Winning games and gaining no ground

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last night’s win was the Yankees’ third in a row, just the third time they’ve won that many consecutive games since before the All Star break. They’ve also won four of their last six, six of their last nine, and nine of their last 13, a pace we’d sign up for any time of any season. The Yanks have also outscored their opponents 90-61 over that 13 game stretch despite a shaky rotation, an absent Alex Rodriguez, and a generally unproductive Derek Jeter (just 8-for-48 during those 13 games), a testament to how deep and talented this roster is.

And yet, the Yanks have picked up zero games in the standings. That’s because those damn Tampa Bay Rays have also gone 9-4 in their last 13 games, though their run differential is a less spectacular +11. Go all the way back to August 2nd, and the two teams share identical 15-11 records. There just hasn’t been any separation between the Yanks and Rays for a month now.

Of course, that’s not a surprise. These two teams, along with the pre-injury Red Sox, were expected to compete all season for the division crown. The fact that it’s now just a two team race actually makes things easier, even though it doesn’t feel that way. Both teams have better than a 94% chance of making the postseason, but making the playoffs is just the beginning. Winning the division affords the added benefit of having home field advantage throughout the ALDS and potentially the ALCS if they were to qualify. At 43-22 (.662), the Yanks have the best home record in the American League, and even subjectively we know how helpful it can be playing in front of the home crowd more often than not in October.

The Yankees and Rays still have two series left against each other, both coming in the middle of September. They’ll play in Florida from the 13th to the 15th, and then meet in New York for a four game set four days later. The Yanks are 5-6 against the Rays this season, so at a minimum they need to go 4-3 in those seven games just to tie the season series and the first tiebreaker. The next tiebreaker is record against AL East competition, where the Rays hold a bit of an advantage (32-19 vs. 27-20) with fewer games left to play. In the end it won’t matter, because both teams are all but assured of postseason berths.

They Rays have a stacked and powerful farm system, and will benefit room the arrivals of Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee, and possibly Desmond Jennings in September, not to mention the addition of Brad Hawpe. The Yankees, meanwhile, can look forward to just getting healthy. Lance Berkman will be back tomorrow. A-Rod probably by the weekend. Andy Pettitte will hopefully be back in time for that mid-September stretch against Tampa. Then there’s Damaso Marte and Al Aceves, who could deepen an already strong bullpen. I’m not sure we can safely say one team has an advantage over the other when it comes to September call-ups, but Tampa will benefit form having their guys right from the start of the month.

We put a lot of emphasis on winning the division, but making the playoffs is the first goal. Once the Yanks secure that – the magic number for a playoff spot is just 25 – they can focus on the division, but really the priority should be resting players and getting everyone healthy for a deep playoff run. Jeter, Robbie Cano, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira have played basically every game this year, while CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Phil Hughes have made basically every start asked of them. Getting the legs fresh and rotation lined up for the postseason is far more important than winning the division, no matter how much we fans want another AL East crown.

Mighty Mighty Marcus Thames

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Everyone loves a nice feel good story, and that’s exactly what Marcus Thames is. He and his four siblings ran the household at a young age after his mother was paralyzed in a car accident, and after his junior year of high school Thames joined the National Guard to earn extra money for his family. Nicknamed Slick by his mother because he used to suck his thumb as a child, Marcus managed to overcome the hardship of his adolescence to become a big league baseball player that homered on the first pitch he ever saw, off a future Hall of Famer no less. It’s the kind of stuff they base movies on.

Thames’ season has been pretty storybook for the Yanks this year. His “welcome to the Yankees” moment, so to speak, was the walk-off homer off Jonathan Papelbon back in May. Another walk-off hit against the Blue Jays in July built up his good will, though his defense in the corner outfield spots tested the limits of the fans’ patience. A 2-for-23 stretch before a disabled list stint in June appeared to put his job in jeopardy, and quite a few people thought he would/should be designated for assignment after the Yanks acquired Austin Kearns and Lance Berkman at the trade deadline. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Free from the rigors of outfield defense, Thames has been a man on a mission this month while playing almost exclusively designated hitter. He started the month with four hits in eight plate appearances before stepping in for Mark Teixeira as the three-hole hitter during a two game series against the first place Rangers. Lefties C.J. Wilson and Cliff Lee started the two games, exactly the demographic Thames was brought in to face. He picked up five hits in the two game set including an eighth inning solo homer and a game-winning single in the ninth inning of the second game. Marcus’ latest masterpiece includes six homers in his last five starts, putting his season wOBA at .410.

Like I said, Thames was brought in strictly to pound lefthanded pitching, but he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty. He’s posted a .419 wOBA against southpaws but has nearly matched it with a .400 wOBA against righthanders. It’s his best single season performance against pitchers of the same side since he wOBA’s .378 off righties in 2006, the year he helped the Tigers to the World Series. In a year where almost every offseason acquisition – Nick Johnson, Javy Vazquez, Randy Winn, Curtis Granderson, Chan Ho Park – has failed to meet expectations, Thames stands out as the one great move.

The inevitable question will arise about Thames’ future with the Yanks, which of course is something we can’t answer until the season is over and we see how things play out. The answer right now is an unequivocal yes, but as always we have to remember to keep things in perspective. At .318/.398/.556, he is currently sporting career highs in all of the triple-slash categories, and it’s really not all that close either. It’s practically impossible for Thames to repeat that next year, and if he drops back down to .249/.315/.496 (his career average) as a 34-year-old next year, how useful is he to this team?

That’s a debate for another time, but right now Thames has been worth every penny of his $900,000 contract (there’s another $900,000 in performance bonuses in there, and I’m sure he’s met a few of those already). Every great team needs to get big time production from an unexpected sources throughout the season, and for this year’s Yankees, it’s Marcus Thames. Mr. Thames to you.

Joba the Starter seemingly an afterthought

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Joba Chamberlain was or wasn’t almost traded for Dan Haren on July 23, according to various rumors. The veracity of those alleged trade negotiations isn’t really important today, but we know that other teams felt comfortable asking for Joba at the trade deadline even if the Yanks weren’t keen on shipping off their 24-year-old erstwhile phenom.

Since that near-non-trade, Joba has pitched better out of the bullpen than he had in the months prior to the rumors. That great regression — one that said Joba’s high K rates and low home run rates should have led to better results — seemed to kick in, and in 15.2 innings since late July, Joba has allowed just five earned runs on nine hits and four walks. He has 12 strike outs to complement that 2.87 ERA, and while not totally dominating, Joba has been flashing his plus stuff and getting the job done.

Interestingly, as the last few weeks have seemingly restored some semblance of faith in Joba, they’ve also shown me how the Yankees view him. Shortly before the Haren trade rumors swirled, the Yanks lost Andy Pettitte to a groin injury. To plug what they thought would be a four- to six-week hole, the team first turned to Sergio Mitre and later handed the ball to Dustin Moseley. While Moseley has made some solid starts, including one against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox, neither Mitre nor Moseley have been revelations in the rotation.

Meanwhile, as Moseley has sputtered along, other Yankee starters have struggled as well. A.J. Burnett is 3-10 over his last 15 outings with an ERA of 6.86, and Javier Vazquez has lost and perhaps regained his rotation spot since a dead-arm period sent his stuff and numbers tumbling. With Phil Hughes showing some signs of fatigue in his last outing and fast approaching an innings limit, the Bombers had to call upon Ivan Nova to pitch some key games amidst a pennant race in late summer. If only they had another starting pitcher with Major League experience on the team…

Of course, it’s clear now where I’m going with this summary of the state of the Yankees’ starting rotation. At no point since mid-July when the Yanks’ pitching problems started to pop up did the Bombers consider moving Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to the starting rotation, and I can’t figure out why not. Since 2007, Joba’s role on the team has been a hot topic. He was a starting pitcher throughout college, was drafted as one and rocketed through the system as one. The Yanks moved him to the bullpen three years ago to limit his workload and give the Big League club an impact arm when they had to build a Bridge to Mariano more solid than Kyle Farnsworth. Three season later, Joba Chamberlain remains in limbo.

To start the 2010 season, the Yankees claimed Phil Hughes and Joba would fight it out for the fifth starter spot, but as early as January, we heard that the Yanks had all but decided to hand the job to Phil. When Joba struggled in Grapefruit League action, Hughes won the job, and Joba was banished to the bullpen for the entire season. The team, Brian Cashman said, wanted to keep a cap on Joba’s workload but still saw him as a starter going forward.

If that was truly the case, Joba should have been starting this summer. He wasn’t good enough early on as a reliever to justify keeping him in a high-leverage set-up role, and he’s been a part of Joe Girardi‘s mix-and-match approach to the 6th, 7th and 8th innings lately. He could have been moved out of the bullpen mix and into the rotation without weakening the team’s late-innings needs, and he could have built up the innings he needs if he’s going to be in the mix for a starting job next year.

The truth about Joba is that he hasn’t been a bad starting pitcher. He made 43 starts before turning 24, and he went 12-9 with a 4.18 ERA/4.07 FIP in 221.2 innings. He 8.4 K/9 IP is an impressive mark for such a young pitcher, but he walked too many guys. When he was bad, he was really bad, and some of the late-2009 abbreviated starts make his overall numbers look worse than he performed as a starter. Still, none of his numbers or the results scream out “failure” as a starting pitcher, and he certainly showed some brilliance both before and after his 2008 shoulder injury.

For now, Joba remains a pitching enigma on the Yanks. At a time when the Yanks could use a proven Major League starter, he’ll finish out the year in the bullpen. If the Yanks go deep into October, he could rack up around 75-80 innings pitched this year, and the Yanks are seemingly ready to throw him back into the rotation next year. Someone in the Yankee organization knows what the plan is for Joba, but today, I remain as mystified with the team’s treatment of this potentially valuable arm as I was last year. The Yankees, it seems, just can’t figure out what to do with Joba Chamberlain.

Yanks open series with 11-5 drubbing of A’s

Heading into last night’s game, Trevor Cahill held the AL’s second lowest ERA, trailing just Clay Buchholz. So when the A’s staked him to a 3-run lead in the first, things didn’t look so good for the Yankees. It took all of five batters to change that outlook. The night continued to get better, and it ended with an 11-5 Yankees victory.

Biggest Hit: Swisher ties it early

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

For the most part Dustin Moseley has done a good job filling in for Andy Pettitte. He’s had some rough outings, but that’s expected. He is, after all, Dustin Moseley. All the Yanks ask is that he keeps them in the game. From the outset last night it looked like he would fail. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases, and the A’s struck for three before heading out to the field. That had to feel good with Cahill on the mound.

The Yanks wasted no time in evening the score. Gardner started with a walk, Teixeira followed two batters later with a single, and then Robinson Cano brought home the first run with a single of his own. That ball was so well struck that even though Mark Ellis was in a position to field it, he just couldn’t make the play. That brought Nick Swisher to the plate, and Swisher delivered.

Cahill delivered five sinkers during the at-bat, but only one of them ended up down in the zone — Swish took that one for ball two. The sequence went ball, foul, ball, ball, foul, double to deep center. Coco Crisp made a valiant effort, but the ball went beyond his outstretched glove. It took him a moment to recover, which gave Cano enough time to score from first and tie the game.

In a span of just five batters the Yanks turned this from a frustrating game into a new game. That’s what happens when you have such a high-powered offense.

Meet Saturday’s starter

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

When Moseley walked Kurt Suzuki in the fifth he accomplished two things. First, he guaranteed that Girardi would take him out of the game. The last pitch hardly had time to cross the plate before Girardi was out of the dugout and on a brisk jog to the mound. Second, he opened the door for Javy Vazquez‘s return to the rotation. For the next 4.2 innings, Vazquez made his case clear.

It took a Jeter jump toss to get out of the fifth, but from there Vazquez had things under control. He started the game by retiring seven straight and allowed just one run on two hits, striking out six. He even hit 90 consistently. Though, for what it’s worth, Moseley’s final pitch was also 90 mph.

Moseley’s next turn in the rotation would come on Saturday, but I’d bet on Vazquez slotting in there. It seems like a good time to see if he can be that guy he was from May into July. That will be a big boost to a rotation going through a rough patch.

Filling in for A-Rod

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Marcus Thames hit his 10th home run of the season this year, though it certainly feels like he’s hit more than that — probably because he’s hit six in his last six games. The tear comes at a great time. It’s like not losing Alex Rodriguez at all. In fact, since A-Rod’s injury Thames is 11 for 34 (.324) with three walks (.432 OBP) and six home runs (.765 SLG).

Mark Teixeira, too, has been cruising along since A-Rod started missing time. He was 3 for 3 with a walk last night, and is 14 for 41 (.342) with six walks (.429 OBP) and seven extra base hits (.659 SLG). He and Thames have made missing A-Rod not as big a deal as it could have been.

Miscellany

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Brett Gardner got on base three times and didn’t score. You won’t see that happen often.

How many young pitchers have we see throw 100 mph? How many of those pitchers sustained that speed? How many of them lasted long-term? Sorry, Henry Rodriguez, but you are no Billy Wagner.

Swisher is back up to .298, for those of you who are still holding out hope that he’ll finish the season at .300.

Trevor Cahill has allowed 50 earned runs this season. The Yankees have 14 of those.

Graph and Box

More at FanGraphs. You know, FanGraphs has the box score, too. But just in case you like ‘em simple, here’s the regul’r box score.

Up Next

Phil Hughes attempts to recover from a poor start, while Vin Mazzaro starts for the A’s. Considering the sparse crowd last night, I’m sure Mazzaro will be able to get all of his buddies into the game.

Heathcott walks off in Charleston win

Triple-A Scranton (8-7 loss to Lehigh Valley)
Kevin Russo, SS & Brandon Laird, 3B: both 1 for 5 – Russo scored a run … Laird K’ed twice
Greg Golson, RF: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 BB – 14 for his last 37 (.378) with four doubles, a triple, and the homer
Jesus Montero, DH: 0 for 5, 1 RBI, 1 K
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 1 for 2, 2 R, 1 RBI, 3 BB, 1 K – seven of his 15 walks have comes in the last five games
Chad Huffman, LF: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 3 BB – 11 walks and seven strikeouts in his last nine games
Reid Gorecki, CF: 1 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 K
Robby Hammock, 2B: 0 for 4, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
Chad Moeller, C: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K
Al Aceves: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2-1 GB/FB – 21 of 33 pitches were strikes (63.6%) … I have to say, rehab has not been kind to him
Amaury Sanit: 0.2 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-1 GB/FB – half of his 18 pitches were strikes
David Phelps: 5 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 5-5 GB/FB – 66 of his 98 pitches were strikes
Royce Ring: 0.2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2-0 GB/FB – nine of 16 pitches were strikes
Zack Segovia: 0.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K - half of his ten pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Game 131: Looking for more Moseley magic

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Yankees kick off a 10-game homestand tonight with the first of four games against the Oakland A’s. This is the seventh time the teams will meet this season, but the first in New York. The Yanks went 5-1 out in Oakland during series in April and July.

Dustin Moseley gets the start for New York. He has put together some nice starts since getting called up in July. Even in the ones where he’s given up some runs I thought he was getting unlucky at points. But with Moseley’s pitching style he’ll have to catch every break in order to be successful. The A’s do have the No. 11 offense in the AL, scoring 4.05 runs per game, so this might be a good matchup.

Where the A’s have the advantage is in pitching. It’s the reason they’re currently one game over .500. This almost feels like the 2009 Seattle Mariners, in that the A’s have the fewest runs per game allowed in the AL (and therefore have the lowest team ERA). They’re just third in FIP, though, so it would seem that their defense gobbles up balls in play. To that end they have the second best team UZR in the league and the best defensive efficiency.

Tonight’s starter, Trevor Cahill, has been a big part of the A’s success. His peripheral numbers make his season seem like a fluke: 4.04 FIP, 4.12 xFIP, .217 BABIP. But there are certainly mitigating factors, like his 56 percent groundball rate, fourth best in the league. With an excellent infield behind him a large percentage of those balls get turned into outs. If he keeps that sinker down in the zone the Yanks will certainly find him troublesome. I’d say he can be beat, but the last time he allowed more tan three runs in a start was on July 17. Then again, that was to the Royals, so you just never know.

(Also, Cahill has allowed two or fewer runs in 16 of his 23 starts.)

Teixeira is back in the lineup tonight, making the group seem a bit more formidable.

Lineup:

1. Brett Gardner, LF
2. Derek Jeter, SS
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B
4. Robinson Cano, 2B
5. Nick Swisher, RF
6. Jorge Posada, C
7. Marcus Thames, DH
8. Curtis Granderson, CF
9. Ramiro Pena, 3B

And on the mound, number forty, Dustin Moseley.

A’s series tickets going for cheap

As the Yanks return home after a six-game road trip, they’ll face off against the Oakland A’s in a four-game set at Yankee Stadium. Time was that the A’s in late August and early September would serve as a playoff preview, but the days of Jason and Jeremy Giambi, of Miguel Tejada, of Eric Chavez and the Big Three are long gone. Today, the A’s are a young team with some solid pitchers playing .500 ball.

And so with many New Yorkers still on vacation and the big September series still a few weeks away, tickets are selling well below average on the secondary market this week. Our partners at TiqIQ provided us with the graphic above, and many choice tickets for this week’s games are still available at RAB Tickets.

For those interested in making it to the Bronx this year, now is a great chance to go. The tickets against the Blue Jays this weekend will go up, but the Orioles won’t command a premium. After the Yanks leave town on the 8th of September, they return home only for seven games against the Rays and Red Sox, and tickets to those contests are sure to cost a fortune.