Series Preview: Yankees at Twins

If this format looks familiar, it’s because I’m ripping off riffing on the style of Matthew Carruth of Lookout Landing (and FanGraphs). Last Friday we discussed the idea of series previews, and Matthew’s are top notch. I’m going to try to bang out one of these for each future series in 2010.

New York Yankees (26-18) vs. Minnesota Twins (26-18)

The Yankees, as we are painfully aware, have struggled lately, going 4-6 in their last 10 games. Even still, they feature one of the best all-around attacks in the league. Their pitching has been very good, if not frustrating lately. Their rank in FIP is mostly due to the bullpen and its homer-happy ways, though the starters have had a rough go the last pass or two through the rotation. The offense continues to top the league despite injuries and ineffectiveness.

The Twins are on equally cold footing, also having gone 4-6 in their last 10. That counts two losses to the Yankees in the first two games of their previous series. In a stretch where they played Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee, Minnesota went 3-4, dropping both games to Boston. Prior to that they spit a short series with the White Sox and split a long series with the Orioles.

This series figures to be a well-fought battle among two of the AL’s best teams. The Yankees won the first round, but had home field advantage. The Twins will look to even things up, at the least, at their brand new ballpark.

Pitching matchups

The series features rematches of the last series in the first two games, followed by a should-have-been matchup in the finale, with Javier Vazquez taking the place of Sergio Mitre.

Tuesday: A.J. Burnett (3.86 ERA, 3.98 FIP) vs. Scott Baker (4.88 ERA, 3.72 FIP)

Last time against the Twins Burnett had trouble finding his control early in the game, but he settled in nicely and left the game with a lead. Damaso Marte promptly blew that, but that doesn’t overshadow how well Burnett pitched from innings three through seven. It’s another game where he didn’t have his curveball and therefore had to work more with his two fastballs. He still managed to strike out four Twins, though. In his last start the Rays lit him up, though again he settled down after a rocky start and pitched into the seventh.

Baker had a tough assignment last week. After the Yankees shelled him for five runs on 10 hits in six innings, he had to go out and face the Red Sox. He fared a bit better, again lasting six innings but this time allowing just three runs. That was more about timing, though, as he allowed eight hits and struck out just four. Against the Yanks he struck out nine. His season peripherals look right in line with recent years, so chances are he’s due for a correction.

Wednesday: Andy Pettitte (2.68 ERA, 4.02 FIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (3.25 ERA, 2.67 FIP)

Pettitte’s last start against the Twins was his first after sitting out with elbow inflammation. He was up to the task, though, allowing just two hits and walking three in 6.1 innings. The Twins didn’t record a run off him, and ended up losing the game 5-0. The next time out, though, Pettitte was not nearly as sharp. That much was evident from the first pitch, and it resulted in a five-inning, seven-run performance against the Rays.

Liriano’s talent is undeniable. He’s a hard-throwing lefty with a nasty slider that can flummox hitters. He put that talent to good use in April, allowing just three runs all month — all of them coming during his first start. He did not allow any in his next three starts, pitching 23 innings and striking out 24. Once the calendar flipped, however, he became much less effective. Against the Yankees he allowed three runs on nine hits through six innings, and last time against Boston he allowed five runs through 4.2 innings. In May he has allowed 19 runs in 23.2 innings.

Thursday: Javier Vazquez (6.69 ERA, 5.76 FIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (4.50 ERA, 5.33 FIP)

It’s tough to imagine a start to the season rougher than Javy Vazquez‘s. He got smacked around in his first few starts, got skipped, and then finally got back on track. He has allowed just two runs in his past two starts, including a six-inning shutout against the Mets on Friday that would have gone longer if not for him taking a pitch off the index finger on a bunt attempt. He’ll head right back out there and try to continue it against the Twins offense, which ranks better than any other offense he has faced since his first start against Tampa Bay.

Nick Blackburn has never been a strikeout pitcher, though this year he has struck out even fewer hitters than before. His total sits at 15 right now, 2.5 per nine innings. He’s also walking a few more, though it’s not a terribly significant difference. Everything else seems to be in line. The extra balls in play, though, have seemingly affected him. Hitters have slugged .498 off him, so the extra damage has come in the form of extra base hits. He has turned it around a bit in May, though, allowing just nine runs in 30.1 innings.

Sergio Mitre cleaning up starters’ messes

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

A sure sign that you’re the mop-up man in the bullpen: you’ve pitched in just two winning efforts all year. That pretty much defines the season for Sergio Mitre. He’s the long man and spot starter, which means he comes in only in the direst of situations. When Andy Pettitte had to miss a start, Mitre was the man. When a rain delay caused a schedule kerfuffle, Mitre took a turn. When the Yanks are down big, or when the starter doesn’t go long, Mitre’s the guy. He’s done rather well in these roles, perhaps well enough to earn himself a spot in higher leverage situations.

Mitre’s most recent appearances, both against the Mets this weekend, have impressed for a number of reasons. First, he held the Mets to just one hit in three innings, striking out two and walking none. Second, he didn’t allow them to make quality contact, as none of the hitters he faced hit the ball on a line. Third, he was replacing pitchers who had seen little luck facing the same hitters. On Saturday both Phil Hughes and Chan Ho Park allowed many more baserunners than innings pitched and each let the Mets extend their lead. On Sunday, after the Mets rocked CC Sabathia, Mitre tamed them with two perfect innings.

These performances have me wondering if Mitre might be an option of sorts for short relief. The Yankees have had some bullpen troubles, and could certainly use an effective arm. Why not ride the Mitre wave? He’s been a bit lucky so far — he won’t sustain his current .193 BABIP — but part of effective bullpen management is finding the pitcher who has everything working. That appears to be Mitre right now. Hitters just aren’t making great contact off him.

The biggest concern would be with his propensity to allow home runs. He has allowed three so far this year in 22 IP. That might be an improvement over his 2009 rate, but it’s still far too many for a high-leverage reliever. The mitigating circumstance here is that two out of the three came during starts, one of them coming off the bat of Justin Morneau on what appeared to be a decent pitch. The first, off the bat of a super-hot Ty Wigginton, came during Mitre’s third inning of work. While this doesn’t eliminate the home run threat, it certainly puts it in a bit more context. In high-leverage, short stints perhaps it wouldn’t be much of a problem.

We just don’t know, though, how Mitre would respond to high leverage at-bats. His pLI — the average Leverage Index (LI) of his appearances — is just 0.51. Of the 86 batters he has faced, only one has been in a high leverage situation. He did retire that batter on a grounder, but that’s meaningless in determining how Mitre would perform when faced with more of these situations. The only way to tell is by putting him into those situations in live games.

Will Girardi give him a shot? I doubt it. He clearly values having a long man in the pen, as he expressed when he explained why the team skipped Javier Vazquez‘s start last week. I’d like to see him get a shot, though. Mitre went through some tough times last year, but this year he has done his job and done it admirably. While some of the other guys struggle, and while Al Aceves sits on the DL, maybe the Yankees could find strength in their bullpen by using Mitre in short relief.

A historical look at the Yankees’ 2010 draft selections

AP File Photo

One of the greatest things about baseball is it’s history, and the record of that history. Especially now in the internet age, where we can go back and look up almost anything our heart desires. Like this box score, for example. There’s nothing overly exciting about that game, other than the fact that it’s 90-years-old. Just having that kind of information at our fingertips is amazing, no other sport can make that claim.

Nowadays we use all of this historical info for more than just entertainment. Just as an example, we reference those fancy WPA graphs each day, and those are based on nothing but historical record. We’re looking at what happened in the past to try and get an idea of what can happen in the future. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly useful information.

Let’s apply the same concepts to the draft and the Yankees’ top ten selections this season. Using B-Ref’s draft database and it’s new WAR data, let’s go back and see how the players taken at these spots have historically performed to get an idea of what kind of players the Yankees can expect to land. Granted, the draft has evolved thanks to introduction of agents and the relatively new concept of signability, so this exercise is in no way a prediction of what will happen.

The 2010 Draft Order can be found here, as always. The Yanks didn’t gain or lose any picks as free agent compensation, so they have a pick per round this year. Nice and easy. And off we go…

First Round, 32nd overall
The best player ever taken with this pick is former Met first/third baseman Dave Magadan, who produced 22.2 WAR over a 16-year career that featured a .288-.390-.377 batting line in close to 5,000 plate appearances spread across the late-80’s and 1990’s. After that comes utility guy Lee Lacy, who played every position under the sun and hit .286-.336-.410 with four teams, leading to 18.2 career WAR.

Overall, the 32nd overall pick has produced 22 big leaguers (out of 45 total picks), though just 13 of those 22 managed to post a positive WAR in their careers, and just 11 produced more than 2.0 WAR. Those 11 players averaged 9.1 WAR in their careers, so they were definitely productive players. However, you’re talking about one solid regular for fewer than every four picks made.

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Joe on the Pinstriped Podcast w/ Craig Mahoney

For those of you who don’t know Craig Mahoney, he’s turning into something of a podcast star. He’s got quite a few of them, including the Pinstriped Podcast. He and I sat down yesterday to talk everything Yankees. We even tackled some sabermetic topics, from an enthusiast to a skeptic. You can also catch Craig on Twitter at @CraigMahoney.

Time for the stars to step up

They honeymoon, it appears, has come to an end. The Yankees saw tremendous production from Francisco Cervelli and Brett Gardner at the start of the season, which extended well into May. In the past few weeks, though, we’ve seen a correction of sorts. Both have excellent numbers still, a .392 wOBA for Cervelli and a .356 mark for Gardner. In the past week or so, however, both have seen slumps that weren’t exactly unforeseen. While I’m sure they’ll pick it back up, I doubt it will be to their previously lofty levels. That could mean trouble for the Yanks’ offense.

If the Yankees want to keep up their current pace, which would mean a 96-win season, they’ll need their biggest names to step up. This is true of all teams, of course, but it holds a bit more significance for the 2010 Yankees. Their best players have been particularly streaky during the first 46 games of the year, and for many of them the lows have outweighed the highs. In particular, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez have fallen far enough below their career norms that it has become an issue.

More of this, please | Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

By this point last year, Teixeira was already on his road to recovery. Through 46 games he had accumulated 199 PA and was hitting .271/.382/.584. This year he has 202 PA and has hit .209/.327/.378. That represents not just a drop in batting average, but an even starker drop in power. Last year through 199 PA he had a .313 ISO, while this year he’s at just .169. His discipline hasn’t waned, as his walk percentage is right where it was last year at this point. His strikeout rate, too, is right in line with the first 46 games from last year. Overall, though, something just isn’t right.

“I live off my hot streaks,” Teixeira said after Saturday’s game, in which he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. He bounced back with a 2 for 5, one strikeout performance on Sunday, though that last hit was the definition of a cheapie. Tex has a long way to go to a recovery. Even if he goes 4 for 4 with a homer, a double, and a walk in each of the three Twins games, he’ll be at .261/.373/.484. Realistically, it will take him quite a few more games to get to even that level.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Derek Jeter has been the focus of much conversation this season. This is partly because of his impending contract negotiations, but also because of his recent slump. Even before that, many of us were alarmed at his first-pitch swinging and frequent groundballs to short. Through the team’s first 24 games, though, it didn’t seem to be much of a problem. Jeter was hitting .333/.367/.510 during that span. He then proceeded to slump terribly, hitting .169/.234/.211 in his next 77 PA. Were the captain’s free swinging ways coming back to hurt him?

In a way, his first pitch swings and grounders to short are a concern. In another, Jeter, like all players, will slump during the course of a season. It’s unfortunate that Jeter’s came at a time when a number of starters have been missing, but that’s just the way baseball works sometimes. He seems to be coming out of it, too, going 7 for 19 from Thursday through Sunday. He walked only once, a bit of a disappointment, but he also looked sharper at the plate. He swung at the first pitch from Santana in his first three plate appearances, but given how well he hit the ball it’s difficult to blame him for that.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Thankfully for the Yanks, their No. 4 hitter is on the upswing. Alex Rodriguez currently sports a wOBA, .372, that ranks far below his career average of .411. That, however, was mostly due to an early season power drought, in which he posted an ISO of .162 through 126 PA (28 games). In his most recent 66 PA, though, he’s been hitting not only for average, .317, but also for power, a .250 ISO. That’s right around the level he finished last season.

What I think illustrates Alex’s season is how his strikeout rate relates to his contact rate on pitches out of the zone. The latter is at career high levels while the former is at a career low. This might be an anomaly, or it might be a change in approach. Either way, it backs up the story I tell myself: Alex is just missing a ton of pitches. His 14 percent infield fly ball rate would serve as further evidence of this claim. Something’s just slightly off, and once it clicks we might see an Alex outburst. It might have already clicked, but just hasn’t shown in the numbers yet. In any case, I think we’ll see quite a run by Alex, which is always an enjoyable span of games.

The Yanks simply could not rely on Gardner and Cervelli to carry them throughout the season. They got lucky that both of them got hot at a time when their better players were either hurt or slumping. Now that their luck is starting to even out, it’s time for the superstars to step into their places. I have no doubt that Cervelli and Gardner will continue to hit capably, but they’re not going to keep up their previously torrid pace. If the team’s best players step up and hit the way they’re capable, though, it will represent one of the greater strokes of luck in recent memory. Two good but not great players hitting like great players while the superstars slump. Then, just as the unheralded players simmer down, the superstars step up and start carrying the team.

I’m not sure if that’s how the story will play out, but it’s certainly feasible at this point. As it should, the Yanks’ season will turn on the ability of its best players to hit to their capabilities. It needs to start tonight in Minnesota.

Where the Yankees stand in the AL East

Yesterday’s off-day came at a convenient time. The Yankees just suffered their toughest week of the year, so getting a night away from their struggles is probably a good thing. They’ll pick things up tomorrow night in Minneapolis, starting with a tough assignment against the Twins and then hitting a stretch of schedule where they play just one team above .500 — and even the Blue Jays might be reeling by then. For now, though, let’s take a step back and see where the Yankees stand compared to their AL East peers.

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays

Longoria will inflict damage on the AL East for years to come | Photo credit: Chris O'Meara/AP

The Rays have come out of the gate quicker than any other team in the majors, and with a 32-13 record are on pace for a 115-win season. Whether they get there will be largely dependent on 1) how they fare against their tougher AL East opponents, and 2) whether they remain reasonably healthy for the rest of the season. For now, though, they remain the kings of the league.

Their ascension — or re-ascension — to the top of the AL East should come as little surprise. The Rays had a good team last year but caught a few unlucky breaks, likely making up for their incredibly lucky 2008. Once Scott Kazmir returned that May they used only five starting pitchers. Last year they only used seven, but Andy Sonnanstine lost his command and Scott Kazmir lost it in general. They’ve used only five starters this year, three of whom have an ERA under 3.00. James Shields is at 3.08. Wade Davis was at 3.35 before the Red Sox tore into him last night. They lead the AL in runs per game allowed by a significant margin.

On the other end, their offense has been killing the ball. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford have been offensive juggernauts, posting wOBAs of .414 and .392. Ben Zobrist, despite his lack of power, still has a .385 OBP and a .375 wOBA. Like the Yanks, they’ve gotten production from unexpected players. John Jaso, called up to replace the injured Kelly Shoppach at catcher, currently sports a .446 wOBA, and Hank Blalock, recalled from AAA to replace Pat Burrell at DH, has opened his Rays career with a bang. They’re also seeing excellent production from former top prospect Reid Brignac.

On one side, the Rays will certainly lose some of that production. Jaso stands no chance of maintaining his .446 wOBA once he gains more playing time. He’ll be an upgrade over Dioner Navarro, which is all the Rays really need. Blalock might hit decently, but not .407 wOBA good. On the other end, though, both B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena have proven to be better than their current numbers suggest. If they recover it can help offset the effect of Jaso coming back to earth.

Where the Yanks have to be really concerned is with the Rays pitching. Shields and Garza have proven themselves as top performers, and David Price has started looking like a player worth of the top overall pick. Combine that with a second soid year from Jeff Niemann and they don’t need Wade Davis to be lights out. He might be, though, which will cause problems for every team in the AL East — hell, for every team in the majors. I’m not sure if the Rays are this good, but they’re good enough to finish the season with the league’s best record.

2nd Place: New York Yankees

Not that we need to harp on the Yankees, since we do that every day. We know the story: slumping and injured. The pitching, which dazzled early in the season, took a couple of rough turns through the rotation. After the Twins series, though, they hit a patch of lesser teams, during which they should get Granderson and Posada back. If the pitching gets back on track, the Yanks will do just fine from here on out.

3rd Place: Toronto Blue Jays

Romero is trying to make Jays fans forget about Halladay | Photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP

During the off-season, I wrote about no other non-Yanks team more often than the Blue Jays. They’re a fascination of sorts. J.P. Ricciardi never seemed to have a concrete plan in constructing his roster. I’m sure he did, but from afar it didn’t seem like a solid one that would propel the Jays to the front of the AL East. Instead it seemed like he was trying to make little gains every year, and that just won’t happen when the top two teams in the division spend a combined $350 million on payroll.

Like last year, though, it’s unlikely that the Jays are as good as their early season record indicates. They have received unprecedented production from a number of players, and we’re almost certain to see that drop off in the coming months. John Buck and Alex Gonzalez are notably playing above their heads. There is little, if any, chance that either finishes within 20 points of their current wOBA rates, .379 for Buck and .367 for Gonzalez. Their wOBA leader, Vernon Wells, could be for real, though. He has the talent to put up those numbers,

On the other end, though, they have a few underperforming players, Adam Lind chief among them. If he, Lyle Overbay, and Aaron Hill pick up the production they might compensate for the declines of Buck and Gonzalez. I doubt it will be enough to keep them third in the AL in runs per game, but they’ll likely remain above average.

Their pitching has been good, though sprinkled with poor performances. Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero have both been excellent. They won’t make Toronto fans forget about Roy Halladay, but they’re doing a good job in his stead. Brett Cecil has made some strides this year, and his peripherals look far better than his 4.98 ERA. If Brandon Morrow can manage to stop walking hitters so frequently they could have a more than formidable top of the rotation. The pitching staff could actually be the reason they stay afloat this season and possibly finish above .500.

I never thought I’d type that last sentence before the season started. Shows how much I know.

4th Place: Boston Red Sox

We all hate him, but Youk has given the Yanks fits for years | Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

A 25-21 record isn’t terrible for a team that lost two of its outfielders and its No. 1 pitcher for a while, but that’s not what matters right now for the Red Sox. They’re clearly a better team than their record reflects, but games in the bank are games in the bank. Then again, the 2009 Yankees were just one game better, 26-20, through 46 games, so the Sox certainly have a chance. In fact, they found themselves at the same place, six games over .500, a month later. In other words, it would be foolish to count out the Sox right now.

Despite the slow start, despite the focus on defense over offense this off-season, despite injuries to two of its starting outfielders, despite a terrible start for David Ortiz, and despite an equally slow start for Victor Martinez, the Red Sox still rank fourth in the AL in runs scored. Nos. 1 through 3 are all AL East foes. Run scoring has not been even a slight problem for the Sox. In fact, if their run prevention plan had not hit a few bumps in the road, they might be up there with the Rays right now.

Red Sox pitchers, before last night’s game, ranked 13th out of 14 AL teams in runs allowed. John Lackey has had a rough go in Boston so far, and Josh Beckett got off to a horrible start and is now on the DL with back problems. Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the DL to start the season and has been hot and cold since returning. Jon Lester gave up tons of runs in his first few starts, exacerbating the Sox’s woes, though he has more than gotten back on track in his past few. Add to that an effective Clay Buchholz and an unsurprisingly league average Tim Wakefield, and it’s a good rotation that has faced a few unexpected problems.

What scares me about the Sox is that few of their hitters are playing above their heads. A 1.071 OPS would represent a career year for Kevin Youkilis, but he’s still capable of achieving it. Victor Martinez will almost certainly improve on his numbers, too. In other words, the Sox could maintain their offensive production throughout the season. If Lackey turns it around and Beckett comes back fully healthy, well, the Sox could surge like the 2009 Yanks did. They have a long way to go with both the Yanks and the Rays out in front, but I wouldn’t count them out until the math says they’re eliminated.

5th Place: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles young pitchers, including Brian Matusz, could make the AL East even tougher | Photo credit: Andy King/AP

I didn’t think the Orioles were in for a 2008 Rays-type run, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad. Maybe that’s because I overestimated their young pitching. That’s not a long-term overestimation, though, but merely a short one. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie have done an admirable job as the veterans on the staff, but all of their young pitchers — Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, and Brad Bergesen — have struggled in the first month and a half of the season. It also doesn’t help that they feature one of the league’s worst bullpens.

As of today, May 25, the Orioles are done. They’ve been done, really, most of the season. That’s not a completely bad thing, though. It affords them the patience necessary to deal with growing pains for Matusz and Bergesen. It also means they can take their time with their other top pitching prospect, Chris Tillman, who has had ups and downs in AAA this season. It might get frustrating when the bullpen blows wins for them, but maybe that will be part of their learning process.

It’s on offense that the Orioles have truly struggled. If not for Ty Wigginton’s unexpectedly insane level of hitting, a .407 wOBA, the Orioles might be in an even worse place right now. Miguel Tejada has been good at times, but on the hole hasn’t been anything special. Adam Jones is having a terrible time this season, as is Nolan Reimold, whom the Orioles recently optioned to AAA (perhaps to play more first base and take over for the horrible Garrett Atkins). Matt Wieters has not impressed with the bat, either. Nick Markakis remains the only other bright spot on the offense, and even he has faced some issues. His .123 ISO isn’t up to his career standard, though his .406 OBP represents an improvement in his discipline from last season.

The Orioles still have a strong group of young players and a good farm to back them up, but this just won’t be their year. With the Yanks, Rays, and Sox established, and the O’s and Jays on the rise, though, we could see quite a battle emerge in the AL East as soon as next year.

Romine & Laird keep on hitting as Trenton wins again

Jeremy Bleich will have surgery to repair his labrum. See you in 2011, maybe. Meanwhile, David Adams will miss at least 2-3 weeks with an ankle injury. He hurt it while breaking up a double play over the weekend.

Triple-A Scranton (6-3 in over Louisville)
Greg Golson, CF & Chad Huffman, 1B: both 1 for 5 – Golson drove in a run & K’ed … Huffman scored a run
Curtis Granderson, DH: 3 for 5, 2 RBI - the first hit came off a lefty … he attempted a stolen base, always a good sign … going to play CF tomorrow
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 0 for 4, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 SB
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 1 BB, 1 E (throwing) – threw the ball in CF on a SB attempt, allowing a run to score
Jon Weber, RF: 3 for 5, 1 R, 3 2B - four of his last five hits have been doubles
Reid Gorecki, LF: 1 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
Reegie Corona, 3B-2B: 2 for 3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB
Romulo Sanchez: 5.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 9-2 GB/FB - 66 of 104 pitches were strikes (63.5%) … 43 K in 43.1 IP
Mark Melancon: 2.2 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 6-0 GB/FB – 30 of 45 pitches were strikes (66.7%)
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 11 of his 19 pitches were strikes (57.9%)

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