Joe Girardi announced before today’s game that Phil Hughes will start on Saturday, which likely means that Freddy Garcia gets the ball on Sunday on two extra day’s rest. I was kinda surprised at how many people were worried that Hughes was in the bullpen for good, but this should make them feel better. anyway, I’m glad to see they’re giving the older guys some extra rest this month. It’s best for everyone.
For years, the Yankees employed a utility infielder basically because they had too, but they never really used the poor guy. Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez were in the primes of their careers and very rarely took a day off, so the reserve infielder was just kind of there for emergencies. Cano is still very much in his prime, but Jeter and A-Rod have slowed down as they’ve gotten into their mid-30’s. They’re getting more regular rest (even if it’s just a half-day as DH) and injured more frequently, so the backup infielder has become increasingly important.
Eduardo Nunez has been the primary infield fill-in this season, and he’s been surprisingly productive. Maybe it’s only surprising to me, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with low expectations for the backup infielder. In 214 plate appearances this season, Nunez has hit .273/.325/.407 with 16 steals in 21 attempts, a .330 wOBA that is about five percent better than league average. His strength is simply getting the bat on the ball; his strikeout (9.8%) and contact (89.6%) rates are both substantially better than the league average (18.4% and 80.9%, respectively). After walking in just 5.6% of his minor league plate appearances (5.2% above Single-A), Nunez has upped that to 7.0% this season. His defense at short and third (primarily) has been sketchy (UZR hates him with a passion), but he seems to have improved of late, particularly on throws. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting regular reps.
I think it goes without saying that Nunez has been the Yankees’ best utility infielder in quite some time, but just how much better? Let’s look back at the last few seasons and the guys the Yankees had coming off the bench whenever they needed to replace someone on the diamond…
2009 & 2010
Ramiro Pena: .253/.283/.305 … 3.8% BB … 16.3% K … 11-for-13 in SB attempts
It was pretty surprising when the Yankees took Pena, a career .253/.311/.315 hitter at Double-A, north out of Spring Training in 2009, skipping the defensive specialist right over Triple-A. He performed about as well as could have been expected, flashing some leather and falling just short of his ZiPS projection (.249/.296/.332). Pena did end up back in Triple-A later in the 2009 season, giving way to trade deadline pickup Jerry Hairston Jr., who hit .237/.352/.382 in 93 PA with New York. Pena was the primarily utility infielder for all of 2010 though, with Kevin Russo and Nunez making short cameos.
Wilson Betemit: .265/.289/.429 … 3.0% BB … 28.3% K … 0-for-1 in SB attempts
Before the days of Nick Swisher in right field, Betemit was the guy entrusted with resting the regular infielders. He definitely has some pop in his bat and showed it during his time with New York, clubbing 13 doubles and six homers in 189 PA during 2008 (a .164 ISO). The problem is that he was generally a statue on defense and Grade-A hacker incapable of putting together a tough at-bat, or so it seemed. He was also valueless on the bases. Cody Ransom made a late season cameo and won the heart of Ian O’Connor by hitting a homerun in each of his first two at-bats in pinstripes. He hit .302/.400/.561 in 51 PA late in the season.
Miguel Cairo: .252/.308/.318 … 6.6% BB … 16.7% K … 8-for-9 in SB attempts
Can you believe that Cairo is still playing? It’s crazy, and he’s actually performing quite well (.321 wOBA) for the Reds at age 37. Good for him. Anyway, Cairo was consistently ineffective for New York except for that ridiculous 2004 season when he took over the regular second base job thanks to his .336 wOBA. Cairo’s defense was about average, but the Yankees got tired of his act in 2007 and released him in mid-August. They had acquired Betemit at the trade deadline to assume backup infielder duties, and he hit .226/.278/.417 with four homers in 92 at-bats down the stretch.
* * *
Previous reserve infielders include Cairo and Nick Green (2006), Rey Sanchez and Andy Phillips (2005), and Enrique Wilson (2004). All of them, including the 2007-2010 crop above, were pretty terrible and certainly worse than what the Yankees are running out there now with Nunez. ZiPS projects Eduardo to hit .266/.307/.371 (.305 wOBA) with seven steals in nine attempts the rest of way, which seems reasonable if not a little disappointing. I’m still not 100% sold on Nunez as a future everyday player, but he’s certainly been better than I expected, and it’s come at a good time because the Yankees needed him more than anticipated.
It was inevitable that Robinson Cano would disappoint on some level this season. In 2010 he put together a career year, hitting .319/.381/.534. That included a career high walk rate and career high ISO, which left us with a hope that this was the new Cano — the No. 3 hitter that we all envisioned when he debuted his sweet swing in 2005. In that way, 2011 has fallen below those lofty expectations. His wOBA is down 20 points and his walk rate is down to right around his career mark. The only thing he’s retained is his power. Yet that doesn’t tell the whole story. Seasons go in phases, and Cano appears to be hitting his stride. In fact, he’s been hitting it for a few months now.
Cano started off the season impressively, hitting .320/.340/.639 in April. His walk rate was clearly low — he walked only three times in April, once on Opening Day and twice in one game on the 27th — but everything else seemed to be working. If he just laid off a few more bad pitches he could have been well on his way to another star-level season. But that lack of discipline soon came back to haunt him.
The team traveled to Detroit on May 3rd, and that’s when Cano’s slump began. For the next 34 games he hit .237/.294/.405 in 143 PA. He walked in just 4.2 percent of his plate appearances, and the lack of discipline apparently led to poor contact. His BABIP of .245 was far out of line with his established level. The slump might have drawn more comparisons to 2008 had Cano not continued to hit for power. In those 143 PA he still had 12 extra base hits, a .168 ISO.
Cano eventually broke out of the slump once Boston left town. Cleveland was next on the circuit, and Cano opened that series with a 3 for 4 performance that included an unintentional walk. That was on June 10th. Since then he has come to the plate 228 times and has hit .320/.377/.510, which is close to his 2010 production. The only difference is in the power department, where his .190 ISO since June 10th is a tick below his marks from the previous two years (.199 and .214).
The above, of course, merely dices Cano’s season into convenient segments. All players streak and slump, and Cano is no different. What we can see, though, is that his mid-season slump has really dragged down his numbers. If you look through his 2010 game logs you won’t see any slump that severe or that long. It’s one major reason why he put together an MVP-worthy season. Without any prolonged slumps he was able to produce from start to finish and remain a prominent part of the conversation.
This year Cano has experienced a prolonged slump, which make his overall numbers look a bit worse. Combined with his refusal to take a pitch in April, it has led to a below expectations season to date. But it does appear something clicked in June, and since then he’s back to producing elite numbers. He probably won’t get his numbers back up to 2010 levels, but that’s not what’s important to the Yankees right now. As long as he hits at those 2010 levels the rest of the way, the offense will continue to steamroll opponents.
It’s only early-August, but this is probably the Yankees’ most important series of the season (to date). The Angels are their primary competition for the AL wildcard at the moment, and this series will give them a chance to really bury them in the race for a playoff berth. These two clubs have played one other series this year, with the Yanks taking two of three in Anaheim back in May.
What Have The Angels Done Lately?
We’re focused on the Angels as a wildcard threat, but they’re only one game back of the Rangers for the AL West lead. I’m sure that’s what they’re focusing on. The Halos have won three of their last four games and eight of twelve as they’ve trimmed their deficit in the division from four games to one already this month. They did just win a series against the punchless Mariners, though they only scored four runs in the three games. Overall, the Angels are 63-52 with a +22 run differential.
Angels On Offense
Despite all the big names on their roster, the Angels have the fourth worst team wOBA (.308) in the AL this season. Their best offensive player pretty much all season has been Howie Kendrick, a .302/.359/.446 hitter that hasn’t hit for much power since a big April (.100 ISO since May 1st with just two homers). Rookie masher Mark Trumbo took over for the injured Kendrys Morales at first and he leads the club with 22 homers, but he’s a hacker (4.7% walk rate) and can be pitched too. Just don’t make a mistake in the zone, he’s a bomb threat.
The big three – Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells – are sporting .326, .313, and .277 wOBA’s, respectively. Abreu, unsurprisingly, is the team’s best on-base threat with a 15.0% walk rate and .367 OBP. His power is all but gone at age 37 though (.089 ISO). Wells is the exact opposite, he’s all power (.171 ISO) with no on base ability (4.2% walk rate). Hunter’s pretty much right in the middle, with a .149 ISO and an 8.9% walk rate. Kinda funny how that works. The Angels have a really awesome rookie center fielder, but it’s not Mike Trout (he was shipped back to the minors about a week ago), it’s Peter Bourjos. His game is all speed, he’ll steal bases (15-for-19 this year) and most of his extra base hits are hustle doubles and triples. Bourjos is also a Brett Gardner-level defender in center as well, the kid’s MLB.com highlights page is outfield defense porn.
The rest of the offense is fairly unspectacular. You’ve got Maicer Izturis (.316 wOBA), Erick Aybar (.320), Alberto Callaspo (.327), Russ Branyan (.258), utility infielder Andrew Romine (one hit in seven plate appearances so far, and yes he is Austin’s brother) and the catching duo of Jeff Mathis (.212) and Bobby Wilson (.226). I assume Mike Scioscia is unaware of Branyan’s Yankee Stadium exploits and will have him on the bench like he has most of the season. The Halos will steal bases as usual; Bourjos, Kendrick, Aybar, and Abreu all have 10+ steals, and Wells, Trumbo, and Izturis are closing in on double-digits.
Angels On The Mound
Tuesday, RHP Dan Haren (vs. A.J. Burnett): It’s kinda hard to believe that after all these years, Haren is just now having the best season of his career. His 2.72 FIP, 1.27 BB/9, and 0.58 HR/9 are all career bests, though his strikeout rate (7.27 K/9) has predictably dropped with the shift back to the AL. Haren’s a four fastball guy, he throws a straight four-seamer in the high-80’s about 13% of the time, a mid-80’s cutter more than 48% of the time, a low-90’s two-seamer about 18% of the time, and a strikeout splitter in the mid-80’s about 9% of the time. A high-80’s curve and mid-80’s changeup round out his repertoire. Haren will pound the zone, so the Yankees will have to be aggressive and jump on the first hittable pitch they see. They haven’t faced him since the series in Arizona last season.
Wednesday, LHP Hisanori Takahashi (vs. Ivan Nova): Takahashi is going to make his first start of the season this series because Joel Pineiro was so bad that the Angels had to pull him from the rotation (5.31 ERA and 4.59 FIP). Takahashi says he’s good for 100 pitches on Wednesday, but he hasn’t thrown more than 43 pitches in a game since last July. We’ll see.
Anyway, Yankees fans surely remember Takahashi for the two six-inning, no run starts he made against them with the Mets last season. He’s a pure finesse pitcher, throwing a high-80’s fastball, low-80’s changeup, and high-70’s curveball with a show-me slider. The southpaw misses a ton of bats (10.6% whiffs career) and has a reverse split this year, but he’s homerun prone (1.12 HR/9 in a pitcher’s park) and will hurt himself with walks (3.54 BB/9). Hopefully the Yankees remember what they saw out of Takahashi last season and go to town.
Thursday, RHP Tyler Chatwood (vs. Bartolo Colon): Thank you Carlos Guillen. This was supposed to be Jered Weaver’s start, but he’s serving a six-game suspension for throwing over Alex Avila’s head one batter after Guillen took him deep and pimped the trot. Instead the Yankees will face the rookie right-hander Chatwood, who has been in over his head pretty much all the season. The 21-year-old had more walks that strikeouts up until three starts ago, but he still misses next to no bats (4.6% swings and misses) and has a huge platoon split. Chatwood throws both his four and two-seamer in the 91-93 range, setting up his high-80’s curve and the occasional changeup. I know the Yankees seem to struggle against pitchers they’ve never faced, but there’s no real mystery here, he’s a fastball-curve guy that will shoot himself in the foot with ball four untilScioscia yanks him from the game.
Bullpen: It’s a sneaky good bullpen, led by rookie closer Jordan Walden. He’s getting his walk issues under control as the season progresses (3.60 BB/9), plus his strikeout (9.60 K/9) and ground ball (47.9%) rates are excellent. Setup men Fernando Rodney (4.01 FIP) and Scott Downs (3.17 FIP) are solid and stellar, respectively. Right-hander Rich Thompson (9.90 K/9 and 3.38 BB/9) is their David Robertson, though maybe the 2009 version and not the 2011 version. Bobby Cassevah (4.54 FIP in limited action), Horacio Ramirez (7.26 FIP in very limited action), and Pineiro round out the bullpen. Yes, it’s that Horacio Ramirez.
The month of April is simultaneously great and terrible for baseball fans. It’s great because hey, meaningful baseball is back, but it’s terrible because there is so much noise. Some guys look like MVP candidates while others completely cooked in the first few weeks of the season, but there’s just not enough data to support either argument. Take Brett Gardner. He got off to a brutal start in April (.188/.273/.391) but bounced back and has hit .304/.380/.408 since the calendar flipped to May.
Russell Martin was on the other end of the spectrum. He came out of the gate like a mad man, clubbing six homers in the team’s first 17 games and looking like a $4M free agent bargain. His season has gone south since (.205/.306/.309 in the last 96 team games), though he has shown some signs of life since the All-Star break (.254/.325/.380) and since the start of that ten-game homestand two weeks ago (.283/.333/.457). But still, there’s no denying that Martin has struggled offensively basically all season, and what do struggling hitters do? They go to the hitting coach.
Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long has done many great things over the years, none more spectacular than transforming Curtis Granderson from a platoon outfielder into an MVP candidate. Grandy’s transformation has keyed us into some of Long’s techniques, and perhaps his biggest calling card is the two-handed follow through. We’ve seen Granderson use it, Mark Teixeira use it, and even Gardner for a while. Martin, in case you haven’t noticed, is now employing that same finish on his swing.
Through the magic of MLB.tv, I was able to go back and find when the transition from a one-handed follow through to a two-handed follow through occurred. The screen cap below shows two games: the clip on the left is Martin’s second-to-last at-bat on June 1st against the Athletics in Oakland (he struck out in his final at-bat that game and I want to see his follow through when he made contact), and the clip on the right is his first at-bat on June 3rd against the Angels…
Russ followed through with one hand against the A’s, then two days later it was two hands. The Yankees finished their series in Oakland on the 1st, were off on the 2nd, then played in Anaheim on the 3rd. You can connect the dots and see that it’s likely Martin and Long got together and made the adjustment during the off day. Here’s video of his last homerun before the switch, which came about a week earlier on May 24th, and here’s video of the single that came from that first at-bat in Anaheim. If you want to go back even further, here’s his first homer of the season and here’s his most recent. We’ll never know with any certainty, but it certainly seems like the adjustment was made during that west coast trip.
So that’s great, Martin’s using a two-handed follow through nowadays and he’s making an effort to improve his performance. But is it working? Eh, not really. He hit .242/.352/.458 in 179 plate appearances before the change and has hit just .213/.294/.307 in 170 PA since. If you want to remove the scorching hot start, it’s a .192/.322/.313 batting line in the 118 PA immediately prior to the change. It doesn’t look like the two-handed follow through has done anything, but those are output stats. They’re just results subject to things like defense and wind and whatnot. We’ve got to look at the process.
If you take a look at the spray charts (one-handed follow through, two-handed follow through), you’ll notice two things. One, there aren’t nearly as many balls hit to (moderately) deep left field after the adjustment as there are before, and there’s also way more ground balls (specifically to the left side) since the change. You can see the spike in Martin’s ground ball rate in his day-by-day batted ball profile…
Based on what Long has said when being asked about Granderson’s adjustments, a two-handed follow through allows the hitter to keep the bat in the hitting zone a little bit longer, which theoretically should lead to more contact. Martin’s strikeout rate went from 16.2% before the change to 14.7% after, a small but not negligible difference. You can probably make the case that a few more strikeouts wouldn’t be the worst thing given the increased ground ball rate, just to avoid some potential double plays.
Anyway, I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I just think it’s interesting to see another batter adopt the two-handed follow through, which is clearly K-Long’s doing. It didn’t work for Gardner and the early returns suggest it isn’t working for Martin, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be some kind of cure-all. Every player is different, which is why it doesn’t work for everyone like it worked for Granderson, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.