One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is being friends with other writers and feeling an obligation to not only read their work but enjoy it. It can be tricky business.
I’ve known Jay Jaffe almost as long as the Banter has been around. While John Perricone (Only Baseball Matters) was the first baseball blogger I met online, Jay was the first one I met in person—lunch at Christine’s, an old Polish diner down on 2nd Avenue. This was back in 2002. As you probably know, Jay went on to write for Baseball Prospectus and SI.com where he has become the expert, the guru of all things involving the baseball Hall of Fame.
Jay wrote a book that was published this summer. It is called The Cooperstown Casebook. And I am pleased to report that I felt no awkwardness reading it, wondering how I could sugarcoat my response. Because it is everything you want a book like this to be—informative, challenging, irreverent, definitive. I didn’t lack faith in my old chum, but when you see what he delivered, well, it is hard not to be thrilled for him.
New York has exercised atypical financial restraint this winter, yet managed to shore up trouble spots by adding younger and less expensive players. Gregorius and Headley are the two youngest in the lineup, with McCann, who turns 31 in February, the only other regular younger than Drew. Meanwhile, the influx of new pitchers over the last two years leaves Sabathia and Capuano as the only pitchers over 30. Payroll will still be well over $200 million, but Cashman has ensured the Yankees more flexibility down the road, and the farm system is much improved thanks to better drafting and a burst of international signings. Whether or not they deviate by adding Shields, it’s a coherent philosophy that better sets them up for the long haul, even if they fall short of the postseason again in 2015.
He’s a rich man’s [Jack] Morris. When people argue for Morris, they cite his ability to take the ball every fifth day without fail, pitch deep into games, and give his team a chance to win. Mussina did that, too, but he did it better, allowing fewer runs in a significantly tougher era for pitchers. From 1995 through 2003, Mussina averaged 222 innings pitched per year, topping the 200 mark in every one of those seasons (including in ’95, a strike-shortened year). During that time — the peak of the PED era — Mussina struck out about four times as many batters as he walked, and posted a 3.64 ERA that was 28 percent better than league average. Granted, Mussina was just the sixth-best pitcher in the game during that span, but there’s not much you can do when you’re pitching alongside five future Hall of Famers, three of them arguably among the five best pitchers of all time and the fourth with arguably the best two-season peak of any pitcher ever. Mussina was no stiff the rest of the time, either, ending his career with an ERA 23 percent better than league average, putting him on par with Marichal and ahead of Hall of Famers Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, and the next guy on this list.
Two hundred and seventy is not 300, but even so, Mussina ranks 33rd all-time in wins, with a total higher than Hall of Famers Jim Palmer (268), Bob Feller (266), Bob Gibson (251) and 29 other enshrined starting pitchers. Moving beyond that — seriously, I’m done with the wins talk now — his 2,813 strikeouts rank 19th all-time and his 7.1 strikeouts per nine ninth among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings. That’s in part a product of pitching in an era where strikeout rates were almost continually on the rise, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Even more impressive is that his 3.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio is second only to Curt Schilling among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings since 1893, when the distance from the rubber to home plate was lengthened to 60-foot-6.
As for the postseason, Mussina may not have won a ring, but his 3.42 ERA in 139 2/3 innings is no small feat given the high-scoring era; it’s 0.26 lower than his regular season ERA, which itself was 23 percent better than the park-adjusted league average. Aided by the three tiers of playoffs during the bulk of his career, his 145 postseason strikeouts rank fourth all-time, while his 9.3 strikeouts per nine is second among the 22 pitchers with at least 100 postseason innings (Johnson is first at 9.8). Sadly, Mussina’s teams only won nine of his 23 postseason starts, because they supported him with just 3.1 runs per game; only four times did they even give him more than four runs. He had a few dud starts (three of less than five innings) among them, but it’s tough to pin his failure to win a ring on him.
As for the advanced metrics, Mussina stands tall thanks to his combination of run prevention and strikeouts (for which he doesn’t have to share value with his fielders). His 83.0 career WAR ranks 23rd all-time, ahead of 39 of the 57 enshrined starting pitchers; it’s 14th among post-World War II pitchers. That total is 1.6 above fellow candidate Glavine, who has an almost identical career/peak/JAWS line, and 10.4 wins above the average for enshrined starters. Mussina’s peak WAR of 44.5 doesn’t stack up as well; while it’s still 65th all-time, it tops only 20 enshrined starters and is 5.7 wins below the average one. Even so, his 63.8 JAWS is 2.4 points above the Hall average, good for 28th all-time, one spot below Schilling (64.4) and two above Glavine (62.9). He’s 132 spots higher than Jack Morris (38.4). His score beats those of 36 enshrined starters. He’s good enough for Cooperstown.
Mussina’s JAWS score beats those of 36 enshrined starters, and it will still be above the standard once Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Martinez and Tom Glavine all get their due (the admission of those five would raise the respective bars to 75.1/50.7/62.9). He’s good enough for Cooperstown.
Still, the Moose won’t be loose in upstate New York anytime soon. On the contrary, Mussina probably has a long road before he gets a bronze plaque. In such heavy traffic, it’s probably asking too much even to hope that he approximates Schilling’s 38.8 percent debut last year. But like the aforementioned Bert Blyleven, a high-strikeout pitcher from an earlier era whose dominance over hitters and excellence in run prevention was initially overshadowed by his lack of Cy Young hardware, the numbers and the facts are on Mussina’s side. It’s just going to take some time for them to carry the day.
Following the Y ankess changed for the better when Pete Abraham started the Lo Hud Yankees blog. Fortunately for us, Chad Jennings has maintained Pete’s high standard after Pete left to cover the Red Sox for the Boston Globe.
They’re 51-44 at this writing, three games back in the wild-card race, but while they’ve hung surprisingly tough without Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira for most of the season, the bet here is that they’ve peaked before the cavalry of returns and deadline acquisitions has arrived. With their offense scoring less than four runs per game, it’s been their pitching that’s kept them afloat, but their run differential is in the red (-2). A closer look shows that at least among their starters, only Hiroki Kuroda and fill-in Ivan Nova have been preventing runs at a better-than-average rate, while CC Sabathia has been maddeningly inconsistent and Andy Pettitte has looked his 41 years. For the first time since 2008, the Yankees will be on the outside looking in come October.
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Yankees in L.A. The score stood 4-3, two out, one inning left to play. But when Dent slid safe at second and Blair got on at first Every screaming Dodger fan had cause to fear the worst. For there before the multitude — Ah destiny! Ah fate! Reggie Jackson, mighty Reggie, was advancing to the plate.
Reggie, whose three home runs had won the year before, Reggie, whose big bat tonight fetched every Yankee score. On the mound to face him stood the rookie, young Bob Welch. A kid with a red hot fastball — Reggie’s pitch — and nothing else. Fifty-thousand voices cheered as Welch gripped ball in mitt. One hundred thousand eyes watched Reggie rub his bat and spit.
“Throw your best pitch, kid, and duck,” Reggie seemed to say. The kid just glared. He must have known this wasn’t Reggie’s day. His fist pitch was a blazer. Reggie missed it clean Fifty-thousand throats responded with a Dodger scream. They squared off, Reggie and the kid, each knew what he must do. And seven fastballs later, the count was three and two.
No shootout on a dusty street out here in the Far West Could match the scene: A famous bat, a kid put to the test. One final pitch. The kid reared back and let a fastball fly. Fifty-thousand Dodger fans gave forth one final cry… Ah, the lights still shine on Broadway, but there isn’t any doubt The Big Apple has no joy left. Mighty Reggie has struck out.
Also buried by Welch’s sensational performance in Game 2 was when Reggie got his revenge in Game 6. The Yankees were up 3 games to 2 and leading in the 7th inning by the score of 5-2 when Jackson faced Welch again.
This time he hit a long home run–they didn’t call him Buck Tater for nothing–the icing on the gravy of the Yankees World Series win.
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.
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.”
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.”
The Yankees are now up four and a half games on the Red Sox, who with a 3-11 September record are themselves just three games ahead of the Rays for the Wild Card spot. Given that cushion, the bigger question is why the team doesn’t give Rodriguez even more time to heal, as there’s no urgency for him to return other than to potentially quell — or on the other hand, further — the anxiety about a condition that won’t fully heal. If Rodriguez were to sit for another series or another week, he would still have five or seven or 10 games to recover his timing before the postseason start. It’s not as though he’s got individual milestones at stake, or that he has to prove anything to the yutzes who think he’s gone soft. As we’ve reminded several times in the recent past, and as the Yanks to a man will acknowledge, it’s all about being ready for October.
1) Armando Benitez vs. Tino Martinez and the Yankees
At 28-9, the 1998 Yankees had already shown that they were in the business of kicking ass and taking names when the Orioles came to town having lost five straight games to push them under .500. The O’s were on track to snap their streak with a 5-3 lead in the eighth inning when the Yankees drew two walks while making two outs against tiring O’s starter Sidney Ponson and reliever Alan Mills. A Paul O’Neill single off Norm Charlton cut the lead to 5-4 when Benitez, the Orioles’ imposing but immature closer, was summoned for a four-out save. Instead, he served up a three-run homer to Bernie Williams to give the Yankees a 7-5 lead, then blatantly plunked Tino Martinez between the shoulder blades with a 90-something MPH fastball on his next pitch. “That was a real cheap shot,” said Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat.
Martinez jawed at Benitez on the way down to first base, and the 6-foot-4 reliever dropped his glove. Both benches and bullpens emptied, and things escalated when Yankees’ lefty reliever Graeme Lloyd—a 6-foot-8 Australian native my friends and I called “The Big Dingo”—came charging out of the bullpen and grabbed Benitez’s chin before throwing a few wild punches with fellow Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson joining the fray. Benitez connected on a blow to the back of Lloyd’s neck as he retreated from the mound into foul territory. As he neared the dugout, he squared off with Scott Brosius, who threw no punches but captured his attention while Darryl Strawberry rolled up behind and connected on a sucker punch to Benitez’s head before pushing him into the Oriole dugout. Strawberry was restrained by multiple Orioles at the edge of the dugout, but amazingly enough, the two would square off again minutes later after Mills punched Strawberry while an irate Martinez kept making his way towards Benitez. The second time, Stawberry’s blow was more glancing, and his momentum carried him into the dugout where Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken tried to calm him down. Ultimately, it took around 15 minutes before order was restored and play resumed.
“This is like one of those hockey brawls where the umpires have to figure out who stays and who goes,” said Yankees broadcaster (and former Oriole) Ken Singleton. “To a man, the Orioles refused to muster even feigned support for Benitez,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci. “The action of ‘I’ll hurt you if I can’t beat you’ totally misrepresents the Baltimore Orioles’ tradition of good play and sportsmanship,” said manager Ray Miller in apologizing to the Yankees. Benitez drew an eight-game suspension while Strawberry and Lloyd (three games) and Mills and Nelson (two games) received suspensions as well. The Yankees went on to win 114 regular season games and the World Series while the Orioles were swept by the Yankees en route to a nine-game losing streak. They haven’t had a winning season since. —Jay Jaffe
Itt was difficult to concentrate on the game last night after Mark Teixeira got hit. What happens if he was seriously hurt? Almost immediately, we started talking about it in the game thread. Today, over at PB, Jay Jaffe offers “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook”:
First Base: While losing Teixeira would have been a major blow to the offense given his current productivity, the Yankees would have no shortage of internal options to cover the position. The most obvious solution would be to move Nick Swisher to first, where he has 256 games (192 starts) of big league experience, and to sally forth with a Chris Dickerson/Andruw Jones platoon in right field, more on which momentarily. Additionally, Jorge Posada, who has 30 games and 16 starts at first, could figure into the picture against righties if his bat continues to show some life. After going 3-for-3 off the bench last night in Teixeira’s stead—including his first two hits of the season against lefties—he’s hitting .260/.374/.351 since May 1, which is certainly slappy but not entirely useless. Eric Chavez, who’s nearing a return to baseball-related activities, could eventually take at-bats against righties as well, and at some point, the Yankees would probably take a look at righty-swinging Jorge Vazquez, who has already mashed 19 homers at Triple-A Scranton while batting a lopsided .280/.326/.564.
…Third Base: The path of least resistance would call for plenty of Nunez and Pena until Chavez is ready. If Joe Girardi smoked what Joe Torre was smoking, the team could spot Russell Martin at the hot corner (his pre-conversion position), which could create some space for Jesus Montero (still hitting a relatively uninspiring .294/.336/.416 at Scranton) to assume some of the catcher duties. Not likely, but not impossible. Another relatively improbable option would involve Brandon Laird, Scranton’s regular third baseman and an object of wintertime fascination around these parts; he’s hitting a disappointing .275/.306/.392 with three homers this year after bopping 25 homers between Trenton and Scranton last year.
While Phil Hughes remains at least a month away from returning — he’s scheduled to throw live batting practice soon, though some would argue that’s exactly what he did during his three ugly starts — the Yankees do have other options should they turn away from Nova. Hector Noesi has been impressive in three relief outings, throwing 9.1 innings while allowing just one run. His 5/4 K/BB ratio isn’t anything impressive (particularly given an 11/9 K/BB ratio in the minors), but he’s shown a proclivity for pounding the strike zone for the bulk of his minor league career; his K/BB ratio on the farm is a stellar 5.1. One of his major league walks was intentional, and particularly during his four-inning major league debut during that epic in Baltimore, the kid — who’s all of two weeks younger than Nova, by the way — has shown some moxie with runners on base. According to Texas Leaguers, he’s thrown six different pitches: four-seam fastball (48.1 percent), slider (24.0 percent), curve (10.1 percent), changeup (7.0 percent), two-seam fastball (7.0 percent), and cutter (3.9 percent). While there may be some classification crossover amid these admittedly small samples, he’s clearly not afraid to use multiple offspeed offerings. Furthermore, he’s getting swinging strikes about three times as often (12.8 percent) as Nova.
Also looming in the organization is Carlos Silva, who has compiled a 22/6 K/BB ratio and a 2.13 ERA in 25.1 innings over five minor league starts, most recently at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He has an opt-out clause in mid-June if he’s not promoted, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to imagine that with another solid start from him, and another rough outing from Nova, the Yankees might take a peek before they risk losing him. The chances of the team catching lightning in a bottle with another corpulent castoff aren’t all that high, but Silva hasn’t drawn reports of looking completely washed up as Kevin Millwood did during his slog through the hinterlands.
The real, underlying problem is that the Yankees aren’t hitting particularly well with runners in scoring position. Their .245/.334/.431 line in such instances actually ranks fourth in the league in OPS and sOPS+; they’re 15 percent better than league average in this regard. They’ve accomplished this despite ranking just seventh in batting average with RISP, and 13th — second to last! — in BABIP (.258, 24 points below average) with RISP, because they’re second in isolated power, and third in unintentional walk rate under such circumstances.
Now as we know, balls in play aren’t entirely under control of either the batter or the hitter, though on a year-to-year basis, they correlate better for the latter. The Yankees hit .300 on balls in play last year, fifth in the league and five points above league average; they were at .292 with RISP, one point above average. With a virtually identical cast of main characters this year, they’re hitting .274 on balls in play, 12th in the league and 11 points below average, and 24 points below average with RISP. Yet the Yankee offense is still the AL’s strongest; in fact, they’re stronger relative to the league than last year. The Yanks are scoring 0.96 runs per game (or 22 percent) more than average in 2011, compared to 0.85 runs per game (or 19 percent) more than average in 2010. Yet because a small handful of hits haven’t dropped in as they normally would — and because they’re allowing more runs relative to the league than last year (from 0.14 below average to 0.02 below average) — they’re suddenly too reliant upon the home run.
It’s true that without the home runs, the Yankees would be in worse shape. This is akin to saying that without legs, your ability to outrun a ravenous cheetah would suffer somewhat. The home runs have allowed the Yankees to overcome the days when their offense is otherwise kept at bay. Fourteen times this season, the Yankees have collected at least three hits in a game with runners in scoring position. During those games, they’ve hit .310/.440/.551, averaged 8.14 runs, and hit 1.93 homers en route to an 11-3 record. Meanwhile, they’ve failed to collect a hit with runners in scoring position in 11 games, batting a Posada-esque .187/.311/.363, averaged 2.81 runs and 1.36 homers. They’ve gone 5-6 in those games, which is pretty impressive when you consider that teams scoring exactly three runs have won 36.1 percent of the time this year, and those scoring exactly two runs have won 21.8 percent of the time. Extrapolating from those two figures, a team scoring 2.8 per game should win 33.2 percent of the time, so the Yankees are about 1.3 wins better than average on that score.