The two LOOGY problem

(Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

The season is only three games old, but we’ve already seen the Yankees get burned by letting a left-handed reliever face a right-handed batter on two occasions. Clay Rapada gave up a double to Evan Longoria (and a walk to switch-hitter Ben Zobrist) in Saturday’s game, then Boone Logan gave up a homer to Jeff Keppinger yesterday. Stuff like that will happen over the course of a season, but it’s still a reminder of how problematic a two-LOOGY bullpen can be.

“It’s 6-2 and you’re down,” said Joe Girardi after Saturday’s game. “It’s the [seventh] inning. We’ve got a lot of days early on. We have one day off in the first 16 or 17 days, so we can’t burn these guys out in the first two days.”

First of all, let’s just ignore that Girardi basically said he doesn’t think his team could come back from four runs down. That’s an asinine statement we could facepalm over at some point in the future. The important thing is that he doesn’t want to burn out his bullpen, which is obviously very good to hear. Managing the bullpen’s workload is Girardi’s best trait, and it’s not particularly close. The problem is that the bullpen isn’t well-suited for two lefty specialists.

The Yankees’ three best relievers are tied to very specific innings. Rafael Soriano is the seventh inning guy, David Robertson the eighth inning guy, and Mariano Rivera the closer. Those are their innings when the Yankees have a lead, the game is tied, or when they’re behind a run or maybe two. That’s it. David Phelps is a rookie and the mop-up man, so his appearances figure to be sporadic and generally low-leverage. That leaves Logan, Rapada, and Cory Wade for the middle innings. Unless Wade can magically re-enter games at opportune times, Girardi is going to forced to use the two lefties in spots he normally wouldn’t. That’s how Jeff friggin’ Keppinger winds up hitting a homer and reasonably close games become blowouts.

“I can’t use Mo, Robertson and Soriano every day, and when we’re losing, we try to get some innings out of some other guys down there,” said the skipper yesterday. Like I said, I understand not wanting to overwork guys and I commend Girardi for it, but Logan and Rapada should not be used against righties at all. Unfortunately, they will be unless Phelps takes on more responsibility or Girardi becomes a little more flexible with his end-game trio.

4/9-4/11 Series Preview: Baltimore Orioles

(photo by J. Meric/Getty)

By now you’ve all read about the fact that the last time the Yankees went 0-3 to start a season was 1998, and we all of course know how that turned out; as well as the last time the Yankees were 0-3 and the Mets 3-0 1985; not to mention the last time both the Yankees and Red Sox started out 0-3 was 1966. This minutiae is important for your next trivia night at the bar, but for all intents and purposes, highly irrelevant.

Forget what you heard from the 2012 season’s first weekend. Three games are simply that — three games — and every team in baseball will lose three games in a row at some point during any given season. It just happens to be that much more magnified at the very start; no one like to see a zero in the win column for any longer than they have to. I happen to think the more interesting bit of trivia concerns when the Yankees last entered a set against the Orioles — currently 3-0 after feasting on the punchless Twins — trailing Baltimore by three games. As best I can tell the answers appear to be the morning of Monday, June 27, 2005, when Baltimore was in 2nd place (2.5 GB) and the Yankees were in third, four games behind the O’s.

In any event, the Yankees last saw Buck Showalter’s crew in early-September, finishing the season series off by playing a three-game set at Yankee Stadium (which the Yanks won, highlighted by Jesus Montero’s first career two-home-run game — and first two career home runs) and then a one-off back down in Camden Yards to make up for what many felt was a questionable postponement a week-and-a-half earlier. The Yankees played some pretty ugly baseball in losing both the game in Baltimore and the game prior by identical 5-4 scores in extra innings, though ultimately neither contest mattered much in the grand scheme of things.

On the whole, the Bombers have flat-out dominated Baltimore during the last decade-plus; since the advent of the unbalanced schedule, the Yankees have gone 135-67 (a .668 winning percentage) against the birds, which is just pure ownership. Of course, pretty much everyone in MLB has had their way with the O’s during this timeframe, who last finished above .500 fourteen seasons ago in 1997 and are coming off four-straight last-place finishes.

Last winter I thought Baltimore actually looked like a team on the rise, as the O’s appeared to have several promising young starting pitchers on the verge of breaking out and an offense that looked quite robust on paper. Alas, onetime-future-lefty-ace Brian Matusz took a massive step backwards; enigmatic-but-talented left-hander Zach Britton — currently on the shelf following plasma therapy and not expected to be ready to go until May at the earliest — got tarred and feathered before showing signs of starting to put it together near the end of the season; and Jake Arrieta had a rough year that saw him continue to feast on the Yankees but get eaten alive by everyone else. Incredibly ineffective starting pitching combined with a middling bullpen led the Orioles’ pitching staff to the worst collective ERA (4.92) and FIP (4.67) in the Majors last season. The offense also struggled, coming in at a below-league-average 97 wRC+.

Unfortunately for the O’s and their fans, things don’t appear to be getting much better for the franchise any time soon, as their very public search for a new general manager during the offseason saw them embarrassingly get turned down by qualified candidate after qualified candidate, until former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette agreed to take the reins after being out of professional baseball for nearly a decade. That the O’s had anywhere from a 0.5% to a 2.2% chance of making the postseason before they even played a single game in 2012 speaks volumes about where the franchise presently stands.

The lineup the 2012 O’s will send out against the Yankees features many of the same names as last year, with the only notable new faces coming in the person of former Bombers Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters make for a formidable one-two punch in the four-five slots while Mark Reynolds (2nd-highest HR/FB% in MLB last year) is always a home-run threat when he’s not busy striking out, but the remainder of the lineup is relatively uninspiring. J.J. Hardy had a nice season last year but needs to show he can do it again, while many have been waiting three years for Nick Markakis to replicate his breakout 2008 season to no avail. Still, while the O’s are a virtual lock for a fifth-straight last-place finish, this is still a team that’s going to score some runs and annoyingly win some ballgames it probably has no business winning.

Pitching Match-Ups

In tonight’s opener the Yankees will send Ivan Nova, fresh off an ugly spring, to the hill against the lefty Matusz, who had a better spring than Nova (3.65 ERA in 24.2 IP) but still has a fair amount to prove after the pasting he took last year. Matusz is pretty close to being a classic slop-throwing lefty, but his average fastball is just over 90mph, so he’s not quite in Jason Vargas territory. His bread-and-butter is his change, which comes in ~8mph slower than his fastball and is his only above-average Whiff/Swing pitch. Matusz will also mix in a sinker (15% of the time), curve (11%) and slider (8%). The slider took a step backwards last year — as did basically his entire repertoire — but has been one of his better pitches despite relatively infrequent deployment.

Tomorrow night’s game features Freddy Garcia vs. former Nippon Professional Baseball player and MLB rookie Wei-Yin Chen. Chen, a Taiwanese left-hander who the O’s signed to a three-year deal with a club option this past winter, won the fifth starter slot in the O’s rotation thanks in part to a strong spring (3.60 ERA in 20 IP). Chen apparently throws a low-90s fastball, slider, splitter/forkball and curve. I really have no idea what to expect from Chen in his stateside debut, although I can’t think of too many lefties off the top of my head that feature a splitter, so I’ll be interested to see when and how he deploys that pitch.

And the Wednesday evening finale sees both teams’ rotations turn over as CC Sabathia takes on the aforementioned Arrieta. The righty Arrieta wasn’t quite as good against the Yankees last season as I made him out to be several paragraphs above (4.24 ERA over three starts), but they never seem to blow him out of the water, either. Arrieta features a very live fastball (avg. vel. 93.5mph) that he complements with a sinker (26% of the time), slider (16%), curveball (14%) and occasional change (9%). Arrieta didn’t exactly have an amazing spring (6.14 ERA in 14.2 IP) but still got the opening day nod from Showalter — a strong vote of confidence from his skipper considering cases could have been made for either Tommy Hunter or Jason Hammel. As it so happens, Arrieta rewarded his manager’s faith with seven shutout innings on Opening Day against Minnesota.

Prediction

I know Mike and Joe historically haven’t offered predictions, but I’ve always enjoyed concluding my series previews with them. The easy call here is Yankees two out of three — I could see them losing one of the first two if Nova can’t shake off his rough spring or the Bombers decide its 2010 all over again and are unable to figure out the previously-unseen Chen, while Sabathia should make quick work of the O’s (who he’s gone 11-2 against as a Yankee) in the finale.

Fan Confidence Poll: April 9th, 2012

Record Last Week: 0-3 (12 RS, 18 RA)
Season Record: 0-3 (12 RS, 18 RA, 1-2 pythag. record), 3.0 games back in AL East
Opponents This Week: @ Orioles (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, vs. Angels (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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The Mitchells dominate in a pair of wins

Baseball America has a boatload of minor league transactions, and unsurprisingly, Tim Norton has been placed on the 60-day DL. VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman recently said Norton was “throwing bullpens and feeling fine,” but this is not the first time he’s given an injury update that was … well let’s call it optimistic.

Also, Dewayne Wise was activated off the temporarily inactive list. He missed a few days because his wife was having a baby. Cole Garner was placed on what I assume is the phantom DL in a corresponding move.

Triple-A Empire State (10-0 win over Syracuse) they faced John Lannan and really roughed him up (5 R in 2 IP)
SS Doug Bernier: 1-5, 2 R, 1 BB
CF Chris Dickerson: 3-5, 3 R, 2 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — having a nice little start to the season
1B Steve Pearce: 2-5, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB
DH Jack Cust: 4-4, 1 R, 4 RBI, 1 BB — where’s the power man?
3B Brandon Laird: 2-6, 2 R, 2 RBI — last three hits have been doubles
RF Colin Curtis: 2-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 BB, 1 K
2B Kevin Russo: 2-5, 1 R
C Craig Tatum: 1-3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB — season debut
LF Ray Kruml: 0-4, 1 BB
RHP D.J. Mitchell: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 6/3 GB/FB — 38 of 61 pitches were strikes (62.3%) … excellent season debut … he would have gone longer had he been stretched out to 100+ pitches in camp
RHP Manny Delcarmen: 2 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1 HB, 1/3 GB/FB — 22 of 35 pitches were strikes (62.9%) … back to the bullpen after the one spot start (on Opening Day)
RHP Jason Bulger: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1/3 GB/FB — only 15 of 35 pitches were strikes (42.9%)

[Read more…]

Sunday Night Open Thread

He's just so, so good. (Leon Halip/Getty)

These three games against the Rays were terrible, awful, horrible, ugly, whatever else you want to call them. It could be worse though, we could all be Red Sox fans.Embedded Yankees Al Aceves and Mark Melancon are starting to pay some real dividends early on. By the way, the last time the Yankees and Red Sox both started a season 0-3 was 1966. They went on to finish that year in 9th and 10th place in a ten-team division.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The White Sox and Rangers are the ESPN Sunday Night game (Harrison vs. Floyd), and I’m pretty sure ESPN grabbed this one because they thought Yu Darvish was going to start. He’s pitching tomorrow, however. You folks know what to do here, so have at it.

Swept: Yanks shut out by Rays

The last time the Yankees lost their first three games of the season, they went on to win 114 of their next 159 games. Clearly, they’re planning a repeat … right?

(J. Meric/Getty)

No Answer

The Yankees must be really sick of Tampa. They’ve been there since at least mid-February, and it sure looked like they wanted to get on the plane out of there as soon as possible Saturday afternoon. They had no answer for Jeremy Hellickson, who was throwing changeups when they were sitting fastball and fastballs when they were sitting changeup. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Nick Swisher all doubled off the young right-hander, but that was the only hits they got. None of his four walks came back to hurt, and Hellickson retired 16 of the last 19 men he faced.

Their two best chances came in the fourth and sixth, when they had two men on base. Swisher struck out and Raul Ibanez flew out to end the first threat, then Swisher popped up the end the second. The Yankees never had a runner passed second base in any other inning. Just no answer, they were completely helpless. Gotta give Hellickson some credit, he did a great job. Pretty nice 25th birthday present to himself.

Predictable

Ibanez is a terrible defensive outfielder. I know it you, you know it, the Yankees know it, and Ibanez knows it. And yet, there he was in right field on Saturday afternoon. He wasn’t just in right field, he was in right field with a fly ball pitcher on the mound and with a bunch of pull left-handed hitters in Tampa’s lineup. Naturally, the ball found him right away and it cost the Yankees a run.

I have no problem whatsoever giving Swisher a half-day off at DH — he did miss some time late in camp with a groin problem and played the last two games on turf — but you have arguably the greatest defensive outfielder in the history of baseball on the bench. I know Andruw Jones isn’t the gloveman he once was, but still. Use him instead of Ibanez in that spot, even if there is a right-hander on the mound. Like I said, fly ball pitcher with a lot of pull lefties in the lineup, it was only a matter of time before Ibanez’s defense came back to bite them.

[.gif via Mock Session]

St. Philip of Hughes

(J. Meric/Getty)

No Yankee threw the ball better than Phil Hughes this spring, but that doesn’t mean anything now. He’s got to show he can do the same thing multiple time through a big league batting order every five days, and he got his first chance to do it this afternoon. Phil’s biggest mistake was leaving a 2-2 fastball up to Carlos Pena, who smacked a solo homer to right in the third. One of these years the Yankees will come up with a decent scouting report against the guy. Otherwise he showed four pitches and was never really in a world of trouble.

I thought Girardi pulled Hughes at exactly the right time, with Matt Joyce coming to bat with men on first and second and two outs in the fifth. Joyce has smacked Hughes around pretty hard in his career — .400/.500/1.100 with two homers coming into this game (also took him deep this spring), and yes I know it’s a small sample — and he struggles badly against southpaws. Good time to get Boone Logan in there to keep it close, which is exactly what he did.

Hughes did look demonstrably better than he did at any point last year, generating a total of nine swings and misses — five on the four-seamer, two each on the cutter and changeup (via Brooks). Only three times in 14 starts last year did he get nine or more whiffs. Hughes also threw 15 changeups, including one set of back-to-back changeups to Pena in the first. He never did that in the past, regardless of year. Hughes was not efficient at all — 99 pitches to 21 total batters — but I didn’t think he pitched poorly or anything. Just needs to keep that pitch count down, which is much easier said than done.

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Leftovers

Logan threw a 2-1 changeup to Ben Zobrist in the sixth inning, getting a swing and miss. Brooks says he threw exactly one changeup last season, but Boone said in camp he wanted to throw it a little more this year. Of course he gave up a homer to Jeff Keppinger — .077 ISO last year — two batters later. That’s the problem with carrying two lefty specialists, they get stuck having to face righties in games like this.

I think of Chris Stewart like a pitcher whenever he’s at the plate. The goal is just to see as many pitches as possible. The full count in his first at-bat was nice, but then he tried to bunt for a hit on the first pitch of his second at-bat before being lifted for a pinch-hitter. He also dropped like, five pitches behind the plate. None were costly in terms of runners advancing or anything, but still, I thought the guy was supposed to be a defensive stud. I guess that’s nitpicking.

I hope David Phelps goes into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee. Nice little debut for the right-hander, who threw a first-pitch curveball to Elliot Johnson with men on first and second and one out in the eighth. Can’t imagine many pitchers have thrown a curveball for a strike with their first ever big league pitch. Phelps whiffed Johnson then coaxed a ground ball out of Reid Brignac to escape the jam. It wasn’t exactly Mantle and Maris, but it was solid work out of the kid in his debut.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

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


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

After nearly two months, it’s time for the Yankees to finally get out of Tampa. They’re headed up to Baltimore for a three-game set against the undefeated Orioles. It’ll be Ivan Nova against personal fave Brian Matusz at 7pm ET on Monday.

Astros claim Justin Maxwell

Via Brian McTaggart, the Astros have claimed Justin Maxwell off waivers. The Yankees designated him for assignment last week when they had no room for him on the Opening Day roster. Maxwell had a nice spring, so it’s not a surprise that he was claimed. At least the Yanks got to keep Chris Dickerson for outfield depth. Both guys were out of minor league options and I figured they’d lose both.