Open Thread: The M&M Boys, 50 years later

Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle pose with Babe Ruth's widow during their record-setting 1961 season. (AP Images/File Photo)

In the mail last week, I received Phil Pepe’s latest book. The long-time sportswriter has penned a memoir entitled 1961* about the Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris home run race and his experiences covering it. Although the Yanks are going to host a Roger Maris night in September, Pepe’s book is one of the few pieces noting the 50th anniversary of that historic season.

For the Yankees and their fans at the time, it was a magical year. The Yanks were coming off of their crushing seven-game World Series loss to the Pirates and were still the Big Apple’s only team. Yet, changes were afoot. The league expanded and added eight games to the schedule. The AP called the “unique” 162-game slate a new era in baseball.

So on this day in 1961, the Yankees opened up their season in the Bronx by hosting the brand-spankin’-new Minnesota Twins. The franchise had just jetted from Washington to take up shop in Minneapolis, and while they would go 70-90 that year, it didn’t show on Opening Day. Pedro Ramos, a Cuban hurler who had led the AL in losses in 1960, pitched a three-hit shut out as Whitey Ford gave up three runs in 6.1 innings to draw the loss. (Of course, trade rumors swirled after the loss.)

Mantle and Maris did absolutely nothing that day, and just 14,607 fans were on hand in the Bronx to see it. The M&M Boys went a combined 0 for 7 with 3 strike outs, and few would have predicted the epic season that would follow. We’re going to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that season with a Mantle/Maris home run tracker that follows their progress in 1961. We’ll often glimpses back into the past as well. The Yankees won 109 games that year, a fact often overshadowed by the home run race, and emerged as World Series champions. It was a very good year.

Sports Night: While the Yankees are off, the Mets are not. The New York’s representative to the National League play host to the Colorado Rockies tonight. Since Mike Pelfrey is facing a good team, this one could be a high-scoring affair. In New Jersey, the Bobcats are visiting the Nets in a game for die-hards only while on ESPN, the 1-8 Rays are facing the 2-7 Red Sox.

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Youngest players by league

Via J.J. Cooper of Baseball America, he have a list of the youngest player in each professional baseball league. The two youngest big leaguers are Starlin Castro of the Cubs and Mike Stanton of the Marlins, two of just six players younger than 22. Jesus Montero is the sixth youngest player in Triple-A this year at 21 years and four months, trailing only Julio Teheran, Jose Iglesias, Jordan Lyles, Brett Lawrie, and Tyler Chatwood (who was called up the big leagues today).

Manny Banuelos is the fourth youngest player in Double-A, Scottie Allen is the sixth youngest in High-A, and Gary Sanchez is the second youngest in Low-A. The Yankees have a tendency to promote their top prospects aggressively, but in the cases of Montero and Banuelos, it’s certainly warranted.

An annotated breakdown of Yankees-Red Sox

Like everyone else, there are certain writers and analysts I just straight-up like more than others. My favorites, if you will. Sam Miller of the Orange County Register is one such writer. Every Monday he breaks down ESPN’s Sunday Night game with an annotated box score, sometimes talking about the game itself, sometimes going off on wild tangents, sometimes falling in between. Here’s this week’s breakdown of last night’s game, which features commentary on pistachios, a super YankSox team, Brett Gardner‘s plate discipline, green hats, cheesy shirts, and much more. It gets RAB’s highest recommendation, so make sure you check it out.

Sabathia’s minor changeup problem

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The season is still young, very young in fact, especially for starting pitchers who’ve made two, maybe three starts. CC Sabathia is one of the guys that has made three starts, and if there’s been one thing giving him trouble so far, it’s right-handed batters. Eight of 15 right-handed batters he faced last night reached base (three walks, five hits), and on the season, 18 of the 52 righties he’s faced have reached base, a .346 OBP. That’s noteworthy only because he held RHB to .295 OBP last year and .305 in 2009.

Sabathia relies on his changeup to combat batters of the opposite hand just like every other pitcher in the history of the universe. I don’t think many of us realized how good that pitch was for him until we starting seeing him pitch every five days, but there’s no denying it’s a quality offering. In fact, it’s been the third best changeup in baseball since the start of the 2009 season at 31.2 runs above average, trailing only Felix Hernandez (+35.3) and Tim Lincecum (+53.9, yikes). For whatever reason, the pitch hasn’t been cooperating with CC so far this season. To the heat maps!

(what the frack is a heat map?)

As you can see, the vast majority of Sabathia’s changeups were down-and-away from right-handers but in the strike zone last year. The handful of changeups he’s thrown this year are still down-and-away, but now they’re down below the zone and not strikes. That’s good to a certain extent because at least he’s not hanging them, but the entire point of a changeup is to get batters out in front thinking the pitch is a fastball. If it’s not a strike, they won’t swing no matter what kind of pitch is coming at them. At least good batters won’t, anyway.

Fortunately we have no reason to believe this is anything more than the normal randomness a pitcher will experience throughout the season. Pitches are like swings, they come and go every so often and are prone to slumps. Changeups are feel pitches according to the zillions of baseball announcers I’ve listened too over the years, and it’s tough to get a good feel for the ball when it’s been like, 40-degrees out as it has been early in the season. Right-handers won’t continue to get on base 34+% of the time against the Yankees’ ace, especially not once he gets back to commanding his changeup the way he has in the past.

The RAB Radio Show: April 11, 2011

It was another wild Yanks-Sox weekend that, unfortunately, found the Yanks on the wrong end of a 2-1 series loss. Mike and I look at the weekend that was, while peeking ahead to what could be a bumpy week ahead.

Podcast run time 29:09

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

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The Problem Up Top

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

This isn’t about Josh Beckett. When a pitcher is throwing 94, 95, 96 with command to both sides of the plate and that curveball, no offense is going to muster anything off of him. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Yankees were two-hit (with a walk and a barely hit-by-pitch thrown in) last night. It’ll happen over the course of 162 games, just accept it and move on to the next game.

No, this about a problem the Yankees have had since the first game of the season: the guys at the top of the lineup aren’t getting on base. Yes, it’s only been nine games, but when the two worst hitters in the lineup are getting more plate appearances than everyone else, it’s not exactly the kind of problem they should sit around and wait for it to correct itself. Brett Gardner has a measly .265 OBP, and even that is propped up by his four on-base effort in Saturday’s game. In the other eight games of the season, he’s gotten on base less than 17% of the time. He’s also struck out nine times, five times looking. A guy that made contact on nearly 92% of his swings on pitches in the zone last year can’t be staring at strike three over the plate. They teach you that in little league; it’s okay to strike out, just do it swinging.

Derek Jeter, the number two hitter against righties and leadoff man against lefties, is another matter entirely. Four out of every five balls he’s put in play this year have been on the ground, and his spray chart is even more ominous…

(via Texas Leaguers)

There’s three balls hit moderately deep. Three out of 30 balls in play. That is a problem whether you think it’s just a small sample size slump or the death of Jeter’s career. He’s gotten on base 30% of the time in the early going, hardly top of the order production. At this point, Jeter’s spot in the batting order is determined by his iconic status and his reputation, not his ability to help the team score. It’s harsh, but that’s life yo.

Of course, it’s not just the Gardner and Jeter that are struggling. Mark Teixeira went 0-for-Boston and has gotten on base three times since last Tuesday (two walks and a hit-by-pitch against seven strikeouts in 18 plate appearances). Jorge Posada hasn’t gotten on base in any way since last Monday, striking out eight times in his 15 plate appearances since. Curtis Granderson has been basically homer-or-bust. Nick Swisher is the only non-Gardner/Jeter regular without a homer and has been on base just five times in his last 24 plate appearances. That’s a lot of slumping bats in the lineup at the same time.

The saving graces have been Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin on a micro level and the homers on a macro level. Some well-timed dingers have covered up for the lineup’s general ineptitude; two out of every three runs the team has scored this season has come on a homer. It’s great that they have the ability to do that, but it’s not a sustainable winning formula. The Yankees’ team .311 OBP is actually fifth worst in the league, and their .242 BABIP is second worst in all of baseball. The good news is that won’t last forever, there’s just too many talented players.

That’s something that’ll fix itself over the course of the season. In the here and now, the current arrangement with Gardner and Jeter coming to plate more often than everyone else is hurting the Yankees. It’s not my job to figure out the best solution, but you’d have to think getting Martin higher up (second?) would be one course of action. I don’t think Gardner will maintain a .238 BABIP all season, not with his speed, so at some point the hits will start dropping in. Jeter’s .233 mark probably is unsustainable as well, since ground balls go for hits more often than any other kind of ball in play other than line drives. Until those two wake up with the bat, they’re just hurting the team offensively by batting so high up.

Hughes working on mechanical changes

Via George King, Phil Hughes and Larry Rothschild recently looked at some video of the right-hander’s 2010 season, and believe they have identified a mechanical flaw that’s resulted in that missing velocity. “I couldn’t feel it, but I could see it,” said Hughes after working on incorporating his lower half more in the bullpen. “I was more aggressive driving toward the plate. Hopefully I will get better arm strength as well.” Yeah, hopefully.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have no plans to send Hughes for medical tests, which makes zero sense to me. They say that Hughes feels fine physically, but a) players lie, and b) it doesn’t have to hurt for there to be something wrong. You’d think they’d have him checked out just for their own peace of mind since he’s a rather important part of the team both this year and going forward. It seems like the they can’t get out of their own way when it comes to young pitchers sometimes.