The Yankees head up to Toronto to face their most annoying foe of the 2010 season (for some people that distinction might go to Tampa Bay, but at least the Rays were a playoff-bound team last year). Toronto was one of only two teams — along with Tampa Bay – to notch 10 wins against the Yankees last season, and their ridiculously annoying penchant for hitting two-baggers (27 doubles in 18 games) and home runs (33) against the Yankees last season led me to sardonically dub them The Toronto Extra-Base Hits. Combined with a slew of top-notch pitching performances — led by soft-tossing lefty Brett Cecil, who went 4-0 against the Yankees last season and led all of baseball with four wins against the Bombers in 2010 — the Jays wound up being a pain in the neck each and every time the Yankees faced them.
Thankfully this year’s model doesn’t appear to have quite the same level of thump — though Vernon Wells is struggling mightily in Anaheim this season, he raked the Yankees over the coals last year, hitting an absurd .324/.387/.691 (1.078 OPS) in 17 games, and the Bombers are undoubtedly happy that they will not have to deal with Wells that frequently again.
That being said, the Jays have received superb offensive performances thus far from 2010 AL home run king Jose Bautista (.444 wOBA*) — who I guess we all have to acknowledge wasn’t a fluke last season — rookie J.P. Arencibia (.414 wOBA), Yunel Escobar (.412 wOBA, making Alex Anthopoulos look like a genius for trading Alex Gonzalez in the middle of the year last season) and Jayson Nix (.405 wOBA), a career .300 wOBA hitter who apparently wasn’t good enough for the Indians and was acquired by the Jays at the end of spring training for cash. On the flip side, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Travis Snider and Juan Rivera — powerful bats, all — have each gotten off to pretty rough starts, which undoubtedly means at least one of them will explode against the Yankees. (*All numbers in this post are through the games of Sunday, April 17).
More importantly for the Jays, they’ve continued to receive outstanding work from Ricky Romero (at least, prior to yesterday’s regularly scheduled shellacking at the hands of the BoSox. Seriously, you know if Romero were facing the Yankees he’d have tossed eight innings of one-run ball, but of course he rolls over and dies when facing Boston), and rookie Kyle Drabek appears to be settling in nicely (1.93 ERA/3.70 FIP/3.82 xFIP). However, the rotation feels just a touch short at the moment without Brandon Morrow, though Jesse Litsch has done an admirable job in his three outings thus far. Jo-Jo Reyes and Cecil haven’t exactly held up their end of the bargain, but I’m sure Cecil is licking his chops at the fact that he gets to start against the Yankees on Wednesday.
The brief two-game set kicks off tonight, with A.J. Burnett facing the young Drabek. The Toronto wunderkind saw the Yankees at the end of the season last year and held his own, going 6 innings and only giving up three runs. Drabek has two of the three things you love to see in pitchers — a high GB% rate (52%) and beautiful K/9 (8.20), but he’s walking way too many batters in the early going (5.30 BB/9). Burnett — like seemingly everyone else on the Yankee pitching staff — had all sorts of trouble with the Jays last season, who torched him for a .313/.404/.663 line across 94 PAs, and despite the decent early returns on Burnett thus far it’s impossible to predict how he’ll fare against his former team.
Tomorrow the Yankees send Bartolo Colon to the mound in place of Phil Hughes for Colon’s first start of the season. Colon’s been perhaps the biggest surprise on the team thus far, putting up an impressive 3.97 ERA/2.71 FIP/2.70 xFIP line in 11 relief innings bolstered by an outstanding 10.32 K/9 and 2.38 BB/9. Colon won’t sniff those numbers as a starter, but if he can go out and give six innings of three-run ball no one will complain.
Unfortunately for Colon, he faces the aforementioned Cecil (6.19 ERA/6.25 FIP/4.54 xFIP), who, in addition to running a 4-0 record in his five starts against the Yankees last season also managed to put up a 2.67 ERA in 33.2 innings, despite having faced them more than any other opponent. Cecil’s off to a somewhat rough start this year, but until shown otherwise, I have no reason to believe the Yankees can actually beat Brett Cecil, and so as far as I’m concerned this is a guaranteed win for the Jays.
Here are the two teams’ offense and pitching numbers (again, through games of April 17,2011):
The Yankees have the upper-hand offensively (although the Jays have surprisingly walked in a larger percentage of their plate appearances), though Toronto has pitched quite a bit better than the Yankees rotation-wise. Numbers-wise, the bullpens are pretty close, with Toronto’s relief corps getting the edge in strikeouts but also walking way too many batters. However, they haven’t allowed too many of those walks to come around and hurt them, having held opponents to a teeny-tiny .189 BAA.
Overall, the Yankee pitching staff has been better (3.77 FIP) than the results indicate (4.57 ERA), and should pitch even better going forward (4.13 xFIP). Toronto, meanwhile, has pitched a bit over its head, and will likely be a bit worse than it’s been going forward.
I’d expect the two teams to split this series. Theoretically the Yankees should be able to wear a pitcher with a walk rate like Drabek’s out, although thus far this season the team’s trademark patience hasn’t really emerged yet (only a .328 OBP, 5th-best in the AL). However, the power outburst has helped mitigate the fewer bases on balls, at least in the interim. As for Cecil, well, the less said about his start, the better.
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