Game 66: Andy for the series win (again)

Photo Credit: Julie Jacobson, AP

The last time Andy Pettitte faced the Phillies, he and his teammates walked off the field a World Champion. He picked up A.J. Burnett that November night, finishing off the series win after the enigmatic righthander couldn’t. Of course there’s not nearly as much on the line tonight, but a win is always appreciated. The Yanks are 15-5-1 in their 21 series this year, so let’s bump that total up to 16 tonight.

Here’s your starting nine…

Jeter, SS
Granderson, CF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, DH
Cano, 2B
Swisher, RF
Gardner, LF
Cervelli, C
Pena, 3B

And on the mound, Pettitte. Andy Pettitte.

It’s a fine evening for a baseball game, and this sucker will kick off at 7:05pm ET. You can watch it locally on YES, and nationally on MLB Network. Enjoy the game.

Yankees sign Eric Bruntlett

Via Donnie Collins, the Yanks have signed utility infielder Eric Bruntlett to a minor league and assigned him to Triple-A Scranton. He had been playing with the Nationals’ Triple-A club until they cut him a week or two ago for hitting .171-.224-.238 in 118 plate appearances. Bruntlett straight up can’t hit (career .286 wOBA), but at least he can play every position except pitcher and catcher. It’s just a depth move with Robby Hammock on the disabled list and David Winfree recently released, so it’s no biggie. He won’t see pinstripes.

Leave the vuvuzela at home

A few weeks ago, few Americans knew what a vuvuzela was. The hard plastic horn that resembles a beer funnel often makes its presence known in South African soccer games, and it took the World Cup to introduce the droning sounds to a nation not so keen on having its ears assaulted. The backlash, it seems, has already begun. During last night’s Yankees-Phillies affair, security guards in the bleachers confiscated a vuvuzela from one endearing fan, and The Post speculates that the Yankees have pretty much banned them outright as the team’s policies say that fans are not permitted to “blow horns and all other distracting noisemakers.” My ears approve.

Minor League Links: Brackman, SI Yanks, Kahnle

Got some minor league links to pass along…

Yankees set to promote Brackman

Perhaps the biggest (literally and figuratively) development in the Yanks’ minor league system this year has been Andrew Brackman‘s breakout. Granted, we’re talking about seven starts here (39.1 IP, 33 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 6 BB, 41 K, ~2.00 GB/FB), but the scouting reports have been great, which is the most important thing. Joel Sherman says that the Yanks are set to promote Brackman from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton before the All Star break, which is less than a month away. If he’s truly on his way back to being an elite prospect, there’s no sense in holding him back. Great news.

Short Season Staten Island Yankees rosters

Robert Pimpsner tweeted the SI Yanks roster last night, which Greg Fertel was nice enough to round up in one spot. Outfielders Kelvin DeLeon, Ramon Flores, Eduardo Sosa, and Carlos Urena highlight the prospect crop, but Mikey O’Brien is the only significant piece on the pitching staff. Once more draft picks sign, the team with get a bit more exciting. Pretty surprising that Carmen Angelini isn’t on the roster. If he’s not on the Rookie level GCL squad, that means he’s been released. Boy was I wrong on him.

The SI Yanks kick their season off tomorrow with their annual home-and-home series against Brooklyn.

Stoneburner continues to open eyes

Aside from Brackman, Graham Stoneburner’s arrival as a legit power pitching prospect has been one of the biggest story lines of the 2010 minor league season. Kevin Goldstein reports today (sub. req’d) that “Stoneburner’s fastball and slider both rate as plus,” which doesn’t exactly jive with what we’ve heard from the Yanks. Pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said last month that his slider was not even a big league average pitch, so who knows what to believe. Goldstein’s source could have seen Stoneburner on a good day, Nardi could have seen him on a bad one. Chances are the reality is somewhere in the middle.

Kahnle hopes to sign soon

Fifth round pick Tommy Kahnle said he hopes to sign with the Yankees soon, though he indicated that nothing is imminent. The hard throwing righty from Lynn University is one of several power college arms the Yanks drafted that projects to be a reliever down the road, something they surprisingly lack in the system.  I ranked him the tenth most important sign of the draft class, though I was kinda spit balling it.

Those lovable Yankees

Smile if you love the Yankees. (Photo Credit: Paul Sancya, AP)

Forgive me while I try something different. We’re not going to analyze anything in this post, I just want to talk about the current crop of Yankees and how for the most part, they’re damn easy to like. I’m sure non-Yankee fans feel the exact opposite, but who cares about them. They’ll probably respond with something creative like “for $250M they should be likable.” Originality knows no limits, you know.

Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I realize how enjoyable this team is to watch and follow on a daily basis. Winning certainly has a lot to do with it, but the Yankees won a ton of games last decade and looked like a bunch of grumpy old men doing it. I’m not talking about clubhouse chemistry and all that stuff, I’m just talking about plain old likability. Gary Sheffield scowled his way to 6.4 WAR in three seasons in New York, but looked miserable 24 hours a day. The only time I ever remember him smiling was when he hit his 500th career homer as a member of the Mets last year. Kevin Brown was another one. He punched walls and threw his glove and posted 4.1 WAR in his two seasons with the Yanks, but was impossible to like. The list of grumpy, old, and productive Yanks goes on seemingly forever.

It’s pretty easy to pinpoint exactly when this shift towards more likable players began, it was the 2008-2009 offseason. CC Sabathia is a monster off the mound and seems like a teddy bear off it. A.J. Burnett can be infuriating when he pitches, but you’d be hard pressed to find louder cheers at the Stadium than after one of his pie jobs. Nick Swisher can make the routine look complicated on defense, but his outgoing personality and willingness to help others appeals to all. Curtis Granderson is the exact same way, even though he joined the team a year after those guys. It seems odd saying it, but these players simply seem to love playing baseball for a living. There were far to many that didn’t seem to appreciate the opportunity over the years.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP

Another part of it is all the young, homegrown players. For whatever reason, it’s just easier to root for the guys who grew up Yankees, at least I feel that way. Maybe it’s because they’re closer to my age and I can relate. Robbie Cano‘s smile was MVP caliber long before his game was. Melky Cabrera was doing all sorts of silly stuff that never failed to put a smile on your face. Brett Gardner makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside just because we can’t remember the last time the team had a player that exciting to watch. Frankie Cervelli … don’t even start with him. He could run for mayor of New York and I’m convinced he’d finish no lower than third in the voting. People love that guy.

And of course, there’s the old timers. Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada are beloved for being far more than great players. They’re beloved because they are all great people with no egos. I’m adding Alex Rodriguez to this group since he’s the longest tenured player on the team after those guys. He’s definitely a bit of a weird fella off the field, but he’s hands down the greatest player I’ve ever seen in pinstripes, and chances are the same is true for you. We all love a good comeback story, and his performance following last year’s PED fiasco and hip surgery should be enough to convince even the most determined of haters that he’s an amazing player and we’re lucky to have him. Watching world class players like A-Rod are what makes being a Yankee fan great.

Sure, Burnett stunk and the Yanks lost last night, but in the end who cares. In a week it’ll nothing but a distant memory and in the month it’ll be completely forgotten about. The Yanks are fun to root for not just because they’re a great team, but because they have great players who make the game fun to watch. The corporate baseball playing robots are gone, since replaced by players who would sleep at the park if you let them. If you can’t find this team easy to cheer for, then you take this game far too seriously.

Is it the pitcher, or is it the opposing offense?

The Phillies, as we’ve frequently heard, have had trouble scoring runs lately. After they beat Boston on May 21 they led the NL in runs per game, and given what we know about their offensive players that should have come as no surprise. Since then, in a 22-game span, they’ve dropped a full run per game to ninth in the NL, a half run per game behind league-leading Cincinnati. Yet last night they broke out for six runs on six hits, three of which went for extra bases. Were they breaking out of a slump?

As Ben noted this morning, “Last night’s affair was one of those ugly outings where the pitcher shoulders all the blame.” Given how the game unfolded after he left, I have to agree with that. The Phillies reverted to the futility we’ve seen, or at least heard of, during the past few weeks. Worse, they did it against two of the Yankees’ worst pitchers.

Photo credit: Paul Sancya/AP

It’s not secret — not to Yankees fans, not to anyone who follows baseball with a modicum of intensity — that Boone Logan and Chad Gaudin rank among the lesser relievers in the league. If not for injuries they probably wouldn’t have major league jobs right now. But they were easy options, and since the Yankees have two relievers on the DL their presences are understandable. Temporarily, at least.

Their troubles are well known. Gaudin walks too many hitters and has a tough time with lefties. In an ideal world he’d come in from the pen to face a string of righties, but there’s always that lefty on the bench that can trip him up. This leads to a high number of hits, particularly extra base hits. Logan walks even more batters than Gaudin, and even has troubles throwing strikes to same-handed hitters. The only reason he ever sniffs the majors is because he throws the ball with his left arm.

Yet those two combined to not only hold the Phillies scoreless during the final 5.2 innings last night, but to no-hit them. While Burnett used 87 pitches to record 10 outs, Logan and Gaudin combined for 78 pitches to get the final 17 outs. They threw two-thirds of their pitches for strikes. They each struck out three hitters, Logan in 2.2 innings and Gaudin in 3. It was quite the change from what we saw earlier in the game.

Could it have been the Phillies offense getting complacent after scoring six runs? It could be, I suppose, but I’d never turn to this as a primary explanation for their late-inning futility. They know that a four-run lead isn’t safe with the Yankees’ offense — hell, they brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth, and it wasn’t all that surprising. So I’m sure they didn’t just turn off some switch and slide into cruise control. Maybe it was something subconscious, a sense of satisfaction that they had scored six runs after battling and struggling to score just one during many games in the past few weeks. None of us can really say for sure.

The most likely explanation is that Burnett was just bad. We know that he has terrible outings from time to time, just like we know that Guadin and Logan are bad pitchers. We also know that the Phillies offense has struggled during the past few weeks. When those elements combine in my head, it points to Bad A.J. and not much else. We’ll have to learn to live with these starts. At least it bodes well for today.

When A.J. goes bad

Photo Credit: Seth Wenig, AP

A.J. Burnett was so bad last night, he made a punchless offense look like the superstar sluggers they were supposed to be. The Phillies, a team that had scored six runs just twice since doing so on May 15, lit him up like Times Square. After 3.1 painful innings in which he threw first-pitch strikes to just 10 of the 21 batters he faced, Joe Girardi mercifully yanked him from what would be a 6-3 loss.

Last night’s affair was one of those ugly outings where the pitcher shoulders all the blame. Burnett threw 87 mostly bad pitches en route to a six-hit, four-walk appearance. He was responsible for all six runs the Phillies scored and struck out three hitters. Shockingly, Phillies’ batters swung and missed just five times against Burnett. He had nothing.

Unfortunately for the Yanks, having nothing has become a common theme for A.J. After starting the season 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA over his first six starts, the wheels have utterly fallen off. Over his last eight appearances, Burnett is 2-5 with a 6.36 ERA in just 43.2 innings. Opponents have knocked out nine home runs over those starts, and his K/BB ratio is an ugly 35/22. He’s not giving the Yanks quality starts or innings right now.

For the team adjusting to the second of five years of the A.J. Burnett Era, this wildly inconsistent performance is nothing new. The Bad A.J./Good A.J. meme didn’t arise out of thin air, and the Yankees and their fans know that Burnett is only as good as the movement on his pitches. He’s a high-walk, high-strikeout pitcher with little command within the strike zone of his pitches, but his stuff can be so devastating and overpowering that the lack of command often doesn’t matter. And to think the Yanks only have three years and $49.5 million left on this contract after 2010.

That’s the real rub. The Yankees will have to live with A.J. Burnett and his amazing disappearing act through his ages 34, 35 and 36 seasons, and Baseball Reference’s Juan Guzman and Pete Harnisch comparables don’t inspire much confidence. Neither pitcher were still in the bigs come their age 35 seasons.

But does this inconsistency coupled with the inevitable decline of age make Burnett’s deal a bad one? So far, it’s tough to complain about it. He arrived with high expectations last year, and by and large, delivered on his salary. While earning $16.5 million, Burnett was, according to Fangraphs’ WAR, a $14 million hurler. Considering the Yanks had to outbid the Atlanta Braves for his services and won a World Series in his first year in pinstripes, I’d say the team is happy to pay a $2.5 million premium.

Going forward, though, Burnett’s 2010 experiences feature a few warning signs. As the Phillies demonstrated last night, Burnett isn’t getting many swing-and-miss strikes. In fact, this year, his Swinging Strike percentage is down to 7.2 percent. Prior to joining the Yanks, Burnett was generally above 10 percent (and well above league average) in that category, but since coming to the Bronx, his swings-and-misses have dissipated. More balls in play inevitably lead to more hits.

In a similar vein, Burnett’s strike outs have declined precipitously as well. In his peak years in 2007 and 2008, Burnett averaged nearly 9.5 K/9 IP. Last year, that figure declined to 8.48, and this year, he has around 6.7 strike outs per nine innings. We want to see that number stay steady.

It’s still too early in the year to draw many conclusions, and Burnett’s dip in numbers as well as a one-mph drop in velocity, could just be related to early season pitching woes. Nothing reminds us of Dr. AJ and Mr. Burnett quite like an eight-game, 2.50-ERA span, and he could start one of those next week against the Diamondbacks. But last night, Burnett didn’t have it, and if that’s what his aging future in pinstripes is going to look like, that deal he signed might just be for one year too many.