Inside the changes to the Great City Subway Race

The Yankees have replaced the B, D and 4 trains with their own subway colors. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

When Opening Day dawned at Yankee Stadium last week, fans watching the between-innings entertainment were in for a shock. The Yankees had changed the Great City Subway Race. Instead of featuring the MTA’s familiar 4, B and D trains, the subway cars were now labeled Road Gray, Midnight Blue and Pinstripes. Gone was the connection — albeit a tenuous one — to New York City.

In the ensuing days, fan response has been loud and negative. What started out on my part as an amusing look at the changes has turned into something personal for others. A group dedicated to bringing back the subway designations has popped up on Facebook and already has over 130 members. Others now find the subway race a shell of its former self. It’s just another part of the constant barrage of stadium noise.

Behind the scenes, rumors are flying. At first, it sounded as though the MTA had asked for licensing fees from the Yankees, but as I dug deeper into the behind-the-scenes goings-on, that story changed. In fact, this is a tale that has its origins in the original subway race at the new stadium.

When the Yankees first started the subway race, they asked the MTA for permission to use the transit agency’s intellectual property. The subway bullets, after all, are MTA trademarks, and the authority granted that permission, for free, as long as the Yankees did not attach a sponsor to the race. Here, the story gets a little fuzzy. The Yankees had long had Dunkin Donuts sponsoring the race; the 4 train was frequently slowed by a jelly donut in the tracks. The MTA though didn’t seem to notice a sponsor had signed on until last year when Subway took over.

Following the 2010 season, MTA sources tell me, the authority attempted to reach out to the Yankees to discuss the subway race sponsorship. At no point did the MTA ask the Yankees for money, and one person with whom I spoke said the MTA had no plans to do so. Rather, they were going to ask the Yankees to append a public service announcement to the subway race urging fans to take mass transit to the game. The Yankees though never returned the MTA’s calls, and the authority never had the chance to make this offer.

When reached for a comment, an MTA spokesperson was guarded. “The video race was considered a method to promote taking mass transit to games,” Kevin Ortiz said. ” We are disappointed the Yankees decided to change the look of the trains.” The Yankees had no comment.

So that’s where things stand right now with the subway race. I doubt we’ve heard the end of this, but the Yankees and the MTA appear to be at an impasse. I’m hoping the real subway bullets come back, but in the meantime, I think I’ll root for Pinstripes. It’s a classic look.

Game Five: Andruw’s debut

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Depending on who you ask, the Yankees have three players right now that should get into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mariano Rivera are the easy picks, but they aren’t the only guys on the roster with Cooperstown-worthy credentials. As good as CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are, fourth outfielder Andruw Jones has had a more distinguished career than any of them. From 1998 through 2006 (age 21-29), Jones averaged .270/.347/.513 (.365 wOBA) with 35 homers, 12 steals, and an unfathomable 25.5 defensive runs saved per season. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Unfortunately, Jones is no longer that player. He’s with the Yankees as a spare part, a guy whose sole purpose in life is to spot start against left-handed pitching, a job he may or may not be qualified for. He’s making his first start of the season tonight, adding to a lineup that has tattooed Twins’ starter Brian Duensing in each of the last two postseasons. The Yankees don’t need Andruw to be a cornerstone player, he just needs to take care of business at the bottom of the lineup.

Death, taxes, and the Yankees beating the Twins. The only certainties in life. Here’s the starting lineup…

Derek Jeter, SS
Nick Swisher, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Andruw Jones, LF
Curtis Granderson, CF

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and the game can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

It’s hard out here for a shortstop

Via Jennifer Gould Keil, ongoing construction at the Trump World Tower, where Derek Jeter lives in his $20M pad, was cutting into the Yankee captain’s beauty sleep. So Jeter came up with a sensible solution: he signed a one-year lease on a $15,500-a-month apartment at a different location in the building, away from the construction, that he now sleeps in. Practical, right? I had a similar problem about two years ago, but I just hit up Duane Reade for some ear plugs. I like Jeter’s idea instead.

Gardner’s trouble with the high pitch

During the first four games of the 2011 season we’ve seen something a bit different from Brett Gardner. It’s not just that he’s looked a little more aggressive, but it’s that it appears he’s swinging with a bit more authority. You can notice this especially on outside pitches. Last year he’d invariably slap at those pitches with one hand on the bat. This year he’s keeping both hands in place, and his swings look a bit harder. Maybe that will help in the long run, but for now it has caused him a few problems.

This chart comes from Joe Lefkowitz’s PitchFX tool, and it shows the trouble Gardner has had with any pitches up in the zone. Save for one lonely fly ball, he has done nothing but whiff at and foul off these pitches. At first I guessed that this had something to do with his revamped swing. It can take time to adjust. But looking back at last year might paint the issue differently.

That’s the same chart, only from April through June of 2010. Notice how there are a number of line drives in the upper half of the zone. They’re not predominant, but there are still a fair number of them. There are also a good number of fly balls, and presumably some of them went for hits. Finally, there are relatively few swings and misses. Now let’s move to July and beyond.

The green dots in the upper half of the zone nearly disappear, and ther are plenty more blue dots. We can then overlay that with foul balls.

Now it’s starting to look like an extrapolated version of Gardner’s 2011 chart. That has to be a concern. We know that Gardner’s ailing wrist affected his second half performance, and we know that he had wrist surgery during the off-season. He says he’s fine, and no one has given any indication that anything is wrong. But what we’ve seen from him so far is starting to resemble the second half of 2010.

After looking at this data, I’m just going to hope that Gardner is indeed working on some swing adjustments that will allow him to drive pitches with some more authority. That would go a long way in explaining his inability to do anything with high fastballs. The alternative just isn’t something I want to consider right now. Thankfully, we don’t have the data to make such a conclusion.

Looking at the Double-A and Low-A rosters

The anchor(s) of Trenton's bullpen. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The minor league season is now just two days away, so the rosters for the four full season affiliates are starting to trickle in. Yesterday we learned that David Phelps will get the ball on Opening Day for Triple-A Scranton, and over the winter I made an attempt to piece together the rest of the roster. Remember, that was back in December, so a lot has changed. I also took a stab at the minor league rotations and previewed the farm system as a whole last month.

Rosters for Double-A Trenton and Low-A Charleston were released yesterday, so let’s dive in and take a look. First up, the Thunder, courtesy of Mike Ashmore

Pitchers: Cory Arbiso, Wilkins Arias, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Steve Garrison, Shaeffer Hall, Fernando Hernandez, Craig Heyer, Kei Igawa, Tim Norton, Naoyo Okamoto, Graham Stoneburner, and Pat Venditte.

The Yankees signed Hernandez and Okamoto as minor league free agents back in February and October, respectively. The starting rotation is pretty clear cut with Banuelos, Betances, Garrison, Hall, and Stoneburner, and there’s a good mix of lefties and righties in the bullpen. Hernandez might be the de facto closer so Heyer and Venditte can pitch multiple innings in middle relief as part of their development. One of these guys has to go, since the Thunder won’t be carrying 13 pitchers on a 24-man roster, and I suspect it’ll be Norton.

Catchers: Austin Romine and Myron Leslie.

Infielders: Corban Joseph, Addison Maruszak, Yadil Mujica, and Jose Pirela.

Outfielders: Cody Johnson, Austin Krum, Ray Kruml, Melky Mesa, Jack Rye, and Damon Sublett.

Johnson was acquired from the Braves in November for cash considerations, and Mujica came on board a little more than a month ago. Baseball America ranked Johnson as Atlanta’s ninth best prospect before the 2010 season, calling him a “minor league version of Adam Dunn.” He owns a .233 ISO, a 10.0% walk rate, and a 39.0% strikeout rate for his career. I suspect he’ll see more time at DH and first base than in the outfield though, since his defensive value is nil.

Romine returns after posting a .328 wOBA last year, the right move for him after he wore down late in the season. Melky Mesa won the Florida State League MVP last year after putting up a .378 wOBA with 19 homers and 31 steals while playing center field. Those two figure to bat three-four in the lineup with Johnson providing protection in the five-hole. Krum (64), CoJo (58), and Pirela (57) ranked one-two-three in the system in walks last year, and I get the feeling that the first two will bat ahead of Romine & Co. Sublett provides some nice flexibility since he can play the outfield or the infield in a pinch. David Adams won’t be ready to start the season, he’s currently battling plantar fasciitis.

Heathcott and Murphy aren't the only guys to watch in Charleston this year. (Photo via Andy in Sunny Daytona)

Let’s move on to Low-A Charleston, with the roster coming via milb.com

Pitchers: Manny Barreda, Dan Burawa, Nathan Forer, Mike Gipson, Shane Greene, Tommy Kahnle, Fred Lewis, Rich Martinez, Zach Nuding, Mikey O’Brien, Wilton Rodriguez, Kramer Sneed, and Nik Turley.

It’s definitely a veteran-laden staff, in that most of these guys were drafted out of some kind of college (either four-year or JuCo). The only exceptions are Barreda (HS), Martinez (IFA), O’Brien (HS), Rodriguez (IFA), and Turley (HS). The Yankees have emphasized power arms in recent years, and this staff shows it. Nuding is a major sleeper after signing for $265,000 as a 30th round pick last year; his fastball has been clocked as high as 97, though he’s maxed out physically at 6-foot-4 and 265 lbs. Greene is another hard thrower and was the ace of last year’s Short Season Staten Island club. Those two plus O’Brien and Turley will make up four-fifths of the rotation, and the other spot could go to any one of Forer, Gipson, Lewis, or Sneed. Barreda, Burawa, and Kahnle are arguably the three best relief pitching prospects in the system, and all three offer big-time fastballs. Again, one of these guys is going to have to go because of roster limitations, maybe Rodriguez.

Catchers: Jeff Farnham, J.R. Murphy, Gary Sanchez.

Infielders: Kelvin Castro, Anderson Feliz, Jose Mojica, Kyle Roller, Rob Segedin, and Jose Toussen.

Outfielders: Kelvin DeLeon, Ramon Flores, Slade Heathcott, and Eduardo Sosa.

New manager Aaron Ledesma (former Triple-A Scranton third base coach) is going to have his work cut out for him with the lineup, just by making sure everyone gets playing time. Murphy and Sanchez will presumably do the catcher-DH dance that Jesus Montero and Romine enjoyed a few seasons ago, likely relegating Flores to first base so he plays every day. There’s also a chance Murphy moves around (he played third and some outfield in Instructional League last fall), but that doesn’t really clear up the logjam. Segedin will definitely play everyday at the hot corner, and masher Kyle Roller (.362 wOBA for Staten Island last year) is probably going to get stuck on the bench since DH and first base figure to be occupied by actual prospects. It’s a good problem to have, but it’ll take some creativity. Again, someone has to go because of the roster size, and I’m guessing it’ll be Toussen.

The process of elimination tells me that first rounder Cito Culver and fellow 2010 draft picks Mason Williams, Angelo Gumbs, Gabe Encinas, Taylor Morton, Ben Gamel, Tyler Austin, and Evan Rutckyj are staying in Extended Spring Training and will then be assigned to Staten Island or the rookie level Gulf Coast League when the seasons start in June. A (finally) healthy Abe Almonte, Rob Lyerly, Luke Murton, DeAngelo Mack, Kyle Higashioka, Jairo Heredia, Scottie Allen, Sean Black, and Chase Whitley seem like safe bets for High-A Tampa. Ditto Bradley Suttle, who will be repeating the level after last year’s .348 wOBA. That’s a shame, but it’s better than being released.

The RAB Radio Show: April 5, 2011

Ivan Nova had a fine 2011 debut last night, allowing three runs in six innings of work. Mike and I talk about various aspects of the game, including Girardi’s decision to pull him at 85 pitches, and with the bottom of the order due up in the seventh.

Then it’s onto tonight’s game, when the Yankees will face Brian Duensing. They know him well, as he’s started a game in each of the last two ALDS. They’ve bombed him, but he just seems like the type of guy who would give the Yankees fits.

Podcast run time 30:18

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[audio:http://riveraveblues.com/podcasts/TheRABRadioShow040511.mp3]

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

Soriano not worried about missing velocity

As Rafael Soriano was busy retiring the likes of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the eighth inning of last night’s game, you may have noticed that his fastball wasn’t buzzing in with it’s usual oomph. The pitch averaged just 90.99 mph last night, down from the 93.0 mph he averaged last season. “I’m not 100% with my fastball,” he told Marc Carig after the game, adding that he doesn’t get all of his velocity back until May. He’s right; he started in the low-90’s before creeping up in the middle of the summer in each of the last two seasons. Ultimately, Soriano doesn’t seem concerned.

Missing velocity has been a hot topic in the early goings of the season, with most of the attention on Phil Hughes. He and Soriano are not alone though. Ivan Nova averaged 91.45 mph last night after sitting 92.9 last year. Jon Lester’s fastball averaged 93.5 mph in 2010 but sat just 91.19 on Opening Day. Felix Hernandez lost a full mile-an-hour when he sat 93.67 in his first start. Maybe everyone’s shoulder is hurt. Maybe it’s just the weather. Either way, there’s little use in getting worked up after one regular season start.