Swisher and Gardner adjusting their approaches

How does a team go 19-8 when their two best hitters have mostly struggled most of that time? By getting production from some unexpected places. Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner have carried the Yankees’ offense, compensating for the slow start by Mark Teixeira and the recent woes for Alex Rodriguez. All three appear in the AL wOBA leader board, with Cano ranking fourth, Gardner ninth, and Swisher 12th. They’ll eventually cool off, but by that time Rodriguez and Teixeira could be back to their baseball bashing ways. Teixeira is already mostly there.

The high production from Gardner and Swisher won’t stay at this level all season — .380 and .378 BABIPs are hard to maintain — but both have displayed approaches that could portend future success. Gardner has continued his selective ways, taking even more pitches than he did last season. Conversely, Swisher is swinging the bat far more often than ever before in his career. Both approaches, by their current results, have worked.

Photo credit: Bill Kostroun/AP

The most striking of Swisher’s 2009 numbers is his strikeout percentage. At 18.9 percent, it represents his lowest rate since his 71-PA debut in 2004. He’s actually chasing more pitches out of the zone, 28.1 percent against 17.4 percent last year, but is also swinging at more pitches in the zone, 69.3 percent against 56.7 percent. All those extra swings have led to him making more contact, 83.3 percent of his swings. This has led to more solid contact, which shows up in his batted ball numbers. Of the 74 balls Swisher has put in play, 18 have been line drives, 24.3 percent.

The trade-off for Swisher has been noticeable. In 2009 he saw 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked second in the American League. That led to the highest walk rate in his career, 16 percent. This year Swisher has seen 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. While that’s still a solid number, it ranks just 25th in the AL. Strangely, the only hitter who saw more pitches last season, Kevin Youkilis, again ranks directly above Swisher (though has the same P/PA number). The approach has helped with men on base. While Swisher hit a respectable .246/.403/.453 with men on in 2009, he’s hit .340/.415/.596 in those situations this year. The extra hits mean more RBI and more advanced runners, which has boosted the Yanks offense.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Gardner has made up for Swisher’s reduced number of pitches seen. He has seen 4.5 pitches per plate appearances, second in the AL. This is an improvement of nearly half a pitch per plate appearance over last season. This has led to a higher walk rate, 11.7 percent, compared to 9.2 percent last season. Yet it doesn’t appear Gardner is being more selective. He has swung at 19.2 percent of pitches outside the zone against 17.2 percent last season. The main difference comes on pitches inside the zone. He has swung at 40.3 percent of those, against 50.7 percent last season. In other words, he sees more pitches, but also takes more strikes.

What has allowed Gardner to stay productive this year is his success when swinging in the zone. Not only does he mostly avoid swinging at pitches out of the zone, but he also apparently lays off pitches in the zone that he knows he can’t handle. To that end, he has made contact with 98.8 percent of pitches he has swung at inside the zone. In fact, his first miss of the season came yesterday. This has boosted his contact rate, which is excellent for a hitter of Gardner’s style. He has also performed superbly with two strikes. He has seen such a count in 62 of his 94 PA, and has hit .339/.403/.393.

I have no idea if Gardner and Swisher can sustain anything resembling the success they’ve realized in the first month. What we can see, though, is that they’re both taking a definite approach at the plate. Swisher is swinging earlier in counts and is making a ton more contact, leading to a higher batting average and more power. Gardner is taking everything he doesn’t like, even if the ump calls it a strike. That has worked, though, because he’s able to compensate by hitting well with two strikes. It has worked so far, and I don’t think we’ll see a shift in strategy any time soon.

Yanks sweep O’s, improve to 19-8

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

After the Yanks got through seven innings with a 6-1 lead, I thought I’d rest my eyes for the last couple of innings. Unfortunately, the speculation about Andy Pettitte‘s early exit raged, and it kept my attention. I was both glad that I saw the action, but enraged because the Yanks bullpen let Baltimore back into the game. When Al Aceves recorded the final out the O’s had the tying run on base.

Pettitte will likely miss his next start with inflammation in his left elbow, though no one appears to think it’s that serious. Look for the Sergio Mitre Experience on Tuesday against Detroit.

Biggest Hit: Johnson gets it started

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

In a game where one team takes a big lead early, we typically don’t see much fluctuation on the WPA leader board. There was no definitive play in this game, no at-bat that turned things around. The Yanks’ offense got going from the beginning, and Nick Johnson started it all. He got all of David Hernandez’s second offering, sending it all the way into the second deck. The ball left in a hurry, too. It might have been the hardest hit ball by any Yankee this year.

Johnson went 3 for 3 on the day while drawing two walks. He got thrown out at the plate on a close play in the third, but did score in the fourth on Mark Teixeira‘s two-RBI double. It’s too early to say that Johnson has shed his slump, but a day like this can be nothing but encouraging.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Honorable Mentions: Swisher’s jack, Teixeira’s double

While Nick Johnson wasted no time in pulverizing a Hernandez pitch, the other half of the New York Nicks characteristically took his time. He watched the first four pitches, leading to a 3-1 count. Hernandez threw a fastball on the outside edge, but Swisher got all of it, rocketing it into the right field seats for the Yankees second run of the game.

Mark Hendrickson came in to relieve Hernandez with two outs in the fourth, which flipped Teixeira to the right side. Hendrickson opened with a curveball that missed high, and then threw another one that crossed the middle of the plate. Tex crushed it to right center, out of the range of fill-in center fielder Lou Montanez. Since there were two outs both Jeter and Johnson scored, which put the Yanks ahead 6-1. At that point they had scored in each of the first four innings.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Biggest Pitch: Pettitte walks in a run

Elbow issues can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s control. Only 46 of Pettitte’s 77 pitches were strikes, 60 percent. That’s below where usually sits. It resulted in only two walks, though they both proved costly. With one out in the fourth Pettitte battled through an at-bat with Garrett Atkins, throwing seven pitches. The last was a misplaced cutter for ball four. That loaded the bases. It was the first time in 2010 that Pettitte faced a bases loaded situation.

Pettitte then went to work on Matt Wieters, dropping a curve on the low-outside corner for strike one. He then came back with an inside fastball which Wieters fouled off, putting him in an 0-2 hole. After a fastball out of the zone and a fouled-off cutter, Pettitte delivered a fastball up and in, and Wieters couldn’t hold up. Like Burnett the night before, Pettitte had struck out a batter at a crucial moment, with a runner on third and less than two outs.

Nolan Reimold then came to the plate, and Pettitte started him off the same way as Wieters, with a curveball on the low-outside corner for a called strike one. He missed with his next two pitches, both fastballs, before getting a called strike on a low and away fastball. After a foul on and up and in fastball, Pettitte missed low with his next two pitches, a cutter then a fastball, to walk in the Orioles first run. He came right back to finish the Orioles there, and then induced a ground ball double play to end the fifth. He might have been a bit off, but it didn’t seem like anything serious…

Gardner just keeps hitting

Heading into the season many were uneasy with the prospect of Brett Gardner starting in left field. That tends to happen with small guys who don’t hit for power. We’ve seen so many of them flop that we’ve come to expect it. I can’t tell you how many emails I got this winter saying that Gardner was nothing more than a fourth outfielder, and he’d be lucky to stick in that role for a few years. So far, though, Gardner has done nothing but silence his critics.

After his 1 for 3 performance today, which included a walk, Gardner is hitting .346/.430/.432. Of the 40 times he’s been on base he’s attempted 14 steals and has been successful 13 times. He’s cut down on his strikeouts, a good sign for a guy who was overpowered at times last year, and is walking more. He won’t keep hitting at this level, but even if he cools off a bit he’ll be an immensely valuable player for the Yankees this season.

Oh, and he leads AL left fielders in wOBA.

Bullpen meltdown averted

The worst part of this game, clearly, came at the end, when the Yankees’ bullpen allowed four runs in the final two innings. Sergio Mitre, in his third inning of work, left two sinkers up in the zone, and Ty Wigginton crushed the second for a two-run homer. That’ll happen. Mitre isn’t exactly stretched out at this point, at least in terms of endurance. That happens when the pitching staff rarely needs a long man. The damage was minimal, though. Girardi immediately changed pitchers. Marte and Robertson finished off the inning.

Robertson came out to start the ninth, a move I applauded at the time. He hasn’t gotten a chance for consistent work this season, and it shows in the results. With a 7-3 lead and just three outs to go, it seemed like a perfect situation. He retired Garrett Atkins on three pitches to start the inning, but then came trouble. With Matt Wieters batting from his strong side, Robertson delivered six straight fastballs. Why he didn’t go with a breaking ball at any point I have no idea. The last one was thigh high across the middle of the plate, so of course Wieters deposited it in the second deck in right.

The next batter, Nolan Reimold, saw six pitches, five of which were fastballs. The lone curveball was actually a decent offering, dropping low and outside but just below the zone. Robertson then got Reimold to chase a high-inside pitch for strike two, missed high with a fastball for ball three, and then actually ran a pitch off the plate inside. Reimold got out in front of it, though, and crushed it off the foul pole in left. That was it for Robertson, but Al Aceves came on to finish the game.

WPA Graph

Were you worried? The graph says we shouldn’t have been worried. I was worried for a bit, though.

Next Up

The team gets an off-day tomorrow before heading up to Boston. Who the hell approves these schedules? First, second, and last Yanks-Sox series are in Boston. Anyway, it’ll be on YES at 7 p.m. Friday evening. Phil Hughes vs. Josh Beckett.

Stoneburner dominant yet again in Charleston win

Greg at Pending Pinstripes posted some statistical leaderboards for Yankee prospects. Who had Eduardo Nunez leading the system with a 7.6% strikeout rate?

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off day, as did the rest of the International League.

Double-A Trenton (5-2 loss to Akron)
Austin Krum, CF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB
Dan Brewer, LF & Luis Nunez, SS: both 0 for 3 – Brewer got hit by a pitch & K’ed
David Adams, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 R – 11 for his last 27 (.407)
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 K – hitting streak is up to 16 games
Brandon Laird, 3B & Reid Gorecki, RF: both 1 for 4 – Laird drove in a run … Gorecki stole a bag
Edwar Gonzalez, DH & Marcos Vechionacci, 1B: both 0 for 4, 2 K
Ryan Pope: 5.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HB, 6-9 GB/FB – meh
Josh Schmidt: 0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB
Wilkins Arias: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB
Grant Duff: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 23-4 K/BB ratio in 13.2 IP

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Open Thread: The strike zone is slightly amorphous

David Biderman at the Wall Street Journal posted a look at the strike zones called for each player on the Mets and Yankees, and to no one’s surprise, star players get star treatment. Well, except for Alex Rodriguez. Apparently some umps are out to get him, because strike zone is the third largest on the team. One of these days we’ll have robot umps and laser traced strike zones and everything will be nice and uniform. Until then … the human element!

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. For the latest on Andy Pettitte, see our injury update post. In sports, you’ve got NBA and NHL playoff action, plus the Cardinals and Phillies are on ESPN (Penny vs. Kendrick). You know the routine, so have at it.

Pettitte likely to miss next start with mild inflammation in left elbow

Update by Ben (6:04 p.m.): An MRI on Andy Pettitte‘s left arm has revealed “mild inflammation” around the elbow, the Yankees announced a few minutes ago. The team says the pitcher will be “treated conservatively” and “evaluated on a daily basis,” and Brian Cashman earlier said that Pettitte will probably miss his next start.

At this point, I believe that Sergio Mitre will take Pettitte’s turn in the rotation against the Tigers in Detroit on Monday. Despite allowing a two-run home run to Ty Wigginton, Mitre threw 2.1 serviceable innings today and is more stretched out than Alfredo Aceves. The Yankees, for what it’s worth, do not seem to consider Joba Chamberlain an emergency starting option this season.

With his win today, Pettitte improves to 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA, and no one wants to see Andy go down for long. The good news is that Pettitte’s elbow isn’t strained. Inflammation will subside with rest and treatement. Obviously, we’ll be following this story closely over the next few days.

* * *

After staying relatively healthy throughout April, the Yanks have seen a number of their starters go down with injuries. While Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera should be back soon, now it’s Andy Pettitte who ails. Marc Carig reports that Pettitte felt some tightness in his forearm during his start against the White Sox, and it flared up a bit again in the fifth today. Apparently he felt it in the upper part of his forearm this time (sorry, no one quite explained this well). He’s off to get an MRI.

Update (5:04 p.m.): Not to get everyone’s hopes up, but Dave Eiland just said “it’s no concern,” a half dozen times during his media meeting.

Update (5:28 p.m.): Though the team’s press office, Andy Pettitte said the following: “Anytime you’re talking about the area around the elbow, you start to worry a little bit. I think it’s going to be fine but I’ll know more after the MRI.”

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Game 27: For the sweep (+ chat!)

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Two games into the series, the Yankees have two wins. It’s their eighth series win in nine tries, something only two other Yankee teams in history can claim (1928 & 1938). Yes, it’s been 71 years since the Yanks have won eighth of their first nine series. Cool stuff, huh?

On the mound to try for the sweep this afternoon is Andy Pettitte, who took a little bit of a beating at the hands of the White Sox last time out, but has been stellar overall. Mariano Rivera is available to close the door in the 9th if needed, but Joe Girardi indicated that he would like to play it safe and give him another day if at all possible. Joba Chamberlain is unavailable to close after working the last two nights. My guess is that if push comes to shove late, Al Aceves will work the 9th.

Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Swisher, RF
Gardner, CF
Cervelli, C
Winn, LF

And on the mound, Andrew Eugene Pettitte.

Get away day for the Orioles, who have to be in Minnesota for a series starting tomorrow. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. I’m holding our weekly game chat today, so join in when the party starts at 1pm. Enjoy the game, chat’s after the jump.

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A sense of uneasiness when Marte enters

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP

It came as no surprise last night when A.J. Burnett walked out of the dugout at end of the seventh. In the past, it might have been a bit more shocking. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing pitchers exit at around the 100-pitch mark, especially if he’s already completed seven innings. This year, however, it seems that Joe Girardi has become a bit more willing to let his pitchers cross that barrier. All of his starters, save for Vazquez, have started innings at or above 100 pitches.

When Burnett walked Nick Markakis with one out, though, it was clear he would leave the game. At 107 pitches and with his velocity fading — none of the seven fastballs he threw that inning broke 92 mph — the walk represented a logical end point for Burnett’s night. He had the game pretty well at hand, having dominated the Orioles for 7.1 innings, but there was a bit of trouble brewing. The walk brought Matt Wieters, the tying run, to the plate.

After Phil Hughes pitched seven innings on Sunday and CC Sabathia finished eight on Monday, the bullpen was well rested. Only Joba Chamberlain pitched on Tuesday, and only Mark Melancon, since optioned to Scranton, pitched on Sunday. Girardi had his pick of arms to face Wieters, who had homered off Sabathia on Monday. Normally this would have been Chamberlain for certain, but with Mariano resting a sore flank, Girardi wanted to use Joba in the ninth. His choice to face Wieters was lefty Damaso Marte.

When Girardi tapped his left arm on his way to the mound, I experienced a sinking feeling. Burnett had worked so hard, had pitched so well, and had out-dueled Orioles youngster Brian Matusz. If anyone could throw that all away with one pitch, I thought, it was Marte. There was nothing about the matchup with Wieters that made me comfortable. Even though he fares better against righties than lefties, I still would have preferred Al Aceves in that situation.

This runs counter to my initial feelings when the Yankees acquired Marte in 2008. After years of testing out lefty reliever after lefty reliever, it appeared that the Yanks had finally found their man. Though his numbers looked bad after joining the Yankees, much of that came in just one outing, a 40-pitch endeavor that never should have happened. I have no idea why Girardi left him in so long, but he had no business throwing anything past pitch 30. His poor start in 2009 left many Yankees fans sour on him, and even a dominant World Series run didn’t make many people more comfortable with him on the mound.

Marte has done little to quell the uneasy feeling this year. Though he didn’t allow a run of his own until Kendry Morales took him deep on April 25, he had a penchant for letting inherited runners score. In fact, he has allowed half the runners he has inherited to score — and that includes his strand of Markakis last night. In other words, while the Morales homer is the only blemish on his game log, he has still done plenty of damage. Those inherited runners hurt, mainly because Marte’s job usually comprises retiring just one batter.

Last night’s appearance, though, will perhaps make me less uneasy next time Girardi taps his left arm and calls for Marte. After missing with his first pitch he came back with a faster fastball, 92 mph, low in the zone. Count even, he then dropped a slider low and inside, a perfect spot to a righty who doesn’t hit lefties too well. Wieters took it for strike two. Marte came back with a similar pitch, this one a bit more under the hands, and all Wieters could do was foul it off. He didn’t bite on the next slider, which ended up in the dirt. On the last pitch, though, Marte shined. After the pitch in the dirt he elevated a fastball, this one 93 mph, and Wieters took the bait. He swung right under it for strike three.

That, of course, was only the second out of the inning, and with righty Miguel Tejada at the plate Girardi again went to the bullpen, this time to Aceves. And then, as if the baseball gods were telling me that my intuition sucks, Ace came within five or six feet of surrendering a game-tying homer.

I doubt I’ll actually feel less uneasy when Marte next enters a game. He has been shaky enough during his time in pinstripes that we don’t know what to expect. Last night’s batter faced, though, at least gives me a bit more hope. Not only did he do his job, but he did it well. I loved the pitch sequence, loved the location. A few more appearances like that and maybe I won’t curse Girardi for going back to Marte in big spots.