Hard to believe, but Cano even hotter than last year

In 2007 and in 2008, Robinson Cano got off to a slow start. After nearly winning the batting title with a late surge in 2006, Cano stumbled a bit in August, posting a .270/.320/.337 April. Things got worse in May, and he hit rock bottom on May 16 when he was hitting .234/.276/.312. He took off after that, though, and in his final 522 PA he hit .326/.374/.536, which more resemble the Cano we had gotten to know in 2006.

Photo credit: Chris Carlson/AP

In 2008 his start was even worse. He hit under .200 for almost the entire month of April, finishing the month at .151/.211/.236. While he hit rock bottom on May 3 that year, his recovery didn’t go as well as in 2007. His .300/.327/.452 line from May 4 through the end of the season wasn’t terrible, but it was far below what we had come to expect from Cano. It got so bad that Joe Girardi ended up benching him in September.

The narrative, then, entering the 2009 season was that Robbie had to get off to a hot start in order to fend off his critics. As we saw, he responded. Through 20 games he hit .381/.418/.619, and while he didn’t keep that up for the rest of the season he still kept up a respectable line of .311/.341/.505 from Game 21 through Game 162. His final line, .320/.352/.520, represented his best production since that superb 2006 season.

In 2010, we’ve seen more of the same. Cano’s hot start is a big reason why the Yankees have gotten off to such a hot start. In the first 20 games he’s hitting .390/.430/.701, which closely resembles his 2009 start. The good news, though, is that he has shown improvement in every category. His BA is clearly higher. In his first 20 games last year he walked 6.6 percent of the time and had a .238 ISO. This year he has walked 7 percent of the time and has a .312 ISO.

There’s just no way Cano will keep up this production throughout 2010. Yet even if he drops off a bit he’ll finish strong this season. It’s tough to ignore such a massive increase in power. It comes at the cost of strikeouts — Cano’s 13 percent strikeout rate is his highest since 2007 — but he’s also shown a bit more willingness to take some pitches and even draw a walk. I’m being cautious, given Cano’s similar start last year, but it seems like this year could be his best yet.

RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:05pm ET today. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

2010 Draft: MLB Bonus Baby Mock Draft

I’m not sure if you’ve stumbled across it yet, but SBN Nation launched a new draft-centric site not too long ago called MLB Bonus Baby. They recently posted a first round mock draft (their fifth, actually), and have the Yankees taking Texas A&M righty Barret Loux, who I admittedly don’t know very much about. He’s a big boy at 6-foot-5, 220 lbs, and MLB.com’s draft report says he’s 91-94 with good command and a changeup that serves as his best pitch. As you can see from the video, that little hesitation gives his delivery hella deception (/Carig‘d). Not for nothing, Loux signs like the ideal Damon Oppenheimer pick; college pitcher with command, size, and stuff.

Anyway, don’t take the mock draft to heart, it’s far too early to know who’s going where. However, it does serve as a nice snapshot look at how players are being valued at the moment, and where their stock sits. Check it out.

RAB Live Chat

Is Tyler Clippard the one who got away?

The Yankees’ bullpen has cost them a few games over the last week or so, which really isn’t anything new in April. However, this year we were privy to an added bonus, some revisionist history pieces written about a trade the Yankees and Nationals consummated way back in December of 2007. That’s because over the last ten months or so, former Yankee Tyler Clippard has emerged as a bullpen force for the Nationals while the player he was traded for – Jon Albaladejo – toils away in Triple-A after being unable to make a positive impression in his many call-ups over the last two-plus seasons.

Photo Credit: Matt Slocum, AP

As I’m sure you remember, Clippard was a darling on the interwebs because of his gaudy minor league stats, and make no mistake, they were superb. He struck out 501 batters in 450.2 innings from 2004-2006, finishing among the top five in strikeouts per nine innings in all of minor league baseball each season. If you’ve followed me long enough, then you know that I was never a big T-Clip fan because the scouting report never matched the results, and I took a lot of heat for it. He relied on deception too much for my liking (look at this freaking delivery), and the stuff was merely good, not holy crap good. I acknowledged on more than one occasion that he was probably a back-end starter or reliever in the long run, and not for a team like the Yankees, which is pretty much what he is.

While Albaladejo was busy not missing bats during his many chances with the big league team (including two Opening Day roster assignments), Clippard struggled as a starter in Triple-A before the Nats made the decision to move him to the bullpen full time before last season. Without a doubt, Clippard has been tremendous for the Nationals since resurfacing as a reliever last June. He’s struck out 87 in 77 innings with just 43 hits allowed since, good for a rock solid 3.98 FIP. The ERA looks even better at 2.22, and he’s emerged as the team’s 8th inning setup man in recent weeks. However, there’s a little bit of luck fueling that performance.

Just as he was in the minors, Clippard is an extreme fly ball pitcher, getting nearly two outs in the air for every one he records on the ground (0.53 GB/FB ratio), and because of this he’s pretty homer prone, again just like he was in the minors. In those 77 innings since being called up, he’s given up nine long balls, or one for every 8.2 innings pitched or so. Furthermore, his batting average on balls in play during that time is … wait for it … an unsustainably low .204. Point two oh four! Clippard’s expected BABIP (xBABIP) based on the types of batted balls he gives up (line drives, fly balls, etc) over the same time is a still low .283, but it’s much more in the realm of normalcy. Essentially, he has allowed one fewer hit than expected out of every 11 balls put into play, so we’re talking about 16 hits that should have been charged to Clippard over those 77 innings that somehow ended up being turned into outs.

In addition to the BABIP luck, the percentage of runners that Clippard has stranded is a ridiculous 88.01%. The league average is right around 70-72%. If that were to ever regress back to the mean, his ERA would climb something like a run, a run and a quarter. Stranding runners is not a repeatable skill, though it is somewhat influenced by groundball rates because of the double play potential. However, we’ve already noted that Clippard is an extreme fly ball pitcher, so this does not compute.

Does this mean the Yankees are better off with Albaladejo than they would be with Clippard? No, of course not. They’d like to have him back just like the Mets would like to have Heath Bell back and the Brewers would like to have Nelson Cruz back. There’s no denying that Brian Cashman would like a do-over on that one, but let’s not act like the Yanks let a young John Smoltz get away here. Relievers are very volatile, and signs point to Clippard’s success having a lot more to do with straight up good great luck than true talent.

I’ve seen more than one person say recently that the Yankees screwed up by making the trade, but that’s incredibly easy to say nearly three years after the fact. They traded a surplus prospect with a less than stellar track record at Triple-A and above for a young reliever with a slightly better track record at the higher levels. The Yanks needed help for their beleaguered bullpen, the Nats needed anyone that offered some kind of promise. It really was a swap of spare parts, and Washington got the better of it. To claim the Yankees should have seen Clippard having such immense (luck fueled) success is weaksauce.

* * *

As an aside, take a quick gander at this sample of core peripheral stats dating back to last season…

Pitcher A is Clippard. Pitcher B is a reliever in the Yanks’ bullpen. His name rhymes with Ravid Dobertson. Considering the environment (league and division) each set was compiled in, who would you rather have?

Cervelli’s good luck 2010

Among backup catchers, Francisco Cervelli has been among the best in the league in this young season. He’s gotten on base in more than half of his plate appearances, and it seems like everything he hits finds the outfield grass. It also seems like he gets the hits at just the right time. His eight hits have driven in six runs, even more impressive because he has just one extra base hit on the season.

Photo credit: Chris Carlson/AP

Cervelli will get at least one unexpected start in place of Jorge Posada, who will rest after getting hit in the knee with a fastball last night. Considering how well Cervelli has been hitting — he went 2 for 4 last night — this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While Posada’s superiority is clear, the Yanks will get a chance to squeeze more production out of Cervelli while he’s hot. It’s not going to last all season.

April BABIPs bring May regressions. We’ll see that positively affect slumping hitters like Mark Teixeira and Nick Johnson — both of whom picked up hits last night — but we’ll also see it negatively affect streaking hitters. Cervelli will not keep up his .471 BABIP, and so we’ll see his numbers drop a bit. What’s even more ridiculous is his BA on ground balls. The AL as a whole is hitting .208 on ground balls, but Cervelli is hitting .400. The league mark will come up, and Cervelli’s will come down, but for now Cervelli’s ground balls have eyes.

Cervelli’s walk and strikeout rates are also likely unsustainable. He has struck out just once this season, mostly because he has avoided pitches outside the strike zone. When he has swung at pitches outside the zone he has made contact every time, another unsustainable rate. It helps, then, that he’s seen more pitches in the zone this year than he has in the past. He’s been a bit more discerning, though, swinging at fewer of them overall.

What we don’t know is how Cervelli will adjust. We know he won’t hit this well all season, but where he ends up remains a mystery. We do know that he has hits and walks in the bank. He has walked three times already this season, so he’s already above his 2009 total. To reach his 2009 total in batting average he’d have to go 20 for his next 76, .263, something we know he can do. Even if he does that without drawing even one more walk, he’d still have a higher OBP than last season.

Any positive offensive contribution Cervelli makes is a bonus. It’s gravy. Icing on the cake. House money. However you want to describe his offensive production, it’s not why he got the backup catcher job. He’s outstanding defensively and has already established, at least among Yankees fans, a reputation for working well with pitchers. That is his primary task, and as long as he performs that well all he needs to do is hit better than Wil Nieves. Given what we saw last year and what we’ve seen so far this year, I think that’s a safe assumption.

Swisher, Cano & Sabathia help get Yanks back in the win column

The last five games hadn’t exactly gone according to plan, but the Yankees had the right man on the hill Wednesday night to get things headed back in the right direction. CC Sabathia took the ball and carried the team into the 8th inning, and even though his final line wasn’t pretty (7.2 IP, 11 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K), he did exactly what an ace is supposed: he stopped the losing streak.

Stop hitting our players, kthxbye. (Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP)

Biggest Hit: Nick Swisher‘s Triple

The Paul O’Neill Theory was on full display tonight, as the Yanks jumped out to an early 2-0 lead off Jeremy Guthrie after pushing some late-inning runs across in a loss the day before. They came back for more in the second, when Jorge Posada led off the inning by taking a pitch off his knee (more on that later) and Curtis Granderson followed that up with a sharp single to left-center (ditto). Eighth place hitter Nick Swisher, he of the .488 career wOBA at Camden Yards, stepped to the plate with a chance back Guthrie into a corner, and he didn’t disappoint.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

The Orioles’ righthander broke out a first pitch changeup that missed away for a ball, but then dropped a slider and another changeup in for a 1-2 count. Guthrie throws his fastball 53% of the time in a 1-2 count, and Swisher must have paid attention to the pregame scouting report, because he jumped all over a 92 mph heater left up in the zone. The ball flew over centerfielder Adam Jones’ head, hit the base of the wall, and ricocheted back into the outfield. The lumbering Posada and speedy Granderson scored, and Swisher slid into third without a play for his second triple of the season. The Yankees had built a four-run lead before Guthrie could record his fourth out, and their chances of winning already stood at 87.3% in the 2nd inning.

Swisher has already tied his career high with two triples this year, and you have to think he’ll luck into another one at some point over the final 142 games.

Biggest Out: Matt Wieters’ Strikeout

After giving up that early 2-0 lead, the Orioles tried their best to get it right back in the bottom of the 1st. Nick Markakis sliced a one-out double down the leftfield line and moved to third when Miguel Tejada singled two batters later. Baltimore had runners on the corners with two outs, and after seeing how quickly a lead could evaporate the night before, I can imagine Sabathia really wanted to bear down and escape the inning without allowing a run.

He started the Orioles’ catching phenom with a sinking fastball on the outer half, but Wieters fouled it off. The next pitch was a big breaking slider that caught the inside of the plate for strike two. On the next pitch, Sabathia let go of a changeup a little too early and it sailed way off the plate for the first ball of the encounter. It’s no secret that the change is CC’s weapon of choice against righthanded batters, so he went right back to it for the fourth offering of the at-bat, except this time he executed the pitch. Wieters got caught out in front, and swung right through the pitch for the inning ending strikeout.

It sounds silly in hindsight given the wide margin of victory, but getting out of that inning without allowing a run was a big step toward putting this one in the win column.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

The Stopper

Like I said at the top, it wasn’t always pretty for Sabathia, but he managed to give his team length and keep the Orioles in check while his offense went to work. Baltimore had runners on base in seven of the eight innings started by the Yankee ace, but they only scored three runs and left eight men on base. The defense helped by turning a pair of double plays, but that was possible because of Sabathia’s 12-6 GB/FB ratio. It certainly wasn’t his best outing, but the Yankees are paying CC to turn losing streaks into winning streaks, and that’s exactly what he did on Wednesday.

Slump Busters

Curtis Granderson came into Wednesday’s game riding an 0-for-17 stretch, but he said before the game that he wasn’t concerned and it was just part of the normal ups and downs of a long season. The most well-spoken Yankee busted out of that slump in his first at-bat, taking the first two pitches off the plate before reaching out and slapping a 92 mph fastball from Guthrie into left-center for his first hit since the Oakland series. He tacked on another hit later in the game for good measure.

Nick Johnson didn’t enjoy the same kind of multi-hit breakout as Granderson, but he still managed to find the outfield grass on a ball in play. Given that he missed a few days with a stiff back, it’s easy to forget that Johnson picked up a hit in his last start in Anaheim, and he had a nice little stretch of reaching base in three consecutive plate appearances and four of five. The batting average is still an ugly .143, but he’s getting on base 38.5% of the time and has shown signs of waking up lately.

Now we’re just waiting on Mark Teixeira to get it going. May is only two days away.

Happy Moments

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

What more can we say about Robinson Cano? The guy went 2-for-5 with his sixth homer of the year in this game, bumping his triple-slash line up to .390-.430-.701.  He leads the American League in batting average by 22 points and all of baseball by 17 points, and it would take an 0-for-24 stretch for Cano’s average to dip below .300. I know it’s April, but that’s utterly insane. If the Yankees didn’t already contractually control his rights through 2013, I’d suggest that they lock him up before he hits the open market.

Road Swish. It truly is an awesome spectacle. Three hits tonight to boost his season line to .284-.385-.493, which has to be against some kind of unwritten rule regarding the maximum allowable offensive production of a guy hitting eighth. Slash-and-dash Brett Gardner behind him too; the Yanks’ 8-9 hitters combined to go 5-for-9 on Wednesday. That’s how you score eight runs across the first six innings of a game.

You know what else is awesome? That Sabathia gave up three runs in 7.2 innings, and the general feel is that it was a subpar start for the big guy. When’s the last time we could say that about a Yankee starter? CC has really spoiled us, let me tell you.

Oh, and hey, it’s Sergio Mitre! Good for him.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

Annoying Moments

Not too many for me, but I don’t know what’s up with Jeremy Guthrie. The guy just loves hitting Yankees. I’m sure you remember him drilling Tex in elbow during the last week of Spring Training, giving the entire fan base a minor heart attack, and then on Wednesday he plunked Posada right above his right kneecap with a fastball. Jorge stayed in to run the bases, but he was lifted in favor of Frankie Cervelli after the inning. No tests are scheduled right now and Posada said they’re going to wait and see how he feels tomorrow, but you have to believe the Yankees will be careful with their 38-year-old catcher. I would be pretty surprised if anyone but Cervelli was behind the dish Thursday night, no reason the push it.

WPA Graph

Nice and boring, just the way I like it. Individual breakdowns are available at FanGraphs’ box score.

Up Next

Thursday night’s rubber game with feature A.J. Burnett and one of the best young pitchers in the game, lefty Brian Matusz. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm, and it’ll be broadcast on MLB Network as their featured game of the week.