Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Game 2: We Gotta Live Together

Coming off a tough loss in Fenway on Sunday night, the Yankees face an even tougher pitching match up against the Red Sox this evening. The true ace of the Sox staff, 26 year old left hander Jon Lester gets the call this evening while the Yanks counter with A.J. Burnett.

Lester is coming off of two straight seasons with 200+ innings and sub-3.50 ERAs. Although he started one fewer game in 2009 then in '08, Lester recorded 73 more strikeouts, jumping his K/9 from 6.5 to 10.0. Predictably, his FIP dropped almost an entire run from 4.08 to 3.13 as a result. There are a host of other factors of course, but the increased velocity he saw across the board probably helped generate more swings and misses.

During that same span, Lester continued to allow under one hit per inning and walk just under 3 per 9. Despite the dramatic increase in strikeouts, Lester's ERA actually increased a tick from 3.21 to 3.41 based mostly on an increase in his home run rate from an incredible 0.6 to a simply solid 0.9. As a lefty in Fenway, has done an admirable job of keeping the ball in the park, allowing significantly fewer long balls at home than on the road.

In order to combat the southpaw on the mound, Joe Girardi has elected to go with Marcus Thames over Brett Gardner.

Why this makes sense: The Green Monster makes it more likely that Thames' will do more damage on offense and less on defense. The small left field at Fenway means less ground for him to cover in the bottom halves of the innings and large, looming target for doubles and home runs in the tops.

Why it doesn't make sense: If anyone should be sitting against lefties (based on previous track records - which is clearly why Thames is getting the start), it should be Curtis Granderson. Gardner hasn't even had a chance to make a start against a lefty this year and Girardi is already sitting him. There is strong an argument to be made for playing both Granderson and Gardner because each can exploit the soft-throwing Victor Martinez if they get on base.

Perhaps Girardi will give Gardner some chances against lesser lefties or in parks with bigger outfields, but Thames gets his shot tonight.

While it might be advantageous to Thames, Fenway was not kind to Burnett last year as he gave up 22 runs in 12 2/3 innings over three starts. The last one of those was a 5 inning, 9 run shellacking on August 22nd that saw Burnett and Posada clash over pitch selection. Burnett was apparently intent on throwing his curveball while Posada thought the Sox hitters were waiting on it. Whether or not there was real animosity between them, Burnett made six more regular season starts and 5 in the postseason, none of which were caught by Posada.

This season, however, appears to be a different story. Burnett has been working with Posada all throughout Spring Training in an effort to get on the same page. Posada apparently endeared himself to Burnett by staying late to catch a simulated game after A.J.'s scheduled start against the Braves got rained out and together, they've been attempting to refine his changeup.

Burnett and Posada aren't the best match. Burnett's tendency to bury curveballs in the dirt doesn't mix well with Posada's 38 year old body. Apparently they have different ideas about what to throw to which hitters in certain counts. But now they Jose Molina is gone to Toronto, they've gotta do their best to figure it out how they can make their battery combination a successful one.


Jeter SS
Johnson DH
Teixeira 1B
Rodriguez 3B
Cano 2B
Posada C
Swisher RF
Thames LF
Granderson CF

Red Sox:
Ellsbury LF
Pedroia 2B
Martinez C
Youkilis 1B
Ortiz DH
Beltre 3B
Drew RF
Cameron CF
Scutaro 2B

Shorter Yanks vs. Sox Games This Year?

The most common complaint about Yankees vs. Red Sox games - especially from fans of other teams - is that they take too long to complete. Those folks have a point. The average MLB game lasted 2 hours and 52 minutes in 2009 while Yankees games clocked in at 3:08 and Red Sox contests at 3:04. When the teams got together, it took them an average of 3:20 to declare a winner.

Major League Baseball, and in particular Bob Watson who is responsible for standards and on-field operations, has tried to tighten the screws on the teams in an effort to make the games shorter. Watson recently told Business Week, “We’ve created a monster. Will we ever get this under control? I don’t know”. (Of course, he isn't looking to cut back on the amount of time sold to advertisers which necessitates that commercial breaks last about two minutes and thirty seconds each, but that's a different issue for another day).

Might the Yankees and Red Sox have done Watson a favor with some of their offseason moves? Is it possible that because the way the teams are constructed this year, the games might naturally be a little shorter?

The reasoning for the games being shorter this year goes something like this: Both teams improved their starting pitching and defense. Better starting pitchers allow fewer baserunners which lead to fewer plate appearances. Solid starters also go deeper into games, meaning that there should be fewer pitching changes, each of which - if executed mid-inning - takes several minutes (unless it's Jonathan Papelbon, in which case it takes several hours). Improved defenses also turn more balls in play into outs, thereby eliminating at bats and conserving starter's pitch counts.

Of course, there are two sides to the equation. As the article Business Week points out, the Yankees and Red Sox saw the most pitches in baseball last year, largely as a function of the fact that they scored the first and third most runs in the game, respectively. The Yankees also added Nick Johnson who saw 4.36 pitches per plate appearance last year, third most in the MLB.

What the article didn't mention was the fact that last year's slate of Yanks/Sox games included a 5 and a half hour, 15 inning marathon and 9 inning games with final scores of 20-11, 16-11, 14-1 and 13-6. The Yanks scored 99 runs in those 18 games and the Sox plated 101, so it's not just mound visits, crotch adjustments and "talking to the ball" as Watson claims, that are taking up everyone's time.

Additionally, these games often air on national networks and the additional commercials on ESPN and FOX slow them down. God Bless America probably adds a couple of minutes to each game played at Yankee Stadium as well.

Sunday night's 3:46 affair was not the best start for my half-baked theory, but I'm willing to bet that there will be some regression towards the mean in terms of the duration of the games. I'm not sure if they will come all the way down to the Yanks' average mark of 3:08 but it's a good bet that the average length will be lower than 3:20 by the time all 18 games are in the books.

Today In Tabloid Hysteria

The Yankees have only played one game and there's not much in the way of meaningful conclusions to draw from it. Should we A) wait for the season to progress a little further and see which of the things we saw Opening Night actually develop into legitimate trends or B) start panicking because the Yankees bullpen is grossly inadequate and has an ERA of 13.50!?!1!??

Your move, George A. King III:
BOSTON - Could the Yankees regret Phil Hughes beating out four other arms to cop the fifth spot in the World Champions' rotation?
If you're asking if the Yankees will regret making the potentially catastrophic mistake of choosing the best pitcher for the open spot in their starting rotation, I think the answer is probably "no". Regardless of what happens this year, I think the Yankee brass is going okay with the fact that they picked the guy who was throwing the best during Spring Training. And of course, whether the decision turns out well or doesn't has nothing to do with how the bullpen performs and everything to do with how Hughes fares in the rotation.
But how good would Hughes have looked Sunday night out of the pen in that ugly 9-7 loss to the Red Sox in Fenway Park?
How good would True Yankee Set-Up Man™ Joba Chamberlain© have looked back there, with his blazing fastball and unhittable slider, back in his natural role as a reliever? Oh, that's right. He came out of the pen, needed 33 pitches to get through an inning and a third and gave up a run.

I've found that pitchers generally look better in your mind than they do on the mound. When you're just imagining them facing the other team, it's like "Pfffttttsssssssssss, zooooooommmmm, wooosssssshhhhhhhh! STRIKE OUT!!!"

/makes stupid faces and exaggerated pitching motions

Unfortunately, in real life, the batter has a say in what happens and he generally doesn't give a shit about how you think that pitcher should look or perform.
The "Argument That Never Ends" is supposed to be about Chamberlain's role. Now, maybe that same debate should center around Hughes.
Well, George, if you could take you own arguments to their logical conclusion, you'd realize that this debate still does involve Chamberlain. Both of them should be in the bullpen while one of two guys who are older and worse than them occupy a spot in the starting rotation? That's a terrible solution on two fronts because it's both ineffective and short-sighted. That's a tough trick to pull off. But what would you expect from the guy who said Aceves was "leading the race to be the 5th starter" three appearances into Spring Training?

It's a poor allocation of resources to put superior pitchers in the bullpen when they are capable of starting (not to mention the fact that neither Hughes nor Joba would even be the closer). They aren't going to get enough high leverage innings to justify their presence there. It doesn't make sense for the future of the franchise either, because the two pitchers who have the best chance of holding down spots in the starting rotation over the long term would be stuck in the 'pen. But other than that, the plan is GENIUS!

A Tale Of Two Hæywards

It's been said plenty of times, but one of the reasons that sports are so compelling is that they are unscripted. They aren't like a movie or play or TV show or even a documentary that has been produced, edited, watched and re-watched countless times before you get to find out what happens.

Sure, we put up with plenty of boring games where nothing particularly incredible happens, but every so often, one of them is so good that you would have thought it was too unrealistic had it been written, acted and played out for you in a movie theater. On the opposite end of the continuum, once in a while you watch something so close to perfect almost happen and wish that someone had the power to go back and change the script.

Yesterday, two 20 year old kids with homophonic last names found themselves on opposite ends of that spectrum.

This spring, the front office of the Atlanta Braves decided that über-rookie Jason Heyward was so good, they couldn't afford to stall his arbitration clock by keeping him in the minors to begin the season. They may have sacrificed a year of team control and millions of dollars in the process because of it, but the phenom broke camp with the Big League club.

Yesterday afternoon in Atlanta, Heyward stepped in the box against the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano for his first Major League plate appearance. With his parents in the stands and the crowd chanting his name in between pitches, the level of excitement in Turner Field was tangible. The game was being broadcast on ESPN2, so plenty of eyes around the baseball world were focused in on the at bat.

Heyward took two 4-seam fastballs high for balls before connecting with a two-seamer low in the zone. The ball exploded off the bat and carried deep into the Braves bullpen in right field, good for a three run homer that put the Braves up 6-3. There was little doubt throughout the baseball community that Heyward was going to be a useful player right out of the gate, but as it so rarely does, the hype was justified immediately. It's not to say that this guarantees Heyward is going to have a great career, but that the fans in Atlanta didn't need to wait to see a glimpse of his considerable potential. Sometimes suspense is thrilling, but in this case it was the lack thereof that created the drama.

About 8 hours after Heyward's fairytale beginning, the best player on the Butler Bulldogs, Gordon Hayward, looked to complete a storybook ending to what was already a fantastic National Championship in his hometown of Indianapolis. It was one of just four times that the title game had taken place in the city that one of the schools called home and improbably, Bulter was keeping pace with Duke.

Hayward had struggled throughout the night, shooting just 2-9 from the floor in front of a very vocal and supportive crowd, but the Bulldogs hung in there. The game was neck and neck for the entire 40 minutes; the difference between the two teams never greater than 6 points. Since the battle was so tight, the end of it wasn't broken up by copious amounts of timeouts taken and fouls committed by a team trying to fight its way back into it.

With 13 seconds left on the clock in and Butler trailing by one point, Hayward started at the top of the key and began driving towards the basket, dribbling to the right. With about 6 ticks remaining, he planted his feet and pushed off parallel to the baseline, and lifted a high, soft 12 foot fadeaway. It wasn't a high percentage shot, but Hayward make a crisp release. As it began to descend from its apex, the ball was still perfectly on line with the hoop. However, it struck the inside of the back of the rim and ricocheted directly back towards the spot that Hayward took off from.

If the ball had carried just an inch less, Duke would have been down one with about five seconds to go. Instead, Duke's center Brian Zoubek pulled down the rebound and was fouled immediately, sending him to the free throw line with 3.6 seconds left. He made the first and after intentionally missing the second, the ball fell into Hayward's hands once again. The baby-faced sophomore only had time for a few dribbles and released the ball from half court just as the clock was expiring. It hit the backboard, deflected off the near side of the rim and fell to the ground as Duke became the National Champions.

Hayward came impossibly close, twice, to winning the game for a school that only shameless homer and alumni would have picked to be in the Final Four, let alone the Championship Game. The difference between those two shots going in or bouncing out is so small that no human being, no matter how skilled, could expect to control it. Concerning the last shot in particular, the disparity between hitting one of the greatest buzzer-beaters on the biggest stage possible in college basketball and going home empty-handed was the way that his neurons and synapses subconsciously fired over the course over several milliseconds.

Right or wrong, that's what we remember. We distill sports down to their most incredible moments, but don't often bother to think about the alternate outcomes and how close - literally fractions of an inch and hundredths of a second - they came to occurring.

Gordon Hayward is just a sophomore at Butler, so if he chooses, this doesn't have to be the end of his college career. But the odds against him leading a team that far into the NCAA Tournament let alone coming just thatclose to winning it are so long that they might as well not exist. Jason Heyward is likely just at the beginning of a long and successful career, but 5, 10, 20, 50 years from now, both of these athletes are going to be able to recall those two remarkable moments in incredible detail. Only one of them is going to bother to wonder what might have happened if it had turned out another way.