Saturday, June 30, 2007
Now, based on the plot summary, Waitress is the kind of movie I'd usually burn rubber to get away from: southern waitress in a bad marriage, with a knack for baking pies, learns she's pregnant, and starts fall for her OB-Gyn; she works in a diner chock-full of colorful characters who'll help her through this ordeal, and maybe she'll learn a valuable less...OK, are you getting that bad chick flick feel? That Steel Magnolias/Fried Green Tomatoes/Spitfire Grill feeling? That "I'm going to be thrown into a vat of pure estrogen; please pray for me," feeling?
So why did I buy tickets for this, instead of distracting La Chiquita and dragging her away at top speed? Mainly, it was because the movie had been recommended by my homeboys at Filmspotting, who said it was the best date film they'd seen in a while. Even with the good reviews, I wasn't expecting too much from this film. That is, until about the twenty minute mark, when I realized I'd been laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. I haven't laughed this much since I saw Hot Fuzz (still my favorite movie of this summer).
The easy answer for why this movie was so good was a pair of strong lead performances by Keri Russell (as the titular waitress) and Nathan Fillion (as the doctor). As a couple, they have good chemistry, and elevate some fairly standard romantic comedy material through sheer combustibility. Anyone who saw Fillion in Firefly knew that he had leading man presence and the comedy chops to pull off this role; Russell is a pleasant surprise in a role that requires her to do much more than just look pretty for the camera.
But the performance that moves this film beyond the ordinary comes from Jeremy Sisto as Russell's abusive husband Earl. Earl could have been a simple bruiser or a cartoon villain--the two options most people go for when portraying the stock character of bad southern husband--but Sisto (and writer/director Shelley) doesn't let the audience off that easy. In Sisto's hands, Earl is the scariest kind of nutjob--one so unmoored from reality, you have no idea what he's going to do next. When you expect him to be happy, he's petulant; when you expect his fists to start flying, sometimes they do, but just as often, he'll break down crying. Sisto brings enough humor to the performance that the movie never hits that Lifetime Movie of the Week level of melodrama, but at the same time, you can't dismiss the character as a joke.
The menace Sisto brings to the movie, and Russell's matter-of-fact reaction to that menace, add more spice to Waitress than you'd expect from a romantic comedy about a pie-making southerner. The ending dents this a bit by wrapping things up a little too tidily. Still, highly recommended, particularly if it's date night.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
And what wins they were! On Tuesday, the Yanks tied the Orioles at two in the sixth, off a two-run homer by a chiropractically-adjusted Johnny Damon. But the good feelings didn't last--in the ninth, Scott Proctor experienced yet another meltdown to hand the O's a win on a hit and three walks, including the walk-off bases loaded walk (which we shall henceforth call the Proctor Special).
Wednesday, the business was a little more routine, with the Orioles producing a big sixth inning against future Hall of Famer--and current holder of a 1-3 record, and a 5.32 ERA. Rocket hasn't pitched well (seven hits, three walks, and no strikeouts in six innings), but he couldn't have figured that the Yankees would give him no run support. The Yanks have produced 14 total runs in the five games Clemens has started this season--and nine of those runs came in his first start against the Pirates. For the second time in two weeks, a young lefty shut the Yanks down completely, giving Clemens no chance at a win. The last time it was Oliver Perez, this time it was the O's Erik Bedard casting a Canadian spell on the Yanks' bats. Bedard and Clemens traded zeroes for five innings, but in the sixth, the younger man kept on cruising while the living legend ran out of gas, giving up four runs, including a three-run jack to Aubrey Huff.
Through eight games, this road trip has seen the Yanks at 1-7, scoring three or fewer runs in six of those losses. The team seems to be finding stylish new ways to lose--I'm fully expecting the winning run in tomorrow's game to come on an ill-timed catcher's interference--and there's no indication that the bleeding is going to stop any time soon. After the Orioles, the teams the Bombers face only get better. The cliche at times like these is to say, "Now is not the time to panic." But the question is: if not now, when? We talk about panic like it's a bad thing--chaos and despair, and whatnot--but the fact is, sometimes panic gives you that shot of adrenaline you need to survive. Worse, sometimes panic is inevitable.
So, it looks like the Yanks will soon face a choice of evils. You pretty much have three kinds of panic moves in baseball. First you have the addition by subtraction concept, where a player of obvious value is let go for little or nothing in hopes that his removal will change the clubhouse chemistry, and light a fire under some complacent posteriors. Then you have the addition by addition tactic--a big shot player is brought aboard, usually at great expense in money and/or young players. Last, you have firing coaches or the manager.
Now, arguably the Yanks have already made the second kind of panic move--Hello, Mr. Clemens!--although that's never put them out of the running for surrendering a few blue-chippers for a veteran something before. The first type of panic move seems hard to pull off--most of the underperformers on the Yankees' team are making eight figures, and would be pretty hard to give away, unless backed by a few truckloads of money.
So that leaves the coaching staff. The offensive woes the Yanks have experienced would, in the past, have cost Kevin Long his job, but two factors stand in the way: first, he's apparently close to Alex Rodriguez, one of the few Yanks who's actually pulling his weight right now; second, he's not a big enough name to be the token sacrifice for this kind of disaster. No, if the Yanks go for the third option, the backside in the frying pan will be the biggest backside of them all: Joe Torre's.
I've said before, firing Torre would be a matter of change for change's sake. But of the panic options, it's probably the least harmful of evils. A bad acquisition--specially one that comes at the cost of one of the Yanks' big prospects, like Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes--could haunt the team for years. The only aesthetic deletion the team would be likely to make would be to jettison Kyle Farnsworth (and perhaps kick the Edwar Ramirez era into gear...) but Blockhead Kyle is a deckchair on this here sinking luxury liner. Torre...barring the miracle of all miracles, he's not coming back in 2008. Heck, even if the fortunes inverted themselves and the 2007 Yanks won the World Series (the BP Playoff Odds reports still give the Yanks an 18% chance to make the postseason), the smart money says Torre calls it a day. So firing the Skipper--maybe kicking him upstairs in the typical Yankees preemptive hiring maneuver--is probably the move that would have the least negative impact on the club.
It'd be a crappy way to thank Joe for the great service he's given the Yankees and their fans. But with the biggest motivational tool in Torre's arsenal failing on
These are depressing thoughts, but then again it's been a depressing season for the Bronx Bombers.
Speaking of depressing seasons, I've been following the no-fanfare end of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip's run, and I'll try to put something up about the series finale, which is being broadcast tonight (10:00PM Eastern). As I'm sure we'll get into, Studio 60 wasn't perfect, and might not have even been good. But I've watched it regularly nonetheless. It probably deserved a better fate.
In happier news, Prospectus Toolbox continues to do well--this week we looked at that humble, controversial statistic, the Run Batted In. Check it out (free, as usual).
Monday, June 25, 2007
No Breakdown this week--I'm too aggravated.
Record for the Week: 1-5, 19 RS, 29 RA
Overall: 36-37, seven games behind Cleveland for the Wild Card
Player of the Week: Alex Rodriguez hit .545/.643/.818, with another dramatic late-inning homer that alas, only set up the Yanks for an extra-innings loss on Saturday. That's the Player of the Week. Derek Jeter hit well on the road trip as well (.348/.423/.603) but baserunning follies in Denver keep him from sharing the honors. Melky Cabrera had a nice week (.348/.360/.609), continuing to show all the consistency of Sybill. As far as the pitchers went, erm...Luis Vizcaino was OK (4 1/3 scoreless). That's about as good as things get.
Dregs of the Week: Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte spit the bit at altitude, with the Rocket going on to cough up another run in relief at sea level against the Giants. Kyle Farnsworth (3 runs in 2 1/3) is dead to me now. Bobby Abreu has gone back to his outmaking ways (.125/.160/.208), and Hideki Matsui was none too happy to be playing the NL West (.167/.222/.333). I could go on...and I will in the next segment.
Story of the Week: The one game the Yankees won last week was a microcosm for the month of June. Kei Igawa made his triumphant return from Tampa and Scranton and the tutelage of Billy Connors and Nardi Contreras and lord knows who else. And for a few innings, it was working. The fastball was a little faster, the straight change was hellacious, his mechanics looked repeatable. Igawa himself was still the ugliest pitcher since Zane Smith (ugliest Yankee since Randy Johnson doesn't sound quite as impressive), but the strikeout he got against Bonds in the fourth inning--climbing the ladder to make Bonds fish for a pitch up over his shoulder--was a thing of beauty.
And suddenly, against your better judgment, you started to get excited. "Oh my gosh! They fixed him! This could be what Cashman thought he was getting this winter..."
And then you remembered: it's Kei Igawa. Of course, with a five-run lead, his mechanics fell apart in the fifth. Of course Torre tried, valiantly, to get the lefty through five innings so he could be eligible for the win. And of course, he crapped out, had to be bailed out by the bullpen, and the Yanks had to empty out their bullpen for no good reason.
All the winning at the beginning of the month was nice. The Yankees will come out of June ahead of the game for the month--they're 14-8 for June and they only have five games left. Still, the whole thing may well leave us feeling like we did on Friday--foolish for having believed in something that wasn't real. This Yankee club has picked up Pettitte and Clemens, and are basically just David Wells shy of reconstructing the 2002-2003 rotation that was long in the tooth back then, and is certainly no fresher now. This team is short on power, with Jason Giambi on the DL with a bad foot--maybe indefinitely--and a big mouth. There's no first baseman, and we're all acting nonchalant, as if having Miguel Cairo at first base were normal for a contending ballclub. Bobby Abreu has moments when it looks as if he's never seen a baseball before, much less been an elite professional baseball player his entire adult life. The team's slow, since the appointed speed demon, Johnny Damon, is walking wounded, and refuses to lie down for a little while, in hopes that he might spend some of this season...not wounded.
Last week we were talking about the deals that the Yanks could make to stay in the hunt--this week we have to consider if they should even bother. In the 11 games since they first hit .500, the Yanks are 5-6. Now they only have 89 games left in which to shock the world, and the odds get slimmer with each loss. Last week--and losses to two teams who are hardly the class of the senior circuit--made the case for the opposite. Forget chasing a pipe dream of vaulting over five teams for a playoff berth. Forget this aging, overpaid nucleus. What good is Johnny Damon if he can't run? What good is Roger Clemens without run support? What good is Kei Igawa, period? Does it matter who's playing first base if you're looking up at Toronto in the standings?
So that's the question. Nuke the team, or roll the dice on a low-percentage shot to continue the team's postseason roll? And worse, is either of those options really viable? Are we condemned to the middle road by long-term contracts and opponents not too keen to help out the bullies in the Bronx?
We've got three games at Camden Yards, then a homestand to end the first half: A's, Twins, Angels. Time's running out to learn what kind of team this is, and which road they should take.
Friday, June 22, 2007
So we went to see 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to 2002's 28 Days Later. The latter was the best horror film I'd seen in a year beginning with a two. The setup was simple: a young man, who was in an accident, wakes up from a coma to find that London is abandoned. He's woken up four weeks into an epidemic of something called the Rage virus, which turns anyone infected into a psychotic zombie. The disease is bloodborne, which is unfortunate since the infected are constantly drooling, vomiting, or weeping blood, and have an awful tendency to want to snack on human flesh.
Yeah, I can hear you yawning. The zombie movie thing has been done to death (no pun intended) to the point that no cliche has been left unturned. But what made Days special was that it worked on several levels. It was a good horror movie, with genuine scares and next to no campiness to dilute the terror. I caught it in a late show on a weeknight near Penn Station, and the walk home after was genuinely creepy. Like most thoughtful horror films, it was really about human beings rather than monsters--following a group of survivors the viewer got to know and care about pretty well, and showing how they and other humans dealt with the apocalyptic events they were facing. And director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame) shot the movie in the manner of an independent art film, using grainy digital cameras and tweaking the color palette to give the whole thing a surreal quality.
So the sequel (which we'll call Weeks, for simplicity's sake) comes along, and none of the (surviving) original cast is in the film. Bad sign. The cast is largely filled with unknowns, other than Robert Carlyle--a good actor, but usually not a leading-man type. Worse sign. And Boyle isn't directing--although he's listed as an executive producer, so it's not like he's abandoned the project completely--and he's been replaced with a Spanish director (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) with a very short resume.
What's that? When the light in the display flashes red like that it's a warning?
For all that, Weeks opens in a promising fashion. We start during the time period of the original movie, and Carlyle is with a pocket of survivors (unrelated to the characters from Days) who've holed up in the British countryside. Everything's pretty normal, up until a few hundred infected come kicking in the walls. The scene goes from domestic comfort to violence, gore and chaos in just seconds, Carlyle escapes, but only by the skin of his teeth, and at great personal cost.
After that bravura opening, the time shifts to the eponymous time frame, when England's been declared disease-free, and a U.S. military force is in charge of rebuilding and securing an area of London to house British refugees who were fortunate enough to be out of the country when the virus originally got loose. When we're first introduced to this setup, through U.S. snipers stationed on London's rooftops, using their sniper scopes to peep on their charges, it's pretty obvious that we're being set up for some form of Iraq allegory. Indeed, the U.S. military is the only authority we see in this repopulated London--apparently, no member of the British government or military was out of the country when the outbreak happened.
Say the fact, the only civilian authority we see, is Carlyle, who has a vague infrastructure management job in the refugee apartment complex, which conveniently gives him an all-access pass...to everything. Think that will be part of the plot later? Anyway, among the refugees are Carlyle's teen daughter and young son, played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton, who come to London as the only children living in the "green zone."
[Brief aside: who names British child actors? It's like these kids were named in the hopes they'd be cast in a Harry Potter film.]
No sooner do the kids show up than everyone stops acting like they have half a brain. The old horror movie conventions where you're practically shouting at the screen, "Don't go in there! Don't touch that!"--like you're the parent of a demented toddler--are in full effect. Naturally, the virus returns, the infected go on a spree, things get out of control, and the U.S. military is unprepared. Their contingency plan in case of this scenario is simultaneously simplistic, stupid, ineffective and draconian. But seeing this social commentary put into action is none too exciting, either, and it swallows up screen time that could've been used developing characters.
We learn a little about Carlyle's character--we know, based on the opening, that he's fibbing a bit to his kids about why they have only one parent--but midway through the film the focus shifts to the kids, and a couple of U.S. soldiers who are helping to protect them, both from the zombies and from the American army. Sadly, these four characters are made from some pretty thin cardboard, saddled with lines like: "They're executing Code Red. Step 1: Kill the infected. Step 2: Containment. If containment cannot be done then Step 3: Extermination."
Uh, thanks for the exposition, there. It's helpful.
There's nothing in this movie hat approaches the visual aesthetic Boyle brought to Days. Fresnadillo's method for shooting action is to get everything in extreme closeup and shake the camera vigorously, adding a strobe effect and copious jets of blood. At first this is an interesting way to convey the confusion of battle. Later, you're wondering why this guy won't actually let you see what's happening in the film. Later still, you're searching your pockets for dramamine.
I know to horror fans most of these concerns may seem trivial. They say, "Forget the high fallutin' stuff: was it scary?" Well, yeah, parts of Weeks were scary. But then you get the bad decisions, and the plot holes, and the shakycam, and the tension and fear are replaced by annoyance. The film's climactic sequence is so irritating, it's like Fresnadillo is in the seat behind yours, poking you in the back of the head with his finger, saying, "Is this annoying you? [Poke.] Is it annoying you now? [Poke.] How about now?"
Yeah, it's annoying. Overall, the way the Yankees lost on Thursday was scarier than this, so it's not recommended. Unless Boyle takes back the reins, I'd say you can count me out of 28 Months Later...
Thursday, June 21, 2007
How exactly does this work again? The Yanks went from red-hot, tearing through three teams in their last five series that are well over .500 (and one that was pretty close when we got to them), and now they manage two measly runs over their first two games against the Rockies. Now, these are not the same Rockies the Yanks faced last time they went to Coors Field--the humidor and better pitching means you're less likely to see a football score these days. But it's not like we're looking at the '66 Dodgers, either. The team's eighth in the league in RA+--strictly middle of the road.
Two friggin' runs! Total!
The thing with the Yanks' early futility this season is that it leaves very little margin for error. Two losses in a row, to a team that's over .500, shouldn't be the end of the world. But one more loss puts this team back to .500, which would mean they've frittered away 8% of the schedule they had left the last time they hit .500. So there's really no relaxing if you're a Yankee fan in 2007, I guess. Tomorrow, Roger Clemens tries to avert the sweep against the Rockies' best pitcher this season, Rodrigo Lopez. No pressure, huh?
Here's a question: things were going pretty well, and then they cast off Josh Phelps for Andy Phillips? The team had one useful bat on the bench, heading off to face the NL...and we just tossed it away. Why?
It's judgment day for Jason Giambi under Bud Selig's "talk to the Mitchell Commission or face the consequences" ultimatum. I have some thoughts on the ultimatum, and Giambi's choice, over on Baseball Prospectus Unfiltered.
Sometimes if you're a baseball fan, even when you win, you lose. For example, Jeff Weaver shut out the Pirates last night, after being one of the very worst pitchers in baseball this season. Now, your pitcher throwing a four-hit shutout when he's been going through hard times is a good thing, specially when your team's only 4 1/2 games out of the AL Wild Card lead.
So, I guess it's possible Jeff Weaver has turned things around, just as the team was about to send his backside to the glue factory. On the other hand, after the cheering dies down, it's likely that the sound you hear is a disembodied voice telling Ms fans, "I hereby condemn you to ten more starts of Jeff Weaver."
May heaven have mercy on their souls...
Monday, June 18, 2007
Player of the Week: A tie, this week, between the slugger, Alex Rodriguez (.429/.480/.962, 3 HR 10 RBI), and the groundball machine, Chien Ming Wang (2-0, 1.72 ERA in 15 2/3 IP) and the Captain, Derek Jeter (.478/.538/.739). I wish there was enough room at the top that runners-up Hideki Matsui (.429/.500/.619), Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettitte could share room on the dais. Everyday Scottie Proctor and Batting Practice Luis Vizcaino both had good weeks. Heck, a few more like this, and Vizcaino might even lose the nickname, "batting practice."
Dregs of the Week: Hard to find dregs in a week like this...but we always do, somehow. I love Melky Cabrera, but weeks like this (.105/.190/.105) are pure murder. With Johnny Damon suddenly old and achy, there's no sending Melky down, but he's just brutalizing this team with the bat. Speaking of old and achy, Damon's not doing much to hold down the DH slot, or put himself in the running for some games at first base (.176/.222/.353) until he's ready to play the outfield again. But then again, who needs a firstbaseman when Miguel Cairo (a non-Dregs .300/.364/.400) is rocking the house? It's not heartening that Josh Phelps is now buried alive (7 PA this week) and that the one trade possibility that's been mentioned is perhaps my least-favorite player, Shea Hillebrand? I guess that's a heaping helping of Cairo coming up!
Story of the Week: Rumors of a pinstriped demise this season have been greatly exaggerated. No, it's not like we're suddenly in contention for the division title (despite the panicky declarations of Bill Simmons on his new podcast, the Red Sox are still playing fine baseball--what on earth are you guys worried about?). But there's a glimmer of hope for the Wild Card, if the boys can hold their stuff together. The X-factor now will be trades, but I'll admit that it's hard to imagine any serious exchanges involving the Bronx Bombers. Here are a few trade options in the 1B/DH vein, listed from worst to best in your humble author's opinion:
Hillebrand (31): Pros - Relatively young, can play 3B, likely to be on waiver wire soon, not Miguel Cairo; Cons - he whines about playing time even when he's hitting well, hasn't hit well for several years now.
Mike Sweeney (33): Pros - Was a decent righty hitter as recently as two years ago, has expiring contract, would likely come cheap; Cons - Old, fragile, no defensive position, doesn't hit.
Miscellaneous Spare Parts: These are guys like Mike Lamb, Dmitri Young, Ryan Klesko who could stand at first base and have been hitting a little in the senior circuit. Pros - Likely to come cheap; Cons - Likely to have us back digging through the discards pile again a few weeks later.
Todd Helton (33): Pros - After an off year, is hitting again, actually a good defender at first base; Cons - At 33, is on the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, and is still owed about $70 million from 2008-2011. That's a lot of cheddar, specially for a guy that's had back trouble.
Adam Dunn (27): Pros - In his prime, can play OF as well as 1B, deadly serious power; Cons - The Yankees likely don't have the chips to get him, barring throwing away the Tabata/Hughes future, despite "ability" to play first and left, is a natural DH, also very, very likely to be a whipping boy to the New York media if acquired.
Mark Teixeira (27): Pros - Rakes from both sides of the plate, young, plays first base well; Cons - Again, the Yankees don't have the chips to get their hands on him, without mortgaging the future.
Week 11: June 11-17, 2007
Record for the Week: 5-1 37 RS, 16 RA
Overall: 35-32, 3.5 games behind Detroit for the Wild Card
06/12 -- Arizona 1, Yankees 4
Chien Ming Wang bests Brandon Webb in the battle of the wormkillers. (Webb is 1st in the majors in GB/FB ratio, Wang is 8th. And their names both start with "w".) Each guy slipped up once, allowing a homer which accounted for most of the team's scoring--just lucky, I guess, that the Yanks had men on when Abreu hit his big fly in the 1st. Lesson learned: It's nice, y'know, when Bobby Abreu doesn't suck.
06/13 -- Arizona 2, Yankees 7
Mike Mussina pitched into the eighth inning, and three Yankees (Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui) homered. Lesson learned: Livan Hernandez is, how do you say? Not so good.
06/14 -- Arizona 1, Yankees 7
A-Rod and Matsui rack up three hits apiece and drive in five runs, combined, and Pettitte tosses eight more strong innings onto the counter. Lesson learned: Sweeping the D'backs isn't payback for the 2001 World Series, but it's probably as close as we're going to get for a while.
06/15 -- Mets 2, Yankees 0
We already covered the Roger Clemens/Oliver Perez matchup earlier in the week. Lesson learned: no use crying over broken winning streaks.
06/16 -- Mets 8, Yankees 11
An unholy mess created by both starters, Tom Glavine for the Mets and Tyler Clippard for the Yanks, falling apart on a wet summer afternoon (I know, I know, technically it's Spring until Thursday). The lead see-sawed back and forth in the early innings, before the Yanks pulled away and took a commanding 10-5 lead, which Kyle Farnsworth and Mariano Rivera almost threw away in the 8th and 9th innings. A-Rod and Jeter both homered. Lesson learned: Clippard might be too high strung for the majors right now. He seems to get so busy beating himself up, that it opens the door for the other team to kick him around, too.
06/17 -- Mets 2 Yankees 8
Brother J and I were fortunate enough to be at this game. Chien Ming Wang was masterful, striking out ten Mets, and the crowd at Yankee Stadium actually booed Joe Torre when the manager came to pull Wang with two outs and the bases empty in the ninth inning. Rodriguez hit another homer, a total moon shot to left field, to start the scoring in the first (say it with me now, "A-Rod...he's so hot right now...A-Rod"), Damon and Posada also hit shots. Lesson learned: Orlando Hernandez learned that you can't come home again. Even though his first appearance on the field was greeted with cheers by savvy bleacher fans, at other times idiots (who apparently didn't remember El Duque's role on the 1998-200 championship squads) needed to be drowned out for booing the Mets starter. Hernandez showed his amazing guile, striking out six Yankees, and also his age, allowing six runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Clemens wasn't bad. He pitched 6 1/3, had 8 Ks against one walk and seven hits--only Reyes's homer went for extra bases. The Rocket had huge trouble holding runners on base, and the Yanks played a little sloppy--particularly a play in the fourth when Miguel Cairo ripped a long fly ball to left field which was caught just shy of the wall by Mets rookie Carlos Gomez. Hideki Matsui, who'd been on second base, was caught too far off the bag when Gomez made his play, and was doubled off, ending the inning.
As the saying goes, the end of each winning streak is followed by the chance to start a new one. That's tomorrow, guys, Clippard vs. Glavine.
We had a meeting of baseball Methuselahs when Roger Clemens (44) faced Julio Franco (48). Rocket got the best of his elder in three plate appearances--fly to the warning track, strikeout looking, groundout.
The Diamondbacks were so distraught after getting swept by the Yanks, that one of them left the team's scouting report on Yankee hitters behind. I guess they figured fat lot of good it did them, with the Bombers getting 18 runs in the three-game series.
Kei Igawa has actually put together a string of good starts at Scranton, which means Tyler Clippard could be pitching for his job tomorrow against the Mets. The plot thickens.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Now, there are those out there that would mock mighty Yankee fans for celebrating reaching .500. But everyone has to start somewhere, and if we have to start in mid-June, that's what it has to be.
That's where our other number comes in. The Yankees have 100 games left in the 2007 season, which is a fair number for a team that is, effectively, starting from zero. A 60-40 record from here would mean 91 wins--good, but likely no cigar for the division or the Wild Card slot. Still, it doesn't seem hopeless. Now, that doesn't mean that it's likely--while the Yanks were reaching .500, Tim Wakefield was beating the Rockies to keep the Red Sox 9.5 games ahead of the Bombers in the AL East; Detroit's Justin Verlander was no-hitting the Brewers to keep the Wild Card lead (which they share with the Indians, along with 1st place in the AL Central) at 5.5 over the Yankees, with three teams in between the Bombers and the leaders. That's a lot of work to do.
Tomorrow's the first day of the rest of the season.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Record for the Week: 6-1, 53 RS, 26 RA
Overall: 30-31, 5.5 games behind Detroit for the Wild Card
06/04: Yankees 4, White Sox 6
The fall of the House of DeSalvo, a ninth-inning outburst made the thing seem a lot closer than it was. Looked like deja vu all over again with the palehose. Lesson learned: You can't avoid being sent down to the minors by sneaking out of the clubhouse before you're told you've been demoted.
06/05: Yankees 7, White Sox 3
Yanks smack around lefty Mark Buehrle a bit, with Damon and A-Rod doing most of the damage. Lesson learned: Ozzie Guillen angry is a funny sight, even after all these years.
06/06: Yankees 5, White Sox 1
The Yanks get their yearly complete game, behind Chien Ming Wang. Lesson learned: I was kind of hoping they'd save the complete game for later in the year, since the Yanks are only allowed one per season.
06/07: Yankees 10, White Sox 3
Alex Rodriguez's ninth-inning grand slam turns a tight 4-3 lead into a laugher. Credit Kyle Farnsworth's crappy pitching for the game being tight to begin with. Lesson learned: Mussina gets upset if he's pulled after only 79 pitches. Yeah, it'd be easier to accept this one if he didn't look constantly at the point of exhaustion, or if, y'know, his fastball ever got up into the high 80s again.
06/08: Pirates 4, Yankees 5
Pittsburgh takes a 4-2 lead in the seventh, after an inside the park homer for former holdout Chris Duffy. The Yanks come back, to take the game in extra frames. Lesson learned: As Belloq said in Raiders of the Lost Ark, "There is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away."
06/09: Pirates 3, Yankees 9
06/10: Pirates 6, Yankees 13
I dealt with these two games in yesterday's post, so let's not rehash that again. Lesson learned: The Pirates...aren't too good.
Player of the Week: 6-1 week is where this gets fun. You've got Chien Ming Wang's complete game; Alex Rodriguez's 4 homers and .400/.515/.960 line for the week; and Bobby Abreu's .500/.606/.808 week to serve as a wonderful, three-headed player of the week. Mussina's six good innings don't rate more than an honorable mention, neither does Scott Proctor's five scoreless innings, or Mariano Rivera's 4 1/3 scoreless.
Dregs of the Week: Not a lot of candidates here, either. Matt DeSalvo, Ron Villone, and Kyle Farnsworth didn't look too good. Miguel Cairo (.292/.280/.333) got starts at first base, which seems like the sort of immensely stupid idea that will eventually come to bite the team on the butt. Josh Phelps isn't exactly ripping first base away from Cairo with a .200/.200/.200 week
Story of the Week: No comment. I'm happy right now, and I don't want to ruin it with words.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
That line might have been pressing on the Yanks a little last month, but the Pirates' pitching--eleventh in the NL in ERA--kicked in on the other side. The Yanks unleashed an 11-hit, eight-walk attack on the Bucs, and the Pirates' defense didn't do them any favors either. It was all good for a 9-3 final.
Today's matchup had an ex-Yankee factor, as Shawn Chacon was pitching for the Bucs. Chacon had good stats coming into the game, but still got rubbed down for seven runs in under four innings. Needless to say, it felt like old times. Tyler Clippard, however, was discombobulated by some shaky calls in the fourth. He didn't make it out of the inning, and he gave up 6 runs in fewer than four innings.
The hit that cracked things open when the Pirates got back into the game against Clippard was a huge three-run jack by Alex Rodriguez in the fourth inning. Rodriguez then took one to the opposite field for a second homer in the sixth to give him five RBI, and Bobby Abreu went 4-4, perhaps an indication that he's turned the corner. Not a bad weekend's work.
After watching Yanks-Pirates today, I watched the Red Sox and the Diamondbacks--not because I care what the Sox are doing right now so much as for the pitching matchup. Daisuke Matsuzaka against Randy Johnson. I know that Johnson is facing lineups in which the pitcher bats, but...man. Watching him pitch today, it was like his time in pinstripes never happened. We sure would have enjoyed Johnson putting up a line like he did today against the Red Sox in 2005 or 2006 (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 9 K); I'd also have really enjoyed seeing the easy 94 MPH heat and diving slider he featured against the Sox. What were the odds that the Big Unit would suddenly be a healthy strikeout machine on returning to Arizona.
According to yesterday's telecast, Johnson isn't travelling to New York for the D'backs series at the Stadium starting Tuesday. One would hope it's because he's ashamed to look Yankee fans in the face, although somehow I doubt it.
On Tuesday, it'll be the battle of the wormkillers, as Chien Ming Wang faces the groundballingest pitcher of all, reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
If saves are such a bad statistic, then what tools should we use to evaluate relievers' performances? When evaluating offense, we tend to emphasize components (hits, walks, home runs, outs made) over results (runs, RBI). That's because we're usually trying to isolate one hitter's performance from those of the batter before him and the batter behind him. The pitcher, on the other hand, stands alone on the mound, and for better or for worse, we tend to blame him for anything that happens in the game while he's up there. The best-known pitching stat, earned run average, is results-oriented: it doesn't matter if a pitcher's earned runs come on solo homers or in a soft barrage of singles and walks, all that matters is how many earned runs have scored. However, ERA isn't the ideal statistic for relievers, either, in large part because relievers often come into the game with another pitcher's runners already on base, and they sometimes leave runners of their own on base for the next reliever on their team to deal with. Any good reliever evaluation stat would have to account for how well the reliever prevents those inherited runs from scoring, and what sort of situation he tends to leave for the next reliever on his team to clean up.
The advanced relief statistics we use here take an extremely result-oriented approach to a relief pitcher's contributions. Using different methodologies, these statistics look at the game situation when the reliever enters the game, and compare that to the game situation when the reliever leaves the game (or the game ends), without much concern over how we got from Point A to Point B. That comparison creates a positive or negative value that represents how well (or poorly) the reliever helped his team by preventing runs from scoring.
If you want to learn more about these advanced stats, you can check out the article here. One piece of research that I did for the article was a look at relief innings against total innings over the years. One side-effect was that I as able to look at the Yanks' relief usage over the last couple of years. It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone, but the Yanks (as of last Monday) had the second-highest percentage of relief innings pitched, 39.2%, a handy boost over 2006's percentage of 35.3%.
Anyway, while I've been occupied with my Baseball Prospectus work, as well as my regular work, the Yanks have been taking care of business. Since the Yanks lost to the White Sox on Monday night--putting a stake through the heart of Matt DeSalvo's Yankee career hopes (he now seems to occupy the same tender place in Torre's heart that's been reserved for Colter Bean)--they've looked like the team we figured would show up at the beginning of the season, alternately grinding opponents into submission and hitting hard in the late innings. Very nice.
We're not calling it a wi...er, we're not calling this anything. More after Rocket Launch.
Monday, June 04, 2007
Record for the Week: 3-3, 35 RS, 36 RA
Overall: 24-30, 8th place in Wild Card standings, 7.5 games behind Detroit
05/28 -- Yankees 2, Toronto 7
Now known as DeSalvo's last stand. The game actually got out of hand on Ron Villone's watch, when he showed the stuff that made him so popular with hitters in the second half of last season--the hanging sliders, the bad control, it was all on display. And Dustin MacGowan made the lineup his girlfriend. Lesson learned: Never match wits with a Sicilian, when death is on the line?
[UPDATE: DeSalvo's back to start tonight's game against the White Sox, in Roger Clemens's stead.]
05/29 -- Yankees 2, Toronto 3
How many wins have Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez cost Andy Pettitte? Last year, there was that weird thing where Rodriguez would make errors in Mike Mussina's starts, this year, the defense breaks down when Pettitte's pitching--never so cleanly as in this game. The Jays took an early 1-0 lead thanks to a throwing error by Jeter. In the seventh inning with the score 1-1, Rodriguez's throwing error set up Aaron Hill's steal of home. After the Yanks tied it again in the eighth, the Yanks surrendered the lead for good in the top of the inning. Lesson learned: Brian Butterfield, who was the Yanks' first base coach Pettitte's rookie year, supposedly clued Hill in that Pettitte was vulnerable to a steal of home. Isn't that Yankee treason of some sort?
05/30 -- Yankees 10, Toronto 5
The Yanks break the five-game losing streak, as Tyler Clippard and Jorge Posada experience some tension, Johnny Damon got a couple of hits, including a homer, and Robbie Cano went 4-4. But the signature moment came when A-Rod used a little gamesmanship in the ninth to get the Yanks a whole bunch of insurance runs. Lesson learned: HA!
06/01 -- Yankees 9, Boston 5
The Yanks tag up Tim Wakefield for eight runs, and cruise behind Chien Ming Wang. Lesson learned: Some days you control the knuckler, some days (6 BB, 2 passed balls, 1 wild pitch) the knuckler controls you.
06/02 -- Yankees 6, Boston 11
Mike Mussina looked old, and was put out there one inning too many, but the Yanks were OK until suffering an ugly meltdown in the seventh. Lesson learned: When we say Bobby Abreu sometimes looks lost in the outfield, we only mean that he occasionally looks like he's never played the game before in his life.
06/03 -- Yankees 6, Red Sox 5
Andy Pettitte gets derailed in the fifth, apparently hurting himself as he tried to put a little something extra on a fastball to Julio Lugo with the bases loaded and no outs. After the game, Pettitte says he tweaked his back a little, no problem--at the time, it looked like he was shaking out his pitching elbow. Whatever it was, Andy stayed in the game, but didn't get another out. For several seconds during that inning, I think my heart had actually stopped. I'm convinced this team is trying to kill me. All's well that ends well, I guess, with A-Rod taking Papelbon out of the yard in the ninth. Lesson learned: Red Sox fans intermittently serenaded the Yankees with chants of "Where is Roger?" once again showing their inability to keep their attention on the task at hand.
Player of the Week: Melky Cabrera had the right attitude about his new starting centerfield job, batting .471/.550/.765 on the week. Runner-up Robbie Cano is continuing his bounceback from his personal low against the Mets a couple of weeks ago, showed the pop in his bat with a homer, a triple and three doubles. Bobby Abreu's bat has come alive, even if his ball-tracking in the outfield hasn't, he hit .350/.435/.500 for the week. Mariano Rivera contributed three scoreless innings, and much maligned Luis Vizcaino did a tolerably good job this week (4 innings, 1 run allowed).
Dregs of the Week: Mike Mussina had a brutal start against the Red Sox (5 runs on 9 hits and 4 walks in 5 innings) to grab the "honors." Johnny Damon is struggling at .100/.280/.250, and Doug Mientkiewicz wasn't playing too hot prior to getting brained by Mike Lowell's hip (.182/.182/.182).
Link(s) of the Week: There were a lot of great takes on the A-Rod non-story this week. The best serious one was Tim Marchman taking Bill Madden to the woodshed on the simple point that you can't decry the gossip column culture while simultaneously wallowing in it. Even better, however, was Jim Baker's take on this at Baseball Prospectus. Yes, it's a pay article. It's also, in my humble opinion, worth the price of a subscription all on its lonesome.
Story of the Week: It's been another week, and another wave of injuries for the Bronx Bombers. Jason Giambi's plantar fascia has torn, which could mean he's gone a month, could mean he's gone the season. It's an injury that's big with the PED set, the same injury that killed the end of Mark McGwire's career. We'd learned the day before that the already-injured Phil Hughes has the worst type of ankle sprain known to man, which places him two months, maybe more out of the action. Then on Saturday Doug Mientkiewicz's head collided with the baserunner as he tried to fish out Derek Jeter's errant throw. That's one mild concussion, cervical sprain, and broken wrist added to the tally. Then came the news of Roger Clemens's "fatigued groin" on which he needs an MRI. Rocket's saying his launch is only delayed to Saturday, against the Pirates--but really, how does anybody know when the guy will be starting if they haven't seen the MRIs yet.
The Mientkiewicz/Giambi injuries--and we really have to treat them as one cluster, even though there couldn't be two more different guys--raise some interesting questions about the path this ballclub will take going forward. The Yanks are now genuinely thin at 1B/DH. For the moment, the DH slot is the refuge of Johnny Damon's sore calves; Damon could also see some time at first base. But that still leaves Josh Phelps as the starting 1B with no real backup. The starting rotation remains unstable. What do you do?
I mean, my BP colleague Steve Goldman wrote a piece in the New York Sun last week entitled "It's Not Like [the Red] Sox Haven't Had Problems of Their Own." It's a very valid point, but if you're comparing the Sox problems to the Yanks, you really have to stop at the starting rotation. The Red Sox have used seven starting pitchers, giving all but two starts to their intended starting five. The Yankees have used 11 starters, and their intended starting five have only made 35 of 54 starts. That's a huge difference.
So what's clear after last week is that a move has to be made, either building up or tearing down. And I wouldn't bet on the latter happening, barring (yet another) catastrophe. But anything's possible, since there's apparently a new sheriff in town.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Record for the Month: 13-15, 137 RS, 119 RA
Player of the Month: You hit close to .400 for a period of 31 days, then you get to be the Player of the Month. Jorge Posada's surge in May (.394/.447/.606) has Jorge as the AL's leading hitter, and has set gums a-flapping about his next contract. You've got some of the usual suspects as runners-up: Derek Jeter (.342/.434/.477), Andy Pettitte (2.16 ERA in 41 2/3 innings, despite a disappointing 2-3 record), and Hideki Matsui (.301/.358/.513). Stealth runners-up are the bullpen trio of Brian Bruney (1.64 ERA in 11 innings, 10 Ks), Scott Proctor (1.50 in 12 IP, 10 K), and Mariano Rivera (1.74 ERA in 10 1/3 IP, 10K). For Rivera, who was a Dregs player in April, this is a good turn-around, even if his overall stats still look ugly. Still, even in the wake of this performance the two homers he allowed in May are still disturbing--the Sandman hasn't had three homers allowed in a season since 2001.
Dregs of the Month: It's no secret that Bobby Abreu (.208/.267/.274) sucked in May. There just wasn't any redeeming portion of his game all month long--he didn't hit, he didn't walk, he didn't slug, and the twisty routes he took getting to balls were straight out of the late-era Bernabe Williams playbook. Want to feel sad? Abreu's predecessor in right field, Gary Sheffield, tied for the AL lead with 10 homers in May. I can't (and didn't, when it happened) complain about Brian Cashman's choice of Abreu over Sheffield--Sheff was coming off a bad injury, was older and whinier than Abreu, and Abreu ended 2006 on a tear. Still, seeing this is like a kick to the privates--the pain gains depth and intensity with time. The Yankees have been completely vulnerable to lefthanded pitching, and Abreu (.203/.246/.271) is one of the big reasons why. If you were scouring the world for a player the Yankees could use right now, Sheffield would be near the top of the list. Instead, he's with the AL Wild Card leaders in Detroit. Ouch.
Runners-up? It's a longish list. Luis Vizcaino's "perfect" 9.00 ERA in May was deeply unfortunate. With so many Yankee starters unable to get through the sixth inning, the team's had a surplus of meaningful relief innings to dish out, and Vizcaino's response in May was to throw batting practice. Mike Mussina actually didn't pitch that badly (5.22 ERA, 2 QS of 6), but he has been the most frustrated-looking person on the entire ballclub during the last month, outside of maybe Joe Torre. Jason Giambi hit .177 for the month, while struggling with foot problems--now we hear he might be done for the season. Matt DeSalvo, who looked like a potential Aaron Small when he was first called up, walked 15 against 6 strikeouts in 21 2/3 May innings. He got recycled down to Scranton at the start of June.
Story of the Month: I think I'll save something for the Week In Review tomorrow, so this will be short. I was pretty shocked that the record for May was just couple of games shy of .500, since the month felt like an unmitigated disaster. It's supposed to be April that comes in like a lion, and out like a lamb, but May started with the Yanks winning 7 of their first 9 against Seattle and Texas, and ended with them "desperate" to put the brakes on a five-game losing streak in Toronto. May was a tease, with Hughes' injury-interrupted no-hit bid, the dramatic announcement of Roger Clemens's return to pinstripes, DeSalvo and Clippard's initial good starts all giving way to disappointment, losses, and more injuries. By the end of the month, Kei Igawa was getting slapped around in Scranton, Alex Rodriguez was resorting to yelling at infielders to try to scrape together a win (not that there's anything wrong with that) and squiring busty young women not his wife around Toronto (not that it's any of our business, although I'll admit that I'm really looking forward to reading Will Weiss's take on the coverage of it in his Yankee Panky column over at Bronx Banter), and the Yankees were sharing the AL East cellar with the Devil Rays.
And Yankee fans? We're kind of hunched over, as if recovering from the aforementioned kick to the privates. For any ladies (or gents who've somehow avoided scrotal injury in their lives) this is how it works: you try to concentrate on breathing while waiting for waves of stomach-churning, nausea-inducing pain to subside. Like any lingering pain, there's the momentary concern that it won't ever fade away, even though experience teaches us that it definitely will. We're still waiting for the pain to stop...and it could be a while.
Friday, June 01, 2007
Then I started questioning the logic of the dream. Since when do bloggers get traded? What kind of sense does that make? "You're not just writing," the exec says, "we also got you to pitch."
Turns out that--even though I'm right-handed--I'd been acquired as a LOOGY/blogger. And indeed, although I didn't seem to throw much harder than I do in real life (which is to say, not hard at all) in my dreams I can twirl some pretty sharp breaking balls, left-handed. Who knew?
I've been troubled by this dream. What does it mean? A little bit of the inspiration for the dream might come from the fact that I recently did my first work for a major league team, writing a piece on Derek Jeter for the Colorado Rockies Magazine (which will be sold at Coors Field when the Yanks and Rockies hook up in a few weeks). Part of it is a question that's been on my mind a bit lately--how do people deal with the fact of having to change sports alliegances because of work? I assume most pro ballplayers were fans of a local MLB team growing up. Most of them don't wind up with the team they loved so much as a kid--do they abandon their fandom of the old team? Do they stop being baseball fans? Are my assumptions that they were fans before they were pros flawed?
To give a more concrete example: my former Baseball Prospectus colleague Keith Woolner is an ardent Red Sox fan. He recently took a front office job with the Indians, the team that's battling the Red Sox for best record in the AL, and may eventually face down the Beantowners in the playoffs. How does it feel at a time like this week, when the two teams faced off (and the Red Sox took two out of three)?
There's another, more obvious interpretation to my dream, which has to do with the current standings in the AL East. The ones which have the Yankees in last place, thirteen and a half games behind first place Boston, as the Yanks go to yet another weekend showdown in Fenway. The Beantowners have the best record in the majors, the Bombers are closer to the worst record in baseball than they are to .500. So it's possible that my dream represents anxiety about the possibility of living on Planet Red Sox Nation--that bizarro dimension where the Red Sox are perennial winners, the Yanks choke on their bloated payroll, and everyone acts as if this was the natural order of things.
Regardless of my dream, the fact is that, as Brian Cashman understated in the quote that's the title to this piece, "it's been extremely difficult times" for the Yankees faithful. Bobby Abreu, one of the most consistent players in recent baseball history, suddenly looks like he lost all his skills at once. Andy Pettitte, who used to be the Yankees' top win scavenger--picking up wins when he didn't really pitch well enough to earn them--has been brilliant, but has had tough luck. Robbie Cano, who came close to winning a batting title last year, is struggling to maintain a .300 OBP this time around. Even old reliable Mariano Rivera has been vulnerable, converting only four saves so far this season--against three losses.
All the iffy things coming into this season--Kei Igawa being a useful starter, Mike Mussina maintaining any semblance of his 2006 form, Carl Pavano staying healthy, Melky Cabrera continuing to be a sparkplug--have failed to pan out. And it just keeps getting worse. The latest thing is that Jason Giambi's hitting the DL with an injured plantar fascia. Earlier in the week we learned that the Yanks' Golden Boy, Phil Hughes, has sustained a horrible ankle sprain while rehabbing his injured hamstring. Depending on who you believe, he's out either 4-6 or 8-10 weeks. Seeing how pinstriped luck is running these days, I'd say don't count on seeing Hughes until September. And we're not even going to mention Alex Rodriguez's off-field, and possibly marital, issues.
Things have fallen apart, and the result has been the greatest collective outpouring of schadenfreude this side of Barry Bonds getting a career ending injury the night he hits homer number 754. Everyone loves the fact that bad things are happening to this team, and to its fans. On BTF, the crowd's positively orgiastic about the prospect of the Yankees finishing the season under .500 and Roger Clemens "closing out his career in front of 16,000 fans at Yankee Stadium."
Lovely. I'd have an easier time arguing about the 16,000 fans if it wasn't for articles like this one, with a couple of shopkeepers and a whiny so-called Yankee fan claiming that fans won't bother going to Yankee Stadium if the Yankees aren't winning. So be it. I hope we prove them wrong--but then again, there's still an irrational piece of me that thinks that this 22-29 record is just the opening act for an epic comeback.
If this is it for the Yankees' dynasty, let me be the first to say that I'm thankful for the great run of baseball Yankee fans have experienced. For all the talk about how disappointing the Yanks have been in the 21st Century, the facts remain: over six years, they've given us 592 wins, six division titles, and two pennants. That's just in the time since Buster Olney declared the Dynasty over. Overall, since 1995 it's 10 division titles, twelve straight Octobers in the playoffs, and four World Series championships. That's a nice bit of work, and if the price is a bad season--or even several--at least I can say that I saw a great team.
If some of the bandwagon types stop coming to the Stadium, that's probably for the best. It's about time to clear away some dead wood. Too many folks spend the game chatting away on their cellphones, giving their Red Sox fan pals tickets, and jacking up ticket prices for the rest of us. Don't let the turnstyles hit you on the way out.
All told, despite the ugly present and uncertain future, I wouldn't trade places with Red Sox fans. I lived in Boston, and I actually like Bostonians, but it skeeves me out a little bit that even though their team--and it's a damn good team--is playing inspired baseball this season, the Red Sox Nation seems more psyched about watching the Yankees possibly lose 95 games than they are about seeing their own team win 95 games. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but waiting around for some other team to have a run of bad luck just isn't my idea of fun.