Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Game 107: On The Way Home

Last night's win combined with the Red Sox 12th inning loss assured that the Yankees would be in first place by at least a half of a game when their 4 game set begins tomorrow. It would certainly be nice to win tonight as well, guaranteeing a lead of either 1.5 or 2.5 games, but that doesn't seem like a very likely proposition given who they are sending to the hill.

Tonight marks Stage Four of the Sergio Mitre experiment. His earned run totals have progressively increased (3, 4, 5) while his innings have decreased (5.2, 5, 3). Both of those trends are headed in the wrong direction, and he's got a 7.90 ERA.

His peripheral stats tell a different story, though. He hasn't walked too many batters (3 in 13 2/3 IP), given up only one home run and his .418 BABIP would suggest that he's been unlucky with the distribution of his hits. No one had high expectations for Mitre, but giving up 5 runs in three innings like he did in his last outing against the White Sox is a surefire way to earn a ticket back to the farm. If the Yanks defense has another night like the one they did behind Andy Pettitte, perhaps the Serg can cobble together 5 or 6 innings and keep the Yanks in the ballgame.

The Blue Jays counter with Marc Rzepczynski, a rookie with 6 Major League starts under his belt, none against the Yankees. The man of few vowels has a 3.25 ERA, but only one win partially because he hasn't thrown more than six innings in any of his starts (and partially because he plays for Toronto). He's averaging almost 19 pitches per inning, so the Yanks could be seeing the Jays bullpen fairly early on tonight if they play their cards right.

In roster news, Cody Ransom was mercifully DFA'd , pointing to the beginning of the end for the "#codyransom" party on Twitter. Ransom did muster 10 RBIs in 86 plate appearances this year but was only hitting .190/.256/.329. To take his place, the legendary Anthony Claggett has been summoned from Scranton. As you may or may not recall, Claggett was the young gentleman who came in for Chien Ming Wang in the 22-4 debacle against the Indians and allowed 8 ER in 1 2/3 innings. He is there presumably as an escape hatch if Mitre continues his descent into Chien Ming Wangdom.

With the toughest match up out of the way last night, the Yanks have a chance to head home from this road trip with a winning record despite dropping three straight to the White Sox. Winning their last three would be a hell of a turnaround. Let's go Yanks.

In a strange game,
I saw myself as you knew me,
When the change came,
And you had a chance to see through me,
Though the other side is just the same,
You can tell my dream is real.

Humpday Linkification

It's 3:00 and I haven't come across much of anything worth turning into a post, and unlike Matt I haven't come up with any interesting, original ideas on my own, either. So here we are again with a batch of links to tide you over until tonight's game preview goes up at 5.

From the Yanks:

Tyler Kepner notes that Mariano Rivera converted his 100th save in 104 chances last night. His ERA is under 2 despite being close to 4 in the beginning of May. He's got 10 appearances where he has recorded more than 3 outs this year including three out of his last four. It's great that he can still do it, but you'd think Girardi might want to ease up on the guy a bit...

In related news, FanGraphs says his cutter is only the 4th best in baseball (go to #7)? A.J. Burnett's fastball pales in comparison to his curveball (#11).

Why is Anthony Claggett going to Toronto? (h/t RAB on Twitter) Hopefully Cody Ransom is getting DFA'd and no one is hurt (Aceves?)...

Joel Sherman praises the additions of Eric Hinkse and Jerry Hairston, Jr. for adding much needed depth to the Yankee bench. He also wonders if Mark Melancon's role will increase as the pennant race heats up.

Michael Safino of SNY says the Yanks shouldn't shut Joba down. He says the Verducci Effect is "anti-science", but the Yankee Universe is quick to point out that Major League teams aren't asking Verducci for his opinion.

Chad Jenninngs extols the value of patience while PeteAbe tells us to enjoy the moment.

Joba's Mom is in trouble again.

Around the MLB:

The Jose Veras experiment didn't go so well for the Indians...

This article claims that AT&T Park has the most expensive beers in the MLB. Newsflash, you have to pay more than $8.75 for a 20oz beer at the New Yankee Stadium. Want proof? (h/t HowFresh) $10 for a souvenir cup. They should have consulted me, I know these things.

Has John Henry finally taken my advice and stopped Twittering?

"Blew Jays", heh.

I'm afraid Prince Fielder might be a little nuts.

New York Football Giants:

Eli Manning is about to be the highest paid player in the NFL. Really? Did he tell them he was going to pack up his lunchbox and leave if he wasn't? Who else is going to pay him $106.7M over seven years? It didn't make sense to me back in January and it still doesn't.

P.S. If you want to keep tabs on every dropped pass and made field goal that happens at training camp, read Ralph Vacchiano's ridiculously comprehensive Blue Screen blog.

On The Defensive

It seems we've had an awful lot of defensive talk of late. Yesterday we looked at the relative scooping skills of Jason Giambi and Mark Teixeira. Derek Jeter's defensive renaissance this year has been well-documented to the point that even if he were to go in the tank with leather for the rest of the season the overwhelming public perception would be that he had a great year with the glove.

Given all the defensive talk, I suppose it's appropriate that when I took a little mental break at work yesterday at hit the "random page" link on I wound up on the page summarizing the 1935 American League defensive statistics. The Yankees gave up the fewest runs per game that year (4.24) in part due to finishing third in fielding percentage and first in defensive efficiency. It wasn't enough to overcome Detroit's herculean offense, and the Yanks finished 3 games back.

As I've stated, I'm not entirely sold on defensive metrics yet for a number of reasons. They can be a bit misleading as well - witness the 2009 Seattle Mariners: last in the AL in fielding percentage, but first in defensive efficiency. What's going on here? Is Safeco surpressing HRs that much? Do they have that many fly ball pitchers on staff that a disproportionately large percentage of batted balls are being turned into outs? I'm not sure.

Back to 1935 though. Continuing my little mental break, I sorted the list of fielders by range factor per game (A + PO /Innings * 9). Not surprisingly, first basemen and catchers topped the list. What did surprise me is that the next most prominent position on the list was not the hallowed shortstop position, but second base, as eight of the top eleven middle infielders played second base as their primary position.

This seems very odd to me. Shortstop has long been considered the most important defensive position in the infield. So why then would the seemingly inferior second base position appear to have greater range?

Wondering if this was an anomaly specific to that year, or that era, later on I looked at 2009 statistics. This year, AL second basemen have a range factor of 4.4555 while AL shortstops are at 4.3928, a difference of more than 9% (calculated with the raw PO and A values). In a single game, the average second baseman would be involved in 0.07 additional fielding plays, but through play Monday, second basemen had participated in 591 more fielding plays over the course of the season.

So why is this? I thought it might be a result of a double play bias, with perhaps the second baseman being the pivot on a disproportionate quantity of double plays, thereby doubling up on his range factor. This may have something to do with it, as second basemen have a 587 to 415 edge in times as a doubleplay relay man. Without considering 6-6-3 and the rare 4-4-3 double plays, this would appear to account for only 172 of the 591 plays.

What of the rest? Well given the predominance of right handed hitters, it could be that second basemen are covering the bag more on stealing attempts, padding their PO numbers. American League catchers have thrown out 307 runners at second base this year. So even if second basemen recorded every single one of those putouts, that and the double plays would still only cover 479 of the 591 plays.

What about outfield relays? AL second basemen have 70 relay assists to the shortstops' 58. That still doesn't cover it.

I'm really perplexed on this one. Granted, range factor isn't as evolved as other defensive metrics. But why does it appear here that second basemen are more involved defensively than their keystone counterparts? Is is the shorter throw to first leading to fewer errors? Is it that shortstops make more errors (184 to 109 through Monday) thereby reducing their range factor? Any ideas Fackers?

In Appreciation Of Andy Pettitte

Last night's eighth and ninth innings featured huge home runs by the Yankee bats and a bit of a high wire act from the previously untouchable bullpen duo of Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera. But prior to Johnny Damon launching his third career HR against Roy Halladay, it was a classic pitcher's duel.

After allowing two quick runs in the first, Roy Halladay started pitching like the best pitcher in the AL again, shutting the Yanks down until the eighth inning. But Andy Pettitte, enjoying a second half renaissance that's the polar opposite of his 2008 second half, was more than up to the task. He's not the horse that can go the distance anymore, but when he handed the ball to Phil Hughes with two outs in the seventh, Pettitte had done all that could have been asked of him and more.

As I drove to work Monday morning, I was thinking of Andy Pettitte. Why, I'm not quite sure. I mean I think about baseball constantly it seems, but why Pettitte popped into my mind at that point I don't know. What occured to me about Pettitte is that he is now in his fifteenth Major League season. I was conscious of the fact that he debuted in 1995, but it never quite dawned on me just how long ago that was.

I can remember Pettitte coming up through the system. I probably first heard of him on Yankees Magazine or something. When the 1994 strike hit, I did my best to satisfy my baseball jones by keeping up with the Yankees' minor leaguers through the now-defunct Baseball Weekly. I remember being impressed with his stats on his way to a 14-4, 2.86 ERA season split between AA and AAA. I remember arguing with my father as to whether the name was pronounced "PET-it" or "peh-TEE-tee". (I was right).

When Pettitte arrived in New York the next spring, he immediately reminded me of Ron Guidry: a homegrown, Louisiana-born lefty, his #46 reminiscient of Guidry's #49. Like Gator, Pettitte kicked off his career working out of the pen, before transitioning to the rotation early in his rookie year. Like Guidry, Pettitte had immense success early in his career. Louisiana Lightning turned in his remarkable 25-3 1.78 year in his second full season, winning the Cy Young Award. Pettitte went 21-8 in his second season, finishing second in Cy Young voting. Both pitchers made post-season appearances in their first two seasons, and both quickly established themselves as big time playoff performers.

Perhaps my comparison is a bit strained. Pettitte is a big workhorse at 6'5" 235, Guidry was a slight 5'11" 162, athletic enough to be routinely used as a pinch runner and occassional centerfielder. Guidry was a classic fastball/slider guy, Pettitte has used an arsenal of fastballs and curveballs and cutters and sinkers. But at the time I began following the Yanks, though he was a shadow of his former self, Louisiana Lightning was the gold standard by which modern Yankee pitchers were judged. He was the Yankee Captain. He was the franchise's greatest pitcher since Whitey Ford. He was the man who turned in the historic 1978 season, who had the famous 18 strikeout game against the Angels, who picked up the win in the Bucky Dent game.

I guess what struck me as I drove to work Monday is that Pettitte's career, and even his Yankee career, has now lasted longer than Guidry's. Guidry seemed to me like an ancient relic of another time, the last link to Bronx Zoo years and the 1977-78 championship teams, when he announced his retirement in July 1989. Twenty years after that, Pettitte is the greatest Yankee starter since Ford, and sits in Guidry's company in several categories on the all-time Yankee leader board. And perhaps that says as much about me getting older as it does about Pettitte's career being older than I realized.

Andy Pettitte has had an underappreciated career. Beloved by the fan base but quiet and yeoman-like in his work, he's been perpetually overshadowed, whether it be by more colorful aces in David Cone and David Wells, the Legend of Roger Clemens, or high profile international free agents Orlando Hernandez and Hideki Irabu.

Four times in his Yankee career he's finished in the top six in Cy Young voting, yet his best finishes (2nd in '96 and 4th in '00) were built on the strength of his win totals, while his best Yankee seasons in terms of ERA+ were '97 (5th in voting) and '02 (DNF). While playing in Houston, his teammate Roger Clemens won the 2004 Cy Young and finished 8th in the MVP voting by going 18-4 with a 146 ERA+ and 1.16 WHIP. The next year Pettitte went 17-9 with a 177 ERA+ and 1.03 WHIP and finished 5th in the Cy Young and 24th in the MVP voting.

Pettitte has also been undervalued by the Yankees organization. As The Yankee Years detailed, he was nearly dealt at the 1999 trade deadline and departed as a free agent after the 2003 season when the Yankees mustered only a half-hearted effort to retain him. Even this past offseason, as the Yankees (rightly) took a hard line on their negotiations with Pettitte, the situation took on a slight air of inappreciativeness.

Pettitte has flirted with retirement in each of the last three offseasons. I imagine this year will bring much of the same. But my gut tells me this is Andy's last hurrah, so I'm going to try sit back and enjoy it as much as I can. I've never been particularly fond of pitchers, their occassional and often unpredictable playing making it difficult to grow attached to them. But if I can put aside strict statistical analysis for a moment, Pettitte is exactly the type of pitcher I love to watch: not necessarily dominant, but a guy who attacks hitters, doesn't nibble, doesn't pitch afraid, doesn't complain, and one who seemingly always takes the ball, always answers the bell, and has a knack for coming up big on the big stage. He's had his rough patches this year and has been vocal in his criticism of the new Stadium. But he's also been on a tear since the All-Star break, outdueling the League's best pitcher last night and posting a 2.36 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 29:7 K:BB over 26.2 IP in his last four starts. That's vintage Pettitte, and given Joba's inning limit and the fifth starter situation that sort of performance from Pettitte will be much needed down the stretch.

A New Hope

Good morning Fackers. Please forgive the fact that the Star Wars dork in me is making an appearance this morning. Last night was a good one for the Yanks. Minutes after they topped the best pitcher in the league, the Yanks caught a break down in St. Petersburg, as an eighth inning leadoff home run from Evan Longoria knotted the Rays and Sawx at two. Despite chances for both teams in the intervening innings, the score remained the same until the Rays ended it in the 13th, using another longball from Mrs. Tony Parker.

The Yankee win coupled with the Sox loss puts the Yanks up 1.5 games in the AL East, ensuring that no matter what happens tonight the Yanks will be in first place on Thursday when the Evil Empire and whatever the Red Sox call themselves commence Episode IV of their 2009 series. But we've seen this before, so I'm going to temper my enthusiasm on this one.

Besides, it isn't those events in St. Petersburg last night that give me hope this morning. Rather, it's what happened hours earlier across Tampa Bay, as Ian Kennedy threw from a half mound at the Yankees minor league complex.

Kennedy was pitching well at AAA Scranton (1.59 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 25:7 K:BB) when numbness in his fingers forced him from his April 27th start. Initially diagnosed as a vasospasm, it was soon discovered to be something far more serious: an aneurysm. He underwent surgery on May 12th, performed by Dr. George Todd, the same surgeon who performed David Cone's 1996 procedure. Kennedy has been rehabbing since late June, but to the best of my knowledge yesterday marks the first time he's thrown. He's slated for another session Friday.

This is of course good news, as Sergio Mitre is currently the Yankees 5th starter and will take the mound in Toronto tonight. Don't get me wrong, it's an extreme longshot. But, Kennedy said he hopes to pitch in a minor league game this season before moving on to the Puerto Rican Winter League. The minor league seasons wrap at the end of this month, so there's a chance, however slim that IPK could get a September call up. Mike Axisa at RAB had a similar thought yesterday.

As a point of reference, Cone had his surgery on May 11th, thirteen years and one day before Kennedy's, and returned to a Major League mound on September 2nd, throwing seven no hit innings before pitch count restrictions forced him from the hill.

I don't know how the specifics of Kennedy's case compare to Cone's, but Cone's recovery seems to indicate that Kennedy could be back this year. The only questions are what damage does Sergio Mitre do in the meantime or what moves do the Yanks make to get him off the hill and make a Kennedy return unnecessary.