Series Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Away from home for only their second series this season, the Yankees will play a pair of games in Toronto this week. It’s kind of an oddly timed series, just two games sandwiched between two off-days. But it’s Yankee baseball, so who are we to complain?

Last year the Yanks had trouble with the Jays, and actually finished 8-10 against them. Thankfully for the Yanks, these aren’t the 2010 Blue Jays. They lost a few key players during the winter, and while they’re stronger in the long run, they’re definitely weaker for the 2011 season. The Yanks definitely have an opportunity to jump out ahead here and steal a pair of games before heading down to Baltimore.

What Have They Done Lately?

(Charles Krupa/AP)

After looking like the Blue Jays of 2010 during the first week of play, the Jays have slipped considerably in the last week and a half. That includes three straight losses to the Red Sox, in which they managed just one run per game. Before that they managed to let Seattle put up an eight spot on them. Things just aren’t looking that bright for the Jays currently.

Blue Jays On Offense

Yep. Bautista can still pop one. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Last year the home run was the Jays’ calling card, as they led the league by a decent margin. This year they’ve hit only 13, which ranks them 19th among the 30 teams. In fact, hitting for power has been a general problem for the team this year. They’ve hit just 24 doubles, which ranks 24th in the league, after finishing second last year. That’s an enormous problem for a team built like the Jays. They’re not an on-base type of squad — last year they ranked 26th with a .312 OBP — so when they’re not hitting for power they struggle to bring around runs.

Three players, really, have carried the Jays on offense to this point. Jose Bautista has kept up his power hitting ways, smacking three homers so far. While he likely won’t hit 54 again, he remains a legitimate power threat. He’s backed up by J.P. Arencibia, who has two doubles, two triples, and two homers already. Yunel Escobar has taken to his new home north of the border, hitting .333/.414/.563 with a double, two triples, and two homers this season. Jayson Nix, too, has stepped up, hitting .256/.356/.462 through 45 PA.

The biggest disappointments this season have been Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. They were in the same position last year, meaning their performances in 2011 became all the more important. Hill is just 14 for 60 (.233) so far, with three doubles and three walks. That production, a .262 wOBA, isn’t worst among his peers, but it’s not far from it. Lind, whom the Jays are trying at first base this season, has a nearly identical wOBA, .268, and also ranks near the worst of his peers. Travis Snider, a full-time player for the first time in his career, has also disappointed, hitting .151/.250/.245 in his first 60 PA.

At some point, at least one of Lind, Hill, and Snider will turn it around. There’s just too much talent there for all three of them to tank. Yet that’s not guaranteed to happen in this series. The Jays have really struggled at the plate lately. We know that momentum can shift in any given moment, but it’s tough to count on these struggling players at the moment.

Blue Jays On The Mound

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

Game One: Kyle Drabek. Tonight marks Drabke’s seventh major league start, though his first against a team he has previously faced. Last year he ended his season against the Yankees, tossing six innings and allowing three runs in a losing effort. This year the 23-year-old made the team out of spring training and put on a show in his first start, striking out seven Twins in seven innings on his way to a Blue Jays victory. But things haven’t been so easy for him since then.

The Twins, remember, currently sport the league’s worst offense, which could have played into Drabek’s success. In his next start he pitched only six innings, while facing two more batters and throwing two more pitches than his previous start. He also allowed a ton more balls in the air, walked more batters, and struck out fewer. And then in his last start, against the hapless Mariners, he recorded one fewer out while throwing 11 more pitches than his previous start. He all the sudden didn’t look as dominant.

This year his weakness has been the free pass. He has issued 11 to the 77 batters he has faced. This plays into the Yankees hands, as they are one of the more patient teams in the league. They’ve already seen him, so that stigma of getting beat by guys they see for the first time is erased.

Game Two: Brett Cecil. Just hearing the name Brett Cecil makes many Yankees fans cringe. He faced the Yankees five times, and generally gave them fits. What sticks in our heads are the two eight-inning performances in which the Yankees seemingly hit everything on the ground. What gets lost is that his final two outings weren’t all that great.

On September fifth he lasted 6.1 innings, but allowed three runs in the process. He walked four and struck out only three in that time, so things could have gone far worse. The Blue Jays did win the game, though, which makes the positive aspects of the game more forgettable. Then, in his final start of the season, he gave up three runs in just 5.1 innings. This time the Yanks hit plenty in the air. Again, Cecil won. He won’t get that lucky all the time.

As with Phil Hughes, Cecil threw far more innings last year than he had in the past. Also as with Hughes, he experienced reduced velocity in spring training and into the year. He hasn’t been quite the ground balling machine he was last year, and even allowed 10 fly balls in his previous start against the Red Sox. Overall he has been generally unimpressive this season, which is good news for Yankees fans. Maybe we’ll finally see them beat Cecil this year.

Bullpen: The Jays underwent a bullpen overhaul this winter, as they lost both Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs to free agency. But they did make a few pick-ups, including Frank Francisco, who returns to action this evening. Shawn Camp, Jason Frasor, and Carlos Villanueva have performed well so far. That is, their late-inning force appears to be in full effect. The Yankees can weaken that strength, though, by forcing Drabek and Cecil from the games early.

Blue Jays Featured Blog: Drunk Jays Fans.

Saving David Robertson’s Arm

The Puffy Face is catching on. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Once Rafael Soriano signed on the dotted line of that damned contract, one thing became very clear about the 2011 Yankees: they were going to have a dynamite bullpen. At least on paper anyway, because Mo knows these things almost never work out as planned. The season is only 14 games old, but aside from two Soriano meltdowns the relief corps have performed as expected. Their 2.98 FIP is the best in the AL by nearly half-a-run (Cleveland is second at 3.42) and their 2.37 K/BB ratio trails only the White Sox (2.88). So far, so good.

Joe Girardi has proven to be a fine bullpen manager, not over-working his core guys and not burying the sixth and seventh relievers for two weeks at a time either (though I’m sure Hector Noesi disagrees). His bullpen management skills are probably overblown since his predecessor was as bad as it gets in that department, but I don’t think anyone really has a huge problem with how he works his relievers. Sure, we all disagree with an individual pitching change from time to time, that goes without saying, but as far as the big picture goes, he’s just fine.

However, as this season has started unfold, one of Girardi’s most annoying tendencies has become even more painfully obvious: the guy just loves marrying relievers to specific innings. Loves it. Makes the in-game decisions nice and easy and the post-game questions even easier. Why’d you bring that guy into the game in that spot? He’s my X inning guy. Bam, end of story, next question. Joba Chamberlain in the seventh, Soriano in the eighth, Mariano Rivera in the ninth. That’s the plan and Girardi’s sticking to it, hell or high water.

Of course, rolling out Joba, Soriano, and Mo in the late innings probably is the best course of action to win a single game, but baseball’s a marathon. To be quite frank about it, David Robertson can not be warming up in the sixth inning of every game just in case the starter gets into trouble, and then not pitch of he doesn’t. It just can’t physically be done. Those pitches thrown in the bullpen count against his arm even if they don’t show up in the box score. Sometimes Girardi will just have to go against The Formula™ and let him pitch the seventh inning to keep him fresh and spread out the workload, even if it makes him unavailable for a day or two. That’s life. I don’t know why Joba and Robertson aren’t interchangeable in that seventh inning role anyway, but that’s just me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of having Robertson available as the fireman, using his strikeout-heavy ways to get out of a jam mid-inning. But he doesn’t need to be on call for that role every single day, especially since he’s warming up for it more often than not. Ultimately, I’m just concerned about the health of his arm and his effectiveness. If you warm up day after day like that, you’re not fresh when you finally do come into a game even if you’ve had the last four days off.

The Yankees have played an inordinate number of close games this season (already five one-run and one two-run game out of 14), so at some point the bullpen workload will start to even out. Mo and Joba won’t make the 104 appearances they’re on pace for and chances are Boone Logan will get into more than 58. Robertson has appeared in six games already, putting him on pace for right around 70, which is a perfectly reasonable number. Hopefully Girardi will cut down on all those complete game shutouts he’s been throwing in the bullpen though.

The RAB Radio Show: April 19, 2011

The Yanks are in Toronto this week, which might be a good thing. The Blue Jays have been playing like crap, and they’re sending out one inexperienced pitcher, and another who has gotten lit up this season. Still, something doesn’t feel right about this. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of last season, maybe it’s the unpredictable nature of AL East games. But Mike and I don’t have the best feeling about this series.

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A-Rod ‘begged’ Yankees to sign Melky this winter

Via Jon Heyman, Alex Rodriguez “begged” the Yankees to sign Melky Cabrera this past offseason after the two trained together in Miami over the winter. For what it’s worth, Melky showed up to Royals’ camp legitimately in the best shape of his life this spring, but it hasn’t helped him with his play. After signing for $1.25M, the Melkman is hitting just .274/.280/.397 in 75 plate appearances this season, which is worse than what he did with Atlanta last year in terms of OBP, but better in terms of SLG. Either way, it still stinks.

I assume that if the Yankees had listened to A-Rod, Melky would have filled the Andruw Jones role of lefty mashing fourth outfielder. The problem with that is that Cabrera is a .274/.330/.390 career hitter against southpaws, his weaker side. Hey, Melky was a fun and energetic guy with a knack for big hits, but Alex should really stick to hitting baseballs.

Alex Rodriguez, Fastball Destroyer

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you’re well aware that Alex Rodriguez was hitting the snot out of the ball before being shelved by a back/oblique issue over the weekend. He was (and still is, really) hitting .385/.500/.821 with four homers, nine walks, and just four strikeouts in 50 plate appearances before the injury, a .541 wOBA that rank behind only the currently super-human Matt Kemp in all of baseball. After a substandard 2010 season and his 35th birthday, there was reason to be skeptical about A-Rod coming into the season. That skepticism has been answered in a big way.

Finally cleared to resume full baseball training following his 2009 hip surgery, Alex showed up to camp this year noticeably slimmer (he claimed that he shed ten pounds and 3% body fat over the winter) and lighter on his feet. That appears to have quickened A-Rod’s bat as well, because the guy is straight up annihilating fastballs so far this year…

There’s no denying that there were times during the previous two seasons when Alex would swing through what appeared to be hittable fastballs, I’m talking 90, 91, 92 mph offerings in the happy zone right out over the plate. We’re used to seeing him park those pitches either over the fence or off the wall or in the gap somewhere. It’s obviously still very early, but missing those hittable fastballs has not been an issue in 2011. A-Rod is making pitchers pay for mistakes, back to being the hitter that gave the guys on the mound zero margin for error.

As you can see from the table, Alex is doing quite a bit differently against fastballs this year. For one, he’s not swinging at nearly as many. That goes for all pitch types as well, his swing rate is down to just 34.7% this year after sitting north of 42% every year of the FanGraphs era. Secondly, when A-Rod does offer at a fastball, he’s not a) swinging and missing, or b) fouling pitches off. Whenever he’s swung at a fastball this year, there’s less than a 8.5% chance that he’d foul it off or miss the pitch entirely, which means he’s putting it into play on more than nine out of every ten swings. Over the last two years it had been three out of every four swings. When a guy as strong as A-Rod puts a fastball in play, good things happen.

The run value is off the charts so far. Alex has been worth 7.73 runs above-average per 100 fastballs seen this season, which is easily the best mark in baseball. Kemp is the only other guy over six-and-a-quarter. As Dave Pinto showed (via heat map!) at Baseball Analysts yesterday, all four of A-Rod’s homers in 2011 have come on fastballs either up in the zone or inside. That is the exact opposite of what you’d expect out of a guy that’s supposed to be on the decline.

With any luck, A-Rod’s back/oblique is nothing major and won’t keep him on the shelf any longer than it has already. The MRI came back clean, but I would not at all be surprised if he sat tonight and/or tomorrow night since the turf in Toronto can be unforgiving. Regardless of what happens against the Blue Jays, Alex has been the team’s best player in the early going, playing at a 1.1 fWAR pace and bringing us back to the days when he was a perennial MVP threat. The success against fastballs has been a huge part of his rebound, though it all stems from health.

Big ups to Texas Leaguers for the fastball percentages used in the table.