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Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim III: Blink And You’ll Miss It

It seems like little more than a hazy memory now, but the Yankees and Angels played each other six times in April, each taking two of three at home from the other. They’ll finish their season series in the next 24 hours with a two-game set that will kick off at 7:05 tonight in the Bronx and should wrap up before the end of the work day tomorrow.

Despite the departures of John Lackey and Chone Figgins, the Angels were my pre-season pick to win the American League West, but with the Rangers’ 4.5-game lead and recent acquisition of Cliff Lee, I can’t see the second place halos catching up. Obviously, I didn’t anticipate Kendry Morales’ suffering a season-ending broken leg during a walk-off celebration at home plate on May 29. Nor did I expect that third baseman Brandon Wood would be such a total bust at the plate (.168/.185/.225). The Angels appeared to solve their hot corner problem with former Giants second base prospect Kevin Frandsen, but Frandsen has hit just .136/.200/.162 since June 30 and is a far inferior fielder to Wood.

I expected better things from ex-Yankees Hideki Matsui, who is making the Bombers look bright for letting him go by hitting just .249/.329/.393 and slugging just .359 since the end of April, and Bobby Abreu, who’s .259/.351/.412 is his worst across the board since he was a rookie with the Astros last century.

I also expected better things from the Anaheim rotation, which I repeatedly described as “five deep.” Jeff Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Joel Piñeiro seemed like a solid quintet in April, but Kazmir has been awful (6.92 ERA, 1.22 K/BB) and just hit the disabled list with a bum shoulder, and Saunders has been erratic (4.83 ERA, 1.32 K/BB).

As a team, the Angels have been below average in both runs scored and runs allowed this season and, despite their 50-45 record entering this series, they have been out-scored on the season. That’s a large part of the reason that I think the AL West race is over: the Rangers are the only team in the division with a positive run differential and they just got better with the addition of Lee.

Sean O’Sullivan takes Kazmir’s spot in the rotation tonight. A 22-year-0ld righty, O’Sullivan posted a 5.92 ERA in ten starts and two relief appearances  as a rookie last year. This year, he’s made just four relief appearances in the majors (albeit with good results), and had a 4.76 ERA in 15 Triple-A starts.

O’Sullivan will face Phil Hughes, who last pitched at Angel Stadium, taking the loss in the All-Star game by giving up singles to two of the three batters he faced. Hughes ended the first half with a strong outing against the punchless Mariners (7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 5 K), but had just one quality start in his previous four outings (7.03 ERA). With Andy Pettitte heading to the DL with a groin injury that will keep him out until the end of August, the Yankees need Hughes to get back on track.

Pettitte officially goes on the DL tonight. Expect Jonathan Albaladejo, who has been dominating out of the Scranton pen, to take his spot for now, with another move being made Saturday to allow Sergio Mitre to be activated to take Pettitte’s place in the rotation (though I’d rather see Mitre return to the bullpen and Ivan Nova get that chance).

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Tampa Bay Rays III: Get On The Good Foot

It has been two months since the last meeting between the Yankees and Rays, the teams with the two best records in baseball who also happen to share the same division, but the two teams have 13 games against each other in the second half starting with this weekend’s three-game set in the Bronx. When they last met, the Rays padded their lead in the East by winning a pair of slugfests at the Trop by a combined score of 18-12, sending the Yankees packing five games out of first place. Since then, the two teams have switched places, with the Yankees entering this weekend’s set with a two game lead in the East, having thus gained seven games on the Rays in the last two months.

Introducing that last series, I wrote about how the Rays had played over their heads to that point, scoring more runs than their component offensive numbers would suggest thanks to some effective baserunning and clutch hitting. Indeed, the primary difference between the two teams thus far has been run production. The Rays and Yankees are one and two in the AL in both fewest runs allowed (Rays: 3.85 R/G; Yanks: 4.00 R/G) and defensive efficiency (Yanks: .714; Rays: .708). The big difference is is on offense, where the Yankees have scored 5.33 runs per game with potential for second-half improvements from Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and a healthy Jorge Posada, while the Rays have scored 5.05 runs per game despite slugging just .405 as a team, the ninth-best mark in the league, which suggests they’re more likely to head in the other direction.

The Rays have improved at catcher, as 26-year-old rookie John Jaso has solidified the position with his strong on-base skills (.274/.393/.377), while former Yankee prospect Dioner Navarro, now also 26, has been farmed out to Triple-A after hitting .216/.268/.314 in 531 plate appearances between last year and this. They have yet to solve the designated hitter spot, however. When they last met the Yankees, the Rays had just dropped Pat Burrell in favor of Hank Blalock, but since then they’ve released Blalock as well, turning to Matt Joyce, the outfielder they received from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson. Joyce has shown some on-base skills of his own, walking 11 times against just seven strikeouts in 15 games, he hasn’t actually hit yet. Altogether, the Rays DHs have hit .240/.307/.373 on the season.

That’s better than what they’ve gotten from Jason Bartlett at shortstop, but at least Bartlett contributes in the fiel . . . huh? What’s that you say about his UZR numbers this season? Oh. So why hasn’t Reid Brignac stolen his job yet? Bartlett hit what last season? And what makes you think that was anything but a fluke? Hello? Hello? . . . I think they hung up.

Where was I?

Oh, so yeah, the Rays’ offense has its problems. It’s basically Crawford, Longoria, some solid on-base rates from Jaso and Ben Zobrist (.385, but a .398 slugging), the occasional Carlos Peña dinger (he has 18, but is still hitting just .203/.321/.415), and some bonus stolen bases from B.J. Upton when he actually gets on base (.230/.320/.395, but 25 for 31 on the bases). Sean Rodriguez has some power and speed, which is nice from a second-baseman, but he’s drawn just six walks all year (one every 39 plate appearances!) and has a .302 OBP.

Still, with their pitching and defense, the former of which includes a deeper end game than the Yankees thanks to strong showings from hard-throwing 32-year-old righties Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit and spectacular work from newly imported closer Rafael Soriano (1.60 ERA, 4.14 K/BB, 23 of 24 save chances converted), the Rays remain dangerous, and this weekend’s series will likely be just an opening salvo in battle between the two teams down the stretch.

While I have my eye on Sunday’s game, which pits veteran lefty Andy Pettitte against tyro southpaw David Price, both whom ranked among the top pitchers in the league in the first half, tonight’s game presents a far more favorable pitching matchup for the Yankees. It’s not that James Shields is a pushover, though he’s struggled of late, going 1-3 with a 6.29 ERA in his last four starts allowing at least four runs each time out and going 2-7 with a 7.66 ERA over his last nine appearances (eight of them starts, one a throw-day relief appearance in extra innings). It’s more that CC Sabathia has looked unbeatable of late going 8-0 with a 1.81 ERA over his last eight starts, all of them quality, all lasting a minimum of seven innings. He has faced the Rays once this year, holding them scoreless for 7 2/3 innings back on April 10, and is pitching on normal rest having started the Yankees’ last game on Sunday, so there’s little reason to expect his rhythm to be disrupted.

More good news, Juan Miranda has returned to the team to boost the feeble bench, bouncing Kevin Russo back to Scranton and starting at DH tonight and batting eighth between Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. Jorge Posada is behind the plate, making this the best offensive lineup the Yankees have run out in some time.

The Yankees will honor Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner before the game. It seems fitting that they’re playing Tampa tonight given the Boss’s home base there and the added emphasis he always placed on beating the Rays. I expect the Yankees will do him proud tonight.

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Howzit Goin’? Grading the Pitchers

Hitters yesterday, pitchers today.

Starters:

CC Sabathia: 12-3, 3.09 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.54 K/BB, 13 QS (68%)

Sabathia tends to start slowly in April, but after a dud on Opening Day Night, he ran off six straight strong starts, which spoiled us a bit and made his three bad outings in his next four turns and May gopheritis (8 homers in his first five starts that month) seem like a bigger problem than they actually were. Since the calendar flipped to June, he’s gone 8-0 with a 1.81 ERA and just two home runs allowed in eight starts. Crisis over. Incidentally, after 19 starts last year, CC was 8-6 with a 3.86 ERA.

A

A.J. Burnett: 7-7, 4.75 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.76 K/BB, 8 QS (44%)

Burnett had only two real duds over the first two months of the season, but his June was a total disaster: 0-5, 11.35 ERA, 9 homers in just 23 innings over five starts. Those five starts coincided exactly with pitching coach Dave Eiland’s absence from the team, and A.J. has been sharp in his two starts since Eiland’s return (13 2/3 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 0 HR). That bodes well for Burnett’s second-half performance, but, jeez, talk about a hothouse flower. A.J. is the second-highest paid starter in the Yankee rotation, but is last among the team’s starting five in each of the stats listed above, largely due to his horrid June.

C-

Andy Pettitte: 11-2, 2.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.49 K/BB, 13 QS (76%)

Pettitte, who just had the best first half of his 16-year career, was undeniably the Yankees’ ace in the first half. He allowed more than three runs in just three of his 17 starts, completed five innings in every one of those 17 starts, and completed six or more innings in 14 of them. Despite Pettitte’s protests, the Yankees skipped his second start in May because of some tightness in his elbow, but he had only allowed one run in the start before being skipped, allowed none in six innings after returning to action, and hasn’t had any further problems with the elbow since. As a pitcher who’s ERA has been nearly a half-run lower in the second half than the first over the course of his career, he’s a legitimate Cy Young contender.

A+

Javier Vazquez: 7-7, 4.45 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 2.11 K/BB, 9 QS (53%)

Vazquez’s return to the Yankees started almost as badly as his previous stint ended, though in retrospect, his 1-3, 9.78 ERA performance over his last five starts doesn’t look so bad compared to Burnett’s five-start in June. Javy at least had a win and back-to-back starts in which he allowed fewer runs than innings pitched. Still, Vazquez was lacking velocity on his fastball and seemed to be pitching scared, so the Yankees skipped his sixth start to give him a reboot. It worked. Since being skipped, Vazquez has posted a 2.75 ERA in 11 starts and one key relief outing (striking out Kevin Youkilis with two on and two out in a two-run game, setting up a ninth-inning rally against Jonathan Papelbon). Since the calendar flipped to June, seven of Vazquez’s eight starts have been quality.

C

Phil Hughes: 11-2, 3.65 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 3.14 K/BB, 9 QS (56%)

Taking off my analyst hat for a second, how freaking cool was it that Phil Hughes made the All-Star team? Given all of the expectations, hopes, the refusal to trade him for Johan Santana (which I agreed with), the injuries, the struggles, to watch him pitch in the All-Star game at age 24 was just incredibly satisfying, even if he did wind up taking the loss. Andy Pettitte made the All-Star team as a 24-year-old sophomore and went on to be one of the best starting pitchers in the history of the franchise. Hughes is not only finally on that path, but he could actually be better than Andy in the long run. It’s enough to make my heart skip a beat.

Okay, back to an objective look at Hughes’ first half. Hughes was awesome in his first six starts (5-0, 1.38 ERA, nearly no-hitting the A’s in his second start of the season, allowing one or no runs in four of those six outings). He was also hit-lucky, benefiting from a .223 opponent’s average on balls in play and allowing just one home run despite giving up his fair share of fly balls. Since then he has posted a 5.08 ERA in ten starts, only half of which have been quality. He’s continued to win thanks to strong run support and his ability to pitch more than six innings per start on average, but his performance in those last ten games has been more “real” as it has been accompanied by a .315 BABIP (high, but not off the charts like his early-season mark) and ten home runs in ten starts (including seven taters in his last five).

Given that this is really Hughes’ first full season in the major league rotation (his previous high was 13 starts and 72 2/3 innings in his rookie year of 2007; he’s already at 16 starts and 101 innings this year), I have no problem with how he’s been pitching. His peripherals are strong, he’s proving he can work out of jams, turn over a lineup, etc. etc., and that 11-2 record and strong start are keeping the heat off his less dominating performance of late. Everything’s going according to plan, including the Yankees’ skipping him occasionally to keep his innings down. As far as finally getting his career as a starter on track, his first half has been an A. In the context of the rotation and the league as a whole:

B

Relievers:

Mariano Rivera: 1.05 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 5.50 K/BB, 20 SV, 2.400 WXRL

The Greatest of All Time still dominating at age 40 despite a sore left side and a bad right knee. Fuggedaboudit.

A+

Joba Chamberlain: 5.79 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 2.86 K/BB, 0.141 WXRL

Oh yeah, it was totally worth sacrificing up Chamberlain’s potential as a starter for this. To be fair, Chamberlain’s been better than his ERA and WHIP. Those peripherals are solid, and despite some ugly outings, he has still been a net positive per his WXRL (which totals up his impact on the team’s win expectancy in each of his outings). Still, since mid-May he has posted an 8.71 ERA in 22 outings, losing three games and blowing a save in a fourth. It’s not that he’s actually been awful, but he’s been maddeningly inconsistent. Instead of a potential successor to Mo, Joba has looked like the second-coming of Kyle Farnsworth or the relief version of Burnett. I’m becoming convinced that the Yankees greatly overestimated Chamberlain’s mental and emotional maturity and with all of the role-changing he’s done, he’s been set adrift and is developing into a classic million-dollar arm/ten-cent head-type with results that don’t live up to his stuff.

Here’s the good news regarding Joba’s rocky last two months: Joba has been unlucky, as opponents have hit .420 on balls in play against him since mid-May. He’s not giving up the long ball, having allowed just one home run over that stretch and just two on the season. He’s still striking guys out (19 Ks in 20 2/3 innings), and 14 of those 22 outings have been scoreless. Curiously, his scoreless outings have been coming come in threes. Since June 1, he’s turned in three-straight scoreless outings four times, each time giving up runs in his next appearance. That might just be a coincidence, but if I were the Yankees, I’d be looking for any kind of clue that might help Chamberlain get back to his pre-rotation dominance. Actually, if I were the Yankees, I’d trade for a lock-down eighth-inning guy, send Joba down to Triple-A as a starter and tell him we’re very sorry and we’ll never put him in the bullpen again. Chances of that happening: less than zero.

C

David Robertson: 5.46 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 5.2 BB/9, 1.88 K/BB, 0.296 WXRL

Walks were Robertson’s bugaboo coming up through the minors, and they’ve been a large part of his problem thus far this year, but one can understand why he might be afraid to throw strikes given his .398 BABIP. The good news is that, in direct contrast to Chamberlain, Robertson has been more effective since mid-May, posting a 2.82 ERA and allowing runs in just three of 21 outings since May 8. His walk rate hasn’t been better during that span, and his BABIP hasn’t been much better either, but he’s getting the job done (not allowing a home run in those 22 1/3 inning has helped).

C

Damaso Marte: 4.08 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, 1.09 K/BB, -0.495 WXRL

Those peripherals and WXRL tell a very different story that Marte’s roughly league-average ERA and solid WHIP. That’s because the LOOGY has allowed 27 percent of his 22 inherited runners to score. That’s just six runs, but it’s also just one less than Chamberlain and Robertson combined, and if you add those six runs in to Marte’s pitching line, his ERA leaps up to 7.13. Ouch. Marte seems to be getting the job done against lefties, who have hit .146/.200/.268 against him with 11 strikeouts in 45 plate appearances, but his BABIP on the season is .160, which suggests things could get real ugly in the second half. Are you convinced yet that the Yankees need to trade for a relief pitcher?

D+

Chan Ho Park: 6.18 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.14 K/BB, -0.209 WXRL

If you’re getting depressed, you might want to stop reading now. Park missed a month due to a strained hamstring and it was probably his best month as a Yankee. When healthy, he has allowed six home runs in 27 2/3 innings and stranded just two of his six inherited runners. His peripherals are solid, but that doesn’t seem to be helping.

D-

Alfredo Aceves: 3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 1.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.50 K/BB, 0.528 WXRL

Aceves hit the DL with a herniated disk on May 8 and is desperately trying to avoid season-ending surgery. After a set-back during his July 5 bullpen session and a third epidural, he has no timetable for a return. How much has his absence hurt the Yankees? He’s still second on the team in WXRL.

Incomplete

Sergio Mitre: 2.88 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.67 K/BB, 0.146 WXRL

Entering his second season after Tommy John surgery, Mitre looked like a different pitcher in spring training and looked ready to step into Aceves’s utility stopper role until he pulled an oblique taking batting practice in preparation for the Yankees’ series at CitiField in mid-June. That was a devastatingly stupid injury. Fortunately, Mitre is close to returning, having already thrown nine rehab innings, including three for Triple-A Scranton Thursday night. Activating Mitre and calling up Jonathan Albaladejo (1.01 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 4.92 K/BB in 44 2/3 innings for Triple-A Scranton) could go a long way toward improving the Yankee pen in the second half.

Incomplete

Boone Logan: 3.93 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 5.9 BB/9, 1.08 K/BB, 0.033 WXRL

See those peripherals? Mix in the fact that lefties have hit .280 against him with a .400 on-base percentage. The Yankees have been lucky that Logan has been a net positive in his two stints and is now again safely tucked away at Triple-A. They best not tempt fate by giving Logan a third chance.

C

Chad Gaudin: 4.67 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, 1.44 K/BB, -0.339 WXRL

As WXRL reveals, Gaudin has been worse than his traditional stats would suggest. Since being released by the A’s with an 8.83 ERA and re-signing with the Yankees, Gaudin has allowed runs in half of his ten appearances. He has pitched twice since June 21, and with starter Dustin Moseley now in the major league pen, I’d expect Gaudin to be dropped upon Mitre’s return.

D+

Other dudes:

The Yankees have gotten some  quality emergency relief work from their Triple-A starters this year. Moseley, Romulo Sanchez, and Ivan Nova have combined for this line in five appearances: 9 2/3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K, with the only run scoring on a solo homer off Moseley, the only hit he allowed in a three-inning appearance. The sample is small enough to be meaningless, but Nova’s contribution came in his first two major league appearances, and Sanchez has recently been moved into the Scranton pen, which could be a precursor to his return to the major league pen. Less encouraging were Mark Melancon’s last two unfairly short stints (one appearance each). Melancon avoided his 2009 bugaboos, walking and hitting no one, but gave up five runs (four earned) in four total innings, and back at Triple-A his struggles have continued (4.72 ERA, 1.92 WHIP, 1.74 K/BB in 24 appearances since the end of April).

Bullpen:

The Yankee bullpen is 20th in the majors in WXRL and 19th in ERA (4.14) and 9th in the AL in both measures. That’s with Mariano Rivera. The contrast between Mo and the rest of the bullpen has been so stark that it seems unfair to lump Rivera in with the rest. Here, then, is a grade for everyone else.

D+

Rotation:

The only AL team with a better SNLVAR (the WXRL equivalent for starting pitchers) than the Yankees is the Mariners, and only the Padres and Cardinals have a better mark in the NL. Those teams and the Giants are the only clubs with better starters’ ERAs than the Yankees’ 3.68. The Yankees have needed just two spot starts all season (both by Sergio Mitre due to Pettitte’s elbow and Vazquez’s early struggles), and three of their starters deservedly made the All-Star team. Also worth noting, only the Phillies (largely due to Roy Halladay), and Mariners (due to Felix Hernandez and, until recently, Cliff Lee), have gotten more innings per start from their starters this year, which is why the Yankees D+ bullpen hasn’t been able to drag the team down in the first half.

A+

Howzit Goin’? Grading the Hitters

Nothing radical here. Grades are based on performance relative to the team’s expectations as well as league-wide positional standards.

Mark Teixeira, 1B:  .254/.360/.465, 17 HR, 60 RBI, 14.6 VORP

A notorious slow-starter, Teixeira got off to the worst start of his career, hitting just .211/.326/.363 on June 6. Since then he has hit .336/.424/.655 with nine homers and two more walks than strikeouts. His rate stats look a lot like those of the major league average first baseman (.271/.357/.462), but he’s still on pace for 31 homers and 110 RBIs, has been typically strong in the field, and is a career .306/.390/.578 hitter in the second half, so it’s hard to complain too much.

C+

Robinson Cano, 2B: .336/.389/.556, 16 HR, 58 RBI, 43.0 VORP

Following a season in which Cano hit just .207/.242/.332 with runners in scoring position, the Yankee management challenged him by placing in the fifth spot in the lineup and charging him with protecting Alex Rodriguez. Yeah, no problem. Cano opened the season with a ten-game hitting streak, has hit .340/.416/.553 with runners in scoring position, and is fourth in the major leagues in VORP. He has slumped a bit in the last week, but still has a hit in 14 of his last 19 games. Oh, and he’s a stellar defensive second baseman.

A+

Derek Jeter, SS: .274/.340/.392, 8 HR, 43 RBI, 9 SB (75%), 17.9 VORP

The Captain hit .330/.354/.521 in April, but has managed a meager .255/.336/.347 line since then. Compare that to the major league average shortstop, who has hit .262/.320/.371 this season. His fielding has slipped back below average (per UZR and my eyeballs), and he just turned 36. Heh.

C

Alex Rodriguez, 3B: .269/.345/.481, 14 HR, 70 RBI, 19.3 VORP

Rodriguez’s season has been alarmingly ordinary with one glaring exception. He has gone 7-for-13 with three grand slams and 25 RBIs with the bases loaded. That’s why he’s fourth in the majors in RBIs. Otherwise, he has been having his worst season since he was a 21-year-old in his second full major league season. Not that he’s been bad. He’s just been, well, unexceptional, and that includes his limited range in the field and lack of basestealing (2 for 4). That’s not what the Yankees wanted to see from Rodriguez in his second season after spring 2009 hip surgery, and not a good sign from a 34-year-old player who is owed a minimum of $180 million over the next seven years.

C+

Jorge Posada, C: .265/.373/.464, 9 HR, 29 RBI, 14.8 VORP

When healthy, Posada has been his typical self at the plate, which is damn impressive for a 38-year-old catcher. The trick is he hasn’t been terribly healthy (missing games due to a strained calf and sprained finger spending the second half of May on the disabled list with a broken foot), and hasn’t done all that much catching (just 36 games against 20 at DH and 48 starts behind the plate for Francisco Cervelli).

B-

Nick Swisher, RF: .298/.377/.524, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 25.1 VORP

Check this out:

Swisher pre-NYY: .244/.354/.451 (112 OPS+)
Swisher 2009: .249/.371/.498 (129 OPS+)
Swisher 2010: .298/.377/.524 (144 OPS+)

That’s something you like to see from a player in his late 20s, but one worries about the degree to which his performance thus far this year is propped up by that big jump in batting average. Yes, Swisher and hitting coach Kevin Long specifically targeted Swisher’s historically poor averages in revamping his swing, but when you look closer, Swisher’s isolated slugging is down from 2009 and his walk rate is actually at a career low. It’s worth the trade if he can continue to hit .300, but that’s less reliable than power and taking ball four. Still, I’m grading what he’s done, not what he’ll do.

A-

Curtis Granderson, CF: .240/.309/.409, 7 HR, 24 RBI, 7 SB (100%), 6.1 VORP

A groin injury tore a hole in Granderson’s first half, shelving him for most of May. That plus a hot start (.326/.370/.605 in his first 11 games) has helped keep the heat off the Yankees’ big offseason acquisition. I’m here to reapply it. Granderson has hit just .220/.296/.363 since May 18 and is hitting just .207/.250/.287 against lefties, doing little to overcome that career-long bugaboo. His play in center has been strong, but that’s not much return for Austin Jackson (who, to be fair, has hit just .249/.306/.326 since May 10), Ian Kennedy (109 ERA+, 2.38 K/BB for the Diamondbacks), and lefty Phil Coke (2.48 ERA in 42 games for the Tigers), all of whom are younger and cheaper. Granderson has plenty of time to prove his value, but he’ll be 30 next March and his OPS+s over the last four years point in the wrong direction: 135, 123, 100, 95 . . .

D

Brett Gardner, LF: .309/.396/.415, 56 R, 25 SB (81%), 22.1 VORP

I’ve been pro-Gardner for a while now, but he’s exceeded even my expectations thus far this year. Gardner is 3rd on the Yankees in VORP (ahead of Rodriguez, Jeter, Posada, and Teixeira), 4th among AL left fielders, 7th among major league left fielders (ahead of Manny Ramirez and Jason Bay, among others, and not far behind Ryan Braun), and 11th among all AL outfielders. What’s more, while VORP does factor in Gardner’s basestealing, it doesn’t include his stellar defense, so you can bump him up a few spots on the league-wide depth chart for that. That’s more than gritty and gutty, that’s a very valuable ballplayer.

A

Nick Johnson, DH: .167/.388/.306, 24 G, 0.4 VORP

Who? Seriously, I had to pause for a moment to remember his name, but Johnson was supposed to be the designated hitter for the 2010 Yankees. That lasted until May 7, when one of his glass wrists shattered again, effectively wiping out his season (a recent set-back . . . well, hell was as expected as the initial injury). I’d say I told you so, but who didn’t see this coming?

F

Francisco Cervelli, C: .266/.338/.333, 0 HR, 30 RBI, 2.1 VORP

Entering the year, Cervelli was a young, cheap upgrade on Jose Molina, who hit .231/.281/.318 in two plus years with the Yankees. Much like Molina in 2008, Cervelli has been pressed into service as the starter. The upside is that he has indeed been an upgrade on Molina and just a bit of power shy of a league average catcher at the plate (league average: .253/.327/.386). He’s also had a knack in the clutch, transient though that might be, hitting .360/.417/.440 with runners in scoring position, going 12-for-24 with runners in scoring position and two outs, and driving in more runs than Posada, Gardner, or Granderson. The downside is that Cervelli, like Molina, struggles against right handers (.232/.288/.295), has struggled against everybody since May 20 (.200/.274/.236), and his defense has been unimpressive as he’s thrown out just 14 percent of opposing basestealers, a number that only jumps up to 16.7 percent if you factor out his performance with A.J. Burnett on the mound.

C-

Marcus Thames, DH/LF: .294/.398/.447, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 6.6 VORP

Thames was brought in to mash lefties and provide a big bat coming off the bench. Despite a brutal spring training performance and a pair of minor injuries, he’s done just that. What’s more, two of his three home runs have come against righties, against whom he has hit .250/.370/.444. Thames has the Yankees’ only two walkoff hits this year. The only strike against him is that he’s a brutal defender and thus effectively limited to DH.

B

Ramiro Peña, IF: .195/.239/.207, -6.0 VORP

All glove, no bat. The Yankees need to upgrade here.

D-

Randy Winn, OF: .213/.300/.295,  -2.3 VORP

The switch-hitting Winn was brought in to provide some extra right-handed relief for Granderson and Gardner against left-handed pitching. Winn went 0-for-11 against lefties in his brief Yankee career. He’s not hit much better since signing with the Cardinals (.232/.302/.321) and looks done at the age of 36.

F

Bench:

Does Cervelli count? Does it matter? Other than Thames, the Yankee bench has been flat-out awful all season. Peña, Winn, Kevin Russo, Colin Curtis, Chad Huffman, Juan Miranda, and Chad Moeller have hit a combined .199 in 291 at-bats. The bench bats not included in that figure are Thames and Greg Golson, who went 2-for-5 in his brief time with the team.

D-

Defense:

Despite the limitations of Jeter and Rodriguez, the Yankees lead the majors in defensive efficiency, the rate of turning balls in play into outs, and only the Twins have made fewer errors. Credit Cano and Teixeira in the infield, Gardner and Granderson in the outfield, and a lack of a big hole anywhere.

A+

Overall Offense:

Scanning the grades above, it doesn’t make much sense, but only one major league team has outscored the Yankees this year. The Red Sox have scored 5.47 runs per game, the Yankees have scored 5.33, significantly more than third-place Texas. The Yankees lead the major leagues in on-base percentage, which is a hint as to how they’re doing it with just three A grades above.

A+

Paying The Cost To Be The Boss

The first piece I ever wrote for SI.com outside of the old Fungoes blog was my memorial for Phil Rizzuto. With George Steinbrenner’s passing yesterday, I got to try out another new format,  a video essay for which I scripted and recorded the voiceover for a memorial slide show on the Boss. I did some radio in high school and took a broadcast news class in college, but that was all last century. Here’s hoping I acquitted myself well here, and that I get a chance to do more of these on happier occasions.

As for my take on the Boss, I could talk for hours, but I had about 90 seconds to work with here, so, as I always do, I tried to get to the heart of the matter.


They’ve already got one, you see

On Thursday, the Yankees thought they were going to have to hit against Cliff Lee Friday night. Friday afternoon, they thought they’d be welcoming Lee as a new addition to their rotation. By the time Friday night’s game finally rolled around, neither of those things happened. Instead, Lee was on his way to Texas, and journeyman right-hander David Pauley was on the mound for the M’s.

Pauley did his best Lee impression for five innings, allowing only a Mark Teixeira solo homer in the first and setting down 13 Yankees in a row after Alex Rodriguez’s subsequent single. That streak was broken when Brett Gardner worked a walk to start the sixth and Jose Lopez booted a hard grounder from Derek Jeter to put men on first and second with none out.

That’s where Lee’s absence finally reared it’s head, as Pauley was hooked after just 82 pitches. Former Nationals closer Chad Cordero replaced him and threw gasoline on those little sparks. After Nick Swisher bunted the runners up, Mark Teixeira walked, Alex Rodriguez plated Gardner with a deep sac fly, Robinson Cano cleared the bases with a triple, Jorge Posada walked, and Curtis Granderson singled home Cano.

That made it 5-0 Yankees thanks to a strong outing from Phil Hughes, who said he and Dave Eiland had corrected his arm angle after his last start in which he allowed five runs and three home runs in six innings against the Blue Jays. Hughes protected that early 1-0 lead for five innings then coughed up a lone run in the bottom of the sixth once he had the room to do so. He then held the line there, going seven strong while striking out five and walking no one.

Mark Teixeira added a right-handed home run off Luke French in the ninth for good measure, and David Robertson and Chan Ho Park wrapped up the tidy 6-1 win, a small consolation prize for having lost Lee made all the more satisfying by a strong outing from the Yankee starter who had been struggling most of late as well as the knowledge that Jesus Montero remains a future Yankee.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Cliff Lee was supposed to start for the Mariners tonight. Then he was supposed to sit in the Yankee dugout. Now he’s on a plane for Arlington Texas, where he’ll become the new ace of the Rangers. Keep an eye on SI.com tonight for my trade analysis.

As for tonight’s ballgame, the Yankees do benefit from the downgrade from Lee to David Pauley, who will be the Mariners’ spot-starter, but last year the Yankees faced a similar situation and lost. Clayton Richard was scheduled to start against the Yankees on the day that he was traded to the Padres in the package for Jake Peavy. The Yankees instead faced spot-starter D.J. Carrasco and got whupped. What’s more, the Yankees still have five games left against the Rangers and thus could face Lee twice more during the regular season and potentially in the postseason as well. Not that I feel bad for them. I’m beginning to think they’ll be the frontrunners for the free-agent Lee this winter.

As for Pauley, he’s a 27-year-old righty on his fourth organization making his fifth big-league start and first since 2008, when he was with the Red Sox. That also came against the Yankees and saw Pauley surrender seven runs in 2 2/3 innings. The Yankees hope for more of the same tonight as well as for a strong outing from Phil Hughes, who has allowed five or more runs in three of his last four outings and has a 5.56 ERA over his last nine starts, only four of which were quality starts.

Nick Swisher is the DH tonight. Colin Curtis plays right field and bats eighth.

Luke French is up to take Lee’s spot on the roster and Pauley’s spot in the bullpen.

Oh, and the Yankees still have the best record in baseball and a five-deep rotation.

Update: here’s my Lee analysis

Seattle Mariners II: Aces

Last week, After Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez became the first pitchers in a decade to toss consecutive complete games against the Yankees, I pointed out the following about their recent performance.

In their last six combined starts, Lee and Hernandez have gone 5-0 with five complete games. In the sixth game, Hernandez allowed just one run in nine innings, but the Mariners lost in 13.

Both pitchers have made one start since then. Lee beat the Tigers, holding them to one run over eight innings, striking out 11 against one walk. Hernandez allowed a whopping two runs in seven innings to the Royals in a game the Mariners’ bullpen blew immediately in the eighth.

The Yankees will have to run the Lee/Hernandez gauntlet again this weekend in the middle two games of a four-game set against the Mariners that will conclude the first half for both teams. That puts the onus on them to make hay against bookend starters Jason Vargas and Ryan Rowland-Smith, the latter of whom held the Yanks to two runs over six innings in the finale of last week’s series only to be out-dueled by CC Sabathia. Rowland-Smith has posted a 4.15 ERA in seven starts since returning to the rotation from a May stint in the bullpen, but he has walked four more men than he has struck out and allowed seven home runs, including one to Robinson Cano, in those seven starts.

Tonight, the Yankees and All-Star Andy Pettitte (10-2, 2.82 ERA) take on Jason Vargas, the former Marlin and Met lefty who came to Seattle in the massive J.J. Putz trade. Vargas, now 27, has proven to be a perfect Mariners pitcher in that he throws strikes (2.3 BB/9) and lets his defense and ballpark take care of the rest. Opponents are hitting .263 on balls in play against Vargas, and the lefty has gone 5-1 with a 2.30 ERA at home (against 1-3, 4.50 on the road), though to his credit he’s also just flat-out nails against lefty batters, holding them to a .173/.204/.288 line this season with 18 strikeouts against just three walks.

Despite Vargas’s dominance of lefthanders, Curtis Granderson starts in center (after sitting to start Wednesday night’s game). Robinson Cano returns to the lineup after a 24-hour Derbyitis bug. Alex Rodriguez will be the DH with Ramiro Peña filling in at third base. Brett Gardner drops to eighth against the lefty, hitting between Gardner and Peña.

Oh, and Nick Swisher won his popularity contest.

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Oakland A’s II: Meh

Trevor Cahill, the A’s lone All-Star this year and CC Sabathia’s opponent Tuesday night, was on the disabled list with a scapula problem when the Yankees took two of three from the A’s in Oakland in April. Since then, he’s gone 8-2 with a 2.47 ERA while three other members of the A’s rotation (Brett Anderson, Justin Duchscherer, and Dallas Braden) have landed on the DL. That leaves tonight’s starter, the brittle Ben Sheets, as the only member of the A’s intended Opening Day rotation not to hit the DL this year.

If that wasn’t troubling enough for the A’s, Sheets has been struggling through his worst major league season (3-7 with a career worst 4.98 ERA and 1.85 K/BB). Mind you, Sheets hasn’t been awful, he has just been consistently unimpressive. Out of his six June starts (1-4, 5.11 ERA), he lasted six innings in five (seven in the exception) and allowed four runs in five (five runs in the exception). When he faced the lowly Pirates, he struck out nine against no walks. Against everyone else he struck out 14 against 11 walks over five starts, and he has allowed a home run in each of his last seven outings.

Consistently unimpressive pretty much describes this A’s team as a whole. They’re scoring just 4.1 runs per game, but in this pitching-dominated year there are seven teams that score even less often, including the Yankees’ next opponent, the Mariners. The pitching has been solid when healthy, though even Cahill isn’t particularly threatening or exciting, their ballpark helps, and 31 of their games (37 percent of their schedule to this point) have come against the Mariners, Orioles, Indians, Cubs, and Pirates, five of the teams below them in runs per game.

The A’s enter this series hot because they just played three of those teams and went 7-2 against the Pirates (sweep), Orioles, and Indians (two of three, each). Tonight they face Javier Vazquez, who struck out eight Mariners in a futile quality start against Felix Hernandez his last time out. Javy posted a 3.23 ERA in June and his first win of the season came in Oakland back on April 20. With the Yankee bats having shown some life the last two days, the all signs point to a good series for the Yankees this week. If only they could bring that glaring summer afternoon Bronx sun with them to these three night games in Oakland.

With Jorge Posada day-to-day with a sprained left ring finger, Joe Girardi tries a new look lineup tonight. Brett Gardner leads off with Derek Jeter batting second and Nick Swisher hitting in Posada’s vacated sixth spot. I can dig it. Swish is the DH tonight, Colin Curtis plays right field and bats ninth behind Francisco Cervelli.

Oh, and it has nothing to do with the game, but Andy Pettitte is indeed going to the All-Star game, as Clay Buchholz’s injury replacement.

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Thanks For Nothin’

There was one positive that came out of Friday afternoon’s game: A.J. Burnett pitched well. It’s impossible not to credit pitching coach Dave Eiland for that. Eiland had been away for most of the last month due to an undisclosed family issue, and Burnett went 0-5 with a 11.35 ERA in five starts without his pitching coach around. Eiland got back on Tuesday, talked some “Arkansas talk” to the righty from North Little Rock, and got him to fix the sloppy mechanics that had derailed his season by making sure all of his energy was directed toward the plate.

Burnett looked sharp in the first inning, working around a two-out single, throwing all but two of his 13 pitches for strikes and striking out Alex Gonzalez and Vernon Wells on a total of seven pitches. The Yankees then scored a run in the bottom of the first without the benefit of a hit (two walks followed by two productive outs). With that, the Yankee bats said, “there’s your run,” and Burnett made it stand up into the seventh, frequently working out of small jams by making the sort of in-game corrections he had seemed incapable of during Eiland’s absence.

Burnett got some help. Curtis Granderson made a running catch, going back and leaping over the lip of the warning track to reel in a one-out drive by Lyle Overbay in the fourth, Burnett’s only 1-2-3 inning. Damaso Marte got the final out of the seventh for Burnett, and Brett Gardner one-upped Granderson with a leaping catch at the wall on a shot to lefty by Gonzalez off Joba Chamberlain to start the eighth.

Then it all went wrong. Joba walked Jose Bautista on five pitches and, with two outs, gave up back-to-back singles that tied the game. Mariano Rivera worked around a single in the ninth and David Robertson worked around a two-out walk in the tenth, but the Jays broke the game wide open against Robertson in the 11th.

Overbay and John Buck led off with singles. Jarrett Hoffpauir bunted the runners up to second and third. Joe Girardi had Robertson intentionally walk lefty Fred Lewis to face the righty Gonzalez, and Gonzalez responded by singling home the go-ahead run.

With the bases still loaded and just one man out (via Hoffpauir’s sacrifice), Girardi called on Chan Ho Park. Park used up seven pitches on each of his first two batters. The first, Bautista, struck out looking on a sinker just below the knee and got run for arguing the call. The second, Wells, worked a walk to force in an insurance run. That brought up Dewayne Wise, who had pinch-run for Adam Lind in the eighth. Park fell behind Wise 2-1 after which Wise creamed one into the right-field gap for a back-breaking, bases-loaded triple. Kevin Gregg set the Yankees four, five, and six hitters down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning, and the Blue Jays won 6-1.

Blame the bullpen, they deserve it, but where was the offense in this game? The Yankees had two on and none out in the first and eked out just one hit-less run. In the third they had the bases loaded with none out and got nothing as Toronto starter Brett Cecil struck out Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano before getting Jorge Posada to ground out. Francisco Cervelli singled in the second and fourth but was stranded both times, then in the sixth, with two on and none out, he hit into rally-killing double play (after which Brett Gardner popped out with a man on third to end the inning).

Then the Blue Jays bullpen came on and the Yankees managed just one more baserunner in the final five innings, a one-out single by Nick Swisher in the seventh that was erased when Mark Teixeira lined out-to Overbay, who doubled off Swisher for an inning-ending double play.

Don’t expect things to improve against Ricky Romero tomorrow, or against emerging Yankee-killer Brandon Morrow on Sunday. The Yankee offense is slumping in part because they’re facing some very good pitchers (even Cecil was 7-2 with a 3.22 ERA before a recent three-start skid), but Romero (a lefty with a 2.83 ERA, 8.3 K/9) and Morrow (2.20 ERA in his last seven starts, 10.0 K/9 on the season) are pretty darn good as well.

Incidentally, after the game, Kim Jones asked Girardi if he thought about having Cervelli bunt before he hit into that sixth-inning double-play. Girardi’s answer was impressively thorough:

That’s a legitimate question. You have a slow runner at second [Posada]. You have a lefty on the mound. He’s falling off toward third base. It’s gotta be a perfect bunt. Cervy’s got two hits off of this guy. Lefties are hitting .180 [off Cecil (actually .178 heading into the game)], there’s a lefty behind [on deck: Gardner]. The wind’s blowing in. Sac fly’s gonna be difficult.

Toronto Blue Jays II: Not Again

We’ve seen this before. Last year, the Blue Jays shot out of the gate, were 27-14 (.659) on May 18, but went just 48-73 (.397) the rest of the way. This year, the Jays were 25-17 (.595) on May 19 and have gone 15-23 (.395) since. Of course, they took two of three from the Yankees in Toronto during the latter stretch, but that’s because the one thing the Jays still have going for them are some strong starting pitchers.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: the Jays have scored just three runs per game since June 1, but lefties Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero and righty Brandon Morrow, the same three pitchers who will face the Yankees this weekend in the Bronx, held the Yankees to a total of four runs in 23 combined innings in that previous series. Cecil, who faces A.J. Burnett tonight, has struggled in his last three starts (0-3, 9.19 ERA), but the other two, who face Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes over the weekend, have remained sharp.

Of course, the focus today will be how A.J. Burnett responds to the early-week return of pitching coach Dave Eiland. Not that Eiland had any magical fix. Here’s what he had to say upon returning to the team on Tuesday:

For me to sit here and say the reason that A.J. pitched the way he pitched was I wasn’t here is not fair. A.J. has been pitching a long time. He knows what he needs to do. It’s nothing that A.J. and I haven’t addressed and discussed already. Every pitcher you have to stay on about certain things, and with A.J. there are a couple of things. They’re very minor things that are going to make a huge difference. But A.J. has to do it. He’s been told over and over in the past what they are.

It seems Burnett’s main problem was opening up his left side to early. Said Eiland Thursday after working with Burnett in the bullpen, “It’s not like I gave him anything new today. Mike Harkey was telling him the same thing.”

There’s a certain element there of not wanting to throw Harkey under the bus for failing to get Burnett straightened out, but there’s also a lot of exasperation in those Eiland quotes.

Normally you’d feel good going up against a pitcher like Cecil who has been 0-3 with a 9.19 ERA in his last three starts, but Burnett has gone 0-3 with a 16.55 ERA in his last three starts and was 0-5 with a 11.35 ERA in June. The big question heading into tonight’s game is which one of these guys is going to snap out of their funk. The upside might be that, if the answer is neither, you have to like the Yankees’ chances of winning a slugfest in their own park.

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Dominator

Cliff Lee was good on Tuesday night, limiting the Yankees to a pair of Nick Swisher solo home runs and two meaningless ninth-inning tallies on his way to a complete game victory. Felix Hernandez was great Wednesday night, limiting the Yankees to a trio of walks and just two hits, one of which was a pop-up to second that Chone Figgins lost in the gloaming and Colin Curtis hustled into a double, on his way to an 11-strikeout complete game shutout. Lee and Hernandez thus became the first two pitchers to throw back-to-back complete games against the Yankees since 2000 and Hernandez became the first visiting pitcher to shutout the Yankees at the new stadium.

Meanwhile, the Mariners scored seven runs against the Yankees in each of the last two contest. Phil Hughes, who was not only pitching on nine-days’ rest but also fighting off a cold, gave up all seven on Tuesday. Last night, Javier Vazquez turned in a bare-minimum quality start (6 IP, 3 R), striking out eight but using up 113 pitches in the process, then the bullpen coughed up four more Mariner runs in the final three frames. All but one of those Seattle runs came on home runs. Milton Bradley hit a solo shot of Vazquez in the second. Michael Saunders had a pair, a solo of Vazquez in the third and a two-run jack off Chad Gaudin in the eighth. Lefty-swinging Russell Branyan, just reacquired before this series to give the Seattle lineup some thump, did his part with a two-run shot off Damaso Marte in the seventh. The other Mariner run came with two outs in the third when Vazquez hit Branyan with an 0-1 pitch, Bradley reached on an infield single, and Jose Lopez singled Branyan home from second.

The lone legitimate Yankee hit was a double down the left field line by Mark Teixeira to lead off the fourth. He never got to third base as Hernandez retired 17 of the next 18 men (the exception being Curtis’s dropped pop-up) until Ramiro Peña, who entered the game with the subs in the top of the ninth, walked with one out in the bottom of the ninth and Hernandez up past 100 pitches.

Amazingly, this was just the second time all season that Lee and Hernandez registered back-to-back wins, though the first time was just two turns ago. In their last six combined starts, Lee and Hernandez have gone 5-0 with five complete games. In the sixth game, Hernandez allowed just one run in nine innings, but the Mariners lost in 13.

Let’s Try That Again

Facing Cliff Lee wasn’t much fun for anyone other than Nick Swisher last night. Facing Felix Hernandez doesn’t seem likely to be much more pleasant. In his last three starts, King Felix has posted this line:

26 2/3 IP*, 14 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 26 K, 1 HR, 1.69 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 8.67 K/BB

*That’s one out shy of three complete games, in case you didn’t notice, but only one of those starts turned into a complete game as the Mariners lost his last 3-2 in 13 innings.

Four starts ago, Felix got lit up by the red-hot Rangers, but his two starts before that both saw him go eight innings and allow just one run (with 16 total Ks), and in his last nine starts he’s posted a 2.62 ERA and allowed just three home runs. Of course, the Mariners have gone 3-6 in those nine games thanks to either poor bullpen support, poor run support, or both.

Javier Vazquez wasn’t sharp his last time out against his old team in Arizona, but in his four starts prior to that he posted a 2.25 ERA and 0.79 WHIP, lasting exactly seven innings each time out, his only loss coming when the Yankee bats got shutout by Hisanori Takahashi and company. Dating back to May 12, he’s 5-3 with a 3.12 ERA, and 0.98 WHIP in eight starts and one relief appearance.

Brett Gardner remains out of the lineup but is available to pinch-run and play defense. Colin Curtis starts in left and bats eighth. The rest of the lineup is the same as last night’s.

Cliff Lee Rules

Coming into last night’s start, Cliff Lee was 4-1 with a 1.62 ERA over his last six starts, half of which were complete games. In that span, he had struck out 44 men against just three walks and three homers. Given that Lee had dominated the Yankees the last time he came to the Bronx, there wasn’t much reason for optimism heading into Tuesday night’s series-opening tilt against Lee and the Mariners, I don’t care how pathetic the Mariners’ offense has been this season.

That Phil Hughes lacked his good stuff pitching on extra rest after being skipped the last time through the rotation sealed the deal. Hughes fastball topped out around 91 miles per hour and his location wasn’t sharp. As a result, the Mariners were able to build a picket fence against him with runs in the second, third, fourth, and fifth, before delivering the finishing blow with a three-run sixth as Hughes seemed to lose it around 90 pitches. Boone Logan and Chan Ho Park held the line from there, but when the line is a 7-1 deficit against Cliff Lee and the opposing offense is the worst in the American League, who cares?

Through the first eight innings, all the Yankees managed against Lee was a pair of solo homers by Nick Swisher. Hitting a pair of right-handed home runs off a pitcher who had allowed just three dingers in his last six starts isn’t impressive, particularly when those were just Swisher’s second and third right-handed home runs of the year, but the rest of the offense didn’t show up until the ninth.

Just one other Yankee made it as far as second base in the first eight innings (Jorge Posada following a one-out walk in the second, the only walk Lee has issued in his last five starts), and no more than one Yankee reached base in any of the first eight innings of the game. Swisher’s two home runs came in the first and the sixth, and after the second, Lee retired the next nine men he faced until Mark Teixeira led off the ninth with a double down the left-field line. A Robinson Cano single, Michael Saunders throwing error, and Posada ground-rule double got the Yankees to within 7-4, but it took Lee just three more pitches to retire Curtis Granderson (who did have a pair of singles earlier in the game and was the only Yankee other than Swisher with a multi-hit night) and Chad Huffman (who started for the injured Brett Gardner) to nail down his third-straight complete game victory.

While Hughes season-worst outing was somewhat reminiscent of Joba Chamberlain’s struggles after the Yankees started skipping his starts last year, Hughes didn’t blame the rest for his poor performance, and he didn’t really get lit up until the sixth. He’ll stay on-turn until the All-Star break as the Yankees have no off-days in the next two weeks. His next start comes on Sunday at home against the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, here’s hoping Cliff Lee gets traded back to the National League, just don’t get your hopes up about him coming to the Bronx, the Yankees made clear their unwillingness to trade prospects for a pending big-money free agent such as Lee by letting CC Sabathia go to the Brewers and Johan Santana go to the Mets.

In other news, Dave Eiland returned to the team and Gardner could be out for a few days with a wrist contusion after being hit by a Clayton Kershaw pitch on Sunday. Meanwhile, Marcus Thames is expected to start at designated hitter for Triple-A Scranton on Wednesday, meaning he could be activated from the disabled list soon.

2010 Seattle Mariners

Okay, so I just wrote one of the longest previews I’ve ever written getting some stuff off my chest that’s been there since November and shoved aside some other important work to do it. But it all got erased. So while I try not to lose my mind, here’s the roster of the Mariners, who have scored just 3.4 runs per game this year, but are running out one of the league’s best pitchers tonight.

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It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Sunday night’s rubber game between the Yankees and Dodgers didn’t deliver on its promise as a pitchers duel. Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw was nails, but Andy Pettitte made two throwing errors on bunts in the third, putting the Yankees in an 3-0 hole, then coughed up two more runs in the fourth, the latter on a Ronnie Belliard solo homer, to put the Yanks down 5-0.

Kershaw, meanwhile, allowed just three baserunners through five innings, those coming on a Derek Jeter leadoff single, a pitch that hit Brett Gardner in the wrist, and a single by Gardner’s replacement, Chad Huffman (Gardner will see the team doctor on Monday). Jeter singled again to lead of the sixth, but Kershaw struck out Nick Swisher, and Casey Blake made a nice play on a hard grounder to his right by Mark Teixeira to force Jeter at second. That brought up Alex Rodriguez with two out. Rodriguez worked the count full, then turned on an inside fastball, sending it over the “Mannywood” sign in left for a two-run home run, his third jack in the last five games, to bring the Yankees within 5-2.

The Dodgers added an insurance run against Joba Chamberlain in the eighth, handing a 6-2 lead to their dominant closer, Jonathon Broxton, in the ninth. Broxton entered the game with some ridiculous numbers, including a 0.83 ERA, 13.2 K/9, and 9.60 K/B, and had allowed just one earned run in his previous 23 appearance, including 1 1/3 hitless innings against the Yankees on Saturday.

The Ox started his night by striking out Teixeira on four pitches, but Rodriguez singled on his fifth. Alex took second on defensive indifference on the first pitch to Robinson Cano, and when Cano connected for a double to right, Rodriguez scored to make it 6-3 Dodgers.

That brought up Jorge Posada, who quickly fell into a 0-2 hole, then battled Broxton for seven more pitches, working the count full before singling to right to bring the tying run to the plate. Following Posada’s nine-pitch battle, Curtis Granderson worked Broxton over for an eight-pitch walk, putting the tying run on base and loading the bases for . . . Chad Huffman?

With Brett Gardner knocked out of the game and no designated hitter, the Yankees’ rally came down to Chad Huffman and Colin Curtis, who had gone in for Nick Swisher as part of a double-switch, a pair of rookies who to that point in their major league careers had combined for three hits and three walks in 15 plate appearances. Joe Girardi’s bench at that point consisted of Francisco Cervelli, the backup catcher, and Ramiro Peña. On the mound stood the 300-pound Broxton, one of the game’s most dominating closers. It hurt to watch.

Until Huffman singled to right on a 1-1 pitch, scoring Cano and Posada and pushing Granderson to third. Suddenly all Curtis had to do was deliver a productive out with a speedy runner at third to tie the game. Curtis fell into a quick 0-2 hole, but then took three balls, one of which looked like strike three at the knees, and one of which, a slider in the dirt, almost tied the game on its own. With the count full, Curtis fouled off four pitches. Then, on the tenth pitch of his at-bat and Broxton’s 40th of the inning, he hit a hard grounder to James Loney at first base.

With two outs, Huffman on first, and Granderson on third as the potential tying run, Loney had two choices. He could either throw home to prevent the run, allowing the inning to continue, or he could throw to second in the hope of turning a game-ending double play. Loney chose neither of those options, instead trying to accomplish both at once by scrambling over to force out Curtis at first, then firing home to get Granderson. Only Loney’s throw tailed away from the runner and the time it took him to get the force was enough to allow Granderson so slide in clearly ahead of Russell Martin’s tag with the game-tying run.

From there, the Dodgers lost their cool as both Garret Anderson (who entered the game in the ninth as a defensive replacement for Manny Ramirez) and Martin got ejected for arguing over called strikes that were indeed strikes, while the Yankees made it look easy. Mariano Rivera worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth around Anderson’s ejection. Robinson Cano responded to Joe Torre’s decision to bring in lefty George Sherrill to face him in the top of the tenth by launching a two-run home run to left center, and Rivera worked around an infield single and Martin’s ejection to nail down the 8-6 win in the bottom of the tenth.

Meanwhile, the ESPN camera’s lingered on Joe Torre, who had the look of a man watching his ex-wife make out with an underwear model. Torre said before the game that he was looking forward to putting this much-hyped and emotionally charged series behind him. I don’t imagine that was ever more true than when he was watching Mariano Rivera nail down a comeback win against him for the first time.

The Payoff

The one positive to A.J. Burnett crapping the bed Saturday evening is that we now get one heck of a rubber game to cap off this hotly-anticipated series between the Yankees and Dodgers. Starting for the visiting Yankees is Andy Pettitte, who has been one of the best pitchers in the American League thus far this season and is having his best season as a Yankee at the age of 38. Pettitte has averaged 7 1/3 innings pitched over his last six starts while posting a 2.25 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, and 4.11 K/BB. Every single one of those six outings has been a quality start, and Pettitte hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in any of them. In fact, Andy has allowed more than two earned runs in just two of his 14 starts this season.

Opposing Pettitte will be 22-year-old lefty Clayton Kershaw, who was the seventh-overall pick in the 2006 draft. Kershaw allowed more than two runs, earned or otherwise, in just two of his first 11 starts, but has fallen off a bit in June, allowing three or more runs in three of four starts. Not that he’s been bad. He’s 2-1 with a 3.90 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in his four June starts, his only real dud being his last start in which he gave up five runs in 6 2/3 innings against the Angels, all of those runs coming in his final two frames. The Yankees should be able to get their walks against Kershaw, but his impressive four-pitch arsenal (which includes a mid-90s fastball, big yakker of a curve, changeup, and slider), has shut-down potential. Over the past two seasons, a stretch of 262 2/3 innings, Kershaw has posted a 2.95 ERA and struck out 9.9 men per nine innings.

For those of you wondering if Joe Girardi would leave Curtis Granderson in the lineup against a tough lefty like Kershaw in a rubber game, the answer is yes (you’d prefer Chad Huffman, a player with just one major league hit to his name, or Kevin Russo, who is hitting .196/.260/.239 in 51 plate appearances?), but he’s dropped him to seventh in the order. Swisher bats second. Posada is back behind the plate and batting sixth. Marcus Thames, meanwhile, joined Triple-A Scranton last Tuesday, but has yet to begin playing rehab games there.

What The Ray?

On Friday night, Edwin Jackson became the third pitcher to no-hit the Tampa Bay Rays in the last calendar year. No team has ever been no-hit three times in a 12-month span before. What’s more, the Rays are one of the best teams in baseball and have one of the top offenses in the game.

What gives? I search for an answer to that over at SI.com.

Predictable

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Yankee offense did it’s best to keep ahead of A.J. Burnett’s advancing vortex of suck Saturday evening. Before Dodger starter Hiroki Kuroda could record an out, the Yankees were up 3-0 thanks to walks to birthday boy Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson and a home run by Mark Teixeira, who extended an eight-game hitting streak during which he has homered as many times as he’s struck out (thrice each). Burnett gave two of those runs back in the bottom of the first, the big hit being an RBI double by Manny Ramirez on a fastball up in the zone, but he worked around a walk in the second and the Yankees got a run back in the third on singles by Jeter and Granderson and a throwing non-error by Blake DeWitt on a would-be double play pivot.

That 4-2 lead lasted all of four batters. Burnett’s bottom of the third started with a five-pitch walk to Matt Kemp, an Andre Ethier single, a wild pitch that moved both runners up, a walk to Ramirez to load the bases, and a game-tying single by James Loney. After a five-pitch walk to Casey Blake to reload the bases, Burnett got Russell Martin to hit into a double play, though the go-ahead run scored in the process. Burnett then walked DeWitt and struck out the pitcher, Kuroda, to end the inning.

Amazingly. Shockingly. Stunningly, after that performance, Joe Girardi let Burnett hit with runners on the corners and one out in the top of the fourth. Burnett sacrificed, but didn’t squeeze, trading an out for putting a second runner into scoring position. Kuroda then struck out Jeter on three pitches to end the threat.

If it wasn’t already clear that Girardi was less than fully committed to trying to win the game at the expense of blowing out his bullpen, after Burnett lasted just two batters in the bottom of the fourth, he brought in Boone Logan, who suddenly seems to be some sort of long man for Girardi despite the fact that righties were hitting .289/.372/.421 against him entering yesterday’s action. Logan swelled the Dodger lead to 7-4, after which Chan Ho Park added on a couple more runs to set the final at 9-4.

Meanwhile, Kuroda quashed a two-out Yankee rally in the fifth, and fireballing lefty Hong-Chih Kuo stranded two runners for Kuroda in the sixth. The Yankees did bounce old frenemy Jeff Weaver before he could complete the eighth, but George Sherrill and Jonathon Broxton shut things down from there.

Burnett is now 0-5 with a 11.35 ERA in June. By way of comparison, Javier Vazquez had a 9.78 ERA in his first five starts of the year in which the Yankees went 1-4. That was enough for the Yankees to skip Javy’s next turn. Ivan Nova, meanwhile, has a 1.34 ERA over his last five starts for Triple-A Scranton. Nova threw three scoreless, walkless innings for the Yankees in mid May. I say it’s time to give him another look and let A.J. work things out in the bullpen for a while. Logan can be optioned to make room for Nova.

There Will Be No Encore

You couldn’t really have asked for much more than Friday night’s game delivered: a tense pitching duel; Alex Rodriguez coming up big in what for him was a grudge match against his former skipper; a little bit of hit-batsman antagonism with Vicente Padilla, but everything kept safely below the waist; CC Sabathia coming up big and striking out his last man in the eighth; Mariano Rivera coming in to face Manny Ramirez, who had an RBI single and a dropped fly ball earlier in the game, and striking out the side to pick up the save with no margin for error in a 2-1 win. It won’t get better than that, so I hope you all stayed up for it.

In fact, with A.J. Burnett on the mound this evening, things could get a lot worse in a hurry. Burnett has gone from poor to awful in June, providing a counterweigh to Sabathia’s strong month by going 0-4 with a 10.35 ERA in four starts while allowing nine home runs in just 20 innings pitched, inflating his season ERA by a run and a half in the process. Part of Burnett’s inconsistency is that you don’t expect his struggles to last long, either, but it seems as though each of Burnett’s starts this month has been worse than the last (not exactly true, but close), and with Dave Eiland on leave for a personal matter there are some have begun to wonder if Mike Harkey isn’t up to the task of getting Burnett back on track, while others, including the general manager, are wondering if Burnett is tipping his pitches.

To make matters worse, the pitcher opposing Burnett this evening, Hiroki Kuroda, is just the kind of crafty, off-speed groundballer prone to giving the Yankees fits. Even if he wasn’t, his success this season speaks for itself (3.06 ERA, 2.92 K/BB, career-best 7.1 K/9). In stark contrast to Burnett, Kuroda has been aces in his last three starts, the last two of which have come against the best offense in each league, the Reds and Red Sox, in those teams’ hitting-friendly ballparks. In total, Kuroda has posted a 0.95 ERA with 23 Ks in 19 innings against just four walks and no homers in those three starts (the third of which came at home against the Cardinals, who have some dangerous hitters themselves). That line works out to a 10.9 K/9 and 5.75 K/BB to go with that sub-1.00 ERA and 0.89 WHIP.

Gulp.

Jorge Posada, who fouled a pitch off his healing right foot last night but stayed in the game, gets the night off. Francisco Cervelli hits seventh ahead of Brett Gardner and Burnett. Curtis Granderson remains in the two-hole. Nick Swisher bats sixth.

The good news is that, if the Yankees do drop this game, as it seems they’re likely to do, it sets up a hell of a rubber game on ESPN tomorrow night with the Dodgers’ young lefty ace Clayton Kershaw facing off against veteran southpaw Andy Pettitte, who thus far is having his finest season as a Yankee at the age of 38. Well, that and the fact that you won’t have to stay up ’til 1am to watch the carnage tonight.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver