MYSTERIES OF ARIZONA
Riddle me this, Batman: when is it a bad thing when a prospect has a great Arizona Fall League season, batting .397/.472/.731? Answer: when the prospect isn’t a prospect.
Colin Curtis, 25 in February, was the Yankees’ fourth-round selection in the 2006 draft, one of those so-called “polished college hitters” that don’t have much projection but should at least be able to give you a little something in the way of the league averages. Instead, he’s been a complete disaster since rookie ball, hitting an aggregate .264/.334/.375 in 431 games. This year he pancaked at Scranton, hitting .235/.302/.347. He was a bit better at Trenton, hitting .268/.343/.385, but that’s still not anything to get excited about.
Now Curtis had a great small-sample session in a league which bans gravity at exactly the same moment that the Yankees have to figure out which players to protect from the Rule 5 draft. The Yankees can gamble that Curtis’s last 20 games outweigh the 400 that came before, protect him, and lose someone who has a chance to actually do something, or they can let him dangle and see if anyone else is fooled by his little hot streak.
Curtis had a great AFL, and his five home runs in 78 at-bats is impressive, but if this truly marks a career change, then Curtis has had an awakening equivalent to the Blue Fairy coming down and zapping Pinocchio to life. These numbers are unrealistic for any player this side of Babe Ruth, and in this case it’s a sure thing that something that seems too good to be true is too good to be true.
It should be noted that most Rule 5 picks come to naught. Every once in awhile a George Bell will wash up on the beach, but these are few and far between, and getting them to a place where they can contribute involves much in the way of pain and suffering–Bell hit .233/.256/.350 in 60 games the year the Blue Jays took him away from the Phillies. This season the Rangers ended up with a solid reliever in Darren O’Day, who the Mets had Rule 5’d from the Angels (and then gave up on far too quickly). Mostly, though, it doesn’t pay to get too exercised about the players lost this way, so if the Yankees lose someone interesting after protecting Curtis, you can spin up your Doris Day records–Que Sera, Sera (or Sly Stone, preferably). Still, there’s always that chance that someone useful will slip out because the organization bet the wrong horse, perhaps a horse on a desert-fueled hot streak.
MYSTERIES OF SWISHER
Bob Nightengale has mooted it about (h/t to the swell guys at the LoHud blog that the Yankees have “ever so quietly” told other clubs that Nick Swisher is available in trade. Interesting bit of information, but another shoe has to drop there. If this is correct, then the whole Yankees outfield is down to Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner and Austin Jackson. Johnny Damon is a free agent, Hideki Matsui likewise, if you want to consider him a potential outfielder (the Yankees don’t), and even Freddy flippin’ Guzman is no longer under club control.
Swisher has many faults, and an upgrade would be welcome, but for all his negatives, players who have the potential to hit 30 home runs with 100 walks aren’t easily found. That guy isn’t on the free agent market, unless the Yankees are going to ante up for Jason Bay, who is older, more expensive, not a good defender, and was not 10 percent better than Swisher this year. Sure, you have the added benefit of taking him away from the Red Sox, but Swisher is due only $6.75 million in 2010 and with two outfield spots open, the Yankees could use both. Adding one while subtracting the other puts you right back where you started, if not a little worse off.
If they Yankees are not planning on buying Bay, then I’m mystified as to where dealing away Swisher might lead. There would have to be a truly Olympian trade in the works, where the Yankees suddenly were in possession of Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, or Clark Kent, but those things are about as likely as your winning the lottery and getting a date with Megan Fox on the same day.
One player that I keep thinking of as a solid DH replacement for Matsui, one who could help stem the loss of an OBP-oriented player like Swisher, would be old pal Nick Johnson. Johnson is like a paper-mâché version of Matsui in terms of his durability and defensive utility (he has none and none respectively), and a three-legged moose might beat him in a race around the bases, but perhaps a year of sitting on the bench and doing nothing but hit might be survivable for him.
This year Johnson showed that even though he missed a good chunk of the last couple of years, he could still hit .295 with 100 walks. He’d likely also be less expensive than some of the bigger names out there and is only a Type B free agent, meaning that the Marlins would not get to poach the Yankees’ first-round pick. I’m not campaigning for Johnson the way I did for Mark Teixeira a year ago–he’s just one of many possible solutions this time around in a free agent market that lacks the slam-dunk candidates of last winter.
SOMETIMES IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
Before Game 1, I suggested that the Yankees’ trademark patience would test Cliff Lee’s exemplary control. Score that one a clean miss. Unlike just about every other pitcher in the biz, Cliff Lee, who had the demeanor of someone who had just enjoyed a Prozac cocktail, did not bend, did not waver for even a moment. He threw nine innings of mistake-free baseball, never giving the Yankees a chance. A team that walked 38 times in six games against the Angels did not earn one free pass in the game.
You could dismiss this performance as just one game, and say, “Let’s see the next guy do that,” but for two problems. One, the bullpen took a close game and turned it into a rout. Two, Pedro Martinez. Martinez isn’t the old most-dominant-pitcher-ever Martinez, but the new version, which throws strikes and pulls strings, is still plenty good. He completely embarrassed the Dodgers in the NLCS. I will again cling to the belief that the Yankees’ lineup isn’t the Dodgers’ lineup, isn’t a National League lineup, and that lefties hit Martinez reasonably well in the future Hall of Famer’s brief regular season tune-up. The Yankees have also done good work against him (and bad, that also) in postseasons past.
Lee’s start and Pedro’s excellent control points up a way in which this Phillies rotation can take the Yankees’ best trait, their patience, and turn it against them. The Yankees like to work counts and take ball four. Phillies starters just don’t issue ball four. As a whole, Phillies starters averaged just 2.5 walks a game. Lee walked just 1.1 batters per nine innings as a Phillie, Martinez 1.6, Cole Hamels 2.0. The National League average was 3.5 walks per nine innings (the American League was roughly the same). Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, the club’s wildest starters, walked 2.7 and 3.0 respectively. This staff is simply very good at throwing strikes, and if the Yankees play their usual game — and it’s not advisable that they start hacking, because that doesn’t work either — they may find themselves facing some long counts.
As for the bullpen failure, it had limited bearing on the outcome of the game — you could imagine that if the relievers had held serve, Charlie Manuel might have been more inclined to go to his bullpen — but since the Yankees never made up the initial deficit that resulted from the CC Sabathia-Chase Utley confrontations, it didn’t matter. The real impact is in the uncertainty about the bullpen unit as a whole, which seems to have gone down the rabbit hole this October. Perhaps the relative inexperience of the unit has got them twitchy. Whatever the reason, they have to get over it quickly, particularly Phil Hughes, or this Series is going to end a lot faster than anyone anticipated. Worse, a bad performance could mean a winter of reaction from the Yankees’ front office, chasing veteran relief hands at high cost. This is a subject for another day, but that would be an extremely counterproductive strategy that has rarely worked for any GM that has tried it. It’s a quick path to a job on ESPN, however temporary.
We shouldn’t overstate the impact of one game. Two is a different matter. A lot of pressure falls on A.J. Burnett’s right arm. Does he come ready to dance, or does the wild, uncertain version of the pitcher show up? Mister Cream Pie could do more to improve the Yankees’ morale tonight than all of the cans of shaving cream he’s gone through put together — or he could break it.
AND ONE COFFEE JOE NOTE: THINK!
I buy that Nick Swisher needs a mental health break, but considering yesterday’s performance to be part of his slump isn’t exactly fair given the way Lee pitched. After Lee, the whole roster might need a mental health break. In addition, Swisher continues to get into good counts, working the pitcher, which has value in itself if you want to get to the Phillies’ relievers already. In any case, Jerry Hairston is a bizarre choice to substitute for him. I’m thrilled that Hairston has had 10 hits in 27 at-bats against Martinez IN A PERIOD THAT BEGAN IN 1999 AND ENDED FIVE YEARS AGO. Martinez ain’t the same Martinez, Hairston ain’t the same Hairston, and the relevance is extremely, extremely debatable. As with Jose Molina’s time in the game, we’ll assume that this decision won’t have more than an at-bat or two’s worth of impact, but wow, Coffee Joe, that’s an odd call. You readers know I believe in the stats, but you can’t be a slave to the numbers. You also have to THINK.
More to come…
ANOTHER ANTICIPATED REUNION THWARTED
Miguel Cairo will not be on the Phillies roster for the World Series. I’m sure this will be a relief to John Sterling, who will now not have a conflict of interest.
IN RESPONSE TO A SWISHER-BASHER IN THE COMMENTS
How can Nick Swisher be a better player than Bobby Abreu? I’ll make this simple for you.
? Swisher hit 35 doubles, Abreu 29.
? Swisher hit 29 home runs, Abreu hit 15.
? Abreu took 94 walks, Swisher took 97, in fewer plate appearances.
? Swisher was dangerous from both sides of the plate, whereas Abreu wilted against left-handers.
? Abreu has the advantage on Swisher in two categories: He had 22 net stolen bases to Swisher’s none (Swisher also had no caught stealing) and he hit more singles. Abreu had 65 more at-bats than Swisher. If you even out the playing time, figuring that Swisher would have continued on roughly the same pace, then Swisher would have hit 40 doubles (+11) and 33 home runs (+18). Abreu would have maintained his lead in singles, 118 to 65. That’s a big gap, but it comes to an advantage of 53 total bases, whereas Swisher is up 94, giving him a net advantage of 41 total bases.
? Because extra-base hits generate more runs than singles (I’m assuming that you know how a home run works), this works out to a small advantage for Swisher. If you look at a basic stat like runs created per game, Swisher created 6.5, Abreu 6.3. That doesn’t seem like a huge difference but:
? Swisher is an average defensive outfielder, whereas Abreu splashes around out there like a toddler in a kiddie pool. Since defensive plays not made lead to runs, deduct several from Swisher’s total. At that point, Swisher’s advantage is no longer so small.
PS: Regarding Melky Cabrera vs. left-handed pitching: Yes, he has gone 6-for-14, all singles, against southpaws this postseason. However, for the full season he hit .268/.343/.420 against them. These were breakthrough results, though the power portion was inflated by an early surge. From the halfway point on, he hit .265/.337/.361, albeit in a small sample. Given that his career rates against lefties is .255/.325/.355, the latter number seems more likely to replicate itself in the future than the former, and has more predictive power than a 14 at-bat .420 streak, because Ted Williams is dead, by which I mean that no player is likely to carry that kind of performance forward for any real length of time.
WORLD SERIES HEAD-TO-HEADS PART II
While writing Part I, I was so caught up in getting past the obvious A-Rod/Pedro Feliz match-up at third that I never typed the words, “EDGE: YANKEES.” If it hadn’t been obvious before, well, now the suspense is over.
CARLOS RUIZ (15.6 VORP, 11th among catchers) vs. JORGE POSADA (35.7, 3rd)
Ruiz is a career .296/.406/.432 hitter in 26 postseason games, which is kind of amazing when you consider that he’s only a .246/.337/.379 hitter in the regular season and that he also went 1-for-14 in the 2008 NLDS. If you’re looking for Jeff Mathis II, here he is, with the same position and everything. Defensively, Ruiz is a good thrower, not a great one. He and Posada threw out about the same percentage of baserunners this year. He’s much better than Posada at corralling balls in the dirt, but then everyone is. The thing to remember about Posada is that as good as he is in the regular season, he seems to be play a bit tight in October. He’s played in 25 postseason series (a “wow” number all by itself) and he’s had good series and bad but overall has hit only .238/.353/.388. He keeps up his selectivity against good pitching, which is nice, but the rest of his came suffers. EDGE: YANKEES, but you can see how it could go the other way.
RAUL IBANEZ (38.5, 6th) vs. JOHNNY DAMON (39.3, 4th)
Ibanez was more productive than Damon on a per-game basis but played less due to injury… Ibanez’s season breaks down into two parts, pre- and post-DL stint for a strained groin. At the moment he went down, he was having the season of his career at .312/.371/.656. A month on the shelf cooled him off considerably, and he hit .232/.323/.448 the rest of the way. His postseason has been a mixed bag.
The difference in Ibanez’s production this year was that while he was the same hitter he always has been against right-handers, but he killed lefties, knocking 13 home runs in just 144 at-bats. His career rates against them stand at .269/.326/.434, which isn’t of the same level but does give him more proficiency in lefty-on-lefty battles than your typical southpaw hitter.
Damon slumped in September and disappeared in the first round of the playoffs before coming back strong against the Angels. He too isn’t too damaged by seeing a left-handed pitcher, although most of his power disappears. The same thing happens when you take him out of the new Yankee Stadium. Ibanez will spend some time at DH in this series, including Game 1. Ben Francisco should be a defensive upgrade. Slight EDGE: Phillies.
SHANE VICTORINO (37.7, 5th) vs. MELKY CABRERA (17.1, 22nd)
A rare two-time Rule 5 draftee, it took some time for Victorino to find his place in the Majors. He’s in the prime of his career right now, and he’s just good enough to start — whenever he slips a little he’s going to be no fun anymore. He does most of his hitting in Philadelphia. A switch-hitter, he’s more powerful from the right side, which means turning him around is not the greatest idea. Cabrera struggled in the first round, then hit well against the Angels, though like all Yankees a few more hits with runners on would have made it a faster and more painless series than it was. Defensively, this matchup is a push. Offensively and on the bases, Victorino is significantly better, and he’s been a postseason monster in other series, including both rounds this year. EDGE: Phillies.
JAYSON WERTH (42.8, 3rd) vs. NICK SWISHER (30.9, 10th)
Philadelphia’s big weapon against CC Sabathia, Werth crushes lefties, batting .302/.436/.644 against them this year and .294/.391/.570 for his career. He strikes out quite a bit, but is patient, powerful, and runs the bases as well as any non-burner in the game. He also excels defensively. It has been an unusual career for the former first-round pick, for it took a change of position and several changes of organization for Werth to find himself. He made his first All-Star team this year, at age 30. We’ve already talked too much about Swisher lately, but the Yankees can be competitive here if he can get out of his own head. Even if he does, this is an EDGE: PHILLIES.
BENCH AND DH
In his handful of interleague games, Charlie Manuel used the DH spot to get one of his weaker defensive players, either Ryan Howard or Raul Ibanez, off the field. Ibanez is nursing an injury (torn abdominal muscle), so he will DH in Game 1 with midseason acquisition Ben Francisco (open your golden gates) patrolling left field. Francisco is one of those tediously decent role players. Starting he would mediocre you to death, but in spots he can be helpful keeping his position above replacement level. He had a reverse split against lefties this year, hitting only .247/.351/.392, but that might have been a one-time thing. Phillies pinch-hitters hit only .186 but did hit 9 home runs in 237 at-bats. Matt Stairs, 41, had a rough year but remains very selective and is still a threat to hit the ball a long way now and again, with f
ive home runs in 62 pinch-hit at-bats. Lefty hitter Greg Dobbs, who used to have a share of the third base job, was strictly bench material this year and his game suffered for it. As a pinch-hitter he was only 9-for-54.
Hideki Matsui gives the Yankees an edge when there is a DH and a strong weapon on the bench when there isn’t. Brett Gardner gives the Yankees a speedy option the Phillies don’t have, and Jerry Hairston won’t kill you if he has to take an at-bat or two. EDGE: YANKEES.
Starters and bullpens, managers, and my prediction, all before curtain time tonight.
LIVE ROUNDTABLE TONIGHT
I’ll once again be participating in the a live roundtable with my Baseball Prospectus colleagues during Game 1. As always, everyone is welcome. If you want to hang out at game time, or just submit a question early X marks the spot.
ON NICK SWISHER, BABE RUTH, AND OTHER FAILURE-MINDED BALLPLAYERS
Nick Swisher had a very difficult ALCS. In six games he went 3-for-20 with three walks. He struck out seven times, didn’t have an extra-base hit, didn’t drive in a run. This is the definition of a miserable performance. However, extrapolate at your own risk. Reggie Jackson, Mr. October himself, went 2-for-16 in the 1977 ALCS, just days before he personally bombed the Dodgers to death in the World Series. As I’ve been saying all along, this stuff happens. But don’t take my word for it. Here are just a few other examples:
- Babe Ruth, 1922 World Series: 2-for-17 (.118), no home runs, one RBI.
- Tony Lazzeri, 1926 World Series: 5-for-26 (.192), no home runs, three RBI.
- Bob Meusel, 1927 World Series: 2-for-17 (.118), no home runs, one RBI.
- Joe Gordon, 1939 World Series: 2-for-14 (.143), no home runs, one RBI.
- Bill Dickey, 1941 World Series: 3-for-18 (.167), no home runs, one RBI.
- Phil Rizzuto, 1941 World Series: 2-for-18 (.111), no home runs, no RBI.
- Joe DiMaggio, 1949 World Series: 2-for-18 (.111), one home run, two RBI.
- Mickey Mantle, 1962 World Series: 3-for-25 (.120), no home runs, no RBI.
- Willie Randolph, 1976 World Series: 1-for-14 (.071), no home runs, no RBI.
- Dave Winfield, 1981 World Series: 1-for-22 (.045), no home runs, one RBI.
- Paul O’Neill, 1996 World Series: 2-for-12 (.167), no home runs, no RBI.
- Derek Jeter, 2001 World Series: 4-for-27 (.148), one home run, one RBI.
That’s a dozen examples, and all, with the exception of Winfield, picked at random from the long list of Yankees greats. There are eight Hall of Famers on the list, plus Jeter, who is going in as long as he doesn’t rob any banks between now and 2020 or so. For some of them, the series listed above represented their only poor postseason; for others, I had several choices. Swisher hit very badly in the series just ended. There is no way around that. It changes nothing about the valuable season that he had or other series that he might play in the future.
We could also throw a Jorge Posada series or two onto the list above; in 23 World Series games, he’s a .208/.337/.338 hitter. He’s also had some very good postseason series. For example, he drove in six runs against the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. These are very small segments of performance we’re talking about, and they don’t have much in the way of predictive power. As the Jackson and Jeter examples above show, they can call you Mr. October or even Mr. November, but, in the words of Casey Stengel, sometimes it doesn’t always work.
1: DESPITE WHAT W.C. FIELDS SAID, SOMETIMES WE GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK
I’m surprised you ignored the single worst tactical decision Girardi made: pinch-running for A-Rod. See this article at Fangraphs. And while there is an argument to be made for starting the 7th with a reliever, leaving Burnett in is also an acceptable decision. It’s not Girardi’s fault that Mathis has turned into Superman this series, or that Hughes grooved one to Vlady when Posada’s target was at eye level.– L.Bury
Always good to hear from you, Dr. Bury. To deal with the last point first, a few readers took my including Mathis’s success in the list of questions as a criticism of Joe Girardi. That wasn’t the case. It was, probably alone on the list, a rhetorical question with a bit of Old Testament “How long, O Lord?” tossed in (let’s go with Habakkuk 1:2, just to be esoteric). As I said in an earlier installment here, these things happen — Pat Borders, a thoroughly risible hitter, was the MVP of the 1992 World Series after hitting .450 in six games. Bucky Dent was the MVP of the 1978 World Series, having hit .417 with seven RBIs in six games. Dent probably went whole months during the regular season without driving in seven runs — the guy averaged 38 per 162 games played. When a hitter muscles up and goes crazy like this during a short series, it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, nor an indication that the scouting reports are off. It just happens. Dent played in five postseason series and didn’t come close to that level of success in the other four.
Pinch-running for Alex Rodriguez was ludicrous. Even with a bum hip, Rodriguez is still a relatively fast runner (he does take some bad gambles running the bases); it’s not like we’re talking about Jorge Posada, who by one measure was the second-worst player to have on the bases this year. Had the game gone into extra innings, that move would have badly punished the team. I stayed away from it because I was focusing on the crucial seventh inning, whereas the removal of A-Rod came in the ninth and had no bearing on the outcome of the game. It was a decision that had an extremely limited upside compared to the possible negative consequences. A full-blown “Coffee Joe” call by Mr. Girardi.
2: FAIR IS FOUL AND FOUL IS FAIR
Haven’t been here for awhile. Are you still pushing Nick Swisher as the be all end all? How could you have left him out of your Friday Morning Quarterbacking Second Guess-a-thon? We all knew his odds of hitting safely in that situation as close to nil. Other commenters were dead on – HINSKE NOT GUZMAN ON THE BENCH. In fact I’d start him over Swisher with the funk he’s in.– Javamanny
Welcome back, Javamanny (is that like Coffee Joe?). Among the things you missed: I said Hinske-not-Guzman as well. I’ve also brought up Duncan-not-Guzman and am leaning towards Chicken Stanley-not-Guzman. Also, these are first-guesses, not second-guesses. If you read the live chats I’ve been doing during these playoff games, you will see me make a lot of the same points, though it happens I didn’t do one for Game 5. I wouldn’t kill the manager for something that wasn’t an obvious problem as it was happening. In fairness, I would use words like, “In retrospect…” Thursday’s game situations weren’t all that subtle.
As for Swish Nicker, I still think he’s a very productive player and far superior to the alternative initially proposed, but right now he’s in a disastrous slump. There’s just no other way to put it. That’s he’s in the wrong slump at the wrong time doesn’t change my earlier opinion on him, just like Gil Hodges’ infamous 0-for-21 in the 1952 World Series didn’t make him a bad player or Dave Winfield’s 1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series made him bad player. In the same way that sometimes a hack like Jeff Mathis suddenly turns on the hitting in a short series, other players… don’t.
3: THE EXECUTION BLUES
Why, why, why do you throw Vlad a fastball again with 2 strikes, curveball, curveball, curveball. Posada/Hughes come on, are you guys kidding me.– jesseguerrero30
I find this one harder to complain about. Sometimes pitchers just miss their spots. By a lot. Had the pitch been out of the strike zone where it was supposed to be, there might have been a different result. As it was, it’s not like Guerrero nuked it. He hit it up the middle and Derek Jeter just missed catching up to it. It was a mistake, but pitchers miss their spots and hitters swing at bad pitchers. I’m trying to imagine the mechanics of the game if players always performed exactly as they intended to — you get into a paradox where hitters always swing at pitches they can hit, but the pitchers always make the right pitches so they get them out. I think my head is going to explode like one of those computers on the old “Star Trek.”
4: DETAILS, DETAILS…
Don’t the biplanes win in the end???? Otherwise, I love Rally Kong.– stultusmagnus
This remake ends differently. The biplane pilots realize that their reliance on fossil fuels is damaging the environment and fly home, leaving the giant ape to root on his favorite baseball team and turn the Union Square Greenmarket into a million-dollar business due to his high-volume grape purchases.
5: SOMEDAY THEY’LL KNOW BETTER
Goldman, posts like these are why you are my favorite NYY analyst. WHERE THE HECK IS DAVID ROBERTSON!?!?– nyyls1fan
I happened to tune in to WFAN in the car this afternoon, and Mike Francesa was shooting down callers who were intent on asking why Robertson hasn’t been used properly by saying that you shouldn’t make him the flavor of the month based on two innings in this season. “He hasn’t been there all year,” he said, which I found very odd given that he pitched in 45 games and generally did very well, with that high strikeout rate to which I keep referring. Francesa is correct in insisting that Robertson is in no way a proven postseason performer, but then no one is asking for him to close games, just to be used in the situations in which he might help the team. He also was incredulous that Robertson might be ranked ahead of Joba Chamberlain, but that fails to take into account just how poorly Joba has been pitching. Better to go with the untried pitcher who you feel has a reasonable chance of succeeding than with tried solutions that have already failed.
MORE FROM ME…
After the game. If we have a game. I just saw Aquaman swim past my window, and I’m on the second floor.
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….
Remember when Nick Swisher was going to sit so that the thoroughly mediocre Xavier Nady could play? I thought you would. The Yankees’ baseball men make some very smart decisions, but like all of us the are sometimes vulnerable to valuing something incorrectly because it somehow looks better than it is. In my life I call this The Cindy Syndrome, also known as First Girlfriend Disease. I was lucky enough to break the spell, just as the Yankees were fortunate in that the Benevolent Deity deprived them of Nady long enough for them to discover their errors. It didn’t have to be that way — some of us marry our first girlfriend, and some teams play bad players all season long. In both cases all chance for a heroic October is lost.
The fact that the game probably won’t mean much to the outcome of the season notwithstanding, Tuesday night’s ballgame had to be one of the most frustrating losses of the year for the Yankees. They got out to a big lead, but Joba Chamberlain was unable to shut down an enemy offense that has had a hard time getting on base at a .300 rate on the road. At this point, it’s impossible to tell if Chamberlain is just lost or the Yankees have lost him, playing so many games with his schedule in the interest of protecting him that they’ve actually played head games with their own pitcher, sabotaging him mentally.
Cut to the bottom of the ninth. Ron Washington decided to finish up with Jason Grilli, never a good idea against a top offense. Predictably, the Yankees started putting runners on base with a Johnny Damon single and a Mark Teixeira walk. Washington then reached for closer Frank Francisco, the Santa Domingo Treat, who couldn’t throw a strike, or at least not a good one. A-Rod walked. Hideki Matsui singled. The much-maligned Jorge Posada singled. Robinson Cano singled. What had been a 10-5 game was unexpectedly 10-9, men on first and second with none out and Nick Swisher at the plate.
Joe Girardi called for a bunt. You can first-guess the play, and I did, but it’s not a clear-cut decision. After last night, Swisher is a .200/.376/.313 hitter at home, and although there isn’t any particular reason that Yankee Stadium II should be such an impediment to him, it isn’t unreasonable at this point for Girardi to assume that Swisher isn’t likely to get a big hit in that spot. That said, Girardi could also have tried to give Swisher a mental boost by showing confidence in him — there’s nothing stopping Swisher from hitting at home except Swisher. Alternatively, Girardi could have also looked at the situation — pitcher falling apart, a batter at the plate who, even if he fails to hit, is still taking a ton of walks, and let Swisher try to walk to reload the bases. The double-play threat was relatively weak — the league double play rate is about 11 percent. Swisher, with all his fly balls and strikeouts, is a little better than average in this regard, hitting into a double play in only 10 percent of his chances.
An additional negative to calling for the bunt derives from goals: are the Yankees trying to tie the game or win it? Conventional wisdom says the former, but with two runners on, none out, and a pitcher in mid-meltdown, they had a good chance to do both. Even if Swisher had succeeded in getting his bunt down, Girardi was falling into the trap that Earl Weaver warned against: if you play for only one run, you’ll only get one run. The Yankees were in a position to win, not tie, the game. There was a very good chance that Swisher would have walked, and although Melky Cabrera and Derek Jeter are double play threats, even a double play has a good chance of scoring the tying run with the bases loaded and none out. In addition, as bad as Swisher has been, the Yankees would have still had to get through Cabrera to survive the inning, and unlike Swisher, Cabrera doesn’t have the redeeming virtue of selectivity.
You know how it worked out. It easily could have gone the other way; if Swisher executed on the bunt, perhaps the game would have gone to extra innings, and the Yankees, with Phil Hughes, Mo Rivera, and the rest, not to mention the last turn at bat, still would have had a very good chance of winning. Still, with Chamberlain’s erratic performance, perhaps provoked by the Yankees’ erratic handling of him, the Rangers trying to give the game away twice, the bunt call by Girardi, and Swisher’s failure to execute, this easily qualifies as the most annoying loss the Yankees have suffered in a long time. As I said above, the good news is that in the long run it shouldn’t mean very much at all.
Five shopping days remain until rosters are frozen for the postseason, which means Brian Cashman can still get his trading shoes on and make a deal. I realize I’ve had a Magellanic range of opinions on Cabrera, but given his current slump (.236/.306/.380 from June 1 on, .198/.239/.326 in August) as well as Brett Gardner’s limitations and his uncertain status as he returns from a thumb injury, and the Yankees might benefit from revisiting an offseason trade target, Mike Cameron of the Brewers.
There are four factors which should combine to make Cameron a relatively cheap acquisition should Doug Melvin be willing to deal: the Brewers have next to no chance of getting to the postseason; Cameron is 36; Cameron is making $10 million; Cameron’s contract is up. The old man has had a relatively good season at .259/.362/.456, and his defensive work is still strong. He’s also played on four postseason teams (though his October work has been miserable). Offense isn’t the Yankees’ problem, but every little bit helps when your goal is to win a World Series, and it’s difficult to image the Brewers would hold out for a top prospect…
…Unless they somehow have delusions that getting nothing is better than getting something, which Melvin suggests is the case, saying, “I’ve gotten calls, but they don’t want to give much up at this time of year … They’ll give you cash, but they don’t want to give me a player … I can’t imagine that a team would give up a good player for one month, unless there is a key injury. I don’t anticipate anything.”
Cameron would likely be a Type B free agent, meaning that if the Brewers offered him arbitration (a big if) and he signed elsewhere, they would receive a sandwich pick after the first round. You’d think a functional Minor League arm would be more valuable than the 40-somethingth pick of the draft, but there’s no way of knowing. And, of course, if the Brewers offer arbitration and Cameron takes it, they’re in big trouble — it’s a weak year for center fielders, and Cameron’s numbers are going to look pretty good come negotiation time.
TO THE MATS WITH READER COMMENTS
THE POSADA DISCONTENTS III
Thanks Steven, but you fail to mention besides Jorge’s injury last year that the Yankees did not have CC, A.J., and others on the pitching staff. Furthermore, you also fail to mention that Jorge was not the reason the Yankees were World Champions in the ’90s…it was their pitching staff! Pitching is the name of the game! Yogi Berra, and a host of other top notch catchers will tell you the same thing.
Let’s try this: For all their weaknesses last year, the Yankees finished six games behind the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. Depending on whose definition of replacement level you use, in 2006-2007, Posada was worth between six and eight wins above replacement. Last year, Jose Molina was worth somewhere between a fraction of a win and two wins above replacement, almost all of the value in defense, as Molina was among the 20 worst hitters in baseball to have any kind of playing time last year.
The Yankees got less than one win out of Posada last year. Pretend Posada had been in the lineup having his typical season. The Yankees pick up four to six wins, which means that anywhere between 75 and 100 percent of their deficit disappears. Once you get down to a gap of one or two games. The Yankees had too many problems to overcome the Rays, but Posada’s inj
ury was the one thing that kept them for qualifying for the postseason in spite of everything else that went wrong.
Ever see the old baseball musical “Damn Yankees”? It has a song about denigrating Posada in it. It’s called, “A Man Doesn’t Know What He Has Until He Loses It.” Then again, the Yankees lost Posada last year and some people still don’t know.
YANKEE STADIUM II (III) AND ITS DETRACTORS
In yesterday’s chat, I was asked “What do you think of the new Yankee Stadium? Does the avalanche of home runs to right bother you?” My response: “Not at all. It just is what it is. At worst, it really requires the Yankees to re-embrace their traditional love of left-handed hitters and pitchers, something that had gotten lost with the various shrinkages of the left side of Yankee Stadium over the years.”
As the year has rolled on, I’ve been mystified by the cynical response to the way the new park plays, not least because it has been competitively advantageous for the Yankees. The offense has out-homered the opposition 107-78 in the same number of at-bats, and the pitching staff’s ERA is a third of a run lower at home than on the road. As long as the Yankees keep the park in mind when building the team in the future, it can continue to be so. This year, Yankees opponents have gotten lefties to the plate at Yankee Stadium roughly 850 times, as compared to 1384 tunes for the Yankees. That advantage might be ephemeral — the Yankees won’t always have four switch-hitters and three lefties in the lineup every year — but if they can maintain some semblance of that balance, as well as place renewed emphasis on the drafting a development of left-handed pitchers, and the park should continue to be an asset.
Whatever the Yankees do, I hope that they won’t rush out as soon as the season is over and reconfigure the fences. First, 81 games (plus a few postseason contests) isn’t enough to get an accurate reading on the park. Second, if people talk, let ’em. Whether it’s Coors Field and its altitude or the old Polo Grounds with its shortened foul lines, which resulted in home runs which were criticized as cheap, or even Babe Ruth’s porch at Yankee Stadium I, they’re all legitimate versions of a playing field. The great thing about baseball there are no correct parks or incorrect parks. They just play the way they play. The Yankees have nothing to apologize for.
MATSUI’S MASHING AND THE FUTURE OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING
Whenever one of the Yankees’ potentially departing free agents has a big night, usually Johnny Damon but on Thursday night Hideki Matsui, a conversation starts up as to whether the player should be retained. The talk has some validity. The Yankees are not deep in outfield prospects, Austin Jackson’s .301/.362/.413 at Scranton translates to only .266/.330/.385 in the Majors, and he’s been cold for about 10 weeks; because the free agent class is going to be on the weak side, with an emphasis on older players. That limits Brian Cashman’s choices. He can let Damon and Matsui go, figuring that although they’ve done well this year, their negatives — age (Damon will turn 36 in November, Matsui next June) and defensive limitations (Damon has slipped, Matsui’s knees don’t even let him play) — are good enough reason to move on.
In a vacuum, letting the oldsters go would be correct call. However, it also means the menu of alternatives could be a Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera/Nick Swisher outfield and a rotating DH, which would be offensively light, or the above with Jackson mixed in, or the above with a very young Jesus Montero mixed in at DH, or giving too much money and too many years to Matt Holliday or Jermaine Dye or Magglio Ordonez … or hope to trade the entire farm system to the Braves for Jason Heyward, which won’t happen. It is because of scenarios like these that general managers are paid the big bucks.
As always, much pain could have been avoided if the Yankees had been more adept at drafting and development in recent years. The farm system has clearly improved over the last few seasons, but even having said that, it seems that too often there is cause to observe that the development of position players lags far behind that of pitchers. This has been a glaring problem for so long that it’s hard to believe that the Yankees have not spent time identifying the problem (I am not pointing fingers at anyone, but they need to point fingers at someone or someone(s) or some aspects of what they are doing) and doing something to remedy it, which surely would be cheaper than continuing to pay bonuses to players who end up doing little more than filling out the farm system.
Even if those changes are implemented tomorrow, they will take time to pay off for the big team in the Bronx, so this season’s dilemma remains. I wish I had a brilliant suggestion to solve the problem, other than Montero should be allowed into the mix before long if he heals up well — no use wasting a ready bat waiting for a defensive evolution that might never come — but whereas as season’s outset it seemed like there was no scenario in which it would be worthwhile to bring Damon and Matsui back, now one can at least glimpse situations in which retaining one or both on a short-term contract — most likely Damon given Matsui’s utter loss of speed — isn’t more likely to have a worse outcome than any of the other possibilities.
That’s not exactly a strong endorsement, but it’s more than you could have said in April.
SWISHER, 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.
SIGNS OF THE APOCALYPSE
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.