Results tagged ‘ New York Yankees ’

The day after, sans hangover

yanks250.jpgIT’S ABOUT TIME
It seems as if the Yankees have been waiting to clinch for about three months, but seven weeks, ever since the Yankees swept the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium from August 6 to August 9 and went up by 6.5 games. You can shave the Countdown to Coronation to just over a month if you choose August 23 as your starting date. Since August 9, the Yankees have gone 31-14 (.689); since the 23rd, they’ve gone 23-10 (.697). They’ve more than held up their end of the bargain, as even the 1927 Yankees would have had a hard time overtaking them given that level of success. Since August 9, the club has allowed 4.5 runs per game while scoring 5.9. If you discount Sergio Mitre’s starts, the team’s runs allowed in that stretch drops to about 3.2. That’s simply astounding, and given the level of the offense, borderline unfair. Since Mitre won’t come within sniffing distance of the mound in October, that’s the real measure of the offensive/defensive balance that opponents will face. Anything can happen in a short series (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), but the Yankees have to be considered the favorites at this point.

If you’re looking for a key stat, it’s this: the Yankees lead the American League in strikeouts per nine innings, something they haven’t done since 2001 (they finished a close second in 2002 and 2003, those squandered seasons). It’s not a foolproof formula (again, nothing is), but when confronted with a tough offense, as most postseason offenses are, the best thing a team can do to beat them is to get them to swing and miss. When the Royals make contact, the ball doesn’t go too far. When the Angels make contact, it leaps tall buildings. As such, it’s best to keep the bats and the balls from meeting as often as you can.

If the Tigers hold on to their division lead, the Yankees will actually confront a postseason team with a fairly mediocre offense, and that would represent the best of all worlds, regardless of the prowess of their pitching staff — said prowess possibly having been overstated. More on that when and if the Yankees face the Tigers. We’ll be doing the usual head-to-head, position-by-position rankings as soon as the Central race is decided.

Joe Girardi’s day-after-clinching lineup has no Nick Swisher, no A-Rod, no Jeter, no Teixeira, and the opponent is the Royals. This game should be part of a two-for-one special–buy one ballgame and we’ll give you a pseudo-Yankees game for free. At least Robbie Cano is still in there. It would be something of a shock if he wasn’t. The last time he didn’t start was August 16. The last time he didn’t play was, I believe, on July 3, 1928, when Miller Huggins benched him against Rube Walberg in favor of Mike Gazella. Cano sulked for weeks and ultimately got into a fistfight with Leo Durocher, hastening the latter’s release. Since then, managers have been afraid to bench him, with the result that Cal Ripken, Jr. shattered his record for consecutive games played back in 1995, the record that, paradoxically, Cano is still building.

All of this will be explained in a future installment of “Robinson Crusoe Cano, Time-Tossed Traveler.”

Louis Armstrong, “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train.” Big hit for Satchmo in 1932.

Last week I commented on the child who was forced by his teacher to reverse his Sabathia T-Shirt, and said, among other things, “Longtime readers know that I am no fan of the teaching profession.” This comment reaped the usual mix of responses, and I was prompted to go back and see what I had said here in the past. I first raised the topic in an off-hand remark on Don Mattingly becoming a Yankees coach way back in 2003, and got the predictable firestorm of hostility. Here was my answer then:

The most controversial comment in last week’s PB was this one from the discussion of Don Mattingly as hitting coach: “My own educational experience, which I assume to be typical, is that the ratio of good teachers to mediocrities hacking it out for a paycheck is approximately one out of ten.” Some correspondents thought I had nailed the pedagogical profession while others thought I was being grossly unfair.

The qualifiers offered above were meant to indicate that the statement was entirely subjective. That being said, I feel safe extrapolating from my own experience for this reason: I grew up in a prosperous, middle-class suburban town, one whose school district benefited from an inordinate amount of financial and emotional support from the community. It is considered one of the best in my state and has been cited as one of the best in the nation. And yet, it was terrible.

At six years old I encountered a teacher who was physically abusive (not to me, thank goodness, but to my classmates). Severe verbal abuse was commonplace. Female students were treated by male teachers in a patronizing, insulting manner that would be classified as sexual harassment today. I spent a year with one aged English teacher who was clearly senile–classes sometimes consisted of watching him stare silently at the ceiling–and yet he was allowed to remain. As for Mister Chips, John Keating, Albus Dumbledore–I never saw them. Even the few inspiring teachers I had were flawed. My one favorite, the only one I really admired and to whom I felt sincere gratitude, once, in a rage, attacked me with the blade from a pair of broken shears (long story). I just got away.

This was a good school district, a great school district, so I can barely imagine what an average one must be like, let alone a bad one.

I think back on those shears quite often, as the blade was whipped past my face, knife-thrower style, just missing what is now the eye I can see out of. Then again, it might not have blinded me, it might have just killed me. As I look back over this, I can think of so many details and stories that are left out of that very abbreviated telling, and I may write more about the story in another forum.

The topic came up again a couple of years later. At that time, I received many responses along the lines of those this weekend. Here’s one response along with my answer.

A word about educators. I want you to know that they’re not all bad. My cousin is a teacher in the NYC public school system. She teaches first and second grade. The majority of her students do not speak English at home. The problems she has dealt with include overcrowding, rodents in the classroom, children who are not properly bathed, etc. Many people, include those within my family have encouraged her to seek a position with a private school, where she would be better paid and work under better conditions. She told me something like, “I love these kids, I can’t leave them. Who would take care of them if I didn’t?” To me, she is a great hero! I am a product of a NYC public school education. And as I have moved and traveled extensively throughout the US, I have become more aware of the quality education I received in comparison to many, even private school educated people, in other parts of the country. Just wanted to get that off my chest. — Lis

Lis, I appreciate what you’re saying. I struggle with this all the time. I know generalizations are for dopes and bigotry is for the simpleminded, so for me to paint an entire profession as all good or all bad is weak. I have known good teachers, and I can think of one in particular that had a huge positive impact on my life. Yet, given my own experiences and observations, I do feel that educators like your cousin and the person I’m descri
bing are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, the teacher I just mentioned is no longer a teacher, having found, after a long career, that the harassment that came with being good at his job was just too much to take. Perhaps this is true of most professions; one individual excels, all the mediocrities below him try to pull him down. Or perhaps I’m cynical.

The “one in particular” noted above is the same guy that hurled half a scissors at my head. I must have been in a forgiving mood. At the time this response appeared, my oldest child was just starting school, so I had nothing to work with except my own experience. Said child is now well into elementary school, and she has had one or two encounters that have rivaled my own, though no blades were thrown. I don’t want to violate her privacy at this time by writing about what she has gone through in specific terms, since at her age I can’t ask her for her permission in a way that’s really fair. What I can say is that I’m in there fighting for her, because I will not let her be terrorized the way I was.

All I can say is that I’m sorry and I’m not sorry. I’m sorry I hold this particular view, because as I said above I recognize that it is not wholly fair, but I’m not sorry because I am justifiably bitter and will remain bitter for the rest of my life. I love learning. I like being challenged to pick up new things. I’m like that now and I was like that as a child. Then I saw six-year-olds hauled out of chairs and thrown to the floor, or I was repeatedly brought up before a class, harangued, and called stupid because of some perceived offense like poor penmanship. I fondly recall the elementary school gym teacher who called me “[reproductive gerund] useless” in front of my class because I couldn’t do X number of chin-ups one day, or the junior high school English teacher with whom, because of a little classroom disagreement, called my father and told him I was in danger of failing out of school–you can imagine how my father let me have it when I got home–a story she invented out of whole cloth (this incident damaged by relationship with my father for years), or the high school teacher who admitted I knew more about history than he did but was going to fail me anyway. Where I was at first eager, I became afraid, then angry, then resentful, and pretty much turned off until college. I am admittedly biased, and yet I have seen what I have seen. I have seen my education and my daughter’s. I am working against a confirmation bias, but it can’t be helped.

Are there great teachers? Sure. I don’t deny their existence and never have. Do I think they’re anything like in the majority? No. Do our educational statistics bear out that they are anything like in the majority? No (that’s not letting the parents off the hook, of course). I have had friends who have become teachers, but only after failing at some other profession. I had friends in college who became teachers, but only after failing at some other major. Again, these are very narrow slices of information and seen the way I want to see them. I admit that. My anger overcomes that rationality. As a victim of a kind of abuse, what I most want is to run into one of those by-now ancient men or women and be able to say, “Scream at me now! Call me stupid now!” I want to say now what I didn’t have the power to say then. Once I’ve gotten that out of my system, I might be more able to hear arguments about this prejudice, the only one I permit myself.

In closing, to all you great teachers out there, to all of you who are proud relatives of great teachers, I apologize and would very much like to know what it is that makes you different. As for the rest of you, my wish for you is that you find another line of work… But before you do, please join that Yankees-hating teacher on the concourse outside of the Stadium, starting an hour before the first game of the ALCS. Tell everyone who comes by wearing a Sabathia shirt, or better yet a Jeter shirt, to cover it up or else. I promise I’ll send flowers.

On Tuesday at 1 PM EST, I’ll be fielding your questions live at Baseball Prospectus. As always, if you can’t tune in and participate at the starting time, you can post your questions in advance here.

To praise Jeter, and not bury him

As long as I’ve been writing this feature, I’ve had to respond to this kind of comment:

Steve, I always look forward to reading the PB. You are very knowledgeable and have a great sense of humor and write extremely well. That being said, have you ever written anything on Jeter that was totally positive? As, I tell my 10 year old son all the time, we are very blessed to be able to watch him play. Of course he has weaknesses, everyone does, but the total package is to be appreciated. You are able to do this with Posada, why not Jeter? There is no need to put this hits record into perspective. It is what it is. No one is suggesting that he is a better hitter than those he is passing (Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig) anymore than anyone would suggest that Pete Rose was a better hitter than Ted Williams, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. — RTO

You can’t be much of a baseball fan if you don’t appreciate Derek Jeter. I appreciate Jeter not only for all the things he is, but for all the things he’s not, which is to say that I’ve been following the Yankees long enough to remember in excruciating detail his many predecessors, most of whom were advertisements for how not to build a winning ballclub. Put it this way: I’m just old enough to remember people debating the merits of Chicken Stanley, and I attended games in which Bucky Dent played. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to follow the Yankees with anything like an adult comprehension of the game, Dent had stopped hitting even at the low level he had previously; he was essentially done at 30, and the Yankees swapped him for Lee Mazzilli. He gave way to…

ROY SMALLEY (1982-1983)
Smalley was a very good hitter for a shortstop of the day, batting .266/.351/.434 as a Yankee in ’82 and ’83, but injuries had reduced his range to that of a rusty coat rack. Before the 1983 season was over, the Yankees were experimenting with other players. Worse, they traded Greg Gagne to the Twins to acquire Smalley; Gagne was a not a great player, but he played a fair shortstop for two championship teams while the Yankees watched from the sidelines.

The Yankees tried hard to pretend that Robertson was a Major League shortstop. His glove got good reviews, but he had struggled to post even a .285 on-base percentage in the minors. In 1983 he got a chance to take over for Smalley and hit .248/.271/.326, which is actually better than would have been projected from his showing in the sticks. Indeed, he was in an extended slump when a serious car accident ended his season in August. The rest of his career was one long attempt at a comeback. At the time, there was a good deal of asking “what could have been,” but the correct answer was, “Not much.”

BOBBY MEACHAM (1983-1986)
Meacham took over shortstop after Robertson got hurt, and then repeated the experience when Robertson’s 1984 comeback was aborted due to his making a disproportionate number of outs. Meacham was a double-threat. He couldn’t hit and was an erratic, error-prone fielder. He was also singled by the owner, which almost certainly did not help. In 1985, Meacham’s .218/.302/.266 rate stats and 24 errors played a decisive role in the loss of a close divisional race to the Blue Jays. In 1984, we also had the pleasure of seeing 33-year-old infielder Tim Foli dramatically under-hit his career .251/.283/.309 rates as a Robertson/Meacham substitute. Meacham began 1986 in the same role, likely because offseason moves were being misguidedly  being restricted. When Meacham had batted only .222/.301/.278 through mid-June, the Yankees finally sent him down. This was a terrific move, except there was no substitute on hand. In the short term, the Yankees tried veteran non-hitter Mike Fischlin, who batted .206/.261/.225 on the season. They also tried Dale Berra and veteran National Leaguer Ivan DeJesus. Ken Griffey and Robertson were then dealt to the Braves for Claudell Washington and 27-year-old Paul Zuvella, who was installed as the sorting shortsop. He hit .083. The Yankees then traded for…

WAYNE TOLLESON (1986-1987)
The 30-year-old Tolleson came to the Yankees on July 30, 1986. The 5’9″ infielder had primarily been a light-hitting second baseman in his career, but he was coming off a fluke season in which he had hit .313, albeit with no walks or power. Still, he made the Yankees look good over the remainder of the season, batting .284/.332/.344. This was great production compared to what they had received from shortstop over the previous months and year. In 1987, a year in which everyone hit, Tolleson became an out machine, and by the end of the year, the Yankees were giving Randy Velarde a look and also gave Meacham one more chance. There were also one-game cameos from veteran Jerry Royster and minor league journeyman Jeff Moronko.

In December of 1987, the Yankees dealt three middling prospects (all they had at the time) to the Mets for Santana, who had a bit of a glow on him from being the starting shortstop on the champion 1986 Mets. The glow seemingly blinded Yankees decision-makers to the painful realities of Santana’s game — he couldn’t hit, had neither good range nor sure hands and was suffering from an arm problem that hampered his throwing. Billy Martin, then managing his final season, was reportedly appalled by him. Unfortunately, the club had few alternatives. Velarde got in a few games, and veteran Luis Aguayo, brought over from the Phillies to platoon at third with Mike Pagliarulo, got in one game.

It was assumed that Santana would start again in 1989, but his arm proved to require surgery that would keep him out for the season. In desperation, the Yankees turned to Espinoza, who had joined the team as a Minor League free agent the year before, spending the entire season at Triple-A Columbus. Espinoza was a fairly steady fielder, but had no business holding a bat in his hands. His .224/.258/.274 season of 1990 still qualifies as one of the most pathetic offensive seasons in Yankees history, and it is no coincidence that Espinoza’s reign coincided with some of the worst years the team has ever had. Substitutes during this period included Tolleson, Velarde, Yankees farmhand Carlos Rodriguez, and veteran infielder Tom Brookens.

STAFF (1992)
The Yankees released Espinoza during spring training 1992, having signed free agent utility infielder Mike Gallego away from the Oakland A’s. Gallego got hurt during spring training and didn’t make his Yankees debut until mid-May. Velarde, now 29 but not yet established in the Majors, played in his place, as did Andy Stankiewicz and farmhand Dave Silvestri, whose Minor League numbers suggested he might hit a bit for a middle infielder, but somehow he never did. A  broken wrist shelved Gallego for most of the second half, leaving Velarde and Stankiewicz sharing the shortstop’s job. Overall, team shortstops hit .248/.317/.331, which was miserable but better than what they had been getting out of Espinoza.

Another free agent signing, this time from the Expos, Owen was no hitter, though he did walk a bit. Defensively, his range was extremely limited. Buck Showalter rapidly soured on him, and by late April was giving him regular time off, then benched him completely not long after the All-Star break. Gallego and Velarde split time at short over the rest of the season. Velarde was starting to find his bat in this period, but never showed great hands at short.

Gallego played 69 games at short in the 113-game season, although there were also many starts by Velarde and an odd
flirtation with Kevin Elster, who was neither a good hitter nor strong fielder and hadn’t played more than a smattering of games in two years while rehabbing an injury. At this point in his career, he had the range of Jason Giambi. Gallego hit .239/.327/.359, which was beginning to look positively Ruthian as far as Yankee shortstops were concerned.

The Yankees signed the former All-Star and Gold Glover as a free agent after he had spent a year playing third base for the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees would be the last team to ask Fernandez to play shortstop for any length of time. There was good reason for this; at 33, the Gold Glove days were long gone, as was the pretense of throwing hard to first base on routine grounders. Fernandez could be a very solid hitter for a shortstop, but as the Mets had discovered a couple of years earlier, his bat had a New York aversion, and he hit a weak .245/.322/.346. When Fernandez required time off, the Yankees tried Elster, the unavoidable Velarde, light-hitting Netherlands import Robert Eenhoorn, the unavoidable Velarde, and a then-obscure fellow named Jeter. The next spring, as Joe Torre was grousing about having to play a rookie shortstop, Fernandez went out for the season, and the rest is history.

IN TOTAL (1982-1995)
For the entire period under discussion, Yankees shortstops hit .245/.306/.331. Given that they played in a division with Cal Ripken (Hall of Fame), Robin Yount (ditto), and Alan Trammell (inexplicably isn’t in, but should be), as well as the occasional Julio Franco, this is even worse than it looks. The Red Sox, who were not exactly playing Vern Stephens and Johnny Pesky at this time, got more production out of their shortstops as well. Yankees shortstops also made more errors during this time than all but a handful of teams.

The Yankees won nothing during this time, and at best did little more than tease the possibility of winning. There were days when you could spend half the game on the phone or in the bathroom or just asleep and know you weren’t going to miss anything from the Yankees’ lineup. Just picking a game at random, on July 31, 1987, the bottom four hitters in the Yankees’ lineup were Gary Ward, Mark Salas, Juan Bonilla, and Wayne Tolleson. Incredibly enough, the Yankees won that game on a walk-off home run by Ward, but such days were few and far between — Ward hit .248/.291/.384, which competes with Rondell White’s 2002 as one of the worst seasons by a full-time Yankees outfielder. But I digress — the point here is the years of Waiting for Jeter, of hoping against hope that the Yankees would solve this ongoing, bleeding, suppurating hole in their roster. Jeter not only put an end to that, not only became the greatest shortstop in franchise history, but he ushered in an age of championships and is going to the Hall of Fame. In short:



If I have written critically about Jeter at times, it is only because the whole world sometimes seems directed towards writing a Jeter hagiography, and I am of the firm belief that we cannot properly appreciate even the best among us unless we fully measure the precise dimensions of their strengths and weaknesses. A Jeter who is perfect isn’t real and isn’t much of a hero, because where is the heroism in perfection? A true hero is a hero in spite of his or her flaws. They overcome. I want to know that George Washington had an incredible temper, that Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression, that Babe Ruth had to keep reminding himself that the world had rules once he got out of the orphanage. These things magnify their accomplishments rather than diminish them, and to discuss them does not betray their memory but exalts it, does not show a lack of appreciation or respect but rather enhances appreciation or respect.

Some people want to worship a Jeter that doesn’t exist, a paper god. I want to see him for what he is — and what he is, especially given what came before him, is great but hardly flawless. If you want more than that from me, I’m sorry, but the Pinstriped Bible is not about alternate realities. Major e longinquo reverentia.

Four games in the Great White North

                W-L  RS/G  RA/G  AVG  OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9

Yankees   15-5  6.7    
4.4      .298   .368  .508  21        9   
3    1.2    2.8   

Blue Jays  5-15  4.3     6.0      .246   .324  .406  26        4   
4    1.5    3.7   

The Blue Jays have been softer in their last 20 games than the Orioles were in their 20 leading into the just-concluded series with the Yankees. If you replace their fluke 18-run game against the Rangers four days ago with the 21st game in the sequence, they are averaging just 3.7 runs a game. What makes this series competitive, at least on paper, is that the Yankees are employing a patchwork rotation for this four-game series, going with Chad Gaudin, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettitte, and Sergio Mitre. Joba matches up with Roy Halladay, and you would like to see him show up for this one given that Halladay has been murderized in his last three appearances (two against the Red Sox, one against the Rays), giving up 17 runs in 17 innings.

Travis Snider tore up Triple-A Las Vegas (.337/.431/.663) but has hit three home runs and basically nothing else since his return to the bigs, hitting .167/.310/.354 in 16 games… Rare for the Yankees to play a team that runs even less frequently than they do in the absence of Brett Gardner, but the Jays are a slow team to begin with. Their main basestealer was Alex Rios, now with the White Sox, an act of generosity on Kenny Williams’ part with no parallel in the history of baseball… With Scott Rolen dealt to the Reds and Edwin Encarnacion hurt, the Yankees will see a lot of Jose Bautista and John McDonald at third base, which is a bit like getting to face a National League lineup. That’s a bit unfair to Bautista, not so much to McDonald… First baseman Lyle Overbay is coming off of a .329/.430/.507 month; he, Aaron Hill (31 homers), Marco Scutaro, and Adam Lind are the consistent threats remaining to this lineup. Toronto’s ability to develop pitchers will keep them vaguely relevant, but they are two-thirds of a lineup away from being a real contender. The farm system shows no signs of giving them that kind of help. Yankees should be good for three out of four here, even with the shaky pitching matchups. 

September: Only the cruelest month for Baltimore

…Although “Waiting for Melky Cabrera’s Next Hot Streak” would have made for a very good Johnny Cash song, something along the lines of “Big River”:

Now, I taught the weeping willow how to cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And I’m still waiting for Melky to start hitting again, Big River
Or I’m gonna sit right here until I die

This is hardly worth a complaint or cavil; with the Yankees having just swept the White Sox, there’s little to complain about. Well, we could always spend more time first-guessing the Joba Rules 3.0, or whatever version Joe Girardi is up to now. The experiment is fascinating in the completely blind way it is being conducted; there is no hope of ever knowing if the Yankees are helping or just sort of messing around. If Joba doesn’t get hurt, it isn’t necessarily because of anything the Yankees did or did not do, and the same thing is true if he does get hurt. Being careful to avoid too large a year-over-year increase in innings pitched seems correct both from an intuitive and anecdotal perspective, but in the final analysis, the only foolproof way to avoid pitching injuries is not pitching.

Simultaneously, if the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful Major League pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. To paraphrase a tragic Vietnam-era concoction, what if the only way to save the pitcher is to destroy him? Yet another thing we don’t know is if Joba’s recent stretch of weak pitching is due to the rules or just coincidental with their implementation. The righty made 11 starts with a 3.31 ERA in June and July. In August, the month all the messing around really took hold, his ERA was 8.22. If he’s miserable in the playoffs, if he’s miserable next year, then it will be difficult to argue that this was a goal worth pursuing, or that it was pursued correctly.

There is another imperative, one which is in conflict with the Joba Rules, and that is winning ballgames and championships. Had the Yankees been in a tighter race in the middle of this month, they would have faced a fascinating choice between holding to their principles and trying to get back to the postseason. Fortunately for them, and perhaps for Joba, we will never know what would have happened in that situation.

                W-L   RS/G   RA/G   AVG   OBP  SLG   AB/HR   SB  CS  HR/9  BB/9    K/9
Yankees   14-6   6.3     4.5    .298   .357  .513   20        9     2     1.2    2.9     8.6
Orioles     8-12   4.9     5.2    .281   .343  .465   31        11   5     1.3    3.3     5.9

Another August comes to a close, another series against an Orioles team that has packed it in for the year. The Orioles franchise goes back to the founding of the American League in 1901, when it came into existence as the St. Louis Browns. The Browns, as you can probably infer from the fact that they now play in Baltimore, were generally not too successful, their two high points being a terrific but losing race with the Yankees in 1922 and a random pennant in 1944. Much of the rest of the time, including the early Baltimore period, the club was hopeless, twice going more than 10 years without even putting up a .500 record. The first stretch, from 1930-1941, lasted 12 seasons. The second, from 1946-1956, lasted 11. When this season ends, the club will have equaled the former futile run, having not posted a winning record since 1997.

The Yankees have good timing in this series, in that they won’t see the two top pitching prospects the Orioles now have up, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz. Instead, they get the vet Jeremy Guthrie (hot lately, with consecutive seven inning/one run starts), the rookie David Hernandez, who they have handled before — he remains wild and prone to the home run — and another rookie, Jason Berken, who they battered back in July. This is not something to be boasted of, because pretty much everyone else who has seen Berken has basted him. He has pitched a little better of late, going 10.2 innings and allowing five runs in his last two starts.

The hottest hitter the O’s have won’t play against Andy Pettitte. Outfielder Felix Pie has been a bust in both Chicago and Baltimore, but the 24-year-old got a chance to play with Adam Jones nursing injuries and he made the most of it, batting .333/.394/.651 in August. This aside, the sights to see remain the same: veteran keystoner Brian Roberts, the three young outfielders, and rookie catcher Matt Wieters. If it sounds like I’m not too excited by this series, it’s because there isn’t much reason to be. The Orioles hit at about the same level of productivity as the White Sox, but their pitching is far worse. Given how the Yankees just handled the White Sox, there isn’t much suspense here. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.

The Yankees still haven’t said who is coming, nor have they designated all of their Arizona Fall League attendees, so the immediate future of Yankees prospect-dom remains murky. One would hope that Austin Jackson is coming. As miserable as he has been lately (.236/.281/.299 since the break and largely pointless since May), the Yankees still need to get a look at him in big league situations to see what they have. There is some interesting slack in his numbers, including a homerless .302/.346/.414 against left-handed pitching, an oddity for a right-handed hitter. This is not something you would expect to continue, unless Jackson has become such a pronounced ground ball hitter this year that his power is going to stagnate from now on. With a big lead, Brett Gardner hurt, and Cabrera endlessly slumping (.212/.225/.333 in August, .239/.308/.380 since May), veterans in need of rest, and all the leverage in the world on Johnny Damon’s side in upcoming free agent negotiations, giving Jackson a cup of coffee in spite of his weak performance would seem the correct thing to do.

Amending the Joba Rules

It’s more than one game, though. Since we’ve been arguing about Jorge Posada all week, I thought I would point out that his detractors got his wish, with the old man taking a ball off the finger and going out of the lineup for a few days. With Thursday’s loss, the team record in Molina’s starts dropped to 13-14. Having fun yet? Maybe the next time Bob Geren brings the A’s by, he can suit up and spend the series putting up a .280 on-base percentage for the folks who miss the quiet Yankees games of the early 1990s. You know–the pro-Molina guys.

Peter Abraham reports that Joba Chamberlain will now pitch every five games. There is something to be said for not making things up as you go along, especially when dealing with a kid pitcher who probably lacks the perspective that the Yankees have about injuries. He just wants to win some ballgames, get established, make some millions. Maybe he should care more about innings limits, but it’s hard to when you have a strong desire to do something, the way you might linger of a project, a book, or a TV show when you should really quit and go to bed; the way some have trouble turning down a slab of chocolate cake when they know they really shouldn’t eat it (yes, the previous two examples describe me). Consequences or always for another day. If the Yankees have gotten bad results from putting Joba on an innings diet, it is because they failed to make it clear to him at the outset what he’d be doing and when, and by “outset” what is meant is “spring training.” It is clear that the erratic nature of the Rules left Chamberlain confused and under pressure as well as disrupted him mechanically. He appeared to pitch as if he knew this would be his only chance for the next seven to ten days.

As I have pointed out in the past, the worst thing about this second iteration of the Rules is that they were counterproductive. Preventing pitcher injuries is in no way a science. There’s a lot of guesswork, and in the end, it is likely that the only thing that can prevent pitching injuries is not pitching. The best teams can do is avoid the obviously dangerous stuff. That’s what the Yankees are trying to achieve by controlling Chamberlain’s innings. Yet, another danger, and perhaps a more important one than innings, is that of long, high-pitch innings. The more time off Joba had, the wilder he got. The wilder he got, the more pitches he threw. The total for the entire game might be the same, but one or two innings would suffer from a balloon effect. It is those innings, where pitch after pitch after pitch is thrown, that carry the highest risk of injury.

The latest change would seem to carry the best chances of good results for everyone except Yankees relievers. Chamberlain will start in his rotation spot, but will have his pitches limited and his appearances truncated. Given a fairly solid lock on a postseason berth, team goals shouldn’t be compromised too badly, certainly not any more than they have been by putting Sergio Mitre in the rotation.

The Yankees’ primary bullpen lefty has now allowed six home runs to left-handed hitters this year. Though left-handers are hitting only .209 against him with a .235 OBP, they’re also averaging a home run every 18 at-bats, which is a 33-homer pace over 600 at-bats. Coke might seem too dangerous to use in a key situation, but should we discount some of the home runs by left-handed hitters because they get to take aim at Yankee Stadium’s short right field? It’s hard to say. Three of the six homers have been shots to right field at home. Would they have gone out of the old park? We can’t know for sure. The one thing we can say is that Coke gets very few groundballs. In his brief but effective debut last year, he was much better at keeping the ball down. This year, he’s deep in negative territory when it comes to groundball/flyball ratio. If he’s going to succeed in a late-inning role, be it at Yankee Stadium II or anywhere else (but especially there), a change in style is going to be necessary.

                  W-L  RS/G  RA/G  AVG   OBP   SLG  AB/HR  SB  CS  HR/9 BB/9  K/9
White Sox  8-12 4.6    4.9    .251   .337  .412  28       14  2    1.4    3.0    7.2
Yankees    14-6  6.1    4.6    .296   .362  .506  20        9   3    1.2    3.7    9.0

The Red Sox took three of four, and given that the Yankees lost three of four in Chicago, they owe the Pale House some of the same treatment… The Yankees’ runs/game numbers are distorted by the 20 they put up in Boston. Discount that game, replace it with a 21st game, August 5 at Toronto, and they have averaged 5.5 runs per game, still very good… Since his perfect game, Mark Buehrle has gone 0-4 with a 6.21 ERA in six starts. That includes eight shutout innings against Seattle (a 1-0 loss for the White Sox), so you can see how miserable he’s been in the other five games… That Alex Rios pickup hasn’t really worked out so far, with the outfielder hitting only .200 in 12 games. White Sox center fielders have batted .223/.276/.307 on the season, which is a lot like not having a center fielder at all… Gordon Beckham, a Rookie of the Year candidate, has been ice cold, with only eight hits in his last 12 games (.170)… An overly right-handed ballclub, with over 60% of plate appearances going to northpaws, the Sox shouldn’t be able to take too great an advantage of Yankee Stadium II.

I’m very happy my friend and colleague Jonah Keri is still alive.

Some Yankees math

The Yankees are now 69-42, which puts them on a pace for 101 wins. Let’s say the Yankees maintain that pace — they don’t get better and they don’t get worse. The Red Sox would need to win 102 games to take the division title. Given their present record of 62-48, the Red Sox would need to win 40 of their remaining 52 games, or 77 percent. That’s equivalent to winning 125 games over a full season.

While not impossible, it’s also not likely. Consider an alternative scenario, one in which the Yankees somehow have a rough go of it the rest of the way and play a game under .500 for the remainder of the schedule. In that case, the Yankees would finish at 94-68. To reach 95 wins, the Red Sox would need to go 33-19. That’s a .635 winning percentage, in the realm of possibility, but it still requires Boston to spend one third of the season playing as if they were a 103-win team. Obviously, for any team behind the Red Sox, such as the Rays, to displace the Yankees, the road is that much harder.

In short: While you can never take anything for granted, this sweep has put the Yankees in a very, very good place.

Taking the Yankees’ initial 0-8 against the Red Sox out of the equation, New York is 69-34 (.670), and Boston is 54-48 (.529). Those wins by the Red Sox were legitimate, but now seem like a fluke event. The record the rest of the way is simply not comparable. The 2009 Yankees could be a team we will remember. However, much remains to be done. As I pointed out yesterday, the Yankees have had “special” teams in recent years that didn’t bring him any rings. The 2002, 2003, and 2004 Yankees all won over 100 games and were, respectively, bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Angels team they can’t seem to beat, mismanaged to a loss in the World Series, and the victims of a historic reversal of fortune against the Red Sox in the ’04 ALCS. The intensity that the Yankees showed in this series, particularly on the pitching side, has to carry over or the events of the past weekend will end up as little more than a footnote.

Like all of you, I was initially shocked and appalled at Phil “Home Run” Coke pitching to right-handed batters in the eighth inning, and doubly appalled when premonitions of doom proved to be highly accurate. I’m not going to criticize the manager for that call, not with too much conviction, anyway. For obvious reasons, Joe Girardi had not let the world know that the bullpen was mostly off-limits. I will say that if Girardi really has an ironclad aversion to using pitchers in three consecutive games (a quick look at the record shows that Joe Borowski pitched in four straight games in August 2006 and pitched in three straight games on one other occasion that year; Matt Herges also did so once. Jose Veras appeared in three straight games without an off-day twice last August, and Damaso Marte pitched in four straight games during the same period) then his usage of Hughes for one out in each of the previous two games was shortsighted.

Today will bring more in the way of decisions and bullpen usage because Sergio Mitre is pitching, which is another way of saying that Chad Gaudin will be making his Yankees debut in the fourth or fifth inning. Mitre is 11-23 with a 5.48 ERA in his career, and he’s been lambasted this season. It’s not clear why the Yankees are persevering with him, especially since Brian Cashman has secured the team a better alternative in Gaudin. If the postseason is truly assured, or at least likely, the fifth starter is now auditioning for a role in the bullpen. Try to imagine the circumstances in which Girardi would call Mitre in during a playoff game. No, I can’t think of one either.

The Blue Jays are 12-19 since the end of June. The Yankees will miss Roy Halladay in this series, which means they have a more than fair chance to keep their winning streak alive. That’s if they don’t throw it away on one more Mitre adventure. The only way the club can lose now is to take things for granted, and pitching Mitre is doing just that.

Thoughts on a classic

Wow, what a game.

Junichi Tazawa, welcome to the Major Leagues. Best wishes for the rest of your career.

Is Alex Rodriguez now a “true Yankee?” I feel as if I’ve asked that question before.

What a terrific job by the Yankees pitching staff. Given the home run propensities of Yankee Stadium II, stretches of 15 scoreless innings are not going to happen too often. As the stalemate headed into late and extra innings, every left-handed batter carried with him to the plate the potential to loft a fly ball towards right field for a cheap four bases. Given the eight walks the Yankees handed out during the game, that home run, if it had come, very possibly would have been worth more than one run. Yet it didn’t happen, thanks to a combination of good pitching and everything lining up right for one night. Boston’s four hits were singles, and the Yankees outfielders rarely pressed their backs toward the walls.

Joe Girardi got away with a couple of calls in this game. He burned Phil Hughes on a one-batter appearance in the eighth inning, accelerating his path to the less trusted element of the bullpen after Mariano Rivera had thrown his inning. That these pitchers — Alfredo Aceves, who had struggled of late, the seemingly never-quite-right Brian Bruney, and the homer-prone Phil Coke — performed exceptionally well is a bonus from this epic game, a sign that perhaps the whole bullpen is ready to perform at a high level.

Girardi made another odd call when he used Jerry Hairston as a defensive replacement for Nick Swisher in the top of the ninth. While Swisher’s spot would not come up in the bottom of the ninth and almost certainly could not come up before the inning ended or the Yankees delivered a walk-off hit, it had the potential to deprive the team of a useful offensive weapon had the game proceeded to extra innings, as indeed it did. Inevitably, Girardi had to pinch-hit for Hairston with Eric Hinske, a defender who didn’t harm the Yankees but is not normally thought of as being on a par with Roberto Clemente. With a 5-foot-10 outfielder, you also have to worry about certain balls being over his head. Swisher has had some defensive problems this year, but the move was superfluous and potentially harmful. Girardi proved at least the former when he undid it an inning later.

It was also possible to first-guess his decision to take off the bunt when Melky Cabrera was batting with runners on first and second and none out in the third. It was early in the game and one-run strategies are generally to be frowned upon, but it was already clear that Josh Beckett’s current hot streak was unlikely to be broken on this particular evening. Cabrera retains one of the Yankees’ highest double-play rates (13.2 percent), so the bunt was a reasonable percentage ploy in that situation.

In the end, Alex Rodriguez and six pitchers rendered all the chess moves moot. Put this one on a DVD, Yankees, and show it in full to each incoming class of draftees starting next June. They’ll learn a lot about the pleasures and pain, frustration and elation inherent in playing for this team. 

Once more into the void

swisher250.jpgSWISHER, HALF A HERO
After a long, long cold snap, Nick Swisher seemed to break out on the just-completed roadtrip, going 9-for-27 with four home runs. Such a streak is never a bad thing, but because of Swisher’s oddly divided season it’s entirely possible that he’ll go cold again as soon as he sets foot in Yankee Stadium. Fans attending home games have yet to see the best of Swisher. Fifteen of 18 home runs have come on the road, where he’s batting a terrific .276/.368/.602. At home, he’s hitting just .200/.374/.329. He still has his patience, but everything else disappears.

I sometimes wonder if Swisher, despite his goofy demeanor, is actually quite anxious in certain circumstances. This is the second year in a row he’s had a strange home/road bifurcation. Last year with Chicago he had the reverse problem, hitting .247/.361/.517 at home but only .189/.301/.294 on the road. There is no reason for these splits; Swisher would seem to be the only batter on the planet not taking advantage of new Yankee Stadium’s friendlier dimensions.

It’s not too late for Swisher to stop pressing and enjoy the fruits of the new ballpark. When playing at home, his batting average on balls in play is just .245, which suggests that even when he makes contact at home it’s not good contact, with too many fly balls being sent aloft in the hopes of catching the same jet stream that everyone else has found. If Swisher can resolve whatever ails him in the Bronx, even a small uptick the rest of the way would change his season from one that can be dismissed as just satisfactory and replaceable to something that is an uncontroversial asset.

The Yankees signed Russ Ortiz to a minor league contract. Ol’ Russ hasn’t had an ERA below 5.50 in any length of work since 2004. Since then, he’s gone 10-28 for the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Giants, and Astros, with a 6.56 ERA in 312.2 innings. Pitching at Scranton is awful thin these days, but with any luck they’ll have Sergio Mitre back soon.
20-GAME WATCH: Red Sox vs. Yankees
               W-L    RS/G  RA/G  AVG  OBP  SLG  AB/HR  SB   CS   HR/9   BB/9  K/9
Red Sox  10-10  5.5   4.6    .274    .352    .453      30         13    4     1.0      3.1    8.0
Yankees  14-6    5.2   4.4    .281   .361    .473       25         10    4      0.8      2.9    7.9

Here we are again. It’s difficult to know what to expect from this series given how badly the Yankees have struggled with the Red Sox this year. The Sox have struggled a bit of late, as their starting rotation has been reduced to Josh Beckett and Jon Lester plus prayer. The Yankees will get both of them this visit, and given the variability of the Yankees’ own starters, the advantage may well be with the Sox in those games. You’d think that A.J. Burnett would be able to hold his own on Friday against Beckett, but the Sox can be patient and Burnett wild. As for Andy Pettitte against Lester on Sunday, Pettitte has been all over the map this year, and while he’s been good lately with a 3.77 ERA in his last five starts, Lester has been at his best of late with a 2.65 ERA in his last five starts. Then again, it helps when the opponents are the Royals, Blue Jays, Orioles and A’s. The Yankees have also killed lefties this year, batting .293/.377/.490 against them as a team.

The series’ other two conflicts feature John Smoltz against Joba Chamberlain tonight and Clay Buchholz against CC Sabathia on Saturday. Joba has been on a three-start roll but also hasn’t pitched since the 29th, so the Yankees will have to hope that pushing him back didn’t cost him his command. The Red Sox hit him hard in his two starts against him this year (.341/.442/.477), though he struck out 14 and only allowed six runs. Smoltz is an interesting case. He’s 42, and more machine than man at this point. Since coming off of the disabled list, he’s shown decent stuff, a good strikeout rate, and excellent control. He has also, in all but one start, been pounded. This could be just luck–the batting average on balls in play against Smoltz is .370, but the line drive rate against him is actually low. That suggests that grounders and fly balls are falling more often than they should. Luck can change, and it’s possible that the Yankees will have a harder time with the grand old man than the statistics would initially suggest.

Since coming up from the minors, Buchholz has made four starts, alternating good and bad and not making it through the sixth inning in any case. This would seem like advantage Yankees given Sabathia, but the big man has been erratic of late, pushing an average of five runs per nine innings. He’s also been slightly less effective at home than on the road. Yankees fans will expect some motivated over-performance from Sabathia in this series, and no doubt the heart will be willing, but what if the flesh is weak? When a pitcher who is used to striking out eight batters a game is only getting five or six, performance may not be a matter of psychology but physicality.

After 0-8 and a 6.06 ERA against, I’m not making any predictions. My instinct is a split, which would preserve the status quo. That would be an improvement. You’d sure like to see the first win come tonight, though, just so everyone–team, fans, commentators–can feel as if the spell has been broken.

A little roster shakeup

As per George King, the Yankees have called up Anthony Claggett as protection for another blink-and-you-miss-it Sergio Mitre start. So much for my suggestion earlier today that the team experiment with a streamlined, 11-man pitching staff. Instead, Mitre necessitates a baker’s dozen. As Roger Daltey sang in “Who Are You,” “There’s got to be another way.” And then he swore.

Cody Ransom, meanwhile, has finally earned his letters: DFA. Ransom provides one of baseball’s best lessons, one that you can apply to just about anything: “Don’t get excited over small samples.” Ransom’s 2008 performance, .302/.400/.651 with four home runs in 43 at-bats, represents little more than the coin coming up heads over and over again for a small space of time. Some would say Ransom earned himself a chance with that performance, but the truth is that it shouldn’t have been a very long one given his age and track record. There are a few players out there–Mark Reynolds comes to mind-who are skilled enough hitters to survive an unusually high strikeout rate. When they do make contact, they do so solidly enough that good things happen a high percentage of the time. Ransom isn’t good enough to overcome the kind of pressure his strikeout rate puts on him. This year only 15 percent of his balls in play have been line drives, which means his batting average on balls in play is only .278. In short, he didn’t put balls in play very often due to the strikeout rate, and when he did put them in play nothing happened.  

In the long term, the Yankees are going to need to get back down to 12 pitchers tops, and that could mean the return of Ramiro Pena. Austin Jackson would make more sense, given that the Yankees require a practiced centerfield reserve more than they need a kid with not very much offense and less experience in the pastures. There are only three weeks left in the Minor League season. If Jackson spends most of that time on the New York bench, it couldn’t possibly set him back in any permanent way, and might possibly help.

Of course, until the Yankees find a way to get more than three innings out of their fifth starter, that last roster spot is probably moot. The sad thing is that in the postseason, the fifth starter won’t matter one bit–you could practically send the guy home. The irony, then, is that they’ll need that guy, whoever he is, to make a contribution if they’re going to get to the postseason. In a word: woof.

The bench and the bullpen, including Mo

Aside from the victim having been the estimable Doc Halladay, Tuesday night’s win was your standard nail-biting Yankees victory, with Andy Pettitte skating by despite too many walks, a couple of rallies killed by double plays, and some rollercoaster action from the bullpen. That includes the great Mariano, who has shown for all his great accomplishments that he would very much prefer to be used with the bases empty and a lead. Having to pitch in a tie or bail out some other hapless reliever just isn’t part of the deal. Rivera still allows fewer inherited runners to score than the average AL reliever — he’s allowed five of 18 to pass, whereas (hold on) the typical cat will allow about six of 18 to score. It’s a benefit to the Yankees, slim or not, but you might think the greatest closer ever would do better. He’s actually had several seasons where close to 50 percent of inherited runners scored, which is odd given just how dominant he is the rest of the time.

A very high-scoring Scrabble word signifying tonight’s opponent, Marc Rzepczynski. He’s a lefty of the groundballer persuasion with just one home run allowed in his inaugural 27.2 innings. One wonders if this means another outfield start for Jerry Hairston. If Hairston is your main weapon against lefties, you’re really aiming too low. It’s as if we’re back to the days of Clay Bellinger playing center field (20 starts in 2000, Joe Torre, 20 starts!). Hairston is a better player than Bellinger in every way, but that praise is specific to the case and wholly relative.

Given that the 12th man on the staff (Mark Melancon … at least, he didn’t until recently) almost never pitches, it would be a better use of the roster spot to grant Shelley Duncan a berth. In these days of bloated pitching staffs, it would be seen as a brave, daring move to carry only 11 hurlers, but Joe Girardi is proving that the 2009 Yankees, at least, can make it through with less than a dozen pitchers. There is no reason not to acknowledge what is already a reality and use the spot as a weapon rather than a way for a lucky pitcher to get free travel around the country.

Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, pitchers’ wins added above replacement:

1. Zack Greinke, KC 6.0
2. Felix Hernandez, SEA 5.4
3. Roy Halladay, TOR 5.3
4. Cliff Lee, CLE 5.2
5. Edwin Jackson, DET 5.2
17. CC Sabathia 3.3
23. A.J. Burnett 3.2
30. Joba Chamberlain 2.4
32. Andy Pettitte 2.3
128. Aceves, Hughes, Mitre, Wang -0.6

He batted .380 in July and is having a fine year overall. The Yankees still made the right choice in letting him leave. The Angels got a bargain, one the Yankees weren’t going to get, either in dollars or term of years, and his 2007-2008 numbers (.289/.370/.458) were just adequate for a defensively challenged right fielder. Perhaps Abreu needed the extra motivation supplied by his free-agency letdown. Perhaps this is just a random uptick, and the numbers certainly suggest that. Abreu has always been a prolific line drive hitter, which explains his unusually high success rate on balls in play (career .349). This year he’s hitting .372 on balls in play despite the lowest line drive rate of his career. That’s the favorable luck component of what he’s doing. To put it in plainer words, Abreu hadn’t hit .300 since 2004, and hadn’t hit over .310 since 2000. There was no reason for the Yankees to expect him to post a top-10 batting average in 2009.

I’ve undergone this procedure and Bobby Jenks has my sympathies. Let us just say that the surgery itself is not too traumatic but the aftermath is not pretty.