In one of those unrequited love affairs that never seems to end, John Heyman reports that the Yankees have made inquiries about the availability of Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. The Yankees are naturally impressed by Washburn given that he pitches like a Cy Young winner whenever they see him. Though his record against the Bombers is only 5-6 in 13 career starts, his ERA is just 2.76. If they’ve beaten him, it’s because he likes to give up home runs, and they like to hit them, but since he hasn’t allowed them many walks or hits overall, the overall scoring has been kept to a minimum.
Sergio Mitre doesn’t seem like much of an answer to the fifth spot in the rotation, and they are understandably nervous about pulling Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves out of the bullpen, though these worries may ultimately be self-defeating. The Yankees might be able to get through the remainder of the campaign without a reliable fifth starter, and they can certainly make it through the playoffs without ever calling the fifth starter’s name, but it might not be a fifth starter they really need. They might need something more. CC Sabathia has been inconsistent, Andy Pettitte alternates good starts and bad, with the result that his ERA since April is 5.17, and the Yankees also have to worry about Joba Chamberlain hitting a wall in September (whether through an innings limit or fatigue). Say Joba pitches poorly in the fall. That would make the playoff rotation Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and a lot fingernail-biting (new slogan: Sabathia, Burnett, and pray for a pedicurist). Adding a pitcher of Washburn’s abilities would help ease those fears.
The downside to such an acquisition is that Washburn is having his best year since 2002, and the Yankees would surely have to overpay for that. This is a guy who had a 4.69 ERA a year ago. However, Washburn’s contract status mitigates against a big return, as he’s a free agent after the season. Then, of course, there’s the entire question of if the Mariners want to run up the white flag on their borderline involvement in the pennant race.
Washburn is a fly-ball pitcher, which seems like a bad idea in Yankee Stadium II, although being left-handed he should be at a theoretical advantage in the new park. Indeed, left-handed batters can’t touch him, batting .172/.231/.273 in 137 plate appearances. This is well below his career rates of .239/.295/.389, but let’s take it at face value for the moment. Washburn has good control but is usually very proficient at giving up home runs, leading the AL back in 2003. One of the reasons that he’s having such a good year is that in his average season, over seven percent of the flies he’s allowed have left the building. This year, the percentage is down to five, the lowest rate of his career, and yet there is no corresponding increase in his groundball rate. That screams fluke, something that could change at any time.
Still, if you take his proficiency against lefties as gospel and figure his presence will tilt some opposing lineups to the right side, perhaps his fly ball tendencies are not too troublesome. Whereas left-handed batters are hitting a home run once every 19 at-bats at the new park, right-handed batters have hit them at a more manageable (though still high) rate of one every 25 at-bats.
All of the above still leaves the difficult question of who to deal. The Mariners need batters more than anything else, and the Yankees don’t match up well in that regard. Austin Jackson seems like the kind of overhyped player who would bring more in trade than he will the Yankees in production, but with the outfield in flux both now (with Brett Gardner’s injury) and in the future (with free agent departures), the Yankees probably need to hold on to him, while dealing a Jesus Montero for a Jarrod Washburn seems like the kind of deal that a general manager could spend the rest of his life apologizing for, like Lou Gorman and Jeff Bagwell. Montero hit another home run this weekend, bringing his Double-A line to .309/.366/.537 with nine home runs in 149 at-bats. That line is tempered by Trenton’s wholly impossible home park–Montero is batting .229/.280/.357 in the Garden State capital, but .380/.443/.696 on the road. If he was playing in a fairer home park, there would be a clamor to move this guy to Triple-A or the Majors now. Flags fly forever, but this is the kind of hitting talent that could get his number retired if the Yankees can just find a place for him.
20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. RAYS
W-L RS/G RA/G AVG OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Yankees 15-5 5.6 4.6 .290 .379 .473 25 9 8 1.0 3.0 6.9
Rays 10-10 3.7 4.7 .228 .315 .361 42 19 6 1.0 2.6 7.6
The Yankees have stopped stealing bases with any effectiveness, and that’s not going to change during Brett Gardner’s absence… This is a huge series for the Rays–the Yankees could knock them well back in both the AL East and wild card race. The Rays are lucky to have broken even on their last 20 games given their offensive slump. Other than the indefatigable Ben Zobrist and a rebounding Dioner Navarro, the entire offense has shut down this month. Carl Crawford is hitting .257/.333/.351; Jason Bartlett .238/.342/.349; Evan Longoria .197/.289/.382; Carlos Pena .145/.294/.290. What this means, of course, is that they’re due. Fortunately, the Yankees have Burnett, Sabathia, and Chamberlain going so it won’t be easy for the Rays to break out. They too have their best pitchers going this series, sort of, kind of. The pitching rotation, which lands on James Shields and Matt Garza, plus Scott Kazmir, who is motivated to turn things around after five weeks on the DL. He’s made five starts since coming back and the results have been mixed, with a 5.08 ERA in 28.1 innings.
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.
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.
INSTANT KARMA’S GONNA GET YOU
It was a very strange ballgame last night. It began with the Yankees looking like they were going to lose a perfect game, or at least get shut out, and ended with Mariano Rivera striking out four straight batters for the save, eight runs on the scoreboard. It was the first Rivera appearance in about a year, and it was vintage stuff, one you’ll want to remember if you prize the career of this future Hall of Famer. It didn’t come in a playoff game, but it doesn’t matter–the cutter was really darting in on the lefty hitters, perhaps as much as we’ve seen all year. For one night (and hopefully many more), the Lone Ranger rode again.
As was pointed out on last night’s broadcast, Joba Chamberlain has now made 14 starts, seven at home and seven on the road. At Yankee Stadium: the Musical, Joba is 0-2 with a 5.18 ERA. Intriguingly, he’s striking out more batters at home, 9.8 per nine innings, than he is on the road (7.0). But he’s also walking six batters per nine innings in the House that Ruth Didn’t Build but Would Have Really Loved to Hit In, and it was speculated by the YES-men that he’s just a bit scared of allowing balls in play at home. This seems like a reasonable explanation given the results on the road–4-0 with a 2.74 ERA (3.59 runs allowed). He’s struck out fewer batters, just seven per nine innings, but perhaps he’s not trying nearly so hard to do so. This more restrained approach has resulted in fewer walks, including none last night, and longer outings.
I’m not certain how the Yankees solve this problem, but I do know this: Chamberlain’s road record is yet another nail in the “Joba-to-the-bullpen” argument. If this is what he can do in a neutral environment, average six innings a start and allow fewer than three runs–that’s more than good enough. Few pitchers can do that, and if Joba can just smooth out his home-park problems, he’s going to contend for a Cy Young Award some day. Sure, the strikeout rate is lower than it was in the pen, but still healthy enough that you don’t have to worry about his health, and beyond that, arguing about the number of strikeouts, seven or nine, is just quibbling. The average AL starter averages 6.4 Ks per start. Joba is fine.
Nick Swisher answered yesterday’s discussion about him here with another home run, and it’s tempting to let that be the final word for now. The guy is second on the Yankees in on-base percentage (to Mark Teixeira), fourth in slugging, but he leads the club in road slugging, road doubles, and road home runs by a wide, wide margin–he and Hideki Matsui are the only hitters on the team that haven’t seen their numbers grossly distorted by the House that Ruth Didn’t etc. He leads the team in walks, and the only reason that hasn’t resulted in a higher number of runs scored by Swisher personally is that he’s been buried in the bottom half of the order. There has been an awful lot of Ransom and Molina up behind Swisher.
Some in the comments for yesterday keep talking about how these are “just” numbers. They’re right. They’re “just” numbers, which means they are “just” a record of WHAT HAPPENED. If you want to deny that Swisher has been on base all those times, fine. You want to deny he’s the team’s leading hitter on the road, that’s fine too. You could go further and deny that getting on base leads to runs, which leads to winning. People deny all kinds of things that seem like settled science. Heck, the Flat Earth Society was active until quite recently.
Unfortunately, there is a payback for stubborn ignorance, and it comes in the form of lost baserunners. That means more outs with fewer runs scoring, and that means more losses– although you can deny that outs without runs leads to losses if you want to. You can deny anything, including the fact that you’re breathing, or thinking.
And once you bench Swisher, you can even deny the slipping place in the standings. You’re mad at the wrong Yankee.
FUTURE YANKEES TO LOVE AND/OR DISTRUST
The rosters for the annual Futures Game prospects showcase were announced today, and the Yankees have two representatives on the World Team, catcher Jesus Montero of the Trenton Thunder and lefty Manny Banuelos of the Charleston RiverDogs. I know you’ve heard plenty about the former, the too-young-to-drink slugger who might be less than a year from a big-league call-up, but Banuelos has yet to get much press (and for good reason–Montero is a special hitter, while Banuelos is a good prospect, but one potential pitcher among many). In 12 starts this year he’s put up a 2.51 ERA, walking just 14 in 61 innings while striking 58. Going into the season, Baseball America ranked his as the team’s 14th-best prospect, right behind Brett Gardner, commending his mechanics and solid fastball while noting his offspeed pitches still have awhile to go. He’s three levels away from the bigs, so this is probably your one chance to see him for awhile if you don’t happen to live nearby. The chance to see Montero speaks for itself.
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?
We finally get to the mats with reader comments, and Wholesome Reading (Warning! Politics!) continues to be updated.
If you dig irony, the conclusion of Friday night’s game had to be an instant favorite. In November 2007, Mets General Manager Omar Minaya handed out one of the more foolish contracts in recent memory, signing Luis Castillo to a four-year, $25 million contract. Moreno thus assured the Mets of having Castillo’s company from age 32 through 35 when the second baseman’s speed, defense, and durability had already declined due to a set of bad knees. His power was always minimal, so even when at his best his offensive contributions have been minor. The most you can say of him at this point is that he’s selective and that when he does run, he picks his spots well. If you add up the 87 games he played last year with the 50 he’s played this year, you get a .258/.362/.318 hitter with 13 doubles, three triples, and three home runs. He’s also walked 77 times and stolen 23 bases in 27 attempts. He’s not completely without value, but what’s there isn’t something that the Mets needed to lock themselves into, especially when Castillo has so little leeway in his skills; if he slips even slightly, he’s rowing the team backwards.
That this player, of all players, dropped a seeming can of corn to give away a game to the Yankees seems highly appropriate. It would be inhuman not to observe that it’s also a little sad. There is no joy in seeing a 14-season veteran of the Major Leagues humiliated. Still, poor decision-making has a way of coming back to haunt you, and Castillo’s Fumble is the most visible example of a GM’s misevaluation of a player biting his team in the buttocks.
THE REMAINS OF JOBA’S DAY
Joba Chamberlain’s start was not pretty and might be better characterized as bizarre, as he left in the fourth having allowed just one hit but walked five and hit two batters. No doubt the Joba-to-the-Pen crowd will again get hyped up, but let’s be realistic: throwing strikes has been a staff-wide problem for the Yankees this year. With nine walks in nine innings last night, the club raised its rate of ball fours to 4.1 per nine innings. In doing so, they passed the Cleveland Indians for the league lead.
I’ve seen a great deal of hostility expressed towards Dave Eiland in reader comments here and elsewhere, but I’m not sure that you can put the blame on him exclusively. When a team has young, hard throwing pitchers, control problems often have to be worked through. A great deal of frustration usually accompanies this. Those of you kicking around long enough might recall that back in the mid-1980s, Bobby Valentine promulgated an ill-considered get-tough program with his wild Rangers pitchers, vowing that if any of his starters walked two consecutive batters he would be instantaneously yanked from the game. All this accomplished was to make his pitchers nervous. Bobby Witt remained Bobby Witt even with a metaphorical gun to his head. The Yankees can change pitching coaches, but the new guy is unlikely to bring a magic bullet to go with that gun.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE PEN…
Joe Girardi has not had a sure touch with the bullpen this year. His reluctance to use Mariano Rivera for a long save in Boston, followed by his usage of him in the eighth inning of Friday’s game, is a frustrating inconsistency. The usage of Brett Tomko ahead of David Robertson (more on this below) makes very little sense. When Girardi finally did get around to using Robertson, the horse was out of the barn. He then tried to push Robertson into a second inning, which would have pushed his pitch count up to 40 or so pitches, more than he typically throws. Instead, he allowed a leadoff hit to Gary Sheffield, which led to a panicky call to Phil Coke.
One interesting aspect of Girardi’s bullpen usage is the frequency with which relievers have pitched; Yankees relievers lead the league in appearances in consecutive games. Phil Coke leads the pack with nine such appearances each. This is in large part a reflection of Girardi’s reluctance to turn to anyone in the pen except for Coke, Mariano Rivera, and lately Al Aceves. As we’ve seen before, particularly in the Joe Torre years, this can lead to burnout of select pitchers. 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.
The one positive to come out of last night’s bullpen mishmash was that Phil Coke had a long outing. The former starter’s splits this year have been backwards: .195/.327/.366 with one home run in 41 at-bats against righties, .216/.245/.523 with four home runs in 44 at-bats against lefties, suggesting that Coke is miscast in the LOOGY role.
Finally, it’s great to see a Yankees manager finally using the team’s closer in tight eighth-inning situations instead of already-settled ninth innings, but it is unfortunate that it took until Rivera was 39, when he may no longer be mentally or physically adaptable to the change.
SAVE UP YOUR MONEY FOR A RAINY DAY,
GIVE ALL YOUR CLOTHES TO CHARITY…
Nick Swisher is just not having a good week for mental acuity. Neither are the official scorers. That the official scorer called the ball that bounced off his mitt a double is just one more illustration of how badly baseball needs to professionalize official scoring. Millions of dollars in salaries are affected by performance statistics, and too often those statistics are perverted by scorers who display something less than objectivity.
Of course, nothing Swisher did this week compares to Milton Bradley’s actions on Friday, when he forgot the number of outs and tossed a live ball into the stands, allowing the Twins to trot around the bases.
I’m still not clear on what Brett Tomko is adding to the roster, particularly when the Yankees could be getting Tony Claggett or Mark Melancon established in the Majors. He and Angel Berroa (three at-bats this month, seven total since April) are mysteries worthy of a Leonard Nimoy In Search Of… revival. Tomko has been around a long time, bas rarely been any good, and his 10.2 innings out of the Yankees pen going into Friday night’s debacle were deceptive. Sure, the ERA was only 2.53, but he’d walked four and struck out only five. He was always prone to giving up the home run, had already given up one, and with that low strikeout rate it was inevitable that he’d give up another. I’m all for teams fishing in the discard pile for diamonds in the rough, but the Yankees have viable relievers in the minors who might be good for the next five years, not the next five minutes. David Robertson is one of those, and yet he followed Tomko, coming in three-runs down instead of up by one. Veteran Tomkoism is counterproductive in the extreme.
I’m sure someone will write that the Yankees were looking for “length” with Chamberlain out of the game early, but length remains theoretical when the pitcher you choose can’t actually pitch.
Linked here, a very perceptive bit on Kyle Farnsworth from Joe Posnanski. He illustrates that the Royals have discovered what the Yankees (and Braves, and everyone else) already knew: Farnsworth is to be used in low leverage situations ONLY. “There’s no crying in baseball, except when Kyle Farnsworth comes in.” The Yankees pretended this wasn’t true for two and a half years.
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.
MORE FROM ME
Wholesome Reading has lots of additions from over the weekend, with more coming throughout the day.
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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Wholesome Reading continues to be wholesomely updated with new entries, and will be throughout the weekend. Warning: politics!