Series Preview: Mets (38-28) at Yankees (41-25)

It’s tough to run comparisons of AL and NL teams. Not only do the have a different number of teams in the league, but there’s also the DH to consider. For instance, should the Yanks have the advantage on defense because they’re not only in a higher league percentile, but because they have to face nine hitters rather than eight hitters and a pitcher? I’d say yes, but because the Mets’ raw number was lower I gave it to them. It might even be best to ignore the Edge category.

Last time the Yankees and Mets met, things didn’t go so well. The Yanks had trouble scoring runs all series — at least until the ninth inning. Even then their rallies came up well short and they ended up dropping two of three. They get a complete rematch this weekend, complete with pitching matchups.

Yanks on offense

The Yanks had no trouble scoring runs in the games leading up to the Mets series. They had, in fact, scored six or more in each of their previous four games. Against the Mets that magic kind of went away, though, and extended into the Minnesota series. From there the offense picked it back up.

It looked like they had really hit their stride on Tuesday when they rocked Roy Halladay. But they managed just four runs in the next two games, including just one last night. The Phillies pitchers did a good job of getting ahead in the count, and that apparently threw the Yanks off their game. That hasn’t dropped the Yanks from their percha top the AL in runs per game, but they have dropped behind the Red Sox in terms of wOBA.

Mets on offense

It took injuries and ineffectiveness to get the job done, but the Mets have a good lineup going right now. The injury to Luis Castillo has forced Jerry Manuel into sane decision making, as he’s moved Angel Pagan into the No. 2 spot. Jose Reyes remains at leadoff and has improved from his understandable early season slump. David Wright, Jason Bay, and Ike Davis form the middle of the order, and despite a general lack of power in that area they do form a formidable troika.

Castillo’s absence, however, has been a net negative. His replacement, 20-year-old Ruben Tejada, sits on an OBP below .300. I’m sure Alex Cora will get a start or two in his place this weekend against one of the righties. I also suspect Chris Carter will DH. He joins Rod Barajas in the bottom part of the order. They both join Marcus Thames in the We Don’t Hit The Ball Often But When We Do It Goes Really Far Club.

Pitching matchups

We’re looking at the exact same pitching matchups as last time. Hopefully the Yanks bats have better success the second time around, and that the Yanks pitchers make more adjustments facing the Mets for the second time. Unfortunately, the Mets have the reverse hopes.

Friday: Hisanori Takahashi (3.48 ERA, 3.27 FIP) vs. Javier Vazquez (5.43 ERA, 5.35 FIP)

Last time this battle was a pitchers’ duel for the ages. The Yanks managed just two runs, but thanks to some stellar pitching by Vazquez that was enough. Since then Takahashi has gone on to post excellent numbers. He’s striking out 8.61 per nine innings and walking 3.31. His biggest advantage comes from the home run, just four allowed in 54.1 innings. Considering his fly ball tendencies, this should correct itself at some point. There might be no better place than Yankee Stadium for that to happen.

Javier Vazquez took a huge step forward in his recovery last time against the Mets. He allowed just one hit through six innings and was going strong until he bunted one off his finger. We’ll just say that the injury affected his grip the next time out, when he got rocked by Minnesota. Since then he’s been nothing short of excellent, carving up lineup after lineup. With the offense struggling the Yanks could use another big night out of Javy. If he limits the homers to the solo variety he should be fine.

Saturday: Mike Pelfrey (2.39 ERA, 3.29 FIP) vs. Phil Hughes (3.11 ERA, 2.90 FIP)

With Johan Santana not exactly being his old dominant self, Mike Pelfrey has taken the reigns. He has been nothing short of excellent this season, improving his strikeout numbers while using his curve/sinker to keep the ball in the park. That, combined with a very high strand rate, has kept his ERA nice and low. He’s done an excellent job in high leverage situations, inducing plenty of ground balls. That’s how you strand runners. He has allowed just five hits in 42 high leverage situations.

The season started out well for Hughes, but he’s faced struggles of late. There’s nothing wrong with that, but his team won’t be able to score nine runs behind him every time like they did last Sunday against Houston. This actually represents a big test for Phil. Last time out he couldn’t finish off the Mets. They kept fouling off his cutter and pounding his other pitches. His ability to slip those pitches by the Mets will be the difference this time around.

Sunday: Johan Santana ( 3.13 ERA, 3.81 FIP) vs. CC Sabathia (4.00 ERA, 4.24 FIP)

Santana’s strikeouts are down, his walks are up slightly, yet he’s still posting good numbers. This is partly because of a very low home run rate. In the past Santana had a high-ish home run rate, but they were mostly of the solo variety. This year he’s allowing fewer despite a steady fly ball rate. It’s Santana, so I wouldn’t predict a correction necessarily. But it’s tough to keep up a 5.5 percent HR/FB ratio, especially when you’re allowing a lot of balls in play. That’s been Santana this year.

The Yanks’ own lefty ace has faced his own struggles. His strikeouts are still a little down, but it took him a while to get into a groove last year. He’s keeping the ball on the ground a bit more, though, which will be even nicer if he maintains it while raising his strikeout rate. Homers have been the culprit for Sabathia, as 12.8 percent of his fly balls have left the park. A correction there would go a long way towards his return to acedom. For what it’s worth, he hasn’t allowed a homer in either of his last two starts.

RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:05pm ET today. I’ll be arguing with a Mets’ fan about the Subway Series, so chances are it’ll get heated and I’ll drop an eff-bomb or two. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

RAB Live Chat

2010 Draft: Yankees sign first rounder Cito Culver

Via Sweeny Murti, the Yankees have signed first round pick Cito Culver. The team has confirmed the deal. He shortstop from Irondequoit High School in Rochester will head to Tampa soon, and join the rookie level Gulf Coast League squad when their season begins next week. Buster Olney says the deal is for slot money, which Marc Carig reports is $954,000.

The Yanks reportedly reached an agreement with Culver earlier this week, but had to wait until he graduated from high school on the 20th to make it official. I suspect he actually graduated today, and it’s just the ceremony that will take place this Sunday. It’s nice to have a first rounder signed early, the last time the Yanks did that was 2005. Welcome to the family, Cito.

Some scoring distribution inefficiencies

The Yankees, as we know, are in first place. They lead the league in runs scored and are third in runs allowed. This makes for an excellent combination that should allow the Yankees to keep up their winnings ways throughout the summer. In fact, because of a few inefficiencies that have cropped up early in the season, we might even expect more winning from the Yankees in 2010.

One thing that stands out so far this season is how the Yankees have fared when scoring or allowing six runs. When they’ve scored six or more runs they’re just 4-4. That seems like an awfully low record for sigh a high-run-scoring environment. In 2009 teams that scored six runs had a .725 win percentage. The 2009 Yankees had a .786 win percentage, 11-3, when scoring six runs. Yet when the Yankees have allowed six runs this season they’re 0-6. No one expects a winning record when allowing six runs, but in 2009 the Yankees were 5-8 in those games. They stand to pick up a few games on both ends of the six-run spectrum.

As a testament to the improved pitching staff, the Yankees are 33-2 when the staff allows three or fewer runs. That’s not just an improvement in record, but also an improvement of occurrence. It means that in 35 of the team’s 66 games, or 53 percent of their games, they’ve held their opponent to a level where their offense should give them the game. The Yanks only held their opponent to three or fewer runs in 45 percent of games in 2009, and went 67-6. The offense comes into play when the pitching staff allows more runs. When allowing four, five, six, or seven runs the Yankees are 7-15, .318, this season. Last year they were 32-32 in those games.

The distribution of these games will change, I think, because it seems that the offense has been just a bit inconsistent so far. They’re only a tenth of a run per game behind last year’s pace, while the pitching staff is better than a half run per game better this year. These overall results should eventually even out and give the Yankees a better breakdown. They’ll eventually score more runs when the pitching staff gives up a bunch. At the same time, the staff appears improved over last year, which should also give the Yankees more wins in low-scoring games.

The lack of walk-off wins might be concerning, but I think blown leads in the middle innings has had a greater effect. This year the Yankees are 33-5 when leading after six innings. Last year they were 66-4. They’re quite excellent when leading after seven or eight, so it looks like this middle-inning lead changes have not favored them to this point. And yes, the comebacks have been concerning. They’re just 3-18 when trailing after six. Last year they were 16-52. Yet they’re still scoring late, averaging 2.11 runs from innings seven through nine compared to 2.21 last year. The problem, it seems, is that this year’s comeback attempts have been futile while last year’s resulted in whipped cream pies.

In a way it’s unfair to compare the 2010 team to the 2009 team. They have a number of different players, and while the 2009 team was special, the 2010 team, because of the improved pitching staff, has a chance to be better. They’ve run into some oddities early in the season, though they did last year too. I think many of those will even out — they’ll win some games when allowing six runs and will win more than half the game in which they score six. It’s a good thing we’re just two-fifths of the way through the season. Plenty can happen from now until October.

Amidst some uninspired games, a tie for first place

The standings say first place, but do the results?

After beating Roy Halladay on Tuesday night, I figured the Yankees would have an easy go of it against the Phillies. Yet, the team’s offense could not oblige. The A.J. Burnett/Jamie Moyer mismatch came out the wrong way, and although Andy Pettitte threw seven strong innings, Kyle Kendrick made himself out to be an NL Cy Young award contender. By all accounts, it was a trap series.

As the usual post-game reaction unfolded on Twitter, Mark Feinsand of the Daily News let slip an interesting comment. Constrained by the medium’s 140-character limit, he said, “Tampa Bay has lost, so the Yankees will remain in a first-place tie if they lose. Not that they deserve it – or that it matters on June 17.” It seemed to be an overreaction at first by someone in the media who knows that the Yanks are under pressure to steamroll their way to the AL crown ever year, and the fans grew defensive. Yet, after some back-and-forth with Feinsand, I began to understand what he’s saying.

In essence, no team has played “deserving” baseball yet this year. Through that phrase, Feinsand didn’t mean that the Yankees were a bad team; he simply meant that they’ve not been an impressive team yet. They haven’t made a statement against teams they will need to beat to reach the World Series. With the best record in baseball, they’re not a bad club, but they haven’t shown the ability to dominate as the club did during its second-half run in 2009.

The Yanks have seemingly reached first with the highest win total by beating up on the little guys. In their 25 games against teams currently under .500, the Yanks are a whopping 20-5. As the Mets learned last weekend, it’s good to play the Orioles. Against teams that are currently over .500, the Yankees are just 21-20. Comparatively, the Tampa Bay Rays, co-leaders of the AL East, are 17-13 against teams currently over .500 and just 24-12 against teams under .500. The good teams will, as the Yanks have done, beat up the bad teams, but the great teams should also beat up the good teams.

But the question isn’t actually one about deserving first place. Rather, the question is a little more meta than that. Should we, on June 18th, care that the Yankees aren’t playing particularly well against good teams? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is no. Last year’s World Series championship Yankees went 51-24 against teams under .500 and an impressive 52-35 against teams that finished over .500. Getting there was the hard part.

As Joe detailed in a post on a similar topic in mid-August, the Yankees were just 24-29 against teams that were, at that point, over .500 and 40-13 vs. teams under .500. (Some of the teams that were over .500 in August ended the season below .500, and thus, the team’s total losses vs. .500 teams actually declined from August to October.) Joe noted that of the nine previous World Series winners, only four had winning regular season records against .500 teams. The Wall Street Journal had inspired Joe’s post, and the relevant piece of information remains so today: “The typical profile of a World Series champion in recent times is a club that cleans up on the weak and breaks even against everyone else.”

Right now, the 2010 Yankees fit that profile to a tee. They’re playing .512 baseball against the good teams and .800 baseball against the bottom-feeders. If those trends keep up, the Yankees should have a date with the dance in October, and at that point, as we know, all bets are off. The current club may suffer from bullpen problems, and it may have a weak bench. But today, they deserve a share of first place.

Yanks drop rubber game, fall 7-1 to Phillies

The Phillies came into this series having lost 14 of their last 20 games, getting outscored 98-48 in the process. They had two largely mediocre starters lined up to pitch after the great Roy Halladay, so everything looking to be in line for to the Yankees to take the series. Of course, everything went backwards. The Yanks pounded Halladay, got shut down by Jamie Moyer, and then got shut down by Kyle Kendrick. Something about not being able to predict baseball applies here.

Biggest Blow: Victorino Goes Deep

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

Andy Pettitte was on his game early on Thursday night, cruising through the first three innings without incident. The Phils managed to scratch a run across with a little help from a Ramiro Pena error (more on that later) in the 4th, but Andy wiggled out of the inning with just a one run deficit. Hardly insurmountable.

Philadelphia tacked on two more runs in the next inning on a Shane Victorino homer, which WPA says was the biggest hit of the game. It wasn’t a terrible pitch, an 86 mph cutter in the on the hands that Victorino just hooked into the seats, but the real mistake was walking eighth place hitter Carlos Ruiz on four pitches two batters earlier. Ruiz is a fine offensive catcher with a .401 OBP, but you’ve got to challenge him that early in the game. A four pitch walk to that guy is less than ideal, and it came back to bite Pettitte.

Biggest Out: Polanco Lays Out

Careful, wouldn't want to tear your orange wrist band.

Even though the final score was lopsided, the Yanks had some chances to get right back in this one, none bigger than the 6th inning. Down by three, Mark Teixeira drew a seven pitch walk in front of an Alex Rodriguez single, then Robbie Cano plated what turned out to be the team’s only run on a single through the 3.5 hole. That brought Nick Swisher to the plate with men on the corners, so a solid base hit and we would have had ourselves a ball game.

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

Kendrick’s first pitch was a cutter down and out of the zone, but the second one hung about as bad as a fastball can hang. Is was his pitch, but Swish just missed and fouled it back. Kendrick’s next offering was a 90 mph sinker that he again left out over the plate, but Swisher fouled it off behind third base. Third baseman Placido Polanco ran after the ball, though it looked like the tarp and a row or two of seats would get in his way. Instead, he basically swan dove on top of the tarp, snatching the ball away from the unsuspecting tourists in the front row. I assume they were tourists because any actual fan would have gotten in Polanco’s way. Definitely a weak effort by the silver spooners up front.

The Bullpen Lets It Get Away

The Yanks had themselves a chance in this one until late, when the bullpen came in and let things get out of hand in the top of the 9th. Joba Chamberlain started the inning by allowing a double to Ruiz, a run scoring single to Wilson Valdez (more on that later), and a walk to Victorino. He faced three batters, threw nine pitches, and recorded zero outs.

Joba was relieved by Damaso Marte, who walked Chase Utley to load the bases following a seven pitch battle that included a pitch to the backstop. Polanco again worked the count deep, forcing Marte to throw ten pitches before driving in the Phillies’ second run of the inning on a sac fly to center. Ryan Howard drove in another run with a sac fly, then Jayson Werth drew an eight pitch walk to put men on the corners for the below replacement level Raul Ibanez.

With the deficit up to four and his top lefty reliever having thrown 29 pitches, Joe Girardi brought in Chan Ho Park to clean up the mess. Ibanez doubled to left to drive in two more runs, and it wasn’t until a batted ball hit Ibanez going from second to third that the final out of the frame was recorded. A salvageable game turned into a laugher just like that.

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

Miscellaneous Annoyances

Pena missing that grounder in the 4th. The first thing they teach you in Little League is to get the glove down; you can’t let a ball get under the glove, no matter how weird the bounce.  When you’re hitting just .186-.234-.203, you’ve got to catch everything man.

The wheel play? What is this, 1968? When does that ever work? There’s no reason to get cute with the defense when the batter is WILSON VALDEZ. No only once, but twice they pulled that nonsense! My only hope is that because they got burned on it in the 9th, they’ll shy away from trying it again in the future.

Great call on Valdez’s stolen base in the 9th, Lance Barksdale. Replay showed he was out, but nah. Is Lance Barksdale even a real name? That sounds made up.

This is just the third time the Yankees have been held to one run or less at the New Stadium. They were shutout by the Nationals in the rain last June, then got Cliff Lee’d in Game One of the World Series. Three out of 121 ain’t bad. (h/t Ed Price)

A Little Bit Of Good

There were two semi-historic moments in this one that are worth mentioning. Pettitte passed Ron Guidry for sole possession of second place on the franchise’s all-time strikeout list, and Cano became the first Yankee since Lou Gehrig in 1936 to pick up 97 hits in the team’s first 66 games. Congrats to both.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Grumble grumble. FanGraphs has the WPA breakdowns and more, MLB.com the box score.

Up Next

The Yankees lost two of three to the Phillies in the Bronx last July and lived to tell about it, so this isn’t exactly the end of the world. The Rays lost, so the two teams are tied atop the AL East. The Yanks will look to right the ship against the Mets tomorrow, when they come to town to kick off the second leg of the Subway Series. All three games will feature pitching rematches, so tomorrow it’s Javy Vazquez vs. Hisanori Takahashi.