Series Preview: Anaheim Angels

Can't read my, can't read my, no you can't read Mike Scioscia face.

There once was a time when the Yankees simply could not beat the Angels. They were just 28-36 against the Halos from 2002 through 2008, but then things changed in 2009. After getting swept in Anaheim right before the 2009 All-Star break, the Yankees went on a big second half run that includes three wins in four regular season games against the Angels, and of course the four games to two series win in the ALDS. It’s been smooth sailing against Mike Scioscia’s fading club ever since.

What Have The Angels Done Lately?

Coming off two straight losses to the Royals, the Angels have won just lost eight of their last 13 games to push their record to 29-29. They do have a positive run different at +3, but for all intents and purposes it indicates that they are exactly what their record suggests they are: a .500 club.

Angels On Offense

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There’s one thing the Angels really lack on offense, and it’s power. As a team, they have just a .133 ISO and 49 homers, both good for tenth place in the American League. The lack of pop is even more noticeable with both Kendrys Morales and Vernon Wells on the disabled list. When Scioscia fills out his lineup card tonight, he’s going to have just two players with more than three long balls at his disposal: Torii Hunter (eight) and Mark Trumbo (ten). The Yankees, on the the other hand, have just one regular (Derek Jeter) with fewer than three homers.

In addition to Morales and Wells, the Halos are also without second baseman Howie Kendrick, who a) kills the Yankees (.371/.441/.481), and b) has been one of the best hitters in baseball this season (.322/.388/.520). It sounds like they might be able to activate him off the disabled list in time for Saturday’s game, however. Their best hitter aside from Kendrick has been Erik Aybar, who sports a .315/.356/.444 line with 14 steals out of the leadoff spot. Maicer Izturis (.285/.354/.414) is the only other regular with both a .310+ OBP and a .400+ SLG. Yep.

Old buddy Bobby Abreu is still doing the on base thing (.388 OBP) and stealing bases (eight), but his power is completely gone (.097 ISO). Hunter’s season line sits at .242/.325/.397, and Alberto Callaspo’s line is a lot like Abreu’s (.299/.371/.388). Trumbo, the rookie first baseman filling Morales’ shoes, is at .255/.305/.467 on the year but .320/.346/.680 over the last two weeks or so. He’ll get himself out on stuff off the plate, but don’t miss in the zone. Another rookie, Hank Conger, has done a decent job of taking playing time away from the certifiably awful Jeff Mathis, but he’s still at .234/.287/.364. The Angels recently picked up Russell Branyan to add some pop, but he wasn’t hitting with the Diamondbacks (.284 wOBA) and has done next to nothing (.095 wOBA) in seven games with Anaheim.

Like Justin Turner a few weeks ago, my pick to annoy the everliving hell out of the Yankees with weekend is Peter Bourjos. The rookie center fielder might be the best defensive outfielder in the game right now, and if you don’t believe me just check out his video highlights on Bourjos is only hitting .236/.292/.382 on the year, but don’t let that fool you. He has some pop and can run, and will do all the little things to annoy the crap out of you in this series. I guarantee he’ll hit at least one triple in these three games. It’s inevitable.

Angels On The Mound

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Friday, RHP Jered Weaver: The Yankees have been facing great pitchers all road trip, so there’s no point in stopping now. Jeff’s younger brother is sporting a 2.48 FIP through a dozen starts this year, striking out more than eight men while walking just over two for every nine innings pitched. He is a fly ball pitcher (37.3% grounders) but he has pretty considerable reverse split over the last two years because his changeup is really good. All those lefty bats – Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and switch hitters Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher – are going to have to watch out for it. Weaver also throws four and two-seam fastballs right around 90 mph, and his out pitch is a slider in the upper-70’s. He’ll also bust out a curveball from time to time. I suppose the good news is that he’s cooled off after a scorching start, but he still sports at 3.18 ERA in his last five outings. Don’t hate on him for being a Weaver, Jered’s as good as it gets. But this is the third series in a row we’re writing this.

Saturday, RHP Dan Haren: As of this writing, it’s unclear if Haren will even make this start. He had to cut Thursday’s regular bullpen short because of back pain, and the Angels have yet to provide an update. I assume he’s still starting in that case. Anyway, Haren is in the middle of the best year in his career, rocking a 2.54 FIP on the strength of his always stingy walk rate (1.46 BB/9) and a strong homerun rate (0.52 HR/9) that comes from his best ground ball rate (44.6%) in years. He pounds the zone with two and four-seamers around 90 mph, a cutter in the mid-80’s, and then finishes batters off with a splitter around 90 and the occasional changeup or curveball. Only twice this year has he allowed more than three earned runs in a start, and only four times has he allowed more than two earned runs.

Sunday, RHP Ervin Santana: I have this weird disconnect between what I think Santana is and what he really is. He has a 5.55 ERA and a 5.94 FIP in ten career starts against the Yankees, but for whatever reason it’s stuck in my head that he always pitches well against them. It’s probably just me. Anyway, Santana has a respectable 3.81 ERA in 12 starts this season, and he’s actually sporting his best peripherals (7.75 K/9 and 2.47 BB/9) since 2008. The good news is that he’s allowed no fewer than four runs in six of his last nine starts, including four games of five or more runs. Looking at the PitchFX data, Santana’s just a two pitch pitcher these days. He throws his low-90’s fastball more than 60% of the time and his low-80’s slider more than 36% of the time. The other four percent or so is a changeup, but the usage of that pitch has continually decreased over the last few seasons. If Ervin’s going to come after the Yankees with just a fastball and a slider, well that’s just not a fight he’s going to win.

If Haren does not start on Saturday, the Angels will likely just move Santana up a day. He’d make that on regular rest because they had Thursday off. That would then put Joel Pineiro in line for Sunday’s start. The sinkerball extraordinaire missed the start of the season with a shoulder issue, but he’s posted a 3.55 ERA in seven starts since coming back, relying on his usual combination of no free baserunners (1.57 BB/9) and a healthy amount of grounders (52.3%).

Bullpen: Long gone are the days of Scot Shields crushing souls for two innings in front of Francisco Rodriguez, these Angels certainly feature a good ol’ fashioned lolpen. Their 4.28 FIP is fifth worst in all of baseball, and their 3.67 ERA would be a lot worse if not for a 77.4% strand rate. A 6.85 K/9 and 4.45 BB/9 are both bottom six marks in baseball.

Rookie closer Jordan Walden is legit, with an upper-90’s fastball and wipeout breaking ball, but he also walks 4.62 batters for every nine innings. Fernando Rodney walks two guys for every three innings pitched, and Scott Downs has suddenly forgotten how to strike people out (3.71 K/9). At least he has a 60% ground ball rate to get by with. Kevin Jepsen has walked seven and struck out four in ten innings, and Hisanori Takahashi is amazingly homer prone (1.62 HR/9). Long man Trevor Bell is another sub-4.00 K/9 guy (3.86, to be exact), but the secret weapon is Rich Thompson. The right-hander has struck out 9.99 batters per nine innings while keeping the walks down below three per nine. He’s legit, as is Walden, but everyone else is pretty sketchy.

Recommended Angels Reading: True Grich

Replacing Nunez to strengthen the lineup

The 2011 Yankees have a number of flaws, but the bench isn’t one of them. At the start of the season they featured their deepest bench in years, and even with Eric Chavez on the DL they still have a quality cast of reserves. Once Chavez returns they’ll have that killer bench back and can focus on improving the weaker aspects of the team. Of course, the preceding statement makes two assumptions: 1) That Chavez makes it back in the next few weeks, and 2) That he stays healthy after returning. As anyone familiar with Chavez’s injury history knows, neither is a guarantee.

While there’s nothing wrong with using Chris Dickerson, or even Justin Maxwell, to fill Chavez’s bench spot, it does create a somewhat less flexible situation. Currently, Eduardo Nunez is getting a good helping of starts against left-handed pitching, while either Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter takes a half day off at DH. This isn’t a bad idea by any means; both Jeter and A-Rod could use the breather, and it’s hardly a bad idea to play Nunez against opposite-handed pitching. Still, he’s not the ideal guy to be taking all those at-bats.

At Pinstriped Bible, Steven Goldman discussed the “self-defeating” Nunez and his role on the team. One of this lines a bit further down in the article caught my attention: “‘Hard-hitting reserve infielder’ is almost an automatic contradiction in terms.” This is an argument that I often raise when defending a weak Yankees bench. There aren’t many quality reserves to begin with. Why would one of them want to play behind Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Derek Jeter? That leaves the Yankees two avenues for finding quality bench players: trades and development. While I applaud the development angle with Nunez, they might find some success when looking outside the organization.

Yesterday Mike looked at the possibility of a Jose Reyes trade. Of course, when you trade for Jose Reyes he’s a starter, and the Yankees already have a starting shortstop. He might not be the best offensively, and he might be a shell of his former self at the plate, but it’s not as though the Yankees can simply trade for a shortstop and replace him. But what if they were to trade for a lesser infielder — someone who can give both A-Rod and Jeter days at DH, while taking a late-inning defensive role? There is one possibly available player for that.

The Dodgers, under .500 and in a tough financial situation, probably want to trim a sizable portion of their $120 million payroll. No one on the team makes more this year than Rafael Furcal. The Dodgers would help their situation by trading him and what remains of his $13 million 2011 salary. Not many teams would be willing to eat that kind of money for a mid-season acquisition, but the Yankees aren’t like other teams. They figure to have a good chunk of spare change set aside for deadline acquisitions. While pitching is the priority, they could do worse than picking up Furcal to help keep Jeter and A-Rod fresh through the second half.

At this point, Furcal’s stat sheet is a bit misleading. He got off to a slow start, though that easily could have been injury related. He returned at the end of May, and has heated up in his past few games, going 8 for his last 17 with a homer. If he rebounds to produce something resembling his normal numbers, he’ll be of much better use than Nunez in the backup infield role. And, if worse comes to worst, he’s a much better full-time fill-in.

(As a bonus, perhaps taking on Furcal could open an opportunity for the Yankees to also acquire the Dodgers second highest paid player, Hiroki Kuroda. But that’s the subject of a different post.)

Perhaps spending $6 million on a backup infielder isn’t the best use of the Yankees’ resources. They have other areas they can improve, and they don’t have an infinite pool of money. But I’m presuming that, because of the off-season disagreement over Rafael Soriano, that Cashman has a little more wiggle room than he would have otherwise. Furcal certainly isn’t the first choice; he’s probably not in the top five. He’s more of the deadline-day, nothing else has panned out kind of move. Yet his bat and his glove can provide some benefit to the Yankees’ lineup. With a Dodgers team likely to sell at a low cost in prospects, he’s someone the Yanks should keep their eyes on, if only as Plan Z.

2011 Pre-Draft Top 30 Prospects

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With the draft scheduled to begin on Monday, it’s time to quickly take stock of the Yankees’ farm system and rank their prospects midway through the 2011 season. Of the three top 30 lists I do each year, this one is easily my least favorite, just because the minor league season is only 50 games old and that’s really not enough to change my opinion one way or the other.

Ivan Nova is the only player from my preseason list to have since graduated to the majors, however I’m also considering Eduardo Nunez graduated for practical reasons. He’s 31 at-bats shy of the rookie cutoff, so he’ll certainly get there this summer, barring injury. The ages listed are as of today, and the fun starts after the jump …

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ESPN on the Yankees’ draft philosophy

Jason Churchill took a look at each club’s draft philosophy yesterday (AL, NL), though you need an Insider subscription to read the whole thing. “Aside from last year, when prep shortstop Cito Culver and outfielder Angelo Gumbs were the club’s first two picks, the Yankees have generally gone the route of the college player under [Damon] Oppenheimer,” wrote Churchill. “Even with their first pick coming way down at No. 51, they could get a shot at a top-20 player who falls due to signability/perceived bonus demands. A college pitcher that could move fairly quickly could be the answer, and right down the alley for Oppenheimer. Perhaps left-hander Andrew Chafin from Kent State or Coastal Carolina right-hander Anthony Meo is a fit.”

I wrote about Chafin here, and Meo is a big arm strength guy who is likely to wind up in the bullpen if he doesn’t figure out some consistent secondary pitches. Those two are just speculation though. Anyway, Oppenheimer loves his college pitchers just like he loves high school position players, and there’s no reason to expect them to go a different route this year. The lone high school pitcher the Yankees have drafted high under Oppenheimer is Gerrit Cole, who was a pretty special case. The highest drafted college hitters were third rounders Brett Gardner (2005), David Adams (2008), and Rob Segedin (2010).

Mailbag: First Pitch Swinging, OF Arms, DotF

After a one week hiatus, I’m back with a new mailbag. This week we’re going to talk about first pitch swinging, outfield arms, some DotF weirdness, prospects in the super-low minors, and my favorite announcers. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions throughout the week.

Alex asks: I have a few questions about first pitch swinging: Who swings at first pitches the most on the Yankees? And, as a team what are the situations where the team as a whole is the most likely to swing at the first pitch? While watching the game against the Orioles, Teixeira swung at the first pitch in a two out, no one on situation which seems to play into the pitcher’s goal of having a quick inning. Very frustrating.

First pitch swinging can be very frustrating, but it’s not always a bad strategy. A lot of time with the bases loaded or with men in scoring position, spots where the pitcher is in serious trouble, the first pitch is often the best to hit because the guy on the mound wants to make sure he gets strike one. That leads to a lot of first pitch fastballs in the zone, which are good hittin’. Those are good time to guess, and great things happen when you guess right.

Anyway, I have no idea how to find the situations in which the team (or even individual players) are most likely to swing at the first pitch, but what I can tell you is how often each player puts the first pitch of an at-bat in play. That’s pretty much the best I can do since I’m not PitchFX savvy enough to dig through the data and pick it out swings regardless of outcome. Here’s what I’ve got for first pitch balls in play…

The data is for this year only, and I looked at players with more than 100 plate appearances. So sorry to all the bench guys. No one should be surprised that Robinson Cano tops the list or that Derek Jeter ranks pretty high, and frankly it looks like what I imagine a chart of first pitch swinging percentages would look like (based on just observation). As a group, the nine regulars put the first pitch in play 11.5% of the time, which is slightly higher than the MLB (11.2%) and AL (11.0%) averages. The Yankees also have a 118 OPS+ on the first pitch, so they’re doing more damage that the league average on the first pitch as well. Swinging at the first pitch is most frustrating after the pitcher walks the previous batter, that’s when it really bothers me.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user tom sulivan via Creative Commons license)

Shai asks: Is Granderson considered to have a good arm? From my untrained eye it seems he doesn’t and he actually pushes the ball rather than throwing it. From the 3 OF Swisher seems to have the best mechanics (Gardner’s % not withstanding) What do you think?

Yeah, all of the Yankees’ outfield arms pretty much suck (for various reasons). Gardner has a tendency to throw ten-hoppers to the plate and Swisher is prone to airmailing stuff, and Grandy just isn’t all that great at it. Throwing arm is the least important defensive tool for center and left fielders, so it’s not a killer there, but it’s very important in right. The numbers don’t really agree though. Since the start of the 2009 season, Gardner has saved 6.4 runs with his arm, ninth most among the 62 qualified outfielders (and right behind the cannon armed Shin-Soo Choo). Granderson is at 1.4 runs saved (23rd), and Swish is way down at -7.8 runs saved (59th). Two of the three have actually been pretty good.

As for the actual throwing mechanics, Swisher looks like he has the best, but I’m not the best person to ask about these things. Frankly I don’t care how it looks as long as it works, and it’s clearly not for Nick.

John asks: In the down on the farm stats you always include GB-FB ratio. However, many times the outs don’t match up. For instance, Nik Turley [the other day] has a game where he struck out 4 and had a 5-2 GB-FB ratio over 6 innings. What happened to those other 7 outs? Even if he got 5 DPs with his 5 ground balls, there are 2 outs missing, right?

There’s a number of reasons why. Could be a double play like you mentioned, could also be baserunners getting thrown out trying to steal/getting picked off. The biggest culprit is line outs though, which doesn’t keep track of in the box score. I’d have to go through the play-by-play recap and count them up manually, and there’s no chance of me doing that on an every day basis. Sorry.

Nate asks: Which DSL Yankees players have received big bonuses?

The Dominican Summer League season started last weekend, and you can see the rosters for the Yankees’ two affiliates here and here. I recommend looking at the stat pages (here and here) though, just to see who has actually played this year. Some guys on the roster are actually in Extended Spring Training and on their way to GCL later this month. Here’s the bonus info I have, which is obviously far from complete (signing year in parenthesis)…

  • Wilmer Romero, OF – $656,500 (2010)
  • Christopher Tamarez, SS – $650,000 (2010)
  • Eladio Moronta, OF – $570,000 (2009)
  • Eduardo Rivera, RHP – $475,000 (2010)
  • Juan Matos, RHP -$400,000 (2010)
  • Mikeson Oliberto, OF – $12,000 (2010)

Fred asks: Besides Vin Scully, who is your favorite play-by-play announcer in baseball?

Scully is easily the best, and I also love Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, who call the Giants’ games. I’m sure some people will disagree, but I also enjoy Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson of the Rays. They’re pretty entertaining, and Anderson’s a young enough guy that his references aren’t completely outdated. Dick Enberg with the Padres is also fantastic. Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez have their moments on SNY; it’s fun when Keith starts rambling on like he forgets he’s on television or something. And, of course, David Cone is pretty awesome on YES. So is Ken Singleton and Al Leiter.

Scouting the Trade Market: Francisco Rodriguez

As the revolving door of the Yankee bullpen swung open on Friday night, it was hard to believe the rogue’s gallery of relievers who came out to stop the Mariners had been among the best in the game this year. Hector Noesi, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala — seventh best in the AL only when sorted by last name — all made their appearances and kept the Mariners scoreless. Only Mariano, the future Hall of Famer, faltered, and he along with Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson are the arms in which we trust.

So somehow, after 54 games and with $17.75 million worth of relievers on the disabled list, the Yankees have a great bullpen. The pen’s 2.88 ERA is tops in the AL, and their strike out and walk rates are both among the top four in the league. On the flip side, their relievers have thrown 159.1, and as Mike explored, their troika of top relievers is racking up the pitches thrown. The club will have to bolster its bullpen either within or without.

Enter Francisco Rodriguez: Yankee fans have never taken to K-Rod. He came out of nowhere to help down the Bombers in the 2002 ALDS, and he served as foil in the 2005 playoffs as well. As the Mets’ closer, he has had a tumultuous time in New York. He was, of course, on the mound celebrating as Luis Castillo dropped that pop-up, and he was arrested for assault last year in an altercation that caused a season-ending injury. He also one of the Mets’ prime trade chips.

This year, very quietly, K-Rod is putting together a stellar season. With his save in the Mets’ comeback on Thursday, he has now appeared in 27 games — and finished 21 of them — while posting a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings. He has allowed a hit per inning and 13 walks but has yet to surrender a home run and has alluringly struck out 27.

Now, the Mets are in a predicament with Rodriguez. He is making $11.5 million this year and holds a performance-based option for 2012 that’s worth a whopping $17.5 million. If he closes out 55 games this year and his two-year total of games finished tops 100, the option vests automatically. If not, then he is owed only $3.5 million, and that’s why trading him must be part of the Mets’ plan. They can’t afford to pay and shouldn’t be paying a closer $17.5 million, but he’s on pace for well over 60 games finished this year.

So how about the Yankees? At some point, you might say, the Yankees have to stop acquiring overpaid, one-inning relievers. It hasn’t worked out for them since the days of Steve Karsay, and yet, the Yankees are still doling out contracts to guys left and right only to see them wind up on the disabled list. Rodriguez, though, would be just a rental, and if the Yankees are willing to take on most of his remaining salary along with the $3.5 million buy out they will owe him when, as a non-closer, he doesn’t get to his games finished milestone, the price tag should be relatively cheap. Pick a second-tier prospect and adjust accordingly for cash contributions.

Of course, as we’ve noted over the last few weeks, the Yankees and Mets do not trade with each other too frequently. They last sent Mike Stanton to Queens for Felix Heredia in 2004 and before that, tried to plug Armando Benitez into the Bronx for a handful of disastrous games. For the Mets, trading their closer to the Yankees would be one of many potential white flags, and if they get no return outside of financial relief while the Yanks add K-Rod as a third set-up option, the Shea Faithful won’t be too pleased.

For the Yankees, though, K-Rod is another potential target. He just might be the most available reliever out there, and unless the club truly expects Soriano, Marte or Feliciano to return at full strength any time this season, he should be a potential trade target.