Yankees’ Midterm Report Card

Columns — By on July 14, 2009 11:47 pm

The Yankees are 88 games into the season at the All Star break, as good a time as any to break down the good and bad of the season.  We went over this a bit in the podcast last week, but we’ll look a little more in-depth here.

On to the grades:

Catcher

Scott:  It has been a strange year for the Yankees at the catcher position.  Jorge Posada entered the season as a huge question mark defensively, a uncomfortable position with a player who was never regarded as a great catcher to begin with.  Then, he went down for 22 games in May with a strained right hamstring and was joined five days later by backup Jose Molina.

Considering the dearth of catching, never mind backup catchers, it should be no surprise that the Yankees didn’t get replacement level offense from Kevin Cash and Francisco Cervelli.  In truth, Jose Molina only sports an 88 OPS+ (an OPS+ of 100 is league average), 26 points above his career mark of 62.

Thankfully, Posada has hit well in the games he has played.  His 128 OPS+ is just above his career average, although his average has returned to somewhat normal after an incredibly lucky 2007.

The problem with Posada continues to be his defense.  There is little to make us believe that Jorge’s defense is outweighing whatever good he creates with the stick.  The issue may lie more in the perception of Posada.  Throughout his career up until 2008, opposing teams averaged about .81 attempts at stealing bases on Posada.  In 2009?  1.34.

Small sample size, sure (50 games, 67 attempts) and obviously the pitchers factor into this as well, but that is a pretty big jump.  He’s thrown out about 30% of attempted steals which is good, but not great.  It’s a factor that could continue through the season and put continual strain on Posada’s surgically repaired shoulder.

Still, if Posada remains in the lineup and maintains this level of production, both probably a 50/50 chance at this point, he’ll still be one of the most productive catchers in the league.

Ian: Posada is a flawed player.  Anyone who has watched him routinely, particularly in recent years, knows this.  He occasionally attempts to backhand balls he should get in front of and block, his arm is no longer a weapon, and he doesn’t always seem to have the full confidence of his pitchers.  But what people often forget to factor in when considering Posada is his ridiculous-for-a-catcher .277/.380/.478 career slash-line, something most teams would gladly take from their DH, 1B, or corner outfielder.  The Yankees are blessed to get this kind of offensive production from their catcher.  Posada is, for my money, one of the most underrated players of his era, and his .877 OPS this season is better than his career average of .858.

Posada has not always been healthy.  When he’s been unable to play, he’s been replaced by sub-replacement level types like Jose Molina, Francisco Cervelli, and Kevin Cash.  The average OPS+ in that group is about 66.  You would think the absence of Posada’s bat in the lineup would be sorely missed by frequent Yankee-watchers; yet for some reason, the complete opposite seems to have happened this season.  Articles have been written pointing to Posada’s “catcher’s ERA” vs. his peers, the world-beating trifecta of Molina/Cervelli/Cash.  Besides being an essentially meaningless statistic easily skewed by outlier performances (like the Chien-Ming Wang starts that Posada was unfortunate enough to catch in April), reliance upon catcher’s ERA completely and intentionally ignores the aspect of baseball that Jorge Posada routinely excells at – that of hitting the baseball hard and doing so often.  If you really think that Posada’s defensive shortcomings aren’t more than overcome by the almost 50% advantage in OPS+ he’s had over other Yankee catchers, I’ve got a bridge I’d love to sell you.

Scott’s grade: B Ian’s grade: B+


First Base

Scott:  It was a slow start for Mark Teixeira after he first donned the pinstripes.  Tex’s first 29 games were pretty dreadful,posting .191/.328/.418.  FYI – that actually took him through May 12th, for those of you who think Teixeira somehow never knew how to hit before Alex Rodriguez returned on May 5th.

Since then, however, Tex has been good.  Real good, in fact, with .317/.404/.593.  He’s above his career average but hasn’t quite matched his great 2008 campaign for the Los Angeles California Disney Angels of Anaheim gesundheit.  That year, Tex went into the second half with even lower numbers than 2009 and posted an 1.120 OPS over the last 64 games.  The best may be yet to come, although it is worth noting that Tex’s second half surge last year in Anaheim came in a park that has favored hitters a bit over the last few years.

The big surprise when looking at Teixeira’s numbers are how he ranks defensively.  According to Fan Graphs, Tex has a 2.1 UZR/150 for his career, making him just a slightly above average defender over 8067.1 innings.  That’s a bit surprising after watching him play and considering the nature of first base defensively in the major leagues.  In fact, over the last three years, Teixeira has posted a 4.5 UZR/150 rating, placing him 12th in the majors over that time.

Say what you will about defensive metrics.  They’re a better tool than we have ever had in the past.  Teixeira has looked good to the eye, but this is also coming off of many years of Jason Giambi.

Ian:  I don’t want to go all Dayton Moore on you, but I just find it incredibly hard to believe that Teixeira is anything other than a defensive asset of the highest order at first base, defensive metrics be damned.  Generally my naked-eye perceptions of a given player’s defensive acuity is borne out by what tools like UZR and FRAA have to say, but in this case, I just can’t concur.  Tex looks well-above average to me in the field, in terms of both range of his throwing arm.  He’s made some plays this year that to my eyes were well out of his zone.  Chalk it up to positioning if you will, but that doesn’t change the fact that he seems to be routinely making difficult and surprising plays.  Chris Davis of the Rangers is the only first baseman to have impressed me as much as Tex this season, and UZR doesn’t like him either (-.6), so go figure.  It’s an inexact science, but based on what I’ve observed, Tex is an asset with the glove.

Glove work aside, he’s clearly an asset offensively.  His 137 OPS+ is a few points above his career average, and that’s even with a dreadful April included.  He’s a .303/.390/.574 hitter in the second half for his career, so it’s reasonable even to expect that the best is yet to come.  Though Scott is right to observe that Tex’s big first half came in a hitter’s park…we’re far enough into 2009 to conclude that new Yankee Stadium is one of those too, right?  Tex has been an upgrade offensively and defensively over what Giambi and his ilk supplied the Yankees over the past few years, and really, what more could you ask?

Scott’s grade: B+ Ian’s grade: B+


Second Base

ScottAfter a dismal 2008, Robinson Cano has rebounded somewhat with a 116 OPS+ over the first half.  For a .308 hitter, Cano’s .341 OBP is disappointing but not unexpected at this stage.  His .490 SLG is something to be a little happier about and will hopefully rise a bit in the second half, although he has enjoyed another 30 points in slugging in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

Cano’s defense has been about average as well, an improvement over last year at .9 but not quite in reach of his career high of 11.3 in 2007.

What’s killing Cano this year is his low walk total (17) and his ground into double plays (12).  Manager Joe Girardi has been bouncing Cano around the lineup, putting him at 6th and even 5th at times with minimal success.  Cano has shown the most success over his career in the back end of the lineup, usually at 7th, but having the likes of Francisco Cervelli, Brett Gardner and/or Melky Cabrera will start to push your better hitters down.

Even with the surplus at talent found at second base this year, Cano is still a pretty good value at $6 million.  He might be worth more if Girardi would keep him toward the bottom of the lineup.

IanRobinson Cano is what we thought he was, except better.  He’s improved his power.  He’s improved his glove work.  He’s improved his plate discipline (slightly).  Is he a product of new Yankee Stadium?  He’s .315/.352/.506 at home vs. .302/.332/.476 on the road.  There is an undeniable difference in those numbers in SLG, but not enough to draw any sort of daming conclusion.  Even if he’s a 2B with a true .476 slugging percentage, there’s obvious value in that.  The expectation was always that Cano would add power to his game as he matured physically, and that seems to be what he’s doing this year.

People will always pick nits with Cano.  He could certainly stand to take a few more pitches.  His concentration tends to lapse occasionally.  He’s still learning to hit with runners in scoring position.  That said, he’s a 26 year-old 2B with a career OPS+ of 110 making relatively little money.  Maybe it’s time to stop wishcasting Cano into an integral middle of the order force for the Yankees, and just take solace in his role as a terrific, young, cheap, and defensively sound complementary player with a signficant amount of upside still left.  As a much better second half hitter in his career, he’s got the potential to build on a solid first 3 1/2 months and end up with a truly impressive season.

Scott’s grade: B+ Ian’s grade: A-

Shortstop

ScottI’ll keep kicking dirt on Derek Jeter and I hope he keeps proving me wrong.  I started banging the “Derek is declining” drum on Pete Abe’s blog back in January.  I wasn’t the first and surely I won’t be the last.  After a 102 OPS+ in 2008, down from 121 in 2007, it was hard not to be skeptical.

In truth, I am still a bit skeptical, because these old eyes of mine (usually the worst test for something like this) tell me that Derek is slower than he used to be.  Once his speed goes, I don’t think it will be long until the rest of him breaks down.

Yet, here he sits at the All Star break with a 125 OPS+ and a 2.5 UZR/150.  It’s almost hard to imagine that a 35 year old shortstop is halfway to posting his first above average season defensively, but that’s what Derek is doing.  Add in the .396 OBP in the lead-off spot this season and it’s hard to be down on Derek.

However, I will keep predicting his doom and (hopefully) he’ll keep proving me wrong.  This little method of ours is working out so far.

IanYeah, A.  Why?  Because what has Derek Jeter not done this year that you expected him to?  He’s improved on his poor (by his high standards) 2008 season in every way.  He’s at .321/.396/.461, all three of those numbers besting his career averages.  As of the All Star break, the Captain is having one of the best seasons of a stored, Hall Of Fame career.  He’s already stolen 17 bases against just 3 CS, his best baserunning numbers since his MVP-caliber 2006 season.

And about that UZR rating – is Jeter actually flashing more range at 35 than at any other point in his career?  I don’t think so.  What I’m seeing, and again, my eyes and fielding metrics don’t always get along so well, is that Jeter is positioning himself a lot better.  His range has always been much better going to his right – that patented Jeterian backhand deep in the hole/leaping throw to first play is what most people think of as his signature play.  Jeter seems to be cognizant of the fact that he’s not so swift to his left, and he’s compensated by giving up a bit of range to his right.  Hey, it only took 15 years, but better late than never, right?

Scott’s grade: A- Ian’s grade: A

Third Base

ScottIf you’ve ever wondered why some people have a hard time believing in sabermetrics, look no further than Alex Rodriguez this season.  After missing the first 28 games, ARod is batting just .256 on the season but has an OPS+ of 150, just a few digits ahead of his career average.  His power numbers are probably not where he would like them to be and his UZR is -4.3, but the fact remains that Alex has been productive.  The big question with Alex will be how well his hip will sustain a seasons worth of games.  If Girardi actually sticks to the rest plan (which seems to help), he should be okay.

The flip side to ARod is Cody Ransom and Angel Berroa.  Berroa and his -6 OPS+  has already been DFA’d and supposedly picked up by the Mets (if that isn’t Omar Minaya in a nutshell…).  Ransom has been almost as horrible with a 38 OPS+ and his UZR/150 of 11.8 is downright shocking.  Ransom truly has failed the eye test, looking bad to terrible at third this year.

Conventional Wisdom led us all to believe the the acquisition of Eric Hinske would spell the end of the Cody Ransom experiment, but apparently Joe Girardi has other plans.  Ransom has started at third since Hinske’s acquisition and has even filled in at short and second base.

A listener reminded me last week that complaining about a backup infielder is a bit petty.  Probably so, but at the very least it would be nice to have a good defensive replacement.  Maybe an OPS+ over 38 would be nice, too.

IanAs somebody who deeply values the walk and its myriad benefits, I know I’m supposed to look at A-Rod’s .411 OBP and uncharacteristic 48 to 38 BB to K ratio and be all giddy.  And I am.  I’m happy with the way Alex has played.  When he was diagnosed during Spring Training, I had a hard time believing the Yankees would get much of anything out of A-Rod throughout the 2009 season, and clearly he’s delivered in a big way.  I generally think Teixeira’s emergence around the time A-Rod returned is mostly coincidental and makes for an easy article for lazy sportswriters to cobble together, but I’m not entirely ruling out that his arrival has had a profound effect on the way pitchers approach the Yankees lineup.  It’s just that much deeper with one of baseball’s best players hitting in the middle of it.

But facts are facts – Alex’s stats are pretty far out of whack with his career numbers.  For obvious reasons, he isn’t running.  His OPS is a hair below his career average.  His career average of .305 dwarfs his .256 average this season.  His fielding is clearly not all the way back.  And there’s something about Alex’s truly bizarre BB to K ratio that doesn’t sit quite right; there’s almost no conceivable way he keeps that trick up.  For his career, he has struck out 651 more times than he has walked and in no season has he been even particularly close to walking as much as he strikes out.

Is this at all instructive?  I think it is.  I think what it tells you is that Alex is swinging a lot fewer pitches and there has to be a reason for that.  Is he sitting on one particular pitch in one particular spot, knowing it’s the only pitch he can drive at this point in his recovery?  I can’t say for sure.  I do know that when a player’s ratios change that drastically from one season to the next, there has to be a reason.  And if that reason is simply that this is one of those half-season statistical anomolies that evens itself out over a full 162 games, then there’s at least some reason to be concerned about Alex in the second half.  He may have an awful lot of strike outs in his future.

Scott’s grade: A- Ian’s grade: B+


Left Field:

ScottHere’s a shock: Johnny Damon ranks six offensively among left fielders in the majors.  Less shocking?  Factor in defense and he drops down to 12th.

Damon had a career year last year, not quite to the level of his 2000 campaign for the Royals, but pretty close.  This year, he’s heading in the same direction with a 127 OPS+ at the halfway point.
The numbers are a little deceiving, though.  Check out Damon’s splits for this year:

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip sOPS+
Home 41 179 152 33 44 10 0 12 26 24 26 .289 .393 .592 .985 .281 154
Away 40 178 160 29 42 9 3 4 24 17 35 .263 .331 .431 .763 .311 108

Despite a somewhat unlucky .281 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BAbip) at Yankee Stadium, Damon has been much better at home than on the road.  He’s still been okay on the road, but 222 points in OPS less on the road is pretty significant.    Damon had an .827 OPS on the road in 2008.  Add to this Johnny’s bad defensive value this season and all may not be what they seem.

The big question surrounding Damon is whether his numbers will force the Yankees to consider bringing him back next year.  If these trends continue, I would hope the answer would be no, especially if there are plans to get rid of the home run fairies in the new stadium.

Ian:  Johnny Damon has been better than anyone could have imagined.  Clearly, as Scott illustrates, he’s got a lot of favors owed to the architects that designed his new home stadium.  Damon, more than any other player, seems to have figured out a way to consistently drop his hands and hook balls around the foul pole in right, and the result has been a terrific offensive season.

We can only hold this against Damon to a certain extent.  Park effects aren’t going to take away his 127 OPS+ and the fact that he essentially carried the offensive load for the Yankees in April (along with Nick Swisher).  Factor in that different defensive metrics have a different idea of Damon’s value in the outfield, and we really have an incomplete picture of exactly what kind of player Johnny is at this point in his career.  When the Yankees were forced to move Damon from CF to LF, I worried that his bat wouldn’t warrant a corner outfield slot, and thus far my concerns have been unfounded.  Listen, the Yankees probably erred in offering Damon 4 years to begin with, but with the way salaries have exploded, it’s fair to say Damon has actually been of signficant value to the Yankees for the life of his deal.  I wouldn’t advocate re-signing him, but for a 37 year-old who two years ago looked finished and comtemplated retirement to be hitting .276/.362/.510 at the break, you have to be pleased and impressed.

Scott’s grade: B Ian’s grade: A-

Center Field:

Scott: The two headed monster of Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner has been surprisingly effective for the Yankees.  Of course, you have to caveat that statement with the expectations.

Melky Cabrera’s first full season with the Yankees’ big club was 2006.  As a 21 year old rookie, Melky posted an OPS+ of 95 with a .360 OBP and slightly below average defense in center field.

The people were optimistic.

Then Melky turned into a player in decline, at the ages of 22 and 23.  2007 saw an OPS+ of 89 with a .327 OBP, while 2008 fell to 68 and .301.  Never had Melky posted a SLG% over .400.

The people weren’t so optimistic anymore.

Enter Brett Gardner, a year older than Melky with a career .389 OBP in the minors over 1738 plate appearances (Melky was .349 over 1640 PA).  Gardner could run like the wind, was heralded for his defensive abilities in center field, and had an 80 percent success rate in stolen bases.  He also showed little power.

After watching Melky flounder through the 2008 season, Gardner came up for a few cups of coffee but didn’t overly impress despite a few clutch hits to win two games.  The off-season raised the question of whether the Yankees really could go to camp with these two “battling” it out for the center field position.  Talk of acquiring Mike Cameron from the Brewers flew around and then quickly disappeared.

It is safe to say that Melky and Brett have exceeded expectations.  After losing the job to Gardner out of camp, Melky hit his way into the lineup at the end of April and has started in 58 of the 70 games played since then, posting an OPS+ of 105, well above his 84 OPS+ in previous years.  He’s also had a flare for the dramatic with a few walk-off hits and a few more RBI per opportunity than league average.  He hasn’t been great, but he’s been pretty good and shown considerable improvement over last season.

Brett Gardner has been the bigger surprise.  After a 53 OPS+ in 141 plate appearances in 2008, Gardner sports a 99 OPS+ this season, having stolen 18 out of 22 bases in 215 plate appearances.  Even better is the 20.1 UZR/150 Brett has put up in center field (more on that from Dave Cameron here).  In short, Gardner has performed better than expected at the plate and his defensive value has been extremely high.  He will never hit for much power, but if his OBP continues to improve and he can even come close to his .389 OBP in the minors, he will be a player with great value.

Having said all of that, this dynamic duo are far from being the most productive center field in the majors, although Gardner’s defense helps close that gap.  There is a decent amount of talent in center field these days and even Mike Cameron would have been an upgrade over what the Yankees have received.  For the money ($1.8 million combined), the Yankees have done okay.

Ian: Hey, no one will mistake the Yankees’ two-headed centerfield monster for Carlos Beltran.  But what the Yankees have managed to do is take two players with limited skill sets and exploit them effectively enough to produce a league average tandem.  Gardner’s speed, range, and on-base skills have combined with Melky’s arm, right-handedness, and occasional pop to effectively emulate an average major league centerfielder.  I wasn’t one of those that thought this experiment had any shot at succeeding; in fact, I always assumed that Cashman was playing his Bubba Crosby card in promising to use these two up the middle all year.

For all their faults as players – Gardner has no pop and is prone to fits of striking out, expanding his zone, and hitting the ball in the air, Melky lacks patience and upside – they’ve given the Yankees a lot more than most expected and they deserve to be praised.  Keep in mind, however, that ‘league average’ is not in the Yankees’ vocabulary, and that either or both could be jettisoned as soon as Austin Jackson is deemed ready.

Scott’s grade: C+ Ian’s grade: C+

Right Field

Scott: Right field was supposed to be Xavier Nady’s job, even though christening him the every day player in spring training made little sense at the time.  Instead, Nady aggravated an old injury and has spent more time with Dr. Andrews than right field, effectively ending his Yankee career.

Insert Nick Swisher, originally the just-in-case first baseman and then floating OBP machine.  Swisher has made the majority of his starts in right field where he has payed average defense despite the occasional ugly play.  At the plate, he’s given a solid .360 OBP and 115 OPS+ even with a .268 BAbip.  What’s odd about Swisher is that his BAbip is almost always well below league average, leading one to believe that he is one of the unluckiest players in baseball.

Swisher ranks as a middle of the pack right fielder, although his value ranks significantly below last year’s Bobby Abreu.  His flexibility at first base and even center field if needed make him a bit more suitable to the super-utility role, but he certainly isn’t embarrassing himself in right field.

Ian: Swisher seems to have come full circle.  He was wildly underrated when the Yankees were able to trade just the ghost of Wilson Betemit and failed prospect Jeff Marquez to acquire his services.  He was wildly overrated by his ridiculous April, when he hit .312/.430/.714.  He became an instant fan favorite and convinced a lot of people that he was breaking out.  And now, his slash line sitting at .237/.360/.464, he’s back to being underrated.  Throw the batting average out the window – there’s great value in a corner outfielder with an .824 OPS.  Just because he isn’t the league-destroying beast we saw in April doesn’t mean he shouldn’t continue playing every day, as some have suggested.

There were two camps on Swisher when he signed.  One claimed that 2008 was the beginning of the end for him, that he failed in a hitter’s park in an environment that perfectly suited his swing, that he had an attitude problem, and that his perennially low average made him unplayable with any sort of frequency by a contender.  The other camp looked at the two great seasons that preceded 2008, thought he was incredibly unlucky, and that merely by regressing to the mean he’d be a valuable hitter in 2009.  So far, it’s Camp Two in the lead.  With Nady’s injury, if Swisher had failed, the Yankees would have had no choice but to cash in some minor league chips and acquire a right fielder.  So at least thank Swisher for that.

Scott’s grade: B Ian’s grade: B

Designated Hitter

ScottA left-handed DH that hits well off of lefties?  Sign me up!

Expectations were low for Hideki Matsui coming into this season.  The man has two bad knees, both of which have seen surgery in the last year, and is almost completely incapable of playing the outfield.

Give Godzilla credit, though: he can still hit.  .265/.367/.517 for the year with an OPS+ of 130.  And, he’s hitting better off of lefties, a nice touch when the opposing manager decides not to pay attention to splits (Interestingly, for a team that used to take a beating from left-handers, the Yankees lead the league with an .878 OPS versus southpaws).

Can Matsui keep it up?  Is there a cortisone shortage anywhere?  The only problem with Matsui as the fulltime DH is that it limits Girardi’s flexibility with Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez, both of whom need a days rest from the field more than previous seasons.  Matsui’s bat has been almost too good to keep out of the lineup and the prospect of replacing it with Cody Ransom or Jose Molina probably gives Girardi pause.

IanHere’s another enigma – if I didn’t have the stats in front of me, and only my baseball-watching eyes to judge things, I would have no inkling that Matsui is hitting as well as he is.  Someday, when Godzilla’s epitaph is written, it will read ‘Rolled Slowly On The Ground To The Right Side’.  Yet, here he is with an OPS+ of 130, making him the third most valuable Yankee based on offensive contributions.  He’s still an incredibly streaky and occasionally frustrating hitter due to his insistence on pulling the outside pitch, but facts are facts: Matsui has hit and exceeded expectations.  Now they should thank him for his contributions and let him go on his merry way this offseason.  He’s another major injury away from full collapse.

Scott’s grade: B+ Ian’s grade: B

The Bullpen

ScottThe Yankees bullpen is entering it’s second season of the Brian Cashman plan.  Quite simply, rather than spend a lot of money on middle relief free agents, the Yankees have been using their surplus of pitching talent in the minors to finese their pen until something sticks.  Given the volatile nature of relief pitching, it’s a bold plan and one that has generally had success.

This year’s bullpen has been interesting.  As Ian pointed out on the last podcast, this year’s version has and ERA of 4.19, just above the AL average, yet it ranks second in batting average against at .229, second in WHIP and K/BB ratio.  That’s probably explained by the .417 SLG allowed and the 47 home runs allowed, worst in the majors.  Not surprisingly, all of these numbers are significantly worse at home than on the road.

So what to make of this years pen?  They’re incapable of pitching well at home and have been much more successful on the road.  Mariano Rivera and Phil Coke are having good years and Phil Hughes has proven to be dependable in relief, despite the fact that he shouldn’t be used as a one inning guy. Brian Bruney has continued a frustrating career that checkerboards brilliance with DL stints while Jonathan Albaladejo, David Robertson, and Mark Melancon have gotten their miles in on the Scranton Express.  Robertson has actually pitched pretty well and has balanced his high walk rate with 34 strike outs in 22.2 innings.

The Yankee bullpen is like most: when handled properly and not abused by the manager or starting staff, it performs well.  When Joba or Pettitte only go five or Girardi decides that a short reliever should start a ballgame and the pen wears down, it struggles.  However, at this moment, the Yankee have four relievers in Coke, Hughes, Aceves, and Rivera that you can generally feel confident about.  Most teams would kill for that.  The last time the Yankees had that kind of staff, they rattled off three championships in a row.  If Bruney ever gets his act together, it could be downright dominant.

Considering some of the factors against it this season, the pen has generally been a success.

IanI was probably naive to expect greatness out of this generally unproven, ragtag group, but there I was during spring training trumpeting this group’s strikeout rates and potential for surprising awesomeness.  What I got was a dose of reality – the complete collapses of Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez, two useful power arms in 2008, the command issues that would plague Melancon and Robertson, the in-hindsight inevitable injuries to Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte, the now-traditional early season rough patch for Mariano Rivera.

Yet for all their struggles, the potential is still there.  The team still has access to a wealth of power arms.  Phil Hughes has emerged as the Go-To Guy, played in recent years by Tom Gordon, Scott Proctor, and inexplicably, Tanyon Sturtze.  He’s a legitimate power right-hander with the ability to neutralize lefties with a breaking ball that looks sharper out of the pen, to go with the stamina to last more than one inning.  He is essentially filling the Joba Chamberlain role that WFAN hosts and callers have been clamoring for.  Phil Coke just seems to get stronger and stronger.  Alfredo Aceves has come out of nowhere to be nothing short of fantastic.  Once Bruney’s command comes back (if it does?), he still has potential to play an important role.  The Yankees bullpen may have been the team’s weak link in the first half, but it’s the area most likely to improve itself drastically by changing absolutely nothing at all.

Scott’s grade: B- Ian’s grade: C

The Rotation

ScottAn expensive off-season led to pretty high expectations for this Yankee rotation, whether they were warranted or not.  AJ Burnett and CC Sabathia came in at multiple years and many, many dollars and carried with them the hope that the pitching woes of the last five or six years would be a distant memory.

They’re not quite there yet.  Sabathia has been good after a rough start, nearly matching his 2008 in Cleveland, except for a significantly lower strikeout rate.  CC seems to get stronger as the year goes on (until October, that is), so his numbers should hopefully improve a bit.

AJ Burnett was given a contract that didn’t match his career.  In short, the Yankees overpaid and promised too many years.  But they’re the Yankees and they needed to gather as much talent as early in the winter as they could.  Burnett has been about what you would expect looking over his last four or five years, except he’s done it healthy.  A healthy Burnett can still be streaky, starting the year with two decent outings and following them with a seven game stretch with a 6.04 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP.  Since then, AJ has thrown 49.1 innings over 8 starts, compiling a 2.01 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP.  Most troubling is his walk rate at 4.4 per nine innings, his highest since 2000.  Typically, Burnett has shown minimal improvement in the second half, but if he’s able to match his first, the Yankees should be happy.

From here, things get a little messy.  Andy Pettitte has seen a significant drop in his K/BB ratio while his home runs per 9 innings has gone up by .5.  He seems unable to pitch at the new Yankee Stadium, even as a left-hander, with an ERA a full two points higher on the home turf.  Amazingly, he’s still on course to throw roughly 200 innings, whether by his own fortitude or Girardi’s trusting hand.  Andy’s main purpose this season was to be an innings eater in the fifth starter role.  Unfortunately, the troubles of Joba Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang have made the difficult.

Wang was a disaster from the beginning after missing most of 2008 with a foot injury.  After somehow being allowed to start the season in the rotation after giving up 16 runs in 21.2 innings in the spring, Wang imploded over the first three games, throwing 6 innings, allowing 23 runs and a 4.83 WHIP.  He was put on the DL for leg issues (*ahem*) and rushed back a month later to pitch out of the bullpen.  He eventually worked his way back to the bullpen where he showed minor progress until hitting the DL again with a shoulder strain.  No one knows if we’ll see Wang again this season.

Needless to say, it wasn’t what the Yankees expected.

Ditto Joba, who has been averaging a whopping 17.5 pitches per inning.  Joba had been the model of inconsistency for the first half of the season, showing flashes of brilliance at times, but generally walking way too many batters.  As such, his pitch counts have been high and he’s averaged only 5.1 innings per start.  He’s 23 and still has a lot to learn, but concerns over his velocity have left a lot of people wondering what type of pitcher he can be.

The rotation has been a disappointment.  In what seems like a growing pattern with the Yankees, all of the question marks turned out negative.  No one knew what to expect from Wang.  Joba had some doubt hanging over him after he couldn’t reach his innings limit last season due to shoulder tendinitis.  Health concerns (and general effectiveness concerns) followed Pettitte after a rough, injury plagued second half in 2008.  Everything that could have gone wrong, did.

IanEverything that could have gone wrong did.  But here the Yankees are, 3 games out in the toughest division in Major League Baseball, and with a staff anchored by three pitchers who have significantly better second-half numbers in Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte.  If career pre-post ASB splits are instructive, then at least 3 of the 5 Yankee starters should have better days ahead – though it is entirely possible that the innings toll on Sabathia’s arm are catching up to him, Burnett will lose his newfound health, and Pettitte is simply done.  Personally, I expect great things from Sabathia.

Joba is a mystery, for reasons enumerated at length on our latest podcast (and everywhere else for that matter).  Wang is and has been terrible, and now he’s about to hit the DL, with Sergio Mitre looking set to take his place.   The Yankees being the Yankees, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made an acquisition to shore up their rotation – particularly if Mitre fails and it’s determined that Wang isn’t likely to contribute anything at all this year.  Overall, it’s been rough.  But there is reason for optimism in the fact that the Yankees’ starter ERA has continued to improve as the season has progressed.

Scott’s grade: C+ Ian’s grade: C

The Manager

Scott: I had hopes for Joe Girardi.  I really did.  I thought he came to New York with a progressive attitude and would be a good fit with pitching coach Dave Eiland to usher in the next generation of Yankee pitchers.

Oh well.

Girardi has turned out to be less than stellar.  In the Google Group (you can join from the sidebar), we have gotten to calling him Micro Joe because of his need to dip his hands in the minutia of the game.  Girardi over-manages his bullpen, needlessly futz’s with the starting rotation, and has fallen in love with the sacrifice bunt despite his team scoring the most runs in the majors.  I won’t get into his nonsensical bullpen decisions like bringing in Alfredo Aceves to face one batter when he’s the closest thing the Yankees have to a long man or leaving Sabathia in for 122 pitches over 5.2 innings in his third start of the season.

No.  Instead, here are the three major issues that I have with Girardi this season.

  1. He rushed back Chein-Ming Wang. This could fall on Brian Cashman also, but it was plainly obvious to anyone with eyes that Chein-Ming Wang still wasn’t correct when he returned from the “disabled list.”  It should have been obvious coming out of spring training that Wang wasn’t right, nevermind coming back from Tampa.  Then, as if Wang didn’t have enough on his plate, they stick him in the bullpen to work out his issues while the performance of Phil Hughes as a starter determines his future.  Wang should have stayed in Florida until they knew his legs were where the needed to be.  Instead, he came down with a shoulder injury that could be related to overcompensating for his unconditioned lower half (which the Yankees advised him not to strengthen in the off-season).
  2. He didn’t rest ARod regularly despite doctor’s orders. ARod, who had what could eventually be deemed temporary hip surgery before the season, was advised by his doctors to rest once a week.  So what does Girardi do with the $250 million man?  He plays him 38 games in a row (there were only four off-days).  According to reports, the issue was resolved on an internal conference call with ARod that Girardi was not asked to participate in.  If Girardi can’t simply protect ARod after having surgery, how confident can you be that he’s handlng his pitching staff properly?
  3. He turned Phil Hughes into a short reliever. I understand the Yankee bullpen has been hurting at times.  I also understand that there wasn’t room in the rotation when Wang “returned” and Hughes has little to learn in AAA at this stage.  What I don’t understand is turning a valuable 6th starter into a one inning pitcher.  Yankee starters have been averaging 5.2 innings per start.  There wold have been plenty of opportunities for Hughes to pitch multiple innings and make him available to transition back to the rotation if needed.  Well, now the Yankees have that need and they put Alfredo Aceves at risk on July 9th by having him throw 65 pitches three days after having thrown 43.  Naturally, he was ineffective.  One bad decision created another and Girardi took all the credit for it.

There isn’t a tremendous amount of managing that needs to be done in the AL, especially on this team.  There aren’t many guys you would pinch hit for when you’re entire starting lineup is league average at worst.  Girardi just has to juggle a few outfielders and manage the pitching staff.  Apparently, that’s too much for him.

I’m not impressed.  At all.

Ian :  I just can’t share the disapproval Scott has for what Girardi has done.  I think, ultimately, this is because I don’t put a tremendous amount of weight on a manager’s performance to begin with.  As much as I admire Mr. Joe Torre and respect all he did for the Yankees, I have a hard time believing that those Bombers of the late 90′s dynasty would not have won those Championships without the guidance of his calm and steady hand.  At the end of the day, you win or lose with the players you have, not the manager that presses the buttons.  This is why I find it so patently absurd when a guy like Manny Acta gets fired.  A smart guy with his head firmly around a lot of the sabermetic ideas his peers so disdain, Acta was certainly not the reason the Nationals sucked so hard for the first half.  Yet he finds himself out of a job.

That’s not to say Girardi hasn’t had his share of blunders.  While he looked adept at bullpen management last year, particularly in contrast to his predecessor, this year he’s made some questionable calls.  Veras stayed on the roster a lot longer than he should have.  Ditto Edwar Ramirez.  Wang was given a few too many chances early on, and if the Yankees miss the playoffs by a game or two, we can all look back and point fingers.  His insistence that Robinson Cano hit fifth in the lineup looks like a failed experiment.  He seems to flip a coin when deciding whether Gardner or Cabrera starts, and his recent declaration that all five Yankee outfielders will rotate in the second half – and this apparently includes Eric Hinske, based on a whopping 12 at bats – could backfire if guys like Damon and Swisher lose playing time to guys like Cabrera, Gardner, and Hinske.

For what it’s worth, and maybe that’s not much, Girardi seems a lot more comfortable with the media and his players this year.  By all accounts the Yankees have a lively clubhouse and everyone seems to get along.  I can’t say I dislike his decision to try Hughes in the bullpen – it’s likely he has an innings cap, and this keeps it under control while still giving the Yankees a much need late-innings weapon.  He’s much better than Torre when it comes to giving young or unproven players a chance – he’s used David Robertson, Mark Melancon, Alfredo Aceves, and Phil Coke in high leverage situations at different points in the season.  He was smart enough to displace Gardner, his opening day CF, with Melky in April once it became apparent that Melky was the better option.  And then he was smart enough to replace Melky with Gardner once the tables turned.

All in all, I’d say Girardi’s decisions are a wash in terms of costing the team wins or preventing losses.  Ultimately it’s the players on the roster that will determine his fate, regardless of his strategery.

Scott’s grade: C- Ian’s grade: B

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2 Comments

  1. Zod says:

    Great work, guys! I have to agree with Scott on Gerardi’s performance. I, too, had great hopes for a fresh, young approach to the management style. I was especially hopeful that he would be more willing to trust young players, given his reported keen interest in and knowledge of the minor league system. And I was especially hopeful he would be a huge upgrade when manageing the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. Oh, well!

  2. yclept says:

    Love the write-up!

    When you break it down like this, you realize that the Yankees pretty much haven’t underperformed in most areas – and offensively at least, they have over-performed in many spots. Some of that is the effect of their ballpark; but some of it is because the Yankees have older hitters who up until now are refusing to decline.

    Obviously, they need a similar performance out of Burnett (I think he is capable, if he stays healthy), a better performance out of CC (he’s always capable of that), and they need Joba to turn things around and stabilize the middle of this rotation. Pettitte cannot be asked to be that guy. A healthy Wang I think would have done that, but you can’t count on that anymore. Nobody in the minors is going to be able to jump in and stabilize the middle.
    SO it’s either Joba or someone they acquire. If it’s neither, than they are going to go into 3 out of every 5 games with, at most, an even pitching matchup. That’s a risk, though the lineup DOES help.

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