Series Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Remember last year, when the Yankees and Blue Jays didn’t play each other until the first week of June? No such luck this season, this mid-week three-game series will already be their third meet-up of 2011. These two clubs split a two-game set north of the border in mid-April before the Yankees took two of three in New York late in the month.

What Have The Blue Jays Done Lately?

After winning six games in a row two weeks ago, the Jays have alternated wins and losses since Wednesday. The Astros (!!!) took two of three from them in Toronto over the weekend, and they come into this series right at .500 with a 23-23 record. The Jays do have a +11 run differential though, so they should probably be 24-22 or something like that.

Blue Jays On Offense

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

There really is nothing you can do to stop Jose Bautista, and containing him is pretty much a fruitless endeavor as well. The best player in baseball has just three hits (two of which have left the yard, of course) and two walks in his last 17 plate appearances, but he’s still hitting .353/.500/.816 on the season. Joey Bats kills the Yankees, so just accept it. He’s going to hit a homer or four during these three games, there’s nothing the Yankees can do. He’s that good. Luckily, Bautista is basically the entire Blue Jays’ offense.

Adam Lind is on the shelf with a back problem, so just one other Toronto regular has an OPS north of .800. That’s catcher J.P. Arencibia, who does it with power (.276 ISO) and not by getting on base (.309 OBP). Yunel Escobar is sporting a fine .283/.363/.410 line, but the rest of the lineup … sheesh. You’ve got the likes of Corey Patterson (.271/.307/.431), impromptu cleanup hitter Aaron Hill (.241/.283/.319), Juan Rivera (.225/.315/.331), Rajai Davis (.252/.298/.327), Edwin Encarnacion (.244/.270/.336), and so on. Bautista and Yunel are really the only two Jays’ coming into the series hot as well.

One thing Toronto will do is run. They’re third in the league in stolen bases (46) and will run at will, in any count with pretty much anyone at the plate or on the bases. Davis is by far the biggest threat with a dozen steals, but Hill, Patterson, and Bautista will go as well. The best way to shut the Jays’ down offensively is the old Michael Jordan defense; let Bautista hit his homers but stop everyone else, especially the guys hitting in front of him.

Blue Jays On The Mound

Monday, RHP Carlos Villaneuva: Starting in place of the injured Jesse Litsch (shoulder impingement), Villanueva is being pulled out of the bullpen to make his first start since 2009. He’s had long relief appearances of 42, 51, and 69 pitches already this season, so he’s probably good for 80 or so pitches tonight. Villanueva’s career numbers as a starter really don’t tell us much of anything since they came so long ago and in the other league, but out of the bullpen this year he’s struck out 7.77 men per nine while walking 3.70 per nine and getting a ground ball 39.3% of the time. Those are almost identical to his career totals (8.05 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 40.4%), so he is who we thought he was. The former Brewer throws a lot of offspeed stuff, using his upper-80’s fastball just under 40% of the time. A low-80’s changeup is his favorite secondary pitch at a little over 25% of all pitches, though he’ll also throw a low-80’s slider more than 20% of the time as well. A low-70’s curveball fills out the rest of the pie. The Yankees have seen him twice this year, a one inning relief appearance in each of the first two series, so Villanueva shouldn’t be a total surprise.

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Tuesday, LHP Ricky Romero: Romero has a case to be the best pitcher in baseball that no one talks about. He’s young (turned 26 in December), left-handed, and in possession of gaudy peripherals (8.84 K/9, 3.10 BB/9, 55.8% grounders), and yet “Ricky Romero underrated” returns far fewer Google results (52,200) than “Ivan Nova underrated” (308,000). If Ricky pitched for the Yankees, he’d be a national hero. He held the pinstripers to two runs over six innings earlier this year, just one of his seven starts of six-plus innings and two earned runs or less. Romero throws two fastballs 34.7% of the time each, a four-seamer that averages 92.3 mph and a two-seamer at 91.5 mph. A mid-80’s changeup is his go-to offspeed offering, though he’ll also break out an upper-70’s curveball on occasion. One thing he does not do is pitch backwards; four out of every five at-bats start with a fastball, and he’ll changeup hitters to death when ahead in the count. The Yankees have seen plenty of him over the last two years and two months, but Romero’s so good that it doesn’t even matter.

Wednesday, LHP Jo-Jo Reyes: Uh oh, a young lefty the Yankees haven’t seen before. Reyes, who came over in the Yunel trade, has been surprisingly effectively for the Jays even though his ERA (4.08) doesn’t really agree. His 3.36 FIP is propped up by strong walk (2.40 BB/9) and homerun rates (0.55 HR/9) and not necessary the whiff numbers (6.84 K/9), but there is still some funny business going on here. Reyes has a .354 BABIP despite a mediocre 35.8% ground ball rate, which is backwards. More fly balls should equal a lower BABIP, so that and the strand rate (64.2%) are why his ERA isn’t as good as it maybe should be. Jo-Jo is similar to Romero in that he’s heavy on the low-90’s four and two-seamers with the occasional changeup, but he’ll also throw a slider semi-regularly. He’s on a bit of a roll now, allowing just eight earned runs (but seven unearned) in his last 28.1 IP across five starts. Like I said, the Yankees have never faced him before, but he isn’t going to miss a ton of bats and will allow them to put the ball in the air. I’ll take it.

Bullpen: Toronto’s bullpen comes into the series pretty well rested. Casey Janssen is the only guy to pitch both Saturday and Sunday, and both Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp have appeared in two of the last three games. Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor are fresh, ditto struggling closer Frank Francisco, who blew a tied game on Friday and has allowed six runs and six walks in his last six innings. Marc Rzepczynski is the lefty killer (.143/.250/.143 against) that also gets out righties (.219/.265/.344). He’s not just a specialist.

The toughest thing about the Jays’ bullpen is all the different looks they have. Camp is fastball-changeup, Janssen fastball-cutter, Dotel fastball-slider, Rauch fastball-slider-changeup, Francisco fastball-splitter, and Frasor almost all fastballs. It’s a sneaky good bullpen crew equipped to do whatever manager John Farrell needs.

Recommended Blue Jays Reading: Drunk Jays Fans, Ghostrunner on First, and Tao of Stieb.

The lost art of the come-from-behind victory

In the aggregate, the 2011 Yankees are not much different than our beloved 2009 team. After 44 games the teams are separated by just one game (the 2009 team was 25-19), and both had gone through rough losing streaks earlier in the season. Yet there one major, noticeable difference between the two teams that is evident even at this point. The 2009 Yankees had mastered the art of the comeback, while the 2011 team has struggled to erase deficits.

Just one time this season the Yankees have won a game when trailing after seven innings. They’re 2-14 when trailing after six, so that counts the victory over the Mets yesterday. Perhaps the most damning of all records is their 2-12 mark when trailing after five. That is, with 12 outs remaining, they’ve managed to erase just two deficits all season long. That doesn’t seem to be the mark of an elite team.

The Yankees’ mantra of patience is well known by now. Make the starters throw a lot of pitches so you can get to that vulnerable relief corps. Even if they don’t score runs in bunches off the starter, they can get to the weaker pitchers by making sure he throws 100 pitches in five or six innings. This year, however, that has not worked in their favor. The third time through the order against a starting pitcher the Yankees have hit .254/.320/.446. The first time facing a relief pitcher in a game they’ve hit .233/.318/.416. That’s not exactly taking advantage of lesser pitchers. Unsurprisingly, the 2009 team trashed relievers the first time they saw them, hitting .279/.373/.477. That’s how you stage late-inning comebacks.

Just how bad is the Yankees’ current record when trailing after five? The 2010 Pirates, the worst team in baseball, went 13-79 when trailing after five, a .141 win percentage. That’s essentially where the Yankees are at right now. Even the 2010 Yankees, who didn’t seem to have the same comeback luster of their year-earlier counterparts, had a 14-47 record when trailing after five, a .230 winning percentage.

(Of course, even those comeback-happy teams had a .273 win percentage when trailing after five.)

There are two ways of viewing this, of course. One is to take the first 44 games as a portend for the season and declare that the Yankees lay down too easily. The other is to realize that they’re probably not going to fare as poorly as a 100-loss team. Their record when trailing after five currently stinks, but it is not necessarily predictive of anything. In all likelihood, they’ll start to beat up on relievers more often and mount some late-innings comebacks. That should add a few more wins and a greater sense of aura, if you will, to the team.

The 2011 season has been frustrating for many reasons, and the team’s inability to score runs off of crappy relievers is just one of them. It is, thankfully, one area that they’re almost certain to turn around. It won’t get worlds better; as we saw, the 2009 team still lost the great majority of their games when they trailed after five. But rest assured that they’re not doomed to fail in these situations. Sometimes early season results can be more frustrating than indicative of true talent.

The RAB Radio Show: May 23, 2011

We’re about a quarter of the way through the 2011 season, so it seems like an appropriate time to talk about the Yankees’ hitters in comparison to their expectations. If nothing else, it helps put in perspective the comments that the offense is struggling.

Podcast run time 33:56

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

Bartolo’s Big Test

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Through six starts and three long relief appearances, the Bartolo Colon experiment has been a rousing success for the Yankees. The big guy has a 3.16 ERA to go along with a 3.52 FIP, and a 2.88 xFIP suggests that he’s been a little unlucky when it comes to the long ball. Of the six homers he’s allowed, two qualify as “Just Enough” shots according to Hit Tracker, which means they cleared the fence by less than ten vertical feet. That’s nothing. Colon has been throwing legit mid-90’s heat and is striking out nearly one man per inning while walking fewer than two per nine (8.42 K/9, 1.93 BB/9). We really can’t say enough about how good or surprising he’s been.

Tonight’s series opener against the Blue Jays is going to be perhaps the most telling start of Colon’s brief Yankees’ career, at least to date. Why? Because for the first time this year, a team will get a second look at him as a starter. Yes, Bartolo has already pitched twice against the Red Sox, but the first appearance was in relief while the second was a starter. That’s not quite the same thing. The Jays will be the first team to get a second look at Colon the starter, so now adjustments come into the play.

In his first start against Toronto (April 20th), Colon powered through 6.2 innings by throwing fastball after fastball. Just 14 of his 85 pitches were offspeed while the other 75 pitches were broken into 39 four-seamers and 36 two-seamers (PitchFX data). He only left the game because he’d reached his pitch count in just his first start. That fastball-heavy approach is the norm for Bartolo as we now know, and the Jays are surely aware of it as well.  Toronto has been one of the league’s better teams against the ol’ number one, so do the Yankees and Colon change up the game plan and mix in more sliders and changeups?

I don’t get a vote nor should I, but I’m in the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” camp. Let the Blue Jays first show that they’ve adjusted to the fastball-heavy plan before deviating from it. Why switch to Plan B when you aren’t even sure that Plan A is outdated yet? I definitely wouldn’t recommend going after Jose Bautista with the high heat again, but the other eight guys in the lineup? Go for it. Adam Lind is out with a back problem, so the only lefty power source they have is the recently called up Eric Thames (no relation to Marcus). Colon has shredded right-handed batters all year long, so stick with the heat and then adjust if necessary.

The Yankees have already gotten more out of Colon than I think they ever imagined, but in the back of our minds we all know that the next pitch could be the last. Yeah, that’s true for everyone, but Bartolo’s at greater risk given all his recent (and major) arm trouble. Tonight we’ll get our first real look at how he handles a lineup after they’ve seen him and had some time to refine the game plan a little bit.

Fan Confidence Poll: May 23rd, 2011

Record Last Week: 5-2 (45 RS, 19 RA)
Season Record: 25-20 (235 RS, 185 RA, 28-17 pythag. record), one game up in the loss column
Opponents This Week: vs. Blue Jays (Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, @ Mariners (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the (new and interactive!) Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


Eight-run 7th gives Yanks series win over Mets

The first six innings of Sunday afternoon’s game against the Mets was vintage 2011 Yankees. They scored a run early via the homerun but left a trillion runners on base while the pitching staff put forth a representative performance. We’ve seen this movie a few times this season, it usually has a sad ending. But not this time, the Yankees scored eight runs in the seventh inning, helping push them to a series win in the first leg of the Subway Series.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Big Inning

Through the first six innings of the game, the Yankees went hitless in a dozen at-bats with men on base. Not necessarily scoring position, just men on base. They wasted a Jorge Posada leadoff walk in the second, a Derek Jeter leadoff single in the third, and a Chris Dickerson leadoff single in the fifth, so when Brett Gardner slapped a leadoff single through Mike Pelfrey’s legs to start the seventh, we all figured it would be more of the same. Pelfrey was visibly annoyed at something after the hit, probably himself for not knocking down (though it wasn’t an easy play by any means), and it all came apart after that.

Dickerson took three straight balls and eventually walked on five pitches to follow Gardner, and when Frankie Cervelli tried to give himself up on a sacrifice bunt, the Mets’ starter instead hit him in the shoulder/chest with a pitch. Pelfrey’s next and final pitch (number 101 on the day) was a sinker that didn’t sink to Jeter, who found a hole with a four-hopper back up the middle. Both Gardner and Dickerson came around to score, tying the game at three, but the Yankees were just getting started.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The next batter was Curtis Granderson, the man with the second most homeruns on the planet, but he was ordered to sacrifice bunt the two runners up. I still don’t get it. Mark Teixeira was intentionally walked to load the bases and create the force at every base, and a giant hack from Alex Rodriguez resulted in a little dribbler down the third base line, perfectly placed to result in a go-ahead, run scoring infield single. Robinson Cano was next up and I thought his at-bat was pretty huge. Instead of hacking at the first pitch (like he’s prone to do), he just stepped back and took the first offering from Pedro Beato, which just so happened to be a ball. The next pitch was off the plate for another ball, then Cano jumped all over the 2-0 fastball for a run scoring single to short right field. It’s amazing what happens when you get a hitter’s count, eh?

The Yankees went 4-for-7 with two walks, a hit-by-pitch, and a sacrifice bunt with men on base in the inning, including three straight hits at one point. Gardner and Dickerson each contributed a two-run bloop double a few batters after Cano did his thing, turning the game into a total laugher. The  team finished the day 5-for-10 with runners in scoring position, and all five hits came in that seventh inning. The eight runs was the Yankees’ most in an inning this season, eclipsing the seven runs they hung on the Orioles late last month. Pretty much everything went their way for once; the bunt worked (in theory), the hits dropped in, they tacked on runs … it was glorious.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Mr. Nova Nova

Boy did Ivan Nova bend in this one. The Mets had him on the ropes seemingly all afternoon, but the young right-hander limited the damage to one inning even though he put a dozen men on base in six-and-two-thirds innings of work. The three-run second inning started with a weak ground ball single past the Jeter statue the Yankees have ever so kindly erected at shortstop, as well as a bobbled double play ball by Nova and an error on Jeter when he just flat out whiffed on a throw from Cervelli at second. The botched double play ball was the real killer, instead of a man on third with two outs, Nova was stuck with men on second and third with just one out.

Derp. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Nova’s big weakness is his complete inability to miss bats, and it showed in that second inning. Fernando Martinez worked a seven pitch at-bat before singling with two strikes, and a few batters later Willie Harris singled in Bay on a 0-2 count for the Amazin’s first run. Jason Pridie had another 0-2, run-scoring single two batters later. Nova came into this game having struck out just 4.95 men per nine innings and generating a swing-and-miss on just 4.2% of his pitches this year, well-below-average rates. One of his two strikeouts against the Mets was looking, and he got just five swing-throughs out of his 110 pitches.

It works for Nova because he gets a healthy amount of ground balls (50.7% this year, 14 out of 20 outs in this game), but when you’re stuck with men in scoring position with less than two outs, a run is almost guaranteed score against these types of pitchers. We’ll take three runs in 6.2 IP out of Nova all year long, but not every opposing team is going to go 2-for-10 with men in scoring position. Got a little lucky on Sunday.


You know who’s been sneaky good this year? Luis Ayala. The three-week stint on the disabled list makes it a little less obvious, but he stranded Carlos Beltran on second after taking over for Nova in the seventh before firing a perfect eighth. He’s struck out nine men in 12 innings this year, a 6.75 K/9 that’s well-above his career rate (5.90). Add in just two unintentional walks and about 45% ground balls, and you’ve got yourself a servicable middle reliever. Who knows how long it’ll last, but Ayala’s definitely contributed more than I ever expected him too.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Granderson’s first inning solo homer came on a sinker down and in, his 16th of the year. He didn’t hit number 16 until September 2nd last year, and he’s an equal opportunity long ball threat: eight have come off righties, eight have come off lefties, eight have come at home, and eight have come on the road. I wish Grandy could do better than a .328 OBP, but that’s nitpicking when he’s hitting the ball out of the park like this.

Jeter, Gardner, and Dickerson all had two hits, and Dickerson added the walk as well. He’s reached base in six of his 11 plate appearances since coming up. A-Rod went 4-for-5 with a strikeout, and he now has 13 hits in his last 26 at-bats. As ugly as that slump was, Alex is now hitting .324/.370/.529 in his last 17 games. I guess it’s all in the leg kick, eh? Jorge Posada, meanwhile, went 1-for-3 with a walk and a whiff and is now hitting .368/.538/.520 over the last nine games.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Heh, look at the flat part of the graph when Grandy bunted. Anyway, has the box score and video highlights while FanGraphs has some other neat stuff.

Up Next

Jose Bautista and the rest of the Blue Jays are coming to town for a three-game series starting Monday night. Bartolo Colon gets the ball against Carlos Villanueva, who is coming out of the bullpen to make the spot start.

Banuelos battles control in Trenton win

Josh Norris posted some video of Bradley Suttle and Tim Norton. Grant Duff was added to the Double-A Trenton roster after missing about a year with a stress fracture in his elbow, and Warner Madrigal will join the team on Tuesday.

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 loss to Indianapolis) seventh straight loss at home, tying a franchise record
Austin Krum, CF: 1 for 5, 3 K
Ramiro Pena, SS: 2 for 3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding) – nine for his last 28 (.321)
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 4, 1 K
Justin Maxwell, LF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K, 1 SB – 20 for his 36 hits have gone for extra bases (55.6%)
Brandon Laird, 1B: 0 for 4 – no Jorge Vazquez for two straight days after taking a pitch to the hand
Kevin Russo, 3B & Gus Molina, C: both 2 for 4, 1 RBI – Russo doubled and stole a base, Gus whiffed
Dan Brewer, RF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 K
Luis Nunez, 2B: 1 for 4
Andrew Brackman, RHP: 6 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 1 HB, 9-0 GB/FB – 54 of 95 pitches were strikes (56.8%) … before the sixth inning, he’d allowed 11 straight leadoff batters to reach base, eight of whom scored … 28 K, 27 BB in 41 IP is just awful
Ryan Pope, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HB, 1-0 GB/FB – 17 of 29 pitches were strikes (58.6%)
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 13 of 19 pitches were strikes (68.4%)
Ramon Randy Flores, LHP: 0.2 IP, zeroes – four of his seven pitches were strikes

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