The RAB Radio Show: June 22nd, 2012

The Yanks went on quite a run, winning 10 straight before dropping the last two to the Braves. Still, they’ve played markedly better in the past month. Here’s what was happening in the last week.

  • Braves and Nats series. Even though they lost two of three to the Braves, things are still looking good.
  • The pitching in general has been phenomenal this month. Mike and I talk about what has gone into this incredible run.
  • RISP. We can’t avoid it. At one point it was frustrating. Now it’s just absurd.
  • Reader questions. I like these. Keep sending ’em in.
  • The Mets series ahead. Why R.A. Dickey is confounding everyone.

Podcast run time 48:46

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

[audio:http://riveraveblues.com/podcasts/TheRABRadioShow062212.mp3]

Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

RAB Live Chat

6/22-6/24 Series Preview: New York Mets

(photo c/o Getty)

The Yankees and Mets close the 2012 Interleague slate out this weekend with three games at Citi Field in beautiful Flushing, New York. With 11 Interleague wins, the Yankees come into this series with an opportunity to not only secure their highest-ever win tally ever in Interleague play (their previous high-water mark was 13 wins, done once in 1998 when the Interleague schedule was 16 games, and also in 2003 and 2011), but also an opportunity for a rare Subway Series sweep, which has only ever happened once (2003, the only other season the Yankees swept the Mets at home) in the prior 15 seasons of Interleague play.

Despite getting swept by the Yankees in the Bronx two weeks ago, the Mets have continued to outperform expectations, sweeping the Rays at Tampa Bay last week before getting swept at home by the NL Central-leading Reds this past weekend, and then sweeping a surprisingly strong Baltimore team.

With Johan’s no-hitter but a memory, the Mets’ hype machine has gone into overdrive thanks to R.A. Dickey’s recent stretch of masterfully historical starting pitching. With his complete-game one-hitter on Monday, he not only became the first pitcher to throw two straight one-hitters since Dave Steib in 1988, but the first pitcher ever to allow no earned runs and strike out at least eight batters in five consecutive starts. Over his past six starts, Dickey is 6-0 with a 0.18 ERA (one earned run in 48 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts, five walks and a .131 average allowed (h/t ESPN). Bananas.

This domination has unsurprisingly vaulted him into early conversation for Cy Young, and if the season ended today you’d be hard-pressed to find a more deserving candidate in the National League. The Yankees, as I noted prior to the last go-round with the Metropolitans, were fortunate to miss Dickey two weeks ago, as he has the lowest ERA against the Yankees, minimum two starts, of every starter the Bombers have faced since the beginning of 2010. Unfortunately they won’t be so lucky this go-round, as Dickey will meet CC Sabathia Sunday evening on national television in what will be one of the most overhyped games of the year. Both men have been great, but prepare to wring the crap out of your hands as Dickey induces harmless groundball after groundball off the Yankee bats. While it stands to reason that Dickey can’t possibly continue to pitch this well — and if any team was going to finally knock him off his perch, it may as well be one of the hottest teams in baseball — between both Dickey’s recent history against the Yanks along with his total domination of any and all comers, Sabathia is probably going to have to be close to flawless for the Bombers to topple Dickey on Sunday night.

In addition to Dickey, the Mets’ starting pitching has continued to turn in strong performance after strong performance. Dillon Gee held the Yankees to three runs over seven innings two weeks ago and also turned ina  quality start against Cincinnati, though they won’t see either him or Johan this weekend. They do get another shot at Jonathon Niese — who was extremely tough against the Bombers on Sunday, June 10 — tonight, and, like fellow lefthander-who-bizarrely-stymied-the-Yankees-in-his-initial-go-round Mike Minor, one would hope the Yankees will figure Niese out this time. The Yankees will also see Chris Young, who has been effective in his three starts since coming off the DL.

A number of Mets have been wielding significantly potent bats of late, with Ike Davis seemingly awoken from his season-long slumber with a 167 wRC+ over the last two weeks, Jordany Valdespin playing over his head (116 wRC+), David Wright continuing to mash (163 wRC+), and Lucas Duda, Scott Hairston, Vinny Rotino and Kirk Nieuwenhuis all providing at or above-average offensive production. That makes for an unexpectedly deep Mets lineup.

The Yankees haven’t exactly been offensive slouches of late either, though the bulk of their production over the last 14 days has been more top heavy, with Robinson Cano (188 wRC+), Nick Swisher (173), Mark Teixeira (158), Russell Martin (109) and Curtis Granderson (126) leading the charge. Despite the huge grand slam last week and another home run yesterday, A-Rod‘s been pretty quiet at the plate (81 wRC+), hitting a sad .239/.320/.422 over his last 29 games, while Raul Ibanez (30) has been mired in a protracted slump.

Bullpen-wise the Yankees’ relief corps continues to be among the class of MLB, with a 2.60 ERA/3.11 FIP over the last two weeks, while the Met bullpen has continued to struggle, at 4.91/4.96 over the same timeframe.

The Pitching Match-Ups

Friday, June 22, 2012 at 7:10 p.m. LHP Andy Pettitte vs. LHP Jonathon Niese

A rematch of two Sundays ago. Both southpaws pitched well last time out, with Niese slightly outdueling Pettitte until the Mets bullpen blew the lead in the 8th, followed by a rare Rafael Soriano blown save in the 9th, followed by a Russell Martin walkoff home run bailing the team out and securing the sweep. Niese in theory seems like the type of pitcher the Yankees should feast on — lefthander with a 91mph fastball, but he mixes in a top-10-in-the-NL (by wCT/C) cutter and solid curve (0.39 wCU/C) to make his fastball (also 10th-best in the NL by wFA/C) that much more effective. You know that stat I linked to earlier showing Dickey as ERA leader against the Yankees since 2010? Well Niese is fifth on that list. Again, two starts isn’t a whole heck of a lot to go on, but to date the Yanks haven’t shown much punch against either Niese or Dickey.

Saturday, June  23, 2012 at 7:15 p.m. RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Chris Young

Chris Young has two career starts against the Yankees, and they both came as a member of the Texas Rangers, the last being on August 12, 2005, in a game the Yankees tagged him for five runs in three innings. For all intents and purposes Young may as well be a starter-they’ve-never-faced.

Young is a bit of a slop artist, with an 88mph fastball he throws nearly 75% of the time, and a 79mph slider. How he has lived off essentially two pitches, neither of which are thrown very hard, is a bit hard to discern, though anecdotally I’ve read that his height — 6’10” — makes his pitches appear faster than they actually are as his exaggerated wingspan allows for a shorter delivery time to the plate. As mentioned earlier, Young has been solid enough in his three starts thus far, though he’s also gotten hit fairly hard (.353 BABIP) and gives up a ton of fly balls (29% GB%). He probably represents the Yanks’ best shot at putting up a crooked number this weekend.

Nova saw the Mets twice last year and was good at Yankee Stadium (6.2 innings, three ER) and good at Citi Field if a bit lacking in distance (5 IP, 1 ER).

Sunday, June  24, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP R.A. Dickey

I mostly covered this match-up in the preamble above, but in case you weren’t aware, Dickey is a knuckleballer extraordinaire, throwing the pitch 80% of the time. You’d think hitters might have had some modicum of success against a hurler when they know what they’re getting, but two of the primary keys to Dickey’s success are his ability to not only hit his spots with arguably the toughest pitch to command, but also change speeds.

In addition to that lowest-ERA-since-2010 stat I keep citing, Dickey also has, believe it or not, the lowest ERA (2.30) among all pitchers with 30 or more IP against the Yankees (min. 1 start) since the start of the 2003 season. This year’s Yankee team has really been quite good at dispelling many a preconceived notion about pitchers they can or can’t hit, and so I’m reluctant to cast doubt, but the deck seems awfully stacked against the Yankees doing anything significant while facing Dickey in this contest.

Of course, Dickey’s mound opponent isn’t exactly chopped liver. Sabathia has once again been one of the very best pitchers in the Majors this year, though has been a bit up-and-down against the Mets in his Yankee career, throwing 7 innings of one-run ball in his lone start against them in 2009, getting lit up five ER in 5 innings during an ESPN Sunday Night telecast on May 23, 2010, and then firing eight shutout innings against the same lineup a month later on Father’s Day.

The Prediction

Though the win train came to a screeching halt this week against the Barves, the Yankees have still played excellent baseball in June, and should be able to win this weekend’s series.

That said, don’t be surprised to see Niese and Dickey totally own, especially given that they’ll each be pitching in their home ballpark, where they’ve both unsurprisingly done their best work. Oh, and in case you aren’t tired yet of Dickey stats, the man owns a 1.20 ERA at Citi Field this year.

On the flip side, with any luck, perhaps all of this Dickey nonsense will result in the biggest reverse jinx of all time, with the Yanks knocking him out after three innings on the strength of a 9-10 performance with RISP, moonshots to the deepest part of Citi Field and several amazing defensive plays by Raul Ibanez, forcing everyone’s heads to collectively explode.

Mailbag: CarGo, Defense, Lee, Ichiro

Got five questions for you this week. Make sure you use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us mailbag questions or anything else at any time.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Biggie asks: Joel Sherman wrote an article about how the Rockies would benefit from trading Carlos Gonzalez, who after this year has five years around $73M left on his deal. I know Sherman was reaching, but what would it take to land the talented CarGon? He would look great in Yankee pinstripes and cost, per year, about the same as Nick Swisher.

Gonzalez is a star of the first order, a career .384 wOBA hitter with base-stealing skills (career 76-for-94, 80.4%) and average defense in the outfield. Yes, he has a massive home/road split — .432/.332 wOBAs — but I don’t believe his true offensive talent is essentially Denard Span or Will Venable outside of Coors Field. Plus if you put him in New York and Yankee Stadium, he’d still have the ballpark going for him. CarGo isn’t quite Carlos Beltran circa 2005, but he’s not all that far off.

Anyway, Gonzalez would be a perfect fit for the Yankees as a young (27 in October), left-handed hitting outfielder that is under contract for the next five seasons at a below market rate ($11.4M average annual value/luxury tax hit). The Yankees targeted Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson for similar reasons in recent years, but CarGo is a better player. The problem is that I don’t think the Yankees have the pieces to get him, unless they’re willing to part with Ivan Nova. The Rockies need pitching in the worst way and I highly doubt David Phelps, Adam Warren, or the injured Manny Banuelos will grab their attention, ditto the Low-A kids who are years away from the bigs. If we knew Michael Pineda was going to be fine going forward, then sure include Nova in a potential package. Obviously we don’t, however.

Chris asks: How have the Yankees defensive metrics been this year? It seems like missing Brett Gardner in left field hasn’t been that big of a deal. Are they average, above or below compared to everyone else and how are they doing compared to last year’s team?

As a team, the Yankees rank 26th in UZR (-14.4) and 20th in DRS (-12), so they’ve been a bad defensive team so far this year. Obviously you have to take defensive stats with a massive grain of salt this year early in the season, so keep that in mind. I think the Yankees get consistently elite defense from only one position on the field and it’s (arguably) the least important: first base. I consider Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Alex Rodriguez to be average at their positions, Cano a bit above average at second, and both Raul Ibanez and Derek Jeter well below average at their positions. Ranking in the bottom third of the league defensively certainly passes the sniff test.

The advanced stats were split on New York last year, ranking them top ten in UZR (+23.2) and nearly bottom ten in DRS (-12). Pick your poison here. I think they were probably in the middle, an average defensive club overall with most of that due to Gardner running everything down. For a quick and dirty look at a team’s defensive performance, just use 1-BABIP. The Yankees are at .703, so right now three out of every ten balls put in play off the team’s pitchers are falling in for hits. That’s one of the worst marks in the game (21st). The Yankees had a pretty good defensive club last year and the year before, but I definitely think it’s fair to say they’ve taken a step back this year, with or without Gardner.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Alec asks: Mike, since the day the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee, what kind of pitcher has he been? Do you think he has been earning him money or is it a blessing in disguise that he wanted to go to Philly?

Oh no, this isn’t a blessing in disguise. Lee has continued to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball since the start of last season, right on par with the guy he was before hitting free agency. You can’t look at his win total (zero!) this year and draw any conclusions from that, Lee’s been absolutely stellar for the Phillies…

ERA K% BB% HR% fWAR/200 IP bWAR/200 IP
2008-2010 2.98 19.8% 3.5% 1.7% 6.3 4.9
2011-2012 2.67 25.8% 4.6% 2.2% 5.5 6.4

Yeah, he’s been pretty fantastic. We could spend all day playing the What If Game had the Yankees signed Lee — Jesus Montero is never traded, Nova is never given a real chance, etc. — but the only thing know for sure is that the guy was a brilliant pitcher before signing his megacontract and he has continued to be a brilliant pitcher since.

Mike asks: What would you think of the idea of trading for Ichiro or signing him in the offseason? He’s nothing like the Ichiro of old, but could still be a ok half of a platoon split for a stop gap RF next year or feel in while Gardner is out.

Since the start of last season, a span of 1,023 plate appearances, Ichiro is a .269/.303/.347 hitter. That includes a .264/.288/.375 batting line in 302 plate appearances this year. At 38 years old. There should be alarms going off in your head. Hitters that old who see their performance decline that much are most likely done being effective big leaguers. The odds of Ichiro rebounding next year (in any uniform) are tiny, miniscule compared to the odds of him getting worse. I know he’s a brand name and all that, but I can’t see any way a contending team could add Ichiro, play him full-time, and expect to improve their club. This is just … no.

Hanks asks: Here’s a question I’ve had on my mind for a while. We’ve been spoiled by over 15 years of winning teams, and there appears to be no end in sight. Surely “what goes up must come down” and at some point the Yankees will go through a long stretch where they are bottom dwellers. But, I just can’t envision how that would happen – it seems like they are primed to keep on winning indefinitely. Given the current landscape of the league can you describe a scenario that would see the end of this great run?

The easy answer would be to say it’ll happen when all of their older and higher priced players all collapse at the same time, but it’s not that simple. Sure, the Yankees are locked into CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez for all eternity, but they’ll have the opportunity to change their second base, catcher, and two of three outfield situations in the next 18 months. That’s just the offense. Ivan Nova gives the team some long-term youth in the rotation and the one-year deals for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte give them a lot of flexibility.

For the Yankees to have a true collapse and go into a long stretch of suckiness, a lot of their younger and prime years players are going to have to drastically under-perform while the old guys start playing like real old guys. They have the money to cover up the typical year-to-year injuries and player evaluation mistakes, so it’ll take a whole bunch of them at one time. Maybe I’m just biased, but I think situations like 2008 — missing the postseason for one year before getting right back to contending the next year — is “bottom dwelling” for the Yankees. Given how the team is built right now, it’s really hard to see how they’ll be non-competitive over multiple, consecutive seasons.

Kevin Long talks about Melky Cabrera, superstar

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

As you know, former Yankee Melky Cabrera has been one of the very best players in all of baseball this season. He’s hitting .363/.399/.532 with a league-leading 101 hits for the Giants, resulting in 3.0 fWAR and a .401 wOBA that rank 10th and 14th in MLB, respectively. Melky broke out with the Royals last season — .349 wOBA and 4.2 fWAR — but he’s taken his game to another level in 2012.

Cabrera’s career was basically left for dead after 2010, when he was literally the worst player in baseball (-1.0 fWAR) before being released by the Braves. Melky was never a great player for the Yankees but he wasn’t terrible, just a useful fourth outfielder that often played full-time. Getting cut by Atlanta seems to have been the wake-up call he needed to start taking his career seriously, as hitting coach Kevin Long indicated to Joel Sherman

“He’s a hell of a player,” said Long. “He has totally gotten committed to his career. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t take anything for granted any more. His personal trainer is with him all the time. When you go all in and have talent, this is what happens — and it is evident he has the talent.

“If Melky committed himself to the Yankees as he does now, he would still be a Yankee,” added Long. “And he would say the same thing. He made himself tradeable then.”

Just do a simple Google Images search of “Melky Cabrera Braves” and compare it to “Melky Cabrera Giants” and the difference is obvious. Melky was fat in Atlanta, fatter than he ever was in New York. Maybe it had to do with the huge ($3.1M) arbitration award he received that winter; he just got a little too comfortable or something. I dunno, whatever. Now? He’s not fat. Not even close. He appears to have rededicated himself to baseball after being released and is going to be rewarded with a monster contract after this season.

The Yankees could sure use Melky right now given Brett Gardner‘s injury but so could every team in baseball. He’s been that good, a star-caliber hitter for over 1,000 plate appearances now. Had he not been traded to the Braves three offseasons ago, there’s a very real chance he would not have developed into the player he is today though. Getting traded away by the team that signed and developed you and then getting released is often the worst moment of a player’s career, but it appears to have been a blessing for the Melkman.

Bleich returns to action in GCL near no-hitter

Make sure you check out Pinstriped Prospects. The site just launched but they’ve got news, video, photos, and more for all levels of the farm system. Needless to say, it’s worth a bookmark.

Triple-A Empire State (11-6 loss to Louisville)
LF Chris Dickerson: 1-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 E (throwing) — threw a runner out at second … 11 doubles in 17 games this year
2B Corban Joseph: 1-3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 2 BB
C Frankie Cervelli: 2-5, 2 R
DH Jack Cust: 1-5, 1 R, 1 2B
1B Russell Branyan: 1-4, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K — 17/20 K/BB in 22 games this year
RF Kevin Russo: 3-4, 3 RBI, 1 BB
3B Brandon Laird: 0-5
CF Colin Curtis: 0-2, 2 BB, 1 K
SS Ramiro Pena: 0-4, 2 K
RHP D.J. Mitchell: 2 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 Balk, 3/1 GB/FB — only 31 of 63 pitches were strikes (49.2%) … good gravy man, they’re not going to call you back up when you’re pitching like this
LHP Mike O’Connor: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1/3 GB/FB — 32 of 51 pitches were strikes (62.7%)
RHP Manny Delcarmen: 1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 17 of 29 pitches were strikes (58.6%)
RHP Jason Bulger: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 2/2 GB/FB — 25 of 42 pitches were strikes (59.5%)

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Thursday Night Open Thread

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The city is brutal when the temperature starts to flirt with triple-digits. The crowded subway platforms are just gross, the streets are filled with that lovely hot garbage stench, and ConEd is cutting back on the voltage so even if you wanted to blast the air conditioner, you can’t. It’s rough, but thankfully it’s supposed to cool off a bit tomorrow and into the weekend. The Yankees got lucky having today off, this heat can be a killer.

Anyway, here is your open thread for this evening. Game Five of the NBA Finals is on tonight (9pm ET on ABC), plus MLB Network is showing the Red Sox and Marlins at 7pm ET (Zambrano vs. Dice-K). You folks know what do here, so have at it.