Tagged: Yogi Berra

Posada improving on the road

I’m diggin’ one of the great lost rockabilly classics, “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache”. Somehow Sam Phillips of Sun Records never got this late ’50s track on a single, even as a B side; he was apparently too busy promoting guys like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. You try to figure out a guy’s priorities, I tell ya.  

posada300_090409.jpgJUST A CRUMB ON POSADA
A few days ago, I said that it was good to see Jorge have some big games on the road, because his production largely favored All-Embracing Yankee Stadium the Deuce. This is still the case (.335/.403/.658 in the Bronx — funny how that doesn’t change with the team on the road), but the road production is now respectable, particularly for an elderly catcher, at .244/.327/.435. His overall rates of .288/.363/.543 are verging on the special. Catchers his age who have carried those kinds of numbers through a full season or anything like it number exactly one: In one of the great fluke seasons, the platoon catcher Greg Myers, a career .255/.313/.395 hitter, had a huge year at 37 for the 2003 Blue Jays, batting .307/.374/.502 with 15 home runs in 121 games. That’s the list. At 37, Johnny Bench was on the golf course. Bill Dickey was with the Great Lakes Navy team after a few years as a part timer. Yogi Berra was a reserve who hit .224. Gary Carter was just hanging on. Ted Simmons stopped hitting that way at 31. Ivan Rodriguez stopped hitting five years ago.

Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Gabby Hartnett, they all had some good years on the aged side of things, but not quite at that level (though Fisk’s 1988, .277/.377/.542 is close when you adjust for context; unfortunately, he only played in 76 games). Ernie Lombardi hit .307/.387/.486 at 37, but against diluted wartime competition. Regardless of whether the new ballpark has given him a push, the fact is that he’s having a season that is a rarity in the annals of extreme veteran backstops.

It seems like only yesterday we were watching Jose Molina and Kevin Cash split the catching chores. What a reversal.

In the recent past, some teams have experimented with keeping the innings of their pitching prospects under control in the low Minors by designating tandem starters — every fifth day, John pitches four innings and Bob pitches four innings. This was scoffed at by many, and it was unthinkable that such a program would be undertaken in the Majors, and yet, here we are.

At this point, it is safe to say that no pitcher in history has been treated in quite the same way Joba has. Credit where credit is due to the Yankees for trying something different, something preventative, but wow — there are famous works of art that have been treated more harshly (I’m thinking Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” vs. Napoleon’s troops — final score Troops 1, Painting 0). I know I’ve been asking this question in different ways since the All-Star break, but the mystery goes on: What if saving Joba means destroying his effectiveness? What if you get what you wanted but lost what you have?
A bit on the dangers of a speed-based offense at Baseball Prospectus, and no subscription required to view. 

Sunday: Brunch and serious memories

…Which is not bragging, but the opposite: I ain’t complaining about the arduous work I have to do. Still, I was just chatting with my colleague Jon Lane about what time I have to get out to Yankee Stadium II to do my annual set of interviews on Old Timer’s Day, and he was speculating 9 a.m. This is depressing in that it takes me about two hours to get up to the ballpark, so it’s going to be an early Sunday morning. On the positive side, I’ll get to enjoy breakfast fare in the press dining room, which I am told includes Eggs Benedict a la Babe Ruth (poached egg on an English muffin and hollandaise sauce, topped with a broiled horse shank).

I’m already feeling my fatigue, but it should still be a fascinating time. The Yankees always do a terrific job of assembling a memorable roster for these occasions. The usual Hall of Famers will be in attendance — Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, and Reggie Jackson — but I’m looking forward to talking to a couple of the first-timers, “Hit Man” Mike Easler and relief ace Lindy McDaniel. It’s fascinating that the former relief ace is making his first trip back at the age of 73. He played with many future Hall of Famers in a career that covered 21 seasons and three decades, and was an important part of the lost-years Yankees just before George Steinbrenner bought the club. He was then traded for Lou Piniella, which turned out to be one of the bigger robberies in franchise history. Luckily for me, most of the writers will be more concerned with more recent players who are returning for the first time, fellows like Chad Curtis and Charlie Hayes. I typically get the literal old timers to myself, and that’s the way I like it.

The Yankees had Babe Ruth for 15 seasons. They won seven pennants. 15-7=8. The Yankees had the best player in baseball by a country mile, and sometimes the two best players, but they still went home in October more than half the time. In 1920 they had Ruth and the best pitching staff in the league, but the non-Babe parts of the offense were weak. The same thing could be said of the 1924 offense, plus the pitching staff was just decent, not great, and the club got beaten by a Senators team that had one of the great pitching staffs of the period. Ruth missed half the season in 1925, the offense couldn’t pick up the slack (even with Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Earle Combs having good years), and the pitching staff was just mediocre. From 1929 to 1931, the Yankees were outclassed by a dominant A’s team that couldn’t hit with them but had by far the better pitching staff (there is no Lefty Grove in the history of the Yankees, nor, with the possible exception of Ron Guidry in 1978 and a couple of Lefty Gomez seasons, any starting pitcher who is even close). Weak pitching was again the problem in 1933. The staff began to come around in 1934, but not enough to win a pennant.


After the Angels’ sweep, I’m out of the prediction business for awhile…

Tigers 12-7 4.7 4.3 .260 .325 .444 9 5 1.1 3.7 7.7
Yankees 13-7 6.1 5.0 .285 .375 .465 13 7 1.2 3.1 7.3

The 2009 Yankees are not unlike those 1929-1931 Yankees that couldn’t beat out the A’s. They can scorch the ball anywhere, but their pitching staff does the same favor for the opposition. The Tigers do not have a good offense, and are hitting a tragically weak .245/.307/.395 on the road, averaging 4.1 runs a game while doing so. If they start blasting balls into outer space during this series, you not only have further proof of YS II’s pinball qualities, but also of the state of the pitching staff. .. Watch out for Curtis Granderson, a career .291/.408/.523 hitter against the Yankees.

Jorge to the shelf

…Or so it’s being reported. See the previous entry for more reaction, something akin to outright disgruntlement. The key here is how long Jorge Posada will be out. If it’s going to be more than a month, Mr. Cashman had best start shopping, and not in the superannuated Pudge Rodriguez aisle of Catcher-Mart either.

Actually, I take that back. Even if Posada is out only the minimum 15 days, the Yankees need to find a backstop who can hit at something close to league-average rates. Given Posada’s age, the chance of another injury is high, this year and next year and for however long his career lasts. It’s nice that the Yankees have Yogi Berra, but they need an Elston Howard to get by as well, or at least a Charlie Silvera. They don’t have that, and it was an obvious need — we talked about it in this space all winter.

I just want to repeat something I wrote this morning, because I see in the comments for that entry someone talking about Jose Molina as the awesomest backup of all-time or somesuch thing. Not so much. There’s no arguing he’s a good defender and very tough for opponents to run on, but he just doesn’t reach base enough to play with any regularity. Reaching base is the basis of offense — a team can’t score runs if the hitters don’t reach base. Molina’s career OBP is .277. It is, no matter how you slice it, dice it, adjust it, the 11th-worst OBP of the last 25 years.

Remember Alvaro Espinoza and how little he hit? He reached base more often. Alfredo Griffin once took four walks in a full season of play. He reached base more often. Rey Ordonez’s bat was the joke of the league when he played with the Mets. He reached base more often. You know how my YES colleague John Flaherty likes to make fun of his offensive abilities during many broadcasts? He reached base more often. If you reduce the population solely to catchers, Molina has the sixth-lowest OBP of the last 25 years.

Giving a hitter of this quality anything like regular playing time is extremely damaging regardless of his defense, because the offensive losses outweigh the defensive gains. If the Yankees are going to reap the benefits of having Posada, his bat, they’re going to have to find a better way of dealing with the costs of having Posada, occasional, perhaps lengthy, unavailability.

…The Yankees called up Frankie Cervelli. He seems spectacularly unlikely to hit, but might actually get on base more often than Molina. Yes, this is faint praise.

The Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere, their bullpen is egregious, and they don’t seem to have much use for 25-year-old backstop Miguel Montero, a career .239/.310/.412 hitter to this point. In 444 career at bats he’s hit 24 doubles and 17 home runs. He’s walked 44 times and has struck out 95 times. In the minors through 2006, he batted .291/.359/.467. He’s not the next Bill Dickey by any means, but he’s overqualified to be a pure reserve and is underappreciated by his current franchise. There might be a match there if the Yankees are willing to part with a pitcher or two. Just sayin’. 

Remembering Johnny Blanchard

johnnyblanchard_250.jpgFAREWELL, JOHNNY BLANCHARD
Johnny Blanchard had a tough road to the Major Leagues with the Yankees. Three things got in his way: Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and the United States government.

The lefty-swinging Blanchard turned pro as an 18 year old in 1951, and broke out the next year at Joplin, batting .301 and leading the league with 30 home runs and 112 RBI. It seemed like the Yankees had another potential impact player on their hands, but at that moment the military swooped in and claimed Blanchard for two years. These would be two crucial missed years in his development, as the Yankees were in the process of deciding if Blanchard was an outfielder or a catcher, and Blanchard could have used the time to cement his backstopping skills.

Instead, with the gap in training and the roadblocks that were Berra and Howard, Blanchard spent his time in the upper Minors both catching and playing the outfield — in the Majors he would prove to be a Casey Stengel-style super-sub, not only catching but playing first base, left field and right field as well. Though Stengel would only have Blanchard for parts of two seasons, and there was less room in Ralph Houk’s scheme for such players than there was in Stengel’s, the Old Man might have gotten Blanchard 400 plate appearances a year. Houk got him about 250, and it’s very difficult for a player to achieve any consistency in such sporadic playing time.

After his hitch, Blanchard picked up where he left off, at least offensively, batting .281 with a league-leading 34 home runs for Binghamton of the Eastern League in 1955. He got a brief call-up that September, but he seemed to stagnate a bit at that point. A return to what was essentially the Double A level at Birmingham didn’t do anything for his development, and a two-year stay at Denver in the American Association, while superficially productive, don’t impress given what we know about playing at altitude. The Yankees were seemingly not impressed either, or felt that with Berra and Howard there was simply no room, so Blanchard was 26 by the time he got a sustained shot at a Major League job. Even as Berra began to transition to part-time catching and outfield work, there weren’t many opportunities to play. Blanchard was set to have been baseball’s greatest power-hitting bullpen catcher.

This would be how he was remembered if he hadn’t had such a terrific season for the 1961 Yankees. He was an important part of that championship, a 109-53 ballclub, batting .305/.382/.613 and socking 21 home runs in just 243 at-bats. Everything went right for him. He killed the ball whenever he started, and though not a great pinch-hitter in his career, he was great that year, going 7-for-26 with four home runs. On July 21, 22 and 26 he set a record by homering in four consecutive at-bats — a ninth inning pinch-hit grand slam at Fenway Park that erased an 8-7 deficit, another ninth-inning shot the next day, this one a solo shot that tied the game at 9-9 (the Yankees would go up 11-10 later in the inning and win the game). Houk didn’t find a reason to use Blanchard in the next four games, but he started on the 26th at home against the White Sox and pitcher Ray Herbert. Blanchard batted fifth behind Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. After Mantle hit a two-run shot in the first, Blanchard followed him with a solo shot of his own. That was home run No. 3. The fourth game leading off the fourth inning. Not bad work for a part-time player.

Blanchard also had a terrific World Series in 1961. In Game 3 he pinch-hit for the pitcher in the top of the eighth with the Yankees trailing, 2-1. A solo shot changed that, allowing for a Maris shot leading off the top of the ninth to give the Yankees a decisive 3-2 lead. With Mantle hurting, Blanchard started Game 5 in right field, batting cleanup. The game was all Yankees, going into the books as a 13-5 victory. Blanchard keyed the rampage with a two-run homer in the first, and added two other hits in the ballgame.

You might imagine, and Blanchard might have imagined too, that ’61 would have meant more playing time, or at least more of a regular platoon role, but it didn’t work out that way. Howard and Berra were still around, and Houk didn’t see Blanchard as an asset behind the plate anyway, largely shifting him to the outfield in subsequent seasons. Simultaneously, the big home runs of ’61 worked against Blanchard’s approach at the plate. “I was going for the downs, swinging for the long ball,” he told Peter Golenbock. “I’m not up there to punch the ball around. No, I didn’t need that.” This did mean more home runs — he hit 29 in 464 at-bats split across 1962 and 1963, but it also meant that he hit only .228; a line drive might be caught or land safely, but a fly ball that doesn’t leave the park is almost always an out.

Blanchard’s approach also meant the end of his pinch-hitting prowess. Few players are consistent in that role, but Blanchard’s big swing seemed to ensure that he wouldn’t be one of the few who are. He batted .120 as a pinch-hitter in 1962, .071 in 1963, and .258 in 1964, albeit with just one home run. He barely played in the last three World Series of the Yankees dynasty. In May, 1965, he and pitcher Rollie Sheldon were dealt to the Kansas City Athletics for the punchless reserve catcher Doc Edwards. It was a pure giveaway, one that exemplifies just how emphasis was placed on batting average in those days; despite the low averages, inability to hit left-handers, and lack of definitive position, Blanchard’s power and versatility made him a very useful player, particularly at Yankee Stadium. Even as his career with the Yankees declined, he still had his moments. When Maris went out of the lineup in mid-1963, Blanchard got most of the starts in right field, batting .302/.357/.603 with six home runs and 17 RBI in 17 games.

His was not a great career, and on another team, it might not have been a particularly memorable one, but the great thing about the Yankees is that they’ve had so many spotlight moments that players like Blanchard, who never established themselves as stars in the traditional sense, were still able to become historic players through their important roles in the pageant of 26 championships. Blanchard goes to his reward in good company, and the Yankees were in good company with him.

Those of you who live in the glorious Garden State, tomorrow beginning at 6 p.m., Jay Jaffe, Cliff Corcoran and I will be appearing at the Rutgers University Bookstore (Ferren Mall,
One Penn Plaza, New Brunswick, N.J. — just across the street from the train station, for anyone who wants to take mass transit) to talk baseball and sign books and veal cutlets. We will also be joined by my pal Allen Barra, whose biography of Yogi Berra I have already recommended to you. He’ll be signing those too, I imagine. If I know Allen and myself it will be a fun, rambling evening of baseball talk. Hope to see you then, because after that I plan to wrap myself in blankets for awhile and heal up my annual tour cold — and write more! More! More! More!