Is the Yankees’ homer problem really a problem?

No, Russell! Not a homer! (Elise Amendola/AP)

The way I’ve seen fans and media tell it, the Yankees are killing themselves by hitting too many home runs. That is, too often they’ve done the best thing any batter can do at the plate. There are, in fact, not one, but two articles in the Daily News this morning (by Mark Feinsand and Christian Red) lamenting this very woe.

That all sounds very silly. The Yankees have hit a lot of home runs this year, and it has led to one of the top offenses in the league. Yet, for some reason, the preponderance of home runs is a bad thing. I suppose that’s because they’re not going to maintain their current pace, which is for 324 home runs. When the home runs stop flowing, the logic goes, the Yankees will face trouble scoring runs. Yet this blatantly ignores what we’ve all learned from years of watching baseball.

The team you see on the field will change in the course of the next few months. The players might remain the same, though there’s a good chance we’ll see changes there, too. But the manner in which the team plays will always be changing. As they say, the team they field in April isn’t the same as the team they’ll field in July. That’s because hitters go through fits and starts, peaks and valleys, slumps and streaks. Yes, their home run pace will slacken. But the concern over the team seems to ignore that other aspects will get better.

For an illustration of this point, we can turn to SG of Replacement Level, who looked at the Yankees’ BABIP and xBABIP to this point. Unsurprisingly, the actual team BABIP, .243, is considerably lower than what one would expect given the team’s batted ball profiles. Their xBABIP sits at .322. So while the home runs trend downward, the Yankees’ other hits will trend upward. Then they’ll start scoring runs with singles and doubles in addition to the homers.

We don’t even need to delve into advanced statistics to prove this point. To be worried that the Yankees rely too much on the homer is to worry that Curtis Granderson will OBP .250 on the season, that Nick Swisher will continue hitting .219/.289/.250, that Mark Teixeira won’t heat up as the weather does, that Brett Gardner had the flukiest of fluky years in 2010, that Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter are completely cooked. Maybe one of those things is true, but I even doubt that. Streaks and slumps happen. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the season they’re a bit more noticeable and too much ends up being made of them.

This type of thing happens every year. At some point people say that the Yankees don’t do this, or the Yankees don’t do that. Maybe it’s true for that moment in time. But as the season progresses the team changes. Players who slump early start to streak. Guys who hit a ton of homers might cool down, but that doesn’t mean they become unproductive. It’s just that some of those homers stay in the park — which means some go for doubles instead. The Yankees offense as a whole, though, will be just fine. To think otherwise is to ignore years of experience watching a 162-game season unfold.

The Jesus Montero Stock Rollercoaster

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The MSM-types love the word fail. The batter failed to get the runner in. The pitcher failed to bail out his defense. Jesus Montero failed to win the backup catcher’s job in Spring Training. That was a popular one a few weeks ago. It’s certainly true to an extent, because if Montero had a more productive spring, there’s a pretty good chance that he’d be in the big leagues right now as Russell Martin‘s caddy. But really, the only thing he failed at was performing well over a 40 at-bat sample. If two more hits drop in and he goes 12-for-40 instead of 10-for-40, he’s a .300 hitter and not a .250 hitter in camp. Small sample sizes, they’re a bitch.

Predictably, much was written about how Montero’s stock dropped in Spring Training, how he was no longer considered an elite prospect because of 19 games he played in camp. That, of course, is the real failure. No prospect’s stock can or should fall based on Spring Training or any random 19-game sample for that matter. Is Mike Trout no longer the best prospect in the game after hitting .276/.276/.364 in camp? Should the Royals be concerned that Mike Moustakas and Wil Myers combined to go 5-for-27 (.185) in camp? No, of course not.

Four games into the Triple-A Scranton season, Montero has picked up right where he left off last year. He has nine hits (including a homer) in 20 trips to the plate so far, including eight hits in his last 16 at-bats. Does that mean his stock is back up to where it was before Spring Training? No, the needle should have never moved in the first place. All the efforts to sensationalize Montero’s spring shortcomings have been dissipated in the first series of the season. The guy’s going to hit, we’ve known that from day one. Nothing’s changed.

Joel Sherman wondered yesterday if Martin and Montero were the new version of Scott Brosius and Mike Lowell. The Yankees acquired Brosius back in the day to be a one-year stopgap until Lowell could take over third long-term, but he played so well his first year that he ended up getting a contract extension and Lowell was shipped to Florida for three pitching prospects. Same deal with Martin; he was brought in as a stopgap but has played pretty well so far, so Sherman wondered if Montero could find himself on the trade block for help elsewhere. Brian Cashman has long called the Lowell trade his worst decision, so I assume he’s learned from that. No player should be untouchable, but we’ve already said the Yankees should only trade Montero for the very best, something that certainly didn’t happen with Lowell (who was a big-time prospect in his own right). Is it possible? Sure. But I’d call it unlikely.

Baseball is a game about the long haul, looking at small pieces of information and extrapolating them out is going to burn you more often than not. That’s a real failure. Nineteen games in Spring Training doesn’t tell us much about Montero, nor does four Triple-A games. Eight games isn’t enough to declare Martin the catcher of the future either. Until further notice, Montero remains in the Yankees’ long-term plans, no matter what is written about his stock.

Winning Sabathia’s Starts

(Winslow Towson/AP)

Marco Scutaro’s two-run double in the seventh inning Sunday night marked the first point in the series when I comfortably thought that either team was going to win a game. Before that no lead felt safe, because the pitching had been so haphazard. But with Josh Beckett mowing down Yankee after Yankee, the game certainly felt over. My first thought after that was, “Great, another loss in a CC start.” There’s not much the big man could have done about it, since the offense didn’t provide even the minimum one run required to win any game. But it was a disappointment nonetheless. Those CC starts are of great importance to the Yankees this year.

The Yankees clearly share this view of their workhorse ace. Last Tuesday we saw Girardi go to Rafael Soriano in the eighth inning of a four-run game after Soriano had pitched the previous day. This isn’t too out of the ordinary, but it’s not something we’re used to seeing. For whatever reason, the setup man/closer cutoff comes at three runs. With a four-run lead in the eighth we’re far more likely to see Robertson or Chamberlain take the mound. But Girardi clearly wasn’t going to take a four-run lead for granted. Hence, his setup man takes the hill to protect it. That is, he took the mound to protect the lead in a Sabathia start.

That move, of course, backfired in the worst possible way. Soriano had nothing that night, and the Twins took full advantage. It spoiled a CC win in a game that the Yankees absolutely should have won. It’s akin to Sabathia throwing seven strong against Boston last May, only to have the bullpen, and Marcus Thames, completely blow the ending. Yes, there’s plenty of time to recover from it. But with an expected tight race with the Red Sox this season, the Yankees need to hold on in those situations, especially when Sabathia takes the hill.

Still, it’s too early to get too worked up about the Yankees losing two out of three Sabathia starts. After all, last year they dropped two of his first five, and six of his first 11. In that context, two of the first three doesn’t seem that bad. But in another way, with the Yankees’ rotation concerns coming to fruition, it becomes a bigger concern. Last year the Yankees had A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes pitching well in the first two months. This year they might have Burnett, but without Pettitte and with a shaky, at best, Hughes, winning CC’s starts becomes even more important.

Right now we’ve basically seen one instance where the Yankees failed to hold a lead for Sabathia, and another where they failed to support him with adequate runs. The only game they won for him, really, was the one in which he pitched the poorest. (You can make an argument for last night, but the only damage the Sox did was constantly singling up the middle.) Surely this will get better. It did in both 2009 and 2010, when Sabathia was almost unbeatable from June forward. But this season the early games mean a bit more, because of the relatively weaker supporting cast. There is no such thing as a must-win at this point in the season; there really won’t be until September. But when Sabathia takes the mound this weekend against the Rangers, the Yankees have to come out and support their ace. He’s their key to another AL East crown.

Offense explodes for Scranton & Charleston

Both Wilkins Arias and Damon Sublett were placed on the disabled list today to make room for Manny Banuelos and Myron Leslie. One or both of those could be phantom DL trips, though I suspect Sublett might be legit injured. He’s good at doing that.

Triple-A Scranton (11-0 win over Rochester)
Greg Golson, DH: 3 for 4, 3 R, 1 3B, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 BB – he’s been on base 11 times in four games
Dan Brewer, PH-DH: 0 for 1, 1 K – it’s a shame there’s no room for him to play every day
Chris Dickerson, CF: 1 for 5, 2 R, 1 BB, 1 K
Jesus Montero, C: 3 for 5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI – up to a .450 AVG
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 2 for 5, 2 R, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 1 K – three homers in the last two games
Brandon Laird, 3B: 0 for 4, 1 RBI, 2 K – he isn’t exactly coming out of the gate on fire like he did last year
Jordan Parraz, RF: 3 for 5, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 E (fielding) – at least two hits in all four games
Justin Maxwell, CF: 0 for 3, 1 R, 2 BB, 2 K
Kevin Russo, 2B: 1 for 4, 2 K, 1 HBP – and he finally gets into the hit column after 17 at-bats
Ramiro Pena, SS: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 3B
D.J. Mitchell, RHP: 3.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 3-2 GB/FB – 42 of 81 pitches were strikes (51.9%) … picked a runner off second … definitely the weak link in the SWB rotation despite this okay performance
Amaury Sanit, RHP: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 0-3 GB/FB – 29 of 42 pitches were strikes (69.0%)
Buddy Carlyle, RHP: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 17 of 29 pitches were strikes (58.6%)
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 1-0 GB/FB – ten of 14 pitches were strikes (71.4%)

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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.

Site Notes: Please consider participating in our 2011 Pledge Drive … Also, please take our completely anonymous reader demographic survey if you haven’t already … Lastly, please vote for Alex Kresovich’s “The Reader” track for the NBA2K12 by clicking “Like” on Facebook. Alex put together the intro music for our podcast.

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.