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.
All posts in category Player Profiles
Posted by jfs360 on May 14, 2013
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.
Posted by jfs360 on April 30, 2013
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.
Posted by jfs360 on April 26, 2013
On Thursday, I covered the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions, the most paltry crop of new Bombers in the last 20 years. On to the personnel losses…
2012 Stats: 2-1, 2.26 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 42 saves
Soriano was brilliant for the Yankees last season, replacing Mariano Rivera as the closer in early May and throwing up a Mo-like 42 saves in 46 chances. Without him, the Yankees don’t sniff the playoffs, much less win the division. But Soriano is mercurial, aloof and sometime petulantly unprofessional. He’s 33, an uncertain age for closers. Most importantly, he wanted to close in 2013, and even the reincarnation of 1978 Goose Gossage was not going replace Mariano. Once Rivera decided he was coming back for one more season, Soriano was playing on borrowed time in the Bronx.
Will the Yankees be worse off without Soriano, who signed with the Nationals in mid-January? Hard to say. As transcendent as Rivera has been, he’s coming off a torn ACL and meniscus and turned 43 in November. If he struggles, the Yanks won’t have Soriano as a security blanket. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter — we’ll happily live and die with Rivera, like we have since 1997.
2012 Stats: .272/.364/.473, 24 HRs, 93 RBIs
I wrote the following after Swisher suggested in August that he wanted a new contract similar to Jayson Werth’s seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals:
Paying Swisher, who will be 32 this offseason, $126 million would be akin to walking into a Vegas casino with bags of money and handing the bags to the pit boss. Paying him $63 million would barely be acceptable given his lifetime postseason splits of .169/.295/.323 (in a healthy 38-game sample no less).
Of course, Swisher managed to underperform in the 2012 playoffs even by his own putrid standard. Beyond his .166/.242/.212, 10-strikeout joke of a line in eight postseason starts, Swisher missed a key fly ball in extra innings that cost the Yankees Game 1 of the ALCS and complained about the heckling he was getting from the Bleacher Creatures, as if he should be given a pat on the back for missing the Mendoza Line in yet another postseason. As my Dad might say, there are winners and losers in sports, and Swisher is a loser.
With that in mind, signing him to a four-year, $56 million deal — the contract he got from Cleveland — would have been sheer lunacy. I thoroughly enjoyed the Nick Swisher era and the ebullience he brought to the clubhouse. Unless, of course, it was late in a close game or anytime after Oct. 1. Then I hated it.
Posted by jfs360 on January 28, 2013
Pitchers and catchers report in less than a month. Alex Rodriguez is in the early stage of recovering from hip surgery that will keep him out until after the All-Star Break. Derek Jeter is on track to be recovered from his broken ankle by Opening Day. Seems like as good a time as any to review how the 2013 Yankee roster will be different from the 2012 squad that overcame injuries to win the AL East but got unceremoniously bounced by the Detroit Tigers in an embarrassing ALCS sweep. First, let’s meet the new faces…
Specs: 33 (turns 34 in March), 3B/1B, bats right, throws right
2012 Stats: .235/.336/.409, 19 HRs, 60 RBIs in 122 games for Boston and the Chicago White Sox
The most high-profile of the Yankees’ offseason pickups by far, Youkilis will be expected to fill in at third base until A-Rod returns in late July or August. Youk is far removed from his prime years for the Red Sox, when he terrorized Yankee pitching and earned the hatred of Yankee fans. Last year, he posted a below-average OPS+ (99) for the first time in his career and looked much older than 33. But he remains one of the game’s most clutch third baseman, and his steady defense is markedly better than trotting out Eduardo Nunez (gulp) at the hot corner game after game. Can we win a World Series with Youkilis starting? Probably not. But if A-Rod comes back close to what he was in past years, Youkilis can supplement Nunez as another right-handed bat to DH/pinch-hit.
As for the idea of rooting for Kevin Frickin’ Youkilis… I don’t have an easy answer. Jerry Seinfeld’s famous stand-up bit is that fans are really rooting for laundry — when a guy you hate puts on your team’s jersey and takes the field, you’re predisposed to change your tune and support him. But some people are so loathsome that they defy the laundry rule. If Manny Ramirez had ever come to the Yankees, for example, I would have booed him until I was hoarse and then booed some more. Youkilis is one of those people for me — remember how glorious it was when Joba Chamberlain decided to throw at Youk’s head every chance he got? Now I have to cheer when he gets a big late-inning hit or makes a nice play in the field? Ugh. I’ve rooted for more loathsome athletes (I’m looking your way, Roger Clemens), but they were usually elite players in the prime of their careers. Cheering for a nearly-washed-up Kevin Youkilis sounds repugnant, honestly, and I can only hope that Nunez arrives at spring training a newly improved fielder and takes the starting third baseman job. Otherwise I’ll swallow my bile and cheer. I guess.
Posted by jfs360 on January 24, 2013
Bad loss. Bad Loss. BAD LOSS.
Exactly a month before last night’s debacle of an 8-7, 11-inning loss to the lowly Blue Jays, I wrote the following about so-called Bad Losses:
The critical part of a Bad Loss is an abject failure of execution. Sometime it’s an error at the worst time, sometimes it’s a manager playing what appears to be Hungry Hungry Hippos with his bullpen moves. Either way, the loss can linger for days, weeks or even an entire season.
“Abject failure of execution” is a perfect way to describe what Rafael Soriano did against Rajai Davis and Colby Rasmus last night. With a man on and two outs in the ninth, Soriano got ahead of Davis 0-2. The Yankee Stadium crowd rose to its feet for a game-ending cheer, and the Yankees prepared to savor a hard-fought 6-4 win.
(Since I’m about to excoriate Soriano, I should point out that he has saved 33 of 36 chances since stepping in for Mariano Rivera. That said, his performance on and off the field last night was so atrocious that he deserves what’s coming to him.)
At this point, Soriano had at least one and possibly two pitches to waste. His slider was not breaking well, and Davis had barely missed an 0-1 hanging slider, fouling it off. But Davis was champing at the bit to swing, and Soriano had only to put a pitch in the dirt, or at his ankles, and the game would be over. Before the 0-2 pitch, Russell Martin actually motioned toward the ground with his glove and then set the glove about six inches off the ground, the equivalent of a neon sign reminding Soriano to PUT IT IN THE DIRT.
Instead, the Yankee closer threw yet another hanging slider at the belt, and Davis slapped it through the hole into left field for a single. Missing that badly on an 0-2 pitch is inexcusable at any point in a game, but it can be deadly for a temperamental closer like Soriano**, who was clearly rattled as Rasmus came to the plate. Two pitches later, Rasmus crushed another hanging slider into the second deck in right field, and justlikethat it was 7-6 Toronto.
**Soriano left the clubhouse after the game without speaking to reporters, a move he pulled before with the Yankees early last season. I won’t belabor this point because it’s moot right now, but… would Mariano Rivera EVER blow off the press after blowing a game? This guy agrees with me.
The Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the ninth on a home run by Derek Jeter, who continues to party like it’s 1999. But they couldn’t push across another run, and a throwing error by Derek Lowe in the 11th set up an RBI groundout that gave the Blue Jays the win. Abject failure of execution, indeed.
After the sordid finish, we learned that Mark Teixeira suffered a Grade 1 left calf strain during the game and will miss 1-3 weeks. It’s the same injury Jeter had last June, and he missed exactly three weeks. Nick Swisher has filled in adequately for Teixeira at first, and new pickup Steve Pearce can spot Swish at times. But the injury leaves a gaping hole in the Yankee lineup, which currently looks something like this:
1. Derek Jeter
2. Nick Swisher
3. Robinson Cano
4. Eric Chavez/Curtis Granderson
6. Andruw Jones
7. Jayson Nix/Casey McGehee (gulp)
9. Russell Martin
That’s a terrible lineup once you get past the top five — only Ichiro has had any recent success among the guys in the bottom four spots. The Yanks will need all the pitching they can get to hold off the Rays and Orioles with Teix, A-Rod and Andy Pettitte injured. And they certainly can’t afford another Bad Loss like Soriano’s implosion last night.
Posted by jfs360 on August 28, 2012
Most of you by now have either seen or read about ESPN Bobble Head Commenter Skip Bayless saying Derek Jeter’s recent hitting surge should raise eyebrows about The Captain possibly using synthetic testosterone (if not, click here). The outraged fan reaction response is fairly played out (a quick Google search reveals), and honestly the backlash has been overblown simply because of how much people hate Skip Bayless. I hate Skip as much as the next sane person, but sadly, suspicion about Jeter is an expected backlash after a decade-long parade of baseball stars going down in scandal.
What’s really unfortunate is that Skip’s comments and the resulting firestorm is obscuring just how good Jeter’s year has been. The story is not that Jeter’s honor was impugned — it’s that 18 months after appearing worn out, Jeter has put up the best offensive numbers by a 38-year-old shortstop in 60 years and become the Yankees’ best hitter this season.
Let’s wind the clocks back 18 months. Jeter, then 36, was in the first year of a new three-year contract (with an option for a fourth year). A dispute with the Yankees during contract negotiations in the offseason made it to the press, which frustrated the notoriously private Yankee shortstop. The acrimonious deal talks were largely due to Jeter’s paltry production in 2010 — he hit just .270/.340/.370, and his OPS+ of 90 was by far the worst of his career for any full season.
The 2011 season started just as poorly for Jeter, who appeared inept and run-down at the plate as he sputtered towards 3,000 career hits. In June, when Jeter was forced to the disabled leg with an injured right calf with 2,994 career hits, his splits were just .260/.324/.324. But Jeter was about to experience a remarkable turnaround** spearheaded by a historic July day at Yankee Stadium
**For what it’s worth, this point in time right here — Jeter’s three-week DL stint last June — is likely where the Captain begins using PEDs in Bayless’ asinine alternate universe. To me, it’s much more likely that Jeter used the time off to recuperate his ailing legs and fix the calf issue that was limiting his ability to stay back on the ball and drive it the other way. It was only the second significant injury of Jeter’s career, and the time off had to have helped him, along with the consistently good advice of Yankees’ hitting guru Kevin Long.
In his fifth game back from the injury, Jeter went 5-5 with a home run and two RBIs in a 5-4 win over the Rays. The home run, on Jeter’s second at-bat of the game, was the 3,000th of his career, and the fifth hit was a game-winning single in the eighth inning. With the 3,000-hit monkey finally off his back, Jeter took off in the second half, hitting .327/.383/.428 after the All-Star Break. Looking beyond the surface statistics, Jeter’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) skyrocketed from .294 before the break to .388 after. Normally that would represent a hitter moving from slightly unlucky to extremely lucky (the average BABIP is roughly .300). In Jeter’s case, though, it signified fewer infield dribblers — a Jeter staple in 2010 and early 2011 — and more cleanly hit balls to the outfield.
Like 2011, Jeter has been better in the second half of this season. The primary difference is that the Captain started out strong this year, hitting a more-than-respectable .308/.354/.411 with 72 runs produced in 83 games before the All-Star Break. Since the break he’s been the best hitter in the American League not named Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera. In 41 games, he’s at .363/.394/.538, with six HRs and 52 runs produced. His OPS+ for the second half in 155; the best full-season total of Jeter’s career is 153 is 1999. Jeter is on pace to reach 200 hits in season for the first time since amassing 219 in ’99. It would be the longest stretch between 200-hit seasons (13) in MLB history, by far, eclipsing the current record of nine.
Step back and think about that for a second. Jeter has gone from “massively overpaid and probably washed up liability” to “keystone of the lineup and best contact hitter in the AL” in 18 months, putting up numbers that by all rights should be behind the 38-year-old active legend. Just how good? The last shortstop to hit over .300 for a full season at 38 or older was the White Sox’s ageless wonder, Luke Appling, who actually hit over .300 when he was 39, 40, 41 AND 42. Appling’s last season was at 42, way back in 1949.
We’ve heard a lot of talk this summer about Jeter’s inexorable march up the all-time hits leaderboard. He’s gone from 21st on the career list at the beginning of the season to 12th now, with none other than Willie Mays (3,283) next in line. Jeter, currently at 3,261, should pass the Say Hey Kid in mid-September. Similarly, Jeter started the year 22nd in runs scored and is now 14th at 1,850, nine behind Mel Ott and 29 behind Alex Rodriguez, who won’t be back from his broken hand until late September. When you start a year hovering outside the top 20 in hits and runs scored, you’re normally not productive enough anymore to gain another 9-10 spots in both categories in one year. Jeter is doing that, leading off virtually every game and fielding at an above-average level, his .981 fielding percentage outstripping the league average at SS by four points.
Jeter could end his career in the top five in hits and runs, a feat only Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb have accomplished. But that’s for another season or four. This year, right now, Jeter has turned back the clock and reminded every Yankee fan why he’s been the cornerstone of the franchise’s most successful run in 60 years. And that’s why Bayless’s boorish comments and the firestorm they ignited are sad. Jeter’s name should be in the paper and on talk shows and on SportsCenter, for sure. But it should be for his remarkable year on the field, not some unprovable, unfounded allegation off it.
Posted by jfs360 on August 27, 2012
Eric Chavez is hitting like the second coming of PED Barry Bonds right now. After going 3-3 with a walk in Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Rangers, Chavez’s recent stat line swelled to (wait for it) .609/.640/1.080 with three home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs in his last six games. But because it’s Eric Chavez, those games came over a 10-day period. At 34, Chavez has a balky back that locks up if he plays too frequently. The third baseman sat out all three games in the weekend series at Toronto, partly because the Blue Jay starters were all lefties and partly because he physically couldn’t play. Three days of rest later, he’s come back and crushed it against Texas.
The last hit of the night for Chavez, a lined single up the middle of Texas southpaw reliever Robbie Ross, was remarkable for two seasons. One, Joe Girardi let Chavez bat against a lefty despite having Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee on the bench, a testament to how good Chavez has been lately. Two, Chavez was picture-perfect on the single, staying back on a breaking ball from Ross, making square contact and driving the ball through a shift designed to cut down on singles up the middle. After the game, Chavez said he’s “enjoying the ride” but knows he can’t keep this pace up. Even after Chavez regresses to the mean, though, he’ll be an invaluable bat in the lineup to replace Alex Rodriguez until he returns in late September.
As for Wednesday’s game, the Yankees simply held off the Rangers again, and Texas finally began to show signs of frustration. In the eighth, Ian Kinsler struck out on looking on a ball that was clearly a strike (not even close), and proceeded to get in the home plate umpire’s face and get himself ejected. The next batter, Elvis Andrus, grounded out to short to end the inning and slammed his helmet on the ground in frustration. This series was about who would establish themselves as the team to beat in the American League; no matter what happens in Thursday’s series finale, we have our answer.
Posted by jfs360 on August 16, 2012
Watching the recap of Hiroki Kuroda’s sensational pitching performance against the Rangers Tuesday night — a two-hit, two-walk shutout of the best lineup in baseball in a 3-0 Yankees win — I found myself thinking: How long has it been since a Yankee starter pitched that good a game?
Before I go back more than half a decade to answer that question, let’s consider the sliding scale of pitching greatness. Every sports media figure and their mother (myself included) loves to refer to great pitching performances as ‘gems’. Following that logic, a perfect game like the 14K masterpiece Matt Cain threw in June would be the Cullinan Diamond. A comparatively ‘pedestrian’ perfect game (think Dallas Braden in 2010) would be closer to the Monarch Diamond from ‘Man on a Ledge’. A level below that are great games where a hit or walk is allowed, but the sense of absolute pitching dominance remains the same. R.A. Dickey’s back-to-back one-hitters this season are the most recent example of what I’ll call 24 Carat games.
My most memorable 24 Carat game was way back in 1999, when Pedro Martinez at the apex of his powers absolutely silenced a very good Yankee offense. Pedro hit Chuck Knoblauch with the second pitch of the game (erased when Chuckie was caught stealing), allowed a mammoth third-inning home run to Chili Davis, and that was it. Pedro struck out 17 batters, including eight of the last nine Yankee hitters in the game. It remains the greatest pitching performance I’ve ever seen live and one of the few times I’ve been in awe at a sporting event. In retrospect, Davis’ home run (a bomb that came when he timed one of Pedro’s fastballs perfectly) may have been the most impressive hit of his 19-year career.
Below the 24 Carat games are the plethora of performances that are very, very good — just not great. Let’s call those Sapphire games, and let’s definitively say that Kuroda’s masterpiece last night was a bona fide Sapphire game.
Posted by jfs360 on August 15, 2012
Sabermetrics, the advanced stats that best explain the quantifiable aspects of baseball, have never been a fan of Ivan Nova. Every advanced stat out there showed that in 2011, Nova’s 16-4 record and 3.70 ERA were not an accurate representation of his worth as a pitcher. From a relatively low BABIP (.283) to an xFIP of 4.16, Nova projected as a back-of-the-rotation guy, not a top-flight starter.
Nova picked up where he left off in the beginning of this season, putting up pitching results that again overinflated his relative value. But most fans don’t check BABIP, xFIP, and the rest of the alphabet-soup advanced stats with their morning coffee — they look at wins, losses and ERA. The casual baseball fan is much like my father, who will swear up and down that C.C. Sabathia got jobbed out of the 2010 AL Cy Young award by Felix Hernandez because C.C. was 21-7 and King Felix was 13-12.
Those same fans pointed to Nova’s 9-2 record in late June as evidence that his 2011 campaign was no fluke. But as Grantland’s Jonah Keri explained in an eerily prescient June 12 column, Nova’s success was still primarily a product of luck.
Posted by jfs360 on August 7, 2012