Series Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

(Photo Credit: Flickr user James D. Schwartz via Creative Commons license)

Fun’s over, time to get back to work. The Yankees enjoyed their three days off for the All-Star break and now head to Toronto for a four-game weekend series against a team that always seems to play them tough. Will they be fresh, energized, and ready to go after the rest? Or slow and lethargic because of the downtime? One of those two will be your narrative for the weekend.

What Have The Blue Jays Done Lately?

Toronto went into the break with a 45-47 record, good for fourth in the AL East. Their +10 run differential is sixth best in the league, behind the three division powers, the Rangers, and the Angels. The Jays won their final three games before the break, clinching a four-game series win over the Indians. They’ve been hovering right around .500 all season, which reflects their true talent level.

Blue Jays On Offense

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

It’s all about Jose Bautista (who’s playing third base now), the world’s best player. He’s at .334/.468/.702 with an MLB leading 31 homers and 74 walks, and in ten July games he’s hit .395/.455/1.000. If he failed to reach base in his next 48 plate appearances, Bautista would still have a higher OBP and SLG than Adrian Gonzalez does right now. Dude is on a completely different level. This is a four-game series in his home park, so he’s going to hit two or three or four homeruns. Just accept it and move on, nothing anyone can do.

Bautista’s season has overshadowed his teammates and rightfully so, but Adam Lind might be baseball’s best kept secret right now. He’s at .300/.349/.515 with 16 homers right now, but since the end of April he’s hit .331/.383/.606. He’s legit protection behind Joey Bats. Yunel Escobar has been one of the game’s best leadoff hitters at .291/.365/.438, and he’s been molten hot since early-May: .317/.397/.490 with seven homers, 26 walks, and 22 strikeouts. Rookie Eric Thames (no relation to Marcus) allowed them to cut ties with Juan Rivera thanks to his .308/.357/.519 batting line (just 28 games though), and Travis Snider has seven extra base hits (six doubles and a homer) in seven games since coming back up from Triple-A. Those last two fill in the blanks around Bautista, Lind, and Yunel.

The rest of the lineup consists of a bunch of low-OBP guys that may or may not run into a fastball. Aaron Hill (.234/.279/.328) just keeps on getting worse and worse. J.P. Arencibia (.222/.287/.427) is doing exactly what everyone expected him to do, low OBP and some pop. Edwin Encarnacion (.255/.283/.405) and Rajai Davis (.240/.264/.357) pretty much suck. Corey Patterson is somehow keeping the dream alive at .258/.292/.393. The top four guys are legit, but the rest of the lineup can definitely be pitched too.

Blue Jays On The Mound

Thursday, LHP Jo-Jo Reyes (vs. Bartolo Colon): Joey Jo-Jo has been decidedly mediocre this season, with a low strikeout rate (5.29 K/9) and a low ground ball rate (39.4%). He does limit walks (2.96 B/9), so all those homers (0.99 HR/9) don’t sting as much. Reyes lives off his low-90’s four and two-seamers, and he’ll mix in a wide array of offspeed stuff (changeup, slider, and curve). The Yankees saw him in May and hammered him (five runs in three innings), so that was one of those rare instances in which they didn’t falter against a pitcher they haven’t seen before.

Friday, RHP Brandon Morrow (vs. Freddy Garcia): My breakout pick started the season on the disabled list, but he’s been back for 15 starts and his crazy ERA-FIP split has carried over from last year. He’s got a 2.70 FIP and a 4.60 ERA this year after 3.16 and 4.49 last season, respectively. Morrow’s strikeouts are again sky high (10.64 K/9), but the walk rate is nothing special (3.58 BB/9) and the ground ball rate is kind scary (34.2%). He’s been primarily a two-pitch pitcher this year, but they’re two very good pitches: a legit mid-90’s fastball and a high-80’s slider. Last year he threw a low-80’s curveball and a high-80’s changeup regularly (combined 20.2%), but not to much this year (3.5%). The Yankees tear two-pitch, non-changeup pitchers to shreds (eventually, might not be until the third time through the order though). If Morrow comes out with just the fastball and slider, that’s good news.

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Saturday, LHP Ricky Romero (vs. CC Sabathia): This will be a fun matchup, because these two pitchers are very similar aside from the obvious physical differences. Their strikeout (7.78 vs. 7.43 K/9) and ground ball (48.4% vs. 52.6%) rates are close, but Sabathia separates himself by limiting ball four (2.16 vs. 3.31 BB/9) and also with some homerun luck (3.9 vs. 11.4% HR/FB). We’ve seen Romero enough over the two-plus years to know that he’s fastball-changeup heavy with the occasional curveball, and he’s done a nice job of keeping the Yankees in check this year (three runs in 14 IP) after they roughed him up last year.

Sunday, RHP Carlos Villanueva (vs. Phil Hughes): The transition to the rotation has gone swimmingly for Villaneuva, who has a 3.67 ERA (~3.40 FIP) in nine starts (54 IP). The first of those starts came against the Yankees, when he stymied them for five innings (one run). Hopefully that won’t happen again the second time around. Villanueva is very offspeed heavy, throwing his high-80’s fastball justs 45.7% of the time. Low-80’s sliders and changeups are his go-to offspeed offerings, though he’ll also use a low-70’s curve. Dude’s very unpredictable, he’s throw anything in any count.

Bullpen: Toronto has some major problems at the end-game, because Frank Francisco (4.44 FIP) and Jon Rauch (4.67) are both pretty bad. They’ve been having a blown save contest for the last six weeks or so and are two of the three sub-replacement relievers in the Jays’ bullpen. Kinda funny, actually. No lead is safe with that tandem. The other sub-replacement level guy is Octavio Dotel (4.44 FIP), but righties Shawn Camp (3.84) and Jason Frasor (3.90) plus lefties Luis Perez (4.32) and Marc Rzepczynski (3.49) have been anywhere from good to okay. Lots of different looks, got some fastball-slider guys, some fastball-changeup guys, fastball-curveball as well.

Recommended Blue Jays Reading: Drunk Jays Fan and Tao of Stieb.

Yankees calling up Golson to replace A-Rod

Via George King, the Yankees will call up and activate Greg Golson prior to tonight’s game against the Blue Jays. He’s taking Alex Rodriguez‘s spot on the roster. Golson missed some time with a hamstring injury this year and he’s hit well with Triple-A Scranton (.348 wOBA), but he has a massive reverse split (.582 OPS vs. LHP, .838 vs. RHP, SSS warning). He can defend and run and throw the snot out of the ball, for sure, but otherwise I’m not exactly sure what he was brought here to do.

Update (2:44pm): For what it’s worth, Kevin Goldstein just wrote this: “Funny, just talked to a scout last week who saw Greg Golson and noted real progress in hitting skill, upgraded him to solid 4th OF type.”

Updated: Yankees sign J.C. Romero

The Yankees intend to sign J.C. Romero if the Nationals do not call him up to the big leagues by Friday, so says Buster Olney. Romero’s minor league pact with Washington has a July 15th opt-out, and right now his intention is to secure his release and sign a minor league deal with New York. I’m all for it, especially on a minors deal. Romero is fantastic when used properly, which means as a true lefty specialist and not at all against righties. And now we play the waiting game.

Update (12:17 a.m.): Ken Davidoff reports that this is all but a done deal. The Yankees, he said a few minutes ago, will complete a minor league deal with Romero on Thursday. The club is “looking hard for LH relief options.”

Update (1:15 p.m.): The Nationals have released Romero and he has officially signed with the Yankees according to Olney. There’s a chance he could pitch for Triple-A Scranton tonight.

Mistrial declared in Clemens perjury case

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton has declared a mistrial in the case against Roger Clemens for perjury. Following a video of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ statements this morning in which the Congressman mentioned evidence — including testimony by Laura Pettitte — that the judge had ruled barred from the case, Walton determined that the current trial could not go forward without prejudice against the former baseball star. “Sadly I have reached a conclusion that to permit this case to go forward with the government having done what it did, Mr. Clemens will not get a fair trial before this jury,” he said. “So I will declare a mistrial.”

A mistrial doesn’t mean that Clemens is out of the woods yet or that the government will be forced to drop its case. Rather, it simply means that this jury pool has been tainted. The two sides will argue over the summer as to whether or not a second trial would subject Clemens to double jeopardy, and Judge Walton said he will hold a hearing on Sept. 2 to decide if a second trial can constitutionally go forward. The government, meanwhile, will continue to spend money on this witch hunt. (For more on the technicalities of this mistrial, check out The Washington Post’s coverage.)

Sorting out the Yankees starting pitching needs

Contrary to what we thought and saw earlier in the season, the Yankees pitching staff has held its own in the first half. Even with an injury to one of the expected starters they’ve pulled through and currently have one of the better staffs in the league. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the starters as a unit stand among their peers.

(Just to be clear, the last two are innings pitched per game by the starter, and WAR per 81 games. I did these because the Yankees have played fewer games than most other teams due to rain outs.)

These might not be standout numbers, but they’re very good nonetheless. Most surprising is the high innings pitch per games started. At the start of the season, even after the first turn through, it seemed that Girardi wielded a hasty hook at six innings. But lately he’s been more hands off, and it has allowed the starters to go deeper into games. Since I’m fond of the adage that the best bullpen consists of a strong starting staff, this comes as a pleasant development. But what has worked in the first half might not work as well in the second. Let’s take a look at one primary, and probably unchanging, reason why the staff has succeeded, and then look at ways they can continue their success in the second half.

Pitching + Fielding = Defense

The recent rise of, and interest in, defensive statistics comes from our understanding that the pitcher does not control everything that happens when a team is on defense. A defense consists of the pitcher and the fielders behind him, and those fielders can make a huge difference in how many runs a team prevents. By most measures the Yankees defense has performed superbly behind its pitchers this year. UZR actually ranks them the best at 7.5 UZR/150. This comes mostly from the outfield, which dominates with 21.9 UZR and 13.6 UZR/150, both well ahead of the rest of the league. The Yankees also rate well in turning batted balls into outs. They rank ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.

Defense, like hitting, can go into streaks and slumps, so we don’t know yet if the Yankees were abnormally good in the first half. But it does appear that they are solid fielders. A-Rod appears rejuvenated at third base, and while he’ll miss a month Eduardo Nunez, if he can throw the ball, will be an adequate replacement. Nick Swisher, the weakest link among the outfielders, has shown a deftness absent from his game in 2009 and 2010. Russell Martin continues to wow behind the plate, and there is always Robinson Cano, who, by the eye tests as well as the stats, had a below expectations first half. If the Yankees can maintain their solid fielding, they will make life a lot easier for the pitching staff. That helps solve problems right off the bat.

How far can the current staff go?

Few, if any, people thought Freddy Garcia would still be on the roster today, never mind have the second lowest ERA among starters. Bartolo Colon furthers our surprise with every outing. Even A.J. Burnett has been pleasant to watch, at least compared to 2010. Yet even though the staff has experienced much success in the first half, it’s hard to shed the feeling that they’re due for regression in the second half. Maybe Garcia and Colon cruised through the first half, but what are the chances they continue that?

The Yankees have options, both internal and external, to help shore up the staff. It might not appear necessary right at this moment, but as we’ve seen so many times, what they have now is not necessarily what they’ll have in August, never mind October. In 2009 they had four strong starters at this point, but then Joba Chamberlain fell apart. Last year people suggested that since the Yankees had five quality starters that they did not need Cliff Lee. Yet by August Javier Vazquez had declined significantly, while Phil Hughes struggled, Andy Pettitte got hurt, and A.J. Burnett continued his plod through the season. The Yankees would be fools to nix a deal because they think Garcia and Colon will hold up for the next three and a half months.

Internal options

The Yankees do have a number of arms they can call on, but none of them provides any semblance of security. Ivan Nova will be the first called up, but he had his ups and downs in the first half. He can capably fill the back end of the rotation, but the Yankees can’t expect much more from him. Beyond that they have Hector Noesi, who, like Phil Hughes before him, appears bound to the bullpen for the season. You can add in Adam Warren to that list, since they’re similar pitchers in terms of ceiling. David Phelps is another option, though he’s a bit less exciting then even the other three. Chances are the Yankees won’t need to look any deeper than these four if they seek internal help.

The problem is that these are all guys who would fill the four and five spots in the rotation, if they were to succeed at all. But if something happens with Garcia or Colon, the Yankees will need more than that. They’ve both pitched like No. 2 or No. 3 starters so far, at least in terms of results. If one or both of them declines in performance in the second half, the Yankees will be in a bind. They can replace from within, but then they risk having an ace followed by a bunch of four and five starters (since we can’t expect much more from Hughes). The internal options just won’t give the Yankees anywhere near the performance they realized earlier in the year from Garcia and Colon.

There are higher end arms in AA, but it’s clear that the Yankees don’t plan to bring them up. As Mark Newman said, they’re in AA because the team can control their workload. They’re still both working on their first full, 140-inning seasons, and so likely will remain in the minors all season. It might be upsetting to see these high ceiling guys in the minors when the majors could use help, but they’re still young and developing, each entering the season with roughly 200 innings of professional experience. They’ll be up in due time, but it appears that they’ll finish out the year at AA.

Trade options

Here’s where things get tricky. We’ve looked at tons of starting pitchers that the Yankees could target in the next few weeks, but that does not mean they will become available. But there certainly will be something available, and likely something that the Yankees can viably use in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot. Whether that’s a potential ace, such as Ubaldo Jimenez, or a 2/3 type such as Ryan Dempster or Hiroki Kuroda (or a mystery pitcher I’ll be writing up shortly after the break). Make no mistake, though: the search for a top of the rotation starter will loom large in the coming weeks.

If the Yankees want to finish the season strong and enter October with a formidable staff, I’d consider the trade route a necessity. I’m all for giving the youngsters a shot, but given the Yankees needs they’d be simply seeking lightning in a bottle. That doesn’t always happen. None of the four prospects mentioned above has a ceiling above that of a No. 4, or maybe a No. 3 at absolute best. But the Yankees need something better. Not only that, they need someone proven. That means trading for a higher end starter. That will necessarily hurt, as proven No. 2 starters don’t come cheap. It could mean the loss of Betances, Banuelos, or Jesus Montero. But unless the Yankees want to continue pressing their luck and going with Sabathia and a group of unknowns and unreliables, they’ll have to look outside the organization for help.

Such is the balance of winning now and winning in the future. If the Yankees were trailing the Red Sox significantly and were battling for the Wild Card, they might not be able to justify sending top prospects in hopes that another starter could boost their chances. But with only a game separating them from the Red Sox, and with a five game lead on the Wild Card, they owe it to the organization and fans to go for it. We might not like the cost, but it’s all part of the game the Yankees play.

Curtis Granderson and left-handed pitchers

And boom goes the Grandymite.

One of the biggest stories of the Yankees’ first half has been Curtis Granderson‘s emergence as not just an import piece of the offense, but as a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s currently at 4.7 fWAR and 3.6 bWAR, the sixth and 12th best in baseball, respectively. An important part of his success has been the complete 180 he’s done against lefties, tagging them for a .394 wOBA this season after producing just a .264 wOBA against southpaws from 2007-2010. Grandy’s nine homers are the most by a left-handed batter off left-handed pitchers in baseball, three ahead of Jay Bruce and at least four more than everyone else.

As weird as this sounds, it’s been a while since Curtis took a lefty deep. This shot off Brett Anderson on May 31st was his last homerun off a southpaw, a span of 35 team games. Through May 31st, Granderson was hitting .323/.373/.823 off lefties, but since then just .162/.256/.216. His strikeout rate against southpaws went from 25.8% to 43.2%. Now before you freak out, remember we’re talking about an extremely small sample here. Curtis has just 112 plate appearances against lefties this year, and just 37 have come since that homer off Anderson. That’s nothing. I’m not concerned that Grandy has reverted back to his pre-August 2010 form against lefties, but I do want to see if same-side hurlers have been pitching him differently of late.

The table on the right shows the pitch selection left-handers had been using against Granderson before that homer off Anderson and what they’ve been throwing him since. He’s still seeing the same number off fastballs, though the distribution of offspeed pitches is a little different. Curtis is seeing way more sliders and curveballs than before, but also way fewer changeups. Because of the small sample, this could mean anything. It could mean that lefties have stopped throwing him changeups, or it could just mean they haven’t faced many left-handed changeup pitchers. The important thing is that the ratio of fastballs-to-offspeed pitches is the basically the same. If they’d stopped throwing him hard stuff all together, well that would be a problem.

With some help from Texas Leaguers, let’s look at where pitchers had been attacking Granderson from the start of the season through that May 31st game we keep referencing …

That’s from the catcher’s view, so there’s a huge gaping hole down and in. Just about everything is down and away, which is not uncommon in left-on-left matchups. Granderson took just four pitches total down and in (and in the strike zone) during the first two months of the season, and there’s a pretty good chance they weren’t even supposed to be thrown there in the first place. Now let’s look at the strike zone plot since June 1st…

There’s still a bit of a hole down and in, but it’s not nearly as big. Granderson does hang out over the plate a little bit, so it could be that lefties are trying to get in on him to keep him from extended his hands. This is the called strike zone, so it could also be that Curtis is simply taking more of those down and in pitches from lefties. The swing plots do back that up a bit, though there just isn’t enough data to say anything definitive right now.

Granderson has struggled against left-handers of late, the first time he’s done so since the fix The Fix™ last August. The Yankees are going to see a bunch of lefties in the coming weeks, with series against the Blue Jays (Ricky Romero, Jo-Jo Reyes), Rays (David Price), Athletics (Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman), and Mariners (Jason Vargas, possibly Erik Bedard) coming up. That’ll give us a chance to see Curtis take some more hacks against same-side pitchers, which will hopefully give us a better idea of whether this latest slump is just a fluke, or if the early season success was the outlier.

With CBS radio deal up, broadcast changes loom

The reported coverage for each station in the Yankees Radio Network based on the MC Conductivity Map. (Via Bostonography)

On Friday, New York City’s terrestrial radio dial will lose its modern rock station. Ennis Communications is selling WRXP 101.9 to Merlin Media, and tomorrow, Merlin will take over programming. Eventually, the station will move to a news/talk format, but the sale requires federal approval which won’t arrive until the fall.

Now, why, you must be wondering, am I writing about an FM radio station format flip and sale on a Yankees site? Well, with the end of WCBS-AM’s five-year, $65-million contract looming at the end of the season, the Yankees and their radio broadcasts will be one of the most lucrative baseball free agents this winter, and Merlin, by many accounts, will attempt to play a role in the bidding.

Tied in with the fate of the Yankee radio rights are the futures of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Bob Raissman had more on this story recently:

If WCBS radio re-ups with the Yankees, Sterling and Waldman will be retained. Despite all the blunderful calls and uncomfortable moments, the suits there have never complained about Ma and Pa’s performance.

The voices would likely be on the ropes if ESPN-1050 gets the rights. Considering the station’s weak signal (two Dixie cups attached by a string) that’s a longshot. Still, money changes everything. If ESPN brass is willing to pay silly dough for the Yankees it could land them, thus greatly improving its chances of finally toppling The Sports Pope Radio Network. If ESPN does acquire the rights, it would select its own voices. Yet one well-embedded 1050 mole said ESPN would consider keeping Pa but probably dump Ma.

The other possible player could be WRXP-FM. Merlin Media recently purchased a majority stake in the station from Emmis Communications. Already, there is speculation that WRXP, 101.9 FM (rock and alternative) will change its format to a conglomeration of news, talk and sports. What better way to get instant recognition than to have the Yankees, a mega-marquee property, as WRXP’s anchor tenant. The familiar sound of Sterling and Waldman would be a plus in a new format launch.

There’s always the possibility – and it’s a strong one – that in any new deal Yankees suits will demand the right to select the radio broadcasters or, at least, the right to approve the voices. This would be a positive development for Sterling and Waldman.

Raissman, decidedly not a fan of the duo he has termed Ma and Pa Pinstripe, has been speculating on their ousters for a while, but it seems as though the team is married to the pair. Waldman has blazed a trail as the first female in the radio broadcast booth, and jettisoning her could be a costly move. Sterling and his histrionics are popular (although CBS-AM’s ratings are dropping despite the popularity of the Yanks). I do like Raissman’s suggestion that the Yanks add some younger blood to the broadcast booth to spell John and Suzyn, but the two seem to miss games only for religious holidays and rarely anything else.

The bigger issue, as I mentioned in February, will concern the strength of the Yanks’ radio broadcast signal no matter where it moves. ESPN 1050 has a very weak signal compared to WCBS’ powerful booster, and sticking the Yanks on FM would lead to clear sound but a significantly smaller broadcast radio. In the car, for instance, I can tune into 101.9 only as far north as Miller Hill Road in Hopewell Junction on the Taconic but can get 880 AM loud and clear in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.

To visualize the potential signal change, take a look at this post on Bostonography. The typographically-oriented site recently compared the Yanks’ and Red Sox’s relative broadcast coverage, and it’s clear just how strong the Yanks’ AM radio affiliates are as compared with their FM counterparts. A frequency switch could spell bad news indeed for fans accustomed to WCBS AM’s signal. MLB.com’s radio package might just look more appealing come 2012.