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April 1, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Off to the Races

by Jay Jaffe

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"I've been petitioning the league to start in March for years," laughed Mark Teixeira, a career .235/.342/.411 hitter in April, but .294/.382/.557 the rest of the year. "Finally they let us start in March because everyone knows about my Aprils."

Teixeira had plenty of cause for joviality. Not only did he launch a towering three-run homer off Justin Verlander in the third inning of Thursday's Opening Day tilt between the Yankees and Tigers, but he put some distance between last year's horrendously slow start and this season. Teixeira didn't collect his first hit of 2010 until the season's fifth game and his 22nd plate appearance, didn't connect for his first homer until the 12th game, and ended April hitting an abysmal .136/.300/.259 with just two homers.

While Teixeira finished the year with 33 homers, 108 RBI, and a league-high 113 runs scored, he hit just .256/.365/.481, setting a career low in batting average and his lowest marks in the other two categories since his 2003 rookie campaign. Those numbers could pass muster for most first basemen; indeed, Teixeira's .294 True Average ranked 12th among the 22 first sackers who qualified for the batting title. When you're coming down from a league-high 39 dingers, a .292/.383/.565 line, and a world championship in your first year in pinstripes, that's not enough, particularly when you're earning $22.5 million per year.

"Last year was awful," said Teixeira of his slow start. "There's no other way to put it. It was embarrassing when you have that bad of a start. And last year overall for me wasn't good. I expect a lot out of myself. Personally and as a team we didn't accomplish our goals, so this offseason [Yankees hitting coach] Kevin Long and I talked a lot and just said, 'Okay, what are we going to do?'"

Teixeira realized that he was neglecting an essential part of the equation in his spring preparations. "I swung a lot more," he said when asked what he'd done to prepare differently. "Being a switch-hitter, I have to swing about twice as much anyway. So with all the work that we put in defensively and in the weight room and running sprints in spring training, sometimes your swing is the last thing you think about because you just figure, 'I've always been able to hit, I'll be ready.' This spring I really made sure that my swing was right. Kevin Long and I spent a lot of time in the cage, and hopefully it's going to pay off."

Curtis Granderson isn't a stranger to getting his season off on the right foot. For the third year in a row, he homered on Opening Day. While his previous season-starting shots came in losses for the Tigers (2009) and Yankees (2010), his seventh-inning solo homer on Thursday broke a 3-3 tie and put the Yankees ahead to stay.

Even more notable was the fact that Granderson's home run came against Phil Coke, not only a player for whom he was traded in a three-way swap in December 2009, but also a lefty. Coming into the day, the lefty-swinging Granderson had hit just .215/.274/.346 in his career against southpaws, a stark contrast to the robust .287/.363/.527 he'd hit against righties. Mired in a slump last August, he shored up his approach against southpaws with the help of Long. While the sample sizes were small, the results offered promise: After hitting just .206/.243/.275 in his first 107 PA against lefties, he crushed them at a .286/.375/.500 clip over his final 64 PA.

While Granderson was wary of dismissing his big hit as carryover from last season, he credited Long with helping to simplify his swing. "I definitely am more confident, partly from the things we worked on with Kevin Long in terms of eliminating the moving parts," he said. "When I got them all aligned, it didn't matter if it was a lefty or a righty. It was always a little issue of getting everything in the right spot. What Kevin Long and myself decided to do was to eliminate some of those things. This is where we want to be, let's go ahead and get you right there with fewer steps than you had before."

The home run may not have been the most remarkable part of Granderson's day. After straining his right oblique on March 22, he spent more than a week with the threat of a season-opening stint on the disabled list hanging over his head. But after facing live pitching on Tuesday and playing in a minor-league exhibition on Wednesday once the rest of the 25-man roster had broken camp, he flew to New York Wednesday evening, and was in center field for first pitch.

What's more, Granderson made an outstanding catch in the ninth inning that threatened to overshadow his home run. With Mariano Rivera—resplendent in high socks, a new look for the venerable closer—facing Brandon Inge with one out in the ninth and a three-run lead, Granderson made a running over-the-shoulder grab in deep center field. He also made a diving catch of a dying quail off the bat of Will Rhymes in the first inning, and saved a run in the sixth when he chased down a shallow blooper off the bat of Alex Avila with two outs and Inge at second base.

Granderson wasn't quite sure he would be physically capable of such feats even after Wednesday's test: "I played, but a lot of things didn't happen. For example, after I was on my way to the airport someone said, 'How do you think you'll feel on a dive?' I hadn't even thought about that, because it didn't come up in any of the games. It's one of those things that just kind of happens, and sure enough, the first ball today, I had to dive for—and it felt fine. Anytime you hit the ground it's never a good thing, but I got up, was able to go. I'm sure adrenaline added a little bit to it, the first ball and all that good stuff."

Granderson was positioned in shallow center for all three of his notable catches. The first two were against Rhymes and Avila, among the less powerful hitters in the Tigers' lineup. "It all started this spring. We talked a lot, like, hey, let's keep pushing and see how shallow you can play, and trust that you can get to that ball. The first test today we proved that it worked out." For Avila, Granderson was shaded towards left-center. "[Avila] tends to go the other way with some of the best left-handers in the game. So we were shifted that way. The fact that Inge had made it to second base caused me to move in even shallower. I just wanted a chance to make sure I could possibly make a play at the plate if the ball was hit to me."

As for his ninth-inning grab, Granderson said, "What Mariano likes to do especially when he has a lead when he comes into a ballgame, he doesn't want balls to fall in, in front. So Gardner, myself, and Swisher will play a lot shallower than we might throughout the whole course of the game. Then when the ball was hit where it [was], the wind helped me a bit, giving me a chance to get a good read."

Teixeira and Granderson weren't the only Yankees getting off to the races. Catcher Russell Martin, playing in his first game in pinstripes, collected the team's first hit of the season via a sharp single to left to lead off the third inning. Martin took second on a sacrifice bunt down the first base line by Brett Gardner (whom manager Joe Girardi said was bunting for a base hit, so mind those pitchforks). On the heels of a Derek Jeter walk, he stole third base, much to the shock and amazement of a crowd which has looked to lead-footed Jorge Posada—who has one career steal of third—as the Yankees' primary catcher for the last 13 seasons. And to Jeter as well; the captain's statuesque pose at first base let there be no doubt that this wasn't a play put on by Girardi. Three pitches later, Teixeira hit his home run to put the Yankees on the board.

For a player whose 2010 season ended with a pelvic fracture and one who underwent off-season surgery to repair a torn meniscus, Martin demonstrated that his wheels were in good shape again in the seventh inning. Immediately following Granderson's homer, he reached on a throwing error by Inge, took second on another Gardner sacrifice, went to third on a wild pitch, and boldly bolted for home on a very shallow sacrifice fly by Jeter, executing a neat hook slide around Avila to cap his adventurous tour around the bases.

Furthermore, on a frigid 42-degree day, Martin was spry behind the plate and had no trouble handling Yankee starter CC Sabathia and the three relievers who followed. Meanwhile, Avila struggled mightily to handle the Tigers' pitchers, and was unable to prevent wild pitches from Verlander, Rick Perry, and Daniel Schlereth, who uncorked one in the ninth inning that led to the Yankees' sixth and final run.

Sabathia, though not at his sharpest, whiffed seven hitters over six innings, working around six hits, two walks, and a Robinson Cano error to hold the Tigers to three runs. He netted 14 swings and misses among his 106 pitches, generating at least one swinging strike three with his fastball, sinker, slider, and changeup.

Verlander wasn't at his sharpest, either. The Yankees worked a pair of two-out walks off of him in the first, forcing him to throw 31 pitches in the inning. He issued two more walks on the day, the one to Jeter which came back to haunt him, and one in the sixth, when he walked Cano following a long Alex Rodriguez double. Verlander escaped the jam by striking out Nick Swisher looking and Posada swinging, but after needing just 20 pitches to get through the previous two innings, the 28 pitches he threw in the sixth spelled the end of his day.

 The Tigers' bullpen didn't help Verlander's cause, while the Yankees' pen backed Sabathia with a scoreless inning apiece from Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Rivera. "It's how you draw it up," said Girardi, and just like that, the Yankees were 1-0 for the season. 

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:  First Hit,  First Career Hit,  The Who,  Kevin Long

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Purpose Pitches: A New... (04/01)
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