Results tagged ‘ A.J. Burnett ’

The garden of Halladay

halladay_250_111909.jpgSince new Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos let it be known that he would not object to trading Roy Halladay within the American League East, there has been much speculation about another Yankees-Red Sox competition for the veteran right-hander’s services. If true, this almost ensures that Halladay will be traded in the division, because these are two teams deep in resources who will be motivated to top each other, thus escalating their offers above and beyond what teams outside the division would be willing to offer.

This news is both exhilarating and depressing. The Yankees just won a World Series by leaning on three starters, and their 2010 rotation is unsettled beyond CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Halladay is one of the best starters in the game and an additional asset in new Yankee Stadium given his groundball tendencies. The depressing part is that Halladay will cost a lot, particularly if the Red Sox and other teams are bidding up the price. It would be sad to see Phil Hughes and Jesus Montero blossom in a Blue Jays uniform. Halladay will be 33 next year, while Montero will be 20, so even if Halladay spends the next five years in pinstripes, Montero will still be in his prime for years after the Doc has checked out.

The “other hand” to that is that flags fly forever, and maybe you trade 20 years of Montero for two more World Series appearances with the present group. Perhaps by that time there will be some other Montero around to distract from the 30 homers a year the original is hitting at the Rogers Centre. On yet another hand (the fifteenth hand, I believe), the Yankees’ position players are rapidly aging, and keeping a player like Montero around may help keep them competitive in ways beyond what Halladay might contribute. We’re lost in Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths here.

Were the Yankees to let the cup of Halladay pass from their lips, it might not be a bad thing. The odds are that Hughes or whoever the Yankees might trade won’t develop into a Cy Young pitcher of Halladay’s caliber, but they might, or might be good enough that the Yankees prosper anyway. Hughes will be 24 next year. In seven years he’ll be 31. Seven years from now, Halladay could be on the golf course 12 months a year. Were he to go to the Red Sox it would be a tough thing, as Halladay has pitched very well against the Yankees over the years (though not nearly so well against the Red Sox), but like the Yankees, the Red Sox have problems that Halladay can’t solve; in fact the same problem, an aging roster. The replacements that Theo Epstein trades for Halladay in December he might need by July.

Here’s another argument for trading for Halladay: Commissioner Selig and his umbrella Perkins say that each postseason series will not have 43 days off between games next year, with no series running less than six weeks each. As such, were the Yankees again to make it to October with just three trustworthy starters, Coffee Joe could not get around it by starting the Golden Trio on short rest–that fourth starter would almost certainly come into play. In addition, the same relievers could not be used in every game. If Halladay gives you anything, he gives you length, so he would be a help to any team trying to work through a more reasonable schedule.

And then there’s the Mayan calendar. If that’s right, then none of this matters anyway.

ANGELS PATRONIZED

I’m offended by the notion that what put Mike Scioscia on top for the American League Manager of the Year award is that his team succeeded despite Nick Adenahrt’s death. Adenhart’s death was tragic and futile, and no doubt the young men of the Angels’ organization were deeply affected. That said, I have more faith in the professionalism of the ballplayers on that team, a fairly seasoned lot, than to believe they would have packed it in on April 9 for any reason, no matter how upsetting.

Further, as one who deals with existentially-flavored depression on a fairly regular basis, I find it impossible to believe that any manager, Scioscia, Joe Girardi, Joe Torre, Connie Mack, John McGraw, could jolly anyone out of a true bout of sadness. Words just don’t mean that much when you’re staring into the abyss. Nor has anyone said that Scioscia held individual counseling sessions or did anything out of the norm except report to work and keep making out his lineup cards. What else can you do in such a situation except keep playing?

Finally, in the most basic baseball sense of things, the loss of Adenhart was not necessarily something decisive the Angels had to overcome. While he was projected to be a big part of the team, and certainly had talent, he had not yet established himself in the Majors. In the same way that Joba Chamberlain or Hughes has advanced one foot and retreated two, Adenhart might have had steps back in his future. Certainly his Minor League record suggests that would have been the case.

The Angels had many such baseball situations that they had to work through to get to the postseason. Howie Kendrick slumped early. Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter got hurt, as did John Lackey, Ervin Santana and key bullpen piece Scot Shields. Brian Fuentes was always a blown save away from losing his job. At the same time, they were also the only really solid team in a weak division, something you can’t say about Girardi’s Yankees and Terry Francona’s Red Sox, both of which had their own baseball-oriented problems to deal with. They didn’t have to confront death, and that’s something we can all be thankful for, but just because Scioscia’s team did have that occur doesn’t necessarily make him the best manager in the league last year. Treating Adenhart’s untimely demise as an excuse to lionize a manager is both trivializing and exploitative.

MORE OF ME, SORT OF
Last weekend, NPR had a “Write a song” contest. I was too swamped by the Baseball Prospectus annual to do much more than kibbitz about a few words in the item ultimately entered by my songwriting partnership, but perhaps that was a blessing to the song that was ultimately created. If you’re interested in a completely different and heretofore unpublicized aspect of my creative output (as here embodied by my collaborator, Dr. Rick Mohring), you can find it on the scroll list halfway down the page under the name “Casual Observer.” I hope you enjoy listening to our “Carrie and Pierre.”

Sights and sounds from Citizens Bank

COUNTING OUT TIME
You ever see everything wrong with a team come out in one game? There isn’t a lot wrong with the Yankees. The team won 103 games in the regular season and 10 more in the postseason so far. They’re one win away from a World Series title. And yet, no team is perfect, and most of the weaknesses that the Yankees have bit them all at once in Game 5:  

? Last winter, the Yankees were perceived to have paid too high a price for A.J. Burnett, because at times he fumbles on the mound like a schoolboy on his first date, and at others he has not been available at all. Given those negatives, only the Yankees were willing to pay a premium for all the good stuff in between. Last night, they got the schoolboy, the guy who can’t find the zone. As Peter Gabriel sang in “Counting Out Time,” “Better get [his] money back from the bookstore right away.”

I don’t think this was Burnett on short rest (something he hadn’t done this year, though he had a few times in 2008); I think it was just Burnett being Burnett. Still, let us say this: If we say Burnett, or (in the future) Andy Pettitte, or CC Sabathia did not pitched well on short rest for reasons other than the missing day, we’re making an assumption — we can’t know the real answer one way or another. No one can. That said, can we ask if the decision to change the pitchers’ routines was inevitable based on the talent the Yankees have on hand? Heck yes, we can ask, and heck no, it was not inevitable. The “rise” of Sergio Mitre coincided with the infliction of the bizarre and ever-changing Joba Rules II. Had the Yankees been less interested in giving Mitre chance after botched chance, and more alert to other options, such as pulling Alfredo Aceves and his low-leverage innings out of the bullpen (there is another righty long reliever out there) or (dare I say) stop worrying about the eighth inning and let Phil Hughes start, and the Yankees might have had another rotation option now. As things are presently constructed, Girardi has no choice but to push. Had different avenues been pursued beginning three months ago, it might be different now. It is precisely because you cannot precisely anticipate the contingencies that future events might require that I go on and on about seemingly insignificant matters like the Yankees throwing away every fifth start on a punching bag — that punching bag could have been a postseason contributor. Complacency, as the saying goes, sucks.

coke220_110309.jpg? Phil Coke is exceptionally home run-prone. In the regular season, he had the 12th-highest rate of home runs allowed per nine innings in the big leagues, relievers who pitched 50 or more innings. Even with Damaso Marte hurting, the Yankees had other options in the Minors. They didn’t try them. Coke’s inability to retire left-handed hitters Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez gave the Phillies the cushion they needed. Remember, the Yankees didn’t need to beat Cliff Lee, they only needed to keep the game close enough that they could beat the Phillies’ relievers. That is almost what happened but for Derek Jeter’s ill-timed double play (with Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui on the bases, Ryan Madson’s mild ground-ball tendencies, and Jeter’s own high percentage of ground ball double plays, this was pretty much as close to an inevitability as you can get) and Coke’s largesse. A home run is a home run, but Ibanez’s shot, one of the longest I have ever seen in person, really sums up the problem with Coke.

? There’s a flipside to Coke’s performance, which is that the fellow has pitched 2.2 innings in the last month, having been pushed to the back of the reliever line by Girardi. I’m not making excuses for Coke, who as I pointed out above, has a tendency to get hit for airline-like distance. Still, it is hard to believe a pitcher can stay sharp on that basis. I also felt — and as for everything here, this was something I first-guessed at the ballpark — that the Yankees could have used a bit more Coffee Joe on Monday. Burnett gave up three runs in the first inning, walked Jimmy Rollins in the second, and opened the third with two walks. We’ve all been down this road with Burnett before; it was spectacularly unlikely that things were going to get better before they got worse. Burnett should have been pulled right after ball four to Ryan Howard. Instead, he remained to pitch to Jayson Werth, giving up a ground-ball single. He also pitched to the next batter, Ibanez, which was two batters too many. By the time Girardi got out of the dugout, the inning was out of hand.

ONE OTHER NOTE, WHOLLY SARCASTIC AND GREATLY BITTER
It sure is too bad that Mark Teixeira was too injured to play in this series and the Yankees had to play some nameless Triple-A guy at first base, Doug Miranda-something. Doug has a good glove, but man, he can’t hit at all. I know Teixeira is trying his best to get back into the lineup before the series ends, but he’s running out of time.

TOMMY’S HOLIDAY CAMP

I had the good fortune to attend Game 5 in the company of a cadre of Yankees employees, who did their level best to root the Yankees on in a highly hostile environment, one marked by a state of denial inhabited by approximately 45,000. It’s fair to chant “A-Rod sucks,” if not particularly original, but if A-Rod sucks, how the heck do you characterize Ryan Howard? Gamesmanship is swell, but let’s maintain at least a slight tether to reality.

employees320.jpgLet it not be said that the Yankees’ staff lacks a sense of humor. If you’ve been to the new Yankee Stadium, you’ve seen those ballpark flight attendants carrying “May I help you?” signs with the Yankees’ logo on them. The staffers appropriated these for the ballgame, and frantically waived them whenever the Yankees came to bat or took the field (the photo is from the top of the first). The Phillies fans loved this and chuckled kindly at the New Yorkers’ amusing antics. Or something like that. One Phillies follower shouted, “Go back to your apartments!” I think might have been an attempt at class warfare, though not a very wise one. Does he know what those apartments are worth? There were other comments, some wholly inappropriate in any venue, and mostly went to underscore why I rarely attend games as a civilian — drunk people say and do stupid things. I got to my seat at about 5:50 p.m., or two hours before game time. The beer vendors were already working the stands.

Human beings, tough to tolerate anywhere, aside, I enjoyed Citizens Bank Park. The interior design is industrial, featuring brick, high metal catwalks, and exposed girders. The effect is of going to see the world’s most highfalutin factory team. This is both sad and amusing, as America distinctly lacks factories these days. In that sense, CBP isn’t a throwback ballpark, it’s throwback Americana, the playground of Ozymandias the Industrialist. It’s as if Rome had a team and they built a replica Colosseum, complete with missing walls and fractured statures. “Celebrate the grandeur that was the empire! Have a hot dog!” As I walked through this memorial to Philadelphia’s receding industrial past, down concourses that would have been wide had they not been stuffed with choke points due to various vendors, displays, and a sit-down restaurant, I kept imagining a sign that said, “If you worked here, your job would be in China by now.” There has always been a school of thought that criticized America’s predilection for creating faux experiences in place of actual ones. Disney architecture, with its miniaturized versions of actual places, is supposed to be th
e height of this tendency to vulgarize the real, creating facades that  trivialize and sanitize without providing any illumination. I never felt that way before. CBP made me empathize for the first time.

hopp250_110309.jpgJust as I was mulling these things over, two men in business suits pushed past me. One was tall and heavy, the other short and thin. It was kind of a Mutt and Jeff cartoon come to life. The taller one was carrying a huge, overstuffed cheesesteak sandwich in his giant paw. The shorter man looked down at it. “How can you do that in this economy?” he asked. The big man strode away, the shorter one hastening to keep up. At that moment, the ballpark PA system blasted a cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma:” Instant Karma’s gonna get you… Gonna knock you off your feet… Better recognize your bothers: Everyone you meet… My favorite moments in life are the ones in which the universe acts as your iPod.

I spent a few minutes at the Phillies’ MLB-authenticated collectables booth. An autographed Jayson Werth ball (regular season) will set you back $60. Brad Lidge will bite you for $125. Happy people in red drifted past, holding hot dogs the size of my forearm.

On the whole, though, CBP seems like a fair place to see a ballgame, and probably a friendlier one on days in which the championship is not at stake and fewer Yankees are waiving “Can I help you?” signs around. You can see a few things not evident at Yankee Stadium, like fans standing along the railings during batting practice. Also, note the woman in the lower right-hand corner. Is her jersey:

A)    A tribute to Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ, misnumbered and misspelled?
B)    A tribute to 1940s outfielder/first baseman Johnny Hopp who never played for the Phillies but did play, briefly, for the Yankees?
C)    A tribute to rabbits, who both hop and breed frequently, hence the high number?
D)    Just a boring personalization?

I never did find out. I should have approached her with a “Can you help me?” sign. Finally, I never did find McFadden’s Restroom, but it sounds enchanting, the Fiddler’s Green of bathrooms.
mcfaddens200_110309.jpg

 

The real Burnett stands up

My friend and colleague Stephanie Bee suggested that I write up World Series Game 2 as follows:

1. Mo was a bit over-used
2. Jeter shouldn’t have bunted
3. Burnett was brilliant
4. Umps still [expletive]

That seems like a fair rundown to me, though while my temptation is to cavil about numbers two and four, it’s probably best to stick with one and three. Actually, four is just a fact of life, and will be until Major League Baseball accepts that replay in baseball games need not be the Supreme Court hearing that is replay in the NFL and opts for having the most accurate baseball game possible, we’re going to have to live with cloddish umps. There are fewer things happening at once in most baseball replays than in football. Balls are caught or not, fair or foul. It’s not “did the wide receiver have his toes in bounds as he was/was not juggling the ball and did it cross the plane of the goal line or didn’t it?” One replay umpire stationed off the field could have overturned Ryan Howard’s non-catch in 10 seconds.

As for Jeter’s non-bunt, although the Old Captain is top-20 in double play percentage (17 percent of his chances, worst on the Yankees) giving away outs, as opposed to gambling on the better than 80 percent chance that a very good hitter WON’T hit into one, is not good managing. It was a poor decision by Joe Girardi which Jeter doubled down on by bunting foul with two strikes.

burnett_275_103009.jpgThose two items dispensed with, on to the better stuff. On A.J. Burnett’s loss/no-decision days this summer, he walked 4.8 batters per nine innings. When he won, it was only 3.4. Therein lies the sign of a happy curveball or an unhappy curveball. On Thursday night, the curveball was happy, and thereby were the Phillies made unhappy.

It’s the most basic of all human relationships. If only Burnett could be the pitcher he was Thursday night a tad more often, and had had more health — well, never mind. If your grandmother had wheels she’d be a wagon, and if Burnett had health and consistency he wouldn’t be what he is, and that’s plenty good in six starts out of 10. You just have to hope that the other four don’t come at important times.

With the help of umpire Jeff Nelson’s roomy strike zone, Burnett walked just two and struck out nine. In the game’s Nelson umpired this year, the number of strikeouts were average or even a bit below, so it’s puzzling that he gave the pitchers so much room off the plate. Still, he was consistent in having a wide zone for both teams, but for a pitcher like Burnett that little bit of generosity goes a long way. I’m not trying to diminish what Burnett did — he saved the World Series from getting out of hand — but the confluence of umpire and pitcher could not have been more perfectly timed.

During the YES postgame, one of the Yankees’ players (Jeter, I believe) was asked how it felt to know that Girardi had the “confidence” to use Mariano Rivera for two full innings. The choice of term was ironic, as Girardi was really expressing a lack of confidence in any of his other relievers. Insomuch as Game 2 was a must win, it wasn’t a bad call, but you have to question how long Rivera can keep this up. He threw 39 pitches, another high for the year, and though Girardi said in his postgame press conference that he didn’t ask Rivera to do this all year precisely so he could do it now, I’m not sure that that reasoning makes very much sense.

You’re talking about a 40-year-old guy who averaged 16 pitches per appearance this year more than doubling up his pitch counts. Given the lack of an off day between Games 3 through 5, can you really expect him to keep that up? Moreover, can you expect Rivera, a one-trick pony — it’s a wonderful trick, but it’s still just one — to keep fooling the Phillies at that rate of exposure? Andy Pettitte averaged 102 pitches per start this year and his 6.1 innings in each of his ALCS starts were the deepest into a game he’s pitched since August, plus there’s pinch-hitting for pitchers to consider in the National League park.

All of this means that Girardi is going to have to confront his bullpen problems as soon as Saturday. Rivera won’t be able to carry the whole load in Game 3, and maybe not in any of the games in Philadelphia. We will see if anyone else stands up to shoulder his burden. 

In-game management of Molina-Burnett critical

GAME, WEATHER PERMITTING…
And really, what isn’t?

posada_275_100909.jpgI DREAMED I SAW ST. POSADA
There will be a lot of cheap material in the papers and on-line today, stuff about Jose Molina starting Game 2 and Carl Pavano starting in Game 3. After Jorge Posada’s erratic defensive game on Wednesday, it seems to me that it’s harder to criticize Joe Girardi for going with Molina, as egregious as Molina is at the plate. Perhaps Posada’s game was just a case of bad timing, perhaps Girardi’s decision is simply his reenacting the active player phase of his career, when Joe Torre frequently chose the Yankees’ then-Molina — that is, Girardi himself.

Posada gets it twice from the same guy, and in that sense you can’t help but empathize with his frustration. The drag here is that Nick Blackburn is the kind of ball-in-play pitcher that Posada conceivably could have damaged. Strangely, the two have never met in a baseball game, but Blackburn doesn’t strike out many and also allows his share of fly balls, all of which adds up to a nice recipe for runs in Yankee Stadium II. Molina will likely put the ball in play as well, but a lot less happens when he does. This year he hit .264 on balls in play, a slight improvement on last season, when he hit .255. This is actually kind of hard to do; the Major League average this year was about .303.

Despite this, if Girardi observed a difference in Burnett in those late-August/early-September in which the two catchers alternated, this is the right call. The Twins are not a big offensive team, and while this kind of move might sabotage the Yankees if it was carried out over the basis of 25 or 50 games (that is, benching Posada), in one game the Yankees can carry Molina’s bat. Given that the Yankees are carrying three catchers, another decision that would be problematic over the course of the regular season, Girardi can pinch-hit for Molina at any time.

That last is really the key. If Girardi is going to go with a glove man, he needs to channel a bit of Casey Stengel and be ready to pinch-hit as soon as the last notes of the National Anthem sounds. If it’s 0-0 in the third, the bases are loaded, and Molina is up, well, better Burnett struggles with Posada’s defensive deficiencies with a 4-0 lead than Molina and three runners stranded. It’s unconventional, but Francisco Cervelli’s presence sets Girardi up perfectly to manage aggressively. Heck, he could even pinch-hit Eric Hinske instead of Posada and put the highly mobile Cervelli into the game. Posada might pop a blood vessel, but Girardi’s defensive imperatives will be satisfied.

Starting Molina is in itself not a bad decision; Burnett might struggle anyway and it would still be a defensible call. It’s what Girardi does after that will make it a good call or a bad one. He can use Molina to the point that his negatives outweigh his positives and then dispense with him or he can let the offense be strangled in a key spot. Very few managers would feel secure enough to pull the trigger in that spot, but then, there are very few great managers.

Catching Burnett

POSADA VS. BURNETT
Rob Neyer has it right: if Joe Girardi truly feels that A.J. Burnett is going to pitch better with Jose Molina receiving his pitches, then he has little choice but to bench Jorge Posada despite the huge offensive difference between the two catchers. Burnett is a highly variable pitcher. When he’s on, he’s unhittable. When he’s off, he walks the ballpark and gets pounded. Posada did most of the catching for Burnett at midseason (with some Kevin Cash and Frankie Cervelli throw in). They had the usual mix of good starts and bad, but things seem to have changed in late August after a three-start sequence in which two Posada games bracketed a Molina game. Burnett was savaged in the Posada starts, but struck out 12 Rangers in the Molina start (August 27). That seems to have convinced Burnett or Girardi or someone, because the Burnett’s final six starts were taken by Molina. Burnett’s ERA in those starts was 2.92, so clearly something was working.

The Yankees should survive three Molina at-bats in one playoff game, but this does raise an interesting question for next year. Molina’s contract is up and Cervelli is clearly ready to contribute at roughly the same level as Molina does now. It would be a shame if the Yankees retained Molina just to cater to the whims of one pitcher. And before anyone suggests as an alternative that Posada replace Hideki Matsui as designated hitter while Molina and Cervelli handle the bulk of the catching, keep in mind that the offensive loss would be disastrous.

The Understudies

bradpitt_250_092409.jpgEver go to a Broadway play to see a famous actor in a part, only to have the guy not show up? You’ve dropped some serious dough on Brad Pitt as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (work with me here). As you’re sitting in your seat waiting for the lights to go down, a little slip of paper flutters out of your Playbill. It says, “For tonight’s performance, the part of Willy Loman, normally played by Brad Pitt, will be played by Ethel Birnbaum.” You are, at the very least, nonplussed.

Wednesday’s game had the feeling of an Ethel Birnbaum performance. For reasons of necessity, Joe Girardi started only about half of his normal lineup. There was no Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher, and once the game was turned over to the bullpen — perhaps a bit hastily — there was no Phil Hughes. That the Yankees won in spite of these sacrifices is one of those “any given day” hand-outs that sports, and that Flying Dutchman of a pitcher A.J. Burnett, can grant.

I am reminded of an occasion during Casey Stengel’s Minor League managerial career when, desperate for a starter, he called on a pitcher lacking the stuff to break the proverbial pane of glass, and won. “Casey,” said the opposing manager, “I think you’re underestimating this league.” Girardi wasn’t guilty of that; he had his reasons, but the effect was the same. You wouldn’t want to try this again unless you had to, especially not against the Angels.

DEAR JOE GIRARDI
Sir:

gardner_250_092409.jpgCan we please have more Brett Gardner? By this I am not asking that he make even more appearances as a pinch-runner or defensive substitute, but that he be given more starting assignments now and into the playoffs. He’s not dramatically more productive than Melky Cabrera is, but as we saw on Tuesday in Anaheim, his style of play can be a welcome change of pace from the usual Earl Weaver-style approach employed by the Yankees.

Now, I’m the last one to ever criticize Weaver-style on-base ‘n’ bash baseball, because I believe it is the most effective form of offense there is. You could almost say I’m religious about it, Joe. Yet, even Earl employed his base-stealers, players like Paul Blair, Don Buford, Al Bumbry and Don Baylor, who in his younger, more svelte period swiped 30 bases a year for Team Baltimore. Even Reggie Jackson swiped 28 bags his one year in the Crab Kingdom, a career high. Earl’s 1973 team even led the league, hard as that is to believe.

See, it wasn’t that Earl totally disdained the stolen base. He saw it as a tactical weapon, one to be used sparingly rather than fetishized. And if the base-stealer in question does some other things, like takes the odd walk and plays solid defense, well, Earl had his Mark Belanger, after all. Gardner is no Belanger, Joe. My point is our particular offensive cult does permit this kind of messing around with speed guys; as long as two guys are on when the home run hitters come up, we’re okay. Gardner would seem to provide your best option for getting that out of your center fielder.

As for the power you would be giving up, there’s not a whole lot there on Cabrera’s part, and its loss should be offset by Gardner’s larger contribution on defense, on the bases, and of course from his reaching base more often. Cabrera is a groundball hitter, and his current 12 home runs seems to be around the upper limit of his power. Sure, he gets into stretches where he gets a little more loft on the ball, resulting in his bunching four of his home runs into the month of April, but outside of those hot streaks the power production comes down to one or two home runs a month.

That’s not a lot to sacrifice given what’s being gained. And here’s another bonus: both Gardner and Cabrera hit a ton of ground balls, but the latter’s speed is unexceptional, resulting in a high percentage of double plays. The Major League average hitter (the number is almost the same in both leagues) hits into a double play in about 11 percent of his chances. Cabrera hits into one 14 percent of the time. Gardner, with his speed, hits into one only seven percent of the time. Over the course of a full season this is a gain of many outs. This is why, despite the gap in home runs, Gardner is creating 5.5 runs per 27 outs, while Cabrera trails at 4.7. Over a full season, this would work out to at least one added win, and that’s without considering defense. Speaking of which, most metrics agree that Gardner is the rangier fielder. I would say that most naked eyes agree as well, but I can only speak for myself, and being down one eye, I should probably leave that assessment to others not part of the Greater New Jersey Order of Cyclopians.

I understand why you’ve been reluctant to start Gardner of late; he had just come off the disabled list, and maybe his thumb isn’t up to the daily pounding. Cabrera would also seem to have “won” the job while Gardner was gone, but in truth, his recent production has been nothing special. He’s hit .255/.318/.382 in the second half, .243/.299/.361 in August-September. Cabrera is also getting to the point in his career where he’s going to cost the Yankees some significant dollars (he’s in his arbitration years), and given that the budget has proved to be only semi-infinite it would probably be a good idea to get Gardner established so the front office knows the full extent of its flexibility. Perhaps a Gardner/Austin Jackson combination next year will be just as good as a Gardner/Cabrera combination. In that case: voila, instant trade bait! Instant payroll reduction! This sounds like the best of all worlds to me.

Thank you for giving this matter your full attention.

Very Truly Yours,
Ethel Birnbaum

Gaudin to the rescue?

I WANT TO BANG THIS GONG ONE MORE TIME …
… Because sometimes I just don’t understand the thinking that goes into certain decisions. Today, the (sadly) Boston-bound Pete Abraham reports that not only is Chad Gaudin now in the starting rotation in place of Sergio Mitre, but if he pitches well he has a shot to be in the postseason rotation ahead of Joba Chamberlain:

With Chamberlain not pitching well, Gaudin has emerged as a candidate should the Yankees need a No. 4 starter at some point in the playoffs. Manager Joe Girardi nodded enthusiastically when asked if Gaudin had that chance.

“He sure does,” Girardi said in the dugout Monday night before the Yankees played the Angels. “He’s obviously in the mix or he wouldn’t be starting for us. We went out and got Chad because we felt that he could help us down the stretch and in the postseason, and he has pitched pretty well. He has done a very good job.”

What I can’ t figure out is that if Gaudin was such an important acquisition for the Yankees, why has he done so much sitting around? I’m not trying to pretend that Gaudin is the next Walter Johnson, because we’re talking about a 26-year-old who has a 4.53 ERA in about 600 Major League innings and averages four walks per nine innings. Still, he was a more likely candidate for the fifth starter’s spot, and perhaps even the fourth, than the other fellows the Yankees insisted on using. Let’s review.

Chad Gaudin has pitched only 29.1 innings for the Yankees. He was acquired on August 6 and then didn’t pitch for six days. He didn’t start for almost two weeks, getting his first assignment on August 19 at Oakland. After pitching 4.1 one-hit innings in the game (albeit with five walks), he headed back to the bullpen, not starting again until September 3. He made his third start five days later, but eight days went by before he made his fourth start. Consider what the other Yankees starters have done in that time, and if there was perhaps a place for Gaudin to get a shot at starting:

CC Sabathia has made nine starts with an ERA of 1.79 in 65.1 innings. The team went 9-0 in those games. Hmm. You probably wouldn’t want to pull CC out of the rotation.

A.J. Burnett made nine starts with an ERA of 4.97 in 58 innings. The team went 4-5. This is something of a downer, but opponents have hit only .257/.335/.428 (everyone is Melky Cabrera), which isn’t quite the same as being bombed, plus he’s mixed some good starts in there. Let’s move on.

Andy Pettitte made eight starts, skipping one to rest his shoulder. His ERA was 3.60 in 50 innings, and opponents hit .214. The team went 6-2. No problems here, assuming all the parts are in place.

Joba Chamberlain, kneecapped by his Rules or mechanical problems, or some combination thereof, made eight starts and pitched 31 innings with an ERA of 8.42. Opponents hit .331/.396/.496, which means the average hitter against Joba in this period was Rod Carew. The team went 4-4 since they had turned Joba’s starts into bad relief appearances. This is the only reason you can’t say, “There’s no way the Yankees could have gotten a worse result short of shooting the pitcher themselves.”

Sergio Mitre joined the rotation on July 21 and was started religiously every five days through late August. At the time Gaudin was acquired, Mitre had made four starts and had posted an ERA of 7.50 in 18 innings. He had given up 32 hits and opponents were hitting like Ted Williams, batting .395/.432/.506. Despite the alternative provided by Gaudin, Mitre kept taking his turn in the pulpit. In his next six games before finally being pulled from the rotation, the greatest Yankee named Sergio (also the only Yankee named Sergio) improved his results, the averages against him dropping to a still-miserable .301/.343/.553. His ERA for 28 innings was 7.71. The team record in those games was 3-3. The Yankees actually went 5-4 in Mitre starts, which is (A) a bit lower than a team like the Yankees wants to perform and (B) a reflection of the quality of Mitre’s opponents, teams that let the Yankees back into some games they might have been out of had they been playing a playoff-level opponent.

The Yankees had ample proof that Mitre couldn’t pitch before they got Gaudin, and two appearances since (one starting, one relieving) notwithstanding, he hasn’t given them much argument to the contrary. They could also see Joba, the potential fourth starter in the playoffs, or even third starter if Pettitte’s shoulder continues to trouble him, disintegrating. Yet Gaudin has always been on hold for a rainy day that the Yankees never accepted was here, even though it poured baseballs every time Mitre pitched. Now, with a fraction of the season left and so many games wasted, the guy is supposed to ride to the rescue.

I would tell you what the decision tree that must have led to this point must have been if only I could perceive it myself.

ON YESTERDAY’S MELKY MADNESS
melky286_092209.jpgJudging from the reaction to yesterday’s entry, I did a poor job of making myself clear. My intention was to be forward-looking. I was not suggesting that Cabrera’s performance was overly hindering the 2009 Yankees or was a reason they might fall out of the playoffs or fail to save the world when Galactus comes, or anything like that. The 2009 Yankees have their offense pretty much squared away, and while Melky’s 95 OPS+ isn’t a big part of that, it’s good enough under the circumstances. Despite the current rough stretch, I’m not encouraging panic about the team’s chances, though if they punt away home-field advantage, I might change my position on that.

My point was meant to pertain to next season. The Yankees are an old team. Jorge Posada has been great this year, but next year he’ll be 38 and you can’t keep expecting greatness. You can say the same thing about Derek Jeter and A-Rod and Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, assuming either or both of them come back. Heck, you could say it if they were in their 20s instead of their 30s, because life is unpredictable, but there would be less reason to worry about it. Because of the unsettled state of things, because it is hard to imagine next year’s offense being of the same quality as this year’s offense, the Yankees may need to get more out of center field. That is, they can’t just assume that other positions will make up for whatever sorta-decent to sub-decent things that Cabrera or Brett Gardner might do. As such, if there’s a “Don’t Look at This Until Spring” pile that Brian Cashman has, which one would assume includes Mark Teixeira and first base, Sabathia as No. 1 starter, etc, center field  should not be on it. It is reasonable to suggest that if other positions, within and without the outfield, are going to decline, center field may have to go up. If the Yankees are satisfied, viewing Melky in isolation, that won’t happen.

That was my major point. It had naught to do with 2009. No doubt the current Yankees would do better if Joe DiMaggio was available to play center, but he’s not strictly necessary at the moment.

Responsibility must be with Burnett

ONE AND ONE
Friday was a sort of good Yankees day (great hitting, no pitching) and Saturday was a very bad Yankees day, which sounds like some kind of weird children’s story: “Jorge Posada and the Rumpy Grumpy Starting Pitcher.”

It does seem like Posada has had more than his share of disagreements with his starters this year, but in many ways there is a culture clash at work with the Yankees in a minor key way. The team has a new pitching staff. Few of the current pitchers — CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, David Robertson, Chad Gaudin, Damaso Marte, and Sergio Mitre (that is, just about everyone except Andy Pettitte and Brian Bruney) — have much experience being Yankees and throwing to Posada. The veterans among them have their own way of doing things. The rookies may be headstrong or timid. Posada, one senses (at least from trying to talk with him in the clubhouse), may not be the most diplomatic guy in the world. You can see how this could lead to conflict on those days when defeat wants to be an orphan. Suddenly it’s not what the pitcher threw, but what the catcher called.

When it comes to an established veteran like Burnett, the final responsibility must be with him. He certainly has the standing on the Yankees to call his own game. It’s not important that he disagrees with Posada, only that he either shake Posada off until they come to an agreement (that is, doing it Burnett’s way) or Burnett throws Posada’s selection with confidence. An in-between approach — resignedly throwing Posada’s pitch — can lead to disaster, apparently what happened yesterday.

Perhaps, though, we need not delve that far to find the source of Saturday’s discord. Burnett has rarely been a consistent pitcher. There are days his control just doesn’t show up for work, one of the reasons he currently leads the American League in walks issued. This has been a career-long problem for Burnett, and blaming his catcher would be unfair given just how many catchers have received his pitches on days like Saturday. Note that Burnett did not blame Posada. We shouldn’t either.

SWISHER’S WEIRD SPLITS
If you average Nick Swisher’s 2008 road stats with his 2009 home stats, you get .198/.343/.309. Miserable. If you put last year’s home stats with this year’s road stats, you get .263/.363/.552. Brilliant. I have no further comment, except to say that if the fellow could just get his concentration down in both places, he could have a 40-homer season. Of course, that he hasn’t is why he was available to the Yankees for Wilson Betamax. As with Burnett’s occasional wild days, Swisher’s oddly bifurcated production represent the invisible hand of human psychology at work on the game. 

Yankees could get Washburn-ed in trade

washburn_250.jpgIn one of those unrequited love affairs that never seems to end, John Heyman reports that the Yankees have made inquiries about the availability of Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. The Yankees are naturally impressed by Washburn given that he pitches like a Cy Young winner whenever they see him. Though his record against the Bombers is only 5-6 in 13 career starts, his ERA is just 2.76. If they’ve beaten him, it’s because he likes to give up home runs, and they like to hit them, but since he hasn’t allowed them many walks or hits overall, the overall scoring has been kept to a minimum.

Sergio Mitre doesn’t seem like much of an answer to the fifth spot in the rotation, and they are understandably nervous about pulling Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves out of the bullpen, though these worries may ultimately be self-defeating. The Yankees might be able to get through the remainder of the campaign without a reliable fifth starter, and they can certainly make it through the playoffs without ever calling the fifth starter’s name, but it might not be a fifth starter they really need. They might need something more. CC Sabathia has been inconsistent, Andy Pettitte alternates good starts and bad, with the result that his ERA since April is 5.17, and the Yankees also have to worry about Joba Chamberlain hitting a wall in September (whether through an innings limit or fatigue). Say Joba pitches poorly in the fall. That would make the playoff rotation Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and a lot fingernail-biting (new slogan: Sabathia, Burnett, and pray for a pedicurist). Adding a pitcher of Washburn’s abilities would help ease those fears.

The downside to such an acquisition is that Washburn is having his best year since 2002, and the Yankees would surely have to overpay for that. This is a guy who had a 4.69 ERA a year ago. However, Washburn’s contract status mitigates against a big return, as he’s a free agent after the season. Then, of course, there’s the entire question of if the Mariners want to run up the white flag on their borderline involvement in the pennant race.

Washburn is a fly-ball pitcher, which seems like a bad idea in Yankee Stadium II, although being left-handed he should be at a theoretical advantage in the new park. Indeed, left-handed batters can’t touch him, batting .172/.231/.273 in 137 plate appearances. This is well below his career rates of .239/.295/.389, but let’s take it at face value for the moment. Washburn has good control but is usually very proficient at giving up home runs, leading the AL back in 2003. One of the reasons that he’s having such a good year is that in his average season, over seven percent of the flies he’s allowed have left the building. This year, the percentage is down to five, the lowest rate of his career, and yet there is no corresponding increase in his groundball rate. That screams fluke, something that could change at any time.

Still, if you take his proficiency against lefties as gospel and figure his presence will tilt some opposing lineups to the right side, perhaps his fly ball tendencies are not too troublesome. Whereas left-handed batters are hitting a home run once every 19 at-bats at the new park, right-handed batters have hit them at a more manageable (though still high) rate of one every 25 at-bats.

All of the above still leaves the difficult question of who to deal. The Mariners need batters more than anything else, and the Yankees don’t match up well in that regard. Austin Jackson seems like the kind of overhyped player who would bring more in trade than he will the Yankees in production, but with the outfield in flux both now (with Brett Gardner’s injury) and in the future (with free agent departures), the Yankees probably need to hold on to him, while dealing a Jesus Montero for a Jarrod Washburn seems like the kind of deal that a general manager could spend the rest of his life apologizing for, like Lou Gorman and Jeff Bagwell. Montero hit another home run this weekend, bringing his Double-A line to .309/.366/.537 with nine home runs in 149 at-bats. That line is tempered by Trenton’s wholly impossible home park–Montero is batting .229/.280/.357 in the Garden State capital, but .380/.443/.696 on the road. If he was playing in a fairer home park, there would be a clamor to move this guy to Triple-A or the Majors now. Flags fly forever, but this is the kind of hitting talent that could get his number retired if the Yankees can just find a place for him.

20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. RAYS

W-L    RS/G    RA/G    AVG    OBP    SLG    AB/HR    SB    CS    HR/9    BB/9    K/9
Yankees       15-5      5.6       4.6    .290    .379    .473    25    9    8    1.0     3.0   6.9
Rays            10-10    3.7     4.7    .228   .315    .361    42    19     6    1.0    2.6      7.6

The Yankees have stopped stealing bases with any effectiveness, and that’s not going to change during Brett Gardner’s absence… This is a huge series for the Rays–the Yankees could knock them well back in both the AL East and wild card race. The Rays are lucky to have broken even on their last 20 games given their offensive slump. Other than the indefatigable Ben Zobrist and a rebounding Dioner Navarro,  the entire offense has shut down this month. Carl Crawford is hitting .257/.333/.351; Jason Bartlett .238/.342/.349; Evan Longoria .197/.289/.382; Carlos Pena .145/.294/.290. What this means, of course, is that they’re due. Fortunately, the Yankees have Burnett, Sabathia, and Chamberlain going so it won’t be easy for the Rays to break out. They too have their best pitchers going this series, sort of, kind of. The pitching rotation, which lands on James Shields and Matt Garza, plus Scott Kazmir, who is motivated to turn things around after five weeks on the DL. He’s made five starts since coming back and the results have been mixed, with a 5.08 ERA in 28.1 innings.

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