Game 73: A Big Test(s)

Dewayne Wise’s bunt turned the season around. (REUTERS/Adam Hunger)

Tonight’s game will be an interesting test for both the offense and Phil Hughes. The homer-happy offense will have to deal with Justin Masterson and his turbo-sinker, which is the reason why he has the lowest homerun rate (0.52 HR/9) in the AL since the start of last season. Hughes will have to face an Indians’ lineup featuring seven left-handed batters and two switch-hitters. Phil has held righties to a .308 wOBA in his career but lefties have gotten him for a .337 wOBA. It’s worth noting that he has a (quiet massive) reverse-split this season. Here’s the starting lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
3B Alex Rodriguez
2B Robinson Cano
1B Mark Teixeira
RF Nick Swisher
DH Raul Ibanez
LF Dewayne Wise
C  Chris Stewart

RHP Phil Hughes

Tonight’s game starts a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on My9. Enjoy.

HOPE Week: Chad Jennings has the details on today’s HOPE Week event, which focuses on 48-year-old Jorge Munoz and his non-profit organization that distributes hot meals to New Yorkers in need.

Russell Martin Update: Martin (back) is going to take batting practice today and if that goes well, he’ll start behind the plate tomorrow. Hooray for that.

Brett Gardner Update: Gardner (elbow) will take some dry swings next week when the team is in Tampa to play the Rays. Joe Girardi said a return before the All-Star break is unrealistic and that late-July is more likely.

Feliciano throws 25 pitches in first full bullpen session since surgery

Via Erik Boland, forgotten left-hander Pedro Feliciano threw 25 pitches in Tampa today, his first full-mound session since having surgery to repair his rotator cuff last September. The 35-year-old still has a long way to go in his rehab and really the Yankees shouldn’t count on him to contribute anything this year. If he gets healthy in time to serve as a third lefty specialist when the rosters expand in September, great. Whatever they get is gravy, if anything.

The Return of Pull-Happy Mark Teixeira

(Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Mark Teixeira has been under the microscope since the moment he spurned the Red Sox for the Yankees in December 2008. He responded with an MVP caliber season in 2009 but saw his performance suffer in 2010 and further in 2011. Through the first 38 team games of the 2012 season, Teixeira’s batting line sat at a meager .228/.283/.386, well below even his normal slow start standards. It appeared as though his offensive decline was continuing even further.

At the same time, Teixeira was battling what was ultimately diagnosed as nerve damage to his vocal cords. Joe Girardi decided to give his first baseman three days off in mid-May in an effort to get his cough under control, a three-game series against the Reds. Since that little rest, Teixeira has hit .291/.396/.564 with nearly as many walks (18) as strikeouts (20) in 134 plate appearances. It’s obviously not the biggest sample in the world but it is vintage Mark Teixeira, a glimpse of the guy we were all hoping to see this season.

“I had a moment where I had to tell everyone I am who I am,” said Teixeira to Joel Sherman over the weekend, referring to the calls for him to hit the ball the other way. During those three games on the bench he decided just to give up on his efforts to beat the shift and get back to being the guy that was so successful in the past. “I am going to swing hard, strike out a bunch* and pull stuff.”

The funny thing is that when you look at his spray charts against right-handed pitchers — before the Reds series, after the Reds series (per Texas Leaguers) — it’s tough to see much of a difference. Most of the balls Teixeira put in play before the three days rest were to the pull side with a handful out to left, ditto the balls he’s put in play since those three games off against the Reds. He says his process is different and the results certainly have been, so I’m not going to argue with him. At the end of the day, I really only care about what he produces. I don’t want to get picky about how he does it after these last two years.

The offense’s general inability to hit with runners in scoring position has masked some otherwise stellar production of late, and I’m not just talking about Teixeira. Robinson Cano has hit .333/.411/.714 in his last 45 games and Nick Swisher has hit .345/.415/.672 in his last 17 games. Yes these are arbitrary end points, though you all know that those three weren’t hitting earlier in the season and now they are. They’re a big part of the reason why the Yankees have won 23 of their last 30 games, especially the pull-happy Teixeira.

* This continues to be the most misunderstood part of Teixeira’s game, and apparently even he buys into it now. You’d expect him to strike out a bunch as a power hitter, but his strikeout rate is just 12.9% (!) this year. The league average is 19.6%. His career average is 17.0%. The guy simply doesn’t strike out that much, especially compared to other power hitters.

Yankees claim right-hander Danny Farquhar off waivers

The Yankees have claimed right-hander Danny Farquhar off waivers from the Athletics and optioned him to Double-A Trenton. Brett Gardner was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot.

Farquhar, 25, is very well traveled. He was drafted by the Blue Jays, traded to the Athletics for Rajai Davis, traded back to the Blue Jays for David Purcey, then claimed off waivers by the Athletics before coming to New York. He has two career big league innings to his credit, both coming with Toronto last season. Back in 2010, Baseball America said he threw a 92-94 mph four-seamer and an 88-92 two-seamer in addition to both a slider and curveball. Here’s some old video. Farquhar is strictly a reliever and one without much success above the Double-A level.

Kuroda makes a month-long statement

No matter his performance, Kuroda always displays an A+ pitchface. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Why did fans label Hiroki Kuroda as an inconsistent pitcher? Mike and I discussed this on The RAB Radio Show last week, but it bears further mention. It seems that after poor starts mixed with some very good ones, fans started to call Kuroda inconsistent. This persisted while his numbers and performances improved following his poor outing against the Twins, and it gained further steam with his implosion against Toronto. But perhaps inconsistent wasn’t the best term.

While Kuroda did turn in some phenomenal performances early on, overall he had not pitched that well. Though his first nine starts he threw just 53.1 innings, or a hair under six per start. In that time his ERA was a bit over 4.50, and opponents were hitting .281/.345/.481 off him. His strikeout rate was under 6 per nine, and he had a K/BB ratio of less than 2:1. Those are not the marks of a quality pitcher, never mind the guy expected to be the No. 2 for the Yankees.

In Oakland things started to turn around. On May 27th he pitched eight innings of shutout ball, leading the Yankees to a 2-0 victory. That might not seem like much, shutting out the A’s. Keep in mind, though, that they have scored more runs than any other AL team in June. So Kuroda got to them just as they were heating up. After that he turned in another three excellent starts before giving up four runs against the Braves — the first time he’d done that in over a month. Last night he redeemed himself, though, allowing just one run in seven innings against the Indians.

In the last month Kuroda has started six times, averaging seven innings per start. He has struck out 7.5 per nine and has a K/BB ratio of 3.5:1. His ERA is just 1.93, and opponents have a .589 OPS against him. That is, they’ve gone from being nine Mike Moustakases to being nine Sean Rodriguezes. Might the first nine starts of his season been an introduction to the American League, and we’ll start to see more of this Kuroda in the future?

While I’d love to believe that, there are problems with that statement. He has, for instance, faced two National League teams during that span, covering three games. They weren’t bad NL teams, not at all — the Braves rank third in runs per game and sixth in OPS, while the Mets rank fifth in runs per game and eighth in OPS. But the competition is simply different, as evidenced by the AL’s dominance over the NL in interleague play (142-110). At the same time, the Indians rank 11th in the AL in OPS, while the A’s, while hot in June, rank dead last.

The last month has certainly been a revelation for Kuroda. He is a big reason why the Yankees have gone 17-5 in June. Going forward, though, it’s tough to expect such stellar performances. That’s a pretty obvious statement, of course, since few pitchers today can sustain a 1.93 ERA. Unfortunately, any dip from here could again raise the accusations of inconsistency. It’s not that, though. Every pitcher goes through stretches. The only real complaints about Kuroda will come when the bad stretches start to outweigh the good.

Scouting The Trade Market: Marco Scutaro

(AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

Eduardo Nunez‘s inability to make the routine play and Jayson Nix’s generally inability to handle shortstop should have the Yankees in the market for a utility infielder prior to the trade deadline. The Rockies are one of the worst teams in baseball this season at 28-44, due in large part to an ineffective pitching staff that has allowed 5.6 runs per game. Although we’ve seen speculation about the availability of Carlos Gonzalez, a much more realistic trade target is Marco Scutaro.

We’re all familiar with Scutaro from his days with the Blue Jays and Red Sox, and I’m sure we all remember the walk-off three-run homer he hit against Mariano Rivera while with the Athletics years ago. He went to the Rockies in a salary dump trade this offseason and with Colorado out of contention, he could be available in another salary dump deal in the coming weeks. Let’s take a look to see what, if anything, he could offer New York…

The Pros

  • A high contact hitter, Scutaro has the second lowest swing-and-miss rate (5.4%) and ninth lowest strikeout rate (9.2%) in baseball over the last three seasons. That has allowed him to consistently hit for a solid average (.284 with a .300 BABIP since the start of 2010).
  • In addition to putting the ball in play, Scutaro has a good eye and will supplement his average with walks. His 7.6% walk rate over the last three years is about league averge and he’s swung at just 18.9% of the pitches he’s seen outside of the strike zone during that time, the seventh lowest rate in baseball.
  • Versatility is a major plus, as he’s played every position other than pitcher, catcher, and center field during his 11-year career. His career UZR marks are right around league average at all positions except first base, which is a super small sample (15 defensive innings).
  • Scutaro is obviously familiar with the AL East and its various pitchers. There is a benefit to that experience but I’m not sure how significant. If nothing else, he’ll know what to expect in this division.
  • Scutaro is a pure rental player, due to become a free agent after the season. He’s making $6M this season, so approximately $1M a month the rest of the way.

The Cons

  • At 36 years old, Scutaro is having his worst offensive season in years. He’s hit .276/.328/.385 with four homers in 301 plate appearances, an 86 wRC+ that is the worst full season mark of his career. His walk rate (6.3%) is his lowest since 2004, his first full season in the show.
  • Although he has experience as a bench player, Scutaro has been a full-time player for the last five years. Sticking a guy who has been accustomed to regular at-bats on the bench and expecting similar production is always a tricky proposition.
  • All of that versatility is a thing of the past. Scutaro has played the middle infield exclusively for the last four seasons, so it’s unclear what he could contribute in the outfield. I’m sure third base wouldn’t be much of a problem though.
  • Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees will not be able to recoup draft pick compensation should Scutaro sign with another team after the season.

Now things got slightly complicated last night because Scutaro took a Stephen Strasburg fastball to the head. He left the game under his own power and will be re-evaluated today, so we don’t know how much or if he’ll miss any time. Right now he’s listed as day-to-day. Obviously a DL stint of any length would throw a wrench into any team’s plans to acquire him. We’re all in wait-and-see mode at the moment.

Assuming he’ll be fine just for the sake of argument, Colorado acquired Scutaro for a pittance (Clayton Mortenson) from the Red Sox because they assumed all of his salary, and the same should be true at the deadline. They need pitching so perhaps a Grade-B pitching prospect fits the bill — Mikey O’Brien? Brett Marshall? — though I suppose it’s worth noting that the Yankees acquired Jerry Hairston Jr. for a Grade-D prospect (catcher Chase Weems) back in 2009. That’s not a perfect comparison since Scutaro is the better player and makes three times the money, but we’re in the same ballpark.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees emphasize rest — both half-days at DH and full days — for their older players and Scutaro would allow them to sit Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter without missing a beat. He would also be able to step right in should an injury arise, an underrated quality. The Yankees could use a little more contact in their offense and Scutaro would certainly help in that regard as well. There is no indication that he is or available or that the Rockies are ready to sell, but if and when the do, the Bombers should get involved and quickly. Replacing Nix with Scutaro is a clear upgrade and one that is unlikely to cost an arm and a leg.

Embracing the flawed, first place Yankees

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Yankees are overly reliant on the homerun. They’ve hit a MLB-best 115 dingers through their first 72 games, the most homers through that many games in franchise history. Something like 52% of their runs this season has scored via the long ball, by far the most in the majors. They hit three more last night in their third straight win. New York lives and dies by the homer right now and you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

I’m pretty sure the Yankees are the only club capable of making people try to spin hitting so many homers into a bad thing. There’s a lot of anti-Yankee stuff out there — I’d venture to say more than every other team combined — because hey, lots of people hate the Yankees and that stuff sells. I know all about the utter lack of hitting with runners in scoring position — .220/.326/.394 after a 1-for-3 effort last night — but we’re talking about 26% of their total plate appearances this season. That other 74% counts as well, and the Yankees do more damage in those situations than any other team in baseball.

Remember, “scoring position” is a cookie cutter definition applied to all players and teams. It refers to plate appearances when there is a runner on second and/or third and while that’s useful to a certain extent, the Yankees also have runners in scoring position when there’s a guy on first or even when the bases are empty. They have a roster full of power hitters and on most nights, have about eight guys in the lineup capable of putting the run on the board by themselves with one swing. Power is becoming harder to find these days and the Yankees have enough to spare.

At some point, the team’s .229 (!) BABIP with men in scoring position (the cookie cutter kind) will correct and that .220 batting average will climb. Most of the time saying BABIP will regress to some mean is lazy, because there can be some very real explanations for why someone’s rate will fluctuate from year-to-year or even month-to-month. The Yankees are nearly 30 points (!) below the second lowest team and about 70 (!!!) points away from the AL average though. Some of those guys are definitely pressing in those spots and it’s hurting the quality of their contact, but they’ve also been quite unlikely in those spots as a team. I mean really unlikely. Even getting up to a .250 BABIP with men in scoring position is going to turn a powerhouse offense into a juggernaut.

People like to say that you can’t really on the homer against quality pitching in the postseason but the Yankees have already hung 5+ runs on the likes of Johan Santana, Justin Verlander (twice), Jamie Shields (twice), David Price, and R.A. Dickey this year. Heck, last year in the ALDS they scored 12 runs in 18.2 innings off Verlander and Doug Fister. When a good pitcher makes a mistake, you have to make them pay. A walk and three singles to score two runs against a top guy just doesn’t happen. They’re great pitchers because they don’t allow extended rallies.

It’s June, and literally nothing that happens in June will tell you anything about what will happen in October. There’s still more than half a season to play and something like 20% of the roster will turn over between now and October, if not more. Hopefully the Yankees will start hitting with men in scoring position soon, but the reason they have the best record in baseball right now is because they hit the ball out of park and get quality pitching just about every night. That’s the formula every team tries to follow and the Yankees have done it better than anyone this year. Embrace the homers and don’t sweat the RISPFAIL just yet. This is a legitimately great team that still has room to improve.