Staying above water against the Rays

Photo credit: Mike Carlson/AP

The Yanks and Rays have played just one series so far, but in it the Yankees took the lead in the season series 2-1. That might not sound important, knowing that they’ll play 15 more times before the end of the season. Yet any advantage is at least somewhat important in the 2010 AL East. The Yanks and Rays appear to be the best teams in baseball right now, so head-to-head matchups mean even more. Neither team can do anything about what the other does for the other 144 games of the year, but they can make a difference during those 18 included in the unbalanced schedule.

Thankfully, the Yankees have played the Rays well in the past few years. Last year, even though the Rays underperformed to an extent and essentially fell out of the division race in August, the Yankees went 11-7 against them, despite losing two out of three in a meaningless series to close the season. Even in 2008, when the Rays won the AL East with 97 wins and the Yanks missed the playoffs, the Yanks won 11 of their 18 match-ups. Going back further than that gets into Tampa Bay’s cellar dwelling days, though, strangely, the Yanks had a losing record against them in 2005.

The Yanks’ current 2-1 edge over the Rays means that they’ll continue leading the season series even if they split the next two games. That record will hold for a bit, as they don’t meet again until July 16th. The biggest battles will likely have to wait until September, when the Yankees travel to St. Petersburg for three games from the 13th through the 15th, and then the Rays come to the Stadium for four starting on the 20th. Those could be the final stand for either team’s claim to the AL East title. For now, the Yanks will just try to stay above water.

Thankfully, they open the series with a pitching advantage. Other than his meltdown at Fenway, A.J. Burnett has been fantastic this season. Even when he doesn’t have everything working, as he didn’t Friday evening against the Twins, he’s still able to scrape together quality starts. In only two starts, both against the Sox, has he failed to pitch into the seventh inning, which has been a boon to the bullpen. Last time around Burnett pitched seven innings and held the Rays to two runs.

The Yankees hit Wade Davis well in his season debut, turning 11 baserunners into four runs in six innings. Since then Davis has been a bit better, and now has his ERA down to 3.38. His peripherals, however, do not match up. His FIP sits at 4.94 and his xFIP is 4.96, so it appears that he’s gotten a bit lucky. That’s easy to verify with a look at his strikeout rate, 6.08 per nine, against his walk rate, 4.73 per nine. Davis has walked as few as two batters twice, but both times that came against Oakland, not the most patient team in the league. Unsurprisingly, he walked four batters, his season highs, against the Yankees and Red Sox.

Where the Yanks might find a real advantage is tomorrow night. While facing James Shields is never an easy task, this is more about the Rays offense than their pitching. Against left-handers this year the Rays have hit .229/.309/.360, while against righties they’re .266/.342/.424. Andy Pettitte, tomorrow night’s scheduled starter, missed the series against the Rays the first time, though CC Sabathia had his way with them. While Shields could hold the Yankees’ offense in check, Pettitte could match him pitch-for-pitch.

When two teams as good as the Yanks and the Rays meet, it’s tough to set expectations. As the last three games have reminded us, anything can happen when two good teams battle for nine innings. All the Yanks have to do, though, is win one of these. That will keep them above water against an important division foe until the next time the two meet.

Bleacher tickets for tonight

I have a friend with two bleacher seats for tonight. They’re in Section 202 (right field), row 17. At face they’re $12, and the email fee is $3 per ticket, for a total of $15. Email me if you want ‘em.

Update: Taken.

Randy Winn and a lesson in outfield positioning

When the Yankees lose, we tend to look everywhere for someone or something to blame. Among the many perceived goats for last night’s game is Randy Winn, not just for his game ending strikeout, but because of his positioning on Jeremy Hermida’s go-ahead double in the top of the ninth. Winn was playing shallow (so was centerfielder Brett Gardner, but we like him), only to have the ball go over his head for a double. MJ Recanati went so far as to say Johnny Damon would have caught that ball, wondering if the 13-year big league vet had ever heard of no doubles defense.

I’ll give MJ a pass on that because I’m sure when he wrote that after the game he was just as livid as I was, but no doubles defense is the wrong call in that spot. Before we touch the philosophical side of outfield positioning, let’s first look at the facts. Below is Mariano Rivera‘s spray chart from 2009, courtesy of Katron.org

For further reference, here’s his 2008 spray chart as well. 2010 is a tiny sample, it does nothing for us.

Clearly, Rivera does not allow many balls to be hit to deep left field, just five total from ’08-’09. It’s the nature of the cutter. If a righty is going to hit it, he’s got to slap it the other way. If a lefty wants to hit it, he’s got to pull his hands in and muscle it out of the infield, hence all the bloops hits and shallow singles Mo gives up. Only three balls during the 2009 season were hit like the ball Hermida hit off Rivera last night, and you’re talking about 247 batters faced (130 lefties).

Furthermore, even if Mo wasn’t on the mound, just think about the situation. There were two outs in the inning, so the runners on second and third (Marco Scutaro and Darnell McDonald, respectively) were going on contact. They were going both going to score on a single, nevermind a double. You bring the outfielders in to play the percentages, cutting off the most likely event. With Mo and his amazing ability to induce weak contact on the mound, it makes even more sense to do that.

Sometimes though, you just gotta tip your cap and credit the other guy. Give Hermida some props for a nice piece of hitting. Seriously, look where this pitch was…

That’s a great pitch, a 90 mph cutter on the outer black. Hermida just went out and got it. It happens. Not very often, but it happens.

I know it’s easy to jump on Winn or the coaching staff or whoever for poor positioning on a play like that, especially since Randy kinda stinks, but in this case it’s not justified. He was positioned properly, Rivera executed his pitch, and Hermida just beat him. Simple as that.

Best draft picks in Yankee history, by round

FILA? (Photo Credit: Tony Dejak, AP)

As if B-Ref couldn’t get any better, yesterday Sean Forman introduced WAR data to the site’s draft pages. Now you can go and see that Alex Rodriguez has the highest career WAR (99.0) among players taken first overall, or that Rich Yett (1.2) has the highest among players taken 649th overall. The data comes from Sean Smith, and it’s calculated just a bit differently than the WAR you find at FanGraphs. However the concept remains the same; it encompasses all aspects of the game expressed in terms of runs (or wins) above a replacement level player.

Needless to say, I wasted a big chunk of my day yesterday playing around with this. What I have for you today is a list of the best players the Yankees have ever drafted in each round, assuming of course they actually signed and at least broke into the big leagues with the Bombers. Remember, the draft wasn’t instituted until 1965, so guys like Lou Gehrig and Mikey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Ford never enjoyed the experience. Without further ado…

First Round: Derek Jeter, SS, 1992, 68.8 WAR
Simply put, Jeter is the greatest player the Yankees have ever drafted. His 68.8 WAR (and counting) is by far the highest total of any player the Yanks have ever selected, and in fact it’s more than 36% larger than the second highest mark. The second best first round pick in team history is Thurman Munson, who amassed 43.4 WAR after being drafted 4th overall in 1968. It really drops off after that, the third best player is Ron Blomberg and his 8.7 WAR. Eek.

Supplemental First Round: Joba Chamberlain, RHP, 2006, 4.3 WAR
The supplemental first round hasn’t been kind to the Yankees through the years, but then again it’s not very often that they’ve lost a free agent good enough to bring back draft pick compensation. Joba is the only sandwich rounder in franchise history to become more than a replacement level player, but of course the jury is still out on some of the recent picks. Now if he could only preserve a four run lead in the 8th inning.

Second behind Joba on the WAR chart is Ryan Bradley, a hard throwing reliever who picked up -0.1 WAR before hurting his arm and ending up out of the game less than six years of being drafted in 1997.

Second Round: Al Leiter, LHP, 1984, 36.1 WAR
Leiter’s first stint in pinstripes didn’t last very long, just 106.2 innings before he was traded for Toronto for former AL homerun king Jesse Barfield. Exactly 0.0 of Al’s career WAR came in a Yankee uniform, which is a shame. But hey, they did draft and develop him. The second best second round pick in Yankee history is catcher Mike Heath, a 1973 selection that accumulated most of his 36.1 WAR with the A’s and Tigers.

Third Round: Ron Guidry, LHP, 1970, 47.3 WAR
Jeter might be the best player the Yankees have ever drafted, but Guidry is the best pitcher they’ve ever drafted. Well, at least until Andy Pettitte passes him a little later this season. The second best third round pick in Yankee history is none other than Nick Johnson, who racked up 14.4 WAR, mostly with the Expos/Nationals.

Fourth Round: Stan Bahnsen, RHP, 1965, 19.1 WAR
This one’s a little before my time, so I can’t comment much. Bahnsen spent parts of five seasons in the Yankees’ rotation, winning the 1968 Rookie of the Year thanks to a 2.05 ERA in 267.1 innings. He moved on to the White Sox, A’s, Expos, Angels, and Phillies. The next best fourth round pick the Yankees ever made was Jim Beattie, who wasn’t too far behind Bahnsen with 13.5 WAR.

Fifth Round: J.T Snow, 1B, 1989, 10.0 WAR
Snow was a real good player for a long time, but of course he only had 19 plate appearances in a Yankee uniform. However, some other players the Yankees drafted in the fifth round but were unable to sign include B.J. Surhoff (34.4 WAR), Jim Barr (29.8), and Todd Stottlemyre (21.6). They also traded Greg Gagne (23.9 WAR) before he ever played a game in the Bronx. After Snow, the best player the Yanks ever selected in this round that actually broke into the big leagues with them is Randy Choate, who’s been worth just 0.7 WAR in his career.

Things start the thin out the deeper you go, obviously, though there’s definitely a few exceptions. It’s pretty crazy to think that three of the greatest Yankees ever, as in the entire history of the franchise, were drafted after the 18th round. Ridiculous.

After the jump, a bullet point list of the best players ever picked by the Yanks in each round. It’s rather long.

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Minor League Game Thread: Triple-A Scranton @ Indianapolis

There’s nothing like morning baseball, and today the MLB Network is bringing us Triple-A Scranton’s game against Indianapolis. First pitch is scheduled for 11:00am ET, and your starting pitcher will be Romulo Sanchez, who we saw in Boston two weeks ago. Indianapolis is the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, we’ll also get a look at Pedro Alvarez and former Yankee farmhand Jose Tabata.

If you’re able to watch the game, go ahead and use this thread to chat about it. Enjoy.

Joba’s ordinary struggles

Someone grunted and/or farted | Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

In the past three games the Yankees have blown a lead in the eighth inning. On Sunday it involved Joba Chamberlain loading the bases followed by Mariano Rivera walking in a run and surrendering a grand slam. On Monday Chan Ho Park took the ball and, after a scoreless seventh, failed to record an out before losing the lead. Tuesday it was back to Chamberlain, who allowed four runs, the last of which tied the game. It hasn’t been a great few days for him, with six earned runs in two appearances, but stretches like this will happen for a reliever.

For most of the season, and especially lately, commentators have declared that 2007 Joba is back. His velocity, which averaged just 92.5 last season, is back up, averaging 94 this season while touching the upper 90s. His slider seems to have a bit more bite, too. Combine that with eight scoreless appearances in which he struck out 11, walked only two, and allowed just two hits, and its’ easy to see why people started fawning over Joba again.

In his past two appearances, though, he hasn’t been quite as impressive. His two-thirds of an inning on Sunday didn’t appear to be cause for concern. He still generated three swinging strikes, and if not for a strangely struck ball by Michael Cuddyer he might have escaped the inning with the lead in tact. His velocity sat at the levels it has for most of the season, and his slider still had some bite. Bad things can happen to anyone in relief, and this was just a bad day for the Yankees.

Last night, though, was a bit different. Joba generated no swinging strikes. He faced three-ball counts against four hitters in the inning. A-Rod‘s error hurt, but on most nights Joba can overcome that. Last night it was just bad timing. Joba’s command wasn’t at the level we had seen during his previous appearances this month. His velocity also took a bit of a dip, averaging and peaking about a mile per hour below the marks he has posted for most of the season.

No matter what commentators say, Joba is not a natural born reliever. That is, he wasn’t born with some divine purpose to grace the bullpen. Like all pitchers, he is subject to the wear and tear that comes with warming up, sitting down, warming up again, and eventually coming into a game. It’s not like starting, where you have set period to get loose and prepare for the game. The manager can call a reliever’s number at any time. After a year in the rotation, Joba just isn’t accustomed to this usage. His mind and body both must adjust.

Given the lack of velocity and command last night, we could be witnessing a simple physical adjustment. Girardi said that Joba was not available on Monday because he warmed up and sat down twice during Saturday’s game. That was in addition to his appearances on Friday and Sunday. We often judge a reliever’s usage by his appearances, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Dry humps — warming up and then sitting down a reliever without having him enter the game — also play a part in a pitcher’s usage. Those pitches in the bullpen might not exactly simulate game-style pitches, but they certainly take something out of the pitcher’s arm.

Thankfully, problems like this have an easy cure. It’s only bad timing that Joba might need a couple of days off when the Rays come to town and the rest of the bullpen is struggling. Long-term, though, it will be to the team’s benefit. Joba is still adjusting to life back in the bullpen. He’s facing physical realities that few, if any, pitchers can avoid. In a few days I have confidence that he’ll be back out there throwing 95, 96, and making commentators swoon once again.

Yanks ‘drop’ a heartbreaker as pen, Thames falter

Everything King Midas touched turned to gold, and tonight, the Yanks’ King Midas had his golden touch early on. Even without his best stuff, CC Sabathia held the Red Sox to just one run — a solo home run by Kevin Youkilis &mdash and the Yanks were cruising with a 5-1 lead. But then, after 112 pitches, King Midas exited stage left, and everything he had touched turned to dust. Once that perfect storm of bad plays, bad calls and bad pitching settled, the Yankees were on the wrong side of a 7-6 game. Tonight, there would be no pie.

AP Photo Kathy Willens

Goat Number One: Joba Chamberlain

Tasked with retiring the top three hitters in the Red Sox’s lineup, Joba Chamberlain utterly and spectacularly failed at his job. Although a dubious throwing error by Alex Rodriguez opened the flood gates, Joba couldn’t get through the 8th unscathed for the second straight appearance. With a 5-1 lead, he allowed a single, a double and another single following the error before recording an out.

With a runner on second, David Ortiz hit a booming fly ball that, three years ago, would have been a home run, and only Ortiz’s classes at the Hanley Ramirez School of Hustle resulted in an out at second base. While Joba had his second out, the damage was done. The Red Sox had tied the game, and the Yanks — who hadn’t taken advantage of a bases loaded, one out situation in the sixth — needed to pick themselves up from the letdown of another bad bullpen appearance.

We can wring our hands over the pen’s utter inability to get outs. Yankee relievers have allowed 12 earned runs and 15 runs overall in the team’s last three games. All but four of those have been charged to Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain.

We can wring our hands over Joba. He threw first-pitch strikes to just two of the seven hitters he faced tonight and couldn’t find the zone tonight. When he entered the game, the team’s win expectancy stood at 95.9 percent; when he left, that figure had dwindled down to 61.4. With that performance tonight, Joba is your official Goat of the Game.

AP Photo Kathy Willens

Goat Number Two: Marcus Thames

As a commenter with the amusing handle Jerkface said, “It was the best of Thames, it was the worst of Thames.” One night after delivering the Yanks their first walk-off win of the season, Marcus Thames showed us why he’s just a bench player filling in only in case of emergency.

With one out in the 9th and Darnell McDonald on first, Marcu Scutaro lofted a lazy fly ball into the no-man’s land behind second base in right field. Out raced Robinson Cano, in raced Marcus Thames. The right fielder called for the ball, glanced at Cano for position….and pulled a Luis Castillo. Thames twisted his glove around, and the ball bounced off of him. It was an epic error.

After the game, Thames talked to reporters with tears in his eyes. He said that he lost the ball for a second as he checked Cano’s flight and couldn’t recover in time to catch it. Had he done so, the Red Sox would have had a man on first with two outs instead of first and second with one out.

Goat Number Three: The Men in Blue

I hate to blame the umpires. I really do. After all, the Yankees’ players are the ones who have to do their jobs. Brett Gardner has to do more than bounce to second base with a drawn-in infield and bases loaded with one out in the sixth. Joba Chamberlain has to do anything better. Marcus Thames has to catch the ball. Mariano Rivera has to make his pitches. But tonight, the umpires did nothing to help either team.

For the Yankees, two plays loom large. The first was the ground ball off the bat of Scutaro in the 8th. A-Rod had to rush the throw, and it sailed low to Mark Teixeira. The Yanks’ first baseman stretched, appeared to keep his spikes on the bag, caught it and fell. Scutaro was called safe, and no one really put up a fight. The reply seemed to show an out, but we could forgive the umps for this one. The crew had missed a call at second base when Francisco Cervelli threw behind the runner to nab J.D. Drew, but those things happen.

The truly inexcusable call though came in the 9th on a two-strike pitch to Darnell McDonald. Replays showed how the ball cut the plate at the knees and how McDonald swung, but both the first base and home plate umpires refused to call strikes. Just look at the positioning of that thing on the Pitch F/x graph. Had McDonald been rung up, the Yanks would have had two outs on the Red Sox with no one on base.

Still, we can scapegoat the umps until the cows come home, but the Yanks have to get the job done. They didn’t.

Annoyances

Where to begin? Where to begin? How about Randy Winn‘s positioning on Jeremy Hermida’s double over his head? Was the bench expected a shallow pop-up? Did Rob Thompson position him improperly? What happened to no-doubles defense? And can someone please stop telling Joba to throw 3-2 sliders? David Ortiz can’t get around on a 95-mph fastball, and Joba has to hang a breaking ball to him instead.

Let’s also question the Yanks’ ability to put a roster together right now. The team has a 13-man bullpen, and apparently, a one-man bench. If neither Jorge Posada nor Nick Swisher were available to pinch hit in the 9th, only Ramiro Pena was a viable bench player. Meanwhile, with the team’s decision to send down Greg Golson for Mark Melancon earlier in the day, they had eight relievers in the pen. Tonight was the night they needed Golson the most, and he was on a plane back to Scranton. How infuriating.

Do I consider Francisco Cervelli’s bunt attempt an annoyance? Some do, but I’m not sure I’m in the camp. In a very small sample, Cervelli has been a clutch contact hitter with runners on base. Behind him were Marcus Thames, a fastball hitter with strike out tendencies, Juan Miranda just up from AAA and Randy Winn. The Yanks opted to play for just one run and asked Cervelli to bunt. As The Honorable Congressman Mondesi noted, the successful bunt increased their one-run probability from 0.634 to 0.670 but dropped the win expectancy from 46.5 percent to 42.8. If anything, that’s a minor annoyance.

Finally, I have an irrational dislike of Randy Winn made worse by the fact that I just knew he would strike out to end the game. He made a terrible play in the top of the 9th and went 0 for 4 with three strike outs. He’s hitting .196/.293/.294 on the season, and I have to believe that, when Swisher and Granderson are both healthy, Winn’s days with the Yanks will be numbered. That was one off-season experiment that hasn’t quite worked out the way it was planned.

The Big Picture

Anyway, despite tonight’s maddening game and the team’s bullpen struggles, the Yanks are 25-14 with a +71 run differential. They’re three games behind a very hot Tampa team that has enjoyed a very easy schedule early on. Later tonight, A.J. Burnett and Wade Davis square off in a battle of AL East powerhouses, and the Red Sox head home to face Minnesota right where they were when they came to New York: in fourth place and at .500. I hated this game, but I’m loving the season so far.

WPA Graph

Just look at that up-and-down 9th inning. This is what a heartbreaking loss looks like on paper.