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Archive for June, 2011

(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Even though the Yankees’ series against the Brewers is the only interleague matchup featuring two teams in first place, the showdown between the Phillies and Red Sox is the one being indentified as a “World Series Preview”. Such an oversight likely roles off the back of the Yankees, but you can’t blame the Brewers if they feel just a little bit slighted. Of course, the “preview” distinction shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern, at least not if history is a barometer.

Since interleague was established in 1997, there have only been five seasons during which the eventual World Series opponents met in the regular season (see chart below). Interestingly, in four of those five years, the team that lost the regular season series not only went on to win the Fall Classic, but did so rather easily. Therefore, if the Yankees and Phillies continue their opening game dominance, the Brewers and Red Sox shouldn’t take their respective losses too hard.  In fact, the outcome of the All Star Game will likely hold much greater sway over the World Series than an interleague matchup.

World Series Interleague Previews, Since 1997

Year AL NL Regular Season Result World Series Result
1999 Yankees Braves Braves win 2-1. Yankees win 4-0.
2000 Yankees Mets Yankees win 4-2. Yankees win 4-1.
2006 Tigers Cardinals Tigers win 3-0. Cardinals win 4-1
2007 Red Sox Rockies Rockies win 2-1. Red Sox win 4-0.
2009 Yankees Phillies Phillies win 2-1. Yankees win 4-2.

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Will we see the Brew Crew back in the Bronx during the post season? Or, will it be a Red October between Philadelphia and Boston? Both matchups are certainly plausible, but the 162-game marathon usually finds a way to offer up at least one surprise. So, while everyone’s attention is diverted back east, the real World Series preview could be taking place between the Indians and Diamondbacks in Arizona.

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When the Milwaukee Brewers take the field tonight in the Bronx, it will be the first time the team has played at Yankee Stadium since 1997, and the only time as a member of the National League. Even though the Brew Crew made the switch to the NL in 1998, and to the AL Central in 1994, it’s still hard to not think of them as an A.L. East rival.

Yankees Cumulative Regular Season Record, 1980-1989

Team W L W% RS RA HW-L RW-L
Minnesota Twins 71 43 0.623 631 477 38-19 33-24
Seattle Mariners 68 45 0.602 538 422 30-25 38-20
Baltimore Orioles 74 56 0.569 566 520 40-25 34-31
Kansas City Royals 68 52 0.567 544 526 39-21 29-31
Cleveland Indians 73 56 0.566 666 562 38-27 35-29
California Angels 63 49 0.563 531 485 36-18 27-31
Texas Rangers 62 54 0.534 572 520 38-21 24-33
Toronto Blue Jays 65 57 0.533 566 567 30-31 35-26
Oakland Athletics 61 54 0.530 514 503 36-21 25-33
Chicago White Sox 61 58 0.513 525 481 32-28 29-30
Boston Red Sox 63 60 0.512 605 587 31-30 32-30
Detroit Tigers 64 62 0.508 581 590 39-22 25-40
Milwaukee Brewers 61 62 0.496 533 559 39-23 22-39
Total 854 708 0.547 7372 6799 466-311 388-397

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Over the years, the Boston Red Sox have usually been the Yankees’ chief rival, but during ebbs in the two teams’ relationship, other franchises have stepped in to fill the void. For part of the 1980s, the Milwaukee Brewers were that team.

Yankees celebrate victory over the Brewers in the 1981 LDS. Rich Gossage recorded as save in all three games won by the Yankees.

The Yankees won more games than any other franchise in the 1980s (as George Steinbrenner was fond of pointing out), but the Brewers were the one team against which they had a losing record (albeit by only one game). During the decade, the two A.L. East teams also faced off in an often forgotten playoff series necessitated by the 1981 strike. In what turned out to be the first League Division Series in baseball history, the Yankees avoided blowing a 2-0 series lead by winning the deciding fifth game, but not before suffering two very embarrassing moments.

In the seventh inning of game 3, which was held at Yankee Stadium, an irate fan jumped out of the stands and tackled third base umpire Mike Reilly, who an inning earlier called Dave Winfield out on a close play. Luckily, Graig Nettles was able to pull the fan off Reilly before serious damage could be inflicted. The black eye given to the entire Stadium crowd, however, was not avoided.

I didn’t see him ‘til he hit me from the back. I haven’t been tackled like that since I played high school football.”Umpire Mike Reilly, quoted by AP, October 10, 1981

After dropping that game 5-3, the Yankees also lost the next one 2-1. In the process, the team went 0-7 with runners in scoring position, which infuriated the Boss. In particular, Steinbrenner fumed over a base running blunder by Rick Cerone that cost the Yankees a first and third opportunity in the seventh inning.

According to newspaper accounts, the volatile Yankees’ owner lashed into the team during a clubhouse rant, but the chief whipping boy was the Yankees’ catcher.  Perhaps still steaming from losing an arbitration case to him earlier that spring, Steinbrenner repeatedly told Cerone that he would be gone next year, which not only provoked an angry response, but also tears.

You’re all a bunch of over priced fat cats. If we lose, I’ll take the heat, but all of you will be gone. You’re an embarrassment.” – Yankees’ owner George M. Steinbrenner addressing the team after a game 4 loss in the 1981 LDS, as quoted by AP, October 11, 1981

The Yankees rallied to win the series against the Brewers and then swept Billy Martin’s Oakland Athletics in the ALCS. However, Steinbrenner’s anger was only temporarily abated. When the Yankees lost the final four games of the World Series to the Dodgers, after taking a 2-0 series lead no less, the Boss’ wrath was felt once again. This time, Steinbrenner expressed his dismay with a now infamous public apology.

Yount and Molitor were twin terrors against the Yankees during the 1980s.

Despite never being directly involved in a pennant race during the same season, the Yankees and Brewers always seemed to play competitive series punctuated by dramatic rallies and improbable comebacks. What’s more, at various points during the 1980s, both teams also featured several future Hall of Famers. Two such examples, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, also happened to be among the Yankees’ chief tormenters during the decade. The really Yankee killer, however, was left handed pitcher Teddy Higuera, who dominated the Bronx Bombers with relative ease. Not only did the Brewers’ lefty notch a decade best 12 wins (Floyd Bannister also had 12) against the Yankees, but he also ranked first in ERA and winning percentage among all pitchers with at least 75 innings.

Although the two teams will meet this week as distant interleague opponents, it’s still fun to hark back to the days of those great 1980s Brewers. Of course, the current squad, which includes such stars as Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, shouldn’t be taken for granted. After all, if each team maintains its current position in the standings, the Brewers next trip to the Bronx could come as soon as this October. With all eyes on the Red Sox vs. Phillies as a potential World Series preview, the real sneak peak could be taking place at Yankee Stadium.

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After being backed into a corner by Commissioner Bud Selig, Los Angeles Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt lashed out at Major League Baseball by filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. That’s what rats do.

McCourt and Selig have seldom seen eye-to-eye of late.

According to a press release released by the Dodgers, McCourt justified his decision by claiming that Selig’s refusal to approve a tentative media rights deal with FOX Sports was detrimental to the team. “I simply cannot allow the Commissioner to knowingly and intentionally be in a position to expose the Dodgers to financial risk any longer,” McCourt stated. If anything, the reckless owner has proven more than capable of doing that all on his own.

Needless to say, no one around baseball is laughing at the irony expressed by McCourt, but, the bankruptcy filing could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Although the filing’s motivation was likely to stave off an attempt by Selig to officially seize the team, it could eventually leave McCourt without an ally in the process. According to the Los Angeles Times, FOX has hinted that it would not be willing to have its proposed contract with the Dodgers consummated by a court ruling. If true, McCourt could find himself trying to scurry off his own sinking ship. That’s also what rats do.

Although the MLB bylaws seem to give the commissioner power over rouge owners like McCourt, it’s almost a given that enforcement would only come after a long and expensive legal battle. For that reason, baseball would be better off if the bankruptcy court is the entity that requires a sale. Even though that would give Selig and company less control over the next Dodgers’ owner, it would save them from costly litigation, further embarrassment, and the continued destruction of a flagship franchise. In the meantime, the bankruptcy filing does provide the Dodgers with enough liquidity to meet its short-term obligations, including payment of all salaries and benefits as well as funding of day-to-day operations.

As mentioned, the wild card in this latest soap opera is FOX, another irony considering many in Los Angeles believe the Dodgers began losing a grip on the city when it owned the team. To many, FOX and Frank McCourt are almost interchangeable, which is one reason the rumored media rights deal has been met with so much suspicion.

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A.J. Burnett tied a major league record shared by 54 others when he struck out four batters in the sixth inning of last night’s game against the Rockies. In addition to becoming the first Yankee to accomplish the feat, Burnett also became only the second pitcher to do it on at least two different occasions (he previously turned the trick on July 5, 2002 as a member of the Marlins). However, don’t blame Chuck Finley if he isn’t impressed. The Angels’ and Indians’ lefthander did it three times.

Chuck Finley struck out four batters in one inning on three different occasions.

Four strike outs in one inning is a rare enough feat. Since 1876, there have been 3,545,338 major league innings, so, in order to display the frequency of this accomplishment, scientific notation is needed. Considering the difficulty of getting four and the logistical barriers to five, Burnett’s shared record might be one of baseball’s most unbreakable. Just don’t tell that to Cliff Johnson.

On April 7, 1976, one day before the start of the regular season, the Houston Astros played an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in the New Orleans Superdome. The Astros starting battery that afternoon was Joe Niekro and Cliff Johnson, a utility man who played defense with his bat. The combination of Johnson’s suspect glove and Niekro’s knuckleball proved to be a recipe for a very unusual inning.

In the opening frame of the pre-season finale, Niekro faced six batters and struck out five. How was that possible? Johnson also had five passed balls in the inning, including two on third strikes. Had the game taken place one day later, the Astros’ knuckleballer would have owned one of the most improbable records in major league history. Even without the historical implications, Johnson had an inning he’ll probably never forget.

It was just a tough pitch to handle today. It was doing a little bit of everything. He was throwing it harder and the break on it was different.” – Cliff Johnson, quoted by AP, April 7, 1976

Although that inning in New Orleans wasn’t one of Johnson’s best moments in the big leagues, it might have been the turning point in Niekro’s career. Up until that point, the righthander was a journeyman already on his fifth major league team. Once known as a control artist who featured a more classic repertoire of fastball, slider and curve, Niekro was now in the process of reinventing himself as a knuckleball specialist.

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Heading into the second half of the interleague schedule, the American League holds a 66-60 advantage over the National League. If that winning percentage holds, it will continue the senior circuit’s gradual improvement since losing over 60% of interleague contests in 2006.

Historical Interleague Records, By League

Note: Data as of June 23, 2011
Source: MLB.com

Most experts agree that the American League’s recent dominance of interleague matchups has been the result of having better players and stronger teams. Less clear, however, is whether one league or another enjoys an inherent interleague advantage, all else being equal.

For a recent article, I compiled aggregate data for all interleague-related plate appearances, which were defined as follows: DHs hitting in an AL park; pitchers hitting in a NL park; and pinch hitters batting in the ninth slot in a NL park. Not surprisingly, American League DHs posted an OPS that was 0.084 points higher, while National League pitchers outperformed by 0.070 OPS points.  What was interesting, however, is that when all of the relevant at bats were totaled, the combined performance was nearly identical. In other words, it seems as if neither league enjoys an overall advantage during interleague play.

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Jorge Posada’s sixth inning home run in the first game of today’s day/night doubleheader was his seventh of the season, but first since April 24. The two-run blast, which gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead, also ended the longest homerless streak in Posada’s career. The 38-game drought was one day longer than a previous power outage that lasted between the 2002 and 2003 seasons.

Power Outages Among Yankees’ Regulars

Player Tm Strk Start End G AB BA OBP SLG
Brett Gardner NYY 7/5/2010 4/19/2011 84 273 0.212 0.337 0.297
Derek Jeter NYY 5/10/1997 8/6/1997 75 311 0.289 0.359 0.357
Russell Martin LAD 9/27/2008 6/19/2009 62 222 0.239 0.350 0.279
Robinson Cano NYY 5/9/2008 6/24/2008 41 153 0.288 0.319 0.366
Jorge Posada NYY 4/24/2011 6/19/2011 38 124 0.250 0.329 0.323
Nick Swisher OAK 4/15/2005 6/15/2005 33 117 0.222 0.300 0.274
Alex Rodriguez SEA 7/8/1994 6/11/1995 32 101 0.228 0.248 0.257
Curtis Granderson DET 6/24/2006 7/28/2006 27 105 0.276 0.333 0.324
Mark Teixeira NYY 6/13/2009 7/8/2009 23 92 0.261 0.370 0.326

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Posada’s career-high homerless streaks ranks in the middle of the pack when compared to similar stretches endured by the other regulars in the Yankees’ lineup. Not surprisingly, the longest streak without a homer belongs to Brett Gardner, while the shortest span between home runs is enjoyed by Mark Teixeira. However, it is interesting to note that regardless of each hitter’s profile, their home run drought was also accompanied by a more pervasive slump.

Although Posada has already shown signs that his season-long doldrums are in the past (he was hitting .432/.450/.514 in his previous 40 plate appearances entering today’s action), perhaps this afternoon’s homerun is the final confirmation? The Yankees could definitely use more power from the DH slot, and if he is anywhere near his old self, Posada is more than capable of supplying it.

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Aside from Murders Row, no other baseball team nickname has been as evocative and, perhaps intimidating, as the Big Red Machine label placed upon Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati ballclub.

According to most accounts, the Reds were given their colorful nickname by a Cincinnati Enquirer sportswriter named Bob Hertzel. However, the name was introduced in the summer of 1969, before the team was anything but big and not exactly a machine. In fact, before the 1970 season, the Reds had won only one pennant in the previous 29 seasons.

Even though it may have been a bit presumptuous at the time, the organization ran with the Big Red Machine moniker, even going so far as to issue a team Christmas card featuring a caricature of new manager Anderson driving a tractor. “Holiday Greetings from the Big Red Machine”, the card read.

Entering 1970, the Reds were brimming with confidence, and not long after the season began, every other National League team understood why. In April, Anderson’s Reds burst out of the gate with a 16-6 record and never looked back. By the All Star break, they were 10 games up in the standings and coasting to the franchise’s first pennant since 1961. After years of underperforming expectations, Anderson had his ballclub running like a well-oiled machine…a Big Red one in fact.

The Reds lost the 1970 World Series to the Baltimore Orioles, but after missing the playoffs in 1971, bounced back to win four NL West titles, three pennants and two World Series over the next five years. The team’s two championships occurred in 1975 and 1976 (the latter a sweep over the Yankees), making the Big Red Machine the first National League team to repeat since the 1921-1922 New York Giants.

The Big Red Machine

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Despite ranking atop most offensive categories, something still seems amiss with the Yankees’ lineup. Although several theories have surfaced to explain this disconnect, most do not stand up to scrutiny.  In other words, this could very well be a case of perception trumping reality. So, if the Yankees’ offense hasn’t been deficient, what is leading to the pervasive feeling that it has?

There is one area in which the Yankees’ offense has underperformed: high leverage situations. Leverage is a measure that quantifies the importance of an at bat by using win expectancy to classify individual game situations (click here for a leverage index chart). Therefore, a high leverage situation is one in which the game is on the line. Needless to say, although these events are much rarer (fangraphs estimates that 60% of all at bats are low leverage), the outcomes are more likely to be remembered.

Yankees Performance in High Leverage, 2002-2011

Note: MLB ranking listed above each bar.
Source: fangraphs.com

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In the early days of the National League, the Chicago franchise was the class of the new circuit. Then called the White Stockings, the team won the championship in six of the league’s first 11 seasons. Led by Hall of Famers like Cap Anson, King Kelly, John Clarkson and Al Spalding (as well as a lesser known contributor named Billy Sunday, who would later gain notoriety as a world-renowned evangelical preacher), the Chicago teams of 1880s were one of the baseball’s first dynasties.

In 1876, the Chicago White Stockings were the first champions of the National League.

After a decade of futility, the Cubs, as they were now being called, had another run of success from 1906 to 1910. Over that five-year span, the team won two World Series and four pennants, and each season won at least 99 games. In fact, the one year the Cubs didn’t win the pennant, they won 104, but still finished six games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Since the second Cubs’ mini-dynasty, the team’s history has been mostly marred by ineptitude or sudden failure just before final victory. As a result, the entire organization has taken on the persona of hard luck losers. Some have attributed that fate to a curse, but Billy Goat or not, the last 100 years haven’t been very kind to the north-siders.

A Yankees series versus the Cubs is baseball’s study in contrast. On one side is the sport’s most storied and successful franchise, while across the field is a team best known for its epic futility. However, despite being miles apart from the Yankees in terms of accomplishments, the Cubs remain in the same ballpark when it comes to fan support.

In 1908, the Cubs won 99 games and repeated as World Series Champions, while the New York Highlanders, as the Yankees were then called, lost 103 games, the most in franchise history. At the point in time, the Cubs might have been considered the sport’s elite, while the Yankees would have been a candidate for laughing stock, but, needless to say, a lot has changed since then. Listed below are five interesting historical tidbits that help put the two franchises’ reversal of fortune in proper perspective.

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Mariano Rivera works the count in an at bat against the Mets.

This afternoon’s game at Wrigley Field kicks off the Yankees’ foray into National League ballparks. Unfortunately for the suddenly resurgent Jorge Posada, that means the Yankees will be without the DH for nine of the next 15 games. However, the team won’t be completely hamstrung in those contests. In addition to CC Sabathia, who has a respectable line of .258/.265/.381 for a pitcher, the Yankees’ rotation now also includes Brian Gordon, a converted outfielder with over 4,000 minor league plate appearances.

Since interleague play began in 1997, Yankees’ pitchers haven’t had much success swinging the bat. Over that period, 51 different hurlers have come to the plate, but only 16 have recorded at least one hit. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina lead all Yankees’ pitchers with five hits during the interleague era, but they needed 43 and 29 at bats, respectively, to do it. Pettitte is also the only hurler with more than one extra base hit and more than two RBIs.

Yankees’ Pitchers in Interleague Play, Ranked by PAs

Player PA AB R H 2B RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
Andy Pettitte 49 43 1 5 2 3 1 20 0.116 0.136 0.163
Mike Mussina 31 29 2 5 0 1 1 5 0.172 0.200 0.172
O. Hernandez 21 19 1 1 0 0 0 12 0.053 0.053 0.053
Roger Clemens 18 15 1 3 1 1 0 8 0.200 0.188 0.267
Chien-Ming Wang 15 14 1 0 0 0 0 8 0.000 0.000 0.000
David Wells 15 14 0 2 1 0 0 5 0.143 0.143 0.214
Randy Johnson 14 14 0 1 0 0 0 6 0.071 0.071 0.071
David Cone 13 12 2 2 1 2 0 3 0.167 0.167 0.250
Hideki Irabu 13 9 0 1 0 0 1 6 0.111 0.200 0.111
Jose Contreras 11 11 0 0 0 0 0 7 0.000 0.000 0.000
Javier Vazquez 10 5 1 1 1 0 2 0 0.200 0.429 0.400
CC Sabathia 9 9 1 2 0 1 0 4 0.222 0.222 0.222
A.J. Burnett 8 6 0 1 0 0 0 2 0.167 0.167 0.167
Joba Chamberlain 8 5 0 0 0 0 1 1 0.000 0.167 0.000
Total (All) 336 288 12 30 8 11 14 126 0.104 0.145 0.132

Note: Pitchers with at least seven plate appearances displayed.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

As evident from the cumulative statistics, Yankees’ pitchers haven’t had a standout game in interleague play. The best individual performance belongs to Mussina, who went 2-3 with a run scored against the San Diego Padres on June 23, 2002. Mussina’s two hit performance remains the only time that a Yankees’ pitcher recorded more than one hit in an interleague game. In terms of WPA, however, Mariano Rivera ranks as the top dog. The great closer’s bases loaded walk against the Mets’ Francisco Rodriguez on June 28, 2009 contributed an RBI and a WPA of 0.081, adding another distinction to the game in which Rivera recorded his 500th save.

If past performance is an indication, the Yankees shouldn’t expect much of an offensive contribution from their pitchers during interleague play. Then again, staying off the bases might actually be for the best. Just ask Chien-Ming Wang.

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