A year ago Jonny Gomes was making a cool million bucks to form a rather effective left field/DH platoon in Oakland where he hit .262/.377/.491 with 18 homers and 47 RBI while playing in just 99 games. At this point you might be asking yourself, “Hey, why did Jonny Gomes only play in 99 games? That on-base percentage is sky-high and would have ranked 8th in baseball if Gomes got more at bats. And his power is pretty decent too.” Boston general manager Ben Cherington may have been asking himself that very same question when he picked up the phone yesterday, dialed up Gomes’ agent and offered a 2 year/$10 million dollar deal.
After yesterday’s late-game heroics in Washington and New York, the first round of the 2012 playoffs has been deemed a rousing success. Thanks to Jason Werth, Manny Machado, and JJ Hardy we were guaranteed to have all four Divisional Series end with game 5’s. The first two game 5’s were full of excitement as well. In the National League, the Giants completed their comeback from 2-0 down thanks to some nifty bullpen work and a Buster Posey moonshot grand slam, while over in the AL, Justin Verlander struck out 11 A’s en route to a 6-0 win. Tonight we have another pair of fantastic looking pitching match-ups on our hands. In New York, the Orioles nominal ace Jason Hammel takes the mound against former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia in a series that’s featured surprisingly little offense thus far. In the nation’s capital, Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez looks to give Washington its first playoff series since the 1924 World Series. He faces Adam Wainwright, who was one of the top-3 pitchers in the National League in 2009 and 2010 before having Tommy John surgery a year-and-a-half ago. San Francisco and Detroit await in the League Championship Series. Let’s take a look at which aces are best suited to punch their team’s ticket to the next round.
If the rumors that Ichiro has indeed been sent to the New York Yankees for a package of minor league pitchers (DJ Mitchell and Danny Farquhar), it signals a significant change in the Mariners front office, as well as their clubhouse. Ichiro has been a staple in Seattle since his MLB debut in 2001, delighting fans with his unorthodox batting stance, fantastic speed, and rocket launcher arm. As a life-long Yankee fan and a long-time Ichiro fan, I’m personally thrilled to watch him man the outfield and step into the batter’s box in Yankee Stadium using his trademark speed on defense to take away hits, while annihilating runners with his arm on the base paths. But what does this mean for both teams? Let’s take a look at the Mariners’ takeaway first:
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.
Josh Hamilton may very well be on his way to one of the best seasons in baseball history. He leads the entire major leagues in the Triple Crown categories, OPS+, and total bases. Over the past week, Hamilton has hit 8 homers, driven in 15 runs, been on base 2/3’s of the time, and has had one of the greatest individual games in baseball history. He won’t be able to keep up the pace he has set over the past week, but what kind of season is Hamilton looking at? Can he win the Triple Crown? Is 60 homers or 180 RBIs in the picture? Let’s take a look:
No player in professional baseball has hit for the Triple Crown since 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a.326 batting average with 44 homers and 121 RBI. Hamilton is currently hitting .407/.463/.873 with 17 homers and 40 RBI on the year, which gives him a comfortable lead in all three categories.
Concerning batting average, Derek Jeter is 2nd in the AL in batting at .372 and the rest of the field isn’t even close. The next closest hitters, Ryan Sweeney and David Ortiz, are all more than .50 points behind Hamilton and probably won’t keep their average this high for very long. Given that Hamilton is already a batting champion from 2010, and that he has such a substantial early lead on the field, I think he’s a safe bet to win the batting title.
His home run title will also be tough to take, because he has a 6 homer lead over Edwin Encarnacion, Curtis Granderson, and Adam Dunn. Dunn and Granderson have slugger pedigree and a history of topping 40 homers, so they could be threats if Hamilton cools off. But its probably going to take more than 43 homers that Jose Bautista won the title with last season if any player wants to beat Hamilton.
He’s on a stretch of 8 homers in 17 at-bats, making him the 3rd player in history with 17 homers in his teams 1st 33 games. He’s on an unsustainable pace for 85 homers, due to the fact that such a high percentage of his hits are leaving the park. Hamilton has only 4 doubles and 27 singles to go along with all of the homers, and out of the 38 fly balls he has hit this season, 17 have left the yard. That rate is unsustainably high, and will probably have to come back down at some point. This kind of early production gives him a great head start toward an eye-popping total and will probably put him over 55 for the season. That’s a number no other player is likely to top.
Finally Hamilton’s early RBI production has also been off-the-charts good. He’s got great hitters in front of him in the Texas lineup. Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus are speedsters who excel at aggressively running the bases, giving Hamilton extra RBI chances that many hitters do not get. 53 of his 118 at-bats, 45%, have come with men on base and Hamilton has made pitchers pay, racking up a MLB leading 40 ribbies. If Hamilton can play in 150 of his teams games this year, that would put him on a pace to drive in 200 runs, which would be a major league record besting Hack Wilson’s 191 set in 1930.
Hamilton is currently on pace to have one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. He has always had injury problems, even missing an entire month from his 2010 MVP season. If Hamilton stays healthy he has the kind of swing that strikes fear in opposing pitchers, because he covers so much of the plate with so much power. I think he has the best chance of any player in the past 20 years of hitting for the Triple Crown, and with the way Hamilton is currently swinging the bat, I think he WILL do it.
Around the League:
-The Cubs and Brewers played an extremely entertaining game last night, with Milwaukee prevailing 8-7 in the 13th inning. Corey Hart was the hero, providing the game-tying 2-run homer in the 9th and the game winning hit in the 13th, a single up the middle past a drawn in Cubbie infield. Hart was 4-7 in the game with a homer and 3 RBI.
-Raul Ibanez continued to swing a powerful bat for the Yankees, smashing a 3-run homer off Felix Hernandez to give New York a 6-2 win. He now has 6 homers and 19 RBI during his age-40 season, and like a much more celebrated Yankee teammate, he continues to defy father time.
-Carlos Beltran is also having an excellent week for the Cardinals, batting .455 with 5 homers and 12 RBI over his past 5 games. He’s now hitting .307/.410/.658 for the year with a National League leading 12 homers.
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.