Game 72: Crap, another bad pitcher

Earlier this year the Yanks were scheduled to face Dontrelle Willis, but he was a late scratch. The Yanks ended up facing a string of Tigers relievers, demonstrating mostly futility against them. The Yanks lost the game, managing just four runs off the Tigers six relievers. Dontrelle has since been designated for assignment and sent to the Diamondbacks, where he’s allowed seven runs through 15 innings. long the way he’s walked more than he’s struck out, and holds a 1.80 WHIP.

Stephen R. explored the Dontrelle saga today at TYU, so in case you’re not up on tonight’s starter give that a quick read.

Posada gets the night off tonight, which makes sense for a number of reasons. Using him on back-to-back nights and then giving him two nights off is probably physically for the better. Also, it gave him a chance against Haren, while the Yanks might not need their best lineup against Dontrelle. Then again, considering how they’ve hit in the past week-plus against poor pitching, maybe I shouldn’t be making that assumption.

Lineup:

1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Nick Swisher, RF
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Robinson Cano, 2B
6. Francisco Cervelli, C
7. Curtis Granderson, CF
8. Brett Gardner, LF
9. Javy Vazquez, P

Open Thread: It’s hot, baby

Photo Credit: Ross D. Franklin, AP

I checked the weather report this afternoon, and at the time it was 107-degrees in Pheonix. One oh seven. Just look at that, it’s ridiculous. Why in the world would anyone want to live there? You’d have to live in a constant state if indoors and air conditioning. At least there’s not much humidity, that would be unlivable.

Anyway, here’s your open thread while we wait for the game to start a little later this evening. The Mets are taking on the Tigers, which is going to be broadcast on ESPN for you non-Tri-State area-ers. Talk about whatever, just be cool. Unlike Phoenix.

Bronx parks opening, but residents want more

Heritage Field finally has an opening date. With old Yankee Stadium now fully demolished, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation says the replacement park at the old stadium site will open in the fall of 2011, more than five years after the city shuttered Macombs Dam Park. Meanwhile, other green spaces — a skate park and a track and field area with initial completion dates of 2007 and 2009 respectively — are going to be feted with ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the coming weeks.

While South Bronx residents are thrilled to be getting some of the park land that was lost to the stadium back, many community activists still feel shortchanged. The new stadium shanghaied 25 acres of the old Macombs Dam Park, and the new green areas amount to just 22 acres of replacement parks. “It’s a dog and pony show, and they basically shrug their shoulders and act like everything is okay,” Geoffrey Croft of the NYC Park Advocates said to the Daily News. “The thing is a mess. It’s just a mess.” For more on Heritage Field and the city’s plan for this new park across the street from Yankee Stadium, check out our coverage from February.

The new and improved Jon Albaladejo

When the 2010 season started and the bullpen picture became clear, Jon Albaladejo was on the outside looking in. He had minor league options remaining and his big league performance to date (4.21 xFIP in 62.1 IP) hardly stood out, so he was an easy cut. The Yankees simply had better options, so for the first time in his Yankee career, Albaladejo was not on the team’s Opening Day roster, instead sent back down to Triple-A Scranton to wait until his services were needed.

His chance almost came in Detroit last month. The Yanks had a doubleheader against the Tigers, so Albaladejo was summoned to the Motor City but not activated. The team instead had him sit around in the hotel, and if they burned through the bullpen in the first game, they would have officially added him to the roster for the second game. Javy Vazquez went on to have his best game of the season (to date), so the trip to Detroit resulted in nothing more than a few more airline miles for Albaladejo.

Photo Credit: The Scranton Times-Tribune

Biding his time until his next actual call up, Albie has been simply untouchable as Scranton’s closer this season. He’s struck out 45 batters in 34.1 IP, and just about 44% of the balls put in play off of him have been on the ground. Only 19 hits have fallen in behind him, and that includes the three he gave up in 1.1 innings of work two days ago. Just five of those 19 hits have come off the bats of righthanders, who are hitting (ready for this?) .085/.175/.101 in 63 plate appearances against the husky righthander. That’s a .276 OPS. Two seventy six. Lefties haven’t fared much better at .222/.292/.374 in 65 plate appearances. There’s no other way to put it, Albaladejo has been stunningly good this year.

The funny part is that Albie was simply dreadful in Spring Training, if you remember. He allowed 16 hits and 11 runs in just 2.2 IP after showing up to camp some 30 lbs. lighter, and the joke of spring said he needed to put that weight back on to be effective.

Now in his age-27 season, Albaladejo is starting what should be the prime of his career, but dominance like this goes far beyond just physical maturation. Yankee fans remember him as a mostly pitch-to-contact sinker-slider guy that sat 88-92 and would mix in the occasional curveball, but the scouting report has changed this season. Take it away, Donnie Collins

[Albaladejo] has completely reinvented himself, relying less on the two-seam fastball that he used to pound the zone with during his up-and-down tenure with the Yankees. Now, he’s almost exclusively throwing a four-seamer that touches the mid-90s, changing the eye level with his slider and keeping hitters on their heels with a knee-buckling curveball. He is still mixing in two-seamers, but it’s no longer his bread-and-butter.

Collins also provides a quote from Albaladejo’s teammate and fellow Triple-A bullpener Royce Ring, which backs up the increased usage of the four seamer.

Improvement is always good, but improvement with tangible evidence to back it up is even better. He’s essentially gone from a generic sinker-slider reliever to a guy that can pitch up in the zone with the cheese, making the breaking pitches down in the zone that much more effective. Quite frankly, it’s the same recipe that guys like Joba Chamberlain and Dan Bard and Brad Lidge and Jose Valverde and Joe Nathan and about a million other relievers employ.

So what does this mean for the Yankees? Well, obviously it means they have a cheap and flexible relief option that is pitching with extreme effectiveness and is just a phone call away at pretty much all times. The tricky thing is that Albaladejo will be out of options next season, meaning that the team would not be able to send him to the minors without first passing him through waivers. Spring Training and September are no time to evaluate players (again, just look at what Albie did in camp this year), so if the Yankees want to get a good look at what Albaladejo actually brings to the big league table, they’re best off doing it at some point this summer.

The core of the bullpen (Mariano Rivera, Joba, Damaso Marte, David Robertson) isn’t going anywhere, and you have to figure that Chad Gaudin is safe as the de facto long man for the time being. That leaves Boone Logan and Chan Ho Park, both of whom seem to be on perpetually thin ice. There’s really no sense in cutting Park right now because it’ll compromise depth, plus it’s not like he’s blowing games and being used in high leverage spots anyway. Perhaps the best more for the time being is to swap Albaladejo for Logan.

The Yanks finish off the first half with games against the Diamondbacks (one, tonight), the Dodgers (three, this weekend), the Mariners (seven total), the Blue Jays (three), and the A’s (three). Oakland is only one of those teams that can be classified as lefty heavy, so a second LOOGY is nothing more than a luxury until the All Star break. Why not give Albaladejo a look? Logan has options and can go to Triple-A without incident, so there’s no loss of depth and the Yanks get to see if what Albie’s doing in the minors can be somewhat replicated in the show.

Rumors have the Yankees on the prowl for a relief pitcher prior to the deadline, and if you’re going to go shopping for a volatile relief pitcher, why not give an in-house option the first look? Albaladejo’s certainly earned a shot, that’s for sure.

Starters continuing to get the job done

What good is an innings eater if he provides poor results? We hear the term so often when it refers to a pitcher who, sure, throws a lot of innings, but most of the time that pitcher just isn’t that good. At the top-end, they’re average pitchers. Tim Wakefield is routinely referred to as an innings eater. This 2006 USA Today article uses the term to describe Esteban Loaiza, who ended up, to no one’s surprise, being below average that year. He was average during his career, a 98 ERA+.

While the mainstream definition might not be that flattering, the concept of an innings eater is an important one during a 162-game season. A team will pitch at least 1377 innings every year, and that’s if there are no extra innings games and they lose every game on the road. Clearly, teams want the best pitchers filling the most innings, since that gives them a better shot of holding opponents to fewer runs. That, in turn, translates to more wins — or at least theoretical wins since there is the independent variable called offense to still consider.

It comes as no surprise that Sabathia ranks among the league's best innings eaters| Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The point behind an innings eater, I suppose, is that teams don’t want to constantly fish from the bullpen pond in an attempt to find someone who can keep the game under control. That makes sense in a way. Relievers are typically pitchers who aren’t good enough, for one reason or another, to fit into the starting rotation. A team would, then, want to keep in the starter longer, since he’s presumably a better pitcher by virtue of being in the rotation in the first place. It’s not always true, of course, and oftentimes relievers can perform better than starers. For instance, in the AL this year starters have a collective 4.31 ERA while relievers, in half the innings pitched, are at 4.07. Relievers also posted a lower ERA than starters last season by nearly a half run per nine innings.

The 2010 Yankees have a different breed of innings eaters. All five rank in the top 50 in innings pitched per game started. That includes Javy Vazquez, who got pulled early in a number of starts earlier this season. A.J. Burnett, who has also been pulled early on a few occasions, ranks 36th. Pettitte and Sabathia both average 6.7 innings per start and are tied for sixth in the AL. Phil Hughes averages six and a third per start. The Yankees as a team lead the AL in innings pitched per game start with 6.3. This is, of course, fantastic. Not only are they eating plenty of innings, but they’re pitching well. This not only takes pressure off the bullpen, but it also gives the team a better chance to win every night.

Pettitte, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise in that category | Photo credit: Ross D. Franklin/AP

The Yankees, again, have used these starter innings effectively. They rank eighth in the majors, third in the AL, in starter ERA, 3.78. They again rank eighth, and again third in the AL, in opponent OPS, a mere point behind Toronto. They rank fourth in the majors, second in the AL, in opponent OBP. They’re doing it reasonably efficiently, too, averaging 100 pitches per game started as a team, which means 15.87 pitches per inning per game started. That’s good for fourth in the AL, third among teams that actually average more than 6 IP per game started.

To put it a different way, Yankees pitchers have thrown 625.1 innings. The five starters have thrown 438.1 of those, or 70 percent of the team’s innings. Again, that is a league-leading mark. It also seems like the ideal place for a pitching staff to be, considering the unit’s effectiveness. The staff is eating innings at a better rate than its peers, and it is pitching better than most of them. It is the main reason that the team sits in first place today. The offense has struggled at times, but the pitching has been simply lights out.

If it seems like I harp on this topic a lot, it’s because I do. The mid-00s taught me a number of lessons, chief among them that there is no substitute for strong starting pitching. Sure, you can bludgeon a team to death, as many of those teams did. But as we saw in years like 2005, 2007, and even 2008, it can also backfire. In those years the Yanks got off to slow starts and only made the playoffs, in the former two, and got to 89 wins in the latter because the offense eventually came around. Can that happen every year? I’m not sure. But what killed the Yankees those years was a complete lack of pitching. Last year we saw that change, and this year it has gotten even better. The Yanks staff is getting the job done, and the Yanks, at least for today, sit on top of the world.

Could any of the recent DFA’s help the Yankees?

At some point over the next month or so, the Yankees are going to make a move or two (or more) to shore up some weak spots on their roster, though I don’t think we’ll be seeing any huge names come in or big trades go down. Instead it’ll be just a few tweaks like the Jerry Hairston and Eric Hinske pick ups last year. A trio of players were designated by assignment by their various teams yesterday, and on the surface they appear to be halfway decent fits for the Yanks, even if they’re just fliers.

Remember, when a player is DFA’d, his team has ten days to trade or release him, or seven days to place them on waivers. If he’s claimed off waivers, the new team takes on the entire contract, so that doesn’t happen very often. Obviously, a player has to be pretty unproductive to get cut by his team, so finding scrap heap pickups is never easy. Especially for a team like the Yanks, who are expected to contend each year.

Let’s run down each of these three recently DFA’d players to see if they fit into the Yanks’ plans at all…

Greg Dobbs, Phillies

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

As much as we want him to, Hinske is not going to magically walk through the door sometime in the next month. The Braves are too good and he’s too productive (.397 wOBA) for them to even consider moving the human World Series ticket. Instead, the Yankees are going to have to search for an approximation of Hinske’s abilities: a lefthanded hitter with pop and some defensive versatility. Juan Miranda can meet the offensive needs, but he’s relegated to first base and designated hitter. Colin Curtis has basically no power (.109 ISO in the minors), last night’s booming double notwithstanding.

The Phillies DFA’d Dobbs yesterday, a move that was a long time coming. As R.J. Anderson explained, he simply hasn’t produced since his breakout 2008 campaign. If the Yankees were to bring him in, it would be nothing more than throwing a bunch of garbage at the wall and seeing what sticks. Maybe he goes on a three month mini-tear and proves to be a valuable lefty bat off the bench. He’s experienced in that role, which does have value because pinch hitting isn’t as easy as it looks.

Essentially, Dobbs is a really poor man’s Hinske. Left swinger, can fake the four corner spots, all that jazz. He’s still owed roughly $767,000 the rest of the way, which is money the Yankees saved by cutting Chad Gaudin* in Spring Training. If you’re an optimist, you could say he’s worth a shot. If you’re a realist, then just forget it.

* It’s funny how that whole Gaudin thing worked out. The Yanks cut him and still had to pay him approximately $740,000 of his $2.95M contract, then ended up bringing him back for the pro-rated minimum once Oakland cut him. So in essence, the Yanks went from having Gaudin all year for $2.95M to having Gaudin for five-sixths of the season at roughly $1.08M. Gotta say that worked out well financially, no?

Photo Credit: Steven Senne, AP

Cla Meredith, Orioles

If you’re a reliever and the Orioles cut you, that’s a pretty good sign that you stink. Affectionately nicknamed The Claw, the side-arming Meredith developed a niche as a ROOGY with the Padres during his years in San Diego, but moving to the AL East hasn’t been too kind to him. Even focusing on just performance against righthanded batters this season, Meredith hasn’t missed any bats (4.22 K/9) and allowed a whole lot of fly balls (40.5%), which lead to lots of extra base hits (.320 ISO).

What Meredith does have going for him are minor league options and a dirt cheap salary (owed about $483,000 the rest of the season). I never have a problem with bringing in cheap relievers to stash in Triple-A and serve as depth, though I have to acknowledge that ROOGY’s aren’t exactly an important part of any bullpen. At the big league level, the Yanks already have a more useful version of Meredith in Gaudin, who can at least offer multiple innings.

Eric Patterson, Athletics

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

Corey’s brother, the A’s cut ties with Patterson after getting 325 plate appearances of basically nothing (.299 wOBA) since acquiring him as part of the Rich Harden trade. For all intents and purposes, he brings two things to the table: defensive versatility (he can handle all three outfield spots and second base, and probably third if given the chance) and a little speed. Patterson was a hot shot prospect a few years ago, and those guys always seems to get a few more chances than everyone else.

For all intents and purposes, Patterson is a slightly better version of Ramiro Pena minus the ability play short. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that the Yankees already have four utility infielders on their 40-man roster likely to provide the same amount of nothing as Patterson. He’s probably the least interesting player in this post, from the Yanks’ perspective.

Again, waiver pickups are never great, but they don’t have to all be long-term pieces. If a player like Meredith provides 20 decent innings during the summer, then that’s an asset in a super tight division. The Yankees aren’t ones to shop in the clearance aisle, but it never hurts to look.

Joba and 98

Somewhat lost in the offensive explosion that was the top of the 8th inning last night, Joba Chamberlain looked pretty damn fantastic in the bottom of the frame. Ironically enough, he walked the leadoff hitter on seven pitches with a seven run lead, which is the mecca of no-nos, but after that he was simply untouchable. Not one of his eleven fastballs dipped under 95 mph according to PitchFX, and six of them were at either 97 or 98. His 2-2 fastball to strikeout The Justin Upton looking for the first out was simply devastating (above), a 98 mph heater down and on the outer black. It was an unhittable pitch; the best possible result for Upton was a foul ball and probably a broken bat.

It’s the hardest I remember seeing the enigmatic starter turned reliever turned starter turned reliever turned starter turned reliever throw since the first half of 2008, so basically two full seasons. Joba has shown a few 95’s and 96’s at times this year, but sure enough he’d come back out with 91’s and 92’s the next time out. He hasn’t been able to maintain that velocity from outing to outing. What was different about last night?

I can’t offer a definitive answer, but I can’t help but wonder if the long top half of the inning gave him more time to get loose. Remember, it was a one run game before Arizona’s lolpen did what it’s done all season, and Joba was getting loose at the very start of that half inning in anticipation of a close game and a setup situation  after three outs. The Yanks’ offense instead spent 21 minutes and three seconds piling up six hits, a walk, and six runs, so any sense of urgency was removed.

It’s no secret that starters and relievers have different warm up routines, and perhaps Joba is still adjusting to warming up in a matter of minutes instead of at his own pace. His fastball velocity has been creeping up all season, which isn’t all that surprising since everyone’s starting to get in midseason form and it’s warm out and the whole nine. But the upper-90’s is something I don’t think any of us saw coming. Maybe that velocity is hiding behind a few more warm up pitches, and Joba just needs to start his routine a little earlier, in the 7th inning or something.

Granted, pure velocity isn’t everything, he’s still got to locate his pitches in order to avoid hard contact. Major League hitters will hit 98 if you don’t locate it, which makes that pitch to Upton particularly impressive. It wasn’t quite Ubaldo good, but it was certainly good enough to get a batter that’s tormented the Yankees through the first two games of the series. If Joba can start to maintain even 95-96 and keep the ball down in the zone and out of the middle third of the plate, he’ll be highly, highly effective.

Perhaps I’m completely off base here and Joba just decided to turn it loose with a six run lead, figuring if he walked a guy, he walked a guy, it wasn’t the end of the world with the greatest reliever to ever walk the face of the Earth behind him. Maybe it was the Arizona heat that loosened him up. Maybe it was dumb luck. Whatever it was, I hope we see more of it in the future.