Where have you gone, Bartolo Colon?

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

When Joe Girardi yanked Bartolo Colon from last night’s game, he did so shortly after the right-hander had racked up inning 130 for the season. Somehow, the Yanks’ big gamble has paid off. Colon, making just $900,000 this year, has made 20 starts for the Yanks, has won eight games and was a stud throughout May and into June. The wheels though might be coming loose.

Colon’s outing last night was one I’d characterize as good enough. Usually, allowing three runs to another team over six innings would be enough to allow the Yanks’ offense to take over. Colon threw a few bad sliders to Brandon Allen and Eric Sogard, but before the 7th, he had been effective even if not efficient. His final line — 6.1 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 0 BB, 5 K — isn’t pretty, particularly against the A’s, but that’s also due to Boone Logan‘s failures.

For Colon, though, his outing was his second straight in which he struggled, and since coming off the disabled list with a hamstring injury, he hasn’t been nearly as good as he once was. Before he hurt himself covering first, he appeared in 13 games and made 10 starts, eight of which were quality starts. In 78.1 innings, he had a 3.10 ERA/3.44 FIP and allowed 66 hits, 18 walks and nine home runs while striking out 72. Opponents hit .227/.272/.375 with a .268 BABIP, and he averaged just over 14 pitches per inning.

His last ten starts have not been nearly as effective. Since his return, he sports a 4.61 ERA/4.48 FIP in 52.2 innings and has allowed 65 hits and eight home runs while walking 14 and striking out just 40. Just four of his ten outings have been quality starts. Opponents have hit .302/.352/.507 off of him with a .339 BABIP, and he is now averaging over 17 pitches per inning.

Clearly, something has changed for Big Bart since his early season success. Colon, who hasn’t reached this lofty level of innings since 2005 and threw over the winter as well, denies being tired, but his approach has changed. Prior to his injury, 86 percent of his pitches were fastballs. Of those, 48 percent were four-seamers and 38 percent were two-seamers. Since his return, 55.7 percent of pitches were four-seamers while just 24 percent were two-seamers. Sliders and change-ups now account for over 20 percent of his pitch selection.

To make matters worse, his pitches haven’t been moving as much. His fastballs and sliders have seen less vertical movement over the past ten starts, and his slider has seen more horizontal movement than before. It has become a bit flatter, and as Allen’s monster shot showed last night, Major League hitters have no problems with flat, fat 83 mph sliders. That ball reached the upper deck above right field.

Today, Joe Girardi expressed his concern about Colon’s disappearing two-seamer. The skipper said to Jack Curry that the two-seam fastball has “been a very important pitch for him and we need to get it going.” That much, at least, is obvious.

In an ideal world, the Yankees would figure out a way to give Colon some extended rest over the next few weeks because they will need him at his best for the playoffs. If A.J. Burnett were pitching even adequately, the club could afford to tinker with the rotation, but unless they’re willing to give Hector Noesi or Adam Warren a spot start or two, Colon will get the ball every few days. Even as it gets late in the season, it’s too early, meanwhile, to say that the wheels have come off completely for Colon, but he’s not the pitcher — both stuff- and results-wise — that he was earlier this year.

Triple-A Scranton to play all home games on the road in 2012

Via Josh Leventhal and Everett Merrill, the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees will have to play all of their home games on the road next year while PNC Field undergoes a $40M renovation project. The International League has tentatively approved the team’s plans to play at an alternate location in 2012, and they has until Sept. 20th to submit a final proposal.

At the moment, the club is considering six alternate locations, but league president Randy Mobley decline to name them. “Generally speaking, we are considering existing league facilities and others outside the league,” he said. Lehigh Valley, about an hour south, of Scranton is one possibility, as is Ottawa. The league had a team in Canada’s capitol until 2007. Another interesting possibility: Staten Island. The Yankees would love the proximity to the big league team, and since Short Season Staten Island doesn’t begin play until late-June, there would be less scheduling conflicts. Now that would be conveniently awesome.

Is it time for the Yanks to extend Cano’s contract?

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Over the last two, really three years, Robinson Cano has come into his own as not just one of the best players on the Yankees, but one of the very best players in all of baseball. He was a well-above-average contributor on a World Championship team in 2009, a legitimate MVP candidate in 2010, and although this year got off to kind of a slow start, Cano has been producing at his MVP-caliber pace for months now. Despite all the hoopla surrounding (and money being paid to) Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, it’s Cano and Curtis Granderson that drive the Yankees’ offensively.

A few years ago the Yankees broke their own rule of not negotiating with personnel (that’s everyone, including players, coaches, front office staff, etc.) until their contracts were expired to sign Robinson to a long-term deal. The team gave their second baseman a four-year contract worth at least $30MM right before Spring Training in 2008, even though he was still four seasons away from qualifying for free ageny. This is the last guaranteed year of that contract, and it’s paying Cano $10M. The Yankees hold club options for both 2012 ($14M) and 2013 ($15M), and those are locks to be picked up, no doubt about it. That’ll take Robbie through his age-30 season, and what happens after that is a great big mystery.

I conducted an informal Twitter poll on Saturday and Sunday, asking people what they think Cano could get on the free agent market right now. I got about two dozen responses, and the average was 7.13 years and $141.2M. That’s almost exactly Carl Crawford money, and it sounds reasonable to me. Assuming he produces like he has over the last three years for the next two years, Robbie will be looking at a deal of that size (adjusted for inflation) when he hits the open market after 2013. That’s why I think the Yankees need to break their own rule again and sign Cano to another long-term contract this offseason.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The benefits for the team are pretty obvious. They would be locking up one of their cornerstone (and homegrown!) players through his peak years, perhaps saving a little cash down the road, and avoiding the fiasco of the free agent market in two years. They would also be assuming a ton of risk, because they’d still have to pay Cano should he suffer a serious injury or just rapidly decline in his early-30’s like middle infielders are known to do from time to time. Robinson would be securing himself some serious financial security, we’re talking generational wealth. Money for his kids and his kids’ kids and his kids’ kids’ kids. He would be giving up his maximum earning potential though, because nothing raises the price like a bidding war on the open market.

In a perfect world, I think the contract would cover six years. The Yankees could guarantee his 2012 and 2013 options, then tack another four years on top of that. That would take Cano through his age 33 season, giving him enough time to land one more big contract, assuming all goes well. The money would certainly be substantial, something like $14M and $15M in the two option years, then $19M, $20M, $21M, and $22M in the four additional years. That’s six years and $111M right there, then throw in a signing bonus and a buyout of a seventh year option, and you’re talking $120M guaranteed. Definitely less than what he’d probably get on the open market after 2013, but also a freaking ton of money.

Now, there’s a significant hurdle that has to be cleared here. Cano hired Scott Boras this past offseason, and Boras almost always takes his high-profile clients onto the market. The one glaring exception is Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies (late add: Jered Weaver too), who landed himself a seven-year contract worth at least $80M after just one full season as a big leaguer. Pretty sweet deal. In an age where above-average middle infielders are getting locked up before they ever hit free agency, there’s little doubt in my mind that Boras is salivating over the prospect of having an in-his-prime middle infielder on the free agent market.

The Jose Reyes contract this offseason will give us a pretty good idea of what’s in store for Cano on the open market, but I don’t think the Yankees should wait that long. They’d be wise to at least make an attempt to sign him to a contract extension this coming offseason, potentially buying out his prime years for a (ever so slight) discount without getting locked into his mid-to-late-30’s at huge bucks. It’s certainly risky, but sometimes you have to go out on a limb for special players, and Robbie qualifies in my book.

Swisher turns around his season

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Quick: Who has the highest OBP on the Yankees?

If you read the headline, you can probably guess the answer. It might come as a surprise, though, that Nick Swisher‘s .377 OBP leads all Yankees. First, we’re used to seeing at least one player, and sometimes many, with OBPs much closer to .400. Second, it wasn’t too long ago that Swisher’s OBP was in the dumps. At the end of May it was at .321, which, when juxtaposed with his .204 BA and .289 SLG, had many wondering if this year would be the one that drove Swisher from New York.

Three months later, and it’s almost assured that Swisher again patrols right field in 2012. He has completely turned around his season since he bottomed out on May 25th. It didn’t take long for him to approach major league average numbers; in just nine games he raised his numbers to .215/.342/.348. After last night’s performance, which included a game-changing three-run homer and a fly ball that came about two feet from handing the Yankees a win, he’s hitting .263/.377/.431. He got there by hitting .296/.409/.511 in his last 328 PA.

The turnaround has made Swisher one of the most productive Yankees — not just for the period of his resurgence, but for the entire season. His 123 wRC+ ranks fifth among the Yanks starters, as does his .168 ISO. His 16.1 runs above average ranks fourth. So not only has he started producing on a rate basis, but he’s stayed healthy enough to remain in the lineup and put up counting numbers. Even if we swap out his gaudy 10.7 UZR in 2011 for his three-year total, it still amounts to 3.4 WAR, meaning he could still get to 4 WAR on the season. It would be the second straight season he has done so — the only two seasons of his career.

Swisher’s turnaround in 2011 further highlights his excellent numbers since becoming a Yankee. In the last three years he ranks third on the team with 68 runs above average. That’s right on par with Alex Rodriguez. He’s also fifth in that time with a 127 wRC+, and is sixth with 10.9 WAR. Among MLB outfielders he also ranks favorably in his three pinstriped seasons. He ranks 15th with that 10.9 WAR, and his 127 wRC+ ranks 13th. That is, if we were to disassemble the MLB and distribute talent evenly, he’d be the best outfielder on a mid-range team. He might be the third best outfielder, all skills considered, on the Yankees.

The question of whether the Yankees will exercise Swisher’s $10.25 million option for 2012 is behind us. They absolutely will. The only question that remains is whether they’ll lock him up further into the future. It would certainly make sense for them to try. The minor league system might be strong, but it lacks corner outfield talent. Swisher could hold onto one of those spots for the next three or four years. If his last three years are any indication, it will be well worth the effort. It might get hidden among his silly antics and occasional blunders, but Nick Swisher has been not only one of the most productive Yankees, but one of the most productive outfielders in the majors during his three-year tenure.

The all or nothing Mark Teixeira

(Charles Krupa/AP)

For the past two years Mark Teixeira has been one of the most frustrating players on the Yankees. In 2009, after signing for eight years and $180 million, Teixeira proved his worth, hitting .292/.383/.565 (.402 wOBA) and powering the league’s best offense. But since then his production has dropped to more human levels. In 2010, amid nagging injuries, he slumped to .256/.365/.481 (.367 wOBA). This year he’s at .248/.346/.512 (.370 wOBA). No one has welcomed this recent development.

That isn’t to say that Teixeira has played poorly. In fact, he has been one of the most productive Yankees in the last two years. In that time he has created 50.6 runs above average, which falls behind only Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. He also has a 130 wRC+, which also falls behind only those two. In terms of his place in the league, he has created the 17th most runs in the last two years, and has the 22nd highest wRC+. To say he’s been bad is a gross misstatement. He has been, despite his slumps, a top 20 player.

The disappointment stems not only from his hefty contract, but also from his drop-off after 2008 and 2009. In those two seasons he was second in the league with 89 runs above average and seventh with a 149 wRC+. He has gone from being a superstar to being a very good hitter. It’s probably the toughest downgrade in sports. There’s something special about a superstar. We think of them as different from their peers, that extra two percent better. Very good players help teams win ballgames and championships, but it’s hard to appreciate a very good player when he was so recently a superstar. (And is getting paid like a superstar.)

This season Teixeira has produced his numbers mostly through power. His 34 homers ranks third in the majors and his .263 ISO ranks fifth (third in the AL). But that’s really the only way he’s helped out. His .248 batting average is a career low, owing mostly to a .231 BABIP that ranks fourth lowest in the league. His walk rate has taken a slight hit, too, dropping to 2009 levels despite the 40-points-lower batting average. Again, that has translated into a productive season, as demonstrated above. But it’s not a superstar season.

One aspect adding to the frustration over Teixeira is that he’s been all or nothing this year. Again, he’s smacked 34 homers, and he’s done that in 32 games. In those games his, unsurprisingly, killing the ball, hitting .369/.440/1.230 in 141 PA. That amounts to about a quarter of his total PA and games played. The problem comes in the other three quarters of his games and PA. In those, 93 and 414, he has hit .207/.314/.263. When he’s not hitting a homer, Teixeira isn’t doing much of anything else.

That there’s a large gap in Teixeira’s numbers when homering and when not homering comes as little surprise. When he hits a home run he’s obviously being more productive, so therefore he’ll produce much better numbers when he’s performing the single most valuable act in baseball. The issue with Teixeira is the expanse of the divide.

Take Curtis Granderson as a counterexample. He has homered 35 times in 33 different games, and has hit .403/.473/1.256 in those games. In the games he did not homer, however, he remains decently productive: .231/.340/.335. Those aren’t great numbers by any stretch, but with the OBP, in addition to the 17 doubles and 9 triples, makes Curtis a somewhat productive player when he’s not hitting a homer. That’s just not the case for Teixeira.

The most frustrating aspect of the Tex divide is that there’s not much the Yankees can do about it. They could drop him in the order if they wanted, but that would only diminish the value they get from the 25 percent of games in which he does hit a homer. Dropping him in the order also only makes room for a player who creates fewer runs than Teixeira. Sure, there are plenty of benefits to having Gardner atop the lineup, but it’s not as though the Yankees are holding back a speedy guy with a .380 OBP.

If the biggest issue with Teixeira this season is frustration, that’s probably a good thing. Frustration is merely an emotion, something we feel when we see something that falls below our expectations. Teixeira has surely done that. For the second straight year he’s dipped below the superstar level of production he established from 2008 to 2009. Despite that, he’s still put together two generally productive seasons, and has been one of the Yankees’ two or three best hitters in that span. It is something of a problem that he’s essentially useless in 75 percent of his games. But you never know when one of the 25 percent is coming. And when it does, it’s a big boost to the Yankees lineup.

Comeback falls just short as A’s tip Yanks

Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.

As I sat in Section 419 tonight and watched Coco Crisp spring back to the wall in deep left center field, I knew the A’s outfielder had a beat on the ball Nick Swisher had just blasted into the night. The only factor would be physics. Had Swisher hit the ball hard enough at the right angle so that it would just eke past the fence to give the Yanks a walk-off Grand Slam or would a ninth inning rally falter?

Crisp had his back against the wall as the ball settled into his glove. Frank Sinatra started blaring over the PA system as the remaining fans shuffled dejectedly away. The walkoff magic was not to be tonight as the A’s won 6-5. Instead, Joe Girardi‘s decisions are what doomed the Yankees, and now we’ll just have to hope that the O’Neill Theory will be in effect tomorrow.

Decision #1: Sticking with Big Bart

In the American League, a manager’s job once the game begins can be a limited one. Without the potential for a double switch, an AL manager must make some pitching changes, decide whether or not to send a runner and think about deploying the arsenal of hit and run or bunts that make up in-game strategies. Tonight, unfortunately, nothing Joe Girardi decided to do helped the Yanks win the game.

Girardi’s first decision concerned Bartolo Colon. After six innings, Colon had been reasonably effective. He wasn’t using his two-seamer, a decision he made based on the home runs Kansas City hit last week. Instead, he went to his slider, and two fat pitches were deposited over the right field wall. Through six, he had thrown over 90 pitches and had allowed three runs on six hits. That should have been fine, but with the Yanks struggling to score, Girardi pushed his pitcher for another inning.

In the seventh, facing the bottom of the lineup, Colon couldn’t get through it. After a strike out, Cliff Pennington singled and Kurt Suzuki doubled. With lefty Eric Sogard due up, Girardi went to Logan, and Bob Melvin went to right-handed Scott Sizmore. Generally, this year, Logan has been tough on righties, but Sizemore fought off a pitch that landed fair for a two-run double. It would prove costly.

I have no issue with the move to go to Logan, but I wonder about the decision to put Bart back on the mound. With his six innings tonight, Colon has now reached 130 for the first time since 2005, and the Yanks are concerned that he might be tiring. Since returning from his hamstring injury, he is 3-5 with a 4.61 ERA in just over 52 innings. He has also allowed six home runs over his last 22 innings. Before tonight, he was effective but not efficient. Now, he’s had back-to-back starts where he’s been neither effective nor efficient, and I’d love to see him get some extra rest. That, however, means more of A.J. Burnett.

Decision #2: Derek’s Big Bunt

I have spent far too much time wringing my hands over the Yanks’ bunting tendencies under Joe Girardi. An NL player who cut his teeth managing an NL team, Girardi loves to give up outs at inopportune moments. The Yankees, who entered the game leading the majors in runs scored, are seventh in the AL in sac bunts while the Red Sox, who started tonight with 670 runs, are last in the AL in bunts. The value of out, especially when only three remain, cannot be overstated.

To start the ninth, Jorge Posada homered, Russell Martin doubled and Brett Gardner reached on an error. Everyone in the stadium knew what was about to happen, and there was nothing we could to stop. Facing a pitcher who couldn’t locate his pitches and with a batter up who was 23 for his 46, Joe Girardi called for a bunt. As Steven Goldman wrote, he played for one run when he needed two, and it cost the Yanks.

When Derek Jeter made that pivotal first out of the ninth, the Yanks’ win expectancy dipped from 35 to 31. Even with two runners in scoring position, the A’s needed just a pair of outs. Curtis Granderson walked to load the bases, but Mark Teixeira popped out. Robinson Cano, showing uncharacteristic 3-2 patience, drew an RBI walk, and Nick Swisher missed that walkoff grand slam by a hair. The bunt loomed large.

After the game, Joe Girardi said calling for the bunt “wasn’t a tough decision” with the team’s big bats up next. But Jeter has been the club’s hottest hitter for weeks, and while Girardi may have been concerned over the double play, Derek hasn’t hit into many of those lately. Instead of rolling the dice on a positive outcome, Girardi went with the sure thing, and that sure thing cost the Yanks. As one of Twitter’s most vocal critics of bunting said, “That bunt guaranteed an out. That’s about it.” When outs are a scarce commodity, don’t just hand them away.

Goat: Mark Teixeira

Before we wrap up for the night, let us ponder Mark Teixeira’s evening. On a night during which the Yanks got all of one hit out of 14 chances with runners in scoring position, the Yanks’ cleanup hitter went 0 for 5 and stranded eight runners. After Granderson walked in the ninth, he took one pitch before fouling out to third. He didn’t make solid contact or get a good swing on the pitch, and that second out forced the Yanks to need a hit that never came.

Tonight, I just had to tip my cap to Brandon Allen and hope the Yanks’ decisions turn out better tomorrow. With the Yanks’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot at 27, this was a far tougher game to stomach than it shows in the standings.

Dellin dealin’ bases on balls

The bad news: Mark Prior was scratched from his Gulf Coast League start with “shoulder discomfort. I had hopes that the Yanks would see him in September, but I think that dream is hanging on by a thread. The good news: Both Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte may throw in a GCL game on Thursday, but the odds of their returns this year are slim. On another note, thanks to RAB commenter mbonzo for help with Down on the Farm tonight. He did the vast majority of the heavy lifting.

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 win in 12. I’m glad one team completed a comeback. This was a walkoff by Brandon Laird.)
Jesus Montero, C: 0 for 6, 2 K – Ouch
Brandon Laird, 3B: 3 for 6, 1 2B, 2 RBI
Mike Lamb, DH: 4 for 6, 2 R, 1 RBI
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 2 for 5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 2 K
Dellin Betances, P: 3 IP, 1 H, 2 ER, 9 BB, 4 K – Ouch. Through the first 52 pitches, Rochester had put just one in play. It was an ugly, ugly evening as he threw just 41 of 84 pitches for strikes.
Pants Lendleton, P: 3 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K
Scott Proctor, P: 1 IP, 1 BB, 2 K
Logan Kensing, LHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 2 K
Kevin Whelan, P: 2 IP, 2 H, 2 K

[Read more…]