Open Thread: Back on top

Hey now. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

The Twins did the Yankees a big favor this afternoon, topping the Rays 8-6 in Tampa to split their four game set. It wasn’t easy though, Minnesota jumped out to a 6-0 lead before the Rays tied it up in the 8th inning thanks to a Jason Bartlett (!!!) grand slam. The Trop came back to bite the home team in the next half inning when Jason Kubel popped a ball up on the infield that got hung up in the catwalk and eventually fell in fair territory, allowing a run to score. Here’s the video. The win by Minnesota puts the Yankees back in sole possession of first place in the AL East by half a game, so the disaster of falling out of first lasted all of a day and a half. Something about not over-reacted during a 162 game season belongs here.

Anyway, here’s your open thread on this sweltering hot and humid evening in New York. Seriously, I went out to grab a bagel this morning, and decided I was better off staying inside in the air conditioning while having toast instead of making the two block walk in that humidity. But I digress. There’s a regional coverage game on MLB Network tonight; depending on where you live you’ll either get the Red Sox-Indians or Giants-Braves. Go nuts, talk about whatever you want.

Olney: Yanks considered Willie Harris before the deadline

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees considered pursuing Willie Harris before the trade deadline to fill their utility player spot. Harris can play all three outfield spots and fill in at third, but he has limited experience at short and second so he wasn’t a perfect fit. Plus Harris has been a shockingly bad hitter this season, with a .185/.284/.319 batting line (.281 wOBA) in 170 plate appearances. He did manage to post wOBA’s in the .340’s for the Nationals from 2008-2009, though.

As you can see, the market for a decent bench players is awful.

With Boston in town, resale ticket prices jump

Whenever the Red Sox come to Yankee Stadium in August, something special seems to happen. Last year, the two teams played an epic 15-inning affair that ended with an Alex Rodriguez blast off of Junichi Tazawa en route to a sweep. What will it be this weekend?

This year, the games have lost some of their immediacy. Boston comes to town in third place either six or seven games behind the Yankees, and the Red Sox are only hanging around the fringes of the pennant race. If they can’t take 3 of 4 from the Yankees this weekend, they’ll have a very tough climb to get back into the October picture. Still, the tickets are going like hotcakes.

Our partners at TiqIQ have put together the following graphic to show where ticket prices are today. Even though the Red Sox are hurting and limping along, this series’ average resale price is still 20 percent above season levels. Take a peek at the graphic below, and make sure to check out RAB Tickets for more pricing information and game needs.

WCBS 880 tops MLB cumulative radio ratings

Seemingly in spite of themselves, John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman are reeling in the listeners. Arbitron, the radio ratings board, has released listener totals for the first half of the baseball season, and more fans tune in for Yankees games than for any other team. According to their estimates, from April 4 to June 23, an average of 441,000 listen to the Bombers. That figure eclipses the second-place Mets by 72,500 fans per game. The Cubs, Tigers and Angels round out the top five.

As for market share, though, neither the Yankees nor the Mets can crack the top 15. In baseball’s target demographic — men between the ages of 25 and 54 — nearly 25 percent of Cincinnatians listening to the radio at that time tune into Reds games. Because millions of people live in New York radio, the lofty listener totals just can’t catch up.

For the Yankees, these high figures mean one thing: More money. Armed with more precise data than ever before, the Yankees and WCBS will be able to milk more money out of the team’s radio broadcasts. “As advertisers look to capitalize on this year’s pennant race, professional baseball on the radio delivers large numbers of listeners for every game,” Arbitron Sports Manager Chris Meinhardt said in a statement. “Arbitron’s Mid-Season PPM Radio Listening for Pro Baseball reports the average game audience for each team.”

Now, if only the team would do something about the quality of their radio announcers. (A tip o’ the hat to Rob Iracane at Walkoff Walk.)

The Ageless Wonder

Yesterday’s game was not a typical one for Yankee catcher Jorge Posada. The soon-to-be 39-year-old made an out in each of his four plate appearances, which by itself isn’t all that shocking, everyone has days like that, but what was surprising was that the 0-for-4 came on just five pitches. Most teams expect very little from their catchers offensively, but Posada isn’t most catchers. He’s been a central piece in the Yankee lineup for the last decade-plus, and continues to be that this season.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

With Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez limping along to the worst full seasons of their careers, it’s only natural for the age question to creep into our mind. We have to acknowledge that their skills will decline for no other reason than being in their mid-30’s, whether that’s losing a step in the field or a touch of bat speed or reaction time or whatever. Even though he’s closing in on this 39th birthday and has spent basically his entire professional career playing the most demanding position in the sport, age is one thing that does not appear to be taking it’s toll on Posada’s offensive game.

Following last night’s 0-fer, the Yankees’ primary catcher sports a .262/.366/.472 batting line this season, good for a .368 wOBA that ranks just behind Joe Mauer’s .370 mark for the lead among American League backstop. Victor Martinez is a distant third at .351. Posada’s season has been two stretches of offensive dominance sandwiched around a period of physical trouble. He came out of the gate playing like an MVP, hitting .326/.406/.618 through mid-May before a Michael Cuddyer foul ball fractured a bone in his right foot. It was a fluke injury, something that comes with the territory. Jorge ended up missing just 16 days, much better than the initial diagnosis of three or four weeks. He served as a designated hitter in his first ten games back, and went just 6-for-33 before getting back behind the plate.

The rest of the first half wasn’t kind to the Yanks’ catcher, as he went on to hit just .230/.352/.365 in 91 plate appearances between his return from the DL and the All Star break. Between his age and the injury, it appeared as if Posada might be joining A-Rod and Jeter on the path to age-related decline. But then something strange happened and Posada started hitting after the break. Perhaps the four days of rest recharged his battery and allowed the nagging bumps and bruises to heal. Jorge came out and went 8-for-23 with three homers in his first three games back, and overall is hitting .250/.339/.500 in the second half. The only AL catcher with a better OPS during that time is that Mauer guy again.

What’s helping Posada remain productive at an age when most catchers are in the retirement home is his skill set, quite simply. He’s always had what you’ll see referred to as “old man skills,” meaning he’s a patient hitter with power. His game doesn’t rely on speed (heh, no kidding) or hitting them where they ain’t, Jorge makes his own luck by working the count and waiting for pitches he can drive. His natural strength allows him to hit those pitches with authority for extra bases.

Of course, this season hasn’t been perfect because of injury. Before the Cuddyer foul tip, Posada missed a few games with a sore knee after Jeremy Guthrie hit him with a pitch (another fluke) and a minor calf strain. A sore ring finger shelved him for a day after another foul tip (yet another fluke), and a barking knee relegated him to DH duties for a few days at the end of last month. Posada has played 46 games behind the plate and another 25 as the DH, the latter group aided by Nick Johnson‘s injury. With a full-time DH on hand, like the team has now in Lance Berkman, Posada would have seen more starts behind the plate.

Defense has never been Posada’s forte and never will be. His mammoth offense – seriously, he hit .283/.386/.492 (.383 wOBA) from 2000-2009 – far outweighed whatever he gave away with his glove. Once the offense starts to slip, then the defense will become a pressing issue, but thankfully that has yet to happen. ZiPS rest of the season projection is a bit pessimistic, forecasting a .350 wOBA for Posada the rest of the season. It’s below Posada’s norm but still well above average for a catcher.

The Yankees have been successful for all these years because they’ve been strong up-the-middle, getting premium production from premium positions. Posada is a gigantic part of that, and so far he’s done one hell of a job defying the aging process as a catcher. He continues to be a dynamic offensive force that makes pitchers work and hits with power, two traits you want to see in any player.

Aside: Just out of curiosity, what kind of offensive numbers do you think Posada could have put up if he played first base all those years? He’s at .277/.378/.480 for his career right now, would .290/.390/.500 be reasonable? Only 29 players in baseball history can claim that as their career line, so we’re talking big time here.

Hughes’s fastball bounces back against Rays, Jays

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It wasn’t Phil Hughes‘s best start. After showing signs of fatigue his day ended with one out in the sixth inning. He needed 99 pitches to record those 16 outs, and the last few were pretty loud. Yet it was far from his worst start. He managed to keep the Blue Jays off base in most innings, and when he did allow runners he bore down and left them stranded. As Mike said in the recap, those efficiency issues are just going to take some time to work out.

At the end of July Hughes encountered some problems with his fastball. For most of the season the four-seamer had been his best weapon, but as he approached his previous high-water mark in innings pitched, it seemed to fade a bit. The velocity dip was minimal and unconcerning. What gave me pause was the vertical break on the baseball. The beauty of Hughes’s fastball is not only that he throws it 93, 94 mph regularly, but that it has around 10 inches of vertical break, making it what baseball people term sneaky fast. It gets right up on a hitter, making it appear faster than it really travels.

I’m happy to report that in his last two starts Hughes has not only been better, but his fastball appears to be back on track. Against Tampa Bay last Friday he had a good outing, six innings of quality work that were marred by one bad pitch to Matt Joyce. His fastball was back up in a major way, averaging over 93 mph and maxing out at 95. Best of all, it had 10.42 inches of vertical break, which helped him generate five swings and misses out of 35 total pitches. It appears his cutter came along for the ride, as it had a vertical break of 9.25 inches, way up from his average of 6.7 inches. The velocity was also way up, averaging 91.29 mph against a season average of 88.9.

Yesterday we saw more of the same from Phil. His fastball was right around his season average, and his vertical break was right there, too. He apparently knew it, too, as he threw it 63 out of 99 times, generating an astonishing 13 swings and misses. His cutter was back to normal, averaging almost 89 mph with 6.55 inches of vertical break, but his four-seamer made it a bit more effective. Hughes threw 10 of 16 for strikes, including three swings and misses.

The only downside, it seems, is that because the fastball was so good Hughes didn’t turn to his other pitches as frequently. Against the Rays last Friday he actually threw the cutter more times than the fastball, 39 to 35, and mixed in 30 curveballs. That’s a healthy ratio, as it keeps hitters guessing and can even make the four-seamer more effective. Yesterday he leaned on the fastball for 63 pitches, leading to just 17 curves and 16 cutters. This time he did throw three changeups, but they were all taken for balls. It worked, but it didn’t work as well as it could have.

This makes me wonder about the question of strategy vs. execution. Did Hughes throw more four-seamers yesterday because the scouting report said that his fastball could beat the Jays? As a team that swings out of their shoes at just about everything, that doesn’t sound right. But who knows, maybe Hughes’s fastball is the type that can beat a team like the Jays. As you can see in his strikezone plot, he got a ton of swings and misses up in the zone. But at the same time I wonder if it was a matter of his feeling better with the fastball, regardless of the Jays’ hitting style. Or, if it’s a combination of the two, at what point did he make the decision to stick with the four-seamer?

After a couple of disappointing outings Hughes has come back to pitch well in his last two starts. He’ll get an extra day off before his next start, which I’m sure is welcome. Fatigue is going to be an issue to watch at this point, since he’s getting up there in innings — at least compared to his previous workloads. While we saw signs of trouble in earlier starts, we’ve seen his fastball revert to form lately. If he can throw it later this month like he threw it yesterday against the Jays and Friday against the Rays, the Yankees should have little to worry about.

As 600 soars, a perfect A-Rod moment

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Once upon a time, Alex Rodriguez wanted nothing to do with the Yankees. Perhaps it was just a negotiating ploy; perhaps he had no desire to come to Derek Jeter‘s team and play another position. But that he wanted no point of the Yankees is what he said on November 3, 2000.

“I would like to sign with another team and help dethrone the Yankees — they’ve won too much already,” the then 25-year-old said as teams prepared to bid on him. “I like playing shortstop and I’m young. I want to play it until I’m 35, and then I’ll study the possibility of being moved.”

Well, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of A-Rod often go astray. Just three years later and to escape a $250 million contract, the Texas Rangers shipped the short stop to New York in a deal for Joaquin Arias and Alfonso Soriano. By the time he turned 29, A-Rod would no longer be a short stop, and he would be on those damned Yankees, playing for the team that’s won too much already and helping them win even more.

As far as all of that True Yankee™ hoodoo voodoo goes, A-Rod earned his stripes years ago on the day the Yanks acquired him. There is no rite of passage. Since arriving in the Bronx, he’s won two MVP awards, destroyed the Twins in the playoffs, destroyed the Angels in the playoffs and even found a way to knock in a few runs against the Phillies. As the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, he was grinning like a little boy. The overpaid and unclutch prima donna, as the media likes to label him, had finally captured that elusive ring. At 33, just two years younger than when he expected to be moved from short, A-Rod the third baseman was the king.

This year marks A-Rod’s seventh full year with the Yankees. He’s already far surpassed the number of games he played with the Rangers and topped his Seattle totals in early 2009. He’s hit 255 home runs as a Yankee, 99 more than he hit in three years with the Rangers and 66 more than he hit with the Mariners. He’s driving in 803 runs; he’s scored 726; and he’s within spitting distance of 1100 hits. Doesn’t it seem as though he just got here?

Meanwhile, as A-Rod’s career totals climb, his place amongst the team’s historical leader boards does as well. His 255th Yankee home run tied him with Jorge Posada for seventh all time among Yankees. Only Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Bernie Williams have hit more. His career Yankee slugging percentage is behind only Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio. Those are some historic names.

But the image many in New York — and especially in the media and especially at ESPN New York — have of A-Rod is one of a hired gun. He’s the mercenary brought in by Brian Cashman to stymie the Red Sox and act as the interloper. He’s the guy who isn’t Derek Jeter. He doesn’t have a pristine image as Jeter does. He isn’t a tried-and-true Yankee, drafted by the team out of high school. He doesn’t have five World Series rings and legions of swooning fans. He says the wrong thing at the wrong time and continues to put his foot into his mouth at seemingly every opportunity.

That isn’t the A-Rod I see though. I see someone blessed with extraordinary talent and a lot of money who doesn’t know how to fit in quite as well as some of his peers. I see a baseball player who pushes himself to be the best that he can be and gets frustrated when he isn’t playing up to his standards. I see a player who tries to deliver on every pitch but can’t hit a five-run home run when he wants to. He’s A-Rod; he’s a Yankee; he fits with the team. From now until the end, he’s with us, faults and all, good times and bad.

It’s also not the team I see either. A-Rod might be the highest paid player; Jeter might be the captain. But as the two play out their mid-30s, time is, inevitably, passing them by. The young guns — Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira — are the big run producers who hit the flashy home runs. Still, as A-Rod has shown and as Jeter has shown, they’ll still come through when the team needs them. They’re not done yet with their great moments.

With all of the good A-Rod brings, though, definitely comes the bad. Thanks to an overzealous move by Hank Steinbrenner, the Yankees will be paying Rodriguez exorbitant amounts of money until he’s far too old. During his age 38 season in 2014, he’ll earn $25 million; during his age 39 season, he’ll take home $21 million; and from ages 40-41, the Yankees are on the hook for a total of $40 million plus the historic home run milestone incentives. That’s a lot of money for a guy hitting .264/.334/.473. and on pace for just 26 home runs, his lowest total since 1997. His hip has been a nagging issue for two years, and he has been showing signs of the inevitable decline. It happens to the greats.

But as he sits on 600, A-Rod’s baseball prowess should be admired. His 600th was a swing for the tape, that majestic arc, that no-doubter reminiscent of the two-run blast he shot off of Joe Nathan in Game 2 of the ALDS. It was vintage A-Rod with a long wait, a great payoff and one relieved baseball player at the end of it, just as it was at the end of the World Series, just as it always is with Alex Rodriguez.