Big lead gives the Yanks some breathing room

Baseball commentators, on the whole, are not funny. They might be affable, charming, and generally pleasant, but very few are actually funny. Twitter has made this most apparent, with sportswriters cracking jokes that get laughs only from colleagues. It’s really only when they don’t intend to get a laugh do sports commentators bring the humor. Twice in the past few days MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds has pulled off this feat. On Sunday he proclaimed that the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs if they didn’t make a move. Yesterday he repeated that proclamation, but this time the caveat was based on Phil Hughes‘s start. If they can’t get Hughes going, they’re not making the playoffs. It really is unintentional comedy at its peak.

The Yankees didn’t make a move, but it will take plenty more than that to keep them out of a playoff spot. After last night’s victory they have a 98.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds Report. This comes both from their 31.4 percent chance of overtaking the Red Sox for the division, and 67.5 percent chance of winning the Wild Card. After the Red Sox, there are only four other teams with non-zero chances of winning the Wild Card: Tampa at 0.7 percent, Toronto at 0.1 percent, Texas at 0.1 percent, and Anaheim at 0.2 percent. That’s not even to mention their run differential, which is tops in the league by two games. Now is not the time to be questioning the Yankees chances of making the playoffs.

Because the Yankees are so far out in front of the competition — seven games ahead of Anaheim in the actual Wild Card standings, 13 games ahead by run differential, and nine games up when factoring in strength of schedule — management has time to take a step back and really assess what they have heading into the final stretch and the playoffs. This isn’t to say the players can take their feet off the accelerator. As a band I like once titled an album, satisfaction is the death of desire. It doesn’t seem like the players would look at the standings and figure they can slack off. They know the lay of the land, and they’re surely stung by sitting even a game behind Boston. Management, on the other hand, has some breathing room. That allows them some flexibility in handling the roster going forward.

We’re already seeing this with the six-man rotation this week. Really, the Yankees could keep this going as long as it works, giving them enough time to evaluate their best options going forward. As Mike noted yesterday, it allows them to scale back the workloads of Sabathia, who is on pace for 250 innings, and Colon, who is at a six-year high in innings pitched. It also lets them see if either Ivan Nova or Phil Hughes is a viable option as a Game 3 or 4 playoff starter. There are other things they can do as well, such as experiment with Manny Banuelos as another lefty in the bullpen, or, as we’ve all desired for so long, Jesus Montero to come up and play a role in the lineup. They can, essentially, test out any viable player in the organization and see if he’ll help come playoff time.

Another aspect of this is that they can better afford to let a player rest. When Alex Rodriguez last played in a game they had just a three-game lead in the Wild Card standings. Since then they’ve doubled that, basically eliminating one of the contenders along the way. The lineup only gets stronger once A-Rod returns. If, say, Mark Teixieira runs into injury issues as he did at the end of last year, it will be much easier to rest him. Mariano Rivera can get all the work he needs, and none that he doesn’t. The same goes for David Robertson, and really, all of the bullpen. That’s not to say they should throw away games by inserting a poor reliever into a high-leverage situation. It’s that losing one game because of poor reliever performance isn’t the end of the world.

The next two months won’t quite be a cakewalk, in that no stretch of baseball is in any way easy. The players will still face it with the same level of intensity as they have all season. Management, however, has some room to play with the roster. They can see what players will help and which won’t. They can fully rest players when they’re dealing with nagging injuries, ensuring that they’re healthy come playoff time. These are the luxuries a team can afford when they’ve built up such a solid lead. And just think, if they take two of three from Boston this weekend they might be able to do all this while maintaining a good shot at the AL East crown. It really is the best of all worlds in New York.

Mark Teixeira’s recent hot streak

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two weeks ago, Mark Teixeira returned to the Bronx to kick off a ten-game homestand with a .240/.344/.493 season batting line, above-average on-base and power numbers, but hardly what we’ve come to expect from the $180M first baseman. He was stuck in an ugly short-term rut (.200/.222/.257 in the first eight games after the All-Star break) and a disappointing long-term slump (.232/.327/.460 in his previous 343 PA). The terms “slump” is relative here, because that’s basically a league average OBP with a stellar .228 ISO. Either way, Tex was looking pretty bad at the plate.

Then he returned home, and then things started to go his way. Teixeira homered and drew two walks in the first game of the homestand, and over the full ten games he went 13-for-39 (.333) with four homers, five walks, and just six strikeouts. A pair of hits on Monday opened the road trip, and last night Tex picked up three more hits, including a homerun from each side of the plate. His season batting line is up to .256/.352/.527, which is much more pleasing to the eye than that .240-something monstrosity from two weeks ago.

If you take a look at the spray charts since the start of the homestand, you’ll see that Teixeira really isn’t doing anything differently. He’s still extremely pull happy (here’s the spray chart vs. RHP, vs. LHP), so it’s not like he’s shortened up in an effort to dunk the ball into the opposite field or anything. Or maybe he has and it just hasn’t yielded any results yet, who knows. Tex’s season BABIP sat at .226 coming into the homestand but has since risen to .236, and you can see the gradual improvement here…

I remember seeing at least two balls eke their way through the shift on the homestand, and that’s part of the regression monster. Tex has definitely changed his approach since coming to the Yankees, making a conscious attempt to hit more fly balls, presumably in an effort to take advantage of the short porch. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hit for more power, but more fly balls means a lower BABIP, and that means a lower batting average. A lower batting average means a lower OBP, and OBP is king. In fact, if Tex had a league average walk rate this year (8.2%) instead of his current 11.4%, his season OBP would be .320. I don’t want to think about what it would be without those eight hit-by-pitches.

Anyway, we don’t have to worry about that. Drawing walks is most certainly a skill and getting hit by pitches is also skill (to a lesser extent), so it’s not like Teixeira is lucking into his OBP. Hit Tracker says just one of his 31 homers this year was “lucky,” this shot in the third game of the season, and I don’t think we’d have any disagreement about the enormity of his power. He was struggling in the worst way two weeks ago, and it can be particularly ugly when Teixeira struggles. He’ll pop the ball up on the infield or swing over top of offspeed pitches, which is as frustrating as it gets. He’s not doing that at the moment and appears to be on the his way towards another one of his hot streaks, when he’ll look like the best player on the planet.

A rotation question still without an answer

(AP Photo/ Bill Kostroun)

Phil Hughes wasn’t supposed to pitch well last night. He was supposed to go out and give up eight or nine or ten hits and a bunch of runs against a weak lineup (missing its best hitter) and gracefully bow out of the rotation in favor of Ivan Nova. That didn’t happen. He gave the Yankees a reason to keep him in the starting rotation, and now things are … complicated.

“We have to talk about this,” said Joe Girardi after the game. “Maybe we stay [with a] six-man rotation through another time. I don’t know what we’re going to do at this moment, but I’m happy with what I saw tonight, and I really liked it.”

I’m in favor of sticking with a six-man rotation for at least one more turn through the rotation, and not just because I’d like Hughes to make another start. The other guys in the starting staff, CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon in particular, are on pace for relatively large workloads and a few extra days of rest during the dog days of summer seems like a pretty good idea. The Yankees have a sizable lead on a playoff berth and can afford to be conservative this month. It seems odd to talk about having too many starters given how unsettled the rotation was in April, but this is where we’re at.

Nova starts on Thursday against the same White Sox lineup Hughes shut down last night, though Paul Konerko might be back by then. I suspect he’ll pitch well and the picture of what should be done won’t be any clearer. It seems silly to determine who does and who doesn’t deserve to be in the rotation on a start-by-start basis in this marathon of a sport, but that’s what seems to be happening right now. In a perfect world, both Hughes and Nova would be starting because you want to see if the former continues to make progress while the latter simply keeps doing what he’s been doing over the last three months or so. That just might not be feasible.

So now all we can do is wait. Wait and hope that Nova dominates the ChiSox on Thursday and makes the decision for the brain trust even harder. The Angels aren’t a great offense (.310 wOBA) and neither are the Rays (.313), so it would be nice to see if Hughes can build off last night’s start and maybe, possibly get back to being the guy he was in the first half of lasts year. That’s the best case scenario for the Yankees regardless of how well Nova pitches, and I think they owe it to themselves to see if last night was a sign of things to come or just a blip on the radar.

Hughes, Tex lead the way in rain shortened win

The night started with the tarp but no rain, and ended with the tarp and a lot of rain. The Yankees and White Sox managed to squeeze six and a half innings of baseball in between rain delays, enough for New York to score six runs and put themselves in position for what was ultimately a rain shortened win.

Not getting to that one, Alex, but nice try.

An Early Lead

CC Sabathia had a two-run lead before he even took the mound on Monday, and the Yankees’ offense gave Phil Hughes similar support in this game. Derek Jeter opened the game with a single through the left side, moving to second when Curtis Granderson drew a seven-pitch walk. Mark Teixeira tried to kill the rally by grounding into a double play, but Robinson Cano picked Tex up with a two-out RBI double. It wasn’t the two runs Sabathia got, but one run is better than none and it’s always nice to take the lead before your starter throws the pitch.

No, You Can’t Have My Rotation Spot

(AP)

Hughes had a lot at stake in this game. A subpar performance and he was almost certainly headed back to the bullpen, doomed to (a temporary?) fate of long-relief and spot starts based on how Joe Girardi was talking before the game. Given his recent performances against the wimpy Athletics and Mariners offenses, it seemed almost like a foregone conclusion that Hughes would pitch his way out of the rotation in this game. Phil wasn’t having any of that.

He came out of the game challenging hitters, throwing ten fastballs in a ten-pitch first inning, the final three at 95 and just one below 93. More fastballs followed in a nine-pitch second inning, though he did mix in one changeup and few cutters. The 17-pitch third inning was his longest, a four-batter frame that featured a ground ball single by Juan Pierre. The fourth inning required just 11 pitches, the fifth just eight pitches, and the sixth just ten pitches. Hughes was on a complete game pace until the skies opened up.

All told, Phil threw just 65 pitches in those six innings, broken down into 45 fastballs, ten curves, six changeups, and four curveballs. Yes, six changeups. I’d like to see more of that, please. ChiSox batters swung and missed at five of his offerings (three fastballs and two cutters), a 7.7% whiff rate that is still below average but worlds better than the 5.1% he had coming into the game. The White Sox didn’t get a single baserunner as far as second base in the game, he didn’t walk anyone, he struck out four, and got the same number of outs on the ground as he did in the air (six). Yeah, his velocity did drop off as his pitch count increased, but it declined to 92, not from it. That’s something that’s been getting better each time out, and frankly after this game, I’m not sure how the Yankees could pull him from the rotation. No, the ChiSox aren’t a great offense, but don’t they have to see if he takes another step forward? There’s no harm given their huge lead on a playoff spot.

Overage Charges (get it? too many Tex messages? hahaha … oh shutup, jerks)

Remember when Teixeira was struggling? When he couldn’t do anything but pop the ball up or strike out or ground into the shift? That sucked, but he’s been ever so quietly tearing the cover off the ball since the start of the homestand. He went 13-for-39 (.333) with four homers, five walks, and just six strikeouts during those ten games in the Bronx, then on Monday he opened this series with two hits. Although that first inning GIDP took the air out of what could have been a multi-run inning, Tex made up for it with a pair of homers later on.

The first came in the third inning and was a monster at-bat, a ten-pitch encounter that featured five foul balls (including two on changeups down, usually the pitch that eats Tex alive). John Danks eventually made a mistake and grooved a cutter, which Teixeira yanked deep into the left field seats for a two-run shot. He chipped in a solo shot in the seventh inning, coming in a much less dramatic at-bat. It was the 12th time in his career he’d hit a homerun from both sides of the plate in the same game, the most in history. It’s his second two-homer effort in the last four games and his fourth straight multi-hit game. The two dingers push his season total to 31, one behind Jose Bautista for the MLB lead. Tex is a streaky dude, but he’s definitely feelin’ it right now.

Leftovers

I’m not sure if this is how we all imagined Hughes getting his first career complete game shutout, but who cares, I’ll take it. Yes, they announced that all the stats do count even though they didn’t complete the seventh inning, so Tex does get credit for the solo homer in the top half of the inning (as does your fantasy team). Between CC Sabathia on Monday and the rain in this game, the bullpen is nice and rested for tomorrow. Rafael Soriano kinda needs some work, actually.

Despite the shortened game, every Yankee had at least one hit except for Brett Gardner. Jeter had a single and a double, Tex the two homers and a single, Robinson Cano a double, and both Andruw Jones and Eduardo Nunez singled. Granderson and Nick Swisher each singled and walked, and Russell Martin hit his first homerun since late-June and his second since May. He’s hitting .290/.353/.419 over the last week and a half, which I’ll happily take with his defense. Grandy, Tex, and Cano each stole a base, the first two together as part of a double steal.

Man, Michael Kay was in full blown mediot mode in this game. No, it didn’t rain during the rain delay, but the radar indicated that something was up. It’s not the end of the world that they had a delay with no rain, it’s not an embarrassment for the White Sox, it’s life. Weather reports are wrong all the time. You know if they had started the game on time and then had to pull the tarp for a delay after an inning or so, he’d complain about that too. Oh, and another thing: we don’t need to know exactly how many career hits Jeter has every single time he comes to the plate either, thanks. Sorry for the rant, but that gets on my nerves.

YES is really mailing in the trivia questions this series, eh? On Monday they asked which former Yankee was the last White Sox player to win the Cy Young (Jack McDowell), and on Tuesday they asked you the name the last player to win back-to-back AL MVP’s while showing you the newly erected statue of Frank Thomas. Not to sound like a total basement dweller, but those questions are as easy as it gets. I’m disappointed, you guys.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerdier stuff, and ESPN the up-to-date standings.

Up Next

They’re halfway there; game three of this four-game series will be played Wednesday night. A.J. Burnett and Gavin Floyd will square off in that one. If you’re in the Windy City and want to catch the game, RAB Tickets can get you there.

Montero homers in Banuelos’ SWB debut

Brad Halsey’s demotion to High-A Tampa was short lived, he’s been sent back to Double-A Trenton. It was a paper move and he never actually left the team, apparently. Ryan Flannery went back down in a very real move though. Corban Joseph, meanwhile, may have a stye on his eye and figures to be out a few days. It’s nothing serious, but they are kinda gross.

Triple-A Scranton (3-2 win over Lehigh Valley) both Brian Cashman and Billy Eppler were in the house for this one
Kevin Russo, 2B, Greg Golson, CF, Jorge Vazquez, 1B & Jordan Parraz, RF: all 0 for 4 – Russo drove in a run, struck out, and committed a fielding error … Parraz struck out once, Golson twice, JoVa thrice
Jesus Montero, C: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI – the homer was pulled to left-center field and came on a 97 mph fastball … good time to have a great game with all the heat watching
Mike Lamb, DH: 1 for 3, 1 BB
Brandon Laird, 3B: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 K – ten for 26 (.385) with three doubles and a homer since being sent back down
Austin Krum, LF: 1 for 2, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 SB
Doug Bernier, SS: 0 for 2, 1 BB, 1 K
Manny Banuelos, LHP: 5 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, 1 WP, 6-0 GB/FB – 62 of 100 pitches were strikes, and the unofficial count is 17 swings and misses … he gave up a homer to pretty good young player … was 90-93 consistently and hit 93 with his final pitch … for a 20-year-old kid (youngest player in the league), this is a fantastic Triple-A debut
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 2 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 2-1 GB/FB – 16 of 23 pitches were strikes (69.6%)
Buddy Carlyle, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1 HB, 1-1 GB/FB – seven of 12 pitches were strikes
Kevin Whelan, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 11 of 14 pitches were strikes … I guess he got the closer’s job back, finally

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