Monday, September 24, 2007

Week in Review: Win One for the Scooter

Part I

Week 25: September 17-23, 2007

Record for the Week: 5-1, 45 RS, 27 RA
Overall: 90-65, leading the Wild Card by 2.5 games, Magic Number of 2 to make the playoffs.

The Breakdown:

9/17 -- Baltimore 5, Yankees 8
Phil Hughes gets his first--and possibly only--win at Yankee Stadium this season. Hideki Matsui breaks a power drought (to use a mixed metaphor); and hit machine Jorge Posada gets another three base knocks.

9/18 -- Baltimore 0, Yankees 12
Mike Mussina improves upon his comeback start, and this time brings some strikeouts with him, whiffing six in seven shutout innings. Dougie Spellingerror plates four runs, three on a homer, Jeter and Cano contribute three hits each.

9/19 -- Baltimore 1, Yankees 2
Veteranliness is served with Andy Pettitte getting his turn to stifle the Oriole offense. Joba Chamberlain is getting more mid-inning, runners-on appearances, in preparation for a larger role. The guy's already a golden god at the Stadium--if they can combine Joba and Rivera into the 1-2 punch the Yanks had with Rivera and Wetteland in '96...mmmm, that's tasty.

9/21 -- Toronto 5, Yankees 4
We already talked about the Roller Coaster. Next!

9/22 -- Toronto 11, Yankees 12
Yeah, this one, too. Next!

9/23 -- Toronto 5, Yankees 7
La Chiquita and I took this one in yesterday, my blushing bride (today's our second anniversary) taking the place of Brother J, who's on the disabled list with the dreaded flu-like symptoms. Sadly, we were late for the tribute to the Scooter. Unlike Saturday's sogfest, Sunday's game was played under ideal circumstances--a sunny, clear day, bright enough to send both of us home with some color, but not oppressively hot. The Moose--perhaps smelling blood in the water given Ian Kennedy's injury and Phil Hughes' inability to escape the sixth inning in his last two starts--was on, allowing a cluster of runs in the second inning, but bouncing back to pitch seven, with one walk, five strikeouts, and a hit per inning. Luis Vizcaino gave the runs back in short order, bringing down the wrath of Joba upon the Blue Jays, and setting up the rookie's first career save, in front of his dad. The offense was keyed by three hits from Jose Molina--channeling Posada for the day--and Cano also had three hits to keep his batting average over .300 for the season. Good times.

Weird moment of the game: Vizcaino surrenders a two-run shot in the eighth, to Matt Stairs, who crushes it into the black seats. A young Bleacher Creature wearing a Mariano Rivera shirt scampers out into the black seats to recover the ball, and throw it out on the field, to the delight of the crowd. Then, after the kid's gotten back to his section, the cops go across the black seats to drag the kid out of the game, which sets off a firestorm--people booing, starting chants of "let him stay!", the works. Yankee fans booing cops set off a wave of nostalgia in me--for a moment, it felt like being a Yankee fan back in 1989 again. Then the curtain of negativity lifted suddenly, when the scoreboard announced that Chamberlain was warming in the pen. Welcome back to the future, kids.

Player of the Week: It's got to be Mike Mussina. The Moose allowed 3 runs in 14 innings for the week, striking out 11 batters and looking like a living, breathing pitcher again. He's dealt himself back into the rotation--for good or for ill--and has been spotting that 89 MPH fastball of his the way he did last season. Will this last? No one knows, but for the Yanks' sake, I sure hope so. Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Chien Ming Wang, and Andy Pettitte all deserve honorable mentions for their work this week.

On the hitting side, Robinson Cano (.423/.483/.538) and Jorge Posada (.389/.522/.444) were hot, and Hideki Matsui experienced a modest power surge (2 HR, 1 2B, 1 3B in a .259/.355/.593 week). I've really got to give some love to Doug Mientkiewicz (.467/.600/.733), in whose honor I composed the following short poem, texted to Brother J's sickbed during yesterday's game:
Minky. His bat is stinky;
His fifth-inning RBI was dinky,
But his glove is sweet.
I think that says it all. Seriously, good going for another guy who's really inserted himself into the roster conversation this month.

Dregs of the Week: You can get an easy definition of "bad" from a couple of members of the Yanks' relief corps, Kyle Farnsworth (5 R in 1 IP, spread out over two appearances) and Edwar Ramirez (4 R in 1 2/3 IP). Where Mienkiewicz and Matsui did well for themselves in the 1B/DH/LF merry-go-round, Jason Giambi (.100/.400/.100) and Johnny Damon (.222/.300/.278) weren't helping themselves so much. Melky Cabrera--the man whose presence in center field kind of created this crunch--was officially all over the place last week, hitting .238/.292/.238, but matching the team lead with 8 RBI. So he came up big in big spots, ditched out much of the rest of the time, ran the bases like a drunken sailor, but bailed out the pitching with his work in the field, including gunning down Greg Zaun at the plate in the fourth inning of Sunday's game. Does Melky really belong among the Dregs this week? You figure it out, it's hurting my head...

Story of the Week: As I wrote over at today, it's looking good for the Yanks to make the the postseason:
In the American League, it's all done but the dishes. Three of the four playoff spots were clinched over the weekend, and the Yankees are poised to claim the final berth. While Detroit and Seattle aren't mathematically eliminated, the odds aren't in their favor -- essentially, either team needs need to run the table and hope for a historic collapse by the Bronx Bombers, something the computer saw happening roughly 0.2 percent of the time.
So, that would make this week about three goals, in rough order of importance: 1) Maintaining the Wild Card lead--it's easy to take things for granted, so it's no time to stop dotting the i's and crossing the t's; 2) figuring out who does and does not belong on a playoff roster; and 3) avoiding distractions. The team has a slight tightrope to walk because while the odds are in their favor, there is no such thing as a done deal; so while Joe Torre has to do things like set up his playoff roster and rotation, get key players rest, and such, he can't afford a seven-game losing streak.

The biggest roster questions right now are in the pitching staff: does Phil Hughes make the playoff roster? With the expanded off-days in the playoffs this year, the Yanks shouldn't need five starters, and they've shown some concern about putting their young starters in the bullpen. Can you, in good conscience, put the ball in Kyle Farnsworth or Edwar Ramirez's hand in a short series? If the Yankees' playoff losses over the past six seasons have taught us anything, it's that you can't hide an untrustworthy pitcher on the playoff roster. You'll inevitably be forced to rely on Jeff Weaver or Javier Vazquez or Kevin Brown, and it will never turn out well. A similar question applies to keeping Ron Villone on the roster. You have seven guys that can only be kept off the pitching staff by their health at this point (Wang, Rivera, Joba, Pettitte, Clemens, Mussina, and Vizcaino), which probably leaves four spots wide open.

Finally, the distractions. I love Will Leitch, the maestro behind Deadspin, but we really didn't need this New York Magazine article about Alex Rodriguez's possible landing places--although it does offer an interesting picture (literally, a chart) of the Yanks' power structure. You'll also note I haven't spoken about catching the Red Sox. It's a nice idea, but the potential gain (home field and choice of schedule "a" or schedule "b" in the Division Series) doesn't merit getting caught up in that as a goal. Give me a choice between another division championship and a rotation set-up that maximizes Wang and Pettitte's starts in the postseason, and the answer is simple--I think the latter contributes more to winning in the playoffs. Pennants are nice but rings are better.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Roller Coaster

There were a couple of points in yesterday's game when I was feeling nauseous and really, really, wanted someone to stop the roller coaster ride the Yanks have been running against the Blue Jays. Friday's Wang/Halladay matchup was a duel as promised through six, but the wheels came off with some iffy defense in the seventh [sigh], and then two more runs scored in the eighth thanks to an Alexis Rios blast off the Three True Outcomes pitcher [ack!]--which should land any day now. But then, the Yankees managed to tie it in the ninth [yay!] and then the offense ground to a halt in extra innings, until Greg Zaun got the chance to touch up Brian Bruney for a bomb [boo, hiss!]. Overall, a massively entertaining but quite painful way to loose a ballgame.

But it was a cakewalk compared to what happened on Saturday--maybe the least satisfying game of the season. There was no pitching duel element to this game--these two teams slugged early and often, and both teams went through relievers like a guy with the runs goes through toilet paper. Add to all of that the 100 minute rain delay that held off the game's start, and you had a long, humid day at the Stadium, full of scary highs and depressing lows. It's just not healthy. Well, at least they won this time. Rubber game this afternoon, after the Yanks' tribute to the late, great Scooter. I'll be there.


Maybe Joe Torre wouldn't have to go through ten pitchers in a game if he allowed Ross Ohlendorf or Chris Britton to throw more than three pitches per game. I guess that would deprive the paying customers the chance to see Kei Igawa warm up.

Edwar's one of the guys I'm rooting for, but it just isn't working. You need better control than he's showing to play the tightrope game of weak fastball/great changeup. No matter how cool that change is, it won't work if batters can just wait back for him to throw it for a strike.

In the midst of the pain, it was nice to see two guys who have been struggling--Matsui and Melky Cabrera--each post three hits, and eight RBI between the two of them.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More SI and the Fried Chicken Man

I got another chance to write the update to BP's Playoff Odds Report over at Sports, this time complete with byline. Here's a taste of the part that should be most relevant to readers of this blog:
Meanwhile, the American League is down to a single race, Yankees versus Tigers for the Wild Card. New York's huge edge in the playoff odds is built on the system rating them as a significantly better team than Detroit; the Tigers' three-game set against Cleveland aside, they have a somewhat easier schedule than the Bronx Bombers down the stretch -- Kansas City and Cleveland at home, the Indians and White Sox on the road. Meanwhile, the Yankees' stretch drive features six games against the Orioles, a team that's played them extremely tough all season long (Baltimore's 8-4 against the Yankees in 2007). So hang on to your hats, because this one isn't quite finished, not yet.
Tonight we got an example of why it's only one race in the American League (Cleveland thrashing Detroit with an extra-inning walkoff, which feels like it must be the second or third time they've done that to the Tigers this season) and why the Orioles are the team that bugs me most at the end of the Yankees' schedule. The Devil Rays have also given the Yanks a hard time this year, but they have a greater weakness than the O's--man, that D-Ray bullpen is ugly in the middle--and the reasons they give the Yanks fits make sense. The Rays are a young team, that can run, and that puts the ball in play, which puts all the awkward seams in the Yankee defense on display. With the O's, it doesn't make sense. The rest of the league beats them, they're a veteran team. They're generally not beating the Yanks on athleticism...but in the ninth inning tonight, it didn't feel like a four-run lead was safe against them.

It's not so humiliating to be done in by Miguel Tejada, or Brian Roberts, or Nick Markakis. But it is a pain when Aubrey Huff and the Fried Chicken Man, Kevin Millar, are the ones shoveling dirt on your grave. You just want to scream at them, "Aren't you guys scrubs? Why don't you play against the Yankees like you do against the rest of the league?"

'Cause he's the Fried Chicken Man, that's why. Notes:

  • Phil Hughes won his first game at Yankee Stadium. Coming into the night, Hughes has one of the ugliest home/road splits around, sporting a perfectly respectable 3.52 ERA on the road, but the earned run average of the Beast (6.66) at the Stadium. Mainly, that's been fueled by an absurd batting average on balls in play of .392 in the Bronx.
  • It's funny that no-one seems to be making much of the fact that Mariano Rivera got hit in his pitching hand by an errant throw from the Boston bullpen. I'm glad that the conspiracy theorists haven't picked this up (and for good reason, there's nothing to it) because, with the whole Patriots/cameras scandal, Bill Simmons has been pushed to the brink. If he had to deal with the Red Sox trying to injure pitchers in the opposing bullpen, I fear he'd have a nervous breakdown.
  • Was tonight's sac fly the weakest RBI of A-Rod's season? Is anyone keeping track of this?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Week in Review: Hold Those Tigers

Week 24: September 10-16, 2007

Record for the Week: 4-2, 27 RS, 25 RA
Overall: 85-64, 2.5 games ahead of the Tigers for the Wild Card


9/11 -- Yankees 9, Toronto 2
We already discussed this one. Next!

9/12 -- Yankees 4, Toronto 1
On the surface, you could say the Moose is back. Dig a little deeper, and you see that he only had one strikeout, only managed one 1-2-3 inning. It's way better than what he's doing, but it's not "presto! back to normal" by any means.

9/13 -- Yankees 1, Toronto 2
Ian Kennedy pitches beautifully, just to find that the Yanks can't do a thing against AJ Burnett. For maximum annoyance, the Marlins not only beat the Yanks in the 2003 series, but they seeded their starters throughout the AL East, making sure the Yanks got the dud of the group.

9/14 -- Yankees 8, Boston 7
There might not be a sweeter victory all season than this, but it still wasn't an enjoyable game. These teams seem to have at least one ugly, brutal, marathon game per season, and this one was only made longer watching Jason Giambi fumble balls at first base. The muffed double play in the sixth was just a fundamentally horrible play, with Giambi not trusting his footwork enough to walk off the base to catch the throw, then get back to tag Ortiz. He had all sorts of time, but decided to do an insane stretch for the ball, instead.

9/15 -- Yankees 1, Boston 10
Something rubs me wrong about Josh Beckett. No, it's not just the 2003 Series or the being a Red Sox that I'm talking about. He reminds me of Jaret Wright, just healthy and talented. Anyway, I just detest his damned chipmunk face. That is all.

9/16-- Yankees 4, Boston 3
Didn't watch this game, and judging from the ninth inning bases-loaded-and-Papi-up note it ended on, I'm glad that I skipped this one. Couldn't possibly have been good for the ulcer.

Player of the Week: Strange week, with good pitching, ehh hitting, and not a lot of big standout performances. Jorge Posada had the best rate stats with a .294/.429/.647 week, and the Captain broke out five RBI at Fenway over the weekend, including two long homers. Jason Giambi deserves an honorable mention with two homers in his three hits this week (.273/.500/.818, 5 RBI). Roger Clemens and Ian Kennedy stood out among the pitchers, even though neither got a decision.

Dregs of the Week: Chien Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, meanwhile, spit the bit in Fenway, allowing five runs each. Still they're eclipsed on the Dregs-o-Meter by Alex Rodriguez's road funk (.182/.308/.182)--sounds like a good band name, actually--and perhaps the worst offensive week of the entire year, by Melky Cabrera (.043/.120/.087). We love the Melk man, and his arm saved a couple of runs last week, but that's rank. Just awful.

Link of the Week: I can't make up my mind about the story of this young Red Sox fan (hat tip BTF), who received the most memorable autograph since "Avoid the clap. Jimmy Dugan." You could say that Shelley Duncan is a bad person for writing something that might hurt a ten year-old's feelings, or you might respond, as Tom Hanks did as Dugan, "Hey! That's good advice!"

Seriously, when the kid's older, he'll find that this is a better story to tell people than if he'd gotten an autograph that says "Your pal, Shelley Duncan." Nonetheless, it's bad when players are mean to the fans, even if, sometimes, the fans aren't all that considerate, either. My younger brother still remembers Pat Kelly being a total prick to him outside the Stadium one day, and my older brother still treaures the late, great Scooter being funny and gracious to him under similar circumstances. It's totally irrational, but people place a lot of importance on small interactions with famous people. So be nice, Shelley! You never know when you'll need someone to be nice to you.

Story of the Week: While the Yanks were looking ahead of themselves in the standings, toward the Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers made up some ground and made things a little tighter behind the Bombers on the Wild Card front--three back in the loss column, as they like to say. Not only is catching the Red Sox unlikely, it's unnecessary. The important thing is to keep playing good baseball and focus on holding off the Tigers, securing that spot in the postseason.

A few notes on things I noticed this week:

  • Bobby Abreu's going to miss 100 walks for the first time since 1998. He's still seeing a high number of pitches per plate appearance, so it isn't like he's suddenly become Oscar Azocar, but maybe pitchers are noticing the dip in his power, and are throwing him more strikes accordingly.
  • The Captain's really slowed down in the second half. Through the All-Star break, he was putting up numbers worthy of last year's near-MVP season (.336/.408/.463), since then he's been a little bit more like his sophomore season, 1997 (.285/.352/.397). He's already matched his career high in hit-by-pitches (14).
  • Edwar Ramirez is the three true outcomes pitcher. In 17 1/3 innings, he's walked 10, struck out 28 (a ridiculous 14.54 K/9) and a third of his hits allowed have gone for homers.
  • Do they really need any lefty relievers on the roster? Villone and Henn both suck, Igawa hasn't even appeared in relief since being called up. Torre might have already performed the "You're dead to me now" ceremony on his looks-impaired Japanese import.
  • As for the lefty that got away? Mike Myers has gotten smacked around with the White Sox (8.71 ERA and 3 HR allowed in 10 1/3 IP since he was released).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Odds and Ends

I made my debut on Sports yesterday--sans byline, sadly--with a way abbreviated intro to Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, which S.I. will be running periodically down the stretch. You can check that out here.

I missed Phil Hughes' first couple of innings, which meant I didn't really see the "struggling" part of his start. Nonetheless, he didn't look too sharp in the time I watched--his only strikeout of the night came before I turned on the set. Still, a win is a win, and this is two straight quality starts for the Phranchise.

The ninth inning featured Ross Ohlendorf's major league debut. He's a big, corn-fed kid, and he throws plenty hard--clocked at 95 a couple of times, IIRC. I hate his delivery, though. He throws across his body a bit, which looks uncomfortable and could mean shaky control. The 24 walks in 66 IP he had at AAA wasn't th end of the world, but it's hardly inspiring, either. For some reason, he makes me think of Jeff Nelson, which would be a fine career for him, if he can grab it.

Hideki Matsui, when he's going bad, looks like one of the very worst hitters in baseball. It's crazy to see him right now and remember how dominant he was in July. He appears to be one of those hitters--Jason Varitek is another that comes to mind--who sometimes completely lose their rhythm and their swing suffers a total breakdown, becomes all arms. Here's hoping he shakes this off soon.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Week in Review: Yankees [Heart] the Heartland

Week 23: September 3-9, 2007

Record for the Week: 5-1, 43 RS, 22 RA
Overall: 81-62, Wild Card leader, 4 games ahead of Detroit; 5.5 games behind Red Sox

I like the abbreviated comments from last week, so here goes again--

9/3 -- Seattle 7, Yankees 1
After the pathetic showing against Tampa Bay, this loss was one of those panic moments in a season that's been full of them. King Felix and the M's got the Wild Card lead down to 1, Roger Clemens felt a "grabbing" in his elbow. That'll play tricks with your blood pressure.

9/4 -- Seattle 3, Yankees 12
Chien Ming Wang on the mound, three Yankees with four hits each, including Jorge Posada with two solo homers and four runs scored, and Bobby Abreu, who also homered. A day after Clemens goes down with a bad elbow, Vizcaino admits to shoulder soreness.

9/5 -- Seattle 2, Yankees 10
The MVP-elect goes and homers twice in one inning, breaking his own record by most homers by a righthanded-hitting Yankee. Breathing room? Much, much better.

9/6 -- Yankees rest, in honor of my Brother T's birthday.

9/7 -- Yankees 3, Kansas City 2
We covered this already in the Joba's Dad entry on Friday night.

9/8 -- Yankees 11, Kansas City 5
Wasn't watching, dinner with family. More homers for A-Rod.

9/9 -- Yankees 6, Kansas City 3
Chien Ming Wang takes Clemens' start on full rest, Alex's 52nd homer in the first inning gives the Yanks a 2-0 lead in the first, after the Royals tie it in the fourth, he scores the go-ahead run in front of Jorge Posada double in the fifth. Do I even need to write the Player of the Week section?

Player of the Week: Do I need to say it? He hit six homers for the week, led the team in runs scored (7) and RBI (9), his rate stats were a mind-bending .524/.615/1.381. Even stole a couple of bases. Oh, and he's relentlessly mocked for stretching out his shoulder.

In the non-Alex Rodriguez division, Chien Ming Wang was the anchor of the pitching staff, allowing only 4 runs in 14 1/3 innings last week, working his way to 18 wins for the season. Jorge Posada was nearly as radioactive hot as Rodriguez, with three homers and a .474/.583/.947 week that would have been a winner any other week. Bobby Abreu hit .417/.417/.875, and a trio of Yankee relievers--Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, and Kyle Farnsworth--each pitched three scoreless for the week.

Dregs of the Week: On offense, the team alternated hot and cold. Chilliest of the chill with the bat was Hideki Matsui who went a horrifying 1 for 17 on the week (.059/.238/.059). The Captain's banged up, taking a hard HBP in Kansas City Friday night, and working with a sore right knee he injured almost three weeks ago. Jeter hit .167/.231/.208. Jason Giambi and Shelley Duncan, feeling the playing time squeeze, combined for a 1 for 16 this week. Duncan had the one hit (an RBI single) in 8 AB, Giambi went .000/.273/.000 in 11 PA. Roger Clemens took the Yanks' one loss of the week, getting slagged for 5 runs in 4 innings pitched before leaving with his injury.

Link of the Week: Don't usually do links in the Week in Review, but this one caught my eye as borderline bulletin board material. It's Kevin Youkilis talking to Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe, with the headline "Youkilis Tries to Target Cause of Yankees' Ire" (hat tip to Repoz at Baseball Think Factory). When it's suggested that he might be considered a whiner, he says:

"They play 'Yankeeography' on Paul O'Neill every day," Youkilis said, referring to the Yankees' practice of showing highlight films on the stadium scoreboard of Paul O'Neill, a beloved former Yankee known for his dramatic mood swings. "So, what's the problem? I've been compared to Paul O'Neill. I know Paul O'Neill. We have the same agent [Joe Bick].

"People find things to hate about everyone. They're not going to like somebody for this reason or that. What are you going to do? I go out and play. I'm emotional. Some people say, 'Oh, he shouldn't be like that.' Other people say that's the best thing about you. So who am I supposed to please?

"I'm here to win ballgames. I play with emotion. Some people congratulate me. Some people say, 'Stop whining about this or that.' I can't please everyone. It is what it is. People who don't like you aren't going to like you."

Wow. I finally get to do the Lloyd Benson, here: You, sir, are no Paul O'Neill. O'Neill, for all that he might have yapped at umps and worn his emotions on his sleeve, never got hit by more than four pitches in a season. So regardless of the fact that umps and opposing teams' fans might have considered him a a crybaby, apparently he wasn't ticking off opposing players or pitchers all that much. In his young career, Youkilis has already been hit one more time (23) than Paul O'Neill was in fifteen Major League seasons, 2,053 games. The Mohel of Swat has played in less than one-fifth the games O'Neill did.

Maybe the reason that Youkilis gets hit so darn much is because he crowds the plate. I doubt Don Baylor ever answered questions about why teams "targeted" him. Maybe guys pitch Youkilis high and inside because that's the way to get him out. Maybe Red Sox pitchers throw at the Yankees more often than is usual, and that encourages reprisals. But then again, maybe, just maybe, those two pitches Joba threw were supposed to be strikes under his hands that slipped.

Only one thing's for certain, is that you don't lose a rap as a whiner by whining about it.

Story of the Week: Now that we've gotten that out of our system, the story of the week is the Yanks finally wrapping up their regular season business against the AL West and Central--barring a tiebreaker, the schedule going forward is all Eastern Division. The Yanks finished up 30-11 against the AL Central, accounting for all of their record above .500 . They finished at 15-16 against the AL West, 10-8 against the National League, and are currently one game under .500 against the AL East, 26-27. The remaining schedule breaks down as follows: seven against the Blue Jays, six against the Orioles, three each against the Red Sox and Rays. The path to the end of the regular season also tracks through the visiting ballparks--only 7 of the Yanks' remaining 19 game are at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks road record, like their record against the AL East, is one that could use improvement--they're a game under .500 outside the Bronx. The relief of the gauntlet the Yankees fought through the last couple of weeks made it feel like the end of the season was closer than it is. There's still a lot of important baseball to be played--the Yanks can't jog their way through September like they've done in so many years past, but at least you have to like where they are.

The other story of the week has been the names dribbling out of the latest steroid scandal. It's been scary to watch the storylines around Rick Ankiel turn from fawning to vicious without missing a step. If Ankiel hadn't been brought up to the bigs last month and made a splash with a Shancer Spencer-like splash of power, he'd be just another minor leaguer who tried PEDs in a rush of desperation. If he were still a pitcher, he'd likely get the pass that most pitchers get. But now he seems to be the sportswriter's favorite snack--the great story gone wrong. Great stories are wonderful, but they never last--in order to get more life out of a story like Ankiel's the player must a) kick up his level of performance even higher--hard to do when you've got nine homers in ninety at bats; b) fall completely on his face on the field, fail as spectacularly as he succeeded, or c) fall prey to scandal. We see a similar thing in all of the season's big stories, which brings us back to Alex Rodriguez's big week. Take this, from Bill Madden's Sunday column:
So this scandal goes far beyond Barry Bonds. Jose Canseco casually drops Alex Rodriguez's name and unfortunately it can no longer be dismissed. You want to believe that everything about A-Rod's MVP season is genuine, just as fans in Tampa Bay want to believe in Carlos Pena's out-of-nowhere career year.

Why can it "no longer be dismissed"? Has Canseco followed up on his "you'll have to wait until my next book, I've got something on Alex Rodriguez" hint? I know that after Mark McGwire decided to "not talk about the past" and finger-pointing Raffy Palmeiro tested positive, Canseco was hailed as the soothsayer of our age, but I find the idea that he has anything other than innuendo to spread about Rodriguez highly questionable. Everyone forgets the shifty way Canseco changed his own stance on steroids, from practically arguing that they should be pumped into the drinking water in his book, to turning into Mr. Mackey in front of Congress ("Drugs are bad, mmmkay?"). The only source of credibility that Canseco had is that he was in major league clubhouses, with the access to see things first-hand, and hear "inside information." I'd fairly bet he's persona non grata in those clubhouses now, so what new information could he possibly have? If he knew something about Alex from back when he had access, why wasn't it in his first book?

I'm not a wide-eyed innocent, here. I know that in this steroid witch hunt, no one is really above suspicion--that's one of the things that bugs me when people tout player X or player Y as "one of the clean players." How do you know? Could Alex have been a user, at some point in his career? Sure, anything is possible. But I'm utterly disgusted by the way that some writers are licking their chops, looking for the next disgraced ballplayer, and willing to plump up some pretty thin innuendo in their eagerness. After all, Alex Rodriguez hitting 52+ bombs to lead the Yankees to the playoffs is a good story, but A-Rod hitting 52+ bombs and then getting exposed as a steroid cheat? That would be a great story.

Wow, that's an awfully negative ending to a post about a very good week.

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

The thing about Matt Damon's Jason Bourne--the main thing, what sets him apart from other action movie heroes--is that he knows the unbelievable stuff he's going to do will hurt. As he leaps through windows and out moving vehicles, and intentionally crashes cars he's driving to escape or disable pursuers, there is almost always a moment where you see Bourne steeling himself, preparing for the pain, bracing for impact.

Human beings don't just experience pain, we fear it. Many of us avoid going to the dentist, we talk our way out of physical confrontations, we delay breaking up with people who are obviously wrong for us, all because we don't want to experience pain. In the movies, those principles are forgotten--behaving as our normal cowardly selves isn't terribly cinematic, so the human pain avoidance mechanism is overridden. Not only do people in movies willingly or even willfully put themselves in harm's way, they often seem to shrug off pain as if they were loaded to the gills with Vicodin. Even if they do get hurt--usually for plot-specific, drama-enhancing purposes--they don't seem to worry too much about it, before or after.

There was a notable exception to this in the first Die Hard movie. There's a moment in that film where the protagonist, John McClane, is in a firefight with his enemies, and he has to retreat. The problem is that he's barefoot, and the floor all around him is covered in broken glass. You get a second where it registers on Bruce Willis's face that this is his situation, and you wordlessly get the normal, human reaction, "Run across broken glass? Screw that!" before he's forced to go through the rest of the movie with shards of glass embedded in his feet.

Throughout all three of the Bourne movies, that type of moment happens repeatedly, and it helps remind us that Damon's car-chasing, ass-kicking superspy is human. That, in turn, adds some needed spice to the series' many action set pieces, which in this installment includes chases by car, motorbike, and on foot, in train stations, on roof tops, and on the streets of cities in four continents. The chases themselves are exhilarating and well-shot, but the main thing is that the audience feels affinity for the ultracapable but always outnumbered Bourne. If you don't empathize with Bourne's pained expression as he executes yet another agonizing-but-necessary stunt, you probably won't enjoy the movie.

I mean, it's not like the writing is all that good. As far as plot goes, it's amazing how little things moved along over the entire three-film series--given how many dance steps are repeated from the second film, you almost have to wonder why that film, the Bourne Supremacy, was even necessary. You get repetitions of some chestnut-standard scenes--chase through the rail station, cops summoned to European CIA safehouse, the "I'm talking to you on the phone while observing you from afar scene" which is always followed by some CIA bigwig saying "Oh my God, he's in [insert name of city here]! Seal off a ten-block radius!"

Oh, and while we're on this thing with the ten-block radii, you've also got some seriously hackneyed dialog. Three movies into the series, enough people are still saying "You really don't remember, do you?" to Bourne that my brother-in-law was mocking it during dinner afterward. And then there's the CIA bigwigs yelling out things like "I want his bank accounts, credit cards, phone records...I want to know what he's thinking before he thinks it."

Um, good luck with that. Somewhere along the line Hollywood got the idea that running covert operations for the CIA was a bit like directing live television. For all our sakes, I hope that this is just them being imaginative.

Now that I've spent some time panning the writing, let's get back to what Bourne Ultimatum did right. Julia Stiles, who was a bit of tacked-on window dressing in the first two movies, finally gets something to do in the third film. As pointed out by the guys at Filmspotting, there are some great echoes of previous installments in the series, which add a bit of depth. The film also features an undercurrent of commentary on the moral responsibility of Americans who volunteer to serve their government uncritically, then get pointed at all the wrong targets in the name of "saving American lives."

That aside, we don't see the Bourne movies for plot or subtext or even for Stiles. We watch for the actions scenes, and the set pieces in this film, hold up remarkably well. There's one of Bourne leading a civilian through an obstacle course of surveillance that is truly masterful, and there's a wonderfully detailed rooftop chase that's very impressive. Actually, the only action scene in the movie that was disappointing was the much-vaunted final car chase through Manhattan. While there have been a lot of complaints about the use of "shakycam" in this film--the perpetually in-motion handheld camera that shakes as its operators follow the action--I wasn't bothered by it. I've criticized the use of shakycam before, but here I thought it was used effectively to emphasize the frenzy of some of the scenes. Then again, I was forewarned about the cameras shakiness and made sure to get me and mine seats at the back of the theater, so I'm sure that others' mileage will vary.

I saw this one with La Chiquita and her family, and the reaction was mixed. Surprisingly, the big endorsement came from my wife, who wants me to refer to her from now on simply as "the Asset." When you can get my foreign-and-independent film-loving honey to buy into your big summer blockbuster that way, I'm happy to say that it's recommended.


A quick update on my summer TV shows:

Mad Men gets more and more impressive. The fifth episode featured one of the most suspenseful moments I've seen on TV since the Sopranos. Since we've been talking about the Asset's reaction to things, she's totally creeped out by this show, and doesn't even want to be in the room when I watch it.

The Bronx is Burning's run ended, presenting absolutely no argument as to why it shouldn't have been half as long, and focused only on baseball. With the "this was 1977!" subplots out the window, the last three episodes were hopelessly thin, often giving John Turturro little to do other than static reaction shots to archival footage of games from the '77 playoffs. The final scene, however, was poignant.

Part of the fun of mentioning the Bronx is Burning Comes from the inevitable appearance by Daniel Sunjata's cyber-stalker in the comments section. I have no idea who the DSCS is, or if there is any veracity to her/their myriad claims. Obviously, I do not endorse them in any way. But it looks like Daniel should definitely keep better control of his baby-mamas.

I gave Saving Grace a second chance, and, surprisingly, it didn't suck. While the mix of religion and entertainment is uncomfortable, specially in a show where the characters use strong PG-13 language, recent episodes were less heavy-handed and included more of a role for Laura San Giacomo (another pint-sized actress I had a crush on in the late 80s and early 90s).

My Boys has remained maddeningly inconsistent. Every time it looks like the series will hit its stride, you get a huge misfire--like the too-obvious spoof of Sex and the City a couple of weeks back. Why spoof a show that was canceled a few years back, and therefore isn't topical? Because TBS has paired My Boys with Sex and the City reruns on their schedule. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't cast stones, and My Boys criticizing Sex and the City as unrealistic, shallow, and provincial goes way past irony.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Joba's Dad

Sweet win for the Yanks tonight, made all the sweeter because Harlan Chamberlain was in attendance at Kaufman Stadium. Not the start that we were looking for from Ian Kennedy--he allowed seven hits and three walks--all the walks coming in the first inning--in five innings. But he pitched out of trouble, allowing only two runs against the Kansas City offense. That meant he left the game tied, after the team's MVPs, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, went yard against Gil Meche in the top of the second.

After Blockhead Kyle pitched an effective sixth, the Yanks pushed across a run in the seventh on a Bobby Abreu double, and then it was Joba time. Just before Joba's first pitch in the bottom of the seventh, came perhaps my favorite moment of this entire season, as Joba's dad, Harlan, started crying when he finally saw his son take a major league mound, for the first time in person. I'm not ashamed to say that it got dusty in my apartment, seeing how moved the elder Mr. Chamberlain was. Later on, the YES crew caught Harlan's reaction as Johnny Damon made a running catch in left-center for the third out of the seventh inning, which was itself priceless.

It's easy for fans to slag baseball's broadcasts, since for the most part we only notice the things they get wrong--the idiot half-baked opinion of a color commentator, the missed first pitch coming out of commercial. I think the YES production crew deserves a lot of credit for keeping our attention on the section Chamberlain rooters (about 120 Nebraskans who came down with the Chamberlains to Missouri to see Joba pitch) and then getting us those wonderful shots of Harlan Chamberlain as his son warmed up and pitched his two innings. They did a great job, as did Ken Singleton and John Flaherty in the booth. Good work all around.


Things to watch for tomorrow: Derek Jeter got hit in the hand in the eighth, which brings up the question of reprisals during tomorrow's game, and whether or not Jeter, who's been chronically beat up this season, will be able to make the start. We could see Wilson Betemit get some playing time against the Royals best pitcher, Brian Bannister, tomorrow.

The Yankees won coin tosses for any ties for the Wild Card at the end of the season. So should Detroit or Seattle get even with the Bombers for the last AL playoff spot, that game would be played at the Stadium. Speaking of the Tigers and Mariners, the two teams played tonight, with Detroit coming out on top. The Mariners remain in the meltdown state that saw them drop nine in a row coming into the series they just lost against the Yankees.

Probably the most distasteful thing I've seen today has been people listing the Rick Ankiel story--that back in 2004 (when he was still a pitcher, IIRC) Ankiel took HGH--as being on the same level as Tony Larussa's DUI incident, and and the drunk-driving death of Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock. Ankiel only endangered himself, and that allegedly three years ago. Larussa and Hancock endangered everybody else on the road, and Hancock tragically lost his life. In a statement to the press, St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty called the Ankiel story "very tragic" (if it's true) which given the other things that have happened to his team this year, is a good indication that he does not know what that word, tragic, means.

Random Play Friday

The Kid's All Right -- I don't know what the best part of Wednesday's game was: getting a series against our nearest challenger for the Wild Card, beating Jarrod Washburn, or Phil Hughes finally breaking out a good start again. I actually was offered a ticket to the game, which I reluctantly turned down because it was the last night of my pool league. Big mistake--I not only missed out on Alex Rodriguez's two homers in the seventh, I took a total beatdown at the pool hall, while constantly craning my neck to try to catch the Yankees score. Not good times.

(Even though the pool hall is usually a good place to catch a game, for some reason most of the TVs on the floor were tuned to the replay of that afternoon's Mets game.)

The Odds Are In Favor -- My weekly Toolbox column for Baseball Prospectus came out on Thursday, rather than Tuesday, due to the holiday. This week's topic was BP's Playoff Odds report, and in particular, the way various iterations of the Playoff Odds have treated the Yankees this season. Here's a taste:

Take the Yankees, for example. On May 30, they were 21-29, eight games under .500, the low point of their season in terms of their actual winning percentage. Thanks to a healthy runs scored/allowed differential, their third order win percentage, regressed for the Playoff Odds Report was .537 at that point—better than their real-life record, but still not as good as the team was expected to be prior to the season. The PECOTA version of the Playoff Odds regressed the Yankees' third order win percentage up toward .580 (the winning percentage that PECOTA predicted for them) rather than down toward .500, so for the PECOTA report, they effectively had a .552 third order win percentage. The difference could be seen in the playoff odds, where the regular report saw the Yankees as having a 10.7 percent chance of making it to the postseason, the PECOTA version of the report was much more optimistic, seeing the Yankees playing in October 18 percent of the time, based on the likelihood that the team would eventually play up to their PECOTA-projected level.

The third variant is the ELO version, which is based on a famous chess ranking system, modified by Nate Silver to be used in baseball. The principle behind ELO is that it ranks a team's quality at a particular moment in time, emphasizing recent performance, and carrying over from one season to the next (there's a series of articles that I link to below that deal with the ELO system in greater detail). In the ELO Playoff Odds Report, ELO ratings are substituted for third-order winning percentage as the ranking system by which the relative strength of the teams is judged. To use the Yankees as an example, again, on May 30 ELO ranked them with a 1538 ELO score (on a scale on which 1500 is a league-average, 81-win team, and 1600 is roughly a 104-win juggernaut), and gave the Bronx Bombers a 15.9 percent chance at the postseason. Throughout the season, ELO has seen the Yankees as more likely to overtake the Red Sox for the division lead than either the regular Playoff Odds report or the PECOTA version—to go back to the May 30 example, ELO gave the Yankees a 4.97 percent chance to take the division, as opposed to a 1.54 percent chance by PECOTA and a 1.24 percent chance by the regular report.

Check out the whole article, which like all my Toolbox work, is free content available to non-subscribers.

This Word, "Strike," I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means -- I tend to find local news slipping by me now that I work from home. I got in to LaGuardia late on Tuesday night, only to find a long cab line. It wasn't til the next day that I heard that New York's cabbies were on strike as of midnight--so we just caught our ride home on time. When I went out on Wednesday and Thursday, however, I was surprised to see the streets choked with yellow cabs, trolling the streets for fares at the livery rate. As a matter of principle, I don't begrudge the cabbies--they don't make much money, and it's a thankless job. But it's strange to hear that there's going to be a strike, but just about everyone is working, anyway.

Random Questions -- How much is Alex Rodriguez worth, right now? When was the last time a guy pitched a no-hitter, only to make his next appearance out of the pen? How important is Ian Kennedy's start against the Royals?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Week/Month in Review: Arms Race

Week 22: August 27-September 2, 2007

Record for the Week: 4-3, 26 RS, 45 RA
Overall: 76-61, 2 games ahead of Seattle for the Wild Card

Only a smattering of comments this week...

8/27 -- Yankees 0, Detroit 16
A perfectly humiliating end to a perfectly nightmarish series. Moose doesn't get the job done, again. Sean Henn is thrown to the wolves, again. Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, and Brandon Inge each have three hits. Another one for the list of worst defeats of the season.

8/28 -- Boston 3, Yankees 5
Johnny Damon haunts his former team...again. Andy Pettitte does a nice job, outpitching Daisuke Matsuzaka.

8/29 -- Boston 3, Yankees 4

8/30 -- Boston 0, Yankees 5

8/31 -- Tampa Bay 9, Yankees 1
The Yanks have a fine time against Boston's top three starters earlier in the week, but have not traction whatsoever against Andy Sonnanstine. Sonnanstine, who had a 6.38 ERA coming into this start, threw eight two-hit innings at the Bombers. Carlos Pena, still sore that he didn't get a shot with the club last year, bashed a couple of homers.

9/1 -- Tampa Bay 6, Yankees 9

9/2 -- Tampa Bay 8, Yankees 2
First Sonnanstine, now Jason Hammel (7.44 ERA coming into this start) restrains the Yankee lineup. Pena smacks another homer. Sour way to end the week.

Player of the Week: This week, Chien Ming Wang gets the honors, with his seven one-hit innings against the Sox. Roger Clemens and Ian Kennedy are the runners-up, and Alex Rodriguez (team-leading 6 RBI, .333/.440/.667) and Derek Jeter (.360/.429/.520) were the offensive standouts.

Dregs of the Week: Plenty of blame to go around this week. The offense was anemic this week, so I guess credit should go to the worst performer that way, Jason Giambi (.118/.118/.176 in 17 PA), although Hideki Matsui (.160/.222/.240) and Johnny Damon (.167/.200/.292) helped. On the pitching side, we're tired of talking about Mike Mussina, and Sean Henn is hardly fair sport. So maybe now's the time to ask: when do we start worrying about Phil Hughes (5 run in 4 1/3 innings against Tampa Bay). He hasn't had a good start since beating Cleveland on the tenth, his fastball isn't what's been advertised, and his control is spotty. I comforted my Brother J with the memory that many great pitchers, like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, fairly sucked their rookie years, despite being highly-touted prospects. However, both of those guys had the luxury of being bad on team who weren't in contention. Every start this month will likely be vital--there's no room for a learning curve. Another Rookie hurler that had me concerned this week was Edwar Ramirez. Edwar's given up 5 gopher balls in 12 innings this season, so he, too is missing a big opportunity.

Story of the Week: It was all about the starting rotations this week. Mike Mussina started the week by surrendering his roster spot, in what became one of the more humiliating games in a season full of humbling experiences. From Tuesday through Thursday, the top three starters showed their potential by holding the Red Sox to six runs over a three-game series. On Saturday, Mussina's replacement, Ian Kennedy, pitched beautifully in his major league debut--three runs over seven innings--to earn himself a second start. That evening, the Red Sox rookie starter, Clay Buchholz, no-hit the Orioles. And then the week ended on a worrisome note, with Roger Clemens admitting to several injury concerns, including (gulp!) a sore pitching elbow.

While the starters grabbed the headlines, the subtext was that the Yankee bullpen and offense languished this week. Luis Vizcaino got roughed up by the Devil Rays on Saturday, Kyle Farnsworth only pitched once all week, and got beat down that time. Chris Britton, Edwar Ramirez, Brian Bruney, and the sacrificial lefty, Sean Henn, all took some heavy hits. On offense, the Yankees combined to hit .235/.302/.372 for the week, roughly as good as Brandon Inge or Julio Lugo. With the team directly behind them for the Wild Card coming into the Stadium, they can't afford to continue that route.

August in Review

Record for the Month
: 18-11, 178 RS, 167 RA

Player of the Month: Andy Pettitte was Mr. August, winning all six of his starts for the month with a 2.36 ERA. Joba Chamberlain deserves some share of these honors, with 11 1/3 shutout innings that have made him the #2 man in the bullpen. Alex Rodriguez hit .330/.424/.620 with 9 homers, 9 steals, 22 RBI--just a plain old monster. Among the honorable mentions, Bobby Abreu had a good month, 324410559 with 6 homers, and Robinson Cano experienced a power surge, hitting 7 homers in a .301/.385/.583 month. Probably the most impressive part of that was the 12 walks he drew in August.\

Dregs of the Month: Sean Henn (18 runs, 16 of them earned, in 9 1/3 August innings) might have had the worst month by a Yankee reliever in a very long time, but then he was put into situations almost guaranteed to shatter his confidence. Mike Mussina managed to shatter management's confidence in him, averaging more than a run an inning and only 4 2/3 innings per start in August. He left the brass little choice but to pull him from the rotation. The Yankees' DFA of Mike Myers made Ron Villone the primary lefty in the pen, and even before he got hurt on August 21 against the Angels, he wasn't pitching very impressively (5 ER in 10 2/3 August innings); after tweaking his back he walked three guys and allowed four runs. And, as mentioned in the Week section, Phil Hughes had a month to forget, with a 6.40 ERA in 32 1/3 August innings. Hughes' strikeout rate remains promising (8.07 K/9 for the month) but the six homers he allowed in August weren't.