Archive for Offense
Joe Girardi has had to tinker with his lineup far more than I’m sure he would have liked this postseason, and it was all out of necessity. Alex Rodriguez simply has not hit right-handers at all, and the duo of Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher went from middle of the order thumpers to bottom of the lineup automatic outs. He inserted both Brett Gardner and Eduardo Nunez into the starting lineup last night and was mostly rewarded, as Nunez drove in their only run with a solo homer while Gardner had some of the team’s best and longest at-bats. The Yankees still lost though.
I expect tonight’s lineup to be very similar to last night’s with maybe one or two minor changes. Maybe Swisher is back in the starting lineup and Granderson sits, something like that. Either way, I think the stretch of 9-1-2 hitters — Nunez, Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki — will remain the same to give the team some speed on the bases. They didn’t use that speed at all last night though, as Ichiro singled twice and didn’t bother to steal second either time even though the one thing Justin Verlander will let an offense do is steal a base. I understand that every base-runner is precious when you’re struggling to score, but I felt the situation called for pushing the envelope.
Max Scherzer is a bit more stingy with the stolen base than Verlander, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the speed game should come out of the playbook. Frankly it doesn’t make sense to play Nunez and Gardner and not have them try to steal when they do reach base. Obviously the whole getting on-base thing is quite important, but Scherzer hasn’t been himself lately and is probably the least effective Tigers’ starter right now. If last night’s ninth inning mini-rally is going to carry over to today, it will be because Detroit’s starter is still dealing with some nagging shoulder issues and can’t reach back for 95+ when in a jam.
Desperate times do call for desperate measures, and Girardi did sorta take those measures with his lineup moves last night. If he keeps Nunez and Gardner in the lineup for Game Four, even if they don’t bat back-to-back, the club has to try to take advantage of their speed. I’m surprised they have yet to lay a bunt down towards Miguel Cabrera at third or even Prince Fielder at first, but if Scherzer is pitching well the first time through the order it might be a shot in the middle innings. The Yankees have to try to generate some offense in different ways tonight and hopefully going forward later in the series, and taking advantage of the fresh legs (both Nunez and Gardner missed a big chunk of time with injury this season) could be one way to do it.
The season ain’t over, but it might as well be. The Yankees are down three games to none in the best-of-seven ALCS even though all three games were pretty winnable in my opinion. It’s not like they’ve been getting clobbered every night. This series would look an awful lot different if the Bombers got even a league average performance from there hitters, but I suppose the same is true of Tigers. They haven’t been tearing the cover off the ball either. Miracles do happen, but I won’t be holding my breath.
1. It’s incredibly annoying that Delmon Young continues to beat the Yankees in the playoffs. He went 6-for-19 (.316) with three homers in the ALDS last year and is 4-for-13 (.308) with two homers in this series. It’s like they spend all of their preparation time trying to figure out how to contain Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder — they’re a combined 6-for-23 (.261) in the series, by the way — and forget about Delmon. He barely qualifies as a league average hitter (career 96 wRC+) and owns a sub-.300 OBP in over 1,100 plate appearances over the last two seasons. It’s a little too late now, but Young is exactly the kind of under-the-radar guy who always seems to pop-up and hurt the Yankees.
2. I have no idea what to think of Phil Hughes at this point. He had a solid regular season despite his massive homer problem, but in all likelihood he finished the year hurt after leaving last night’s game with a stiff back. Phil made a quick trip to the DL late last season with a sore back and I can’t help but wonder if the two are related. That would be scary. I’m happy he was able to get over the 200-inning plateau (201 counting the playoffs) this year but injuries continue to be an issue. He’s going to be a free agent after next season and there are reasons for the team to approach him about a multi-year contract extension this winter, but I really wanted to see at least one full and effective year without any kind of injury problem first. That obviously won’t happen now.
3. I don’t think there will be much of an issue going forward but I am curious to see how this whole Alex Rodriguez thing plays out. He’s obviously struggling big time at the moment and is rightfully sitting against right-handers, but do they treat him as a regular next season? Or will they look at him as a guy who needs to sit against at least tough righties going forward? I don’t think there will be any problem (at least publicly) between him and Joe Girardi, and I suspect he’ll open next season with a clean slate and as the everyday third baseman thanks in part to his contract. Alex had a 114 wRC+ this season, so it’s not like he’s completely fallen off a cliff. I honestly don’t believe this current version is the new A-Rod, he’s just in a horrible slump.
4. The pitching staff has been absolutely unbelievable in the postseason, which is a complete 180° from the mid-aughts when all they did was hit and not pitch. Here is my first-rate graphic representation of the Yankees slowly sliding from an all-hitting to an all-pitching postseason team…
You see what I’m saying here? The Yankees have gone from one extreme to the next and I’m very comfortable saying that all pitching is far less enjoyable that all hitting. I appreciate a great pitchers’ duel as much as anyone, but there is nothing more unbearable than a team that can’t score or even get men on-base. This playoff season has been very frustrating to watch as a Yankees fan.
There is nothing worse than an underachieving team, and the Yankees certainly have an underachieving offense at the moment. The pitching staff has been just fantastic as a whole in the postseason, more than giving the team a chance to win each time out. The offense has been miserable aside from the occasional outburst (ninth inning of ALDS Game One, anything Raul Ibanez does, etc.) though, and it’s reasons number one, two, and three that they’re in a 2-0 hole in the ALCS.
The worst offender has not been Alex Rodriguez or Nick Swisher or Curtis Granderson, it’s been Robinson Cano. The same guy who was so molten hot for the final few weeks of the season and one of the very best hitters in all of baseball. He’s currently riding an 0-for-26 (!) stretch that is the longest single postseason hitless stretch in baseball history, and he hasn’t reached base on anything other than an intentional walk since the first inning of ALDS Game Two. That’s just hard to believe, and yet the majority of his plate appearances seem to end like this…
Anibal Sanchez threw an offspeed pitch on the outer half that Cano tried to pull, resulting in a weak grounder to second. When Robinson is not swinging right, he generates a ton of outs on ground balls to the right side of the infield. Raul Ibanez was the same why earlier this season, and Hideki Matsui is probably the poster boy for the 4-3 put out slump. It’s not a pleasant thing to go through, either for the players or the fans who watch.
“You have to make adjustments,” said Joe Girardi following yesterday’s loss. “We know what they are doing to us. They are not going to put it on a tee for us. We know that. We are more than capable of scoring runs and have done it a number of times this year. We have to make adjustments.”
There was more to last night’s Game Three win than just a win. Joe Girardi‘s decision to lift Alex Rodriguez for a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a one-run game was almost like a turning of the page in A-Rod‘s career, one of the greatest playing careers the game will ever see. Forget about Raul Ibanez and what happened afterwards, it was an acknowledgement on the part of the Yankees that in that situation, they were better off with Alex on the bench. This isn’t some role player on a one-year deal who will be gone after the season, like it or not A-Rod is here to stay for a very long time.
The move was absolutely 100% justifiable, there’s zero doubt about that. Rodriguez has been struggling not just in this series but for the last few weeks overall after he came back from the broken bone in his left hand, and he looks especially feeble against right-handed pitchers. When Joe Torre dropped A-Rod to eighth in the lineup in the 2006 ALDS, I thought then (and still do now) that it was out of spite more than anything. The relationship between those two always seemed strained, but I’ve never gotten that vibe with Girardi. That’s why the pinch-hitting move took some major guts on the manager’s part.
“Of course you do (think about the magnitude of lifting A-Rod),” said Girardi after the game. “And you know you’re going to be asked a lot of questions if it doesn’t work … I mean, it’s a tough move. Sometimes you’ve got to do what your gut tells you, and my gut told me to make the move. I still have the utmost respect for Al, and I still think he’s a great player. He’s just going through a little tough time right now.
“I just went to (A-Rod) and I said, ‘You’re scuffling a little bit right now … We have got a low-ball hitter (against sinker-baller Jim Johnson), and we’ve got a shorter porch in right field, then left field obviously. Raul has been a good pinch hitter for us, and I’m just going to take a shot.’”
Rodriguez, as you’d expect, faced a swarm of reporters after the game and was drilled pretty hard about being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the late innings of a close playoff game. He joked that it was the first time he was pinch-hit for in a meaningful situation since “maybe high school,” but otherwise defended Girardi and his decision, preaching team over individual. Here’s the video of his post-game media scrum…
I thought he looked very sincere there and don’t think this was a case of a guy putting on an act like he did with Torre back in 2006. A-Rod really seemed to change back in 2009 after his hip surgery and PED revelations, as he shifted from a “this is what I did and need to do” angle to a “we’re a team and this what we did and need to do” approach. Everything has been about the Yankees and not Alex since then. “We preach about team, team, team,” he said. “That’s all we care about.”
Who knows what this means going forward for A-Rod both this postseason and for the final five years of his contract. Maybe he moves down in the lineup or sits against righties, who knows. Being lifted for a pinch-hitter last night was a bit of a statement though, and I don’t mean a harsh one like a message was being sent or anything. It was the beginning of an era with a de-emphasized Rodriguez, and era that may be slow to develop but has begun nonetheless.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for the last few years, you know I’m a big fan of tinkering with the lineup throughout the season. Mark Teixeira stinks in April? Fine, drop him down a spot or three and give the hot hand a few more at-bats. Raul Ibanez is hitting well? Great, maybe bump him up so he gets a chance to do damage with more men on-base. Lineups aren’t all that important in big picture, but they can very important in one individual game or, by extension, a short playoff series.
The Yankees have used almost the exact same lineup for the first two games of the ALDS, which means a top six of Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira. Jeter and Ichiro have done a swell job of setting the table, going a combined 7-for-17 (.412) with a double in the two games. They generated a first inning run in both games and outside of the Cap’n's inning-ending ground ball to third with the bases loaded in the fourth inning last night, they’ve come up with some timely hits.
Teixeira has also produced well in the ALDS, with a pair of two-hit games (plus a walk thrown in). All four hits are singles, though at least two would have been doubles for someone with even average speed. Tex isn’t the fastest guy in the world to start with, but his calf injury has him in the Jorge Posada and miscellaneous Molinas pantheon of slowpokes. Cano has a run-scoring double in each game and Swisher reached base three times in Game One before coming up empty in Game Two.
And then there’s A-Rod, the most polarizing player in recent Yankees history and everyone’s favorite whipping boy. He drew a walk and struck out three times in Game One, then singled in struck out twice more in Game Two. Robert Andino stole a surefire run-scoring single away from him in the first inning last night with a diving stop at second, a hard-hit ball just hit to the wrong place. A-Rod is a career .271/.380/.484 hitter in the postseason, including .254/.381/.463 with the Yankees, but his failures get magnified more than anyone else’s.
So, naturally, after two disappointing games to open the playoffs there is talk of moving him down in the order or even benching him for the Eric Chavez. That second idea is a little ridiculous but the first one isn’t, yet Joe Girardi maintains that he won’t change the lineup because he “(believes) these guys are going to come through.” It’s the standard stock answer he’s been delivering all year, and on a number of occasions he switched up the lineup despite indications that no moves were coming. There’s no reason for Girardi to be truthful about this stuff, announcing that any hitter will be moved in the lineup serves zero benefit.
Now, there are valid reasons to move A-Rod down in the order for Game Three of the ALDS (and beyond), but you don’t need to focus on his recent playoff performance (.169/.282/.203 since 2010) for evidence. Frankly, what he or anyone else did in 2010 is pretty irrelevant in 2012. The case for moving A-Rod down comes from his performance since coming back from the hand injury, which features a .261/.341/.369 batting line in 129 plate appearances. I’ve mentioned this before, but hand injuries tend to linger. If he doesn’t have enough strength in that left hand following the broken bone, he won’t be able to grip or swing a bat properly. That certainly appears to be the case now as Alex just isn’t hitting for any power.
So the question now becomes where do you move him? Flip-flopping him and Teixeira seems like a fine idea if you buy into Teixeira turning it around following his slow return from the calf injury, or they could just move A-Rod down to sixth and bump everyone up a peg, allowing Cano to bat third. The generic lineup optimization answer is that the best hitter should hit fourth because the number three hitter will come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often, but as I said earlier, Jeter and Ichiro have been a two-man wrecking crew atop the lineup for the last four weeks or so.
Moving Cano up to third makes sense and it really doesn’t matter who the Yankees have hitting behind him because it won’t prompt the Orioles to pitch to him in a big spot anyway. Unless the Yankees reanimate the corpse of Babe Ruth, Robbie will be pitched around no matter what in a big spot. Finding someone to take advantage of those situations behind Cano is important and I have no idea who that is — Teixeira? Swisher? Ibanez? Russell Martin? Who knows. It’s not A-Rod at this point, who simply is missing hittable pitches and not really driving the ball when he connects. There are valid reasons to move him down in the batting order, and they stem from his hand injury and his performance since coming off the DL. Not his recent playoff history.
2:26pm: Nevermind, apparently there was just a typo on the board in the press box. Ichiro is starting and batting second tonight.
2:20pm: Here’s a shocker: Brett Gardner is starting in left field over Ichiro Suzuki tonight. Ichiro is 7-for-12 lifetime against Orioles starter Jason Hammel, which leads me to believe he’s banged up. Curtis Granderson has moved up to second in the lineup while Gardner will hit ninth.
The new playoff system is both fun and weird. It’s fun because so many races went down to the wire but weird because the Yankees, who finished with the best overall record in the AL, still don’t know who they’re going to play in the first round. They do know it’ll be either the Orioles or Rangers, but that doesn’t help all that much. The opponent will surely impact New York’s ALDS roster decisions to some degree, but for the most part we can piece things together right now.
The Yankees have carried 11 pitchers and 14 position players on their postseason rosters these last few years, opting to shorten the pitching staff by one so they could carry a designated pinch-runner or something like that. I see no reason to think they’ll do something different this year. I mean yeah, they could probably get away with ten pitchers in the ALDS given the off-day between Games Two and Three, but I doubt they’ll go that far. Anyway, a dozen of those 14 position player spot are all but accounted for already:
C Russell Martin
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Robinson Cano
SS Derek Jeter
3B Alex Rodriguez
OF Ichiro Suzuki
OF Curtis Granderson
OF Nick Swisher
DH Raul Ibanez
C Chris Stewart
IF Eric Chavez
IF Eduardo Nunez
Nunez will make the roster as the backup infielder because of Jayson Nix‘s hip injury, and there’s a decent chance he’ll start some games at DH against left-handed pitchers. Chavez will serve as the primary left-handed bat off the bench, meaning one of the two vacant spots is likely to go to a right-handed hitter. The only two options for that role are Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee, neither of whom sounds all that appealing. Jones has been dreadful in the second half, to the point where Joe Girardi started benching him the last week or two in favor of Nunez. The team never really showed much faith in McGehee after acquiring him at the deadline, though he’s almost certainly a better offensive option than the shell of Andruw.
The other spot figures go to a speedster, and I have to think Brett Gardner is the favorite for that job over Chris Dickerson, especially now that he’s been cleared by the doctors and has no restrictions with his surgically repaired elbow. Carrying Gardner as the speedy fourth outfielder might mean that McGehee, an infielder, will get the nod over another outfielder in Jones. Then again, the Yankees could lean towards the playoff-tested veteran and take Andruw for that other open spot instead. They’ve seen what he can do in the postseason first hand, and as I said yesterday, I do think there’s some value in veteran experience.
Now that the Yankees are healthy, or at least as healthy as they’re going to get, the starting lineup is pretty much set. Girardi is unlikely to pinch-hit for any of those guys other than maybe Ibanez against a really tough lefty, so any substitutions figured to come in pinch-running spots or late-inning defensive replacements. Or injury, that’s always an unfortunate possibility as well. I’m about 99% certain that Gardner will occupy one of the final two bench spots while Jones-McGehee is more along the lines of 50-50. Either way, that guy would be the proverbial 25th man on the roster and thus unlikely to see meaningful playing time in a best-of-five series.
I was very skeptical when the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners prior to the trade deadline. He could still run and play strong defense, but his offensive production had really cratered these last two years. From the start of last season through the date of the trade, Ichiro hit just .268/.302/.342 in nearly 1,100 plate appearances. That’s not a small sample, and at 38 years old, I thought he was done as even a league average hitter.
The Yankees made the trade and I suppose they believed three factors would help spark Ichiro’s bat. One, he was going from a last place team to a legitimate World Series contender. Ichiro had 10-and-5 no-trade protection and had to approve the deal, which he obviously did. That was at least an indication that he was looking forward to the opportunity to play meaningful games again. Two, he was moving out of cavernous Safeco Field and into hitter friendly Yankee Stadium. Three, they were going to limit his exposure to left-handed pitchers by platooning him.
Ichiro started his Yankees’ career with a 12-game exactly-one-hit streak, but through his first 41 games and 140 plate appearances with the team he had hit just .271/.297/.398. Yankee Stadium did help him hit some homers (three to be exact), but he was only 4-for-7 in stolen base attempts and really didn’t provide that game-changing speed on the bases. My expectations were low and I was still pretty underwhelmed. Worst of all, the Yankees were slipping in the standings and their one notable trade deadline acquisition wasn’t having much of an impact.
That all started to change about a month ago. The Yankees were wrapping up an important ten-game stretch against the Orioles and Rays with four games in Baltimore, a four-game series in which Ichiro went 8-for-14 with a stolen base and three multi-hit games. In a three-game series against the Blue Jays two weeks ago, he went 9-for-12 with three doubles, a homer, and four steals. All four steals came in the middle game, a 4-for-4 effort in which the fourth hit drove in the game-winning run. At one point he had six hits in six straight plate appearances against left-handed pitchers as well.
Since the start of that series in Baltimore, Ichiro has hit .417/.411/.560 with nine steals (in eleven attempts) in 24 games and 90 plate appearances. That has raised his batting line with the Yankees to a stout .327/.339/.461 in 230 plate appearances, and his season batting line to a respectable .284/.309/.391 in 653 plate appearances. He has eleven multi-hit games in his last 24 contests, which is Ichiro of old stuff. Exclamation point Ichiro. Ichiro!
The hot hitting as prompted Joe Girardi to bump Ichiro up in the lineup, and he now hits second rather than eighth or ninth. The move has added some length to the batting order, and in a lot of ways it has recreated the Derek Jeter-Johnny Damon dynamic of 2009. Ichiro doesn’t hit for the kind of power that Damon did in 2009, nor does he walk or work deep counts as often, but he’s a far better defender and is creating more havoc on the bases. With the resurgent Jeter leading off and the hot hitting Ichiro behind him, the Yankees have two high-contact, high-average hitters setting the table for the big power bats.
I was really skeptical at the time of the trade, but Ichiro … ahem, Ichiro! … has gone on to prove me and every other doubter wrong these last few weeks. It’s not like he’s hitting .300 or something during a hot homestand, he’s hit over .400 for nearly four weeks while saving runs with his glove and taking extra bases with his legs. Ichiro has more than replaced Brett Gardner at this point, the very man whose injury created the need for the trade in the first place. He’s also gone from the world’s most famous complementary player to a key cog in an offense that has averaged 6.3 runs per game since he moved up in the batting order.
On September 8th the Yankees lost a big game to the Baltimore Orioles. With CC Sabathia on the hill they dropped a 5-4 contest that ended when it should have been tied up. Worse, they lost Mark Teixeira again. What we didn’t know at the time is that the Yankees suffered another loss that evening: Alex Rodriguez‘s power.
Things were looking so brightly at the time. A-Rod had returned to the lineup five days prior, adding some depth to a corps that sometimes featured Steve Pearce at cleanup. Through that game Rodriguez had gone 7 for 23 with two doubles and two homers, including a homer on that very night. Missing Tex for a longer stretch would surely hurt, but at least A-Rod was back with some power. Right?
If only that were true, perhaps the Yankees might have been celebrating a division title yesterday rather than just a playoff spot. In 89 PA since that game Rodriguez has gone 18 for 77 with just one extra base hit, a home run in a September 14 loss to Tampa. That amounts to a .234/.326/.273 line, which defies comment. Worse, he has now gone 65 PA without an extra base hit. I’m not going through his game logs, but I have to assume that’s the longest such skid of his career.
In some ways the lack of power makes sense. Hand injuries are no joke for major leaguers. Fans like to joke about what seem like minor injuries — David Wright’s injured pinkie, for instance — but they have real effects on a player’s ability to handle and control a baseball bat. It has been barely two months since Felix Hernandez broke Rodriguez’s hand, so his lack of power is understandable in that way.
Yet those first six games after his return made things seem optimistic. He’d collected at least one hit in each of those six games, and then added another three in the next game, a 13-3 drubbing that put the Yankees back in first place alone. Combined with his post-All Star game breakout, 15 for 47 with two homers and four doubles, and it certainly felt as though Rodriguez could provide quality, if not elite, production for the rest of the year.
As Mike noted earlier, the Yankees will get their A lineup back in tact tonight, just in time for the postseason. He notes the issues surrounding Teixeira, but there are just as many surrounding Rodriguez. Both have the potential to carry the middle of the order, but we’ve seen both slump horribly this season. If there was ever a time for both to catch fire, it’s right now. Given their ages and recent performances, it will be even tougher to bank on them in the future.
The last two days are just what Robinson Cano has needed. For months he’d seen his numbers steadily fall from his peak of .321/.382/.587 on July 16th. After going 0 for 4 on Monday Cano’s numbers had declined to .293/.362/.519 — good by any measure, great when compared to other second basemen*. Those numbers even compare favorably to Cano’s 2010 season. But after a torrid couple of months, we’d come to expect a bit more out of Cano.
*The average AL 2B hits .249/.310/.372.
Since that peak period in mid-July, Cano has hit .264/.345/.436 in 281 PA. That’s more than a third of the season, though those are just arbitrary end points. He has had some super productive stretches inside that 281 PA sample; from July 31 through August 16, for instance, he hit .321/.429/.547 in 63 PA. He also started off September not so horribly, hitting .275/.383/.550 from the first through the 12th. But that means he also had some pretty poor stretches in that period.
Yet even in those unproductive periods he has managed to keep his overall numbers in decent shape. For instance, from August 17th through the 31st he hit .245/.327/.469. During that stretch he walked six times (one intentional), good for an 11 percent walk rate. From the 13th through the 24th he was particularly bad, going 8 for 45 with just two extra base hits, but he again walked six times, good for an 11.75 percent walk rate. Even when he’s played poorly this year, Cano has remained somewhat productive for doing what he’s failed to do for most of his career: work a walk.
After a hot start in 2011 — .320/.340/.630 through May 1 — Cano slowed down considerably. In his next 143 PA he hit .237/.294/.405, walking just six times in that span. In September 2010, when he had a shot to steal the MVP with Josh Hamilton on the shelf, he hit .262/.304/.346 in 115 PA. That was just a 5 percent walk rate. Combined with the complete lack of power, it led to a considerable drop in his numbers and his removal from serious consideration for MVP. We needn’t even explore his pre-2010 career to find slumps where he not only hit for a low average, but also didn’t walk. Before 2010 Cano hardly walked at all: a mere 4.2 percent rate through 3036 PA.
One of Cano’s biggest changes in 2010 was his walk rate, which jumped to 8.2 percent. Of course, with his new spot in the middle of the order he was also intentionally walked far more often. That year pitchers passed on him 14 times; his previous career high was five, in 2007. Still, he did see his unintentional walk rate rise from 4.2 percent in 2009 to 6.2 percent in 2010. But in 2011 that dropped all the way to 4 percent. This year, while he’s been intentionally walked 10 times, he still has a 7.5 percent unintentional walk rate. It has helped keep him reasonably productive even when he’s not hitting for average or power.
For the first five years of his career, Cano was a guy who could hit with the best of them, but whose slumps hurt the team for stretches. When he slumped he did nothing productive; he didn’t hit for average or power, and he didn’t get on base. Even in 2010 and 2011 he still had trouble with taking passes amid slumps. Perhaps now, as he approaches age 30, Cano’s game has matured a bit. Even when he has slumped this year he’s managed to take walks and keep his numbers out of the gutter amid slumps. It doesn’t completely make up for the disappointment in his declining numbers since mid-July, but it’s certainly something positive he contributed amid that decline.