July 2009

Sunday: Brunch and serious memories

MY JOB IS STILL EASIER THAN YOURS…
…Which is not bragging, but the opposite: I ain’t complaining about the arduous work I have to do. Still, I was just chatting with my colleague Jon Lane about what time I have to get out to Yankee Stadium II to do my annual set of interviews on Old Timer’s Day, and he was speculating 9 a.m. This is depressing in that it takes me about two hours to get up to the ballpark, so it’s going to be an early Sunday morning. On the positive side, I’ll get to enjoy breakfast fare in the press dining room, which I am told includes Eggs Benedict a la Babe Ruth (poached egg on an English muffin and hollandaise sauce, topped with a broiled horse shank).

I’m already feeling my fatigue, but it should still be a fascinating time. The Yankees always do a terrific job of assembling a memorable roster for these occasions. The usual Hall of Famers will be in attendance — Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, and Reggie Jackson — but I’m looking forward to talking to a couple of the first-timers, “Hit Man” Mike Easler and relief ace Lindy McDaniel. It’s fascinating that the former relief ace is making his first trip back at the age of 73. He played with many future Hall of Famers in a career that covered 21 seasons and three decades, and was an important part of the lost-years Yankees just before George Steinbrenner bought the club. He was then traded for Lou Piniella, which turned out to be one of the bigger robberies in franchise history. Luckily for me, most of the writers will be more concerned with more recent players who are returning for the first time, fellows like Chad Curtis and Charlie Hayes. I typically get the literal old timers to myself, and that’s the way I like it.

I JUST FEEL LIKE SAYING THIS
The Yankees had Babe Ruth for 15 seasons. They won seven pennants. 15-7=8. The Yankees had the best player in baseball by a country mile, and sometimes the two best players, but they still went home in October more than half the time. In 1920 they had Ruth and the best pitching staff in the league, but the non-Babe parts of the offense were weak. The same thing could be said of the 1924 offense, plus the pitching staff was just decent, not great, and the club got beaten by a Senators team that had one of the great pitching staffs of the period. Ruth missed half the season in 1925, the offense couldn’t pick up the slack (even with Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Earle Combs having good years), and the pitching staff was just mediocre. From 1929 to 1931, the Yankees were outclassed by a dominant A’s team that couldn’t hit with them but had by far the better pitching staff (there is no Lefty Grove in the history of the Yankees, nor, with the possible exception of Ron Guidry in 1978 and a couple of Lefty Gomez seasons, any starting pitcher who is even close). Weak pitching was again the problem in 1933. The staff began to come around in 1934, but not enough to win a pennant.

20-GAME WATCH: TIGERS VS. YANKEES
(SITTING ON A CORNFLAKE, WAITING FOR MAGGLIO)

After the Angels’ sweep, I’m out of the prediction business for awhile…

Team
W-L
RS/G
RA/G
AVG
OBP
SLG
SB
CS
HR/9
BB/9
K/9
Tigers 12-7 4.7 4.3 .260 .325 .444 9 5 1.1 3.7 7.7
Yankees 13-7 6.1 5.0 .285 .375 .465 13 7 1.2 3.1 7.3

The 2009 Yankees are not unlike those 1929-1931 Yankees that couldn’t beat out the A’s. They can scorch the ball anywhere, but their pitching staff does the same favor for the opposition. The Tigers do not have a good offense, and are hitting a tragically weak .245/.307/.395 on the road, averaging 4.1 runs a game while doing so. If they start blasting balls into outer space during this series, you not only have further proof of YS II’s pinball qualities, but also of the state of the pitching staff. .. Watch out for Curtis Granderson, a career .291/.408/.523 hitter against the Yankees.

The future of Carl Crawford

CRAWFORD’S STRIPES
I’ve seen some suggestions, both here in the comments and elsewhere, that the next Yankees left fielder should be Carl Crawford, MVP of last night’s All-Star Game. There is nothing wrong with dreaming about Crawford, who is a terrific, entertaining player, a burner on the bases and in the field. Yet, his path to the Bronx is far from assured.

ccrawford250_071509.jpgThe first problem with projecting Crawford in pinstripes is the assumption that he will be a free agent this winter. That is not necessarily the case. The Rays hold a $10 million club option. If they choose not to exercise it, they would have to pay Crawford a $1.25 million buyout. The marginal cost to the Rays of retaining Crawford, then, is $8.75 million, or just $500,000 more than he’s making his season. That would seem to argue for another year of Crawford in Florida unless the combination of the weak economy and Tampa’s attendance issues — the reigning AL champs’ sales are up, but only by about 2,300 tickets a game — has put the team in a position where it has to cut salary to the bone.

That outcome seems unlikely for two reasons: First, the Rays have a few dollars in useless salaries coming off the books after this season. Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen and Chad Bradford will combine to make $8 million this year. If the Rays replace them internally, something they’ve already been forced to do with two of the three, then Crawford’s salary is mostly covered. Secondarily, $10 million is high for a left fielder in the present economic environment, but not outlandishly so. It’s less than Raul Ibanez will make next year, or Adam Dunn, and just $1 million more than Milton Bradley. The Rays could absorb the $8.75 million next year, then attempt to re-sign Crawford to a lesser contract based on the new economic realities, or they could pass and take the first-round draft pick. Alternatively, they could pick up Crawford’s option than attempt to trade him a year from now. In short, there is no guarantee that Crawford will even be available to the Yankees.

A more difficult question, but not spectacularly more difficult, is whether the Yankees would really benefit from signing Crawford. Crawford is a very good player who has the potential to be a very bad one. His game is largely based around speed, with only a bit of power and patience thrown in. His batting average is driven by hitting on turf — he’s averaged .302 on the fake stuff versus .285 on grass. Since he doesn’t walk much, his on-base percentage on grass is only .324. His average is also driven by his speed. Nearly 10 percent of Crawford’s hits every year are of the infield variety. At some point, through age or the inevitable knee injury, he’s going to lose half a step, and when he does, close to 20 hits a year will disappear, as will the high stolen base totals, the triples and the stellar outfield defense. That will leave Crawford’s team with a player not too different from the one he was during his injury season last year. Crawford hit .273/.319/.400. That’s not helpful in an offensive era in which the average player can be counted on to do better than that.

You can’t know when Crawford will hit that wall, the one that waits for all players whose productivity is based on speed, but given that the team that signs him as a free agent will have to agree to a multi-year deal that carries the player at least into his early 30s (Crawford turns 28 in August), it’s likely that it will happen on his next employer’s dime. Signing any player, at any stage of his career, is always a gamble, but some gambles are lower percentage risks than others. As much fun as Crawford can be, he seems like one of those, a chance for an acquiring team to get burned. Just Crawford’s career road rates, the non-turf .285/.323/.423 alluded to above, suggests he could retain his speed and still disappoint in the wrong park. In other words, he’s probably more valuable where he is now than he would be almost anywhere else. Before clamoring for Crawford, it would be best to be sure of what one is getting. As the old saying goes, speed kills. In this case, the victims might include those paying a thirty-something Crawford’s salary. 

Beware of the Rays

rivera_250_071509.jpgTHE ALL-STAR GAME
I figured I’d hold off on today’s entry until after the game. That would have been a timely decision had the game started before 8:45, but alas, the pregame rolled on like a matinee of “Gone With The Wind.” The game itself went by briskly but uneventfully.

Then Mariano Rivera came in and I was riveted. Is it wrong that Rivera reminds me of the fragility of things and the cruel passage of time? I keep thinking, “He’s almost 40. He can’t be this good forever, so cherish his every appearance.” That makes really savor each pitch, but it also makes every appearance bittersweet.

Maybe there’s a medication you can get that can ease your feelings of sadness over the ending of Rivera’s career before it has ended…

WHY CAN’T THE WIND BLOW BACKWARDS?
The Yankees are 0-9 against the Red Sox and will face them another 10 times this season, but perhaps the real team to be concerned about is the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees will visit them for three games starting in about two weeks and then host them for four games in September, including a split doubleheader. The two clubs will then see the season out together with a three-game series in St. Petersburg during the first week of October. The Yankees are 4-4 against the Rays so far, but last year’s AL pennant winners, currently third in the Wild Card standings, 3.5 games behind the front-running Yankees, could surge in the second half and threaten for a postseason berth.

Looking at the Rays’ projected won-lost record, extrapolated from their total runs scored and allowed totals, they have cheated themselves of somewhere between four and seven wins. Victimized by a pitching staff that hasn’t lived up to last year’s performance, the Rays have lost more close games than they’ve won. That can change very quickly. The Rays could experience a run of good luck or timely hitting (perhaps the same thing), or some of the changes they’ve made to the starting rotation, removing Andy Sonnanstine from the Major League rotation, bringing Scott Kazmir back from the disabled list, and promoting David Price, could pay off. They could also help themselves in a big way by grabbing a bullpen arm at or before the trading deadline.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Rays stack up very well with the Yankees, even if they’ve scored fractionally fewer runs per game this season (5.4 for the Rays vs. 5.6 for the Yankees). Take it position by position:

First Base
Rays: .236/.367/.531. Yankees: .277/.381/.542. The difference favors the Yankees, but it’s small, about nine runs over a full season.

Second Base
Rays: .273/.373/.425. Yankees: .307/.339/.488. Despite having to compensate for Akinori Iwamura’s wholly unnecessary knee injury, the aggregate of Tampa’s second basemen, principally Iwamura and Ben Zobrist, have out-produced Robinson Cano by a few runs. Such is the power of on-base percentage.

Third Base
Rays: .288/.366/.545. Yankees: .222/.345/.412. The Alex Rodriguez component of the foregoing is .247/.407/.519. We’ll see if he passes Evan Longoria by the end of the year. The aggregate A-Rod subs have hit .184 with no home runs, so Tampa leads by about 20 runs here.

Shortstop
Rays: .347/.393/.536. Yankees: .314/.386/.453. Jason Bartlett is having a crazy good year, and when he put in three weeks on the disabled list, subs Zobrist and Reid Brignac hit quite well. Jeter is having a nice season, but he’s just not hitting at that level. By the end of the year, this should be much closer as Bartlett fades (.400 batting averages on balls in play just don’t last) — unless Jeter fades too.

Catcher
Rays: .234/.264/.342. Yankees: .280/.335/.444. Dioner Navarro is just killing the Rays at the plate. Even though Jorge Posada subs Francisco Cervelli, Jose Molina, and Kevin Cash haven’t hit well, they’ve still been better than Navarro. You almost have to try to be that bad. Navarro was on a little hot streak going into the break, and perhaps he’ll rebound in the second half. For now, the Yankees have something like a 20-run advantage here, and the more Posada they can pile on the better.

Left Field
Rays: .311/.375/.456. Yankees: .272/.348/.497. The Yankees have gotten seven more doubles and eight more home runs in roughly the same number of trips to the plate, and that power advantage helps offset Carl Crawford’s high batting average and stolen bases. In terms of run generation, this is close to being a tie.

upton_250_071509.jpgCenter Field
Rays: .240/.329/.396. Yankees: .289/.356/.432. B.J. Upton’s miserable start was highly damaging, but he had a terrific June (.324/.395/.562, 10 doubles, five home runs and 14 stolen bases), and if he hits up to his capabilities the rest of the way he’ll turn this position into a net positive. The Yankees’ just-good-enough production at the position gives them a roughly seven-run lead on the Rays. Again, that will change, because the Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera combination is unlikely to improve on its current showing, whereas Upton is fairly likely to have a .380 OBP in the second half.

Right Field
Rays: .274/.364/.456. Yankees: .252/.360/.457. The Rays play someone different here every day, but each part has been very good, with Zobrist, Gabe Gross (.301/.400/.451),and Gabe Kapler contributing. Rays’ right fielders have gotten a few more runs out of right field than the Yankees have, but that could change if Nick Swisher remembers how to hit or Gross remembers that he’s not Country Slaughter.

Designated Hitter
Rays: .255/.365/.401. Yankees: .272/.369/.534. An easy win for the Yankees, who are getting some of the best DH production in the business from Hideki Matsui plus assorted guest starts. Pat Burrell has been a spectacular disaster for the Rays and there’s no end in sight. They only have to live with him for the rest of this year and next, but the experience will cost them $16 million.

Boston’s offense doesn’t measure up in this crowd given David Ortiz’s struggles, Mike Lowell’s age and health issues, absent shortstops, and so on. They’re more of a pitching team this year. They beat the Yankees there, the Rays beat the Yankees on offense. It will be interesting to see if the Yankees have enough of what each team doesn’t have to survive the crunch.

Yankees facing severely depleted Angels

20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. ANGELS
It’s an inevitable part of any season that the Yankees have to go to Anaheim. Sadly, the MLB schedule doesn’t offer any NFL-style options, where you might not see a rival ream for a few years. Over the last five years, the Yankees have gone 7-15 against the former Disney vassals. That’s a fairly amazing number given the Yankees’ overall records in those years. In one ballpark, a team that averages 90-something wins a year becomes a 100-game loser.

Due to injuries and disappointing performances, the Angels have been playing a lineup far different from the one they contemplated at season’s outset. They’ve remained competitive anyway. Let’s look at the 20-game picture:

 W-L     RS/G     RA/G     AVG     OBP     SLG     SB     CS     HR/9     BB/9     K/9

YANKEES     14-6     5.5     3.8     .280     .371     .442     15     7     1.1     3.0     7.9
ANGELS     12-8     6.0     5.3     .275     .352     .440     16     6     1.6     3.6     7.4

vlad_071009_blog.jpgThe Yankees aren’t going to see Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter, as they’ve both hit the disabled list. Scot Sheilds is unavailable. Kelvim Escobar is there too, though that’s no surprise — his spot on the DL is a rental with an option to buy. Howie Kendrick is back from the minors but has yet to win his spot back from Maicer Izturis, who is peaking at .302/.352/.422. Catcher Mike Napoli, one of the best surviving bats on the team, doesn’t play every day, although with the DH spot freed up by Guerrero’s absence, the Yankees may get an extra serving. Kendry Morales is having a strong year at first, certainly a stronger year than this page ever expected him to have; Bobby Abreu is doing his usual fine job of getting on base; another former Yankee, Juan Rivera, has been mostly healthy for once and is killing the ball at .313/.353/.531. In his last fifteen games he’s slugging .645 with six home runs.

On the pitching side, the Yankees will see Joe Saunders, Jared Weaver, and John Lackey. Saunders has been hammered in three of his last four starts, allowing 19 runs in 21.1 innings. Most intriguingly for a power-hitting team like the Yankees, he’s allowed nine home runs in those starts. Weaver’s work of late has also been patchy. As recently as June 15, he had an ERA of 2.05. Since then, he’s four starts and been battered to the tune of .296/.358/.510, allowing 20 runs in 23.2 innings. He’s still awfully hard on right-handers at .176/.232/.255, but the Yankees have so many left-handers and switch-hitters that they should be less vulnerable than most other clubs. Finally, Lackey is normally one of the best pitchers in baseball, but has had injury problems and hasn’t been himself all year. He seemed to be coming around in a series of four starts beginning in mid-June, posting a 2.70 ERA in 30 innings, but three of the four starts were against light-hitting teams, the Giants, Diamondbacks (both DH-free games), and Orioles. His last start was against the Rangers, and he was thrashed.

The Yankees are facing a severely depleted Angels club. Neither their starters nor their pen has been particularly effective. Their offense is down to just a few above-average pieces. The defense, normally a plus, is among the least efficient in the game. They may still be winning, but they’re doing it with mirrors. For once, the Yankees may be able to make a strong showing in Anaheim.

church_blog_071009.jpgJeff Francoeur for Ryan Church: Mets bought themselves another fixer-upper opportunity, but Francoeur may be too stubborn to be fixed, in spite of all his great physical tools. As for the Braves, Church is not a great player, and he’s five years older than Francoeur, but he’s an upgrade on the out machine that Francoeur had become. In a light division, small improvements of this nature can help swing the standings in a team’s favor. The Braves really impress with their willingness to reshape their team on the fly this year. They tried to jump Jordan Schafer ahead of schedule. That didn’t work so they dealt for Nate McLouth. Kelly Johnson has been sent down in favor of Martin Prado. Tom Glavine was released so that young Tommy Hanson could pitch, and now they’ve ditched one of baseball’s worst hitters. They’re not living with their failures, they’re deleting them. You can’t ask more from a general manager.

The Mariners picked up two minor league pitchers from the Royals for Yuniesky Betancourt. They had to send some cash along, but still managed to delete a contract that ran through 2011 with a 2012 buyout and promised to do very little for them over that span. Betancourt is a classic triple threat: he doesn’t hit, doesn’t run, and doesn’t field. Even if the pitchers, who are a couple of years off, never develop, they’ve wisely decided that they can pay Ronnie Cedeno less to make the same outs. If they’ve freed up enough cash to add a bat, they might even stay in their divisional race. The Royals might be one of the only teams in baseball that Betancourt can help, although they’ll dearly for the privilege. With Mike Aviles out for the year and spectacularly disappointing before that, they’ve had a parade of shortstops, none of whom has distinguished themselves. Overall, Royals shortstops have batted .208/.234/.281 this year. That’s miserable, and it has no doubt cost the Royals quite a bit in the win column, but you still have to question the deal from their point of view. They’ve gone from pathetic to miserable, which probably isn’t enough of an improvement to win the division, and they’ll be stuck with Betancourt for at least two and a half years. Unless the Mariners are paying all of his contract, it seems like a heavy price to pay for a bid at mere respectability.

A quick note on Halladay

Halladay-7-8-250.jpgWithout endorsing the idea of the Yankees acquiring Roy Halladay, I want to point out that one universal theme of the commentary regarding such a trade, that the Jays would be unlikely to deal Halladay to a divisional rival like the Yankees, is one of those stock things that writers say without really thinking it through. Anyone who writes that must not watch YES much, because the obvious counterpoint is a fixture in the booth. How do they think David Cone got to be associated with the Yankees?

On July 28, 1995, the Blue Jays traded David Cone to the Yankees under very similar circumstances. The general manager at the time was Gord Ash, not J.P. Ricciardi, but I guarantee you his preference wasn’t to send Cone across the water to New York, but he did. The Yankees had prospects to deal (none of them worked out, unfortunately) and they were willing to risk Cone leaving as a free agent (he did declare for the market, but was re-signed about five weeks later). Halladay isn’t a free agent until after the 2010 season, but the expense of his current contract is going to scare off a lot of teams given the economic environment. A team that picks him up tomorrow is going to be on the hook for half of this season and all of next year, which comes out to something like $23 million. It could be that the pool of bidders will be small enough that Ricciardi will have no choice but to look closely at the Yankees.

That’s if the Yankees are interested. I don’t know if they are, or if they even should be, but being division-mates with the Jays hasn’t stopped them in the past and won’t stop them now.

A QUICKER NOTE ON ACEVES VS. MITRE
Good call by the Yankees plucking Alf Aceves out of the bullpen to make Thursday’s spot start against the Twins. As outlined in an earlier entry, Mitre’s Major League track record is spotty enough that Thursday would have to be rated a throwaway game, regardless of his current minor league record. Pitchers are the ballplayers most likely to reinvent themselves, but a 5.36 career ERA is what it is… kind of like Brett Tomko’s 4.69.

The only disturbing aspect to the decision is that it exposes Joe Girard’s proffered rationale for stranding Aceves and Phil Hughes in the bullpen, that they could not be “stretched” in time, as a canard. Why not just give an honest answer, which would have been something like, “We’re having a pretty fun time with the current bullpen composition and we just don’t want to mess with it?” That might not have been the correct answer to the problem of the spot start, but it would have been truthful.

With Aceves sprung, possibly for more than one start, the Yankees do have to identify an option to replace his very productive relief work. Right now they’re carrying a pen that is two pitchers short of a full load, given that Brian Bruney isn’t exactly trustworthy right now and Brett Tomko doesn’t have any function beyond trash-time relief, if that.

I’d still like an explanation of why it’s more valuable to the pennant-winning effort to have Tomko in the Majors and Mark Melancon and his 2.50 ERA in the minors. I know he walked five guys in three innings in the majors, but at Scranton he’s walked just two batters per nine innings, the same rate he had last year. Meanwhile, the same minor league staff that allowed him to throw nearly 100 innings last year, after the pitcher already had Tommy John surgery, is using him for two and three innings and appearance. If the Yankees don’t use him soon, he might break before he can be used.

AN EVEN QUICKER QUESTION (UNANSWERABLE FOR NOW) ON SABATHIA
Is it meaningful that CC Sabathia’s strikeout rate is his lowest since 2003?

THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
Brett Gardner, May to present: .312/.414/.496.
Melky Cabrera, May to present: .265/.319/.395.

Gardner starts again tonight. All hail Joe Girardi.

SO LONG TO FRANCISCO CERVELLI
He’s athletic and mobile and therefore fun to watch… but as a hitter he wasn’t any better than Jose Molina. The difference between the two is that Cervelli has a small chance to be better than that, whereas Molina is what he is. Cervelli’s 48 percent caught stealing rate is something special, and if he continues to throw like that he’s almost guaranteed to have a long Major League career even if his bat stays exactly where it is right now.

Midterm grades continued …

matsui250_070709.jpgHIDEKI MATSUI-DESIGNATED HITTER
Joe Girardi has treated Hideki Matsui as one of a number of parts instead of a star, giving him a lot of rest (this aside from the enforced time off during interleague play). Matsui has been up and down but has hit for good power this year — even during his May-June low point (.227/.317/.454 in 49 games) he still socked eight doubles and eight home runs. Even with all the rest, he’s on pace for the second-highest home run total of his American career. Some of that is Yankee Stadium II at work, but not all. As usual, platoon issues are minimal (he’s slugging .652 against southpaws). Even his sluggishness on the bases hasn’t hurt too much. GRADE: 85/100

CC SABATHIA-LEFTY STARTER
One of the problems with signing players off of career years is that your expectations are inflated. CC Sabathia finished the first half with an ERA of 3.85, consistent with his AL career mark of 3.83. That said, Sabathia hasn’t been his most consistent this season, giving the Yankees a quality start only half the time (discounting his injury-truncated start against the Marlins). He’s been quality in 60 percent or more of his starts every year but one since his rookie season. Part of the shortfall, if that’s not too extreme a term, is his 4.55 ERA at home — on the road, CC has been the same old Sabathia, with a 3.19 ERA. GRADE: 87/100

ANDY PETTITTE-LEFTY STARTER
In his post-game interviews, Girardi always says that Andy Pettitte pitched well regardless of the results. Chalk it up to sentimentality. Pettitte has a strong 8-4 record, but that’s not quite a fair representation of his performances as he’s been quality a little less than half the time, picking up wins despite allowing 12 hits in 6.2 innings to the Twins, or allowing nine baserunners (but just one run) in five innings against the Indians. His battles with control has been perplexing given his age and his experience; right now his walk rate is the highest since 1999. GRADE: 82/100

A.J. BURNETT-RIGHTY STARTER
After a bumpy start, A.J. Burnett has performed at the highest level of any Yankees starter, giving the club 10 quality starts in 16 tries and closing out the first half with four terrific starts in a row (caveat: two of the four were against a highly-depleted Mets club). Bumped down slightly for that troublesome walk rate, Burnett leads the league in free passes. GRADE: 89/100

JOBA CHAMBERLAIN-RIGHTY STARTER
Short starts, wildness, tentative pitching, and Joba Chamberlain has still given the Yankees a quality start in half his starts, which is a touch better than average. His last two starts have been on the rough side but aren’t any reason to write him off as a starter. Pitching at home has been a problem, and something odd is going on with his approach to right-handed hitters, as they’re hitting .293/.360/.503 against him — last year it was .209/.297/.273, and in 2007 it was .156/.224/.244. Is it the decreased velocity? Is his slider not biting? Darned if I know, but it sure is interesting, and a bit frustrating, too. GRADE: 81/100

CHIEN-MING WANG-RIGHTY STARTER
Chien-Ming Wang’s physical problems seem to have destroyed his mechanics, and though he pitched better after coming off of the disabled list, all better really meant was a 6.50 ERA instead of 16.00. He has yet to make a single quality start in nine tries — even Steve Trout got one in the same number of chances — and now that he’s back on the DL, it will be some time before he does, if he even gets the chance. He did pitch two good games in relief, and it’s possible the Yankees should have left well enough alone. GRADE: 55/100

MARIANO RIVERA-CLOSER
The great Mariano Rivera’s home-run rate is his highest since 1995, which is to say in his whole career as a reliever, and it’s not just a function of Yankee Stadium II. Still, Rivera has blown just one save, and overall has been one of the most effective relievers in the Majors this year. The one place where he’s struggled is in tie situations, which has frustrated Girardi’s attempts to use him to the greatest advantage. Alas, no one is perfect, not even Rivera. Bumped downward because as good as he’s been, his “A+” standard is years like 2005. He may yet get there; in 14 games covering June and July he’s held batters to .163/.196/.245. GRADE: 94/100

ALFREDO ACEVES-RIGHTY MIDDLE RELIEF
A revelation. It will be interesting to see if Alredo Aceves remains Mo-like, which is to say that he keeps killing left-handed hitters. They’re currently hitting .155 against him. In retrospect, leaving him off of the Opening Day roster looks like a major mistake. GRADE: 96/100

PHIL COKE-LEFTY SPOT RELIEF
Phil Coke has given up a few more home runs to lefties than you would like, but his overall line against them (.176/.203/.382) is pretty darned good, and he’s holding righties down as well (.167/.297/.296). Since allowing runs in back-to-back appearances on May 26 and 31, he’s pitched 15.2 innings over 17 games and allowed just one run on five hits and four walks. He’s even pitched well at Yankee Stadium II. One wonders if the eighth-inning bridge the Yankees have been looking for has been wasted on one-batter appearances. GRADE: 97/100

PHIL HUGHES-RIGHTY MIDDLE RELIEF
His starting work was spotty (5.45 ERA), but Phil Hughes did give the team two more quality starts than Wang did. We’ve only seen 14.2 innings of Hughes the reliever, but he’s been dominant, with opposing averages of .120/.170/.220, which works out to just six hits allowed in 14.2 innings. Hughes gets a confidence booster and the Yankees get a lights-out reliever. It’s the best of both worlds. GRADE: 83/100

DAVID ROBERTSON-RIGHTY MIDDLE RELIEF
David Robertson has done a fine job of breaking in. He’s particularly hard on right-handed hitters, whom he’s held homerless in 45 at-bats. When his curveball doesn’t curve against lefties, though, it’s a souvenir. Numbers that are likely a small sample mirage: His .125/.286/.150 rates at home. Now all he has to do is get out of the trash-time role. GRADE: 82/100

Ready for your midterms?

THE DREADED MIDTERM GRADES
On Sunday, the Yankees played their 81st game. The season’s official halfway point comes at the All-Star break, but this is it’s actual halfway point. In my ten years as pinstriped armchair detective, I’ve sometimes resorted to the clichéd midterm grades and sometimes not. This year it seemed like a helpful device to review the season. Today we’ll cover the position players, tomorrow the pitching staff.

As you review the report card, remember that the same grade might not mean the same thing for two different players, because each player must be viewed in the context of his position, his career, and his role. Expectations for Mark Teixeira are different than they are for Brett Gardner, so the latter could conceivably get a better grade than the former without implying that he is the better player in a head to head comparison. With that in mind, feel free to offer your own grades in the comments section.

posada_250.jpgJORGE POSADA-CATCHER
Putting his 25 days on the disabled list aside, you can’t fault Posada’s season. When a 37-year-old catcher is hitting .284/.368/.523, you give thanks for your good fortune and try not to ask too many questions. On defense, he’s thrown out over 30 percent of runners trying to steal, a solid number (the overall Major League success rate on stolen bases this year is 73 percent). The notion that his handling has damaged Joba Chamberlain or anyone else is farfetched bushwah given his career record, as well as those of his many battery-mates. As with several Yankees, Posada has done far more damage at home than on the road. GRADE: 89/100

MARK TEIXEIRA-FIRST BASE

Teixeira has been quite streaky, only reaching a “hot” temperature in May. He’s been vastly more successful at home (.310/.402/.632), but his road production (.243/.373/.472) also gets the job done, albeit at a far more pedestrian level. He’s also been a revelation on defense, even if for some reason the metrics don’t show it. While Teixeira’s season is consistent with his work in previous seasons, he’s not quite at the level of the last two years (.307/.406/.557 in 289 games),  and it’s worth noting that he’s having only the fifth-best season among AL first basemen, trailing Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Russell Branyan, and Miguel Cabrera. Of these, Branyan probably won’t hang on until the end, but the others almost certainly will. Bumped out of the “A” range, but only in comparison to previous performances. The 20-game homerless streak with which he ended the half (.244/.366/.321) didn’t help. GRADE: 86.5/100

ROBINSON CANO-SECOND BASE
Cano has bounced back from his spectacularly miserable 2008, but a league-average on-base percentage is still a bridge too far, as is consistency–in May and June combined, he hit .271/.302/.439, which doesn’t help all that much. He’s on a pace to ground into 24 double plays, and he’s batting .196 with runners in scoring position. There are certainly worse second basemen to have–Howie Kendrick is actually the evil Cano from the Star Trek mirror-verse–but as usual, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. GRADE: 79/100

ALEX RODRIGUEZ-THIRD BASE
With 45 walks and 14 home runs in 51 games, A-Rod has been productive despite his low batting average. Eleven of his 14 homers have been hit at home. Conversely, he’s hitting just .211 in the Bronx, with a truly strange .131 average on balls in play–one wonders if he’s trying to get the ball in the air at the new park, trying to catch up on all the short fence/jet stream-generated fun his teammates had without him. His hip problems seem to have sapped his speed and defense, and he hasn’t been around that much. Docked a few points for days absent and the whole juicing thing, which is spectacularly annoying. GRADE: 83.5/100

DEREK JETER-SHORTSTOP

There are a few nits you can pick with Jeter’s season. He’s only hitting .264/.340/.383 against right-handers, most of his damage coming thanks to .452/.524/.644 rates against lefties. All of his power seems to be a product of Yankee Stadium II; just two of his ten home runs have come on the road. On the plus side, his walk rate is up, he seems more limber this year, both on the bases and in the field, and though he still hits everything on the ground (he ranks 11th among players with 150 or more plate appearances this season), he’s kept his double play rate in hand. Overall, I’m not complaining–after the lethargy of last year, this qualifies as a comeback. GRADE:  91/100

JOHNNY DAMON-LEFT FIELD

Damon hit 17 home runs last year. He’s hit 16 in 76 games this year. The difference is Yankee Stadium II; the former Caveman is hitting .289/.390/.592 with 12 home runs (one every 12.7 at-bats) at home, .278/.340/.465 with four home runs (one every 36 at-bats) on the road. Now, that doesn’t mean that Damon shouldn’t get his due, as being able to take advantage of one’s environment is a skill. It’s much like Jim Rice’s home-road splits in Boston: if everyone who played in Fenway hit like Jim Rice, you’d have an argument about discounting his stats. Damon’s road stats are also sufficient–the average Major League left fielder is hitting .267/.342/.433 overall. At his current pace, Damon is going to obliterate his career high in home runs, his career high in walks is also in reach, and he’s easily going to have his tenth 100-run season. Stolen base frequency is down and his range in left seems down a bit, but as with Jeter I’m not going to complain about a late-career high. GRADE: 90/100

MELKY CABRERA-CENTER FIELD
He’s doing some things he’s never done before, like hitting as a right-hander and taking the occasional walk–he had 29 free passes all of last year, compared to 22 now. That said, he’s mainly helping with his defensive versatility, not his bat. His home runs are a gift of YS II, with seven of eight round-trippers coming in the friendly confines, and coincidental with the injury he suffered in Texas or not, his bat turned off at the end of May and hasn’t come back–even with a semi-hot streak over the last couple of weeks, in 31 games since the end of May he’s hit .221/.303/.379. Given that Cabrera hit only .235/.281/.300 after April last year, the idea that the injury is what’s holding him back should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Cabrera is an asset as a reserve, but he’s not a starter. Alternatively, he’s playing hurt under the misguided belief that he’s helping. At that point, Austin Jackson would be the better choice. GRADE: 72/100

NICK SWISHER-RIGHT FIELD

What a weird player, inconsistent in every phase of his game. At his April level of production, he was a Ruthian terror. In June he hit .253/.379/.506 and was still plenty productive. In between, he took a lot of walks but hit .150. Six games into July he just drew his first walk of the month and was 4-for-22 with one walk in seven games since hitting his last home run going into Tuesday, when he finally broke through with three hits (which doesn’t count towards the midterm). He hasn’t been all that productive with runners on–this seems to be a career-long problem, as if he shortens up his swing and worries about striking out in those situations. The result is quite a few walks but not many hits. His defense is usually solid, but he also has his off days. As he did last season, Swisher has a pronounced home-road split. He’s batting .279/.373/.625 with 11 home runs (one every 12.4 at-bats), but only .181/.347/.302 (again, through Sunday) with three home runs (one every 38.7 at-bats) at home. He’s been helpful on the whole, but the only reason he ranks among the top 15 right fielders in productivity is
that there are only 15 right fielders having good years. In short, I don’t know what to make of him. GRADE: 80/100

BRETT GARDNER-THE OTHER CENTER FIELDER

Gardner is listed among the starters because he’s actually started more games in center than Cabrera, even though Cabrera has played more overall. Given what little was expected of Gardner, not to mention the way he started the season, he probably deserves an A grade just based on performance vs. expectations. He started only 25 games across May and June, but he also appeared in 21 more and hit like crazy, batting .330/.427/.510 with four triples, three home runs, 16 walks, and 12 steals. He has not been handled brilliantly. After Gardner’s 5-for-6 game against the Mets on June 26, he was given just two more starts (he went 0-for-7) before Joe Girardi presumably decided he had gone cold and it was time to try Cabrera again. It’s not clear how a kid is supposed to build up any momentum under those conditions. When he sits, the Yankees aren’t suppressing a great bat, but they do lose some patience (Gardner has drawn a walk every 9.7 plate appearances, whereas Cabrera has taken a pass every 11.6 plate appearances), their best baserunner, and their best center field defender. Despite the hot streak, it’s doubtful that Gardner will ever be a big run producer, but he’s certainly been worth playing. GRADE: 85/100

Despite the Wangery of things, a good weekend

wang_250_070609.jpgChien-Ming Wang headed back to the disabled list and Joba-To-the-Bullpen became Joba to Nowhere, but winning trumps everything. Adding to the sweetness of the proceedings was the fact that the victories came at the expense of an AL East opponent, pushing the Yankees to one game under .500 against divisional rivals. They kept the pressure on the Red Sox, who dropped two of three to the Mariners, and put some distance between themselves and the rest of the competition. The Rays, swept by the Rangers, are now six games behind the Yankees in the loss column, the Jays eight behind. The wild card standings remain close, with AL West co-leaders Texas and L.A.-Anaheim just two games back of the Yankees.

How long this happy situation persists will depend in part on how the Yankees choose to compensate for the loss of Wang. This seems a bit odd to say, “compensate for the loss of Wang,” because the Yankees haven’t really had Wang all season long. For all their patience, prodding, and pushing, Wang has yet to record a quality start. Now, quality start is just a made-up statistical category (heck, they’re all made up) denoting a starting pitcher having done certain minimal things in his games — throw six innings, allow three or fewer earned runs. It’s not a crazy high standard, as all it asks a pitcher to do is post a 4.50 ERA. Wang is 0-for-9, and whatever achievements exist in the past, they clearly don’t have much bearing on this season.

Since returning to the starting rotation on June 4, Wang’s ERA is 6.43 in six tries. His rate of home runs allowed per nine innings is a career high, and it didn’t dramatically improve during Wang’s latest sting. He allowed four home runs in 28 innings, which doesn’t sound like much, but it works out to 1.3 per nine. The career rate for the sinkerball artist coming into this season was 0.5. Wang’s latest injury is just the latest clue that anything the Yankees need to cultivate a solid alternative and view anything they get from Wang this year as a bonus.

That alternative is almost certainly not Sergio Mitre. While you can never preclude a team catching journeyman lightning in a bottle (see Aaron Small ’05), Mitre seems a long shot to click. Frequently injured, Mitre is a heavy ground ball type who has never found consistency in the Majors due in large part to control problems — a pitch-to-contact type can’t walk three or four batters per nine innings and expect to succeed. There are simply too many balls in play with runners on base for the pitcher to succeed, even with the enhanced double play rate of the sinker ball pitcher.

One intriguing note here is that Mitre has done great things with his walk rate in the Minors this year, passing just five batters in 39.2 innings. If Mitre can carry that kind of control back to the bigs, it will be almost as if the Yankees were trying a brand-new pitcher, not a 28-year-old retread. Even then, success is not assured. This is a pitcher against whom Major League batters have averaged about .300 — they’re not fooled, and while Mitre might cut down on the number of free passes he gives out, he will still have to keep the batters from simply banging their way on base.

With the All-Star break coming up, the Yankees will have a few days to reorder their rotation and figure out what they want to do with Wang’s spot over the longer term. As much as Alfredo Aceves and Phil Hughes are overqualified to be relievers, they’ve done so well in that role that it’s understandable that the club would be reluctant to pull them from the pen at this juncture, not without some kind of viable alternative to take the spot (the problem of “stretching them out” into a starting role is transient, especially given that Aceves threw 43 pitches on Sunday).

Here is yet another occasion to point out the way the Yankees have hurt themselves by perpetuating Brett Tomko in the Majors at the expense of Mark Melancon, lefty Zach Kroenke, or practically anyone else in the organization. Tomko’s trash-time work could have been developmental time for any number of virginal relievers, relievers who might now be promotable to more important roles, something that clearly isn’t going to happen with the 36-year-old, home run-happy Tomko. That theoretical pitcher might have enabled the Yankees to feel more comfortable about elevating Hughes or Aceves. Instead, they have blocked themselves. Much as with the bench space wasted on Angel Berroa until quite recently, Tomko demonstrates that there are no small roster spots, only small players.

To put the matter in proper perspective, one sentence: The loss of Wang expresses itself as a bullpen problem, not a starting pitcher problem. Corollary to the foregoing: the Yankees need to do more to solve their bullpen problem.

In the long term, one interesting starting option within the organization might be right-hander Zach McAllister, currently of Double-A Trenton. If you take his work from the second half from last season, spent at Tampa of the Florida State League, and add it together with that of this season, from Double-A Trenton, you get a stunningly good line: 28 starts, a 13-9 record, 169.1 innings, 139 hits, 36 walks (1.9 per nine), 128 strikeouts (6.8 per nine), just nine home runs, and an ERA of 1.81. The strikeout rate should be a clue that McAllister is not a 95 mph burner. He’s actually somewhat Wang-like, getting by on a sinking fastball. It seems unlikely that a jump to Triple-A, or over it, would be much of an impediment. McAllister may seem like a long shot, and given the organization’s nervousness about the untested, he probably is, but the Yankees owe it to themselves to investigate these possibilities before they start throwing out good players for the detritus of other organizations.

MORE TO COME…
With the Yankees having reached the 81-game mark, the PB hands out the dreaded midterm report cards.

Burning Burnett

BURNETT: ON
The only complaint you might make about A.J. Burnett’s last four starts is that he started his hot streak five days after he lasted less than three innings against the Red Sox. Other than that little complaint, he’s 3-1 with 28.1 innings pitched, 16 hits, 12 walks, 33 strikeouts, and an ERA of 0.95. With the exception of the aforementioned start at Fenway on June 9, all of his starts going back to May 27 have been of the quality variety, six innings or more, three earned runs or less. The one loss came courtesy of the offense and an ill-timed, game-ending Robinson Cano groundball double play (some themes just keep reinforcing themselves, even if I don’t want to go there). Burnett basically can’t get any better except to conquer the Red Sox, but he won’t get another shot at them until August. For now, he’ll make one more start before the All-Star break, presumably Wednesday night at Minnesota.

I don’t know if a guy who is 7-4 with a 3.83 ERA will merit a look for the All-Star game pitching staff, but Burnett would be nicely set up to pitch that game, as his next start after the Twins’ appearance would fall during the break. For what it’s worth, he’s fifth in the AL in strikeouts, and if he wins on Wednesday he’d be in the top three in wins.

hughes250_070309.jpgTHE KEY TO HUGHES
… And maybe Joba Chamberlain as well. There was a lot of discussion of Jimmy Key on today’s YES broadcast of the Yankees game, a natural given that Key split most of his career between the two teams doing battle. Key, it was acknowledged, had a great career, one that would have been even better had it not been cut short by arm problems. This is inarguably true. Key was a four-time All-Star, had three top-five Cy Young award finishes, led his league in ERA, strikeouts and wins, had terrific control, and generally posted ERAs that were well ahead of the league average. He pitched on six postseason teams, two of which won the World Series. Key won’t be going to the Hall of Fame, but he had a very successful, memorable career.

The one aspect of Key’s career that wasn’t discussed was how he started it. The answer is, “in the bullpen.” A third-round pick in the 1982 draft, Key was a starter all the way through a brief Minor League career that saw him make the Blue Jays out of Spring Training in 1984. Manager Bobby Cox and general manager Pat Gillick never saw fit to give him a start that year. Instead, he made 63 appearances out of the bullpen. He was up and down in terms of results, as rookies often are, but he finished the season strong, putting up a 2.93 ERA in the last two months, and in 1985 he made the move to the starting rotation. Not coincidentally, the Blue Jays improved their record by 10 games and won the AL East.

Key is just one of dozens of successful starting pitchers who broke in this way. For this reason it’s always a little humorous when commentators and fans act nervous about pitching Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, or, for that matter, promoting Chamberlain out of it. Every pitcher is different, so there’s no ironclad rule that says, “Jimmy Key did it, so it must be okay,” but you can point to more stories like Key’s than you can the other kind, the one where a pitcher was somehow destroyed by the diversion into relief work.

MONTERO MANIA
Cue up the hype machine, because the 19-year-old mutant slugger in the making homered in his fourth straight game on Thursday. He’s now batting .325/.395/.571 with five home runs in 21 games at Double-A Trenton. He’s also thrown in nine walks, which is actually a better rate than he had down in the Florida State League. Combine his numbers for the two levels and you get a teenager who is batting .346/.403/.580 in 69 games. Here’s the best thing about the numbers: Trenton is a tough place to hit. Jesus Montero is hitting “only” .314/.368/.457 with one home run there. On the road, the Boy Wonder is batting .333/.417/.667 with four home runs in 42 at-bats. In other words, the numbers are artificially depressed.

This is getting ahead of things, but let’s dream: With a strong conclusion to the season at Trenton, Montero will be in a good position to get a long look from the Major League staff in spring training next year. He would then be a hot streak and an injury away from a call to Scranton. His position is still a problem — Montero threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at Tampa. He’s done a bit better at Trenton, with a 28 percent caught stealing rate, but it’s early days yet. Despite this, if Montero’s bat is ready, the Yankees could use him at the designated hitter spot with occasional spot starts at catcher against those teams that are less inclined to run.

With Hideki Matsui likely to leave town after the season, they’ll have the opening on the roster and a chance to save some money by using a young player in the spot. This is something that teams are generally reluctant to do, as there seems to be the thought that if you let a young guy DH you’re hurting his chances of someday developing into Ozzie Smith. That seems like an unnecessary worry in Montero’s case. 

The significance of winning streaks

cano_250.jpgLET’S TRY THIS AGAIN, 1947 STYLE
A couple of data bits got dropped in yesterday’s entry on Robinson Cano. I’m going to put them in here a bit differently and hope they make it past my normally reliable interlocutors. First, the top ten batters in percentage of runners driven in:

NAME     ROB     %
Joey Votto     118     .237
Joe Mauer     124     .234
Todd Helton     190     .232
Hanley Ramirez     197     .218
Albert Pujols     216     .218
Prince Fielder     249     .217
Bobby Abreu     185     .216
Jarrod Saltalamacchia     100     .210
Evan Longoria     225     .209
Brad Hawpe     206     .209

Next, the batters with the highest percentage of double plays per double play situation:

NAME     DP SIT     DP     DP%
Yadier Molina     41     12     26.8
Mike Lowell     58     15     25.9
Jose Guillen     45     11     24.4
Geovany Soto     50     13     24
Fernando Tatis     42     13     23.8
Chase Headley     47     12     23.4
Austin Kearns     48     11     22.9
Delmon Young     44     10     22.7
Magglio Ordonez     53     14     22.6
Bill Hall     45     10     22.2
Robinson Cano     50     11     22

And now you don’t have to look it up. You also don’t have to look up the fact that, after yesterday’s break for a left-handed pitcher, Cano is back batting fifth again today. As I said in yesterday’s entry, this isn’t the end of the world–lineup variations are vastly overrated, and the Yankees are currently seven for their last seven games. That said, the argument about the batting order is worth having, because although these differences may not be writ large, they can still show up in all kinds of small ways. The Yankees have played 19 one-run games and are 10-9 in those contests. There are more close games coming, and if the Yankees are going to put those in the win column they’ll need every extra run they can get.

The current win streak is a good thing, but shouldn’t be overrated–you’re never as good as you look when you’re winning. At exactly this time 62 years ago, the Yankees reeled off the greatest winning streak in team history to that point, and maybe since then. On June 29, 1947, the Yankees lost the first game of a doubleheader to the Washington Senators. At that moment they were 39-26. That’s a pretty good record, good for a 92-win pace then and a 97-win pace now. In either era, it might be good enough to get you postseason spot in a down year for your league or division, but you’re not dominating, not doing an impression of the 1927 or 1998 Yankees.

The Yankees took the second game of that twin bill, and didn’t look back again for almost three weeks. They won 19 straight games. They swept five series and took both ends of six doubleheaders. They outscored their opponents 119-41. They finally lost a game on July 18, when they were shut out by a good Tigers right-hander named Fred Hutchinson. Thanks to the streak, the race was for all intents over. The Yankees were up by 11.5 games. There were 70 games to go, but the Yankees weren’t going to play that lead back. That fall they won a famous, hotly contested World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was the one famous for Bill Bevens’ wild, not-quite no-hit start in Game 4.

Here’s the relevance to the 2009 Yankees: The 1947 team managed to toss the coin 19 times and have it come up heads over and over again. Before the streak they were a .600 team. During the streak, they were, obviously, a 1.000 team. What kind of team were they after the streak? The answer is that they went 39-31. That’s a .550 pace, the equivalent of 89 wins in a 162-game schedule, 85 wins in a 154-game schedule. It’s the same pace as the current Rays, Tigers, Angels, and Giants are on now–a pace good enough to lead one of the softer divisions, but not good enough, for say, the American League East of 2009. Despite the 19-game streak, overall, the 1947 Yankees were just a pretty good edition of the team. Some underlying weaknesses started causing problems the next season, they lost a close race, and fired the manager–but that’s another story.

The point is that a club can never take anything for granted when it’s trying to win, including interpreting a winning streak as meaning that you’re doing everything correctly. The ’47 Yankees didn’t, dealing for starting pitcher Bobo Newsom in the midst of the streak when an injury sidelined rookie righty Spec Shea. You can choose to look upon the discussion of the batting order as a kind of niggling cavil, but I figure that a team that wants to win a championship, that is behind the Red Sox and has yet to win a game against same, would want to pick up every extra hit, walk, and run that it can. The current winning streak is a great thing, but as the 1947 team shows, perfection isn’t perpetual, and can be followed by play that is merely above average. And above average might not win anything this year. Shuffling the batting order isn’t about disrespecting the present, but trying to optimize the club for the future.