Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This Will Make You Feel Better

Game 100: You Don't Know Me

There has been some recent talk that CC Sabathia has been disappointing this year, citing an increase in walks and a decline in strikeouts. His 3.67 ERA probably wasn't at the very top of the range of expectations at the beginning of the season, but he's averaged about 6 2/3 innings per start and racked up 10 wins.

When considering all possible outcomes before the season began, I would venture to guess that the Yanks would have signed up for that production without much hesitation. Historically a second half pitcher, now is the time of year that the big fella tends to find his stride. He's thrown 14 innings since the All-Star Break, allowed 3 runs and accumulated two wins. He was just getting warmed up before.

Going to the mound for the Rays will be their quondam lefty ace, Scott Kazmir. To call the 25 year old's performance so far this year "disappointing" would be a gross understatement. Although he's pitched only one truly full season in the Major Leagues, Kazmir has contributed significant value to Tampa Bay's rotation since he was called up to the Big League club in 2004 as a 20 year old. After completion of the 2008 schedule, he had pitched 722 regular season innings to a 3.61 ERA while striking out over one batter per inning. He fit the billing of the Rays' ace by general consensus entering the season; a lefty strikeout machine who, if he could ever make 35 starts or learn to control his pitch count, would be deadly.

He's certainly not going to make 35 starts this year, because he's already spend time on the DL and is only at 14. Given how poorly he's pitched, that's probably a good thing for the Rays. Kazmir's ERA is a gruesome 6.69 and his WHIP a ghastly 1.716. He's averaging fewer than 5 innings per start and has almost as many ER (55) as Ks (58). For a pitcher with a lifetime 9.5 K/9 ratio, that's bad news. His stint on the DL was officially caused by a quadriceps strain, but my skeptical side thinks he might, like Chien Ming Wang did, have had a nasty case of Badpitcheritis.

Kazmir has historically fared well against the Yanks, with a 2.65 ERA over 12 starts, but only a 5-4 record due primarily to his inability to go deep into games. He's also about a half of a run better at Tropicana Field than away from it, so it wouldn't be entirely shocking if he found his groove tonight. I would be surprised if he went more than 6 innings though, because he's only done it three times this year and the Yanks tend to work the count.

Rays fans might not recognize the 2009 version of Scott Kazmir, and who could blame them? Certainly not Brother Ray himself.

And anyone can tell,
You think you know me well -
Well, you don't know me.
(No you don't know me)

On Jeter's Newfound Range

If you ask an average Yankee fan in the stands to rate Derek Jeter's defensive abilities, their answers would probably skew towards good or even great. He looks athletic, doesn't make a lot of errors, does the jump throw... superficially, it's the obvious conclusion. However, if you asked the typically baseball blog reader to give their opinion, they would probably end up on the opposite end of the spectrum, towards poor or even terrible. Of course, there are blog readers in the stands and casual fans who read this site, but the point being that the subject of Jeter's fielding abilities is simultaneously foreign to the masses and nearly passé to the baseball blogosphere.

Interestingly, this season, Jeter has made the crowds look wise and all of the idiots who were talking about the demise of Derek's defense (ahem, myself included), look somewhat foolish. Bryan Hoch of MLB.com recently took a deeper look into Jeter's play at shortstop this season and attempted to explain how his Ultimate Zone Rating has increased at age 35 to it's highest level since they began tracking UZR in 2002:
Thanks to a number of variables, Jeter has continued to find ways to turn back the hands of time defensively this year. He continued to follow the program outlined by Yankees strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea, but he has also been assisted by aggressive defensive positioning on the part of infield coach Mick Kelleher.

Better health has also been a factor, as Cashman said there was "no doubt" at times that Jeter's health inhibited him in past seasons. So has adding a Gold Glove first baseman and receptive target in Mark Teixeira.
While player's defensive performance is certain to vary from year to year, it seems less likely for someone to have a sudden improvement in their fielding in their mid-30's than it would be for them to have a career year at the plate. With defense, the outcomes are mostly binary; the play either gets made or it doesn't. With offense, there are vary degrees of success or failure a batter can attain, ranging from a double play to a home run, creating a wider gap between failure and success. Luck is also a bigger factor for hitters as they can't control where a batted ball goes to anywhere near the extend a fielder can position themselves to catch one.

There is also an inherent assumption that defense is the bastion of the young and agile. It's based on quickness, agility and reaction time, all attributes which inevitably fade with age. Production at the plate can improve with patience, power and experience, most of which players do not possess when they first enter the league.

So how is it that Jeter is enjoying this renaissance now?

Of Hoch's four points above, one stands out as being the most significant: His positioning. UZR is calculated by dividing the field into 64 zones, and tracking whether or not players get to balls in what areas of the field. If Jeter is in fact being positioned better, which David Pinto also believes, it's going to appear that his range is increased when in fact he simply doesn't have to cover as much territory as he once did. (See here for a hilarious anecdote by the legendary Repoz of BBTF.)

Teixeria's glove probably helps, but Jeter has never made many throwing errors. He is on pace for 5 this year and has averaged 6.5 per season since 2001. His arm isn't the issue. I'm sure his improved health and conditioning regiment (which was intended to improve his explosiveness and lateral agility) have helped as well.

However, it's much easier to believe that Jeter is simply in better position to field balls hit his way than it is to think the Yankees hold the secret to a rejuvenating exercise program, or that he was playing badly injured over the last 8 seasons. Which is most certainly a good thing, because defensive positioning is much easier to control than health or lateral agility.

Fack Youk Field Trip: The Big A

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm stuck out in Southern California this week for work. I suppose there are worse places to go, but I'm an East Coast guy through and through. The pace of life out here just isn't my speed (e.g. going to dinner Friday night and having to wait a good five minutes before the bartender even acknowledged my presence - and it wasn't busy). Besides, going away for a week for vacation is one thing, having to get out of the usual routine and leave home for a week for work is another - especially when it costs me a precious weekend.

But it's not all doom and gloom out here. Having just got into town the night before and with the time difference in my favor, I woke up fairly early Saturday morning and managed to get my work done before noon. With that behind me, I hopped in a cab and shot over to the Big A to take in a game between the Halos and the Twinkies - I couldn't let Jay be the only Facker to spend Saturday afternoon at the ballpark. Despite my earlier misgivings about the relative safety of doing so, you'll be happy to know (or maybe unhappy to know), that I made it through the experience unscathed - no beer bottles to the head, no gun shot wounds, etc.

A tribute to Nick Adenhart still exists in front of the Stadium. Having just finished Marty Appel's Thurman Munson biography on the flight out (probably not the best setting to read a book about a guy who died in a plane crash), it was eerie to see the memorial to another man who died while an active Major Leaguer - a situation the Angels have dealt with far too many times in their relatively brief history.

The differences between The Big A and Yankee $tadium were apparent from the get go. Ballpark parking in Anaheim is $8 compared to $19 in the Bronx. I walked up to the box office and scored a field level ticket, twenty two rows back in leftfield, for $33. That kind of money won't even get you out of the terrace in New York. The beer is a lot cheaper as well - $6.50 for 16 oz.

I had hoped to take in BP, maybe even score a ball given my seat's proximity to the field, but it wasn't to be. There was no batting practice Saturday with the day game after the night game - or at least there wasn't at about 11:45 when I got to my seat. Rather than bake in the sun for an hour and a half, I decided to take a walk through the stadium to see what I could see.

As I passed by the Guest Sevices office, I dropped in to see if there were any attractions in the ballpark. I realize that not everyone has a Monument Park or a ballpark museum, but I figured there had to be something. Apparently not - my question was greeted with nothing but quizzical looks.

History apparently is not something readily embraced by the Angels organization. The retired numbers are located behind snack carts in the rightfield upper deck. The Angels Hall of Fame consists of a few paintings on a wall in the mezzanine - including one time Yankees Don Baylor and Jimmie Reese.

Also on the mezzanine level are wall sized photos of former Angel "greats". I laughed out loud at seeing the great Mike Witt up there. Witt, you may recall, was sent to the Yankees for Dave Winfield in 1990, and was perpetually injured, starting just 27 games over four seasons and pitching to a 4.91 ERA, all for the low low cost of $7.5M.

Without a horse in the race, I was just hoping for something interesting to happen during the game. So I was turning into a Twins fan after Nick Blackburn was perfect through three. That all came to a screeching halt in the fourth, as the Angels put up a nine spot on their way to an 11-5 victory.

I did get to see something interesting though, as a fan decided to take to the field in the late innings. He eluded security for a good bit, making it all the way to the outfield grass behind shortstop after jumping on from the right field line. Security usually lives for a situation like that, but the takedown was pretty weak. As the police escorted him out right by my section, the PA announcer made sure to remind the fans that running on the field is now classified as a felony. A felony! With one dead fan and one paralyzed one under their belts already this year, perhaps the local authorities should be more concerned with protecting the fans in their seats rather than prosecuting the ones out of them.

You'll also be happy to know that Bobby Abreu did not come within twenty feet of a fence all afternoon. I hope to be able to get back once more before I skip town.

The Big Top Comes To The Big Apple

Good morning Fackers. I normally look at the Mets with a sort of "live and let live" philosophy. I'm not a New Yorker, so I don't particularly buy into the whole cross town rivalry bit. Sure I want the Yanks to beat them six times a year, but I want them to beat the Twins six times a year too.

So much like Jason at IATMS, I don't take any particular joy in what's going on over in Flushing these days. But at the same time, it's impossible to ignore what's happening there. Reflecting upon the Bronx Zoo years in his autobiography Balls, former Yankee Graig Nettles quipped "When I was a little boy I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees I have accomplished both." That nicely sums up the state of the Mets these days as well.

To summarize, General Manager Omar Minaya's top lieutenant is VP for Player Development Tony Bernazard. Bernazard is bat shit crazy. Rumors have persisted for years about his antics, and he's long been considered the key contributor in driving both former pitching coach Rick Peterson and former manager Willie Randolph out of town. But in recent weeks, Crazy Tony has really stepped up his game. First, he tore off his shirt and challenged the entire AA Binghamton Mets to a fight. Then he nearly got into a fight with fellow jackass Francisco Rodriguez as the Mets team bus left the park in Atlanta. Lastly, he unleashed a profanity laced tirade upon a subordinate when a Diamondbacks scout took the seat Crazy Tony wanted at a recent game.

In short, Bernazard had to go. It was long overdue, but the three incidents this month sealed his fate. So the Mets made it official yesterday. But in what has become typical Mets fashion, they can't even get a press conference right. Minaya made a mockery of the English language ("this reflects upon my watch") and rather than putting the issue behind him, he decided to pour gas on the fire. In one of the most bizarre sequences I can recall, Minaya accused Daily News beat writer Adam Rubin of "tearing down" Bernazard because Rubin coveted Bernazard's job. You can watch the uncomfortably bizarre footage here, unless of course Met-owned SNY realizes what an embarassment this is for the organization and pulls the footage.

So let me get this straight. A beat writer secretly wants to work for the team he covers. So, he hatches an elaborate plot to do his job and write stories about all the zany antics of the flat out crazy executive the Mets continue to employ. His plan works to perfection; the executive gets fired, and of course the logical next step is to hire the beat writer who has exactly zero experience working in professional baseball (and he would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for you kids!). That's where you lose me Omar - but either way, good thing you were around to foil the plot.

I'm not rejecting out of hand that Rubin may have some desire to work on the other side of the notebook. For the most part, sportswriters cover the game because at some point the loved the game. No one's jumping into that dying industry for the fame or money. That said, Minaya's premise is as ludicrous as anything Crazy Tony ever pulled off. The fact of the matter remains that Bernazard acted of his own accord. He, and the Mets, have no one to blame for this situation but themselves. This is not Adam Rubin's fault.

Minaya should be skating on thin ice to begin with given the situation surrounding the organization, yet he's signed for three more years. I'm not sure he can weather this storm much longer. Omar Minaya is the highest profile front office employee of the organization and his antics yesterday were entirely inappropriate and unprofessional. If there's any justice, he'll be joining Bernazard in the unemployment line soon.

Off On The Right Foot

Back on April 14th, in his second start in a Yankee uniform, A.J. Burnett carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Tropicana Field. It happened the night after Chien Ming Wang was rocked for 8 runs in one inning and Nick Swisher found his signature moment as a Yankee. The pressure was certainly on Burnett to save the bullpen and he went 8 innings to pick up the win.

Even though no such debacle preceded this game, Alfredo Aceves, Brian Bruney, Phil Coke and Phil Hughes (the Yanks top four relievers behind Mariano Rivera) were all unavailable. Burnett again stepped up to the plate, holding the Rays to two runs over seven innings, which gave Jonathan Albaladejo and David Robertson some extra slack to work with when they were finally called upon.

Of course, the offense played an even larger role in creating that cushion for the bullpen to work with. They got to work in the second inning, when Hideki Matsui singled, Jorge Posada doubled and Robinson Cano tripled in succession. After Nick Swisher got Cano in on a groundball it was 3-0.

Sheilds settled down through the next three innings, working out of minor trouble in the 4th and 5th but hit the wall in the 6th. He gave up back to back homers to Cano and Swisher, and was pulled two batters later when Derek Jeter singled to left.

The Rays finally got on the board in the home half of the inning. B.J. Upton struck out but reached on a passed ball, advanced to third on a single by Carl Crawford and scored when Evan Longoria bounced into a double play. It was the only run they would score off Burnett and it was unearned.

Burnett threw 114 pitches but looked like he was still in control for his final 10 as he sat the Rays down in order in the 7th. Uncharacteristically, he induced 11 groundouts as opposed to 6 in the air and 5 on strikes. His GB/FB ratio is 0.74 this year but was nearly 2.0 in this outing.

Alex Rodriguez, the birthday boy, narrowly missed a homer in the 8th inning but drove in two runs with a double anyway. The Rays got to Albaledjo in the 8th for two runs but the Yanks put the game out of reach in the 9th on a solo homer by Nick Swisher and a three run shot by Johnny Damon.

Robby Cano ended up with a feat, which for him, was actually rarer than a cycle. He walked twice, homered and tripled. With 19 BB as opposed to 80 singles 26 doubles coming into tonight, he would have been a better bet to come with with one of each of the latter than two free passes. His home run was his 14th of the year (which is approximately 12 more than the Mets have as a team).

It was a good of a start to the road trip as the Yanks could have asked for. They're now 23-6 (.793) in their last 29 games, which includes the sweep at the hands of the Angels.