Game Five: Andruw’s debut

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Depending on who you ask, the Yankees have three players right now that should get into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mariano Rivera are the easy picks, but they aren’t the only guys on the roster with Cooperstown-worthy credentials. As good as CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are, fourth outfielder Andruw Jones has had a more distinguished career than any of them. From 1998 through 2006 (age 21-29), Jones averaged .270/.347/.513 (.365 wOBA) with 35 homers, 12 steals, and an unfathomable 25.5 defensive runs saved per season. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Unfortunately, Jones is no longer that player. He’s with the Yankees as a spare part, a guy whose sole purpose in life is to spot start against left-handed pitching, a job he may or may not be qualified for. He’s making his first start of the season tonight, adding to a lineup that has tattooed Twins’ starter Brian Duensing in each of the last two postseasons. The Yankees don’t need Andruw to be a cornerstone player, he just needs to take care of business at the bottom of the lineup.

Death, taxes, and the Yankees beating the Twins. The only certainties in life. Here’s the starting lineup…

Derek Jeter, SS
Nick Swisher, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Andruw Jones, LF
Curtis Granderson, CF

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and the game can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

It’s hard out here for a shortstop

Via Jennifer Gould Keil, ongoing construction at the Trump World Tower, where Derek Jeter lives in his $20M pad, was cutting into the Yankee captain’s beauty sleep. So Jeter came up with a sensible solution: he signed a one-year lease on a $15,500-a-month apartment at a different location in the building, away from the construction, that he now sleeps in. Practical, right? I had a similar problem about two years ago, but I just hit up Duane Reade for some ear plugs. I like Jeter’s idea instead.

Gardner’s trouble with the high pitch

During the first four games of the 2011 season we’ve seen something a bit different from Brett Gardner. It’s not just that he’s looked a little more aggressive, but it’s that it appears he’s swinging with a bit more authority. You can notice this especially on outside pitches. Last year he’d invariably slap at those pitches with one hand on the bat. This year he’s keeping both hands in place, and his swings look a bit harder. Maybe that will help in the long run, but for now it has caused him a few problems.

This chart comes from Joe Lefkowitz’s PitchFX tool, and it shows the trouble Gardner has had with any pitches up in the zone. Save for one lonely fly ball, he has done nothing but whiff at and foul off these pitches. At first I guessed that this had something to do with his revamped swing. It can take time to adjust. But looking back at last year might paint the issue differently.

That’s the same chart, only from April through June of 2010. Notice how there are a number of line drives in the upper half of the zone. They’re not predominant, but there are still a fair number of them. There are also a good number of fly balls, and presumably some of them went for hits. Finally, there are relatively few swings and misses. Now let’s move to July and beyond.

The green dots in the upper half of the zone nearly disappear, and ther are plenty more blue dots. We can then overlay that with foul balls.

Now it’s starting to look like an extrapolated version of Gardner’s 2011 chart. That has to be a concern. We know that Gardner’s ailing wrist affected his second half performance, and we know that he had wrist surgery during the off-season. He says he’s fine, and no one has given any indication that anything is wrong. But what we’ve seen from him so far is starting to resemble the second half of 2010.

After looking at this data, I’m just going to hope that Gardner is indeed working on some swing adjustments that will allow him to drive pitches with some more authority. That would go a long way in explaining his inability to do anything with high fastballs. The alternative just isn’t something I want to consider right now. Thankfully, we don’t have the data to make such a conclusion.

Looking at the Double-A and Low-A rosters

The anchor(s) of Trenton's bullpen. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The minor league season is now just two days away, so the rosters for the four full season affiliates are starting to trickle in. Yesterday we learned that David Phelps will get the ball on Opening Day for Triple-A Scranton, and over the winter I made an attempt to piece together the rest of the roster. Remember, that was back in December, so a lot has changed. I also took a stab at the minor league rotations and previewed the farm system as a whole last month.

Rosters for Double-A Trenton and Low-A Charleston were released yesterday, so let’s dive in and take a look. First up, the Thunder, courtesy of Mike Ashmore

Pitchers: Cory Arbiso, Wilkins Arias, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Steve Garrison, Shaeffer Hall, Fernando Hernandez, Craig Heyer, Kei Igawa, Tim Norton, Naoyo Okamoto, Graham Stoneburner, and Pat Venditte.

The Yankees signed Hernandez and Okamoto as minor league free agents back in February and October, respectively. The starting rotation is pretty clear cut with Banuelos, Betances, Garrison, Hall, and Stoneburner, and there’s a good mix of lefties and righties in the bullpen. Hernandez might be the de facto closer so Heyer and Venditte can pitch multiple innings in middle relief as part of their development. One of these guys has to go, since the Thunder won’t be carrying 13 pitchers on a 24-man roster, and I suspect it’ll be Norton.

Catchers: Austin Romine and Myron Leslie.

Infielders: Corban Joseph, Addison Maruszak, Yadil Mujica, and Jose Pirela.

Outfielders: Cody Johnson, Austin Krum, Ray Kruml, Melky Mesa, Jack Rye, and Damon Sublett.

Johnson was acquired from the Braves in November for cash considerations, and Mujica came on board a little more than a month ago. Baseball America ranked Johnson as Atlanta’s ninth best prospect before the 2010 season, calling him a “minor league version of Adam Dunn.” He owns a .233 ISO, a 10.0% walk rate, and a 39.0% strikeout rate for his career. I suspect he’ll see more time at DH and first base than in the outfield though, since his defensive value is nil.

Romine returns after posting a .328 wOBA last year, the right move for him after he wore down late in the season. Melky Mesa won the Florida State League MVP last year after putting up a .378 wOBA with 19 homers and 31 steals while playing center field. Those two figure to bat three-four in the lineup with Johnson providing protection in the five-hole. Krum (64), CoJo (58), and Pirela (57) ranked one-two-three in the system in walks last year, and I get the feeling that the first two will bat ahead of Romine & Co. Sublett provides some nice flexibility since he can play the outfield or the infield in a pinch. David Adams won’t be ready to start the season, he’s currently battling plantar fasciitis.

Heathcott and Murphy aren't the only guys to watch in Charleston this year. (Photo via Andy in Sunny Daytona)

Let’s move on to Low-A Charleston, with the roster coming via milb.com

Pitchers: Manny Barreda, Dan Burawa, Nathan Forer, Mike Gipson, Shane Greene, Tommy Kahnle, Fred Lewis, Rich Martinez, Zach Nuding, Mikey O’Brien, Wilton Rodriguez, Kramer Sneed, and Nik Turley.

It’s definitely a veteran-laden staff, in that most of these guys were drafted out of some kind of college (either four-year or JuCo). The only exceptions are Barreda (HS), Martinez (IFA), O’Brien (HS), Rodriguez (IFA), and Turley (HS). The Yankees have emphasized power arms in recent years, and this staff shows it. Nuding is a major sleeper after signing for $265,000 as a 30th round pick last year; his fastball has been clocked as high as 97, though he’s maxed out physically at 6-foot-4 and 265 lbs. Greene is another hard thrower and was the ace of last year’s Short Season Staten Island club. Those two plus O’Brien and Turley will make up four-fifths of the rotation, and the other spot could go to any one of Forer, Gipson, Lewis, or Sneed. Barreda, Burawa, and Kahnle are arguably the three best relief pitching prospects in the system, and all three offer big-time fastballs. Again, one of these guys is going to have to go because of roster limitations, maybe Rodriguez.

Catchers: Jeff Farnham, J.R. Murphy, Gary Sanchez.

Infielders: Kelvin Castro, Anderson Feliz, Jose Mojica, Kyle Roller, Rob Segedin, and Jose Toussen.

Outfielders: Kelvin DeLeon, Ramon Flores, Slade Heathcott, and Eduardo Sosa.

New manager Aaron Ledesma (former Triple-A Scranton third base coach) is going to have his work cut out for him with the lineup, just by making sure everyone gets playing time. Murphy and Sanchez will presumably do the catcher-DH dance that Jesus Montero and Romine enjoyed a few seasons ago, likely relegating Flores to first base so he plays every day. There’s also a chance Murphy moves around (he played third and some outfield in Instructional League last fall), but that doesn’t really clear up the logjam. Segedin will definitely play everyday at the hot corner, and masher Kyle Roller (.362 wOBA for Staten Island last year) is probably going to get stuck on the bench since DH and first base figure to be occupied by actual prospects. It’s a good problem to have, but it’ll take some creativity. Again, someone has to go because of the roster size, and I’m guessing it’ll be Toussen.

The process of elimination tells me that first rounder Cito Culver and fellow 2010 draft picks Mason Williams, Angelo Gumbs, Gabe Encinas, Taylor Morton, Ben Gamel, Tyler Austin, and Evan Rutckyj are staying in Extended Spring Training and will then be assigned to Staten Island or the rookie level Gulf Coast League when the seasons start in June. A (finally) healthy Abe Almonte, Rob Lyerly, Luke Murton, DeAngelo Mack, Kyle Higashioka, Jairo Heredia, Scottie Allen, Sean Black, and Chase Whitley seem like safe bets for High-A Tampa. Ditto Bradley Suttle, who will be repeating the level after last year’s .348 wOBA. That’s a shame, but it’s better than being released.

The RAB Radio Show: April 5, 2011

Ivan Nova had a fine 2011 debut last night, allowing three runs in six innings of work. Mike and I talk about various aspects of the game, including Girardi’s decision to pull him at 85 pitches, and with the bottom of the order due up in the seventh.

Then it’s onto tonight’s game, when the Yankees will face Brian Duensing. They know him well, as he’s started a game in each of the last two ALDS. They’ve bombed him, but he just seems like the type of guy who would give the Yankees fits.

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

Soriano not worried about missing velocity

As Rafael Soriano was busy retiring the likes of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the eighth inning of last night’s game, you may have noticed that his fastball wasn’t buzzing in with it’s usual oomph. The pitch averaged just 90.99 mph last night, down from the 93.0 mph he averaged last season. “I’m not 100% with my fastball,” he told Marc Carig after the game, adding that he doesn’t get all of his velocity back until May. He’s right; he started in the low-90’s before creeping up in the middle of the summer in each of the last two seasons. Ultimately, Soriano doesn’t seem concerned.

Missing velocity has been a hot topic in the early goings of the season, with most of the attention on Phil Hughes. He and Soriano are not alone though. Ivan Nova averaged 91.45 mph last night after sitting 92.9 last year. Jon Lester’s fastball averaged 93.5 mph in 2010 but sat just 91.19 on Opening Day. Felix Hernandez lost a full mile-an-hour when he sat 93.67 in his first start. Maybe everyone’s shoulder is hurt. Maybe it’s just the weather. Either way, there’s little use in getting worked up after one regular season start.

Ivan Nova’s approach against the Twins

Ivan Nova made his first start for the 2011 Yankees last night, limiting the Twins to just three runs in six innings of work. He threw only 83 pitches (50 strikes, 60.2%), so I’m sure he had enough in the tank for another inning, but with there’s no sense in pushing him this early in the season given the team’s bullpen. Just like last September, Nova looked like a hero the first time through the order but had to fight his way through the lineup after that, a problem not uncommon for young pitchers.

Despite apparent claims of “four plus pitches” from Rick Sutcliffe on the ESPN broadcast, Nova actually threw three different pitches last night: a fastball (55), curveball (15), and changeup (13). The Twins loaded their lineup with left-handers – Delmon Young and Danny Valencia were the only non-lefties/switch hitters to start the game – so it’s no surprise that he didn’t use his new cutter/slider at all. It’s just not a pitch designed to attack righties lefties. As you’d expect, Nova was pounding the ball to his arm side all night, or away from lefties in plain English. All he was trying to do was prevent those guys from getting around on a pitch and hooking it into the short porch in right:

Update: Apparently some sliders were misclassified as changeups by PitchFX, and he threw nine total on the night.

(via BrooksBaseball.net)

I was a bit surprised to look back and see that four of the six hits Nova allowed were doubles, and that they all came in just two innings (the fourth and fifth). Justin Morneau sent a 1-0 fastball into right-center for the two-bagger in the fourth, and two batters later Jim Thome doubled to almost the exact same spot on a 3-2 changeup to plate a pair of runs. It actually wasn’t a bad pitch at all, Thome just went down and got it…

Sorry for the crappy quality, but you can see that the ball is well down in the zone. That’s just straight up good hitting by a guy (that should be) headed to the Hall of Fame. Alex Casilla slashed a double past Mark Teixeira at first on a 1-1 fastball in the fourth, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka dunked a gapper to left-center on a 1-0 heater two batters later. The first time through the order, Nova allowed just one baserunner, a walk to Valencia (Thome also reached on a Derek Jeter error, which I’m not holding against the pitcher). After that though, he faced 15 batters and six of them picked up hits, including those four doubles.

As you’d expect, Nova was fastball heavy the first time through the lineup, throwing 22 of them out of the 28 pitches (78.6%) he needed against the first nine hitters. He scaled it down to 24 heaters out of 38 total pitches (63.2%) the second time through the order, and just nine of the final 17 pitches he threw were fastballs (52.9%). The third time he faced Joe Mauer and Morneau, each batter saw nothing but curveballs (only two pitches each, so SSS). The table on the right shows the distribution of pitches each time through the order, just so you can see the actually breakdown. Remember, Nova only faced six hitters the third time through the lineup.

Although he generated just six swings and misses (three on fastballs, three of curveballs), a dozen of the 18 outs Nova recorded last night were on ground balls (counting two double plays). He’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher (just 6.3 K/9 in the minors), but grounders are the next best thing and he’s always gotten plenty of those (53.5% grounders at High-A and above). If he keeps that up and finds a way to keep the opponent at bay after the third inning, he’s going to be a quality starter in this league for quite some time. The lefty-heavy Red Sox are going to be one hell of a test next weekend, but the Twins were a fine tune-up on Monday.