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Flying J, the Score Truck, and a Live Arm

For the past two years, in mid-August the Minnesota Twins have been competitive enough to defuse the inevitable Brett Favre melodrama. Favre is out — supposedly — Donovan McNabb is in, and Republican presidential hopefuls who win straw polls in neighboring Iowa and confuse celebrity birthdays and deathdays are providing the melodrama. The Twins, they entered tonight’s game 15 games under .500, 11 games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers, almost irrelevant in the AL Central.

But for the Yankees, the Minnesota Twins are relevant. They’re on the list of “teams we should beat whenever, wherever” en route to the postseason. Thursday night, with C.C. Sabathia on the mound, mission accomplished. Friday night, with Phil Hughes going, the team performance was even more impressive.

First let’s take the offense. The first time through the batting order, Derek Jeter, Robinson Canó, Nick Swisher and J Martin were the only Yankees to swing at the first pitch against Kevin Slowey, who was making his first start of the season for the Twins (his previous six appearances had been in relief). None of the four first-pitch swingers put the ball in play. Martin was the only one to keep his in fair territory, however. He crushed a hanging curveball into the leftfield seats not unlike someone named Trevor Plouffe did in the first inning for the Twins.

Russell Martin

Russell Martin had three hits, scored twice and drove in three runs. (Photo Credit / Getty Images)

Martin’s solo home run tied the game and allowed the offense to collectively exhale and get into the rhythm. They scored a run in the fourth and in the fifth, which Martin led off with a single, the top of the order wore out Slowey. With Gardner on first base (he reached on a fielder’s choice), Jeter squibbed a single up the middle on an 0-2 pitch. The at-bat may have been the turning point in the game. It set up first-and third with one out, and Curtis Granderson followed with a double that tightroped the first base line and skidded off the bag before barreling into the rightfield corner. Gardner scored, Jeter to third. Mark Teixeira followed with a sac fly to make it 4-1 and the Score Truck had a head of steam. The coup de grace came in the sixth, as J Martin unloaded again. This time, it was a two-run shot to left that broke the game open. With Scott Brosius doing a guest spot in the YES booth in that same half-inning, it seemed fitting that the best No. 9 hitter in recent Yankee memory observed the current No. 9 hitter have arguably his best offensive night as a Yankee. The Yankees posted another two-spot in the ninth inning to complete the rout at 8-1.

Now, let’s take the pitching, specifically Phil Hughes’s outing. Despite Freddy Garcia’s placement on the disabled list and what that means for the temporary settlement of a five-man rotation, Hughes still has pressure on him. Every start is an audition to present his case to remain in the rotation through September and into October. Given what happened in Boston when he appeared in relief, perhaps Hughes has readjusted his brain chemistry to be a starting pitcher.

Hughes cruised much the way he did in Chicago on August 2. He pounded the strike zone with his fastball, changed speeds effectively, and maintained his aggressiveness with two strikes. That aggressiveness didn’t manifest itself in strikeouts as it had in Hughes’s previous two starts against Chicago and Tampa Bay, but it did lead to weak contact and routine outs. Between the home run he allowed to Plouffe in the first inning and the walk he issued to Plouffe to lead off the seventh, Hughes only allowed one Twin to reach base.

Joe Girardi allowed Hughes to start the eighth, and pitcher rewarded manager by retiring the first batter. The next two at-bats didn’t go quite as well. Luke Hughes (no relation) singled to left on a 1-2 curveball and Tsuyoshi Nishioka followed with a screaming liner that caught Gardner in left more than Gardner caught the ball. That was it for Hughes.

Credit Girardi for relieving Hughes when he did — not because of the pitch count, but because in the last eight batters he faced, Hughes issued two walks, a hit, and a loud out. Overall, Hughes was as dominant as he was in the rain-shortened effort against the White Sox. He is 3-0 in his last three decisions as a starter and his fourth straight quality start. Since returning from the DL on July 6, he’s lowered his ERA from Chien-Ming Wang (13.94) to Sergio Mitre (5.75).

All signs point to Hughes being on the right track.

J Martin said of Hughes, “He’s progressing late in the season. You’d rather have somebody peaking late than peaking too early.”

Curtis Granderson figured prominently in the Yankees victory, yet again. Midway through the game, Jack Curry joined Michael Kay and John Flaherty in the YES broadcast booth and Curry asked Kay if he had an MVP vote, who he would vote for. Kay believed that Adrian Gonzalez would win, because his batting average entering Friday’s action was more than 60 points higher than Granderson. Curry said he’d vote for Granderson.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson reached base four times and scored another run Friday. (AP Photo)

Traditionally, the Triple Crown categories have swayed the writers’ vote for Most Valuable Player. If that were to hold true this year, Granderson holds the edge over Gonzalez in both home runs and RBIs. He also has scored more runs than Gonzalez (113 to 81), and has a higher slugging percentage (.596 to .543), and OPS (.973 to .950). Granderson also leads the American League in triples and has 23 stolen bases. His 113 runs scored lead all of baseball, as do his 12 home runs against left-handed pitchers. The only thing Granderson hasn’t done is hit for average. With that in mind, I’ve thought that if Granderson finishes the season within 10 points of .300 on either side, he has a chance to win the MVP.

But there’s a catch.

Six years ago, I wrote a column arguing that Baseball Prospectus’s VORP statistic should be the primary determinant in MVP voting. If that were to hold true this season, Jose Bautista would win, as his VORP total is 69.2 to Granderson’s 57.6. Bautista’s batting average is .314 to Granderson’s .284, he leads the American League in home runs (35), on-base percentage (.455), slugging percentage (.638) and OPS (1.093). The Sabermetricians would put Bautista as the MVP. In terms of VORP, Gonzalez ranks fourth on his team.

So where’s the line? Granderson, compared to Gonzalez and Bautista, is a different offensive player. Not better, but different. Speed adds that other dimension. Perhaps the speed makes Granderson a more complete offensive threat. That completeness is what swayed Jack Curry.

The bottom line: the decision will be subjective, and bias will be involved. If Granderson isn’t the league MVP this season he’s definitely been the MVY (Most Valuable Yankee).


1 Just Fair   ~  Aug 20, 2011 2:44 am

Awesome write up. Dug the Iowa straw poll line and give me Granderson every day of the week. Modamn does he shine. Checked out early to go out but I heard Martin's homer call via radio. What the hell does Sterling say, "Monsieur Martin,.............." ? I took 6 years of french but have no idea.

2 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 20, 2011 3:32 am

[1] Isn't he Canadian? Montreal, if I recall, or at least grew up there as his father was a jazz musician and Montreal is a jazz hotbed. Anyway, Montreal is also in Quebec, and the predominant language of that region is a hybrid French; thus Sterlinglish "Monsieur Martin"... I think? (*shrug*)

3 RIYank   ~  Aug 20, 2011 7:55 am

I heard that! He seems to be saying "est là", "... is here." Why, I couldn't say. And of all Yankees, why does Martin get his homers called in French?

4 rbj   ~  Aug 20, 2011 8:02 am

[2] Morning, folks. Flying J, reminds that I get a nice 640 mile drive tomorrow, half on the PA & OH turnpikes. Yup, Martin is French Canadian.

So what does MVP mean? Curtis has been instrumental in keeping the Yankees in the division/playoff hunt, while Toronto is stuck in fourth. Gotta be value in that.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 20, 2011 9:26 am

Granderson's MVP case hinges on his defense, because he makes a few too many outs to be among the top two or three offensive players. He's an elite offensive player because of his versatility, but a .380 ish OBP is just a tad shy of MVP level out-avoidance.

If voters look to rep for defense, he could get serious consideration. If the voters look to defensive stats, he actually loses ground to field.

6 RIYank   ~  Aug 20, 2011 9:52 am

Jon, is .380 OBP shy of MVP even for a CF? I doubt that.

I guess I'm not clear on whether you're making the case to us, or describing how the voters might see it. Or both.

7 monkeypants   ~  Aug 20, 2011 10:12 am

[2][3][4] Yes, Martin is from Montreal. He grew up, I believe, in the Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood, which is more or less where I live when I happen to be living in Montreal.

I have no idea what Sterling says when Martin bats because I no longer listen to Yankees home radio broadcasts. However, if he says "Monsieur Martin est là meaning "Mr. Martin is here" that's not so good French methinks (even for Quebec French).

8 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 20, 2011 10:28 am

[6] my take on how the voters might see it. but i think i've underestimated just down the offense is this year. .380 wouldn't cut it 10 years ago, but it's more than enough now.

according to fangraphs, in the AL, he's the 2nd best batter, the second best base runner and the worst center fielder. hope they're wrong about the last part, or at least the voters don't see it that way.

9 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 20, 2011 10:46 am

[6] also to separate for clarity, curtis has all the offense he'll need to convince the voters on either side of the aisle, homers, runs, rbi and SB for the trad guys, wOBA, runs created, off WAR for the SABR guys. Batting avg might hurt, but as will said, if he's around .290, it won't be too bad.

some trad guys will give him the CF bump for just playing there and having a decent rep, the SABR guys may downgrade him for being the worst CF in the AL according to their stats.

10 William J.   ~  Aug 20, 2011 5:08 pm

[9]From watching, which is admittedly flawed, it seems like Granderson loses a lot of balls to Gardner, Jeter and Cano, all three of whom are more aggressive and usually call him off even when the situation dictates Granderson should make the play.

In addition to other flaws, another problem with defensive metrics is they are zero sum. If Gardner cuts in front of Granderson, the former gets credit and the latter a penalty, but the out was made. That just doesn't make any sense to me.

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