Results tagged ‘ Alex Rodriguez ’

Instant replay classic

arod275.jpgTHE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE CAMERA
I’m not sure how we ever had baseball without replay. I’m not sure how we can continue to have baseball without replay. Pennant races worth millions of dollars to the teams and a great deal of emotion to the fans are resolved on the whim of umpires — any time a team loses a race by one game, you have to ask, “Did they earn that, or did a blown call earn it for them?” And we have had World Series games decided by poor calls in the past, going back at least as far as the 1922 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants when umpires decided to call Game 2 for darkness in the middle of the afternoon. As far as pennant races altered by umpires, they go all the way back to the very beginning — just ask Fred Merkle. Wherever you are, Fred, we’re sorry.

Alex Rodriguez’s timely camera-shot would have been reviewed whether it occurred in the regular season or the postseason, but all calls should be reviewed. Baseball shouldn’t be a game that is sometimes accurately refereed and sometimes not. As I’ve suggested in previous installments, it wouldn’t have taken a booth umpire much longer than 30 seconds to change Rodriguez’s double into a home run, whereas there had to be a complaint by Joe Girardi, followed by a near-minyan of umpires conferring on the field, followed by the long march off the field, the review, the long march back on — what the heck is this, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow? Baseball is famous for being a retrograde institution, but let’s get on with it already. Baseball games are slow enough without the March of the Penguins added for no good reason.

That said, the games aren’t too slow for instant replay properly handled. On Saturday, my Baseball Prospectus colleague Joe Sheehan wrote at Sports Illustrated:

The most common objection to this system is that it would cause delays, but both pro and college football have survived, in part by selling additional television ads during the breaks. Delays would happen, but the improvement in accuracy, especially on high-leverage, high-profile plays, would be worth the time investment. You may even save time by eliminating the long arguments and conferences that currently occur.

Actually, the best way to save time would be to have umpires vigorously enforce pace-of-game rules. Doing that would more than make room for the occasional replay. Batters don’t step out. Period. Batters don’t get time called when the pitcher is already in his wind-up. Period. The pitcher holds the ball more than a set number of seconds — less than it is now — then it’s a ball to the batter. Period. If the plate umpire or the base umpires can’t manage a ten-second countdown between pitches, then the aforementioned booth umpire can do it.

Pant. Pant.

…There isn’t much in the way of deep analysis to do with Game Three. Andy Pettitte didn’t pitch well by his standards, but the offense helped him out, including Andy himself. Phillies pitchers were wilder than they’re accustomed to, both with walks and hit batters, and the Yankees finally got a look into the bullpen, and they saw that it was good — looking into it, that is, not the bullpen pitchers themselves. Nick Swisher came back to himself. Jorge Posada stranded a bunch of runners but got a key single. We’re still waiting on Melky, Robbie and Teixeira. Joba Chamberlain pitched his first solid inning in recent memory. Phil Hughes didn’t. Girardi seems convinced that Damaso Marte is back to his pre-injury, 2002-2007 form — I will never cease to be bugged that the Yankees were smart enough to sign Marte as a free agent (out of the Mariners system, where he was a starter), smart enough to move him to the bullpen and make something out of him, and dumb enough to trade him for Enrique Wilson, one of the worst hitters ever to wear a Yankees uniform, worst even when you cut him some slack for being a utility infielder.

When Hideki Matsui came up to pinch-hit for Chamberlain with two outs in the eighth, I said, “This is a kind of low-leverage situation to use Matsui in, but then at this point in the game, a high-leverage probably isn’t going to come up. Girardi might as well just go for it and hope for a solo home run.” Moments later, Matsui made the move pay off, giving the Yankees an extra bit of cushioning which would make Hughes’ failure to contain postseason superman Carlos Ruiz a bit less of a cause for tension. The only drag about THAT was that it momentarily pushed Girardi into Coffee Joe mode and he got Mariano Rivera into a game that he should have been kept out of.

On the topic of subjects for another day, if the Yankees are determined to keep just one from the expiring Johnny Damon/Hideki Matsui duo of imminent 36-year-olds, I’m beginning to wonder if the right answer isn’t Matsui, regardless of the roster limitations a pure DH brings.

BLANTON TO START GAME FOUR
This is how chess is played: the Phillies have a paper advantage on the Yankees in starters because Joe Blanton > Chad Gaudin, but CC Sabathia > Joe Blanton. Move and countermove. Of course, it could have been CC Sabathia ? Cliff Lee, but Charlie Manuel didn’t feel comfortable with that. Maybe with tonight’s loss he’ll rethink that decision, but I’ve not heard anything of the sort. Thus Sabathia goes on short rest, and he’ll have to perform to make the chess move good. It might not matter: in four career starts against the Yankees, Blanton is 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA. The last time was in June, 2008, so we probably shouldn’t become over-stimulated by this particular bit of trivia.

World Series head-to-head Part I

My stat of choice is again VORP, which answers the musical question, “How many runs above the theoretical journeyman Triple-A player did the player contribute?” VORP does not include defense, but we’ll talk about that.

Remember that this is just a ballpark estimate. On any given day, Player B can be better than Player A, even if Player A is the best player overall.

FIRST BASE
RYAN HOWARD (47.7 VORP, 9th among 1Bs) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7, 5th)

teixeira_250_102709.jpgLet’s begin with the obvious. A switch-hitter, Teixeira is a career .281/.371/.547 hitter against right-handed pitchers and a career .309/.394/.537 hitter against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Howard is a career .307/.409/.661 hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a typo: he slugs a Ruthian .661 against righties, with a home run every 10 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers are a different story. He’s a career .226/.310/.444 hitter against them, striking out about 40 percent of the time, with a home run every 18 at-bats. This year was worse than the norm, with Howard slumping to .207/.298/.356 against left-handers, hitting just six homers in 222 at-bats against them (while slugging .691 against righties).

Some would say that this makes Howard a platoon player who has been overextended into a regular role. I would argue that in most years his home run rate against southpaws still works out to 30 over a full season, so he would still be worth playing against the majority of southpaws. Still, Howard’s potency can be greatly reduced by employing left-handed pitchers against him, and he’s the one player where Joe Girardi can enjoy his Coffee Joe propensities to their fullest extent. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, there is no time after, say, the fifth inning that Howard should be allowed to face a right-hander.

Howard gets a bad rap on defense, but he’s not Dick Stuart out there. He’s also not Teixeira, but there’s some decent ground in between those two extremes. One interesting difference between the two is that playing in the National League, Howard had to do a lot more throwing than Teixeira, fielding 21 bunts to Teixeira’s five. Despite showing great range off the bag, Teixeira somehow did less throwing this year than at any other time in his career. Still, the quality of Teixeira’s defense shows in where he threw the ball. Though he had only 49 assists, 29 of them were on plays away from first base, whereas Howard, though he had 95 assists, had only 26 plays away from first base.

There aren’t many better hitters against right-handed pitching than Howard. Teixeira, assuming he can finally dig out of his postseason slump, is the more versatile offensive and defensive package. This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but if the Yankees aren’t careful about how they handle Howard, this could easily go the other way.

SECOND BASE
CHASE UTLEY (61.7, 1st) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)

Though he’s been a four-time All-Star, Utley is one of the game’s great unsung players, an MVP-quality player on a great team that has never won an MVP award, or even come close. He hits for average, for power, takes a goodly number of walks, pumps his on-base percentage with 25 HBPs a year and is also one of the best baserunners in the game. A left-handed hitter, lefty pitchers only slow him down a little, and his offense isn’t a product of Citizens Bank Park. On the flipside, offseason hip surgery — he had A-Rod’s problem, but went through the whole surgery rather than the partial treatment Rodriguez successfully pursued — may have dragged his defense down from superb to merely above average.

Cano had his best year in the Majors save for a glaring problem hitting with men on. Cano can fire off line drives almost at will, leading to his strong batting averages, but he forgets himself in important situations, widening his already generous strike zone. This leads to swings with less than his usual authority. It has been a career-long problem. To Cano’s credit, after a tough start to the postseason, he came up with some important hits in the last three games of the ALCS. Cano has vastly improved as a fielder over the years, but lapses of concentration are still an occasional problem. Charlie Manuel would do well to remember that southpaw relievers don’t trouble Cano too much. EDGE: PHILLIES.

THIRD BASE
PEDRO FELIZ (3.5, 29th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)

Due to a hot start to the season, Feliz hit about as well as he’s capable of these days and even drew the second-highest walk total of his career, but he’s still a glove man who gave his team very little with the bat. He hit .323 in April, then gradually cooled, or maybe it’s better to say he melted, then evaporated, hitting just .225/.254/.367 over the final two months. The Phillies can buy out the last $5 million of Feliz’s contract for $500,000, and given that he’ll turn 35 next year and hasn’t come close to even average production since 2004, they might give it some serious thought if they can identify an alternative. Feliz is a career .252/.288/.417 hitter against right-handers. Normally sort of competent against lefties, he slumped to .208/.278/.385 against them. Feliz has been a poor postseason hitter in his career, and although he did hit a triple and a home run against the Dodgers, it seems unlikely he’ll turn into Jeff Mathis in this series. As for Alex Rodriguez and his recent accomplishments, I think you know about them.

SHORTSTOP
JIMMY ROLLINS (19.3, 10th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)

rollins_250_102709.jpg“J-Roll” gets treated like a star player, but he’s not one. Because he’s a durable leadoff hitter who never walks, he bats more than anyone else (including, in 2007, more often than anyone in history). Because he hits the ball with authority in those many at-bats, he piles up high totals in the counting stats, lots of hits, doubles, and triples. It pays to remember that all those extra-base hits are diffused through that crazy number of plate appearances, and that at his best he’s below average at getting on base. This year he hit the ball in the air more, but he’s not really a power hitter and the change dropped his batting average to .250. Since batting average makes up most of his on-base percentage, his OBP dropped to a miserable .296, especially crippling for a leadoff hitter. Rollins did come on a bit in the second half, hitting .272/.306/.495, but these numbers shine only in comparison to his pathetic .229/.287/.355 first half. He posted a .266 OBP against lefties this year, but that hasn’t always been his pattern — i.e. Coffee Joe shouldn’t decide Rollins merits the Chone Figgins treatment. Parenthetically, did Figgins play his way out of the Yankees’ rumored plans with his 3-for-23 during the 30 Days of ALCS? Let’s hope so.

Rollins has won two Gold Gloves, but he’s not going to remind you of Ozzie Smith — he’s okay, not great. Add in that he has not hit at all this postseason (and didn’t hit much in the last two either) and the guy playing opposite him is an annual Fall hero who is coming off a great year, one he’s continued into the postseason, and (bonus) is currently at his best with the glove and you have an EDGE: YANKEES.

NEXT
Catchers, outfield, managers, Game 1 and 2 starters and a prediction.

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.

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. 

Musings before the big series in Boston

DAMASO MARTE ACTIVATED — TELL TCHAIKOVSKY THE NEWS
Funny how those extra lefties start showing up right before a team faces David Ortiz in Fenway Park. Ortiz hasn’t hit much this year, but if you’ve seen him do well it was most likely at Fenway, where the Pesky Pole forgives sins of age and PED abuse. The .234/.322/.487 he’s hit at home, including 13 home runs in 278 at-bats, is just dangerous enough that dragging in that extra southpaw is justified, especially when your primary LOOGY is Phil Coke, who has problems with the home run.

I DON’T NEED TO FIGHT TO PROVE I’M RIGHT AND I DON’T NEED TO BE FORGIVEN
One comment on Jim Rice’s Little League rant, and it’s the same one that everyone else is going to have. Rice said:

jeter250_082109.jpg“You see a Manny Ramirez, you see an A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), you see (Derek) Jeter … Guys that I played against and with, these guys you’re talking about cannot compare … We didn’t have the baggy uniforms. We didn’t have the dreadlocks,” Rice said. “It was a clean game, and now they’re setting a bad example for the young guys”

Rice is a misanthrope, we knew that. Still: A-Rod, Manny … and Jeter? The worst thing Jeter has ever done is shill for cars with low MPG ratings. He does not deserve to be associated with two PED users, nor dreadlocks or baggy pants, though dreads and baggy pants don’t really reflect anything significant except an era in which baseball and all sports have relaxed uniform codes to allow for individual expression.

As for the game of Rice’s era that was so clean, one word: cocaine. I’m not saying Rice used, but so many ballplayers did, prominent ballplayers. Some like Willie Wilson, LaMarr Hoyt and Vida Blue, went to jail. At least a few, like Alan Wiggins, Steve Howe, Rod Scurry and Eric Show, eventually died as a result of their drug habits. More than 20 ballplayers were cited for substance abuse during the 1980s, and that was just the tip of the iceberg — it was speculated by some, among them Keith Hernandez, that close to half of ballplayers were using cocaine at that time. It would also be interesting to ask Hall of Famer Rice if he ever took or had knowledge of players taking amphetamines in his clean game.

In any case, barring some amazing revelation of malfeasance, Jeter is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, whereas Rice is someone that the Baseball Writers are going to spend decades apologizing for passing. There are 50 players who should be in ahead of Rice; when Jeter becomes eligible it will be 51. Years from now, Rice will be as much of a Hall of Famer as is Chick Hafey and Rick Ferrell and Jesse Haines — he’ll have a plaque on the wall, but no one will take it seriously, passing it by on the way to view those of Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, and many more … including Jeter.
 
20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. RED SOX
                   

W-L
RS/G
RA/G
AVG
OBP
SLG AB/HR
SB
CS
HR/9
BB/9
K/9
Yankees 14-6 5.3 4.1 .282 .342 .473 23 7 1 0.9 3.6 8.7
Red Sox 11-9 5.4 5.8 .265 .356 .471 19 11 4 1.5 4 7.7

Since last we left the Red Sox, they’ve gone 7-3 against Detroit, Texas, and Toronto. The principal change the Red Sox have undergone since leaving New York is the addition of shortstop Alex Gonzalez, imported from the Reds. The veteran can’t hit much (career .246/.293/.393) — every few years he has come close to posting a league-average OPS — and this year, having lost all of 2008 to knee surgery, he’s not even halfway there, hitting .214/.258/.298. However, he remains a good glove, certainly better than Nick Green, and Boston hadn’t gotten an ounce of offense from their shortstops anyway, just .220/.291/.327. If the Red Sox slip out of the wild card by a few games, the margin of loss will be exactly the size and shape of the missing shortstop production… 

The pitching matchups seem to favor the Yankees this series. Since being abused by the Blue Jays and Angels in consecutive starts at the beginning of July, Andy Pettitte has been very solid, allowing just 10 runs in 39.2 innings, walking 10, and striking out 43. Pettitte has an ERA of 3.63 in 34 career appearances at Fenway Park. In the same period that Pettitte has been pitching well, Friday’s starter Brad Penny has been roughed up, allowing 26 runs in 34 innings and giving up seven home runs. Opponents are hitting .299/.353/.537 against him over that span.

Saturday’s conflict has the occasionally enigmatic A.J. Burnett facing rookie Junichi Tazawa. Tazawa’s Minor League numbers were good, and he pitched well against Detroit in his first start, but the Tigers don’t have a lineup half as deep as that of the Yankees. If the Yankees can lay off of Tazawa’s splitter, or he’s a bit twitchy in locating it, he’ll be out of the game quickly. Finally, Sunday’s 8 p.m. game has CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett dueling, and with Sabathia’s recent run of good starts and Beckett’s great stuff, that should be a game worth tolerating Joe Morgan for. Keep in mind that whatever happens with the starters, the two best bullpens in baseball this year are contained in Fenway Park during this series. The Yankees are No. 1 in wins added, the Red Sox No. 2.   

The Yankees are playing with the house’s money here. If they lose the series, even if they get swept, they would retain a significant lead. If they win or sweep, they can probably put the champagne on ice. The Red Sox are tough at Fenway (38-18, .679) but all the pressure is on them. Unlike the last time these two teams met, the only way this series will be historic is if the Yankees execute another sweep for a New Millennium version of 1978’s Boston Massacre. It ain’t over ’til it’s over, but with a 9.5-game lead, it would be pretty darned close.

MORE FROM ME
As always with Yankees-Red Sox series, I’ll be filing updates throughout the weekend. See you then.

Thoughts on a classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hairston gives Yanks options

J. HAIRSTON JR.
Say this for the acquisition of the utility man Jerry Hairston: the Yankees have bought into one of the great ball-playing families. Hairston’s brother, Scott, plays for the Athletics. His father, Jerry, was a pinch-hitter for the White Sox for roughly 63 years. His uncle, Johnny, got a cup of coffee with the Reds. His grandfather, Sam, played in the Negro Leagues and briefly made it to the Majors a few years after the color line was broken. There have been more Major League Hairstons than DiMaggios, Niekros, Boones or Bells.

The Hairston under consideration here is 33 years old and, but for a couple of fluke seasons, not much of a hitter. Playing for the Orioles in 2004, he hit .303/.378/.397 in 86 games. Last season he gave the Reds .326/.384/.487 in 80 games. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to his career marks of .259/.328/.372. Even those numbers don’t tell the whole story because Hairston spent 2006-07 hitting .198/.260/.271, then relied on the GAP for his comeback, batting .410/.471/.590 in Cincinnati’s home park. On the road, he hit only .252/.307/.396.

Fortunately, the Yankees didn’t acquire Hairston for his bat, but for his ability to move around the field. This season he’s played everywhere but first base and catcher. Although primarily a second baseman at the outset of his career, Hairston has enough speed that he can move around the field and play competently. Roster flexibility is a virtue, as long as one doesn’t plan on actually making use of it all that much. One assumes that this is curtains for Cody Ransom, which is too bad — as badly as the guy did subbing for A-Rod in April, it was good to see a journeyman get his shot, and he has been passable since coming off of the disabled list, batting .240/.345/.400 in 29 plate appearances. There is no guarantee that Hairston will hit better, but again, the trick is versatility: Ransom was a third baseman-shortstop. Hairston plays everywhere, giving the Yankees more bang for the roster spot.

The Yankees give up a 20-year-old Low-A catcher in Chase Weems in the deal, which isn’t too much given Hairston’s age, ability and one-year contract. Weems hasn’t shown much offensive ability in his 88 pro games, and even were he to blossom, the Yankees are deep enough in catchers that they shouldn’t miss this one.

I’ll be back later today with more trade deadline analysis.

Ready for your midterms?

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

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

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

MARK TEIXEIRA-FIRST BASE

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

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

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

DEREK JETER-SHORTSTOP

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

JOHNNY DAMON-LEFT FIELD

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

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

NICK SWISHER-RIGHT FIELD

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

BRETT GARDNER-THE OTHER CENTER FIELDER

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

Hinske Ball!

hinske2_250_063009.jpgThe Yankees made a solid move today in acquiring veteran left-handed hitter Eric Hinske from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hinske, a former Rookie of the Year (Toronto, 2002) was a solid reserve presence on back-to-back pennant winners with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and the Tampa Rays last year, and now has the chance to add a third postseason team to his resume.

Able to play all four corners, Hinske has some power and is willing to take more than the occasional walk, so he’ll fit right in with the Yankees. He’s a career .254/.337/.436 hitter, which is not a good figure for a corner starter but you’ll take it for a four-corner reserve. No fun against southpaws at .221/.298/.363, Hinske’s numbers against opposite side pitchers are .264/.347/.456.

The 31-year-old gives the Yankees the kind of valuable bat off the bench they haven’t had in some time. That he can play third base is key. If Alex Rodriguez is going to take days off, this is a better choice than Cody Ransom and about a thousand times better than Angel Berroa. Hinske is not a very good defensive third baseman, but his ability to hit the ball with some authority should ease the pain of those Rodriguez rest periods.

With Rodriguez swinging a hot bat, it seemed as if Rodriguez and Joe Girardi were going to make a point of forgetting their previous agreement about off days. This happened last week — after skipping one game in Florida, Rodriguez played in eight straight games and started seven straight. One wonders if Brian Cashman looked at the trouble that Mike Lowell has been having lately — he had 15 CCs of fluid removed from his hip yesterday, also received a shot of a lubricant, and today was placed on the DL — and wisely concluded that he’d better give Girardi a real alternative to Rodriguez at third base before they killed the presumptive team MVP.

This is not a criticism of Girardi. As I wrote here last week, Girardi has been given conflicting imperatives: win now, win every day, and then, somewhere down the line, don’t kill A-Rod. Given that the alternatives to Rodriguez were spectacularly weak, it’s hard to blame Girardi for prioritizing his first mission at the expense of his second. Breaking Rodriguez might not get him fired, but failing to reach the postseason will. You understand why his instinct, even if on a subliminal level, would be to gamble on the slugger triumphing over pain instead of hoping that Berroa, Ramiro Pena, or Ransom might deliver a big hit, or even a small hit. If the Yankees were 3.5 games ahead instead of behind, the decision to bench Rodriguez would be easier on Girardi, but they’re not.

Ironically, Girardi could end up back in the same head space, only for different reasons. Again, Hinske is not a great defensive third baseman, and it’s possible that he’ll be a bit rusty. He hasn’t played very much third base since 2004, making just 21 appearances at the hot corner (three this year). The Blue Jays bumped him off of third base for Corey Koskie and then Troy Glaus, while in his Boston and Rays stops he was behind Lowell and Evan Longoria, so he had to get into the lineup in other ways. A few well-timed misplays and Girardi’s sense of well-being might get shaken enough that he’ll be reluctant to entrust Hinske with too much hot corner time. Still, if he times the Hinske starts so they don’t coincide with Chien-Ming Wang’s games, the Yankees should be okay. It’s also not as if A-Rod has been excelling on the fielding job; the bad hip would seem to have limited Rodriguez’s range.

In exchange for making Girardi’s life more interesting, the Yankees only had to give up Eric Fryer, the Minor League outfielder acquired for Chase Wright, who does not project to be more than a role player in the Majors, if that, and righty pitcher Casey Erickson, a 23-year-old Sally League reliever.

In his career, Hinske has had the unusual honor of being both a surprise and a disappointment. A 17th-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1998, Hinske raked in the Minor Leagues, batting .285/.380/.511. His defense troubled the Cubs, though, and so even though they were in desperate need of a third baseman at the time, they palmed him off on the A’s for Miguel Cairo. This was a Hall of Fame-level dumb move, as Cairo didn’t last even a full season in Chicago, and in any case he was Miguel Cairo. The A’s held Hinske in the Minors for a season, then sent him to the Blue Jays for Billy Koch. This was a Hall of Fame-level smart move, as the A’s got 44 saves out of Koch in 2002 and then flipped him to the White Sox for Keith Foulke, who was even better. Meanwhile, Hinske played third for the Jays, hit 24 home runs, and won the Rookie of the Year award.

The Jays rushed right out and signed Hinske to a five-year contract, but Hinske was unable to follow up on his production. His walk rate slipped, and his power and batting average went along with it. His 2003 season was subpar and his 2004 was miserable. By 2005 he had been moved to first base, which was an odd decision for the Jays to make given just how bad he had been the year before. He bounced back to some degree in 2006, but by then he was already slipping into utility work.

Kudos to Brian Cashman on this one. Adding a player who slugged .465 a year ago really gives the Yankees the added A-Rod protection they’ve needed all season. The move comes a bit late, but it’s a good one. At this writing, the Yankees haven’t announced the roster move they’re making to get Hinske a spot in the dugout. It should be Brett Tomko who goes down, but it’s hard to imagine the Yankees reducing their staff to 11 pitchers, so one assumes that Pena is headed for the sticks.

ON REFLECTION, IT SEEMS UNLIKELY THAT BIN LADEN THINKS MUCH ABOUT BUCKY DENT, BUT THE POINT STILL STANDS
I’m normally pretty happy when publishers drop a free baseball book on me, but in the case of a new book on, well, something to do with Bucky Dent, they can leave me out. On Saturday, I received an unmarked envelope bearing only my address and a mint condition 1978 Topps Bucky Dent card. There was no return address.

I subsequently have learned that this was done on behalf of a forthcoming book. Now, look: as I said, it’s cool to get free baseball stuff in the mail, but sending mysterious envelopes with no return address to a fellow’s home is no way to go about it. This is, I am told, supposed to be viral marketing. That term is ironic, because that’s what it made me think of — viruses. It occurred to me the second after I unsealed the stupid thing that you’re not supposed to open unidentified mail, that not too long ago there was a freak sending anthrax all over the place, that every once in awhile some fringe reader expresses hostility that goes beyond a mere friendly disagreement about baseball, and that I have a wife and two young children in the house. I was not amused. I was worried, and I kicked myself for unsealing the envelope. The Bucky Dent card was no solace: sometimes bad things come in attractive packages, and anonymity would seem to be something of an antonym for publicity.

So hey, marketing geniuses: if your goal was to trouble me on a perfectly good Saturday and make me associate your book with anonymous anthrax mailings, congratulations. You did your job. Next time, be intelligent enough to include a return address and a flyer so it’s clear what the heck you’re trying to accomplish. I wish the author all the success in the world with his book, and this should not be construed as reflecting upon his efforts. In fact, I hope he does so we
ll that next time he’ll be associated with a better, smarter set of publicists.

MORE FROM ME
Reflections on relief pitchers at Baseball Prospectus

Bombers hitting into double plays too often

BY GEORGE
We open today with a Steinbrennerism. Though many of the Yankee owner’s most acerbic comments have been well publicized over the years, this one is more obscure. Criticizing an umpire’s calls in July, 1979, the Boss said, “He’s with an excellent crew, but he fits like a $3 bill in the cash drawer.” I dedicate this Boss bit of wisdom to Angel Berroa, whose strange reign on the Yankees roster as a non-utile utility player may come to an end later today, when Cody Ransom comes up from Scranton.

angel_062409.jpgIn 14 games in Pennsy, Ransom has done his usual Ransom-y job, batting .250/.346/.477 with two home runs while striking out an unsustainable 12 times in 44 at-bats. Ransom is a fun guy to root for (this seems like a necessary qualifier to issue each time this subject comes up, while also having the benefit of being true), and he’s certainly a more useful player than Berroa, but at 33 years old his problems are ossified, calcified, and calcareous, set in stone and bone.  He has power but has problems making contact, with the result that maintaining a functional rate of reaching base becomes an insurmountable problem. With the Yankees anticipating more time off for Alex Rodriguez in the future, and Rodriguez playing like he needs it, the club needs a more viable substitute. That player is not currently in the organization. Whatever trading chips the Yankees are hoarding, they would be better spent on an infielder with some two-way bona fides than on yet another reliever.

DOUBLE PLAYS REVISITED
With Derek Jeter doing some decisive GDP damage the last couple of games, it’s time to check out the double play percentages for Yankees’ batters. The first thing to know is that in the American League, batters are hitting into double plays in about 11 percent (specifically, 10.9 percent) of opportunities. The Yankees as a team are hitting into twin killings a little more often, 11.5 percent of the time. Last year, the average AL team had about 1210 possible double play situations when hitting. This year’s average rate would result in 132 double plays. The Yankees’ rate would result in 137 double plays, which doesn’t seem like much but might matter in a close race — quite recently we’ve seen key double plays by Jeter and Robinson Cano kill the Yankees in close games.

robinson_062409.jpgRobinson Cano has been the player causing the Yankees the most trouble so far, knocking into a double play nine times in 42 chances, a rate of over 21 percent. With his double play on Tuesday night, Jeter also brought his rate up to 21 percent. Other Yankees who require Joe Girardi to give their baserunners a flying start include Alex Rodriguez (17 percent), Nick Swisher (14 percent), and Melky Cabrera (13 percent). Surprisingly, the very slow Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui have above-average performances in this category, hitting into double plays in nine and five percent of their chances, respectively.

One argument for giving Brett Gardner more playing time is that, particularly if he’s batting ninth in front of Jeter, might limit the team’s exposure to the double play in some situations. With Jeter hitting ever more balls on the ground — he’s grounding out three times for every one fly out, a career high — this is going to continue to be a problem where the Captain is concerned.

PARENTHETICALLY, A-ROD

A look at the Yankees ground ball ratios reveals that there’s a reason that A-Rod has such a high double-play rate: he’s hitting more balls on the ground than he has at any time in the last ten years. His offensive problems may or may not be caused by fatigue, but there might also be a mechanical component to the problem.

AN ORPHANED LINE ABOUT PHIL HUGHES

It might be time to give him something more challenging to do.

ANOTHER ENDORSEMENT OF BRETT GARDNER
The average AL center fielder is batting .260/.327/.403. Gardner is now hitting .285/.361/.401. His defense has been impeccable, as has his baserunning. If he can just keep doing what he’s doing, he doesn’t need to improve. Sure, improvement would be good, but the offense would be sufficient to support the other aspects of his game. While Gardner could still stand to be protected from the occasional lefty — one senses with Gardner that at some point more would likely become less — the ratio of playing time in center field should shift dramatically, from 75-25 in favor of Melky Cabrera towards Gardner. Plus — and this is no small thing — he’s the only guy on the team actually performing right now.