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Via Frankie Piliere, the Yankees are “heavily in” on high schoolers Dillon Howard and Brandon Martin with the 51st overall pick, their first selection. Howard, a right-handed pitcher, is supposedly asking for big bucks according to Piliere. Keith Law and Baseball America ranked him the 18th and 30th best prospect in the draft in their latest rankings, respectively. Howard has a big arm, routinely running his fastball up to 94 with crazy sink this spring, and he also throws a changeup and a curveball.
Martin, meanwhile, is more of true sandwich round talent. He’ll flash all five tools, but he’s not likely to have anything more than average pop at his peak. A compact line-drive stroke geared for hard contact is Martin’s offensive calling card, and he’s also a very good athlete with good range and arm strength at the shortstop position. His footwork and positioning need work, but that’s what the minor leagues are for. He didn’t crack BA’s latest rankings, but KLaw had him 54th overall.
The Yankees have been without a second left-hander in the bullpen all season because of Pedro Feliciano’s torn shoulder capsule (and Damaso Marte‘s injury, but that was expected), though they recently picked up Randy Flores on a minor league contract. He’s made a handful of appearances for Triple-A Scranton and can opt out of his contract sometime before the All-Star break, but another lefty reliever hit the market this afternoon: Jerry Blevins.
The Athletics designated Blevins for assignment earlier today after 14.1 brutal innings. He walked as many batters as he struck out (13), and the 28 left-handed batters he faced tagged him for a .318/.429/.591 batting line this year. No way around it, that’s awful. But that’s also not the real Blevins. Prior to this season the 27-year-old held lefties to a .227/.270/.292 batting line with 54 strikeouts in exactly 200 plate appearances. Not a huge sample, but he showed a similar split in the minors and it’s a whole lot more meaningful than what he did this season.
The cause of Blevins’ problems this year seems to be his slider. He’s lost about six inches of horizontal break and an inch of vertical break from the pitch over the winter, so it’s basically flattened out. Batters went from whiffing on the pitch more than 10% of the time in the past to exactly zero percent of the time this year. As a result, he was using it just 6% of the time in 2011 as opposed to ~13% from 2009-2010. Maybe it’s just a mechanical problem, maybe he’s hurt, maybe this is the real Blevins, who knows.
With all due respect to Flores, Blevins is a much more promising LOOGY candidate given his age and recent history, this year notwithstanding. There’s zero chance he’ll clear or even get to the Yankees on waivers, so they’d have to trade for him. The Athletics devalued him with the DFA, so it shouldn’t cost a ton to acquire him. Given Boone Logan‘s poor overall performance against lefties (.323/.382/.484 in 35 PA), having a second option would be a nice luxury. That would also allow Hector Noesi to go back to the minors to actually, you know, pitch. That would leave Lance Pendleton as the long man, which is fine by me. Blevins’ numbers are ugly this year, but someone will gamble on that pre-2011 track record and I really hope it’s the Yankees.
Remember last year, when the Yankees and Blue Jays didn’t play each other until the first week of June? No such luck this season, this mid-week three-game series will already be their third meet-up of 2011. These two clubs split a two-game set north of the border in mid-April before the Yankees took two of three in New York late in the month.
What Have The Blue Jays Done Lately?
After winning six games in a row two weeks ago, the Jays have alternated wins and losses since Wednesday. The Astros (!!!) took two of three from them in Toronto over the weekend, and they come into this series right at .500 with a 23-23 record. The Jays do have a +11 run differential though, so they should probably be 24-22 or something like that.
Blue Jays On Offense
There really is nothing you can do to stop Jose Bautista, and containing him is pretty much a fruitless endeavor as well. The best player in baseball has just three hits (two of which have left the yard, of course) and two walks in his last 17 plate appearances, but he’s still hitting .353/.500/.816 on the season. Joey Bats kills the Yankees, so just accept it. He’s going to hit a homer or four during these three games, there’s nothing the Yankees can do. He’s that good. Luckily, Bautista is basically the entire Blue Jays’ offense.
Adam Lind is on the shelf with a back problem, so just one other Toronto regular has an OPS north of .800. That’s catcher J.P. Arencibia, who does it with power (.276 ISO) and not by getting on base (.309 OBP). Yunel Escobar is sporting a fine .283/.363/.410 line, but the rest of the lineup … sheesh. You’ve got the likes of Corey Patterson (.271/.307/.431), impromptu cleanup hitter Aaron Hill (.241/.283/.319), Juan Rivera (.225/.315/.331), Rajai Davis (.252/.298/.327), Edwin Encarnacion (.244/.270/.336), and so on. Bautista and Yunel are really the only two Jays’ coming into the series hot as well.
One thing Toronto will do is run. They’re third in the league in stolen bases (46) and will run at will, in any count with pretty much anyone at the plate or on the bases. Davis is by far the biggest threat with a dozen steals, but Hill, Patterson, and Bautista will go as well. The best way to shut the Jays’ down offensively is the old Michael Jordan defense; let Bautista hit his homers but stop everyone else, especially the guys hitting in front of him.
Blue Jays On The Mound
Monday, RHP Carlos Villaneuva: Starting in place of the injured Jesse Litsch (shoulder impingement), Villanueva is being pulled out of the bullpen to make his first start since 2009. He’s had long relief appearances of 42, 51, and 69 pitches already this season, so he’s probably good for 80 or so pitches tonight. Villanueva’s career numbers as a starter really don’t tell us much of anything since they came so long ago and in the other league, but out of the bullpen this year he’s struck out 7.77 men per nine while walking 3.70 per nine and getting a ground ball 39.3% of the time. Those are almost identical to his career totals (8.05 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 40.4%), so he is who we thought he was. The former Brewer throws a lot of offspeed stuff, using his upper-80’s fastball just under 40% of the time. A low-80’s changeup is his favorite secondary pitch at a little over 25% of all pitches, though he’ll also throw a low-80’s slider more than 20% of the time as well. A low-70’s curveball fills out the rest of the pie. The Yankees have seen him twice this year, a one inning relief appearance in each of the first two series, so Villanueva shouldn’t be a total surprise.
Tuesday, LHP Ricky Romero: Romero has a case to be the best pitcher in baseball that no one talks about. He’s young (turned 26 in December), left-handed, and in possession of gaudy peripherals (8.84 K/9, 3.10 BB/9, 55.8% grounders), and yet “Ricky Romero underrated” returns far fewer Google results (52,200) than “Ivan Nova underrated” (308,000). If Ricky pitched for the Yankees, he’d be a national hero. He held the pinstripers to two runs over six innings earlier this year, just one of his seven starts of six-plus innings and two earned runs or less. Romero throws two fastballs 34.7% of the time each, a four-seamer that averages 92.3 mph and a two-seamer at 91.5 mph. A mid-80’s changeup is his go-to offspeed offering, though he’ll also break out an upper-70’s curveball on occasion. One thing he does not do is pitch backwards; four out of every five at-bats start with a fastball, and he’ll changeup hitters to death when ahead in the count. The Yankees have seen plenty of him over the last two years and two months, but Romero’s so good that it doesn’t even matter.
Wednesday, LHP Jo-Jo Reyes: Uh oh, a young lefty the Yankees haven’t seen before. Reyes, who came over in the Yunel trade, has been surprisingly effectively for the Jays even though his ERA (4.08) doesn’t really agree. His 3.36 FIP is propped up by strong walk (2.40 BB/9) and homerun rates (0.55 HR/9) and not necessary the whiff numbers (6.84 K/9), but there is still some funny business going on here. Reyes has a .354 BABIP despite a mediocre 35.8% ground ball rate, which is backwards. More fly balls should equal a lower BABIP, so that and the strand rate (64.2%) are why his ERA isn’t as good as it maybe should be. Jo-Jo is similar to Romero in that he’s heavy on the low-90’s four and two-seamers with the occasional changeup, but he’ll also throw a slider semi-regularly. He’s on a bit of a roll now, allowing just eight earned runs (but seven unearned) in his last 28.1 IP across five starts. Like I said, the Yankees have never faced him before, but he isn’t going to miss a ton of bats and will allow them to put the ball in the air. I’ll take it.
Bullpen: Toronto’s bullpen comes into the series pretty well rested. Casey Janssen is the only guy to pitch both Saturday and Sunday, and both Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp have appeared in two of the last three games. Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor are fresh, ditto struggling closer Frank Francisco, who blew a tied game on Friday and has allowed six runs and six walks in his last six innings. Marc Rzepczynski is the lefty killer (.143/.250/.143 against) that also gets out righties (.219/.265/.344). He’s not just a specialist.
The toughest thing about the Jays’ bullpen is all the different looks they have. Camp is fastball-changeup, Janssen fastball-cutter, Dotel fastball-slider, Rauch fastball-slider-changeup, Francisco fastball-splitter, and Frasor almost all fastballs. It’s a sneaky good bullpen crew equipped to do whatever manager John Farrell needs.
In the aggregate, the 2011 Yankees are not much different than our beloved 2009 team. After 44 games the teams are separated by just one game (the 2009 team was 25-19), and both had gone through rough losing streaks earlier in the season. Yet there one major, noticeable difference between the two teams that is evident even at this point. The 2009 Yankees had mastered the art of the comeback, while the 2011 team has struggled to erase deficits.
Just one time this season the Yankees have won a game when trailing after seven innings. They’re 2-14 when trailing after six, so that counts the victory over the Mets yesterday. Perhaps the most damning of all records is their 2-12 mark when trailing after five. That is, with 12 outs remaining, they’ve managed to erase just two deficits all season long. That doesn’t seem to be the mark of an elite team.
The Yankees’ mantra of patience is well known by now. Make the starters throw a lot of pitches so you can get to that vulnerable relief corps. Even if they don’t score runs in bunches off the starter, they can get to the weaker pitchers by making sure he throws 100 pitches in five or six innings. This year, however, that has not worked in their favor. The third time through the order against a starting pitcher the Yankees have hit .254/.320/.446. The first time facing a relief pitcher in a game they’ve hit .233/.318/.416. That’s not exactly taking advantage of lesser pitchers. Unsurprisingly, the 2009 team trashed relievers the first time they saw them, hitting .279/.373/.477. That’s how you stage late-inning comebacks.
Just how bad is the Yankees’ current record when trailing after five? The 2010 Pirates, the worst team in baseball, went 13-79 when trailing after five, a .141 win percentage. That’s essentially where the Yankees are at right now. Even the 2010 Yankees, who didn’t seem to have the same comeback luster of their year-earlier counterparts, had a 14-47 record when trailing after five, a .230 winning percentage.
(Of course, even those comeback-happy teams had a .273 win percentage when trailing after five.)
There are two ways of viewing this, of course. One is to take the first 44 games as a portend for the season and declare that the Yankees lay down too easily. The other is to realize that they’re probably not going to fare as poorly as a 100-loss team. Their record when trailing after five currently stinks, but it is not necessarily predictive of anything. In all likelihood, they’ll start to beat up on relievers more often and mount some late-innings comebacks. That should add a few more wins and a greater sense of aura, if you will, to the team.
The 2011 season has been frustrating for many reasons, and the team’s inability to score runs off of crappy relievers is just one of them. It is, thankfully, one area that they’re almost certain to turn around. It won’t get worlds better; as we saw, the 2009 team still lost the great majority of their games when they trailed after five. But rest assured that they’re not doomed to fail in these situations. Sometimes early season results can be more frustrating than indicative of true talent.
We’re about a quarter of the way through the 2011 season, so it seems like an appropriate time to talk about the Yankees’ hitters in comparison to their expectations. If nothing else, it helps put in perspective the comments that the offense is struggling.
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Through six starts and three long relief appearances, the Bartolo Colon experiment has been a rousing success for the Yankees. The big guy has a 3.16 ERA to go along with a 3.52 FIP, and a 2.88 xFIP suggests that he’s been a little unlucky when it comes to the long ball. Of the six homers he’s allowed, two qualify as “Just Enough” shots according to Hit Tracker, which means they cleared the fence by less than ten vertical feet. That’s nothing. Colon has been throwing legit mid-90’s heat and is striking out nearly one man per inning while walking fewer than two per nine (8.42 K/9, 1.93 BB/9). We really can’t say enough about how good or surprising he’s been.
Tonight’s series opener against the Blue Jays is going to be perhaps the most telling start of Colon’s brief Yankees’ career, at least to date. Why? Because for the first time this year, a team will get a second look at him as a starter. Yes, Bartolo has already pitched twice against the Red Sox, but the first appearance was in relief while the second was a starter. That’s not quite the same thing. The Jays will be the first team to get a second look at Colon the starter, so now adjustments come into the play.
In his first start against Toronto (April 20th), Colon powered through 6.2 innings by throwing fastball after fastball. Just 14 of his 85 pitches were offspeed while the other 75 pitches were broken into 39 four-seamers and 36 two-seamers (PitchFX data). He only left the game because he’d reached his pitch count in just his first start. That fastball-heavy approach is the norm for Bartolo as we now know, and the Jays are surely aware of it as well. Toronto has been one of the league’s better teams against the ol’ number one, so do the Yankees and Colon change up the game plan and mix in more sliders and changeups?
I don’t get a vote nor should I, but I’m in the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” camp. Let the Blue Jays first show that they’ve adjusted to the fastball-heavy plan before deviating from it. Why switch to Plan B when you aren’t even sure that Plan A is outdated yet? I definitely wouldn’t recommend going after Jose Bautista with the high heat again, but the other eight guys in the lineup? Go for it. Adam Lind is out with a back problem, so the only lefty power source they have is the recently called up Eric Thames (no relation to Marcus). Colon has shredded right-handed batters all year long, so stick with the heat and then adjust if necessary.
The Yankees have already gotten more out of Colon than I think they ever imagined, but in the back of our minds we all know that the next pitch could be the last. Yeah, that’s true for everyone, but Bartolo’s at greater risk given all his recent (and major) arm trouble. Tonight we’ll get our first real look at how he handles a lineup after they’ve seen him and had some time to refine the game plan a little bit.