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.

Yanks opt to push back Vazquez

A fourth-inning sight all too familiar to Yankee fans. AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Updated (4:54 p.m.): With the luxury of an off-day this Thursday, the Yankees have chosen to push back Javier Vazquez‘s next outing. Instead of pitching on Friday in Boston, the beleaguered starter will take the ball on Monday in Detroit (and then again on Saturday, May 15 at home against the Twins). “We’ll give him a couple days to catch his breath, Joe Girardi said to the beat writers.

Vazquez, unfairly blamed by many Yankee fans for the 2004 ALCS collapse, has had a rough reintroduction to the Bronx. He’s 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA, and in five starts, he’s thrown just 23 innings. He hasn’t pitched out of the fourth inning since April 20, and he retired just nine of the 19 White Sox he faced on Saturday. Instead of throwing him to the Fenway wolves, the Yankees will have Vazquez throw a side session later this week before he can pitch with the luxury of a vast Comerica Park outfield behind him.

After Saturday’s outing, Frankie Piliere, a former scout and current FanHouse author, speculated that Vazquez’s troubles were mechanic in nature, and the team seems to agree with this assessment. “I believe he’s healthy,” Girardi said.

According to reports from the clubhouse, Vazquez asked for the ball on Friday, but the Yankees wanted him to take a few extra days. When asked if Javy’s problems are mental or physical, Joe Girardi said, “It becomes both.” While I would prefer to see the team skip him in Boston, I have to wonder then if this obvious lack of faith will impact that mental side of the game.

Meanwhile, a closer examination of the numbers — albeit in a small sample — raise some eyebrows. The Tigers have emerged as one of the league’s top offensive teams. Detroit is hitting .281/.362/.432 overall and .282/.372/.426 at home. Boston is hitting .260/.333/.438 overall but just .246/.318/.415 at Fenway. While the Red Sox have historically been good fly-ball hitters at home, early data this year indicates that Detroit could pose more of a problem for Javy than the Red Sox. If this move is about mental composure, the Yanks could see this backfire. If it is about getting Javy’s mechanics back in line, they can use the off day to have him throw an extended bullpen session to work out the kinks.

Girardi, meanwhile, urged everyone to look past the team’s opponents. “Everybody’s going to think it’s the Red Sox,” he said. “At some point you’ve got to do something a little bit different.”

As an added bonus, though, by pushing Vazquez back a few days, the Yankees will also give Andy Pettitte an extra day off. He’ll pitch on Tuesday in Detroit instead of Monday, and Phil Hughes, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett will match up with Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester in Boston.

Injury Latest: Granderson & A-Rod

After a relatively injury-free April, two of the most important Yankees were delivered blows over the weekend. Curtis Granderson suffered a Grade II groin strain rounding second on Saturday, leaving the team without their everyday centerfielder for the foreseeable future. Later in that game, Alex Rodriguez was pinch-run for as part of what looked like a questionable move, but it turns out he was dealing with some knee pain that kept him out of the lineup on Sunday.

Losing your centerfielder and cleanup hitter in the span of a few innings is scary stuff, but thankfully only one of the two injuries looks serious at the moment. As expected, Will Carroll touched on the Yanks’ walking wounded in today’s Under The Knife column at Baseball Prospectus (subs. req’d). Let’s start with Granderson, the bigger concern at this point…

The Yankees will be without Granderson for about a month with a Grade II groin strain. That’s a reasonable time frame no matter which way you go with the estimate. On one side, you could be optimistic and say that Granderson’s conditioning and strength will help him get back in two to four weeks. On the other hand, caution and some normal setbacks could push it to four to six weeks. There’s not really much more here to clarify; Granderson has a simple groin strain. Until he begins to jog or run, probably mid-month, we won’t know anything new.

It’s been two whole days since Granderson got hurt, and the only thing we know about the extent of the injury is what’s summarized above. His strength and conditioning could be reasons for optimism, but when recognizing that his game is built around speed and fast-twitch athleticism, a groin strain can be very problematic if not dealt with properly. There should be zero rushing back, because a setback could be even more harmful to the team.

At some point soon (likely today), the Yanks will call up Greg Golson to fill the roster spot, but Marcus Thames is essentially going to be pressed into everyday duty. The more Thames plays, the more his true talent level comes out, and the sooner he turns back into the .244-.298-.491 hitter he’s been over the last three years. The impact of Granderson’s injury goes beyond just losing one player.

Now for the third baseman…

The Yankees are also watching A-Rod. He was given Sunday off after having some soreness behind his knee. It’s minor, but the Yankees will be careful with Rodriguez for the next couple days while they monitor the situation and make sure that the symptoms aren’t overlying something that could be significant.

Yesterday’s report indicated that A-Rod will be in the lineup tonight, though we don’t know if he’ll be at the hot corner or at DH. Considering who they’re facing (Jeremy Guthrie and the O’s), I wouldn’t opposed to giving him another day of rest. As yesterday showed, the team has more than enough offense to survive with the noodle-bat of Ramiro Pena at third.

I’m always skeptical of reports indicating that an injury is minor, perhaps it’s just the pessimist in me preparing for the worst, especially with a player as important as A-Rod. Of course, I don’t believe the team would run him out there if there was any concern about this developing into a long-term issue. If the Yankees are going to make any noise this year, A-Rod’s going to have to be one of the guys to carry them there, just like last season. And besides, it’s not like they’re in a desperate situation right now. There’s no reason to rush anything, with Grandy or Alex.

Update (3:37pm): A-Rod’s in the lineup tonight, playing third.

Extra ticket for tomorrow’s game

A reader has an extra ticket for tomorrow night’s game that they’re trying to get rid of. It’s in the bleachers, row 13 of section 237, which is on the  leftfield side behind the visitor”s bullpen. Face value is $14, and you can pay via PayPal. The ticket will be emailed.

If you’re interested, email me using the link in the sidebar and I’ll put you in touch with the seller.

Checking in on Austin Jackson

Photo Credit: Duane Burleson, AP

Twelve months ago, outfielder Austin Jackson was the lone impact position player prospect the Yankees had above A-ball. Jesus Montero and Austin Romine had about 200 plate appearances combined above the Low-A level, and Eduardo Nunez was coming off a three year stretch in which he hit .243-.286-.329. Now, Jackson is starring for the Detroit Tigers following the offseason trade for Curtis Granderson. Granderson was off to a .314 wOBA start in 91 plate appearances before landing on the disabled list with Grade II groin strain over the weekend while the player they gave up was busy wOBA’ing .411 in 119 plate appearances for Tigers, so we’ve already seen plenty of second guessing about the trade. It’s only natural, but one month is hardly any kind of sample from which to draw conclusions from.

Jackson, still just 23-years-old despite being around for what feels like forever, is second in the American League with a .367 batting average which you no doubt already know is fueled by the mother of all BABIP’s: .527. For comparison’s sake, Robbie Cano‘s league leading .387 batting average is backed by a .365 BABIP, which is high for him considering his .322 career BABIP, but it’s not completely insane at this time of year. Ichiro had a .399 BABIP the year he broke the all-time single season hit record with 262. That gives you can idea of how absurd Jackson’s luck has been. Outside of Little League, there’s just no way a player can sustain having more than 50% of the balls he hits between the lines drop in for a hit. There’s just no way.

Using Derek Carty’s expected BABIP calculator (xBABIP), we find that Jackson would be expected to have a .350 BABIP based on the kind of balls he’s put in play (line drives, ground balls, etc). So we’re talking a 177 point difference here, which translates into 19 13 (!!!) extra hits that the former Yanks’ farmhand has already picked up this season that he normally wouldn’t have been expected to. Assuming those 19 13 extra hits were all singles, he would be hitting just .190-.258-.318 (.257 wOBA) .248-.311-.367 (.305 wOBA) if lady luck weren’t on his side. Jackson’s minor league BABIP is .366 in close to 2,500 plate appearances, so that’s essentially his baseline. The .350 xBABIP is reasonable considering that he’s now in the big boy’s league.

All those extra hits are one piece of the puzzle, there’s also all those strikeouts as well. Jackson leads the league with 34 strikeouts, or 31.2% of his at-bats. Just eight players struck out in at least three out of every ten at-bats last season, and they were all three true outcome sluggers (Mark Reynolds, Jack Cust, Carlos Pena, Russell Branyan, etc), not gap-to-gap hitters like A-Jax. As you would expect, the root of those strikeouts stems from Jackson’s plate discipline, which has never been his strong suit.

So far this season, he’s offered at 27.4% of pitches out of the strike zone, a touch more than the league average of 26.9%. Jackson isn’t just swinging at more pitches out of the zone than the rest of the league, he’s also making contact on fewer, just 60.3% (64.6% lg avg). that’s no doubt due to a 9.7% swinging strike rate (8.3% lg avg), which is pretty high. Swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone is a deadly combination. The strikeouts also impact BABIP, since fewer balls are in play. Jackson was always able to swing and miss with the best of them, but his immense production has masked this deficiency so far.

At the moment, pitchers are throwing Jackson a fastball 67.5% of the time, which is partly due to the league making the rookie prove he can hit the cheese before adjusting. Just nine batters has seen a higher percentage of fastballs this year, and they’re all basically no-power slap hitters (David Eckstein, Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik, Luis Castillo, and of course Brett Gardner). As the season progresses and the league gets two or three or more looks at Jackson, he’ll start getting fed more and more offspeed stuff, which was always his weakness in the bush leagues.

The Tigers are getting a tremendous amount of production out of their new centerfielder so far this season, which is great for both the team and Jackson. I hope Detroit uses the hot start to jump in and sign him to an eight year deal and sets him up for life, I really do. However, it’s still far too early to accept this as Jackson’s true talent level, and it’s definitely way too early to start second guessing the deal. We’ve been preaching patience since the first day of RAB’s existence, and there’s no reason we would change that approach now.

Vazquez might be bad, but alternatives not much better

Once Andy Pettitte re-signed for the 2010 season, the Yankees sought just one more pitcher to fill the rotation. That would leave only the No. 5 spot vacant, ripe for a competition, in name at least, between Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. An additional veteran would afford the Yanks a bit more flexibility in the rotation. They would have a solid top four even if the No. 5 winner flopped, and would have depth in case of injury.

Photo credit: Nathan Denette/AP

A few names of interest appeared on the free agent market. Ben Sheets, who missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his throwing elbow, topped the list because of his ace potential. Justin Duchscherer, who also missed all of 2009 recovering from an injury, represented another interesting name. He made a successful transition to the rotation in 2008 before suffering his injury, and his ground ball stuff figured to play well at Yankee Stadium.

Finally, Joel Piniero, who found success by inducing ground balls in 2009, hit the market. While he had a leg up on Sheets and Duchscherer, he also had a far spottier past. After two and a half excellent seasons with Seattle in the early 00s, Pineiro fell off a cliff. From 2004 through 2006 he pitched 495.1 innings to a 5.60 ERA. His strikeout rate dropped precipitously during that period, going from 7.1 per nine in 2004 to 5.1 in 2005, and finally to 4.7 in 2006. The Red Sox, under the advice of Allard Baird, signed him to close games in 2007, but that didn’t work out too well. It wasn’t until last season, his second full season under Dave Duncan’s tutelage, that Pineiro showed a consistent ability to record outs.

Yet the Yankees opted to avoid the free agent market. The decision was understandable. The three pitchers who would have best fit the Yankees’ need, at a reasonable salary, all carried considerable question marks. Instead they turned to the trade market and acquired Javy Vazquez from the Braves. The cost wasn’t high in Yankees terms. They swapped Melky Cabrera, along with his eventual $3 million salary, and high-upside prospect Arodys Vizcaino for Vazquez. It seemed to complete the Yankees rotation, giving them a bunch of top-three guys in the first four spots.

As we’ve seen through his first five starts, Vazquez hasn’t worked out to this point. At the same time, neither have any of the other choices. While Sheets and Pineiro haven’t performed quite as badly as Vazquez, they’ve struggled in their own ways. Duchscherer shined after struggling in his first start. He allowed just two runs in 19 innings during his next three starts. During his last start against Toronto, however, he left the game with pain in his hip. He described it as similar to the problem that kept him out for 2009. That was certainly one of the concerns with signing him during the winter.

Photo credit: Lori Schepler/AP

Pineiro actually started off the season strong, allowing just four runs in his first 20.1 innings. He actually struck out a decent number of batters 13, nearly 16 percent of all batters he faced. For comparison, last year he struck out 12 percent of all batters faced. All the while he kept his walk rate low, 3.7 percent of batters faced, against 3.1 percent last season. It hurt even more that one of those excellent performances came against the Yankees with Vazquez on the mound. Yet things went south pretty quickly.

In his last two starts Pineiro has lasted just 9.1 innings and has allowed 16 runs, 15 earned. Opponents have hit a home run as often as they have struck out. While Pineiro has kept his walk rate characteristically low, just two of 51 batters faced, he has seen his strikeout rate tank, just 6 percent of batters faced. Thankfully, the first such poor start came against the Yankees, who lit him up for six runs on 11 hits, none of which were home runs, in 6 IP. The Tigers, another team Pineiro dominated earlier in April, smacked him around on Friday, scoring 10 runs on 10 hits, including three homers, in just 3.1 innings.

Ben Sheets’s most recent start almost mirrors Pineiro’s last effort. In 3.1 innings against the Blue Jays he allowed nine runs on 10 hits and two walks, including three home runs. After striking out 20.4 percent of all batters faced during his years in Milwaukee, Sheets has struck out just 11.3 percent this season. Meanwhile his walk rate is through the roof, equalling his strikeout rate. He has more than doubled his walk percentage this season, 11.3 percent from 5.3 percent in Milwaukee. He claims he’s having trouble with his breaking ball, an unsurprising development considering his absence in 2009.

Photo credit: Christine Cotter/AP

Again, Vazquez’s struggles at this point are a bit more severe than those of Sheets and Pineiro. Yet I feel that Vazquez has a better chance of turning it around than the others. Sheets is further removed from his surgery every day, but it doesn’t seem that his his control, or his fastball velocity, is close to being back. Pineiro impressed last season and showed that he can get through tough lineups, but how much of that can we depend on in the future. After all, before last season he hand’t been good since 2003. If all three are struggling, I’d choose Javy over the other two.

There has been nothing encouraging about Javy’s 2010 season to date. He has no idea where his fastball is going, and isn’t getting as much speed on it as he has in the past. If he somehow gets that under control, he can recover and be the pitcher the Yankees thought they were acquiring in December. If not, we’ll see a lot of second guessing. As we’ve seen, though, there weren’t many better options on the free agent market. Despite his struggles, I still believe that trading for Javy was a better call than signing Duchscherer, Sheets, or Pineiro.