A Day (and a Blowout) Late: Yanks-Twins Series and the Near Future

Despite the departure of their big stick (and defensive genius) Torii Hunter, the Twins are fourth in the AL in runs scored.  How have their bats done it?  A nicely balanced line-up that has compiled the second-best team BA (.279, just .001 behind league-leading Boston) and some of the best situational hitting in the game.

And despite the chasm left in their starting rotation by the departure of ace Johan Santana and the absence of emerging star Francisco Liriano, they’ve managed to play their way into second place in AL wild-card contention behind Boston and just ahead of New York.  How have their arms done it?  The Twins’ starters have walked an astonishingly few 125 batters all year.  That is not just the lowest total in the league, it is 43 fewer walks than the next lowest walk total held by the St. Louis Cardinals and 73 fewer walks than the average for AL starting rotations.  So they must be striking out a good number, right?  No.  The Twins’ starters rank 26th of 30 in the majors for fewest strikeouts compiled so far – 342.  They pitch to contact and allow their perenially strong defense to do its job.  And they win lots of close games.

Of course, when you spend a lot of time in the stike zone you also run the risk of getting pounded by a strong line-up, and last night the Yankees took advantage – all 13 of the Yankees’ eligible position players got time last night – six compiled at least two hits each and only 4 of them (including just one starter) – Moeller, Christian, Giambi, and Sexson – went 0-fer.

This series with the Twins and the upcoming weekend series with Boston are a big test for the Yankees, who seem recently to be thriving on adversity – a good thing, since this season has been full of it.  I don’t know a YF who is strongly optimistic about this team’s chances of playing in October, but there are hopeful signs emerging – at least for the offense – despite the huge loss of Jorge’s bat, a loss they’ve more or less had to overcome since the start of the season anyway.

They are entering the months in which Robbie Cano and Bobby Abreu usually hit their respective strides (Cano is a career .280 BA/.730 OPS hitter in the first half of the season and .338/.919 hitter in the second; while Abreu is coming up on August – a month during which  his career numbers are .323/.956).  If they stay true to form while A-Rod and Giambi continue mashing as they have to-date (there is no reason to think either will slow down), and Damon and Jeter can simply play to their averages, the Yankee offense could very well – finally – start to roll.

The big questions remain with the pitching:

1. Can the starting pitching continue to do as well as it has in recent weeks?  Pettitte – another perennial second-half star – has been as good as ever in his recent starts and Mike Mussina is arguably pitching his best baseball ever, and doing so consistently.  One hopes Joba can stretch his impressive ERA into slightly longer outings, but regardless, barring injury (no small thing with two old guys here) there is no reason to think this top three can’t continue to punch above its weight the rest of the season.  The crux of the issue is the bottom 2/5s of the rotation.  It’s a bit tiring to hear that the Yanks have won all four of Ponson’s outings without mention also being made of the fact that he has enjoyed more than 10 runs/game of run support so far from the Yanks offense.  Let’s just say that this is not sustainable.  And Darrel Rasner remains a bit out of his league.  So the answer to this question can not be any more confident than possibly.  But if the offense is indeed warming up, perhaps it can overcome shortfalls in the starting pitching, even if not to the tune of 10 runs/game.

2. Especially given the bottom 2/5s of the starting rotation, can the bullpen continue its no-less-than-amazing performance to-date? Only the Rangers’ pen has thrown more innings than the Yanks’ relievers and yet the Yanks bullpen has compiled the 4th best bullpen ERA in the AL (3.41).  In fact the three teams whose pens have better ERAs have thrown 48 (Oak), 66 (ChW), and 73 (Tor) fewer innings than have the Yanks pen.  By carrying an extra arm through much of the season and by managing the relative load of each reliever well, Girardi has ensured that no reliever has been unduly taxed despite the large cumulative IP total of the pen (it is nice for once to look at the IP total of relievers in the league and – for the first time in years – not see 1 or 2 Yankees right up there on top).  And with Brian Bruney – who entered the season absolutely resurrected and throwing bullets before getting injured – scheduled to return next week, this corps of hurlers should get another shot in the arm.  So the answer to this one is a much more enthusiastic why not?

By not making any panicky deals in this off-season or so far during the season, the Yanks seem to be staying on course to try to build on the young talent they have been trying to cultivate from within.  If they can stay in the post-season race long enough for Damon to be fully recovered and Wang to return, and if they avoid any more catastrophic injuries (a big "if" to be sure but it is every team’s big "if" and by the law of averages the Yanks have hopefully had their share by now!), they might just do more this year than many of their faithful have been expecting from them in 2008.  The next 5 games won’t be determinative, but they’ll certainly test whether the Yanks’ recent success is simply them finally starting to show their true colors or rather a team with gaping pitching holes getting by with lots of smoke and mirrors.

14 comments… add one
  • I want to believe that Mussina will fade and Pettitte will be distracted by the Clemens fiasco.
    I want to believe that the pen will return to early season form.
    I want to believe that Giambi will lose his thong and turn back into Dave Kingman.
    I want to believe that losing Posada’s bat will be too much of a blow to overcome.
    I want to believe that Joba’s numbers as a starter are mostly the results of going against sub .500 teams or a lousy team like the A’s.
    I want to believe we saw the real Kennedy and Hughes this year and that all the hype was just that – hype.
    I want to believe all these things will come to pass and knock the Yankees out, but they always seem to overcome all trials and tribulations to show up for the playoffs year after year, and so I resign myself to seeing them in October. But I can still hope.

    ponch - sf July 22, 2008, 11:54 am
  • Sorry, I still disagree with you IH that the big questions rest with the pitching. If the offense were to simply perform as expected, and they received league average pitching, the team would be even closer to the pennant race if not in the lead.
    Consider, the team ERA+ is 102 where last year it was 99 ERA+. But the OPS+ is 104 where last year it was 118 OPS+.
    Sure a big part of the small improvement for the pitching is the bullpen:
    2008:
    Starters: 4.39 ERA, .281 .339 .413
    Reliever: 3.44 ERA, .226 .304 .360
    2007:
    Starters: 4.57 ERA, .278 .340 .428
    Reliever: 4.37 ERA, .250 .341 .397
    But if anything, the starters are almost exactly as good/bad as they were last year.
    The big problems involve the hitting. They’re named Cano, Jeter, Abreu, and Melky If they go on a hot streak, and A-Rod, Damon, and Gimabi, hit more than expected to cover for the noodle bats, this team will make the playoffs. But the problem, IMO, starts and ends with the hitting.

    A YF July 22, 2008, 12:53 pm
  • Well, part of it is wondering if it’s sustainable. I mean, it’s Ponson, and it’s Rasner. AP pitching the days out. Moose.
    But ya, maybe it’ll work itself out a bit – more hitting with slightly worse pitching. We’ll see..

    Lar July 22, 2008, 1:09 pm
  • Bruney is returning this week? Wow, for some reason I thought he was our for the entire season. He’ll be a great addition if he stays as good as he was when the season starts.

    Atheose July 22, 2008, 1:58 pm
  • …if they avoid any more catastrophic injuries…
    I think it’s safe to assume that IH has now jinxed the entire Yankees team, and that Pettitte and ARod will spontaneously combust Friday afternoon before the Sox series starts.

    Atheose July 22, 2008, 2:02 pm
  • A YF, we’ve been having this non-debate for the past several weeks. I say non-debate because I don’t think we are in disagreement at all.
    Your argument is that the offense’s under-performance is the primary reason that the Yankees are not more fully in contention and that if they got the performance they should from the bats, plus league-average pitching, they’d be right there or in the lead. And that this combination is in fact what got them to October in 2007.
    I’m saying the same thing, but I think the prospect of improved offensive production is very real and likely in the remainder of the season whereas the prospect of continued league-average starting pitching is much more doubtful and that, if this starting pitching house of cards on top of which the Yankees are playing does indeed collapse, no amount of bullpen mastery or hot hitting is likely to fill the gap (you can cover for average pitching – you can’t cover for well-below average).
    Consider that we only have league-average starting pitching because the two veterans are doing better than anyone would have expected of them (esp. Mussina) and because the bullpen has compensated for the poor performance and/or short outings of the other 3 starters.
    When I say the big questions relate to the starting pitching therefore, it doesn’t mean that I think the hitting is just fine. After all, I’ve been droning on at this site about the fact that we had more games of offensive production to the tune of 2 or fewer runs before the all-star break than we had over the course of the entire 2007 season. I only mean that I think with current personnel – even without Jorge – the bats will be fine whereas the starting pitching is a much bigger question mark.
    As Lar says “Is it sustainable”? That’s a question about the starting pitching, and it’s the biggest question we have with the team as it is currently composed.

    IronHorse (yf) July 22, 2008, 2:02 pm
  • Atheose, Bruney pitches in back-to-back games in the minors this weekend. If he survives that test he’ll be back next week. In 9.1 IP over 7 games of rehab at different minor league levels he’s got a 2.89 ERA.
    Of course, he may join the spontaneous-combustion-heap now…

    IronHorse (yf) July 22, 2008, 2:06 pm
  • Well good for him. I vaguely remember a press conference after he got injured where he was tearful because he was so upset that he was injured after working hard to change his lifestyle to be more healthy. Does that ring a bell to anyone, or am I thinking of somebody else?

    Atheose July 22, 2008, 2:13 pm
  • I didn’t hear the tearful part, but he definitely changed his lifestyle in the off-season to be more healthy – he dropped at least 15 lbs and went on in a couple interviews about how he realized what a gift he had been given to play at this level and that he was determined to stop pissing it away as he had been. In the interviews I heard he was about as honest about what a schmuck he had been and about as enthusiastic and focused about not being that way anymore than any professional athlete I’ve heard on the subject. And we all know there are many who could tell a similar story.

    IronHorse (yf) July 22, 2008, 2:16 pm
  • Like I said I vaguely remember that IH. It’s good to see him coming back, hopefully he’ll stay healthy.

    Atheose July 22, 2008, 2:18 pm
  • I think that’s a very fair summary of our respective positions, IH. My only complaint would be I also lump in the difficulty of making an improvement. There I also think it’s more likely for the offense than for the pitching.
    The bullpen is safe, I think. Cashman and Oppenheimer have done a fantastic job of rebuilding it in a very short time. And they have more arms in the system (Bruney, Cox, Melacon)
    I agree to an extent on the rotation. The problem is there’s nothing else out there to be had. The names being floated as available starting pitchers (Wolf, Garcia) are going to be league average, at best. That they can get from IPK or Karstens if any of the pitchers get hurt or are ineffective. There’s a problem with the pitching but I can’t see any realistic way it can be addressed short of a magic healing Wang or a Hughes pickup. It is what it is.
    So I see the *only* chance remains with the offense (and I think we’ve been having this discussion since May). If the bats come alive, especially Jeter, Abreu, Melky, and Cano, this team will run off a huge win streak. More importantly, the pitching may go to hell, but it’s not going to happen all at once. Even if one pitcher, like a Fat Ponson Toad, starts coughing up runs, a rejuvenated offense could actually help pick up them up especially if he’s slotted in against the other team’s #4 or #5.
    They’re also more likely to be able to make a move – for a guy like Bay – that helps the offense. That’s very clearly a plus where there isn’t a similar move out there to help the pitching. Go back to 2006. When folks were finding faults with the league average pitching, the move that made the difference was Abreu (and Lidle didn’t).

    A YF July 22, 2008, 2:50 pm
  • Totally agree that a boost to the startting from inside or from without is highly unlikely.
    I think in the end A YF you and I both don’t see the Yanks going very far this year and I would agree with your sentiment stated elsewhere that this reality – given that they are trying to rebuild – is preferable to them making foolish or rash moves to get the likes of Freddy Garcia as you note. If their offense does go crazy and their starting pitching holds, then maybe they make October, but with that starting rotation they wouldn’t likely go very far if and when they got there.
    But who knows – if they do enough to get there and they have Wang back (and if he doesn’t put up the God-awful post-season performances that he did last year) then you never know. For now I am happy for them to make a real run at the division and am pleasantly surprised they are in position to do so given the injuries they’ve endured to-date.
    Bigger isues for me in the future are still the pitching – namely what will we ultimately get from Hughes and – to a lesser extent – Kennedy? I have to say I was disappointed by their pre-injury performances in ’08. I expected growing pains. But they were markedly worse than they each were in 2007. And thanks o injuries, they are not developing in any way right now – just rehabbing. Bleh.

    IronHorse (yf) July 22, 2008, 4:47 pm
  • That first sentence was meant to say a boost to the “starting rotation”…

    IronHorse (yf) July 22, 2008, 4:48 pm
  • “For now I am happy for them to make a real run at the division and am pleasantly surprised they are in position to do so given the injuries they’ve endured to-date.”
    I agree completely. This season is still very fun for me.
    “Bigger isues for me in the future are still the pitching – namely what will we ultimately get from Hughes and – to a lesser extent – Kennedy?”
    Totally legit question. The good news it may have forced them to think seriously about CC or Sheets or both. But if you told me that, of the “Big Three” they’d get one legit ace, I would have been happy. Joba looks like he’s headed quickly in that direction. A front two of Joba and Wang is very good. Add in CC or Sheets, and that’s quite good. So then they’ll simply need a #4 or #5 from within the system. Hughes and IPK could be that. Or Horne. Or ….? Seems like they can piece together those slots from within the decent system depth.

    A YF July 22, 2008, 5:28 pm

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