Epitaph for 2010: Bested by Texas

It’s been a good long while since I’ve posted here at The Heartland, although I tuned in to many games (except for September) and was glued to the TV throughout the playoffs. My apologies for not opening up the Digital Living Room but, after we moved, our new Internet was less than the advertised high-speed, and certainly considerably slower than our previous, actual high-speed Internet. This meant occasional interruptions to radio broadcasts that became more frequent when I opened additional tabs–which I would have had to do for the HDLR. Hence, no HDLR.

I do, however, miss you readers who would come by, chinwag about the Yankees, baseball, and life in general. I also have at times missed blogging, at least have had the pangs to throw up posts here and there about what transpired. With the unfortunate but, as the ALCS unfolded, relatively unsurprising end of the 2010 season now upon us, this seems as good a time as any to share a few thoughts on the Yankees’ lamentable ALCS performance, ascribing some blame on and aside from Girardi, and lay out a few issues facing the Yanks this off-season. In sum, I might be back scribbling online for the next while.

First and foremost, hats off to the Texas Rangers for making it to the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s history. It was unquestionably well earned, for they showed they were the best team in the AL playoffs both in the ALDS and the Championship Series. After beating the Rays, in which no home team won a game (reminding me of the opening round of the ’84 NBA playoffs, when the Nets upset the defending champion 76ers in five games with no home team winning), the Rangers were one devastating eighth-inning comeback in Game One away from sweeping the defending champion Yanks. Josh Hamilton (.350, 4 HR, 7 RBI) was a beast whom the Yanks avoided like the plague in Game 6 with intentional walks. Elvis Andrus was easily the better shortstop, batting .333 and making terrific plays look routine.  Nelson Cruz (.350, 2 HR, 5 RBI) continued to plague the Yanks as he did during the regular season. Bengie Molina again proved a nemesis to the Yanks in the post-season with his Game 4 HR off AJ Burnett (off a first-pitch fastball that missed Cervelli’s outside spot by two feet). Michael Young (.333) was typically tough and, unlike most Yanks, regularly hit the other way. Even Mitch Moreland (.389) was excellent.

Texas pitchers easily out-pitched their pinstriped counterparts, with Colby Lewis winning twice, Cliff Lee making Yankees fans simultaneously salivate and suffer with his 2-hit, 13-K performance in Game 3, and Derek Holland leaving the Yanks flabbergasted with his Game 4 gem of a relief performance. They soundly beat the Yanks despite using Lee for just one start, which I did not think would happen.

Conversely, the Yanks could scarcely have been much worse. Only Cano (.348, 4 HR, 5 RBI) hit above .300, while Berkman (.250), Jeter (.231), Posada (.263) and Grandy (.294) were the only others above .200. The team hit a woeful .201 in the ALCS, with A-Rod (.190 in 21 at-bats), Swish (.091 in 22 at-bats), Gardner (.176 in 17 at-bats, looking all the more feeble as the series progressed), Teixeira (hitless in 14 at-bats and looking helpless against most breaking balls), and Thames (.125, 2/16) dragging down the Yanks in most games.Compounding matters was the Yanks’ inability to hit with RISP, going 8-53 (.151) to seal their fate.

The pitching, especially most starters, fared no better. Pettite was excellent in a losing cause in Game 3. But Hughes struggled in both starts. C.C. had one poor start (Game One) and one pretty good one (Game 5), while A.J. the prodigal pitcher threw a decent start in Game 4 until serving up the game-winning HR to Molina. Robertson (8 hits and 6 ER in 2 2/3) and Mitre (3 hits, 3 runs, and 3 walks in 2 2/3) dragged down an otherwise good bullpen with devastatingly bad work. Even Joba, who appears to have offed the Girardi family pet again, was fairly good (2.70 ERA in 3 1/3 IP).

Simply put, the Yanks got shut down, and too often got walloped by a confident, diverse Texas offense. The Rangers were better, period.

Joe Girardi has come under some scrutiny if not fire for a few decisions before and during the ALCS. Before the playoffs, many including myself questions his willingness to rest some starters down the stretch, worsening a downward trend in which the Yanks lost 17 of their last 26 and, as a result, failing to win the division and home field. However, had they won the East, they would have started against–the Rangers. It is impossible to say how they would have fared against Texas in a five-game series but, considering how well Texas played, home-field advantage appears to have mattered little against Texas, who played extremely well wherever they went. While C.C. was tough at home and Pettite could possibly have started games 2 and 5 on short rest (although that would have pushed matters), had they faced Texas instead of Minnesota, the Yanks might not have made it out of the first round anyway.

Within the ALCS games, Girardi’s decision to start Hughes for Game 2, and subsequently 6, in Texas backfired. Yet while I speculated beforehand that they might go with C.C. in Games 4 and 7 on short rest, this would have asked a lot of the Big Guy, who threw 237 2/3 during the regular season and another 6 against the Twins in the ALDS. Plus, Hughes pitched well during the year as well as historically in Texas, and Girardi and the Yanks understandably wanted Pettite, the career leader in post-season victories, to face Lee in Game 3. The latter half of the Hughes-Pettite decision was especially a good call, for while Pettite lost he pitched 7 excellent innings, surrendering just two runs on a pitch up to Hamilton deposited in right for a two-run homer in the first. Otherwise, he was terrific.

Girardi may deserve some blame for two decisions in Game 4. The first was after Teixeira’s hamstring injury, when Girardi moved Swish to first and replaced him with Thames instead of a better fielder such as Greg Golson or even Austin Kearns. Sure enough, Vlad’s single to right found Thames, who got a late, slow break on the ball that Golson or Kearns may have caught. Meanwhile Thames, characteristically hesitant, looked like the seldom-used outfielder that he was. At least as problematic was leaving A.J. in to walk David Murphy, then face Molina to whom he surrendered the fateful homer that made the game 5-3. Girardi understandably wanted to save the sole Yankee lefty reliever, Boone Logan, for Josh Hamilton but, by this point, A.J. was showing signs of faltering after pitching pretty well for 5 2/3. Molina’s blast to left sealed the Yankees’ fate for Game 4 and put them in a 3-1 hole. Joba was warmed up but avoided, and could have used his repertoire to bait the free-swinging Molina. In part, this was Joba’s own fault for he was unreliable for much of 2010, resulting in Kerry Wood’s displacing him for good from meaningful set-up work. Yet Girardi at times lacks the feel for momentum changes during the game, and A.J. was teetering in the sixth inning of Game 4. Molina sent him, and the Yanks, over the edge.

Girardi’s refusal to use a rested Mariano in Game 3 to keep the game within bloop-and-blast territory also hurt, for Robertson let the game get far out of hand. That C.C. didn’t pitch yesterday in relief, instead of the aforementioned Robertson who got touched up again, was another puzzling decision. Yet at the end of the day, the team simply couldn’t hit and hit when it counted most with RISP, and Hughes and other starters faltered, including C.C. in Game One, rusty after a long layoff between series. Only Pettite was really good, and even that was in a losing effort. That doesn’t come within a country mile of cutting it. Girardi may deserve criticism for some decisions, but he neither pitches nor hits. As it turned out, neither did some key Yankees.

Hughes sincerely needs to hone his secondary pitches, especially his change-up which, to the best of my knowledge, he only threw twice yesterday (both to Hamilton, and consecutively, although admittedly I had to listen to an inning in the car while running an errand). He does well with his fastball and curve much of the time to get ahead of batters but, without other reliable pitches, like in 2008 lacks the ability to put batters away, to get hitters off his fastball. Nor did Hughes use his cutter much last night, a shame for the same reasons. But in all honesty, Hughes is still developing, at 24 had a terrific year (18-8, 4.19 ERA, 146 K in 176 1/3 IP, 1.248 WHIP, all-star team), started the season as the team’s number five starter and did not make the top three Yankee starters simply of his own accord. Had Burnett (10-15, 5.26 ERA, 1.511 WHIP, league-leading 19 HBP, 7.0 K/9, his lowest since 2001) been anywhere near the pitcher he was last season (13-9, 4.04 ERA, 8.5 K/9), Hughes would have likely been the number four Yankee starter, faced considerably less pressure in the playoffs, and had less expected of him and his good but still-developing pitch repertoire. Burnett’s failures this season foisted more responsibility and greater expectations upon Hughes by the end of 2010 than any of us would have expected, or had a right to ask, at the beginning of the season.

Getting Burnett back into a good groove has to be one of the top priorities for returning Yankees, for the team is highly unlikely to trade him if they need to eat any part of his five-year, $82.5 million contract, of which three years remain. Too often, he loses focus and control, and his release point wavers as if affected by a stiff breeze.  His regression this year was startling and, ultimately, destructive for the rotation and the team’s playoff fortunes. This will be a big task for Dave Eiland, and after this year, I am wary of how this will pan out.

Also, and I worried about this in conversations with various friends, the Yankees’ RISP problems did not simply emerge in the ALCS. RISP and pitching; pitching and RISP, I often said. The team managed to lead the league in runs scored with 859 and OBP at .350, while ranking in the middle of the pack in RISP hitting at .258, 7th in the AL, and RISP/2 outs at .241, also 7th. Getting runners aboard wasn’t the Yanks’ problem all year; scoring them was, and surfaced in a disastrous way against Texas. I also think there was too much swinging for the fences, both this year and versus the Rangers, exemplified by the utter inability or refusal of batters to go with pitches and steer them the other way. This is something at which the departed Matsui and JD excelled, in addition to their clutch play, and the Yanks failed to replace that aspect of those former Yankees in 2010.

Clearly, the Yankees will be major players in the free-agent market, with Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford looming as major prizes who would fill clear needs. I like Gardner and think that, in some ways, he has emerged as a useful weapon (.277/.383, 47/56 SB). When on base, he is a true threat whom the older Yankees truly need. At the same time–and I am willing to grant Gardner a little slack because he had a sore wrist down the stretch that may have affected him–Gardner’s plate approach is at times awful, and the Yanks ought to consider replacing him in left. The biggest concern to me is the double-edged sword of Gardner’s patience. On the one hand, he had 75 hits with two strikes (swinging at 0-2, 1-2, 2-2, or 3-2 counts), which is good and shows much patience. Yet unsurprisingly, Gardner was a far worse batter on 0-2 (.255) and 1-2 (.179) counts, and batted .231 after reaching 0-2 and .202 after 1-2. So often down the stretch and in the playoffs, Gardner fell behind 0-2 and 1-2, often without even swinging the bat, resulting in many easy outs. I don’t know if he’s guessing wrong or judging the strike zone with too fine an eye, but he needs to stop watching eminently hittable pitches, especially fastballs, early in the count.

Teixeira is a gem at first and, while batting a career-low .256 in ’10, still cranked 33 homers, drove in 108, and drew 93 walks for a .365 OBP after a woeful start in which he hit .136 in April, and only stayed above the Mendoza line by May 14. He is too good for that, and had some bad luck to start the year. But he is at times too prone to breaking balls, and has become far too much a pull hitter, making him all the more susceptible to the shift as a lefty. While some adjustments in his stance helped him, such as opening his stance and facing the pitching more squarely to enhance his vision, this also compounded his propensity to pull by keeping his stance open, thus reducing his plate coverage and keeping his weight on the inside part of the plate. He’s a tremendous player, one of my very favorite Yankees and one of the three best defensive first basemen I’ve ever seen. However, there are a few aspects of his plate approach I’d like to see improved.

The Yankees would be very well served if they can find a way to bring back Kerry Wood, whose poise and performance (2-0, 0.69 ERA, 31 K/26 IP, 1.231 WHIP–primarily from 18 walks more than the mere 14 hits allowed) were sorely needed. He might want to move on to close elsewhere, but the Yanks should make signing Wood (turning 34 next June) a priority, especially given the arm problems of Marte, the bad back of Aceves, the inconsistency of Joba, and other uncertainties.

Soon, I will discuss the contract situations the Yankees face, especially those of Jeter, Mariano, and Pettite, as well as some arbitration issues. It is good to be back blogging; for how long, I don’t know. But getting a few things off my chest was essential and, hopefully, not too onerous to read.

Published in: on October 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm  Comments (1)