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A-Rod’s Not the Yankees’ Only Playoff Goat

I’ve always resisted the idea that clutch hitting exists, I guess because I don’t like the notion that baseball is something more than a game — that it brings out something heroic in an athlete.

I pretty much agree with Bill James’s early assessment on the topic, which was that what a batter hits in so-called “clutch” situations is close to what he hits in all other situations — and that if this wasn’t obvious, it’s merely because there hadn’t been enough of a sampling. In other words, if Willie Mays never hit a home run in 21 World Series games it was simply luck of the draw. Given, say, another two World Series and another 10 or 12 games, if he batted another 40 times and hit, say, six home runs, then he’d have 7 home runs in 114 at-bats, which would be almost the same ratio as his regular season average.

It’s unsettling to watch baseball as long as I have and suddenly have to entertain an entirely new concept, but after watching the Yankees play like deer caught in the headlights in game after game, I’m beginning to think I was wrong about clutch hitting. Or at least wrong about clutch hitting as it manifests itself in the postseason, which is about as clutch as I can think of.

Alex Rodriguez, of course, is taking the major share of the flak for his failure to deliver against the Orioles and now the Tigers, but it has seemed to me all along that Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira have been just as guilty, especially in this year’s postseason.

]

I decided to look at the playoff batting record of all four men,
which turns out to be a total of 166 games and 618 at-bats — just a
little over one full season. That seemed like a pretty substantial
sampling, one that would give us an idea of whether they were really
suffering from a bad case of playoff nerves or whether their performance
was just a statistical aberration.

Well, I still don’t know which it is, but in the 618 at-bats that
these four have accumulated in postseason play, they have a total of 132
hits for a batting average of just .214, pretty crappy no matter how
you look at it. Nor was that batting average redeemed by much power:
just 21 home runs and 71 RBIs. If you had a player who, over a period of
about 160 games and 600 at-bats hit .214 with those kind of power
numbers, would you try to replace him? I would.

Oh, and by the way, in their postseason history Granderson, Cano, Swisher, and Teixeira have accumulated 140 strikeouts.

Here’s the kicker: the best of the bunch turns out to be Alex
Rodriguez. I was surprised, as I expected him to be much worse than the
others. But after Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the Tigers, he had played in 74
postseason games and come to bat 272 times with 72 hits for a batting
average of .266 – modest, but way above that of Cano (.226), Granderson
(.242), Swisher (.167), or Teixeira (.227). A-Rod had, by the way, just
13 home runs and 41 RBIs. Projected over the same 618 postseason
at-bats as the other four had combined, he would probably have come up
with 30 home runs and 93 RBIs. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible,
and his numbers were made a whole lot worse by his dreadful hitting in
the last two weeks.

I’m still not sure I believe in clutch hitting or that the
postseasons of all five of the Yankees’ regular season big boppers
really reflects that they can’t hit in the clutch. But it certainly
doesn’t provide any evidence that they are clutch hitters. At the
least, though, it suggests that the dreadful batting performances we’ve
endured over the last seven games aren’t that much different than what
the five of them have done over their entire postseason careers. Think
about that.

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Is A-Rod Expanding?

When your team loses 3-2, as the Yankees did last night to the Orioles, and you leave 10 runners on base, it doesn’t come down to the fault of just one batter. But when you’re batting 3rd and being what Alex Rodriguez is being paid, you’re the one everyone points a finger at. And in this case, justifiably so.

Last night was positively embarrassing for A-Rod, who went 1-for-5, struck out twice, and left 5 runners on base. And this follows his three strikeouts in game one.

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What’s particularly embarrassing is that in some of these at-bats, Rodriguez doesn’t even seem to be able to hit a foul ball.

Kevin Long is said to be the best hitting coach in baseball, but he
seems utterly powerless to do anything about the hitch Rodriguez has
developed in his swing. No one has been crueler – or more accurate –
than ESPN’s Stephen Austin, who this morning said of A-Rod’s batting
woes that, “We’re not talkin’ 98 miles per hour, his bat is so slow on
90-91 mph fastballs he ca’t get round on that? And not only that he’s
startin’ to look a little bit chubby, I’m telling’ you right now.”

Stephen A. is right. I hadn’t thought about it, but now, looking at
the replays of last night’s game, I have to wonder: has someone put
A-Rod’s uniforms in a too hot drier? Or is he ordering from the same KFC
as the Red Sox? Whatever the reason for an expanding Rodriguez and his
shrinking batting average, it’s about time Girardi considered sitting
him down and playing Eric Chavez against right-handers like Miguel
Gonzalez, who starts for the Orioles tomorrow in game three.

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C.C., I Was Just Kidding — You CAN Win the Big One

If you didn’t stay up last night to see it, you missed a classic. Russell martin — or “Thank God For Russell” Martin, as he’s known in my house — belted a long shot off Jim Johnson in the 9th inning to give the Yankees 3-2 lead. And then it seemed like everyone in the Yankees lineup got a hit.

Except, of course, Alex Rodriguez, who once again looked like he was swinging at insects (I don’t remember him hitting so much as a foul all night).

It was just about a perfect night for the Yanks to dump some demons, including C.C. Sabathia, who, I’m told, is tired of hearing the carping, mostly from me, that he can’t win the big game. Still, I think Joe Girardi erred in leaving him in to get two outs in the 9th – 120 pitches is just too much.

]

In recent years Yankee fans are used to big first-game-of-the-series
wins followed by humiliating flops, but this time it doesn’t’ feel like
it’s going to be that way. This newer, deeper roster is faster and more
resilient than any the team has had since the late 1990s. For instance,
in the 9th inning, when the Yankees, up 7-2, had Gardner in left and
Ichiro in center for defensive purposes, and I thought, Yes, Girardi
finally has all the parts he needs to make this engine go.

Suddenly, for the first time on months, the Orioles don’t seem so
menacing. And Pettitte going tomorrow night at Camden yards with a
thoroughly rested Robertson and Soriano seems like a sure thing.

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Yanks Can’t Afford To Lose Game One

On paper, it looks like a mismatch, but Yankees fans who have watched their team sink while the Orioles soared over the last third of the season know that this isn’t so.

In overall batting, the Yanks lead by 18 points, .265 (5th best in the American League) to the Orioles .247 (No. 10), and in runs scored they have a healthy bulge – 804 (good for No. 2) to 712 (No. 9). In overall pitching, again a slight edge for New York – a 3.85 ERA (5th) to Baltimore’s 3.90 (6th).. The starting pitchers have an even bigger advantage – 4.05 to 4.42 (6th and 9th respectively). You have to go all the way to the bullpen to find a plus on the Birds’ side of the ledger: their 3.00 ERA for relievers is the league’s 3rd best, while the Yanks are mediocre at 3.43 for 7th place.

]

If these numbers, however, told the full story, then it shouldn’t
have taken the Yankees until the last day of the season to nail down the
division. A case in point is tonight’s match-up in Game One. C. C.
Sabathia is the Yanks’ ace, though I’ve always been skeptical of
according him that title. Nonetheless, he’s 15-6 while Jason Hammel, the
Orioles starter, is just 8-6. No contest, right? Not exactly. Hammel
has missed much of the season due to injury, but in 20 games his ERA is
3.43, just a fraction higher than Sabathia’s at 3.38.

How crucial is tonight’s game? Well, in a best of five series, you
can’t afford to lose Game One when you’re playing at home and you have
your best starter on the mound.

But Game Two should give the Yankees a boost. Andy Pettitte — the
2nd best postseason starter in Yankee history, behind only Whitey Ford –
is 5-4. (You”ll remember he missed a chunk of the season with a
fractured foot.) But he has the lowest ERA , 2.87, of any starter on
either team, while the Orioles’ Wei-Yin Chen has scarcely been much
better than average at 12-10 and 4.02.

There are reasons, though small ones, to think that the postseason
Yankees might be better than the team we watched from the end of August
through September. For one thing, they have more speed. Brett Gardner,
who missed nearly the entire season, is a superb pinch runner and
defensive replacement. Ditto for Eduardo Nunez in the infield, though
even if you don’t think Nunez is a good enough fielder at shortstop,
you still want to get him into the lineup because of his remarkable 11
stolen bases (against 2 thrown out) in just 38 games. In Ichiro Suzuki,
who batted .322 as a Yankee and stole 14 bases in 19 tries, the Yanks
have more speed in the outfield than any Yankees team in recent memory.

And while we’re talking about speed, did anyone notice that despite
having such a disappointing season, Alex Rodriguez stole 13 bases in 14
attempts? The truth is that the Yankees, although they’re a much older
team, are considerably more nimble than the plodding Orioles, with 93
stolen bases to Baltimore’s 58.

The Yankees really need to win these first two games in New York
because Game Three matches Miguel Gonzalez (9-4, 3.25) against Huroki
Kuroda, who was very good over the course of the season (16-11, 3.32)
but, at age 37, looked to be tiring visibly over the last weeks of the
season with 7 sub-par starts out of eight. And in Game Four, the Orioles
will pitch Undecided against Phil Hughes, and I’ll take Undecided over
Hughes in and every time.

One more thing. With all this extra speed, Joe Girardi needs to turn
his runners loose and put on some plays instead of just sitting back and
waiting for the Yanks to hit home runs — and in the second half of the
season, mostly solo home runs – because the Orioles’ bullpen is deeper
and better. (Though Rafael Soriano , 2.26 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 67.2
innings, is a little better than Baltimore’s closer, Jim Johnson, 2.49
and 41 SOs in 68.2.)

I think the Yanks will win the first two games, and though things may
get tense when the series moves to Camden Yards, they will finish it
in good fashion back in the Bronx.

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Yankees 2012: OK But No Cigar…Yet

Is it possible that following one team up close, day by day, for an entire season, can actually give you a distorted rather than accurate perception of how good they are?

Like many Yankee fans, I’ve been ruthlessly criticizing the team’s performance, or at least its performance since the All-Star break. Now, after the breathtaking thoroughness of the three-game sweep of the Red Sox, I find that they actually had the best record in the American League. I didn’t even see the possibility of that happening during the final week. Midway through September I simply assumed that the Texas Rangers, the Oakland As, the Detroit Tigers, and probably the Baltimore Orioles would finish with better won-lost records than the Yankees.

]

But the Yanks finished the season in a mad rush, winning three games from
a hated rival by a collective score of 28-7. They did everything that
they hadn’t been doing coming down the stretch — namely scoring runs,
getting hits with runners on base, and coming from behind to win in the
9th inning (as they did Tuesday night against Boston, winning 4-3 —
something they had failed to do in 58 games this year.

So, when you have the best record in the league, you must have been
doing everything right, right? I guess by definition much of the
criticism that I and many others had leveled at the team was unfair.

I guess, especially since the Yanks suffered an incredible run of
injuries, losing the greatest closer in the history of baseball, Mariano
Rivera, as well as their big stud new right-handed started, Michael
Pineda – both for the entire season. And on top of that, Bret Gardner,
their only real speed merchant, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Andy
Pettitte, C.C. Sabathia, and several other players for large chunks of
the season. Give the Yankees half of that lost time back again, and God
knows how many games they would have won – 105 or maybe even 110 games
sound right? I think so.

And yet … I just can’t shake the feeling that the Yankees’ real
problem this season wasn’t injuries but the sub-par performance of the
players on the field. It seemed that every Yankee who turned in a good
performance on one side of the ledger took it back on the other side.

For instance, Curtis Granderson, a fine centerfielder and terrific
children’s book author, hit 43 home runs, nearly tying Miguel Cabrera
for the league lead. How do you complain about a guy who plays a great
centerfield and hits 43 home runs? And yet, the Grandy Man — thank
you, John Sterling — batted just .232 this year, 30 points off his
career average, and he struck out a staggering 195 times. One of my
primary images I take with me from the 2012 season is Granderson, with
runners on base, going down swinging at pitches so low they were
actually skimming off home plate, swinging and still missing even though
he was dipping so low that his right knee was actually on the ground.

And then there’s Russell Martin. It probably sounds picky to criticize a good
defensive catcher who hits 21 home runs, but Martin finished at .211, 26
points lower than last year, and for most of the season was hovering
around 195.

And Andruw Jones, who showed some power, 14 home runs, and was a fine
left fielder, hit just .197 – 50 points lower than last year.

Even Robinson Cano, who spent much of the second half of the season
around .295 and looking lackadaisical in the field. His crazy finish –
particularly the memory of last night’s final game, the AL East
clincher, in which he hit he got four hits, two of them homers, and drove
in six runs – makes his whole season look just a little better than it
really was.

I could do this with just about every Yankee – except for Derek
Jeter, who was, clearly, the team MVP this year even over Robinson Cano.
If all the above and A-Rod and Teixeira, the Yankee would have never
had a second half slump and the Orioles wouldn’t have been breathing
down our necks in September.

So, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the 2012 Yankees are
underachievers, and I can’t help but feel uneasy going into the
playoffs, no matter who we play. Okay, I’m cheered that we clobbered
the Red Sox in those last three games, but, after all, was that team really
the Red Sox? Without Big Papi in the lineup, they seem more like a
collection of refugees from Boston’s Triple-A affiliates a collection of
sad-sack .250 hitters lucky to be getting some big league playing time.
I was even saddened to see once-splendid Dice-K sent out there
yesterday like a sacrificial lamb.

Perhaps focusing on one team all year causes you to overanalyze and
underappreciate. You lose the perspective you get from watching all the
teams from a distance. But only one thing would make me feel better
about this year’s Yankees – winning the World Series.

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!@%&* Ichiro. And even more, &!&^%@ to texts from Sux fans.

This morning I woke up and brushed my teeth with soap instead of toothpaste. Not on purpose. And yet this still was more commonplace than last night’s turn of events. Well, by last night, I mean like mere hours ago. Dammit, Mariners. I HATE THE WEST COAST AND I HATE ALL OF YOU.

Before I get into the game, I’m gonna go ahead and lump another group of people in with Ichiro et al. I think it’s fair to say that people who resend text messages…AS IF I DIDN’T GET IT THE FIRST TIME…are right there in my “People to Kill List” for today.

I have a Red Sux “friend” (another one who thinks my fall rules of engagement are a joke and not something he needs to adhere to). And despite the fact that I patently ignore any texts/emails about baseball, he continues to send them. To both my phone and my email. Sometimes smoke signals. Run your own race. And more importantly, stop. poking. the bear.

Before the game, I expressed surprise that the best team in baseball was predicted to have only a 39% chance of winning, with one of their top 3 pitchers going. I almost felt bad for AJ.

It’s like when a chick comes up in softball and the pitcher makes a big production out of turning the outfield and yelling, “CHICK!! MOVE IN! NO, MORE!! KEEP COMING IN. ALL RIGHT, EVERYONE JUST GET IN THE INFIELD.”

But it’s pretty much etched in stone that if you wholly funnel all your concerns into one area, trouble will come from the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Trouble from the bottom, I call it. After a neighbor moved in below me…and brought her trampoline with her.

I liked living on the top floor because I couldn’t hear any footsteps over head. I didn’t bank on hearing head-to-ceiling bangs from underneath.

And I didn’t bank on last night’s game. one of the most painful games I’ve watched all year.

Some game notes:

AJ’s breaking ball and fastball were filthy tonight. 7 IP, 7H, 1 R, 6Ks, 3 BBs. And what the box score doesn’t say is that his command was even more impressive. I’m not kidding when I say that he was throwing low fastballs that grazed the corners so seamlessly, that at one point, I got chills like I get at the end of Scent of a Woman when Al Pacino finishes his speech.

I’d say there’s a good chance that was the first time AJ and Al have ever been compared.

The entire game was so neatly packaged (for the first 99.9% of it, anyway) that you know somewhere Michael Kay was kicking himself for taking a day off, screaming at the TV, “Someone say it! Someone say to ‘put a bow on it!'” AJ eats up 7, Hughes come in in the 8th, Mo in the 9th. It was like the Pitching Paradigm. Dave Eiland smugly turning to the rest of the pen, “OK, watch how these guys do it. And take notes.”

Well, I’ll just spell it out for anyone who missed the game: Phil Hughes pitched a 1-2-3 8th inning. Mariano Rivera pitched a 1-2-3 9th inning.

Mariano Rivera was staked to a 2-run lead. What’s more, he had struck out the first 2 batters of the 9th. He was 1 out from wrapping it up. (Maybe I should thank small favors. Like at least he didn’t let up the ding on an 0-2 count or something…).

Back to back fastballs to Mark Sweeney (pinch-hit double) and Ichiro Suzuki (two-run tater). “AAH, MO’S OLD! HE’S DONE!!” Shut your pie holes, haters. Mo is awesome, and it was the first run he’s let up SINCE JUNE. You gotta crap out at the table at some point. Everyone is going to throw a 7 at some point. Don’t listen to them, Mo. You’re aces. And Ichiro’s a little bitch.

And if this sentiment wasn’t supported by his patent refusal to learn English, then it is confirmed by his insistence on being known as just “Ichiro” and hence gets that printed on his jersey. Somewhere Ichiro’s got his little steno pad, crossing things off his “Steps to Dominating U.S. Culture” to-do list: “Known as one name. Check. Tomorrow I adopt third world country baby and a British accent.”

Before I get any Asian culture lesson slung at me, I’ll say that I get that last names are really first names in Japan. But 1.) We’re playing baseball in America and 2.) You don’t see Matsui with a Hideki jersey.

So is that really how you want to play it, small fry? Cuz I’ll play it like that. I’ll play it like Lionel Richie, baby. All night long. Why don’t you talk to ARod about how much he likes Madonna jokes? Or get the number from Chad Johnson for the “Players Who Didn’t Turn Magical Despite Changing Their Names” support group.

Or actually, get it from Brian Bruney. Who apparently thinks he’s Rick Vaughn. He changed his number to 99. Wow. You really aren’t quite in the position to be “quirky” yet, Bruney. First work on not hemorrhaging bases runner in every hold opportunity you come across, then..baby steps. #99, huh. Yeah. That’s why you sucked. Because of the number. Of course.

So there that. In terms of our offense…well, King Felix is pretty good. But we mildly knocked him around. You don’t see it in the box score, but those 8 hits were mostly on the screws. Which was promising. His curveball is good, but you’re gonna need a bigger boat with this team. There are only 1 or 2 arms in baseball that can consistently stymie the Yanks (cough, Halladay, cough) and it’s because he has 12,723 different pitches that’s anyone’s guess where they’ll land in the strike zone.

Johnny Damon knocked in doubles at his first 3 ABs, going 3 for 4 on the night. The rest of the team looked about right. Lot of 1-for-4’s across the board. Only 3Ks. Good stuff.

However, I’m not particularly thrilled about the pitch count, and I don’t mean from AJ. Yankees saw 104 pitches. Which tells me they’re jumping on the ball. Settle. Down. (And I realize that the admonition to “settle down” from someone with “crazy” attached to the front of her name probably means about as much as marital advice from that Jon and Kate show.)

I guess that’s really the only bright side of tonight. We hit the King, AJ looked incredible. Now we move on. And to my Sux buddy who likes to cover all means of communication, thereby ensuring that my cell phone takes its own life to end its suffering: sure, go ahead and keep it up.

Joshing around with a sleeping grizzly bear never harmed anyone, right?