Disjointed Non-Yankees Thoughts

Musings on a muggy Monday night here in New York while the Yanks enjoy an off day…

—Can everyone PLEASE stop talking about Tim Tebow?? He is, in sum, a former elite college football player (made in part by Urban Meyer’s system and the plethora of Gator talent around him) who enjoyed an extraordinarily lucky string of victories in Denver, culminating with a game-winning playoff OT touchdown that only occurred because Dick LeBeau didn’t believe Tebow could throw it accurately 20 yards down the field. Since then, he’s started zero games and made about a million headlines for the Jets. Today, reports surfaced that he is headed to New England, where he will either be cut before the regular season starts or be a non-factor/clipboard holder. Yet there he was, plastered all over SportsCenter like he’s the free-agent splash of the offseason. Apparently, being an attractive white evangelical earnest soft-spoken well-below-average quarterback is more important that actually being good at football. At least that’s what the Nielsen ratings say. Enough already.

—Rafael Nadal’s dominance of the French Open is the single most amazing feat in sports over the past decade. The numbers (which honestly don’t do justice to the beauty of Nadal on red clay) are beyond unfathomable. Career French Open record: 59-1. Times an opponent has taken even TWO sets off him at Roland Garros: three. No additional comment necessary.

—Maybe it’s because I’m so fiercely defensive of the gap between Mariano Rivera and everyone else, but I absolutely love when in vogue closers crash and burn. Two years ago, Jose Valverde saved 49-of-49 chances; last year, he went 35-f0r-40 and lost his closer job during the playoffs. Last year, Francisco Rodney went 48-for-50 and amused everyone with his postgame archery antics. This year, he’s just 13-for-18, and Monday night he gave up two runs in the top of the 10th to Boston only to get bailed out by the failure of Red Sox reliever Andrew Bailey. There can be only one.

—HBO breaking the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire into two seasons for Game of Thrones is smart — 10 episodes were hardly enough to get through half the book. But what will the network do for Book 5, A Dance With Dragons? It’s far longer than Book 3 and much more convoluted. Three seasons might not be enough.

—Thank goodness for LeBron’s ridiculous block of Tiago Splitter in Sunday’s Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Now when basketball programs show an iconic block from the Finals, it won’t be Hakeem Olajuwon’s rejection of John Starks’ potential championship-winning shot for the Knicks in Game 6 of the 1994 Finals. Starks gets pilloried for his 2-for-18 performance in Game 7, but in Game 6 he led the Knicks with 27 points and would have been deified in New York had he made that shot. Instead it’s been 40 years and counting for the Knicks. Alas.

 

Game #59: The Big Man Cometh

No pitcher in recent Yankees history has been as durable within games as C.C. Sabathia. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Wells — none of them had the ability to battle through tough stretches to complete eight or nine innings, start after start after start. C.C. does, and he did it again in Wednesday’s sweep-completing 6-4 win over the Indians. Since joining the Yankees, C.C. has 10 complete games in the regular-season — every other Yankee starter combined has nine. And that doesn’t include Sabathia’s gritty complete-game victory in Game 5 over the Orioles last October.

Last night, C.C. the grinder was on full display. After retiring the first 14 batters in order, Sabathia gave up two runs in the sixth and two more in the seventh, turning a 6-0 cushion into a 6-4 nailbiter. But instead of coming out of the game, C.C. recaptured his early-inning command nearly 100 pitches into his start. Other than a walk to former Yankee Nick Swisher, the Yankee ace set down the Tribe in order in the final two innings, giving Mariano Rivera the night off.

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Game #58: Yankees 4, Cleveland 3

Some thoughts on the Yanks’ 4-3 win over Cleveland at the Stadium Tuesday night…

–Mark Teixeira crunched a three-run homer from the right side in the fourth inning, one of two hits as a righty for Teix on Tuesday. The newly healthy first baseman must hit lefties consistently and with power to have a successful season, because his production from the left side has been nearly non-existent for years. From 2010 to 2012, Teixeira hit .284/.376/.549 as a righty and .236/.333/.451 as a lefty and struck out at a much higher rate against right-handed pitching. The Yankees cannot expect the Teix of 2009 (39 homers, 122 RBIs), but they will get an above-average hitter with the ability to go long if Teixeira can hit lefties. AND he adds sorely needed right-handed power to a lineup devoid of quality righties after Teix and Vernon Wells.

–Great to see David Phelps bounce back after a terrible, terrible outing against the Mets. As bad as he was last Wednesday, Phelps was dealing last night, allowing just one hit and no runs in six strong innings. Phelps is going to have his share of blowups on the mound — that’s what you expect from a spot No. 5 starter. But if the balance of his starts are good, he can be a critical contributor to the rotation.

–Chris Stewart’s quick feet are the key to his success at throwing out attempted base-stealers. Stewart has thrown out 50 percent of baserunners, tied for second among catchers who have played in at least 30 games this season, but his arm strength is barely average (though his accuracy is improved from last year). But unlike many backstoppers, Stewart is able to jump fully to his feet before throwing to second base. In the fourth inning, Stewart completed the old strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play, gunning down Michael Brantley with room to spare. Stewart leapt into a throwing stance with one fluid motion, giving him a downward trajectory for the throw and allowing him to plant his feet.

–Stat of the day: Robinson Cano’s OPS is .853, 40th in the majors.

Game #39: The Secret of Comebacks

After the top of the sixth inning Tuesday, the Yankees were trailing Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners 3-0. King Felix had thrown just 77 pitches and allowed just four hits and a walk through five dazzling innings. Meanwhile, C.C. Sabathia had just allowed two runs and was painfully laboring through the middle innings of the game.

FREEZE

At this point, the Yankee should lose this game. Hell, every MLB team should lose this game. Down three to Felix with Sabathia giving ground and just 12 outs to go? Fuggettabouttit.

An hour later, the Bombers were celebrating on the field, congratulating Mariano Rivera on his 16th save in 16 chances this season. They had held the M’s scoreless in the final three innings and put up four runs of their own. Come September, no one will remember this game for anything more than a Yankee win and a Seattle loss, even though the Yanks win probability score fell to 12 percent after C.C. surrendered a two-run homer to ex-Bomber Raul Ibanez in the sixth.

So how exactly did the Yanks turn near-certain defeat into victory? By relying on the backbone of most big baseball comebacks: middle relief.

See, the dirty little secret of baseball comebacks is that they almost never hinge on the big names, the Canos and Riveras of the game. When a team is trailing by 3+ runs in the fifth inning or later, two facts inevitably emerge:

1. The team trailing has pulled its starter and is relying on bullpen pitchers other than its closer.
2. Allowing any more runs would be fatal to the team behind.

It’s hard enough to overcome a multi-run deficit late as it is — throw in a bullpen that gives up an insurance run for every two you score and it becomes impossible. The biggest comeback I’ve ever seen came from 2011 Cleveland Indians, who were 12 runs down in the sixth inning before pulling off a miraculous victory. Down 14-2 after five innings, the Indians got six consecutive scoreless frames from four middle relievers, including a scoreless 12th by the infamous John Rocker, who picked up the win. Sure, we all remember Omar Vizquel’s ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike, three-run triple that tied the game and nearly gave Jon Miller a heart attack. But without the middle relievers, Cleveland had no chance, offensive surge or no.

In my opinion, there’s a psychological component to comebacks that relies heavily on middle relievers. If you believe your bullpen will hold the opposing team scoreless the rest of the way, you know that you only need X amount of runs (X=deficit+1) to win. But if you expect your pitchers to keep hemorrhaging runs, you won’t have the spark any significant comeback needs to catch fire.

Last night, the Yankees were down 3-1 when C.C. exited with one out in the top of the seventh. On came Shawn Kelley, a former Seattle middle reliever who had a 6.14 ERA for the Yanks coming into last night’s game. With runners on first and third and one out, the Mariners needed only a soft ground ball or 250-foot fly ball to re-take a three-run lead and blunt the Yanks’ rally. Instead, Kelley got Kelly Shoppach to stare at strike three and retired Ibanez on a fly out to left. Inning over, and when Cano got the Yanks’ only hit with RISP all night — a game-tying two-run double on a great piece of patient hitting — Kelley was suddenly the unsung hero.

The rest of the comeback was pro forma. Lyle Overbay hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly, David Robertson pitched himself in and out of trouble in the eighth, and Mo worked a perfect ninth for the save and a 4-3 win. For his trouble, Kelley got the win and more than a few postgame claps on the back. But Kelley’s role in last night’s victory was more nuanced and important than a W on the stat sheet. He kept the Yankees in a position to come back. And that’s as important as the comeback itself, because the latter couldn’t happen without the former.

Granderson’s Back

He was activated today. Batting fourth, playing left field tonight. That is all.

Yankee Pitching #2: The Starters

A couple weeks ago I covered the most impressive aspect of the Yankees’ remarkable pitching thus far this season: Mariano Rivera. Today it’s the second-most impressive group: the C.C. Sabathia-led starting rotation.

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Yankee Pitching #1: The Immortal

Earlier today, I mentioned in a post on this weekend’s sweep of Toronto that I would address the Yankees’ sterling pitching thus far this season. In truth, though, the Yankee pitchers should be grouped into three categories: starters, relief pitchers, and Mariano. Starting today, I’ll take each group in turn, working backwards from the ninth inning. That means we begin with closer Mariano Rivera, and his historically good month.

Roughly 360 days ago, Mariano tore the ACL and meniscus in his right leg (the leg he pushes off of on every pitch). The typical recovery time for that injury is 9-12 months for a healthy athlete in his prime. Mo turned 43 in November, a year older than Trevor Hoffman was when his command and velocity failed him — and Hoffman didn’t rip up his knee. But there was Mariano in spring training mowing down hitters, and deep down I knew, like in-my-bones knew, that he was still himself.

A month later, Mariano has his all-time record for saves in a calendar month (nine), a 10:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 1.80 ERA and the beginnings of a legendary goodbye tour. Unbelievably — or in Mo’s case, believably — he has been as inexorable at 43 as he was at 33, if not more so. Check out the log of his 10 appearances this year. Each time he’s thrown exactly one inning. He’s thrown more than 20 pitches only three times. He has allowed two meaningless runs in games he ended up saving. He’s allowed three extra-base hits — two doubles and an Evan Longoria home run. Of his 145 pitches so far this season, 99 have been strikes. I could go on, but do I really need to?

If anything, Mo has gotten better as the month has gone on. His cutter velocity in his first couple appearances was topping out at 89-90 mph, but in his save over Toronto on Sunday he was regularly hitting 91-92 mph with the cutter. A difference of just two miles per hour on a pitch may seem negligible, but for Mo it’s the difference between solid contact and a broken bat, or between a broken bat and a strikeout.

Oh, and I may have buried the lede here, but Mariano this month has displayed the most pinpoint accuracy of any pitcher I’ve ever seen. Better than Maddux. Better than Glavine. Better than everybody. The simple fact that his deadeye backdoor cutters are considered rote proves my point. For his career, Mariano has a roughly 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with a career high of 12.83:1 in 2008. This season currently ranks second behind ’08, and that’s with umpires squeezing Mariano at every turn (at least through my pinstripe-tinted glasses). Between the velocity and the accuracy, Mo has been thriving with his cutter-fastball repertoire, and there’s no reason to think that will change.

Mo has said repeatedly that this will be his final season, and in typically classy fashion he has been meeting with a select group of fans/volunteers during every road series. Get a good look, baseball diehards of America. You’ll never see anyone like Mariano Rivera again.

Coming Wednesday: I break down the Yankees’ other relievers, including (gulp) Joba.

Sweep? Sweep!

Here’s what the smartest guy… er, biggest smart-aleck I know wrote about the 2013 Yankees during spring training.

The potential for early season carnage is the highest for any Yankees squad since 1992, back when Lee Gutterman was the closer and Hensley Meulens was a regular starter

Whoops. Two problems here. First, Meulens played just two games for the Yankees in ’92 (though he was a starter in ’91). Second, that “early season carnage” I was so afraid of? It’s been there like I expected — except the Bombers have been on the giving end.

The team that most pundits picked to finish at the bottom of the AL East just swept away the Toronto Blue Jays over four games, getting clutch hits in Sunday’s 3-2 win from Brennan Boesch and Lyle Overbay. Neither of these players were on the roster when I made my gloomy preseason predictions, but they’ve combined to start 26 games so far for the Bombers.

The rest of the Yankees’ castoffs, has-beens and never-weres have been even more impressive. Travis Hafner, whose baseball peak came in 2006, is hitting .305/.423/.695 with six HRs and 14 RBIs in 20 games at DH. Vernon Wells, who was almost historically atrocious over the past two season for the Angels, has been reborn in pinstripes, batting .294/.358/.553 with six HRs and 12 RBIs in 22 games. That’s 12 HRs and 26 RBIs in less than a month for two guys who the Yankee brass HOPED could contribute over the course of the season.

It’s not just Wells and Hafner, though. Overbay, who was cut by the Red Sox on March 26th, has been a defensive wizard at first base and has three HRs including Sunday’s game-winner. Jayson Nix, perhaps the biggest never-was on the team, has several key hits and has been solid at third. Boesch has been largely disappointing, but he’s a young talent who should improve as the season goes on. Other than the forgettable Ben Francisco (3-for-29 so far), the Yankees’ ragtag bunch has been more than good enough to supplement Robbie Cano, Brett Gardner and marquee offseason signing Kevin Youkilis in the top half of the order.

To be fair, the Yankees are 15-9 because of their pitching first and foremost. But that’s for another post, because as diehard Yankee fans and overall baseball guru Rich Greenberg might glibly say, you have to score to win. And in the Yankees’ four-game sweep, the winning hits came from Cano, Overbay, Hafner and Overbay again. With Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson (and now Francisco Cervelli) mired on the disabled list, this collection of Yankee castoffs will have to come up big night after night for the Bombers to sustain their hot start.

So far, so good.

The Unstoppable Grace of Robinson Cano

Caught the Yanks’ 5-3 comeback win live from the Stadium last night, on a beautiful early spring evening that drew shockingly few fans to the ballpark. The announced crowd was 31,445 in attendance, but the actual number was probably south of 30,000. I don’t know if it was the opponent (Blue Jays), the time (a Thursday night), or the lack of star power in the Yankee lineup, but it was stunning to see the Stadium that empty.

The few fans who did show up saw the latest preternatural hitting display from Robinson Cano. With the Yankees trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the third, Cano came up with two on and two out against Toronto starter Mark Buehrle. One of the Blue Jays’ marquee offseason acquisitions, Buehrle is a crafty left-hander with 175 career wins, one perfect game and one absurdly good fielding play in 2010. But he wanted no part of Cano and quickly fell behind in the count, 3-1. With runners on first and second and Vernon Wells on deck, Buehrle had to find the plate with his 3-1 pitch, and Cano was waiting:

 

 

Buehrle tried to sneak a fastball past Cano on the inner half of the plate. Newsflash: You cannot sneak a fastball by Robinson Cano unless it’s four inches off the outside corner. Cano possesses the quickest wrists I’ve ever seen for a Yankee, quicker than Alfonso Soriano. Sure, he can be undisciplined at the plate, and he has a tendency to roll his hands over on outside pitches and ground out weakly to the right side. But that’s just nitpicking, which I can’t help doing with Cano because of how athletically gifted he is.

Cano is the most athletic player I’ve ever seen on the Yankees, but more significantly, he’s probably the most athletic second baseman in MLB history. Cano has a ballplayer’s build: six feet tall, 215 lbs. The greatest second basemen were all either short (Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar) or white (Rogers Hornsby) until now. As good as Alomar was in the field, he couldn’t make a no-look throw across his body while traveling away from first base. Hardly anyone can. Cano probably does it 50 times a year.

Cano’s closest historical peer is probably Rod Carew, a lanky lefty second baseman who batted .388 in 1977 and finished with 3,053 career hits. But Carew averaged 4.8 home runs per season; Cano has seven dingers already this season after blasting a career-high 33 in 2012.

Last night, Cano was the difference between winning and losing. Sure, Hiroki Kuroda gutted out six innings after being tagged early, and Mo got the job done in the ninth. But the best second baseman in Yankee history (yes, already) made the key play of the game with his sweet, sweet swing.

Yankees Love/Hate: April 24

Welcome to Love/Hate, where I rant about 5 things I like about the Yankees right now, and 5 I don’t. This week’s edition is sponsored by C.C.’s noodle arm.

LOVE: Brett Gardner’s peskiness. The 2013 Yankees may have lost seven of their top nine home run hitters from last year, but one thing they gained was Gardner, who is basically a poor man’s Johnny Damon at this point. Gardner has played a strong center field in Curtis Granderson’s absence (though his arm strength is reminiscent of Bernie Williams), and he has shocked me with two home runs so far this year, not all that far from his career high of seven. But Gardner’s strength will always be his speed on the bases and his gnat-like ability to stay alive at the plate.

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