Mad Max

Max Scherzer (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

This afternoon the Tigers will attempt to avoid being swept by the first-place Yankees (never too soon to flaunt that) when they send right-hander Max Scherzer to the bump against Phil Hughes. Scherzer is an interesting story in terms of health, development and projection. Originally drafted by the Cardinals out of high school in the 43rd round of the 2003 Amateur Draft, Scherzer declined to sign with St. Louis and ended up going to the University of Missouri. When he was drafted again in 2006 his stock had improved a great deal, and the Diamondbacks took Scherzer with the 11th pick of the 1st round. Scherzer debuted in the minors in 2007 and on the whole pitched well, striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings, walking 3.9 batters per nine, and posting a 2.87 ERA over 106.2 innings. As David Golebiewski noted, Baseball America named Scherzer the fourth-best prospect in the Diamondbacks system after the 2007 season, a system that at the time included Carlos Gonzalez and Brett Anderson.

In 2008 Scherzer didn’t make the team out of Spring Training but didn’t stay in AAA for long. The Diamondbacks brought him up in late April. Scherzer came in on relief of Edgar Gonzalez and pitched splendidly, not allowing a single baserunner over 4.1 innings and striking out 7 batters. The Diamondbacks responded by slotting him in the rotation the next time around and he made three starts, throwing 15 innings of 3.00 ERA ball and striking out 16. However in late May lefty Doug Davis returned to the Diamondbacks rotation after recovering from thyroid surgery. In doing so, he claimed Scherzer’s rotation spot and sent Scherzer to the bullpen.

Scherzer pitched in the bullpen for a solid month before the Diamondbacks sent him down to Triple A on June 13th to rebuild his arm strength. Unfortunately, Scherzer only made one outing before going to the disabled list with shoulder fatigue. He didn’t return for nearly a month, but when he did he looked like the Scherzer of old. The Diamondbacks rewarded his recovery with a late August promotion, and he made 6 starts to end the season in the D-Backs rotation. He hurled 25 innings over those 6 starts, with an ERA of 3.24, striking 33 batters, walking 7 and allowing 3 home runs.

In 2009 the Diamondbacks gave Scherzer a rotation slot, but he began the year on the disabled list with shoulder tightness. When he returned to the rotation fully healthy he didn’t disappoint. Making 30 starts, Scherzer pitched to a 4.12 ERA and 3.87 FIP over 170.2 innings. He boasted an elite strikeout rate at 9.19 K/9 and his walk rate was a respectable 3.33 BB/9. Despite shoulder injuries, and getting bumped back and forth between the minors and the majors, the bullpen and the rotation, Scherzer was blossoming into a very solid starter.

Yet the growth he exhibited in 2009 ultimately meant that his time in Arizona would come to a close. That winter the Diamondbacks shipped him off to Detroit as a part of the three-team trade that saw Curtis Granderson come to New York, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Dan Schlereth go to Detroit, and Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson go to Arizona. Unfortunately for Detroit, Max Scherzer got off to an absolutely horrific start. In 8 starts and 42 innings he pitched to a 7.29 ERA, allowing 54 hits and walking 16 batters, striking out only 26 batters. He allowed nine (!) home runs, and batters hit .323/.392/.563 against him. Clearly something was wrong with Scherzer, and the Tigers sent him down to AAA in mid-May.

He spent only two weeks in AAA, but whatever he tinkered with clearly worked. When he returned he faced the Oakland A’s and was dominant, going 5.2 innings, walking 4 batters and striking out 14. This began an incredible streak of performance for the young righty. For the remainder of the year he threw 153.2 innings of 2.46 ERA ball with a 9.25 K/9 and a 3.17 BB/9. Thus despite the fact that his first seven starts of the year left him with a 7.29 ERA, Scherzer finished with respectable numbers: 3.50 ERA over 195.2 innings, 3.71 FIP, 8.46 K/9, 3.22 BB/9.

Max Scherzer leans heavily on his fastball, and for good reason. It hums in at around 93 mph, but he’s been known to dial it higher. According to Texas Leaguers, Scherzer threw this pitch almost 65% of the time in 2010. He complements this with a very good changeup, a pitch that comes in at around 84 mph, and a slider that he throws at roughly the same velocity. Perhaps because of his high-quality changeup, Scherzer barely had any platoon split in 2010:

Scherzer vs. LHB: 8.42 K/9, 3.42 BB/9, 0.79 HR/9, 3.55 FIP

Scherzer vs. RHB: 8.52 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, 1.06 HR/9, 3.89 FIP

He struck out a few more righties and walked a few more lefties, but gave up more homers to righties than lefties. For his career, his FIP vs. lefties is nearly a half run higher than it is against righties, but it’s possible that he gained more feel and command for the pitch in 2010, thereby enabling him to be more effective against lefties.

One of Scherzer’s biggest weaknesses is his inefficiency. In 2010 he had the tenth-highest pitch per inning total at 16.8. This means that, on average, Scherzer was over 100 pitches by the end of the sixth inning. If the Yankees approach him with patience and grind out their at-bats then they may be able to get to the soft underbelly of the Tigers’ bullpen early in the game.

As a side note, Scherzer is a bit of a stat-head. Click through to this interview with Eric Seidman at Baseball Prospectus to read him discuss mechanics, release points, BABIP and Pitch F(x). It’s fascinating stuff.

Bombs away as Yankees top Tigers again

They don’t call them the Bronx Bombers for nothing. Two days after relying on a pair of homers to win the first game of the season, the Yankees clubbed three more en route to a 10-6 win on Saturday afternoon. The game was never really as close as the score implies; they jumped all over Brad Penny early and often, and it wasn’t until the later innings that the Tigers mounted a threat, when the third tier relievers let things get slightly out of hand.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Biggest Hit: A-Rod opens the scoring

The Yankees haven’t been particularly kind to Penny in recent years, and they took the screws to him again in this one. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira followed Brett Gardner‘s leadoff fly out with a single and a walk, respectively. Alex Rodriguez wasted no time getting his team on the board, lacing the first pitch he saw (a 93 mph fastball outside) into the right field corner to score Jeter and put two men in scoring position with just one outs. It was early, but at +.124 WPA, it was the biggest play of the game for the Yankees. A Robbie Cano single and a Nick Swisher sac fly followed, and New York had a three-zip lead before the second inning.

Honorable Mention: Tex & Martin each add three with one swing

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Mark Teixeira wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted to get off to a fast start this year. He clubbed a three-run homer for the second straight game, taking Penny deep on a 1-0 fastball in the second inning to put the Yankees up by six. The Tigers drew to within three by the fifth inning, but Russell Martin effectively put them away with a three-run shot of his own in the bottom half (with two strikes on him and two outs in the inning), his first homer in pinstripes. He’s looked pretty good behind the plate, blocking balls and framing pitches and what not, but his offense has been a pleasant surprise in the two games so far. Martin’s homer was worth 9.4% of the win, Tex’s 9.0%.

Biggest Out: A.J. gets Magglio

The half-inning before Martin’s blast, Detroit mounted a little rally off what had been a cruising A.J. Burnett. The right-hander retired eight of the first nine he faced (four strikeouts) before Austin Jackson took him deep for a solo homer, his lone blemish to that point. The fifth inning rally started rather quickly. Brennan Boesch lined a first pitch fastball back up the middle for a leadoff single, then Jhonny Peralta singled to left on the first pitch of his at-bat. Alex Avila also put the first pitch in play, grounding to Derek Jeter’s right to score Boesch. It looked like a tailor made double play ball off the bat, but Jeter couldn’t reel it in.

After three straight hits on first pitch fastballs, Burnett and Martin went to the hook against Brandon Inge. He ended up bunting the runners to second and third, then A.J. loaded the bases by walking Jackson. It was a classic Burnett meltdown, the kind we’ve seen plenty of times before, so Joe Girardi had David Robertson warming up in the bullpen. With lefty Will Rhymes up with a chance to tie the game with one swing, Burnett did something I don’t ever remember seeing him do: he threw three straight changeups. The first was over the plate for a called strike, the second down below the zone for a ball. Rhymes made contact with the third, grounding it towards first. Tex didn’t have enough time to start the 3-6-3 double plate or get the force out at home, so he just took it to the bag for the sure out.

The heart of the order was due up and two men were still in scoring position, so A.J. was hardly out of the woods. He started Magglio Ordonez out with a curveball for a strike, when got him to foul off a fastball for a quick 0-2 count. Ordonez has always been a high contact guy, never striking out as many as 90 times in a single season and only once striking out more than 80 times. He fouled off a curveball to stay alive, prompting a meeting on the mound between pitcher and catcher. Burnett gave Magglio another curve, the third of the at-bat, but he swung over top of it for the strikeout. A.J. had a tendency to let innings like that unravel last year, but holding Detroit to two runs in that spot was fine work. The strikeout improved the Yankees’ chances of winning by 6.2%.

Curveball. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Same Ol’ A.J. (on the surface)

Three earned runs in five innings is nothing special. It’s a 5.40 ERA, which is worse than A.J.’s 2010 mark (5.26), so in that regard it was the same old Burnett. However, the real issue last year was the sudden decline in strikeout rate, so it was good to see him fan six guys in those five innings. Of his 86 pitches, 55 were fastballs, 25 were curves, and the remaining six were changeups. Detroit batters swung and missed at eleven pitches total (seven fastballs and four curves), a well-above-average 12.8% rate. Burnett has been around 8.0% swings-and-misses in his two years with the Yankees after being close to 10% with the Blue Jays. One game isn’t enough of a sample to say anything definitive, but it was good to see A.J. get those strikeouts and swing-throughs.

And just to follow up Thursday’s recap, Burnett started five of 21 batters he faced with curveballs (23.8%) and just two with changeups (9.5%). Last year he threw a first-pitch curveball 19% of the time and a first-pitch changeup 2% of the time. After the game, Jim Baumbach reported that Burnett was pitching with a throat infection, a sinus infection, and clogged ears. Give him some points for fighting through it, but sheesh, get that man away from the rest of the team.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Whenever you score ten runs, it takes a total team effort. Brett Gardner and Jeter combined for four hits (two singles each), and Tex narrowly missed his third homer of the year when a ball just curved foul in the ninth. He also drew a walk and is hitting .286/.444/1.143 on the year. Hooray for small sample sizes. A-Rod drove in the first run of the game with that double, and also greeting Brayan Villarreal to the big leagues with a solo homer to left-center. Cano had a single and a double, Jorge Posada singled and walked twice, and Curtis Granderson singled as well. The only one who didn’t get in on the party was Swisher, who is 1-for-8 with three strikeouts so far. That’ll correct itself. Gardner and Grandy each stole a base too.

Eric Chavez and Eduardo Nunez came in as defensive replacements once the score got out of hand while David Robertson, Luis Ayala and Boone Logan threw garbage time innings, so the only players that still haven’t gotten into a game yet are Andruw Jones, Gustavo Molina, and Bartolo Colon. Of course Nunez made a throwing error on the routine play that would have ended the game, forcing Mariano Rivera into the contest. He retired Miggy Cabrera on three pitches, the only man he faced, for his second save in as many games.

ESPN has the attendance at 41,462 (79.4% of capacity), but I have a hard time believing that. The Stadium looked maybe half full on television and based on those at the game and on Twitter. Yeah, it’s cold and the weather wasn’t great, but show up and support your team people!

Believe it or not, the Yankees are 2-0 for the first time since 2005. Ayala and Logan made it more interesting than it needed to be during the last few innings, but a win is a win is a win.

WPA Graph & Box Score

I love it when they’re nice and boring like this. MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs some other cool stuff.

Up Next

The Yankees will look to complete the sweep tomorrow afternoon, when Phil Hughes and Max Scherzer each make their first start of the season. YES will carry that one at 1:08pm ET.

Saturday Night Open Thread

Granderson showed Will Rhymes how to get down. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Solid win today, and now it’s time to relax with friends/family and/or our open thread. The Extra Innings package is still in the middle of a free preview, so all of tonight’s baseball games are on television somewhere. The Devils and Islanders are also in action, plus there’s the Final Four. Chat about whatever, enjoy.

Game Two: Ex-Marlins

(Burnett Photo: Steve Nesius, AP. Penny Photo: James A. Finley, AP)

Once upon a time, A.J Burnett and Brad Penny were teammates taking on the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Well, Burnett was recovering from Tommy John surgery at the time, so he was nothing more than a spectator. Penny got the Game One start after the NLCS required all seven games, and he held the Yankees to two runs in 5.1 innings, a game Florida eventually won. In Game Five, he held New York to just two runs in seven innings, another win for the Fish. Penny’s recent history against the Yankees isn’t very good though. They tagged him for eight runs over ten innings during his 2009 stint with the Red Sox, resulting in a memorable MLB.com headline. Hopefully today leads to more of the same.

Of course, the real story of today’s game is Burnett getting his first crack at redemption, a chance to show that he’s put last year’s struggles behind him and can be a meaningful contributor to the team going forward. He showed off some revamped (but not overhauled) mechanics in Spring Training, which will hopefully help him find all those strikeouts that disappeared. Here’s the starting lineup, same as Friday’s…

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

A.J. Burnett, SP

Two games into the season, and we have our first FOX broadcast. How unfortunate. This game starts at 4:10pm ET, enjoy.

Pedro Feliciano Update: Via Peter Botte, the lefty says his shoulder is feeling better after a few days of rest, and he’ll play catch either Wednesday or Thursday. Three days ago we heard that he would be shut down for ten days, but he appears to be ahead of schedule. I just hope they don’t rush things and run into a setback. Brian Cashman said Feliciano was “abused” by the Mets in recent years, which apparently wasn’t enough to stop them from giving him a multi-year deal. How stupid does that sound?

Appreciating the finer notes of Coltrane

"Can be honest with you, CC? I hate jazz. I'm more of a showtunes kinda guy..." (Getty Images)

This past off season the Yankees and the Red Sox rarely went head to head on free agent and trade targets. The Red Sox weren’t really ever in on Cliff Lee, and the Yankees didn’t pursue Carl Crawford (except nominally) or Adrian Gonzalez. The Sox snagged Bobby Jenks, but New York’s bullpen was already strong, even without Rafael Soriano. The most important head-to-head battle was over Russell Nathan Jeanson Coltrane Martin. After the Dodgers non-tendered him, the Red Sox and the Yankees both pursued him. The Yankees ended up winning, getting Martin to agree to a 1 year deal for $4M. It’s clear that the Red Sox landed bigger fish this December, but the Martin move was a particularly savvy move by GM Brian Cashman, one that could pay dividends well into the future.

Russell Martin won’t remind fans of Jorge Posada when he’s standing at the plate. The last time he slugged over .400 was in 2007, a year which now seems aberrant in retrospect. Instead it seems more reasonable to expect a mid .300s OBP and a high .300s SLG, giving him an OPS of around .700. PECOTA backs this up, seeing a .360 OBP and a .379 SLG in 2011. While this isn’t the level of offensive production to which Yankee fans have been accustomed, or expect in the near future with Jesus Montero, it still remains a respectable output. As Patrick Sullivan noted last week, AL catchers averaged .245/.312/.374 in 2010. Martin will clear that with ease; the only question is by how much.

The beauty of the situation is that Martin can provide above-average offense while giving the Yankees a level of defense that they haven’t seen from the starting catcher in years, except for when Jose Molina became the starter to fill in for the injured Jorge Posada in 2008. In 2007 and 2009, Martin led the National League in runners caught stealing with 41 and 33 runners caught, respectively. In 2010 he was fourth in the NL in 2010 with 27. He was charged with four passed balls in 2010, and has a bit of a reputation of having a hard time with balls in the dirt in years past. Of course, fielding breaking balls in the dirt requires rapid mobility and flexibility, and Martin has dealt with knee and hip injuries in the past few years. Those injuries have reportedly healed completely.

As a result, Martin looks more agile and limber these days and is even able to flash a bit of speed. This was on display on Thursday when he swiped third base in the 3rd inning against the Tigers. This didn’t come out of nowhere. In years past, Martin has been a speedster on the base paths, swiping 21 bases in 2007 and 18 bases the year after. His totals decreased to 11 and 6 the last two years, but again this was likely the result of the injured hip and knee. As Marc Carig noted, perhaps the Tigers weren’t expecting Martin to flash his speed of old. Carig writes:

Martin wondered after the game if the Tigers have been reading too much into his surgically-repaired knee and his surgically-repaired hip, perhaps assuming that they needn’t worry that much about the surgically-repaired Martin.

They may be wrong, of course, at least that’s what he wants to prove, though he stole his base by playing on the Tigers’ false assumption. He wanted everybody to know he was feeling fine, then changed his mind, figuring that maybe he could catch a few more teams underestimating his health.

“Tell them I feel awful, that I’m super slow right now,” Martin said, after he was anything but those things against the Tigers.

Aside from his offense, defense and agility on the basepaths, Martin provides key flexibility at the most perplexing spot in the Yankees lineup. Despite a embarrassing wealth of riches at the catching position throughout the organization and two players on the 25-man roster with the ostensible ability to handle the position, the Yankees found themselves in a position of need this winter, and reached outside the organization. In doing so, they bought themselves flexibility on three separate levels. The first is with Posada, who checks in at 39 years young this season. Repeated foul tips to the head have both Posada and the Yankees organization worried about the long-term health of his brain. This piece by Bob Klapisch showed that the Yankees had done memory tests on Posada after a September foul-tip to the head, and that Posada had not scored well. Like the 49ers and Steve Young, the organization and the player were both concerned that further injuries could lead to brain damage. Designated hitter was the safe route and the smart route.

Martin also bought the Yankees flexbility with Posada’s immediate replacement at catcher, Francisco Cervelli. While Cervelli excels in enthusiastic fist-pumping, most reasonable observers would agree that he’s best suited as a backup catcher, preferably one employed against left-handed pitchers. The signing of Martin allowed Cervelli to return to that backup role. Unfortunately, Cervelli injured his foot in Spring Training. Having a backstop capable of manning the position in his stead means that the organization can be conservative with Cervelli’s rehabilitation and afford him all the time he needs to recover. This reduces the risk of Cervelli re-injuring the foot, or compensating for it and setting of a cascade reaction injury elsewhere. Martin lets Cervelli return in his own time, and to his own more suitable role as backup.

Perhaps most importantly, Russell Martin allows the Yankees to be patient with uber-prospect, future multiple MVP-winner, future All-Star and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Jesus Montero. How’s that for hype? No matter where you come down on the media’s reading of Montero’s performance this spring, it’s obvious that important people within the Yankee organization thought that Montero wasn’t ready. Both Girardi and Cashman seemed to agree that Montero was pressing, and that his defense wasn’t what it could be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – who doesn’t love a 21 year-old wanting so badly to make the big league roster that he gets over-anxious? – but it is nice that the Yankees don’t have to thrust him into a big-league role right away. Montero can get 100 or 200 at-bats in Triple-A, abuse the pitching, and come up in a few months when he’s nice and hot.

In retrospect, it doesn’t look like Russell Martin and Los Angeles were a good fit. Both Grady Little and Joe Torre seemed intent on Proctoring Martin, overusing him until he broke, and there were times at which he didn’t get along with the front office. That’s all behind him now. Martin is entering the physical prime of his career for the Yankees this season. If it doesn’t work out, no matter. The Yankees’ catching talent pipeline is nearly clogged with talent. If it does work out though the Yankees control his rights through the 2012 season and have gotten themselves quite a bargain at a premium position.

YES, DirecTV stave off blackout for now

As YES and DirecTV continue to negotiate a renewal deal, the Yankees’ network will not pull its signal from DirecTV until at least Thursday, the YES Network announced this morning. While the package deal expired yesterday, the two sides have agreed to extend their negotiating deadline until Thursday, April 7. The YES Network, a RAB partner, said it granted the extension “in order to continue negotiating with the goal of reaching a new agreement.” Today’s game is on FOX but the next five games are on YES. We will continue to follow this story.

Breaking News: Mariano Still The Greatest

Last name: Ever, first name: Greatest. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Opening Day has come and gone and there’s lots of serious baseball in front of us. It goes without saying the the Yankees have a terrible team that will in no way make the playoffs and will certainly finish in last place and go under .500, whereas everyone else will have a surging year. Wait, sorry, I was just reading Keith Olbermann’s blog again. Whoops. Anyway, Thursday’s win was, as Mike put it back then, textbook: score runs, have good pitching, hand it over to the shutdown bullpen. While the amazingness of the bullpen may have only gone up over the offseason (despite the price tag involved), there’s one part of that pen that’s been around for a while now. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell this audience who.

Mike posted this graph on Thursday, but in baseball you have to use both a combination of your eyes and the numbers to get a complete feel of the team. This Opening Day is just another example on the 15-year pile of examples of why the Greatest Ever’s name stretches across the top of that graph and no one else can get a lock on the closer role quite like the Yankees. Relievers are volatile creatures, as we all know, and it’s weekends like these where we remember that most closers are just relievers who were good enough last year to close the ninth this year.

Dan Bard, of the Red Sox, was the go-to closer in case of continued meltdown by Jonathan Papelbon. Bard was extremely good in 2010, making 73 appearances and posting a 1.93 ERA, a 3.37 FIP, and a K/9 over 9. Not bad for a 26-year-old, and certainly deserving of a shot at keeping Opening Day tied, right? Bard’s line from yesterday looks something like this: .2 IP, 4R, 4ER, 1BB, 1K. He took the loss in the top of the ninth. Somewhere, Papelbon was feeling just a tiny bit more secure in his job. Or let’s look at John Axford, who inherited the closer roll from Trevor Hoffman: last year, he picked up the job early due to Hoffman’s inability to not blow a game, and showed he deserved it with ERA of 2.48, a FIP of 2.14, and strike out to walk ratio pushing three – with almost 12 K/9. In 2010, he picked up 24 saves in 58 IP. In 2011, he’s already managed to blow his first save of the year, giving up a 3-run last-licks home run to Ramon Hernandez and taking Edison Volquez off the hook for the three homers he himself allowed. Then there’s Brandon Lyon, in the second year of his three-year contract (what have we said about multiyear contracts for relievers?) starting the Astros off to another cellar-dwelling year. He helped out the Phillies’ push to 162-0 by getting only one out and allowing six singles, giving up the game-winner to John Mayberry Jr.

While all these other guys were running around blowing games for their teams, our guy, the guy, if I may, is coming in and getting it done. Thursday was a perfect Mariano performance, a 1-2-3 topped with strikeout looking of Alex Avila. Yes, I know there’s some obvious narrative bias going on here. Yes, I know it’s one save out of what will be many. Yes, I know that this is only one game out of 162, most of which have yet to be played. Yes, I know Mo will almost certainly blow a save at some point during the year even if I’m loathe to admit it. Yes, I know the fact that Mariano Rivera is amazing isn’t breaking news. But there’s a difference between knowing how amazing Rivera is (among other things, he’s all-time ERA+ leader with 205), and having your belief re-affirmed for yet another year. While other teams’ closers melt down, Mo’s presence effectively ends the game in the 8th. While other teams’ rotate through closers, Rivera is the go-to guy every year for the Bombers, and every year he shows everyone – including the fans – why he’s the greatest of all time.

And come on, who wants to say they blew the save on Opening Day?