Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Winter Meetings Notes

Lots have happened since last we spoke. Indeed, it seems that if you don't show up at your Blogger office for more than a month, they set your page to show a random someone's Twitter feed. I got a guy from Connecticut. The page's Twitter feed will return if/when it's fixed--until then, if you want to follow me in 140-character doses, you can just go directly to .

Ain't It Grand?

The big baseball news, for the Yankees at least, was yesterday's three-way trade with the Tigers and Diamondbacks, which is reportedly done, pending physicals. The Yanks gave up Austin Jackson and Phil Coke to the Detroit, and Ian Kennedy to Arizona. In return, they got center fielder Curtis Granderson, and his sweetheart contract (3 more years, at under $28MM).

It's a hard deal to not like. Granderson's spent the last two years coming down from his career season in 2007, but he still shows decent patience (72 BB in 710 PA) and good pop in his bat (.204 isolated power). Depending on whose metrics you believe, he's either a good or very good center fielder. Either way, by pushing the Melky/Brett Gardner duo to left, he'll improve an outfield that featured Johnny Damon's diminished range and noodle arm. He puts the Yankees in a position where they could sign either Damon or Hideki Matsui--but not both--for the DH slot, or they could go another way entirely. With Granderson, they also have the option of sitting out the Jason Bay and Matt Holliday free agent auctions, if they prefer. It's a real Brian Cashman move.

Meanwhile, the package they gave up for Granderson is extremely fair for a former elite player who's had some of the shine taken off him by declining production (he's a bit like Nick Swisher that way). As's Pete Abraham (dang, does it feel weird to say that) pointed out, Austin Jackson may be a nice prospect, but his best case scenario is to someday give a team pretty much what Granderson will give you in the here and now. Phil Coke was a fringe prospect two years ago, prior to his meteoric rise (why do we say that? meteors don't rise, they fall) to the majors. Despite his ascension to top lefty on the best team in baseball, Coke was limited by his gopherball issues (12 homers in 62 2/3 IP, counting the postseason). He had value, but let's not get carried away. And Ian Kennedy? I'm still convinced he's a major league pitcher, and the NL West will be a good place for him. But he was never going to establish himself with the Yankees. He just didn't have the kind of upside that would justify the frustrations the Yankees had with him, even before he lost much of last season to injury. Good luck to him.

Moves and Maneuvers

The lower-case news of the Yankees' Winter Meeting are a maintenance of the status quo--Andy Pettitte getting a one-year deal, worth just under $12 million--and Brian Bruney being cast down among the sodomites on the Washington Nationals roster. Pettitte showed last season there's stuff left in the tank--heck, he was stronger in the second half than the first. It's a good idea to have him back, and if the price is not making him sweat a bunch of incentives, that's just "Thank you for another World Championship." The general rule is that there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal, particularly when you have the Yankees' resources.

As for Bruney, in Game One of the World Series he reminded everyone of the old adage, "don't put anyone on the World Series roster you wouldn't want to use in a World Series game" (the Jeff Weaver Rule, as I like to call it). When Bruney came to the Yanks, he was a rare example of the team trying to acquire and develop low-cost talent, and to some extent, it worked. The Yankees turned a player with no value into a guy who's worth the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, and at times during his Yankee tenure he was worth more than that. Sadly, it turned out the conditioning issues that soured the D'Backs on Bruney in the first place weren't his only problems--you never knew what was jogging in from the bullpen when Bruney pitched. Sometimes, he'd be a beast in a high-leverage situation, blowing fastballs past the heart of the Red Sox order. Other times, he'd nibble, lose the strike zone, and generally pour gasoline on the fire. Like Kennedy--who basically stole a save opportunity from Bruney in the season's final days--you just got the feeling that Bruney was more trouble to the Yanks than he was worth. He joins the Nationals, where his personality quirks will seem mild by comparison to his fellow inmates.

Gammo's Gone (from Bristol)

The other Winter Meetings news from yesterday was first surprising, then not. In short order, it was announced that Jack Curry had accepted a buyout from the New York Times, and then that Peter Gammons was leaving ESPN, as of the end of the meetings. The Gammons story was open-ended and sudden, so it wasn't certain if he was leaving the Worldwide Leader for another opportunity, or just leaving. A short time later, surprise turned into, "Oh, that makes sense," when the MLB Network announced that Gammons would be joining their team.

The ESPN story on this was titled "Gammons Ends Hall of Fame Run with ESPN." The title is technically correct, as Gammons got the coveted Spink Award in 2005, while a member of the ESPN family. But to me, it felt a little like saying, in 1996, that Wade Boggs had "finished his Hall of Fame run with the Yankees." Gammons was a Hall of Famer before he first joined the Bristol crew in 1989.

He changed the game with his Sunday columns for the Boston Globe, which was basically a weekly report on the state of the game, with a mild-to-heavy Red Sox tilt. I remember going to the newsstand with Joe Sheehan in high school, to pick up Baseball America, which ran the column in an abbreviated form, a couple of weeks after it ran in the Globe. We'd get together with friends to play Strat-o-Matic baseball and the issue of BA would slowly make its way around the room, everyone opening the paper to Gammons's column--sometimes it was the only thing in BA worth reading, almost always it was the only thing in BA we would talk about. When I went to college in Boston, it was a shock to open up the Sunday Globe and find a baseball column that was almost twice as long as what would later appear in BA. I actually tore that page out of the paper (the column took up an entire page!) and mailed it to Brother Joe in California.

This was a big deal in the pre-Internet days. You didn't have every sports section in America at your fingertips 24/7 back then, so a guy who once a week could tell you about what was happening everywhere in baseball was an invaluable resource--and Gammons was the first and best at it. If Gammons had quit baseball in 1988, he still would have been one of the best baseball writers of his generation. Still, he continued to blaze trails with ESPN, particularly when his writing went exclusive to He was--I think--the first major sportswriter to abandon print to work exclusively online. Between him and Rob Neyer there was a stretch when ESPN's baseball page was the online destination that you had to check every day, multiple times a day.

For me my appetite for Gammons's writing slacked off a bit when he went behind ESPN's pay wall. The tremendous quantity and quality of sports writing available online in the middle of this decade made one writer--even a great one--falling by the wayside less stunning than it would have been in the late 80s or early 90s. Competitors, like Ken Rosenthal, started outhustling him on the phones, breaking more news, real or rumored. In general, people became less tolerant of the Gammons-style reporting of rumors, now that the Internet's full of them.

Even if he's lost a bit off his fastball, Gammons is like Andy Pettitte--he can still bring it well enough that he's welcome on my team. Here's wishing him the best of luck on the MLB Network (and, to a much lesser extent, on Red Sox-owned NESN).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hurricane Cliff Strikes the Bronx

For those of you left homeless and/or hopeless by the devastation Hurricane Cliff caused last night, it's probably no consolation that the sun is shining today. No consolation that yes, the Series will go on, at least for a few days more. No consolation that there's still a chance to even up the Series, no consolation that last night might be the last time we see Brian Bruney in 2009.

All you can think about is the horror. The sight of the Yankees never really being in the game, all on account of a pitcher they used to kick around pretty regularly for most of his career. Suddenly, last year he went from fringy finesse lefty to combine harvester of doom (as a professor of mine used to say), and last night he was so locked in that everything--crowd, drizzle, batters, batted balls--was just a nuisance.

As I said on Twitter, it was a lousy feeling. It made me recall the last time I felt so bad about Game 1 of the World Series--back in 1996. Like this time, we were facing an NL team touted for its starting staff. Like last night, there was a player who looked like we wouldn't be able to get him out all series--that year Andruw Jones, this year Chase Utley--hitting a pair of dingers. And, I worry that, like the 1996 World Series, it may get worse before it gets better. AJ Burnett is going for the Yanks tonight, and unless the boys manage to show Pedro Martinez who his daddy is early and often, it'll be a night where I'm chowing down on antacids like they're tic tacs.

Still, the 1996 World Series turned out OK for Yankee fans. Keep the faith, and let's go Yankees.


Aside from Cliff Lee turning into an unstoppable creature from legend, the worst development last night was the continued downward spiral of Phil Hughes, whose postseason has been a completely different creature from his regular season in the pen. Hughes walked both batters he faced and barked at the umpire, even though he didn't come close to the plate with the majority of his offerings. Part of the problem, as Brother Joe notes today at Baseball Prospectus, is that Girardi changed the way he used Hughes, and it's not a fashion that complements Phil's style. Another issue is that Hughes looks like his mechanics are coming apart and his confidence is shot. They say George Steinbrenner was in the house last night, but I can't believe that's so. The George I grew up with would have gone to the clubhouse and fired Dave Eiland immediately after the game, if not earlier.

Not saying it would have been the right thing to do. Just saying that's what would've happened.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Last Minute World Series Preview*

* weather permitting...

I was there on Sunday, the beneficiary of a friend feeling under the weather, when the Yanks clinched American League pennant #40. It was made all the tastier because of the measure of payback the Yanks got against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in California of the West Coast of the United States, who'd sent the Yanks to some early October golfing in 2002 and 2005. Andy Pettitte, who's pretty much been Good Andy full-time since mid-July (he's 8-3 with 12 quality starts in his last 17 games) was on the money once again. A Yankee rally in the fourth gave him the lead, and in the eighth, everyone was surprised to hear the opening notes of Enter Sandman as Girardi took no chances on the last six outs. There was some excitement that inning, because a gork and a Vlad Guerrero single shaved the lead down to one against Rivera. However, Angels deadline pickup Scott Kazmir literally threw that momentum away in the bottom of the inning, when he couldn't throw a strike to the plate or to the first baseman. Boogie down time in the Bronx.

But pennant number 40 means that now it's time to worry about what could be championship number 27--and it's going to be a grind. The Phils won 93 games to the Yanks' 103, playing in a weaker league and arguably weaker division, but that's all out the window right now. The Phils remind me a bit of the 2002 Yankees, a team that was built on big peak performances which were meant to cover for some soft spots in the lineup. However, the starting rotation matches or betters anything the Yankees have put out there since 1998. (Even though the Yanks and Phils were neck-and-neck in SNVAR this season, the mid-season acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, and the mid-season degradation of Joba Chamberlain, pushes the Pennsylvanians over the top.) The Yankees' bullpen is an off-setting advantage, so I see this as close to a 50/50 series as possible. The keys to this series:

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia and Cole Hamels -- These two aren't likely to hook up in any one game of this series, but each shoulders a great responsibility for his team's success. CC should start three games if this World Series goes the full seven, something we haven't seen since Curt Schilling against the Yanks in 2001. Again, this is what he got the big money from the Yanks for. Meanwhile, Hamels was the ace of last season's World Champions, and a big part of the Phils' rotation superiority is the idea that he can snap back to that form, which he showed intermittently this season. In three postseason starts, however, Hamels was nothing special, and seemed to push everyone's frustration threshold--he got pulled in the fifth inning of the NLCS clincher against the Dodgers. Good Cole versus Bad Cole is a big swing for the Phils.

Right Field: Jayson Werth and Nick Swisher -- With the Yanks possibly starting lefties in five of seven games, Werth is going to have to pick up whatever slack the power lefties in the Phils' lineup (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez) leave behind. In his first season as a full-timer, Werth was the righty counterpart to Howard, punishing lefties to the tune of a homer every 13.4 plate appearances. Meanwhile, in the Yankees' more balanced lineup, a functional Swisher is the difference between the Yankee lineup being a relentless on base machine that drives pitchers up the wall, or not.

Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera and Brad Lidge -- We've seen already in this postseason that Joe Girardi is going to lean on Mariano Rivera like there is no tomorrow--it's one of the few things Joe's done in the playoffs we approve of. The question is whether the Sandman, a month shy of his 40th birthday, can continue to answer the call if Girardi loses faith in Phil Hughes and needs him for extended appearances night after night. Meanwhile, Lidge's issues are well-documented (7.21 ERA this year!) but Charlie Manuel has staked a lot on trying to get him back on track. The Yanks have made a lot of their hay against bullpens this year, so it's unlikely that Lidge will go untested.

If I have to make a call, it's Yanks in six, but I think that overstates how close this series is, and is going to be. Happy baseball, everyone!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Joe Girardi: Super Genius

Game 1, which I attended, was a pure delight--chilly and a bit wet, but damn near perfect. Game 2 was a test of endurance for all involved. With a healthy assist from Alex Rodriguez, and despite the fact that Joe Girardi managed himself into a Chad Gaudin-or-bust situation at the end of the game, things turned out well. Then there was Game 3, where Joba Chamberlain, Girardi, and the Yanks in general managed to spoil a Mariano Rivera performance for the ages. And it only got weirder from there.

To some extent, Yankee fans are going a little hard on Girardi. At worst, he can only claim partial credit for the many machinations that turned Joba Chamberlain from the Yanks' most promising young starter since Andy Pettitte* into...whatever the heck he is right now. The Master Plan of converting Joba from pen to starting rotation, now in its second year, was a top-down organizational decision. Since August, at the very least, it's had a whiff of fiasco to it, and in common-sense terms, it seems like something doomed to failure from the start: start his season in the starting rotation, then just when he seems to have gotten a rhythm going, make his rest between starts long and random, then put him on a strict five-day schedule, but shorten his appearances so that in September--when perhaps a starter should be building his endurance for the playoffs--he's making 3- and 4-inning starts. Then, in the last week of the season, put him in the bullpen as a short reliever. Finally, act surprised when Joba, who hasn't been consistent since all the experimentation started more than two months ago, craps the bed in a playoff game.

So, the whole organization gets to take a bow for Joba's debacle in the seventh inning of Game 3. The whole lineup--the 7-8-9 batters in particular--screwed the pooch, limiting the offense to just the runs that the Captain, A-Rod, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada could produce on solo homers. But Girardi gets sole credit for the Tony-LaRussa-on-crack way he's been overmanaging since the regular season ended. The game was lost in the bottom of the 11th inning--an inning which in which Dave Robertson took over for Rivera, got two outs, and was inexplicably replaced with Alfredo Aceves, who allowed a single to Howie Kendrick and a double to Jeff Mathis to blow the game.**

As Pete Abraham put it, it looks like Girardi's being paid by the pitching change, given the nutty and senseless way he's been playing matchups even in games that have no set end point. The Yanks have had three extra inning games (out of six total) in the postseason, and Girardi's managed to use seven relievers in each of those games. Of those 21 relief appearances, almost two-thirds (13) have featured a pitcher throwing less than a full inning.

The big problem is, this isn't the way that Girardi managed during the season. By my calculations, Joe's relievers had the eighth-highest ratio of innings pitched to games appeared (1.12 IP/G), which is an indication that you're not micromanaging and playing matchups. For the sake of comparison, Tony LaRussa's Cardinals relievers got the second-fewest innings pitched per game (0.91) after the Rays (0.90).

Now, it's true that you manage the playoffs differently from the regular season. Joe Torre was a master of this in his years with the Yanks--his bullpen became much, much smaller in October, and his usage of Mariano Rivera much more flexible. Girardi's kept the flexible and intelligent use of Rivera from the Joe Torre era, but turned the rest of his bench and bullpen usage into a showcase for his managerial "genius." After being a fairly laissez-faire tactical manager all season long (he found a good thing with Brett Gardner as a baserunning weapon, but otherwise he managed a fairly standard AL game), Girardi's decided to get showy. Given the deepest bench the Yankees have taken into the postseason since the 70s, Girardi's opted for a roster that gives him a non-hitting third catcher and a second pinch-runner/outfielder, rather than carrying Eric Hinske or Ramiro Pena. After using just one lefthander (Phil Coke) in the bullpen most of the year, he's now carrying two. And he seems to be choking under the weight of all these options.

You see, while it's true that you manage a bit differently in the playoffs, it's not really the time to completely re-make yourself as a manager, either. Joe Girardi won 103 games this season, managing with a much lighter touch than he's shown through five playoff wins. He was far from the perfect manager for those 103 wins, but he should trust the managing style that got him here.


The odd coda to all this is Mariano Rivera. He came into the game in the 10th inning, after Phil Hughes allowed a leadoff double to Angels catcher Jeff Mathis. He soon found himself in a first-and-third, no out situation, when he tried and failed to get the lead runner on a sac bunt. With the top of the Angels lineup due up, Rivera did some of the best pitching of his career, holding the Angels scoreless with the winning run 90 feet away. The fine job Rivera did in the tenth was largely forgotten after Aceves came in to lose the game the following inning. But then it was back in everyone's thoughts again...because some douchetards thought he was throwing a spitter.

Not the opposing team, mind you, or the umps, or anyone in attendance at the game. Some guys, who apparently think the name of Los Angeles of Anaheim's franchise is the "Angles," recorded and posted on YouTube a moment, apparently between pitches, where Rivera, while holding a baseball, spits. From the angle of the camera, it looks like he spits toward the baseball, but the camera cuts away so you can't see where the stream of spittle goes.

Now, when I saw this, I thought it was a joke. Folks like getting Yankee fans' goats, and crave the bit of attention that you can get by having Red Sox fans with time on their hands propagate the video around the Internet, and Yankee fans waste their time denouncing it. The joke stopped being funny when MLB had to issue a statement refuting the charges. Still some bloggers kept on acting like this was for real. Never mind that no one uses spit to load up the ball anymore. Never mind that if someone did, they wouldn't do it by spitting on the ball from nearly an arm's length away, in the open, with live cameras rolling, in front of the Angels team and some 45,000 of their fans. Never mind that some folks have made up things (like where the second base ump was or wasn't looking when the fateful loogy was spewed) to fit this idiotic claim.

Then again, just never mind. We have our dumbest subplot of the 2009 ALCS. And here I thought it would have something to do with the Rally Monkey.


* Yeah, I know that Chien Ming Wang was after Andy Pettitte, and was pretty darn good before he got hurt. But he wasn't heralded as a top prospect, a top of the rotation guy. I'm actually not sure that Pettitte had that kind of hype, either. I think maybe Al Leiter matches the Joba situation a little better--a guy with explosive stuff who looked like a real world beater. But thinking of that comparison makes me really depressed.

** Even if Al Aceves had gotten Kendrick out, Girardi would still have burned Robertson on 11 pitches, in a game which could've easily gone 16 innings. You'd have to think that Robertson facing Kendrick with two outs and the bases empty was certain death in order for that to make sense!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pre ALCS Thoughts

Wow, the ALDS flew by. The three Yankee victories were, by turn, expected, lucky, and surprising. In Game 1, CC did what he was given the big, huge contract to do, even though he didn't have his best stuff; in Game 2, late inning heroics combined with a lucky break from left field ump Phil Cuzzi, who had one job to do, and did it poorly. Game 3 featured "Can't Pitch" Carl Pavano showing the Yankees exactly the pitcher they thought they signed the week before Christmas in 2004. He was amazing. I was watching the online feed, the center field camera view. In that view, the camera stayed focused on the pitcher after each plate appearance and time and again, the view you'd see was Pavano turning his back to the plate, another strikeout notched, another batter disposed of. It was like that until the seventh, when, with the Twins leading 1-0, Alex Rodriguez went yard to the opposite field to tie the game. More on that in a moment. Two batters later, Jorge Posada did the same. Two guys, who we didn't know what exactly the Yankees would get from them coming into the season, swung everything in the other direction. It wasn't exactly smooth sailing from that point--the Twins helped Phil Hughes survive another unspectacular outing when scrappy piranha Nick Punto got sloppy on the basepaths, and the Captain made him pay for it--but the Yanks tacked on some insurance in the ninth and didn't look back.

Just like that, the Yankees closed out baseball at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a place hailed alternately as a blight on the baseball landscape or the ultimate home field. Lost between Pavano's performance and another A-Rod postseason homer was Andy Pettitte's performance, which was in keeping with the strong work he did throughout the second half (6-3, 3.31 ERA and a drastic uptick in his strikeout rate). In his postgame interview, Pettitte seemed not only happy to have won and pitched well, but genuinely happy that his former teammate threw well, opposing him. It was a stark contrast to how most most Yankee fans feel about Pavano's post-Yankee life, which some of us hope will be just as full of quad pulls, buttocks contusions, and non-lethal late night car accidents as his Yankee tenure was. Still, the graceful approach was fully in keeping with the person Pettitte's shown himself to be throughout the years--from the early in his career when people thought he might be too nice to be a successful pitcher, right down to the way he comforted Jerry Hairston Jr. when Hairston's defensive lapses wrecked his perfect game back in August.

Alex and Fast Eddie

"I mean, how can I lose? 'Cause you were right, Bert: it's not enough to have talent, you got to have character, too. Yeah, I sure got character now.
--Fast Eddie Felson, The Hustler

One reason that Alex Rodriguez has been almost universally disliked in baseball is because he didn't have a good story. Good stories require drama, and drama usually requires a protagonist overcome (or struggle to overcome) adversity. From the start of his career, there wasn't much adversity to A-Rod's life in baseball. He always made things look easy: picked first in the draft, got to the majors early, established himself as a star quickly. Became the highest-paid athlete in sport. Traded to MLB's perennial payroll leader, a team that would give him every possible chance to win a championship or seven.

It was all too easy. When he finally did face adversity, in the 2004 ALCS, he wasn't cast as the hero, but rather the villain of someone else's success story. The following year, he won the MVP, but the Angels wanted no part of him in the ALDS--he walked six times in five games, good for a .435 OBP, but he only got two hits in the series, and no RBI. The next season featured the one of the worst episodes in recent Yankees history. Mid-season Rodriguez got into a bad funk. In a sharp departure from his usual methods of operation, Joe Torre decided that the way to shake him out of it was public shaming. The result was a mid-September Sports Illustrated article where Torre, Don Mattingly, and various teammates (particularly Jason Giambi) spoke openly about the various things they felt were A-Rod's problems. Ironically, the article came out just as it seemed that Rodriguez had gotten things back on track. Things degenerated from there until the point where Torre batted the previous year's MVP eighth in the lineup against the Tigers in the ALDS. Another giant fiasco for A-Rod, another loss for the Yankees.

As we talked about at the beginning of the ALDS, no one feels empathy, much less sympathy, for you when you're the richest, most talented guy in the room, and you don't achieve your goals. In 2007, after the Yanks lost the Midges Series against Cleveland--after another underwhelming offensive series by the third baseman--Rodriguez cemented that lack of empathy when his agent notoriously timed the declaration that Alex would be opting out of his contract--the richest contract in sports--during the World Series. Rodriguez was able to smooth things over, handling the negotiations personally to remain a Yankee, but that was hardly an altruistic act. It was closer to corporate damage control.

Then came this past off-season, Rodriguez's first in Yankee pinstripes that wasn't preceded by postseason humiliation. The big A-Rod scandal of 2008--the bust up of his marriage, with an apparent assist from Madonna--was just winding down when news of Selena Roberts's (anonymous sources) tell-all book hit the airwaves. Now Alex wasn't just a choker, he was a steroid cheat. Rodriguez's too-smooth apologia, full of explanations that were easily shot down and relatively devoid of emotion, only stoked the anger he faced.

Then came what looked like the coup de grace that would end Alex's season before it began--the discovery that he had a chronic hip injury. Surgery was expected to wipe out most, if not all, of his season, and some had to wonder if it wasn't for the best for Rodriguez to escape the spotlight in light of the season in light of the additional revelations promised in Roberts's book. However, Alex Rodriguez--in a move that wasn't in line with his perceived character--opted for a different surgery, a stopgap, instead. He'd still need a full surgical repair eventually, but the procedure was going to get him back on the field before the All Star break.

Still, I'd written A-Rod off for 2009, and I suspect I wasn't alone. The Yanks were stuck through 2016(?) with a contract for a guy with a bad hip. Even if he could play, there were the steroid distractions, and no access to the DH spot, since the team had a lot of guys headed that way coming into the season (remember, Posada was coming off his shoulder repair, and Matsui his recurring knee troubles), and no depth in the infield. One bad slide, one dive for a ball at third, and who knew what would happen to the jury-rigged hip?

But the injury wound up doing something interesting to Alex Rodriguez. It made him human. Finally, there was a reason for him to struggle. When he came back to the Yankees' lineup in May, he looked as if he'd been aged into his mid-40s. He couldn't run, his batting average was low, and he had a hard time catching up to good fastballs (according to Baseball, he only hit .198/.343/.432 against power pitchers in 2009). Like many older ballplayers, he had to be more selective, draw walks, and wait for mistakes. Still, he provided the team an immediate boost--the team was 81-41 when Rodriguez started this season, 22-18 when he didn't.

He seemed more relaxed. This year, Alex had his best numbers when the team was within two runs of their opponent, and his effectiveness actually went down in blowouts either way. Alex had encountered adversity--divorce, the loss of his reputation with the steroids and other Selena Roberts accusations, the loss of his health--and seemed a changed man.

All of this made me think of Robert Rossen's 1962 black and white classic, The Hustler. In the film, Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) travels cross-country to play the best straight pool player in the country, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie's young and extremely talented, and the first time he plays Fats he has the older man on the ropes, but he gets cocky, and drunk, and ultimately loses his shirt. At the end of the movie he plays Fats again, and the quote above is from that confrontation. In between the big pool matches, Fast Eddie is put through trials: He scuffles around trying to raise money for a rematch. He falls under the wing of a gambler who both teaches him some sports psychology and undermines his confidence at every turn. He gets injured while hustling pool, and he loses the woman he loves. The various pains and humiliations he faces along the way transform him, to the point that he's a completely different person than the guy who lost to Minnesota Fats before. As it turns out, now he can't lose, because he has nothing to lose--except his hard-earned character.

It's a classic story, one you've probably seen repeated in over a dozen sports films and at least half of Tom Cruise's filmography. Alex Rodriguez, returning to the ALCS for the first time since 2004, has a chance now to make that story his. He's eight wins, and a few more games like he had against the Twins, away. I wish him luck.

Other ALCS Notes:

  • With Joba remaining in the bullpen, the aim now is to use CC Sabathia the way aces were used in the 80s and early 90s--three starts in a seven game series, if needed. That puts a premium on the Yankees trying to beat the Angels early, since you can't pull that off two series in a row. Since I don't want to see any more of Chad Gaudin in the first inning in 2009, here's hoping the Yanks can win in five.
  • The Angels are a scary, scary team. The way they put the hurt on Papelbon at the end of their ALDS was just breathtaking. It's a team much like the Yanks of late 90s in that the lineup relies on depth more than any single peak performer.
  • I'm headed to fight the elements at the Stadium for tonight's Game One. I'll be in section 130. Updates via Twitter (@derekbaseball) as needed. Happy baseball!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Almost Game Time: ALDS Game 2

Game One of Twins/Yankees provided the expected result (7-2 win), but not in the expected ways. As I noted on Twitter (@derekbaseball, if you're not following) CC was demonstrating the difference between command and control for much of the game. If you look at the box score, you'd see that see that the big lefty struck out eight and walked none, and figure that he must've really been on. Instead, it was clear throughout the game that CC wasn't hitting his spots amd was actually struggling a bit--think about how many times he crossed up Jorge Posada--even though he could still get the ball over the plate when he needed it to avoid walking anyone. The Twins did their part to help CC out, swinging early and often. It seemed like this approach could yield some fruit for Minnesota in the early innings--the Twinkies were fouling off so many pitches that Sabathia was burning 20 pitches per inning--but that same hacktasticalness also contributed to their eight Ks against CC.

There's a lesson for Game Two starter AJ Burnett here: the Twins will get themselves out. Be patient, stay around the plate, and the Twins will assist you by swinging away. In two starts against the Twins this season, Burnett gave them 10 walks in 13 1/3 innings, which is way too much to give a squad that's missing a large part of its power. If AJ can stay around the plate, hopefully it won't take 10 innings to put Minnesota down, this time. But as I said last time out, if he's too free with the free passes, this series could change in a hurry. Here's hoping stingy AJ gives us an enjoyable game.


Usually I frown on personal catchers, particularly when the performance gap with the bat is as profound as it is between Jose Molina and Jorge Posada. But the weird thing looking at Burnett the contrast between JoMo and Hip Hip Jorge catching Burnett is the way that Burnett's strikeouts disappear when Posada's behind the plate. This year Burnett struck out 18.2% of batters when Jorge's catching him, 25.2% when anyone else (Molina, Kevin Cash, Frisco Cervelli) is behind the plate. That's a big difference, and both samples are pretty substantial. Now, it's possible that Posada started when the Yanks and Burnett were facing better offenses, but it also seems likely that something about the pitcher/catcher rapport was off between Burnett and Posada, with real consequences. I just hope that Girardi has the good sense not to let Molina bury the offense if he comes up in a big spot.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Almost Game Time: ALDS Game 1

When the dust settled after Game 163...I think Emma Span put it best (via Twitter):
What an absolutely amazing game. But how neurotic am I that I'm already picturing the scene if Pavano eliminates the Yanks at the Stadium?
Yes, it was a great game, but also a reminder that great games don't always come from great teams. One of the reasons that the game went on for twelve innings is because both teams flubbed opportunities to put the other away. The Twins, perennially praised for their fundamentals, were plagued by shoddy execution, with outfielders throwing to the wrong bases, guys doing a poor job of tagging up on fly balls, and so forth. Certified genius manager Jim Leyland struggled with the bullpen, pulling young starter Rick Porcello early, but being a bit slow with the hook for closer Fernando Rodney, who pitched his longest appearance in four years and was tagged with the loss. At the end, the winners come to the ALDS tired, having gone 12 innings and used 8 pitchers on Tuesday, only to arrive in New York after midnight, with a 6:00 PM start today. They arrive without their big power hitter, Justin Morneau, or their starting third baseman, Joe Crede. They arrive having lost 7 straight against the Yanks this year. They arrive having been bounced out of the playoffs in the Division Series on their last three tries, two of those against the 2003-4 Yanks.

So they come to New York as immense underdogs, an 87-win just-scraped-through division winner against 103-win juggernaut. And yet they could win. Like every other underdog in sports, they get to take a rock, sling it at Goliath's head, and hope for the best.

Despite the lofty win total, this isn't a great Yankee team. Great Yankee teams tend to know who their #4 starter is heading into the playoffs. I'll take the 2009 Yankees' lineup any day--it's beautifully balanced, all the regulars met or exceeded expectations, it's beautiful. CC's been great, and the 1-2 bullpen punch of Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes has been a thing of beauty. But the starting rotation hinges on a notoriously inconsistent guy who alternates great starts with horrible ones (A.J. Burnett) and a guy who many thought was done coming into the season (Andy Pettitte). You could see A.J. turn in one of his craptastic allow-eight-runs-in-three-innings starts on Friday, and that, plus the hostile environment of the Metrodome, could change the entire complexion of the series.

That's the nightmare. A miraculously healthy Carl Pavano celebrating a Division Series win, perhaps even on the mound at Yankee Stadium. No one--regardless of how the Red Sox do against the Angels, or the fact that the Mets managed to lose ninety games in their inaugural Citifield season--letting Yankee fans live it down, ever. But that's the deal when you're the favorite. You don't get to fail, you get to be humiliated. And anything short of a parade down the Canyon of Heroes is considered failure.

For fans, it's important to remember that the Pavano nightmare is a pretty nice problem to have. Unlike fans of 22 other teams, we have postseason baseball. The team, while not without its problems, is probably better than any we've seen in the Bronx since 2003. So bring on the underdogs, and don't be afraid to root for Goliath. Enjoy the game.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Game Story: Sweep Dreams in the Bronx

The Sunday plan landed me at Yankee Stadium last night, for the most comfortable Yanks/Sox game I've attended since 2002 or so. With the Pinstripers taking the first three games of the set in dramatic fashion, there was a "found money" quality to the game--a loss would sting, but it's still three out of four, right?--and the spacier environs of New Yankee Stadium made it a bit easier for Yanks and Sox partisans to make their respective ways to the beer and bathroom lines without tripping over each other. When people who hate you come into your house, it's definitely nice to have some elbow room.

I wasn't expecting much from the matchup. The MoLester has been sterling against the Yanks for his career--he only has one bad start against the team, and that came before his cancer diagnosis in 2006. Andy Pettitte's record against the Beantowners was much more mixed--15-8 against them for his career, but in the last few seasons it's been more Bad Andy than Good Andy.

Fortunately, it was all about Good Andy last night, running up another seven shutout innings to go with the combined effort shutouts on Friday and Saturday. The only players who really gave him trouble were JD Drew and Nick Green, although Andy avoided pitching to Mike Lowell as if he were the second coming of Albert Pujols.

It was 1-0 in the eighth (on an Alex Rodriguez line homer to center) when both managers tried to cough up the game. With Andy at 112 pitches, Joe Girardi called on Phil Coke to face the top of the order. It made sense to play a matchup against Jacoby Ellsbury, and the third batter of the inning, Victor Martinez, is marginally better against righties than lefties in his career, but then you have two more righthanded hitters, Bay and Youkilis. So while it wasn't a surprise to see Coke come into the game, it was a surprise that after he left the bullpen, no one else was warming up. Not Rivera in case a four out save is needed. Not Phil Hughes. Not even Brian Bruney "just in case." I like Coke and I'm all in favor of confidence, but this was just lousy planning--this is the same guy who gave up 6 runs in a third of an inning just last week. You give that guy a safety net, if you can. Coke gave up the lead on a 2-run V-Mart homer, and was fortunate to escape more damage when Jason Bay rapped into a double play.

After the game, Girardi defended his decision by saying that he wouldn't pitch Hughes in three straight games--the Phil Hughes Rules, anyone?--but if that was the case, why on earth did Girardi only get two outs (on nine friggin' pitches, total) out of Hughes in those appearances?

Anyway, in the bottom of the eighth, Tito Francona has his house much more in order. Josh Bard comes out of the bullpen to face the #9 spot, Derek Jeter, and Johnny Damon. As Bard comes in from the bullpen, we could see that both Hideki Okajima and Jon ("I prefer Jonathan") Papelbon are warming up, and not just soft-tossing, either. The stage is set for Bard to face a pinch-hitter and Jeter, Okajima to face Damon, and Papelbon to stretch out to four outs if either pitcher gets in trouble. I mean, that's the only way that having both pitchers warming up behind Bard makes sense, right?

As you probably saw last night, after Bard retired Hideki Matsui (pinch-hitting for Jerry Hairston) and Derek Jeter--making the Captain look bad in the process--Francona lets Bard face Damon. As I twittered at the time, Brother Joe, who's with me at the game, says "This is a risk. Damon could pop one in this park." He barely finishes saying it and Damon has lined a shot into the seats. Bard then faces Teixeira--a more defensible call, Tex kills lefties this year--and the big first baseman pops one so high in the air we never saw it come down. I'm told it was a fair ball. A couple of insurance runs later, we're off to never never land, and Boston was swept.

Some of the Red Sox fans in my section headed for the exits immediately after the Tex homer landed, when the Yanks had just a one-run lead. A couple of them had wrapped up their Boston regalia and tucked it under their arms, so as to hide that they were members of the RSN. It was an odd reaction, given Boston's recent history against the Yanks. You're up 8-4 on the season series! You lead the wild card, from whence you've won the World Series...twice!

This is ridiculous. The Red Sox are a good team. People are blaming Theo Epstein for not picking up Roy Halladay, oblivious of the fact that aside from John Smoltz's blowout Thursday, the Red Sox starters held the Yankees to four runs over three games, even while playing at Coors-on-the-Hudson Stadium. Things happen, and no one wins the pennant on August 10 anymore.


Overheard Outside Yankee Stadium--Man in Yanks paraphenalia talking to young woman of no visible affiliation, wearing a cardigan on a brutally humid night: "You covered up your tattoo? C'mon, show your tattoo. Why not? Show your tattoo. No one is gonna beat you up. Seriously, no one is gonna beat you up."

Friday, July 31, 2009

Who Do You Trust?

I was going to break my blog-silence in a more official and positive fashion, but I wasn't quite done with that piece (which should run tomorrow) when the latest 2003 steroid test leaks came out (courtesy of the New York Times), and I had to say something.

You see, I've been waiting for this story a long time. Remember when the BALCO grand jury testimony leaked, and folks lined up to beat Jason Giambi like a piƱata? Remember the folks who swung the sticks with just a little extra gusto, because he was a Yankee? Remember when the Mitchell Report came out, implicating Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte? To most baseball fans, it was a dark moment in the game's history; to a lucky few, it was a day of jubilee. A National holiday, if you would.

We're not even going to talk about the Alex Rodriguez revelations earlier this year. Each time the gloating started, each time people geared up to cheer "STEROIDS" when the Yanks came to Beantown, my reaction was the same. Wait. Just you wait.

Because you had to figure this day was coming. Those Red Sox fans who chose to act superior on this issue were throwing their stones while sitting in a glass ballpark. Did they think the Red Sox were the one team in baseball to "just say no" to performance enhancement? Didn't they ever look at the middle of their own lineup? I grew up in Washington Heights, so I can attest that Manny Ramirez was always a big guy. But he wasn't as big as he got when he arrived in Boston. Meanwhile, it was always surprising that the same people who self-righteously obsessed over Roger Clemens's hat size never seemed to have looked at David Ortiz's noggin, ever.

When Manny Ramirez caught a PED suspension earlier this year, it was a blow for the more sanctimonious members of the RSN, but they'd also dodged a bullet. Ramirez had already been repudiated by the Sox and most of their fans when he was suspended. The Red Sox wound up looking good for jettisoning Manny, headcase and now cheater, before he was caught.

What some people missed in Manny's suspension was that he pretty much admitted that he was one of the 104 players who'd flunked MLB's 2003 survey testing. At the time, the Players Association released a statement on Manny's behalf which included the following: "I do want to say one other thing; I've taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons." That might sound like a strident declaration of innocence--but only if you didn't know that there were drug tests prior to the past five seasons. When you remembered that, it sounded more like a confession by omission.

Now, even if you accepted that Manny was a juicer, and that he likely was during his Sox tenure, it wasn't that big a black eye on the franchise, because you could just add it to the list of eccentricities known as "Manny being Manny." Heck, for most of his time in Boston, Ramirez was treated as if he was a child or mentally disabled--someone you couldn't hold responsible for his own actions. It's a different matter with David Ortiz, who's never been infantilized by baseball fans the way Manny or (to a lesser extent) Sammy Sosa were. Even Ortiz's nickname gives the impression of responsibility and adulthood; he's been one of the most respected players in the game. That's why this is big news.

Look, the point here isn't that I'm happy about this. I'm not. Even though he plays for the Red Sox, I've always admired Ortiz. As a Dominican-American, I'm not happy to see more Dominicans ensnared in this PED mess. Also, it's not like Ortiz and Ramirez's failings expiate Clemens, Pettitte, Giambi or A-Rod.

Furthermore, I can understand the pressure on Ortiz to get on the juice. You have to remember that at the time of the survey testing, Ortiz had washed out of the major leagues with the Twins. He had been non-tendered, and he was facing a battle for playing time with a number of other 1B/DH types with the Sox, including BALCO juicer Jeremy Giambi. At the same time the CBA basically created a "first positive test is free" environment that year. The disincentives against steroid use were as low as they would ever be (unless you predicted that law enforcement would intervene in the destruction of the survey tests and unscrupulous lawyers would leak names to the media).

The point isn't that Ortiz is a bad person, it's that it's pretty hard to know with certainty who the "good people" are in the Steroid Era. After Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's record, everyone looked to Alex Rodriguez; he would be the guy who erased Bonds from the record book, giving baseball a "clean" career home run leader. That lasted less than two years, until Selena Roberts got a few guys to spill the beans, under veil of anonymity, of course.

Even after A-Rod, everybody has someone they point to, claiming that this is the guy who did things "the right way" while everyone else was giving in to temptation. Until Thursday morning, some folks pointed to David Ortiz in that way. Others stake their reputations on Albert Pujols being clean, or on Junior Griffey or Ryan Howard or Jim Thome or Chipper Jones. But with due respect to all of those guys--none of whom has been implicated of anything, as far as I know--the simple fact is, you can't know that they're clean. You might think or believe they are. You can ask them, and you can take their word for it, and you can note that so-and-so's a straight shooter and what's-his-name's a good guy. You could still be wrong.

David Ortiz is, by all accounts, a good guy. So was Mark McGwire. So, I would think, are many of the 97 remaining players on the 2003 survey testing list whose identities have not, as yet, been revealed. Should the rest of those names come to light--and that seems inevitable, either in one lump sum by court order, or by dribs and drabs every March, July, and October, as pointed out by Brother Joe--we'll have more villains to point at and jeer and feel superior to, but will those not named be exonerated? Will we suddenly have confidence in the MLB testing program's efficacy, and declare the game clean?

Yesterday the Red Sox joined a group that includes, but is not limited to, the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers on the list of clubs who've really lived under the shadow of PED--with a valued star who's still on the roster and whose exploits fans will still cheer marked as tainted. Now Red Sox fans get to discover things some of the fans of those teams have already gone through: the "maybe it was just that one time," the "maybe the test results were wrong," the "that reporter is an unethical scumbag," the potluck of rationalization, denial, recrimination, and acceptance. The loss of trust. Welcome to the club.