Game 13: Streakin’

Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

The Yankees have won their last four games, and start the first of three 2010 West Coast trips tonight against the A’s in the rather bland Oakland Coliseum. Their second West Coast trip goes through Arizona and Los Angeles as part of the interleague schedule, and the final one comes right before the All Star Break. It’s good to get them over with in the first half, no one likes those September trips across the country.

On the bump for the A’s is Gio Gonzalez, who, frankly, should get his brains beat in. His strikeout rate is very good at 9.67 K/9 career (143.1 IP), but he’s thrown just 46% of his pitches in the strikezeone, which is not going to get it done against this offense. Then again, the Yanks are prone of being shutdown by these young lefties for no reason, so who knows.

Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Swisher, RF
Granderson, CF
Gardner, LF – glad to see him in there against the lefty

And on the mound, a guy who could really use a win, Javy Vazquez.

First pitch is scheduled for 10:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game if you’re staying up for it. Oh, and don’t miss tonight’s DotF.

Montero goes deep again as Scranton falls

Kevin Goldstein called Jesus Montero the best hitter in the minors today, and rated him as the second base prospect in the minor behind Stephen Strasburg. Praise doesn’t get much higher.

Triple-A Scranton (11-7 loss to Buffalo)
Kevin Russo, 2B-3B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 K, 1 SB
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 3 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 SB – 8 for his last 14 (.571)
Juan Miranda, 1B: 1 for 3, 2 BB
David Winfree, DH: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – 7 for his last 21 (.333) with a double & two jacks … w00t
Chad Huffman, LF, Colin Curtis, RF & Robby Hammock, 3B: all 1 for 4 – Huffman got hit by a pitch, hit a two run jack & K’ed … Curtis got plunked & K’ed
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 K
Romulo Sanchez: 6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 11-5 GB/FB – 50 of 83 pitches were strikes (50.2%) … 11 BB & 9 K on the year … that’s not going to get it done
Zack Segovia: 0.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 16 of 27 pitches were strikes (59.3%) … that’s 19 baserunners & 10 runs allowed in six innings … yikes
Kevin Whelan: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 WP – 18 of 32 pitches were strikes (56.3%)

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Open Thread: CC goes home

The Yankees are in the Bay Area, so that means CC Sabathia is back in his old stomping grounds. The Yanks’ ace threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the first night game in the history of North Vallejo Little League’s Thurman Field on Monday night, which he helped rebuild. This certainly isn’t the first time Sabathia has gone back to his hometown and helped out, just Google “CC Sabathia Vallejo” and look at what comes up. He’s clearly a world class athlete that gets it.

Anyway, here’s the open thread to hold you over until tonight’s game, which starts at 10pm ET. The Cubs and Mets are back at it, plus the Phillies and Braves are on the MLB Network. You’ve also got a ton of NBA and NHL playoff action. Enjoy.

Twelve games in, All Star balloting opens

It never fails to amaze me that Major League Baseball’s All Star Game counts for something. Voting is but a popularity contest, and a glorified exhibition game determines home field advantage in the World Series. I shouldn’t complain because the AL has a dominant lock on the Mid-Summer Classic these days, but it rankles me nonetheless. To that end, it seems absurd that, on April 20, nine games into the season, we can now vote for the 2010 All Star team. Perhaps we should Scott Podsednik to the Small Sample Size All Star team for hitting .457 over 46 ABs or Vernon Wells for bashing six dingers in the early goings, but I don’t want either of them anywhere near the AL All Star team come mid-July.

Derek’s Odd Start

Today at ESPN’s TMI blog, I looked at Kosuke Fukudome’s hot starts. During his first two seasons in America he has set a high bar for himself in April, but then has failed to live up to those lofty marks. Part of the reason relates to his ground ball percentage. In his two (now three) Aprils he holds a 41 percent ground ball rate, while that jumps to 50 percent from May through September. To show why this was a problem I cited some ground ball and fly ball numbers for the National League. Rather than quote, I’ll look at those numbers for American League hitters.

We often hear, and sometimes repeat, the adage that ground balls go for hits more frequently than fly balls. While that is true, the difference isn’t as pronounced as you might think. In 2009 the American League as a whole hit .239 on ground balls. That mark dropped to just .224 on fly balls. Fly balls, of course, bring many more advantages, including a much higher slugging percentage. To wit, the slugging percentage on ground balls was .259, while it was .821 on fly balls. Furthermore, keeping the ball on the ground also precludes line drives, the best of all hit types. AL hitters batted .739 with a 1.015 SLG when hitting the ball on a line.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

During the season’s first dozen games, it seems as though Derek Jeter has hit a ground ball to shortstop in nearly every at-bat — that is, except the two doubles and three homers he has hit so far. Whether it’s a single up the middle or just a routine grounder to the left side, it seems like he’s always hitting it there. His groundball rate does bear this out. Of the 45 balls he has put in play so far, 33 have been on the ground. Yet, despite this high ground ball rate, Jeter’s ISO sits at .220, which rates higher than any full year of his career. Unsurprisingly, so does his 73.3 percent ground ball rate.

As we learned last night, these numbers do not hold predictive value for Jeter at their current sample sizes. He has come to the plate just 52 times, so the only statistic that might have stabilized is his Swing% — and even then I expect it will come down from its 54.6 percent rate, which would rank by far the highest in Jeter’s career. We can’t expect his ground ball rate to tell us anything for another 150 PA, and you can forget about his ISO until August. These stats have a tendency to fluctuate in small samples, and that’s just what we’re seeing right now.

Most of the discrepancy in Jeter’s numbers comes from extremely good luck on his fly balls and liners. Of the five balls he has hit on a line, four have gone for hits, including one of his three home runs. Of the seven balls he has lifted enough to be considered flies, he has collected another four hits, including two doubles and the other two home runs. In other words, when Jeter lifts the ball he’s hitting .667 with a 1.333 SLG. This will not remain consistent throughout 2010, of course, but it’s quite a nice start. Even as Jeter hasn’t looked his best at the plate he has still produced excellent results.

2010 Draft: College Targets

Yesterday we looked at some high school players that could interest the Yankees, so let’s switch it up and go with college players today. In his five drafts as scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer has selected 192 college players and just 58 high schoolers, so a little more than three-fourths have come from the college ranks. Those 192 college players are broken down into 153 from a four-year schools and 39 from two-year junior colleges. Clearly, Oppenheimer favors guys who a little further along in their development.

Personal fave Brandon Workman has seen his stock take a hit not because he hasn’t performed (2.89 ERA, 56-12 K/BB ratio in 62.1 IP), but because he hasn’t sustained the mid-90’s velocity and knockout breaking ball he flashed last season and in the Cape Cod League. He’s still considered a top 50 draft prospect, but now he’s more towards the back of that list. Here’s four other players to keep an eye on…

Photo Credit: UT-Arlington

Michael Choice, OF, Texas-Arlington
One of those always fun late bloomers, Choice started the year as a 3rd-5th round kind of player, but he’s slugging his way into first round consideration. He’s hitting an absurd .395-.563-.758 with 12 homers and a 31-47 K/BB ratio in 124 at-bats, and he’s running down everything in centerfield.

Choice has the tools to back up the performance, but he’s already big at 6-foot-0, 215 lbs, so a move to a corner outfield spot is probably in the cards. He’s big but athletic, so it’s not like he’s going to become a detriment defensively. Choice definitely takes advantage of the metal bat, which is what he should do, but with wood he’s more likely to be a doubles machine than a homerun hitter. The Yankees are unlikely to have a chance to land him because Choice is a great candidate for the Tony Sanchez Plan; a high probability college player that could go early because he’ll sign quickly for at-or-below slot money.

Bryan Morgado, LHP, Tennessee
The name might sound familiar, and that’s because Morgado was a highly touted prospect for last year’s draft that the White Sox were unable to sign in the third round. The draft eligible sophomore returned to Tennessee and has continued to same trend that has plagued him throughout his career: less than stellar stats (5.88 ERA, 60-28 K/BB ratio in 52 IP) but premium stuff.

Morgado’s fastball sits in the low-90’s but he’s run it up as high as 97 in the past, and his power slider is a put-away pitch at times. In a way, he’s very similar to Caleb Cotham, the Yanks’ fifth rounder last season. Like Cotham, Morgado has a chance to start long-term, but more than likely he’ll end up in the bullpen. A lefthander with that kind of stuff is more than a specialist, though not a first round pick. If he falls into the third round again, then you’ve got yourself good value.

Photo Credit: Flickr user dbadair

LeVon Washington, OF, Chipola JC (Fl.)
Like Morgado, the Washington was a highly touted prospect in last year’s draft, but the Rays were unable to sign him out of high school as the 30th overall pick. By attending perennial junior college power Chipola, he’s again eligible for this year’s draft.

Washington has dealt with a wrist injury this season after a labrum issue in 2008 that basically sapped all of his arm strength. He’s athletic enough to play centerfield on an every day basis, but we’re talking about a Johnny Damon/Bernie Williams kind of arm. His swing is good and the ball comes off his bat well, so Washington can definitely hit, and his foot speed gives him the potential to be an exciting power-speed guy down the road. He’s still pretty raw, so whoever drafts him is going to have to be patient.

Again like Morgado, he’s unlikely to be a first round pick. The second or third round is much more likely, though he’d be wise to sign since his stock has dropped slightly since last year because of the injury troubles. Tampa Bay’s scouting and player development program is as good as it gets, so if they were willing to take Washington in the first round, that tells us there’s some serious potential here.

Austin Wates, 1B/OF, Virginia Tech
Wates is one of the most intriguing players in this entire draft class. He’s hitting .412-.500-.632 with 12 doubles and 13 steals in 14 attempts, but what makes him so interesting is that he’s athletic enough to handle centerfield, which he’s done on the Cape. For now, his coach has him playing first because he claims Wates is the team’s best defensive player at the position. That doesn’t make one bit of sense, but it is what it is.

More of a gap-to-gap line drive hitter, Wates’ game offers a lot of patience and a lot of speed. He’s one of the best baserunners in the class, and he’s got more than enough bat to keep pitchers honest. Whoever drafts Wates will (should) immediately stick him in center, but even if he can’t hack it there he should be able to handle right, which is still a more valuable position than first base. If he was playing center everyday, he’d be a surefire first round pick, but because he’s stuck at first he’s sliding down draft boards. The talent is there, it’s just not being showcased properly.

Approaching and exceeding 100 pitches

As Andy Pettitte worked into the 8th inning on Sunday afternoon against the Rangers, his pitch count started to creep up toward the century mark, and Michael Kay and John Flaherty turned their attention to Joe Girardi’s decision to keep Pettitte in the game. From pitch 96 through 107 — the last Pettitte would throw — Kay and Flaherty continued to mention the pitch count.

After striking out Michael Young, Pettitte had thrown 104 pitches, and Josh Hamilton, a lefty, came to the plate. Three pitches later, Pettitte had retired Hamilton on a foul pop, and after 107 pitches, his day was done. That century mark, though, had been a big moment for Pettitte. In his two previous starts, he had thrown 94 pitches and then 100, but this time, Girardi unleashed him.

During the pitch count discussion, Kay mentioned a conversation he had with Girardi following A.J. Burnett‘s start. When Burnett’s pitch count started to creep up, the guys in the booth again wondered when Girardi would turn to his bullpen, and that time, Girardi allowed Burnett to throw 111 pitches. He had previously thrown 92 and 94 in his two starts. Girardi said he wanted to get his starters stretched out, and in both games, the Yanks had leads large enough to allow the team some leeway. Pettitte could throw 107 pitches without endangering the lead; Burnett could toss 111 low-stress pitches to build up arm strength. It was, in a sense, an extension of Spring Training.

Yet what struck me most was how rigidly Kay and Flaherty were adhering to the 100-pitch mark. It seemed as though the team just had to remove their starters after 100 pitches because of some magically point in the game when the hurlers tire. Should we care that much though about 100 pitches?

In a recent piece on how teams on a budget should treat their cost-controlled arms, R.J. Anderson mused on pitch counts over at Maddon’s Mission. He discussed the Rangers’ approach toward pitch count. The Rangers, he said, are “implementing better conditioning with the ideology that pitch counts won’t matter because their pitchers will be more able to survive higher workloads.” Why, he wondered, do we care about the round number of 100 pitches?

For young pitchers, the prevailing philosophy seems to be go hard or go easy but ne’er the twain shall meet. Work your kids until they can’t throw anymore and get the most of their cost-controlled years — see, for example, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito — or keep their pitch counts under the microscope — see, for example, Joba Chamberlain. But what of the old guys? The Yanks could do well to let them push the envelope.

Last year, Joe Girardi allowed his pitchers to exceed 100 pitches 78 times. Opposing batters hit .237/.332/.316 in those 208 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size but not one that indicates we should be too worried when a starter reaches the century mark. In fact, in the AL as a whole, pitchers threw more than 100 pitches 978 times last year, and opponents hit .258/.335/.399. That’s an sOPS+ of 106, indicating that pitchers who exceeded 100 pitches generally performed better at that point in the game than pitchers overall had earlier. On the surface, that makes sense because if a pitcher is still in at that point, clearly, he’s throwing well.

So far this year, the Yanks have put together a solid bullpen and a nice run of starts from their rotation. Last year, CC Sabathia led the way with 25 starts of more than 100 pitches, and A.J. and Andy threw 23 and 22 respectively. The team can push the envelope, and their starting horses are in good enough pitching shape to go more than 100 pitches every five days. Until the results say otherwise, let them throw.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens