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May 30, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

New York Yankees @ Detroit Tigers, 5/29/2006

by Derek Jacques

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Welcome to the Game of the Week. I'm Derek Jacques, usually of Prospectus Notebook, but today I'll be your host for the first Prospectus Game of the Week of the 2006 Season.

Today, we're watching the top two teams in the land, as per the Prospectus Hit List: the Tigers and Yankees, at lovely Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit was roasting yesterday, 93 degrees on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon. Coming into this week's four-game series against New York, Detroit is in first place in the NL Central, two and a half games ahead of the White Sox. Prior to being shut out by Cleveland the day before, the Tigers had won eight in a row.

The Yankees, despite being the number two team on the Hit List, don't lead their division, as they trail the Red Sox by two games in the AL East. The Hit List goes beyond the regular won-lost record, looking at factors such as the teams' run differential, and their component run differential. So far this season, the Yankees have scored more runs and allowed fewer than the Red Sox--they have a differential of 60 more runs scored than allowed, while the Red Sox have scored 36 more than they've allowed.

Let's take a look at the starting lineups:

Yankees                           Tigers
                     EqA   VORP                         EqA    VORP
Johnny Damon, CF     .279  12.3   Placido Polanco, 2B   .234    0.3
Derek Jeter, SS      .325  29.7   Marcus Thames, LF     .342   12.6
Gary Sheffield, RF   .287   6.1   Ivan Rodriguez, C     .264    6.7
Jason Giambi, 1B     .345  20.6   Magglio Ordonez, RF   .303   15.9
Alex Rodriguez, 3B   .309  16.0   Carlos Guillen, SS    .299   18.6
Jorge Posada, C      .318  14.2   Chris Shelton, 1B     .318   20.6
Robinson Cano, 2B    .246   2.5   Craig Monroe, CF      .257    1.3
Terrence Long, DH    .188  -1.5   Omar Infante, DH      .286    4.4
Melky Cabrera, LF    .260  -0.1   Brandon Inge, 3B      .257   -0.7


Starting Pitchers    RA+   SNLVAR   SO/9   WARP
Randy Johnson        0.77    0.4    7.04   0.8
Jeremy Bonderman     1.10    1.6    7.57   1.6
Both lineups induce a double-take at DH. Terrence Long hasn't hit enough to hold down a major league job since, well, ever. Last year, the guy defined the replacement level, with a perfect VORP of 0.0. Now he's the DH on the best offensive squad in baseball? How does that work? Meanwhile, Omar Infante, throughout his career, has been a good glove, bad bat type--despite his impressive .286 EqA in 65 plate appearances so far. Much of that performance came in the past week against the Royals, against whom Infante collected seven of the 19 hits he has on the season, including both of his home runs.

Yesterday's starters were the two players who were the consensus aces of their respective pitching staffs at the start of the season. For the home team, Jeremy Bonderman has been the ace-in-waiting since he came to the majors at age 20. So far, he has yet to lead the team in innings pitched, and has only ever managed to share the team lead in wins, with 14 last season.

Randy Johnson is the opposite of Bonderman--he's the longstanding ace, who hasn't looked like one so far this season. May 2006 has been Johnson's worst month since April 2003--when he was about to miss several months with a bad knee. Even with the injury, Johnson was still more dominant, allowing an 8.10 ERA in 2003 than he has been in allowing a 7.56 ERA this month. Back in 2003, Johnson managed to strike out 26 and only walk three in 17 2/3 innings of work. In eight and two-thirds more innings this month, Johnson struck out two fewer and walked ten more.

Without further ado, the game gets underway, with Bonderman pitching to the top of the Yankee lineup. Bonderman's second pitch breaks Johnny Damon's bat, sending the barrel of the bat toward first baseman Chris Shelton, while the ball is grounded to shortstop Carlos Guillen for the first out. Bonderman's next pitch fools Derek Jeter, and sends his bat flying into the stands. This has to be disconcerting for the Yankees' third base coach, Larry Bowa, who lives in fear of being nailed by one of Gary Sheffield's foul line drives. If Sheffield's bat was to find the coach's box down the left field line, Bowa would be toast.

Of course, there are probably enough Phillies fans with grudges out there that this prospect has folks trying to replace Sheffield's pine tar with Astroglide. Luckily for Bowa, the Yanks were able to hold on to their bats as they go down in order.

For the next inning and a half, Bonderman and Johnson retire the sides in order. Bonderman's impressive, with big movement on his mid-90's fastball, and a neat drop of a breaking ball, which he uses to strike out Jeter and Posada. Johnson's fastball isn't terribly speedy, topping out about 91 MPH, but he's spotting it well and the Tigers are making outs on contact.

Contact might not be the best thing for Johnson. The Yankees are starting two players today who haven't been able to field their positions in a while--Jorge Posada hasn't caught or played since last Tuesday with hamstring problems and Sheffield hasn't played the field since he suffered the wrist injury that sent him to the DL, on May 5th. Remember, this is not a great defensive team to begin with. Even though the Yankees rank a respectable fourth in the AL in Defensive Efficiency Rate, the Yankees have the fewest double plays turned in the league (37) and have allowed the most batters to reach on errors (27). By comparison, the Tigers lead the league in defensive efficiency, are second in double plays turned (55) and have the fifth-fewest runners reached on errors (17). In the bottom of the second, Sheffield gets tested on back-to-back plays, one a standard fly out by Guillen, the other a gapper by Shelton on which Sheffield makes a leaping grab on the run.

In the top of the third, we have my presentation on the evils of the earned run rule. [Click.] As you see in slide one, after Robinson Cano grounds a single through the shortstop hole to lead off the inning, Bonderman induces Terrence Long to hit a perfect double play ball to Shelton. [Click.] Despite a good throw from Shelton to Carlos Guillen, Guillen's relay back to first is high, and only a well-timed jump keeps the ball from getting away. [Click.] With Long running, Melky Cabrera grounds one up the middle, just past Placido Polanco. Single, men on first and third. [Click.] Damon singles on another ground ball up the middle, scoring Long and sending Cabrera to third. Remember, Long wouldn't be on the basepaths if not for Guillen's bad throw, but that throw wasn't an error. [Click.] Now in this slide we see Bonderman get Derek Jeter to tap a grounder harmlessly to the mound. [Click.] Bonderman turns to get the force at second base, but again, Guillen's throw pulls Shelton off the bag. Another run scores and another runner reaches base, on a play that should have ended the inning. [Click.] Finally, Sheffield hits a hard grounder to Brandon Inge to end the inning.

In the final tally, Bonderman got six ground balls in the inning, and none except Sheffield's was hit particularly hard. Three of those grounders were just past the outstretched gloves of his fielders, another two were double play balls undone by throwing errors by the shortstop, which weren't scored errors because you can't assume the double play. Nonetheless, both the runs count against Bonderman as "earned." I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In the bottom of the inning, Johnson cruises, getting the first two outs on three pitches, before meeting some resistance from the number nine hitter, Inge. Johnson quickly gets Inge to a 1-2 count, but can't put the third baseman away--Inge fouls off pitches, then takes a close pitch, high or inside, then fouls off a few more pitches. After a ten pitch battle, Inge walks. Johnson's angry about one of the calls midway through the sequence, and starts jawing at home plate umpire Rick Reed. Johnson starts Polanco off with a called strike, then becomes discombobulated, throwing four straight balls to walk him. As Joe Sheehan noted in his DiSars column last week, it's been very, very hard to walk Placido Polanco this year.

When Johnson goes 2-0 to Marcus Thames, it looks like all the good work he's done in the game so far is going out the window. Thames ultimately bails Johnson out, by grounding harmlessly to Alex Rodriguez at third. As Johnson walks off the field he talks to Reed with his glove covering his mouth so that no one can lip read what he's saying. Even more remarkable, Reed seems to shield his mouth from the TV cameras when responding to Johnson. I don't think I've ever seen that before.

More fun with errors in the top of the fourth--Jason Giambi rips a hard line drive down the first base line, which strikes some part of Shelton's body. That's an error. Giambi is erased by an Alex Rodriguez double play, then the bottom of the lineup rallies with two outs, loading the bases before Shelton makes a nice play on a grounder by Cabrera, to end the inning.

Johnson cruises through the fourth and fifth, and his fastball is consistently getting up there in the 94 MPH range. Although it hasn't looked like a dominant performance, Johnson has not yet allowed a hit.

In the top of the fifth, the Yankees rally again with two outs. Sheffield reaches on yet another groundball single, followed by a Giambi walk. Bonderman gets ahead of Alex Rodriguez 0-2, but Rodriguez still manages a single to bring in Sheffield. Posada then hits a dying quail to short center field, good for a single, and against all odds Giambi comes rumbling to the plate from second base to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead.

Miguel Cairo replaces Jeter at shortstop during Detroit's half of the inning--no sooner do the Yankees get Posada back then someone else has to get injured, right? The story is that Jeter jammed his right hand on the basepaths. The announcers make a big deal about the fact that Jeter wears a wrist guard to prevent that sort of injury, but on the replay, it looks like the protective gear might be part of the problem, getting stuck in the dirt during Jeter's slide. As everyone except Alanis Morissette probably knows, getting injured by your protective gear isn't ironic. It's just messed up.

With two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, Johnson loses control of the fastball and walks Thames. This brings up Ivan Rodriguez, a fine person to face when you're experiencing control problems. While Rodriguez is nowhere near as ball-four-phobic as he was last season (with nine walks so far, Pudge is only two away from matching his 2005 walk total) he still loves to hack. Johnson gets ahead 0-2 as Rodriguez swings at balls high and out of the strike zone to start the at bat. After taking a ball, Rodriguez fouls off ball four, high and inside. Rodriguez takes again to bring the count to 2-2, then swings at ball six, taking a low and away pitch to right field, for a single. Thames forgets the number of outs, and fails to advance to third on the play. This mental mistake is rendered moot when Magglio Ordonez strikes out to end the inning.

The Yankees go quietly in the top of the seventh. After the seventh inning stretch, and singing of "God Bless America," Johnson is just finishing his warmup pitches at 2:59, Eastern, just in time for the game to be interrupted by the Congressionally-mandated National Moment of Remembrance, scheduled for 3:00 PM on each Memorial Day.

Now, no one should begrudge the men and women who have given their lives in service of the United States a minute of silence and reflection in gratitude for their sacrifice. But suddenly I'm relieved that someone broke up the no-hitter an inning earlier. If the no-hitter were still going, I would probably be going nuts about Johnson having warmed up, only to have to sit a few minutes while we listen to a song written by the guy who wrote Annie. While we're at it, who should be considered responsible for having Johnson warm up, then sit for three minutes before throwing his first pitch of the inning, Joe Torre, or the umpires?

Once play resumes, Guillen dumps the second pitch of the inning down the right field line for a double; the ball boy goes diving into the stands, along with his stool, to avoid interfering with the play. And so, after 91 pitches, Johnson's day is over, and Ron Villone takes over with a man on second, and no outs. Sometimes people who are into sabermetrics are accused of looking at the game as if it were a tabletop simulation, like Strat-o-Matic. In a game like that, it doesn't make a difference to Ron Villone's player card if there's a runner on second or not. But for Villone, the human pitcher, it probably makes a big difference. If Johnson was on such a tight leash, why not let Villone start the inning with a clean slate?

Villone responds by clearing his own slate, and retiring the next six batters.

Bonderman comes out for the top of the eighth inning, strikes out Alex Rodriguez looking, and is given the hook by Leyland, in favor of Jamie Walker. The bullpen has been a big strength for the Tigers this season, and they lead the league in most of our reliever evaluation tools--Adjusted Runs Prevented, WXRL, Fair RA. Walker retires Jorge Posada, but allows an opposite-field double to Robinson Cano. With a runner in scoring position and a chance to get an insurance run, Torre sticks with Terrence Long, against one of the tougher lefty specialists in the league. This means either a) Bernie Williams is more banged up than anyone thought, or b) Long has compromising pictures of someone high up in Yankees management. Either way, it all adds up to the same thing: strikeout. Walker gives way to Jason Grilli with two outs in the top of the ninth. Like Walker, Grilli shows himself able to pitch out of some two-out trouble.

In the bottom of the ninth--since the lead is four runs, not three--the Yankees send out Kyle Farnsworth to face the middle of the Tigers order. Throughout May, Farnsworth has made sure to mix in a horrible outing every third or fourth time he's summoned from the pen. Sadly for the Tigers, this is not one of those outings, as Farnsworth pitches a 1-2-3 ninth to send Detroit to its second straight shutout defeat. The Tigers lose some ground to the White Sox in the AL Central, while the Yankees keep pace with the Red Sox in the AL East.

We'll be back next Sunday, June 4, firing up MLB.tv to watch the Braves and Diamondbacks, starters TBA. Be sure to join us, and feel free to drop me a line with any questions, comments, or suggestions about the next Game of the Week.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

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

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