13 December 2010

Book Review: Strike IX - by Paul Lonardo

Everybody loves an underdog.  Paul Lonardo has brought you the compelling story of 25 of them in his new book, Strike IX: The Story of a Big East College Forced to Eliminate its Baseball Program and the Team That Refused to Lose.

The background on the book is that Providence college, despite having fielded a baseball team since 1923, found itself in the midst of an era in which a myriad of colleges were scrambling to comply with Title IX regulations - the US laws against gender discrimination by colleges receiving federal funds - or risk being sued.  Providence, like most colleges,decided that it was simply easier to eliminate some existing mens' sports, especially those with large rosters, than it was to support additional womens' sports teams, and a 25-man baseball team seemed the perfect candidate. 

The twist comes when the 1999 Providence College Friars decide to fight back, not by actually saving the team - that only happens in Disney movies, folks - but by playing so well that everyone would know exactly what they're missing when the Friars depart.  It's not exactly The Bad News Bears or Major League, but you definitely get the impression that the athletes kind of think of themselves that way. 

Lonardo covers the story predominantly from the perspective of the student athletes, though he does a good job of creating context for the reader, including the history of Providence College, the culture of baseball programs in the northeast, and the pros and cons of the Title IX law and its results in more general terms, particularly with statistics demonstrating the law of unintended consequences.  

But he mostly gives you the story of the players' feelings and experiences, including some of their game feats, which were many for a team that went 47-14 and came within one game of playing for a national championship.  Still, he manages not to bore you with gory details from game stories (unlike some other books I've reviewed), striking a nice balance, at least in terms of sports vs. human interest.

The book is not, however, terribly balanced when it comes to telling the school's side of the story vs. that of the players and coaches.  That's acceptable, I suppose, as most people don't want to hear about the trials and tribulations of a large corporation, or even a modestly sized college.  Guys in dirty baseball uniforms make for more sympathetic figures than a bunch of middle aged white men in business suits. 

Providence, being in Rhode Island instead of Georgia, Arizona, California or Florida, is hardly a breeding ground for major league talent.  In fact, journeyman infielder John McDonald is the second best player ever to come out of Providence, and he wasn't on this team.  So you likely won't recognize any of the players' names, and that somehow helps them to feel even more like underdogs.  And the fact that they did things like hitting .342 as a team and winning  almost 75% of their games can only add to your admiration of them. 

The writing itself is not bad, but nothing special either, and Lonardo's use of profanity in his own prose comes off as unprofessional and distracting, at least to me.  Because the book is self published, and this is the first edition, there are some errata in it that can also be distracting if you're as nitpicky as I am, but hopefully you're not. 

Still, the book's real appeal is its compelling, underdog story, and in that it truly delivers.  The 1999 Providence Friars may not have won it all like the Cleveland Indians in Major League, but they made such an impressive run and turned so many heads in the process that they assured their legacy along side some of the great Cinderella stories in history. 

Carl Spackler would be proud.


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08 December 2010

Werth's Worth: Have We Seen the Best of Jayson Yet?

The Washington Nationals made the biggest splash of the 2010 offseason to date on Monday, announcing a seven-year, $126 million contract for journeyman outfielder Jayson Werth. A Scott Boras client, Werth appears to be yet another exhibit in the case for Boras as the best agent in the business and the argument that one really good season can make almost anyone an extremely rich man.

Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo was quoted as saying,

"We got the inside scoop on who the man is and who the person is.  [field manager] Jim [Riggleman] is a great judge of character and clubhouse presence. He was very flowery in his praise in Jayson on and off the field. He feels, like I feel, Jayson's best days haven't been had yet."
He refers to Riggleman's experience with Werth when he was a coach for the Dodgers, though it should be noted that

A) That was almost  five years ago now, and
2) His enthusiasm over Werth's "character and clubhouse presence" didn't help much when Werth was trying to get recalled from a AAA rehab assignment and/or struggling for playing time over the likes of Dave Roberts, Ricky Ledee, Steve Finley and Jason Grabowski.  

Werth was drafted by the Orioles in the first round of the 1997 draft and spent four seasons languishing in their inept farm system before getting traded to Toronto in December of 2000.  In the majors he has been with the Phillies, Dodgers and Blue Jays, though he didn't become an everyday player until about the middle of 2007, when he was already 28 years old.

In roughly three and a half seasons with Philadelphia, Werth hit 95 homers, drove in 300 runs, hit .282/.380/.506 and stole 60 bases at a high rate of success.  In 2010 he was one of the dozen or so best players in the National League, with 5.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-reference.com, which was used for all of the calculations in this post).

But the real question, naturally is, "Is Rizzo right?"  Do we have yet to see the best of Jayson Werth?  And, even if we do, can Werth possibly do enough over the next seven years to justify this contract? 

Noting that 2010 constituted what is generally called a Career Year for Werth, I looked at all players who have qualified for the batting title and put up at least a 140 OPS+ in their age 31 season. (OPS+ = On-base-Plus-Slugging, adjusted for league and park factors and set to a scale on which average equals 100.  The age 31 season is so defined based on the players' age on June 30th of that year.)

There were 103 of them, including Werth and Adrian Beltre, who also turned 31 this year, and therefore cannot be used to estimate what might happen down the road.  For each of those 103 players, I checked to see what their previous career highs were in OPS+ (in a qualifying season) and at what age they occurred.  Was this a career year for them?  If not, when did they peak? 

I also checked for the highest OPS+ in a qualified season* between the ages of 32 and 38, which is the span over which Werth's new contract will stretch.  Is Rizzo right about Werth's best days still being ahead of him in spite of the fact that he's now potentially "over the hill" in baseball terms? 

*Some of them never again qualified for a batting title after their age 31 season, so instead I took their total OPS+ from ages 32-38 and used that as their "high" setting the age at 32. It seemed the best way to keep from completely skewing the averages.  There were only three of these anyway: Larry Hisle, Elmer Flick and Juan Gonzalez.  

Finally I tallied and averaged the total WAR between the ages of 32 and 38 for each player, to see whether any of them might have lived up to the Jayson Werth deal.  Some of them actually did, as we'll see.   

So, as I mentioned, there are 103 such player-seasons, and recall that these are only the players who were 31 years old AND got enough at bats to qualify for the batting title when they accomplished this, and only since 1901.  Therefore, the first thing we can notice is that this was hardly an historic season.

If we lower the plate appearance requirement to 400, we get 116 names.  If we go back to 1876 instead of 1901, we get 118, even with the qualification requirement.  If we change the criteria to a minimum of 5 WAR at age 31, we have 140 names, and so much data to sift through that my wife will never speak to me again, so let's stick with the OPS+ requirement.  Since Werth is a right fielder, most of his value is in his bat anyway, and that seems mostly fair. 

In any case, we've generally been told that players tend to peak in their late twenties, plateau for a while into their early thirties and then decline in their mid thirties.  But Werth peaked at 31, it seems, and the question must be asked whether this is a mountaintop or a plateau, or - dare we say it? - merely the upward slope to still greater heights.

Stop laughing, I'm serious.

Well, anyway, of the aforementioned 103 players, about half (49) really did experience a career year at age 31, including Jayson, but not Beltre.  That is, their OPS+ at that age was the highest they had yet posted in a qualified season.  Of the remaining 48 for whom we have data for after their age 31 seasons, only 10 went on to still greater OPS+ heights in a qualified season.

Two others from that group, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, are still playing and have not yet turned 38, so it's possible that they will top the peaks they reached at age 31, but it's not very likely.  That suggests that for players who hit a new peak of at least 140 OPS+ at age 31, there is only about a 20% chance of improving on that at any point in the next seven seasons. 

The remaining 54 players who had peaked before they turned 31 were still very good at that age.  Though two of those (Beltre and Todd Helton) have not yet completed their age 38 season, Helton is 36 now and has five seasons of production worse than his age 31 year, so I think it's fair to assume that he's not suddenly going to rebound at age 37 or 38.  That leaves us 53 players for whom we can make some claim about their production over these ages. 

Of those 53, 21 of them (40%) hit better than they did at age 31 some time in their mid-thirties, though not necessarily better than they had in their twenties.  Werth is not in this group, as his previous OPS+ high was just 127, but it could be argued that if he had not suffered from a misdiagnosed wrist injury and/or the incompetence of Dodger management, he might have, so these data are still somewhat instructive.

Overall, 31 of the 101 players who have at least one season in the age 32-38 range managed to improve upon that age 31 season.  And two-thirds of those had given some indication of being even better when they were younger, which Werth has not.  Even being charitable toward Werth's lost time, then, it seems that he has only about a 30% chance of making good on Mike Rizzo's assertion that his best days lie some time in the future. 

And keep in mind that many of the players, in their age 31 season or before, were vastly better than Werth has ever been, so there was more reason to expect great things form them going forward.  While Werth just barely cleared the 140 OPS+ threshold we set, at 145, more than a third of the other 102 players posted an OPS+ of at least 175 either at age 31 or some time before that.  For reference, 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto's OPS+ was 174, so that gives you an idea of how good these guys were at some point in their careers.

Looking at it another way, if a Win Above Replacement is worth about $4.5 million, and that value increases by 3% annually due to inflation (even though baseball inflation is much different from traditional economic inflation, but we'll be conservative here) then in order to "break even", Jayson Werth must amass about 26 WAR over the next seven seasons to justify his $126 million in total salary. That's assuming an average salary of $18 million, since exact terms are not yet available.  The average production of the aforementioned 101 players was a shade under 18 WAR, so you can see we've got our justification work cut out for us. 

Of course, we can debate all day about the value of a Win, but that $4.5 million seems reasonable in that a lot of outlets are using something like it, and it's unlikely that Wins will become less expensive over the next decade. 

There have only been 46 players in the history of major league baseball who have amassed at least 26 WAR between their age 32 and age 38 seasons. Twenty nine of those 46 are already in the Hall of Fame, and seven more of them have Hall of Fame numbers but either aren't yet eligible (Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent), have been shut out due to the steroids scandal (McGwire) or have been banned for life (Pete Rose).

Four others are borderline Hall of Famers themselves (Larry Walker, Jim Edmonds, Lou Whitaker and Edgar Martinez).  The remaining six (Dolph Camilli, Gavvy Cravvath, Bob Johnson, Ken Williams, Tony Phillips and Jose Cruz) were all exceptional old players who either got a late start in the majors (Johnson, Camilli, Cravath, Williams) or were not that good in their twenties but hit their strides later on (Phillips and Cruz).  And Phillips may constitute an exception given the fact that his 30's coincided with the so-called Steroid Era, and that he may very well have been a part of it.   

Of course, there is some debate about the value of a Win.  Some say it's really lower than $4.5 million, that one year contracts and the overvaluing of free agent relief pitchers skews the number higher, but I think it's probably about right when you consider certain recent signings.  

If you call the inflation rate 5% instead of 3%, Jayson would "only" need to amass about 24 WAR in the next seven years for the Nationals to break even, assuming they keep him for the length of the contract.  That benchmark brings four other Hall of Famers into the mix (George Brett, Johnny Mize, Earl Averill and Luke Appling) plus five non Hall of Famers (Ichiro, Lefty O'Doul, Bill Dahlen, Dixie Walker, and Dwight Evans).

It's worth noting that Evans and Dahlen have (arguably) Cooperstown-worthy numbers when examined by modern metrics like WAR, but were under appreciated in their own times.  Ichiro and Lefty both played the first halves of their careers away from the major leagues, but clearly were major league talents* even in their 20's.

*O'Doul was a great young pitcher who went 25-9, 2.39 ERA in 312 innings in the Pacific Coast League as a 25 year old, but he had arm trouble.  So he turned himself into a power hitting outfielder, hit .369 over four seasons in the Pacific Coast League, and then went back to the majors and hit .365 over the next five seasons, winning two batting titles and narrowly missing two MVP awards in that span.  Eat your heart out, Rick Ankiel. 

So essentially, we've got a batch of 55 players, and about 90% them either are already in Cooperstown, will be someday, or played like Hall of Famers between the ages of 32 and 38.   Among our 101 players who had at least a 140 OPS+ at age 31, only 25 amassed 24 WAR between the ages of 32 and 38, and 20 of them are Hall of Famers. 

Anybody think Jayson Werth is about to become a Hall of Famer?

Me neither.

So there we have it.  Werth is only about 20-30% likely to improve upon his numbers this year, at best, which is actually a better chance than I'd have given him before I began this exercise.

And even if he does improve, in all likelihood he'll only improve at age 32 or 33, and will decline thereafter.  In the block of 101 players who played after their age 31 season, the average age at which they hit their next high in OPS+ was 33, and the most common age was 32.  So Rizzo's probably wrong about that.   

There have been about 4,260 players in history who have played at least one MLB game between the ages of 32 and 38, but only 55 who have played well enough to live up to this contract.  That works out to about 76-to-one odds, which for comparison is roughly the preseason betting line on the Baltimore Orioles winning the 2011 World Series.  Actually, it's a little worse than that. 

The only ways for Werth to somehow be (forgive me...) worth his $126 million is either

1) to beat ridiculous odds and earn a huge pile of WAR over the next seven seasons, something that there is little evidence to suggest he can do, or

2) for the cost of a win to get really, really expensive.  Like, six or eight million dollars.

That latter option may not be as ludicrous as it sounds, given that seven years ago it was only $2.8 million, or about 60% of what it is now.  Still, even at that rate, by the time this contract ends in 2017, Werth will still need to be worth about three wins, which is hard to envision for a 38 year old outfielder.  That's not impossible, but it's pretty unlikely, unless we can somehow convince ourselves that Werth is really as good as Bonds, Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Cobb, Speaker or another half dozen or so of the best players in history, and we just haven't gotten to see that side of him yet.

I for one, can't.

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20 October 2010

Don't Make Burnett the Goat in Yankees Loss to Rangers

The only thing that could have made last night worse for New York was another successful terrorist plot.

OK, so that's a bit of a stretch, but seriously, last night was really a drag.

The Yankees took an early lead in Game 4 of the 2010 ALCS when Robinson Cano hit his third homer of the series in the second inning, making it 1-0. Two batters later, things seemed to be going well for New York when Lance Berkman mashed a Tommy Hunter fastball deep into the upper deck in right field, which would have made it 2-0. The umpires reviewed and overturned that decision, though, calling the ball foul, and almost nothing has gone the Yankees' way since.

Well, that's not precisely true either, but these are dramatic times.

AJ Burnett gave up two runs in the top of the third inning, despite the fact that the Rangers never hit the ball out of the infield. A walk, a wild pitch, a hit batter, a bunt, a fielder's choice grounder, a dribbler to third base on which Alex Rodriguez couldn't make a play, and suddenly the Yankees were down 2-1. This was exactly the kind of thing that seemed to rattle Burnett and throw him off his game during the regular season, but he got another grounder to end the inning and limit the damage.

The Yankees came right back in the bottom of the third and tied the game, but couldn't plate any more runs. They did manage another run in the fourth, but only one, even though they had the bases loaded with only one out. Perhaps the worst blow of the night came when Mark Teixeira pulled a hamstring running out a grounder, resulting in an injury that will keep him outof the rest of the playoffs.

Burnett pitched two and two-thirds more innings without giving up a run, and looked like he was on the cusp of redemption when he allowed a three-run homer that Bengie Molina accomplished with his remarkable patience and textbook power swing.

No, wait. I mean he was lucky.

Burnett had allowed a lead off single to Vlad the GImpaler (TM)*, who was forced out at second on a fielder's choice grounder by Nelson Cruz. Cruz then advanced to second on a deep fly ball out to center field, which left first base open. So they walked David Murphy (.847 OPS against right handed pitchers in 2010, about the same as his career mark) to get to Molina who hit just .213 against them this year and has only a .680 OPS against them in his career.

Seemed like a good move, and even leaving Burnett in to face one more batter doesn't strike me as a terrible idea, since he'd thrown only 97 pitches to that point, and it had been 17 days since his last start. But Burnett missed his target though, which was low and away, and his fastball went up and in to Molina, who smacked it just over the left field wall.

People will tell you that this was a mistake on Burnett's part, and certainly that's true. But look, if you throw a ball 92 mph in on a guy's hands and he hits it out of the park, maybe we should just tip our caps to him and give him credit for a job well done. Not every hit or even every homer happens due to a pitcher's mistake, you know? Even mediocre major league hitters are major league hitters.

In any case, that homer seemed to take the life out of both the Yankees and their fans, symbolized by nothing better than the image of Alex Rodriguez, in his crouch waiting for the pitch, dropping his head in disappointment without even turning around to see the ball sail out of the park.

The Yankees went down in order in the bottom half of the 6th inning as well as the 7th. Texas refused to reciprocate though, scoring two more runs in their half of the 7th on a homer by Josh Hamilton (I think his ribs are probably healed...) and a bloop single by Ian Kinsler with two men on.

The rangers tried to give back a little in the eighth, using three different pitchers to walk the bases loaded with only one out, but the Yankees just couldn't come up with a big hit to close the 7-3 gap. The Rangers then showed them how it's done in the ninth inning, when Josh Hamilton hit another homer, his fourth of the series (Yep, the ribs are definitely OK!) and then Nelson Cruz hit his 4th, also off Sergio Mitre. That made it 10-3, and that's where the score stayed as the Yankees couldn't capitalize on Brett Gardner's leadoff single in the ninth.

They're down three games to one in the ALCS now, which, while not impossible, is a pretty unlikely position from which to mount a comeback. In the 75 times in MLB history a team has been down 3-1 in a seven game series, only 10 teams have come back to win, but that's still less than a 15% chance.

Most fans will look no further than the "L" next to Burnett's name in the box score and the five runs he gave up and assume that Burnett had yet another terrible outing, but really he was perhaps one mistake away from escaping with a 1-run lead and six innings of effective work. Most of us would love to make only one mistake for every 97 things we try in our lives, but Burnett may have run himself out of town with his.

But Boone Logan failed to do his job for the second night in a row. Mitre gave up three runs on two homers in only one inning. Yankee hitters left 18 men on base. There was plenty of blame to go around last night, so let's not turn Burnett into the goat simply because it's easy and convenient and we need a put a face on our frustration.

In any case, even if CC Sabathia pitches well tonight, the Yankee bats need to manage more than two runs against CJ Wilson. Also, both teams might want to invest in some pitchers with actual names, instead of just initials. I'm just sayin'.

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19 October 2010

Yankees Squander Best Chance at Beating Rangers

The Rangers' Cliff Lee was masterful yet again last night in New York, striking out 13 Yankees in eight innings without allowing a run as he helped push Texas ahead, two games to one in the American League Championship Series. For their part, the Yankees squandered their best pitching performance of the ALCS to date, letting Andy Pettitte's seven inning, two-run effort go to waste as they not only failed to score a run, but also watched in horror as the bullpen imploded to let six more runs score in the top of the ninth, putting the game out of reach.

For the Yankees, whose starting pitching as they entered the post season had consisted of a Cy Young candidate followed by a bunch of question marks, the loss had to be particularly disappointing. Pettitte turned one of those question marks into an exclamation point with a seven-inning, two-run performance against the Twins in the Division Series, then repeated the feat last night against Texas in wasted effort.

In fact, Pettitte really only made one mistake all night, the home run he allowed to Josh Hamilton, which came on a 3-2 cutter that he left out over the plate. Hamilton's famously injured ribs have kept him from being particularly effective against good fastballs, but he's been able to catch up with off-speed pitches, especially when they've been left out over the plate, as he did with CC Sabathia's slurve on Friday night, and as he reminded us last night.

Pettitte could have won this game, perhaps should have won it. He's the most experienced post-season pitcher in major league history, with more Wins, more starts and more innings than anyone who's ever lived, and those all by large margins. Nineteen times in his career he'd allowed three runs or fewer in a postseason start with New York, and the Yankees had gone 16-3 in those games. In two of those three losses they scored no runs at all, and of course last night makes their record 16-4 in such contests.

If they could simply have gotten to Cliff Lee, or, barring that, tired him out soon enough to get him out of the game and take a few shots at the Rangers' bullpen, they might have won it. Heck, the man was ready to come back out for the ninth when he'd already thrown 122 pitches. They might have seen him tire in the ninth, or at least gotten his pitch count up to 135 or so before their night was over, perhaps preventing him from being quite so effective in a Game Seven scenario.

But alas, they could do neither. The so-called "plan" for facing Cliff Lee is to either to be aggressive and swing at the first pitch - because he throws a lot of strikes - or to be patient and wait for your pitch, because he also throws a lot of pitches that look like strikes, but aren't. Which is to say that there is no effective plan, or somebody would have already made a fortune by selling it to the Yankees.

Your best chance is to be patient and hope he screws up, because in any given game of 100 pitches or more, he might only make five or six pitches that are eminently hittable. And even these are likely to follow such a baffling series of wholly unhittable pitches that you simply watch them sail past into the catcher's mitt and then walk dejectedly back to the dugout before the umpire even has a chance to yell, "STRIKE THREE!" (This happened four times last night, by the way.)

The real problem wasn't Andy Pettitte or (obviously) Kerry Wood, who continued to do his job very well in retiring the side in the 8th inning. It wasn't even the Yankee hitters, who managed only three baserunners the entire night, and only got one of them past first base. The problem was that Girardi missed an opportunity with his bullpen in the ninth inning.

No, I'm not talking about the manager's refusal to use his closer in a tight game in the ninth inning. I think with two more games in the next two days and a bullpen full of generally effective, well-rested relievers, using Boone Logan and David Robertson is exactly what Girardi should have done. It's just not the way I would have done it.

Logan was exactly the right choice - the only choice, really - to face Josh Hamilton leading off the ninth inning. He's the Yankees' only lefty reliever, and he held lefties to a .190 batting average with only one extra base hit all season. In his career in the major leagues, lefties have hit only .248, while righties have hit .325, so there was no question that this was the man for that particular job.

Granted, he didn't actually get that job done, but still, they had no better options, really, once you took Mariano Rivera off the table. And I'm not entirely certain that it was Logan's fault either. He threw a 95 mph fastball to the outer edge of the plate and Hamilton did all he could with it, i.e. slap it to left field. But Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson were inexplicably late getting to the ball, which scooted past both of them, all the way to the and Hamilton went to second easily.

Logan's night was over. Girardi then brought in David Robertson to face the right handed hitters coming up: Vlad Guererro, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, etc. A seemingly good move, in that Robertson strikes a lot of batters out and gets a lot of outs on pop-ups, which should theoretically keep Hamilton from going any further, right? Except that Guererro is all but impossible to fan, so he singled a 1-2 curveball, which was actually an excellent pitch, below the strikezone, into left field, moving Hamilton to third. Julio Borbon ran for Vlad the GImpaler (I just made that up!), giving the Rangers a little more speed on the basepaths.

So now the Yankees have to deal with runners on first and third with nobody out, and they're down by two runs. Not a good situation, but not impossible. The Rangers' best hitters have already batted and their opponent in the ninth inning will be either a potentially tiring Cliff Lee or someone from the Texas bullpen, a bullpen that has recently shown some weaknesses. Do you give up the run on third base in order to try to get a double play? Or do you try to cut down the run at home?

Girardi went for the latter option, bringing the infield in to try to keep the two-run deficit where it was, but in doing so, he squandered an opportunity to go to the ninth inning down only three runs instead of, you know, eight. Robertson - who is a fairly extreme fly ball/strikeout pitcher - went against his character by inducing a ground ball off the bat of Nelson Cruz. Unfortunately, it skipped past the drawn-in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez into left field, plating another run.


Then, inexplicably, Girardi kept the infield in again. Ian Kinsler has some speed, but he was also doubled up 11 times in the regular season, so it might have been possible to turn two. Regardless, Robertson reverted to form, inducing a strikeout with a curveball in the dirt, but Cruz advanced to second on the wild pitch, giving the Rangers an open base. Pinch-hitter David Murphy was intentionally walked to load the bases, and finally Girardi realized the futility of pulling the infield in, just a bit too late.

Bengie Molina, who is so large that the Giants had to trade him away (he and Pandoval were making their making the field tilt when they both played), should be an easy guy to double up, given how he'll swing at just about anything and can't run at all. But alas, yet another grounder snuck between Jeter and A-Rod, playing close to the third base line to prevent a double, I think, which plated another run.


It wasn't Robertson's fault. He delivered another good curveball, which broke below the strikezone, bur Molina got hold of it and it found its way through. Jeter ranked 20th out of 21 qualified MLB shortstops in Range Factor this year, and Rodriguez was 15th out of 19 third basemen, making them, I think, the worst rated left side of the infield combo in the majors, and it showed.

Mitch Moreland then singled to right field, for a change, this time on a fastball from Robertosn that was down and in, again a pretty good pitch, the result of which snuck between Mark Teixeira and the first base line, and plated two more runs.


Robertson then battled shortstop Elvis Andrus, getting the count to 2-2 before leaving a fastball about belt high over the middle of the plate, and was reminded that even guys with "warning track power" can actually hit the ball pretty quickly to the warning track if you leave a meatball out there for them. Andrus' double sailed just over the outstretched glove of right fielder Nick Swisher, plating yet another run, and mercifully endiN. Robertson's night.


Sergio Mitre came in to mop up and needed only five pitches to retire two batters, though even one of those went wild and allowed the eighth run of the night to score.

In the bottom half of the inning, Neftali Feliz retired all three batters he faced, fanning two of them. Why they'd bother using their best reliever in an 8-0 game is beyond my comprehension, but perhaps the 20 pitches he threw last night will make him less effective tonight if they need him.

Obviously, a baseball game is not as cut and dried as one might like. It's an agglomeration of lots of moving parts, many of which are all but unmeasurable. But in the midst of wondering whether the Yankees should have done something different against Cliff Lee, who seems to thrive no matter what you do, or whether they should have burned their closer in a game they were already 92% likely to lose, it's worth wondering whether it was really a good move to bring in the infield three times in a row.

Especially on the left, where the infield defense already has painfully minimal range, you've reduced that even more. And all of this on the off chance of getting a flyball pitcher to not just induce a grounder, but to induce one directly at one of the infielders. And then to do that two more times, after it doesn't work the first time, just seems asinine to me.

Hopefully Girardi won't make such a call tonight. Hopefully AJ Burnett finds the form that helped him win 13 games last year, and 18 the year before that, and The Yankee bats awake again and Girardi has only to worry about how much rest to give his starters as they go into the eight inning with a 13-2 lead, or something like that.

But don't bet on it.

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06 October 2010

NLDS Preview: Cincinnati Reds @ Philadelphia Phillies

The Reds surprised everyone by ending a decade and a half playoff drought - not to mention a failure to place higher than 3rd in their division in this millennium - by winning their division and blowing away the competition in the process.

They flip-flopped with the Cardinals a few times for the division lead, at one point trailing by as many as five games in early May, but they won five of their next six after that, and never found themselves more than a game and a half out of first. They took over first place for good on August 11th and ended up winning by five games.

Their offense is led by MVP candidate Joey Votto's 37 homers and .324 batting average, though really there are few weak spots in the lineup. Four other players hit at least 18 homers, and the two headed catching monster, Ryamon Hernanigandez, hit .298 with 88 RBIs. The only soft spot in the offensive underbelly is shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who hit only .263 with no power or patience, and that's not much of a weak spot. Most teams have two or three players like that. The 2010 Mariners would have sold their souls to Donald Trump for a hitter as good as Cabrera.

The Reds led the Senior Circuit in Runs, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and missed leading the league in OBP by one point to the Braves. They also had the fewest errors in the NL, so you know their defense isn't likely to give any games away.

Good thing, too, because after Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto, the starting pitching is pretty questionable. Edinson Volquez has no shortage of talent, but is a huge question mark after two years of just four wins and a 4.3ish ERA each, due to injuries. He's as likely to surrender five runs in two innings as he is to rack up ten strikeouts in seven shutout frames.

They won't likely feel comfortable throwing Volquez out for Game 4 on three days' rest, given his injury history, so I expect that rookie southpaw (and awesomely-named) Travis Wood will get the ball for that contest. Wood pitched only half a season and went only 5-4 (with a 3.51 ERA) but he's absolute poison to lefties, allowing them a paltry .136 average and two extra base hits in 67 at-bats. I'm sure that Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez are hoping that the series is decided in three games.

Jason Werth and Shane Victorino both provide power and speed, and Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruis both hit around .300, with doubles power and a few walks to boot. Ross Gload, Mike Sweeney, Ben Francisco and Wilson Valdez give them an experienced and capable bench both on offense and defense.

And it may very well be. With Roys Halladay and Oswalt and lefty Cole Hamels likely to start every game of the series, it may not matter. Halladay is practically a lock for the NL Cy Young award, and Oswalt and Hamels both pitched as well as anybody in baseball this season, giving the Phillies the three of the top seven pitchers in the NL in Wins Above Replacement for 2010.

The Phillies were second in the NL in Runs Scored, were 4th in the NL in steals and led the league in SB percentage, with an incredible 84% mark, so you know they won't run themselves out of a scoring opportunity. Their defensive was excellent too, with only a handful more errors than the Reds, good for 4th in the NL.

Neither team has a particularly good or bad bullpen, both ranking around the middle of MLB with ERAs around 4.00. Brad Lidge, the Phillies' closer, has a reputation for choking, but that may just be because I live near Philadelphia and hear their fans whining about him a lot. He only blew five Saves this year, compared to eight for Francisco Cordero, and his ERA is almost an entire run lower. I'll take him over 'Cicso any day.

The rest of the Phillies bullpen consists mostly of seasoned veterans who have been to this thing before, and won't be rattled by the bright lights in the playoffs. LAIM Joe Blanton figures as the long man out of the bullpen - the one they don't expect to need. Cincinnati has a lot of youngsters out in the 'pen - Bill Bray, Homer Bailey, Logan Ondrusek, Nick Masset and of course Aroldis Chapman - though Arthur Rhodes should be able to help calm the seas.

If the Phillies have a weakness to exploit, it's that they do not hit well against so-called "power" pitchers, with only a .219 batting average and 19 homers in more than 1100 plate appearances against pitchers who rank in the top third of the league in combined walks and strikeouts, according to Baseball-reference.com. The reds as a team are only in the middle of the pack in that regard, but some of their key pitchers -Volquez, Cueto, Bray, Chapman, Bailey - are power pitchers who need to strike batters out to succeed.

If they can do that, they Reds' stellar offense - apparently not a mirage of what used to be referred to as the Great American Bandbox - may be able to chip away at Halladay, Oswalt or hamels and steal a couple of wins.

But I doubt it. Phillies in three.

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2010 ALDS Preview: Texas Rangers @ Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays locked up home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs on Sunday, with a win against the Royals, or with the Yankees' loss earlier in the day, depending on how you want to look at it. They're going to need it, too, because this Rangers team is no slouch. They were 4th in the AL in run scoring, though they got a little help from their ballpark.

Josh Hamilton leads the team in most offensive categories, capping his Cinderella story by winning a batting title and returning from a rib injury in time for the playoffs. Vladimir Guerrero bounced back from an off season in 2009 to post a traditional line of .300/29/115, though that belies the somewhat pedestrian .278 with 9 homers he hit after the All-Star Break. Mike Young and Nelson Cruz each hit over 20 homers, but the lineup gets pretty power-starved after that, as nobody but David Murphy has more than nine.

Murphy only hit 12, and only did that because he got a lot of playing time when Cruz and Hamilton were missing half a season's worth of games between them . Ian Kinsler's not a bad hitter, getting on base at a .382 clip, but both his extra base hits and his steals were essentially cut in half compared to last year. Center fielder Julio Borbon and shortstop Elvis Andrus are both defense-first singles hitters. Andrus may be slick with the glove, but his .301 slugging percentage would be dead last among the 149 players who qualified for a batting title this year if it weren't for the fact that Caesar Izturis is still employed.

The Rangers' catching corps (Matt Treanor and Bengie Molina) are singles hitters who don't even hit singles anymore, ranking third from the bottom among MLB catchers in OPS. The Rangers struggled all season to field a decent first baseman, as their composite OPS ranks 4th from the bottom, though Mitch Moreland's .833 OPS would rank 12th, which isn't horrible.

Overall they manage to score runs on the strength of their team batting average, which led the majors, and their speed, as they have five different players with double digit steals. Andrus also got caught 15 times to go with his 32 steals, so he does as much harm as good in that regard, but their opponents certainly can't forget about the stolen base.

And for once their pitching was actually really solid too.

For all the hoopla over Philadelphia's Big 3 Starters, the Rangers' trio of Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson and Cliff Lee was excellent as well and is unmatched in the Junior Circuit. They combined for 39 Wins (including Lee's efforts in Seattle), a 3.41 ERA, 551 strikeouts and only 173 walks in 617 innings. And unlike Philly, the Rangers' #4 starter is actually pretty good. Tommy Hunter went 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA overall including 7-0 with a 3.06 ERA at home. they'll throw him in Game 4 in Arlington, playing to his strength.

The Bullpen is great, too, led by flamethrower Neftali Feliz and his 40 Saves, and with a composite 3.38 ERA that was second in the American league. If the starters falter, the bullpen should be able to keep them in the game long enough for Hamilton, Young or Cruz to do something special.

The trouble for Texas is that almost everything they're good at, Tampa is even better.

The Rangers' bullpen ERA of 3.38 is secondin the AL...to Tampa's 3.33. Their 46 Saves are second to Tampa's 51. Texas has four starting pitchers who won at least a dozen games (including Lee's work in Seattle)...but Tampa has five. Their pitchers struck out more batters than all but three teams in the AL...but one of them was Tampa. The Texas offense was 4th in Runs Scored...but Tampa was 3rd. The Rangers stole 123 bases, at a success rate of 71%, more than any other playoff team...except Tampa, who stole 172 bases at a 79% clip.

The Rays' starting pitching, while not exactly a weakness in the playoffs, is kind of an unusable strength. They don't need five starters, and maybe don't even need four, depending on how things shake out, so Jeff Niemann will likely waste away in the bullpen unless they're in a blow-out. The Atlanta Braves of the mid 1990s had similar experiences, winning only one championship despite 14 trips to the playoffs, largely because they didn't need the 5th starter that had helped them pad their regular season records.

Their offense reminds me of the so-called "Hitless Wonders", the White Sox who beat the heavily favored Cubs in the 1906 World Series despite a team batting average of .230 that was last in the AL. The Rays hit .247 as a team, 4th worst in baseball, but scored the 3rd most runs on the strength of their patience and speed, as they ranked first in both walks and steals, and hit some home runs.

Unfortunately for Tampa, Evan Longoria had a quadriceps injury that sidelined him for most of the last two weeks of the season, and nobody really knows how well he's going to bounce back. If he's not 100%, or if he re-injures the leg, the Rays will have a hard time producing enough to keep up with Texas.

If there's a ray (rimshot!) of hope for the Rangers, it's that the team they're running out there today is not exactly the one that lost four of six games to Tampa in the regular season. They averaged more than five runs per game in those six contests, but their pitchers allowed almost seven runs per contest.

Fortunately for Texas, two of those four losses were suffered by Rich Harden and Derek Holland, who don't figure largely into the Rangers' playoff plans. In fact, 18 of the 40 runs they allowed to Tampa in the regular season were surrendered by pitchers who either aren't on the post season roster (Chris Ray, Frank Francisco, Pedro Strop, Rich Harden) or who now have greatly reduced roles (Holland). Unfortunately for Texas, Lee and Wilson did not pitch well even in the two games they won, so hopefully those uncharacteristic performances won't be repeated.

The key for the Rangers will be to keep the Rays off the basepaths, which won't be easy, given how patient the rays are and the fact that the Rangers walked the 7th most batters in MLB. The Rays may not be able to hit their way to a win in this series, but they could potentially walk - and run - to victory.

My prediction is that the Rays will win it in four, unless Longoria is injured or doesn't hit.

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02 September 2010

Florida Marlins Can Blame Themselves for the Nyjer Morgan Mess

Well, I suppose you have to do something to liven things up when the two teams playing are a combined 32 games out of first place in their own division, with only a month left to the season. This goes double when the game is already a blowout in the 6th inning.

The Marlins and Nationals apparently decided to liven things up, ironically, by trying to kill each other.

Well, it was a little more complicated than that.

In the top of the 6th inning of a 15-5 drubbing, Nationals' centerfielder Nyjer Morgan evidently took umbrage at the fact that the Marlins were throwing at him, and charged the mound. What Morgan (generously listed at "six feet" tall and 175 lbs) thought he was going to do to Chris Volstad (6'8", 230 lbs) is beyond my comprehension.

For his part, Volstad seemed singularly unimpressed as Morgan charged at him, throwing his glove down in arrogance and dodging Morgan's only real punch, that jumping left hook he learned from watching too many action movies.

It didn't work.

And, I would guess that among the things going through Morgan's mind as he ran out to the mound, he probably didn't imagine being flattened by a man named "Gaby".

Marlins firstbaseman Gaby Sanchez, not much taller but about 50 pounds heavier than Morgan, clothes-lined him and brought him to the ground, whereupon everyone else joined in the scrum. It took 10 or 15 minutes for the figurative dust to settle and when it did, both Volstad and Morgan had been ejected, of course.

Additionally, Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez was ejected, presumably for complicity in, if not actually ordering the plunking, as was relief pitcher Jose Veras. His only crime, as far as I can tell, was the fact that he happened to be standing next to one of the umpires when they were looking for another scapegoat.

During the course of the brawl, various players, coaches and even (I think) the Nationals' bullpen catcher had gotten into the mix. Nationals coach Pat Listach was clobbering Volstad at the bottom of the melee, and others can clearly be seen throwing hard punches on the video replay, but nobody else was ousted.

In most of the highlight reels, Morgan ends up looking like the bad guy, and with good reason:

Namely, that he makes himself look like a bad guy. I mean, not like a Hitler-type of bad guy, more the professional wrestler type of bad guy. A guy who shoots off his mouth and tries to back his words up with action and even when he's more or less defeated, feels the need to save face by, well, yelling more. A guy who seemingly walks around all the time as though he's still hitting the .351 he smacked for the Nats last year, rather than the .257 mark he's posted this year.

The truth, however, is rarely that simple.

The problem did not start in the top of the 6th on Wednesday night. It didn't even start Wednesday, but rather Tuesday night, in a scoreless tie in the top of the 10th inning. Running full speed, Morgan bowled over Marlins' catcher Brett Hayes, trying to score from second base on a fielder's choice grounder to shortstop Hanley Ramirez. The result was a separated shoulder for Hayes and probably the end of his season.

Morgan went back to touch the plate, just in case, but Hayes had held onto the ball, and he was out. Morgan reportedly didn't say anything to Hayes either then or after the game, and evidently the Marlins didn't appreciate that. I guess they think that an opposing player ought to apologize for trying to win the game any way he can, even though it was essentially a clean play that just ended badly for their guy.

What they should have taken exception to, if anything, was Hanley Ramirez' slow reaction and lazy throw to home plate, which clocked only 69 miles per hour (see below). The speed in the graphic on this screen capture is not the speed of the pitch, which was an 82 mph slider, but rather the speed of the throw from second base, which happened to cross the path of the radar gun.

Ramirez has a major league shortstop's arm, and is certainly capable of throwing a baseball at 90 mph, perhaps more. But this lobbed throw forced Hayes to catch it as Morgan came barreling towards him, giving him no time to set himself for the collision. A 90 mph throw would have given him an extra 0.2 seconds to set himself, which is longer than it sounds like, and might have helped him to stave off injury.

For that matter, if Ramirez had been paying closer attention to Morgan, he might have seen him running full steam sooner and therefore given Hayes enough time to avoid the collision all together. If the Marlins are looking to blame someone for Hayes' injury, they need look no further than their own All-Star shortstop.

Morgan, for his part, was just playing heads-up baseball - risking injury to himself as well, it should be noted - trying to win a scoreless, extra-inning game for his team. His effort to hit the catcher hard enough to dislodge the ball is no more or less than thousands of players have done in thousands of baseball games over the last century and a half of professional baseball. That the Marlins didn't appreciate the outcome - and they did eventually win the game, after all - is their problem.

But they didn't see it that way. With the score 14-3 Marlins, with one out in the top of the 4th inning the next night, Morgan came to bat and the Fish saw their opportunity. Volstad hit him with a 92 mph fastball and then stared Morgan down, waiting for a reaction. Nyjer didn't give him the satisfaction though, turning away from the pitcher, briefly rubbing his highly-padded elbow and scampering down to first base.

But the Marlins made a bad gamble, doing for Morgan the one thing he's largely been unable to do for himself this year: They put him on base. While Morgan is not a terribly effective base stealer, on a pace to lead the NL in times caught stealing for the second time in his career, he also had 30 successful steals so far this year, so he's nothing if not fast.

Plus, he's got a chip on his shoulder and a reason to show them up now, so he stole second base, and then stole third three pitches later. That gave him all the opportunity he needed to score a run when Marlins' secondbaseman Donnie Murphy stumbled and sustained an injury catching a pop-up. They really showed him, huh?

So the Marlins, feeling that the "lesson" had not yet sunk into Morgan's head, decided to try to sink a baseball into it instead. But Volstad missed this time, throwing behind him and eliciting the Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon response you've probably already seen a dozen times on SportsCenter.

Obviously warnings were given to both benches after the fracas, so when Gaby Sanchez got plunked an inning later both Washington pitcher Doug Slaten and manager Jim Riggleman were ejected. Everyone else was allowed to finish their regularly scheduled program, in the form of a 16-10 trouncing that was frankly an embarrassment for both franchises.

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26 August 2010

Yankees, Cashman Lying About Not Wanting Kuroda

The Yankees have fallen into a tie for first place in the AL East with the Tampa Bay Rays, and were fortunate enough to maintain that tie last night, despite a 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays, when the Rays were rolled by the Angels, 12-3. Both teams enjoy a comfortable, five and a half game lead on the Red Sox, who have been so decimated by injuries this season that they now get a special group rate at Mass General.

They're going to need that cushion, too, because 29 of the team's remaining 35 games will come against teams with winning records. Four of those are against the Oakland A's, whose record is just barely in the black at 63-62, and the six other games are against Baltimore, easily the worst team in the American League. They're already 10-2 against Baltimore and 5-1 against Oakland, so presumably they should win at least seven of those 10 games.

But the rest of the Yankees' remaining schedule is brutal. It includes:

  • Six more games against Toronto, who lead the major leagues in homers by a comfortable margin, and who also have some talented - if inconsistent - young pitchers.
  • Three games at Chicago, where the White Sox are 36-25
  • Three games at Texas, where the Rangers are 42-22(!)
  • Seven games against the Rays, tied with the Yankees for the best record in baseball, and
  • Six games against the Red Sox, including three at Fenway Park to close the season.
It's perhaps also worth noting that the only AL teams who have winning records against the Yankees this year are the Rays (6-5) and the Jays (7-5).

In light of all of this, it is even more surprising to me that the Yankees' general manager, Brian Cashman, would have no apparent interest in bolstering the team's starting pitching for the stretch. Reports yesterday indicated that the Yankees had no interest in Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers' right hander who was supposedly being put on waivers.

Given how inconsistent A.J. Burnett has been, and how poorly Javier Vazquez has done of late after a stretch in which he looked pretty darn good, and the fact that Andy Pettitte is still hurt, how can the Yankees justify NOT looking for help?

But Cashman's assertion is that,
"What we got is what we're going with. I anticipate we are going to use the alternatives we have here."

According to Wallace Matthews of ESPN,
"That means youngster Ivan Nova, journeyman* Dustin Moseley and, hopefully, a return to form by Andy Pettitte, out since July 18 with a groin strain."

*Since when does pitching for two major league teams qualify someone as a "journeyman"?

Nova is 23 and has an impressive, 12-3, 2.86 record at AAA Scranton this year, an dthe peripherals to back that up. He may be in the franchise's long range plans, but it would surprise me if the Yankees really wanted to lean on a rookie like that.

This is a team that historically has not been gun-shy about shoring itself up for the stretch drive - and indeed was thisclose to acquiring Cliff Lee about six weeks ago, at a time when Pettitte was still healthy and Vazquez was pitching well - so I find it hard to believe that they wouldn't want Kuroda or someone like him.

But then Cashman starts to really lay it on thick: "I haven't thought about him. I don't even know if he's on waivers yet. Besides, I'd be hard-pressed to find a pitcher on the waiver wire who can pitch better for us than Dustin Moseley has."

Really, Brian? A guy with a 4.53 ERA who's got a K/W ratio of 18/23 in 46 innings? That's, well, I'll just say it: mediocre. You can't imagine that there's someone better than that out there? Ted Lilly cleared waivers. So did Kerry Wood - for whom you actually traded - Jake Westbrook, Randy Flores, Kyle Farnsworth and Octavio Dotel.

As for Moseley, despite his 4-2 record (and the fact that he's won both a major and a minor league game I attended this year) he's really nothing special. He's got a 5.22 ERA in his spotty major league career and has been generally unimpressive in the minors, with a 4.97 ERA in 95 starts at AAA.

By comparison, Kuroda is 9-11 with a 3.48 ERA this year, and his ERA is no mirage of Dodger Stadium either, as his career road and home ERAs are nearly identical (3.67 vs. 3.69). So the man can pitch. And this year at least, he's managed to stay in the rotation all year.

He's 35 years old and will be a free agent at the end of the year, after making another $2.7 million from someone this year, but that's pocket change for the Yankees. He would obviously be an upgrade on Nova or Moseley and would provide some insurance in case Pettitte doesn't fully heal or Vazquez doesn't find his form again.

Incidentally, keeping Vazquez in the bullpen might be the best thing for everyone involved. He's allowed a .219 composite batting average on his first 50 pitches in games this year, but the opposition has hit .325(!) off him on pitches #51-75.

In any case, methinks that Cashman doth protest too much. He could obviously use the help that Kuroda would offer, now more than ever with Alex Rodriguez nursing a gimpy leg, and would gladly part with three million dollars of the SteinBrothers' money to get him, not to mention a few marginal prospects.

But of course since the Yankees have the best record in baseball, every other team (except perhaps the Rays, given that they're tied) would get a chance to claim the Japanese righty before the Bronx Bombers would ever get their chance.

The Red Sox in particular could probably use him, especially if Josh Beckett doesn't straighten himself out or if Dice-K's back flares up again. So, if there's any hint that the Yankees want him, Kuroda would never clear waivers. Cashman's doing his best to play that possibility down, but I for one am not buying it.

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16 August 2010

Yankees-Rangers Two Game Series Review

Boy, was that a lot of fun! Who says a two-game series isn't worth the effort?

One night after losing in unlikely and dramatic fashion to the Texas Rangers, the New York Yankees won a game in even more dramatic, if not precisely unusual fashion. Coming back from a 5-run deficit, the Yankees managed to beat one of their their likely postseason foes by a score of 7-6 in Arlington, on a night that still reached well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by the time the game ended, around 11PM Central time.

I say that the 4-3 loss was unusual not because the "L" went on Mariano Rivera's record. He's got 54 losses now in his career, an average of about four per season. These things happen. I say it was unusual because nothing worked for Mariano that night, and that is rare. It had been almost 40 months since Mariano Rivera had faced four or more batters in a single outing without getting more than one of them out. And at that time, the event had people calling for his resignation, wondering whether he was washed up.

This was not such an occasion. With the Yankees and Rangers tied, 3-3, Joe Girardi brought in his best reliever to assure that his team had its best chance of staying in the game, rather than holding him back for a save situation that may never arise, and he deserves credit for that. Too few managers take such an approach, and pay for it with losses.

As it happens, Joe paid for his good decision with a decidedly bad outcome, but you can't blame him, really, and while you can technically blame Rivera, he was a lot closer than the boxscore would suggest to escaping that 10th inning unscathed. Rivera induced a grounder to shortstop, but it was a hard grounder to deep short, and even Derek Jeter's legendary cannon arm could not nail Michael Young at first base.

That brought league leading hitter Josh Hamilton to the plate. Rivera induced another infield grounder, but this too was hit rather hard and eluded both firstbaseman Lance Berkman and Young, the runner, and ended up in right field. Vlad Guerrero dutifully grounded out to third base for the only out Rivera would record, the runners ending up on second and third with one out.

That meant that they could walk Nelson Cruz - hitting .315 overall, .347 at home and .374 with runners in scoring position - to pitch to David Murphy, hitting just .271 overall, .281 at home and .235 with RISP. Seemed like the safer bet, even with the bases now loaded and only one out. The trouble was that they would have needed a double play to get out of the inning, and you couldn't really count on that.

So they brought the infield in, to cut down the runner at home. Perhaps it wasn't a great bet, but they had to try it, right? Though it seems to me I've seen this tactic employed successfully against the Yankees somewhere before...

No matter. Anyway, the problem was that all Murphy had to do was fist a ball over the infielders' heads and the game was over.

And so it was.

A couple of hard hit grounders, an intentional walk, a bloop single, and that was the ballgame. A great deal of fun to watch, even in a loss, as it was really a nail-biter all the way.

But Wednesday night's game, the 7-6 win for New York, was even more fun, and not just because my team won it. To begin with, the Yankees started Javier Vazquez against the Rangers' Cliff Lee, who would have supplanted Javy in the rotation if they'd been able to complete the trade everyone was expecting about a month ago. I had recently opined that Lee would have been an improvement on Vazquez, but not a sufficiently large one to justify all the talent they would have had to surrender, so for me this matchup was particularly compelling.

Granted, Vazquez has complained of a "dead arm" of late, and was not exactly stellar in this outing. He started by surrendering perhaps the cheapest home run in history - a bloop fly off righty hitting Michael Young's bat that just skimmed the right side of the right field foul pole, about six feet above the wall - to put the Rangers up, 1-0.

Lee had allowed a leadoff single to Derek Jeter, then retired 10 straight, including four strikeouts, before a Marcus Thames single and an Alex Rodriguez double evened the score at one run apiece. It stayed like that until the fourth, when Vazquez allowed a leadoff double to Josh Hamilton, got two outs, but then intentionally walked David Murphy and unintentionally walked Bengie Molina, who only draws an unintentional walk about once every five games, on average, so maybe that should have been a sign that Vazquez was losing his touch. In any case, rookie Mitch Moreland singled home two runs, and the Yankees were down, 3-1, though Vazquez got out of the 4th without further damage to his ERA or the Yankees' chances for victory.

Lee kept the Yankee bats at bay in the top of the fifth, bring his total tally to seven strikeouts in five innings, but in the bottom of the fifth, things really went to pot for Vazquez. He allowed solid singles to Elvis Andrus and Michael Young, and a double to Hamilton that plated Andrus, making it 4-1. He did finally record a couple of ground balls, but the second of these resulted in a botched rundown of Mike Young at third base.

That's right: Somehow Jorge Posada, Jeter and A-Rod - with a combined six Gold Glove Awards, three MVP awards and 16 more top-10 finishes in the voting and 29 All Star Games - could not figure out a way to tag Michael Young before he got back to third base safely, which left the bases loaded for David Murphy. Vazquez allowed a double to Murphy that scored Hamilton and Young, making it 6-1 Texas and ending Javy's night.

Sergio Mitre - who like cod liver oil and iocane powder is best taken in small doses (he has a 2.49 ERA as a reliever, 5.93 as a starter) - came in to relieve and actually did his job. He got Bengie to hit a pop fly to short right field, which Nick Swisher caught on a run and instantly threw to third to try to catch Nelson Cruz trying to get to within 90 feet of home plate.

He didn't make it.

Granted, they were up by five runs and Cliff Lee was pitching about as well as anyone ever has, so maybe it was worth the risk, but of course it turns out that perhaps they could have used an extra run later, and they missed an opportunity.

The game went through waves of being variably exciting, but even when the Yankees went down 6-1 in the fifth inning, it never felt like they were out of it.

In the 6th inning, Jeter led off with a triple, badly played off the right field wall by Cruz, and then scored on a 3-2 wild pitch that Bengie Molina would likely have blocked five years ago, making it 6-2. Lee, evidently feeling that he could rely on nobody but himself, promptly struck out the next three batters on 10 more pitches.

After an uneventful bottom of the 6th for Sergio Mitre, the Yankees came out to bat in the top of the 7th, at which point Lee's dominance of them abandoned him. Robinson Cano turned on an 0-2 pitch for a double, and though Jorge Posada racked up his third whiff of the night, the two newest Yankees, Austin Kearns and Lance Berkman, hit a single and an RBI double, respectively, to make it 6-3.

Then Brett Gardner singled up the middle, plating another run, sending Berkman to third and effectively ending Cliff Lee's night, only the second time all season that Lee has not lasted through the seventh inning. Darren O'Day (oDAYoDAYoDAY...) relieved and though he did allow Gardner to steal second base, he also struck out Jeter. Ancient LOOGy Darren Oliver fanned Nick Swisher (who would strike out four times in a dismal 0-5 performance) to end the threat.

In the bottom of the frame, another new Yankee took the mound, as Kerry Wood pitched against Mike Young and got him to fly out. Josh Hamilton then strode to the plate again - I'm pretty sure he has some kind of special clause in his contract that allows him to bat 4,237 times per game - and rapped a hard single again - not because of his contract, just because he's that good. The man came into the series hitting .355 and actually increased his batting average by two points, no easy feat.

When the aging and increasingly immobile Vlad Guerrero also singled I thought Wood might get yanked soon, but he buckled down and got an inning-ending double play by Nelson Cruz, Jeter-to-Cano-to-Berkman, to end the threat and maintain the 6-4 score.

Leading off the 8th against Frank Francisco, who throws a pretty mean folding chair but evidently doesn't have what you'd call "pinpoint control" with you know, baseballs. Marcus Thames made the most of batting in Mark Teixiera's spot in the lineup by hitting a solo homer to put the game within one run, 6-5.

A-Rod whiffed on a splitter, but then Francisco walked Cano and Posada before having pitching coach Mike Maddux visit the mound, evidently to remind him that he's supposed to be retiring batters. This prompted an inning ending double play by Kearns and gave the Rangers a chance to pad their lead against the Yankees' questionable middle relief corps.

But it was not to be. Kerry Wood pitched a second inning, and though he walked a batter, threw a wild pitch that allowed the runner to advance to scoring position and went to full counts on three of the four batters he faced, nobody actually scored a run, which is the main thing, after all.

That meant that rookie flamethrower Neftali Feliz would face the bottom of the Yankee lineup in the ninth. Feliz can throw close to 100 mph, and has a nasty slider to boot. He's been pretty darn good this year, and in a season with fewer impressive rookies, might have taken away the Rookie of the Year award.

More important, he had just pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees the night before to get the Win, and had done the same in the only other appearance he had against the Yankees, in August of 2009. Moreover, he was still throwing 98 mph when he entered on this night, but alas, not with his usual control.

He walked Lance Berkman, who admittedly walks a lot anyway, but of course does not run worth a damn anymore. Curtis Granderson ran in his stead, and went to second base when Brett Gardner singled to left. That prompted a coaching visit to the mound, perhaps to get Feliz to settle down, to remind him of the success he's had against the Yankees in the past, or perhaps just to get his take on whether that blonde in the stands behind third base might be available.

Whatever they talked about, it didn't seem to work, as Feliz quickly went to 2-0 on Derek Jeter. Granderson's speed came in handy when Feliz threw a pitch over the catcher's head, bouncing off the wall behind home plate and back to Bengie Molina, but not in time to nail Curtis at third base. Berkman would have been out by a mile. Jeter then slapped the next offering - one of his textbook, inside-out singles - into right field to score a run and tie the game, sending the fleet footed Gardner to third.

Feliz went to mostly sliders instead of fastballs against Nick Swisher, who couldn't do anything with such a diet and retired on strikes for the fourth time that night. That ended Neftali's night and brought in another rookie fireballer, Alexi Ogando, who quickly worked the count to 0-2 against Marcus Thames with straight heat. But Thames was prepared for the slider, smacking a grounder through the left side to score Jeter and give the Yankees the lead, 7-6. Ogando then struck out Alex Rodriguez on eight pitches but needed only four to sit Robinson Cano back down, and the inning was over.

That meant that Mariano Rivera would get a chance to redeem himself for the previous night's loss. His outing did not begin well, as he allowed Elvis Andrus a leadoff triple to right field. That patrol, thanks to the Granderson substitution, was now manned by Austin Kearns, who had been assigned to left field all night and isn't much of a flycatcher anyway.

Still, he caught Mike Young's fly ball to right, which brought Josh Hamilton to the plate as the go-ahead run and with the tying run only 90 feet away. (See? I told you he comes to the plate a lot!) Rivera went to 2-0 on Hamilton and things started looking bleak, but Josh grounded back to Rivera, who calmly looked Andrus back to third base and then threw to Swisher at first for the second out. Vlad Guerrero then grounded to Rodriguez to end the game and salvage a tie in this brief but action packed series.

Of note:

  • This brings the Yankees 2010 record against the Rangers to 4-1, a good sign for them as they may face Texas at some point in the playoffs, though they've got another three-game series in Arlington in mid-September. Two of the other three losses came against starting pitchers (Rich Harden, who's on the DL, and Scott Feldman) who are no longer starting for the Rangers, so clearly this is not the same Ranger team the Yankees swept at home in mid-April.
  • This was only the second time in Yankee history, as far as I can tell, that they've managed to win a game in which they struck out at least 15 times. The other time was in August of 1997, when they beat the Mariners 10-8 in Seattle while fanning 16 times. Among Yankees, only Jeter, Posada and Rivera remain from that game. A-Rod is the only other player from either side of that game who's still in the majors, though there are a few others from the rosters who are still around.
  • That game also happened to include Mariano's 8th Blown Save of the season, a number he's never duplicated since. At the time, Joe Girardi was catching for the Yankees and Mike Maddux, now the Rangers' pitching coach, was pitching for Seattle. Kerry Wood was walking almost a batter per inning at AAA Iowa, and Andrus and Feliz were both 9-year olds in the Dominican Republic. Darren Oliver was -wait for it - pitching for the Texas Rangers. Some things never change.

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