Cano showing patience — on certain pitches

During the seventh inning of last night’s game it looked like Robinson Cano did not want to take a walk. He had already earned a free pass in the first inning, and to take another walk would give him as many in one game as he had earned in the entire season to that point. The at-bat lasted eight pitches, the final one a weak fastball that ran way too far inside. Not even Cano would take a hack. He took his base for the second time that night.

Cano, as he does so often, made the at-bat longer than it needed to be. Not one of the pitches from Edwar Ramirez ended up in the strike zone — least of all pitches six and seven, both changeups low and away, both fouled off. Both, also, had Cano taken them, would have put him on first base. Thankfully, Cano has a penchant for fouling off bad pitches, so he was able to extend the at-bat without any real damage. Here’s the Gameday view of his PA:

That wasn’t Cano’s first long at-bat of the night, either. In the first he worked the count on A’s starter Gio Gonzalez, taking that one to eight pitches as well. Gonzalez threw far more pitches in or near the zone than Edwar — and Robbie actually took one of them, a third pitch fastball for a strike after the first two pitches missed inside for balls. I’m actually surprised that Cano didn’t crush the sixth pitch, a fastball at the heart of the plate. He managed to only foul it away, though. He did the same on the next pitch before deciding that the at-bat’s final fastball, low and inside, wasn’t worth the hack.

By the ninth inning the Yankees had the game well in hand. Still, Cano came to the plate for one last appearance, this time against the side-arming Brad Ziegler. Like most side-armers, Ziegler fares far worse against lefties, a .868 OPS against. Against righties he fares much better, just a .569 OPS against. To this end, Ziegler worked carefully to Cano. As you can see in the Gameday plot below, only a few of the pitches came anywhere near the strike zone. It’s a shame that he swung at the fourth pitch, but other than that he displayed a pretty good batting eye in this plate appearances.

Looking at all three pitch plots, it appears that Robbie does not like the low inside pitch. It is the pitch he takes most frequently, even when it’s closer to the strike zone than other pitches in the at-bat at which he swung. This has been a trend all season for Cano. Check out the following plots, courtesy of Texas Leaguers. The first is a plot of the pitches Cano has swung at. The second is a plot of the pitches he’s taken.

Throw it low and inside, and Cano’s eye seems as good as anyone else’s. Throw it low or away, and he’s probably going to hack. This seems like a positive development. It might not last all season — Cano did hack at his share of low and inside pitches outside the strikezone last season — but so far it has been a definite positive for Cano.

Surprisingly, last night was not the first time Cano drew three walks in a game. It was actually the fourth. In 2007 he did it twice within a couple of weeks. The first came on July 24 against the Royals, and the second came on August 7 against the Blue Jays. He then did it in 2008, in August against the Rangers.

Vazquez gets in the win column as Yanks take fifth straight

The Yankees arrived on the West Coast on a high note, having won their last four games and seven of their last eight overall. The team enjoyed a nice moment before the game, presentingĀ  Chad Gaudin and Edwar Ramirez with their 2009 World Series rings, but there was no mercy to be found once everybody took the field.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

Biggest Hit: Nick Swisher‘s two run single

Before the game even got underway, I said Gio Gonzalez was exactly the kind of pitcher that the Yankees should destroy. He throws way too many pitches out of the zone, and this lineup isn’t going to help him out at all. Sure enough, they made him pay before starter Javy Vazquez even came out of the dugout.

Derek Jeter and Nick Johnson started the first inning off by making two very quick outs (just five pitches between the two of them), but Mark Teixeira doubled them up by taking four straight fastballs for a 3-1 count before ripping the fifth into the corner for a double. Alex Rodriguez and Robbie Cano followed with walks, and Jorge Posada reached base with a little help from Daric Barton’s stone hands at first. The Yanks were up a run, but they had a golden opportunity to cash in more.

At the plate was Nick Swisher, who coming into the game had made outs in his last nine plate appearances and hadn’t picked up a hit since tripling off Joel Pineiro last Wednesday. He had become anxious at the plate, hacking at the first more than a few times in the previous series against the Rangers. Gonzalez poured a first pitch fastball in for a questionable called strike, then two more for balls and a 2-1 count. Gonzalez had thrown Swisher three fastballs clocked at 93, 93, and 94, and he went right back to the well for another 94 mph heater, which Swisher promptly deposited into centerfield for a two run single. The Yankees had an early three run lead, and never looked back.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

Biggest Out: Travis Buck’s 1-3 double play

After the Yankees staked Javy to a three run lead, he did his best to try and hand at least part of it back in the second. With runners on first and third and one out, Travis Buck worked himself into a full count before squaring up a hanging curveball out over the plate. The ball was ticketed for centerfield, but Vazquez stuck his glove out and picked it off as it went by. Mark Ellis was running on the play, so Javy lobbed it over to Teixeira to double him off first for an easy third out.

Combined with A-Rod‘s heads up play to get the lead runner at the plate for the first out, it was one of the best escape jobs we’ll see all season. When you’ve got men on second and third with no outs, you hope to get out of the inning with just one run scoring. But to get out with the shutout intact? That’s big.

Honorable Mention: Kevin Kouzmanoff’s strikeout

The Yankees seemed to be in control of this one of this one all game long, but it almost got away from them for a bit in the 7th. Boone Logan, making his Yankee debut, recording two quick outs before a poor throw by Jeter extended the inning. Barton followed up with a single to right, and Logan couldn’t put the lefty swinging Ryan Sweeney away, loaded the bases on a free pass, all with two outs.

Out came Joe Girardi from the dugout, and in came Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to face Kouzmanoff, the A’s cleanup hitter. Joba started him off with a slider off the plate for ball one, but he picked up two strikes when Kouz fouled off a fastball and another slider. The fourth pitch was yet another slider, the third of the at-bat, though the A’s third basemen couldn’t hold up in time and went down on a check swing strikeout. Obviously a grand slam is the worst case scenario, but even if Joba had allowed a ball to get into the gap, all of a sudden we’re looking at a one run game with seven outs to go.

Vazquez grinds it out

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

With the memory of his two first starts fresh in everyone’s minds, Javy Vazquez went out tonight trying to pick up not just a win for the team, but also a win for his confidence. Staked to a three run lead before he even threw a pitch, Javy fired off four shutout innings before serving up garbage time homers to Travis Buck and Kurt Suzuki, but more on that later.

It was clear from the start that Vazquez didn’t have his best stuff, and he struggled to put hitters away all night. Sixteen of the 23 batters he faced saw at least four pitches in their plate appearances, and ten saw at least five. The A’s are a patient team, but it’s not a lineup that should require just under a hundred pitches for five innings of work.

Vazquez threw 107 pitches on the night, mixing it up with 51 fastballs, 24 curveballs, 19 changeups, and 13 sliders. His fastball didn’t start to crack 90 mph with regularity until the third inning, and he put at least one batter on base in every inning he pitched. Vazquez helped himself out with some fine defense, starting a pair of double plays while adding a nice play on a comebacker that hit him in the leg to record an out.

That two run homer to Suzuki to cap off Javy’s night makes his pitching line (5.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 6 K) look worse than it should be, but overall he battled throughout the game and made some big pitches when he had too. It’s nothing to write home about, but I’m sure he feels good and now has something to build off of.

Happy Moments

That first inning was a treat. After Jeter and Johnson made those first two outs on five pitches, the guys behind them proceeded to load the bases, push three runs across, and force Gonzalez to throw another 31 pitches in the frame before recording the last out. Also, Javy getting out of that second and third with no outs jam in the 2nd. It wasn’t textbook, but it worked. Disaster was imminent, but the A’s got nothing out of it. Alex just never seems to make a bad decision on the field, the guy is a baseball robot.

Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP

Speaking of A-Rod, holy schnikees was that a bomb off Craig Breslow in the 5th. It was one of those homers that he didn’t even bother to watch in flight, he knew it was gone as soon as it left the bat. A-Rod’s now one homer behind Frank Robinson for seventh place on the all time list.

Patience. The Yankees’ lineup is just devastating if the opposing starter does anything less than pound the zone; only once in the last five games has a starter completed at least five against against the Yanks. They scored seven runs on just five hits tonight, coaxing ten walks out of A’s pitching. Even Cano got in on the act, drawing three walks to bring his season total to five. Overall, the Yankees have scored at least three runs in every game this season, and at least five runs in ten of the 13 games. That’s getting it done with the stick.

Joba looked fantastic tonight. PitchFX had him topping out at 96 with the fastball, and overall he just looked very sharp. Best he’s looked all season, and probably the best he’s looked since 2008.

Oh, and hey look, it’s Edwar! Glad to see he hasn’t changed one bit.

Annoying Moments

That two run homer by Kurt Suzuki in the 6th. Not so much the homer, but the non-play on the lazy fly ball to shallow center before that. Someone has to make that play, and it’s on Curtis Granderson and Robbie Cano for failing to communicate. The homer to Buck in the 5th didn’t bother me. Vazquez had a six run lead and full count on the leadoff batter, just throw a fastball over the plate and hope this is part of the 65% of the time or so that Buck makes an out.

I know injuries are a serious thing, but damn. Home plate ump Ed Rapuano takes a foul ball off the face mask, staggers around for a bit, stays in the game, then has to leave a few batters later. Logan got up in the bullpen, warmed up, came into the game, threw his warmup pitches, then makes one pitch to Mark Ellis before he has to wait out a 13-minute delay after Rapuano leaves. I mean, come on. Could’ve timed it a little better.

WPA Graph

You can find individual player breakdowns at FanGraphs’ box score.

Up Next

Another late West Coast game tomorrow, as these two teams are back at it for game two of the series. Phil Hughes vs. Ben Sheets. Should be a good one.

Game 13: Streakin’

Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

The Yankees have won their last four games, and start the first of three 2010 West Coast trips tonight against the A’s in the rather bland Oakland Coliseum. Their second West Coast trip goes through Arizona and Los Angeles as part of the interleague schedule, and the final one comes right before the All Star Break. It’s good to get them over with in the first half, no one likes those September trips across the country.

On the bump for the A’s is Gio Gonzalez, who, frankly, should get his brains beat in. His strikeout rate is very good at 9.67 K/9 career (143.1 IP), but he’s thrown just 46% of his pitches in the strikezeone, which is not going to get it done against this offense. Then again, the Yanks are prone of being shutdown by these young lefties for no reason, so who knows.

Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Swisher, RF
Granderson, CF
Gardner, LF – glad to see him in there against the lefty

And on the mound, a guy who could really use a win, Javy Vazquez.

First pitch is scheduled for 10:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game if you’re staying up for it. Oh, and don’t miss tonight’s DotF.

Montero goes deep again as Scranton falls

Kevin Goldstein called Jesus Montero the best hitter in the minors today, and rated him as the second base prospect in the minor behind Stephen Strasburg. Praise doesn’t get much higher.

Triple-A Scranton (11-7 loss to Buffalo)
Kevin Russo, 2B-3B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 K, 1 SB
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 3 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 SB – 8 for his last 14 (.571)
Juan Miranda, 1B: 1 for 3, 2 BB
David Winfree, DH: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – 7 for his last 21 (.333) with a double & two jacks … w00t
Chad Huffman, LF, Colin Curtis, RF & Robby Hammock, 3B: all 1 for 4 – Huffman got hit by a pitch, hit a two run jack & K’ed … Curtis got plunked & K’ed
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 K
Romulo Sanchez: 6 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 11-5 GB/FB – 50 of 83 pitches were strikes (50.2%) … 11 BB & 9 K on the year … that’s not going to get it done
Zack Segovia: 0.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 16 of 27 pitches were strikes (59.3%) … that’s 19 baserunners & 10 runs allowed in six innings … yikes
Kevin Whelan: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 WP – 18 of 32 pitches were strikes (56.3%)

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Open Thread: CC goes home

The Yankees are in the Bay Area, so that means CC Sabathia is back in his old stomping grounds. The Yanks’ ace threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the first night game in the history of North Vallejo Little League’s Thurman Field on Monday night, which he helped rebuild. This certainly isn’t the first time Sabathia has gone back to his hometown and helped out, just Google “CC Sabathia Vallejo” and look at what comes up. He’s clearly a world class athlete that gets it.

Anyway, here’s the open thread to hold you over until tonight’s game, which starts at 10pm ET. The Cubs and Mets are back at it, plus the Phillies and Braves are on the MLB Network. You’ve also got a ton of NBA and NHL playoff action. Enjoy.

Twelve games in, All Star balloting opens

It never fails to amaze me that Major League Baseball’s All Star Game counts for something. Voting is but a popularity contest, and a glorified exhibition game determines home field advantage in the World Series. I shouldn’t complain because the AL has a dominant lock on the Mid-Summer Classic these days, but it rankles me nonetheless. To that end, it seems absurd that, on April 20, nine games into the season, we can now vote for the 2010 All Star team. Perhaps we should Scott Podsednik to the Small Sample Size All Star team for hitting .457 over 46 ABs or Vernon Wells for bashing six dingers in the early goings, but I don’t want either of them anywhere near the AL All Star team come mid-July.

Derek’s Odd Start

Today at ESPN’s TMI blog, I looked at Kosuke Fukudome’s hot starts. During his first two seasons in America he has set a high bar for himself in April, but then has failed to live up to those lofty marks. Part of the reason relates to his ground ball percentage. In his two (now three) Aprils he holds a 41 percent ground ball rate, while that jumps to 50 percent from May through September. To show why this was a problem I cited some ground ball and fly ball numbers for the National League. Rather than quote, I’ll look at those numbers for American League hitters.

We often hear, and sometimes repeat, the adage that ground balls go for hits more frequently than fly balls. While that is true, the difference isn’t as pronounced as you might think. In 2009 the American League as a whole hit .239 on ground balls. That mark dropped to just .224 on fly balls. Fly balls, of course, bring many more advantages, including a much higher slugging percentage. To wit, the slugging percentage on ground balls was .259, while it was .821 on fly balls. Furthermore, keeping the ball on the ground also precludes line drives, the best of all hit types. AL hitters batted .739 with a 1.015 SLG when hitting the ball on a line.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

During the season’s first dozen games, it seems as though Derek Jeter has hit a ground ball to shortstop in nearly every at-bat — that is, except the two doubles and three homers he has hit so far. Whether it’s a single up the middle or just a routine grounder to the left side, it seems like he’s always hitting it there. His groundball rate does bear this out. Of the 45 balls he has put in play so far, 33 have been on the ground. Yet, despite this high ground ball rate, Jeter’s ISO sits at .220, which rates higher than any full year of his career. Unsurprisingly, so does his 73.3 percent ground ball rate.

As we learned last night, these numbers do not hold predictive value for Jeter at their current sample sizes. He has come to the plate just 52 times, so the only statistic that might have stabilized is his Swing% — and even then I expect it will come down from its 54.6 percent rate, which would rank by far the highest in Jeter’s career. We can’t expect his ground ball rate to tell us anything for another 150 PA, and you can forget about his ISO until August. These stats have a tendency to fluctuate in small samples, and that’s just what we’re seeing right now.

Most of the discrepancy in Jeter’s numbers comes from extremely good luck on his fly balls and liners. Of the five balls he has hit on a line, four have gone for hits, including one of his three home runs. Of the seven balls he has lifted enough to be considered flies, he has collected another four hits, including two doubles and the other two home runs. In other words, when Jeter lifts the ball he’s hitting .667 with a 1.333 SLG. This will not remain consistent throughout 2010, of course, but it’s quite a nice start. Even as Jeter hasn’t looked his best at the plate he has still produced excellent results.