First Half Review: Seven who exceeded expectations

With the first half of the season in the rear view mirro and the Yanks all enjoying a few days off for the All Star break, we’re going to offer up some first-half reviews but with a twist. Instead of a rote overview of how the players are doing, we’ll use the spot usually reserved for the game recap to discuss a few select performances. Tonight, we start with the overachievers.

As a club, the Yankees are sitting pretty in first place. With the best mark in baseball, they’re 56-32, two games up on the Tampa Bay Rays and five games better than the third-place Boston Red Sox. They’ve scored 469 runs and have allowed 352. Both of those marks are second best in the American League. So clearly, the team is rife with good performances, but seven players stick out for the headlines they’ve made.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

We start with the one who is arguable the team’s first half MVP. Although a recent 16-for-75 slide has seen his season totals dip to .336/.389/.556, Robinson Cano is among the team leaders every offensive category. His batting average is tops on the club; his OBP is second; and his slugging first. His 115 hits place him behind only Josh Hamilton and Ichiro Suzuki in the AL, and his 23 doubles are tops among his Yankee teammates. His 4.4 WAR is tops on the team.

For Cano, 2010 has been a breakout season. We wondered in our season preview which Robinson Cano would show up, and the various projection systems pegged him to hit a respectable .304/.343/.484 with 20 home runs and 31 walks. He should top both the walk and home run totals before July is out. With Mark Teixeira heating up, the Yankees don’t need Cano to carry the team as he was in late April and early May, but at age 27, Cano seems to be coming into his own.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

On par with Cano has been Nick Swisher. Hitting .298/.377/.524, Swisher is the only other member of the starting nine to carry an OPS over .900 into the All Star Break. Although he failed to escape the first round of the Home Run Derby earlier tonight, the Yanks have no complaints with Swisher, and he too is far outpacing his season projections. If he hit just .242/.360/.454 with 25 home runs on the season as the various systems projected him to, his second half would be a major disappointment.

Swisher seems to have emerged in 2010 with the help of Yanks hitting coach Kevin Long who broke down Swish’s swing and made him keep still at the plate. Particularly at home, Swisher has shown much improvement. After hitting .226/.382/.394 with 8 home runs last year at home, Nick is off to a .291/.371/.496 start in the Bronx this year with 7 round-trippers, and I laugh every time I remember that Cashman landed him for a wing and a dream.

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

The final offensive player making a statement this year has been the speedy Brett Gardner. After languishing behind Melky Cabrera for much of 2009, Gardner earned himself a starting spot out of Spring Training this year, and he’s been on fire since. He’s hitting .309/.396/.415 with 25 stolen bases in 31 tries and had a higher slugging percentage than Mark Teixeira for much of the first half. Our projection for Gardner had him at .270/.347/.372 with 31 stolen bases and three home runs. Aided by an inside-the-parker last week and a grand slam the day before, Gardner has already topped that total. The real test will be to see how he holds up over the next 74 games.

Credit: AP Photo, Elaine Thompson

Moving to the mound, we find two names that do not come as a surprise and one who does. The surprise, of course, is Phil Hughes. During the season preview, we wondered about Phil’s and Joba’s futures, and so far this year, Phil has gotten the better of that debate. He’s 11-2 in 16 starts spanning 101 innings, and he sports a nifty 3.65 ERA and a 3.96 xFIP. He’s striking out 8.1 per nine innings and walking just 2.6 while keeping the ball in the yard. Although an innings limit may curtail his late-season pitching, Hughes took a huge step forward during the first half.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

Next, we have the Big Man. It’s hard to beat expectations when you’re making $23 million a year, but CC over his last eight outings is 8-0 with a 1.81 ERA. On the season, he’s 12-3 with a 3.09 ERA. His projection called for a near replica of 2009, and so far, the southpaw has delivered. The strike out totals are down a bit this year, and the walks are up a tick, but opponents are OPSing just .645 against Sabathia.

It’s easy to forget Sabathia’s early 2009 struggles, but through the first half last year, he was just 8-6 with a 3.86 ERA. He went 11-2 with a 2.74 ERA and a struck out hitters at a rate of nine per nine innings pitched in the second half. In his career, his second half ERA has been approximately 0.50 runs better and he strikes out a batter more per nine innings. If he can be even better in the second half this year than he was in the first, Cy Young considerations will not be out of the question.

Credit: AP Photo, Elaine Thompson

We can’t talk about pitching without mentioning another lefty. Part of the Core Four with five rings, Andy Pettitte has far better than what we termed his rosy projections. We had him pegged at a 4.26 ERA/4.08 FIP with 138 strike outs in 190 innings. Instead, Andy has gone 11-2 with a team-leading 2.70 ERA, albeit with a 4.00 xFIP, and has mowed down 87 opponents. Like a fine wine and Mike Mussina, Pettitte has matured into a finesse pitcher who can still dial it up to 91 or 92 when the moment arises. He’s showing no signs of slowing down, and a strong second half could put him on the cusp of 250 career victories.

Photo credit: Ross D. Franklin/AP

Finally, we arrive at the best of the best. There isn’t much left to say about Mariano Rivera. At age 40, he’s 2-1 with a 1.05 ERA (and a 2.27 FIP thanks to the Jason Kubel grand slam). He’s striking out 8.65 per nine innings and has a ridiculous 5.50 K/BB ratio. With the cutter darting in and out, opponents can’t do much against him, and he has 20 saves this year. We’ll have to see if he can sustain a .190 BABIP, and we’ll have to see how his 40-year-old body holds up. Deservedly or not, though, if Rivera duplicates his first half, he too will garner Cy Young votes this year. Mariano Rivera, it seems, refuses to let age be more than just another number.

Honorable Mentions: Marcus Thames is hitting .294/.398/.447 but with only three home runs, and he’s been to plate just 103 times…Post-June 3 Mark Teixeira: .314/.403/.599 in 159 plate appearances. He has 9 home run — or a 42 dinger pace — over that hot stretch of hitting. He’ll be on another post in this series though…Nick Johnson‘s 24 walks are still two more than Curtis Granderson has drawn in 152 more plate appearances…Javier Vazquez has a 2.78 ERA over his 64.2 innings spanning 10 outings. He’s only 5-3 during that stretch though because the Yanks have scored just 2.9 runs per start for him.

Laird hurt in Trenton win

Triple-A Scranton is off until Thursday for the All Star break.

Double-A Trenton (10-5 win over Bowie)
Justin Christian, CF & Luis Nunez, SS: both 1 for 5 – Christian scored a run … Nunez doubled, scored twice & K’ed
Dan Brewer, RF: 2 for 5, 2 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K, 1 CS – had been just two for his last 19 (.105)
Brandon Laird, 3B: 0 for 2, 1 K - left the game after fouling a ball off his ankle, and it doesn’t sound too good … neither Laird or the trainer was around after the game, and he’s already backed out of the Eastern League All Star Game, which is obviously a bad sign
Marcos Vechionacci, 1B: 3 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 3 RBI, 2 BB, 1 SB – seven for his last 16 (.438)
Jack Rye, LF: 0 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 E (throwing) – got picked off first
Rene Rivera, C: 2 for 4, 1 R, 2 K
Justin Snyder, 2B :0 for 3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Edwar Gonzalez, DH: 1 for 3, 1 3B, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 CS – got picked off first … six for his last ten
Lance Pendleton: 6 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 3-8 GB/FB
Ryan Pope: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB
Cory Arbiso: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2-1 GB/FB
J.B. Cox: 1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 27 H allowed in 16 IP … comeback’s not going to well

[Read more…]

2010 Home Run Derby Thread

"Wait, Vernon was serious about being in this thing?" (Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP)

I think we all share the same opinion on the Home Run Derby: It’s fun for a while, but in general the damn thing is just too long. Oh, and the participants. Why not get some actual, you know, home run hitters in there? Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena … get those guys in the competition. No one wants to see Vernon Wells hit three balls just over the fence. But I digress.

We Yankee fans actually have a rooting interest in this year’s event, since Man of the People Nick Swisher is slated to participate. He’s going to swing lefthanded (12 of his 15 homers have come as a lefty) and have Tony Pena pitch to him, but he’s going to have to deal with that big wall in right-center. David Golebiewski at FanGraphs did a real in-depth breakdown of the Derby contestants, so make sure you give that a read if you haven’t already.

Here are the eight contestants, not necessarily in order…

American League
Miguel Cabrera
David Ortiz
Nick Swisher
Vernon Wells

National League
Corey Hart
Matt Holliday
Hanley Ramirez
Chris Young

My money’s on Matt Holliday, but of course I’ll be pulling for Swish. The fun starts at 8 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN.

Albaladejo takes home IL Pitcher of the Week honors

Via The Times Leader comes the news that Scranton closer Jonathan Albaladejo has taken home International League Pitcher of the Week honors. Over the last nine days, says Donnie Collins, Albaladejo has thrown six scoreless innings while striking out nine and racking up four saves. He now holds the marks for most saves in a single season and most career saves for the Scranton franchise. On the season, Albaladejo is 2-1 with a 1.01 ERA and 29 saves. He has struck out 59 while allowing just two home runs and 12 walks in 44.2 innings, and barring a promotion, he’ll soon set the IL record for most saves in a single season.

At this point, the Yankees should give Albaladejo a good, long look in the Majors. At 27, he’s not really a prospect any longer, and most scouts who have seen him this year have been impressed with his command and velocity. The Yankees have Dustin Moseley, Chad Gaudin and Chan Ho Park all taking up space on the big league roster, and the need for all three inconsistent and ineffective relievers just isn’t there. Albaladejo can’t do much worse than those three, and he could be better, giving the beleaguered pen a shot in the arm.

The ties that bind Eduardo Nunez and Cliff Lee

Meet Eduardo Nunez. The 23-year-old short stop out of the Dominican Republic signed with the Yankees in 2004. For AAA Scranton this year, Nunez is hitting .305/.354/.405, and his 107 hits are tops in the International League. He may also be the reason why the Yankees did not acquire Cliff Lee on Friday.

As the story goes, the Yankees and Mariners had a handshake agreement late Thursday night for a swap that would have sent Cliff Lee to the Yankees and Jesus Montero, David Adams and Zach McAllister to Seattle. When Seattle took a look at Adams’ medicals and determined that something in the reports about Adams’ ankle injuries were alarming, they balked on the deal. As Joel Sherman relates this morning, the Mariners went back to Yanks’ GM Brian Cashman and requested Nunez. Here’s how Sherman, clearly with some help from Yankee sources, tells the story:

However, the only way Seattle would have considered accepting a Yankee package once Smoak was included by Texas was if touted Triple-A shortstop Eduardo Nunez was included with Montero. That was the Mariners’ initial request earlier in the month and the Yankees had refused, and they refused again. They simply could not justify, in their mind, giving up their two best position prospects at Triple-A for this trade because they wanted Lee, but they did not absolutely need Lee.

Did the Yanks think Lee was a piece that greatly increased their chances to win a 28th championship? Yes. But at the time of the trade the Yanks had the best record in the majors and believed they could win the championship without Lee and, therefore, could not justify giving up two high-end talents that are nearly major-league ready for Lee, especially because Lee is a free agent after the year and besides the prospect the Yanks would have to pay top-of-the-market dollars to retain Lee.

I have little reason to doubt Sherman, but I can’t wrap my head around this thinking by the Yanks. The team has always thought highly of Nunez; after all, they signed him when he was a 16 year old and moved him to the States for the 2005 season. Following a solid year at Staten Island, Baseball America ranked him sixth in a depleted farm system. As the league’s third-youngest position player, Nunez dazzled in the field and flashed a then-exceptional bat for a middle infielder.

The Yanks were so pleased with Nunez’s 2005 campaign that they bumped him up to the High A club in Tampa, but then the prospect wheels fell off. He didn’t hit in Tampa and then didn’t hit upon being demoted to Charleston. After repeating A ball in 2007 and 2008, Nunez found himself in Trenton in 2009 where he reemerged as a prospect. He hit .322/.349/.433, and Baseball America ranked him 14th in their annual Prospect Handbook. He was the only true short stop ranked in the Yanks’ top 30, but BA projected him as a “utilityman at the big league level.”

“Nunez has athletic ability and good all-around tools,” the book says. “He’s a free swinger who may not have the plate discipline to bring solid power out on a consistent basis. He made good strides with the bat last season, though, making more consistent contact….Nunez has the size, strength and quickness to play shortstop. His arm is his best tool, though it sometimes gets him into trouble on defense when he tries to make plays he shouldn’t. His lack of concentration also contributed to 33 errors in 120 games at short last year.”

Last year, the Yankees restated their commitment to Nunez. The team seems to like his toolsiness, and coverage this year indicates better defensive play and a more focused approach at the plate. He could very well be a better option than Kevin Russo or Ramiro Pena now, but the team doesn’t want to stint his development by having him sit on the bench in the Bronx.

So where does that leave the Yanks? Outside of the fact that they feel jobbed by Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik for the second time in two seasons and probably won’t be too keen on doing the Mariners a favor any time soon, the Yanks may have overplayed their cards. They know Jeter is getting old; they know they’re going to re-sign him; they know he isn’t too keen on moving from his short stop position. They also know they could have had Cliff Lee for Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez. Maybe that’s a price too high to pay, but it seems to me as though the Yankee Front Office — who admittedly know more about Nunez than I — are higher on him than most. He hasn’t been a top prospect for four seasons but still has the tools.

Today, the point is mostly a moot one. Unless an obvious offer lands in their lap, the Yankees, says Buster Olney, are “not engaged in any talks about any starting pitcher and at this point, have no plans to” look for one. They went after Cliff Lee because, well, he’s Cliff Lee. They already have one of the best, if not the best, rotations in the American League and are primed for a run at October. Cliff Lee, their obvious winter target, would just be icing on the cake.

Still, as this Lee trade was the biggest deal the Yanks have made that didn’t go down, we’ll be asking these questions as more information comes out. Was it all worth it for Eduardo Nunez?

Possible trade target: Toronto’s bullpen

We’re a little more than halfway through the season, and it’s now painfully obvious that the Yankees need some help at the back of the bullpen. The setup crew that helped the team to the World Championship last year has been largely inconsistent (or hurt) this year, and even the depth pieces in Triple-A have been unimpressive. Jon Albaladejo might be able to help, sure, but when three-sevenths of the big league bullpen is Chad Gaudin, Chan Ho Park, and Dustin Moseley, it’s going to take more than one move to right this ship.

The trade market for relievers is usually full of retreads or one year wonders, but there’s one team out there with three effective bullpen arms to market before the trade deadline. That team is the free falling Toronto Blue Jays, who have gone 11-20 over the last month or so.

Photo Credit: Mark Duncan, AP

Let’s start in the 9th inning and work our way back. The Jays have made closer Kevin Gregg available, re-routing a scout to Seattle to over the weekend, perhaps to check out the Yanks. I’m not sure who Toronto would want off the Yanks’ big league roster, or perhaps I’m better off saying I’m not sure who Toronto thinks they’ll be able to get off the Yanks’ big league roster, maybe Colin Curtis or Ramiro Pena. It won’t be anyone more than that, I think we can safely say.

The 32-year-old Gregg is a capital-C closer, meaning that he occupies the high profile role without the guarantee of being effective. He’s actually been better than ever this season, with a 3.67 FIP and 3.88 xFIP through 34.1 IP, better marks than what he posted during his best years with the Marlins. Gregg has always missed bats (8.91 K/9 since 2007) and his strikeout rate is a career high 9.70 K/9 this year, but his walk rate is far too high for an end-game reliever at 4.72 BB/9, a full walk over his career rate. We really don’t have any reason to expect Gregg to be any better than that going forward, and his skill set screams a more experienced version of David Robertson. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Photo Credit: Chris Gardner, AP

Setting up Gregg has been the lefty-righty tandem of Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, both of whom have served as Toronto’s closer at one time or another in the past few seasons. Downs is enjoying yet another fine season in a career full of them, locking things down to the tune of a 3.14 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. He’s not just a LOOGY either, and believe it or not he’s actually performed better against righties than lefties over the last season and a half. With a walk rate that has gotten progressively better over the last four seasons, Downs has limited the free passes to just 1.93 BB/9 this season, though it’s worth noting that his swinging strike rate is down to 6.7% (lg avg is 8.4%), a career low.

Frasor, on the other hand, is having the worst season of his career in terms of ERA, but we all know that’s no way to judge a reliever. His strikeout rate is at an all-time high (9.87 K/9), ditto his ground ball rate (50.5%), though the walks are abnormally high at 4.67 BB/9. The 32-year-old righty has run into some bad luck in terms of BABIP (.376) and  strand rate (65.8%), which explains the high ERA, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that as a reliever, he simply might not accrue enough innings to have those totals regress to the mean. He simply might be in the middle of one of those bad luck relief years. It happens.

Contractually, these guys are pretty much all in the same boat. All three can become free agents after the season, though Gregg’s contract has an option for 2011 and 2012. Downs is owed $1.8M the rest of the way and the only projected Type-A free agents of the bunch, while Frasor are Gregg are projected Type-B’s and owed $1.19M and $900,000 (with a $750,000 buyout of the option), respectively. Even if you’re assuming a half-a-win performance after the trade (pretty darn good for a reliever), you’re looking at about $3.5-4M worth of trade value according to Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator, which is worth slightly less than a Grade-B position player prospect according to Victor Wang’s research.

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

The Yankees have plenty of depth behind the plate and in the middle infield, as we learned in the Cliff Lee non-trade, so they could surrender someone like David Adams or Corban Joseph or Reegie Corona without missing a beat. The last time the Yankees and Blue Jays made a trade was the George Steinbrenner mandated Raul Mondesi swap, but of course Brian Cashman is in charge now and Toronto is under a new regime. Whether or not Alex Anthopoulos would be open to trading one of his bullpen pieces within the division remains to be seen (he reportedly wanted more in return to deal Roy Halladay to an AL East team, but that’s an extreme circumstance), but frankly he’d be foolish not to. It’s just a reliever, and his priority should be getting the best return possible.

I’m a big Scott Downs fan, so I’d prefer him over either Gregg or Frasor, but I’m not sure if Joe Girardi would be open to using him as a normal reliever instead of just having him face lefties. Gregg is the better of the two righthanders, given his long track record of missing bats. I’m always skeptical of trading for relievers given their penchant for sucking at the drop of a hat and for no apparent reason, but if the Yanks are going to make a move for bullpen help, these three probably represent the best available options.

Three observations from Phil Hughes’s first half

Phil Hughes is no No. 5 starter. He might have won the competition for that spot in spring training, but his results have been more in line with a No. 2 or No. 3 guy. It was what the Yankees had in mind when they placed him in the 2010 rotation instead of their 2009 No. 5 starter, Joba Chamberlain. Given their first half performances, that decision appears justified.

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

While Hughes has shown flashes of his ceiling at times, he has also hit a few rough patches. In four of his 16 starts he has allowed five or more runs, and in another he allowed four runs in 5.2 innings while using 117 pitches. The seven starts with seven or more innings and two or fewer runs helps offset those, but they don’t make them go away. There are still issues he needs to work on in the second half if he’s going to reach his ceiling.

Overall Hughes’s numbers look great. He not only sports a 3.65 ERA, but he has the peripheral stats to go with it, a 3.59 FIP, 3.96 xFIP, and 3.66 tERA. He has struck out 22.2 percent of the batters he’s faced, and has walked just 7.1 percent. As a testament to his control, with a little nod to luck, he has avoided hitting a single batter this year. His HR/FB ratio and BABIP are right in line with his performance last year. Yet despite these numbers Hughes has shown a few concerning trends in his 16 starts.

Performance in 3-2 counts

Of the 410 hitters Hughes has faced this year, 49 have run the count full. This is a bit below the league average rate, but I’m guessing above average for a top of the rotation starter. In those counts Hughes has fared terribly, allowing opponents to hit .258/.531/.419. Of the 29 batters he has walked this season, 18 have come in full counts. It certainly hasn’t been his best situation, though it doesn’t appear he’s doing anything differently.

In full counts Hughes throws 55 percent four-seamers, 28 percent cutters, 15 percent curves, and 1 percent changeups. He throws pitches with nearly the same frequency in 2-2 counts. Why the difference in performance, then? Clearly, throwing the ball outside the zone on a 3-2 count has been a problem. When he does throw a strike opponents hit for a better AVG and SLG than league average in full counts. That’s something he’s going to have to improve on in the second half. Thankfully it’s not something that comes up too often.

Facing the No. 9 hitter

Starting pitcher will obviously face the No. 9 hitter at a lesser rate than hitters higher in the order. In the first half Hughes faced the No. 1 hitter 50 times, while facing the No. 9 hitter just 38 times. Against the leadoff men he’s been quite excellent, allowing them to hit just .213/.240/.340. Opponent batting numbers rise through there, peaking at No. 5 hitters, who have a .879 OPS against Hughes. Then it starts to decline as the hitters get worse. Yet there’s another peak at the bottom of the order.

No. 9 hitters have knocked Phil around, hitting .344/.432/.500 against him. It’s a small sample, sure, but those are still terrible results against the nominal worst batters on each team. The AL average against No. 9 hitters is .239/.299/.342, which actually looks even worse for Hughes because he doesn’t have to face the best No. 9 hitter in the league, Brett Gardner. It seems like a fluke that Hughes would fall apart against these guys. I doubt it’s anything more than that, but if I find some time this week I might examine this a bit more deeply.

Bad when behind, but not behind often

Opposing hitters go nuts against Hughes when they’re ahead in the count. In 108 plate appearances they’re hitting .321/.500/.526 against a league average of .308/.477/.507. But while Hughes manages a worse-than-average line while behind in the count, he doesn’t face those situations often.

In the American League the hitter has been ahead in the count 35.9 percent of the time — that is, 35.9 percent of plate appearances have ended with the batter ahead in the count. For Hughes that number is just 26.3 percent. He has faced an even count 33 percent of the time and has been ahead in 40.7 percent of plate appearances. The league as a whole faces an even count more often than having the pitcher ahead.

This trend might be related to the 3-2 count as well. Again, it will take a bit deeper of a look to make a determination, but intuitively the connection makes sense. Maybe he’s trying a bit too hard and ends up not throwing his best stuff. Maybe he throws fatter pitches when behind, as to avoid walking batters. Again, I’m not sure. I’m just glad that Hughes doesn’t face those situations often.

The first half has been mostly good for Phil Hughes, despite a handful of pitiful starts. He’s had his share of excellent ones, though. His biggest problems seem like either flukes or correctable aspects of his game. If he can make those adjustments in the second half we could see a better Phil Hughes. That’s a scary proposition for the American League contenders.