POSADA VS. BURNETT
Rob Neyer has it right: if Joe Girardi truly feels that A.J. Burnett is going to pitch better with Jose Molina receiving his pitches, then he has little choice but to bench Jorge Posada despite the huge offensive difference between the two catchers. Burnett is a highly variable pitcher. When he’s on, he’s unhittable. When he’s off, he walks the ballpark and gets pounded. Posada did most of the catching for Burnett at midseason (with some Kevin Cash and Frankie Cervelli throw in). They had the usual mix of good starts and bad, but things seem to have changed in late August after a three-start sequence in which two Posada games bracketed a Molina game. Burnett was savaged in the Posada starts, but struck out 12 Rangers in the Molina start (August 27). That seems to have convinced Burnett or Girardi or someone, because the Burnett’s final six starts were taken by Molina. Burnett’s ERA in those starts was 2.92, so clearly something was working.
The Yankees should survive three Molina at-bats in one playoff game, but this does raise an interesting question for next year. Molina’s contract is up and Cervelli is clearly ready to contribute at roughly the same level as Molina does now. It would be a shame if the Yankees retained Molina just to cater to the whims of one pitcher. And before anyone suggests as an alternative that Posada replace Hideki Matsui as designated hitter while Molina and Cervelli handle the bulk of the catching, keep in mind that the offensive loss would be disastrous.
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 (?).
Ready to save a season?
It’s not that simple, of course. A few extra home runs aren’t going to paper over all of the areas where the Yankees are failing to perform right now. The starting pitchers have the third-worst ERA in the league, and while the bullpen has not been the worst in the league (Cleveland and Anaheim are vying for that dubious title), it has been weak enough to earn a failing grade to this point in the season.
The offense, which is averaging 5.6 runs per game played, hasn’t really been the problem. Sure, a hot-hitting Rodriguez might help the team overcome a few badly pitched games by helping to pile on the runs, but with the Yankees apparently taking the express elevator to the sub-replacement level at catcher (welcome, Kevin Cash), Rodriguez will not fully plug the resultant hole. The place where Rodriguez’s impact is most likely to be felt is on defense. The Yankees, as has typically been the case in recent years, do not excel at turning balls in play into outs. A-Rod isn’t Brooks Robinson, and Ramiro Pena has done decent work on the fielding job, but there’s something to be said for having an experienced player out there.
That said, the team has been miserable in the clutch and the third basemen have been even less contributory than the replacement catchers are likely to be (well, maybe), so perhaps Rodriguez can contribute in ways that go beyond the overall offensive totals.
The pitching should come around. Unless the Yankees have somehow ducked into a perfect storm of nervous breakdowns and physical injuries, the many good arms they have on hand will not struggle forever. The overarching problem is one of depth. A-Rod returns, but Jorge Posada is down, Molina is down (and he wasn’t very good) and now Cash is up. Cash and Cashman go well together, because the former represents the latter’s blind spot. The general manager has never been one to worry much about contingencies, and now the Yankees are carrying a career .184 hitter/.248 OBP backstop, this even though there were many reasons to doubt Posada’s durability. There are reasons as well to doubt Rodriguez’s durability. And Johnny Damon’s. And Hideki Matsui’s. The question for today is not, “What will it mean to have Alex Rodriguez back?” but “Who’s next?”
Francisco Cervelli, of course, has barely played at the Double-A level and has an offensive profile that would seem to translate into a few singles at best. He has been willing to take the odd walk offered to him, so the Yankees can hope that even if all other production is lacking he might accept the odd fourth ball, more than could have been said for Molina.
In fairness to Mr. Cashman, the problem with depth has long been an organizational one. Unlike most other organizations, the Yankees have not been able to draft and develop even a few solid, second-line players. The pitching has been coming along, and that has been a huge step forward, because a few years back we couldn’t even say that much positive about the Yankees’ farm system.
However, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, and Austin Jackson notwithstanding (and Jackson is unlikely to be an impact player), a parallel improvement in position players is overdue. This has acted to hamstring the GM both in terms of trade fodder and in injury replacements and bench strength for the major league team. That said, the catching problem, along with the advanced age and concomitant brittleness of the big club, not to mention the specific injury situations of several prominent players, should have been taken into account.
As for Rodriguez, a few heroic home runs would go a long way towards saving his reputation and helping his team out of its current rut. The opposite is almost too painful to contemplate as we will never hear the end of it. If Rodriguez goes 0-for-20 to open his season, it could be because he’s still not 100 percent or it could be because he happened to go 0-for-20, but we’ll hear a lot about how he’s not the same guy now that he’s clean. Actually, we will likely hear that anytime he slumps over the rest of his contract. Anyone got a spare set of noise-canceling headphones?
REST IN PEACE, DOM DIMAGGIO
Farewell to the last of the three DiMaggio brothers who lit up the major leagues in the 1930s and 40s. Joe, of course, was the Yankee Clipper. Vince struck out a lot but was a great ballhawk (some said the best outfielder of the three) and had his career damaged by starting it playing in Boston’s Braves Field, a terrible park for a low-average power hitter, which is what Vince was. From 1940 to 1945, his post-Braves period spent mostly in Pittsburgh, Vince hit .256/.331/.433, safely above-average for the time, and combined with his defense that made him a solid player, though not a star. Dom was a star, a seven-time All-Star for the Red Sox, and though he wasn’t, as the song parody went, better than his brother Joe, he was a very solid, Brett Butler-type player — Butler with better plate judgment and a bit more pop at the plate (some of it no doubt provided by Fenway Park, but still). He was also the top defensive center fielder of his time, probably better than Joe on the fielding job (for Joe, being third in his own family still meant he was better than everyone else), and if he wasn’t a Hall of Famer in his own right he was at worst the next level down. He was a key part of the great Ted Williams-driven Red Sox offenses of the 1940s and the team’s 1946 pennant winner. He will long be remembered.
W-L R/G AB/HR PA/BB SB CS AVG OBP SLG
YANKEES 9-11 5.6 23.5 8.9 16 2 .277 .365 .463
ORIOLES 6-14 4.6 34.0 12.6 12 6 .256 .321 .399
ERA RA H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
YANKEES 6.10 6.54 9.9 4.3 7.4 1.6
ORIOLES 5.04 5.62 10.3 3.0 6.8 1.3
You would think that given the pitching matchups of this series (Sabathia-Guthrie, Hughes-Eaton, and Chamberlain-Uehara) the Yankees would stand a very good chance of not only ending their losing streak but sweeping the series. Don’t place any bets on that evaluation, because we’ve seen the Yankees find some new ways to lose lately, particularly struggling to hit in situations like having a runner on third and less than two outs (.261/.298/.391, seven sacri
fice flies in 56 opportunities). As for the Orioles, there’s not a lot that’s good here. The big story is that Adam Jones (.346/.413/.598) has seemingly taken a big step forward to join Nick Markakis as one of the team’s building blocks. The bigger story is that no one else has stepped up to join him. Maybe the Yankees haven’t been competitive with the Red Sox to this point, but if they’re not competitive with these guys…