The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Friday, May 12, 2006

 

Notes from a Lost Series

The rollercoaster Yankees-Red Sox series ended on a grim note as well as a bum one for the Yanks. With some breathing room to write it all down -- I haven't had much time to comment on the team at length lately -- here are my notes from the three games.

• • •

For better or worse, I honestly missed the worst part of Tuesday night's debacle because I let my wife -- a freak for teen shows -- record the season finale of Gilmore Girls. My first TiVO clip ended with the two teams knotted at two, with the Yanks striking first on a two-run Jason Giambi homer -- his 38th in a 105-game span dating back to last July 4 -- and the Red Sox in the midst of a three-run rally keyed by a two-out error on Alex Rodriguez and a wild pitch from Randy Johnson. The second clip picked up an hour later with the score 10-2 and the game essentially shot to hell, Johnson having taken an early exit after walking five hitters and allowing (to that point) five runs and Aaron Small finishing the damage with a little help from a wind-aided Melky Cabrera error.

I watched most of the rest of the game on fast-forward, which made Tanyon Sturtze's late inning collapse -- three more runs to throw on the fire -- less painful if no less bearable. Sturtze has been a rancid form of stinkin' awful since exactly that aforementioned July 4, having allowed 10 homers and 34 earned runs in 46.1 innings, a 6.60 ERA to go with an unimpressive 29/27 K/BB ratio. That he was pitching garbage-time innings was somewhat appropriate; frankly, he doesn't even belong on a big-league roster anymore and his leash is getting shorter. Over the weekend, in another of his ineffective outings, Sturzte compounded his pitching woes with a lunkheaded defensive play, and following the game, Joe Torre admitted, "I wanted to wring his neck." And we want to wring yours for even bringing him into a meaningful situation, hoss.

Johnson's performance was the real bad news, however. Since leaving his third start of the season against the godforsaken Kansas City Royals after just 87 pitches, he's had one good start out of five, tossing just 26.2 innings, allowing 21 earned runs (and five unearned from last night) for a 7.09 ERA with a 16/14 K/BB ratio. His problems appear to start from the ground up, with his bad knees. As Will Carroll observed:
From the very first pitch, Johnson was not extending, appearing instead to shorten his stride to reduce stress on that damaged front knee. Watch Johnson’s leg--it’s nearly straight. He’ll either “pop up” on his follow-through, getting taller, or rotate to the third base side. Both actions take the energy that normally heads to the plate in a delivery and redirects it. While this is taking some of the pressure off the knee, it’s taking velocity off of the ball, and adding stress to the elbow and rotator cuff. Adding insult to literal injury, Johnson’s changed mechanics are also inconsistent, leading to his newfound control problems. It's notable that his release point seems to change, at least according to the MLB.com video. Video obtained from scouting sources and then seen through the Dartfish program makes this even clearer. Johnson’s release point is more than inconsistent--it's almost random, adding stress to the shoulder. Fastballs from the normal slider release point and sliders from a higher 3/4 point are consistent only in their ineffectiveness.

The key here is the knee. Johnson isn’t complaining about it, but it seems that Johnson is either due for a refill on his Synvisc, or the treatment is no longer effective enough to keep him effective. He’s too crafty and talented to write off without another couple of starts, but you don’t have to be an expert to see when Johnson’s on. You probably saw it last night in your own way, but I’ll give you an easy key--watch the front of his jersey. When it pops out hard, as shown on the cover of “Saving The Pitcher,” Johnson is okay. Surprisingly, the gloveside shoulder seems to be okay, despite previously reported problems. The Yankees went ahead and had an MRI on Johnson’s pitching shoulder yesterday to make sure everything was fine, meaning something was bothering him physically. Johnson says that he wants to “put his best foot forward” in his next outing. He’ll need to make sure that's done in combination with a solid knee, good hip turn, and proper energy transfer.
The sad fact of the matter, for the Yankees, is that even with the infamous Mel Stottlemyre now departed, they're one of the least likely teams to be able to sort out the Big Unit's ugly mechanics, apparently preferring the Celebrity School of Pitching Coaches Who Pat You on the Ass and Say "Get 'Em." Time will tell, of course, but right now Johnson looks even older than 42, and if I had to guess, he'll walk away at the end of this year and say "See you in Cooperstown" despite a $16 million contract for next year. Fickle Roger Clemens he ain't when it comes to the spotlight.

Johnson's opposite number, Josh Beckett, came into the game needing to sort out some issues of his own. Through his first three starts in a Red Sox uniform, Beckett allowed three runs in 21 innings, but over his next three starts, he was ripped for 17 in 16 frames. Having not seen him pitch but looking at his splits, I noted the following in an email:
Beckett K/BB ratio platoon split: 16/3 vs. righties, 7/13 vs. lefties, also lefties slugging .516 against him in nearly as many ABs as righties. My guess without having seen him throw one pitch this year is that he's struggling with command of one of his pitches, probably his 2-seam fastball, which should run in on lefties. Thus it's either staying out over the plate and getting crushed, or worse ending up outside the strike zone. Might be a grip thing, the way he's compensating to avoid blisters.
Beckett didn't appear to have such trouble on Tuesday; the homer he allowed to Giambi was on a pitch that was up and slightly inside, but aside from that he did very little wrong. Staked to the big lead, he threw strikes (68 out of 100 pitches) and lasted seven innings, yielding just one more run. So maybe he's off the schneid.

Anyway, the only other point about the game worth remarking upon was that Cabrera, run out of town after just a week of playing centerfield for the injured Bernie Williams last summer, having demonstrated an eight-year-old's grasp of the concept of playing the position (try not to get hit in the head by the ball, and pick it up when it stops rolling), was playing for Gary Sheffield, who's been sent to the DL due to a sprained wrist dating back to a collision with Toronto's Shea Hillenbrand on April 29. Sheffield refused a cortisone injection -- insert BALCO joke here -- and should apparently be gone only the minimum, having sat the better part of a week save for one start and one rally-triggering late-inning appearance. On the first batter reliever Aaron Small faced in the fourth inning, Cabrera dropped a wind-blown fly ball in the fourth inning which took the score from 5-2 to 7-2. Grrrr.

• • •

Moving on to Wednesday night's game, at about 7:20 PM, my phone rang, and my friend Brett, a Red Sox fan, was screeching on the line: "How can you tell me that's not clutch! David Ortiz is clutch! I want to talk to the guy who wrote that article saying that David Ortiz is not clutch!"

I was fumbling to get ready to meet Andra for dinner when he called, so I was totally off guard. I wasn't sure exactly what he was referring to in the immediate tense; of course it was Ortiz's two-run, first-inning homer off Mike Mussina. But as for the "clutch" element, Brett was referring to Nate Silver's ESPN excerpt from Baseball Between the Numbers analyzing Ortiz's via the Win Expectancy framework. To backtrack a bit, recall that one big element of last year's AL MVP debate hinged on some work done by James Click showing that with regards to the change in game state (inning, score margin, outs and baserunners), Ortiz had a greater impact than any other player in the majors, totaling 7.3 added wins. Alex Rodriguez was third in the AL with 4.7.

In his BBTN chapter, Silver laid out the methodology behind Win Expectancy (a concept that's been around since the Mills brothers in 1970) in more detail and came up with a "Clutch" metric, essentially his marginal Win Expectancy total (the gap between his Win Expectancy total and what he could have been expected to produce given his overall performance as a hitter). Despite Ortiz' 2005 performance, where he was 3.83 wins beyond what could have been expected, Ortiz's only other season -- regular season, not postseason -- above 1.0 was 2000, when he was +1.48 for the Twins. For his career he was at +5.16, or 0.94 wins per 650 plate appearances, second among 25 "famous clutch hitters" listed in BBTN and with a score that would have been good for #11 on Silver's 1972-2005 chart if Ortiz had 5,000 plate appearances (he had just 3,584).

Examining the year-to-year variations in the clutch rates (per 650 PA) among players with at least 2,500 PA since 1972, Silver found a .33 correlation between even and odd-numbered seasons, suggesting that "10 percent of clutch-hitting performance can be explained by skill, with the remaining 90 percent a matter of luck. That's a much higher skill quotient than other studies have identified. But to paraphrase Bill James, the observation that clutch hitting performance is random is more true than false." Anyhow, not all of this actually made it back to the ESPN excerpt, which may mean that Brett's take is likely somewhat skewed because Silver's Top 25 chart of career clutch ratings didn't include Big Papi, who nonetheless has a World Series ring and a nation of eternally grateful fans to show for some exceptionally timely hitting.

So when he declared that Ortiz's two-run first-inning homer was clutch, I had to roll my eyes. The essential concept in Win Expectancy is that what happens in the late innings, when the outs are dwindling, is much more influential on the game's eventual outcome than what happens in the beginning. This isn't a new finding, and it's essentially been in use via the concept of leverage for several years now; you can see it employed in BP's Reliever Expected Wins Added stats. A 2-0 score after half an inning isn't a high-leverage situation because there's a lot that can happen; teams score somewhere between 4.0 and 6.0 runs per game these days, so knowing who scored the first two doesn't predict a whole lot.

In the comparison between A-Rod and Ortiz, the case for the latter as MVP was rationalized via his clutch performance, with the former's hits not only slightly less meaningful but that notion conflated -- by Red Sox fans, natch -- into the moral inferiority of the game's highest-paid player. To be sure, Rodriguez has some high-profile low moments against the Sox, who tried in vain to trade for him before the Yanks got their grubby mitts upon him -- early failings in a pair of 2004 series, the slap incident in the Bloody Sock game and a general disappearance in the latter part of that ALCS, and then a pair of critical errors on Tuesday night which drew George Steinbrenner's ire. But he did hit .271/.363/.571 with six homers against the Sox last year, an OPS a mere five points lower than what Ortiz managed against the Yanks, and he capped that with a 4-for-5 performance in Fenway on October 1, the game in which the Yankees clinched the AL East tiebreaker. It didn't end up meaning much in terms of playoff opponents or home field advantage, but it did force the Sox to use Curt Schilling in Game 162 to avoid losing out on the Wild Card, thereby slotting the Tubby Bitch for a turn against the White Sox that never came. But ask a Red Sox fan to acknowledge the difference and you may as well be arguing politics with the vehemently and execrably right-wing Schilling. There's simply no buying the rationale for some people.

Bringing it back to the ballgame at hand, while Ortiz's two-run homer got the Sox off to a good start, it didn't stand up. And the beautiful irony -- we're talking Uma Thurman as Venus in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen beautiful, which is about as good as it gets -- was that Rodriguez got the tiebreaking blow off of Schilling in the fifth inning, sending a high fastball 436 feet into leftfield. Prior to that, the Sox had stretched their 2-0 lead against Mussina, who's been pitching fabulously this year due to his ability to change speeds, to 3-0 on a Mike Lowell solo shot in the second inning. The Yanks scored their first run when Jorge Posada, who'd doubled, was brought home on a Bernie Williams sac fly. They had tied the score on another two-run shot by Giambi (39th in 106 games) in the third.

Rodriguez's blow was followed in short order by a walk to Hideki Matsui and then a two-run blast by Posada, the third homer yielded by Schilling on the night but just the seventh on the year. That would be Schilling's final inning, and as soon as it was done I noted an interesting split. Through Schilling's 133-pitch game on April 25, he'd allowed a 2.60 ERA in 34.2 innings, but since then he's allowed a 6.00 ERA in 18 innings. That's not enough to prove much, but anytime the Sox want to empty the Tubby Bitch's tank with a high pitch count in a relatively meaningless game, it's OK with me.

The Yanks added a run in the sixth against reliever Mike Holtz thanks to a Williams double (just his third extra-base hit on the year, pathetically enough), a sac by Melky Cabrera and a Johnny Damon single, his first hit against his old team. They dodged a bullet half an inning later when Scott Proctor, coming on in relief of Mussina and lefty specialist Mike Myers (who yielded a tough infield single to David Ortiz, a damn sight better than the three-run jack -- a true clutch hit -- he gave up last week) struck out Manny Ramirez (or was that Ziggy Marley?) with runners on first and third and two outs.

Proctor has quickly become the bullpen's new golden child and the apple of Joe Torre's eye. Through Wendesday he'd yielded just a 1.25 ERA in 21.2 frames, scored upon only twice since taking the loss in the season's second game, a situation which called for Mariano Rivera. With the wheels coming off of Tanyon Sturtze's wagon, Proctor is emerging as the team's number three reliever behind Mo and Kyle Farnsworth, laying claim to the middle innings. It's worth noting that he's been doing so primarily in low-leverage situations; as calculated by BP his Leverage figure has been just 0.73, meaning situations less important than the start of a game with respect to his team winning (mopping up in a blowout). Still, it beats getting kicked in the head as he was last year (6.05 ERA and a whopping 10 homers in 45.2 innings).

Proctor cruised through the eighth on just 11 pitches before yielding to Rivera, who in Torre's belt-and-suspenders fashion was called upon to protect a four-run lead (comparing the two non-save situations: tie game in Oakland, Proctor pitches and loses; four-run lead in da Bronx, Mo pitches and finishes. Hmmmmm...). In any event, Mo got the job done, knotting the series for the Yanks with a most satisfying win and setting up Thursday's rubber match.

• • •

I had made plans to meet Bronx Banter's Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran and Yanksfan vs. Soxfan's Mark Lamster to take in the game, and Sports Illustrated's Jacob Luft joined us as well. Our intial plan was to enjoy burgers at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village, but as it was overrun by happy-hour denizens, we couldn't get a table with a view of the game. We called an audible and headed to a place called Walker's in Tribeca, but the best we could get was an obstructed view; two-thirds of my behind-the-back view of the screen was blocked by a light fixture, and I was reliant on Cliff for the play-by-play.

We arrived in time for first pitch, and by the time our beers had arrived, we were taking in the grisly sight of Hideki Matsui writhing in pain from what turned out to be a broken wrist after he landed on his glove hand in an attempt to catch a blooper off the bat of Mark Loretta. So long to that 1,768 consecutive game streak dating back to his career in Japan, and perhaps to him for the next three months, judging from the news.

As we chattered amongst ourselves over any one of a number of things baseball -- a critique of the BP annual, discussion of Lamster's and Belth's books, Willie Randolph's managerial strengths and weaknesses, the Marlins' fire sale (Luft is from Miami and follows the team particularly closely), and various sabermetric hot-button issues -- the game took on a distant, surreal feel. The Yanks scored two runs off of Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the first... digging through the play-by-play to compensate for my lack of recall... on a Derek Jeter single and steal, walks by Alex Rodriguez and Bernie Williams (who entered the game as Matsui's replacement), and a two-run Jorge Posada single.

The Sox scored a run off of Shawn Chacon in the third thanks to a leadoff double by Loretta and then a wild pitch and a groundout, but the Yanks escaped further damage when Bubba Crosby robbed Mike Lowell of a two-run homer. Chacon's bacon was temporarily saved again in the fourth when Johnny Damon brought down a Doug Mirabelli fly ball that would have hit the top of the centerfield wall and scored another run. Instead the Yanks added another run when Crosby (who had already tripled to no avail) singled, stole second, and scored on a Jeter single.

We missed that run, however, as we'd gone in search of a venue where all of us could see the screen. Luft peeled off to return to Hoboken, while the rest of us wandered lower Manhattan -- none of our posse's home turf -- frantically in search of a bar with a TV. We finally arrived at an appropriately named spot, Mudville 9, where dozens of screens showed the Yanks game, the previous night's Mets game (the current one delayed by rain), and an NHL playoff game. As we arrived, Chacon had worked his way into trouble in the fifth, loading the bases with two walks (bringing his total for the night to five) and a single. To that point he'd thrown 104 pitches, but just half of them for strikes. He gave way to bullpen hero of the moment Scott Proctor, who retired Mirabelli on a fly ball. Whew.

The Sox chipped away, scoring a run in the sixth off of a trio of singles against Proctor. He gave way to Mike Myers, who finally set down David Ortiz, by things got hairy when Tanyon Fucking Sturtze -- against my odds of him ever climbing out of the Jay Witasick Memorial Rumble Seat reserved for the most blown-out ballgames -- was allowed to issue a walk to Manny Ramirez to load the bases. Fortunately Ron Villone, the fourth pitcher of the inning, got the final two outs to preserve a precarious 3-2 lead.

Villone found trouble in the seventh when Mirabelli singled and Williams, nobody's favorite outfielder these days, overran a wind-blown Alex Gonzalez fly ball, misplayng it into a ground rule double. Yet another misadventure in rightfield in Gary Sheffield's absence. That misfortune was compounded when Loretta -- the game's Zelig -- grounded to Jeter in the hole and the Yankee shortstop uncorked a throw from his knees that pulled Miguel Cairo (don't. even. get. me. started...) off of the bag at first base, scoring both baserunners and giving the Sox the lead.

That was the ballgame. Jeter singled and stole second to no avail in the seventh, as Jason Giambi (enduring a miserable 0-for-5, silver sombrero night) and Rodriguez both struck out against reliever Mike Timlin (another log on the clutch fire for A-Rod, no doubt). Williams doubled off of Keith Foulke to lead off the eighth, making it to third with two outs, but Jonathan Papelbon came on to blow away the overmatched Cairo (must. resist. urge. to. overturn. table...) to close the inning. Mariano Rivera gave up a run in the ninth, and the Yanks, despite getting the tying run to the plate in the form of Giambi, went quietly.

Losing the series was a minor blow compared to losing Matsui, whose own injury paled in dramatic comparison to the clip of Philadelphia's Aaron Rowand running full-speed into the centerfield fence and breaking his nose, a highlight we saw looped about 50 times during the Mets' eventual rainout on the screen adjacent to the Yankee game. The Yanks, thanks to the sentimentality shown in their re-signing of Bernie (who after doubling on back-to-back days is hitting all of .258/.299/.315), were already hopelessly thin in the outfield before Sheffield's injury; neither Williams nor Crosby is a suitable fourth outfielder, and for that matter, neither is Melky Cabrera. The 21-year-old is off to a .385/.430/.566 start at Triple-A Columbus, but there's nothing in his track record which says he can sustain that. He hit .275/.322/.411 in 463 PA at Double-A Trenton last year, .248/.309/.366 in Columbus, and 4-for-19 (all singles and no walks) in pinstripes. He's got room to grow -- PECOTA puts him at a serviceable .281/.330/.435 -- in 2010.

Brian Cashman says the Yanks will fill from within with the above to get through, but the likes of Kevin Thompson and Kevin Reese make for slim pickings in the company of the aforementioned trio. Here's how they stack up according to PECOTA:
           AVG   OBP   SLG   MLVr
Cabrera .267 .309 .393 -0.078
Williams .261 .335 .384 -0.050
Crosby .249 .303 .382 -0.114
Thompson .263 .333 .426 0.000
MLVr is the number of additinoal runs per game a player will produce given an otherwise league-average offense. Note that it's actually Thompson, the guy still in Triple-A, who rates as the best immediate solution; Reese wasn't deemed worthy of a PECOTA forecast, though he did hit .276/.359/.450 (a .242 EqA) as a 27-year old in Columbus and did make a brief cameo in pinstripes last year.

In any event, it seems pretty obvious that Cashman needs to find this year's David Justice two and a half months ahead of schedule, and while names like Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, Reggie Sanders, Bobby Abreu and even Alfonso Soriano have already popped up, the team isn't exactly dealing from strength. They've got some intriguing low-level prospects, but nobody who's really major-league ready, and given the obviousness of their situation and depth of their coffers, nobody's likely to cut them a bargain anytime soon. At best they'll wind up with -- and here I'm taking a wild-ass peek into my crystal ball -- something like Jay Fucking Payton for J. Brent Cox, adding another hopelessly incomplete player to the outfield ranks for a promising arm.

The Yanks entered the season as a team projected to top 900 runs thanks to a modern-day Murderer's row. But with Sheffield down and Matsui's season in jeopardy (and Damon now playing through pain), that number is now considerably less attainable. In conjunction with Randy Johnson's woes and the uncertainty elsewhere on the staff (Sturtze, Aaron Small, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright), the Yanks are in for some rough sledding in the coming weeks.

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