Results tagged ‘ CC Sabathia ’

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. 

Is fatigue an issue for CC?

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

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

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

WISHING ON THE WILD CARD

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

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

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

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

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

DISTANT EARLY WARNING

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

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.

Thoughts for the weekend

MENTIONED THIS BEFORE, BUT IT’S STILL ON ME MIND
When CC Sabathia goes seven innings and strikes out four batters, I worry. Sabathia has a career rate of 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He’s averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine for the Yankees, which is average for an AL starter this year. Now, none of this matters much if Sabathia can pitch effectively while allowing batters to put more balls in play, and so far he has, in part because (and this is paradoxical given the propensities of Yankee Stadium II) fewer of the fly balls he allows are going over fence walls than they used to. Hand in hand with that is some good breaks on balls in play — coming into this year, batters hit .292 off of Sabathia when they put the ball in play. This year they’re hitting .272.

There are two troublesome aspects to this picture. First, a pitcher’s luck on balls in play can change. Second, when a pitcher’s strikeout range declines, it is sometimes (often) a suggestion that something is wrong — that a crash is coming. Sabathia’s velocity seems to be consistent with previous years, so we’re certainly not seeing any evidence of a physical problem there, but it’s still a difficult thing to accept and with which to be comfortable.

holliday250_072409.jpgHOLLIDAY (NOT HALLADAY)
Kudos to the A’s for getting a top prospect in Brett “The Walrus” Wallace from the Cardinals for Matt Holliday. Ever since Eric Chavez’s constitution vanished, the A’s have had a lot of filler at third base. With Chavez signed for one more year (plus an exceedingly painful $3 million buyout), the A’s may feel obligated to keep trotting Chavez out once a year to see if he can remain in an upright position for more than a game at a time, but in the long interim between appearances, they can try Wallace. A first-round pick last year, Wallace has hit .306/.390/.466 in the Minors in about one season’s worth of playing time. He hit .293/.346/.423 at Triple-A Memphis this year, which translates to .272/.321/.397 in the Majors — not great numbers, but then the A’s have gotten only .210/.289/.316 from their third basemen this year.

The problem with Wallace as a third baseman is suggested by the “Walrus” nickname. He’s not fat, he’s just shaped strangely for, well, anyone. He looks like two different people glued together, something like an average-sized person on top and Prince Fielder on the bottom. It’s not a sure thing that someone built like Wallace can play a quality third base in the Majors. So far, though, he’s hanging in, and it would be a huge bonus for the A’s if he can stick at the hot corner.

The A’s also picked up pitcher Clay Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson, but neither has the possibilities of the Walrus. Peterson hasn’t much power and unless you’re a plus defensive center fielder, that usually means a life sentence as a fourth outfielder. Mortensen is a starter right now, but given that he’s 24 years old and has had three years of mediocre results, one smells a trip to the bullpen in the near future. He too is a former first-round pick.

WANGERY INFINITY
It seems that Chien-Ming Wang is unlikely to pitch this year. This is sad on one level, and a break for the Yankees on another, because even if he were to pitch again in 2009, it was unlikely that he was going to pitch well, yet the Yankees felt obligated to keep trying. Given the hole in the rotation that Wang’s absence has created when combined with the team’s decision to bolster the bullpen at the expense of the starting rotation (see Phil Hughes and Alfie Aceves), their desperation was understandable, but Wang had reached the point where Sergio Mitre or anyone else would have been a better bet to pitch the team to a win. For the sake of both Wang’s career and the team’s chances in 2009, giving him a pass for the rest of the year is the right thing to do. 

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

Bring on the (ugh) Nationals

TWO OF THREE…
As with everyone else under the sun, I figured the Yankees could take two of three games from a poorly planned and injury-depleted Mets team, I just figured they would win Game 1 on their own merits and Game 2 by feasting on a journeyman starter before losing Game 3 to one of the best pitchers in baseball. I didn’t figure on them winning Game 1 because a veteran made a Little League misplay, losing game two by being shut down by the fringe-y guy, and then annihilating the Cy Young winner in Game 3. Let’s not even predict what the Yankees might do against the Nats… Then again, it’s sort of my job, so let’s give ‘er a go.

The Nationals are obviously a miserable ballclub, one with a chance to rank with the worst of all time. Their current .262 winning percentage works out to 42-118 over a full season. Just a few teams have been that bad. Here’s the bottom 10 since 1900:

YEAR PCT W L
1 A’s 1916 .235 36 117
2 Braves 1935 .248 38 115
3 Mets 1962 .250 40 120
4 Senators 1904 .252 38 113
5 A’s 1919 .257 36 104
6 Tigers 2003 .265 43 119
7 Pirates 1952 .273 42 112
8 Senators 1909 .276 42 110
9 Phillies 1942 .278 42 109
T10 Red Sox 1932 .279 43 111
T10 Phillies 1941 .279 43 111
T10 Browns 1939 .279 43 111

If they continue along their present path, the Nats would slot in right next to the 2003 Tigers. However, the Nationals are not like the 2003 Tigers. Those Tigers couldn’t hit, pitch, or field. The Nats are bad at two out of three, but they have average hitting. They don’t catch the ball, their starting pitching is the worst in the league, allowing nearly six runs per game, and their bullpen may yet prove to be the worst in the history of relief pitching.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees will get off easy. Their best bet for an easy win is Tuesday, when CC Sabathia takes on the Curacao-born 22-year-old Shairon Martis (with a name like Shairon, I keep thinking he must be Israeli). As the Nationals go, he’s pitched very well, with five quality starts in 12 tries, including a complete game, one-run win over the Cardinals. What works in the Yankees’ favor, particularly because this series is being contested in New York, is that Martis gives up a lot of fly balls and has a low strikeout rate. That suggests the Yankees making good contact and hitting balls in the air, and we know what happens when they do that at home. In addition, two of their three best hitters, Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn, are left-handed, which should be helpful to Mr. Sabathia.

Wednesday’s game has to be rated a toss-up. First, Washington lefty John Lannan can actually pitch. He’s not an extreme ground ball pitcher, but he gets enough of them to keep the ball in the park. On the downside, he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, meaning (again) those deadly balls in play. Lefties have also hit him well, slugging .493 against him in his career with a home run every 21.2 at-bats. The Yankees, who list seven left-handers or switch-hitters most days, should be able to do some damage. Unfortunately, much will also depend on whether Chien-Ming Wang can overcome his mechanical difficulties and put in a good start. Thursday’s match-up should again favor the Yankees, as the rookie Craig Stammen will face Joba Chamberlain. Of course, much will depend on Chamberlain throwing strikes. Stammen is no pistol (please pardon the bad horticultural pun), but does have good control. Like Lannon, he has an above-average groundball rate and his strikeout rate is on the low side.

The great thing about the Nationals from the point of view of the opposition is that they can blow a lead at any time. Even if the Yankees trail in these games, they have more than a fair chance at coming back against the bullpen. Their relievers have an aggregate ERA of 5.59. Reliever ERA isn’t the most accurate way to look at bullpen performance, but in this case, it makes a fine proxy for better measures, as it fairly depicts how miserable they’ve been. That should take some pressure off of Wang and Chamberlain — though not all of it, particularly for Wang. One question that arises out of Joe Girardi’s “pitch well or else” edict to Wang is, what about the start after?

COMING UP

We finally get to the mats with reader comments, and Wholesome Reading (Warning! Politics!) continues to be updated.

Phillies-Yanks should be interesting …

OPENING WITH AN IMPORTANT PARENTING QUESTION
If you’re driving your third grader to school, and you and she are cruising down the road singing “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” are you being a bad parent? It’s good to instill independent thinking and a healthy disrespect for authority, right? Next time, we’ll probably work on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters, and You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. I wonder if there’s a cover by those Australian guys with the colored uniforms …

philles300_052109.jpgWANG IS BACK/THE PHILLIES ARE HERE
… And given that he’s going to be hanging in the ‘pen in a long relief role, you’d hope the Yankees won’t actually need him. With the way the Phillies hit and A.J. Burnett’s propensity for high pitch counts, they very well might … This is actually a fascinating series, the champs against the Yankees. That part is obvious. Within it, though, you have some wonderful matchups, particularly Cole Hamels against CC Sabathia on Sunday, some terrific hitters that the Yankees don’t ordinarily see, such as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Actually, they used to see Ibanez quite a bit; he’s a career .281/.338/.418 hitter against them in 74 games — which is nothing compared to the way he murderized the Nats last weekend. The Yankees also get to see how their new ballpark’s walls do against the team that’s leading the Senior Circuit in home runs. On Saturday, keep an idle brain cell on Andy Pettitte’s reverse split — lefties hit him quite well, which at the very least Howard, who can often be neutralized by southpaws (although he can still hit their mistakes quite a long way), should be right in the game against him.

Finally, keep in mind that the Phillies have played nine games against the Nationals and three against the Padres. That’s 12 of 39 games against less than quality opponents. This will particularly show up in their pitching, which hasn’t been pretty to begin with, looking fairly vulnerable to Yankees’ bats.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Phillies 12, Reds 5: Trying to identify the best hitter in the Phillies lineup is like trying to pick the best Cole Porter song — there are too many choices, and it really depends on which version you’re catching on a given night. My pick is Raul Ibanez, but Jimmy Rollins went 4-for-6 last night and you might pick him, or prefer “You’re the Top.” You could be wrong, though, because the correct answer is also Chase Utley (3-for-4 with a double and a home run) and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” You might not be surprised by this, but in preparing this comment, I burned 20 minutes watching Ethel Merman clips on YouTube, including three and a half minutes of biography narrated in Japanese. My world of free association is strange, but mostly I enjoy it. On the Reds’ side of the ledger, the good news for the day is that Joey Votto isn’t going the way of the vertiginous Nick Esasky. That’s so much more than a consolation prize.

Tigers 4, Rangers 3: It looks more and more like the Rays moved on Edwin Jackson just when he was finally ready to blossom, but that was a move born of financial, not baseball, considerations. The Rangers took six walks and still lost — no doubt they’ve learned their lesson and will never do it again. I’m curious about who told Jim Leyland that Clete Thomas is his No. 3 hitter. Then again, given injuries and Magglio Ordonez’s personal leave, I’m not sure who his No. 3 hitter should be either. Al Kaline? On an unrelated note, it occurs to me (still distracted by YouTube) that if NoŽl Coward had only sung “Mad Dogs and Baseball Players” we would have had a great explanation of the need for night games.

Twins 20, White Sox 1: I can’t even use a football joke, because how did the Sox score one point in a football game? Two points I could have worked with. In anything but a response to yesterday’s rant on the Twins’ No. 2 spot in the batting order, Ron Gardenhire moved Joe Mauer up there and got 3-for-4 with six RBIs, including a grand slam. See what happens when you use your brain for something other than making up dirty pictures?

Indians 8, Royals 3: It’s not that Carl Pavano outpitched Zack Greinke, it’s that the Royals aren’t serious. How else to explain consecutive losses out of the bullpen by Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson? You’d be better off throwing darts at your Minor League rosters — right down to the rookie leagues — and calling up whoever you land on than foisting these retreads on the fans and your players, who are presumably making a serious effort to, y’know, bring some glory back to your once top-of-the-line franchise.

Rays 6, Athletics 5:
Fun to see Adam Kennedy put a little spark into the A’s lineup, and a bit sad and desperate, too … Ben Zobrist is now 4-for-11 with three home runs as a pinch-hitter.  Also, scratch another ballpark concept for the Rays. This one was sunk due to location issues rather than financing; the latter battle hasn’t even been fought as of yet. In that sense, the delay is good for the Rays. They can hope that flush times return before they nail down a new spot. And good luck with that.

Rockies 9, Braves 0:  Aaron Cook is the Wang of the West, and if he pitched elsewhere more would know it (4.14 career ERA in 457 career innings).  Beyond the whole not-scoring thing, it was a disastrous night for the Braves, as promising pitching prospect Kris Medlen appeared to go mental in the fourth inning. The bullpen heaped it on after that, with Todd Helton slamming a slam off of Medlen’s immediate relief, but the real worry is not that failure but that of a kid suddenly forgetting how to pitch.

Nationals 5, Pirates 4: In this reenactment of the 1925 World Series, a rookie named Stammen plays the part of Walter Johnson, except not nearly as good, and Nick Johnson steps in for Joe Judge — and that’s as appropriate a comp as you’ll find, as Judge even tended to miss 30 games a year on various injuries. All it took for the Nats to enjoy their reversal of fortune was a taste of Gorzelanny, as the Pirates got nostalgic for the kind of losses they suffered in that distant time known as last year.

Diamondbacks 4, Marlins 3: A nice start for Max Scherzer, who hasn’t won as many games as he’s deserved. Chad Qualls saved his 10th game, striking out the side. Qualls has a chance to make the All-Star team, which would be appropriate given that though he has rarely occupied the glamour role in a bullpen, he’s one of the most consistent relievers in baseball. The Marlins got a great start out of Andrew Miller, and Dan Uggla hit another home run, but Mark Reynolds took the bullpen deep and that was that. Twelve home runs now for Reynolds, and he’s actually hitting them more often on the road. Go figure.

Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 1: Wake up, Dorothy! Wake up! As John Lennon sang, the dream is over — he don’t believe in Jays, just him, Yoko and him. Patchwork pitching and an overachieving offense can only keep on for so long before the other guys, with their real pitchers and home run hitters, start to chip away. In other words, the Jays are the Potemkin village of baseball. It says something that Jon Lester hasn’t been able to pitch at all lately, but he had no problem keeping the Jays off the board. Meanwhile, Peter Gammons reports that the Red Sox might be talking with the Nats about the aforementioned Nick “The Joe Judge” Johnson as a way of bumping David Ortiz out of the lineup. That would be bad news for the Yankees indeed.

Brew
ers 4, Astros 3:
Lance Berkman and Cecil Cooper got tossed arguing a close play at the plate. It’s good to see some animation out of Houston that goes beyond one frame-per minute Hanna-Barbera-style motion hieroglyphics.

Cardinals 3, Cubs 1: Important divisional game, both teams showed up, with the difference coming down to Albert Pujols. The Cubs just don’t have the fire power right now, not with Aramis Ramirez out, Derek Lee looking old, and Milton Bradley apparently taking the year off. On the other hand, Yadier Molina batted cleanup for the Cards last night, so we really are down to the great man theory of history here. In baseball, one player cannot carry a team to a pennant over the course of a season. One game is a different matter. Even then, we haven’t discussed Adam Wainwright, who held the line for 8 2/3 strong frames.

Padres 3, Giants 2: If things persist, the 2009 Giants may well go down in history as the worst offensive team of the modern era, worse even than these Padres, whose ballpark holds down their hitting (though even without it they would still be miserable). We’re talking worse than some expansion teams. They don’t have to make it worse, though, by maintaining Brian Wilson as their closer, a job he’s clearly not up for … The Padres fail at another attempt to move Jake Peavy, succeed in throwing away Jody Gerut, which isn’t the same thing as far as payroll is concerned. You’d wonder if Adrian Gonzalez would be the next out the door, but his contract is actually rather modest by the standards of baseball (not so modest by the standards of, say, your salary or mine, but you knew that).

Angels 3, Mariners 0: The limp to the finish in the AL West is going to be one of the more fascinating things to watch over the rest of the year. The Rangers are strong but limited, the Angels are limited but are generally smart about the way they do things, and they’re getting healthier. As in the AL East, whoever upgrades fastest bestest is going to win this thing. Does Arte Moreno have the dough to take on the poison pill in Peavy’s contract? It’s not clear that he has the prospects, but after the White Sox debacle, prospects may no longer be the main concern.

Melky madness

melky200_042309.jpgLOGICNESS
Melky Cabrera failed as a starter but has hit four home runs as a role player, so the Yankees should make him a starter again. If he doesn’t play well when starting, they can make him a role player again, and if he hits a few more home runs coming off the bench, they can make him a starter again. If he slumps, they can always put him back in the reserve role. Assuming he does well there, he might be ready for another shot at starting, and … and … and …

There are three possibilities right now:
1.  The last 26 Cabrera at-bats outweigh the previous 1500 or so, and Cabrera has become a slugging outfielder.
2.  Cabrera is having one those transient streaks, like the one he had precisely a year ago.
3.  The Yankees have found a job for Cabrera in which he can actually be useful.

There is no reason to rush Cabrera into the lineup given that the upside is mostly nonexistent, while the downside includes damage to Brett Gardner’s career. Not that Gardner needs any extra help with that. He’s played terrific defense and runs the bases well, but the walks aren’t there, and since the power isn’t going to be there, the walks have to be there if he’s going to hit enough to play. Gardner is 15 games in, and needs more time to rediscover his patience. If he can’t get there, perhaps he’s not the answer this year, or not ever. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Cabrera is the answer either. Cabrera could very well be more valuable in 250 at-bats than in 500, and that’s not a missed opportunity for the Yankees, it’s seizing one.

sabathia250_042309.jpgSABATHIA
… At least he’s done better than in his first four starts this year than in his first four starts last year. The difference, of course, is that this year he has 253 regular innings in his rearview mirror, plus postseason action. It’s early yet, so we’ll see if this is the refractory year or “first four starts phobia” is just something the big man has to get through.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

?    Took my children to the toy store last night. All the Jake Peavy action figures were on clearance.

?    The Jays’ Ricky Romero just hit the DL with an oblique strain. That leaves them with Roy Halladay and prayer. There’s an offensive correction coming soon, too, and then the division’s more natural order will restore itself.

?    Let’s say the Mets’ Daniel Murphy stays at his current rates for the rest of the season, finishing at .315/.367/.407. Does that much offense equal that of a conventional left fielder with average defense? Almost certainly not. Meanwhile, if Mike Pelfrey and John Maine are held back by injuries and Livan Hernandez is Livan Hernandez, there’s just not enough pitching in the organization to make up for it. Of course, the way the Phillies, Braves, Nats, and now Marlins are going, it’s becoming apparent that no team can win the NL East — or more accurately, the first team to identify and fix its biggest weakness will be the winner.

?    Marcus Thames is out indefinitely with a rib cage strain. Traded by the Yankees to the Texas Rangers for Ruben Sierra. Though he has his flaws — he’s no fielder and he doesn’t walk — platoon players with his kind of power are hard to find. He’s played 434 games since leaving the Yankees. The Yankees got 231 games of .249/.295/.429 out of Sierra during his second stay with the team, most of which was contained in a very hot May ’04. Not a move that Brian Cashman wants to frame and put on his mantel.

?    Brandon Inge hit his fifth home run last night. Career as a catcher: .199/.260/.330, which makes him perhaps the worst-hitting catcher ever. As a third baseman: .258/.329/.430, plus defense. Hmm …

?    Yes, but how many home runs has Bobby Abreu hit?

?    The Yankees can at least feel comforted that Cliff Lee pitched well against the Royals, too. At 6-10, the Indians remain in deep trouble.

?      I find it a continual source of amusement that the “new” Jeff Francoeur has but one walk and a .328 OBP. As Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “If this is tea, please give me some coffee; if this is coffee, please give me some tea.”

Yankee Stadium II: The Sequel

stadium300_041709.jpgQUICK FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Today I’m making my first trip to the new Yankee Stadium. I opted to give Opening Day a pass: I’m not much for crowds to begin with, so heaping an extra helping of humans on top of the throngs that are normally here just seemed like a bad idea. Part of this reluctance springs from my partial blindness — it’s very difficult to navigate through crowds when you can’t see half of them coming. Intriguingly, when you can’t see people coming, they act like they can’t see you coming. Not for the first time, Douglas Adams was right. I also figured that nothing worked the first day at Disneyland, so I’d give the Pinstriped Magic Kingdom a day to shake the bugs out.  

I’m skipping around the page as I write these words, so it will be hard for me to construct a strict chronology, but just so you get a sense of the action, at this moment in time the Indians are batting in the top of the fourth and Joba Chamberlain, in imitation of CC Sabathia on Thursday, is trying to burn through his entire allotment of pitches in less than five innings. He’s already over 70, thanks to four walks and four strikeouts. That means that among my first-time experiences in the new ballpark will be an early appearance by the Yankees’ middle relievers. My cup runneth under.

The superficial impression given by Yankee Stadium II: The Sequel is that you’re in the old ballpark, albeit a version that has been cleaned up, reshaped a bit so that it’s more capacious, more comfortable. As wide as the new concourses are, it’s still not easy to thread the crowds (as per the above, if it were easy, I would know), but the flow of traffic is still far superior to the cramped cattle chutes of the old ballpark, and thanks to the openness of the design, the air is actually breathable. In the old ballpark, if you were exiting the stands after a long, hot afternoon at the ballpark and happened to get behind some socially untrained fellow who had been stewing out there with you, albeit without the aid of deodorant (roughly 10 percent of the crowd at any game, it seems), your hair might fall out before you were able to escape. That should be less of a problem now.

I pause here to note that Melky Cabrera just crushed a ball to right field, the Yankees’ third shot of the game in that direction. The ball seems to really take off when hit in the air that way, but I can’t tell if that’s an artifact of the new park or because the Yankees are legitimately crushing them.

The similarity of YS II to the old ballpark — meet the new stadium, same as the old stadium — still seems like a missed opportunity. The original Yankee Stadium helped bring ballparks and sporting events into the modern era. YS II could have reinvented the stadium for the 21st century in the same way. The new building is nice enough, but it’s not groundbreaking and new in the way it could have been, and given what it cost, probably should have been.  

I pause again to register a complaint. There have been eight walks and more than 200 pitches in this game, and it’s only the fifth inning. This is like watching Tommy Byrne face Steve Dalkowski. At this writing, the Yankees are trailing by two, and you can blame either Joba, Sabathia, or Joe Girardi. Chamberlain had no control today, and after he labored through the fourth inning, it seemed pretty clear that little would be gained by letting him come out for the fifth. I know that would be a quick hook, but Joba had already thrown a day’s worth of pitches, and in a compact amount of time. While the worries about Joba’s health, and pitch counts in general, are often overblown, there’s something to the idea that a pitcher throwing 100 pitches in five innings may be more of a strain than his throwing 100 pitches in seven innings. Unfortunately, Girardi was not inclined to make a move until he was forced to, and maybe, given the work of the bullpen lately, his reluctance is understandable.

The field does its best impression of the old park, but the stands seem to press in a bit more. Perhaps it’s the giant television in center field, Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith beaming stats, fan videos, and commercials into our apelike brains. Derek Jeter’s face flashes on the screen, two stories tall, and the urge is to scrape before the neon god. Though the upper deck is visibly withdrawn compared to its old, aggressive tilt, almost perpendicular to the field, the bowl seems cozy. That’s only when you look straight out to center or into the power alleys. The lower seats are further away from the action (and not nearly filled).

Robinson Cano just launched the Yankees’ fourth blast to right field. The ball soared out like Werner Von Braun had stuffed some solid rocket fuel into it. Again: Power, or park effect? In the time it took me to ask that question, we have seen a Melky groundout (helpless as always against a left-handed pitcher) and a rare Cody Ransom single. Every day, a new bit of history.

One thing I do enjoy like about the new location is that it actually sits next to human habitation, not just the elevated train tracks and various bars and souvenir shops. Unlike the old building, you can walk completely around the new park without running into a security checkpoint, and as you get around to the building’s rear you see trees and apartment buildings (which have clearly traded down from their old park setting). The stadium seems less an island now, and more a part of the neighborhood. There is also light when you arrive at the ballpark, something you didn’t get crossing under the tracks in front of the battleship gray of the old park.

Vinnie Chulk just chulked the ball down the right field line, allowing the Yankees to tie the game. The crowd roared, but as you have heard, YS II does seem to be a quieter park than its late uncle. Perhaps that’s because the lower dish is only partially filled, perhaps it’s the distant upper deck. The sound system is geared up to overcome a much higher level of crowd noise than seems to exist here.

In a development that I imagine will be of scant interest to most of you, thanks to the reduced territory behind home plate, the press box is even closer to the action than it used to be, and we have better dining facilities as well. Note to self: Do not sample press box pretzels until they’ve had at least five innings to warm up. I will share one special thrill with you, though, one of the reasons that I am blessed to have this job. When I entered the press box for the first time, I asked one of the Yankees media relations staffers to point me to the chair reserved for YES. He pointed to an older gentleman in a baseball cap. “He’s in your seat,” he said, “just ask him to move.” I approached the seat, and saw the man clearly for the first time: it was the great Roger Angell. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to ask Roger Angell to move anywhere. I took the seat next to him. We chatted throughout the game, comparing lists of top Cary Grant films (more about that last in my next entry).

One other note: It’s good that they got the retired numbers out where they can be viewed, but (1) they’re tiny and (2) they’re on a somewhat grubby tile wall, as if they grew in someone’s shower with the mildew. Guys, you’ve got to treat the history of this franchise with at least as much respect as you treat your advertisers, if not more.

As we go to the top of the eighth, the game is tied, 5-5, Cabrera having just popped out with two runners on. We can forgive this given that he had already homered in the game, but did he have to leave Ransom to lead off the next inning? Consumed with feelings of dread, I will sign off for now.