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August 10, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

An Afternoon in the Bronx

by Jay Jaffe

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Are the Red Sox dead? As the finale of their wraparound four-game series dawned on Monday, they stood seven games out of first place (eight in the loss column) in the American League East and 4 1/2 out of the wild card, behind not only the Rays but also the Twins, whose 17-7 second-half record provided yet another obstacle for Boston's path. The Red Sox'x  Playoff Odds stood at 5.4 for the division, 17.9 percent for the wild card, and 23.3 percent overall—roughly a one-in-four chance of playing into October. With center fielder Mike Cameron and first baseman Kevin Youkilis (their best hitter) both felled by season-ending injuries last week, Boston's odds would appear to be even longer. But as anyone who's followed the AL East's battles for the past decade knows, you count the Red Sox out at your peril.

Despite the news about Youkilis, Boston came to the Bronx on a relatively high note, having won seven of 10 to pull back within six games of the lead. Clay Buchholz did a solid job of taming the Yankees on Friday night, but with John Lackey and Josh Beckett both getting lit up over the weekend, the team needed a lift from ace Jon Lester on Monday just to salvage a split.

They got that lift. Lester held the Yankees hitless into the fifth inning, when Austin Kearns laced a single to left field. Lester had been living somewhat dangerously up to that point, getting just 30 strikes in 59 pitches through the first four frames, walking three as well as whiffing three. It wasn't so much that Lester was effectively wild—home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstadt's strike zone seemed to be a moving target—so much as he kept finding the escape hatches when he needed them.

The most consistently available escape hatch was Curtis Granderson. Even batting him ninth, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi chose to do for just the third time all season, looked to be a bad idea, as the center fielder came in hitting just .212/.250/.283 against southpaws, continuing a trend which has seen him post OPS below 600 against southpaws in three of the past four years. It's not simply bad luck, either. Granderson's 25 percent strikeout rate against southpaws (compared to 20 percent for, uh, northpaws) leaves him little margin for error, and against that, his on-the-low-side .282 BABIP against lefties isn't enough to overcome such contact woes.

Granderson came up with at least one man on base in each of his first three at-bats and failed to advance a single runner. The first two times he flied out rather innocuously with men on first, but his third at-bat was the back breaker. The Yankees had loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh inning, via a single by Jorge Posada and then a double by Marcus Thames which missed going over the wall into the Yankees bullpen for a game-tying homer by mere inches; not helping matters was the fact that Posada, who these days might lose a foot race to a Molina dragging another Molina, held up at third. Kearns then drew a walk to load the bases after nearly plating the run via a sacrifice fly; a fan apparently Bartman'd left fielder Ryan Kalish (I never got a good look at it from the press box and can't find a replay), and while the partisan crowd cheered the hassling of the opposing fielder, the Yankees ultimately wound up needing that run.

At the point with Granderson up and nobody out, Girardi didn't have a whole lot of appealing alternatives. Kearns (.260/.381/.414 versus lefties in his career) was already in the game. Newly acquired Lance Berkman was on the bench because he himself has struggled mightily against lefties as of late, (.185/.274/.277 this year, .231/.293/.418 last year after putting together credible performances against southpaws for the better part of a decade), and neither Ramiro Pena nor Francisco Cervelli were anything but break-glass-in-emergency solutions. On paper, Girardi's best move would have been to call upon Brett Gardner, who has put up OBP of .375 or better against southpaws in each of the past two years, but Gardner, currently in the throes of a dreadful slump, is hitting just .192/.322/.293 since July 1.

Lester had thrown 95 pitches by the time of Granderson's at-bat. He'd generated only four swings-and-misses, and while he'd lived dangerously with regards to falling behind hitters early in counts, he hadn't taxed himself; he never threw more than 16 pitches in an inning while mixing a curve, sinker, cutter, and changeup—the whole junk drawer—with his fastball. Here he was up to his neck in alligators, but Red Sox manager Terry Francona let him take advantage of the obvious mismatch. Granderson quickly fell into an 0-2 hole by fouling off the first two pitches, then succumbed to a 78 mph curveball two pitches later. That ended Lester's day on a high note; Daniel Bard came on and whiffed Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher on six pitchers, all high-90s heat, preserving the 2-0 lead.

Lester's opposite number, Phil Hughes, appeared to be in for a short afternoon in the early going, extending a slump which had seen him post an unsightly 5.16 ERA and 1.6 HR/9 over his last 14 starts, only six of them quality starts. Hughes ran up a total of 57 pitches over his first two frames, stranding runners at first and second in a 20-pitch first inning, and surrendering two runs in a 37-pitch second. The latter frame started on a positive note, as Swisher made an outstanding diving catch on Mike Lowell's slice down the line. Kalish, who walloped a huge two-run homer on Friday night and came in hitting .360/.393/.520 through his first eight games in the majors, singled, stole second, and advanced to third aided by Posada's wide-right throw into center field. Bill Hall singled to deep shortstop, bringing Kalish home with the game's first run. Jacoby Ellsbury snapped an 0-for-22 skid which had him riding the proverbial interstate (.183/.222/.250 coming in) with a single up the middle, sending Hall to third. Ellsbury then stole second, the first of a team record-tying four steals he would collect on the afternoon. Marco Scutaro walked, and at that point the sharks were circling; Hughes had gotten just four outs via 46 pitches. J.D. Drew grounded to Robinson Cano, who made a nice spin move on the edge of the infield and took the out at first as Hall scored. Luckily for the Yankees, Hughes escaped further damage by retiring Victor Martinez on an infield grounder, but at that point, the potential for an extended afternoon chockfull of Sergio Mitre and/or Chad Gaudin loomed large.

After the game, Hughes would admit that his second-inning struggles forced him to change his approach so as not to wear out the bullpen or himself on a hot day (92 and muggy at first pitch). "I backed off and tried to play catch after that inning," he said. "I took a bit off and went for quick outs." The 46 four-seam fastballs he threw in the first two innings averaged 92.3 mph, but the remaining 31 he threw averaged just 91.0. The strategy worked, and helped keep the Yankees in the game, as Hughes retired 14 of the final 15 hitters he faced starting with Martinez, getting the Yankees through six innings, something he'd done in only one of his previous four starts. In fact, he generated more swings and misses as the game went on; after netting just one in his first 73 pitches through three innings, he got five in his final 41, having more effectively introduced his curveball into the mix.

After stranding eight baserunners without plating a run through the first seven innings, the Yankees finally got on the board via a solo homer by Mark Teixeira off Bard to lead off the eighth. It was Teixeira's third homer of the four-game series, sixth in 12 games against the Sox, and sixth in his last nine games. He's hitting a fairly typical .287/.384/.557 since May 1 following a dreadful April. Alas, that was his only highlight of an otherwise fruitless day, as Teixiera also struck out three times.

Alex Rodriguez followed Teixeira's homer with a single to left field. Girardi pulled him for the pinch-running Gardner, who drew four pickoff attempts from Bard but didn't attempt to steal against Martinez despite the Boston backstop's 19 percent success rate in throwing out would-be thieves. Gardner finally lit for second on a hit-and-run as Cano grounded to second, something of a wasted opportunity for the speedster. Posada drew a walk, then Girardi pinch-hit for Thames with Berkman, who popped out to Kalish in short left field to the disgust of the Bronx boo birds for whom Sunday night's three-hit showing wasn't True Yankee enough. Jonathan Papelbon came on to replace Bard and got Kearns to ground out to end the inning.

Papelbon returned for the ninth, striking out Granderson after a six-pitch battle, then yielding a walk to Jeter, who stole second as Swisher swished at three pitches, the last of them a 96 mph fastball on the high-outside corner of the strike zone. Teixeira, hitless in eight career at-bats against Papelbon, fell behind 0-2 but battled back before getting fooled with a splitter low and away, and the Red Sox had their split.

So the Sox remain six games out of first place and 4 1/2 out of the wild card, having not lost any ground over the weekend but running time off the clock. The question is whether their makeshift lineup can climb back into the race. The opening is there, with the Rays losing five straight this past week and sending two members of their starting rotation for shoulder exams (Jeff Niemann was placed on the DL yesterday, triggering Jeremy Hellickson's recall). The Sox still have six games apiece against the Rays and Yankees, so the opportunity to reclaim ground via head-to-head battle is there. Getting Dustin Pedroia back from a broken foot next week will provide a big boost, but they'll have to ride out the rust on Ellsbury, whose four steals at least suggest he's feeling fairly chipper, and Lowell (.216/.292/.363), who now has the vague specter of Carlos Delgado—another hip-ster—looming on the horizon. The Sox are averaging just 3.7 runs per game since the All-Star break, but with Pedroia, Beltre, and a resurgent David Ortiz all ranking among the league's top 20 in True Average, their offense is not without its weapons.

The rotation, which ranks ninth in the league in SNLVAR, may be of more concern. Buchholz (2.66 ERA, .591 SNWP) and Lester (2.94 ERA, .568 SNWP before yesterday) have been as advertised, and erratic Daisuke Matsuzaka (3.96 ERA, .512 SNWP) has allowed two runs or less in four of his last five starts. But Lackey (4.60 ERA, .475 SNWP) has been lacking, and Beckett (6.21 ERA, .397 SWNP) suffered a setback after three solid starts since coming off the DL; at the very least, he's definitively no longer the Yankee-killer he was advertised to be, given his 6.23 ERA in 21 regular-season starts against them.

As for the Yankees, their Playoff Odds approached 90 percent coming into Monday's game. Aside from minor concerns—Posada's knee and the long flatline of Cervelli, Granderson's, and Berkman's performances against lefties, the setup corps in front of Mariano Rivera—the rotation is their main question mark as well. CC Sabathia (3.14 ERA, .563 SNWP) came up big on Saturday and continues to hold up his end of the bargain, but the trio of Hughes (3.92 ERA, .526 SNWP before yesterday), Javier Vazquez (4.63 ERA, .472 SNWP), and A.J. Burnett (4.93 ERA, .467 SNWP) don't inspire much confidence with their recent performances. Andy Pettitte (2.88 ERA, .594 SNWP) is on pace for a return from a groin strain in the next week or so, but until he resumes his early-season form, his absence will provoke anxiety for the Yankees as well. It's unlikely that Dustin Moseley can continue his high-wire act for very long given how rarely he misses bats, but his performance on Sunday night was enough to evoke the hallowed name of 2005 season-saver Aaron Small in some quarters.

 Just over two-thirds of the way through the season, there's enough separation in the AL East standings for the Yankees to be considered near-locks and the Red Sox to be counted as on the ropes if not down. Nonetheless, nobody who knows the history of these two teams' storied rivalry would ever suggest it's all said and done at this point. Even the defending world champions have serious issues to contend with, and maybe, just maybe, the Sox have a few tricks up their sleeves to remain in this race.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Yankees,  A's,  The Who,  Phil Hughes,  The Call-up,  Southpaws

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