Aceves suffers another setback, Sanchez shifted to bullpen

Via Bryan Hoch, sorely missed reliever Al Aceves had a setback while throwing his bullpen session in Tampa today. He’s heading back to New York for even more tests. The epidurals are obviously not doing the trick, so it’s looking more and more likely that Ace will need to have surgery to fix that bulging disc in his back. Shame, getting him back and healthy was the best bullpen help the Yankees could have hoped for in the second half.

In what I am sure is completely related news, Romulo Sanchez was scratched from his start for Triple-A Scranton tonight, and has been moved to the bullpen to prepare him for his future as a big league reliever. Jason Hirsh takes his spot in SWB’s rotation. If it’s just a coincidence that the Romulo news broke right after the Aceves news, then that’s one hell of a coincidence.

Open Thread: Out west, yet again

Don't worry Alex, they still love you in Oakland. (Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)

The season is 81 games old, and the Yankees are making their third trip to the West Coast already. It’s nice to get it out of the way early, because the last thing tired bodies and a team in a division race needs in September is six hour flights and jet lag. It’s just these damn 10pm ET starts. Do you realize that between those four day games over the weekend and this road trip and the All Star break, the Yankees are going to go 14 days between 7pm ET starts? That’s nuts. Eh, so be it. Like I said, good to get these trips out of the way now.

Until tonight’s game thread rolls along, use this sucker as your open thread. The Mets are home against the Reds (Harang Travis Wood vs. Pelfrey), and the Braves and Phillies are on ESPN (Lowe vs. Halladay). Anything goes, have fun.

Yankee scouts watching Lee, but so what?

Over the next several weeks (including today), you’re going to hear a lot talk of about who has scouts watching who and what not, leading to trade speculation. Let me tell you right now that it doesn’t mean anything. The Yankees have their scouts watching Cliff Lee because a) they have to face him again in a few days, and b) because they’re going to have interest in him as a free agent after the season. They had people at basically every single one of CC Sabathia‘s starts in 2008 not because they were going to trade for him in the middle of the summer, but because they knew they were going to be major players for his services that winter and wanted to see what they were getting themselves into.

So yes, it’s a great narrative and it’s exciting to hear, but don’t read much into who the Yankees have scouts watching, at least not when it’s a guy like Cliff Lee. Chances are it’s just routine coverage.

Link Dump: Send Swish!, Brackman, Mariano

Apparently everyone in America has the day off except me, so here’s some links…

Send Swish!

One day into the Final Vote balloting, Nick Swisher is in the lead for the AL’s final All Star roster spot. Kevin Youkilis isn’t far behind him though, so we all have to make sure we go out and support Swish. The ballot can be found here, and you can vote as much as you want, there’s no limit. The polls close at 4pm ET this Thursday, and you can always click our little Send Swish! button on the sidebar to go to the ballot.

Mike Ashmore Chats With Andrew Brackman

Friend of RAB Mike Ashmore chatted with 2007 first round pick Andrew Brackman recently, and posted the results for all to see. The entire Q&A is worth the read, but I found the info about adjusting his mechanics and trying to add a changeup the most interesting. Brackman’s comments about basketball were interesting as well; he’s aware that he probably didn’t have a shot at the NBA, but going overseas was a very real possibility for him. Never considered that, though I’m not much of a basketball guy.

Getting Dominated By Mariano Rivera, Interactively

We’re probably the last site on the internet to link to this, but better late than never. The New York Times ran a great little video over the weekend about Mariano Rivera and what makes his cutter so effective. You’ve probably seen it already, but it’s definitely worth another watch or two. The accompanying article is worth the read as well.

The RAB Mailbag

Don’t forget to send in your mailbag questions throughout the week. Things seemed to go well and we got a lot of positive feedback to last week’s post, so it’s definitely something we’ll do again. Just email us via the links, or use the Submit A Tip box under The Montero Watch.

Halfway through, a status report

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

As soon as Robbie Cano crossed the plate after Marcus Thames blooped that broken bat single into center the 10th inning yesterday, the Yankees’ 2010 season was officially halfway complete. They simultaneously became the first team to 50 wins this season, the first time they’ve won that many games in the first half in more than half a decade. With the game’s best record, second best run differential, second most runs scored, and the third fewest runs allowed in the league, everything seems to be going well for the defending World Champs.

Of course, it’s really not. There are very real issues with the current Yankees squad that have been masked by rather spectacular starting pitching, timely hitting, and the great Mariano Rivera. Let’s take a look at what needs to stay the same, and what needs to change to make the Yanks even more dangerous in the second half.

What Needs To Stay The Same (Or At Least Not Fall Off Too Much)

Overall, the Yanks’ starting pitching has been fantastic. As a group, they boast a 3.93 ERA and a 4.25 xFIP, the fourth and third best marks in the league, respectively. The quintet of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Javy Vazquez, and Phil Hughes has started all but two of the team’s first 81 games, and when one pitcher hit a rough patch – say Vazquez in April or Burnett in June – the other guys picked them up.

It was unrealistic for Hughes to maintain the 2.71 ERA he had in his first 11 starts over the full season, but if he remains static at his current 4.02 xFIP level, he’ll be the best fifth starter in the game. Burnett is going to have his ups and downs, ditto Vazquez, so it’ll be important for Sabathia and Pettitte to really lead the staff. They need to be the guys that when you go to the park, you know you’re going to get a quality outing. Health, as always, is the biggest thing. If these five can made say, 70 starts in the final 81 games, the Yanks are golden.

Photo Credit: Jae C. Hong, AP

As fantastic as Robbie Cano was in the first half (.411 wOBA, second in MLB with 4.5 WAR), he needs to continue to perform in the second half. Even a dip back to last season’s .370 wOBA for 81 games will hurt a lineup that featured far too many underachieving stars in the first half. Same deal with Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. Swish has to continue to be a middle-of-the-order producer from the two-spot, and Gardner needs to be the second leadoff man in the bottom third of the lineup. All three of these guys have performed better than expected, and the Yanks’ need them to keep it up.

Finally, and quite obviously, Mariano Rivera needs to continue to be the rock at the end of games. There’s absolutely no reason to expect he won’t be.

What Needs To Improve

The bullpen. Aside from Mo, the only reliever who’s consistently done his job this year is Damaso Marte vs. lefthanded batters (.154/.209./282 against, more than 28% strikeouts). David Robertson was rock solid for about eight weeks in May and June, though hit a little hiccup this past week. Joba Chamberlain … I don’t even know where to start with him. Those three are going to be the primary setup crew going forward, and they need to be better, plain and simple.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Chan Ho Park is going to be cut loose at some point this month, ditto Chad Gaudin, and it’s hard not to believe that GM Brian Cashman will go outside of the organization at some point to add another bullpen arm. There’s plenty of inventory to put lipstick on the pig, such as Jon Albaladejo, Romulo Sanchez, Dustin Moseley, Boone Logan, and Sergio Mitre, but those guys shouldn’t be counted on as high leverage relievers. At least not yet.

Some of the stars need to start producing like stars. Derek Jeter‘s .348 OBP and .338 wOBA are the worst full season marks of his career. Mark Teixeira, although hot of late (.332/.421/.589 in his last 24 games), has still underperformed as a whole and needs to produce like the MVP candidate he’s expected to be in the second half. Ditto Alex Rodriguez, who has been straight mashin’ of late like Tex (.273/.346/.636 in his last 12 games). These three are the Yankees’ best players, and they need to be their best players the rest of the season.

Curtis Granderson needs to pick it up as well. He’s certainly had a knack for the timely homerun, which is always appreciated, but his overall performance (.313 wOBA) has been Melky Cabrera-esque. The injury didn’t help and it’s good that the team doesn’t need him to be anything more than a threat in the bottom third of the order, but he still hasn’t performed as expected. By no means is this a declaration that the trade is a failure, that’s just silly 227 plate appearances into his Yankee career, it’s just a little reminder that hey, he’s kinda sucked.

Oh, and then there’s the bench. It’s horrendous. Marcus Thames coming off the disabled list should not be such a huge upgrade. Ramiro Pena is a black hole with the bat, Kevin Russo has disappeared off the face of the Earth, and Colin Curtis simply can’t be your most dangerous lefthanded pinch hitter. I fully expect the Yanks’ to acquire not just one, but two bench pieces before the trade deadline like they did last summer.

Health. Health health health. A healthy Al Aceves deepens the bullpen. The healthy Jorge Posada improves the offense. A healthy Nick Johnson lengthens the lineup. The Yankees can’t really count on any of these things (especially the first and last ones), but anything from those guys is icing on the cake. Really, it’s all about not losing anyone else to injury.

No team is perfect, and remember that the Yanks are still ahead of last year’s pace by two full games. The bullpen and bench are the only areas of the team in real need of an overhaul, the rest of the improvements should come from guys simply performing like they have in the past and staying health. The common refrain is that this is the worst first place team ever, to which I say: How quickly we forget the 2004-2006 teams.

The Leverage Argument: A SABRmetric-phobe’s guide

Photo Credit: Charles Krupa, AP

There are few things in baseball more frustrating than a blow lead, and the Yankees’ shaky bullpen has broken our hearts on more than one occasion this season. Joe Girardi generally does a pretty good job managing his bullpen, but there’s always a better way to deploy your best relievers.

Written by Rebecca of This Purist Bleeds Pinstripes and You Can’t Predict Baseball fame, this guest piece breaks down the concept of using your best reliever in the most important spot of the game for everyone who’s adverse to baseball’s statistical revolution.

Q: What is the leverage argument?

A: The leverage argument states that a manager should use his best pitcher at the game’s most critical points.

Q: So you mean, like, CC Sabathia should be pitching the ninth inning?

A: Well, no. A CC Sabathia who’s pitched eight other innings is probably not as sharp as a Mariano Rivera who hasn’t pitched any that day, and the ninth inning is not necessarily the most important part of the game.

Q: What do you mean the ninth inning isn’t the most important part of the game?

A: Well, in many games, a team will take a lead early in the game, in the first or second inning, and then lead and build on that throughout the game, so that by the eighth inning, they might be up by six runs, than say the one run they led by in the second.

Q: So then you’re saying Mariano Rivera should pitch the second inning?

A: Again, no. Unless your fifth starter is the April 2009 version of Chien Ming Wang, your starting pitcher is always going to be more valuable than the reliever. The leverage argument focuses primarily on what occurs after the starting pitcher has been removed from the game. This will, hopefully for your team, take place in the latter three innings, and not in the second or third inning, unless something’s gone horribly wrong.

Q: All right, hold up a sec and help me out here: how do you determine what the most important part of the game is?

A: Well, if you want to be technical about it, you can go and look at the WPA graphs on Fangraphs (they’re the graphs the RABbis post in the recap after every game with that line that goes ziggy zag zig wheee or zag zig zag oof, and the bars underneath, where the higher the bar, the more crucial that play was in that game).

However, if anything remotely math-y or graph-y rubs you the wrong way, the most important points of the game are pretty much any point in which the lead is in danger of changing from one team to the other. Like on Saturday, the Yankees had the bases loaded with no one out, that was a high leverage situation, because the likelihood that Toronto’s 2-0 lead would go bye-bye became much higher than it would be had the bases been empty and there been two out.

Really, most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell when it’s a high leverage situation–the crowd will get loud because their team is rallying or groan because Joba’s busy imploding again, for example.

That said, here’s the key thing, the thing so important that I’m bolding it: the importance of the ninth inning is nil if you can’t get through the eighth, and the eighth is not important if you can’t get through the seventh.

Q: Okay, I see your point, but you can’t have Mariano pitch the seventh, I mean, what about the saves?

A: Saves are a stupid stat. Did you know that in the game Texas won in 2007 30-3 against Baltimore, they got a save because the same guy, who wasn’t the starter, pitched the final three innings?

Q: But still! I mean, you can’t have Mariano pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth, the dude’s bloody forty years old!

A: Understood. I didn’t say the leverage argument wasn’t without risk. If the most critical point of the game happens in the seventh inning–like it did in Game 5 of the 2009 ALCS, then the leverage argument says you have Rivera pitch the seventh. It means that Joba or Robertson or pitcher X pitches the eighth and the ninth, but I revert back to the bolded statement above: the eighth and ninth won’t matter (as much) if you blow the lead in the seventh inning. The idea is that you get the lead, and keep it: walk offs and dramatic home runs are awesome and everything, but to be in that situation means that you’re relying on an awful lot of pure luck.

Q: Okay, so the Yankees are up 1-0 in the seventh in Game Seven of the World Series and the Dodgers are sending up Russell Martin, Blake DeWitt and Clayton Kershaw. The Yankees should go to Mo?

A: Well, not necessarily. Those three, right now, are the bottom of the Dodger lineup (and we presume this game is at Dodger Stadium). The situation is important, but if you’re winning 1-0, and it’s game seven, chances are CC is busy being CC and cruising. You know that in the eighth inning the Dodgers have Furcal, Eithier and Kemp due up (theoretically much better hitters than the bottom three), and thus that is perhaps more likely to be the more crucial situation.

That said, once Martin or DeWitt reach base, the complexion changes because then, barring ye olde GIDP, Furcal or Eithier will bat in that inning. That’s when you ring the phone and tell Mariano to start tossing.

Q: But what if DeWitt hits a home run?

A: It’s baseball, stuff happens. The leverage argument is about playing probabilities, and doing your best to use those probabilities to your advantage.

Q: That sounds much too much like sabermetrics.

A: Well, it is. That said, you don’t need statistics to tell you that Albert Pujols is more likely to hit Chan Ho(me run) Park than Mariano Rivera or that Chad Gaudin will probably find Juan Pierre and easier out than, say, Manny Ramirez.

Q: Okay, I get you, but this still seems really risky. What if Joe Girardi did go to Mariano in the eighth on Saturday and then Joba blew the lead in the ninth?

A: Alas, it’s one of the risks you’re going to run. That said, think about it like this: would you prefer to be tied 1-1 going into the ninth, or have a 1-0 lead going into the ninth?

The real point, here, however, is what happens when your team is on the road in extra innings. Most managers (still) won’t use their closer on the road in extras, saving them for save opportunities that may never actually materialize. Yet, us Yankee fans got lucky on the last Yankee road trip: two extra inning games preceding off days, Joe Girardi elected to use Mariano Rivera to pitch the bottom of the ninth, instead of other relievers he had at his disposal. The Yankees were lucky enough to score runs in the tenth inning both times, and because the off day allowed him to do so, Girardi went back to Mariano for the tenth inning.

The Yankees won both games.

Q: All right, you got me hooked. Where should I go?

A: Fangraphs and their WPA charts are my favorite, but you may also find Baseball Reference or the Leverage Indexes posted at The Hardball Time useful as well. Mind, these guys get very into it, actually calculating numbers to determine which situations (ie, how many men on base, how many out, the inning, etc) are more critical than others. It’s a baseball stat nerd’s dream, but you don’t need to get that complicated to understand the point.

Q: So what’s the point?

A: The ninth (or even the eighth) inning is not necessarily the most important inning of the game, and boxing in relievers as “the eighth inning guy” or “the closer” without allowing for an occasional adjustment as circumstances warrant can come back to bite you in the ass. Almost everything about a bullpen and the game of baseball is malleable; use it to your advantage.

Q: You’re still mad at Joba, aren’t you?

A: Yes.

Fan Confidence Poll: July 5th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-3 (27 RS, 31 RA)
Season Record: 50-31 (436 RS, 340 RA, 50-31 Pythag. record), 1.5 games up
Schedule This Week: @ Athletics (Mon. to Weds.), @ Mariners (four games, Thurs. to Sun.)

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