Thursday, March 31, 2011

OPENING DAY! The 2011 Yankee Offense Preview

It occurred to me as I was waking up this morning that in approximately 6 hours, Robinson Cano will be unleashing that sweet swing on a Justin Verlander fastball up in the Boogie-Down Bronx, bringing the cityfolk to their feet and ushering in the springtime.

That's right: on my calendar, spring doesn't start on a specific day, or when the weather turns nice. It starts when Robinson Cano gets his first base hit. In the future, there will be no spring. In the past, there was no spring, but people didn't realize it. And you know what? I'm not sure which is sadder.

It's also "Opening Day," except Opening Day is now weird. The first games used to fall on a Monday, which was fun and exciting. Then they started having a single Sunday game in Japan or Europe or somewhere, and that was no big deal. Now, it starts on a Thursday, except there are only 6 games.

Hmmm. I understand starting earlier. MLB wants the World Series to end in October rather than November, and that's cool. Probably a good idea. But could they at least have had every team play on the same day rather than doing this weird Thursday/Friday split?

Opening Day, when it's packed with teams, is one of the best days in sports. In fact, it's probably top 5. Here's my list of the greatest sports days (in some cases, two days) of the year. Note that these are team-independent. A Yankee World Series would top any of these, but I'm going to treat each event as though my favorite team isn't involved. Sound off in the comments if you've got one I forgot, or just disagree with the order.

10. Super Bowl Sunday

I put it at #10 largely to make a point: Super Bowl Sunday is overrated. The halftime show is usually bad, the commercials aren't as good as advertised, and, when I was a kid, the football stunk. In recent years the games have been pretty awesome, so that part of the bargain is upheld. But though it's exciting to see any championship, Super Bowl Sunday just doesn't give me the chills like it should.

9. Conference Championship Weekend, College Basketball

It's the perfect appetizer for March Madness. On Saturday, the schedule is chock full of championships and semifinals, and you could easily spend an entire day sitting on the couch digesting basketball. On Sunday, you have the ACC and Big 10 title games (and the SEC too, maybe?), and then the incredible Selection Show. Every team and fanbase in America is optimistic at 6pm on Sunday. It's the ultimate anticipation.

8. New Year's Day Bowl Games

These were better when I was a kid, when the schedule wasn't so spread out, but it's still pretty great. The games start at 11am and continue throughout the early afternoon until the Rose Bowl around 4. That's usually a classic, and now they through another BCS game in at night for good measure. (By the way, if the NCAA ever wises up and institutes an 8-team playoff, the quarterfinal round will immediately jump to like #3 on this list.)

7. Masters Sunday

This is a classic case of the hype working. At some point in history, serious white men decided that the Masters would be a holy, revered tournament held in awe by golfers and fans alike. And it worked. I hate myself for admitting this, but Jim Nantz's voice over that soft Masters music still gives me goosebumps. And on Sunday, you can just feel the nerves coming off the players. They want so badly to win, and golf is the most pressure-packed of all sports. The country's eyes are on every shot. You can't beat it for drama.

6. The First Saturday, College Football

And I don't mean whatever nonsense 'Kickoff Classic' thing they do on the Thursday before (which, depressingly, always seems to involve Virginia Tech). It's the first chance to see every team and get back into the Saturday rhythm of watching games. There's usually a couple top-25 match-ups, along with some Alabama vs. Jackson St. type games, and somehow the combination works perfectly.

5. The Wimbledon Sweet 16

Because the British are pretentious, they have a tradition where they don't play tennis on the first Sunday of the tournament. Their hoity-toitiness has a positive effect, though; it means the 16 men remaining in the draw all play on the second Monday. It's a jam-packed day, with eight matches between the world's top players. At least five of them end up being classics. For my money, it's the best tennis day of the year. If you look closely in the audience, you can even see British fans almost smiling. (And by the way, the Brits don't call it the 'Sweet 16'...that would be too awesome.)

4. The World Series, Game 1

Still a lot of magic here. It can be hard to get fully involved if the Yanks aren't playing, which is why I put it at number four. Still, though, as a culmination of the longest season in sports, this is a title that's truly earned. There's an emphatic tension before every game, and when you combine that with the feeling of things coming to an end, so pronounced in fall, you have a recipe for immediate nostalgia.

3. Opening Day, Baseball

Wonderful. The best pitchers are throwing, most teams still believe they have a shot to fight for the playoffs, and FUCKING BASEBALL IS BACK! What more do you need?

2. Ryder Cup Friday

Only happens once every two years, but it's always incredible (or almost always; the weather travesty of 2010 is something I'd very much like to erase from my brain pronto). Not only can we get our patriotism on, and not only does it give us an excuse to hate Europeans like they deserve, but it reveals a golfer's character better than any other event. Do they have trouble playing with a teammate because they're arrogant and egocentric like Tiger? Are they gamers who would rather cut off their left hand than lose a match for their country/continent? Do they somehow thrive with a partner even though they falter under pressure on their own, like Sergio? Are they inveterate chokers? Just an incredible event.

1. March Madness Thursday/Friday

It will never be beat.

So today is #3. That is some goooood stuff, my friends. Yesterday, after a brief foray into unseemly topics, we previewed the Yankee pitching. Now, the offense.


1. Will Teixeira get a hit sometime before August?

The Yankee first baseman is now famous for his slow starts. At the end of May last season, he was batting .221 with a .725 OPS. At the end of June, it was .231 with a .754 OPS. These are not Mark Teixeira numbers. And even though Girardi was like a broken record with his oft-repeated proclamation that "by the end of the year, the numbers will be where they need to be," it didn't quite come true. Tex ended hitting .256 with a .481 slugging % and an .846 OPS, all well below his career averages. Then he went 4-27 in the playoffs (0-14 against Texas), looking like nothing so much as a guy who just couldn't hit good pitching. So the question lingers: is the book out on Teixeira? Is he the kind of hitter who can only rake against the dregs of the league? Will we be watching him wave a curveballs in the dirt all season, or has he improved? This is a huge concern.

2. Is A-Rod back?

I use "back" very loosely, because even in his off years he's pretty fantastic. But I'm wondering if he has one more MVP-caliber season in him. Something along the lines of .600 slugging, 1.000 OPS, .400+ OBP. His spring training performance seems to indicate that it's a real possibility. He had six home runs, batted .388, and drove in 15 over a torrid pre-season stretch. Girardi was pretty effusive in his praise on Tuesday: "Alex's spring was unbelievable, there's no other way to really describe it." With Cano behind him in the lineup, there's no reason he can't have an epic year with a bit of luck from the health gods.

3. Jeter, Jeter, Jeter

We know the story from last season. From April until the end of August, he was as light-hitting as they come. .266, with a horrendous .332 OBP mark and almost no power. It seemed like at least 2 out of every 3 at-bats ended with a ground-out to short. Then he started working with hitting coach Kevin Long, the best in the business, and finished the last month and change hitting .287 with a considerably higher OBP of .376. There still wasn't much power, but you'll take those numbers from a lead-off hitter every time. Can we expect more of the same from Jeter? Was it a legitimate improvement at the hands of a hitting guru, or just a small sample size in a larger narrative involving age and dimmed instincts? Jeter hit .342 in the preseason, but Girardi has already left open the possibility that Gardner could lead off against righty starters. He's hedging his bets, so that probably means we should be, too.

4. What's the outfield status?

Curtis Granderson may be the most important player on our team. Like Jeter, he struggled for the majority of the year, hitting .243 with a godawful .314 OBP through the end of August. And it didn't look he could have made contact against a left pitcher if his bat had the circumference of a fully grown tree trunk. But like Jeter, he went to Kevin Long and began to turn things around. He raised his September average to .263 with a .362 OBP, and his power numbers took a huge jump (OPS went from .747 to .958). Then he destroyed in the postseason, going 10-28 as one of the few Yankee bright spots. After a torrid spring, he suffered an oblique injury, but the Daily News is reporting that he'll start today. I'm feeling real good about Grandy.

Ditto for Swisher. He's another Kevin Long protege, and he's coming off the best season of his career. If he worked as hard this offseason as he did the one before, it's not unrealistic to expect his season OPS to end above .900 for the first time. The only question I have about Swisher is his OBP. It took a slight dip last season due to the fact that he took only 53 walks (compared to 97 the year before), and his power numbers stayed basically the same. Is it better to hit for a higher average and get more total bases, or to get on base more often and work the opposing pitcher? It's a difficult thing to evaluate, though Fangraphs gives his 2010 season a slight edge in wOBA (my favorite stat) and Wins Above Replacement.

As for Gardner, well...he has to prove he's more than just a slap hitter. Until that happens, I don't see him having a very extensive future with the Yanks. He's a dynamo once he's on base, and his .383 OBP was nice last year, but we need to see more improvement. He got exposed in the playoffs, and it was a gaping hole in our lineup against Texas.

5. What the hell is happening with Posada?

He's the primary DH, and he'll also play first base occasionally. It looks like his catch days are all but over, which, frankly, has been some time coming. I mean, the dude is turning 40 in August. We can't expect him to excel defensively. It's enough to ask that he adds some pop at the DH. Russel Martin will start behind the plate, with Gustavo Molina backing him up (Cervelli is on the DL). The Yanks have two very good catching prospects in Austin Romine and Jesus Montero, and it wouldn't surprise me if one of them sees some time with the club later in the year.

6. Finally, will Robinson Cano ruin baseball by being too good?

It's always a possibility, and a terrifying one at that, but in the end you have to lean on this: how can something so beautiful be bad? Am I right? You da man, Robinson.

(And seriously, if this game gets rained out, I will be furious. I'm heading north on a plane tomorrow, and if it gets delayed I'll probably miss most or all of the first game. NOT COOL, GUYS.)

See you tomorrow for some Yankee thoughts and a Final Four preview.


  1. I've decided to change my MO depending based on season. Now that it's baseball time, I need to get in the right mindset.

    A few thoughts on this season:
    - JETER. I can not stress the significance of this season for Jeter. Was last season an unfortunately fluke in an otherwise brilliant career OR was it a foreshadowing of his inevitable decline? History points to the latter but I sure hope not. If Jeter stinks it up this season, then I fear he might be "done."

    - PITCHING. As you mentioned in your preview yesterday, pitching is as suspect this year as any I can remember. If AJ repeats from last year, we're hosed. I think our success hinges largely on his performance. 2 quality starters and you can possibly contend for the playoffs. 3 quality starters and you probably win the division.

    - CANO. Let's hope he starts April by batting over .220. Imagine that. He would easily win MVPs if he just got off to a quicker start.

    - CATCHING. I fear the importance of this position is being overlooked. With Posada at DH, we're taking up a starting position with some very unproven talent. Could point to a weak spot in our lineup. Russell Martin's averages about .250 and 6 hr over the last 2 seasons. That's not the production we can survive with. We may need Montero sooner than we think.

    - MATTINGLY. Only because I idolized this dude growing up. He's been screwed by the Yankee gods in every way and I just want to recognize him for his 1985 season.

    .325, 35 HR, 145 RBI, 48 2B, 41 SO

    The most impressive stat in that season was his 41 SO. That's a 5.6% SO percentage. BTW - he finished with a 6.3% SO percentage, good for 110th place in the history of all baseball players. For someone who also hit for power, this is mighty impressive.

    BTW - Take all the golf out and I'm with you on your top 10 list.

    - TheMattinglyDays

  2. It's obvious but TheLaettnerDays = TheMattinglyDays. And yes, I'm a Duke and Yankees fan.

    You can throw in the Lakers, the Montreal Canadians, the UConn Women's team, Notre Dame's football team, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer. Ok, kidding about this last part, except for the Lakers.

    - TheMagicDays

  3. Two rivalries you gotta love: Duke/UNC and Yanks/Sox. To have a stake in each, no matter which team, makes us all stupid lucky (emphasis on stupid). Liking (too strong?) the Yanks are easier, because they are pros, and because their fans are knowledgeable and while pulling hard for their team, they maintain a certain amount of objectivity. Also, likable players (Mo, Jeter, Cano) - gotta respect that.

    Liking UNC is difficult because the proportion of Homer fans is just so large. Yes, many UNC fans (most who read this blog) maintain a reasonable level of objectivity, but most of my HS class (Wilm, NC) is typical of the UNC fan base. Their FB posts about UNC (and Duke-hate) make you cringe with embarrassment. It's too much for a mostly likable group of players (Princess and Bullock the exceptions) to overcome.

    But today is Opening Day, and all is right with the world. Have a great game, Robinson. Don't trip on your walker, Derek.

  4. Around 2003-2006 I would have put the NFL draft in my top 10. I used to get together with three of my best friends (a mix of Giants and Eagles fans) and start drinking before the draft started (and it started early). With the actual draft on a small tv to the side, we would then start up a new Madden franchise with each of us taking a team in the same division. We would go through the whole Madden draft and then play out the season, simulating any games vs. computer controlled teams. That gave us two games each against one another for bragging rights. We'd then pass out in the early afternoon and wake up in time to go out that night. Fun times.

    Now I'm in my 30s, the first rounds of the draft are in prime time, and I can't stand playing Madden any more.

  5. Replace Ryder Cup Friday (what? Never heard of it) with the Academy Awards Red Carpet, and I'm with you.

    I think also the weekend where there are still four games of football going on is fun. Like more fun than the Super Bowl. What's that called? Championships of some sort... regions?

  6. Yeah good call Carrie, Wild Card Round and...Divisional Round? Are pretty fun.

    MattinglyDays nee Laettner Days, I'm with you 100% on AJ. He needs to show up and be at least good, if not great. But I disagree about the catcher position. If those prospects are ready, great. If not, I think our lineup is good enough to sustain some Russel Martin in the 9 hole realities. He was great today, though.


  7. Call me a bit of a basketball purist, but I think you've got to include the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. It's not the same as the first weekend, when you get basketball from noon until midnight four days in a row, but it's close. And by the Sweet 16, you're starting to see real matchups between legitimate title contenders — there's something about seeing an Ohio State-Kentucky or Arizona-Duke matchup that adds a lot of drama to the game. I'd put it around #5 or so, at least.

  8. Surprised you went with Ryder Cup Friday over Ryder Cup Sunday. Maybe it's because I usually missed the first day because of school/work (the magic of TiVo meant the weather delays weren't an issue for me last fall), but to me, Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup are the only thing that approach Thrs/Fri of March Madness. You debate the matchups, and like you said, see each golfer under the most pressure-packed circumstances in the sport (and maybe all sports; playing an individual match in a team contest for your country).

    Which is to say, Justin Leonard's putt was one of the top five moments as a sports fan, and I don't even really like that guy.