Game 19: And now the fun begins

"All clear, Mr. President." (Photo Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

Tonight, for the first time all year, the Yankees are going to play a team that isn’t expected to compete in any way this season. The Red Sox, Rays, Angels, Rangers, and A’s have combined for a 54-45 record with a +46 run differential so far, so it’s pretty impressive that the Yankees escaped 18 games against the group six games over .500 with a +29 run differential. Awaiting them tonight are the not so good Orioles, who have the game’s worst record (3-16) and second worst run differential (-36). It’s about time the Yanks got a bit of a breather.

On the mound will be the Phil Hughes, who you surely remember flirted with a no-hitter against the Oakland last time out. Baltimore is the site of his worst career start, but it feels like that was a lifetime ago for the young righthander. It’s certainly possible, but it would be a shock to all of us if Hughes struggled like that again tonight.

Here’s the lineup that’ll get a crack at Kevin Millwood, who is 0-3 but sports some seriously strong peripherals (8.10 K/9, 1.35 BB/9, 3.58 XFIP)…

Jeter, SS
Gardner, LF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Granderson, CF
Swisher, DH
Winn, RF

And on the mound, St. Phil.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on My9, not YES. Enjoy the game.

Quick Note: Nick Johnson changed his number today, back to the #36 he wore during his first stint in pinstripes. I guess living in Jose Molina’s shadow was just too much. His back is reportedly doing better, and he should be back in the lineup by tomorrow or Thursday.

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Yankees sign righthander Erik Olivo

Via the Dominican Prospect League’s Twitter feed, the Yankees have signed 19-year-old righthander Erik Olivo for $300,000. He apparently works at 90-94 mph with his fastball and checks in at 6-foot-3 and 185 lbs, meaning there’s plenty of room for growth. In 11 relief appearances for Tainos Del Norte of the DPL, Olivo’s struck out 23 and allowed just ten hits in 22 IP. The bad news? How about 18 walks. So he’s got some stuff to work on. They all do.

Pettitte, Rivera, Jeter and Posada all walk into a bar…

The Core Four pose for the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. Click to enlarge.

We hear a lot about the Yanks’ Core Four these days. Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and, of course, Derek Jeter make up the Yanks’ elder statesmen. They’re widely respected by opponents, have played together at the Big League level since 1995 and each own five New York Yankees World Series rings. In this day and age of free agency and player movement, that three of them have played together for so long with only Pettitte’s brief, three-year departure from 2004-2007 to mar the foursome is a testament to their baseball longevity.

As these four Yankees bask in the glow of their fifth championship, Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated brought them together for an intimate lunch and a resulting magazine cover. The interview covers a wide range of topics from their experiences in the minors to their family plans, and I wanted to highlight some of it.

SI: I want to go back to 1992, when Andy was throwing to Jorge, a converted second baseman, in Class A in Greensboro, N.C. Posada: Go back to 1991. I was catching a bullpen from him [at short-season Class A] Oneonta, and he’s throwing me knuckle- balls. The ball hit me right in the knee. I said, “No more knuckleballs.”
Pettitte: I had a knuckleball when I signed.
Jeter: Yeah, you’re still throwing knuckleballs.
Pettitte: I’d get two strikes on somebody and throw it as hard as I could. Struck everybody out. And then they told me after the first year, “You’ve got to can it.” They said, “After you’ve pitched for 10 years in the big leagues, if you want to break it back out, you can.”
SI: So now you can throw it again.
Pettitte: It’s no good now. I lost it.
SI: How about when Jeter showed up in Greensboro? He joined you guys on August 20, 1992.
Posada: [Laughs.] Good-looking fellow.
Rivera: Where was I?
SI: Fort Lauderdale, High A.
Posada: You were older. Let’s make sure everybody knows that. He’s the oldest.
Rivera: I saw Jeet….Oh, my God. I was with my cousin [former major league outfielder Ruben Rivera] in Tampa. We were playing, if I’m not mistaken, the Cardinals in St. Pete. I looked at Jeet [who was in the Gulf Coast League before Greensboro]. . . . I was skinny.” This boy was dying. I was like, Who is that?
Posada: He comes in the clubhouse, and he’s got high tops, with an ankle brace. And remember that Louisville Slugger bag that you stick your bats in? He had that. I was like, Wow, this is our first-rounder?
Rivera: And throwing the ball away. . . . But I saw the hitting. He hit the ball hard, and far. I said, “Wow.” …
SI: Mariano, I remember you once said you cried a lot in the minor leagues, right?
Rivera: Not that I cried a lot. I did cry, like two, three times. That was my second year, in Greensboro, 1991. Because I couldn’t communicate. But imagine, I came from Panama. My first year, in Tampa, most of the people I played with spoke Spanish. So I was fine. My second year I went to Greensboro. And no Spanish at all. It was hard. I think that was one of the toughest times that I had.

Later on, the four talk about their family lives:

SI: How long are you going to do this? I’m assuming you guys all are in the same boat as far as that goes. Does anybody plan out, “I want to play X number of years?”
Rivera: I don’t think so. I mean, how many times have I retired?
Jeter: He retires every other year.
Rivera: Every contract I think, Well, this is it for me. Jeter: [Points at Pettitte.] Him, too. “This is my last year. One more year.”
Pettitte: What are you talking about? I was [retired]. I was.
Rivera: I was retired every year after my contract was up. [But] I’m still going.
SI: This game keeps pulling you back.
Rivera: I love this game. This is what I know how to do. For me, it’s kind of hard to just leave and be competitive. I’m competitive.
Jeter: It’s tough to leave when you’re having fun…

Rivera: I think it’s easier for [Jeter] because he doesn’t have a family. He can do this until…he’ll be 40 and have no kids still. But to me, and I can talk about Andy and also Sado, you miss your kids. You miss your family. This year it has hit me hard, especially in spring training. My kids were in New York. I was in Tampa. And I was missing them a lot. So that line, where’s your family and where’s your game . . . how do you draw that line? How long are you going to do this? How long are they going to support you? And then flying, and those things that petrify you. I’m petrified by flights. I suffer on those flights.

Verducci’s story highlights how these four players make up a unique core of athletes. For many of us who came of age when Jeter, Rivera, Pettite and Posada arrived in New York, they are the Yankees, and I wonder when we’ll see it again. Rivera isn’t sure it will happen soon. “The beauty about this group of guys is it’s family,” he said. “As a family we all pull for one another. It’s beautiful. I don’t think you will have this, or see this, again, in any other sport. Period.”

The interview isn’t yet available online, but a different part of the discussion is. The four talk about changes to the game since they started player, and that too is illuminating. Players get bigger; the strike zone changes; their teammates retire, get traded or let go. Still, there they are, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, Yankees through and through.

The marginalization of David Robertson

The Yankees’ 2009 season started to turn around once they remade the bullpen, and part of that remake was permanent arrival of David Robertson. The then-24-year-old righty stabilized the middle innings thanks to a nifty fastball-curveball combination with a penchant for inducing swings and misses and retiring batters without the aid of the defense. He got some big outs in the postseason, and was poised to assume even greater responsibility in 2010.

Photo Credit: Charles Krupa, AP

In the early going, Robertson seems to have morphed into Joe Girardi‘s fireman – the guy who enters the game in the middle of an inning to escape a jam. It probably has something to do with his astronomical strikeout rate, which is perfectly fine. It’s a smart way to deploy a valuable reliever. However, more often than not, Robertson finds himself out of the game after escaping said jam, often despite throwing very few pitches.

In three of his six outings this year, Robertson has thrown no more than six pitches. The most egregious example came during Friday’s loss to the Angels, when he was brought in to face Torii Hunter with a runner on first and one out. He escaped the inning by striking out Hunter after Bobby Abreu was caught stealing, needing just six pitches to get the job done. Robertson was fresh and in most cases would have been sent back out to start the next inning. But no, it was the almighty 8th inning, so Joe Girardi summoned Joba Chamberlain, who eventually cost the Yanks the game with a meatball pitch to Kendry Morales.

There really was no reason why Robertson couldn’t remain in the game. There was no difference in platoon advantage, and he was well-rested after not working in eight days. Instead, a highly valuable asset was removed from the contest after just a marginal gain for what amounts to nothing more than a job title.

Although I bitch and moan about Girardi’s bullpen maneuvering on a game-by-game basis, he obviously does a very good job with handling his relief corps over a 162 game season. However, he doesn’t seem to have full confidence in Robertson, using him in a way that strikes me as “let’s quit while we’re ahead.” He did what we asked of him, now let’s make a change before he has a chance to get into trouble, something like that. Maybe it’s just me.

Robertson is a high quality reliever, yet his usage appears to be limited. He’s capable of getting five or six outs during one appearance, but is often used for an inning or less. Sure, his ERA stands at an ugly 7.71 because of that grand slam Abreu hit during the home opener, but even that shot only decreased the Yankees’ chances of winning by just 2.6% because of the situation. The two run homer Joba allowed to Morales was in a much higher leverage spot, and reduced the Yankees chances of winning by a whopping 25.4%.

Robertson’s strikeouts are very real, and they’re what make him so valuable. I don’t think he’ll strike out 13 guys for every nine innings pitched forever, but there’s no doubt he’s a double digit K/9 guy for the foreseeable future with that curveball. The walks are a bit high but they’re trending downward, and he’s just as effective against lefties as he is against righties. On any other team, Robertson would be pitching later in the game in high leverage spots, but because of the Yankees’ bullpen depth and pecking order, he’s stuck working middle relief duty. That doesn’t mean Girardi and the Yanks couldn’t give him a little more responsibility and ask him to get some bigger outs after cleaning up someone else’s mess.

Or course it’s still early, so right now my observation of Robertson’s usage comes from a tiny sample. The Yankees have a tremendously valuable asset in Robertson, and they would be wise to use him more judiciously.

Yanks offense still waiting for Teixeira and Johnson

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Through the season’s first 18 games the Yankees’ offense, as a unit, has performed around expectations. The team has scored 5.33 runs per game, second in the AL to the Rays. Yet when looking at the AL rankings, something stands out. The Yankees have a 124 OPS+, which leads the league by a decent margin. Why, then, do they not lead the league in runs scored? The answer lies atop the lineup.

Derek Jeter has done his job this season. Through 80 PA he’s hitting .316/.350/.474. It’s not up to his career standards, particularly in the OBP department, that will likely change as we get further into the season. His OBP sat at .363 through 80 PA last season, and was as low as .333 in 138 PA. It’s the man who follows him, Nick Johnson, who has been struggling. Through 72 PA he’s hitting .135, though his frequent walks boost his OBP to .375. While no one is happy with Johnson’s BA, it’s not a huge concern. That will surely rise as the season progresses. Meanwhile, his main task is to get on base for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and so far he has done an admirable job.

Why, then, has Johnson scored only seven runs if he has been on base 27 times? For that we need a bit more context, which comes from Mark Teixeira’s poor start. Like Johnson, Teixeira is currently taking a cruise down the interstate. His .119 through 82 PA is nothing short of a disaster. Again, this is something we probably have to get used to. Through 134 PA last year he was hitting .191. We know, however, that the payoff will prove worthy. From May 13 through the end of the season Teixeira hit .315/.396/.597 and was an integral part of the Yankees’ mid-season burst.

In addition to their poor batting averages, Teixeira and Johnson have also hit for little power. Teixeira’s ISO sits at .134, Johnson’s at .096. Of the other seven regulars, only Brett Gardner ranks below them. This obviously decreases their run-producing potential. Both Gardner and Jeter have gotten on base at an above-average clip, but with the two hitters behind them not producing base hits, and also not hitting for power, they’re not coming around to score as often. Likewise, even though Johnson is getting on base via the walk, Teixeira is making enough outs that he’s leaving Johnson stranded. Unsurprisingly, Johnson ranks second to last on the Yanks with a 23 percent run scored rate. Only Nick Swisher, the No. 8 hitter, ranks lower. Teixeira, on the other hand, has A-Rod hitting behind him, and despite getting on base far less frequently than Johnson, has scored 38 percent of the time.

Once the top of the order starts hitting, we could see the Yankees offense take off just like it did last season. Other factors will obviously change along the way: Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner will surely settle down, but their decreased production won’t nearly off-set the gains we should soon see from Teixeira and Johnson. No one wants to hear “just be patient” when players on their favorite team have struggled, but that’s the only thing to do right now. This is a clear case of a slow start. The payoff will be worth the wait.

The new and (slightly) improved Boone Logan

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

It’s been clear since the start of Spring Training that the Yankees are pretty excited about lefty Boone Logan, the other guy they acquired in the Javy Vazquez trade. Considering his awful big league performance coming into the season (5.78 ERA, 4.69 FIP), most of us figured it they were just blowing smoke and trying to pump up their latest acquisition. There’s nothing wrong with that, every team does it.

Logan then went out and had a strong showing in camp, allowing just four hits and a pair of walks against eight strikeouts in 10.1 spring innings. That caught our attention, but we still disregarded it until the old “Spring Training stands mean nothing” axiom. After being assigned to Triple-A to start the year, the 25-year-old southpaw from Texas allowed just four baserunners with nine strikeouts in 6.2 innings before the Yankees recalled him to take the place of the injured Chan Ho Park. Again, it’s a small sample, so most of us didn’t put any stock in it. The prevailing thought was that Logan got the call just because CHoP wouldn’t be out very long, and there was no point in summoning Mark Melancon only to have him go stale as the 7th man in the pen for two weeks.

So far, Logan has justified the team created hype, and it appears there’s more to his success than just “he’s figured it out.” Buried in the middle of this trade rumor piece, Ken Rosenthal mentions that the reason the Yanks are so excited is because of the results he’s gotten from a minor mechanical adjustment. Pitching coach Dave Eiland suggested to Logan that he should simply lift his leg a little higher during his delivery, allowing him to get his arm out in front and use his height (he’s 6-foot-5) to his advantage.

The results were almost immediate, as Logan noticed that his fastball picked up some armside run, his slider picked up some more break, and his changeup came back from the dead. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Logan’s delivery this year and from his time with the Braves last year.

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there. His knee isn’t any higher, but the front of his leg is. You can also see that he’s a little slouched over in the shot on the left, but with the Yanks he’s a bit more upright. Seeing the difference is great, but these days we have the means to verify if their effects match up with what Logan says is happening. We’re in ridiculously small sample size territory here, but we have nothing else to go off of right now, so let’s examine the PitchFX data…

Right away, you see the difference in the horizontal break of both his fastball and slider. The fastball has 1.58 fewer inches of break than it has in the past, meaning it is in fact running back in on lefties, albeit slightly. The slider now features 1.74 more inches of break, which is pretty significant. It’s the difference between squaring a ball up and hitting it off the end of a bat. I’m not going to bother to look at the changeup, because you could probably count the number he’s thrown this year on one hand.

Let me remind you that we’re talking about dangerously small sample sizes here, but at least the data we have supports the claims Logan is making about how adjusted his leg kick has effected his pitches. Whether or not these changes will translate into positive results is another story all together. For all we know, the added break on his two primary pitches could make him even less effective. I wait to pull the wait and see card, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. We have to wait and see.

Logan’s success in Spring Training and in Triple-A has been one of the more welcome surprises of 2010, and it’s encouraging to know that there’s at least a tangible reason such improvement is possible.