Series Preview: Chicago White Sox

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

The White Sox are a team that’s easy to hate. Their manager has gone from great quote to tiresome, their catcher is universally hated around the game, their play-by-play guy is insufferable, and for the next four days they are the enemy. The Yankees return home from a rocky but ultimately successful road trip through Toronto and Baltimore, kicking off the next leg of their 17 games in 17 days stretch* against a team mired in the slumpiest of slumps.

* Friday’s rain out turned it into 16 games in 16 days.

What Have The White Sox Done Lately?

The Yankees seem to have run into a lot of slumping teams of late, and the ChiSox certainly fit the bill. Ozzie Guillen’s club has lost three straight and ten of their last eleven, getting outscored 56-25 in the process. They haven’t scored a run since the seventh inning of Friday’s game, and haven’t scored a non-solo homerun run since the eighth inning of Thursday’s game. “Nothing works,” said Guillen after yesterday’s loss. “It seems like every day is a rewind movie. Seeing the same at-bats and seems like everybody we face is pretty nasty.”

White Sox On Offense

(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Like I said, Chicago’s been struggling with the bats. They’ve scored just 21 runs in their last ten games, and nine of those runs came on Thursday. Their hottest hitter (by far) is Carlos Quentin, who has eleven hits (four doubles, four homers), two walks, and three hit-by-pitches in his last 45 plate appearances (.275/.356/.675). Paul Konerko seemed to break out of a prolonged slump by collecting five hits (including a double and homer) total on Thursday and Friday, but he took an 0-for-4 on Saturday (with three strikeouts) and had Sunday off. A.J. Pierzynski’s seven game hitting streak consists of nine singles, so he’s not exactly tearing the cover off the ball. Aside from those three, Guillen’s offense has been a wreck.

Adam Dunn is buried in a nasty 2-for-30 (.067) slump with 15 strikeouts, and he’s only drawn three walks during that time as well. Alex Rios hasn’t gotten a hit since last Sunday (just two walks and a HBP in his last 23 PA), and Alexei Ramirez has two singles and two walks in his last 24 PA. Gordon Beckham has reached base once in his last 25 PA (a single) and four times in his last 39 PA (two singles, a double, and he reached on an error). Mark Teahen highlights the rest of the offense (we’re talking Juan Pierre, Omar Vizquel, Brent Morel, etc.) with a .334 wOBA. As a team, the ChiSox own a .303 wOBA and a .308 OBP. Yeah, they’ve had trouble hitting.

White Sox On The Mound

Monday: Phil Humber: Claimed off waivers twice this offseason, you might remember Humber for being part of the Johan Santana trade. Safe to say that he never delivered on his promise as the third overall pick of the 2004 draft, but Chicago was encouraged by the cutter he learning from pitching coach and cutter guru Don Cooper in Spring Training. After two relief appearances, Humber has pitched to a 3.86 ERA in three starts that have gotten progressively worse: one earned run in his first start, two in his second, four in his fourth. He doesn’t strike out many batters (just 11 K in 18.2 IP this year) but he won’t walk many either (5 BB), and his ground ball rate is just okay in the low-40% range. Humber relies heavily on a low-90’s fastball, a low-80’s curve, and a mid-80’s changeup, and for whatever reason, PitchFX says he hasn’t thrown that cutter in the regular season. That’s probably a classification issue though.

Tuesday: Gavin Floyd: Floyd’s name popped up in a few trade rumors this past offseason, but he’s still in a White Sox uniform. He’s gone at least six inning in each of his four starts, and he’s actually alternated poor outings with good ones: four runs in seven innings in his first start, one unearned run in eight innings in his second, six runs in six innings in his third, and two runs in seven innings in his fourth. He’s due for a stinker. As always, Floyd misses bats (7.67 K/9, 8.5% swing-and-miss rate), limit walks (2.33 BB/9), and gets ground balls (48.7% ground ball rate) with a fastball (low-90’s), cutter (mid-80’s), curveball (upper 70’s), and changeup (mid-80’s). The curve has been his calling card since the day he was drafted, and if he gets ahead with two strikes, that pitch is coming more than 60% of the time.

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Wednesday: Mark Buehrle: Aside from a dominant showing against the Athletics in his third start (eight innings, two hits, no runs), it’s been a brutal season for Buerhle. The usually reliable left-hander has allowed at least four runs in each of his other four starts, pitching into the seventh inning just once. He’s also walked seven and allowed 34 hits in just 22.2 IP in those starts. The Yankees have traditionally had their way with the changeup artist, tagging him for 14 runs in three starts (15 IP) over the last three seasons. Buerhle will bore you to death with that changeup and three mid-80’s fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, cutter). He’ll also break out the occasional curveball, but there are no surprises here.

Thursday: Edwin Jackson: The former Dodger, Ray, Tiger, and Diamondback has enjoyed the best success of his career under Cooper’s watch in Chicago. Four of his five highest single game strikeout totals have come in a White Sox uniform, including a 13 whiff game against the Rays earlier this season. He’s missing more bats than ever (just about a strikeout per inning with the Sox) thanks to a new (wait for it) cutter and increased reliance on his slider. Jackson has allowed 12 runs in his last two starts though (12.2 IP, 23 H, 4 BB) and the Yankees have seen plenty of him in the past (11 career starts vs. New York, plus four relief appearances), so again, no surprises here.

Bullpen: Guillen’s bullpen, at least his core relievers, come into the series well rested. Jesse Crain, Matt Thornton, Chris Sale, and Sergio Santos have thrown a combined 6.1 IP over the last seven days, though Thornton and Crain each pitched an inning yesterday. The mop-up crew – Jeff Gray, Will Ohman, and Tony Pena – have done much of the heavy lifting of late, throwing eight innings total over the last five days.

Thornton was supposed to be Guillen’s rock at the end of the game, but he blew his first four save opportunities of the year and has been brought into mop-up spots his last two times out. Sale’s been slightly better, and really the team’s two most reliable relievers have been Crain (5 H, 11 K in 10.1 IP) and the former infielder Santos (13 K, 5 H in 9.2 IP, but 5 BB). That’s not exactly how they drew it up in Spring Training. The White Sox probably won’t be out of any game because their starting pitching is very good, but the Yankees have a way of waiting those guys out and going to town on the middle relief.

Recommended White Sox Reading: South Side Sox

Redefining Derek Jeter

By most accounts, Derek Jeter is not having a great 2011. Sitting just 55 hits away from 3000, the Yankee captain is hitting just .257 in the early going with an on-base percentage of just .317 and a .284 slugging clip. Prior to his four-hit day yesterday chock full of dribblers to third, those numbers were worse, and after a similarly subpar season from Jeter last year, Yankee fans have been trying to come to terms with Derek Jeter.

The grumbling started in 2010 when Jeter, homerless in over 200 plate appearances now, posted numbers well below his career averages. His triple slash line of. 270/.340/.370 made him a decent short stop, but it was a far cry from the .314/.384/.451 days of yore. As age is creeping up on him, his fielding suffered as well, and with free agency looming, the Yankees were either going to overpay or engage in acrimonious negotiations with the captain. Somehow, they managed to do both.

With Jeter’s decline — inevitable due to age, as many believe — a fanbase that has long worshipped him has struggled. Derek Jeter has long been the True Yankee™ in the most cliched sense of the word. He came up through the system, and the Yankees started to win with Jeter. He has outlasted dynasties, managers and even the team’s owner, and at one point in his career, could have been on pace to break Pete Rose’s hit record. He wasn’t supposed to age, slow down or become anything less than a perfect celebrity.

Somewhere along the way though, cracks in the Jeter façade started to show. He had a public falling out with A-Rod a decade ago and never embraced the third baseman when he came to New York. He often spoke at length with reporters while saying nothing, and his leadership as the captain came more from his behind-the-scenes words, if at all, than from his on-field actions. Fist pumps can take a team only so far.

The Jeter persona, largely driven by the New York media, has recently been subjected to a certain level of skepticism from that media, and Jeter’s tough year is going to get a little more trying over the next few weeks. Ian O’Connor — yes, that Ian O’Connor — has penned a biography of the Captain entitled The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter. From the press materials, the book will be a pretty straightforward account of Jeter’s life and career, but the early excerpts leaked to the tabloids and posted on ESPN New York contain the juicy stuff.

Yesterday’s edition of The Post had O’Connor’s book splashed across the front page. Why? Because it detailed the rift between A-Rod and Jeter. This story is an old one. We know how Jeter and A-Rod had a falling out over a 2000 magazine interview. We know that Jeter didn’t love the idea of A-Rod’s coming to New York and how the Yankees had to pressure Jeter into accepting A-Rod’s presence on the team. We know Jeter didn’t stand up for A-Rod as the slugger faced questions about drug use. That story might sell papers, but it’s hardly breaking news.

The part of the book available now that sheds more light on Jeter though concerns his relationship with Cashman. In a piece on ESPN New York with no byline, the worldwide leader’s local site sheds more light on Derek’s contract negotiations. No one comes off as altruistic, and we see a side of Jeter — the side that built St. Jetersburg — most do not like to admit exists. I’ll excerpt:

The book, “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter,” details a Nov. 30 sit-down in which Jeter, his agent Casey Close and Creative Artists Agency attorney Terry Prince met with Cashman, team president Randy Levine and co-owner Hal Steinbrenner to iron out their differences. The Tampa summit lasted four hours, but Jeter stayed for only the first 45 minutes, telling his employers — especially Cashman — how angry he was that they had made details of the negotiations public. When Jeter got up to leave the room, Cashman asked the shortstop to sit back down and hear him out. “You said all you wanted was what was fair,” the GM told the shortstop. “How much higher do we have to be than the highest offer for it to be fair?”

Jeter, who had no other offers in his first pass at free agency, ultimately signed a three-year, $51 million guaranteed deal plus an option year and incentive bonuses. But the negotiations were often difficult. When Close told Daily News columnist Mike Lupica that the Yankees’ negotiating stance was “baffling,” Hal Steinbrenner gave Cashman the green light to take the fight to Jeter and Close in the media. The quote that would anger Jeter the most was the one Cashman gave to ESPNNewYork.com’s Wallace Matthews, who quoted the GM saying that Jeter should test the market to “see if there’s something he would prefer other than this.”

Levine met with Jeter in the shortstop’s Trump World Tower home the day before the contract would be finalized. According to the book, Jeter told Levine he needed more money added to the proposed performance bonuses in the Yankees’ offer, bonuses tied to awards such as league MVP, World Series or League Championship Series MVP, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove. Jeter spent a couple of hours making an impassioned plea to Levine, who was playing the good cop to Cashman’s bad cop. Levine was so taken by Jeter’s arguments that one official estimated the shortstop earned an extra $4-5 million in that meeting before signing the following afternoon in a suite at the Regency.

In another excerpt, O’Connor recounts Cashman’s attempts at convincing Jeter to improve his fileding. The Yanks’ GM assumed that Joe Torre had told Jeter to work on his range, but when Cashman confronted Jeter, the short stop said no conversation happened. Jeter, though, was more than willing to do as Cashman asked then, and in this excerpt, we see how Joe Torre seemingly protected his own guys, another theme that isn’t exactly new but didn’t garner much press at the time.

Ultimately, O’Connor’s book is one more piece of the Jeter puzzle. As William at The Captain’s Blog notes, no small amount of media-driven hypocrisy surrounds the book, and fans who do not want to hear about Jeter’s blemishes will just ignore it. But in a way, Jeter becomes less of a lofty saint and more of a great baseball player, flaws and all. He’ll join numerous Yankee greats — including Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle — in that category. After all, who among us wouldn’t be filled with hubris if we were in Derek Jeter’s shoes?

The RAB Radio Show: April 25, 2011

The Yanks got through a quality weekend series with the Orioles, rattling off a pair of wins before they took the train ride north to the Bronx. Mike and I take the positives and negatives from the series, and then look forward to the White Sox series.

Podcast run time 34:11

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

Rivera’s history of back-to-back blown saves

It’s not often that Mariano Rivera blows a save, let alone back-to-back saves, which made yesterday’s ninth inning meltdown that much harder to swallow. Andy at the B-R Blog lists all of Mo’s back-to-back blown saves, something he’s done just eight times in his 14+ years as closer. Exactly half of those eight sets have come in April while the rest occurred in July and August (twice each). He also blew back-to-back saves twice in 1997, so it’s happened just six times in the last 13+ years.

Although it doesn’t appear to be random, I don’t think there’s nearly enough evidence here to say that Mo struggles in particular months for whatever reason. Is it worth nothing that there’s essentially no difference between Rivera’s ERA and FIP in March/April (2.26 ERA and 2.84, respectively) than there is during the rest of the season (2.22 ERA, 2.75 FIP). What do you think, coincidence, or something more?

Fan Confidence Poll: April 25th, 2011

Record Last Week: 3-1 (32 RS, 14 RA)
Season Record: 12-6 (109 RS, 82 RA, 11-7 pythag. record), three games up
Opponents This Week: vs. White Sox (four games, Mon. to Thurs.), vs. Blue Jays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

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