Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Game 64: U.S. Blues

Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.

That was the old line about the first and second MLB franchises to call our nation's capital home. The Washington Senators v1.0 (1901-1960) and v2.0 (1961-1971) were a perrenial second division team. In 60 years, the first version managed just three pennants and a single World Championship, despite playing in an eight team league. After the original Senators skipped town to become the Minnesota Twins, the expansion Senators finished last four times and second-to-last three times as they compiled ten losing records in eleven seasons before becoming the Texas Rangers.

Other than the league, not much has changed since the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005. The Nats finished at .500 in 2005, good for their best record thus far, but also good for last place in the NL East that year. Since then, they've posted records of 71-91, 73-89, and 59-102, rising as high as fourth place in 2007.

Tonight, they enter their series with the Yankees at 16-45, playing .262 ball and nearly matching the historically bad pace set by the 1962 New York Mets (40-120, .250). At their current pace, they would have the sixth worst winning percentage since the dawn of the twentieth century.

The franchise is in total disarray. In March, Jim Bowden, General Manager and former Yankee front office employee, resigned in disgrace amid allegations of illegally skimming the signing bonuses of Latin American prospects. The most remarkable part of his four year reign of terror was that he acquired a lot of players he used to have in Cincinnati. Good for you Jim.

In the dugout, manager Manny Acta is day-to-day. Not as in injured, as in employed. Various reports are circulating that it's a matter of when, not if, he'll be fired. It may well come during this series, and Acta may well just stay in New York. I agree with Pete Abe that Acta will be the Mets' manager by the start of next year at the latest. Jerry Manuel's act, like K-Rod's, is getting tired. Acta was a coach with the Mets before taking the Nats' job, and he is still thought highly of wthin the organization.

On the field, the Nats are actually swinging the bats well. As a team, they're hitting .259/.344/.410 and all three marks are above the NL averages of .257/.333/.405. On the mound however, it's another story. The Nats are last in the NL in runs per game, ERA, WHIP, H/9, BB/9, and K/BB, and by a significant margin in most of those categories. Opponents are hitting .279/.362/.451 against them, dead last in BA and OBP against, and second to last in SLG, trailing Philly's bandbox staff by just 0.004.

The fire sale will start soon. Everyone save for Ryan Zimmerman is available. There's not much to pick at on the pitching staff: Ron Villone may be a good LOOGY for someone; John Lannan is too young and left-handed to come cheaply. They do have some bats to deal: Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Elijah Dukes, and former Yankee farm hands Christian Guzman and Nick Johnson. Rumors say Nick the Stick could find himself back in New York with the Mets or back in the AL East with Boston. Regardless of whatever haul the Nats pull for these parts, it's going to be a years-long road back to respectability, even if Stephen Strasburg proves to be everything Scott Boras says he is.

So with ace CC Sabathia taking the mound tonight against Shairon Martis and his career 84 ERA+, this should be a slam dunk. Which is exactly why I'm worried, particularly with CMW slated to go tomorrow. They need to beat up on the pitcher with a lady's name tonight.

Brian Bruney will be activated for tonight's game. If Tomko is DFA'd I'll be overjoyed; if Veras is I'll be satisfied. But if David Robertson finds his way back to Scranton I'm going to lose it.

Enjoy the game, and the vintage video below.

Back-to-back chicken shack
Son of gun better change your act
We're all confused. What's to lose?
You can call this song the United States Blues

The Pitchers And Posada

As Joba Chamberlain has a way of doing, his disagreements with Jorge Posada during their last outing sparked a lot of debate as to whether he should be listening to the veteran backstop. This in turn caused some writers to question whether pitchers in general like throwing to Posada and look into how the staff as a whole performs with him behind the plate.

Here's what some local scribes have to say:

Now, I have long been a huge supporter of Posada the catcher, including defending him in his own clubhouse. Over the years, I have heard plenty of off-the-record snipes from pitchers who did not particularly like Posada's game-calling intellect or the lack of soft hands and finesse that enables a catcher to frame pitches well and steal strikes.


The theory on Posada always has been that he so often had such a huge offensive edge over his catching counterpart that whatever he gave away on defense was more than offset by his bat. But I sense that separation is narrowing. Besides, the Yanks have other bats now to honor better defense behind the plate, especially because the Yankees invested so heavily in their rotation to try to become more of a pitching/defense team.

When you also factor in that preserving Posada's body and bat are most critical now, I think it becomes obvious that, overall, the team is better with him DHing more and catching less.
Enough of this nonsense. The Yankees won three World Series championships with Jorge Posada as their regular catcher and made the playoffs every year with him catching. Then what happened last season? Posada barely played and the Yankees went home in October.

Was that why? I can’t prove that. No more so than anybody can prove that Posada is the reason A.J. Burnett can’t throw strikes.

The idea that a catcher can regularly steal strikes by framing a pitch is largely a myth according to Molina. “Maybe once or twice a game,” he said. “Depends on the umpire.”

According to Molina, the umpires are judging where the ball crosses the plate, not where the catcher’s glove is.
One unsettling fact for the Yankees is the difference when Jorge Posada catches. With Posada behind the plate, the Yankees’ pitchers have a 6.31 E.R.A. The combined E.R.A. with Francisco Cervelli, Jose Molina and Kevin Cash is 3.81.

Posada has caught four starts by Chien-Ming Wang, whose job status is now evaluated on a game-by-game basis. Even removing those starts, the staff’s E.R.A. with Posada is still high, at 5.47.

When he lost a six-run lead in Boston in April, Burnett questioned the pitch selection, though he blamed himself, not Posada. Asked Sunday about the difference in pitching to the rookie Cervelli, Burnett gave a careful but revealing answer.

“I think it’s just a matter of — I don’t know if it’s the catcher — but we threw curveballs in fastball counts, we had them looking for something and they had no idea what was coming, I don’t think,” Burnett said. “That’s huge.”
The difference between a 5.47 and 3.81 ERA is also huge. Bigger than Posada could hope to make up when he's in the batter's box over the long run. Catcher's ERA isn't a perfect measure and when most of CC Sabathia's and Joba Chamberlain's starts are caught by guys other than Jorge, that starts to explain the difference. We don't deal in alternate realities, so it's impossible to compare how a pitcher would have waded through identical line-ups on the same day with different catchers. But 1.66 runs is a wide margin.

My sense watching the Yanks is that Molina especially, is a much better game caller than Posada. He seems to get shaken off less often and the Yankees' pitchers have a 2.80 K/BB ratio when he is behind the plate this year as opposed to Posada's 1.42. tOPS for the staff is 82 for Molina, 91 for Cervelli and 114 for Posada, meaning that hitters are producing well below their averages when the first two are catching and significantly above when Posada is back there.

I agree with Sherman in that the advantage created by Jorge's offense is narrowing. Is he still a better option than the other two catchers to take behind the plate? If he makes the staff's ERA even one full run higher, you'd have a hard time making that case.

This isn't to say that Jorge isn't still far better than most catchers in the league. Even with Molina on the DL and the risk that Cervelli could turn into a pumpkin at any second, the Yankees are lucky to have three above average catchers with very diverse skill sets.

Pete Abe, wrap it up for us, would you?
I will say this: When Molina comes off the DL, the Yankees should seriously consider keeping Cervelli around as a third catcher. That would enable Posada to DH more often. Cervelli is also fast enough to be used a pinch runner on occasion. I can’t imagine how Cervelli would not be more useful than Angel Berroa.

Revisting Centerfield

On April 27th, during the 19th game of the season, Melky Cabrera wrested the starting centerfield job away from Brett Gardner. Despite the early juncture in the season, it was a justifiable and needed change. At that point in time, Gardner was hitting just .220/.254/.271 through 65 PA compared to .303/.378/.667 for Melky in 37 PA. The sample sizes were small, but the difference was stark enough to warrant the move.

Melky would go on to start 20 of the next 27 games in center, his run ended by the shoulder injury suffered in Texas on May 26th. Of the seven starts Brett Gardner made during that time, six of them saw Cabrera in either right or left, subbing for Swisher or Damon.

I think the perception of the centerfield situation right now is that Melky is head and shoulders above Gardner, the thought buoyed by the slew of big hits Melky has had already this year. And we can't be anything but happy with the season Melky has compiled thus far.

But, a look at the numbers may surprise you. Melky has swooned a bit of late, though not nearly as badly as he did after his hot start in 2008. Meanwhile, Gardner seems to have figured things out somewhat. Since his famed visit to Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital on May 15th, Gardner has hit .346/.424/.462.

As it stands now for 2009:

Gardner: 149 PA - .276/.354/.386 - 96 OPS+ - 26 R - 15 BB - 19 K - 11 of 13 SB

Cabrera: 198 PA - .294/.344/.444 - 107 OPS+ - 26 R - 14 BB - 27 K - 4 of 6 SB

That's much closer than I thought it would be. Melky holds a large edge in SLG as you would expect. But, Gardner's recent hot streak and Melky's four walks in the last month have swung the OBP pendulum in Gardner's favor. Also surprising (to me at least) is the edge Melky has in UZR/150, 10.0 to 7.0.

I'm not suggesting that any change be made, but I was surprised in looking at the numbers. Seeing as the CF will be batting ninth in the usual Yankee line-up, you could argue that Gardner's OBP and speed combination offers a more compelling option.

Regardless, both are outplaying the average AL centerfielder, which currently has a collective line of .259/.327/.399. Gardner's recent play may warrant more frequent starts. If he could sustain his performance at something close to his current levels, it could be a good way to keep an aging and banged-up Johnny Damon fresh as the season progresses.

Weekend Pissing Match Round Up

The 2009 Yankees have taken to passing around a replica WWE Championship Belt to the player of the game after each victory, and the wrasslin' mentality seems to be taking hold. In a week that saw the Yankees face the two teams that the media loves to portray as their biggest rivals, we saw three separate "feuds" play out through the media.

First up is Joe Girardi and Brad Penny. Penny started the series finale on Thursday. A-Rod came to the plate in the first inning with two outs and Derek Jeter on third base. Penny came way inside on the first pitch, came back with a strike, then plunked A-Rod on the third pitch. I thought it was intentional and I didn't have a problem with it. There have been plenty of plunked batters between these teams in recent years. Joba has drawn the ire of the Sox in much the same way that Pedro used to with the Yankees. I figured this was coming.

Back at the Stadium on Friday, Joe Girardi was asked if he thought Penny hit A-Rod on purpose, He responded in the affirmative. Penny fired back on Saturday saying he could "give two f---s" what Girardi thinks and criticized Girardi for waiting to get back to New York to say anything about it. Chances are Brad Penny isn't even with the Sox by the time these teams meet next in August, but I'm sure we'll see a few more guys wind up in the dirt.

Also coming out of the Yanks-Sox rivlary is Twittergate, in which John Henry intimated that the Yankees are cursed by Mark Teixeira spurning the Sox and signing with the Yanks. This apparently pissed Teixeira off and he spouted off to the media about it a bit. For the record, Twitter is stupid; I see no point to it at all. Oh, and be sure to follow Fack Youk on Twitter.

I peg Teix as the prototypical Boras client. He's like roboballplayer. He plays well; he wears a constant look of intense focus; speaks to the media entirely in cliches and platitudes; and of course, took the contract with the greatest dollar amount. So I find it somewhat surprising that Teix rocked the boat twice last week, with Henry and in confronting noted drunk Rick Sutclife regarding an accusation he made about Teix and A-Rod tipping pitches. I can see him taking issue with the Sutcliffe thing because in that he has a former player accusing him of impropriety between the lines. But Henry? Just let it go Mark. Why give him the satisfaction?

I guess I had Teix figured wrong. Last week's incidents come on the heels of his outbursts earlier this season directed at Carlos Gomez and Vicente Padilla. Teix is getting booed in Baltimore for not signing there; he's booed in Boston for not signing there; and he'll likely be booed in Atlanta and Anaheim later this year. I suppose he should be thankful that the Nationals' series is at home. Keep booing him people; we'll probably see Teix tear off someone's arms and beat him to death with them before the season's over.

Last but not least is the well-documented Brian Bruney/K-Rod flap that nearly resulted in a good-old-fashioned donnybrook during BP Sunday. I completely agree with everything Brian Bruney said. K-Rod is an asshole who celebrates every save as if he just closed out the seventh game of the World Series by striking out the clean-up hitter with the tying run on third. He needs to tone his act down or have it toned down for him.

That said, Bruney was out of line. He offered up his opinion completely unprovoked after his rehab appearance in Trenton. Right or wrong, there was no need for him to say it. By the time he made it back to the Stadium, it was a big story, as it proceeded from Mike Ashmore to Pete Abraham and mushroomed from there. K-Rod claimed he didn't even know who Bruney was. The media got more fodder from both post-game. Then, K-Rod, who must have figured out who Bruney was overnight, had some choice in-your-face words for him during batting practice Sunday. Which in turn, kind of proved Bruney's point that K-Rod's a bit of a hot-headed prima donna.

Got all that? Let's hope this week is a little more uneventful. With any luck, the guys didn't spend their off night watching Monday Night Raw and coming up with ideas for this week's battles.