June 2009

Bring on the (ugh) Nationals

TWO OF THREE…
As with everyone else under the sun, I figured the Yankees could take two of three games from a poorly planned and injury-depleted Mets team, I just figured they would win Game 1 on their own merits and Game 2 by feasting on a journeyman starter before losing Game 3 to one of the best pitchers in baseball. I didn’t figure on them winning Game 1 because a veteran made a Little League misplay, losing game two by being shut down by the fringe-y guy, and then annihilating the Cy Young winner in Game 3. Let’s not even predict what the Yankees might do against the Nats… Then again, it’s sort of my job, so let’s give ‘er a go.

The Nationals are obviously a miserable ballclub, one with a chance to rank with the worst of all time. Their current .262 winning percentage works out to 42-118 over a full season. Just a few teams have been that bad. Here’s the bottom 10 since 1900:

YEAR PCT W L
1 A’s 1916 .235 36 117
2 Braves 1935 .248 38 115
3 Mets 1962 .250 40 120
4 Senators 1904 .252 38 113
5 A’s 1919 .257 36 104
6 Tigers 2003 .265 43 119
7 Pirates 1952 .273 42 112
8 Senators 1909 .276 42 110
9 Phillies 1942 .278 42 109
T10 Red Sox 1932 .279 43 111
T10 Phillies 1941 .279 43 111
T10 Browns 1939 .279 43 111

If they continue along their present path, the Nats would slot in right next to the 2003 Tigers. However, the Nationals are not like the 2003 Tigers. Those Tigers couldn’t hit, pitch, or field. The Nats are bad at two out of three, but they have average hitting. They don’t catch the ball, their starting pitching is the worst in the league, allowing nearly six runs per game, and their bullpen may yet prove to be the worst in the history of relief pitching.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees will get off easy. Their best bet for an easy win is Tuesday, when CC Sabathia takes on the Curacao-born 22-year-old Shairon Martis (with a name like Shairon, I keep thinking he must be Israeli). As the Nationals go, he’s pitched very well, with five quality starts in 12 tries, including a complete game, one-run win over the Cardinals. What works in the Yankees’ favor, particularly because this series is being contested in New York, is that Martis gives up a lot of fly balls and has a low strikeout rate. That suggests the Yankees making good contact and hitting balls in the air, and we know what happens when they do that at home. In addition, two of their three best hitters, Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn, are left-handed, which should be helpful to Mr. Sabathia.

Wednesday’s game has to be rated a toss-up. First, Washington lefty John Lannan can actually pitch. He’s not an extreme ground ball pitcher, but he gets enough of them to keep the ball in the park. On the downside, he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, meaning (again) those deadly balls in play. Lefties have also hit him well, slugging .493 against him in his career with a home run every 21.2 at-bats. The Yankees, who list seven left-handers or switch-hitters most days, should be able to do some damage. Unfortunately, much will also depend on whether Chien-Ming Wang can overcome his mechanical difficulties and put in a good start. Thursday’s match-up should again favor the Yankees, as the rookie Craig Stammen will face Joba Chamberlain. Of course, much will depend on Chamberlain throwing strikes. Stammen is no pistol (please pardon the bad horticultural pun), but does have good control. Like Lannon, he has an above-average groundball rate and his strikeout rate is on the low side.

The great thing about the Nationals from the point of view of the opposition is that they can blow a lead at any time. Even if the Yankees trail in these games, they have more than a fair chance at coming back against the bullpen. Their relievers have an aggregate ERA of 5.59. Reliever ERA isn’t the most accurate way to look at bullpen performance, but in this case, it makes a fine proxy for better measures, as it fairly depicts how miserable they’ve been. That should take some pressure off of Wang and Chamberlain — though not all of it, particularly for Wang. One question that arises out of Joe Girardi’s “pitch well or else” edict to Wang is, what about the start after?

COMING UP

We finally get to the mats with reader comments, and Wholesome Reading (Warning! Politics!) continues to be updated.

The around (and about)

Quick style:

? Tony Gwynn, Jr. was a mediocre prospect for years. Traded to the Padres, he’s hitting .344. It would be nice if that kind of magic were real.

? Chone Figgins went 3-for-5 on Friday, continuing a nice hot streak in which he’s batted .400 (32-for-80) over his last 20 games. He’s also thrown in a 3-for-7 in stolen bases, which doesn’t help.

? Friday was one of the few occasions all year when the Diamondbacks gave Dan Haren any offensive support. He’s 5-4 with a 2.20 ERA, but in a fair world he would have ten wins. I’m reminded of Nolan Ryan’s 1987.

? Bad news from the Mariners as Erik Bedard skips a start with shoulder soreness. Scratch one prospect from the ultimate trade package, should they choose to go that way–they may yet convince themselves that their league-leading pitching staff is good enough to overcome their league-lagging offense and get them to the top of a weak division. They might be right, too.

? It was shocking to see that Luke Hochevar had a four-pitch first inning against the Reds until the Reds’ batting order was consulted. The combination of injuries and poor planning has left Dusty Baker with a lineup that’s just not Major League quality right now. Still viable in their division, a trade for any kind of bat at almost any position would be decisive.

? This is stating the obvious, but let’s state it: when the Dodgers are being shut out in homer-happy Arlington, when they have just 44 home runs as a team, then what Manny Ramirez did wasn’t just cheating, it was an act of treason.

? With ultra-prospect Gordon Beckham just 2-for-28 in the Majors, you wonder how long the White Sox will continue to be patient.

? Two former Yankees key to the ending of the Nats-Rays game (there’s an interleague rivalry for you), as Nick Johnson dropped Gabe Kapler’s foul pop-up off of Ron Villone with two outs in the eighth, and Kapler came back and knocked Villone’s next pitch into the seats to swing the score in his team’s favor. Villone actually fell to his knees as the ball went out. It’s not always big failures that make a bad team historically bad.

? Roy Halladay leaves with a groin strain, next start in jeopardy. And if he’s compromised at all, the Jays’ chances of hanging around the fringes of the AL East race just went “poof.”

Irony is such a lovely word

Yanks-6-13-250.jpgIf you dig irony, the conclusion of Friday night’s game had to be an instant favorite. In November 2007, Mets General Manager Omar Minaya handed out one of the more foolish contracts in recent memory, signing Luis Castillo to a four-year, $25 million contract. Moreno thus assured the Mets of having Castillo’s company from age 32 through 35 when the second baseman’s speed, defense, and durability had already declined due to a set of bad knees. His power was always minimal, so even when at his best his offensive contributions have been minor. The most you can say of him at this point is that he’s selective and that when he does run, he picks his spots well. If you add up the 87 games he played last year with the 50 he’s played this year, you get a .258/.362/.318 hitter with 13 doubles, three triples, and three home runs. He’s also walked 77 times and stolen 23 bases in 27 attempts. He’s not completely without value, but what’s there isn’t something that the Mets needed to lock themselves into, especially when Castillo has so little leeway in his skills; if he slips even slightly, he’s rowing the team backwards.

That this player, of all players, dropped a seeming can of corn to give away a game to the Yankees seems highly appropriate. It would be inhuman not to observe that it’s also a little sad. There is no joy in seeing a 14-season veteran of the Major Leagues humiliated. Still, poor decision-making has a way of coming back to haunt you, and Castillo’s Fumble is the most visible example of a GM’s misevaluation of a player biting his team in the buttocks.

THE REMAINS OF JOBA’S DAY
Joba Chamberlain’s start was not pretty and might be better characterized as bizarre, as he left in the fourth having allowed just one hit but walked five and hit two batters. No doubt the Joba-to-the-Pen crowd will again get hyped up, but let’s be realistic: throwing strikes has been a staff-wide problem for the Yankees this year. With nine walks in nine innings last night, the club raised its rate of ball fours to 4.1 per nine innings. In doing so, they passed the Cleveland Indians for the league lead.

I’ve seen a great deal of hostility expressed towards Dave Eiland in reader comments here and elsewhere, but I’m not sure that you can put the blame on him exclusively. When a team has young, hard throwing pitchers, control problems often have to be worked through. A great deal of frustration usually accompanies this. Those of you kicking around long enough might recall that back in the mid-1980s, Bobby Valentine promulgated an ill-considered get-tough program with his wild Rangers pitchers, vowing that if any of his starters walked two consecutive batters he would be instantaneously yanked from the game. All this accomplished was to make his pitchers nervous. Bobby Witt remained Bobby Witt even with a metaphorical gun to his head. The Yankees can change pitching coaches, but the new guy is unlikely to bring a magic bullet to go with that gun.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE PEN…
Joe Girardi has not had a sure touch with the bullpen this year. His reluctance to use Mariano Rivera for a long save in Boston, followed by his usage of him in the eighth inning of Friday’s game, is a frustrating inconsistency. The usage of Brett Tomko ahead of David Robertson (more on this below) makes very little sense. When Girardi finally did get around to using Robertson, the horse was out of the barn. He then tried to push Robertson into a second inning, which would have pushed his pitch count up to 40 or so pitches, more than he typically throws. Instead, he allowed a leadoff hit to Gary Sheffield, which led to a panicky call to Phil Coke.

One interesting aspect of Girardi’s bullpen usage is the frequency with which relievers have pitched; Yankees relievers lead the league in appearances in consecutive games. Phil Coke leads the pack with nine such appearances each. This is in large part a reflection of Girardi’s reluctance to turn to anyone in the pen except for Coke, Mariano Rivera, and lately Al Aceves. As we’ve seen before, particularly in the Joe Torre years, this can lead to burnout of select pitchers. 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.

The one positive to come out of last night’s bullpen mishmash was that Phil Coke had a long outing. The former starter’s splits this year have been backwards: .195/.327/.366 with one home run in 41 at-bats against righties, .216/.245/.523 with four home runs in 44 at-bats against lefties, suggesting that Coke is miscast in the LOOGY role.

Finally, it’s great to see a Yankees manager finally using the team’s closer in tight eighth-inning situations instead of already-settled ninth innings, but it is unfortunate that it took until Rivera was 39, when he may no longer be mentally or physically adaptable to the change.

SAVE UP YOUR MONEY FOR A RAINY DAY,
GIVE ALL YOUR CLOTHES TO CHARITY…
THINK!
Nick Swisher is just not having a good week for mental acuity. Neither are the official scorers. That the official scorer called the ball that bounced off his mitt a double is just one more illustration of how badly baseball needs to professionalize official scoring. Millions of dollars in salaries are affected by performance statistics, and too often those statistics are perverted by scorers who display something less than objectivity.

Of course, nothing Swisher did this week compares to Milton Bradley’s actions on Friday, when he forgot the number of outs and tossed a live ball into the stands, allowing the Twins to trot around the bases.

VETERAN TOMKOISM
I’m still not clear on what Brett Tomko is adding to the roster, particularly when the Yankees could be getting Tony Claggett or Mark Melancon established in the Majors. He and Angel Berroa (three at-bats this month, seven total since April) are mysteries worthy of a Leonard Nimoy In Search Of… revival. Tomko has been around a long time, bas rarely been any good, and his 10.2 innings out of the Yankees pen going into Friday night’s debacle were deceptive. Sure, the ERA was only 2.53, but he’d walked four and struck out only five. He was always prone to giving up the home run, had already given up one, and with that low strikeout rate it was inevitable that he’d give up another. I’m all for teams fishing in the discard pile for diamonds in the rough, but the Yankees have viable relievers in the minors who might be good for the next five years, not the next five minutes. David Robertson is one of those, and yet he followed Tomko, coming in three-runs down instead of up by one. Veteran Tomkoism is counterproductive in the extreme.

I’m sure someone will write that the Yankees were looking for “length” with Chamberlain out of the game early, but length remains theoretical when the pitcher you choose can’t actually pitch.

THE FARNSRULES
Linked here, a very perceptive bit on Kyle Farnsworth from Joe Posnanski. He illustrates that the Royals have discovered what the Yankees (and Braves, and everyone else) already knew: Farnsworth is to be used in low leverage situations ONLY. “There’s no crying in baseball, except when Kyle Farnsworth comes in.” The Yankees pretended this wasn’t true for two and a half years.

An average bullpen and an average Cano

GOOD-BYE WOODIE HELD
A brief note marking the passing of one-time Yankee Woody Held. Held was signed by the Yankees and had a couple of brief trials with the big club, but the team looked at his limitations — strikeouts, low batting average, shaky defense at short — and ignored the fact that he had a ton of power for a shortstop of the day. In a move that Casey Stengel later acknowledged was a mistake, Held was spun off to the Kansas City A’s in one of the many trades the Yankees made with that ballclub (they got back Ryne Duren) and not retrieved. He went on to hit 179 Major League home runs in a 14-season career during which he played everywhere on the field except first base and catcher. His versatility made him a Stengel-type player, but Casey never got the chance. Regrets from this page to Mr. Held’s family and friends.

melancon250_061209.jpgHOLD THAT BULLPEN
Nothing I haven’t said before, but it’s current: Ken Rosenthal reports that the Yankees will be looking to trade for a setup man. They might give Mark Melancon another try first. It would be far cheaper to have him succeed than to deal off Jesus Montero for Huston Street. Melancon hasn’t pitched all that well lately, but has maintained great control in the Minors, walking just under two batters per nine innings, and of course he’s still striking out more than a man per inning. I’m not exactly sure why the folks at Scranton felt they had to let him pitch three innings on Tuesday, but we’ll assume that was an aberration.

As frustrating as the Yankees’ pen has been at time this year, it has overall been about average in its performance. Deleting Jonathan Albaladejo and Edwar Ramirez was a huge step in the right direction. David Robertson has been quite good the second time around, having allowed no runs in his seven appearances since returning. That said, four of those seven appearances have been in losses, and two others were in games in which the Yankees were leading by a large margin. It might be time for Joe Girardi to try entrusting Robertson with a higher leverage role. Al Aceves has also been quite the discovery, last night’s disappointing outing notwithstanding. If Brian Bruney finally returns and is healthy, a lot of the pressure to seek outside help should lift. At least, that’s the theory.

CANO: THE CAUTION HORSES
Seems to me that Robinson Cano’s latest slump is not getting a lot of play. While a certain segment of fandom wants to see Nick Swisher benched every time he strikes out with runners on, Cano gets a pass, because periods of extreme pointlessness is part of what we’re used to with Robby. Yet, Cano really hasn’t been hitting on all cylinders since April’s .366/.400/.581. While he hit for good power in May, his batting average dropped to .272, and since the six walks he took in April stayed in April, his on-base percentage for the month was under .300. This month he hasn’t hit anything at all. Despite 13 multi-hit games since the end of the season’s first month, Cano has batted only .248/.281/.392 in his last 38 games. The average American League second baseman is hitting .271/.333/.410, so as always with Cano, Hot Robby is a real contributor and Cold Robbie is a real problem.

Unfortunately, you can’t platoon Robbie against himself. Since a manager never knows when he’s going to be hot or cold, he can’t bench him only on the cold nights, plus there’s the traditional school of baseball thought, possibly correct, that claims that a hitter has to hit his way out of a slump (usually, if you listen to broadcasters, by bunting, but never mind). That leaves the team with a player who has some months out of the Rogers Hornsby catalogue and others that even Cody Ransom wouldn’t sniff at. Well, maybe Ransom, but you get the idea.

Cano has valuable, of course, especially in the absence of an obvious replacement. There’s no argument here that he be summarily dispensed with. Yet, his overall production for the season is sliding to the point where he’s closer to last year’s numbers than to the good stuff of the previous two seasons. He is, in essence, a tease. I’ve said this before: At some point, the Yankees may need to confront the reality that a player with lower highs and higher lows might be give them more value. Fortunately for Cano, that player is not yet part of the organization. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Cano’s contract escalates to $9- and then $10 million over the next two seasons, so their options may be very limited.

… And of course Cano is batting fifth tonight. Sometimes I don’t understand what Joe Girardi is thinking. If he’s thinking that Cano has a career batting average of .333 against tonight’s starter Livan Hernandez, he might want to consider that Cano has only had six at-bats against him. We’ve seen these kinds of small samples cited in lineup decisions before.

AND ONE THING ON SWISHER
I realize he made a key baserunning error last night, but the guy does have an OBP just under .400, is slugging .538, and is second in the league in walks drawn. He just misses making the league top 10 in whatever overall hitting metric you chose. He’s been a very potent hitter for the Yankees, and to run the guy out of town over one mental error is … a mental error.

YOU KNOW THOSE READER COMMENTS I PROMISED?

They’re still coming, eventually … I had a few other things on my mind I wanted to get to first. I’ll also be updating Wholesome Reading throughout the weekend, so stay tuned. 

Wangery X

wang_250_061109.jpgThe first thing to note is that before you begin arguing that Chien-Ming Wang can make another start because his opponent would be the historically poor Nationals, take a moment to peruse their lineup.

The Nats’ problem is not hitting, but pitching, particularly bullpen pitching. Washington pitching is allowing almost six runs per game (5.88), which bodes well for Yankees hitters, but they’re also scoring 4.55 runs per game, a hair above average. Nick Johnson, Christian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes have hit quite well this year.

Second base has been a season-long problem for Washington, as the team’s keystoners have been miserable, and a potentially season-ending injury to Jesus Flores has left catcher in the hands of ex-Yankee Wil Nieves, which is a problem given that Nieves is not a replacement level player, but whatever comes after that. It’s the floor on the elevator that doesn’t get a number, just a black button. The point being belabored here is that Washington can mash a struggling Wang just as well as any other team.

The second argument that should be dispensed with is “Wang won 19 games twice, three and two years ago.” Two years ago, George W. Bush was president. Three years ago, the economy was, if not cooking, looking a whole lot healthier than it is now. Three years ago GM and Chrysler were not bankrupt. Three years ago has zero relevance to what is happening now. Two years ago has only slightly more relevance. Ron Guidry won over 20 games three times, so surely he must have the right to get a few cracks at the Major League rotation. Obviously that’s not realistic — Guidry could do it back in the 1970s and 80s but he’s 59 now. He can no longer do it. Exactly. There is also a chance that, because of his injury, a loss of mechanics, or a loss of confidence, Wang can no longer do it either. At the very best, he can’t do it right now.

Wang is now 0-4. For all intents and purposes he is the difference in the American League East race. Yes, the Yankees have lost every game they’ve played to the Red Sox, but they’ve outplayed the Sox everywhere except head-to-head — their records independent of each other are 34-18 for the Yankees and 28-24 for the Red Sox. Sure, there have been injuries and some other burps along the way. The point here is not to fix blame, but only to underscore the fact that in a close race, and this race should continue to be close, every decision the team makes can have an outsized impact. The Yankees can continue to gamble with Wang and maybe they’ll win that gamble. Wang maintains velocity, so there’s always a chance.

On the other hand, Phil Hughes waits behind door number two, and it’s possible that, with the very good strikeout rate he’s shown thus far, he can make huge strides. All it would take is a slight uptick in his command and some new pitching patterns against lefties, who are having little trouble thwacking him (righties have barely laid a glove on him). That makes it sound all too easy — there are few more loaded phrases in life than, “All that needs to happen is” — but if you have two pitchers, Wang and Hughes, both needing to make adjustments, you might want prefer the guy with the big-time upside who you have to get established anyway because Andy Pettitte might not pitch forever. Or to put it another way, you might choose the pitcher who has had at least one quality start versus the guy who has yet to survive the fourth inning.

Let us be clear that no one knows what will happen. Dave Eiland has insisted that Wang can come back. We can take his word for that, that Wang CAN. That he will come back is a different matter. Things might click for him or they might not. Hughes too might take a step forward, a step back, or a step into the old Yankee Stadium construction site and vanish into the spot where all the construction animals were killed in a cave-in back in 1922. (Don’t do it, Phil. That’s not the way to become a winner.) Anyone who claims to have a definitive answer is lying. What remains is really a question, and then, perhaps, an argument: Can the Yankees afford to give Wang more chances?

DON’T LET HIM STOP
I have to credit Kyle Farnsworth for having had a nice little stretch of pitching for the Royals. New York’s favorite reliever has seemingly turned a corner. In a run of 17 appearances going back to April 21, Farnsworth has pitched 17.2 scoreless innings. He’s allowed nine hits, two walks, and struck out 17. Obviously those pesky home runs have not been a problem. Don’t know where this version of Farnsworth was in New York. Perhaps KC is more his speed. I figure I’ve been picking on the guy for years, so it’s only fair to acknowledge it when he does well.

MORE OF ME
Wholesome Reading has some new bits, with more to come. Warning, innocents! Politics!

In a baseball vein, those with a pass to Baseball Prospectus can check out some historical notes about the draft.

The draft is upon us

HIDE YOUR WIVES AND DAUGHTERS
We’re just a few hours away now. The Yankees pick 29th in the first round, the result of Gerrit Cole stiffing them last year. The thing to remember here is that you don’t get a third try — if the Yankees swing and miss here, they go hungry. Mock drafts are only worth so much, particularly when you’re talking about a team that’s picking 29th, but both Baseball America‘s Jim Callis and Baseball ProspectusKevin Goldstein have linked the Yankees to Texas high school outfielder Slade Heathcott (not Heath Sladecott, as my brain insists on remembering it).

Again, this is all guesswork because any of 28 prior decisions could dramatically alter who is available at the bottom of the round. Because he’s a local product, I’d like to see Millville High, New Jersey outfielder Mike Trout become available to the Yankees, but he’s been a rising commodity these past few weeks and it seems unlikely. “Local” is kind of stretching it — Millville is closer to Delaware than New York — but you don’t get too many high first-round picks out of the Garden State, though we can balance out such illustrious overdrafts as Willie Banks, Jeff Kunkel and Pat Pacillo with Mo Vaughn, Craig Biggio, and Willie Wilson. Also, I figure that fate owes the Yankees something on players named “Trout.”

The last time the Yankees bought a fish it didn’t go so well. It was 22 years ago, but the wounds have yet to heal — if you weren’t there, it was something like all three years of Carl Pavano packed into a season-destroying 14 games. Maybe they’d be better off with Sladecott, or Heathcliffe, or whatever his name is, so long as he represents a land-based species.  

To “land-based” we should add “position-based.” Though teams draft (or should draft) the best available talent rather than for need, the Yankees’ system is still overbalanced on the pitching side. Given that the Yankees even taste some early picks because of the Cole debacle, it’s probably best just to say “good luck” and, paraphrasing Woody Guthrie, “Take it easy, but for gosh sakes, take something!”

Notes from around the league

NO YANKEES TONIGHT
What a drag. Although it would have been nice if they Ernie Banks-ed it on Saturday, they pushed the sucker off into the future instead. And thus, a few quick notes on the landscape:

?    It was a great week for youth, with Andrew McCutchen, and Gordon Beckham coming up, and Tommy Hanson officially due up on Sunday, and let’s throw in Matt Wieters, who made his debut a week ago today. All ranked among the top 50 or so prospects in the game, and three of the four are closer to the top than the bottom (McCutchen is the least promising of the bunch, but it’s a tough crowd).

carmona300_060509.jpg?    It was more than past time for the Indians to send Fausto Carmona to the Minors. He was wonderful in 2007, but his 2008 was bad and his 2009 has been miserable, with the former’s five walks per nine innings turning into six walks per nine. Carmona can still induce those grounders, but he wasn’t getting the double plays when he needed them, perhaps because he was more likely to pass the batter than get him out. Resultantly, just two of his 12 starts have earned the quality start seal of approval. His 2008 and 2009 combined: 10-13 in 34 starts, 6.10 ERA (including a shutout!), 181.1 innings, 195 hits, 111 walks, 94 strikeouts.

?    Billy Butler of the Royals is batting .288/.348/.440, which would be great if he were a shortstop, but it’s not that exciting coming from a first baseman/designated hitter. Butler is only 23, so he could find another gear, but right now he’s Shea Hillenbrand.

?    If the Yankees were to bail out on Hideki Matsui before the end of the year, would you be comfortable with it if the reason were that it would allow them to block the Red Sox off of Nick Johnson? Part two of that question is, would it be worth it for the Yankees to get into a prospect bidding war with the Red Sox in order to accomplish that goal?

?    It’s sad that the era of making “great man” movies ended 60 years ago, before Paul Muni or Edward G. Robinson could portray Branch Rickey.

?    As much as the Orioles have improved their club of late with graduates of the farm system and the occasional perspicacious trade acquisitions (Adam Jones, this means you), they’re still desperate for a quality shortstop. Whoever the next great, or even decent, Orioles shortstop is, he’s not presently in the organization.

?    Rumor has the Braves wanting to add Brad Penny, which seems like insurance for the kids. Their rotation has been the least of their problems. Nate McClouth isn’t a great bat; the reason he was a great add for the Braves is that despite this he’s still leaps and bounds above any other outfielder the Braves have played.

?    Given their many injuries and lack of organizational depth, by the time the Yankees see the Mets next week they might be starting Wayne Garrett and John Milner again. Parenthetically, Omar Minaya was nuts to put so much faith in former Yankees farmhand Omir Santos. He’s going to be far below the replacement level with the bat when all is said and done. He’s close now, actually … The Mets have played 12 games since Jose Reyes left the lineup, and though they’re 7-5 in those games, they’ve hit .252/.336/.378. We should probably only give them half-credit for their three-game sweep of the Nationals.

?    I keep hearing how after Randy Johnson there will be no more 300 game winners forever, but with health (the big caveat for everyone) CC Sabathia is going to have a shot at it. If he averages only 15 wins a year over the duration of his Yankees contract, he’ll hit his mid-30s with something like 220 wins. It would be a steep climb to 300 from there, but not any steeper than Johnson’s. As with the Big Unit, Sabathia is a weird physical specimen, so it’s hard to project his chances of staying healthy into old age.

?    “Up” was a terrific picture, and one that will speak more to the adults than the kids, though the kids will dig it, too. Next spring, when people are debating the Academy Awards and this film has been ghettoized in the “Best Animated Film” category, it’s a good bet that no, erm, inanimate film will have been better.

MORE FROM ME
Wholesome Reading has been updated with new entries, and there will be more throughout the weekend. Warning: Politics and fish! I’ll be back here if breaking news demands it, or if I just feel lonely for you. 

The around (and about)

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Palebon-6-3-250.jpgRed Sox 5, Tigers 1:
The Tigers loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, but Jon Papelbon struck out the side to get out of it. Not much new there, but Daisuke Matsuzaka’s solid start (five innings, one run) bodes well for the Sox in the future. Throw in four scoreless innings of relief overall, and it was a big day for Boston.

Blue Jays 6, Angels 4: Fourteen strikeouts for Roy Halliday on 133 pitches. That’s a career high for the good Doctor, surpassing a 130-pitch effort last August 9. If it bothered him then, he didn’t show it–his ERA was 2.77 going in and 2.95 after… With this loss, the Angels once again get sucked back to .500. Halladay can make any team look bad, but this is a woeful offensive team. A healthy Vlad Guerrero, or one 10 years younger, would solve a lot of problems, as would a basic hitting reeducation course for Howie Kendrick, who has taken the Mickey Hatcher not-walking-as-your-path-to-Nirvana program way too seriously.

Rays 6, Royals 2: In which Andy Sonnanstine shows he can pitch a little, allowing two solo shots but no free passes. The Rays’ bullpen even showed up for this one. Ben Zobrist keeps on hitting at second, and Matt Joyce has done quite well in his return from the minors, so the Rays are covering all their injuries but shortstop, and Reid Brignac might show a little bit of pop yet–his translations for this year at Triple-A say .268/.335/.451, while PECOTA… Well, PECOTA isn’t nearly as cheerful. At least everyone agrees the kid can field.

Twins 4, Indians 3: The Indians might have lost Asdrubal Cabrera for awhile when he bent his left shoulder on Brandon Harris’s buttocks. And this just in: I’ve run out of superlatives for Joe Mauer, who went 3-for-3 with a home run and is now batting .431/.516/.873.

Athletics 5, White Sox 0: Another rookie pitcher comes up for the A’s, doesn’t pitch well exactly, but doesn’t allow a run. Beware of next time. The Sox were damaged on their end by a Wilson Betemit error, and we know what that’s all about in these parts.

Mariners 8, Orioles 2: Erick Bedard raises his trade profile a bit more with another solid outing, Ichiro gets another couple of hits (26 straight), and Junior Griffey finds a good day left in his kit bag… In his last 20 games, Nick Markakis is 18-for-85 (.212).

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Braves 6, Cubs 5:
Definition of a heartbreaking loss: your starter throws nearly seven innings of no-hit ball, that goes by the boards, as does the lead, as does, well, everything, and at the end of 12 innings you get to watch the Braves dance at home plate. Jeff Francoeur’s home run moves his OBP up to .275. Georgia rejoice. Gregor Blanco replaced Jordan Schafer in center field, checking a rookie checker’s attempt to jump a few squares.

Pirates 3, Mets 1: Johan Santana pitched well, but not up to his usual standards, while Zach Duke held a depressingly anorexic Mets lineup to eight singles and a whole lot of outs on balls in play–the Mets didn’t strike out once, but a few quality defensive plays kept them honest, including a Nate McLouth throw to get Jeremy Reed at home that tailed well up the line, exactly where it needed to be. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Nationals 10, Giants 6: Busy day for Washington, as the Nats fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire and also got word that starting catcher Jesus Flores might miss the rest of the season. Finally, the staged a come-for-behind win courtesy of the Bay Area Bullpen Collective. As for the Jints, they can look in the mirror. Tim Lincecum on the mound, six runs in the bank, that’s like ’27 Yankees time for this offense–they need to win on nights like that.

Marlins 10, Brewers 3: Dan Uggla hit his 100th home run, becoming the fastest second baseman to reach the century mark. Uggla isn’t a great player, nor is he having a good year. Still, this is a guy who few thought could play, and he has 100 career home runs, about 100 more than several prospects with higher profiles.

Astros 3, Rockies 2: Third straight win for Houston, as they tie it up against Huston Street and Miguel Tejada hits a walk-off against Fogg in the 11th, as if Fogg had any business pitching in an important spot, or any spot, in the Major Leagues. At .362/.388/.546, you have to admit that Tejada is having a heck of a season for a 35-year-old with a questionable chemical history.

Cardinals 5, Reds 2: Four strong innings of relief from the Cards’ pen, one of those off days for Bonson Arroyo, and a Reds’ offense that was hurting from the loss of Joey Votto goes 5-for-30. Willy “E. Coyote” Taveras: .260/.318/.328 and a career leadoff man who has never scored more than 83 runs in a season. Who thought that was a good idea?

Phillies 10, Padres 5: A potentially season-saving debut by starting pitcher Antonio Bastardo (Got Bastardo?), who could bolster a rotation that has lost Brett Myers for the year and isn’t getting quite what it had planned from Cole Hamels… Another huge night for Raul Ibanez, two home runs, and Ibanez is now slugging a Ruthian .716–Great Scott. On the Padres’ side, Adrian Gonzalez hit yet another home run, and Jake Peavy leaves after one with the flu, which sounds like a cover for his bad ankle or might really be the flu… And hopefully not THAT flu.

Dodgers 6, Diamondbacks 5: A win for Jeff Weaver out of the pen as the Dodgers, absolutely neutered by Dan Haren, came back. As I’ve said before, it’s an unfair universe.

One more chance for Wang


Wang-6-3-250.jpgWANG RIDES AGAIN, ONE DAY AT A TIME
Chien-Ming Wang has been sprung from the bullpen. He will start on Thursday against the Rangers. Phil Hughes will take his place in the bullpen. At this writing, the reasoning behind the decision has yet to be reported, but we can safely assume that the Yankees have been sufficiently intrigued by Wang’s work in relief to give him the shot. At the same time, Hughes gets the benefit of a little more experience working in relief and remains on hand to pitch if Wang’s return needs to be aborted.

The upside of the move is clear: at his best, Wang was a consistent starting pitcher who gave the Yankees a fair chance to win about 60 percent of the time. As I have written many times here, the secret of Wang’s success is that his sinker has been so good that not only do batters hit very few home runs off of him, they hit relatively few extra-base hits at any time. If Wang’s control is sharp and he keeps the walks to a minimum, the opposition has to pile up many singles in a row to score more than one run in an inning.

That said, Wang’s very low strikeout rates mean that everything has to be working right for him to win, including the inner defense. As we’ve seen this year, if he’s not at his best, batters don’t swing and miss, they swing and annihilate. Very few pitchers have had any kind of long-term success with Wang’s strikeout rates–a reader in the comments for yesterday’s entry cited Rick Reuschel, Jamie Moyer, Greg Maddux and Paul Splitorff, but all of them except Splitorff had decisively higher strikeout rates in leagues in which batters were harder to strike out (and I’m betting that Spitorff would edge ahead as well given a similar era adjustment), and in any case these are outliers, four pitchers out of, well, everybody.

Hughes has been fascinating so far. He’s averaging eight strikeouts per nine innings, one of the reasons that the Yankees are second in the league in strikeout rate. His walk rate has been a tad high. He has not been consistent, of course, and the Yankees are looking for consistency in a close race. All Yankees tyro pitchers are on an inning-to-inning lease, but given the highly competitive nature of the AL East this change can’t be looked at as a symptom of the team’s typical impatience. Though the Red Sox have had an indifferent record of late, the Blue Jays have been in a tail spin, and the Rays are still struggling to find consistency, you can’t assume that these clubs are just going to fall away and leave the Yankees alone in first place. It makes sense to reach for the arm that you think is going to give you a quality start six out of ten tries instead of four or five times out of ten tries.

Regardless of what Wang does now, the future belongs to Hughes and his strikeouts, to the way that a high-strikeout pitcher can take the weight off of a defense (with an aging Jeter and a crippled A-Rod, this is only going to become more of an issue over time). Eventually the Yankees are going to have to make a commitment to him and let him mature enough to find that consistency, or decide that he’s not going to find it and move on. 

They also need to be prepared to abandon this experiment just as quickly as they started it, and for the same reasons. Wang has pitched six times this year. He was creamed the first four times and pitched well the last two. This is not exactly a plethora of evidence that Wang is ready to be a dominating starter. If the AL East is too competitive to let Phil Hughes grow up in public, then it’s also too competitive to let Wang try to reestablish himself as a starter. Forget the two 19-win seasons. They have little relevance to 2009. That was then, this was now, and if Wang isn’t the same guy then there’s no room to let him flounder based on a memory. All luck to him, of course, and all respect for past accomplishments as well, but just like Hughes, Wang should be guilty until proven innocent.

THE CAPTAIN
Having hit in sixteen straight games (.429/.487/.600), Derek Jeter’s overall numbers have risen to the point that, if he simply maintains his current overall level of production, he will have enjoyed a very nice comeback season, his best with the bat in three years. There are, of course, many games yet to go, so you can’t count on that happening, but after last year’s injuries, the concomitant decline in production, and rapidly encroaching old age, it’s good to see that this future Hall of Famer may have another top-quality season in him.

Actually, top-quality is a bit of a misnomer as Jeter’s current level of production doesn’t stand out from any of several other seasons he’s had–he’s always been a consistent player, with a couple of notable exceptions. One of those, of course, was 1999, when Jeter had what was one of the top five or so seasons by a shortstop since the 1950s. There’s Alex Rodriguez’s 1996 and 2000, Nomar’s 1999 and 2000, Robin Yount’s 1982, Alan Trammel’s 1987, and Jeter’s 1999.

Note that with the exception of Yount, the MVP voters missed on every dang one of them.

Show some love for the glove

RECORD-SETTING DEFENSE
The Yankees’ new record for consecutive games without an error doesn’t mean much to me, because official scoring in baseball has spectacularly low standards and has become almost totally subjective. What is interesting about the record is the way the Yankees have been climbing the defensive efficiency ladder. Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play that a team turns into outs. Over the last several seasons, almost uniformly going back to the last century, the Yankees have ranked toward the bottom of the Majors in this category. Their players had so little range that the pitchers were giving up hits on balls that other teams might have put in the back pockets. Everything gets distorted: The pitchers look worse than they really are, the team goes crazy trying to sign pitchers when it really needs fielders and hitters, and the whole club spins off its axis.

If memory serves, the last time the Yankees led the league in this category was 1998. Since then, there’s been a lot of “Past a diving [your name here]!” in the play by play. That has changed a great deal this season, particularly due to the addition of Mark Teixeira, who is a revelation on the fielding job after so many years of Jason Giambi. Another key factor has been Nick Swisher, who hasn’t made many spectacular plays but gets to many more balls than Bobby Abreu was inclined to pursue in right field. Right now, the Yankees are fourth in the American League at 70.7 percent, a number almost indistinguishable from that of the league-leading Rangers (71.3 percent; the Brewers lead the Majors at 72.4 percent). It’s an old but true baseball adage that you can’t win by giving the opposition extra outs. Usually, that adage refers to errors, but it should apply to every ball hit within the fences and between the lines. The Yankees haven’t cared much about this in the recent past, but with Teixeira’s help a change has come. It and the team’s current hot streak are not coincidental.

joba250_060209.jpgJOBA CAN PITCH THE EIGHTH — AS A STARTER
And that’s all I have to say about that. He won’t get there in most starts, of course, but the point is that if he is capable of this kind of upside, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep running him out there until he gives some definitive reason that he can’t. The performance of OTHER pitchers, like the eighth-inning relievers, have nothing to do with him. The bullpen is its own problem with its own solution set. You don’t take a pitcher who is capable of giving you 21 or even 24 outs a night with an ERA below 4.00 out of the rotation because you can’t find another guy who can give you three, no matter how “important” the spot. That’s idiotic. All of the outs are important. We just perceive protecting late leads to somehow be a bigger deal than holding the opposition scoreless in the first or the third or the sixth, but a run is a run is a run, and you never know which one is going to beat you. More to the point, you can’t protect leads you don’t have, and a strong starting pitching staff is the tool that is most likely to buy you the time to generate that lead. Secondary point: It’s much easier to find a guy to give you three outs than it is to find the one that will give you 21, even if the Yankees are having trouble finding that guy right now.

And yet another point, one that I alluded to yesterday: As good as Chien-Ming Wang has been as a starter in his career, his stuff and approach do not correlate with long-term success. I don’t care if you have a sinker so heavy that Superman can’t lift it — eventually the lack of strikeouts, the lack of a solid inner defense, or both is going to eat you alive. In Wang’s case, his injury of last season may have altered his delivery, stuff or strength in a minute way, hard to perceive with the naked eye, but significant enough that he can no longer balance on the point of a needle the way he used to. Putting him in the bullpen, while perceived by many fans and commentators as a waste or an insult of some kind, may in fact allow him to make changes in his approach that will save his effectiveness and ultimately his career. A Wang who isn’t worried about marshalling his stuff and can throw harder over a shorter span of time while still getting groundballs may be able to get outs in a way that a six- or seven-inning version of Wang can no longer aspire to.

Right now, there’s no reason for the Yankees to make a change except that some people are arguing for it. Wang is pitching well in the bullpen, they say, so let’s make him a starter. Chamberlain is pitching well as a starter, so let’s make him a reliever. That way lies madness.

Parenthetically, I was pleased that Joel Sherman made very much the same argument I did yesterday about using Mariano Rivera in a tied game on the road. Within that piece there’s also a promising note about the Yankees vowing not to resign Hideki Matsui after the season, 100 percent the correct decision.