Game 106: Keeping pace

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Yankees fell into a tie for first place in the AL East last night for the first time since June 19th. They haven’t been a full game out of first since June 12th, but that could happen tonight if they don’t beat the Blue Jays and Ricky Romero and Tampa takes care of business against the Twins.

Romero, a changeup specialist (+1.39 runs above average per 100 thrown this year), has a reverse split this season. Lefties are hitting .267/.327/.404 off him, righties just .247/.325/.342, which is what you expect. Changeups are used to neutralize batters of the opposite hand, after all. So, naturally, Joe Girardi blindly loaded tonight’s lineup with righty batters, probably looking no further than what arm Romero throws with when setting the order. Danks Theory, baby. Learn it, love it, use it.

I haven’t complained about the lineup in the while. That felt good, I needed that. Anyway, here’s the order…

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

And on the bump, it’s the immortal Dustin Moseley.

The game starts just after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES. It’s kinda overcast here in the Tri-State, but it’s not supposed to rain or anything. Try to enjoy the game.

Swisher set for E:60 appearance

During the 7 p.m. SportsCenter — airing unfortunately at the same time as tonight’s Yankees/Rays game — Nick Swisher will take center stage. The Worldwide Leader plans to profile the Yanks’ Swisher success story in an E:60 piece. He arrived at the Yankees as an insurance policy and has emerged as one of the team’s great offensive threats at the plate. Yet, the segment will delve into more than just his on-field play. Says the press release, “Into a clubhouse that was known for its seriousness, Swisher injected some much needed joie de vivre. His relentless energy and enthusiasm initially encountered some resistance in the business-like atmosphere in the Bronx–but eventually his teammates were won over by his attitude and performance. With Swisher, the Yankees won the World Series for the first time in nine years and, for the first time since perhaps long before then, they’ve been having fun.” I bet there will be pie.

In other Swisher news, as part of the piece I wrote last week tracing the evolution of the Swisher trade from Hideki Irabu to the present, I mocked up a flow chart of this convoluted series of transactions. I still have some work left to be done, but the initial draft is ready for public consumption. It’s here on flickr with a large version available as well.

Details for the RAB/FanGraphs Live Discussion this Saturday

We’re just a few days away from the first ever FanGraphs and River Ave. Blues Live Discussion in New York City. It will be held at the Florence Gould Hall, which is at 55 E 59th Street (between Park and Madison). The event starts at 9 a.m., and you’ll want to get there early. Ben, Mike, and I (and a few others) are the opening act.

NY Baseball (9:00am – 9:40am)

Joe Pawlikowski, Mike Axisa, Benjamin Kabak (All RiverAveBlues.com), Matthew Cerrone (MetsBlog.com), and Mark Simon (ESPN) will be discussing all things baseball in NY. Moderated by Carson Cistulli.

Baseball Media (9:45am – 10:30am)

Jonah Keri (Bloomberg Sports) will host a panel comprised of Will Leitch (Deadspin, New York Magazine), Michael Silverman (Boston Herald), Matthew Cerrone(MetsBlog.com), Alex Speier (WEEI.com), and David Biderman (WSJ) to discuss how baseball media coverage has changed in recent years and will continue to evolve.

Baseball Stats (10:40am – 11:15am)

Jon Sciambi (ESPN), Mitchel Lichtman, Sky Kalkman (Beyond the Boxscore), Dave Cameron, and David Appelman will discuss where advanced baseball stats are right now and where they’ll be headed. Moderated by Carson Cistulli.

Bloomberg Sports Presentation (11:20 – 11:35)

Bloomberg Sports will make a presentation of a brand new product.

FanGraphs Q&A (11:40 – End)

Dave Cameron, Carson Cistulli, Bryan Smith, Joe Pawlikowski, Mike Axisa, and David Appelman will take questions until we’re officially kicked out (a little after 12:00).

Afterparty (3:30pm – Game Over)

Additionally, we’re going to host a game-watching party for attendees to gather at a local watering hole and view that afternoon’s Boston-New York match-up together. Those who make it to the event will be invited to join us for several more hours of fun later in the afternoon. Details and directions will be given at the event.

You can get your tickets for $15 plus $1.36 surcharge in advance, or risk a sellout and pay $20, cash only, at the door.

We hope to see plenty of RABbers there.

The battle over just getting there

As is often the case, Yankee fans are in a tizzy for no good reason at all. Today’s panic-inducing moment came when Alex Rodriguez grounded out to end the game last night, and the Yankees slipped into a first-place tie with the surging Tampa Bay Rays. Over the last four games, the Yanks had lost three of them, and their once-lofty three-game lead was all but gone. Never mind the 88 percent playoff odds, second only to the AL West-leading Rangers; it was time to panic.

Of course, this panic is a distinctly New York-centric panic. The Yankees must be the best at everything. The must win the AL East decisively. They must steamroll their way through the playoffs. They must win the World Series. It comes with the territory, and it creates some awfully depressed fans when the Yanks lose — something they’ll do around 60-66 times this year.

The truth is that getting there is the main goal. If the Yankees win the Wild Card, it will be a disappointing outcome, but if they’re the first to 11 wins in October, it doesn’t matter how they got there. No one in Boston thinks less of the Red Sox for winning the Wild Card in 2004, and no one in New York discounts the Marlins’ 2003 victory since they were “only” the Wild Card team. Since 1995, the Wild Card teams have been making waves, and quite frequently, the fourth seeded playoff team is better than the two other division winners.

That said, I want the Yankees to win the East for a pair of reasons. First, I want the bragging rights. The Yankees are the Yankees, and the East should be theirs. It’s a part of the arrogance of being a Yankee fan that I readily embrace. Second, with the way things are shaping up, the second best division winners will probably be the Texas Rangers, and I’d rather not see the Yanks face Cliff Lee twice in a five-game series. That, it appears, is the fate that awaits the Wild Card winners.

So how will the Yankees get there? The path is not an easy one. I’ve compiled the remaining schedules for the Yankees and Rays (and, for good measure, the Red Sox). Using a weighted winning percentage — a rather simple formulation — as well as the three teams’ season results against their opponents, I’ve found that the Ray have the easiest schedule to fill out the season and have performed best against their opponents. To win the division, the Yanks will have to get hot and stay that way against good teams.

We’ll start with the Yankees. In the following table, the two columns on the left show how many games the Yanks have remaining against their opponents and the winning percentage of those opponents. The right-most columns show how many games the Yanks have played against those opponents and the winning percentage in those games. The two totals on the bottom are the weighted averages of each.

Team Games W% Games Played W%
Blue Jays 11 .519 7 .429
Red Sox 10 .566 8 .625
Tampa Bay 7 .629 11 .455
Orioles 6 .305 12 .833
Rangers 5 .581 3 1.000
Royals 4 .425 4 .750
Tigers 4 .500 4 .250
A's 4 .505 6 .833
Mariners 3 .368 7 .571
White Sox 3 .567 3 .667
    .509   .631

So the Yankees have 57 games left, and their opponents have a winning percentage of .509. So far this year, the Yankees are beating the teams handily with a combined winning percentage of .631. The Orioles, in particular, have played dead for the Yankees this year.

Next up, we have the Rays:

Team Games W% Games Played W%
Blue Jays 9 .519 9 .667
Orioles 9 .305 9 .778
Yankees 7 .629 11 .545
Angels 6 .505 3 .667
Red Sox 6 .566 12 .667
A's 4 .505 5 .600
Royals 4 .425 4 .500
Twins 3 .557 5 .800
Tigers 3 .500 4 1.000
Rangers 3 .581 3 .333
Mariners 3 .368 6 .833
    .491   .676

As I mentioned before, Tampa Bay has a very easy go of it. Their opponents combine for a .491 winning percentage, and the Rays have played .676 baseball against these teams this year. Their final 57 games could be a cakewalk.

Finally, let’s take a peak at the Red Sox. More so than the Yankees and Rays, Boston controls its own destiny. The Red Sox are 6.5 games back, not really in it but not really out of it, and they still have 16 games left against the Yankees and the Rays. They haven’t played well against these two teams yet this year, but a few key wins could see them enter the AL East mix.

Team Games W% Games Played W%
Yankees 10 .629 8 .375
Blue Jays 9 .519 9 .778
Orioles 7 .305 12 .500
White Sox 7 .567    
Mariners 6 .368 4 .500
Rays 6 .629 12 .333
Indians 3 .425 5 .400
Rangers 3 .581 7 .429
Angels 3 .505 7 1.000
As 3 .505 6 .500
    .510   .529

The Sox face some tough opponents and haven’t played particularly well against these teams so far. Of course, past performance isn’t indicative of future success, but the Red Sox will have to show improvement to overcome a large gap. The playoff odds report has them in the playoffs just 22 percent of the time.

So to just get there, the Yankees have to do what they’ve been doing all season. To get there on top, they’ll have to do even better. It won’t be an easy fight, but what would August and September be without a thrilling pennant race between two good teams and a third that just won’t go away?

Brett Gardner, now with 17% fewer stolen bases

When the season started some four months ago, basically everyone in the lineup had a defined role. Derek Jeter and Nick Johnson had to get on base in front of the big bats. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez had to drive them in. Robbie Cano, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher, and Curtis Granderson were supposed to tack on as much as possible. And then there was the other guy, Brett Gardner.

Gardner looks weird without the high socks. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Gardner stood out from the pack because he wasn’t a power hitter and hadn’t already established himself in the big leagues. Not technically a rookie but basically still new to playing every day in the show, his job was pretty simple: catch everything within shouting distance and try to get on base as much as humanly possible. We spoke amongst ourselves about how thrilled we would be if he got on base 35-36% of the time, because that would mean something like 30 or 40 steals. Well, it’s now August 3rd and the Yankee leftfielder has a .391 on-base percentage to his credit through 376 plate appearances. The only other outfielder in baseball to reach base at a higher clip is Josh Hamilton, who sports a .409 OBP.

As fantastic as he’s been at getting on base this year, there is one thing Gardner’s not doing as well as he has earlier this season: he’s not stealing as many bases. Gardner attempted 11 steals in April out of 28 total times reaching first base, or 39.3%. In May those numbers dropped to 11 attempts in 42 times on first (26.2%), then dropped again to seven attempts in 30 times on first in June (23.3%). Gardner bottomed out at seven steal attempts in 32 times on first in July, or 21.9%. For comparison’s sake, Rajai Davis has attempted a steal 44.3% of the time he’s reached first base this year, Carl Crawford 39.2% , B.J. Upton 38.2%, and Juan Pierre 36.7%. Even though he has the fifth most steals in baseball, Gardner is not among the league’s elite basestealers because of his 27.2% attempt rate. He simply doesn’t run as much as the other guys.

As it turns out, Gardner may have simply worn himself down earlier in the season. Here’s what he told the incomparable Chad Jennings the other day…

“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. “With Curtis (Granderson) out, I didn’t want to push the issue. 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. I’m healthy, and I was healthy, it’s just a matter of trying to be smart.”

Stealing bases is a rather grueling chore. Your body takes a beating from sliding into the bag; fingers get jammed, hands get stepped on, legs tire out, it’s really tough on the body. Gardner wears some kind of plastic brace on his left hand to support the thumb he broke last summer, the same thumb that caused him to miss two games back in June because of soreness. Add in the fact that he’s generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 lbs. and makes all sorts of jumping and sliding and diving and sprinting grabs in the outfield, and it’s to see how he tired himself out early on.

Even with that rather pedestrian attempt rate Gardner is still on pace to swipe 46 bases, which would be the most by a Yankee since Rickey Henderson stole 93 bags back in 1988. Alfonso Soriano was the last player the Yanks had on the roster that could impact the game with his legs the same way Gardner can, but it’s important to remember that bulk stolen base totals are nice but not imperative. If Gardner’s legs are truly tired, then he should absolutely be a bit more careful and do a better job of picking his spots. Stealing bases for the sake of stealing bases is a good way to get hurt (and improve his arbitration case, but that’s besides the point).

It goes without saying that Gardner has exceeded every possible expectation this year. When your primary nine-hole hitter rocks an on-base percentage in the .390’s and is if nothing else a distraction to the pitcher when he’s on the bases, then you’re already way ahead of the game. I’d like to see Gardner boost his stolen base rate back up to where it was earlier in the season, but I’d much prefer to have him healthy the rest of the way. Hopefully he learns what the right pace is for him so that in the future he can be a consistent stolen base threat over 162 games rather than run himself into the ground in April and May.

Burnett mixes pitches, but with no success

In his previous start against Cleveland, A.J. Burnett turned in one of his better performances of the season. He allowed a few too many baserunners, 10 in 6.1 innings, but he managed to keep them from coming around to score by inducing grounders and striking out hitters. He did this by mixing his pitches well, throwing 45 four-seamers, 30 two-seamers, and 37 curveballs. He went with a similar strategy last night, but it produced far, far worse results.

The breakdown was similar. Burnett threw 29 four-seamers, 30 two-seamers, and 26 curves, though this time he mixed in eight changeups. The addition of the change was excellent; he threw it for six strikes, including one swinging. It was on the other pitches that he got beat, specifically the two-seamer and the curve. Let’s see how exactly the Blue Jays hitters attacked him last night.

Vernon Wells in the 2nd: Curveball well below the zone followed by a belt-high two-seamer that didn’t quite catch the outside corner. Home run.

Travis Snider in the 5th: Started him with a changeup he fouled off, and then followed with a fastball up that he again fouled away. He then threw a two-seamer that looked close to the low-inside corner but was ruled a ball. Then came a curveball well outside, but Snider hit it into the gap for a double.

Edwin Encarnacion: A first-pitch curveball looked good but was ruled a ball. Then A.J. came back with two two-seamers off the plate inside. The first Encarnacion fouled away. The second, which was a bit further inside than the second, went over the left field fence.

That’s two straight batters who with extra base hits on pitches outside the strike zone. Then, of course, he walks Jose Molina after going up 0-2, which is as inexcusable as it gets.

Fred Lewis: He had the right idea. Burnett had just walked Molina, and so Lewis took four straight pitches, all high in the zone, putting the count, mercifully, at 2-2. The two strikes barely looked like strikes, but it worked. Lewis then fouled away a sinker right down the middle. Still 2-2, Burnett went with the curve and again delivered one outside. It looked off the plate, but Lewis slapped it down the line for a double.

Second and third, still no one out. Burnett mercifully got an out on the curveball, a grounder that gave A-Rod enough time to fire home and get Molina and keep it a one-run game.

Jose Bautista: Burnett started with a curve over the plate for strike one. He then came back with the fastball, a bit up and in, which, as we’ve before seen, is Bautista’s wheelhouse. That’s a two-run double.

Vernon Wells: Burnett goes back to the two-seamer again, and again it gets hit hard. This one seemed to tail a bit inside, giving Wells an opportunity to turn on it. A double down the line gives the Jays another run.

Then we get the strikeout of Overbay via the changeup.

Aaron Hill: A nine-pitch at-bat, all fastballs. By my count five of them were pretty centered. The ninth was a two-seamer belt-high and basically right over the center. Another rip, another double. That was it for A.J., though as you can see he should have gotten the hook a bit sooner.

Clearly the two-seamer was a huge issue for him. For the season he’s averaging -9.8 inches of horizontal movement — that is, movement towards a right-handed hitter. During his two good starts against Kansas City and Cleveland it was at -9.22. Last night it was -10.60. The extra movement might seem like a good thing, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It can also indicate that the pitch is tailing a bit, which appeared to be the case last night. It made the pitch a bit more hittable for the right-handers, as the pitch was moving towards them.

The worst part about A.J.’s start was that it started off relatively well. The only blemish was the Wells homer, and even that was forgivable. It went right over the 314 sign in right. The Yanks take advantage of that enough that there’s no use complaining when an opponent does. Beyond that, through four he had struck out three and walked one. It made me quite optimistic that he’d finish with a decent line and set up the Yanks to win. Instead the entire night was a disappointment thanks to one inning.

We know the deal with Burnett at this point. Some night he’ll shine, and some nights he’ll throw a clunker. Usually when it’s going to be the latter we see signs of it earlier. It’s two runs this inning, a run the next, three a bit later. Last night it looked like a good start, but quickly morphed into one of his worst this season. It’s these types of starts that hit you hardest.

Burnett blows up as Yanks fall to Jays

After a 4-3 road trip that ended with the Yankees dropping two of three to the Rays, everyone was understandably looking forward to coming home for a week. Well, the homestand didn’t exactly get off on the right foot, as the Blue Jays took the screws to A.J. Burnett in a seven run 5th inning and a few late inning rallies by the Yanks amounted to little. With Tampa beating Carl Pavano and the rest of the Twins, they are now tied with the Yanks atop the AL East. Boston sits 6.5 games back for the Wild Card.

That pretty much sums the night up. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Biggest Hit: Swish Sends Two Out

Considering all the big names and multiple time All Stars in the lineup, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that the Yanks’ two best and most consistent offensive performers this season would be Robbie Cano and Nick Swisher. Swish was a one man wrecking crew tonight, launching a 1st inning homer off Brandon Morrow to give the Yankees a two-zip lead before the Jays’ starter even recorded an out.

Twenty five Yankee outs later, Swish came to plate in the 9th inning with the Yanks down three. His second homer of the game wasn’t as meaningful as the first (.031 WPA vs. .141 WPA) because of what had transpired in the interim, but it was just more of the same out of the team’s no worse than second best hitter this season. Imagine where they’d be without this guy having the season he’s having.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Oh So Bad A.J.

It started out so wel. A nice quick 1-2-3 inning on eight pitches to start the game, and even after Vernon Wells poked a homer around the rightfield foul pole in the 2nd, Burnett settled down and retired eight of nine going into the 5th inning. And that’s when the wheels came crashing off the bus.

Travis Snider doubled into the right-centerfield gap.
Edwin Encarnacion smacked a pitch into the leftfield stands for a two run homer.
Jose Molina drew a walk after being down 0-2 in the count.
Fred Lewis doubled down the third base line.
Yunel Escobar grounded to third, Molina out at the plate.
Jose Bautista doubled over Brett Gardner‘s head in left.
Vernon Wells doubled down the third base line.
Lyle Overbay swung over a changeup for strike three.
Aaron Hill doubled down the third base line.

Burnett was removed after that, only to watch Sergio Mitre surrender Travis Snider’s second double of the inning. You’d think Joe Girardi would have yanked him after the fourth extra base hit of the inning, maybe the fifth. But no, they had to let that sixth one sneak in there. Either way, it’s all on A.J. He simply has to pitch better than that, and he needs to start doing it soon.

Gallimaufry

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Bigs up to the bullpen tonight. Mitre, David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain nailed it down with four and third innings of scoreless ball, which is exactly what the Yankees needed if they had any plans of getting back in this one. Very quietly, the relief corps has posted a 3.41 ERA, 3.50 FIP, and 3.95 xFIP since the start of June.

Shall we recap the recent offensive ineptitude? Yes, we shall. Derek Jeter is four for his last 20 and now has a .336 OBP. Alex Rodriguez is three for his last 25 and now has a .337 OBP. Mark Teixeira is three for his last 24, but did homer on Monday. Curtis Granderson is four for his last 20 and got pinch hit for in the 6th inning. That wouldn’t be too bad if those first three guys didn’t take up three of the first four spots in the lineup and combined to make $73M this season.

Meanwhile, Lance Berkman went 1-for-3 with a walk, and has now reached base in three of his last six plate appearances, so he’s starting to come around. I have to say though, I’m surprised at how much venom there is towards this guy. I guess people take some funny defense at first to heart.

Oh, and how about that throw by Jorge Posada to catch Fred Lewis stealing in the 3rd? Breaking ball in the dirt right into his mitt, quick transfer, out by a good two feet. B-e-a-utiful.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Not such to see here, folks. MLB.com has the box, FanGraphs the other stuff.

Up Next

Same two teams manana, when Dustin Moseley takes on Ricky Romero. Oh joy.