Mets, Yanks comparisonWhich team has the edge right now?
I was asked to give some thoughts on the tenth anniversary of David Wells' perfect game against the Twins. There isn't much to say-perfect games are by definition fluke events-but let the game stand as evidence that Wells was always surprising, long after he no longer should have been. He never looked like a great pitcher. His appearance and demeanor were as rumpled as his pitching was precise. He was rarely great but was very good for long parts of two decades, often when basic matters like his weight would have seemed to preclude it; I know for a fact that he shocked the heck out of the Yankees brain trust when he continued to pitch well after they traded him for Roger Clemens in 1999. He was 36 then, and yet he had 250 more games to go. He pitched as well as he could for as long as he could, and there aren't that many pitchers we can say that about.
My main memory of the perfect game is a personal one. May 17 was a Sunday, and I was home watching the game. I had just started out as a baseball writer, and the Pinstriped Bible was still about a year away. My soon-to-be wife-we would be married in June-was working on her doctoral thesis and wanted to put some extra time in at the University doing research. She made to leave about the fourth inning, and for some reason I cautioned her. "Don't go," I said. "Wells hasn't allowed a hit yet, and I think something special is going to happen. You'll regret missing it." She wavered but finally departed.
I've been saying "I told you so" ever since. And yet, reader, she still married me.
YANKEES VS. METS (WEATHER PERMITTING)
Sometimes rain is a merciful thing. The Yankees enter this series having lost three of four games to the erstwhile doormats of the American League East, the Rays. While those days are clearly gone (and hooray for intelligent management in Tampa doormats are neither good baseball nor good for baseball), they need not have signaled a reversal of fortune for the Yankees.
Over at the rotting coliseum called Shea (look on my works ye mighty and then have the dents hammered out of your auto body), the famously collapsible Mets lost three of four games to the Washington Nationals, a team still in the larval stage of its doormat phase; just as you've got to crawl before you can walk, the Nats aspire to be moths, not butterflies. Butterflies are a whole other kind of death and rebirth away, a whole other roster away. Yet the Mets folded as an ancient and injury-riddled assemblage of players reached their natural end. No moths, no butterflies, just extinction.
There will be many comparisons of the Yankees and the Mets in extremis the next few days. One suspects they will miss the point, which is that there is no comparison. The Mets have a dead farm system; the Yankees have a flawed one. For all the struggles of marquee products Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, Generation Très Disappointing, the Yankees have another half-dozen pitchers on the way. If none of them are projected to be the blue chippers that Hughes and Kennedy appeared to be and may yet still be, they may prove to be solid enough to fill out the pitching staff and give management the flexibility to make trades for the position players that neither the system nor the free agent market are able to produce. In short, the Mets have no help coming and little chance of receiving it. They're going to have to start over. The Yankees, if wise and a bit lucky, will live to fight again without a protracted rebuilding phase.
|THE LAST TEN GAMES, PITCHING|
|THE LAST TEN GAMES, HITTING|
The main difference between the two clubs at the moment is the difference between the Yankees and all clubs, which is that while three-fifths of their rotation hasn't been especially good, those pitchers have given the team a chance to win, whereas the Yankees have gone 2-10 in their Hughes/Kennedy starts. Once again, had the Yankees only split those games they would have gone 24-18 and been right with the Red Sox and Rays.CLICK HERE TO COMMENT
Thursday, May 15: Posted at 5:56 p.m. ET
No doubt the most gratifying thing about this very frustrating Yankees season has been the recent revival of Mike Mussina, who in his current five-game winning streak has posted a 2.76 ERA over 29.1 innings. Mussina is a Hall of Fame candidate even if he never wins another game, but this recent hot streak revives the possibility that he could pitch onwards and eventually make himself a lock.
That being said, for all the ballyhoo surrounding the old Moose's reinvention, it is still true that he hasn't faced one of the league's top offenses during this stretch. Those would include the Tigers, Angels, Rangers, and Red Sox. The Rays are as close as he's come, and when you sort out all the noise, they're really just average right now. He'll skip past the Mets and make his next start against the Orioles, the third- or fourth-worst offense in the league, so this will hold true for at least another week.
The intriguing thing going on is this: offensive levels in the American League have gone through the floor. The league as a whole is averaging .258/.328/.393. These numbers have more in common with 1985 than 2007. There has been a salubrious effect on pitching-some long-lost balance has been restored to the game (it is very hard to get used to after so many years of living with the pinball machine). An interesting question, then is, is it that Mike Mussina has fixed himself, or has the league environment fixed him?
JUST BEFORE THE KAZMIR
Yankees vs. left-handed pitchers: .235/.307/.322. Just something to keep in mind.
Royals 2, Tigers 0: It's not clear what's up with scoring in the American League, but it's nice to see the return of the complete game and the shutout after more than a dozen years away. It feels a bit like finding out that there's a colony of dodos still alive somewhere. "Welcome back, old friend. We missed you, and we're sorry. Please don't go away again." See also: C.C. Sabathia, Indians 2, A's 0.
Whatever is going on, you wonder if it's affecting Ichiro Suzuki (0-for-6 last night, .271 overall). Or maybe it's just a slump. Is his line drive rate down? Yeah, just a little bit-from 19.8 percent last year to 18.5.
Rough week for the Red Sox, with almost their entire outfield banged up, Julio Lugo out with a concussion, Clay Buccholz on the DL, and even the manager out of town due to a death in the family. In that context, the four straight losses aren't particularly surprising. What is surprising is that some of the recent losses have been handed to bullpen pitchers who are usually among the most consistent in baseball.
It's gonna be the Braves, I tell you.
I don't credit Dusty Baker with much, but I do find it appropriate to at least grin a bit over how fast he chucked Scott Hatteberg to the bench for Joey Votto once he saw the latter's power. In return, Votto has become the team's leading home run hitter. That's one good judgment for Baker, or maybe we should say that he reversed a misjudgment, the initial time-share with Hatteberg. Real tragedy, though, that Jeff Keppinger fractured his knee on Tuesday. It took him a hundred years to get a chance to play.
As long as the Reds have Lincoln and the Cards have McClellan, they ought to arrange for them to start against each other.
The Cubs have nothing to lose in signing Jim Edmonds except a couple of games-it would be nice if Edmonds isn't finished, but given this year and last it sure seems like his is. Still, the Cubs wanted a lefty bat, they've found out that Reed Johnson isn't an everyday player, and they've mishandled Felix Pie to the point that he may have been ruined.
What fresh slump is this? Alex Rios is 6-for-48 (.125) and is now batting just .256 overall.
There have been just 15 seasons in modern major league history in which a hitter posted an OBP of over .500, most of them by Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. Albert Pujols is there now. With Barry Bonds out of the league, it seems like the "Walk him every time" strategy-which doesn't make any sense, by the way-has fallen on the Cards' first baseman.
Another guy in a massive slump: Eric Byrnes. Fifteen games, 62 at bats, six hits, which equals .097. Over that span, no walks, one extra-base hit, a double. Now that's a slump.
Monday, May 12: Posted at 9:30 a.m. ET
YOGI PLAIN AND STRAIGHT
In Thursday's bench-clearing incident in Seattle, tall first baseman Richie Sexson violently objected to a Kason Gabbard pitch that went up and perhaps a bit in, but not so much that it wasn't over the plate. This followed two Rangers being hit by Seattle's Felix Hernandez, so Sexson thought he was the subject of retaliation. A look at the replay strongly suggests that he overreacted.
The incident was reminiscent of one of the great Yogi Berra stories, one which has the virtue of relying on Yogi plainly stating a baseball truism rather than some dubious malapropism. In a Yankees-Red Sox game, Jimmie Piersall came up to the plate and told Yogi, "If you tell that bleeping pitcher to throw at me, I'll bash your head in with this bat and plead temporary insanity. You know I'm the one guy who can get away with it." And Yogi looked up at him and said, "We don't throw at .200 hitters."
SCARY FLY BALL GUY RETURNS
With the back end of the Yankees' staff operating as a kind of taxi squad, it wouldn't be surprising to see Jeff Karstens back in some kind of trash-time relief role or even last gasp starter (if the current rotation patches don't take), now that he's heading for the simulated game stage of his latest comeback. It seems unlikely that he'll pan out in either role, but those six starts against weak opponents at the tail end of 2006 were just good enough that the Yankees will have to find out for themselves that it wasn't just the injuries last year, it was the approach ... As I wrote here yesterday, I worry that similar things are happening with Mike Mussina -- his adjustment is paying off, but the degree to which it will really succeed is being disguised by favorable quirks of the schedule.
Meanwhile, Sean Henn was claimed by the Padres. As a lefty with some stuff, he will continue to get chances until he's old and gray. San Diego, despite their current difficulties, is the equivalent to pitcher heaven, so you might just see him click, or appear to click.
This section should have been titled "Illusions, Illusions, It's All About the Illusions." So much of pitching is not pitching, but where the pitcher is standing and who is standing around him.
A MASS OF INCANDESCENT GAS
Ranting on Joba, by me, in the New York Sun.
THE BELTH ESSENTIALS
I keep meaning to mention Alex Belth's survey of baseball writer types (yours truly included) on essential baseball books. It's a quality list, with some surprising omissions, and one surprising inclusion -- me, via a very flattering honorable mention on someone's ballot. That bit of questionable taste aside, you can't go wrong with any tome in the top 15, though I would argue that things start to go askew pretty soon after that, when Richard Ben Creamer's DiMaggio bio pops up. Much like the Ty Cobb film, Creamer's book is more about the Clipper's decrepitude than his life on the field and who needs that? DiMaggio the ballplayer was a god. DiMaggio the old man was much like any other old man, except richer and with more bloodsuckers trying to get at his money. I'm not saying that stuff -- it's a kind of pornography -- can't be interesting, it's just not particularly unique. The unusual stuff happened between the foul lines.
Adam Lind tore it up at Triple-A, but a 1-for-19 start in the Majors was enough to get the Blue Jays to give up on him despite their complete lack of a viable left fielder. Today, they came up with Brad Wilkerson and Kevin Mench, a tandem that might make for a functional instant platoon, but given their meager chances of winning the division, you wonder what goal is being served by burying one of their best prospects based on a four-game slump in favor of guys with very limited futures. Lind would have to be the worst guy in the clubhouse ever for that to make sense, and even then, Elijah Dukes has a job, so why not Lind?
The Padres cut Jim Edmonds, who just didn't seem to have anything left in the tank. This was a misbegotten signing from the outset, as simply taking Edmonds' numbers from last year and penalizing them for Petco suggested that he wasn't going to be a run producer in that environment, if any. The 38-year-old is likely finished, which means we can look forward to a rousing Hall of Fame debate starting in 2014. Edmonds doesn't have huge career numbers because he started a bit late, finished a bit early, and had quite a few injuries between, but there haven't been too many Gold Glove center fielders who also had .500 career slugging percentages. Edmonds was also on some very good teams, including a World Series winner, and hit 13 home runs in 220 post-season at bats. There's an interesting comp there with Bernie Williams, who will have his own Cooperstown partisans in just a few years.
FRIDAY, May 9: Posted at 9:06 a.m. ET
The Moose picked up his fourth win in a row Thursday afternoon. His performance was a little better than it looks on paper, with just one shaky inning out of five. The sequence in that fourth inning is not atypical of that which can beset a pitch-to-contact guy.
Mussina hit Ben Francisco, allowed line drive hits, a single and a double, to Franklin Gutierrez and Casey Blake respectively, and a single to Kelly Shoppach. The rest of the game, his location was perhaps not what it had been, but it was good enough that he didn't walk any batters it was, in general, a walk-free day, with just one free pass being handed out by both sides.
Still, the new-look Moose has not yet had a real test. The first of his four starts came against the White Sox, a team that, though it had a winning record in the week before he faced them, batted .234/.328/.400 during that period and has hit .214/.292/.344 since. Of the remaining three starts, two were against the Indians, a club well below the league average in scoring their last 20 games: .240/.322/.360 with four runs a game and the Mariners, a team with a .307 on-base percentage, which also ranks towards the bottom of the league in runs per game. Their last 20 games: .237/.283/.345.
Getting the picture? The Bionic Moose has had promising results, but the truer tests will come against teams like the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, and Rangers (the Yankees face some terrible offenses in interleague play, including the Reds and Padres). We know what the Red Sox did to Mussina earlier this year. After the Red Sox, the best offense Mussina faced was the Rays, against whom he pitched quite well. In short, it's not clear if Mussina is winning on strength of schedule or a successful remaking of his approach. He should get another chance against the Rays in Tampa in the middle of next week.
MORE PREDICTABLE THAN THEIR CALLING MCCAIN A "MAVERICK"
The more Jose Molina struggles with the bat, the more stories there will be extolling his defensive genius. No disrespect to the writer intended; this is just a meme that goes back to the beginning of baseball time. That's why Ring Lardner's line, "Although he is a bad fielder he is also a very poor hitter," is so funny baseball writing conditions one to expect that "on the other hand" to be coming. Writers want to tell you things you don't know either way a guy who seems to be doing poorly is actually great (the team player/defensive excellence approach) or a guy who seems to be great is doing poorly (see the coverage of Ted Williams throughout his whole career).
It's hard to believe that the Padres could be a 100-loss team with pitchers like Jake Peavy and Chris Young on hand, but as I observed at Baseball Prospectus this week, the 2004 Diamondbacks had Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb and still lost 111 games due to a murderously poor offense ... Trevor Hoffman hasn't been great this year, but note that the Padres lost when the Braves broke a tie in the bottom of the ninth Hoffman was nowhere to be seen. See, you never let your closer pitch in a tie game on the road, because if you do, you won't be allowed to go to Heaven ... The Braves will no doubt take the win, but this was one they could do without, as the first two pitchers they used left the game with injuries.
Speaking of the Braves, this was their sixth straight win. I did a preseason radio hit with Jody McDonald in which he expressed (in a nice way) extreme pessimism when I said the Braves would be a strong competitor for the NL East division title. They do have big problems, mostly focused around a lack of pitching depth, but they're somehow leading the league in runs allowed per game in spite of that, and their offense has been excellent, with Chipper Jones trying to cement his place in the Hall of Fame on this season alone.
MONDAY, May 5: Posted at 3:51 p.m. ET
ISN'T IT RICH?
In this year of the pitching youth movement, the Yankees toyed with the idea of having three young starters in the rotation. Now that Ian Kennedy has been demoted to Scranton, they have none. Sadly, they haven't had a lot of choice in the matter. Hughes was ineffective and ultimately hurt a current headline at MLB.com reads, "Hughes adjusting to life of inactivity," which is not the kind of progress report you want to see on a tyro pitcher Kennedy is seemingly in denial about his channeling Steve Blass, and Joba Chamberlain rots in the bullpen, where the relief corps is just thin enough that the Yankees fear pulling him from the eighth inning role so he can try to save the rotation. With a better rotation, the eighth inning may be considerably diminished in importance, but that's a gamble the brain trust is understandably nervous about taking, so as things currently stand, Generation Tray remains in an upright position, endlessly awaiting takeoff.
It's fortunate that Darrell Rasner, an astute waiver claim by the Yankees in February 2006, continues to pay dividends. In his short Major League career, Rasner has done nothing but pitch well and get hurt, the latter far more often than the former. In his season debut on Sunday, Rasner showed the composure that Hughes and Kennedy have lacked this season, coming back to throw five scoreless innings after Adrian Beltre's first-inning, two-run home run. His control was also impressive; particularly his ability to locate the strike zone consistently and his ability to get the ball inside on left-handed hitters without fail. He was able to avoid walks, thanks in large part to the Mariners batters, who aren't terribly excited to walk in the first place. Still, he took advantage of the weakness, which is more than you can say for the man he replaced.
As ironic as the end of the youth movement is (at 27, Rasner is not exactly the peach fuzz type), it was a move that had to be made at this time. Whatever the cause, Hughes and Kennedy not only had abandoned their promise, they were pitching below the replacement level. Even replacements that are a bit below average will be a boon to the bottom line. The Yankees were 2-9 in games started by Hughes and Kennedy, 14-6 in games started by Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Chien-Ming Wang. Leaving out Brian Bruney's odd start and Rasner's Sunday, if the Yankees had gone 6-5 in the Hughes-Kennedy starts, they would have had a record of 20-11 and been right with the Red Sox at the top of the division.
While you will hear voices in the punditocracy say that the Yankees failed to show the patience the kids required, a youth movement is not a suicide pact. At some point, you have to concede that the upside is not about to manifest itself, not at this time and place, and try something else. Hughes and Kennedy were that bad, injuries notwithstanding.
Even having reached that point, the Yankees aren't out of the woods yet. First, Kei Igawa is now back in the picture, and no one knows what that portends. Second, to the extent the Yankees have won, it has been on the back of Wang. Should he falter for some reason, prepare for freefall.
DID SWEET LOU HAVE A HAND IN DEMOTING KENNEDY?
One wonders if Lou Piniella had anything to do with the decision to send Kennedy to Scranton. After Kennedy's last start, the Yankees seemed inclined to give him a little more rope. In the interim, the Cubs demoted Rich Hill. Hill, 28, is far more established than Kennedy, having done some fine pitching in the majors, particularly last year, when he struck out 183 in 195 innings. This year, though, his control disappeared. Last year, Hill walked 63 in 195 innings. This year, he's passed 18 in 19.2 innings. On May 2, Hill walked four of his first six batters, and Piniella pulled him, a decision that led to his having to burn the entire bullpen plus starter Jason Marquis.
After the game, Piniella said he'd had enough. "Hill can't start like this in the big leagues c'mon," Piniella said. "Every time he pitches, it's an adventure. He's doing his best, but we have no bullpen. I don't know what the solution is, but I can't start him any more until this thing gets taken care of."
That was the day after Kennedy's last start, when the Yankees were apparently still thinking things over. It seems like his comments may have galvanized either Brian Cashman or Joe Girardi. They could have read his words, put down the morning sports section, and said, "Hey, what he said goes for us too. Why aren't we doing that?"
It's just a guess, but the Yankees do seem to have reversed field on sending Kennedy out, and the Hill situation was in the air at the time.
It's amazing how the Padres hit when they're on the road. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez hit his eighth home run last night. Seven of them have come outside of San Diego. His overall splits: .196/.286/.286 at home, .386/.413/.771 on the road.
Only in the National League: Washington's Tim Redding has an ERA of 3.20 in 39.1 innings.
Good to see Jack Cust of the A's coming out of his early-season malaise... In his last seven games, he's hitting .458/.552/.875 with three home runs.
I won't be speaking, I'll just be hanging out to support some pals, but if you're in the neighborhood today, drop by the Columbus Center Borders at 7 PM to see Kevin Baker, Jeff Greenfield, Michael Shapiro, and John Thorn talk about "The Anatomy of Baseball," a new anthology edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner and featuring the aforementioned quartet plus Roger Angell, Elizabeth Bobrick, Christopher Buckley, Frank Deford, Stefan Fatsis, Susan Perabo, George Plimpton, Katherine A. Powers, and Sean Wilentz.