Rivals in Exile: Injuries and Slumps

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Boston Red Sox: 27-17
New York Yankees: 25-18

Ben Jacobs: The Red Sox and Yankees are rolling along just fine now, trading first place in the AL East every couple games. Just because it looks like neither team will have the unpredictable collapse that some people were talking about in the first week of the season, however, it doesn’t mean that everything’s alright.

In fact, there is a question facing each team regarding four players who must be irritating their fans to no end. What are the questions?

When will Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon be healthy? When will Derek Jeter and Mike Mussina start playing like themselves?

Garciaparra was originally just supposed to be out a couple days, then he was going to be back by Opening Day, then early May and now nobody really knows. It sounds like he might be ready to go on a rehab assignment sometime in the near future, which means he’d be able to make his first appearance of the season shortly after sometime in the near future. Great.

Nixon, meanwhile, should have already returned by now. He was making nice progress in his recovery from a mildly herniated disc in his back when he strained his quad. He’s DHing in extended spring training games right now and it sounds like he should be ready before Garciaparra, but it might be a couple weeks before Nixon’s in the Boston lineup too.

For the Yankees, the problem hasn’t been missing players, but players whose usual production is missing for no apparent reason.

Jeter has appeared to be on the verge of breaking out a couple times this year, but after Friday’s game he was still hitting just .194/.258/.286 in 175 at-bats. He has three homers and three steals and I’ve said a few times that I think he’s trying to play through an injury. Players of his ability just don’t have slumps of this length and severity if nothing’s wrong with them physically.

Mussina, at least, is starting to provide some hope that he’s coming out of his funk. His last start was excellent and three of his last four starts have been very good. However, the other start in that stretch was a real clunker and he’s still just 5-4 with a 4.71 ERA, 1.57 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 63 innings on the season. You’re probably going to have to see at least a handful of starts in a row without him getting roughed up before you can be confident that he’s back to being himself.

There are other problems with both teams, to be sure, but those four players seem to be the biggest ones, and I’m not sure which team’s situation is more frustrating. Is it worse to have two players you need unable to play or to have two players you rely on underperforming expectations drastically?

Larry Mahnken: I guess if I had to make the choice, I’d go with Boston’s problem. With Mussina and Jeter playing the way they have, the Yankees have been starting an average pitcher and a sub-replacement-level shortstop. At least Boston can put Pokey Reese and Gabe Kapler in the lineup … okay, maybe they’re not that much better off.

On the other hand, I simply can’t believe that Derek Jeter isn’t going to bounce back and hit .300 over the rest of the season. Neither, apparently, is Joe Torre, who has kept Jeter at the top of the lineup. Loyalty is one thing, but Torre has crossed over into myopia. It’s time to drop Jeter to the bottom of the order, at least until he gets his batting average safely over the Mendoza Line.

Mussina really seems to be coming around, but I agree that we need to see him a couple more times to be sure he’s back. Yeah, he had a clunker, but the umpire had a very tight strike zone that game, and everybody’s entitled to one lousy start every now and then.

The rest of the rotation seems to be coming together, for the most part. Kevin Brown got knocked around Friday, but there aren’t any worries about him, Javier Vazquez had a great start in a tough loss on Tuesday, and Jon Lieber has had two good starts, one dreadful start and one fantastic start — so that gamble has probably paid off.

Jose Contreras was very good in a tough loss Saturday, but … well, he’s Jose Contreras. Sometimes he just stinks. If he can be more consistently okay, then the Yankees can deal with that.

What’s ominous for the Yanks is that the injuries are starting to get serious. Lee, Karsay and DePaula are already gone for the year, and the first big gun went down Friday night, when Jason Giambi twisted his ankle. It certainly isn’t a blessing for the Yankees, but the silver lining is that while Giambi heals his ankle over the next two weeks — something I don’t anticipate being a chronic problem — he can also rest his back and knee. But being without their best hitter for two weeks is going to be tough for the Yankees to overcome.

BJ: Aren’t you supposed to be a really pessimistic Yankees fan, or does that not apply to Jeter?

With Garciaparra out, the primary middle infielders for the Red Sox and Yankees have been Jeter, Reese, Mark Bellhorn and Enrique Wilson. It was pretty much a given that Wilson would be the worst hitter from that quartet, but I think most people assumed that Jeter would out-hit Boston’s duo by a comfortable margn. Instead, they’ve both out-hit him by a comfortable margin.

Reese is doing about what he’s always done — hitting in the mid .200′s, getting on base around 30% of the time and providing very little power. That combination has rightfully earned him a reputation as a terrible hitter who is only useful because he’s such a great defensive player.

As bad as Reese has, not surprisingly, been, he still somehow has an OPS more than 100 points higher than Jeter’s. I don’t know how anybody can look at what Jeter has done this season and not be concerned that this is something serious.

Slumps are one thing, but the Yankees have now played 43 games (or 26.5% of their season). I don’t have the resources or the time to research it, but I would guess that there have been very few hitters who, in the prime of their careers, entered a season with a career batting average above .315 (or even just .300) and were still below the Mendoza line with a week left in May.

Before this season, Jeter had accumulated a .317 career batting average in nearly 5,000 at-bats. He’s been so bad this year that fewer than 200 at-bats have dropped his average by four points to .313.

I’ve now mentioned the possibility that Jeter’s being hampered by an injury to you a couple times and you haven’t really responded to that either time. Are you going with the theory that if you don’t acknowledge the possibility then it can’t be true or do you simply not think it’s a real possibility?

To me, it seems like the only logical explanation for what’s been happening with Jeter. I mean, how else does a 29-year-old who nearly won the batting title the year before and has never hit below .290 in a full season hit below .200 for more than a quarter of a season?

Okay, that’s enough from me about Jeter for today. As for Mussina, you’re right that he’s probably coming around, and he may even have already come around. In the month of May, Mussina’s gone 4-0 with a 2.51 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. However, that just illustrates the problem with saying that the rest of the rotation seems to be coming together.

Just looking at the top four starters (Mussina, Brown, Vazquez and Lieber), the Yankees rotation has posted a 4.22 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in May, and that’s with Mussina’s brilliant turnaround. The most troubling statistic has to be that those four have averaged just 4.75 K/9IP in May and only Vazquez (5.85) has been above 5 K/9IP.

Lieber’s not a strikeout pitcher, but Vazquez, Mussina and Brown were each in the top 10 in their league (and top 15 overall) in K/9IP last year and they all seem to be having problems making people miss right now. The only reason the lack of strikeouts hasn’t hurt more is that Mussina, Brown and Lieber all have such good control and the quartet has walked just 16 batters in 102.1 innings in May.

I don’t care that much that the Red Sox are in first place right now, because it’s not going to matter in two months if they don’t keep winning. What I do like is the fact that the Yankees seem to have many more problems right now. Their star shortstop can’t hit, their top four pitchers can’t strike anybody out and, unlike the Red Sox, they’ve yet to be without a really important player for a long stretch of games.

LM: Uh-huh. I recall someone saying a few weeks ago how the Red Sox were entering an easy part of the schedule and the Yankees were going to face some tough teams. And then the Red Sox dropped three games in the standings. I kinda like it when you say how good it’s going for Boston and how tough the Yankees have it. It’s a good omen for New York.

I really don’t think that Jeter is injured. If he was, that would mean that he’s lying to the team (otherwise he’d be lowered in the lineup or DL’ed), and it would run contrary to everything that we’ve seen from Jeter in the past. While some believe he may be suffering from the thumb injury he sustained late last season, he hit just fine in the playoffs with it, and had the whole offseason to rest it.

Plus, it would have to be some strange injury that would kill his hitting, but somehow improve his defense. His Range Factor and Zone Rating are currently far above his career highs.

He’s a slump. It’s a crazy-insane long slump, but it’s still a slump. Mechanically, mentally, luck-wise, everything is going against him. He’ll break out of it eventually. I’m willing to stake my reputation on it.

Wait, I don’t have a reputation. Okay, then I’m willing to stake your reputation on it.

You also overstate the Yankees’ lack of strikeouts, they have been facing teams this month that don’t strike out very much. I’ve got no good reason to worry about Brown, I’m not worried about Vazquez, Lieber instills new confidence every time he takes the mound, and Mussina looks to be turning things around.

What’s important is that the Yankees are 13-7 in May, despite having played a tough schedule. Now they enter their “easy part” of the schedule, while the Red Sox face off against the tougher teams.

But you’re right to not get too excited about being in first place in May. Boston was in second a couple of days ago, they could be in second in a couple more days. And it doesn’t matter either way. The Red Sox have been in first place on Memorial Day for five straight years, and all they have to show for it is two playoff appearances, and no division titles. When the standings are this tight this early, who cares?

The Yankees aren’t going to have it easy this week, though the competition is softening up. Playing without Giambi is going to be a tough test, but they’re good enough to pass it. The division ain’t gonna be decided this week, though. Unless, you know, one team sweeps and the other team gets shut-out. Then maybe it’s over.

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