Two weeks ago I observed that although the Yankees stood mired at .500, recent trends boded well for the future. A-Rod's and Posada's return had earned them, on average, almost an an additional run per game and while their runs allowed total had stabilized.
Evidently, the numbers didn't lie. Since then, the Yankees compiled a seven game winning streak, their longest of the season-- a streak Yankee fans, naturally, hoped would catapult them past the morass of .500 forevermore.
Alas, they have since proceeded to lose three of their last four and to two consummate National League mediocrities, the Reds and the Pirates besides. True, there's no shame in losing to Cy Young frontrunner Edison Volquez. On the other hand, a genuine playoff contender doesn't fail to score a run against a Reds' pitcher making his major league debut and then three days later fail to beat a Pirates pitcher who surrendered 4 BBs through 3 innings.
Losing 6-0 to Daryl Thompson and 12-5 to Tom Gorzelany, indeed, adumbrate shadows that threaten to cast a pall over the entire Yankees season.
R.I.S.P. or R.I.P
The box-scores illustrate. Against Thompson, the Yankees stranded 7 runners on base through five innings, 3 in scoring position. They even loaded the bases with no-outs in the 3rd inning and didn't score a single run.
The trend recurred three days later against Gorzelany. Through the six innings Gorzelany pitched, the Yankees stranded 7 runners on base, 5 in scoring position. The 3rd inning again proved the bugaboo, beginning with great promise and ending in futility. Runners on first and second with no out begat runners on first and third with one out. Not a one crossed the plate. A June 23rd entry at nomaas.org notes the paradox. Although the Yankees currently rank 6th in the AL in Runs Scored, averaging 4.30 per game, they rank 12th in batting with runners in scoring position, hitting .251.
I list each Yankees' individual RISP averages in the starting lineup below. The first figure consists of their overall RISP; the second represents their RISP with 2 outs.
1) Damon-- .351, .385
2) Jeter-- .303, .333
3) Abreu -- .265, .414
4) A-Rod-- .242, .214
5) Matsui -- .338, .294
6) Giambi -- .150, .138
7) Posada-- .333, .385
8) Cano-- .213, .237
9) Cabrera- .231, .242
Of course, in such circumstance, the players themselves exercise most control over their fate and can address the shortcoming by executing. However, the number above suggest, perhaps, a few minor changes could help matters.
The Yankees might consider switching Abreu and Matsui and inverting the order of Posada and Giambi. Apart from grouping batters with higher RISP averages, the change, potentially, offers two ancillary benefits as well-- (i) spurring Abreu and (ii) dividing consecutive lefties in the middle of the order with a switch-hitter, a tactic Joe Torre especially liked. The benefits of the latter are self-evident. The benefits of the former less so, accordingly, I elaborate below.
Since 2007, opposing pitchers have neutralized the Yankees' three hitter's greatest asset, Abreu's plate discipline. The precitpitous drop in his walk totals bear this out. From 2004 through 2006, Abreu averaged 122 BBs per season. In 2007, the number fell to 84. Through almost half a season in 2008, the number has dropped to a paltry 28. And with it, Abreu's on-base percentage has ebbed as well. A career average on-base average of .405 eroded to .369 in '07 and .336 in '08.
Now, a superficial reading of the numbers could imply Abreu's plate discipline has diminished with age and the regression in skills all players eventually undergo. However, further examination reveals that Abreu has proven as discriminating as ever as the plate. And the decline in Abreu's walk totals stem much more from how pitchers approach him than plate recklessness. Indeed, the average number of pitches Abreu sees per plate appearance has remained constant over the same period: 4.3 in '04, 4.4 in '05, 4.45 in '06, 4.4 in '07, 4.3 in '08.
What has changed however is how pitchers attack Abreu and with good reason. A-ROD looms behind him. Opposing pitchers, as such, eager to avoid facing A-Rod with a runner on-base, refuse Abreu a free pass and make sure to throw him strikes. Because Abreu's doesn't fit the profile of the typical 3-hole, power-hitter, starters figure they have less to lose by challenging him with strikes and daring him to beat them with the bat.
The numbers attest to theory as follows. In Abreu's 321 Plate Appearances in 2008, he has faced an 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 count in 144 of them or 45%. By contrast, Abreu has been ahead in the count 2-0, 3-0, 3-1 in only 41 plate appearances or 13% of the time.
Compare these totals to the Yankees current BB leader, Giambi, who has earned 36 walks and has averaged 4.1 pitches per plate appearance. In Giambi's 261 Plate Appearance, he, by contrast, has been behind in the count (0-2, 1-2, or 2-2) only 89 times or 34%. The occasion he has been ahead (2-0, 3-0, 3-1) 36 times or 14%, on the other hand, parallel Abreu's.
The parallel in the times they're ahead in the count combined with the discrepancy in times each is behind would tend, as such, to support the thesis that a concerted strategy on the part of opposing pitchers accounts for the difference.
Now, most hitters would envy Abreu's spot in the 3-hole, in front of A-Rod precisely because that hitter would see a greater percentage of strikes, and hence better selection of pitches to hit than he might in a different slot. But again, to reiterate, Abreu is not a classic 3-hole hitter. His greatest strength is not his power but his plate discipline and his speed. (He actually more closely fits the profile of a 2nd hitter.)
As such, placing Abreu after A-Rod might improve Abreu's ability to get on-base ahead of Posada and Giambi, without similarly diminishing Matsui's on-base percentage in the 3-hole because he has greater power than Abreu, at least when healthy, and poses a greater home-run threat if thrown strikes.
The Yankees also could experiment with Giambi in the 3-hole as well, mirroring some of the danger the Manny-Ortiz combo has presented opposing hitters the last three years.
The other looming threat to the Yankees' season comes from the catastrophic blow Wang's injury dealt them on June 14th.
The 90-wins prefigured by the 5.1 runs per game the Yankees have averaged since Posada's return to the line-up on June 5th had assumed the team wouldn't allow more than the 4.5 to 4.6 runs per game they had registered to date. That in fact, the number, with Joba's addition to the rotation, would improve. However, with the loss of Wang, only hubris would lead one to cling to the assumption. Alas, the very quality the Yankees' GM has demonstrated in abundance over the last two years, enough, in fact, to warrant anxiety, if not consternation, about whether he can or will acquire a pitcher to alleviate the loss.
The Yankees cannot expect to overtake either the Rays or the Red Sox with Darrell Rasner and Dan Giese occupying rotation spots the Yankees expected Wang and Hughes to fill. In 2 of his last three outings, Rasner has surrendered 7 runs, an inconsistency the Yankees, perhaps, could withstand from a 5th starter or even a 4th starter, if Wang-Pettitte and a rejuvenated Mussina led it.
Giese's presence compounds the problem because the Yankees can't rely on him to pitch a full season let alone pitch effectively through a full season. In 2007, Giese threw 73 innings; in '06, 72 innings; 38 innings in '05, and 83 innings in '04. In 2008, the journeyman pitcher already thrown 73 innings. Worse, he's never pitched a full season as a starter.
Sure, Ian Kennedy could return in July and/or Phil Hughes in mid-August. But neither is likely to replace Wang in his reliability, his 6.6 inning per start average, or for that matter, equal Wang in his performance, not in '08 anyway.
Only by acquiring a pitcher from outside the organization can the Yankees realistically sustain the loss of Wang and still contend for a playoff spot. The pitcher doesn't necessarily have to be of Wang's caliber; that is, CC Sabathia, Eric Bedard, or Ben Sheets. The latter two pose their own injury and performance risks anyway. A pitcher like Derek Lowe may suffice. Still, a known commodity is a must.
The greatest obstacle, however, this year, as the trade deadline approaches, may not the scarcity of available starters, as in past years. No, the greatest obstacle the Yankees may confront this season, come July 31st, is their own GM's willingness to procure one. Indeed, Cashman's recent intrasingence about trading his prospects recalls ex-Angels GM, Bill (The Roster is Set in) Stone-man.
As I have argued here before, Cashman's regard for the prospects with which, to his credit, he has replenished a barren farm system, at times, has verged on fetish. Comments he made to the New York Post, during the Santana melodrama, about the "attachment" he's developed to Hughes, Kennedy, and company indicates as much. As does the story Cashman persists in rehearsing about how he agonized over trading four middling prospects to the Phillies for Bobby Abreu in 2006. If trading a package led by CJ Henry and Matt Smith for a major league RF with a 5.5 WARP (wins over an average replacement player) keeps him awake all night and proves so traumatic, even in retrospect, that he continues to recall the epsidode, what does this say about the GM's constitution and judgment?
Call the phenomenon what you will: "the endowment fallacy"-- our tendency to price what we possess above what we would pay for it-- or "the Pygmalion effect"-- the builder's proclivity to idolize his creation. In either case, the neuroses betrays the same symptom: The value of Yankees' prospects seems to increase in direct proportion to their distance from New York.
Since Cashman assumed plenary power in 2005, one prospect selected under his tenure has made a measurable impact, Joba. Hughes' and Edwar Ramirez's contribution have been too sporadic. And while Cashman promoted Cano and Wang, they each preceded Cashman's tenure as the full-fledged GM.
Of course no prudent Yankees fan wants the GM to mortgage their future by trading a Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy for a starter the team controls for only two months. Nonetheless, Cashman has to appreciate that the purpose of a farm system is not self-sufficiency. Rather, one of the virtues of enjoying the Yankees ample resources and having a minor-league organization teeming with young pitching prospects besides is the opportunity it offers to spread your risk by trading prospective talent for proven performance. More importantly, the GM has to capitalize while those prospects still retain their value as prospects because few will actually realize their promise.
In the meantime, Cashman has a month before the creeping shadows envelop the season in darkness. Let's hope, by then, he's seen the light.