Sunday, June 10, 2007

All Systems Go, But Not Great

Six Innings, Five Hits, Three Runs. A quality start in the modern day offensive era, but hardly dominating. Certainly not worthy of the effusive praise from the likes of Orel Hershiser on Baseball Tonight, who called it a brilliant outing, or the many other media members describing the performance as if it was utterly dominant.

Roger Clemens was good, not great, not $17 million good, just good. The most important stat of the day, one win. In his first Stadium appearance since the unforgettable ALCS Game Seven in 2003, better known as the Aaron Boone game, Clemens looked vulnerable at times, labored through most of his six innings, and exhibited an above average splitter and slider to complement a modest 90 mph fastball en route to his 349th win.

The Rocket delivered the pitching line most of us predicted. The big difference is everyone’s reaction. I do not know how anyone qualifies this as a great outing, its average. If you took the name away from the stats, or the face away from the figure on the mound, I was watching a fourth starter keep his team in the game against a below average hitting team. Expecting a performance to commiserate with the outrageous salary is unrealistic, but we public evaluation of Clemens should remain realistic. CC Sabathia is pitching brilliant, Dan Haren looks unhittable at times, Roger Clemens is an average fourth starter at this point.

The argument that Clemens really fired up and sparked the Yankees is only half-true. The Bombers are 8-2 over the last 10 games, and are hitting the cover off the ball. The team showed fire in Boston last weekend, followed by a solid performance against Chicago. Maybe Clemens’ impending arrival helped fuel the recent surge, and there is no disputing the team had an extra hop in their yesterday, but Clemens is not solely responsible. Besides, Cashman probably expects to get more than a spark plug for $17 million (the pro-rated salary).

Only reaching 90-91 mph on the gun, Clemens needs to spot the fastball. Each time he left one over the plate or up in the zone, Pirate hitters made solid contact. The splitter and slider both remain effective, but the locating the fastball will be the key to setting up those pitches. Good teams will lay off the splitter if Clemens fails to get ahead in the count with the fastball.

Along with his fastball, gone is the intimidation factor. Clemens labored through the first few innings, frequently calling Posada to the mound to discuss pitch selection, almost afraid to throw the fastball at times. Good teams will smell blood.

That brings me to another point, the Pirates stink. Jason Bay is the only hitter in the lineup that strikes any fear in pitchers. The Bucs are young, lack pop, and are last in the NL in runs scored. Pittsburgh is not significantly better than the AAA teams Clemens pitched against in preparing for the majors. Friday is the first real test for Rocket, against a strong Mets lineup. That next start will be telling, the Mets have a big-time lineup with hitters that can punish mistakes, and to see how the 44-year-old fatigued groin bounces back from his first outing.

Everyone forgets Clemens handed away a two-run lead in the fifth before the offense kicked things into high gear, or the story may be very different. The entire lineup has hit stride and is not looking back. Another good sign, five stolen bases. The Yankees are more effective when showing patience at the plate, stringing together base hits, pressuring the defense by putting runners in motion, hallmarks of the late ‘90’s teams. After two months of relying on the home run, and waiting for Jeter, Posada, and A-Rod to save the day, the Bombers are back to their old ways, patiently beating pitchers into submission, and the wins have followed.

…One day after his misplaying a line drive into a game tying inside the park home run, Melky Cabrera was back in centerfield, and made a nice leaping catch at the centerfield wall. Important that Cabrera shook off Friday’s misstep without any loss in confidence. The Melky Man was also 1-3 at the plate, continuing to raise his average, now up to .251.

…Yankee games are getting painful to sit through. Partially thanks to Clemens slow pace and constant mound visits, partially the bullpen visits and the Yanks 9-run 11-hit performance, the game took a boring three hours 17 minutes. Most nights require high tolerance to sit through.


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