Sweating the small stuff

With their strong play in the first five months of the season, the Yankees appeared set heading into September. They had won 81 games and sat just 1.5 back of the Red Sox for the AL East lead. More importantly, they led Tampa Bay by 7.5 games for the AL Wild Card, a hefty margin with less than a month of baseball left on the schedule. The comfortable lead gave them a chance to ease off the accelerator and make sure their starters were healthy and rested come September 30th.

In September they’ve actually managed to outplay their pace to date. They’ve won 11 of 18 games, which is a better ratio than they managed from April through August. No team in the AL East has won more games this month. And, thanks to a Boston collapse, the Yankees have taken a commanding lead in the division. With just 10 games to go they’re six up on Boston in the loss column. Any combination of five wins and Boston losses will seal up the division and give the Yankees their 12th AL East crown in the last 16 years.

Even with their strong position, it feels as though the Yankees have a number of issues heading into the postseason. These concerns mainly involve the pitching; people have asked who pitches behind CC ever since Cliff Lee signed with Philadelphia. Even now, just 10 days away from ALDS Game 1, the question doesn’t have a sure answer (other than it not being A.J. Burnett). Yet even that question might be overblown. The Yankees starters this year have a 4.06 ERA, right around the mark of the playoff-bound Tigers, and ahead of the Red Sox. Their 3.92 FIP ranks sixth — and the Rangers are the only playoff-bound team ahead of them. Finally, their 3.79 xFIP ranks first in the league.

(And yes, the situation changes in the playoffs, when there’s a greater emphasis on the top of the rotation and the bottom of the rotation disappears. But the Yanks’ top four starters all have ERAs under 4.00, which makes their league ranking actually look a bit better.)

If the Yankees are looking so good, then why the quibbling over them? Why the needless arguments about minute aspects of what is currently the best team in the AL? I think Will Leitch of New York Magazine hits on the issue perfectly with this paragraph in his latest column:

This year has been monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained, which is to say it has been the platonic ideal of a Yankees season. The last time the Yankees weren’t in first or second place in the AL East was April 8, when they were a game and a half behind the Blue Jays. The rest of the season, the team has been comfortably ensconced in playoff position, knowing, without much doubt, that they would be playing into October. There were a few bumps along the way, but minor ones, nothing to concern anyone. Some Yankees fans might grouse about the rotation, but all any fan can hope for his team is to secure a spot in the postseason, and the Yankees have had theirs secured for months. Most of the year has felt like one long twiddling of thumbs until the weather started getting cold and the games started mattering again.

In other words, the Yankees’ solid play throughout the season has caused a sort of restlessness among fans. We’ve seen Jeter’s 3,000th and Mariano’s 602nd, both of which make great moments. Really, they’re the definitive moments of the 2011 season. What this season lacks is drama. And when there’s no drama to follow on a day-to-day basis, the drama-seeker will tend to conjure it from nowhere. Hence the concerns about the rotation that fares well when compared to its peers. Hence the concern over the manager who, for the fourth straight year, has managed to keep his bullpen in good shape. Hence the concern — for some reason — for the lineup, which has outscored every team except Boston.

This isn’t to say that none of these areas are of concern to the Yankees in the playoffs. Certainly the rotation can present a concern, at least. But again, this has to be viewed in relation to the rest of the league — the Yankees do have opponents, after all. And yet by these measures the Yankees stack up very well against their playoff-bound brethren. They’re not guaranteed anything. No team is, nor will any team ever have a playoff guarantee. But in terms of the things they can control, the Yankees are in great shape.

Why sweat the small stuff, then? Answer: What else are fans going to do during a “monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained” season? It can get annoying at times, sure; there’s only so much small stuff to sweat, and sweating it too hard gets obnoxious. But that’s far better than the alternative. Would anyone seriously like to switch places with the Red Sox now, just in the name of drama? No, thank you. October provides enough drama.

Bichette, Santana top Baseball America’s list of top 20 GCL prospects

The Rookie Level GCL Yankees won their league title and led the circuit in every significant offensive category (and by wide margin in most cases), so it’s no surprise that the Yankees are well represented in Baseball America’s list of the top 20 prospects in the GCL. Dante Bichette Jr. tops the list and Ravel Santana is right behind him at number two. Claudio Custodio and his great name is a little further down at number nine.

In the subscriber-only scouting reports, Ben Badler says Bichette “impressed GCL managers with his advanced approach at the plate, good bat speed and plus-plus power.” He notes that Dante Jr. lowered his hands as the season went on, helping him get ready to hit sooner. He was said to be fine at the hot corner, making “the routine plays, showing solid actions and a strong arm.” Santana is touted as a tools freak, with “a wiry build, good bat speed and plus power.” His best tools are his powerful arm and top of the line speed, which help make him a top notch defender in center. Custodio has a “solid hitting approach and a line-drive swing.” Because he doesn’t have much pop, he “doesn’t chase many pitches outside of the strike zone and focuses at getting on base to use his excellent speed.” He might end up at second base long-term.

The next top 20 list relevant to the Yankees is the Short Season NY-Penn League, which will be released on Friday. I’ll be stunned of Mason Williams doesn’t rank number one.

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

How important is this series? It’s obviously huge for the Rays, but it’s not life or death for the Yankees. They have seven games left against Tampa and a seven-game lead for the wildcard, but just two wins in those seven games punches their ticket to October. These are far from must wins, but it would be nice to have a playoff spot wrapped up before the Red Sox come to town on Friday.

What Have The Rays Done Lately?

I think you’re all well aware of what the Rays have done lately. They took three of four from the Red Sox in Fenway before having yesterday off, and they now sit just two games back of Boston for the wildcard (one in the loss column). Tampa has won ten of their last 14 games.

Rays On Offense

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Overall, it’s an exactly league average offense with a .317 wOBA, a 100 wRC+, and a 104 OPS+. That said, they have several players coming into the series very got. Evan Longoria (.360 wOBA overall) has hit .310/.461/.603 this month, and B.J. Upton (.325 wOBA overall) is right behind him at .311/.408/.557 for September. Matt Joyce (.360 wOBA overall) has rebounded from prolonged slump to hit .270/.404/.459 in the season’s final month. He doesn’t play much against left-handers, though.

Those three have been really, really good during Tampa’s recent surge, but three others have been really, really bad. Ben Zobrist (.355 wOBA overall) has hit .196/.274/.286 this month, and the amazingly awesome Desmond Jennings (.395 wOBA overall) has crashed back to Earth with a .212/.297/.303 batting line over his last 16 games. Casey Kotchman (.351 wOBA overall) has been a touch better than Jennings in September (.217/.304/.317), but his struggles go back a little further (.215/.311/.292 in his last 38 games). The rest of the lineup is a bit of a mix-and-match.

Sean Rodriguez may or may not be limited in this series after getting hit by a pitch in the Sox series, but he’s lethal against left-handed pitchers (.271/.391/.465). Reid Brignac (.203 wOBA) and Elliot Johnson (.244 wOBA) are the two shortstop options, so yuck. Kelly Shoppach (.260 wOBA) is rumored to see more time behind the plate down the stretch, ahead of John Jaso (.291 wOBA) and Jose Lobaton (.122 wOBA in a small sample). Brandon Guyer (.272 wOBA in limited action) will likely see some outfield time against lefties, and then there’s spare parts like Dan Johnson (.162 wOBA mostly due to April), Justin Ruggiano (.287 wOBA in limited time), Sam Fuld (.302 wOBA), and Russ Canzler (one plate appearance, one walk). The Rays will absolutely steal bases, with Upton (30), Fuld (20), Jennings (18), Damon (18), and Zobrist (18) being the main threats.

Rays On The Mound

Tuesday, RHP Wade  Davis (vs. Ivan Nova): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Davis has yet to have the kind of success some of his peers have enjoyed. His 4.41 ERA is right in line with his 4.66 FIP, a 119 FIP- that essentially matches last year’s 118 FIP-. A fly ball guy (36.3% grounders) without much strikeout ability (5.10K/9), Davis works with a pair of low-90’s fastballs (two and four-seamer), a high-70’s curveball, a mid-80’s slider, and a mid-80’s changeup. The Yankees have not faced him yet this year, but they saw him four times last year (3.43 ERA).

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

Wednesday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. CC Sabathia/Phil Hughes): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Hellickson is coming off that grueling 117-pitch outing in Fenway. His peripherals (4.28 FIP) are not nearly as good as his ERA (2.91), and he’s another fly ball guy (34.0% grounders) that struggles to miss bats (5.78 K/9). Two fastballs (low-90’s two and four-seamers) and a knockout changeup are his primary weapons, but we’ll also see a mid-70’s curve on occasion. Hellickson can be sneaky good, he is just a kid in his first full year as a starter in the AL East, after all. The Yankees have seen him twice this year, once good (2 R in 7 IP) and once bad (4 R in 4.1 IP).

Wednesday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. Sabathia/Hughes): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Big Complete Game James has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. His peripherals (3.35 FIP) match the ERA (2.78), with lots of strikeouts (8.25 K/9), lots of grounders (46.2%), and few walks (2.31 BB/9). Shields is the master at pitching backwards, setting up his low-90’s two and four-seamers with that world class changeup and a high-70’s curveball. He’ll also throw a mid-80’s slider and a high-80’s cutter. In three starts against the Yankees this year, Shields has held them to six runs (four earned) in 22.2 IP, and four of those runs came in one start.

Thursday, RHP Jeff Niemann (vs. Bartolo Colon): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years (notice a pattern here?), Niemann has pitched very well since returning from the disabled list in late-June. He’s posted a 3.41 ERA (~3.80 FIP) with 7.69 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 in 103 IP. His pitching approach is pretty straight forward, featuring two fastballs in the low-90’s (two and four-seamer) and a high-80’s curve, but he’ll occasionally mix in three other pitches: mid-80’s slider, mid-80’s changeup, and a low-80’s split. The Yankees have seen Niemann just once this year, when he held them to one run in 7.1 IP in his fourth start off the DL.

Mr. Moore. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Bullpen: The Rays have a bunch of call-ups on their roster, but they’re still a man short in the bullpen. Kyle Farnsworth is having a very good year (3.27 FIP), but he’s battling an elbow issue and might not be available for part or all of the series. Joel Peralta (3.43 FIP) has stepped in at closer in the meantime. J.P. Howell (holding lefties to a .217/.277/.283 batting line), Juan Cruz (3.95 FIP), and Jake McGee (5.14 FIP) handle the majority of the middle innings.

For the most part, the rest of the bullpen is made up of low-leverage call-up types, guys like Brandon Gomes (4.09 FIP), Dane De La Rosa (2 IP so far), Cesar Ramos (4.70 FIP), Andy Sonnanstine (4.48 FIP), and Alex Torres (2 IP so far). The secret weapon is Matt Moore, the best pitching prospect in baseball. The hard-throwing lefty has made two appearances totaling 4.1 IP so far, and they aren’t shy about throwing him into big spots against both lefties and righties. We’ll see him at some point this series, and there’s even been some rumblings that he could get a start in the doubleheader.

Recommended Rays Reading: DRays Bay.

Ticket Info: Courtesy of RAB Tickets and TiqIQ

Baseball Prospectus on the 1996 Yankees

Going back to a time when this happened a bit more frequently. (Photo via SI.com)

The fine folks at Baseball Prospect put their entire 1996 Annual online over the weekend, and it’s free for all to see. You don’t need a subscription to see the 28 team sections (no Devil Rays or Diamondbacks yet!), complete with overviews, player comments, and projections for the 1996 season. I think it goes without saying that it’s amazing to look back and see what was being written about some of these guys, even moreso when you consider everything we know now. Hindsight can be an amazing thing.

Given his recent historical accomplishments, I think it’s only fair that we start with Mariano Rivera, who was just a 26-year-old kid with a 5.51 ERA in 67 career innings at the time …

Skinny swingman who has good control of the corners of the strike zone. His K rate seemed to jump up a little as of late, and if that’s development rather than a fluke, this kid could really be something special. Looks way too skinny to be durable, but you never know.

Unfortunately the annual did not provide a projection for Rivera, but I highly doubt it would have come close to what he actually did that year, a 2.09 ERA with 130 strikeouts and just 34 walks in 107.2 relief innings. He’s still way too skinny, but the durability thing proved to be a complete non-issue.

[Read more…]

Mo sets all-time saves record in win over Twins

The save statistic is grossly overrated in today’s game, but Mariano Rivera is not. The greatest reliever in the history of baseball made some more history on an otherwise nondescript Monday afternoon in the Bronx, passing Trevor Hoffman for sole possession of the game’s career save record. Everything else seems like an afterthought.


Fast forward to the end, when the Yankees were nursing a 6-4 lead and the crowd was still buzzing from Nick Swisher‘s inning-ending double play ball in the eighth. I’ve never seen the fans get so excited for a blown scoring opportunity, but Swisher’s failure to come through preserved the save situation. Enter Sandman began to play, and the cheers grew even louder.

The first batter was Trevor Plouffe, who had the gall to take the first two pitches for balls. The third pitch was a cutter on the outside corner for a called strike, the fourth pitch another cutter that generated a swing and a miss. The fifth pitch was (of course) a cutter, one that Plouffe grounded harmlessly to second for the first. Michael Cuddyer, the only legitimate hitter in Minnesota’s lineup, worked the count to 2-2 before flying out to right on a broken bat. That was two outs. The third batters was Chris Parmelee, who spend the entire season in Double-A. A first pitch cutter was down the middle for strike one. The second cutter was fouled back. The third was vintage Rivera, a cutter down and away for a called strike three. Game over, let’s go home.

The team swarmed Rivera on the field after the final out, but eventually Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez pushed him out to the mound so he could wave to the fans. Mo stood on the same mound he’s stood on countless times before, with all eyes on him like they have been so many times, but for what seemed like the first time ever, he soaked it all in. Rivera waved to the crowd, waved to the Twins players and staff that remained in the dugout and applauded, waved to his family, waves to some more fans. The consummate team-first player was enjoying an individual moment, and quite frankly he looked awkward. Like he didn’t want the attention, like a man who had just done his job and wanted to go home.

We can argue Rivera’s place in Yankees history for hours on end, but this is no place to do it. I don’t know if he’s a greater Yankee than Joe DiMaggio or Yogi Berra, or more valuable to the dynasty than Derek Jeter, but I do know one thing: I’ve never any athlete in any sport dominate his position as thoroughly and for as long as Rivera has dominated the closer’s role. There might someone else like him down the road, but I’m pretty comfortable in saying that I’ll never forget how I feel whenever Rivera is on the mound. The most chaotic spots imaginable, and yet there was this calm figure on the mound, raised above everyone else on the field, just like it should be. He is simply on another level.


If there’s one good thing that came out of A.J. Burnett‘s start, it’s that he basically pitched himself out of having any chance at making the postseason rotation. He finished off his last start with six strikeouts in three innings and started this one with seven strikeouts in three innings, but don’t be fooled, he’s still awful. After whiffing seven of the first dozen Twins he faced on Monday, seven of the next ten reach base. Two of those seven were homers, and overall, Burnett allowed four runs on nine hits and a walk in just four innings against a Triple-A lineup (more on that in a bit). Eight strikeouts are great, but nothing else is. Believe it or not, A.J. now has a higher ERA (5.28) than he did last year (5.26). Impressive.


(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Oh yeah, the offense. Curtis Granderson started things off with a two-run homer in the first inning, then the Yankees tacked on another run in the second thanks to a Russell Martin single. Robinson Cano tripled home a run in the third, and then Swisher singled in Cano one batter later to make it 5-0. Alex Rodriguez’s run-scoring single in the sixth gave the team an insurance run. The pitching was the story of the game, for better and for worse, so it’s kinda easy to forget the offense.

The bullpen between Burnett and Mo was solid. Cory Wade, who’s been shaky of late, allowed three hits and a walk in 1.1 IP, striking out Joe Benson and Rene Rivera with the bases loaded to end the fifth. Boone Logan got the only man he faced, then Rafael Soriano and David Robertson sat down all six men they faced before Rivera made history.

Aside from 602, Regis Philbin was pretty much the highlight of the game, the best half-inning from the booth all season. He poked fun at Michael Kay (“how do you go from Fordham to The Post?”), Suzyn Waldman and John Sterling (“could they sit any further apart?”), and was just all around entertaining. We should all be lucky enough to have that much life and energy at 80.

This game was originally scheduled for April 6th, the Yankees fifth game of the season and what would have been Freddy Garcia’s first start. Here’s the lineup Minnesota was going to use that day

  1. Denard Span, CF
  2. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 2B
  3. Joe Mauer, C
  4. Justin Morneau, 1B
  5. Jim Thome, DH
  6. Michael Cuddyer, RF
  7. Jason Kubel, LF
  8. Danny Valencia, 3B
  9. Alexi Casilla, SS

Now here’s the lineup they ran out there on Monday…

  1. Ben Revere, CF
  2. Trevor Plouffe, SS
  3. Michael Cuddyer, RF
  4. Chris Parmelee, 1B
  5. Danny Valencia, DH
  6. Brian Dinkelman, RF
  7. Luke Hughes, 3B
  8. Joe Benson, LF
  9. Rene Rivera, C

Yeah, that’s some difference. It must really suck being a Twins fan right now.

The Rays were off on Monday, so the Yankees increased their lead in the wildcard by half-a-game to seven games. The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to just four. The Red Sox split their doubleheader with the Orioles, so the lead in the division increased to a full five games in the loss column with ten to play.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs some other stuff, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

The Twins were only here for the one-day makeup, so they’re off to Minnesota and the Rays are coming to town for four-games in three days. It’s an enormous series for Tampa, and probably a four out of ten on the importance scale for New York. Ivan Nova kicks things off against Wade Davis on Tuesday night. If you want to catch the game, RAB Tickets can get you there.

Forbes: Minority investment values Yanks at $1.7 billion

Ray Bartoszek, a commodities trader with a net worth estimated at $5 billion, purchased a minority share of the Yankees today, according to a variety of sources. Forbes says Bartoszek’s investment values the Yanks at nearly $1.7 billion. As ESPN New York detailed, Bartoszek allegedly purchased another minority share from one of the team’s limited partners who wished to sell. The sale will not impact the day-to-day management of the ballclub.

Bartoszek has recently been interested in breaking into the MLB ownership club. He was a runner-up to purchase a stake in the Mets earlier this year, but his offer fell short to David Einhorn’s proposal. Instead he gets the Yanks. Once upon a time, John McMullen said of owning a small piece of the Yanks, “Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George’s.” These days, though, it’s a badge of honor and apparently a sound investment indeed.

Open Thread: Go O’s

I feel dirty saying this, but I’m pulling for Buck Showalter and the Orioles tonight. Baltimore already beat the Red Sox this afternoon, and they’ve got the second game of their doubleheader tonight. After all the stupid stuff Showalter has said this year, after all the “disrespecting Flanny” nonsense, I’m in your corner Buck. Now put your money where you mouth is.

Here’s your open thread, folks. If you want to watch said Orioles-Red Sox matchup (Matusz vs. Lackey), it’ll be on MLB Network. You also have Monday Night Football in New Jersey for the Giants and Rams. Pretty good night for sports. Talk about whatever you want here, have at it.