Exploiting Minnesota’s weaknesses

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The Twins finished the regular season with the fourth best record in baseball (94-68) and on a three-plus month hot streak that saw them go 47-25 down the stretch. They did that primarily by crushing their own division and the AL West, because their 15-18 record against the AL East is hardly awe-inspiring. Like every other team they have their flaws, some more noticeable than others. Exploiting those weaknesses is going to be important for any team playing the Twins, and it just so happens that they draw the Yankees in the ALDS.

Here are two of Minnesota’s biggest drawbacks, two things that the Yankees wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of in years past because they lacked a little something called speed.

Running On Carl Pavano

Yankee fans are well aware of their team’s problem with allowing stolen bases. Jorge Posada and Frankie Cervelli hardly ever throw anyone out (just 17.3% combined), and some pitchers on the staff seem allergic to holding runners (coughA.J. Burnettcough). The Twins have a bit of a stolen base problem of their own, and it comes in the form of former Yankee Carl Pavano.

Pavano, who has always been slow to the plate, allowed 31 stolen bases in 39 opportunities this year (79.5%). Essentially one out of every seven baserunners with an opportunity to steal have at least attempted it, and most of them were successful. Joe Mauer, who threw out 42.2% of attempted basestealers from 2004-2008 is down to just 26.2% over the last two seasons. He also battled some shoulder soreness this summer, so he’s more susceptible to the stolen base than ever before. Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Derek Jeter need to take advantage in Game Two and swipe bases whenever possible.

It’s not just about stealing bases to get runners in scoring position either. Pavano is a ground ball pitcher (51.2% grounders this season) and has gotten a double play in 11.5% of his opportunities this year, so swiping some bases will help avoid those twins killings, particularly when Jeter and his league leading 65.7% ground ball rate are at the plate. Run boys run.

Jason Kubel’s Defense

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Justin Morneau’s injury hurt the Twins in more ways than one. Sure, replacing his .447 wOBA is basically impossible (though Jim Thome did a helluva job trying), but it also forced an unfavorable defensive shift. Michael Cuddyer stepped in as the everyday first baseman, pushing Jason Kubel into rightfield full-time. There’s a reason that 60% of Kubel’s starts in 2008 and 2009 came as a designated hitter, and that’s because the man is awful with the glove.

Over the last three seasons, his -17.5 UZR in right ranks 35th out of 39 qualified fielders (min. 1,000 innings), and that’s mostly because of an awful range score (-14.5). Kubel simply doesn’t get to all that many balls out there, and that’s a bit exacerbated by spacious Target Field. Beyond just catching the ball, his throwing is a big time liability and something the Yanks can absolutely take advantage of.

In baserunning situations such as first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, second-to-home on a single, and sacrifice flies with the runner at second and/or third, Kubel’s “hold” rate is just 39.3%. The league average is close to 46%. His “kill” rate checks in at just 3.4%, well below the 6% league average. A “hold” is when he limits to the runner to just one base on a single or two on a double (so first-to-second on a single, not first-to-third, etc.), nothing more. A “kill” is when he actually threw a runner out attempting to take the extra base.

Clearly, Kubel’s arm is something guys like Gardner, Granderson, Jeter, Robbie Cano, and even Alex Rodriguez need to exploit. He’s very unlikely to throw them out trying to take the extra base, so they should push the envelope as much as possible, particularly with Francisco Liriano on the mound. They simply won’t get many opportunities to generate extended rallies against him, so they have to create offense in other ways.

It’s also worth noting that Delmon Young is equally awful in left, with a -43.3 UZR over the last three seasons (dead last among qualified fielders). His hold rate on first-to-homes on a doubles, second-to-home to singles, and sacrifice flies to score a run (it’s not often a runner goes first-to-third on a single to left, or advances from second on a sac fly) is just 38.3%, his kill rate 5.3%. Like I said earlier, run boys run.

* * *

I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s not just the Yankees that have weaknesses heading into the playoffs. In addition to the above, the Twins are likely to be without top setup man Jon Rauch because of a knee injury (though he had it drained and claims he’s good to go), and their bullpen had the fourth worst strikeout rate in baseball this year at 6.74 K/9. If you’re going to let the Yanks put balls in play in the late innings, bad things will happen. With any luck they’ll take advantage.


Waiting for Pavano

Ken Davidoff hit the nail on the head yesterday when he called Carl Pavano a symbol of the Yanks’ recent failures. In discussing the way the Yankees felt about Pavano, the $40 million man who made 26 starts over four years, and the approach to team-building during the latter part of the Torre Era, Davidoff called out the Yanks.

“The truth lies,” he writes, “not in choosing sides among friends-turned-enemies Cashman and Torre but in understanding what Pavano and his $39.95-million heist represented: a haphazard period during Cashman’s reign in which personnel decisions were driven by haste, emotions and a lack of appreciation for old-school background checks and new-wave statistical analysis.”

Davidoff notes how the Yanks of 2004 are a seemingly far cry from the Yanks of both the mid-1990s and this season. “If the Yankees had conducted better research on Pavano, perhaps they would’ve learned of a) his surliness; b) his stupidity; c) his bouts with apathy; and, most important, d) how the batting average on balls in play (BABiP) from his standout 2004 season – matched against his line-drive percentage that year – indicated that his numbers were boosted by luck,” he notes.

Baseball, it seems, is not without its dark sense of humor. In three hours, the Twins will put their season into the hands of one Carl Pavano and the Yanks will look to move on to the ALCS for the first time since signing Pavano. During the media gaggle yesterday, the Yankees danced around the topic of Pavano.

“He worked extremely hard and he tried the best he could,” Brian Cashman said. “Unfortunately too many times I’d get that phone call that we had a problem and it was one that needed to be surgically fixed, or required a lot of time to allow the healing process to take place.”

Current and former Yankees — Mike Mussina, in particular — were not afraid to criticize Carl, but this week, the attacks have been muted. The team knows not to get too far ahead of themselves, but how can they not think of sore buttocks, car crashes, broken ribs and arm surgery as they face off against a player who somehow made 33 starts this year and won 14 games, five more than during his entire Bronx tenure?

Maybe Carl can provide the Twins with a reprieve for a day, but the Yankees will be itching to put Pavano behind them today. No matter the outcome, it will be fitting to see him take the hill later today against the Yanks in a potential clinching game. Expected to lead them to this point, he did simply by not being here any longer.

Peña up; former Yanks on the move

Update 4:02 p.m.: The Yankees have made a roster move this afternoon. Ramiro Peña has been recalled from AAA Scranton, and Anthony Claggett has been sent back down. Peña will back up both the infield and outfield while Claggett has been nothing short of terrible for the Yanks this season. When Chad Gaudin gets here, either David Robertson or Mark Melancon will hop on the Scranton Shuttle. I think Melancon stays. We’ll know soon.

* * *

As we await the start of what could be another epic Yankees/Red Sox contest this evening and as I readjust to East Coast time after a grueling day of travel, let’s talk about a few former Yankees who have seen their uniforms change stripes today.

As John Smoltz showed his age last night, Jason Giambi has been doing so all summer for the A’s. The seven-year Yankee vet who returned to the Bay Area this past winter was unconditionally released by Billy Beane today. Giambi is hitting .193/.332/.364. While the .139 IsoD is impressive, his batting average and slugging are both fourth-worst in the Majors, and the A’s have opted to give their younger first basemen extended looks.

I wonder if Giambi will land anywhere at this point. For what it’s worth, the fourth-place Blue Jays aren’t interested. It’s tough to call Giambi an impact bat, and he’s on the DL right now with a strained quad. If he’s finished, he sure went out with a wimper.

Another Yankee to symbolize the excesses and failures of the recent past found himself traded today. The Indians have dealt Carl Pavano to the Twins. This move came after the Twins put a waiver claim on Carl. For what it’s worth, the Twins are 4.5 games out of the AL Central but 9.5 games behind in the Wild Card race.

This move could be a risky one for the Twins simply because of Carl Pavano’s endurance. Right now, Carl Pavano has thrown 125.2 innings this year. He threw a combined 145.2 innings over four seasons for the Yanks. Despite his age and experience, he is definitely in the injury red zone right now. The Twins will rely on Pavano for depth, but that, as Yankee fans know, is a dicey proposition. The 5.37 ERA and 1.37 WHIP are hardly appealing.

Finally, Tom Verducci really likes the Yankees right now and doesn’t think things are looking up in Beantown. A Bronx win tonight would certainly cement that feeling.

Catching up with the exes: Tomko, Pavano, Small

To while away the afternoon now that the Yanks and Orioles have wrapped up their series, let’s check in on some ex-Yankees in the news these days. We start with the disgruntleds:

Brett Tomko
To make room for Sergio Mitre yesterday, the Yankees designated Brett Tomko for assignment. They have ten days to trade him or they can release him or ship him down to the minors. Tomko is not a happy camper about his tenure on the Yankees. “I don’t think I got a fair shot,” he said to reporters as he packed up his locker. “I pitched great in spring training and didn’t make the team. I pitched great in the minors, got called up and didn’t get much of a chance. I understand other guys are pitching great. But it could have been different. I can’t see the point in coming back.”

This is a clear example of the Yankees’ expectations not lining up with Tomko’s. At 36, Brett Tomko is a journeyman with a career ERA+ of 92. He isn’t the future of anything, and he’s not getting better. During his time on the Yanks, he allowed runs in seven of his 15 appearances and just wasn’t a trustworthy or impressive reliever.

“It’s hard when you throw once every 10 days. Your stuff can’t be the same,” he added later. “I never felt like I got a chance to show them anything. I wasn’t pitching much. As much as I want to be here and be with a winning team, I want to pitch. It would be great if they traded me in the next 10 days to help me out. But if not, I’m sure something will come up. Plenty of teams need pitching.”

Tomko won’t accept a Minor League assignment once the ten days are up, and the Yanks probably won’t find a team that needs a mediocre, ineffective and touchy pitcher. So much for him.

Carl Pavano
Try as we might, we just can’t ignore Carl Pavano. Today’s Pavano story though is something of an oddity. In what can only be described as an attempt by a reporter to create the news, Ken Rosenthal asked a Yankee official if the team would be interested in reacquiring Carl Pavano from the Indians.

The reply? A resounding no. “We’ve seen that movie,” Rosenthal’s source said. “Our players would go crazy if we did that.”

Pavano, for what it’s worth, isn’t having a terrible season. He’s 8-7 with a 5.13 ERA, but he’s managed to make 18 starts — one more than his single-season high with the Yanks. He also hasn’t been walking many batters. Yet, the Yankees hate him. The players hate him. The Front Office hates him. The fans hate him. He won’t — and shouldn’t — be back.

Aaron Small
Aaron Small was an odd addition to the Old Timer’s Day roster this year. While he went 10-0 for the Yanks in 2005, he was out of baseball a few months later after going 0-3 with an 8.46 ERA in 2006. Now, we learn that Small made his way to Yankee Stadium just six weeks after a bad bout of encephalitis. Small was in a medically-induced coma for eight days as doctors combated the virus that led to a life-threatening swelling of the former pitcher’s brain.

Small recovered from this ordeal and is slowly rebuilding his strength. This scary story makes his appearance at the stadium this past weekend all the more meaningful.

The Yanks’ $40-million mistakes

Last night in Scranton, Kei Igawa took the hill for the AAA Yankees. In typical Kei Igawa fashion, he threw 5.1 innings and gave up 7 hits and 5 earned runs. He allowed a home run — his ninth long ball of the season and managed just a 4/6 ground ball to fly ball ratio.

For Igawa, it was yet another in a line of mediocre-to-terrible AAA starts. On the season, the Kei Man is 2-0 but with a 6.75 ERA. In 21.1 innings, he has allowed 23 hits but has walked four while striking out 11. His 0.60 GB/FB ratio is destined to keep him at AAA for at least this year and next.

It’s clear today that Kei Igawa is one of the worst free agent signings of the last five years. He is no longer on the Yanks’ 40-man roster and is probably 9th or 10th on the team’s starting pitching depth charts. Last year, he threw just 4 innings in the bigs, and I expect that to be 4 more than he pitches this year for the Yanks.

So the Yankees, in Igawa, have a mistake. They paid $26 million to the Hanshin Tigers for what has amounted to a pitching lemon, and Igawa, earning $4 million a year, is probably the highest paid AAA pitcher in the history of the game. He is, by the way, under contract through the 2011 season.

Meanwhile, later tonight, another Yankee mistake is going to take the mound, albeit far, far away from the Bronx. In Detroit, the 0-3 Carl Pavano is going to take his 9.50 ERA to the hill as the Indians face off against the Tigers. We all know Pavano’s story. He had a career year in Florida right before free agency and landed with the Yankees after a four-team bidding war. He then went 9-8 in 26 starts spread out over four seasons and walked away with a 5.00 ERA, $39.95 million and a less-than-flattering nickname of “American Idle.”

The Indians gave Carl Pavano $1.5 million to pitch for them this year in the hopes that he could rediscover his groove. Outside of one start against the Yankees, ironically enough, Pavano hasn’t done much of anything, and he’s probably nearing the point of pitching for a job.

So as the rain begins to pick up in New York City, I am left not counting down the hours until a Yankeeography-filled rain delay, but rather I am left wondering which of these two pitchers was the worse move. It’s probably safe to say that signing one of them ranks among Brian Cashman‘s worse decisions as GM, but does one take the cake?

Which Yankee pitcher represents a bigger waste of money?
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