‘One pitch’ lands Mo on the cover of SI

COV1005

As part of a Tom Verducci package on Mariano Rivera and his Cutter of Doom, Number 42 finds himself atop Sports Illustrated this week. Here’s what the press release from the sports weekly had to say:

This week’s October 5, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, features Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera with the billing One Man, One Pitch: The One and Only Mariano Rivera. As the gates swing open upon another MLB postseason, baseball will once again attempt to divine one of the game’s great mysteries: how a man, closing fast on 40 and armed with but a single pitch, continues to dominate in the clutch like no other player, 13 years and counting.

SI senior baseball writer Tom Verducci reveals that Rivera’s cutter—the defining pitch of his generation—was the result of a happy accident: “God touched Mariano Rivera one June afternoon in 1997, and Rivera shrugged. Just three months into his new role as the closer for a budding Yankees dynasty, Rivera was suddenly unable to throw his signature four-seam fastball straight, not even during his daily toss with pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. Every catch a struggle, Mendoza told Rivera to knock it off, to quit making the ball dip and dart. Rivera assured his friend that he wasn’t doing it intentionally. He was gripping the ball the same way he always had, releasing it the same way he always had. The wicked movement just … happened…. Rivera didn’t have an explanation, and though he says he ‘didn’t have any idea where the ball was going,’ his results did not suffer. He got the save in that game, then in the next three. Still, for a month, he worked with [bullpen catcher Mike] Borzello and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to eliminate the cutting action. ‘We were trying to make the pitch stay straighter, [as it had] in ’95 and ’96,’ Rivera says, referring to his first two seasons in the big leagues, ‘but it didn’t work. Then I said, ‘I’m tired of working at this. Let’s let it happen.’ And since that day we didn’t try to straighten it out anymore.’ He smiles. ‘And the rest is history.’ ”

Rivera has become the best closer with the demeanor of a benevolent king; baseball royalty without the arrogance. As a result, he has engendered as much respect from opponents as he has from teammates. Says David Ortiz of the rival Red Sox: “I have respect for Mariano like I have for my father. Why? He’s just different. If you talk to him at an All-Star Game, it’s like talking to somebody who just got called up. To him, everybody else is good. I don’t get it. To him everybody else is the best. It’s unbelievable. And he is the greatest. You know what? Sometimes in those times when he struggles, like when I watch him on TV, I feel bad for him. I seriously do. Good people, you want to do well.”

Those are some might big words of praise from David Ortiz.

Two solid outings but no clear fourth starter

Every time Chad Gaudin and Joba Chamberalin take the mound this month, they are auditioning for the Yankees. They aren’t really trying out for much beyond two post-season starts, but these outings constitute auditions nonetheless. After two solid outings from both pitchers over the last four games, the Yanks’ fourth starter picture remains cloudy.

Joba, as we know, has been bad. After three strong starts to begin the season’s second half, he is now 5-4 with a 5.37 ERA after the All-Star Break. In 63.2 innings, he has given up 30 walks and 63 hits while striking out 51.

After a series of horrendous outings in late August and early September, Joba seemed to turn it around on Friday when he went 6 innings in a win. He allowed three earned runs on five hits while walking just one and striking out five. More important, however, was Joba’s opponent, as he seemingly broke out of his slump against the Red Sox, a potential ALCS enemy of the Yanks.

Meanwhile, Chad Gaudin has been more than serviceable as the team’s fifth starter since coming to the Yanks. He has made six starts and has thrown 32 innings. While Joe Girardi has kept him on a short leash, Gaudin hasn’t lost as a Yankee starter and owns a win. In those innings, he has given up 28 hits and 15 walks while striking out 23. His ERA as a Yankee starter is 3.09.

Yesterday, Gaudin did what he had to do in his audition. Against a weak Royals team, he went 6.2 innings and gave up a pair of runs on four hits, two walks and five strikeouts. He threw 57 of 92 pitches for strikes and generally coasted through the game.

In one sense, this past weekend did nothing to illuminate the Yanks’ pitching plans going forward. As soon as Detroit or the Twins clinch the Central, the Yanks will opt for the longer ALDS, and the fourth starter issue won’t come to a head unless and until the Yanks reach the American League Championship Series. Even then, we’ve burned a lot of pixels arguing over which pitcher stands to make two or perhaps three postseason starts.

Yet, in a way, this issue is important for Joba Chamberlain. If the Yanks are confident in Joba’s abilities and his arm strength, they will give him the ball. He has, after all, been the fourth starter for the entire 2009 season. He has stayed healthy and has generally given the Yanks a chance to win games. After all, the Yanks are 20-10 in his games. But the Bombers are undefeated in Gaudin’s six starts, and the team won’t overlook that fact either.

Right now, I have no answer, and when we have no answer, we do what bloggers do best: We poll the audience. So as we count down the hours until tonight’s Yankee game, riddle me this one. I voted for Joba, but I don’t think the Yanks could make a wrong choice here.

Who would you name as the Yanks' fourth starter in the playoffs?
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Yanks looking to host a bowl game at the Stadium

There were rumbles back in July of the Yankees vying for a bowl game by December of 2011. It sounds like those plans have moved to the next stage. According to Stewart Mandel of SI, we should expect a press conference tomorrow regarding the game. It involves not only the Yankees, but Mayor Bloomberg and the commissioners of the Big East and Big 12 conferences. It sounds like New York could see its first bowl game since 1962.

The game, if approved by the NCAA in the spring, would be a battle of the lesser Big East and Big 12 teams: fourth in the Big East against seventh in the Big 12. Even so, it would have plenty of local draw, especially for the Big East teams. The inaugural game would happen around New Years 2010-2011, which is about a year ahead of the previous projection of December 2011.

If approved, the Yankee Bowl would be the second football game played in the new park. Notre Dame and Army are set to square off next season. Army games against Rutgers, Air Force, and Boston College are also scheduled for 2011, 2012, and 2014.

For an opinion on the matter, I’ll defer to Jay from Fack Youk.

Chad Jennings named PeteAbe’s replacement

After two years of dedicated work covering the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Chad Jennings is getting the call to the Bigs. Jennings will replace Peter Abraham as the Yankee beat writer with The Journal-News and lead blogger on the LoHud Yankees Blog. Jennings, whose worked has been featured at The Times-Tribune, is a great fit for the beat and will be a stellar writer for LoHud. RAB sends its congratulations to a very deserving writer and hopes that someone will replace Jennings in Scranton as well.

Hitting Dominance Factors

Last week I posted the 2009 Pitching Dominance Factors for the Yankees’ farm system, and yesterday Greg Fertel at Pending Pinstripes took a stab at developing a similar stat for hitters. As you probably expect, Jesus Montero was the most dominant hitter in the system, and not by a small margin either. That’s what happens when you dominate High-A and Double-A at that age. Reegie Corona surprisingly graded out well, coming in a distant second (third, technically).

Like the pitching version, it’s not terribly useful for analysis purposes, instead it’s one of those “fun to look at stats.” As Greg readily admits, the formula isn’t perfect (there definitely needs to be some kind of amplification factor for IsoP, because there’s no way a 17.0 K% should cancel out a .170 IsoP), but it’s a start. If I was smart enough, I’d probably look into it myself.

Repairs to PNC Field playing surface underway

Remember all those games Triple-A Scranton had postponed this summer because of a problem with the PNC Field drainage system? Well, as Chad Jennings reports, Lackawanna County has stepped up and awarded a $1.1M contract to Sports Construction Group to replace the playing surface at the park. The work must be complete by Oct. 24th because of the weather, and you can even watch the work at SWB’s site. Riveting stuff.

In the end, something had to be done to solve the problem. Attendance has increased since the Yanks have come to town, so obviously the city wants to maintain the relationship. For the Yanks, it’s a matter of convienence, as Ben pointed out last month. Now you don’t have to worry about some hotshot prospect breaking an ankle on a bad playing surface, unless the contractor screws up. Always a possibility.

Bruney, Robertson and a post-season bullpen

When the Yankees beat the Red Sox on Sunday, the story obviously focused around the AL East crown. After missing the playoffs last year and winning the Wild Card in 2007, the Yankees had reclaimed the division title for the first time since 2006.

There was, however, a bigger story in the game-within-the-game and one that could be potentially more important for the Yanks’ postseason chances than the inevitable clincher. With the Yanks up by a run and Andy Pettitte out of the game after six solid innings, Joe Girardi had to deviate from his usual game plan. Phil Hughes had just thrown in back-to-back games and was unavailable to pitch. David Robertson was not yet back from his elbow injury.

With the stadium holding its collective breath — and the woman sitting in front of me having some conniption fit — Girardi gave the ball to number 99 Brian Bruney. Coming into Sunday’s game, Bruney had a season to forget. Since returning from an injury in mid-June, Bruney had appeared in 31 games to bad results. He had allowed 52 baserunners in 26 innings, and opponents were hitting .302/.414/.528. After a stellar start to the season, Bruney had walked 20 and struck out 19 while generally stinking up the joint.

And so into the fire walked Bruney. He came out more than alive. Strike out, ground out, ground out went the Red Sox in the 7th. Pop out, fly out when Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, two dangerous hitters, in the 8th. When Girardi came out to get Bruney, the much-maligned right-hander left to a standing ovation in the Bronx. The fans had put no faith in Bruney, and the Yanks’ reliever delivered.

His stuff on Sunday was better than it had been in a long time. Thanks in part to a wide strike out and Jose Molina’s pitch framing, Bruney threw 14 of his 21 pitches for strikes. He was throwing his fastball at 94.55 mph and peaked at 96.8. It was vintage Brian Bruney.

After the game, he was emotional in talking about the crowd response. “The thing that was special for me was the crowd reaction,” he said in the clubhouse amidst champagne.”I’ve been through a lot all year, fighting a lot of injuries and mechanics and pitching like garbage. It’s special. The ovation I got, for me, meant a lot. Everybody here was counting on me and everybody here let me know they appreciated it. I would have loved to look up and give a ‘thank you,’ but honestly, I had tears in my eyes and I couldn’t do it.”

For much of the season, my dad has speculated that Bruney has been more injured than he is letting on, and this comment seems to hint that perhaps his throwing arm has not been 100 percent. While I hate to read too much into 1.2 innings, Sunday’s outing could be the start of a solid run for Bruney. He threw with confidence and made his pitches.

Meanwhile, David Robertston will take the mound for the Yankees tonight. After missing much of September with a sore elbow, the Yanks’ strike out artist will resume his role in the bullpen, and all systems are go for Robertson. In effect, then, the Yankees could be gaining two bullpen arms right when they need them the most. As Tyler Kepner reports today, the Yankees will look at Bruney, Robertson, Chad Gaudin and Damaso Marte for two bullpen spots in the first round.

If Bruney can restore some confidence, if Robertson can pitch and stay healthy, the Yanks will have the ability to reduce their playoff games to six-inning affairs. Gaudin, a versatile starter/long-reliever and Marte, a lefty specialists, have their upsides for other reasons, but I would lean toward a healthy Robertson and Bruney. With their offense and their starting pitchers, shortening games could very well lead to more than a few October W’s, and in the short best-of-five first round, those victories are both rare and important.