The Yankees are now 69-42, which puts them on a pace for 101 wins. Let’s say the Yankees maintain that pace — they don’t get better and they don’t get worse. The Red Sox would need to win 102 games to take the division title. Given their present record of 62-48, the Red Sox would need to win 40 of their remaining 52 games, or 77 percent. That’s equivalent to winning 125 games over a full season.
While not impossible, it’s also not likely. Consider an alternative scenario, one in which the Yankees somehow have a rough go of it the rest of the way and play a game under .500 for the remainder of the schedule. In that case, the Yankees would finish at 94-68. To reach 95 wins, the Red Sox would need to go 33-19. That’s a .635 winning percentage, in the realm of possibility, but it still requires Boston to spend one third of the season playing as if they were a 103-win team. Obviously, for any team behind the Red Sox, such as the Rays, to displace the Yankees, the road is that much harder.
In short: While you can never take anything for granted, this sweep has put the Yankees in a very, very good place.
Taking the Yankees’ initial 0-8 against the Red Sox out of the equation, New York is 69-34 (.670), and Boston is 54-48 (.529). Those wins by the Red Sox were legitimate, but now seem like a fluke event. The record the rest of the way is simply not comparable. The 2009 Yankees could be a team we will remember. However, much remains to be done. As I pointed out yesterday, the Yankees have had “special” teams in recent years that didn’t bring him any rings. The 2002, 2003, and 2004 Yankees all won over 100 games and were, respectively, bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Angels team they can’t seem to beat, mismanaged to a loss in the World Series, and the victims of a historic reversal of fortune against the Red Sox in the ’04 ALCS. The intensity that the Yankees showed in this series, particularly on the pitching side, has to carry over or the events of the past weekend will end up as little more than a footnote.
Like all of you, I was initially shocked and appalled at Phil “Home Run” Coke pitching to right-handed batters in the eighth inning, and doubly appalled when premonitions of doom proved to be highly accurate. I’m not going to criticize the manager for that call, not with too much conviction, anyway. For obvious reasons, Joe Girardi had not let the world know that the bullpen was mostly off-limits. I will say that if Girardi really has an ironclad aversion to using pitchers in three consecutive games (a quick look at the record shows that Joe Borowski pitched in four straight games in August 2006 and pitched in three straight games on one other occasion that year; Matt Herges also did so once. Jose Veras appeared in three straight games without an off-day twice last August, and Damaso Marte pitched in four straight games during the same period) then his usage of Hughes for one out in each of the previous two games was shortsighted.
Today will bring more in the way of decisions and bullpen usage because Sergio Mitre is pitching, which is another way of saying that Chad Gaudin will be making his Yankees debut in the fourth or fifth inning. Mitre is 11-23 with a 5.48 ERA in his career, and he’s been lambasted this season. It’s not clear why the Yankees are persevering with him, especially since Brian Cashman has secured the team a better alternative in Gaudin. If the postseason is truly assured, or at least likely, the fifth starter is now auditioning for a role in the bullpen. Try to imagine the circumstances in which Girardi would call Mitre in during a playoff game. No, I can’t think of one either.
The Blue Jays are 12-19 since the end of June. The Yankees will miss Roy Halladay in this series, which means they have a more than fair chance to keep their winning streak alive. That’s if they don’t throw it away on one more Mitre adventure. The only way the club can lose now is to take things for granted, and pitching Mitre is doing just that.
FIRST COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
Wow, what a game.
SECOND COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
Junichi Tazawa, welcome to the Major Leagues. Best wishes for the rest of your career.
THIRD COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
Is Alex Rodriguez now a “true Yankee?” I feel as if I’ve asked that question before.
FOURTH COMMENT ON LAST NIGHT
What a terrific job by the Yankees pitching staff. Given the home run propensities of Yankee Stadium II, stretches of 15 scoreless innings are not going to happen too often. As the stalemate headed into late and extra innings, every left-handed batter carried with him to the plate the potential to loft a fly ball towards right field for a cheap four bases. Given the eight walks the Yankees handed out during the game, that home run, if it had come, very possibly would have been worth more than one run. Yet it didn’t happen, thanks to a combination of good pitching and everything lining up right for one night. Boston’s four hits were singles, and the Yankees outfielders rarely pressed their backs toward the walls.
Joe Girardi got away with a couple of calls in this game. He burned Phil Hughes on a one-batter appearance in the eighth inning, accelerating his path to the less trusted element of the bullpen after Mariano Rivera had thrown his inning. That these pitchers — Alfredo Aceves, who had struggled of late, the seemingly never-quite-right Brian Bruney, and the homer-prone Phil Coke — performed exceptionally well is a bonus from this epic game, a sign that perhaps the whole bullpen is ready to perform at a high level.
Girardi made another odd call when he used Jerry Hairston as a defensive replacement for Nick Swisher in the top of the ninth. While Swisher’s spot would not come up in the bottom of the ninth and almost certainly could not come up before the inning ended or the Yankees delivered a walk-off hit, it had the potential to deprive the team of a useful offensive weapon had the game proceeded to extra innings, as indeed it did. Inevitably, Girardi had to pinch-hit for Hairston with Eric Hinske, a defender who didn’t harm the Yankees but is not normally thought of as being on a par with Roberto Clemente. With a 5-foot-10 outfielder, you also have to worry about certain balls being over his head. Swisher has had some defensive problems this year, but the move was superfluous and potentially harmful. Girardi proved at least the former when he undid it an inning later.
It was also possible to first-guess his decision to take off the bunt when Melky Cabrera was batting with runners on first and second and none out in the third. It was early in the game and one-run strategies are generally to be frowned upon, but it was already clear that Josh Beckett’s current hot streak was unlikely to be broken on this particular evening. Cabrera retains one of the Yankees’ highest double-play rates (13.2 percent), so the bunt was a reasonable percentage ploy in that situation.
In the end, Alex Rodriguez and six pitchers rendered all the chess moves moot. Put this one on a DVD, Yankees, and show it in full to each incoming class of draftees starting next June. They’ll learn a lot about the pleasures and pain, frustration and elation inherent in playing for this team.
THE LAST TOMKO IS COMIN’ DOWN THE LINE
Yesterday, the intrepid Peter Abraham reported that Brett Tomko was bitter about being designated for assignment:
“I don’t think I got a fair shot,” he said. “I pitched great in spring training and didn’t make the team. I pitched great in the minors, got called up and didn’t get much of a chance. I understand other guys are pitching great. But it could have been different. I can’t see the point in coming back.”
In response, Joe Girardi said, “A lot of it was circumstances… We played a lot of tight games and we went with the guys we were using in those innings. It’s tough sometimes because you want to use everyone and get everyone innings.”
This was very gracious of Joe; I imagined him saying something more like Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men”:
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you,’ and went on your way.”
Tomko might very well have said “thank you” to Girardi and Brian Cashman for giving any chance at all to a 36-year-old with who had not posted an ERA under 4.48 since 2004 and had an ERA of 5.07 and a record of 22-41 over his previous four seasons. Tomko has never been a good pitcher, and that he had 14 good innings at Scranton is meaningless when held against the nearly 1800 innings of his big-league career.
As rarely as Tomko pitched, there was good reason for Girardi’s reluctance to use him: you can’t have a reliever who gives up more than two home runs for every nine innings pitched. Close games get un-close in a real hurry and bad games get worse. Tomko can’t even blame Yankee Stadium II for his longball problems, as four out of five cannonades came on the road. Such results would seem to call for more humility. That’s not Tomko’s way–his career will be remembered more for tiffs with Jack McKeon, Don Gullett, Lou Piniella, and Felipe Alou than for his pitching.
MEANWHILE, THE COMPETITION II
In talking about the Adam LaRoche trade to the Red Sox, I forgot to take into consideration Rocco Baldelli as a right-handed alternative to J.D. Drew, but fortunately the Red Sox made another deal so I get to revisit the fellows from the Fens.
Theo Epstein’s second deal of Wednesday involved dumping shortstop Julio Lugo, who had been designated for assignment. Lugo sometimes hits well for a middle infielder, but doesn’t always–see his utter disappearance as a member of the Dodgers and Red Sox during the second half of 2006 and all of 2007–but he doesn’t give his team enough offense to make up for the fact that he’s a mediocre fielder.
Lugo still makes for a good pickup for the Cardinals because they’re locked in a tight race in a slack division (or maybe that’s a slack race in a tight division) and any little advantage they can claim could make an outsized difference. Due to Khalil Greene’s various problems and the general failure of various substitutes, Cards shortstops are batting only .251/.307/.356. Any good stuff in there was contributed by Brendan Ryan (.294/.328/.382, which is better than nothing without being great), but Ryan can’t be counted on to hit the rest of the way–he’s currently in a pretty good slump right now. A .271/.335/.390 career hitter, Lugo should be able to keep the Cardinals overall production at short on the good side of what they’ve done to date.
The Red Sox are picking up the rest of Lugo’s contract, which runs through the end of next season. In return, the Sox get a player they can’t really use right now, outfielder Chris Duncan, brother of Shelley. A left-handed power hitter who hasn’t hit for power since having back surgery (if not before), Duncan is a defensive disaster in the outfield, so even if he were to start hitting Terry Francona would have a hard time figuring out where to place him. He’s headed for Pawtucket right now, and he needs it–over the last two seasons, Duncan has played 163 games, or just over one full season, and he’s hit .237/.337/.361 with 11 home runs in 482 at-bats. A corner outfielder who does that is flirting with professional extinction.
20-GAME WATCH: ATHLETICS AT YANKEES
W-L RS/G RA/G AVG OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9
A’s 9-11 5.0 4.6 .297 .354 .439 37 21 7 1.1 3.9 7.9
Yankees 15-5 5.4 4.6 .281 .370 .463 24 8 10 1.2 3.5 6.9
The numbers above make the A’s look like a better offensive team than they are; they’re distorted by their just-completed series with the Twins in which they twice scored in double figures. The A’s hit .376/.444/.573 in those three games, .281/.336/.412 in the other 17 games in our sample. That’s still a nice uptick from the team’s seasonal rates of .250/.321/.378. I credit the surge to the team’s sending Jason Giambi to the disabled list with a critical case of not being able to play baseball.
Despite the recent flurry of hitting, the main thing this A’s team has going for it is a young pitching staff which has exceeded expectations. If the Nationals had gotten this kind of performance out of their staff of randomly selected 22-year-olds, they’d be a borderline contender in the NL East. The A’s have the opposite problem, not enough hitting to support a surprisingly effective group. Thanks to the four-game series, the Yankees will get to sample the entire rotation with the exception of Trevor Cahill. New Jersey native Vin Mazzaro goes tonight (weather permitting), and he’s going to have problems in YS II–although his fastball reputedly sinks, he’s been pitching like a scary fly ball type and giving up home runs, with four balls leaving the yard in his last 14 innings, which is a rate that would frighten even Tomko.
Friday’s starter, lefty Brett Anderson, came to the A’s as part of the Dan Haren trade (ah, Dan Haren). Just 21, Anderson is a fastball-slider-occasional curve/change guy who throws in the low 90s and up. He’s taken a step forward in his last five starts, going 4-1 with a 1.15 ERA (including a shutout of the Red Sox). Opposing batters have hit .150/.216/.187 with no home runs in those starts. The Yankees have faced some very good pitchers in the last month–John Lannan, Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jarrod Washburn, Roy Halladay, Jared Weaver, John Lackey, Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson–Anderson is a challenge worthy of that group.
Lefty Gio Gonzalez was acquired from the White Sox as part of a package for Nick Swisher. He’s a fastball-curveball guy who was a first-round supplemental pick back in 2004, which suggests that scouts saw great promise in him. Certainly his career minor league strikeout rate of 10.3 per nine innings bears out that evaluation. Gonzalez brought the strikeout rate with him to the Majors, but his control stayed in the sticks. He’s walked 6.2 per nine innings in his brief career, which is the prime reason, along with a Tomko-licious
16 home runs in 61 innings, that he has an 8.41 ERA. He allowed four home runs in just 2.2 innings to the Twins in his most recent start.
Finally, 25-year-old Dallas Braden, a veteran on this staff, goes Sunday. Braden is your standard low-velocity lefty, and he’s a fly ball guy too. Despite the latter tendency, he doesn’t allow many home runs, but some of that may be due to park effects. His changeup makes him very tough on his fellow lefties–they’re hitting just .174/.225/.223 off of him this year. Joe Girardi doesn’t really have a good righty platoon bat on his bench, but if he did, Sunday would be a good day to play him. Maybe Shelley Duncan is free that afternoon…
HIDEKI 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
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
GIRARDI VS. CANO
Joe Girardi is a polarizing figure for Yankees fans. It was inevitable that the first manager to guide the Yankees to a finish out of the postseason in what seems like a hundred years would become a lightning rod. Some decry his handling of the bullpen, others his love of small-ball tactics — the Yankees bunt often for a present-day American League team.
These criticisms are debatable; the bullpen has risen in effectiveness throughout the season, as weaker sisters have been weeded out (Tuesday’s game notwithstanding), and those Yankees that Girardi has asked to bunt are either those who don’t generate much offense anyway (Francisco Cervelli) or just might beat one out (Brett Gardner). The place where criticisms of Girardi find a more legitimate place are in his construction of the batting order.
Variations in the batting order are not terribly significant. They won’t ruin your season, but they can cost you a few runs on the margins. Since the manager’s job is to maximize his team’s performance, that is, to capture every run that he can, that the batting order is not a top-priority item is no excuse for putting out the best one possible.
For reasons that aren’t obvious, Girardi has fallen in love with Robinson Cano as his fifth place hitter. Cano has started 46 of the team’s 76 games in the No. 5 spot. In putting Cano there, Girardi has delivered Cano some very special plate appearances with runners on base. Mark Teixeira has seen the most baserunners of any Yankees hitter, but Cano is second, having seen just seven fewer runners. The problem is that despite a .300 average on the season, Cano is hitting only .254/.289/.415 with runners on and .213/.248/.340 with runners in scoring position. The offense is setting Cano up, but he isn’t knocking them down.
Another way of looking at Cano’s production with runners on is to consider the percentage of baserunners he’s driven in (statistics available at Baseball Prospectus). Cano has scored 30 of the 233 runners he’s seen. That’s 12.8 percent.
The American League average is 14 percent. It’s a small but significant failing. Three more runners driven in would get him to the league average. Were he carrying Jorge Posada’s rate of 17 percent, he would have driven in 10 more runners. Even with all of his struggles, Alex Rodriguez has driven in a greater percentage of his baserunners, 16.4 percent.
Intriguingly, no Yankee is among the league leaders. There are currently 308 hitters who have batted with 75 or more runners on base. The top 10 in percentage of runners driven in:
Posada is the top Yankee, 53rd on the list.
Cano compounds his impatience and failure to hit with runners on base with groundball hitting tendencies that lead to double plays. Cano ranks 11th among Major League hitters who have batted in 30 or more double play situations:
This makes Cano a less than ideal RBI man, but since Girardi chooses to emphasize him in the order, his deficiencies trouble the Yankees far more often than they need to. Of course, it might be hard for Girardi to truly admit the damaging consequences of all those double plays. After all, he holds the team record for hitting into double plays, banging into 17 twin killings in 50 chances in 1999. In the 55 years for which we have records, no one else has come close.
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.
In 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 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.
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.
STRANGE DAYS INDEED
Good evening, campers. I spent part of my day in a drawer undergoing a PET scan. I must have been a very troubled sweater in a former life because once in my overwhelming instinct is to get out. The good news is that I am out and that this sweater was given a clean bill, freeing what remains of my brain to consider baseball again.
The 1927 Yankees went 21-1 against the St. Louis Browns, one of two doormat teams in the league that season. Given the outcome of the late series with the Nationals, it is apparent that this ain’t 1927. Ironically, given the focus on pitching this year, starting and bullpen, the failure was largely offensive — when you score two runs in two games, you’re not going to beat anyone. There has been something like an obsessive grabbing onto the supposed fact that the Yankees supposedly can’t beat a pitcher they’ve never seen before, but that isn’t the issue so much as the absence of Derek Jeter from the lineup both nights, the absence of Jorge Posada in another, and the cooling bats of certain key players. Nor should we ignore the randomness of fate — if Robbie Cano had put the ball in play in any way other than where he did on Wednesday, the Yankees would have taken two of three games and the series would not have held such a bitter aftertaste.
Now comes the news that Alex Rodriguez will be taking two days off, his first since coming off of the disabled list. The way Joe Girardi has handled Rodriguez has been strange — you have a player coming off of a major injury, who was given an incomplete fix for that injury. That would seem to require handling with kid gloves whether the player liked it or not. There is, I think, a mutual enabling going on here, where Rodriguez did not ask out until now, and Girardi, who knows who he would have to list at third base in the alternative, did not ask him to sit out. Girardi’s job, after all, is to win today, and the way Rodriguez hit initially, quickly piling up nine home runs, was helping him do that. Perhaps Girardi needs to think more globally than that, but given that just a few weeks ago there were rumors about his job security, it might be impossible for him to do so.
The fault lies not in the stars but in the front office, which never gave Girardi a viable A-Rod substitute once it was clear that the player required surgery. Cody Ransom bombed and got hurt, Angel Berroa offers nothing in the way of offense or defense, and Ramiro Pena, while a very good glove, is not a hitter. Scranton’s roster is clogged with the likes of Eric Duncan, Justin Leone, Chris Malec, and a rehabbing Ransom, none of whom could be misconstrued as Major League regulars on the darkest of nights. Trenton’s third baseman is Marcos Vechionacci, who shed his prospect status what seems like eons ago.
Given this dearth of viable hot corner men and a clear need for hot corner men, it was incumbent upon the front office to make a deal for a viable Rodriguez substitute. Recently, I have been inveighing against the team making a hasty trade for a reliever, bringing up Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. The reverse of this is that giving up Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell is never a bad thing, and if you can’t get a Bagwell, any Tom, Dick, or DeRosa will do. It’s not a move anyone would want to make given a choice, but the Yankees have had a very finely balanced operation so far, and there is every reason to think that such a move will keep paying dividends. Rodriguez’s recovery may be lengthy, and his swing may continue to be affected. His energy level may continue to be low. His range has clearly been affected, suggesting an ongoing need for a late-inning substitute. Plus, there may be other injuries to other players.
The Yankees are now 10-7 in one-run games. They could just as easily be 7-10 — that’s the way one-run games work. They are basically coin flips. As we saw on Wednesday, one-run games can turn on one key double play, one missed opportunity. Either you get the big hit or the big out or you don’t. When the Yankees have to rely on an Angel Berroa, today, tomorrow and in the future, they’re reducing the chances that they will get that big hit or make that diving stop.
If you’re going to go through the season without winning a game over the Red Sox, you’d better win every game that you can. They didn’t do this in the Nationals series. Without some help for A-Rod, they might not do it in the future. This is no time for the usual blithe assumptions that a no-name player will rise to the occasion, Rey Sanchez- or Luis Sojo-style. The time to go hunt down a safety net is now.
If you dig irony, the conclusion of Friday night’s game had to be an instant favorite. In November 2007, Mets General Manager Omar Minaya handed out one of the more foolish contracts in recent memory, signing Luis Castillo to a four-year, $25 million contract. Moreno thus assured the Mets of having Castillo’s company from age 32 through 35 when the second baseman’s speed, defense, and durability had already declined due to a set of bad knees. His power was always minimal, so even when at his best his offensive contributions have been minor. The most you can say of him at this point is that he’s selective and that when he does run, he picks his spots well. If you add up the 87 games he played last year with the 50 he’s played this year, you get a .258/.362/.318 hitter with 13 doubles, three triples, and three home runs. He’s also walked 77 times and stolen 23 bases in 27 attempts. He’s not completely without value, but what’s there isn’t something that the Mets needed to lock themselves into, especially when Castillo has so little leeway in his skills; if he slips even slightly, he’s rowing the team backwards.
That this player, of all players, dropped a seeming can of corn to give away a game to the Yankees seems highly appropriate. It would be inhuman not to observe that it’s also a little sad. There is no joy in seeing a 14-season veteran of the Major Leagues humiliated. Still, poor decision-making has a way of coming back to haunt you, and Castillo’s Fumble is the most visible example of a GM’s misevaluation of a player biting his team in the buttocks.
THE REMAINS OF JOBA’S DAY
Joba Chamberlain’s start was not pretty and might be better characterized as bizarre, as he left in the fourth having allowed just one hit but walked five and hit two batters. No doubt the Joba-to-the-Pen crowd will again get hyped up, but let’s be realistic: throwing strikes has been a staff-wide problem for the Yankees this year. With nine walks in nine innings last night, the club raised its rate of ball fours to 4.1 per nine innings. In doing so, they passed the Cleveland Indians for the league lead.
I’ve seen a great deal of hostility expressed towards Dave Eiland in reader comments here and elsewhere, but I’m not sure that you can put the blame on him exclusively. When a team has young, hard throwing pitchers, control problems often have to be worked through. A great deal of frustration usually accompanies this. Those of you kicking around long enough might recall that back in the mid-1980s, Bobby Valentine promulgated an ill-considered get-tough program with his wild Rangers pitchers, vowing that if any of his starters walked two consecutive batters he would be instantaneously yanked from the game. All this accomplished was to make his pitchers nervous. Bobby Witt remained Bobby Witt even with a metaphorical gun to his head. The Yankees can change pitching coaches, but the new guy is unlikely to bring a magic bullet to go with that gun.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE PEN…
Joe Girardi has not had a sure touch with the bullpen this year. His reluctance to use Mariano Rivera for a long save in Boston, followed by his usage of him in the eighth inning of Friday’s game, is a frustrating inconsistency. The usage of Brett Tomko ahead of David Robertson (more on this below) makes very little sense. When Girardi finally did get around to using Robertson, the horse was out of the barn. He then tried to push Robertson into a second inning, which would have pushed his pitch count up to 40 or so pitches, more than he typically throws. Instead, he allowed a leadoff hit to Gary Sheffield, which led to a panicky call to Phil Coke.
One interesting aspect of Girardi’s bullpen usage is the frequency with which relievers have pitched; Yankees relievers lead the league in appearances in consecutive games. Phil Coke leads the pack with nine such appearances each. This is in large part a reflection of Girardi’s reluctance to turn to anyone in the pen except for Coke, Mariano Rivera, and lately Al Aceves. As we’ve seen before, particularly in the Joe Torre years, this can lead to burnout of select pitchers. Given that the Yankees have other options in the minors, it would make far more sense for the Yankees to try something new than to continue to burden Girardi with options he’s already discarded.
The one positive to come out of last night’s bullpen mishmash was that Phil Coke had a long outing. The former starter’s splits this year have been backwards: .195/.327/.366 with one home run in 41 at-bats against righties, .216/.245/.523 with four home runs in 44 at-bats against lefties, suggesting that Coke is miscast in the LOOGY role.
Finally, it’s great to see a Yankees manager finally using the team’s closer in tight eighth-inning situations instead of already-settled ninth innings, but it is unfortunate that it took until Rivera was 39, when he may no longer be mentally or physically adaptable to the change.
SAVE UP YOUR MONEY FOR A RAINY DAY,
GIVE ALL YOUR CLOTHES TO CHARITY…
Nick Swisher is just not having a good week for mental acuity. Neither are the official scorers. That the official scorer called the ball that bounced off his mitt a double is just one more illustration of how badly baseball needs to professionalize official scoring. Millions of dollars in salaries are affected by performance statistics, and too often those statistics are perverted by scorers who display something less than objectivity.
Of course, nothing Swisher did this week compares to Milton Bradley’s actions on Friday, when he forgot the number of outs and tossed a live ball into the stands, allowing the Twins to trot around the bases.
I’m still not clear on what Brett Tomko is adding to the roster, particularly when the Yankees could be getting Tony Claggett or Mark Melancon established in the Majors. He and Angel Berroa (three at-bats this month, seven total since April) are mysteries worthy of a Leonard Nimoy In Search Of… revival. Tomko has been around a long time, bas rarely been any good, and his 10.2 innings out of the Yankees pen going into Friday night’s debacle were deceptive. Sure, the ERA was only 2.53, but he’d walked four and struck out only five. He was always prone to giving up the home run, had already given up one, and with that low strikeout rate it was inevitable that he’d give up another. I’m all for teams fishing in the discard pile for diamonds in the rough, but the Yankees have viable relievers in the minors who might be good for the next five years, not the next five minutes. David Robertson is one of those, and yet he followed Tomko, coming in three-runs down instead of up by one. Veteran Tomkoism is counterproductive in the extreme.
I’m sure someone will write that the Yankees were looking for “length” with Chamberlain out of the game early, but length remains theoretical when the pitcher you choose can’t actually pitch.
Linked here, a very perceptive bit on Kyle Farnsworth from Joe Posnanski. He illustrates that the Royals have discovered what the Yankees (and Braves, and everyone else) already knew: Farnsworth is to be used in low leverage situations ONLY. “There’s no crying in baseball, except when Kyle Farnsworth comes in.” The Yankees pretended this wasn’t true for two and a half years.
Is Jose Veras still on the roster? If so, why? Please answer in complete sentences, then exchange papers with your seatmate and discuss.
AS THE JOBA TURNS
As Joba pitches tonight, and the Joba to the Bullpenites sharpen their runcible spoons, whether the lad pitches a no-hitter or gets torched, please keep in mind that Rome (famed Three-I pitcher Jimmy-Bob Rome) was not built in a day. At 23, Chamberlain is allowed some inconsistency before he finds himself, and the long-term gain is worth the short-term pain. The Yankees can find solid eighth-inning relief without sacrificing such a useful starting asset. In fact, though a great deal has been made of Joba’s shortened outings, I would argue that a dominant five-inning starter is worth the added strain on the bullpen — Joba’s not there yet, but I wanted to throw that out there. Very few starting pitchers, even the Hall of Famers, achieved instantaneous consistency in the Majors. This is an obvious point, but one that bears repeating (and repeating).
As for Sunday’s loss, which some have wanted to attribute to the lack of a Joba type in the pen, allow me to do them the service of pinning the Medal of Failure where it belongs: on the manager and conventional thinking. You know the culprit: the resistance to using Mariano Rivera in a tie game on the road, saving him for a save opportunity that the other pitchers and the offense may never create. The fallacy is in thinking there is no save opportunity in such situations.
That is a complete misreading. The “save” is in allowing the game to keep going. On the road from the ninth inning on, every time the home team bats you’re in a sudden death situation. You want your best arm out there to keep the game alive, not the worst. If Rivera pitches an inning on Sunday and holds the Indians scoreless, the Yankees get to bat in the top of the 10th. Maybe they score one run and then they have to think about keeping Rivera in or going for another pitcher. If that pitcher blows the lead, at least you got to play that long. Alternatively, maybe you score 10 runs in the top of the 10th and a closer is no longer relevant. With the Indians’ messy bullpen, that outcome is a realistic possibility, and now you’re up by so many runs that even Nick Swisher could finish out the game for you.
The loss on Sunday wasn’t about the wildness of Dave Robertson and Phil Coke, but about the fact that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, not when the Yankees had a better option. Yanking Joba out of the rotation to cover for a failure of thinking makes very little sense.
In our next sermon, we’ll explore why Chien-Ming Wang the reliever may be a completely different animal from Chien-Ming Wang the starter, and how equating the two could lead one to misinterpret his strong relief pitching as an argument for a return to the starting rotation.
MOOSE VS. THE GUY WITH THE BAT
Made the mistake of listening to sports talk radio on my way to the dentist today. One topic was the comparison of Juan Marichal and Mike Mussina, the former a Hall of Famer who never won a Cy Young award. This comp was made out to be a terrible insult to Marichal, but (1) this was overly concerned with the pitcher’s won-lost totals, which are external to the pitcher and a function of when Marichal pitched — if you don’t acknowledge that it was easier for a good pitcher to win 20 games in Marichal’s time than it was for Mussina in his then you’re not being fair; you might as well ding Marichal for the fact that he never won 30 games, but Lefty Grove and Dizzy Dean did, and (2) misses other differences between the 1960s and the 1990s — adjusted for context, Marichal and Mussina had almost exactly the same ERA.
MORE FROM ME
Wholesome Reading has lots of additions from over the weekend, with more coming throughout the day.
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.
What’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.
Indians 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.
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 (?).