One of the most vital tasks for any veteran pitcher worth his salt to master is the ability to will his team out of losing streaks. That means taking the mound knowing the bullpen is overworked and in need of rest and delivering a big performance. It means efficiently working through 7 or 8 innings while shutting down the opposing lineup. It means throwing everything plus this kitchen sink to get your team the win. On Thursday night a couple of crafty lefties in Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee were able to do just they. They were able to be the veteran stopper, putting both the Yankees and the Phillies among the ranks of the victorious. Let’s take a look at each pitcher’s performance:
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
When the Washington Nationals selected Bryce Harper 1st overall in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft, the only questions anybody seemed to have were how quickly will this kid develop into a superstar and what position will he play. The D.C. brass answered question #2 fairly quickly, deciding to move Harper from catcher to the outfield in hopes that his power, speed, and bazooka arm would hold up better without the rigors of working behind the plate daily. After 130 largely successful minor league games (only 21 at Triple-A) and with the need for another outfielder at the big league level, Washington called the 19-year-old prodigy up to the show.
The Yankees have now won 9 games in a row, and 21 out of their last 31 games. The team has surged to the front of the AL East pack by decimating the top of the NL East. In the last 10 days the Yanks have swept the 3rd place Mets, 2nd place Braves, and 1st place Nationals, putting together the most impressive streak of victories in all of baseball this season. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons the Yankees dominated the NL East:
The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:
The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.
The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.
The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.
The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.
The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.
In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.
Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.
Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.
The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.
Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.
With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot
With the 1st 10% of the Major League regular season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the burning questions from around the league.
Can Matt Kemp hit .400? Or how about 60 homers?
Matt Kemp launched another homerun last night, his 10th of the year, and he is currently hitting a robust .449 at the plate. Kemp is on pace to smash over 85 homeruns and post a batting average that would stand as an all-time record. Regression will inevitably set in at some point however, so his performance will inevitably decline, but does he have a shot at history. Kemp had a sizzling start a year ago, hitting .368 the 1stmonth of the season, with 6 homers before average declined, but he continued hitting homers at the same rate. While I don’t think Kemp can legitimately hit .400, I do believe that this start will enable him to bat above the .375 mark, a very difficult feat. I think Kemp has a better chance at hitting 60 dingers, because he would only need to hit a homer about 1 in every 11 at-bats the rest of the year, which would be a decline in his current 1 per 7 rate. Last year he hit 1 homer per every 15 at-bats, so he would have to continue to slug better than he did a year ago, but it is possible and I think Kemp will do it.
Do the Yankees have a pitching problem?
What was once thought to be the deepest rotation in baseball, with 7 major league caliber starters, is now treading on thin ice due to poor performance and injury. The Rangers bombed Phil Hughes yesterday, being chased after allowing 4 runs on 5 hits in 2.2 innings. His season ERA now stands at an ugly 7.88 and his biggest problem is the home run ball. Hughes has given up an unsightly 5 homers in the 16 innings he’s pitched, while allowing 13.5 hits per 9 innings. Batters are just teeing off on Phil right now. The news got worse yesterday for the Yankees and Michael Pineda, as they learned the young righty has a partially torn labrum, which requires surgery and will end his season before it began. Freddy Garcia has also been unsightly in the rotation, and now the Yankees are viewing the return of Andy Pettitte as a need, rather than a luxury. Pettitte is 40-years-old and didn’t pitch a season ago, so he should be counted on for nothing more than back of the rotation help. If Garcia can put together one good start his next time out, Hughes will probably be sent to the bullpen. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova make up a solid top of the rotation, but the Yankees will need someone else to step up in the 3rd spot if they want to improve what has been their biggest problem so far in 2012. That pitcher will probably have to be Hiroki Kuroda, who has been mediocre for the Bronx Bombers so far. If he steps up the Yankees pitching woes will be a thing of the past. But if he continues to struggle and posts a mid-4.00 ERA or worse, New York could be watching baseball in October, because the AL East is a meat grinder this year.
Are the Nationals for real?
Most definitely yes, the Nats are for real. Washington has the best pitching staff in baseball so far. They rank 1st in runs allowed, hits allowed, homeruns allowed (only 4!!!), average fastball velocity and they rank 2nd in baseball in strikeouts. Before the season manager Davey Johnson said he would take his staff over any in baseball, including the vaunted Philadelphia rotation, and so far he’s been proven right. The top-3 of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez all possess ERAs under 2.00. Strasburg, in particular, has been untouchable, posting an absurd 336 ERA+ while striking out 10.3 batters per 9. The offense could use a little boost, ranking 22nd in baseball so far, but many of their best hitters are struggling or on the DL. Michael Morse has yet to play, and he was the team’s best hitter a year ago. Morse will probably return to action around the end of May. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s star 3rd baseman, has also struggled hitting only .224/.324/.345. Expect the offense to improve when the weather really heats up and expect the Nationals to keep on winning.
Should Yoenis Cespedes be your new favorite player?
Yes. The guy is a treat to watch. Cespedes swings with all his might, hits with massive power, steals bases, has a rocket launcher for an arm, and plays the game with passion. And if that isn’t enough for you how about this?
Oh, and he will probably be a 30-30 player for years to come. He already has 5 homers and 4 steals on the young season and his plate discipline is improving. And the scary part is how good Cespedes will be in a year or two, once he adjusts to living in America and gets a better grasp of the strike zone. He’s a fantastic player who is breathtaking to watch.
Where has Albert Pujols gone?
The Machine has not been the same since leaving St. Louis for the sunny shores of California. He’s having the worst April of his entire career and is also currently stuck in the worst slump of his career, a 0-19 bender that has many pundits baffled. He is now hitting .222/.282/.319 and still hasn’t hit his 1st homerun. Last night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pujols looked downright uncomfortable at the plate, striking out twice, and pulling into the shift once. Two or three years ago, a manager wouldn’t have dared to use a shift on Pujols, because he would punish it by immediately taking the 1st good pitch to the opposite field for a base hit. The Rays shifted on Pujols for every at-bat, showing either a lot of conviction out of Joe Maddon or knowledge that Pujols is trying to pull everything. If Albert relaxes a little more at the plate and starts to use the whole field again, he will once again take his place as one of the 3-5 most feared hitters alive. Pujols should recover in time to hit around .280-.300 with 25 homers, a far cry from the production expected out of him when he signed in LA for $240 million. The bigger concern should be going forward, because if Pujols’ production is already declining, the Angels are in big trouble.