Saturday, September 02, 2006

Month in Review: August, 2006

Record for the Month: 18-12 (138 RA, 175 RS)
Overall: 79-53 (1st Place, 8 games ahead of Boston)

Player of the Month: Here's where I wish that Baseball Prospectus had monthly splits on their advanced statistics. Which month is more valuable--Jason Giambi's where he batted .311/.476/.649 with six homers, seven doubles, and 25 RBI over 103 PA, mostly as a DH; or Johnny Damon's, who batted .305/.369/.625 in 141 PA, with eight doubles, 23 RBI, and a team-leading nine homers, three triples, and 27 runs scored, while playing mostly in center field. As Jack Nicholson said in Prizzi's Honor, "Which one a deze?"

Meanwhile, although the quest for honors is between those two--to me, the playing time and positional difficulty edges tilt things in favor of Damon, but I'd be interested in hearing counter-arguments--there were a number of other noteworthy performances during the Dog Days. Robbie Cano hit .351/.373/.598 on the month, with 12 doubles and 23 RBI.
New acquisition Bobby Abreu was always on base in August, to the tune of a .357/.460/.496 line. Mariano Rivera served up only three runs in 14 2/3 innings last month, and Chien Ming Wang was a rock, going 4-1 with four quality starts and a 3.23 ERA for the month.

Dregs of the Month: Among the Yanks' new acquisitions, Craig Wilson fell into a Andy Phillips-like playing pattern, with an Andy Phillips performance, .244/.280/.410. He's going to need to get those numbers up if he hopes to have anything more than a platoon role on this roster. Jorge Posada had a miserable month with the bat, .225/.304/.404. If Wilson was able to don the tools of ignorance a bit over the next month it would probably give Posada a needed breather, because backup catcher Sal Fasano hasn't been everything promised with the bat (.125/.160/.250, 3 doubles in 24 AB)--even though he has revolutionized the Bombers' facial hair fashions.

Things get a little uglier on the pitching side. The bullpen tandem of Ron Villone (40 baserunners and a 6.04 ERA in 22 1/3 innings of relief) and Kyle Farnsworth (6.23 ERA in 8 2/3 innings) have been beat up. Farnsworth might be showing the Yanks why he's been with four teams over the last 24 months--he's a frustrating pitcher, unreliable and fragile. Villone started the season as Joe Torre's undiscovered pitcher, and has grown to be his favorite toy, after Everyday Scottie Proctor. Here are his monthly innings totals: April--9, May--12.7, June--13.3, July--17.0, August--22.3. So Villone pitched more last month than he did in April and May, combined. Any surprise that his performance has suffered?

Story of the Month: The Yanks came into August one game back of the Red Sox, 61-41. They come into September eight games up, despite having played only good-but-not-great .600 ball during the month. What gives?

The Yankees' story of this month, really, is the collapse of the Red Sox. Generally speaking, I'm not much into schadenfreude, so, aside from the five games the Yanks took from the Red Sox, I haven't taken much pleasure from the Bostons' 9-21 performance in August. And it's with good reason--the Red Sox's slide has come on the heels of injury and misfortune that strays off the field and into the real world. David Ortiz has suffered an irregular heartbeat since mid-month, and rookie Jon Lester just discovered that the back pain that had plagued him this month is the result of lymphoma. In both cases, the nature of the ailment overshadows the games on the field, and we wish both men a speedy recovery.

In the land of more mundane injuries, the Red Sox had been missing their captain, Jason Varitek, since July 31, their rightfielder, Trot Nixon, since July 30, their #3 starter, Tim Wakefield, since July 17, and their #4 starter, Matt Clement, since June 15. Jonathan Papelbon, one of the rare relievers who should legitimately get Cy Young or MVP consideration fell off a bit in August (2.40 ERA, after remaining under 1.00 in every previous month) and left Friday night's game with pain in his shoulder.

So the Red Sox's engine seized up, and the Yankees stepped into vacuum, even going so far as to help the Beantowners' downward spiral. While it's a queer Story of the Month for the Yankees' season (unlike some Red Sox fans, who watch the Yankees with the hateful intensity of a cat staring down a caged parakeet, for Yankees fans it's usually about us, us, us), it does change how things go down the stretch. Again, not declaring anyone dead, but if the Red Sox and Yankees aren't nipping at each other's heels this month, the Yankees will be at greater liberty to experiment, with de facto major-league rehab assignments for Hideki Matsui and Octavio Dotel, possible first-base tryout for Gary Sheffield, if he hasn't decided to scrap this season, fun stuff like that. Liberated (for the moment) from the rat race in the AL East, here's what the Yanks should focus on in September:
  • Get (and Stay) Healthy: The Yanks don't have to rush Mike Mussina back from the DL, they can be conservative with Mariano Rivera (who's suffering an elbow strain), and they can rehab any of the currently-injured bodies they can get back on the roster, with no penalty now that rosters have expanded. Almost as important as making sure that the injured players get back to health and in game shape is ensuring that those bodies on the roster get enough rest to stay fresh for October. Randy Johnson should get some extra days between starts, Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon should see some DH time, Scott Proctor and Ron Villone should be restricted to pitching only once per day, maximum.
  • Get Alex Rodriguez Out of His Funk: Actually, Alex Rodriguez greeted September with two homers against the Twins, so maybe this is already happening. Earlier in the day, yesterday, my Brother T emailed me, noting "It's already September and Alex Rodriguez only has 27 homers?" When we talked about it today, my reaction was to flip it around. Alex Rodriguez has had a bad year, and yet he still has 27 homers, almost 100 RBI. If he finishes up strong, he still has a shot at a nice season overall. Alex's problems at the plate can be tied almost exclusively to the jump in his strikeout rate--he struck out about 18% of the time most of his career, now he's up to 22%. If the Yankees are going to make an impact into October, they need for Rodriguez to step up.
  • Sort Out the Bench: Right now, the Yankees' bench is Nick Green, Aaron Guiel, Sal Fasano, and one of Craig Wilson or Bernie Williams. But there are lots of other options in the wings--Miguel Cairo and Andy Phillips, when they come back from their injuries, Matsui and Sheffield, if they come back from their injuries. The wrong combination could easily hamstring the Yankees in a short series, so stay tuned.

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