Diet Pepsi Super-Nova
Apologies for being on the quiet side this week. Sometimes life hits you with a perfect storm of distractions, impediments, and nagging clowns that sap your ability to sit down and compose a few words. Throw in a bout of insomnia and a young son suffering from an acute stomach virus and you have a very frazzled baseball writer who is trying to follow spring training, give the odd talk in odd locales, and not crash the car into a tree while ducking the projectile vomit. This is my life, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it. Nor would I trade Ivan Nova, but despite last night’s six no-hit innings, I’m not in love.
Having fallen in love many times in my life, often with the worst possible choices, I’m not going to dramatically change my opinion of any pitcher off of the moment they look their best. Except for the odd, super-dominant pitcher like Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax, no-hitters involve a great deal of randomness, and some truly mediocre pitchers have had them. What is interesting about Wendesday’s game was that Nova retired 18 batters without flagging as he so often did last year. Also, he’s 24, sits in the low 90s, and if his secondary pitchers have evolved to the point that he can get batters to regularly take weak hacks, the Yankees might have something.
That last was my long-winded way of saying that he’s not Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon and therefore has both long- and short-term upside. As competently as both have pitched, the fastballs of spring tend to turn into the home runs of summer when it comes to pitchers who are too good to be true. Even were that not the case, a rotation that consists of a 38-year-old, a 36-year-old, a 34-year-old, a 30-year-old, and Phil Hughes (token youngster) would, even if it pitched well in the aggregate, leave the team still hungry for starters next year—if you believe that Colon and Garcia have two encores in them, you’re an incurable optimist. Pick one, Yankees, and dedicate the other spot to youth—Nova now, one of the other kids later should Ivan go white dwarf.
I Keep Forgetting to Mention This
If you’re in New York or New Jersey next week, you can talk baseball in person with all three of your Pinstriped Bible hosts. Cliff, Jay, and myself will be appearing in both states as part of the Baseball Prospectus 2011 book tour. For those that haven’t come to one of our previous galas, all that really means is that we introduce ourselves, make a few (we hope) witty introductory remarks, then talk about the subjects you pick. The times and places:
New York, NY, Tuesday, March 22, 6PM
Barnes and Noble
105 5th Avenue (18th Street)
New York, NY
Princeton, NJ, Wednesday, March 23, 7 PM
Barnes & Noble, Marketfair
3535 Us Route 1, Princeton, NJ
In both locations, the three of us will be joined by some of the following BPers: Ben Lindbergh, Emma Span, Tommy Bennett, Jay Jaffe, and Neil deMause. Please come and chat. I’m especially anxious for New Jersey to represent, given that we didn’t get to make our usual stop at the Yogi Berra Museum this year.
Back From Fenway and Boy, is My Brain Tired
As I do from time to time, I accepted a Baseball Prospectus tour berth to Beantown (I almost called it "The Windy City" based on the miserable weather one tends to encounter there at this time of year). I made two appearances on Tuesday, and in each a big part of the conversation was the relative merits of the Yankees and Red Sox. It's a bit early to compare the two, not when so much about the Yankees rotation is undecided (though becoming clearer by the day), but in the interest of being prepared, let's give it a quick and dirty try.
Many of the positions seem like a push to me if the hitters do what they're projected to do. There should be little but hairs to split between Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez at first base, Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia at second, Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Youkilis at third, J.D. Drew and Nick Swisher in right, and even Brett Gardner and Carl Crawford in left; if Gardner maintains his post-injury selectivity while adding a little actual hitting, he will be on base more often than Boston's newest gazillion-dollar man.
Caveat on that last: what Adrian Gonzalez will do in Fenway Park is one of those mysterious that is delicious to anticipate. As a career .303/.376 /.568 road hitter, Gonzalez liberated from Petco might do some marvelous things. There are "ifs" in there, such as, "if he’s healthy" and "if the harder league doesn’t hold him back" and "if he’ll miss visiting the Rockies" (he hit .330/.405/.618 in 47 games at Colorado, his best ballpark).Without intentional walks in his life, Gonzalez’s on-base percentage could decline, and due to his lineup’s lean to the left, he could see more than his share of southpaw pitchers, against whom he has hit only .262/.338/.445 in his career. Teixeira is the more patient player, but should he give the Yankees another slow start, Gonzalez could blow past him.
So which hitters will tip things in favor of one team or another? Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, David Ortiz, and, though it's hard to believe, Russell Martin. Even if Granderson's rebuilt swing doesn't wholly carry over from last fall, his brand of power and patience should be more valuable than Jacoby Ellsbury's singles and stolen bases—or whatever Mike Cameron does if Ellsbury can't stay on the field. Jeter's new swing mechanics may not restore him to the shoulda-had-an-MVP form of old, but he only has to get part of the way there to out-hit Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie. At catcher, there isn't much reason to expect production from Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He hasn't hit anything interesting over a sizable sample since 2005. From injuries to trades to defensive difficulties, he hasn't been in one place long enough to get locked down, and it's difficult to say if Salty has been mishandled or has simply disappointed. It's not impossible that he could find himself at 26, but it doesn't seem likely. The last time he played regularly, the catcher hit .241/.317/.368. If he's in that vicinity again, Martin will outhit him just by hitting .250 and drawing walks.
The Red Sox should make up ground at designated hitter. David Ortiz may be down from his peak form, but he's still more dangerous than the aged Jorge Posada. In Posada’s best years—2000,2003, 2007—he was right there with Ortiz. He was still good last year when he wasn’t busy being concussed or psyching himself out as a DH, but not at the near-MVP level of the past. It is possible that Posada has one more big year in him at 39, but it seems unlikely, whereas for all the grief Ortiz has taken for both his slow starts and his decreasing utility against same-side pitchers, Ortiz hit righties hard enough last year (.297/.416/.643) to retain his status as a player to be feared.
As for the pitching staffs, you know the big question marks: those Nova/Colon/Garcia guys we just discussed and what they will do in the rotation vs. similar uncertainty in Boston’s rotation, theirs regarding Josh Beckett, and if his back will let him pitch at 2007-2009 levels; if John Lackey can carve three-fourths of a run off of his ERA; if Daisuke Matsuzaka can stop annoying everyone in New England with his good stuff and constant nibbling.
There are very small hairs to split, and it’s obvious why PECOTA predicted the Red Sox to win 93 games and the Yankees 92. On paper, there isn’t a decisive difference between the teams. That’s not to say that players don’t over- or under-perform their predictions, and as with last season, injuries will play an important part in the results. Still, as the teams stand now, there is no reason to strongly favor one over the other. It’s going to be a good race.