Monday, August 31, 2009

Pettitte Nearly Perfect; Yanks Roll On

For six and two thirds innings tonight, it appeared that the Yankees might just have a magical moment in what's becoming a very memorable season. Andy Pettitte was mowing down the O's with ease, breezing through the order and needing just 77 pitches to set down the first twenty batters in a row.

With two outs in the seventh, Adam Jones bounced a 1-0 delivery to third. Jerry Hairston Jr., giving Alex Rodriguez a night off, had made a nifty play to get the second out of the sixth and keep the perfecto alive. This time, on a far more routine play, Hairston booted the ball, ending the perfect game. The next batter, Nick Markakis, shot a single down the left field line, ending the no hit bid.
Lest anyone be quick to heap criticism or blame upon Jerry Hairston Jr, please remember two things. First, shit happens. Second, Melvin Mora led off the eighth with a home run, ending the shutout as well.

The home run from Mora was the only run yielded by Pettite, or any Yankee pitcher, the entire night. Pettitte continued his post All-Star Break dominance, running his record to 4-1 with a 2.56 ERA and 7 quality starts in 9 outings. For all the talk of the Yankee offense, consider this: tonight marked the fifth consecutive game that Yankees pitchers have allowed three walks or fewer, the fourth consecutive with two or fewer, and the third in the last four with one or fewer. Yankee starters have allowed just two free passes in the last four games and five in the last complete turn through the rotation. Tonight's game was the second time in the last three that Yankee pitchers have allowed four men or fewer to reach base via hit or walk.

As for the Yankee offense, Nick Swisher led off the third with a solo shot to give the Yanks a one run lead, then made it 2-0 in the fifth when he followed Robinson Cano's leadoff double with one of his own. From there, Joe Girardi fell in love with the bunt again, having Hairston attempt a bunt on an 0-1 pitch, and after he was hit by a pitch, having Melky Cabrera lay down a failed attempt that saw Swisher forced out at third.

The Yanks added three more in the eighth as Derek Jeter led off with a double, Johnny Damon drove him in the single, Mark Teixeira singled, and then with two outs, Cano doubled Damon and Teix in.

Perhaps the only blemish on the night (bunt fetishes aside) was another spotty performance from Brian Bruney. Charged with protecting a four run lead, Bruney went 3-0 on the leadoff batter, walked him on the sixth pitch of the plate appearance, and then after getting an out, gave up a single. It was enough to prompt Girardi to summon Mariano Rivera - perhaps a bit unnecessary, but Mo hasn't had much opportunity to work of late, and if that's the worst thing that happened on the night one can't really complain too much.


Game 131: Eight Miles High

As the Yankees begin a quick 7 game road trip to Toronto via Baltimore, they hold an 11.5 game cushion for a playoff spot, a 6 game lead in the division, a 4.5 game edge in the race for homefield advantage and trump the best team in the National League by 3.5 games as well. They took off during their last series against Baltimore and haven't touched the ground since.

The last time the Yanks began a series against the Orioles, they were trailing the Red Sox by one game shortly after the All Star break. The Yanks took three close games against the O's while the Sox lost three tight ones to the Rangers and the balance of power the the top of the AL East hasn't shifted since.

Andy Pettitte will be the first of the Yanks' top three starters to get the call for this series in Baltimore. Andy rebounded from his poor start in the blowout against Boston with a solid effort against the Rangers last Wednesday. Over seven innings he allowed two runs and seven hits while striking out seven, more than enough to collect his 11th win of the season.

In his last six starts, dating back to July 30th and including the clunker in Boston, Pettitte has a 2.60 ERA and has struck out more than one batter per inning. It's even better when compared to last August when Pettitte went 1-3 with a 5.84 ERA due mostly to a nagging injury to his shoulder. Having a healthy Andy Pettitte has been crucial to the Yankees ability to pull away from the pack in the second half this year.

Taking the ball for the Orioles tonight will be Jeremy Guthrie, the guy the Orioles thought was going to be their ace at the beginning of the season. Despite the support of his #1 fan, this has not been the case. He's struck out just 87 batters in 154 IP while walking 54. Even after two 7 inning, 1 ER efforts against the White Sox and Twins in his last two starts, Guthrie's ERA sits at 5.26 and his WHIP at 1.40 for the season. He has a chance to pick up three straight wins tonight though, something he hasn't done for over a year.

A-Rod gets the night off all together tonight as Jerry Hairston, Jr. gets the start at third and Hideki Matsui will DH.

The Yanks are 9-3 against both the Jays and the O's on the season and unlike the bird-named teams they'll take on during this road trip, they are certainly soaring at the moment.

Eight miles high and when you touch down,
You’ll find that it’s stranger than known,
Signs in the street that say where you’re going,
Are somewhere just being their own.

Nowhere is there warmth to be found,
Among those afraid of losing their ground,
Rain gray town known for it’s sound,
In places small faces unbound.

Vicarious Vacation

If you're up for one, head on over and check out our pal Jason's account of a once in-a-lifetime kind of afternoon he had with his family during a trip to San Diego:
Here's the setup: A few days prior to leaving for San Diego, I emailed my friend, Matt. Matt, an agent, has been a long time FOTB. In my email to Matt, I asked him if there was any way that I could get my boys to meet Kyle Blanks, a client of his, since we were going to be at the game. In a way that is typical Matt, he responded a few hours later with a "Call me asap" email. I gave him a call and he let me know that he not only arranged for us to meet Blanks, but that Kyle suggested that we meet him for lunch before the game. I was giddy, to say the least, as I knew this would be a tremendous experience for my boys...meeting a pro ballplayer and having lunch with him right before he played!
It gets better from there. There was more interaction with players (the Shyster jokes that there may have been some ulterior motives on their parts) and it makes you realize that while baseball in New York is certainly great in it's own right, the game is more accessible and easier to enjoy in person essentially everywhere else in the country.

Sure the Padres have to try a little harder to appease their fans since they are drifting lifelessly at 20 games below .500. It helps that they don't have to charge exorbitant prices on tickets or concessions to cover their $43M payroll (oh wait, minus Jake Peavy's $8M), too. But we're talking about San Diego here. I don't too many people are losing sleep over the Pad's record. When October comes in SoCal, it's still going to be 78 and sunny.

The New Yankee Stadium Of Golf

Since Matt brought the topic up before, here is an interesting (albeit pretty one-sided) article I saw about the course they played the Barclays' Championship at, Liberty National:
If you haven't heard about Liberty National, it's the world's most expensive grassy view lot -- a former oil tank farm that had all the visual appeal of a collapsing tenement building, even the rats avoided it. But it was located just across the water from the southern tip of Manhattan, roughly 1,000 yards from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

So a rich guy bought it and built a private golf course that has generated more conversation, commentary and criticism than a penal U.S. Open track. As one player sarcastically pointed out, it's probably no accident Lady Liberty faces the other direction.
What follows is a bunch of tour pros trashing the place, similar to what we heard from some players about the New Yankee Stadium. Similarly, Liberty National cost far more than other courses to construct ($250M) and demands a $500,000 membership initiation fee before annual dues are factored in, which I'm going to blindly guess are north of $50,000. However, it's only a short private shuttle-boat ride from downtown Manhattan which offers a level convenience which is unmatched in NYC area golf.

The owner, Paul Fireman freely admits that the course as a poor investment, and the designer Tom Kite readily acknowledges that due to the way the course was constructed, nothing is natural about it. For 30 years, they played the tournament at historic Westchester Country Club and no such kvetching was heard. Sound familiar?

Sure, most of the bitching from the players was unwarranted. And all of it was unnecessary, if you ask Vijay Singh:
"One who doesn't worry about what the golf course is, and just plays one shot at a time," Singh said. "You go out there and start criticizing the golf course, then you might as well not show up."
The great thing about golf, like baseball, is that everyone plays under the same conditions. So when it all shakes out, regardless of the difficulty or quirkiness of the place you are competing, the playing field is level.

He's A Better Golfer Than He Was A Closer

Golf is definitely Jay's territory around here, as I generally have no interest in the sport unless it involves a windmill and/or a clown combined with drunken gambling.

However, I couldn't help but notice the results of the final round of The Barclays over in Jersey City yesterday, where Heath(cliff) Slocum(b) out lasted Tiger and the other guys to win the tournament.

Looking to sell high, the PGA Tour promptly traded him to the Nationwide Tour in exchange for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek.

The Obligatory Joba Post

Yeah, Joba Rulez!!1!

Apparently the editors at the Daily News aren't capable of calculating that two runs in three innings equates to a 6.00 ERA. That's not good.

Actually, lost in all the discussion about his innings limit is the fact that since throwing 8 shutout frames against the Rays on July 29th, Joba hasn't been good at all. He's allowed four or more runs in every game (with the exception of yesterday of course) and hasn't made it into the 7th inning once. He's watched his ERA rise from 3.58 to 4.38 over that time and even though the Yanks scored an average of 8 runs a game behind him, he only walked away with one victory.

Joba is now at a level of innings pitched that he's never reached before, so perhaps he's running into a natural limit of sorts, without regard the one that the Yanks are placing on him.

Although I was critical of the fact that the Yanks keep changing their plans for Joba, the latest version does seem to make the most sense of the options available. What I didn't know before noting that 35 pitches seemed a little low in last night's recap was that the Yanks plan to start Chamberlain off slowly, and sort of re-stretch him out so that he's ready to go as deep as necessary when the postseason rolls around.

It makes more intuitive sense than having him start on extended rest and still allows him to contribute to the team and be tested against Major Leaguers, as opposed to shutting him down or sending him to the minors. They got away with the tightest restriction in the only start Joba will make before the rosters expand so it's much less risky to the bullpen from here on out.

At this point, Joba is slotted for the 4th game of a postseason series only by default. Everyone is getting worked up about the way the Yankees are handling him (without providing a reasonable alternative), but they should probably be more concerned about the fact that he hasn't been a good pitcher of late. Let's focus not on how many innings he pitches, but how well he pitches in those innings.

A Good Weekend, But Not Good Enough For Some

Rise and shine, Fackers. I know it's Monday, but the good weekend that was in Yankeeland should help soften the blow. They managed to get in all three games without so much as a delay despite a tropical depression lurking just off the coast in the Atlantic which prevented some complications later in the season. Although the Yanks struggled in their first meeting with the White Sox in Chicago, they swept this three game set and might have dealt the final blow to the Pale Hose' playoff hopes for this year.

After surrendering the lead in a dramatic 7th inning on Friday, the Bombers got a walk off, homer from Robinson Cano, with runners in scoring position, no less. Saturday played host to an offensive explosion and a stellar pitching contribution from the most unlikely of places. You can't tell just by looking at the final score, but Sunday's game was more similar to Friday's than Saturday's in that it was hotly contested. The Yanks held on tight until the bottom of the seventh inning and only after that did their offense finally take over.

In their past 9 games (dating back to the beginning of the Red Sox series), the Yanks have scored an average of 8 runs per game, which has allowed them to go 6-3 during that stretch against three teams that were all in Wild Card contention when it began despite allowing almost 6 against.

Steve at Was Watching, however, is not impressed. Yesterday, he noted that the Yankees are "only" 33-30 when playing a team with a record at or above .500 and even goes as far as to label the post "possible bad news". The point of the article was apparently to insinuate that the Yankees are doomed in the playoffs:
...but, I'm thinking ahead to the post-season, for the Yankees. And, there will be no Blue Jays, A's, Orioles, Twins or Mets for the Yankees to play in October. Most likely, New York will have to deal with Detroit or Texas in the ALDS and then face someone like the Angels, Red Sox or Rays in the ALCS (should the Yankees advance past the ALDS for the first time since 2004). And, that’s a horse of another color, no?
Well yes, the postseason is different than the regular season. But the rest of that argument? Yikes. Where to begin?

How about the fact that the Twins, who Steve lumped in with the "losing" teams, as a result of winning ONE GAME, are now at .500, swinging the Yankees record from 33-30 to 40-30 against these teams, which is now the best in the AL. So his post went from spurious to irrelevant in roughly 5 hours.

Just because it's listed in a column on Baseball-Reference doesn't make it a useful stat. Aside from the perfect example provided by the Twins above (which could have been prevented by removing their 0-7 record against the Yanks), there are plenty of good reasons not to take much stock in team's play against other squads with "winning records".

For one, the teams are divided based on their cumulative record for the season, which for various reasons doesn't always accurately reflect their strength at various points within it. For instance, the Yankees took 5 of the 6 games they played against the Mets this year, but going into that 6th game, the Mets were 37-36. Now, after putting $85M on the DL, they are a shell of their former selves and 13 games below .500 so it looks like the Yankees were beating up on a cupcake.

A while back, (actually while debunking a piece on that claimed having a losing record against teams over .500 was actually a good thing) we determined that the average winning percentage against teams over .500 is around .430. This means that an average team would be 27-36 against teams with winning records through 63 games. Using that as a benchmark, even the 33-30 Steve was working with is quite a healthy showing.

As we have more recently discussed, the fine folks as Baseball Prospectus have studied what makes a team likely to succeed in October and at no point was the team's record against opponents with winning records even factored into the equation.

For better or for worse, over the next month, more and more emphasis is going to be placed on the Yankees odds in the postseason. There will be countless theories proposed about why the Yanks are poised to return to World Series glory or be bounced in the first round. The truth is that there are a myriad of variables that will ultimately determine how they fare, and the most important one is luck.