28 April 2008

Posada Proves Problem for Yanks, Just Not the One I Expected

The Yankees won a tight game against the Cleveland Indians yesterday, after dropping the firt two games of their hard-fought series with the Tribe, but it turned out to be a lousy day anyway.

Jorge Posada is going on the DL.

Posada's throwing shoulder has been bothering him all season, so much so, that would-be base stealers are almost always successful, nabbing 14 steals in 17 tries.

As a rule, steals aren't that big a part of the game, but in a situation like this, when opponents know they can steal on your catcher at will, the story changes a bit. The pitcher has to re-focus his energies to try to keep the runners close, which takes his attention away from the batter, which leads to mistakes, and it's more or less all down hill from there.

One approach to this problem, naturally, is to just not allow anyone on base. Chien-Ming Wang made it work for him yesterday, allowing only 4 hits and two walks in seven shutout innings against the potent Cleveland offense. Effective though it may be, this is not very likely to happen. Putting Posada in there in the hopes that your pitcher will be that niggardly with his baserunners every time out is a foolish strategy, so to the DL Posada must go.

I expected Posada to be a problem for the Yankees this year, but in my case, I thought it would be his bat, not his arm that haunted them. I figured that he had nowhere to go but down after hitting .338 last year, and that his age-related drop in production would hrt the Yankees' pennant hopes. Of course I was right that he would drop off, but he's still hitting about .300 this year with a slugging percentage almost exactly on his career mark, despite only having gone yard once so far.

Jose Molina and Chad Moeller have to try to pick up the slack, which is no easy task. In 2007, Posada led all MLB catchers in Runs Created, Secondary Average, VORP, batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, adjusted OPS and doubles. He was second in homers and Win Shares (behind Victor Martinez) and third in RBIs (behind Martinez and Brian McCann). That's one heckuva hole to fill.

Obviously it wasn't reasonable to expect Posada to keep hitting like that at age 36, but I'm sure the yankees expected something like .275/.375/.475 from him with 18 homers and 80 RBIs. The drop from that level down Jose Molina and a random backup catcher is a steep one. The Yankees have enough offense that they can withstand a month of missing Posada, assuming that rest is all his ailing shoulder needs, but to do that, they need some of the others to step up and help.

And in this case, I don't mean the offense: I mean pitching.

Specifically, the two youngsters in the rotation, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

BAD NEWS: Hughes and kennedy are now collectively 0-5, with an ERA of 8.20, with 27 walks and only 26 strikeouts in 34 innings.

GOOD NEWS: Ian Kennedy' opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this year is .361, and for Phil Hughes, it's even worse, at .388.

Why is that good news? Because on average, most major league pitchers allow a BABIP around .300 these days. (That hasn't always been the case, but a study of that history is beyond the scope of this post.) If Kennedy and Hughes are so far above the normal average, and there isn't something physically wrong with them, then they're likely to regress toward the mean eventually, and start pitching like we've been told they can.

On the other hand, Mike Mussina's not been exactly great this year, only 2-3 with a 4.94 ERA and only 10 strikeouts in 27 innings. Worse yet, he's got a BABIP of only .250, which means that when the mean catches up with him, he's likely to get worse, not better. Moose's problem to this point is that he's just not fooling anyone with his mid-80's fastball and 68-mph knucklecurve, so he never strikes anyone out anymore, allows a homer every 4 innings, and makes the defense work for him. Unfortunately, the Yankee defense is better known for its ability to hit than its collection of Gold Gloves, Derek Jeter's small collection of them notwithstanding.

Regardless, the two young guys have got to start pitching better if the Yankees are going to compete. Mussina, too, of course, but if he falters, they can always try Joba Chamberlain in the rotation and relegate Moose to mop-up duty. Or they can try Moose as a once-a-week starter, keeping him a little more fresh for each time he pitches, and helping to take some of the pressure off Joba and Hughes and Kennedy, so they don't have to rack up so many innings on those young arms.

Not that they're likely to try something that unusual, but don't ever let it be said that there were no alternatives out there.

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