Game 16: Keeping the streak alive

Anaheim is 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, but don't tell the Angels. (Ric Francis, AP)

The Yankees lost for the first time in over a week yesterday, and it was just their second loss in the last 13 days. They’ve won their first five series of the year, the first time they’ve done that in nearly a century, but the process of keeping that streak alive starts tonight.

For years the Angels were absolute hell on the Yankees, particularly when they played in Anaheim, but it feels like the 2010 season busted those ghosts. For whatever reason, the Halos just aren’t scary anymore. Maybe it’s because they don’t have Chone Figgins and John Lackey and Vlad Guerrero and all those other guys that used to give the Yankees fits, or maybe it’s just because winning the World Series removed any silliness about curses and whatnot from people’s minds.

Starting for the Angels tonight is Ervin Santana, who took the loss when the Yanks handed out their rings last week. He bitched and moaned about the umpire’s strike zone after walking five in 5.2 innings, saying he didn’t get calls “because it’s the Yankees … That happens every time we play the Yankees or Boston.” If he whined any more, he’d be a resident of Bradenia.

Here’s tonight’s lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Granderson, CF
Swisher, RF
Gardner, LF

And on the mound, Allen James Burnett.

The last late game of this road trip starts at 10:05pm ET and will be broadcast on YES, as (almost) always. Enjoy the game.

Open Thread: Welcome to Bradenia

Surely you’ve seen this already, but it’s always worth a second look. Did you catch Alex Rodriguez‘s reaction when Braden was yelling at him as he walked off the field? Priceless.

Anyway, here’s the open thread as you wait for tonight’s game against the Angels. There’s NBA and NHL playoff action on, plus Mets-Braves and Tigers-Rangers (MLB Network). Talk about whatever you want, just be nice.

Pondering the reasons for a bullpen move

Joba shows some enthusiasm for his move to the bullpen. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

When the Yankees officially announced Joba Chamberlain as the team’s official Eighth Inning Guy!!one!11 set-up man, the news landed with a nary a sound. Most Yankee fans knew that Joba would be, despite the Yanks’ protestations, the set-up man soon enough, and although he hasn’t been as dominant as we would like in the early going, he has done an adequate job limiting the damage so far.

Officially, Brian Cashman has said that Joba will be a starting pitcher in the future, but after three years of yanking him back and forth between the pen and the rotation, I can’t help but think that the Yanks have made something of a final decision on Joba. He isn’t working on maintaining his innings limit, and the team enjoys the luxury of having a shut-down reliever in front of Mariano.

Today, at ESPN’s TMI blog Satchel Price from Beyond the Box Score examined five good reasons to move a starting pitcher to the bullpen. Price used Daisuke Matsuzaka as his test case and proposed moving him to the pen. The factors please:

  1. They’re simply not good
  2. There’s someone better on the way
  3. Their stuff will play up in relief and the bullpen needs help
  4. They face an innings limit due to age and/or inexperience
  5. They may not be able to stay healthy pitching every fifth day

Now, clearly, these factors aren’t mutually exclusive. A pitcher can have stuff that plays up in relief and may also face an innings limit. He might not be able to stay healthy, and someone else could be on the way.

For the Yankees and Joba, we’ve seen most of the factors at play. Number 1 doesn’t apply to Joba because we know he can be that good. But, based on a very small sample, we’ve seen Phil Hughes supplant him in the rotation after a supposed competition and some good regular season results. We know his stuff will play up in relief, and while the Yanks don’t need bullpen help, they can afford to take advantage of their depth at the Major League level. Joba did face an innings limit due to age, and the Yankees are concerned with keeping his arm healthy.

On their own, each individual factor doesn’t explain the Yanks’ thinking, but when considered as part of an overall picture, Price’s proposal helps us understand why moving Joba to the pen works. It might not be the path to future pitching success, but for 2010, it should work out.

First pitch strike biggest difference for Burnett

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

If you take a look at A.J. Burnett’s FanGraphs page, you might see a few things stand out. The most obvious is his walk rate. After walking 4.22 per nine innings — 10.8 percent of the batters he faced — last year, he has walked just 2.84 per nine, or 7.7 percent of the batters he has faced this year. It’s still too early to draw any conclusions from this data, but it’s still a welcome improvement. A.J. admitted as much himself in spring training, when he lamented his high walk rate from 2009, his highest since 2001.

What further stands out is that he has done this despite throwing fewer strikes than he did last season. During his three starts so far he has thrown 297 pitches, 175 of which have been strikes, or just about 59 percent. Last season he threw 61 percent strikes. The difference isn’t huge, especially at this point in the season. Still, it’s odd to see him throw fewer strikes and walk fewer batters. Batters are swinging at fewer of the out-of-zone pitches, too, just 20.3 percent, compared to 22.1 percent last season. While with the Blue Jays Burnett sat in the 24-percent range.

How, then, is Burnett walking fewer batters? Luck certainly plays a role. He’s also getting ahead in the count. Of the 78 hitters he has faced this season, 37 of them have seen an 0-1 count (47 percent) and only two of them have ended up walking. Last season he faced 896 batters, and while 48 percent of them saw an 0-1 count, 29 of them walked, or 6.7 percent. In other words, Burnett is doing a better job of playing to the advantage of the first-pitch strike so far. He’s also induced plenty of poor first-pitch contact. Last year hitters put the first pitch in play 96 times, 10.7 percent, and slugged .478. This year they’ve put the ball in play 12 times, 15.4 percent, and have slugged .364.

Burnett still presents a few concerning numbers, like his still-low ground ball percentage, his unsustainably low HR/FB percentage, and his unsustainably high LOB percentage. Chances are he’s due for a regression — I don’t think anyone believes, anyway, that he’d maintain a 2.37 ERA throughout the season. Still, Burnett has shown some signs of improvement. He wanted to lower his walk rate and he’s on his way. He’s done so by throwing first pitch strikes and taking advantage from there. He has also induced swings on more pitches within the strike zone, and has held hitters to a lower contact rate when doing so. It appears, then, that for every questionable aspect of Burnett’s game, he has a positive to go with it.

What I want to see from Burnett tonight: first pitch strikes and ground balls. I’m confident about the first, but not so much the second. Again, one of Burnett’s virtues during his three starts is the avoidance of the long ball. If he continues to allow fly balls at his current rate, he’s probably going to get burned a bit more often. If, however, he keeps the ball on the ground like he did in Toronto and Florida, he has a chance of keeping the ball in the park more often. His first pitch strike percentage will also keep him ahead of hitters, which will likely keep his walk rate low. With those two aspects of his game under control, I think we’ll see Burnett turn in a fine season. For now, though, I’m just thinking about his next game.

A controversy out of nothing

By now we’ve all heard about it, A’s starter Dallas Braden threw a fit yesterday after Alex Rodriguez walked across the mound while going back to first base after a juuust foul ball. Braden went on an all-time rant, basically ripping Alex to pieces for jogging across what the Oakland lefty called “the center of the universe when I’m on it” on Baseball Tonight later in the evening. He also declared the issue over, saying that he hopes he left an impression with the Yanks’ third baseman.

But of course, this is New York, and it’ll never be a dead issue. There’s been more attention paid to this than there was when Alex saved that kid’s life a few years ago. In addition to the usual pieces declaring A-Rod in the wrong this morning, Joel Sherman went a little off the deep end when he dropped this gem on us…

Look, at this point, I want to see Alex Rodriguez combine his greatest hits and really show us something. Next time he is on base and there is a pop up around the mound, why doesn’t A-Rod cut across the field, step on the rubber, scream at the opponent trying to catch the popup and – if that doesn’t work – slap at the glove. No wait, don’t scream, belt out a Madonna tune.

What the hell is that about? I mean … sheesh. He walked across the mound. The nerve!

To be quite frank, this whole mound issue is just a bit of nonsense. You’re talking about an old school, unwritten rule that was enforced with a pitch to the ribs a lifetime ago. If it were a FOX broadcast, Tim McCarver would be talking about the great Bob Gibson who never stood for such a thing and didn’t need pitch counts and was so manly that the U.S. had 48 states when he started his career and 50 when it ended. It’s that outdated.

Dallas Braden is a pretty good pitcher and he’s off to a very nice start this season, but more than anything, this sounds a little like a cry for attention. Was A-Rod in the wrong for walking around the mound? Meh, maybe. The bottom line is that A-Rod is an easy target. He’s kept himself in the clear for the last year, but there are a lot of people with animosity towards him that were just waiting for him to trip up so they could unload on him. I guess walking across the mound was it.

Aside: When a pitcher covers behind the plate on a run-scoring hit, is he allowed to walk through the batter’s box to the mound?

Update (11:54am): Told ya.

The good, the bad and the Nick Johnson

What does a team do when its designated hitter isn’t fulfilling the second half of his job description? That’s the question many who watch the Yankees have been asking themselves lately as Nick Johnson, the team’s DH, has struggled to hit.

After an 0-for-4 performance yesterday, Johnson is now hitting .125 with a still-robust .382 on-base percentage and a very low .229 slugging mark. Frustration seemed to be creeping into Johnson’s approach too as the usually patient lefty saw just 16 pitches in four plate appearances, a bit off his 4.6 pitches per PA mark. At least he leads the league with 18 walks, but the team was hoping for more offensive production from its two hitter.

As Nick has scuffled with the stick, reporters have asked Joe Girardi his take on the DH’s slow start, and the Yanks’ skipper defended Johnson. “I don’t think anyone is complaining about how much he’s on base,” Girardi said. “Sometimes you look at his batting average and you think that he’s really struggling and maybe not helping the team, but you look at how much he’s been on base, and he’s helping us.”

It’s certainly true that Nick Johnson is helping the team. Getting on base 38.2 percent of the time is a remarkable figure even for players who hit .300. That Johnson is doing it while racking up just one hit every eight at-bats is a testament to his value to the team. It comes across in his wOBA as well. At .327 prior to yesterday’s game, Johnson’s wOBA speaks of a player struggling less than it may seem.

Other factors too suggest an impending course correction. Johnson has struck out 36.4 percent of time this season, and his career mark is 20.9 percent. Perhaps he’s finding it a bit difficult at first to adjust to the American League after spending parts of six seasons in the Senior Circuit. As that number dips, he’ll be putting more balls in play which brings me to Johnson’s BABIP. Again prior to yesterday, Johnson’s batting average on balls in play was a woeful .185. While Johnson isn’t putting the ball in play during 53 percent of his plate appearances, the ball just isn’t falling.

There is, however, one stat that does concern me in addition to the strike outs. Johnson’s line drive percentage is a robust 25, but his ground ball and fly ball rates are backwards. He’s hitting grounders 25 percent of the time and fly balls 50 percent of the time. I know he and Kevin Long worked on elevating the ball during Spring Training to take advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, and it’s possible that in the early goings, this change is taking its toll. However, small sample size warnings apply.

Much as Austin Jackson’s .500 BABIP won’t last, Johnson’s low marks will be a thing of the past soon enough. He’s a .310 BABIP player for his career, and as he both cuts down on the strike outs and continues to put the ball in play, eventually, the hits will pile up. Marcus Thames has done nothing but hit each time the Yanks have opted to play him, but Johnson will and should remain the DH. The balls will fall, and the production will soon increase. It’s just the nature of the game as April wears on.

One bad inning costs the Yankees a sweep

When you’ve already taken the first two games of a series, when your Nos. 4 and 5 starters have limited them to four runs in those contests, and when you have your ace on the mound, you expect to complete the sweep. The Yankees failed in that regard yesterday. Sabathia actually pitched pretty well after Kurt Suzuki took him deep in the first, but that was enough offense for the A’s. Dallas Braden prevented the Yankees’ offense from doing too much damage, and the result was a rare low-scoring game.

Biggest Hit: Tex hits a long fly

Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Down 4-1 in the top of the sixth, the Yankees needed to put a dent in the lead. Nick Johnson worked a six-pitch at-bat to lead off the inning, but swung at a changeup outside on a 3-2 count and grounded it to second base. That brought up Mark Teixeira.

As he often does, Braden jumped ahead in the count by getting a slider over for strike one. He came inside with a fastball on the next pitch, which Teixeira fouled away for strike two. Ahead in the count, Braden turned to his odd weapon, the screwball. According to dark overlord David Appelman, Braden had thrown the pitch just one time before yesterday’s game. This one he delivered low and away, but Teixeira launched it to left-center, clearing the wall by plenty.

It was the Yankees second solo home run of the day off Braden, and unfortunately it was all they would get. Still, it’s another encouraging sign from Tex. He slump continues — he was just 2 for 12 with a walk in the series, though both hits went for extra bases — but we know he’s coming around.

Biggest Pitch: Suzuki’s three-run blast

Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, CC Sabathia pitched pretty well yesterday. He went all eight innings, giving the bullpen — specifically Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera — a breather. He also used just 97 pitches, which is even more impressive when you look at his first inning. He threw 18 in that frame, meaning he needed just over 11 pitches per inning the rest of the way. Still, he had trouble settling into a groove during the first.

It started with a pitcher’s nightmare, a four-pitch walk to Rajai Davis. They were all fastballs, and only the third and fourth pitches came close. That puts the pressure on, because Davis presents a perpetual threat to steal. He didn’t during Daric Barton’s at-bat, but his speed allowed him to advance on a groundball to second. He did, however, steal third during Ryan Sweeney’s at-bat, which also resulted in a four-pitch walk.

The next pitch was CC’s only real mistake of the game. After walking two batters on eight pitches, Sabathia needed to start strong against Kurt Suzuki. He delivered a 93 mph fastball that PitchFX classified as a sinker. The problem, though, wasn’t with the pitch. It was the location, middle-in, and Suzuki guessed right. He hit a no-doubter to left, staking his team to a 3-0 lead. Normally the Yankees offense can cover such a deficit, but yesterday they just weren’t feeling it.

Rodriguez to Cano to Johnson

Suzuki was responsible not only for the biggest positive WPA swing in the game, but also the biggest negative. In the sixth inning Sabathia again ran into some control problems. He allowed a single to Daric Barton on a 3-2 count, and then let him advance to second on a wild pitch. Then, for the second time in the game, he walked Sweeney on four pitches. Suzuki came up in a familiar situation, and just like the last time he swung at the first pitch. The result, though, couldn’t have been any more different.


Both photo credits: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

This time Sabathia opened with a changeup, a bit below the zone. Suzuki grounded it sharply to A-Rod at third, who ran to tag third, then fired to second. Cano made a quick transfer, whipping the ball to Johnson at first, who stretched and completed the triple play. It was the first Yankees’ triple play since 1968, and the first one I have ever seen while watching a baseball game live.

You can watch the video here. I think I’ve watched it about a dozen times since the game ended.

Annoyances

The whole offense was a bit of a downer. Particularly, though, Gardner grounding into the double play in the fifth, and then Cano grounding into the double play in the sixth, made me want to break my remote.

Mark Teixeira had a chance to put a dent in A’s lead in the third. He came up with men on first and second with two outs, but couldn’t manage a base hit. Johnson got a crack first, and he flied a pretty hittable pitch to left field. Tex actually worked a pretty good at-bat, seven pitches, but couldn’t finish when Braden threw him a belt-high outside changeup. In a couple of weeks, I think, Teixeira parks that one, or at least hits it off the wall. He also only managed to foul off a changeup right down Broadway two pitches earlier.

Joys

The triple play, of course.

Marcus Thames continuing to pound the ball against lefties. This is why the Yankees signed him and kept him on board despite a slow spring. I’m sure many of us thought he’d be the first to be DFA’d this year, but that’s almost certainly going to be Winn. Too bad the Braves would never trade them Hinske.

Dallas Braden. You can file his performance under annoyances, but his post-game interview was great. He basically ripped on A-Rod for jogging across the mound, even touching the rubber, while returning to first base after a Robinson Cano foul ball. A-Rod later said that, “It’s not really a big deal.” I wonder why Braden made it seem like one.

WPA Graph

This one is pretty boring.

The full breakdown at FanGraphs.

Next Up

The Yanks travel down the coast for their second meeting of the year with Anaheim. Thankfully, there’s only one 10 p.m. start. That would be tomorrow night, with A.J. Burnett going for the Yanks against Ervin Santana for the Halos.