Javier Vazquez’s second turn in New York is going about as well as the last portion of his first. In other words, like the Brazilian soccer star, Kaká.
The 1-3 record and 9.00 ERA would be remotely permissible if Vazquez showed a certain level of aggression on the mound. He was booed in his first start at Yankee Stadium. We remember Game 7 in 2004 and much of the second half. We remember “Home Run Javy” and that 18 of the 33 home runs he allowed that year came with two strikes. And contrary to popular belief, there are many of us who remember that he completed at least six innings in all but three of his starts prior to July 1 of that year, and that he made the All-Star team.
But the lasting memory is that Johnny Damon grand slam in Game 7 that sealed the 3-0 ALCS choke. Following another debacle in Anaheim that saw him cough up a 3-0 lead and use his fastball sparingly over 3 2/3 innings, Vazquez was this week’s piñata. Craig Carton defended Yankee fans’ right to boo him when some got on the soap box and decried fan behavior (Hell, I booed him from my living room on Sunday). Mike Francesa said that Vazquez is “caught in a situation where he has to convince Yankee fans to believe in him, that he has the guts to succeed here, and that’s not a place you want to be in New York.” He also mentioned that Vazquez “expected to be booed” on Saturday.
The Onion, in its merciless way, included Vazquez in its lampoon of the “True Yankees” myth:
“To have Javier Vazquez don the same pinstripes as Mariano Rivera or Jorge Posada is…well, it’s unthinkable,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said as Curtis Granderson modeled the sterile, black-and-white uniform with a large, boxy, non-interlocking “NY” stitched across the front of the chest. “The untrue Yankees will wear a blank, unfitted ball cap until they have their big Yankee moment. They’ll wear their last names on the backs of their lesser uniforms as a badge of shame.”
Hilarious yet biting. Curt Schilling, in an interview with ESPN Radio, was more biting than hilarious in his assessment of Vazquez:
“I never, ever thought the move to New York the first time was a good one, and I didn’t think this (move) was good as well. I don’t think he suddenly learned how to pitch when he went back to Atlanta and dealt last year. 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.”
”… (Vazquez) thrived in Montreal and he thrived in Atlanta, and those are both second-tier cities from a baseball passion perspective. He’s not a guy that I’ve ever felt was comfortable in the glow. … You’re seeing what you’re gonna get from him consistently all year. Having said that, he could turn around next week and throw a one-hitter with his stuff. I just don’t see him being a consistent winner in the American League.”
Schilling, I believe, echoed what many Yankee fans including myself are feeling, only he said without using expletives. Is Vazquez still a better option than Melky Cabrera? Of course. But how much more are Yankee fans going to take before they turn him into Ed Whitson?
Naturally, all this is now wrapped in the specter of Vazquez facing his former team and manager, Ozzie Guillén, who questioned Vazquez’s toughness and like Schilling, his ability to thrive in big games. Comments like these below launched a public feud at the end of the 2008 season:
* “He’s not a big game pitcher. That’s the bottom line.”
* ”You have to be mean. Go out there and show them we show up to play, show up to kick your guys’ [butts]. And believe me, that will take care of itself.”
Vazquez’s response at the time, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times: ”You know what? It’s not going to [change a lot of opinions] because I’m really the type of guy that when I retire, I’m going to be home in Puerto Rico with my family.”
Which brings us to today. Vazquez is struggling. The record and ERA are troubling, but the 1.80 WHIP, .309 BAA, and 11 walks (he walked 44 all of last year) are eye-popping. Has he been as bad as Chien-Ming Wang was last year? No. But when our own Cliff Corcoran writes “Danks versus Javy Vazquez on Saturday afternoon is a loss…” in his series preview as he did yesterday, the verdict is in: the confidence level is nowhere.
What is up? Why isn’t he throwing his fastball more? Why is his velocity not over 90 more consistently? Is he hurt? Is he really that fragile and sensitive? If so, why was he brought back here? Recycling isn’t good for every environment.
Francesa probed manager Joe Girardi with many of these questions, and to the pitching points, Girardi said he doesn’t know if Vazquez is hiding an injury, it could be a deadarm period following spring training, a number of variables. To the question about Vazquez’s psyche, Girardi said, “I don’t know, because I’m not inside his mind.”
But the fans are. Vazquez admitted as much when he said he expected to be booed. Jason Giambi — say what you want, but he was great with the media — had tremendous perspective on this topic. He used to say, “I’d boo me, too. I know the fans want to cheer for me, but I’m not giving them much of a reason to.” Yankee fans booed Derek Jeter when he went through his 0-for-32 stretch, booed Mariano Rivera when he blew consecutive saves against the Red Sox in April of 2005. They booed Joe Torre countless times.
The only way for Vazquez to counteract that is to take a cue from his former manager. Guillén, responding to Vazquez’s comments about being “happy to get out of the negativity and starting fresh” upon his trade to Atlanta, told reporters, “F–k feelings. Just win.”
Just win, Javy. Otherwise, the “Jay-vee” perception will reign.