Tuesday May 5th, 2009

The Yankees have handed their new ace, CC Sabathia, five leads this season. He has blown all of them but one. The team is 2-4 when it gives him the ball.

Their new slugging first baseman, Mark Teixeira, brought a .182 batting average into a game against Boston on Monday night before hitting two home runs in a loss.

Throw in third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who should be back within a week to 10 days after undergoing hip surgery in March, and the Yankees already have paid out about $13 million of the $80 million they will give Sabathia, Teixeira and Rodriguez this year and they have almost nothing to show for it. For $13 million you could cover the entire Marlins' payroll into June.

And believe it or not, the cost inefficiency is unintended good news for the Yankees. At 13-12 with the second-highest scoring offense in the league, New York is weathering what could have been its most vulnerable period: waiting for Rodriguez to return and for Sabathia and Teixeira, notorious slow starters in the best of times, to make it through their break-in period as Yankees.

Because they have no health concerns, Sabathia and Teixeira are bound to get hot, as soon as they get past their inclination to justify their combined $341 million contracts. Both have been their own worst enemies thus far. Sabathia was miserable in April 2008 (7.76 ERA), but then the Indians, after breaking down high-tech tracking information available from MLB, discovered his release point had dropped several inches, causing him to lose command. Once Sabathia corrected the mechanical flaw by adjusting his stride, he went back to being a dominating pitcher.

This year Sabathia has no such quick-fix remedy to set him straight. His fastball velocity (93.6) is right where it should be. His release point has been mostly rock solid. His mechanics are clean.

"Last year my stuff wasn't there," Sabathia said. "I couldn't get the ball in to righties. This year is completely different. I feel like I'm throwing the ball the way I want to. I'm just not getting the results."

The Yankees already have lost more games with Sabathia on the mound than the Brewers did last year in 17 outings with him (14-3). In his most recent start, Sabathia took a 1-0 lead into the sixth inning at home against the Angels and a 30-year-old rookie named Matt Palmer -- and got outpitched and lost. That should not happen to an ace. Asked about the team's 2-4 record when he starts, Sabathia said, "That's frustrating. Definitely. Every time you go out there you want the team to feel like it can win."

The Yankees don't yet have that bulletproof belief behind Sabathia. So what's wrong? His command, especially with his fastball, has been erratic, and given his proper velocity and mechanics, probably is due to some performance anxiety about pitching in the spotlight, which has been a problem for him in postseasons. Sabathia's strike percentage is down slightly from last year (62 percent, down from 66 percent). Most tellingly, his strikeout rate (5.54 per nine innings) and walk rate (3.46) are well off his career numbers (7.5 and 2.85).

There is not much the Yankees can do, except wait for Sabathia to reach a comfort level with his new surroundings, the expectations and the hyper-criticism that come with playing in New York. After his loss to the Angels on Saturday, for instance, Sabathia explained the defeat to a wave of reporters, left to take a shower, and when he came back his locker was surrounded by another wave of reporters.

Similarly, Teixeira appears to be playing with some tension in his swing, as if trying too hard to make something happen. "I'm wondering if his wrist is a problem," said one scout, "because he seems to be getting under everything."

Actually, Teixiera's wrist is fine now -- he said in the past week he has returned to his usual pregame hitting work without restrictions -- but the scout was right about Teixeira hitting too many balls in the air. Entering this week, Teixeira was hitting .180 on balls he puts into play (as opposed to a career mark of .309), which can be an indication of hitting in tough luck. But in this case, he is hitting too many 275-foot cans of corn.

Teixeira's rate of flyballs has jumped 50 percent from his career rate (59 percent, up from 39 percent). His rate of infield pop-ups has almost doubled (from 11 percent to 21 percent) and his line-drive rate has been cut in half (22 percent to 11 percent). Remember when Hideki Matsui first joined the Yankees and became known as Groundzilla because he kept rolling over pitches and grounding out to second base? Just call Teixeira the Pop Machine.

"I've really struggled every year at the beginning of the season," Teixeira said. "It's a matter of when I get out of it. Hopefully, it's soon.

"I feel great. I'm very upset I'm not getting hits. It's very upsetting that I'm not coming through for my team. It's embarrassing. I'm hitting one-something. It's embarrassing."

Not every new Yankee needs time to get up to speed in New York. Johnny Damon (.312, 3 HR), Kevin Brown (4-0, 2.70) and, believe it or not, Carl Pavano (2-2, 3.10) did well in their first month in New York. Mike Mussina (1-3, 4.78), Alex Rodriguez (.253, 4 HR) and Roger Clemens (2-0, 5.47) were more like Sabathia and Teixeira. Last year I asked Jason Giambi (.282, 4 HR) to describe what it's like for a big-name player to step into the Yankee spotlight.

"In the beginning I was just more getting acclimated to trying to fit everything in," Giambi said. "You realize after a while there's just so many people who need so many things here -- which, people have their jobs to do, and when you're the new kid on the block you're a fresh story. It's something new. Until I kind of set some boundaries ... because before you know it you can find yourself [saying], 'Oh, I've got a game to play now?' It happened. Before I knew it, it was, 'Oh, God, I've got to get ready for the game, stretch ...'

"See the one thing about Oakland was there were so few writers and they could all have the same story, because you had your reader here and your reader there. You could do it once for 10 minutes and you were done. There are so many surrounding newspapers [in New York] and they're all trying to vie for the same reader. They all have to have something different. They have to ask you different questions. That's where you kind of learn how to fit it in. Give people what they need or change your story a little bit or give them a little bit different quote and try to take care of them, especially the beat guys, because they're with you every day."

I asked Giambi how long it took him to navigate that break-in period in New York.

"I want to say probably a month," he said. "Probably a month just to get acclimated, and then before you know it you find yourself struggling so you press a little bit, then you press a little harder because you want to do it, and then finally I hit that home run and that monkey got off my back and it was like, 'OK.' "

Sabathia and Teixeira should be nearing the end of their Yankee break-in period. And if a little less attention on them might help pull them out of their slumps, they're in for some good news very soon. Rodriguez is coming back.

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