Results tagged ‘ Nick Swisher ’

Getting the best from everyone

SHOCKER
I don’t think I have single thing to complain about today. Analysis is about finding problems and advocating solutions, but everyone is playing well right now. Even Nick Swisher, who I’ve (reluctantly) become disillusioned with, pulled out of his slump with a two-homer day. To quote a line from John Lennon and the Beatles, “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK.” (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the happiest album about alienation, distraction and disconnectedness.) That’s not quite accurate, now that I think about it — I’ve always got something to say, and it’s not “Billlllly Shears!” Though I wish it was.

jeter250_072809.jpgANOTHER RUN AT AN MVP FOR JETER?
On last night’s broadcast, my fellow YES-man Michael Kay suggested that Derek Jeter is putting together a campaign worthy of the Most Valuable Player award. My first reaction was, “Nah,” first because Jeter’s year seemed to be in the good-not-great category, second because if he didn’t win the award in 1999 or 2006 he’s not going to win it now — voters go wild for RBIs, not runs scored — and third, because there are so many other good candidates. However, on further examination, the idea is not as wild as it at first seemed, though still unlikely.  

Thanks to his .402 on-base percentage, fifth in the American League, Jeter is having one of his strongest seasons. He hasn’t reached base 40 percent of the time since 2006, and has gotten there in only two other seasons, 1999 and 2000. He’s also fifth in batting average and second in hits behind Ichiro Suzuki. He ranks ninth in runs scored. He’s not having the best season of any AL shortstop — Jason Bartlett currently ranks him, but that’s going to change over time. Jeter also has had 120 more plate appearances than Bartlett due to the latter’s stint on the disabled list.

Still, the line in front of Jeter is long, and starts with two Twins, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The latter, a past MVP balloting favorite, leads the league in home runs and RBIs, which is usually enough to nab the award. In fairness to Morneau, he’s having a tremendous year, one that is far superior to his 2006, when he last won the award. Mauer has been the best all-around hitter in the league, but he has come back to the pack a bit in July. If the Twins can come back and win the AL Central, still a strong possibility, the M&M Minnesota boys are going to get an extra push, whereas if the Yankees hang on to win the AL East, Jeter will be perceived as one among a cast of talented performers.

Since an April batting line that was indifferent by his own standards, Jeter has hit .337/.418/.459. He’s going to have to top those rates the rest of the way to make a serious dent in the gaudier statistics put up in the Twin Cities. He seems a long-shot to get serious consideration, though it would be only fair if the voters stiffed Morneau to give Jeter an award just as they stiffed Jeter to give Morneau an award in 2006.

BRONSON ARROYO
Rumors surfaced yesterday that Brian Cashman has been burning up cell-phone minutes in calls to Cincinnati, trying to get the richly-salaried Bronson Arroyo for the Yankees’ rotation. The Bronse is under contract next year for $11 million, and there’s also a club option for 2011 at the same price, with a $2 million buyout if Arroyo’s presence is no longer desired. Thus the Yankees would get the right-hander for the remainder of his age-32 season, age 33 and potentially, 34. Arroyo is having a very strange year, in that he’s either unhittable or he has no idea how to pitch. That’s no exaggeration: In his wins he has an ERA of 2.19. In his losses, it’s 11.01. I asked the statistical geniuses at Baseball Prospectus if that differential was particularly dramatic, and indeed it is. Among pitchers with at least 10 decisions, it’s the second-largest spread in baseball this year behind that of Brian Moehler, who has an ERA of 2.62 in his wins and 12.13 in his losses. Felix Hernandez, Jason Marquis and Clayton Kershaw round out the all good/all bad top five. Pitchers with fewer than 10 decisions in this category include Brett Cecil, who has a 1.33 ERA in his wins and a 15.43 ERA in his losses, and Rich Hill, who is at 1.86 in his wins and 15.75 in losses.

If you’re the Yankees, which Arroyo are you going to see most often? There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern to his periodic lapses into incompetence. This is a deal you might make only if Dave Eiland and the rest of your organizational pitching gurus view hours of tape and say, “We see the problem and we think we can correct it.” If not, the aggregate — a quality start half the time, a sure loss the other half of the time — may not be worth the money and the low-level prospects necessary to spring the pitcher from the Queen City.

MORE OF ME
My take on the Omar Minaya-Tony Bernazard affair can be found in my You Could Look It Up spot.

Take a lesson from Colonel Jessup, Tomko

tomko_250.jpgTHE LAST TOMKO IS COMIN’ DOWN THE LINE
Yesterday, the intrepid Peter Abraham reported that Brett Tomko was bitter about being designated for assignment:

“I don’t think I got a fair shot,” he said. “I pitched great in spring training and didn’t make the team. I pitched great in the minors, got called up and didn’t get much of a chance. I understand other guys are pitching great. But it could have been different. I can’t see the point in coming back.”

In response, Joe Girardi said, “A lot of it was circumstances… We played a lot of tight games and we went with the guys we were using in those innings. It’s tough sometimes because you want to use everyone and get everyone innings.”

This was very gracious of Joe; I imagined him saying something more like Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men”:

“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you,’ and went on your way.”

Tomko might very well have said “thank you” to Girardi and Brian Cashman for giving any chance at all to a 36-year-old with who had not posted an ERA under 4.48 since 2004 and had an ERA of 5.07 and a record of 22-41 over his previous four seasons. Tomko has never been a good pitcher, and that he had 14 good innings at Scranton is meaningless when held against the nearly 1800 innings of his big-league career.

As rarely as Tomko pitched, there was good reason for Girardi’s reluctance to use him: you can’t have a reliever who gives up more than two home runs for every nine innings pitched. Close games get un-close in a real hurry and bad games get worse. Tomko can’t even blame Yankee Stadium II for his longball problems, as four out of five cannonades came on the road. Such results would seem to call for more humility. That’s not Tomko’s way–his career will be remembered more for tiffs with Jack McKeon, Don Gullett, Lou Piniella, and Felipe Alou than for his pitching.

MEANWHILE, THE COMPETITION II
In talking about the Adam LaRoche trade to the Red Sox, I forgot to take into consideration Rocco Baldelli as a right-handed alternative to J.D. Drew, but fortunately the Red Sox made another deal so I get to revisit the fellows from the Fens.

Theo Epstein’s second deal of Wednesday involved dumping shortstop Julio Lugo, who had been designated for assignment. Lugo sometimes hits well for a middle infielder, but doesn’t always–see his utter disappearance as a member of the Dodgers and Red Sox during the second half of 2006 and all of 2007–but he doesn’t give his team enough offense to make up for the fact that he’s a mediocre fielder.

Lugo still makes for a good pickup for the Cardinals because they’re locked in a tight race in a slack division (or maybe that’s a slack race in a tight division) and any little advantage they can claim could make an outsized difference. Due to Khalil Greene’s various problems and the general failure of various substitutes, Cards shortstops are batting only .251/.307/.356. Any good stuff in there was contributed by Brendan Ryan (.294/.328/.382, which is better than nothing without being great), but Ryan can’t be counted on to hit the rest of the way–he’s currently in a pretty good slump right now. A .271/.335/.390 career hitter, Lugo should be able to keep the Cardinals overall production at short on the good side of what they’ve done to date.

The Red Sox are picking up the rest of Lugo’s contract, which runs through the end of next season. In return, the Sox get a player they can’t really use right now, outfielder Chris Duncan, brother of Shelley. A left-handed power hitter who hasn’t hit for power since having back surgery (if not before), Duncan is a defensive disaster in the outfield, so even if he were to start hitting Terry Francona would have a hard time figuring out where to place him. He’s headed for Pawtucket right now, and he needs it–over the last two seasons, Duncan has played 163 games, or just over one full season, and he’s hit .237/.337/.361 with 11 home runs in 482 at-bats. A corner outfielder who does that is flirting with professional extinction.

20-GAME WATCH: ATHLETICS AT YANKEES

    W-L    RS/G    RA/G    AVG    OBP    SLG    AB/HR    SB    CS    HR/9    BB/9    K/9
A’s    9-11    5.0    4.6    .297    .354    .439    37    21   7    1.1    3.9    7.9
Yankees    15-5    5.4    4.6    .281   .370    .463    24    8    10    1.2    3.5    6.9

The numbers above make the A’s look like a better offensive team than they are; they’re distorted by their just-completed series with the Twins in which they twice scored in double figures. The A’s hit .376/.444/.573 in those three games, .281/.336/.412 in the other 17 games in our sample. That’s still a nice uptick from the team’s seasonal rates of .250/.321/.378. I credit the surge to the team’s sending Jason Giambi to the disabled list with a critical case of not being able to play baseball.

Despite the recent flurry of hitting, the main thing this A’s team has going for it is a young pitching staff which has exceeded expectations. If the Nationals had gotten this kind of performance out of their staff of randomly selected 22-year-olds, they’d be a borderline contender in the NL East. The A’s have the opposite problem, not enough hitting to support a surprisingly effective group. Thanks to the four-game series, the Yankees will get to sample the entire rotation with the exception of Trevor Cahill. New Jersey native Vin Mazzaro goes tonight (weather permitting), and he’s going to have problems in YS II–although his fastball reputedly sinks, he’s been pitching like a scary fly ball type and giving up home runs, with four balls leaving the yard in his last 14 innings, which is a rate that would frighten even Tomko.

Friday’s starter, lefty Brett Anderson, came to the A’s as part of the Dan Haren trade (ah, Dan Haren). Just 21, Anderson is a fastball-slider-occasional curve/change guy who throws in the low 90s and up. He’s taken a step forward in his last five starts, going 4-1 with a 1.15 ERA (including a shutout of the Red Sox). Opposing batters have hit .150/.216/.187 with no home runs in those starts. The Yankees have faced some very good pitchers in the last month–John Lannan, Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jarrod Washburn, Roy Halladay, Jared Weaver, John Lackey, Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson–Anderson is a challenge worthy of that group.

Lefty Gio Gonzalez was acquired from the White Sox as part of a package for Nick Swisher. He’s a fastball-curveball guy who was a first-round supplemental pick back in 2004, which suggests that scouts saw great promise in him. Certainly his career minor league strikeout rate of 10.3 per nine innings bears out that evaluation. Gonzalez brought the strikeout rate with him to the Majors, but his control stayed in the sticks. He’s walked 6.2 per nine innings in his brief career, which is the prime reason, along with a Tomko-licious
16 home runs in 61 innings, that he has an 8.41 ERA. He allowed four home runs in just 2.2 innings to the Twins in his most recent start.

Finally, 25-year-old Dallas Braden, a veteran on this staff, goes Sunday. Braden is your standard low-velocity lefty, and he’s a fly ball guy too. Despite the latter tendency, he doesn’t allow many home runs, but some of that may be due to park effects. His changeup makes him very tough on his fellow lefties–they’re hitting just .174/.225/.223 off of him this year. Joe Girardi doesn’t really have a good righty platoon bat on his bench, but if he did, Sunday would be a good day to play him. Maybe Shelley Duncan is free that afternoon… 

The sweet Snell of success

YOU NEED A SCORECARD, DUDE
At one point in the run-up to the Old Timer’ Day festivities, I was standing on the third base line near a bunch of Yankees players that included Jesse Barfield, Oscar Gamble, and Ken Griffey, Sr. Behind me, some guy in the stands was shouting, “Hit one, Cecil!” He yelled that over and over again. I couldn’t figure out if he (A) thought that Cecil Fielder had come back to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day–he hadn’t, and though some of the aforementioned Yankees weigh a few stone more than in their glory days, none looked anything like Big Daddy and none were wearing his number; (B) assumed that because the Detroit Tigers were in town, Fielder had somehow come along with his old organization (nope); (C) that he was somehow making fun of my weight (seems like an esoteric way of going about it); (D) was having an acid flashback to 1997; or (E) had somehow gotten hold of a beer vendor at 10 AM. A little later, Mike Mussina and David Cone were standing on exactly the same spot, and I kept expecting the guy to yell, “Throw one, Jack Morris!” or “Strike ’em out, Willie Hernandez!” or “Run for another term, Jim Bunning!”

snell_250.jpgSNELL MAIL
Over the weekend, Baseball Prospectus’s John Perrotto reported that the Yankees have interest in Ian Dante Snell, the Pirates’ punching bag who was recently demoted to Indianapolis. This seems a bit odd at first, given that since posting a 3.76 ERA in 2007, Snell’s one truly solid year, his walk rate has exploded and his strikeout rate dropped, a big reason why he’s put up a 5.40 ERA in 245 innings going back to last year. On further examination, acquiring Snell starts to make a little more sense. First, if you’re down to trying out Sergio Mitre in your starting rotation, you have to show interest in everybody. Second, at 27 years old, Snell isn’t too old to get back on track, assuming there’s nothing seriously wrong with his arm. There’s also a psychological aspect to consider: six years in Pirates drag might be enough to ruin anyone’s approach. Finally, Snell has looked great in four starts at Triple-A Indianapolis. He’s allowed just one earned run in 26.1 innings, and in his first start after going down he struck out 17 Toledo hitters in seven innings. The strikeout numbers since then haven’t been nearly so dramatic, but clearly there’s something alive in Snell waiting to be woken up.

TAKING THE OUTFIELD TEMPERATURE (AN ONGOING SERIES)
Since the end of April:
Johnny Damon:    .273/.358/.517
Brett Gardner:        .303/.391/.455
Melky Cabrera:    .271/.328/.396
Nick Swisher:        .206/.336/.363

As you know, I’ve been a supporter of Nick Swisher’s from the moment he was acquired, but what he’s doing right now is not adequate. The average right fielder is batting .266/.341/.439. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if too many players of that quality are going to be made available by the trading deadline. One wonders if Brian Cashman has shown any interest in Josh Willingham of the Nationals.

20-GAME WATCH: ORIOLES VS. YANKEES

Team
W-L
RS/G
RA/G
AVG
OBP
SLG
AB/HR
SB
CS
HR/9
BB/9
K/9
Orioles 9-11 5.2 5.3 .263 .329 .404 41 9 4 1.2 3.4 6.0
Yankees 15-5 5.9 4.5 .292 .379 .481 24 7 8 1.1 3.5 7.1

Extraordinary that the Yankees are 15-2 when not playing at Anaheim… As I observed the last time the Yanks and Orioles tilted, there are a few reasons why the latter make more interesting viewing than they have in recent years, beginning with their young outfield of Nolan Remold, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis. None is older than 25, all are playing reasonably well (though not as well as they had been early in the season), and presumably will maintain their value long enough that if management is able to bang the rest of the roster into shape, they might be around to contribute to a competitive team. The Orioles also have some new faces on the pitching side, and even if they aren’t all world beaters, at least they’re not inflicting more laborious Daniel Cabrera and Adam Eaton starts on the world.

All three of the starters the Yankees face this week are under 30. On Monday night, the Yankees face the most interesting member of the group in David Hernandez, a 24-year-old who first came up at the end of May. A fastball/slider/changeup guy, Hernandez throws in the low 90s. In the Minors, he got a ton of strikeouts, 10.4 per nine innings since signing in 2005, but his Major League rate has been less than half that. He’s also still working on the whole control thing, and the Yankees will stress him by taking pitches if they’re smart. Hernandez had a quality start in each of his last two appearances. The opponents were the Angels and the Mariners, teams that don’t work counts.

Tuesday’s starter is Rich Hill, who once looked like he would be something special for the Cubs but has since fallen on hard times, which is kind of a redundant thing to say given that he pitches for Baltimore. He’s become spectacularly wild, and has made just three quality starts this year. His most recent start was among the three, a six inning, two-run outing against the Blue Jays on July 11. He walked just one. Finally, Wednesday’s starter is rookie Jason Berken. Berken has made one quality start this year. Unfortunately for the Orioles, it came in his second big league start. Since then, he’s been routinely pummeled, and has gotten out of the fifth inning just once. In eight June-July starts, opposing batters are hitting .325/.388/.503.

What do all three of these pitchers have in common? The Yankees have never seen them before.

Ready for your midterms?

THE DREADED MIDTERM GRADES
On Sunday, the Yankees played their 81st game. The season’s official halfway point comes at the All-Star break, but this is it’s actual halfway point. In my ten years as pinstriped armchair detective, I’ve sometimes resorted to the clichéd midterm grades and sometimes not. This year it seemed like a helpful device to review the season. Today we’ll cover the position players, tomorrow the pitching staff.

As you review the report card, remember that the same grade might not mean the same thing for two different players, because each player must be viewed in the context of his position, his career, and his role. Expectations for Mark Teixeira are different than they are for Brett Gardner, so the latter could conceivably get a better grade than the former without implying that he is the better player in a head to head comparison. With that in mind, feel free to offer your own grades in the comments section.

posada_250.jpgJORGE POSADA-CATCHER
Putting his 25 days on the disabled list aside, you can’t fault Posada’s season. When a 37-year-old catcher is hitting .284/.368/.523, you give thanks for your good fortune and try not to ask too many questions. On defense, he’s thrown out over 30 percent of runners trying to steal, a solid number (the overall Major League success rate on stolen bases this year is 73 percent). The notion that his handling has damaged Joba Chamberlain or anyone else is farfetched bushwah given his career record, as well as those of his many battery-mates. As with several Yankees, Posada has done far more damage at home than on the road. GRADE: 89/100

MARK TEIXEIRA-FIRST BASE

Teixeira has been quite streaky, only reaching a “hot” temperature in May. He’s been vastly more successful at home (.310/.402/.632), but his road production (.243/.373/.472) also gets the job done, albeit at a far more pedestrian level. He’s also been a revelation on defense, even if for some reason the metrics don’t show it. While Teixeira’s season is consistent with his work in previous seasons, he’s not quite at the level of the last two years (.307/.406/.557 in 289 games),  and it’s worth noting that he’s having only the fifth-best season among AL first basemen, trailing Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Russell Branyan, and Miguel Cabrera. Of these, Branyan probably won’t hang on until the end, but the others almost certainly will. Bumped out of the “A” range, but only in comparison to previous performances. The 20-game homerless streak with which he ended the half (.244/.366/.321) didn’t help. GRADE: 86.5/100

ROBINSON CANO-SECOND BASE
Cano has bounced back from his spectacularly miserable 2008, but a league-average on-base percentage is still a bridge too far, as is consistency–in May and June combined, he hit .271/.302/.439, which doesn’t help all that much. He’s on a pace to ground into 24 double plays, and he’s batting .196 with runners in scoring position. There are certainly worse second basemen to have–Howie Kendrick is actually the evil Cano from the Star Trek mirror-verse–but as usual, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. GRADE: 79/100

ALEX RODRIGUEZ-THIRD BASE
With 45 walks and 14 home runs in 51 games, A-Rod has been productive despite his low batting average. Eleven of his 14 homers have been hit at home. Conversely, he’s hitting just .211 in the Bronx, with a truly strange .131 average on balls in play–one wonders if he’s trying to get the ball in the air at the new park, trying to catch up on all the short fence/jet stream-generated fun his teammates had without him. His hip problems seem to have sapped his speed and defense, and he hasn’t been around that much. Docked a few points for days absent and the whole juicing thing, which is spectacularly annoying. GRADE: 83.5/100

DEREK JETER-SHORTSTOP

There are a few nits you can pick with Jeter’s season. He’s only hitting .264/.340/.383 against right-handers, most of his damage coming thanks to .452/.524/.644 rates against lefties. All of his power seems to be a product of Yankee Stadium II; just two of his ten home runs have come on the road. On the plus side, his walk rate is up, he seems more limber this year, both on the bases and in the field, and though he still hits everything on the ground (he ranks 11th among players with 150 or more plate appearances this season), he’s kept his double play rate in hand. Overall, I’m not complaining–after the lethargy of last year, this qualifies as a comeback. GRADE:  91/100

JOHNNY DAMON-LEFT FIELD

Damon hit 17 home runs last year. He’s hit 16 in 76 games this year. The difference is Yankee Stadium II; the former Caveman is hitting .289/.390/.592 with 12 home runs (one every 12.7 at-bats) at home, .278/.340/.465 with four home runs (one every 36 at-bats) on the road. Now, that doesn’t mean that Damon shouldn’t get his due, as being able to take advantage of one’s environment is a skill. It’s much like Jim Rice’s home-road splits in Boston: if everyone who played in Fenway hit like Jim Rice, you’d have an argument about discounting his stats. Damon’s road stats are also sufficient–the average Major League left fielder is hitting .267/.342/.433 overall. At his current pace, Damon is going to obliterate his career high in home runs, his career high in walks is also in reach, and he’s easily going to have his tenth 100-run season. Stolen base frequency is down and his range in left seems down a bit, but as with Jeter I’m not going to complain about a late-career high. GRADE: 90/100

MELKY CABRERA-CENTER FIELD
He’s doing some things he’s never done before, like hitting as a right-hander and taking the occasional walk–he had 29 free passes all of last year, compared to 22 now. That said, he’s mainly helping with his defensive versatility, not his bat. His home runs are a gift of YS II, with seven of eight round-trippers coming in the friendly confines, and coincidental with the injury he suffered in Texas or not, his bat turned off at the end of May and hasn’t come back–even with a semi-hot streak over the last couple of weeks, in 31 games since the end of May he’s hit .221/.303/.379. Given that Cabrera hit only .235/.281/.300 after April last year, the idea that the injury is what’s holding him back should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Cabrera is an asset as a reserve, but he’s not a starter. Alternatively, he’s playing hurt under the misguided belief that he’s helping. At that point, Austin Jackson would be the better choice. GRADE: 72/100

NICK SWISHER-RIGHT FIELD

What a weird player, inconsistent in every phase of his game. At his April level of production, he was a Ruthian terror. In June he hit .253/.379/.506 and was still plenty productive. In between, he took a lot of walks but hit .150. Six games into July he just drew his first walk of the month and was 4-for-22 with one walk in seven games since hitting his last home run going into Tuesday, when he finally broke through with three hits (which doesn’t count towards the midterm). He hasn’t been all that productive with runners on–this seems to be a career-long problem, as if he shortens up his swing and worries about striking out in those situations. The result is quite a few walks but not many hits. His defense is usually solid, but he also has his off days. As he did last season, Swisher has a pronounced home-road split. He’s batting .279/.373/.625 with 11 home runs (one every 12.4 at-bats), but only .181/.347/.302 (again, through Sunday) with three home runs (one every 38.7 at-bats) at home. He’s been helpful on the whole, but the only reason he ranks among the top 15 right fielders in productivity is
that there are only 15 right fielders having good years. In short, I don’t know what to make of him. GRADE: 80/100

BRETT GARDNER-THE OTHER CENTER FIELDER

Gardner is listed among the starters because he’s actually started more games in center than Cabrera, even though Cabrera has played more overall. Given what little was expected of Gardner, not to mention the way he started the season, he probably deserves an A grade just based on performance vs. expectations. He started only 25 games across May and June, but he also appeared in 21 more and hit like crazy, batting .330/.427/.510 with four triples, three home runs, 16 walks, and 12 steals. He has not been handled brilliantly. After Gardner’s 5-for-6 game against the Mets on June 26, he was given just two more starts (he went 0-for-7) before Joe Girardi presumably decided he had gone cold and it was time to try Cabrera again. It’s not clear how a kid is supposed to build up any momentum under those conditions. When he sits, the Yankees aren’t suppressing a great bat, but they do lose some patience (Gardner has drawn a walk every 9.7 plate appearances, whereas Cabrera has taken a pass every 11.6 plate appearances), their best baserunner, and their best center field defender. Despite the hot streak, it’s doubtful that Gardner will ever be a big run producer, but he’s certainly been worth playing. GRADE: 85/100

Appreciating the Mo masterpiece

rivera_250.jpgMO, MO, MO (497 MORE MOS TO GO)
You can’t follow the Yankees without appreciating Mariano Rivera. He’s superhuman and yet human, approachable and professional. No doubt you’ve read a thousand thoughts along the same lines already today, so instead of heaping on more superlatives, let’s look at the actual record in all of its glorious length. Indeed, length is the key. What makes Rivera great is not only his rare dominance with one special pitch, but for just how long he’s maintained his high level of performance. Many closers rocket up the pop charts, but few have anything like the staying power of Rivera. Generate a list of the top 200 single-season performances of the last 55 years by a reliever (I’m using the context-sensitive wins added, or WXRL) and count everyone who appears on the list more than twice and this is what you get, ordered from lowest to highest:

3 Bruce Sutter
3 Eric Gagne
3 John Smoltz
3 Keith Foulke
3 Lee Smith
3 Lindy McDaniel
3 Randy Myers
3 Rollie Fingers
3 Stu Miller
4 Billy Wagner
4 Dan Quisenberry
4 Francisco Rodriguez
4 Joe Nathan
4 Trevor Hoffman
4 Troy Percival
4 Tug McGraw
5 Armando Benitez
5 Goose Gossage
9 Mariano Rivera

This is a fairer reflection of Rivera’s dominance than something more basic like seasons leading the league in saves-Rivera has done that only three times in 15 seasons. It’s not the number of saves that matters, it’s the quality of the performances, and no one has been as good as often as Rivera has. Twenty-four pitchers appear on the list only twice. There is normally a lot of turnover in the closer department, just as there is for all relievers. There is also much variability depending on how pitchers are used by their managers. Rivera has stuck there like no other pitcher in history. Throw in his extraordinary postseason work, his humanity and professionalism, and this is one inner-circle Hall of Famer that no one will be able to second-guess on induction day.

NADY BE GOOD (EVERYONE’S FAVORITE GERSHWIN TUNE)
The future is now, but in order to win the American League pennant, the Yankees will need to fight the future. No doubt few readers pity Brian Cashman, but he’s in the difficult position of needing to win this year while also thinking about how the Yankees win next year and in the years going forward.

While this page never roots for a player to suffer injury and never will, the removal of Nady for the season (if confirmed) helps to clarify the outfield picture for the rest of the season, or at least until the trading deadline. Nady had some value, but on the whole, 30-walk a year players who don’t also hit .330 or slug .500 are to be avoided. Nady is a stopgap-level player. The Yankees needed that kind of help last year, but don’t this year. The Yankees, particularly Joe Girardi, devoted a lot of air to Nady’s contribution in 2008, but it would seem that the first impression was a lasting one, because .268/.320/.474 isn’t memorable by the standards of corner outfielders. There was a reason that Nady played for four teams in four seasons from 2005 to 2008. The Yankees would have found out why at their own peril. The troubling aspect of the affair was that they seemed willing, if not eager, to do so.

Ironically, they might need Nady-style assistance next season. With Nady’s contract up, that might be the end of him as a Yankee, but one could imagine the team signing him to a low-base, make-good contract, because the outfield shelves could be bare this winter. The contracts of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon are up, and the arguments for bring each back are not strong. Matsui’s lack of mobility constricts the Yankees’ roster while his declining bat adds less than the team would should get for paying that price. Given his age, a multi-year contract would also be dangerous even if one expects a bounce-back next year, even if Matsui returns to Godzilla-style smashing in the second half (not that Matsui has been above Rodan-level in the U.S.).

Damon has obviously had a good year, and a couple of big nights in Atlanta and Queens have helped bring up his road numbers. Still, he too is 35, and there’s no guaranteeing that his Yankee Stadium II power boost is more than an ephemeral event. Last year, at 34, Damon was better than he had ever been before. This year he’s been better than that. That’s an unusual progression and one not likely to sustain itself over the course of another three-year contract, and perhaps even not over another two.

Thus, by the end of the World Series, three of the five current outfielders (counting the gimpy Matsui) could be in the wind. The free agent possibilities are not promising: Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay (if the Red Sox don’t extend him, which seems unlikely), Carl Crawford (a team option of $8.25 million seems likely to be picked up), senior citizen Vlad Guerrero, a long-ago Cashman crush vetoed by ownership, Randy Winn… There’s not much. Help won’t be coming from that direction.

Perhaps by the end of the year, Brett Gardner will have cemented himself in center field for a time. Melky Cabrera is not a sufficient bat for a corner, though the Yankees may choose to see him there, and at present levels, he can hit enough to be a rotating jack of all trades, though it should be noted that he’s going to be increasingly expensive in the coming seasons. As far as the farm system goes, you know about Austin Jackson (currently in a mini-slump). With two home runs, he doesn’t seem like a corner outfielder. A Jackson, Gardner, Cabrera outfield would be strong defensively but not very powerful. Swisher, who is signed through 2012, suddenly becomes very important in any conception of next year, not to mention this one.

This leads to an interesting question. If Matsui and Damon are truly to be gone next year, if Jackson is to be among the possible replacements, is it in the Yankees’ best interest to get him at least 100 plate appearances of Major League time this year? The answer is almost certainly “not yet”–while Jackson has had a solid season, his lack of power and moderate selectivity don’t portend production at the big league level. Remember, in the Majors the batting average is likely to slip, which leaves a medium walk rate and, at least this year, little in the way of power. This would change, though, if Jackson surged and/or Matsui or Damon began to slide. Then the needle that swings between present and future would be stuck exactly in the middle of the dial. 

Subway Series strips the mystery away

jeter_250.jpgSUBWAY AGAIN (AGAIN)
It’s time for another tired interleague match-up. I realize that I’m acting the wet blanket, but after years of record-distorting play and such scintillating league crossovers as Astros-Royals, it seems to me that a great deal of the attraction of any interleague rivalry, particularly Yankees-Mets, was the impossibility of ever resolving the debate, because Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez were never going to be in the same game together short of the odd spring training confrontation. The argument could never resolve and everybody could be right–unless, the tantalizing, always just out of reach World Series confrontation materialized. Then it would all be settled at the highest possible level, under the greatest possible tension.

Interleague play stripped the mystery away. Now we know that most meetings between the Yankees and Mets are just like any other game. Maybe the fans feel a bit more jazzed than usual, but in the end, the only thing at stake are some empty bragging rights, now immutably concretized in the drab facts of the box score, and the usual one-game-in-the-standings stakes. In the latter case, the stakes are no different than any midweek game against the Orioles. By the time the two teams finally did meet in a World Series, interleague play had let the air out of the confrontation–it was nothing we hadn’t seen before, as recently as that July.

So here we are again, 12 days after the last time. Admittedly, the last time was exciting, or at the very least strange, with Luis Castillo’s inexplicable dropped pop-up, the unheralded comeback of Fernando Nieve (“comeback” might be a misnomer given that he was never really here), and an unprecedented battering of Johan Santana. Parenthetically, since striking out 11 in six innings against the Nats on May 27, Santana hasn’t struck out more than three batters in any start; in 30.1 innings, his strikeout rate is 4.2 per nine. The Yankees won’t be seeing Santana this series, so that’s just a point of interest.

The Yankees will be seeing Mike Pelfrey (tonight vs. Sabathia), old pal Tim Reddding (Saturday vs. Burnett), and Livan Hernandez (vs. Wang). Pelfrey is a really interesting case. The 2005 first-rounder had a breakthrough season last year, but this season has been choppy to say the least, with his strikeout rate dying a tormented, painful death. Despite this, he was was winning thanks to decent run support. Beginning with his second start of May, he reeled off five very solid appearances, limiting batters to just six walks and one home run in 34.2 innings. His strikeout rate bounced back up into the fours, which isn’t good but was sustainable given the high number of ground balls he was getting. He was, shall we say, Wang-ing it. Just as quickly as they came, the  good times ended, June bringing a 7.08 ERA as Pelfrey’s control has wandered, giving hitters more chances to put the ball in play with runners on. Nor has the Mets’ defense done him any favors in this period.

Redding you know from his brief pinstriped experience, a journeyman with a capital “R” for “Replacement level.” He was actually a bit better than that last year, but not by much. This year he’s back in the submarine, sailing below the surface of useful. He’s given the Mets three quality starts in seven tries, but remains a fly ball pitcher without a strikeout pitch, a very bad combination. Hernandez was roughed up by the Yankees in Castillo’s dropped-egg game. What I said then remains true now: his pitching as well as he has was wholly unexpected given just how badly he was treated in both leagues last year. Despite his low-ish ERA, he remains very hittable, averaging 10 safeties per nine innings pitched, and his home run rate is on the high side. He’s pitched well in two starts since the Yankees last saw him.

There is no reason that the Yankees could not sweep this series given the pitching matchups, but that was also true of the Nationals series and we know how that went. However, the Mets are at a further disadvantage, because their many injuries have reduced their list of star-level players to just one — David Wright. He can be enough–he went 5-for-12 against the Yankees the last time around, and has continued to hit well since. However, his power continues to be mystifyingly absent–it has now been 15 games since his last home run. During that stretch he has hit .383 with five doubles, and only four RBIs.

The most remarkable aspect to Wright’s season is that he continues to have a batting average on balls in play of nearly .500 (currently it’s .469). A high percentage of his balls in play, 27 percent, are line drives, which would correlate with a high BABIP, but not this high. In comparison, Scott Rolen has a higher line drive rate and his BABIP is only .354, while Jason Bartlett is leading the majors with an almost 30 percent of his balls in play being liners and his BABIP is “only” .405. It is extremely likely that Bartlett’s BABIP will decline as the year goes on, perhaps by 70 or 100 points, and spectacularly likely that Wright’s will fall off by even more. That leaves the Mets with an interesting problem, because if Wright’s NL-leading average has been due to an overlarge share of luck, and not due to a change in approach by the batter, purposeful or otherwise, then when did his power go, and what happens to his production when some of the singles start to get caught?

As we will likely see tonight when the Yankees put balls in the air and watch what would have been home runs in the Bronx ballpark settle harmlessly into gloves, some of the power outage has been engendered by the Mets zombie tribute to Ebbets Field (ironically, a bandbox–Mickey Mantle used to say, and he meant this, that he would have hit a thousand home runs had he played there), but not all of it, as Wright has hit but one home run on the road this year.

SWISHER/NADY

After a 1-for-6 on Thursday, Nick Swisher apparently gets a mental health break today. It seems as if his place in the lineup is safe, however, as Xavier Nady has had a major setback in his rehab. No confirmation of the damage yet, and I’ll reserve comment until we get the straight dope. I’m waiting for someone to hit my inbox with “Melky should be the everyday right fielder.” It hasn’t come yet, but it will. 

Joba, Swisher make their cases

joba_250.jpgINSTANT KARMA’S GONNA GET YOU
It was a very strange ballgame last night. It began with the Yankees looking like they were going to lose a perfect game, or at least get shut out, and ended with Mariano Rivera striking out four straight batters for the save, eight runs on the scoreboard. It was the first Rivera appearance in about a year, and it was vintage stuff, one you’ll want to remember if you prize the career of this future Hall of Famer. It didn’t come in a playoff game, but it doesn’t matter–the cutter was really darting in on the lefty hitters, perhaps as much as we’ve seen all year. For one night (and hopefully many more), the Lone Ranger rode again.

As was pointed out on last night’s broadcast, Joba Chamberlain has now made 14 starts, seven at home and seven on the road. At Yankee Stadium: the Musical, Joba is 0-2 with a 5.18 ERA. Intriguingly, he’s striking out more batters at home, 9.8 per nine innings, than he is on the road (7.0). But he’s also walking six batters per nine innings in the House that Ruth Didn’t Build but Would Have Really Loved to Hit In, and it was speculated by the YES-men that he’s just a bit scared of allowing balls in play at home. This seems like a reasonable explanation given the results on the road–4-0 with a 2.74 ERA (3.59 runs allowed). He’s struck out fewer batters, just seven per nine innings, but perhaps he’s not trying nearly so hard to do so. This more restrained approach has resulted in fewer walks, including none last night, and longer outings.

I’m not certain how the Yankees solve this problem, but I do know this: Chamberlain’s road record is yet another nail in the “Joba-to-the-bullpen” argument. If this is what he can do in a neutral environment, average six innings a start and allow fewer than three runs–that’s more than good enough. Few pitchers can do that, and if Joba can just smooth out his home-park problems, he’s going to contend for a Cy Young Award some day. Sure, the strikeout rate is lower than it was in the pen, but still healthy enough that you don’t have to worry about his health, and beyond that, arguing about the number of strikeouts, seven or nine, is just quibbling. The average AL starter averages 6.4 Ks per start. Joba is fine.

Nick Swisher answered yesterday’s discussion about him here with another home run, and it’s tempting to let that be the final word for now. The guy is second on the Yankees in on-base percentage (to Mark Teixeira), fourth in slugging, but he leads the club in road slugging, road doubles, and road home runs by a wide, wide margin–he and Hideki Matsui are the only hitters on the team that haven’t seen their numbers grossly distorted by the House that Ruth Didn’t etc. He leads the team in walks, and the only reason that hasn’t resulted in a higher number of runs scored by Swisher personally is that he’s been buried in the bottom half of the order. There has been an awful lot of Ransom and Molina up behind Swisher.

Some in the comments for yesterday keep talking about how these are “just” numbers. They’re right. They’re “just” numbers, which means they are “just” a record of WHAT HAPPENED. If you want to deny that Swisher has been on base all those times, fine. You want to deny he’s the team’s leading hitter on the road, that’s fine too. You could go further and deny that getting on base leads to runs, which leads to winning. People deny all kinds of things that seem like settled science. Heck, the Flat Earth Society was active until quite recently.

Unfortunately, there is a payback for stubborn ignorance, and it comes in the form of lost baserunners. That means more outs with fewer runs scoring, and that means more losses– although you can deny that outs without runs leads to losses if you want to. You can deny anything, including the fact that you’re breathing, or thinking.

And once you bench Swisher, you can even deny the slipping place in the standings. You’re mad at the wrong Yankee.

FUTURE YANKEES TO LOVE AND/OR DISTRUST
The rosters for the annual Futures Game prospects showcase were announced today, and the Yankees have two representatives on the World Team, catcher Jesus Montero of the Trenton Thunder and lefty Manny Banuelos of the Charleston RiverDogs. I know you’ve heard plenty about the former, the too-young-to-drink slugger who might be less than a year from a big-league call-up, but Banuelos has yet to get much press (and for good reason–Montero is a special hitter, while Banuelos is a good prospect, but one potential pitcher among many). In 12 starts this year he’s put up a 2.51 ERA, walking just 14 in 61 innings while striking 58. Going into the season, Baseball America ranked his as the team’s 14th-best prospect, right behind Brett Gardner, commending his mechanics and solid fastball while noting his offspeed pitches still have awhile to go. He’s three levels away from the bigs, so this is probably your one chance to see him for awhile if you don’t happen to live nearby. The chance to see Montero speaks for itself. 

To the mats with reader comments

TO THE MATS WITH READER COMMENTS

Just a couple of quick ones from this morning’s entry:

Frequent correspondent let’sgoyankees says:

Good article, but I want to make one point…Melky should not be taken out in favor of Gardner. Swisher should. He plays awful defense and is a terrible baserunner. Since both he and Melky are slumping, those other two categories have Swishy beat. Swish is a useful player but he should be platooned. He’s exposed playing every day.

And Charlie F responds:

swisher_062409.jpg

Swisher does NOT play awful defense. He plays incredibly UGLY defense, but he’s actually quite a good defender. His UZR/150 is above average as is his range factor per game. Don’t confuse ungraceful and lumbering for bad.

To which I, your humble servant, will add that there’s not a lot that’s pretty in Swisher’s game, but he’s a productive player and one the Yankees can’t afford to take out of the lineup. Even when his bat went on vacation in May, he still drew 19 walks, making for a .311 on-base percentage despite a .150 batting average. This month he’s hitting .267/.397/.500. You show me a team that benches a guy with those rates and I’ll show you a team that needs its head examined. Swisher has faults, and when a team is not playing well, those faults — the strikeouts, sub-Speaker agility in the outfield, become exaggerated. This happens to every team in a bad place — the urge to punish someone strong, and it frequently seizes on the wrong player. Swisher has been productive against both lefties and righties, has hit well by any reasonable standard, and has left something to be desired only at Yankee Stadium II, where, despite his struggles, he has posted a .373 on-base percentage. He’s part of the solution, not the problem…

…And yet he’s still going to lose playing time to Xavier Nady. That’s the way of things, and it’s depressing.

…If anyone wants to talk about this or anything else, I’m about to begin a chat (1 PM EST) at
Baseball Prospectus.

The trouble with offense … and A-Rod

SO, WHAT HAVE WE GOT?
During the offseason, I frequently argued that though the Yankees had their attention focused overwhelmingly on pitching, the offense might prove to be a bigger problem. Then they signed Mark Teixeira, and I promptly shut up. It seems odd to talk about a team that has averaged more than five runs a game as having offensive deficits to make up, but the truth is that the particular construction of the Yankees means that it’s still a realistic possibility. The Yankees have to guard against being fooled by the numbers they are seeing, many of them distortions caused by their generous new home park. To this point in the season, certain aging Yankees would seem to have found the Fountain of Youth. What they’ve really discovered is a beautifully appointed new ballpark with wide concourses, laptops in the lockers, and a loving right-field power alley.

The home/road splits are damning: Derek Jeter, .295/.364/.381 with two home runs in 239 at-bats. Melky Cabrera, .278/.329/.354 with one home run in 79 at-bats. Johnny Damon, .260/.317/.449 with four home runs in 127 at-bats. Jorge Posada, .253/.348/.440 with three home runs in 75 at-bats. These numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re more realistic than what the players have done at home, more in line with what the players have done in the recent past and what we might have projected them to do this year.

arod250_062209.jpgThe Yankees are a .500 team on the road so far this season. Their road production has been, overall, quite good, given that Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui have done the bulk of their hitting while traveling. Teixeira has also done his part. Still, this hasn’t been enough to give the team the same explosiveness that it has had in the Bronx, especially when you throw in Alex Rodriguez’s post-surgical problems. (Likely unrelated to his staying up late. Though I’m sure we all want to jump on Rodriguez for his latest transgression, I’m pretty sure that sitting on a barstool next to Kate Hudson doesn’t stress his hip as much as playing does, which was more the point of his “fatigue” problems than his lack of sleep, dig?)  

Insofar as winning the division goes, this bifurcation would present less of a problem if the Yankees had won more than 60 percent of their games at home. The 1987 Minnesota Twins showed that in a soft division you could be a hundred-loss team on the road if you were a 100-win team at home. The Yankees are a few games off the latter pace. Say they were just a few games better in their own park, 25-10, instead of 21-14. That’s asking a lot of the Yankees, but we’re in the land of make-believe just now, so stay with me. Were the Yankees to maintain that kind of pace at home while staying around .500 on the road, they would finish the season with a record of somewhere around 99-63, and be in very good shape to win the Wild Card if not the division. They may win the Wild Card anyway, but you can’t take anything for granted.

There is something to be said for players that can take advantage of the features of your home park. Not every Yankee has popped a home run every 13 at-bats at home, as Damon has. The problem is that the park can’t discriminate. The Yankees have outscored their opponents by just 13 runs at home. Over time, that gap may narrow, perhaps because of the park, or maybe because Brett Tomko is pitching. Or Brett Tomko is pitching in the park. The players who have reaped the extra support might also regress, simply through age, fatigue (to use a dangerous word), injury, or changing weather patterns or other effects of the new park we can’t yet foresee.

In June, the Yankees are batting .247/.342/.424, roughly a league mark. The pitchers have been fine. June’s ERA is 3.85, actually the team’s best of the season. June’s starters have an ERA of 4.40, above-average for the league, and the transformed, Veras-free bullpen has an ERA of 2.87. Assuming that CC Sabathia isn’t hurt in any long-term-kind-of way, the pitching staff may well have achieved stability. It is the offense that should now be the source of worry. The lesson for the Yankees is clearly that if opportunities to upgrade the offense present themselves, any chance to replace a middling 35-year-old bat, they have to take it. If finances mitigate against such a move, that’s one thing, but sentimentality or the belief that Melky Cabrera (injured shoulder or not) is going to achieve consistency or Hideki Matsui is going to turn back the clock need to be ignored.

And most of all, perhaps more than anything else, a day-in, day-out A-Rod substitute must be found. Applicant should be able to out-hit Angel Berroa and outfield both he and the less-than-limber Rodriguez. Rodriguez could struggle all season, even if he takes a vow of celibacy. Again, the Yankees don’t want to take anything for granted.

Show some love for the glove

RECORD-SETTING DEFENSE
The Yankees’ new record for consecutive games without an error doesn’t mean much to me, because official scoring in baseball has spectacularly low standards and has become almost totally subjective. What is interesting about the record is the way the Yankees have been climbing the defensive efficiency ladder. Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play that a team turns into outs. Over the last several seasons, almost uniformly going back to the last century, the Yankees have ranked toward the bottom of the Majors in this category. Their players had so little range that the pitchers were giving up hits on balls that other teams might have put in the back pockets. Everything gets distorted: The pitchers look worse than they really are, the team goes crazy trying to sign pitchers when it really needs fielders and hitters, and the whole club spins off its axis.

If memory serves, the last time the Yankees led the league in this category was 1998. Since then, there’s been a lot of “Past a diving [your name here]!” in the play by play. That has changed a great deal this season, particularly due to the addition of Mark Teixeira, who is a revelation on the fielding job after so many years of Jason Giambi. Another key factor has been Nick Swisher, who hasn’t made many spectacular plays but gets to many more balls than Bobby Abreu was inclined to pursue in right field. Right now, the Yankees are fourth in the American League at 70.7 percent, a number almost indistinguishable from that of the league-leading Rangers (71.3 percent; the Brewers lead the Majors at 72.4 percent). It’s an old but true baseball adage that you can’t win by giving the opposition extra outs. Usually, that adage refers to errors, but it should apply to every ball hit within the fences and between the lines. The Yankees haven’t cared much about this in the recent past, but with Teixeira’s help a change has come. It and the team’s current hot streak are not coincidental.

joba250_060209.jpgJOBA CAN PITCH THE EIGHTH — AS A STARTER
And that’s all I have to say about that. He won’t get there in most starts, of course, but the point is that if he is capable of this kind of upside, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep running him out there until he gives some definitive reason that he can’t. The performance of OTHER pitchers, like the eighth-inning relievers, have nothing to do with him. The bullpen is its own problem with its own solution set. You don’t take a pitcher who is capable of giving you 21 or even 24 outs a night with an ERA below 4.00 out of the rotation because you can’t find another guy who can give you three, no matter how “important” the spot. That’s idiotic. All of the outs are important. We just perceive protecting late leads to somehow be a bigger deal than holding the opposition scoreless in the first or the third or the sixth, but a run is a run is a run, and you never know which one is going to beat you. More to the point, you can’t protect leads you don’t have, and a strong starting pitching staff is the tool that is most likely to buy you the time to generate that lead. Secondary point: It’s much easier to find a guy to give you three outs than it is to find the one that will give you 21, even if the Yankees are having trouble finding that guy right now.

And yet another point, one that I alluded to yesterday: As good as Chien-Ming Wang has been as a starter in his career, his stuff and approach do not correlate with long-term success. I don’t care if you have a sinker so heavy that Superman can’t lift it — eventually the lack of strikeouts, the lack of a solid inner defense, or both is going to eat you alive. In Wang’s case, his injury of last season may have altered his delivery, stuff or strength in a minute way, hard to perceive with the naked eye, but significant enough that he can no longer balance on the point of a needle the way he used to. Putting him in the bullpen, while perceived by many fans and commentators as a waste or an insult of some kind, may in fact allow him to make changes in his approach that will save his effectiveness and ultimately his career. A Wang who isn’t worried about marshalling his stuff and can throw harder over a shorter span of time while still getting groundballs may be able to get outs in a way that a six- or seven-inning version of Wang can no longer aspire to.

Right now, there’s no reason for the Yankees to make a change except that some people are arguing for it. Wang is pitching well in the bullpen, they say, so let’s make him a starter. Chamberlain is pitching well as a starter, so let’s make him a reliever. That way lies madness.

Parenthetically, I was pleased that Joel Sherman made very much the same argument I did yesterday about using Mariano Rivera in a tied game on the road. Within that piece there’s also a promising note about the Yankees vowing not to resign Hideki Matsui after the season, 100 percent the correct decision.