The Complete Team

Team Necessities. (Photo copyright Amanda Rykoff, on flckr)

Over the course of the season, we’ve seen that this Yankees team really has strong components, even if they don’t all work at the same time. They pitch pretty damn well, they hit just fine, they’re pretty strong defensively, and they have an amazing bullpen. And while the stats may back this up, what’s more important is that the Yankees have players that embody the concepts that make a team great. You can have a great FIP or wOBA, but who cares if your team isn’t filled with true ballplayers? Let’s break down the team and make sure that, along with the best run differential, the third best bullpen ERA, and the sixth best ERA as a team, the Yankees know how to play baseball.

A Team Leader

One of the most important parts of a team is having a leader that can accurately explain what your team is going through at any given time, push their own problems and accomplishments by the wayside, and really encompass what a team is all about. Luckily, the Yankees have been gifted in this area of team chemistry for a long time with Derek Jeter at the helm. Three thousand hits? Winning is more important. Horrible, ground ball-induced slump? Small stance changes. Red-hot streak? Trying to help the team. Even before his anointment as captain in 2003, Jeter has always lead the team. The other important thing is that Jeter bats leadoff. The only places a true leader can bat are leadoff and cleanup, which helps noble fans distinguish who is a real leader and who is faking it. You don’t want to be mislead by fake leaders such as Jason Varitek (bats 8th) or Chipper Jones (bats sixth). But Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia….those players can really carry a team to victory.

A Professional Hitter

Sure, some hitters can get on base, hit homers, see a lot of pitches or take walks. Sure, some hitters can spray hits everywhere or beat out infield singles. While these are moderately important traits for a hitter, the most important tool is the professional at-bat. You want a guy who goes up there, spits on his hands, kicks the dirt, and really gets into a batting stance. In that case, there’s only one player that really qualifies: Andruw Jones. You can tell, from his massive biceps to his amused smile, that he knows how to hit. He goes up there with his doctorate degree in “sitting dead-red,” and he swings the bat. And he really swings the bat! He is never cheated out of hits, which is one of the most important parts of being a professional hitter. Also, only a man who truly knew how to swing the bat could do this. I don’t see Brett Gardner putting homers in the third deck, all right?

A Proven Veteran

Six hundred plate appearances is a lot. That’s a lot of time to practice something you have to be good at. Multiply that by ten or fifteen years, and you’re talking about thousands and thousands of plate appearances. While some people might just have a knack for baseball the minute they hit the bigs, the more important thing is having a player who’s had more plate appearances than you can even count. You don’t even have to hit in most of them. The experience is all that counts, and the Yankees have plenty of experience. The most experienced member of the Yankees? Jorge Posada.

I’m not talking about this in number of actual plate appearances, even if he has the most (I’m not checking because this article isn’t about numbers), but in the way Posada has had almost an unfair amount of experience at the plate. Blowouts both ways, playoffs galore, every possible situation leverage-wise that you could think of – the man’s done it all in style. He’s the kind of guy who can share his knowledge on how to get hits in the clutch with the young core of the team. It’s insane to think he might be cut or left off the playoff roster. A resume like Posada’s is a necessity.

Getting dirty. Just the way he likes it. (Photo copyright Amanda Rykoff, on flickr)

A Gritty Grinder

You know what’s coming with this one, right? In every baseball game, there are times where nothing is more important than hustle and grit. A player with a lot of grit can make close plays, dive headfirst into first base, and isn’t afraid to get their uniform dirty with a steal. A grinder goes out there and plays every day, every inning, every at-bat as hard as they can, with an almost indescribable amount of ferocity.

It’s true that no player on the Yankees can match up to the absolute grittiness of Dustin Pedroia. There is no one better than him at playing every inning as hard as he can. Even those jumps before each play – what does that say about him? He’s ready. He’s ready for the line drive that jumps up on him, the diving catch and the dramatic double-play. There is no one in the history of baseball more ready than Pedroia.

That being said, the Yankees will have to settle for a fairly gritty man themselves: Brett Gardner. Even though his outfield station takes away from some of his grittiness, the way he plays practically makes it all back. Gardner makes every play interesting, from his on-the-run catches to his crazy dives. His real hustle, however, comes from the basepaths. THere is something to be said for the way he busts his ass to first base. There is even more to be said about his constant first base sliding. Why, only a person who really knew how to play the game would dive into first base. Additional speed? Momentum? Pfft! These are all things Gardner knows are less important than his incredible grittiness. His dirty uniform says it all: I move. I move fast. I play every inning as hard as I can. I am truly gritty.

I’m glad to see that this team has just as much (if not more) heart and soul than it has power numbers. From Posada’s sagedom to Jones’ at bats and Gardner’s hustle, there’s nothing we have to worry about in terms of the product on the field. Sure you could talk about the numbers – Granderson’s home runs, Cano’s batting average- but anyone could do that stuff. What’s valuable is our team plays the game the right way – and they certainly do.

Yankees have been scouting Rich Harden

Via Susan Slusser, the Yankees have scouted Rich Harden’s last two starts, as have a number of other clubs. The 29-year-old struck out eleven Blue Jays in seven two-hit innings last night, easily his best start of the season. Oakland already placed him on trade waivers earlier this week, and we know the Yankees have been aggressively blocking starting pitchers. The Red Sox almost acquired Harden at the deadline before he flunked his medicals, so that’s a serious red flag. Joe wrote all about the right-hander before the trade deadline, and I think this might be due diligence more than sincere interest.

Two thoughts on the recent transactions

Ewww, a former Met. (Photo from Flickr user slgckgc via Creative Commons license)

Despite being the payroll champions of baseball, the Yankees have turned to the waiver wire for a pair of pickups in the last week. First they claimed lefty reliever Raul Valdes off waivers from the Cardinals, then they claimed fellow lefty reliever Aaron Laffey off waivers from the Mariners. Two minor moves, certainly, but I think they tell us something about the team’s plans for next month.

The additions mean …

… that Manny Banuelos will not be called up September. A call-up was never really a sure thing to start with, especially given Brian Cashman‘s comments earlier this week. Cashman told Jack Curry yesterday that Laffey will join the big league team today and that Valdes will come up in September to be a third lefty, giving Joe Girardi some “inventory” for matchups in the season’s final month. Banuelos is already at 116 IP on the season (a career high) and doesn’t figure to go much beyond 130-140 IP on the year, so he’d have to work out of the bullpen for the big league team if they were planning to call him up after the season ends. It’s possible they still might, but adding the two southpaws this week makes it seem less likely.

Gus Molina’s DFA’ing means …

… that Jesus Montero will be a September call-up. Molina was the team’s third catcher, the only viable alternative to Montero if the Yankees wanted an extra backstop. Third catchers are a rite of September, they’re always among the first guys called up. It’s very likely that Molina will clear waivers and return to the Yankees, so yeah they probably would still be able to call him up for September, but it seems very unlikely given the way they just took him off the 40-man roster. Rumors of an imminent Montero promotion have been circulating for weeks, and sacrificing Gus’ 40-man spot seems like another indication that the team’s top prospect will be with the big league club in a little less than two weeks.

The Rookie of the Year race

In the last two weeks we’ve looked at the two big races for the American League hardware. In the Cy Young race, I noted that the contending three pitchers were Weaver, Verlander and Sabathia. At the time, I marked Sabathia as the favorite. This is likely no longer the case given Sabathia’s recent struggles and how well Verlander has pitched, but the three contenders remain the same. In the MVP race, I argued for the inclusion of Curtis Granderson into the top tier of contenders. Granderson’s hitting the ball as well as anyone in the American League not named Jose Bautista right now, but one thing holding him back is the low mark he has received this year from UZR. At the time I argued that I didn’t Granderson’s defense to be nearly this bad, and recently Keith Law has chimed in to the same effect. Granderson’s candidacy is still alive. Spread the word.

The logical next step is the Rookie of the Year award. Like the Cy Young and the MVP, the Yankees have a candidate for the award in Ivan Nova. In this race, though, there’s a clear lack of a frontrunner. Each contender has a unique shortcoming, whether self-inflicted, team-inflicted or voter-inflicted. The race promises to be a free-for-all down the stretch. How does Nova stack up against the other candidates, and does he have a chance to win?

The only reliever in contention for the AL Rookie of the Year is Angels’ closer Jordan Walden. Walden has appeared in 49 games this year and has 26 saves. Over 47 innings pitched he’s boasted a 9.57 K/9, a 3.64 BB/9, and a 3.31 xFIP to match his 2.87 ERA. By Fangraphs’ reckoning this performance has been worth 1.6 fWAR; Baseball Reference values this at 1.5 bWAR. Walden should see some support from voters who place a high importance on the save statistic. After all, Neftali Feliz did take home the award last year as a closer. Walden could be a strong candidate to win.

Another candidate is Walden’s teammate, first basemen Mark Trumbo. Trumbo’s game is his power. He hasn’t hit for average (.259) and he hasn’t taken very many walks (4.6 BB%, .297 OBP), but like Jim Thome he has mashed some taters. In 438 plate appearances, Trumbo has 23 home runs and a .488 slugging percentage, so despite his anemic on-base skills, Trumbo has still put together a .333 wOBA. UZR is a fan of his fielding so far and grades him out at six runs above average, giving him an overall total fWAR of 2.1. Baseball Reference is a little more bearish, grading him at 1.6 bWAR. Trumbo has been more valuable to the Angels according to these metrics than Walden has, but whether voters view it the same way remains to be seen. Trumbo is a one-dimensional player offensively, and this may scare away some voters. Perhaps if he manages to slug his way to 30 he’ll become even more desirable.

While it’s hard to believe he’s eligible, Jeremy Hellickson has pitched his way into the conversation for the award so far this year. This year Hellickson has thrown 134.1 innings of 3.30 ERA ball with a 10-8 record. He hasn’t really been as good as his ERA would suggest, though, and in a lot of ways Hellickson has taken a step back from the superb numbers he put up in a small sample last September. His strikeout rate of 6.03/9 and walk rate of 3.35/9 are both worse than league average and support an ERA in the 4.50 range, as his 4.30 FIP and 4.56 xFIP indicate. Given that Hellickson hasn’t racked up a ton of wins, doesn’t play in a huge market and won’t be on playoff team, it’s hard to imagine him taking home the Rookie of the Year award. I imagine he’ll bounce back next year with a vengeance.

One very strong candidate for Rookie of the Year is in Seattle, second baseman Dustin Ackley. A midseason callup, Ackley has accumulated only 211 plate appearances. He’s adjusted well though, hitting .286/.370/.481 with 5 home runs, good for a .372 wOBA and a 140 wRC+, best amongst rookies. He’s done all this while playing good defense, and so while he’s only played in 50 games(!), he’s already accumulated 2.3 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR. It’s an impressive start for Ackley, but it’s likely that his lack of playing time will hamper his campaign for AL Rookie of the Year. Had the Mariners called him up earlier instead of waiting until June 17, he’d likely be the clear favorite. Ackley’s candidacy then remains a perfect illustration of the question posed to Fangraphs’ readers on Friday. How do you value someone who puts up tremendous production in a shorter context against someone who puts up less production rate-wise but more overall production in a longer context? It should be an interesting question for voters to grapple with, because rate-stat wise Ackley is the best position player candidate in the class.

Michael Pineda may have the strongest statistical case for the American League Rookie of the Year, certainly as a pitcher. He’s thrown 141 innings of 3.77 ERA ball, striking out 9.1/9 and walking 3.13/9. His FIP and his xFIP are right at that level, 3.60 and 3.57, respectively. Pineda is hurt by a subpar win-loss record, currently 9-7, but at least he’ll have a shoulder to cry on in Felix Hernandez. Fangraphs values his performance at 2.3 fWAR, and Baseball Reference has him at 2.2 bWAR, higher than any other candidate aside from Ackley. Simply put, Pineda’s been fantastic. He’s seen his ERA regress to the mid-3 level supported by his peripherals in recent weeks, but it shouldn’t detract from his excellent overall season. Whether voters are able to look past this, him tiring down the stretch, and a mediocre win-loss record is another question.

It doesn’t really feel right to put Ivan Nova in the same class as Pineda and Ackley, but it’s possible it will happen this November when the ballots are revealed. This is largely because Nova is currently the owner of a 12-4 win-loss record, one that might lead you to believe he’s been better than Pineda. He hasn’t been. Still, Nova has been impressive, particularly compared to preseason expectations. He’s thrown 117.2 innings of 4.21 ERA ball, a number which aligns neatly with his 4.11 FIP and 4.31 xFIP. His calling card has been ground balls so far, and he’s gotten them nearly 55% of the time. His strikeout rate (5.28 K/9) and walk rate (3.21 BB/9) are both below league average, but it’s possible he’ll flash better strikeout ability down the stretch thanks to the addition of his slider.

At the end of the day, Nova’s statistical profile isn’t all that impressive when put next to players like Ackley or Pineda. In fact, it’s nearly identical to Orioles’ rookie pitcher Zach Britton. Yet the fact that Britton sports a 6-9 W-L record and plays for a non-contending basement-dweller means his chances are virtually nill, while Nova stands a good chance of contending. If Nova manages to win fifteen games, he may sneak his way up the ballot. Can’t you hear a writer defending his vote by saying, “I voted for 15-game winner Ivan Nova. The pitcher’s job is to win games. Period.” Ivan Nova certainly can.

I mentioned to Joe on Friday that I would be pushing hard for Granderson to get the AL MVP, even if Jose Bautista deserved it more. It’s a total homer move. My brain knows that Bautista should likely be the winners, as it does that Pineda or Ackley should be the winner here over Nova, but I still can’t help but root for the hometown fellas to take home the hardware. How cool would a Sabathia-Granderson-Nova sweep be? Forget your sabermetrics, win-loss is where it’s at.

Bats back Hughes as Yanks pound Twins

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Benjamin Franklin once wrote in a letter a famous phrase concerning life’s certainties. “In this world,” he said, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Of course, the famous Philadelphian lived long before the Yankees and Twins had a chance to face each other. Had he done so, he might have added a New York victory over Minnesota to that short list.

For the fourth time this year and for the 21st time in their last 24 meetings, the Yankees walked away winners in a contest against the Twins. Phil Hughes pitched into the 8th for the first time since September and Russell Martin blasted a pair of home runs to give the Bombers a comfortable 8-1 victory. For Hughes, it was his fourth strong start in a row, and for the Yanks’ offense, it was business as usual.

Tonight marked my fourth game this week on the road with the Yankees. I start work in September, and I wanted to see some baseball in the meantime. I spent two days in Kansas City, and I’m in Minneapolis for the four-game set. I’ve enjoyed the barbecue and beer in Kansas City and two days of Jucy Lucy’s and Blucy’s so far in Minneapolis.

During my travels, I’ve spoken with a lot of friendly midwesterners who seemingly fit my stereotypical view of the rest of the country I developed while growing up in New York. They’re always open for conversation and passionately love baseball. In Kansas City, the fans talked about economic imbalance and the impressive display of power and patience from the Yanks. They were thrilled to see the Royals win on Wednesday simply because they don’t expect Kansas City to trump the Yanks.

In Minnesota, the attitude is somewhat different. While only 22,000 fans showed up at the K for the Yankee series and most of those were New York fans, Target Field is filled to the brim with Twins fans who are passionate about their team. Tonight was the club’s 51st sellout even though the team is struggling in a weak division. Some in Minneapolis say that’s a new phenomenon brought on by a gorgeous open-air stadium and a successful team, but it doesn’t matter. They know their Twinkies, and they know that the Twins simply cannot beat the Yankees. That 21-3 record covers two post-season series and the past three years. They expect the Yanks to walk away victorious.

Tonight, the story was no different. Trevor Plouffe gave the Minnesota fans brief hope as he deposited a 0-1 pitch from Phil Hughes into the left field seats, but after that, it was all Yankees. The Bombers scored eight unanswered runs. The Yanks’ 25-year-old right-hander was the story of the night. He threw 7.2 innings and gave up just a pair of hits while walking three and striking out two. He didn’t have his best stuff really as he generated just two swings-and-misses. He was sitting comfortably in the low 90s, a tick or two lower than we’d like, but the Twins couldn’t square up against him.

For Hughes, this was his fourth straight strong start. Over his last 25.2 innings, Hughes has allowed five earned runs on 18 hits and five walks with 15 strike outs. With Freddy Garcia on the DL for another week and a double header looming, the Yanks don’t have to make a decision on a five-man rotation for at least another two Hughes’ starts. It’s hard to see, however, the Bombers removing him from the rotation right now. He’s been throwing strong and steady lately.

The offense meanwhile plated another eight runs like it was nothing. Russell Martin blasted a pair of home runs to give him 15 on the season. It was his third multi-homer game of the year, and for a night at least, we could forget about his post-April offensive struggles. Derek Jeter added a pair of hits and two runs scored while Mark Teixeira drove in three which included his 1000th career RBI. That 8-1 win was easy as they get.

Phelps rocked in return to SWB

Dellin Betances was In The Team Photo of this week’s Prospect Hot Sheet. In other news, P.J. Pilittere was activated from the phantom DL to take the DFA’ed Gus Molina’s spot on the Triple-A Scranton roster. Wilkins Arias was sent back to Double-A Trenton and Brad Halsey was put on the DL. Sixth rounder Jake Cave faced his first live pitching since turning pro earlier this week, and it was against Pedro Feliciano.

Triple-A Scranton (7-4 loss to Durham)
Chris Dickerson, LF & Doug Bernier, SS: both 1 for 3, 1 R – Dickerson got hit by a pitch, stole a base and struck out … Bernier doubled, walked, and score a run
Mike Lamb, DH: 2 or 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 K
Brandon Laird, 3B & Luis Nunez, 2B: both 1 for 4 – Laird struck out twice … Nunez hit a solo jack
Terry Tiffee, 1B & Jordan Parraz, RF: both 0 for 4 – Parraz struck out
P.J. Pilittere, C & Greg Golson, CF: both 0 for 3, 1 K – Pilittere allowed a passed ball
David Phelps, RHP: 2.2 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 39 of 70 pitches were strikes (55.7%) … first start at this level since June 21st because of the shoulder issue
George Kontos, RHP: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 6-2 GB/FB – 41 of 53 pitches were strikes (77.4%) … dreams of a high-leverage, multi-inning reliever are dancing through my head
Scott Proctor, RHP: 1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 16 of 23 pitches were strikes (69.6%)
Kevin Whelan, RHP: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – just eight of his 18 pitches were strikes (44.4%)

[Read more…]

Game 123: Hughes on the hill

(AP Photo/ Bill Kostroun)

Phil Hughes and the Yanks look to continue their recent success against the Twins tonight as the righthander takes the mound for his 10th start of the season. Hughes, 3-4 with a 6.55 ERA, is looking to build on some strong outings. Over his last three starts, the 25-year-old has allowed 16 hits and just four earned runs in 18 innings while striking out 13 and walking three. This is Hughes’ second career regular season start against the Twinkies.

Minnesota will counter with Kevin Slowey. The 27-year-old is making his first start since September 27 and only his seventh appearance of the season. He missed some time earlier this year with abdominal strain and landed in AAA after coming off of the DL. He is 0-0 this year with a 4.91 ERA in 14.2 innings. He has allowed 19 hits but just one walk to go with seven punch outs. He is 1-1 with a 4.56 ERA in 23.2 innings spanning five games against the Yankees. He recently held the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees to one unearned run over 8 innings during a AAA outing.

Here’s your Yanks’ starting nine:

Gardner LF
Jeter SS
Granderson CF
Teixeira 1B
Cano 2B
Swisher RF
Chavez 3B
Posada DH
Martin C

Alex Rodriguez Update: A-Rod went through some more hitting and baserunning drills today, and he will do so again tomorrow. Joe Girardi indicated that they are leaning against activating him in time for tomorrow’s game but could add him to the roster for Sunday or Tuesday after Monday’s off day.

Other News: Freddy Garcia has been placed on the disabled list because of the cut on his finger, and he’ll make a “rehab” start with Triple-A Scranton next week and be activated in time to start one of the game’s in the doubleheader against the Orioles next Saturday … The Yankees have claimed left-handed reliever Aaron Laffey off waivers from the Mariners and designated Gus Molina for assignment. Laffey will join the team tomorrow, taking Garcia’s roster spot.

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