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June 27, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Yankees' Virgin Spring

by Jay Jaffe

Man cannot live by fastball alone. Not for very long, at least, and not against the Yankees. Not that Juan Nicasio didn't try. Making just the sixth start of his big league career, the 24-year-old Rockies rookie threw four perfect innings against the Bronx Bombers on Sunday following the Yankees' 65th annual Old Timers' Day festivities, and your memory didn't have to date back to DiMaggio to feel as though you'd seen this current cast struggle in such situations before.

Despite winning 95 games and leading the majors in scoring, the 2010 Yankees found themselves easy prey when matched up against starters that they had never faced before, going 5-9 against a set of fresh faces that included not only pedigreed hard throwers like Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer but also less heralded soft-tossers such as Hisanori Takahashi, Kyle Kendrick, Sean O'Sullivan, Josh Tomlin, and Bryan Bullington. Those 14 first-timers posted a collective 3.29 ERA and yielded just under a baserunner per inning while baffling the Bomber bats, and getting a ridiculous amount of help from their defense. The Yankees did rough up the occasional first-timer, even good ones such as Hiroki Kuroda and Trevor Cahill, but compared to the way they devoured such Johnny Come Latelys in 2009, the difference was striking.

Though the likes of Philip Humber and Carlos Carrasco have baffled this year's Yankees in recent weeks, the 2011 squad has been marginally less forgiving of these newcomers, although they've still struggled relative to the rest of the slate, considering that they're pumping out 5.25 runs per game:
 

YR

G

IP

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

ERA

FIP

BABIP

Yankees W-L

2009

38

203.7

9.3

1.5

3.9

5.4

5.04

5.50

.266

22-16

2010

14

82.0

6.5

0.7

2.4

5.9

3.29

3.68

.216

5-9

2011

10

60.7

8.0

0.7

3.9

6.2

4.01

4.22

.259

6-4


Nicasio looked as though he might be part of a larger trend as he kept the Yankees at bay with a nearly all-fastball diet. Of the 58 pitches he threw to the first 12 hitters, 52 were four-seam fastballs according to the MLB Gameday data. He wasn't exactly efficient, getting just three first-pitch strikes out of 12, going to five three-ball counts, and averaging nearly five pitches per batter. He wasn't exactly dominant either, striking out just two and generating four swinging strikes. Yet he was unscathed, as the Yankee lineup couldn't touch his heater, which reached 97 MPH and dipped lower than 92.4 just once during that stretch.

Nicasio retired Alex Rodriguez on a one-pitch at-bat (another fastball, of course) to start the fifth, but then the trouble began. He yielded a sharp Robinson Cano single to left center field, and fell behind 3-0 to Nick Swisher, who's been riding a hot streak(.316/.433/.632 in June) following a frigid start. After fouling off the 3-0 pitch (yup, fastball), Swisher drilled a two-run homer to right field, cutting a 3-0 lead to 3-2. Four pitches later, the Yankees tied the game on Jorge Posada's 419-foot solo homer to right center field. Can open, worms everywhere, and yet Nicasio still hadn't thrown an offspeed pitch during the inning. He threw four—three sliders and a changeup—to Russell Martin and Eduardo Nunez to escape the inning, but when he returned to the four-seamer once the lineup turned over, allowing Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson to reach base, his day was done. Two batters later, reliever Matt Belisle yielded an RBI single to Rodriguez, scoring Gardner and re-tying the score.

The Rockies had done their damage against Ivan Nova, who came into the game on a high note, having tossed four quality starts in his last six while allowing just two homers and a 3.89 ERA in 37 innings; he had thrown his best start of the season—eight innings of one-run ball—against the Reds last Monday. Nova had trouble commanding his fastball from the outset; six of his first seven pitches were balls. It looked as though he might be in for One of Those Days when shortstop Eduardo Nunez (Derek Jeter's fill-in) botched Jonathan Herrera's potential double play grounder on just the second at-bat of the game. Nova settled down to retire Todd Helton on a fly ball, Troy Tulowitzki on a pop up, and prodigal son Jason Giambi on a low inside curveball which tied up the 40-year-old slugger.

Nova yielded just one run through his first four innings, that on a Ty Wigginton solo homer to left field, but he grooved an 0-2 fastball to Chris Iannetta to lead off the fifth, and the Rockies catcher drilled a shot 421 feet to dead center field. The Rockies added a third run without the benefit of a hit, via a Carlos Gonzalez walk, steal, throwing error on Martin, and a sacrifice fly by Helton. Once the Yankees tied the game with their three-run fifth, Nova got two quick outs in the sixth before surrendering another solo homer to Wigginton.

The game was still knotted with one out in the seventh when Posada walked against Belisle, and was safe at second on an error by Tulowitzki. Nunez, who still had his own error to atone for, singled to left field, scoring pinch-runner Chris Dickerson, who sprawled across the plate ahead of the throw. Mark Teixeira smashed a solo homer in the eighth off off Matt Reynolds for an insurance run, tying him with Jose Bautista for the major league lead with 23. The Yankees bullpen delivered three scoreless innings from Boone Logan, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera (who struck out the side) to earn a 6-4 win on an emotional day that featured the first Old Timer's Day appearances for Lou Piniella, Bernie Williams, and Joe Torre, and a surprise tribute to head trainer Gene Monahan, who will retire at the end of this season after 49 years with the Yankees.

After the game, Yankees manager Joe Girardi lauded Nova's effort. "His last game before this was really impressive to me. This game was somewhat equally impressive because he had no command of his fastball today, and he found a way to get through six innings off of a lineup that's tough, that has power all throughout it," he said. "He had to use all of his pitches today and he did it. There's gonna be days that you don't have that command and you have to go to something else, and he found a way to do it."

Rockies manager Jim Tracy chalked up Nicasio's sudden demise to inexperience at the major league level rather than overreliance on his fastball. "That's the development part. Up until the fifth inning he didn't have to pitch from the stretch," he said of the rookie, who spent last year at High-A Modesto and had just nine starts at Double-A before he was called up to join the rotation once Jorge de la Rosa was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery. The back-to-back homers by Swisher and Posada "might have distorted his focus a bit. You have to remember that he's only had about six or seven career starts. You can't expect him to go out there like he's been pitching for eight or nine years."

Girardi downplayed the notion that the Yankees had any particular problem against unfamiliar faces; when this reporter ticked off names such as Bullington, O'Sullivan and Kendrick, he interrupted playfully, "That would have been last year."

"I think we've done a good job this year," he said regarding the Yankees' success against such pitchers, "And we'll continue to see guys we haven't seen before. I thought our guys made a really good in-game adjustment off Nicasio today. This kid's got outstanding stuff."

Swisher was impressed by the hard-throwing rookie, but made it clear that he'll need more than a fastball to survive. "Early, if you look up at the gun, he was consistently 95-96, and then it started getting into the third, fourth, fifth inning, his velocity started dropping to 92-93," he said. "When you haven't seen a guy before, obviously, everybody in the league has a fastball, so that's the one thing you try to key on."

The win gave the 45-31 Yankees their 12th win in 16 games, allowing them to maintain a slim half-game AL East lead over the Red Sox, which they had secured the day before. The loss bumped the Rockies to 38-39, five and a half games back in the NL West. Since tearing through April at 17-8, they're a dismal 21-31.

- - -

That Swisher, Posada, and Rivera figured so prominently in the victory on Old Timers' Day was somehow appropriate. They were the three most visible Yankees during the pregame festivities, which featured over 50 former Yankees. There were Hall of Famers such as Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage, not to mention Frick Award winner Jerry Coleman. There were the familiar faces of the pinstriped perfect game trio, Don Larsen, David Wells, and David Cone. The usual suspects from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties clubs showed up en masse, or maybe en (Kevin) Maas: Jesse Barfield, Ron Blomberg, Al Downing, Brian Doyle, Bucky Dent, Hector Lopez, Graig Nettles, Joe Pepitone, Mickey Rivers, Moose Skowron, and Roy White. A generous helping of players, even bit ones, from Torre's tenure were on hand, including Clay Bellinger, Brian Boehringer, Homer Bush, Cecil Fielder, Graeme Lloyd, Tino Martinez, Ramiro Mendoza, Jeff Nelson, Aaron Small, Darryl Strawberry, and of course Williams. Torre coaches Jose Cardenal, Lee Mazzilli, and Mel Stottlemyre joined the party as well. The widows of Elston Howard, Catfish Hunter, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer also participated, with Murcer's niece singing the national anthem before the start of the game.

The loudest ovation from the lengthy player introductions went to Williams, whose only other official return to the Bronx since his last game in 2006 was for the final game at Yankee Stadium II in 2008. The honor of the longest ovation went to Torre, who after departing at the end of the 2007 season didn't return to the Bronx until the team paid tribute to the late George Steinbrenner last September. During a pregame press conference, Torre wore a sling to support his surgically repaired right shoulder and joked that he'd only be able to call lefthanders out of the bullpen, but when he took the field, the sling was gone.

The festivities climaxed with a lengthy and emotional tribute to Monahan, who battled cancer last year, and who has been patching up Yankees since before  Steinbrenner bought the team. The trainer was under the impression that he had simply been invited by Hal Steinbrenner to throw out the first pitch, for which Posada strapped on the tools of ignorance for the first time all season and caught a perfect strike. The rest of the ceremony was a complete surprise, from a video tribute to a veritable haul of gifts (seats from the original Yankee Stadium, a riding mower, a truck, a trip to Las Vegas to see Garth Brooks, a trip to NASCAR Championship Weekend, and a 15-day Alpine tour) to guest appearances by his two daughters and his fiancée.

"We've all been itching for this day to get here for Geno, because we knew he'd be completely surprised," said Girardi. He had no idea. He lost it when his daughters came out, didn't hear everything he received. He's going to have to go through a checklist." Girardi noted that Monahan healing powers went beyond physical aches and pains. "When I need a laugh, I go to Geno. I've done it ever since I played here, because he could always get me to laugh with something that he'd say."

As for the three-inning Old Timers Day game, amid the careful jogging to first and occasional flailing at low pitches came the faintest reminder of these players' old prowess. Williams chased down a shallow fly ball and later smoked a double to left center field against Cone, then scored when Martinez took advantage of the short porch in right field via a two-run homer for the game's only runs. Strawberry, Gamble, and Barfield all sent shots to the warning track or the wall, though sometimes they settled for long singles, hence the low-scoring game. I honestly tried to keep score (I have done this before), but with about 17 designated hitters, multiple mid-inning pitching changes, and duplicate uniform numbers (without benefit of lettering on the back, of course), it became an entertainingly futile effort, particularly with the audio feed of Monahan's press conference drowning out the PA in the press box. Shorn of his trademark Afro, Gamble looks alarmingly like Rivers when you're at press box distance, a phenomenon I'm sure Colin Wyers can explain.

Being in the press box for the pregame festivities required me to muster every ounce of my professional restraint not to applaud the old-timers for whom I have cheered so unabashedly from the cheap seats. "No cheering in the press box" means just that; this ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around. That didn't stop me from smiling warmly at most of the introductions, feeling goosebumps and maybe struggling with some kind of, um, localized dust storm when the ovations for Williams and Torre took hold. Throughout the festivities, I vented a bit of my adulation on Twitter, where some of my less well-versed followers were amazed that such a no-cheering strict edict was observed even for this noncompetitive occasion. That's part of the deal I've accepted with this card I've been dealt, and I have no complaints.

I was too self-conscious to tweet about one of the afternoon's highlights. Sitting not too far from me in the box, one section over and one row down, was the great pioneer of literary journalism Gay Talese. Still unmistakably dapper at 79—red and white striped shirt, yellow tie, khaki jacket, taupe pants, cream fedora—he stood out among the lumpy and rumpled crowd in the press box. Talese sat silently throughout most of the game, diligently writing on his signature note cards, cut out from dry cleaning shirt cardboard. It was the closest link to Joe DiMaggio that was on hand all day—if you don't know this story, educate yourself—and yet only a select few even noticed.
 

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

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