No Mercy

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The Yankees, clinging to a slim one-game lead in the AL East, saunter into Fenway to begin a series with the reeling Red Sox.  As Mike outlined in his series preview, the Red Sox have been pretty awful this season, falling to unimaginable 15 games below .500.  While they struggled for much of the season, they have been particularly awful of late.  The Sox have lost a ton of talent since the Yankees played them last in late-July, both due to injury and the blockbuster trade (also known as a salary dump) they completed with the Dodgers.  While the Yankees are playing for a division title and a playoff spot, the Red Sox seem to have little to play for other than their pride (or what remains of it).  On paper, this is a matchup that heavily favors the Yankees, who despite their own problems should field a more talented and motivated roster than that of the Red Sox.

It also has all the makings of a trap series.  With a big three-game series with the Rays looming on the horizon, it would be easy for the Yankees to overlook the crappy Red Sox and look ahead for the matchup with their actual competition for the division title.  Meanwhile, while Boston seems and demoralized, I imagine getting the opportunity to ruin the Yankees’ season could get at least some of them fired up.

While the Red Sox roster is depleted, there is still enough talent to cause trouble for the Yankees.  They are missing David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks, but Dustin Pedroia, Cody Ross, and Jacoby Ellsbury could provide enough punch to pile up some runs against some shaky Yankee pitching.  Plus, future Hall of Famer Pedro Ciriaco is still there, and will look to improve on his .469/.485/.625 career line against the Bombers.  Hopefully the Yankees can figure out a way to retire him.

On the pitching side, there will be some interesting matchups.  The Yankees will put perhaps their best pitcher of the season (#HIROK) up against Jon Lester in game one.  Even though Lester is hardly the dominant Lester of years past, he is still a strong competitor who put up a good performance against the Yankees the last time he faced them.  At best, this is a small advantage for the Yankees.  The Phelps-Cook matchup in game two could be a slugfest, as Cook has been mediocre while Phelps has failed to get past the 5th inning in his last two starts.  As for game three, Felix Doubront has posed some problems for the Yankees in the past, while Phil Hughes has been pretty solid of late (in part thanks to the new slider).  While the Yankees should be favored in all three games, none of these matchups strikes me as a sure thing.

Given the close nature of the Al East race and the atrociousness of the Red Sox, taking anything less than 2 out of 3 games in this series would be a major failure.  The Yankees have problems of their own, such as Mark Teixeira‘s recent injury, but they are light years ahead of where Boston is at this point, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field intangibles.  While the Red Sox should be jazzed up for the opportunity to stick it to their longtime rivals, the Bombers should be motivated to add insult to Boston’s injury.  The Yanks will have the opportunity to get themselves a little breathing room in the division as Baltimore and Tampa will be squaring off while the Yankees are playing the Red Sox.  A sweep will put the Yankees in strong position to hold on to their division lead, and go into the playoffs with some positive momentum.

Right now, the Grandyman can’t

Help me Kevin Long, you’re our only hope. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

The Yankees’ offensive outage over the last few weeks has been perplexing and frustrating, given the number of talented hitters on the team.  As discussed in my most recent post, injuries can explain a large portion of the Yankees’ struggles.  Missed time by Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, and Mark Teixeira, among others, has led to extra playing time by bench and platoon players such as Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, Ichiro Suzuki, Eric Chavez, and Jayson Nix.  Not surprising, they have largely failed to replace the lost production due to the injured Yankee stars.

However, injuries don’t tell the whole story.  As discussed in Tuesday’s post, the Yankees have also had to endure simultaneous underachieving of several important regulars.  The most perplexing struggles have been those of Curtis Granderson, who has been having a disappointing 2012 anyway, but has been absolutely horrendous of late.  His wRC+ has dropped 34 points between 2011 and 2012 (though to be fair, 2011 was a career year for Granderson), and recently, he has been even worse.  Since August 1, Curtis is batting a measly .179/.256/.387.  This is not a small sample size fluke, but over a month of absolutely awful performance.

I was curious to see what factors might be responsible for Granderson’s decreased production compared to 2011, and while I found no definitive solution, there are a few possibilities.  Compared to 2011, Granderson has been much less effective against fastballs.  While he is still above league average against the heater, according to Fangraphs, he is not crushing the pitch to the same extent that he was in 2011.  Additionally, Granderon’s performance against the curveball has suffered, going from about league average in 2011 to below average in 2012.  He is also swinging at slightly more pitches in 2012 (41.7% compared to 40.6% in 2011), but making less contact (72.3% of swings in 2012 compared to 78.2% in 2011).  He is swinging more both at pitches in the zone (not necessarily a bad thing) and out of the zone (almost definitely a bad thing).  However, the decrease in contact is not explained by fishing out of the zone, he is actually making less contact in the zone as well.  The contact rate is also significantly lower than he has posted in previous years, indicating that this is not just regression to the mean after a career-best 2011.

What could all this signify?  The fairly significant drop in contact is a red flag to me, possibly indicative of poor pitch recognition, bad swing mechanics, or decreasing bat speed.  It is hard to pinpoint which of these three (or any other factors) may be the most likely culprit here.  At 31, Granderson is not exactly over the hill, though his 2012 regression could be an indication that Granderson’s prime may be behind him.  He is still hitting for power, as demonstrated by his 34 home runs this year, but his batting average, OBP, and slugging have all decreased dramatically.

The question is whether Granderson’s statistical decline from 2011 is a product of a season-long decline, or more the result of his recent slump.  Looking at his monthly wOBA, there is a definite trend: .395 in March/April, .362 in May, .344 in June, .342 in July, .292 in August, and .072 in September. While August and September look like extreme outliers that may skew his overall line somewhat, the decreased production each month is a major cause for concern.

Ultimately, there is not much the Yankees can do about Granderson this year.  He is their only everyday center fielder with Brett Gardner out, and one of the biggest sources of home-run power in the lineup.  He will probably be hitting in the top half of the Yankee lineup for the rest of the season, so he will have ample opportunities to drive baserunners in and help create offense.  They have to hope that he can turn things around (or at least get back to the solid, but not spectacular level of production seen in June and July), perhaps with some #curing help from Kevin Long.

Granderson’s decline probably puts his future with the Yankees in jeopardy, though it is hard to imagine them not picking up his option for 2013.  That said, Granderson needs to pull his weight in the Yankee lineup for the rest of the season if the Yankees are going to hold on to their division lead, and prove that he is worthy of another big deal in New York.  He will need to do more than that for the Yankees to make a deep playoff run.  The talent is still there, but he needs to get things sorted out quickly, as his teammates have been pulling his dead weight for far too long.

Is it time to panic?

(J. Meric/Getty)

Not so long ago, I wrote an uncharacteristically pessimistic post that was admittedly a bit trollish in its conception: exploring the problems and challenges that could face a Yankee team that at the time enjoyed a comfortable six-game lead over its division rivals.  While the Yankees had several hurdles to overcome, I concluded that the division lead along with the talent gap between the Yankees and their pursuers should allow the Yankees to cruise to a division title and playoff berth.

I still believe that to be the case, but the events of the last few weeks have increased the likelihood of an different outcome.  The combination of poor play by the Yankees and strong performances from the Rays and Orioles have whittled the Yankees’ division lead down to one game.  In Wild Card race, the Oakland A’s have gone on a tear, and currently hold the same record as the Bombers.  Suddenly the possibility of the Yankees losing the division or even missing the playoffs doesn’t seem so remote.  The specter of a monumental collapse a la Boston in 2011 looms over the collective psyche of nervous Yankee fans, who fear karmic payback for their schadenfreude of yesteryear.

Since the folks here are mostly rational, I thought it would make sense to analyze which contributors to the Yankees’ struggles seem likely to persist, and which ones may be resolved going forward.  I’ll take a look at some reasons for why Yankee fans should be concerned, as well as some reasons why things are still looking promising.  Feel free to add your own to the list if I leave anything out.

Reasons to panic

Death by bullpen:  Outside of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson (who have had their occasional slip-ups), the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been unreliable of late.  This has at times caused Joe Girardi to make multiple pitching changes in a single inning, delighting binder-joke aficionados worldwide.  It has also made keeping leads in the middle innings a difficult task.  Cody Eppley in particular seems less effective than he was earlier in the season, Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily since returning from the DL, and Derek Lowe has been awful since the Yankees acquired him.  Boone Logan has continued to hold down the fort, but his heavy usage could take a toll on him.

Injuries: Although Alex Rodriguez just returned, the Yankees are still suffering injuries to several important contributors.  Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched a rehab outing yet, Curtis Granderson has been hampered by hamstring tendinitis, Mark Teixeira is still out, and Robinson Cano may have tweaked something in his hip while going after a ground ball in the 9th inning yesterday.  These injuries have forced the Yankees to rely heavily on their bench.  While some bench players (Eric Chavez in particular) have been up to the task, others (I’m looking at you Andruw Jones) have struggled mightily.  The Yankees have gotten by so far in 2012 with solid contributions from their bench, but their recent offensive woes (wRC+ of 74 the past 2 weeks) show the effect that losing several middle of the order contributors can have on overall offensive production.

Reasons to relax

Help is on the way: Alex Rodriguez’s return instantly lengthens the Yankee lineup, adding some desperately needed right-handed power to a team that has been punchless of late.  Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova are on the road to recovery, and could provide some much needed depth to an anemic lineup and struggling rotation respectively. 

Slumpbusters: Of late, the Yankee lineup has struggled offensively.  Only three members of the Yankee lineup have posted above league-average production over the last 2 weeks: Robinson Cano (146 wRC+), Derek Jeter (137 wRC+), and Nick Swisher (128 wRC+).  While this trio has been carrying the offense, the rest of the offense has been putrid.  This includes (skip this section if you have a weak stomach) Russell Martin (56 wRC+), Curtis Granderson (36 wRC+), Eric Chavez (40 wRC+), Ichiro (10 wRC+), Andruw Jones (-8 wRC+), and Raul Ibanez (-25 wRC+).

With only one third of the lineup performing anywhere above the league average or near their career norms, there is no wonder that the Yankee lineup has had trouble scoring runs of late.  It seems improbable that this horrific stretch can continue, and eventually some of these guys can turn things around.  While several of these guys have been horrible all season, there is enough talent there for a few of them to get things going again.

Look at the schedule: While the Yankees’ schedule for the beginning of September is tough (two more games against the Rays and four against the Orioles), things soften up for the Bombers after the big rivalry games.  There is one more three-game series against the Rays, but otherwise, the Yankees’ opponents include the Twins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays.  A few years ago this would have been a formidable slate, but at a collective 51 games under .500, the Yankees shouldn’t have too much to worry about.  This is especially true if the Yankees get some of their starters back and contributing by then.  Baltimore also has a light schedule (though a three-game series against the suddenly-good A’s could prove challenging), while the Rays have some tougher matchups remaining, including the White Sox and the Rangers.  If the Yankees can survive the games against Baltimore and Tampa with their lead intact, they should be able to hold their ground against some weaker opponents down the stretch.

Overall, the Yankees do have some real concerns to address down the stretch.  Getting some injured players back could help, but the fact of the matter is that this team has looked lifeless over the past few weeks.  A combination of crappy hitting, sloppy fielding, and poorly-timed pitching meltdowns has resulted in some frustrating losses recently.  Two thirds of the lineup needs to either get healthy or remember how to hit, and the Yankees will need to get some big performances from their starters to prevent the bullpen from getting overexposed.  I still think this team has too much talent, especially when compared to Baltimore and Tampa, to lose this division.  The favorable schedule also helps in that regard.  But as they say, these games aren’t played on paper.  A number of players will have to start living up to the numbers on the back of their baseball card if the Yankees are going to make a run into October.

The evolution of Phil Hughes

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

It has been fascinating, and at times frustrating, to watch Phil Hughes develop from a prospect into a rotation mainstay.  At the time he was drafted, Hughes was a big kid who projected to have solid fastball velocity and a good slider.  Within a year or two, he developed a true plus curveball after being forced to shelve his slider, and used the hook along with impressive fastball command to carve up his minor league opposition.  His ability to develop the curveball into a dominant pitch after not using the pitch much in high school was impressive, and indicative that he had a good feel for pitching (whatever that means).

After a dominant minor league career, Hughes made his major league debut at the tender age of 20, and tantalized Yankee fans in his second start with 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the Texas Rangers.  In that outing, Hughes looked like the future ace many of us hoped he could become.  He commanded his fastball well, and made good use of his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance.  In particular, I remember him making future teammate Mark Teixeira look silly on several breaking balls. Then of course came the infamous, possibly career-altering injury.  After striding too far in an attempt to get a little more oomph on a curveball, Hughes badly injured his hamstring, limped off the field, and never really achieved that degree of dominance again.

The rest of Hughes’ Major League career has been consistent only in its inconsistency.  His velocity and weight fluctuated, he suffered several injuries, and otherwise struggled to fulfill his potential.  His curveball regressed, becoming a loopy creampuff instead of a snappy strikeout pitch.  The changeup didn’t really develop as hoped, leaving Hughes primarily as a two-pitch pitcher.  Consequently, Hughes faced countless long at-bats as hitters were able to sit on his fastball and foul off pitch after pitch, driving up his pitch count and tiring him out.  He also frequently pitched up in the zone, causing him to allow fly balls at a high rate.  Particularly in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, these fly balls had a high probability of turning into home runs, and this problem has plagued Phil in recent years.  He also tried to add a cutter to give left-handed batters a different look, but it never became an effective out-pitch for him.

Despite the inconsistency, Hughes has been an important fixture in the Yankee rotation over the last few years.  He has had his successes, including a sparkling stint in the bullpen in 2009, an All Star appearance in 2010, and truth be told a pretty solid 2012 (even though his FIP and xFIP are less impressive than his 4.02 ERA).  2012 has been an interesting season for him because he got off to a rocky start, giving up four or more runs in three of his first five starts.  Thereafter, Hughes has only given up more than three runs four times.  While he may have tired a bit as his innings count rose, he has been a fairly reliable piece in a rotation that suffered injuries to three starters.

It is interesting to see how Phil has tinkered with his approach throughout the season, rather than just sticking with his regular repertoire and hoping that things will fix themselves.  Michael Eder of The Yankee Analysts has some great posts (complete with gifs) documenting this transformation.  Early in the season, Hughes scrapped the ineffective cutter and began featuring the changeup more prominently.  He started making use of a sharper 11-5 curveball that featured more horizontal movement, resulting from a lower arm slot.  And just in his last start, he resurrected the mythical slider, which served as an effective weapon against same-sided batters (who have been giving Phil trouble this year).

There are certainly positive and negative spins that one could put on Hughes’ constant changes to his repertoire.  On the negative side, one could point to the inconsistency of his secondary pitches, and his inability to develop any one of them into a reliable above-average offering.  The fact that he has to keep tinkering is evidence that his regular repertoire is not good enough to be a consistently effective big league starter.  The flip side of this is that Phil is hard-working and resourceful enough to constantly add to and modify his repertoire, which gives us hope that he may continue to make adjustments in the future.

Hughes is still somewhat of an enigma, but I think at this point in his career Yankee fans know what to expect from him.  He is a solid #3-#4 starter who can eat innings, is capable of the occasional awful outing if his fly balls are leaving the yard, strike batters out at a respectable clip (about 7.5/9 this season), and keep them off base by limiting his walks.  While he is unlikely to morph into the ace we dreamed he would become, it is nice to hear that he is still working to hone his craft, and try to become the best pitcher that he possibly can.  Considering he is only under contract for one more season after this one, it will be in the Yankees’ interest to track Hughes’ evolution closely, to see if he can find a mix of pitches that will allow for more consistent effectiveness.

More thoughts on the Boston fire sale

So the guy with the $140M contract is going to play for a guy that used to manage in Japan? Come on!
(AP)

A few days ago, the Red Sox and Dodgers completed a potentially franchise-altering trade.  Boston sent underachieving malcontents Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez (who is actually still pretty good) plus Nick Punto to suddenly-loaded LA.  In return they received several solid prospects, the thoroughly mediocre James Loney, and most importantly, massive salary relief.  It was shocking to see a wealthy big market team unload all this talent for pennies on the dollar, truly a fire sale that only Tobias Funke could properly dramatize.

The deal will have a major impact on the Red Sox and Dodgers for years to come, and the reverberations could be felt throughout the league.  The Red Sox significantly increased their flexibility by shedding some $260 million in future contract obligations, allowing them to be big players on the free agent market in 2012 and in upcoming seasons.  While the 2012’s free agent class is not considered a stacked group, they could have room in the budget to sign several impact free agents.  These could include such notables as Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, both incredibly talented players (albeit with risks attached).  If the Red Sox choose to spend big this offseason, it could be reminiscent of the Yankees’ spending spree in the 2008-2009 offseason, in which they signed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett.

As we remember, these signings contributed heavily to the Yankees’ 2009 World Series title, so a similar splurge by the Red Sox could have them back in contention in a hurry.  However, failing several big acquisitions, it is difficult to see the Red Sox being serious playoff contenders in 2013 and possibly 2014.  While they have some talent remaining on the team and some intriguing players down on the farm (Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, and Jackie Bradley Jr. especially), it is hard to see that roster being a serious threat to win the AL East.  Consequently, they will need to decide whether they are doing a full rebuild, or a Yankees-esque reload.  If they go big on the current free agent class, they risk burdening themselves with the types of big expensive contracts that got them into this mess in the first place.  However, a rebuild will likely doom them to non-competitiveness for several years, and this may have significant financial ramifications.

Assuming Boston doesn’t go for the full reload in 2013, the Yankees should be the AL East frontrunners, with the Rays as the main competition.  This is especially the case if Baltimore comes back to earth after a 2012 season that seems somewhat fluky.  Toronto will likely not have the same number of injuries again, but I don’t think that team has enough impact talent to be a competitor yet.

The defanging of the Red Sox definitely helps the Yankees in the short term, but how about the long term?  A lot of that depends on how the Red Sox end up deploying their newly-acquired flexibility.  The Yankees likely won’t be huge spenders on the free agent market over the next two years if they are serious about adhering to the austerity budget.  If Boston hasn’t loaded up on big free agents after 2012 or 2013, they could be serious competitors for some big name players that could hit the market in 2014 , most notably Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.  The trade could also put Boston in the position to build a sustainable powerhouse if they are more fortunate with their free agent signing and hit it big on with a few of their prospects.  One question, however, could be whether Boston’s willingness to dump players recently signed to long-term contracts shows a lack of loyalty, and could make it difficult for them to attract free agents.  I think money talks ultimately, but that could be a tie-breaker.

While they are not in the same league as the Yankees, the sudden willingness of the Dodgers to spend big to acquire impact players should draw the attention of Yankee fans.  We are largely used to a unipolar landscape where the Yankees are the dominant franchise financially, capable of outbidding all comers to acquire their choice free agents.  There have been some exceptions to this paradigm of late, most notably the Yankees’ failure to sign Cliff Lee, but it largely has held true.  Seeing the new-money Dodgers throw that kind of cash around  begs the question of how much they are willing to spend to make their team a World Series contender.  Could they even outspend the Evil Empire?  After this big trade, they are pretty close, and if they are willing to spend even more money, they could be a force to be reckoned with on the free agent market.

Ultimately, the Yankees will be fine, but there is no doubt that this deal is a potential game-changer.  The Yankees may not be able to count on being able to sign all the best free agents to fill their holes, as fewer top guys have been hitting the market, and more teams have the financial resources to compete for the ones that do.  The Red Sox suddenly have huge flexibility to bring in new impact players, while the Dodgers showed a willingness to spend at Yankee-esque levels to become relevant.  In the short term, the Yankees should maintain their hold on the AL East, but they certainly can’t get too comfortable at their perch.