Austin Romine: Is He The New York Yankees Future Behind The Plate?

September 11, 2010

With The Trenton Thunder’s 8-1 win Friday night in New Hampshire, the Yankees Double A affiliate advanced to the Eastern League finals for the third time in the last four seasons.

With absolutely stunning pitching, the Thunder’s starters and relievers held the Fisher Cats to ONE run in 30 innings over the three games.

Some of that credit has to go to the catcher for all three of those games, 21-year-old Austin Romine. During the series, Romine caught a potential future ace in Dellin Betances, a potential Hall of Famer in Andy Pettitte and up and coming Johan Santana clone (but with a better curve ball) in Manuel Banuelos.

Banuelos threw seven innings of shutout ball last night for his first win this season. ManBan will be a really good major league pitcher.   

The Yankees love Romine, and the Yankees are loaded with catching prospects. They have 20-year-old Jesus Montero in Triple A Scranton, Romine in Trenton, 19-year-old J.R. Murphy in Low A Charleston and rifle armed 17-year-old Gary Sanchez, who just finished up in short season Staten Island.

Many in the media, both New York and National media plus the prospect circuit and about a gazillion bloggers believe Romine will be the catching future in the Bronx.

I am sorry to let you down, but I don’t see it happening.

He may get some time as a major league catcher, but for him to have a long and distinguished career in New York, Romine will have to improve many aspects of his game…on both sides of the ball.

I was at the two home games in the Eastern League playoff semi’s, but have seen about 15 Trenton games this year, many with Romine behind the plate.

I checked my notes from the playoff games to those in the early and middle part of the season, and many of them are similar.

Behind the plate, Romine calls a very good game and works well with all the Trenton pitchers. I spoke with Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, Lance Pendleton and D.J. Mitchell, the latter two before they were promoted to Triple A Scranton. 

All said they love to throw to Romine and how good he is behind the plate. But to be fair here, ALL Yankee pitchers love to work with ALL their systems catchers.  Even Andy Pettitte at his press conference last week after his rehab start said Romine was “great to throw to.”

But delving deeper, Warren, who threw mostly fastballs and a few sliders in relief of Pettitte, said that Romine was aware of how much pop his fastball had. He kept calling for it, not calling for Warren’s curve ball or change much at all.

But Romine does not have good hands behind the plate. He regularly lets 2 to 3 pitches (or more!) go off his glove per game. They may occur with the bases empty so they are not passed balls, but there is no denying Romine needs to work on his receiving skills. It seems like he has trouble with velocity and/or serious ball movement.

In several recent games, I mentioned this fact to several veteran baseball guys in the stands, who after the game acknowledged that Romine has a problem.

Many people think Romine is just plain tired, but these mishaps occurred early in the season, too, so I do not buy that excuse.  I believe he oftentimes lacks concentration behind the plate. However, to be fair, Romine is in the first full season catching as he usually split time the last two years with Jesus Montero in Low A Charleston in 2008 and for much of the 2009 season in High A Tampa.

His throwing arm appeared good one night, but very weak and off target other nights. His footwork is inconsistent with each throw and even during between innings throws he is sometimes off balanced.

But while he glove work needs help, his hitting may need more. He looked slow against Kyle Drabek* the other night. Not that anyone else in the Trenton lineup was hitting him well (Daniel Brewer did hit a 4th inning line drive RBI single), but Romine was consistently behind Drabek’s good fastball.

And he never had a chance at Drabek’s breaking stuff.

*Drabek has been rewarded with his Eastern League Pitcher of the Year performance with his first major league start, scheduled for Wednesday. This is a reward and also to keep Drabek’s innings mounting so he will be on pace for 200+ next season as a full-time starter in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. No way they let Drabek pitch for Triple A Las Vegas, and put him in that environment

That was the second time recently I saw Romine face Drabek. He was not much better the first time around. Lots of flailing swings and quite a few weakly hit ground balls.

In fact, there are very few times Romine catches up with a good fastball, and most of the times I see him hit the ball well on the fastball are when he goes the other way with an outside pitch, like he did with his one hit off Drabek the other night.

And it appears he knows he can’t catch up with the fastball because he pulls off the ball very quickly looking for the inside pitch. When he does that, there is no way he hits a good breaking ball.

I can’t believe that the Yankees are sending him to the Arizona Fall League (again!) after his first full season as a catcher. While most teams out there stock three of four catchers, he might only catch one game a week. But last year, Romine only had 15 at bats out there, so he might just make an appearance or two.

The Yankees system is stacked in the catching department, and it does not seem out of the question that one of the younger kids like Murphy or Sanchez (who can hit for big time power and has a tremendous throwing arm) could overtake Romine in the pecking order.

Romine is consistent as he had exactly 122 hits each of his first three professional seasons. But his plate appearance and at bats have increased each year and his batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentages are all lower than they were in 2008.

Austin Romine is very likable. He is a good kid, always ready to talk to the media and he keeps the young fans happy with autographs and a free game ball or two.

But as the catching future for the New York Yankees…it likely will not happen.

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Derek Jeter: Why All The Concern Over His Current Play?

September 6, 2010

A recent article by John Harper of the New York Daily News quoted two former players saying that Derek Jeter will play hardball with the Yankees over his next contract.

I am asking why would Derek Jeter need to play hardball?

Is he going anywhere else?   No.

Will he ever wear another uniform?   Of course not.

Jeter has said he eventually wants to be a part owner of the Yankees. Do you think that will ever happen if he ever play for another organization? I have said countless times that he is today’s Joe DiMaggio. Great on the field, a multiple World Series winner and quiet icon off the field.

So what is the worry? Is it that Jeter has been in a 5 for 47 slump over the last dozen games? If so, what have the Yankees done in those 12 games? They have won eight of those 12, and now have a 2.5 game lead over the sturdy Tampa Bay Rays.

The idea is to win games, and the Yankees are winning games. In fact, they have won more games than any other team in baseball – even with a slumping Jeter and little consistency in the rotation after CC Sabathia.

Jeter is now hitting .264 on the season, a full 70 points lower than he did last season, and his OBP is 75 points lower. People are now claiming Jeter is on the downside, because he is older and most other non-steroid hitters have all suffered the same fate.

It is one season. Infact, it is really only a couple months. Besides not having his share of home runs and opposite field singles this season, everything else is pretty much the same offensively. Jeter is on pace for the same amount of runs scored, doubles, RBI, and almost as many walks.

It is mainly his lack of his trademark singles, that liner into right field or the hard ground ball which gets through the infield. Those extra hits have wreaked havoc with Jeter’s OBP and SLG. Yes, singles hurt slugging percentages. 

Jeter is second among active players with 2,139 singles, and has been first of second in the AL insingles eight times in his 15 full seasons.

I have seen the articles and heard the talking heads discussing Jeter’s demise, how is on the downside and how the Yankees can not give him a long-term deal and big money after a “terrible” season like this*.

*No matter what Jeter’s season ends up as, and he could still have a great September and postseason, I give Jeter what ever he wants money wise. As I wrote earlier this year, I give Jeter a 10 year deal for $180-$200 million.

As I have said many times, Jeter is a prideful guy and would want Jeter-type money, even if he is continues to hit like he has so far this season. But, Jeter is also like DiMaggio, in that he will leave this game on top and not with his skills clearly eroding for everyone to see, even if millions of dollars are still on the table. 

Guys like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays suffered at the end of their careers. Mantle stuck around for a  year too long trying to help the Yankees fill seats at the Stadium. Mickey stayed on a year plus after he hit his 500th HR and eventually saw his career average fall below .300. Letting that average fall below that magic .300 number was always one of Mantle’s big regrets after his career ended.

Mays was a shell of himself when he played in New York for the Mets. Yes, he did play in one more World Series, but the last thoughts of many baseball fans was Mays floundering around in that 1973 Series, showing his true age. For all intents and purposes, Willie’s last season should have been 1971. Lucky for him his career average stayed above .300 after his final seasons.

Jeter will leave the game well before he is toast. It could be two years or could be five years, but either way he will not stay around just for the money. And playing baseball for a living is not like other occupations.  People in most other occupations do not have their skills erode to the detriment of millions of fans.

If YOU were guaranteed a 10-year deal with your company, you would definitely stay on the job because you DO need the money and have no pride to stay around if you couldn’t do the work anymore. You would be George Costanza staying on at the playground ball company Play Now

Jeter is not like that, he does not need the money and will not stay around just to collect a check.

And when Jeter does leave the game, the Yankees will not be liable for the balance of his contract. (Although I believe the Yankees will have Jeter on a personal services deal immediately after he retires) It is the only time a MLB players contract is NOT guaranteed. Salomon Torres retired two years ago from the Milwaukee Brewers and left $3.75 million on the table.

What I haven’t seen or heard (especially from sabermetric guys) is how Jeter might be UNLUCKY this season. You know that thing saber guys use when they can’t explain why things happen on the field of play?

Why isn’t Jeter just plain unlucky? I showed above how all his other stats (besides HRs) are the same.

You see, Jeter’s BABIP has always been over .300 and last year it was an incredible .368, but this season it is only .298, below the norm of .300 and well below last season. His career BABIP is .356!

That means he is unlucky compared to last year and pretty much his entire career. So this year it will “even out,” to what Jeter’s norm is, right? LOL.

So why I haven’t read or heard about how Jeter is unlucky? Is it because since Jeter’s BABIP this season is around the norm, this is what Jeter really is, a .265ish type hitter with little power? In fact, the Jeter detractors would probably argue that Jeter might considered extremely lucky for his career!

Yeah, most guys who have 15 plus year Hall of Fame careers are always lucky when their BABIP’s are higher than .300, the major league average on balls in play. But it is only an average and many guys do have higher BABIP’s and some have lower ones.

But what I have seen that for the most part, guys who are really good hitters usually have higher BABIP’s. They have better approaches and hit the ball harder more often.

 Sure, hard hit balls are sometimes right at fielders and little bloop hits fall in and “find grass.”

But good hitters do not get themselves out on the hard inside pitch by getting jammed all the time, they don’t swing at too many pitches outside the zone on the inner half and don’t flail-swing at many bad pitches on the outside part of the zone trying to compensate for a slower bat.

Three things Jeter is doing this season, more often than he has before.

Good hitters, however, adjust their swings according to how they are performing and how they are being pitched, but Jeter does NOT do that and it is causing him problems.

I have seen him all season. He still hits the same way he has his entire career, and has not changed a thing**. He leans over the plate too much with his upper body. He is out on his front foot much more this season, and when your bat slows down (and Jeter’s has), leaning over the plate and being out on your front foot is not a good combination.

**Unbelievably, Jeter even uses the exact same model bat, same length and weight, that he did his first year in the majors.

The swing is two distinct parts, working in tandem. First you step and then you swing. When I mean step, it could be an actual step, a toe tap or just an inward rotation of the front foot. When this happens, the hands move back to gain some separation. Then the hips turn, the hands bring the bat forward and through. 

The back side and front side are working together, but the bottom and top also need to work together. Think of your stance as a building with the waist as the midpoint, with the legs being the foundation and the upper body the steeple. The steeple needs to stay directly on top of the foundation for control and power.

Jeter is too much out of control when he swings as he brings his upper body forward and too far over the plate. That is causing all the weakly hit ground balls.

What you do not want to do is lean forward when you begin the swing process as this brings the hands forward with the upper body. A hitter can jam himself on inside pitches by doing this. When hitters “can’t catch up with the fastball,” bringing the hands forward with the upper body is one of the faults which contribute to that.

When pitchers are pounding you inside early in your career, your quick hands can guide the bat through the zone and you will get those extra hits to right field and up the middle. But when your hands and bat slow down, those extra hits become dribbling ground balls and weak pop ups.

When I played in my late 30’s – early 40’s, my bat became slower and I had to compensate for my slowness by being more of a location hitter and starting my swing early. Since these college pitchers (and catchers) were throwing me inside, I had to “cheat” by looking inside and committing earlier than normal.

In college and up into my mid 30’s, I was a gap-to-gap guy, but ended up more of a pull hitter later in my career.

While it will not happen this year, Jeter needs to change his hitting approach after this season.

Jeter needs to begin to alter his swing and keep his upper body back more. That will help him become a better hitter by using his legs more to get around on that inside pitch. Early in the count, Jeter might want to begin to become a “location hitter.” When he is looking for an inside pitch, Jeter usually gets around on it and makes better contact.

And Jeter will not be dropped in the batting order, either. Joe Girardi is NOT like Joe Torre. If Girardi did not drop Mark Teixeira in the lineup earlier this season, there is no way he drops Jeter. You play with the guys who have gotten you here (best record in baseball) and you let them play.

There have been stories that Jeter still wants to hit his way, and does not seek much guidance from Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long. Guys like Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano eat up all the info from Long, but Jeter goes about things on his own.

That will change.

Seeing the effect that Long has had on all the above guys, and with the recent quick results with Curtis Granderson, I bet Jeter works with Long over the off-season and comes back strong again next year.

Just like he got better two seasons ago with his defense by getting in better playing shape. Jeter’s pride to become better and not fall off will be too much not to seek Long’s help. Jeter has his pride, but is too smart to continue to let that get in the way of improving.

He will improve his game over the winter, the same way he has done it over the years. He is the perfect player, not doing much anything incorrectly.

He is so good at being a professional that the media took to having to rip him for not showing up to Bob Sheppard’s funeral. There was nothing else…until now with this late season hitting slump.

I believe it is that many people really want Jeter to fail, to have his skills erode so they can write him off. Jeter is the perfect player who has succeeded at most everything his entire life. He is a winner, a guy you can’t quantify via “advanced” statistical analysis.

Derek Jeter is a guy who has many big hits and great moments in his career, but according to his critics might have been nothing more than a singles hitter with limited range on defense.

Overrated they say. But overrated players do not help their organization win five World Series titles, get to two others and compile over 3,000 career hits over a 15 plus year HOF career.

As Yankee fans our BABIP has been high because we are “lucky” Jeter played in pinstripes all these years.

He will continue to do so in the future, for as many years as he wants.

Just let him play, finally adjust, and do his thing.


Cliff Lee: Could the Texas Rangers Face First Round Exit Without Its Ace?

September 5, 2010

A few weeks ago the Editors at Bleacher Report asked me to write a piece on why getting Cliff Lee was going to make the Texas Rangers World Series participants. Now, with Lee’s struggles and his recent back injury, I have been asked to write a contrasting piece on why Lee’s recent struggles are going to derail the Rangers World Series push.

In his last five starts for Texas, Lee is 0-3, 8.28 ERA allowing 44 hits in 29 innings. He has walked only THREE, struck out 35, but allowed 10 HRs over this span.

Don’t worry Nolan Ryan, your ace will be fine. There was much talk last season, too, about Lee and his struggles midway through his tenure in Philadelphia. After a glowing 5-0 record in his first five starts after the 2009 trade from Cleveland, Lee was pummeled in his next three starts.

Those first five starts last year saw Lee throw 40 innings, allowing 24 hits, 3 ERs, while walking six and striking out 39. In his next three starts he lasted 15 innings total, allowing 29 hits, 16 ERs, walking NONE and striking out 12.

Even though he struggled his last two regular season starts, too, Lee eventually figured everything out and was very Christy Mathewson-like in the 2009 post season.

He will be fine again but he must learn to read my writings and adjust to the leagues hitters.

I wrote a piece two weeks ago about Lee coming to New York for next season. I mentioned his struggles and said one reason might be the approach other teams might have towards Lee.

Lee is a control pitcher. He does not throw 95+ and needs to locate his fastball, change and curve ball in order to be successful. One of the big things talked about with Lee this season is that he does not walk hitters. He has only 12 walks this season in 184 innings, a walk rate of 0.6 per nine innings.

That is too few walks. That’s right. Lee does not walk enough people. He throws TOO MANY strikes, about 72% of his pitches this season have been strikes. Knowing that he is always around the plate, teams are now looking to swing the bat against him early and often in the count.

Don’t take a strike, don’t get behind in the count and don’t let him use that devastating change-up while ahead.

Now other baseball analysts have gotten into this fray.

Look at the above stats. In the two bad stretches when he was getting hit, Lee did not walk anybody and still got his strikeouts. But he was lit up like the Rockefeller Christmas tree. Sometimes hitters need to attack early, and they were against Lee.

There is a reason why guys like Catfish Hunter, Robin Roberts and Bert Blyleven (all real good pitchers but only two are Hall of Famers), gave up a lot of home runs. They were always around the plate. Lee is giving up a lot of home runs now with Texas, but only 15 total this season. He allowed 17 last year, not that much different from 2009.

Also, Lee has now begun to complain of a sore back. He has taken shots in the lower back to alleviate the pain, but Lee is not centering his struggles on the recent back pain. With a substantial lead (now eight games) in the American League West, it might be best for the Rangers to rest Lee and not throw him until he does feel 100%.

Even if Lee is not at his best entering the post season, the Rangers will be OK. They have a potent offense led by MVP candidate Josh Hamilton plus Vladimir Guerrero and Micheal Young , a stellar bullpen led by Rookie of the Year candidate Neftali Feliz and other good, young starters in C.J. Wilson and Tommy Hunter.

And with the return of second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Rangers offense just got better. Kinsler’s return to the lineup and the great bullpen can compensate for any lack of starting pitching the Rangers may develop.

Similar to last season, Lee will be good to go during the post season and even if he is not 100%, the Rangers have other weapons to take them forward.

Unless Hamilton’s chronic bad back, gimpy knee or recently banged up rib gets more troublesome.


Javier Vazquez Back Into The Yankees Starting Rotation, But Why?

September 1, 2010

Back in 2007, the Yankees had a starting pitcher in the minors who blew through several levels of play. He regularly hit the gun at 95-97, even as late as the 7th inning inone game for the Trenton Thunder.

He was good starting pitching prospect, but the Yankees needed his power arm in their bullpen. So Joba Chamberlain was in the bullpen for the 2007 post season.

He was tried as a starting pitcher and despite not being Wes Ferrell right off the bat, he still did well considering he was restricted in more ways that Stephen Strasburg laughs at him.

But Joba was perceived to be a better pitcher as a reliever (where he was needed) and the numbers appeared to show this fact. Even before this inconsistent season from the pen, Joba has a lower ERA, WHIP, and higher strikeout and K/BB rates as a reliever.

Despite only starting 43 games, Joba was better in the pen than as a starter. The debate was fierce and everyone had an opinion.

However, the Yankees are going in a different direction with another pitcher who gets much better results when he comes out of the bullpen.

Manager Joe Girardi said today that Javier Vazquez will move back into the rotation on Saturday, replacing Dustin Moseley. This comes on the heels of Vazquez’ two really good relief appearances over the past week.

In the first one on August 25th, Vazquez came in the middle of the 4th inning to replace Phil Hughes. Javy completed the game, going 4.1 innings, allowing two hits, one earned run, while walking one. He struck out two.

The second appearance was on August 30th, where Vazquez replaced the increasingly ineffective Moseley. Once again, Javy finished the game, cruising through almsot five very effective innings. He finished with 4.2 IP, allowing two hits, one earned run, walked one hitter while striking out six batters.

In his last two appearances, both in relief of ineffective starting pitchers, and totaled nine innings of two run ball. He kept the Yankees in the first game (an eventual loss to Toronto) and got the win in relief of Moseley.

He also got the win in the May 17th game versus Boston, when he came in relief and struck out Kevin Youkilis in a big late inning situation. That was the game which Marcus Thames homered off of Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the 9th inning.

As a reliever, Vazquez has a 1.93 ERA, 0.643 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.5 SO/BB and a .125 BAA. All those numbers are considerably better than the 5.07 ERA, 1.366 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 1.9 SO/BB, and .257 BAA.

So then why put Vazquez back into the rotation? He pitches so much better out of the pen in his long-man role. At the point when Vazquez enteres games, either the Yankees are behind a few runs or the game is close and the Yankees have scored a bunch of runs already.

The game is already in its groove, and the big pressure of starting is off. Does Vazquez relish this lack of pressure role, where he is being used to give the Yankees innings?

Probably. Although he is a veteran pitcher, the pressure of New York was the reason why many people thought he wouldn’t pitch well this year after the off season trade with the Atlanta Braves.

With Ivan Nova, Moseley’s spot, and Phil Hughes commanding three straight starts in the current rotation, that is a lot of possible innings for the bullpen to pitch. You need a long man to maybe keep the Yankees in the game if one of those guys hit the showers early.

Like Hughes did on August 25th, and Moseley did two days ago.

Vazquez and Chad Gaudin (unbelievably surprising!) have formed a nice, recent one-two middle relief punch. Gaudin pitched well last night, throwing three innings in relief of another short Hughes outing.

But Moseley is not a very good pitcher, and should not start this Saturday. He is 2-1 but averages fewer than five innings a start. He’s walked 13 and struck out 11 while allowing five home runs, resulting in a 6.41 ERA.

But who to start on Saturday? You can always go the Sergio Mitre route, but that doesn’t excite me.

Nova has done well in his recall from Triple A so why not got down that well once again? While Moseley ws blowing up Monday night in the Bronx, David Phelps was throwing five innings of opne run ball in Triple A.

Phelps has a 3.23 ERA in 11 appearances. While he does allow a fair share of hits, Phelps is similar to Nova in that he does not walk many hitters (13 in 62 AAA innings). You can give up hits or walks, just don’t be good at allowing both in the same game.

Phelps doesn’t need to be on the Yankees 40 man roster until after next season, I can not see him spending all his time in AAA all next year. He will pitch in the majors sometime in 2011.  

The Yankees have too many wasted spots on their 40 man roster, such as Chad Huffman, Wilkin De La Rosa, Reegie Corona and even Mitre is expendable. He will never get a post season roster spot.

So I say lets go with Phelps and see what he can do. It won’t be for long since Andy Pettitte will be back in two weeks.

Vazquez needs to stay in the bullpen now. He is performing well in that role.

Let Phelps pitch and if he does well, you might have an idea for next years rotation with two guys (Nova and Phelps) who could challenge for a 2011 rotation spot. At the very least, it will increase his trade value in the off season.