The Vazquez discontents

    Thursday, April 15, 2010, 6:12 PM [General]

    You have to be very selective in your evidence if you want to conclude that Javier Vazquez cannot pitch in pinstripes. First, you have to overreact to his first two starts. Second, you have to read his 2004 record very carefully, overlooking inconvenient information. You can’t admit that his home record was 9-4 with a 4.13 ERA, versus 5-6 with a 5.79 ERA on the road, or that in the first half his record was 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA. You have to make a highly judgmental inference, that Vazquez suddenly became afraid somewhere in the middle of July, rather than admit the most likely possibility, which is that in the second half he was dealing with a transient but debilitating injury of some kind or perhaps severe mechanical difficulties.

    Unless Vazquez was dealing with a kind of Ed-Whitsonian existential terror of pitching for the Yankees, something that -- if true -- would have stopped the Cashman brigade from re-acquiring him, an injury is the most likely explanation for his 2004 downfall. Vazquez now has a 4.21 ERA. His American League ERA, including his two 2010 starts, is 4.59. From the All-Star break through the end of the postseason in 2004, his ERA was 7.00. That 7.00 came along with a slightly diminished strikeout rate and a walk rate that was elevated from the first half but didn’t reach dangerous territory in either the regular season or the first round of the playoffs. It was only in the ALCS that his control deserted him.

    This was not a pitcher experiencing Steve Blass Disease or anything of the type. Indeed, even during his difficult second half, Vazquez made five quality starts, three of them at home. He wasn’t a disaster, although he had some disastrously bad starts, such as the August 31 game that turned into a 22-0 rout for the Indians. Five days later, though, he held the Orioles to three runs in seven innings, striking out eight. Five days after that, he was punished again by those same Orioles. He had no consistency at all, and befitting a fly ball pitcher in the DH league, when he made mistakes, he was punished in the worst possible way.

    The biggest misrepresentation of Vazquez is that he is more than what he is. On paper, he is perfectly cast as the Yankees’ fourth starter -- and nothing more. He is a durable workhorse. He gets a lot of strikeouts, ranking second to Jamie Moyer on the active list. He’s also in the top 50 all time. Yet for all his stuff, for all his health, the results have often been mixed. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. Now, you can say that the reason for that is some weakness on the part of Vazquez, but those of us who don’t really know the man have no right to look within his soul and make estimations of his fortitude. It’s easy, too easy, to do that, all speculation and no substance. It’s much easier to all but call a player gutless than to ask what we really should have expected from a pitcher whose AL ERA can be rounded up to 5.00.

    Granted, Vazquez’s current ERA is 9.82, not 5.00. Still, I like to give a fellow more than 11 innings before I start making pronouncements about the quality of his courage. Give the guy some time before you decide he can’t pitch here, and even then, don’t be so sure that there isn’t something else at work. The last thing the world needs is sportswriters acting like they’re psychologists. The next thing you know, they’ll be offering spiritual counseling to slumping hitters, asserting that they’ve gone 0-for-30 because of a lack of positive spirit, a heavy soul, a demonic possession, bad intentions.

    2.3 (3 Ratings)

    The sounds of silence...

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010, 5:42 PM [General]

    …Are not what Javier Vazquez heard at Yankee Stadium today. At the risk of indulging in some amateur psychology, it must be difficult to execute when you’re aware that the stakes of a given game transcend winning or losing. Having had a bad start in Tampa and, we assume, being fully aware of the skepticism with which most fans regard him after 2004, Vazquez must know that if he has a bad start today he’s going to face at least a month of hostile home crowds and scathing press and internet chatter no matter how he does in subsequent appearances, whereas if he wins the game he can nip the grumblers in the bud or some equally sensitive part of the body.

    The good news is that all Vazquez has to do for the Yankees is put together a season somewhere between his career ERA of 4.21 and his AL-only career ERA of 4.58 and the season will have been a ringing success given (A) the quality of the rest of the rotation and (B) the depth of the Yankees’ offense. Sure, it would be better if he exceeded that, but on paper he’s the fourth starter and you hope that the other starters don’t give the team need to require more from him than that.

    That said, Vazquez still has to perform even at that minimal level and he has yet to do that. Meanwhile, Joel Pineiro, who was supposed to be dead meat having to face the world without Dave Duncan, completely took the Yankees out of their game, throwing seven walkless innings at the Bombers. Over the last three years, Pineiro has been extremely stingy with the walks since he got to St. Louis, averaging just 1.6 walks per nine in his time there, including an NL league-leading 1.1 walks per nine last year. That figure is inevitably going to rise with designated hitters in Pineiro’s life, but apparently it’s not going to go up sufficiently that a team like the Yankees can work him to death as they do most other starters. Fortunately, there aren’t many pitchers like Pineiro.

    For example, the Angels’ starter for Thursday, Scott Kazmir, is about as un-Pineiro-like as they come.

    THE MATSUI REUNION
    A baseball team is like any other workplace these days in that one day you might get to work and find your best buddy gone, and sometime thereafter, you might find yourself gone as well. There is an added difficulty in baseball in that you have not just the binary “keep/fire” options, but also the possibility of a new contract at a lower salary. It sends an awkward mixed message when you say, “We appreciate your contributions and want to retain you, but at a 60 percent reduction from what you were making before.” Even if the reasons are very good, like the player’s age, reduced abilities, and an economic decline that has greatly lowered salaries, a team runs the risk that even if the player accepts the need for the reduction, emotionally he is going to feel disrespected. Put yourself in the player’s shoes: you’re shopping your services around and you hear a great deal of “We’ll give him $5 million.” Then the Angels come along and say, “We really want you, here’s $6 million.” That sounds like real desire. The Yankees could have matched that offer and it would have come across as lukewarm desire.

    Thus sometimes a team and a player can come to a parting of the ways based on a kind of inflicted  incompatibility of terms even if, as in the case of Hideki Matsui, it is fairly clear that the player still has something to give. In an ideal world, a team could put personal loyalty above such concerns, but as a business it’s impossible to justify paying a player more than two times the going rate just because you want to protect his feelings.

    As such, the team’s literal embrace of Matsui during yesterday’s home opener was so warming. Sometimes a divorce can happen even though everyone involved has the best of intentions. Indeed, it happens because they have the best of intentions.

    SOURPUSS GRUMPYFACE
    Not only does the existence of at-bat music contribute to the incredible noise pollution prevalent in Major-League ballparks, but proves that there is too much slack time in the game—some of the clips last far longer than it takes for a player to walk from the on-deck circle to the plate. I’m less interested in why Nick Johnson is walking up to a Miley Cyrus song than the fact that said song plays long enough for people to recognize what it is. If you can name that tune the games are too long.

    A QUICK ONE FROM THE COMMENTS
    Did you really just compare Posada and Montero and imply that the stats you cite mean anything after 6 games for Posada and 3 for Montero? Really?—dwnflfan

    Dwnflfan, when I headline a section with the word “Premature,” what do you think I’m suggesting?

    MORE FROM ME
    •    Dead Player of the Day (Steve Bilko) is up at BP, no subscription necessary. Chick Stahl will follow shortly.

    1.9 (2 Ratings)

    Things are shaping up

    Monday, April 12, 2010, 12:05 PM [General]

    You can’t argue with a 4-2 season-opening road-trip. The Yankees have to earn their way through a tough early schedule, and so far they’re doing it, hitting and pitching well against two of the best teams in baseball. They’ve seen Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, David Price, Wade Davis and James Shields. There isn’t a pushover in the bunch, in fact the opposite—it wouldn’t surprise if in three months five of the six were on the All-Star team. If the Yankees can average six runs a game of offense against these guys, what happens when they get to Kansas City?

    Of course, it helps to be taking swings off of the Rays’ bullpen, which again looks desperate. You have to feel for former Yankee Randy Choate, who is a fringy pitcher at the best of times in spite of some ability—in over 200 career innings, he has allowed just nine home runs—yet was mercilessly tortured by the Yankees over the weekend.  

    We may get to see what happens when this lineup faces a lesser brand of pitching starting beginning on Tuesday when the Angels come to town. Not the same team they were last year after several offseason defections, the Halos were mercilessly battered by the Twins and A’s in the first two series. You would expect them to settle in a bit—their staff is better than a 6.00 ERA no matter who left—but Jered Weaver, who the Yankees will see on Thursday, is the only pitcher of ace quality left.

    While there is still some fine-tuning left to be done on the pitching side, like trying to figure out why Javier Vazquez, cruising in his first start, suddenly fell apart, you can’t say enough about the offense, which is doing what it was designed to do. The Yankees lead the league in walks drawn, with Nick Johnson’s seven free passes heading up the club. Johnson hasn’t hit at all yet, but he still has an excellent .367 on-base percentage. This lineup is going to be draining pitch counts by the fifth inning all season long. That means seeing a lot of middle relievers, which means a lot of lopsided scores.

    Right now there is very little to complain about, argue with, or dislike. No doubt other trends will emerge as time goes by, or someone will try to force Joba Chamberlain into a glamour role he can’t handle (see below) but for now we get to sit back, watch, and see if this club does as well as the opening week would seem to portend.

    SMALL BONE TO PICK
    On Sunday’s radio broadcast, Suzyn Waldman ticked off all of the things about Curtis Granderson that were supposed to be true that, at least in the first few games, are apparently not. She classified among the Granderson myth’s his inability to hit left-handers. “We haven’t seen any of that so far,” she said. Yes we have. Granderson’s going 2-for-9 with five strikeouts is seeing it. He may yet get better, he may yet get worse, but right now his lefty-hitting problems are in full bloom. If he hits .222/.300/.222 against the lefties over the whole season, we’ll spend all of October and the whole winter asking why the Yankees didn’t get with the platooning.

    PREMATURE
    If Jorge Posada keeps it up, this might be the season that puts him in the Hall of Fame…
    In other news, Jesus Montero is batting .250/.308/.417 in three games. Three runners have attempted to steal, none have been caught.

    PREMATURE II, BUT NOT ME
    Can we cool the “Joba VIII” bandwagon now? He hasn’t shown the consistency necessary, and until he does, talk of making him the eighth-inning man is more wishcasting than analysis.

    CHANGE OF ADDRESS FORM
    I want to see this on a T-shirt:Hideki Matsui is now “The Los Angeles Godzilla of Anaheim.” (h/t Rob Neyer.)

    SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE
    In researching today’s entry for the Dead Player of the Day blog, I came across this little soliloquy by Casey Stengel from 1958. Enjoy:

    There are two principles of successful batting which I have not been able to impress on my players, and I don’t know if I am a poor teacher or they are poor students. First, not everybody can knock even this here lively ball out of the park. Second, it is no disgrace to take a base on balls. Time after time my players have sneered at these facts and made things tougher for themselves. If you are not a registered slugger, you must learn to meet the ball. If you are having trouble hitting a pitcher, you have to make him fearful by waiting and walking. A pass is as good as a single for the ball club, even if it is just no time at bat for the player. I will say this. If my own men don’t appreciate them two points, they have a lot of company in our league. I imagine all the other managers are squawking too, about the two items.

    I’m afraid we managers want the impossible. McDougald makes an error that blows a game in Washington and two nights later he blows another one in Baltimore, and you have to say to yourself, ‘Who knows anything about baseball?’”

    “I have heard to many things that are calculated to give me the heebie-jeebies. Fans write in and tell me that I will be lucky to finish in the first division, which they are Yankee Haters, and I ain’t got any quarrel with them. Many of them are tired and desperate.”


    WHO’D THEY GET FOR HIM AGAIN?
    On Saturday, Tyler Clippard had a crazy-good relief outing for the Nationals, whiffing seven Mets in three innings while allowing only one hit. He was terrific for the Nats last year as well, but he also had a .197 batting average on balls in play, which seemed certain to shoot up this year and still probably will. However, the slider that the former Yankees Clippard developed in the Nats’ care seems to have made him a different pitcher than he was in New York, or was given the chance to be. In my youth, the Yankees punted on Bob Tewksbury for some of the reasons they soured on Clippard—he was supposedly long on pitching savvy and short on stuff, but they weren’t seeing enough of the former. The problem was (and remains) that the savvy types usually take awhile to adjust.

    A: Jonathan Albaladejo. Whoops.

    MORE FROM ME

    • I’m heading down to Baltimore for an event at Camden Yards. If you’re in the neighborhood, come on by.

    Dead Player of the Day, this edition focusing on Yankees Hall of Famer Miller Huggins, is up, no subscription required.

    • If you click over to DPOTD, you will see a note announcing my new blog covering my songwriting pastime, CasualObserverMusic.net. Repeating what I said there, I’ve been writing music for about 25 years but have mostly kept it a private thing. Now I and my songwriting collaborator are going public with a weekly song-blog. First tune: “Mark Twain Rides an Elephant,” about, well, Mark Twain riding an elephant and the reasons why he’s writing it. As you can see, things follow my usual obsessions, history, literature, baseball. As far as the latter, the first baseball song is in the queue, coming in about two weeks. Hope you enjoy the Casual Observer site.

    Wholesome Reading has been updated with more to come. Warning: hummus! I mean, politics!

    1.9 (2 Ratings)

    Joe Girardi's new-old bullpen philosophy

    Thursday, April 8, 2010, 6:23 PM [General]

    The Yankees have an unusual bullpen. Due to their collection of pitchers like Chan Ho Park, Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves, and Sergio Mitre, who are not only viable starters but conditioned to be starters, Joe Girardi can, if he so chooses, dispense with the match-up-based relief tactics that have come to dominate bullpen strategy in the age of Tony LaRussa and reinvent the long-man -- a pitcher who simply throws a few relief innings instead of jogging in and out to face one or two batters. These pitchers had seemed to be ticketed for extinction, having been outcompeted by specialists, but whether by plan or by accident, the Yankees are well-positioned to ignore this frequently counterproductive strategy and just let their best relievers pitch for as long as they can.

    Rather than rush to mint an “eighth-inning guy,” as the media seems very anxious for him to do, Girardi can instead create something of a shadow rotation of pitchers who can go two-to-three innings a night. As Chan Ho Park demonstrated yesterday, when it works, the long-man eliminates the need for the designated eighth-inning guy and the spot reliever. Rather than burn half your bullpen in the space of an inning or two, you let the guy rip until you’re ready to hand the game off to Mariano Rivera. The possibility of the same thing happening was there on Tuesday night.

    This is the brave old world of reliever usage, one that was dispensed with for no good reason. It used to be very common for relievers to throw 100 innings a year. In 1982, to pick a year at random, 21 pitchers pitched 100 innings without making a start, which then equated to almost one per team. Among this strategy's benefits was that the team’s best relievers worked far more often than its worst, who might not even be in the majors because with one reliever absorbing so much work the staffs could be smaller. With the larger staffs of today and the influence on one-batter match-ups, there is little opportunity for a reliever to work so often. The last reliever over the 100-inning barrier was the Yankees’ Scott Proctor, who threw 102.1 innings for Joe Torre back in 2006.

    Proctor paid a price for that workload, which suggests a couple of things: not all pitchers are equal to that workload and managers should only assign that much work to select pitchers, or that the top innings threshold for an ideal reliever should be somewhat lower than 100, or that appearances must be spaced out. Proctor made 55 appearances that year on no or one day’s rest, and also threw more than an inning on 37 occasions. The multi-inning reliever might need to be handled more sympathetically. For the Yankees, who have four such pitchers, this might not be a problem.

    That said, it does not follow that the 100-inning workload is automatically injurious. Using the same 100-inning, zero start threshold I mentioned earlier gives us a population of roughly 350 seasons to choose from. There are many pitchers who appear on the list multiple times, for example Bill Campbell (five times), Bob Stanley (four), Bruce Sutter (five), Dale Murray (five), Dan Quisenberry (five), Duane Ward (five), Gary Lavelle (five), Gene Garber (six), Goose Gossage (four), Greg Harris (five), Hoyt Wilhelm (six), Jack Baldschun (four), Kent Tekulve (six), Mike Marshall (five), Pedro Borbon (four), Ron Perranoski (seven), Scott Sullivan (four), Sparky Lyle (six), and Stu Miller (four). If handled appropriately, relievers can do this without killing themselves.

    I don’t know how far outside of the box Girardi is willing to think, or more accurately, can he get so far outside of the box that he’s back inside of it again, back inside the old box. The fact is, though, that Aceves, Chamberlain, Park, and perhaps (suspending disbelief) Mitre are overqualified to be one-inning relievers.

    Baseball is going to have to go this way in the future, so the Yankees might as well be the first. With relievers taking on a larger workload with each passing year (AL relievers’ encroachment on starters has been steady but fractional over the last five years; last season they consumed 34.6 percent of possible innings), it is only a matter of time before some teams realize that there aren’t enough good relievers to go around and the solution has to be not more relievers, but exploiting the few good ones more thoroughly.

    The Yankees, assuming this season is consistent with the recent past, will need about 520 innings out of their relievers. Mariano Rivera will get about 65 of them. If the four long-men can pitch 90 innings each, that leaves only 95 innings that have to go to Damaso Marte, David Robertson, Boone Logan, Royce Ring, and whoever else the Yankees will be forced to call up over the course of the season. The 13th reliever can stay in Scranton where he belongs. The 12th-best pitcher (and he may turn out to be Mitre, not Robertson), can watch most of the games from the best seat in the house, getting only trash-time work in games that are decided.

    For a long time, baseball has done things the opposite way, with far too many mediocre pitchers getting to do important work in the bullpen. Here’s Joe Girardi’s case to make a bigger mark on the game than winning a second championship for the Yankees but to change the dominant pitching philosophy of the game.

    MORE OF ME

    • Dead Player of the Day #9 is up, with Brooklyn Dodger Karl Spooner and existential questions about the Pittsburgh Pirates
    2.3 (2 Ratings)

    Attack of the turkeys!

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010, 12:13 PM [General]

    You could be forgiven if you thought a flock of turkeys had taken over Joe Girardi’s postgame press conference on Tuesday.

    “Joba! Joba Joba Joba!” was the sound emanating from the pack of assembled media types who surrounded the Yankees manager, as one in their agenda. Did Joba win back the eighth-inning role with his two-batter, two-strikeout performance?

    “Nah,” Girardi said (I paraphrase). It was one game, one brief appearance lasting nine pitches. Yet, the media had hit on its story for the day, and every other question brought the turkeys back out: “Joba Joba Joba Joba!” It’s a good thing it’s not Thanksgiving, or none of them would have been safe. Today’s coverage of the game has predictably followed that line.

    Look, guys: Joba did look terrific for those nine pitches, and maybe he’s back, maybe he’s not. It’s really not much of a test, and certainly no more so a test than his Opening Day appearance, the one where he didn’t look nearly so exciting. Girardi correctly said he wanted to see more, wanted to see everyone, and that’s the correct attitude. He has more than one pitcher capable of filling the eighth inning spot, and let us not forget that all innings are important, not just the one containing the fabled Rainbow Bridge to Mariano. What Alfredo Aceves did last night was at least as important as what Joba did, and over the course of the season having a dominating long-man in the pen is going to be just as valuable as having a fire-breathing set-up guy… If, indeed, that is what the Yankees have. Again, we just don’t know.

    What we do know is that making this the story now, or trying to push Girardi into making it the story, is ultimately going to be counterproductive for the team. It’s just too soon—you can pluck any nine pitches out of any pitcher’s career and he’d look better than Sandy Koufax.

    3.7 (3 Ratings)

    Making glove out of nothing at all

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010, 5:01 PM [General]

    As I wrote yesterday, Jorge Posada’s lack of mobility is going to be an issue all season long. That doesn’t mean it’s going to hurt the Yankees the way it did in Game No. 1, and arguably the bigger problem was Chan Ho Park anyway. Nonetheless, judging by Buster Olney’s latest, Posada has already been identified as Yankees’ enemy No. 1:

    Last year, we saw that Posada's struggles to catch the ball eventually became part of the reason Jose Molina was in the lineup as the catcher for A.J. Burnett. We will see, in the days ahead, how Posada's ability to catch impacts the ways Joe Girardi sets his lineup. Francisco Cervelli, Posada's backup, is viewed as a strong defensive catcher, and Girardi -- a former catcher -- will recognize, before others, all the value in a strong defensive catcher.

    Girardi could reduce Posada's starts behind the plate and give him more games at designated hitter, perhaps starting him at DH against some left-handed pitchers (he could have that option, for example, on Tuesday, when Jon Lester starts for the Red Sox); Posada still hammers left-handed pitchers, as his splits from last year show. Or Girardi could simply use Cervelli in more games than originally planned.

    Or Posada may continue to be an every-day catcher. He was good enough last year to play the position for a team that won the World Series, and time will tell if he can be again in 2010.

    Bob Klapisch wrote a similar piece:

    The Yankees could’ve conceivably kept Johnny Damon around, letting him share the DH spot with Posada while turning the catching duties over to Jose Molina. But the difficulties with Damon and his agent Scott Boras nuked that scenario, and when Nick Johnson was signed to a one-year deal, the Yankees handed the keys to the everyday catching job back to Posada.

    The team’s hierarchy has no illusions about Posada’s reflexes. He looks uncomfortable, almost handcuffed at times. One talent evaluator said this spring, “There’s nothing wrong with [Posada’s] hand-eye coordination, because he’s still quick enough to catch up to a fastball.” So how does this explain Posada’s difficulty with pitches out of the strike zone?

    The problem in both cases—giving Cervelli more playing time or the hypothetical retention of Jose Molina—is that the offensive fall-off from Posada is severe. Taking Posada out of the lineup and/or moving him to DH is going to mean inserting a replacement-level hitter in the lineup. That’s what Molina was and what Cervelli is. There is just no evidence right now that Cervelli is better than that. He hit .271/.366/.378 in the minors and .283/.294/.354 in his 106 Major League PAs. The batting average is respectable, but the lack of punch of plate discipline—the lad has taken just two walks—is unlikely to improve. Nick Johnson isn’t Lou Gehrig, but if you’re going to pull his bat for Cevelli’s (the upshot of letting Posada DH more often), you’re talking about something like a four-win swing to the negative in the standings, even with the theoretical defensive benefits included.

    Now, that is not to say that this is completely a choice on the part of Girardi, Cashman, and pals. At some point, Posada will be physically unable to catch. Has that moment come? We don’t know yet, and it’s not an evaluation to be made lightly, because unless Jesus Montero or Austin Romine take sudden and spectacular leaps up the evolutionary ladder, the Yankees cannot afford to pay the offensive price of making a change, not in a division that promises to be the most hotly contested in baseball. As frustrating as Posada’s defensive failings may be, you don’t want the Yankees to make a change unless they really have to.

    Offense and defense are not a zero-sum game. As long as Posada hits at a high level, the price of the wild pitches/passed balls is going to be less than that of his lost offense. Cervelli’s out at the plate, his low on-base percentage, will hurt more than his superb mobility benefits the team—for now.

    MEANWHILE, IN PLATOON NATION
    Brett Gardner sits tonight for Marcus Thames, at least for three plate appearances, after which you can bet he’ll be in to run or play defense or both. If you’re worried about defense, we’ll see how well Thames plays balls off of the Green Monster. Coffee Joe forever!

    THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
    •    Mark Buehrle (seven shutout innings) is a four-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and routinely posts adjusted ERAs 20 percent below the league average, and with health he should finish his career with over 200 wins. He has won more than 16 games just once in his career, so our single-minded focus on the wins “statistic” means our memory of him will stop when his career does… Pity Jake Westbrook, coming off of surgery, who seemed to lose all sense of location in the game, issuing four walks in four innings and also throwing four wild pitches. I still think of old Jake as a missed opportunity for the Yankees, but you can’t say that the 2000 David Justice deal didn’t have a huge, positive impact on a championship team, so you can only have so much regret about the move.

    •    Inspirational comeback start by Jays’ Shawn Marcum derailed by Arlington park effects (see Nelson Cruz’s off-balance three-run homer), impotence of the bottom half of the order. Lather, rinse, repeat for 161 more games.

    •    Another strong Zack Greinke start wasted by Royals’ bullpen. Lather, rinse… Oh, you know. “It wasn’t fun to watch,” Greinke said after the game.  Johnny Damon went 2-for-5 with a double, two RBI, two runs scored, so he definitely had a better opening day than Chan Ho Park. Yes, that’s unfair, and no, I don’t care.

    •    Hideki Matsui went 2-for-4 with a home run off of Jose Mijares, going back to back with Kendry Morales. He too had a better opening day than... the Royals’ bullpen, and we’ll leave the other guy out of it. Brandon Wood went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, so given how the Angels have treated him in the past, his job is probably already in danger.

    •    Mariners-A’s was tough to watch, with the two teams combining for five errors and 15 walks and the Mariners running into outs on the bases. It was encouraging to see Ken Griffey, Jr. pull a double. I’m starting to feel sentimental about that guy.

    •    The last thing a struggling franchise needs is to be decapitated in front of 41,000 fans on Opening Day, but that’s what happened to the Nationals. You don’t want to assume that Roy Halladay is going to romp in the National League based on one start, but… Roy Halladay is going to romp in the National League.

    •    The Mets got their one day in the sun. They don’t have a second Santana. Move on.

    •    Small matter given a crushing Reds loss, but I’m still not sure why Drew Stubbs is sitting for Chris Dickerson. Dusty Baker needs an oracle or a prophet or something to explain his otherworldly thinking to the rest of us. Again, one shouldn’t get carried away by one game, but the Cardinals are all alone in the NL Central.

    •    Joe Torre picks Vicente Padilla as his Opening Day loser. What a strange, strange call by an increasingly strange manager. There is no sin in growing old and out of touch—it happens to most of us—but it’s sure tough to watch... Congratulations to Garrett Jones (2-for-4, two home runs) for not being Kevin Maas, not yet.

    •    Nothing ruins a Leo Kottke album like singing.

    •    I don’t imagine that the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez will go 4-for-5 with a home run too many more times this season… Good to see Jim Edmonds, who already has a pretty good case for the Hall of Fame, make it back for a few more swings at 40. I don’t know if he can make 118 hits and 18 home runs, but if he does, that would give him an even 2000 hits and 400 home runs, rare territory for a center fielder, especially one with eight Gold Gloves.

    •    With Jason Heyward, Braves fans are getting to enjoy the same thrill that Yankees fans did when Derek Jeter came along. Cubs fans don’t know what that’s like, but trust me, it feels good.

    •    Padres: Depressing when Jon Garland is your Opening Day starter, isn’t it? At least A-Gonz and Kyle Blanks homered. That’s the hook, the only hook, for this season… It wouldn’t be April if the LaRoche brothers didn’t go hitless.

    •    It doesn’t matter how quickly Lance Berkman comes back; the Astros are going to lose 100 games.

    MORE FROM ME
    Dead Player of the Day and other Notes (Ival Goodman and Milton Bradley) is up.

    Wholesome Reading has and continues to be updated, with more to come as soon as I’m done here. Warning: politics! (And I even got my first “stick to baseball” comment! Hooray!)

    1.4 (2 Ratings)

    Can we try this one again?

    Monday, April 5, 2010, 4:55 PM [General]

    Is it yet time to call up Mark Melancon?

    In fairness to Chan Ho Park, not only is it too early for me to say “I told you so” on that particular signing, but the debacle of Opening Night had multiple authors. These can be separated into two groups, “likely transient” and “likely permanent:"

    Likely Transient
    • CC Sabathia’s lack of location.
    • Chan Ho Park’s lack of location/nervous overthrowing.

    Likely Permanent
    • Brett Gardner’s weak arm.
    • Curtis Granderson’s vulnerability to left-handers
    • Jorge Posada chasing balls to the backstop.
    • Joba Chamberlain being wild and hittable.

    Of the second list, Gardner’s range should compensate for his arm. Granderson will eventually be treated like a platoon player in clutch situations and on days when all but the lamest lefties start. Posada is an older catcher and that’s not going to change, but as with last night, he should hit enough to make up for it most of the time. Joba ... well, you know about Joba. Eventually, Joe Girardi will figure out when to use Chamberlain and when not to use him. Last night, of course, he had to use him because he used just about everyone else.

    None of those weaknesses came as a surprise. Rather, the surprise was in their all rolling up at once, and at the same time as those transient problems from Sabathia and Park. If that happens only another 60 times this season, the Yankees will be fine. If it happens 70 times, the season will be a disappointment. That seems unlikely, especially if Girardi employs some common sense fixes like pinch-hitting against lefty spot relievers late in tight games (thereafter moving Gardner to center and subbing Randy Winn in left) and using Frankie Cervelli as a defensive replacement for Posada in certain spots, the odds of a total meltdown will greatly decrease.

    Until then, there were many positives for the Yankees in the game. Yankees hitters were as selective as ever and chawed up Josh Beckett’s pitch count in a hurry. There were a few misplays on defense (Gardner’s throw, Posada’s tough inning with Damaso Marte, and Nick Swisher’s odd route on the Youkilis triple), but otherwise the D looked strong, with Granderson being able to use his speed to recover from a bad read and some very solid players from A-Rod and Robinson Cano. The Gardner-Jeter double-steal was a sign of things to come. Nick Johnson, though he went 0-for-3, also took two walks. If this game can be taken as any kind of portent, then this is going to be a very solid, dynamic offensive unit.

    That, instead of the loss, is what we should take away from this game.

    RESTOCK ON AISLE FIVE
    Two interesting outfielders were designated for assignment by their teams over the weekend, and might be of use to a team looking for outfield depth in the Minors. The Marlins cut bait on Jai Miller, a tools-type now 25, who has been in their system since about 1882 but whose ability to use those tools is just now coming into focus. Barring unlikely growth, he’s locked in as a high-strikeout, low-average hitter who would hit the occasional home run, be a solid pinch-runner, and play strong defense.

    The Reds decided to risk the loss of Wladimir Balentien. Originally developed by the Mariners, Balentien, also 25, has had roughly a full season of at-bats in the Majors and has hit only .221/.281/.374 with 15 home runs in rather sporadic playing time, along with a troubling 44 walks and 149 strikeouts. He was a far more interesting player in the Minors, hitting .283/.359/.534 in about a season-and-a-half at Triple-A Tacoma. He retains enough potential that there will be interest in his services, but if the Yankees could get a shot at him, you would rather gamble a roster spot on him than, say, Juan Miranda, soon to be 27 (or 2700).

    MORE FROM ME
    Dead Player of the Day #6 is up.

    • There is a chat going on all day at BP built around Opening Day, and I’ll be participating from time to time, so feel free to drop by.

    Wholesome Reading has new stuff up since last we met, with more to come. Warning: politics, herring.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    How will it all end?

    Friday, April 2, 2010, 10:34 AM [General]

    As we enjoy this final Friday before the start of the 2010 season, you can make picks for every race with a reasonable degree of confidence, if not certainty, but the AL East remains very difficult to call.

    Over at Baseball Prospectus, the PECOTA system calls for the Red Sox to go 95-67, the Rays to go 92-70, and the Yankees to go 91-71. On the surface, it seems as if the system is suggesting that the Yankees will miss the playoffs. However, it is important to understand that the differences between those three projections are so narrow as to be within the margin of error. All three teams have, as presently constructed, the potential to reach the postseason.

    The Red Sox are six starters deep, three of them very good, one, Daisuke Matsuzaka (who won’t be out very long into the regular season as things currently stand) often very good, and another, Clay Buccholz, who has the potential to be very good. If the definition of a good starting pitcher is that he keeps his team in the game, the Red Sox should get that most of the time. Their middle relief is a little less certain, but the end game, with Jonathan Papelbon and a full season of Daniel Bard, should be solid. On offense, the Sox don’t necessarily have any supermen, or none after Kevin Youkilis, but they should also be above-average at every position, with no easy outs. Their worst hitters are Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro, and that’s not so bad. They also have quality depth in case of injuries.

    The Rays probably have the weakest offense of the three teams, but that doesn’t mean it will be bad. They have an MVP candidate in Evan Longoria, a versatile star in Ben Zobrist, and two outfielders with something to prove—Carl Crawford with big money on the line, and B.J. Upton, in need of a comeback. Yet, it’s the starting rotation that’s truly the star of the show. In James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis, they have a top rotation just ready to come into its own, and none older than 28. As was the case last year, the bullpen is going to be a problem. There is no reliever who is actually a relief, who you can feel is a lock to do something good once he comes into the game; Dan Wheeler may be the closest. New closer Rafael Soriano is one of the team’s real wild cards and a key to the season. As we saw at the end of last season, the Rays don’t have the same depth in Minor League hitters that they have enjoyed in the pitching department.

    That leaves the Yankees. Their offense should still be very good, though down a bit from last year. First, Brett Gardner, Marcus Thames and Nick Johnson probably don’t quite add up to Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, though Curtis Granderson taking over for Melky Cabrera helps, as does a full season from Alex Rodriguez. Second, you can’t count on Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada to be as good at 36 and 38 (respectively) as they were at 35 and 37. The pitching staff should remain a thing of beauty and possibly be even better than last year. Whether it will be the equal of that of the Red Sox and Rays is a very hard thing to judge. I also worry about the team’s depth in case of injuries; the question on everyone’s lips seems to be, “When Johnson gets hurt, that makes Jesus Montero the DH, right?” First, not necessarily. Second, what if it’s not Johnson that gets hurt? Even the greatest cliff diver in the world couldn’t survive the drop-off from the Yankees’ starters to their potential substitutes.

    It’s a tight knot, and if you could place each in a separate division we might have 3/4 of the postseason menu right there. Fighting it out, there is every likelihood that one will be the wild card, leaving one on the sidelines. It probably won’t be the Yankees… but it could be. That’s how good these teams are.

    Having said that, my preseason picks:

    AL EAST
    1. Red Sox
    2. Yankees (wild card)
    3. Rays
    4. Orioles
    5. Blue Jays

    AL CENTRAL
    1. Twins
    2. White Sox
    3. Tigers
    4. Indians
    5. Royals

    AL WEST
    1. Rangers
    2. Mariners
    3. A’s
    4. Angels

    NL EAST
    1. Phillies
    2. Braves (wild card)
    3. Marlins
    4. Mets
    5. Nationals

    NL CENTRAL
    1. Cardinals
    2. Reds
    3. Cubs
    4. Brewers
    5. Astros
    6. Pirates

    NL WEST
    1. Rockies
    2. Dodgers
    3. Giants
    4. Diamondbacks
    5. Padres

    AL MVP: Evan Longoria
    AL CY YOUNG: Felix Hernandez
    AL ROY: Neftali Feliz is still eligible, right?

    NL MVP: Albert Pujols
    NL CY YOUNG: Roy Halladay
    NL ROY: Jason Heyward

    …And a Yankees-Phillies World Series rematch.

    MORE OF ME
    Dead Player of the Day No. 5 is up.

    • Yesterday’s chat transcript.

    • At 11:30 a.m. EST, I’ll be in-studio with Brian Lehrer. You can listen live at the WNYC web site.

    Wholesome Reading will continue to be updated throughout the weekend.

    • Enjoy game one! I’ll be back with comments on any breaking news and a review of Sunday’s game No. 1.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    The crazy eighth

    Thursday, April 1, 2010, 12:09 PM [General]

    THE EIGHTH INNING IS JUST ANOTHER INNING UNLESS YOU’RE JOBA CHAMBERLAIN
    In today’s New York Post, Joel Sherman suggests that we’ve been on the right path about Joba Chamberlain being no lock for the eighth inning:

    As for Chamberlain, the road is not quite as clear. There is not quite as much trust in Chamberlain as a pitcher or a person. He is not going to just be handed the eighth inning.

    In fact, the more and more I talked with Yankee people the more and more I got the vibe that Joe Girardi either will mix and match the eighth inning by using lefty Damaso Marte in spots or go with Chan Ho Park … Or maybe there fixation with Park is just one more motivational tool to get the full attention of Chamberlain.

    Sounds ominous. What I wonder is this: if the Yankees had such doubts about Chamberlain’s ability to focus, why did they think he would be able to pitch through an ever-changing set of rules? Second question: Were the conflicting opinions regarding Joba’s future that came out of the Yankees organization a reflection of the annoyance that some feel with him?

    ONE LAST JOBA BIT FOR AWHILE
    A reader (I apologize for not naming you—I seem to have misplaced the note) asks if the real issue with Jobakins is the rotator cuff tendinitis he suffered back in 2008, and if his velocity has been down since then maybe our expectations need to be realigned. I hesitate to give this position a complete endorsement because I haven’t tracked his velocity start by start since that moment in August. He also pitched fairly well that September, albeit in relief. In addition, if the injury was more serious than the team let on, how was it he came back in a month?  

    Until we see him get a good sample of work under his belt this season, this is all just useless speculation. Joba is Joba is Joba, but we don’t know what that actually means yet.

    GRANDERSON IN CENTER…
    …Is probably the biggest bit of non-news of the spring, especially since it’s something the Yankees can revisit at any time. We’re not talking about the direct heir to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle here; it’s not a ceremonial position. Brett Gardner will cover a lot of ground in left field and not be forced to stress his arm with the big heave from deep center, so that’s a positive. Granderson won’t be Classic-Model Andruw Jones in center, but he’ll be more than good enough.

    The real question about Granderson is whether he can make any progress against left-handers. Right now the Yankees are talking about their only platoon (and a half-hearted one at that) being Gardner and Marcus Thames in left. They will probably need right-handed help in center as well, but they’ll give Granderson a chance to show that things have changed at 29. Hope springs eternal and in most cases is eternally dammed. That said, it’s not like the club has any great platoon options right now, so Granderson will get some rope. It seems unlikely that a defensively viable right-handed outfielder will be cut today… This is the main reason that the Yankees couldn’t go with Gardner in center, a slightly more advantageous defensive alignment, at least based on small-sample impressions—Thames can barely play left, so he’s not going to be a center field platoon guy, and the club didn’t want to send Granderson bouncing between the two positions…

    Heck, it was good enough for Babe Ruth. He split every season shifting from left field to right field and back again. Imagine if the stress held down his hitting… But no, it was his idea.

    MORE FROM ME
    Dead Player of the Day No. 4 is up (no sub required).

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    Wholesome Reading is up to date, with more to come (Warning: politics, baseball scouts).

    0 (0 Ratings)

    The use of wondering

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 5:50 PM [General]

    WHAT’S THE USE OF WONDERIN’?
    If Alfredo Aceves has to start the season on the disabled list, does that open up a spot for Mark Melancon, or is it more likely that Boone Logan claims the spot, giving the Yankees the fabled “second lefty?”

    WHAT’S THE USE OF WONDERIN’? II
    Anyone at all bothered by CC Sabathia finishing spring with an ERA of 7.23 in 18.2 innings? I don’t think I am as much as I have been bothered in the past by consuming a dish of bad mussels, and chances are it’s nothing to worry about given that his strikeout rate has been solid, but it’s definitely food for the paranoid.

    NATE ROBERTSON TRADED, SO WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE YANKEES?
    Only this: Robertson is a 31-year-old left-hander who has been rather mercilessly thrashed the last couple of years, and but for 2006, his effectiveness has drifted between below average and outright misery. Last year, elbow surgery kept him out for a good chunk of the season, but he did pitch superficially well in a fall comeback session lasting 28.2 innings. Still, his career ERA is 4.92 -- 5.52 for the last three years (396 innings). His contract for this season calls for him to be paid $10 million. The Marlins just gave up a decent left-handed spot-relief prospect, Jay Voss, in order to get him. The trick is that the Tigers picked up $9.6 million of the remaining freight in order to make Robertson go away. The Tigers are pretty deep in situational lefties, including Phil Coke, so Voss wasn’t exactly a pressing concern, but they still got something better than letting him go.

    Chad Gaudin is right-handed, which makes him slightly less interesting than a lefty, but he’s also got a swing-and-miss slider that Robertson can only dream about. Over the last three years, his ERA is 4.49 in 436.2 innings, so he’s been more than a run better than Robertson in more innings. He’s due to make $2.95 million this year. As such, the question I would like to ask is this: Was Gaudin’s release truly inspired by the lack of a trade market for his services, or was it that the Yankees were unwilling to subsidize the trade?

    THINGS I DON’T EXPECT TO LAST
    The Orioles named human batting practice pitcher David Hernandez their fifth starter today, thereby sending Chris Tilliman to the minor leagues. Hernandez had a superior spring but is an inferior pitcher with a tendency towards home run production. In the short term, perhaps the Orioles had to make the move, but Tillman will be back quickly. Those Yankees-Orioles games are going to be more difficult than usual this year. Fortunately, they have the Blue Jays to balance things out.

    MORE FROM ME

    • Wholesome Reading has been and continues to be updated with new stuff. (Warning: politics, coyotes.)
    0 (0 Ratings)

    Start the season already!

    Monday, March 29, 2010, 6:22 PM [General]

    MAY JOBA WAVE FOREVER AS LONG AS WE STOP TALKING ABOUT HIM
    It has been fascinating watching the different opinions on Joba Chamberlain’s future come out of Fortress Yankee. As The New York Times correctly observed this morning, this never would have happened in George’s day. Dave Eiland has an opinion. Pro scouting director Billy Eppler has an opinion. Brian Cashman has an open mind on Joba, but is of the opinion that his subordinates don’t have to hew to the company line. It’s a bright new day in Yankeeland. What it all accomplishes, beyond shifting the air around, is a different matter. The fact is, until Chamberlain shows consistent stuff and results, you can project any future for him, and by “you” I mean Cashman, Eiland, the sanctified ghost of Joe DiMaggio, and drunken Uncle Charlie, who is always killing flies with his bad breath at the family Labor Day barbeque and frankly amatzes you with his nigh-encyclopedic lack of knowledge. They all have the same weight as far as Chamberlain’s destiny. Last July was a long time ago. Now it’s time to stop talking and see what he can do.

    CHAD GAUDIN HAS SIGNED WITH THE A’S
    On a major-league deal, too. The competition between Gaudin and Sergio Mitre is on! We’ll see if the Yankees made the correct choice or not. I’m not going to dwell on this too much, because the Yankees had five candidates for the fifth starter’s spot and Gaudin and Mitre are the fringiest of the bunch. The choice is, to some degree, a matter of instinct and projection, and there is room for gentlemen to disagree. It is also true that pitchers are a mercurial lot and yesterday’s villain may be tomorrow’s hero, all based on a slight alteration of mechanics or the addition of a new pitch.

    Whatever the outcome, I’m ready for the season to start. These are minor matters and I draw little excitement from the “competition” between Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson in center field. Joe Girardi could flip a coin before every game and figure out which he likes better in July for all the impact the decision will have. When we’re left with nothing to do but hype a phony position battle, it’s time to get on with things.

    THINGS I WILL BE HEARD SAYING AT TONIGHT’S PASSOVER FESTIVITIES
    “Good evening, Mr. Smith. I see you have cleaned your thumbnails. Congratulations on taking that first important step into the world of modern human hygiene. Have you run into any stupid people lately? I presume you will be telling us about them at great length. Swell. Pardon me while I demonstrate the awesome power of my noise-canceling earbuds.”

    Regardless of my pain, a good holiday to all of you celebrating.

    MORE OF ME AND OTHER PEOPLE I LIKE
    • I have a new daily feature up at BP (no subscription required), Dead Player of the Day, which is more or less what it sounds like. On a related note, this Friday’s 1 PM EST chat will now take place on Thursday.

    • Also over at Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein has an interview with Yanks’ senior VP of baseball ops Mark Newman on the team’s prospects, drafting philosophy, and approach to international scouting (subscription required).

    Wholesome Reading has been and continues to be updated with new stuff. I appreciate all the comments -- keep ‘em coming! (Warning: politics, herring.)

    • On Friday at 11:30 AM EST, Jay Jaffe and I will be on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC in New York, talking about the new baseball season.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    And the Thames flows on to the sea

    Friday, March 26, 2010, 12:48 PM [General]

    The Yankees’ roster has more or less taken shape now. Specific bullpen assignments have yet to be determined, but it might be a month into the regular season before the best configuration identifies itself to Joe Girardi. The left field platoon seems set, with Brett Gardner and Marcus Thames—sort of. Thames hasn’t hit at all this spring, and though the pointless Jamie Hoffmann has been dispatched back to the Dodgers, as Chad Jennings reported, Brian Cashman is keeping his eyes open:

    “He was brought in to complete for the spot, and right now he’s the last man standing, so to speak… But that doesn’t mean he’s not still needing to compete for that because I don’t know what’s going to become available between now and the end of camp.”

    Cashman is correct to be scanning the waiver wire. The next five days are crucial, as March 31 is the last day that a team can release a player without having to pay his full 2010 salary. It’s not exactly likely that a virile lefty-masher will suddenly dropped onto the open market, but given that Thames isn’t a defender, it might be worth sacrificing some of his power to get a more rounded player, one who can run and catch as well as hit.

    Thames has gone 3-for-32 this spring (.094) with no extra-base hits, one walk, and 13 strikeouts, that last a 200-K pace for 500 at-bats. Normally, you could dismiss such small-sample struggles from a veteran hitter, but as we’ve discussed before, Thames disappeared in the second half of last season. This was partially attributable to his being squeezed out of playing time by Carlos Guillen, but .234/.309/.351 over 110 plate appearances from a player whose only skill is hitting home runs is pretty difficult to take regardless of the ostensible cause. Throw in the Spring Training at-bats and you have a more sustained spot of badness, albeit one that still qualifies as being too small to allow for any definitive conclusions.

    One interesting factor here is Gardner. Last year (and this too represents too small of a sample, but let’s play) he hit .291/.381/.400 against lefties (65 PAs). With his speed and defense, that’s good enough to play. Before he is automatically consigned to the platoon pile, it’s worth seeing what he can do against most lefties. Most of them are not Randy Johnson in his prime. You would also hope that a couple of years of hanging around Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, two left-handed hitters who did an excellent job of facing southpaw pitchers almost head on so as to get a better look, might have rubbed off.

    If the Yankees are going to platoon, getting production is obviously important—the short half will likely get around 40 starts. Whether that hitter is Thames or not is in many ways not terribly interesting. The platoon advantage for a right-hander versus a left-hander is almost universal. Last year, the average AL hitter hit .267/.336/.428. When facing a left-hander, the average right-hander hit .271/.344/.435 with a home run every 30 at-bats. Thames is a career .256/.329/.516 hitter against lefties, with a home run every 16 at-bats. Thames’ power is obviously valuable, but if for some reason his bat has gone to its final rest, the Yankees should be able to get reasonable production by plugging in almost anyone… except Jamie Hoffmann.

    MORE FROM ME
    • A week from today I’ll have a chat at Baseball Prospectus (1 p.m. EST). It’s open to all, and if you can’t make it you can leave your question ahead of time.

    Wholesome Reading has been updated, with more to come throughout the weekend. Warning: politics! (No animals harmed.)

    0 (0 Ratings)

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