Results tagged ‘ Hideki Matsui ’

Beware of the Rays

rivera_250_071509.jpgTHE ALL-STAR GAME
I figured I’d hold off on today’s entry until after the game. That would have been a timely decision had the game started before 8:45, but alas, the pregame rolled on like a matinee of “Gone With The Wind.” The game itself went by briskly but uneventfully.

Then Mariano Rivera came in and I was riveted. Is it wrong that Rivera reminds me of the fragility of things and the cruel passage of time? I keep thinking, “He’s almost 40. He can’t be this good forever, so cherish his every appearance.” That makes really savor each pitch, but it also makes every appearance bittersweet.

Maybe there’s a medication you can get that can ease your feelings of sadness over the ending of Rivera’s career before it has ended…

WHY CAN’T THE WIND BLOW BACKWARDS?
The Yankees are 0-9 against the Red Sox and will face them another 10 times this season, but perhaps the real team to be concerned about is the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees will visit them for three games starting in about two weeks and then host them for four games in September, including a split doubleheader. The two clubs will then see the season out together with a three-game series in St. Petersburg during the first week of October. The Yankees are 4-4 against the Rays so far, but last year’s AL pennant winners, currently third in the Wild Card standings, 3.5 games behind the front-running Yankees, could surge in the second half and threaten for a postseason berth.

Looking at the Rays’ projected won-lost record, extrapolated from their total runs scored and allowed totals, they have cheated themselves of somewhere between four and seven wins. Victimized by a pitching staff that hasn’t lived up to last year’s performance, the Rays have lost more close games than they’ve won. That can change very quickly. The Rays could experience a run of good luck or timely hitting (perhaps the same thing), or some of the changes they’ve made to the starting rotation, removing Andy Sonnanstine from the Major League rotation, bringing Scott Kazmir back from the disabled list, and promoting David Price, could pay off. They could also help themselves in a big way by grabbing a bullpen arm at or before the trading deadline.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Rays stack up very well with the Yankees, even if they’ve scored fractionally fewer runs per game this season (5.4 for the Rays vs. 5.6 for the Yankees). Take it position by position:

First Base
Rays: .236/.367/.531. Yankees: .277/.381/.542. The difference favors the Yankees, but it’s small, about nine runs over a full season.

Second Base
Rays: .273/.373/.425. Yankees: .307/.339/.488. Despite having to compensate for Akinori Iwamura’s wholly unnecessary knee injury, the aggregate of Tampa’s second basemen, principally Iwamura and Ben Zobrist, have out-produced Robinson Cano by a few runs. Such is the power of on-base percentage.

Third Base
Rays: .288/.366/.545. Yankees: .222/.345/.412. The Alex Rodriguez component of the foregoing is .247/.407/.519. We’ll see if he passes Evan Longoria by the end of the year. The aggregate A-Rod subs have hit .184 with no home runs, so Tampa leads by about 20 runs here.

Shortstop
Rays: .347/.393/.536. Yankees: .314/.386/.453. Jason Bartlett is having a crazy good year, and when he put in three weeks on the disabled list, subs Zobrist and Reid Brignac hit quite well. Jeter is having a nice season, but he’s just not hitting at that level. By the end of the year, this should be much closer as Bartlett fades (.400 batting averages on balls in play just don’t last) — unless Jeter fades too.

Catcher
Rays: .234/.264/.342. Yankees: .280/.335/.444. Dioner Navarro is just killing the Rays at the plate. Even though Jorge Posada subs Francisco Cervelli, Jose Molina, and Kevin Cash haven’t hit well, they’ve still been better than Navarro. You almost have to try to be that bad. Navarro was on a little hot streak going into the break, and perhaps he’ll rebound in the second half. For now, the Yankees have something like a 20-run advantage here, and the more Posada they can pile on the better.

Left Field
Rays: .311/.375/.456. Yankees: .272/.348/.497. The Yankees have gotten seven more doubles and eight more home runs in roughly the same number of trips to the plate, and that power advantage helps offset Carl Crawford’s high batting average and stolen bases. In terms of run generation, this is close to being a tie.

upton_250_071509.jpgCenter Field
Rays: .240/.329/.396. Yankees: .289/.356/.432. B.J. Upton’s miserable start was highly damaging, but he had a terrific June (.324/.395/.562, 10 doubles, five home runs and 14 stolen bases), and if he hits up to his capabilities the rest of the way he’ll turn this position into a net positive. The Yankees’ just-good-enough production at the position gives them a roughly seven-run lead on the Rays. Again, that will change, because the Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera combination is unlikely to improve on its current showing, whereas Upton is fairly likely to have a .380 OBP in the second half.

Right Field
Rays: .274/.364/.456. Yankees: .252/.360/.457. The Rays play someone different here every day, but each part has been very good, with Zobrist, Gabe Gross (.301/.400/.451),and Gabe Kapler contributing. Rays’ right fielders have gotten a few more runs out of right field than the Yankees have, but that could change if Nick Swisher remembers how to hit or Gross remembers that he’s not Country Slaughter.

Designated Hitter
Rays: .255/.365/.401. Yankees: .272/.369/.534. An easy win for the Yankees, who are getting some of the best DH production in the business from Hideki Matsui plus assorted guest starts. Pat Burrell has been a spectacular disaster for the Rays and there’s no end in sight. They only have to live with him for the rest of this year and next, but the experience will cost them $16 million.

Boston’s offense doesn’t measure up in this crowd given David Ortiz’s struggles, Mike Lowell’s age and health issues, absent shortstops, and so on. They’re more of a pitching team this year. They beat the Yankees there, the Rays beat the Yankees on offense. It will be interesting to see if the Yankees have enough of what each team doesn’t have to survive the crunch.

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

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.  

The trouble with offense … and A-Rod

SO, WHAT HAVE WE GOT?
During the offseason, I frequently argued that though the Yankees had their attention focused overwhelmingly on pitching, the offense might prove to be a bigger problem. Then they signed Mark Teixeira, and I promptly shut up. It seems odd to talk about a team that has averaged more than five runs a game as having offensive deficits to make up, but the truth is that the particular construction of the Yankees means that it’s still a realistic possibility. The Yankees have to guard against being fooled by the numbers they are seeing, many of them distortions caused by their generous new home park. To this point in the season, certain aging Yankees would seem to have found the Fountain of Youth. What they’ve really discovered is a beautifully appointed new ballpark with wide concourses, laptops in the lockers, and a loving right-field power alley.

The home/road splits are damning: Derek Jeter, .295/.364/.381 with two home runs in 239 at-bats. Melky Cabrera, .278/.329/.354 with one home run in 79 at-bats. Johnny Damon, .260/.317/.449 with four home runs in 127 at-bats. Jorge Posada, .253/.348/.440 with three home runs in 75 at-bats. These numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re more realistic than what the players have done at home, more in line with what the players have done in the recent past and what we might have projected them to do this year.

arod250_062209.jpgThe Yankees are a .500 team on the road so far this season. Their road production has been, overall, quite good, given that Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui have done the bulk of their hitting while traveling. Teixeira has also done his part. Still, this hasn’t been enough to give the team the same explosiveness that it has had in the Bronx, especially when you throw in Alex Rodriguez’s post-surgical problems. (Likely unrelated to his staying up late. Though I’m sure we all want to jump on Rodriguez for his latest transgression, I’m pretty sure that sitting on a barstool next to Kate Hudson doesn’t stress his hip as much as playing does, which was more the point of his “fatigue” problems than his lack of sleep, dig?)  

Insofar as winning the division goes, this bifurcation would present less of a problem if the Yankees had won more than 60 percent of their games at home. The 1987 Minnesota Twins showed that in a soft division you could be a hundred-loss team on the road if you were a 100-win team at home. The Yankees are a few games off the latter pace. Say they were just a few games better in their own park, 25-10, instead of 21-14. That’s asking a lot of the Yankees, but we’re in the land of make-believe just now, so stay with me. Were the Yankees to maintain that kind of pace at home while staying around .500 on the road, they would finish the season with a record of somewhere around 99-63, and be in very good shape to win the Wild Card if not the division. They may win the Wild Card anyway, but you can’t take anything for granted.

There is something to be said for players that can take advantage of the features of your home park. Not every Yankee has popped a home run every 13 at-bats at home, as Damon has. The problem is that the park can’t discriminate. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by just 13 runs at home. Over time, that gap may narrow, perhaps because of the park, or maybe because Brett Tomko is pitching. Or Brett Tomko is pitching in the park. The players who have reaped the extra support might also regress, simply through age, fatigue (to use a dangerous word), injury, or changing weather patterns or other effects of the new park we can’t yet foresee.

In June, the Yankees are batting .247/.342/.424, roughly a league mark. The pitchers have been fine. June’s ERA is 3.85, actually the team’s best of the season. June’s starters have an ERA of 4.40, above-average for the league, and the transformed, Veras-free bullpen has an ERA of 2.87. Assuming that CC Sabathia isn’t hurt in any long-term-kind-of way, the pitching staff may well have achieved stability. It is the offense that should now be the source of worry. The lesson for the Yankees is clearly that if opportunities to upgrade the offense present themselves, any chance to replace a middling 35-year-old bat, they have to take it. If finances mitigate against such a move, that’s one thing, but sentimentality or the belief that Melky Cabrera (injured shoulder or not) is going to achieve consistency or Hideki Matsui is going to turn back the clock need to be ignored.

And most of all, perhaps more than anything else, a day-in, day-out A-Rod substitute must be found. Applicant should be able to out-hit Angel Berroa and outfield both he and the less-than-limber Rodriguez. Rodriguez could struggle all season, even if he takes a vow of celibacy. Again, the Yankees don’t want to take anything for granted.

Notes from around the league

NO YANKEES TONIGHT
What a drag. Although it would have been nice if they Ernie Banks-ed it on Saturday, they pushed the sucker off into the future instead. And thus, a few quick notes on the landscape:

?    It was a great week for youth, with Andrew McCutchen, and Gordon Beckham coming up, and Tommy Hanson officially due up on Sunday, and let’s throw in Matt Wieters, who made his debut a week ago today. All ranked among the top 50 or so prospects in the game, and three of the four are closer to the top than the bottom (McCutchen is the least promising of the bunch, but it’s a tough crowd).

carmona300_060509.jpg?    It was more than past time for the Indians to send Fausto Carmona to the Minors. He was wonderful in 2007, but his 2008 was bad and his 2009 has been miserable, with the former’s five walks per nine innings turning into six walks per nine. Carmona can still induce those grounders, but he wasn’t getting the double plays when he needed them, perhaps because he was more likely to pass the batter than get him out. Resultantly, just two of his 12 starts have earned the quality start seal of approval. His 2008 and 2009 combined: 10-13 in 34 starts, 6.10 ERA (including a shutout!), 181.1 innings, 195 hits, 111 walks, 94 strikeouts.

?    Billy Butler of the Royals is batting .288/.348/.440, which would be great if he were a shortstop, but it’s not that exciting coming from a first baseman/designated hitter. Butler is only 23, so he could find another gear, but right now he’s Shea Hillenbrand.

?    If the Yankees were to bail out on Hideki Matsui before the end of the year, would you be comfortable with it if the reason were that it would allow them to block the Red Sox off of Nick Johnson? Part two of that question is, would it be worth it for the Yankees to get into a prospect bidding war with the Red Sox in order to accomplish that goal?

?    It’s sad that the era of making “great man” movies ended 60 years ago, before Paul Muni or Edward G. Robinson could portray Branch Rickey.

?    As much as the Orioles have improved their club of late with graduates of the farm system and the occasional perspicacious trade acquisitions (Adam Jones, this means you), they’re still desperate for a quality shortstop. Whoever the next great, or even decent, Orioles shortstop is, he’s not presently in the organization.

?    Rumor has the Braves wanting to add Brad Penny, which seems like insurance for the kids. Their rotation has been the least of their problems. Nate McClouth isn’t a great bat; the reason he was a great add for the Braves is that despite this he’s still leaps and bounds above any other outfielder the Braves have played.

?    Given their many injuries and lack of organizational depth, by the time the Yankees see the Mets next week they might be starting Wayne Garrett and John Milner again. Parenthetically, Omar Minaya was nuts to put so much faith in former Yankees farmhand Omir Santos. He’s going to be far below the replacement level with the bat when all is said and done. He’s close now, actually … The Mets have played 12 games since Jose Reyes left the lineup, and though they’re 7-5 in those games, they’ve hit .252/.336/.378. We should probably only give them half-credit for their three-game sweep of the Nationals.

?    I keep hearing how after Randy Johnson there will be no more 300 game winners forever, but with health (the big caveat for everyone) CC Sabathia is going to have a shot at it. If he averages only 15 wins a year over the duration of his Yankees contract, he’ll hit his mid-30s with something like 220 wins. It would be a steep climb to 300 from there, but not any steeper than Johnson’s. As with the Big Unit, Sabathia is a weird physical specimen, so it’s hard to project his chances of staying healthy into old age.

?    “Up” was a terrific picture, and one that will speak more to the adults than the kids, though the kids will dig it, too. Next spring, when people are debating the Academy Awards and this film has been ghettoized in the “Best Animated Film” category, it’s a good bet that no, erm, inanimate film will have been better.

MORE FROM ME
Wholesome Reading has been updated with new entries, and there will be more throughout the weekend. Warning: Politics and fish! I’ll be back here if breaking news demands it, or if I just feel lonely for you. 

Too many double plays

LET’S KILL TWO!
If the Yankees hitting into three key double plays on Tuesday night bugged you, if you were awake to be bugged, then know that it’s about par for the course for these Yankees, who have gone for the two-outs-on-one-swing sale in about 11.6 percent of their opportunities this year, the seventh-worst rate in the majors this year. The Mariners lead the majors, hitting into a double play in 13.6 percent of their chances. This is kind of amazing, as the Mariners also have the lowest on-base percentage in the majors. They reach base less than anyone else, then kill the few runners they get faster than anyone else.

jeterblog_pbible052709.jpgWhat’s fascinating about the Yankees’ poor performance in double play situations is that for the most part, it’s not the regulars who are doing the damage. This year, the average AL batter is hitting into a twin killing 10.6 percent of the time (the NL rate is almost exactly 10 percent). For example, Derek Jeter has hit into four double plays in 25 opportunities, which is 16 percent. That looks bad, but it’s not, really — one fewer and he’d be right at the league average. The same goes for Melky Cabrera, who has also pounded into four DPs in 25 chances. Brett Gardner, with two in 17 chances, is at the league average, which is surprising given his speed, but less so when one considers that he hits more ground balls than any Yankee except Derek Jeter. The worst Yankees regular is Robby Cano, who has hit into five in 28 chances, or 17.9 percent, but again, that’s not a horror-movie number — Geovany Soto and Mike Lowell are at 30 percent in a significant number of chances (29 and 40, respectively). Several Yankees have actually done a terrific job at staying out of the double play. Nick Swisher, last night’s DP villain, has hit into only two in 33 chances. Johnny Damon has only two. Hideki Matsui and Mark Teixeira are both around six percent.

It’s actually the guys who haven’t played much, or played too much due to injuries, that are driving the Yankees’ into a high number of twin killings at bat. Together, Cody Ransom, Xavier Nady, Kevin Cash, Angel Berroa, Jose Molina, and Francisco Cervelli have hit into 11 double plays in 44 chances, or 45 percent. There’s not much that Joe Girardi can do to address the situation except not play those guys — he already calls as many or more hit-and-run plays as any manager in the game. Unfortunately, he hasn’t always had the choice not to play them, and the existence or continuation of Ransom, Cash, Berroa, and Molina as Yankees was the general manager’s call — but now we’re away from talking about the double play and once more in the realm of depth, so never mind.

In the short term, it’s little consolation that the Yankees blew a chance to take first place in part because of missed offensive opportunities, but at least you can be sure that it was a bit of a poorly timed fluke on the part of two of the three. There’s also an “on the other hand,” which is that when Jorge Posada comes back the team’s double play rate will actually pick up, because Posada runs like the 37-year-old catcher he is. Fortunately, Posada does other things with the bat that more than make up it. You can’t say that about the 11-for-44ers above.  

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Orioles 7, Blue Jays 2: Just over 10,000 showed up at Camden Yards to see the Orioles deal the Jays their eighth straight loss. During the streak, Jays batters are hitting .251/.306/.331, which is very bad but isn’t too different from what Padres hitters did during their recent winning streak. Of course, the Padres had great pitching, whereas the Jays have allowed nearly six runs a game. No doubt you’ve heard that Matt Wieters finally comes up on Friday. With Wieters, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis the Orioles are finally changing, and none too soon… I’ll talk more about Wednesday’s game in our next entry, but it should be noted that the Jays dropped their ninth straight to the Orioles in daytime action, the pen being unable to follow up Roy Halladay’s strong start. The Jays are now just four games over .500 and the division is wide open.

Mets 6, Nationals 1: The Nats DFA’d Daniel Cabrera. As Bill Ladson reported at MLB.com, GM Mike Rizzo said, “I looked at the execution of the performance and it wasn’t up to par. I was tired of watching it.” You have to appreciate a candid GM. Among other things, this should inoculate the Yankees from having to face the spectacularly tedious Mr. Cabrera during interleague play (as Bob Uecker said in “Major League,” “Ball three… Ball four… Ball eight…”). Adam Dunn homered again… Just sayin’. Another home run for Gary Sheffield, and he’s now batting .291/.430/.535. Talk about getting something for nothing, and a needed something now that the Mets are in the position of having to play 20-year-old prospect Fernando Martinez, who hasn’t actually looked very prospect-y in years.

Reds 6, Astros 4:
Another three-hit night for Miguel Tejada, but that was most of the fun as Roy Oswalt is no longer the lucky rabbit of yore. Among the most unexpected events in baseball this season: a Laynce Nix renaissance in left field for the Reds, which is kind of like a Rod Stewart renaissance taking over for the late Joe Strummer in a Clash reunion tour. It’s just not something you’d ever think about.

pavano_052709.jpgIndians 5, Rays 1: Can’t tell a lie — Carl Pavano killed. Four Indians hit home runs, three of which probably shouldn’t have been in the lineup, but sometimes you win with your worst foot forward. Both of these clubs lost key players yesterday, with Jason Bartlett hitting the DL with a sprained ankle, and Grady Sizemore may take a seat with a left elbow that’s feeling poorly. The Indians shuffled Matt LaPorta off the roster to get another center fielder up to the bigs, so my criticism of them yesterday was in error.

Phillies 5, Marlins 3:
The much-denigrated (at least by me) Joe Blanton had one of the best starts of his career, shutting out the Marlins for seven frames, striking out 11. That has far more to do with the Marlins with Blanton, as their defining characteristic as an offense is the strikeout. Make that double if Hanley Ramirez’s groin sidelines him for more than 30 seconds.

Cubs 6, Pirates 1: Cut short by rain, and you can expect that Lou Piniella danced in it, maybe more like Roger Daltrey closing out “Quadrophenia” than Gene Kelly — this win got the team that was going to end the 100-year-old dry spell to the break-even point. Elements of the Cubs that haven’t disappointed this year: Kosuke Fukudome, Ted Lilly, Johnny Evers. Evers in particular has done exactly what was expected of him.

Cardinals 8, Brewers 1: The Cards are pitching at about 20 percent above league average, the mark of not only a good pitching team, but a staff on the verge of having a great season. Whether the Cards can improve that much more I don’t know, but in this division they might not have to. Extra-credit to Adam Wainwright for his solo home run, thereby batting in as many runs as he allowed in seven innings.

Twins 5, Red Sox 2: One of the season’s great flukes — Nick Blackburn striking out seven Red Sox. Blackburn never strikes out seven anybodies. Jacoby Ellsbury has a 21-game hitting streak going, during which he’s batting .333/.366/.417. During the streak, he’s stolen 10 bases, been caught four times, and has driven in four runs.

Royals
6, Tigers 1:
How does Jose Guillen have a .412 OBP? Not “how”– that’s like asking where babies come from–I mean, “Why?” …KC shortstops, principally Mike Aviles (now on the DL) are hitting .183/.214/.250 this year. With anything from the position, they might be leading the division right now. It also hurts that David DeJesus is having the worst season of his career. Haven’t mentioned another fine Zack Greinke start, and I won’t, except to say that for some, “potential” is a curse. It’s grand to see someone survive it.

Dodgers 7, Rockies 1:
And there was much gnashing of teeth in Denver given the club’s .400 winning percentage, or maybe it was just losing to Eric Milton (and congratulations to the former Yankees’ draftee for making it back). Andre Ethier in May: .190/.298/.266, following up a .306/.423/.553. Shades of Melky ’08! That’s not to suggest that Ethier won’t be back, but that Melky should have been, or maybe that we just don’t know what turns a hitter on or off–the recipe is probably something like one-third mental, one-third physical, and one-third luck (sprinkle lightly with shredded cheese, serve over pasta).

Diamondbacks 6, Padres 5: Thus endeth the Padres’ winning streak, as Max Scherzer strikes out 10 in seven innings…  Mark Reynolds is just off of last year’s 204-strikeout pace; he’d finish with 202 in the same number of at-bats. Scherzer is only 2-7 in his brief major league career, but his ERA is 3.21, and he’s K’d 119 in 106.2 innings. Of the current roster, Scherzer and Justin Upton will be part of the next great ‘Backs team, but you can’t be certain of anyone else. At .173/.220/.313, Chris Young has to be one of the biggest failures to launch in recent baseball history, a kid who came up with all the tools but didn’t develop a centimeter from where he started.

White Sox 4, Angels 2:
Big day for the Nix family, as Jayson hit two home runs to go with Laynce’s one. What is it with that family and the letter “y?” Big Scrabble fans? Bart Colon’s win pushed his quality start percentage up to 33 percent, still well below average… Bobby Abreu hit his first home run of the season.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: The A’s did all their scoring in one frame, Jason Giambi driving in two runs on a single as the Seattle pen tossed away six shutout innings from Jarrod Washburn. With Kenji Johjima off for a long stay on the DL, the M’s didn’t call up Jeff Clement, batting .309/.382/.533 at Triple-A Tacoma. The guy has his limitations — he’s an offensive catcher with a big swing — but given that the M’s are by far the worst offensive club on the circuit , you’d think they would go for a little more offense. Oddly, for a team that can’t hit, the Mariners have tried the fewest hitters in the American League. They’re standing pat, even though their lineup looks a lot like that of the ’54 Pirates.

Giants 4, Braves 0: And nothing to say about it except, “Lincecum!” Also, every time I load up the news on the Internet, there’s something about “Jon and Kate.” I have not the foggiest who they are, and don’t think I’m going to try to find out. Jon, Kate, Bread, Circuses — there are bigger fish to fry, like baseball (?).

Pitchers, Ransom need to step it up

ccsabathiapblog041609.jpgOPENING DAY U-TURN
The pomp of the first Opening Day at Yankee Stadium: The Sequel was all well and good, but in the end the club has to execute. The Yankees confronted a 2-7 Indians club led by Cliff Lee, a potential flash in the pan who had been thoroughly mistreated by his every opponent in Spring Training and his first two starts. The Yankees bowed, in part because the offense stranded 27 runners, in part because Jose Veras and Damaso Marte (who hasn’t been the same pitcher with the Yankees he was prior) played arsonist, and if you’re looking for a third culprit, point to CC Sabathia, who negated his ability to throw 120 pitches by burning through them in less than six innings.

Thanks the amazing nine-run seventh inning pitched by Veras and Marte, pitching will receive the bill for this afternoon’s debacle, but the offense could have changed the complexion of the game at any time. Despite getting the first hit at YS: TS, Johnny Damon stranded five runners. Despite hitting the first home run at YS: TS, Jorge Posada stranded six. Special credit must go to Cody Ransom. Ransom’s first at-bat came in the second inning with one out and Robby Cano at second base. The third baseman struck out. In his next at-bat, in the bottom of the fourth, he batted with Hideki Matsui on first base and flew out to right field. He came to the plate again in the fifth with runners on first and third. He grounded to short. Runners were on first and second with two outs in the bottom of the seventh when Ransom struck out again. Finally, with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees just looking for some dignity, or maybe a miracle comeback, Ransom grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. He left nine runners on base, and presumably because the Yankees are carrying 13 pitchers and no bench players, Joe Girardi let him.

The Yankees’ 5-5 start is discouraging, but it’s not as depressing as is Ransom’s first 10 games as A-Rod substitute. Ransom is not a kid. He’s a 33-year-old vet. He has had six shots at a big league career since 2001 without ever catching on. We are likely looking at his last chance to have at least a single season in the major leagues, first as Alex Rodriguez’s substitute, then as his caddy. The odds were against Ransom succeeding, because his long experience in the minors showed that he would not hit with enough consistency. Despite this, his small-sample hot streak of last fall gave hope that he could make it. This is the kind of player who is great fun to root for. Unfortunately, Ransom is now 3-for-30 with 10 strikeouts, and it is difficult to see how the Yankees can afford to keep playing him, however quickly A-Rod is expected to come back, or even how they can retain him on the Major League roster once Rodriguez is active. Thursday’s defeat had many fathers, but any kind of contribution from Ransom early on might have meant a different complexion to the game.

matsui275blogpbible.jpgMeanwhile, despite the best efforts of Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano, the rest of the offense has yet to click into gear. The Swisher-free components of the outfield have been a total loss, and there’s a danger that that could be a season-long affliction. Hideki Matsui has looked very sluggish, and Mark Teixeira’s wrist and penchant for slow starts has crippled his numbers. Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have hung in, but four bats is well short of an offensive load. Take out the 11 runs the Yankees scored against Baltimore in the third game of the season and the club is averaging just 4.2 runs of offense per game. You don’t want to hit the panic button after 10 games, and some of the elements will heat up a bit, even Ransom — but heat is relative. They may not heat up enough to make a truly potent offense. That’s something that Brian Cashman is going to have to watch.

SHAWKEY-SABATHIA
Sailor Bob Shawkey was the first starting pitcher at Yankee Stadium, and CC Sabathia will go down as the first at YS: TS. What was not noted today was that Sailor Bob’s history with the Yankees was contentious. After a very good, just-south-of-Cooperstown career, Shawkey became the manager of the Yankees in 1930, replacing Miller Huggins, who had died during the previous season. The club went 86-68, finishing third, and Shawkey was viewed as a failure because former teammates like Babe Ruth wouldn’t take him all that seriously (one wonders who Ruth did take seriously). In an especially coldhearted move, the Yankees replaced Shawkey with Joe McCarthy but didn’t bother telling him. Shawkey happened to walk into GM Ed Barrow’s office as McCarthy was heading out and put two and two together. “It was a dirty deal,” Shawkey said. In anticipation of Yogi Berra years later, Shawkey cut off all contact with the team. He didn’t return until the threw out the first pitch at the renovated Yankee Stadium  — 45 years later. He was 85 years old.

I wonder if the opening day crowd of 2054 will get to see a first pitch from a 73-year-old Sabathia. Try to hang on if you can. I’ll try too, and we’ll talk about it then.

SKINNER

Always interesting to see who gets a hand and who doesn’t when players are announced individually. There wasn’t even polite applause for Indians coach Joel Skinner, who caught for the Yankees for three seasons. I guess fans have forgotten his amazing inability to make contact — in 556 at-bats with the Yankees he struck out 158 times, hitting .214/.299/.253. In comparison to Skinner, Jose Molina is Mickey Cochrane. Maybe they do remember, but are still mad that the Yankees gave up Ron Hassey for him…

…They definitely remembered Carl Pavano. That was clear.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

  • Another depressing bit: many fans and pundits held out hope that this would be the year that Royals’ third baseman Alex Gordon really took off. Instead, he’s headed for surgery with a cartilage tear in his right hip. No word on when he’ll be back as of yet.
  • I keep forgetting to mention Dewayne Wise separating his shoulder  and thus exiting the Chicago White Sox’ lineup. He was another player, like Nady (though a far lesser talent than Nady), whose use I railed against. As with Nady, I’d rather he take a seat than take a surgeon…
  • Unless Tony LaRussa gets caught taking betting tips from Pete Rose, he’s going to the Hall of Fame. If he manages to keep his Cardinals winning at anything like their present (8-3) rate with the roster he has, he’ll have gone an extra length towards earning his plaque. Of course, today’s game against the Cubs was their first against a team of any real talent. 

A short list of fill-ins at third base (if need be)

arodpbblog030509.jpgNO SURGERY FOR A-ROD…FOR NOW
Remember how well no surgery for Hideki Matsui worked out? I hope the Yankees have received better advice this time. The Yankees will still need insurance for the position — even if Rodriguez can “play,” we’ve seen what this kind of injury did to Chase Utley and Mike Lowell last season.

DELVING DEEPER

Throughout the evening I’ll be spelunking through the world’s roster flotsam to see if there are any third base possibilities that could provide the Yankees with better depth than they currently possess. This is emphatically a non-systematic look, no better than guesses and random suggestions. I’m sticking with lower echelon guys, because the team is unlikely to try to deal for an All-Star type (if one is even available) until it has a better idea of how much Rodriguez it’s really going to get. Thus the trick is finding someone who will fit on the bench or in the minors if/when Rodriguez becomes available and is also demonstrably more potent than Angel Berroa and Cody Ransom. Fortunately, that group includes everyone. Here’s the first pile.

Ray Durham (Free Agent): Durham, 37, can still hit, having batted .289/.380/.453 for the Giants and Brewers last year. A legitimate switch-hitter at one time, his right-handed stroke seems to have died over the last couple of years. As a career second baseman, the last time he played third base in the majors was… never.

Esteban German (about to be a Free Agent): German was designated for assignment by the Royals a few days ago. He has played a little third base each of the last five years, though he’s not particularly good at it. German was once a useful offensive player, making up for his lack of punch with a high walk rate. Then he stopped walking.

Mark Grudzielanek
(Free Agent): Grudz is a career .290 hitter but has never produced much because he doesn’t get on base or hit with any power. Over the last two seasons, he hit .301/.345/.415, though he missed about half of 2008 with injuries. He last played third base in 1995. This would be a desperation pick-up, but “desperate” describes the situation with a high degree of accuracy.

Jeff Keppinger, Danny Richar
(Reds 40-Man): The Reds have a legion of infielders in camp and might not mind moving one. Richar will turn 26 this year. He’s a left-handed hitter with a little pop who has spent all but 72 games of his career in the minors, where he has been a .288/.338/.440. PECOTA has a weighted mean projection of .253/.318/.401 for Richar, but that’s as a Red — in another ballpark, that projection would presumably drop. Keppinger is a vet who can usually hit for average, though injuries prevented him from doing so in the second half last year. Keppinger has mostly played short in the majors, but he’s stretched there. Right now he seems to be behind Alex Gonzalez and Jerry Hairston, Jr. on the depth chart.

Kevin Kouzmanoff
(Padres 40-Man): This one is likely a reach unless the Yankees want to send a real prospect or two, but the Padres are a financial mess and have a bit of depth at this position as sophomore Chase Headley could take over the hot corner if Kouzmanoff were to leave town. No defensive whiz, Kouzmanoff does have a potent righty bat that has been camouflaged by Petco Park — last year he hit .226/.268/.390 at home, but .292/.329/.473 on the road. He’s impatient and strikes out quite a bit, but the road figures represent the real hitter.  

Scott McClain
(Giants NRI): The soon to be 37-year-old journeyman, once an expansion Ray, got the call from the Giants last fall and hit .273/.368/.485, which is probably the high upside of his hitting abilities. He’s been a pro since 1990 and has spent some time in Japan as well as the American minors. Including his time overseas, he has hit 405 pro home runs — we’re talking Crash Davis here. As a domestic Minor Leaguer, he’s hit .271/.357/.484, including .300/.388/.553 at Triple-A last season. He’s never been a great fielder, and an optimistic Major League projection would be .240/.320/.420, but that would far surpass the Berroa/Ransom combo.

Dallas McPherson
(Marlins 40-man): The former Angels prospect, now 28. A left-handed power hitter, he led the minors in home runs last year, batting .275/.379/.618 with 42 home runs at Triple-A Albuquerque. He also struck out 168 times in 448 at-bats. He’s no fielder and would struggle to reach base 30 percent of the time, but he’d hit a few balls over the fences.

More to come…

Beat out that rhythm on the horse

matsui_250_022509.jpgPeter Abraham, live-blogging today’s game, reported that Nick Swisher batted with the bases loaded, was behind in the count 0-2, and came back to work a walk. I got curious as to how often that actually happened in real games, and which Yankees were the best at rescuing a bad situation with patience and selectivity. Working our way around the diamond:

Career walks after down 0-2:
Jorge Posada, 39 in 906 PA (4.3 percent).
Mark Teixeira, 29 in 619 PA (4.7 percent).
Robinson Cano, 7 in 386 PA (1.8 percent).
Alex Rodriguez, 53 in 1597 PA (3.3 percent).
Derek Jeter, 69 in 1442 PA (4.8 percent).
Johnny Damon, 37 in 1445 PA (2.6 percent).
Melky Cabrera, 4 in 269 PA (1.5 percent).
Nick Swisher, 20 in 405 PA (4.9 percent).
Xavier Nady, 10 in 473 PA (2.1 percent).
Hideki Matsui, 24 in 477 PA (5.0 percent).

I don’t know if this tells us much more than that the most patient hitters on the team are able to carry that patience through even the most difficult situations. Before running down the numbers, I had made a little bet with myself that Jeter would be tops in this category, not because he’s the most patient Yankee, but because of how many times I’ve seen him bear down in such situations. My guess was close, but it’s Matsui that takes the prize. Often you hear that clichéd description “professional hitter” applied to players who are no such thing, but what Matsui does, turning lost times at the plate into something positive, is truly deserving of the appellation. Hobbled Godzilla has only hit .220/.262/.342 in his career when down 0-2, but that’s actually a big accomplishment — no-hitter does well when he has only one pitch to work with; last year the American League as a whole batted .185/.217/.274 after an 0-2 count, so Matsui is well ahead of the pack.

I know you’re wondering about Jeter in such situations. He’s been even better than Matsui, batting .230/.283/.340 after 0-2. Hey, you’ve got to do stuff like that to get to the Hall of Fame.

DON’T BURY THE LEAD(OFF HITTER), STEVE!
In this morning’s entry, I wished that Brett Gardner would hit a triple today. Instead, he led off the game with a home run, pulling the second pitch of the game over the right field fence. Your move, Melky. And Kei Igawa pitched well, too, but we’ll pretend that didn’t happen.

TOMKONOMY
According to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, Brett Tomko is in competition with Dan Giese and Alfredo Aceves for a spot as a long man out of the pen. All three of those guys would probably make spot starts as well, should any be necessary. As I suggested this morning, Tomko really has no case to make here, having been roundly pounded every year since 1997, with the exception of 2004. As a starter last year, his ERA was 6.17. He pitched 16 innings as a reliever and slowed 12 runs, including four homers. In 177.1 career innings out of the pen his ERA is 4.92.

The best choice here might actually be Giese. Aceves seems like a very interesting starter, and I’m all for the Yankees embracing what little youth they chose to bring to camp, but I worry about his low strikeout rate and high home run rate in a bullpen role. He may simply be unsuited. It won’t hurt the Yankees to try, of course. Giese didn’t pitch that much between injuries, but was more or less effective when he did, particularly before his post-injury appearances in September. He got hammered in five innings that last month (we should watch out for any carryover to this spring), but to that point his ERA was 2.58 in 38.1 innings. Giese seems to be comfortable in the swingman role, and as a 31-year-old rookie last year is no doubt just happy to be in the majors.

All of that said, we’re talking about the last man on the staff. Given the quality of the Yankees rotation and their other bullpen options, this should be the last important decision Joe Girardi makes. Last year Giese generally relieved in low-leverage situations, and it seems unlikely that Girardi would have to call on him, or Brett Tomko, to protect too many leads. Still, if healthy, the guy knows how to pitch and deserves to have something of an inside track given his incumbency. Tomko does not know how to pitch, or if he does hasn’t translated that into consistent big league success — if he had, he wouldn’t be pitching for the last spot on the Yankees, he’d be in someone’s rotation. 

Another note on Posada

posada_250_012109.jpgSpurred on by Buster Olney’s mention of this same topic in his blog posting today (I shan’t link; Olney is, shall we say, persnickety about who he links to, so I shall be the same). Olney writes: “If [Jorge Posada] can’t catch, he will have to get the bulk of his at-bats as a designated hitter, compelling the Yankees to press for a trade of one or two veteran hitters, among Xavier Nady, Nick Swisher and Hideki Matsui.”

Seems like they’re working on the latter anyway, as well they should given the declining value of two of the three. As for the designated hitter part of the story, let’s examine that. Last year, the aggregate rates for the DH position were .256/.339/.435, with a home run hit every 24.4 at-bats. The previous season they were .268/.355/.447 with a home run every 25 at-bats.

Parenthetically, the DH numbers always seem to be less than you would expect. The American League as a whole hit .268/.336/.420 in 2008. As a group, the players whose sole job it was to provide offense weren’t a whole lot better. It’s tempting to conclude that AL managers aren’t doing a very good job of designating good hitters, but it that wouldn’t be completely fair; the family of designated hitters had a rough year. Aubrey Huff and Milton Bradley were great, and David Ortiz was good when he wasn’t hurt.

Then there were some rude surprises. Jim Thome struggled early, pulled it together for three months, then slumped again. Matsui was off to a great start when his knees began affecting his production, and his post-injury hitting was even worse. Billy Butler and Jonny Gomes didn’t hit up to their abilities (Butler turned it on in the second half, but it was too late to save his overall numbers). Frank Thomas and Jose Vidro hit the end of the road, and Gary Sheffield hit the Last Rest Stop Before the End of the Road.

The previous year had Ortiz having a monster year, as well as productive seasons from Thome and Jack Cust. There were also some real disasters. I had blocked Shea Hillenbrand out of my memories of the 2007 Angels. He hit .238/.258/.320 as a designated hitter. Whichever team executive thought of Hillenbrand and let him putter on for a quarter of the season should have been cashiered. As planning goes, handing your team a Hillenbrand for its DH is not too dissimilar from those Civil War supply officers who sent their soldiers into battle wearing shoes with soles made out of old cupcake wrappers held together by cat spit.

In the Olney scenario, the Yankees wouldn’t be going with Hillenbrand, or Monty Meigs at DH, but Posada. The question is, if Posada is restricted to DH, can he give the Yankees average or better DH production, something along the lines of the league rates we’ve seen — let’s say a .270 average, .350 on-base percentage, and .440 slugging percentage?

If we go by Posada’s career rates, the answer should be an easy yes. He is, after all, a career .277/.380/.477 hitter. Yet, we’re talking about a Posada that is now 37 years old and is coming off of an injury which affected his swing. As such, Posada’s future is something of a black box. We can look at projections like those at compiled at Fangraphs — Bill James’ system figures .277/.378/.455, CHONE forecasts .266/.363/.434. Posada will hit .285/.374/.466 in Marcel’s prognostication. We should also add PECOTA to that. I can’t tell you exactly what it says just yet, but I will say that it’s a good deal more pessimistic than the rest. It’s also the most conservative on playing time. The projection systems, in the order that I listed them, see something like full-time play, almost full-time play, something like 60 percent play, and, last, PECOTA with something like half a season of playing time.

In Sabermetric circles there is often debate about the relative accuracy of these systems; as a BPer and the co-author and editor of a book which bills itself (tongue in cheek) as the home of the “deadly accurate” PECOTA forecast, I have to dance with the forecaster that brought me. Yet, in this case, I would be prepared to throw it all away, because everything Posada does depends on how he comes back from the surgery. None of these systems know that, although PECOTA has taken last year’s reduction of playing time into account. Posada could do it all, or nothing at all. And suddenly we’re invoking old Frank Sinatra tunes, so it’s probably time to move on.