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Wild Card: Low on Rocket Fuel?
On May 6, when Roger Clemens announced to a sold-out Yankee Stadium crowd that he had just signed a deal to return to the Yankees, the team was 13-15 (.464), five-and-a-half games behind the Red Sox in the American League East and in eighth place in the Wild Card race. By the time Clemens took the mound for his first start of the season, a win at home against the Pirates on June 9, the Yankees were 28-31 (.475), 10.5 games behind the Red Sox in the East and in sixth place in the Wild Card race, 5.5 games behind the Tigers.
This morning, after a 13-9 loss to the White Sox on Thursday, the Yankees are 58-50 (.537), eight games behind the Sox in the AL East, but just three games behind the Indians in third place in the Wild Card race. The Yankees have very nearly salvaged their season, going 30-19 (.612) since Clemens joined the team, but how much has Clemens himself actually had to do with that?
Clemens has made 11 starts for the Yankees this season, six of which have been quality starts. The Yankees have won four of those games. The Yankees lost his second start of the season 2-0 to Oliver Perez and the Mets and, on July 7, they lost a game in which Clemens held the Angels to one run over eight innings. Still, five “non-quality” starts in 11 tries is an awfully low ratio for a guy who is being paid a savior’s ransom. Could it be that the Rocket is finally out of fuel?
Actually, yes. After striking out 22 men in his first 17 2/3 innings, Clemens has had a rather alarming power outage, striking out 21 in his past 48 1/3 innings pitched. For some context, outside of his second season, in 1985, which ended early due to a rotator cuff injury, Clemens has never struck out fewer than 7.51 men per nine innings over a full season and his career average is 8.56 K/9. Thus far this year, his mark is 5.86 K/9 and his rate over those last eight starts has been a Chien-Ming Wang-like 3.91 K/9.0 IP
That difference reflects the fact that Clemens has lost a good 5 mph off his fastball since his first stint as a Yankee. In fact, Clemens has a lost a good 5 mph off all of his pitches. When Clemens was a young stud with the Red Sox, he earned his nickname by blowing away hitters with a rising four-seam fastball that would often burst into the upper 90s. For example, in his 20-strikeout game in 1986, Clemens, according to his autobiography published the following year, “basically threw cross-seamers [rising four-seam fastballs] and with-seamers [tailing two-seam fastballs] all night. I think I threw 20 breaking balls all night, and got 14 of the strikeouts on the two fastballs.” The breaking balls he refers to likely included his since-abandoned curveball and the slider that is now his third-best pitch. By the time Clemens joined the dynastic Yankees around the turn of the millennium, his fastball had settled in around 95-96 and he would just as frequently get swinging third strikes with his 91 mph split-finger fastball as with his high heat. Take for example his one-hit shutout of the Mariners in Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS. In that game, Clemens struck out 15 Mariners, seven on fastballs, six on splitters, and two on sliders. All six of the splitter strikeouts (which included two of current teammate Alex Rodriguez) were swinging.
Fast forward to the Roger Clemens who was bounced in the second inning yesterday after allowing eight runs on nine hits (the latter a career high for a single inning) to the scuffling White Sox. It’s an unfair comparison to be sure, comparing two of the best games of one of the best pitchers who ever lived to one of his worst outings, but his repertoire in yesterday’s game was not unlike that which he had shown in his other starts for the Yankees this year. He still throws the fastball, splitter, and slider in that order, but the fastball is now down to 90-91 mph (he did hit 92 three times on the YES Network’s gun yesterday, but the game announcers confirmed my impression that he had not done so very often this year), while his splitter is down in the 86-87 mph. Clemens can no longer blow opposing hitters away; instead he must rely on the still-impressive break on his splitter (which he calls Mr. Splittee), the deception of his slider, and his still-excellent control of his fastball (career walk rate: 2.89 BB/9; 2007 walk rate: 2.45 BB/9). Yesterday he had neither his usual control (his fastball was floating up in the zone), nor much bite on his splitter (only twice in 39 pitches did a batter swing and miss). Lacking those two things, he was unable to get the White Sox out (though a botched double play ball by Robinson Cano with two on and one out in the second didn’t help).
Clemens' struggles are typical of aging pitchers, though they also highlight the reason why, knuckleballers aside, the pitchers with the most longevity tend to be power pitchers. Losing 5 mph off a fastball that topped out in the high 80s or even at 90-91 results in a batting practice fastball. Clemens, however, has lost those 5 mph and still has a low-90s heater while throwing his off-speed pitches in the mid-80s. Mix in an out-pitch breaking ball (his splitter), and you still have an effective major-league pitcher. The same can be said of Curt Schilling and his splitter, Nolan Ryan or Bert Blyleven and their curveballs, or former Yankee Randy Johnson and his slider. The problem Johnson had in New York was that he’d lost the tilt on his slider and the pitch was flattening out in the zone and getting hit (a problem that likely stemmed from the back problems that may have just ended his career). With Clemens, the Yankees are walking a similarly fine line between having a legitimate ace (Clemens with break and location) and a former great who’s past his expiration date.
Labels: Wild Card
AL West: All About Texas
Over the first four months of this AL West blog's existence, I haven't written a whole lot about the Rangers, and Lonestar State inhabitants have made sure that I'm aware of this. But in my own defense, outside of the team's unadulterated horrendousness (something I did cover), which captivating Rangers storylines have I overlooked? Their four-game winning streak in July? Michael Young's magnificent All-Star campaign (he's hitting an underwhelming .301 with four homers)? Brandon McCarthy's sparkling, rotation-leading 5.18 ERA?
Texas isn't exactly a beacon of arresting subject matter. As the worst team in the division (and one of the worst teams in baseball), the Rangers just haven't been too relevant. But that changed in a big way when Texas dealt the two most highly regarded players at the trade deadline. So Rangers faithful, here you go -- an entry devoted to the franchise from Arlington ...
The Rangers undoubtedly made the biggest splash at the deadline. On Tuesday, Texas formally announced a trade that sent first baseman Mark Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay to Atlanta for catcher/first baseman Jarrod Saltalamacchia, minor-league shortstop Elvis Andrus and pitchers Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones. Later in the day, the Rangers flipped Eric Gagne for Red Sox pitcher Kason Gabbard and minor-league outfielders Engel Beltre and David Murphy. Touché, Jon Daniels -- I'm a big fan of the Texas GM's moves. Here are four big reasons why:
1. If it's broke, fix it: Eleven games below .500 and 14 1/2 games out of first place, it's clear that these Rangers just weren't built to succeed. Unlike a few other perennial losers (Washington and Baltimore come to mind), the Rangers actually recognized their ineptitude and shook things up. True, they gave up their best bat and best arm, but they received a pair of young major leaguers and -- more important -- stocked their farm system with some extremely high-ceiling talent (especially Andrus, Harrison and Beltre). This team's building for the future, which is more than can be said for a number of cellar-dwellers that stood pat at the deadline.
2. Everything with a grain of Salty: Saltalamacchia is undoubtedly the crown jewel of Texas' haul. Entering the season, Salty was Atlanta's No. 1 prospect, according to Baseball America. The dependable BA Prospect Handbook had this to say about him in its 2007 edition: "Saltalamacchia's calling card is his ability to hit and drive the ball from both sides of the plate. He has one of the sweetest swings in the game from the left side, displaying natural loft that should produce solid home run numbers." With Gerald Laird behind the plate, Saltalamacchia will spend most of his time at first base, at least for the time being. A talented, young first baseman in Texas with the ability to drive the ball from both sides of the plate -- sound familiar? While Saltalamacchia has huge shoes to fill (Teixeira hit at least 30 homers and 110 RBIs from 2004-06), there's just something about this kid that gives me a really good vibe.
3. Expanded role for C.J. Wilson: With the departure of Gagne, everyone in the bullpen takes on an increased responsibility. With Akinori Otsuka out until late August, Rangers manager Ron Washington has indicated that save opportunities will be split between Wilson, Joaquin Benoit and Frank Francisco. Personally, I think Texas should opt for Wilson. I'm a big fan of the 26-year-old south paw with a 2.44 ERA and .182 batting average against. He boasts nasty stuff that is tailor-made for the ninth inning. Since the All-Star break, he's been almost unhittable (2-0, 9 IP, 0 ERA, 0.33 WHIP, 12 K, 1 BB). Wilson has also nailed down the first two saves in the post-Gagne era.
4. Maybe Tom Hicks isn't dirt cheap: In the aftermath of the Teixeira trade, the Rangers owner publicly stated that he offered Tex an eight-year, $140 million deal (something which Teixeira has confirmed). In a surprise to many, Hicks showed that he's willing to shell out a large chunk of dough, which is great news for the Rangers heading into free agency this winter. This money could go to one of the premier center fielders (Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter) on the market.
Labels: AL West
NL East: Gradin' the Tradin'
Before Tuesday's trading deadline, the NL East was even busier than Lindsay Lohan's now-discarded alcohol-detecting anklet on a weeknight. Well, three-fifths of the division was busier; the Nationals (13 games back) seemed happy to accept their fate and wait for that new ballpark next year, and the Marlins (10 games back) seemed happy to accept their fate and wait for, I don't know, the Messiah? The division's three powers, however, were involved in many of the deadline's biggest moves—with rather different results.
So Salty wasn't exactly freed in the way his legion of supporters in Atlanta (and what I like to imagine to be a legion of supporters who read the Fungoes blog) would have hoped. Even so, GM John Schuerholz must be commended for his deadline efforts. What Schuerholz's moves tell me is this: He believes that this team can win the World Series, this year. He realizes that the window is closing, as his best two players are a 40-year-old John Smoltz and a 35-year-old Chipper Jones, and he was determined to give them the extra support to make a run at the second championship that has eluded him and them for so long. So he sacrificed his organization's second-best (Andrus), third-best (Harrison), 14th-best (Jones) and 18th-best (Feliz) prospects, according to Baseball America, to acquire a top-five first baseman, a strikeout-throwing eighth-inning reliever, and two quality bullpen lefties, when he had none. Schuerholz is going for it all, and he's going for it now -- and any Braves fan's got to love it, and any fan of the Braves‚ opponents has got to respect (and fear) the effort.
Mets Acquired 2B Luis Castillo from Twins for C Drew Butera and OF Dustin Martin.
Omar Minaya proved far less willing than Schuerholz to part with his top prospects (including outfielders Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez) for relief help in the form of Washington's dependable closer Chad Cordero, so the Mets' only deadline bounty is a new second baseman whose best days are well behind him, and who, I would argue, doesn't even represent much of an upgrade over Ruben Gotay. Minaya's said to be enamored with the triumverate of switch-hitters he now has atop the lineup -- Jose Reyes, Castillo, and Carlos Beltran.
However, what good is a switch-hitter if he can't really hit? Castillo currently boasts a .302 batting average, but he has no power (only 14 extra base hits, and zero home runs) and nowhere near the speed he used to (nine steals, after swiping 48 five years ago). In half the at-bats, Gotay has three fewer extra-base hits and a .350 average. Defensively, Castillo's .819 zone rating doesn't put him in the majors' top 10 -- and Gotay's just behind him, at .809. The name Brian Roberts (who might be the baseball's second best two-bagger behind Chase Utley) was being bandied about, and while we can't know how active talks between the Mets and Orioles actually were, it seems to me that Roberts would be worth a boatload of prospects and would have made a real difference in the Mets' fortunes. As it is, it's almost as if they didn't do anything at all.
Phillies GM Pat Gillick acquired a few useful pieces. He acted quickly and prudently in picking up Iguchi after Utley went down with a broken hand—even though Iguchi was hitting only .251 with Chicago, something's clearly rotten in the South Side this season and the change of scenery seems to have already done him good (he's at .467 so far in Philadelphia). We all know how desperately the Phillies need starting pitching, and this was obviously not a good year to trade for help in that arena at the deadline. Even so, Lohse has proven that he can be successful in the National League (don't forget that he was one of the NL's top starters in April (2.88 ERA) before falling dramatically back to earth thereafter. As it is, his current 4.58 mark, while unspectacular, is better than all the Phils, besides Cole Hamels, who have made more than 9 starts. Mateo represents a low-risk gamble.
Labels: NL East
AL Central: The RBI Baseball king
CLEVELAND -- Few people look more comfortable or content than Josh Barfield. Sitting on a plush couch in the Cleveland clubhouse with a movie on and a rain delay outside, the young second baseman is as relaxed as can be. Glaciers seem spry by comparison.
Until, that is, there's talk of RBI Baseball.
At my very mention of the 8-bit Nintendo game from 1987 -- and the Indians' recent 16-player, double-elimination tournament -- Barfield hops off the couch and approaches with a wide grin on his face.
"I've always got time to talk about my championship," he says with a laugh.
Only he's not kidding about his enthusiasm. A few weeks ago the Indians took their RBI Baseball obsession to the next level in the form of the tournament, with Jake Westbrook serving as de facto commissioner.
"I'm probably the worst player ever, but I still wanted to be involved with it," says the righty starting pitcher, who didn't play but kept meticulous brackets. "I just like to scream and yell at people."
The only ground rule: the AL and NL All-Star teams were off-limits, leaving Boston, California, Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, New York (Mets), San Francisco and St. Louis up for grabs.
RBI Baseball was made 20 years ago and, surprisingly, there are still two active players in Roger Clemens and Julio Franco. But, for perspective, there are just as many current managers (Phil Garner and Willie Randolph), far more Hall of Famers (13 in all, from Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson to Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn) and plenty of other odd occupations, as detailed at Gantry's RBI Baseball page.
Westbrook and a few others players collaborated to seed the Indians' field of 13 players and three clubhouse employees, with eventual champ Barfield seeded only seventh.
"He's new to the team, and we hadn't really seen him play," says Westbrook. "He ended up rolling right through it undefeated."
But it wasn't quite so easy. Barfield, with Detroit as his go-to team, won all four games by one run, winning decisions of 2-1, 3-2, 3-2 and 3-2, with the final score a victory over Victor Martinez for the championship.
"Yeah, you make one mistake and someone can hit one out of the stadium," says Barfield, admitting to sweaty palms on the old school NES controller. "Victor's real good and I had to beat him twice. C.C. [Sabathia]'s good and I never like playing him. It got intense, but I found a way to advance."
The game of the tournament was between V-Mart (Minnesota) and Sabathia (Detroit) to emerge from the loser's bracket and challenge Barfield for the title. A costly error by Sabathia's shortstop, Alan Trammel, in the 15th inning paved the way for a 2-1 Martinez victory.
"He had runners on first and second," Sabathia recalls in no small amount of pain. "It was a ground ball to short, and he made an error. The next hitter got an RBI, but that would have been an inning-ending double play."
With the first tournament over, naturally the Indians reseeded the field -- Barfield, V-Mart and Sabathia as the top three seeds -- and have begun again.
Of course, his Indians teammates should have done a better job scouting Barfield in the first place. He's no run-of-the-mill gamer. In the offseason, he participated in the so-called Professional Baseball Gaming League, started by Johnny Damon, in which 15 pro ballplayers competitively play "Project Gotham Racing" in the offseason. Red Sox minor league reliever Craig Hansen won the inaugural championship.
"That was a lot of fun," Barfield says. "We played a couple matches a week online. And then we had the finals Super Bowl week down in Miami."
In the meantime, however, the Indians are plenty satisfied sticking to Tengen's late '80s masterpiece, RBI Baseball, rather than those fancy new games with their superior graphics and features.
"It's strange," says Westbrook. "It's one of those things where you've got all these new games out, the Wii and Playstation and stuff like that, but I guess [RBI Baseball is] just our generation's game."
Adds Sabathia: "It's the best game ever. It's easy to play. It's got all the guys in there with real names."
Well, most of their real names. The system allows for only six letters per name, so there's a bit of shortening, like Calvin Schiraldi's name being squished to "Schrld" and Brett Saberhagen's to "Sbrhgn." After all, vowels are just suggestions, right?
There was no official trophy awarded to Cleveland's winner, but Barfield has made due with own makeshift prize.
"Bragging rights," he says. "I signed the bracket and put it above my locker so everyone will see it when they walk in."
Labels: AL Central
NL West: A four-team race
Arizona has roared out of its slump, and the Rockies have done their part. With exactly two months left in the regular season, there is a four-team race in the National League West.
The Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Padres are separated by a half-game (or, to be more precise, .005 in winning percentage), with Colorado now a mere 3 1/2 games out of first.
With Matt Holliday, Garret Atkins and Ryan Spilborghs slugging a combined .768 and Aaron Cook setting a franchise record with a 74-pitch complete game, the Rockies just took series from Los Angeles and San Diego to close the gap -- only to be overshadowed by Arizona. The Diamondbacks' 14-0 loss Sunday was fairly digestible considering the eight-game winning streak that preceded it.
Despite losing Randy Johnson for the season, the Diamondbacks have a 3.40 ERA since the All-Star Break. The offense has still had its ups (Chris Snyder, Tony Clark, Conor Jackson, Chris Young, Eric Byrnes) and downs (Orlando Hudson, Mark Reynolds) over the past two weeks, but Arizona has capitalized on the struggles of Los Angeles and San Diego nonetheless. If the regular season ended Sunday, the Diamondbacks would be the NL wild card.
It only gets more interesting with Arizona traveling to San Diego for a three-game series beginning Tuesday.
Chad Billingsley has made eight starts this season for the Dodgers.
Stats in his odd-numbered starts: 25 2/3 innings, 14 hits, four runs, nine walks, 19 strikeouts, 1.40 ERA.
Stats in his even-numbered starts: 18 1/3 innings, 22 hits, 16 runs, 13 walks, 15 strikeouts, 7.86 ERA.
Even with a rainout and a complete game by Billingsley in Houston July 23, the Dodger starting rotation still is suffering, with all five members of the projected rotation in March now injured. Not only are Jason Schmidt, Hong-Chih Kuo and Randy Wolf on the disabled list, but Derek Lowe and Brad Penny both developed ailments that could preclude them from making their next starts.
And now, there are even more troubles for Los Angeles. Jeff Kent, who has reached base in 38 consecutive games -- tops in the majors this season -- strained his left hamstring Sunday and is day-to-day. Kent has a 1.200 OPS in July (30 for 71 with six doubles, five homers and nine walks).
San Diego scored 2.5 percent of its runs this season in the first inning of Sunday's game at Houston. The Padres had four walks, four singles, two doubles and two home runs before Josh Bard grounded into a force play to end the inning.
Labels: NL West
AL East: The stretch run
It was a solid week for everyone in the American League East, except, of course, the hapless Devil Rays, who went 1-5. The Orioles were 5-1, the Red Sox were 5-2, the Jays went 4-2, and the Yanks were 4-3. Boston ended the weekend with a loss, but still have a healthy 8.0-game lead over the Yankees, whose best shot at the postseason is to win the wild card, where they currently trail the Indians by four games. Toronto's record stands at 52-52, and they 11.5 back; the Orioles are surging but still 14.5 out of first. And it is late early once again in Tampa Bay, as the Rays trail by 24.5. The Jays and O's will jockey for third place but this looks like how the division will wind up at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see what, if any, moves are made in the next 48 hours as the trading deadline looms.
Starting in the cellar, the Rays broke an eight-game-losing streak on Sunday, after coming back against Jonathan Paplebon on Saturday night, only to lose to Boston in extra innings. The Rays jumped the trading deadline last week, moving disgruntled reserve infielder to the Reds, then shipping Ty Wiggington to the Astros, and reliever Seth McClung to the Brewers. The Mariners are interested in Tampa's closer, Al Reyes. It's been another long, trying year for the Rays, who are trying -- and now perhaps succeeding -- to develop pitching.
The Jays were were cautiously optimistic about their chances to make a run at the postseason before losing two tough games to the White Sox over the weekend. Then they lost 4-3 on Friday night and starting pitcher Josh Towers ripped his team to the media:
"We just gave the game away. Personally, that's what I think," Towers said. "Today was just a game that I felt we were in complete control of and we should've won and we didn't. All around, it just wasn't a great game played by us.
The following day, a players-only meeting was held. Afterwards, veteran catcher Gregg Zaun said, "I always understand frustration ... But it's never productive to throw anybody on the team under the bus. It just doesn't get anybody anywhere. It creates bad feelings and resentment and a simple apology usually takes care of it."
According to the Globe and Mail, Towers will not be traded.
Roy Halladay tossed his fourth complete game of the season on Saturday but the Jays came up short, 2-0. The game lasted two hours and seven minutes, much longer than the last time Halladay and Mark Buehrle squared off, back in May. That game lasted one hour and fifty minutes and the Jays won, 2-0. According to Buehrle, "My theory in a game is win quick, lose quick. Whatever you do, get the ball and throw it. There is no reason to take your time out there."
Moving on to Baltimore, where the Orioles are playing about as well as they are likely to play all season. This weekend may have been all about Cal Ripken Jr., who was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, but it was also about the streaking O's, who are pitching well, fielding well, hitting some, and running the bases with aggression. Baltimore is happy to have Miguel Tejada back in the line-up.
The Yanks plowed through the Royals for three straight nights and then lost the next three games in a row. Saturday night's 7-5 defeat in Baltimore was the worst of it. The Yankees have put themselves in a position where they cannot afford to lose more than one or two games a week. They are fortunate that the Indians, Tigers and Twins have all been scuffling of late. Alex Rodriguez, hitless since launching career homer run No. 499, is pressing, swinging at balls out of the strike zone, though he did walk three times yesterday.
Now that Ryan the Temp appears headed to Dunder Mifflin headquarters in New York, Dwight Schreute could have a new person to train in Kei Igawa, who was demoted to Scranton. Igawa hasn't received the kind of heat that Carl Pavano did, but so far, this deal is every bit the bust. Phillip Hughes, who had another good outing yesterday, will probably take Igawa's next turn, which would be this coming weekend vs. the Royals.
The Yanks are looking for bullpen help. Scott "The God of Hell Fire" Proctor and Kyle "Cooter" Farnsworth -- who got into it with catcher Jorge Posada on Sunday -- are likely chips, according to George King. The Yanks have interest in Greg Gagne, who would prefer to close. But they may have an in-house solution as Joba Chamberlain has been taken out of the starting rotation in Scranton. Chamberlain is expected to work in relief this week. According to Joel Sherman:
"Our guys saw Chamberlain last week and said he was the best pitching prospect they have seen all year," an AL executive said. "If he were a five-year veteran there is no doubt with this stuff that he would be pitching in the majors. So here you have the chance to pitch him in the majors while also limiting his innings. You get value both ways. The Yanks should absolutely do that."
The Red Sox are rolling. Manny is starting to hit. But they are still interested in Jermaine Dye. J.D. Drew continues to work diligently through a difficult first season in Boston. Says hitting coach Dave Magadan say:
"He's worked hard on staying through the ball, staying to the middle of the field, and driving the ball the other way. It's just something that hasn't really transferred into the game. When you're getting pitched the way he is -- he's getting pitched hard in and then soft stuff out over the plate -- it's a tougher pitch to drive the other way when it's soft out over the plate.
Meanwhile, Curt Schilling is looking to return to the rotation in early August, and long-lost starter Matt Clement hopes to comeback in September.
Labels: AL East
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)