"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Player Essays

Back to the Dock

Dock Ellis is back in amination.

Disarming

Mariano Rivera shredded the Twins last night to seal a thrilling victory. Joe Mauer, one of the greatest batsmen in the game, was the second out. Mauer saw one pitch, an insistent, boring cutter and it destroyed him.

Mariano breaks a lot of bats. And he’s caused a few guys to chuck their bats after missing entirely. But what he did to Mauer, I’ve never seen before. Mauer hit the ball – a dribbler to second base – and still lost his bat into the seats. This wasn’t a guy slipping or getting fooled; Mariano literally knocked the bat out of his hands.

I thought of a good-guy gunslinger shooting the bad guy in the hand, or a fencer twirling the epee out his opponent’s grip. But more powerful than that. Maybe one of these moments captures it best:

[Featured Image: Getty]

Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Roy White

At times the photographers at Topps have depicted a player just about right. Roy White’s 1972 Topps card is a good example of that; we see White practicing his in-game batting stance, holding his hands much lower than most players do, toward his back hip. All that’s missing is the inclusion of White’s feet. With a larger photograph, Topps would have been able to show his pigeon-toed posture, another classic feature of White’s unique batting stance.

White’s card also gives us a good look at the Yankees’ old-school road uniforms, which they used through the 1972 season. They’re you’re basic road gray, with no piping or striping around the sleeve. I’ve always preferred this most simplistic of road uniforms, partly because it’s iconic and partly because it brings back memories of the Mantle/Maris Yankees of the early 1960s.

All in all, this is a quality card for a quality player. In recalling the Yankees of the early 1970s, fans of that era glorified three players: star catcher Thurman Munson, All-Star outfielder Bobby Murcer and the team’s pitching ace, Mel Stottlemyre. Roy White was rarely held in similarly high regard by either the fans or the media. He was generally considered a good, solid player, but not a star, with the one flaw in his game (a poor throwing arm) sometimes becoming the subject of contempt, ridicule, and cruel humor.

The perception of White has changed–and changed drastically–since then. Largely due to Sabermetrics, both Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans have changed their tune with towards White‘s abilities. Or in some cases, it’s simply a matter of a younger generation of fans having a better understanding of players’ quality than we did in the sixties and seventies. White’s ability to draw walks, which was rarely highlighted in the early seventies, has now been given its full due; we better understand and appreciate White’s ability to reach base, and the important role it played in setting the table for other Yankee hitters. And then there is the matter of White’s defense. He was truly an excellent defensive left fielder, with enough speed and range to have played center, if not for Murcer’s presence there through the middle of the 1974 season. Yes, the throwing arm would have been a problem, but probably not anymore so than the weak arms of Mickey Rivers or a late-career Bernie Williams.

Some might argue that the tendency to underrate White in his day was also a product of racism. I have my doubts that was the case. Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African American player, was popular with fans and held in high regard by almost all of the New York media. Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, and Mickey Rivers were all popular Yankees. And fans were just about as supportive as they could be of the controversial Reggie Jackson. When Reggie produced, the fans howled their approval with booming chants of “REG-GIE,REG-GIE” resonating though the upper decks of the old Yankee Stadium. Now Billy Martin might have been a different story; some of his dislike for Reggie might have been rooted in racism, but I don’t know for sure. But I just don’t see much evidence for racial antipathy, not from Martin or anyone else, toward a quiet and hard-working player like Roy White.

By 1972, the switch-hitting White had established himself as a very good player. Though underrated, he had already made two All-Star teams and had earned some MVP votes in three different seasons.  He was coming off a season in which he had led the American League in sacrifice flies, an unglamorous statistic to say the least, but one that showed his team-oriented nature.

In 1972, White’s power production fell off, as his OPS dipped from .857 to .760, his worst mark as the Yankees’ regular left fielder. Still, he managed to make some favorable contributions like lead the American League with 99 walks and steal 23 bases in 30 attempts, all while playing his usually sterling defense in the outfield. The following two seasons, he struggled, leading some to question whether he was on the downhill side at age 30. In the midst of the 1974 season, manager Bill Virdon made him a DH part of the time, a role that White abhorred, considering it an insult to his athletic talents.

In 1975, White’s career received a revival when the Yankees made a managerial switch, firing the placid, detached Virdon, and replacing him with Martin, who appreciated players of all-round ability like the speedy White. Martin put White back in left field and restored him to the No. 2 spot in the batting order. White bounced back beautifully, playing for White the way that he had once played for Ralph Houk.  In 1976, White led the American League with 104 runs scored and reached a career high with 31 stolen bases, becoming a huge part of the first Yankee team to reach the postseason since the ill-fated World Series of 1964.

In the meantime, White became known as a beacon of calm and kindness in a clubhouse that often swirled in turmoil. As Sparky Lyle wrote in his critically acclaimed book, The Bronx Zoo, everybody on the Yankees liked White. “Roy White is probably the nicest goddam guy on the club,” Lyle wrote in his blunt-force style. “He’s well respected by everybody, and he’s very classy.” Classy. The perfect word to describe the gentlemanly Roy White.

By 1978, the year that Lyle’s book hit the shelves, White’s on-field ability had slowed to the point of becoming a part-time player. No longer the everyday left fielder, he platooned with Lou Piniella and also made 23 appearances as a designated hitter, a role that he was now better equipped to handle. With the Yankees having extreme depth in the outfield, they could afford to use White more sparingly, a role into which he fit perfectly. Still able to reach base 35 per cent of the time, White became part of a squadron of role players that supported the Yankees’ stars during their second consecutive world championship run. He played some of his best ball of the season in the playoffs and World Series, hitting over .300 against both the Royals and Dodgers.

Then came the falloff of 1979. Spring training started poorly, as the Yankees refused to offer him an extension on a contract that had just one year remaining. The lack of an extension might have contributed to White’s nightmarish season. Appearing in only 81 games, White played poorly, his power and speed showing the decline that often comes with having a 35-year-old body. Free agency could not have come at a worse possible time. White wanted to keep playing, but the Yankees, looking to rebuild with youth after a season of tragedy and tumult, showed little interest. White received some offers from other teams, but he opted for a completely different career move. He took his aging talents to the Tokyo Giants of the Japanese Leagues, where he became a teammate of Sadaharu Oh.

Batting as the cleanup man behind Oh, White played very well in his first two seasons in Japan. He made the All-Star team one season and helped the Giants to the Japanese Leagues championship the next. In his third year with Tokyo, White found himself playing a utility role, but he fought his way back into the lineup and hit .330 the rest of the way. At season’s end, White decided to call it quits, leaving the game on a high note.

Since his playing days, White has returned to the Yankee organization several times, serving as the first base coach on three occasions and also putting in some time as an assistant to the general manager. In that latter role, he scouted Hideki Matsui during his time in Japan, giving the Yankees his first-hand assessment of a Far East player that they would eventually sign.

Unfortunately, every one of White’s coaching and front office assignments with the Yankees has ended with him being ousted, often with no reason given. I don’t know why that is. He seems like the kind of guy who should have a permanent place in the organization, whether as a scout or as a consultant. It’s almost as if the Yankee organization still doesn’t have a full appreciation for him, just as most of us fans failed to respect him at the time for the player that he truly was.

And that’s just not right. Roy White belongs with the Yankees. If he wants to work for them,  the Yankees should be able to find a place.

[Featured Image via Corbis]

感 謝

When I heard that Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers’ veteran right-hander, refused a trade to the Yankees last summer, my first thought was “Fine, we don’t want you anyway.” If he didn’t want to play in New York, his loss. Better for him to stay away than become the next Ed Whitson. God knows we’ve seen turkeys in pinstripes, from Britt Burns and Denny Neagle to Jeff Weaver and A.J. Burnett.

So I was surprised when I read that Brian Cashman was pursuing Kuroda this off-season. This after trying to sign him as a free agent last winter as well. What was I missing? Then last month, there it was: the 37-year old Kuroda signed a 1-year, $10 million contract to pitch with the Yankees. Coming on the heels of the trade that sent Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda, the signing was pushed off the back page, yet drew rave reviews from baseball analysts. I e-mailed my pal Jon Weisman, who runs the Dodger Thoughts blog, and he said that Kuroda “was one of the classiest guys to wear a Dodger uniform. A good pitcher who might have the occasional stumble but can usually be counted on to pitch seven good innings. He goes right after hitters.”

Okay, the guy’s a pro. But there’s more to him than that. As Jon said, “It’s hard to feel too low when you’ve got Hiroki Kuroda on your side.”

Last year, his fourth year in the major leagues, Kuroda was having his finest season when he met with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti in mid-July. Kuroda had gotten little run support and had a 6-11 record (from May 12 through July 27, Kuroda went 1-10 with a stellar 3.38 ERA), but as the trade deadline approached, he drew interest from several teams, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox.

Colletti told Kuroda how much he liked and respected him. He’d signed Kuroda three-and-a-half years earlier and admired how well the pitcher adapted to the major leagues. “He takes everything so seriously,” Colletti told me over the phone recently. “He has tremendous focus, even to a greater extent than most players.” The general manager told Kuroda, “I want to give you a chance to experience a pennant race again,” all the while understanding that being traded is not considered an honor in Japan.

“He is someone who takes his time and contemplates every major decision,” Colletti said, “but I could tell that day that his heart wasn’t in it.”

Kuroda liked L.A., where he lived with his wife and two daughters. He appreciated his time with the Dodgers and got along with his teammates. Under the visor of his cap were the characters 感 謝, which mean ‘thankful’. For Kuroda, being thankful isn’t a glib daily affirmation; it is a reminder of where he came from and who he is.

Unlike most other Japanese pitchers who played in the United States, Kuroda was not a star in high school. In fact, he spent most of his time on the bench. Kuroda’s father had been a professional player though he never pushed his son. His mother, however, supported the old school brand of discipline practiced by his coach. Kuroda was strong and durable but wild and was often relegated to pitching in practice. During bullpen sessions, his coach Hidemasa Tanaka told the catcher not to catch any pitch that wasn’t a strike. Kuroda had to retrieve each errand toss and then sprint back to the mound to make the next pitch.

“Pro scouts frequently came to watch our teams play,” Tanaka told Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times. “But no one bothered with Kuroda. There was no point.”

Kuroda wanted to quit many times but he stuck with it, pitching at Senshu University in Tokyo without achieving stardom. It was no surprise he wasn’t a high draft pick in 1997 when the Hiroshima Carp, a losing small-market team, signed him to the customary 10-year Japanese contract.

“The team had a lousy defense and he had to pitch in a small park,” says Robert Whiting, author of “You Gotta Have Wa”. “It was hard for him to put up the numbers he might have if he had played for the Yomiuri Giants, and accordingly, he did not get as much attention as he might have.” Nevertheless, Kuroda developed into an accomplished pitcher with good control.

“Kuroda earned everything by merit, including his chance to take the mound,” says Mike Plugh a professor of communications in Akita City who has written about Japanese baseball for Baseball Prospectus.

Alex Ochoa, the first base coach for the Red Sox, played against Kuroda for 4 years in Japan. Last week, Ochoa told David Waldstein of the New York Times, “He pitched like an American. He got ahead with his fastball and then used his breaking stuff and his splitter to get you out.”

Plugh says that Kuroda was appreciated by baseball fans in Japan, but adds, “The Carp are notoriously stingy. When he became a free agent, even after he showed himself to be one of the best pitchers in Japan, they didn’t want to pay him at first.” When they finally came around, Kuroda signed a 4-year deal. He was a rarity. Since the advent of free agency in Japan in 1992, players have changed teams at will. “Players move about quite a lot these days, usually from less influential teams to more influential teams like the Giants,” Whiting told me. “In this sense, Kuroda was an exception.”

Kuroda wisely had a clause written in the contract that allowed him to leave if the majors came calling. After one more season with the Carp, he declared free agency and signed 3-year, $35.3 million deal with the Dodgers. He was in tears at his farewell press conference.

“I made the decision because I wanted to go one step forward as a baseball player,” said Kuroda. “I would’ve been fine finishing my career with the Carp, but my feelings of wanting to challenge myself in a different kind of baseball grew stronger.”

Perhaps his decision was not necessarily compatible with the need to stay loyal to the Carp. He may have felt the need to repay the debt in full and then take a step up the ladder. Only after he was freed by a sense of obligation was he able to concentrate on personal ambition.

Kuroda arrived in the States with none of the hype that accompanied Dice K in Boston. “He didn’t have superstar baggage,” said Dylan Hernandez. Kuroda was open to changing his approach to fit the American game. In Japan, pitchers only throw once a week and they don’t face the same level of hitters they do in the States. With the help of an interpreter, Kuroda talked with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and catcher Russell Martin. He also watched a lot of video. “The first year it wasn’t so much spring training as the long season,” Honeycutt told me last week. “We tried to give him a day off when we could.”

The most difficult adjustment was cultural. “You think about it, it’s a very lonely existence,” Joe Torre, the Dodgers’ manager told Andy Kamenetzky who profiled Kuroda for ESPN Los Angeles in 2010. “When you’re changing countries, it’s a little overwhelming.”

In Japan, players don’t seek out coaches so Kuroda was honored when Torre eventually approached him with a friendly pat or a few words. He spent some time on the DL with tendinitis that first year but he had a solid season. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Braves in July before Mark Teixeira broke it up with a single. What made Kuroda’s transition to the majors impressive is that he continued to strike batters out while maintaining the same fine control he had in Japan.

He came into his own in the playoffs. Kuroda had never pitched in postseason with the Carp, yet there he was throwing 6.1 shutout innings against the Cubs in the clinching game of the NLDS. The Dodgers lost the first two games of the NLCS against the Phillies. In Game 2, Phillies starter Brett Myers threw a ball behind Manny Ramirez. After the Dodgers jumped all over Jamie Moyer in Game 3, Russell Martin was hit twice. In the top of the third, with two men out, Kuroda threw a fastball over Shane Victorino’s head. The benches cleared (and Kuroda was later fined $7,500) but he allowed just two runs over 6 innings and the Dodgers won the game. “That was a big turning point,” Torre told Kamenetzky. “You knew he was a competitor, but I think at that point and time you realized what kind of competitor.”

The next season, Kuroda had an oblique strain and missed most of April and all of May. Then, in August he suffered a concussion after getting hit in the head with a batted ball in Arizona. The ball ricocheted all the way to the Diamondback’s on deck circle. “I didn’t know if he was going to get up,” said general manager Colletti. Kuroda went to the hospital and only missed a few starts. “That tells you everything you need to know about him, ” said Colletti. Kuroda didn’t pitch in  the NLDS due to a bulging disk in his neck and gave up six runs against the Phillies in the NLCS without making it out of the second inning.

The next 2 years, Kuroda was healthier and he improved incrementally. He went from 183 and 117 innings to 196 and 202; his ERA went from 3.73 and 3.76 to 3.39 and 3.07. His walks stayed low and he continued to strike hitters out.

“He is a nice, no bullshit pitcher who pitches deep into games and is economical,” said Jay Jaffe from Baseball Prospectus.

Honeycutt calls Kuroda a true professional: “He commands the fastball in the lower part of the zone with movement. He’s a groundball pitcher, an attack guy, especially from the wind up, who looks for contact early in the count. With two strikes he will use a hard split finger, 86-88 mph that goes straight down and is lethal. But last year, he also challenged guys up in the zone when he was ahead and surprised them.”

“When he’s really on, his splitty is on,” Russell Martin told Anthony McCarron of the Daily News last week. “It gets him out of trouble. He can throw his fastball at 94 or 95 (miles per hour), though he’s mostly at 92 or 93, so it’s impressive. His slider is different, a really short break. It’s not a strikeout pitch, but it gets a lot of balls off the end of the bat, and his splitty is nasty against lefties or righties.”

Kuroda also became more comfortable with his English and was popular with teammates who appreciated his droll sense of humor.

Kuroda may come across as stoic or reserved but Clayton Kershaw thought he was “a goofball.”

What stood out to me in Kamenetzky’s ESPN piece is this quote from Kuroda: “There’s so much that you can understand about a person beyond words. And since I can’t really express myself, I’ve noticed a lot more, I’m tuned to notice the quality of a person without speaking. There’s a definitely a lot more importance in trying to understand a person without words.”

One Dodger teammate recalled how Kuroda comforted pitcher Jamey McDonald after Macdonald had a bad outing. Mcdonald refused to speak to reporters and Kuroda approached him and touched his shoulder as if to say, “I’ve been there.” It was a seemingly innocuous gesture but one that conveyed empathy and sensitivity.

Which brings us back to the meeting with Colletti. Kuroda thought about accepting a trade but he valued the commitment the Dodgers made to him when they signed him to a 1-year deal that spring. Would the champagne taste as sweet if he won a championship with a team that he didn’t start with in spring training? For Kuroda, the answer was no. A sense of loyalty—or ningen-kankei, the Japanese term for human relations—far outweighed the lure of moving to a contender. He stayed with the Dodgers.

“I wanted that feeling to remain important to me,” Kuroda told Hernandez last summer. “I think your self-identity is defined by certain decisions you make. If you go back on them, you lose a sense of who you are.”

The more I learned about Kuroda, the more I saw how narrow my thinking was last summer. Colletti called Kuroda’s decision to stay with the Dodgers “honorable” and I agree. When the season was over, Kuroda was expected to return to Japan and end his career with the Carp.

“I was surprised that he didn’t go back,” says Dylan Hernandez. “On the last day of the season he was crying in the clubhouse and I thought ‘this is it.’” Takashi  Yamakawa, a Japanese baseball writer for Kyodo News said that Kuroda “changed his mind after deep consideration. Kuroda is not young in his spirit. He is an adult.”

The chance to pitch for Yankees meant not only pitching for a contender but pitching for the most famous team in the world. It is the challenge of playing for a perennial favorite, something that Kuroda has never experienced. “My feeling is that he made an exception for the Yankees,” said Hernandez. “They are the best, most visible team in the world. You just don’t say no.”

Kuroda will pitch in a new league, against a DH, and work in smaller ballparks than he did in the NL West. He’s coming off his two most durable years and is at his peak just when physical decline is set to take effect. Oh yeah, he’s also pitching for the Yankees, where the pressure to win is unrelenting.

“The pressure is more than double,” says Yamakawa, who told me that Kuroda went to a doctor last summer when he was having trouble sleeping at night. Unbeknownst to his teammates Kuroda spent two nights in the hospital. The doctor said that stress was keeping him awake. “But he is good at switching his mind when he’s on the mound,” Yumokura said.

Although Robert Whiting predicts that “Kuroda will suffer from the Yankees weak infield defense on the left hand side of the diamond and the home run jet stream to right center,” the pitcher will be reunited with his old catcher Russell Martin. “He was sad when Martin left,” says Yumokura. He said that ‘Martin is the only catcher for me.’”

“Without a doubt it’ll help pitching to Russell,” said Honeycutt. “That’s a huge positive for the Yankees and I have no doubt that Kuroda’s qualified to handle the change.” He is almost certain to get more run support, too. “He might have won 17 games last year with that offense,” said Colletti.

Kuroda is not expected to be an ace but a workhorse. Maybe he’ll have a higher ERA but should also win more games. Kuroda wanted an opportunity to be the best in the world and it seems as though he owed himself the chance to take a shot at it. And while winning a World Series is all that matters in certain quarters in the Bronx, there are some of us Yankee fans who appreciate toughness and effort no matter what the result.

“He is a humble man and not afraid,” said Yamakawa. “But he’s never had that great fame and he is ambitious to be successful.” The reporter thought for a moment before adding a small request: “Please help him.”

Click here for William Juliano’s statistical analysis of Kuroda.

[Photo Credit: ESPN, SI; Kuroda meal via Rico and Coco]

Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey

In 2008 the Yankees missed the playoffs and had a hole at first base. They hoped to remedy both that winter by signing Mark Teixeira. Healthy as a horse, Teixeira has delivered homers, RBI and defense as expected and the Yankees have been in postseason all three years he’s been on the squad. They also won their first championship since 2000.

No buyer’s remorse there right? Who’s gonna argue with 111 home runs and 341 RBI in just three years? Two Gold Gloves to boot? A runner-up for MVP? Just keeps getting better and better with big Teix. Until it gets worse.

Yankee fans are shaking in their boots about the rest of Teixeira’s contract and here’s why: it looks like he can’t hit righties anymore, and out of six Postseason series with the team, he’s been dog poop in five of them.

These are not minor quibbles nor inventions of the back pages and call-in radio programs. These are the legit facts. Teixeira’s batting average against righties has fallen from .282 to .244 to .224 in the last three years. And his cumulative postseason triple slash with the Yankees over 123 plate appearances is .170/.276/.302. Eighteen hits in 106 at bats.

The postseason futility is a bummer and not a small reason why the Yanks have been bounced in 2010 and 2011, but it’s not predictive. He might have a good series down the road and help them win another title. And all those games when he didn’t hit, he was out there making some good defensive plays. If he choked because he was scared of the big stage, wouldn’t he be bad in field as well? He sucked, but it’s over

The real concern when it comes to his performance is the decline against righties. Has he hit bottom? Will this trend continue? Will he rebound?

Let’s look at the damage. His overall average has declined from .308 the year before he joined the Yanks to .292 in his stellar 2009 campaign to .256 and skidding down to .244 for a pedestrian-yet-productive-2011. Obviously, the shrinking average indicates Teixeira is trading hits for outs. But let’s try to figure out what’s going on in that exchange.

First thing we have to do is to separate his left-handed stats from his right-handed stats. His right-handed season was excellent – in fact, he’s hit for big power and good averages all three years as a Yankee. That’s no surprise as he has always hit lefties well. He’s hitting more homers, maybe due to Yankee Stadium’s cozy corners, but overall, he’s a carbon copy of the guy the Yanks thought they were getting.

His left-handed stats paint a stark contrast. At first glance, everything looks down from his career norms, and it is, in absolute terms. But diving into the components, we find it’s not that simple. Even as the batting average plummets, Teix is walking and whiffing with the same frequency, and his ISO (SLG – AVG) is also at his career norm. So if he’s turning hits to outs, they are not turning into more strike outs (phew) and the hits themselves are just as powerful as ever.

So where are the hits going? When Mark Teixeira bats left-handed, he often faces a shift – an extreme defensive alignment where the opposing infielders give up ground on the left side of the diamond to overload the right. Teixeira, a pull-hitter from the left side, hits a lot of balls into the shift and very few the other way. He loses some hits to the shift and he’s not making them back by exploiting the vacancy on the right side of the infield.

Could the shift account for most of Teixeira’s troubles against righties? Looking beyond batting average to his average only on balls in play, this theory starts to make some sense. As a left-hander, Teix had a pitiful BABIP of .222 (and only .256 in 2010). For the meat of his career his BABIP has been reliably between .290 and .314. Eureka?

If Teix is the same player he always was, and opposing teams have figured out exactly where to stand to rob him of singles, then the case should be closed. Teix is losing singles from the left side of the plate because of the shift.

But Teix is not exactly the same hitter he always was. The shift is playing a part, and Tyler Kepner cited Yankee research this summer which indicates it’s stealing 20 points off his average from the left side, but it’s not the whole story.

In the last two years Teixeira has seen career highs (or close to them) in O Swing % (the amount of time he swings at pitches outside the strike zone), FB% (the percentage of contact that results in fly balls) and in IFFB% (the percentage of contact resulting in pop ups on the infield). Since we already know his walks and whiffs are not changing, we know that the result of these tendencies is a sacrifice of line drives and ground balls, both of which go for hits more often than fly balls and pop ups.

What kind of balls in play will the shift snare? Mostly ground balls and line drives. Teix is surely losing some hits there, we can see it happen. But since his whole batted ball profile is transitioning away from ground balls and line drives, the shift can’t be solely responsible.

I find it hard to believe teams weren’t shifting on Teix in 2009 or on previous teams. We know Giambi faced shifts before Teix even entered the league, why would the opposition wait until 2010 to try it against Teixeira?

While we can’t be certain, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone sure sounds like a confused hitter, mired in a slump, trying to hack his way out of it. When that hitter swings at pitches outside the strike zone, pitches that are harder to drive with authority, he gets jammed and pops out. He gets under high fast balls and hits towering fly outs. And he yanks outside pitches right into the teeth of a shift.

Frustration leads to desperation. Desperation leads to poor decision-making. And the batting average continues to fall, caught in a negative feedback-loop. It’s possible the pitchers are getting wise as well. In 2011, Teixeira saw a fewer percentage of pitches in the strike zone than ever before. (That must be why the walks stayed the same even though Teix was swinging at slop.)

Teixeira faces a combination of four factors eroding his average from the left side. The shift, hitting more fly balls and pop outs, swinging at bad pitches more often, and of course, some good old fashioned bad luck on balls in play. He can rebound from the bad luck and rededicate himself to not swing at bad pitches.

But if Teixeira wants to hit a respectable average again, he’s going to have to make some alterations. He’ll need to take the ball to all fields to punish the shift when the location of the pitch dictates. He’ll need to revisit film from earlier in his career and try to figure out why he is hitting so many harmless pop outs. He’ll need to exchange those easy outs for liners and hard grounders. Some of those will end up as outs because of the shift, but he needs Kevin Long’s support to ride those out and stick with his new (old) plan.

Jason Giambi had a fine Yankee career. But his .260 batting average was a far cry from the .308 average he brought with him. He had to deal with the shift and injuries and whatever it was that going on and off steroids was doing to him. He never found a way to reclaim those points of batting average after his first year, but he still mashed with homers and walks and was a part of many great offenses.

Teixeira can do all of that minus a few walks and play good defense as well. If the worst case is that Teix is now a .250 hitter, that’s a bummer and he won’t be worth his contract, but he’ll still be good. But from what we’ve seen and heard of the guy, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be satisfied down there. He’ll work his butt off to improve, and luckily, the Yankees just have to go to fangraphs.com to pinpoint where he needs to direct his attention.

All statistics from fangraphs.com & baseball-reference.com

[Images via nj.com & southernbelle.mlblogs.com]

Hot Stove – Easy Bake Oven Edition

When the Yankees contemplate the 2012 roster, Russell Martin’s name is going to come up – for about five seconds. He’s going to be on the team and, if healthy, the opening day catcher.

He’s cheap, requires only a one-year commitment, and he said something heartwarming about the Red Sox. All this and he was a slightly above average catcher last year, too. Of catchers with 400 PAs, he was top ten in fWAR, and just below top ten in wOBA (.325) and wRC+ (100). That 100 wRC+ means, after adjusting for park effects, Russell Martin was exactly average offensively in 2011.

There are no likely circumstances in which the Yankees are better off in 2012 without Russell Martin. Even if the Yankees somehow acquired Joe Mauer for Jesus Montero and some magic beans, they might as well keep Martin on board for 2012 as an expensive but high quality back-up.

A Mauer trade isn’t going to go down, however. So what variables should the Yankees consider when it comes to Martin?

Cost. He made four million last year and is under team control for one more year. They must tender a contract to retain their rights and at least head to binding arbitration. But that should be no problem. Martin could command a significant raise and still be cheap for a decent starting catcher.

Length of commitment. The Yankees could try to negotiate a long-term contract with Martin, but why? He’s not good enough and the Yanks have cheaper, perhaps better, options on the horizon. The risk of losing him after 2012 while none of their other catching prospects pans out to replace him is far less damaging than the scenario of signing him long term only to have his adequacy block the development of the prospects.

The Yankees can control one more year of Martin’s career and that’s all they should sign up for at this point. Maybe a two-year deal would be even better, but I don’t see why Martin would want to delay his impending free agency to help the Yanks. If it so happens that Martin is also their best option for 2013 and beyond, they can address that with their wallet after they win the 2012 World Series.

Other Options. Despite blistering the ball for a month at the Major League level, the Yankees were scared to let 21 year old Jesus Montero catch more than a couple of pitches in September. Whether this was because they thought he would cost them vital games in their quest for the AL East crown or because they thought he’d hurt his trade value by exposing his poor defensive skills, neither indicates he’s storming to the top of the depth chart by opening day.

I don’t think it’s going to be a widely held opinion, but certainly there are some fans who think the Yanks should adios Martin to give Montero a trial by fire to become the next Mike Piazza. A trial by fire only works if you’re prepared to allow the prospect to burn. Montero’s bat is too promising to be used for kindling in that experiment.

The Yankees may someday pencil Austin Romine’s name into the opening day lineup, but in 2012, he should start in Scranton, not the Bronx. He’s got two seasons of AA under his belt, and he’s hit enough to stay on the radar screen, but not enough to skip a level. There’s no way either of those guys is going to be a better option at catcher than Russell Martin before next April.

Francisco Cervelli is right out.

Crazy Ideas. The DH slot opens wide if Montero wins the starting job. Which configuration gives the Yankees the best chance at the 2012 title? A catcher-DH-3B medley of Martin, Montero, Arod and Nunez? Or one of Montero, Cervelli, Arod, Nunez and David Ortiz?

Imagine this lineup: Jeter, Granderson, Cano, Arod, Ortiz, Teixeira, Montero, Swisher, Gardner. Swap Gardner and Jeter if you want. DH Arod against lefties if you want.  Ortiz was among the top ten hitters in baseball last year by wOBA (.405) and wRC+ (153); he’s going to be good next year too.

But Jesus Montero could prove within two weeks that he cannot handle the full time catching responsibilities. He could be the next Johnny Bench and, at 22, still struggle with full time duty in the Show. And if Montero fails completely, like we’ve been warned he will by 29 other teams and the scouting community at large, then Cervelli is the guy. Due to Arod’s fragility, he appears unable to play 140 games at third base. To keep him around all season in something resembling top form, he needs a lot of days at DH.

If this crazy idea worked out perfectly, the Yanks would be upgrading from Martin to Ortiz on offense while downgrading from Martin to Montero defensively. And if the plan fell apart, they’d be downgrading from Martin to Cervelli on both offense and defense while Montero, Arod and Ortiz shuttled between DH, the bench, the DL and AAA.

So the risk of cutting Martin loose so that David Ortiz could pepper the right field stands just isn’t worth it. If Montero improves over the year and the Yankees have an opening at DH, they will have another chance to acquire one at the trade deadline.

Martin’s ALDS performance was disappointing, and he’s a lousy hitter if his power returns to pre-2011 norms. But with Montero in the lineup and playing some catcher to boot, Martin’s offense should be even less relevant than it was last year. It’s possible that by the time Yankees are contemplating their next playoff roster, Montero could be the starting catcher.

Martin’s adequacy is exactly what the Yankees need right now. On the cusp of better options from within, he’ll do more than keep the spot warm; he’ll give the 2012 Yankees the best chance to win.

# 600

On a certain night in October of ’03, Roger Clemens said, “Pick your two favorite super heroes, I’ll put Mo up against both of them.”

Here’s to saving the day, 600 times.

 

El Duque Leaves the Game

Orlando Hernandez has officially retired.

Other Yankees have been around longer. Other Yankees contributed more to the last dynasty. And certainly, many other Yankees were consistently better. But El Duque is one of the first guys I think of from that era. As a morbidly pessimisstic fan in those days (I think I’ve evolved past the morbid part in the intevening decade), no other starter inspired security like El Duque.

I’ll never forget the first inning of the 1999 ALDS against the powerful Rangers lineup. Pudge doubled with one out and El Duque faced the heavy hitters. He gave the lefties Greer and Palmeiro nothing at all and walked them both to load the bases. But the righties Gonzalez and Zeile he attacked with his full arsenal and exploited their aggression with ever-widening sliders until he had them fishing for pitches a foot outside.

And if there was a more crucial postseason game in the three-peat than his his ballsy victory in Cleveland in Game Four of the 1998 ALCS, I don’t know if I want to remember.

His pitching style was unforgettable and almost impossible to replicate on the stick-ball blacktop, though it didn’t stop us from straining our gluts giving it a try. His feisty confidence was refreshing and his arguments with Posada during mound visits were always entertaining.

When he walked those Texas lefties, there was no doubt it was part of a master plan. Perhaps that plan was a little foolish and left too little margin for error, but I don’t think El Duque ever worried that it wouldn’t work. And watching at home, I wasn’t worried either, which is probably why he was my favorite starter.

The Yankees had two players during the most recent dynasty who delivered performances vastly better than their career statistics would have you believe was possible. The great Mariano and El Duque. Mariano went from Hall of Famer to statistical impossibilty in the Postseason and El Duque, a quality middle-of-the-rotation arm, turned into Bob Gibson.

His baseball-reference page will have my kids wonder what all the fuss was about. I can’t wait to tell them.

Six of One Plus Half a Dozen of the Other

Congratulations to Hideki Matsui on his 500th career professional home run.

Ichiro combined for well over 3000 hits in both leagues. And now Matsui has done the same with 500 homers.

It seems clear now that Ichiro, because his batting average, speed and defense did not diminish when he came over to America will be the more revered player by historians and fans in both countries. Though for a large part of their careers, the opposite was true.

[Photo from the Merced Sun Star]

 

Stylestone

(Note: this story was edited on 7/20)

Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit recently, had you heard? Not only did he notch his safety, he owned the game in which he reached the cherished milestone. I thought that was as remarkable as the career achievement – with so much promised, he still managed to over-deliver on the contract.

The fans didn’t have to wait around for it. He needed two hits and and got them his first two trips to the plate. It was homer to boot. And then he stuck around, got three more hits and won a dramatic game versus a division rival with a tie-breaking hit in the bottom of the eighth. He turned his 3000th hit into an unforgettable event. That’s Jeter’s gift; that’s his style.

I had to wonder if any other member of the 3000 hit club ever rose to the occasion in such a fashion. I remember Pete Rose pursuing 4000 and Ty Cobb’s record. And at that time Rod Carew was piling up hits and sealing his place in rap lyrics. But honestly, how they got there was lost to me.

I wonder if that is an unconscious reason behind the rampant Jeter bashing surrounding the hit and All-Star pass? His performance and Yankee fans’ constant retelling of his performance will make his 3000th hit indelible. But other Hall of Famers are not so lucky. Is it because they didn’t do it with as much style as Derek? Or is it another example of the New York Yankees and their fans blocking out the sun?

Turns out, I think, to be both. I checked out each milestone hit from Pete Rose’s 4000th all the way through Derek Jeter’s 3000th to see what I missed, what I should have seen, along the way. Look, there’s no way around it, Jeter’s milestone game was the best. The homer and the five hits would have given him a solid argument, the game winning RBI in the eighth ends the discussion.

But I had no idea how many other great Hall of Famers just dominated their games like Jeter did. As recently as 2007, Craig Biggio also had five hits on his big day. I confess, until a few mentions in the media after Jeter’s five hits, I had no idea that happened.

Tony Gwynn and Geroge Brett had four hits a piece. Wade Boggs had three hits and was the first to celebrate 3000 with a home run trot (that I remembered). Paul Molitor, who also had three hits, is the only guy to do it with a triple.

I was paying attention as 15 players passed huge hit totals, and ten of them did it with multi-hit games. Seven had three or more. Their cumulative average in these 15 games is .594. It’s too small a sample from which to draw a conclusion, but it does make you wonder if elite players, pumped up for this kind of moment, might benifit from the extra adrenaline or something.

As bad as it was to take shots at Jeter as he approached 3000 (of these 15 players, eight had OPS+ below 100 during their chase and only two or three of them could be considered to have had “good” seasons), it is equally terrible to celebrate his triumph as if it has never been done before.

It’s like the Red Sox fans celebrating the 2004 World Series as if it was the first title ever won by anybody in the history of anything. When you lose context, you piss off everyone but your core constituents. And as much as Derek Jeter deserves to celebrate, the celebration is about putting his name directly underneath and alongside Carl Yastrzemski, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and all the other all-time greats in this club.

He didn’t jump to the top of the list just because he went five for five.

That was his gift to Yankee fans.

***

When I revisited this story in my head last night I realized a mistake. It’s not Boston’s fans or Jeter’s fans who are to blame for over-reacting to the 2004 World Series or to the 3000th hit. They’re not the ones who are required to interject perspective during their uninhibited expressions of joy. It’s the national media who are responsible. But instead of playing that role and providing context for the rest of the sporting world, now they pander to the local fan base to make a buck.

And of course, being a good winner about such things and not rubbing it in goes a very long way to dispelling the blowback. So that’s where the fans come in, and as we all knows fans of all stripes, every faction has their guilty parties.

Jeteronomy the Milestone: III

There are several obstacles cluttering unfettered enjoyment of Derek Jeter’s quest for his 3000th hit. The only legitimate one is Derek’s poor statistical season thus far. But that’s easily cancelled out by the Yankees’ overall excellence. The rest are manufactured by either a burgeoning wave of critics feeling the need to diminish the player, question his contract and place in the batting order, or by a thundering chorus of fanboys and girls drooling over every dribbler. Count me with the latter I suppose, if I have to choose sides.

But screw all of that. Just because there is a lot of noise and nonsense surrounding the hit doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to relish the moment on our own terms. For me that means several hours on baseball-reference.com sifting through the leader boards. One of the things you hear about Jeter’s milestone is that it’s surprising that no other Yankee has ever accomplished the feat. And the first few times I heard that, I mindlessly agreed, “Yeah, where’s the Yanks’ 3000 hit guy?”

But upon further review, it’s not that common, or easy, for a franchise to be able to “claim” a 3000th hit. There are 27 players with 3000 hits. Only 14 of them have acquired hits one through 3000 for their original team. And if you want to ease the requirements on the claim to getting your 3000th hit on the same team for which you accumulated the most hits, we can add another five. In all, only 15 franchises can claim a 300oth hit for their ledgers in this way. And that includes franchises like the Giants and the Braves that moved around during their players’ quests (Mays and Aaron).

Four franchises are lucky enough to have two. The Cards (Musial and Brock), the Tigers (Kaline and Cobb), the Pirates (Wagner and Clemente) and Cleveland (Speaker and Lajoie). Only Detroit has two pure claims as both Cobb and Kaline went wire to wire in the Motor City. The Yankees of course did have three players eventually get 3000 hits, but none of Winfield, Henderson nor Boggs achieved the milestone while Yankees. At least Winfield got more hits in a New York uniform than in any others, but that’s not enough to stake any kind of claim.

And obviously, it’s not just that Yankee fans are whining about not getting a fair distribution of the 3000 club. We’re surprised they’ve had such great players, among the best ever, and even still don’t have a clear 3000th hit. But among those titans of the game, they’ve never had the right mixture of health, peace, and free-swinging needed to amass such a huge total.

When Jeter gets number 3000, he’ll be only the 15th player to get his first 3000 hits with the same club. The Yankees are used to draping themselves in banners and tripping over trophies, and yes this has eluded their clutches thus far, but it’s not as surprising as it might seem. It’s really special, and I didn’t appreciate it fully until now.

We can’t ignore the fact Jeter is in the middle of a down year, but does anybody else remember so much scrutiny over other recent fading stars and their victory laps? Craig Biggio hung around until he was 40 and had the worst year of his career. But he came up short, so he returned at 41, had an even more dreadful year before ringing the bell. Winfield was crumbling in the worst season of his career (up to that point) at 41 when he got the big hit. Cal Ripken enjoyed an outlier renaissance the year before his 3000th, but he was crap during and all around the milestone.

All I remember from any of these marches towards history was celebration and adulation. Jeter deserves the same – especially playing for a first place team.

So in that spirit, I tried to come up with a memory of one specific hit. With the help of baseball-reference, this could have been a week-long tumble into the inter-hole. But he’s at 2996 now, so time’s a-wasting.

I was away at college when Jeter became a Yankee. I had come back to the team in earnest in 1993 when they retired Reggie’s number. But I had left New York the following year, so when the Yankees approached the 1996 division crown, I was watching from afar. I knew Derek Jeter was a promising rookie and had hopes, like everybody else, that he’d stick around for a long time and prove to be a good player. But I had no sense of him yet.

College was down in Baltimore’s television market, and I tuned in when the Yanks squared off against the second-place Orioles on September 18th. The Orioles were three games back and this was the last chance they had to catch the Yankees for the division crown. The Orioles led 2-1 in the late innings. Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the eighth and I thought, I really want him to get a hit here, and he lined one to right. The Yanks did not score though.

Bernie tied it in the ninth. Mariano held the O’s scoreless and Derek Jeter led off again in the tenth. I thought, I really want him to get a hit here, but that’s not fair to this rookie. He already came through in the eighth and this is a lot of pressure and all. But Jeter got the hit and scored the run. The Yanks won the game, the division and the series. As the ball squirted between short and third and into left field, I remember it occurring to me, “Maybe the Yanks have found something special here. Maybe this is a guy who is going to come up big when they need it most.”

He didn’t always come through, of course, but he did often enough to make it feel safe to hope for it. Derek Jeter has never been my favorite player. But between Jeter and Mariano, they make the Yankees seem like one epic roster that has stretched from 1995 to today. They are the Yankees of my young adulthood. They bridged the end of my schoolboy playing career to start of my family.

Three thousand is a lot of hits. I am glad I saw so many of them.

[Photo Credit: USA Today]

Card Corner: The 1961 Yankees: Bobby Richardson

Bobby Richardson might not have made it in today’s game. To be more specific, he might not have been able to start for most teams at second base. He was a reliable and rangy defender with hands of silk at the keystone, but as a .260 hitter who drew few walks and hit with little power, he probably wouldn’t have carried the offensive standard of today’s game. Of course, that should do little to diminish his complementary role on those great Yankee teams of the early 1960s.

Emerging as a 19-year-old rookie, the handsome Richardson made his big league debut in 1955. He was hardly an overnight success. He didn’t hit much over his first four seasons and had to settle for a role as a part-time player and utility infielder, while spending time on the minor league shuttle to Triple-A Denver. When Casey Stengel played him at second base, it was usually in a platoon with veteran infielder Jerry Lumpe. In many ways, Richardson seemed out of place on a Yankee team filled with hard hitters and big drinkers. Richardson’s clean living and deep religious beliefs prompted a famed remark from his manager, Casey Stengel. “Look at him. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t chew, he don’t stay out too late, and he still don’t hit .250!”

It was not until 1959 that he started to hit better and finally took hold of the second base job, essentially succeeding Gil McDougald at the position. Richardson played well enough to earn a berth on the All-Star team, hit a tidy .301, and fielded everything hit in his direction. Unfortunately, after making appearances as a bit player in the 1957 and ‘58 World Series, Richardson was denied a more meaningful role in that fall’s World Series; the ‘59 Yankees finished 79-75, a disappointing and distant third in the American League pennant race.

In 1960, Richardson’s hitting fell off to .252, as he reached base barely 30 per cent of the time. Although he looked like a leadoff hitter, he didn’t play like one. Frankly, the Yankees would have been better served leading off with either Tony Kubek, who had a slightly better on-base percentage and far more power, or Hector Lopez, who reached base 36 per cent of the time. Fortunately, the Yankees did not need a ton of offense from Richardson because the rest of their lineup was so potent.

In reality, Richardson always led with his glove. He had the perfect physique for a second baseman. At five-foot-nine and 175 pounds, Richardson was built strong and low to the ground, making him an immoveable object on takeout slides at second base. He worked extremely well with Kubek, his shortstop partner and his best friend on the team. Richardson’s rock-solid defensive play more than satisfied the Yankee brass, which recognized the subtle role that his fielding played in helping the team regain the pennant after a one-year absence.

(more…)

Grace Slick

Mariano Rivera didn’t look to have his best stuff last night. But with one out and a runner on first, he snagged a hard ground ball and quickly pivoted his body around to second base. In that instant I thought of the 2001 World Series, 9th inning, Game 7. That was when Rivera didn’t turn a double play. It wasn’t the worst performance of his career but it may have been the most painful as the Diamondbacks scored twice to win the Serious. I couldn’t sleep that night. I replayed the inning over and over. I wondered if a loss like that would break Rivera. It didn’t, of course. The Sandy Alomar home run in the 1997 ALDS didn’t, and neither did Game 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox.

Now, it’s almost ten full years after the loss to the Diamonbacks and only a handful of players who appeared in the Serious are still active. None of them are performing on Rivera’s level. He’s embodiment of excellence, still graceful, a later day Fred Astaire as we like to think of him around these parts, and one of the most beautiful athletes in pro sports.

Rivera was quick enough to field the hard ground ball last night and he made a difficult throw to second base look easy. It was right on target. Cano caught it and threw to first in one smooth motion,  in time for a game-ending double play. Close play. Yanks got the call.

The Yankee players smiled as they gathered to shake hands. Smiled at an old man who still has a few moments left. He was smiling too.

And so were we.

Observations From Cooperstown: Who is Luis Ayala?

I’ll always love the underdog. The stars will receive their share of press, that’s a certainty, but I’m more interested in the backstories of baseball’s unwashed: the journeymen, the utility men, the eccentric characters in the back of the bullpen. Those are the guys I root for, the guys whose stories are of most interest to me.

Luis Ayala is this year’s Yankee underdog. If you could have predicted that Luis Ayala, 33-year-old right-hander, would make the 25-man Opening Day roster, then you should be using your predictive skills by purchasing as many lottery tickets as possible. I would have given Mark Prior, Sergio Mitre, Greg Golson, or Justin Maxwell far better chances of sticking with the Yankees for the start of the regular season. But they’re all back in the minor leagues, or with other teams, and Ayala is not. Somehow, he’s a Yankee.

Luis Ayala is not to be confused with Bobby Ayala, the stocky right-handed reliever who once pitched for the Mariners and faced the Yankees in that haunting 1995 American League Division Series. That Ayala once had one of the worst seasons in the history of modern day relief pitching; in 1998, he went 1-10 with a 7.29 ERA and allowed a cascade of 100 hits in 75 innings. He is long since retired, having last pitched in 1999 for the Cubs.

Luis Ayala is also not to be mistaken for Benny Ayala, an outfielder from an earlier generation who made his big league debut for the Mets in 1974. Benny earned a World Series ring as a backup flychaser with the 1983 champion Orioles. For the most part, Benny was a part-time outfielder who never achieved more than platoon status with the Mets, Cardinals, Orioles, and Indians, but was surprisingly popular because of his lyrical name. Mets fans, in particular, loved to yell out, “Benny Ayala!” as they mimicked Met broadcasters Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson. It became a rallying cry, of sorts, in some Westchester neighborhoods during the swinging seventies.

No, this is Luis Ayala, a native of Mexico, who has had a surprisingly decent six-year career as a middle reliever, forging a lifetime ERA of 3.67. After toiling in the Mexican League, Ayala was purchased by the old Montreal Expos after the start of the new millennium. He made it to the major leagues in 2003, a part of Frank Robinson’s pitching staff. Over his first four seasons with the Expos/Nationals, Ayala was highly effective, posting three seasons with ERAs below 3.00. He ranked among the best set-up relievers in the National League.

Like many relievers, Ayala’s fortunes fluctuated. He pitched so dreadfully for the Nationals during the first half of 2008 that they dumped him on the Mets for the infamous player to be named later. Ayala continued to pitch poorly for New York, which gladly allowed him to become a free agent at season’s end.

In 2009, Ayala pitched for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but was hit hard by the international opposition. Having signed with the Twins, Ayala threw mediocre ball for half a season; he requested a trade but instead drew his release. The Marlins picked him up, but watched him pitch horribly, posting an era of 11.74 in ten appearances. At the end of the season, the Marlins let him become a free agent once again, convinced that he had nothing left to offer at the age of 31.

Few could have blamed Ayala for calling it quits, but he stubbornly persisted in his belief that he could still pitch effectively at baseball‘s highest level. First he had to overcome a harrowing experience. In January of 2010, several gunmen emerged from three vehicles and invaded his home located near Los Mochis, Mexico. They shot down the door and handcuffed Ayala, who appeared to have been targeted as their kidnapping victim. Fortunately, police intervened and prevented Ayala from being abducted. Both Ayala and his family were unharmed.

Undeterred by the bizarre incident, Ayala went to spring training with the Dodgers. Over the course of 2010, he pitched for three different organizations, logged ineffective stints in each of their minor league systems, and failed to make it back to the big leagues with any of them. Without a single major league inning to his credit in 2010, it seemed obvious that Ayala should retire.

He didn’t. The Yankees signed him to a minor league contract, with an invite to spring camp in Tampa. Ayala pitched well almost every time out, permitting only one run in 11 innings spread over 11 appearances, with nine strikeouts and an ERA of 0.79. Still on the outside looking in, Ayala then watched Pedro Feliciano go down with an oblique strain and saw Mitre leave via a trade for spare outfielder Chris Dickerson. Against every imaginable odd, Luis Ayala earned the seventh spot in the bullpen and the final spot on the 25-man roster.

If you haven’t seen Ayala pitch, his delivery is a little weird, to put it kindly. He short-arms the ball, throwing from a semi-sidearm motion. Funky and awkward, It’s a bit painful to watch, and he doesn’t seem to be throwing the ball very hard, but hitters in the Grapefruit League hardly touched him during spring training.

I don’t know how long Ayala will remain in the Bronx, but I do know this: I’ll be rooting for him every time he steps onto the mound.

Bruce Markusen observes the Yankees from a perch in Cooperstown, NY.

Tender is the Night

The good folks at Gangrey have reprinted Michael Paterniti’s loving 1999 Esquire piece on Thurman Munson:

[Ron Guidry] remembers his first start as a Yankee. He came in from the bullpen, nervous and wired, and Thurman Munson walked up to him and said: Trust me. That’s it. Trust me. Then walked away. As Guidry remembers it, everything after that was easy. Like playing catch with Thurman Munson. Thurman calls a fastball on the outside corner. Okay, fastball outside corner. He calls a slider. Okay, slider. Eighteen strikeouts a game. A 25-3 record. The World Series. Just trusting Thurman Munson. Can’t even remember the opposing teams, Guidry says, just remember looking for Thurman’s mitt. Remembers that very first start: Thurman Munson came galumphing out to the mound, told him to throw a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Okay, no problem.

But I’m gonna tell the guy you’re throwing a fastball right down the middle, says Thurman Munson.

Guidry says, Now, Thurman, why’n the hell would you do that?

Trust me, says Thurman Munson. Harumphs back to the plate. Guidry can see him chatting to the batter, telling him the pitch, then he calls for a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Damn crazy fool. Guidry throws the fastball anyway, batter misses. Next pitch, Thurman Munson is talking to the batter again, calls a fastball on the outside corner, Guidry throws, batter swings and misses. Talking to batter again, calls a slider, misses again. Strikeout. Thurman Munson telling most every batter just what Gator is going to throw and Gator throwing it right by them. After a while Thurman Munson doesn’t say anything to the batters, and Gator, he’s free and clear. Believes in himself. Which was the point, wasn’t it?

[Picture by Larry Roibal]

The Unfair One

Tyler Kepner on Mariano Rivera:

Mariano Rivera, who turned 41 on Monday, has continued to defy age. Every year since turning 35, he has pitched fewer innings than he did the year before. Starting in 2004, Rivera’s innings have gone from 78 2/3 to 78 1/3 to 75 to 71 1/3 to 70 2/3 to 66 1/3 to 60.

Rivera pitches less often, but when he does pitch, he is basically as effective as always. He has stayed strong enough to dominate in the postseason, allowing just one run in 28 innings over the Yankees’ last four appearances.

…There are no comparable players to Rivera. The closest is Hoffman, the only pitcher with more career saves than Rivera’s 559. But Hoffman has had two seasons with an earned run average less than 2.00; Rivera has had 10. Rivera has logged more innings in fewer games, and the workload of roughly two extra seasons across all those Octobers.

Okay, we can now go back to fretting about Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee (for the record, I say the Yanks start the season with all three–four, including Rivera–on the roster).

Derek Jeter and The Bubble

Anybody see the 30 Rock episode a few years ago where Liz Lemon suddenly realizes that her doctor boyfriend, played by Jon Hamm, is lacking numerous common-sense everyday skills, but has coasted through life protected from this knowledge by “The Bubble” of his good looks and charm?

I always figured Derek Jeter for something of a PR genius. Almost never a lick of bad press or a public misstep; I assumed he’d worked hard at image maintenance and reaped the rewards. But now it occurs to me: was that really due to skill and intent on Jeter’s part? Or is it possible that, instead, being that he’s Derek Jeter, things have simply fallen into place for him along the way?

See where I’m going with this?

Honestly, I don’t think the Jeter negotiations have gotten all that “nasty” or “ugly” yet, despite the headlines; nothing much worse than “I find their stance baffling” has actually been said thus far, and if you’ve never worked extensively with agents, then trust me, that’s nowhere near their standard for nasty. Still, things could certainly be going smoother, and for the first time in a long time — maybe ever — Jeter seems to be making some tone-deaf and… well, for lack of a better word, baffling public miscalculations.

Unlike Jon Hamm’s Dr. Drew Baird, Jeter is in fact talented and good at his job, and he’s certainly no publicity naïf, either. But I do wonder now if circumstance, and Jeter’s very Jeter-ness, conspired to give him an aura of selflessness, or at least business- and PR-savvy, that he didn’t really do much to earn.

Of course this is only relevant in a contract year, and once Jeter and the Yankees have found some sort of compromise and put this behind him, we can all go back to criticizing Jeter’s defense again and, hopefully, praising his hitting technique. There is nothing remarkable about a team and a star athlete playing hardball in the press (see Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, for starters). It is only remarkable in this case because we’ve come to expect an ineffable smoothness from Jeter — and now, looking back, I wonder if that may have been in our heads more than it was his actions.

As we saw in 30 Rock, it can be dangerous to pop The Bubble (“Careful, Lemon. You wake a sleepwalker, you risk getting urinated on“). On the plus side it seems safe to assume that whatever happens, unlike Dr. Drew, at least The Captain won’t end up with two hook hands.

(Whether he’ll play shortstop as if he did, though, is another question.)

Serve You Up like Stove Top Stuffin’

We’ve seen big Turkey Day signings before. Probably not this year but one never knows. Cliff Lee, Mariano…

The Derek Jeter negotiations continue in the papers and on-line. Tough talk, posturing, you know the routine. I spoke with a friend yesterday who was annoyed by the whole thing. I understand his frustration but can’t say I feel the same. Something will get done, it is just a matter of time. Sure, I click on the new links, the new “breaking stories” and “scoops.” I’m a ho for this stuff like most of us, but I don’t think it means much. Newspaper writers need to make a living, after all. Agents and general managers need to do their thing.

What I find compelling is how Jeter handles himself here. He’s always done “the right thing,” he always seems composed and in control. Well, now he’s faced with the ultimate test–growing old, and not always getting what he wants because he’s Derek Jeter. It is rare that things end elegantly for even the great players. Why should Jeter be any different?

If he left the Yanks, now that would be a story. Otherwise, is Jeter going to turn into an old Cal Ripken, putting himself before the good of the team? Or will he continue his streak as a baseball untouchable? I say he comes around, gets a four-year deal in the end, and the hard feelings will be smoothed over. He’s just too slick for anything else to go down.

Walking Around Cliff Lee

Why hello there, fellow Yankee fans. I’ve read here and there that a lot of you are not that keen on signing Cliff Lee to an expensive, long-term contract. Let’s walk together around the Banter for a short, longish while. Go ahead and bring those heavy reservations and burdensome doubts with you along the way, but also feel free to drop them by the side of the trail as we go. By the end, maybe you’ll have shed all that unnecessary weight currently resting upon your shoulders.

Before we start, let me make sure I understand the full extent of your objections. One possible reason to shun an expensive long-term contract is a strong doubt about the quality of the player. Another would be a strong doubt about the health of the player. The final reason to object to signing an expensive long-term contract is the opportunity cost, both in terms of the payroll and the roster flexibility, of committing dollars and years to the player.

Is that it? Are there other worries I haven’t addressed? No? Well, if you think of any on the way, please let me know.

OK, let’s begin our walk getting comfortable with the quality of the player in question. Cliff Lee is one of the best pitchers in baseball by any measure – I think that’s a point of agreement. He has succeeded in both leagues and a variety of home parks. He has performed as exquisitely while toiling in last place as he has in pitching two different teams to the World Series. He has twice toed the rubber in Yankee Stadium, in October, against our hostile crowds, and twice been virtually untouchable.

In the three years since 2008, he has accumulated 20.9 fWAR and 16.6 bWAR. His fWAR total is behind only Roy Halladay (21.4 fWAR) and his bWAR is behind only Halladay (20.4 bWAR) and CC Sabathia (16.8 bWAR). He’s been better than Felix Hernandez. He’s been better than Tim Lincecum. Think of any pitcher not named Halladay, and Lee has been better.

The doubts nagging you, I gather, are not ones of current quality, because the statistics are breathtaking and as Yankee fans, we’ve experienced his devastating dominance first-hand. The doubts are about the sustainability of this level of performance into the future. After all, he pitched several years before 2008 and was a very different pitcher – an obviously inferior pitcher to what he is today. And he will undoubtedly lose some velocity between now and the end of whatever contract he signs. Will he regress to his old form? Will he fall somewhere inbetween?

(more…)

Have You Ever Been Experienced?

Like many of my statistically-inclined colleagues, I tend be wary of arguments that put a lot of stress on “experience”. Too often that line of thinking seems to result in managers playing declining veterans instead of more talented young players, something fans of many, many teams gnash their teeth over every year. Experience will only get you so far; the ability to hit a good fastball, or throw a great curve, will get you farther. So I don’t put a lot of stock in automatically favoring a player just because they’ve been there before.

But – did you guess there was a “but” coming? — with that said…

Andy Pettitte.

I can’t help feeling a bit relieved knowing that if the Yankees get to a Game 7 in the ALCS, Andy Pettitte will be on the mound and not Phil Hughes. That’s not only because of the experience factor – I think that when healthy Pettitte pitched a bit better, or at least pitched well more consitently, than Hughes this year; Hughes is absolutely a quality Major League starter now, but he’s still got a few kinks to iron out, as just about anyone does at that age.

But it’s more than that. I mean, there’s experience, and then there’s experience. And Andy Pettitte has experience. Postseason experience, sure, having thrown the equivalent of more than an entire regular season just in the playoffs, but I’m not so worried about that – I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything to suggest that Phil Hughes will suddenly crack under pressure, Game 7 or not. It’s more that Andy Pettitte just plain knows what the hell he’s doing out there. He knows what to throw to who when, and he knows exactly how he can best compensate when his velocity isn’t quite there, or when his cutter isn’t cutting; he knows how to get double plays and hold runners on and the odds of catching him sleeping are slim. He may not win – he may not even pitch well, he’s blown his fair share of postseason starts - but there likely won’t be too many what-ifs about it. If Phil Hughes pitches and loses Game 7, I think you start going over how things might have gone differently, pick over mistakes or questionable choices. If Andy Pettitte loses Game 7… well, what are you gonna do?

So I don’t know, maybe it’s the same old “experience” fallacy tricking me one more time. But one of these years, Andy Pettitte’s going to stop his annual (and by now kind of comic) contemplation of retirement and actually retire; until then, I hope the Yankees squeeze everything they can out of his seasoned veteran brain.

…Okay, it sounds kind of gross when I phrase it like that. But you know what I mean.

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