October 2009

On the road to cheesesteak

phillies_350_102109.jpgWithout taking anything for granted (we all remember 2004), it seems as if we’re on the way to a Yankees-Phillies World Series. While I’m sure that some will be sorry that we won’t get JOE TORRE STRIKES BACK headlines, I’m happy that we likely won’t have to rehash all that stuff, or subject any of the people involved to the indignity of it all.

After all, Torre is no traitor — the organization chose to go in a different direction (this is the politest way of summarizing the events that led to Torre’s departure) and he helped direct the club to its most sustained run of success since the 1970s, if not the dynasty years of the 1950s and ’60s. While I was critical of his work in the later years of his tenure, an organization needs change and that can leave personnel who once seemed integral in the dust trying to keep up. When that happens, and it has happened to great leaders (Winston Churchill comes to mind), it does nothing to invalidate all the positive contributions that came before. Things change, we know that; not everyone is adaptable, and even those that are adaptable will eventually reach the point at which they are no longer flexible.

As I said, we won’t have to deal with that. Instead, what we should have to deal with, if things go the way they should, is the defending champs trying to achieve something like mini-dynasty status — pull the Yankees out of the equation and there haven’t been too many repeat winners in baseball history — against a Yankees team that, in many ways, really hasn’t been here before. Holdovers from the last Yankees World Series team include Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. That’s just five players out of 25. The rest are virginal, at least in a Yankees uniform (Burnett was on the 2003 Marlins but was hurt; Johnny Damon was with the 2004 Red Sox). Though the Yankees are a highly compensated, veteran team, and shouldn’t be rated the underdog in any matchup, they are undoubtedly the upstarts in a confrontation with the Phillies.

The Phillies would also make the most legitimate competition for this Yankees team. The Dodgers are comparatively light on offense (on one of the NLCS broadcasts, Buck Martinez called them the best offense in the National League, not sure where that came from) and their pitching staff has fallen into disarray in October. The Phillies have a team that was built to play in Yankee Stadium II, loaded with left-handed and switch-hitters who can take aim at the short porch in right field, as well as a rotation stocked with lefties who can keep Yankees hitters away from it. Sure, their bullpen is a mess, has been a mess, will be a mess, but that pile of southpaws on both sides of the ball covers a multitude of reliever sins.

All this, however, is premature. For today we wait while the NLCS tries to resolve itself. Perhaps this speculation is premature. It’s difficult not to jump ahead, given the dominance of Tuesday night’s performance by CC Sabathia.

ALL IS FORGIVEN
Given the umpiring throughout the postseason, and particularly in last night’s game (an embarrassment, though the ball-strike calls were shockingly good), it seems to me that Don Denkinger has less and less to feel bad about. Sure, he helped give away a World Series game, but it was just one play. His professional descendants are mucking up inning after inning. Baseball games continually interrupted by instant replay is a horrifying notion, but something has to change.

MORE OF ME AND OTHER PEOPLE

Baseball Prospectus is holding another roundtable chat tonight around Game 5 of the NLCS. I should be there, assuming this kidney stone I’m still dealing with doesn’t send me off to cower in a corner somewhere. For more info or to submit a question, here there be linkage. Hope to see you then. Desperately.

Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it

girardi_300_102009.jpg(AND LAY OFF THE COFFEE, COFFEE JOE)
The postseason’s many off days have frequently been observed to allow shenanigans with starting pitchers that wouldn’t be possible in the regular season, such as reducing the rotation to three pitchers as the Yankees are doing in the ALCS.

Less often remarked upon is the freedom it allows a coffee-achiever/manic manager to run pell-mell through his bullpen, pulling out relievers like they were blades on a Swiss Army Knife — Mariano Rivera is the bottle-opener, Phil Hughes is the screwdriver and Alfredo Aceves is the one whose function you’re not quite certain of. If a manager acted that way in the regular season, he’d burn out his bullpen in about a week.

Thanks to the schedule, Joe Girardi has had the freedom to ignore questions of fatigue and can make changes on a whim, or at the command of a black binder that suggests you ignore what’s happening right in front of you in favor of oracular advice in the form of head-to-head data and scouting reports. In the case of the former, the samples are so small as to be meaningless, and as to the latter, whatever Howie Kendrick’s preferences are insofar as whether he likes fastballs better than curveballs or boeuf bourguignon to Lobster Thermidor, his interactions with David Robertson have been so limited that all you really have is a theory along the lines of, “If a tiger fought a lion, we believe the tiger would win,” or “In our prior experience we have seen that when sodium hits the water, things go boom, and we believe that Robertson is sodium and Kendrick is water.”

It’s speculation. There’s no fact behind it, just inferences. You can’t know if those inferences are correct until you test them. Girardi opted not to, and in a situation where he had the platoon advantage all along. Unless Aceves is harboring a specific pitch that we’ve not yet heard of — The Klingon Ball? The High ‘n’ Tight Hemingway Paragraph? The Astro Orbiter? — and Kendrick has been seen to wet himself at the sight of the Klingon Ball, there is no advantage that Aceves could have had over Robertson to justify the switch.

In fairness to Coffee Joe, we don’t know would have happened had he stuck with Robertson. Perhaps Kendrick would have hit the ball to the moon and the game would have ended right there. It could be that the manager’s hunch was correct and Aceves didn’t execute. What we do know is that Robertson was doing a fine job, has done a fine job, and that learning to trust him is a big part of this manager’s and this team’s future. If Hughes rejoins the rotation next year, Robertson could be your eighth-inning guy, and no reason that he shouldn’t be.

The Robertson/Aceves switch, and the Damaso Marte/Phil Coke switch earlier in the game, or all of the hectic pinch-running (which has not availed the Yankees and has actively hurt them) are also symptomatic of a manager who is managing too much in the moment and not thinking about what will happen if it turns out he needs the player he just chucked away. In particular, he seems to have forgotten that Brett Gardner is not just a runner but a full-function player. Since Eric Hinske is not on the roster, he’s the closest thing the Yankees have to a competent hitter on the bench. Because of the way he’s been used, the Yankees have been forced into having Freddy Guzman, Jerry Hairston, and Francisco Cervelli hit in key spots and potentially lost an extra inning of work from Rivera because they gave up the DH to replace Johnny Damon on defense.

This is the opposite of good managing. For the rest of the series, Girardi might better focus on imparting some of his high-caffeine mojo to his hitters, who haven’t had a hit with a runner in scoring position in the last two contests. The speed of the runners on base matters not a bit if the next three guys make outs and that is exactly what’s been happening. Alas, this aspect of things might be out of Coffee Joe’s hands.

YESTERDAY, CC SABATHIA SEEMED SO FAR AWAY
BUT OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR

As for today’s matchup, when the three-man rotation concept was first floated, I brought up Luis Tiant in the 1975 World Series. El Tiante, who had been just so-so in the regular season that year but was nonetheless the team’s ace, had a week to get ready for Game 1, and he pitched a five-hit shutout. He pitched Game 4 on three days’ rest and was just good enough, holding the Reds to four runs in nine innings as the Red Sox won 5-4.

After Game 5 there was rain, which meant that Tiant got to pitch Game 6 after a five-day layoff. He shut out the Reds for four innings, but they broke through for three runs in the fifth, two in the seventh, and one more in the eighth. Given the long rest, the issue wasn’t fatigue, but familiarity — the Reds had seen all of Tiant’s tricks and were ready for them (they would go on to lose the game in extra innings on Carlton Fisk’s famous home run).

Obviously the Yankees don’t want this series to go seven games, and if Sabathia pitches well tonight it might not have to, but they have an extra reason to hope that it does not — a third helping of Sabathia might prove to be too much of a good thing.

Leave Figgins on the tree

figgins_250_102009.jpgOn Sunday, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote, “Cashman is poised to spend what it takes on a significant upgrade in left field (read that: Chone Figgins).”

I don’t want to “read that.” In the words of Casey Stengel, let’s make out that’s a misprint. Right now, the common assumption in the media seems to be that when it comes to Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, the Yankees will retain one, but not both, necessitating the addition of another player. We can weigh the pros and cons of retaining one or the other after the playoffs — it’s not a slam-dunk decision either way — but either way, the Yankees will be looking for offensive consistency and a defensive upgrade in left field.

Figgins is not the way to go. The problem is, despite whatever reputation Figgins has, he’s not there: Figgins has no power, his stolen base percentages are edging downwards, is severely diminished when not batting left-handed (.266/.340/.351 career versus lefthanders), and as far as defense goes, has played only 36 games in left field in his career, just one of them coming in the last three years, so you really don’t know what you’ll get. With the exception of two seasons in his eight-season career, 2007 (in which he played only 115 games) and 2009, he hasn’t been a great on-base guy either — and there’s not guarantee he’ll ever draw 100 walks again. He’s also 31 years old, which means the Yankees will be paying for the rump end of his career, and he hasn’t been durable in recent seasons. Finally, to this point in his career he is a .175 hitter in 30 postseason games. Mr. October this ain’t.

This year, the average Major League left fielder hit .270/.341/440. Last year they hit .269/.344/.442. Two years ago, the rates were .277/.347/.453. This is the line the Yankees are shooting to be over when they cast the position. Figgins is a career .291/.363/.388 hitter. In two of the last four seasons, he was well below that, hitting .267/.336/.376 in 2006 and .276/.367/.318 in 2008. Imagine a best-case scenario in which the Yankees get everything that Johnny Damon gave them this year except for 20 home runs. The stolen bases wouldn’t make up for the loss of power, and that’s without the risk that Figgins has another off-year and turns in a .260/.340/.360 season somewhere along the line.

In 1982, the Yankees signed free agent outfielder Dave Collins, another speedster, then realized that he was far below their offensive requirements. It cost them Fred McGriff to get rid of him. Signing Figgins has the potential to repeat that scenario, with the Yankees once again casting a singles hitter at a power-hitter’s position, then immediately regretting it.

RIKKI, DON’T USE THAT NUMBER
As noted here before the series, in Game 2, Joe Girardi put Freddy Guzman into the game in the ninth inning to run for Hideki Matsui, then subsequently was forced to let him bat, a problem given that Guzman is the closest thing to an instant out among the non-pitchers on either team. It was the only discordant note in a game in which Girardi pressed all the right buttons — he backed himself into a corner on a move that didn’t have much of a chance of working out, given that Matsui had singled with two outs. If a home run wasn’t to be hit (in which case the pinch-runner was moot) it was going to take at least two events to score either player Matsui or Guzman, in the former case single and a double or vice-versa, in the case of Guzman a stolen base plus another hit. Perhaps Guzman might have scored from first on just the right ball hit into the gap, but betting on that is gambling Matsui’s next at-bat on a very specific outcome.

It’s one thing to use Brett Gardner in these situations given that Gardner has some ability to hit, but you get into a whole other level of risk when you put Guzman into the game. Before the series, I argued that Eric Hinske would have had more utility to the Yankees. That can be argued given the prevalence of left-handers in Mike Scioscia’s end game — Shelley Duncan would have been a wiser pick than either Hinske or Guzman. Either way, Guzman has to be a tool of very last resort.

Sabathia sets an example

IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE
During last night’s chat, I made an off-hand comment that CC Sabathia had just pitched one of the best postseason games in Yankees history. This is undoubtedly true, but I had forgotten just how many Yankees had gone out and pitched shutouts in World Series play. Whitey Ford had three, Allie Reynolds two, and then there were one-offs by Waite Hoyt, Carl Mays, Vic Raschi, Ralph Terry, Spud Chandler, and (oh yeah) that Don Larsen guy. Going down to the League Championship level, there’s the nigh-obscene game Roger Clemens pitched against the Mariners in 2000, in which he held them to one hit, two walks and 15 strikeouts.

Still, if Sabathia’s night isn’t in the top echelon, it was close enough. The game lacked any tension once the Yankees took the lead, in large part because Sabathia didn’t allow them to build any momentum. He also set a terrific example for the occasionally twitchy A.J. Burnett to live up to in Game 2, assuming rain delays don’t knock him out after an inning or two.

I wish I had stats that showed how Burnett has fared pitching in freezing rain, but given that he spent most of his pre-Yankees career in the warmth of Miami or under a dome in Toronto, doubtless he hasn’t too much experience in that regard. Whatever the conditions, he’s made six starts against the Scioscia-men and has gone 2-2 with a 4.43 ERA. The overall line, 40.2 innings, 43 hits, 22 runs, 20 earned, five home runs, 11 walks, 39 strikeouts, doesn’t look all that bad; sometimes the little white ball just takes a funny bounce or two and things go all pear-shaped.

posada286_101709.jpgAs you know, Jose Molina is catching again today, while Mike Napoli is in the battery for the Angels, so shift a little offensive advantage the Angels’ way, at least for the at-bat or two that goes to Molina before Joe Girardi pulls him. He did so well with this in the last round that I don’t see the point in worrying about it. The only point to raise, as I did last time, is that the manager should be aggressive — if Molina bats in a key situation early, it might be worth sacrificing the defense for a chance to put some crooked numbers on the board. That’s Casey Stengel speaking through me on that one, and he got seven rings out of thinking that way so I believe him.

A couple of quick notes:
?    No matter how many times the announcers say that Bobby Abreu somehow turned the Angels into a team of Ed Yost-ian walking men, it just ain’t true. With the exception of Howie Kendrick, who was threatened with professional extinction if he didn’t get wise to himself and his impatient approach, most of the improvement shown by the Angels is down to Abreu himself. As with so many things, like the Angels “creating havoc” on the bases, it just ain’t true. They were third in the league in stolen bases and got caught more than anyone else. If this be havoc, the Yankees should say, let us have more of it. This should work to Burnett’s advantage. Note that even when the Angels beat him, it wasn’t because he went walk-crazy, as he sometimes does. In fact, his walk rate against the Angels is about half of what it is normally.

?    Second point about “havoc.” It’s just one bloody base. If Team A steals three bases and Team B hits three home runs, guess which team is going to win? As with the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base is a situational tool, and that’s all. Babe Ruth changed that in 1920. At the end of his career, after Lefty Gomez was let go by the Yankees, he had a tryout with a National League team. Asked the difference between the two leagues, Gomez said, “Over here they play like they don’t know John McGraw has been dead for ten years,” by which he meant that Dead Ball-era tactics were still being employed in the Senior Circuit. That Gomez was incorrect to cite McGraw notwithstanding — the Little Napoleon was among the first to realize the strategic implications of the lively ball and to change his ways — he was correct that many in baseball did not know that those old weapons had diminished in value, and even today there are many who do not know.

Angels-Yanks: Head to head, Part III

damon250.jpgFALL WEATHER: SHOULD’VE PUT A DOME ON IT
Hey, when you’re spending that much money, what’s a few dollars more?

ANGELS-YANKEES HEAD TO HEAD, PART III

LEFT FIELD: JUAN RIVERA (22.4 VORP, 14th among left fielders) vs. JOHNNY DAMON (39.3, 4th)

Rivera was having a breakout year until his bat went dead in August and stayed dead through the end of the season. On the last day of July, he was hitting .314/.357/.525. From then on he hit .246/.296/.408. A hamstring injury might have played a part. Note that even with the slump, he did smoke southpaws to the tune of .333/.385/.645, with 12 homers in 141 at-bats. Righties were a different story: .271/.313/.418. Rivera is a fair defensive left fielder. The same can’t be said of Damon, who is getting to fewer and fewer balls these days as he loses speed and bobbles more than his fair share of those he does get to. However, with the aid of the New Yankee Stadium, which supplied almost all of his home run power, Damon was an offensive plus in left. Unfortunately, he went cold in September and stayed cold in the first round of the playoffs. The good news is that he has a good record against John Lackey and Joe Saunders, not so much against Jered Weaver. Then again, the predictive power of those small samples is exactly zero. I’m calling it EDGE: YANKEES on the home field advantage; Damon knows how to pull the ball into the right field wind tunnel. Rivera faces the wrong way to do that, and hasn’t hit the Yankees pitchers well in any case.

CENTER FIELD:  TORII HUNTER (41, 3rd) vs. MELKY CABRERA (17.1, 22nd) and BRETT GARDNER (11.4, 28th)

On a per-game basis, Gardner was more valuable than Cabrera; he was also the better ballhawk in center field. The presence of Freddy Guzman on the ALCS roster suggests that Joe Girardi might have it in mind to start him some; we can only hope so. Cabrera will undoubtedly play against lefties Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders, though he can’t really hit lefties. Hunter did slump a bit in the second half, following an injury time-out, but he did hit a home run against the Red Sox (again, for whatever these three-game samples are worth). Hunter’s defensive abilities, always overstated, have shrunk a bit, but he’s still very capable. EDGE: ANGELS

RIGHT FIELD: BOBBY ABREU (35.6, 7th) vs. NICK SWISHER (30.9, 10th)

On a per-game basis, there was very little difference between Abreu and Swisher, and Swisher is by far the superior defensive player, despite his staggering about the outfield about once a game. He usually catches up to the ball he’s weaving after, while Abreu does not. In short, the offense is a wash, the defense is not. One note: in a decent sample of plate appearances, Swisher has been fairly helpless against John Lackey, though he did once touch him for a home run. Small EDGE: YANKEES.

DESIGNATED HITTER: VLADIMIR GUERRERO (15.6, 8th) vs. HIDEKI MATSUI (33.4, 3rd)

After his July DL stint, which lasted for about a month, the Impaler hit .300/.347/.498. Weird thing about his season: he hit just .250/.276/.410 against lefties, whereas he usually destroys them. We have to consider that a fluke that could reverse itself at any time during the playoffs. Conversely, you can hope that Matsui gets to face a lefty in the late innings — and since the Angels two best relievers are southpaws, he will. He’s never been bothered by them, and he positively smooshed ’em this year. EDGE: YANKEES.

STARTING PITCHER , GAME 1: JOHN LACKEY vs. CC SABATHIA

The Angels whacked Sabathia around a bit this year, but as we covered a couple of entries back, not in a way that suggests that they have his number. Lackey pitched well against the Yankees in his one start against them this year. His career record against them is 5-7 with a 4.66 ERA. As you know, he has good control and keeps the ball down without exactly being a groundball pitcher. He’s always been very effective against right-handed hitters, but that’s less of a problem for the Yankees with their lineup of switch-hitters and lefties. Lackey is an excellent pitcher with a fine postseason record (3.02 ERA in 12 games) and due to injury he hasn’t pitched all that much this year. Call it EDGE: YANKEES, but it’s not a sure thing.

THE BULLPENS

This is all Yankees. The Angels will rely mainly on four relief arms: Brian Fuentes, Darren Oliver, Jason Bulger, and Kevin Jepsen. Jepsen throws hard but can be wild, and left-handed hitters smoked him (.373/.426/.455). Bulger is almost the same story. He throws hard but wild. He was, however, very hard to hit, allowing opposing hitters just a .207 average. Left-handers did manage to touch off five home runs in only 107 at-bats. The second act to Oliver’s career is a wonderful story. Primarily a starter from 1993 to 2004, he was generally pounded, his ERA 5.07. He spent 2006 in the minors and got pounded there as well, but nonetheless caught on with the Mets as a reliever in 2006. Since then, he’s pitched 223 games, has a record of 19-4, and an ERA of 3.19. In several seasons, including this one, he’s had a reverse split; lefties have hit him better than righties. He’s the team’s most reliable reliever, but the Yankees really damaged southpaws this year, something which also does not bode well for closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes struggled at times this year, and manager Mike Scioscia flirted with a demotion, but there was really nowhere else to go. That he ended up leading the American League in saves tells you just how valuable the saves statistic is.

The Yankees pen is deep and versatile, deep enough that if a rainout means that the Yankees have to start a Joba or a Chad Gaudin somewhere, they could survive a short start without too much trouble. EDGE: YANKEES.

THE MANAGERS

This is Joe Girardi’s first time in the rarified air of the LCS, whereas Mike Scioscia has been here before. The trick for Girardi will be, as it was in the first round, good bullpen handling and not getting too caught up in one-run strategies. Scioscia’s Angels run quite a bit and throughout the days leading up to this contraction the Yankees sounded almost jealous of their speed, but the fact is that the Angels do not always run well. They also bunt quite a bit, primarily with Erick Aybar and the punchless Jeff Mathis. This represents Scioscia trying to do more with these players than they are truly capable of doing, but except for select situations is probably counterproductive. It is worth noting that when both the Angels and Yankees did attempt to bunt, neither team was particularly successful — they failed to advance the runner about a third of the time. Girardi seems to like to hit and run quite a bit, a reaction to his team’s relative lack of speed. The Angels, on the other hand, seem to like to keep the bat in the batter’s hands and run and hit, letting the runner go, and if the batter swings, fine, and if not, not. On the pitching side, Scioscia had nine blown quality starts, which is to say that his starting pitcher had pitched well enough to qualify for a quality start but Scioscia kept in him long enough to give up some more runs. Girardi had only five, despite receiving more quality starts from his pitching staff. I’m going to rate this EDGE: YANKEES, because Girardi, having superior resources, knows he doesn’t have to push as hard. Scioscia is doing more “managing,” which often doesn’t help.

OFF TO THE ROUNDTABLE
Today, BP is doing another roundtable, a doubleheader covering both games. All are welcome. For more info or to submit a question, join us here.

Angels-Yanks: Head to head, Part II

hinske250.jpgFIRST WONDERFUL SURPRISE OF THE DAY
My first kidney stone attack in 4.3 years. I am a happy, happy, happy guy right now.

SECOND WONDERFUL SURPRISE OF THE DAY
It turns out that I can write this entry while curled into a fetal position and begging my wife to kill me.

THIRD WONDERFUL SURPRISE OF THE DAY

The Yankees dropped Eric Hinske from the ALCS roster and added Freddy Guzman. The Yankees now have three non-bats on the bench in Jose Molina, Francisco Cervelli, and Guzman, and arguably another in Jerry Hairston. It’s wonderful that Girardi can pinch-run for the catchers and never run out of spare tires, but who the heck is going to hit for these guys if they get into a 1-1 tie in the tenth? Hinske can play four positions, and though he doesn’t man any of them brilliantly, that versatility is an asset in itself, even before you account for the fact that he’s the only guy reserve who can come off the bench and hit a home run. If baseball teams had larger rosters, you could stash a track and field guy at the end of your bench, but as things stand now you pay a definite price for the luxury of being able to win the broad jump event but not the home run derby.

ANGELS-YANKEES HEAD TO HEAD, PART II

THIRD BASE: CHONE FIGGINS (37.8 VORP, 8th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)

A-Rod was actually the most productive third baseman in baseball on a per-game basis. That whole hip thing hurt his totals. We have apples and oranges here, a singles hitter who has learned to take a walk (Figgins’ walks and on-base percentage are career highs) and an apparently mellow slugger who had a terrifically productive year despite a bad leg. The further A-Rod was from his surgery, the better he was, hitting .310/.394/.518 in the second half. He had a more relaxed approach, seemingly trying for fewer home runs. Rodriguez also ran the bases surprisingly well for a man who was supposed to be, as Peter Cook famously put it, a unidexter.

Small sample caveats about, but it may be safe to call Figgins a poor postseason player. He’s participated in six October series over the years and is a career .182 hitter in 29 games. He actually went 0-for-12 against Boston. Note also that Figgins can be neutralized by southpaws. He hit only .246/.325/305 against left-handers, which is consistent with his career-long predilections. EDGE: YANKEES

SHORTSTOP: ERICK AYBAR (30.5, 13th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)

Aybar is an interesting player, a singles hitter with great speed who isn’t allowed to run much because he’s so bad at it. A switch-hitter, his left-handed stroke is pretty much all singles, as is his right-handed stroke, only he gets a few more of them from that side of the plate. You don’t need me to tell you that Captain Jeter is a more rounded player and then some. EDGE: YANKEES

CATCHER: MIKE NAPOLI (24.8, 5th) and JEFF MATHIS (-9.2, 107th) vs. JORGE POSADA (35.8, 3rd)

Napoli is a fine, almost Posada-esque hitter who creamed lefties this year (.330/.417/.606). If he’s not in the lineup against Sabathia, officially deduct two genius points from Mike Scioscia. That he might not be in the lineup is because Mathis plays quite often due to various real or perceived defensive deficiencies on Napoli’s part. The problem is that neither player throws well, so you’re pretty much down to handling of pitchers, and Napoli would have to receive like an octuple-amputee octopus with a raging substance abuse problem to justify sacrificing the amount of offense that comes with dragging Mathis into the lineup. Mathis is a career .200/.277/.320 hitter and was worse than that this year. Oddly enough, Jose Molina is almost exactly the same hitter, .235/.277.332 for his career, so if Scioscia happens to time a Mathis start with A.J. Burnett’s game, it will be like both teams decided to forego the catcher’s spot and play an eight-man lineup. If Napoli or Posada is playing when the other one is not, the imbalance between the two positions is huge. Otherwise, Posada is the better all-around hitter, especially in Yankee Stadium, but Napoli has some advantages too, like striking out and hitting enough fly balls to rarely hit into a double play. Overall we’ll call this EDGE: YANKEES, but not a huge one.

We’ll wrap this up with the outfield and the first three starters in part three.

TONIGHT, TONIGHT, TONIGHT

I’ll be participating in a BP roundtable during the first game of the NLCS. All are welcome. Information is available here.

Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland

Sabathia-10-14-250.jpgFrom the comments on yesterday’s entry: You wrote this article about CC purely for the reason so that if for whatever reason he doesn’t pitch well in Game 4 you can say “I told you so.” Nice self-serving article. It would have nothing to do with the fact that the angels have always hit him well, or that after they see him in Game 1 they make some adjustments and take him the other way like the Twins did. Especially since that is what the Angels do. Just a very selfish posting.– acepoint01

Acepoint01, I’m flattered that I strike you as the kind of evil genius that would have the foresight and coordination to place an item like that purely for my own aggrandizement, but if you’d been around longer, it would be obvious to you that I have a hard enough time putting my shoes on the right feet each day, trying not to get lost on the way to the office–which, for the most part, is in my house–and writing an entry or two each day. Honest, pal, I’m just trying to present both sides of the issue, not polish my own statue–for more on the state of which, please see Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”:

“The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer,” said the Mayor in fact, “he is little better than a beggar!”

“Little better than a beggar,” said the Town Councilors.

…So they pulled down the statue of the Happy Prince. “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful,” said the Art Professor at the University.

By the bye, Sabathia had two rough-ish starts against the Angels this year, but prior to that, his career record against them was 5-5 with a 4.24 ERA. In those two difficult starts, he struck out 11 in 13.1 innings, walked just four, and allowed no home runs. I don’t see those two games as having much predictive power given that the abuse he suffered was a matter of balls in play finding their way to safety, not grape being blasted over the walls. Sabathia missed the Angels completely in ’08, and was 2-0 with a 1.12 ERA against them in ’07, so not only do I find your evaluation of my motives mysterious and misguided, but your basic premise is inaccurate.

BACK SHORTLY…
…With Angels-Yankees Head to Head Part II.

Angels-Yanks: Head to head, Part I

MERRY-GO-ROUND
Angels-Dodgers. Angels-Phillies. Yankees-Dodgers. Yankees-Phillies. These are the World Series possibilities thanks to last night’s conclusion of the Phillies-Rockies series, a denouement hastened by Jim Tracy’s Night of the Living Dead decision to let Huston Street pitch to Ryan Howard with the game on the line, a devotion to the idea of the CLOSER so compulsive as to be akin to mental slavery. Howard hit .207/.298/.356 against lefties this year, .226/.310/.444 lifetime. Conversely, he’s a .305/.406/.661 career hitter against right-handers, a number likely to be elevated against Street, who has always had problems with lefties until this year (and there is good reason to believe that he was just lucky). Tracy had Joe Beimel heated up and ready to go, but because Street is his CLOSER he stuck with him and got exactly what should have expected to get. Way to go, Jim.

Before anyone jumps and asks if this means that, should there be a Yankees-Phillies World Series, Mariano Rivera should not be allowed to pitch to Howard, the answer is no, it does not mean that. Rivera’s cutter makes him very hard for left-handers to hit. Lefties are hitting .206/.256/.261 against him for his career, .182/.238/.273. He’s a full-service closer, and the normal rules do not apply.

THINGS WE NEVER SAW IN NEW YORK …
… Happened in last night’s game. First, Jason Giambi singled to the opposite field. He then scored from first on Yorvit Torrealba’s double. Where was that guy the last five years?

TRIAD
In today’s Joe Girardi conference call, the manager suggested that he could go with a three-man rotation in the championship series. This is feasible because due to the wonders of television scheduling, the American League Championship Series will last 10 days if it goes the distance. Thanks to three off-days, after Game 2, Game 4 and Game 5, CC Sabathia would be able to start Game 1, then Game 4 after three days off, and then Game 7 on normal rest. A.J. Burnett would start Games 2 and 5, the latter on normal rest, and Andy Pettitte would start Game 3 and Game 6, also on normal rest. The question is, how has Mr. Sabathia done on short rest? Sabathia didn’t make any quickened starts this year but has in the past. Last year he made three such starts and did quite well, allowing just two earned runs (six total) in 21.2 innings. Those three starts represent 75 percent of his starts under such conditions. In short, there’s a record of success in short rest, but we’re well short of conclusive evidence. This does seem like a better option than going with Chad Gaudin, who has not pitched well against the Angels in his career (19 games) or pulling Joba Chamberlain back out of the ‘pen and praying.

If you want an “on the other hand,” here it is: in the fourth inning of his next start, Sabathia will pitch his 240th inning of the season. The guy could get fatigued. The guy could already be fatigued. This seemed to be a problem in past postseasons; in 2007 and 2008, Sabathia entered October already past the 240 mark. You never know if making a start on short rest will hasten him toward the wall.

ANGELS-YANKEES HEAD TO HEAD, PART ONE

FIRST BASE: KENDRY MORALES (39.8 VORP, 12th among first basemen) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7 VORP, 5th)
tex250_101309.jpgCuban import Morales finally had his big breakthrough this year, knocking 43 doubles and 34 home runs while hitting .306. Intriguingly, his line-drive rate was actually a tad low, while his batting average on balls in play was high, so he likely had some good luck this year. If his line drive rate is normal next year, we’ll never notice the correction. Morales was much better from the left side of the plate than from the right side, batting .296/.319/.481. He was far more consistent, far more patient, against right-handers, and it’s probably worth it for Girardi to turn him around in the late innings. Mike Scioscia very rarely put Bobby Abreu and Morales back to back in the lineup, as this would have created an exploitable vulnerability to lefty relievers.

Teixeira wasn’t set back by turning around, not this year and not during his career. In fact, he’s a bit more dangerous against left-handed pitching. He’s a career .388/.464/.551 hitter against John Lackey, has hit .261/.346/.652 against Jered Weaver, and is 7-for-11 against Scott Kazmir. The only Gold Glove in the conversation is Teixeira. EDGE: YANKEES.

SECOND BASE: HOWIE KENDRICK (16.5, 20th) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)

In their eagerness to whack the ball, Kendrick and Cano are similar players. Both players had a crisis in their 25th year, Kendrick hitting so poorly at the outset of this season (.231/.281/.355 through June 11) that he was sent down. He hit well in the sticks and was brought back about three weeks later. In the 54 games remaining to him, Kendrick hit .351/.387/.532 and was a bit more patient than he had been before, walking 10 times. That doesn’t seem like much, but this is a guy who had taken just 40 walks in 303 career games to that point. He hit .371 against left-handers after coming back, and batted .400 with runners in scoring position.

Cano had his most consistent season in 2009, hitting well except for a two-month, May-June cold snap. Even then, results were never as bleak as they had been the previous year (.271/.302/.439). He was at his best in the second half, hitting .336/.365/.557 after the break. Cano’s season had two major downsides. He continued to be a double-play threat due to his lack of speed, his tendency to hit grounders, and his ability to hit the ball hard even when he wasn’t hitting it anywhere good. The other problem was his spectacularly poor hitting with runners on, runners in scoring position, runners anything. Put a man on in front of him and he melted like ice on a hot stove. Defensively the two are a wash. I see this as EDGE: NONE.

NEXT
Third base, shortstop, catcher.

Five years, what a surprise

yanksalcs250.jpgFIVE YEARS LATER…
…The Yankees are back in the American League Championship Series. This is an accomplishment, no doubt about it, but the sweep of the Twins shouldn’t be taken as any sign of the Yankees’ predestination as champions. Despite their exciting charge into the postseason (or the Tigers’ historic collapse), the Twins were not a very good team, but rather the last survivor of one of baseball’s weakest divisions. They were there because a team had to represent the AL Central, not because they had any claim on greatness. They were no better than the Tigers, Rangers, Rays, Mariners, Marlins, Braves, Cubs, or Giants, teams with similar records who now compete only on the nation’s golf courses. Moreover, the Twins were missing one of their big bats, Justin Morneau; the Yankees defeated a half-strength team that was down half its strength.

The point here is not to diminish the win any, because the Yankees played excellent baseball against an opponent that didn’t roll over. Game Three’s key defensive play by Derek Jeter is another great, heady move to add to his Hall of Fame case, one of two in the series. Actually, the very fact that he was able to make those plays points up the very inadequacy of the Twins as an opponent. Just as Jeremy Giambi made Jeter’s most famous play possible by failing to slide, the Twins made mistakes that an intelligent player like Jeter could exploit. During the broadcasts of the series, you heard a great deal about what a gritty, gutty, speedy, fundamentally sound, ballclub the Twins were — this despite their tripping around the field at every opportunity. The Twins are a myth, one created because calling things what they are isn’t something the media does. Yes, the Twins are small-market. Yes, they have had a miserable stadium deal. Yes, their late billionaire owner never seemed that interested in spending for another winner after the team’s 1987 and 1991 championships. None of that means they had to play Nick Punto or Joe Crede or Delmon Young or any of their other compromise ballplayers. Not counting midseason acquisitions Orlando Cabrera and Ron Mahay, Punto is the highest-paid Twin after Morneau, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer. That’s just not right.

It seems as if The Angels will represent more of a test, because they have things the Twins can only dream of. The Twins have emphasized the drafting and development of low-stuff college hurlers who pitch to contact (Johan Santana was a Rule 5 accident), though they did strike out more than their share of Yankees in the series just completed. Overall, the Angels did not have a great pitching staff for strikeouts, but of the pitchers the Yankees will see in the ALCS — John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Joe Saunders — only Saunders would fit in on the Twins. They also have a deeper offense. Not all of their .290-.300 hitters are created equal given their organizational reluctance (despite much lip-service being given to the positive influence of Bobby Abreu) to reach base via walk. As for their vaunted baserunning game, it wasn’t the most successful operation in the world — the Angels stole at a 70 percent success rate, which was one of the worst rates in the league. By contrast, the Yankees stole at an 80 percent rate, which is to say that in every 50 attempts, the Yankees went 40-10 and the Angels 35-15. Finally, the Angels haven’t much in the way of bullpen. They very much missed the injured Scot Shields. Darren Oliver was their most productive reliever, followed by closer Brian Fuentes. Notwithstanding their historic aversion to playing well against the Angels, something that the Yankees might have put behind them in taking two of three at Anaheim in late September, there is no reason the Yankees cannot take this series.

We’ll get into the head-to-head stuff tomorrow. We’ve got all bloody week to delve into this series.

PUT MARIANO RIVERA IN THE HALL OF FAME TOMORROW OR TODAY
Not that he needs another paean to his brilliance, but the series again demonstrated why Mariano Rivera is a unique talent. If you compare Joe Nathan to Rivera during the regular season since 2004, there isn’t a lot to suggest that Rivera has been dramatically better than Nathan in that time, if he has been better at all. Nathan has pitched in 412 games and converted 247 of 272 save opportunities with an ERA of 1.87. Rivera has pitched 405 games and saved 243 victories in 261 chances. Rivera allowed 26 percent of his inherited runners to score. Nathan allowed only 20 percent. Under most conditions, if you had traded one for the other the teams would have seen a minimal change in outcomes.

“Most conditions” do not include the postseason. Rivera is one of the greatest postseason performers in history. You could make a reasonable argument that he is in fact the greatest postseason performer in baseball history given his level of excellence over so many games, the expansion of the postseason to three rounds in recent years having provided him with more October opportunities than even some of the Dynasty greats like Yogi Berra. Nathan has had many fewer opportunities, but he’s one of the reasons that he’s pitched in fewer games, not having done very well.

Rivera only got one chance at a save in this year’s ALDS, pitching with a big lead in Game 1 and coming in to try to protect a tie in Game 2, something at which he failed, so it’s not as if this series is going to deserve a track on his greatest hits album, though aside from allowing those runners inherited from Phil Hughes to score he did quite well. What he did isn’t as important as what he has done, and what Nathan wasn’t able to do.

PRODUCTIVE OUTS

I was disgusted to see a list of “productive outs” pop up towards the end of TBS’s broadcast last night. It just cemented TBS’s status as a network that broadcasts baseball but doesn’t pay enough attention to the game in any of its aspects to be successful. How the heck do we kill this concept that making  outs can be a good thing? Check out the stats: A team with a runner on first with no outs has the expectation of scoring .88 runs, but a team with a runner on second and one out will score just .69 runs. Even though the runner moved over, the chances of scoring went down. Similarly, a runner on second with no outs meant that teams scored 1.14 runs on average, whereas hit a grounder to the right side and “productively” move that sucker over, and the run expectation drops to .97. Now, it is preferable to have the runner at second with one out (.69) then it is at first with one out, that is, having received a “non-productive” out (.53), so the productive out would be worth .16 of a run. That’s nice, but it’s such a small thing that it doesn’t really mean anything, doesn’t add up into anything you can see in the final record.

If the Yankees can be credited with having a high total of such outs, it is because they had a high total of runners on base. Scoring is the result of reaching base and making extra-base hits, not making outs. All this stuff about productive outs is purely imaginary corn for suckers, and TBS embracing it is just one more embarrassment for an amateurish production.  

I BELIEVE IT IS A CHAT OR AN ELEPHANT

I’m not certain, but I believe that I and some Baseball Prospectus colleagues will be hosting a live chat during this evenings Phillies-Rockies game. Drop by BP.com around game-time for more info.

A postseason thriller for the ages

teix250.jpgYANKEES CLASSIC
This was one for the ages, a nail-biter all the way through, a game with clutch failures and successes, controversial moments. As I write this, the game has been over for about an hour and I don’t feel like I’ve absorbed all of it; I feel like I should watch it again right away, like a great movie you need to go through one more time to make sure you caught all the important lines.

There were many reasons why the Yankees should not have won this game. The Twins reached base by hit, walk, or hit batsman 21 times, the Yankees only 10 times. The Twins stranded every runner in baseball history this side of Goose Goslin. If Kirby Puckett were still alive, they would have stranded him, too. Rickey Henderson in his prime could not have scored for the Twins on this particular night. Part of that is a reflection of the depth of the Yankees’ bullpen, which is undergoing a kind of trial by fire; some of it is bad luck for the Twins and good luck for the Yankees; a big bit of it might have been a blown call by an umpire.

Much of it, though, was purely magical, the culmination of stories long brewing in the Bronx. Alex Rodriguez had two big hits and looks so mellow that you expect to see him turning up at Bernie Williams’ next cool jazz concert sitting in on the pan flute. If Mark Teixeira’s excellent regular season hadn’t earned him his “True Yankee” badge, he won it tonight with his walk-off shot. Rodriguez and Teixeira hit their shots off one of the top two closers in the league and an up-and-comer who may soon aspire to that status, respectively. We also saw the arrival of David Robertson as a bullpen force to be reckoned with. No Edwar-dian flash in the pan, Robertson was on the verge of establishing himself as a late-inning alternative to Phil Hughes when elbow troubles halted his progress. After pitching out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam tonight, it seems likely he’s back on the path towards replacing Hughes in the eighth inning when the latter graduates (back) to the starting rotation next year. First, though, we may see more good things from this 24-year-old, a 17th-round pick of the Yankees in 2006.

So you had heroism, but you also had the Twins failing to execute. Last week, when I wrote up my hypothetical awards ballot, one reader took me to task in the comments for failing to include Ron Gardenhire. I’m not a Gardenhire fan, and we saw why tonight. Gardenhire has undoubtedly achieved something in posting a .547 record and five postseason appearances in eight years as Twins manager given just how little ownership supports that team. The Twins do not sign big free agents and they rarely make a big effort at the trading deadline (this year they did reach for Jon Rauch and Orlando Cabrera, though more was needed). The Twins try to mask their complacent approach by hyping themselves as paragons of fundamental baseball. Yet, when you see them in a big spot, they don’t carry through. Their defense shakes, they get caught up in one-run strategies, and they go home. The Twins should not have been expected to win this series against the Yankees, and they almost certainly will not. They should, however, be expected to win the games that they can win, and Friday night’s contest was one of those that was gift-wrapped for them. Instead, they ran into outs, threw away balls, and helped the Yankees stay alive.

A last note: in my pre-game entry, I challenged Joe Girardi to get Jose Molina out of the game as soon as possible so as to minimize the downside of using him. This he did at the first opportunity. Indeed, he used all three of his catchers, also pinch-running for Jorge Posada in the tenth. All credit to the Yankee skipper for making the obvious strategic calls. That sounds like a weak compliment, but most managers never get that far.  

AND ONE MORE THING

Not meaning to jump on the now famously mal-informed TBS broadcast crew, but Ron Darling said that Nick Swisher was primarily a designated hitter and first baseman with the White Sox. In fact, he played 97 games in the outfield for the Sox, played first base 71 times, and did not DH once. Not ever. None. Indeed, Swisher has always been a fielder, DHing exactly 10 times in his career.

FINALLY…

At this writing, the Angels are up on the Red Sox late. A Yankees-Angels ALCS sounds scary given the history between the two teams, but given seven games and home field advantage, the Yankees will take that series on pitching depth every time.  Before I attempt to defend that statement, let’s see if we actually get there. Due to the glacial pace of these series, there’s a Marco Polo road-trip’s worth of off days before we’ll get any resolution.