Game 52: The Cap’n’s all right

That's right. Run far, far away Brian. (Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP)

A minor scare was sent through Yankeeland yesterday when Derek Jeter exited the game with tightness in his left hamstring a few innings after being hit by a pitch in the same spot. The last thing the Yanks need is another injury, especially when the drop off from Jeter to his replacement is so massive. Thankfully, the Cap’n is back in their tonight, in his customary leadoff spot. As for the rest of the lineup, meh. I know a lefty is on the mound of Baltimore, but does Curtis Granderson really need to hit 8th? Eh, whatever.

The real story tonight is Javy Vazquez, who will be making his first start following the stinker in Minnesota that followed two dazzling starts. Javy has yet to face the Orioles this year even though they’ve already played them a bunch of times already, so at least he has the element of surprise on his side. He’ll be opposed by Brian Matusz, who’s already faced the Yanks twice this year, putting 18 men on base and allowing six runs to score in 12 innings. Hopefully the third time’s a charm for the Yankee offense.

Here’s the lineup…

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

And on the mound, Javier Carlos Vazquez.

The weather won’t be perfect, but there should be plenty of time to get this one in. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Yankees lose Shane Lindsay on waivers

Via MLBTR, the Indians have claimed reliever Shane Lindsay off waivers from the Yanks, who designated him for assignment last week to make room on the 40-man roster for Chad Gaudin. The Yanks claimed Lindsay off waivers from the Rockies just over two weeks ago, releasing the opt-injured Chris Garcia to fit him on the roster. He never appeared in a game during his time with the organization, instead hanging out in Extended Spring Training to trying to harness the upper-90’s heat that made him Colorado’s number 23 prospect before the season.

Posada close, but not yet activated

Via Sweeny Murti, injured catcher Jorge Posada is very close to be activated, but it won’t happen today. Joe Girardi wants to see him run again first, and there’s a chance he’ll be activated in time for tomorrow night’s game. I’m kinda surprised they’re going to bring him back so soon without at least letting him hit in a rehab game, let alone catch. It’ll be great to have Posada back in the lineup, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

Series Preview: Orioles (15-36) at Yankees (31-20)

After taking three of four from the Indians over the weekend, the Yankees face another last place team, this time from their own division as the Orioles come into town for three games.

After a short dry spell the Yanks righted themselves last week, taking series from the first and last place teams in the AL Central. They beat the Twins with quality pitching, and only dropped the final because Javier Vazquez could not match the performances of A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. That pitching magic carried over into the Indians series — the only game they lost came when the pitching staff melted down. The bats also came alive against the Indians. It’s hard to believe that, with all the struggles we’ve seen from the Yanks, that they still lead the league in wOBA by a wide margin.

The Orioles have won the fewest games in the majors, no thanks to a current five-game losing streak. They haven’t won more than three straight this year, a feat they accomplished twice. They’ve gotten quality performances from Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie, the veterans atop their rotation, but haven’t seen much from their youngsters. In fact, David Hernandez realized the best results of the bunch, a 5.08 ERA, and he was the one demoted to the bullpen in favor of Chris Tillman. On offense, a number of disappointing performances, notably from Adam Jones and Miguel Tejada, have led the Orioles to a league-worst showing.

Just about everything, from the overall numbers to the pitching matchups, favors the Yankees this week. That doesn’t mean they’re destined to sweep, although they could certainly use three quick wins this week. The Orioles are vulnerable, and the Yankees look like a Mack truck. These things can turn on a dime, though, so we can’t really expect a sweep. Anything less than two out of three, of course, would represent a disappointment.

Pitching matchups

Tuesday: Brian Matusz (5.76 ERA, 3.81 FIP) vs. Javier Vazquez (6.86 ERA, 5.83 FIP)

This game looks like the Orioles’ best opportunity to steal a win. They’ll go against the weak link in the Yankees’ rotation, and while their own starter has had his problems lately, we can’t count the Orioles out of a slugfest. If the Indians can do it, surely the Orioles can, too.

Matusz started the year with a few solid starts, exiting April with a 4.40 ERA. That’s not bad for a 23-year-old player in his second pro season, especially coming in the AL East. He tripped up a bit in May, getting rocked by the Twins, Rangers, and A’s. He had two decent starts in there, including a seven-inning shutout against Cleveland. The other came against the Yankees, six innings and three runs, though two of the runs were unearned. He faced them in the start before that, too, allowing three earned in six innings.

Vazquez appeared to be recovering from his poor start to the season, but with a chance to sweep the Twins on Thursday, he took a step back. He struggled with command on secondary pitches, which hurt his cause right away. That he couldn’t get a strike call on his low and away slider hurt him further. The Orioles aren’t the Twins, though, so we get to see if Vazquez can respond and give the Yankees another solid start.

Wednesday: Brad Bergesen (5.96 ERA, 5.85 FIP) vs. Phil Hughes (2.70 ERA, 3.03 FIP)

Bergesen did a good job during his brief stint last year, but missed the season’s final two months after taking a comebacker off his leg. He also got off to a slow start this season after suffering a shoulder injury while shooting a commercial. He’s a groundball guy, and that skill hasn’t eluded him this year. A little over 50 percent of balls in play from him have been on the ground. His strikeout stuff, never impressive to begin with, is even worse this year, and he has actually walked more than he has struck out. He’s prone to the longball, which is not a good thing against the Yankees at the Stadium.

After the Red Sox and the Mets gave Phil Hughes a wakeup call, he responded in his last start against Cleveland. it seemed like the previous two teams were sitting on his cutter, fouling it off until he came at them with something in the zone. This time Hughes went to his curveball more often, and with much success. He also used the changeup. That will be more and more critical as the season wears on. It doesn’t have to be a frequently used secondary pitch, but Hughes will benefit from having it in his arsenal. It will, at the very least, prevent hitters from sitting on his cutter.

Thursday: Kevin Millwood (3.89 ERA, 4.47 FIP) vs. CC Sabathia (4.16 ERA, 4.48 FIP)

Kevin Millwood’s K/9 is at its highest level since 2004. His walk rate is at the lowest point of his career. That helps explain his 3.89 ERA. His 4.47 FIP? That’s because of the 1.46 HR/9 rate, right up there with 2001 as the highest in his career. Again, that doesn’t bode well for his matchup with the Yankees. He has handled himself well with diminished stuff, going to his secondary pitches more now that his fastball is 2 mph below the last two years.

The month of May was not kind to CC Sabathia. He had a 3.12 ERA and 3.38 FIP in April, but that jumped to 5.15 and 5.52 in May. Home runs and strikeouts have been the problem, and we can expect CC to put it back together sometime soon. He went through a similar stretch last year, though that was in April. This year it’s May. If it’s just one month, it’s nothing to worry about. If the Yanks take the first two, he’s still the guy I want on the mound to complete the sweep.

Should the Yanks bring Kanekoa Texeira back?

"You're going to have to shave that thing, son." (Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson, AP)

In the midst of a disappointing 19-31 season thanks in part to one of the game’s worst offenses (.298 team wOBA, which is just a click north of Randy Winn territory), the Mariners started making changes to the roster last night with more moves to come. The first set of changes involved a familiar name to Yankee fans, sinker-slider reliever Kanekoa Texiera, who was Rule 5’d in December. The Mariners designated him for assignment (along with MVP 2005 All Star Jesus Colome) to make room on the roster for some other bullpen pieces.

Texeira was by no means great with Seattle, but he wasn’t dreadful either. His ERA was certainly high at 5.30, but his peripheral stats remained decent: 6.75 K/9, 4.82 BB/9, and a 44.8 GB%, leading to a 3.39 FIP and a 4.34 xFIP. Sure, the walks are high, but I suspect that’s the result of some rookie jitters considering his career minor league walk rate is solid at 3.4 BB/9. Jonny Venters of the Braves has similar peripherals (3.51 FIP, 4.38 xFIP) in 1.2 more innings this year, but he sports a 0.89 ERA. That’s what having .363 BABIP and a 63.6% strand rate like Texeira will do to you, artificially inflate that ERA.

The Mariners have already started the process of returning Texiera to the Yanks, but I imagine they would prefer to work out a trade so they could keep him in the organization. Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik not only drafted Texeira in the Rule 5 Draft last winter, but also out of high school in 2004 when he was the Brewers’ scouting director. It’s pretty obvious he’s a fan of his. What should the Yankees do though, should they take Texiera back if given the opportunity? Simply put, hell freaking yes.

It’s not a matter of having him step right in to help the big league team, it’s about adding inventory. As we’ve been saying for over two years now, the Yankee bullpen is built on having lots of options and lots of flexibility behind Mariano Rivera. If an Edwar Ramirez wasn’t getting the job done, there was a David Robertson waiting in the wings. If Robertson can’t get the job done, Mark Melancon is a phone call away. Given the volatility of relief pitchers, there’s nothing more you can do than have plenty of interchangeable pieces, and Texeira would be just another piece of that puzzle. Another guy making the league minimum with two quality pitches, something you can’t have too many of.

Of course, getting him back in the organization might not be easy. The entire point of the Rule 5 Draft is to give players stuck in the minors an opportunity to play in the big leagues, and because of this Texeira will have to clear waivers before the Yanks even have the option of taking him back. If another team were to claim him, the Rule 5 rules (having to keep him on the 25-man roster all year) would simply shift to the new team. Considering the bullpen drek that exists in places like Arizona (5.30 bullpen xFIP), Cleveland (5.10), and Kansas City (4.96), there would seem to be a demand for his services.

Remember, the Yanks managed to find a taker for Edwar Ramirez earlier this year, and not only was he the epitome of a one trick pony, but he’s also five years older than Texeira. If someone wanted him, I’m sure someone will want Texiera. Perhaps a stat-savvy team not scared off by an ugly ERA. The Yankees lost one potential relief option when Zach Kroenke leveraged his ability elected free agency to remain with the Diamondbacks as a Rule 5 pick this spring, but they might have a chance to rebuild some depth by paying the $25,000 to get Texeira back. Let’s hope they take advantage of it.

Swisher playing to the home crowd

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

In 2009 Nick Swisher got just what he needed. A 2002 first round pick by the Oakland A’s, Swisher became known among even casual fans in 2003 when he featured prominently in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. In 2004 he so thoroughly dominated AAA that he earned a September call-up, and by May 2005, after coming back from a shoulder injury, had established himself in the Oakland A’s lineup. His career rolled along until the A’s, entering a rebuilding phase, traded him to the White Sox before the 2008 season. That’s where Swisher ran into a few obstacles.

For some reason, Swisher just couldn’t buy a hit in 2008. His batting average dipped all the way to .219, low even by the .250-ish standard he had set in 2006 and 2007. Some of this, at least, seemed to be bad breaks. His 20.9 percent line drive rate was the highest mark of his career. He still managed to hit home runs, 24 of them, representing nearly a quarter of his 109 total hits. But his walk rate was down and his strikeout rate was up, which probably made his season look a few degrees uglier than the reality. Good players have bad seasons, but White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had not the patience.

When the Yankees acquired Swisher, they pegged him as their starting first baseman. During his first press conference he expressed relief that he finally had a set position. When the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira the next month, Swisher was a man once again without a position. With Tex at first and Xavier Nady, acquired the previous July, in right field, Swisher appeared headed for a bench role. Not long into spring training Joe Girardi confirmed that, declaring Nady his starter. Swisher would have to earn his chance.

That he did. On Opening Day, with the Yankees down in the late innings, Girardi sent up Swisher to pinch hit. He drove a double down the line at Camden Yards. The next game he pinch hit again, this time drawing a walk. From then on he was a starter. Nady’s elbow injury, incurred on April 14th, might provide a clearer delineation of Swisher’s starter status, but he was already in the lineup every day. He started every game, in fact, from April 9 through the 14th, through three of those games were to fill in for the injured Teixeira. Still, in that game on the 14th Swisher started in left. It appeared that Girardi was going to find any way to get him in the lineup.

What resulted was a career year. Swisher’s average still hovered around that .250 mark, .249 to be exact, but his OBP grew back to his pre-2008 levels, .371. The most noticeable change, however, was in his power. He hit for an ISO above .200 during his first two years in the bigs, but in 2007 and 2008 that fell below the .200 mark, in the low .190s. That’s not a poor mark, but a right fielder will typically hit a few more longballs. To that end, Swisher hit 29 home runs in 2009, the most since the 35 he hit in 2006, and rapped 35 doubles, second highest total in his career. The combination led to a .249 ISO, which topped his previous best from 2006.

The power surge made sense. Swisher was a switch hitter who historically displayed more power from the left side. Combine that with the short porch at Yankee Stadium and it’s a recipe for a power breakout. Only, that’s not quite how it happened. Swisher actually considerably worse at home, a .349 wOBA vs. a .399 road wOBA. His OBP was actually higher, .382 against .361, but his power contained an even starker difference. On the road he belted baseballs at opposing ballparks, hitting 21 of his 29 homers and 21 of his 35 doubles. His ISO away from the short porch was .316. His ISO when a home run was just 314 feet away was just .168.

Swisher didn’t seem to take it poorly. He even joked with reporters about the oddness of his home/road splits. “I’m just trying to prove to everybody that hitting home run in Yankee Stadium is not that easily,” he said. On a more practical level, Swisher had an idea of why most of his 51 home hits had been singles.

“I think in general it’s a mental thing,” he said. “It’s something I need to get over.” He wondered if September might be his breakout month at the Stadium. In many ways it was. He went 12 for 35 with three doubles and three homers during the first homestand, and then went 4 for 16 with a double and two homers against Boston and Kansas City to close down the Stadium for the regular season. More than half his hits went for extra bases, including five home runs, so perhaps he was right.

This year Swisher is producing even more. His walk rate is below 10 percent, easily the lowest of his career, and his strikeout rate is back around his career levels. Yet he’s making more contact, which has led to a sharp rise in his batting average, to .317, thanks to an incredibly high 26.2 percent line drive rate. His OBP, .397, ranks high in the AL, and his .246 ISO is right around the level from last year. While the batting average is probably the biggest difference between this year and last, Swisher’s numbers at home surely ranks right up there.

He’s actually hitting for more power at home, a .261 ISO vs. .235 on the road. His counting numbers away from Yankee Stadium are still better, mainly because 1) the Yankees spent a lot of time on the road earlier in the year, and 2) when they were home Swish missed plenty of time with a sore biceps. But all of his rate stats are either almost even, or in favor of his home park. It would seem that his trend from last September has carried over into 2010.

There is plenty of season remaining, and Swisher has a long way to go before he proves that he really is an improved ballplayer. The signs at this point are encouraging, but not overwhelming. For instance, in 2006 he was hitting .305/.407/.631 through May 31, but ended the year at .254/.372/.493. Through June 20 in 2007 he was hitting .293/.422/.487, but finished at .262/.381/.455. Again, things seem a bit different now, most noticeably in his aggressiveness and his power. That could help him achieve different results in 2001. For now, though, it’s nice to just admire what Swisher has done. He has certainly continued to impress in 2010.

Granderson’s return just what the doctor ordered

The Yankees returned home from Minnesota last Friday having lost 11 times in their previous 18 contests, averaging just 4.28 runs per game during that stretch. The big league average is roughly four and a half runs per game, and a subpar offense is not what we’re used to seeing. Returning to Bronx not only brought the comfort of some home cooking, but what also felt like a mid-season trade pick up: the return of Curtis Granderson.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

The Yanks’ every day centerfielder had been on the shelf basically all month with an injured groin, and during his absence the team’s leftfielders posted just a .303 wOBA. Regular leftfielder Brett Gardner slid over to center for defensive purposes, but he also moved up in the lineup as other injures tore through the Yanks’ roster. He put up just a just a .297 wOBA in 72 plate appearances as the number two hitter while Granderson was on the DL, which certainly contributed to the team’s overall lousy offense. I don’t know if Gardner couldn’t adjust to hitting higher in the order or if he was putting too much pressure on himself or if it’s just small sample size noise or what, but he simply didn’t get the job done in that role.

Granderson’s return was going to lengthen the lineup regardless of where he hit, but moving him up to the two-spot and Gardner down to the bottom of the order has improved the production of not just one lineup spot, but two. Granderson has always been a fastball hitter and hitting between Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira should (theoretically) increase the number of fastballs he sees, and sure enough all four of his hits against Cleveland came on the ol’ number one. All told, he’s reached base seven times in 15 plate appearances since returning, seeing a total of 66 pitches (4.4 per plate appearance). That’s what the Yankees need in front of Tex and Alex Rodriguez, and frankly it’s what Nick Johnson was supposed to give them.

As if getting a production from the number two-hitter wasn’t enough, Gardner returned to the bottom third of the order and reached base eight times in 17 plate appearances over the long weekend, giving the lineup a much more circular feel. He was their second leadoff hitter, basically, getting on base at the bottom while Granderson was getting on base at the top. Unsurprisingly, the offense took off.

Granted, plenty of that had to do with the general awfulness of the Cleveland bullpen, but it would take a really good argument to convince me (and pretty much everyone else) that the lineup didn’t fill out much more nicely with Granderson hitting second and Gardner hitting at the bottom. For whatever reason, the latter just seems to fit better hitting down in the order, and Grandy’s return puts him back in that role full time.

Brett Gardner may one day grow into a good number two – or even leadoff – hitter for the Yankees, but right now is not the time for him. Granderson brings not only better pure hitting ability to the two spot, but also experience hitting high in the order. I don’t put too much stock in intangible stuff like experience and what not, but it most definitely has an effect on the game. It becomes painfully obvious at times, too.

The Yankees aren’t going to get much healthier than they are right now; Jorge Posada should return within a week, but beyond that all you have is long-term issues with Johnson and Al Aceves. Pretty soon, what you see is what you’re going to get for the summer. Healthy bodies help put everyone in roles much more suited to their skill set, and that’s exactly what Granderson’s return did for the Yanks.