Game 39 Back for more

Photo Credit: Julie Jacobson, AP

So, last night was fun, eh? Ben and I both left the Stadium last night with sore throats and tired legs from screaming like madmen and jumping around like lunatics. But it was totally worth it. Nothing like watching the Red Sox fans that were gloating in the top of the 9th inning walk down the tunnel with their tails between their legs fifteen minutes later.

Anyway, I’m not sure how likely they are to play tonight, but here’s the lineup anyway…

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

And on the mound, Carsten Sabathia.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, but it’s been raining all day. It looks like there’s a window to get this one in, but who knows with weather forecasts. If they do in fact start playing, it’ll be a mad dash to get the lead before the 5th inning ends. The game is on My9 locally and MLB Network nationally.

Should the game be delayed or postponed or whatever, use this as your open thread for the night. You’ve got NBA and NHL playoff action on, plus the Mets are in Atlanta. Enjoy.

Update (6:34pm): No surprise here, but the game has been delayed. No word yet on the start time.

Update (7:11pm): Tentative start time in 8pm ET.

Tampa area high school named after The Boss

Although his appearances at Yankee games are limited mostly to Spring Training and the World Series these days, George Steinbrenner was on hand this weekend for the dedication of George M. Steinbrenner High School. Although he didn’t speak at the ceremony, he sat front row with his wife Joan and sons Hank and Hal, and received standing ovations from the crowd and school officials. Most know him as the brash owner of the Yanks, but The Boss pumps thousands of dollars into the community each year through donations and what not, often with zero fanfare. I’m happy to see him recognized for it.

What ails the captain

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

As a group of 17-year-old Red Sox fans sitting behind me last night started chanting “Yankees suck,” Derek Jeter struck out against Daniel Bard on a 97-mph fastball that was probably ball four. In a fit of disgust, I posted to Twitter a sarcastic rant, “Remember when Derek Jeter was good? Yeah, me too.”

Admittedly, that comment was borne out of my disgust with the 9-7 Boston lead, the state of the Yanks’ bullpen and the team’s inability to push more than two runs across the plate after the first inning. At the same time, though, Derek Jeter has now been to the plate 176 times this year and is sporting an OPS of .709, .135 points below his career mark, and those small sample size excuses are turning into larger sample sizes from which we can derive some insight.

So what’s happening with Jeter? Well, for starters, his batting average on balls in play is well below his career mark. His BABIP is currently .286 while his career mark is an impressive .358. Bad luck could explain, in part, why Jeter is hitting just .268/.313/.396 through his first 36 games of the season.

Yet, BABIP doesn’t tell the entire story. If we drill down on Jeter’s plate tendencies this season, a few alarming trends emerge. Since 2002, Jeter has swung at just 19.8 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. This year, however, Jeter has swung at 33.3 percent of all pitches out of the strike zone. His overall contact rates have remained constant, but he’s definitely chasing more pitches out of the zone.

As he flails at pitches low and outside, his batted balls are suffering as a result. His line drive rate is down from his career mark of 20.5 to 13.9 percent this year. His ground ball rates have spiked to 68.1 percent, well above his career mark of 56.2 percent.

For Jeter, slow starts are nothing new. As Joe explored a week ago, Jeter suffered through a slump in 2009, and his awful beginning in 2004 is fresh on our minds. But here, we’re seeing a player who is close to 36 and has long relied on a high BABIP to sustain his excellence suffering through a bad spell of pitch recognition and contact rates. The trends are alarming.

It may very well be too early to grow too worried about the captain. Jeter has always managed to escape his slow starts in the past, but age isn’t on his side. As his plate appearances creep up toward 200 and beyond, Jeter’s slow start will look a little worse. The Yanks can afford to have a lead-off hitter with a .313 on-base percentage for only so long, and of course, his contract situation looms large. With 25 victories, second most in all of baseball, the Yanks can seemingly bury their problems, but Jeter deserves a close look this year. His start has been, needless to say, less than ideal.

Following up on Hughes

Prior to yesterday’s game I said that it would be a pretty big test for Phil Hughes because it was going to be the first time all season that he’d be facing a team for the second time. While his final line was pretty ugly (5 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 1 BB, 3 K, 2 HR), the Yanks’ starter was only one pitch away from escaping the game with just two runs allowed, but it was clear the Red Sox were a little more prepared this time around.

As a reminder, here’s Hughes breakdown from his May 7th start against Boston…

Last night he threw 52 four-seam fastballs, 30 cutters, 14 curveballs, and three changeups, so he did go to his offspeed stuff a little bit more than he did a week or so ago. Here’s the breakdown from last night’s game…

So there’s quite a bit going on here. For the most part, Hughes attacked Boston’s hitters the same way the first time through the order. He basically replaced two four-seamers with one cutter and one changeup. The result was three singles and a run, but 49 pitches thrown to the first nine hitters. That’s more than five pitches per batter. The Red Sox swung and missed just twice, and fouled off 17 (!!!) of those 49 pitches, which is one more pitch than they fouled off in his entire May 7th start. They had an idea of what was coming, but they were just missing. A lesser pitcher might have gotten knocked around a bit more. That’s a testament to the quality of Hughes’ stuff.

The second time through the order is when Hughes and Frankie Cervelli really changed up the scouting report and went heavy with the breaking balls. The result was just two baserunners – a seven pitch walk to Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz’s homer. He needed just 33 pitches to navigate Boston’s lineup the second time through the order (3.67 pitches per batter), drawing three swings and misses and five foul balls. Still a lot, but basically in line with his rate from his May 7th start.

The third time through the order was flat out ugly. With two outs in the 5th, Marco Scutaro stepped to the plate for the third time, singling to center on the seventh pitch of an at-bat that featured three consecutive foul balls on a 1-2 count. Pedroia followed with a double to left, and that came after ten pitches and five foul balls. Hughes was at 96 pitches by then and was visibly gassed. J.D. Drew fouled off two of four pitches before homering, and Kevin Youkilis ended the inning on three pitches. Those four batters saw 25 pitches, fouled off ten of them, and swung and missed a total of zero times. Joe said it this morning and it’s worth repeating: Hughes had trouble putting hitters away last night, especially in the 5th inning when his pitch count got up there.

Whether or not this impacts how Hughes pitches in the future, when he starts facing the rest of the league for the second and third time, is anyone’s guess. It’s very possible that it was just a bad night and he didn’t have his best stuff. It was bound to happen at some point. The Red Sox do have a really good lineup (they’re 2nd in the league in homers, runs, and OPS, and 4th in OBP), so we have to give them credit for making him work. I can’t imagine the A’s or White Sox will put up as much of a fight when they get their second crack at Phil, though.

While frustrating, starts like last night are beneficial to the development of a young pitcher. I call them “character builders,” which is my cheesy way of putting a positive spin on a bad outing for a young pitcher. It’s true, though — guys learn a lot about what it takes to be a big league pitcher when they struggle. I’ll be paying attention to how things go the next time Hughes faces a team that’s seen him already, that’s for sure.

Granderson begins taking fly balls

With the hurdle of running pain-free behind him, Curtis Granderson began taking fly balls on Sunday for the first time since injuring his groin earlier this month. He did everything with about 75% intensity, including running down balls and changing direction. “Everything felt good,” said the Yanks’ centerfielder. “The endurance is just not there.” Most importantly, Granderson has felt nothing but normal soreness since resuming baseball activities last week.

With Granderson, Nick Johnson, and now Nick Swisher nursing injuries, the Yanks’ lineup is noticeably missing a lefty bat. The sooner Grandy gets back and healthy, the better. He’s going to need a minor league rehab stint to get himself game ready, so I’m hopefully that Granderson will be back within two weeks. Maybe that’s just me being optimistic.

The Bullpen Problem

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

While last night’s win was perhaps the best of the season (who am I kidding? It was easily the best), the reason the game went from comfortably ahead to excruciating nail biter was because the bullpen failed to do it’s job. Before we go any further, let me say I had no issue with Joe Girardi‘s bullpen usage. The only had so many bullets to use last night, and he used them when he saw fit. That’s not the problem. The problem is that the relievers just didn’t get the job done.

Boone Logan, brought in to pitch the 6th because three of the next four batters were either lefthanded or switch hitters, immediately threw three balls to the first batter he faced. Two pitches later, Victor Martinez was trotting around the bases because he wasn’t fooled by a fifth consecutive fastball in the 92-93 range. Logan then allowed an 0-2 single to David Ortiz, but escaped the inning on a double play and a ground out. The Yankees had just given themselves a little breathing room with a run in the bottom of the 5th, but the big lefty gave that run back.

Chan Ho Park, fresh off the disabled list, pitched a relatively uneventful 7th inning before getting smacked around in the 8th. He had to be bailed out by Damaso Marte, who then needed to be bailed out by Javier Vazquez in the 9th. Overall, Yankee relievers put eight men on base and allowed four runs in four innings of work yesterday, and the only strikeout came courtesy of Vazquez, the last out of the game recorded by Yankee pitchers. Phil Hughes finally had an off night, but the bullpen just wasn’t able to pick him up.

Part of the problem has been the availability of some pitchers recently. Both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain were unavailable against the Red Sox on Monday after working hard over the weekend, and you have to figure that Marte and CHoP will be unavailable tonight after throwing a combined 56 pitches yesterday. “Our bullpen is a mess,” said Girardi after yesterday’s game, referring to being shorthanded, not necessarily the overall performance. Instead of being able to use the relievers he wants to use, Girardi’s stuck using guys he has to use. When you’re forced into doing that, well bad things tend to happen.

Yes, Al Aceves is injured and that’s created a huge hole in the bullpen. However, some of the other guys out there just aren’t getting it done. Logan is allowing batters to get on base 38.5% of the time. Robertson still isn’t right even though his last four appearances have been scoreless. Park, who I believe will be better as he gets a little further away from his injury, is still getting back in the groove of things. The long reliever situation has been an absolute mess since Sergio Mitre has been pressed into spot start duty.

Joba and Mariano Rivera have been more than fine in the 8th and 9th innings, so there’s no concern there. Even Sunday’s meltdown was the product of a ground ball single, a walk to the reigning AL MVP, a strikeout of the AL leader in wOBA, and a ball off Mark Teixeira‘s glove. How often is that going to happen? Answer: Not very. You just tip your cap to the Twins and forget about it.

But the Yankees don’t have to deal with the unreliability of Robertson and Logan if they don’t want to. Both players have minor league options remaining, and there are viable options in Triple-A Scranton to fill-in as they get themselves right. Mark Melancon is there just waiting for a legitimate shot, not just a call up to be used in mop-up duty before being sent down a week later. Romulo Sanchez impressed in his lone big league appearance of the season. Even Jon Albaladejo has been killing it this year. It would be tough for any two of those three to be any worse than Robertson and Logan have, so why not give them a shot? The team was quick to pull the trigger on a bullpen makeover in 2009, what’s the holdup in 2010?

Maybe part of it is loyalty. Robertson was an important part of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs last year, so maybe the team feels he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I’m confident that he’ll get himself back on track in the time, but there comes a point where it’s not worth the detriment to the team. Logan doesn’t deserve that benefit of the doubt; frankly he’s been pitching exactly like he had been prior to joining the Yankees. He has a lot to do to earn his spot. Being young, cheap, lefthanded, and able to throw hard will keep getting you chances, I guess.

Pulling a trigger on a bullpen makeover isn’t an easy decision, especially when you’re talking about young and talented players who have the tools to succeed. Sending down Robertson or Logan isn’t the end of their Yankee careers, they could be back within a month if they buckle down and work on sorting themselves out in the minors. The Yankees have options, but right now they don’t appear interested in using them unless they have no other choice.

Miraculous comebacks like the one we witnessed last night aren’t always going to happen. The bullpen should be able to preserve leads, and right now the guys who enter the game prior to the 8th inning just aren’t getting the job done.

Hughes’s troubles finishing off Sox hitters

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

As Mike discussed yesterday morning, last night was the first time this season that Phil Hughes faced a team for the second time. He basically blew away previous opponents, even surviving on pure stuff when he didn’t have great command against Baltimore. Last night his stuff was undeniable, but he had his share of troubles. Once J.D. Drew took him deep in the fifth, it became, by far, his worst start of the season.

Hughes’s problems started in the first. Though he retired the Red Sox 1-2-3, he required 19 pitches to do so, including 10 pitches to J.D. Drew. It took a monster 96 mph fastball to finally retire him. Still, he put himself in a tough position going forward. He’d have to keep his pitch count down in order to last longer than six innings. Things got so bad that he wouldn’t even start that inning.

The second inning actually lasted longer, 21 pitches, and included two hits, including one that allowed a run to score. That wasn’t too devastating, considering the Yanks had already put five runners across the plate. Adrian Beltre actually hit a pitch out of the zone to drive in Youkilis, so maybe it wasn’t all on Phil. A few hits will mean a few extra pitches in the inning, but we’ve seen pitchers settle down after a few long innings and still get through six or seven.

The Ortiz homer in the fourth was a bit annoying, but that didn’t compare to the fifth. Hughes started out quickly, retiring Jeremy Hermida and Darnell McDonald on just three pitches. He then got ahead of Marco Scutaro 1-2, but failed to retire him on two fastballs and a cutter. The final fastball led to a single up the middle. He got ahead of Dustin Pedroia 1-2 but again couldn’t put him away. Pedroia fouled off two fastballs, a cutter, and a curve before working the count full and then doubling on a cutter right down the middle.

Most frustrating, though, was Drew’s at-bat. Hughes actually got ahead 0-2 on Drew, but couldn’t finish him off. Drew fouled off an outside fastball before hammering a cutter inside. Both home runs came off cutters, so I think it’s fair to say that the pitch wasn’t exactly working for him. Or maybe the Red Sox had a better idea of what to expect. The two cutters in question were inside enough, but belt high. So maybe it was a problem with location.

Mostly, though, his problem was his inability to put away hitters. He only walked one, and threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. Problem was, they weren’t necessarily good strikes. In fact, here’s the breakdown of those 71 strikes: 20 called strikes, 28 foul balls, 18 in play, and only 5 swinging strikes. Coming into the night he had a 9.7 percent swinging strike rate (that is, percentage of strikes that are of the swing and miss variety). Last night it was down to 7 percent. The foul balls were the real killers, as they ran up his pitch count and gave hitters longer lives. A few of them, like Pedroia, proved to be trouble.

This isn’t to say that Phil will have problems going forward. He didn’t seem his sharpest last night, and it showed when hitters fouled off pitches that, on better nights, they’d miss completely. That changes the game from a pitcher’s standpoint. The high number of balls in play didn’t help, either. Hughes faced 22 batters, and 18 of them put the ball in play. That’s well above his normal rate. Again, it goes back to all the fouls. He couldn’t put guys away, so instead of setting them down on strikes he had to rely on his fielders. While the Yanks defense is by no means bad, allowing so many balls in play can hurt from time to time. It’s the nature of the game.

I wouldn’t worry about Phil, though. This start almost ended well for him. By the end, though, as his pitch count ran into the 90s in just the fifth inning, he might have been tiring. That doesn’t excuse the performance, but instead gives him something to build on. His next chance comes over the weekend against the Mets.