September 26, 2006

That's Just Big Papi Being Bi-- Uh, Intentionally Walked

I’ve spent much of the last week at Shea Stadium now, and I’ve just gotta say, that’s a bunch of likeable guys they’ve got over there.

Neither they nor the Yankees have played especially well since clinching, but, of course, it doesn’t matter – unless you believe that momentum is important for heading into the postseason, and idea that seems logical but which, as far as I can tell, statistical analysis doesn’t support (if it is true, meet your 2006 World Series Champions, the Minnesota Twins). Still, it’s good that the Yankees snapped out of their mini-slump tonight, with a ridiculous 20 hits, and won 16-1. It seems wrong to score 12 runs against a team, especially a young and piteous one like the Rays, and then throw Mariano Rivera at them in the seventh, doesn’t it? I know they need to get Mo tuned up for the playoffs, and Tampa killed them over the weekend, but it’s still sort of mean, like beating a smaller guy up and then inviting Mike Tyson to come over and take a shot just to study his technique.

The bad news is that Randy Johnson’s back has been giving him trouble and he’s been scratched from his next start. Uh-oh. There’s no guarantee he wouldn’t utterly implode in the playoffs anyway, of course (as he did last year, though he came through later with a stellar if futile relief outing), but as uneven as he’s been, he still inspires more confidence in a crucial playoff game than Cory Lidle or Darrell Rasner.

Besides which, I don’t think I like this Sheffield-at-first-base experiment. The playoffs are not the time to screw with your defense. According to the mad geniuses at Baseball Prospectus -- a pay site, I’m afraid -- strong defense is one of the few accurate predictors of a team’s postseason success (along with power pitching, which I’m afraid bodes ill for the Yanks, and a good closer, which... well, yeah). I’m not smart enough to check their math, unfortunately, but they make a convincing case. Andy Phillips and Craig Wilson aren’t extraordinary defenders, but they’re solid, and with Damon, Jeter, Rodriguez, Cano, Abreu, Posada, Matsui, and, assuming he’s healthy, Giambi, offense shouldn’t be the Yankees’ biggest concern. Sheffield hasn’t done a horrible job; he has the fundamental skill, he seems determined, and I don’t doubt that eventually he could become a decent first baseman, but two weeks isn’t exactly a lot of time to learn a new position. And just think about what a sick bat he’d be to have on the bench -- remember the impact Daryl Strawberry had in that role for the Yanks back in the day? -- and imagine how terrifying it would be for an opposing pitcher expecting, say, Aaron Guiel or Miguel Cairo to suddenly find himself face to face with Sheff’s bat-waggle.

More on Manny and the Sox (good band name): Gordan Edes wrote a harsh piece in the Globe calling for Boston to trade him. I’ve said this before, but I still think they’d be crazy to do it, unless they got Hafner or Pujols in return, which they won't. Listen, Miguel Tejada is a great player and all, but he’s no replacement for probably one of the 15 or 20 best hitters of all time, however irritating his flakiness and semi-fake-seeming injuries might be. I assume Edes knows vastly more than I do about what’s really going on with the Red Sox, so maybe Manny really is bringing the team down -- maybe they do need him out of there. But they’ll never be able to get equal value for him in a trade, offense-wise.

It all comes down to whether or not you believe team chemistry has a real impact on winning, something the Mets have made me think about recently as well. The answer, as far as I can tell, is “sort of.” More on this another time.

September 21, 2006

Because, Not To Go All John Rocker On You, The 7 Train Is Flawed

My apologies for the long delay between posts. I’ve been busy –in part, in fact, because I’ve been at Shea Stadium the last few days, working on a freelance story for the Village Voice. Much more to come about that in a couple of weeks, I hope. But in the meantime, I’ll do better… because your life was empty and joyless these last five days, wasn’t it? It felt like the sun had gone behind a cloud, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

So it’s official: the Yankees clinched! Okay, so maybe that didn’t deserve an exclamation point -- not only has it been inevitable for the last few weeks, but they were on the road and, in fact, lost their game against the Blue Jays; they clinched when the Sox lost to the ever-more-impressive Twins. If the Yankees had started three rookies in a row in early August I would’ve had to be medicated, whereas now it’s merely an interesting look at new arms (Rasner being the only one who inspires any real confidence).

Still, it’s impossible to watch the ensuing good cheer without grinning. People watched the Mets’ joyful and truly raucous celebration Monday night (featuring cigars, fire hoses, oceans of booze, signs, and goggles, and lacking only a ride on a police horse) and contrasted it with the Yankees’ imagined restraint, saying Joe Torre’s team wouldn’t bother exuberantly partying over a mere division title, their ninth in a row after all and only what everyone expected; but hey, they looked pretty happy to me. Appropriately enough it was the young guys -- Melky, Cano and company -- who really seemed to go all out, jumping up and down and yelling cheerfully, presumably as a continuation of their master plan to make me feel increasingly stupid for having taken French in high school.

Meanwhile, there’s a fresh controversy regarding Tom Verducci’s SI piece about that third baseman, but as no felonies or bizarre illicit affairs are involved I’m afraid it doesn’t meet my criteria for discussion. Though I have to say, it’s actually a very well-written article, and much more interesting than much of the tabloid hostility that blanketed the city this summer. Somebody needs to get Richard Ben Cramer on this guy's biography... but not for at least 10 years, at which point I might be able to care again.

All in all, it’s been a remarkably stress-free few weeks for New York baseball. You can fret all you want about the Mets’ sudden inability to hit left-handers or Jason Giambi's wrist, but at this point everyone's just waiting for the real action to start. The challenge will be playing out the last few games without anyone getting injured or falling asleep on camera. Of course anything might happen in the first few weeks of October, but what the hell -- all the usual disclaimers aside, I smell a subway series. And it smells much better than the actual subway.

September 15, 2006

To Hell With the Purity of the Game: Left Field, Left-Center, Right-Center, Right

The Yankees finished their sweep of the Devil Rays tonight using a selection of rookie pitchers (Darrell Rasner looked good enough to eat) and an outfield of Bernie Williams, Kevin Thompson, and Aaron Guiel. This is where normally I might make a crack about the Rays, but honestly, I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. Hideki Matsui is back and has gone 5 for 10 in his three games since coming off the DL; I could only be happier if he would grow a mustache (work your magic, Sal Fasano!). Or if Bud Selig would create a new fourth outfield position for Melky Cabrera to play.

But with an 11.5 game lead and barely more than two weeks left to play, the drama is long gone from the AL East; the Central is where the action is (and the cluster of mediocre teams in the NL fighting for the chance to be swept by the Mets, but whatever). On that note, there’s good but strange news about Twins rookie phenom Francisco Liriano: he returned from the DL yesterday only to leave the game with renewed elbow pain, and everybody thought he was out for the year – Ron Gardenhire looked like he was about to cry in the postgame interview, and you can’t blame him – but the MRI shows no damage. He may still be out for the season, though, which is too bad and an ill omen for the Twins, because as terrific as Johan Santana is, he’s only one man. Well, maybe one and a half. Just look at those beautiful stats… they’re so shiny…

I was poking around today when, with a shock of realization, it suddenly became clear to me why the Orioles are so hopeless right now: former Mets GM Jim Duquette is their VP of baseball operations. Of course – how did I not know this? I can’t believe I didn’t sense his presence the last time the Yanks were in Baltimore; the plague of locusts should have been a tip-off. “Cautious optimism” is how Duquette describes the vibe at Camden Yards these days. Really? I would have described it as “empty.”

Finally, Jim Kaat retired as an announcer after tonight’s game. He was my favorite, and I’ll miss him – it’s not so much what he says, I realize, though I generally find him intelligent and reasonable, as it is a visceral response to the tone of his voice.

MUSTACHE WATCH 06: No ‘stache news to report, but I did discover today that after “eephus,” the most popular Google search that brings people to this site is “giambi mustache.” Seriously. Clearly there is an underserved market out there for information about baseball player facial hair.

September 12, 2006

So Then David Was All, Like, Johnny Likes Me Better Than You, And Derek Was Like, No Way, He SO Does Not...

Randy Johnson was not at his best (perhaps because he's FORTY-THREE damn years old), but the Yankees staged a comeback win last night against the motley collection of misfits that the Orioles insist on referring to as their bullpen. And Joe Torre is now third on the Yanks' all-time manager wins list with 1,068, behind only Casey Stengle and Joe McCarthy, which is kind of staggering when you think about it; even if you don't think Torre had too much to do with some those wins, you still have to be impressed by his sheer longevity.

There’s been much discussion in the last few days about David Ortiz, who rather cattily explained to ESPN why he thinks he should win the MVP award, arguing that a team’s position in the standings shouldn’t be a factor. Not to take anything away from Ortiz -- he’s undoubtedly a great hitter, and indeed is the only baseball player I’ve ever had appear in a recurring nightmare -- but as I was just saying on Sunday, if the standings don’t matter, then the MVP should probably go to Travis Hafner or Ortiz’s own teammate, Manny Ramirez. If not Johan Santana. Regarding Jeter, Ortiz says:

"Don't get me wrong -- he's a great player, having a great season, but he's got a lot of guys in that lineup… Top to bottom, you've got a guy who can hurt you. Come hit in this lineup, see how good you can be.”

Well. I bet that went over well in the Red Sox clubhouse. He has a valid point, of course, but this is nevertheless the kind of observation that, if you’re Ortiz, you should probably keep to yourself. Jeter’s response to all this was classically boring, except for the last line, which I do believe is a bit of a zinger:

"I don't have to do it in his lineup... I'm not thinking about winning the MVP. I'm just thinking about winning the division. No one's focus here is on individual awards. We've got something to play for."

Then, of course, they ran and asked Johnny Damon what he thought. Can somebody please explain to me how the tone of this conversation differs from one you might overhear in a randomly selected middle school cafeteria? It might be unfair to criticize Ortiz, though: I bet he was going to say, “I don’t care about individual awards, I just want to help my team,” but found that Jeter had finally had that phrase officially trademarked.

MUSTACHE WATCH ’06 – SON OF MUSTACHE WATCH: Back by popular demand! Randy Johnson, having realized the error of his ways, is re-growing his signature lip fur. At least I think he is. There’s something on his face, anyway, so for his sake, let’s all hope it’s facial hair.

September 10, 2006

I’m Back. And My Doctor Has Cleared Me To Hit Off A Tee.

I caught today’s Yankee game on the radio while driving down from the Cape. According to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, the Orioles rookie starter, Hayden Penn, is just 21 and entered the game with a major league ERA, this season, of 108. That’s right: 108. The Yankees won.

Meanwhile, the days are getting shorter and the kids are back in school, which means it must be time for incessant debate about this year’s MVPs. I’d like to join in, but the MVP strikes me as a particularly ill-defined award. The Cy Young goes to the best pitcher: simple enough, even if opinions will vary on who it is in a given year. But what exactly do we mean by most valuable player? If it were just the best hitter, that would be one thing (probably Travis Hafner or Manny Ramirez in the AL this year); but pitchers are eligible too, and “valuable” seems to imply the player who helped his team the most – which is why most sportswriters/ESPN drones don’t seem to think Hafner stands a snowflake’s chance in Hell, with the Indians currently 17 games back. (Why Ramirez has barely been so much as mentioned, even when the Sox were going strong, is more puzzling to me… unless it’s because of all his trade requests and other antics, which seems petty. If the Sox ever do trade Manny, I think his precise value will become clear very, very quickly).

Just when you think team success needs to be taken into account, though, you remember that the Yankees’ third baseman won the MVP in 2003 with his team, then the Rangers, in dead last place. If your team does that badly, how valuable can you really be? Or, rather, does it actually matter that your team is 17 games out instead of 27? I’m having a surprising amount of trouble finding the official guidelines for this award, but I’ll investigate further tomorrow and see if they shed any light. In any case, it looks like the AL MVP will probably go to Derek Jeter or Jermaine Dye -- who are both having great years, whether or not they deserve this particular accolade, so I can’t get too worked up about the injustice.

Personally, my vote would have gone to Giambi’s mustache, but I don’t think it has enough at-bats to qualify. My second choice, though, would be Johan Santana, who has been mind-bogglingly awesome all season.

September 07, 2006

Elegy For a Mustache

Greetings from the Wellfleet public library. I have neither internet access nor cable TV where I'm staying, which means I’m nice and relaxed but have only a very, very sketchy idea of what’s going on. But it seems that, in sum, Randy Johnson and Jorge Posada are heating up, Hideki Matsui is on his way back, and the Royals still pretty much suck. Is that about right?

I was sorry to see that Doug Mientkiewicz is injured, because for a while there the Royals’ infield was a real Festival of Consonants. “Grudzielanek to Mientkiewicz for the force”… not exactly “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” is it? The Royals also have a relief pitcher named Ambiorix. Awesome. He’s like a long-lost Asterix character.

While the local Boston news resolutely refuses to show me even 30 seconds’ worth of Yankees highlights, or even tell me the score, they did show a quick, sweet clip of Anibal Sanchez’s no-hitter for the Marlins last night; it was only his 13th major league start. It’s really remarkable how well the Marlins are doing this year, given that their most established player is probably Dontrelle Willis, and I’m not even sure he can drink legally yet. I hope they win the Wild Card -- it would be a great story, and they're only three games back from the Padres, about whom I have a lifelong inability to care.

Meanwhile, the Mets did indeed exorcise some Braves demons yesterday, thanks in part to New York’s best (okay, fine, only) Jewish pro athlete. Thank you, Shawn Green, for making my grandfather very proud.

MUSTACHE WATCH ’06: It’s a sad day here at Mustache Watch. Jason Giambi has finally shaved off the porn ‘stache. I admit that I was appalled at first, but I now believe that reaction was born out of ignorance and fear; the moustache worked hard every day, and slowly, it earned my respect -- yes, and even my affection. In other words, it grew on me... though not, thank Christ, literally. Our thoughts are with Giambi and his family at this difficult time, and out of respect for what his mustache accomplished in its too-short time among us, this feature will be suspended until future notice.

September 04, 2006

The Horror, the Horror (Also, the Royals)

The Yankees had a nice easy win yesterday; as much as I like the Twins, they seem to be skidding, and if they don't get Liriano back in the very near future, I fear for their playoff chances. Darrell Rasner pitched an excellent game in his first Yankee start, but this has been happening a lot recently -- unknown, lousy, or aging pitchers often throw like aces in their Yankee debuts; I give you Brad Halsey, Al Leiter, Sidney Ponson, and Aaron Small, just off the top of my head, but I know there've been many more. I hereby dub this The Ponson Effect. Meanwhile, the third baseman... yeah, he's back.

The Mets yesterday managed to lose, 2-1, a game in which they only allowed the Astros one hit. Ah, I do miss El Duque. They'll take on the Braves tonight, and though they’ve already proven they can beat them this year, it’s still fascinating to watch a team exorcise its demons on live television. That game promises to hold more interest than tonight’s Yanks-Royals match-up, however fun it is to watch Chien-Ming Wang pitch. The problem with the Royals is that when a good team beats them, it’s unimpressive, while if they lose it’s embarrassing (well, okay -- that’s one of the problems with the Royals). They did just take two of three from the Twins and White Sox, however, so at least we can expect them to put up a fight.

I’ll be on vacation tomorrow through Sunday, September 10th – into the heart of darkness, or at least Red Sox territory, on Cape Cod. I will blog as my sporadic access to wifi allows. In previous years I wore Yankees shirts to the beach just to be difficult, but this month the combination of the Sox falling nine games behind, Ortiz’s heart scare, and, most of all, rookie pitcher John Lester’s awful diagnosis of lymphoma (fortunately a treatable form, it sounds like) have sucked all the fun out of the rivalry. Horribly selfish of them, really.

Meanwhile, here’s one more reason to dislike Kenny Lofton, his relatively poor performance for the Yankees aside: I was flipping past the YES network this afternoon, and caught the tail end of Jim Abbott’s 1993 no-hitter against the Indians. This is a game that, if you try to describe it to people who weren’t following baseball at the time, they will absolutely refuse to believe it really happened. Anyway, I tuned in at the beginning of the ninth inning, in which Lofton led off -- and tried to bunt his way on base. Now, I understand that he was just trying do his job and get his team some baserunners, especially since it was still a close game... and I can respect that, I really can… but, dude. The man has one hand. Swing the fucking bat.

Mustache Watch ’06: While I missed most of yesterday’s game, I’m told that Craig Wilson seems to have shaved as well (many thanks to my loyal readers, on whom I rely for these kinds of hot tips). The tide seems to be turning, though Jason Giambi still stands like a rock. Please don't hesitate to shoot me an email, or post a comment, if there are any new developments in my absence.

September 02, 2006

Talk About Impaired Judgement... Where Are That Girl's Friends?!

These games with the Twins were supposed to be another possible playoff preview, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way; Cory Lidle against Carlos Silva last night was probably the marquee pitching match-up of the weekend. Today’s game featured Scott Baker and Jeff Karstens, and while Karstens seems like a promising young pitcher, if you see him starting a game in the postseason it will mean that something has gone horribly wrong. He actually pitched extremely well, but Baker, with his 6.55 ERA and 3-7 record, temporarily morphed into Walter Johnson (nifty trick, that), and the Yanks lost the rain-shortened game 6-1.

Jim Kaat and Al Leiter are the best announcing team the Yankees have fielded for a while, both smart (about baseball, anyway), reasonable, and affable. When Leiter’s in the booth, I can’t help remembering that classic photo of him apparently playing beer pong with a bunch of random college kids, originally posted on the sleazy yet enticing gossip site On the DL -- though of course, it only makes me like him more. Stars: they’re just like Us!

Unfortunately, while trying to find that link, I inadvertently stumbled onto this decidedly disconcerting picture of our old friend Sir Sidney Ponson, which is forcing me to seriously consider swearing off alcohol forever.

Meanwhile, In a battle of ineffective ex-Yankee pitchers, Jeff Weaver took on Shawn Chacon in today’s Cardinals-Pirates game. I was about to make a snarky comment about how, according to the rules, one team would nevertheless have to win, but I see the final score was 1-0 Pittsburgh. Well, fine. Never mind then.

Mustache Watch ‘06: One mustache falls, and another rises to take its place. Ron Villone’s lip-caterpillar is no more (perhaps when he got back from the Yankees’ recent road trip he had a little chat with his wife). Bullpen newcomer Brian Bruney’s, however, is coming along nicely.