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.
The only complaint you might make about A.J. Burnett’s last four starts is that he started his hot streak five days after he lasted less than three innings against the Red Sox. Other than that little complaint, he’s 3-1 with 28.1 innings pitched, 16 hits, 12 walks, 33 strikeouts, and an ERA of 0.95. With the exception of the aforementioned start at Fenway on June 9, all of his starts going back to May 27 have been of the quality variety, six innings or more, three earned runs or less. The one loss came courtesy of the offense and an ill-timed, game-ending Robinson Cano groundball double play (some themes just keep reinforcing themselves, even if I don’t want to go there). Burnett basically can’t get any better except to conquer the Red Sox, but he won’t get another shot at them until August. For now, he’ll make one more start before the All-Star break, presumably Wednesday night at Minnesota.
I don’t know if a guy who is 7-4 with a 3.83 ERA will merit a look for the All-Star game pitching staff, but Burnett would be nicely set up to pitch that game, as his next start after the Twins’ appearance would fall during the break. For what it’s worth, he’s fifth in the AL in strikeouts, and if he wins on Wednesday he’d be in the top three in wins.
THE KEY TO HUGHES
… And maybe Joba Chamberlain as well. There was a lot of discussion of Jimmy Key on today’s YES broadcast of the Yankees game, a natural given that Key split most of his career between the two teams doing battle. Key, it was acknowledged, had a great career, one that would have been even better had it not been cut short by arm problems. This is inarguably true. Key was a four-time All-Star, had three top-five Cy Young award finishes, led his league in ERA, strikeouts and wins, had terrific control, and generally posted ERAs that were well ahead of the league average. He pitched on six postseason teams, two of which won the World Series. Key won’t be going to the Hall of Fame, but he had a very successful, memorable career.
The one aspect of Key’s career that wasn’t discussed was how he started it. The answer is, “in the bullpen.” A third-round pick in the 1982 draft, Key was a starter all the way through a brief Minor League career that saw him make the Blue Jays out of Spring Training in 1984. Manager Bobby Cox and general manager Pat Gillick never saw fit to give him a start that year. Instead, he made 63 appearances out of the bullpen. He was up and down in terms of results, as rookies often are, but he finished the season strong, putting up a 2.93 ERA in the last two months, and in 1985 he made the move to the starting rotation. Not coincidentally, the Blue Jays improved their record by 10 games and won the AL East.
Key is just one of dozens of successful starting pitchers who broke in this way. For this reason it’s always a little humorous when commentators and fans act nervous about pitching Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, or, for that matter, promoting Chamberlain out of it. Every pitcher is different, so there’s no ironclad rule that says, “Jimmy Key did it, so it must be okay,” but you can point to more stories like Key’s than you can the other kind, the one where a pitcher was somehow destroyed by the diversion into relief work.
Cue up the hype machine, because the 19-year-old mutant slugger in the making homered in his fourth straight game on Thursday. He’s now batting .325/.395/.571 with five home runs in 21 games at Double-A Trenton. He’s also thrown in nine walks, which is actually a better rate than he had down in the Florida State League. Combine his numbers for the two levels and you get a teenager who is batting .346/.403/.580 in 69 games. Here’s the best thing about the numbers: Trenton is a tough place to hit. Jesus Montero is hitting “only” .314/.368/.457 with one home run there. On the road, the Boy Wonder is batting .333/.417/.667 with four home runs in 42 at-bats. In other words, the numbers are artificially depressed.
This is getting ahead of things, but let’s dream: With a strong conclusion to the season at Trenton, Montero will be in a good position to get a long look from the Major League staff in spring training next year. He would then be a hot streak and an injury away from a call to Scranton. His position is still a problem — Montero threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at Tampa. He’s done a bit better at Trenton, with a 28 percent caught stealing rate, but it’s early days yet. Despite this, if Montero’s bat is ready, the Yankees could use him at the designated hitter spot with occasional spot starts at catcher against those teams that are less inclined to run.
With Hideki Matsui likely to leave town after the season, they’ll have the opening on the roster and a chance to save some money by using a young player in the spot. This is something that teams are generally reluctant to do, as there seems to be the thought that if you let a young guy DH you’re hurting his chances of someday developing into Ozzie Smith. That seems like an unnecessary worry in Montero’s case.