Brackman goes back to the basics

It’s been a disappointing season for 2007 first round pick Andrew Brackman to say the least, and he hit rock bottom in a nine walk, ten out start on July 29th. As Tim Bontemps writes, that outing caused Brackman to reevaluate things and get back to worked for him before. “You’re looking for help, and I guess the only person who can help you is yourself,” said Brackman, who decided to go back to his old college delivery. “It’s just feeling comfortable. I guess I just wasn’t comfortable with my mechanics at the beginning of the season, and now I am.”

The biggest difference between his current (college) motion and his old delivery from earlier in the season is the placement of his hands. Before they were right around his belt when he started his motion, now they’re up higher around his chest. “Even in my bullpen sessions, my command has been 100 times better,” added Brackman. “Even just tossing, I can hit the man in the chest. It’s so difficult when you’re out there and you’re throwing it over the guy’s head and into the stands when you’re playing catch.  It just feels natural now. I’m actually throwing the ball.” You can see the old delivery here, but unfortunately the draft video of his college days appears to have been taken down. The (very) early returns are promising, but we’ve got a long, long way to go before seeing if any real improvement has been made.

Baseball, Barbecue, Beer and Burgers: A Travelogue

Kauffman Stadium awaits a crowd and a game. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

At around this time last week, my flight to Kansas City was just about to touch down, and I had one thing in mind: Barbecue. I had been to Arthur Bryant’s once before ten years ago, and I wanted lunch. After picking up my car, I drove down into KC from the airport where I sampled some burnt ends and brisket, enjoyed a few ribs and a scoop of pulled pork. It was as good as I remembered, and it wouldn’t even be the best barbecue of my trip.

After taking the bar in late July and spending the previous summer months studying for it, I wanted to spend some time in August on the road. I knew the Yanks too were heading west this month, and so I followed them. I caught the last two games in Kansas City before settling in for a long weekend in Minneapolis. Along the way, I ate well, I drank well and I enjoyed a successful 4-2 stint with the Yanks during which I encountered many knowledgeable, passionate and friendly baseball fans.

The Kansas City leg of a trip was a short one. After my lunch at Arthur Bryant’s, I stopped by my hotel, across the street from Kauffman Stadium, and decamped for the ballpark. The K is a lovely stadium. It opened in 1973, and it’s now one of the game’s oldest ballparks. You wouldn’t know it though from the trip. It’s a small, intimate setting for a baseball game. The upper deck tapers off at the end, and the seating bowl holds just over 37,000. For the mid-week series against the Yanks, the last-place Royals drew just over 22,000 to each of the two games I saw.

In Kansas City, I wasn’t the lone Yankee fan there. My hotel was swarming with families decked out in Yankee gear. Not many had traveled from New York, but others had taken the trip from near and far. Some came in from Nebraska and Oklahoma, fans of the Yankees since the Mick roamed center field. Others were up from Arkansas to see their favorite team play. Throughout the games, chants of “Let’s go, Yanks” drowned out those KC natives trying to pull for the Royals.

When the Royals beat the Yankees on a disputed home run call last Wednesday, the crowd went crazy. We might mock these fans as boosters of a last-place club, but they drew some baseball joy from seeing the Royals beat the Yankees. Although some fans had the typical “Yankees suck” shirts, those I spoke with were resigned to rooting for a losing team, and when David conquered the $200 million Goliath, they found a minute of happiness amidst yet another lost season.

In KC, I found a city that respects its baseball history. The recently renovated Kauffman Stadium has a new Hall of Fame-curated Royals-specific museum with tributes to the great Royals clubs from the 1980s, images of David Cone and Bret Saberhagen and a monument to George Brett in baseballs. They want to be good again, and maybe soon, the Royals, with a stocked farm system, will be.

The best lunch you will ever eat at a gas station. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Outside of baseball, I ate my way through the city. Thanks to a tip from Mark Feinsand, I left the Missouri part of town and ventured to a gas station in Kansas where I found the best barbecue I’ve had. Oklahoma Joe’s, not a quite a secret to those who know about it, operates in the second half of a gas station convenience store, and it was packed with Yankee fans. I downed succulent half rack of ribs, some pulled pork and a bit of cole slaw. I wanted seconds. After the barbecue, I toured Boulevard Brewery, Kansas City’s expanding and delicious microbrewery. The trip was worth it for the food alone.

Following my 36 hours of beer, baseball and barbecue in Kansas City, I flew north for a four-game stay in Minneapolis and switched out the barbecue for some burgers. The specialty of Minneapolis are Jucy Lucy’s or Juicy Lucy’s depending upon which restaurant you frequent. These are burger patties with the cheese inside of them. They are rich, messy and delicious. My first stop was a high-end joint, the Blue Door Pub in St. Paul, but over the weekend, I also dropped in on Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. With some Summit or Surly to accompany the food, I ate well.

But the focus was again on baseball. I saw four games on Target Field over the weekend, and it is an electric baseball atmosphere. The Twins and Populous have constructed a temple to baseball in Minnesota. From the gates numbered for Minnesota’s retired uniforms to the local materials used in construction, this ballpark oozes Minnesota history. (You can, however, skip the infamous pork chop-on-a-stick.) For one game, I sat atop the overhang in right field, and for the others, I sat with views of the Downtown Minneapolis skyline. It is outdoor baseball away from the confines of the Metrodome.

Target Field at night. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Unlike in Kansas City, Twins fans packed the house, and Yankee fans had to find a fit. These days, Twins fans love their team. Everyone in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area had on a Twins hat, a t-shirt, a jersey, and when I showed up in my Yankee shirt, they would playfully tease me. And it was a playful teasing for everyone I met in Minnesota was as friendly as New Yorkers think they would be. It’s midwest hospitality at its finest.

While Royals fans cheer for a bad team, the Twins this year have been bitten by the injury bug, and their fans have grown accustomed to Yankee dominance. The Yanks have won all but four games they’ve played against the Twins since the start of 2009, and when you consider that the Twins have made the playoffs twice since then, it’s a rather astounding fact. So the Target Field faithful went into the weekend expecting loses, and outside of A.J.’s blow-up, the Yanks delivered.

By the time I returned home yesterday, I was full. I had stopped at burger and barbecue joints around the midwest. I had eaten pancakes at Al’s Breakfast and eggs at Hell’s Kitchen. I had seen two barbecue places, a brewery, six Yankee games and an irate Joe Girardi chew out Jack Curry. It’s a trip well worth planning for any baseball fan with a few days or a weekend to spare, and although I don’t need to eat much for a little while, I’m off to Yankee Stadium again tonight. After all, I can never have enough baseball.

Yankees outfielders adding value with their arms

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Just how good is the Yankees outfield defense? The eye test paints a pretty picture, and the numbers provide a similar perspective. This morning Stephen cited a Dan Barbarisi post that further examines the defensive numbers for the Yankees’ outfield, and the returns are predictably good. As a unit the Yankees outfielders have a UZR of 20.1, or 8.7 per 150, which ranks third in all of baseball. Only Arizona and Boston lead them. The major difference among the three teams is how they accumulate these defensive numbers. Both Arizona and Boston accomplish this with range; their 37.3 and 22.8 range runs lead the league by a decently wide margin. While the Yankees do have quality range numbers, they have something that the Red Sox and Diamondbacks do not: quality outfield arms.

As a unit the Yankees’ outfielders have produced 4.4 runs above average with their arms. That ranks seventh in baseball, and just 0.3 points away from fourth. All three of the starters not only have positive arm scores this year, but all three rank in the top 20 among all MLB outfielders in arm score. Again, this passes the eyeball test at least as it concerns 2011. They’ve all had issues in the past, but it does appear that they’ve turned it around. In 2011 they’re apparently turning the corner.

Before we proceed, a word about the small sample that is the 2011 season. It is absolutely true that to gain any value from defensive metrics you need heaps of data — preferably three years’ worth. Clearly we’re not getting anything close to that by examining year-to-year improvements for each player. Yet I’m confident that we’re measuring something real — that is, something that actually happened on the field — when we’re looking at arm scores. From the FanGraphs UZR primer, arm scores are “based on the speed and location of batted balls to the outfield and how often base runners advance extra bases (advances), don’t advance the extra base (holds), or get thrown out trying to advance (kills).” While speed and location are subject to bias, the play-by-play data can give us a good idea when it comes to advances, holds, and kills. So while there is a level of noise in these data, there is also some truth, stemming from the “it happened” factor.

Since he arrived in New York, it was apparent that Nick Swisher had an arm more suited for a left fielder, or even a DH. He lollipopped throws with consistence in 2009, and the numbers bore it out; he had a -5.9 arm score, which was tied with Brad Hawpe for worst in the majors. The problems were so bad that he went to then pitching coach Dave Eiland for advice on how to better hurl a baseball. That seemingly did the trick. In 2010 he improved to -0.8 arm runs above average. This year he’s at 1.6 runs above average, which ranks 19th among MLB outfielders.

While Gardner occasionally uncorked a five-bouncer to home plate during his first two years in the outfield, he still produced generally good arm numbers. From 2008 through 2009 they went: 5.0, 2.4, 6.6. The score in 2008 and the huge jump in 2010 might have been a product of perception. Gardner doesn’t look like a guy with a quality arm, therefore coaches and base runners might be more apt to attempt the extra base. To wit, he had 12 assists last year, which ranked second among MLB outfielders. This year he has only six assists, perhaps because the league has adapted to his actual arm skill. Despite that he still has an arm score of 1.7, which ranks 15th among MLB outfielders. It suggests that he’s holding base runners, rather than killing them.

That leaves Granderson, who had mixed results in terms of arm score earlier in his career. He was actually below average in his final two years with the Tigers, but has been positive in both of his seasons with the Yankees. In fact, his 1.9 arm score from this year ranks 10th in baseball. This is due, in large part, to his eight outfield assists, which ranks 15th among outfielders. The only other year in which he’s had more than five assists was in 2007, when his arm score was at a career high 4.1. I want to say that Granderson’s arm score stems from the same bias that Gardner’s does: teams using old and unreliable information concerning Granderson. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence there to render that any more credible than any other pet theory.

On broadcasts this season the Yankees crew has often mentioned that the outfielders, not just Swisher, have worked with Larry Rothschild on their throwing. It makes perfect sense, of course, since outfielders want to generate power with their throws just as pitchers do. While it’s an anecdote, it apparently shows up in the data as well. Whatever the case, the Yankees starting outfield is not only doing an excellent job of running down fly balls, but they’re also holding and killing base runners with efficiency. After years and years of watching one of the poorest outfield defenses in the league, it’s nice to finally see the Yankees on top.

Series Preview: Oakland Athletics

(Photo Credit: Flickr user greenkozi via Creative Commons license)

The Yankees just finished a series with a team they typically dominate, and now they’re welcoming another one to the Bronx. The Athletics have won just five of 31 games against the Yankees since the start of the 2008 season, and they’re already 1-5 against them this year. That domination, homes.

What Have The Athletics Done Lately?

Although they lost Sunday, the A’s are actually pretty hot, having won four of their last six games against AL East competition. Okay fine, it was the Orioles and Blue Jays, but it still counts. They’ve scored just seven runs in the last four games though, the story of their season. The Athletics are well below .500 at 57-70 with a -24 run differential.

Athletics On Offense

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

When Oakland was in town a few weeks ago, it was former Yankee Hideki Matsui that did most of the damage. He went 7-for-13 with two doubles and homer in the three games, and he’s hitting .372/.424/.543 in 33 games since the All-Star break. Josh Willingham is also coming in hot, with a .277/.354/.675 batting line with nine homers in his last 22 games. Recent call-up Brandon Allen (part of the Brad Ziegler trade) is hitting .379/.424/586 in limited time. Those three are the meat of the order, the guys with some pop that can drive in a run even when no one’s on base.

At the top of the order you have Jemile Weeks (.289/.319/.402 with 14 steals in just 64 games) and Coco Crisp (.268/.324/.380 with 37 steals), two guys that will run at will. Further down in the lineup you have David DeJesus (.229/.315/.367), Kurt Suzuki (.230/.291/.381), Scott Sizemore (.235/.333/.358), and Cliff Pennington (.258/.317/.348). Conor Jackson will work his way into the lineup against left-handers as well (.274/.352/.381 vs. LHP). Bench pieces Eric Sogard (.176/.243/.265), Ryan Sweeney (.283/.358/.356), and Landon Powell (.176/.257/.235) don’t pose much of a threat. The trio of Matsui, Willingham, and Allen can do some damage, but the rest of the offense can be pitched too without much of a concern.

Athletics On The Mound

Tuesday, RHP Brandon McCarthy (vs. Bartolo Colon): Other than being a fine follow on Twitter, McCarthy has had a nice comeback year after dealing with injuries for several years. His 2.83 FIP is off the charts, though his ERA (3.74) is much more pedestrian. McCarthy is all about avoiding walks (1.30 uIBB/9) and getting ground balls (47.1%), and he’ll occasionally mix in strike three (5.87 K/9). He’s a big dude (6-foot-7, 200 lbs.) and he uses his size to get good downhill plane on his 90-ish mph fastballs (both two and four-seamer). A high-80’s slider is his third pitch (really second counting the fastballs as one entity). McCarthy’s a tough assignment, he might sneak up on the Yankees.

Wednesday, RHP Trevor Cahill (vs. CC Sabathia): Poor Mr. Cahill, he just can’t beat the Yankees. Hell, forget about beat them, he can’t even put together a half-decent start against them. Cahill is 0-4 in four career starts against New York, allowing 28 runs in 18.2 IP for his career and 14 runs in 8.2 IP in two starts this year. That’s pretty rough. The righty is a sinker-curveball-changeup pitcher, typically getting a ton of grounders (56%) and just enough strikeouts (6.51 K/9). Four games spread out over the last two years is nothing, but you have to feel confident whenever the Yankees step in the box against Cahill.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user rocor via Creative Commons license)

Thursday, RHP Rich Harden (vs. Phil Hughes): The Yankees have been scouting Harden’s recent starts, and now they’ll get a(nother) first hand look at him. He held the Yanks to two runs in 5.2 IP at the end of July, but he walked four and threw 104 pitches. Harden’s coming off his best start of the year, an eleven strikeout, two hit gem against the Jays last over the weekend. He’s still primarily a fastball-slider guy, but he’s mixing in his strikeout splitter more and more these days as he gets further away from his latest arm problem.

Bullpen: All-Star closer Andrew Bailey (2.23 FIP) is back from injury and as good as ever, allowing Grant Balfour (3.27 FIP) and Brian Fuentes (3.92 FIP) to work roles more suited to their abilities (setup, basically). Lefties Craig Breslow (3.36 FIP) and Jordan Norberto (3.18 FIP in a small sample, also part of the Ziegler trade) will matchup with righties Fautino De Lo Santos (3.29 FIP) and Bruce Billings (just 3.2 IP to his credit since being called up). It’s a solid relief corps overall, especially in the eighth and ninth innings.

Recommended Athletics Reading: Athletics Nation and Beaneball


As always, grab some tickets via TiqIQ and RAB. Here’s your preview image.

Barbarisi on Gardner and Granderson’s defense

At the Wall Street Journal this morning, writer Daniel Barbarisi takes a look at Brett Gardner‘s range in left field. It’s subscriber-only content, but there are apparently ways to find it free it you search hard enough. Here’s something that caught my interest from the article:

He is effectively a second center fielder, ranging wide over the left side of the field in ways no other left fielder is doing. He frequently takes balls away from center fielder Curtis Granderson, when traditionally, it’s vice-versa…

Gardner teams with Granderson and Nick Swisher to create one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. Granderson is an established, rangy center fielder who has great in-line speed once he gets moving, and Swisher is an underrated and improving right fielder—his UZR is 10.7, fifth-best in baseball. And they move around significantly, adjusting for where they expect the hitter will place the ball…

The way Gardner covers ground allows the Yankees to use different defensive alignments, shifting Granderson more toward right field in some situations because they assume Gardner can cover all of left-center.

Jay Jaffe has speculated before that Gardner takes balls away from Granderson, and so it’s interesting to see Barbarisi essentially confirm this hypothesis. Like Jaffe, I wondered about Granderson’s poor UZR score since it doesn’t seem to pass the eye test and I’ve yet to find a single person who believes that Granderson is actually a poor fielder. It may simply be that Gardner’s speedy wheels and great instincts, and Granderson’s positioning, are the cause of Granderson’s subpar UZR score this year.

This is a relevant issue as it relates to Granderson’s MVP chances. In traditional categories, Granderson cleans up. He’s second in HR, first in R and RBI, and he’s stolen 24 bases. But in the advanced statistic realm of Wins Above Replacement, Granderson is held back by his poor defensive score. His -9.2 UZR rating means that he’s not as high up the Fangraphs’ WAR leaderboard as guys like Bautista, Pedroia and Ellsbury. Yet if we subbed in a value of 0 for Granderson’s UZR, still a conservative number in my estimation, his fWAR would go from 6.1 to 6.9. If we gave him last year’s value of 6.4 runs, his fWAR would go to 7.6, ahead of Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez and just a tenth of a point behind Jose Bautista. In other words, it’s possible that the case for Granderson winning the MVP should look even stronger than it currently does.

Anyway, the article is an interesting read and I recommend you take a look. There’s some cool stuff in there about how much Andruw Jones (himself a formerly-elite defender) respects Gardner’s defensive prowess, and also a fun quote about how much Gardner would love to win the Gold Glove. Parenthetically, Barbarisi has been a fantastic addition to the Wall Street Journal‘s coverage of sports. He’s been unafraid to integrate new statistics into his work without getting bogged down in explaining the stats and still maintaining the traditional feel of the newspaper sports column. If he isn’t on your radar by now, he should be.

DotF: Montero’s big day

Mike is on vacation for a few days this week, and so Joe and I will fill the DotF void. Last night, I ran into a clogged bathtub upon my return from Minneapolis and didn’t have a chance to hammer this one out. The big story of the day was clearly Jesus Montero who mashed the ball in two games for Scranton. Freddy Garcia made a rehab appearance too, but while he won, it wasn’t his finest effort. Anyway, here’s the abbreviated DotF for Monday.

Triple A Scranton (Game 1: 11-2 win over Rochester)
Jesus Montero, C: 3 for 5, 2 HR, 1 2B, 6 RBI. – He’s now up to 15 dingers on the seasons. That’s some Montero Monday for you.
Adam Warren, P: 2 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 2 K – Threw the first two innings on Sunday before the game was suspended.
Freddy Garcia, P: 4 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K – Allowed one HR to a prototypical AAAA player…threw 42 of 59 pitches for strikes. He’ll likely start this weekend against the Orioles.
Andrew Brackman, P: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K – Got the three-inning save in a blowout…Threw 23 of 31 pitches for strikes…Since 7/29, his line looks good: 11.2 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 12 K. [Read more…]

Who is eligible for the Yankees postseason roster?

When the Yankees designated Aaron Laffey for assignment, it created a free 40-man roster spot. The Yankees can use this spot in many ways, and may, in fact, eventually re-add Laffey (if he clears waivers and is outrighted to AAA). With the August 31st postseason roster deadline looming though, it could be that the Yankees are saving that for a player currently not on the 40-man roster who they might, just might, like to have on the playoff roster. Jesus Montero and Manny Banuelos immediately come to mind. But the Yankees don’t need to use that 40-man spot on either, even if they fully intend to use one or both in the postseason. In fact, neither has to be on the 25-man roster on August 31st.

That might sound a bit confusing, because it runs counter to the old maxim that playoff roster have to be set by midnight on August 31st. While that is technically true, there are a number of exceptions to the rule. In fact, given the way MLB has created the rules, there are few limitations on what players a team can add to its postseason roster.

The eligible pool

Indeed, the active roster as of midnight on August 31st constitutes the immediately eligible players for a team’s postseason roster. Those include all players on the 25-man, plus any players on the disabled list, bereavement list, suspended list, or any other type of inactive list. Any of those players can be added to the postseason roster prior to any series.

The wild cards

Here’s where the rules open up. If any player in the eligible pool is injured at the start of any series, the team can substitute any player that was in the organization on August 31st. This is not limited, then, to players on the 40-man roster. It’s not even limited to players on the 40-man roster at the time of the substitution.

If the Yankees swung a trade in September and used that player every day from September 1 through the end of the season, it would not matter. He would not be postseason-eligible. But a player on the High-A Tampa roster would be eligible, whether or not he was ever on the 40-man roster prior to the series. (Though the Yankees would obviously have to add him to the 40-man roster before they could substitute him.)

The substitutions can be any player for any player. That is, they do not have to be position player for position player and pitcher for pitcher. That occurs in only one instance, which we’ll get to in just a tick.

Postseason substitution

Before every postseason series each team can submit a new roster, from its pool of eligible players. Teams can swap players in and out before each series without restriction.

If a player is injured during a postseason series, the team can substitute him immediately. This bears the position player for position player, pitcher for pitcher requirement. The substitution can be anyone that was in the team’s organization on August 31st, regardless of current roster status. The catch is that the injured player becomes inactive not only for the current series, but for the next one as well. In other words: get hurt in the ALCS, miss the World Series.

The Yankees situation

If the clock had just struck midnight on August 31st, rather than August 22nd, here’s how the Yankees’ eligible pool would break down.

Active Roster: Luis Ayala, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, Hector Noesi, Ivan Nova, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, CC Sabathia, Rafael Soriano, Cory Wade, Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, Robinson Cano, Eric Chavez, Derek Jeter, Eduardo Nunez, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Andruw Jones, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada

Disabled list: Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano, Freddy Garcia, Jeff Marquez, Damaso Marte, Sergio Mitre, Reegie Corona, Ramiro Pena, Colin Curtis

That gives the Yankees a pool of 34 players from which they can choose. But it really opens eligibility to the entire organization. We know that Chamberlain, Curtis, and Corona will not return. Therefore, the Yankees have at least three substitution spots. They could, therefore, add both Banuelos and Montero to the postseason roster before any series, regardless of whether they’re on the active roster, or even 40-man roster, on August 31st. There is a chance that every player on this list, save for Marquez and Garcia, ends the season on the DL. That will give the Yankees carte blanche to create their postseason roster.

Chances are, of course, that the Yankees won’t take advantage of their ability to substitute. Maybe they bring up a burner, as they did in 2009 with Freddy Guzman. There’s a chance, though an outside one, that they take Montero as an extra bat off the bench (and those chances could increase should they make the World Series). But right now they’re quite set in terms of position players. They’ll also likely reduce to an 11-man pitching staff, and so will be set there, too. If something goes awry between now and the end of September, though, the Yankees have their options. Who knew that having a crowded disabled list could come in handy at crucial moments?