When in doubt, pull A.J. out

There aren’t many positives to take from A.J. Burnett‘s 2011 season. If we’re grasping at straws we can say that it’s an improvement on his 2010 season, but that consolation goes only so far. Of the 112 qualified starters, he ranks 95th in FIP and 74th in ERA, and is striking out about a batter less than his career average. In fact, his strikeout rate is barely better than last year’s, while his walk and home run rates are just about the same. On Monday he incited a collective groan among the Yankee faithful when he blew the 2-0 lead that the Yankees had handed him in the top of the seventh. It felt like more of the same for Burnett.

One thing Burnett has actually done this year is avoid early exits. In all 18 of his starts he’s gone at least five innings. That might not seem like a big deal, but when the expected No. 2 has a year like Burnett’s 2010, we look in odd places to find positives. In those first five innings he has actually pitched fairly well. THere are a few innings that are worse than others — the 4th seems to be a problem for him, at least for the 18 innings this year — but overall he’s not all bad to start off a game. It’s when he gets into the later innings that things fall apart.

To be clear, most pitchers follow a similar trend as the innings progress. It’s the simple effect of the pitchers having seen them more often. But with Burnett it’s quite a standout. Five of the 15 homers he’s allowed this season have come in the sixth and seventh innings, and many of them have ruined otherwise winnable games. It truly starts to get bad as he faces hitters for the third time, when they’re hitting .292/.379/.508 against him. Such are the perils of being a two-pitch pitcher.

This isn’t to say that Burnett always needs to exit after five innings. There are some games where he’s going strong. For instance, he’s pitched into the eighth three times this year, going 1.2 innings and allowing just one hit and a walk. But it’s pretty clear, both in the stats and in our eyes, that he sometimes just falls apart after five or six. Given what we know about Burnett’s volatility and what we know about his failures once the lineup turns over a second time, there shouldn’t be any hesitation to pull him when he starts to show signs of vulnerability. In other words, the Kearns homer on Monday never should have happened, because he should have been out of the game after Duncan’s single. What followed was a movie we’ve seen too often.

It does seem that Burnett has made some improvements from his 2011 season, particularly at the beginning of games. He’s not getting shelled and handing it to the bullpen in the third, which is a dull but real positive. But it’s clear that he’s prone to lose it once hitters see him for a third time. There are times when he can get through those late innings, when his curveball has plenty of bite and he can locate his fastball. But when signs of trouble appear, Joe Girardi should waste no time in removing him from the game. We’ve seen it, and the stats bear it out. The Yankees are better served with a reliever than watching another late-inning Burnett implosion.

Sabathia’s Strikeout Surge

The decline in CC Sabathia‘s strikeout rate was noticeable earlier this year. His 6.63 K/9 through his first 16 starts was his lowest since 2003 and marked the third straight year of decline. That’s not to say Sabathia was struggling, he certainly wasn’t, but strikeouts are a pretty good indicator of future success and no team wants to see its ace trending in the wrong direction. Three starts and 33 whiffs in 22.2 IP later, suddenly CC’s strikeout rate sits at 7.70 K/9, better than last year’s rate and identical to his 2009 showing.

Where have all these strikeouts come from? I don’t think there’s one thing we can to point to, but we might as well start with his fastball. After sitting comfortably in the low-90’s (somewhere around 92-94) all season, Sabathia has averaged 95 mph over his last three starts, topping out at high as 97-98. Here’s the velocity plot with a very noticeable spike …

His last three starts have been played in two different parks, so that decreases the chances of a PitchFX glitch somewhat. Sabathia chalks the increased velocity up to the heat, saying after last night’s game that “I’ve been able to stay loose … That’s a big thing for me. In between innings trying to stay loose and make sure I can keep sweating, and I think that’s a big part of my velocity.” Dave Pinto mused that it might have to do with his offseason knee surgery and weight loss; maybe it just took him some time to get used to his new body and now he’s finding his groove. His pitch selection tells another story…

Sabathia’s been fastball-slider heavy these last three starts, which is not a total surprise when you consider that the other teams rolled out lineups with an usual amount of left-handed batters. Three of the nine opposing starters in each game were lefty bats, and three pinch-hitters also swung from that side of the plate. Usually Sabathia will see about 21% left-handed batters, but it’s been more than one-third over the last two weeks. That plays right to his strengths.

It’s also worth noting that two of those last three starts came against National League teams in Yankee Stadium, the Rockies and Brewers. Both teams strike out more than the average club, a little more than once for every five at-bats. Add in one strikeout prone (Jason Giambi) and one rookie (Mat Gamel) designated hitter, and that strikeout rate probably goes up a notch. The Indians are the fifth most strikeout happy team in baseball at 22.6%. At risk of jinxing it, I’m going to note that Sabathia will face the Rays on Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Tampa has the second most strikeouts against left-handed pitchers in the AL despite the third fewest plate appearances.

“Milwaukee is still my best,” said Sabathia after last night’s game, referring to the most dominant stretch of his career. “I don’t even know what happened. It was just one of those things … That was two and a half months. This has been three or four starts.” It has been just three starts, three very fun starts against teams that can reasonably be called contenders. Sabathia is known to go on some major runs in the second half of the season, and it looks like 2011’s streak is just beginning.

Sabathia, Grandy get Yanks back in win column

It’s amazing how quickly a dominant pitching performance can make you forget about two disappointing losses. Add in a tremendous individual offensive effort, and those losses get even further away in the rear-view mirror. That’s what happened on Tuesday night, when the Yankees bludgeoned the Indians and put a quick end to their two-game losing streak.

Cured x2

Turning The Tables

The last time the Yankees faced Carlos Carrasco, he wiggled out of a bases loaded jam and some other trouble early on, but settled down and fired seven shutout innings in a Cleveland win. This time around the Yankees made him pay in the second inning, jumping all over the young righty for five runs. The big blows were Derek Jeter‘s two-run double (a legit shot into the left-center field gap) and Curtis Granderson‘s two-run homer (just inside the right foul pole). Those were the big hits, but the rally was set up by something the Indians did not do rather than something the Yankees did do.

Just like Monday night, when the Yankees let a foul-pop drop in to extend the seventh inning, Cleveland failed to record the third out of the second inning on a defensive play that should have been made. Nick Swisher (single), Jorge Posada (walk), and Brett Gardner (walk) were all on base for Frankie Cervelli with one out, who grounded what should have been an inning-ending double play ball to short. The out was made at second, but Cord Phelps’ relay to first took one hop and handcuffed catcher-turned-first baseman Carlos Santana, who dropped the ball and allowed Cervelli to reach. Swisher scored on the play for the game’s first run.

It’s a play that has to be made, and the blame probably goes to Santana’s inexperience at the position. This was just his 28th career appearance at first base and his 26th of the season. It’s not the most difficult of positions, but hops like that are tough to handle with so little practice. A regular, full-time first baseman would be expected to make that play, and I don’t even mean a stud defender like Mark Teixeira. Jason Giambi scoops that ball (don’t laugh, Giambi had no trouble scooping, he just had no range and couldn’t throw). It’s not an error because of the stupid “can’t assume the double play rule,” but the bottom line is that it was a play that had to be made. It wasn’t and it resulted in the inning staying alive and five runs scoring.

He pitches with his eyes closed just to make it a challenge.

CC Sabathia, Not An All-Star

This guy is on some kind of roll right now, probably his best as a Yankee. Sabathia fired seven shutout innings against his former team, striking out eleven and walking just two with 100 pitches on the nose. He struck out the side in three different innings, and in their seven at-bats with men in scoring position against CC, the Indians struck out … seven times. It’s the second time in his career he’s had back-to-back double digit strikeout games, and he’s the first Yankee to do it since Roger Clemens in 2002. Two words: Beast Mode.

Over his last three starts, the Yankees’ ace has struck out 33 and walked just five in 22.2 IP, raising his season strikeout rate from 6.64 K/9 to 7.70 K/9. By my calculation, his WAR has climbed from 3.0 to 4.5, which is simply ridiculous. And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with Sabathia not going to the All-Star Game next week. He’s obviously very deserving, but let him go home or on vacation and rest up for the second half. He’s earned it.

Cured

The season is just 84 games old, and Curtis Granderson has already hit the second most homers of his career. He hit numbers 24 and 25 in this game, eclipsing last year’s total (24) and bringing him to within five of his career high set in 2009. Did I mention the season is only 84 games old? The Grandyman’s season line sits at a gaudy .278/.370/.597 following the three-hit effort, and he’s just nine walks behind last year’s total in 161 fewer plate appearances.

Into the gap.

Leftovers

Jeter picked up his first two hits since coming off the disabled list, the first a dinky little infield single that the third baseman was unable to make a play on, the second that booming double into the gap. He’s now four hits away from 3,000, and for selfish reasons I hope he gets it Friday night, when I’ll be at the game. Either way, seems like a pretty safe bet that he’ll get the milestone hit at home during the Rays series.

Every single member of the lineup had multiple hits … except Cervelli, who went 0-for-5. Grandy, Swisher (two hits and a walk), Posada (two hits and a walk), and Gardner (also two hits and a walk) all reached base three times while Jeter, Teixiera, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano all had two hits. Gardner stole two bases, and he’s been successful in 17 of his last 21 attempts dating back to mid-May. His season success rate (22-for-32, 68.8%) is slowing inching back towards the break-even point.

As if there was any doubt, Lance Pendleton assured us that he’ll be going down to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the roster for Phil Hughes tomorrow. He allowed two runs on two hits and two walks in his two innings of mop-up duty, throwing 44 pitches. It’s been real, Pants Lendleton. See you in September and hopefully no sooner. Nothing personal.

The Indians have a very nickname-able pitching staff, I’m pretty jealous. We saw Frank “Pee Wee” Herrmann and Josh “The Judge” Judy in this game alone. Then again, I like good pitching staffs, so I’ll trade lame nicknames for pitching ability any day of the week.

Apparently David Cone’s mother texted him during the game to say that he and Michael Kay were talking about too much nonsense and not focusing on the game enough. Love it.

WPA Graph & Box Score

MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs the other stuff.

Up Next

The finale and rubber game of this three-game series will be played Wednesday night, when Hughes makes his (hopefully triumphant) return to the rotation against Justin Masterson. RAB Tickets can get you in the park if you happen to be in Cleveland.

Trenton drops both ends of a doubleheader

Cito Culver made it into this week’s Ten Pack (subs. req’d), in which Kevin Goldstein says…

Sometimes it seems like Culver was written off before he had a chance to prove anyone wrong … He’s a smooth shortstop with a rocket arm, and at least an average runner, so now we have to figure out if he can hit … Culver has made clear progress this summer, recovering from an ugly start to go 9-for-18 over the weekend and lift his season averages to .288/.346/.356 in 17 games. I’m not saying he’s the next big thing as much as I’m saying it’s very easy to make quick reactions, and that’s fine as long as you are willing to keep an open mind.

As for Kevin Whelan, I still have no idea what’s wrong with him, but whatever it is, it’s going to keep him out until after the All-Star break. Sucks.

Triple-A Scranton (5-2 loss to Lehigh Valley) no Jesus Montero for a second straight day, that sore back/side is probably still bothering
Greg Golson, CF: 3 for 5, 1 3B, 1 RBI, 1 K, 1 CS – 12 for his last 32 (.375)
Austin Krum, LF, Terry Tiffee, DH & Jorge Vazquez, 1B: all 0 for 4 – JoVa whiffed once, Tiffee twice, Krum thrice
Jordan Parraz, RF, Brandon Laird, 3B, Gus Molina, C & Doug Bernier, SS: all 1 for 4 – Parraz struck out … Laird hit a solo jack, struck out twice, and committed a fielding error … Gus doubled … Bernier scored a run and struck out twice
Luis Nunez, 3B: 3 for 4, 1 2B
Brian Gordon, RHP: 5 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 3-4 GB/FB – 50 of 72 pitches were strikes (69.4%) … he was probably on a pitch count after not pitching in two weeks
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K 2-0 GB/FB – 19 of 33 pitches were strikes (57.6%)
Randy Flores, LHP: 2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 3-1 GB/FB – 21 of 31 pitches were strikes (67.7%)

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Eric Chavez suffers (another) setback

Via Bryan Hoch, Eric Chavez suffered his second setback in as many weeks, this time involving his abdomen. He’s on his way to New York to get checked out. Last week’s setback involved his back. The original injury involved his foot, remember. Chavez is sure doing a fine job of filling Nick Johnson‘s shoes, and I have to figure the Yankees will be on the lookout for a left-handed bat for the bench at the deadline.