The advantages of playing at home

As the games melt away from the 2010 baseball season, the Yanks’ grip on a playoff spot grows stronger. The Bombers are 6.5 games ahead of the Boston Red Sox with 32 left to play and share an AL East lead with the Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately, one of the two beasts of the east can win the division, and the crown this year carries a steep price. The winner will secure home field advantage in the ALDS and ALCS while the loser will likely end up with the second-best record in the American League and no home field advantage at all.

For the Yankees, the schedule, as I’ve written a few times this month, isn’t on their side. I’ve updated the spreadsheet of remaining games to include the results from the past week, and if anything, the Rays’ schedule has gotten easier after they took two of three from Boston. For the Yankees, they play 32 games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .522. On the season, the Yanks are 36-22 against these teams, and if they duplicate those results in September, they’ll end up with 99 wins and 63 losses. That should be good enough to win the AL East.

Tampa Bay, however, has other plans in mind. The Rays have 32 games left against teams with a combined .480 winning percentage, and the AL upstarts are 42-24 against these competitors this year. If Tampa Bay duplicates those results, they’ll end up with a record of 100 wins and 62 losses. Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds report doesn’t see either team reaching that 100-win plateau, but gives Tampa that one-game edge in the standings. Considering how many woulda, coulda, shoulda games the Yanks have played this year, that final regular season result would be a tough one to take.

Of course, much could change over the next five weeks, and the Yankees and Rays both seemingly control their own AL fates. The two teams meet seven times over the season’s home stretch, and if the Yanks can strike a decisive blow against Tampa, something they’ve struggled in doing this year, the AL East crown could be theirs for the taking. With Boston now on the ropes, I’m not going to root for the Rays any longer this year.

It’s all well and good to look at how the Yanks can get to October, but the division title concerns the elusive home field advantage. Does it matter if the Yanks don’t have the home-field edge this year? Make no mistake about it: The Yankees are better at home than they are on the road. At Yankee Stadium, where CC Sabathia doesn’t lose, the Yanks are 42-22; on the road, the club is a still-impressive 38-28. At Yankee Stadium, the club puts up a .367 wOBA while on the road, that mark falls to .332. The home-road split could be more significant if the Yanks must play four out of seven games in Tampa Bay where they are hitting just .229/.297/.398 this year.

Whereas the Yanks score 6 runs per game at home and just under 5 per game on the road, their pitching exhibits less drastic splits. Yankee hurlers have a higher ERA at home than they do on the road — 4.08 vs. 3.75. Because Bombers pitchers have given up a whopping 39 more home runs at home in 0.1 more innings than they have thrown on the road, we can say that Yankee Stadium giveth and Yankee Stadium taketh away.

Still, we can’t underestimate the CC effect. Despite the weaker pitching at home, CC Sabathia, the Yanks’ presumptive Game One starter, is 10-0 at home with a 2.46 ERA/3.21 FIP and 8-5 with a 3.75 ERA/3.85 FIP on the road. Never mind the pride of a division crown; I want home field advantage for the joy of watching CC Sabathia dominate in the Bronx.

With 32 games left and seven against Tampa Bay, the Yankees just need to win. They’re not yet guaranteed a playoff spot, but their October Magic Number is a cool 26. Even without bragging rights on the line, they need to gain that home field advantage for another run at a World Series trophy. The longer the standings remain knotted at the top, the more of an edge Tampa Bay gains, and so it is time to just keep on winning.

Clemens pleads not guilty to perjury, obstruction charges

Roger Clemens appeared this morning in federal court in the District of Columbia to enter a plea of not guilty to charges of perjury and obstruction of Congress. Clemens is facing a six-count indictment concerning statements he made in February 2008 in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The Department of Justice and Congress believes Clemens lied under oath, and like it or not, the case against Clemens will partially rest on Andy Pettitte’s shoulders. Clemens, who left DC to participate in a golf tournament at Myrtle Beach this afternoon, has already rejected a plea deal and plans to fight the indictment. This case, however, won’t go to trial for a few years, and Clemens will stay in legal limbo until then.

September call-up candidates

The immortal Shane Spencer. (AP Photo/John Dunn)

In just two short days, the calendar will flip to September and teams will be able to add extra players to their roster for a little extra help in the season’s final month. We already know that the Yankees will recall Jon Albaladejo and Juan Miranda on that day, and the same would have happened to Romulo Sanchez if he had not gotten hurt last week. For all intents and purposes, we can consider Lance Berkman a September call-up as well.

Historically, the first wave of September call-ups are just the essentials, no luxuries. Some help for the pitching staff, a third catcher, maybe another bench player. That’s pretty much it.  Last year the Yanks recalled three pitchers (Mark Melancon, Edwar Ramirez, Mike Dunn), an infielder (Ramiro Pena), and a third catcher (Frankie Cervelli) on the 1st, with more trickling in throughout the month. The year before that it was just Chad Moeller and Phil Coke on the 1st. One year before that it was Ian Kennedy and Alberto Gonzalez with Doug Mientkiewicz and Jose Veras coming off the disabled list.

The easiest calls are the guys we’ve already seen this year. The Yanks already have their extra backup infielder on the big league roster in Eduardo Nunez because Alex Rodriguez is on the disabled list. The scorching hot Colin Curtis (14 for his last 39 with seven doubles and a homer) will certainly get the call once the Triple-A playoffs are over, ditto Chad Huffman (would be nice to have another righty bat) and Kevin Russo (yay versatility). Greg Golson’s close to a shoo-in for the Freddy Guzman late season pinch-runner role. Just think, if the Yanks manage to pull ahead in the division, those late-September blow-outs will feature an outfield of Huffman-Golson-Curtis in the late innings.

Those are the easy ones. It’s not a matter of if, just when with those four. The real question marks surround the pitching and the third catcher.

Starting on the mound, the only pitchers on the 40-man roster and not in the big leagues at the moment are Albaladejo, Sanchez, Wilkin DeLaRosa, Hector Noesi, and Andrew Brackman. The first two we’ve already addressed. DeLaRosa isn’t a call-up candidate because frankly he’s holding onto his Double-A Trenton and 40-man roster spots by the skin of his teeth. This season he has 4.83 FIP with a rather atrocious 54/41 K/BB ratio in 69.2 innings, and the southpaw isn’t even doing the job against lefthanded batters (4.56 FIP, 25-15 K/B in 23.1 IP). All of this comes after he posted a 4.58 FIP with Trenton last season, so it’s basically been two years of the now-25-year-old spinning his wheels and making no progress. If the Yanks removed him from the 40-man roster and gave the spot to someone else, chances are they would retain him anyway.

Noesi was just promoted to Scranton and has made all of one start there, so I can’t imagine he’s a realistic call-up option. The kid was pitching in the High-A Florida State League less than four months ago, too much too soon can be counter-productive. Brackman is an interesting call-up candidate, but not to make a start or pitch key innings or anything. Perhaps just to give him a taste of the big leagues and let him see what he’s on the cusp of enjoying if he continues to progress next year. I’m not saying I recommend it, but it would be interesting.

So, the bad news is that of the five pitchers on the 40-man and not in the bigs, three of them aren’t call-up candidates (at the moment) and the fourth is just a question mark. They could cut DeLaRosa and add someone like lefty Royce Ring (holding lefties to a .181 average against) or righty Zack Segovia (3.87 FIP and capable of throwing upwards of 45 pitches per outing). Those two would be far more useful than WDLR, and are easy to let go of in the winter to free up the roster spot. Jason Hirsh might have been a candidate as well, but he’s dealing with more shoulder soreness and his status is uncertain. So from the looks of things, the pitching staff might only be getting help from Albaladejo, Ring/Segovia, and possibly Sanchez if he gets healthy before long. With any luck, Damaso Marte, Andy Pettitte, and Al Aceves will be coming off the DL next month to further fortify the staff down the stretch.

Now, about that third catcher situation. There’s just two candidates for the job, and neither is on the 40-man: Chad Moeller and Jesus Montero. Moeller was up earlier this year and is the obvious candidate because he’s familiar with being a backup and there is no concern about running him out there four days in a row late in the season to help Jorge Posada and Frankie Cervelli rest up for October. Like Ring and Segovia, Moeller’s 40-man roster spot would easily be reclaimed after the season when he’s designated for assignment.

Montero’s a different story all together. He’s clearly a better offensive option (.363 wOBA) than Moeller (.267) right now even though he has yet to see a big league pitch, but adding him to the 40-man roster has some long-term ramifications. First of all, it ties up a spot over the winter, meaning that’s one less player the Yanks will be able to protect from the Rule 5 Draft. Montero himself wouldn’t be Rule 5 eligible until after next season, so you’d be adding him and starting his option clock before it was absolutely necessary. Basically, it limits roster flexibility going forward. Then there’s also the issue of playing time; how much would he really play down the stretch if it’s a tight race with the Rays like we all expect?

The Yanks could also have Montero join the team but not activate him; they’ve done this a few times over the year with guys like Phil Hughes, Jeff Marquez, Tyler Clippard, J.B. Cox, and others. They basically do everything with the team – workout, taking batting practice, throw bullpens, etc. – but watch the game from the stands instead of in the dugout with the uniform on. It gives them a taste of the big league life without compromising the 40-man roster. I think that’s the best thing to do with Montero so Moeller can be the sacrificial lamb down the stretch if needed.

I would like to see Montero in September as much as the next guy, but I don’t think it’s the right time for him. Let him help Scranton in the playoffs, then let him come up and hang out with the big league team without actually being on the roster. Next year is when he gets unleashed on unsuspecting America League pitchers. Regardless of who the Yanks call up to be the third catcher, they’re going to have to clear a 40-man spot, which might mean the end for someone like Huffman, or they could just use WDLR’s spot and not call up Ring or Segovia. They have some options.

Beyond Albaladejo and Miranda (and Berkman), most of the call-ups won’t arrive until the middle of the month when Scranton finishes their playoff run. The third catcher could come up sooner with Rene Rivera and Jose Gil moving up a level to fill the empty spots in Double- and Triple-A, and frankly the sooner the better. It’ll allow Joe Girardi to pinch hit for Cervelli late in a game without having to remove Posada from the designated hitter spot or something like that.

Very rarely do September call-ups come up and have an impact, save for the occasional Shane Spencer or Francisco Rodriguez. Their real value lies in resting the regulars and giving the kids some experience in low-leverage spots. September is where Coke earned himself a big league job for the following season, ditto Ian Kennedy. For a team dealing some injuries and needing to rest some older players after 130+ games, having the extra bodies around is going to be a big help.

What we learned about Ivan Nova in two starts

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As baseball fanatics we’re an excitable bunch, but nothing quite piques that excitement like a rookie who helps the team right away. That can be a hyped prospect like Joba Chamberlain in 2007, but it doesn’t have to be. Ivan Nova has demonstrated that in the past few weeks. He fit into no one’s top 10 Yanks prospects, but he has come up and helped the Yankees when they needed it most. He’ll take at least one more turn in the rotation, giving the Yanks some flexibility while Andy Pettitte remains on the shelf.

It can be tough to objectively judge a young pitcher through just two starts. Sometimes pitchers get hot at the right time and deceive us for a while. Other times they succeed because the opposing team is unprepared. As the scouting report on Nova makes its rounds we might see teams take a different approach. But for now we’ve seen great success. He only needs to keep doing these things for a couple more turns through the rotation.

Either the guns are hot or he’s gassing hitters

I firmly believe that PitchFX readings in both Toronto and Chicago were a bit hot for the past week. Phil Hughes averaged a mile per hour faster than normal on Wednesday night, and on the same night Javy Vazquez sat around 90 for the first time in a long time. A.J. Burnett averaged about 94.5 mph on Friday night, which is way above his season average. Joba Chamberlain hit 100 yesterday. This all sounds a bit suspect, so I’m more apt to believe that the gun runs hot. It’s more plausible than all of these guys throwing way harder than they have for most of the season.

The scouting report on Ivan Nova has him sitting 92-94, but in his two starts he has averaged 94 per PitchFX, touching 97 at times. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t his actual reading. But even if the actual speed is off, his fastball does have a lot of life on it. It’s not the vertical break you see from Hughes and David Robertson, but it still gets in there quickly and has decent movement. He also throws it a ton, 63 out of 88 pitches yesterday and 47 of 73 on Monday, and throws it for strikes.

He’s not exactly a three-pitch pitcher

Nova boasts just two non-fastball pitches, a curveball and a changeup. As Mike said in the scouting report, his change seems to be his best secondary offering, while the curveball “remains inconsistent.” Yet he’s gone to the curveball readily in the majors, to the neglect of the changeup. That got him into some trouble on Monday, but it worked out well yesterday.

The only real mistake Nova made against the Jays was the hanging curveball to Jose Bautista. That was one of 18 curveballs thrown, and while it was the worst the others weren’t a ton better. It was basically the only pitch that the Jays beat him with. He threw just six for strikes, and generated no swings and misses. Meanwhile he threw just eight curveballs, five for strikes and three swinging. After a performance like that it might seem like he’d go with the changeup more often.

Instead, he did the exact opposite. Just one of his 88 pitches yesterday was a changeup thrown for a strike, while 24 were curveballs. That pitch was much better this time around, as he threw 13 for strikes and generated three swings and misses. Good on Nova for recognizing that it was working. I still wonder, though, what happened to the changeup that has served as his best secondary pitch.

He generates grounders without keeping the ball down

When we see a pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground, we typically think he throws low in the zone. Tim Hudson, Brandon Webb, and other sinkerballers make their livings in the bottom third, and if they’re truly elite the bottom quarter of the zone. In the minors Nova had a healthy groundball rate above 50 percent, and through his first two starts he’s stayed on a similar pace. Of the 43 balls put in play against him 22 have been on the ground. Yet he doesn’t really keep the ball low, as you can see in his strike zone plot from yesterday.

There was a bit more activity low in the zone on Monday, but not to the point where I’d say he’s living down there. Not even close, really. Which is fine. Groundballs can come any way a batter hits them. It’s just odd to see so many grounders generated from pitches high in the zone.

He throws strikes

In his two starts Nova has thrown 161 pitches, 102 of which have been strikes, or 63 percent. That’s what you want to see out of a young pitcher. He might not always be able to generate so many swinging strikes — about 9 percent — but if he keeps putting it in the zone, and if opponents keep hitting it on the ground, he might be able to sustain that success. Even when he’s not throwing strikes he avoids the walk, having issued just two free passes total in his two starts.

Signals of future success

No, Nova will not sustain the 1.93 ERA he has posted to this point. But there are indicators that he could perhaps continue pitching this well. Beyond the strikes throwing, the walk avoidance, and the ground balls, Nova also has excellent strikeout and home run numbers.

FIP gets a reputation for being a predictive stat, but I’ve never interpreted it that way. It tells us what happened, but only what happened without any regard to fielding. Nova’s 2.89 FIP isn’t based off what his ERA should be, per se, but instead measures his performance in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs — which are, again, things that actually happened. It just assumes zero responsibility for defense. While that’s clearly not true, it’s also clearly not true that the pitcher has 100 percent control over his defense, which is what ERA describes.

Nova’s ability to limit fly balls also bodes well for his continuing success. While we have seen plenty of young pitchers come up and get lucky on fly balls, only to experience regression when a few of them start leaving the ballpark, we haven’t seen this from Nova. He has allowed just one home run, which represents 7.7 percent of his fly balls allowed. That makes for a 3.23 xFIP, which is more of a predictive measure than FIP, because it substitutes home runs for theoretical home runs. Nova also has a 3.18 tERA, which is a component ERA based on batted ball type. Even in the complex SIERA formula he sits at 3.19.

Of course, his ability to keep inducing grounders, striking out hitters, and avoiding walks might change as the scouting report gets around. But by all current indications Nova has not only been very good, but could continue to be this good for a while. It’s a pleasant surprise for sure.

Fan Confidence Poll: August 30th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-3 (34 RS, 33 RA)
Season Record: 80-50 (697 RS, 534 RA, 82-48 Pythag. record), tied for first in the AL East
Schedule This Week: vs. Athletics (four games, Mon. to Thurs.), vs. Blue Jays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


Nova nails first MLB win in 2-1 thriller

Amidst rumors of an MLB probe, Yankee rookie Ivan Nova threw a gem against the White Sox on Sunday afternoon. He held the Chicago offense to one run over 5.2 innings, and the Yanks’ bullpen, shaky on Saturday night, spun 3.1 scoreless innings as the Yanks grabbed the rubber match of this three-game set 2-1.

Nova settles in

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Ivan Nova isn’t one of the heralded arms leading the Yankee farm system this season. He doesn’t generate the same kind of buzz as a Brackman, Betances or Banuelos does. But for the second straight start, he has beguiled Major League hitters, lending stability to a shaky Yankee rotation. On Sunday, he earned himself the game ball as he picked up his first Big League win.

As he did against Toronto, Nova showed confidence in his stuff on Sunday. He averaged 94 with a live fastball and hit 96/97 regularly. He showed good velocity separation with his change-up and threw his curveball for strikes as well. As the stuff was there, so too were the results. Through 5.2 innings, he struck out seven Chicago hitters, and the White Sox lone run came on a Juan Pierre RBI single. The Yankees needed a good pitching performance, and Nova, all of 23 years old, delivered.

After the game, Joe Girardi announced that Nova would start next weekend against Toronto, and it will be interesting to see how a team fares against him in his second turn in short order. Nova is clearly on a short leash; he started leaving the ball up in the sixth, and Girardi took no chances after just 88 pitches. The Blue Jays, as we saw, are a solid offensive club, and facing them will be a true test for a pitcher who could be a key player in the Yanks’ rotation in September.

Let the good Thames roll

Marucs Thames does the hokey pokey. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

With Gavin Floyd on the mound, the Yanks couldn’t get much of anything going, but Marcus Thames came through in the second. Pressed into service against a right-hander because the team wanted to give Jorge Posada and Mark Teixeira remains sidelined by a sore hand, Thames led off the sixth with a booming home run to left field. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish.

“I’m a power guy,” Thames said after the game. “And it’s big for power guys: You have to get into a rhythm to get some stuff going. But I know my role, so I don’t need to start putting pressure on myself. I’m just glad if I hit the ball hard every time I get a chance.”

For Thames, this homer was his ninth of the season and his fifth in his last four starts. On the season, he is hitting .320/.401/.544 in limited playing time. Considering how badly a pair of Brian Cashman‘s other off-season pick-ups have fared, Thames’ solid play is a breath of fresh air for the Yanks. He’s a true weapon off the bench and has delivered during his starts as well. As long as the Yanks don’t need Thames to put on a glove, he’s a fine contributor and at 1 win above replacement and counting, well worth the money the Yanks are spending.

This is how you fist-pump properly. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Cervelli’s big day

For all the grief I’ve given Francisco Cervelli this season, I can’t wrap up this game without a nod to his 4-for-4 performance. It is but the second time in his professional career that the offensively-challenged catcher has knocked out four hits in one day, and on Sunday, Cervelli scored what would be the winning run.

On a 3-1 pitch to start the third, Cervelli roped a double to right field. After fouling off a bunt attempt, Brett Gardner swung away on 0-2 and lined a single to center. Cervelli scored, and the Yanks would plate no more men throughout the rest of the game.

Cervelli’s day wasn’t a good one just at the plate either. He had his moments behind the dish as well. With Joba on the bump to start the eighth inning, Paul Konerko reached on an error by Eduardo Nuñez. Brent Lillibridge came on to pinch run, and the stolen base was clearly in the mix. Lillibridge went, and Cervelli threw a strike to Robinson Cano. It was a huge out for the Yanks as Andrew Jones singled in the at-bat. Cervelli hasn’t been a defensive whiz this year, and with Jesus Montero knocking on the door, his time on the Yanks may be limited. But on Sunday, he gave the team its biggest late-inning WPA bump as the White Sox’s win expectancy dropped from 40.9 to 24.8 with that caught stealing. It was a good moment for the beleaguered Cervelli.

To end the game, Joe Girardi was able to mix and match with the bullpen. Although Kerry Wood came dangerously close to blowing the lead, the pen, so bad on Saturday, sealed the deal for Nova, Cervelli and Thames — three unlikely heroes — on Sunday.

WPA Graph

Box scores: ESPN and Fangraphs.

Up Next

With the Rays’ nailing two out of three from Boston, Tampa Bay and the Yankees remain tied atop the AL East as Boston slips 6.5 games behind the pack. The Yankees will take on the Oakland A’s tonight at 7:05 p.m. at the stadium in the Bronx. Dustin Moseley (4-2, 4.53) will face the man with a .215 BABIP and AL Cy Young candidate Trevor Cahill (14-5, 2.43).

Montero’s two homers help SWB to division title

Triple-A Scranton (5-1 win over Buffalo) thanks to the win, they are the North Division champs for the fourth straight year
Kevin Russo, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 K – had been just three for his last 27 (.111)
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 2 R, 2 HR, 4 RBI – 12 for his last 34 (.353) with a double and four homers … one of the homers was pulled, the other went to the opposite field … that gives him 18 homers for the season, a new career high
Juan Miranda, 1B & Jorge Vazquez, DH: both 0 for 4 – Miranda struck out once, JoVa four freaking times
Colin Curtis, RF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 HBP – 14 for his last 39 (.359) with seven doubles and a homer … he’s pretty locked in right now, could be a nice little surprise for the Yanks in September
Chad Huffman, LF: 2 for 4
Brandon Laird, 3B: 0 for 3 – he’s stuck in a real bad rut, just 11 for his last 76 (.145) … he didn’t run out a grounder and got booed
Eric Bruntlett, SS: 0 for 3, 1 K
D.J. Mitchell: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 1 WP, 9-6 GB/FB – 57 of 99 pitches were strikes … very nice for his second AAA start
Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, zeroes, 1-2 GB/FB – half of his eight pitches were strikes
Eric Wordekemper: 0 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 0 K – just four of his 13 pitches were strikes
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1 WP, 1 HB, 0-2 GB/FB – eight of his 13 pitches were strikes

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