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.

Yanks crush Indians for fifth win in seven games

It wasn’t even a week ago that we heard lamentations of the Yankees’ poor play of late. They’d lost six of 10. They’d gone 5-10 in their last 15. Someone sound the alarms! Such panic was clearly unnecessary. Even the best teams go through poor stretches. The Yankees, weakened by mostly short-term injuries, fell on some hard times. A team with pitching like theirs, though, couldn’t be held down for long. After a Monday off-day, we saw them turn completely around. They’re now 5-2 since the break after finishing a series victory over Cleveland yesterday.

Biggest Hit: Do not disrespect A-Rod

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

A little over two weeks ago, on May 14, Ron Gardenhire made a strange move. His team led the Yankees 4-3 with one out in the bottom of the seventh. The Yankees had runners on second and third with Mark Teixeira at the plate, but instead of facing the No. 3 hitter, Gardenhire decided to walk him intentionally, bringing up Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded. In a few — very few — situations, this might have made sense. Perhaps if, say, Ramiro Pena followed Teixeira in the order. But walking the No. 3 hitter to face the No. 4 hitter? HItters perform significantly better with the bases loaded than with runners on second and third, so the move seemed odd all around. It wasn’t long before Gardenhire regretted it, as A-Rod put the Yanks ahead with the 19th grand slam of his career.

Yesterday’s move was not quite as odd. Rafael Perez had allowed two straight singles to give the Yankees a first and second, one out situation in the bottom of the seventh. He was clearly pitching around Teixeira, and once he fell behind 3-0 he finished it with an intentional ball four. Acta wasn’t going to let Perez face Rodriguez, so he went to the other Perez, Chris, he of the nonexistent control. That move made little sense to me. Perez might have potential, but he clearly has no idea where any of his pitches are going. Why bring him in with the bases loaded, in a tight game?

Perez had a strategy, to keep the ball low in the zone. The problem, of course, is in his ability to keep the ball inside the zone. He missed with the first pitch, got A-Rod to swing at the next, and then missed badly with the next two. Down 3-1, with another run just one more bad pitch away, he went back to the fastball. It did stay low in the zone, but it was so utterly predictable that, even at 95 mph, A-Rod got well out in front of it. The ball leapt off his bat and ended up clearing the fence in dead center. That put the game on ice.

Biggest Pitch: All of Pettitte’s

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

After 16 years in the bigs, 13 with the Yankees, it’s tough to find new things to say about Andy Pettitte. Yet every time he takes the hill it feels like the Yankees have not only a chance to win the game, but a damn good chance. He’ll throw up the occasional stinker — he relies much more on pinpoint command now, something that just won’t be with him every five days. But even when he doesn’t have everything he’ll battle, leaving those stinkers well spaced out. This season it seems like he’s poised for a gem every time.

Yesterday Pettitte cruised through seven innings. He needed just 90 pitches, and certainly would have pitched the eighth if not for the long layoff during the seventh inning. With all the runs the Yanks put up, I’m sure he didn’t mind. While he seemed to tire in the later innings against Minnesota, this time he was strong through the seventh, using just 11 pitches to induce three easy grounders.

His only mistake wasn’t even that big a mistake. After falling behind Jhonny Peralta 2-1, Pettitte delivered a fastball low in the zone. Very low, even, but it did catch a bit of the plate. Peralta took it the other way, a liner that cleared the right field wall for Cleveland’s first run. That would be all Pettitte would allow. In fact, he allowed only one runner to reach even second base, and that was on bad, bad call. C.B. Bucknor, who blew a few at first earlier in the weekend, said Robinson Cano missed second while turning a double play. Replay clearly showed that he had the ball in hand and his foot on the bag, but Bucknor apparently has a mission to miss as many calls as possible.

It is clear that the umpires face no discipline for their blown calls. Where is the incentive to make the right ones?

Granderson jumping right in

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

An injury can never really come at a good time. When Curtis Granderson pulled up limping in early May, the Yanks would clearly miss him. In his absence they had to deal with an outfield roulette that was either inadequate with the bat or with the glove. Yet at the same time, maybe Granderson needed a short break. After starting off the season hot he had slumped considerably, falling all the way to .225/.311/.375 before the injury. He’s been back for only four games, three as a starter, but he’s been looking quite good.

Since the return he has gone 4-12 with two walks, a HBP, and three doubles. Even better, three of the four hits, including two of the doubles, came off left-handers. It’s not indicative of a turnaround against lefties, but it’s certainly encouraging. As I said in yesterday’s recap, the Yankees could not possibly have expected Granderson to turn around overnight. But he’s been working with Kevin Long, and perhaps the layoff has given him time to let those lessons sink in.

It’s probably time to give up the dream of Granderson hitting 35 homers this season. In fact, I’d be surprised to see him get even 25. A number under 20 wouldn’t come as a shock, either, given that he’s missed almost a month. Yet Granderson can help the team in so many more ways. As he showed over the weekend, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. He can smack doubles, he can take a walk. That will be more than enough to set up the middle of the order.

WPA graph and box score

The other day Mike called the FanGraphs box the nerd score. I quite like that. So go check out the nerd score at FanGraphs.

Traditional box at the dot-com.

Up Next

The Orioles ride into town, and they’re bringing their rookie lefty. Brian Matusz against Javier Vazquez, tomorrow at 7.

Romine keeps hit streak alive in loss

Both Corban Joseph and Brandon Laird made Kevin Goldstein’s Future Shock column today. It’s a subscriber only piece, but here’s a little of what he had to say…

CoJo: “Joseph’s bat is by far his best tool, as he has only gap power, average speed, and merely acceptable defense up the middle, but he’s a good enough hitter that it should carry him to the big leagues.”

Laird: “Laird’s bat is his only tool, as he’s a below-average runner with solid-at-best defensive skills, and no matter how well he plays, he’s never going to man a corner for the Yankees. Still, he’s a prospect that has taken a step forward, and scouts are taking notice, so he could be a decent trade chip come July.”

Triple-A Scranton (9-1 loss to Durham)
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 5, 1 K
Reegie Corona, 3B & Jeff Natale, 2B: both 0 for 4 – Natale K’ed & committed a throwing error
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 2 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB – had been two for his previous 16 (.125)
David Winfree, 1B: 2 for 4, 1 2B, 1 RBI – five of his last seven hits have been doubles
Jon Weber, DH, Jesus Montero, C & Reid Gorecki, RF: all 0 for 3, 1 BB - Gorecki K’ed twice & threw a runner out at third
Colin Curtis, LF: 1 for 4, 1 K – first game back from his ankle sprain … Grant Duff was sent down to make room on the roster
Ivan Nova: 5 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 6-2 GB/FB – 59 of 93 pitches were strikes (63.4%) … 25 baserunners & 13 runs allowed in 13.1 IP since being send back down
Mark Melancon: 1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 17 of his 33 pitches were strikes (51.5%) … first runs he’s allowed in the minors since May 6th
The Ghost of Kei Igawa: 3 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 2-3 GB/FB – 39 of 60 pitches were strikes (65%) … he even flirted with 85 on the stadium gun

[Read more…]

Open Thread: Three out of four ain’t so bad

"Can't wew just go home now?" (Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP)

The Indians had the look of a team that couldn’t wait to get out of New York today, didn’t they? If it wasn’t for the massive bullpen meltdown on Saturday, this would have been a laughable four game sweep. I’m not going to complain about taking three of four though, that’s a recipe for winning a whole lotta games.

If you’re not out barbecuing it up on this gorgeous Memorial Day, use this sucker as your open thread. The Flyers and Blackhawks resume the Stanley Cup Finals with Game Two tonight, plus you’ve got the Mets in San Diego (10pm ET start) and the Diamondbacks and Dodgers on MLB Network (9pm ET). You’ve done this before, so have at it.

2010 Draft: KLaw’s Mock Draft v2.0

Keith Law posted his second mock draft today, and has the Yankees taking California high school first baseman/leftfielder Christian Yelich. I usually cringe when I see a high school kid already relegated to first or left for obvious reasons, but apparently Yelich has the athleticism to play elsewhere and is being held back by a girly man arm. If he improves his arm through a pro throwing program and an improved motion, he’ll be able to handle centerfield. At the plate, he’s got a nice and smooth lefty swing that’s geared more towards high contact than power. Here’s the MLB.com scouting report with video.

Last time around he had the Yankees taking prep righty Tyrell Jenkins, though today he mentions that they remain interested in him, “as well as any high-ticket player who should fall to them for money reasons.”

(Don’t forget to subscribe to our draft only RSS feed!)

Posada ahead of schedule, able to run the bases

For the first time since suffering a hairline fracture on the bottom of his foot a few weeks ago, Jorge Posada ran the bases and did sprints in the outfield today. He’s been hitting in the cage the last few days and declared himself ready to go, but Joe Girardi wasn’t as gung-ho about it, mentioning that a minor league rehab stint was a possibility. Posada is eligible to come off the disabled list tomorrow, but I suspect he won’t be activated right away just to give him more time to get up to speed.

As Will Carroll mentioned in today’s UTK column, running and hitting won’t be the problem, squatting behind the plate will. The last thing the Yanks need is to lose Posada and his (SSS) .441 wOBA to go down with a setback.