This wasn’t how things were supposed to be for the New York Yankees. The All-Star cavalry was supposed to return to buoy what is an otherwise uninspiring roster of 30-something misfits. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira were supposed to return to spell the likes of Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in a spirited 2nd half sprint to the playoffs. But that’s not exactly how things have worked out in the Bronx. Teixeira’s now done for the year thanks to surgery, Granderson played in 8 whole games before hitting the DL again, and the entire left side of the infield has fewer at-bats than All-Star appearances.
Each year baseball fans everywhere mark a random day in mid-February down on their calenders as one of the best days of the year: the day pitchers and catchers report, aka, the unofficial start of the Major League season. For many players, particularly veterans and All-Stars, Spring Training offers a chance to reconnect with old teammates while meeting new ones and to work the body into shape for the long grind of 162 games. But for many other players, rookies, guys on the fringe, or the 40-year-old looking for one last shot at glory, the start of spring represents the start of the season. These players are fighting for their big league lives, the last spot on the roster, or maybe even a starting position.
One of the most important positions on any baseball team, whether it be Little League, legion ball, or the bigs, is catcher. He’s the backbone of so much of what any baseball team does. There are so many responsibilities behind the plate that it can be difficult for any player to keep track of what to do. A catcher has to manage a pitching staff, call the game, receive pitches, frame pitches, block balls in the dirt, contain the opponent’s running game, and we haven’t even gotten to hitting.
The American League Championship Series got off to a rousing start last night before, ultimately, ending on a sour note. Tigers closer Jose Valverde continued his season long battle with the save, giving up a pair of 2-run homers and a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th. A couple innings later, the Tigers were able to parlay an atrocious display of defense by Nick Swisher and some timely hits into a pair of 12th inning runs to escape with a 1-0 series lead. The game was particularly disastrous for New York because not only did they hand over home-field advantage, captain Derek Jeter was also lost for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken ankle.
As we head into the final two days of the regular season every playoff spot in the
American League has been claimed and still the playoff possibilities remain endless. The dogfight in the AL Central has a victor, with Detroit going all Red Baron on Chicago’s playoff chances, leaving the Sox dead in the water. But in the other two divisions, the fight to stay out of the coin-flip game rages on. New York and Texas are were many prognosticators felt they would be come October, but lurking just a game back in their respective divisions are Baltimore and Oakland, the season’s two biggest surprises. The AL West will have a winner one way or another.
Oakland still has hopes for the biggest division surprise win all time. All the upstart A’s need to do is sweep the two-time defending AL champs in Arlington otherwise the Rangers claim a 3rd straight title. Things are a little more complicated in the AL East, where a combination of either two Yankee wins or Oriole losses will hand the title to the pinstripes. In the event of a tie, both teams will play a game 163, with the winner claiming the division and the loser entering into the coin-flip game. The playoff possibilities are all over the place, with all four of the teams above still in contention for the AL’s best record. In fact, all we know for certain is that Detroit, the AL team with the 7th best record in the league, has the least to sweat out, knowing it will host somebody at Comerica this weekend.
All of which leads us to Friday, October 5th, the date the Wild Card game is scheduled to take place. Baltimore, New York, Oakland, and Texas would all prefer to avoid playing that day, but two of those teams will be left holding the short straws. At that point they will have a decision to make. Who do we start with everything on the line? Let’s take a look at the best option for each franchise.
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.
Yesterday’s Yankees-Orioles clash was an exciting game for quite a few reasons. It was the first opportunity to get a look at one of the most dominant pitchers from the Nippon Baseball League in Wei-Yin Chen. It was also a game that featured 2 of the finest shortstops in baseball, Derek Jeter and JJ Hardy. By the end of 12 innings there had been, 5 wild pitches, a great relay throw to the plate, and countless clutch plays.
In the top of the 1st Derek Jeter came up to the plate and got the game started right for New York, smashing a homer deep to centerfield, well clear of the wall. Wei-Yin Chen looked a little nervous, much like Yu Darvish two nights ago, during the first inning. He admitted as much after the game saying “To be honest with you guys, this is my first major league outing. I was so nervous,” Chen said. “But after the first inning everything was fine for me.” His location was poor, and he was leaving plenty of pitches over the plate, and the Yankees hit him hard but only got the 1 run, leaving 2 men on base. Not to be outdone in the bottom of the 1st inning, JJ Hardy also took an upstairs fastball deep, tying the score at 1. From there the game really got interesting.
After escaping the 1st inning Wei-Yin Chen really began to settle in and show what he can do. Chen showed an array of pitches, featuring a lower 90s fastball, a plus changeup that Yankee hitters struggled with, and an average slider. He locates all 3 pitches well, keeping hitters off-balance, which is the mark of a successful big leaguer. At one point he ran of a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired. He looked every bit the part of a successful major league pitcher, and will fit nicely in the middle of the Orioles rotation. Chen is an excellent find for Baltimore, and their front office and scouts should be applauded for the pickup.
His counterpart on the mound, Freddy Garcia, struggled mightily all night with his command. Garcia threw 5 wild pitches, the most in one game since 1989, and was downright AJ Burnett-like. Garcia also walked 3 batters and hit another despite only making it through 4.2 innings. His breaking pitches in particular were terrible, with at least 50% of them bouncing in the dirt. Some pitches were missing the plate by more than 2 feet. Two of Baltimore’s runs were directly attributable to Garcia’s wildness and it makes one wonder why Joe Girardi stuck with him for so long, because the Yankee bullpen was dynamite.
By the 6th inning, the O’s were cruising, up 4-1, when Chen began to wear down. As he approached 90 pitches his command started slipping, and he started leaving pitches out over the middle of the plate. The Yankees managed a couple of singles, and then Chen walked his first batter of the night, Curtis Granderson, to load ‘em up. With one out Andrew Jones hit a meager fly ball to right and Robinson Cano was able to tag-up and score on a slick slide at the plate. Showalter decided to leave the tiring Chen in the game to face Russell Martin, and he was able to induce a grounder to 3rd, where Mark “Iron Hands” Reynolds plays. Reynolds botched the play badly, allowing a 3rd run to score. The next batter Brett Gardner hit a sharp single and the game was tied at 4 and the Yankees had chased Chen from the game. A battle of the bullpens ensued.
For the next 3 innings neither team was able to push across a run and the game would go into extras. The Yankees had their best chance in the 7th inning, with Nick Swisher on 1st and Robinson Cano at the plate. Cano laced a sharp double down the 3rd base line and it went all the way to the wall, where Endy Chavez picked it up. Chavez fired the ball in to shortstop JJ Hardy, who was perfectly positioned 10-15 feet into the outfield grass along the foul line. Hardy turned and fired a perfect line drive strike to the plate from 120 feet away, just in time to nab a sliding Swisher. If either throw had been less than perfect Swisher would have scored. The Chavez-Hardy-Wieters relay was executed with textbook precision, and should be used as a model for how the play properly works.
By the 12th inning, the Yankees were able to muster another offensive rally. Robby Cano hit a leadoff double, and 3 batters later, Raul Ibanez brought him home with an RBI double. Mariano Rivera was brought in for the save, and collected the 604th of his illustrious career.
Box Score Observations:
-The final line for Wei-Yin Chen: 5.2 IP/4R/2ER/7H/1BB/6K/101 pitches. Chen showed me a lot of ability tonight. He has excellent control with and understands how to mix his pitches, which will serve him well. He could be the most productive pitcher on the Baltimore staff this season. The 26-year-old has a bright future ahead.
-The Yankees bullpen was superb. They pitched 7.1 innings, allowing no runs while striking out 12 batters. Corey Wade and David Phelps were both individually impressive, striking out 4 batters apiece.
-The middle infield is carrying the Yankees so far in the young season. Jeter and Cano are the only regulars hitting above .300, and they combined to go 5-12 with 3 runs, 3 extra-base hits, and 1 RBI. Both have played solid defense as well.
-The Yankees were 2-18 with runners in scoring position. Baltimore was 0-8. Ouch.
–Jonah Keri has some interesting thoughts on a fairly new statistic created by Fangraphs called shutdowns and meltdowns, or SD/MD. Here’s an excerpt explaining the statistic a little bit.
To figure that out, SD/MD leans on a concept called win expectancy — the likelihood (expressed in percentages) that your team wins a game. The Indians are up 4-1, ninth inning, bases empty, nobody out. What is their win expectancy at the time? (Answer: 96.8 percent — drag your mouse over that chart at the top of the page to find win expectancy by situation throughout the game.) Perez tosses two-thirds of an inning, yielding three hits, two walks, and three runs, before leaving with the score tied 4-4. What is the Indians’ win expectancy now? (Answer: 52.2 percent) Perez has dropped his team’s win expectancy by 44.6 percent. For that — or any pitching performance in which a reliever hurts his team’s win expectancy by 6 percent or more — you earn a meltdown. Raise your team’s win expectancy by 6 percent or more and you earn a shutdown.
This might sound a bit complicated, but it really isn’t. By using 6 percent as the cutoff, you get a stat that runs on a similar scale to saves and holds. Elite closers and setup men will rack up 35-40 (or more) shutdowns and very few meltdowns, just as a dominant closer can earn that many saves, while blowing very few. If you’ve ever watched poker on TV, you’ll see a player’s odds of winning a hand rise or fall by a certain percentage based on the cards the dealer flips over. Same easy-to-follow concept here: If you retire the side 1-2-3 in a big spot (say, two runners on, none out, and you enter with the game tied in the seventh), you get a shutdown, just as hitting your nut flush on the river will usually win you a hand. The only difference is the pitcher has more control over the outcome in this case, rather than it being left to random chance.
The key is that SD/MD puts closers and other members of your bullpen on even ground. That way you don’t end up overpaying for a pitcher who happens to record the final out of a ballgame.
It is a very interesting way to rate relief pitchers and makes much, much more sense than the save statistic. As Keri also goes on to point out SD/MD gives more weight to higher leverage situations, like bases loaded in the 8th with one out in a 3-2 game, compared to easy save situations like a 5-2 lead, no one on in the 9th. If more teams payed attention to this statistic the use of relievers could change. Instead of using your best pitcher, the closer, to start the 9th, teams could be more inclined to use them to end rallies earlier in the game.
–Tom Verducci has some good thoughts this week concerning pitch counts and the size of Marlins Park. He has noticed that every big league team has adopted the 100 pitch mark as the gold standard for removing a pitcher from the game.
How is it possible that in 10 years all 30 teams agree on the same one-size-fits-all philosophy when it comes to pitching? How could Johnson, Garcia and Hernandez — all of whom compiled prolific careers — do in one day what the entire industry could not do in the subsequent decade? And how could every organization agree on the same philosophy while pitchers do not remain healthier and leads are not better protected under this bowing down to the pitch count? What does it say about advances in nutrition, biomechanics, medicine and other sciences that pitchers have become less productive?
He also discusses the recent trend of building large ballparks, and the effect it could be having on offense. If Marlins Park plays as big as it feels, that would mean that 5 of the last 7 ballparks built all play favorably towards pitcher. Only Citizens Bank in Philly and Yankee Stadium are hitter havens, both ranking in the top-10. With larger ballparks and mandatory steroid testing there has been a big drop-off in the number of runs scored over the past decade. This is something to keep an eye on.
-Also from SI.com, Joe Lemire discusses why he thinks the Joey Votto contract is good for the Reds and good for baseball. Interesting thoughts and some good quotes, particularly near the end when Votto discusses his disdain for the DH.
-Over at IIATMS, they discuss Joe Girardi’s bizarre decision to intentionally walk Sean Rodriguez for Carlos Pena with 2 outs in the 1st inning! It ended just like it should have, with Pena crushing a CC Sabathia offering to give the Rays a 4-0 lead. Girardi explained that didn’t care much for the matchup between Rodriguez and Sabathia, especially since Pena hasn’t hit CC well. Going into the at-bat, Pena was a .114 hitter, going 4-34 with 2 homers, but its still a poor decision to walk a shortstop to face a power hitting 1st baseman.
–Rob Neyer discussed Mark Trumbo’s difficulties at 3rd base last night. Trumbo appears uncomfortable at 3rd and his struggles defensively will be worth keeping tabs on.
–Big League Stew discusses the baseball that Yoenis Cespedes annihilated in his stateside debut last night. Cespedes hit an impressive 462 foot homer, and showboated a bit after, but good grief was that a blast.
–Tim Brown has some notes discussing Albert Pujols debut for the Los Angels Angels. Pujols had an 0-fer with 1 walk, but LA was still able to win the game 5-0.
-Some fun numbers from Mop-Up Duty about the 16 inning Opening Day affair between Toronto and Cleveland.