The quietly surging Robinson Cano

So sweet. (Photo Credit: Flickr user spablab via Creative Commons license)

Thirty days ago, Robinson Cano‘s triple slash line bottomed out at .273/.317/.488. He had just six unintentional walks to his credit in 186 plate appearances, and his 28 strikeouts put him on pace for 101 over a full season. It’s been four years since Cano last struck out more than 77 times in a season, and never once has he cracked the century mark. Hell, he’s never cracked the 90 strikeout mark. Although he was still performing at a rate better than the league average second baseman, it was still fair to consider Robbie’s season a disappointment given his lofty standards.

Thirty days ago coincides with the end of a stretch in which the Yankees won just eight of 19 games, including that ugly six game losing streak and seven games in which they scored three runs or fewer. The offense has a whole has ramped things up since then (.254/.335/.448 before, .274/.364/.458 since), and at the forefront of that turn around has been the resurgent Nick Swisher (.280/.430/.537 last thirty days), Jorge Posada (.310/.349/.397), and Brett Gardner (.338/.424/.500). All three got off to brutally slow starts, so their coming out parties were celebrated. No one paid much attention to Cano though, and his .330/.381/.573 performance over the last month seems to have gone completely under-the-radar.

The Robbie that has shown up over the last thirty days is the Robbie we watched last year, when he hit .319/.381/.534. His strikeout rate (13.6%) is right in line with where it was last season (12.3%), as is his unintentional walk rate (5.3% vs. 6.3%). Cano’s power numbers this year are actually better than they were last year (.214 ISO), both over the last thirty days (.243) and over the course of the entire 2011 season (.224). The weird part about that is that he’s actually hitting fewer balls in the air this season…

Hopefully I don’t have to tell you that fly balls tend to go for extra base hits a lot more often than ground balls, so maybe this means the power stroke is unsustainable. Cano’s BABIP (.302) is down compared to both last year (.326) and his career mark (.321), but it’s been on the way up during this recent hot streak. Unsurprisingly, so has his line drive rate. Overall, he’s raised his season batting line from .273/.317/.488 thirty days ago to .295/.341/.520 today.

Although Cano has picked up the pace over the last month, he still isn’t completely out of the woods. He’s still swinging at a career worst 40.1% of pitches out of the zone, though it’s worth noting that that’s down from 41.7% on May 19th, when I wrote this post. The 3.26 pitches he’s seen per plate appearance rank 160th out of 161 qualified batters (thanks, Yuni), but again that is up from 3.16 P/PA on May 19th and is at least approaching his career average (3.33). The strikeout rate has been slowly getting better, but he’s still on pace for a career high 96 whiffs. I don’t care too much about the strikeouts (plus 96 isn’t all that many anyway), I’m just concerned that he’s hacking at pitches he can’t do anything with. I know Robinson won’t ever be a 100 walk, .400 OBP+ guy, but some semblance of plate discipline would be nice.

It’s worth noting that throughout his career, Cano has typically been a slow starter, slow in that he has been less awesome in April and May and really awesome from June on. Here’s the splits if you don’t believe me. Last year was quite the opposite though, he started out on fire then cooled off. Perhaps that was just the outlier and he’s following his normal path this year, starting slowly before raising hell the rest of the way. I sure hope so, that would be sweet. Anyway, Robinson’s rebound from a start that can be described as slow only by his standards has gone almost completely unnoticed, but it’s a big part of the reason why the Yankees have gotten on a nice roll here and are willing games consistently. He’s not a kid anymore, Cano’s a veteran player and is being relied upon as a core member of the team, and right now he’s quietly producing like one.

Boone Logan’s Roster Spot

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

If you’ve been following the Yankees all season, then this should come as no surprise: Boone Logan has been awful. Last night’s appearance was pretty much a microcosm of his year; he faced one batter, threw one pitch, and hit the guy with it. Brutally ineffective, I’m talking unusably bad, so bad that I’m going to bullet point the badness…

  • Left-handed batters are hitting .300/.383/.425 off him in 47 plate appearances. His one job on this team is get lefties out, but he’s essentially turned them into something just short of Andre Ethier.
  • Logan has failed to retired a batter (one! singular!) in four of his last eight appearances, including last night.
  • He has five meltdowns and just four shutdowns. A meltdown is an appearance with -0.06 WPA or worse, a shutdown with +0.06 WPA or better. A 1.50 SD/MD ratio is like, the bare minimum for a medium leverage reliever. Sub-1.00 is horrific.
  • His fastball velocity is down noticeably and his slider has flattened out.

It’s pretty obvious at this point that the only things keeping Logan on the roster are his left-handedness and those 20 great innings down the stretch last season. Keep in mind that those 20 innings are basically his entire track record of success as a Major Leaguer, the other 163.2 IP have been pretty terrible. Because he’s out of options, the Yankees can’t simply send him to the minors to work things out. He’ll first have to clear waivers, and for a while we’ve all assumed that he wouldn’t just because he’s a lefty and throws hard. Is that really the case though?

Just looking around the league this year, a number of left-handed relievers have already been designated for assignment and most of them have cleared waivers. Jerry Blevins stands out for me. The Athletics designated him for assignment last month and then a few days later he was with their Triple-A affiliate because no one touched him on waivers. Blevins’ track record of success is a whole lot longer the Logan’s (he held lefties to a .227/.270/.292 batting line from 2007-2010, though he did a lot of up-and-down to Triple-A during that time), and here’s the real kicker: he’s making what amounts to the league minimum (just $420,000). Logan is making about three times that this year as an arbitration-eligible player, $1.2M to be exact. If Blevins cleared waivers with his track record and salary, wouldn’t it make sense that Logan would clear given his track record and salary? Sure, on paper it does.

The real question is this: should the Yankees be willing to risk it? Is Logan that irreplaceable? No, of course not. The other question is do they have someone better to replace him with? The obvious candidate is fellow lefty Randy Flores, who is doing an okay job against lefties in Triple-A (seven strikeouts, one walk in seven innings against them). If nothing else, he’s unlikely to be as bad as Logan has been so far. His opt-out clause is looming (though I don’t know the exact date) as well, so they can’t wait around forever. Another option is Kevin Whelan, though he’s a righty. I’m of the belief that a team should take its seven best arms regardless of pitching hand, so not having a lefty wouldn’t bother me one bit.

So I guess the moral of the story is that we’re starting to reach the breaking point with Logan. He hasn’t been effective at all and (even worse) there have been little to no signs of improvement thus far. Yes, he didn’t hit his stride until late last year, but last year he had the benefit of going to the minors to work on things, away from games that count. Left-handers that throw hard (and are reasonably young) are in demand, but I’m not 100% certain that someone will gamble on Logan given his salary. Remember, if he gets claimed off waivers, his entire salary and contract goes with him. The Yankees could designate him for assignment and hope he clears waivers and goes to Triple-A, or they could lose the bet and watch him go to another team. It’s risky, but you know what? Losing him really wouldn’t be a huge loss.

Injury Updates: Jeter, Chavez, Soriano, Colon

Updated (12:35 p.m.): Got some injury updates, courtesy of Ben Shpigel and George King

  • Derek Jeter is in Tampa and has started “functional exercises.” He’s scheduled to resume baseball activities later this week, and Joe Girardi told reporters that the team hopes to have him when he’s eligible to come off the disabled list next Wednesday. It’s unclear if he’ll play in a minor league rehab game (or two) before then.
  • Eric Chavez took batting practice on the field and also fielded some ground balls in Tampa yesterday. His running is still limited to a treadmill though. He’s not eligible to come off the disabled list until July 5th.
  • Rafael Soriano has reported to Tampa after spending “considerable time” with a physical therapist in New York. Last we heard, he hadn’t been cleared to begin a throwing program, but the hope was that he’d be able to this week. Just going to Tampa is a good sign, though he isn’t eligible to come off the disabled list until after the All-Star break.
  • Bartolo Colon has not yet been cleared to start a throwing program, Joe Girardi said to reporters yesterday. If Colon is to come back from his injured hamstring after the 15-day minimum, he will have to start throwing today or tomorrow. With this delay, he will likely miss some extra time. Scratch that. According to the AP (via Bryan Hoch, Colon started a throwing program today. He should be back near or at the minimum 15 days if his hamstring holds up OK.

The Yankees left on base problem

Listening to the game on the radio on Saturday, you’d think the Yankees have never cashed in a base runner. John and Suzyn harped on it constantly — we’ve seen this game before, they said about a dozen times — because the Yankees kept putting runners on base and then didn’t them around to score. It wasn’t so much that they were wrong, but that they were insufferable about it. But, of course, they were wrong, too.

Watching games every night, it has become a constant frustration to see the Yankees put men on base and then leave them there. It’s not as bad as it once was — for a stretch in May they seemingly didn’t bring around any runs. But even lately there have been many complaints about the Yankees ability to string together hits and bring home runners when they’re not hitting the ball out of the park.

The problem is that this isn’t a problem at all. It’s just an illusion created by the Yankees putting so many men on base in the first place. Their team .346 OBP ranks second in the AL, and is 24 points better than league average. That is, they put considerably more runners on base than other teams, so they’re working with a different baseline. There will necessarily be a lot of runners left on base, because there are so many runners on base in the first place.

To illustrate the Yankees’ actual success with runners on base, we can turn to their rate of converting runners into runs. Their 32 percent run scoring rate ranks second in the AL, behind only Boston. Most teams are within two points of the league average 30 percent, with Boston outlying at the top and Anaheim outlying at the bottom. They’re hitting .264 with runners in scoring position, which might not seem good, but which is fifth in the AL, and 10 points above league average. In other words, there might be room for improvement, but there’s not that much.

This is an instance where the stats can put into perspective something that gets obscured on a micro level. We watch every game, and while watching we feel great frustration when the Yankees fail to cash in base runners. But overall they’ve actually fared well in this aspect of the game. They’re putting more runners on than their peers, and they’re bringing them around to score at a greater rate. Sure, the home runs help, but that’s just one way of scoring runs. When taken together, the Yanks are still sitting pretty on offense.

Nova dominates as Yanks take series opener

When I looked at the three guys the Yankees have lined up to start this series against the Reds, I couldn’t help but think that winning one of three games would be an acceptable outcome. Ivan Nova reminded us all why they don’t play the games on paper Monday night, throwing the best game of his career against one of the NL’s better offenses in a park that plays to the hitter.

That's a mistake.

All They Needed

Whenever the Yankees faced a pitcher they haven’t seen before, particularly a lefty, we all cringe. We’re conditioned to do so by now, because the Yanks just don’t ever seem to beat those guys. When the first pitch of the game was called a strike despite darting in just below Nick Swisher‘s knees, I figured it was going to be a really long day. It was hard not too.

But then, of course, the Yankees proved all us doubters wrong. They not only hung a four spot on Travis Wood in the first inning, but four of their five hits in the frame came with two strikes. They didn’t flail at some little changeup off the plate or chase fastballs over their head, they took some borderline pitches for balls and attacked the pitches that missed their spots. Robinson Cano had the only extra base hit of the inning, an 0-2 double on a pitch that came it letter high but was supposed to be up at eye level. Wood flat out missed his spot, and Robbie drove it into the left field corner for a two-bagger. Even Andruw Jones singled in a run, an all too uncommon occurrence. The four first inning runs were all the Yankees would ultimately need because…

Throw strikes with four pitches, and good things happen.

[insert Super Nova cliched title here]

I’m certain this was Nova’s best start as a big leaguer. I’m not referring to the overall stat line (8 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 15 GB, 3 GB) or anything like that (77 Game Score, his best ever), but just in terms of how he looked. Yes, I understand that’s completely subjective, but it’s okay to be subjective sometimes. It seemed like Ivan had all his pitches working, including his changeup, curveball, and that little cutter/slider we heard about earlier in the year (that he seemed to abandon). He was in total command.

The Reds did, however, threatened in the first when Drew Stubbs and Brandon Phillips singled to set up a first and third situation with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce due up. The game had a “here we go” feel to it at that point, like that big first inning lead was ready to disappear right before our eyes. Nova limited the damage though, he got Votto to roll over on a changeup (according to Martin anyway, PitchFX says it was an 87 mph fastball) and ground into a double play, then Bruce grounded out the end the inning. A run scored on the double play, but that’s fine, Ivan limited the damage to just one run.

Nova went on the retire 13 of the next 14 batters (the one exception was a strikeout, but the batter reached on a wild pitch strike three) before Paul Janish singled with two outs in the fifth. That was pretty much it. He got the last out in the fifth, retired the side in order in the sixth and seventh, then surrendered a two out single to Fred Lewis in the eighth before ending the inning. The Reds simply couldn’t lift any of his pitches or work any deep counts; Nova threw more than 15 pitches in an inning just once (18 in the third), more than 13 pitches in an inning just three times, and more than a dozen pitches just four times. That’s pretty nutso. This was one of those starts where Ivan had it all working and he could put the ball anywhere he wanted. The Reds had no chance.

LOLpen

Seriously, how bad is Boone Logan? Luis Ayala allowed a single to Phillips to start the ninth inning, then Joe Girardi went to Logan for the lefties Votto and Bruce. So, naturally, Boone hit Votto on his first and only pitch of the night. With two men on and the tying run on deck, the skipper went to Mariano Rivera, who gave up some runs on ground balls but eventually got out of the inning to preserve the win.

Can Logan use rust an excuse? This was his first game action in eight days after all, though he did warm up several times in between appearances. Votto was the 18th left-handed batter he’s allowed to reach base this year, which works out to a .383 OBP over 47 plate appearances. The only lefty relievers that have been in the bigs all year that have allowed a worse OBP to left-handed batters are Craig Breslow (.426) and David Purcey (.395). I guess it’s not a secret why those three have played for eleven different organizations in 16 total seasons.

Leftovers

The strike zone in this game was … interesting, for both teams. I’ll just leave it at the that. The plot above (via Brooks) tells the whole story.

Andruw Jones failed to run out an inning (and rally) ending double play in the third, and my immediate reaction was to yank him from the game. Phillips couldn’t get the throw off at second because Martin slid in hard, but had enough time to recover to get Andruw anyway. It was embarrassingly bad, and for a platoon guy that plays once or maybe twice a week, he has to run every ball out. I don’t care how stacked his resume is. The trainer did come out and both Jones and Joe Girardi said he rolled his ankle getting out of the box after the game, which sounds believable enough when watching the replay. Either way, it was ugly.

It’ll be forgotten because Janish didn’t bother to catch the throw, but Curtis Granderson was out trying to steal second in the seventh. I mean he was out by a good ten feet, the only way he would have been safe was if … Janish botched the play. It won’t show up as a caught stealing in the stat sheet, but if we count it as one, Grandy has been successful in just two of his last seven steal attempts. Also, why exactly did they pinch-run for Alex Rodriguez that inning? The Yankees were up 5-1 with two innings to go, and as we saw in the ninth, the game was far from over.

Swisher reached base twice (a hit and a walk), and Yankees’ leadoff hitters are now hitting .423/.559/.654 since Derek Jeter hit the disabled list. In a related stat, the Yankee went from averaging 5.16 runs per game before Jeter’s injury to 6.71 runs per game since. The Cap’n is eligible to come off the disabled list next Wednesday, by the way.

Within the span of three pitches in the fourth, Eduardo Nunez missed a hit-and-run sign and got picked off first. Something about rookie mistakes and/or bad players goes here. Also frustrating: Wood threw 52 pitches in the first and second inning, and then just 55 over the next five innings. I can’t believe he completed seven innings. I hate it when the offense lets these guys off the hook like that.

WPA Graph & Box Score

MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs the nerd score.

Up Next

Game two of this three-game set will be played Tuesday evening, when Brian Gordon makes his second start as a Yankee against Johnny Cueto. RAB Tickets can get you into the game dirt cheap, if you happen to be in or near Cincinnati.

Bichette debuts as GCL Yanks start season

The Rookie Level Gulf Coast League Yankees (roster) started their season today, but first:

  • Austin Romine is now symptom-free following his concussion and has resumed baseball activities. He’s expected to return to the field in about a week. Good news.
  • Alan Horne (remember him?) is headed to Double-A Trenton and will likely start on Wednesday. It will be his first official game since September 4th, 2009.
  • Jorge Vazquez was placed on the disabled list for an unknown reason and Addison Maruszak was called up from Trenton to take his spot.
  • Rob Lyerly was promoted from High-A Tampa to Trenton. I imagine Rob Segedin will move from Low-A Charleston to Tampa very soon.
  • Gary Sanchez is your Low-A South Atlantic League Offensive Player of the Week.

And now, off to the games…

Triple-A Scranton (2-0 win over Norfolk) Mark Prior coached first base tonight, so he’s healthy enough to do that
Austin Krum, CF: 0 for 2, 1 K – he was lifted from the game after striking out in the third, but it doesn’t say he was ejected … weird
Addison Maruszak, 1B: 0 for 2
Greg Golson, LF-CF: 1 for 4
Kevin Russo, 3B-LF: 1 for 3, 1 HBP
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 1 2B, 1 K – eight for his last 26 (.307) with a double, a homer, two walks, and just that one strikeout
Brandon Laird, 1B-3B: 0 for 3, 1 R
Jordan Parraz, RF: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB – he ran over the third base ump making the turn around third
P.J. Pilittere, DH: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 1 RBI
Luis Nunez, 2B: 0 for 3
Doug Bernier, SS: 1 for 3
Adam Warren, RHP: 7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 8 K, 7-2 GB/FB – 60 of 98 pitches were strikes (61.2%) … lost the no-hitter with two outs in the seventh … that’s three very good starts in the row, and two of them were legitimately great … good to see
Lance Pendleton, RHP: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0-3 GB/FB – 16 of 23 pitches were strikes (69.6%)

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Next stop on The Phil Hughes Rehab Tour: New Britain

Via Josh Norris, Brian Cashman confirmed that Phil Hughes‘ next rehab start will come with Double-A Trenton this Friday. He’s likely to throw 75 pitches or so. Hughes struck out seven and ran his fastball up to 95 in his first rehab start yesterday, which is great news, but he’s still got a long way to go. Trenton will be in New Britain for that game, in case you’re thinking about heading over to check it out. Here’s the link to get tickets.