Monday, March 05, 2007

Spring Training

Today I had the pleasure of watching my very first live action baseball game of 2007 today. Alerted by some commenters on Bronx Banter, I learned that today's Yankees game against the
Tigers would be on ESPN. I rushed home and set the DVR so I could watch the game this evening. We're still in the phase of spring where the the cliche is that the "pitchers are ahead of the hitters," so I'll recap via each pitchers' performance

Starting for the Yankees was their Plan B Japanese Import, Kei "Quest" Igawa. He did his best Nuke Laloosh impression in the first inning. After a single by Pudge Rodriguez, Igawa walked the next two hitters. He then struck out the next two, before walking in a run. He finished the inning on his fortieth pitch, striking out the side. Igawa showed a good change-up, freezing two of his strikeout victims. His fastball registered around the high-80s and was fairly erratic, and got squeezed on a number of occasions, with close pitches called balls. This was probably because his breaking ball was consistently up, and there were at least three "foul home runs" crushed by Gary Sheffield and minor leaguer Ryan Rayburn. Igawa was pulled after Sean Casy singled to start the second.

Justin Verlander started for the Tigers, and set the Yankees (Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Jason "Chumba" Giambi) down in order in the second. His fastball was rated as "most feared" via a players' poll and it had quite a bit of pop in the first. He tried to In the second inning, he tried to incorporate his curveball, and paid dearly. A sharp single by A-Rod was followed by a quick line drive homer by Hideki Matsui, both on the breaking ball. Verlander then was wild with everything the rest of the inning, throwing away a few fastballs.

The Sandman entered early for the Yanks, and struck out the first two hitters (Brent Clevlen and Brandon Inge) swinging, and Sean Casey bounced one back to the mound, breaking his bat. No surprises there from the best closer of all time. There was a rumor that Rivera was going to develop a changeup this year, after it was apparently observed during a side-tossing session. He didn't throw it that inning, serving up a healthy dose of the cutter with a couple two-seam fastballs worked in.

Andrew Miller came in for the third inning. Miller graduated from UNC just six days after I graduated from Duke, which is a weird thing itself. A contract stipulation had Miller in the big leagues in August of last season, and did okay for someone who had been pitching in the College World Series just three months prior (10 innings, 10 walks, 8 hits, 6 strikeouts). The big lefthander showed a sneaky-fast heater (91-92 mph) and a sort of slurve-type breaking ball, which he only threw twice. Chumba showed his typical patience in working a walk in this inning- perhaps the eye for the strike zone doesn't need warmup. A-Rod got a hit and RBI with a man in scoring position (cue sarcastic comment)! Miller continued in the fourth and made quick work of the Yankees, registering a ground out (Posada) a strikeout (Cano) and a popup (Doug Mientkiewicz). I'm not sure what the plan is for Miller this season, but I think remaining in the big leagues is a distinct possibility, based on his outing.

Steven Jackson took the mound for the Yanks in the fourth- part of the Randy Johnson trade, a big right-hander wearing the distinguished #80. Jackson thew mostly sliders to Curtis Granderson and Pudge Rodriguez, but was fairly wild with his 90 mph fastball. He threw more fastballs to Polanco and then to Sheffield, getting the former Yankee to hit another of his famous towering- but foul- flyballs. Carlos Guillen smacked a double and he might be the next big power threat out of shortstop in the coming season. Jackson had been holding his own until the double agaist the big league hitters, but he is clearly a couple of years away. Jackson had been holding his own against the big-league hitters, but the kid is clearly a couple of years away.

Scrub time dawned for the Yankees, with Kevin Thompson taking over in center- he could travel north with the Yanks if Abreu isn't ready for the regular season (he later dropped a pretty bunt single to showcase his speed to Joe Torre). Jackson really started to struggle in the fifth, and was replaced by Chris Britton. Traded in the offseason for Jaret Wright, Britton is battling Brian Bruney for the final righty slot in the Yanks bullpen.

Zach Miner, a swingman out of the bullpen, took over for the Tigers in the fifth. After Thompson's bunt single, Jeter flicked one back up the middle and was replaced by minor leaguer Alberto "The Attorney General" Gonzalez. Jeter's timing looks very good for this early in March- the signs point to a regression this year, but I don't think he will fall far below .320/.380/.450. A-Rod struck out with runners on second/third to end the inning (insert another sarcastic comment).

Tyler "The Yankee" Clippard entered the game in the sixth, and is the main reason I kept watching. Clippard has been mostly overshadowed by the rise of Philip Hughes, and causes much debate among those who follow prospects. The stats are certainly there- in two full big league seasons, Clippard has four times as many strikeouts as walks, a fairly low home run rate, and a good ground-ball frequency. Yet many prospect-predictors, both computers like ZIPS and PECOTA and traditional scouts, have cooled on the tall, skinny 23-year old. In this game Clippard failed to show the control he possessed in a no-hitter last season at Trenton. His breaking ball in particular kept flying out of his hand poorly, whacking Tigers reserve Cleveland in the helmet, and another one slipping out against Inge. He threw a sharper one to get Inge to bounce to the mound to end the sixth, however. It will be interesting to see the rest of the spring from Clippard but he's probably another year away from contributing to the big club; he will most likely anchor the best AAA rotation in Yankees' history.

Notes the rest of the way: Joel Zumaya is pretty spectacular- he had twice as many 100 mph pitches last season (233 pitches) than the rest of the major leagues combined. He had that velocity in early March, which is ridiculous, and then embarrassed the hitters with a looping, 84 mph breaking ball... 23-yr old Cuban defector Juan Miranda looked over-matched against Fransisco Rodney... Buck Martinez and Steve Phillips cancel each other out in the booth- the former talking about how Pudge Rodriguez learning how to walk will help the team "walks mean on base percentage, and on base percentage means runs." Phillips, meanwhile, talked about how the Dodgers "overpaid a little" for Juan Pierre "but he will be a producer, he will produce." Phillips neglected to specify what Pierre produces- outs, lots of them- first or second in the league in making outs each of the last three seasons.... Ron Villone looked pretty wild; unfortunately, without a radical shift in the plan for Igawa, Villone is the best lefty bullpen option for the Yanks.

The DVR cut out with two outs in the top of the ninth- so I wasn't able to witness Bronson Sardinha's game winning homerun. The minor leaguer had an unremarkable game up until that point; however, he still sits lodged uncermoniously between current big-leaguers like Melky Cabrera and phenom Jose Tabata on the Yanks' long term OF plans. Overall, a pleasing return to baseball-watching for me, and showcased in a nutshell what these two teams will be about this season: the Yanks will bat their way past shaky pitching and the Tigers will have pretty dominant pitching, particularly out of the bullpen. Final Score: Yankees 6, Tigers 5.

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