Can Nick Swisher reach .300?

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Contrary to what baseball traditionalists might tell you, hitting .300 is not that important. There are more important things in baseball than getting a hit three times in every 10 official at-bats. Hitting for power and getting on base are equally important, and while they can be part of batting average they aren’t necessarily so. In other words, there are many ways to become a productive player, and hitting .300 is only one of them. Still, it’s an interesting feat that still carries some power in today’s game. It becomes even more interesting when an unsuspecting player reaches the plateau.

Nick Swisher hasn’t been anyone’s idea of a .300 hitter for a while now. At Ohio State he hit .299, .322, and .348, but once he hit the minors that average started to dip. He compensated by getting on base and hitting for power, but by 2005 it became clear that he wasn’t the kind of guy that would dunk a single over the second baseman’s head. Instead he either crushed the ball, struck out, or took his base. In his first full big league season more than half of his hits went for extra bases, and in 223 of his 522 plate appearances he either drew a walk, struck out, or hit for extra bases.

Swisher experienced a similar effect during his first year in the Bronx. Of his 124 hits, more than half went for extra bases and again nearly half of his plate appearances (288 of 607) resulted in a strikeout, walk, or extra base hit. He hit only .249, which drew the ire of some old school fans, but Swisher contributed greatly to the Yankees 103 wins. His ability to avoid making outs and his power made him a useful player, albeit not in the traditional mold. But this year we’ve seen something completely different.

It was evident early on that Swisher was going to be a different type of hitter this year. He started swinging earlier in the count and was lining pitchers over infielders’ heads for singles. He started hitting bleeders through the hole. He stopped taking so many walks. It’s not that Swisher stopped being so patient; he’s still 20th in the AL in pitches seen per plate appearance. But he is definitely looking early in the count for pitches he can drive. These don’t necessarily have to be meatballs, but simply pitches that he can hit on a line. It has worked so far, as he currently sports a .288 batting average.

A knee injury has kept Swish either out of the lineup or ineffective for most of September. He’s just 3 for 26* this month, dropping his average from .296 to its current .288. That will certainly hurt his chances at hitting .300. Health is obviously a priority over an arbitrary milestone, but it would still be nice to see Swish reach that this year. He doesn’t have much time left to make it up.

*Yeah, and 1 for 1 in walk-off opportunities.

Assuming he gets the weekend series off, he’ll have 12 games in which to add 12 points to his batting average. At 4 PA per game that’s 48 remaining, but let’s say 50 since there are plenty of games in which he’ll appear five times. He’s walking in 9.3 percent of PA so far, so let’s assume five walks the rest of the way. That’s 45 AB added to his current 507, so 552. With that many AB a player would need 166 hits to reach .300. Swisher currently has 146, so he’d need to go 20 for 45. Doing that would go a long way in the Yankees clinching a spot early, but it’s not very likely at all.

While .300 is all but unattainable, it shouldn’t dampen Swisher’s 2010 season. He was a productive player for the Yankees last year, but he’s been on a different level this year. He’s made enough contact that Girardi has been comfortable batting him second. He’s really fit in there, despite all the strikeouts. Last year we were still wondering who the Yankees starting right fielder would be in 2012; Swisher was thought a temporary player. But now it looks like he could be around for a while. I don’t think anyone is complaining about that.

Getting to game 162 and beyond

It hasn’t, as we wrote yesterday, been the best of times for the Yankees lately. Mired in a 2-8 slump which has seen the team lost three extra-inning affairs and five one-run contests, the franchise hasn’t played baseball this frustrating since they went 3-15 to close out the 2000 season. Yet, the end is in sight.

Later tonight, A.J. Burnett and the Yankees will face off against Kevin Millwood and the Orioles, and thus the Yanks will begin the final tenth of their season. Only 16 games separate them from the end of the regular season, and the team is holding onto a six-game lead in the Wild Card while staring at a small 0.5-game deficit in the AL East. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yanks’ Playoff Odds sit at 96.5 percent, and while stranger things have happened, the team is a near lock for October. Just how they’re going to do on the way there remains to be seen.

Over their next 16 games, the Yankees will face only their AL East teams. They play the Orioles three times, the Rays four times, the Red Sox six times and the Blue Jays three times. They don’t have to travel farther than Toronto, and seven of the final 12 are at home. Against these opponents, the Yanks are 31-24 this year, and if they can replicate that success, they should go 9-7 the rest of the way.

For the Yanks to win the American League East, though, they’re going to have to do better than that. Over their final 17 contests, Tampa Bay plays only one team over .500 — the Yankees. They host the 71-75 Angels this weekend before a four-game showdown in the Bronx next week. Seattle and Baltimore swing by Tampa Bay for six before the Rays play four against the Kansas City Royals during the last weekend of the season. Against those teams, the Rays are 24-15, and if they replicate that total, they’ll end the year with with a 10-7 record, finishing one game ahead of the Yankees. Talk about heartbreak.

The ultimate question then concerns the team’s ALDS opponents. Due to a late-season surge that saw them run roughshod over their AL Central compatriots, the Twins and the Yanks are currently tied for the second base record in the AL. Both teams are 5.5 games better than the Rangers, and the Twins seem destined to play the Wild Card team in the first round.

For many in New York, Minnesota’s success this year is a bit of a surprise. The Yanks went 4-2 against the Twins this year and haven’t had many problems downing Minnesota. How then did the Twins get there? Playing in the Central played no small role in that. The Twinkies are 42-20 against their division rivals and just 46-38 against everyone else. Francisco Liriano is a true Cy Young candidate who’s given up just four home runs in 178.1 innings this year, but the rest of their rotation is heavy on the Carl Pavano and Scott Baker and light on everyone else. As a team, they rely more on keeping the ball in the park than on blowing hitters away, but they do sport a top-three offense in the AL.

And so we hit the stretch drive with a road to October before us. The Yankees need to shake off their recent slump and finish strong. To win the division, they’ll have to take at least three of four from the Rays this week, and they ought to beat up on the Orioles. Of course, playing the Twins isn’t the worst first round match-up, but with bragging rights on the line, a division crown would be a nice prize. A solid run through the next two weeks would put this 2-8 play behind us, and we’ll start over come game 1 of the American League Division Series.

Open Thread: Thankfully, a day off

Hello, Baltimore. The Yanks are 4-2 at Camden Yards this year. (AP Photo/Files)

For our peace of mind, the Yankees are resting today. There will be no late-inning disappointments, no walk-offs, no heartbreaks. The team enjoyed the day in Baltimore and will look to put their woes behind them tomorrow night.

The upcoming series against the Orioles should be a good one for the Bombers. They aren’t playing against potential October opponents and have recently seen the Buck-led Baltimoreans at the Stadium. The pitching match-ups are lined up to favor the Yanks as well. A.J. Burnett will face Kevin Millwood on Friday; CC Sabathia and Jeremy Guthrie will square off for the third time this year on Saturday; and Andy Pettitte will make his triumphant return against Chris Tillman on Sunday. Anything less than two out of three would be yet another September disappointment.

As part of tonight’s open thread, we’ve got a unique ticket offer that we wanted to throw out a few days early. One Yankee fan has two seats — not just club passes — to the Audi Club for Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He unfortunately just found out that he has to travel for work from Tuesday through Thursday and is looking to trade his two tickets for another pair of similar value (preferably in the Audi Club) for any other game next week. Hit us via the contact box if you can make the trade.

And that’s that. Do your thing. The White Sox and Twins will be on the MLB Network tonight (although some of you may get the Cardinals/Padres game). Other than that, it’s a quiet night around baseball.

Yanks to buy AAA affiliate, stay in Scranton

The AAA Yankee affiliate will stay in the Scranton area for years to come, the Yankees said late last week. At a press conference in Scranton on Friday, Randy Levine announced the team’s intentions to exercise its option to purchase the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise and keep the team in Scranton. “Let me say it on the record,” Levine said. “The New York Yankees are in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, intend to be in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, love being in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and want to remain in Scranton/Barre.”

Although the stadium needs to be significantly upgraded or replaced, club officials like having the team so close to the city and plan to work with Scranton to help fund a new stadium. Levine said the team is ready to pay “above-market rent for many, many years” to trigger a series of matching funds for a new facility from the Lackawanna County Stadium Authority. Just a two-and-a-half hour drive from the Bronx, Scranton is an ideal place for the Yanks’ AAA club.

When Yankee hats become outlawed, only outlaws wear Yankee hats

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the Times piece on Yankee hats. In what seems to be a semi-regular article, Manny Fernandez notes that descriptions of suspected perps often include one particular item: “dozens of men and women who have robbed, beaten, stabbed and shot at their fellow New Yorkers have done so while wearing Yankees caps or clothing.”

He notes that it is “not surprising that Yankees attire is worn by both those who abide by the law and those who break it. The Yankees are one of the most famous franchises in sports, and their merchandise is widely available and hugely popular.” But now criminologists, fans and sports marketers are trying to figure out why. He posits that “some attributing the trend to the popularity of the caps among gangsta rappers and others wondering whether criminals are identifying with the team’s aura of money, power and success.”

Me? I think Yankee hats are popular because, well, millions of New Yorkers wear them. With record-setting attendance figures, a string of winning seasons, a World Series championship and high TV ratings, the Yanks have never been as popular as they are today, and people in New York — both those who are law-abiding and those are not — support the team. The Yankees have made the Yankee hat as famous as they can, and The Times is searching for trends where there are none to be found.

From the bench, pressing all the wrong buttons

We've all been scratching our heads lately. Credit: AP Photo/LM Otero

The last 10 games have not been kind to Joe Girardi and his Yankees. The team is 2-8 over its last 10 games and has lost three games in the standings to the now-first place Tampa Bay Rays and four to the Boston Red Sox. With 16 games left in the year, their playoff spot remains secure, but everything that could have gone wrong for the Yanks has lately. I can’t help but level some of the blame at Joe Girardi.

For the last three years, Joe Girardi has been a fine manager. He’s not an exceptionally great strategic leader, but he’s succeeded where later-years Joe Torre could not. He’s managed to take advantage of a full bullpen of arms and doesn’t burn out his best relievers. He keeps his veterans happy and, outside of a few hiccups with injuries in 2008, he has placated the New York media as well. Although the Cubs job will be open this winter, the Yankees have shown every indication that they want Joe Girardi back, and despite my current frustration with him, he ought to be managing this team come March 31, 2011.

Lately, though, as the Yanks have played through a stretch of some of the most unlucky and uninspired baseball we’ve seen since 1994, Girardi’s decisions have become easier and easier to question. He had Francisco Cervelli sacrifice bunt on a 3-0 pitch with a runner on second and no one out and later defended the move by noting that he wanted to “move up the runner.” He had Curtis Granderson, batting .270/.342/.495 over his last 231 plate appearances, sacrifice against right-hander with on a 2-0 count with a runner on first and Colin Curtis up next. These moves aren’t just bad in hindsight; they’re just flat-out bad.

Beyond that, his roster management has suffered lately as well. Since the Yanks expanded the bench, Girardi hasn’t been able to figure out which buttons to press, and he appears to be suffering from the paradox of choice. With too many players available, he isn’t making a good use of any of them. The way Girardi approached the eighth inning last night is a prime example of this problem.

With the Yanks down by a run, they had Robinson Cano, Lance Berkman and Jorge Posada due up with Austin Kearns and Colin Curtis to follow. When a lefty on the mound, Cano reached on an infield hit, and Girardi went to Marcus Thames, the team’s biggest power threat off the bench. The Rays immediately brought in a right-hander to counter Thames, and Girardi, who didn’t want Berkman facing a lefty, got burned. Thames struck out, and after Jorge Posada walked, the two bottom-of-the-order hitters couldn’t do anything. After Kearns struck out, Girardi inexplicably allowed Colin Curtis to hit for himself, and the inning ended with a groundout. While Juan Miranda isn’t much of an offensive upgrade, against Grant Balfour and with Greg Golson on the bench, it was the obvious move to make, and it’s one Girardi hasn’t been making lately.

The other questionable move came an inning earlier. Phil Hughes started the 7th with a low pitch count and got two quick and efficient outs. Once Matt Joyce reached though, the decision to let Hughes face Dan Johnson again is a questionable one made even worse when Johnson deposited his second two-run home run into the right field seats. With Boone Logan unavailable, the Yanks could have gone to Royce Ring, but that lefty hasn’t seen Major League action since 2008. Girardi could have gone with Joba Chamberlain who doesn’t give up many home runs and has been dominant of late. Instead, he rolled the dice and let Hughes face Johnson. As with so many of Girardi’s moves lately, this one cost the Yanks. For the last ten days, many moves he’s made, defensible or not, just haven’t worked out.

Girardi’s comments to the media, as Ken Davidoff wrote this week, make it clear that he’s managing with an eye toward October. He wants to keep his bullpen strong and healthy. He wants to make sure Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, his banged-up Yankees, are feeling OK for the playoffs. Brian Cashman, too, supports this approach. “I want a team ready to play to its maximum potential in October,” the Yanks’ GM said. “I want to win the division, without question, but if I have injury problems. I don’t want guys playing with ailments that linger into October.”

Yet, I want to see the Yanks reel off a week of solid play. Let’s wrap up that playoff spot, and then rest everyone. Right now, the Yanks aren’t playing with urgency, and they aren’t being managed with much either. Maybe that’s just the reality of a six-game lead with 16 left, but the Yanks are going to have to win a few more games to get to October, and winning is something of which we’ve seen very little lately.

Help is on the way

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

It’s nearly impossible to look at anything in a positive light given how awful the last week-and-a-half have gone for the Yankees, but if there’s any good news, it’s this: Help is on the way. A trio of maybe not frontline players, but highly productive secondary pieces are returning from various injuries very soon, and that could be the boost the Yanks need to get out of this hideous slump.

Right now, the one return that is set in stone is that of Andy Pettitte, who is scheduled to start on Sunday in Baltimore. He’s been out since mid-July with a groin injury, and it’s pretty amazing how the rotation really started to fall apart once he went down. Of course, Pettitte’s injury had nothing to do with the deterioration of Javy Vazquez‘s stuff or A.J. Burnett‘s consistent inconsistency, but it certainly factored into Dustin Moseley making seven starts with a 5.03 ERA and .853 OPS against. If nothing else, Pettitte’s return will stabilize at least one rotation spot and push guys like Moseley and Vazquez into lesser roles, always a good thing.

Pettitte’s return will help the rotation, but two outfielders are due back from injuries soon as well. Both Nick Swisher (knee) and Brett Gardner (wrist) received cortisone shots earlier in the week and are expected to be back sometime this weekend. There’s no concrete return date for either, but the Yanks played it extra cautiously and gave each player ample rest with the idea of having them back for the Orioles series.

The return of Swisher and Gardner means no more Austin Kearns and Colin Curtis, which will be music to everyone’s ears. Even if Swish and Gardy come back and struggle a little bit, 75% of them is still greater than the production the Yanks are getting out of their left and rightfielders right now. They lengthen the lineup and at the very least will put together better at-bats even if the end results are the same. Both will take pitches, foul balls off and make pitchers work, something Kearns and Curtis fail to do basically each time up these days. The automatic outs will be gone at long last.

It’s going to take a whole lot more than the return of these three players to right the Yankees’ ship, but it’s certainly going to help expedite the process. Or so I hope. The players that are and have been healthy certainly need to improve their production with men on base when they have a chance to tack on runs, and the other starters (except CC Sabathia) need to be more efficient and give the team length. Pettitte, Swish, and Gardy aren’t going to come out of a phone booth with their Superman outfits on and cure all of the team’s ills, but that’s three above-average players the Yanks will have at their disposal that they don’t right now.