Outshining the AstrosThe Yankees' talent burns brighter than the Astros' does
INTERLEAGUE AGAIN PART I: A VISIT TO HOUSTON
As has quite often been true of the Astros over the years, the team is a mix of parts that don't quite work together. To paraphrase Casey Stengel, some are not so good, others are quite remarkable. First baseman Lance Berkman (.366/.451/.720) is having a season for the ages, though he's cooled recently. Miguel Tejada started the season well, though he's slumping now, batting .210/.256/.395 in his last 20 games. And Carlos Lee has been his usual all power/no plate judgment/no defense self. Everything else on offense has ranged from mixed to disastrous. General manager Ed Wade's Michael Bourn fetish has predictably proved to be an unhealthy kind of obsession. Catching prospect Justin Towles actually managed to make Brad Ausmus look potent, and right fielder Hunter Pence has demonstrated that analysts were right when they said he had played over his head last year. For his last 20 games, he's batted .263/.288/.447, which exposes his Cano like tendency to swing at things he shouldn't.
The pitching has been disappointing. Roy Oswalt's last three starts have been solid, but overall he has had what is easily the worst season of his career. Shawn Chacon has been himself, with good starts and bad, lately mostly bad. Batters are slugging about .500 off of him, and he's been mugged at home. Only Wandy Rodriguez has been in the pleasant surprise column, but he also had to miss about five weeks. His last two starts have been good if you consider unearned runs to be a distinct matter from earned runs. They're not, really, but we can be generous and say that he's working on a 12 2/3-inning earned run scoreless streak. Rodriguez took a real step forward last year, dramatically upping his strikeout rate while simultaneously improving his control, and he's maintained that this year. The only negative is consistency he wore out at the end of last season, getting punched around in August and September. He also has an outlandish home/road split. Last year he had a 2.94 ERA at home, 6.37 on the road. This year it's 0.72 and 4.02. That's not a park effect, that's psychology.
The bullpen has not been an asset, and the Yankees will have a fair chance of scoring in the late innings. Closer Jose Valverde has had some notable failures this year. Joe Girardi might note his odd platoon split, though it's likely just an aberration right-handers are hitting Valverde far better than left-handers. The difference is startling: .311/.333/.554 against .170/.297/.340.
The Yankees have every reason to do well in this series, with the sole exception of being on the road. The Astros have trouble hitting righties and kill lefties. The Yankees don't have a lefty to show them in this series. Houston has moderate power, and the one player who is a basestealing threat (Bourn) never gets on. After two indifferent months, the Yankees are 6-3 in June. Barring bad luck, they should continue to improve on that record over the weekend.
RIGHT IDEA, WRONG MOVE
If Joe Girardi wasn't going to use Shelley Duncan, the Yankees would be better served to have a more versatile player on the roster who can do things that Duncan wasn't capable of, like pinch-running or playing defense. Alberto Gonzalez seemingly meets that criterion, but Brett Gardner might be a better fit, being able to play late-inning defense in the outfield. A fleet reserve center fielder would have been an asset given Houston's odd outfield configuration. It also would have made it easier for Girardi to give Johnny Damon a start in center in this National League/non-DH series, substitute on defense, and not feel like he was naked on the bench. Oh well...
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Anytime a 45-year-old pitcher with less velocity than the economy throws a two-hit, eight-inning shutout, taking a no-hitter into the sixth, I stand up and cheer. If it's against a rival for the division title, I stand up on a chair. Jamie Moyer is my player of the day. He turns 46 in November, and I hope he keeps going.
Adam Dunn, certain to be trade bait in a month, has vanished of late, batting .094/.326/250 in his last ten games. Eleven walks in that span help cushion the blow. This gets said a lot, at least here, but it's worth saying again: this is the difference between a Robinson Cano and a selective hitter like a Dunn or a Giambi. When they slump, you still get something out of it.
The Tribe will lose Victor Martinez for at least six weeks, which freezes his home run count at zero. His elbow has been troubling him, which helps explain both the power outage and his dying batting average he was still over .300 as recently as May 28, but batted .179 in his next 12 games. Odd year for the Indians, whose lineup now bears little resemblance to what was projected during the spring. They've been scoring anyway lately.
Jason Varitek is out of Boston's lineup with strep throat. My first thought: he must have school-age children. Being a parent is walking around with your nose running about half the time. Kids are adorable. Kids are cute. Kids are germ factories.
AND STILL MORE
I talk about the Rangers and pitching in today's New York Sun.
TUESDAY, June 12: Posted at 6:42 p.m. EST
PINSTRIPED BIBLE PODCAST #2
In our second installment of the experiment known as the Pinstriped Bible Podcast, I spoke with Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter during Wednesday night's game. Topics covered included why it's easier for sportswriters to go negative, the Yankees' relentless pursuit of .500, evaluating Melky Cabrera, and an optimistic prediction of the outcome of the season. Plus: what you can learn about baseball by reading books on World War II. All this and more in the Pinstriped Bible Podcast episode #2 HERE.
A QUICK NOTE FOR ANDY PETTITTE'S START AGAINST THE A'S
It's valid if you don't mind ignoring Pettitte's typically atypical lefty-righty splits. The A's are just 11-11 against lefty starters this year. It probably helps that Jack Cust disappears against southpaws, batting .226/.374/.395 against them in his career. He still shows patience, but the power disappears.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Color me pessimistic about Nomar Garciaparra's return to shortstop as planned by Joe Torre. With Rafael Furcal out, it makes sense to try anything, but it seems unlikely that Nomar has the physical capabilities to play the position at this stage of his career. The Dodgers did get a home run last night from the resurrected Andy LaRoche, who subbed for James Loney. Loney has been disappointing, but he's not the heart of their problems. In any case, his track record is good enough to suggest he will come around if he's left alone. The Dodgers have never seemed to believe in him, pre- or post-Torre. I bet the Yankees would gladly take a 24-year-old lefty first baseman with power, even if he has had an indifferent year.
Apologies for stating the obvious here, but losing Alfonso Soriano to a broken finger is very bad news for Chicago. After a terrible start, he had been torrentially hot for more than a month. In the 30 games prior to last night, Sori had hit .349/.391/.698 with 12 home runs in 126 at bats. The Cubs won't get half that from his replacements, and they really need the power, as they're hitting with less than their traditional power.
When thinking about Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, et al., it's worth considering Felix Hernandez, who is having a fine year for the miserable Mariners. Hernandez came up at 19 in 2005 and spent the next two seasons bouncing up and down. Not all phenoms click right away Dwight Gooden was a special case. Longtime Yankees fans will remember Jose Rijo, who came up the same year Gooden did at a slightly younger age. He spent 1984 through 1987 growing up in public and finally started pitching well (though not always healthily) in 1988.
Almost 37,000 turned out on a Wednesday night in Anaheim to see the Rays, and with a pitching matchup of John Lackey and Scott Kazmir, why wouldn't you? The attendance isn't impressive by Yankee Stadium standards, but for most teams you have to take notice when a weekday game draws that well.
The Pirates are just one game under .500. They will have an interesting choice in a few weeks: trade for the future, or stand pat and try to avoid setting a standard for consecutive losing seasons?
The Marlins designated Jacque Jones for assignment after he hit .108 in a fishy uniform. He's "only" 33, but it's easy to forget that many players have long since lost it by that age, and Jones didn't have much to lose.
I love the MLB headlines, as you can tell by the number of times I reference them without further comment. Here's another: "Bradley meant no harm to broadcaster." Bradley felt he had been inappropriately compared with reformed substance abuser Josh Hamilton. How do they know he meant no harm? As he was charging after Royals TV man Ryan Lefebvre, was he was screaming, "I come in peace! I come in peace, you #$#!@!!" That's what the headline implies to me, at least... You've seen the headline T-shirts that CNN.com is now selling? I strongly advise MLB.com to consider getting into the business. And I really want this one: "Cairo's numbers don't measure value." It's a conspiracy already, this valuable Cairo stuff. People talk about Derek Jeter's intangibles too, but at least he can also play baseball.
Jorge Cantu: comeback player of the year? .296/.346/.532, 14 home runs. Yeah, he's deadly at the glove at any position, but so are a lot of players who aren't hitting like that.
TUESDAY, June 11: Posted at 6:11 p.m. EST
NOT TO BE THE GRINCH WHO STOLE WANG, BUT...
As fun as it was to watch Wang throw his sinker and get four double plays, in most games when you put the leadoff man on in seven of eight innings, you're going to get your head handed to you. The average pitcher this year gets a double play in about 12 percent of opportunities, not 60 percent. Even the great gravitational Wang has never posted a rate above 24 percent (last year). As best I can tell, no one pitching over 100 innings in the last 50 years has exceeded 32 percent. That was Carlos Silva in 2005. He's the only pitcher who has exceeded 28 percent.
Because I know you're curious: the great Yankees sinkerballer Tommy John, who once told me the secret to pitching in the major leagues (or was it life?) is to "Sink it, sink it, sink it, sink it, sink it, sink it, sink it," posted his best double play rate in 1979, when he induced twin killings in 49 of 204 chances, or 24 percent. He had eight other seasons over 20 percent. If you didn't see TJ pitch in his prime, you missed something.
Note that his double play rate jumped up from 18 percent with the Dodgers in 1978 to the aforementioned 24 percent with the Yankees in 1979. Some of that improvement is luck, some of it is the difference between pitching in front of Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, and Bucky Dent instead of Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, and Bill Russell.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Hey, Joe Maddon: Why does James Shields have to throw a complete game when you're losing 6-1? If you regret that in September, can we call you on it? ...Ironic that Carl Crawford is having a terrible year in his team's only good season; his .265/.310/.367 isn't much. On the other corner, Gabe Gross continues to be a very useful pick-up, hitting his fifth homer last night and posting rates of .244/.324/.478 with the Rays.
It's only two games, but the previously somnolent Vlad Guerrero is 6-for-8 with a home run. It was his second home run in three games.
Steve Trachsel is now gone from the Orioles, having been canned after pitching about as badly as a Major Leaguer can, with 10 home runs allowed in 39.2 innings. When the O's put Trachsel in the bullpen and added prospect Radhames Liz to the rotation in his place, the entire starting rotation dropped under age 30. Jeremy Guthrie is 29, Daniel Cabrera and Brian Burres are 27, Liz is 25, and Garret Olson is 24. To paraphrase Ian Hunter on the fade-out to "All the Young Dudes," the Orioles have needed to do this for years.
He'll never be popular in Boston and will probably always stand as a career disappointment given the controversial way his pro career started, but J.D. Drew has been a hugely important contributor to the Red Sox this year. He hit his ninth home run last night and is now batting .320/.425/.539.
Turner Classic Movies is going to be showing "I Married a Witch" again in a few days. It has some sharp writing for a light film that basically anticipates "Bewitched," and a great cast that centers on Fredric March, Veronica Lake (never sexier), and my hero, Robert Benchley. Why isn't it on DVD? Oh yeah-it's a Paramount film, and they don't care about their old library. Another hero of mine, Preston Sturges, pitched in here and there, and one of the delights of watching the film is looking for signs of his touch.
He was miserable at times last year, and has been miserable this year, too, but Adam LaRoche might be a good low-cost pickup if the Yankees are still viable at the trading deadline. He's a better glove than Jason Giambi, has some left-handed pop, and is only 28, a baby in Yankee terms. He's arb-eligible after the season, so the Pirates might be motivated sellers, and they also have Steven Pearce stuck at Triple-A. Pearce hasn't been great this year, but he's shown he can hit in the past. Possible headline: "Yanks to Pirates: 'Give Pearce a Chance.' Since LaRoche is controllable through the end of next season, he could help cushion the loss of Jason Giambi...
We've gotten to the point that we're too sensitive about pitch counts, so the fact that Dustin McGowan threw 125 pitches on Tuesday probably doesn't require comment. Still, nowadays a total like that jumps out at you.
Justin Upton is still spectacularly young, so if he hits his current .255/.359/.443 for the rest of the season it wouldn't be a bad thing, as not too many 20 year olds can do that in the Major Leagues. That said, he has two hits this month and is batting .189/.348/.342 since the end of April. That's a long slump.
Whenever some young person tells me that career choices are less important to them than any range of other factors, including spending time with family, a boyfriend, or girlfriend, or simply not having to work too hard at school, I hear Randy Newman's "It's Money That Matters" in my head. The more time that goes by in my life, the more I realize that he was right and he may only have been mocking the Reagan-era "Greed is good" philosophy. It's not about getting rich, or even getting comfortable. It's about acquiring one thing-safety. There's only one way to assure yourself of that (as well as one can ever be assured of safety), and it's to go for the main chance whenever it's offered to you. The less independence you have, the more vulnerable you are to the world's turbulence. Forgive me for repeating some lines I've quoted before, from Donovan's goof on "Rikki Tiki Tavi," but they share something in common with my philosophy:
Well, better get into what you got to get into, And you'd better get into it now, no slacking please For United Nations ain't really united And the organizations ain't really organized...
Everybody who read the Jungle Book knows that Riki Tiki Tavi is a mongoose who kills snakes. When I was a young man I was led to believe There were organizations for killing my snakes for me, IE. the church, IE the government, IE school. But when I got a little older I learned I had to kill 'em myself.
I guess we should observe a moment of silence for the Cardinals, who lost both Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright to injury on the same day. They were doing a grand job of staying with the Cubs/keeping on top of the NL Wild Card race. The only good news for Tony LaRussa and pals is that none of the other contenders seem likely to press them, assuming they can get the injured back in a relatively short time. The forecast on that seems to be Wainwright, yes; Pujols, not so much.
I've been boosting the Braves all year, I know, but with John Smoltz gone, Tom Glavine off the to the DL, and now Jair Jurrjens wounded as well, I'm beginning to have my doubts. It would help if Jeff Francoeur and Mark Teixiera would pick it up a bit.
No one talks about the junk pitching stat "Wins Above Team" anymore, but Aaron Cook's 9-3 on a club that's 16-36 outside of his decisions is pretty impressive. See also: Mike Mussina, having one of the most improbable seasons of 2008.
Headline on MLB.com: "LaRoche's spot uncertain on eve of start." The Dodgers have retrained the other LaRoche as a utility infielder. I'm still wondering why they're not thinking of the outfield corners as well. Given their injury problems-Jeff Kent is perpetually day-to-day, Rafael Furcal isn't coming back any time soon, and Juan Pierre doesn't hit even when he doe-Joe Torre could shuffle LaRoche's bat to a different position every day and get something of value, even if they take a hit on defense. Hey, it never bothered Tommy Lasorda. His Dodgers made a habit of playing guys out of position. They won a couple of World Series that way. Well, that and great pitching. Not that it helped Tommy John any, as above, but everyone else benefitted from the extra offense.
HE FLIES THROUGH THE AIR WITH THE GREATEST OF EASE
THE FAT INK-STAINED WRETCH WITH HIS HANDS ON THE KEYS
More of me, because some people seem to like me: I wrote about the "Joe Torre would have fixed it fallacy" in The New York Sun and Josh Hamilton's RBI total at Baseball Prospectus. Tonight at 9:15 I'll be talking with Michael DeJoy of WCWP Sports-the interview can be heard at www.mywcwp.com. Finally, our second Pinstriped Bible Podcast, with invaluable Yankees blogger Cliff Corcoran, will appear in this space tomorrow.
MONDAY, June 9: Posted at 9:16 p.m. EST
DIALING UP THE CHANCES
Having won four of their last six games, the Yankees are in fourth place in the American League East and a feeling of optimism reigns. However, it may not be completely justified. The week overall was a strange one that is going to resist duplication. In their last seven games, the Yankees went 4-3 while allowing close to six runs per game. They lost two one-run decisions and won two others. While Joba Chamberlain got all the attention, Andy Pettitte did not pitch well in two starts and was arguably mishandled by Joe Girardi in both starts; Chien-Ming Wang was pounded again, bringing his ERA for his last four starts to 8.75.
Simultaneously, the offense raked, or mostly raked, for runs the exception being Friday night's game, in which the batters were rocked to sleep by Kyle Davies. The average Yankee hit .353/.410/.542 for the week, but thanks to the pitching, the Yankees needed two walk-off, score-reversing hits to put the week in the over-.500 department. It should go without saying that these are not things you can count on happening twice a week going forward.
I've cited Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report before. Each day, the remaining schedule is simulated a million times. The percentage of those million seasons in which a given team makes the postseason are its playoff odds. The current report suggests not a whole lot has changed for the Yankees in the last week. Their chances of playing into October have improved, but by less than once percent. The team's day-by-day results are roughly camel-shaped, as the club has bounced around the .500 mark. On May 22, the Yankees bottomed out with only a 7.5 percent chance of making it to the dance. Since then, they've been as high as 11.6 percent (June 2). Their chances as of today are at 9.9 percent. In comparison, the Red Sox have an 81 percent chance of making it, the Rays 69 percent.
After Monday's game, a contest in which the Yankees did nothing wrong but fail to hit or out-pitch one of the worst teams in baseball, that number will drop. It is said there is no clock in baseball, but the schedule is a kind of clock, and it's the Yankees' enemy now. By the time they get on a roll, if they get on a roll, it may be too late.
WHY IT WON'T STOP
One of the best Yankees blogs out there is Bronx Banter, which combines the literary ability and whimsy of Alex Belth with the hard analysis of Cliff Corcoran. Over the weekend, the subject was Kyle Farnsworth. A reader asked if Farnsworth's invisibility over the weekend signaled the end of the Human Home Run Machine's role as eighth-inning man. Corcoran's answer:
Sadly no. Farnsworth had an ouchie in his bicep, which is why Girardi gave him two days off. I think Girardi's more devoted to Farnsworth than Torre was because Girardi's convinced he can be the dominating pitcher he was with the Cubs in 2001, despite the fact that Joe also caught Kyle in 2000 when he had a 6.43 ERA and 2002 when he had a 7.33 ERA.
Sadly no indeed. Mr. Corcoran will be my guest on this week's installment of the Pinstriped Bible Podcast, where we will discuss these and other issues pertaining to the Yankees. The interview will appear in this space on Thursday.
I always wonder about the intersection of a ballplayer's talent and approach. In his last ten games prior to today's 2-for-4 with a game-winning home run off of Mariano Rivera, Guillen had hit .357/.372/.690. Those rates represent four home runs and no walks. In fact, he hasn't taken a walk in his last 24 games, during which time he is batting .330/.344/.596. He's reached twice on hit-by-pitches, which accounts for his on-base percentage. These numbers are clearly not bad, but represent something of the Robinson Cano dilemma, which is balancing the price of the cold streaks with the value of the hot ones. The unanswerable question is whether the player chooses to hack even at times when it is clearly counterproductive, or do players who clearly have so much ability to hit the baseball have no control over their own approach? The answer you arrive at will determine whether you consider them selfish or hapless.