Alex’s leg kick

Alex Rodriguez got off to a gloriously hot start to the season. In the first eleven games he hit .405/.511/.865 with 4 home runs, sporting an OPS of 1.376. Unfortunately, this hot start came to a screeching halt in Texas. On April 16th in Texas the Yankees removed Rodriguez from the game with a mild oblique strain. He avoided the disabled list, but he didn’t return to the lineup until April 20th. Whether the oblique strain was still bothering him or simply disrupted his timing is hard to say. What is clear is that Rodriguez went through a massive slump when he returned, hitting .188/.263/.294 with 2 home runs and 22 strikeouts in 22 games.

When the Yankees finished getting swept by Boston at home, they headed to Tampa. At the time talk surfaced of hitting coach Kevin Long working hard with Rodriguez to fix a mechanical flaw in his swing. They weren’t able to rectify it immediately, and in fact it seems that Rodriguez had difficulty implementing the change. In his first game in Tampa Alex went 0-4 with 3 strikeouts against Price. But they may have gotten a handle on it shortly thereafter. YES scribe and fan favorite Jack Curry had the details on this fix in a piece published May 18th, a day after Rodriguez clubbed two homers off Big Game James.

Long determined the cause of Rodriguez’s struggles, detecting that the third baseman hadn’t been using the lower half of his body to ignite his swing. Rodriguez called it a “disconnect” between his lower and upper body…

“We’ve diagnosed the problem,” Long said. “It’s vivid. We know what it is. But Alex said there’s been some hesitation. He knows he has to use his legs and he’s telling himself to use his legs. But when it comes time to do it, he hesitates. It’s all about fixing mechanics.”

Several hours after Long spoke to me about Rodriguez’s missing swing on Tuesday, Rodriguez corrected his mechanics and found that smooth swing again. Rodriguez blasted two homers off James Shields to help guide the Yankees to a much-needed 6-2 win over the Rays.

By taking a look at Rodriguez’s swing against the Red Sox Sunday night against Beckett and comparing it to his swing against Shields in Tampa, one thing stands out quite clearly: Alex almost completely eliminated his leg kick. Courtesy of friend of RAB Richard Iurilli, we can use .gif images to get a good slow-motion look at the difference. The first .gif is Alex striking out against Josh Beckett. (Update: Added the jump for site loading reasons)

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2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

Link Dump: K-Long, Banuelos, NY-Penn League

Some spare links for a rainy Sunday in the Tri-State Area…

Q&A with Kevin Long

Hitting coach Kevin Long gets a lot of rave reviews around these parts, in part because of his work with guys like Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, and more recently Derek Jeter. Marc Carig sat down for a chat with Long, who spoke about how and why he decided to get into coaching, the toughest part of his job, his book, and whether or not he wants to someday manage a team. Check it out, it’s a great read.

Banuelos vs. Perez

Manny Banuelos has been the talk of spring so far and why not? He’s been extremely impressive in a pair of two-inning outings despite being a 19-year-old in big league camp, but this isn’t anything new. At this time last year, Rangers’ lefty pitching prospect Martin Perez was doing the same thing, but he went from a 2.71 FIP in Single-A (with a brief, late season call-up to Double-A) in 2009 to a 4.24 FIP in Double-A in 2010, seeing his prospect stock take a hit. John Sickels compared the two, concluding that they are “different but even.” Banuelos has the higher floor and the edge in intangibles and performance, but Perez offers more projection and upside.

Penn League Report

Just wanted to take a second and point you in the direction of a new site called Penn League Report, which will be providing news, updates, and more from the short season NY-Penn League, which houses the Staten Island Yankees. It’s run by Dave Gershman of Beyond The Box Score fame, and you can follow along on Twitter at @NYPL_Report. Today he offered up a brief scouting report on Yankees farmhand Tommy Kahnle. We need more information about the lowest levels of the minor leagues, so this is a welcome addition to the blogosphere. Add to your bookmarks, RSS feeds, etcetera, etcetera.

Kevin Long on MLB Network’s Diamond Demo

Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long made an appearance on the MLB Network yesterday, showing off some of the drills he does with Alex Rodriguez and Robbie Cano. The four-and-a-half video can be seen here, and it comes highly recommended.

The screen drill with Cano is something to behold. I was lucky enough to see them bust out the screen and a bucket of balls when I was in Tampa for the Sept. 13th-15th series, and it was seriously just homer after homer into rightfield. All you’d hear was crack!!! off the bat and then thud!!! when the ball hit the seats a few seconds later. Here’s a half-decent picture I took of the drill. You can see the ball in flight (in front of where the second baseman would be) and Eduardo Nunez waiting his turn off to the left.

Kevin Long making his rounds this winter

Derek Jeter isn’t Kevin Long’s only project this winter. We learned earlier this month that Long and Jeter will work together in advance of spring training, but that doesn’t mean that Long has taken the rest of the winter off. In an article regarding Long’s and Jeter’s upcoming sessions, The Post’s Brian Costello reveals some of Long’s winter schedule. He’s worked with Nick Swisher and Colin Curtis, and plans to meet with Mark Teixeira next week before visiting Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. That sounds like a pretty full slate. Baseball might be a seven-month sport for us, but for these guys it’s year round.

Yanks, Kevin Long agree to three year deal

Via George King, the Yankees and hitting coach Kevin Long have agreed to a new three-year contract. Terms of the deal are unknown, though Long’s previous contract paid him about $400,000 annually, and King says he’ll get a raise. He’s served as the Yankees’ hitting coach since 2007, and by all counts he’s done a marvelous job. The players all love him and give him credit for helping them, and there has been some tangible evidence of his magic, namely Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher.

The contracts of Rob Thomson, Mick Kelleher, Tony Pena, and Mike Harkey all expired yesterday, though they’re expected to remain with the club.

Friday Notes: Pitching Coach, Payroll, Lineup, CC, More

Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman spoke to the media via conference call today and hit on a few topics, so lets’ round it all up. All the info below comes courtesy of RAB fave Marc Carig

  • Girardi and Cashman have brainstormed about potential pitching coaches, but so far they have not yet reached out to anyone nor have they scheduled any interviews. Cashman doesn’t expect the process to move quickly, which is kinda surprising. He added that bullpen coach Mike Harkey and Triple-A Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred are candidates for the job.
  • Cashman on hitting coach Kevin Long: “I think he’d like to stay. We’d like to keep him. I think he’s exceptional at what he does.” K-Long’s contract is up, and I suspect he’s seeking a considerable raise and multiple years. He deserves it.
  • “Nothing’s really going to happen until I sit down with my bosses,” said Cashman. He’ll meet with Hal Steinbrenner and whoever else on Monday and Tuesday in Tampa. The 2011 payroll will be hashed out during those meetings.
  • Beyond pitching, Cashman doesn’t think the team “needs a lot of changes.” The only change they need as far as the lineup goes is for certain guys to get back to performing up to their full potential. That’s the biggest upgrade they could make.
  • “Our lineup is maybe something that could change next year,” said Girardi. I think that’s code for “Derek Jeter won’t keep hitting leadoff if he doesn’t get on base more than 34% of the time,” or at least I hope it is.
  • CC Sabathia was dealing with his knee issue since early in the season, and it had no bearing on why he wasn’t used in relief in Game Six of the ALCS. They suspect it may have affected his mechanics, which is kinda crazy since he still had a Cy Young caliber season. Sabathia had surgery to repair the minor meniscus tear in his right knee today and will need three weeks to rehab, as expected. It won’t hurt his offseason training at all, he usually doesn’t start throwing again until after Christmas anyway.
  • As far as leaving for the Cubs, Girardi said he “didn’t really think about leaving the Yankees.” The idea of him bolting for Chicago was mostly fan and media speculation, anyway. Two and two made three, then we tried to squeeze it into four.