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Every other week, Jamie O’Grady channels the 2005-version of Michael Kay by “Looking Back. Looking Forward.” to get you caught up on what just was, and what soon will be with the New York Yankees.
LOOKING BACK: So what did you miss?
By now you’ve probably seen or read the accounts of Major League Baseball’s Game 162-madness on Wednesday night. With each League’s Wild Card up for grabs – and four teams (Boston, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Atlanta) vying for the two remaining postseason slots – a confluence of improbability, fate and justice occurred, the likes of which none of us are likely to again witness in our lifetimes.
Which got me to (gasp) thinking…
For some time now, we’ve been hearing that the National Football League has usurped MLB as the most popular sport in the land. The numbers back it up, too, as last year was the first time that a prime time World Series game failed to draw as many viewers as an NFL game being broadcast concurrently. Heck, even I was watching the Saints beat the Steelers on Monday Night Football instead of the 2010 Fall Classic. In fairness, the 2009 Yankees-Phillies match-up did beat MNF head-to-head just one year earlier, but the overall trend is indisputable and likely irreversible. Or is it?
There is simply no way that the NFL (and it’s wimpy 16-game schedule) is able to replicate what can happen at the end of MLB’s six-month regular season. Wednesday’s penultimate games had it all: comebacks with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth inning(s); players once buried on the bench, or better yet, just called up from the minors, making the unlikeliest of heroic contributions; and season’s fates hinging and turning on seemingly innocuous base-running blunders and pitching substitutions. It was all on display.
In a 15-minute span late Wednesday night, a virtually infinite amount of 2011 pitches, swings and managerial moves came to a head in one glorious and riveting crescendo. These games served as irrefutable evidence that Major League Baseball remains both viable and formidable, and I encourage everyone to stop comparing and contrasting America’s pastime with its worthy pigskin-obsession. Both are amazing, in very different ways.
Besides, football could never have produced a fantasy outcome like this one (achieved by my 12th-year keeper squad on the last day of the season):
What we learned:
9/16 – 9/18 @ TOR – I could tease Blue Jays fans about another hapless campaign by their franchise, but I’d actually have to find a Blue Jays fan first. Surely, that would be a fruitless exercise, but this Toronto season-postmortem by Bruce Arthur is a must-read for any baseball fan. On a personal note, I’d like to wish Brandon Morrow – he of the 11-11 record, 4.72 ERA and incongruous 10.2 k/9 – a joyous off-season. Despite his best efforts to repeatedly submarine my fantasy team, I emerged victorious nonetheless. Also, nice job by 1996 Cy Young Award
thief winner, Pat Hentgen, as bullpen coach for the Blue Jays this year; he showed great poise in using the bullpen phone. Oh, and Cy Young runner-up Andy Pettitte? Busy somewhere in the greater Houston area, misremembering to count his $125,332,416 in career earnings. (Prediction: NYY win 2-of-3) (Actual: NYY lose 2-of-3)
9/19 v. MIN – Way back in 2006 – I still had thick, lustrous hair back then – I wrote on MLB.com that fantasy owners should say more yes on Morneau. Sadly, it might soon be time for the Twins to say “no mas” on the former AL-MVP, whose 2011 season was somehow worse than his lost 2010 campaign was. Look, concussions are no laughing matter – unless you’re Gary Busey – but when you hit four home runs in 264 at-bats, it’s something of a red-flag for management. I like Morneau, and Canadian-born ballplayers sure are awesome, eh, but small-market teams like Minnesota can’t afford to swing-and-miss on big-ticket items. A free agent after the 2013 season, Morneau’s days with the Twins may be numbered. (Prediction: NYY win makeup game) (Actual: NYY win makeup game)
9/20 – 9/22 v. TAM – If there’s one thing you can predict in baseball (and there really isn’t, Suzyn), it is that doubleheaders can never, ever be swept. And so the when the Yankees clinched the AL East by winning two games in one day, it was yet another sign that the Apocalypse is nigh. By the way, you might recall that in my last piece, I advised you to keep an eye on young Tampa whipper-snapper, Matt Moore. Well, I probably should have told you to keep both of your eyes on him. 11 Ks in five innings in his first Major League start? That’s almost Strasbergian. Should be awesome watching him confound New York for the next six years until we buy him. (Prediction: NYY split 4-game series) (Actual: NYY win 3-of-4)
9/23 – 9/25 v. BOS – Early this morning came word from Ken Rosenthal that Terry Francona will not be retained by the Red Sox. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Clay Buchholz didn’t throw a pitch after June 16. Kevin Youkilis compiled 40 at-bats after August 17. John Lackey had the worst statistical season by a Red Sox pitcher in franchise history. Carl Crawford signed a 7-year, $142m contract to impersonate a 37-year-old Johnny Damon. Tim Wakefield started 23 games. David Ortiz totaled one home run and eight RBI during the month of September. Yeah, like I said, that makes a lot of sense. Don’t get me wrong, Boston endured an epic meltdown this season, and Francona’s lack of leadership didn’t help matters, but you can’t just part ways with the guy that brought you two World Championships after a century of futility. It’s just too bad Ozzie Guillen decided to go to the
Florida Miami Marlins. Just imagine the post-game press conferences that coulda been. Hilarity would have ensued. (Prediction: NYY lose 2-of-3) (Actual: NYY win 2-of-3)
9/26 – 9/28 @ TAM – And speaking of the Red Sox, I don’t want to hear any complaining about Joe Girardi‘s management of the team during this series, as the great Harvey Araton of the New York Times wondered on Thursday. You see, the Yankees achieved this little thing called “winning their division,” but by doing so, afforded themselves the luxury of resting key veteran players and aligning their pitching staff as they saw fit. Make no mistake, the Yankees played these games to win, even if their A-lineup wasn’t present for all three games. Boston has no one to blame but themselves, and maybe Mark Wahlberg, who the universe seems hellbent on blessing with every success possible. So take that, Marky Mark, Ben Affleck, et. al. (Prediction: NYY win 2-of-3) (Actual: NYY get swept)
LOOKING FORWARD: What can’t you miss?
Well, duh, there’s a baseball game scheduled for tonight at the big ballpark in the Bronx. If you’re so inclined, tickets can still be had via StubHub for as little as $60.00. Sure, you’ll need binoculars to spot little Brett Gardner, but at least you’ll be in the building.
What we expect to learn:
Folks a lot smarter than me have got the ALDS preview thoroughly covered here at RAB, so I’ll be brief:
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that beating the Tigers starts and ends with beating Justin Verlander. Sure, the Yankee staff must pay close attention to both Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez – .374, 10 home runs in just 107 at-bats and 17 career-homers, respectively, against New York), and Doug Fister (he barely knew her!) has been pitching like Tom Seaver of late (8-1, 1.79 ERA since being acquired by the Tigers mid-season), but the prohibitive Cy Young Award favorite and likely MVP-winning Verlander is the key chess piece for Detroit.
Amazingly, the fearsome Yankee lineup fared quite well versus the Tiger-ace in 2011, as Verlander compiled a mortal 4.50 ERA in two starts, both no-decisions. Additionally, New York worked 8 walks in 12 innings against the righty, a formula they’ll need to repeat in the ALDS in order to get his pitch-count up as quickly as possible.
Oh, by the way, the Yankees have their own ace, CC Sabathia, but there are red flags abound. If Sabathia’s 2.64 September strikeout/walk ratio and career 4.66 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in the postseason weren’t enough to make you worry, he’s also sporting a no-so-nifty 4.54 career-ERA and 15-12 career-record against Detroit.
In the end, I suspect the ghosts will be joined by mystique and aura once again during the ALDS, and the Yankee lineup will bail out their suspect starting pitching. Combine their offense with David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, and there’s reason to believe.
Having already proven myself inept in the prediction business, there’s no reason to stop now.
YANKEES IN FIVE
And that’s all she wrote. I’ll see you back here throughout the playoffs, unless you follow me on Twitter, in which case I’ll see you every five seconds or so.
Barring something completely unexpected, Justin Verlander will win the AL Cy Young Award this season. He might even win it unanimously, but part of me hopes the two New York voters vote for CC Sabathia just to troll like the two Detroit writers who voted for Magglio Ordonez as the AL MVP in 2007 despite Alex Rodriguez‘s otherworldliness. The Yankees are going to have their hands full in Game One tonight, so let’s take a look at just how full…
You’re not going to run away with the Cy Young without being dominant, and Verlander obviously is. His flashy 24-5 record distracts from a brilliant underlying performance, one that includes almost a strikeout per inning (8.96 K/9) and just over two walks per nine innings (2.04 BB/9). Verlander is a fly ball pitcher (40.2% ground balls this year, 40.0% career), so that helped keep his batting average on balls in play down a bit (.236 vs. .285 career). He has a bit of a platoon split, but nothing crazy. All told, the 28-year-old from Virginia pitched to a 2.40 ERA with a 2.99 FIP, contributing 7.0 wins to his team according to FanGraphs (8.6 according to Baseball-Reference).
You can make a pretty strong argument that Verlander has the best stuff in the world. He uses four pitches regularly, and according to linear weights, all four are at least 1.36 runs better than average for every 100 thrown (that’s the wR/100 column). Based on those values, Verlander had the sixth best fastball, the sixth best curveball, the 12th best changeup, and the 20th best slider in baseball this season (min. 150 IP). That’s pretty insane.
The breakdown is pretty basic, more sliders to righties and more changeups to lefties. Because his velocity is so elite, hitters almost have no choice but to start their bats early, which will lead to some ugly swings on the slow stuff. Verlander has a quick and deceptive delivery, and he really sells the changeup with his arm action.
Verlander is a very simple man. He uses that high-octane fastball to get ahead in the count, then he goes to town with all those swing-and-miss offspeed offerings. Because his stuff is so good, Verlander can throw fastballs in fastball counts (0-0, 2-0, 3-1) and still dominate.
How To Attack Him
There’s no easy answer here. The simplest thing to do would be to wait him out and attack either him with a high pitch count or the bullpen, but that’s much easier said that done. He’s a strike-thrower, and being passive will mean a lot of quick strike ones and strike twos. You’d almost be better off gearing up for the fastball early in the count rather than try to hit the stuff that breaks later in the at-bat.
Verlander averaged 7.38 innings and 115.9 pitches per start this year, so he’s a workhorse of the first order. He famously holds his velocity deep into games; it’s not uncommon to see 98+ with his pitch count over the century mark. The Yankees could work the count and elevate his pitch count early, and he still might be out there in the seventh.
Here is the Yankees’ ALDS roster:
DH: Jorge Posada
More than any other season in recent memory, this version of the New York Yankees was built on the anticipation of future improvement and change. This process began in earnest nearly one year ago when the Giants defeated the Rangers in the World Series. Despite turning a howitzer-sized spotlight on Cliff Lee, they watched him go to Philadelphia instead, and then found that the market beyond him was quite unattractive. The team headed into Spring Training with one known quantity in CC Sabathia, two quantities thought to be known in Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, and a slew of unknowns in Nova, Garcia, Colon and more. “Wait til the season starts, let the pitching trade market develop” was the refrain. “Something will pop up”.
Several things popped up, but for various reasons they were never a great fit for the Yankees. Ubaldo Jimenez’s price was sky high, and he wasn’t exactly a savior for the Indians once they acquired him. Other targets like John Danks and Gavin Floyd never materialized as expected. Hiroki Kuroda ruled himself out despite his team’s interest in trading him and the Yankees’ interest in acquiring him. It was simply a bad market. It still wasn’t over on July 31st, though. While it appeared unlikely, the Yankees still had the chance to obtain someone to bolster the pitching staff via the waivers system. Wandy Rodriguez was considered, but nothing came of it. As far as pitchers went, the team was rolling with what they started with.
The Yankees still had one ace up their sleeve, one final shot in the arm. It was the baby-faced kid from Venezuela, Jesus Montero: the big-time prospect, much anticipated, long-awaited and sick of being bored. In September he made his debut for the big league club and exceeded even the highest expectations we had placed on him. Montero was really the one and only big change to the team’s composition, though. As changes go, it was quite small.
This team has been stable and calm for awhile now. In a lot of ways, it feels like they’ve been playing September baseball for months. September baseball is by and large a languid affair. For a lot of teams the games are played by AAA players – prospects or organizational filler- as bigger and older names get some rest after a long season. Many of the games are played in half-empty stadiums now that kids are back in school and going to bed on time. Many of the games have little to no import in the grand scheme of the season. September baseball is a time for unwinding, for reflection on the season drawing to a close. It’s slow and peaceful, and it couldn’t be any different from the violence of October.
This violence was on full display Wednesday night when two teams had their seasons snuffed out right before their very eyes. This was particularly brutal for Red Sox fans, who went from expecting a victory and a Rays’ loss to realizing it was all over in the course of no more than five minutes. With two outs and Papelbon on the hill, one has to imagine many of the fans had already started thinking about Game 163, perhaps debating different potential starters. Maybe some of them were even looking past it to the ALDS rotation, considering which opponent they preferred to face. And then it was all gone.
It’s enough to make one nostalgic for September baseball, where everything is safe, where the games don’t matter and you watch for nothing more than the love of the game. In September other teams may look better than yours, but there’s always tomorrow. There’s always that next lineup, that next pitcher, that next game. There’s always time for trying new tactics, testing new players, tinkering with the lineup or the roster or hoping for a bounceback from under-performers. September ends tonight. There’s no savior on the horizon, no improvements to be made, no reinforcements coming. The Yankees are dancing with the ones that brung ’em.
With that in mind, and knowing that nothing risked will always mean nothing gained, there’s really nothing left to do but leave the safety of September. All that is left is to embrace the whirlwind with clear eyes and anticipatory hearts and hope for the best. There is no escape hatch, no way out, no Plan B now. There is only Plan A, and it’s the plan that germinates and sprouts deep down in the heart of every fan the moment they see those first photos of pitchers and catchers stretching on the green grass in February. It’s the same plan that motivates fans to stick with the team through the ups and the downs, through the dumb losses and the frustration. It’s the same plan that calls for the biggest payoff possible. It’s the same plan every year. It’s Plan A, and Plan A is to win eleven games and dance in the streets of lower Manhattan.
Via Mike Ashmore, Brandon Laird and Austin Krum have won the minor league Gold Gloves at third base and left field, respectively. Apparently they only give out one Gold Glove per position for the entire minor leagues, it’s not like there’s one set of awards for each individual league. I didn’t even know these Gold Gloves existed, but congrats to both guys. Laird seems to be getting a lot of love for his defense lately, which certainly wasn’t his strong suit when drafted.
The regular season is over, and the madness officially starts tomorrow. Obsessing over every pitch, leaning to the side to help every line drive go fair or foul, not looking when Boone Logan enters the games … we have all this and more to look forward to in the postseason. After all those meaningless games over the last week, the increased stress level might come as a huge shock at first. I suggest taking tonight to just chill out and relax, prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for what we’re about to go through. Use this thread to talk about whatever you like in the meantime though, anything goes.