Via Marc Carig, outfielder Brett Gardner still feels some pain in his right elbow and will be shut down for a few days. He had been swinging a bat in the cage the three or four days and is eligible to come off the DL tomorrow, though that obviously won’t happen. Despite Gardner’s setback, the Yankees are not planning to call up another outfielder according to Joe Girardi. That is just insane.
With one month officially in the books it’s time for this year’s inaugural edition of the Yankees Monthly Wrap-Up series. For those unfamiliar with my monthly rundowns, feel free to check previous editions out here.
At 13-9 (1.5 games out of first), April 2012 was a solid month overall for the Yanks despite some of the worst starting pitching any of us have seen from the team in quite some time. By comparison, a year ago the Yanks finished out April 15-9 and were 1.5 games up in first.
The Yankee offense — and bullpen — were the reasons the team was able to compile a winning record in April. Not much to complain about here, as the Bombers had the second-highest wOBA in the AL after the Rangers, and the best offense in the game when adjusted for park and league. Interestingly, the Yankees’ .358 team wOBA in April was better than every monthly wOBA they put up in 2011 except for last August, when they annihilated the ball to the tune of a .378 wOBA. Out of the Yankees’ last 67 months’ worth of play (dating back to the beginning of the 2001 season), this was the team’s 21st-best monthly offensive performance by wOBA, and the 8th-best by wRC+.
The Yankees somewhat oddly hit a slightly-below-league average percentage of fly balls, but when they did put them in the air they cleared the fence at the best rate in the league. Less surprisingly they saw a below-league-average percentage of fastballs — I say less surprisingly because, as always, they hammered the fastball (top wFA/C in the league). They also saw the second-highest percentage of two-seamers.
On an individual basis, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher carried the day, and their significantly above-average performances helped pick up the disappointing months put up by notorious slow-starter Mark Teixeira (87 wRC+), and, more surprisingly, Robinson Cano (93 wRC+). I’m actually fairly surprised more hasn’t been made of Cano’s nonexistence at the plate thus far; he’s given the team almost nothing and it’s kind of crazy to think how good the offense could be if he were contributing. Russell Martin also had a forgettable month (88 wRC+), but he’s not expected to shoulder a significant portion of the offensive load. For those wondering, Jesus Montero hit .259/.271/.420 in April, while the Yankees have gotten .236/.304/.393 out of the players that have hit in the DH slot so far this season.
I more or less covered the Yankees’ wretched April starting pitching on Friday, but it’s worth nothing that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were able to help keep the Yankees from registering their worst month of starting pitching in 10 years, though at 5.80 they did secure their second-worst month of collective starters’ ERAs since 2002.
At varying points during April CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova each looked very good, but each also contributed some shaky starts. Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes were flat-out terrible. If he had enough innings to qualify Hughes’ horrendous 2.9 HR/9 would be second-worst in all of baseball.
The bullpen was insane in April, with a 2.00 ERA that was the team’s third-lowest monthly ERA of its last 61 months. While ERA is a flawed metric — even moreso for relief pitchers — that’s still pretty ridiculous. The only months the Yankees’ relief corps have pitched to a lower ERA since 2002 were August 2002 (1.57) and August 2010 (1.82). I hope you all enjoyed the Yankee bullpen relief performance in April, because we won’t be seeing it again for a while.
Any conversation about the bullpen has to start and end with David Robertson, who continued the stretch of dominance he kicked off a year ago by allowing no earned runs over 11 innings and striking out 14.73 men per nine in April. One of these days D-Rob might give up a run, but let’s hope it doesn’t happen again for a long, long time. David Phelps was the only member of the ‘pen who really registered a “poor” performance by the numbers, although his ability to mop up multiple innings while mostly still keeping the team close was certainly useful, and his ledger is partially skewed by a presumably unsustainable propensity for giving up the long ball (2.04 HR/9). If Phelps can throw to an ERA anywhere near what xFIP thinks he can (4.11), he’ll be a more-than-serviceable replacement for Sweaty Freddy as the fifth starter.
It’s no secret that the Yankees have been unable to develop any quality starting pitching over the last … I dunno, five or ten or fifteen years. It’s part of the reason why they had to go out and trade for a young arm like Michael Pineda, because they haven’t been able to produce someone like that on their own. In fairness, the farm system was ignored for a long time in the early-to-mid-aughts, but guys like Joba Chamberlain, Andrew Brackman, and Phil Hughes haven’t pan out in recent years.
I had been planning to write about the Yankees and their pitching development program for a few weeks now, though I just never got around to it. It’s going to appear as though this is stemming from Phil Hughes’ performance last night and Pineda’s injury, but that honestly is not the case. This post has been in the works for a while. This quote from that anonymous scout guy (he gets around quite a bit, no?) in John Harper’s latest column finally gave me the motivation to get this together…
“I know we all baby these guys now,” one scout said, referring to young pitchers throughout baseball, “but I don’t know, maybe the Yankees take it to an extreme with the innings limits and pitch counts, and their kids never learn how to push themselves when they’re a little tired in situations where they need to get out of trouble.
“It’s not just them, but you can only protect arms so much, and sometimes it doesn’t matter at all because pitchers are going to get hurt. I just look at Hughes and Chamberlain and I can’t figure out what happened to them, and now I don’t like what I’m seeing from [Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances] either.”
I feel like the Yankees have managed to find this perfect balance between being both overly conservative and overly aggressive with their pitchers. They’re conservative in the sense that they hold them to strict pitch counts, but aggressive in the sense that they run them up the ladder after a good half-season at a level. Just take Ivan Nova for example. He’s the exception, a generally unheralded prospect who threw 575.1 IP in the minors before making his first MLB start. Compare that to Hughes (275 IP) or Joba (88.1 IP (!)) and it’s not hard to see why Nova come up a more complete pitcher and able to contribute. Now obviously every pitcher is different and not everyone needs 500+ IP in the minors before being ready for the show, this is just one example using three guys we’re all familiar with.
I think the scout in Harper’s column has a really good point about kids being unable to learn “how to push themselves when they’re a little tired in situations” while on strict workload limitations in the minors. Getting to the bigs and being effective as a young pitcher is hard enough, but you don’t want to compound the problem by having the kid standing out there in the fifth or sixth inning with his pitch count at 100 when he’s only thrown that many pitches in an outing a handful of times in his life. The big leagues is neither the time nor place for a pitcher to learn how to turn over a lineup three times or throw 100+ pitches in a start. It’s possible — not necessarily easy — to have a young player extend himself in the minors for the benefit of development without putting him at serious risk of injury. We know too much work can be bad for a young pitcher, but too little work can be harmful in a different way.
The whole point of the minor leagues is to help players develop the skills they need to be successful in the big leagues, and for pitchers that includes working deep into games — sometimes without their best stuff — and going through a lineup multiple times. That doesn’t mean they should run everyone out there for 120 pitches every five days, but this arbitrary five innings/80 pitches threshold we’ve seen employed so often in recent years accomplishes what, exactly? Hughes with Double-A Trenton in 2006 is a perfect example. He destroyed that league after his midseason promotion — 30.8 K% and 7.1 BB% with a 2.26 FIP in 116 IP — but he only threw more than five innings in 13 of 21 starts and not once in his final eleven outings. Again, we don’t have all the information from where we sit, but it’s hard to see how he was being challenged in that environment. More learning occurs when mistakes are made, not when things are easy.
Now obviously not every pitching prospect is going to work out, there’s some level of attrition that’s just unavoidable. Injuries are going to happen as well; pitchers can be babied to the nth degree and they’ll still get hurt. They’re cool like that. That said, I do think it’s fair to question how the Yankees have gone about developing their young pitchers in recent years, though we also have to acknowledge that as outsiders, we only have a small piece of the information pie. All we know about player development is what we’ve picked up as laymen over the years while reading Baseball America and Keith Law and checking box scores on a nightly basis. In the wake of Pineda’s injury and the failures of Hughes and Joba as starting pitchers, I do think that some level of self-reflection — more than the usual — has to take place on the Yankees’ part. What they’ve been doing has not been working.
The Yankees have been playing with a 24-man roster the last few days as Nick Swisher nurses his low-grade hamstring strain, an injury that will reportedly keep him on the shelf for another 5-7 days*. To make matters a little worse, they replaced Brett Gardner with another pitcher — first Cody Eppley, then D.J. Mitchell — when the left fielder hit the DL with various right arm problems. Of the 24 usable players, only eleven are non-pitchers. That’s a little nuts.
* I can’t imagine we’ll see him any early than Tuesday, following the scheduled off day.
No one will replace Gardner’s defensive value, but the Yankees have compounded the problem by keeping Swisher active rather than replacing him a healthy player that can play the outfield competently. That’s led to Raul Ibanez and Eduardo Nunez roaming the outfield and costing the team runs on defense, sometimes in painfully obvious ways. I understand not wanting to lose one the team’s most productive players any longer than you have too, but we’re starting to reach the point where keeping him on the roster will the cost the team more than they’ll gain by having him back a few days earlier.
The easiest way for the Yankees to fix their two-man bench problem is to simply send down Mitchell and get back to a normal 12-man pitching staff. They’ll still have Freddy Garcia available for long relief, plus CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have started pitching deeper into games on a more consistent basis. Monday’s an off day as well, a built-in day of rest. The need for eight bullpen arms just isn’t all that great right now. No, the pressing need is another warm body for the bench, someone who can at the very least play passable defense in an outfield corner and maybe even pinch-run. They don’t need miracles, just someone like Melky Mesa for a week. That’s all.
More than anything, my biggest concern in this entire roster mess is that Swisher won’t get the proper time to heal and his low-grade hamstring strain turns into a high-grade hamstring strain. It’s very easy to re-aggravate a muscle problem, especially a lower body strain on an outfielder. A setback would put the timetable for Swisher’s return at weeks, not days. If they’re dead set on keeping him off the DL, fine. They just better not rush him back because well, the bench is short. With Gardner reportedly unlikely to come off the DL when eligible tomorrow, just send down a pitcher and get another capable body where one is really needed, the corner outfield.
The Yankees wrapped up the toughest stretch of their early-season schedule over the weekend, going 5-3 with a rain out in nine games against the Red Sox, Rangers, and Tigers. They woke up this morning 2.5 games out of first place after splitting the first two games of their three-game series with the Orioles, not an ideal position but hardly one worth getting worked up over on May 2nd. You can’t win a division title this early in the season, but the Yankees are in a position to improve their odds of winning a second straight AL East crown in a big way in the coming weeks.
The Rays announced yesterday that Evan Longoria will be out 6-8 weeks with a partially torn left hamstring, and injury he suffered running the bases on Monday night. Tampa Bay has a really, really good team, but it’s impossible for any club to replace a player of Longoria’s caliber. Joe Maddon & Co. will try to get by with in-house replacements like Jeff Keppinger, Elliot Johnson, and Will Rhymes for the time being. Longoria’s injury is obviously a major blow to a chief division rival.
Needless to say, the Yankees have a golden opportunity now. Not only will the Rays be without their best player for the next two months, but New York will also enjoy a rather cushy schedule. Only three of their next 27 games are against 2011 playoff teams — a three-game set in the Bronx against the Longoria-less Rays next week — and only nine of their next 55 games are against 2011 playoff clubs (including interleague play). That stretch takes them almost all the way to the All-Star break. It’s hard to ask for anything more.
Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, winning the division is of the utmost importance now. The Yankees have a chance to pad their win total during what appears to be an easy stretch of the schedule while Tampa will have to try to survive without one of the game’s very best players. The two clubs are in very different situations, and there’s an opportunity for New York to create some separation between themselves and a primary AL East competitor over these next few weeks. The sooner the starting rotation sorts itself out and the Yankees can get on a roll, the better.
Everyone once in a while we run into one of those game where the Yankees just look completely flat, but there’s just nothing we can do about it other than sit back and wait for it to be over. The Orioles won 7-1 on Tuesday night and are now 7-26 in their last 33 games at Yankee Stadium.
Best Start of the Season
I don’t think Phil Hughes pitched demonstrably better than he had in previous starts, though the bottom line — three runs* in 5.2 IP — was decent enough. All three runs came on a pair of homers, a solo shot by Chris Davis and a two-run shot by J.J. Hardy. The two homer pitches were identical, fastballs that leaked right over the plate and into the wheelhouse. Hughes has now given up seven dingers in 21.2 IP this season, an unfathomably bat 2.9 HR/9.
* It’s actually four runs allowed, but the last run charged to Hughes was a runner inherited and allowed to score by Boone Logan. I won’t ding him for that because the reliever didn’t do his job.
The plan to revert back to a “reliever mentality” resulted in a first inning’s worth of a 95 mph fastballs — it tapered off after that — and just one cutter all night. Phil threw 67 fastballs, 27 curveballs, five changeups, and the one cutter for 100 pitches on the nose. He did strike out six and get nine swings and misses, but that’s nothing new. Unfortunately Hughes will get another start because he pitched just well enough not to lose his rotation spot.
Unless the Yankees manage to get runners on base in front of Curtis Granderson and he drives them in, they don’t score these days. The 3-4-5 hitters — Alex Rodriguez (8-for-33), Robinson Cano (5-for-23), and Mark Teixeira (4-for-31) — have all a) been mired in recent slumps, and b) not done much with the bat all season in general. It’s gotten so bad that A-Rod resorted to bunting for a hit in the sixth inning. At some point they’re going to have to shake things up to get rid of that black hole in the middle of the order; maybe bat Cano second and Granderson third, or Nick Swisher fifth (once healthy) and Teixeira sixth. I dunno, but they can only wait around for this stuff to fix itself for so long.
The only run the Yanks scored on Tuesday night came off the bat of Granderson, who clobbered a first inning solo homer off the facing of the upper deck in right. He and Derek Jeter went 5-for-8 while the rest of the lineup went a combined 2-for-26 with two walks. One of the two hits was A-Rod’s bunt single, his first since 2004. Brian Matusz came into the game with a 5.66 ERA and a 4.74 FIP, but you would have never known it by watching this game. Pretty frustrating.
Eduardo Nunez gave the Yankees one error-free night in left field on Monday, but they went double-or-nothing on Tuesday and got nothing. He misread a routine fly ball off the bat of Nick Johnson in the sixth, allowing the ball to bloop in front of him for a two-run single that effectively put the game away. This is what happens when you make the conscious decision to not put injured players on the DL and play with a short bench and players out of position.
Eric Chavez was robbed of a hit off the bench during a pinch-hitting appearance in the seventh inning as replays showed that Adam Jones had trapped the ball in center field, not caught it on the fly. MLB was supposed to expand replay for trapped balls and fair/foul plays this year, but they preferred to hastily implement the new playoff system because that’s where the money is.
Nicky J. managed to break an 0-for-29 start to the season with a run-scoring single off Rafael Soriano in the eighth inning. I’m fairly certain that has been the most notable event in both Johnson’s and Soriano’s seasons so far.
Last, but certainly not least, congrats to D.J. Mitchell for making his big league debut and starting his Hall of Fame career with a scoreless ninth. He allowed two ground ball hits, though Cano didn’t help him any when he fumbled a flip from Jeter at the base and was unable to turn the double play.
Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Triple-A Empire State (5-2 win over Rochester)
RF Colin Curtis: 0-4, 1 K
LF Jayson Nix: 1-2, 1 R, 2 BB — four hits in his last ten at-bats
CF Dewayne Wise: 1-3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K
1B Steve Pearce: 2-4, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBI — missed a few days after fouling a ball off his foot, but he’s back and hasn’t missed a beat … broke the game open with a three-run dinger in the eighth
DH Jack Cust: 1-4, 1 K — still hasn’t played the field yet this year
C Frankie Cervelli & SS Doug Bernier: both 0-2, 1 BB — Bernier scored a run and struck out
3B Brandon Laird & 2B Ramiro Pena: both 0-3 — Laird struck out
RHP Adam Warren: 5 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 3/6 GB/FB — 60 of 99 pitches were strikes (60.6%) … I really wish he’d start striking out more guys, he has just a 6.4 K/9 and a 16.3 K% (!) in 178 career Triple-A innings
RHP Chase Whitley: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 2/1 GB/18 — 18 of 31 pitches were strikes (58.1%)
LHP Juan Cedeno: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1/1 GB/FB — eight of 14 pitches were strikes (57.1%)
RHP Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K — 19 of 33 pitches were strikes (57.6%) … been a while since he had a game like this