My stat of choice is again VORP, which answers the musical question, “How many runs above the theoretical journeyman Triple-A player did the player contribute?” VORP does not include defense, but we’ll talk about that.
Remember that this is just a ballpark estimate. On any given day, Player B can be better than Player A, even if Player A is the best player overall.
RYAN HOWARD (47.7 VORP, 9th among 1Bs) vs. MARK TEIXEIRA (54.7, 5th)
Let’s begin with the obvious. A switch-hitter, Teixeira is a career .281/.371/.547 hitter against right-handed pitchers and a career .309/.394/.537 hitter against left-handed pitchers. A left-handed hitter, Howard is a career .307/.409/.661 hitter against right-handed pitchers. That’s not a typo: he slugs a Ruthian .661 against righties, with a home run every 10 at-bats. Left-handed pitchers are a different story. He’s a career .226/.310/.444 hitter against them, striking out about 40 percent of the time, with a home run every 18 at-bats. This year was worse than the norm, with Howard slumping to .207/.298/.356 against left-handers, hitting just six homers in 222 at-bats against them (while slugging .691 against righties).
Some would say that this makes Howard a platoon player who has been overextended into a regular role. I would argue that in most years his home run rate against southpaws still works out to 30 over a full season, so he would still be worth playing against the majority of southpaws. Still, Howard’s potency can be greatly reduced by employing left-handed pitchers against him, and he’s the one player where Joe Girardi can enjoy his Coffee Joe propensities to their fullest extent. With the exception of Mariano Rivera, there is no time after, say, the fifth inning that Howard should be allowed to face a right-hander.
Howard gets a bad rap on defense, but he’s not Dick Stuart out there. He’s also not Teixeira, but there’s some decent ground in between those two extremes. One interesting difference between the two is that playing in the National League, Howard had to do a lot more throwing than Teixeira, fielding 21 bunts to Teixeira’s five. Despite showing great range off the bag, Teixeira somehow did less throwing this year than at any other time in his career. Still, the quality of Teixeira’s defense shows in where he threw the ball. Though he had only 49 assists, 29 of them were on plays away from first base, whereas Howard, though he had 95 assists, had only 26 plays away from first base.
There aren’t many better hitters against right-handed pitching than Howard. Teixeira, assuming he can finally dig out of his postseason slump, is the more versatile offensive and defensive package. This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but if the Yankees aren’t careful about how they handle Howard, this could easily go the other way.
CHASE UTLEY (61.7, 1st) vs. ROBINSON CANO (50.3, 3rd)
Though he’s been a four-time All-Star, Utley is one of the game’s great unsung players, an MVP-quality player on a great team that has never won an MVP award, or even come close. He hits for average, for power, takes a goodly number of walks, pumps his on-base percentage with 25 HBPs a year and is also one of the best baserunners in the game. A left-handed hitter, lefty pitchers only slow him down a little, and his offense isn’t a product of Citizens Bank Park. On the flipside, offseason hip surgery — he had A-Rod’s problem, but went through the whole surgery rather than the partial treatment Rodriguez successfully pursued — may have dragged his defense down from superb to merely above average.
Cano had his best year in the Majors save for a glaring problem hitting with men on. Cano can fire off line drives almost at will, leading to his strong batting averages, but he forgets himself in important situations, widening his already generous strike zone. This leads to swings with less than his usual authority. It has been a career-long problem. To Cano’s credit, after a tough start to the postseason, he came up with some important hits in the last three games of the ALCS. Cano has vastly improved as a fielder over the years, but lapses of concentration are still an occasional problem. Charlie Manuel would do well to remember that southpaw relievers don’t trouble Cano too much. EDGE: PHILLIES.
PEDRO FELIZ (3.5, 29th) vs. ALEX RODRIGUEZ (52.3, 4th)
Due to a hot start to the season, Feliz hit about as well as he’s capable of these days and even drew the second-highest walk total of his career, but he’s still a glove man who gave his team very little with the bat. He hit .323 in April, then gradually cooled, or maybe it’s better to say he melted, then evaporated, hitting just .225/.254/.367 over the final two months. The Phillies can buy out the last $5 million of Feliz’s contract for $500,000, and given that he’ll turn 35 next year and hasn’t come close to even average production since 2004, they might give it some serious thought if they can identify an alternative. Feliz is a career .252/.288/.417 hitter against right-handers. Normally sort of competent against lefties, he slumped to .208/.278/.385 against them. Feliz has been a poor postseason hitter in his career, and although he did hit a triple and a home run against the Dodgers, it seems unlikely he’ll turn into Jeff Mathis in this series. As for Alex Rodriguez and his recent accomplishments, I think you know about them.
JIMMY ROLLINS (19.3, 10th) vs. DEREK JETER (72.8, 2nd)
“J-Roll” gets treated like a star player, but he’s not one. Because he’s a durable leadoff hitter who never walks, he bats more than anyone else (including, in 2007, more often than anyone in history). Because he hits the ball with authority in those many at-bats, he piles up high totals in the counting stats, lots of hits, doubles, and triples. It pays to remember that all those extra-base hits are diffused through that crazy number of plate appearances, and that at his best he’s below average at getting on base. This year he hit the ball in the air more, but he’s not really a power hitter and the change dropped his batting average to .250. Since batting average makes up most of his on-base percentage, his OBP dropped to a miserable .296, especially crippling for a leadoff hitter. Rollins did come on a bit in the second half, hitting .272/.306/.495, but these numbers shine only in comparison to his pathetic .229/.287/.355 first half. He posted a .266 OBP against lefties this year, but that hasn’t always been his pattern — i.e. Coffee Joe shouldn’t decide Rollins merits the Chone Figgins treatment. Parenthetically, did Figgins play his way out of the Yankees’ rumored plans with his 3-for-23 during the 30 Days of ALCS? Let’s hope so.
Rollins has won two Gold Gloves, but he’s not going to remind you of Ozzie Smith — he’s okay, not great. Add in that he has not hit at all this postseason (and didn’t hit much in the last two either) and the guy playing opposite him is an annual Fall hero who is coming off a great year, one he’s continued into the postseason, and (bonus) is currently at his best with the glove and you have an EDGE: YANKEES.
Catchers, outfield, managers, Game 1 and 2 starters and a prediction.
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.
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
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
The only complaint you might make about A.J. Burnett’s last four starts is that he started his hot streak five days after he lasted less than three innings against the Red Sox. Other than that little complaint, he’s 3-1 with 28.1 innings pitched, 16 hits, 12 walks, 33 strikeouts, and an ERA of 0.95. With the exception of the aforementioned start at Fenway on June 9, all of his starts going back to May 27 have been of the quality variety, six innings or more, three earned runs or less. The one loss came courtesy of the offense and an ill-timed, game-ending Robinson Cano groundball double play (some themes just keep reinforcing themselves, even if I don’t want to go there). Burnett basically can’t get any better except to conquer the Red Sox, but he won’t get another shot at them until August. For now, he’ll make one more start before the All-Star break, presumably Wednesday night at Minnesota.
I don’t know if a guy who is 7-4 with a 3.83 ERA will merit a look for the All-Star game pitching staff, but Burnett would be nicely set up to pitch that game, as his next start after the Twins’ appearance would fall during the break. For what it’s worth, he’s fifth in the AL in strikeouts, and if he wins on Wednesday he’d be in the top three in wins.
THE KEY TO HUGHES
… And maybe Joba Chamberlain as well. There was a lot of discussion of Jimmy Key on today’s YES broadcast of the Yankees game, a natural given that Key split most of his career between the two teams doing battle. Key, it was acknowledged, had a great career, one that would have been even better had it not been cut short by arm problems. This is inarguably true. Key was a four-time All-Star, had three top-five Cy Young award finishes, led his league in ERA, strikeouts and wins, had terrific control, and generally posted ERAs that were well ahead of the league average. He pitched on six postseason teams, two of which won the World Series. Key won’t be going to the Hall of Fame, but he had a very successful, memorable career.
The one aspect of Key’s career that wasn’t discussed was how he started it. The answer is, “in the bullpen.” A third-round pick in the 1982 draft, Key was a starter all the way through a brief Minor League career that saw him make the Blue Jays out of Spring Training in 1984. Manager Bobby Cox and general manager Pat Gillick never saw fit to give him a start that year. Instead, he made 63 appearances out of the bullpen. He was up and down in terms of results, as rookies often are, but he finished the season strong, putting up a 2.93 ERA in the last two months, and in 1985 he made the move to the starting rotation. Not coincidentally, the Blue Jays improved their record by 10 games and won the AL East.
Key is just one of dozens of successful starting pitchers who broke in this way. For this reason it’s always a little humorous when commentators and fans act nervous about pitching Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, or, for that matter, promoting Chamberlain out of it. Every pitcher is different, so there’s no ironclad rule that says, “Jimmy Key did it, so it must be okay,” but you can point to more stories like Key’s than you can the other kind, the one where a pitcher was somehow destroyed by the diversion into relief work.
Cue up the hype machine, because the 19-year-old mutant slugger in the making homered in his fourth straight game on Thursday. He’s now batting .325/.395/.571 with five home runs in 21 games at Double-A Trenton. He’s also thrown in nine walks, which is actually a better rate than he had down in the Florida State League. Combine his numbers for the two levels and you get a teenager who is batting .346/.403/.580 in 69 games. Here’s the best thing about the numbers: Trenton is a tough place to hit. Jesus Montero is hitting “only” .314/.368/.457 with one home run there. On the road, the Boy Wonder is batting .333/.417/.667 with four home runs in 42 at-bats. In other words, the numbers are artificially depressed.
This is getting ahead of things, but let’s dream: With a strong conclusion to the season at Trenton, Montero will be in a good position to get a long look from the Major League staff in spring training next year. He would then be a hot streak and an injury away from a call to Scranton. His position is still a problem — Montero threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at Tampa. He’s done a bit better at Trenton, with a 28 percent caught stealing rate, but it’s early days yet. Despite this, if Montero’s bat is ready, the Yankees could use him at the designated hitter spot with occasional spot starts at catcher against those teams that are less inclined to run.
With Hideki Matsui likely to leave town after the season, they’ll have the opening on the roster and a chance to save some money by using a young player in the spot. This is something that teams are generally reluctant to do, as there seems to be the thought that if you let a young guy DH you’re hurting his chances of someday developing into Ozzie Smith. That seems like an unnecessary worry in Montero’s case.
LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN, 1947 STYLE
A couple of data bits got dropped in yesterday’s entry on Robinson Cano. I’m going to put them in here a bit differently and hope they make it past my normally reliable interlocutors. First, the top ten batters in percentage of runners driven in:
NAME ROB %
Joey Votto 118 .237
Joe Mauer 124 .234
Todd Helton 190 .232
Hanley Ramirez 197 .218
Albert Pujols 216 .218
Prince Fielder 249 .217
Bobby Abreu 185 .216
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 100 .210
Evan Longoria 225 .209
Brad Hawpe 206 .209
Next, the batters with the highest percentage of double plays per double play situation:
NAME DP SIT DP DP%
Yadier Molina 41 12 26.8
Mike Lowell 58 15 25.9
Jose Guillen 45 11 24.4
Geovany Soto 50 13 24
Fernando Tatis 42 13 23.8
Chase Headley 47 12 23.4
Austin Kearns 48 11 22.9
Delmon Young 44 10 22.7
Magglio Ordonez 53 14 22.6
Bill Hall 45 10 22.2
Robinson Cano 50 11 22
And now you don’t have to look it up. You also don’t have to look up the fact that, after yesterday’s break for a left-handed pitcher, Cano is back batting fifth again today. As I said in yesterday’s entry, this isn’t the end of the world–lineup variations are vastly overrated, and the Yankees are currently seven for their last seven games. That said, the argument about the batting order is worth having, because although these differences may not be writ large, they can still show up in all kinds of small ways. The Yankees have played 19 one-run games and are 10-9 in those contests. There are more close games coming, and if the Yankees are going to put those in the win column they’ll need every extra run they can get.
The current win streak is a good thing, but shouldn’t be overrated–you’re never as good as you look when you’re winning. At exactly this time 62 years ago, the Yankees reeled off the greatest winning streak in team history to that point, and maybe since then. On June 29, 1947, the Yankees lost the first game of a doubleheader to the Washington Senators. At that moment they were 39-26. That’s a pretty good record, good for a 92-win pace then and a 97-win pace now. In either era, it might be good enough to get you postseason spot in a down year for your league or division, but you’re not dominating, not doing an impression of the 1927 or 1998 Yankees.
The Yankees took the second game of that twin bill, and didn’t look back again for almost three weeks. They won 19 straight games. They swept five series and took both ends of six doubleheaders. They outscored their opponents 119-41. They finally lost a game on July 18, when they were shut out by a good Tigers right-hander named Fred Hutchinson. Thanks to the streak, the race was for all intents over. The Yankees were up by 11.5 games. There were 70 games to go, but the Yankees weren’t going to play that lead back. That fall they won a famous, hotly contested World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was the one famous for Bill Bevens’ wild, not-quite no-hit start in Game 4.
Here’s the relevance to the 2009 Yankees: The 1947 team managed to toss the coin 19 times and have it come up heads over and over again. Before the streak they were a .600 team. During the streak, they were, obviously, a 1.000 team. What kind of team were they after the streak? The answer is that they went 39-31. That’s a .550 pace, the equivalent of 89 wins in a 162-game schedule, 85 wins in a 154-game schedule. It’s the same pace as the current Rays, Tigers, Angels, and Giants are on now–a pace good enough to lead one of the softer divisions, but not good enough, for say, the American League East of 2009. Despite the 19-game streak, overall, the 1947 Yankees were just a pretty good edition of the team. Some underlying weaknesses started causing problems the next season, they lost a close race, and fired the manager–but that’s another story.
The point is that a club can never take anything for granted when it’s trying to win, including interpreting a winning streak as meaning that you’re doing everything correctly. The ’47 Yankees didn’t, dealing for starting pitcher Bobo Newsom in the midst of the streak when an injury sidelined rookie righty Spec Shea. You can choose to look upon the discussion of the batting order as a kind of niggling cavil, but I figure that a team that wants to win a championship, that is behind the Red Sox and has yet to win a game against same, would want to pick up every extra hit, walk, and run that it can. The current winning streak is a great thing, but as the 1947 team shows, perfection isn’t perpetual, and can be followed by play that is merely above average. And above average might not win anything this year. Shuffling the batting order isn’t about disrespecting the present, but trying to optimize the club for the future.
GIRARDI VS. CANO
Joe Girardi is a polarizing figure for Yankees fans. It was inevitable that the first manager to guide the Yankees to a finish out of the postseason in what seems like a hundred years would become a lightning rod. Some decry his handling of the bullpen, others his love of small-ball tactics — the Yankees bunt often for a present-day American League team.
These criticisms are debatable; the bullpen has risen in effectiveness throughout the season, as weaker sisters have been weeded out (Tuesday’s game notwithstanding), and those Yankees that Girardi has asked to bunt are either those who don’t generate much offense anyway (Francisco Cervelli) or just might beat one out (Brett Gardner). The place where criticisms of Girardi find a more legitimate place are in his construction of the batting order.
Variations in the batting order are not terribly significant. They won’t ruin your season, but they can cost you a few runs on the margins. Since the manager’s job is to maximize his team’s performance, that is, to capture every run that he can, that the batting order is not a top-priority item is no excuse for putting out the best one possible.
For reasons that aren’t obvious, Girardi has fallen in love with Robinson Cano as his fifth place hitter. Cano has started 46 of the team’s 76 games in the No. 5 spot. In putting Cano there, Girardi has delivered Cano some very special plate appearances with runners on base. Mark Teixeira has seen the most baserunners of any Yankees hitter, but Cano is second, having seen just seven fewer runners. The problem is that despite a .300 average on the season, Cano is hitting only .254/.289/.415 with runners on and .213/.248/.340 with runners in scoring position. The offense is setting Cano up, but he isn’t knocking them down.
Another way of looking at Cano’s production with runners on is to consider the percentage of baserunners he’s driven in (statistics available at Baseball Prospectus). Cano has scored 30 of the 233 runners he’s seen. That’s 12.8 percent.
The American League average is 14 percent. It’s a small but significant failing. Three more runners driven in would get him to the league average. Were he carrying Jorge Posada’s rate of 17 percent, he would have driven in 10 more runners. Even with all of his struggles, Alex Rodriguez has driven in a greater percentage of his baserunners, 16.4 percent.
Intriguingly, no Yankee is among the league leaders. There are currently 308 hitters who have batted with 75 or more runners on base. The top 10 in percentage of runners driven in:
Posada is the top Yankee, 53rd on the list.
Cano compounds his impatience and failure to hit with runners on base with groundball hitting tendencies that lead to double plays. Cano ranks 11th among Major League hitters who have batted in 30 or more double play situations:
This makes Cano a less than ideal RBI man, but since Girardi chooses to emphasize him in the order, his deficiencies trouble the Yankees far more often than they need to. Of course, it might be hard for Girardi to truly admit the damaging consequences of all those double plays. After all, he holds the team record for hitting into double plays, banging into 17 twin killings in 50 chances in 1999. In the 55 years for which we have records, no one else has come close.
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.
The 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.
STRANGE DAYS INDEED
Good evening, campers. I spent part of my day in a drawer undergoing a PET scan. I must have been a very troubled sweater in a former life because once in my overwhelming instinct is to get out. The good news is that I am out and that this sweater was given a clean bill, freeing what remains of my brain to consider baseball again.
The 1927 Yankees went 21-1 against the St. Louis Browns, one of two doormat teams in the league that season. Given the outcome of the late series with the Nationals, it is apparent that this ain’t 1927. Ironically, given the focus on pitching this year, starting and bullpen, the failure was largely offensive — when you score two runs in two games, you’re not going to beat anyone. There has been something like an obsessive grabbing onto the supposed fact that the Yankees supposedly can’t beat a pitcher they’ve never seen before, but that isn’t the issue so much as the absence of Derek Jeter from the lineup both nights, the absence of Jorge Posada in another, and the cooling bats of certain key players. Nor should we ignore the randomness of fate — if Robbie Cano had put the ball in play in any way other than where he did on Wednesday, the Yankees would have taken two of three games and the series would not have held such a bitter aftertaste.
Now comes the news that Alex Rodriguez will be taking two days off, his first since coming off of the disabled list. The way Joe Girardi has handled Rodriguez has been strange — you have a player coming off of a major injury, who was given an incomplete fix for that injury. That would seem to require handling with kid gloves whether the player liked it or not. There is, I think, a mutual enabling going on here, where Rodriguez did not ask out until now, and Girardi, who knows who he would have to list at third base in the alternative, did not ask him to sit out. Girardi’s job, after all, is to win today, and the way Rodriguez hit initially, quickly piling up nine home runs, was helping him do that. Perhaps Girardi needs to think more globally than that, but given that just a few weeks ago there were rumors about his job security, it might be impossible for him to do so.
The fault lies not in the stars but in the front office, which never gave Girardi a viable A-Rod substitute once it was clear that the player required surgery. Cody Ransom bombed and got hurt, Angel Berroa offers nothing in the way of offense or defense, and Ramiro Pena, while a very good glove, is not a hitter. Scranton’s roster is clogged with the likes of Eric Duncan, Justin Leone, Chris Malec, and a rehabbing Ransom, none of whom could be misconstrued as Major League regulars on the darkest of nights. Trenton’s third baseman is Marcos Vechionacci, who shed his prospect status what seems like eons ago.
Given this dearth of viable hot corner men and a clear need for hot corner men, it was incumbent upon the front office to make a deal for a viable Rodriguez substitute. Recently, I have been inveighing against the team making a hasty trade for a reliever, bringing up Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. The reverse of this is that giving up Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell is never a bad thing, and if you can’t get a Bagwell, any Tom, Dick, or DeRosa will do. It’s not a move anyone would want to make given a choice, but the Yankees have had a very finely balanced operation so far, and there is every reason to think that such a move will keep paying dividends. Rodriguez’s recovery may be lengthy, and his swing may continue to be affected. His energy level may continue to be low. His range has clearly been affected, suggesting an ongoing need for a late-inning substitute. Plus, there may be other injuries to other players.
The Yankees are now 10-7 in one-run games. They could just as easily be 7-10 — that’s the way one-run games work. They are basically coin flips. As we saw on Wednesday, one-run games can turn on one key double play, one missed opportunity. Either you get the big hit or the big out or you don’t. When the Yankees have to rely on an Angel Berroa, today, tomorrow and in the future, they’re reducing the chances that they will get that big hit or make that diving stop.
If you’re going to go through the season without winning a game over the Red Sox, you’d better win every game that you can. They didn’t do this in the Nationals series. Without some help for A-Rod, they might not do it in the future. This is no time for the usual blithe assumptions that a no-name player will rise to the occasion, Rey Sanchez- or Luis Sojo-style. The time to go hunt down a safety net is now.
Twins 6, Tigers 5: It has to be special for the Tigers when Justin Verlander strikes out 13 in 6.1 innings and they still lose. The Yankees get to face a Twins team emboldened by a dramatic sweep of their divisional rivals, including a walk-off grand slam on Wednesday and the explosive uprising against Verlander on Thursday. The good news is that the three pitchers the Yankees get, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey, have all been beatable this year, so while the Twins have a number of hot hitters right now, especially Joe Mauer, on the rampage since he finally got healthy, they may be able to beat these fellows by putting the ball in play (walks are a different matter — Blackburn and Slowey don’t do walks). It would also be good for the Yankees if Phil Coke is healthy, because some spot southpaw relief against Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel could go a long way in this series. Could Zach Kroenke be helpful, maybe as a court of last resort?
Brewers 5, Marlins 3: Almost unnoticed, the Marlins have dropped a game under .500. I’m still waiting for a word or two from some colleagues who prematurely jumped onto the fish cart. Nothing wrong with the Marlins that surrounding Hanley Ramirez with a real team wouldn’t solve… Trevor Hoffman still hasn’t allowed a run, has eight saves. It’s just nine innings, but it’s always good to see an older Hall of Famer do well.
Dodgers 5, Phillies 3: Russell Martin is 17-for-36 this month. It’s pretty much all singles, but every little bit helps when your Manny has gone… The Phillies lost, but the game held some very glad tidings for them, as they got a terrific start from Cole Hamels. If they’re going to win, he has to be healthy and at the top of his game… Who turned off Chase Utley? He’s having Robby Cano’s May.
Rangers 3, Mariners 2: Matt Harrison has had four solid starts in a row, including consecutive complete game wins. In his last 30 innings, he’s struck out just 18, which is a problem, but he’s also walked two, which isn’t. Chris Davis hit a walk-off shot off of Brandon Morrow (Morrow the closer isn’t working out, and Morrow the starter isn’t going to happen, that leaves Morrow… the deep-sea explorer? ), and even if he does strike out 210 times this year, we all gave up on him too early.
Cubs 11, Padres 3: It’s just a reflection of how bad the Padres are, but it’s still somehow impressive that the Cubs can be reduced to playing their B team (Soriano, Theriot, Fukudome, Hoffpauir, Soto, Reed Johnson, Scales, Miles) and yet still were able to score 11 runs. Ten walks in a regulation game will help with that. Meanwhile, Adrian Gonzalez hit his 14 home run, Kyle Blanks waits in the minors, and which contender needs a first baseman badly enough that they would restart the Padres in exchange for one? If the Giants went for it, they could sure make things tough on the Dodgers…
Astros 5, Rockies 3: In fairness to Ed Wade and his various man-crushes, I’m obligated to report that Michael Bourn is currently batting .317/.382/.439. If that’s not just dumb luck, then someone should give hitting coach Sean Berry a Man of the Year award. Of course, the same could be said for the Yankees and Melky Cabrera. Note also Wandy Rodriguez’s terrific start (4-2, 1.90 ERA, 48 strikeouts in 52 innings) and that LaTroy Hawkins just picked up his fifth save. Perhaps the Yankees should have been more patient.
Angels 5, Red Sox 4: Sure it was a 12-inning game, but one so rarely sees a hitter go 0-for-7 and leave 12 runners on base. That the hitter in question was David Ortiz has to be disturbing for the Royal Rooters. The Red Sox are in a delicate place, but at some point they’re going to have to shuffle things around. It would no doubt be easier if Kevin Youkilis was healthy, and perhaps Ortiz will get that much longer to turn things around. Papi is an all-time team great, but even team greats can’t stick through .208/.318/.300… The Angels got Ervin Santana back, giving them another weapon towards making a run at this very soft division.
Cardinals 5, Pirates 1: The Pirates score once on 12 hits, a double, a triple, and three walks. They hit into three double plays and were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. Scary Fly Ball Guy Jeff Karstens gave up a Scary Fly Ball to Colby Rasmus and that was decisive. The Pirates are now six games under .500. All credit to the oversized Cardinals bullpen, which shut down the opposition after starter Mitch Boggs was pulled in the fifth.
Indians 11, Rays 7: Three of the runs were unearned, but make no mistake, James Shields was pounded, as were those famed explorers Nelson & Balfour. There’s still a run in the Rays, but lately it’s harder to believe that it’s coming…. Victor Martinez’s 4-for-5 raised his average to .400. It seems like the odd day at first base has been liberating for him. Note the Indians still playing around with their defensive alignment. Would have been nice to have gotten this sorted out during spring training, when everyone was asking, “Hey, Eric, when are you going to get around to sorting this out?”
Orioles 9, Royals 5: All I can think of just now is, “Matt Wieters is batting .280/.368/.500 in May.” Oh, and Kyle Farnsworth pitched a scoreless inning of relief down by four runs.
Mets 7, Giants 4: A roller coaster ride of a game in which the Mets stole approximately 46 bases (are they trying to show up ol’ Bengie Molina?) but still finished the game chasing after their own bullpen, just like old times. David Wright stole four bases, continuing his unexpected transformation from Mike Schmidt to Paul Molitor. Sure, he’s been caught stealing in six of 15 attempts, but in at least one of those the umpire really blew the call, so it’s all working out okay. Really! My XM receiver ran out of juice in the car today, so I spent some time listening to sports talk radio for the first time in awhile. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar David Wright. It’s unfortunate that he’s signed through 2012 or 2013 (the latter season a team option), because I feel for player and fans alike that they won’t be rid of each other any time soon.
OK, NOW THAT WE’VE GOT HALLADAY OUT OF THE WAY …
Roy Halladay has made 31 career starts against the Yankees in his career, or about one full season’s worth. With last night’s victory, his record against them improved to 16-5 with a 2.79 ERA. In 216 1/3 career innings, he’s allowed 190 hits, walked 47, and struck out 167. He’s thrown five complete games and hurled two shutouts. Halladay’s three best teams are the Tigers, Orioles and Yankees. One of these things is not like the other.
For the Yankees, losing to Halladay was the closest thing to an inevitability in this series. Now they have to face Scott Richmond, a 29-year-old righty with 11 career appearances under his belt. Though he is 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA, he’s also had a great deal of luck so far. He’s a fly-ball pitcher who has already allowed a fair number of home runs. Combine that with an unimpressive walk rate and mix thoroughly, and the recipe should produce some crooked numbers. It hasn’t so far, because despite the walks, Richmond has held opposing batters to a .222 average — this despite another unimpressive stat, his rate of line drives allowed. I know this is a bit stat-heady, but stick with me for a moment: Line drives are hits the vast majority of the time. A high number of balls in play against Richmond are line drives, ergo there should be a high number of hits to go with them. In Richmond’s case, there aren’t. Opposing batters are hitting just .245 on balls in play, a rate that’s way, way below average — the league average on balls in play is .305. That suggests that Richmond has had a great deal of good luck so far, with balls practically taking sharp turns and honing their way into fielders’ mitts.
If this suggests to you that the Yankees could rampage around the Rogers Centre tonight, you’re right, but only sort of. With the Yankees order being so dramatically depleted — tonight’s order has Robby Cano batting fifth, Melky Cabrera batting sixth, Brett Gardner seventh, Ramiro Pena eighth, and Frankie Cervelli ninth — they may not have the firepower to rampage over a mound of Jell-O. Oh, those injuries, oh, that lack of second-line talent. This has been a recurrent theme since 2000, a direct contributor (to borrow a title from Buster Olney) to the last night of the Yankee dynasty, and a major issue in most seasons since. With the June draft almost upon us, it might be worth asking if anything in the Yankees’ player procurement and development philosophy has changed given these problems, but this isn’t really the draft to be asking about, given that they vented their picks on free-agent compensation.
Oh well. The more things change the more they stay the same. Perhaps no one drafting in the 900 picks ahead of the Yankees will want to meet Stephen Strasburg’s price of $50 gabooblebillion and he’ll fall out of the first 17 rounds to whenever the Yankees finally get to pick … Nah, won’t happen. Still, at this stage the Yankees could do just as well with a bunch of league-average outfielders. That seems almost like a bigger dream than projecting a Strasburgian Icarus act on draft day.
MORE OF ME …
… Later on. In the meantime, a transcript of yesterday’s chat is available in the lobby.
OPENING DAY U-TURN
The pomp of the first Opening Day at Yankee Stadium: The Sequel was all well and good, but in the end the club has to execute. The Yankees confronted a 2-7 Indians club led by Cliff Lee, a potential flash in the pan who had been thoroughly mistreated by his every opponent in Spring Training and his first two starts. The Yankees bowed, in part because the offense stranded 27 runners, in part because Jose Veras and Damaso Marte (who hasn’t been the same pitcher with the Yankees he was prior) played arsonist, and if you’re looking for a third culprit, point to CC Sabathia, who negated his ability to throw 120 pitches by burning through them in less than six innings.
Thanks the amazing nine-run seventh inning pitched by Veras and Marte, pitching will receive the bill for this afternoon’s debacle, but the offense could have changed the complexion of the game at any time. Despite getting the first hit at YS: TS, Johnny Damon stranded five runners. Despite hitting the first home run at YS: TS, Jorge Posada stranded six. Special credit must go to Cody Ransom. Ransom’s first at-bat came in the second inning with one out and Robby Cano at second base. The third baseman struck out. In his next at-bat, in the bottom of the fourth, he batted with Hideki Matsui on first base and flew out to right field. He came to the plate again in the fifth with runners on first and third. He grounded to short. Runners were on first and second with two outs in the bottom of the seventh when Ransom struck out again. Finally, with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees just looking for some dignity, or maybe a miracle comeback, Ransom grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. He left nine runners on base, and presumably because the Yankees are carrying 13 pitchers and no bench players, Joe Girardi let him.
The Yankees’ 5-5 start is discouraging, but it’s not as depressing as is Ransom’s first 10 games as A-Rod substitute. Ransom is not a kid. He’s a 33-year-old vet. He has had six shots at a big league career since 2001 without ever catching on. We are likely looking at his last chance to have at least a single season in the major leagues, first as Alex Rodriguez’s substitute, then as his caddy. The odds were against Ransom succeeding, because his long experience in the minors showed that he would not hit with enough consistency. Despite this, his small-sample hot streak of last fall gave hope that he could make it. This is the kind of player who is great fun to root for. Unfortunately, Ransom is now 3-for-30 with 10 strikeouts, and it is difficult to see how the Yankees can afford to keep playing him, however quickly A-Rod is expected to come back, or even how they can retain him on the Major League roster once Rodriguez is active. Thursday’s defeat had many fathers, but any kind of contribution from Ransom early on might have meant a different complexion to the game.
Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano, the rest of the offense has yet to click into gear. The Swisher-free components of the outfield have been a total loss, and there’s a danger that that could be a season-long affliction. Hideki Matsui has looked very sluggish, and Mark Teixeira’s wrist and penchant for slow starts has crippled his numbers. Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have hung in, but four bats is well short of an offensive load. Take out the 11 runs the Yankees scored against Baltimore in the third game of the season and the club is averaging just 4.2 runs of offense per game. You don’t want to hit the panic button after 10 games, and some of the elements will heat up a bit, even Ransom — but heat is relative. They may not heat up enough to make a truly potent offense. That’s something that Brian Cashman is going to have to watch.
Sailor Bob Shawkey was the first starting pitcher at Yankee Stadium, and CC Sabathia will go down as the first at YS: TS. What was not noted today was that Sailor Bob’s history with the Yankees was contentious. After a very good, just-south-of-Cooperstown career, Shawkey became the manager of the Yankees in 1930, replacing Miller Huggins, who had died during the previous season. The club went 86-68, finishing third, and Shawkey was viewed as a failure because former teammates like Babe Ruth wouldn’t take him all that seriously (one wonders who Ruth did take seriously). In an especially coldhearted move, the Yankees replaced Shawkey with Joe McCarthy but didn’t bother telling him. Shawkey happened to walk into GM Ed Barrow’s office as McCarthy was heading out and put two and two together. “It was a dirty deal,” Shawkey said. In anticipation of Yogi Berra years later, Shawkey cut off all contact with the team. He didn’t return until the threw out the first pitch at the renovated Yankee Stadium — 45 years later. He was 85 years old.
I wonder if the opening day crowd of 2054 will get to see a first pitch from a 73-year-old Sabathia. Try to hang on if you can. I’ll try too, and we’ll talk about it then.
Always interesting to see who gets a hand and who doesn’t when players are announced individually. There wasn’t even polite applause for Indians coach Joel Skinner, who caught for the Yankees for three seasons. I guess fans have forgotten his amazing inability to make contact — in 556 at-bats with the Yankees he struck out 158 times, hitting .214/.299/.253. In comparison to Skinner, Jose Molina is Mickey Cochrane. Maybe they do remember, but are still mad that the Yankees gave up Ron Hassey for him…
…They definitely remembered Carl Pavano. That was clear.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
- Another depressing bit: many fans and pundits held out hope that this would be the year that Royals’ third baseman Alex Gordon really took off. Instead, he’s headed for surgery with a cartilage tear in his right hip. No word on when he’ll be back as of yet.
- I keep forgetting to mention Dewayne Wise separating his shoulder and thus exiting the Chicago White Sox’ lineup. He was another player, like Nady (though a far lesser talent than Nady), whose use I railed against. As with Nady, I’d rather he take a seat than take a surgeon…
- Unless Tony LaRussa gets caught taking betting tips from Pete Rose, he’s going to the Hall of Fame. If he manages to keep his Cardinals winning at anything like their present (8-3) rate with the roster he has, he’ll have gone an extra length towards earning his plaque. Of course, today’s game against the Cubs was their first against a team of any real talent.