject comes up, while also having the benefit of being true), and he’s certainly a more useful player than Berroa, but at 33 years old his problems are ossified, calcified, and calcareous, set in stone and bone.  He has power but has problems making contact, with the result that maintaining a functional rate of reaching base becomes an insurmountable problem. With the Yankees anticipating more time off for Alex Rodriguez in the future, and Rodriguez playing like he needs it, the club needs a more viable substitute. That player is not currently in the organization. Whatever trading chips the Yankees are hoarding, they would be better spent on an infielder with some two-way bona fides than on yet another reliever.

DOUBLE PLAYS REVISITED
With Derek Jeter doing some decisive GDP damage the last couple of games, it’s time to check out the double play percentages for Yankees’ batters. The first thing to know is that in the American League, batters are hitting into double plays in about 11 percent (specifically, 10.9 percent) of opportunities. The Yankees as a team are hitting into twin killings a little more often, 11.5 percent of the time. Last year, the average AL team had about 1210 possible double play situations when hitting. This year’s average rate would result in 132 double plays. The Yankees’ rate would result in 137 double plays, which doesn’t seem like much but might matter in a close race — quite recently we’ve seen key double plays by Jeter and Robinson Cano kill the Yankees in close games.

robinson_062409.jpgRobinson Cano has been the player causing the Yankees the most trouble so far, knocking into a double play nine times in 42 chances, a rate of over 21 percent. With his double play on Tuesday night, Jeter also brought his rate up to 21 percent. Other Yankees who require Joe Girardi to give their baserunners a flying start include Alex Rodriguez (17 percent), Nick Swisher (14 percent), and Melky Cabrera (13 percent). Surprisingly, the very slow Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui have above-average performances in this category, hitting into double plays in nine and five percent of their chances, respectively.

One argument for giving Brett Gardner more playing time is that, particularly if he’s batting ninth in front of Jeter, might limit the team’s exposure to the double play in some situations. With Jeter hitting ever more balls on the ground — he’s grounding out three times for every one fly out, a career high — this is going to continue to be a problem where the Captain is concerned.

PARENTHETICALLY, A-ROD

A look at the Yankees ground ball ratios reveals that there’s a reason that A-Rod has such a high double-play rate: he’s hitting more balls on the ground than he has at any time in the last ten years. His offensive problems may or may not be caused by fatigue, but there might also be a mechanical component to the problem.

AN ORPHANED LINE ABOUT PHIL HUGHES

It might be time to give him something more challenging to do.

ANOTHER ENDORSEMENT OF BRETT GARDNER
The average AL center fielder is batting .260/.327/.403. Gardner is now hitting .285/.361/.401. His defense has been impeccable, as has his baserunning. If he can just keep doing what he’s doing, he doesn’t need to improve. Sure, improvement would be good, but the offense would be sufficient to support the other aspects of his game. While Gardner could still stand to be protected from the occasional lefty — one senses with Gardner that at some point more would likely become less — the ratio of playing time in center field should shift dramatically, from 75-25 in favor of Melky Cabrera towards Gardner. Plus — and this is no small thing — he’s the only guy on the team actually performing right now.  

The trouble with offense … and A-Rod

SO, WHAT HAVE WE GOT?
During the offseason, I frequently argued that though the Yankees had their attention focused overwhelmingly on pitching, the offense might prove to be a bigger problem. Then they signed Mark Teixeira, and I promptly shut up. It seems odd to talk about a team that has averaged more than five runs a game as having offensive deficits to make up, but the truth is that the particular construction of the Yankees means that it’s still a realistic possibility. The Yankees have to guard against being fooled by the numbers they are seeing, many of them distortions caused by their generous new home park. To this point in the season, certain aging Yankees would seem to have found the Fountain of Youth. What they’ve really discovered is a beautifully appointed new ballpark with wide concourses, laptops in the lockers, and a loving right-field power alley.

The home/road splits are damning: Derek Jeter, .295/.364/.381 with two home runs in 239 at-bats. Melky Cabrera, .278/.329/.354 with one home run in 79 at-bats. Johnny Damon, .260/.317/.449 with four home runs in 127 at-bats. Jorge Posada, .253/.348/.440 with three home runs in 75 at-bats. These numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re more realistic than what the players have done at home, more in line with what the players have done in the recent past and what we might have projected them to do this year.

arod250_062209.jpgThe Yankees are a .500 team on the road so far this season. Their road production has been, overall, quite good, given that Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui have done the bulk of their hitting while traveling. Teixeira has also done his part. Still, this hasn’t been enough to give the team the same explosiveness that it has had in the Bronx, especially when you throw in Alex Rodriguez’s post-surgical problems. (Likely unrelated to his staying up late. Though I’m sure we all want to jump on Rodriguez for his latest transgression, I’m pretty sure that sitting on a barstool next to Kate Hudson doesn’t stress his hip as much as playing does, which was more the point of his “fatigue” problems than his lack of sleep, dig?)  

Insofar as winning the division goes, this bifurcation would present less of a problem if the Yankees had won more than 60 percent of their games at home. The 1987 Minnesota Twins showed that in a soft division you could be a hundred-loss team on the road if you were a 100-win team at home. The Yankees are a few games off the latter pace. Say they were just a few games better in their own park, 25-10, instead of 21-14. That’s asking a lot of the Yankees, but we’re in the land of make-believe just now, so stay with me. Were the Yankees to maintain that kind of pace at home while staying around .500 on the road, they would finish the season with a record of somewhere around 99-63, and be in very good shape to win the Wild Card if not the division. They may win the Wild Card anyway, but you can’t take anything for granted.

There is something to be said for players that can take advantage of the features of your home park. Not every Yankee has popped a home run every 13 at-bats at home, as Damon has. The problem is that the park can’t discriminate. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by just 13 runs at home. Over time, that gap may narrow, perhaps because of the park, or maybe because Brett Tomko is pitching. Or Brett Tomko is pitching in the park. The players who have reaped the extra support might also regress, simply through age, fatigue (to use a dangerous word), injury, or changing weather patterns or other effects of the new park we can’t yet foresee.

In June, the Yankees are batting .247/.342/.424, roughly a league mark. The pitchers have been fine. June’s ERA is 3.85, actually the team’s best of the season. June’s starters have an ERA of 4.40, above-average for the league, and the transformed, Veras-free bullpen has an ERA of 2.87. Assuming that CC Sabathia isn’t hurt in any long-term-kind-of way, the pitching staff may well have achieved stability. It is the offense that should now be the source of worry. The lesson for the Yankees is clearly that if opportunities to upgrade the offense present themselves, any chance to replace a middling 35-year-old bat, they have to take it. If finances mitigate against such a move, that’s one thing, but sentimentality or the belief that Melky Cabrera (injured shoulder or not) is going to achieve consistency or Hideki Matsui is going to turn back the clock need to be ignored.

And most of all, perhaps more than anything else, a day-in, day-out A-Rod substitute must be found. Applicant should be able to out-hit Angel Berroa and outfield both he and the less-than-limber Rodriguez. Rodriguez could struggle all season, even if he takes a vow of celibacy. Again, the Yankees don’t want to take anything for granted.

A-Rod needs a rest

STRANGE DAYS INDEED
Good evening, campers. I spent part of my day in a drawer undergoing a PET scan. I must have been a very troubled sweater in a former life because once in my overwhelming instinct is to get out. The good news is that I am out and that this sweater was given a clean bill, freeing what remains of my brain to consider baseball again.

The 1927 Yankees went 21-1 against the St. Louis Browns, one of two doormat teams in the league that season. Given the outcome of the late series with the Nationals, it is apparent that this ain’t 1927. Ironically, given the focus on pitching this year, starting and bullpen, the failure was largely offensive — when you score two runs in two games, you’re not going to beat anyone. There has been something like an obsessive grabbing onto the supposed fact that the Yankees supposedly can’t beat a pitcher they’ve never seen before, but that isn’t the issue so much as the absence of Derek Jeter from the lineup both nights, the absence of Jorge Posada in another, and the cooling bats of certain key players. Nor should we ignore the randomness of fate — if Robbie Cano had put the ball in play in any way other than where he did on Wednesday, the Yankees would have taken two of three games and the series would not have held such a bitter aftertaste.

arod250_061909.jpgNow comes the news that Alex Rodriguez will be taking two days off, his first since coming off of the disabled list. The way Joe Girardi has handled Rodriguez has been strange — you have a player coming off of a major injury, who was given an incomplete fix for that injury. That would seem to require handling with kid gloves whether the player liked it or not. There is, I think, a mutual enabling going on here, where Rodriguez did not ask out until now, and Girardi, who knows who he would have to list at third base in the alternative, did not ask him to sit out. Girardi’s job, after all, is to win today, and the way Rodriguez hit initially, quickly piling up nine home runs, was helping him do that. Perhaps Girardi needs to think more globally than that, but given that just a few weeks ago there were rumors about his job security, it might be impossible for him to do so.

The fault lies not in the stars but in the front office, which never gave Girardi a viable A-Rod substitute once it was clear that the player required surgery. Cody Ransom bombed and got hurt, Angel Berroa offers nothing in the way of offense or defense, and Ramiro Pena, while a very good glove, is not a hitter. Scranton’s roster is clogged with the likes of Eric Duncan, Justin Leone, Chris Malec, and a rehabbing Ransom, none of whom could be misconstrued as Major League regulars on the darkest of nights. Trenton’s third baseman is Marcos Vechionacci, who shed his prospect status what seems like eons ago.

Given this dearth of viable hot corner men and a clear need for hot corner men, it was incumbent upon the front office to make a deal for a viable Rodriguez substitute. Recently, I have been inveighing against the team making a hasty trade for a reliever, bringing up Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. The reverse of this is that giving up Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell is never a bad thing, and if you can’t get a Bagwell, any Tom, Dick, or DeRosa will do. It’s not a move anyone would want to make given a choice, but the Yankees have had a very finely balanced operation so far, and there is every reason to think that such a move will keep paying dividends. Rodriguez’s recovery may be lengthy, and his swing may continue to be affected. His energy level may continue to be low. His range has clearly been affected, suggesting an ongoing need for a late-inning substitute. Plus, there may be other injuries to other players.

The Yankees are now 10-7 in one-run games. They could just as easily be 7-10 — that’s the way one-run games work. They are basically coin flips. As we saw on Wednesday, one-run games can turn on one key double play, one missed opportunity. Either you get the big hit or the big out or you don’t. When the Yankees have to rely on an Angel Berroa, today, tomorrow and in the future, they’re reducing the chances that they will get that big hit or make that diving stop.

If you’re going to go through the season without winning a game over the Red Sox, you’d better win every game that you can. They didn’t do this in the Nationals series. Without some help for A-Rod, they might not do it in the future. This is no time for the usual blithe assumptions that a no-name player will rise to the occasion, Rey Sanchez- or Luis Sojo-style. The time to go hunt down a safety net is now.

PinstripedBible.com on Yankees BPTV

If you missed it yesterday on YES, check out my appearance on Yankees Batting Practice Today:

goldbpt1v.jpg


To the mats with reader comments

veras_250_061609.jpg1: FROGPEN
Frogs worldwide are dying off at a high rate, which is depressing. Add in the state of Yankees’ middle relief and I am almost unbearably sad. Reader Ben is too:

Honestly Steve, your comment about the Yankees overusing Phil Coke, Alfredo Aceves and Mariano Rivera are not well-thought out. Jose Veras is as inconsistent as can be. His stuff is so great, yet never can stay in the strike zone on the first pitch. I swear, it is a loud exhale every time when he throws ball one and you see 15,000 beads of sweat on his face with that deer-in-the-headlights look and it’s like Kyle Farnsworth all over again. Great talent, no clue how to pitch.

I don’t mean to pick on him, but Jonathan Albaladejo and David Robertson can at least claim they have not had much Major League experience. The Yankees have no one else dependable to go to. Maybe things are different with Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte healthy, if that ever happens. But right now, they don’t have depth, because of health and ineffectiveness.

Ben, I don’t see how my observation and your point are incompatible. I said Joe Girardi was turning to certain relievers with frequency because the others had been unreliable. You seem to agree with that reason. I didn’t say that Girardi was wrong to do this, but merely pointed out that there can be consequences to overusing certain relievers (call this the Proctor Rule). If there was any criticism even implicit in what I was saying it was meant not for Girardi but for the front office for not shuffling the bullpen deck again: “Given that the Yankees have other options in the Minors, it would make far more sense for the Yankees to try something new than to continue to burden Girardi with options he’s already discarded.”

By that I meant (at minimum) giving Mark Melancon another shot rather than persevering with Veras — and the Yankees have just taken a step in that direction by designating Veras for assignment. No doubt that move was prompted by the need to keep Phil Hughes around should Chien-Ming Wang fail to pitch well on Wednesday, but with any luck it means that when the club finally is able to have one starter for that spot (as opposed to the tandem starter Chien-Phil Hughes), the resultant opening in the pen will be filled by a fresh face.

2: PESSIMISM, DEAR LIZA, DEAR LIZA
They say I tend to look at the glass as half full. Reader Kevin here sees a hole in the bucket. Truncated some for length and several ill-considered word-choices:

This is not a special team yet. But it is need of some special help. We are seeing this far too often for a Yankee team: 1. Derek Jeter. The “Captain” of the team. He is hitting ok. Every once in a while he is ok in the clutch. But more than not, when he gets up to the plate you are waiting for him to hit that pop-up or hit into the double play. I don’t get it.

2. Johnny Damon. He is hitting “ok” but not clutch. He looks like a nine-year old boy in a little league game every time the ball is hit towards him in left field. No confidence… Wang. Why he is still with the team and not down in AAA I don’t know… Joba. Needs to be a reliever. Bottom line. Pull Wang, insert Hughes. Joba in the bullpen as a reliever. Girardi is acting too optimistic as a manager right now… We went 13 years in a row making the post season until….2008. Common denominator…Girardi. He is too much like a buddy than a manager. It’s obvious to me due to a lot of the decision making that is going on by him.

Jeter is batting .308 with men on, .316 with runners in scoring position, .476 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .375 late and close… What do you want from the guy? Damon is batting only .254 with men on, but has hit six home runs with runners on base, is hitting .355 late and close, and had a memorable walk-off homer against the Twins exactly a month ago. I can’t defend his defense, but he’s 35. He’s still far from a Pat Burrell out there given his speed… Wang isn’t in Triple-A because he’s out of options. Get over Joba as a reliever. He’s about 1.5 changes of role short of becoming Neil Allen. Just relax and let him settle in, try to suppress your panic every time he doesn’t pitch well. Joba has made 24 career starts and has a 3.29 ERA. I don’t have an exact list on hand, but my guess is that very few starters have begun their career with those kinds of results. True, he has only averaged five innings a start, but that’s partially due to the way the Yankees have chosen to manage him. It might also be better to have a starter who throws five strong innings than a pitcher who throws two, no matter how dominant, though I don’t know that for sure.

3: BATTING ORDERS AND THE INTIMATE LIVES OF YOUR FRIENDS DON’T MATTER MUCH…
…But they sure are fun to talk about, as reader Alightningrodfan shows:

I have been critical on these blogs in the past of Robinson Cano, but only regarding his hitting behind A-Rod. I think Jorge Posada hitting behind A-Rod would lead to better protection for A-rod and that might help A-Rod get better pitches, fewer walks, and a chance to more quickly get his groove back after surgery. However, Cano can sometimes do very well. And it seems as if A-Rod, despite his .234 average, keeps finding ways to help his team win and provides inspiration. Even through a pop-up! In any event, since it seems that Joe is going to keep Cano in fifth, I will cheer Cano on to have a successful season.

One of the better things to come out of the Mets-Yankees series was Cano going 5-for-12 with two doubles and two home runs, as he really hadn’t yet taken advantage of Yankee Stadium II. Even after his hot weekend, he’s still batting just .278/.324/.452 at home, compared to .301/.350/.534 on the road… The average AL No. 5 hitter is batting. .269/.340/.456, with a home run every 24.5 at-bats. Yankees No. 5 hitters are batting .241/.285/.425 with a home run every 26.1 at-bats. On the whole, Joe Girardi’s choices for the fifth spot haven’t worked out, but Cano isn’t the major part of the problem, having hit .301/.316/.484 in the spot. His other choices, primarily Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Nick Swisher, have bombed there. The sample is small enough for each that it wouldn’t be useful to read anything into that. In the long run, Posada is the better choice. It’s fascinating that Posada has spent most of his career batting fifth or lower — the Yankees have given up a lot of Posada plate appearances over the years by keeping him buried. I’d be very curious as to if Girardi or Joe Torre think they see something emotional in Posada that makes him a bad choice to bat up in the order. In his career he’s been much better when batting sixth (.295/.400/.518) instead of fifth (.277/.378/.460), so maybe there’s something to that.

…A walk is obviously not as valuable as a home run, but as long as Rodriguez keeps taking those walks while mixing in the odd home run, he’s going to be productive at the plate regardless of where his batting average ultimately falls.

4: THE UNSUBTLE PLUG
Charlief writes:

The thing to remember about the Nats is the hitting is actually quite good. You say average, but up until the last two weeks – when Guzman, Dunn and Zimmerman all fell into slumps, they were 3rd in the NL in scoring. I think that will tick back up at some point. Throw in future Met Nick Johnson, plus Josh Willingham’s .891 OPS, they aren’t slouches with the bats… In terms of pit
ching, it’s just not there. All rookie starters other than Lannan means a rough go. Lannan vs. Wang should actually be a great matchup. They are similar in more ways than they’re different, strikeout rates aside. I think from a Nats fan point of view it’s good that Detwiler and Zimmermann don’t start in this series. They will be needed in 2010 along with Strasburg, and the Yankees at home can mess with pitchers heads. Also needed are some people who can field, if you know any. This may be Manny Acta’s last series, and Mets fans, he could be sitting on a bench near you in the near future..
.

I purposely left Josh Willingham out of my evaluation because he’s currently on the bereavement list due to the sad death of his brother in an auto accident, and I wasn’t sure if he’d be back in time for this series. It is true that the Nats were hitting a bit better just a couple of weeks ago, but I’m reluctant to say that that was their true offensive level. I think it more likely that Zimmerman, Dunn, Nick the Greenstick, et al were playing a little over their heads, and what we’re seeing now is a return to a more realistic level of production.

I wish Manny Acta all the best, and hope he gets another chance with a real ballclub, should the Nats pull the trigger as was rumored. No manager could have overcome a bullpen as poor as that of this year’s Nats club. As always, whenever Acta comes up I feel proud to point out that he has cited the book I edited and co-authored, Mind Game as having been an important influence. Someone should get him a copy of Forging Genius as well, given that it’s about a manager who gets fired a lot before going on to greatness. It could be therapeutic… And he’ll probably be more careful about looking both ways before crossing the street. Four things Winston Churchill and Casey Stengel had in common: (1) late-career success after they had been written off; (2) handy with a turn of phrase; (3) enjoyed alcohol, perhaps a bit too much; (4) hit by cars while attempting to cross a street in a major American city. I’m sure there are more…

5: SCARCITY
…Or is that Scar City? Midcoaster asks:

My big question about Jesus Montero is – if he is not expected to be a catcher in the big leagues why is he still catching? Should’t he be learning how to be, at least, adequate in a position he will be playing? Looks like the Yankees are making a career DH. Please no more DH only types. Get him to learn a position he will be playing while he is still on the farm. Yes a big clunky guy could play the outfield if he gets gets experience and is well coached. The way ball are flying out of the new stadium it might be a good idea to keep him.

Jesus Montero is definitely a keeper. The reason he’s still catching is that the Yankees know how hard it is to find a top bat to stick behind the dish. If they can keep Montero back there, he’ll be infinitely more valuable than if he’s a first baseman, left fielder, or designated hitter. They’ve made a determination that until he proves that he absolutely cannot catch he’s going to stay, and it’s a good call, especially since Mark Teixeira has him blocked at first base for the next hundred years. His Tampa numbers this year are equivalent to his hitting .301/.325/.470 in the Majors as a 19-year-old. He could be Mike Piazza for the Yankees, with all the associated pros and cons. There’s no rush to move him.

MORE OF ME–TV
I’ll be on the YES’ Yankees Batting Practice Today show tomorrow, Wednesday, at 6 p.m.. Hope you see me then.