FIRST 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.
GAME, WEATHER PERMITTING…
And really, what isn’t?
I DREAMED I SAW ST. POSADA
There will be a lot of cheap material in the papers and on-line today, stuff about Jose Molina starting Game 2 and Carl Pavano starting in Game 3. After Jorge Posada’s erratic defensive game on Wednesday, it seems to me that it’s harder to criticize Joe Girardi for going with Molina, as egregious as Molina is at the plate. Perhaps Posada’s game was just a case of bad timing, perhaps Girardi’s decision is simply his reenacting the active player phase of his career, when Joe Torre frequently chose the Yankees’ then-Molina — that is, Girardi himself.
Posada gets it twice from the same guy, and in that sense you can’t help but empathize with his frustration. The drag here is that Nick Blackburn is the kind of ball-in-play pitcher that Posada conceivably could have damaged. Strangely, the two have never met in a baseball game, but Blackburn doesn’t strike out many and also allows his share of fly balls, all of which adds up to a nice recipe for runs in Yankee Stadium II. Molina will likely put the ball in play as well, but a lot less happens when he does. This year he hit .264 on balls in play, a slight improvement on last season, when he hit .255. This is actually kind of hard to do; the Major League average this year was about .303.
Despite this, if Girardi observed a difference in Burnett in those late-August/early-September in which the two catchers alternated, this is the right call. The Twins are not a big offensive team, and while this kind of move might sabotage the Yankees if it was carried out over the basis of 25 or 50 games (that is, benching Posada), in one game the Yankees can carry Molina’s bat. Given that the Yankees are carrying three catchers, another decision that would be problematic over the course of the regular season, Girardi can pinch-hit for Molina at any time.
That last is really the key. If Girardi is going to go with a glove man, he needs to channel a bit of Casey Stengel and be ready to pinch-hit as soon as the last notes of the National Anthem sounds. If it’s 0-0 in the third, the bases are loaded, and Molina is up, well, better Burnett struggles with Posada’s defensive deficiencies with a 4-0 lead than Molina and three runners stranded. It’s unconventional, but Francisco Cervelli’s presence sets Girardi up perfectly to manage aggressively. Heck, he could even pinch-hit Eric Hinske instead of Posada and put the highly mobile Cervelli into the game. Posada might pop a blood vessel, but Girardi’s defensive imperatives will be satisfied.
Starting Molina is in itself not a bad decision; Burnett might struggle anyway and it would still be a defensible call. It’s what Girardi does after that will make it a good call or a bad one. He can use Molina to the point that his negatives outweigh his positives and then dispense with him or he can let the offense be strangled in a key spot. Very few managers would feel secure enough to pull the trigger in that spot, but then, there are very few great managers.
The 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.