A minuscule entry this morning, as I blearily catch up on various deadlines, to congratulate the Yankees on their 40th trip to the World Series.
Thus far 2009 has been a been a year rich in dramatic storylines for the team — a new Stadium’s opening and christening; the arrival of the Big Man, ALCS Most Valuable Player CC “Must-See” Sabathia; the Mark Teixeira show at first base; Derek Jeter breaking Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hits record; Swisher Mohawks; Burnett pie; clubhouse music; ’round-the-clock Joba, Alex Rodriguez finally showing why he’s one of the greatest players in baseball history; Andy Pettitte showing yet again why he’s one of the greatest starting pitchers in Yankee history; Mariano Rivera showing yet again why he’s indisputably the greatest reliever in baseball history, Phil Hughes’ regular season emergence as a deciding force in the bullpen; Joe Girardi’s brilliant crafting and handling of that ‘pen — and occasionally baffling use of it in the postseason; Girardi’s sometimes brilliant, occasionally baffling in-game calls from the bench . . . .
And a whole bunch plot threads I’ve undoubtedly missed here, plus more to come as we launch into the World Series this week.
The disappearance of reliever David Robertson in the ALCS is a question we’ll likely have answered soon, and we can only hope it’s unrelated to the arm problems that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season. Girardi’s use of Joba Chamberlain over Hughes in the seventh inning of the series’ Game 6 — and the warming of Damaso Marte over Phil Coke for a possible lefty-lefty matchup — create questions as to where his trust now extends as he reaches into the ‘pen. And we’ll see have to see whether his itchy, unpredictable finger on the pinch-runner/mound buzzer switch gets him in trouble or, well, stops itching quite as much or erratically as we’ve seen in the first two rounds of postseason play.
Meanwhile, two teams Major League baseball teams are still standing this week, and the Yankees are one of them. It’s been six years.
The team and its fans have reason to celebrate this bright late October morning.
When the American League East-leading Yankees became the first team in the Major Leagues to clinch a playoff berth with a 6-5 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim Tuesday night, the team elected not to celebrate beyond hugs and handshakes.
“Congratulations and let’s keep going,” said manager Joe Girardi of his message to the team. “There’s still a lot of baseball to be played. We have 10 games left, and we know what we want to do. There’s obviously excitement about being in the playoffs. It’s your first goal, but there’s other goals.”
At the time, the combination of Yankees wins and Red Sox losses that would give the Yanks the AL East division championship was four. Two days later in Kansas City, the Sox’s 10-3 win over the Royals reduced their magic number to three for a postseason berth as a second place team. Asked whether they would celebrate if they clinched a likely Wild Card slot at Yankee Stadium — which could happen before the Yankees actually celebrate winning their division — designated hitter David Ortiz replied, “Oh we will, hopefully. So we don’t have to get our clubhouse dirty. It would be great. You get that out of the way and give a welcome to the new Stadium too.”
From the team’s official postgame notes, these are some of the things the Yankees did between the lines Friday night while pounding their way to a 9-5 victory over the Red Sox as they began their three game weekend series in the Bronx:
- Their leadoff man reached based five times, and scored three of the times.
- Six different hitters — Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Matsui, Posada and Cano — had a multi-hit game.
- Their runners stole seven bases on Red Sox catcher and team captain Jason Varitek, the largest number of bases they’ve swiped in a game since June, 1996, and the most at home in 27 years.
- Alex Rodriguez went 3-for-5 to drive in four runs, tying his season high of four RBI in a single game, and racking up his most at the Stadium this season.
- Joba Chamberlain notched his first win since early August, striking out the first 11 batters he faced.
You think somebody in the Yankee clubhouse got wind of Ortiz’s comments?
Besides bringing the Yanks to within three games of clinching the AL East with the best record in baseball, Friday night’s game went a significant way towards answering one of their biggest questions as they approach the playoffs — namely, could Joba Chamberlain regain enough of his form to be a successful fourth starter in the rotation after having training wheels forced on him since the All-Star break?
There’s no need to recap Chamberlain’s recent struggles here. There’ve been enough words typed about his lousy performances on the mound and at his locker. After he coughed up seven runs over three innings during his previous start in Seattle, Girardi and his coaches challenged him to “step up.” Always protective of clubhouse exchanges between team members and coaches — the “inner circle,” as he characterized it Friday — Girardi refused to be more specific to the press about exactly how he presented this challenge to Chamberlain.
At his locker after throwing an impressive six-innings in which he surrendered three runs and issued only one walk and five hits, Chamberlain described the tone of the conversation as stern.
“You get challenged a lot in life, and it’s something where you gotta look yourself in the mirror and see how to make yourself better,” he would say in response to a question about it. “It was something my teammates and my coaching staff did, and it was something it was good for me to realize.”
Answering a follow-up moments later, he added that it was important to “realize there’s a lot of people in this game that want your job. And when it comes down to it, you have to look like they’re gonna take money off your table.”
An observation or two about Chamberlain:
1. He looked angry last night throughout most of the game. And an angry Joba is more often than not a successful Joba. But inning and pitch limits and all the other constraints placed on him this season in the interest of his career longevity have too often muted that anger for reasons that can only be surmised.
“That’s all over with,” he said about the restrictions. The relief was evident in his voice and expression.
Chamberlain feeds off emotion. It is what made him special when he first stepped on the mound to electrify Yankee Stadium with two years ago, and it is what can make him special going forward. That more than anything was what the Joba Rules seem to have failed to take into account.
2. As frustrating as his defensive reactions have been immediately after his poorer performances, Joba seems to be more able to honestly admit to a lousy performance after a better one. I’ve noticed this twice in the clubhouse. While I won’t attempt to conduct an armchair psychoanalysis, we all know he grew up under difficult circumstances. That isn’t an excuse for a lack of accountability. But public and private accountability are very different things, and it might why he has a hard time letting guard down within minutes of a bad loss.
I believe Chamberlain should be judged by how he responds to adversity on the field rather than at his locker.
For the Red Sox, Friday night’s game may have created, rather than answered, a serious question about their pitching going into the playoffs.
Jon Lester posted a July ERA of 2.60 July, a 2.41 August ERA, and 3.07 ERA in September. With a 14-8 record after last night’s game, he has been the team ace this year and was recently designated Game One starter in a potential American League Division Series appearance.
The hard line drive ball that Lester took to his right leg in the third inning looked at first as if it might end his and the Red Sox’s postseason aspirations, and was a startling reminder of how tenuous such things can be. Watching him sprawled on the infield dirt, it was hard to imagine him walking off the field on his own, let alone standing at his locker answering questions. But he did both.
Lester’s injury has been diagnosed as a muscle bruise. He said in the visiting clubhouse that he would be getting compression wraps to the leg and hopes to make his next start. Sox manager Terry Francona did not rule out the possibility. “He actually might be right on turn for his next start. But we’ll have to see how he feels and figure out the right thing to do.”
Lester’s health nevertheless bears watching. He’s a tough kid and might well be OK. But that right leg is his push off leg. If he isn’t good to go for October, neither are the Red Sox.
And last but not least . . .
Somebody’s gotta say it: Those Boston media people really clog up the works in the press cafeteria.
A little while before the game I went to get a cup of coffee and found a mob of them around the machine. So I went over to the soft ice cream dispenser and found them swarming it too. Finally I gave up and decided to get dinner. More crowding and slowness at the buffet line.
“This happens whenever they’re here,” I grumbled to a venerable fixture of Yankee Stadium after plopping down at his customary table. “They devour all the food, plus they leave the stacks of paper cups a mess!”
“I know, I know.”
“I mean, they seriously get on my nerves,” I went on. “Last time they ate all the ice cream before the stinking fifth stinking inning!”
The Fixture folded his hands across his chest and nodded his head in wizened commiseration. “What’re you gonna do? They come to New York, they finally see what real food is,” he said.
You thought he’d probably do it. His manager and teammates thought he’d probably do it. And, in his heart, Andy Pettitte probably believed he was on his way to throwing a perfect game too.
“After the fifth inning, I kinda started thinking about it a little bit,” Pettitte would say with the characteristic understatement that’s one of his most endearing qualities.
This past July, the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle went the distance to throw the 18th perfect game in Major League baseball history. As Pettitte notched his first 20 outs over seven and a third innings, many of us felt a gaining sense that he was on his way to earning Number Nineteen.
Over the course of a baseball season, there are generally several bids at perfect games that are broken up late. Not all have the same inexorable feel that Pettitte’s did through most of Monday night in Baltimore. Maybe it was subjective — we root our hearts out for Andy Pettitte because he’s embodied the best of what it is to be Yankee for so long. Maybe it was also because Jerry Hairston Jr.’s excellent barehanded play on a slow-rolling groundball in the sixth inning made us think that was the one that could have set things awry.
Unfortunately it didn’t happen for Pettitte. With two outs in the seventh inning, Hairston, who’d made that great play just one inning earlier, bobbled a groundball to third and ended his bid at perfection.
Pettitte’s handling of the situation may tell more about him than we might have learned had he succeeded. After the Hairston error, he gave up a single to Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, then gathered himself and went on to close out the frame with a groundout to short, preserving the Yankees’ 5-0 lead. An inning later, no longer focused on preserving his no-hitter, he surrendered a leadoff homer to Melvin Mora, but went on to elicit two strikeouts and a groundout, ending his night with eight innings of one-run ball. Final score, 5-1 Yanks.
Pettitte never took his mind off what was most important, never let the game get away from him. And in the clubhouse afterward, he noticed Hairston walking with his “head down” and consoled him — joking, as Hairston would reveal, “that he didn’t want to have to throw nine innings anyway.”
In a way the almost perfect game is emblematic of Pettitte’s career. A homegrown mainstay of four World Championship Yankee teams — and Joe Torre’s perennial stopper — the humble Pettitte has long lived in the shadow of pitchers with more out-front personalities or gaudier career numbers. In 2003, after a 21-win season in which he threw to a 4.02 ERA and went on to a tremendous postseason, the Yankees botched their contract negotiations with the left-hander and let him slip away to the Houston Astros for three years. Pettitte earned $31.5 million from the Astros. What’s often forgotten is that the Red Sox were prepared to pay him more for a longer-term contract — some reports had the sum exceeding $50 million. Pettitte canceled out on a scheduled tour of Fenway Park and Boston, however, eschewing the Sox’s overtures because he knew he could never pitch for the Yanks’ archrival.
Last season, Pettitte played through a shoulder injury because he and Mike Mussina were the last men standing in a decimated Yankee rotation. Even as the team’s playoff chances completely evaporated in August and September, he continued to pitch rather than be put on the disabled list. Coming off that gritty second half, Pettitte was finally made a belated take-it-or-leave-it offer that paid him $5.5 million in guaranteed money and an additional $6.5 in performance incentives. This was down from the $16 million guaranteed salary he earned in 2008. The rationale was that he was a dispensable fifth starter in a rotation that would include CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain.
Pettitte accepted the deal because he wanted to go on pitching and could not see himself as anything but a Yankee. Now well on his way to earning his incentives, he has become the second-best pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation after Sabathia, the team’s ace, with Wang a nonfactor in the season. If the Yankees reach the playoffs this year, and merit alone predicated the order of the postseason rotation, Pettitte would start Game Two of the ALDS. But because Joe Girardi may want to break up his two left-handed hurlers, and more so because Pettitte will likely again be considered the stopper, we can expect him to start a pivotal Game Three.
In his fifteenth season as a Major League player — a season when he was signed, if not quite as an afterthought, then as a nonessential component — Andy Pettitte is once more finding himself absolutely essential to the Yankees postseason aspirations.
Pettitte isn’t the greatest pitcher ever to wear pinstripes. There’s barely a chance he will have a plaque in Cooperstown. But in imperfection, he is the perfect pitcher to capture the lasting respect and affection of Yankee fans.
As of Monday night, Derek Jeter’s 2009 batting average is .334 with an .880 OPS (on-base and slugging percentages). He has hit 17 home runs and stolen 23 bases. His improved fielding has been written about extensively, as is the fact that he is primed to surpass Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hit record (2,721).
And he is increasingly becoming a prime candidate for season’s American League MVP.
Before this season, though, we were mostly reading analysis and commentary speculating about how the Yankees were going to deal with a fading Jeter. Should they re-sign him after his current contract expires? Trade him preemptively? Or perhaps move him to the outfield — or somewhere else. Anywhere but the shortstop position. Jeter was a defensive liability, we read. And his days as an offensive force were over. What was left, according to various statistical breakdowns and keen scouting observations, was a substandard defensive shortstop and Punch-and-Judy singles hitter.
The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman was far from alone in raising that cry, but he did it with the singular bombastic cruelty that’s become his career trademark.
In his February 6, 2009 column for the Post (Jeter’s Next Contract Will Be Mother of All Yankee Flaps), Sherman argued that “kowtowing to Jeter’s legacy by paying him lavishly and keeping him at short means tying yourself to a late-30s icon well beyond his expiration date.”
Sherman went on to type this:
“Jeter’s offense already is trending the wrong way. Over the last three seasons, his OPS has gone from .900 to .840 to .771; his homers from 14 to 12 to 11; his steals from 34 to 15 to 11. What do you think his offense will look like in two years?
And how about his defense? Every statistical evaluation shows Jeter’s range to consistently be among the Majors’ worst, and the scouting community pretty much confirms that.
By 2011, the Yanks could have either Jeter or just his future plaque at Monument Park play short; they will have about the same range.”
The above is an example of how little the analysts, commentators and stat geeks know about baseball, and why we need to keep level heads, remain patient, and be careful about who we consider reliable experts.
I believe that when Jeter’s contra
ct is up he will re-sign with the Yankees for the remainder of his career. To paraphrase Girardi, he will remain shortstop as long as he is willing and able to play the position. And when he is no longer able, Jeter and the Yankees will decide what is best for the team.
Jeter has always handled every facet of his professional life in exemplary fashion. There is nothing to indicate he won’t handle its waning days, whenever they may come, with equal style.
I’ve said nothing here about the latest contortion of the Joba Rules because there’s really very little worth saying. The Yankees long ago committed to making Chamberlain a starting pitcher. In the interests of protecting his arm from injury, they determined that would not throw more than a certain number of innings — said to be 160 — this season. And they have stuck to their plan.
The penultimate (so far) version of the rules, which provided extra days’ rest between starts, clearly wasn’t working for Chamberlain. His rhythm was off, his performances were mediocre. So the Yanks’ modified their plan — and deserve credit for that.
I don’t know if Chamberlain pitching a truncated number of innings every five days will work any better than having him pitch on a staggered schedule with long layoffs between starts. The truth is nobody knows, including the Yankees, who are attempting something one else has done in my mind — that is, trying, at nearly all cost, to protect the career longevity of a prized young player while keeping him integral to a pennant race and possible run for the World Championship.
Enough Joba blabber, folks. The Yanks are doing what they feel they must do with him. We can praise or pillory them come November after we’ve seen how things shake out.
Just one day before the Yankees flew out to the West Coast for a three-game set at Angels Stadium, YES Network broadcasters David Cone and Ken Singleton had a conversation about a somewhat undervalued pitching statistic while calling a Yankees-Twins game at the Metrodome.
Cone made the point that the earned run average commonly used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness versus batters can be deceptive in assessing his overall performance unless his unearned average is also factored in over an extended period. If a pitcher shows a tendency to give up unearned runs after a fielder commits errors behind him, it isn’t reflected in his ERA. But, those runs count nonetheless — as do the losses to which they may lead. Cone added that a high number of unearned runs over a season, or a career, may show a flaw in the pitcher’s makeup
Singleton agreed with Cone, adding that as a player with the Baltimore Orioles, he had a good idea which pitchers on his team’s staff would give up runs after a fielding error, and which ones would hang tough, pick up his team, and get out of the inning without letting the opposition score.
As the Yankees veered toward a 10-6 loss to the Angels on Friday night after their starter Joba Chamberlain blew a four-run lead, Singleton recalled that conversation, mentioning that the 23-year-old righty had the highest unearned run average in the Yankees starting rotation.
Chamberlain’s problems began with a thorny 29-pitch second inning in which he issued a walk, wild pitch and allowed two hits to give up his first run of the game. He’d had trouble putting away batters from the beginning of that frame, when the first Angels hitter at the plate, outfielder Juan Rivera, singled to center after a five-pitch at-bat. Joba then managed to induce a flyball out to first baseman Kendry Morales in two pitches. But he would issue a five-pitch walk to the next batter while Rivera took second on the wild pitch. Gary Matthews would then single and score Rivera after an eight-pitch at-bat. Two batters and nine pitches later, Chamberlain would at last notch his third out of the inning and leave the mound relatively unscathed, having given up only the one earned run.
But, his remaining 3 1/3 innings were a struggle against an Angels lineup that was without its key offensive players, the injured Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero. The box score shows Chamberlain went through a scoreless third inning in 14 pitches, allowing only a single to infield Maicer Itsuris. It does not show that his first recorded out came on a hard-hit liner by Chone Figgins that fortunately wound up in Robinson Cano’s glove. It does not show that his second out was a flyball off the bat of Bobby Abreu that nearly went into the stands for a two-run homer. It does not show that the score could easily have been 4-3, or even 4-4 before Chamberlain left the mound.
It also doesn’t reveal that only an exceptional inning-ending play by Cano saved two runs from scoring in the fourth inning.
Of course, box scores are often deceptive. All pitchers rely on solid fielding and a little luck to make their final lines look better than they otherwise might be. But the good ones capitalize on the defensive plays behind them, the line drives that rocket directly into a fielder’s glove. The good ones know how to win.
In the fourth inning of Friday night’s game, Chamberlain crumbled over the course of throwing 26 pitches. After he surrendered a run on a single to Figgins, who would then steal second, there would be another stolen base behind him, and later a throwing error by Alex Rodriguez that put two men on base with one out.
As Kendry Morales prepared to take the mound, manager Joe Girardi left the dugout to encourage Chamberlain.
“Just get the hitter,” Girardi said. “Let’s make sure we concentrate on the hitter and not get caught up with anything else.”
Chamberlain’s next pitch was a hanging curveball that left the park to tie the score at 5-5. A volley of celebratory home-run fireworks later, Angels designated hitter Mike Napoli doubled off Chamberlain, who’d fallen behind him 2-0 in the count. That ended Chamberlain’s outing as he was replaced by Scranton call-up Mark Melancon and the Yankees’ night continued to unravel.
This is how Chamberlain evaluated his performance after the loss: “I’ve come up against some good ballclubs. There’s really nothing else to say. I threw all four pitches for strikes. They just hit the mistakes. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Chamberlain would contend that he made “great” pitches throughout the game, including the one that Figgins hit for a leadoff single in the fifth. “It was my pitch that he hit, and you gotta tip your cap to him,” he said.
And the pitch Morales knocked out to center for his mammoth home run?
“Kendry swung the bat well. It was a curveball for a strike, a little up, but it was something we felt confident in throwing it, and he put a good swing on it.”
We felt confident? Chamberlain’s use of the first-person plural was presumably meant to refer to himself and his battery mate, catcher Jose Molina. But it wasn’t Molina who left that hanger over the plate.
Asked if he thought his pitching in that disastrous fifth was different than it had been in preceding innings, Chamberlain replied in the negative. “Not at all,” he said, noting only that the slider Abreu nearly hit for a homer in the third was also “a little up.” A moment later, he would insist to reporters that he’d pitched well overall. “Other than that we were in and out all day, up and down, so it was good,” he said.
Chamberlain would talk about putting the game behind him, learning from his mistakes, continuing to grow. It is a familiar run of baseball clichés that he has readily used when pressed about his struggles, even as he’s become visibly ruffled by suggestions that his performance this season has been disappointing.
And as to those mistakes — has he learned from them?
Chamberlain has only one win in April, one in May, and two in June. Chamberlain allowed 12 walks and 24 hits over the 22 1/2 innings he pitched in May, averaging four innings and change per game over his starts. Over his six June starts Chamberlain gave up 15 walks and 33 hits while averaging 5.8 innings per game. In July, as his ERA has climbed above 4.00, he’s not yet gotten past the fifth inning in either of his two starts.
More significantly, Chamberlain’s mound appearances have taken on an awful sameness characterized by his falling behind batters to rack up high pitch counts, failing to recover from errors committed behind him, and ultimately leaving games to be decided by the Yankee bullpen while contributing to its depletion.
“At the end of the day, we got the second half to get better,” he said near the conclusion of his post-game interview.
We, again. The Yankees began Friday night tied with the Red Sox for first place in their division. They had gone 7-2 in the month of July for a .778 winning percentage, and were a season-high 17 games over .500.
That’s a team that’s collectively done pretty darned well of late.
Perhaps, then, Chamberlain ought to start using the singular “I” when speaking of his own failures. There is something insufferable about his inability to take responsibility for them.
“This is not a guy that’s been horrible. Going into tonight he had an ERA of around four,” manager Joe Girardi would say in Chamberlain’s defense after the game. Girardi will always take pains to avoid publicly embarrassing his players.
But Chamberlain’s ERA has bee
n a transparent mask for his deficiencies. Simply put, the numbers lie in his case. And lie dramatically.
The equity Chamberlain once gained as a reliever is long since spent with Yankee fans. Gone are the days of Chamberlain throwing at speeds in the high 90 mile-per-hour range. His velocity is now average, his fastballs lack movement, and the speed differential between his fastball and breaking pitches has leveled off to make the latter less effective. For fans, watching him pitch is a nerve-wracking, arduous test of patience. One can only surmise what it must be like for his manager and teammates.
Unfortunately Chien-Ming Wang’s injury, just as he showed signs of a return to his past winning form, has complicated matters for the Yankees. Already short a starter, they cannot now remove Chamberlain from the rotation, even should they be so inclined.
So, what can be done?
For one thing, the Yankee organization, from the front office to his coaches, must hold Chamberlain accountable for his subpar and poor performances. It can only be hoped that Chamberlain’s self-assessments reflect a young ballplayer’s pride and bravado speaking before throngs of reporters and cameras, and not a real and profound blindness to his own shortcomings. If Chamberlain truly believes he’s been getting better, something is disturbingly wrong with his perspective.
This should not be considered an indictment of Joba Chamberlain, but a reasoned appeal to the Yankee organization. They must evaluate what they have with him over the long and short term, and then decide how to proceed moving on. Because there are undeniable signs that Chamberlain is not at all what they once thought they had, and may be rapidly turning into something they cannot live with.
Which is to say, a liability.
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.
Over this weekend’s Yankee Stadium half of the 2009 Subway Series, plenty of media grist was derived from the verbal — and at one point almost physical — scrap between Yankees’ reliever Brian Bruney, and Mets closer Frankie “K-Rod” Rodriguez. Most baseball fans are doubtless familiar with the whole thing, so I’ll just recap briefly.
A moment before the series opener ended with an improbable Yankees win when Mets second baseman Luis Castillo dropped an easy pop fly, Rodriguez, who’d induced the pop-up, was apparently primed to launch into his familiar mound celebration: shouting at the top of his lungs, jabbing his fingers at the sky, thumping his chest, and sometimes adding a little James Brown-ish flourish — a one-legged spin that finishes with him dramatically sinking down onto one knee. But when Castillo messed up the basic little league play, Rodriguez instead wound up holding his head with both hands in astonished dismay.
Asked about the game’s wild climax Friday night while completing a rehab stint with the Yankees’ Double-A Trenton Thunder, Bruney remarked that, “It couldn’t happen to a better guy on the mound, either. He’s got a tired act.”
“I just don’t like watching the guy (K-Rod) pitch,” he would go on to say. “I think it’s embarrassing.”
When Bruney’s comments were relayed to Rodriguez, he irately responded by saying that the Yankees’ righty “better keep his mouth shut and do his job, not worry about somebody else.” He also claimed, “I don’t even know who the guy is. I’m not going to waste my time with that guy.”
But during Sunday’s pregame warm-ups in the outfield, Rodriguez seemed to know exactly who Bruney was when he stormed up to him pointing his finger and shouting some heated words. The confrontation might have come to blows if not for Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey, the Yankees’ Jose Veras, and a few other players and coaches who fortunately stepped in to separate the two.
That apparently ended the whole business except for a high volume of media noise about it, most of which hasn’t so much debated the merits of Bruney’s remarks, but questioned whether he should have publicly made them in the first place.
At his locker after Sunday’s game, Bruney in essence conceded it was a mistake. And it probably was. Once they’re relayed to the criticized party via the press (as they always are), shots of the sort Bruney aimed at a fellow player usually lead to nothing but fan and media rubbernecking. Nothing beats a good sideshow in this world.
Admittedly, though, my first reaction on hearing what Bruney said was a “Go Guy!” fist pump of my own at the TV screen. Like many players and fans, I find Rodriguez’s routine an annoyance. In fact, I wish the grandstanding that’s infected all of professional sports like a stubborn diaper rash would go away. If I want that kind of stuff, I can watch Wrestlemania.
A few years after it first showed up in the NFL via the Mark Gastineau dance, things got so bad I found watching the games tough. I couldn’t stand Gastineau.
When I met him in person much later on, my reaction was very different. I used to occasionally hang at a bar called Jimmy’s Corner on Times Square, which was owned by a fight trainer who also had a boxing gym in the area. Gastineau, who worked out at the gym during his boxing career in the ’90’s, was a fairly frequent visitor to Jimmy’s, as were many boxing personalities. Gastineau was always polite and low-key. I found him very likeable. Once, I recall him helping the barkeep’s wife mop a spill off the floor on a busy night. It was hard to connect that guy with the showboat I’d seen on the tube. I was always tempted to ask why he’d chosen to be a clown on the field — but he’s a lot bigger than I am.
Anyway, the sack dances were small potatoes compared to what would follow. In 2002, as I recall, Terrell Owens, then with the San Francisco 49ers, pulled a Sharpie pen from his sock after scoring a touchdown, signed the ball, and handed it off to his financial planner in the stands. But the capper for me came the next year in a game between the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants, when New Orleans receiver Joe Horn pulled a cellphone he’d tucked under the padding of a goalpost and — he said — made a call to his mom on catching a touchdown pass.
I’m not big on so-called “excessive celebration” rules. I think they open the door to penalties based on very subjective interpretations of a player’s actions. But I was glad with the NFL installed just that kind of rule. It made it easier for me to watch pro football.
NBA basketball’s another story. For me, it’s become unviewable. I grew up a huge Knicks fan rooting for old school players like Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and Dave DeBusschere. They played hard and never showed up their opponents.
I had no problem with Michael Jordan decades later. He was more demonstrative than the old guard players, sure. But when he’d jump up in the air and pump his fist, it was an honest display of emotion.
For a while I liked the New Jersey Nets. This was during the four or five years when Jason Kidd reenergized the team and took them to the finals in 2002 and 2003. Kidd and his teammates reminded me of the old Knicks. Kenyon Martin sometimes got a bit carried away but I felt his passion on the court was genuine.
I didn’t like it after Martin was traded away, and Vince Carter came along, and started doing his motorcycle-revving bit when he scored. The team never went to the finals with Carter. I don’t know what he was revving about.
Alonzo Mourning was another player whose premeditated outbursts got me. Alonzo’s stunt was to make a muscle like Popeye after a big basket or block. Spontaneous? Right.
And the beat goes on in the NBA. The latest irritant for me was the so-called Hannibal Lecter grimace that Kobe Bryant affected throughout this year’s playoffs. Kobe’s a great player, maybe the greatest active player in the league. He’s won multiple championships. But he never made that puss in his previous postseason runs. Why now all of a sudden?
Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that people don’t start mugging like that out of the blue. I’ve been in many high pressure situations over the years. My facial expressions have stayed the same. Look at old Super Eight movies of me from when I was eight or nine years old, there’s a recognizable consistency. Even my happy dances are the same as when I was a kid. At no point in my life have I started making cannibal faces or anything.
In pro sports, it seems every other athlete has a shtick. I hate it most in baseball because I love baseball more than any other sport by leaps and bounds. The Barry Bonds school of styling is awful enough — note to Robinson Cano — but it really irked me when Manny Ramirez started wagging his fingers at pitchers off whom he’d hit homeruns.
After a tight save, the Red Sox’s Jonathan Papelbon usually gestures in a way that isn’t fit for family consumption. When it’s not so tight, he just throws out a “*%*$* yeah!” without bothering to cover his mouth with his glove. He knows the cameras are on him. He knows kids are watching him curse. Don’t think he doesn’t leave the glove down on purpose.
In his first seasons with the Yankees, Joba Chamberlain’s fist pumping got over the top after a while. I believe the gesture to be authentic — heck, his dad does it — but he needed to rein it in some, and he did to his credit. Not so for all pitchers. There’s lot of dancing, yelling and posing to be seen on mounds throughout baseball nowadays.
Maybe these guys need to be taught their lessons. Say a pitcher’s sent to Dr. James Andrews out in Birmingham for an MRI on his shoulder, and Andrews starts jumping up and down, gyrating his hips, and fist-pumping when he locates the source of the guy’s pain on the scan: “A tear! A tear! I found it, yeeeeaiiiiiiioow Mama!!”
You ask me, Frankie Rodriguez wouldn’t be too appreciative of that.
I don’t want to make a big deal out of all this. But like Bruney, I find it all tiresome and unsportsmanlike. So how about managers and coaches ask players to please limit the contrived theatrics? Would it really hurt?
Of course, if that doesn’t happen, the best way to put an end to it is always to simply beat the showboats. As we saw with Frankie, that’s when their hands go from pointing at the sky to their caps.