Stems cells, a first-hand experience

By now you know all about Bartolo Colon‘s career-saving stem cell procedure, though I don’t think any of us really knows what the procedure is like. Thankfully, we have C.J. Nitkowski to tell us. The former Yankee is currently undergoing stem cell treatment for his damaged pitching shoulder, and he recapped the experience at SI.com. He talked about his consultation with the doctors, the actual visit and procedure, the use of HGH, the whole nine. It’s a relatively short read but incredibly interesting, so check it out.

Game 109: Taking the series

Waa waa waa. (AP Photo/Dino Vournas)

It’s always tough to win a four-game series, but the Yankees have two cracks at winning this one in Chicago. They’ve won their last five games, the last one with some help from the rain, and it’s only the second time this year they’ve won that many games in a row. Kinda hard to believe when they have the third most wins in baseball and the best run differential. Here’s the lineup…

Brett Gardner, LF
Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Eric Chavez, 3B
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C

A.J. Burnett, SP

It’s another 8:10pm ET start, and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally or ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

Rotation Note: The Yankees announced that Phil Hughes will start on turn next Tuesday, though what happens beyond that (and specifically with Ivan Nova) remains to be seen.

Report: MLB investigating A-Rod for poker game

Via Wally Matthews, MLB is conducting an investigation into Alex Rodriguez‘s alleged participation in an illegal, high-stakes poker game. “We’re talking to people involved in the investigation and we’re taking this very seriously,” said an MLB exec. “Because he had been warned about this before, I would say a possible suspension would be very much in play.” The commissioner’s office will interview Alex as part of the investigation.

I get that MLB is cracking down because they have warned Alex once before about this stuff, though I’m not sure if they’ll actually be able to suspend him. The union and its many lawyers will have his back, and frankly MLB has set a precedent by ignoring all those DUI’s earlier this year. They won’t suspend a player for potentially killing someone by driving drunk, but they’re considering suspending A-Rod for playing cards? Get real. Fine him and move on.

The Forgotten Starter

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For the last … I dunno, week or two or four we’ve talked ad nauseum about the Yankees’ rotation, about whether Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova should be starting, about if/how Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia will hold up down the stretch, and about how totally awesome CC Sabathia is. But then there’s A.J. Burnett, almost a forgotten man in a rotation full of stories much easier to talk about. Burnett has rebounded from his brutal 2010 season but he’s not to being the guy he was in 2009, which is what I expected when I wrote our season preview

Call me (cautiously) optimistic, but I think we’ll see a Burnett that is better than what he was in 2010 this season, but perhaps not as good as he was in 2009. That would put him right around a 4.50-4.60 FIP, so let’s split the middle and call it 4.55. That would be the third worst full season of his career, but spread out over 30 or 31 starts, you’ve got a two, two-and-a-half win pitcher. Would you take that out of A.J. this year? I would, but perhaps my expectations are too low.

A.J. has a 4.66 FIP at the moment, so I’m just a little off, but we still have another eight weeks to go. His 3.93 xFIP looks a lot better and is exactly league average because he has been a little homerun unlucky, with 14.8% of his fly balls allowed leaving the park. Last year that number was 11.6%, the year before 10.8%, and for his career it’s 10.9%. Five of the 20 homers he’s given up in 2011 have been classified as either “lucky” or “just enough” by Hit Tracker, two categories that tend to be volatile from year to year. Burnett’s ground ball rate (49.0%) is his highest since 2007, so it seems odd that he’d be giving up more homers now (1.30 HR/9) than anytime in his career.

Anyway, about two weeks ago I wrote about evaluating Freddy Garcia based on results and not process, and I’m almost at that point with Burnett. He’s completed at least five innings in all 22 starts so far, something he did just 23 times last year. Only seven times has he allowed more than three earned runs and only three times did he exit a game with the Yankees down more than two runs (three runs each time). Twelve times he exited with a lead, so he’s certainly kept the Yankees in the game. Leaving seven games down one or two runs sucks, but those are hardly insurmountable leads given the offense backing him. I guess it’s also worth nothing that the Yankees have lost half of his 22 starts, but in nine of those losses they scored three or fewer runs. In fact, here look at this…

April 25th vs. White Sox: 8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
May 11th vs. Royals: 7 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 6 K
June 13th @ Athletics Indians: 7.2 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

Those are Burnett’s three best starts this year by Game Score, all registering a 72. The Yankees scored a total of three runs in those games and lost all three (all three runs came in the Kansas City game too). A little offensive help and they could have been 14-8 in his starts instead of 11-11. For shame.

Burnett’s strike out rate (7.81 K/9) and swing and miss rate (9.3%) are both up considerably from last season (6.99 and 7.9%, respectively), which might be The Larry Rothschild Effect. His walk rate has also climbed a bit, from 3.66 uIBB/9 to 4.03 uIBB/9, which is a product of throwing just 39.8% of his pitches in the strike zone, his lowest rate since the data started being recorded in 2002 and the third lowest in baseball this season. His ground ball rate is his best in years, but like I said, I’m not caring too much about the process at the moment, after last year I’ll just be happy with positive results regardless of how (un)sustainable they may be.

Sabathia has been the clear number one this year with Colon and Garcia settling in nicely as the two and three, but Burnett’s improvement from last year has gone a little under-the-radar if that’s possible. By no means is he great, but he’s been a solid back of the rotation guy for Joe Girardi and is giving his team a chance a win. Burnett will give it another go against the ChiSox tonight and hopefully do what he’s been doing most of the year: just keep the Yankees in the game.

Big lead gives the Yanks some breathing room

Baseball commentators, on the whole, are not funny. They might be affable, charming, and generally pleasant, but very few are actually funny. Twitter has made this most apparent, with sportswriters cracking jokes that get laughs only from colleagues. It’s really only when they don’t intend to get a laugh do sports commentators bring the humor. Twice in the past few days MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds has pulled off this feat. On Sunday he proclaimed that the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs if they didn’t make a move. Yesterday he repeated that proclamation, but this time the caveat was based on Phil Hughes‘s start. If they can’t get Hughes going, they’re not making the playoffs. It really is unintentional comedy at its peak.

The Yankees didn’t make a move, but it will take plenty more than that to keep them out of a playoff spot. After last night’s victory they have a 98.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds Report. This comes both from their 31.4 percent chance of overtaking the Red Sox for the division, and 67.5 percent chance of winning the Wild Card. After the Red Sox, there are only four other teams with non-zero chances of winning the Wild Card: Tampa at 0.7 percent, Toronto at 0.1 percent, Texas at 0.1 percent, and Anaheim at 0.2 percent. That’s not even to mention their run differential, which is tops in the league by two games. Now is not the time to be questioning the Yankees chances of making the playoffs.

Because the Yankees are so far out in front of the competition — seven games ahead of Anaheim in the actual Wild Card standings, 13 games ahead by run differential, and nine games up when factoring in strength of schedule — management has time to take a step back and really assess what they have heading into the final stretch and the playoffs. This isn’t to say the players can take their feet off the accelerator. As a band I like once titled an album, satisfaction is the death of desire. It doesn’t seem like the players would look at the standings and figure they can slack off. They know the lay of the land, and they’re surely stung by sitting even a game behind Boston. Management, on the other hand, has some breathing room. That allows them some flexibility in handling the roster going forward.

We’re already seeing this with the six-man rotation this week. Really, the Yankees could keep this going as long as it works, giving them enough time to evaluate their best options going forward. As Mike noted yesterday, it allows them to scale back the workloads of Sabathia, who is on pace for 250 innings, and Colon, who is at a six-year high in innings pitched. It also lets them see if either Ivan Nova or Phil Hughes is a viable option as a Game 3 or 4 playoff starter. There are other things they can do as well, such as experiment with Manny Banuelos as another lefty in the bullpen, or, as we’ve all desired for so long, Jesus Montero to come up and play a role in the lineup. They can, essentially, test out any viable player in the organization and see if he’ll help come playoff time.

Another aspect of this is that they can better afford to let a player rest. When Alex Rodriguez last played in a game they had just a three-game lead in the Wild Card standings. Since then they’ve doubled that, basically eliminating one of the contenders along the way. The lineup only gets stronger once A-Rod returns. If, say, Mark Teixieira runs into injury issues as he did at the end of last year, it will be much easier to rest him. Mariano Rivera can get all the work he needs, and none that he doesn’t. The same goes for David Robertson, and really, all of the bullpen. That’s not to say they should throw away games by inserting a poor reliever into a high-leverage situation. It’s that losing one game because of poor reliever performance isn’t the end of the world.

The next two months won’t quite be a cakewalk, in that no stretch of baseball is in any way easy. The players will still face it with the same level of intensity as they have all season. Management, however, has some room to play with the roster. They can see what players will help and which won’t. They can fully rest players when they’re dealing with nagging injuries, ensuring that they’re healthy come playoff time. These are the luxuries a team can afford when they’ve built up such a solid lead. And just think, if they take two of three from Boston this weekend they might be able to do all this while maintaining a good shot at the AL East crown. It really is the best of all worlds in New York.

Mark Teixeira’s recent hot streak

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two weeks ago, Mark Teixeira returned to the Bronx to kick off a ten-game homestand with a .240/.344/.493 season batting line, above-average on-base and power numbers, but hardly what we’ve come to expect from the $180M first baseman. He was stuck in an ugly short-term rut (.200/.222/.257 in the first eight games after the All-Star break) and a disappointing long-term slump (.232/.327/.460 in his previous 343 PA). The terms “slump” is relative here, because that’s basically a league average OBP with a stellar .228 ISO. Either way, Tex was looking pretty bad at the plate.

Then he returned home, and then things started to go his way. Teixeira homered and drew two walks in the first game of the homestand, and over the full ten games he went 13-for-39 (.333) with four homers, five walks, and just six strikeouts. A pair of hits on Monday opened the road trip, and last night Tex picked up three more hits, including a homerun from each side of the plate. His season batting line is up to .256/.352/.527, which is much more pleasing to the eye than that .240-something monstrosity from two weeks ago.

If you take a look at the spray charts since the start of the homestand, you’ll see that Teixeira really isn’t doing anything differently. He’s still extremely pull happy (here’s the spray chart vs. RHP, vs. LHP), so it’s not like he’s shortened up in an effort to dunk the ball into the opposite field or anything. Or maybe he has and it just hasn’t yielded any results yet, who knows. Tex’s season BABIP sat at .226 coming into the homestand but has since risen to .236, and you can see the gradual improvement here…

I remember seeing at least two balls eke their way through the shift on the homestand, and that’s part of the regression monster. Tex has definitely changed his approach since coming to the Yankees, making a conscious attempt to hit more fly balls, presumably in an effort to take advantage of the short porch. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hit for more power, but more fly balls means a lower BABIP, and that means a lower batting average. A lower batting average means a lower OBP, and OBP is king. In fact, if Tex had a league average walk rate this year (8.2%) instead of his current 11.4%, his season OBP would be .320. I don’t want to think about what it would be without those eight hit-by-pitches.

Anyway, we don’t have to worry about that. Drawing walks is most certainly a skill and getting hit by pitches is also skill (to a lesser extent), so it’s not like Teixeira is lucking into his OBP. Hit Tracker says just one of his 31 homers this year was “lucky,” this shot in the third game of the season, and I don’t think we’d have any disagreement about the enormity of his power. He was struggling in the worst way two weeks ago, and it can be particularly ugly when Teixeira struggles. He’ll pop the ball up on the infield or swing over top of offspeed pitches, which is as frustrating as it gets. He’s not doing that at the moment and appears to be on the his way towards another one of his hot streaks, when he’ll look like the best player on the planet.