Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don't Call It a Comeback

Anyone who didn't think the Orioles would claw their way back for the win, the minute they saw LaTroy Hawkins on the mound, raise your hand. Anybody but Joe Girardi have their hands down? Didn't think so.

It was really looking better for the Yanks last week, but it only took two games for the Orioles to derail that optimism and send the Bombers back to the AL East cellar. The Yanks lost on Memorial Day despite Darrell Rasner continuing his Aaron Small impression, and again last night after the Yanks had 4-0 and 8-4 leads. Hawkins figured in both losses, though Ian Kennedy gets some partial credit for once again taxing the bullpen with a 3 inning start. Why was Joba Chamberlain paired in a tandem with Mike Mussina rather than Moose's shorter pitch-alike, Kennedy? The way Kennedy was seldom able to go even halfway into a regulation game, you think it would have been a natural situation to allow Joba to stretch out his arm in anticipation of becoming a starter again.

That's all academic now. Kennedy has joined Phil Hughes on the DL, and Joba may well wind up pitching in that slot, anyway. The season is frustrating again, just when things were starting to look up.


I got to catch Sunday's game in the Boogie Down Bronx with my Dad, the first game he's been to in a few years. Dad's largely a sports non-combatant--the only real reason he cares about baseball is because he knows that the game has a profound effect on me and my brothers' moods--but he enjoyed the Yanks' comeback greatly, and seemed to be having a pretty good time even before the Mariners' bullpen coughed the game up n the eighth inning.

Up until then, things looked pretty grim. Chien Ming Wang had a second straight start where his control was off, and the team's defense was spotty behind him as well. Jarrod Washburn, a guy who'd been as hard to hit as a tee-ball this season, provided six innings of really solid work--this was something we saw on occasion last season, as well, and it follows the pattern of the Yanks being unable to hit any starter that throws lefthanded (with the nine-run outburst against Erik Bedard on Friday perhaps serving as the exception that proves the rule). As was the case last week, the Yanks looked constantly on the verge of breaking out against Washburn, but they could never quite fire up the engines all at once.

Luckily for the Yanks, the Mariners are a brutally bad team. Their excellent bullpen performance last year, the one that gave them that nifty record in one-run games, hasn't held up this season. The Mariners pen--thanks in part to the trade that sent George Sherrill to the Orioles, and in part to the simple volatility of relief performance in general--is currently below replacement level in WXRL, and the pitching staff as a whole is below replacement level by VORP.

So the Mariners' eighth inning meltdown wasn't a surprise--except to the extent that seeing the Yankee offense perform is sometimes surprising, these days. Bobby Abreu's at bat against Arthur Rhodes reminded me of the Rhodes-David Justice matchup in a long ago ALCS, and JJ Putz's freak fall/bad throw later in the inning was just the kind of play that happens to a team when they're going bad. It's a fluke, but good teams hang in there to capitalize on those flukes.

The question is, are the 2008 Yankees a good team?


After I criticized Girardi for not coming out to argue the wrong side of the Subway Series Delgado home run call, the skipper seems to have gotten the memo that he should be a little more expressive in his support of the club. Last Thursday, he threw a classic, Piniella-style fit over a strikeout call on Jason Giambi, a good enough tantrum to earn him a suspension. In last night's game, he was all over the umpiring crew for continuing the game in the ninth, when it was raining so hard that Hideki Matsui was having all sorts of trouble seeing the ball and gripping the bat. Girardi was 1 for 2 on the arguments (wrong on Giambi, and right about the rain). But a little theatrics--specially if they're heartfelt--can really help keep your keister off the hot seat when the team is underperforming.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Well, I've certainly had better times at the Stadium. For three innings, it was a brilliant game. The Yanks were getting on base against Oliver Perez, working the count, driving the Little Unit (as Perez was once known) into high pitch counts and what should have been an early shower. The Yanks hadn't been able to capitalize on the baserunners, but it felt like they were on the verge of breaking through. Chien Ming Wang, Sunday night's starter, looked sharp, retiring the first nine in order, delivering first pitch strikes, and generally being as efficient as Oliver was wasteful. I know it was too damn early to start thinking this way, but I started to imagine the emails I'd send to the various people who stood me up for this game (citing the late start, rainy forecast, and other exigents as excuses not to come to the old ballpark) if Something Special happened.

Then it all fell apart so suddenly, it was like a slap to the face. Wang lost the strike zone, falling behind hitters early. Jose Reyes responded with the game's first hit, a double, but was erased on some poor baserunning and a heads-up play by Wang on a comebacker fielder's choice. But just when it looked like things were getting back to normal, the Yankee defense deserted Wang. Alberto Gonzalez, who'd already muffed a pop-up for an error, allowed a ball to go under his glove for a single. After a walk, Jason Giambi made a nice stop at first, but instead of making sure to get an out, he threw poorly to Jeter at second, drawing the Captain off the bag. Everybody safe. Then another single by Moises Alou, and the score was 3-0.

The Yanks caught a break when the umps reversed a really bad home run call (from my seats in Section 342, one thing you do get a pretty good view of is the left field foul pole--no way that was a homer), but the beating just continued, until the Mets had batted around and the Yanks were lucky it was only 4-0. Hideki Matsui cut that lead in half with a 2-run jack in the bottom half of the inning, and when the Yankees had a man on third and one out in the fifth, it looked like the game was still manageable. That runner--Jose Molina, who'd reached on a double--was stranded, and the Yankees wouldn't have another hit all night. The gap started growing again on a Ryan Church homer, and got completely out of hand with the Mets' 6-run eighth inning. Those of us who stayed past the eighth got treated to Mets fans acting like they owned our house, having fairly uncontested chants of "Lets Go Mets" all the way to the subways, and generally acting as if their team hadn't come into the Stadium with their manager on the verge of getting fired, or, for that matter, as if their team hadn't choked their way out of the playoffs last September despite a huge lead.

In the end, the Yanks were playing so lifelessly that there wasn't much to do other than grin and take it. It was a little bit easier to grin since the more obnoxious Mets fans are like the cast of misfits out of a Mad Max movie, and not terribly good at rubbing it in. Near my section, we had a tubby guy with a cowbell and a bunch of (poorly) handmade signs. His devastating witticisms included chanting "1986" (not a lot of bragging to remind us that the last time your team won a championship was over 21 years ago, and against our hated rivals), leading a chant for Endy Chavez, and then, chanting--for himself--"Cowbell Guy! Cowbell Guy!" Even a Mets fan seated behind me was disgusted: "This guy's a fake. I'm a season ticket holder at Shea, and I've never seen him before."

There was some entertainment value to be drawn from heckling their amateur hour attempts to make us feel bad. Another member of the Mets' freak show--an older lady who looked like a run-down, foul-mouthed Doris Kearns Goodwin--installed herself in our section late in the game, the better to talk smack. A quick reminder of the Mets' follies last September led her into a foaming-at-the-mouth rant against the Phillies: "The Phillies suck. Ryan Howard is a piece of s***, and Jimmy Rollins is a piece of s***."

"Well, that s*** beat you, didn't it?"

She moved away after that, to sit closer to Tubby Cowbell Guy. But despite the amusement that the Mets fans provided, this was a dispiriting loss. This Yankee team isn't right, not by a long stretch. They're completely hapless against lefties (4-9, .637 OPS against southpaws), and it didn't help that the Yanks started five lefties against Perez, who had a .459 OPS allowed to lefties this season. It didn't help that Shelly Duncan and Morgan Ensberg sat this game out, which begs the question: if they're not going to play against Oliver Perez, why are they on the team? It doesn't help that the Attorney General hasn't shown any of the glove magic that's supposed to make up for his weak bat. It doesn't help that after impressing with five homers in April, Melky Cabrera's come back with a .190/.230/.293 May. Mike Mussina is now the guy charged with ending the Yankee losing streak on Tuesday.

  • Ryan Church's 9 homers would lead the Yankees.
  • The Yanks' latest "get fired up" montage is from the movie 300. The whole concept behind these montages is kinda cheesy--they should have stopped after the montage from Rocky II. Do these people know that the Greeks all die in that movie?
  • Maybe I just didn't catch it from my vantage point in left field main, but it didn't look like Joe Girardi came out to argue the fourth inning home run call. I understand that he's emulating Joe Torre, but it's strange that there's a call that could crack the game wide open, and he's letting his players argue with the umps, without his support.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Today, I go to my local coffee shop to buy tea--don't ask me why. Now, I'm more of a coffee guy than a tea guy, so I have no idea what I'm doing ordering loose tea--anything beyond packets of Twinings or Bigelow (like you get at the supermarket) is out of my league. The woman I'm dealing with at the counter is obviously a coffee person too, so I'm getting no help. I very tentatively ordered a quarter pound of Darjeeling something or other, and after she measures it out, she hands me off to a guy with tattoos at one of the registers.

"That'll be $5.88, champ," the tat guy says. It's a bit familiar of him to have a nickname for me--I don't come to this coffee shop that often, and I'm hardly a regular. I have singles, so I count out the bills to hand to him.

"Here's your change, champ." There's a definite sneer to the way he says it. I don't get it. Did I do something wrong? Was I rude? No. Maybe I made a stupid choice with the tea--mispronounced it, or it's some vile concoction that they've never found anyone fool enough to order?

I wave off a plastic bag for the tea, and walk out to my next errand. It's about two blocks later that I realize what the guy was going on about. The cap I'm wearing is the one with the "2000 World Champions" patch on the side. I actually don't like the look of the patch on the side of the head, but other fitted lid shrank a bit, and this one still fits like a charm.

So what was the tat man's deal? I tend to think Red Sox fan whenever someone is randomly rude to me--horrible prejudice, I know, but it seems to be the way that the demonstrative Sox fan living in New York City rolls. But then I remembered that it's Subway Series time again, and that maybe he was a disaffected Mets fan, still mourning the loss of the 2000 Series. Given the timing, he might have thought I was wearing the cap just to rub the rhubarb of any Mets fans I might meet. His reaction would be somewhat reasonable, even if it's still rude.

Win or lose this weekend's series, at least I know now what I'm wearing the next time I go to buy coffee.


Before the season, over at BP, I predicted that "the first Mets/Yankees game that Johan Santana starts" would be the season's game to watch. Santana now being a Met after spending much of the winter pursued by the Yankees--a decision the Yankee brass went back and forth on, very publicly--this wasn't exactly a courageous call. Little did I know that general timing (and a Friday rainout) would make this game even more momentous. We have a split on the players who were rumored to be headed to Minnie if Santana were coming to the Bronx: Melky's showing imroving power, but Phil Hughes is hurt and Ian Kennedy is ineffective. Both New York teams limped onto the Subway, and rumors were rampant coming into the series that Willie Randolph's job hangs by a thread in Flushing. And in the first inning, that thread was looking a bit frayed--the Captain took Johan deep with Damon on base to give the Pinstripers a 2-0 lead.

But that was as good as things would get on the day. The Mets got three runs in six innings off of Andy Pettitte, who again alternated an effective start with a bad one. The YES Network guys praised Kyle Farnsworth as he was coming into the game, which was a certain jinx, which drove things out of control. In the ninth, the Yanks brought the tying run to the plate without any outs--but it still didn't feel like the result of the game was in any doubt. 7-4 final.

The thing that killed me--that's been killing the Yanks all season, really--was the pair of six-pitch innings the Yanks handed Santana in the middle of the game. It seems like this team just isn't dedicated to working the count the way previous Yankees squads have. Part of that is just what happens when you replace Jorge Posada with the Moel-lina tandem, and A-Rod with some combination of Morgan Ensberg and the Attorney General. But those understudies only account for one of those innings, but what about the other one? Why is this All-Star offense puttering around?

It's only May, but it's getting late, early. Anyway, here's hoping tomorrow night's game doesn't get rained out.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Required Reading

Anyone who's read this blog knows that I'm a huge fan of Bronx Banter. I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Alex Belth on Monday, as well as his fellow Banterer extraordinaire, Emma Span, my Baseball Prospectus friends Joe Sheehan, Jay Jaffe and Steve Goldman, and Kevin Baker, who is one of the contributors to the Anatomy of Baseball compilation.

It was a great joy being at a table where I was clearly the worst-read person there. At one point we basically became a baseball version of the McLoughlin Group, going around the table for opinions on books, the end of Yankee Stadium, Joe Girardi's shaky start as Yankee manager, Will Leitch (and sports blogging along with him) getting pilloried on Bob Costas Now.

Speaking of books (and Bronx Banter), I got to participate in Alex's Essential Baseball Books project, nominating my top ten books. I restricted myself to non-fiction works, and worked off the top of my head (sadly, my apartment doesn't have space for all my books, so there were a few favorites, like Ball Four, that I missed solely because they're in storage rather than on my bookshelf). You can find the Essentials series at these links: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

From Part III, here's my tardy list:

Bill James, Politics of Glory -- Wonderful exercise in applied sabermetrics: James takes a dash of numbers, a huge dollop of historical research, and systematically ticks off the problems with baseball's most revered institution.

Steve Goldman, Forging Genius -- Has all the things you'd expect in a bio--fun anecdotes, character sketches, historical details--and throws in a strong dose of logic on top of it, to explain how Casey Stengel became the guy that led the Yankees to all those pennants. I suspect it would be interesting to read this back-to-back with the next book, because the authors' styles are so different.

David Halberstam, Summer of '49 -- It's like the movie Apollo 13: even if you know exactly how the 1949 pennant race ended, you still probably won't be immune to the suspense that Halberstam builds up in this book. Essential read for Yankee fans.

Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game -- Great history of the game, told through the eyes of statheads from era to era.

Bill James, Historical Baseball Abstract -- It's a bit like Disneyland, huge and easy to get lost in. There are maybe three great books' worth of work in there.

Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Between the Numbers -- Excellent primer on a broad range of stathead topics.

Michael Lewis, Moneyball -- Cliche? Maybe. A bit dated, just five years after it was published? Sure. Doesn't matter. Moneyball drags you into the collective mind of a MLB front office better than any book I've ever read.

Peter Gollenbock and Sparky Lyle, The Bronx Zoo -- Sentimental pick. I was still a kid with illusions to shatter when I read Gollenbock's story of what really happened with the 1978 World Champs. You never get your innocence back.

William Goldman and Mike Lupica, Wait Till Next Year -- Can you remember when Mike Lupica actually liked baseball? I think this book was the beginning of the end of that. The NFL and NBA, peek in here, but Goldman (of Princess Bride fame) and Lupica mainly focus on the 1987 Mets with a decent side helping of Yankees stories. The essential parts for baseball fans are Goldman's humor, and Lupica's glimpses into how sports journalism works.

Rob Neyer and Bill James, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers -- Probably the most unique baseball reference book out there--I mean, how many times do you think of a pitcher, but can't quite remember all the pitches he threw, or what his best pitch was?

More book talk later, I hope

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Month in Review: April

Record for the Month: 14-15, RS: 125, RA: 133

Player of the Month: Hideki Matsui hit .322/.425/.511 in April, with 4 homers and 13 RBI, raising the question of whether this is a resurgence or just Hideki Matsui month come early. Melky Cabrera (.299/.370/.494) also impressed, specially with his 5 April homers, matching Jason Giambi for the team lead. A 20+ homer season would sure make the Yankees glad they didn't deal Melky to the Twins. But neither of the two outfielders (more like one-and-a-half--Matsui's fielding in left looked like he needed a seeing eye dog) aren't the Player of the Month. That distinction would go to the pitchers: Mariano Rivera (8 saves, no runs allowed and only four baserunners in 11 innings) and Chien Ming Wang (5 wins and 5 of 6 quality starts, 3.23 ERA for the month.

Dregs of the Month: You'd pretty much have to start with Robinson Cano--who got a big-money multi-year commitment from the team in the off-season--was been horrible, with a .151/.211/.236 month. But the bigger headache are the rotation youngsters, Phillip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, who combined for an 0-6 record and allowed 40 Earned Runs in 41 Innings Pitched. Their month was a fiasco, from start to finish. With two quality starts out of 11, the duo only completed six innings once time apiece. Hughes started May on the DL with a mysterious stress fracture of one of his ribs, and a diagnosis of nearsightedness. While the cliche is for me to declare that at least it's not an arm injury, I'm starting to worry that Hughes has more than a little Nick Johnson in him. As for Kennedy, he's walking almost a man per inning; something that's just befuddling for a guy who's hailed as a command-and-control type. Darrell Rasner is the first pitcher to come up from AAA to get a taste of the Yankee rotation--others like Steven White and Kei Igawa might follow. Unless Kennedy shapes up, fast, one of those guys might wind up in his rotation slot.

Story of the Month: Injuries. Brian Cashman spent April shuffling his roster like a blackjack dealer. The team only used 30 players in April, but it was a constant see-saw with players like Jonathan Alabadejo being sent down and then up, guys like Chad Moehler having their contracts picked up from the minors, getting designated for assignment, and getting signed again. There have been six DL moves (Andy Pettitte, Wilson Betemit, Brian Bruney, Jorge Posada, Hughes and Alex Rodriguez), one bereavement list stay (Joba Chamberlain) and several non-DL injuries (mainly Derek Jeter's quad but also aches and pains by Morgan Ensberg and Jose Molina). The biggest injury has been Posada's: just after signing a four-year deal, Jorge's got a torn labrum that will require surgery. He'll try to rehab the shoulder for the next few months, but there's no guarantee that he'll be able to throw well enough to handle behind-the-plate duty this season. That's a scary possibility, since catcher is a slot where, for years, the Yanks have had no depth. Even though Molina is the best backup that Posada's had in years, he only hit .231/.231/.365 in April. Let's hope that Hip-Hip-Jorge gets back in the saddle soon.