Series Preview: Mets (38-28) at Yankees (41-25)

It’s tough to run comparisons of AL and NL teams. Not only do the have a different number of teams in the league, but there’s also the DH to consider. For instance, should the Yanks have the advantage on defense because they’re not only in a higher league percentile, but because they have to face nine hitters rather than eight hitters and a pitcher? I’d say yes, but because the Mets’ raw number was lower I gave it to them. It might even be best to ignore the Edge category.

Last time the Yankees and Mets met, things didn’t go so well. The Yanks had trouble scoring runs all series — at least until the ninth inning. Even then their rallies came up well short and they ended up dropping two of three. They get a complete rematch this weekend, complete with pitching matchups.

Yanks on offense

The Yanks had no trouble scoring runs in the games leading up to the Mets series. They had, in fact, scored six or more in each of their previous four games. Against the Mets that magic kind of went away, though, and extended into the Minnesota series. From there the offense picked it back up.

It looked like they had really hit their stride on Tuesday when they rocked Roy Halladay. But they managed just four runs in the next two games, including just one last night. The Phillies pitchers did a good job of getting ahead in the count, and that apparently threw the Yanks off their game. That hasn’t dropped the Yanks from their percha top the AL in runs per game, but they have dropped behind the Red Sox in terms of wOBA.

Mets on offense

It took injuries and ineffectiveness to get the job done, but the Mets have a good lineup going right now. The injury to Luis Castillo has forced Jerry Manuel into sane decision making, as he’s moved Angel Pagan into the No. 2 spot. Jose Reyes remains at leadoff and has improved from his understandable early season slump. David Wright, Jason Bay, and Ike Davis form the middle of the order, and despite a general lack of power in that area they do form a formidable troika.

Castillo’s absence, however, has been a net negative. His replacement, 20-year-old Ruben Tejada, sits on an OBP below .300. I’m sure Alex Cora will get a start or two in his place this weekend against one of the righties. I also suspect Chris Carter will DH. He joins Rod Barajas in the bottom part of the order. They both join Marcus Thames in the We Don’t Hit The Ball Often But When We Do It Goes Really Far Club.

Pitching matchups

We’re looking at the exact same pitching matchups as last time. Hopefully the Yanks bats have better success the second time around, and that the Yanks pitchers make more adjustments facing the Mets for the second time. Unfortunately, the Mets have the reverse hopes.

Friday: Hisanori Takahashi (3.48 ERA, 3.27 FIP) vs. Javier Vazquez (5.43 ERA, 5.35 FIP)

Last time this battle was a pitchers’ duel for the ages. The Yanks managed just two runs, but thanks to some stellar pitching by Vazquez that was enough. Since then Takahashi has gone on to post excellent numbers. He’s striking out 8.61 per nine innings and walking 3.31. His biggest advantage comes from the home run, just four allowed in 54.1 innings. Considering his fly ball tendencies, this should correct itself at some point. There might be no better place than Yankee Stadium for that to happen.

Javier Vazquez took a huge step forward in his recovery last time against the Mets. He allowed just one hit through six innings and was going strong until he bunted one off his finger. We’ll just say that the injury affected his grip the next time out, when he got rocked by Minnesota. Since then he’s been nothing short of excellent, carving up lineup after lineup. With the offense struggling the Yanks could use another big night out of Javy. If he limits the homers to the solo variety he should be fine.

Saturday: Mike Pelfrey (2.39 ERA, 3.29 FIP) vs. Phil Hughes (3.11 ERA, 2.90 FIP)

With Johan Santana not exactly being his old dominant self, Mike Pelfrey has taken the reigns. He has been nothing short of excellent this season, improving his strikeout numbers while using his curve/sinker to keep the ball in the park. That, combined with a very high strand rate, has kept his ERA nice and low. He’s done an excellent job in high leverage situations, inducing plenty of ground balls. That’s how you strand runners. He has allowed just five hits in 42 high leverage situations.

The season started out well for Hughes, but he’s faced struggles of late. There’s nothing wrong with that, but his team won’t be able to score nine runs behind him every time like they did last Sunday against Houston. This actually represents a big test for Phil. Last time out he couldn’t finish off the Mets. They kept fouling off his cutter and pounding his other pitches. His ability to slip those pitches by the Mets will be the difference this time around.

Sunday: Johan Santana ( 3.13 ERA, 3.81 FIP) vs. CC Sabathia (4.00 ERA, 4.24 FIP)

Santana’s strikeouts are down, his walks are up slightly, yet he’s still posting good numbers. This is partly because of a very low home run rate. In the past Santana had a high-ish home run rate, but they were mostly of the solo variety. This year he’s allowing fewer despite a steady fly ball rate. It’s Santana, so I wouldn’t predict a correction necessarily. But it’s tough to keep up a 5.5 percent HR/FB ratio, especially when you’re allowing a lot of balls in play. That’s been Santana this year.

The Yanks’ own lefty ace has faced his own struggles. His strikeouts are still a little down, but it took him a while to get into a groove last year. He’s keeping the ball on the ground a bit more, though, which will be even nicer if he maintains it while raising his strikeout rate. Homers have been the culprit for Sabathia, as 12.8 percent of his fly balls have left the park. A correction there would go a long way towards his return to acedom. For what it’s worth, he hasn’t allowed a homer in either of his last two starts.

Series Preview: Yankees (35-22) at Orioles (16-41)

It hasn’t been long since we last previewed a Yankees-Orioles series, so not much has changed since then. But we’ll take a look anyway, if for no other reason than to examine the altered pitching matchups.

There aren’t many differences in terms of numbers, though I’d expect they wouldn’t change drastically during just two series. The Yankees obviously have fallen a bit on offense, and actually saw their FIP rise, almost certainly because of A.J.’s homer-happy Friday. Yet overall their runs per game did decrease.

The Orioles might have a new manager, but that hasn’t changed the team. Some teams go on a run after changing the man at the helm, but those teams are usually better than these Orioles. It’s not like changing one administrative figure — to someone who was already within the organization, at that — will turn around a disappointing team. Some of their guys might come around this year. Adam Jones might start hitting and Brad Bergesen might start pitching well. But changing from Dave Trembley to Juan Samuel isn’t going to accomplish that overnight.

Pitching matchups

Tuesday: Phil Hughes (2.54 ERA, 2.85 FIP) vs. Kevin Millwood (4.29 ERA, 4.71 FIP)

Phil Hughes has faced only one other team two times, the Red Sox, and got hit pretty hard the second time around. By then it looked like the scouting report on him got out, and the Red Sox took advantage by fouling off a ton of pitches. The Mets did the same in Hughes’s next appearance. He did recover in the next, striking out eight Indians in seven innings and then striking out seven Orioles in seven. Will the O’s respond like the Sox?

It’s doubtful, if only because the O’s offense doesn’t hold a flame to the Sox. But it might not be as easy going for Hughes this time around. It’s one thing to face a team for the second time. It’s another to face them six days apart. It’s tough to pick against Phil Hughes against a team like the O’s, but this could be a tough one for him.

On the other end, Millwood has been not so good lately. He did get off to a decent start, giving the Orioles length while keeping the games reasonably close. In three of his last five outings, though, he has allowed five or more runs. His shortest was last time out against the Yanks, in which he lasted 5.2 innings. It’s clear that the Orioles will let him keep going even when he’s getting hit hard. They don’t have many better options in the bullpen.

Wednesday: CC Sabthia (4.14 ERA, 4.53 FIP) vs. Chris Tillman (2 GS, 7 IP, 6 ER)

CC will be the story tomorrow — I’m sure we’ll have something on him in the morning. This season just hasn’t been right for him. He started off strong, but in May he’s faded a bit. This all seems odd, because he’s getting more ground balls and hitters are squaring up pitches poorly (13.1% line drive rate), but when they do hit it in the air the ball has tended to leave the park. This signals a few mistakes, or perhaps less than perfect command. Whatever the problem, it’s left CC off to what looks like a poor start, but what has really been a bad month.

We saw that at work against the Orioles last time out. Sabathia essentially made two mistakes all game, the homers to Jones and Scott. They were costly, though. As I said in the recap, he was absolutely cruising through the first six innings. He was even on pace for a complete game. Yet he appeared to tire in the seventh. Even though he was under 100 pitches, he didn’t come out for the eighth. That does seem a bit concerning.

Tillman, who came to the Orioles in the Erik Bedard trade, is one of the more promising young arms in their system. They demoted David Hernandez to the bullpen in order to clear a rotation spot for Tillman, and he hasn’t yet stepped up to the challenge. While his first start against Toronto went fine enough, the Red Sox absolutely rocked him last time out, scoring four runs and racking up 57 pitches with one out in the second. He’s a talented pitcher, so he surely has a few good games in his arm. It would be a shame to have one of them come this week.

Thursday: A.J. Burnett (3.72 ERA, 4.18 FIP) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (3.71 ERA, 4.40 FIP)

Burnett thought he pitched well on Friday night. Except, of course, for those three homer balls he hung. They do happen, especially when a power pitcher meets a power-hitting team. This time he gets a chance against the Orioles, who likely won’t go as homer happy as the Jays. Burnett continues to show improvements over last year, walking fewer batters while keeping more balls on the ground. His strikeout rate is still far below the standard he’s set, but that will change as his curveball improves.

Jeremy Guthrie has faced the Yanks twice this year, and each time they’ve hammered him. In 11.2 innings he has allowed 11 runs and struck out just six. He put together a nice string of quality starts since then, his worst coming on May 30 against Toronto in which he allowed four in six innings. Before that he went three straight starts with allowing just one run. His last start against Boston was a 7.1-inning affair in which he threw just 95 pitches. That’s very un-Guthrie-like. He normally gets around or above the 100-pitch mark by the sixth.

Series Preview: Yankees (34-20) at Blue Jays (31-24)

Right now the Yankees sit three and a half games ahead of the Blue Jays, but that was just two games a week ago. Unfortunately for the Jays they ran into the first place Rays this week while the Yankees beat up on the Orioles (though Toronto did sweep Baltimore themselves last weekend). This is the second straight tough series for the Jays, and the first time they’ll face the Yanks this season.

I don’t think anyone expected the Jays to be playing this well at this point in the season. Yet looking at their numbers, it appears they’re at least somewhat legit. They rank near the top of the league in hitting and pitching, but just can’t back that up with defense. Imagine what this would look like if they had adequate players in the field? The AL East might be an even tighter race.

On the offensive side, the Jays have impressed with their power. They lead the AL in SLG by a decent margin, 12 points. That will create an interesting matchup on Sunday, when Javy Vazquez, homer prone even on his best day, takes the mound. Beyond power, their offense doesn’t have much of which to speak. Their .248 BA ranks 10th in the AL, and their .312 team OBP ranks 13th, a point below the Mariners.

The real surprise this season has been Jose Bautista. He did reach a career high last year with a .339 wOBA, but that’s just a tick above league average. This year he has destroyed the ball, a .404 wOBA that includes 16 home runs and 12 doubles. He even has a .370 OBP to go with it, thanks to his 15.2 percent walk rate. He’s a huge reason that they’ve been able to cover for one of the worst No. 2 hitters in the league, as well as a disappointing No. 3 hitter.

In terms of their arms, the Jays rank near the top of the league, which is a scary prospect for the future of the AL East. Shaun Marcum has come back stronger than ever after Tommy John surgery, Ricky Romero has made vast strides in his second year, as has Brett Cecil. If Brandon Morrow ever learns to throw strikes that rotation could be one of the strongest in baseball, and they still have a number of high profile guys on the farm.

The deficiency, as the table shows, comes from the fielding. As the table shows, the Jays pitchers have done a good job in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, but on balls in play they’re not quite as strong. That shows up not just in their UZR, but also in their defensive rank vs. their pitching rank. If they had better fielders, perhaps they’d be even higher in the AL East right now.

Pitching matchups

Friday: A.J. Burnett (3.28 ERA, 3.61 FIP) vs. Brett Cecil (3.81 ERA, 3.26 FIP)

I was afraid this was going to happen. When the Jays drafted Cecil he was a college closer. They decided to see if he could stretch out and provide some more value, and that’s exactly what he’s done. It was a rough transition last year, and if not for injuries and a little ineffectiveness in the rotation he would have spent more time at AAA. One bad start has marred his stats, a two-inning, eight-run performance against Texas on May 14. Since then he has started three games, pitching 21.2 innings and allowing just four runs. He’s not a groundball guy per se but can get one when he needs one. e also has excellent control, a BB/9 of just 2.17.

Cecil throws fastball, changeup, slider, with an occasional curveball. The fastball clocks low 90s but he has thrown it only 52.3 percent of the time. He goes to the changeup often, and he’s used it as an effective out pitch this year.

We know the story with Burnett this year: more groundballs, fewer walks. That has led to fewer strikeouts, but that could be more because of his there-today-gone-tomorrow curveball. Even with the lower strikeout total he’s been a far more effective pitcher this year, mainly because he has used at two-seam fastball to play off his four-seamer, especially when his big curveball isn’t working.

Saturday: Andy Pettitte (2.48 ERA, 3.71 FIP) vs. Ricky Romero (3.14 ERA, 2.77 FIP)

This is going to be a tough one for the Yankees. Pettitte has done a great job of keeping the ball in the ballpark this year, which should play to his advantage against the powerful Blue Jays. If he can get them to keep pounding the ball into the ground he should stay in good shape. He’ll need to be at his best, because the Yankees will face one of the hottest, if not best, pitchers they’ve seen all year.

Romero profiles much like Cecil, in that he throws a low 90s fastball. Also like Cecil, he doesn’t rely on it, throwing it just 40.5 percent of the time. He mixes that with a cut fastball at nearly the same speed, and throws that 12.7 percent, so right there he’s around Cecil’s fastball percentage. Furthering the similarity, Romero uses his changeup more than any other secondary pitch. He’ll throw the curveball sometimes, and the slider the least frequently, though when he does throw it he sees results.

As if that weren’t enough, Romero also combines two excellent traits for a pitcher: strikeouts and ground balls. He has struck out more than a batter per inning this year while keeping 56.9 percent of balls in play on the ground. That helps him keep the ball in the park and prevent the other team from getting the big hit. It has worked wonderfully for him so far.

Sunday: Javier Vazquez (6.06 ERA, 5.53 FIP) vs. Brandon Morrow (6.00 ERA, 3.93 FIP)

Someone’s defense apparently doesn’t like him. Then again, maybe it’s just that his walks have come back to bite him far worse than other pitchers. Brandon Morrow came to the Jays from the Mariners in the post Halladay-Lee deals. Picked ahead of Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft, Morrow was something of a disappointment for the Mariners. For the Jays it looks like he could become yet another excellent cog in the rotation.

Yes, part of Morrow’s inflated ERA is his .350 BABIP. That comes from a 23.6 line drive rate, so clearly some of that is his fault. His fielders apparently aren’t helping out either. Morrow also suffers from a low strand rate, 64.4 percent, meaning that his walks, 5.37 per nine, haunt him more than other pitchers. Really, the walks are his biggest problem. That should play well with the Yanks, but if Morrow can improve on that one aspect of his game, well, I’d like to not think about that.

Morrow has more heat than Cecil and Romero, so he uses the fastball more frequently, 63.3 percent. That’s actually less frequently than in seasons past. He has started using his curveball more frequently, and it has proven an effective out pitch. He also throws a good slider, and mixes in the occasional changeup.

Series Preview: Orioles (15-36) at Yankees (31-20)

After taking three of four from the Indians over the weekend, the Yankees face another last place team, this time from their own division as the Orioles come into town for three games.

After a short dry spell the Yanks righted themselves last week, taking series from the first and last place teams in the AL Central. They beat the Twins with quality pitching, and only dropped the final because Javier Vazquez could not match the performances of A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. That pitching magic carried over into the Indians series — the only game they lost came when the pitching staff melted down. The bats also came alive against the Indians. It’s hard to believe that, with all the struggles we’ve seen from the Yanks, that they still lead the league in wOBA by a wide margin.

The Orioles have won the fewest games in the majors, no thanks to a current five-game losing streak. They haven’t won more than three straight this year, a feat they accomplished twice. They’ve gotten quality performances from Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie, the veterans atop their rotation, but haven’t seen much from their youngsters. In fact, David Hernandez realized the best results of the bunch, a 5.08 ERA, and he was the one demoted to the bullpen in favor of Chris Tillman. On offense, a number of disappointing performances, notably from Adam Jones and Miguel Tejada, have led the Orioles to a league-worst showing.

Just about everything, from the overall numbers to the pitching matchups, favors the Yankees this week. That doesn’t mean they’re destined to sweep, although they could certainly use three quick wins this week. The Orioles are vulnerable, and the Yankees look like a Mack truck. These things can turn on a dime, though, so we can’t really expect a sweep. Anything less than two out of three, of course, would represent a disappointment.

Pitching matchups

Tuesday: Brian Matusz (5.76 ERA, 3.81 FIP) vs. Javier Vazquez (6.86 ERA, 5.83 FIP)

This game looks like the Orioles’ best opportunity to steal a win. They’ll go against the weak link in the Yankees’ rotation, and while their own starter has had his problems lately, we can’t count the Orioles out of a slugfest. If the Indians can do it, surely the Orioles can, too.

Matusz started the year with a few solid starts, exiting April with a 4.40 ERA. That’s not bad for a 23-year-old player in his second pro season, especially coming in the AL East. He tripped up a bit in May, getting rocked by the Twins, Rangers, and A’s. He had two decent starts in there, including a seven-inning shutout against Cleveland. The other came against the Yankees, six innings and three runs, though two of the runs were unearned. He faced them in the start before that, too, allowing three earned in six innings.

Vazquez appeared to be recovering from his poor start to the season, but with a chance to sweep the Twins on Thursday, he took a step back. He struggled with command on secondary pitches, which hurt his cause right away. That he couldn’t get a strike call on his low and away slider hurt him further. The Orioles aren’t the Twins, though, so we get to see if Vazquez can respond and give the Yankees another solid start.

Wednesday: Brad Bergesen (5.96 ERA, 5.85 FIP) vs. Phil Hughes (2.70 ERA, 3.03 FIP)

Bergesen did a good job during his brief stint last year, but missed the season’s final two months after taking a comebacker off his leg. He also got off to a slow start this season after suffering a shoulder injury while shooting a commercial. He’s a groundball guy, and that skill hasn’t eluded him this year. A little over 50 percent of balls in play from him have been on the ground. His strikeout stuff, never impressive to begin with, is even worse this year, and he has actually walked more than he has struck out. He’s prone to the longball, which is not a good thing against the Yankees at the Stadium.

After the Red Sox and the Mets gave Phil Hughes a wakeup call, he responded in his last start against Cleveland. it seemed like the previous two teams were sitting on his cutter, fouling it off until he came at them with something in the zone. This time Hughes went to his curveball more often, and with much success. He also used the changeup. That will be more and more critical as the season wears on. It doesn’t have to be a frequently used secondary pitch, but Hughes will benefit from having it in his arsenal. It will, at the very least, prevent hitters from sitting on his cutter.

Thursday: Kevin Millwood (3.89 ERA, 4.47 FIP) vs. CC Sabathia (4.16 ERA, 4.48 FIP)

Kevin Millwood’s K/9 is at its highest level since 2004. His walk rate is at the lowest point of his career. That helps explain his 3.89 ERA. His 4.47 FIP? That’s because of the 1.46 HR/9 rate, right up there with 2001 as the highest in his career. Again, that doesn’t bode well for his matchup with the Yankees. He has handled himself well with diminished stuff, going to his secondary pitches more now that his fastball is 2 mph below the last two years.

The month of May was not kind to CC Sabathia. He had a 3.12 ERA and 3.38 FIP in April, but that jumped to 5.15 and 5.52 in May. Home runs and strikeouts have been the problem, and we can expect CC to put it back together sometime soon. He went through a similar stretch last year, though that was in April. This year it’s May. If it’s just one month, it’s nothing to worry about. If the Yanks take the first two, he’s still the guy I want on the mound to complete the sweep.

Series Preview: Yankees at Twins

If this format looks familiar, it’s because I’m ripping off riffing on the style of Matthew Carruth of Lookout Landing (and FanGraphs). Last Friday we discussed the idea of series previews, and Matthew’s are top notch. I’m going to try to bang out one of these for each future series in 2010.

New York Yankees (26-18) vs. Minnesota Twins (26-18)

The Yankees, as we are painfully aware, have struggled lately, going 4-6 in their last 10 games. Even still, they feature one of the best all-around attacks in the league. Their pitching has been very good, if not frustrating lately. Their rank in FIP is mostly due to the bullpen and its homer-happy ways, though the starters have had a rough go the last pass or two through the rotation. The offense continues to top the league despite injuries and ineffectiveness.

The Twins are on equally cold footing, also having gone 4-6 in their last 10. That counts two losses to the Yankees in the first two games of their previous series. In a stretch where they played Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee, Minnesota went 3-4, dropping both games to Boston. Prior to that they spit a short series with the White Sox and split a long series with the Orioles.

This series figures to be a well-fought battle among two of the AL’s best teams. The Yankees won the first round, but had home field advantage. The Twins will look to even things up, at the least, at their brand new ballpark.

Pitching matchups

The series features rematches of the last series in the first two games, followed by a should-have-been matchup in the finale, with Javier Vazquez taking the place of Sergio Mitre.

Tuesday: A.J. Burnett (3.86 ERA, 3.98 FIP) vs. Scott Baker (4.88 ERA, 3.72 FIP)

Last time against the Twins Burnett had trouble finding his control early in the game, but he settled in nicely and left the game with a lead. Damaso Marte promptly blew that, but that doesn’t overshadow how well Burnett pitched from innings three through seven. It’s another game where he didn’t have his curveball and therefore had to work more with his two fastballs. He still managed to strike out four Twins, though. In his last start the Rays lit him up, though again he settled down after a rocky start and pitched into the seventh.

Baker had a tough assignment last week. After the Yankees shelled him for five runs on 10 hits in six innings, he had to go out and face the Red Sox. He fared a bit better, again lasting six innings but this time allowing just three runs. That was more about timing, though, as he allowed eight hits and struck out just four. Against the Yanks he struck out nine. His season peripherals look right in line with recent years, so chances are he’s due for a correction.

Wednesday: Andy Pettitte (2.68 ERA, 4.02 FIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (3.25 ERA, 2.67 FIP)

Pettitte’s last start against the Twins was his first after sitting out with elbow inflammation. He was up to the task, though, allowing just two hits and walking three in 6.1 innings. The Twins didn’t record a run off him, and ended up losing the game 5-0. The next time out, though, Pettitte was not nearly as sharp. That much was evident from the first pitch, and it resulted in a five-inning, seven-run performance against the Rays.

Liriano’s talent is undeniable. He’s a hard-throwing lefty with a nasty slider that can flummox hitters. He put that talent to good use in April, allowing just three runs all month — all of them coming during his first start. He did not allow any in his next three starts, pitching 23 innings and striking out 24. Once the calendar flipped, however, he became much less effective. Against the Yankees he allowed three runs on nine hits through six innings, and last time against Boston he allowed five runs through 4.2 innings. In May he has allowed 19 runs in 23.2 innings.

Thursday: Javier Vazquez (6.69 ERA, 5.76 FIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (4.50 ERA, 5.33 FIP)

It’s tough to imagine a start to the season rougher than Javy Vazquez‘s. He got smacked around in his first few starts, got skipped, and then finally got back on track. He has allowed just two runs in his past two starts, including a six-inning shutout against the Mets on Friday that would have gone longer if not for him taking a pitch off the index finger on a bunt attempt. He’ll head right back out there and try to continue it against the Twins offense, which ranks better than any other offense he has faced since his first start against Tampa Bay.

Nick Blackburn has never been a strikeout pitcher, though this year he has struck out even fewer hitters than before. His total sits at 15 right now, 2.5 per nine innings. He’s also walking a few more, though it’s not a terribly significant difference. Everything else seems to be in line. The extra balls in play, though, have seemingly affected him. Hitters have slugged .498 off him, so the extra damage has come in the form of extra base hits. He has turned it around a bit in May, though, allowing just nine runs in 30.1 innings.