April is an odd time to be a baseball analyst. During the rest of the year, we dismiss small samples of playing time, but when small samples are the only size the current season comes in, we are left trying to describe an an elephant by looking only at it's kneecap. Last year, I didn't write a single article for SI.com in April, in part because I struggled to draw any meaningful conclusions from a week or two of games, and most of my radio appearances consisted of exchanges such as:
"What do you make out of Ivan Rodriguez leading the majors in hitting?"
"Nothing. It's a meaningless small sample."
"Well, how long will the Padres stay on top of the NL West?"
"What day is it, today? Maybe until Friday. It's a meaningless small sample"
Hey, small sample sizes cut both ways (though I still don't believe in the 2010 Padres).
Still, Opening Day was two weeks ago and, while the sample remains absurdly small*, we have seen the 2011 Yankees play ten games, which is a whole lot more than zero. Here's a quick look at what we've seen thus far and what, if anything, we've learned.
*Yankees playing time leaders: Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira with 44 plate appearances, CC Sabathia with 18 2/3 innings, Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain with six pitching appearances.
The Yankees are 6-4 and tied the Orioles for first place in the AL East with their 7-4 victory over Baltimore Wednesday night. Here's a quick look at how those wins and losses break down:
Three of their six wins have come in games started by A.J. Burnett, who improved to 3-0 on Tuesday night. Two other wins have come in games started by Ivan Nova, one I'll credit to Nova, the other I'll credit to the Yankee offense, which out-hit a sub-par outing from the rookie. The last win was actually the first, an Opening Day win behind CC Sabathia's first season-opening quality start since his Cy Young season of 2007.
Sabathia pitched very well in his first two starts and battled through a shakier outing to hold the Red Sox to one run over 5 2/3 innings at Fenway Park. However, two of the Yankees' four losses have come in games Sabathia started. In the first, Rafael Soriano set up David Robertson for disaster as the bullpen turned a 4-0 lead after seven into a 5-4 loss. In the second, the offense was shut out for the first (and thus far only) time this season by a dominant eight-inning outing from Josh Beckett and a perfect ninth from Jonathan Papelbon. The Yankees other two losses came in Phil Hughes' only two starts.
Simplified, you can blame one loss on the bullpen, one of the offense (though that was more of a tip-your-hat game by Beckett), and two on Hughes. That last is a significant problem. Hughes, who has struggled to get his fastball speed into the 90s and has been left alarmingly vulnerable as a result, will make his third start of the season tonight against the O's and Jake Arrieta. The Yankees' plan for finding Hughes' missing velocity seems to consist of nailing flyers to telephone polls and crossing their fingers, which may be all you can do if you believe the pitcher in question is healthy, which they clearly do. However, Hughes' performance thus far has been distressingly similar to that of Chien-Ming Wang's in 2009.
In Wang's first two starts that season, he pitched 4 2/3 innings and gave up 15 runs as the Yankees were beaten badly in both games. In those two starts, Wang struck out just one batter and got a hitter to swing and miss just five times in 134 pitches. After two starts this year, Hughes has thrown six innings, given up 11 runs, struck out just one man, and has gotten a batter to swing and miss just thrice in 137 pitches. Wang was lit up again in his third start, then stashed on the disabled list with what was described as "weakness in his hips." A month later, he returned, made three relief appearances, then made six more starts, none of them quality, in which he posted a 6.43 ERA and the Yankees went 3-3. He then went under the knife to have a torn capsule in his right shoulder repaired. That was early July of 2009. Wang hasn't pitched since and currently resides on the Nationals' 60-day disabled list.
That's the worst-case scenario, of course, but the first question it might answer is, how long can the Yankees keep running Hughes out there to get lit up? In Wang's case, it was just three starts, which makes tonight's game a pivotal one for Hughes and perhaps the Yankees' season. I say perhaps, because the Yankees did manage to go out and win the World Series in 2009. Coincidentally, the pitcher who replaced Wang in the starting rotation in April 2009 was Phil Hughes, and Hughes has been an active part of the major league staff ever since.
If Hughes does struggle again tonight, the beneficiary could be Hector Noesi, who was called up to replace an injured Luis Ayala, who was placed on the 15-day DL with a strained right latissimus dorsi Tuesday night. Noesi is one of the Yankees' second-tier starting prospects and was the homegrown arm I had pegged as next in line for a shot at rotation spot.
Here's what I wrote when Noesi was optioned to minor league camp on March 13:
Noesi['s] . . . demotion comes as a surprise. Noesi had thrown nine innings, tied with Nova, [Bartolo] Colon, Phil Hughes, and A.J. Burnett and just two outs shy of CC Sabathia’s camp-leading total, and pitched well in his first three outings before giving up three runs in three frames, two of them on solo home runs, on Saturday. Noesi walked just one man and struck out seven in his nine spring frames, but that lone hiccup seemed to be enough to eliminate him from the [rotation] competition, despite the fact that he is already on the 40-man roster (something that’s not true of Garcia or Colon), and the Yankees had to use up one of his options to send him to minor league camp.
I’m not a huge advocate of Noesi’s as I think his fly ball tendencies could prove disastrous in the new Yankee Stadium. Of course, Garcia and Colon are fly ball pitchers as well (Garcia especially), as is Phil Hughes (in stark contrast to his tendencies as a minor leaguer), who has matched Noesi by giving up a camp-leading three home runs. I’d like to think Noesi did enough to push his name toward the front of the list of potential in-season replacements, but his early demotion makes me wonder.
The caveat here is that the three incumbent starters and the four remaining frontrunner candidates are starting to go deeper into games . . . so there are fewer innings to be had in major league camp. The Yankees may have simply decided that Noesi needed to continue to stretch out and that his odds of winning a rotation job were long enough that it wasn’t worth inhibiting his work in camp. Given that he’s a team-controlled player with options, he’s only a phone call away at any point this season should be be needed.
Here's what I wrote about Noesi in reviewing the Yankee campers in February:
Noesi is, with fellow Dominican righty Nova, who is just two weeks his senior, in the second tier of Yankee rotation prospects behind the Killer Bs. Noesi pitched across three levels in 2010, but spent most of the year doing solid work for Double-A Trenton (3.10 ERA, 4.78 K/9). He has a low-90s fastball that can get up to 96, a solid changeup, and excellent control (1.6 BB/9 in his minor league career with a matching figure last year). The trick is that Noesi is one of the few fly-ball pitchers among the Yankees upper-level starting prospects, and Trenton, in stark contrast to the new Yankee Stadium, is a place that’s quite forgiving of fly-ball pitchers. That means the Yankees will likely want Noesi to show them something at Triple-A before they’re willing to sub him into the major league rotation. Noesi made just three starts at Triple-A last year, only one of which was quality, then got lit-up in a playoff start against the Columbus Clippers, who are now the Indians’ top affiliate.
Prior to his promotion on Tuesday, Noesi made just one start for Scranton, a solid but largely uninformative effort at Rochester, the Twins' Triple-A affiliate, that fell an inning short of a quality start and did not see him surrender a home run.
Getting past Hughes, Burnett hasn't been great, but he has been solid, like the league-average third-starter he most resembles, and the Yankees have scored 21 runs in his three starts. Most encouragingly, his strikeout rate seems to be rebounding nicely. Burnett struck out 8.8 men per nine innings from 2002 to 2009 and led the American League in strikeouts in 2008, but last year he struck out just seven men per nine innings, and though he went 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in his first six starts last year, he struck out just 6.2 men per nine over those six outings. Thus far this year, his K rate is back up to 8.3 (16 in 17 1/3 innings), and despite once again leading the league in wild pitches, he has also kept his walks down (2.6 BB/9, matching the lowest single-season walk rate of his career).
Rounding out the rotation, the jury is still out on Nova. His first start was encouraging, his second less so. Freddy Garcia has yet to make his first Yankee start. That will come on Saturday.
As for the offense, the shutout at the hands of Beckett and Papelbon was the only game thus far this year in which the Yankees have scored less than four runs. On the season, they are averaging 5.7 runs per game. Last year, the Yankees led the majors with 5.3 runs per game, so while there are a handful of teams who have scored more often this season (though only the White Sox in the AL), there's no real reason to be concerned about the Yankee attack right now despite some individual struggles which do bear watching. Those individual struggles have dragged the team's typically stellar on-base percentage down to league average, but the team as a whole has compensated by leading the major leagues in home runs and out-homering their opponents 20 to 8, with three of those opponent home runs coming off Hughes and two more coming off a tiring Burnett in the seventh inning of Wednesday night's game. Entering today's action, Nelson Cruz and Troy Tulowitzki led the majors with five home runs. The Yankees have three players with four: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Posada. The Rangers are the only other team with two men in the top 13 in home runs entering today's action.
Lots of homers and a weak on-base percentage is a poor recipe for run scoring, just ask last year's Blue Jays, who led the majors in home runs with a fifth more than the second-place Red Sox, but had a .312 team on-base percentage and were barely above average in run scoring as a result. However, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Jorge Posada are currently hitting a combined .185/.263/.356, so there's plenty of reason to expect improvement, even after Alex Rodriguez (.355/.474/.806 and living up to pre-season suggestions that he could have an MVP-quality season) sees his numbers come back to reality. It's too early to dwell on those performances (as well as that of Derek Jeter, who is hitting .237 with no power but is at least leading the team in walks), but those are the hitters who bear watching, though none bears as much watching as Hughes.