So, I thought I’d do a thing where, every so often at the end of a home stand or road trip, I’d pop in to take a look at how things are going for the Yankees. Call it “Howzit Goin’?,” make it a casual, quick-hit look at the team. Figured it would give me an opportunity to address what’s going right and wrong for the Bombers at that particular point in time. So here’s my first attempt, but I have a problem: everything’s going right.
What’s there to say? The Yankees have won their first four series of the season for the first time since 1926, doing it against their two primary division rivals (believed to be the best teams in the league if not the majors other than the Yankees themselves), as well as my pick to repeat as the AL West champs and one of their primary rivals. They open a new road trip tonight on a four-game winning streak having gone 5-1 on their just-completed homestand and 9-2 since their Opening Day loss to the Red Sox in Boston. Overall they’re 9-3, a record better than all but one team in the American League, that being the 10-3 Tampa Bay Rays, whom the Yankees took two of three from in Tampa the weekend before last.
The Yankees’ three losses break down this way: On Opening Day in Boston, they took and early 5-1 lead on the Red Sox, but CC Sabathia and the bullpen gave the lead back and then some, resulting in a 9-7 loss. In their first game in Tampa, the Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the top of the fourth, but Javier Vazquez, making his regular season debut, fell apart immediately after, giving up eight runs in an eventual 9-3 loss. In Vazquez’s next start, against the Angels in the Bronx, he again took a loss, but in that game, the Yankee offense was stymied by Joel Piñeiro and was unable to give Vazquez a lead. Trailing 2-1 after five, Vazquez gave up two more runs in the top of the sixth which sealed the Angels’ eventual 5-3 win (note that two of those three Yankee runs came against the Angel bullpen).
That last loss was the only one that could really be pinned on the offense, which leads the league with 5.75 runs scored per game and has yet to score fewer than three runs a single game this season. John Lackey actually had the best starting performance against the Yankees in the early going, holding them scoreless for six innings, but Andy Pettitte kept the Red Sox in check in that game and Lackey’s bullpen quickly blew his slim one-run lead and ultimately the game in ten innings (the Yankees’ only extra-inning game thus far). In addition to Piñeiro and Lackey, the Rays’ David Price, who beat Vazquez in his first start, was impressive, but did give up both an early lead and three runs on seven hits and three walks in total.
That’s not to say the Yankee offense is in full bloom. Mark Teixeira is having a typically brutal April (hitting .114 with just two extra-base hits and three double plays). Nick Johnson is hitting just .158, though he has still managed a .407 on-base percentage thanks to a team-leading 14 walks (Teixeira is second with ten) and a couple hit-by-pitches (he’s also managed to stay healthy enough to rank second on the team, to Teixeira, in plate appearances). Nick Swisher is also struggling, hitting just .200/.347/.375 after going hitless in his last four games.
That’s the sum total of the problems on offense, however. Everyone else is off to a hot start led by Jorge Posada’s .378/.465/.730 showing, Robinson Cano’s four homers and ten RBIs, Derek Jeter’s .380 average, Alex Rodriguez’s five doubles, Brett Gardner’s seven steals in eight attempts (to go with a .444 on-base percentage), and Marcus Thames and Fracisco Cervelli’s combined 8-for-16 mark coming off the bench. Amid all that, Curtis Granderson’s fine .311/.380/.578 line with four steals in as many tries gets swallowed up (perhaps because he has struck out in seven of 17 plate appearances against left-handed pitching).
As Hank Waddles illustrated yesterday, Teixeira will hit, and as long as Johnson and Swisher (third on the team with eight walks) are healthy and getting on base, there’s not much reason to worry about them either. I suppose you could fret about the fact that Randy Winn still doesn’t have his first Yankee hit, but I’m just happy he’s only had six opportunities to try.
Which brings us back to the pitching. CC Sabathia, another notorious slow starter, lost on Opening Day Night, but threw 7 2/3 no-hit innings his next time out, then needed just 73 pitches over six innings to struck out nine against no walks while allowing just one run on three hits in a rain-shortened complete game his last time out. Other than Vazquez, every Yankee starter, including fifth-man Phil Hughes, who looked sharp in his debut on Thursday, is off to a better start than he was a year ago.
Before I get to Vazquez, there are some ugly numbers in the bullpen (primarily the 9.00 ERAs sported by David Robertson and Alfredo Aceves), but the pen has blown just one game, the opener against the Red Sox, and that was largely the work of Chan Ho Park, who rebounded with three shutout innings and a win against the Sox in the finale of that series. Still, Park had one awful outing, one very good one, and one in the middle (two innings, solo homer against the Angels) before hitting the disabled list with a hamstring injury and being replaced by Boone Logan. Logan hasn’t gotten into a game yet, which is good, because I don’t expect he’ll be terribly effective (as good as he looked in spring training, his 5.78 career ERA and 1.69 WHIP in 127 2/3 major league innings speaks louder). Logan got the call over Mark Melancon because he’s left-handed, but also because Melancon has already walked four men in Triple-A after walking just 11 in 53 innings there last year but showing some wildness in his major league opportunities. I continue to long for Melancon’s arrival, but understand the decision here. I just hope Logan’s innings come in garbage time if at all.
As for the rest of the pen, Mariano Rivera has been perfect, not allowing a run in six games and converting all five of his save opportunities. He, Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, and Damaso Marte have combined to strike out 21 men in 17 1/3 innings against just six walks, three of them Chamberlain’s, and just one home run allowed. That one home run was a Bobby Abreu grand slam off Robertson that drove in every run Robertson has allowed. That came while Robertson was protecting a 7-1 lead in the ninth inning and I’m willing to toss it out as a concentration issue from a pitcher who has otherwise been sharp and struck out three of the six men he faced in a hitless performance his next time out.
Sergio Mitre has made just one appearance, mopping up for Vazquez in Tampa. He struggled a bit coming in mid-inning, but recovered by retiring the last seven Rays he faced in order. That just leaves Aceves, who has made just three appearances, but allowed runs in the last two. He’ll bear watching, but for all of the relievers (in fact every player and the team in general) the sample sizes right now are far too small to be meaningful and Aceves has allowed just one extra-base hit on the season, a three-run homer by Nelson Cruz.
As for Vazquez, his second start was significantly better than his first. In fact, if his first hadn’t been so ugly (eight runs allowed on three walks and eight hits including two homers), I doubt anyone would have noticed the latter given how well Piñeiro was pitching. In that game, Vazquez allowed just two runs through the first five innings and didn’t allow a ball to leave the homer-friendly ballpark. Ultimately, the criticism of his outing comes down to a three-batter sequence in the sixth when he got ahead of Torii Hunter 0-2 but then ran the count full and gave up a double, moved him to third on a wild pitch, struck out Hideki Matsui, then gave up an RBI double to Kendry Morales and got the hook having just hit 100 pitches. Morales was added to Vazquez’s ledger when Aceves allowed him to score on a single by Maicer Izturis and Vazquez had allowed only a walk his previous time through the Angel batting order.
So what’s the problem? Everyone has their theory, but Vazquez, who gets back on the hill tonight against the Angels, thinks he just been out of rhythm. Indeed, there has been some concern about Vazquez’s fastball velocity and resulting reliance on his off-speed pitches. Vazquez typically throws in the low 90s, but he’s been topping out around 89 mph thus far in April. Per LoHud’s Josh Thomson, Vazquez attributes that to a lack of arm strength due to a lack of off-season throwing and some back mechanics:
Vazquez said he has dragged his arm behind his body, causing his ball to sail rather than sink. “That’s my key,” he said.
. . .
The difference before the 2009 season was he pitched winter ball and competed for team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
“My arm was in better shape last April,” he said. “But this is something that happened to me in the past, then all of a sudden you start throwing hard.”
Tim Britton of MLB.com had a similar story:
Vazquez came out of his Saturday bullpen session concentrating on staying back and in rhythm on the mound and not getting ahead of himself during his delivery.
“In the game, you get the adrenaline going and start rushing a bit,” Vazquez said. “It’s easily correctable.”
When Vazquez gets too quick with his delivery, his fastball has a tendency to both tail a little out of his hand and straighten out in the strike zone.
To reconcile the “too quick” versus the “dragging” explanations, I’m assuming that Vazquez means he’s being too quick with his delivery and his body is getting ahead of his arm, causing it to drag.
There will be a lot of attention on Vazquez tonight as he tries to get in rhythm against the weak-hitting A’s in their pitching-friendly ballpark, because of his unfortunate history with the Yankees and because he was a high-profile addition to this year’s club, but also because there’s just not much else to worry about with this team right now. Everything else is meeting or exceeding expectations, so Vazquez is the story, though I’d argue it’s the expectations that are being exceeded that are the real story. Let those who expected the Yankees to have a six-game lead on the Red Sox on April 20 cast the first stone at Vazquez. The rest, get back to me in late May.