The Three-Four Trouble Spots

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Despite scoring just three runs in their last 21 offensive innings, the Yankees still lead baseball with a 126 wRC+ and are second in runs per game at 5.56. Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson have been the club’s two best hitters so far in this young season, but their two least productive lineup spots have been three and four. If you happen to be new to baseball, that’s traditionally where teams stash their best hitters.

The Yankees’ number three hitters have produced a .300/.341/.438 batting line in 85 plate appearances, which is actually 4% worse than league average despite that shiny batting average. Power and on-base ability matters. The cleanup men have hit a much uglier .206/.341/.368 in 82 plate appearances, a whopping 17% worse than league average. Every other lineup spot has been at least 2% better than average, most substantially more than that. It’s like this giant hole of non-production right smack in the middle of the order.

Other than a one-game cameo by Mark Teixeira, the three and four spots of the lineup have belonged to Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez this season. They’ve been flipping back and forth based on the opposing starter and Joe Girardi‘s whim, but it’s been those two since day one. Cano’s struggles — .264/.337/.413 — are frustrating but unexpected, plus he has gone 12-for-40 with five doubles and homer in his last ten games (.300/.378/.500). I’m very confident that he’ll continue to right the ship.

A-Rod has managed to stay healthy so far this year (knock on wood) but the performance hasn’t been there: .221/.329/.382 in 79 plate appearances. He’s been streaky in the early going — six bad games followed by seven awesome games followed by four bad games — but that’s expected this time of year. Day-to-day consistency is baseball’s greatest myth, it just doesn’t exist. I think A-Rod will hit better as a the season progresses though he’ll never be the guy he used to be, but the real problem as that two of the team’s least productive players are currently hitting right behind their two most productive players. It’s not a coincidence that Jeter has been on-base more times than anyone other than Matt Kemp but is only ninth in runs scored.

We know that batting order doesn’t made a huge difference over the course of the 162-game season, but in one individual game it could have a huge impact. I think the best solution might be to move Alex up in the order, not down. Bat him second behind Jeter, who is on base all the time these days and forces the pitcher to work from the stretch. Keep Cano in the three-hole and bat Curtis Granderson cleanup. It might help kick start A-Rod’s bat a little bit and if not, no big deal. They can always change things up in the future. Patience is a wonderful thing in baseball, but sometimes it’s okay to jump the gun a bit and make changes earlier than expected. Rearranging the lineup furniture at this point is perfectly fine and worth trying.

How much confidence does Girardi really have in Hughes?

Phrustrated Phil. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

After last night’s game Joe Girardi settled into his usual routine of defending his guys. “We believe he can do it, and I know he believes he can do it,” he said of Phil Hughes, who allowed four runs in 2.2 innings last night. After going into some details of what went wrong, Girardi gave Hughes a vote of confidence. “Our plans are to send him out there again.” That will come Tuesday against Baltimore. But could his leash be shorter than Girardi is letting on?

While Girardi verbally backs his players when the media comes knocking, his actions in this instance say something different. Hughes actually looked decent in the early goings, using just 11 pitches to work through the first, and then getting through the second on 14. His one mistake came on the first pitch of the second, when Adrian Beltre got out in front of a first-pitch fastball and crushed it. But after that Hughes recorded three straight weak grounders. Everything appeared in order.

The third started off well enough, with a strikeout of power threat Mike Napoli. But then things turned for the worse. Mitch Moreland singled, and then Ian Kinsler stayed back on a first-pitch curveball and hit a ball high enough, and far enough away from Nick Swisher, that he trotted into second base. A weak groundout followed, and while it allowed a run to score it did show another positive sign for Hughes. Two outs and a runner on third is no huge jam. But then he hit Josh Hamilton. Then came a single. Then a double. And then another hit by pitch. That left the bases loaded, still with two outs.

Girardi needed just one more out, and he needed it before the game, already 4-0 Texas, got out of hand. But Girardi did not trust Hughes to get the job done, even against the bottom of the Rangers order. Instead he put his trust in Clay Rapada, to get the lefty David Murphy, and then David Phelps, to stanch the bleeding and keep the game close for the Yankees’ offense. Things didn’t turn out well for them, as Phelps gave back a run immediately after the Yankees plated two in the top of the fourth. But it’s not the results so much as the decision to remove Hughes that stands out.

It could be that Girardi noticed that Hughes was overthrowing and failing to locate his fastball. Russell Martin certainly noticed it, saying, “We were missing, and in counts where guys were ready to hit the ball.” Hughes himself admitted to overthrowing, saying, “A little too much frustration probably came out physically. I try not to do that, but sometimes it gets to be too much.” If Girardi made the change based on these specific observations, in this specific game, then this might be nothing.

Given Hughes’s performances to date, however, Girardi’s early hook probably speaks his mind more accurately than his post-game press briefing. If he is losing faith in Hughes, and shows faith in Phelps, we could see a change on the horizon. That might not come within the next few starts, especially if Hughes handles Baltimore’s lineup on Tuesday. But changes will be coming in a few weeks, when Andy Pettitte returns. Freddy Garcia might be the victim in that case, but if Hughes considers to falter could the Yankees make an additional change and swap him with Phelps? After starts like last night, it certainly seems like a possibility.

Losing Michael Pineda

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

I can’t help but wonder if the anterior labral tear in Michael Pineda‘s right shoulder could have been avoided had he spoken up sooner about the soreness in camp, but what can you do. When you tell the kid he needs to compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training one year after he made the All-Star Team, you can’t be surprised when you find out he’s been hiding an injury. He’s going to do whatever he has to do to keep his job.

People like to assign blame in situations like this, but it really doesn’t help matters any. Blame Brian Cashman, blame the medical staff, blame Pineda, blame the Mariners, blame whoever you want. It won’t make Pineda’s shoulder any healthier. If you think this whole episode is a fireable offense, I won’t disagree with you. I don’t think you can have a trade of this magnitude go sour this quickly without someone being held accountable, I just don’t know who and neither do you.

When you boil it all down, the Yankees made the trade for Pineda because they’ve been completely unable to develop their own starting pitchers in recent years. Joba Chamberlain was the team’s best hope for a homegrown ace in quite some time, but he was forced to jump through some mind-numbingly stupid player development hoops. Phil Hughes hasn’t worked out for a number of reasons and Ian Kennedy was traded away before getting an extended audition. The IPK thing doesn’t bother me nearly as much as Joba and Hughes because at least he brought back an MVP-caliber player in the trade. That Ivan Nova has lasted as long as he has is a minor miracle.

As far as 2012 is concerned, the trade is a disaster. A complete and unmitigated disaster. The Yankees basically forfeited whatever Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi could have given them and instead won’t get anything out of Pineda or Jose Campos, who is in Low-A. I suppose they could always trade Campos for a big leaguer and extract 2012 value that way, but that’s another matter entirely. Given their recent track record of developing young arms, maybe they should trade him before they ruin him too. Okay, now I’m just trollin’.

Anyway, the Yankees made the trade for both short and long-term reasons. They thought Pineda would be a rotation upgrade in the immediate future and an ace-caliber hurler down the line. Pineda came with five years of team control before qualifying for free agency, but now the Yankees are going to get four of those five years in the absolute best case scenario. That means no setbacks, no performance decline, no further injuries, no nothing. One-fifth of their expected return has already been wiped away and they can’t get it back. They’ll be lucky if they only lose that much.

Pitchers are inherently risky, but unfortunately you actually need them to win. Good ones too, and Michael Pineda most certainly was very good last year. You don’t strike out a quarter of the batters you face with a 3.15 K/BB ratio because of good luck or because you play in a big home ballpark. I said that I thought the trade was fair on our podcast right after the deal went down, but I also said I would have rather kept Montero. This whole thing just sucks. I feel bad for Pineda as a person, I really do, but I’m also furious that there’s a really good chance the Yankees will get absolutely nothing out of Montero other than those 69 plate appearances last September. Mistakes are unavoidable in baseball, but not all are forgivable.

Yankees can’t overcome Hughes, drop rubber game to Rangers

It hasn’t been a good 48 hours for the Yankees, who officially lost Michael Pineda for the season and lost twice to the Rangers during that time. Wednesday night’s series finale was a 7-3 loss for New York.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Awe-Phil

I spent the last three or four years defending Phil Hughes the starting pitcher in this space, but I’m done with it. End the charade and put him in the bullpen already. If the Yankees had given Joba Chamberlain half the leash they’ve given Hughes, they might actually have a young, quality starting pitcher on their hands. But no, his stuff played up in the bullpen. Apparently that logic doesn’t apply to Phil.

Hughes retired seven of the first eight Rangers he faced — Adrian Beltre led off the second with a monster solo homer to dead center — but six of the next seven men reached base to end his night. I know Texas is good, really really good, but we’ve seen this movie before and the ending hasn’t changed yet. Phil’s fastball is still plenty good enough that he can be useful as a short reliever, so do it already. Hopefully Joe Girardi‘s relatively quick hook is a sign they’re losing patience with Hughes.

One Foot In The Batters Box …

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

… and the other on the plane. The Yankees checked out of this game offensively in about the fifth inning, after they stranded a runner at second base in a two-run fourth inning. Eighteen of the final 20 batters the Yankees sent to the plate made outs, with the two exceptions being a long solo homer by Raul Ibanez in the seventh and an opposite field double by Nick Swisher in the ninth. Just no fight, they were ready to get back in their beds back home.

The Bullpen

The blush is officially starting to come off the David Phelps rose, as he allowed three runs in 2.1 innings of work. He’s allowed six runs and 16 baserunners in his last two appearances, spanning 6.1 innings. Sure, the Red Sox and Rangers are two great hitting teams, but Phelps isn’t going to steal Hughes’ rotation spot like that. Clay Rapada (0.1 IP), Cody Eppley (1.1 IP), Boone Logan (0.1 IP), and Rafael Soriano (1 IP) all made scoreless appearances, though none of them recorded a strikeout oddly enough.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Leftovers

Derek Jeter led the game off with a single to extend his hitting streak to 15 games. He had another knock later on and is now hitting .420/.442/.642 on the season. Mark Teixeira managed to beat a) the shift with a line drive single the other way, and b) out an infield single. He also didn’t both to run out a weak little grounder that rolled foul then back fair, instead trying to play it off like it hit his foot. Robinson Cano singled and Eric Chavez drove in a run with a sacrifice fly.

Not for nothing, but Ibanez can really hit the ball a long way when he connects. His run-scoring ground rule double in the fourth looked like a bloop single off the bat, but that sucker carried out to the left-center field warning track. The homer was a moonshot as well, landing in the second deck down the right field line. Ibanez’s three homers this season have traveled like, a combined 1,800 feet. As Buck Showalter would say, his damage-to-contact ratio is off the charts.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs some more stats, and ESPN the updated standings.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

The Yankees are on their way back to New York and have Thursday off. They open a three-game series with the Tigers on Friday night, when Ivan Nova gets the ball against Justin Verlander. If you want to head to the Stadium for that one, check out RAB Tickets.

River Dogs win tenth straight behind Williams

Dellin Betances was one of five prospects off to slow starts highlighted by Kevin Goldstein today. You can read the article on ESPN or Baseball Prospectus, but you need a subscription either way. It’s the usual Betances stuff, meaning nasty stuff but likely to end up in the bullpen because he can’t throw strikes with any consistently.

Triple-A Empire State (8-6 win over Pawtucket) scored four in the top of the ninth for the comeback win
RF Colin Curtis: 1-4, 2 R, 1 BB, 2 K, 2 SB — 13 BB and 15 K this year
CF Dewayne Wise: 1-4, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 SB — threw a runner out at second
1B Steve Pearce & SS Ramiro Pena: both 1-4, 1 R — Pearce drove in a run and Pena struck out
C Frankie Cervelli: 2-4, 1 R, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — drove in the first two runs of the ninth
DH Jack Cust: 1-3, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 BB, 1 K — second straight day with a dinger
3B Brandon Laird: 1-3, 1 RBI, 2 K, 2 HBP
2B Jayson Nix: 0-5, 1 K
LF Kevin Russo: 0-3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K
RHP Adam Warren: 5 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 WP, 5/2 GB/FB — 60 of 98 pitches were strikes (61.2%) … allowed three homers as well, so hopefully this is just a bump in the road after two strong starts
RHP Adam Miller: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 1 HB, 1/1 GB/FB — seven of ten pitches were strikes … season debut after spending some time in the DL, hopefully he pitches his way into the bullpen mix later this summer
RHP Chase Whitley: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1/2 GB/FB — 17 of 21 pitches were strikes (81.0%)
RHP Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 0/1 GB/FB — just a dozen of his 26 pitches were strikes (46.2%) … struck out the last two batters to preserve the win

[Read more…]

Pettitte goes 5+ innings in Double-A start

Update (9:58pm): A quote from Andy, courtesy of Mike Ashmore: “I don’t feel like the strength is there yet when I want to hump up and get a little more on my fastball like I’d like to … It was another step in the right direction. I was a little disappointing with my command tonight. I feel like I made a few more mistakes than I had been making, but all in all, that was a good step forward.”

8:41pm: Andy Pettitte allowed three runs (two earned) across five innings in his latest minor league tune-up start with Double-A Trenton tonight, leaving the game after allowing a single to leadoff the sixth. He struck out three and walked just one, and Twitter told me there was some shoddy defense behind him. Pettitte threw 59 of 81 pitches for strikes (72.8%) and was sitting right around his usual 88 mph with the fastball.

Andy’s return became that much more important following the new’s of Michael Pineda‘s injury, but he’s still going to need at least two more tune-up starts before helping the big league team. The Yankees have said they want him to throw 100 pitchers in the minors twice before joining the rotation.