Loose against lefties

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010, 9:43 AM [General]

    The Yankees were to face yet another left-hander tonight, Dontrelle Willis, but he was scratched. Somehow, the Tigers were able to pull another lefty out of thin air, the journeyman Brad Thomas. There’s just no escaping the southpaws for the Yankees this year. That makes 13 southpaw starters in 31 games, or 42 percent of the schedule. More troublingly, they are now only 7-6 in games started by left-handed opponents.

    Going into Monday’s game, the team as a whole was hitting left-handed pitchers quite well, batting .301/.379/.518 against them. The only Yankees not doing at least a little of substance against portsiders are Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson, neither of whom is active at the present time. If you want to be mean and hypercritical, you could add that Randy Winn is now 0-for-7 against lefthanders, and I suspect that some of you might want to be mean and hypercritical where Randy is concerned. If you want to be really mean and hypercritical, you might also point out that Randy’s right-handed swing died last year, and he hit a painful .158/.184/.200 in 125 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, and you might further say that the Yankees still need a right-handed outfielder who can actually catch the ball, as they have needed one ever since Granderson was acquired. Randy Winn isn’t the guy.

    …I don’t know who that guy is just now. Good center fielders are hard to come by.
    Perhaps, though, as tempting as it is to blame Winn for the subpar record, it isn’t the fault of the offense at all. If the Yankees are hitting that well against left-handers, how the heck can they be only one game over .500 against them? The secret is in the record itself:

    1. April 6: Jon Lester vs. A.J. Burnett. Yankees won 6-4.
    2. April 9: David Price vs. Javier Vazquez. Yankees lost 9-3.
    3. April 15: Scott Kazmir vs. Phil Hughes. Yankees won 6-2.
    4. April 16: C.J. Wilson vs. CC Sabathia. Yankees won 5-1.
    5. April 20: Gio Gonzalez vs. Javier Vazquez. Yankees won 7-3.
    6. April 22: Dallas Braden vs. CC Sabathia. Yankees lost 4-2.
    7. April 25: Scott Kazmir vs. Javier Vazquez. Yankees lost 8-4.
    8. April 29: Brian Matusz vs. A.J. Burnett. Yankees won 4-0.
    9. May 1: John Danks vs. Javier Vazquez. Yankees lost 7-6.
    10. May 2: Mark Buehrle vs. Phil Hughes. Yankees won 12-3.
    11. May 4: Brian Matusz vs. A.J. Burnett. Yankees won 4-1.
    12. May 9: Jon Lester vs. A.J. Burnett. Yankees lost 9-3.
    13. May 10: Brad Thomas vs. Sergio Mitre. Yankees lost 5-4.

    There’s the answer. It’s not strikeouts by Granderson or Johnson’s season-long slump, or even Randy Winn’s failure to hit a sacrifice fly on Monday. No, it’s Javier Vazquez. His spot has come up against left-handers five times in 13 opportunities, CC Sabathia’s spot just twice. That’s really all you need to know.

    Follow Steven Goldman on Twitter @PB_Steve.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Bittersweet victory

    Saturday, May 8, 2010, 1:42 AM [General]


    Talk about your mixed outcomes. Josh Beckett hit the pitcher’s mound throwing bolts of lightning at the outset of Friday night’s game, and one felt certain that it was going to be a difficult night for the Yankees at Fenway Park. But the thunderstorm proved to be short-lived, Beckett giving up a three-run smash to Nick Swisher (or maybe a three-run swish to Nick Smasher), and then completely losing the plot in the sixth inning.

    Simultaneously, Phil Hughes provided more evidence of his arrival as a man among men. Hughes has now thrown 224.2 Major-League innings, enough that we can pretend that he’s just completed his rookie year, even though it took him parts of three seasons and 77 games to compile the totals, which show 192 hits, 96 earned runs, 20 homers, 85 walks, 208 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.85. Hughes is not yet 24 years old (he gets there on June 24). If he was only as good as what his career stats show as of this moment, you’d do cartwheels, be you a Yankees fan, coach, or general manager. The wonderful thing is, so far this season he’s been better than that. By showing patience, by giving Hughes the chance to work his way to maturity, the Yankees have earned themselves another star pitcher. Let us hope that he is the first of many -- the same Josh Beckett the Yankees toasted tonight was almost set to be a free agent after the season, and who had the stomach for that flirtation, even if flirtation was all that would have been?

    The loss dropped the Red Sox to .500, six games behind the Yankees and, if this evening’s late Rays game continues the way it is going as I type these words, 7.5 games out of first place. The pyrrhic part of this vanquishing of the foe is that the Yankees suffered two injuries of significance. The first, a feeling of weakness in Nick Johnson’s wrist, that will apparently send him to the disabled list, was probably inevitable, Johnson being Johnson. Though designated hitter is the easiest position to fill and Johnson hadn’t done much actual hitting this year, losing Johnson is a blow, as Nick the Green-Stick had been getting on base at close to a .400 clip and helped wear down starting pitchers with his patient approach. Whatever Marcus Thames might give the Yankees if he takes the majority of starts at DH, it won’t be patience. He’s drawn about as many walks in his career as Johnson might take in a full season if ever he managed to play one. In addition, entering this season, his career on-base percentage against right-handers was just .291, so if the Yankees give him too much work against same-side pitchers, they’re going to get into diminishing returns.

    The other injury, and the one that will likely dictate the nature of the call-up for Johnson, was the ball pitched by Beckett during the fatal sixth that hit Robinson Cano in the back of the knee. Though Cano had already commenced his typical May swoon -- he has just four hits this month -- he was one of the most valuable players in the game in April and his offense and defense would not easily be replaced. He’s only day-to-day at the moment, and with luck he will stay that way. In the short term, the Yankees will likely bring up an infielder, perhaps Kevin Russo (.302/.383/.425) or Eduardo Nunez (.350/.407/.447) to provide depth in case Robbie can’t go. Russo and Nunez have both shown the ability to slap a single or the odd double, but power isn’t among their skills. The Yankees might stay above replacement using these players during a prolonged absence by Cano -- the same cannot be said of Ramiro Pena -- but the position would no longer be the asset it was prior to May Day.

    For those wondering why this isn’t the time to call up Jesus Montero and let him DH until Johnson comes back, the short answer is that he hasn’t hit yet (.244/.306/.378). The longer answer is that, as of tonight, he might be hurt. Even longer answer: he’s not on the 40-man roster, though one wonders why Christian Garcia, out for the season after yet another surgery (sadly, he may one day surpass Heidi Montag) should be an obstacle to promoting another player.

    Given that it’s not certain when Jorge Posada will be back, plus the probable absence of Cano and the definite absence of Johnson and Curtis Granderson, Saturday’s Yankees lineup could look awfully short. Now would be a very good time for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez to find their strokes. On the other hand, as long as the starting pitchers have an aggregate ERA of 3.15, you can get away with a weakened offense. Oh, wait: Javier Vazquez and Sergio Mitre are coming up. Never mind.


    When I ran down the possibilities for pitcher promotions from Scranton in yesterday’s entry, I left out Romulo “Steamboat” Sanchez because he had not pitched well, piling up a 6.48 ERA in five starts covering 25 innings. I was mainly concerned with starting pitching possibilities, not trash-time long relievers, and in that role, Sanchez may do as well as anyone. The big man, who failed to stick as a reliever with the Pirates in 2007 and 2008 has one strong pitch, his fastball, and only so-so command. The Yankees picked him up for busted prospect Eric Hacker last year and got some decent results after pulling him out of the pen to which the Pirates had condemned him. However, the command still wasn’t very good, the strikeout rate no more than intriguing. This season, Sanchez hasn’t even been that -- he’s back to being a guy who got traded for Eric Hacker. He’ll be pitching in Sergio Mitre’s former role of reliever of last resort, which means we won’t see him often enough for him to matter very much.


    Andrew Brackman was creamed again yesterday, giving up six earned runs (plus one of the unearned variety) in 3.2 innings. His line for the season is 15.2 innings, 29 hits, 20 runs, one walk (hooray!) and 10 strikeouts. That’s an ERA of 11.49. He’s also already been on the disabled list once this year. Going on three years later, I still don’t understand why any team would risk its first-round pick on an injured basketball player. In the third round, sure. In the 10th round, definitely. In the first round, you want certainty.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Looking for Pettitte's replacement

    Thursday, May 6, 2010, 6:19 PM [General]

    I’ve always been a big supporter of David Robertson’s. His Minor League track record was exemplary, featuring the killer strikeout rates he carried over to the majors. Last year, I felt the Yankees were too slow to embrace him and too conservative when it came to challenging him with appearances in critical situations. I remain enthusiastic about his Major League future. However, it seems like that future is not now.

    In nine games this season, Robertston has yet to have one perfect appearance. His walks have been acceptable, his strikeout rate still good, but his mechanics and command seem to have gotten completely out of hand. His last three appearances, each spaced four days apart from its predecessor, have been disastrous. He’s allowed six runs in 1 2/3 innings, including yesterday’s two home runs, and has cost the team two games.

    Despite the less-than inspirational appearance from Mark Melancon earlier this week, and the way that the mere invocation of the name Jon Albaladejo depresses, it might be time to give Robertson a refresher course somewhere away from the bright lights. As valuable as he would be were he pitching up to his established abilities, right now he looks lost.

    Given Javier Vazquez’s complete failure to be a Major League pitcher so far this season, if Andy Pettitte has to miss some time with his current elbow inflammation -- and a common-sense approach would make that all but inevitable, even if the disabled list is to be avoided (as per Brian Cashman this afternoon) the Yankees are going to have to make some tough decisions about how to fill out a rotation that is down to three reliable members. It’s safe to assume that Joba Chamberlain isn’t moving from the 'pen given that he and Rivera make up the whole of the relief reliable. Sergio Mitre, who doesn’t really have a role, could get sprung, indeed this seems like the most likely short-term scenario. Unfortunately, even when you have the manager as your sole fanatical believer, you’re still a few adherents short of a religion, something that opposing batters will likely prove.

    Alfredo Aceves could also find himself promoted, especially if memories of his strong spring training performance are still strong. Aceves is a quality reliever, but his role is pitching in lopsided games (or as lopsided as they’ve gotten for the Yankees this year) should be replaceable. The only troubling thought about Aceves is a vague one that connects his late-spring back soreness with his failure to strike out more than one batter this season (Orioles rookie Rhyne Hughes).

    The Triple-A starter off to the best start is Ivan Nova, who I believe was played by Claudia Christian on “Babylon 5.” Nova has a 2.43 ERA in six starts and even has struck out some batters, 32 in 37 innings, but the 24-year-old’s Minor League record is decidedly mixed, with a mediocre strikeout-walk ratio. If this is a new Nova, then swell, but otherwise he doesn’t seem to have anything more than middle-relief work ahead of him. Only one other starter at Scranton, Jason Hirsh, is pitching well, but Hirsh pitching well in the American League seems a fanciful dream.

    The really interesting pitching is going on at Double-A Trenton, where David Phelps is continuing a very successful pro career. After four starts, he has put up a 1.52 ERA in 23.2 innings. That would be of only passing interest had the 2008 draftee (14th round) not been so good last year and the year before. Phelps has made 45 professional starts and has a 2.40 ERA. In 247.1 innings he has walked 54 and struck out 197. An aggressive promotion from Trenton to the rotation would be completely un-Yankees-like, but Phelps might be positioning himself for a move to Triple-A, and thereafter for another promotion a couple of injuries from now.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Left-handed paradise

    Tuesday, May 4, 2010, 5:31 PM [General]

    Tonight, the Yankees face Orioles southpaw Brian Matusz. If Matusz seems like the 98th lefty the Yankees have faced this year, you’re not far off. The Yankees have been running into portsiders at a crazy-high rate. Through Monday, the Yankees have played in 10 games started by a left-hander, compared to 15 started by a right-hander. That equates to two out of five games, or 40 percent, have been started by southpaws. Last year, opposing teams started lefties in 54 games, or one-third.

    I have no idea if this lefty-centric trend will keep up -- it seems unlikely given that only 31 percent of games have been started by left-handers league-wide -- but if it does, the Yankees will face close to 70 lefties this year. Suddenly, a player like Marcus Thames goes from being a spare part to an important part of the offense and Curtis Granderson’s lefty problems become that much heavier a burden to carry.

    As part of their continuing response to Granderson’s absence, the Yankees will call up Greg Golson today. Golson has almost all the things the Yankees need in a platoon/bench outfielder. He’s fast, has power, can play center field and is a right-handed hitter. The only thing missing is the actual ability to hit. Currently batting .253/.289/.430 at Triple-A Scranton, the former first-round pick is a career .263/.307/.396 hitter in the Minor Leagues and has had massive problems making contact.

    Last season at Oklahoma City, Golson cut the strikeout rate fractionally but his power disappeared along with it, hitting just two home runs. He finished his first season at Triple-A hitting .258/.299/.344. He hasn’t been significantly better against left-handers, so he’s not a platoon weapon. In his seven Major League at-bats, Golson has struck out five times. What he is, at best, is a fifth outfielder/pinch-runner who should have a bat in his hands only as a last resort, say in the 20th inning. At 24 years old, he likely is what he is.

    The Yankees almost certainly know that Golson can’t play; perhaps in acquiring him they envisioned Triple-A depth, some expanded-roster defensive-replacement action, and a potential postseason sequel to Freddy Guzman -- that last a more depressing possibility than another “Star Trek” movie. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of player except that (a) Joe Girardi seems to get all giddy about using them and they wind up batting with two runners on when you’re down by three in the bottom of the 10th, and (b) they squeeze out something better on today’s pitching-choked roster.

    The Yankees didn’t have to go with Golson. Yes, he gives them some versatility insofar as being able to pinch-hit for Randy Winn with Marcus Thames while not forcing the latter to play defense. Still, there were other alternatives (such as have been mentioned in previous entries) which mainly involved a player who, unlike Randy Winn, can hit, Winn’s big home run on Monday notwithstanding. Dave Winfree would have given the Yankees a more likely producer against lefties (roughly .288/.346/.511 against them in his minor-league career), Colin Curtis or the veteran Jon Weber would provide a left-handed pinch-hitter more likely to come through with the odd hit. None of them have the athletic skills of Golson and they would clog the roster to some degree, but in his own way, so does Golson.

    Notice last night’s 0-for-4 with some first-pitch pop-ups to left field? That’s the Evil Cano trying to claw his way back into our world. Gotta keep the devil down in the hole, Robbie! Don’t let him out!

    •I’ve got a new (free) Dead Player of the Day up at BP: Spittin’ Bill Doak, plus some particularly aggrieved thoughts on spending time in a seniors’ rehab facility.

    Wholesome Reading has been updated, and more to come as soon as I get a chance… The world goes on, even when we have family responsibilities.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Mechanics, not fear, driving Vazquez's struggles

    Monday, May 3, 2010, 6:50 PM [General]

    I grew up listening to old radio shows, the entertainment precursor to television. No, I’m not so old that I heard the Jack Benny show, “Gangbusters,” or “Lights Out!” when they first aired, but recordings have always been available on record or cassette (and now MP3). One of my favorites was the Shadow, the story of a vigilante with the “power to cloud men’s minds” so as to be invisible, a handy talent for driving the guilty nuts (or just shooting them, as he was more apt to do in his pulp adventures). At the beginning of each show, the Shadow’s grim laugh (sometimes voiced by Orson Welles) would rise up from swirling organ music and he would intone, “Who knows ... what EVIL ... lurks in the hearts of men? The SHADOW knows!” Cue more maniacal laughter, followed by a commercial for Ovaltine.

    The Shadow was a great character, but he wasn’t real. Sadly, most of us who do not possess the power to look within men’s souls and gain instant knowledge of how they think and feel. Granted, some people are more obvious about their emotions and motivations than others, and some of us may be a bit more perceptive when it comes to gauging the feelings of those around us. Still, it takes ego and arrogance to look at Javier Vazquez and decide that you can diagnose his problems as an aversion to New York and conclude that he’s the new Eddie Lee Whitson, to the point that you haul the actual Ed Whitson out of the hills to comment on him.

    Now, as my colleague Jay Jaffe has written, there are aspects of Vazquez’s career that certainly do suggest a psychological aversion, though not to pitching in New York, but to pitching with runners on base: “Whereas the average pitcher's opposing-batter performance with men on rose by 14 points of OBP and seven points of SLG over his showing with the bases empty, Vazquez's numbers went to hell in a hand basket, rising by 38 points of OBP and 42 points of SLG.” In other words, over the course of his career, when Vazquez gets in trouble he starts serving up the cookies faster than the Pillsbury Doughboy.  

    Of more import right now is the fact that his velocity has been down below 90 miles per hour. Lost velocity is not an emotional issue, or it is only in that the battering a pitcher will take throwing underpowered fastballs can lead to depression. It is more likely to be a mechanical or health problem. Vazquez’s problems may not be reducible to something as simple as “He’s scared of the bright lights/big city with its tall buildings and bagels and exploding SUVs.” Hell, it’s not at all irrational to be a little afraid of that stuff, if you stop and think about it. Regardless, Vazquez’s problems are (at least) two-fold, emotional and mechanical, and probably have nothing to do with Gotham-o-phobia. When you undertake a reductionist approach to a problem, you not only miss the proper answers, you insult the pitcher and the audience as well.

    Having said all of that, Joe Girardi is doing the right thing by skipping Vazquez’s next turn, if only because he has to do something about this on both the individual and team level. It’s not clear that there is much he can do, because the runners-on issue is career-long, and an injury, if an injury it be, usually requires intervention. Time will tell.

    ...Well, not missing him against left-handers. He takes his bed in the infirmary with .161/.188/.226 rates against them in 33 plate appearances. His production against right-handers was just fine at .265/.379/.469, his overall slump notwithstanding, but the southpaw stats had ruined his overall line, making it look worse than it would have had the Yankees simply not tried to ask him to do things of which he wasn’t capable.

    The best hope for the team now is that Brett Gardner continues to hit enough that Granderson is the one platooned with Thames when he comes back a month from now. It probably should have been that way all along, even if Gardner hadn’t gotten out to such a good start.

    Now, when we start seeing Randy Winn every day I probably will start missing Granderson. Even at this best, Winn wasn’t a great bat, and given his age and declining skills it makes a great deal more sense for the Yankees to give him about 3-5 days to find a hot streak or pull the plug and give some playing time to a Minor Leaguer who is off to a good start, like Colin Curtis (of whom I am still skeptical, but .339/.435/.441 is what it is) or Dave Winfree (.282/.330/.449). Neither is likely to make a huge splash in the Majors, but better to go for the upside play than the decaying and mediocre.

    Another musical original from me, this one inspired by an idea along these lines: What if Derek Jeter was suddenly a member of the Kansas City Royals? The answer which came back to me was that he’d probably suffer from catastrophic depression. In that moment, a song was born.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)


    Friday, April 30, 2010, 10:08 AM [General]

    Robinson Cano is now hitting .407/.444/.790 with eight home runs. It’s as if he has been possessed by the ghost of Rogers Hornsby, albeit a smiling, likeable Rogers Hornsby whose time in the afterworld has taught him that should he receive a second chance it would probably be more fun if he just got on with the hitting and stopped being so mean to everyone. As we discussed in a previous entry, Cano has had hot openings before—last year in fact—before losing the thread. That said this is a whole other flavor of hot. Cano has been more disciplined, and the results have been unworldly, or afterworldly, or any other –ly you’d like to use, and if he maintains his disdain for first pitches and pitcher’s pitches and trans-fat pitches and all the other bad-for-you things that used to cause so many easy pop-ups, his ability to make solid contact could result in some truly amazing batting averages. His current .407 seems unlikely, but an improvement on last season’s .320 seems in reach.

    What would Cano have to do to post the best offensive season by a second baseman in Yankees history? Just keep doing what he’s doing is the simple answer—the Rajah never did wear pinstripes. Assuming that Hornsby’s shade will indeed desert him at some point, Cano would have to hit his way past a half-dozen seasons by these pre-integration stars—


    Snuffy Stirnweiss 1944 .319 .389 .460 8 125 43 55 .306 10.3
    Snuffy Stirnweiss 1945 .309 .385 .476 10 107 64 33 .296 8.9
    Joe Gordon 1939 .284 .370 .506 28 92 111 11 .286 8.1
    Joe Gordon 1940 .281 .340 .511 30 112 103 18 .291 7.7
    Joe Gordon 1942 .322 .409 .491 18 88 103 12 .323 7.6
    Tony Lazzeri 1929 .354 .429 .561 18 101 106 9 .320 7.3


    —and these modern second basemen:


    Snuffy Stirnweiss 1944 .319 .389 .460 8 125 43 55 .306 10.3
    Snuffy Stirnweiss 1945 .309 .385 .476 10 107 64 33 .296 8.9
    Joe Gordon 1939 .284 .370 .506 28 92 111 11 .286 8.1
    Joe Gordon 1940 .281 .340 .511 30 112 103 18 .291 7.7
    Joe Gordon 1942 .322 .409 .491 18 88 103 12 .323 7.6
    Tony Lazzeri 1929 .354 .429 .561 18 101 106 9 .320 7.3


    As much as I maintain a sentimental fondness for the old-time Yankees, particularly Flash Gordon, whose place in Cooperstown I lobbied for in these pages many times before he was finally inducted last year, I tend to apply a pretty big discount to stats compiled by players in the all-white, pre-night-ball, pre-relief pitching, pre-slider, pre-conditioning era. They were great players in their time, but the level of competition just can’t match up with today’s. Therefore, Cano is competing with Randolph and Soriano as well as the 2009 version of himself. It’s all going to be in the on-base percentage, something that’s not his forte. If he keeps hitting the way he has, he’s not going to have much choice in the matter.

    Let me clarify that: Cano is going to get pitched around, even with Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson coming up behind him. If he’s willing to take the walks that come with getting nothing to hit, he will only increase his value. If he starts fishing again, the average will plummet and the fact that we even had this conversation will seem very silly a month from now.

    "After all, managing is not so difficult. You just figure out the things of which your players are capable and then try to get them to do those things."— Miller Huggins

    Oscar Madison: Listen buddy, if you're going to argue with me, put down that spoon.

    Felix Ungar: Spoon? Haha, you dumb ignoramus, that is a ladle! You did not know that's a ladle!

    Oscar Madison: Get a hold of yourself, will ya?
    —“The Odd Couple,” by Neil Simon

    The Yankees’ bullpen ranks about midway in the Majors in terms of performance, and as usual, much of that is due to Mariano Rivera’s fine work. The rest is still a work in progress as Girardi tries to figure out which of his pitchers are spoons and which are ladles. It’s easy when CC Sabathia or A.J. Burnett gives you eight innings and the offense puts you up by six or seven, but the rest of the time, things have been complicated.

    No doubt the Yankees would claim that losing Chan Ho Park blew a hole in their late-inning plans, but that would be, at best, an act of denial—Park is 37 and his bullpen track record covers just 139 games, the bulk of them compiled over the last two years in which he has a career 3.97 ERA and for most of which he was kept far away from the spotlight. Park might have been a decent bit of depth and might yet prove to be that, but he was unlikely to be the kind of Horatio-at-the-bridge-to-Mariano that, say, Tom Gordon was in the 2004 regular season.

    The best choice for the high-leverage jobs right now is probably Joba Chamberlain, and that only because he’s the only reliever who has been, if not good, decent. Him aside, the Yankees are pretty much ladle-free right now, with a mis-configured bullpen that has two mediocre lefties, a pitcher with no role (Sergio Mitre), an established pitcher who only works in losses and blowouts (Alfredo Aceves), and another who boasts a career strikeout rate of about 12 batters per nine innings but can’t get the manager to use him often enough to stay sharp (Dave Robertson, who recently got a seven-day blow between jobs, then worked two-thirds of an inning).

    Meanwhile, back at the Scranton ranch, Mark Melancon has a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings. Someone in the Yankees system apparently thinks Melancon is Mike Marshall; Scranton has played all of 20 games and the reliever has appeared in 10 of them, while his 15.1 innings puts him on a pace for about 120 innings. At this rate, Melancon will be burned out before the Yankees ever call on him.

    Get a ladle, Joe… And if you can’t get one of those, how about a spatula?

    Brett Gardner has sat for most left-handers, yet he’s 4-for-12 against them. That’s no sample at all, but it’s more promising than Granderson’s lifelong struggles against southpaws, which have continued with a 5-for-28 against them this season, including an 0-for-4 last night. The simplest solution would be to push Gardner to center against left-handers, with Marcus Thames continuing in left against them, until such time as Gardner proves he too needs to be platooned… and/or it’s determined that Nick Johnson is just never going to start hitting (he will).

    Ned Colletti’s tantrum regarding his team’s play, in which he singled out his best player, Matt Kemp, reminds you of some of the Yankees owner emeritus’s most impetuous moments, like calling Dave Winfield “Mr. May.” That said, at the moment that the Boss erupted, Winfield was having a Dave Kingman finish to the season (.247/.307/.470 August through September) when the Yankees were in a tight divisional race that they would ultimately lose by just two games. Kemp is hitting .292/.350/.584 and the Dodgers have bigger problems, mainly a pitching staff that has zero depth and some underperforming vets.

    I was going to write more, but the wise Rob Neyer beat me to it.

    3.2 (1 Ratings)

    Schilling's opinion on Vazquez not entirely right

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010, 7:12 PM [General]

    Curt Schilling was an excellent pitcher, a likely Hall of Famer, and his work in pursuit of a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease puts a gold star next to his name on the rolls of righteous human beings. His qualifications as a psychologist are less certain. Thus when he says that Vazquez can't excel in New York because his comfort level is disturbed when he's outside of “second-tier cities from a baseball passion perspective,” it would be far more satisfying to hear that he had a rationale based on firsthand observation of the pitcher rather than just some third-hand inference that he's no more qualified to make than any fan in the stands. It is not only irresponsible for a man of his experience and authority to broadcast a conclusion that has no more basis than that, but it lacks professional courtesy. It's not a perfect analogy, but if, say, Steve Carlton had come out in 1994 and had said that Schilling's 2.35 ERA of 1992 was a fluke, it would have been a similarly irresponsible effort at character assassination.

    Given his pitching experience and success, Schilling is on firmer ground when he speculates that Vazquez is “a phenomenal National League pitcher. It's hard to say this without sounding disrespectful and I don't mean it that way -- the National League is an easier league to pitch in, period. And some guys aren't equipped to get those same outs in the American League, and he's one of those guys." However, the thesis is of limited use for the same reason as his psychological perspective: we don't know, because he hasn't been asked to specify, what it is about Vazquez's approach that makes him unsuited to succeeding in the American League. In this case, we can guess that he might be referring to a tendency towards fly balls that has led Vazquez to allow 325 career home runs. This is a handicap given the designated hitter and the hitter-friendly parks of the junior circuit, but not every pitcher to prosper in the AL has been a Tommy John clone; fly-ball pitchers have won in this league. Vazquez's ability to do so is still an open question, not a closed book. As even Schilling concedes (and as I have said here), the Yankees don't need Vazquez to pitch as well as he did in Atlanta last season; an ERA of 4.50 will be more than sufficient given their offensive capabilities and unless he truly has a psychological problem with the American League and/or a physical injury, there's no reason he can't achieve that.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    Back to the grind

    Monday, April 26, 2010, 8:45 PM [General]

    Credit Joe Girardi for coming clean in a way that was uncomfortable to watch in the aftermath of Sunday’s non-intentional walk to Kendry Morales. The good news for Girardi’s conscience is that the blast didn’t lose the game, it simply put it out of reach. The question is why he second-guessed his decision in the first place. Marte used to be the kind of lefty who could do more than spot work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case after his injuries. Morales, a switch-hitter, is a better hitter from the left side than the right, and normally you would want to turn him around. The forgoing should be inoperative when turning him around means letting him face a lefty who is no longer prepared to retire right-handed hitters regardless of their overall bias. That bias, by the way, doesn’t represent a Melky Cabrera-sized weakness: last year, Morales hit .296/.324/.481 against southpaws, which makes him far from an easy out from the right side.

    As pained as Girardi looked in the aftermath of the decision, you can bet he learned something important about Marte, who, despite whatever his baseball card says about his work in Chicago and Pittsburgh, regardless of last year’s World Series, is now 35 and is 2-6 with an ERA of 7.00 in a Yankees uniform. What will always frustrate me is that the Yankees gave away the shank of Marte’s career for the execrable Enrique Wilson (you can argue about whether this was foreseeable or not), but that day is done and there’s no getting it back.

    Now .238/.273/.333 in 23 plate appearances. Still doing better than last year, still doing worse than almost any right-handed hitter would do in his stead. Then again, he’s not hitting anyone just now, having gone 1-for-18 over his last week’s worth of games.

    In 17 games he’s hit .153/.254/.186. A lot of hitters have had a difficult April, so no reason to get carried away -- just ask Mark Teixeira.

    Austin Jackson has had a strong opening to the season, batting .316/.372/.468 in 18 games. He picked up his first home run Sunday. It’s not going to last -- he’s benefitting from something between good luck and a swing so accurate it can’t possibly last. Jackson is making very poor contact, leading the AL in strikeouts and whiffing at a rate that would work out to over 220 strikeouts in 600 at-bats. Simultaneously, he’s hitting .500 on balls in play, which is to say that half of everything he actually makes contact with falls in. The reason for that, in turn, is a line-drive rate of 33 percent. The line drive rate for all batters this year is about 18 percent. Last year it was 19 percent. We have no way of knowing what the average line-drive rate was in, say, 1912, but I very much doubt even Ty Cobb hit one-third of balls solidly over a full season. As such, don’t put Jackson down for Rookie of the Year just yet…

    It’s too early to read too much into the stats, but remember when I said that Comerica would really damage Johnny Damon? One of the reasons he looks so good right now is that he’s played two-thirds of his games on the road, where he’s hitting .354. In six games in Detroit he’s 4-for-17, or .235.

    As Phil Hughes rested over the weekend, several of his contemporaries, including two former Yankees, joined him in pitching well. In Arizona, Ian Kennedy had his second consecutive strong start, holding the imposing Phillies lineup to four hits and two runs over eight innings, walking one and striking out four. Tyler Clippard pitched three perfect innings in two games over the weekend for the Nationals against the Dodgers, bringing his total for the season to one run in 14.2 innings. In 50 games since the start of last season, he has an ERA of 2.28 in 75 innings, allowing just 42 hits(!) and striking out 86.

    In the non-Yankees division, David Price pitched a shutout against the Blue Jays, bringing his record to 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA. The former first-round pick would seem to be blossoming. At one point last year I was asked on a radio show if Price, who finished 2009 with a record of 10-7 and an ERA of 4.42, should be considered a bust. My answer was no, that he was a 23-year-old power lefty and pitchers of that description usually need some time to find their control. More broadly, just about all young pitchers need time to figure out what works for them in the Majors. You’d like every tyro hurler to be Dwight Gooden ’84, but debuts like Gooden’s are the exception, not the rule. Debuts half as good as Gooden’s are the exception.

    The Yankees have traditionally not believed in waiting for young pitchers to figure things out. This is not a phenomenon of the Steinbrenner era, but for the franchise’s entire history, one of the main reasons why just two pitchers (Andy Pettitte will soon be the third) have won over 200 games in pinstripes -- many of the team’s best hurlers have been veterans imported mid-career (of the 16 pitchers with the most wins in franchise history, eight reached the Majors with other teams). You can’t argue with the results, at least for most of the team’s history; in recent decades, this lack of patience has become less rewarding due to the scarcity of quality pitchers available in trade or on the free agent market. Brian Cashman has recognized this (call it The Pavano Awakening), which is one of the reasons the Yankees have tried to handle Hughes and Joba Chamberlain with such delicacy -- they’re like first-time parents trying to keep the newborn away from drafts, germs, electrical sockets, dogs, people, nihilistic thoughts, etc.

    Chamberlain and Hughes can also throw a baseball through a brick wall, which incentivizes patience. This cannot be said for Clippard and Kennedy, command pitchers who struggled with that element of their games in their Yankee auditions. No one looks forward to seeing a pitcher who survives on location walk the ballpark, which helps explain how quickly the two were punted to the National League. Yet, it is also true that with these pitchers that you cannot get the good without wading through the bad, and both had Minor League records that suggested that despite so-so fastballs they could pitch well in the Majors.

    The foregoing is not intended to be a criticism of the Yankees’ approach, or perhaps not a strong one at any rate. The Yankees have huge, understandable disincentives when it comes to patience -- “win now” is not just a philosophy, but also a revenue model. Still, there is a fine line to be walked, because the day will come when the Yankees need those pitchers. There’s not always a veteran fireballer around when you need one.

    Once again, I want to thank all of you who wrote or posted a comment in support of me and my father, who came very close to leaving us last week. He is still in the hospital, but I am hopeful that he will be released soon so he can begin the long path to getting back to where he was before all of this happened. I’d like to think I will be able to get back on something like a regular posting schedule, or as regular as I get, this week. Thanks to some colleagues Wholesome Reading has new posts, and I hope to get a new Dead Player of the Day up late this evening. I deeply appreciate your patience at what has been a trying and frightening time for me and my family.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    We roll along, not merrily

    Friday, April 23, 2010, 4:45 PM [General]

    I continue to spend much of my time at the local hospital, where my father is greatly improved but not yet out of the woods. As an older fellow with myriad health problems, my father is subject to a game of health dominoes: you take a severe blow to one system and all the others start breaking down. It’s like pulling at the bottom of a house of cards.

    I’m there to keep him company, not watch baseball, but he’s sensitive to my work and my enthusiasms, and so he keeps offering. Unfortunately, the television in his room gets about 12 channels, none of them YES or the MLB network. He does get ESPN, but their attention to the only sport that matters has been intermittent as they’ve been dealing with the NFL draft, badminton, and other apparently pressing matters. Because I stupidly opted for a Windows smart-phone last time around, not an iPhone, I don’t have access to the MLB game-watching app. Of course, even if I had it, I would not be allowed to watch Yankees games on it.*

    *Here’s a great game with which to teach your kids geography. You say a location—“Minsk, Balarus!” and your child shouts back, “It’s blacked out!”

    “Elephant Butte, New Mexico!”
    “It’s blacked out!”

    “Pago Pago!”
    “It’s blacked out!”

    MLB blackouts: educational fun for the whole family and a boon for the manufacturers of blood pressure medication.

    …I’m able to get textual play by play on my phone, so I followed the last two games by hitting “refresh” a lot and killing my battery. Naturally, these two games, practically the only two games I have not seen in something like 10 years, were contests of great import. Imagine sitting in a hospital and you see Phil Hughes’ line, it’s something like 7/0/0/0/1/9, and there’s no television for you to get to literally in a space of city blocks? You might weep. Imagine that you saw word of a triple play flashed and you weren’t watching? I rent my garments. Why couldn’t I have missed two interminable 12-5 games against the Orioles? The West Coast trip and its late starting times have been no help, as I’ve been able to negotiate an after-hours pass and stay around the hospital well past the end of visiting hours.

    As long as my father is alive, I don’t really care. Still, it’s fun to complain.

    Tonight, the Yankees start a series against an Angels team that found some oxygen after a rough start, albeit against the Blue Jays and Tigers. They miss ace Jered Weaver but have to face control artist Joel Pineiro again on Saturday. As we discovered last time around, he makes a difficult opponent for the Yankees’ wait-’em-out approach on offense because he just doesn’t miss. The rest of the Angels’ rotation is control-oriented as well, so as damaged as the club has been by the loss of Chone Figgins, John Lackey, et al, they may still represent a difficult opponent for the Yankees.

    The Angels have lost catcher Jeff Mathis, the fellow who made the Yankees’ life so difficult in last year’s playoffs, to the disabled list. He had begun the season the way he left off the last, hitting as if he actually knew what he was doing. Now the Angels will be forced to play Mike Napoli, a far better hitter/worse receiver. Napoli hasn’t hit yet this year, but will with regular playing time. The effect on the pitching staff will probably be less than Mike Scioscia seems to think it will be, so maybe this is a net gain for his team.

    For the Yankees: Mark Teixeira is a career .285/.394/.526 hitter at Angels Stadium, while Nick Johnson hasn’t hit there at all, although it has been about five years since he’s dropped by. Javier Vazquez has a career 1.32 ERA there, but in all of 13.2 innings. Just checking to see if the California sun will heal the sick. Funny how that’s on my mind.

    More over the weekend as I get a chance to check in. As the old song goes, enjoy yourself—it’s later than you think!

    1.9 (1 Ratings)


    Wednesday, April 21, 2010, 8:58 PM [General]

    Greetings, Pilgrims. Many thanks to all of you who either posted or emailed supportive comments. The good news is that my father is resting comfortably in intensive care. The bad news is that (sparing his privacy as much as possible) there are a number of things wrong and the doctors are still trying to identify them all and get them locked down. As such, I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that he’s out of immediate danger, nor do I have any indication as to when he might be considered stable enough to get out of the ICU, let alone go home. He’s awake and sensible and I and my family are doing our best to cheer and distract him, but I know many of you have been in the same position with a loved one and understand just how difficult that can be with doctors and nurses constantly bustling in and out and making pronouncements alternatively hopeful and dire.

    My terrifically wonderful masters at YES have been very kind and told me to take as much time as I need away from my soapbox and my mattresses here, but you and baseball are a terrific distraction at a time like this, to the extent that I can concentrate and figure out what’s going on. I haven’t been bringing my laptop with me to the hospital, preferring to concentrate on my dad, so I’ve been a bit out of touch. As a practical matter, my laptop is also so bulky by today’s standards that it’s more of a desktop you can carry, and I feel like the thing would take up half of my dad’s small room.

    Parenthetically, my younger sister has no such problem, as she recently splurged on a Sony VAIO X, which is like a desktop computer packed into a netbook-sized frame. It’s lighter than an Oreo cookie, the keyboard is close to full-sized, the battery lasts for more than half a day, and it runs Windows 7. Sure, you could buy a 50” LCD television for the same price, but ME WANT.

    My little sister gets all the cool stuff. Me, I get a laptop that could pass for a manhole cover. Hell, when I make a call on my so-called smart phone, it actually puffs out little smoke signals, and when I send an email it waves flags.

    To the extent that I’ve been able to follow the game over the last 48 hours, a few things that have jumped out at me:

    •    I was very disappointed to see the Orioles’ Felix Pie hit the 60-day disabled list with a severe shoulder injury. Once a top prospect with the Cubs, Pie played good defense but failed to hit. He had his swing rebuilt and had a much-improved second half, hitting .276/.336/.453. With his glove, those rates will play. He started out hot this year, going 8-for-20, but he’s going to be parked there for awhile.

    •    There’s a great deal about the Edinson Volquez suspension that doesn’t seem to make sense. If he had a legitimate medical usage, why didn’t he seek an exemption? Why didn’t he produce the prescribing doctor?

    •    Two-thirds of Boston’s outfield is now on the disabled list, and it sounds as if Mike Cameron will be gone for awhile with an abdominal tear. Darnell McDonald made a game-winning hit for them yesterday as a desperation call-up. You will recall that his older brother Donzell, now playing in the Mexican League at 35, was in the Yankees system for about a hundred years. Darnell is 31. Josh Reddick, also up, is the guy who needs to play for the organization’s present and its future. The 23-year-old has real pop and can play center field if he has to. He hasn’t hit much at Triple-A or the majors, but hasn’t played much in either place; last year at Double-A he hit .277/.352/.520 in 63 games. That doesn’t leave room for great optimism, but my instinct is he can do better than that…

    •    It’s just a fluke of 11 games, but it’s fun to see Ivan Rodriguez play like he did when his was a kid. The Nationals as a whole are fascinating. Their bullpen is not the disaster it was yesterday, but their starting rotation, with the exception of the ephemeral shutout stylings of Livan Hernandez, has completely vanished. Non-Livan starters have an ERA of 9.85.

    •    Jose Guillen, .377/.406/.738 with six home runs? Trade him now!

    As for the Yankees, I keep wondering if Brett Gardner could, hypothetically, go through a whole season and hit something like .300/.400/.300 with 50 steals and still be a productive player. The answer would seem to be yes—I keep thinking back to an old-time Phillies outfielder named Roy Thomas who actually had seasons like that during the Deadball era. What I suspect will actually happen, though, is something better. Right now, Gardner is actually in a slump. He’s beating out infield hits because of his speed, but he’s not hitting too many line drives, which are the keys to building a batting average. If he can hit .300 while beating out 6-3 grounders, THEN get his swing straightened out and actually hit a few balls solidly, he’s actually going to build on what he’s done so far. That possibility is both frightening and exciting.

    Back to the hospital… Thanks again for your good wishes. They really do help.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    I'm at a disadvantage, but the Yankees are great

    Monday, April 19, 2010, 10:25 PM [General]

    I come to you today from a hospital in central New Jersey, where my father is being treated after suddenly being taken ill. I am told that this may or may not be a mortal situation; the next 24 hours will tell.  While I am certain that my masters at YES would give me a pass on today’s entry  based on the circumstances, I’m not doing much besides waiting and worrying, and the distraction provided  by baseball is more than welcome. Thus, let us go on to the day’s business.

    Parenthetically, there is a largish television in this waiting room, but it is currently tuned to a show I don’t recognize but is something along the lines of “Dancing with the Socially Maladjusted.” A rather burly fellow is watching and giggling and I think my chances of getting the channel switched over to ESPN are slim to none.

    Also, I think the vending machine next to me is building up to some kind of detonation. "SPORTSWRITER, 39, KILLED BY SHRAPNEL AND STALE CHEETOS." Ah, the perfect ending to a perfect day.

    The good news (which is sort of the bad news from the point of view of one seeking distraction) is that not only are the Yankees not playing tonight, it seems as if things could not possibly be better. At the risk of getting carried away by a short stretch of games, the 2010 team seems like a special outfit.  What remains to be decided is if (A) the Rays also remain special -- and with their pitchers blossoming like buds on a fruit tree, it’s entirely possible -- and (B) will the Red Sox remain so decidedly non-special.  I suspect they’ll perk up quite a bit, but even if they do they have some work to do before they’ll be relevant again.

    The important aspect of all this insofar as evaluating the Yankees, is that they have been playing real teams, not humpty-dumpties. This is neither a dream nor an imaginary story; it is real.

    That’s about all of the thinking I am capable of given my spot here next to the vending machines, and I think I am going to see if I can sneak into the wards and cheer my old man up. I’ll be back with something more like a typical entry as soon as the coast is clear.

    Before I was called away this afternoon, I was able to post a new Dead Player of the Day, some new thoughts on Tea Party stuff at Wholesome Reading (Warning: politics, tea), and there’s a new song up at Casual Observer Music. Back soon with more baseball, hopefully after the release of my dad.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    Can Cano continue blistering start?

    Friday, April 16, 2010, 6:01 PM [General]

    Back when Joe Girardi proposed that Robinson Cano bat fifth, I raised a holler, saying that in order for Cano to provide value in that spot he couldn’t slip at all from last season’s level of production, and perhaps even raise his on-base percentage. He’s done that (and how!) hitting .395/.400/.816 in his first nine games. He’s hit four home runs, including two on Thursday night and has yet to ground into a double play. Now 27 years old, it seems very much as if Cano is peaking.

    And yet, just as some have prematurely celebrated Jeff Francoeur’s newfound patience, it is too early to say if the Cano we’re seeing now is the same one we’re going to be seeing all season long. He’s drawn but one walk, and his pitches-per-plate appearance is up fractionally. What he does have so far is a crazy-high line-drive rate.

    This is all fun to watch, but it would be more exciting if we hadn’t seen it before. Last season, Cano was hot in April, batting .366/.400/.581 with five home runs. He cooled rapidly, and spent May and June scuffling by his standards, hitting .271/.302/.439 with seven home runs. He got his engines reignited in July and finished strong, hitting .339/.370/.555 over the last three months. Perhaps this season will be the one in which Cano doesn’t have a month or two of .290 to .310 on-base percentages, but until we actually get to the end, this is a movie we’ve seen before.  

    You can hit a triple to left field, you can hit a triple to center field, you can hit a triple to right field, and you can hit a triple to Bobby Abreu. On Thursday, Granderson hit two, both of which might have only gone for two bases had the Angels not had old traded-for-Stocker out in the pasture.

    Chan Ho hits the DL today with a bad hamstring. Early reports seem to suggest that it won’t be a long stay, although you never know with those hammies. Boone Logan is on his way back from the sticks, giving the Yankees the inevitable second left-hander in the pen. I question the move. Joe Girardi has not been handicapped overmuch so far by having to rely on Damaso Marte. In fact, you might suggest that having to conserve Marte has helped Girardi make too many overzealous, Coffee Joe pitching changes. Instead of having a spot lefty in the game to get mashed more often than not, the Yankees have gone with their best relievers, pitchers who can get anyone out.

    Moreover, the current patch of schedule, with Texas, Oakland, Anaheim (again), Baltimore, and Chicago isn’t exactly dripping with classic-phase David Ortiz types that require specialized weapons to control. Better to establish a Mark Melancon (you knew he was coming), an all-purpose pitcher, than to distort your whole bullpen by bringing in so limited a pitcher as a spot-lefty.

    The Rangers’ pitching has looked quite good so far this season. By the end of this series, you will no longer be able to say that. They have yet to be adequately tested. The Yankees will serve.

    • Today’s Dead Player of the Day, Earl McNeely, plus debating Sirius-XM’s Mike Ferrin.

    Wholesome Reading has been updated, with more coming throughout the weekend. Warning! Politics! Submarines!

    • I have a short autobiographical fragment up at Casual Observer Music.

    2.8 (2 Ratings)

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