Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Game 133: Hot House

In the first inning of last night's game, A.J. Burnett left a pitch out over the plate that Felix Pie drove the opposite way for his third homer in as many games and 4th in his last 5. Burnett was none too pleased and made the hand gesture shown above in Pie's direction as he was rounding the bases. Burnett later claimed that he said "That's the way to hit a spot" to himself, but to my untrained eye it sure looked like he said something to the effect of "That motherfucker?", in disbelief that he would give up the homer to Pie, of all people. I think the facial expression above sort of speaks for itself.

Baltimore broadcaster Gary Thorne agreed, describing it as referring "to [Pie] in a way that would have upset Pie's entire family, especially on the maternal side". Regardless of what Burnett actually said, some members of the Orioles coaching staff didn't take too kindly to it and informed Pie when he got back in the dugout.

In the top of the 8th, Matt Albers and Nick Swisher exchanged some words, after Swisher struck out on a pitch that was well off the plate inside. According to PeteAbe, Albers suggested that he should have swung at it, and Swish is still pretty ticked off about the incident and not opposed to retaliating.

The Orioles have already been mathematically eliminated from winning the division and with a rookie pitcher like Jason Berken on the mound, it isn't too difficult to envision a scenario where a Yankee batter gets plunked in the early going and things get ugly. Berken hasn't been good this year, tallying a 6.33 ERA in 91 innings since being called up at the end of May, so it's not like he's going to tell the team "no" if he's told to take action.

CC Sabathia, on the other hand, has every reason to stay above the fray. He had notched 5 straight victories in a row before getting a no-decision after a solid 7 innings of two run ball against the White Sox last Friday. His ERA is as low as it has been since the beginning of June and he looks to carry his dominant August over into September with a long outing tonight.

The Yanks don't need any suspensions, or worse, injuries resulting from the fact that the O's have nothing to play for right now and nothing better to do than pick fights. Our boys most certainly do have stuff left to play for. Namely completing a sweep of The Birds on their home turf.

Here's to hoping that cooler heads prevail if things get a little heated this evening.

The Fight For The Two Spot

I'm aware that assigning numerical values to the Yankee starting pitchers is largely an exercise in futility. Aside from determining the order they begin the year in (which isn't always the case), the hierarchy is largely meaningless throughout the regular season. Every team's rotation gets jumbled up based on off days and suspensions and rainouts over the course of the season, so relatively early on you're getting match ups where one team's "#1" squares off against another's "#4" and so forth.

Once the postseason nears though, the ranking takes on a whole new importance. Questions arise about the postseason rotation and who will start what game in the ALDS. Max Kellerman used to argue that Game 2 was actually the most pivotal game of a 5 game series because it always swings the series between 1-1 and 2-0, either pulling one team back to even or putting them on the brink of elimination.

Since Kellerman's theory is a bit radical, I think we can safely assume that Joe Girardi is going to attempt to line up his rotation with his best pitcher starting Game 1 and so on. Since only three games are guaranteed, it also matters who the top three pitches are. It's clear that CC Sabathia slots in at the top of the rotation and Joba Chamberlain would be their 4th starter. So the question comes down to Burnett vs. Pettitte for the number two slot.

NoMaas makes the case for Pettitte and it's hard to argue against it. Pettitte has been on a better run recently and his numbers for the season are stronger as well. Both have made 27 starts and you might be surprised to learn that Burnett has pitched only 2 1/3 more innings than Pettitte with each averaging just under 6 1/3 each time out. Pettitte has a better ERA, WHIP, FIP, K/BB, HR/9. Burnett leads in quality starts 18 to 15 (fairly significant) and has struck out more per 9 IP while allowing fewer hits, but has walked one more per 9 (which is how his WHIP is worse).

It's worth noting that on June 20th, their ERAs were almost exactly the same (4.24 and 4.26) but Burnett proceeded to go on a run that saw his drop to 3.53 at one point while Pettitte's rose as high as 4.85. Burnett's great stretch was better than anything Pettitte has done this season and the reality is that upside is always tantalizing in sports.

Burnett has never pitched in the postseason (he was injured with the 2003 Marlins) and Pettitte has thrown 218 1/3 playoff innings to a 3.98 ERA over the course of 25 series.

Moshe at the Yankees Universe introduces another interesting factor: home/road splits. Oddly, although Burnett is the righty of the two, he has better numbers at Yankee Stadium while Pettitte has done his best work on the road, with a roughly 1.3 run difference in ERA in both directions. If the Yanks hang on to win the division, Game 2 will be at home. Jason from Heartland Pinstripes would prefer to give Burnett the start if this turns out to be the case.

It will be interesting to see how heavily Joe Girardi weights September performance into the equation. With about 5 or 6 starts remaining for each, much can change. If the ALDS started five days from now, I'd probably go with Pettitte. If Burnett has a decent September I'd probably choose him. Either way, every start in the postseason is important and the Yanks are lucky to have guys as good as those two jockeying for position.

Are Throws To First A Waste Of Time?

You know the scene. The Yankees are on the road, it's late in the game and the opposing team puts a speedster on base. The pitcher throws over to first once, the runner retreats safely. He throws over again and it's not even close this time. The crowd starts to boo. And a third time. The boos get louder.

Even as a fan of the team throwing to first, I sometimes get annoyed with the process. It breaks up the flow of the game, it seemingly never works, and yet teams continually do it. Is it actually effective as a tactic or is it another practice in baseball that's done because it's always been done?

As of late June (can't find more recent stats), both Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett were near the top of the league in pick-off attempts. Burnett had a game this year against the Angels in which he threw to first base 24 times in 7 innings. They do get results though, as Pettitte is tied for the AL lead with 8 pickoffs this year while Burnett is not too far behind with 5. However, Burnett has more pickoffs where the runner was tagged out diving back to first base (4) than Pettite (3), probably because runners are more wary of Andy's move. Five of Pettitte's PO's were of the variety that CC Sabathia recorded against Jacoby Ellsbury last Sunday Night in which the runner was going on motion and got caught stealing.

We all know that pickoffs are pretty rare. Pettitte has allowed 178 runners to reach first base this year via single, walk or HBP and has nabbed less than 5% of them, or fewer than one every 3 starts. Much of the time the throws to the base are called from the bench and it's not especially close. You essentially never see a runner picked off the second time the pitches tosses over to first base.

But yet it's still done. Does it have a purpose even if they aren't catching the runners getting too greedy with their lead very often?

John Dewan says yes (h/t BBTF). When looking at data from 2002-2009, they've found that a runner's stolen base percentage actually does decrease when one throw to first base has been made. It goes down slightly with each throw after that, but not significantly. Check out his post for the numbers.

Runners steal at a 65% clip against Pettitte and Burnett which means the league is ineffective by sabermetric standards at swiping with them on the mound. Whether we like it or not, all those throws to to first base do serve a purpose (besides just slowing down the game).

Pondering What Might Have Been

Last week, the media and the blogosphere dedicated a lot of time to marking the twenty year anniversary of Pete Rose agreeing to a lifetime ban from baseball in the face of overwhelming evidence that he gambled on the game and gambled on his own team. ESPN showed an Outside the Lines piece that actually managed to humanize the insufferable Joe Morgan, who was literally moved to tears over his frustration with the arrogance and stubbornness his friend and former teammate has carried himself with in these last two decades.

This post isn't intended to wade into the quagmire that is the Rose debate. Rather, it's to point out that yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of former Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, the other principal character in the Greek tragedy that is the Rose banishment. The anniversary of the death of Rose's baseball career passed with much fanfare. The anniversary of the death of Giamatti passed with nary a whisper.

Baseball lends itself to stories and fables and legends and hyperbole. That's the way it's always worked, particularly with the media. As such, the legend goes that the toll of the Dowd Report and the Rose ban killed Giamatti just eight days after the suspension was announced. The truth of the matter is Giamatti was overweight, smoked heavily, and suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. I'm sure the stress of the summer of 1989 weighed heavily upon Giamatti, but it certainly wasn't the only cause of his tragic and untimely death.

Last night, as I drove past the sign for the Giamatti Little League Center on my way to my hockey game, I thought about what might have been had Giamatti not died less than a year into his tenure as Commissioner. Several others have had similar thoughts of late. Rose and his camp insist that Giamatti would have granted Rose reinstatement over time. Fay Vincent, who served as Giamatti's Deputy Commissioner and played a major role in the Rose investigation, insists that never would have happened.

In February, following the Alex Rodriguez steroid admission, Yale Magazine ran a piece from Giamatti friend and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. It implied that Giamatti was planning to tackle drug testing head on after the Rose situation was settled, and suggested that perhaps the PED scandal of the last twenty years could have been avoided had Giamatti been successful. And maybe Giamatti would have made an impact. He had the backing of the owners. He had taken a hard line against a union before in his days as Yale President. He had gained a reputation as a disciplinarian in his time as National League President, handing down heavy suspensions to Rose for an ump bump and Dodgers reliever (and former Yankee) Jay Howell for applying pine tar to a ball during the NLCS. But we'll never know if Giamatti would have taken on drug testing nor how successful he would have been.

As for me, I wonder how other things would have played out had Giamatti lived to serve a full term. Would Fay Vincent still have been named his successor? If so, would he have been as overmatched in that role had he been able to spend more than just a few months working in Major League Baseball first? Would the owners still have forced him out? Could the Bud Selig era have been avoided? How about the 1994 strike? The Wild Card and divisional realignment? Would the ridiculous All-Star Game/homefield advantage policy still be in place? Would baseball have expanded twice more? Would contraction have even been discussed? Would the Nationals still be in Montreal? Would the Giants or White Sox have moved to St. Petersburg after all? Would revenue sharing have been put in place sooner? Would it not have been put in place at all?

Recent Yankee history might have been much different as well. In February 1990, Fay Vincent handed George Steinbrenner a lifetime ban for his hiring of gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield and his foundation. The ban was lifted three years later, after Vincent had been forced out of office and Steinbrenner friend Bud Selig was the acting Commissioner. Would Giamatti have handed down the same sentence? If so would he have reinstated Steinbrenner at any point?

It's all useless conjecture, but it's also intriguing to wonder what might have been. While Rose, Vincent, and Thornburgh all knew Giamatti to some extent, none of them can truly know what he would have done had he served longer as Commissioner, and neither do I. What we do know is that Bart Giamatti died too soon, and it was baseball's loss. It's unfortunate that the baseball media didn't see fit to remember that yesterday.

Morning News and Notes

Good morning Fackers. Happy Humpday. Let's get over the hill with some news and notes:
  • Chad Gaudin will take Sergio Mitre's turn in the rotation and start Thursday's series opener in Toronto. As you may recall, Mitre was spinning a gem in his start last Saturday when he took an A.J. Pierzynski liner off his throwing arm in the seventh. No word on yet on when Mitre will be available again.

  • It's worth mentioning that Joba Chamberlain's next start will be Friday, in the game after Gaudin's spot start. Given the latest Joba plan, I wouldn't expect Joba to go more than three or four innings Friday. Since August 1st, Gaudin has made just 6 appearances covering just 17.1 innings. So over two days the Yankees will probably need eight or nine innings out of their pen and Alfredo Aceves is really the only Yankee reliever who can go more than two innings at a time. Thankfully, the Yankees currently have a ten man bullpen due to September call-ups, so they should survive.

  • Speaking of September call-ups, yesterday I wondered why Jonathan Albaladejo wasn't included in the first round of additions. Turns out he took one to the eye while playing catch the other day and is currently day-to-day. He should be up once he's back to full strength.

  • In other minor league news, three Yankees have taken home some hardware. Highly touted catching prospect Austin Romine was named Florida State League (high A) Player of the Year. At AAA, Shelley Duncan was named International League MVP and Austin Jackson was named IL Rookie of the Year.

  • Mark Feinsand of the Daily News tweeted that both Duncan and Jackson will be recalled later this month. Remember, as we discussed yesterday, AJax would have to be added to the currently full 40 man roster first.

  • Brett Gardner took live BP yesterday for the first time since his thumb injury and could begin a minor league rehab assignment as soon as Thursday.

  • Nick Swisher's home run at Camden Yards last night was his fourth in that ballpark in 2009. He also has four at Tropicana Field and three at Comerica Park. Swisher has three home runs at Yankee Stadium this year.

  • Carlos Pena leads the American League with 38 home runs. He has twenty home runs on the road. Nick Swisher is approximately 24th in the AL with 24 home runs. He too has twenty home runs on the road.

  • Jerry Hairston Jr took over in left field as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the seventh last night. In the eighth, he had another defensive misplay, as he let an awkward hop by him, turning a Brian Roberts single into a double. Ken Singleton, calling the game for YES, intended to describe it as an "erractic hop", but initially mispoke, calling it an "erotic hop". Funny, but not quite as good as Michael Kay's "drop a deuce" line earlier this year.

  • The George Steinbrenner Yankeeography premiers tonight following the game.

  • ESPN normally functions as the root of all evil. Yesterday however, they made a gracious move, agreeing to allow the Sunday September 27th game against the Red Sox, to which they have the TV rights, to begin at 1 PM rather than 8 PM to accomodate Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown. No word yet as to whether Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips plan to use the opportunity atone for being a awful announcers.
We'll be back in a bit with more for you.

Yanks Slug Their Way To Another Victory

A.J. Burnett's sub-par August bled over into September last night but the Yankees' offense launched 5 home runs in his defense and the bullpen provided a scoreless 3 2/3 innings to allow the Yankees to take the victory in Camden Yards.

Three of those homers came off of long ball machine David Martinez, two of which were courtesy of Jorge Posada. He and A.J. Burnett clearly didn't combine for a very good outing as battery mates and Jorge twice forgot the count in his at bats. In the second inning he stood the plate waiting for a pitch after ball four was called, and then three innings later he started walking towards the dugout after strike two was called, only to return to the plate to take Hernandez yard two pitches later. He also was nicked with a foul ball in the eighth inning but told Kim Jones he was okay in the postgame interview.

Nick Swisher and Eric Hinkse went back to back in the 7th, the former breaking a 6-6 tie and the latter putting the Yanks up by 3, which turned out to be the decisive margin. Amazingly, Swisher has hit more homers at Camden Yards this year (4) than he has at Yankee Stadium. He was 13 round-trippers at Oriole Park, the most of any park he hasn't called home.

Damaso Marte was the first to come out of the bullpen, throwing a perfect inning spanning from the 6th to the 7th before being replaced by David Robertson. D-Rob is working his way up the bullpen ladder, and has been used more often in high leverage situations as of late. He didn't disappoint tonight, but was lifted after giving up a double to Brian Roberts in the 8th. Phil Coke closed out the frame and Mariano Rivera picked up his second save in as many days, giving him the Major League lead with 38.

I'm sure the Yankees would have preferred a better start from Burnett but the bottom line is that they got away with it. He gave up six runs in 5 1/3 IP, but a whopping 11 of the 25 balls hit in play against Burnett dropped for hits (.423 BABIP). Hopefully he was just unlucky once again. I wouldn't point to Posada's game calling this time around as the cause for the poor performance. It seemed as if they weren't on the same page again but even if that's true, Jorgie more than compensated for it with his bat.

The Red Sox beat the Rays tonight, and the Rangers topped the Blue Jays. With the Rays sitting six games back, it's starting to look more and more like the Wild Card will come down to the Rangers and Sox with 3.5 games currently separating them.