What does a balanced schedule mean, anyway?

Joe Maddon would like an easier path to the playoffs for his Tampa Bay Rays. Or at least that’s the sense I got after reading his comments on the unbalanced schedule this past weekend.

Last night, before the Rays got shellacked by the Boston Red Sox, Joe Maddon spoke with reporters about the 2010 season, and he opined on the challenging path to the playoffs. Since the Rays are suffering from the bad luck of playing in the American League, they’ve had to face the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays 52 times this season, and Maddon says these teams are wearing down his club. His solution? A “balanced” schedule, whatever that means.

“I’m saying yes,” he said, answering the question of whether or not it’s been tough to reach the playoffs this year than in 2008. “Because of the [rise] of Toronto and now Baltimore, tThis is definitely a reason to argue in favor of a more balanced schedule. We wouldn’t have to see these teams as often.”

Maddon then had the audacity to complain about the remainder of his team’s games this year. The Rays have to face the Yanks, Blue Jays and Orioles, and somehow, this is, in his words, a “form of baseball masochism.” For what its worth, 15 of the Rays’ final 25 games are against teams over .500 while the Yanks play 19 of their final 24 against winning teams. Maddon attempted to clarify, “It not just about not playing the Red Sox as many times or the Yankees as many times. It’s about not playing anybody that amount of times.”

Since the dawn of the three-division league and the advent of Interleague Play, the idea of a balanced schedule as long eluded Major League Baseball. That’s because it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly a balanced schedule is. Under the current 162-game iteration, teams play their intradivision rivals more than they do teams in their league but in other divisions. For example, the Yankees play the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles 18 times apiece this year, and while Tampa Bay may bemoan that tough slate, it’s one that impacts all four of its division rivals. That attention on the division isn’t the problem.

For Maddon and those who dislike this unevenness, the interdivision games and interleague contests are the real problems. The Yanks, for instance, played the AL Central-leading Twins just six times this year while the Rays drew them in eight games. The Yanks face Oakland and Seattle ten times each while Tampa Bay plays those two teams just nine times each. In a division that could be decided by as little as a game or two, every edge matters.

Over the course of a long season, the unbalanced schedule inevitable and unsurprisingly balances out. Based upon team records as of today, the Yanks’ opponents have a combined .496 winning percentage, and the Rays’ opponents have a combined .501 winning percentage. (The Red Sox, because they play both Tampa Bay and the Yanks 18 times each and the Braves six times, suffer from a schedule with a .508 winning percentage.) The numbers show that Tampa Bay’s opponents are a combined 1234-1241 while the Yanks’ are a combined 1220-1258. Over the course of a 162-game season, the difference between a .496 team and a .501 team is 0.8 wins. Maddon is crying over spilt milk.

If MLB truly wanted a balanced schedule, they would have to figure out what exactly that means. Does it mean each team plays every other team the same amount of times? Does it mean the combined weighted winning percentage of one team’s opponents must equal that of every other’s? Does it mean eliminating Interleague Play and restoring a system where the Yanks would play division rivals 13 times and the other AL teams 12 times? Whatever the answer, the schedule still rarely be perfectly even.

Barring a collapse, both Tampa Bay and the Yankees will make the playoffs this year, and Maddon’s criticism focuses more on the fact that it’s now tough for Tampa Bay to secure home-field advantage than anything else. The real issue is how the Rays will be the AL’s second-best team but will have to settle for the fourth seed in the playoffs. That, and not the unbalanced schedule, doesn’t make sense.

Grab a cheap pair of tickets to tonight’s game

A loyal RAB reader has an offer you shouldn’t refuse for tonight. As the Yanks near the end of their second-to-last homestand of the season, this reader is offering the opportunity to go to tonight’s game for cheap. The first person to leave a comment with a valid e-mail address in the e-mail field gets a crack at a pair of tickets in Section 406, Row 8 for a total of $18. The buyer must be able to meet the seller at Yankee Stadium between 6:30 and 7 p.m. tonight.

Afternoon links: Jeter, Jeter, Jeter, and bunts

A few points of interest while Mike chats the afternoon away.

Small ball? Pschaw

We’re used to seeing The Star Ledger’s Marc Carig in his traditional beat writer role. He certainly entertains us on Twitter, but for the most part he’s out there gathering and reporting facts. Lately he’s had a chance to express his views, and today he brings the knowledge with his column on small ball and the Yankees. People might yearn for the little things, but that’s just not the way the Yanks are built.

Maybe the idea of the game as a battle of attrition — working at-bats, drawing walks, popping home runs — isn’t your ideal brand of baseball. That’s fine. But the reality is that the Yankees have chosen to fashion themselves in this mold. They have assembled specific parts to build a machine that’s designed to 1.) Get players on base 2.) Knock in those players with extra base hits, whether they’re doubles in the gaps or home runs in the seats.
The machine works.

It’s easily the best article I’ve read all day.

All Jeter, all the time

No matter how much we don’t want to hear about it, the Jeter contract situation will make headlines from now through the resolution. If we’re going to have to suffer this, we might as well make the best of it. And what better place to start than Dave Cameron’s Contract Crowdsourcing series? Jeter’s up today, so make sure to go enter your numbers.

Last week Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus had a long, thoughtful take on the situation and offered up a follow up today. BP voters think Jeter will get a three-year deal worth around $15-$17 million a season. Today ESPN’s Mark Simon adds to the conversation by putting Jeter’s 2010 into perspective.

After this, I expect everyone will be sick and tired of the Jeter situation, if they weren’t already. Good. Now let’s talk about actual baseball while they’re still playing.

Tickets for Wednesday’s day game available

A long-time RAB reader has a pair of tickets for tomorrow’s afternoon affair. The tickets are in the Grandstand section 414 in the top row (14). Face value is $20 per ticket, and the seller is willing to email the tickets or arrange a Manhattan trade-off. First person to e-mail me gets first crack at the tickets.

RAB Live Chat

2010 Minor League Awards

(Photo Credit: The Scranton Times-Tribune)

There’s no question that 2010 was a banner year for the Yankees’ farm system. Not only did their top prospects perform very well and continue along their development path, but numerous players broke out and several others returned from injury and exceeded every reasonable expectation. The system had been trending downward over the last few seasons due to graduation, trades, and normal attrition, but this year has re-established the system as one deep in both high end talent and role players, exactly what the Yankees need.

The Yanks’ six domestic affiliates went a combined 368-318 (.536) in 2010, at least the 28th consecutive season the affiliates have combined for an above-.500 record. Triple-A Scranton (right), Double-A Trenton, and High-A Tampa all won their division and qualified for postseason play. A large part of that success can be attributed to all of the top shelf pitching prospects the Yanks have at the upper levels. It really is an impressive group.

This post is not intended to be any kind of prospect ranking. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a recognition of those who had great statistical years regardless of their future potential. Sometimes, we just have to step and say damn, that guy was awesome without obsessing over the underlying data and whether or not it’s sustainable.

Here are my 2007, 2008, and 2009 awards posts. If you’re unfamiliar with how I do these things, I disqualify the Player of the Year from the other major awards just to mix things up. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.

Minor League Player of the Year: Brandon Laird, 3B, AA/AAA
Following a 2009 season in which he started off slowly before turning things around in the second half, Laird dominated the Double-A Eastern League right from the get go in 2010. He clubbed four homers with a .334 wOBA in April, then improved to six homers and a .408 wOBA in June, nine and .382 in July, and then four and .346 in August before being promoted to Triple-A Scranton. Overall, Laird hit .281/.336/.482 with a system leading 25 homers and 102 RBI, but his performance with Trenton is what really solidified this award for him. He hit .291/.355/.523 (.371 wOBA) for the Thunder, enough to win him the league MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. Of course, the RAB Minor League Player of the Year Award trumps all.
Honorable Mention: Jesus Montero, C, AAA; Graham Stoneburner, RHSP, A-/A+

[Read more…]

For Burnett, a longer leash

Mediocre A.J., the lesser known of Burnett's various personalities, reared his head yesterday. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

A.J. Burnett is struggling. He’s struggling to find command; he’s struggling to find consistency; he’s struggling to find the strike zone; and he’s struggling to find wins. In fact, the Yankees are 4-13 over Burnett’s last 17 starts and 1-6 since the start of August. During that stretch, Burnett has a 6.58 ERA, and it’s just ugly all around.

Yet, Joe Girardi is still willing to show faith in Burnett because his stuff is there, lingering in the background. Yesterday, we saw that faith, through no fault of Burnett’s or Girardi’s, backfire in the 7th inning. A.J. was one out away from escaping the game without a loss, but the Orioles had a threat going. With Corey Patterson on second, Brian Roberts, one of the Orioles’ few offensive threats, came up with two hits on him already.

Roberts is a tough player to neutralize. Historically, he hits better from the left side against righties than he does as a right-handed batter against south paws, but he’s a tough out from either side of the plate. This year, he is OPSing .858 in limited duty. It’s easy to second-guess the decision to allow Burnett to face Roberts. After all, the Orioles’ second baseman had a bead on Burnett’s stuff, and A.J. had passed 100 pitches. The Yanks could have played the match-ups and used Boone Logan to turn Roberts around to his weaker side, but Girardi stuck with A.J.

The pitch Roberts hit into right field for the game-winning hit wasn’t a bad one. It was a curve-ball, down and in, that Roberts fought off. A good hitter can do that to a good pitcher, and Burnett, speaking of his inability to shut down the Orioles, was highly critical of himself after the game. “It’s not about my seventh. It’s my whole day in general. I take pride in shutdowns. I’ve said it six times already, sorry I keep repeating it, but nothing else happened today. I wasn’t able to shut them down when we scored.”

What struck me about the game, though, wasn’t the outcome or Roberts’ lucky hitting. It wasn’t Burnett’s inability to hold the Orioles, although that obviously played a role in the eventual outcome. Rather, it was Joe Girardi’s willingness to stick with Burnett passed the breaking point.

On Saturday, Girardi sparked a mini-controversy when he lifted Javier Vazquez from a two-run game with two runners on and two outs in the fifth. That move backfired as well when Dustin Moseley allowed the tying runs to score, and Vazquez was steamed that he couldn’t work out his own jam. Javy, recently returned from the rotation, clearly has a short leash while Girardi wants to get Burnett as much work as possible in an effort to iron out what plagues him. Joe Girardi: “I thought it was a good step forward. I thought his stuff was very good today. He didn’t really have his changeup today, but his curveball and his fastball were very good. He got in some situations that he wiggled his way out of — a first and second with nobody out and didn’t give up a run. He pitched pretty well,” the Yankee skipper said after the game.

So why the disparate treatment? On the one hand, the issue is about stuff. On days when Burnett has something resembling a good curveball, he’s always just one good pitch away from getting out of the inning. On days when Javier Vazquez is throwing 86 mile-an-hour meatballs, it seem as though only Lady Luck can help Javy through five or six innings.

On the other hand, though, these decisions are about trust and the Yanks’ future. Javier Vazquez is a one-and-done in New York City. They brought him in to give them length in the rotation when they knew they couldn’t sneak by on CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett and two young guys or replacement-type hurlers. At this point, he’s probably on the wrong side of the bubble and wouldn’t make the playoff roster. Burnett, though, has to be ready for the postseason. If the Yankees are going to advance, A.J. Burnett and his $16.5-million salary will be asked to pitch in some must-win situations, and Burnett has to have confidence in his stuff. Furthermore, Burnett is here through 2013, and the Yanks can’t start banishing him to the scrap heap quite yet.

So A.J. gets a longer leash than Javier Vazquez, and even though both decisions — a non-move on Monday and a move on Saturday — backfired on the Yanks, both were the right calls. Sometimes, the Brian Roberts of the world just end up beating that good curve ball.