Robinson Cano’s eight-game surge to the top

Robinson Cano might have put on a few big performances early in the season, but for the most part he looked lost at the plate. This is not something we expected to see from the man with the prettiest swing in baseball. He showed signs of recovery in late April, but it wasn’t the kind of recovery we expected. He pulled plenty of 1 for 4 performances in that stretch, leaving his average between .250 and .270 for a stretch of 15 games. In fact, from May 2 through May 5 he was hitting .255, having gone 1 for 4 in each of those games. That’s a four-game hit streak, sure, but not the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from Cano.

Something seemingly clicked for him in the final game of the series in Kansas City. With the Yankees needing a win to secure a series tie, Cano led the offense by going 2 for 5 with a homer and 4 RBI. In the eight games since he has gone 15 for 32 with two homers and four doubles. The surge has raised his average all the way to .303, which is second on the team behind Derek Jeter. Of his 14 RBI on the season 10 have come in these last eight games. Cano also leads the team in doubles with 12.

While Cano’s numbers aren’t quite where we’d expect them — he’s still missing a little power — he’s made it clear that he can reach those numbers in no time. It took just eight games for him to gain 50 points on his average and drive in 10 runs. Imagine what this might look like in another eight games. Imagine what it might look like at the end of June as we approach the halfway mark. It might be frustrating to see such a highly regarded player struggle out of the gate. But it’s equally pleasing to see him turn things around in such a short period of time.

A-Rod leads middle of the order turnaround

For much of April we’d see the most frustrating facts about the middle of the Yankees’ order. They simply weren’t producing, and it was costing the Yankees runs — sometimes in game-changing situations. While the starting pitching was rough around the edges to start the season, the middle of the order was as much to blame for the team’s middling start. Lately, though, they’ve turned things around a bit. It all started with Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod started the season with peaks and valleys, but he really started to turn it around when the Yankees returned home from Texas to face Detroit. He entered that series hitting .221/.329/.382 (15 for 68 in 79 PA). Since going 3 for 4 with a homer against Detroit he has hit .371/.458/.484 (23 for 62 in 72 PA). That includes two homers, but just one double. In fact, if there is any concern about A-Rod it is his lack of doubles. He has just three on the season, which could indicate that he’s just not driving the ball as he should.

Even better, in the small sample of 46 PA he has handled lefties reasonably well. He’s hitting just .263 against them (10 for 38), but he does have two homers and one of his three doubles. He had just two homers in all of 2011 against lefties after hitting six in 2010. In each of the last two seasons A-Rod has produce an OPS against righties that far exceeded his mark against lefties — nearly 100 points last year and 130 points in 2010. The turnaround, albeit against a small and selective sample, is encouraging.

A-Rod’s season started turning favorably at the end of April. As we’ll see later this afternoon, the other two major contributors have gotten started a bit later.

Platooning the defense

Cover your eyes. (J. Meric/Getty)

Brett Gardner‘s injury has hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. They miss his productive bat and ability to make pitchers work at the bottom of the lineup, they miss his speed on base paths, and most of all they miss his all-world defense. I give Raul Ibanez an A+ for his effort out there, but the man is a butcher and doesn’t belong anywhere near a glove. Andruw Jones can hold his own in the outfield but is no longer the defender he was during his Atlanta days, and Dewayne Wise is a very good glove man but can’t hit a lick.

With Gardner out anywhere from another two weeks to a full month with a strain muscle in his right (non-throwing) elbow, the Yankees are stuck with sub-optimal left field options for the time being. Ibanez has started each of the last four games and six of the last nine games in left mostly because the DH spot has been rotated around. Even with Eduardo Nunez in Triple-A, the duo of Jayson Nix and Eric Chavez give Joe Girardi a chance to rest Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter somewhat regularly early in the season. Better to rest them now than risk burning them out later, I suppose.

Anyway, the Yankees are stuck with an undesirable left field situation until Gardner comes back. The personnel on the roster is unlikely to change barring injury, but the team can still maximize what they get out of these guys by optimizing their usage. Let’s take a quick look at some batted ball data (2010-present)…

FB% LD% GB%
Ivan Nova 30.2% 18.3% 51.6%
CC Sabathia 32.0% 19.2% 48.8%
Hiroki Kuroda 33.0% 19.8% 47.2%
Andy Pettitte 37.0% 18.3% 44.8%
Phil Hughes 47.3% 18.3% 34.4%

You folks are smart, so you probably already know what I’m getting at here: the Yankees should employ their top defensive outfield unit whenever the fly ball pitchers are on the mound. That means Wise on the field and Ibanez at DH whenever Hughes and Pettitte start. We could also add Nova to that mix if his ground ball rate (44.6% this year) doesn’t return to previous levels (52.7% last year). Kuroda’s ground ball rate (48.6% this year), matches his career average after dropping to 43.2% last year. Perhaps reuniting with former battery-mate Russell Martin helped, or maybe it’s just an early-season fluke.

With Wise in the outfield two (potentially three) out of every five days, Girardi will be able to hide Ibanez’s defense a bit while still being able to rotate that DH spot. It’s not ideal; in a perfect world Ibanez never plays the field, but it’s going to happen until Gardner is healthy, so the Yankees should stick him out there when their top ground-ballers are on the bump to minimize the damage. It also goes without saying that Wise should replace Ibanez in the field in the late innings of close games.

Nunez is in Triple-A now, but the Yankees can also employ a similar defensive platoon on the infield. Nix is not exactly a stellar glove man, but he can spell Jeter at shortstop whenever one of the fly ball guys is on the hill with the thinking that he’ll have fewer tough plays to make. Sure enough, Nix’s only start at short so far this year came with Hughes on the mound this past Saturday. Perhaps the defensive platoon is already in place, at least on the infield. The difference may only be two or three plays a game, but every little bit counts.

Pitching injuries will test Yankees’ depth

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Yankees won last night’s game against the Orioles but lost four players to injury in the process. Clay Rapada’s viral infection isn’t the end of the world and even if he needs time on DL, the recently claimed Justin Thomas can take his place as the second lefty rather easily. Raul Ibanez has a nice little mark on his right elbow after getting hit by a pitch, but he said he’ll probably be able to play today. With the left-handed Wei-Yin Chen on the bump for Baltimore, Ibanez figures to get the day off anyway.

The injuries to Ivan Nova and David Robertson are potentially much more significant. Nova took a comebacker off his right ankle/foot in the third inning and apparently did more damage fielding a ground ball in the sixth, suffering a contusion and sprain of that right ankle and foot. It’s unclear if he’ll have to miss a start at the moment, but I assume David Phelps will shift back into the rotation if Nova can’t give it a go in five days. That can be problematic because it will shorten the pitching staff, which is already without Mariano Rivera and will likely lose Robertson as well.

The setup man turned closer suffered some kind of rib cage injury during his last appearance on Friday and it lingered through the weekend. Robertson is headed for tests today and almost any kind of oblique issue would result in a DL stint. Those can be very tricky and it’s easy to turn a minor oblique/ribcage injury into a major one if it isn’t given enough time the heal. With Mo already on the shelf, the Yankees can ill afford to lose Robertson for any length of time.

This recent rash of injuries combined with losing Mo and Michael Pineda for the season is really going to test the team’s depth. Phelps is a fine fill-in starter and the trio of Rafael Soriano, Boone Logan, and Cory Wade is fully capable of late-inning relief work, but there would still be two pitching spots to fill. Cody Eppley is a logical call-up candidate but is nothing more than a right-handed specialist. D.J. Mitchell could pitch multiple innings and could even spot start for Nova if the Yankees want to keep Phelps in a leveraged bullpen role. Manny Delcarmen is a non-40-man roster bullpen candidate, but I don’t think anyone is clamoring for him.

Obviously losing the starter in Nova is more significant, but the Yankees will have a tougher time replacing a late-inning arm in Robertson. Phelps, Mitchell, and even Adam Warren can spot start with no problem if needed, but it’ll take some time to find a trusted end-game reliever. It’s silly but it’s true, late-inning relievers are in their own little world. The Yankees can always scour the waiver wire and dabble in the trade market if internal solutions are not found and Robertson’s injury is anything that will require more than like, two weeks on the shelf. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Assuming tonight’s game doesn’t get rained out, the Yankees will have CC Sabathia on the mound and yet again, they’re going to need innings from their ace. The bullpen, specifically the middle relief guys like Logan and Wade, have been worked hard these last few games and could really use the night off. I mean no warming up, no nothing. Robertson’s probable unavailability will compound the problem, ditto the chance that Phelps will be needed to start for Nova in five days. Every team deals with injuries, but the sheer volume of injuries in such a short amount of time is going to put the club’s pitching depth to work.

Yanks beat O’s but four leave game with injuries

Some wins don’t really feel like wins because someone gets hurt, and this game kinda has that feel. The Yankees potentially lost four players in Monday night’s win over the Orioles, though technically one of those players was injured a few days ago and we just didn’t know about it.

Puffy face power! (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Teixeira Contributes

It’s been a rough start to the season for Mark Teixeira offensively, but he has consistently provided stellar glovework at first base throughout his Yankees tenure. On Monday night, he finally contributed something with the stick. His tie-breaking, two-run homer off former teammate Luis Ayala in the seventh inning turned a 5-5 game into a 7-5 game, a lead the Yankees would never relinquish. The homer came in a two-strike count and after Teixeira fouled off a tough two-strike slider to stay alive.

The blast cleared the tall wall in right and frankly, it was unexpected. Tex has been pretty awful this season — .231/.286/.403 even after his 2-for-4 effort in this game — and it’s easy to expect a weak pop-up or a strikeout on offspeed stuff whenever he comes to the plate. Ayala missed his spot and left a pitch right in the happy zone, and Teixeira did exactly what he was supposed to do. Hopefully these two hits — the second was a booming double off the right field wall — plus Sunday’s dinky little infield single get him going, but we’ve said that a few times already this season.

Eutaw, Not Utah

There aren’t many people who can hit a baseball further than Curtis Granderson, which is impressive considering how damn skinny the guy is. Granderson clubbed a go-ahead solo shot onto Eutaw Street in the fifth inning, his 12th dinger of the season. Ten of those 12 homers have come at home in Yankee Stadium, the other two in Camden Yards. Curtis has hit homers in old two parks this season, but I’m sure that will change soon enough.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Nova’s Problems Continue

Ivan Nova been hit very hard this year, coming into this game with a .325/.376/.618 batting line against and he did nothing to improve it. The Orioles tagged him for five runs on seven hits and three walks in 5.1 innings, including two doubles, one triple, and one homer. Nova’s now allowed 20 doubles, three triples, and nine homers on the season, nine more extra base hits than any single batter has recorded in 2012 — Josh Hamilton leads baseball with 23 multiple base knocks. That’s a problem and that’s what happens when you leave pitches up in the zone. They get hit hard.

Another problem is that Ivan left the game with an injury, specifically a contusion and sprain of his right ankle and foot. He got hit by a comebacker in the third inning and appeared to aggravate things fielding a ball in the sixth before being removed. X-rays were negative, but obviously this is a concern. David Phelps could easily step into the rotation if need be, but I’d rather see Nova out there working on whatever needs to be worked on to stop giving up all these extra-base hits.

Bumps and Bruises

What a rough night. In addition to losing Nova, the Yankees also lost Clay Rapada (viral infection), Raul Ibanez (hit-by-pitch in elbow), and David Robertson (ribcage). It was obvious something was up with Robertson not only when Rafael Soriano came in to close, but also when Boone Logan and Cory Wade split eighth inning duties. There’s no definitive timetable for any of these guys, so keep your fingers crossed.

Leftovers

(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The bullpen is losing pieces to injury left and right, but how about Logan? He struck out all three batters he faced on Monday and has now struck out five consecutive batters and nine of the last 12 he’s faced. That’s pretty awesome. Phelps allowed three singles (two infield singles) in his inning of work, and there’s a chance he could see some more leveraged relief work given Robertson’s injury. That’s if he isn’t needed in the rotation to replace Nova. Sigh. Those three hits were the only hits the bullpen allowed in 3.2 innings, so big ups to them.

Derek Jeter‘s stuck in his first slump of the season, going 1-for-5 and hitting into two rally-killing double plays in this game. After grounding into one double play in the first 33 games of the season, the Cap’n has now bounced into four twin killings in the last two games. It was bound to happen at some point; you really didn’t think he’d hit .400+ all season, did you?

Robinson Cano‘s resurgence continued with a 2-for-5 night, including a hot shot double to the opposite field. He also turned a sweet defensive play on a ground ball single up the middle. Alex Rodriguez‘s hot hitting continued with a three-single night, raising his season line to .292/.391/.431. The power isn’t there anymore, but he’s doing everything else. Nick Swisher reached base three times, including a two-run double into the gap that tied the game at two in the fourth inning. Russell Martin drew a pair of walks and Eric Chavez both singled and drove in an insurance run with a sacrifice fly.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the advanced stats, and ESPN the updated standings.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

Game two of this quick two-game set will be played Tuesday night … or maybe not because the forecast again looks pretty crummy. If they do play, it’ll be CC Sabathia against Wei-Yin Chen. Given the loss of Robertson, a fifth straight start of eight innings out of Sabathia would be very appreciated.

Update: Robertson unavailable due to sore ribcage, tests tomorrow

11:42pm: Robertson will in fact go for tests tomorrow. Good, let’s see exactly what’s going on and deal with it.

11:12pm: Following tonight’s game, Joe Girardi confirmed that David Robertson was unavailable due to a sore ribcage and said he may be sent for tests tomorrow. Robertson first felt it after Friday’s game and it’s lingered, so there is some concern. Hopefully it’s not an oblique issue (though that seems inevitable), that could take some time to heal. What a terrible night on the injury front.