Game 112: Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the division lead

Inverted-W FTL. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Even though the Yankees tack a half-game onto their division lead during their ten game stretch against the Rays, Blue Jays, and Red Sox, it’s hard to really characterize that stretch as a success. They went just 4-6 and were outscored 36-39, but I guess in the end all that matters is that the Yanks increased their lead and knocked a handful of games off their magic number, which now sits at 50.

Unfortunately things won’t get easier tonight, with the Yanks in Texas to take on the first place Rangers. Not only are they seven-and-a-half games up in an otherwise unspectacular AL West, but they’re throwing one of the game’s breakout starters tonight. C.J. Wilson, one of the few athletes worth following on Twitter, is holding opponents to a .216/.318/.316 batting line this year (lefties just .105/.190/.133), generating close to 50% groundballs. The former setup man and closer has walked more batters (66) than any other pitcher in the league, so if the Yanks are patient Wilson work himself into trouble. Doesn’t mean it’ll be easy though.

I guess the good news is that the Rangers are just 17-16 in their last 33 games, and just 3-4 over the last week. Still, they’re a very dangerous team with a great offense and a deep, dominant bullpen. With Mark Teixeira home tending to his knocked up wife, things don’t figure to get any easier. Here’s the um, lineup…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Thames, DH
A-Rod, 3B
Kearns, LF
Berkman, 1B
Cervelli, C
Gardner, CF
Pena, 2B

And on the bump, it’s A.J. Burnett.

Unfortunately the Rangers play in the Central Time Zone, so this one doesn’t start until a little after 8pm ET. The game can be seen on My9 locally, or the MLB Network nationally. Enjoy.

Was Nick Johnson really the wrong choice?

A post this morning on Baseball Time in Arlington got me thinking about the DH situation. There were four big DH free agents heading into the offseason — Nick Johnson, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jim Thome — and it looks like the Yankees made the wrong choice. Nick Johnson is out for the year and is providing the team no value. Meanwhile the other three remain healthy. Throughout the season I’ve seen fans complain about the team picking Johnson over Matsui, since it was such an obvious mistake. Yet when I looked at it, the result isn’t so obvious.

Johnson has been out since early May, having produced 0.1 WAR before hurting his wrist. That’s not a great return on $5.5 million. Matsui has been healthy enough to accumulate 411 PA, more than four times the number Johnson managed. Yet Matsui has produced an identical 0.1 WAR. In other words, while Matsui has stayed healthy he hasn’t done much to help his team. Hell, even Juan Miranda has produced 0.1 WAR this season.

The big winner among the foursome is obviously Vlad, who has produced 2.1 WAR despite a recent downturn. Yet Jim Thome, in 212 fewer plate appearances, has produced 1.8 WAR. If the Yanks were looking for a left-handed DH, he gets the hindsight award for the pick I’d endorse.

Pettitte, Moseley and Phil Hughes’ innings

After tossing six innings yesterday afternoon against the Red Sox, Phil Hughes had accrued 128.2 innings on the season in 21 starts. He’s averaging just over six innings per outing, and as his current pace, as ESPN’s Ian Begley noted, he’ll reach his soft innings limit of 175 at around September 18 in Baltimore with two weeks of the regular season and the October slate remaining. The Yankees will have to be creative to get the most out of the right-hander who has emerged as the team’s third best starter.

Already this year, we’ve seen how the Yankees plan to get the most out of Hughes. They’ve skipped his starts twice but with less than stellar rests. On four or five days’ rest, Hughes is 12-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 113 IP. In just three starts following six or more days of rest, Hughes is 1-2 with an 8.04 ERA, and in those 15.2 innings, batters are hitting .367/.451/.650. Notwithstanding the small sample size, those results are like night and day.

The Yankees, we know, would love to skip Hughes a handful of times. His start against the Royals next weekend, for one, seems largely unnecessary because the Yanks could beat the Royals without Hughes on the mound. They’d rather just use him for the key starts down the stretch. Hughes, though, prefers to be a creature of habit. “That’s what I’m used to,” he said of pitching every five days. “Just going out and getting the ball and doing my normal schedule. But if they feel like something needs to be adjusted in that way then that’s up to them.”

He doesn’t, however, think his struggles were anything more than a coincidence. Nothing, he said, felt physically wrong when he was pitching on extended rest. Still, the narrative runs strong here, and the results, so far, have been widely divergent. Hughes, as with any starter, thrives on regularity.

How then can the Yankees limit Hughes’ workload without giving him too much rest? The answer should lie with Dustin Moseley and Andy Pettitte. Yesterday prior to the Yankees/Red Sox affair, Pettitte threw a simulated inning in the bullpen. He threw 20 pitches and felt only fatigue and not pain in his injured groin. He’ll throw another simulated game on Thursday before heading out on a rehab assignment for one start. He could be back by the time the Yankees play the Mariners at home next weekend, but the Yankees are going to be cautious with Hughes.

And then, we have Dustin Moseley. Through 30 innings with the Yanks, Moseley has been more than adequate. His strike out totals — 16 with a K/9 IP of 4.7 — are low, but opponents are hitting just .239/.303/.413 off of him. His 1.50 ground out-to-fly out ratio allows him to succeed without a high strike out total, and the Yankee scouts have been high on his sinking pitches. He’ll draw the Royals later in the week.

With these three pitchers in play, the Yankees have six legitimate starters, and the opportunity to use them all. They could employ an abridged six-man rotation, giving Hughes and Pettitte extra days when necessary but keeping Sabathia and Burnett on track. Moseley would act as the swing man, and Hughes’ innings could be stretched out by another week or so.

What the Yankees can’t do, however, is shut down Phil Hughes. There isn’t enough time to ramp down his innings and then ramp them back up before the playoffs, and as Joba Chamberlain showed last year, that strategy wasn’t quite effective. So the team will have to get creative with the rest. With Moseley, the team has the flexibility to rest Hughes or extend his time between starts, and that’s a luxury that could be a key factor come the stretch drive.

Linkage: Aceves, Melancon, A-Rod, Triple-A

Let’s round up a few afternoon links…

Aceves Begins Rehab Tonight

At long last, Al Aceves is going to begin his rehab assignment tonight as he tries to come back from the bulging disc that’s had him on the shelf since May. He is scheduled to start for Triple-A Scranton, and will throw just one inning, pretty standard stuff. Assuming that goes well, he’ll presumably make a few more appearances and get stretched out to something like 50-60 pitches. Hopefully he stays healthy and can contribute down the stretch, but I’m not counting on it. Back problems are tricky.

Melancon Gets The Call

A little over a week after the Yanks sent him to the Astros as part of the Lance Berkman deal, Mark Melancon was summoned to the big leagues for what I believe will be his fourth stint. He told Alyson Footer that the Yanks wanted him to get the ball down in the zone more, so he ended up changing him arm slot which led to his struggles in Triple-A this year. My first reaction was that this is a cop out, but it certainly sounds legit. Either way, I wish him the best.

A-Rod‘s First Big Contract

Believe it or not, there was once a time when Alex Rodriguez was underpaid. That was quite a long time ago, when he was a 20-year-old behemoth hitting .357/.414/.631 with 54 doubles, 36 homers, and 15 steals. R.J. Anderson at FanGraphs recapped A-Rod’s first big payday, a four contract that bought out some of his arbitration eligible seasons for just $10.6M, which is what the Yanks’ paid him for their first 54 games of the season.

Overlooked Players In Triple-A

Baseball America posted an article today on players that are being overlooked at the Triple-A level (sub. req’d), and naturally a few Yankee farmhands are mentioned. “He’s a very athletic-looking shortstop,” said Triple-A Columbus manager Mike Sarbaugh of Eduardo Nunez. “I saw him early in the year and really liked him. I saw him last year (in Double-A), too, and really liked the way he played the game.” Even though he’s noted for his ability to make solid contact, the article acknowledges that Nunez will provide almost all of his value through his speed (77% stolen base success rate the last two years) and defense (though his TotalZone scores are consistently negative).

Reegie Corona, who is out for the rest of the year after breaking his arm in a collision a week or so ago, also gets a mention. “[I]n the end he doesn’t have the bat to profile as even a reserve big leaguer.” That sounds promising.

Anyway, let’s wrap up with a video of a guy ducking out of the way while his girlfriend gets hit with a foul ball. He must have been making sure his hat had the proper 60-degree reverse tilt.

The time for learning is over: platoon Granderson

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

From time to time we find it appropriate to comes to the windows of our ivory towers and proclaim to the people what should be done. This doesn’t happen often, at least in this space. We might complain about this trend or that, but rarely do we recommend a wholesale roster or lineup change. Without all the relevant information we often folly when suggesting these changes. We also fall victim to recent trends, which can lead us to specious conclusions. I covered this on FanGraphs yesterday as it related to Raul Ibanez. Even among the Yankees we had voices clamoring for Derek Jeter‘s removal from the leadoff spot. I assure you, though, that this proclamation is neither premature nor does it lack relevant data.

Joe Girardi must start platooning Curtis Granderson.

When the Yankees traded for Curtis Granderson in December there were plenty of concerned voices. He had just come off a season in which he managed a .249 BA and .327 OBP, marks that fell below even his mediocre 2006 campaign. Those problems, in large part, came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit .183/.245/.239, a .223 wOBA. Why, asked the myriad voices, would the Yankees trade a rising center field prospect in Austin Jackson for a player whose skills appear in decline? The answer from the patient counterparty: he just had a bad year. Kevin Long can surely work with him.

At the beginning of the season it was easier to deal with Granderson’s struggles. The pithing staff, along with a number of non-stars, carried the team through April. Granderson struggled after a promising start, ending the month with a mere .314 wOBA. He had hit a few homers, including one in his first at-bat and then another off Jonathan Papelbon to give the Yanks a victory, so it was a bit easier to gloss over his lack of production. Yet Granderson still appeared uncomfortable at the plate. He’d get a chance to reflect on his rough first month in the Bronx, as he left a game in early May with a groin injury, not to return for a little over three weeks.

In June and July Granderson again struggled, though he produced a bit better than he had in April. His OBP for those two months sat around .305, a downright horrible mark for a starter, though he did hit for some power, with an ISO of around .195. Still, that amounted to a wOBA below .330, hardly the stuff the Yankees had hoped to receive from Detroit. August has gone even worse to this point, with Granderson striking out in 40.9 percent of his at-bats. His .220 wOBA has nowhere to go but up, though there can’t be much confidence that it will.

Most of this poor production has come against lefties. His .233 wOBA means he’s not helping the team at all offensively. He hardly walks against lefties, and he strikes out quite a bit more. His BABIP, .274, isn’t an abomination, but it’s more reflective of his low contact rate than any streak of poor luck. There’s a chance he might be underperforming a bit, as his career wOBA against lefties is .265. But even that is a poor mark that will be of little help to the Yankees as they battle with the Rays down the stretch.

The time for learning is over. The Yankees and Granderson had the opportunity earlier in the year to see if he could make adjustments to better approach lefties, but it hasn’t worked out. That’s fine. Granderson is still under contract for a couple of years, and as we saw with Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, adjustments at the plate can take a few years. Granderson, along with Kevin Long, will get another chance this winter and next spring to help increase his production against lefties. But as far as 2010 is concerned, it’s time to shoot for the best results rather than a pipe dream of improvement.

A platoon not only helps in that it gets Granderson’s bat out of the lineup against lefties, but it also allows him to focus on a relative strength. Against righties this season he’s actually been pretty good. He has walked in 10.7 percent of his PA and has struck out in 23.2 percent of AB. His line, .258/.338/.490, amounts to a .353 wOBA, which is very good for a center fielder. Perhaps he’ll even increase that production if he’s able to face righties almost exclusively. Meanwhile, the Yankees can get Austin Kearns more appearances against lefties, against whom he has a .353 career wOBA.

I’m sure there are plenty of fans who will say duh, they should have done this months ago. With this I disagree. With the way the team has been playing they can afford to let a player work through his struggles, especially if it comes against pitchers whom he faces in about a third of his overall plate appearances. But now, in August, with no sign of improvement and a tight pennant race on the horizon, the Yankees need to abandon the sliver of hope that Granderson can produce against lefties and go with what most directly benefits the team. They can restart the Granderson experiment next year.

When Brett Gardner didn’t steal

Brett Gardner is fast. He can outrace most baseball players, and he won’t get caught too often by even the best of catchers. Victor Martinez, not a great defensive backstop, shouldn’t phase him, and yet, when faced with a prime opportunity to run and the perpetual green light, Gardner froze yesterday. His indecision could have cost the Yankees a shot at the game.

To set the stage, we return to the top of the eighth. Mark Teixeira had just hit a home run to cut the Red Sox lead to 2-1, and Alex Rodriguez followed that up with a single. A-Rod had stolen a base on Sunday night, but Joe Girardi wanted the sure thing. Although A-Rod’s spot could have come up again, the Yankees’ manager turned to his speedy weapon off the bench, and Brett Gardner was called upon to pinch run.

The entire stadium knew what would happen next. Gardner would take off and get into scoring position with no one out. The Yankees’ WPA would have been nearly 50 percent at that point, and Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada would have had the opportunity to plate the tying run by making two outs. Knotted at two, the game could have evolved into a battle of the bullpens while the Bombers would have enjoyed home field advantage. It didn’t work out as planned, and Mike’s recent analysis of Brett Gardner’s declining number of stolen base attempts seemed to predict this very situation.

The three-way face-off amongst Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner and Daniel Bard was an epic one, and Bard, to his credit, played it perfectly. He came set twice, held the ball for a long period of time and threw two fastballs to Cano. After coming set for the next two pitches, he twice threw over to first base. Each time, his time to the plate or to first varied, and Gardner couldn’t get a read on his move. The 1-1 pitch was a change-up, and the 1-2 pitch a fastball. Neither time did Gardner get a good read on Bard’s move. Two more pick-off attempts sandwiched a foul ball, and on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, when Cano had to protect the plate on 1-2, Gardner took off. The slow roller probably wasn’t hit hard enough for the Red Sox to turn two, and the chess game on the mound seemed to paid off.

In an ideal world, Gardner would be the Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees. The speed is there, but Gardner doesn’t have the instincts or daring of Ellsbury. Four times, the Red Sox’s center fielder took off during Monday’s game, and four times, Ellsbury beat the throw, including once on a pitch-out. Ellsbury knows he’s faster than Jorge Posada’s arm, and he knows how to read a pitcher’s move. As soon as the right-hander’s leg goes up, he runs. Gardner, on the other hand, did not. He should have gone on the first pitch and never went at all when it could have made a difference.

When Mike wrote about Gardner’s stolen bases here last week, he highlighted a quote from Gardner. “Early in the season I was getting on base a lot and running a lot, and my legs just got a little tired,” he said. “I need to start running more. I wish I had been running more recently in the last several weeks, but I will. When we need me to try to get into scoring position, I’ll try to…it’s just a matter of trying to be smart.”

I’m not in a position to ask Gardner about his mental approach on the bases, but it seems that he isn’t what baseball scouts would call a natural basestealers. He can rely on his speed but hasn’t mastered the mental art of knowing when to go and how to go. In fact, his reticence on the basepaths led the Yankees to employ Freddy Guzman exclusively as a pinch runner last year, and yesterday, it came back to bite them as the team never had a chance to use Gardner’s speed.

It’s very hard to teach fast players to be good baserunners. In his prime, Bernie Williams was a speedster in the outfield who never could run the bases well. Gardner, by virtue of his even better speed, can cover for his mistakes, but yesterday’s was a glaring one. He doesn’t seem to trust his legs; he doesn’t seem to run enough; and when the season is over, the Yankees will have to examine Gardner’s approach to the bases. With Carl Crawford, a stellar baserunner, available, Gardner’s hesitancy could weigh against his Yankee future.

Yanks offense can’t get going, settles for split with Boston

The first six innings of this one were fairly uneventful. Phil Hughes had a rough second. The Yanks didn’t get a hit until the fifth. Even then, things didn’t get interesting until the seventh, and things heated up for the final three innings. But the Yanks couldn’t capitalize and ended up dropping a tough one 2-1.

Biggest Hit: Thames almost gets it done

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Teixeira’s homer, being the lone run, is probably the biggest hit. But, just for fun…

Low-scoring affairs always produce odd results in WPA. For instance, the Red Sox won the game and had a 2-0 lead for most of it. Yet their highest WPA play was Bill Hall’s RBI single, which was only the eighth highest WPA play of the game. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s single that moved Hall to third was actually a bit more valuable. The top six WPA plays all came from the Yankees. Go figure.

The biggest swing came in the seventh. Jorge Posada singled to start the inning, bringing Marcus Thames to the plate. He was in the lineup specifically to face the lefty Jon Lester, but list most of the Yankees was 0 for 2 at that point. This time around he got an outside pitch and went with it, driving it over the gap in right-center. The ball hit the top of the wall and bounced upward, leaving us uncertain for a second whether it would bounce over the fence or back into the field of play. It was the latter, which allowed Posada to move to third.

With second and third with none out it looked like the Yanks might finally break through. Things looked even brighter when Austin Kearns took one off the foot and strolled to first. But three strikeouts later, they had nothing going.

Strikeouts get the best of ‘em

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

There were plenty of wasted opportunities late in this game. There was the situation in the seventh, where Lester and Dan Bard struck out three straight Yankees to prevent even a single run from scoring in a bases loaded, none out situation. The first came with Curtis Granderson up. He’d made decent contact off Lester in his first two plate appearances, but this time couldn’t handle him. It was Lester’s last batter and I’m sure he knew it, so perhaps he was giving that little bit extra.

Next up was Derek Jeter, who struck out swinging on a high fastball from Bard. Ditto Swisher. The Yanks had a shot there — in fact, their WPA in the bases loaded, no outs situation was actually above 50 percent despite being behind two runs. But the three strikeouts eliminated the threat, moving the win expectancy down 38.8 percent.

A few other strikeouts hurt in particular. Mark Teixeira‘s game-ender, with the tying run on second, was the biggest negative WPA swing of the game, -15.3 percent. The batter before him, Nick Swisher, had the second highest negative swing of the game, -14.5 percent. Curtis Granderson’s ninth-inning strikeout moved the WPA down 9.6 percent. Only Derek Jeter raised it that inning.

It looked like a disaster at first…

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

I was fuming over Phil Hughes’s first two innings. While he didn’t allow any runs in the first, he didn’t look particularly sharp. That came back to haunt him in the second, when he threw 37 pitches to seven Red Sox. But a lot of that wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t after all, given up many hard-hit balls.

In the first J.D. Drew got a base hit on a grounder. David Ortiz had a well-struck ball, but that was all they’d get in that frame. Then in the second he allowed another single on a grounder, which was followed by another poor throw-down by Jorge Posada on a steal attempt. With Ryan Kalish at third, Bill Hall hit a groundball infield single, plating the first run. Jacoby Ellsbury then hit one just out of Jeter’s reach, and it was a ball that maybe he gets to if he’s not at double play depth. The walk is inexcusable, but then Hughes got another grounder. Cano had to hustle to the hole to get it, and so didn’t get the double play, which resulted in another run. And, of course, Hughes ended the inning with another groundball out.

After that, though, he settled down nicely, throwing 16 pitches in the third before getting the Sox on seven in the fourth. He ended the day with 114 pitches through six, having allowed just one hit after Ellsbury’s single. He struck out just three, but he did get nine ground balls and kept all nine fly balls in the park. Considering the poor luck he had in the second, it’s hard to hold this one against him.

Graph and box

The peaks represent frustration.

More at FanGraphs. Or you can check out the traditional box.

Up Next

The Yanks will travel to Texas, sans Mark Teixeira, to face C.J. Wilson and the Rangers. A.J. Burnett will make his delayed start.