SUBWAY AGAIN (AGAIN)
It’s time for another tired interleague match-up. I realize that I’m acting the wet blanket, but after years of record-distorting play and such scintillating league crossovers as Astros-Royals, it seems to me that a great deal of the attraction of any interleague rivalry, particularly Yankees-Mets, was the impossibility of ever resolving the debate, because Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez were never going to be in the same game together short of the odd spring training confrontation. The argument could never resolve and everybody could be right–unless, the tantalizing, always just out of reach World Series confrontation materialized. Then it would all be settled at the highest possible level, under the greatest possible tension.
Interleague play stripped the mystery away. Now we know that most meetings between the Yankees and Mets are just like any other game. Maybe the fans feel a bit more jazzed than usual, but in the end, the only thing at stake are some empty bragging rights, now immutably concretized in the drab facts of the box score, and the usual one-game-in-the-standings stakes. In the latter case, the stakes are no different than any midweek game against the Orioles. By the time the two teams finally did meet in a World Series, interleague play had let the air out of the confrontation–it was nothing we hadn’t seen before, as recently as that July.
So here we are again, 12 days after the last time. Admittedly, the last time was exciting, or at the very least strange, with Luis Castillo’s inexplicable dropped pop-up, the unheralded comeback of Fernando Nieve (“comeback” might be a misnomer given that he was never really here), and an unprecedented battering of Johan Santana. Parenthetically, since striking out 11 in six innings against the Nats on May 27, Santana hasn’t struck out more than three batters in any start; in 30.1 innings, his strikeout rate is 4.2 per nine. The Yankees won’t be seeing Santana this series, so that’s just a point of interest.
The Yankees will be seeing Mike Pelfrey (tonight vs. Sabathia), old pal Tim Reddding (Saturday vs. Burnett), and Livan Hernandez (vs. Wang). Pelfrey is a really interesting case. The 2005 first-rounder had a breakthrough season last year, but this season has been choppy to say the least, with his strikeout rate dying a tormented, painful death. Despite this, he was was winning thanks to decent run support. Beginning with his second start of May, he reeled off five very solid appearances, limiting batters to just six walks and one home run in 34.2 innings. His strikeout rate bounced back up into the fours, which isn’t good but was sustainable given the high number of ground balls he was getting. He was, shall we say, Wang-ing it. Just as quickly as they came, the good times ended, June bringing a 7.08 ERA as Pelfrey’s control has wandered, giving hitters more chances to put the ball in play with runners on. Nor has the Mets’ defense done him any favors in this period.
Redding you know from his brief pinstriped experience, a journeyman with a capital “R” for “Replacement level.” He was actually a bit better than that last year, but not by much. This year he’s back in the submarine, sailing below the surface of useful. He’s given the Mets three quality starts in seven tries, but remains a fly ball pitcher without a strikeout pitch, a very bad combination. Hernandez was roughed up by the Yankees in Castillo’s dropped-egg game. What I said then remains true now: his pitching as well as he has was wholly unexpected given just how badly he was treated in both leagues last year. Despite his low-ish ERA, he remains very hittable, averaging 10 safeties per nine innings pitched, and his home run rate is on the high side. He’s pitched well in two starts since the Yankees last saw him.
There is no reason that the Yankees could not sweep this series given the pitching matchups, but that was also true of the Nationals series and we know how that went. However, the Mets are at a further disadvantage, because their many injuries have reduced their list of star-level players to just one — David Wright. He can be enough–he went 5-for-12 against the Yankees the last time around, and has continued to hit well since. However, his power continues to be mystifyingly absent–it has now been 15 games since his last home run. During that stretch he has hit .383 with five doubles, and only four RBIs.
The most remarkable aspect to Wright’s season is that he continues to have a batting average on balls in play of nearly .500 (currently it’s .469). A high percentage of his balls in play, 27 percent, are line drives, which would correlate with a high BABIP, but not this high. In comparison, Scott Rolen has a higher line drive rate and his BABIP is only .354, while Jason Bartlett is leading the majors with an almost 30 percent of his balls in play being liners and his BABIP is “only” .405. It is extremely likely that Bartlett’s BABIP will decline as the year goes on, perhaps by 70 or 100 points, and spectacularly likely that Wright’s will fall off by even more. That leaves the Mets with an interesting problem, because if Wright’s NL-leading average has been due to an overlarge share of luck, and not due to a change in approach by the batter, purposeful or otherwise, then when did his power go, and what happens to his production when some of the singles start to get caught?
As we will likely see tonight when the Yankees put balls in the air and watch what would have been home runs in the Bronx ballpark settle harmlessly into gloves, some of the power outage has been engendered by the Mets zombie tribute to Ebbets Field (ironically, a bandbox–Mickey Mantle used to say, and he meant this, that he would have hit a thousand home runs had he played there), but not all of it, as Wright has hit but one home run on the road this year.
After a 1-for-6 on Thursday, Nick Swisher apparently gets a mental health break today. It seems as if his place in the lineup is safe, however, as Xavier Nady has had a major setback in his rehab. No confirmation of the damage yet, and I’ll reserve comment until we get the straight dope. I’m waiting for someone to hit my inbox with “Melky should be the everyday right fielder.” It hasn’t come yet, but it will.
Scott Kazmir has made 12 career appearances against the Yankees spanning 68 innings and has an ERA of 2.51. There are two current Yankees who have hit him well, and only one of them is likely to play against him. Jorge Posada is 9-for-19 (.474) against Kazmir, and Mark Teixeira is a career 5-for-6. It could be a long night, by which I mean it could be a short night for the Yankees… Even if the offense lets down, a rebound start by Chien-Ming Wang would be a pretty fair silver lining.
TWENTY-FIVE MEN, TWENTY-FIVE GOALS INTO ONE
Continuing from the infield…
JOHNNY DAMON — LEFT FIELD
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: Get back to hitting .300, get back to hitting with power, or both.
DID HE GET THERE? Yesiree Bob. He had one of the best offensive seasons of his career, if not the best, and the only negative was some injury time.
2009 GOAL: Encore!
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Not strong. Damon has never been consistent and 35 is probably not the time he’ll start.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Damon’s Hall of Fame chances. Bill James’ Favorite Toy estimates that Damon has a 37.8 percent chance to reach 3,000 hits.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: The Yankees haven’t had many steady left fielders in their long history. Roy White was the only one with any staying power, and yet as good as Damon’s 2008 was the Yankees have had many better from their left fielders. Babe Ruth played a third to half his games in left in most seasons due to an aversion to the Yankee Stadium sun field, but he was only the main starter there once, in 1921. He only hit .378/.512/.846 that year. Charlie Keller had four better seasons, and the aforementioned White, an underappreciated player, had five years that were better.
BRETT GARDNER — CENTER FIELD
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: N/A
2009 GOAL: Establish himself as a major league regular despite his lack of power.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Spring Training and a changed approach at the end of last season argue yes, but it’s going to be a very close thing. He’s going to have to hit enough that the Yankees can look at the sum total of his contributions at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths, and see something positive even if offense isn’t the strongest leg of that tripod. Until he puts together a sustained stretch of hitting in the Majors, his level of productivity will be in doubt.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: No Yankee has stolen 50 or more bases since Rickey Henderson swiped 93 bags (the franchise high) in 1988. No Yankee has stolen 40 or more bases since Alfonso Soriano pilfered 41 in 2002. The last Yankee to steal 30 or more was Derek Jeter (34) in 2006. Gardner could change all that if he plays enough.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Since 1920, the Yankees have had 23 players post slugging percentages under .300 in a season of 350 or more plate appearances. The most recent was Tony Womack, with a .280 slugging in 351 PA in 2005. The franchise low was Wayne Tolleson, with .241 in 398 PAs in 1987. Perhaps more applicable to Gardner, Willie Randolph was routinely under .350 in the 1980s (he slugged only .351 for his career), but that didn’t prevent him from being a very valuable player due to his ability to hit for a decent average, walk, steal, and play strong defense. Gardner might be able to be that kind of player, but it should be noted that Randolph-style players are not as well tolerated in baseball today as they were in Willie’s time.
XAVIER NADY — RIGHT FIELD
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: N/A
2009 GOAL: Nady has always been a weak producer for a corner outfielder, something that has caused him to bounce around a lot. Last year was different. Nady hit .323/.377/.540 through the end of August. He needs to get back there.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: If you’ve been reading, you know I think this is spectacularly unlikely.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Baseball-Reference.com’s similarity scores say the three most similar players to Nady are Pedro Munoz, Shane Spencer, and Herb Perry, all of whom were out of the majors after about 500 games. Nady is at 677 career games now.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Per 162 games played, Nady has averaged 69 runs scored. There’s a reason for that.
NICK SWISHER — ROVER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: N/A
2009 GOAL: Reclaim his offensive production after a very rough year in Chicago, and reclaim regular status, too.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: If he continues to play, he’ll continue to out-produce Nady.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: On-base percentage is the key statistic in baseball. Nothing correlates to scoring like OBP. Last year, having the worst season of his career, Swisher’s OBP was .332, and in 2006-2007 his rate was .377.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: The Yankees have a nice tradition of switch-hitting outfielders with power who walk a lot.
MELKY CABRERA — RESERVE OUTFIELDER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: Be all that he can be. For the second year in a row, Cabrera swung from very good to very bad, and lows were deeper than the highs. He finished with below-average offensive rates. He needs to make permanent contact with the guy who hit .325/.375/.482 from June through August.
DID HE GET THERE? No. After a hot April, he completely fell apart and eventually (too late) was demoted.
2009 GOAL: Somehow get back into the lineup, and to hit like crazy when he does.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Despite a nice Spring Training season, not great. That said, all it would take is an injury and a hot streak for Cabrera to earn a second life.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Relative to the league average, Cabrera’s 641 OPS of last season represented the second-worst by a Yankees outfielder in the history of the team. The only outfielder with a weaker season relative to the league was Jake Powell in 1937. When he hit .263/.314/.364 in 400 PA, the league hit .290/.365/.432. Powell was also one of the worst characters to ever wear Yankees pinstripes, so Cabrera has that over him too.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Steve Whitaker, Bill Robinson … Sometimes players don’t develop the way you think or hope they will.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? A terrific pitcher’s duel between Johan Santana and Josh Johnson was marred by a dropped fly by Mets left fielder Daniel Murphy, the run scoring on the play being the difference in the game. Murphy can hit a bit, but maybe not enough to make up for his being a transplanted corner infielder lacking the experience and instincts for his position. I don’t mean to condemn the lad based on one play, but the quality of his offense is unlikely to be strong enough that it makes up for a Greg Luzinski-like performance in left. In this instance, Murphy didn’t so much take a route to the ball as make vague plans to meet it halfway. Santana struck out 13 and lost. Meanwhile, Johnson had a one-run complete game, his second good start in a row.
? The New Waners, Andy and Adam LaRoche, are 0-for-14 and 3-for-22, respectively. The latter comes around, we know that, but the former has failed to hit in several tries now, so he’s going to have a shorter rope. He will hit, eventually, though maybe not today for this team.
? Headline on the Nats page at MLB.com: “Tickets still available for home opener.” Y’think? Step right up for your “L
egacy of Jim Bowden” seats. Helpings of crow delivered right to your box by our helpless wait staff … Adam Dunn is batting .333 with a Major League-leading 10 walks. Maybe they could flip him now. Parenthetically, no Yankee has drawn more than four walks, and that Yankee is Robinson Cano. The whole thing is disturbing.
? Thirty-seven pitchers have already made four appearances, and one, Carlos Marmol of the Cubs, has appeared five times. You wonder if these fellows are going to have any kind of stuff left come the All-Star break. Heck, come May.
? The bench-clearing incident in Los Angeles between the Angels and the Red Sox was really on the umpires. The umpires are supposed to enforce a timely delivery to home plate by the pitcher. Josh Beckett didn’t do that. They’re also not supposed to grant time, or at least are not forced to, so that the hitter can make his own point and step out on the pitcher, but they never, ever refuse to do that. Thus when Bobby Abreu asked for and got time at the last possible second, Beckett was enraged. Even if this seems like a legitimate response to Beckett’s tardiness in making a pitch, the umpire should not have compounded his first error with another by granting time.
? Which hot start is more perplexing? The Mariners being 5-2, or the Padres being 5-2?