Friday, July 16, 2004

Pitching Pitching Pitching 

Forgive me if this post is a bit sloppy. Blogger's revamped their interface and the spellcheck isn't working for me. That said . . .

We've been over this before, but the Yankees pitching is in a bad way.

After the Yanks were swept in Shea two weekends ago I echoed Steven Goldman's sentiments that the Yankees desperately needed to take a gamble on some of their more successful triple-A arms, working them into the front of the bullpen to save their Big Three from an acute case of armfalloffitis. Not long after, they jettisoned Brad Halsey (anticipating a post-break return of Kevin Brown that doesn't quite look ready to happen--more on that in a moment) and Bret Prinz for Sam Marsonek and Juan Padilla. I applauded the move, particularly the promotion of Padilla (in Columbus this year: 2.47 ERA, 7 K/9, 3 BB--one intentional--in 43 2/3 IP!).

Unfortunately, Padilla was shipped back to Ohio before making an appearance because Mike Mussina, who started on short rest last Tuesday at home against the Tigers so that he could make the last start before the All-Star Break, woke up the morning following that Tuesday start with a sore elbow, forcing the Yanks to shut him down and call up Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez to make an emergency start in Mussina's place on Sunday. Rather than demoting the clearly inferior Marsonek, the Yanks sent down Padilla, much to my dismay. The good news was that both Hernandez (5 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) and Marsonek (1 1/3 IP, 2 H) had successful outings that Sunday.

Going into the break, Mussina's shut-down was painted as purely precautionary and Kevn Brown, who pitched a successful bullpen session that Sunday, was scheduled for a rehab start that would see him return to the rotation in turn this comming Monday in Tampa. With El Duque back in the fold, this gave the Yankees six viable starters and a fresh face in the bullpen.

Not so much.

Kevin Brown's rehab start Thursday night in Trenton went over like a fart in church (2 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 3 ER), delaying his return (his probelms are reportedly feel/stuff-related, nothing to do with his health -- he'll throw again Saturday in Tampa).

Mike Mussina threw a successful bullpen on Thursday, but woke up Friday morning with extreme stiffness in his pitching elbow. Unable to fully bend or extend his arm, he reportedly couldn't touch his right shoulder with his right hand. He was immediately placed on the 15-day DL retroactive to July 9 (which would make him eligible to pitch again when the Yankees travel to Boston at the end of the month). Mussina and Torre claim not to be overly concerned about Moose's elbow. He won't receive treatment while disabled, only rest. Still, the Yankee rotation can hardly afford to have both Mussina and Brown inactive. To my knowledge Mussina has not undergone any tests on the elbow.

Adding insult to injury (and injuries to injuries), Marsonek slipped on a dock while boating over the All-Star break, straining his knee and landing on the DL. Actually, this is good news of a sort for the Yankees as it prompted the recall of Padilla, who made his major league debut Friday night throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings allowing two hits and striking out one, using just four pitches per out (by contrast Detroit starter Mike Maroth used 4.6 pitches per start despite dominating the Yanks with a complete game one-hitter) and throwing 66 percent of his pitches for strikes. He also knows about 20 card tricks. No, really.

To replace Mussina on the roster and in the rotation, the Yankees have recalled Alex Graman. My first instinct was Brad Halsey, but upon reflection, I like this move. Graman has pitched well in Columbus despite his one rain-interrupted disaster start with the big club back in April. He's striking out almost eight and a half men per nine innings with an ERA of 3.16 in triple-A. His walks are a bit high (3.36/9IP), but they're down from last year. If the Yankees can get a couple of solid starts out of Graman, that gives them a pair of young lefty starters with which to do business prior to the trading deadline. (Just looking at their minor league records, I'd rather the Yanks deal Graman and hold on to Halsey, who is more than three years younger, walks fewer men and, despite his sub-6K/9 performance in Columbus this year, struck out men at the same rate as Graman over their minor league careers prior to 2004. That said, I want to see what Graman does in a few legitimate major league outings before giving you my final word.)

Despite the chance to showcase Graman, I'm not about to paint Mussina's injury as a blessing in disguise. The Yankee rotation is now Vazquez, Lieber, Contreras, Hernandez, Graman. All of those pitchers have big upsides, but as they stand now, they're a far cry from a Championship rotation. With luck Brown and Mussina will return before the end of the month. In a best-case scenario, both will get a turn in Boston next weekend and Graman will head a package for a slightly more seasoned lefty, bumping El Duque into the bullpen and Tanyon Sturtze back into the Phantom Zone, leaving Lieber (who Jay Jaffe pointed out to me today, could be trade bait himself as he's resonable effective and reasonable inexpensive) and Contreras to battle over the fifth spot in the rotation. That's pie-in-the-sky, but it's not beyond reason.

Just to make things worse, Javier Vazquez stunk up the joint Friday night and has not made it into the sixth inning in three of his last five starts. His problem seems to be a command vs. control issue. He has the later, but not the former. Sez Javy:
"I wish I knew what was wrong. My last three starts, I felt so bad when I was there, like I didn't know what I was doing. Today my control was fine. My control is always going to be fine. But right now, things are not going right and I'm just getting beat. I just feel like I don't know what I'm doing out there. I don't know how to explain it."

That article continues to pont out that Javy has given up 15 runs in 14 1/3 IP over his last three starts. Ouch.

Looks like I picked a good weekend to go away (behind enemy lines: Beantown, MA). I'll check back in on Monday.

posted by Cliff at 11:42 PM

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Mid-Season Breakdown: Infield 

Sure it's a cliche, but you know you want it . . . It's the All-Star Break lets-take-a-step-back-and-look-at-this-team post!

I'm not feeling very loquacious today, so let's get straight to it.

And just because I got this post up on the infield doesn't mean I can guarantee the outfield and pitching staff before first pitch in Detroit tomorrow.

Jason Giambi

Coming into the season the big concern was Giambi's knee. How often would he have to DH to stay healthy? Would his back side continue to collapse like it did pre-surgery, leaving him vulnerable to fastballs up in the zone? Was last year the beginning of a precipitous decline?

Giambi got off to an uninspiring start hitting .222/.395/.397 in April, his only real value coming from the base on balls (not counting a strong showing in Japan that saw him rack up a double, a homer, and three walks in eight trips). But he turned it on after The Sweep, going .310/.385/.638 in May before turning his ankle rounding first during a ninth-inning rally in Texas on May 21st.

As Giambi had also been coping with hip bursitis and back spasms, never mind whatever was going on in his knee, the Yankees placed him on the 15-day DL despite his protestations. That was May 22, and for all intents and purposes, the Yankees haven't had him since. Giambi was activated in early June, collecting game winning hits (one a home run) in both of his first two games back, but then fell into an awful slump due to flu-like symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as the intestinal parasite giardia. Giambi "hit" .167/.315/.283 in June (plate discipline is slump and injury proof, thank goodness), eventually being benched for eight games after being properly diagnosed (he pinch hit in three of those games, collecting one double in three PAs).

Giambi has only been back in the starting line-up for seven games, playing the field in four of them. In those seven games he's 5 for 23, all singles, with 5 walks, 4 Ks. The phrase that now stalks Giambi is "getting up to strength." One certainly hopes he can do that and produce like he was in May before that fateful ankle sprain, but that's far from a sure thing.

Some interesting splits on Giambi, who's .241/.377/.439 (.279) on the year, thanks in large part to his performance in May:

vs. Righties: .213/.356/.355 (.249) 141 AB
vs. Lefties: .296/.419/.606 (.340) 71 AB

as 1B: .225/.351/.408 (.260) 142 AB
as DH: .269/.424/.493 (.314) 67 AB

Over the past three years Giambi's GPA is 55 points higher against righties and 68 points higher as a first baseman. His splits this year are likely a sample size fluke, but it will be interesting to watch them the rest of the year.

Tony Clark

Back in spring training, it was widely assumed that Travis Lee would be Giambi's back-up at first base despite the presence of Tony Clark. Although Jay Jaffe accused me of "acute veteranitis" for favoring Clark over Fernando Seguignol (since departed for Japan) back in February, I've been a supporter of Clark's since the Yanks signed him in January. It was my opinion that Lee's defensive superiority was primarily hype and that his offensive upside was no better than league average. Thus I got a nice hit of schadenfreude when Lee aggravated a preexisting shoulder injury by making throws from the outfield in spring training and opted for season-ending surgery after collecting just two hits and one walk in 20 plate appearances in late April.

Clark has since earned made me look smart by playing stellar defense, drawing walks and smacking doubles and homers. He's now .234/.335/.481 (.271) on the season with ten homers in just 154 at-bats. At the same time, Clark has undermined my initial rationalization for his usefulness. I argued that his ability to hit lefties made him a perfect "platoon" partner for Kenny Lofton (with Giambi and Bernie rotating into the DH slot accordingly). Thus far this season Clark is hitting .160/.250/.220 (.203) against lefties and .269/.374/.606 (.320) against righties. Looking back, Clark's ability to hit lefties seems to alternate years (GPA vs lefties - 2001: .308, 2002: .147, 2003: .285, 2004: .203), but he's not had a GPA above .249 against righties in any of the past three seasons. I am now thoroughly confused.

By the way, Clark hit safely in the first six games after Giambi went on the DL in May and then hit safely in only seven more games through the end of June going .152/.278/.239 on the month. That's atrocious and would have been cause for concern had he not busted out for five homers in his first 31 at-bats in July, posting a .342 GPA thus far in the month.

Miguel Cairo

Like Clark, Cairo was another player that I promoted back in spring training. The logic here was less complex. Cairo may not be much of a hitter but he had to be better than Enrique Wilson. Wilson then went crazy-go-nuts in spring training, hitting .462 and winning the second base job much to my chagrin.

Cairo was given just three starts through the end of The Sweep, after which Joe Torre shook things up by starting Cairo in the next four games in which Miguel hit a homer and collected five RBIs, playing an important role in two close wins over the A's. Cairo then started just one of the next seven games before getting nine consecutive starts against Anaheim and Seattle. A hot streak by Wilson then kept Cairo on the bench for twelve games until a mercy start on June 3.

Cairo has participated in all but three games since then, quasi-Pipping Wilson due to concurrent groin injuries to Wilson and Jeter that forced Torre to start Cairo in four straight games, three of them at shortstop. Cairo went 2 for 3 in the last of those starts earning another start after Jeter's return in which he went 4 for 4 with a double and two runs scored. Cairo's momentum built and he finished June hitting .290/.347/.420 (.261) on the month. On July 1 he came in as a defensive replacement in that night's epic 13-inning battle with the Red Sox at the stadium, collecting a triple and a double in his only two at bats, driving in the tying run and scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 13th with the Yankees down by one. He's started nine of the ten games since then and is hitting .400/.432/.600 (.344) on the month, pushing his season totals to .307/.356/.454 (.288).

Enrique Wilson

After The Sweep, I pinpointed the struggles of the Yankee offense up to that point by isolating six players who had GPAs below .200 and dubbing them The Highwaymen. Here's that list (plate appearances in parentheses):

.177 - Bernie Williams (70)
.166 - Derek Jeter (89)
.155 - Ruben Sierra (32)
.155 - John Flaherty (9)
.137 - Enrique Wilson (53)
.107 - Travis Lee (20)

Eliminating Travis Lee--who is out for the season and is still at .107 in 20 PA--and subbing in Kenny Lofton--.202 GPA in 29 PA at that point--here are those six players at the break:

.282 - Kenny Lofton (118)
.269 - Bernie Williams (349)
.264 - Derek Jeter (389)
.254 - Ruben Sierra (176)
.199 - Enrique Wilson (147)
.157 - John Flaherty (74)

Flaherty seems to have established a new level of suckitude, though he did get the game winning hit in that July 1 game against the Sox. Otherwise, Wilson's the only man still on the highway. Wilson flirted with competence briefly in late May, finishing .266/.292/.500 (.237) on the month. That's still significantly below league average, and in reality those numbers are the result of an eight-game hot streak, not any sort of month-long consistency. Over eight games in Texas, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, Wilson, who's first extra base hit of the year came on May 4 in his 20th game, smacked four homers and collected 15 RBIs. He hit another homer on June 4, five days after that run, and has just one extra base hit since then. Can you say "dead weight?"

Derek Jeter

Jeter's story's been told, but in summary:

April: .172/.250/.241 (.203)
June: .396/.455/.725 (.386)

Thus far in July he's hitting .311/.367/.444, not a far cry from his career numbers of .315/.386/.461.

Jeter's counting stats are on pace to look a lot like his phenomenal 1999 campaign:

1999: 37 2B, 24 HR, 102 RBI, 19 SB (8 CS)
'04 pace: 41 2B, 24 HR, 90 RBI, 19 SB (6 CS)

Note that his 1999 double, homer and RBI totals are career highs and that his current pace includes his awful start.

On the other side of the ball, having Alex Rodriguez's increased range to his right, Jeter has been able to play further to his left and is getting to more balls up the middle and seeing his range stats increase significantly in turn. All of which makes Joe Torre and Brian Cashman look like geniuses for moving Rodriguez to third and leaving Jeter at short. I very much doubt that Jeter would have made as smooth a transition to the hot corner.

Speaking of which . . .

Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez's transition to third base has been like butter. He's a legitimate Gold Glove candidate at the hot corner. The only hole I can see in his defensive game is that after four and a half months he still doesn't react to hot shots quite as well as Graig Nettles. Clearly he's a no-talent punk.

Alex's offense is a different story. Every one was freaked out when he hit a mere .268/.355/.463 (.288) in April and went 1 for 17 in Fenway. Was the move to third throwing him off? Could he not handle New York? Was he pressing to hard? Was there conflict with Jeter? He then silenced his critics with a .333/.427/.627 (.346) May, so much so that no one seemed to notice him reverting to near-April form with a .263/.362/.505 (.293) June and a 2 for 12 performance against the Red Sox. Alex is now hitting just .178/.255/.400 (.207) in July.

Taking a look at the splits, Rodriguez, who over the past three years has a .327 GPA against righties, 27 points better than his mark against lefties, has a mere .274 GPA against right handers this season and a GPA 55 points higher against lefties. He's hit 10 of his 22 homers against lefties this year despite having less than one-third as many at-bats against southpaws (though curiously 12 of his 13 doubles and his only triple are off righties).

The one thing that has gotten popular attention about Rodriguez's subpar performance thus far this year (.292 GPA overall vs. .307 career) is his poor performance with runners in scoring position. Rodriguez has a .304 GPA with the bases empty (200 PA), a .281 GPA with runners on base (188 PA), and a .249 GPA with runners in scoring position (96 PA). One might expect a slight depression in Rodriguez's overall numbers in moving from the Ballpark in Armitron (or whatever it's called now) to Yankee Stadium, but his RISP numbers should be pretty close to his overall figures. Over the past three years, he's actually been better with runners in scoring position than without. Thus the drop in his effectiveness in these situations is particularly curious as he has far more protection in this Yankee line-up than he ever had in Texas (though some will argue that "protection" is a non-factor). Worth keeping an eye on, though I would expect this to normalize over the second half.

Jorge Posada

Jorge went crazy-go-nuts in March and April, racking up 8 homers and an April line of .300/.434/.683 (.352). He then went homerless in May, but kept his average at .302 and pushed his OBP up to a sick .470 on the month (add .460 slugging, get a .381 GPA). Then after finally getting his tenth homer on June 1 he fell apart, going .208/.352/.333 (.285) on the month (again, plate discipline doesn't slump). Note that his mid-May broken nose doesn't seem to have effected his hitting at all as in the ten games that followed his return in May actually saw his OBP increase and his average surge and return to the same level. Jorge seems to have snapped out of his hitting slump in July, but still has has just three extra base hits on the month (though two of them are homers). His monthly line stands at .344/.475/.563 (.385) and his season totals are .275/.419/.508 (.339). Compare those to his two top seasons:

2000: .287/.417/.527 (.338)
2003: .281/.419/.518 (.339)
2004: .275/.419/.508 (.339)

Remember, nearly 1/3 of those 2004 numbers come from his dreadful June. If Jorge avoids another prolonged slump and rediscovers his power stroke, 2004 will prove to be his best season yet.

posted by Cliff at 10:53 AM

Monday, July 12, 2004

Home Run Derby 

Before the current baseball season started, a friend emailed me to ask what I thought the chances were of Ken Griffey Jr. finally reaching 500 career home runs this season. Griffey needed 19 and had hit 13 and 8 in his previous two seasons. We agreed that the odds were pretty slim.

We were, of course, wrong. Griffey hit his 500th on June 20th off Matt Morris. He was then elected by the fans to start in this year's All-Star Game along with Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, becoming just the second trio of 500-homer men to form a single league's starting outfield in an All-Star Game (the first being eventual 500-homer men Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson in 1957).

Not so fast. Griffey, who now has 501 home runs, left Saturday's game against the Brewers with a torn hamstring. Griffey missed time in both 2001 and 2002 with torn hamstrings. Now he's on the DL once again.

Carlos Beltran, becoming the first man to ever switch All-Star teams mid-season, will take Griffey's place in the starting line-up. Lance Berkman will take his place in the Home Run Derby, which was to feature all four active 500-homer men (adding non-All-Star Rafael Palmeiro to the mix).

Speaking of which, Jason Giambi will also not participate in the Home Run Derby. He is replaced by Miguel Tejada. Jim Thome, Hank Blalock and David Ortiz complete the derby field along with Bonds and Sosa.

One final Home Run Derby note. From noon until 4:00 today ESPN Classic is showing the original Home Run Derby, a half-hour program which aired from 1959 to 1961 and featured nine-"inning" head-to-head contests between All-Stars of the day in Los Angeles's Wrigley Field. The first episode being shown is Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays. Set your VCRs.

posted by Cliff at 10:49 AM

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