Giants tentatively scheduled to visit Yankee Stadium in 2013

Via Hank Schulman, the Giants are tentatively scheduled to visit Yankee Stadium during interleague play next season. It would only be San Francisco’s second trip to the Bronx in the last 50 years — the Bombers took two of three in 2002, but that series was all about Barry Bonds hitting a ball to the moon damn near the top of the upper deck in the Old Stadium. The Yankees lost two of three to the Giants out in California in 2007.

Last month we heard that the Yankees are tentatively scheduled to open next season at home with three games against the Red Sox, and that they were likely to face the NL West during interleague. This Giants stuff reinforces that and it’ll be neat given the club’s New York roots, but with all due respect to the 2010 World Champs, I’m still hoping we get to see Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw do their thing in Yankee Stadium next year.

Why the Yankees shouldn’t get too comfortable

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

With a win last night courtesy of an absolute gem by Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees’ record stands at 69-47.  Despite their recent stretch of mediocre play, the Yankees are in great shape.  The win puts them a game and a half ahead of the Rangers for the best record in the American League, and a comfortable six games ahead of their closest competitor for the division, the Rays.  The Orioles are also hanging in there at six games back, surpassing the expectations of many (yours truly included) who thought that their hot start was a mirage.  The Red Sox, who I figured would be the Yankees’ biggest threat coming into the season, have been far from that.  Those of you with Schadenfreude may enjoy reading Jeff Passan’s sensationalistic account of the clubhouse problems facing Boston this season, and in particular, their star players’ discontent with Bobby Valentine.  As for the last place Blue Jays, they have been decimated by injuries this season, and were never really a factor.

Considering the position of the other teams in the division, the Yankees are sitting pretty.  While a six-game lead is a nice margin, it is still close enough that the Yankees (and Yankee fans) shouldn’t get complacent.  As we have seen in recent years, the stretch run can be a crazy time of year, and the large number of in-division games remaining can cut into the seemingly most secure leads.  While I am usually optimistic in my writings and ruminations, today I decided to take a look at the reasons the Yankees shouldn’t get too comfortable in the catbird seat.  Just to make things clear, I do think the Yankees will likely win the division, but I wanted to explore a few of the potential barriers that remain.

 Injuries

The Yankees are missing a number of key contributors, including Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia.  Sabathia’s injury is apparently not too serious, and he should be back relatively soon.  There may be a little rust, but if his elbow is healthy, he should be the reliable ace the Yankees have depended on since he signed.  While Rodriguez and Pettitte are on track to return before the end of the season, it may be optimistic to expect them to be in midseason form down the stretch.  Given Andy’s advanced age and the location of Alex’s injury, I expect the Yankees to take it slow with both of them, and ensure that they don’t run them out there until they are fully recovered.  Consequently, they may not be in peak form for some potentially big series coming up.

The Yankees have been fortunate that the replacement players have filled in capably for the injured stars, but it may not continue.  Eric Chavez has been a revelation this season, looking like the Chavez of old at the plate and showing that he can still pick it a 3rd base.  However, given his well-documented injury issues, overuse is a legitimate concern, as the extra playing time could cause him to break down or become less effective.  Jayson Nix is OPS’ing nearly 100 points over his career average, and while I think some of that has to do with effectively platooning him to face primarily left-handed starters, there is room for regression.  While Kuroda has been a rotation anchor (and a great Twitter meme), the rest of the Yankee rotation has shown the ability to toss up the occasional stinker.  The inconsistency of Hughes, Nova, and Garcia, along with the youth and inexperience of Phelps, could create the potential for a rough stretch if they all blow up at the same time.

The Rays

The Rays may be six games back, but coincidentally, they have six games remaining against the Yankees.  Their strong pitching staff could give the Yankees fits if they start firing on all cylinders, which is certainly a legitimate possibility.  Matt Moore has turned it on of late, posting a brilliant outing last night, and looking more like the up-and-coming ace he was predicted to become after his strong debut in 2011.  The trio of David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson are all capable of keeping the Yankee offense in check, and sometimes, absolute dominance.  Evan Longoria, Tampa’s best offensive threat, recently came back from a long absence due to injury, and his return could energize Tampa’s lineup and provide much-needed punch in the heart of the order.  If Longoria gets off to a hot start, his production combined with Tampa’s pitching could put them on a run (like their seven-game win streak that was snapped last night).

The Orioles

Yes their success to this point seems somewhat fluky and hard to fathom, but the fact of the matter is that the Orioles have hung tough all season.  They have gotten offensive production from their key players, most notably Adam Jones.  The recent callup of stud prospect Manny Machado (who has raked in his first four games since making his major league debut) could add some energy and punch to a lineup that featured Wilson Betemit as the everyday 3rd baseman. Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel have been solid in the rotation, but the other three starters have been pretty mediocre.  The Orioles have covered for this weakness very effectively by having a strong, deep bullpen.

The Machado callup was a fairly aggressive one, since he just turned 20, was in AA, and wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire there.  By rushing Machado to the majors, Baltimore is sending a pretty clear signal that they are going for broke this year, and are going to do whatever it takes to earn a playoff spot.  This may include calling up another phenom in 19 year-old Dylan Bundy, who was recently promoted to AA.  While there is substantial risk inherent in relying on two minor league callups with limited upper level experience, strong debuts by both could make the Orioles a very dangerous team come September.  The Yankees play them four more times, and should look to at least split the remaining games in order to avoid losing ground.

Despite my discussion of some pessimistic themes in this post, I think in all likelihood the Yankees should take the division.  Boston’s struggles this year have definitely given me an added sense of security about the Yankees’ path to the playoffs, but the fact is, Baltimore and Tampa are both close enough to make things interesting if they get on a hot streak and play the Yankees tough in their matchups.  The injuries to several key players on the Yankees does create some uncertainty, and the Rays and the Orioles are in decent position to capitalize on a Yankee slump if some things break their way.  I’m hoping none of the things I am concerned about in this post come to pass, but regardless, it should make for some interesting September baseball.

Davidoff: Yankees preferred Lowe to Burnett in 2008

The 2008-2009 offseason was all about CC Sabathia, but the Yankees acted quickly to sign a rotation running mate in A.J. Burnett just a few days after landing the big left-hander. Ken Davidoff reports that although they signed Burnett, the Bombers actually preferred Lowe. They just had concerns about his reliance on the ground ball meshing with their porous infield defense.

Both the Yankees and Braves were in on Burnett, offering identical five-year, $82.5M contracts according to Joel Sherman. He took New York’s offer because of the club’s proximity to his Maryland home. Atlanta then turned around and signed Lowe to a four-year, $60M deal. I was actually pro-Lowe back then, thinking that the Yankees needed stability and an innings-eater. Burnett has since gone on to become a workhorse, but his injury history at the time was scary. Since those contracts were signed, the two right-handers are essentially tied in fWAR (8.6 vs. 9.0) while Burnett has a huge lead in bWAR (5.6 vs. 0.5).

The Curtis Granderson Slump

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Yankees went through a pretty rough slump a few weeks ago, starting out on the West Coast in Oakland and carrying over into the last homestand. They have started to get their mojo back though, most notably battling back to split a four-game series with the Tigers in Detroit after losing the first two games. They’ve won nine of their last 13 games overall, and two of those four losses came at the hands of Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander. That will happen from time to time.

One player who has most certainly not gotten his mojo back is Curtis Granderson. The 31-year-old outfielder is stuck in a 1-for-18 rut at the moment, but this is something that goes back much further than the last week. Granderson is hitting just .205/.266/.419 since the All-Star break and .215/.306/.415 in his last 281 plate appearances (!) overall. That dates back to early-June, so we’re creeping farther and farther away from small sample size territory. After hitting a robust .262/.364/.552 (146 wRC+) last year, Grandy is down to just .236/.330/.480 (116 wRC+) with roughly six weeks to go this year.

I’ve noticed two things about Curtis during this slide that may or may not be meaningful in terms of the root cause for this slump. For one, he’s just flat out missing hittable pitches. We all know about the strikeout issues — 28.2 K% on the year and 30.6 K% during this 281 PA sample — but I’m talking specifically about pitches out over the plate that he’s either fouling off, putting into play weakly, or just whiffing on. Here is a look at Granderson’s strike zone plot during his 281 PA slump, courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz’s site

There’s an awful lot going on here and a whole bunch of clutter, but just focus on the blue — those are the swings and misses. There’s a whole bunch in the dirt from breaking balls and whatnot, but there’s also a bunch right out over the plate. This isn’t any kind of definitive proof that he’s missing hittable pitches, but it certainly jives with the theory. Granderson has always swung and missed a bunch, that’s just who he is, but some of those pitches — particularly the fastballs, the blue +’s — he should be hitting hard somewhere.

Secondly, Curtis doesn’t seem to be pulling the ball as much as usual. Vince Mercogliano made the same observation last night, so at least I know my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. Last season, Granderson pulled 53.6% of his balls in play to right field while 30.1% went back up the middle and and just 16.2% went the other way to left. As you’d expect, he did most of his damage yanking the ball to right — 304 wRC+ pull, 120 wRC+ center, 26 wRC+ left. This season he’s at 50.4% pulled (196 wRC+), 30.0% center (63 wRC+), and 19.5% opposite (64 wRC+). Not much of a difference in terms of quantity, but he isn’t getting the same kind of results on balls back up the middle. Here’s a look at his spray chart during this 281 PA slide, courtesy of Texas Leaguers

That is a pretty evenly distributed spray chart, especially for a guy who is — or at least should be — a dead pull hitter. Earlier this season I noted that Granderson was hitting some more line drive singles to shallow left, but I don’t think this is a case of a guy making a conscious decision to try to go the other way without getting the results, a la Mark Teixeira back in April and May. Granderson just seems to be fouled up, either physically, mechanically, mentally, whatever. He certainly isn’t getting the results he has been getting for the last two calendar years, and you can see that something is off by watching him everyday. You don’t need to be a hitting guru to see when someone isn’t right, but you do need to be one to fix it.

Granderson’s slump is something that predates his ill-fated stint as a leadoff hitter, and is something he and hitting coach Kevin Long need to figure out relatively soon. The work they did in August 2010 was almost literally an overnight fix; he went from being a straight platoon guy to an MVP-caliber hitter in the span of like, 36 hours. That isn’t the norm though, these things tend to take some time. The Yankees are scheduled to face three real tough lefties — Derek Holland, Franklin Morales, and Jon Lester — from Thursday through Saturday, so that might be a good time to give Curtis some time off just to recharge the batteries. He can get off his feet (he’s played the field a ton this year due to Brett Gardner‘s injury, so maybe he’s just worn out), clear his head a bit, and hit the cages hard in an effort to get back to being the impact hitter he’s expected to be. Right now, he’s close to a dead spot in the lineup.

Hiroki Kuroda, impact free agent

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Yankees have had their share of free agent pitching duds over the last few years, as guys like Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Kei Igawa shuffled through the Bronx on big money contracts with little impact on the field. Hiroki Kuroda is the exact opposite. The veteran right-hander is on a bargain one-year deal and has been one of the very best pitchers in baseball this season. After all that time spent wondering if he could transition to the AL East and Yankee Stadium, he owns a 3.06 ERA (3.71 FIP) in 159 innings this year. That’s impact.

Last night’s complete-game shutout of the Rangers was Kuroda at his very best. He exploited a right-handed heavy lineup and a home plate umpire who was willing to call the ball off the outside corner a strike by pounding away with sliders. The YES booth joked that hitters would need a boat oar to hit some of the pitches Hiroki was feeding those guys, but the umpires made the same calls for both sides and only one really took advantage of it. Texas didn’t hit a ball out of the infield until the fourth and didn’t record a base hit until the seventh.

“One of the best lineups in the game right there,” said Russell Martin the game. “You could see their best hitters taking weak swings; it just shows you that his stuff was that good today. A lineup like that, that’s stacked like that, you might think they might run into a couple on any given day. But today he was just too dominant.”

Kuroda has now pitched to a 2.81 ERA (3.43 FIP) in 141 innings since his fourth start of the season, coincidentally a stretch that started against the same Rangers he dominated last night. Those first three starts were a little up and down, but let’s chalk that up to an adjustment period. I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. It seems obvious that Kuroda has been the Yankees’ best starter this year, especially given CC Sabathia‘s two DL stints and merely very good instead of great performance. Is it crazy to say that he’s their best number two-type starter since the days of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina in the early-2000s? It might be a stretch, but I don’t think it’s insane.

I feel like I had been tooting the Kuroda horn for about two years before the Yankees landed him this offseason, and it’s kinda neat that he hasn’t made me look like an idiot. Pretty much the only complaint I have about the guy at this point is that he’s already 37, otherwise we’d be talking about a big fat multi-year contract extension to keep him around for the next few years. Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing considering the general risk involved with pitchers. I’m sure the Yankees would welcome him back with open arms in the future if he’s willing to keep taking one-year deals. I know I would.

Obviously last night is likely to be the high point of Kuroda’s season — it’ll be tough to top a two-hit shutout of the highest scoring team in baseball — but he’s been so steady and effective that you can’t help but feel good whenever he’s slated to start. As Chad Jennings noted, Kuroda lead the Majors with six starts of at least seven innings and zero runs this year. That’s unbelievable for a guy pitching in Yankee Stadium. Hiroki has been a bit overshadowed his entire tenure in pinstripes, dated back to the day he actually agreed to sign — otherwise know as the day Jesus Montero was traded for Michael Pineda. Kuroda is one of the many reasons why the Yankees have the best record in the AL, the rare free agent signing who is actually exceeding expectations.

Kuroda two-hits Rangers, Yankees win 3-0

My goodness, I don’t think you could have scripted the first two games of this four-game series any better. The David Phelps-Derek Lowe tandem was fantastic on Monday and Hiroki Kuroda managed to outdo them on Tuesday, throwing a two-hit, complete-game shutout.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Staff Ace

With CC Sabathia on the sidelines, Kuroda has assumed the role of staff ace and led his team to a win with nine brilliant innings against the highest scoring offense in baseball. Hiroki carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning for the second time this year — remember the Mets game? — and limited Texas to just two dinky little hits overall. The first was an infield single by Elvis Andrus, the second a little ten-hopper back up the middle by Michael Young. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Rangers didn’t hit a ball well all night. There was zero hard contact.

Kuroda slayed the two-time defending AL champs with a steady diet of breaking balls, throwing 37 sliders and five curveballs out of his 109 pitches. The Rangers have a right-handed heavy lineup, and he kept feeding them sliders just off the outside corner. Some went for called strikes and others for swings and misses, but they were almost all effective. Kuroda struck out five and walked two, recording 17 of his 22 ball-in-play outs on the ground. The Rangers didn’t hit the ball out of the infield until the fourth inning, and overall 23 of the 27 outs were recorded on the infield. I’m not good enough with words to do Hiroki’s performance justice, he was absolutely masterful against a powerhouse offense. Just brilliant.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Big Hit Swish

For the second night in a row, the big hit belonged to Nick Swisher. Ground ball machine Matt Harrison danced around danger — most notably a bases loaded situation in the third — to match zeroes with Kuroda through the first six innings, but the Yankees finally broke through in the seventh with his pitch count nearing the century mark.

Derek Jeter ended Harrison’s night with a one-out single to center, prompting manager Ron Washington to bring in hard-throwing righty Alexi Ogando. I know Ogando is really good, but it seemed odd to turn the two upcoming switch-hitters around to short part of the park. Oh well, I’m not complaining. Swisher’s at-bat against Ogando was just terrific, an eight-pitch battle that featured an 0-2 count and three foul balls. Swish worked the count full before tomahawking a 98 mph heater up and out of the zone into the right field seats for a two-run shot. It was a grand slam on Monday night, but he only needed to do half that to get the job done on Tuesday. Seriously, that was a fantastic at-bat.

Two runs seemed like enough given how Kuroda was pitching, but Mark Teixeira went ahead and followed up with a solo homer of his own to tack-on an insurance run. The back-to-back jacks turned a tense scoreless game into a 3-0 lead and some nice breathing room. Harrison did a nice job mixing his pitches and keeping guys off balance, but Ogando wasn’t going to throw his fastball over the plate and by the middle of this order no matter how hard he threw.

The stars of the show. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Leftovers

The nine-inning complete-game shutout is the first by a Yankee since Sabathia did it against the Rays on July 10th or last season. That was the 1-0 win over Jamie Shields right before the All-Star break. Remember that? The only run of the game scored when Shields threw the ball away trying to pick a runner off third. This one was a little more routine.

Casey McGehee, in his sixth game as a Yankes, finally hit his first two singles in pinstripes. His first four hits with the team had all gone for extra bases (three doubles and a homer). Jeter (two singles) and Teixeira (double and homer) were the only other players with more than one hit. In fact, Swisher’s homer and a Russell Martin single were their only other hits period. Robinson Cano, Andruw Jones, and Curtis Granderson combined to go 0-for-10 after the top three hitters.

I have no idea who Scott & Todd are (apparently this is them), but the half-inning they were in the booth might have been the worst thing in television history. Worse than that time Charlie Sheen was in the booth. Break your pencil in half and stab both your ears bad.

Can I just take another second to talk about how good Kuroda was? Man, that guy is such a pleasure to watch when he’s on. He kinda sorta reminds me of Mike Mussina with the way he can just systematically pick apart a lineup when he gets in groove. So much fun.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the advanced stats, and ESPN the updated standings. The Orioles wrecked the Red Sox, so they remain six games back in the loss column. I assume the Rays will beat the lowly Mariners, so they’ll remain five back. The magic number to clinch the division is down to 42. I guess I should put the Magic Number Countdown in the sidebar at some point soon, eh? Maybe after the homestand.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

Halfway there. The Yankees and Rangers will play the third game of this four-game series on Wednesday night, when Freddy Garcia gives it a go against Scott Feldman. Make sure you check out RAB Tickets for any last-minute deals if you want to catch the game.

Adams has huge game in Thunder loss

Both 1B Mark Teixeira and RHP Derek Lowe were elected to the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame today, so congrats to them. This year’s AzFL roster should be out in a few weeks, by the way. I’m thinking C Austin Romine and OF Slade Heathcott will head out to the desert to catch up on some of the at-bats they missed this year due to injury.

Triple-A Empire State (9-7 loss to Pawtucket) they were down 9-0 at one point
3B Kevin Russo: 2-5, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
2B Corban Joseph: 1-3, 1 2B, 3 RBI, 2 BB — 58/57 K/BB on the year
DH Eduardo Nunez & LF Ronnie Mustelier: both 0-4, 1 K — Nunez drove in a pair … Mustelier walked
1B Brandon Laird & C Frankie Cervelli: both 1-4, 1 HBP — Cervelli scored a run and struck out
RF Kosuke Fukudome: 2-4, 2 R, 1 BB
CF Darnell McDonald: 0-3, 2 R, 2 BB
SS Ramiro Pena: 1-2, 1 R, 1 RBI, 3 BB, 1 K, 1 E (throwing) — second straight three-walk game
RHP John Maine: 4 IP, 9 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 6/0 GB/FB — 58 of 94 pitches were strikes (62%)
LHP Lee Hyde: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 3/0 GB/FB — 21 of 35 pitches were strikes (60%)
RHP Kelvin Perez: 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HB, 3/0 GB/FB — 30 of 46 pitches were strikes (65%) … picked a runner off first

[Read more…]