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.
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.
WHERE’S THE REST OF ME (AND OTHER TALES OF A PIRATICAL LIFE)
As of tomorrow morning, the annual ordeal known as writing and editing of the Baseball Prospectus book, which always concludes with a human sacrifice — most often me and my co-editor — has concluded. Regular scheduling of this column will resume immediately, and for those left that still care, Wholesome Reading will resume publication by Monday. As for the book itself, if you want to see how I’ve spent 98 percent of my time, the sucker will be out right around Valentine’s Day. It has all the usual goodies, plus a foreword by your friend and mine, Keith Olbermann.
Before I shuffle off for a very long nap, I’ll be making my usual trip to Castle YES for another turn in the Internet Bunker for a new installment of the YES Hot Stove show. You can’t see it on TV, but I’ve got a stocked mini-fridge under the desk. When the revolution comes, I’m going to be sitting pretty — and I’m not going to share with anyone except Bob Lorenz, because Bob always puts out M&Ms when we have a meeting in his office. That’s class. Who can make a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew? At YES, we know who.
Meanwhile, the baseball world has continued to slowly rotate. The Braves have picked up Derek Lowe, which puts the Braves in an interesting position, having gone from being basically rotation-free in 2008 to having an interesting and potentially deep collection of veteran (Lowe and Javier Vazquez), young (Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson at some point), and a lot of options for rounding out the group. It seems unlikely that the offense will hold up, but a solid rotation might be enough in the NL East. In that same division, the Mets are on the verge of signing Alex Cora, which is a nice move for them only in that it gives then some added depth around the infield, particularly at second, which is going to be a suppurating wound for years with Omar Minaya’s Worst Ever Contract — I mean, Luis Castillo — literally on his last legs. Cora will also give the Mets the opportunity to give Jose Reyes a game off every now and again, key since he tends to wear down as the season progresses.
Returning to the greatly fatigued Hall of Fame debate for a moment, I wanted to grab an entry from our last set of comments and respond. This was written by Buzah:
Steve, you mention Rice’s indebtedness to Fenway. Not until I really looked did I realize how bad it was. Career splits were .320/.374/.546 at home vs .277/.330/.459 away. Some of that could be explained with age, but even in his 1978 MVP season the splits were extreme — .361/.416/.690 home vs .269/.325/.512 away. It’s clear that someone who ranks 177th all time in OPS+, tied with John Olerud, Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, would not have ranked that high if he didn’t play in Fenway. I think there are a slew of left fielders today that you might want to start over him, not including Manny Ramirez, who is a HOFer himself. Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Cliff Lee … if not definite, there is at least a strong case to be made that there are guys you’d rather have right now than what Rice usually brought to the table.
Buzah, you’re right to a large degree about Rice, but as I tried to suggest the last time around, I do view his ability to hit at Fenway as a skill. After all, though almost every hitter who plays at Fenway is helped by the park to some degree, but not all of them turn into .320/.374/.546 maulers. The same thing is true of the hitters that play for the Rockies. Those teams need players who are capable of exploiting their park to the greatest extent, just like the Yankees have always needed left-handed power hitters to pull the ball into Babe Ruth’s porch. Now, what the player does the rest of the time is important as well. It represents 50 percent of the schedule. It’s ironic, I think, that we call a player who can hit left-handers, but not right-handers, a platoon player, and while we may celebrate his accomplishments in that role, it’s also something of a denigration, a way of indicating that he’s not quite the equivalent of a full-time player. A player who can hit at home but shrivels on the road (or vice-versa) is a kind of platoon player too, but somehow we don’t think of him that way.
See you on TV on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., and here before that.