Series Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Look alive, grounds crew. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Take a look at the AL East standings, and you’ll see an unfamiliar name at the top. The Baltimore Orioles, at 6-3, lead the division (one game better than the Yankees) and have the sixth best record in all of baseball. Buck Showalter’s magic from late last season has apparently trickled over for the time being, though real improvement was definitely expected this year. I feel pretty confident saying the Orioles’ true talent level is not a .667 winning percentage, but they aren’t the total pushovers they’ve been for the last decade or so.

Unfortunately, it looks like the weather may be a factor in this series. There’s a 70% chance of rain from right now through basically tomorrow morning. There’s also a 50% chance of rain tomorrow night, though Thursday looks to be nice and sunny in the boogie down. Who really knows with the weather, the rain could wreck the series or not have any impact whatsoever. Finding a makeup date won’t be an issue, these two clubs play enough games throughout the season. Here’s a look at the coming series, in which first place be on the line*.

What Have They Done Lately?

Like the Yankees, the O’s are coming off a scheduled off-day on Monday as well as a weekend series that saw them lose two of three. Baltimore ran into the juggernaut known as the Texas Rangers, though Mother Nature spared them defeat on Friday with some thunderstorms. Rookie southpaw Zach Britton stuck it to Texas for 7.2 shutout innings Saturday afternoon, resulting in the Rangers’ first (and only) loss of the season. It all went south from there for the Orioles, who lost 13-1 on Saturday night before getting shutout three-zip on Sunday.

Despite their hot start, the Orioles have lost their last two games and three of their last five. That happens when you play the Rangers and run into Justin Verlander. They’ve also had three days off in the last week, so they’re well-rested, if nothing else.

Orioles On Offense

Angry Vlad. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Much was made of the Orioles’ offseason improvements, which saw Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, and J.J. Hardy join the likes of Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, and Luke Scott. Well, a little over a week into the season, all Baltimore has to show for those upgrades is 35 runs scored, the sixth fewest in baseball. Their team .282 OBP and .281 wOBA are both bottom five marks in baseball and would be the worst in the division if it wasn’t for the Rays.

On a micro level, the O’s have just two regulars with a better than league average wOBA (lg avg is .319 right now): Markakis at .320 and Reynolds at .344. The former is mired in a 2-for-18 slump while the latter has been all-or-nothing: Reynolds has three multiple-hit games, one one-hit game, and five 0-fers. Brian Roberts and Adam Jones are the only O’s with more than one homer (both have two), and they have identical .280 wOBA’s. Roberts has been on base three times in his last 21 plate appearances, though Jones is coming in hot: 5-for-14 with two homers in his last four games. Vlad has warmed up after a slow start, going 8-for-21 in his last five games.

Scott, last year’s offensive dynamo, has been battling a groin strain and has just a .252 wOBA in five games played. He’s been limited to pinch-hitting duties and might not be able to return to the outfield until Wednesday or Thursday. The rain could keep him out further as I imagine they wouldn’t want to risk re-aggravating the injury on wet grass. Felix Pie and Robert Andino have been filling in for the time being, and … well … they’re Felix Pie and Robert Andino. Hardy will not be available this series due to (yep) an oblique strain, meaning Cesar Izturis is playing short. That’s good for the Yankees. Lee and Matt Wieters are both off to slow starts (312 and .239 wOBA’s respectively).

Don't worry, the Yankees have faced Tillman three times already. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Orioles On The Mound

Game One: Chris Tillman: Part of the infamous Erik Bedard trade, Tillman has struggled to establish himself in the big leagues in each of the last two years (5.90+ FIP in 110+ IP between 2009 and 2009). He fired six no-hit innings against the Rays in his first start then got taken to the cleaners by the Tigers (4 R in 4.2 IP) next time out. Tillman is usually a low-90’s fastball guy, though it’d been down in the upper-80’s early on this year. Lack of velocity is the new black, apparently. He also throws an over-the-top curveball and an okay change, but so far he hasn’t missed as many bats as his stuff says he should, and he’s always been a guy that hands out a healthy amount of walks. Add in fly-ball tendencies, and Tillman plays right into the Yankees strengths. You might remember that he gave up Derek Jeter‘s 2,722nd career hit, the one that gave sole possession of the franchise’s all-time record.

Game Two: Chris Jakubauskas: A former independent leaguer, Jakubauskas went from Lincoln Salt Dogs in 2007 to the Mariners farm system in 2008 to the actual Mariners in 2009 to the Pirates in 2010 to the Orioles now. He’s the definition of a replacement level player, a guy with an 89-91 mph fastball and the occasional curveball, changeup, and cutter with med command. At 32-years-old, Jakubauskas is unlikely to get any better than what he is, and that’s a guy the Yankees should absolutely hammer. They crushed him in a relief appearance back in his Seattle days, the only time he’s faced New York. This is one of those “no excuse” games, Jakubauskas shouldn’t haven’t a prayer against a Yankees’ lineup even if half the guys are struggling like they are right now.

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Game Three: Jake Arrieta: The O’s didn’t want to start Britton in Yankee Stadium so early in his career so they pushed him back a day and will have him pitch Friday instead of Thursday. Yesterday’s off-day allows Arrieta to make that Thursday start on normal rest. You might remember him from last season, when he made his big league debut against the Yanks and predictably earned his first career win against them with a quality start. He also beat them in early September with 6.1 innings of two run ball, but I suppose the good news is that against everyone else, he’s pitched to a 5.18 ERA with 48 walks and 51 strikeouts in 91.2 IP. The 25-year-old right-hander has some giddy-up on his fastball (92-94, will touch 96 on the rarest of occasions), though he usually lives off a low-90’s two-seamer and mid-80’s slider. Every once in a while he’s bust out a curveball and/or changeup. Arrieta’s minor league strikeout and walk numbers never stood out, but he’s a legitimate back-end starter right now.

Bullpen: Showalter’s bullpen has been pretty sketchy overall, backing up its 3.94 ERA with a 5.05 FIP. Kevin Gregg is a de facto closer and been okay in three appearances so far, though the setup crew has been remarkably strong. Jason Berken, Koji Uehara, and Jim Johnson have combined for 14 strikeouts and one walk in 11.2 combined innings. Mike Gonzalez hasn’t been good so far, but he’s still death on lefties. Jeremy Accardo will show his face from time to time, and Josh Rupe handles the mop-up work with Jakubauskas in the rotation. The key to the series for New York is simple: get to the Orioles’ starters early and keep that stellar middle relief corps from being a factor.

* No, I didn’t write that with a straight face.

The RAB Radio Show: April 12, 2011

It’s raining out, and rain is in the forecast. Mike and I take up this depressing topic. How hard will the Yanks try to get this in? How does it affect pitching plans? Might we see a twin bill tomorrow, given the circumstances?

Podcast run time 23:18

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

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%)

[Read more…]

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.