Monday, June 05, 2006

Yankee Diary #7

by Michael Carlucci

Sunday, June 4, 10:00 am

There is much exuberance over the Yankees' recent stretch of excellent play. Actually I am not sure about that. It seems like the kind of thing that people say when the team is doing well. I mean, what's there to be exuberant about? You still have to get up and go to work, no matter how many wins the Bombers collect. Let's say I've allowed myself some moments of joy -- except Thursday night, when I was despondent over Kyle Farnsworth's horrible blown save.

Still, we are 8-2 in our last 10, even with Farnsworth's meltdown and, of course, our spate of devastating injuries. Why? Several popular theories have been posited. One theory, advanced chiefly by Yankee apologists, is that the farm system has stepped in to save us. Mocked by talent evaluators for years, the Columbus Clippers have indeed acquitted themselves well.

But they are not the reason the Yankees sit precariously atop the American League East. Even including the surprise rookies of last year, Cano and Wang, the Yankees do not have any above-average young players on their roster. Let's have a look:

1) Chien-Ming Wang. He is an interesting pitcher, with some terrific performances to recommend him. But he is inconsistent, does not strike out enough hitters, and currently sports a bloated 4.82 ERA. One stat worth noting is that he leads the league in ground ball outs. The Yankee infield is hardly a defensive juggernaut, and I suspect he would have collected more ground ball outs, and thus fewer hits, with even league-average defense. Sadly, though Derek Jeter is a great player, he is a poor defensive shortstop. Cano is not a solid defender either. So with those two range-less middle infielders, the league's most extreme ground-ball pitcher can't succeed. Also, in his defense, Wang possesses a league-best ratio of innings-pitched-to-home-runs. Still, he is not a great pitcher, and never will be.

2) Robinson Cano. He is largely overrated. His defense is sub-par, he lacks plate discipline, and he does not appear to have power. He sees fewer pitches than almost any other player in the league. And that is not solely a product of youth: Kevin Youkilis, also a second-year player, sees more pitches per at-bat than any other hitter in the American League. Remember Nick Johnson? He, too, had a knack for working pitchers even as a rookie. Perhaps Cano could eventually learn to be more selective, but it's more likely he'll be Alfonso Soriano without any power. The point of being selective is not merely a difference in style. It's the difference between winning and losing. Hitters have only one goal: not to make an out. Since you generally only reach safely about 30% of balls put in play, a primary means of avoiding outs, and thus helping your team score runs, is to draw walks. Also, most starting pitchers are the best the opposition can throw at you, and the idea is to make them work so they won't be around by the seventh inning. Robinson has a different approach, hacking at nearly every pitch and walking only 7 times in 209 plate appearances. He has 48 singles, 12 doubles and a paltry two homers. His OPS is a barely-acceptable .726.

3) Scott Proctor. Too old to be considered a prospect (he's 29), Proctor is included because he came up from Columbus last year. He is one of Torre's favorites, but I'm not sure why. After his difficulty in Oakland in the second game of the season, he had a nice run. But that run is over, and it's foolish to expect he has another one in him. He has 16 walks in only 33 innings, which is simply terrible. His ERA is 3.55, which is a run and a half better than his career number, but is still too high for a short reliever.

4) Melky Cabrera. He hasn't played poorly, but he's hardly an acceptable corner outfielder. The main reason is that he lacks power. A corner outfielder must slug at least in the low .400s, but Melky is at .367. He has hit for average and, to his credit, drawn a fair amount of walks. But the Yankees do not have an offense good enough to live with his lack of production. Yes, the Yankees have scored more runs than any other team, but that won't continue if both corner outfield spots and second base continue to put up anemic power numbers. No offense, however talented in other places, can carry a weak bat. Especially not the Yankee offense, which has to support a mediocre starting staff.

Another theory is that Bernie Williams has found the fountain of youth. His defense is still atrocious, easily the worst in the league. And while he has hit better than the last two years, particularly from the right side, he's still way below a league-average corner outfielder.

So why are they winning? Mike Mussina, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez, in that order. After 50-odd games, Moose is the leading Cy Young candidate. If he was the 2004-5 vintage Moose, the Yankees would be five games back. Jorge, trudging on despite some injuries, has an impressive .900 OPS and is masking others' lack of production. But if those others were even league-average, then the Yankees would have a true advantage and not merely give back the offensive gains they make at short, third, first and catcher.

Derek Jeter, with his .936 OPS, is having his finest season since 1999, when he should have won the MVP. Giambi, at 1.071 OPS, is easily the Yankees' best hitter and carried them through April. Finally, A-Rod, endlessly criticized by Yankee fans and haters alike, is having another fine season, with a .950 OPS.

The point is not to be fooled, folks. The Yankees are winning because of the usual suspects, plus increased production from Jeter and Mussina.

Here is a reality check. Aaron Small, last year's 6-foot five inch, strong-jawed Cinderella, pitches later today in Baltimore. He has been one of the league's worst pitchers, having given up 30 hits in less than 20 innings, along with 9 walks and 6 homers. Yes, last year was a fluke, and the Yankees should have known better.

A four-game series with the hated Red Sox looms, and, thanks to the Red Sox' ineptitude, the Yanks actually have a chance to create some room in the standings for themselves. But just as likely is a regression to the mean for our overachievers, and unhappiness for all the good Yankee fans.

Sunday, 6:20 pm

Are you people convinced that Aaron Small is a terrible pitcher? He should be removed from the roster immediately. The only bright spot is that he won't get to pitch against the Red Sox, who won today and are now in first place. With any luck, Small won't pitch for the Yankees again.

Michael Carlucci's column, "Yankee Diary", appears alternate Mondays


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