It would be tough to pin the Yankees’ home series loss to the Washington Nationals, who are mostly known for being MLB’s current answer to the Bad News Bears, on any particular member of the team. Basically they played lousy in general.
If you watched that series, though, and then consider that the Yanks really should have lost two out of three home games to a depleted Mets squad last weekend, and were swept by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway before that — a stretch of nine games during which they’ve stumbled from being one game up on the Sox to three behind them for the AL East division lead — it’s hard not to think that the team needs some fixing.
I’ve been trying to figure out what the fix or fixes might be. And the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to the deficiencies in right field represented by Nick Swisher, and the spot in the starting rotation occupied by Joba Chamberlain.
Of course, Swisher isn’t responsible for the team’s collective offensive slump. I think that has more to do with Alex Rodriguez not hitting right now than anything. His bat is supposed to be the major noisemaker in the middle of their batting order. When it is silent, the aggregate thunder in Yankee bats goes from a loud roar to isolated rumbles.
Rodriguez has a long track record as one of the most prolific run producers in baseball. You can’t point to age or general physical condition as reasons for his struggles. But he is recovering from serious hip surgery and has played every game since his hurried return. Based on what we’ve seen of him, it’s reasonable to think that with some rest, and recovery time, he’ll round into form.
Or at any rate, he’d better for the sake of his team. He isn’t going anywhere.
Likewise based on track record, however, Swisher is a problem that won’t go away until he does, at least as an everyday player. In a sense it isn’t his fault. With the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, he was supposed to be half of a right field platoon that included Xavier Nady. But Nady got injured, and remains injured, and that has left Swisher a regular starting member of the lineup whose historical weaknesses have become increasingly apparent.
His career numbers aren’t the worst you’ll ever see, but they aren’t good. In 2004, his first year in the Majors, he hit .250. The next year he averaged .236. The next year he hit .254. His best BA was .262 in 2007. His worst was .219 in 2008. He’s now batting .244, a career average.
Yes, I know about the walks. The pitches taken. The slugging and on-base percentages. I’ve read all sorts of numbers.
In fact, I was reading this analysis of Swisher by a hardcore Sabermetrics guy named Peter Bendix. It was written in June 2008 when Swisher was with the Chicago White Sox. A year ago, Bendix wrote how Swisher’s failure to deliver was basically just bad luck. Bendix’s calculations indicated a sharp upturn in his performance was in the offing.
Wrote Bendix of last year’s Nick: “To begin with, Swisher has been very unlucky on balls in play. His 22.5% line-drive percentage produces an expected BABIP of .345. However, his actual BABIP is a miserable .244. If we adjust his batting line to account for the hits he should have, his line becomes .271/.371/.359.”
I looked up the meaning of BAPIP last night, not being familiar with the statistic. A stat-head website called the Hardball Times defines it as Batting Average on Balls in Play, “a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). The exact formula we use is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF) This is similar to DER, but from the batter’s perspective.”
I didn’t look up DER. I haven’t checked Swisher’s VORP or PECOTA or any of that stuff. I don’t mean to sound disparaging of the numbers game. Bill James has certainly helped the Boston Red Sox find players who can hit the ball well at their park.
But I have to go with my observational and analytical strengths. For better or worse, I rely on what I see with my eyes and more basic statistics. And when I see Swisher play, I see a guy who plays with a lot of energy, but too often allows that energy to drive him when it his job to harness it. He runs the bases recklessly. He seems to be largely unaware of cutoff men. In clutch situations, he tends to swing for the fences when he simply needs to get on base.
And he’s hitting .244.
I like Swisher on the bench. I’ll take his hustle and energy in small doses and think there are situations when he can be useful to the team.
But the Yanks need to figure out what they are going to get out of Nady this season. My guess is that their expectations are minimal. If that’s the case, they need another solution to the right field problem.
That’s the Swisher part. Chamberlain is next.
I’m weary of the Joba fight. Those who lean toward numbers guys will point to his 3.89 ERA and argue that five innings of that every fifth day is preferable to one or two innings of relief several times a week.
My response is that watching Joba pitch as a starter has become excruciating. He gets into deep counts, he walks batters, he allows droves of them on base,and he depletes the bullpen by failing to give length. He puts his defense on its heels and gives teams like the Washington Nationals the sense that they have a fighting chance.
Opposing teams don’t fear Chamberlain right now, nor should they. Where is his power fastball? His slider? His velocity is now fairly average. It largely has been for a while. The lightning in his fingertips has become erratic, and it’s anyone’s guess whether it will return with any constancy.
Chamberlain has no proven track record as a starting pitcher. Chien-Ming Wang does. Yet Wang is given ultimatums while the Yankee hierarchy continues to disregard Chamberlain’s falling effectiveness and send him out to pitch as a member of the rotation.
Meanwhile, Wang continues to improve and make a case that he should remain in the rotation. And Phil Hughes continues to throw multiple innings of relief with snap and efficiency that suggest he warrants another shot at starting.
If Wang looks good after another start or two, Chamberlain should go to the bullpen. The time when innings restrictions will put him there is approaching anyway, so why wait? Maybe he’ll regain his lightning as a reliever. Maybe next season, with some work, he will become the winning starter the Yankees envision.
Right now the Yankees should be looking to win in 2009 and think about giving Hughes his shot.
We can go by the numbers (assuming they’re being interpreted without skew). Or we can use them wisely to inform what we see. I’d suggest the latter.
A lot of us can follow recipes, but that doesn’t make us master chefs.