19 May 2011

Yankees' Jorge Posada Poised for Improvement

The benching heard round the world on Saturday - Jorge Posada's choice to remove himself from the lineup rather than bat 9th - may have been just what he needs to get his terrible season turned around.  The Yankees decided in the offseason that Posada's 39 year old knees and popgun arm were not going to serve them well as a catcher for a team making a run at a 28th world championship.

So they moved him to DH, except that he hasn't been doing much H'ing this year at all.  He was hitting only .165/.272/.349 before Yankees manager Joe Girardi tried dropping him to the bottom of the order against Boston on Saturday night.  Posada apologized for his part in the spat and everybody made nice and what-not, but the real question is whether it's reasonable to expect Posada to markedly improve over the rest of the season.

Part of the answer to that question relates to the $11.1 million Posada will earn this year and what his legacy will be as a player and a Yankee.  But really, money is not a huge problem for the Yankees and we all know that the guy who caught two perfect games and served as the primary backstop for four of the five championship teams since the 1990's is going to have his number 20 retired when he hangs up his spikes, even if he hits a buck fifty this year.  Nobody really gets on Carlton Fisk's case for hitting only .220 in a smattering of action over his last two seasons, right? 

No, the real problem is the one they had last winter.  The Yankees want to win, and just as they knew they couldn't do that with a catcher who was not a threat to ever catch a base stealer, neither can they do so with a DH who gets a hit only about once every three games.  Posada pinch hit a drew a walk the next night in a loss, then went 2-for-3 in a big win against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, and is currently 1-for-3 with a double and two walks against Baltimore as I write this, but that's not the reason I think he might be poised for a turnaround.

Curiously, for a guy who's been such a good hitter for such a long time, Posada's awful start in 2011 is not wholly unprecedented.  Twice before - oddly enough, six years ago, and six years before that - Posada found himself mired in a terrible slump after the first month or so of the season, got benched for a game but came through as a pinch hitter, and then reverted to his usual form for the rest of the year.  Take a look:

Timespan       PA    BA   OBP   SLG  HR  RBI  BB 
thru 5/14/99   87  .176  .299  .311   3   10  12
rest of 1999  349  .260  .350  .421   9   47  41
thru 4/29/05   87  .244  .322  .333   1   10   9
rest of 2005  458  .265  .356  .449  18   61  56
thru 5/13/11  125  .165  .272  .349   6   15  15
rest of 2011   ?     ?     ?     ?    ?    ?   ?

I am not so naive as to think that this constitutes clear evidence that happy days are here again for Posada and the Yankees, but I am inclined to wonder whether maybe Posada just needed a chance to clear his head, get outside of himself a little or something, and be reminded that he can still play this game.  A man who thinks of himself as a champion and finds his batting average starting with a "1" in the middle of May has got to have a lot of stress, you know?

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05 May 2011

How Are the Yankees Doing It??

As I write this, the Yankees are beating the Tigers in Detroit, 2-1 in the 5th inning.  A.J. Burnett has continued to pitch well this year, and this game is something of a microcosm of his season.  He's somehow managed to surrender a run without giving up a hit, or - and this is the real surprise in Burnett's case - a walk.  (EDIT: There goes the no-no: Single to right by Ramon Santiago to start the 6th.) If they manage to win this game they'll rise to 18-11, tops in the AL East and 2nd only to the upstart Cleveland Indians in the American League overall.

But how are they doing it?  How is this team, without Andy Pettitte, with three terrible outings from Phil Hughes and now possibly two months without their #3 starter at all, with four of its starting nine hitters flirting with the Mendoza line for most of the season, still managing to win?

Well, the short and obvious answer is that everyone else is overcompensating.  Pettitte and Hughes may be non-factors, but Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, picked up on the cheap in the off-season as insurance policies, have delivered handsomely, combining for a modest 3-3 record but for a 2.95 ERA in 58 total innings, which means that they've essentially provided the team with an opportunity to win almost every time they've taken the ball.  Nobody expected that either of these guys could be this good, much less both of them.

Additionally, Burnett has been quite good, posting a 4-1 record and a 3.93 ERA.  That's largely due to lowering both his walk and hit rates by about one from what they were last year, without losing any strikeouts or increasing his homers allowed.  This may not be wholly sustainable, since FanGraphs says that Burnett's getting a lot more swings at pitches outside the strike zone than he ever has in the past, but the real Burnett isn't necessarily far below this one.  (EDIT: On the other hand, Burnett gave up a run in the 6th and currently has the bases loaded with nobody out in the 7th, so maybe I wrote too soon...)

The hitters have been the really bizarre part of the Yankees' success this far in 2011.  Though Derek Jeter is hitting only .250 with no power and no steals, Nick Swisher is hitting .223 with only one homer, and the speedy, plucky Brett Gardner is hitting just .213 with four times caught stealing in eight attempts, somehow the Yankees are still near the league leaders in runs scored.  This is because they lead the league in homers by a healthy margin over the Texas Rangers, 46-38.  Jorge Posada's bat has been feast or famine all year, with an average of just .161, but also six home runs.

Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson are all hitting about .250 to .260, but all have slugging percentages above .500, and Robinson Cano leads the team in the Triple Crown stats, despite having only three walks in 27 games.  New catcher Russell Martin, after hitting a combined .249/.350/.330 and smacking only 12 homers in his last two years (240 games) with the Dodgers, has already hit six of them in just 25 games with the Yankees.  Even the bench (Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Eduardo Nunez, mostly) has combined to hit a respectable .276/.343/.395, getting a few key hits here and there to spark a rally or win a game. 

The bullpen has been another key to the success, amassing an MLB-leading 12 Saves to go with a 3.26 ERA, which is only about the middle of the AL pack.  Fortunately the starters have lasted long enough that they're also only about the middle of the pack in innings pitched, which hopefully means the relievers won't get burnt out by the end of the year.

But the real question is whether or not the Yankees can sustain this, and I'm not sure they can.  I know Burnett is capable of pitching this well (EDIT: Maybe not: he allowed three more runs in the 7th - one earned - before finally escaping the inning.) and that CC Sabathia is every bit capable of finishing the season with something like his current 2.68 ERA.  I can see Garcia and Colon being useful, if not quite this good for most of the year, and I can see rookie starter Ivan Nova racking up 10-12 wins and an ERA of about 4.50, but I'm not sure I can see all of them happening at the same time.

Similarly, while I don't think the Yankees will finish the year with four starters hitting .250 or worse, neither do I think they will finish the season with five starters slugging .500 or better.  While the Yankees are first in homers, they're 4th from the bottom in doubles, which means perhaps that some of those homers are due to stay in the park and that therefore some of those runs will have to wait for another hit if they expect to score.

With Derek Jeter ineffective (and now perhaps injured) and without any real help from Gardner or Swisher, the Yankees are going to have a hard time remaining competitive, much less keeping its hold on the AL East.  And if Jorge Posada doesn't start going from a designated misser to a real DH (he now hitting .154 after an 0-for-4 day)  there's no way that the rest of the lineup can compensate.

We see these bizarre splits early in the year all the time, and it's really not that unusual for someone like Colon to bounce back or for Posada to just fall apart, but for all of the odd happenings on the Yankees to keep pace all year would be unprecedented.  The Yankees may continue to win, but their MLB playoff odds will drop significantly without some help from the other half of the lineup.

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