The Yankees are still chasing their 27th World Championship, but that won’t stop the hot stove from warming up. After hearing that Matt Holliday’s top choice is the Yanks over the weekend, today we fhear rom a Yankee official – via Jon Heyman – that “I’m not absolutely positive we’re going to go for (Holliday).” Me? Well I’m not “absolutely positive” they should go for Holliday either. He’ll be too damn expensive, and there are just too many concerns about his ability to thrive in the American League. It’s a costly gamble, but the Yanks surely could afford to take it.
In my younger and more vulnerable days, also known as high school, I was a catcher for my school’s baseball team. It wasn’t an easy job, but I loved it. I would go over the game plan with my pitchers and work with them through lineups we would see multiple times over the course of a season. By the end of my stint playing baseball in high school, I had a pretty good sense of how the other players in the league liked their pitches and how they didn’t, and I certainly could tell which pitchers preferred throwing what pitches in certain situations.
In professional baseball, the job of a catcher is far more complex. Although catchers have to be aware of the scouting reports and their opponent’s strengthens and weaknesses, they have a whole slew of pitchers they must shepherd through a grueling 162-game season. The preparation that goes into catching is immense. Backstops scour scouting reports and are often the manager’s and pitching coach’s eyes and ears on the field during games.
It is, then, little wonder that so many catchers become managers. In fact, three of the four teams currently left in the playoffs are helmed by former catchers, and a few days ago, Marc Carig explored just why catchers make good manager. As field generals, the catchers are just supposed to know baseball (which is why Jorge Posada‘s gaffes last night were a bit surprising).
Carig’s piece on the whole is well worth the read. I want to highlight a selection concerning Joe Girardi:
Indeed, when looking back at his own experience, Girardi said catching helped prepare him for what he considers one of the most important parts of his job: handling pitchers. “As a catcher, that’s what you’re trying to do,” Girardi said. “You understand what you have in the bullpen, you understand which guys you’re going to use for which outs, how far you have to get your starter, who your starter matches up against, who you can’t let beat you.”
Dealing with pitchers, he said, developed the same skills he uses when handling the players on his roster.
“Different backgrounds, different nationalities, different personalities,” Girardi said. “You have to learn to handle all of them, relate to all of them. Learn to get the best out of them and that’s what you’re doing with your players.”
Over the last few days, Joe Girardi has come under fire for seemingly overmanaging his bullpen on Monday. He used David Robertson for all of 11 pitches in the 11th inning of a tie game and replaced him with the inferior Alfredo Aceves. Two batters later, the Angels had their first win of the ALCS.
But that game was Girardi’s first bullpen mistake of the postseason. In fact, he has now used relievers 30 times over the Yanks’ seven October games with fantastic results. In 23 innings, the Yanks’ pen has a 1.96 ERA. The bullpen has walked 10 and has struck out 21. As the Yanks go for the series win tomorrow, all pen hands will be deck.
Girardi, I believe, enjoys going to pen so much because, as a former catcher, he has confidence in his relievers. As he said, he knows which guys he wants to use for which outs and who can get certain opposing hitters out. It might infuriate us as fans to watch him use a lefty for one pitch only to replace him for another lefty, but so far, it’s worked. His approach may be a bit unorthodox, but the former catcher in Girardi certainly knows his pitchers.
After the typical national writer musings on the umpires, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia, Tom Verducci drops an interesting tidbit in his column. After seeing the Angels drop two at Yankee Stadium and the Dodgers drop two at Citizen’s Bank Park, he wondered if there was something different about East Coast baseball, something that put their West Coast counterparts at an inherent disadvantage. Using Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Detroit, and Baltimore as East Coast representatives, Verducci discovered that West Coast teams don’t fare well when coming East.
It turns out there have been 22 playoff matchups when a West Coast team ventured into East Coast Baseball. The result: the West Coast teams are 10-36 in East Coast Baseball venues, a .217 winning percentage. In other words, get them out of their laid-back, warm environment and into the nasty conditions in the East, and they’re not even the 1962 Mets.
And it is not getting any easier. Since 2003 the West Coast teams are 3-17 in East Coast Baseball playoff environments. That’s the kind of history the Dodgers are up against tonight when they play NLCS Game 5 in Philadelphia. Bundle up, Dodgers.
While that isn’t the largest sample, it does look pretty conclusive. Why, then, do West Coast teams fail in East Coast ballparks? Verducci brings up two points: the media and fan environments, and the weather, both of which are more intense than on the West Coast.
Verducci uses seven West Coast teams in his sample, but I want to see what happens when we add the warm weather qualifier. That means the Rangers, Diamondbacks, Angels, Padres, and Dodgers. They are the only four warm West Coast teams to make East Coast playoff trips since 1995. We’ll also add the Mets to the East Coast list (I don’t know why Verducci didn’t).
Since 1995, the Rangers, Diamondbacks, Angels, Padres, and Dodgers are 5-26 on the road against the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and Mets. That speaks even more to a cold weather bias. The Angels are really the only team with any success in colder weather venues. They have three of the four total wins (the other being Texas in 1996 against the Yanks), but their overall record on the East Coast in October is 4-6.
There is some bias in these samples. First is the home field advantage in the playoffs. I’m not sure what the overall home team winning percentage is, though it’s surely not 84 percent. So the cold weather bias isn’t quite as pronounced as the 5-26 record makes it appear. There’s also the issue of the 2003 NLCS, when the warm weather Marlins played the cold weather Cubs. The Marlins took three of four contests up north. The Marlins also took two of three in New York in 2003. Then again, we’re looking for West Coast and warm weather.
Ask any Jets fan, and he’ll tell you that he’d rather face the Dolphins at home in December. It’s that way with a lot of warm weather football teams. It appears to be the case with baseball as well. While we fans sometimes complain about the frigid conditions at October (and November) games, it seems to give the Yankees an advantage. The Yankees are 14-3 when a warm weather, West Coast team comes to town.
The extra days off in the first two rounds of the playoffs have helped the Yankees — in theory. (Communism works, in theory.) It has allowed them to plan for a three man rotation, which is key when you have only three reliable starters. Yet in the ALCS there has been a drawback. It could constitute too much time off.
Yes, it’s tough on the fans. After just 18 off days over the season’s first six months, the Yankees have played two games in a row just twice this postseason. Most of us preferred it that way — the Yankees gained a strategic advantage by choosing the long ALDS — but it still doesn’t make the month go by any quicker. For fans, the extra off-days in October are painful.
In this case, it’s not just about the fans. The players have to be feeling it, too. In one way I’m sure they appreciate the rest. Over 162 games even tough guys get sprains, sore arms, and muscle pulls. But at some point I’m sure they want that rhythm back. With no more than two consecutive days with a game, it’s tough for some of those players to get to where they were in the regular season.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why the Yankees’ offense is slumping (or was slumping, if you believe they broke out last night), but being out of rhythm is certainly one theory. The clearest example here is Teixeira, why by anecdotal accounts takes time to find his groove. It’s tough to find and stay in a groove if you’re playing every other day. Tex had a few decent at bats last night. I’m sure he wants to build on that today.
In fact, I’m sure the whole Yankees team wants to play today. Who wouldn’t want to play the day after you trounce your opponent? The Angels looked defeated by the end. After Juan Rivera grounded into a double play to kill a potential sixth-inning rally, the Angels went down without a whimper. Only Kendry Morales drew a three-ball count the rest of the way, and he ended up flailing at a 3-2 pitch. The Yankees want to come back out today and finish the job. Instead, they have to wait for tomorrow.
I’m grateful for the edge the Yankees get from the extra off-day, and I’m sure they are, too. The ability to go with only three pitchers, three very good pitchers, is an advantage for a team that doesn’t have a reliable fourth option. But there is a downside, and it’s not just related to fans who want baseball every day. Baseball is about rhythm, and these off-days in the playoffs mess with that. The good news is that it works both ways, and there seems to be no team more asynchronous than the Angels.
Funny how a week can change everything. Last week I questioned Mike Scioscia’s decision to start Joe Saunders in Game 2. Today I’m saying he should start him more. This, of course, is a complete second-guess. Since the original post we saw Saunders pitch well in Game 2, and then saw Kazmir struggle in Game 4. It made Mike Scioscia’s reasoning obvious, but it also brings up another question: should Kazmir have been starting at all in this series — especially with the Angels down two games to one?
Kazmir, as we discussed before the game, had a rough 2009. He started out horribly, pitching to an ERA over 7.00 before hitting the DL for most of June. He returned and brought that ERA down a bit, but was still inadequate as a starter, and a huge disappointment compared to his 2005 through 2008 performances. He pitched better after the trade, but again, those starts were all in September. Rosters expand then, and some teams go from win mode to talent evaluation mode. It makes for specious September results. It appears Kazmir was a beneficiary of this, as he’s been terrible in the postseason.
It’s not fair to look back on Kazmir’s 2008 playoff run, in which he allowed 12 runs in 25.2 innings (4.20 ERA), because 1) it wasn’t that bad, and 2) as we’ve seen from CC and Alex this postseason, past playoff indicators are not not necessarily predictive of future performance. The combination of regular season and 2009 playoffs, however, should have been enough to convince Scioscia to do what the Yankees did, bringing his ace back on three days’ rest to negate some of the pitching advantage the Yankees had last night. He didn’t, and Kazmir’s short performance cost his team.
In his lone ALDS start, the Red Sox rocked Kazmir. Through six innings he allowed five runs, walking three and striking out just one. That looks a lot like his pitching lines from earlier in the regular season. Apparently Scioscia grew concerned after this start, too. He wanted a lefty to start a game at Yankee Stadium, and instead of calling on Kazmir, who has pitched very well against the Yankees in his career, he went to Joe Saunders. The move worked out — so well, in fact, that perhaps Scioscia’s best bet was to get Saunders a Game 5 start.
But Scioscia stuck with his guy. He did it in Game 2 with Saunders and it worked out. He wasn’t so lucky in Game 4. Now, even if the Angels battle back to bring the series to seven games, they’ll have Jered Weaver on the mound rather than John Lackey. That’s not to downplay Weaver’s talent or skill. He’s a good pitcher who helped get the Angels to where they are. There’s a reason, however, that Scioscia didn’t start him in Game 2 at the Stadium. With the three-man rotation he would have started at the Stadium, but in Game 6.
All this comes from the ivory tower, of course. Scioscia knows his players better than anyone, and wants to put them in the best position to win. Given Kazmir’s regular season and 2009 postseason performances, however, it looks like a poor decision to give him the Game 4 start. Then again, I’m the guy who thought he should have started Game 2, so my ivory tower musings are not the final word. Sometimes even good decisions backfire.
Waiting is the hardest part, and waiting for Game Four to start after the tough loss in Game Three made for a rocky 24-hours in Yankee Universe. Joe Girardi was second- and third-guessed all day for some questionable pitching changes, and the search party was out for the offense that led the majors in OPS (by 33 points!). Nine innings later, none of these problems really mattered.
Derek Jeter led off the game by dumping a single in front of former teammate Bobby Abreu, but was immediately picked off after running on Kazmir’s first move. Although the Cap’n was picked off, it was an indication of how aggressive the Yanks were going to be tonight, attempting to steal four bases in total. After walking to lead off the second, Alex Rodriguez swiped second, again going on Kazmir’s first move. Jorge Posada eventually walked behind him, and just like the night before, the Yanks were looking at a first and second, none out situation in the second inning.
Home plate ump Jerry Layne showed early on that he was going to have a tight strike zone tonight, and it was clearly effecting Kazmir early on. After the walks to A-Rod and Posada to open the second, Hideki Matsui took the first two pitches to work himself in a favorable 2-0 count. However the took the next pitch – a fastball on the outside – for a strike, but swung late on a fastball out over the plate, and popped it up on the infield. Robbie Cano followed that up by getting ahead in the count before popping out to shallow left, and after working the count full, Nick Swisher ended the inning with a routine fly ball to right. For the second consecutive game, the Yanks missed an opportunity to put some runs on the board early.
A-Rod singled to lead off the fourth, the fourth consecutive inning the Yankees put the lead off runner on base. Posada followed with a double down the third base line, putting runners at second and third with none out. The last few times the Yanks were presented with a situation like this, they squandered it and walked away without any runs. This inning, however, would be different.
Kazmir got Matsui to swing awkwardly at an inside fastball for strike three, but Robbie Cano followed that up with a ground ball to the right side. Even though the infield was in, A-Rod broke home from third and made it in under the tag because of Howie Kendrick’s high throw. It wasn’t technically a hit, but after an 0-for-20-something stretch with runners in scoring position, the Yanks were happy to take it, and the 1-0 lead. Following a Swisher walk, Melky Cabrera singled through the 5.5 hole, scoring Posada and Cano for what seemed like a gigantic 3-0 lead. The inning ended when Swisher was called out for leaving the bag early on a Johnny Damon sacrifice fly, however the replay the showed the call was incorrect. Considering Swish was picked off second but called safe earlier in the inning, it was probably a makeup call.
Aside: Holy crap was the umpiring awful. Aside from the two Swisher plays in the fourth, there was also that majorly botched call at third base in the fifth. Both Posada and Cano are tagged while not on the bag. How are they both not out? Just terrible. And this is the postseason!
The playoffs have been full of offensive struggles for our heroes from the Bronx, but the Yankee bats seemed to come alive in the middle innings tonight. Mark Teixeira, 3-for-October coming into the game, ripped a single into left to lead off the fifth, chasing Kazmir from the game after he recorded just 12 outs on 89 pitches. A-Rod followed that up with a two-run jack off reliever Jason Bulger, his fifth in the postseason, giving him at least one RBI in eight straight playoff games, tying Reggie Jackson’s Lou Gehrig’s club record. The lead off runner reached base in each of the first six innings and eight of nine overall), and the bottom of the order, so bad in Game Three, came through by reaching base a combined nine times and drove in five runs. Melky Cabrera paced the offense with three hits and four runs driven in. All told, they put ten runs on the board, and it’s the first time since Game One of the ALDS against the Twins the Yanks scored more than four runs in a game.
While the Yankee offense went to work against Scott Kazmir and various Angels relievers, CC Sabathia went to work on the Angels hitters. Despite pitching on three day’s rest for the first time in pinstripes, Sabathia retired 13 of the first 15 batters he faced before serving up a solo shot to Kendry Morales in the fifth. He went on the give up two more consecutive hits in the inning, and also allowed the first two runners in the sixth to reach, but pitched around both jams without letting a run cross the plate. Sabathia was extremely efficient all night, throwing just 38 pitches through four innings, 80 through six innings, and 101 pitches through eight innings. Eight innings of five hit ball was just another ace-like performance in a postseason full of them.
The two clubs will take the day off tomorrow to regroup, then meet back up in the Big A for Game Five Thursday evening. AJ Burnett, presumably with Jose Molina in tow, will take to mound looking to clinch the Yanks’ first trip to the World Series since 2003. The Fightin’ Scioscia’s will counter with ace John Lackey, who the Yanks hit up for four runs in five and two-thirds innings back in Game One. The Yanks are certainly in a good spot, but that last win is always the toughest.