Thursday, April 22, 2010

2010, Game 14: Yankees at A's (postgame)

I guess Phil Hughes doesn't really need that changeup, right?

This time--unlike CC's effort in Tampa a few weeks ago--I steadfastly refused to communicate with anyone about the no-hitter in progress. No email to the Baseball Prospectus mailing list, no Twitter, not even text messages to my brothers (on that last one, it helped that the Yanks were in Oakland--the first time I felt like sending out a warning, it was already 11:30 PM on the east coast). When Oakland finally broke through with a hit, I didn't feel as bad as I did during CC's bid--mainly, because I couldn't shout curses at the TV with la Chiquita, her mom, and my sons all fast asleep elsewhere in the apartment, but also because of the way Hughes's no-no ended. Onetime franchise player Eric Chavez hit a hard grounder back to the mound, which hit the heel of Hughes's glove and then his chest. The final result was all a matter of instinct. If Hughes looks down after the ball hits him, he would have had a pretty easy play at first. Feeling the ball kick off his glove, Hughes looked up, and had no chance of making a play. It was a bad break, but understandable; Phil the Phenom shook it off and struck out the next batter before issuing a walk and leaving the game.

Watching from 3,000 or so miles away, I saw no evidence of the Phil Hughes changeup--and neither did Pitch FX. A couple of pitches had an atypical downward motion, but the gun readings were too high to call them changes. It's early, but this just might be a myth that we don't see again until March 2011. Then again, if Hughes pitches like he did in Oakland--pounding the strike zone with his fastball, getting batters to fish for the curve, using the cutter to keep them honest, keeping his pitch count low enough to get into the eighth inning--then it'll hardly matter at all.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010, Game 9: Rangers at Yankees (postgame)

That was nice. I mean, Hughes wasn't as efficient as you'd want him to be--108 pitches didn't even get him a single out in the sixth--and the five walks were a downer, though it looked like the home plate ump was squeezing the strike zone a bit. Otherwise, his fastball had good life in the 92-94 MPH range that's his norm as a starter. The curve was gorgeous, the cutter effective.

But where was the changeup? Wasn't that all the hype coming out of Spring Training, Phil Hughes's new changeup? Al Leiter said he saw a couple of them; Pitch FX only identified one: the fourth pitch to Bobby Abreu in the third inning, a pitch well out of the strike zone.

The Spring Training changeup is often a phantasm. You always hear the stories out of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues of this or that guy who's been working on his change, and just you wait until this devastating new pitch is unleashed on the world in games that count! But when March turns into April, that's exactly what fans wind up doing: waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Maybe the new miracle pitch makes an isolated appearance during the first two weeks of the season, then is quietly shelved. Sometimes, it doesn't even get that much play.

Now, it takes cojones to incorporate the changeup in your repertoire mid-career. A misfired breaking pitch can be embarrassing, but a poorly-located changeup can make you look like an idiot, speeding up the opponent's bat and making a slap-hitting backup catcher look like Babe Ruth. You can understand why so many pitchers flirt with the pitch, and why many of those flirtations turn out to just be Spring flings.

I hope that Hughes's changeup is for real. With or without it, he's the key person in the Yankee starting rotation--the person from whom we're most likely to see upside. Pettitte and Burnett are long shots to improve on their 2009 performances, and might have a hard time matching them. CC could improve, but he was operating at a pretty high level to begin with. The number four starter...well, we'll talk about him in a second. There's a lot resting on Hughes's shoulders--if nothing else, he's the living indication of what, if anything, Dave Eiland and Co. learned from the Joba fiasco last year. Here's hoping the start against the Angels was something to build on.


So, eight games in, the Yanks have three losses, two attributable to Javy Vazquez. The first loss, in which Vazquez pitched three nice innings before giving up eight runs in Tampa, was greeted with panic; yesterday's loss, a more mundane four runs in five and a third innings against the Angels, inspired boos. Not the best way to re-introduce yourself to the fans after that whole 2004 season experience, where Javy went from coveted object of desire, to joyous acquisition, to All-Star, to not entirely trusted, and from there to ALCS Game 7 batting practice pitcher, and victim of a "let's forget this ever happened" trade, when he was passed along to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson.

[ASIDE: Off the top of my head, I can think of two other times that the Yankees immediately cut ties with an acquisition after one season, as if admitting that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake best forgotten. Dave Collins spent a fitful 1982 season with the club, after the Yankees had signed him to a three-year contract to play first base--even though he was an outfielder who'd only played ten games at first in his entire career. It was a bad, bad idea, based on an idiotic concept--that the Yankees should become a NL-style speed-and-average outfit. Collins was basically replaced Reggie Jackson on the roster--small shoes to fill, right?--and that turned out about as well as you'd think it would. After the season, the Yanks compounded their mistake by sending the two years remaining on Collins's contract, along with Mike Morgan and Fred Friggin' McGriff, to the Toronto Blue Jays for Dale Murray. Then, in 1988, Jack Clark was a Yankee for roughly ten months. Again, Clark was coming in without a position--he was a first baseman and so was Don Mattingly--but at least this time the Yankees were celebrating the end of collusion, and Clark was coming off a season where he led the NL in OBP and slugging percentage. He didn't have a horrible season, but he wasn't a good fit, either. Shortly after the World Series, the Yanks dealt Clark to the Padres, where he made Tony Gwynn's life miserable, and received a bunch of guys I dare anyone to name without looking it up. That's the company Javier Vazquez is in.]

It's early. Really early. No one should panic when a veteran pitcher has back-to-back bad starts, unless he's injured. But there's the Javy Vazquez history--that slide from arguably the ace of the staff to being kicked out of the starting rotation in the ALCS and you have to wonder. Vazquez was always regarded as a cerebral pitcher--when the Yanks first acquired him, he was considered Greg Maddux's heir--and you have to wonder if those failures are still in his head. That sounds like mainstream media drama-building, since he performed well enough once he was out of Dodge, and you have to hope that there's a mundane explanation, like he's still building arm strength. After all, last year, in his best season since he left Montreal, Vazquez's started his preparations early to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. So maybe once he gets some more innings under his belt, he'll improve.

Right now, however, the only reasonable thing to do is put him on the mound every fifth day, and hope that eventually he gives us reason not to boo.

Opening Day Photoblog: First Pitch

Bernie Williams prepares to unleash a one-hopper to the plate. Not sure what Matsui's doing in the background, though the Angels were warming up in the outfield throughout the ring ceremony, something which seemed the tiniest bit bush.

Opening Day Photoblog: Hideki-San

The best moment of the day was the team mobbing Hideki Matsui after he came out of the Angels dugout to get his ring. I'm pretty sure that's Jorge Posada quickly ducking out of the scrum with an "It's been real, H, but I've got a game to catch." Either that, or he took a loan from Matsui's video library last fall, and doesn't want Hideki bothering him about it now.

Opening Day Photoblog: Got Rings?

CC, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter stepping up to collect their World Series rings. Jeter naturally has to mug Yogi Berra when he gets to the table.

Opening Day Photoblog: Flags Fly Forever

The newest championship pennant atop the frieze. With all the ceremony the Yankees like to bring to things, Brother J and I thought that raising the flag on Opening Day was going to be a thing. No such luck--we entered the Stadium well before game time to find that both this and the big championship flag had been raised ahead of time.

Opening Day Photoblog: This Used to Be My Playground

The sight that greets people entering new Yankee Stadium is just plain ghoulish: what's left of the old Yankee Stadium (Yankee Stadium II, in parlance) looking like the victim of a scud attack. Much of last season, high scaffolds obscured our view of what the sports salvage & demolitions crew was doing to the Cathedral, but now it's out in the open for anyone to see. The new Stadium is nice and all, but this is just cruel. Why aren't they finished yet? Does Steiner still have more meat to pick off the Stadium's skeleton, or something?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Opening It Up

Heading to the Stadium soon for a little Home Opener action. For me personally, 2010 at the Stadium begins much like 2009 ended--my last game in the Boogie Down Bronx was the deciding game of the ALCS, against the Angels, and now we open the place back up, and it’s the Angels again! Now the Los Angelenos de Anaheimo are carrying our old buddy, Hideki Matsui, who’ll receive his World Series ring and get great big ovation (from me and my brother, at the very least) today. Despite having received a huge bargain on good old Godzilla, the Angels are hurting a little bit from the loss of Chone Figgins and John Lackey to free agency.

Just a week into the season, the Yankees have given us a lot to think about. There was Curtis Granderson getting his revenge against Little Big Mouth Papelbon in the finale of Yanks/Red Sox. There was Javy Vazquez causing all sorts of panic getting shelled by the Devil Rays. There was CC carrying a no-no into the eighth inning against the Rays the following day...lots of good stuff. Still, the season doesn’t really feel official until the team gets home. I hope everyone’s taken a vacation day for this.

Anyway, below we have a few shots from last year’s opener--a couple of pre-game photos and the Captain’s first new Yankee Stadium at bat. Let’s go Yankees!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

2010, Game 2: Yanks at Boston (Pregame)

Not sure I’ll be able to stay awake until the end of the game (my sleep cycle is out of control, again), so I’ll do a pregame edition, with a short follow-up tomorrow morning.

Three questions coming into Game 2 of the 2010 season:

1. Jorge and AJ -- The question is whether this is a dance that will repeat over and over again for the duration of Burnett’s contract in the Bronx. Will we endlessly repeat this cycle where the starting catcher and putative #2 starter promise to make a commitment to each other, only to break up after the first non-quality start? I’ve always been wary of the personal catcher phenomenon--I mean, you can’t help it if an in-his-prime Steve Carlton wants to throw to Tim McCarver, but it’s harder to justify when a non-demigod wants you to compromise the lineup just to make him feel more comfortable on the mound. Then again, I’m sure Burnett was watching the leaden way Posada worked Sunday’s game and thinking, “Couldn’t I just throw to that nice Venezuelan kid instead? Why isn’t that OK?”

2. How long will it take Joe Girardi to figure out this bullpen? -- Bullpen management isn’t exactly Girardi’s strong suit, a feeling that was reinforced when the skipper went all pitching change happy in last year’s playoffs. Right now, he has two pitchers with real defined roles: Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera, and (until he gets injured and/or Boone Logan is brought up from the minors) Damaso Marte is The Lefty. The vast undifferentiated mass of righthanders in the pen, however, look to be a problem. Not sure if Girardi turned to Dave Robertson in the sixth on Sunday because he’s the sixth inning guy, or because he thought the team needed a strikeout with a runner on third. Not sure why Girardi turned to Chan Ho Park at all, other than curiosity. And not sure under what circumstances, if any, Girardi would have called Al Aceves’s number. Hopefully, Girardi will remember that Sergio Mitre is supposed to be the long relief/emergency starter/garbage time guy, but there’s no way to be sure. Remember that for a short while last season, he was quite taken with Brett Tomko as a late inning reliever.

3. How will the lefty lineup work? -- The 2009 Yankees had a nice record against lefties, largely on the strength of the three players who are now gone from their lineup: Johnny Damon was able to hang in there against southpaws, Melky Cabrera had surprisingly even performance from both sides of the plate, and Hideki Matsui was downright fantastic when opponents tried to exploit the platoon advantage (.282/.354/.618 vs LHP). The main players who replaced them are all lefthanded, and there are some issues. Nick Johnson has actually been a bit better against lefties than righties, but over his career Curtis Granderson loses 281 points of OPS against lefties, and despite 65 good PA against them last year, there are questions about Brett Gardner’s ability to be a full-time player. The solution would be one or more platoons with the fourth and fifth outfielders on the roster, Marcus Thames and Randy Winn. Problems here are that even though Thames is a power guy with a rep for mashing lefties, he’s got OBP problems and is an “outfielder” with quotes around it; meanwhile Winn’s a good corner outfield glove, but no one really knows if his bat any life left in it at all. Both guys had a lousy time in Spring Training, so there’s really no telling. Tonight we’re going to see a configuration that has Gardner and Winn on the bench, and Thames and Granderson hitting 8-9 in the lineup. I have a feeling we’ll see a number of lineup permutations against lefties before everything is said and done.

As I guess question 1 makes clear, I’m less than optimistic about tonight’s Burnett/Lester matchup. Then again, Burnett is so unpredictable that he’ll probably go out and throw a 2-hitter. Or give up 8 runs in the second inning. Not sure which of these two.

Monday, April 05, 2010

2010, Game 1: Yanks at Boston

Boston 9, Yankees 7. Just a few thoughts:

  • This game was like one of those hazing rituals where you and another guy trade punches to the gut until someone says when (or vomits blood, whichever comes first). Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
  • The Jeter/Gardner double steal was one of those moments that either breaks the opposing team’s back or just pisses them off. Personally, with the score at 5-1 I thought I heard some crunching noises when it happened, but it turns out that the Sox wiped the egg off their face and came back fighting. Hat tip to them for that. Didn’t help that the Yanks’ pitching turned to jelly, but you’ve got to be able to capitalize on those opportunities, and the Beantowners did.
  • Joba Chamberlain is depressing right now, because he went from being really special to pretty damn generic in record time. He was a huge fan favorite less than two weeks into his Yankee career, but 3 1/2 years later, he’s just a righty reliever with a straight low-to-mid 90s heater, and a slider that’s still nice but nowhere near as sharp as it used to be. I know it’s just April 5, but my expectations on Joba have started drifting from “they’re grooming a potential superstar” to “I hope they can salvage a useful major leaguer from this mess.”
  • The only comfort I find in the Joba situation is that he’s still using his gentler, cleaner mechanics the Yanks devised when he transitioned to the starting rotation. So there’s a little hope that the guy with the ungodly stuff we saw in 2007 is still in there, somewhere--that it’s not like his arm’s been damaged or something. I feel this statement requires a twitter hashtag like #thesearethethingsitellmyselftogetthroughtheday.
  • It now seems obvious that the goatee was what made Chan Ho Park a decent reliever. He should be able eligible for some sort of exemption on the facial hair policy.
Regardless of the results of Game One, I’m really happy that baseball’s back.