Thursday, July 2, 2009

Me And My Big Mouth

On May 22nd, the Yankees were riding a nine game winning streak. It was the Friday heading into the three day Memorial Day Weekend. I wrote the game preview that night, and chose "Once" from Pearl Jam. The Yanks lost to the Phils that night.

I'm not the most superstitious person in the world, so when I chose a Pearl Jam song again tonight, with the Yankees riding a seven game streak heading into the three day Fourth of July Weekend, I didn't think there was any bad juju associated with it. My bad folks.

I'm already in full blown holiday weekend mode, so I'll make this brief. CC was not sharp. The Yanks did not capitalize on their offensive opportunities on the night. Teix had a rough night in the field. Melky did too, failing to get to a critical gapper that Brett Gardner likely would have run down. Remember when Joe Girardi said Gardner had earned more playing time? Yeah, that was Sunday.

Russell Branyan ran his consecutive K streak to seven, then drew a big walk, then BLASTED a shot off the facing of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in centerfield. The Yankees threatened in the ninth but couldn't put a rally together. Matsui blasted a homer. Ichiro dropped a flyball.

It was a difficult loss, but hopefully just a blip on the radar screen. We're at it again tomorrow, as the Blue Jays come to town for a four game, wrap-around, all matinee series. Check back late morning for the preview.

Game 78: State Of Love And Trust

Last Wednesday, Yankeedom was in a panic. The team had dropped consecutive series to the lowly Nationals and Marlins, and were a Luis Castillo error away from having lost to the reeling Mets as well. They also dropped the first game of the series in Atlanta. The pitching had been good, but the bats were dead wood - A-Rod in particular.

Brian Cashman arrived prior to game two of that series, and the rumor mill started working overtime. Would heads roll? Would there be a trade? Melky was in the lineup then yanked. Swisher had a closed door meeting with Cash and Girardi. Then all the hitters had a closed door meeting with Cash and Girardi.

The Yank were still listless, trailing 1-0 in the top of the sixth and getting no hit. After Brett Gardner was called out on an egregiously bad pick off call, Joe Girardi got himself tossed from the game. The Yanks put up three runs that inning. They haven't looked back since, not once trailing in a game, winning seven in a row, and posting seven runs a game while the pitching has held solid at just three runs per game. They even managed to pick up a useful bench piece in Eric Hinske.

Everything is peaches and cream right now in Yankeeland. Winning streaks have a way of doing that. Now as we head into the holiday weekend, the Yanks go for the sweep against the league's worst offense. And they do it with their ace on the mound.

In eleven career starts against the M's, CC is 4-3 with 2.95 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. More importantly, the big lefty has won six of his last seven decisions and last Friday dispelled any concerns about his biceps tendinitis by allowing just three baserunners in throwing seven innings of one run ball against the Mets.

Jason Vargas has never faced the Yanks. After bouncing from Florida to the Mets to the Mariners over the past four seasons, and not appearing in the Majors at all last year, the southpaw has surprised this year, posting an ERA+ of 112. However, his FIP is a third of a run worse than the league average, suggesting he may be getting helped by his defense, and Seattle's defense isn't that good. He gives up a lot of flyballs and a lot of homeruns, and that's bad news in Yankee Stadium, particularly with the way the lineup is swinging the lumber right now.

We've been celebrating the Fourth of July all day at Fack Youk. I can think of no better way to finish today's celebration off than a fireworks display courtesy of the Yankee bats.

We've been riffing on classic Seattle grunge all series long. Tuesday was Alice in Chains, yesterday was Nirvana, so today is Pearl Jam. Sorry Soundgarden. The never-satisfied Yankee Universe is rather content right now. Recent play has inspired a state of love and trust, and with CC on the mound tonight and a long weekend looming, there's no reason to feel any other way.

State of love and trust as I busted down the pretext
Sin still plays and preaches, but to have an empty court, uh huh
And the signs are passing, grip the wheel, can't read it
Sacrifice receiving the smell that's on my hands, hands, yeah

Roster News and Notes

A few news items as we head towards tonight's preview:

  • It's official: Xavier Nady will have the second Tommy John surgery of his career.

  • Jose Molina begins his rehab assignment in Rhode Island tonight. He'll suit up for Scranton against the hated Pawtucket Red Sox.

  • There is no news on Damaso Marte, the only other Yankee on the DL. I presume he's fallen down the same rabbit hole that swallowed Ozzie Smith on The Simpsons.

  • Eric Hinske arrived in the Bronx yesterday, was added to the roster, and issued #14. A-Rod got a half night off as the DH, but with lefty Jarrod Washburn on the mound, Cody Ransom got the start at third.

  • Many in the blogosphere have pointed out the Hinske has played just 132 innings at third over the past five seasons, and has not been particularly graceful at the hot corner. Still, I'd expect to see him see time there soon, particularly when the Yanks get to the turf in Minnesota next week. All he has to do is run into one at the plate to make up for a few errors.

  • As expected, Ramiro Pena was optioned out to make room for Hinske. The plan is for Pena to learn to play CF at Scranton, increasing his versatility. RAB has a nice look at the situation. But I wonder, don't the Yankees already have an option like this at Scranton with the offensively-superior Kevin Russo? Either way, I think consistent playing time and regular PAs will help Pena.

  • Today marks the start of the international signing period, which means a bunch of Latin American 16 year-olds are about to become very rich in deals that may or may not be ethical and above board. The Yankees have completed their long-rumored deal with Gary Sanchez, adding to the organization's tremendous depth at catcher. They are reportedly closing in on a pitcher and shortstop as well. Pete Abe has some good comments on all this.

  • In bigger international news, Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman has defected. Chapman was impressive in the WBC and figures to start a bidding war once he establishes asylum, likley in the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua. If he's more El Duque than Jose Contreras, I say go for it.

  • Back with the preview in a bit.

    The Luckiest

    eventy Fourths of July ago, 61,808 fans packed Yankee Stadium. With an Herculean record of 52-17, the Yankees were in first place in the AL by 11.5 games and well on the way to their fourth straight World Series victory, but fans didn't just come for the doubleheader against the Washington Senators.

    They were there for Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was a major part of the previous three titles, and three more before that, hitting .371/.477/.731 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 34 WS games. But the 1939 team would have to do it without him.

    Gehrig placed in the top five in the AL MVP voting every year from 1931 to 1937, but right around the All-Star break in '38, his production started to slide. He still finished the year with 29HRs, but just two years earlier he had hit twenty more. Lou was 35 years old and he couldn't pinpoint what exactly was wrong with himself: "I tired mid-season. I don't know why, but I just couldn't get going again."

    If it was just fatigue, one would think that the offseason would have done him well, however when he should up to St. Petersburg for Spring Training in 1939, he had lost even more power. It became apparent that this wasn't your average career arc. James Kahn, a reporter for the New York Graphic wrote at the time:
    I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don't know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers 'go' overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It's something deeper than that in this case, though.
    Unfortunately, Kahn was right. What he was witnessing were the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in action.

    Still unaware that there was a fatal illness consuming him from within, Gehrig started the regular season as planned. Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy found himself between a rock and a hard place. It was simultaneously painfully obvious and totally inconceivable that The Iron Horse, owner of a .340 lifetime batting average and carrier of the awe-inspiring consecutive games played streak was done for. With Babe Ruth four years removed from Pinstripes, Lou Gehrig was the cornerstone and face of the franchise, his tenure with the Yanks predating McCarthy's by 8 years. There was no way the Skipper was going to sit Gehrig.

    Gehrig's breaking point came when he covered first base on a routine groundball and was congratulated by pitcher Johnny Murphy. He had just 4 hits in 33 plate appearances, but had only struck out one time. He was making contact, but with nothing behind it. Before a game against the Tigers on May 2nd, he finally caved in, benching himself. He took the lineup card out to the umpires himself and it was announced over the PA system that he would not be playing. Fans gave him a standing ovation as he stood on the steps of the dugout.

    It wasn't until June 13th that Gehrig and his wife, Eleanor visited the Mayo Clinic to see what was actually wrong. Six days later, on his 36th birthday, he was diagnosed with ALS. Two days later, the Yankees decided that July 4th would be "Lou Gehrig Appreaciation Day" and there would be a ceremony held between the doubleheader against the Senators.

    The all of the components of the famed 1927 "Murderer's Row" line up were in attendance. Speeches were giving by mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Postmaster General James Farley, Joe McCarthy, and Babe Ruth. As I detailed more extensively before Spring Training, the two sluggers hadn't been on good terms since 1933, and this was the first time they put the grudge aside.

    Gehrig took to the podium at the crossroads of two scenarios that everyone has probably imagined themselves in, but will most likely never experience. He was a legendary athlete with a death sentence. A iconic figure faced with a inevitable demise. He said he was the "luckiest man on the face of the earth" but so too was he the unluckiest.

    It's hard to imagine a scenario quite like this one ever unfolding again. It's almost as if Gehrig got to attend his own funeral. Paradoxically, people save their most glowing praise and appreciation for those they love until it's too late for the person to hear it. He not only got to hear it, but got the chance to respond.

    The full transcription of the speech can be found below.
    "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

    "Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.

    "When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body — it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that's the finest I know.

    "So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you
    ." — Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939

    Riches To Rags

    Yesterday we looked back at Andy Hawkins' no-hitter that wasn't. As promised, today we'll look back on a more pleasant no-no. Saturday marks the twentysixth anniversary of Dave Righetti's Indepence Day no-hitter against the Red Sox. Since we'll all be off enjoying the holiday weekend on the actual anniversary, we'll revisit the game today.

    Righetti was acquired in November of 1978 as part of a ten player trade that saw the Yankees send their former closer, Sparky Lyle, to the Texas Rangers. Rags made his Major League debut as a September call-up in 1979, spent all of 1980 back in AAA, then returned in 1981 to capture the Rookie of the Year award, going 8-4 with a 1.07 WHIP and leading the league in ERA, ERA+, H/9, HR/9, and K/9. In 1982 he fell back to earth a bit, serving a brief stint in the minors and going 11-10 with an ERA just better than league average (105 ERA+). He once again led the AL in K/9, but also led the league in BB.

    The July 4, 1983 game fell on a Monday, a blistering 94 degree day, the final day of play before the All-Star break. Righetti would later admit he was steamed at not being selected, and he had a good candidacy, entering his start that day at 9-3 with a 3.53 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP while holding opponents to a .248/.294/.340 batting line.

    Righetti fanned Jerry Remy and Wade Boggs to begin the game, then promptly lost the perfecto by walking Jim Rice. He completed the first by whiffing Tony Armas. Rags was perfect in the second, third, and fourth, striking out two in both the second and third. He broke his string of eleven straight batters retired by issuing a one out walk to Reid Nichols in the fifth, but then promptly picked him off attempting to steal.

    The Yankees supplied Righetti with some offense in the bottom of the fifth, as an Andre Robertson single scored Steve Kemp for the game's first run. Rags worked a perfect sixth, walked Rice for a second time with one out in the seventh, the erased him on a 6-4-3 double play.

    After a 1-2-3 eighth, Righetti walked light-hitting catcher Jeff Newman to lead off the ninth. Newman was replaced by Glenn Hoffman on a fielder's choice, narrowly avoiding a double play. A Remy groundout moved Hoffman to second. With just one out to go, Wade Boggs stepped to the plate. Boggs entered play that day hitting .361, the same mark as his end of season average, which would win the Major League batting crown by a whopping twentytwo points. Righetti caught him looking in the first, then coaxed flyouts to center in the fourth and seventh. After peppering Boggs with fastballs to the run the count to 2-2, Rags came back with a slider. Fooled, Boggs flailed feebly at it, giving Righetti his ninth K and the first Yankee no-hitter since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

    Righetti finished 1983 at 14-8 with 1.20 WHIP and 3.44 ERA (112 ERA+). Not yet 25 at season's end, Righetti was 33-23 with 117 ERA+ in his young career, projecting as a solid number two starter if not a future ace. But incumbent Yankee closer Goose Gossage departed the team after that 1983 season, and 1984 saw Righetti as the new closer. He would never start another game for the Yankees.

    He spent the next seven seasons at the back of the Yankee bullpen, never saving less than 25 games in a season, including a then Major League record 46 in 1986. While Righetti was a good closer, he was never quite great. Because of things like small sample sizes and inherited runners, I prefer to use Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) to evaluate relievers. In three of his first four years as Yankee closer ('84, '85, '87), Righetti was bettered or equaled FIP by other Yankee relievers (Jay Howell, Brian Fisher, and Tim Stoddard respectively).

    Meanwhile, the Yankee teams of those years were perpetual bridesmaids and notoriously short on starting pitching. In 1985, the Yankees finished in second place, just two games behind the Blue Jays. Despite posting an ERA better than league average, Yankee starters' FIP was far worse than league average. Righetti on the other hand was 1.25 runs better than the league in FIP. His numbers may have suffered somewhat from the additional exposure of pitching in the rotation, but he assuredly would have performed better than starters like Ed Whitson. We'll never know if his presence in the rotation could have made up those two games.

    In 1988, the Yankees finished 3.5 games out of first. Once again, Yankee starters were worse than the league average while Righetti out performed the league by two thirds of a run. Again, there's no telling if Righetti in the rotation would have been enough to make up the 3.5 games and four teams between the Yankees and the division crown, but he certainly would have been a better option than Rick Rhoden, Rich Dotson, or 45 year-old Tommy John.

    This weekend you're sure to hear about Righetti's no-hitter. You're also likely to hear the old Joba-to-the-bullpen argument or the newer and now more-popular Hughes to the eighth inning argument. When you do, think back to what it may have cost the Yankees the last time they relegated a potential front end starter to the back end of the pen.

    Happy Birthday King George III

    Not that King George III; George M. Steinbrenner, III. The Boss turns 79 Saturday, but since we've declared today the Fourth at Fack Youk, we're cutting the cake now. Poor George probably wouldn't know the difference anyway.

    Steinbrenner is a polarizing and fascinating figure. He purchased the Yankees more than 36 years ago. In that time the team has made the post-season eighteen times, won its division fifteen times, won ten AL pennants, and six World Series. He's twice been suspended from the game. He's been a bully and philanthropist. He's been a hero and scourge to the organization, sometimes doing whatever it takes to give the team what it needs to win, and other times incapable of staying out of his own way.

    But there's never been a dull moment with Steinbrenner. I think history will judge his reign more on its unmatched successes than on its unparalleled madness. He's been a phenomenon - the rare owner who's as well known as his players, crossing into mainstream society as an SNL guest host and the inspiration for a Larry David voiced Seinfeld character.

    He's been a sportsman throughout his life. He was a member of his track and field team at Williams College, served as a graduate assistant at Ohio St., as an assistant football coach at Purdue and Northwestern in the 1950s, owned a team in the American Basketball League, served for several years on the United States Olympic Committee, and has long been involved in thoroughbred horse racing.

    Steinbrenner has faded from the organization and the public eye. His sons Hank, and mainly Hal, have taken control of the team. Outside of brief apperances at spring training and the All-Star Game last year, he's hardly been seen in public in recent years. It's generally accepted that he's in poor health.

    But there was nothing quite like King George in heyday. So Happy Birthday George. I hope you enjoy it.

    Jonathan Papelbon: A Portrait Of The Artist

    "I thought today was a great opportunity for our bullpen to come show the league what we're really made of," Papelbon said. "I think we answered that with flying colors."
    So... the Sox bullpen is made of flying colors, yes? Vanessa Williams knows exactly what you mean.

    All-Star Game Voting Ends Today

    One of the spoils of living in a Democratic Republic such as ours is suffrage: the right to vote. Today my fellow Yankee fans, I urge you to exercise that right, up to twentyfive times, as All-Star Game voting ends at midnight Eastern Daylight Time.

    Derek Jeter is comfortably ahead at shortstop. But as of Tuesday's update from MLB, our namesake and archnemesis led Mark Teixeira by just over 40,000 votes.

    Come on Fackers; we can't allow that to happen. So head on over to and rock the vote. Vote Teix. Vote early. Vote often. And if you're so inclined, throw a little support towards Ian Kinsler to try to keep the Sawx off the right side of the infield.

    Independence Day at Fack Youk

    Good morning Fackers. Here's the deal. It's July 2nd today. But it's the last day of the work week for me, and likely for you too (if it isn't, tough nuts - I feel for you). So we're celebrating the Fourth here today. Because Jay and I aren't going to be around much this weekend and face it, neither are you. Besides, technically the Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2nd, but the wording of the Declaration of Independence wasn't approved until the Fourth.

    So Happy 233rd America. Here's to 233 more, unless we tax and spend and bail our way out of business first. Or if the Chinese call in their loans. But that's neither here nor there.

    We'll be back with fireworks and whatnot later. For now, let's rise for the Anthem. Unfortunately our high school softball team called in sick. So you're on your own for this one. Maybe that's a good thing. Mr. Hendrix, if you'd please: