Rounding second and heading for home

We talk often about quantifying what happens on the field. In order to better understand a player’s value, advanced baseball metrics have moved from the closed doors of teams’ Front Offices to the forefront of the Internet. While, as Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game showed, statistical evaluation in baseball is nearly as old as the game itself, only recently has it moved into the realm of everyday fandom.

Yet, for all the talk of numbers, sometimes things happen that aren’t explained by statistical contributions. Sometimes, the game unfolds in new and unexpected ways. That’s what happened last night.

Luis Castillo’s dropping the pop up last night was unexpected. It doesn’t really happen. In fact, the Yanks hadn’t walked off on an error in six seasons. Yet, the even more unexpected part was Mark Teixeira. On a lazy pop up that should have ended the game, Mark Teixeira scored all the way from first base.

After the game, his teammates praised him. “What stands out is Mark Teixeira’s hustle. That wins the game for us. That’s why he’s my MVP right now. He’s doing everything,” Alex Rodriguez said. A-Rod, of course, had it easy. All he had to do was stand on first base to avoid getting tagged out before Teixeira scored. He did.

Meanwhile, we laugh at overused baseball cliches of grit and hustle. A player can have as much grit and hustle as anyway, but a .320 on-base percentage is still a .320 on-base percentage. What Teixeira did last night though transcends that element of the game. Many players — from scrubs to superstars — would just trot around the bases waiting for the inevitable to happen. Teixeira ran all-out from first to home on a ball that barely made it into right field.

That’s a move that separates the cream of the crop from everyone else. Teixeira gets a run scored. The Yanks get a badly-need win. And I’ll just sit back and admire how Teixeira offers up a complete package, the likes of which the Yanks haven’t seen at first base in a long time. That is $180 million well invested, and you can bet that John Henry, idiotic comments aside, was thinking it just as I was as Teixeira slid home with the Yanks’ 9th run of the night.

Girardi, Manuel handle their players differently

For the past three and a half years, I’ve been writing my own brand of game recaps. Little has changed between then and now. The formula seems to work: find the three most important points of the game and elaborate on them. There’s some chronological narration in there, but that’s only when the chronology is important.

This year, though, one thing changed. I started watching the postgame coverage to hear what Girardi has to say about what transpired. This is mostly to get the rationale for various maneuvers: why X came in to pitch when he did, why did he take Y out of the game, why didn’t Z pitch? It’s been valuable. Even when I don’t agree with his rationale, at least I know where he’s coming from.

I’m not sure how Girardi acted last year — the media seemed a bit harsh on him, and I don’t know if that has to do with how he spoke about the players or just his general demeanor. This year, though, he seems like an affable character. He answers questions as they are asked, and he speaks very well. I’ve actually enjoyed hearing him speak about the game, even after a loss.

What I’ve noticed is that he deflects the blame away from the players. When asked on Tuesday about A.J. Burnett‘s performance, Girardi said “I’ll take the blame” for pitching him on a week’s rest. When reporters reached Burnett, they ended up talking about Joe taking the blame, rather than laying an inquisition on him. It might seem like a small deal, but as A.J. intimated, he appreciated it.

Even more recently, Girardi noted the team’s second-inning failures as a reason the Yanks dropped the Wednesday night affair. There was but one gaffe in the second, and it was Nick Swisher‘s baserunning error. True, Girardi volunteered the quote, but even in doing so he didn’t put the blame right on the player, even when the player clearly deserved it.

As Ken Rosenthal notes, “Joe Torre’s greatest strength as Yankees manager was his ability to deflect attention away from players.” It seems Girardi has learned from that. It’s his team, and he’s out to protect his team from the frothy-mouthed press. Again, I’m sure the players appreciate this at least a little. No one wants to be thrown under the bus by his own manager.

This is in contrast to Girardi’s cross-town counterpart, Jerry Manuel, who seems all too eager to open up about his players, for good and especially for bad. Rosenthal notes some of Manuel’s more pronounced criticisms of his team, including his desire to strangle Ryan Church. You’ll also remember that Manuel grew particularly frustrated with Jose Reyes last year, saying “next time he [throws a tantrum] I’m going to get my blade out and cut him.” That came after the first at bat during Manuel’s first game as Mets’ manager.

The best example of their differences can be illustrated with Manuel’s criticism of Mike Pelfrey last week. The starter, pitching on five days’ rest instead of the normal four, got smoked by the Pirates. Afterward, Manuel said, “I was a little discouraged at Mike being where he was today after getting a day off, and kind of knowing what we needed and just not having it. That was kind of disheartening, because we really needed this game today.” Contrast that with how Girardi handled the press when Burnett threw with an extra couple days’ rest.

(And I’m sorry, even if you like Manuel’s in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is style, it’s ridiculous to call an extra day’s rest a “day off.” We hear over and over again that pitchers are creatures of habit. It’s not that extra rest excuses a poor performance, but it certainly can’t be viewed as a day where the guy dips his toes in the pool, sips fruity rum drinks, and then goes to sleep on top of a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful women.)

I’ll agree with Rosenthal when he says:

I certainly appreciate Manuel saying, “We can’t keep sugar-coating things because that’s not real.” But while I like Manuel a great deal, I’m not sure I would like playing for him.

It’s always refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is. However, that’s shouldn’t be the first priority of a manager. The chief concern is to keep everyone playing at their peaks. It means creating an atmosphere where the players want to go out and fight for you every day. Is that what Manuel accomplishes by constantly pointing out his players’ shortcomings and mistakes?

Having never worked in MLB, and having never been inside a clubhouse, I’m not going to make that call. However, as we saw in the Torre years, the manager’s ability to manage the perception of his players is no secondary task. Is Manuel doing his players a service by outing them to the press? I’m not sure, but I’ll definitely agree with Rosenthal’s conclusion:

The question, in the end, is accountability. Manuel is right to hold his players accountable, but he need not do it so publicly. Accountability also works both ways. It can’t always be someone else’s fault.

Personally, I prefer a manager who handles the press and his players like Girardi, rather than like Manuel and Ozzie Guillen. Clearly, others have different ideas. So, as always, fire away.

Hideki’s final pinstriped season

Every time I think Hideki Matsui is done, he comes back to life. Last week, Matsui went 0 for 5 and left five runners on base as the Yanks fell to the Phillies in extras. At that point, he was hitting an anemic .241/.325/.429, and I was looking forward to the return of Xavier Nady as a way to eliminate some of the Matsui at-bats.

But since then, Matsui, the streakiest of streakiest hitters, has turned it back on. In 19 at-bats spanning five games and 22 plate appearances, Matsui has hit .421/.500/.895 with two home runs and three doubles. He has raised his season numbers to .263/.347/.487 and is outperforming the AL DH average OPS by .057 points.

Despite this recent uptick in performance, it’s highly doubtful that Hideki Matsui, a free agent this winter, will return to the Yankees, and I have to wonder whether his overall future in Major League Baseball is in doubt. Today, MLBTR points us to a Joel Sherman column on Matsui. While we are often skeptical of Sherman’s work, I think he’s onto something here:

The Yanks have long been concerned about the inflexibility of their roster due to having too many DH types, such as exists this year with Matsui, Jorge Posada Jorge Posada and Xavier Nady (if he returns from his elbow injury). Yankee officials envision a 2010 in which Posada takes more at-bats as the DH, and in which Joe Girardi could better rest everyday players such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira without losing their bats.

In spring training, Matsui told me that he prefers to stay a Yankee, but is not wedded to the Yanks and would consider other teams here if he decided to keep playing. He is a total pro and – when healthy – a clutch, productive hitter. But with his lingering knee issues that guarantee he cannot play left field with any regularity – if at all — I wonder if any team would be willing to invest even a few million on Matsui. That is part of the death of the traditional DH.

Poorly constructed sentences aside, Sherman raises some valid concerns the Yankees have for next season. In Jeter, Posada and A-Rod, they have three key players under contract and over 35 next year, and to keep them healthy, the team will have to make use of a rotating DH spot. Meanwhile, the Yankees are rather publicly committed to getting younger and more athletic. Resigning Hideki Matsui isn’t part of that equation.

If Matsui and the Yanks are destined for a post-season divorce, will another Major League team pick him up? When he’s on, he can hit with the best of them, but he will be an old 36 next June. With the market as depressed as it currently is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matsui jobless or back in Japan come April 2010. His will have been a good run, and while it’s not over yet, 2009 is in all likelihood his Yankee swan song.

The decline and fall of David Ortiz

It was Thursday evening in New York when the Angels walked off with a 5-4 win against the Red Sox. Jeff Mathis singled home Reggie Willits in the bottom of the 12th to end what was a very frustrating game for the Red Sox.

No one was worse for the Sox on Thursday than David Ortiz. He went 0 for 7 with three strike outs and single-handedly left 12 runners on base. After the game, he sounded like a defeated man. “I’m sorry, guys. I don’t feel like talking right now. Just put down, Papi stinks,'” he said to reporters.

For Ortiz, the 0 for 7 capped off what had been one terrible start to the season. He is hitting .208/.318/.300 and has not homered since September 22. Brett Gardner, the Yanks’ outfielder, has a slugging percentage nearly .125 points higher than Ortiz’s, and Papi has been benched this weekend as the Sox take on the Mariners.

Around baseball, Ortiz’s spectacularly bad spring has been the talk of the town. Earlier today, The Times Bats blog profiled Ortiz and three others off to uncharacteristically slow starts. Alex Belth compares Ortiz to Mo Vaughn, another large DH no longer a force at the plate after his age 33 season.

Where Vaughn suffered through a wrist injury though, Ortiz is simply missing Manny. As Ed Price tweeted, Ortiz has hit .240 with a .783 OPS since the Red Sox shipped Manny away. Perhaps that’s just a coincidence. After all, Jason Bay has put up some very good offensive numbers too. Perhaps Manny’s protection forced pitchers to attack Ortiz. Either way, that’s not what the Red Sox expected for their $12.5 million.

For me, this decline has been bittersweet for a number of reasons. First of all, I basically predicted it back in January 2006 when I analyzed Ortiz’s contract situation for the now-defunct Talking Baseball blog. I’m also glad that the Yankees no longer have to face the David Ortiz of old who would refuse to make outs against New York.

As a fan of the game though, I hate to see the competition go out this way. I’d see the Yanks face Ortiz and win that battle while he’s at his finest. We can watch A.J. Burnett or Joba Chamberlain strike out Ortiz now, but that’s hardly an accomplishment today. With 30 strike outs in 157 plate appearances, that’s all Ortiz does anymore.

Now Ortiz may just be slumping. It’s still early, and while 157 plate appearances is a decent number, I’m not ready to dance on the baseball grave of Big Papi until the season is over. For now, though, an era is drawing to a close, and while the Yanks didn’t always win, that era was never lacking for drama, excitement and good old baseball.

Musings on A-Rod’s ‘historic milestones’ contract

For one night with A-Rod back in the lineup and CC wheelin’ and dealin’, everything seemed right in the Yankee Universe. Of course, A-Rod was booed by the Orioles, but the Bronx cheers weren’t any louder than usual. He’ll do with that around the leagues, and some places — Boston and Texas — will be less forgiven than others.

Of the field, though, reporters are still trying to stir up something of an Alex Rodriguez story. To wit: A Jayson Stark column on A-Rod’s historic milestones clauses. As Stark reminds us, Hank Steinbrenner, in seemingly his last act of any importance atop the Yankee chain of command, gave Alex Rodriguez a ten-year contract with some heavy marketing bonuses for reaching certain home run totals.

While Nate Silver doesn’t think A-Rod will reach all of those milestones, the Yankees are operating on the belief that they will have paid A-Rod around $300 million over the life of this contract. In light of A-Rod’s PED admissions earlier this year, Stark asks around baseball, and his anonymous sources suggest that the Yanks should try to get out of those clauses of the contract.

Stark writes:

These are not questions the Yankees are asking — yet. But they’re questions we have heard asked around baseball lately, as A-Rod’s reputation, approval rating and marketability have plunged to somewhere south of Rio de Janeiro.

“If I’m the Yankees,” said an official of one team, “I think I’d be doing everything I could not to pay that money, and let him sue me for it.”

“I think the Yankees ought to challenge it and baseball ought to challenge it,” said an executive of another club. “And then it’s up to A-Rod and the union to determine how much they want to fight it. Does this guy really want to continue to go through this stuff? Does he really want to continue to explain himself?”

The rest of the column gets into your typical anonymous-source complaining about the Yanks’ alleged special treatment and how this contract just isn’t allowed within the rules of Major League Baseball. That part is more hot air than excerpted part above.

But anyway, I think Stark is full of it, and I think his unnamed baseball executives are full of it too. Imagine that you are a worker at a company, and your boss calls you into to say that, in fact, you won’t get paid those performance bonuses included in your contract. No one I know would be too thrilled about that, and you can bet that A-Rod and Scott Boras wouldn’t be either.

For better or worse, through sickness and through health, the Yankees and A-Rod are stuck with each other for this season and eight more afterward. The Yankees aren’t going to rock that boat by investigating a way out of these contract clauses, and Stark and his sources should know that just as well as the rest of us do.

Rooting for U.S. Steel

In the mid-1950s, when Casey Stengel’s Yankees were doing a whole lot of winning, some bemused and frustrated baseball writer (or executive or player) coined a phrase: “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” This year, as the Yankees are seemingly involved in more off-field controversies than ever before, I am reminded of that phrase but for all of the wrong reasons.

The big story yesterday concerning the Yankees and the way the organization treats its fans focused around confusing communication during Monday’s rain delay. As I reported yesterday, some fans were told by employees that the game was being canceled. When those fans attempted to return, security guards refused to let them in.

In truth, everyone was to blame for that debacle. The fans shouldn’t be leaving without official confirmation from the team, and the team’s employees at the stadium should not be spreading false information about the game. That’s the short of it though. There was an undercurrent to the events on Monday that really bothered me. It goes well beyond a story told in The Times today about a guard who refused to let one fan see someone he knew in another section. At the time of that incident, the only thing on the field was the tarp and some rain.

When a riot nearly erupted outside of Gate 6, a Daily News photographer happened to be nearby. As he started snapping pictures of the brewing dispute, Yankee Stadium security guards threatened him with a revocation of his press credential if he did not vacate the scene. That’s a pretty egregious abuse of power.

The rain delay melee overshadowed what, on any other day, would have been a fairly shocking column by Bob Raissman’s mustache. The Daily News columnist is known more for his facial hair and outrageous opinions than anything else, but his column on the Yankees’ heavy hand in the stadium is well worth our attention.

Basically, members of the media are pretty unhappy with the way the Yankees are treating the press at the new park. The team has jacked up the park-and-power fees and live broadcast fees by 300-400 percent. The Yankees are trying to charge networks $12,000 per game, up from $3000 at the old park, just to broadcast. The team is jamming internal communications frequencies and isn’t allowing off-duty broadcasters into media-only areas that go unused.

According to Raissman, even Paul O’Neill was hassled by security. The beloved ex-Yankee was watching the Yanks take BP when a security guard told him he couldn’t loiter by the indoor cages. What an odd turn of events.

Having read Jane Heller’s book the Yanks’ efforts to block her access to the team, having seen Yankee officials defend obscenely high ticket prices, exclusionary access to the Stadium and blatant abuses of political power, I feel like I am rooting for some evil version of U.S. Steel. I know some RAB readers will accuse of me of being overly sensitive to the Yanks and buying into some anti-corporate portrayal of the team’s leaders. Still, from stadium issues on down, the Yankee Front Office has been rubbing me the wrong way this year. They certainly know how to lose a PR battle.

For now, though, I’m going to take solace in the fact that I’m rooting for a baseball club. I don’t need to like what the Yankees media department is doing or how their security forces won’t let fans watch BP from the empty expensive seats three hours before first pitch. I’ll cheer on Joba and Derek, Mo and Mark and hope they do well. Maybe as the Yanks win, the Front Office will relax and just let baseball happen as it should. We all like control, but at some point, overbearing control and security just become too much.

An A-Rodian ‘What If?’

No one elicits more back-and-forth in the Boston/New York debate that A-Rod. During the winter of 2003-2004, A-Rod was thrust into the spotlight when he was nearly traded to Boston and then was actually acquired by the Yanks. Since then, A-Rod has, rather undeservedly, come to embody the last five seasons’ worth of futile (by their standards) seasons for the Yanks. With the Yanks up in Beantown for a three-game set, Gordon Edes decided to play the “What If?” game with A-Rod. What if, he asks, A-Rod had actually landed with the Red Sox?

His answer is particularly absurd. Apparently, had A-Rod and Magglio landed in Boston in 2004, replacing Manny and Nomar Garciaparra, life would have turned out differently. The Red Sox would have won everything, and A-Rod would be the toast of Boston. The Sox would still have Hanley Ramirez, and the Fenway Faithful would have cheered A-Rod this Opening Day following Sports Illustrated’s PED revelations.

Edes’ best line though is this about A-Rod’s potential 2008 press conference :

After the press conference in which A-Rod tearfully spoke of how sorry he was and vowed that for every home run he would hit, he would make a donation to the Taylor Hooton fund, Red Sox fans gave him a standing ovation on opening day.

Somehow, by landing in Boston, A-Rod would have been able to put away his personal tendency to insert his foot into his mouth, and he would have been something more than aloof, socially-awkward superstar. He’d be an entirely different person. “A-Rod basked in the attention,” Edes writes, “but surrounded by outsized personalities like Ortiz and Damon, Pedro Martinez and Schilling, there was plenty to go around.”

Edes’ piece is an exercise in absurdity. A-Rod will be A-Rod wherever he goes. He’ll be the highest paid player of the game and among the top performers. He’ll be an offensive force and a tabloid sensation. He’ll be the guy who should just stop talking sometimes and the whipping boy for everyone else. In Boston, in New York, in Texas, it’s always A-Rod, and no destination five years ago would have changed that.