Searching for a left fielder and finding one

Credit: AP Images, Julie Jacobson

When the 2010 season draws to a close, Robinson Cano‘s name will be in the mix for the AL Most Valuable Player award, and he’s certainly deserved it. Playing a stellar second base, Robbie is hitting .318/.380/.542 with career highs in home runs (26) and walks (50). After showing little patience during his first five big league seasons, his .062 IsoD is a pleasant and welcome surprise. But in one sense of the phrase, he hasn’t been the team’s most valuable player.

Enter Brett Gardner. Of the Yankees’ starting nine, Gardner is the little guy. He’s only the player in the team’s Lance Berkman-approved playoff lineup who has never been an All Star, and he’s the only player in the starting nine making less than $500,000 (or $5.5 million, for that matter). Yet, he’s second on the team in WAR and is now pushing nearly five wins above replacement level. While Cano’s emergence as a power-and-patience player has been a pleasure to watch, Brett Gardner is a true surprise.

On the season, Garnder is now at .284/.390/.384 through 504 plate appearances. He’s seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, ninth in walks with 70 and fourth in steals with 40. As a defender, too, his numbers are steller. His left field UZR is 16.9, and his arm is 5.3 runs above average. His eight outfield assists are second in the American League, and opposing teams have stopped running on his arm. Have I mentioned he’s making just $452,000 this year?

Last year, we watched in frustration as Melky Cabrera dominated the outfield playing time at the expense of Brett Gardner. He suffered through a poor debut in 2008 and couldn’t get into a groove in 2009. Penciled in as the stop-gap everyday left fielder until Carl Crawford hit the open market after 2010, Gardner was expected to man the nine hole, platoon in left field with Randy Winn and Marcus Thames and, hopefully, get on base 35 percent of the time. He’s been even better than that.

Lately, the Yanks have struggled to figure out how best to deploy Brett Gardner. He’s spent the bulk of the season at the bottom of the order, but his numbers in the nine hole are far worse than his numbers in leadoff spot. As the last guy up 199 times, he’s been on base just 35.1 percent of the time. Contrast that with his leadoff OBP of .440 in just under 100 plate appearances, and it’s a wonder anyone else ever gets to bat first. With his speed and patience, Gardner is a throwback to the feisty leadoff hitter of old.

Yet, with Gardner, there’s still a sense that this will all come crashing down. During the first half of the season, he hit .309/.396/.415 with 25 stolen bases in 31 attempts over 81 games. Since the All Star break, he’s hitting .236 with a very respectable .377 on-base percentage but his slugging has dropped to .324. He has successfully stolen in 15 of his 16 attempts over his previous 51 games. His BABIP has fallen from .360 in the first half to .315 in the second half, and his strike-out rate has shrunk from once every 6.4 plate appearances to once every 4.87 times at bat. Maybe the grind of his first full season in a few years is wearing on him; maybe the league is catching up. It’s worth it to note that, over his last 107 plate appearances, he’s hitting an impressive .301/.443/.410.

For the Yankees, then, they have a choice to make with Gardner and left field after the year is up. He’s clearly capable of putting up above-average Major League numbers and being an exceptional player. He’s also still under team control for a few more years: He won’t hit arbitration until 2012, and free agency won’t come to Brett until 2015. So does the team look to upgrade to a power-hitting free agent this year?

A month ago, I wasn’t so sure, but right now, I doubt anyone other than Gardner will start in left field next year. His presence on the team gives the Yanks flexibility in spending because they’re not pouring millions into that corner outfield position and are in fact getting $20 million worth of production out of their $452,00 investment. Even if he’s not a five-win player again next year, he’ll easily be in the 2.5-4 win range. Plus, his patience and ability to get on base — arguably his biggest assets at the bat — have not diminished as his hitting has slumped during the second half. I’d love to see Brett Gardner hit more doubles and a few more line drives, but as the Yanks enter a stretch of the season where every run is sacred, Gardner will have his role to play yet.

A visible difference from Swisher

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Nick Swisher is like a different hitter this year. In 2009 he was the same old Swisher, taking pitch after pitch in hopes of either running into one or drawing a walk. It worked out well, as he produced a career year. But he wasn’t satisfied with that. During the winter he worked with Kevin Long, which apparently resulted in a new stance and a new approach. Swisher is no longer the guy who finds himself with multiple full counts per game.

This year Swisher’s walk rate is a career low 9.3 percent after it was a career high 16 percent last season. Yet this doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily swinging earlier in the count. He has still seen 4.04 pitches per plate appearance this year, which, while worse than his 4.26 P/PA last year, still ranks 19th in the AL. The difference, it seems, is that Swisher is taking fewer pitches inside the zone, as evidenced by his 26 percent strike-looking rate, easily the lowest of his career. That means he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone, which are presumably better pitches.

You can see this in his strike zone plots. For 2009 I stopped at September 10 so we’d have a similar number of plots on each. Here’s 2009:

And 2010:

There’s a lot more white inside the zone this year. Most of his takes come around the edges, which is the way it should be. Last year he let a lot of hittable pitches pass him by. This year he’s taking advantage of those opportunities.

The result, by most measures, has been a smashing success. Swisher’s batting average currently sits at .292, even after a mild slump. He has never hit higher than .262 in any season. His wOBA is at a career high .383, thanks to a career-high .521 SLG. He’s hitting breaking balls much better than he has in the past as well. This has led to a much evener batted ball distribution. Here’s his 2009 spray chart:

And 2010:

There are more plots on the 2010 chart because he’s clearly put more balls in play this season. But the 2010 chart looks fuller, too. Swish has hit the ball to every part of the ballpark, while in 2009 he tended to put the ball into left field. He has used the right field line much more in 2010 and his doubles total, 31, just four fewer than last year, thanks him for it.

We’ve seen a new Nick Swisher in 2010, and it’s one that I think we can get used to. It’s amusing to recall that shortly after the Yankees acquired him that he was designated as fourth outfielder. Now he’s the right fielder of the forseeable future. Given the year he’s putting together, I think that’s something we can live with.

Rivera’s walk-off blast gives Trenton 2-0 series lead

Here’s Keith Law’s write-up about his scouting trip to see last night’s Double-A Trenton game (sub. req’d). “(Dellin Betances) is just 22, has good arm strength and has a workhorse, top-of-the-rotation body,” said KLaw, “but the poor command and secondary stuff put him far from any kind of high-end starter ceiling.” He also mentioned that Austin Romine looks straight up tired, and that Pat Venditte is basically throwing junk from the left side. Nothing new there.

Also, J.B. Cox was suspended following last night’s tantrum, and I suspect he’ll soon be released. Insubordination is bad enough, but there’s no need for the organization to tolerate that from a non-prospect. Especially when it’s not his first incident of the season.

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 win over Columbus in 10 innings) the best-of-five series is now tied at one … they beat up on an old friend in this one before blowing the lead late … The Ghost of Kei Igawa gets the ball in Game Three tomorrow
Reid Gorecki, CF: 0 for 3, 1 R, 2 BB, 3 SB
Kevin Russo, 2B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 SB, 1 CS – singled in the go-ahead run after Gorecki got himself into scoring position with a steal
Juan Miranda, 1B & Brandon Laird, 3B: both 0 for 4 – Miranda walked and struck out
Jorge Vazquez:  0 for 5, 5 K – aside from the game tying homer in the ninth inning yesterday, he’s 0-for-8 with seven punchouts in the series … he’s got to do better than that with Jesus Montero out
Chad Huffman, RF: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 K
Eric Bruntlett, SS: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI – check out the no-hit middle infielder getting in on the action
Justin Christian, LF: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI – he’s absolutely killing it of late … the hit streak is now up to 21 games
P.J. Pilittere, C: 1 for 3, 1 BB – who needs Montero? … I keed, I keed
David Phelps: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 6-7 GB/FB – 63 of 111 pitches were strikes (56.8%) … not his greatest effort, but good enough to win nonetheless
Royce Ring: 0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB – just two of his six pitches were strikes
Zach Segovia: 0.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K – ten of his 15 pitches went for strikes
George Kontos: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K – just 12 of his 25 pitches were strikes (48%)
Kevin Whelan: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 17 of 32 pitches were strikes (53.1%) … walked in the tying run in the bottom of the eighth … I’m sure Dave Miley really misses Jon Albaladejo right about now … actually, wait, Miley was ejected in the third inning for arguing a force play at second
John Van Benschoten: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1-1 GB/FB – just 11 of his 23 pitches were strikes (47.8%) … look at how many freaking guys the bullpen walked in this one, awful

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Open Thread: Off to Texas

Almost. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Yankees are off today, prepping for a flight to Texas to take on the slumping Rangers. Josh Hamilton and Cliff Lee are both banged up, and they’ve won just three of their last ten games. Of course that means very little, because Texas still has enough firepower and good enough pitching to beat anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

As the Yanks get ready for that matchup, use this for your open thread. The NFL season starts tonight, with the Saints taking on the Vikings in an NFC Championship Game rematch at 8:30pm ET on NBC. Baseball-wise, either the Cardinals-Braves or Rangers-Blue Jays will be on MLB Network depending on where you live. Chat about whatever you want, just be cool.

Yankees claim Steve Garrison, remove DeLaRosa from 40-man roster

Via Mike Ashmore, the Yankees appear to be claiming lefthander Steve Garrison off waivers from the Padres. The move comes at the expense of Wilkin DeLaRosa, who was removed from the 40-man roster to make room for Garrison. Much like the Chad Huffman claim back in April, this move has Kevin Towers’ fingerprints all over it.

Garrison, 24 this weekend, is a local kid from Trenton. Almost exclusively a starter in the minors, he works in the upper-80’s/low-90’s with his fastball, and also features both a curveball and a slider. Apparently he also throws a changeup as well. Garrison has battled injuries and ineffectiveness over the last two years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yanks shifted him to the bullpen full-time. Remember, the claim is not yet official, though the WDLR cut is.

Jeter seeking $20 million…

…for his apartment. As Derek Jeter‘s contract nears an end, so too is his time up as owner of Apartment 88-B of the East Side’s Trump World Tower. According to a brief bit in The Times, Jeter is looking to offload this apartment for $20 million. He originally paid just $12.6 million for the four-bedroom/5.5-bath condo in 2001. Curbed has some photos of the 88th-floor and its views of the East River, Queens and Long Island. Now, cue the rampant speculation of what this real estate deal means for his Yankee future in 3…2…1…

Mapping out a plan for Pettitte

Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

When Andy Pettitte left his July 18th start with a groin injury, the team hoped he would return within five weeks. Now, nearly two months later and with the Minor League season dwindling away, Pettitte is on the verge of his first rehab start.

Still, he and the team do not know when the lefty will make his triumphant return to the Bronx. In fact, according to Pete Caldera from The Record, the Yankees may ask Pettitte to make another minor league rehab start. “We’ll just wait and see,” Joe Girardi said. “What I want to see is command of all his pitches, and for him to come out of that start feeling really good.”

Besides Pettitte’s groin, the Yanks’ biggest concerns focus around the Minor League schedule. Pettitte takes the ball for the AA Trenton Thunder tonight in the second game of the Eastern League semifinals. The Yanks’ farmhands have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five set, and if the Thunder advance, Pettitte’s second rehab start would be Game 1 of the EL finals on September 14. He would then line up to start in Baltimore on September 19. If all goes according to that plan, Pettitte would enjoy four Major League starts before the playoffs.

The problems arise if Trenton cannot advance. Then, the Yankees would have to turn to their other Minor League teams in the playoffs. The AAA club in Scranton is currently playing in the International League postseason tournament. They lost the first game of their best-of-five set, and they too would play on September 14 if they can take three of the next four games from the Columbus Clippers. The Single A Tampa Yankees have advanced to the Florida State League best-of-five finals but play on September 14th only in the event of a full series. Trenton remains Pettitte’s best hope.

If Trenton doesn’t advance, the team’s plans for Pettitte could be up in the air. They could have him throw some intense sim games or work out in Tampa. They seem hesitant to bring Pettitte back after just one rehab outing and then against the Rays in Tampa Bay for a key AL East showdown.

As the Yanks enjoy an off-day and hope to get back their 11-2 lefty with his 2.88 ERA as soon as possible, all eyes will be on Trenton tonight. “I’m going crazy. I want to go pitch,” Number 46 said to Caldera yesterday. “I’ve been out almost two months. I want to go pitch and get going here. I feel like I haven’t done anything in so long, like I haven’t even pitched this year yet. I’m just excited to get back out there.” So are we, Andy. So are we.