Friday, July 24, 2009

Game 96: Nebraska

When the Yankees last saw Brett Anderson, he was a rookie with two Big League starts under his belt, and a record of 0-2. They touched him up for 5 runs over 5 1/3 in the game against Sabathia we mentioned in yesterday's preview and left him with a 5.89 ERA.

Since then, the 21 year old right hander has made 14 more starts, lowered his ERA to 4.25 and gone on a tear as of late. He hasn't allowed a run in his last three starts, starting with a complete game shutout in Boston on July 6th, and leaving off with 8 scoreless innings against the Angels last Sunday. I'm sure Brett's a nice kid, but it would be nice to bring him back to Earth.

Heading into the All-Star break Joba Chamberlain was coming off of three dreadful outings against the Mariners, Blue Jays and Angels. The one against the Halos was the most frustrating because he not only blew a seemingly comfortable four run run lead but did so by following up a fielding error by A-Rod by allowing a 3 run shot to Kendry Morales. However, he came out of the All-Star break strong with 6 2/3 innings of one run ball against the Tigers and earned himself his fifth victory on the season.

It's only one start, but Joe Girardi thinks the break might have helped Joba:
Girardi thought that the biggest difference in Chamberlain's return from his time in Nebraska -- when he said he spent most of the time chasing his 3-year-old son, Karter, around the family backyard -- was that he was able to repeat his delivery more consistently and get out of jams.

"I just got back to being myself," Chamberlain said. "It was fun to get away from baseball for four days. I think that was the best -- to get those four days to get my mind right and get back to having fun and the confidence and attitude I know I have."
We took a much-needed hiatus during the break, so I can kind of see where Joba is coming from. Hopefully he can carry that confidence into tonight's game and keep the Yanks rolling. In any event, look on the bright side, Joba. You're not in Nebraska anymore.

And Nebraska's so flat that I don't care,
I'll never use this map, have I made it clear,
I don't know jack, but I stay sincere,
Woah-oh my navigator's here.

And just because it's Friday (and it's in black & white), here is the Springsteen version, which Matt most likely would have chose had he wrote this post:

Risky Robby

Leading off the bottom of the 5th inning last night, Robinson Cano slashed at the first pitch he saw from Vin Mazzaro, sending it bending down the left field line and into the corner. It hit off the wall, just inside of the line and as the ball bounced directly to Matt Holliday and the cameras panned back to Cano, he was just rounding first, and I knew he was dead to rights at second.

It was part of that innate feel you develop as a fan. If you know who's at the plate, you've got a pretty good sense of how long the ball needs to rattle around before an outfielder gets his hands on it for your guy to get to second or third. You know when a balls rolls up to the wall and Jeter is running, he's thinking about a triple (and so are you). With that clean carom, it would have been a tight play even for Brett Gardner.

Replays showed that Cano paused for a second to see if the ball was fair or foul off the bat (understandable), and started down the first kind of slowly, which would have been fine if he was going to settle for a single. But inexplicably, as he was nearing first base, he broke into a full sprint, only to be gunned down at second about literally two full strides at the least. In the second picture on the right, it looks as if first base coach Mick Kelleher yelling at him to stop. That's probably because Holliday had already released the ball and Cano could have turned back.

As you can see, he was at barely in the fame when the ball arrived to Mark Ellis at 2nd base, and was out by 3 full strides.

This is an isolated incident, and it might seem like I'm dwelling on a baserunning mistake for way too long, but I think lends some insight into his lack of discipline at the plate and in turn his inability to hit with runners in scoring position.

His baserunning mistakes (he's 16 for 34 in SB in his career) say more about his level of risk aversion than his speed on the basepaths. The same can be said for someone with a lack of discipline at the plate. They are willing to swing at pitches that are harder to hit, thus increasing the likelihood of failure.

Cano has the 13th highest swing percentage in the Majors with 51.7%, but makes contact 91.2% of the time, which is 7th highest, where the leaders in that category (Luis Castillo, Marco Scutaro) have some of the lowest swing percentages in the game. Think about how good you have to be at putting the bat on the ball to rank so highly in both of those categories. He makes contact with 79.5% of the pitches he swings at out of the zone.

My contention is that his lack of plate discipline is what is eating away at his production with runners in scoring position and men on base in general. He's at .205 w/RISP this year as opposed to .356 without. For his career, he has a .743 OPS men on base as opposed to .895 with the bags unoccupied, and the former includes 14 intentional walks.

My half-baked theory goes like this: Pitchers are more reluctant to give a batter a pitch to hit with men on base, especially early in the count, but Cano goes up swinging like he always does, and puts the bat on the ball, but makes poorer contact as a result. His BABIP bears this out, as it is .297 with men on as opposed to .338 with the bases empty. We usually cite BABIP as a statistic to explain away fluky performances, but this is over his entire career, 2765 plate appearances. There are no more flukes at that sample size.

It's easy to imagine how good Cano could be if he was just more selective at the plate, but as Bill James has pointed out, it's not easy for a hitter to change his approach:
I think it is easier to learn plate discipline than it is to learn speed or to develop a strong throwing arm—but not much easier. A player who lacks plate discipline at age 18 will usually lack plate discipline at age 30. But not always; some players can adapt well to the challenge of learning to lay off certain pitches.
Robinson Cano is an excellent player as he is. Don't get me wrong. He's probably my favorite Yankees' position player and I love watching him take a ball 6 inches off the plate into the home bullpen as much as the next guy. But he will never be a scary, middle of the order type presence unless he can be more selective and make pitchers throw him balls in the strike zone with runners on base.

The Forgotten Hall Of Famer

(Photo from NYT)

This weekend brings the annual Hall of Fame inductions from Cooperstown. The attention this year will assuredly be focused on Jim Rice and former Yankee Rickey Henderson, but another, lesser known, Yankee great will be enshrined with them.

Former Yankee second baseman
Joe Gordon was elected to the Hall by the Veterans Committee in December of last year, a full month before the BBWAA chose Rickey and Rice. Before there was Tom Gordon, before there was John Flaherty, Joe Gordon was "Flash", nicknamed after the popular comic book character and inspiration for the God-awful 1980 movie - Flash Gordon.

Gordon attended the University of Oregon, in the days before Phil Knight and Nike outfitted the Ducks with
abominable football uniforms. In addition to playing for the baseball team, Gordon also played football and track, and according to some sources, may also have participated in gynamstics, soccer, and/or played the violin.

Following his collegiate days, Gordon joined the Pacific Coast League, the closest thing to major league baseball on the West Coast in the years before the Dodgers and Giants left New York. He spent 1936 with the Oakland Oaks, the same franchise that would later send both manager Casey Stengel and fellow second baseman Billy Martin to the Bronx, hitting .300 but making 42 errors as a shortstop.

Undeterred, the Yankees brought Gordon East after the season and sent him to their top farm club, the Newark Bears. There, he was part of what's considered one of the greatest minor league teams of all time, where his teammates included other future Yankees Babe Dahlgren and Charlie "King Kong" Keller. Switched to second base, Gordon still made 47 errors, but also led International League second basemen in putouts, assists, and double plays. At the plate, he finished second in the International League in both home runs (26) and runs (103), while batting .280 and slugging .474. His play was enough to usurp future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri as the Yankee second baseman for 1938.

Joining a team that had won back-to-back World Series, Gordon became a key cog in a potent offensive line-up that featured Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and a young Joe DiMaggio, as well as potent bat in second year man Tommy Henrich, and a solid complimentary parts in George Selkirk, Red Rolfe, and Frank Crosetti. Gordon hit .255/.340/.502, posted an OPS+ of 108, slugged 25 HRs, and drove in 97. With a pitching staff anchored by Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, the Yanks cruised to their third straight pennant by 9.5 games, and swept the Cubs in the World Series, where Gordon hit .400/.438/.733 with a HR and 6 RBI.

Gordon improved as a sophomore, with the Yankees again winning the Series. He upped his batting line to .284/.370/.506 (123 OPS+), was fifth in the AL with 28 HRs, drove in 111, and made his first All-Star team. He also led AL second basemen in chances, putouts, assists, and double plays.

The Yankees' run of World Series victories ended in 1940, but Gordon turned in another exemplary season of .281/.340/.511 (121 OPS+), with 30 HR, 103 RBI, 112 runs scored. He again led AL second baseman in chances and assists and was second in putouts and double plays. The Yanks won the Series again in '41, with Gordon having another fine season (117 OPS+) and getting his second top ten MVP finish in three years. He also spent part of the year playing first base.

In 1942, with the league weakened by America's entering World War II, Gordon turned in his finest season. He hit .322/.409/.491 (155 OPS+), with all but his SLG representing career highs. His HRs dropped to 18, but that was still good for sixth in the AL, was fifth in OBP, sixth in SLG, fourth in OPS, and made his fourth straight All-Star appearance, three of them starts over fellow Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer and Bobby Doerr. His campaign earned Flash the AL MVP award, sandwiching him between DiMaggio and Spud Chandler as the second of three consecutive Yankees to win the award. The Yankees again went to the Series, but lost in five games to the Cardinals, with Gordon hitting going just 2 for 21 (.095).

The team rebounded in 1943, beating the Cardinals for the title, following another great season from Gordon. He had a 126 OPS+ and finished sixth in the AL in HR, marking the sixth time in six seasons Flash finished in the top ten. He also finished second in BB, seventh in runs, and made his fifth straight All-Star team.

Gordon lost the 1944 and '45 seasons to military service. Orginally stationed in New Mexico, he was shipped to San Francisio before being relocated to Hickam Field in Honolulu with the Seventh Army Air Force in the summer of 1944. When he wasn't performing his duties in the motor pool, Gordon played baseball for the 7th AAF, along with Yankee teamamte Joe DiMaggio. As Gordon later recalled, they weren't the only two ringers on the team: "We had Don Lang, Bob Dillinger, Walter Judnich, Dario Lodigiani, Mike McCormick and Red Ruffing on our club. At one point we had a streak of about 31 straight wins. I think we finished with about an .800 average".

Upon his return in 1946, Gordon suffered through the worst season of his career. Thinking he was finished at 31, the Yankees traded him to Cleveland after the season, getting
Allie Reynolds* in return.

Nicknamed "Superchief" due to his Native American heritage, Reynolds became the Yankees ace, as they won the World Series in 1947, and five straight from '49 through '53. Reynolds was often used out of the bullpen as well, brought in during the late innings as the afternoon shadows crept over homeplate, making his 100 MPH fastball more unhittable than usual. Hmmm.... a Yankee pitcher of Native American descent who could dominate in relief and be a front end starter as well. Where have I heard this before?

Back to Gordon. Much to Cleveland's delight Gordon was not yet done. He turned in OPS+ of 134 and 135 in 1947-48, the second and third best of his career, finishing second in HR both years and in the top ten in RBI, SLG, and OPS. He returned to World Series for the sixth and final time in 1948, and won his fifth career ring as the Indians took what remains their last World Championship.

Gordon played two more Big League seasons, turning in a league average performance both years, before returning to the PCL as a player-manager with Sacramento. At 36, he led the league in both HR and RBI. He hung up his spikes after one more season, but continued to be involved in baseball as both a scout and a PCL manager. In 1958 he returned to the Majors as the Indians manager. In the middle of the 1960, Cleveland traded him to Detroit for Tigers manager Jimmy Dykes (for those of you scoring at home the Tigers had a manager name Jimmy Dykes and later a player named Rusty Kuntz). Following the 1960 season he became the manager of the Kansas City A's, only to become the first in a long line of skippers fired by Charlie Finley. He finished his association with MLB by managing the Kansas City Royals in their innaugural season of 1969. He died in 1978 at the age of 63.

Much like Jim Rice, I'm not entirely sure that Gordon is a HoFer, but he certainly was a great player. After Flash hit .500/.667/.929 in the '41 Series, no less an authority than Yankee Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy called Gordon the greatest all-around player he'd ever seen. In his
New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks Gordon as the 16th best second baseman of all time, between Hall of Famer Nellie Fox and fellow Yankee Willie Randolph. James ranks Gordon ahead of HoFers Bobby Doerr, Tony Lazerri, Johnny Evers, Red Schoendienst, and Bill Mazeroski, but behind underappreciated and unenshrined players such as Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker. He still holds the AL record for career HRs by a second baseman, and held the single season record until Bret Boone, likely pharmaceutically enhanced, bested him in 2001 and was later passed by fellow Yankee Alfonso Soriano.

Worthy of induction or not, I'm happy to see Gordon get some long overdue recognition. More than sixty years after he last put on pinstripes, Gordon is all but forgotten by modern Yankee fans. He was a major component of five Yankee pennant winners and four World Series champions and a former MVP, but his career is overshadowed by teammates Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey. While those two were surefire HoFers and are remembered to this day in Monument Park, those Yankee teams wouldn't have been nearly as successful without the likes of Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, and of course Joe Gordon, all of whom have been undeservedly relegated to footnotes in Yankee history.

Worth The Wait

By the time the players and fans had sat out the 2:43 minute rain delay last night, they could have watched a replay of Mark Buherle's perfect game in Chicago and still had 40 minutes to spare. It was almost 10:00PM at gametime, a brisk 66 degrees and windy with a slight drizzle still falling down. The weather system that had caused the delay had moved off the coast, leaving only scattered pockets of light rain behind.

Early on, Vin Mazzaro seemed poised to out-pitch CC Sabathia in front of a huge cheering section in the upper deck that was a mix of #54 Mazzaro jerseys, Oakland hoodies and Yankees logos.

He blazed through the first three innings, holding the Yanks scoreless and striking out six in the process, all the while be staked to a 3-0 lead. The runs came on a sac fly by Jack Cust and a single by Bobby Crosby in the second and a single by his battery mate Kurt Suzuki in the top of the 4th.

However, not all went according to plan for the 22 year old righty from Rutherford. Mark Teixeira ripped a two run homer to right after being green-lighted on a 3-0 pitch in the 4th to get the Yanks off the schneid. A-Rod followed that with a walk, stole second and was rewarded for his timely thievery by being promptly doubled in by Jorge Posada. Eric Hinkse continued his Swisherific start as a Yankee by adding a two out single and putting the Yanks ahead for good.

Two more runs came to the plate against Mazzaro in the 5th inning, bringing his total to six and sending him to the showers. He pitched well in the early going, but once the Yanks woke up from their rain delay slumber, he couldn't hold on. The win last night brought the Bombers' record against rookie starters this year to 18-7, which is the best in the AL and second only to the Braves (10-4) in the Majors, according to the YES broadcast last night. You think we can put that myth to rest for a while?

Sabathia settled down after his rough 2nd and 4th innings and held the A's to three runs though seven. He gave up 9 hits but didn't walk a batter while striking out 4. Phil Hughes came on for the 8th inning and sat the A's down 1-2-3. To be honest, I thought Joe Girardi would probably bring on Rivera in the 9th to close it out but to my surprise (and delight) he gave the new found bullpen stud a shot at his first major league save. Hughes sat them down in order in the 9th and seized the opportunity.

The Yanks are making it look easy right now. This was their largest margin of victory since the All-Star Break, a whopping three runs, and they did it in comeback fashion. In those 7 games, the pitching staff has given up only 17 runs (2.4/game) while the offense has scored 29 (4.1 per). They haven't blown their opponents out of the water, but they've found ways to win close games, which might be even more satisfying. This victory, coupled with an off night for the Sox stretches their lead in the AL East to 2.5 games.