The list of arbitration-eligible players is out, a fine subject for scrying the future, for hidden somewhere in the list is a group of unexpected free agents, players whose teams will not send them contracts so as to escape the expensive “heads I win, tails you lose” business of arbitration. How appropriate that it is Friday the 13th.
The depressing thing about arbitration is that no one ever takes a pay cut. The player submits his desired salary and the team submits what it wants to pay, lower than the player’s figure, but still more than he made the year before. Either way, a young player tends to get a bump from six figures to seven, and those who have been through the process — all players between three years of Major League service time and those under six years (the six-year guys get to be free agents), plus a handful of so-called “Super-Twos,” players who qualify despite less than three years of service — go from one seven-figure salary to a higher seven-figure salary.
Most of these cases settle before an actual hearing, but those that actually go before an arbitrator are depressing for everyone, as a team has to slag the reputation of a player it wants to keep and the player has to listen to it. “Let me tell you why Arnold Smoof is not worth a quintillion dollars. Sure, he drove in 187 runs on 43 home runs, sure, he batted .387, but he’s still completely lame compared to Albert Pujols. Also, he’s a total klutz in the outfield. And he smells. Bad.” As Tom Hagen said, “This is business, not personal,” but you can’t help but take it personally when people who have formerly professed to love you are telling a total stranger what a loser you are. It’s like a divorce hearing without the divorce — there’s no coming back from that.
The list is long, containing 209 players, including what seems like the entire Dodgers roster. Teams have until December 12 to tender these players a contract. If they do and the player doesn’t dig the proffered salary, the player can opt for arbitration. At that point, everyone negotiates with a gun to their heads, trying to compromise before the actual hearing, and most of the time they do. Even then, a big raise is inevitable, so with some players, teams would prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Those players never even get a contract. The deadline passes and they’re set free. Their teams can still negotiate, but at that point they’re fair game for anyone. This makes perfect sense. To pick a player at random, Ryan Church is a useful outfielder, but you don’t really want to pay him the gross national product of Luxembourg for his services, which is what you’re going to end up doing if you send him a contract. Better to gamble on losing the player than blowing the budget on someone who is basically replaceable.
The Yankees have five players on the list, and four of the five probably shouldn’t be tendered a contract. The no-brainer is Chien-Ming Wang, who made $5 million this year. He pitched in 12 games, was pounded like Berlin in ’45, and underwent shoulder surgery. He could be out until 2010 All-Star break, perhaps longer. There is simply no reason to commit anything to Wang right now, let alone a figure north of $5 million. You could make a similar argument about Brian Bruney, who gets hurt often, pitches well sometimes, and is “just” a right-handed reliever, a breed of player which is (1) highly variable in its performance, and (2) available in huge, heaping numbers. However, the Yankees apparently plan to make him an offer.
More troublesome is the case of Chad Gaudin, a pitcher who obviously has some ability but rarely got to demonstrate it with the Yankees, who were always holding him back for an emergency that never came. I’ve been calling him “The Fireman of Atlantis.” It’s a novel role, but it might not be worth paying for. On the other hand, the guy could probably be a league-average starter, and you never know when your staff is going to be kneecapped by injuries (or the Joba Rules), so Gaudin could be handy.
The remaining players are Sergio Mitre, who can’t be non-tendered fast enough as far as I’m concerned, and Melky Cabrera, who is going to get an offer above this year’s $1.4 million base salary and should, players who can field his position and hit (sort of) being in short supply. More importantly, the Yankees have to hold Cabrera at all costs until their Sally League prospect Melky Mesa is ready, so that they can play the first two-Melky outfield in Major League history, sell T-shirts that say, “Got Melky2?” and so on. It might be awhile — Mesa has a whole lot of learning about the strike zone to do before a dual-leche pasture can become a real possibility.
As for the non-Yankees players on the list who might actually have use to the Yankees and could conceivably bet set free, there’s the platoon outfielder Matt Diaz, a career .347/.384/.537 hitter against southpaws; Conor Jackson, who missed most of the season suffering from Valley Fever but would be a decent left field candidate if healthy; power-hitting center fielder Cody Ross; and Rays fourth outfielder Gabe Gross. Chances are there will be many more non-tendered, and perhaps some top-quality players will be in there, but it’s tough to anticipate what teams will do in this depressed economy of ours. If teams are in more of an austerity mode than anticipated, it’s possible that some very good names will be available for signing in a month. Until then, alas, things will go slowly.
MENTIONED THIS BEFORE, BUT IT’S STILL ON ME MIND
When CC Sabathia goes seven innings and strikes out four batters, I worry. Sabathia has a career rate of 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He’s averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine for the Yankees, which is average for an AL starter this year. Now, none of this matters much if Sabathia can pitch effectively while allowing batters to put more balls in play, and so far he has, in part because (and this is paradoxical given the propensities of Yankee Stadium II) fewer of the fly balls he allows are going over fence walls than they used to. Hand in hand with that is some good breaks on balls in play — coming into this year, batters hit .292 off of Sabathia when they put the ball in play. This year they’re hitting .272.
There are two troublesome aspects to this picture. First, a pitcher’s luck on balls in play can change. Second, when a pitcher’s strikeout range declines, it is sometimes (often) a suggestion that something is wrong — that a crash is coming. Sabathia’s velocity seems to be consistent with previous years, so we’re certainly not seeing any evidence of a physical problem there, but it’s still a difficult thing to accept and with which to be comfortable.
HOLLIDAY (NOT HALLADAY)
Kudos to the A’s for getting a top prospect in Brett “The Walrus” Wallace from the Cardinals for Matt Holliday. Ever since Eric Chavez’s constitution vanished, the A’s have had a lot of filler at third base. With Chavez signed for one more year (plus an exceedingly painful $3 million buyout), the A’s may feel obligated to keep trotting Chavez out once a year to see if he can remain in an upright position for more than a game at a time, but in the long interim between appearances, they can try Wallace. A first-round pick last year, Wallace has hit .306/.390/.466 in the Minors in about one season’s worth of playing time. He hit .293/.346/.423 at Triple-A Memphis this year, which translates to .272/.321/.397 in the Majors — not great numbers, but then the A’s have gotten only .210/.289/.316 from their third basemen this year.
The problem with Wallace as a third baseman is suggested by the “Walrus” nickname. He’s not fat, he’s just shaped strangely for, well, anyone. He looks like two different people glued together, something like an average-sized person on top and Prince Fielder on the bottom. It’s not a sure thing that someone built like Wallace can play a quality third base in the Majors. So far, though, he’s hanging in, and it would be a huge bonus for the A’s if he can stick at the hot corner.
The A’s also picked up pitcher Clay Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson, but neither has the possibilities of the Walrus. Peterson hasn’t much power and unless you’re a plus defensive center fielder, that usually means a life sentence as a fourth outfielder. Mortensen is a starter right now, but given that he’s 24 years old and has had three years of mediocre results, one smells a trip to the bullpen in the near future. He too is a former first-round pick.
It seems that Chien-Ming Wang is unlikely to pitch this year. This is sad on one level, and a break for the Yankees on another, because even if he were to pitch again in 2009, it was unlikely that he was going to pitch well, yet the Yankees felt obligated to keep trying. Given the hole in the rotation that Wang’s absence has created when combined with the team’s decision to bolster the bullpen at the expense of the starting rotation (see Phil Hughes and Alfie Aceves), their desperation was understandable, but Wang had reached the point where Sergio Mitre or anyone else would have been a better bet to pitch the team to a win. For the sake of both Wang’s career and the team’s chances in 2009, giving him a pass for the rest of the year is the right thing to do.
HIDEKI MATSUI-DESIGNATED HITTER
Joe Girardi has treated Hideki Matsui as one of a number of parts instead of a star, giving him a lot of rest (this aside from the enforced time off during interleague play). Matsui has been up and down but has hit for good power this year — even during his May-June low point (.227/.317/.454 in 49 games) he still socked eight doubles and eight home runs. Even with all the rest, he’s on pace for the second-highest home run total of his American career. Some of that is Yankee Stadium II at work, but not all. As usual, platoon issues are minimal (he’s slugging .652 against southpaws). Even his sluggishness on the bases hasn’t hurt too much. GRADE: 85/100
CC SABATHIA-LEFTY STARTER
One of the problems with signing players off of career years is that your expectations are inflated. CC Sabathia finished the first half with an ERA of 3.85, consistent with his AL career mark of 3.83. That said, Sabathia hasn’t been his most consistent this season, giving the Yankees a quality start only half the time (discounting his injury-truncated start against the Marlins). He’s been quality in 60 percent or more of his starts every year but one since his rookie season. Part of the shortfall, if that’s not too extreme a term, is his 4.55 ERA at home — on the road, CC has been the same old Sabathia, with a 3.19 ERA. GRADE: 87/100
ANDY PETTITTE-LEFTY STARTER
In his post-game interviews, Girardi always says that Andy Pettitte pitched well regardless of the results. Chalk it up to sentimentality. Pettitte has a strong 8-4 record, but that’s not quite a fair representation of his performances as he’s been quality a little less than half the time, picking up wins despite allowing 12 hits in 6.2 innings to the Twins, or allowing nine baserunners (but just one run) in five innings against the Indians. His battles with control has been perplexing given his age and his experience; right now his walk rate is the highest since 1999. GRADE: 82/100
A.J. BURNETT-RIGHTY STARTER
After a bumpy start, A.J. Burnett has performed at the highest level of any Yankees starter, giving the club 10 quality starts in 16 tries and closing out the first half with four terrific starts in a row (caveat: two of the four were against a highly-depleted Mets club). Bumped down slightly for that troublesome walk rate, Burnett leads the league in free passes. GRADE: 89/100
JOBA CHAMBERLAIN-RIGHTY STARTER
Short starts, wildness, tentative pitching, and Joba Chamberlain has still given the Yankees a quality start in half his starts, which is a touch better than average. His last two starts have been on the rough side but aren’t any reason to write him off as a starter. Pitching at home has been a problem, and something odd is going on with his approach to right-handed hitters, as they’re hitting .293/.360/.503 against him — last year it was .209/.297/.273, and in 2007 it was .156/.224/.244. Is it the decreased velocity? Is his slider not biting? Darned if I know, but it sure is interesting, and a bit frustrating, too. GRADE: 81/100
CHIEN-MING WANG-RIGHTY STARTER
Chien-Ming Wang’s physical problems seem to have destroyed his mechanics, and though he pitched better after coming off of the disabled list, all better really meant was a 6.50 ERA instead of 16.00. He has yet to make a single quality start in nine tries — even Steve Trout got one in the same number of chances — and now that he’s back on the DL, it will be some time before he does, if he even gets the chance. He did pitch two good games in relief, and it’s possible the Yankees should have left well enough alone. GRADE: 55/100
The great Mariano Rivera’s home-run rate is his highest since 1995, which is to say in his whole career as a reliever, and it’s not just a function of Yankee Stadium II. Still, Rivera has blown just one save, and overall has been one of the most effective relievers in the Majors this year. The one place where he’s struggled is in tie situations, which has frustrated Girardi’s attempts to use him to the greatest advantage. Alas, no one is perfect, not even Rivera. Bumped downward because as good as he’s been, his “A+” standard is years like 2005. He may yet get there; in 14 games covering June and July he’s held batters to .163/.196/.245. GRADE: 94/100
ALFREDO ACEVES-RIGHTY MIDDLE RELIEF
A revelation. It will be interesting to see if Alredo Aceves remains Mo-like, which is to say that he keeps killing left-handed hitters. They’re currently hitting .155 against him. In retrospect, leaving him off of the Opening Day roster looks like a major mistake. GRADE: 96/100
PHIL COKE-LEFTY SPOT RELIEF
Phil Coke has given up a few more home runs to lefties than you would like, but his overall line against them (.176/.203/.382) is pretty darned good, and he’s holding righties down as well (.167/.297/.296). Since allowing runs in back-to-back appearances on May 26 and 31, he’s pitched 15.2 innings over 17 games and allowed just one run on five hits and four walks. He’s even pitched well at Yankee Stadium II. One wonders if the eighth-inning bridge the Yankees have been looking for has been wasted on one-batter appearances. GRADE: 97/100
PHIL HUGHES-RIGHTY MIDDLE RELIEF
His starting work was spotty (5.45 ERA), but Phil Hughes did give the team two more quality starts than Wang did. We’ve only seen 14.2 innings of Hughes the reliever, but he’s been dominant, with opposing averages of .120/.170/.220, which works out to just six hits allowed in 14.2 innings. Hughes gets a confidence booster and the Yankees get a lights-out reliever. It’s the best of both worlds. GRADE: 83/100
DAVID ROBERTSON-RIGHTY MIDDLE RELIEF
David Robertson has done a fine job of breaking in. He’s particularly hard on right-handed hitters, whom he’s held homerless in 45 at-bats. When his curveball doesn’t curve against lefties, though, it’s a souvenir. Numbers that are likely a small sample mirage: His .125/.286/.150 rates at home. Now all he has to do is get out of the trash-time role. GRADE: 82/100
Chien-Ming Wang headed back to the disabled list and Joba-To-the-Bullpen became Joba to Nowhere, but winning trumps everything. Adding to the sweetness of the proceedings was the fact that the victories came at the expense of an AL East opponent, pushing the Yankees to one game under .500 against divisional rivals. They kept the pressure on the Red Sox, who dropped two of three to the Mariners, and put some distance between themselves and the rest of the competition. The Rays, swept by the Rangers, are now six games behind the Yankees in the loss column, the Jays eight behind. The wild card standings remain close, with AL West co-leaders Texas and L.A.-Anaheim just two games back of the Yankees.
How long this happy situation persists will depend in part on how the Yankees choose to compensate for the loss of Wang. This seems a bit odd to say, “compensate for the loss of Wang,” because the Yankees haven’t really had Wang all season long. For all their patience, prodding, and pushing, Wang has yet to record a quality start. Now, quality start is just a made-up statistical category (heck, they’re all made up) denoting a starting pitcher having done certain minimal things in his games — throw six innings, allow three or fewer earned runs. It’s not a crazy high standard, as all it asks a pitcher to do is post a 4.50 ERA. Wang is 0-for-9, and whatever achievements exist in the past, they clearly don’t have much bearing on this season.
Since returning to the starting rotation on June 4, Wang’s ERA is 6.43 in six tries. His rate of home runs allowed per nine innings is a career high, and it didn’t dramatically improve during Wang’s latest sting. He allowed four home runs in 28 innings, which doesn’t sound like much, but it works out to 1.3 per nine. The career rate for the sinkerball artist coming into this season was 0.5. Wang’s latest injury is just the latest clue that anything the Yankees need to cultivate a solid alternative and view anything they get from Wang this year as a bonus.
That alternative is almost certainly not Sergio Mitre. While you can never preclude a team catching journeyman lightning in a bottle (see Aaron Small ’05), Mitre seems a long shot to click. Frequently injured, Mitre is a heavy ground ball type who has never found consistency in the Majors due in large part to control problems — a pitch-to-contact type can’t walk three or four batters per nine innings and expect to succeed. There are simply too many balls in play with runners on base for the pitcher to succeed, even with the enhanced double play rate of the sinker ball pitcher.
One intriguing note here is that Mitre has done great things with his walk rate in the Minors this year, passing just five batters in 39.2 innings. If Mitre can carry that kind of control back to the bigs, it will be almost as if the Yankees were trying a brand-new pitcher, not a 28-year-old retread. Even then, success is not assured. This is a pitcher against whom Major League batters have averaged about .300 — they’re not fooled, and while Mitre might cut down on the number of free passes he gives out, he will still have to keep the batters from simply banging their way on base.
With the All-Star break coming up, the Yankees will have a few days to reorder their rotation and figure out what they want to do with Wang’s spot over the longer term. As much as Alfredo Aceves and Phil Hughes are overqualified to be relievers, they’ve done so well in that role that it’s understandable that the club would be reluctant to pull them from the pen at this juncture, not without some kind of viable alternative to take the spot (the problem of “stretching them out” into a starting role is transient, especially given that Aceves threw 43 pitches on Sunday).
Here is yet another occasion to point out the way the Yankees have hurt themselves by perpetuating Brett Tomko in the Majors at the expense of Mark Melancon, lefty Zach Kroenke, or practically anyone else in the organization. Tomko’s trash-time work could have been developmental time for any number of virginal relievers, relievers who might now be promotable to more important roles, something that clearly isn’t going to happen with the 36-year-old, home run-happy Tomko. That theoretical pitcher might have enabled the Yankees to feel more comfortable about elevating Hughes or Aceves. Instead, they have blocked themselves. Much as with the bench space wasted on Angel Berroa until quite recently, Tomko demonstrates that there are no small roster spots, only small players.
To put the matter in proper perspective, one sentence: The loss of Wang expresses itself as a bullpen problem, not a starting pitcher problem. Corollary to the foregoing: the Yankees need to do more to solve their bullpen problem.
In the long term, one interesting starting option within the organization might be right-hander Zach McAllister, currently of Double-A Trenton. If you take his work from the second half from last season, spent at Tampa of the Florida State League, and add it together with that of this season, from Double-A Trenton, you get a stunningly good line: 28 starts, a 13-9 record, 169.1 innings, 139 hits, 36 walks (1.9 per nine), 128 strikeouts (6.8 per nine), just nine home runs, and an ERA of 1.81. The strikeout rate should be a clue that McAllister is not a 95 mph burner. He’s actually somewhat Wang-like, getting by on a sinking fastball. It seems unlikely that a jump to Triple-A, or over it, would be much of an impediment. McAllister may seem like a long shot, and given the organization’s nervousness about the untested, he probably is, but the Yankees owe it to themselves to investigate these possibilities before they start throwing out good players for the detritus of other organizations.
MORE TO COME…
With the Yankees having reached the 81-game mark, the PB hands out the dreaded midterm report cards.
Frogs worldwide are dying off at a high rate, which is depressing. Add in the state of Yankees’ middle relief and I am almost unbearably sad. Reader Ben is too:
Honestly Steve, your comment about the Yankees overusing Phil Coke, Alfredo Aceves and Mariano Rivera are not well-thought out. Jose Veras is as inconsistent as can be. His stuff is so great, yet never can stay in the strike zone on the first pitch. I swear, it is a loud exhale every time when he throws ball one and you see 15,000 beads of sweat on his face with that deer-in-the-headlights look and it’s like Kyle Farnsworth all over again. Great talent, no clue how to pitch.
I don’t mean to pick on him, but Jonathan Albaladejo and David Robertson can at least claim they have not had much Major League experience. The Yankees have no one else dependable to go to. Maybe things are different with Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte healthy, if that ever happens. But right now, they don’t have depth, because of health and ineffectiveness.
Ben, I don’t see how my observation and your point are incompatible. I said Joe Girardi was turning to certain relievers with frequency because the others had been unreliable. You seem to agree with that reason. I didn’t say that Girardi was wrong to do this, but merely pointed out that there can be consequences to overusing certain relievers (call this the Proctor Rule). If there was any criticism even implicit in what I was saying it was meant not for Girardi but for the front office for not shuffling the bullpen deck again: “Given that the Yankees have other options in the Minors, it would make far more sense for the Yankees to try something new than to continue to burden Girardi with options he’s already discarded.”
By that I meant (at minimum) giving Mark Melancon another shot rather than persevering with Veras — and the Yankees have just taken a step in that direction by designating Veras for assignment. No doubt that move was prompted by the need to keep Phil Hughes around should Chien-Ming Wang fail to pitch well on Wednesday, but with any luck it means that when the club finally is able to have one starter for that spot (as opposed to the tandem starter Chien-Phil Hughes), the resultant opening in the pen will be filled by a fresh face.
2: PESSIMISM, DEAR LIZA, DEAR LIZA
They say I tend to look at the glass as half full. Reader Kevin here sees a hole in the bucket. Truncated some for length and several ill-considered word-choices:
This is not a special team yet. But it is need of some special help. We are seeing this far too often for a Yankee team: 1. Derek Jeter. The “Captain” of the team. He is hitting ok. Every once in a while he is ok in the clutch. But more than not, when he gets up to the plate you are waiting for him to hit that pop-up or hit into the double play. I don’t get it.
2. Johnny Damon. He is hitting “ok” but not clutch. He looks like a nine-year old boy in a little league game every time the ball is hit towards him in left field. No confidence… Wang. Why he is still with the team and not down in AAA I don’t know… Joba. Needs to be a reliever. Bottom line. Pull Wang, insert Hughes. Joba in the bullpen as a reliever. Girardi is acting too optimistic as a manager right now… We went 13 years in a row making the post season until….2008. Common denominator…Girardi. He is too much like a buddy than a manager. It’s obvious to me due to a lot of the decision making that is going on by him.
Jeter is batting .308 with men on, .316 with runners in scoring position, .476 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .375 late and close… What do you want from the guy? Damon is batting only .254 with men on, but has hit six home runs with runners on base, is hitting .355 late and close, and had a memorable walk-off homer against the Twins exactly a month ago. I can’t defend his defense, but he’s 35. He’s still far from a Pat Burrell out there given his speed… Wang isn’t in Triple-A because he’s out of options. Get over Joba as a reliever. He’s about 1.5 changes of role short of becoming Neil Allen. Just relax and let him settle in, try to suppress your panic every time he doesn’t pitch well. Joba has made 24 career starts and has a 3.29 ERA. I don’t have an exact list on hand, but my guess is that very few starters have begun their career with those kinds of results. True, he has only averaged five innings a start, but that’s partially due to the way the Yankees have chosen to manage him. It might also be better to have a starter who throws five strong innings than a pitcher who throws two, no matter how dominant, though I don’t know that for sure.
3: BATTING ORDERS AND THE INTIMATE LIVES OF YOUR FRIENDS DON’T MATTER MUCH…
…But they sure are fun to talk about, as reader Alightningrodfan shows:
I have been critical on these blogs in the past of Robinson Cano, but only regarding his hitting behind A-Rod. I think Jorge Posada hitting behind A-Rod would lead to better protection for A-rod and that might help A-Rod get better pitches, fewer walks, and a chance to more quickly get his groove back after surgery. However, Cano can sometimes do very well. And it seems as if A-Rod, despite his .234 average, keeps finding ways to help his team win and provides inspiration. Even through a pop-up! In any event, since it seems that Joe is going to keep Cano in fifth, I will cheer Cano on to have a successful season.
One of the better things to come out of the Mets-Yankees series was Cano going 5-for-12 with two doubles and two home runs, as he really hadn’t yet taken advantage of Yankee Stadium II. Even after his hot weekend, he’s still batting just .278/.324/.452 at home, compared to .301/.350/.534 on the road… The average AL No. 5 hitter is batting. .269/.340/.456, with a home run every 24.5 at-bats. Yankees No. 5 hitters are batting .241/.285/.425 with a home run every 26.1 at-bats. On the whole, Joe Girardi’s choices for the fifth spot haven’t worked out, but Cano isn’t the major part of the problem, having hit .301/.316/.484 in the spot. His other choices, primarily Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Nick Swisher, have bombed there. The sample is small enough for each that it wouldn’t be useful to read anything into that. In the long run, Posada is the better choice. It’s fascinating that Posada has spent most of his career batting fifth or lower — the Yankees have given up a lot of Posada plate appearances over the years by keeping him buried. I’d be very curious as to if Girardi or Joe Torre think they see something emotional in Posada that makes him a bad choice to bat up in the order. In his career he’s been much better when batting sixth (.295/.400/.518) instead of fifth (.277/.378/.460), so maybe there’s something to that.
…A walk is obviously not as valuable as a home run, but as long as Rodriguez keeps taking those walks while mixing in the odd home run, he’s going to be productive at the plate regardless of where his batting average ultimately falls.
4: THE UNSUBTLE PLUG
The thing to remember about the Nats is the hitting is actually quite good. You say average, but up until the last two weeks – when Guzman, Dunn and Zimmerman all fell into slumps, they were 3rd in the NL in scoring. I think that will tick back up at some point. Throw in future Met Nick Johnson, plus Josh Willingham’s .891 OPS, they aren’t slouches with the bats… In terms of pit
ching, it’s just not there. All rookie starters other than Lannan means a rough go. Lannan vs. Wang should actually be a great matchup. They are similar in more ways than they’re different, strikeout rates aside. I think from a Nats fan point of view it’s good that Detwiler and Zimmermann don’t start in this series. They will be needed in 2010 along with Strasburg, and the Yankees at home can mess with pitchers heads. Also needed are some people who can field, if you know any. This may be Manny Acta’s last series, and Mets fans, he could be sitting on a bench near you in the near future...
I purposely left Josh Willingham out of my evaluation because he’s currently on the bereavement list due to the sad death of his brother in an auto accident, and I wasn’t sure if he’d be back in time for this series. It is true that the Nats were hitting a bit better just a couple of weeks ago, but I’m reluctant to say that that was their true offensive level. I think it more likely that Zimmerman, Dunn, Nick the Greenstick, et al were playing a little over their heads, and what we’re seeing now is a return to a more realistic level of production.
I wish Manny Acta all the best, and hope he gets another chance with a real ballclub, should the Nats pull the trigger as was rumored. No manager could have overcome a bullpen as poor as that of this year’s Nats club. As always, whenever Acta comes up I feel proud to point out that he has cited the book I edited and co-authored, Mind Game as having been an important influence. Someone should get him a copy of Forging Genius as well, given that it’s about a manager who gets fired a lot before going on to greatness. It could be therapeutic… And he’ll probably be more careful about looking both ways before crossing the street. Four things Winston Churchill and Casey Stengel had in common: (1) late-career success after they had been written off; (2) handy with a turn of phrase; (3) enjoyed alcohol, perhaps a bit too much; (4) hit by cars while attempting to cross a street in a major American city. I’m sure there are more…
…Or is that Scar City? Midcoaster asks:
My big question about Jesus Montero is – if he is not expected to be a catcher in the big leagues why is he still catching? Should’t he be learning how to be, at least, adequate in a position he will be playing? Looks like the Yankees are making a career DH. Please no more DH only types. Get him to learn a position he will be playing while he is still on the farm. Yes a big clunky guy could play the outfield if he gets gets experience and is well coached. The way ball are flying out of the new stadium it might be a good idea to keep him.
Jesus Montero is definitely a keeper. The reason he’s still catching is that the Yankees know how hard it is to find a top bat to stick behind the dish. If they can keep Montero back there, he’ll be infinitely more valuable than if he’s a first baseman, left fielder, or designated hitter. They’ve made a determination that until he proves that he absolutely cannot catch he’s going to stay, and it’s a good call, especially since Mark Teixeira has him blocked at first base for the next hundred years. His Tampa numbers this year are equivalent to his hitting .301/.325/.470 in the Majors as a 19-year-old. He could be Mike Piazza for the Yankees, with all the associated pros and cons. There’s no rush to move him.
MORE OF ME–TV
I’ll be on the YES’ Yankees Batting Practice Today show tomorrow, Wednesday, at 6 p.m.. Hope you see me then.
TWO OF THREE…
As with everyone else under the sun, I figured the Yankees could take two of three games from a poorly planned and injury-depleted Mets team, I just figured they would win Game 1 on their own merits and Game 2 by feasting on a journeyman starter before losing Game 3 to one of the best pitchers in baseball. I didn’t figure on them winning Game 1 because a veteran made a Little League misplay, losing game two by being shut down by the fringe-y guy, and then annihilating the Cy Young winner in Game 3. Let’s not even predict what the Yankees might do against the Nats… Then again, it’s sort of my job, so let’s give ‘er a go.
The Nationals are obviously a miserable ballclub, one with a chance to rank with the worst of all time. Their current .262 winning percentage works out to 42-118 over a full season. Just a few teams have been that bad. Here’s the bottom 10 since 1900:
|T10 Red Sox||1932||.279||43||111|
If they continue along their present path, the Nats would slot in right next to the 2003 Tigers. However, the Nationals are not like the 2003 Tigers. Those Tigers couldn’t hit, pitch, or field. The Nats are bad at two out of three, but they have average hitting. They don’t catch the ball, their starting pitching is the worst in the league, allowing nearly six runs per game, and their bullpen may yet prove to be the worst in the history of relief pitching.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees will get off easy. Their best bet for an easy win is Tuesday, when CC Sabathia takes on the Curacao-born 22-year-old Shairon Martis (with a name like Shairon, I keep thinking he must be Israeli). As the Nationals go, he’s pitched very well, with five quality starts in 12 tries, including a complete game, one-run win over the Cardinals. What works in the Yankees’ favor, particularly because this series is being contested in New York, is that Martis gives up a lot of fly balls and has a low strikeout rate. That suggests the Yankees making good contact and hitting balls in the air, and we know what happens when they do that at home. In addition, two of their three best hitters, Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn, are left-handed, which should be helpful to Mr. Sabathia.
Wednesday’s game has to be rated a toss-up. First, Washington lefty John Lannan can actually pitch. He’s not an extreme ground ball pitcher, but he gets enough of them to keep the ball in the park. On the downside, he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, meaning (again) those deadly balls in play. Lefties have also hit him well, slugging .493 against him in his career with a home run every 21.2 at-bats. The Yankees, who list seven left-handers or switch-hitters most days, should be able to do some damage. Unfortunately, much will also depend on whether Chien-Ming Wang can overcome his mechanical difficulties and put in a good start. Thursday’s match-up should again favor the Yankees, as the rookie Craig Stammen will face Joba Chamberlain. Of course, much will depend on Chamberlain throwing strikes. Stammen is no pistol (please pardon the bad horticultural pun), but does have good control. Like Lannon, he has an above-average groundball rate and his strikeout rate is on the low side.
The great thing about the Nationals from the point of view of the opposition is that they can blow a lead at any time. Even if the Yankees trail in these games, they have more than a fair chance at coming back against the bullpen. Their relievers have an aggregate ERA of 5.59. Reliever ERA isn’t the most accurate way to look at bullpen performance, but in this case, it makes a fine proxy for better measures, as it fairly depicts how miserable they’ve been. That should take some pressure off of Wang and Chamberlain — though not all of it, particularly for Wang. One question that arises out of Joe Girardi’s “pitch well or else” edict to Wang is, what about the start after?
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The first thing to note is that before you begin arguing that Chien-Ming Wang can make another start because his opponent would be the historically poor Nationals, take a moment to peruse their lineup.
The Nats’ problem is not hitting, but pitching, particularly bullpen pitching. Washington pitching is allowing almost six runs per game (5.88), which bodes well for Yankees hitters, but they’re also scoring 4.55 runs per game, a hair above average. Nick Johnson, Christian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes have hit quite well this year.
Second base has been a season-long problem for Washington, as the team’s keystoners have been miserable, and a potentially season-ending injury to Jesus Flores has left catcher in the hands of ex-Yankee Wil Nieves, which is a problem given that Nieves is not a replacement level player, but whatever comes after that. It’s the floor on the elevator that doesn’t get a number, just a black button. The point being belabored here is that Washington can mash a struggling Wang just as well as any other team.
The second argument that should be dispensed with is “Wang won 19 games twice, three and two years ago.” Two years ago, George W. Bush was president. Three years ago, the economy was, if not cooking, looking a whole lot healthier than it is now. Three years ago GM and Chrysler were not bankrupt. Three years ago has zero relevance to what is happening now. Two years ago has only slightly more relevance. Ron Guidry won over 20 games three times, so surely he must have the right to get a few cracks at the Major League rotation. Obviously that’s not realistic — Guidry could do it back in the 1970s and 80s but he’s 59 now. He can no longer do it. Exactly. There is also a chance that, because of his injury, a loss of mechanics, or a loss of confidence, Wang can no longer do it either. At the very best, he can’t do it right now.
Wang is now 0-4. For all intents and purposes he is the difference in the American League East race. Yes, the Yankees have lost every game they’ve played to the Red Sox, but they’ve outplayed the Sox everywhere except head-to-head — their records independent of each other are 34-18 for the Yankees and 28-24 for the Red Sox. Sure, there have been injuries and some other burps along the way. The point here is not to fix blame, but only to underscore the fact that in a close race, and this race should continue to be close, every decision the team makes can have an outsized impact. The Yankees can continue to gamble with Wang and maybe they’ll win that gamble. Wang maintains velocity, so there’s always a chance.
On the other hand, Phil Hughes waits behind door number two, and it’s possible that, with the very good strikeout rate he’s shown thus far, he can make huge strides. All it would take is a slight uptick in his command and some new pitching patterns against lefties, who are having little trouble thwacking him (righties have barely laid a glove on him). That makes it sound all too easy — there are few more loaded phrases in life than, “All that needs to happen is” — but if you have two pitchers, Wang and Hughes, both needing to make adjustments, you might want prefer the guy with the big-time upside who you have to get established anyway because Andy Pettitte might not pitch forever. Or to put it another way, you might choose the pitcher who has had at least one quality start versus the guy who has yet to survive the fourth inning.
Let us be clear that no one knows what will happen. Dave Eiland has insisted that Wang can come back. We can take his word for that, that Wang CAN. That he will come back is a different matter. Things might click for him or they might not. Hughes too might take a step forward, a step back, or a step into the old Yankee Stadium construction site and vanish into the spot where all the construction animals were killed in a cave-in back in 1922. (Don’t do it, Phil. That’s not the way to become a winner.) Anyone who claims to have a definitive answer is lying. What remains is really a question, and then, perhaps, an argument: Can the Yankees afford to give Wang more chances?
DON’T LET HIM STOP
I have to credit Kyle Farnsworth for having had a nice little stretch of pitching for the Royals. New York’s favorite reliever has seemingly turned a corner. In a run of 17 appearances going back to April 21, Farnsworth has pitched 17.2 scoreless innings. He’s allowed nine hits, two walks, and struck out 17. Obviously those pesky home runs have not been a problem. Don’t know where this version of Farnsworth was in New York. Perhaps KC is more his speed. I figure I’ve been picking on the guy for years, so it’s only fair to acknowledge it when he does well.
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In a baseball vein, those with a pass to Baseball Prospectus can check out some historical notes about the draft.
The Yankees’ new record for consecutive games without an error doesn’t mean much to me, because official scoring in baseball has spectacularly low standards and has become almost totally subjective. What is interesting about the record is the way the Yankees have been climbing the defensive efficiency ladder. Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play that a team turns into outs. Over the last several seasons, almost uniformly going back to the last century, the Yankees have ranked toward the bottom of the Majors in this category. Their players had so little range that the pitchers were giving up hits on balls that other teams might have put in the back pockets. Everything gets distorted: The pitchers look worse than they really are, the team goes crazy trying to sign pitchers when it really needs fielders and hitters, and the whole club spins off its axis.
If memory serves, the last time the Yankees led the league in this category was 1998. Since then, there’s been a lot of “Past a diving [your name here]!” in the play by play. That has changed a great deal this season, particularly due to the addition of Mark Teixeira, who is a revelation on the fielding job after so many years of Jason Giambi. Another key factor has been Nick Swisher, who hasn’t made many spectacular plays but gets to many more balls than Bobby Abreu was inclined to pursue in right field. Right now, the Yankees are fourth in the American League at 70.7 percent, a number almost indistinguishable from that of the league-leading Rangers (71.3 percent; the Brewers lead the Majors at 72.4 percent). It’s an old but true baseball adage that you can’t win by giving the opposition extra outs. Usually, that adage refers to errors, but it should apply to every ball hit within the fences and between the lines. The Yankees haven’t cared much about this in the recent past, but with Teixeira’s help a change has come. It and the team’s current hot streak are not coincidental.
JOBA CAN PITCH THE EIGHTH — AS A STARTER
And that’s all I have to say about that. He won’t get there in most starts, of course, but the point is that if he is capable of this kind of upside, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep running him out there until he gives some definitive reason that he can’t. The performance of OTHER pitchers, like the eighth-inning relievers, have nothing to do with him. The bullpen is its own problem with its own solution set. You don’t take a pitcher who is capable of giving you 21 or even 24 outs a night with an ERA below 4.00 out of the rotation because you can’t find another guy who can give you three, no matter how “important” the spot. That’s idiotic. All of the outs are important. We just perceive protecting late leads to somehow be a bigger deal than holding the opposition scoreless in the first or the third or the sixth, but a run is a run is a run, and you never know which one is going to beat you. More to the point, you can’t protect leads you don’t have, and a strong starting pitching staff is the tool that is most likely to buy you the time to generate that lead. Secondary point: It’s much easier to find a guy to give you three outs than it is to find the one that will give you 21, even if the Yankees are having trouble finding that guy right now.
And yet another point, one that I alluded to yesterday: As good as Chien-Ming Wang has been as a starter in his career, his stuff and approach do not correlate with long-term success. I don’t care if you have a sinker so heavy that Superman can’t lift it — eventually the lack of strikeouts, the lack of a solid inner defense, or both is going to eat you alive. In Wang’s case, his injury of last season may have altered his delivery, stuff or strength in a minute way, hard to perceive with the naked eye, but significant enough that he can no longer balance on the point of a needle the way he used to. Putting him in the bullpen, while perceived by many fans and commentators as a waste or an insult of some kind, may in fact allow him to make changes in his approach that will save his effectiveness and ultimately his career. A Wang who isn’t worried about marshalling his stuff and can throw harder over a shorter span of time while still getting groundballs may be able to get outs in a way that a six- or seven-inning version of Wang can no longer aspire to.
Right now, there’s no reason for the Yankees to make a change except that some people are arguing for it. Wang is pitching well in the bullpen, they say, so let’s make him a starter. Chamberlain is pitching well as a starter, so let’s make him a reliever. That way lies madness.
Parenthetically, I was pleased that Joel Sherman made very much the same argument I did yesterday about using Mariano Rivera in a tied game on the road. Within that piece there’s also a promising note about the Yankees vowing not to resign Hideki Matsui after the season, 100 percent the correct decision.
Is Jose Veras still on the roster? If so, why? Please answer in complete sentences, then exchange papers with your seatmate and discuss.
AS THE JOBA TURNS
As Joba pitches tonight, and the Joba to the Bullpenites sharpen their runcible spoons, whether the lad pitches a no-hitter or gets torched, please keep in mind that Rome (famed Three-I pitcher Jimmy-Bob Rome) was not built in a day. At 23, Chamberlain is allowed some inconsistency before he finds himself, and the long-term gain is worth the short-term pain. The Yankees can find solid eighth-inning relief without sacrificing such a useful starting asset. In fact, though a great deal has been made of Joba’s shortened outings, I would argue that a dominant five-inning starter is worth the added strain on the bullpen — Joba’s not there yet, but I wanted to throw that out there. Very few starting pitchers, even the Hall of Famers, achieved instantaneous consistency in the Majors. This is an obvious point, but one that bears repeating (and repeating).
As for Sunday’s loss, which some have wanted to attribute to the lack of a Joba type in the pen, allow me to do them the service of pinning the Medal of Failure where it belongs: on the manager and conventional thinking. You know the culprit: the resistance to using Mariano Rivera in a tie game on the road, saving him for a save opportunity that the other pitchers and the offense may never create. The fallacy is in thinking there is no save opportunity in such situations.
That is a complete misreading. The “save” is in allowing the game to keep going. On the road from the ninth inning on, every time the home team bats you’re in a sudden death situation. You want your best arm out there to keep the game alive, not the worst. If Rivera pitches an inning on Sunday and holds the Indians scoreless, the Yankees get to bat in the top of the 10th. Maybe they score one run and then they have to think about keeping Rivera in or going for another pitcher. If that pitcher blows the lead, at least you got to play that long. Alternatively, maybe you score 10 runs in the top of the 10th and a closer is no longer relevant. With the Indians’ messy bullpen, that outcome is a realistic possibility, and now you’re up by so many runs that even Nick Swisher could finish out the game for you.
The loss on Sunday wasn’t about the wildness of Dave Robertson and Phil Coke, but about the fact that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, not when the Yankees had a better option. Yanking Joba out of the rotation to cover for a failure of thinking makes very little sense.
In our next sermon, we’ll explore why Chien-Ming Wang the reliever may be a completely different animal from Chien-Ming Wang the starter, and how equating the two could lead one to misinterpret his strong relief pitching as an argument for a return to the starting rotation.
MOOSE VS. THE GUY WITH THE BAT
Made the mistake of listening to sports talk radio on my way to the dentist today. One topic was the comparison of Juan Marichal and Mike Mussina, the former a Hall of Famer who never won a Cy Young award. This comp was made out to be a terrible insult to Marichal, but (1) this was overly concerned with the pitcher’s won-lost totals, which are external to the pitcher and a function of when Marichal pitched — if you don’t acknowledge that it was easier for a good pitcher to win 20 games in Marichal’s time than it was for Mussina in his then you’re not being fair; you might as well ding Marichal for the fact that he never won 30 games, but Lefty Grove and Dizzy Dean did, and (2) misses other differences between the 1960s and the 1990s — adjusted for context, Marichal and Mussina had almost exactly the same ERA.
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BEWARE THE SWINGMAN
Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes. Three pitchers for two rotation spots. Each time one pitches well, or pitches badly, or pitches at all, the argument starts up again as to how to best dispose of each of them. The drumbeat becomes insistent, as if there had to be an answer right now, as if there’s a switch for each player, with position A “starter,” and position B, “bullpen,” and as long as the switch is hovering between the two something is not right in the universe.
In truth, there is a third setting, “neither,” which worked for baseball for years and year, in an era in which a stifling uniformity hadn’t removed the possibility for all creativity or initiative in the way teams are run and constructed, before a self-defeating overspecialization of relief pitching had caused Major League staffs with detritus that would previously never have escaped the minors. Players objected to the uncertainty and the suppression of their individual numbers, but the Yankees won approximately 14 pennants by keeping that switch in neutral.
With more quality pitchers than they had rotation spots, Yankees managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel planned a more complicated pitching staff, using certain pitchers against certain teams, skipping the lefties in Fenway Park, or going out of their way to use them in Detroit, letting them rest against the clubs that hit them well. It worked terrifically. The 1939 Yankees, on the short list for greatest team of all time, used nine starters. Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez largely stayed in rotation, but every once else swung between the rotation and the bullpen. Only Ruffing threw more than 200 innings, this in a season where the league leader in innings pitched came in just under 300. Most of those pitchers found out they were starting when they reached the clubhouse and found a ball under the cap in their locker.
In the 1950s, Casey Stengel initially had a rock-solid rotation fronted by the famous trio of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat, augmented by Tommy Byrne, and soon joined by Whitey Ford. Starts were distributed in a fairly standard manner. As those pitchers faded, the rotation became more elaborate. In 1953, the world-champion Yankees had only one pitcher, Whitey Ford, make 30 starts. Twelve other pitchers took turns. The 1954 rotation is like a Jackson Pollock painting. In most seasons thereafter, the Dynasty staffs look a lot like that of 1939, with two pitchers — usually Whitey Ford and somebody — staying in rotation and everyone else being called upon as needed. In 1958, Ford made 29 starts, Bob Turley made 31, and no else made 20. Ford and Turley both pitched over 200 innings; no one else pitched even 140 innings.
The insight here is that some pitchers are better in 150 innings than they would be in 200, but would be wasted throwing only 80 innings out of the bullpen. Thus you have a sixth starter, or a seventh. Present-day baseball doesn’t have a place for that kind of pitcher, though Joe Torre did have one for awhile in Ramiro Mendoza. Everyone is a specialist, either a starting specialist or a relief specialist. That’s fine for some — you want to get every inning you can out of CC Sabathia — but as for almost everyone else on the planet, one-size-fits-all solutions, or even two sizes, are too limiting.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what I don’t know in presenting this argument:
1. How changes in the schedule affect a team’s ability to play fast and loose with its pitchers.
2. How changes in pitcher usage affect a team’s ability to swing their pitchers.
3. The impact of swinging on pitcher health.
4. Whether the pitchers would stage an outright rebellion over such variable usage.
Factor #2 is of particular interest. The complete game is now virtually dead. While the great Yankees managers, particularly Stengel, were willing to go to the bullpen as necessary, they were still far more likely to let a starter finish up a game than any manager would be today. Just pitching a year at random, the 1958 Yankees threw 53 complete games. This was just a bit above average for that season. Last season, the Yankees had one. This means that while McCarthy or Stengel could anticipate that roughly once or twice a week nine of their ten pitchers would get a complete rest, meaning the swingers who recently started wouldn’t be called on to relieve, thereby allowing them to rest or leaving them available for the next spot start. That is obviously impossible today.
Assuming that these factors can be dealt with, or safely ignored, the Yankees really don’t need to be making aggressive decisions about Wang, Chamberlain, or Hughes short of just doing what seems most productive on a day-by-day basis. That any of them have a specific role on the team should be of greater interest to the pitchers themselves than a dispassionate Yankees management. That means that any of them could be a starter, a reliever, or both. Remember, just because things are presented as they way there are doesn’t mean they’re the way they have to be. Pitcher usage in baseball has always been highly mutable. We haven’t yet reached optimal usage, and in some ways may be running away from it. Those saying that the Yankees are not using their pitchers the right way need to stop being so dualistic and realize that there is no right way, only the way they’re being used right now.
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