Thursday, April 15, 2010

Game 9: Four Sticks

As the Yankees attempt to take their third straight rubber match to begin the season, both teams send young starting pitchers to the mound to make their season debuts, albeit a little bit late.

After beginning the season on the 15 day DL with a left shoulder issue, Scott Kazmir takes the ball for the Angels tonight. The 26 year old lefty had a rough go in his time with Tampa Bay last year, amassing a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts and spending almost a month on the DL with a quadriceps injury before being traded to Anaheim at the wavier trade deadline. Kazmir saw his strikeout rate dip below one per inning for the first time since his rookie season in '09 as his hit rate jumped over that 9/9IP mark for the first time in his career.

In six regular season starts with the Angels, Kazmir pitched 36 innings and gave up just 7 ER, good for a 1.73 ERA. It would appear that he found his groove out in California but judging by xFIP, the two parts of the season were virtually indistinguishable. Kazmir made three appearances in the postseason (including a start and a relief appearance against the Yankees) and didn't fare well, allowing 9 ER in 10 2/3 innings.

Given that Kazmir is due $20M over the next two years, the Angels took on significant risk when they acquired him and the early season trip to the DL isn't a good sign considering he's battled shoulder issues before. If he can stay healthy, though, Kazmir has proven he is a valuable commodity in the past. He has also had quite a few of the Yankees' numbers, Derek Jeter in particular, so it will be interesting to see if that trend continues.

For the Yankees, Phil Hughes makes his much-anticipated 2010 debut. Although he's still only 23 years old, this will be the fourth season in a row that Phil has been given a chance to start a game in April.

Back in 2007, he went on 4/28 against Toronto before the infamous hamstring injury in Texas on May 1st. In 2008, he had a 9.00 ERA after 6 April outings and was placed on the DL, supposedly with a broken rib and some other ailments although many suspected that it was just a case of "bad pitcheritis". Last year he was called up from the minors after Chien-Ming Wang came down with that same ailment to make another April 28th start and stayed in the rotation for a total of 7 games before being relocated to the bullpen in early June.

It was his performance as a reliever last year that has been the most encouraging sign of his young Major League career. In 41 appearances spanning 51.1 innings, Hughes tallied a 1.40 ERA and held opponents to an anemic .456 OPS against, allowing just 5 extra base hits. Starting is going to be a different sort of challenge for him, but Hughes says he feels much more ready than he has in the past.

After being awarded the 5th starter's job in Tampa in March, Hughes made two starts in extended Spring Training attempting to refine his pitching arsenal while the team played the Red Sox and Rays. Now he's back with the club and about to be given his fourth shot to become a full time member of the starting rotation. Let's hope he sticks there this time around.

Oh, Baby, the river's red, Oh, Baby, in my head.
There's a funny feelin' goin' on, I don't think I can hold out long.

There's a lot going on here. Nick Johnson is on the bench (just a regular day off), and Nick Swisher moves up to take his place in the two hole. Marcus Thames will DH as Randy Winn plays left field (his first start of the season), which is clearly the better choice defensively. In between those two in the bottom third of the lineup, Curtis Granderson occupies the 8th spot, one position higher than he's batted against the other lefties the Yankees have faced.
Jeter SS
Swisher RF
Teixeira 1B
Rodriguez 3B
Cano 2B
Posada C
Thames DH
Granderson CF
Winn LF
Erick Aybar SS
Bobby Abreu RF
Torii Hunter CF
Hideki Matsui DH
Kendry Morales 1B
Howie Kendrick 2B
Mike Napoli 2B
Brandon Wood 3B
Reggie Willits LF

Thursday Afternoon Linkaround

Over at the NYT Bats Blog, Benjamin Hoffman talks about the other numbers Jackie Robinson wore playing football at UCLA, in the Negro Leagues and at the Dodger's AAA team, then located in Montreal.

This article from Mental Floss talks about Robinson's MiLB debut and is the source of the picture to the left.

On a day when most are descussing Robinson's legacy, Joe Posnanski talks about the way he played the game.

Ross from NYYSI notes that yesterday was the second lowest attendance that the New Stadium has played host to and explains why we might be in for some more low turnouts in the near future. He also created a comprehensive list of the changes that have been made to the Stadium since last year, most of which have to do with the concessions.

Mike from River Ave. Blues has an excellent post about waiting for Mark Teixeira to start hitting and suggests that the Yanks might want to drop him down in the lineup until he finds his swing(s). Couldn't hurt at this point.

Not to keeping harping on the Vazquez thing, but this morning Joel Sherman said:
But this idea that the media is feeding this beast is silly. Does anyone really think Vazquez would not incur boos if no one wrote or talked about 2004?
Really? The media doesn't influence fan perception? Not when another tabloid is saying that Vazquez "can't handle wearing those pinstripes" after two fucking starts? So why does The Post bother writing about the Yankees so much? Obviously because a lot of people read and have their opinions shaped by it.

Booing is contagious and there might be a some people who would do it of their own volition but the stoking of the fire by the Post and Daily News in particular most definitely had contributed to the scope of the boos. I'm not saying they shouldn't write the things they do, but it's ridiculous to pretend that what they put into print has no affect on people whatsoever.

Amidst all the negativity, there were some good deeds going on at the Stadium yesterday as well. An Iraq war veteran saved a rabbi's wife from choking during the game.

Even though they are staunchly anti-Vazquez, props to IIH,IIF,IIc for capturing this gem from Sarah Silverman.

For those of you who have always wanted the option of burning the Yankee logo into your toast, here you go.

Lar from Wezen-Ball searches for the best name in baseball. Unfortunately for Cannonball Titcomb, Jack Glasscock and Buzz McWeeny, it's not that kind of search.

David Pinto notes that if David Ortiz keeps striking out at the rate he's going right now, it's going to be incredibly difficult for him to be productive at the plate. Speaking of Papi, he's riding the pine tonight.

Diane Firstman at Bronx Banter looks back at some notable Yankee strikeout streaks.

Over a Baseball Analysts, Jeremy Greenhouse used batted ball data to create some visuals explaining where guys tend to hit the ball in the outfield. The one to the right compares Jeter and Jesus Flores and there is plenty of other interesting stuff if you click through.

I'm not sure how many of you listen to FanGraphs audio with contributor/occasional destroyer Carson Cistulli, but I highly recommend it, nof only for the "white hot analysis" but for the sly humor that Carson kicks in. Here is the latest version wherein they discuss the current state of PitchFX and here is an episode with an appearance by our friend Joe from RAB.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy says that chewing tobacco makes his in-game decision making sharper. That's called an addiction, folks. (h/t Sam Miller)

And finally, appropos of nothing, here is some badass acoustic guitaring via Boing Boing.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day

Sixty three years ago today, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their season by hosting the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. When the local nine took the diamond in the top of the first, they had a rookie, the reigning International League MVP, manning first base. That man was Jackie Robinson, and he was the first African American to appear in a Major League game since the 1880s.

Today, Major League Baseball will observe Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the anniversary of Robinson's debut. Robinson will be remembered not just because he was the first, but because of the grace and dignity with which he carried himself during Branch Rickey's great experiment. He laid a firm foundation for those who followed, and assured once and for all that baseball's long-standing gentleman's agreement would be finally cast aside.

Three months after Robinson debuted, Larry Doby broke the American League's color line, when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians. Robinson's Dodgers won the NL Pennant in '47, but lost to the Yankees in the Fall Classic. The following year, Doby's Indians, fortified by 41 year old rookie and Negro League legend Satchel Paige, beat out the Yankees and Red Sox in a three team pennant race, and went on to capture the World Series.

Quickly, most Major League clubs followed suit. In 1948 the Dodgers added Roy Campanella and in 1949, Don Newcombe, both key cogs on five pennant winners. Over in Upper Manhattan, the Giants brought on Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson in 1949, and Willie Mays in '51.

But New York's other club was slow to change. The Yankees won the World Series, their seventh in twelve years, when Robinson debuted in 1947. After being usurped by Doby, Paige, and the Indians in '48, the Yankees went on an unprecedented, and as of yet unmatched, run of five consecutive World Series championships from '49 through '53, ousting the Dodgers in '49, '52, and '53, and the Giants in '51. The Yankees may have been slow to react to the changing times, but it was hard to argue with the results.

However, their extended run of success may not have been the only reason the Yankees were hesitant to change. It's been widely reported that George Weiss, the club's Hall of Fame general manager during that era, was a racist. According to Peter Golenbock's Dynasty, a socially lubricated Weiss once said at a cocktail party "I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. Boxholders from Westchester don't want that sort of crowd. They would be offended to have to sit with [redacted]".

Weiss' stance cost the Yankees the opportunity to sign some incredibly talented Negro Leaguers, including Willie Mays. Instead they opted to sign lesser talent who would populate their farm system, but had little real chance of making the Major League club. But as long as the Yankees kept winning, Weiss had a plausible defense.

In 1954 the Yankees won 103 games, their highest total since 1942. It was only good for second place. Cleveland, with Larry Doby in the heart of their lineup and patrolling center field, finished at 111-43, a whopping eight games ahead of the Yanks. They would eventually fall to Mays, Irvin, Thompson, and the Giants in the World Series.

With the Yankees dynastic run of five consecutive championships at an end, they could no longer hide behind the excuse that they were good enough to win without African American players. The club was under pressure - from pickets at the Stadium to allegations leveled by Robinson himself. The Yankees had traded away their best African American minor leaguer, Vic Power, at the conclusion of the 1953 season. But they had another viable prospect waiting in the wings.

On April 14, 1955, fifty five years ago yesterday and one day short of the eighth anniversary of Robinson's debut, Elston Howard became the first African American to play for the New York Yankees, making them the fourth to last club to integrate. Like Robinson, Howard was the reigning International League MVP at the time of his debut. Like Robinson, Howard had the proper character to carry the burden of being the first Yankee to break the color line; his plaque in Monument Park aptly describes him as "a man of great gentleness and dignity".

Though blocked behind the plate by Yogi Berra, Howard was a valuable contributor to the Yankees as a back up catcher, and spent some time outfielder and fist baseman. By 1960, with Berra aging, Howard took over as the primary catcher. In 1963, he earned the American League MVP, becoming the first African American to do so.

After twelve and a half productive seasons with the Yankees, Howard spent the final year and a half of his career with the Red Sox. Upon his retirement, he immediately returned to the Bronx as a coach. He served on the staffs of four different managers from 1969 through 1979, earning two more World Series rings to compliment the four he captured as a player. Even when the Bronx Zoo was at it worst during those years, Howard remained a calming presence, perhaps best illustrated by his role as a peacemaker when Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson nearly came to blows in the Fenway Park dugout during the summer of '77.

Despite the turmoil and turnover that marked the Yankees of that era, Howard was a constant. Coaches and managers came and went, but Howard remained. There was a good chance that he would eventually become the first African American manager of the Yankees. Instead, Howard fell ill with myocarditis, a rare heart disease. It kept him out of the Yankee dugout for the entire 1980 season, and eventually took his life that December. The Yankees retired his number and dedicated his Monument Park plaque in 1984.

Major League Baseball owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Rickey, Robinson, Doby, Paige, Campanella, Newcombe, Irvin, Thompson, Mays, Howard, and all the other men who were strong enough to change the game's bigoted practices. At the risk going all Ken Burns/George Will here, baseball has long been an integral part of the fabric American life, and the changes that these men precipitated within the game foretold, and perhaps even influenced, the changes that would take place in society at large over the following decades.

It's a shame that the Mets, with their Brooklyn Dodgers obsession and Jackie Robinson Rotunda, are not home today to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day. But all 30 clubs will mark the day in one way or another. Mariano Rivera remains the final grandfathered player in baseball to wear #42, retired league wide by Bud Selig in 1997 in marking the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson's debut. In years past, Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, and Robinson Cano - named for Jackie Robinson and who switched to #24 three years ago to honor him - have joined Mo in donning Robinson's number for the day. I'm sure we'll see them and others rightly pay tribute him in that manner again today.

Booing Vazquez

Good morning, Fackers. As I'm sure you know by now, Matt and I are unabashed Javier Vazquez supporters. We spent several posts this offseason discussing whether or not his reputation as someone who is not clutch is deserved and during Spring Training, I explained why I was rooting for for Javy to do well this season. Matt wrote the previews for both of his starts this year and in yesterday's, he said:
Yet as Javier Vazquez returns to the Bronx, makes his first home start of 2010, and tries to re-establish a home in New York, I fear he may be facing a higher degree of difficulty than most, particularly in light of those who saw what they expected to see in his first start. I hope that these fans, who are so often told they're the best in the world, don't prove my fears to be well founded.
Of course those fears came to fruition when Vazquez had a poor outing - which was exacerbated by the fact that Joel Pineiro had an excellent one - and a vocal minority of fans decided to boo him. It's not surprising, but the fact that we were expecting it doesn't diminish the ridiculousness of it.

Everyone has a right to voice their displeasure if they want to, but the right to do something doesn't absolve you from being wrong for doing it. Just ask this guy.

Although the type of people who root against their own players are probably not the same ones who read a lot of baseball blogs, I'm glad that Craig Calcaterra noticed the "classless, ignorant" reaction to Vazquez's outing and wrote a short post at NBC about it:
These boos are almost certainly a function of people thinking back to 2004, which is amazingly weak given that, you know, the team just won the World Series five months ago. For a fan base that fancies itself so much more knowledgeable than anyone else's, this was pretty bad.
Obviously there are painful memories of Vazquez that none of us have completely forgotten, but as Craig points out, the Yanks just won the fucking World Series. All grudges concerning 2004 should have been erased by now. I'm not sure it's about "knowledge" so much as arrogance and entitlement, that are the issues at hand though.

A lot of New Yorkers (rightfully) believe that it's the best city in the world, which isn't exactly a controversial point, but it tends to taint the way that some of them follow their sports teams. Success and failure are magnified through the lens of the Big Apple to the point that the city becomes the reason for every poor performance that happens in it, which of course, is bullshit. These are the same people who take it upon themselves to determine who "belongs here" or "can handle it". They feel like they are a part of the city and telling themselves that not everyone can "make it here" as Sinatra said, grants them an added feeling of supremacy.

Rob from Bronx Baseball Daily thinks that the expectations for Javier Vazquez are too high, but I actually believe the opposite to be the case. I think the jerkoffs who booed Vazquez as soon as he gave up runs in the third inning were fully expecting him to fail and pounced on the first opportunity to display their disgust. Obviously we saw the same thing happen with A-Rod in Octobers past as his postseason struggles began to snowball. We even witnessed it in the beginning of last year when Mark Teixeira got of to a slow start and the home fans got restless.

To his credit, Vazquez is keeping his head up and saying the right things ("I feel like it's unfair because that was so long ago"), but I'm still ashamed that people I share a rooting interest with fans would treat someone who is vital to the team with such derision the first chance they got. Clearly they don't think he's cut out to play in New York, but apparently haven't figured out that booing the guy is just going to put more pressure on him.

Michael Kay and John Sterling both love to tell us that Yankee fans are "the best in the world", but that's only true when things are going well. As Neyer says, passion cuts both ways. When it turns sour (or in this case, before it even has a chance to), there is a contingent of Yanks fans who can be some of the absolute worst.