Until July

We won’t see the Red Sox again until July- right before the All-Star Break. Hopefully by then, Hanley Ramirez will have figured out that nobody is trying to hit him in an 8-1 game and Edward Mujica will realize that there is a way to plunk a guy and that wasn’t it. But enough about that silliness, the Yankees are playing good baseball right now and the question on everyone fans mind is if it can last.

The performances are approaching the size where you can draw some intelligent conclusions from them, but it is still early. Generally, three things stand out as encouraging. The offense is better than we thought it would be. The Yankees have scored 124 runs, good for  5th in the AL. Second, the bullpen has been great. Third, the defense has been solid and better than last year at turning balls into outs.

Are those three factors enough to propel the Yankees to the playoffs? In a flawed division like the Al East definitely. But there are injuries, trades and changes that will happen within the division over the next few months that will change the outlook of each club. It’s been a good start to the season, and sweeping the Red Sox in Fenway is always fun, but pennants aren’t won in May.

Six-Man Rotation?-UPDATED 8:55PM

The Yankees have the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball and the 20th-best (or 10th-worst) starters ERA, yet they are going to go with a six-man rotation this time through. Chase Whitley has been recalled from Scranton to start today and Gregorio Petit has been sent down. This means the Yankees currently have only 12 batters on the roster, and none of the usual bench players can cover either second or short. Drew and Gregorious had better stay healthy tonight!

Beyond that, I question this move for a number of reasons. First, the Yankees have an off day already on Thursday so everyone would have gotten an extra day off anyway. But, after that day off, they don’t have another one until May 18th, so if you wanted to give the rotation a break, wouldn’t next week or the week after have been the right time? And by doing this, they move Pineda from starting tomorrow night to starting on Friday in Fenway- is that a great idea? And how long will this go on? If Tanaka stays on turn, and unless they are keeping the six-man rotation he will, he will pitch on May 5th, May 10th, and May 15th, with only the first start on six-days rest.

I wonder if the Yankees would have been better off limiting the pitches their starters threw and using the bullpen more if they wanted more rest? Considering the dominance of the pen so far, I would think it would be better to use them more and the starters less, but clearly the Yankees don’t agree. We will see how this all works out.

UPDATE 8:55PM- Now it makes sense, the Yankees weren’t trying to go with a six-man rotation, they had worries about Tanaka that have proven to be founded. He has a forearm strain and tendonitis in his wrist. He is conservatively out for at least a month, but I don’t’ see how anyone can really know for sure at this point. The only potential good news is that his UCL didn’t show any change, so it isn’t that, but the fact that his arm is in trouble again is very discouraging.

New York-New York

The Yankees took the first round of the subway series. Due to a scheduling quirk, we will know if these teams are both playoff contenders the next time they meet in September- games 146, 147, and 148.

We will also have the answers to four questions which featured prominently in this series and so far this season-

1- Is Carlos Beltran finished? The early results are not encouraging and the eye test is worse. I never liked this signing, but I wasn’t expecting this big a drop.

2- On a positive note, is Mark Teixeira capable of being productive again? Almost the direct opposite of Beltran in the way he is hitting and the way he passes the eye test.

3- Can Didi handle the pressure he is under? The bat has been slowly improving, and while his defense has taken a  lot of criticism, objective fans will recognize that he is getting to a lot of balls his predecessor wouldn’t have come near to. The problems are two-fold, fans unfairly expecting him to be Jeter, and the media consumed with picking his every move apart. I don’t think Girardi did him any favors benching him last night versus the left-hander.

4- Can Nate Eovaldi become the pitcher his stuff says he should be? Curt Schilling was right (that hurts to write) about his lack of fastball command. Last night was not a good night for the flamethrower, but the early results are encouraging. His walk rate is lower than his career rate and his strikeout rate is way above it. He will be fascinating to watch going forward.

For now, let’s enjoy a subway series win and look forward to a matchup tonight where first place is on the line. That’s right, at 11-8 the Yankees have a share of first with Tampa, the team coming to the Bronx tonight.

 

Hold On a Sec….

So the Mets aren’t quite ready to take over NYC. Yes, they could win the next two and take this series, but tonight the Yankees sent a message.

NL Rookie of the Year- they shelled him.

Eleven-game winning streak- it’s over.

Best 26-year old pitcher in NYC- your move Matt Harvey.

It’s one night and it’s certainly not conclusive, but tonight belongs to the Yankees.

Until tomorrow…..

This Will Be Fun

The Mets are coming to the Bronx and they are on an 11-game winning streak that makes them the best team in baseball.

But don’t sell the Yankees short. They went 7-3 on their most recent road trip and took 3-of-4 from the best team in the American League.

It’s still April, but this is about as good as it gets at the beginning of the season. Let’s enjoy the next three, they should be awesome.

Signature Significance

If there is a theme to my April baseball watching and writing it is this- beware small sample sizes. We have seen time and again players who get out of the gate quickly only to fall apart after the calendar turns to May. Joel Sherman provided  a good example the other day with Vernon Wells. Another good example from that 2013 Yankee team is Travis Hafner. Hafner had 6 HR’s and a line of .318/.438/.667 when April ended and he finished with 12 HR’s and a line of .202/.301/.378 for the season. Those two examples are why we should be very, very, careful to avoid making any conclusions about the rest of the season from the results so far, and why the following should be looked at with a skeptical eye.

In an Economist blog post the other day the author took a look at Alex Rodriguez’s 477-foot home run on Friday and what it means for the rest of the season. I encourage you to read the article, but the key takeaway is the concept of signature significance- an idea named by Bill James that says that certain rare results have much higher predictive power than one game or even one swing normally should. Hitting a 477-foot home run is that type of result. The key quote:

The fact that Mr Rodríguez propelled a single baseball 477 feet means there is a very strong chance he is not the player we thought he was. Guys who are washed up just don’t hit 477-foot homers. Not even once.

I’m still wrestling with this idea and its predictive powers, but I find it a fascinating concept.

Back To .500

The Yankees needed a weekend like this one. Yes, Tampa is probably the worst team in the AL East, but after dropping six-of-nine, the Yankees will take any wins they can get. And with the win and other results Sunday, the entire AL East is within 1-1/2 games of each other.

And now comes a really interesting week. There are two teams which have reached double-digit wins in the season and the Yankees will face them both in the next seven games. First up, the best team in the AL- Detroit

They Needed That

Six games is not even five percent of a baseball season, but if the Yankees had lost last night, it would have been open season on the overreactions and condemnations in the press. For now, they have earned a slight reprieve.

I say slight because they are 2-4 and about to launch a 10-game road trip through Baltimore, Tampa, and Detroit. They then come home and face the Mets. If they return from their road trip further under .500 the criticism will grow louder, and if they fail to win the series from the Mets-  look out.

One example of a popular overreaction in the media is the constant trumpeting of the Yankees’ error totals. The thinking is that the nine errors the Yankees have committed show that their defense is nowhere near as good as advertised, and might even be a big weakness. To that I say nonsense.

First, it is silly to make blanket statements about anything after six games. It is even dumber when you are relying on a subjective criteria like errors to do so. Errors simply don’t tell you a lot about defense. A player with great range might bobble a ball that a player with lesser range wouldn’t even get close to. Yet the player with the better range gets the error and the other player isn’t penalized for his range deficiency at all.

A better way to judge defense is DER- Defensive Efficiency Rating, which measures the percentage of balls in play that a team converts into outs. For the Yankees, that figure current sits at 72.8%. That rate would have put them at the top of the rankings for 2014. But the sample size is way too small, so let’s table the questions about the defense for now.

And let’s avoid making other pronouncements. Sure, A-Rod has hit a lot, but are we really going to believe that he will keep doing so all season?  Yes, Drew and Didi have not hit, and Beltran looks old, but again we must beware the small sample. We simply can’t draw any intelligent conclusions at this point. What we can say is that the Yankees are 2-4. Not a good start, but not a total disaster. Let’s get through April and see where we are then.

 

New Deal

Rick Porcello inked a 4 year, $82.5m extension with the Red Sox yesterday.  Good for him.  But why are the Red Sox paying him so much?  Aren’t teams supposed to reserve such high annual salaries for the very best?  Porcello has a career 4.30 ERA and a low strikeout rate.  That isn’t the very best.

I see this as Ben Cherington wanting pitchers only in their primes, Porcello is 26 and this carries through his age 30 season.  Cherington’s idea is to pay for the prime years, even if it means a bit more.  But really, $20m a year?  I think Porcello is a fine pitcher, but he has a ton of innings under his belt for such a young age and while he is entering his most productive age, he has a lack of track record.  Ugh.  I see this deal and just think why did the Red Sox bid against themselves here?  I also think this is the Red Sox trying to convince either themselves or their fans, that they have an ace in Porcello while I don’t believe they do.

The Crystal Ball

It’s time for baseball, which also means it is also time for me to take a stab at predicting the upcoming baseball season. As always, believe these at your own risk!

Let’s start with the most confounding division in the game, and my personal favorite, the AL East. (I know that’s a shock)  I honestly believe you could pick the teams out of a hat and have a better chance of picking their order of finish than actually trying to handicap it. But, fortune favors the bold, so this is how I see it unfolding.

1- Baltimore

2- Toronto

3- Boston

4- New York

5- Tampa

One other note before I delve into the individual teams and my thinking. None of these clubs is winning more than 90 games, barring a big trade at the deadline, and I would bet they all finish within 10-games of each other.

I know the Orioles lost Cruz, but they have Machado and Wieters returning. Yes, they will regress from last season, but remember they won 95 last year, so they have room to decline and still win the division.

Toronto has done a lot of nice things, but losing Stroman for the season will prevent them from climbing to the top.

Boston will hit, though I don’t think Sandoval will, the question is the pitching and I don’t think it will be good. I don’t like the rotation or the bullpen and I think that puts them in third with fans getting treated to a lot of four-plus hours, 12-10 games. It’s worth remembering that they are coming off a 90-loss season, so finishing 3rd may make them the most-improved team in the league.

As for the Yankees so many questions and so many ways to see things unfold. Let me paint two pictures:

The good:

1- Pineda and Tanaka make 60 starts between them.

2- Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran hit like the back of their baseball cards say they should and Teixeira and A-Rod do enough.

3- Eovaldi is the pitcher he has the potential to be.

That team could easily win the division.

The bad:

1- Tanaka and Pineda make much fewer than 60 starts.

2- Teixeira, A-Rod and Beltran are done as productive big leaguers.

3- The injury bug hits again.

That team could easily lose 90 games.

That’s the challenge with the Yankees, perhaps the hardest team to handicap because of all the questions. The only seemingly certainties are that they will play good defense and have a good bullpen. I feel good about both of those, but in this era betting on older players to contribute is a foolish move. I will say the rotation is a strength, but the lineup is a bust and it leaves them in 4th place at 82-80.

Tampa lost their manager, a huge blow, but they will still be dangerous. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them finish at .500, but in 5th-place.

 

And now a briefer look at the other divisions.

AL Central

1- Cleveland- I think they take the Central crown easily.

2- Kansas City- They won’t sneak up on teams this year, but the strengths that got them to the World Series are still there.

3- Chicago- Call me unconvinced that they are ready to seriously contend, but they are improved.

4- Detroit- I don’t think it will be a disaster, but considering the recent run this season will be a disappointment.

5- Minnesota- One day soon they will be good again. Just not yet.

 

AL West

1- Angels- Best player in the game and plenty of talent around him. Seattle may be the trendy pick, but I think the Angels are better over the 162- game season.

2- Seattle- Right there all year on the Angels’ heels.

3- Houston- This will be a fun team to watch. They will hit home runs in bunches and probably set the record for strikeouts.

4- Oakland- A step back, but probably not for long.

5- Texas- They have fallen far and fast.

WILD CARDS- KC and Seattle

NL East

1- Washington- Is this the year Harper lives up to the hype? I don’t know, but the rotation will lead them to the NL East crown and beyond.

2- Mets- Harvey is back and the rotation looks good even without Wheeler. I didn’t get the Cuddyer signing, but I bet Tulowitzki is playing at Citi Field before the year is out.

3- Florida- I think they will battle the Mets all season for second and fall just short.

4- Atlanta- Building for the new ballpark, but the disaster in Philadelphia keeps them out of the basement.

5- Philadelphia- Ugh, this team is going to be bad even if Cliff Lee gets healthy.

 

NL Central

1- Pittsburgh- The class of the division for now.

2- Chicago- Big things happening on the North Side, but not enough to beat Pittsburgh

3- St. Louis- Always hard to count them out, but I don’t think it is their year.

4- Milwaukee- Nothing much to get excited about here.

5- Cincinnati- I think their window has closed and what happened to Phillips and Votto?

 

NL West

1- Los Angeles- They have it all and talent coming up.

2- San Diego- They have really rebuilt quickly, but not enough to catch LA.

3- San Francisco- They only win in even years.

4- Colorado- When do they trade Tulo to the Mets?

5- Arizona- Outgunned in this division.

WILD CARDS- Chicago and San Diego

Playoffs

Seattle over KC

Angels over Seattle

Cleveland over Baltimore

Angels over Cleveland

Cubs over Padres (1984 revenge play)

Nationals over Cubs

Dodgers over Pittsburgh

Nationals over Dodgers

And….

Nationals over Angels in the World Series

Enjoy the season!