This week’s annotated box score

Another ESPN Sunday Night broadcast means another Yankees’ related annotated box score from the great Sam Miller. This week’s edition includes 20-80 scale fighting grades for the those involved in the Slade Heathcott brawl, as well as a look at the greatest hitters ever to bat ninth. Hint: The Yankees put someone in the top eight of that list this weekend, and it wasn’t Jorge Posada. As always, it’s well worth the click and read.

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Mike Carlson/AP)

The Yankees conclude their first tour of the AL East with a series against the Rays. In a way the Yankees couldn’t head down to Tampa at a better time. They could certainly use an escape from New York, and, well, it’s hard to imagine them playing any worse. If you’re going to turn things around, might as well do it against the team that leads the division.

What the Rays Have Done Lately

At 23-17 the Rays currently lead the East, but that doesn’t quite describe how they’ve played lately. They started the season 0-6 and 1-8, so it’s been quite a run back from the bottom. The best part for them, perhaps, is that the wins didn’t come in one burst — that is, it’s not as though they got lucky for a stretch. They have two five-game winning streaks, a four-gamer, and a pair of three-game ones. That’s enough to help smooth over a rough start. Though, to put an arbitrary end point on it, they are 3-3 in their last six, including 0-2 during the weekend. So there’s that.

Rays on Offense

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

While the Rays have scored runs at about a league average clip, they have seen some standout performances. For instance, Ben Zobrist is back into beast mode, hitting .288/.369/.568 on the season. To make things even crazier, since April 24 he’s hitting .394/.471/.718. He might not be as good as he was in 2009, but he’s also better than he showed in 2010.

Helping out, especially when they missed Evan Longoria for a few weeks, has been Matt Joyce. He’s currently at .368/.424/.615, and since April 28th that’s .463/.508/.870 in 63 PA. If that weren’t scary enough, Longoria is now back, and he hasn’t missed a beat. In his 52 PA since returning he’s hitting .295/.404/.568. That gives the Rays a powerful punch in the middle of the lineup. Even Casey Kotchman has helped out, hitting .341/.411/.424 (29 hits, 24 singles) in his 95 PA.

Yet for all the hot hitters the Rays have, they have little else going for them. John Jaso’s OBP is under .300, which is a problem, because Jaso’s sole value is in his ability to get on base. Reid Brignac‘s batting average is not only below the Mendoza Line, but his OBP is approaching it, too. Sam Fuld has cooled down from his torrid start, while Johnny Damon still hasn’t gotten much going. Don’t be fooled by B.J. Upton’s line, though. He’s at .311/.354/.557 in his last 65 PA, and he’s probably a bit better than his overall line indicates. Tough stretches — Upton went 8 for 53 at one point — look worse on the stat line at this time of year.

Rays on the Mound

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

Monday, LHP David Price. While Price has no complete games this year, he has completed at least eight innings on four occasions, and has been generally awesome in those outings. This includes his previous two, when he took down Toronto and then Cleveland, combining to pitch 16.2 innings and allowing just three runs while striking out 17 and walking none. In fact, avoiding the walk has been the biggest change for Price this year. He has just nine of them in 57.2 IP, which is 1.4 per nine. Last year he walked 3.4 per nine.

The bad news is that doesn’t mix well with the Yankees, a patient team. The good news is that when they’ve faced pitchers whose weaknesses are their strengths, they’ve faltered. Maybe there’s reversal of fortune potential here?

(Amy Sancetta/AP)

Tuesday, RHP James Shields. If I’ve grown sick of one sight this season, it’s the Yankees swinging over off-speed and breaking pitches. It’s not as though this is something new, though. Last year they did that a lot, against Shields in particular. The one game that comes to mind is August 1, 2010, when he struck out 11 Yankees in 7.1 IP. There was also his 6.1 IP, 8 K game in September. On the bright side, the Yanks did knock him around most of the other times they faced him, so he’s not unbeatable.

As with Price, Shields has avoided walking batters this year, just 13 in 60.2 IP. His strikeout rate has settled somewhere between last year’s and his career, and he’s actually getting more ground balls and, therefore, allowing fewer home runs. He has also completed two games this year and has gone into the eighth on three other occasions. While Price is the ace of the staff, Shields isn’t far behind with the way he’s currently.

Bullpen: Looking at the Rays bullpen in the aggregate, they have a slightly lower ERA, but higher FIP and xFIP, than the Yankees. Of course, they’ve pitched 14 fewer innings, which wouldn’t be a huge margin if the Yankees hadn’t played fewer games. While things have certainly gone well so far, forgive me if I don’t have a ton of confidence in a bullpen helmed by Kyle Farnsworth. It might not be the worst in the league, but part of the reason it’s so good is that the rotation has made it less necessary. That’s the mark of some great bullpen work, really.

Recommended Rays Reading: The Process Report and DRays Bay.

The last five-game losing streak

The longer the losing lasts, the tougher it is to see the end. It becomes tougher still when the team’s primary strength, the offense, goes into a scoring drought. During the losing streak the Yankees have scored just 17 runs, or 3.4 per game. In May, during which they’ve gone 5-9, they have scored just four runs per game. It has led to what appears to be a record low confidence level. But really, it’s not all bad. Teams slump all the time, and it always seems worse than the reality. This was exactly the case the last time the Yankees went on a five-game losing streak.

For all the angst that September, 2010 caused, it did not involve a five-game skid. There were two four-game skids in there, but never five in a row. The last time the Yankees dropped five games was two years ago — at almost the same time of year as the current one. It started on May 2, with a loss to the Angels. (Which, as you’ll recall, followed a dramatic come-from-behind win the previous evening.) Five days, and short sweeps at the hands of Boston and Tampa Bay, later and they were 13-15, already five games behind the Red Sox for first.

At the time no one took those five losses lightly. The Yankees had gone through most of April with a record around .500, which didn’t match the hype. Alex Rodriguez was still out of the lineup, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira had gotten off to slow starts, and the team actually produced a negative run differential. The walk-off win against the Angels was uplifting for a fleeting moment, but a loss at the hands of Matt Palmer stung badly. But it didn’t sting as badly as the ensuing losses to Tampa Bay and Boston.

The second game of that Boston series was the most frustrating of all those losses. Joba Chamberlain started and promptly surrendered four runs in the first. He came back to strike out 12 in the game, absolutely stupefying the Red Sox hitters. Of course, all those strikeouts mean a high pitch count, and Chamberlain exited after 5.2 innings. In came the bullpen, which gave up another three runs. Not that it mattered. The Yankees scored only three, so they couldn’t have overcome the early deficit even if Chamberlain pitched all nine and struck out 20.

The Tampa Bay series hurt for different reasons. Down 3-0 in the eighth inning of the first game, they loaded the bases for Mark Teixeira, who cleared them with a double. Of course, that all went for naught in the 10th, when Phil Coke gave up a homer to Carlos Pena. In the second game they again tied the game in the bottom of the eighth, thanks to a Johnny Damon homer, only to have Mo blow the game in the ninth on a pair of home runs. That felt like quite the low point.

Things didn’t get better right away, either. While CC Sabathia turned in a marvelous performance that Friday, shutting out the Orioles, Phil Hughes got rocked the next day. A win on Sunday boosted confidence, but then they lost to Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays on Monday. Of course, immediately following that they rattled off nine straight wins, including walk-off weekend against Minnesota. So when things did turn around, they did so in exciting fashion.

While this five-game skid has hurt, I don’t think it was quite as bad as the one in 2009. That was full of frustration thanks to completely winnable games. There has been plenty of that this time around, true. But in 2009 it got to the point where I didn’t even watch Sabathia’s start against Baltimore. Tonight I’ll certainly tune in. We know that the team is much better than this. We also know that the best Yankees team in the past decade went through a similar phase at a similar point in the season. These things happen, and while they’re infuriating at the time, for the good teams they tend to blow over. If this is the worst it gets, it really won’t have been all that bad.

The RAB Radio Show: May 16, 2011

It was quite a long weekend, with losses and drama building up and putting everyone in a foul mood. Mike and I try to pick apart what went on and put in perspective what it means for the 2011 team. It ain’t pretty right now, folks.

Podcast run time 27:06

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

A quick look at Randy Flores

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Yankees have a trio of unusable lefty relievers (Pedro Feliciano, Damaso Marte, Kei Igawa, unusable for different reasons) on the payroll (each at $4M salaries too) and just one lefty reliever actually on the roster. Boone Logan did a fine job against southpaws late last season (.178/.268/.178 with 19 K in 45 at-bats from August 1st on) but has been spotty in 2011 (.360/.429/.560 with just two whiffs in 26 at-bats). Since none of the first three guys will be available anytime soon, let’s talk about someone that is available, Randy Flores.

Flores, now 36, opted out of his minor league deal with the Padres yesterday, which was his contractual right. He has Yankees ties; they drafted him in the ninth round way back in 1997, but later traded him to the Rangers for Randy Velarde after the 2001 season. Yeah, he’s been around a while. Flores is a generic upper-80’s fastball, low-80’s slider lefty specialist, and his career numbers against same-side batters aren’t special: .275/.345/.435 with 103 strikeouts in 533 plate appearances. Over the last three seasons, those numbers are even worse: .295/.376/.514 with 31 strikeouts in 167 plate appearances.

The overall numbers aren’t all that impressive over the course of his career, but Flores has certainly had some very effective years in the bigs. Of course they came a few years ago, mostly with the Cardinals from 2002 through 2007. But we know the deal with lefty relievers (and relievers in general), sometimes they just run off a strong stretch of pitching without any notice. The Yankees have Andy Sisco stashed away in Triple-A, but he’s been just okay against lefties in a limited sample: four hits, six walks, and seven strikeouts in 29 batters faced. That’s who we’re looking for an upgrade over.

I’m all for adding relief depth, but Flores isn’t the kind of guy the Yankees have to move mountains to go out and sign. They’re already carrying 13 relievers, but one of them is very expendable (Amaury Sanit) and another could go if needed (Luis Ayala),  so a roster spot is hardly a problem. It’s just a matter of whether or not Flores is willing to join the team that drafted him to be the temporary second lefty out of the bullpen. If he does, great, if not then no big deal. He probably won’t pitch all that well anyway.