Game 132: Keep this train a-rollin’

Because these guys have, sadly, not been around much:

A wise man once said: “We won yesterday. If we win today, that’s two in a row. If we win tomorrow, that’s called a winning streak. It has happened before.” The Yanks haven’t had many winning streaks in August, but they’re on one right now thanks to a win last night. Now it’s time to keep that train a-rollin’ to four in a row.

Taking the hill for Oakland will be 23-year-old New Jersey native Vin Mazzaro. He’ll be making his third appearance against the Yankees tonight, and his second in front of the Yankee Stadium crowd. Last time he pitched here he allowed six runs in 4.1 innings. This year he’s been a bit better overall. Like Trevor Cahill, he seems to benefit a ton from the Oakland defense. His 3.61 ERA is quite a distance from his 4.59 FIP and 4.50 xFIP, and about a mile from his 5.07 tERA. Could we see the second night in a row of statistical correction?

Phil Hughes is coming off his worst start of the year, a 3.2-inning, 102-pitch effort in Toronto last week. He’ll look to get back into the six-inning groove tonight. We pay attention to Hughes’s starts because he’s good and has the potential to be better, but his starts are even more interesting now. He’ll enter uncharted innings territory tonight after just 1.2 innings, so it’s tough to know what to expect. I’m also curious to see if he ever plans to work in more curves and changes, or if he’s going to stick with his bread and butter, results be damned, for the rest of the season.

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 sixty-five, Phil Hughes.

2010 Arizona Fall League rosters announced

Hard to believe that we’re already talking about the Arizona Fall League, but here we are. According to Frankie Piliere, the Yankees are sending Austin Romine, Brandon Laird, Corban Joseph, George Kontos, and Craig Heyer to the desert this year, with a few other roster spots still open. Pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said the team was sending four pitchers (one starter and three relievers), so I presume those open spots are for the other pitchers.

Manny Banuelos, a logical candidate for an AzFL assignment because of his appendectomy, can’t play in the fall league because his winter ball rights are still controlled by his former team in Mexico. If anything, he’ll pitch for them.

Melky Mesa named Florida State League Player of the Year

With Melky Cabrera jettisoned to the Braves, Melky Mesa took over the crown as the best Melky in the organization, and he cemented that status by being named the Player of the Year in the High-A Florida State League today. This comes after Austin Romine took home the same award last year. The 23-year-old Mesa has a .351 wOBA in 505 plate appearances for High-A Tampa this year, and he’s a duel threat: he’s second in the league with 19 homers and fifth with 31 steals.

The book on Mesa has always been that he’s extremely talented but raw, with his greatest weakness being his inability to make consistent contact. He improved on that this year by bringing his strikeout rate down to 25.3% (it had been in the low-30’s the last few seasons), but needs to continue that improvement to have an impact in the big leagues. Regardless, congrats to him on the award.

Mechanical tweaks or the placebo effect?

When players struggle we want answers. It’s in our nature to seek the cause of a change. When A.J. Burnett fell apart in June we could easily point to Dave Eiland’s absence as the reason. Every time Derek Jeter slumps at least one person claims he’s hiding an injury. If any new player has a tough time it’s clearly because he can’t handle the pressures of playing in New York. The list goes on and on, but it seems that we always search for a single cause to explain everything.

The coaching staff seemingly understands this phenomenon. Every time a player goes through a rough patch we hear about the staff working with him on something specific. Derek Jeter, who prides himself on not using video to analyze his swing, took to the monitors with Kevin Long this season. A-Rod wasn’t hitting for much power, so he and Long worked on opening his hips. The list goes on forever, but two instances this year stand out.

(AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

For most of the season Curtis Granderson has looked lost at the plate. He has had a few hot streaks and has hit a few big homers, but for the most part his production has declined from even last year, which was a step down from his excellent 2007 and 2008 seasons. Earlier this month he and Long worked on his swing mechanics. Since then he has hit .258/.352/.484, which, while not stellar, is still an improvement. He has also cut down on his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate. It seems as thought the tweaks worked.

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

After a rough start Javy Vazquez returned to form, and from mid-May through the All-Star break he was the Yankees’ second best starter behind CC Sabathia. Vazquez came up particularly huge in June when Burnett had trouble recording outs. But in August Javy experienced difficulties. The Yankees termed it a dead arm, which caused his velocity, already significantly below last year, to fall even further. Not satisfied with just the dead arm explanation, Dave Eiland went to work. As Chad Jennings noted last night, he seems to have found something.

There is a slight mechanical adjustment that seems to be helping Vazquez’s fastball. When he lifts his left leg in his delivery, Vazquez is bringing the leg farther back. It’s not more of a twist, he said, and the leg’s not coming up any higher, it’s just coming a little farther back toward second base.

“The arm angle also has to play a part of it, but (pitching coach Dave Eiland) feels like that’s going to give me better momentum, and it has,” Vazquez said. “The ball was true to where I wanted it to be.”

Considering Vazquez’s success, along with his velocity, during his last two relief appearances, it seems that Eiland’s mechanical tweaks worked. Notice, though, how the word “seems” appears frequently in the preceding paragraphs. It means that we can’t really prove any of these claims.

The problem with using these correlations to create a causal case is that we rarely see an incident with just one cause. We often see myriad little things, rather than one big thing, cause something to happen or to change. Sure, you can see that Granderson keeps both hands on the bat longer, and if you studied video you might be able to see the difference in Vazquez’s leg kick. But there is probably much more going on than we can readily see.

The placebo effect could very well be at work here. Both Granderson and Vazquez knew something was going wrong, so they made efforts to improve. Both instances involved concrete changes — the hands for Granderson, the leg kick for Vazquez — so the players could have a specific area of focus. Now that we’ve seen both players show signs of improvement we can look back to that one instance and attribute the mechanical tweaks to the change. But really, the mechanical tweaks might serve as nothing more than a confidence boost. We have no way of knowing for sure.

A-Rod lacks power, works with Long, hits three homers in a game. Granderson strikes out a lot and has trouble getting on base, works with Long, cuts down on his strikeouts and starts getting on base. Vazquez starts throwing in the mid-80s with poor command, works with Eiland, starts throwing 90 with precision. In all of these cases it’s easy to make the connection, but the easy answer isn’t always the right answer. In a game as complex as baseball there are almost always multiple factors at play, and confidence does not rank least among them. It’s great to see Granderson and Vazquez showing signs of life after working with the coaching staff. But I’m not quite ready to chalk up their recent success to those tweaks. There are just too many other factors at play.

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.