Friday, May 27, 2005

Didn't I Tell You To Get Off A-Rod's Back?

Every time I get an opportunity to write something other than an analysis of the previous night’s game – an off-day, a win over a crappy team or the like – something gets in the way, like my horrendous sleep schedule. I’d like to do these topics justice, so I’m not going to force out 1,200 words minutes before I collapse on my bed for eight hours.

So today, for some abbreviated literature, I’m going to talk about three points that I will not waffle on for the rest of the season (lest the Republican Party calls me out on said waffling, which would hurt me in the election for “Most Unread Sports Blogger”).

1. I’m on the Alex Rodriguez bandwagon. And I’m predicting that the entire town will be once we hit late September, when A-Rahd will be sitting on 50 some-odd homers and at least 150 RBI, with an OPS over 1.000. Of course, his ability to step up in the playoffs will be scrutinized by local columnists who have nothing better to write about, since it’s tough to come up material about a team that’s mopping up. There always has to be something negative, and until A-Rahd has a ring, he’ll be the scapegoat.

But at this point, there’s nothing not to like about the guy (and there goes the English major, tossing in a double negative). Yeah, he underachieved – for being A-Rod, that is – last year, posting a decline in every offensive statistic from his 2003 numbers. Then again, when was the last time you were slamming a guy who hit .286/.375/.512 with 36 homers and 106 RBI? I guess it all has to be taken in the context of his .298/.396/.659, 47 homer, 118 RBI MVP season in ’03, and the fact that he never came up with a timely hit.

But I’m going to say right now that this year is different, and we’re all witnessing a changed A-Rod, a guy who is going to help this team win. And if this statement makes me look like a naïve fool come September, so be it. But I have to stick to my guns on this one; I don’t want to be one of those guys who hates A-Rod after an 0-for, but loves him after he smacks two over the right-centerfield wall. So if you’re still not keen on A-Rod, I’ll be patiently waiting for you to come around. But once you do, don’t turn on him after a bad night.

2. We should not trade for Roger Clemens unless the Astros ship him for no compensation. And ultimately, that means that I do not want to trade for Clemens at all. I don’t care if it would set the team up with the most dominant lefty and righty in the game, the rental of Clemens isn’t worth what the Astros are going to be asking.

As a quick note: no compensation means that we ship the Astros low level prospects for Clemens as more of a salary move. Seriously, do they want to be paying Clemens for half a season that won’t mean anything to the team?

At the very most, the acquisition of Clemens vastly improves the team’s chances for success in the postseason, but that’s it. As these Yanks have proven time and again, there is no such thing as a sure thing, and Steinbrenner’s minions have to go into July with that in the front of their minds. At the very least, regresses into his 1999 form and is completely undependable during crunch time.

Neither scenario looks particularly compelling enough to mortgage the team’s future on, especially when the two guys other teams are going to be interested in – Wang and Cano, obviously – are already performing at the major league level and are helping the team right now. Then again, I’m not George Steinbrenner; I’d like to enjoy the team for years to come while he’s in his waning years, eager for just one more championship.

3. Kevin Brown will break down before October. I didn’t catch too much of him last night, and when I did it was via John Sterling and the radio crew rather than being able to watch his pitches on TV, so I can’t really say anything about what he did other than it was a relief to see that he didn’t walk a batter. But from what I have seen of him thus far, I can definitely see him leaving the ball over the middle of the plate. Thankfully he’s keeping it down and supplying some quality left-right and up-down movement, so he’s been able to avoid the disaster that plagued him his first three starts.

I’m not major league hitter, and accordingly have never faced a pitcher with movement on his pitches quite like Kevin Brown (or anyone who else who really gets the ball to spin nicely). So I can’t tell you if he is throwing uncanny stuff right now, to the point where even the best hitters are clueless as to where the ball is going to end up. But, I do know that I haven’t seen the pitches hitting Jorge’s glove on the inside or outside corners of the plate.

When most pitchers enter the final stages of their career, they use the knowledge that they’ve built up over their careers to continue to get hitters out. Most add pinpoint control and a real command of breaking pitches to compensate for diminished velocity. Brown has added some little twists to his old pitches, getting them to jump around the lower half of the strike zone. Will this continue to be successful? Well, you know you’re getting a “no” from me. There’s just something about leaving the ball over the plate that makes me uneasy, no matter how much the ball is moving – and especially when he’s not hurling 95 m.p.h. inside heaters to keep the hitters honest anymore.

And if none of this convinces you, let me reach back and play the Trump Card: is anyone seriously entertaining the thought of Brown not landing on the DL for at least three weeks this season? Everyone knows his injury history, and even though he managed the entire ’03 season injury-free, this is just a different story now. He’s a season and a quarter and two stints on the DL removed from then, and he’s working much more arduously to hit 92 on the gun than he was with L.A.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Get Off A-Rod's Back (And Some Other Stuff Following A Quality Win)

Just a few notes and links, since I’m dead tired and can only manage a coherent sentence after staring at the computer screen for five minutes.

It’s still an issue, and it’s going to be for the remainder of the season and into the postseason (considering we make it). Yes, I’m talking about A-Rod’s at bats in key situations. Something is beginning to really bother me about this situation, and it’s that a faction of fans have adopted the theory that A-Rod can never hit in the clutch, and only a bottom of the ninth walk off homer against the Red Sox in September or October can prove otherwise. A lot of guys were talking about how he went down looking with the bases loaded in the third, but since when is the third inning crunch time? Yes, it would have been nice to add to a 1-0 lead early in the game, but it certainly wasn’t a clutch situation. And what does A-Rod do in the bottom of the sixth with the game tied? Yeah, he hits a rocket to the wall and breaks the tie.

John Harper of the Daily News penned a nice piece on the Quantrill bean ball from two nights ago, specifically about Sheff’s reaction to it. He makes a great point right towards the end:

It's not about A-Rod suddenly being accepted as a Yankee, either, even if that seems to be a popular media theory. It's about baseball law and order.”

Absolutely, 100 percent. And I’m sick of this “A-Rod isn’t a real Yankee” crap. When are fans going to get off the back of a guy hitting .318/.415/.642 with a league leading 16 HR and 47 RBI?

I’m wondering if there’s another Scott Brosius out there to be acquired around the trade deadline. A guy who has had a solid year in the past – like Brosius’s .304/.393/.516 1996 for the A’s – has slipped up since – his .203/.259/.472 ’97 – but still has it in him for another .300/.371/.472 season (’98). And thanks to Retrosheet, I know that Brosius hit into a mere four double plays in a career high 530 at bats. At what price did this .300 season – and an 8 for 17, 2 homer World Series performance – come? Kenny friggin’ Rogers and cash.

You know who would be a superb pickup in July? Mark Kotsay. I’m not saying that he’ll be available; actually, I’ve heard that Billy Beane will go to lengths to get this guy signed (he’s a free agent following this season). But if you think about it, Kotsay is in the prime of his career (he turns 30 in December) and it doesn’t look like 17-28 A’s are going to contend this year. If Beane has doubts about getting a deal done with Kotsay, he’ll surely hear a few inquiries about him.

There are two other problems in acquiring Kotsay or any other major league ready talent before the trade deadline. First is the asking price of such a player. Yes, Kotsay would be a quality addition both offensively and defensively, but I just don’t think he’s worth a Cano of Wang (and thankfully Cashman is on the record saying that these guys are staying – but we all know that can change in an instant). There are a couple of outfield prospects in Columbus right now, and Eric Duncan’s name will surely come up as the season progresses. A third party would probably be required for any trade with Oakland involving Duncan, since I’m sure Beane isn’t very keen on acquiring a prospect that plays the same position as one of the only big money guys on the roster (Eric Chavez).

The other problem is how to juggle the lineup. Acquiring a player before the deadline, and especially an everyday player like Kotsay, would mean further complications in the Tino-Giambi-Bernie-Womack-Cano situation. I have a little mock solution. Once again, this should all be taken with a grain of salt, since there is absolutely no guarantee that Kotsay becomes available (though should he, I’m obviously an advocate of pouncing on him).

I like playing Tino three, four days a week because that’s exactly what he was signed to do. He’s not the every day guy he used to be, and he’s not going to hit another home run tear, so you might as well get what you can out of him. So at worst he plays three days a week, at best he plays five or six because Giambi defines inconsistency (and sucking). So you’ve got Giambi playing some first, some DH, and you’ve got the Bernie-Womack thing going on in the outfield. Add Kotsay to that, and Bernie looks like the odd man out. But not so fast…there is one particularly striking question we all need to ask: why the hell do we need Tony Womack? Seriously, we have Cano playing a solid second base, and since he might be the guy of the future, I’d obviously like to see him there every day, meaning Womack is stuck in the outfield. As is evident by this point, I’d take Kotsay in a heartbeat over Womack. So what about the Yanks playing an unfamiliar role in July and shopping Womack to an NL contender for prospects? The only problem is that most of the NL contenders have solid second basemen, and you don’t want to dish him to an AL contender and have him bite you in the ass – though the only AL contender that shows a need at second are the Twins.

Regardless of the mid-season acquisitions (or, hopefully, lack thereof), the Yankees need to work out some consistency in the lineup by August. Joe’s going to have to figure out if Giambi is going to be consistent enough to warrant playing almost every day, and if he is, how are they going to balance Bernie, Tino, and Womack? If Joe’s still trying to figure this situation out in August, we’re going to have some problems.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Yankees 12, Tigers 3

It’s one thing to annihilate a team like the Yanks did the Tigers last night. It’s another to annihilate a team while proving something beyond scoring runs in bunches. And with so many question marks still swirling around the Bronx, punctuating any of them alternately is a relief. The key here is to not get over excited and start acting like callers on WFAN who think we’re going to dominate the league here on out. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and I’m sure those same callers will be singing a different tune after this weekend’s series with the Botox. So the question will remain for the time being, “Are they going to stay consistent?”

Consistency is the prime concern of the starting rotation, which is – as I understood it – the entire reason for brining in Randy Johnson. And, as I and plenty of others have pointed out, he’s just not providing that consistency yet. As much as we’d all like to sit back and relax because we know that Randy is Randy and he’ll surely come around, it’s certainly not a given. As precedent, I’d like to cite Steve Carlton, who hurled 18 consecutive seasons (with over 150 innings pitched) without breaking a 4 ERA (his highest was 3.90 with Philadelphia in ’73). Not even Randy Johnson boasts such numbers, though their respective dominance is comparable.

But then in 1985, at the ripe age of 40, Carlton ran into injury problems and managed only 92 innings and an abysmal 1-8 record, yet still managed a 3.33 ERA (though his WHIP was up at about 1.50. The guy could scatter his hits). Then in ’86, Carlton – now at Randy’s age, 41 – hurled only 83 innings, but allowed 102 hits and a staggering 44 walks for an ERA of 6.18 and a WHIP of 1.75 in his abbreviated season.

Am I singing a similar song of doom for Randy? Absolutely not. Aside from the age and dominance, there aren’t many more Johnson-Carlton similarities. Randy is (was?) a power pitcher, recording more strikeouts per 9 innings than Carlton in almost every year of his career. This brings up another point: between 1967 and 1984, Carlton logged under 200 innings just twice, tossing 193 in ’67 and 190 in ’81. In 1972 this guy was on the mound for 346.1 innings! Randy, on the other hand, hovered right around 250 innings just six times in his career. And, if you look at total innings pitched before the age of 41, Carlton had 4,213 while Randy has logged 3,368. So yes, Carlton had much more mileage, leading to his injuries and sudden decline, which differentiates him from Randy, but if you take nothing else from the preceding two paragraphs, take this: it has happened before.

It’s funny how everything is coming back to Randy now, even the day after Mike Mussina threw a superb game. Taking a page from Carlton’s book, Moose scattered six hits over seven beautiful innings, and even struck out six. Oh, and he didn’t walk a single batter, which is of more importance than the strikeouts. When the opponents got on, they had to earn it, and Moose never let things get out of hand. So is it safe to say that Mussina is going to provide the pitching consistency that we expected from him when we inked him to that huge deal? I’d say it’s as safe as it’s ever going to be, but that’s not to say that Moose is going to end up like he is now. Injuries are always a factor, especially with an aging guy like Mussina, who spent a month or so on the DL last year with elbow problems.

Aside from the hitting display put on by all the starters sans Jeter and Womack, I have to say that Quantrill drilling Jason Smith in the 8th may be the most important “X” factor (and I really do hate that term, but it fits here) of the game. After a spring training where the Red Sox let loose on a pacifistic A-Rod, there was talk everywhere – but especially from those Boston geeks Bill Simmons and Peter Gammons – about the Yanks not backing up A-Rod. But that’s exactly what Quantrill did last night, not only plunking Smith square in the back, but subsequently challenging the entire Tigers bench, who were on the field following the hit batsman. Torre and Quantrill were tossed, but it certainly was for a good cause. Quality teams/players will rally around events like this, so it will be interesting to see how A-Rod and the rest of the team react in the next few days (on the field, that is).

And there is some entertainment value to be had from the situation, provided by the sarcasm-laden post-game statement by Quantrill. "When guys get wild when our guys are having a fantastic day at the plate, that leads to tension. The guy pitching for the Tigers, whatever his name is, it must have been the rain, the ball was slippery.''

If I have one complaint about the game, it’s that the Yanks hit six homers, but none off the mezzanine. My buddy Andy and I were driving around, listening to the radio while waiting for another friend to finish up dinner so we could watch the game at the bar. We were in the car for A-Rod’s second, both of Jorge’s, and Sheff’s dingers, and were waiting in anticipation each time as Sterling lauched into his “It is high, it is far, it is gooooooooonnnnnnnnnnneeeeeee!” schtick, hoping and praying that that he’d add “off the meeeeeezzzzzzzzzaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnniiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnneeeeeeeee!” I know Sterling takes a lot of crap from the local print media, but his calls are priceless. Now if he only didn’t have to babysit Susyn Waldman in the booth…

It’s Chien-Ming Wang vs. Mike Maroth tonight, and this scares me just a little. Maroth had a couple of solid to great outings against the Yanks last year, and when this is combined with the Yanks history this season of dropping the game following a blowout (vs. the D-Rays and the Angels in April), it really makes one uneasy entering tonight’s game. But I have faith in the Taiwanese righty, and it’s not like Maroth has been lighting it up this year. Tonight obviously isn’t a must win game, but it certainly would be nice to see them win a game after a rout, especially with Boston looming.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Off Day Ramblings

Another off day, which means another boring day. Seriously, how am I supposed to kill the hours between 7 and 10 p.m. without the Yankees on? Thankfully, we had the Mets-Braves and Game 1 of the Heat-Pistons series to curb my boredom a bit.

Before I launch into how critical this upcoming series with Detroit is, I just want to pen a few words about the Mets game last night. If you live in the New York area, all you have to do is turn to WFAN for about 30 seconds to understand how appalled everyone is over the David Wright interference call last night. In fact, it was the only thing talked about from 2:30 a.m. until 5:30, when Imus came on (don’t ask how I know that). So I listened for three hours what I could have surmised in 30 seconds: Wright’s slide into Rafael Furcal wasn’t blatant enough to warrant an interference call. Not at that juncture in the game, not ever.

Joe Nelson, the umpire who made the call, justified himself after the game by hiding behind the fine print of the interference rule, and I suppose that’s fine. A rule is a rule, and rules need to be followed, lest we have chaos. Yes, that makes me sound like I have a stick jammed firmly up my ass, but rules are in place for a reason in sports. And when it’s a rule like interference, which has been around longer than any of us have been alive, it should be enforced. The problem here is the subjectivity of the call. Nelson thought that Wright was out of the basepath when sliding into Furcal, and therefore called him out for interference. But after watching the replay, it was at least clear that it was a borderline call. And when you’re in the eighth inning of a close game, how do you make that call? Shortstops are taken out on a daily basis trying for double plays. How is this so different?

What compounds the situation is the liberty given to shortstops/second basemen on double plays. Yes, I’m referring to the neighborhood rule (or ghost rule, or however you refer to it). So a shortstop is allowed to sidestep the bag in order to make for a smoother double play, but a runner isn’t allowed to be six inches – if that – out of the basepath to do his part and make the shortstop work to turn two.

So that’s my stance on the issue. But, if Kaz Ishii doesn’t give up seven runs, the Mets aren’t even in this situation. Yes, Wright made a costly throwing error, but – and I have brought this up before – it then becomes Ishii’s job to pick up for his teammates. Your defense is going to make some spectacular plays on your behalf, so you had better pick them up when they blunder. Ishii didn’t, and that’s one of the many reasons he should be sitting in the bullpen and Heilman should become a regular facet in the Mets rotation.

But enough about the cross town mini-rivals. The Yanks are entering quite a unique situation this week, one they haven’t faced in possibly decades. We have a meaningful series against the Detroit Tigers. Normally, the Tigers are so dismal that they don’t even warrant getting worried over, but this year’s Tigers are actually showing signs of life. After 42 games, they’re just two below .500, though they’re five games behind the second place Twins in the AL Central.

Detroit has a decent formula going, their offense mixed with vets and youngsters and a very young pitching staff. Led morally by Pudge Rodriguez and statistically by Carlos Guillen, the Tigers are missing just a few pieces to their puzzle, though solving it also hinges on the development of Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson on the rubber. Their bullpen seems solid, hosting three solid arms in Kyle Farnsworth (a steal from the Cubbies), Ugueth Urbina and Troy Percival, though he’s on the DL. Thirty-three year old Jamie Walker has also been a nice surprise out of the bullpen, delivering 11 strikeouts through 15 innings of work (in 18 apperances), allowing just four runs in those innings and boasting a WHIP of a hair over one. This is exactly what you need from a lefty in the pen – much to the contrary of Mike Stanton.

So why is this series so critical for the Yanks? Other than the fact that they need to start stringing together some wins to gain ground on the Orioles, the Red Sox are headed to town this weekend. As we all know, this is the biggest deal in baseball. But if the Yanks drop two of three to the Tigers this week, how are they supposed to approach the Boston series with any kind of confidence?

Thankfully, tonight’s matchup works in the Yanks favor. Mike Mussina, who is beginning to look like the guy we paid for (though he’s certainly not all there yet), is going up against the Tigers fifth starter, Wilfredo Ledezma. Not only is this guy saddled with a 1.6 WHIP and a 5.79 ERA, but he’s a lefty, meaning Bernie will most likely be DHing and batting from the right side, which is only 84892 times better than having Giambi in the lineup.

I know I said it over the weekend, but I think same applies here: the Yanks MUST take at least two of three here. In fact, I bet I’ll be saying that a lot over the next few months, especially when we start to play Toronto and Baltimore more often.

My father thinks the Yanks “don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the postseason.” There it is, in quotes, from him over the weekend. I’m holding him to this one.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Weekend Wrap Up

I have to say, even though we took two of three, I am not at all impressed with the manner in which the Yanks handled the Mutts this weekend. The problem really was that the team didn’t prove that they had solved the problems that plagued them earlier. And when you think about it, all they really did was beat up on a wild hurler and a guy who had pitched three days in a row – though they beat him up in the first game of the series as well.

Unfortunately, my prediction of ringing up Zambrano didn’t totally come true. How do the Yankees, with their reputation for plate discipline, not rock Victor Zambrano? This is a guy whose ERA is over five, has a WHIP of 1.82!!!, has thrown 31 walks in 43 innings, and averages just 5 1/3 innings per start? This is just unfathomable. Yet, the Yanks managed just three runs while Zambrano was in the game, and only two earned due to consecutive errors by Kaz Matsui and Mientkewicz. And I know I’m just rattling off numbers, but of Zambrano’s 108 pitches, a mere 53 were strikes. This became evident as two of the three runs scored off of him were walked batters (Womack and A-Rod).

A quick word on Kevin Brown. As happy as I am with the result of his last three outings, his stuff hasn’t really impressed me. As Joe pointed out, he kept the ball low against the Mets, and had some movement on his pitches, but what he didn’t talk to the press about was how Brown left the ball over the plate plenty of times. The movement on the pitches saved his hide, but you’re just not going to be consistently successful if you’re not hitting the corners. I’ll leave it at that, since I have a gut feeling I’ll be elaborating on this more after Browns’ next start.

It has become cliché by now, but I’ll say it anyway: we could have had Beltran. But instead, we traded for Randy Johnson, who thus far hasn’t provided the services that the team is paying for. I’m no finance major, but I would think that a guy making $16 million a year is expected to dominate, usually because he has a history of doing just that. Randy has been mediocre to good, bordering on great in his starts to this point, but he hasn’t been exceptional. Yes, Torre is quick to point out that he keeps the team in games, but come on, Joe. Randy is supposed to dominate, not keep the team in games; Javy Vazquez could keep us in games (as proven by his performance this year, not last).

If not for A-Rod’s by now infamous booting of a Pedro dinker, Pavano would have had a much easier time keeping the Mets at bay on Sunday. But, like a top of the rotation pitcher should do, Pavs settled down, allowing just one earned run throughout, a solo jack. I never mind a pitcher giving up one solo home run in a game, especially when the team scatters seven other hits like the Mets did off Pavano. Eight hits, and the only earned run came with no one on base. Quality, I’d say.

I don’t even know what to say about the hitting situation right now. The guys are getting their singles, but they just can’t seem to string them together, as evidenced by the 17 runners left in scoring position with two outs (courtesy: Two of those were Randy Johnson’s fault, and even though he was in the National League for a while, we’ll still cut him some slack at the plate. So FIFTEEN runners were left in scoring position with two outs. You might be able to eek two out of three from the Mets in May with those numbers, but there’s no way you’re taking out Boston in September and October pulling numbers like that.

This especially applies to A-Rahd. He puts up numbers, and his homers and RBI do contribute to wins, but he still never seems to come up with the clutch hit. You just can’t get a good feeling from a guy who can hit the snot out of the ball early on to put the team up, but can’t even hit a deep fly ball with a man on third in the late innings. And once again, if he can’t step up in these clutch situations in May, how is he going to handle the added pressure of autumn? I’m thinking about starting a log of A-Rod’s at bats in the seventh inning or later with the team tied or down by a few. It’s not going to look pretty. This is not to diminish his RBI in the 6th, the only one off Pedro.

Keeping with his strand of excuses for his below expectation performances, Randy Johnson wants to pitch every fifth day, rather than pitch his turn in the 5-man rotation. I’m all for this. That is, I’m all for this if it brings him in his rhythm and he pitches somewhat like he did last year. I’m not for him pitching like he currently is every fifth day. My main worry here is that Joe will continue to skip Chien-Ming Wang and not Kevin Brown. If you’re going to have to skip a guy in the rotation every once in a while for Randy, you might as well divide it between the two bottom guys in the rotation, especially when your 4th starter is Kevin Brown.

Detroit starting tomorrow. We need a sweep, baby.