Yanks look to recover against crosstown foes

With the loss to Tampa Bay last night, the Yankees fell below .500 on their latest home stand, to 3-4. Thankfully, they still have three more pseudo home games to go. While they won’t be playing in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, they’ll still have a hometown crowd behind them this weekend as they face off with the Mets at Citi Field. A bout with the National League might be just what the Yanks need to rebound from a tough week at the Stadium.

The Teams

The New York Mets

At 20-22, the Mets currently reside in the NL East’s basement. That’s not as bad as it sounds, of course, since there are more than a few terrible NL teams. Five teams have fewer wins than them, one has the same number, and two have just one more, so the season is far from lost for the Flushing faithful. They need a strong series just as much as the Yanks.

Batting stats (NL rank)

BA: .246 (13th)
OBP: .320 (14th)
SLG: .385 (12th)
wOBA: .315 (13th)

The Mets lineup features a number of poor bats, including right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who has cooled off considerably after a torrid start. Management finally wised up and jettisoned Mike Jacobs and replaced him with Ike Davis, and the difference has been tremendous. Jose Reyes has also turned in an underwhelming season so far.

Pitching stats (NL rank)

ERA: 3.97 (7th)
FIP: 4.37 (12th)
K/9: 7.70 (5th)
BB/9: 4.54 (16th)
WHIP: 1.49 (13th)
LOB%: 76.5 (4th)

That last number pretty much explains the rest of them. The Mets have a good team ERA, but that’s because they’ve been able to strand the inordinate number of batters they’ve walked. This appears a bit odd, considering the Mets have the third lowest ground ball percentage in the league. Keeping the ball on the ground can help prevent base runners from advancing more than one station. Still, the Mets have fared well with men on base, and it has helped their run prevention unit considerably.

New York Yankees

Even after the rough homestand the Yankees still own the second best record in the AL at 25-16. A few teams are close — Toronto has as many wins but two more losses — so the Yankees have to make a quick turnaround after a rough patch. They’re still missing Jorge Posada, Nick Johnson, and Curtis Granderson, but will have Nick Swisher back for the weekend series.

Batting stats (AL rank)

BA: .279 (1st)
OBP: .365 (1st)
SLG: .453 (3rd)
wOBA: .364 (1st)

Even while missing a number of starters in recent weeks, the Yanks have only gone through one real dry spell with the bats. Otherwise they’ve hit the cover off the ball, as their AL ranks indicate. For what it’s worth, and it’s probably only worth something to die-hard statheads, the Yanks are obliterating the rest of the league in advanced metrics. Their wOBA lead is by .010, and they’ve produced 13 more wRAA than the next closest team.

Pitching stats (AL rank)

ERA: 3.93 (3rd)
FIP: 4.41 (9th)
K/9: 6.88 (7th)
BB/9: 3.35 (6th)
WHIP: 1.30 (3rd)
LOB%: 74.0 (4th)

Like the Mets, the Yankees have prevented a good number of runners from scoring, at least relative to the league. They have also done a good job of preventing hits on balls in play — their .280 BABIP ranks second lowest in the AL. Part of that low BABIP comes from a high groundball rate, 44.9 percent, which ranks fourth best in the AL. This is even better, because the Yanks have the highest HR/FB ratio in the bigs. Keeping that fly ball rate down, then, means fewer home runs.

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RAB in the house at Citi

That picture was taken by Mike, from the press box at Citi Field. He’ll be covering the game from there tonight and Sunday, and I’ll be your humble host tomorrow afternoon. We’d like to thank the YES Network and the Mets for giving us this opportunity. Mike will be back later with lineups and your game thread.

Update By Mike (3:07pm): Curtis Granderson was on the field running the bases, sprinting from first to second as well as first to third. Played some long-toss in the outfield (he was by the Xerox sign in right-center, the guy he was playing with was on the foul line by third base. I couldn’t throw a ball that far with a relay man), and now he’s taking groundballs and shagging flies and fielding balls off the wall in center and throwing to third and all that jazz.

Here’s a shot of him running…

Curtis Granderson running the bases pregame.

Yankees, Scranton extend PDC through 2014

The Yankees will be in Scranton through at least 2014, the club announced yesterday. The big league organization has opted to extend its player development agreement with its AAA franchise to cover the next four seasons. Additionally, SWB Yankees LLC, the joint venture between the Yankees and Mandalay Bay that manages the team, has also re-upped its agreement for the same length of time.

“We remain committed to having our Triple-A franchise in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre,” Yanks’ COO Lonn Trost said. “The market offers us an excellent combination of business opportunities as well as player development and baseball operations efficiencies. We are delighted to be extending our relationships in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.”

Scranton has been home to the Yanks’ Triple-A affiliate since 2007, when the team left Columbus after a 28 year relationship. The team made the move to bring its highest level minor league affiliate closer to New York, and it doesn’t get any closer than Scranton. The PDC extension is good news yet unsurprising because it really is a match made in Triple-A heaven. With a strong fan base, geographically favorable and good business opportunities, it just makes sense for both sides.

Despite this convenience, a PDC renewal was no sure thing last year. As the Yanks adjusted to life in Scranton, the club found that the ballpark needed $13 million in upgrades due to a bad drainage system, and Scranton was not too keen on building a new stadium for the team. Still, the Yanks are committed to working through these problems.

“We look forward to continuing to work with county leadership and members of the Multi-Purpose Stadium Authority of Lackawanna County to develop a plan to significantly improve the current stadium or replace it with a new one,” Trost said.

With this news, Kei Igawa too stands to benefit as he’ll have a few more years to build on his career franchise-record win total.

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kabak

Are the Yanks swinging earlier in counts?

In his postgame notes from last night, Journal News beat writer Chad Jennings observed that the Yanks are swinging at pitches earlier in counts. He does note that he doesn’t have the numbers to back it up, and after scouring splits of every sort this morning I couldn’t find much either. What’s interesting, though, is Joe Girardi‘s reaction to Jennings’s observation.

“At times guys will do that,” Girardi said. “If you go up and take the first pitch all the time, just throw strike one and now you’re ahead of our hitters. I think hitters can’t fall into just one pattern of hitting. At times they have to be aggressive.”

The Yankees have long been a patient team. For years they featured hitters like Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and Bobby Abreu, guys who would work the count and wait for their pitch. Even after those three departed the team still features a number of patient hitters. Nick Swisher has long been known for working long counts, and Brett Gardner has emerged as someone who can not only take a pitch, but also foul off two-strike pitches not to his liking.

As Girardi said, this comes with unintended consequences. Aggressive pitchers could throw one over for strike one and pitch ahead for the rest of the at-bat. I’m sure we all remember games where the Yankees faced someone they should have beaten — or in my case, regularly beat — but can’t get anything going because the pitcher won’t play their game. I remember a start a few years ago where Josh Beckett threw strike one nearly every time, and the Yanks hitters just couldn’t keep up when he threw them a steady diet of breaking pitches later in the AB.

Has this changed lately, though? Looking at the team’s pitches per plate appearance, that doesn’t exactly appear to be the case. In April the team saw 3.98 pitches per plate appearances, and that number is down to just 3.91 in May, and 3.93 in the past week. That doesn’t represent much of a change. Most of it, I’m sure, comes from Nick Johnson‘s absence, though a number of guys, including Marcus Thames, have worked a few deeper counts in May.

Of course, pitches per plate appearance doesn’t tell the whole story. Guys might be swinging at the first pitch and missing, or otherwise fouling it away. They’d still be swinging at the first pitch, but they might end up working a deeper count because nothing happened on that first pitch. Another place we can look is FanGraphs’ first-pitch strikes. This is defined as either the ball being put in play or the count being 0-1. Flaws abound here, too, as a called strike one counts. We’re looking for swinging.

Just because it’s interesting, the Yankees saw a first-pitch strike in 57.9 percent of their April plate appearances, but just 55.7 percent in May. This suggests, if nothing else, that the Yankees are taking ball one a bit more in May. What we don’t know, and what I can’t readily find, is how those strike ones break down. Maybe there were a lot more called strike ones in April, leading the Yanks to be a bit more aggressive in May and swing at strike one more. That’s data I just can’t find, though.

Anecdotally, it would seem to be a positive if the Yankees are adjusting and swinging earlier in the count. As a general principle the correct approach is to remain patient, but if pitchers try to take advantage and start slipping by strike one, the hitters have to adjust. From what Jennings has observed and Girardi has confirmed, the team is doing just that. The data we have doesn’t exactly line up with that anecdote, but we also don’t have a perfect measure.

Injuries just a small part of the problem

"We stink." (Photo Credit: Henny Ray Abrams, AP)

Just 4-8 in their last dozen games, the Yankees have hit their first real skid of the 2010 season. We all knew it was going to happen at some point, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Considering the opponents (Red Sox and Rays, among others) and the fact that the majority of those games were played at home, and yeah, it’s frustrating. All of the recent injuries provide a built-in excuse, because what team wouldn’t be weakened by losing their starting catcher, two starting outfielders, and starting designated hitter?

Of course, the injuries aren’t everything. Every team has injuries, it’s part of the game. The Rays don’t have J.P. Howell or Kelly Shoppach, Boston’s missing Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, it happens. In fact, even without Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Johnson in the lineup, the Yankees still managed to score 47 runs during the seven game homestand. And that’s with Mark Teixeira enduring an 0-for-14 stretch. When you score nearly seven runs per game, you should win.

Instead, the pitching staff wasn’t able to hold up it’s end of the bargain, allowing 45 runs during that stretch. Most of that blame goes to the bullpen, which has allowed 20 runs in the last five games (16.1 IP). That’s not quite Arizona Diamondbacks bad, but it’s bad. Even more damning is that most of those runs were charged to Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera, who are supposed to be rocks at the end of games. Maybe it’s not damning, maybe that’s too harsh, because it’s certainly reasonable to expect those two to perform better over a 162 game season. Remember, if they did their jobs on Sunday and Tuesday, it’s a 5-2 homestand instead of a 3-4 homestand.

(Devil’s Advocate: If Jonathan Papelbon does his job on Monday, it’s a 2-5 homestand)

The starters, so dominant early in the season, were just mediocre the last time through the rotation. Sergio Mitre (5 IP, 1 R) and CC Sabathia (7 IP, 1 R) did their jobs, but Phil Hughes (5 IP, 5 R), A.J. Burnett (6.2 IP, 6 R), and Andy Pettitte (5 IP, 7 R) were simply not good enough to win. The defense didn’t help much either, as Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames all contributed significant misplays during the recent schnied. The Yanks still have a sub-4.00 team ERA (3.93, to be exact) and have allowed the fourth fewest runs in the league this season, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that by watching them over the last week or so.

Whenever the Yankees play (and more importantly, lose to) the Rays, we’re always subjected to that usual schtick about them being younger and more athletic and holding track meets on the bases and what not, and of course it’s true. The Rays are a special team, they make everyone look old. It’s not something unique to the Yanks. If the pitching had done it’s job, limiting Tampa to even just five runs a game, the series plays out much differently.

Injuries are certainly taking a toll on the Yanks’ roster, but not let’s not fall into the trap of using that as a scapegoat. The players that are healthy, specifically the pitching staff, haven’t been up to par of late. It’s not a fatal flaw or anything, it’s just a rut. It happens to every team, and it’ll happen to the Yankees again at some point this summer. They’re too talented to pitch as poorly as they did during this homestand for a prolonged stretch of time. The good news is that 16 of their next 22 games come against last place teams, so the ship could be righted in very short order.

Just don’t use the injuries as an excuse for their recent poor play, it’s lazy and a total cop-out.

Rays offense dooms Yanks again

A bright spot | Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The O’Neill Rule has failed. The Yankees bats were not, in fact, enlivened by the 9th inning rally on Wednesday. In fact, a number of the team’s hitters, including A-Rod, looked considerably worse at the plate than they did in Wednesday’s loss. They took advantage of Rays’ mistakes, but never conjured a rally of their own. The Rays, on the other hand, continued to pound Yankees’ pitching. The injury riddled lineup just couldn’t hang.

Defining moment: Yanks fail to capitalize in the third

The Yanks came into the game needing a win, so to see the Rays put across three in the first was pretty deflating. They came back for a couple in the second, and then appeared poised to assert themselves in the third. Randy Winn opened with a single, and you just can’t waste opportunities like that. And so the Yankees went to work.

Derek Jeter laid down a beauty of a bunt that easily advanced Winn to second. That, however, wasn’t the ultimate aim. With Evan Longoria playing back, Jeter’s intention, I’m sure, was to put himself on base, too. Once the ball got past James Shields that was assured. Brett Gardner followed with a bunt of his own, this one a bit more predictable. Shields fielded this one, but likely wouldn’t have gotten Gardner even if he made a good throw. He didn’t, though, and the ball rolled into foul territory in right, allowing Winn to score. All the sudden, a deflated feeling turned into joy. The Yankees had tied the game.

Not only did the Yanks get a new life, they also got an opportunity to break open the game. Runners stood on second and third with none out, and the Yankees had their 3-4-5 hitters coming to the plate. In the most painful fashion, Shields dispatched of them. Mark Teixeira tapped a weak one right back to the pitcher. Alex Rodriguez struck out on a pitch that Dioner Navarro had to block. Robinson Cano waved at strike three well outside the zone.

While they had tied the game, the failure to score even one run in that situation again brought the deflated feeling.

Andy Pettitte: Not sharp

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

It was clear, right from the first batter, that Andy Pettitte was going to battle through this one. Four batters later he had a runner on first with none out and a 3-0 deficit. He threw 28 pitches in the inning, 13 of which were out of the zone. I’m pretty sure Cervelli had to move his glove on every pitch, though I might just be imagining that.

Overall Pettitte thew 103 pitches, 101 of which came before the sixth. In that inning he threw just two pitches, both cutters to Carlos Pena, who slammed the second one into the Yankees’ bullpen to give the Rays a 7-4 lead. Again, deflating. Two runs is one thing. Once they tack on that third run, though, well, I’m not sure if it’s just psychological, but it seems like a much tougher hole to dig out of.

It looked like Pettitte had settled down a bit after the first, but he slipped again in the fifth. Gabe Kapler singled with one out, and for some reason Pettitte payed a bit too much attention to him at first, throwing over four times during Jason Bartlett’s at-bat. That one ended with a seven-pitch walk, which set up Carl Crawford to knock home Kapler with a single and give the Rays the lead. A Ben Zobrist sac fly put them two ahead.

I thought that would be it for Pettitte, but apparently Girardi wanted Pettitte to face the lefty Pena. In his career Pena is a markedly worse hitter against lefties, though he’s been equally bad regardless of handedness this year. Anyway, it was a decent move that backfired.

Sheilds’s change perplexes Yanks hitters

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

James Shields continued his high-strikeout ways by sitting down seven Yankees, six of them swinging. Five of those came on changeups. What’s strange is that, so far as I can tell, Shields did not generate any swings and misses except for a strikeout pitch. He threw it 24 times, his most utilized secondary pitch, and made only one mistake. That was Juan Miranda‘s second-inning homer.

In the past few years Shields has proven himself to be a very good pitcher who doesn’t appear dominant. He induced just six swinging strikes in his 7.1 innings, which matches his number of swinging strikeouts. That’s amazingly efficient. The Yanks did get to him in some ways — he did allow eight hits — but one of them came because B.J. Upton couldn’t find a fly ball. Four runs in 7.1 innings from Shields is not bad. But he still looked good.

Another rally falls short

For the second straight night the Yanks posted a rally in the ninth that fell short. Derek Jeter drove in two with a picturesque double into the gap, but that just wasn’t enough. lt’s encouraging that they were able to bring the tying run to the plate, but it just wasn’t enough.

WPA Graph and box score

The peak at the beginning makes this one even more depressing.

More at FanGraphs. Here’s the box score.

Up Next

It’s back on the road, but not really, for three games at Citi Field this weekend. Javy Vazquez vs. the lefty Hisanori Takahashi.

Adams, Romine & Laird power Trenton to another win

Jack Rye has been placed on the temporary inactive list, which means he’ll only be out for a few days. Might be going to a wedding or something this weekend. Meanwhile, the Yanks signed catcher Rene Rivera for Triple-A depth following the injury to Jorge Posada and Chad Moeller’s subsequent call up. He was playing in an independent league, and last appeared in the big leagues way back in 2006.

Triple-A Scranton‘s game was suspended in the 4th inning due to rain. They’ll finish it off tomorrow, but here’s the box score. Big story: Ivan Nova left the game in the 3rd inning after getting hit by a comebacker off the bat of Pedro Alvarez. Not sure how serious the injury is, he might have left as a precaution for all we know. It’s something to watch for, though.

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