Hughes will add depthUsing the rookie phenom out of the bullpen can only help
The Phil Hughes everyone has been waiting for showed up last night, and in an ideal world would have given the manager something to think about. Barring any El Duque-style injuries showing up at the most inconvenient time, Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte will start the first two games against the Playoff Opponent to Be Named Later most likely the Indians, but you never know, the Royals could rise up and sweep the last series, as they did with the Tigers last year. Mike Mussina, the Risen Moose, starts against the Orioles tonight, and it seems likely that even if he experiences a meltdown, a literal meltdown, with radioactive goo spilling out of his sleeves and cleanup crews in hazmat outfits, he'll be starting the third or fourth game of the playoffs, depending on whether Roger Clemens can coax his legs into joining the rest of his body on the mound. The spirit is willing, the flesh is 45-years-old. If Clemens makes the party, Hughes will be in the pen, where he could surprise as a mid-game weapon, someone who can help make it unnecessary for any of the second-line relievers to appear.
One of the fascinating things to contemplate in a possible matchup against the Indians is the collision between the Yankees' pitching staff, which is not heavy on the strikeouts, and an Indians offense that is prone to swinging and missing. Another is the lack of interaction between key members of the teams. Though much will be made of the Yankees' 6-0 record against the Indians this year, we know from experience that in-season record means little in the "brand new season" of the playoffs. In the case of this year's Yankees-Indians in-season series, there are special reasons to be skeptical of this year's results. Wang didn't face the Indians this year, while the Yankees haven't seen potential Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia since 2004. Moreover, many of the pitchers with which the Yankees beat the Indians in their first three meetings are either no longer with the team or won't be on the postseason roster:
April 17: Chase Wright (starter), Brian Bruney, Mike Myers, Chris Britton.
April 18: Kei Igawa (starter), Scott Proctor, Sean Henn, Chris Britton.
April 19: Darrel Rasner (starter), Mike Myers, Brian Bruney, Luis Vizcaino, Kyle Farnsworth, Sean Henn.
The August 10-12 series was more representative. The first game was pitched by Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Mariano Rivera. Huighes was excellent, allowing one run and striking out six in six innings. Mussina started the next day and pitched well in what would be his last good outing for about a month. The final contest was started by Pettitte, who pitched seven strong innings before yielding to Vizcaino and Rivera.
In the six games, the Yankees faced Fausto Carmona twice, Jake Westbrook twice, and Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers once each. Sowers won't be allowed near the Division Series without a ticket, so he's irrelevant. That's a bit of hyperbole; he might be in the bullpen, but either way, the Yankees will see him briefly or not at all. The two wins over Carmona are interesting but not all that convincing. On April 19 he allowed two runs in six innings, a good enough performance to win most of the time. On August 10, he allowed four runs in seven innings. The first of these came on an A-Rod home run. The other three came on sequences of singles and RBI groundouts. The Yankees were able to use Carmona's groundball tendencies against him, but in no way pounded him.
Westbrook, who is vying with Paul Byrd for the third start of the Division Series, was pounded in April and pitched competently in August, allowing four runs in seven innings despite allowing home runs to Melky Cabrera and Jason Giambi. Byrd was blasted for seven runs in two innings in his August 11 start. In fact, he's been thrashed quite often lately while Westbrook has had a strong second half. Both pitchers have been hit hard by the Yankees in their careers, so playing the hotter hand and better pitcher overall would seem the stronger bet.
Of course, all of that could go out the window if the seeds change as a result of this weekend's action. It seems unlikely that the Yankees will end up with the division title, what with a truncated start from Pettitte on Saturday and a "staff" start on Sunday, while the Indians really would have to fold against a miserable Royals team to let the Angels play catch-up.
MEET THE METS, BEAT THE METS
Fascinating thing about the Mets: their ERA has risen in every month of the season. From April onwards: 2.96, 3.73, 4.20, 4.50, 4.93, 5.16. In this, we could argue that the Mets' shocking last-minute fade shouldn't be all that shocking and isn't terribly last minute. I suspect if I had been writing the "Metsstriped Bible" at that time I would have been inveighing against the elderly nature of the Mets staff, arguing that oldsters are more prone to fading over the course of the season. That's not the whole story, of course; the lineup has been carrying too many dead spots all season. Unfortunately, this was a season in which there wasn't much to be done in the way of trading. Teams that needed to win through maneuver couldn't make adjustments. Omar Minaya is big on upgrading his team on the fly, certainly far more so than Brian Cashman, but between the weaknesses of the Mets' farm system and the lack of attractive options on the market, his hands were tied.
With the matchups the Mets have with the Marlins this weekend (Byung-Hyun Kim vs. Oliver Perez; Chris Seddon vs. John Maine; Dontrelle Willis vs. Tom Glavine), there's no reason they couldn't get off the deck and sweep. The Phillies (Tim Redding vs. Cole Hamels; Matt Chico vs. Adam Eaton; Jason Bergmann vs. Jamie Moyer) seem likely to drop at least one to the Nats. That being said, the Mets seem to be so demoralized what should happen isn't necessarily what will happen.
THURSDAY, September 27: Posted at 9:02 p.m. ET
...To all the members of the 2007 Yankees in clinching the wild card. As I wrote on Tuesday, many teams placed in the same spot they were in back in May and June would have folded. It's premature to say "mission accomplished" (when isn't it?), but making it to the October dance is a major achievement. Almost all teams with a losing record more than halfway into the season are exactly what they appear to be. This year's Yankees were the rare team that was able to get off the deck and prove it was something more.
Don't fool yourself into thinking it was just the size of the payroll or the pedigree of the players. As we've seen time and time again, having a big payroll is no guarantee of anything. Teams overpay for mediocrity all the time. It's a bit like having $200 in your bank account and choosing to spend it on a plutonium-powered nose hair trimmer from the Sharper Image catalogue instead of groceries. The former may be what you want, but in action it proves to have very limited utility. The latter might not be basic and unappealing, but it's what you need. This team has a great many holes, and throwing money at the problems didn't always help. Whether the Yankees could have cobbled together 10 quality starts in 17 tries from a lower-priced pitcher than Roger Clemens will remain forever unknown, but that contribution aside, the Yankees haven't bought their way out of their shortcomings, all of which remain largely what they were at the start of the year: no true ace starter; questionable starting pitching after the top two; a shaky bullpen; instability at first base; age around the lineup.
It certainly helped that the players not in the problem category rebounded to have good seasons, but there was no guarantee that they would. There are a heck of a lot of 33-year-olds on the Yankees roster, and while that's not ancient in baseball terms, there are more players who fail at that age than succeed, even among the good ones.
Extra congratulations go out to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, who have really exceeded themselves this year. Without them, the Yankees would have been somewhere in the Toronto-Baltimore strata. A hand to Brian Cashman for seeing the light after Pavano-Wright and emphasizing the reconstruction of the farm system. And finally, a bow of obeisance towards Joe Torre for doing this year what he failed to do last year-keep the focus on winning. He's rallied the team from tough starts twice in three years, and despite various strategic foibles he should be respected for that.
EDWAR (WHAT'S IT GOOD FOR) AND THE SUNSHINE GANG Baseball Prospectus.com has a statistic called WXRL, which stands for "Win Expectation Above Replacement, Lineup Adjusted." No one knows how to pronounce it; the best strategy is to avoid doing so whenever possible. The idea behind WXRL and all stats based on win expectancy is to estimate the benefit a particular player provided by extrapolating from the probabilities of winning a game at the point they were used. WXRL is applied to relief pitchers. It's a handy stat to have, because a number like bullpen ERA doesn't tell you anything about what the reliever did with inherited runners, or how many runners he left on base, or the situations in which he was used. Here's how the Torre-era bullpens stack up in terms of wins added:
KEY NON-RIVERA RELIEVERS
|2001||Mike Stanton, Ramiro Mendoza, Randy Choate, Jay Witasick, Mark Wohlers||15.8|
|2004||Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill||14.3|
|1996||John Wetteland, Jeff Nelson, Bob Wickman, Jim Mecir||14.2|
|1999||Mike Stanton, Jason Grimsley, Ramiro Mendoza, Dan Naulty, Jeff Nelson||13.3|
|1998||Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson, Darren Holmes, Ramiro Mendoza||12.4|
|2002||Mike Stanton, Steve Karsay, Ramiro Mendoza||10.3|
|2006||Scott Proctor, Kyle Farnsworth, Ron Villone, Mike Myers||9.8|
|1997||Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, Graeme Lloyd, Brian Boehringer||8.9|
|2003||Chris Hammand, Antonio Osuna, Sterling Hitchcock, Juan Acevedo||7.7|
|2000||Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, Jason Grimsley, Dwight Gooden||7.6|
|2007||Joba! Luis Vizcaino, a thousand other guys||7.6|
|2005||Tom Gordon, Tanyon Sturtze, Scott Proctor||6.7|
It's the same old story: if Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang show up with their best stuff, the Yankees will have a better than even chance to win, and they can overcome a shaky start from Mike Mussina in Game Three. If not, the Indians will play the Red Sox or the Angels in the second round.
A TIP OF THE BAT, ER, HAT...
Today marks the last day of the Ultimate YesMan. Four years ago, Fred Harner brought this feature to the Yes Network. His patience, support, and encouragement have been indispensible to me both in my role here and in my overall career. He has made everything possible. Fred is moving on to other things, where I know he'll prosper. He'll always have my support and best wishes. Thanks, Fred.
WEDNESDAY, September 26: Posted at 1:09 p.m. ET
Late last year I was referring to Jeff Karstens as "Scary Fly Ball Guy." He's still a scary fly ball guy. Giving him every conceivable benefit of the doubt for his injuries and overall lack of work this year, Karstens is a great example of what happens when you have Chien-Ming Wang's strikeout rates but not his ground ball-generating approach. Batters make contact too frequently, and in this era when even the utility infielders can park one in the stands, a disproportionate number of balls become souvenirs. In 57.1 career innings, Karstens has allowed 10 home runs. If someone used him for 220 innings, the smart play would be to buy stock in a baseball manufacturing company, because they're going to be selling some extras.
Of course, it's not all Karstens' fault. Roger Clemens' bad hamstring caused a chain reaction that brought a predictably short start from Kei Igawa (successful though it was) followed by a parade of relievers. Joe Torre simply won't pitch Mariano Rivera in a tie game on the road, so he rolled the dice on Karstens and the Yankees lost. You'd hope that this policy would reverse itself in the playoffs, that you would see Rivera in a game before the last man on the staff, but we know from the 2003 World Series that that won't be the case.
Meanwhile, in order to have a fighting chance in the playoffs, the Yankees need a 45-year-old pitcher to be both healthy and effective. For the sake of symmetry, let's hope Clemens goes out in a blaze of glory. Forget the impact on the team you'd hate to see a great competitor end his career by getting shelled.
ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE
The only good thing about all this losing is that the Indians have been winning at the same time, while the Angels have been playing .500 ball. The Indians currently have a half-game lead on Boston for the best record in the league and a three game lead in the loss column on the Angels. With the Yankees pretty much locked into the wild card, this would give them the matchup against the Indians that everyone thinks is a good idea. Whether it is a good idea or not depends on the Yankees winning the series. If they lose, then it wasn't a good idea. As we've seen over the last... well, forever, regular season record against an opponent doesn't mean a whole lot in the playoffs. The Indians have two hot starters in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, and the bullpen is pitching well with the exception of closer-for-no-reason Joe Borowski. That might be enough to get them through, because even Andy Pettitte and Wang haven't quite risen to the level of Sabathia and Carmona this year. The Yankees would have to hope that Carmona has first-time jitters and Borowski pitches like Borowski...
EXCERPTS, WE GOT EXCERPTS
A couple of chapters from It Ain't Over are on line today, including one by me on Yankees player development in the early Steinbrenner era. For Clay Davenport on power vs. speed in baseball offenses, go here. For me on Otto Velez, Chris Chambliss, and a cast of prospects who never developed, check Bronx Banter later today. And of course (the absolutely final mention) I'll be at the Columbia University Bookstore tonight to talk about all of the above and more.
MONDAY, September 24: Posted at 9:46 p.m. ET
CUE THE FLASHING RED LIGHTS
As these words float down to the page, the Yankees are in the seventh inning of a desultory afternoon contest with the Blue Jays, their last game against a truly difficult opponent in the regular season. I was going to wait to start writing and interpreting until the game was over, but then Kyle Farnsworth came into the game. "Joe Torre says they've got to get him straightened out," Suzyn Waldman said, and I began to wonder what the Yankees could do for Farnsworth in the last week of the season that hadn't been able to do in the previous six months.
Then again, he got through a scoreless inning, so maybe Ron Guidry and pals are more magical in September. In order to say that, you have to ignore the results of recent games, particularly Saturday's interminable see-saw battle in which Joe Torre played Russian roulette with relievers, deploying his squad of B- and C-grade relievers trying to find one that could retire such inoffensive hitters as the Blue Jays possess. He finally found Mariano Rivera, which was a lot like one of those old stories where the main character goes questing for paradise and finds out that it was at home under the bed all along.
Despite the fact that the Yankees have yet to clinch, these games against the Blue Jays have been noticeably lacking in energy. The team is not exactly driving to the wild card. With the magic number down to two going into today, it's not unreasonable to take the postseason trip as a fait accomplait, and good pitching can make any team look lethargic. Still, it will be interesting to see if Joe Torre takes the opportunity to remind his team not to take anything for granted during the last week, to keep the positive energy flowing going into the playoffs.
As for getting Farnsworth right, for getting the bullpen right, the truth is that if the Yankees have to go to any of these guys more than once or at all they're going to be in a losing position. There's nothing wrong with having alternatives, because as that same Saturday game demonstrated, they score enough runs that they can always pull a game out late if the score doesn't get too far out of hand, and sometimes even when it does. That being said, the teams in the playoffs don't allow too many of that kind of comeback or they wouldn't be in the playoffs in the first place-which brings us back to the original point: Mariano Rivera is under the bed with the bunny slippers. If Torre has to get creative with his bullpen in round one, the Yankees are dead. Some combination of the starter followed by Luis Vizcaino, Joba Chamberlain, and Rivera will mean a trip to round two. More than a Kyle Farnsworth cameo means we start talking about Joba Chamberlain's role next year a lot earlier than planned.
MILTON BRADLEY'S AMAZING TORN ACL
The Padres currently lead the Phillies by a half-game in the race for the NL wild card. They've lost three in a row and very well might not make it as over the last few games their outfield has completely evaporated. In the same game on Sunday, they lost two key players. First, center fielder Mike Cameron went out when left fielder Milton Bradley stepped on his hand. The next inning, Bradley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in an alteration with first base umpire Mike Winters. When Bradley lunged at Winters after a heated verbal exchange, coach Bobby Meacham and manager Bud Black tried to restrain him. As Bradley tried to tear away from Black, the knee buckled, tearing the ACL. He's out for the season, the playoffs, and some or all of next season as well.
The Padres are asserting that Winters baited Bradley. Perhaps that's true, but there's no scenario in which a player is going to lay hands on an umpire and come out of it with a good result. Whatever the umpire said, Bradley's wound qualifies as self-inflicted.
The incident is disappointing; it seemed as if Bradley was going to turn his career around in San Diego. He was still as prone to injury as ever with the Padres, missing a great deal of time, but he had seemingly avoided the disciplinary issues that had cut short his time with the Expos, Indians, Dodgers, and A's. He was hitting .313/.414/.590 with 11 home runs in just 144 at bats, giving the Padres the extra bad they so desperately needed. It's difficult to recall a more bizarre and unnecessary injury that could have as great an impact as this one.
Now the Padres will be back to journeymen in the outfield, and even if they make the playoffs their chances of advancing will have severely decreased. Their pitching can carry them, but not with so many holes in the lineup and the disadvantage of an extra away game in the first round. Still, the race for the NL Wild Card and NL West promises to be exciting, with the Diamondbacks finishing against the Rockies, who might be within striking distance at that point, and the Padres finishing against the Brewers in Milwaukee after a set against the Giants. Meanwhile, the Phillies will be playing against the Braves and the Nats. It should all still be live going to next weekend. The prediction here is that the Diamondbacks hold on and the Phillies sneak through.
ONE LAST REMINDER HERE ON THE BLOG SIDE...
...That on Wednesday at 7 PM I'll be appearing with colleagues Jay Jaffe, Alex Belth, Cliff Corcoran, Allen Barra, Kevin Baker, and Joe Sheehan at the Columbia University Bookstore to talk baseball and sign copies of our book It Ain't Over. I hope you'll come and hang out. The info:
Steve and His Infinitely Cooler Pals
Wednesday, September 26, 7 p.m.
Columbia University Bookstore
Alfred Lerner Hall (lower level)
New York, NY