Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Game 140: Good Times, Bad Times

One hundred thirty nine games into last season, the Yankees were 75-64, 10 games back in the AL East, 7 removed from the Wild Card and it was becoming apparent that their season would conclude with a bunch of meaningless games at the end of September. The Yanks had the best record in the AL East from then on, but still ended up 6 games behind the Red Sox and out of the mix when October rolled around.

They were also in the process of taking a series from the Rays, but it was Tampa who was sitting atop the Division and holding comfortable cushion for a postseason berth. This time around, however, the roles have been reversed, with the Yanks sitting pretty and the Rays down and out.

One of the Rays' September call ups last year will be today's starter. The first overall draft pick in '07 out of Vanderbuilt, David Price, who emerged as a reliever for the stretch run in '08 was transitioned into the rotation after being called up at the end of May this year. Much like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, Price excelled in his role in the bullpen, and while he has had some exceptional moments, has struggled to become an effective starting pitcher. Price is averaging just 5 1/3 innings over 18 starts and has an ERA of 4.75 (96 ERA+) and WHIP of 1.469. That's average a best, and actually not as good as Joba has been this year in fewer innings.

As you may or may not recall, on September 14th last year, David Price faced the Yankees for the first time and and Derek Jeter welcomed him to the Bronx with a 9 pitch at bat that ended with a solo home run to right-center field. It has been his only hit in 5 plate appearances against Price but he has also worked a walk.

Making his 3rd start of the year for the Yankees is Mr. Chad Gaudin. In his last one against the Blue Jays, he was staked to a 5-0 lead but hit a major snag in the 4th inning. He gave up a walk, a HBP and 3 singles which led to three runs before being pulled in favor of Alfredo Aceves. He threw 80 pitches that day and figures to be able to extend that number towards 100 today since he is functioning on normal rest.

After the line up was disrupted for several days due to the turf in Toronto and the doubleheader yesterday, the Yanks are nearly at full strength, with the exception of Jeter DH'ing while Jerry Hairston plays shortstop (instead of Ramiro Pena for whatever reason). At this point of the season, I guess that doesn't really matter than much.

The games played this September figure to be almost as meaningless as the ones last year, but since 2008 was so empty and unfulfilling, it makes it that much better this time around.

In the days of my youth,
I was told what it was to be a man,
Now I've reached the age,
I've tried to do all those things the best I can.
No matter how I try,
I find my way to do the same old jam.

Good times, bad times,
You know I've had my share

Derek Jeter Can In Fact Press

Let's just continue to beat this topic of conversation into the ground, shall we?

Derek Jeter went 0 for 8 between the two games of yesterday's double header. On the YES telecast, Michael Kay pointed out that never before had Jeter played both ends of a double header and gone hitless. Fair enough, though double headers are far, far less common than they used to be. An 0 for 8 streak isn't that uncommon. Jeter has had three such streaks this year, and has had more than twenty such streaks in his career, including an astounding 0 for 28 in his horrific April 2004.

After the game, the media asked Joe Girardi if he thought Jeter was pressing to reach Lou Gehrig's franchise hit record. Girardi began his answer with a comment along the lines of "if it was any else...", before going on to say "I have never seen it [pressure] bother him [Jeter] at any point in his career".

It's wholly possible that yesterday was nothing more than what it was on the surface: an 0 for 8 slide, which has happened to Jeter dozens of time in his career. I certainly don't think that pressure is getting to Jeter, even if the media (and now us) are bashing everyone over the head with Jeter's pursuit of the record, Over the course of his career, "clutchiness" aside, Jeter has demonstrated himself to be a very calm, collected individual. Rarely has he seemed outwardly rattled by anything, and he's often shown a knack for the big moment.

That said, as much as some would like to make him out to be as such, Derek Jeter is not Superman. He is in fact human. He can presumably press a bit from time to time. As an example, let's take a look back at another Yankee season where the team was cruising down the stretch.

On September 9, 1998 the Yankees beat the Red Sox at Fenway 7-5, running their lead in the AL East to an incomprehensible 20.5 games. That night, Joe Girardi watched from the bench as Derek Jeter homered in his first two at bats, running his season total to 19. It was nearly double the ten home runs he had posted in both of his first two full seasons, but it was one short of a nice round number.

Through the end of the September 9th game, Jeter was hitting .334/.394/.500 with a K% of 16.4, a BB% of 8.5, and a HR% of 3.1. Over the final 18 games of the season, Jeter hit .250/.304/.333 with a K% of 22.8, a BB% of 6.3, and a HR% of 0.0. He ended the season stuck at 19 home runs, but would hit 24 the following year, still a career high.

Perhaps Derek Jeter just went into a slump over the final 18 games of the 1998 season. Or perhaps with an insurmountable lead in the standings and nice personal milestone easily within reach, Jeter changed his approach at the plate. It's certainly a possibility, even for a player as unselfish as Jeter. The changes in his walk and strikeout rates over that stretch suggest that he became less selective and more aggressive in his approach at the plate. Perhaps he was gripping the bat just a little tighter and swinging just a little harder over that time.

When he passes Gehrig at some point on this homestand he will be given a lengthy and deserved standing ovation, he will humbly accept it and quickly move on, reminding everyone that a championship is the only milestone that counts. It will be a scene similar to when Jeter set the Yankee Stadium hit record last year, and similar to many others that will yet play out as Jeter continues to write his name in the franchise record book.

Derek Jeter is a once-in-a-generation type of player. As Jay mentioned this morning, for people our age Jeter will go down as our Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Mantle. But to dismiss out of hand that he could be pressing in the face of an accomplishment as historic as this one is to paint him in a nearly inhuman light. With any luck, Jeter will set the record in short order, allowing everyone to enjoy the moment and then move on with the business of the season.

The Wonderful Waivering Wallace Matthews

Now here's a refreshing voice of reason who would like to set Wallace Matthews straight after he stated without qualifiers that unlike A-Rod, Andy Pettitte and others, Derek Jeter has "resisted the temptation" to use performance enchancing drugs and "did things the right way":
Still, I realize that while it would be disrespectful, and perhaps irresponsible, not to take Jeter at his word about his own steroid history, I have come to know that to accept the word of any ballplayer on this particular subject these days is to invite humiliation.


I mean, minus a paper cup, a test strip and a private room, how can any of us know for sure when a ballplayer, even one as honorable as Jeter appears to be, is telling the truth.


It's a shame that a player like Jeter has to be asked whether his career has been helped by steroids.

It's a bigger shame that even after his denial, we still can't be sure he is telling the truth.
That voice? Wallace Matthews himself, on February 19th, 2009.

Either Matthews arranged for the private room/paper cup scenario or for some unknown reason only six and a half months later, we CAN be sure Jeter's telling the truth...

Some Lunchtime Reading

Nothing crazy, just a few quick links:
  • Here's a piece on summer sports in New York City that Alex Belth of Bronx Banter wrote for SI.com. As you would expect from a piece about the city penned by Belth, it's beautifully written, and it's long enough to swallow your lunch break whole if you so choose. If you get through that, check out his post on the blog about it.

  • Lar from wezen-ball dug up some pictures of past Yankee players wearing uniforms (and fake mustaches) from the early 20th century and before. That's where the one of Yogi to the right came from, but click through for a bunch more.

  • There's been plenty of talk about Jeter and his side of the Yankee hit record recently. Here's a little about Lou Gehrig's.

  • Matthew Pouliot from NBC's Circling the Bases arrives at the Yankees during his series "Restoring the Rosters" in which he ranks the teams in the MLB based on the players they have drafted or acquired via international free agency. The Yanks are ranked pretty highly, but much of their depth comes from the latter of those two components.

  • Rob Neyer suggests moving Phil Hughes back to the rotation and Joba back to the bullpen. It sounds good on paper, but inertia of the status quo will keep in from happening. The risk of injury while transitioning roles is probably too risky for the Yankees to stomach as well.

  • God help me, I actually agree with Bob Raissman. I vehemently disagree with this mustache, however, which makes the fake one Yogi is wearing look reasonable by comparison.

A Further Look At Mike Dunn

In 2003, in his fourth professional season, Brian Bruney split the year between AA and AAA, making his first venture to the top rung of the Diamondbacks' system. In 63.1 innings of work, Bruney posted a BB/9 of 4.41, a K/9 of 8.53, a K/BB of 1.94, and 0.14 HR/9.

This year, in his fourth season as a pitcher, Mike Dunn split the year between AA and AAA, marking his first venture to the top rung of the Yankees' system. In 73.1 innings of work, Dunn posted a BB/9 of 5.65, a K/9 of 12.15, a K/BB of 2.15, and 0.50 HR/9.

There are some differences between the two pitchers in the seasons in question. Bruney was drafted out of high school and was 21 in 2003. His 2003 season was pretty much an even split between the two levels (31.1 IP in AA, 32.0 in AAA). Mike Dunn was drafted out of community college and spent his first season plus as a professional playing the outfield before converting to the mound. He is 24 this season and pitched the bulk of his innings (53.1) at AA.

As I alluded to last week in our preview of September call-ups, Dunn's propensity for issuing free passes is a cause for concern. While he certainly won't keep up at his current MLB pace of 27 per 9, it isn't unreasonable to think that someone who's walked four per nine in his minor league career will do worse than that in the Majors. Some of that will be offset by his knack for striking batters out, but again, one can't expect him to duplicate his minor league rates in the Majors.

I'm certainly not trying write off Mike Dunn after two ugly Major League appearances. One can't underestimate the nerves involved in making his Major League and Yankee Stadium debuts. Dunn is still relatively new to being a full time pitcher, so he's very much an unfinished product. Hard throwing lefties are hard to come by, and he will be given every opportunity to succeeed.

Dunn is likely to spend most of next season at AAA, where I'm sure that reducing his walk rate will be the primary objective given to him by the organization. Hopefully he'll be able to draw on his month of Big League experience as he tries to make that improvment. If Dunn can develop into an effective Major League reliever he would give the Yankees a weapon that few bullpens have.

In the meantime, things are going so well for the Yankees at present that I've been reduced to nit picking about the walk rates of September call-ups.

The Deification Of Derek Jeter

Good morning, Fackers. It was a pretty decent weekend for the Yankees, after they left Toronto at least. Being one-hit by Roy Halladay was rather frustrating and getting blown out on Sunday was brutal in a very different, protracted sort of a way. Even the game that they won at the Rogers Centre was painful to watch, a nine inning, 6-4 game that somehow took 3:52 to complete.

Yesterday redeemed the weekend as we were treated to a great pitcher's duel in the first game and an offensive explosion in the second with the Yanks winning both. I had wondered about the decision to throw both Burnett and Sabathia in a double header as it figures to get one of them out of their typical rest pattern for their next start, but I think we'll all take the two wins now and worry about that later.

Increasingly, the topic of conversation turned towards Derek Jeter as the weekend pressed on. He picked up 5 hits on Saturday and Sunday and looked to chip away at Gehrig's record during the twin bill on Monday. The YES Network even put together an intro that played before each of the games of the doubleheader about his pursuit of the All-Time Yankee hits record saying he is "Forever identified as a champion; a hallmark of Yankee greatness" and has "the consistency of a metronome". They also set a new record for most presumptuous text poll ever during the night game which asked fans if they would rather witness Jeter's 3,000th hit, final game, number retiring or Hall of Fame induction. But Jeter went 0-8 so the quest will have to wait.

Look, every Yankee fan loves Derek Jeter, my generation especially. He came up when I was 11 years old, won the Rookie of the Year when I was 12 making him the perfect sports idol for kids around my age. When we're old and gray, we're going to still remember Jeter fondly because he'll be inexorably tied to our youth.

Maybe it's the contrarian in me, but I have trouble liking things that seemingly everyone else does. If you are a hardcore Yankees fan and someone asks you who your favorite player is, chances are, you'll at least try not to say Derek Jeter. Because he's everyone's favorite player. It's too obvious.

Even dummies like Wallace Matthews can appreciate what Jeter has done. What Matthews can't do, however, is write an even-handed column using "facts" or "relevant statistics" to explain how great Jeter is:
And yet, Jeter - unlike teammates Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, not to mention probably hundreds of others throughout both leagues - resisted the temptation to take advantage of what was encouraged by the Players Association and tacitly approved by Major League Baseball.

That took more strength than any of the juice monsters could ever imagine, or ever hope to muster up.

He never tried to be more than what he was, a contact hitter with an inside-out swing who was as happy to dunk one just over the head of the second baseman. He kept score not by the number of tainted home runs he could hit . . . but by the number of rings he could collect.

He's got the rings, four of them, and he's got the money. But most of all, he has his self-respect and the knowledge that his accomplishments are not beholden to an unscrupulous chemist, a rogue doctor, a failed police officer turned "personal trainer'' or some sleazy gym rat disguised as a clubhouse toadie.
Aside from being wrought with weak clichés and and the same bullshit every boring writer has always said re: Jeter's intangible winnerificness, it's incredibly unequivocal. You'd think that after so many players seemingly above speculation like Andy Pettitte, Rafael Palmero, Manny Ramirez and if you'll recall, A-Rod at one point, have been exposed for using steroids, Matthews might want to steer clear of unilaterally proclaiming his cleanliness. But Matthews thinks he can do that, because Jeter is just different.

Again maybe it's because I'm wired to go against the grain, but I don't like the milestone chases. The flashbulbs going off when he's still 3 hits away from Gehrig's mark don't make sense to me. I'm not a fan of the love Derek Jeter gets for being Derek Jeter®. I enjoy watching him more when the attention subsides and we don't have to incessantly talk about how great he is. Because talking about how much you're enjoying something makes it less enjoyable.

Yanks Rock Rays, Sweep Twin Bill

The first two and a half innings of the night portion of the doubleheader seemed to indicate that the Yankees and Rays were headed for another pitcher's duel. A.J. Burnett stumbled out of the gate, allowing back to back doubles to Gabe Gross and Evan Longoria to put the Rays up 1-0. However, he then rebounded to strike out four over the next 2.2 IP, working around two walks and a single to keep the Rays lead at one heading into the bottom of the third.

Andy Sonnanstine had faced the minimum amount of batters through the first two frames but not only did the wheels come off in the third, but the car swerved off the road, down an embankment and burst into flames. The Yanks sent 13 men to the plate in the inning, eight of whom came around to score on eight hits and two walks. The game was blown wide open, but there was a lingering sense of a disappointment.

Derek Jeter, the man receiving the loudest cheers of encouragement, made two of the three outs in the inning. He did reach base on a fielder's choice, driving in a run and came around to score. However, the 17 hits tallied by the Yankees tonight will be best remembered not for Mark Teixiera's two home runs or Jose Molina picking up 3 singles, but for the fact that Jeter, still 3 away from Lou Gehirg on the All-Time Yankee hit list after going 0-4 in the first game, didn't pick up any of them. It was reminiscent of the game back on July 31st, 2007 when A-Rod was sitting at 499 HRs and the Yankees bashed 8 as a team en route to a 16-3 win, but Alex went 0-5.

Jeter wasn't as close to his milestone and this game wasn't quite that lopsided, but Burnett went six innings and didn't allow another run and the Yanks added three more as they dominated the fading Rays. A.J. was backed up by Edwar Ramirez, Jonathan Albaledejo and Mike Dunn, who each threw scoreless innings of relief. Dunn's was the least impressive as his control problems continued, throwing only 11 of his 24 pitches for strikes and walking two.

The sweep of the doubleheader in conjunction with a White Sox win over the Red Sox shrank the Yankees magic number from 19 to 16, extended their lead in the division to a season-high 9 games and their record to 39 games over .500 for the first time since September 30th, 2004. There have been ample opportunities for the Yankees to let up since the All-Star break, but they haven't taken any of them, ripping off a 38-13 record (.745) since that point.

Going 11-12 over their final 23 games would give the Yanks their first 100 win season since '04, but there has been nothing to indicate that this team will coast to the finish line in such a manner. This team just gets more impressive as the season wears on.