The Yankees reclaimed second place in the AL East over the weekend by taking three of four from the Devil Rays. They'll try to make up some more ground on the Red Sox this week by throwing their Japanese import, their struggling ace, the 44-year-old guy they signed in midseason and their sinker master at the Jays.
Tonight's starter is the one and only Kei Igawa. Here is a link to Igawa's official website, KQUEST. Igawa was largely ineffective in his first few starts, prompting the Yankees to try to fix his mechanics in the minors while hoping for a miracle from the DeSalvos and Clippards of the world. Igawa was very good in four AAA starts, averaging 6 innings with a 2.88 ERA and a 3.86 K/BB, but it hasn't translated to the majors, where he's given up 11 runs over 15 innings in three starts since getting recalled.
Igawa has played as an extreme flyball pitcher thus far in the US. The YES network broadcasters think he likes working up in the zone too much and gets pulverized by the powerful North American hitters whenever he isn't keeping the ball down. He's a standard four-pitch pitcher who throws an un-overpowering straight fastball in the high 80s. I could see him being an annoyance against lefty hitters, since he's got a good variety of breaking stuff, but the changeup he leans on against righties looks pretty inconsistent. It's very hard to imagine Igawa having any success at all on days when he can't locate the fastball.
So maybe he's struggling on the mound. But character-wise, Igawa comes off as a sharp, quick-witted, magnanimous guy who'd fit into the Yankees clubhouse perfectly. This interview with SI's Franz Lidz might be my favorite baseball-related thing I read in the offseason. I won't spoil any answers, but it touches on, among other things, Igawa's motto, one of his personal heroes, Scott Boras' effect on Daisuke Matsuzaka's image in Japan, Igawa's secret ambition, his favorite historic figure, and the most exotic food in his fridge.
Andy Pettitte is struggling, fighting a losing battle against the hit gods. On a related note, he faces Roy Halladay. Pettitte gave up 8 runs in each of his last 2 starts before the all-star break, lasting 1.2 innings against Oakland and 5 against LA of A.
With all due respect to Pettitte and Halladay, the marquee matchup of this series takes place on Wednesday. Shaun Marcum faces the Yankees' sensational new pitcher, just signed off the street a couple of months ago, Roger Clemens. Clemens looked overpowering enough in his first few starts, but the Devil Rays made him look very ordinary over the weekend. Clemens gave up 5 runs over 5.1 innings, with 4 walks and 2 strikeouts. That sent his ERA above 4 and his K/BB plummeting back towards 2.
Clemens' power heater is only around 90 these days, but he can probably dial it up higher if necessary. Last time out, Clemens went to great pains to establish it the first time he went through the Rays' order. It's hard to draw any sweeping conclusions about a pitcher's approach from only watching one start but I got the impression Clemens is making a concerted effort to keep his curveball and deadly splitter shrouded in mystery until he desperately needs strikeouts. We shall see. This go-round in the majors, Clemens is likely to require A+ fastball location to succeed against American League hitting, since he no longer possesses the dominating no-hit stuff that could beat teams all by itself in the past. Even at 44, though, everything Clemens throws is heavy, so his groundball rate remains above-average in the high 40s.
Over his career against Clemens, Frank Thomas is 14-55 with 12 walks and 4 homers. Vernon Wells is 4-13 with two doubles and two walks. Alex Rios has a homer in 3 PA. The rest isn't pretty.
Thursday's matchup is solid too: Dustin McGowan against Chien-Ming Wang. Wang thumbs his nose at all those who said he couldn't survive without getting more strikeouts. He's increased his strikeout rate from 8.4% to 12.1%; it seems like a conscious effort to use more sliders against righties when ahead in the count is the cause. However, Wang's primary MO - lots of medicine-ball sinkers and the occasional mid-90s fastball to keep hitters honest - remains unchanged. And so does his ERA, which sits at 3.43 after it was 3.63 last year. And so does his reputation for efficiency: after averaging 6.6 innings a start last year, he's up to 6.9 in 2007. The Jays have not had great success against Wang. Their designated Wang-basher, Eric Hinske, is gone; Aaron Hill is 4-6 with a walk and two doubles and Lyle Overbay is 2-6 with a double, but the rest of the team is a combined 5-44 with five walks.
This is the first Jays-Yankees game since A-Rod needlessly upset a lot of people by doing something stupid and minimally beneficial to his team's cause the last time these two teams met. I wonder how exactly the Jays are going to go about beaning him, if they do. I'm not a fan of the retaliatory beanball, but if it has to be done to restore order to the baseball universe, my ideal scenario would be the ninth inning of a blowout with the returning Brandon League on the mound.
Jason Giambi is still a couple of weeks away from returning from his broken foot. In the meantime, he's talking with George Mitchell. Whatever that means.
His replacement is Andy Phillips. Andy Phillips' bat may not conjure dread in most pitchers' hearts, but he hit seven big-league homers in 263 PA last year. He's got some pop and can't be treated as a pitcher, even though the other bats in this lineup may make him look like one. Miguel Cairo may get one or two starts at first as well, and he may actually be a better hitter than Phillips, but Torre seems to like Phillips' reasonably hot bat.
The Yankees are carrying a three-man bench and eight-man bullpen in Giambi's absence. If the bench comes into play in any of the four games this series, someone probably has a double-digit lead. It consists of whichever one of Phillips and Cairo is sitting, plus outfielder Kevin Thompson and catcher Wil Nieves. Thompson stole 13 bases in 19 attempts in AAA this year while hitting .282/.385/.423 despite a worrying 18.9% strikeout rate.
Finally, the most intriguing pitcher on the Yankees this series, aside from possibly Igawa and possibly Clemens, is (for now) the eighth man in that bullpen. He's probably only here because of Giambi's injury. He's a slender 26-year-old righty reliever by the name of Edwar Ramirez. Ramirez was cut by the Angels organization after he hit a wall in A-ball in 2003 and spent the 2004 year out of professional baseball. After a brief and unsuccessful run in AAA with LA of A, Ramirez jumped to Pensacola in the Central Baseball League and taught himself to throw a circle change. It wasn't easy - "Sometimes I threw it in the dirt, sometimes I threw it [up into] the cage," he says, giving hope to amateur change-throwers across the universe who know exactly how that feels - but it eventually worked out. Ramirez was very effective in Pensacola, putting up a 1.45 ERA in 62 innings. When he repeated that production in Edinburg of the United League last year, the Yankees took notice. They signed him in midseason and sent him to Tampa. And suddenly he's here.
He's only pitched 2.1 innings in the majors this year, but he could already be the second-best reliever in New York's crowded pen. Perhaps that's a stretch. But aside from Rivera, I'd rather have my team face the devil I know than go up against Ramirez. The old reliable righty standbys of 2006 are pitching like self-parodies. Their strikeout rates are all dwindling at once, and they're walking their way into jams with alarming frequency and then escaping them with a potent combination of popups, atom balls and warning-track flyouts.
Meanwhile, Ramirez has absolutely obliterated all three minor leagues he's seen in the last 12 months. Last year, he put up 42% K and 5.4% BB at A Tampa. OK, but he was 25. Man against boys. No fair. So this year, he put up an 0.54 ERA, 49.3% K and 11.3% BB in 16.2 innings at AA Trenton. (Seriously! He struck out half the guys he faced!) But he was 26. No fair. So they gave him a shot at AAA, where he put up an 0.67 ERA, 46.5% K and 8.9% BB in 26.2 innings. Too easy. So they gave him the call when Giambi opened up a roster spot and let him make his debut at Yankee Stadium in an 8-0 game against the Twins. He gave himself a pep talk: "I said, You want to stay here? That's it, you stay here. You want to stay here? You stay here, so let's go." Then all he did was make some guys named Cuddyer, Morneau and Ford swing through his changeup in order, earning instant True Yankee points and a postgame media mini-circus.
Ramirez only throws about 90 with his fastball, but the Vanishing Changeup with Movement enables him to overpower good hitters. He also showed off a slider in that debut appearance, which can only help him avoid getting figured out by big leaguers and seeing his homer rate go through the roof. As a partial observer, I'm hoping Torre keeps Ramirez out of high-leverage situations for at least one more series. But I would like to see the man pitch at some point. I'm a sucker for this kind of success story.
The Credit Section: All offensive stats, pitches per PA for pitchers and league average stats are from the Hardball Times. Pitchers' stats and leverage indices are from Fangraphs. Minor-league stats are from Minor League Splits. K% and BB% are strikeouts and walks as a percentage of plate appearances; GB% + LD% + FB% = 100.