August 2009

New set of rules hurting Joba

A FEW QUICK NOTES BEFORE THE DAY GAME
Randy Ruiz is a nice story, but are the Blue Jays kidding, calling him up to DH and playing Joe Inglett in right field when they have Travis Snider in the Minors? Sure, Snider failed to hit coming out of Spring Training, but he’s batting .319/.414/.650 at Las Vegas, is crazy hot right now and remains a top prospect. The decision is a nice break for the Yankees, given they get to play an opponent without a right fielder and a DH without plate judgment — Ruiz has power, but what has kept him in the Minors is that he’s a hacker without a position. It’s a dubious call on the part of the Jays, unless they care more about retarding Snider’s service time than fielding a competitive unit for the rest of the year.

On Derek Jeter’s quest for 3,000 hits: If Jeter plays in the Yankees’ remaining 49 games (we know he’ll be forced into a day off shortly, but this is a thought experiment; adjust accordingly) and continues to average 4.3 at-bats per game, that would give him another 211 at-bats. Say he maintains his current .318 average over those at-bats. He would add another 67 hits to his current 145, giving him 212 for the season and 2,747 for his career. Three-thousand would still wait for 2011, but he’d be much closer than could have been expected at the start of the season.

Finally, a quick note about the Joba Rules II: They might not make sense and could hurt Joba. The danger might not be innings pitched, but stressful pitch counts. That Joba might throw a few more innings than the Yankees want is probably not a big deal, and in any case, you can’t know exactly where the injury inflection point is. The only foolproof way of dealing with that is to wrap him in Mylar and stick him in the basement.

No, the bigger danger is more likely to be created by the extra time off than to be prevented by it, and that is high-pitch innings. The less fine control Joba has, and he seems to have less with the extended layoffs and the knowledge that he’s on a short leash, the more he’ll labor in games, have innings in which he walks two batters, allows a hit, and strikes out another. We don’t know for sure, but it’s entirely possible that 110-pitch outings are not created equal, and that a game where a pitcher throws 50 pitches in one inning and 60 in all others is far more damaging to the arm than one in which the pitches are more evenly spread out. It is entirely possible that the Yankees are creating exactly that situation here. There’s nothing more dangerous than good intentions.

Mickey Mitre (M-I-C, K-E-Y…)

mitre2_120_081109.jpgI was immensely frustrated by last night’s game, first because Sergio Mitre started it, second because after the Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the fourth Mitre was allowed to pitch the fifth so he could un-tie it again, third because Joe Girardi spun the game as a good start but for a wayward defensive play, and fourth because of a conversation with Brian Cashman that Michael Kay related during the game.

Let me take the last one first. Kay quoted Cashman as saying (I paraphrase, as I don’t have a transcript handy) in defense of Mitre that if you look around the league, who has a fifth starter that’s better than Mitre anyway? This may very well be true — few teams go four deep in good starters, let alone five — but it should not be an excuse to stop trying to find something better, particularly when, in Chad Gaudin, you have someone who has been demonstrably better in his career.

Even if one is willing to grant that Mitre had a good start — I’m not, but you may, Girardi may, Cashman may — that is but one start in a career in which the pitcher has allowed nearly six runs per nine innings pitched. In 57 games started, he’s made just 20 quality starts, or 35 percent, when the league average is closer to 50. And while it is positive that he’s walking just two batters per nine when he used to walk three or four, there are other aspects to pitching. Further, six strikeouts in five innings is nice, but the Jays weren’t playing John Olerud, Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor. Getting Rod Barajas and Jose Bautista to swing and miss is not exactly unusual. Further, note that Mitre got three strikeouts in the first, then two more in the second, and one leading off the third. After that, he failed to K his last 14 batters. The Jays weren’t fooled anymore.

Gaudin isn’t a great pitcher, but he’s made 69 starts in his career, and at 26 has more time to work things out than the 28-year-old Mitre. Gaudin has made a quality start 42 percent of the time, below average but better than Mitre by a reasonable amount — given the same number of starts, Mitre would make 24 quality starts to Gaudin’s 29. That little edge is something worth shooting for. As I said yesterday, just because the Yankees’ place in the postseason is assured doesn’t mean that it can be taken for granted.

OTHER STUFF
? Tough blow for the Nationals losing Jordan Zimmerman to TJ surgery. Nothing derails a building program faster (and more predictably) than pitcher injuries.

? Keith Law made a very good point at ESPN.com — that even if the Jays got Kenny Williams to take Alex Rios on a waiver claim, the very fact that they gave him away for nothing underscores the magnitude of the misjudgment by J.P. Ricciardi by issuing the contract in the first place.

? Ryan Franklin of the Cardinals demonstrates why many closers are overvalued, as is the closer’s role itself. The man has allowed six runs all year. Where is it written that he is a closer, or that he should have even been considered? P.S. Mariano Rivera is not overrated. He’s sui generis.

? Geovany Soto hit a home run last night, but he’s still looking like the new Rick Wilkins. And Jacoby Ellsbury is the new Dave Collins, who Bill James called, “A leadoff man who doesn’t score runs.” Good enough for me.

? Kevin Goldstein’s most recent article at BP is about how good middle infield prospects aren’t making their way into the Minors. What this says to me is that Derek Jeter’s replacement will be long in coming. Sadly, Troy Tulowitzki (hit for the cycle last night) and Hanley Ramirez are tied up forever.

MORE FROM ME

I talk about the years of Phil Rizzuto’s MVP, when shortstops out-hit first basemen, at Baseball Prospectus. Also, a reminder that I’ll be chatting live at BP Thursday at 1 p.m. EST. As always, if you can’t make it to the event itself, you can put your questions in the queue at the link above and I’ll look ’em over when we start up.

Some Yankees math

The Yankees are now 69-42, which puts them on a pace for 101 wins. Let’s say the Yankees maintain that pace — they don’t get better and they don’t get worse. The Red Sox would need to win 102 games to take the division title. Given their present record of 62-48, the Red Sox would need to win 40 of their remaining 52 games, or 77 percent. That’s equivalent to winning 125 games over a full season.

While not impossible, it’s also not likely. Consider an alternative scenario, one in which the Yankees somehow have a rough go of it the rest of the way and play a game under .500 for the remainder of the schedule. In that case, the Yankees would finish at 94-68. To reach 95 wins, the Red Sox would need to go 33-19. That’s a .635 winning percentage, in the realm of possibility, but it still requires Boston to spend one third of the season playing as if they were a 103-win team. Obviously, for any team behind the Red Sox, such as the Rays, to displace the Yankees, the road is that much harder.

In short: While you can never take anything for granted, this sweep has put the Yankees in a very, very good place.

Taking the Yankees’ initial 0-8 against the Red Sox out of the equation, New York is 69-34 (.670), and Boston is 54-48 (.529). Those wins by the Red Sox were legitimate, but now seem like a fluke event. The record the rest of the way is simply not comparable. The 2009 Yankees could be a team we will remember. However, much remains to be done. As I pointed out yesterday, the Yankees have had “special” teams in recent years that didn’t bring him any rings. The 2002, 2003, and 2004 Yankees all won over 100 games and were, respectively, bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Angels team they can’t seem to beat, mismanaged to a loss in the World Series, and the victims of a historic reversal of fortune against the Red Sox in the ’04 ALCS. The intensity that the Yankees showed in this series, particularly on the pitching side, has to carry over or the events of the past weekend will end up as little more than a footnote.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS
Like all of you, I was initially shocked and appalled at Phil “Home Run” Coke pitching to right-handed batters in the eighth inning, and doubly appalled when premonitions of doom proved to be highly accurate. I’m not going to criticize the manager for that call, not with too much conviction, anyway. For obvious reasons, Joe Girardi had not let the world know that the bullpen was mostly off-limits. I will say that if Girardi really has an ironclad aversion to using pitchers in three consecutive games (a quick look at the record shows that Joe Borowski pitched in four straight games in August 2006 and pitched in three straight games on one other occasion that year; Matt Herges also did so once. Jose Veras appeared in three straight games without an off-day twice last August, and Damaso Marte pitched in four straight games during the same period) then his usage of Hughes for one out in each of the previous two games was shortsighted.

Today will bring more in the way of decisions and bullpen usage because Sergio Mitre is pitching, which is another way of saying that Chad Gaudin will be making his Yankees debut in the fourth or fifth inning. Mitre is 11-23 with a 5.48 ERA in his career, and he’s been lambasted this season. It’s not clear why the Yankees are persevering with him, especially since Brian Cashman has secured the team a better alternative in Gaudin. If the postseason is truly assured, or at least likely, the fifth starter is now auditioning for a role in the bullpen. Try to imagine the circumstances in which Girardi would call Mitre in during a playoff game. No, I can’t think of one either.

The Blue Jays are 12-19 since the end of June. The Yankees will miss Roy Halladay in this series, which means they have a more than fair chance to keep their winning streak alive. That’s if they don’t throw it away on one more Mitre adventure. The only way the club can lose now is to take things for granted, and pitching Mitre is doing just that.

Is fatigue an issue for CC?

ccblog_080909.jpgCOMPLICATED SHADOWS
Writing before the start of this series, I asked if CC Sabathia would rise to this challenge, and asked if it was fair to expect him to do so given his performance to date, one that was, by his own standards, weak. I don’t have to tell you how Sabathia answered that question. The next question for Sabathia — there’s always another one — is if he can take the fire he showed against the Red Sox and carry it with him through the rest of the season AND have enough left in the tank for his increasingly likely postseason appearances. Sabathia’s postseason record is the mirror-image of Mariano Rivera’s; he has a 7.92 ERA in five starts. The reason seems to be not nerves, but fatigue. In the past two seasons, Sabathia worked so hard getting his team through September (Milwaukee’s rare postseason appearance last year was his personal work), he was gassed in October. Such an outcome would reduce Saturday’s triumph to the level of a Pyrrhic victory.

And a glorious victory it was. With the Yankees’ second straight shutout, the Red Sox are now batting .144 for the series. The Yankees have discovered Boston’s hidden shame: once you get past Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, and (recent acquisition) Victor Martinez, there’s not a whole lot of high-impact hitting going on — and Bay isn’t in this series. While they don’t have any hitters who are total pushovers aside from shortstop (though David Ortiz, hitting .208/.262/.377 in the second half, may soon qualify), they also don’t have anyone aside from the aforementioned three who transcend the level of merely good.

With the win, the Yankees are on a pace to become the club’s first 100-win team since 2004 and the 19th such team in club history. Eighteen of those teams went to the postseason–the 1954 Yankees are the exception, and 12 of them won the World Series. The teams that didn’t make it all the way: 1942, 1963, 1980, and the 2002-2004 teams. Sweeping the series from the Sox would go a way towards avenging humiliations suffered earlier in the season, but it won’t mean much if it doesn’t happen as Boston will decamp trailing by at least 4.5 games. They face 10 games against good teams in the Tigers, Rangers (their immediate rival from the wild card), and Blue Jays, six on the road, before hosting the Yankees from the 21st through the 23rd. The Yankees get three at home against the Jays, followed by an always-difficult western road trip to Seattle and Oakland. The latter, at least, should be less of a challenge than in the past.

WISHING ON THE WILD CARD

In doing such damage to the Red Sox, the Yankees have helped to recast the wild card race. Seven days ago, the Red Sox had a 2.5-game lead on the Rangers and a 5.5-game lead over the Rays. Five straight losses later, the Rangers are a game out and the Rays are 1.5 out. The Rays have six games remaining with the Red Sox and seven with the Yankees (and three with the Rangers next week), so if they just hang in they’re going to have a chance to make noise right until the very end… If you’re thinking about how the Yankees might best avoid seeing the Angels this fall, the Red Sox are 4-2 against the Angels, the Rays 1-2 (they play this week), the Rangers 3-8.

OTHER STUFF
?    When Manny Ramirez was suspended, he was hitting .348/.492/.641. Since returning, he’s hit .262/.363/.514. That’s still good, but it’s more like Nick Swisher than Manny Ramirez.

?    With Saturday’s seven shutout innings against the Tigers, Carl Pavano is 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA against Detroit, 6-8 with a 6.61 ERA against everyone else.

?    When Carlos Lee hit his 300th career home run last night, the Astros became the only team to have three players reach that mark in the same season. This sums up the whole problem with the Astros.

?    That Josh Willingham is having a terrific year (.309/.417/.595) shouldn’t be a surprise–his numbers were neutered by the Marlins’ ballpark. He always had it in him to be this kind of hitter.

DISTANT EARLY WARNING

I’ll be hosting a live chat at Baseball Prospectus on Thursday at 1 PM EST. As always, if you can’t make it to the event itself, you can put your questions in the queue at the link above and I’ll look ’em over when we start up. I look forward to exchanging thoughts with y’all.

Thoughts on a classic

arod250.jpgFIRST COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
Wow, what a game.

SECOND COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
Junichi Tazawa, welcome to the Major Leagues. Best wishes for the rest of your career.

THIRD COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
Is Alex Rodriguez now a “true Yankee?” I feel as if I’ve asked that question before.

FOURTH COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
What a terrific job by the Yankees pitching staff. Given the home run propensities of Yankee Stadium II, stretches of 15 scoreless innings are not going to happen too often. As the stalemate headed into late and extra innings, every left-handed batter carried with him to the plate the potential to loft a fly ball towards right field for a cheap four bases. Given the eight walks the Yankees handed out during the game, that home run, if it had come, very possibly would have been worth more than one run. Yet it didn’t happen, thanks to a combination of good pitching and everything lining up right for one night. Boston’s four hits were singles, and the Yankees outfielders rarely pressed their backs toward the walls.

Joe Girardi got away with a couple of calls in this game. He burned Phil Hughes on a one-batter appearance in the eighth inning, accelerating his path to the less trusted element of the bullpen after Mariano Rivera had thrown his inning. That these pitchers — Alfredo Aceves, who had struggled of late, the seemingly never-quite-right Brian Bruney, and the homer-prone Phil Coke — performed exceptionally well is a bonus from this epic game, a sign that perhaps the whole bullpen is ready to perform at a high level.

Girardi made another odd call when he used Jerry Hairston as a defensive replacement for Nick Swisher in the top of the ninth. While Swisher’s spot would not come up in the bottom of the ninth and almost certainly could not come up before the inning ended or the Yankees delivered a walk-off hit, it had the potential to deprive the team of a useful offensive weapon had the game proceeded to extra innings, as indeed it did. Inevitably, Girardi had to pinch-hit for Hairston with Eric Hinske, a defender who didn’t harm the Yankees but is not normally thought of as being on a par with Roberto Clemente. With a 5-foot-10 outfielder, you also have to worry about certain balls being over his head. Swisher has had some defensive problems this year, but the move was superfluous and potentially harmful. Girardi proved at least the former when he undid it an inning later.

It was also possible to first-guess his decision to take off the bunt when Melky Cabrera was batting with runners on first and second and none out in the third. It was early in the game and one-run strategies are generally to be frowned upon, but it was already clear that Josh Beckett’s current hot streak was unlikely to be broken on this particular evening. Cabrera retains one of the Yankees’ highest double-play rates (13.2 percent), so the bunt was a reasonable percentage ploy in that situation.

In the end, Alex Rodriguez and six pitchers rendered all the chess moves moot. Put this one on a DVD, Yankees, and show it in full to each incoming class of draftees starting next June. They’ll learn a lot about the pleasures and pain, frustration and elation inherent in playing for this team. 

Gaudin to the rescue?

Here’s the upside to acquiring Chad Gaudin: He’s been a somewhat reliable starting pitcher in his career. Though as a starter his ERA is just 4.85 in 378.2 innings, he’s kept the ball in the park and pitched well enough, often enough, to post a quality start in 42 percent of his attempts. That’s a below-average figure, but as compared to the work of the other pitchers the Yankees have tried in the fifth starter’s slot it is the work of a Cy Young. This year, Gaudin has made nine quality starts in 19 attempts, or 47 percent, which is actually about average. Add up Phil Hughes, Chien-Ming Wang, Sergio Mitre, and Alfredo Aceves and you get two quality starts in 21 tries. Look at it this way:

GS W-L IP H BB SO HR ERA
Wang, Mitre, Hughes 21 5-8 90 125 38 64 15 8.20
Gaudin 19 4-10 103 104 55 102 7 5.23

Gaudin has a low 90s fastball and a very good slider, hence the high strikeout rate. The walks have been a career-long problem, which is why he’s ill-suited for the bullpen. Yet, that’s where Brian Cashman said he’s headed for now — Mitre will get another chance.

In the bullpen, though, Gaudin is just another Brett Tomko. He lacks good control, walking 4.3 batters per nine innings in his career and 4.8 per nine this year. Those walks are de-emphasized in an extended appearance, but bring a pitcher with poor control into the seventh inning of a one-run game and the free passes can kill you.

One other worry: Gaudin somehow put up an 8.10 RA in San Diego’s PETCO Park, the friendliest park for pitchers in the biz. That number has all the marks of a fluke occurrence — he had a more reasonable 4.55 RA on the road — but it’s something to be aware of. If a pitcher can get bombed in PETCO, he’s not safe anywhere, especially your friendly neighborhood Yankee Stadium II, where left-handed hitters get to take cheap shots at the right field wall. Lefties have hit .292/.388/.431against Gaudin in his career.

Despite this, the value of players is relative, and on paper Gaudin is an upgrade on what the Yankees have been trying. Why send him to the bullpen when there’s a more urgent an obvious need? One wonders if Mitre gets a break because Joe Girardi is vouching for him based on the good old days with the Marlins — which weren’t that good.

POSADA WEARS NO. 15/THURMAN THROWS
Posada wearing a No. 15 decal on his mask in honor of Thurman Munson was a classy gesture from one great Yankees catcher to another. Posada was not quite eight years old when Munson died, so the act was based as much or more on their mutual standing in that lineage than any real memory of Munson the player. It’s a more profound statement than any based on personal association, as it requires an appreciation and respect for history, and says that Munson remains a powerful enough figure in even death that he was able to touch Posada without Posada having had direct contact with him.

Something about Posada’s tribute reminded me of an aspect of Munson’s career that doesn’t get a lot of comment given the focus on his hitting, his leadership, and his gruff personality: He was great at throwing out runners. Consider:

YEAR
MUNSON CS%
LEAGUE CS%
1970 52 39
1971 61(!) 39
1972 48 39
1973 48 38
1974 35 38
1975 50 38
1976 35 34
1977 40 39
1978 45 38
1979 46 36

Munson won only three Gold Gloves, those coming in 1973-1975. In his first three seasons the award went to Ray Fosse (1970-1971) and Carlton Fisk (the only one Fisk ever got); from 1976 on the award was dominated by Jim Sundberg, who took six straight awards. Sundberg was also very good at controlling the running game. The Gold Gloves don’t prove much — one of Munson’s awards came in 1974, a year in which a sore arm cut his success rate and led to 22 errors; he made 23 the next season and somehow won again. The errors probably caused the voters to discard Munson for Sundberg so quickly as much as Sundberg’s own defensive excellence; the latter was only in the league for two years when he picked up his first award.

QUICK NOTES ON THURSDAY’S ACTION AND OTHER STUFF
? I’m grieved by John Hughes’ passing. His movies were often skin deep, but at their best there was something touching about them, something wistful about youth and its passing in films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful”  — which is not to forget that these were basically teen comedies and often very funny. Of the films that took place outside of his suburban Illinois universe, there are bits of “Vacation” (the first one, not the countless sequels) that can still make me laugh, and I have a soft spot for “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” one of the few films that used John Candy to truly good effect. Hughes’ peak was long ago and far away, the 1980s (and by this I mean to exclude the huge 1990 hit “Home Alone” from the canon), but if you were a teenager then, his work was inescapable, alternatively patronizing and uplifting, and for many people, defining. Seeing him go is a bit like waving goodbye to a piece of the landscape of my youth. It’s saddening, even if the sadness isn’t really about him. I will now spin the Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” from “The Breakfast Club” in his honor.

? I really nailed that analysis of John Smoltz yesterday, didn’t I? Some days you’d be better off staying in bed. As important a win as it was for the Yankees, it was still painful watching a great pitcher brought low. Lefties are now hitting .440 off of Smoltz as he struggles to get his fastball by them on the inside. Righties have had a harder time of it, so perhaps Smoltz might still have some value out of the bullpen if he’s willing to go that route to stay in the game.

? Yesterday did nothing to dissuade me from the idea that the Yankees’ Joba Conservation Plan might cost him his command at a time when he and the team need and most, when he was about to turn the corner and show consistency for the first time all year.

? The Twins acquired Carl Pavano today from a player to be named. Good luck with that, Twinkies.

? Nick Johnson gets traded from the Nats, who can’t win a game, to the Marlins, who then get swept by the Nats. Life can be comically unfair.

? The A’s seem to have done a Soviet-style redaction off Jason Giambi’s place on the team. “No, nothing today,” Geren said. “I haven’t seen him today.”

Turns out the A’s released Giambi on Friday.

MORE TO COME
Since this is the <b>Series of the Year</b> I’ll be posting updates throughout the weekend. Hope you check in. 

Once more into the void

swisher250.jpgSWISHER, HALF A HERO
After a long, long cold snap, Nick Swisher seemed to break out on the just-completed roadtrip, going 9-for-27 with four home runs. Such a streak is never a bad thing, but because of Swisher’s oddly divided season it’s entirely possible that he’ll go cold again as soon as he sets foot in Yankee Stadium. Fans attending home games have yet to see the best of Swisher. Fifteen of 18 home runs have come on the road, where he’s batting a terrific .276/.368/.602. At home, he’s hitting just .200/.374/.329. He still has his patience, but everything else disappears.

I sometimes wonder if Swisher, despite his goofy demeanor, is actually quite anxious in certain circumstances. This is the second year in a row he’s had a strange home/road bifurcation. Last year with Chicago he had the reverse problem, hitting .247/.361/.517 at home but only .189/.301/.294 on the road. There is no reason for these splits; Swisher would seem to be the only batter on the planet not taking advantage of new Yankee Stadium’s friendlier dimensions.

It’s not too late for Swisher to stop pressing and enjoy the fruits of the new ballpark. When playing at home, his batting average on balls in play is just .245, which suggests that even when he makes contact at home it’s not good contact, with too many fly balls being sent aloft in the hopes of catching the same jet stream that everyone else has found. If Swisher can resolve whatever ails him in the Bronx, even a small uptick the rest of the way would change his season from one that can be dismissed as just satisfactory and replaceable to something that is an uncontroversial asset.

SIGNS OF THE APOCALYPSE
The Yankees signed Russ Ortiz to a minor league contract. Ol’ Russ hasn’t had an ERA below 5.50 in any length of work since 2004. Since then, he’s gone 10-28 for the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Giants, and Astros, with a 6.56 ERA in 312.2 innings. Pitching at Scranton is awful thin these days, but with any luck they’ll have Sergio Mitre back soon.
 
20-GAME WATCH: Red Sox vs. Yankees
               W-L    RS/G  RA/G  AVG  OBP  SLG  AB/HR  SB   CS   HR/9   BB/9  K/9
Red Sox  10-10  5.5   4.6    .274    .352    .453      30         13    4     1.0      3.1    8.0
Yankees  14-6    5.2   4.4    .281   .361    .473       25         10    4      0.8      2.9    7.9

Here we are again. It’s difficult to know what to expect from this series given how badly the Yankees have struggled with the Red Sox this year. The Sox have struggled a bit of late, as their starting rotation has been reduced to Josh Beckett and Jon Lester plus prayer. The Yankees will get both of them this visit, and given the variability of the Yankees’ own starters, the advantage may well be with the Sox in those games. You’d think that A.J. Burnett would be able to hold his own on Friday against Beckett, but the Sox can be patient and Burnett wild. As for Andy Pettitte against Lester on Sunday, Pettitte has been all over the map this year, and while he’s been good lately with a 3.77 ERA in his last five starts, Lester has been at his best of late with a 2.65 ERA in his last five starts. Then again, it helps when the opponents are the Royals, Blue Jays, Orioles and A’s. The Yankees have also killed lefties this year, batting .293/.377/.490 against them as a team.

The series’ other two conflicts feature John Smoltz against Joba Chamberlain tonight and Clay Buchholz against CC Sabathia on Saturday. Joba has been on a three-start roll but also hasn’t pitched since the 29th, so the Yankees will have to hope that pushing him back didn’t cost him his command. The Red Sox hit him hard in his two starts against him this year (.341/.442/.477), though he struck out 14 and only allowed six runs. Smoltz is an interesting case. He’s 42, and more machine than man at this point. Since coming off of the disabled list, he’s shown decent stuff, a good strikeout rate, and excellent control. He has also, in all but one start, been pounded. This could be just luck–the batting average on balls in play against Smoltz is .370, but the line drive rate against him is actually low. That suggests that grounders and fly balls are falling more often than they should. Luck can change, and it’s possible that the Yankees will have a harder time with the grand old man than the statistics would initially suggest.

Since coming up from the minors, Buchholz has made four starts, alternating good and bad and not making it through the sixth inning in any case. This would seem like advantage Yankees given Sabathia, but the big man has been erratic of late, pushing an average of five runs per nine innings. He’s also been slightly less effective at home than on the road. Yankees fans will expect some motivated over-performance from Sabathia in this series, and no doubt the heart will be willing, but what if the flesh is weak? When a pitcher who is used to striking out eight batters a game is only getting five or six, performance may not be a matter of psychology but physicality.

After 0-8 and a 6.06 ERA against, I’m not making any predictions. My instinct is a split, which would preserve the status quo. That would be an improvement. You’d sure like to see the first win come tonight, though, just so everyone–team, fans, commentators–can feel as if the spell has been broken.

A little roster shakeup

ransom250.jpgSCRATCH THAT PITCHING DIET
As per George King, the Yankees have called up Anthony Claggett as protection for another blink-and-you-miss-it Sergio Mitre start. So much for my suggestion earlier today that the team experiment with a streamlined, 11-man pitching staff. Instead, Mitre necessitates a baker’s dozen. As Roger Daltey sang in “Who Are You,” “There’s got to be another way.” And then he swore.

Cody Ransom, meanwhile, has finally earned his letters: DFA. Ransom provides one of baseball’s best lessons, one that you can apply to just about anything: “Don’t get excited over small samples.” Ransom’s 2008 performance, .302/.400/.651 with four home runs in 43 at-bats, represents little more than the coin coming up heads over and over again for a small space of time. Some would say Ransom earned himself a chance with that performance, but the truth is that it shouldn’t have been a very long one given his age and track record. There are a few players out there–Mark Reynolds comes to mind-who are skilled enough hitters to survive an unusually high strikeout rate. When they do make contact, they do so solidly enough that good things happen a high percentage of the time. Ransom isn’t good enough to overcome the kind of pressure his strikeout rate puts on him. This year only 15 percent of his balls in play have been line drives, which means his batting average on balls in play is only .278. In short, he didn’t put balls in play very often due to the strikeout rate, and when he did put them in play nothing happened.  

In the long term, the Yankees are going to need to get back down to 12 pitchers tops, and that could mean the return of Ramiro Pena. Austin Jackson would make more sense, given that the Yankees require a practiced centerfield reserve more than they need a kid with not very much offense and less experience in the pastures. There are only three weeks left in the Minor League season. If Jackson spends most of that time on the New York bench, it couldn’t possibly set him back in any permanent way, and might possibly help.

Of course, until the Yankees find a way to get more than three innings out of their fifth starter, that last roster spot is probably moot. The sad thing is that in the postseason, the fifth starter won’t matter one bit–you could practically send the guy home. The irony, then, is that they’ll need that guy, whoever he is, to make a contribution if they’re going to get to the postseason. In a word: woof.

The bench and the bullpen, including Mo

rivera250.jpgNOT UNUSUAL, EXCEPT IN ONE RESPECT
Aside from the victim having been the estimable Doc Halladay, Tuesday night’s win was your standard nail-biting Yankees victory, with Andy Pettitte skating by despite too many walks, a couple of rallies killed by double plays, and some rollercoaster action from the bullpen. That includes the great Mariano, who has shown for all his great accomplishments that he would very much prefer to be used with the bases empty and a lead. Having to pitch in a tie or bail out some other hapless reliever just isn’t part of the deal. Rivera still allows fewer inherited runners to score than the average AL reliever — he’s allowed five of 18 to pass, whereas (hold on) the typical cat will allow about six of 18 to score. It’s a benefit to the Yankees, slim or not, but you might think the greatest closer ever would do better. He’s actually had several seasons where close to 50 percent of inherited runners scored, which is odd given just how dominant he is the rest of the time.

RZEPCZYNSKI (NOUN)
A very high-scoring Scrabble word signifying tonight’s opponent, Marc Rzepczynski. He’s a lefty of the groundballer persuasion with just one home run allowed in his inaugural 27.2 innings. One wonders if this means another outfield start for Jerry Hairston. If Hairston is your main weapon against lefties, you’re really aiming too low. It’s as if we’re back to the days of Clay Bellinger playing center field (20 starts in 2000, Joe Torre, 20 starts!). Hairston is a better player than Bellinger in every way, but that praise is specific to the case and wholly relative.

Given that the 12th man on the staff (Mark Melancon … at least, he didn’t until recently) almost never pitches, it would be a better use of the roster spot to grant Shelley Duncan a berth. In these days of bloated pitching staffs, it would be seen as a brave, daring move to carry only 11 hurlers, but Joe Girardi is proving that the 2009 Yankees, at least, can make it through with less than a dozen pitchers. There is no reason not to acknowledge what is already a reality and use the spot as a weapon rather than a way for a lucky pitcher to get free travel around the country.

REPORTED WITHOUT COMMENT
Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, pitchers’ wins added above replacement:

AL TOP 5
1. Zack Greinke, KC 6.0
2. Felix Hernandez, SEA 5.4
3. Roy Halladay, TOR 5.3
4. Cliff Lee, CLE 5.2
5. Edwin Jackson, DET 5.2
YANKEES
17. CC Sabathia 3.3
23. A.J. Burnett 3.2
30. Joba Chamberlain 2.4
32. Andy Pettitte 2.3
128. Aceves, Hughes, Mitre, Wang -0.6

BOBBY ABREU, PLAYER OF THE MONTH
He batted .380 in July and is having a fine year overall. The Yankees still made the right choice in letting him leave. The Angels got a bargain, one the Yankees weren’t going to get, either in dollars or term of years, and his 2007-2008 numbers (.289/.370/.458) were just adequate for a defensively challenged right fielder. Perhaps Abreu needed the extra motivation supplied by his free-agency letdown. Perhaps this is just a random uptick, and the numbers certainly suggest that. Abreu has always been a prolific line drive hitter, which explains his unusually high success rate on balls in play (career .349). This year he’s hitting .372 on balls in play despite the lowest line drive rate of his career. That’s the favorable luck component of what he’s doing. To put it in plainer words, Abreu hadn’t hit .300 since 2004, and hadn’t hit over .310 since 2000. There was no reason for the Yankees to expect him to post a top-10 batting average in 2009.

HE MIGHT WANT TO TAKE SOME TIME OFF
I’ve undergone this procedure and Bobby Jenks has my sympathies. Let us just say that the surgery itself is not too traumatic but the aftermath is not pretty.

The loss of Montero, the evolution of Melky

montero_300.jpgCRUSHED
Jesus Montero is out for the rest of the year, having broken the middle finger of his left hand on Saturday. If he’s out even the minimum expected, four weeks, that takes him right through the end of the Minor League season.

Before we mourn, let’s review: 48 games at Tampa, batting .356/.406/.583 with 15 doubles and eight home runs in 180 at-bats. Moving up to Trenton, Montero played in 44 games, batting .317/.370/.539 with 10 doubles and nine home runs in 167 at-bats, this despite being utterly fluxed by the big, cold, riverfront Thunder ballpark (try the crab fries!), where he hit just .232/.376/.354 vs. .400/.457/.718 on the road.

Total: .337/.389/.562. Age: 19. Moreno will turn 20 just after Thanksgiving.

The good news is this: Montero didn’t suffer a knee injury. He didn’t fracture a wrist, which could have affected his swing. He’s not out for six months, just six weeks, tops. The Yankees would have some options at that point, including a quick cup of coffee once rosters expand, and could still send the lad out to the Arizona Fall League or for other winter action with an eye towards prepping him for an extended look in next year’s Spring Training camp. Naturally, this assumes an uncomplicated recovery from the injury.

Montero may not be ready to be a big-league catcher, but if his bat is judged to play the Yankees would be mistaken to send him on an indefinite tour of the upper Minor Leagues waiting for his glove to mature. First, it may never be ready. Second, with Jorge Posada signed through 2011 and still playing well, there isn’t any urgency for him to catch. However, there may be a need for a solid bat of his ability by next spring. There should be room on the club for a young player to take some time at designated hitter while perhaps catching the odd game against less speedy opponents. This could not only get Montero’s bat in the lineup, but serve to lower the team payroll in the short term. Montero’s injury is disappointing, but it need not be a disaster.

MELKY’S CYCLE
I said it last week and I’ll say it again: the lad’s got good timing. If you could just go back and erase that injury at Texas on May 26, he might have had a perfect year. For more than a month after that he struggled to hit .200, and didn’t get hot again until Brett Gardner got hurt. Through July 22 he was hitting just .220/.278/.320 for the month. He hit a double in his sole at-bat on the 23rd and since then he’s been rolling, going 15-for-35 in 11 games overall, with five doubles, a triple, and two home runs. He’s also thrown in six walks and turndown service, including a mint placed just so on top of your pillow.

This is truly a stunning, heartwarming turn of events. Though only 24 (he’ll turn 25 on the 11th of this month), Cabrera had spent 2006 and 2007 playing every day but failing to show much with the bat. He’d hit a few balls in the gap, knock one out of the park every now and again, but not so often that you could say he had real power. He was only moderately patient, so even hitting .280 he didn’t get on base that much. He was a switch-hitter, but he couldn’t touch a lefty. Then it got worse, as he followed a torrid April, 2008 with a 100-game cold streak that got him sent to the Minors.

Coming into the season, there was no reason to view Cabrera as much more than a versatile outfield reserve, and given his 2008 performance, perhaps not even that. Even after another hot April and a solid May, it seemed likely that a cold snap would ensue. When it did, it was impossible to tell if it was due to the Texas injury or just Cabrera returning to form. It now appears that the injury was at least partially to blame, and whatever Cabrera does for the rest of the season, he’s not heading back to the dark depths of post-April 2008. He’s even hitting left-handers, something he’d never done with any consistency or authority before. That, more than anything else, suggests real change.

If Cabrera maintains his current .292/.355/.463 level of production, the Yankees have a very solid center fielder on their hands. The average Major League center fielder is batting .268/.337/.422. For once, the Yankees were patient with a young player (far more patient than your host, for once) and it seems to have paid off — and they had far less reason to be patient with Cabrera than with a host of predecessors who quickly headed out of town, Drabek, Buhner, et al. Let us hope the lesson sinks in — for everyone.