23 May 2008

Yankees Rotation Issues Sorting Out; Hitting, Well, Not So Much...

The New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles last night, 2-1 in New York, their second consecutive win after a 4-game losing streak. They're still in last place in the AL East, but they're only a game behind Toronto in next-to-last! More important, they're 5 games behind the Devil Rays, who somehow have the second best record in the American League, and there are still 4,147 games left to play this season, though not all of them by the Yankees and their competition.

The Yankees have scored only 191 Runs to this point, good for 11th in the 14-team Junior Circuit. On a scale of one to ten, that sucks. Worse yet, they're 10th in team ERA, which is also lousy. Granted, with Alex Rodriguez back and Jorge Posasa Jopefully returning soon, they should start hitting like we all know they're capable of, but it's more than just the absence of two of their stars.

Three of their regulars are hitting just barely above the Mendoza Line, with Jason Giambi and Jose Molina both sitting at .205, and Robinson Cano at .207. Morgan Ensberg, who got most of the playing time at third base while A-Rod was on the DL, is hitting .208 with one homer, which is 100% more of them than Molina has hit. Giambi's 8 dingers and 24 walks have helped keep his OPS respectable in spite of the low batting average, but getting a hit, any kind of hit, only once every 5 at-bats is simply unacceptable, even more so for a guy making $21 million this year.

Oh, and I love hate to say "I told you so" but Melky Cabrera is hitting .248 with a .316 OBP and hasn't hit a homer in almost three weeks. He is currently 53rd in OPS among the 71 qualified outfielders, and is, as much as anybody, killing the Yankees. Just as I said he would. So there.

With that said, Giambi, and especially Cano, are bound to improve, and nobody's really even gotten hot yet, so I expect them to hit better from here on out, and not just because A-Rod is back.

The starting rotation, which has been just as big a problem, seems to be taking shape. Chien-Ming Wang (6-2, 3.51), while no longer untouchable, still seems like a solid pitcher, and Andy Pettitte should provide some decent innings for them, thought you'd like to see a little more consistency from him. Mike Mussina had a pretty solid stretch in there where he won five straight decisions, bet he couldn't get anyone out on Tuesday, and the Yankees must be concerned about that. Darrel Rasner has been a breath of fresh air for the rotation, winning each of his three starts in impressive fashion and increasing his pitch count each time out.

The best news from yesterday's game, however, has to be Ian Kennedy's start: 6 IP, 4 hits, 4 walks, 4 strikeouts, and only one run. This from a pitcher who entered the game with an 0-3 record and an 8.48 ERA to his credit. Great news, but before we get too excited, consider the following:

Three of Kennedy's K's were against Nick Markakis:

  • In the first inning, Kenned got two "gift" strikes called, way outside, and then managed to make Markakis swing and miss on an 89-mph fastball right down the middle of the plate. With markakis' power, that could just as easily have been a homer.
  • In the 3rd inning, with the bases loaded, Markakis was pressing to make something happen, and swung at a 2-1 pitch half a foot outside, and then another one a foot outside for strike three. That could have easily been a walk, which would have scored a run, or, with a 3-1 count, Kennedy might have had to come back inside and his 89-mph fastball would not have fooled Markakis again.
  • In the 6th, Markakis watched an 89-mph fastball sail right down the pipe, then fouled one off just above that, then chased one high and out of the zone for strike three. Good pitching by Kennedy there, no doubt.
  • The other strikeout was against Brian Roberts. He threw him two fastballs on the inside corner, then wasted one away, then came back inside for a called third strike. Again, nice work by Kennedy.

In short, only two of his four strikeouts were "legit". The other two were mistakes that he got away with, hardly a dominant performance. With a fastball that rarely cracks 90 mph, Kennedy doesn't have much room for error, and teams like the Red Sox will make him pay for those kinds of mistakes. Let's see how he does in Baltimore next week.

The other glimme rof hope for the rotation is the announcement that Joba Chamberlain is being groomed to join it, perhaps as soon as the All-Star Break. Fans have certainly enjoyed seeing Joba pitching, dominating, out of the bullpen, but the Yankees have said all along that his future is in the rotation, and they appear to be sticking to their word, for once.

Some fans may be a little disappointed by this news, having hoped thay Joba might inherit the closer's role from mariano Rivera, but you shouldn't want him to become a closer. Joba's skill is much more valuable as a starter than as a reliever, assuming that he'll be a good starter. It's much harder to find good starting pitchers, and the 200+ innings they amass help the team considerably more than pitching about 70 innings, even very well and in high-leverage situations.

If you think about it, relief pitching is just an easier job to do. Mariano Rivera, as great as he is, would never have made it as a starter, because he doesn't really have a second pitch, not a consistent one. He can give it his all for one, maybe two innings and get batters out, but by the second time through the lineup, they'll have seen all he's got, plus he'll be starting to tire, and they can sit on that pitch or wait for him to make a mistake. He may be one of the best relievers ever, but he'd flop as a starter. So if you can get 200+ innings with an ERA around 3.50 or so out of Joba every year, that's much more help than pitching 70 innings with an ERA around 2.00.

As for timetable, I'm guessing that they'll have him pitch 2-3 innings a few more times, give him a chance to remember how to pace himself, and force him to work on his other pitches. If Kennedy continues to be reasonably effective, the Yankees will have the luxury of putting Joba in to pitch 3, 4 even 5 innings if they want, in a start in which someone gets knocked out early, OR, they can even start Joba, expecting only 3-4 innings out of him, and then inserting Mussina or Kennedy whenever Joba tires out. More likely, they'll probably send him to AAA for a start or two to make sure he has the necessary stamina in games that don't have as much meaning.

They'll miss his arm in the bullpen, of course, but relief pitching is such a fickle business, that someone like Chris Britton or Ohlendorf or Bruney could just as easily step into that role and thrive. Scott Proctor, you'll recall, was lousy in 2005 (6.04 ERA in 45 innings) before becoming the main man in the bullpen in 2006 (102 innings with a 3.52 ERA). Like Joaquin Andujar said, you can sum up baseball in one word: youneverknow.

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