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August 10, 2012

What You Need to Know

Friday, August 10

by Daniel Rathman

The Thursday Takeaway
The National Basketball Association annually honors its best bench player with the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Major League Baseball doesn’t have an analogous accolade, but if it were to start giving one out this year, the trophy might as well be named after Eric Chavez.

Once an elite defensive third baseman with 30-homer power, Chavez’s career was derailed by chronic back injuries, and he seemed all but certain to hang up his cleats after a .234/.276/.333 go-around with the Athletics in 2010. But the Yankees called with a minor-league offer the following February, and—despite a .263/.320/.356 showing in 58 games last season—brought him back on a one-year, $900,000 deal for 2012. Now, the 34-year-old Chavez is making general manager Brian Cashman look like a genius.

Two days ago, Buster Olney tweeted: “One thing has become clear during NYY’s slide: While Alex Rodriguez isn’t what he was, he’s still an important part of their lineup.” Indeed, the Yankees are just 8-12 since July 18 and 7-7 since Rodriguez suffered a fractured hand on July 24, a lull that has enabled the Rangers to surge a half-game ahead of them in the race for the American League’s number-one seed. But Chavez supplanting Rodriguez at the hot corner has hardly been the culprit.

A left-handed hitter, Chavez has seen the lion’s share of the playing time in a temporary platoon with Jayson Nix, and he has made the most of it, going 14-for-38 (.368 average) with four home runs, four walks, and only four strikeouts. Chavez’s torrid hitting began when the calendar flipped to August, and since then, he ranks third in the league—trailing only Buster Posey and Prince Fielder—with a 1.397 OPS. During the four-game series at Comerica Park, which the Yankees split, Chavez went 9-for-16, logging at least two hits in each contest, and smacking two homers, including the game-winner in the top of the eighth inning of yesterday’s 4-3 win.

Thursday afternoon’s blast was Chavez’s 12th in 216 plate appearances this season, compared to 15 in 400 trips for Rodriguez, the man he supposedly could not replace. The $29 million man hit four homers in 29 games before landing on the disabled list. The $900,000 man has provided that many in 13 games since.

About a month ago, Ben Lindbergh wrote about “The Rapid Aging of A-Rod,” and concluded that the Yankees “could not have expected his contract to become a burden so soon.” Here’s another thing they probably did not expect: Through 111 games, in half the playing time, Chavez (1.4 WARP) has been worth more than Rodriguez (1.0 WARP).

So, while the Yankees are a better team when A-Rod is active, they are far from doomed in the interim. Starting Chavez instead of Rodriguez does not explain why they have lost seven of their last 14. In fact, it is Chavez’s timely contributions that have helped them win the other seven.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • The Red Sox may have lost last night’s series opener in Cleveland, but Adrian Gonzalez went 1-for-3 with a home run, and the first baseman is officially sizzling. Gonzalez is 16-for-34 (.471 average) since the start of August, with five doubles and two homers, the kind of production Boston has been hoping for from its $154 million man all year. The 5-3 defeat was the Red Sox’ third straight, dropping Bobby Valentine’s squad to 55-58, 5 ½ games behind the Orioles and Tigers, who are currently tied for the second wild card spot. Boston will try to get off the schneid behind Clay Buchholz, who owns a 1.98 ERA in five starts since the All-Star break, in game two (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Mike Morse went deep twice in last night’s 5-0 victory at Minute Maid Park, boosting his home-run total to 10 and his hitting streak to a career-high 17 games. The 30-year-old outfielder won’t dazzle anyone with his 8-to-59 BB/K mark, but as long as he’s batting .300, the Nationals won’t complain. Morse will try to keep his own streak alive while helping the team extend its surge in tonight’s matchup with Trevor Cahill and the Diamondbacks at Chase Field (Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET).
  • The Dodgers are taking their talents to South Beach this weekend, which means that Hanley Ramirez—and Randy Choate, but mostly Hanley Ramirez—will play his old friends at the new ballpark he used to call home. The 28-year-old infielder hasn’t taken advantage of the change of scenery yet, hitting just .226/.328/.358 since the trade, but perhaps the homecoming will get him going. Hanley will take on Ricky Nolasco, who is 0-2 with a 7.33 ERA in four career starts against the Dodgers, in the second game of a 10-game road trip to Miami, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Thursday’s Orioles loss left the 60-51 Athletics alone atop the American League wild card table, and Bob Melvin’s squad now travels to Chicago to take on another contender in the 60-50 White Sox. Oakland will get Brandon McCarthy back from the disabled list for the series opener, but the most intriguing matchup may come in the finale, when first-year starters Jarrod Parker and Chris Sale are scheduled to lock horns. Those two previously dueled at the Coliseum on April 25, and while neither came away with a decision, they combined for 14 1/3 innings of three-run ball with one walk and 10 strikeouts (Sunday, 2:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Rangers have plenty of rotation issues, and the most pressing one may be getting Yu Darvish back on track. Texas is just 2-4 in Darvish’s last six starts, and the first-year import has walked four or more batters in three of them. The Tigers are next on Darvish’s docket, which may be a good omen, because the 25-year-old walked only one Detroit batter in a 7-5 win on June 26. But look out for Prince Fielder, who is 14-for-29 (.483 average) in August, and who got the best of Darvish with a double and a homer in that previous meeting (Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET).

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

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