NO PRESSURE, KID
Only Phil Hughes can save the Yankees’ season, or so it seems on the eve of his first start of 2009. It’s a dramatically unfair place for a 23-year-old to be, but somehow, some way, the Yankees need to get this season started. It’s ironic that the Yankees bent over backwards to make Hughes unnecessary this past offseason. They didn’t want to depend on him. Now, until they see consistency from their other starters, not to mention anything at all useful from Chien-Ming Wang, they’ll feel lucky to have him to depend on.
The irony here is that pitching wasn’t necessarily the problem last year. With patience, the Yankees might have continued to mature their youngish staff and gotten by. The offense was the sector that looked to be problematic going into this season. As it turns out, the correct answer is, C: All of the above. As has been the case since the decline of the last dynasty, inattention to depth has beggared the big club and could continue to do so all season long.
That’s the injury front. More interesting is the club’s weird inability to hit with runners in scoring position. As you’ve no doubt heard, the team is hitting .223/.320/.346 in such situations. Robinson Cano, who has been so good overall, has batted .192 with runners on, and he has had more runners on in front of him than any other Yankee. He’s hitting .419 with the bases empty. Johnny Damon has hit .200, Hideki Matsui .125. Damon has come up with 11 runners on third, tied for most on the Yankees, and still has just seven RBIs on the season. The two center fielders have been execrable, with Brett Gardner hitting .143 in 14 at-bats and Melky Cabrera hitting .083 in 12 at-bats. It would help if the club could stay out of double plays. They’ve grounded into 18 in 154 possible opportunities, a slightly above-average rate. Below average would obviously be better. The worst culprit on the Yankees has been Melky Caberera, who has hit into three GDPs in eight possible situations, or 38 percent. The league average is 10 percent. The best is Mark Teixeira, who hasn’t hit into a single twin-killing in 22 opportunities.
This situation is almost certainly transient, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Playing with the most basic run estimators suggests that the Yankees have failed to score about 10 runs that they might have scored had their hitting with runners on been more representative.
HERE LIES AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Steven Jackson sent back to the Minors to make room for Phil Hughes. Eight games and nary a touch. Way to show confidence in the kid, Joe.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? It was very odd seeing Barry Bonds calmly chatting in the booth during last night’s Dodgers-Giants game. Having recently read “Game of Shadows,” I was conditioned to believe that he was more likely to kill someone than have a normal conversation.
? Dexter Fowler looked like he was going to be a valuable player for the Rockies even before he stole five bases off of the Padres on Monday night. Ironically, though he had 101 steals in 334 Minor League games, it didn’t look like baserunning was an area in which he might distinguish himself. Over the last two seasons, he stole 40 bases but was caught 19 times, an unimpressive rate. The last time a Yankee stole five bases in a game? It’s never happened. The Yankees have had a player steal four bases in a game 18 times, most recently Tony Womack in 2005.
? Scary Fly-Ball Guy Jeff Karstens gave away three baseballs to the Brewers on Monday in just five innings. That’s the problem with being a Scary Fly-Ball Guy: eventually they either have to take you out of the game or risk a national ball shortage.
? Emilio Bonifacio: now batting .266/.301/.342. Welcome to Replacement Level Theatre.
? You’d think that former Nats GM Jim Bowden being of such low repute would buy Manny Acta some time in Washington. The mess there isn’t his fault.
? I find that Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” is kind of depressing for a bouncy pop standard. I like when that happens, when concert-goers are swaying and singing, “La la la life is brutal and unfair!”
? I know Matt Wieters has barely played, but with Gregg Zaun 6-for-50 and the franchise flailing at the box office (just 10K at Camden last night) can they wait much longer to bring him up?
MORE FROM ME
Today at Baseball Prospectus, in an article open to non-subscribers, I discuss the anxiety problems of 1930s catcher Babe Phelps and compare them to those of someone I’m very close to… Me.
THE WEEKEND FROM HELL
Of all the troubling events of the past weekend in Boston, perhaps the most ominous development was Joba Chamberlain’s Friday evening start, in which he pitched like a much older man, walking four and striking out two. Naturally, various broadcast crews spent the weekend wondering if this meant that Chamberlain should be sent back to the bullpen, where he threw harder. Guys: reduced velocity and a loss of control does not indicate that a pitcher is starting or relieving. Reduced velocity and a loss of control indicates that something is wrong. Any argument that Chamberlain is now hoarding his stuff as a starter is purely suppositional and highly unlikely, and Chamberlain’s role is less important at this moment than the possibility that he might be hurt.
MY LATEST THEORY
Steven Jackson is on the roster purely so the Yankees can bring a full complement of players out to the foul line during the national anthem. It is painful to watch Joe Girardi manage games so as to get them into the hands of his so-called dependable veterans, pathologically avoiding the kids now on the roster. This is 180 degrees removed from the Girardi of a year ago, who did so much to revamp the bullpen after years of Joe Torre kiting from veteran to veteran. For some reason, Girardi doesn’t seem to be willing to do it again. Yet, the team isn’t winning and the pen isn’t helping, so whatever he’s trying to do in getting those pitchers reestablished, and in some cases re-reestablished requires rethinking.
WHY THE YANKEES STILL NEED TO ACQUIRE ANOTHER THIRD BASEMAN
Because even if Alex Rodriguez comes back tomorrow, he could be out again the day after. That could be for any reason, not just his hip. A pitch could fracture his hand in his first plate appearance of the season, and the Yankees would be right back where they were. This is what we call insurance. You don’t think your house will burn down tomorrow, but you pay the insurance, just in case. There will be no time this season where it will be safe for the Yankees to have so little depth at the hot corner, just because life is unpredictable. Meanwhile, playing Angel Berroa at third clearly means you’re not altogether serious about winning. Playing Cody Ransom meant that too, but it was marginally worth trying — though not without a safety net. It is stunning how little Yankees management learned from last season’s injuries.
PROBABLY WISHFUL THINKING, BUT…
…If Sidney Ponson could hold the Tigers to three runs over eight innings, as he did on Sunday, the Yankees should be okay in this series.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? In a previous entry, I said that no one can win the NL East. Allow me to add the AL West to that formulation as well.
? Dear Angels: Can the Yankees offer you 1.5 pitchers for your own apparently despised 3B/SS Brandon Wood? With affection, Brian Cashman. Dear Rockies: Can the Yankees offer you .5 pitchers for your own redundant third baseman Jeff Baker? Respectfully, Brian “Manpower Shortage” Cashman. Dear Mike Blowers: All is forgiven. Please come home. With sincere regret, Brian “I Didn’t Work Here Then” Cashman.
? Best wishes to Braves All-Star Brian McCann as he heads for the DL trying to cure his blurred vision. We know from bad vision at the Pinstriped Bible, and we feel for you, Brian. McCann is apparently off for a second Lasik surgery.
? Gavin Floyd was battered by the Blue Jays on Friday night. Given Floyd’s unrealistically low batting average allowed on balls in play last year, forecasting a regression was one of the easiest calls of the offseason…
? I love allmusic.com, because sometimes you just have to know how many bands have covered “Daydream Believer,” “Coconut Grove,” or “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”
? Sometimes I think, “Where would the Royals be without Zack Greinke?” Then a voice answers, “Where are they with him?”
? On the eve of a new Bob Dylan release, a reminder that if you haven’t been with the man on his last three albums, “Time Out of Mind,” “Love and Theft,” and “Modern Times,” you’ve missed a remarkable career renaissance. I’m not certain of Dylan has changed with the times or the times have become strange to the point that Dylan is now able to sing from a timeless American dimension in which civil war soldiers commiserate with hoboes over the Great Depression, both admiring the singing of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, who are playing just down the line at the next soup kitchen. Many of these songs are fatalistic, but simultaneously reassuring. In the early ’60s, Dylan was an entertainer. In the mid- to late-60s he was angry. It was harder for him to find relevance from the mid-70s through the 90s, but now he’s memory, and boy, do we need memory. “I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense/I can see what everybody in the world is up against/Can’t turn back, you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far/One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are.” Funny thing about history; you can only mourn what you’ve lost if you know what you had, and who in modern times has any use for the lessons of history? Thus the next line of the song: “Sugar Baby, get on down the road/Ain’t got no brains no how/You went years without me/Might as well keep going now.”
? One good sign for Alex Rodriguez is how well Chase Utley and Mike Lowell, both veterans of recent hip surgery, have been hitting. The Yankees have seen the latter’s work firsthand…
? It seems odd how quickly the Twins decided that Carlos Gomez was a defensive replacement rather than a starter, especially when Mike Cuddyer and Delmon Young aren’t giving them anything special at the plate. Just because Cuddyer is the rare Twin under a sort-of pricey contract doesn’t mean he has to play. As for Young, at this point the hype, always out of balance to the actual product, should no longer blind anyone to the realities of the player. The Twins, by the way, possess several mediocre third baseman that can actually play third base, and yet they have no current use for. Just sayin’.
? In case you missed it, Carl Pavano got hammered Saturday. He’s now 0-3 with a 9.50 ERA. Somehow, though the thrill isn’t quite as sweet given that the Yankees passed up their own opportunity to thrash him…
? Charlie Manuel benched Jimmy Rollins on Sunday because “He’s not swinging good.” While it is true that Rollins is batting only .162/.205/.235, unless you really think he needs a mental health break, or he’s doing some Manny-style sulking thing that we don’t know about, do you bench a former MVP and three-time All-Star? You figure a ten-year vet will work his way out of it…
? Are we off the Marlins’ bandwagon yet?
? Given that Reds’ left fielders have combined to hit .171/.275/.300 to date, why not run Micah Owings out there every once in awhile? Is Laynce Nix really going to do that much better?
? Chris Davis of the Rangers has a seven-game hitting streak going, in which he’s hitting .304/.360/.739 with three home runs, including two in his last two games. His strikeout-walk ratio in that time is 12-1, so he’s not over his troubles yet, but at least he’s holding his own for now after his miserable start. Note also Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s eight-game streak (not counting a no at-bat appearance as a defensive replacement), during which he’s hit .407/.429/
.630. His strikeout-walk ratio I during the streak is 10-1. Hey, Rudy Jaramillo: what are you teaching these guys?