The Yankees and Mets close the 2012 Interleague slate out this weekend with three games at Citi Field in beautiful Flushing, New York. With 11 Interleague wins, the Yankees come into this series with an opportunity to not only secure their highest-ever win tally ever in Interleague play (their previous high-water mark was 13 wins, done once in 1998 when the Interleague schedule was 16 games, and also in 2003 and 2011), but also an opportunity for a rare Subway Series sweep, which has only ever happened once (2003, the only other season the Yankees swept the Mets at home) in the prior 15 seasons of Interleague play.
Despite getting swept by the Yankees in the Bronx two weeks ago, the Mets have continued to outperform expectations, sweeping the Rays at Tampa Bay last week before getting swept at home by the NL Central-leading Reds this past weekend, and then sweeping a surprisingly strong Baltimore team.
With Johan’s no-hitter but a memory, the Mets’ hype machine has gone into overdrive thanks to R.A. Dickey’s recent stretch of masterfully historical starting pitching. With his complete-game one-hitter on Monday, he not only became the first pitcher to throw two straight one-hitters since Dave Steib in 1988, but the first pitcher ever to allow no earned runs and strike out at least eight batters in five consecutive starts. Over his past six starts, Dickey is 6-0 with a 0.18 ERA (one earned run in 48 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts, five walks and a .131 average allowed (h/t ESPN). Bananas.
This domination has unsurprisingly vaulted him into early conversation for Cy Young, and if the season ended today you’d be hard-pressed to find a more deserving candidate in the National League. The Yankees, as I noted prior to the last go-round with the Metropolitans, were fortunate to miss Dickey two weeks ago, as he has the lowest ERA against the Yankees, minimum two starts, of every starter the Bombers have faced since the beginning of 2010. Unfortunately they won’t be so lucky this go-round, as Dickey will meet CC Sabathia Sunday evening on national television in what will be one of the most overhyped games of the year. Both men have been great, but prepare to wring the crap out of your hands as Dickey induces harmless groundball after groundball off the Yankee bats. While it stands to reason that Dickey can’t possibly continue to pitch this well — and if any team was going to finally knock him off his perch, it may as well be one of the hottest teams in baseball — between both Dickey’s recent history against the Yanks along with his total domination of any and all comers, Sabathia is probably going to have to be close to flawless for the Bombers to topple Dickey on Sunday night.
In addition to Dickey, the Mets’ starting pitching has continued to turn in strong performance after strong performance. Dillon Gee held the Yankees to three runs over seven innings two weeks ago and also turned ina quality start against Cincinnati, though they won’t see either him or Johan this weekend. They do get another shot at Jonathon Niese — who was extremely tough against the Bombers on Sunday, June 10 — tonight, and, like fellow lefthander-who-bizarrely-stymied-the-Yankees-in-his-initial-go-round Mike Minor, one would hope the Yankees will figure Niese out this time. The Yankees will also see Chris Young, who has been effective in his three starts since coming off the DL.
A number of Mets have been wielding significantly potent bats of late, with Ike Davis seemingly awoken from his season-long slumber with a 167 wRC+ over the last two weeks, Jordany Valdespin playing over his head (116 wRC+), David Wright continuing to mash (163 wRC+), and Lucas Duda, Scott Hairston, Vinny Rotino and Kirk Nieuwenhuis all providing at or above-average offensive production. That makes for an unexpectedly deep Mets lineup.
The Yankees haven’t exactly been offensive slouches of late either, though the bulk of their production over the last 14 days has been more top heavy, with Robinson Cano (188 wRC+), Nick Swisher (173), Mark Teixeira (158), Russell Martin (109) and Curtis Granderson (126) leading the charge. Despite the huge grand slam last week and another home run yesterday, A-Rod‘s been pretty quiet at the plate (81 wRC+), hitting a sad .239/.320/.422 over his last 29 games, while Raul Ibanez (30) has been mired in a protracted slump.
Bullpen-wise the Yankees’ relief corps continues to be among the class of MLB, with a 2.60 ERA/3.11 FIP over the last two weeks, while the Met bullpen has continued to struggle, at 4.91/4.96 over the same timeframe.
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday, June 22, 2012 at 7:10 p.m. LHP Andy Pettitte vs. LHP Jonathon Niese
A rematch of two Sundays ago. Both southpaws pitched well last time out, with Niese slightly outdueling Pettitte until the Mets bullpen blew the lead in the 8th, followed by a rare Rafael Soriano blown save in the 9th, followed by a Russell Martin walkoff home run bailing the team out and securing the sweep. Niese in theory seems like the type of pitcher the Yankees should feast on — lefthander with a 91mph fastball, but he mixes in a top-10-in-the-NL (by wCT/C) cutter and solid curve (0.39 wCU/C) to make his fastball (also 10th-best in the NL by wFA/C) that much more effective. You know that stat I linked to earlier showing Dickey as ERA leader against the Yankees since 2010? Well Niese is fifth on that list. Again, two starts isn’t a whole heck of a lot to go on, but to date the Yanks haven’t shown much punch against either Niese or Dickey.
Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 7:15 p.m. RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Chris Young
Chris Young has two career starts against the Yankees, and they both came as a member of the Texas Rangers, the last being on August 12, 2005, in a game the Yankees tagged him for five runs in three innings. For all intents and purposes Young may as well be a starter-they’ve-never-faced.
Young is a bit of a slop artist, with an 88mph fastball he throws nearly 75% of the time, and a 79mph slider. How he has lived off essentially two pitches, neither of which are thrown very hard, is a bit hard to discern, though anecdotally I’ve read that his height — 6’10” — makes his pitches appear faster than they actually are as his exaggerated wingspan allows for a shorter delivery time to the plate. As mentioned earlier, Young has been solid enough in his three starts thus far, though he’s also gotten hit fairly hard (.353 BABIP) and gives up a ton of fly balls (29% GB%). He probably represents the Yanks’ best shot at putting up a crooked number this weekend.
Nova saw the Mets twice last year and was good at Yankee Stadium (6.2 innings, three ER) and good at Citi Field if a bit lacking in distance (5 IP, 1 ER).
Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP R.A. Dickey
I mostly covered this match-up in the preamble above, but in case you weren’t aware, Dickey is a knuckleballer extraordinaire, throwing the pitch 80% of the time. You’d think hitters might have had some modicum of success against a hurler when they know what they’re getting, but two of the primary keys to Dickey’s success are his ability to not only hit his spots with arguably the toughest pitch to command, but also change speeds.
In addition to that lowest-ERA-since-2010 stat I keep citing, Dickey also has, believe it or not, the lowest ERA (2.30) among all pitchers with 30 or more IP against the Yankees (min. 1 start) since the start of the 2003 season. This year’s Yankee team has really been quite good at dispelling many a preconceived notion about pitchers they can or can’t hit, and so I’m reluctant to cast doubt, but the deck seems awfully stacked against the Yankees doing anything significant while facing Dickey in this contest.
Of course, Dickey’s mound opponent isn’t exactly chopped liver. Sabathia has once again been one of the very best pitchers in the Majors this year, though has been a bit up-and-down against the Mets in his Yankee career, throwing 7 innings of one-run ball in his lone start against them in 2009, getting lit up five ER in 5 innings during an ESPN Sunday Night telecast on May 23, 2010, and then firing eight shutout innings against the same lineup a month later on Father’s Day.
Though the win train came to a screeching halt this week against the Barves, the Yankees have still played excellent baseball in June, and should be able to win this weekend’s series.
That said, don’t be surprised to see Niese and Dickey totally own, especially given that they’ll each be pitching in their home ballpark, where they’ve both unsurprisingly done their best work. Oh, and in case you aren’t tired yet of Dickey stats, the man owns a 1.20 ERA at Citi Field this year.
On the flip side, with any luck, perhaps all of this Dickey nonsense will result in the biggest reverse jinx of all time, with the Yanks knocking him out after three innings on the strength of a 9-10 performance with RISP, moonshots to the deepest part of Citi Field and several amazing defensive plays by Raul Ibanez, forcing everyone’s heads to collectively explode.
The Yankees welcome the Mets to the Bronx this weekend for the first of two home-and-homes they’ve played against each other every season since 1999 — though there are rumblings that the annual six games against the Mets could be a thing of the past with Houston moving to the American League next year. The Yankees are 49-35 all time against the Mets during Interleague Play, though despite this relative dominance I certainly won’t miss playing the Metropolitans six times a year if changes do come to pass.
The Bombers went 4-2 last season against a bruised and battered Mets team, winning both series and marking only the 7th time in 15 seasons that the Yankees won the season series (the teams have split the season series six times). This year’s Mets team entered the season with almost no expectations — though I told anyone who would listen during the offseason that I thought their starting pitching would be very good, and while it hasn’t been lights-out it’s still been plenty effective (top seven NL in K/9, BB/9, ERA and FIP) — and to the surprise of everyone, have considerably outplayed expectations to the point of being 32-26 and only 1.5 games out of first place. I’d wager most Mets fans would’ve looked at you as if you were crazy if you told them they’d not only have a winning record on the morning of June 8 but also be within shouting distance of first place.
The staff has been led by a resurgent Johan Santana — still riding high after authoring one of the most important moments in franchise history last Friday after finally breaking the team’s 51-year no-hitter drought — who has come back from shoulder surgery looking every bit the pitcher the Mets gave one of the richest pitching contracts in history to, putting up a 2.38 ERA/2.72 FIP, striking out 9.0 per nine and as usual, limiting the walks, all contributing to him currently residing in the top 10 most valuable starters in the NL by fWAR.
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has continued what has to be one of the quietest runs of sustained success in the Majors — he actually has the 11th-lowest ERA of all qualified starters in MLB since joining the Mets in 2010. If that weren’t enough, Dickey also has — believe it or not – the lowest ERA against the Yankees, minimum two starts, of every starter the Bombers have faced since the beginning of 2010. Granted, it’s only across two starts, but the Yankees should be very happy they don’t have to see Dickey this weekend. Saturday’s starter Dillon Gee has also been effective if a bit unlucky on the season (4.48 ERA/3.59 FIP, 8.32 K/9), while Sunday’s starter Jonathon Niese has probably been the least-effective hurler in the Mets’ rotation thus far but that’s not saying much, as Niese boasts a 4.11 ERA/4.26 FIP and 8.95 K/9.
However, the pitching hasn’t been the entire story for the 2012 New York Mets. The offense currently ranks 5th in the NL with a .318 wOBA/99 wRC+, and much of that is due to David Wright, currently perhaps the hottest hitter in all of baseball, with a .438 wOBA and 182 wRC+ that both clock in at 2nd-best in the NL. That said, if you can navigate around Wright there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of firepower surrounding him. Lucas Duda (122 wRC+) is a threat at cleanup; recently called up journeyman shortstop Omar Quintanilla (141) has hit well above his head in limited duty which means he’ll almost certainly get a key hit or two this weekend; and rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis (110) and even constantly injured Jason Bay (108) are also providing above-average production, so the Mets aren’t without their weapons, although none of these names instill the level of fear that Wright does.
Unfortunately it hasn’t been all champagne wishes and caviar dreams for the Mets, as their bullpen has been the team’s worst-performing unit, with a worst-in-the-NL 5.38 collective ERA. Righties Bobby Parnell and Jon Rauch set up closer Frank Francisco, while Tim Byrdak and Miguel Batista hold down the fort in the middle innings.
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday, June 8, 2012 at 7:10 p.m. LHP Johan Santana vs. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
You already know about Santana’s season — who had his most recent start pushed back to this game in the aftermath of his career-high 134 pitches used to secure the no-no — and stuff-wise he’ll attack hitters with his 89mph four-seamer 46% of the time and knock them out with one of the best changeups (2.38 wCH/C) in the game. Santana also chucks an 81mph slider 18% of the time and a sinker 14% of the time. Despite a career 4.18 ERA vs. the Yanks, Johan has always been a tough assignment for the Bombers, who haven’t seen him since they beat him behind a Mark Teixeira grand slam on Father’s Day in 2010.
HIROK! has historically fared rather poorly against the Mets, pitching to a 5.75 ERA in 36 innings across seven career starts.
Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:15 p.m. RHP Dillon Gee vs. RHP Phil Hughes
The groundballing (54.6%) Gee throws a 90mph sinker 28% of the time, four-seamer 26%, 83mph changeup 23% and 74mph curve 10% of the time. Though he primarily relies on the sinker, his changeup is actually one of the better weapons on the team, as it currently ranks 11th-most effective by wCH/C in the National League. Gee has one career start against the Yankees which came last July 2, and he started out strong before they rallied for four runs in the 6th inning en route to a 5-2 victory.
Hughes missed the subway series last year, and has two career starts against the Mets, both coming in 2010. In the first, he got hit around at Citi Field for four runs in 5.2 innings, and was much better a month later, holding the Mets to three runs over seven at Yankee Stadium.
Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 1:05 p.m. LHP Jonathon Niese vs. LHP Andy Pettitte
Niese is a fastball-heavy lefty, with a 91mph four-seamer (42%), 87mph cutter (21%) and 90mph sinker (13%). He also has a 75mph curve that he’ll throw roughly one-fifth of the time to both righties and lefties. Like Gee, Niese has also only faced the Yankees once, and held them to three runs in 6 innings last July.
The Mets always seem to find ways to win games they shouldn’t when playing the Yankees, even during their bad seasons, and so with the Mets currently playing very good ball this is a fairly tough call.
It’ll be interesting to see if Johan shows any ill effects from the career-high pitch count from last Friday — if he’s anything close to the guy that threw the no-hitter, he’ll be a tough match-up. The Gee-Hughes game seems like a complete wild card, as who knows whether Hughes will come out roaring like he did against the Tigers or follow up a superb outing with a clunker for seemingly the 1,000th time in his career. I also don’t know how I feel about the Niese-Pettitte game, as the Mets’ starters of recent seasons seem to be very good at bending slightly against the Yankees but not breaking. Of course, Pettitte’s been mostly ageless thus far in his comeback, and it’s hard to pick against him right now.
I think the Yankees probably lose the Santana-Kuroda game (although in one of those random scheduling quirks, the Yankees are actually 8-1 on Friday this season, with their one loss coming back on Opening Day) and then bounce back to take the Saturday and Sunday games behind continued strong performances from Hughes and Pettitte.
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The Yankees are in Detroit tonight for the first of seven games they’ll play at Comerica Park this season — three now, and another four in August. The Yankees are 22-25 all-time during the regular season at Comerica (and 1-3 in the postseason), and the only ballpark they’ve played worse baseball at since 2000, minimum 7 games, is Angel Stadium.
Detroit’s had a 2012 somewhat similar to the Yankees in that both teams entered the year with high expectations that neither have yet lived up to. In particular, Detroit is coming off a 12-16 May (and you thought the Yankees’ 14-14 month was lousy), and just dropped three of four at Boston before salvaging the finale last night. In adding Prince Fielder, Detroit was expected to boast one of the top offenses in the league; instead to date they’ve fielded an essentially league-average attack, at 102 wRC+ on the nose.
Old friend Austin Jackson has been Detroit’s best hitter on the season, not to mention one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball, as he boasts a 169 wRC+, but he’s also currently in the DL. Miguel Cabrera (137 wRC+) and Prince Fielder (140) are raking, although Cabrera hasn’t been at quite the superhuman level he hit at last season. Of course, that doesn’t make him any less fearsome.
Left-fielder Andy Dirks has been the biggest surprise on the team, with an outstanding .388 wOBA, while Alex Avila has struggled early to match his 2011 breakout season but has come on of late (112 wRC+). Rookie center-fielder Quinton Berry has raked in a very small sample in place of Jackson thus far, but he figures to come back to earth soon enough. The remainder of Jim Leyland’s everyday lineup is rather underwhelming, with Jhonny Peralta (92 wRC+), Delmon Young (85), Brennan Boesch (71) and Ramon Santiago (45!) providing anywhere from below-average to replacement-level to horrendous production. However, Peralta picked things up considerably in May, with a 115 wRC+.
The Tiger bullpen has put up the worst ERA in the AL but the third-best FIP, due in part to the highest BABIP in the league (.316) by a good margin. Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel have split set-up duties and are killing it, as both are striking out more than 13 men per nine and mostly keeping the ball in the yard. Closer Jose Valverde hasn’t quite been his usual dominant self (4.43 ERA/4.55 FIP; 7.5 K/9 against 10.3 for his career, 0.0 fWAR), but every other current member of the bullpen has provided positive value.
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday, June 1, 2012 at 7:05 p.m. LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP Casey Crosby
ALERT. ALERT. ALERT. Not only is Casey Crosby a dreaded starter-they’ve-never-seen-before, but he’s making his Major League debut against the Yankees tonight. And he’s a southpaw! That is, literally, the trifecta of certain Yankee doom; the only thing worse would be if Crosby couldn’t crack 90mph with his fastball; alas, he apparently has mid-90s heat. According to the first scouting report Google turned up, he also features a usable curveball and work-in-progress changeup.
Now in fairness, the Yankees of more recent vintage haven’t struggled quite as poorly against guys-they’ve-never-seen-before as the 2010 team seemed to. While Yu Darvish and Crosby’s Tiger teammate Drew Smyly own the 3rd- and 4th-best-pitched games by Game Score against the Yankees this season, the Yankees did pummel Tyson Ross and Will Smith.
The Bombers have also only faced three hurlers making their MLB debuts as starters since the beginning of 2011 — the Angels’ Garrett Richards, who they tagged for 6 runs in 5 innings last August; Wei-Yin Chen, back in the fifth game of this season, who gave up 2 ER (4 total) in 5.2 IP; and the aforementioned Smith, who they got for five runs in 3.1 innings last week. Additionally, the latter two throw with their left hand, so obviously a rookie LHP starter isn’t quite the death sentence I’m making it out to be. I doubt anyone would be surprised to see the Yankees either hang 7 runs on Crosby in 2 innings or Crosby shut the Yankees out over seven.
Saturday, June 2, 2012 at 7:15 p.m. RHP Hiroki Kuroda vs. RHP Rick Porcello
Doug Fister was originally slated to make this start before Detroit placed him on the DL; instead, Rick Porcello gets bumped from Friday to tonight. Porcello appears to have taken yet another step backwards this season, and one can’t help but wonder, similar to the Yankees’ situation with Phil Hughes, whether the Tigers might finally stop giving the youngster opportunities to prove himself. The extreme sinkerballer (51% of all pitches thrown) continues to strike no one out, and his peripherals outside of a low walk rate and nice GB% are rather middling across the board. That Porcello allows so many balls in play with one of the most porous infields in baseball behind him has been lost on no one, and it’s entirely possible that Porcello could be a reliable mid-rotation starter on a team with a top-shelf defense. But in Detroit, he’ll likely continue to struggle to be more than a #5.
Porcello also throws a 92mph four-seamer 19% of the time, an 84mph slider 16% of the time and 82mph changeup 11% of the time, none of which are currently above-average by pitch values per 100 thrown. Porcello’s faced the Yankees four times in the regular season and has alternated terrible starts with strong ones. The Bombers of course last saw Porcello in October, and got to him for four runs over six innings en route to forcing a decisive Game 5 in the 2011 ALDS. Every time Porcello takes the hill against the Yankees I expect them to touch him up but then he’ll go out and throw a gem, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what the Bombers do in this one.
HIROK! has one career start against the Tigers, and it came in 2010 at Los Angeles. I’ve been mostly disappointed by Kuroda’s results thus far — we all expected the K rate to decline, but I didn’t think it would get below 6.0/9, and like everyone else in the starting rotation he’s been way too homer prone — although he’s still managed to do a mostly reasonable job of giving the team a chance to win every five days, even if the process hasn’t always been pretty.
Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 1:05 p.m. RHP Phil Hughes vs. RHP Justin Verlander
If Michael Kay is doing the Detroit series, you’ll undoubtedly hear a lot about how Justin Verlander has a career 4.16 ERA against the Yankees over 62.2 regular season innings. Strangely, the only team that his hit him harder in as many or more innings is the Indians. For whatever reason, the Yankees generally seem to be able to hang 3-4 runs on Verlander despite the righty being arguably the most dominant pitcher in the game.
That said, Verlander is once again making a mockery of the American League, and currently leads all of baseball in fWAR while pitching to a 2.55 ERA/2.32 FIP. We all know Verlander is as good as it gets, and this will easily be the Yankees’ toughest assignment of the weekend.
Verlander sets his prey up with a vicious 96mph fastball (thrown 61% of the time), stuns them with an 85.5mph change, and knocks ‘em out with an 81mph curve (19%) that currently ranks as the 2nd-most valuable in baseball by wCU/C.
The Yankees are catching a fairly big break in missing Max Scherzer this time around, as Scherzer has given the Yankees fits since 2009 despite underwhelming performances against seemingly everyone else (though they did get to him for three runs over 4.2 innings back in late April).
The Yankees really have to take the Friday game behind Sabathia in what on paper should be the weekend’s biggest mistmatch (although Verlander against Hughes isn’t exactly a fair fight, either), though I’m reluctant to predict two of three this weekend, especially given the team’s historical struggles at Comerica.
For last month’s wrap-up, please click here. I went a little overboard collecting data this month, so I’ll try to make this as brief as possible.
The Yankees played a decidedly mediocre month of baseball in May, going 14-14 and splitting both their home and road contests. They’re probably lucky to have managed a .500 record considering they gave up slightly more runs than they scored, but all things considered one can’t complain too much about the mostly uninspired ball the team played seeing as how they didn’t lose any games in the standings. Although that 4.0 runs per game mark is pretty sad considering they never even dipped below 4.5 runs per game during any one calendar month over the last two seasons.
Despite one of the most wretched stretches of futility in recent Yankee history mid-month, the team still wound up with an above-average attack in May (107 wRC+), although in reality the team’s primary issue wasn’t putting runners on but actually taking advantage of their opportunities and scoring those runners. Unfortunately I can’t split RISP down by month — I can’t imagine how gross the team’s numbers would’ve been in May — but on the season the Yankees have a .309 wOBA/90 wRC+ with runners in scoring position, which is just unacceptable for a team with this much firepower. I still expect things will even out in due course, but it doesn’t make the futility any less frustrating to watch.
On an individual level, Robinson Cano finally remembered he was Robinson Cano, putting up a .399 wOBA/152 wRC+, and the much-maligned Mark Teixeira (137 wRC+) and the slightly lesser-maligned Alex Rodriguez (131 wRC+) also provided output closer to their career norms, though the latter’s line remains rather punchless (.431 SLG in May; .424 overall). Raul Ibanez also continued to do work, with a big-time .397 wOBA/151 wRC+. On the flip side, Russell Martin‘s hitting woes continued, with a below-average (though fairly well above-average for a catcher) .313 wOBA/93 wRC+; while Derek Jeter‘s hot hitting cooled off as he turned in a .315 wOBA/94 wRC+ month.
However, most surprising was Nick Swisher, who went from red-hot in April to completely useless in May, with a .242 wOBA/44 wRC+ showing. This was Swish’s second consecutive sub-par May (last year .293/78); hopefully he can get back to where he’s supposed to be in June.
After a horrific start to the season, the starting rotation got somewhat back on track on May, although the staff’s most glaring weakness — susceptibility to the longball — actually got even worse. I keep waiting for the HR/9 to regress, and while it seems unlikely that the Bombers’ starters will go an entire year giving up home runs at an absurd 1.63 per nine clip — only five teams in the last decade featured rotations that even posted 1.5 HR/9 rates for a full season, and the highest of those five was 1.59 by the 2003 Rangers — they are going to have to cut the longball crap out if they intend to both make and make a deep run in the playoffs. Of the bottom 30 rotations by HR/9 in that link, only three made the postseason — the 2006 Twins (1.37 HR/9), the 2007 Phillies (1.35) and 2009 Phillies (1.34).
As usual, CC Sabathia led the way with another badass month of May, although even he wasn’t immune to the home run (1.14 per nine); Hiroki Kuroda continued to outpitch underwhelming peripherals (3.96 ERA/5.01 FIP); Andy Pettitte returned to the team for the first time since October 2010 and didn’t skip a beat, helping lend some stability to the rotation; while Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova continued to play which-young-Yankee-righthander-will-get-demoted-first, as Hughes’ season line sits at 5.64 ERA/5.04 FIP despite a stretch of four better-than-expected starts, while Nova continued to give up rockets all over the field en route to a 5.60 ERA/5.02 FIP on the year. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Hughes’ and Nova’s struggles is that they continue to strike a lot of hitters out and mostly limit the walks, but they are making far too many mistakes and when they do, those mistakes are getting crushed. Incredibly, Hughes’ 1.7 HR/9 was actually an improvement from April’s 2.9 rate.
For the second straight month, the bullpen was the team’s most consistent component — not to mention remained one of the most effective units in the AL — which is pretty amazing considering Mariano Rivera didn’t pitch and David Robertson threw 3.1 innings. Boone Logan wins the award for most ridiculous line of the month, with a 15.4 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, zero home runs, .538 BABIP, 4.82 ERA and -0.08 FIP. Yes, negative.
Platoon and Home/Road Splits
Because I am a glutton for punishment, I also compiled the team’s platoon and home/road splits for the first time ever in a monthly wrap-up, to see what, if any, trends have emerged.
As you can see, the offense has turned in nearly identical performances against both righthanders and lefthanders. I was probably most surprised to see that the offense has performed slightly better on the road than at home — in particular, the team somewhat surprisingly leads the AL in road ISO, although they did come in 2nd in the AL in that category last year, so I suppose it’s not that bizarre.
The pitching staff has been getting absolutely brutalized by righthanded hitters, giving up a league-worst 1.44 home runs per nine to righties and league-worst .465 slugging. Lefties have been kept at bay slightly more effectively, although they’re still doing their share of damage. And it may surprise some of you that the staff has pitched better at home thus far this season despite Yankee Stadium’s friendly offensive confines, though they are still giving up way too many extra-base hits.
For the first time since 2009, the Yankees kick off their Interleague slate with a team other than the Mets as they welcome the Cincinnati Reds to the Bronx tonight for the first time since 2008.
That Yankee team dropped two of three to the Reds at home, while last year’s squad took two of three at Cincinnati last June. The 2011 series at the Great American Ballpark featured what to this day probably remains Ivan Nova’s finest career start (at 8.0 innings, it’s still his longest-ever outing), as well as a huge outing from Reds ace Johnny Cueto (and two homers from Chris Heisey of all people) in the finale, helping Cincinnati stave off a sweep.
The Reds come into this series at 19-18 and in 2nd place in what appears to be a rather weak NL Central, with a zero run differential largely on the strength of their bullpen, which is 4rd in the Majors in ERA and first in FIP. The bullpen’s stellar performance is almost solely the result of the work of Aroldis Chapman, who’s been the best reliever in the game thus far on the season, having yet to allow an earned run and striking out an outrageous 15.9 men per nine, and nearly 50%(!) of all batters he’s faced — both marks are tops among all relievers in MLB. Closer Sean Marshall is also taking care of business, giving the Reds one of the best end-games in the bigs.
Cincinnati’s starting rotation has been slightly below-average in the aggregate (103 ERA-/108 FIP-), although Cueto is once again killing it (1.89 ERA/3.30 FIP), despite a sub-6.0 K/9. My initial thought was that he was presumably getting it done with groundballs, but he’s only at 45%. What he is doing is limiting the damage like few other starters in the game at the moment, as his 84.8% strand rate ranks ninth among all qualified starters in MLB. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but he’s been tough with runners on (92 sOPS+) and even tougher with runners in scoring position (76 sOPS+). Everyone else in the Reds’ rotation has pitched to mostly mediocre results — aside from Bronson Arroyo, for some reason — but the Yankees will of course see both Cueto and Arroyo this weekend.
One aspect that’s been a hallmark of recent Reds teams that has been largely missing from the 2012 squad is a robust offense — the team currently boasts a Seattle Mariners-esque 85 wRC+. Joey Votto (184 wRC+) and Jay Bruce (149 wRC+) are monsters, but outside of those two Cincinnati’s lineup only features two other above-average hitters, second-year third baseman Todd Frazier (170 wRC+) and catcher Ryan Hanigan (101 wRC+) and so the Yankees would do well to avoid Votto and Bruce like the plague and challenge the remainder of a rather unimpressive lineup.
Of course, the Yankees have had their own unique and frustrating brand of offensive challenges in the month of May. Last night’s pathetic 4-1 loss to the Blue Jays — their fourth loss in their last five games, with three of those losses coming at the hands of pitchers they should have absolutely obliterated in Kevin Millwood, Kyle Drabek and rookie Drew Hutchison and all four losses featuring the Yankees scoring two runs or less — put the team in rarefied air, as according to ESPN’s Katie Sharp, it was 9th time in 38 games the Yankees scored 1 run or fewer, something that hasn’t happened to the team since 1984(!). The other mind-blowing stat that followed last night’s game came from Jack Curry, who noted that the Yankees are three for their last 41(!) with runners in scoring position. That’s almost impossibly bad, and stands to correct itself in short order.
Still, despite a heaping amount of offensive ineptitude during May, the Yankees have rather surprisingly actually boasted an above-average offense on the month, with a 105 wRC+. As frustrating as the team has been to watch for much of the past two weeks, we know the talent on the roster is better than this. With the starting pitching continuing to improve — although it’s pretty sad that a 5.07 ERA in May constitutes improvement — once the bats wake up we should see a vastly different Yankee team sooner rather than later.
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday, May 18, at 7:00 p.m. RHP Bronson Arroyo vs. LHP Andy Pettitte
In 39.2 career innings against the Bombers, Arroyo has been tagged for a .294/.358/.479 line. The one thing working in Arroyo’s favor is that the Yankees haven’t seen him in seven(!) years, so don’t be too surprised if he’s able to take advantage of some classic guy-the-Yankees-have-never-faced-before chicanery. The incredibly slow-throwing (86mph four-seamer, 87mph two-seamer) Arroyo makes judicious use (27%) of his slow 76mph slider and complements it with a sinker (20%). Given sinkerballers’ relative success against the Yankees of recent vintage, along with the fact that Arroyo also has a curveball, changeup and cutter, which means he features six pitches at least 10% of the time, this may also spell trouble for the Bombers. But again, given Arroyo’s weak-ish peripherals (6.7 K/9, 35% GB%, .333 BABIP), it would be pretty disappointing if the Yankee offense can’t get to its onetime Boston nemesis.
Saturday, May 19, at 1:00 p.m. RHP Homer Bailey vs. RHP Ivan Nova
Bailey is a righthander the Yankees have never faced before, which has at times been a death knell for the Yankees. However, Bailey has also occasionally been referred to as Cincinnati’s version of Phil Hughes, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective. Bailey has a 93mph fastball he uses 50% of the time, a 93mph two-seamer he uses 16% of the time, an 87mph slider he uses 17% of the time, an 85mph change (9%) and a 78mph curveball (8%), so aside from the mutual disappointment surrounding the respective developments of the one-time can’t-miss young righthanders, they don’t really have anything in common arsenal-wise aside from live fastballs.
Sunday, May 2o, at 1:00 p.m. RHP Johnny Cueto vs. LHP CC Sabathia
Cueto relies primarily on his 92mph two-seamer (38%), complementing it with an 82mph slider (28%), 92mph four-seamer (17%) and 84mph changeup (16%). Cueto’s repertoire doesn’t exactly scream overpowering, but I’d gather the mix of two-seamer/slider as opposed to the more traditional four-seamer/slider has had something to do with his success. Cueto got roughed up in his previous outing against the Braves, only going four and giving up six runs (five earned). Sabathia himself will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing start in Baltimore, and is facing the Reds for the first time since he was a member of the Brewers in 2008.
Between the Yankees’ significantly superior offensive unit — at least, on paper — along with the fact that the Reds have been even worse during May (88 wRC+) than the Bombers have plus seemingly favorable matchups in both the Friday and Saturday games, the Yankees should probably take two of three from the Reds. Though that may be asking a lot of a team that just dropped three straight winnable games to division rivals.
If they can take the first two obviously there’s a lot to like about their chances for a sweep with Sabathia on the hill on Sunday, although Cueto is just the kind of tough hard-throwing righthander that’s given the Yankees a lot of trouble this season, and I don’t know that I feel confident enough in the current feast-or-famine iteration of the Yankee offense to topple Cueto.
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In the aftermath of yet another strong Jeff Niemann performance against the Yankees — whose seven-inning, one-run outing last night improved his career ERA against New York to 2.75 over six starts — I couldn’t help but wonder what Niemann’s overall numbers against the Bombers looked like in relation to other starters that have consistently had success when facing the team.
Going back to the beginning of 2009, here are the top 10 starters against the Yankees by lowest ERA (minimum three starts), courtesy of David Pinto’s wonderful day-by-day database:
Most of the names on this list would probably align with Yankee fans’ perceptions of pitchers the team typically struggles against — and frankly I was shocked that King Felix’s name didn’t top the list. His aberrant start last September slightly skewed his numbers, but prior to that completely out-of-character dud, no pitcher in baseball had had more success against the Yankees. Felix had thrown 40 innings of six-run ball (1.35 ERA) against the Yankees, including 24 innings of one-run ball (0.38 ERA!) at Yankee Stadium dating back to the beginning of 2010, and not having been saddled with a loss against the Bombers since May 3, 2008.
However, there are a couple of eye-openers — I can’t say I expected Carl Pavano to make the top 10, although I suppose that makes some sense given his unique brand of right-handed slop. And the other is Niemann, who, believe it or not, has the third-lowest ERA among all starters against the Yankees since the beginning of 2009, his first full season in the bigs. Now, I don’t mean to knock on Niemann, who clearly has the Yankees’ number, but it does seem a bit odd that a hurler who’s been a decidedly average — if not below-average — right-hander during his career (102 ERA-; 105 FIP-) would be so successful against the best offensive team in baseball during that timeframe.
For the most part, aside from Niemann and Pavano, almost everyone else in that group makes sense — hard-throwing, high-strikeout right-handers, but I was also curious to see whether there were any other similarities among this group that might uncover why they’ve routinely stymied the Bombers’ bats. Courtesy of Brooks’ Pitcher Cards, here’s what each pitcher in the top 10 throws and how hard they throw it:
Here’s where things get interesting. Four of the top five pitchers in this study throw a sinker more than 30% of the time, and the fifth — Niemann — just misses that cutoff, at 29% of the time. Additionally, both Pavano and Jake Arrieta are also sinker-heavy, which means that seven of the top 10 throw a sinker more than 25% of the time.
Of course, it’d be easy to say, “well maybe the Yankees just stink against sinkers,” but that’s not even remotely true, as they have the second-best wSI/C in baseball since 2009. Still, there’s something about this variety of sinkerballer — several of whom also prominently feature a curve (Hernandez, Niemann, Haren and Arrieta each go to the hook more than 10% of the time) — that seem to have the Yankees’ goose cooked.
With one month officially in the books it’s time for this year’s inaugural edition of the Yankees Monthly Wrap-Up series. For those unfamiliar with my monthly rundowns, feel free to check previous editions out here.
At 13-9 (1.5 games out of first), April 2012 was a solid month overall for the Yanks despite some of the worst starting pitching any of us have seen from the team in quite some time. By comparison, a year ago the Yanks finished out April 15-9 and were 1.5 games up in first.
The Yankee offense — and bullpen — were the reasons the team was able to compile a winning record in April. Not much to complain about here, as the Bombers had the second-highest wOBA in the AL after the Rangers, and the best offense in the game when adjusted for park and league. Interestingly, the Yankees’ .358 team wOBA in April was better than every monthly wOBA they put up in 2011 except for last August, when they annihilated the ball to the tune of a .378 wOBA. Out of the Yankees’ last 67 months’ worth of play (dating back to the beginning of the 2001 season), this was the team’s 21st-best monthly offensive performance by wOBA, and the 8th-best by wRC+.
The Yankees somewhat oddly hit a slightly-below-league average percentage of fly balls, but when they did put them in the air they cleared the fence at the best rate in the league. Less surprisingly they saw a below-league-average percentage of fastballs — I say less surprisingly because, as always, they hammered the fastball (top wFA/C in the league). They also saw the second-highest percentage of two-seamers.
On an individual basis, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher carried the day, and their significantly above-average performances helped pick up the disappointing months put up by notorious slow-starter Mark Teixeira (87 wRC+), and, more surprisingly, Robinson Cano (93 wRC+). I’m actually fairly surprised more hasn’t been made of Cano’s nonexistence at the plate thus far; he’s given the team almost nothing and it’s kind of crazy to think how good the offense could be if he were contributing. Russell Martin also had a forgettable month (88 wRC+), but he’s not expected to shoulder a significant portion of the offensive load. For those wondering, Jesus Montero hit .259/.271/.420 in April, while the Yankees have gotten .236/.304/.393 out of the players that have hit in the DH slot so far this season.
I more or less covered the Yankees’ wretched April starting pitching on Friday, but it’s worth nothing that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were able to help keep the Yankees from registering their worst month of starting pitching in 10 years, though at 5.80 they did secure their second-worst month of collective starters’ ERAs since 2002.
At varying points during April CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova each looked very good, but each also contributed some shaky starts. Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes were flat-out terrible. If he had enough innings to qualify Hughes’ horrendous 2.9 HR/9 would be second-worst in all of baseball.
The bullpen was insane in April, with a 2.00 ERA that was the team’s third-lowest monthly ERA of its last 61 months. While ERA is a flawed metric — even moreso for relief pitchers — that’s still pretty ridiculous. The only months the Yankees’ relief corps have pitched to a lower ERA since 2002 were August 2002 (1.57) and August 2010 (1.82). I hope you all enjoyed the Yankee bullpen relief performance in April, because we won’t be seeing it again for a while.
Any conversation about the bullpen has to start and end with David Robertson, who continued the stretch of dominance he kicked off a year ago by allowing no earned runs over 11 innings and striking out 14.73 men per nine in April. One of these days D-Rob might give up a run, but let’s hope it doesn’t happen again for a long, long time. David Phelps was the only member of the ‘pen who really registered a “poor” performance by the numbers, although his ability to mop up multiple innings while mostly still keeping the team close was certainly useful, and his ledger is partially skewed by a presumably unsustainable propensity for giving up the long ball (2.04 HR/9). If Phelps can throw to an ERA anywhere near what xFIP thinks he can (4.11), he’ll be a more-than-serviceable replacement for Sweaty Freddy as the fifth starter.
It’s no secret that the Yankees’ collective starting pitching has not lived up to expectations thus far on the young season. While there’s nowhere to go but up at this point, I was curious to see how the team’s woeful April performance — at 5.73, the Yankee starters have put up the second-worst collective ERA in MLB; the only team with a worse mark is Minnesota. Boston’s starters, after a week of beating up on the AL Central, brought their mark down to 5.71 — stacked up against previous Yankee teams, so I went back and collected the last 10 years worth of monthly Yankee starting pitching ERAs.
If the Yankee starters were to finish April out at their current 5.73 ERA, it would represent the second-worst mark the team has put up in a month in the last 10 seasons. The worst was April 2007’s 5.94, much of which was due to Kei Igawa being allowed to throw 20.2 innings of 7.84 ERA ball, although Chien-Ming Wang‘s 5.84 in 12.1 innings and Chase Wright’s 7.88 in 8 innings didn’t help things, either.
Now obviously ERA only tells a very small and flawed portion of the story. I was also curious to see how the team got to this point and whether they were doing anything substantially different, so I grabbed their PITCHf/x stats for April 2012, April 2011, and the MLB average.
The first thing that jumps out is the team’s deployment of the four-seamer appears to be way down from a year ago in favor of more sinkers and way more sliders. And this is problematic in that the rotation’s sinkers are collectively getting crushed to the tune of -5.3 runs above average and -1.91 per 100 pitches thrown. The latter figure is 92%(!) worse than league average. This appears to be due to location issues — the team is leaving its sinkers closer to the middle of the plate horizontally than the league, and its sinkers are rising nearly an inch-and-a-half higher. As always, we need to approach the classification algorithm with some wariness, but if this data is accurate it helps partially explain why the execution’s been so poor.
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the primary culprits for the poor sinker showing is CC Sabathia, who TYA’s Mike Eder noticed last week was leaving the pitch up during his first few innings against the Twins until correcting whatever flaw in his mechanics led to this happening. Given Sabathia’s improvement in the latter half of the Twins game and strong showing against the Rangers last Monday, I wouldn’t expect the sinker to be an issue going forward. Sweaty Freddy’s sinker has been the worst in baseball in the early going, though I have less confidence that he’ll be able to rectify his situation.
The other bizarre aspect relating to the Yankee starters’ performance this month is that their peripherals have been, for the most part, outstanding.
They’ve been striking a ton of men out — second-highest K/9 in the AL, behind Chicago by 0.01 — and walking almost no one. The team’s biggest bugaboo has been the home-run ball. Surprisingly the starters haven’t even given up the most total home runs in the AL, but on a rate basis they’ve been abysmal, with a second-worst-in-MLB 1.73 HR/9, and a 17.3% HR/FB% ranking third-worst. They also have the highest BABIP in the league by a not-small margin, and all three of these figures are way, way above league average.
Despite all of this starting ineptitude, at 10-8 the team is only two games behind where it was last year after 18 games, and two games better than the 2007 team and its decade-worst monthly ERA. Even better news for Yankee fans is that it would be almost impossible for the team’s starters to perform any worse than they have, and hopefully they start turning it around sooner rather than later.
For the second straight season the Red Sox have gotten off to about as frustrating a start as both the team and fanbase could imagine, stumbling out to a 4-8 record due largely to some utterly abysmal pitching. Boston’s pitching staff — a significant question mark heading into the year — has been horrendous, and is currently dead last in MLB with a 6.20 ERA (an astoundingly bad 6.63 for the bullpen, and an equally poor 5.97 for the starters) and third-to-last with a 4.78 FIP. Somehow the Rays — remember them, the team that swept the Yankees during the first weekend of the season? — actually have a worse bullpen ERA than Boston, at 8.63. I suppose if it’s any consolation to the Fenway faithful, Boston was only 2-10 after its first dozen games in 2011, so it could be worse.
That the Sox have even won four games is a testament to what’s been an exceptionally hot-and-cold offense thus far — one game they’re pasting the opposition with 13 runs, the next getting shutout. The Sox currently rank fifth in the American League in wOBA (.328) and seventh in wRC+ (102), while the Yanks are second in both wOBA (.357) and wRC+ (123). The Sox offense is certainly better than they’ve shown thus far, and, like last April, a visit from their rivals to the south could very well be what helps restore order to the Red Sox.
Of course, the Yankees, at 7-6, have had some of their own issues in the early going as well. Their starting pitching has been nearly as bad as Boston’s, with a 5.59 ERA over 74 innings (for a frame of reference, the 2011 team had a 5.37 ERA over 67 innings through its first 13 games, and were 8-5); however, unlike the Sox, the Yankees feature a bullpen that has been virtually impossible to score on, boasting the lowest ERA in MLB (1.83) by a not-insignificant margin. Additionally, while the Yankee offense has certainly done its job, several key members of the Yankee lineup still have yet to really get going as well — I’m looking at you, Robbie, Alex and Russell — and a visit to one of the friendliest offensive parks in baseball could be just what the doctor ordered.
Today’s 3pm start marks the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, and as a result, both the Sox and Yanks will be wearing throwback jerseys. Per Marc Carig, this is the first time the Yankees have ever worn a throwback jersey (per that same article, the only time the Yankees have played an official game in uniforms other than their own was on a day to celebrate the Negro Leagues in 1996, when the team wore the uniforms of the New York Black Yankees while the Detroit Tigers donned the uniforms of the old Detroit Stars), and it’s quite cool of the franchise to acquiesce and ensure that Boston’s big day is properly recognized considering the history between the two teams.
The Pitching Match-Ups
Friday at 3pm: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Clay Buchholz
Today’s game features Ivan Nova (4.15 ERA/4.06 FIP, 10.4 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 41% GB%), making just his second career start at Fenway, against Clay Buchholz (9.82 ERA/4.45 FIP, 5.7 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 44.7% GB%).
Nova struggled (4.1 innings, 4 ER) in his first start at Boston a year ago — also in a matchup against Buchholz — but the offense bailed him out, in what would be the Yankees’ only win against the Red Sox in the first half of 2011. Nova’s been pretty sharp in his two starts thus far — with a presumably unsustainable K/9 and sub-2 walk rate — although his improved K rate appears to have come at the expense of his HR/9, which currently sits at an also-unsustainable 2.1. Though it’s only been two starts, Nova’s slider appears to not only be here to stay, but also the best weapon in his arsenal.
Buchholz has gotten pretty roughed up in his two starts on the young season, as he makes his way back from missing more than half the season last year. If Buchholz ever finally figures out how to consistently harness his stuff — and it looked like he was on his way to doing so after a masterful outing against the Yanks last May — he’s going to be extremely tough, as he features five pitches each thrown more than 10% of the time: a 94mph four-seamer, 94mph sinker, 81mph changeup, 91mph cutter and a 78mph curveball. However, his average fastball velocity is slightly down thus far (although this appears to a baseball-wide April trend), hasn’t really been striking anyone out and he’s also walking too many guys, so hopefully the Yankees can capitalize on what appears to be a still-rusty Buchholz.
Saturday at 4pm: RHP Freddy Garcia vs. LHP Felix Doubront
The 4pm FOX Saturday Afternoon Game of Death™ features the ugliest matchup of the weekend, Freddy “Sweaty” Garcia (6.97 ERA/5.03 FIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 42.4% GB%), against southpaw Felix Doubront (5.40 ERA/2.80 FIP, 11.7 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 27.6% GB%).
Freddy had mixed success against Boston last year, although his one start at Fenway last August was about as good as one could have hoped for, as the Chief gutted out five innings of one-run ball in a game the Yanks really should have won.
Doubront has never started against the Yankees, and only has 4.2 career innings of relief work against the Bombers, holding them to a .188/.235/.275 line across a mere 17 PAs. Doubront’s a hard-throwing lefty with a 93mph heater that he complements with a 92mph sinker and 77mph curveball. He also features a changeup and a cutter. Though it’s quite early, Doubront’s been arguably Boston’s second-best starter behind Daniel Bard, and it’s also tough to predict how he’ll fare turning over a Yankee lineup multiple times. This one could get ugly, my friends.
Sunday at 8pm: LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Daniel Bard
And in the ESPN Sunday Night Marathon Heartbreaker™, guaranteed to end well past midnight or your money back, CC Sabathia (5.59 ERA/3.58 FIP, 10.2 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 36.4% GB%) faces the aforementioned set-up-man-turned-starter Bard (4.63 ERA/2.99 FIP, 10.0 K/9, 6.2 BB/9, 59.4% GB%).
CC finally looked like himself during his last go-round against the Twins, and despite the unsightly ERA, he’s striking out the world and limiting the walks. Once he gets his GB% back to the mid-40%s where it belongs, he’ll be his usual unstoppable self. After starting his Yankee career quite auspiciously against the Red Sox, with 28.1 innings of 2.22 ERA/2.21 FIP ball in 2009, Sabathia’s been a bit of a mixed-bag against the Olde Towne Team, falling to 3.96/5.00 over 25 innings in 2010, and getting torched by Boston through his first four starts against them last year, with a 7.20 ERA over 25 innings and losing all four games. Sabathia finally silenced Boston at Fenway last August 30 with a six-inning, two-run bulldog performance.
Bard’s been Boston’s best starter in the early going, racking up the Ks while yet to surrender a home run, although he’s also walking the ballpark (6.2 BB/9). The Yankees know Bard well, but they obviously don’t know him as a starter. As a reliever Bard’s fastball was routinely in the 97-98mph range, but it has understandably been dialed back to around 94mph as a starter. That still makes him one of the hardest-throwing starters in the game, and his slider is a real knockout pitch, coming in 13mph slower than his four-seamer. Bard also throws a sinker and an occasional change.
There had been some rumblings that the Sox might opt to start Jon Lester on Sunday night, as he would be on regular rest, but Bobby Valentine confirmed yesterday that Bard is still slated to start. Frankly, I’m a bit shocked that the Sox haven’t shuffled their rotation so that Josh Beckett and Lester aren’t somehow combining to start all three games, given how the Red Sox routinely bend themselves backwards to make sure their big two start as many contests as possible against the Yankees.
If you read my Red Sox season preview, then you know that the Yankees are 8-22 at Fenway Park during the month of April since 2001, and have only won their annual April set at Fenway against the Red Sox once (back in April 2010) in that 11-year span. Not only that, but prior to their April 2010 series win, the last time the Yankees had won an April set against Boston at Fenway was in 1975. For whatever reason, the Yankees just seem to play terrible ball at Fenway in the early going of any given season.
That said, if the Yanks were ever going to accomplish a rare April Fenway series win, this weekend would arguably be the time, with the Sox pitching staff reeling, neither Beckett nor Lester scheduled to make an appearance, and a bullpen missing its pre-season closer in Andrew Bailey and an 8th-inning guy that apparently can’t get anyone out and as a result was subsequently demoted to Pawtucket. Of course, even with the Sox not performing at their optimal level I still have a hard time envisioning the Yanks taking two of three at the-bandbox-where-no-lead-is-safe, and fully expect Dustin Pedroia — who hit .406/.463/.565 across 81 PAs against the Bombers last year, and has a career .392 OBP vs. the Yanks — to get on base during every plate appearance and help grit and grime Boston to multiple victories. Also, you can book David Ortiz for 18,000 bombs this weekend as well.
In my history of series predictions I seldom call for a Yanks series loss, but given the numbers the smart money here says Boston two out of three. On the flip side, the Twins just won two games in a series at Yankee Stadium for the first time since 2001, so who knows, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
By now you’ve all read about the fact that the last time the Yankees went 0-3 to start a season was 1998, and we all of course know how that turned out; as well as the last time the Yankees were 0-3 and the Mets 3-0 1985; not to mention the last time both the Yankees and Red Sox started out 0-3 was 1966. This minutiae is important for your next trivia night at the bar, but for all intents and purposes, highly irrelevant.
Forget what you heard from the 2012 season’s first weekend. Three games are simply that — three games — and every team in baseball will lose three games in a row at some point during any given season. It just happens to be that much more magnified at the very start; no one like to see a zero in the win column for any longer than they have to. I happen to think the more interesting bit of trivia concerns when the Yankees last entered a set against the Orioles — currently 3-0 after feasting on the punchless Twins — trailing Baltimore by three games. As best I can tell the answers appear to be the morning of Monday, June 27, 2005, when Baltimore was in 2nd place (2.5 GB) and the Yankees were in third, four games behind the O’s.
In any event, the Yankees last saw Buck Showalter’s crew in early-September, finishing the season series off by playing a three-game set at Yankee Stadium (which the Yanks won, highlighted by Jesus Montero’s first career two-home-run game — and first two career home runs) and then a one-off back down in Camden Yards to make up for what many felt was a questionable postponement a week-and-a-half earlier. The Yankees played some pretty ugly baseball in losing both the game in Baltimore and the game prior by identical 5-4 scores in extra innings, though ultimately neither contest mattered much in the grand scheme of things.
On the whole, the Bombers have flat-out dominated Baltimore during the last decade-plus; since the advent of the unbalanced schedule, the Yankees have gone 135-67 (a .668 winning percentage) against the birds, which is just pure ownership. Of course, pretty much everyone in MLB has had their way with the O’s during this timeframe, who last finished above .500 fourteen seasons ago in 1997 and are coming off four-straight last-place finishes.
Last winter I thought Baltimore actually looked like a team on the rise, as the O’s appeared to have several promising young starting pitchers on the verge of breaking out and an offense that looked quite robust on paper. Alas, onetime-future-lefty-ace Brian Matusz took a massive step backwards; enigmatic-but-talented left-hander Zach Britton — currently on the shelf following plasma therapy and not expected to be ready to go until May at the earliest — got tarred and feathered before showing signs of starting to put it together near the end of the season; and Jake Arrieta had a rough year that saw him continue to feast on the Yankees but get eaten alive by everyone else. Incredibly ineffective starting pitching combined with a middling bullpen led the Orioles’ pitching staff to the worst collective ERA (4.92) and FIP (4.67) in the Majors last season. The offense also struggled, coming in at a below-league-average 97 wRC+.
Unfortunately for the O’s and their fans, things don’t appear to be getting much better for the franchise any time soon, as their very public search for a new general manager during the offseason saw them embarrassingly get turned down by qualified candidate after qualified candidate, until former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette agreed to take the reins after being out of professional baseball for nearly a decade. That the O’s had anywhere from a 0.5% to a 2.2% chance of making the postseason before they even played a single game in 2012 speaks volumes about where the franchise presently stands.
The lineup the 2012 O’s will send out against the Yankees features many of the same names as last year, with the only notable new faces coming in the person of former Bombers Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters make for a formidable one-two punch in the four-five slots while Mark Reynolds (2nd-highest HR/FB% in MLB last year) is always a home-run threat when he’s not busy striking out, but the remainder of the lineup is relatively uninspiring. J.J. Hardy had a nice season last year but needs to show he can do it again, while many have been waiting three years for Nick Markakis to replicate his breakout 2008 season to no avail. Still, while the O’s are a virtual lock for a fifth-straight last-place finish, this is still a team that’s going to score some runs and annoyingly win some ballgames it probably has no business winning.
In tonight’s opener the Yankees will send Ivan Nova, fresh off an ugly spring, to the hill against the lefty Matusz, who had a better spring than Nova (3.65 ERA in 24.2 IP) but still has a fair amount to prove after the pasting he took last year. Matusz is pretty close to being a classic slop-throwing lefty, but his average fastball is just over 90mph, so he’s not quite in Jason Vargas territory. His bread-and-butter is his change, which comes in ~8mph slower than his fastball and is his only above-average Whiff/Swing pitch. Matusz will also mix in a sinker (15% of the time), curve (11%) and slider (8%). The slider took a step backwards last year — as did basically his entire repertoire — but has been one of his better pitches despite relatively infrequent deployment.
Tomorrow night’s game features Freddy Garcia vs. former Nippon Professional Baseball player and MLB rookie Wei-Yin Chen. Chen, a Taiwanese left-hander who the O’s signed to a three-year deal with a club option this past winter, won the fifth starter slot in the O’s rotation thanks in part to a strong spring (3.60 ERA in 20 IP). Chen apparently throws a low-90s fastball, slider, splitter/forkball and curve. I really have no idea what to expect from Chen in his stateside debut, although I can’t think of too many lefties off the top of my head that feature a splitter, so I’ll be interested to see when and how he deploys that pitch.
And the Wednesday evening finale sees both teams’ rotations turn over as CC Sabathia takes on the aforementioned Arrieta. The righty Arrieta wasn’t quite as good against the Yankees last season as I made him out to be several paragraphs above (4.24 ERA over three starts), but they never seem to blow him out of the water, either. Arrieta features a very live fastball (avg. vel. 93.5mph) that he complements with a sinker (26% of the time), slider (16%), curveball (14%) and occasional change (9%). Arrieta didn’t exactly have an amazing spring (6.14 ERA in 14.2 IP) but still got the opening day nod from Showalter — a strong vote of confidence from his skipper considering cases could have been made for either Tommy Hunter or Jason Hammel. As it so happens, Arrieta rewarded his manager’s faith with seven shutout innings on Opening Day against Minnesota.
I know Mike and Joe historically haven’t offered predictions, but I’ve always enjoyed concluding my series previews with them. The easy call here is Yankees two out of three — I could see them losing one of the first two if Nova can’t shake off his rough spring or the Bombers decide its 2010 all over again and are unable to figure out the previously-unseen Chen, while Sabathia should make quick work of the O’s (who he’s gone 11-2 against as a Yankee) in the finale.