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Observations From Cooperstown--Season on the Edge
2008-08-15 10:00
by Bruce Markusen
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

With the season on the brink of extinction and with one eye focused on next spring, there’s a lot of ground to cover in Yankeeland. What’s wrong with Robinson Cano? What’s right with Xavier Nady? And why do the Yankees have the most fragile young pitchers? Here’s a smattering of opinions coming from Cooperstown:

*Robinson Cano might not be the biggest individual disappointment in major league baseball this year, but he has to rank among the top five failures. On Wednesday afternoon, he hit rock bottom. Cano went hitless at the plate and committed three mental mistakes in the field as the Yankees fell to the Twins, 4-2, to close out a miserable 3-and-7 road trip. Without those mistakes, the outcome of the road trip finale could have been different.

The Yankees envisioned Cano having a breakout season in 2008, hitting .315-plus with power and playing Gold Glove defense at second base. Instead, they’ve watched Cano sink to his lowest major league levels, as he struggles to hit .265, shows no additional patience at the plate, and waltzes around the infield, playing the position without passion or hustle. The regression is so stunning that I have to believe Cano misses the influence of Larry Bowa, the Yankees’ former third base and infield coach. Bowa, with his relentlessly aggressive style, had a way of lighting a fuse under Cano; without Bowa, Cano plays too often as if he is sleepwalking.

In 2008, the Yankees have shown many deficiencies—a lack of hitting, no bench strength, inconsistent starting pitching, and too much age. They’ll need to fix at least some of those areas over the winter. They’ll also need to address the mindset of Cano. Perhaps they’ll have to find a coach who can do what Bowa once did, in addition to the other duties assigned to him. Or maybe they’ll have to threaten Cano’s playing time by using Wilson Betemit in an expanded role. If Cano continues to play more and more like Horace Clarke, and less like Rod Carew, the Yankees may again find themselves in third place—or worse—in 2009...

*I’m just thinking out loud on this one, but should batting coach Kevin Long be held accountable for the Yankees’ season-long struggles on offense? Injuries have been a factor, but so has a lack of patience, along with a ridiculous inability to hit with runners in scoring position. Too often the approach at the plate has looked all wrong. If the Yankees do make a change, I’d nominate Butch Wynegar, who is currently the batting coach at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Wynegar, who played for the Yankees from 1982 to 1985, was always a patient hitter who worked counts in his favor. On the surface, he seems to be doing good work in Scranton, where Justin Christian, Brett Gardner, and Juan Miranda have prospered under his tutelage…

*In terms of in-season trades, Damaso Marte has been a flop and Ivan Rodriguez has been inconsequential, but Xavier Nady has done everything that could be expected from a mid-season pickup trying to learn a new set of opposing pitchers. Is there any doubt that Nady will be the Opening Day right fielder in 2009, in the process making it that much easier to part with the declining Bobby Abreu? Five years younger and more reliable defensively, Nady also offers versatility—the ability to fill in at first base and even third base, along with the outfield corners. Abreu still manages to reach base at a competent clip, but his power is waning and his defensive play has slipped from annoying to unforgivable. I’ve never seen an outfielder with such an innate fear of the outfield wall, even the padded variety; he’s really become the anti-Pete Reiser. He’s also tentative coming in on fly balls, as if he’s afraid he’ll collide with one of his infielders. Maybe Abreu should pull a page out of the late Cesar Tovar’s playbook and carry a whistle around his neck. That way he can warn his infielders that he’s charging hard on a blooper to short right. No matter, Abreu will become someone else’s concern in 2009. He might be a good fit with the Cubs, thought I’d hate to think about his fears of the brick wall and the ivy at Wrigley Field…

*Earlier this season, we all tripped over ourselves trying to come up with catchy nicknames for the prized pitching triumvirate of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy. Unfortunately, Michael Kay’s banal and uninspired "Generation Trey" seemed to win most of the public support. Well, I’ve got one now. How about the "Tissue Paper Triplets?" These three, who were all counted on to play major roles in 2008, have had all the durability of cheap facial handkerchiefs this summer. With Chamberlain now on the 15-day disabled list with rotator cuff tendinitis, all three pitchers have spent time on the shelf. Hughes (fractured rib) is currently trying to work his way back on a minor league assignment, while Kennedy (lat strain) has already made a disastrous one-start return that had him deluding himself ala Esteban Loiaza. (Like Kennedy, Loiaza always seemed to think his starts went pretty well. I guess his 8.50 ERA in pinstripes was deceivingly high.) In the meantime, Chamberlain has started throwing again amidst hopes that he might be able to contribute during the final five to six weeks of the season.

If anybody suggests that any of these three prized right-handers has even been slightly overworked, I will reach for the nearest airsick bag. Chamberlain, who has been treated with the softest of kid gloves, has thrown a high of 114 pitches this season after being gradually moved from relief to the rotation. Hughes and Kennedy have also been on strict pitch counts during their first two major league seasons. What’s the lesson here? Not even the most severe of pitch count limits can protect pitchers from doing what they've always done—and that’s getting hurt...

*Speaking of Hughes, reports from his last start at Triple-A Scranton indicate he’s just about ready for recall. At its best, Hughes’ fastball approached 100 miles per hour; he also threw his cutter and curve ball effectively. Let’s assume the radar gun used on Hughes was about three miles fast. That still puts him at about 95-96 miles per hour, which is better than the 93 he seemed to top out at during most of his early-season starts. He’s also wearing glasses, which should help him see the signals from Ivan Rodriguez and Jose Molina, eliminating a problem that he endured during the early season. Just like Cano, Hughes will be an important part of the solution in 2009—or else.

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and lives in Cooperstown, along with about 2,200 other folks.

Comments
2008-08-15 11:09:42
1.   JohnnyC
I second your opinion on Long. He seems to be a "mechanics" type of guy (he's done good work with ARod allegedly)but also seems to be completely at sea at coaching the mental approach to hitting. Yankees hitters don't make adjustments mid-game. They flail away for 6 innings against a starter and then go back to square one when a half-way effective reliever comes in. You rarely see the hitters confering with Long in the dugout about anything other than their swing. I don't see a coherent game plan. Am I asking for too much from a roster of hitters with literally decades of superior batting stats in their resumes?
2008-08-15 11:29:26
2.   ChrisS
1 "Am I asking for too much from a roster of hitters with literally decades of superior batting stats in their resumes? "

Batspeed declines as players age.

Cano, though, is mystifying, but the numbers behind the numbers tell an interesting story. His BABIP is still really low for his LD% (.269 to .311). His BB:K is the best it's ever been. He's a guy that, in the future, won't ever walk 60 times a season, but he's not going to K more than 40. Despite perceptions, he's putting good wood on the ball as well as he did when he hit .342. His power has dropped, but could be a result of him missing a little on pitches up and popping out instead of driving 2B to the gaps.

I have a feeling that if Cano was hitting .320 his demeanor wouldn't be criticized so. Conversely, Damon is being lauded for "bringing it" in his dotage. His BABIP, a career high, is unexpectedly high for his LD%. Reverse the "luck" for each player and Cano is hitting ~.315 (though still scuffling with his power), and everyone is ragging on Damon, instead. Still, without the walks, I don't think Cano'll ever be the MVP type, but there's no reason to think he won't be a top-flight 2B for years to come.

There's so much about this game that is dependent on chance, but everyone wants a better story. As for his defense, meh, I'm sure people would still be griping about it, but perhaps not so vociferously if his offensive luck was a little better.

2008-08-15 11:41:08
3.   cult of basebaal
2 the thing about his defense is, well, it was very, very good up though the all-star break. As of July 8th, SG over a RLYW had Cano at +8 RSAA, good for 2nd in the AL.

His complete and utter collapse since the ASB has just been mystifying ...

2008-08-15 12:00:10
4.   ChrisS
Here are two players and their last three seasons:

Batting LD%/GB%/FB%/BABIP/ISOP

Player A
2006 22.3% 59.4% 18.3% .394 .140
2007 19.9% 56.1% 24.0% .368 .130
2008 16.2% 58.5% 25.3% .310 .112

Player B
2006 19.9% 51.9% 28.2% .363 .183
2007 16.9% 52.2% 30.9% .331 .182
2008 19.7% 48.3% 32.0% .269 .131

Conventional wisdom is that one is just having a disappointing year while the other is trade-bait because he has a bad attitude and sucks with the bat.

Here's a third:

Player C
2006 26.5% 44.6% 28.9% .375 .164
2007 20.0% 45.5% 34.4% .327 .162
2008 22.1% 49.2% 28.7% .327 .175

Nothing really stands out there, except the jump in GB% without a corresponding offset in FB% or LD%. Until you look at his trend in BB%: 18.5%, 12.2%, 9.9%. Yikes, looks like he's grounding out on pitches he used to take for a ball.

And, yes, it's been slow at the ol' office this week. August is a big vacation month 'round here.

2008-08-15 12:03:08
5.   JL25and3
4 Melky's been sent down, Sexson waived.
2008-08-15 12:05:56
6.   JohnnyC
Ransom and Gardner up.
2008-08-15 12:06:21
7.   Just fair
5 It's been a long time coming. Hopefully this snaps Cano out of his malaise instead of sending him further into funktitude. Get better, Melky for cripes sake.
Cody Ransom up.
2008-08-15 12:12:01
8.   Shaun P
Bruce, "Tissue Paper Triplets"? "These three, who were all counted on to play major roles in 2008, have had all the durability of cheap facial handkerchiefs this summer." Come on. Glass Ass Pavano, or Nick The Walking Injury Stick Johnson, these three aren't. How can you call 3 guys, each of who have suffered a single injury, fragile? Because they were all handled with kids gloves and still got hurt? That doesn't mean the Yanks were wrong to handle them the way they have.

Getting to specifics: IPK had one injury all year - a strained lat, that conveniently appeared when it became bloody apparent he needed more work in the minors. How nice that his first two rehab starts managed to be in warm Florida weather in pitching guru Nardi Contreras's back yard! Nothing fragile about him. If anything, his confidence is seemingly not fragile enough.

Joba's only missed time is due to an accident - falling off the mound awkwardly. It could have happened to anyone. And Joba has played a major role (unlike the other two, so far), recent injury or no. I can't see how you could be disappointed with him in any way.

I'm still not sure how Hughes had a fractured rib, but he did. If you want to say his career injury list qualifies him as fragile, that I might buy. But maybe not, because they Yanks were ultraconservative with him in the low minors (as they should have been).

I do agree that it will be fun to see Nady in RF (and all around the field) full-time next year. I'll miss Bobby, but c'est la vie.

2008-08-15 12:13:08
9.   Shaun P
5 Wow. Melky down to SWB. Let's hope its not too little, too late.
2008-08-15 12:21:44
10.   ChrisS
Wow.

That's interesting. Surprisingly, Sexson hasn't been horrid, but, then again, it's not like he was necessary.

Melky's been one of the kids I've rooted for, but there was just no denying his struggles. I'm kinda surprised it took them this long to send him down.

2008-08-15 12:22:35
11.   Shaun P
Sexson as a Yank: .250/.371/.393, 28 AB, 1 HR

vs LHP: .273/.393/.455, 22 AB, 1 HR

(Which means he only got 6 AB vs RHP; not bad.)

So Sexson did reasonably well for what he was suppposed to do, but if Betemit DHs, then they do need a backup IF, and that's not Sexson. Its a shame they couldn't find a way to keep him around.

2008-08-15 12:23:06
12.   JL25and3
Here's my one fear: since Ransom can be the utility infielder, Betemit can be officially made the RH half of a 1b platoon. He can't hit lefties and can't play 1b, but Girardi sure does love lefty-righty matchups.
2008-08-15 12:25:54
13.   Bagel Boy
5 No kidding! I believe I was saying Melky needed to get sent down two or three weeks ago...

Now who was I arguing with? :)

It his only shot really to regain his stroke after they benched him. He might still be a prospect.

I'm surprised about Sexy. I wonder if they're planning to sit Cano against LHP...

2008-08-15 12:27:58
14.   Bagel Boy
2 4 Great analysis. Now who are the three players?
2008-08-15 12:35:20
15.   Bagel Boy
Another strike against Torre-lovers, though. If he's managing, they're claiming Randy Winn and Ray Durham off waivers...
2008-08-15 12:43:07
16.   ChrisS
14 Jeter, Cano, and Abreu.

However, those numbers are somewhat misleading for Jeter because he had such a great 2006. The trend is still there, just not as blatant.

2004 19.3% 48.0% 32.7% .317 .179
2005 19.3% 60.0% 20.7% .353 .141

Still, his LD% is way down and what power he had (career avg. .143 ISOP) has been declining (Fangraphs is such an awesome site). I think Jeter's batspeed is eroding and he's in decline. He's still good for a SS, but I don't think they can rely on him to help carry the offense.

Before I looked at the numbers, I would have guessed that Abreu's power was waning as much as his OBP, but it's not. It's the lack of walks that are keeping him from being the Abreu of old.

2008-08-15 12:49:32
17.   Alex Belth
In an interesting interview at The Big Lead yesterday, Jon Heyman said...

Q: Right now, who is the most overrated player in baseball?

A: At this moment, I have to say Robinson Cano, who is a great but still doesn't get it; he should be following the lead of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, but instead he hangs out with some very wrong people and doesn't always hustle.

2008-08-15 12:53:14
18.   Bagel Boy
16 Yeah, the Captain has gotten old fast. He ain't even a lock anymore for 3000. He'll make, gulp, 21 million in 2010. Can't see how it makes any sense to re-sign him after that. He's losing his bat, he's much slower, and his defense is falling again. Not one redeemable quality.
2008-08-15 12:57:57
19.   DarrenF
7 I think Melky is gone forever and has no future as a useful major leaguer. It's just disheartening to see a youngster play pretty well in 2006 and project the future and compare that to the reality. I distinctly remember scoffing at Paul O'Neill's on-air prediction in April that Melky was going to hit .300 with 20 HRs this year, but I sure thought he'd play better than this. I'm not completely convinced it's his attitude as much as his inability to make adjustments. (Yeah, that's just as nebulous as "attitude," but the pitchers adjust and the hitters have to adjust back, and so on, forever.)
2008-08-15 12:59:33
20.   Shaun P
16 That surprises me. You'd think the power would go long before the eye.

Is Abrue being overly aggressive because its the Yanks and he's hitting in front of A-Rod? I thought his pitches per plate appearance were steady . . . Or could he be having eye problems?

2008-08-15 13:01:06
21.   Shaun P
17 Can't remember where, but I recall reading something similar about Melky. How he came into the season having worked out hard all winter long, lost 10 pounds - and then stopped working.
2008-08-15 13:05:11
22.   ChrisS
17 I'm not sure how that qualifies Cano to be overrated.
2008-08-15 13:10:12
23.   Bagel Boy
19 Um, he's 23. Let's not go crazy. We forget , but in other organizations that develop talent, it's typical to bounce a player back to the minors for re-education. You do realize that Melky had never spent a full season at one level until he got to the majors, right?

20 I'm going to guess that AL pitchers, and in the Yankee lineup, are more willing to challenge him. On the Phillies, before Howard, he was the guy to avoid. And that drove those fans nuts - he was always willing to take a walk where they wanted him to swing. After his hot arrival, now those pitchers know where his holes are.

2008-08-15 13:23:54
24.   ChrisS
23 Melky just turned 24.

I agree that he can still be useful with a tune-up and a refresher on his skillset, which he got away from. Making good contact and taking a walk is what made him attractive as a prospect outside of his defense. But how many games are left in AAA? 15? 20? I think he needs a longer refresher course than that.

I used to hope his ceiling was Carlos Beltran, but now it's looking like Shane Victorino.

2008-08-15 13:27:55
25.   Bagel Boy
24 Yes, I know, but it's his year 23 season.

Sure, he needs more of a refresher and they should have sent him down two months ago. I suspect if Gardner showed more they would have.

Still he'll play those twenty games and fight for a job next Spring. As he should.

2008-08-15 13:33:33
26.   DarrenF
23 Many young players peak early and many players have a very short period of excellence (Edgardo Alfonzo comes to mind). It's counterintuitive. Hey, I'm rooting for Melky, naturally. I just don't think he's good enough.

This is also why I have respect for hangers on, such as Willie Wilson. Found a roster spot for 19 years while young bucks were constantly trying to take it away from him.

2008-08-15 14:15:43
27.   JL25and3
I've always thought Melky's ceiling was as a starter on a bad team or fourth outfielder on a good one. I still think that.
2008-08-15 15:23:05
28.   Bruce Markusen
Shaun, take it easy, it's just a nickname--just having some fun in reaction to the nickname nonsense this spring.

I'm not saying that any of the three pitchers are making up injuries, or aren't tough enough. I'm saying that all three have been treated with kid gloves--and all three have gotten hurt this season. That statement is not disputable.

As for the reasons WHY they got hurt, I don't have a clearcut answer. Hughes does have a history of injuries; Chamberlain had some knee trouble in college. Whatever the reason, their durability is a concern.

2008-08-15 15:26:25
29.   Bagel Boy
28 Young pitchers and injuries go hand in glove. They get hurt, that's what they do...moreso than actually pitch.

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