The key to the winning streak

Like a boss. (Photo Credit: Amanda Rykoff)

At long last, the Yankees have finally put together their first four game winning streak of 2011. Yesterday’s game was the first non-blowout of the stretch, a 4-2 game after the Yankees outscored the Athletics and Mariners 22-4 in the first three games. They hit homers, strung together extended rallies with base hits and walks, capitalized on errors, stole home, you name it and the Yankees did it offensively during these last four games. There has been one constant in those four games though, and that’s been the starting pitching.

It all started Sunday afternoon with the guy that’s supposed to get things started for this team. CC Sabathia took the ball in the series finale against Seattle, fresh off a disappointing extra innings loss on Saturday. While his offense went to work against Jason Vargas, Sabathia gave his team 118 stress-free pitches and eight effective innings. Eighteen of his 24 outs were recorded either on the ground or via strike three, and it was exactly the kind of effort a team needs from their ace when they’re reeling from two come-from-behind losses.

Bartolo Colon followed that up with the best pitched game of the winning streak, throwing his first complete game shutout in half-a-decade against the A’s on Monday afternoon. It was glorious, he went at the hitters with fastball after fastball, surrendering just four hits (and no walks) against six strikeouts in those nine innings. Freddy Garcia chipped in seven innings of three run ball on Tuesday, innings that were hardly spectacular but obviously effective. A.J. Burnett made it four in row yesterday with seven innings of two run ball, allowing just one hit following a first inning two run homer.

All told, Yankees’ starters combined to pitch 31 of 36 possible innings during the winning streak, holding opponents to just 21 hits and eight walks. It was exactly the kind of stretch we almost didn’t expect to see out of the rotation this season given how the staff looked (on paper) back in January and February and March. Through 54 games, exactly one-third of the season, Yankees’ starters own a 3.83 ERA (6th in the AL), a 4.04 FIP (9th), and a 3.85 xFIP (4th). By no means great, but I think it’s better than we expected.

The Yankees have only used six different starting pitchers this year, which is pretty good at this point of the season. Ivan Nova‘s spot is a little bit in question right now, but the Yankees appear to be sticking with him for the time being. They’re still going to have to go out and get someone before the trade deadline, if no other reason than to add depth (remember the “they have enough pitching” talk during the Cliff Lee rumors last July? yeah, right), but through the first third of the season, I think we can safely say that the starting staff (the scrap heap guys in particular) have exceeded even our most optimistic of expectations.

The RAB Radio Show: June 2, 2011

The Yanks head into their off-day winners of four straight, and it could have been better. Mike and I run down the A’s series and look ahead to the Angels. If you thought that the Yankees struggled with RISP, then you’ll feel real bad when you watch the opposition this weekend.

Podcast run time 23:24

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

2011 Draft: Brandon Martin

The draft is just four days away, so between now and then I’m going to highlight some players individually rather than lump a few together in one post.

(Photo Credit: The Press Enterprise)

Brandon Martin | SS

Background
Martin’s stock has risen quite a bit this spring after he bulked up over the winter and added some muscle to his frame. He attends Santiago High School in Corona, California and is committed to baseball powerhouse Oregon State.

Scouting Report
If there’s one thing this draft class lacks, it’s depth at the up-the-middle positions. Martin has flashed all five tools at shortstop, and projects to stay there long-term. He’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 160 lbs., but he’s a fast twitch athlete that runs well and offers plenty of range in the field. Martin’s defensive skills need work, but he’s capable of highlight reel plays and has the tools to be an above-average defender at short, including a strong and accurate arm. Swinging from the right side, Martin has quick and compact swing geared for contact with the potential for average power down the road. He’s aggressive, so the approach will need some refinement.

Miscellany
The Yankees were reported to be “heavily in” on Martin a few weeks ago, so there’s some level of interest here. He’s a bit of a long-term project as a high school shortstop, but the potential is there for him to be better than average on both sides of the ball, though not necessarily a star. Given the state of the shortstop position around the game today, better than average is basically star caliber. Keith Law and Baseball America ranked him as the 54th and 65th best prospect in their latest rankings, indicating that he’s more of a supplemental first/second round player.

MLBTR’s list of potentially available starters

Yesterday at MLBTR, Tim Dierkes posted a list of starting pitchers that could potentially become available in a trade this summer. It’s all based on speculation, but few outsiders know the market like Tim. It’s your generic collection of impending free agents, salary dumps, and firesale types, but it’s a disappointing list overall. The most attractive name (by far) is John Danks, though I have soft spots for Hiroki Kuroda and Derek Lowe. The competition for starters like these figures to pick up now that the Red Sox have to replace Daisuke Matsuzaka (Tommy John surgery), so this should be a fun trade season.

Swisher’s road trip rebound

(From Flickr user jcantroot under a Creative Commons license)

Things were looking pretty grim for Nick Swisher. After slumping through April and most of May, his numbers started to resemble the ones that got him traded after the 2008 season. That earned him a seat for two straight games, but that didn’t seem to trigger positive results. In the two games that followed he went 0 for 7 with a walk, lowering his season numbers to .204/.321/.289 in 184 PA.

By that point the emails had become regular. What will the Yanks do in right field in 2011? Would the Mets trade Carlos Beltran to the Yankees? What happens after the season when the Yankees decline Swisher’s option? A large population of Yankees fans had lost faith in Swisher, despite his two straight career years in 2009 and 2010. In a way it was hard to blame them. The offense had struggled for brief stints, and Swisher’s troubles came to the fore during those periods. But in another way, it was a relatively small sampling of plate appearances. There was, and still is, plenty of time for Swisher to turn his season into a productive one.

That process just might have begun with the in-progress West Coast trip. Swisher has exactly one hit in each of the six games, but he has also averaged one walk per game, too. All in all he went 6 for 20 (.300) with six walks (.462 OBP) and three extra base hits (.650 SLG). Those numbers, even in a six-game stretch, are impressive by themselves. They become more impressive when we consider the pitching staffs he faced. The Mariners and the A’s have allowed the fewest runs of any AL team. Their pitchers rank near the bottom of the league in BA and OBP against, and they’re 13th and 14th in SLG against. Against teams that typically suppress offense, Swisher went on a tear.

As with any numbers that involve arbitrary end points, we have to be careful with what we make of Swisher’s hot week. After all, it could be just that. Yet we know what he’s capable of; we’ve seen it in the past two seasons. As Mike and I said in yesterday’s podcast, Swisher doens’t have to end the season with numbers that resemble 2009 and 2010. All he has to do is hit those marks for the rest of the season. If he does that, he’ll turn a weakness into a strength and further solidify the league’s best offense. This week might not mark a full recovery, but it sure is a good start.

Swisher’s homer gives Yankees sweep over A’s

It took until the first day of June, but the Yankees finally have their first four game winning streak of the season. They again struck early on Wednesday, taking a lead in the very first inning, but this one was a little less blowout-y than the previous two wins.

Good thing he didn't bunt.

The Big Blow

Joe will have more on Nick Swisher‘s recent hot streak on Thursday, but all you need to know is that he kept it up in this game. Alex Rodriguez led of the fourth inning with an infield single off the glove of the defensively challenged Conor Jackson, after which Robinson Cano drew a four pitch walk. Crazy, I know. Gio Gonzalez was wild as he tends to be, but Swisher squared around to bunt on the first pitch of his at-bat. The pitch was down below the zone, so he took it for a ball. The same thing happened on the second pitch to put him into a comfy 2-0 count.

Swish said after the game that he missed a sign, and that he was supposed to go up there and swing away. That’s exactly what he did on that third pitch, a get-me-over fastball right over the plate. Swish yanked it deep to left field and comfortably over the fence for a three-run homer, turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead. Neither team would score the rest of the way even if it didn’t feel that way after Swisher’s homer, and I’m sure he enjoyed it a little more than usual since it came off the team that traded him away.

Burnett Settles Down

One bad pitch.

A-Rod gave the Yankees the lead in the top of the first by driving in Derek Jeter with an opposite field double after the Cap’n doubled to leadoff the game. A.J. Burnett gave it right back and then some in the bottom half though, surrendering a two-run homer to Josh Willingham after David DeJesus doubled two batters earlier. It had the makings of a Bad A.J. outing, but to his credit, Burnett settled down.

Following the homer, A.J. walked three of the next nine men he faced, but that was it. Following the third walk, he retired a dozen of the final 13 batters he faced, the lone exception being a two-out triple in Coco Crisp in the fifth. Obviously, he did not come around to score and neither did any of those three walks. Burnett put six men on base in seven innings, striking out five and getting 11 other outs on the ground. Ten of his 103 pitches were changeups, quite a few for him, and another 28 were curveballs,  so A.J. went a little more offspeed than usual. Either way, give him credit for righting the ship mid-game and putting forth a solid effort against an admittedly bad offense.

Leftovers

Curtis Granderson went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts, but he’s allowed to do that every so often. In fact, the Yankees only had six hits all game, two by A-Rod  and the rest scattered around. The bottom three hitters in the order went hitless in ten at-bats, though Andruw Jones and Russell Martin each drew a walk. The 3-4-5 hitters saw just 30 pitches in eleven at-bats, with Cano doing most of the heavy lifting (12 pitches for him, nine each for the other two). Not a banner day for the game’s most productive offense, but there will be games like this every once in a while. Just gotta find a way to score anyway. Good thing they can hit some evil homeruns from time to time.

Speaking of Martin, he stole his sixth base (in six tries), and he managed to tweet a thank you for all the All-Star Game support while on base. Ah publicists. The tweet has since been deleted, by the way. For shame, people should have a greater sense of humor with stuff like this. It’s harmless.

Both Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera pitched for the first time in three days, so that was good. Joba allowed a pair of hits but got out of it after turning a line drive comebacker into a double play. David Robertson warmed up as well, which is good because he hasn’t pitched in three days either. You don’t want to run these guys into the ground, but you don’t want them to rust either.

The Yankees have now beaten the Athletics the last ten times they’ve played, and in 24 of their last 28 meetings overall. They’re like the west coast version of the Twins or something. New York has also won four in a row, six of eight, eight of 11, and 11 of 15 since that ugly six game losing streak. Good stuff. It’s still too early to obsess over standings, at least in my book, but they have a nice little three game lead over the Rays and Red Sox in the loss column.

WPA Graph & Box Score

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

Up Next

The Yankees are heading to Anaheim, but not before taking Thursday off. Ivan Nova will start against Jered Weaver in the series opener on Friday. Fun fun fun.

Ramirez whiffs 11 in Charleston loss

Justin Maxwell just jammed his right shoulder on last night’s homerun saving catch, so he’s not expected to miss much time.

Triple-A Scranton (1-0 win over Indianapolis)
Austin Krum, CF, Jesus Montero, C, Brandon Laird, 3B & Jordan Parraz, RF: all 0 for 4 – Krum and Laird each struck out once, Montero did twice
Ramiro Pena, SS: 2 for 4, 1 2B, 1 RBI – got picked off first … eight for his last 20
Jorge Vazquez, 1B & Luis Nunez, DH: both 1 for 3 – JoVa walked once and whiffed twice
Kevin Russo, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 2B
Dan Brewer, RF: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB –
D.J. Mitchell, RHP: 7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 2 WP, 1 HB, 7-4 GB/FB – 59 of 96 pitches were strikes (61.5%) … the one walk was intentional … no runs allowed in three of his last seven starts
Ramon Flores, LHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K – five of his nine pitches were strikes
Kevin Whelan, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1 WP – ten of 16 pitches were strikes (62.5%)

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