Open Thread: Send Swish!

Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer, AP

It’s Day Three of the Send Swish! campaign, and we’re sad to report that Kevin Youkilis has taken a narrow lead over Nick Swisher in the voting for that precious final spot on the AL All Star Team. There’s still two days left to vote, and you can always come here to RAB and click on our little Send Swish! button to go to the ballot. Youkilis has already been to two All Star Games, screw him, let’s get Swish in there. Go vote people!

Once you’re done casting your ballot, use this as your open thread. The Mets are playing the Reds, and there’s another game on MLB Network, but who you see depends on where you live. Could be Red Sox-Rays, which has obvious Yankee ramifications. Anything goes, just be cool.

As expected, Sabathia righting the ship

About a month ago, before his 13th start of the season, I broke down some numbers for CC Sabathia. There were a few reasons for concern, notably a home run rate far above his career norms. Everything else, however, looked about the same when compared to his first dozen starts in 2009. Since then Sabathia has been nothing but lights out. He has pitched 38 innings, striking out 32 to 13 walks, and allowing just seven earned runs. He also has not allowed a home run in that span.

Through 17 starts he currently has 7.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, and 7.3 H/9. Through 17 starts last year he had 6.75 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, 0.78 HR/9, and 7.69 H/9. In other words, reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

Robbie Cano, Homerun Derby participant

Major League Baseball just announced six participants for next week’s Homerun Derby, one of whom is Robinson Cano. Can’t say I would have predicted that before the season. Cano leads all second baseman with 16 homers, which are good for top 17th most in the league. Que up the “it’s going to ruin his swing!” articles.

The others participants: Miggy Cabrera, David Ortiz, Vernon Wells, Corey Hart, and Matt Holliday.

Curtis Granderson and BABIP

I was planning on doing a breakdown of Curtis Granderson‘ BABIP and batted ball data at some point during the All Star break, but David Golebiewski at FanGraphs beat me too it. I recommend reading the whole thing obviously, but in summation: Grandy should improve in the second half because he’s been dealing with a little bit of bad luck this year. Frankly, it would be hard for him to do anything else at this point.

One thing I found interesting was that 37% of Granderson’s plate appearances this season have come against lefties (up 12-13% from past years), which you can attribute to the Yankees facing more lefthanders in general. They’ve already faced 31 lefthanded starters this season (37.8% of games), up from 33.3% last year and 30.2% for Detroit, where Granderson played. I assume this has to do with Brian Matusz being in the Opening Day rotation for the O’s, Brett Cecil coming early relatively early for Toronto, and the interleague slate that featured games against Johan Santana (twice), Wandy Rodriguez, Dontrelle Willis, and Clayton Kershaw. Those last few are oddities, but Granderson can expect to see more lefties going forward.

The free agency gospel according to Brian

The New York City sports crowd is abuzz with talk of free agency this week. It has nothing to do with Cliff Lee, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera. Rather, the attention is on the NBA. With their salary cap and free agent signing period, basketball has a concentrated flurry of news that keeps the pressure on teams to improve. We’ve seen the Knicks sign Amar’e Stoudemire, and now those with an interest in the sport are waiting for LeBron’s chip to fall.

While Yankee fans could care less about baseball’s free agency as the pennant races unfold, Brian Cashman knows that he and the Yanks’ Front Office have some decisions to make this winter. They’ll want to land Cliff Lee and must dole out contracts to two Yankee lifers who aren’t quite ready to hang it up. In an ESPN New York piece by Ian O’Connor — save it before it’s gone! — Cashman discussing New York City and their free agents.

As the premier media market in the country, free agents, says Cash, want to come to New York, and New York spots teams usually land the players they want. “LeBron James is going to be a Knick,” the Yanks’ GM said. “I’m convinced of it. New York is the place that will allow him to be the player and person he wants to be, and it’s coming together. Just listen to me, LeBron James will be a Knick.”

It’s all well and good for Cashman to predict the NBA free agent market, but it’s a different beast than that of MLB. In baseball, without a salary cap and constrained only by the Steinbrenners’ desire to win and their willingness to pay a luxury tax, the Yankees can spend and spend and spend. In fact, Cashman admits as much to O’Connor:

“In free agency, it’s not about cutting the best deal, it’s about securing the player,” Cashman said. “I gave CC an extra year and an out after three years because we needed him. We couldn’t afford to lose him. He was the most vital piece to our entire game plan in free agency.” …

“You don’t get a gold star for saving money on a deal; your goal is to win championships,” Cashman said. “You can’t enter the free-agent market as a buyer hoping to beat the other teams by one dollar. You can’t mess around and lose the player.”

Cashman is laying his cards on the table right here. The Yankees, he says, are willing to go above and beyond for players they want because that’s how badly they want them. It’s no big deal to give CC more years at the back end because, by passing up on Johan Santana, the Yanks absolutely had to land Sabathia 12 months later.

On the flip side, this statement illuminates another move I long thought curious. The Yankees needed a center fielder after 2005 and could have pursued Carlos Beltran a year before. The former Astro wanted to be a Yankee and was seemingly willing to give the Bombers a discount. But the Yankees passed on Beltran. They didn’t outbid the Mets, and they didn’t take Beltran up on his offer. In fact, they didn’t bid at all. The Yankees simply didn’t want Beltran, and although his offensive production was still tops among center fielders until he got injured, his injury has thrown into doubt whether the Mets made a sound seven-year investment.

When it comes to free agency, the Yankees are always buyers, and if money is no obstacle, they will get their man. If Jerry Crasnick is to be believed, the Yankees “covet” Cliff Lee, and if the lefty is reading Cashman’s comments on free agency, he knows he will soon have a hefty check coming his way. Whatever Brian wants, Brian gets.

Patience with Vazquez pays off

Photo credit: Ben Margot/AP

The patience the Yankees have shown with Javier Vazquez, it appears, has paid off. His excellent start last night was not only his eighth quality start of the season, but also the sixth time he’s pitched seven innings. That’s an invaluable contribution for a Yankees team that has some question marks in the bullpen. The timing of his turnaround also came at an excellent time, when A.J. Burnett slipped. He has been a stabilizing force in the rotation, something that seemed unlikely the last time Javy pitched in Oakland, back on April 20.

After starting the season with two poor performances against two of the AL’s better teams, Vazquez needed to put together a quality outing in Oakland. As he began the game it looked like he might do just that. Two of the four batters he faced in the first whiffed at strike three, and while he allowed at least one baserunner in each of the first five innings he still held the A’s to just one run, a lead-off shot by Travis Buck to lead off the fifth.

Things took a turn for the worse in the sixth. Javy struck out Ryan Sweeney to open the frame, but a single and a homer put the A’s within three. That was it for Vazquez, who labored enough through the first five innings that he ran his pitch count over 100, 107 to be precise, with just one out in the sixth. Considering Javy had thrown just 98 and 100 pitches in his previous two starts, Girardi gave him the hook. The Yanks went on to win the game, but all the baserunners, along with Javy’s inability to finish the sixth, had some still worried. It didn’t help that Javy got rocked in his next start.

In terms of results, Vazquez had a much better return trip to Oakland. He allowed just five baserunners in seven innings last night, while he allowed nine in 5.1 innings last time. He prevented the home run this time, whereas he let two leave the park last time. He was also much more efficient, using 110 pitches to complete seven where he used 107 to complete 5.1 last time. All of this, combined with the two-earned-run difference, makes it tough to call this start in any way worse than his last one. Yet there were a few concerning aspects of his pitch data.

On April 20 Javy got 11 swinging strikes out of 107 pitches, or 10.3 percent, leading to six strikeouts. Last night he generated just four swinging strikes in 110 pitches, 3.6 percent, which led to two strikeouts. That meant more balls in play, and with Javy it means more fly balls. The difference, of course, is that two of the A’s nine fly balls in April left the park, while none of their 12 did last night. Javy did get pretty unlucky in terms of fly balls leaving the park earlier in the year, but even at his best he’s going to allow at least one homer for every 10 fly balls. That’s why strikeouts become important for Vazquez.

It can’t be purely luck, though, that Vazquez kept all 12 fly balls inside the park last night. In both starts he threw a lot of fastballs high in the zone, which will certainly lead to more fly balls. There was a difference, however, in the vertical break of his four-seamer. On April 20th it was at 7.75, a below average mark. Last night it was at 9.27, a vertical break that works more in the pitcher’s favor. The vertical break, remember, is the “rise” of the ball compared to a theoretical ball with no spin. It was part of the reason the A’s weren’t able to make quality contact off Vazquez, and probably a good reason why none of those high fastballs left the park.

Another difference, not only last night but in Javy’s turnaround in general, is the effectiveness of his changeup. In his first start against the A’s he threw it 19 times, but only eight for strikes and only one swinging. The pitch averaged 81.36 mph against his 88.89 average fastball, had 7.48 inches of break towards righties, and 4.95 inches vertical break — again, against the 7.75 on the fastball. Last night the pitch averaged 80.76 mph against an 89.18 mph fastball, so he did realize a bit more separation. The vertical break was up to 6.05 against the 9.27 for the fastball, so again there was more separation. He got more horizontal break, 8.34 inches into righties. But most importantly he threw it for strikes, 14 of 25, and generated two swings and misses, half his total for the night.

The movement differences appear to be across the board. Here are the breakdowns from the April 20th start and the July 5th start, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Click for larger images.

April 20:

July 5:

Almost everything other than swinging strikes looks better. That includes velocity, movement, and number of strikes.

Because of his monumentally terrible start, there will still be reservations about Vazquez. Fans will still claim that he can’t handle the pressure of New York and will still expect the worst when he starts. As he has shown, though, he’s a much different pitcher than he was earlier in the year. He’s getting much better movement on all of his pitches, and has even recovered some, but not all, of his velocity. We can say now that Vazquez is a solid No. 3 pitcher, which goes well with the rest of the staff. We could see quite the pitching show in the second half.

What a difference a year makes

Through 82 games last year, the 2009 Yankees were 48-34, one game back of the Boston Red Sox in the Al East. This year’s squad is three games better in every sense. Overall, the team is 51-31, a three-game improvement over last season, and the Yanks have a two-game lead, also a three-game improvement over last season. Yet, the two clubs are nearly diametrically opposite in most ways.

As last night’s win over the A’s showed, the 2010 iteration of the Yanks relies extensively on starting pitcher. Facing a struggling Ben Sheets, the Yanks couldn’t do much offensively, but Javier Vazquez shined. His outing and the bullpen work from Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera brought the team’s ERA down to 3.95 and its FIP to 4.08. Last year’s team had a 4.45 ERA and a 4.49 FIP. Just imagine now if the non-Mariano pieces in the pen were any good.

So how are the pitchers getting it done? As expected, they’re doing so by limiting the number of men on base and the number of home runs while keeping the strike out totals relatively high. The team’s overall K/BB ratio is 2.23 this year, and it was 2.05 last year. Pitchers have allowed 20 fewer home runs this year in six fewer innings. The runs just melt away as the balls stay in the park.

Offensively, though, the Yanks are, as Mike noted in his midseason status report, struggling a bit. The team’s .271/.354/.434 batting line pales in comparison with last year’s .276/.358/.472. The .038 point drop in team OPS comes directly from a Yankee power outage. Last year’s club had hit 167 doubles, 13 triples and 125 home runs through 82 games. This year’s team has 126 doubles, 20 triples and just 91 home runs. Even still, the Yanks’ 439 runs scored are second only to Boston amongst all Major League teams.

So what’s the difference? We know that Derek Jeter is having a down season, and we hear rumors of a Mark Teixeira revival even as his triple slash remains below his career norms. It took Teixeira until yesterday, after all, to out-slug Brett Gardner. A-Rod‘s power is down significantly as well. The unspoken areas of concern though have been the Yanks’ center field spot, something Joe touched upon last week, and the designated hitter. Yanks’ DHs have so far put up a .769 OPS whereas Hideki Matsui and his supporting cast sported an .858 mark in 2009.

The Yanks have a few solutions on hand that could start to address these problems. Juan Miranda, recently returned from the DL, has gone on a hitting tear. He’s OPSing over .875 vs. right-handed pitching at AAA and could help fill a DH platoon with Marcus Thames on the days Jorge catches. Kevin Russo is, at this point, dead weight on the active roster, and giving Miranda a shot could be worth it. Jettisoning Chad Gaudin and Chan Ho Park for some combination of Romulo Sanchez, Jonathan Albaladejo, Mark Melancon or, when healthy, Sergio Mitre could bolster the pen as well.

Ultimately, though, the team should be happy with its play through 82 games. A.J. Burnett will be better than his season averages say he is; Javier Vazquez has a 3.05 ERA over his last 65 innings; and CC Sabathia has a 2.00 ERA over his last 45 innings. The offense is showing signs of life, and the team has a two-game lead. The 2009 Yankees went 55-25 over their remaining 80 games, and while we shouldn’t expect the Yanks to play .688 between now and October, duplicating their first half will be enough to guarantee a playoff berth. Still with the trade deadline looming, the Yankees in 28 days will look much better than the team does today.