JETER HYPE OVERSTATED
The AL Most Valuable Player vote is in and it’s Joe Mauer. No surprise there, but the frequent mutterings down the stretch that Derek Jeter would receive a kind of John Wayne-“True Grit” career achievement MVP award proved to be pure fantasy. Mauer received 27 of 28 first-place votes, the remaining first-place ballot going, somewhat inexplicably, to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. Jeter did not receive a single first-place vote, and his own teammate, Mark Teixeira, out-polled him in second-place votes, 15-9, third-place votes, 6-5, and fourth-place votes, 4-3. Total points for the top three finishers: Mauer, 387; Teixeira, 225; Jeter 193.
Mauer had a historic year at catcher, even having missed the first month, and there should be nothing remotely controversial in his winning the award. What is more interesting is the way the rest of the votes fell, and the apparent perception that Teixeira, a first baseman having a very good but by no means great season. Jeter had a season that ranks among the top 25 by a shortstop in the past 60 years. Both were integral to the success the Yankees experienced this season, but there’s a huge difference between a shortstop contributing at the level that Jeter did and a first baseman doing what Teixeira did.
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter — Jeter has been robbed in previous awards voting. He wasn’t robbed this time. This is more a cri de coeur against misapprehensions about the replacement value of a great shortstop season versus a good season by a first baseman. Before anyone jumps on me for saying Teixeira’s season was “good,” not “great,” it’s not meant as an insult. It’s just that the hitting standards at first base are so ridiculously high that to call Teixeira’s season great would be ludicrous given the existence of Albert Pujols.
In the end, we should probably be thankful that Jeter did not get a career-achievement MVP award. That John Wayne got an award for “True Grit” doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t even get nominated for “The Searchers” (indeed, “The Searchers” was not nominated for a darned thing), “Red River,” or even his gritty sergeant with a heart of gold in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (he was nominated but lost to Broderick Crawford chewing up the drapes in “All the King’s Men”). Henry Fonda getting a deathbed for “On Golden Pond” doesn’t forgive the lack of notice for “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “The Grapes of Wrath” (nominated but lost to Jimmy Stewart for “The Philadelphia Story”), or “Fort Apache,” among others. Cary Grant’s honorary award doesn’t make up for the lack of recognition for “His Girl Friday” or “Only Angels Have Wings,” to name just two. These are apologies, not awards that carry the power of in-the-moment recognition.
As I said, Mauer deserved the award, but there is a certain sadness that Jeter, one of the most-celebrated players of his day, will never get an MVP award despite playing excellently on five World Series winners. It’s a strange discordance that he was both the best and someone else was always perceived to be better — apparently including Miguel flippin’ Cabrera, who went out on a drinking binge and brawled with his wife during the Tigers’ last series against the Twins. Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski had to go pick him up at the police station. That vote is not only an insult to Jeter, it’s an insult to Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Ben Zobrist, and every other candidate for the award — not to mention that everything I said about the replacement value of a first baseman versus more demanding positions goes double for Cabrera, a mediocre fielder. Cabrera is a heck of a hitter and carried the weak Tigers offense, but yipes, if you truly thought he was a better or more important player than Mauer, Jeter, Teixeira, Zobrist, Youkilis… You either weren’t paying attention and you don’t understand the game… And don’t even get me started on fifth-place finisher Kendry Morales, who wasn’t one of the 20-most valuable players in the league. It’s pretty hard to be most valuable when you have a .355 OBP, but home runs and RBIs still forgive so much. How can Morales have been more valuable than Evan Longoria, or Alex Rodriguez, who propelled the Yankees out of a terrible rut when he came off of the disabled list?
Ah, forget it. I’m going off to watch “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Do not disturb.
My stat of choice is again VORP, which answers the musical question, “How many runs above the theoretical journeyman Triple-A player did the player contribute?” VORP does not include defense, but we’ll talk about that.
Remember that this is just a ballpark estimate. On any given day, Player B can be better than Player A, even if Player A is the best player overall.
RYAN HOWARD (47.7 VORP, 9th among 1Bs) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7, 5th)
Let’s begin with the obvious. A switch-hitter, Teixeira is a career .281/.371/.547 hitter against right-handed pitchers and a career .309/.394/.537 hitter against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Howard is a career .307/.409/.661 hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a typo: he slugs a Ruthian .661 against righties, with a home run every 10 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers are a different story. He’s a career .226/.310/.444 hitter against them, striking out about 40 percent of the time, with a home run every 18 at-bats. This year was worse than the norm, with Howard slumping to .207/.298/.356 against left-handers, hitting just six homers in 222 at-bats against them (while slugging .691 against righties).
Some would say that this makes Howard a platoon player who has been overextended into a regular role. I would argue that in most years his home run rate against southpaws still works out to 30 over a full season, so he would still be worth playing against the majority of southpaws. Still, Howard’s potency can be greatly reduced by employing left-handed pitchers against him, and he’s the one player where Joe Girardi can enjoy his Coffee Joe propensities to their fullest extent. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, there is no time after, say, the fifth inning that Howard should be allowed to face a right-hander.
Howard gets a bad rap on defense, but he’s not Dick Stuart out there. He’s also not Teixeira, but there’s some decent ground in between those two extremes. One interesting difference between the two is that playing in the National League, Howard had to do a lot more throwing than Teixeira, fielding 21 bunts to Teixeira’s five. Despite showing great range off the bag, Teixeira somehow did less throwing this year than at any other time in his career. Still, the quality of Teixeira’s defense shows in where he threw the ball. Though he had only 49 assists, 29 of them were on plays away from first base, whereas Howard, though he had 95 assists, had only 26 plays away from first base.
There aren’t many better hitters against right-handed pitching than Howard. Teixeira, assuming he can finally dig out of his postseason slump, is the more versatile offensive and defensive package. This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but if the Yankees aren’t careful about how they handle Howard, this could easily go the other way.
CHASE UTLEY (61.7, 1st) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)
Though he’s been a four-time All-Star, Utley is one of the game’s great unsung players, an MVP-quality player on a great team that has never won an MVP award, or even come close. He hits for average, for power, takes a goodly number of walks, pumps his on-base percentage with 25 HBPs a year and is also one of the best baserunners in the game. A left-handed hitter, lefty pitchers only slow him down a little, and his offense isn’t a product of Citizens Bank Park. On the flipside, offseason hip surgery — he had A-Rod’s problem, but went through the whole surgery rather than the partial treatment Rodriguez successfully pursued — may have dragged his defense down from superb to merely above average.
Cano had his best year in the Majors save for a glaring problem hitting with men on. Cano can fire off line drives almost at will, leading to his strong batting averages, but he forgets himself in important situations, widening his already generous strike zone. This leads to swings with less than his usual authority. It has been a career-long problem. To Cano’s credit, after a tough start to the postseason, he came up with some important hits in the last three games of the ALCS. Cano has vastly improved as a fielder over the years, but lapses of concentration are still an occasional problem. Charlie Manuel would do well to remember that southpaw relievers don’t trouble Cano too much. EDGE: PHILLIES.
PEDRO FELIZ (3.5, 29th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)
Due to a hot start to the season, Feliz hit about as well as he’s capable of these days and even drew the second-highest walk total of his career, but he’s still a glove man who gave his team very little with the bat. He hit .323 in April, then gradually cooled, or maybe it’s better to say he melted, then evaporated, hitting just .225/.254/.367 over the final two months. The Phillies can buy out the last $5 million of Feliz’s contract for $500,000, and given that he’ll turn 35 next year and hasn’t come close to even average production since 2004, they might give it some serious thought if they can identify an alternative. Feliz is a career .252/.288/.417 hitter against right-handers. Normally sort of competent against lefties, he slumped to .208/.278/.385 against them. Feliz has been a poor postseason hitter in his career, and although he did hit a triple and a home run against the Dodgers, it seems unlikely he’ll turn into Jeff Mathis in this series. As for Alex Rodriguez and his recent accomplishments, I think you know about them.
JIMMY ROLLINS (19.3, 10th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)
“J-Roll” gets treated like a star player, but he’s not one. Because he’s a durable leadoff hitter who never walks, he bats more than anyone else (including, in 2007, more often than anyone in history). Because he hits the ball with authority in those many at-bats, he piles up high totals in the counting stats, lots of hits, doubles, and triples. It pays to remember that all those extra-base hits are diffused through that crazy number of plate appearances, and that at his best he’s below average at getting on base. This year he hit the ball in the air more, but he’s not really a power hitter and the change dropped his batting average to .250. Since batting average makes up most of his on-base percentage, his OBP dropped to a miserable .296, especially crippling for a leadoff hitter. Rollins did come on a bit in the second half, hitting .272/.306/.495, but these numbers shine only in comparison to his pathetic .229/.287/.355 first half. He posted a .266 OBP against lefties this year, but that hasn’t always been his pattern — i.e. Coffee Joe shouldn’t decide Rollins merits the Chone Figgins treatment. Parenthetically, did Figgins play his way out of the Yankees’ rumored plans with his 3-for-23 during the 30 Days of ALCS? Let’s hope so.
Rollins has won two Gold Gloves, but he’s not going to remind you of Ozzie Smith — he’s okay, not great. Add in that he has not hit at all this postseason (and didn’t hit much in the last two either) and the guy playing opposite him is an annual Fall hero who is coming off a great year, one he’s continued into the postseason, and (bonus) is currently at his best with the glove and you have an EDGE: YANKEES.
Catchers, outfield, managers, Game 1 and 2 starters and a prediction.
This was one for the ages, a nail-biter all the way through, a game with clutch failures and successes, controversial moments. As I write this, the game has been over for about an hour and I don’t feel like I’ve absorbed all of it; I feel like I should watch it again right away, like a great movie you need to go through one more time to make sure you caught all the important lines.
There were many reasons why the Yankees should not have won this game. The Twins reached base by hit, walk, or hit batsman 21 times, the Yankees only 10 times. The Twins stranded every runner in baseball history this side of Goose Goslin. If Kirby Puckett were still alive, they would have stranded him, too. Rickey Henderson in his prime could not have scored for the Twins on this particular night. Part of that is a reflection of the depth of the Yankees’ bullpen, which is undergoing a kind of trial by fire; some of it is bad luck for the Twins and good luck for the Yankees; a big bit of it might have been a blown call by an umpire.
Much of it, though, was purely magical, the culmination of stories long brewing in the Bronx. Alex Rodriguez had two big hits and looks so mellow that you expect to see him turning up at Bernie Williams’ next cool jazz concert sitting in on the pan flute. If Mark Teixeira’s excellent regular season hadn’t earned him his “True Yankee” badge, he won it tonight with his walk-off shot. Rodriguez and Teixeira hit their shots off one of the top two closers in the league and an up-and-comer who may soon aspire to that status, respectively. We also saw the arrival of David Robertson as a bullpen force to be reckoned with. No Edwar-dian flash in the pan, Robertson was on the verge of establishing himself as a late-inning alternative to Phil Hughes when elbow troubles halted his progress. After pitching out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam tonight, it seems likely he’s back on the path towards replacing Hughes in the eighth inning when the latter graduates (back) to the starting rotation next year. First, though, we may see more good things from this 24-year-old, a 17th-round pick of the Yankees in 2006.
So you had heroism, but you also had the Twins failing to execute. Last week, when I wrote up my hypothetical awards ballot, one reader took me to task in the comments for failing to include Ron Gardenhire. I’m not a Gardenhire fan, and we saw why tonight. Gardenhire has undoubtedly achieved something in posting a .547 record and five postseason appearances in eight years as Twins manager given just how little ownership supports that team. The Twins do not sign big free agents and they rarely make a big effort at the trading deadline (this year they did reach for Jon Rauch and Orlando Cabrera, though more was needed). The Twins try to mask their complacent approach by hyping themselves as paragons of fundamental baseball. Yet, when you see them in a big spot, they don’t carry through. Their defense shakes, they get caught up in one-run strategies, and they go home. The Twins should not have been expected to win this series against the Yankees, and they almost certainly will not. They should, however, be expected to win the games that they can win, and Friday night’s contest was one of those that was gift-wrapped for them. Instead, they ran into outs, threw away balls, and helped the Yankees stay alive.
A last note: in my pre-game entry, I challenged Joe Girardi to get Jose Molina out of the game as soon as possible so as to minimize the downside of using him. This he did at the first opportunity. Indeed, he used all three of his catchers, also pinch-running for Jorge Posada in the tenth. All credit to the Yankee skipper for making the obvious strategic calls. That sounds like a weak compliment, but most managers never get that far.
AND ONE MORE THING
Not meaning to jump on the now famously mal-informed TBS broadcast crew, but Ron Darling said that Nick Swisher was primarily a designated hitter and first baseman with the White Sox. In fact, he played 97 games in the outfield for the Sox, played first base 71 times, and did not DH once. Not ever. None. Indeed, Swisher has always been a fielder, DHing exactly 10 times in his career.
At this writing, the Angels are up on the Red Sox late. A Yankees-Angels ALCS sounds scary given the history between the two teams, but given seven games and home field advantage, the Yankees will take that series on pitching depth every time. Before I attempt to defend that statement, let’s see if we actually get there. Due to the glacial pace of these series, there’s a Marco Polo road-trip’s worth of off days before we’ll get any resolution.
I want to respond to one commenter on yesterday’s entry — I tend to assume that even one opinion fronts for an army of like-thinking fellow travelers, though in this case it’s something we’ve heard before: Let Frankie Cervelli catch next year.
We’ve been over this ground before, but since this thought is still harbored out there like some kind of hidden infestation of bedbugs, I want to go back to it. Cervelli is an athletic, mobile catcher and he’s going to have a decent career just on the quality of his defense. This is not in dispute. Cervelli’s active presence behind the plate catches the eye; there’s nothing subtle about his work, no “inside baseball” aspect that requires you to be told what he’s doing. He’s a lot of fun to watch back there, especially compared to Jorge Posada’s no-frills brand of backstopping, with his trademark “pick it up when it stops rolling” approach to pitches in the dirt. Posada was never the most artful of catchers, and now that his ballplaying life can be numbered in dog-years, he’s starting to be a bit reminiscent of Rodin’s “Thinker”
You already know where we’re going with this: Posada is a crazy good hitter for a catcher. The average MLB receiver is batting .254/.320/.397. There’s a reason the Tigers have tried to shift their catching responsibilities from veteran Gerald Laird to Alex Avila, a rookie out of Double-A while in the midst of a pennant race, which is that Posada-ism is seen as a desirable thing to pursue. There’s always a team or two that goes with a Brad Ausmus-style catcher and sees that as an advantage, but the offensive pace of today’s game is simply too demanding to embrace purely defensive players on more than a limited basis.
Make no mistake that Cervelli is a purely defensive player at this time. While 89 Major League plate appearances is a small sample, Cervelli’s .268/.282/.341 is consistent with his production during his short Minor League career, during which he hit .273/.367/.380 in 828 plate appearances. Although Cervelli showed decent selectivity at the lower levels, his complete lack of power mean pitchers won’t respect him enough to let him utilize that patience — they’re going to come right after him. One key takeaway here is that .273/.367/.380 in the Minors, primarily the low Minors, does not suggest the foundations of a Major League hitter. It suggests an out machine. It might suggest Jose Molina, and Molina, also a very talented catcher, isn’t good enough to play every day.
The Angels, for all of Mike Scioscia’s love of good defense at catcher (he being an excellent defender himself, and a brick wall when blocking the plate), kept him firmly behind Bengie Molina. The team to give Molina the most playing time, last year’s Yankees, was also the first Yankees team to miss the playoffs in 100 years. It was not a coincidence — despite the fact that Molina allowed only two passed balls, despite the fact that he caught 44 percent of basestealers. An offense can’t overcome that many outs, and a bad hitter makes more of them on offense than he can possibly save on defense.
Period. No debate. This is reality. It’s not a stathead thing. It’s not a calculator thing. It’s just very basic truth. A catcher might get 600 chances on offense a year. The number of great, run-saving plays that a strong defensive catcher will make over a mediocre one doesn’t add up to the extra outs. It can’t when we’re talking about plays that save perhaps a base a game, if that.
If Posada’s defense frustrates you, that’s understandable. However, the kind of exchange being proposed suggest that winning is also frustrating. Posada, when he’s not elbowing opposing pitchers in the ribs, is a huge contributor. You want to get mad at the Yankees for being tolerant of players who don’t contribute, you can always remember how many games they lost with Cody Ransom subbing for Alex Rodriguez, or think on how long Angel Berroa stuck on the roster, or rent your garments every time Sergio Mitre pitches — I’m about out of good shirts at this point, although the cats enjoy chasing the flying buttons.
Otherwise, you’re really biting the hand that feeds the Yankees, or one of them. As it says in the New Testament, a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country. It turns out the same thing is true of Jorge Posada. An offensive-minded catcher is not without honor, save to team’s fans.
STILL WAITING ON ACTION JACKSON
Scranton lost their playoff series on Thursday, which frees as many Pennsylvania Yankees as the club would like to come on up to the big city. Juan Miranda was recalled today. Austin Jackson is not on the 40-man roster, so a move would have to be made to get him to the bigs. Perhaps Christian “Out For the Year” Garcia could be shifted over to the 60-day disabled list to create a spot. Or Sergio Mitre could be released…
…Miranda, who is either 16 or 29, had a solid year at Scranton, batting .290/.369/.498 with 19 home runs in 122 games, handling left-handed and right-handed pitchers with equal aplomb. This performance translates to .273/.351/.491, which is not without its uses, though it’s not particularly useful to the Yankees because they’ve gotten fine left-handed production at DH and Mark Teixeira is a full-service first baseman. Thus, the Yankees have another power-hitting pinch-hitter to go with Shelley Duncan, which is okay.
Unfortunately, every team except, apparently, the Rays, has their own Duncan or Miranda, so there’s not much market for these guys. Every once in awhile one will surface in the Majors and do well, like Randy Ruiz with the Blue Jays or Garrett Jones with the Pirates, and everyone will act surprised, but they shouldn’t, because the thing that held them back wasn’t that they couldn’t hit, but that over the long term they weren’t expected to hit well enough to sustain first base or right field given lousy-to-non-existent defense. Kevin Millar is the rare example of this brand of player who actually went on to have a sustained career as a starter.
Whatever his age, Miranda has hit well enough in the minors to deserve at least a small chance from some team looking for a low-cost lefty for a DH or first base rotation. The production likely wouldn’t be great, but say your team is in the position of the Rays, having to play 35-year-old Chris Richard — at that point, you’ll take whatever Miranda can give you.
Unfortunately for him, barring a catastrophic series of injuries, that team will never be the Yankees. Here’s hoping he pops a few home runs during his Big League cameo and ups his trade value. Given his age, which is closer to 30 than not, he’s not going to be getting any better, so he’s not doing much at Scranton other than providing a “Break Glass in Case of” option.
Swisher hit his 27th home run Monday night and has begun to show more consistency at Yankee Stadium II, which bodes well for the playoffs. Right field is a traditional power spot, especially for the Yankees (that Ruth guy, you know), but the last time the Yankees had a right fielder hit over 30 home runs, Gary Sheffield was still young, or at least younger. He hit 36 home runs in 2004 and 34 in ’05 while spending most of his time in right. If you want a Yankees right fielder who topped 25 home runs before Sheffield, you have to skip past Paul O’Neill (who was a great hitter but averaged 22 round-trippers a season) and Danny Tartabull (who did a lot of his work at designated hitter) and point to Jesse Barfield in 1990. As mention of Sheffield, O’Neill, and also Bobby Abreu should make abundantly clear, the Yankees have largely gotten excellent production from the position — we will skip quietly past the Raul Mondesi Interregnum — but with the exception of Sheffield it has come in the form of high averages and on-base percentages and only average home run power. Nothing wrong with that if you can get it. Swisher lags those players in exactly one regard — fewer singles.
With last night’s 3-for-4, Teixeira upped his numbers to .285/.381/.551. Teixeira has been terrific, both with the bat and with the glove, and if he finishes with roughly this level of production, his season will rank somewhere in the top 10 for production by a Yankees first baseman/post-Gehrig division. Incredibly, though, it won’t rank anywhere near the top. That’s no insult to Teixeira, but a measure of just how good Don Mattingly was in the 1984 to 1986 period. He out-hit Teixeira in each of those seasons, doing so in a vastly different league. The American League of 2009 slugs .429. The AL of Mattingly’s glory days slugged about .400. Power comes more easily now than it did then.
As frustrating as he could be at times, the best-hitting Yankees first baseman of the last half-century not named Mattingly was Jason Giambi in 2002. Giambi hit .314/.435/.598 that year, a devastating combination of power and patience. Of course, he couldn’t field like the other two guys. Heck, he couldn’t field like anybody.
Went 3-for-3 to raise his average to .371. At one point it seemed as if .400 was the goal, but now the question is if he can record the highest batting average in history by a catcher. Depending on where you want to place your cutoff, the highest batting average in a full season by a backstop was .362 by the Yankees’ Bill Dickey in 1936 (472 plate appearances) and Mike Piazza in 1997 (633 plate appearances). Smoky Burgess hit .368 in 1954, but had only 392 plate appearances. One wonders what having a minor record like that would do to strengthen Mauer’s MVP candidacy….
THE DREADED MIDTERM GRADES
On Sunday, the Yankees played their 81st game. The season’s official halfway point comes at the All-Star break, but this is it’s actual halfway point. In my ten years as pinstriped armchair detective, I’ve sometimes resorted to the clichéd midterm grades and sometimes not. This year it seemed like a helpful device to review the season. Today we’ll cover the position players, tomorrow the pitching staff.
As you review the report card, remember that the same grade might not mean the same thing for two different players, because each player must be viewed in the context of his position, his career, and his role. Expectations for Mark Teixeira are different than they are for Brett Gardner, so the latter could conceivably get a better grade than the former without implying that he is the better player in a head to head comparison. With that in mind, feel free to offer your own grades in the comments section.
Putting his 25 days on the disabled list aside, you can’t fault Posada’s season. When a 37-year-old catcher is hitting .284/.368/.523, you give thanks for your good fortune and try not to ask too many questions. On defense, he’s thrown out over 30 percent of runners trying to steal, a solid number (the overall Major League success rate on stolen bases this year is 73 percent). The notion that his handling has damaged Joba Chamberlain or anyone else is farfetched bushwah given his career record, as well as those of his many battery-mates. As with several Yankees, Posada has done far more damage at home than on the road. GRADE: 89/100
MARK TEIXEIRA-FIRST BASE
Teixeira has been quite streaky, only reaching a “hot” temperature in May. He’s been vastly more successful at home (.310/.402/.632), but his road production (.243/.373/.472) also gets the job done, albeit at a far more pedestrian level. He’s also been a revelation on defense, even if for some reason the metrics don’t show it. While Teixeira’s season is consistent with his work in previous seasons, he’s not quite at the level of the last two years (.307/.406/.557 in 289 games), and it’s worth noting that he’s having only the fifth-best season among AL first basemen, trailing Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Russell Branyan, and Miguel Cabrera. Of these, Branyan probably won’t hang on until the end, but the others almost certainly will. Bumped out of the “A” range, but only in comparison to previous performances. The 20-game homerless streak with which he ended the half (.244/.366/.321) didn’t help. GRADE: 86.5/100
ROBINSON CANO-SECOND BASE
Cano has bounced back from his spectacularly miserable 2008, but a league-average on-base percentage is still a bridge too far, as is consistency–in May and June combined, he hit .271/.302/.439, which doesn’t help all that much. He’s on a pace to ground into 24 double plays, and he’s batting .196 with runners in scoring position. There are certainly worse second basemen to have–Howie Kendrick is actually the evil Cano from the Star Trek mirror-verse–but as usual, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. GRADE: 79/100
ALEX RODRIGUEZ-THIRD BASE
With 45 walks and 14 home runs in 51 games, A-Rod has been productive despite his low batting average. Eleven of his 14 homers have been hit at home. Conversely, he’s hitting just .211 in the Bronx, with a truly strange .131 average on balls in play–one wonders if he’s trying to get the ball in the air at the new park, trying to catch up on all the short fence/jet stream-generated fun his teammates had without him. His hip problems seem to have sapped his speed and defense, and he hasn’t been around that much. Docked a few points for days absent and the whole juicing thing, which is spectacularly annoying. GRADE: 83.5/100
There are a few nits you can pick with Jeter’s season. He’s only hitting .264/.340/.383 against right-handers, most of his damage coming thanks to .452/.524/.644 rates against lefties. All of his power seems to be a product of Yankee Stadium II; just two of his ten home runs have come on the road. On the plus side, his walk rate is up, he seems more limber this year, both on the bases and in the field, and though he still hits everything on the ground (he ranks 11th among players with 150 or more plate appearances this season), he’s kept his double play rate in hand. Overall, I’m not complaining–after the lethargy of last year, this qualifies as a comeback. GRADE: 91/100
JOHNNY DAMON-LEFT FIELD
Damon hit 17 home runs last year. He’s hit 16 in 76 games this year. The difference is Yankee Stadium II; the former Caveman is hitting .289/.390/.592 with 12 home runs (one every 12.7 at-bats) at home, .278/.340/.465 with four home runs (one every 36 at-bats) on the road. Now, that doesn’t mean that Damon shouldn’t get his due, as being able to take advantage of one’s environment is a skill. It’s much like Jim Rice’s home-road splits in Boston: if everyone who played in Fenway hit like Jim Rice, you’d have an argument about discounting his stats. Damon’s road stats are also sufficient–the average Major League left fielder is hitting .267/.342/.433 overall. At his current pace, Damon is going to obliterate his career high in home runs, his career high in walks is also in reach, and he’s easily going to have his tenth 100-run season. Stolen base frequency is down and his range in left seems down a bit, but as with Jeter I’m not going to complain about a late-career high. GRADE: 90/100
MELKY CABRERA-CENTER FIELD
He’s doing some things he’s never done before, like hitting as a right-hander and taking the occasional walk–he had 29 free passes all of last year, compared to 22 now. That said, he’s mainly helping with his defensive versatility, not his bat. His home runs are a gift of YS II, with seven of eight round-trippers coming in the friendly confines, and coincidental with the injury he suffered in Texas or not, his bat turned off at the end of May and hasn’t come back–even with a semi-hot streak over the last couple of weeks, in 31 games since the end of May he’s hit .221/.303/.379. Given that Cabrera hit only .235/.281/.300 after April last year, the idea that the injury is what’s holding him back should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Cabrera is an asset as a reserve, but he’s not a starter. Alternatively, he’s playing hurt under the misguided belief that he’s helping. At that point, Austin Jackson would be the better choice. GRADE: 72/100
NICK SWISHER-RIGHT FIELD
What a weird player, inconsistent in every phase of his game. At his April level of production, he was a Ruthian terror. In June he hit .253/.379/.506 and was still plenty productive. In between, he took a lot of walks but hit .150. Six games into July he just drew his first walk of the month and was 4-for-22 with one walk in seven games since hitting his last home run going into Tuesday, when he finally broke through with three hits (which doesn’t count towards the midterm). He hasn’t been all that productive with runners on–this seems to be a career-long problem, as if he shortens up his swing and worries about striking out in those situations. The result is quite a few walks but not many hits. His defense is usually solid, but he also has his off days. As he did last season, Swisher has a pronounced home-road split. He’s batting .279/.373/.625 with 11 home runs (one every 12.4 at-bats), but only .181/.347/.302 (again, through Sunday) with three home runs (one every 38.7 at-bats) at home. He’s been helpful on the whole, but the only reason he ranks among the top 15 right fielders in productivity is
that there are only 15 right fielders having good years. In short, I don’t know what to make of him. GRADE: 80/100
BRETT GARDNER-THE OTHER CENTER FIELDER
Gardner is listed among the starters because he’s actually started more games in center than Cabrera, even though Cabrera has played more overall. Given what little was expected of Gardner, not to mention the way he started the season, he probably deserves an A grade just based on performance vs. expectations. He started only 25 games across May and June, but he also appeared in 21 more and hit like crazy, batting .330/.427/.510 with four triples, three home runs, 16 walks, and 12 steals. He has not been handled brilliantly. After Gardner’s 5-for-6 game against the Mets on June 26, he was given just two more starts (he went 0-for-7) before Joe Girardi presumably decided he had gone cold and it was time to try Cabrera again. It’s not clear how a kid is supposed to build up any momentum under those conditions. When he sits, the Yankees aren’t suppressing a great bat, but they do lose some patience (Gardner has drawn a walk every 9.7 plate appearances, whereas Cabrera has taken a pass every 11.6 plate appearances), their best baserunner, and their best center field defender. Despite the hot streak, it’s doubtful that Gardner will ever be a big run producer, but he’s certainly been worth playing. GRADE: 85/100
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.
SO, WHAT HAVE WE GOT?
During the offseason, I frequently argued that though the Yankees had their attention focused overwhelmingly on pitching, the offense might prove to be a bigger problem. Then they signed Mark Teixeira, and I promptly shut up. It seems odd to talk about a team that has averaged more than five runs a game as having offensive deficits to make up, but the truth is that the particular construction of the Yankees means that it’s still a realistic possibility. The Yankees have to guard against being fooled by the numbers they are seeing, many of them distortions caused by their generous new home park. To this point in the season, certain aging Yankees would seem to have found the Fountain of Youth. What they’ve really discovered is a beautifully appointed new ballpark with wide concourses, laptops in the lockers, and a loving right-field power alley.
The home/road splits are damning: Derek Jeter, .295/.364/.381 with two home runs in 239 at-bats. Melky Cabrera, .278/.329/.354 with one home run in 79 at-bats. Johnny Damon, .260/.317/.449 with four home runs in 127 at-bats. Jorge Posada, .253/.348/.440 with three home runs in 75 at-bats. These numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re more realistic than what the players have done at home, more in line with what the players have done in the recent past and what we might have projected them to do this year.
The Yankees are a .500 team on the road so far this season. Their road production has been, overall, quite good, given that Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui have done the bulk of their hitting while traveling. Teixeira has also done his part. Still, this hasn’t been enough to give the team the same explosiveness that it has had in the Bronx, especially when you throw in Alex Rodriguez’s post-surgical problems. (Likely unrelated to his staying up late. Though I’m sure we all want to jump on Rodriguez for his latest transgression, I’m pretty sure that sitting on a barstool next to Kate Hudson doesn’t stress his hip as much as playing does, which was more the point of his “fatigue” problems than his lack of sleep, dig?)
Insofar as winning the division goes, this bifurcation would present less of a problem if the Yankees had won more than 60 percent of their games at home. The 1987 Minnesota Twins showed that in a soft division you could be a hundred-loss team on the road if you were a 100-win team at home. The Yankees are a few games off the latter pace. Say they were just a few games better in their own park, 25-10, instead of 21-14. That’s asking a lot of the Yankees, but we’re in the land of make-believe just now, so stay with me. Were the Yankees to maintain that kind of pace at home while staying around .500 on the road, they would finish the season with a record of somewhere around 99-63, and be in very good shape to win the Wild Card if not the division. They may win the Wild Card anyway, but you can’t take anything for granted.
There is something to be said for players that can take advantage of the features of your home park. Not every Yankee has popped a home run every 13 at-bats at home, as Damon has. The problem is that the park can’t discriminate. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by just 13 runs at home. Over time, that gap may narrow, perhaps because of the park, or maybe because Brett Tomko is pitching. Or Brett Tomko is pitching in the park. The players who have reaped the extra support might also regress, simply through age, fatigue (to use a dangerous word), injury, or changing weather patterns or other effects of the new park we can’t yet foresee.
In June, the Yankees are batting .247/.342/.424, roughly a league mark. The pitchers have been fine. June’s ERA is 3.85, actually the team’s best of the season. June’s starters have an ERA of 4.40, above-average for the league, and the transformed, Veras-free bullpen has an ERA of 2.87. Assuming that CC Sabathia isn’t hurt in any long-term-kind-of way, the pitching staff may well have achieved stability. It is the offense that should now be the source of worry. The lesson for the Yankees is clearly that if opportunities to upgrade the offense present themselves, any chance to replace a middling 35-year-old bat, they have to take it. If finances mitigate against such a move, that’s one thing, but sentimentality or the belief that Melky Cabrera (injured shoulder or not) is going to achieve consistency or Hideki Matsui is going to turn back the clock need to be ignored.
And most of all, perhaps more than anything else, a day-in, day-out A-Rod substitute must be found. Applicant should be able to out-hit Angel Berroa and outfield both he and the less-than-limber Rodriguez. Rodriguez could struggle all season, even if he takes a vow of celibacy. Again, the Yankees don’t want to take anything for granted.
The Yankees’ new record for consecutive games without an error doesn’t mean much to me, because official scoring in baseball has spectacularly low standards and has become almost totally subjective. What is interesting about the record is the way the Yankees have been climbing the defensive efficiency ladder. Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play that a team turns into outs. Over the last several seasons, almost uniformly going back to the last century, the Yankees have ranked toward the bottom of the Majors in this category. Their players had so little range that the pitchers were giving up hits on balls that other teams might have put in the back pockets. Everything gets distorted: The pitchers look worse than they really are, the team goes crazy trying to sign pitchers when it really needs fielders and hitters, and the whole club spins off its axis.
If memory serves, the last time the Yankees led the league in this category was 1998. Since then, there’s been a lot of “Past a diving [your name here]!” in the play by play. That has changed a great deal this season, particularly due to the addition of Mark Teixeira, who is a revelation on the fielding job after so many years of Jason Giambi. Another key factor has been Nick Swisher, who hasn’t made many spectacular plays but gets to many more balls than Bobby Abreu was inclined to pursue in right field. Right now, the Yankees are fourth in the American League at 70.7 percent, a number almost indistinguishable from that of the league-leading Rangers (71.3 percent; the Brewers lead the Majors at 72.4 percent). It’s an old but true baseball adage that you can’t win by giving the opposition extra outs. Usually, that adage refers to errors, but it should apply to every ball hit within the fences and between the lines. The Yankees haven’t cared much about this in the recent past, but with Teixeira’s help a change has come. It and the team’s current hot streak are not coincidental.
JOBA CAN PITCH THE EIGHTH — AS A STARTER
And that’s all I have to say about that. He won’t get there in most starts, of course, but the point is that if he is capable of this kind of upside, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep running him out there until he gives some definitive reason that he can’t. The performance of OTHER pitchers, like the eighth-inning relievers, have nothing to do with him. The bullpen is its own problem with its own solution set. You don’t take a pitcher who is capable of giving you 21 or even 24 outs a night with an ERA below 4.00 out of the rotation because you can’t find another guy who can give you three, no matter how “important” the spot. That’s idiotic. All of the outs are important. We just perceive protecting late leads to somehow be a bigger deal than holding the opposition scoreless in the first or the third or the sixth, but a run is a run is a run, and you never know which one is going to beat you. More to the point, you can’t protect leads you don’t have, and a strong starting pitching staff is the tool that is most likely to buy you the time to generate that lead. Secondary point: It’s much easier to find a guy to give you three outs than it is to find the one that will give you 21, even if the Yankees are having trouble finding that guy right now.
And yet another point, one that I alluded to yesterday: As good as Chien-Ming Wang has been as a starter in his career, his stuff and approach do not correlate with long-term success. I don’t care if you have a sinker so heavy that Superman can’t lift it — eventually the lack of strikeouts, the lack of a solid inner defense, or both is going to eat you alive. In Wang’s case, his injury of last season may have altered his delivery, stuff or strength in a minute way, hard to perceive with the naked eye, but significant enough that he can no longer balance on the point of a needle the way he used to. Putting him in the bullpen, while perceived by many fans and commentators as a waste or an insult of some kind, may in fact allow him to make changes in his approach that will save his effectiveness and ultimately his career. A Wang who isn’t worried about marshalling his stuff and can throw harder over a shorter span of time while still getting groundballs may be able to get outs in a way that a six- or seven-inning version of Wang can no longer aspire to.
Right now, there’s no reason for the Yankees to make a change except that some people are arguing for it. Wang is pitching well in the bullpen, they say, so let’s make him a starter. Chamberlain is pitching well as a starter, so let’s make him a reliever. That way lies madness.
Parenthetically, I was pleased that Joel Sherman made very much the same argument I did yesterday about using Mariano Rivera in a tied game on the road. Within that piece there’s also a promising note about the Yankees vowing not to resign Hideki Matsui after the season, 100 percent the correct decision.
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 (?).