Open Thread: Looking back at 1998

(Photo Credit: SF Weekly)

The Yankees have had a very successful season so far, sporting the second best record in baseball at 88-57. One of my favorite things to do each year is compare the current team’s progress to the 1998 Yankees at the same point of the season. It’s always fun to see that no matter how good you think the Yankees are at any given moment, the 1998 squad will always be better. For example, after 145 games in ’98, the same number they’ve played so far this year, the Yanks were 103-42. If you took that team and stuck them in the AL East right now, the 2011 Yankees would be 15 games out. Fifteen! The 1998 Red Sox went 92-70, a great season, but they finished 22 (!!!) games out of first place. That blows my mind.

Here’s the Baseball-Reference page for the 1998 Yankees. It always neat to see that aside from Bernie Williams, no one really had a monster season. Just about everyone was solidly above-average and they had depth, 1-9 in the order and 1-5 in the rotation. They could play any kind of game too, a slugfest, a pitchers duel, a bullpen battle, that team could do it all, and quite often they did. We’re never going to see another team like that, but I’m glad I got to see them.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the night, as we wait for the game to start a little after 10pm ET. The Mets are playing the Nationals (Dickey vs. Detwiler), and the Monday Night Football doubleheader has the Patriots at the Dolphins (7pm ET) and the Raiders at the Broncos (10pm ET). The game thread will be along in a little while, but talk about whatever you want here.

David Robertson named finalist for Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award

Via the man himself, David Robertson has been named a finalist for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, which is given annually “for outstanding on-field performance and off-field contributions to [the player’s] community and is one of the awards given during the Players Choice Awards banquet annually.” Robertson was elected as one of six finalists (one per division) for his work with High Socks For Hope, helping those effected by tornadoes in his hometown of Tuscaloosa.

The winner will be announced after the season. Curtis Granderson won the award in 2009, when he was with the Tigers.

Lining up Sabathia

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

All season long, there have been questions about the pitching staff. It didn’t matter how well Bartolo Colon or Freddy Garcia or Ivan Nova pitched, they were going to be judged on a start-by-start basis. All three have exceeded expectations, no doubt, but they’re still being treated as question marks. One thing has never been in question though, and that’s who would start Game One of the ALDS. That would be CC Sabathia, regardless of how well everyone else pitched. There’s a slight problem though, Sabathia doesn’t line up to start that game, and it’s not even close.

Because of the continued use of the six-man rotation, Sabathia has either two or three starts left. If the Yankees keep the rotation the way it is right now, CC would have to start Game One on just two days rest, which obviously won’t happen. If they move him back a day, he’d have to start Game One on seven days rest. Move him up a day, it would be three days rest. Here, look at the schedule, it just doesn’t work without getting creative. There’s not much schedule left, so the Yankees can’t keep delaying this rotation decision like they have for the last month or so. Sabathia needs to get lined up for September 30th, the date of Game One, and it needs to happen soon. My solution: a simulated game on Thursday.

Sabathia last pitched on Saturday, so Thursday would be his turn with normal rest. The Yankees have to get him back on a regular five-day schedule at some point, the sooner the better. They’re off on Thursday, traveling from Seattle to Toronto, which is why it would have to be a simulated game. Sabathia gets his work in that day, the lines up to start on the 20th (Rays) and then on the 25th (Red Sox) before that Game One comes up. In an absolute disaster scenario in which the Rays catch New York and the two teams are tied for a playoff spot, they Yankees would have the option of pushing CC back to the 26th to have him face Tampa. I doubt it comes to that, though. They’ll be able to use that simulated game to have Sabathia pitch on normal rest for basically three full turns through the rotation, giving him (hopefully) enough time to get back into the routine before the postseason. This would be ideal given where we are right now.

Obviously the long and late night flight from Seattle to Toronto sucks (thanks for the getaway day on Wednesday, Mariners! [/sarcasm]), but the Yankees could simply send Sabathia to Toronto before the rest of the team. Have him fly out on Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, then show up to the park on Thursday afternoon ready to unload 100 pitches. Greg Golson, Chris Dickerson, Brandon Laird … all the September call-ups that might be rusting away on the bench can step in the box for some extra at-bats, and Jesus Montero could catch in order to develop some of that all-important familiarity with the staff ace. Even if he splits the catching duties with Austin Romine, it works.

Are the Yankees going to do this? Most likely not. They absolutely have to do something though, and they should probably do it pretty soon. Figuring out who starts Games Two and Three is enough of a concern right now, they don’t need to make things even more difficult by having Sabathia start Game One on some inordinate amount of rest. The idea of essentially skipping CC sounds crazy, but the team has built up enough of a cushion on the wildcard that they could get away with it. A few wins in Seattle would make the simulated game plan even more palatable.

Freddy’s homers: long-term problem or just a blip?

(Frank Franklin II/AP)

For the first few months of the season it was the one thing that kept Freddy Garcia‘s head above water. As summer rolled in, it allowed him to stand behind CC Sabathia as the team’s No. 2 pitcher. But after going 10 straight starts without allowing a home run, Garcia has allowed five in his last three, including four in his last two, which amounts to 7.2 IP. It leaves the Yankees facing a big question heading into the postseason: can Freddy still step up and take the ball in Game 2?

There are two possible scenarios at play here. The first one, popular with the statistics-oriented crowd, is that Garcia is merely experiencing a correction. It’s not normal for a pitcher to go 10 starts without allowing a homer, and so Garcia is just coming back down to earth. His xFIP has suggested such a regression, and the past three games represent just that. The second one is that he found something in his repertoire that allowed him to suppress home runs earlier in the season. His finger injury, and perhaps some dulling of his command due to a long layoff, is reason for his recent failures.

During his homerless streak, Garcia leaned heavily on his changeup. He threw it 30 percent of the time, more than any other pitch in his arsenal. After that he threw the four-seamer and the slider with frequency; in total he threw those three pitches a hair more than 85 percent of the time. The remaining 15 percent was divided almost evenly among the cutter, splitter, and two-seamer. This might seem odd, since the splitter has been, anecdotally, Garcia’s most effective pitch this season. Yet he doesn’t deploy it with frequency. Instead he picks his spots, and it worked. He generated swings on 11.2 percent of his 259 splitters during the streak.

In his last three starts Garcia has started relying on the splitter much more frequently. He has thrown it 39 times out of 250 total pitches, or 15.6 percent. That’s essentially triple the rate at which he threw it during his streak. At the same time he’s backed off the changeup significantly, throwing it only 45 times, or 18 percent. The slider has gained primacy in Garcia’s repertoire; he has thrown it 31.2 percent of the time since coming off the DL. Might the change of pitch selection be reason for Garcia’s failures?

In his start against Baltimore, the one when he allowed two homers and seven runs in 2.2 innings, Garcia leaned on the slider. He threw it 16 times in his 56 pitches, or 28.6 percent. The Orioles hitters demolished it, though — the Brooks Baseball data has the linear weights score on the slider at 3.12, which is simply horrible (negative scores are better). He also got beat up with the fastball, which is unsurprising. In that game he threw the splitter just four time,s and with generally good results: three strikes, one swinging, and a negative linear weights score. He apparently used that performance to justify heavier usage of his splitter yesterday.

That, of course, did not work either. Garcia threw 26 splitters out of 106 pitches, or 24.5 percent. His linear weights score: 2.04. His slider, however, was more effective, generating three swings and misses on 33 pitches and resulting in a -1.04 linear weights score. The changeup also came back into play, accounting for 27 of those 106 pitches and generating five swings and misses. It wasn’t overly effective, just barely on the linear weights scale, but it certainly got the job done moreso than it did against the Orioles. As expected, the results were quite better. But they weren’t necessarily good.

The change in repertoire, then, lends credence to both ends of the argument. While it’s certainly possible that Garcia is just experiencing a correction following his homerless streak, it’s also possible that a change in pitch selection, and a lack of sharpness in command, has led him down a homer-prone path. There’s no real way to tell, of course, which makes the issue that much more frustrating. But it’s good to know that there are tangible changes at play. If everything had been the same as before, the situation might appear a bit more dire.

This leaves some room for optimism. If Garcia gets sharper with each outing, he might be in ideal shape come playoff time. When he’s keeping hitters off-balance with his slider and changeup, while working the splitter into opportune spots, he’s shown that he’s effective. But he hasn’t done that in his last few games. His next few starts, then, will be of great importance in determining the postseason rotation. The No. 2 spot is, in all likelihood, his to lose. A strong finish could set the Yankees up well for a playoff run.

Series Preview: Seattle Mariners

(Photo Credit: Flickr user camknows via Creative Commons license)

Just three games left in this unfortunate September west coast swing, everyone’s least favorite road trip. The Yankees got off the schneid yesterday thanks to Peter Bourjos’ error, but the offense certainly started to look more like its usual self. Three games in the Emerald City, coming right up.

What Have The Mariners Done Lately?

Unsurprisingly, a lot of losing. Seattle just split a four-game series with the Royals, and before that they won just one of six games against the Angels and Athletics. Over their last 19 games, they’re just 5-14. The Mariners are 64-85 with a -100 run differential on the season, the third worst record and run differential in the league.

Mariners On Offense

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Obviously, it’s a bad offense. Seattle has scored just 500 runs this year, the fewest in baseball by 49 runs. They’ve scored more than two runs just twice in their last six games as well. Their entire attack revolves around two guys, and one of them is not Ichiro. The leadoff man is hitting just .275/.313/.339, easily his worst season in the States. Instead, those two guys are Dustin Ackley (.290/.367/.453) and Mike Carp (.274/.333/.465, but hot of late). Both are lefty swingers, so expect to see former Mariner Aaron Laffey a few times in the series if Boone Logan is still an no-go because of his dead arm.

The rest of the lineup is hit or miss, mostly miss. Brendan Ryan (.244/.310/.322) is one hell of a shortstop, but also a number nine hitter masquerading as a number two hitter. Justin Smoak is at .232/.318/.397 for the season, but has two homers and 13 hits in ten games since coming off the DL. Believe it or not, the DH platoon is Adam Kennedy (.241/.282/.391 vs. RHP) and Wily Mo Pena (.217/.217/.478 vs. LHP), which is sad. Miguel Olivo (.223/.256/.381) does the catching, and the duo of Casper Wells (.238/.316/.433) and Trayvon Robinson (.250/.293/.424) splits time in center field now that Franklin Gutierrez is out for the season with an oblique injury. Alexi Liddi (.125/.125/.250 in very limited time) and Kyle Seager (.265/.313/.364) split time at the hot corner. To call it a below-average offense would be an insult to below-average offenses.

Mariners On The Mound

Monday, RHP Felix Hernandez (vs. Phil Hughes): It doesn’t get any easier after that series in Anaheim. Felix has faced the Yankees twice this year, throwing seven innings each time (four runs and then one run) and beating them twice. His stuff is as nasty as it gets – a mid-90’s four-seamer, a mid-90’s two-seamer, a high-80’s changeup, a low-80’s curveball, and a mid-80’s slider – and he’ll throw pretty much any pitch in any count. All five are swing and miss pitches too. Hernandez is as good as it gets.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user jaycoxfilm via Creative Commons license)

Tuesday, LHP Charlie Furbush (vs. A.J. Burnett): One of the pieces Seattle got from the Tigers in the Doug Fister trade, the Yankees have never seen Furbush before. He’s been pretty bad in seven starts with the Mariners, pitching to 5.79 ERA (~4.75 FIP) in 37.1 IP. Furbush is a rather generic lefty, with a high-80’s fastball, a low-80’s slider, and a mid-70’s curve. He’s not great at striking people out (6.24 K/9), not great at limiting walks (3.57 BB/9), and not great at generating ground balls (41.7%), so in other words, he’s exactly the kind of pitcher that will give the Yankees fits.

Wednesday, LHP Jason Vargas (vs. Ivan Nova): Another generic-ish lefty without great peripherals (4.30 FIP and a 4.57 xFIP), Vargas goes to work with a high-80’s fastball, a low-80’s changeup, and a low-70’s curve. He’s also cut and sink his fastball on occasion. The Yankees have faced him twice this year and smacked him around both times: six runs in three innings in May, then eight runs in four innings in July.

Bullpen: Like every other team, Seattle’s bullpen is full of September call-ups. Closer Brandon League (2.95 FIP) is easily their best arm, and he’s being set up by journeyman Jamey Wright (4.32 FIP). Righties Tom Wilhelmsen (3.84 FIP) and Shawn Kelley (3.27 FIP) will also see important innings late in the game. Cesar Jimenez (just 1.1 IP since being called up) is the lone lefty.

The rest of the bullpen is filled out by various nondescript righties. Josh Lueke (3.82 FIP) was part of last year’s Cliff Lee trade, Chance Ruffin (5.75 FIP in limited time) was part of the Fister trade, and Dan Cortes (5.92 FIP) was part of the (first) Yuniesky Betancourt trade. Steve Delabar made his big league debut yesterday, and Jeff Gray (4.86 FIP) is pretty terrible. That’s it, ten relievers in all.

Recommended Mariners Reading: U.S.S. Mariner and Lookout Landing.