Musings on Sports, Politics and Life in general


What? Me Worried?

Our beloved Yankees are 8-3 and regardless of today’s outcome, have won their first four series of the year. So why be worried, right?
The last time the Pinstripers won their first four series was 1926. Guys named Ruth and Gehrig anchored that roster and the pitching staff was led by 23 game winner Herb Pennock. They won the AL pennant by 3 games. They were the precursor to the team that many think was the greatest team ever assembled, the 1927 Yankees.
They also lost the World Series that year, 4-3 to the Cardinals.
As anyone who has watched baseball knows, April greatness does not necessarily translate to October success. Last season, the Yankees went into May in 4th place in the division and Toronto and Baltimore were battling for top dog. Toronto wound up in fourth and the Orioles last, with neither even in the conversation by the end of July. Two seasons before, the Mets came out of April looking like the kings of the road, with a ML best 17-6 record. We all know how that season ended – with one of the most infamous collapses in baseball history. I point out these example only to illustrate the point that God has a strnage sense of humor – and he loves to use baseball teams as his punch-line.
Great opening months are, of course, better than lousy opening months. Except for good teams, sometimes going through an early baptism of fire can forge the toughness needed in the postseason. Consider the 1998 Yankees, probably the best team of the divisional era. Few remember how that season started – with the Yankees at one point 1-4 and not looking anything like a playoff team. There came a closed door meeting and what was actually said in the clubhouse remains a mystery – nobody will actually say – but the result was the Yanks winning 14 of the next 15. As they say, the rest is history. Or take the 1978 Yankees – the team that couldn’t get out of their own way. Everything finally came to a head one infamous day in Boston, when on national TV, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson decided to let a season and a half’s tension explode in the dugout. But afterwards, the newly cohesive Yanks made up a 14 1/2 game deficit, forced the Bucky Dent one-game playoff, smoked the Royals in the playoffs and won the World Series.
So, while the Yanks should certainly enjoy their opening two weeks, the fact is that several of the questions about this team coming into this season haven’t really been answered yet:
1. Can Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner hit lefties? Call it mixed reviews so far. After two weeks, Gardner finds hinself in a platoon with Marcus Thames and only hitting .230. As the saying goes, you can’t steal first base. If he doesn’t start to hit, can the Yanks live with a Randy Winn/Thames platoon? As for Granderson, he’s currently killing right-handers to the tune of .357 and holding his own against lefties at .267. Although he hasn’t displayed much pop against lefties, if he can keep his average against them around .260 and continue to play an above average CF, there probably isn’t much concern there.
2. Can Javier Vazquez vanquish the 2004 demons? So far, the answer is “NO.” His first start was atrocious and his second not much better. The one thing about Vazquez that concerned many observers, myself included, isn’t Vazquez’ physical talent – it’s his mental make-up. This is, after all, a pitcher who has managed to crack in every pressure situation he’s ever been presented with. For the Yanks sake, he better get his head on straight – or else the answer to the number 4 spot in the rotation could end up being…Uh Oh Mitre.
3. Who is the 8th inning guy? Two weeks in, and still no answer. Joe Girardi seems to be leaning towards Chan Ho(me Run) Park, but the Pepto Bismol Kid has yielded three homers in 6 innings. and in one two inning stint should have given up three more (thank a stiff wind blowing in for saving him there). Joba Chamberlain has only had one great outing, although he has been effective in two others. David Robertson, who seemed to have the early lead for the job, has demostrated a penchant for striking guys out but also giving up flurries of base hits.Stay tuned on this one.
4. Can Robbie Cano handle the 5 spot in the order? This one gets a “YES.” Through 11 games, Cano is hitting .356 and has an OPS of 1.083. Those are Albert Pujols type numbers.
5. When will the ageless wonders (Jeter, Mariano and Posada) begin to show their age? We won’t get an answer to this one until, well, they start playing like guys who are closer to 40 than 30. But so far, Jeter and Posada are hitting over .300 and showing some serious pop in their bats, and Mo just keeps on being Mo. Let’s hope this remains a question in 2011, too.
In short, enjoy the season as it’s unfolded so far. But keep in mind that it’s long season – we’re barely 5% of the way in. The battles haven’t really begun and nobody knows what will wind up being this team’s iron forge. But I’d prefer it come early. 1926 was a very good year, but it ended on a pretty sour note – with Babe Ruth standing on second base after being caught stealing and the Cardinals celebrating a World Series championship.

Bums in the Bronx

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been involved a Twitter war. (Imagine that – Twitter has even encompassed warfare!) The topic: is it OK to boo players on a team you root for?

There are people who believe you should root for players who wear your team’s colors, regardless of their performance. As a fan of the New York Yankees for over 40 years, I find that idea to be incredibly naive. After all, Yankee Stadium is home to the “Bronx Cheer.” For generations, fans have filed through the turnstiles at the House That Ruth Built (and now, that George Built) and cheered our heroes and LOUDLY booed the players who didn’t measure up. The idea of “earning your stripes” originated in the Bronx. It means that a player needs to perform well if he wants to be accepted by the fans. And if he fails, well…his days at Yankee Stadium will be pure hell on earth.

The cause for the twit-war lately has been two recent additions to the Yankee’s pitching staff, Chan-Ho Park and Javier Vazquez. Park is brand-new to Yankee’s fans, but this is the second go-around for Vazquez (his first didn’t end well). Both have, over the past two days, been booed lustily as they exited the game.

The new breed of fan, who doesn’t believe in booing poor performances, is having a hard time reconciling this. In Parks’s case, he made a bad first impression – giving up the winning runs in the first game of the year and pitching poorly in two appearances against the hated Red Sox to begin the season. When he gave up a long home run to Kendry Morales during yesterday’s home opener, he lost whatever support the fans were willing to give him. After all, the hallmark of Yankees Pride throughout the years has been not cracking under pressure and rising to the challenge instead. There’s also CHP’s history to consider. Brian Cashman signed Park based on a half-season of relief work for the Phillies last year. Prior to that, his career wound through stops in LA, Texas, San Diego and Queens. His one year with the Mets? He started on the DL, came on to pitch in one game, giving up 7 runs over 4 innings. Then he disappeared onto the DL for the rest of the year. His prior AL numbers aren’t particularly eye-popping, either. A 5.89ERA, 23-24 record and 1.6 WHIP all point to a guy who’s been hit hard whenever he’s stepped away from the NL. Which is exactly what we’ve seen so far in his Yankee appearances – and thus, the booing.

Javy Vazquez is morphing into the second coming of Eddie Whitson. For those of you unfamiliar with the saga of Eddie Whitson, he came to the Yankees in the mid-80’s, fresh off a spectacular campaign with the Padres. Possessing a lighting fastball, big curve and devastating slider, Whitson was supposed to be the ace that would anchor the Yankees staff for pennant runs to come. Unfortunately for him and Yankees fans, it turned out he couldn’t handle pressure. The booing got so bad that Billy Martin, the manager at the time, didn’t dare pitch him at Yankee Stadium. Eventually, the Yankees traded him back to the Padres for the immortal Tim Stoddard. (Stoddard, by the way, was loudly cheered just for not being Ed Whitson).

Vazquez also possesses a hard fastball and slider, along with a good change-up. He also strikes out lots of hitters. Unfortunately for him, he tends to crack under pressure. In his last Bronx adventure in 2004, he was summoned out of the bullpen in game 7 of the LCS – and gave up the grand slam to Johnny Damon that ended the Curse of the Bambino. That came  after a second-half in which he was largely ineffective. Since then, the company line has been that he was pitching with a sore shoulder. Maybe. Or maybe, despite having “plus” stuff Javy just doesn’t have the heart needed to be a prime-time player.

Yankee fans are quickly deciding the latter. In two starts this year, Vazquez has displayed the electric stuff – he has 9 strikeouts in 11 innings – but we’ve also seen him wilt with men on base. He’s only allowed baserunners in 4 of his 11 innings – but those four innings have yielded 12 runs. In other words, when he gets into trouble, Vazquez tends to implode. Contrast that to a fan favorite, Andy Pettite. Pettite always has runners on base – but he makes the big pitch when he needs to and escapes trouble. Andy has HEART. Javy has jelly-legs. It’s also not the first time Vazquez has heard this, by the way. Ozzie Guillen, for whom he pitched in Chicago, got rid of him because he didn’t trust him during the White Sox pennant drive.

It’s the difference between being a Yankee, and simply being a good player who will never earn the right to call themselves a Yankee.

Country Joe sings the blues

From the “In case you missed it” file: umpire Joe West is calling out the Yankees and Red Sox for playing too slow. You can listen to the full link on here –

“They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace. They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest? It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play.” [emphasis mine]

I may not be a genius, but this sure looks like sour grapes to me. In case you’ve never heard of “Country Joe” West, he is noted as an umpire who (a) gets some rather obvious calls wrong and (b) has a girth comparable to the Hindenberg. I hate to say it, but I don’t think he’s missed many meals – except for dinner this weekend, which is where I suspect his tirade originated. But in the quest for fairness – an alien concept to most ML umpires, I admit – I decided to investigate further. Do Yankees/Red Sox games take longer than the average game? And if so, are they playing at a “pathetic and embarrassing” pace or is some other factor the culprit?

I decided the best way to tackle the question of pace was to determine how long each pitch interval is. That is, how long is it taking (on average) for the pitcher to deliver the ball to the batter? Do determine this, I tallied the total number of pitches thrown, the total number of batters and how long the games took. There are some things I can’t account for, because they don’t show up in a box score (like pick-off attempts) that will also affect the pace, but those factors will likely cancel each other out so long as we’re comparing the same types of games. A little investigating quickly found that no two other teams were able to put up total pitches thrown and plate appearances, so I chose to take the Orioles/Rays and Rangers/Blue Jays series to use for comparison.

So, here’s the data I compiled using the box scores for the games:

Yankees / Red Sox
Date Batters Pitching Changes Total Pitches Total Time
4-Apr 83 6 308 208
6-Apr 79 10 333 206
7-Apr 91 9 326 190
3 gm avg 84.33 8.33 322.33 201.33
Orioles / Rays / Rangers / Blue Jays
Date Batters Pitching Changes Total Pitches Total Time
5-Apr 70 5 267 156
6-Apr 78 7 302 182
7-Apr 154 9 546 323
4 gm avg 75.5 5.25 278.75 165.25


Joba: Back to the Future

Well folks, according to Joel Sherman of the NY Post in this article, Phil Hughes gets the nod as the Yankees #5 starter, Joba Chamberlain becomes Mo’s heir apparent, and Sergio Mitre and Alfredo Aceves are both now in the long relief/emergency starter role.

As I commented in this earlier post, this move should have come 2 years ago. Joba has never had the mental make-up of a MLB starter, and it’s doubtful he could successfully grow into that role. Yogi said it best, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” Joba has never lacked the physical stuff to be dominant and certainly has succeeded in the late innings reliever role. But he’s never looked comfortable as a starter.

Just think back to last year. One of the “Joba Rules” that rarely gets discussed anymore is how the Yankees coaching staff had Joba warming up in the bullpen whenever the Yanks were at home. I can’t think of another pitcher who has had to resort to such zaniness to try and mentally prepare for an outing. And despite all of that, he still had trouble throwing strikes as a starter.

Consider: according to Baseball Reference, Joba has pitched to a .759 OPS, .266 OBA, and 1.480 WHIP in 221 career innings as a starter. He has also pitched to a .512 OPS, .182 OBA and 0.983 WHIP is 60 relief innings. The experiment was tried, and it failed.

So Hughes moves into the 5 hole. If he continues to progress (and assuming his change-up is as improved as has looked this spring, no reason he won’t), then the Yankees have somebody pitching out of that spot who would be better than most teams #3. In fact, he might well be as a good as most team’s number 2. Joba moves into the 8th inning, where he can prep to one day take over from Mariano as the closer. Aceves demonstrated his value last year, by being a rubber-armed guy who can pitch multiple innings on consecutive days.

The guy I most worry about in this alignment is Mitre. His best pitch is a sinker, and I don’t know too many sinkerballers who are effective relievers. Especially when they’re not going to get very much work, as will be his case, being the 12th arm in the pen. He has gotten rave reviews from scouts and opposing hitters this spring – it’s always possible the Yankees trade him at some point for an outfielder, I guess.

Anyway, see the poll and chime in!

Joba, the new Goose

For the better part of two seasons, debate has raged about Joba Chamberlain. Should he be a reliever or starter? The debate has concentrated on two trains of thought:

1. As a starter, Joba can develop into a prototypical top of the rotation stud. He has a plus fastball, slider and curve. He just needs time to get stretched out and become dominant.

2. Out of the pen, Joba just rares backs and makes ML hitters look foolish.

Well, we’ve been waiting for two years while lesser names like Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels have blossomed. And its beginning to look as though, party line not withstanding, Brian Cashman and Co are now leaning towards putting Joba into the 8th inning role.

The thing is, there’s precedence for this debate – one the Yankees only need to dust off their copy of Baseball Almanac to find.

Back in the mid-1970’s, the White Sox had a young right hander with a plus fastball, slider and curve. But he never found success as a starter. He was, at best, inconsistent. But coming out of the bullpen, he became the original Mr. Nasty. He let loose with a 95+ fastball, spitting fire and daring hitters to swing. For him, it was all about attitude and not having to think on the mound. His demeanor was, you know what I’m going to throw. Everyone here knows what I’m going to throw. I double-dare you to try and hit it.
Joba has the same attitude when coming out of the pen. And likewise, he tends to overthink and overanalyze when starting. For both, the mental side of the game had the potential to prematurely end promising careers.

That guy in the mid-70’s? He went on to post 300+ career saves and a plaque in Cooperstown. His name? Goose Gossage.