Rooting for the Orioles (or Rays)

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Yankees will begin an important series against the Red Sox tonight, but another really important series will open some 400 miles south as well. The second place Orioles are hosting the third place Rays for three games this week, a series that will have a big impact on the AL East race one way or the other. Those clubs will also end the season with three games against each other in St. Pete. As I mentioned yesterday, both teams can’t win those games, and that’s good for New York.

Under the old playoff system, I probably would have rooting for either the Rays or Orioles to sweep all those games. It really wouldn’t have mattered who, the important thing would have been creating separation between the top two teams and the third team in the division. There wasn’t a significant enough advantage to winning the division over skating into the postseason as the wildcard under the old system, so just getting in was the focus. Clinch a postseason berth then worry about the division title was the annual mindset.

That isn’t the case anymore. Capturing that AL East crown is so much more important under the two wildcard system because no one wants to play a do-or-die, win or go home game to decide the season. That means the Yankees absolutely want both the Rays and O’s as far back as possible. Since both teams can’t sweep, the best thing for the Bombers would be for one of those two clubs to take two of three this week. Since Baltimore is one game back and Tampa two, it seems that the Rays taking two would help the Yankees the most. However, since most of us consider Joe Maddon’s club to be the bigger threat, maybe it would be better if the Orioles won the series. There’s no clear right answer here.

Either way, this is all predicated on the Yankees taking care of the Red Sox and everyone else they play from here on out. They have to start winning games consistently to maintain their slim lead. It just so happens that their top two competitors play more than one-quarter of their remaining games against each other, and they’ll theoretically hold each other back for the top spot in the division. The Yankees can only focus on winning their games, but us scoreboard watchers should be hoping that the neither the Rays or Orioles decides to whoop the other this week.

Monday Night Open Thread

A-Rod really appreciates Russell’s recent strong play. (Rob Carr/Getty)

By my unofficial count, the Yankees are 11-4 and have outscored their opponents 93-60 in 15 games immediately prior to a scheduled off-day this season. I always say off-days feel better coming off a win — especially a big win like yesterday’s — and the Bombers have certainly done well in that department this year. Furthermore, they are 12-2 and have outscored opponents 86-50 in games immediately following an off-day as well. I suppose we could fire up the narrative generator and say that this veteran club really enjoys days off, but who knows. Maybe it’s just a fluke. Either way, let’s hope that trend continues tomorrow in Boston.

Here is your open thread for the evening. The Mets are playing the Nationals (McHugh vs. Gio) and MLB Network will air a game later as well. Who you see depends on where you live. The season-opening Monday Night Football doubleheader features the Bengals at the Ravens (7pm ET) and then the Chargers at the Raiders (10:15pm ET). Talk about any or all of those games here, as well as anything else on your mind. Have at it.

Minor League Update
If you’re looking for a Down on the Farm post tonight, you’re not going to find one because no one is playing. Double-A Trenton has a scheduled off-day as they prepare to begin the best-of-five Eastern League Championship Series against Akron tomorrow night. All of the other affiliates either failed to qualify for the postseason have already been eliminated. So yeah, go Thunder.

Yankees recall Melky Mesa from Triple-A

The Yankees have recalled outfielder Melky Mesa, the team announced. Triple-A Empire State was eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend, plus Mesa is already on the 40-man roster. With Mark Teixeira out for another two weeks, the move gives the Yankees another right-handed bat to play the outfield while Nick Swisher fills in at first.

Mesa, 25, posted a 130 wRC+ while repeating Double-A this season. He earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A and clubbed nine homers in just 33 games. I’ve always likened Melky 2.0 to Greg Golson, meaning a speedy defensive outfielder with a cannon arm and lots of strikeout potential, though he has far more power to offer — Mesa’s hit at least 19 homers in three of the last four years, including 23 this year. I don’t think we’ll see much of him down the stretch in something other than a defensive-replacement/pinch-hitting capacity unless the Yankees blow things open soon and take a big division lead.

MRI reveals irritation of Teixeira’s left calf strain

Mark Teixeira will be sidelined an additional 10-14 days after an MRI revealed “irritation” of his left calf strain, the team announced. That means he’ll miss this weekend’s series against the Rays, but will be back with about a week to spare in the regular season. Since this was essentially a setback, I would expect them to be even more conservative next time around. Obviously this is very bad news that feels worse because of Jerry Meals’ blown call on the play Teixeira re-injured himself.

The Favorable Road Ahead

(Rob Carr/Getty)

The Yankees just wrapped up their biggest ten-game stretch of the season (to date anyway), and I suppose it was something of a success because they came out of it in first place. Then again, they did lose two games in the standings to both the Orioles and Rays in the process. Let’s not start popping champagne and planning the parade just yet.

The good news is that the toughest stretch of the schedule appears to be in the rear-view mirror. Of the 22 games left on the docket, the Yankees will play just six against teams with a winning record — three against the Rays next weekend and three against the Athletics the weekend after. That’s it, the other 16 games will be played against clubs far out of the postseason picture. Furthermore, those series with Tampa and Oakland will both be played in the Bronx, as will 12 of the final 22 games overall.

Outside of those two series against the Rays and A’s, the Yankees will play six games against the Red Sox, seven against the Blue Jays, and three against the Twins. Compared to the Orioles (nine of 22 against winning teams) and Rays (13 of 22 against winning teams), the Bombers seem to have the most favorable schedule the rest of the way. It’s also worth noting that Baltimore and Tampa still have to play each other six times as well, and both teams can’t win those games. That’s an added bonus for New York as they look to lock up the AL East crown.

Now let’s not get carried away here. You know as well as I that having a favorable schedule means very little. Teams don’t just roll over because you want them to, and in fact you can make the argument that clubs play even harder than usual against the Yankees. If there’s one thing the 29 non-Bronx-based franchises have in common, it’s wanting to beat the Yankees. The Jays and Sox always play New York tough and those games will surely feel like they’re being played against a contender. It’s just the way it is.

Yesterday’s blowout win was a fine way to cap off an otherwise underwhelming ten-game stretch. I don’t really believe that momentum is a thing in baseball, but it was certainly a win that makes everyone feel a little bit better about how things are going at the moment. The schedule is set up to allow the Yankees to pull away from the pack a bit, assuming they hold up their end of the bargain and actually play well. That isn’t a given these days. As far as the next 3+ weeks go, playing just six of the final 22 games against above-.500 teams is a luxury the other AL East contenders do not enjoy.

Yankees having trouble in two-strike counts

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Yankees split four games with the second-place Orioles this weekend, and other than homers and high-scoring affairs, all four games had one thing in common: Baltimore did an awful lot of damage in two-strike counts. Thirteen of their 31 hits during the series came in two-strike counts, including four doubles and three homers. You can add two hit batsman on top of that, which bother me just as much as hits in two-strike situations. Maybe even more since the batter didn’t really earn it, so to speak.

Anecdotally, it feels as though the Yankees have given up a lot of baserunners in two-strike counts all season, at least relatively speaking. As you’ll see, the league as a whole does a poor job of reaching base when the pitcher is one pitch away from a strikeout. Here is a quick breakdown of the pitching staff’s performance in various two-strike counts this season…

0-2 Count 450 73 17 1 8 0 233 .164 .171 .261 .432 116 4 .317 127
1-2 Count 779 121 23 3 8 0 382 .157 .163 .226 .389 174 6 .295 89
2-2 Count 757 125 30 2 16 0 351 .166 .168 .275 .443 207 2 .281 85
Full Count 619 98 23 2 11 186 160 .227 .460 .367 .827 158 1 .333 102
Two Strikes 2605 417 93 8 43 186 1126 .174 .236 .273 .509 655 13 .302 96
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/10/2012

sOPS+ is the opposing hitter’s OPS+ relative to the league average in these counts, so while holding hitters to a .164/.171/.261 batting line in 0-2 counts looks fantastic, it’s actually 27% worse than the .150/.158/.220 AL average. That’s the glaring problem here, 0-2 counts. The Yankees do fairly well in 1-2 and 2-2 counts (and in two-strike counts overall), but they really give it up in what is supposed to be the worst possible count for a batter.

The biggest culprit, by far, has been Phil Hughes. Hitters have tagged the right-hander for a .239/.239/.406 batting line in 0-2 counts, an unfathomable 234 sOPS+. In two-strike counts overall, it’s a .188/.241/.309 batting line (111 sOPS+). Ten of the league-worst 33 homers he’s surrendered have come in two-strike counts, including two in 0-2 counts. Hughes does strike hitters out at an essentially league average rate (7.57 K/9 and 19.8 K%), but he’s gotten clobbered when unable to miss bats with two strikes.

The rest of the starting staff has done fairly well in two-strike counts. Ivan Nova is the worst of the rest of the bunch with a 143 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts and a 90 sOPS+ with two strikes overall. CC Sabathia has struggled a bit in 0-2 counts (104 sOPS+) but otherwise shuts hitters down in two-strike counts overall (64 sOPS+). Hiroki Kuroda is the opposite, burying hitters in 0-2 counts (39 sOPS+) but performing at about the league average rate with two strikes overall (99 sOPS+). Andy Pettitte was fantastic in two-strike counts before getting hurt, holding hitters to a 14 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts and a 47 sOPS+ in two-strike counts overall.

The Yankees’ pitching staff has the third best strikeout rate in the league this year (8.16 K/9 and 21.5 K%), and that holds true both for the starters (7.82 K/9 and 20.6 K%) and relievers (8.96 K/9 and 23.7 K%). The Rays are the only club with better strikeout rates as both starters and relievers this season. So yeah, the Yankees have done a very good job of missing bats and recording outs without the help of the defense, but otherwise haven’t done a great job of retiring hitters in these situations overall. Whether it’s poor pitch-calling/planning or poor execution (likely both), the Yankees aren’t haven’t stood out for their ability to put hitters away in two-strike counts this season and it was really noticeable this past weekend.

Good signs abound in blowout win over Orioles

(Rob Carr/Getty)

It’s easy to make too much of one game in baseball, especially when you’re talking about a game like yesterday’s. The Yankees clobbered the Orioles to wrap up an important ten-game stretch in which they went just 4-6, but winning that final game in blowout fashion heading into the off-day sure has a way of making everyone feel like things are going to be okay. The club isn’t out of the woods yet though, far from it.

With 22 games left to play, the Yankees still have a number of issues to sort through. The middle relief remains shaky, Mark Teixeira‘s calf is going to keep him out for at least another few games, a number of other key lineup cogs are slumping, CC Sabathia still isn’t pitching as expected, and both the Orioles and Rays remain hot on the Bombers’ tail. Yesterday’s win was both stress-relieving and encouraging, with signs that maybe a few of those issues are starting to sort themselves out.

Curtis Granderson
Granderson’s extended slump has been well-documented around this parts. He took a 4-for-34 skid into yesterday’s game and was hitting .207/.297/.410 with a 31.7% strikeout rate in his last 300 plate appearances. That’s basically half a season worth of below-average production from the club’s second-best hitter a year ago. Curtis simply wasn’t doing enough, which is why Joe Girardi did not start him either Saturday or Sunday against the Orioles.

“It’s just a matter of continuing to swing the bat,” he said to reporters yesterday. “I feel like I’m getting balls to hit and putting good swings on them, but I wasn’t able to do much with them for whatever reason. It’s just baseball being baseball.”

Granderson came off the bench yesterday and did something he was unable to do the day before: he produced. Three hits in three at-bats, including a solo homer to center and a two-run double to right. The two-run bloop to shallow left off a left-hander was his softest hit of the day but arguably his most impactful. It was just his third three-hit game of the season and they felt like his first three hits in about two months. If he’s able to build off this and strong contributing more to the offense, it’ll be a huge during the final weeks of the schedule. Curtis can do a lot of damage when right.

(Leon Halip/Getty)

Joba Chamberlain
The Yankees have been looking for a reliable non-matchup middle reliever to couple with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano for about three months now, and there was a lot of hope that Joba would be that guy once he came off the DL. He was anything but reliable at first, allowing seven runs on 20 baserunners in 6.2 innings during his first seven appearances. The stuff was there, the mid-to-high-90s fastball and wipeout slider, but he was making way too many location mistakes. That’s not uncommon for guys coming off Tommy John surgery.

Very quietly though, Joba has been rounded back into form. Yesterday’s six-batter, five-out, four-strikeout appearance put an exclamation point on a road trip that featured 4.1 strong innings. He allowed one hit during the trip, a solo homer to Mark Reynolds on Thursday. Reynolds has been clobbering Yankees’ pitching all year, so it’s not like Chamberlain’s alone here. Other than that, he walked one, punched out eight, and generated 14 swings and misses out of 76 total pitches (18.4%). This doesn’t mean he’ll turn into another dominant late-inning arm or anything, but Joba has shown signs of shaking off the rust — he told reporters yesterday that he made a slight mechanical adjustment as well — and has started to assume more responsibility in a bullpen that needs as much help as it can get.

Cory Wade
This one kinda goes hand-in-hand in with the last guy. Wade was dynamite in April and May before completely collapsing in June, to the point where you had to wonder if he was even salvageable. He was that bad. Wade spent a little more than two months in Triple-A and pitched reasonably well (2.27 ERA and 4.12 FIP in 31.2 innings) before returning as a September call-up. In two appearances this month, Wade has retired all eleven men he faced, include six in two innings yesterday. He looked an awful lot like the guy he was last year and earlier this year against the Orioles.

It’s easy to write someone like Wade off because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of an above-average reliever. He doesn’t come out of the bullpen throwing gas with a knockout breaking ball, he relies on changing speeds and locating with a variety of offspeed pitches. He’s the Freddy Garcia of relief pitchers. Expecting Wade to return to his previous level of effectiveness is probably unrealistic, but these two most recent looks are encouraging at the very least. If he can step back up and give the team another reliable right-handed reliever for those middle innings, it’ll be a huge addition down the stretch.

Late-Inning Rallies
This isn’t exclusive to Sunday’s game but is worth mentioning. The Yankees put together late rallies in three of the four games against the Orioles, including the two losses. Five eighth inning runs on Thursday tied the game before the bullpen blew it, then Saturday’s two-run ninth inning rally was cut short at one when first base ump Jerry Meals blew the call on a not so bang-bang play. Two runs in the seventh and five runs in the eighth put yesterday’s game out of reach. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what inning the runs are scored in as long as the Yankees push enough across to win, but stringing together hits and scoring multiple runs in an inning had been an issue up until this weekend.

* * *

As I said, one big win has a way of making you forget about all of the team’s problems for at least a day. Granderson has shown flashes of busting out of his slump before so maybe this is just another tease. Relievers and their performances are fickle, so who knows what Joba and Wade can contribute going forward, if anything. If nothing else, at least we saw some positive signs in the finale against Baltimore, which is a lot more than what we had in previous weeks.