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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