Johnson still trying to find a groove

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Despite his early struggles, Nick Johnson remains an on-base machine. He hasn’t fared well on balls in play, as just nine of 44 have dropped in for hits. That amounts to a .182 BABIP, an unsustainably low mark. That’s part of the good news. The bad news is that while his BABIP projects much higher, it appears as though he’ll have to make a few adjustments in order to recover. There appears to be a bit more at play than mere bad luck on balls in play.

From 2001 through 2006 Johnson put the ball in play in 62 percent of his plate appearances. He then missed all of 2007 and most of 2008. When he came back in 2009 he put the ball in play 64 percent of the time. This season he has managed to make fair contact in just 48 percent of his plate appearances. He’s putting many of those in the air, 19 fly balls to 16 ground balls and 10 line drives. Two of those 19 have been infield pop ups. Previously in his career Johnson has put more balls on the ground.

On batted ball types, though, we have a pretty small sample. Again, he’s put the ball in play just 44 times in 91 PA. What does he do the rest of the time? Walk and strike out. Both rates are at the highest they’ve ever been in his career. In 24.2 percent of his plate appearances Johnson has drawn a walk, a mark that has helped him avoid making outs while slumping. If Mark Teixeira didn’t slump throughout April and Alex Rodriguez wasn’t going through a mini slump himself, perhaps Johnson would have scored more than 10 runs so far.

His strikeout rate presents a bit of a concern. It sits at 32.8 percent*, the highest mark in the AL. He hasn’t been within 10 percent of that mark since 2004. What strikes me here isn’t the high strikeout rate so much as the breakdown. Of his 22 strikeouts, 15 have been looking. It’s not as if he’s overmatched and can’t get his bat around, or else is fooled by the pitcher. He’s just being extremely selective with two strikes and is paying the price. The latter seems more correctable, so that’s a positive sign. Still, he’s not helping the team by looking at so many strike threes.

*Note: FanGraphs bases K% on AB and BB% on PA. Not sure why, but that’s what I’m working with right now.

Looking at his swing data, we see more troubling signs. He has seen fewer pitches in the zone than at any point in his career, which shows up in his walk rate. Yet his walk rate could actually be higher. He has swung at 18.9 percent of pitches outside the zone, again a high water mark for his career. He’s making contact with these pitches at an unprecedented rate as well, which usually translates to bad contact. That likely factors into his BABIP. He’s swinging at fewer pitches inside the zone, too, though he’s making excellent contact when he does swing at those. Finally, he’s seen by far more first-pitch strikes this year, so perhaps pitchers are taking advantage of his selective nature. He’s either seen an 0-1 count or put the ball in play in 53 of his 91 PA.

It’s tough to put this all together, since there’s so much going on. He’s seeing more strikes than ever before, but is swinging at fewer of them, leading to a high strikeout rate based on strike threes looking. He’s chasing more pitches outside the zone and making more contact on them, which in all likelihood leads to bad outcomes. I’m willing to bet that his slightly increased fly ball rate results from the out-of-zone swinging. His saving grace is that he’s taking walks and therefore not making outs as frequently as others hitting under .200. He ranks 29th in the AL in OBP, and has the lowest average among the top 35 by more than .100.

We can look at Johnson’s BABIP and say he’s due for a correction, and in a way that’s true. In this case, however, there are many more factors to consider. Kevin Long talked about helping Johnson make adjustments, especially on the inside pitch. Is Johnson just taking time to get into a groove? Or is there something going on that just doesn’t work for him? He’s getting on base enough to justify a spot in the lineup, so perhaps he’ll settle in and work things out. Perhaps a move downward wouldn’t be the worst idea at this point.

Winn powers Yanks to win over O’s in series opener

With the bitter taste of Saturday’s loss out of their mouths, the Yankees came back to work on Monday night, ready to feast on bottom-feeding Baltimore. The Orioles were coming off a three game sweep of the Red Sox, but New York had their ace on the bump. Almost everything went according to plan. It was a fairly clean win for a Yankee team that is rolling, but injuries to two important players put a damper on it.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Biggest Hit: Welcome to New York, Randy Winn

Over the first four weeks of the season, fifth outfielder Randy Winn looked nothing but overmatched. He was 1-for-13 at the plate with a -57 OPS+ (yes, -57), and other than the occasional late-inning defensive assignment, he was mostly the forgotten man on the roster.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Needless to say, you can imagine the surprise when Winn came up with the biggest hit of the night. It wasn’t some dinky single to the opposite field either; he turned around a 91 mph Jeremy Guthrie fastball up in the zone and sent it about 410 feet to right-center, beyond the fence and into the Yankee bullpen. Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner had been on base thanks to a pair of singles. So Winn’s bomb turned a tightly-contested (and tied) game into a much more comfortable three-run Yankee lead.

It was Winn’s first homer in 491 at-bats, dating back to last April when he took Max Scherzer yard. He might never do anything more productive in pinstripes, but for one night, Randy Winn was the hero.

Biggest Out: Nolan Reimold makes two outs on one swing

Much like his start last week, CC Sabathia wasn’t his usual dominant self on Monday, but he was more than effective into the late innings. With that three-run lead still intact, Garrett Atkins led off the top of the 7th with a single to center. With CC’s pitch count approaching 90, the bullpen started to stir.

Instead, Reimold did the Yankees a favor, hacking at Sabathia’s first pitch, a 92-mph heater on the outer half that probably would have been called a ball. The grounder bounced down to Derek Jeter at short, who took it to the bag himself to start the 6-3 double play. Instead of having the tying run on deck with one out, all of a sudden Baltimore had that potential fourth run in the hole with two outs. It wasn’t a big play to end a rally; it was a big play to prevent the rally from even starting.

All CC, All The Time

The Yankee ace was good but not great last time out, when he faced these same Orioles at Camden Yards. Sabathia improved upon that performance on Monday, firing eight innings with just one blemish – a solo homer to Matt Wieters and his facts. Using a variety of two-seamers and changeups, CC pounded the bottom of the zone and induced 16 groundballs to just six in the air. The strike zone was a tad inconsistent, but that’s something everyone will have to deal with at some point during the season.

It was a relatively uneventful outing for Sabathia, which for him means eight innings of one run ball while battling his control at times. The guy is a machine.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Posada Exits Early

The Yankees have experienced a mini-rash of injuries over the last few days, losing Curtis Granderson to a Grade II calf strain and Alex Rodriguez to some knee pain. Another important Yank went down on Monday night, as Jorge Posada had to exit the game in the 5th inning with tightness in his right calf. He went off to get an MRI, and is day-to-day with a calf strain.

Enduring the loss of Granderson will be hard enough, but if the Yankees lose Posada for any length of time … well, just look at what happened in 2008.

Mowhere To Be Found

The last three or four games have been especially taxing on the Yanks’ bullpen, but two guys who hadn’t worked all that much were Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera. Neither had pitched since Friday, so they were well rested and ready to record the last six outs should the Yankees have the lead.

With Sabathia going eight strong, only one of the Yanks’ end-game arms was going to be needed. With a three run lead in the 9th, everyone expects to hear Enter Sandman. Instead, Mo was nowhere to be found, and it was Joba who trotted out to the mound for the save opportunity. He pitched a scoreless and uneventful frame, but no one seemed to care. Everyone wanted to know what was going on with the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived.

After the game, Joe Girardi revealed that Rivera had been dealing with a sore non-throwing side, which was further described as a twinge in his flank. He said it was something Mo first experienced after his appearance on Friday, and at the moment we don’t really know when he’ll be available again. Could be tomorrow, but Girardi said he’d like to give him another day. It’s just one injury after another lately.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Happy Moments

How about this Nick Swisher character? The dude went 3-for-3 in this game, and is now eight for his last 12 with a couple of doubles and a couple of homers. The Yanks have only played ten games at home, but it appears Swish’s massive home-road split from 2009 has stayed in 2009.

Brett Gardner reached base two more times, bumping his on-base percentage up to .424, the best on the team. In fact, the bottom three hitters in the order combined to go 5-for-8 with a walk, three runs scored, and all four runs driven in. Gotta love that circular lineup.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Annoying Moments

I sure hope Joe West was watching this game. Home plate ump Bill Hohn was certainly in no rush to signal balls and strikes back there. Furthermore, CC Sabathia had some trouble with Hohn’s strike zone, verbally sparring with him in the 7th inning. Not often you see the big guy do that.

I mentioned that the bottom of the lineup did some major damage already, but the one through six hitters combined to go just 1-for-23 with a walk and three strikeouts. On most nights, the Yankees lose when that happens.

WPA Graph

Individual player breakdowns are available at FanGraphs’ box score.

Up Next

Same two teams tomorrow night; rematch of last week’s A.J. Burnett vs. Brian Matusz duel.

Posada day-to-day with calf strain

(Update 11:09pm): Posada is day-to-day with a mild calf strain, which isn’t all that bad. He’s probably not going to be available to catch until Friday at the earliest, in which case the Yankees would need to call up an extra catcher. Chad Moeller, come on down!

9:04pm: Posada left the game with tightness in his right calf, and is at the hospital getting an MRI. Not good.

8:50pm: Starting catcher Jorge Posada was lifted from tonight’s game in the 5th inning for an unknown reason. Obviously, he was replaced behind the plate by Frankie Cervelli. We’ll update this post with more info as it comes in, though it’s worth noting that Posada recently missed a few games with a sore knee after getting hit by a pitch last week.

Montero breaks out of slump in SWB win

The Dominican Prospect League site has some more info on Erik Olivo, who the Yankees signed for $300,000 last week, while Blogging About Baseball has a first-hand report from Jose Ramirez‘s. Also, Mike Ashmore has a little Q&A with Austin Romine, and they spoke about calling pitches and improving his plate discipline. And finally, Sean at Pending Pinstripes rounded up how each of the Yanks’ top 30 prospects are doing so far this season.

Walt Ibarra, Francisco Rondon, and Taylor Grote are all on the disabled list with who knows what.

Triple-A Scranton (6-3 win over Norfolk)
Kevin Russo, 3B: 1 for 5, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 K, 1 E (fielding)
Reegie Corona, 2B: 0 for 5, 1 K
Eduardo Nunez, SS & Chad Huffman, LF: both 2 for 4, 1 BB – Nunez scored a run … Huffman drove in two, K’ed & threw a runner out at third
Juan Miranda, 1B & Jon Weber, DH: both 2 for 5, 1 K – Weber scored a run & drove one in
David Winfree, RF: 3 for 51 R, 1 2B
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 5, 2 R, 2 2B, 1 RBI – breaks out of his little 5-for-35 slump … thankfully
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding) – he should be up with the big league team soon, they don’t really have a backup centerfielder
Ivan Nova: 7 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 10-4 GB/FB – 59 of 92 pitches were strikes (64.1%) … nice rebound outing after getting hit around in front of Arodis Chapman last week
The Ghost of Kei Igawa: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 10 of his 13 pitches were strikes … first time he’s pitched since April 21st … I wonder what’s up with that
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 15 of his 20 pitches were strikes (75%)

[Read more…]

Rivera unavailable with ‘stiffness in his side’

Updated (9:59 p.m.): When the 9th rolled around tonight with the Yanks holding onto a three-run lead, “Enter Sandman” did not play over the Yankee Stadium PA system, and Mariano Rivera did not come out of the bullpen. Instead, Joba Chamberlain came out to secure the final three outs of the game, and Yankee fans grew concerned. With Jorge Posada already on his way to the MRI machine and Curtis Granderson on the DL, no one wanted another injury. After the game, Joe Girardi said that Rivera had stiffness in his left side. He first felt a twinge after pitching on Friday.

In speaking to the media after the game, Joe Girardi addressed Mariano’s pain. It isn’t an oblique injury per se, and the Yankees’ trainers are calling it a flank injury. “Level of concern: It’s definitely gotten better each day,” the Yanks’ manager said, “and he played catch today and felt ok. It would be nice to give him another day off but we’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”

Game 25: For the birds

Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP

For the second time in the week, the Yankees will kick off a three game set with the Orioles tonight, which again features that all too common CC Sabathia vs. Jeremy Guthrie matchup. The Yanks knocked Guthrie around while Sabathia threw seven strong last week, so we’ll surely be looking for more of the same.

Prior to the game, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira will be presented with their 2009 Gold Glove Awards, which would be cool if Gold Gloves meant anything. I guess it means they’re popular. That counts for something, right? Anyway, here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B – guess the knee’s okay
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Swisher, RF
Gardner, CF
Winn, LF

And on the mound, Carsten Charles Sabathia.

It’s been drizzling and overcast all day, but it looks like they shouldn’t have any trouble getting the game in. YES will have the first pitch at 7:05pm ET. Enjoy.

Cano earns Player of the Month honors

As the calendar flipped from April to May over the weekend, Robinson Cano finished a month to remember. He hit .400/.436/.765 with eight home runs, five doubles a triple and 18 RBIs as the Yanks’ new number five hitter. Major League Baseball announced this afternoon that Cano’s April earned the team’s second baseman AL Player of the Month honors. This recognition is Cano’s second Player of the Month award, and hopefully, it is a portent of things to come for Robbie. On the pitching side, the Twins’ Francisco Liriano — 4-0, 1.50 ERA, 36 K in 36 IP — took home the Pitcher of the Month award.