Game 47: Atonement

The last time the Yankees took the first two games from the Twins, they also held a 3-1 lead heading into the eighth inning. Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera, the guys who represent one of the better endgames in baseball, blew the lead, and even though the Yankees had three chances with the tying run on base they couldn’t finish the job against Jon Rauch. Tonight the’ll get a chance to complete the sweep they couldn’t last time.

Of course, the Twins will look for atonement of their own. They’re currently 1-4 against the Yankees this season after going winless last year. They came close last night, but Andy Pettitte put the kibosh on that one. Tonight represents their last chance.

Nick Blackburn will be the guy for the Twins. He went seven innings last time against the Yanks, allowing three runs. The Yanks had chances, as they put 10 men on base, nine on hits. Blackburn, a goundball kinda guy, had trouble in that regard, allowing 18 balls in the air (15 fly balls and 3 line drives) to 10 on the ground. Overall Blackburn is experiencing his worst season to date, a 4.50 ERA against a 5.31 FIP.

Javy Vazquez gets a chance to continue righting his ship. In his last three appearance he has allowed just two runs in 13.1 innings, striking out 14 to just four walks. Opponents have hit the ball on a line just 14 percent of the time in that span, a good sign for Vazquez. The Minnesota offense, featuring some heavy hitting lefties, will be his biggest test since the revival.

Lineup:

1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Brett Gardner, CF
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Robinson Cano, 2B
6. Nick Swisher, RF
7. Juan Miranda, DH
8. Francisco Cervelli, C
9. Kevin Russo, LF

And on the mound, number thirty-one, Javier Vazquez.

Stark: Yankees targeting ‘versatile outfield bats’

The Yankee brain trust has yet to meet and discuss their mid-summer shopping list, but Jayson Stark says that the team’s scouts have begun to target what he calls “versatile outfield bats.” Randy Winn is basically a zero on offense (.278 wOBA) and isn’t even being used as a late innings defensive replacement anymore, while Marcus Thames can hit (.424 OBA) but nothing else. He’s the anti-versatile outfielder. Stark throws out the name of David DeJesus, but that’s just him speculating.

Just looking at the list of players scheduled to become free agents after the season, I can see someone like Gabe Gross or the resurgent Austin Kearns making sense. Maybe add Ryan Church to the mix, get that Pirates-Yankees train rollin’ again.

Unsurprisingly, Yanks uninterested in Oswalt

AP Photo

It’s one of the rights of summer: if a big name player is available, the Yankees will be discussed as a landing spot, regardless of how much sense it makes. So naturally when Roy Oswalt went to his bosses in Houston and essentially demanded a trade, many saw it as a chance for the Yanks to jump in and upgrade the rotation. It doesn’t matter that the team already has more than $63M committed to it’s current rotation with a competent sixth starter in tow, or that they just picked up some more depth yesterday, it’s Roy Oswalt people! True Warrior™ status!

Anyway, a team official shot down the idea, telling Jon Heyman that “we like our starters,” which is a candidate for the obvious statement of the year award. Despite Javy Vazquez‘s early season awfulness, the rotation has a 3.70 ERA (sixth best in baseball), a 4.16 FIP, and a 4.20 xFIP, all strong marks. They’re averaging close to 19 outs recorded per start, which is a big help with a somewhat shaky bullpen. There’s always room for improvement, but given the cost, it’s not worth it to the Yanks.

First of all, let’s talk about the money. Oswalt is owed about $11.8M for the rest of this season, then another $16M next year, and then $2M to buy out his $16M option for 2012. Even if the trade was made two months from now at the deadline, that’s a commitment of $23M through the end of 2011. And remember, every dollar the Yankees take on is actually $1.40 because of the luxury tax. That $23M turns into $32.2M before he’d even throw a pitch. People laugh at the idea of the Yanks having a budget, but it’s very real, otherwise Johnny Damon or Matt Holliday or whoever would be in pinstripes. Hal Steinbrenner wouldn’t add $5.5M to the payroll last year for Mike Cameron, so $32.2M for what could be perceived as an unnecessary update would be a rather tough sell.

Then there’s the talent. Houston’s not just going to give their franchise pitcher away, and if they eat any of the money left on Oswalt’s contract, the better the prospects they’ll expect to receive. Just looking around for some comparable deals, I don’t think the Cliff Lee trade works because a) Lee is flat out better than Oswalt, and b) is much, much cheaper. The best comparison might just be Javy Vazquez, who fetched a top prospect, a young big leaguer with six years of team control, another decent prospect, and a live lower levels arm when the Braves acquired him from the White Sox. That’s a significant package.

The Yanks don’t have many high end prospects at the moment, so the Astros are going to ask for Jesus Montero or Austin Romine plus more. The Yanks could move someone like Hector Noesi or Jose Ramirez, but their trade value isn’t great because they’re still so far away. I’ve already seen a few people suggest that sending Javy back to Houston could work, which of course is completely nuts. Why would the Astros take him on when they’re trading Oswalt? Someone is going to need to explain this one to me, because it makes absolutely no sense. None of this mentions the righty’s history of back issues, either.

If the rotation had an obvious opening AND the Yanks had the financial flexibility AND enough prospects to spare, then yeah, it might make some sense. Given where the team is right now, with the second best record and the second best run differential in all of baseball, there’s no need to go out and make a move. Injuries are always a possibility, but Oswalt is a rather expensive back-up plan. Something would really have to go wrong for him to become an option.

Remember, the Yankees got through last season with three reliable veteran starters and (for all intents and purposes) a rookie in the 4th spot with a hodgepodge of mediocrity rounding things out. That same veteran front three is still intact this year, the rookie has been replaced by an equally young starter who’s been a bit better, and even with all his struggles, Vazquez is an upgrade over that last spot if he continues to rebound. Oswalt’s a big name and a really, really good pitcher that would make every team better, but there’s just not a realistic fit for the Yankees at this time.

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.

Gardenhire bemoans pitching change shenanigans

Ron Gardenhire shows just how much he's going to whine about something rather mundane. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

With the Yankees and their pitching changes, it’s always something. For years, teams have complained about how, at home, the Yanks ice their opponents by drawing out “God Bless America.” The extra 30 seconds of signing, apparently, are to blame for any effective pitching, and the Yanks managed to reach the 2001 World Series simply by exploiting Ronan Tynan.

Yesterday, though, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire managed to trump those complaints with a rant of his own. In the ninth inning of the evening match-up between the two clubs, the Yankees jumped out to a 3-2 lead when Nick Swisher homered with two outs in the 9th. After Mark Teixeira was thrown out at second, the Yanks had to rush back onto the field, and Mariano Rivera didn’t have enough time to warm up. So Joe Girardi stalled.

At the time, Andy Pettitte had thrown just 94 pitches, and the Yanks’ skipper sent his lefty back onto the field to take his warm-up tosses. From a baseball strategy perspective, it made sense. Rivera had pitched just a few hours earlier, and Justin Morneau, a lefty who doesn’t hit southpaws as well as he does right-handers, was due up. Pettitte took his seven pitches to the glove, and then, Joe Girardi came out to retrieve him. Into the game came Mariano, and three batters later, the Yanks had themselves their second win of the day.

Later, Gardenhire claimed that he knew Pettitte wouldn’t actually face Morneau, and he ranted against the Yanks. He said:

No, he wasn’t going to throw a pitch. That was kind of tired, to tell you the truth. You don’t know normally get that long between innings to do all that, but we know what’s going on there.

That’s a situation Major League Baseball needs to take care of when stuff like that happens. You don’t have a guy ready in the bullpen, if your starter goes out there, he should have to face a hitter. That’s just the way it should be. If you don’t get a guy up, that’s the way it should be, unless the other team makes a change.

But that’s not what lost the game for us. That’s stuff that just gets old right there.

Now, I can see why Gardenhire might be frustrated with the Yankees. Since he took over for Tom Kelly in 2002, Gardenhire’s Twins have gone a woeful 15-45 against the Yankees during the regular season and have lost three ALDS series to the Bombers as well. Even though the Twins are one of the more successful AL Central teams of the decade and even though Gardenhire has managed the club to five first-place finishes during his first eight years at the helm, the Yankees just have the Twins’ number.

But this little rant comes across as a sore-loser whine. How many times do we see pitchers throw over to first to give a reliever more time to warm up? How many times have we seen a manager send out one pitcher to start an inning to allow another more time? I’m sure Gardenhire has done this himself, and it’s really not a different tactic than sending out a pitching coach to make a perfunctory and unnecessary mound visit.

Ron Gardenhire has been nothing short of professional in his time with the Twins, but he’s wrong here. The Yankees did what any team would do in their situation, and the Twins didn’t lose because of it. They lost because their closer allowed a home run to Nick Swisher five minutes earlier. Them’s the breaks.

Are the Yankees working the count less?

Whenever the offense is struggling, we fans tend to get on the players for every little mistake. Did someone just swing at the first pitch after the last batter walked on four pitches? Terrible! Did someone swing at a fastball at their eyes? Awful! Are they swinging early in the count? Unforgivable! It’s a product of frustration, both our own and the players’. They’re trying to do too much while we’re expecting too much.

It’s no secret that the Yankees build their lineups around players that will foul off tough pitches to hit, won’t expand the zone, and generally just work the count to make the pitcher as miserable as possible. During their recent schneid it’s seemed like the team had gotten away from that, but is it true? Have the Yankees been working the count less over the last two weeks or so? Let’s look…

The blue dots are the team’s pitches seen per plate appearances for that individual game, the pink is the cumulative total for the season. Remember to click for a larger view.

Just looking at the graph, you can see that lately the Yanks haven’t seen as many pitches as we’ve become accustomed to, and their overall pitches per plate appearance mark has suffered in recent weeks. It’s pretty amazing how the slide coincides exactly with Curtis Granderson‘s injury, but I suspect that’s no accident. By no means are we talking about a drastic change here, but it’s a very real change nonetheless.

During this streak of ten losses in 17 games, the Yanks have seen 3.88 P/PA, which is just above the 3.86 league average. In their first 29 games prior to this little skid, the Yanks had seen 3.96 P/PA. They’ve had seven individual games below the league average during this recent slide, but just eight before that. Even worse, there’s been six instances in which they’ve seen fewer than 3.65 P/PA during the last 17 games compared just three in the first 29 games. Clearly, the team isn’t working the count like they usually do.

Thankfully, it appears that most of this can be attributed to injuries. Granderson (4.08 P/PA career), Nick Johnson (4.26), and Jorge Posada (3.88) are all currently on the disabled list and have been for quite some time, and let’s not forget that Nick Swisher (4.25) also missed a few games with a biceps injury. Replace them with Marcus Thames (3.91), Randy Winn (3.68), Frankie Cervelli (3.42) and various up-and-down minor leaguers, and that’s going to put a big dent in the team’s usually disciplined approach.

Despite a pair of wins yesterday, the Yankees’ offense is struggling, and it’s because of the combination of missing injured players and the lack of production from those who are healthy (I’m looking at you, Mark Teixeira). They’re not grinding away at-bats like they usually do, but help is on the way. Granderson will play his final rehab game tonight and is expected to rejoin the team tomorrow, and Tex won’t do a Jeff Francoeur impression all season long. For now, the pitching has to pick up some of the slack, and overall a little extra patience offensively wouldn’t hurt.

Mariano Rivera and the two-seam fastball

Photo Credit: Andy King, AP

Over the last week or so, we’ve seen something strangely uncharacteristic from Mariano Rivera: he’s been rather ordinary. Following his twelve day stint on the shelf with a side issue, Mo has allowed five runs in seven games, which is usually a bad month for him. It’s a small sample (just 6.1 IP), but opponents had clobbered him for a .316 ISO this month prior to his two save effort yesterday. Rivera always has those one or two stretches a year when he appears human, but he never seemed to get hit around as hard as he did last week.

So as absurd as it seems, some fans were holding their breath when The Sandman came through the bullpen door to protect a pair of one run leads yesterday evening. He got the job done both times, though in the first game he saw a ball hit to the warning track, walked a guy, and gave up another hard hit ball that luckily was turned into a game ending double play. The second game went much better, with three routine ground outs making up his first 1-2-3 inning in five outings.

But something caught my eye yesterday, particularly during the first game of the one-and-a-half header: Mo was throwing a two seamer. Right from the start two, his first two pitches to J.J. Hardy didn’t dart away from the righty batter as they usually do, they ran back inside. It’s not often that Rivera throws something other than a cutter, especially not two pitches in a row. Those were the only two two-seamers he threw in that game (both were clocked at 91 mph), but he again broke out the pitch in a night cap, throwing two back-to-back to Delmon Young to record the final out (clocked at 93 and 92). You can see one of the two-seamers to Young here.

Both Hardy and Young and righthanded batters, so maybe Mo is having difficulty getting his cutter on the arm-side of the plate and went with someone else to get inside. Michael Cuddyer, another righty, saw nothing but cutters in his six pitch at-bat during the second game, but perhaps the scouting report says to pitch him away. Going back to Friday night against the Mets, Mo threw three two-seamers (one to each of the three righty batters he faced) out of 14 pitches, and during last Tuesday’s game against Boston he threw just a pair of two-seamers (one to Mike Lowell, one to Kevin Youkilis) out of 29 pitches. It’s not much, but seeing him double up on the pitch against Hardy and Young yesterday was definitely out of character.

It’s no secret that Mo’s lost some velocity through the years, especially after his shoulder surgery during the 2008-2009 offseason. That’s to be expected, he’s 40-years-old. What has been unexpected is the loss of horizontal movement on his cutter. The PitchFX data from FanGraphs is on the left, and you can see that as the velocity’s gone down, the break on the cutter has shortened up. None of us really cared because Mo was still an unstoppable force in the 9th inning, racking up sub-1.00 WHIPs and more than a strikeout per inning like business as usual. It’s a very real change though.

Perhaps the increased use of the two-seamer against righties is a way of changing up the scouting report to get by with a slightly less devastating cutter. Perhaps it’s just a small sample size aberration. Perhaps he’s been using it all along and I just haven’t noticed. It’s just odd to see Mariano throw a pitch, and not have it cut across the plate away from righties. When it comes back in on same-sided batters, it’s easy to notice. Of course, the biggest problem he’s been having of late is command, which is incredibly unusual for him. Mo can usually dot the i’s and cross the t’s with his cutter from 60-feet 6-inches, but he’s been leaving a lot of pitches in the happy zone recently. My guess (hope) is that it’s a function of the long layout from the side issue, and that he’s still rounding back into form.

I don’t see any kind of problem with him incorporating a new pitch into his repertoire; hell, it’ll probably make him even more brutally effective than before. Nine two seamers out of 70 total pitches (12.9%) across four outings is really nothing, but I’m definitely going to be paying attention to see if and when Mo turns back to the two-seamer from here on out.