TWENTY, 20, ANDREW JACKSON, CC SABATHIA
Perhaps it’s no big deal for CC Sabathia to win his 20th game now, but there was a time in my life when the Yankees didn’t have 20-game winners. Beginning in 1996 it has happened five times: Andy Pettitte has gotten there twice and David Cone, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina did it once each. The Yankees had 20-game winners in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983 and 1985, and then they stopped, seemingly forever. From 1986 through 1995, Yankees starters topped out at 18 wins, and they got there only twice, Dennis Rasmussen and Jimmy Key turning the trick in 1986 and 1993, respectively.
Now, 20-game seasons aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes they signify good pitching and sometimes they don’t. Pitchers can have great seasons and not win 20, or even have a losing record — think of Nolan Ryan leading the NL in strikeouts and ERA in 1987 but going 8-16 due to receiving a miserable 3.1 runs per game of offensive support. Conversely, you can name dozens of 20-win seasons that reflected offensive and bullpen support more than they did pitching excellence. Jack Morris won 21 games in 1992 despite an ERA higher than the league average due to nearly six runs of offensive support a game. Former Yankees Rookie of the Year winner Stan Bahnsen won 21 games for the 1972 White Sox despite an ERA a half-run below league average. The next year his ERA was three-quarters of a run better than league average and he lost 21 games. As a statistic, wins can give you some hints as to the proficiency of a pitcher — truly bad ones don’t pile up wins no matter what — but there are a lot of outside factors that go into making a win, and we generally need to look beyond them to discern if we’re seeing real quality or just a fair pitcher who is getting unusually generous help from his team.
Should Sabathia win 20 games, we need not ask too many of those questions, because these wins have been earned. Sure, he got five runs of support per game, but he also gave the Yankees 21 quality starts in 33 tries and went crazy in the second half, putting up a 2.36 ERA since the All-Star break, upping his strikeout rate from a mediocre six and change per nine innings to an even nine. During the crucial six-week period beginning in early July when the Yankees caught up to the Red Sox and then surged past them, Sabathia made nine starts and won seven of them.
Should Sabathia succeed in winning his 20th, it will have a different feeling than that of Mike Mussina a year ago. That win represented the culmination of a career and a wonderful last hurrah by a great pitcher who had seemed all but washed up the year before. Unfinished business was finished, and a prop was taken away from those who will argue that Mussina doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Crucially, the Yankees were not going to the postseason, so the story was pure feelgood — it had no bearing on the greater history of the franchise.
That is not the case with Sabathia, a big-money ace who actually proved to be worth the money, which is a nice turnaround given 30 years of busts ranging from Eddie Lee Whitson to Carl Pavano. And as with Ron Guidry’s 1978, Ed Figueroa’s 1978 or Tommy John’s 1980, this season meant something toward a pennant. Actually, you can double that, because given the inconsistency of A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain’s lost season, and the constant turnover of the fifth spot in the rotation, Sabathia had only Ol’ Aches and Pains Pettitte to rely on as a wingman — and even he missed time. Now that the Yankees have clinched and the Red Sox are falling away, locked in an autumn malaise, it’s easy to take this pennant for granted, but it was not long ago that the Yankees were gasping for air and the Sox seemed to be on the way to winning 100 or more games. The outcome of this season is the result of a massive reversal of fortunes, and Sabathia was one of the players who engineered that. In short, should he win 20, it will be well worth celebrating a legitimate accomplishment.
Without endorsing the idea of the Yankees acquiring Roy Halladay, I want to point out that one universal theme of the commentary regarding such a trade, that the Jays would be unlikely to deal Halladay to a divisional rival like the Yankees, is one of those stock things that writers say without really thinking it through. Anyone who writes that must not watch YES much, because the obvious counterpoint is a fixture in the booth. How do they think David Cone got to be associated with the Yankees?
On July 28, 1995, the Blue Jays traded David Cone to the Yankees under very similar circumstances. The general manager at the time was Gord Ash, not J.P. Ricciardi, but I guarantee you his preference wasn’t to send Cone across the water to New York, but he did. The Yankees had prospects to deal (none of them worked out, unfortunately) and they were willing to risk Cone leaving as a free agent (he did declare for the market, but was re-signed about five weeks later). Halladay isn’t a free agent until after the 2010 season, but the expense of his current contract is going to scare off a lot of teams given the economic environment. A team that picks him up tomorrow is going to be on the hook for half of this season and all of next year, which comes out to something like $23 million. It could be that the pool of bidders will be small enough that Ricciardi will have no choice but to look closely at the Yankees.
That’s if the Yankees are interested. I don’t know if they are, or if they even should be, but being division-mates with the Jays hasn’t stopped them in the past and won’t stop them now.
A QUICKER NOTE ON ACEVES VS. MITRE
Good call by the Yankees plucking Alf Aceves out of the bullpen to make Thursday’s spot start against the Twins. As outlined in an earlier entry, Mitre’s Major League track record is spotty enough that Thursday would have to be rated a throwaway game, regardless of his current minor league record. Pitchers are the ballplayers most likely to reinvent themselves, but a 5.36 career ERA is what it is… kind of like Brett Tomko’s 4.69.
The only disturbing aspect to the decision is that it exposes Joe Girard’s proffered rationale for stranding Aceves and Phil Hughes in the bullpen, that they could not be “stretched” in time, as a canard. Why not just give an honest answer, which would have been something like, “We’re having a pretty fun time with the current bullpen composition and we just don’t want to mess with it?” That might not have been the correct answer to the problem of the spot start, but it would have been truthful.
With Aceves sprung, possibly for more than one start, the Yankees do have to identify an option to replace his very productive relief work. Right now they’re carrying a pen that is two pitchers short of a full load, given that Brian Bruney isn’t exactly trustworthy right now and Brett Tomko doesn’t have any function beyond trash-time relief, if that.
I’d still like an explanation of why it’s more valuable to the pennant-winning effort to have Tomko in the Majors and Mark Melancon and his 2.50 ERA in the minors. I know he walked five guys in three innings in the majors, but at Scranton he’s walked just two batters per nine innings, the same rate he had last year. Meanwhile, the same minor league staff that allowed him to throw nearly 100 innings last year, after the pitcher already had Tommy John surgery, is using him for two and three innings and appearance. If the Yankees don’t use him soon, he might break before he can be used.
AN EVEN QUICKER QUESTION (UNANSWERABLE FOR NOW) ON SABATHIA
Is it meaningful that CC Sabathia’s strikeout rate is his lowest since 2003?
THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
Brett Gardner, May to present: .312/.414/.496.
Melky Cabrera, May to present: .265/.319/.395.
Gardner starts again tonight. All hail Joe Girardi.
SO LONG TO FRANCISCO CERVELLI
He’s athletic and mobile and therefore fun to watch… but as a hitter he wasn’t any better than Jose Molina. The difference between the two is that Cervelli has a small chance to be better than that, whereas Molina is what he is. Cervelli’s 48 percent caught stealing rate is something special, and if he continues to throw like that he’s almost guaranteed to have a long Major League career even if his bat stays exactly where it is right now.