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.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

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.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

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.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

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.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

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.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

29 July 2010

Kansas City Royals' Gil Meche Done For Year. Of Course.

Baseball news Wednesday morning included the story that Royals starting pitcher Gil Meche will have surgery on his ailing right shoulder and is likely done for the season. This isn't really "news" in the sense of being surprising or unexpected or even noteworthy. Royals pitchers get hurt and miss the rest of the season all the time, it seems. It would be "news" if it turned out that the moon really was made of green cheese or if France was suddenly invaded by, say, Liechtenstein.

But a Royals starter getting hurt is not news. Indeed, in the last decade, the Royals have had only 13 pitchers make 30 or more starts in a season, and have only once had more than two in the same year. In six of the last ten years, they've had only one, and in 2006, they had none at all.



And that doesn't even consider quality, just quantity. Five of those 13 pitcher-seasons resulted in ERAs well over 5.00, and one of the rare seasons in which the Royals could boast two pitchers healthy enough to make every scheduled start, 2005, those pitchers had two of the four worst ERAs in the major leagues. Zach Greinke (5.90), long before he got his act together, and Jose Lima (6.99) long after his fell apart.



This year, astonishingly even without Meche, they're on a pace to have three pitchers with at least 30 starts apiece. But, as in 2005, two of those three - Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies - will be among the worst pitchers in the major leagues.

Bannister is an interesting guy, smart and eloquent and open minded, but for all of his respect for and understanding of sabermetrics, he can't seem to put any of them to good use. He's 29 now, has exactly one season in the majors with any characteristics you could call "good", and sports a 5.82 ERA that currently ranks 104th out of 107 qualified MLB starters. Getting 30 starts out of him is not necessarily a blessing, you know?



Davies is still thought of as "young", because he's 26, even though he's been in the majors for parts of six seasons. When you talk to Royals' fans, they're always telling you how he's just shy of putting all his talent together and really having an impressive season. But at this point, it's time to acknowledge that he's amassed over 630 innings of major league service and has a 5.54 career ERA, which is almost exactly what he's doing this year. Again, 30+ starts of such dubious quality will kill any team's chances, especially one with so little margin for error as the Royals.

But this story was about Meche. The AP story about his surgery included this curious nugget:

"Meche, the first upper-tier free agent the Royals signed, has battled injuries the past two seasons. He has one year left on a five-year, $55 million contract"

I'm not sure where they're getting "upper tier" from. Maybe it's like the old expression "first division", which meant nothing more than that your team finished in the top half of the league. That would be fair, since Meche was certainly better than half the pitchers in baseball at the time. But of course, saying that he was the first "above average" free agent they signed doesn't sound nearly so impressive.

In any case, I don't think that's what the writer intended, as evidenced by the next sentence, referring to the (frankly, ridiculous) contract Meche signed with the Royals in December of 2006. I think the writer means either that Meche actually was one of the best starters in baseball or at least that he was paid like one, which he was. But looking back on that winter, it's hard to say that he was really in the "upper tier" of free agents.

ESPN had him ranked 13th overall in their Free Agent Tracker, but he was just 7th among 15 starting pitchers, decidedly mediocre amongst a pretty weak class. And for that matter, even that ranking seems a little generous in light of some others on the list. Meche had gone 43-36 with a 4.75 ERA in a pitcher's park (adjusted ERA 8% below average) in the previous four seasons with Seattle, including 113 starts and three relief appearances. In one of those four seasons he missed several starts due to some injury or another. In another season he spent about a third of his time at AAA. In none of them did he amass more than 187 innings in the majors.

Even the Elias Sports Bureau, with its flawed and arcane ratings system, did not consider Meche in the "upper tier". He was a Type B Free Agent that year, meaning that he was in the 30th to 50th percentile among starting pitchers in their rankings.

Meanwhile, Jeff Suppan, the consummate LAIM, had gone 57-37 with a 4.01 ERA (109 ERA+), had never made fewer than 31 starts or amassed fewer than 188 innings in any of those same four seasons. ESPN ranked him 27th. He's about three years older, I'll grant you, but for all intents and purposes, was also a notably better pitcher at the time. He ended up with a 4-year, $42 million contract from Milwaukee that was also criticized at the time, and rightly so, but there was little reason at that point to think that Meche would give more value over the next several years than Suppan.



Greg Maddux, much older than both of them at 40, had gone 60-51 with a 4.11 ERA in that span, never making fewer than 33 starts or amassing fewer than 210 innings. He was ranked 26th. Tom Glavine was 20th. Barry Zito, coming off six consecutive years of 34 or 35 starts, 210+ innings and (usually) 15 Wins, including a Cy Young Award, was ranked 15th, two spots lower than Meche(!). Clearly someone at ESPN, probably Keith Law, has some curious ideas about how to do those rankings.

Nevertheless, Meche was paid like an upper tier free agent, his $55,000,000 deal ranking second only to Zito's deal for $126M that winter in total dollars for a starting pitcher, and only Zito and Dice-K got more years. The Meche deal was widely panned at the time, by almost everyone. Meche had some talent, no doubt, but he had a fairly lackluster career to that point, a penchant for injuries, and at 28, was not exactly young anymore, though admittedly neither was he old.

To call his track record "spotty" is to give a bad name to Dalmations. He missed the second half of the Y2K season with a "dead arm", had shoulder surgeries both before and after the 2001 season, and didn't make it back onto a major league pitcher's mound until 2003. When he did, on the merits of simply staying healthy (if not actually good) he won the un-coveted Comeback Player of the year Award.

In 2004 he was still healthy, but even less good, and made only 23 starts in the majors (along with 10 more at AAA). In 2005 he amassed only 143 innings due presumably to various ailments and ineffectiveness. Then in 2006 he (sort of) put things together, tallying a winning record for a team that frequently lost, and setting career highs in innings and strikeouts, all in his walk-year.

That set him up for a big payday, and who better than David Glass and the Royals to provide it? Maybe they were foolish and just got lucky, or maybe General Manager Dayton Moore really knew something that nobody else did. Certainly if the Yankees had any inkling that Gil Meche would be worth 9.4 WAR over the next two seasons, they would gladly have given him $55 million, the second half of the contract be damned. Seriously, that's only nine million more than they paid for the rights to and contract of Kei Igawa, who's been nothing short of a disaster.



What is certain is that by any objective analysis, the Royals had no right to expect much more than what Meche had previously provided: i.e. about 180 innings per year of slightly below average work. What they got instead was, if not spectacular, at least an above average, 210-inning workhorse, for the first two years anyway.

And then the wheels came off.

It's tempting to point to one game - like the complete-game shutout he pitched on June 16th 2009, in which then-manager Trey Hillman left him in to throw a career-high 132 pitches, or the 121-pitch outing he had a couple of weeks later, AFTER he complained of a "dead arm" - but really he was fumbling and stumbling even before that.

He'd allowed more than three runs in a game only 10 times in 34 starts in 2008, but by the end of May 2009, he'd already done it seven times in 11 starts. That included poor outings against the Tigers and Orioles, who would finish 10th and 11th in total runs scored in the 14-team American League, not a good sign at all.

Still, when he threw that 132nd pitch, his record stood at a respectable 4-5 (for a team that was 29-34) with a 3.31 ERA in 84 innings of work. But he pitched in only nine more games last year, amassing an 8.46 ERA in 44 innings, and was done for the season by the end of August. This season he started out on the DL and usually pitched badly when he did, before finally being shut down for the year.

It's worth noting that on the one occasion that he actually pitched well, he was left in for 128 pitches in a losing effort against the Texas Rangers on May 8th. And this, despite the fact that Ned Yost had some relievers available, having only used Kyle Farnsworth the night before, for one inning, and nobody else. So Trey Hillman isn't the only Royals' manager capable to incredible myopia when it comes to pitchers' arms.

Yost is saying all the right things about how the doctors need to "get in there' to see what's really wrong and fix it and that the important thing is having him healthy for 2011. When asked about the surgery, Yost said:

"I imagine it will be some type of cleanup in there with the scope. He still has irritation. It's not getting better. We're probably looking at scoping it somehow and getting him cleaned up and having him ready for next year."

And when asked whether this was the end of Meche's season, Yost said,

"I would imagine so"
Well, it's nice that there are still managers out there with a little imagination, don't you think? What would be even nicer, if you're a Royals' fan, would be if the GM had a little imagination. it would not have taken a ton of the stuff to figure out that they had gotten more than they bargained for out of Meche in the first two years of that contract, that the team was not on the cusp of contention just yet, and that therefore Meche was one of their most marketable commodities.

For example, I am one of the least imaginative people I know, and even I was able to figure this one out:

Now would be a great time to take a chance and trade Meche, who, after two solid years, looks like a consistent, LAIM-plus, but who probably won't be worth the $35 million they still owe him for the next three years. The team should be trading away expensive players who won't likely help them toward a championship, instead of acquiring them. Lots of teams could use a guy like Meche, or what they think Meche will be, and the Royals could probably get a pretty good outfielder in return.


That was written in October of 2008, when the Royals inexplicably traded Leo Nunez, a young, useful, talented and cost-controlled relief pitcher, for Mike Jacobs, an arbitration-eligible DH/1B who hit for occasional power and showed no other discernible skills, unless he makes a mean sandwich or plays jazz guitar or something.

Jacobs predictably hit .238 with 19 homers last year, for which they paid him $3.25 million, and was released after the season. Nunez is currently the Marlins' closer, having saved 50 games with an ERA about 20% better than his leagues over the past year and a half. And has made only $2.4 million combined over that span.

The Royals seem to have a knack for paying extra to lose more. Since 2003, the last time the Royals had a winning record, they've averaged 98 losses per season in every full year, and they're on a 95-loss pace this year, easily the worst total record in the majors in that span. the Pirates have been similarly dismal, but have won 12 more games while losing 15 fewer. The Nationals have won 26 more games and the Orioles have won 27 more, but these four franchises are in a class of their own.

Every other team in the majors has won at least 45% of its games in the last six and a half years. but the Royals have spent $32 million more on salaries than the Nationals have, more than a million dollars for each additional loss. They've spent

A HUNDRED AND TEN MILLION DOLLARS

more than the Pirates, to win 12 fewer games. That's just staggering. Say what you want about how terrible the Pirates have been, and you could go on for a while, I know you could, but at least they know how bad they are and they haven't overspent for the privilege of finishing last every year.

Only the preposterous largess of Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles keeps the Royals from being the worst team in this regard. Baltimore has spent $57 million more than the Royals, though they have won a handful more games, as I mentioned.

It's not that they shouldn't have traded Nunez, it's just that they shouldn't have traded him for Mike Jacobs. This happens to Kansas City a lot. They trade from their strength (young relievers, Carlos Beltran, etc.) but don't manage to get fair value in return. Or they sign the type of guy a team struggling for last place doesn't need, for too much money (Mark Grudzielanek, Jose Guillen, etc.) and then ask too much for him in trade, settle for too little or keep him and get nothing at all.

And it's not that they shouldn't have signed Gil Meche (well, they shouldn't, but that's beside the point), it's that they shouldn't have looked a gift horse in the mouth by keeping him past his expiration date. And now the one bit of luck they've stumbled upon in the last half a decade had slipped from their grasp.

To their credit, they've gotten something for the hot hands that were Alberto Callaspo and Scott Podsednik, and may yet trade Farnsworth, Guillen, or others, but they really botched this Meche thing, lemme tellya.

It's a fine Meche.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

23 July 2010

Lamentations on the 500 Home Run Club

Joe Posnanski ruminates on the impending 600th home run of Alex Rodriguez, likely to be surrendered this weekend by one of Kansas City's many bad, bad pitchers, or perhaps their one good one. Dave Pinto thinks he's making too big a deal about it:

Baseball goes through cycles. There was a high home run cycle in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s been a high home run cycle in the 1990s and 2000s. I suspect there will be another one in the 2030s and 2040s.

This is not precisely true. Baseball has gone through cycles, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we can expect the same going forward. If you're going to suggest that, you need a better reason than, "Well, it's happened before".

I would posit that the McGwire/Bonds/A-Rod generation is different from the influx of 500-clubbers from 1965-71 in a couple of ways. That generation of players (Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Robinson, Killebrew, Matthews, and Banks) was all born between 1931 and 1936. (Personally, I would add McCovey, born in 1938 to that group too, even though he didn't hit his 500th til 1978).

The current group is bracketed by McGwire (1963) and A-Rod (1975), a much wider range.

Oddly enough, only two players from the Baby Boom generation, Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt, made the cut, even though you might expect that the deepening talent pool would have allowed more players with that kind of talent to find their way to the majors. Evidently the efforts by the Powers-That-(ML)Be to restore some balance to the pitchers in the 1960s and 1970's helped the Baby Boom pitchers a great deal more. But I digress.

Anyway, you'll notice that five of those eight players from the 60's and 70's are black, and would therefore not have had the chance to play in the majors 25 years earlier. There was, as we now know, tremendous talent in the Negro Leagues that never got the chance to compile numbers like that, or else Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston or someone else might have joined the club sooner.

That Mays/Mantle/Aaron generation was the first one in which young, black athletes got the chance to play most or all of their careers in the majors, instead of in the Negro Leagues and/or barnstorming. They had access to better medical care, earned more money, and generally had an easier life that made it possible to stay in shape and play into your 40's. That made for a huge influx of talent, more or less all at once, and that group all happened to hit that milestone about the same time because they'd all been playing about the same length of time, and were around the same age.

Offense did kind of go down after that for a while, or really had been going down for a while, since the early 60's, which depressed the numbers who could join the club (only Schmidt and Reggie in the 1980's). But baseball was sort of wallowing, losing market share to the NBA and especially the NFL, embroiled in cocaine scandals, gambling scandals, collusion scandals, and it appears that MLB wanted to get the fans' focus back on the field.

Somehow, MLB seems to have changed the fabrication of the baseball, or something, because around 1993, BABIP numbers took a sudden and irreversible jump up. It wasn't the dilution of pitching talent thanks to expansion, because it had never happened in an expansion year before, and would not happen again in 1998. It wasn't the ballparks because the new ones didn't all open up that year. It wasn't steroids, at least not yet.

The only theory that seems to make any sense is that they started winding the balls tighter, or making them of a different kind of yarn, or cork, or something. And before you ask, no I don;t have any proof.

Not that it matters anyway. if MLB wants to make the balls differently to make the game more offense-oriented, that their prerogative. I'm OK with it. I wish they'd been honest about it, but I sort of understand why they wouldn't.

The more sinister thing - the thing that had numbed us all to the home run total, as Posnanski says, has been the steroids. Of the ten players who have joined the 500-homer club since 1999, seven of them have some taint of the steroid scandal. And would we really be all that surprised if someone told us that Thome, or The Big Hurt or even Junior was also tainted? Probably not.

So of course people don't care. This generation has sapped all the wonder out of the achievement. With the Mays/Mantle generation of 40 years ago, unless you were an outright bigot, you must have felt that there was something right about these men being allowed to compete on the same field, compile similar - and similarly impressive - numbers. That was how it should have been all along.

But this? McGwire and Sosa and Palmiero and A-Rod and the rest, all on steroids or HGH or some cocktail of the two? That's not how it's supposed to be. We may be impressed still, and we may cheer for the guy on our team, but we've got to ladle in a healthy dose of skepticism with that. We just don't know what to believe anymore. Maybe we never will again.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

16 July 2010

How Much Better Would Cliff Lee Have Made the Yankees?

Anyone care to guess the identities of these two mystery pitchers?

           GS  IP   H/9  H   R  BB  SO  HR   ERA  SO/9  HR/9  BB/9  pit/GS
Player A 8 68 8.5 60 18 3 49 8 2.25 6.5 1.1 0.4 107
Player B 8 53 6.6 32 15 16 44 6 2.55 7.5 1.0 2.7 105


In their last eight starts, dating back to the beginning of June, both pitchers have been very good. Player A has been all but impossible to beat, having completed almost every game he's started, and going fewer than eight innings only once, when he went seven. He almost never walks anyone, generally keeps the ball in the yard, strikes batters out...everything you could want in a pitcher.

Player B, while not such a workhorse, has still been very effective. His team has gone 5-3 in those eight games, with him getting the win in four of those five. He strikes batters out just as often as Player A, and is just slightly more parsimonious when it comes to round-trippers. He's got very good control, too, though not the insanely low walk rate that Player A shows.

It's also worth noting that Player A has faced much stiffer competition than Player B. His eight starts have come against teams averaging 4.58 runs per game, while Player B's opponents have averaged only 3.96 runs per game so far in 2010.

Player A's opponents have included five of the six division winners and another team within two games of its division lead. Player B's opponents have included three of the six teams bringing up the rears of their divisions (two starts against one of the bottom-feeders), plus two teams within the bottom three in run-scoring in their leagues. Only one team with a winning record was in that group.

Player A, as you probably know, is Mariners' ace starter and top prize of this year's trading deadline market, Cliff Lee. He's awesome. No doubt about it. He automatically makes the Texas Rangers better, prohibitive favorites to win the AL West. They gave up a lot of talent to get him, but it should be worth it this year, at least.



But Player B, as you probably don't realize, is Javier Vazquez, who would seem to have been the odd man out if the Yankees had dealt for Lee last week, as was so widely rumored. The Yankees have set a limit on Phil Hughes' innings for 2010 -probably around 175.

Andy Pettitte, being 38 years old - and frankly, never this good before - is not likely to win another 11 games in the second half. I still expect him to pitch reasonably well and to be part of the postseason rotation, but of course you've gotta get there first, and the Rays and Sawx aren't exactly going away.

That leaves Pettitte, CC Sabathia and (come playoff time) two huge question marks in the rotation.

1) A.J. Burnett, who's usually fine as long as his starts aren't aired on national television, and

B) Javier Vazquez, aka "Player B".



Of course Vazquez was atrocious in his first month or so of the season, as I mentioned, but he seems to have gotten back whatever it was that deserted him for the first month of the 2010 season, and has been as good as anybody for the last six weeks or so. Well, anybody but Cliff Lee, I suppose.

But how much better would swapping out Vazquez for Lee really have made the Yankees? At their current rates, over the remainder of the season, Lee could be expected to be pitch about 14 more times, around 119 innings at the rate noted above, and allow about 30 earned runs.

Vazquez projects for only 93 innings and about 26 earned runs. That's four runs difference, but in 26 fewer innings, and those of course would fall to the Yankees' bullpen. That bullpen has thus far allowed 103 runs in 224 innings in 2010, so at that rate they'd be expected to allow about 12 runs in 26 innings. So now Lee is better than Javy and the bullpen by a mere eight runs.

Except that in reality, the Lee will not finish nearly every game for the rest of the season. Indeed, pitching away from the cavernous, offense-depressing SafeCo Field, he would presumably give up a couple of runs once in a while and perhaps occasionally need to come out in (gasp!) the sixth inning.

So let's say that Lee throws 20 more innings than Vazquez over the second half instead of 26, still a generous improvement. In those 20 innings, the bullpen will probably allow about nine runs. Subtract from those the four runs that Vazquez "saved" by not pitching as much, and now Lee is worth a meager five runs more than Vazquez, given these assumptions. Given the aforementioned difference in qualities of their opponents we'll be magnanimous and say that Lee is really worth 10 runs.

Additionally, Lee and vazquez have both had unsustainably low batting averages on balls in play in that span. Lee's was .259, while Javy's was .192(!), and therefore clearly likely to bounce back to more normal ~.300ish levels. S, just for the heck of it, let's account for that differenc ewith an additional 10 runs, giving us 20 total.

Are 20 runs over the second half of the 2010 season worth, say, Jesus Montero, Mark Melancon and David Adams, names that were rumored in the deal the Yankees considered? Are 20 runs even worth a journeyman reliever and a bucket of used baseballs? Well, yes, in a close race.

More to the point, you're probably thinking, "It depends on which runs," and you're right. Lee helps a team win both by the innings he pitches and by those he prevents the bullpen from pitching, both by preventing runs from scoring and by allowing the offense to win without the pressure of having to score eight runs every night.

If the runs he saves are those that make a difference in getting the team into the playoffs, then they're worth just about any trade. If he then makes the difference in getting the team to later tiers of the playoffs and even to winning the World Series, then the trade is really worthwhile.

Do you think the Blue Jays and their fans mind that they traded away Jeff Kent to get David Cone in 1992, given that he pitched well down the stretch that year and helped them win their first-ever World Series? I doubt it. I know that Yankee fans would not ultimately have cared much if Marty Janzen or Mike Gordon or Jason Jarvis had become stars.



Those trading chips got the Yankees to the Promised Land in 1996, and helped cement Cone's place in Yankee history, winning four world championships. Nobody would have lamented the loss of prospects, even ones who blossom in another uniform, if it meant a 28th World Series title.

As it is, since the Rangers gave up a lot of prospects - who may not only eventually thrive, but may do so for a division rival - they'll have a lot of 'splainin to do if they miss the playoffs, or get ousted in the first round. For the Yankees and their fans, at least, they can take some solace in the hope that Lee would not have been such an incredible improvement over the man currently holding that spot in the rotation, Javy Vazquez, if all goes well.

If.


Stumble Upon Toolbar

01 July 2010

Catching up with the BA Top 20...

Given that we're nearly half way through the season - and frankly, I'm a little bored - I thought I would check in on some of my comments and predictions on Baseball America's top 20 prospects list. Let's see how I did with #1 through #10 and then next week I'll look at the rest...

#1. Jason Heyward, about whom I had nothing negative to say, won the Braves' right field job with a stellar spring training and, frankly, no real competition from anyone on the roster. He mashed right out of the gate and was continuing to do so when he injured his thumb, which diminishes his Rookie of the Year chances but not his long-term prospects. His 11 homers, 42 walks and 45 RBI currently lead all qualified MLB rookies, and his .821 OPS is second only to Gaby Sanchez.

#2. Stephen Strasburg: I assume you've heard of him. If it's possible, he's been even better than expected, though for what it's worth, Walter Johnson doesn't think much of him.

After going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA in 11 minor league (AA and AAA) starts, he was promoted to Washington where they continued, for one game at least, to allow him to face minor league hitters. He beat the lowly Pirates like a Disney villain beats a wayward step-child, fanning 14 in seven innings and generally embarrassing them all night. He then proceeded to tie a record for strikeouts in his first three and first four career games, before his teammates' lousy defense and inexperience cost him a potential win against Atlanta on Monday night. Seems like he's gonna be OK.

#3. Mike Stanton: I've taken a lot of flak over the years for my criticism of Stanton - based mostly on the fact that players who strike out as often as he does in the minors rarely become successful major leaguers - and for a while there it looked like I was going to have to eat my words.

Stanton - whose full name is a much more interesting Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton - came out of the gate swinging, as he always does, and destroyed AA pitching for about two months. His .313/.442/.729 line gave him the Southern League lead in OBP, Slugging and of course OPS, and his batting average was 8th. Good time for a promotion, right?

Well, yes, but probably, given that he was still striking out about once every three and a half at-bats, you would think they'd want him to get some seasoning in AAA first, wouldn't you? See if he can hit Chris Waters' curveball, or Brandon McCarthy's change-up, or Clay Mortensen's slider or Brian Bruney's fastball or Michael Kirkman's assortment of junk before exposing him to (I kid you not...) Roy Halladay, Neftali Feliz, Jeff Niemann, C.J. Wilson, Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and, in case he wasn't already flabbergasted enough, R.A. Dickey, among others. Heck, Kevin Millwood even fanned him twice, and he sucks.

To date, he's hitting only .217 in the majors, having struck out in 30 of his 69 at-bats. Four of his 15 hits have gone for extra bases, including two homers, but he's clearly overmatched for the moment. let him get his feet wet against competition that's not so far over his head, and he may impress you next year.

#4. Jesus Montero, the biggest prospect in the Yankee system, has not hit quite as well as hoped so far this year. He's still hitting doubles and taking walks at a decent rate, but his batting average is down to about .250, perhaps due to bad luck or perhaps to all the work they're doing to develop his awkward catching mechanics.

He's hit .228 with a .665 OPS as a catcher so far this year, but .311 with a .948 OPS as a DH, so maybe he can't get out of his head when he's catching. He's only caught 20% of base stealers so far this year (18 of 90) but then the rest of the Scranton catching corps is even worse (2 for 24), so maybe he's not so bad and his pitchers just need to learn a slide step or something.

In any case, he hit .284/.324/.505 in June, so maybe he's coming around. I saw him hit a double and a triple at Lehigh Valley a couple of weeks ago, both off the wall, and he looks to me at least like the real thing. Look for him to heat up in the second half as he either gets more comfortable behind the plate or abandons catching all together, and look for him in the Bronx this September.

#5. Brian Matusz leads the AL with nine losses, but this belies the fact that he's actually pitched reasonably well for a rookie in his first long exposure to the majors, and this without any seasoning at AAA at all. Five of those nine losses occurred in Quality Starts, which happens a lot to pitchers on a team like the 2010 Orioles. If he can keep from getting dismayed by his teammates' porous defense and limp offense, he should turn out to be a very solid major league pitcher.

#6. Desmond Jennings was expected - by Baseball America and by me - to reach the majors in mid summer, and nothing he's done in the first half of the season has changed my mind. He's currently hitting .301/.376/.439 and is 19-for-20 in stolen bases at AAA Durham, but the Rays were in first place until a couple of weeks ago, and anyway, where would they put him?

Carl Crawford has been great, and Zorilla, while not the beast he was in 2009, and been fine too. BJ Upton is hitting only .226, but he's also the youngest and the best base stealer of the group, so they can't exactly bench him either. Probably they use one of those guys as a DH and then put either Hank Blalock or Willy Aybar on the bench, and DFA the other one. In fact, I fully expect them to come to this conclusion within the next couple of weeks or so. Mark my words.

#7. Buster Posey - I said the following about the young Giants' catcher in early March:

Posey will likely get some more seasoning in AAA, but assuming that he continues to hit the cover off the ball, he should be up in the majors for good by the end of May.

[...] If the Giants fall out of contention, he'll probably get more playing time in the majors, so they can help him develop, but if they can somehow stay within earshot of a playoff berth, look for them to give Molina the bulk of the playing time while Posey wiles away on the bench or in AAA.
And of course the Giants just traded Molina to the Rangers, which may or may not mean that they're bailing on 2010. While I would imagine that they still fancy themselves as contenders this year - they're currently 40-37, 5.5 games out in their own division with more than half the season left to play - it's likely that they also know that 55 of their remaining 85 games come against winning teams or teams with positive run differentials, and that they would have to leap-frog three teams to win their division this year.

If this isn't giving up but actually the first of a few steps in making a real push, Posey should be a help, though they'll need more of it.

While Posey has yet to really "hit" much in the majors, he was hitting .349 in the Pacific Coast League at the time of his promotion, and clearly has nothing left to prove down in the bushes. He isn't likely to bloom into the second coming of Mike Piazza in 2010, but he probably won't embarrass himself either.


#8. Pedro Alvarez. Well, he mashed at AAA, kind of the Giancarlo Cruz-Mike Stanton of the International League, hitting .277/.363/.533, with 13 homers and 68 strikeouts in 66 games. In the two weeks he's spent in the majors, he's hit only a buck-fifty-two and has made two errors at the hot corner, but then Andy LaRoche (.229/.295/.313) seems determined to give his job away, so Alvarez will get a chance to improve.

The Pirates, in dead last and with perhaps the worst offensive team in almost 40 years, have little to lose by giving him a chance to play. Look for him to eventually start to make some more contact and produce some power, though even at his best in the minors, he was striking out a little more than once per game, so don't expect that to change any time soon.


#9. Neftali Feliz leads the AL with 21 Saves as I write this, and he's struck out 37 batters in 34 innings with a 2.62 ERA. I'd say he's adjusted well to the majors. And if they keep him in the bullpen, then the control problems he showed as a starter may be behind him. That's probably asking a bit much, but it's not so outlandish as to be impossible.

#10. Carlos Santana did not seem fazed by his first exposure to AAA pitching. He hit .316/.447/.597 there, averaging an extra base hit in just about every other game and amassing more walks than strikeouts. While there was thought to be no rush - at least by me - to promote him to the majors, those numbers and the dismal performances of Lou Marson and Mike Redmond (a combined .200/.251/.270 with one homer between them) made it necessary to do something.

Enter Senior Evil Ways himself, who has hot .345 with four homers and more walks than strikeouts in his forts two weeks. Santana's not likely to keep hitting like this, but he's a good bet to finish the year with something like a .310 average and 15 or 20 homers, despite spending the first two months in the minors.

Stumble Upon Toolbar