Molina-Gate: A.J. defends Posada

After six months of baseball day after day after day, this drawn-out schedule for the post-season seems interminable. The Yanks played last night for the first time since Sunday and do not play again for another 27 hours. The waiting, as Tom Petty said, is the hardest part.

With all of the off-days, we have plenty of time to discuss Joe Girardi‘s peculiar decision to start Jose Molina in the ALDS when A.J. Burnett takes the mound. Molina will be behind the dish tomorrow night for Game 2 and unless Girardi’s plan is highly illogical, should be back there again for a potential Game 5. Most assumed this decision was inspired by A.J. Burnett who seemed to be more comfortable on the mound with Jose Molina catching. Based on Burnett’s demonstrative attitude during a terrible Fenway outing in August, this wasn’t an unfounded conclusion.

Burnett, though, threw a wrench into this thinking. Prior to Game 1, he told reporters that he did not ask for Molina to catch. Although Burnett appears to be criticizing Girardi, he continually stressed his support for Posada and did so again this afternoon. “It’s a ‘me’ thing,” Burnett said today when asked about his rhythm with Molina. The pitcher, after all, mostly is in control of his own performance.

Burnett’s responses today followed questions concerning Molina and Posada yesterday. The Game 2 starter tried to distance himself from having a preferred catcher. “It was the manager’s decision,” he said yesterday. “I had no part in it. I’ve thrown good to both. My good games, I’m right. My bad games, it’s not the catcher, it’s me. When I’m good, it doesn’t matter which one is behind the plate.”

During that press conference, he spoke about that Aug. 22 outing. Although Burnett was clearly yelling “Why did you throw that?” on the mound, that frustration, the right-hander said, was directed at himself and not his catcher. “It’s making me out to be a bad guy again,” Burnett said, “and it comes down to Boston when I said, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ Over my career, I’ve done that a handful of times. But if you ask people that I played with, I don’t show guys up. I even went to Joe in the past and said, ‘Hey, give me either one.’ It’s his decision.

Burnett, an 11-year veteran, will be making his post-season debut tomorrow night. Although he was a member of the 2003 Marlins, he missed the playoffs — and much of the season, in fact — with an arm injury. He is looking forward to this start, he says, but the Yankees could do without the circus. “I’m just looking forward to getting out there and getting that first pitch out of the way,” he said.

This afternoon, Girardi again spoke about this decision. “I don’t want to get ahead,” he said when asked if Burnett would pitch to Molina through the playoffs. “We talk about Molina catching him tomorrow. He’s been catching him his last four or five starts. I’m not going to get too far ahead.”

This line of thinking makes nearly as little sense as Girardi’s initial decision. If the Yanks aren’t committing to pairing up Burnett and Molina, why would he do it for the second game of a five-game set? “We’re taking things one day at a time,” he said. Girardi also refused to rule out DHing Posada over Hideki Matsui tomorrow.

Meanwhile, on the other side of this debate is Jorge Posada. The embattled catcher did not have his best game early on last night. He and CC couldn’t get on the same page, and one of the two passed balls Jorge allowed resulted in the Twins’ second and final run of the game. Chris at iYankees though makes a very good point: While CC did not have his best fastball, Jorge still coaxed a very good game out of him. Early-inning defensive struggles aside, Posada had a fine night.

But still we discuss, and everyone has theories. Jonah Keri calls Joe Girardi a sentimentalist in so many words. The Yanks’ skipper was a “good-field, little-hit” catcher and earned his fair share of Yankee playoff ABs. Girardi sees himself in Jose Molina and will give the Yanks’ all-field, no-hit catcher a chance. Even in Girardi’s worst offensive season with the Yanks, his 60 OPS+ was still decidedly better than Molina’s 49 mark this year.

Perhaps though it doesn’t matter at all. Tangotiger ran the simulations and found little difference: “With Posada (batting 7th), Yankees score 6.17, allow 4.18 rpg and win 72.15% of the time, in 100,000 games. With Molina (batting 9th), they score 5.85, allow 4.05 rpg and win 71.33% of the time.”

And still we wait for the game to start tomorrow evening.

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Molina to catch Burnett during ALDS

When A.J. Burnett takes the mound this week, perhaps on Friday in Yankee Stadium but more likely on Sunday in either Detroit or Minneapolis, Jorge Posada will not be behind the plate. Talking to reporters today at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks’ catcher revealed, in a rather terse exchange, that Jose Molina will catch Burnett this week in the ALDS.

During a workout day interview, Posada and the reporters were chatting about the Yanks and their playoff chances when the discussion turned to A.J. Burnett and Jose Molina. “I think Molina’s probably going to catch A.J,” Posada said when the topic was broached. “So that’s it.”

After a minute of awkward silence, questioning shifted away from Molina only to return to this hot topic a few minutes later. “I just hope we win that game. That’s all. That’s all I got to say,” Posada said in a clipped tone. “Not like I didn’t see this coming.”

For the Yankees and Joe Girardi, this is a particularly risky strategy, and already, fans are debating the wisdom of it. On the season, Jose Molina was absolutely awful. In 155 plate appearances, he hit .217/.292/.268. His .560 OPS was third worst among all AL hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Jorge Posada, meanwhile, hit .285/.363/.522 with 22 home runs and 81 RBI. He was the best hitting catcher in the AL not named Joe Mauer. I don’t need to break out MLVr to show just how more valuable Posada is offensively.

But Girardi is willing to throw that out the window because of A.J. Burnett’s splits by catcher. In 16 games with Posada as Burnett’s catcher, opponents hit .270/.353/.421. In 11 games with a Molina-Burnett battery, opponents hit .221/.307/.352. There is a difference, but there is no way of knowing if Molina is the cause of it. After all, Burnett is the one pitching, and Burnett is the one who has to make his pitches. A.J. has expressed his willingness to work with Posada this year, and he should certainly embrace that when the season has been reduced to a five-game set.

So here we are with a lineup that will either feature no Jorge Posada or no Hideki Matsui. If Girardi is going to insist on sitting Posada for Molina during A.J.’s starts, he shouldn’t further weaken the lineup by benching Matsui. I’d like to think, however, that the Yankee skipper knows this aspect to lineup construction.

As Jorge said, the Yanks better win that game. They have the lineup to overcome this bad decision, but they shouldn’t need to rely on their offense to compensate for a move that reeks of overmanaging. Otherwise, similar to the decisions to avoid bunting against Curt Schilling in 2004, to bat A-Rod 8th in 2006 and and to leave the team on the field while under attack by midges, this one will be second-guessed to no ened.

Like it or not, Molina likely to catch in playoffs

The past week has seen debate over what the Yanks should do with their ALDS roster construction. Which 10 pitchers should they carry? Should they add Freddy Guzman? Francisco Cervelli? None of these is the most important question — the one that will have the most impact on one or multiple games. No, that question is of playing time at catcher. We’ve seen some speculation that Jose Molina could catch A.J. Burnett, and given some of Girardi’s comments last night, it appears that will be the case. From Feinsand:

“We haven’t come up with any final decisions on how we’re going to do things,” Girardi said. “Jose is possibly going to play an important role next week, so we wanted to get him some at-bats.”

I don’t think that “an important role” means catching the eighth and ninth if the Yanks pinch run for Posada. No, “an important role” would appear to mean starting catcher. So for those who are vehemently against Molina seeing any playing time next week, commence flipping out.

I’m not necessarily against the move. If it makes Burnett pitch better, I’m actually all for it. The problem is that I don’t think there’s any certainty in that. Are we guaranteed a good Burnett start with Molina behind the plate? If so, start him. If there’s no guarantee, though, and there’s really not any objective way to say there is, then I have to question the decision to take either Jorge’s or Matsui’s bat out of the lineup.

The A.J. and Jose show

As Juan Miranda‘s line drive literally off of Kyle Farnsworth escaped the Royals’ fielders and Eric Hinske scampered to the plate, the Yankees came together last night to celebrate their 15th walk-off win of the season. Juan Miranda became the latest victim of the Walk-Off Pie, and with their 102nd win, the Yanks opened a season-high 10.5-game lead over the Red Sox.

Lost in the feel-good defeat of a much-maligned former Yankee was another solid start by A.J. Burnett. Joe touched upon Burnett’s outing in the recap, but it warrants a closer look. Burnett went 6.1 innings, and he didn’t give up much. The Royals managed to plate two runs — one earned — on three hits and three walks. Burnett struck out eight on the night.

For A.J., last night’s outing was another in a string of good September starts. After a rough five weeks in August and September, Burnett has now surrendered four earned runs over his last 19 innings. He has surrendered 17 hits and just nine walks in that span while striking out 25. In fact, if we look at Burnett’s bad start against the Orioles, we see that, after surrendering a grand slam to Brian Roberts, Burnett was nearly untouchable. That day, he retired 17 of the last 19 batters he faced and threw 5.2 one-hit innings.

If we head back to Sept. 8, we see yet another good A.J. Burnett start. Against Tampa, he threw six innings and allowed one run on four hits and three walks. He also struck out eight that day. So over his last five starts, he has thrown 32 innings with a 2.81 ERA and has given up 28 hits and 14 walks while striking out 37. That’s not too shabby for a second or third starter.

There is, however, a downside to A.J.’s success. As Steve Lombardi concisely puts it in a color-coded post, Burnett’s success has come with Jose Molina behind the plate. Throughout September, Molina has been A.J.’s caddy. In August, during A.J.’s bad starts — an early August debacle against the White Sox and a late August shellacking by the Red Sox — Jorge Posada was catching.

And so we fear what this means. As Joe speculated last week, it appears as though Joe Girardi will pair up A.J. Burnett and Jose Molina during the playoffs. Jorge Posada would ride the bench and be available to come into the game the minute Burnett is removed. The Yanks, however, contend that Posada sat out not due to A.J.’s pitching but because of his sore neck. I report; you decide.

It’s hard to stress how much of an offensive blackhole Molina has been this year. His hit today broke an 0-for-19 streak, and his triple slash line is .215/.295/.262. Jorge, meanwhile, is hitting .290/.369/.534. Molina’s VORP is currently -6.7; Jorge’s is 35.1. Molina has contributed -9.0 runs above (below?) average at the plate while Jorge’s contribution is a positive 19.7. Get the picture?

Joe Girardi can get cute with the lineup if he wants to. It is, after all, his team. If he honestly and truly believes that A.J. Burnett is that much better of a pitcher with Jose Molina behind the plate, then so be it. I remain skeptical and shudder to see the lineup card when Burnett takes the mound next week in Game 2 or 3 of the ALDS.

First Half Review: Catchers

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. We already looked at the starting pitchers, relievers, and corner infielders, so now it’s time to take a look at the catchers.

The expectations

The catching situation in 2008 was a mess once Jorge Posada went down with a major shoulder injury. Jose Molina was terrific defensively but was exposed offensively when playing every day, and a midseason trade for Ivan Rodriguez proved fruitless. As a result of the dismal showing last year, it was hard to expect anything but an upgrade this year. Sure, there were concerns about Jorge Posada’s ability to control the running game with this surgically repaired shoulder, but his bat was never in question. With Molina set to return to his usual backup duty, there was cause for optimism coming into this year.

The results

Yankee catchers have put up a .280-.335-.444 batting line, good for the fourth best OPS in the league even with Jorge Posada missing just about four weeks with a hamstring issue. When Jose Molina went down with a similar injury, straight outta Double-A Frankie Cervelli performed better that anyone could have ever expected on both sides of the ball.

Considering the team lost its top two backstops to injury at the same time, it’s impressive that the catching in the Bronx still ranks among the best in the league. Let’s talk about some of the individual pieces now.

Jorge Posada

If anything, last year’s injury reminded all of us just how important Jorge Posada is to the Yankees. He’s proven that his shoulder is fully healed by throwing out 20 of 67 potential basestealers, or 29.1%. That percentage is basically the same as the 29.5% gun-down rate Posada posted in his career before the shoulder started giving him trouble last year.

Offensively, Posada is producing at pretty much the same pace as always. While no one was expecting him to repeat his monster .338-.426-.543 season in 2007, Posada has again been an above-average producer behind the plate with a .285-.369-.508 line. As he goes the Yankees go.

Jose Molina

The best backup catcher the Yankees have had in some time, Molina’s defense seems to have taken a slight step back this year (just 25% of basestealers have been thrown out, well below his 41.4% career mark coming into ’09) and you wonder if playing just about everyday last year is taking its toll on him now. Molina missed two months with a strained hamstring, but has quietly hit .271-.340-.375 when he has played. As always, Molina’s still at his best when he plays once every four days.

Frankie Cervelli

The new golden boy, Cervelli arrived from Double-A Trenton with dreamy eyes and a .190 AVG when Posada and Molina went down, and exceeded every possible expectation. He’s thrown out 10 of 21 potential basestealers (47.6%) and moved around behind the plate exceptionally well. Even though he hit just .269-.284-.346, Cervelli always seemed to put together quality at-bats and never failed to hustle down the line. A fan favorite, Cervelli was sent down to Triple-A to play every day once Posada and Molina returned to the full strength. His play over his two-month cameo all but earned him the backup catcher job for next year.

Expectations for the second half

I guess you could say the biggest expectation for the second half sn’t really an expectation at all, just hope that Jorge Posada remains healthy. He’s such an important part of the team both in the lineup and in the clubhouse. If he stays on the field, the Yankees will have arguably the most productive catcher in the majors (non-Mauer division), always a significant advantage. Molina and third stringer Cervelli provide adequate backup, but are a significant drop-off if pressed into everyday duty.

The Yankees have enviable catching depth at the moment, but just like pitching depth it can vanish in an instant. As an ex-catcher, I’m sure manager Joe Girardi will pay special attention to the workload Posada endures the rest of the season. Just stay healthy, that’s all we want. The rest will take care of itself.