On Jose Valverde

Someone's happy they allowed two runs in a non-save situation. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Even before we knew that the Yankees and Tigers were going to play in the ALDS, I wanted to see Jose Valverde blow a save in the postseason. The Detroit closer had gone a perfect 49-for-49 in save chances this season despite shaky peripherals (3.55 FIP, 71st out of 134 qualified relievers), prompting many old school types to dub him the best closer in baseball. They even gave him an award for it. We know that’s not true though. Add in the way over the top celebrations, and we all had every reason to want to see Valverde blow a save.

After the Tigers won Game Two of the ALDS, the right-hander declared that “the series will finish in our house … They have a good team, but the series is not (coming) back to New York.” This came after Valverde allowed four of the seven men he faced to reach base that night, turning a 5-1 lead into a 5-3 lead while stranding the tying run on base. He walked the tight rope again the next night, but again held on for the save. The Yankees won Game Four, and now the series is coming back to New York despite Valverde’s proclamation.

Heading into tonight’s Game Five, it’s almost a certainty that Jim Leyland will use his closer at some point, win or lose. I still want to see him blow a save, but given the circumstances, I’d rather see him not even get a chance tonight. A walk-off win against Valverde to eliminate the Tigers would basically be the most amazing thing ever, but I’m not sure I can deal with the stress. That 10-1 score in Game Four was stressful enough. I’ll happily take about a dozen first inning runs over rubbing Valverde’s nose in the mud any day of the week. The Yankees have bigger fish to fry than some closer spouting guarantees.

Previewing Doug Fister, Part Two

Will Fister switch up the game plan tonight? (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

When I previewed Doug Fister prior to the continuation of Game One, I noted that he’s an extreme strike-thrower that gets ahead with his fastball and generally pitches lefties and righties the same way. Righties will get a few more fastballs, lefties a few more changeups, but otherwise it was the same approach. He’s not a huge stuff guy, instead relying on command and the willingness to attack hitters rather relentlessly.

The Yankees touched Fister up for six runs on seven hits and two walks in 4.2 IP in Game One, drawing the same number of free passes in that game that he issued in his final four regular season starts combined. He did plow through the lineup the first time through the order, but the Yankees adjusted and really went to work once it turned over. Seven of the final ten hitters he faced reached base, and the Yankees won the game.

Fister will start the decisive Game Five tonight, so I figured it would be good to look back at Game One to see how he attacked the Yankees hitters. It’s just one game, a sampling of just 90 pitches, so we shouldn’t take any of this stuff to heart. It’ll just give us an idea of what he did in that game, and give us something to look for tonight. Let’s break apart the two different types of hitters, starting with the guys he’ll see more of…

Left-Handed Batters

(via Brooks)

Pay attention to the numbers in the strike zone plot, and remember this is from the catcher’s view. The vast majority of the number ones (i.e. the first pitch of a given at-bat) are down and/or away. Most of the higher pitch numbers (three and up) are inside. Fister started the Yankees left-handed batters off with pitches away before coming back inside a little later in the at-bat to keep these guys honest. Outside then inside, and usually that was it.

The pitch selection, seen in the chart to the right, shows that Fister threw his five different pitches at a rate consistent with the regular season. He only threw 64 pitches to lefties in Game One, so one individual pitch represents 1.6% of the sample. The difference in the rates is like, plus or minus three pitches. Nothing crazy. For the most part, Fister was his usual self against all the left-handed batters the Yankees threw at him on Saturday. As for the guys on the other side of the plate…

Right-Handed Batters

(via Brooks)

Obvious statement is obvious: Fister pounded the Yankees righties (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Russell Martin) inside with fastballs on Saturday. I mean really pounded them inside; just two (two!) of the 26 pitches he threw them were on the outer half of the plate, and they were two waste pitches so far outside they were easily taken for balls. All but six of those 26 pitches were two-seam fastballs, only three were offspeed pitches (two curves and a changeup).

Unlike his approach to lefties, it seems pretty clear that Fister and his battery mate Alex Avila made an effort to go at New York’s three right-handed bats high-ish and hard, preventing them from getting any kind of extension in their swing. Martin, A-Rod, and Jeter combined to go 2-for-6 with a double, a ground ball single, three strikeouts, two ground outs, and one fly out off the big right-hander in Game One.

* * *

Just looking at Fister’s combined pitch chart (all batters), you can see that he threw the majority of his pitches to the armside, or inside to righties and away to lefties. That could just be his comfort zone, some guys have trouble throwing to the glove side, or it could be by design. My semi-obvious theory: he was pitching to Yankee Stadium. He didn’t want to put a pitch outside so a righty could flick it towards the short porch, nor did he want to have a lefty pull their hands in and yank something down the right field line. It’s just a theory, but if it’s what Fister was trying to do, it didn’t work. Five of the nine balls he allowed to be hit to the outfield went to right, another two to center.

Whether or not Fister continues to bust righties in with fastballs while working away to lefties remains to be seen, but that seems to have been their plan in Game One. It didn’t really work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an adjustment is coming. The Tigers could be banking on better execution instead.

Mailbag: Darvish, UDFAs, Montero, Brewers

Sorry if you thought it was Friday, it’s still only Thursday. I skipped the mailbag last week for ALDS reasons, and I figured today was the best day to tackle this week’s edition given the off day and upcoming madness tonight. Most of the questions that were sent in are outdated now (who’d you rather face in the ALDS, Texas or Detroit?), so only four questions today. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to submit your queries.

(AP Photo/Chris Park)

Patrick asks: Any way Yu Darvish would accept a minor league deal? Would that allow the team that signs him to have him under control for pre and arbitration years?

No, definitely not. Darvish isn’t coming over for a minor league contract. Japanese players are like everyone else; when they come over here, they are still subject to the same rules. That means pre-arbitration salaries for the first three years of their career, then three years of arbitration-eligibility before free agency. However, as a courtesy to veteran players of the Japanese leagues, MLB and the various clubs have allowed Japanese players to become free agents after their initial contracts expire. That’s how Hideki Matsui became a free agent after the 2005, or Hiroki Kuroda last season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka signed a six-year contract when the Red Sox acquired him, basically simulating the six years of team control. Darvish is still so young that I have to believe whatever team lands him will try to do something similar. I can’t imagine a team would pay through the nose for the posting fee and agree to acquire just the first two of three years of Darvish’s career. A five or six-year deal is in order here, if not longer.

Matt asks: I was reading an old Baseball America Handbook and it said that Rays infielder Elliot Johnson signed with Tampa Bay as a non-drafted free agent. How can a guy not drafted out of high school sign as a free agent? And if it’s possible, why don’t we see more guys do it?

Former Yankee John Rodriguez is another guy that signed as an undrafted free agent out of high school. From the official rules

A player who is eligible to be selected and is passed over by every Club becomes a free agent and may sign with any Club until the player enters, or returns to, a four-year college full-time or enters, or returns to, a junior college.

In English, that means a high school kid can sign as a free agent as long as he goes undrafted, has a diploma/GED, and has not yet attended any kind of college. The best players (high school or otherwise) always get drafted at some point (even if it’s the later rounds), which is why they’re never undrafted free agent. It’s not their choice to go undrafted and become a free agent, the teams control their fate.

Rodriguez and Johnson were the fringiest of fringe prospects, which is why they weren’t drafted. College wasn’t an option for Rodriguez for whatever reason (money, grades, who knows), so he ended up signing with the Yankees after participating in a tryout camp. I’m not sure what Johnson’s story is.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Jeff asks: What will the future hold for Jesus Montero in 2012? Will the Yankees retain Russell Martin and have a catching platoon where Montero can DH on some of the days Martin catches? We know Montero can hit in the majors, so is the best option to ease him into being a major league catcher? What is Montero’s ceiling? Would it be a stretch to think he could have a .400 OBP in his rookie season and drive in 100 RBI with 30-40 HRs?

I’m certain the Yankees will bring Martin back next year. It’s very clear the front office loves him, and he provides very real defensive value while being a non-zero at the plate. With neither Montero, Austin Romine, or Frankie Cervelli ready to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, there’s a clear opening for Martin on the roster.

Ideally, I’d like to see Montero be the regular DH (against both righties and lefties) while still catching 30-40 games. It’s obvious he’s ready for 600 at-bats in the big leagues, and this is probably the best way to get him that playing time. Any time he spends behind the plate can be a DH day for Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter or whoever needs it. I’m not ready to say he’ll be a .400 OBP/30+ HR/100+ RBI guy right out of the chute, but he has the kind of talent to do that long-term. Something like .280/.340/.460 with 20+ homers would be more than acceptable in my book next season. Remember, this kid is just 21.

Sam asks: If the Brewers lose Prince Fielder to free agency, do you think they would consider trading Shaun Marcum or Yovani Gallardo for a package headlined by Montero?

I don’t think it’s an “if,” I’m pretty sure the Brewers will lose Prince as a free agent. They went all-in this season to try to win with him, they openly acknowledge that, but I don’t think they’re going to go right into a rebuilding mode next year. They’ll still have Marcum, Gallardo, and Zack Greinke in 2012, plus Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and John Axford aren’t going anywhere for a while. That’s a pretty good core right there. First baseman aren’t the toughest players to replace in free agency (Carlos Pena for a year? Josh Willingham?), so they can plug that hole. No, they won’t replace Fielder’s production, but they still have enough talent to win that division.

That said, the Yankees would have to listen if Milwaukee is open to trading a starter. Gallardo is a stud and I’d give up Montero for him without hesitation, but the problem with Marcum and Greinke is that they’re going to become free agents after next season. At least Gallardo is locked up through 2014 with an option for 2015. Giving up six years of Montero for one year of those two, regardless of how good they are, isn’t the wisest thing in the world. I’m sure the Brewers would be open to a deal involving Marcum or Greinke, but I can’t imagine they’d discuss Gallardo.

An ode to the out

Unlike the other major sports, baseball, as we well know, is not a game that adheres to a clock. Time may pass quickly or, as is often the case with the Yankees, games can slow to a crawl as batters take pitch after pitch. All told, the Yankees played over 507 hours worth of baseball in 2011 and ended the season with the same 162-game schedule as the Mariners who posted just 447 hours.

The currency of baseball then is the out. The Tigers and the Yankees each have 27 outs, divided into groups of three, in which to score or stop the other team from doing so. For one of those teams, all they have left in the season after 166 previous games, are those 27 outs. Outscore your opponent after those outs and play the Rangers; lose and dig in for a long winter of maybes.

For Yankee fans, a do-or-die, best-of-one scenario isn’t entirely a rarity. The Yanks have played in 31 previous postseason series since baseball added the Wild Card, and eight of those have gone the distance. (Mike charted the ALDS earlier on Wednesday while Larry Koestler at The Yankee Analysts added the ALCS and World Series Game 7s to the list.) Of those eight, the Yanks have won three and lost five.

Game 5 (or 7) for me has always been about counting down outs. The 1995 loss to the Mariners is a fleeting one in my memory. I was young and just thrilled that the Yanks had made it to the playoffs for the first time in my life. The loss in 1997, too, is a blur. As I got older, though, the Game 5s grew more and more tense. In 2000, the Yanks made us all feel better pretty quickly, but the A’s inched back in it. It was a comeback that never happened.

A year later, and just a month removed from September 11, the Yanks and A’s would square off again in Game 5, and this time, the Yanks seemed like a team of destiny. Thanks to a play from Derek Jeter than will live in infamy and one of the most overlooked pitching performances in Mike Mussina’s Yankee tenure, the team overcame a 2-0 lead to oust the A’s. I was at Yankee Stadium for that game, and the atmosphere, as it always is during potential clinching games, was electric. The crowd would not let the Yankees lose.

In 2003, it took a few extra outs as 27 would not be enough. With just five of their own offensive outs remaining, the Yanks staged an improbable comeback, and Aaron Boone added the exclamation point. A year later….well, we know how that ended. In 2005, the Yanks, maybe feeling the pressure of living down the previous year’s collapse, fell apart defensively. Those were 27 outs to forget.

And so we’re back with just 27 outs separating us and the team with which we live and die from their destiny. If everything goes according to plan, 15-18 of those outs are Ivan Nova‘s and the remaining 9-12 belong to Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and, of course, Mariano Rivera who has thrown just three pitches during the ALDS. You can’t watch the outs melt away until the game starts, but Rivera looms, as sure a thing as there is in baseball. Some of those outs might just be easier to get than others because of him.

Whenever these do-or-die games come along, I find the waiting to be the hardest part. We have 20 hours to go before the Yanks and Tigers start their march toward the ninth inning. When it does, I’ll be ticking off the outs, hoping the 27 we need to move on and live for another series come easier than those the Tigers need. I’m not ready for the season to end yet. I’d like another day, another game, another series, another 27 outs.

Three pitchers debut in the desert

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (10-4 win over Mesa)
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 1 for 2 – left the game after four innings for some unknown reason
Chase Whitley, RHP: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HBP, 2-0 GB/FB – 20 of 33 pitches were strikes (60.6%)
Dan Burawa, RHP: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 16 of 23 pitches were strikes (69.6%)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1-0 GB/FB – ten of 17 pitches were strikes (58.8%)

David Phelps is the only player out there yet to make his debut, but he will soon. Maybe even tomorrow.

Open Thread: “We are the casino”

We’re a little late to the party on this, but the ALDS schedule hasn’t been kind the last few days. The video above is a Yankees-centric spoof on the Moneyball trailer, a solid two minutes of laughs. I first saw it at Amazin’ Avenue, but it’s since popped up on Big League Stew, NoMaas, CBS Sports, the Twitterverse … basically everywhere but here. Better late than never though, right?

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. I posted this an hour earlier than usual because the Phillies and Cardinals game starts at 6:07pm ET (Jackson vs. Oswalt on TBS). If the Phillies win, they move on to the NLCS. Cardinals win, they’ll play a Game Five. The Brewers and Diamondbacks (Wolf vs. Saunders) starts a little later (9:37pm ET on TBS). Milwaukee leads that series 2-1. Use this thread to talk about those games, or anything else you want. Go nuts.

How Cano Went From Good To Great

Someone's got a secret. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Just before the playoffs began, the Yankees took what seemed to be the inevitable step of installing Robinson Cano as their new number three hitter. Mark Teixeira just wasn’t cutting it against right-handed hitters, and Cano was one of the team’s top two offensive players for the second straight season. The move was made and it paid immediate dividends in Game One of the ALDS. Robbie had two doubles and a grand slam in the rout of Detroit, but the funny thing is that Cano never projected to be this type of hitter when he was in the minors.

In an Insider-only piece for ESPN today, Kevin Goldstein wrote about Cano and his transformation from a good prospect to a great big leaguer (if you have a Baseball Prospectus subscription, you can read the article here). The Yankees signed Cano out of the Dominican Republic way back in January of 2001, giving him just a $100k bonus. That’s less than half what they gave Dioner Navarro one year earlier, and Yanks VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman explained that not even the Yankees expected Robbie to be this good.

“He wasn’t the highest-profile player by any stretch of the imagination,” said Newman to Goldstein. “He was a shortstop, but he couldn’t run; he was even a 40 (on a grading scale of 40-80) back then, so there was just nothing flashy about him. But we liked his bat, especially his hands, and so he had the one tool that trumps all others.”

Cano never cracked Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list, and it wasn’t until he was on the cusp of big leagues that he even garnered a top two spot in the Yankees farm system (I thought he was the team’s best prospect before 2005, but no one asked me). Cano hit .301/.356/.497 in half a season at Double-A in 2004 before a second half promotion to Triple-A, and he was hitting .333/.368/.574 in 24 games with Columbus before being called up to replace the oh so terrible Tony Womack in 2005. He showed the same skills he shows now (insane amounts of contact, few walks, gap power to all fields), just not as refined.

Goldstein asked Newman and various anonymous scouts about what helped Cano take that next step. “I’d love to point to some obvious change in his swing or approach, but when you ask me how he [turned] into the player today, it’s just hard work,” said one scout. Newman backed that up, adding that his upbringing may have also played a role in his development. Cano’s father Jose played in the big leagues, albeit briefly, and we heard all about their relationship during the Homerun Derby. Robbie and Jose still work out together in the offseason, so you can only imagine what they did before Cano established himself as one of the game’s best.

A few weeks ago I said I would like to see the Yankees sign Cano long-term this offseason, something like five years with an option even though they hold club options for his services through 2013. Regardless of whether they do that or not, Robinson has clearly gone from prospect afterthought to homegrown superstar, and is now the central focus of the team’s lineup. Talent is obviously part of it, but hard work also helped Cano take that step, a step that has sure been fun to watch.