07 August 2009

Chad Gaudin? Seriously?

Golly, why didn't I think of that?

The Yankees have struggled to find an effective 5th starter all year. The top four pitchers in the rotation have all been reasonably healthy and effective, compiling a solid 38-20 record and a 3.99 ERA. CC, A.J., Pettitte and Joba have done their jobs. None of them is perfect, but they all do a solid job of giving the Yankees a chance to win, most of the time.

But the 5th spot in the rotation has been a disaster. Those pitchers have combined for a 5-8 record and an 8.20 ERA. They've averaged just 79 pitches and just over four innings per start, with only two Quality Starts in 21 outings.

Chien-Ming Wang should have filled that role. Lots of teams would love to have a #5 starter who twice won 19 games in a season, and not a decade ago, but just two seasons ago. But he was hurt and then lousy and then hurt again and then not quite as lousy but then even more hurt and eventually lost for the season.

Phil Hughes was attempted as an interim, and he had his struggles, but also had flashes of brilliance, including six- and an eight-shutout inning outings in April and May. And of course Hughes is supposed to become a starter over the long term, but he made the mistake of becoming a very good relief pitcher. Now Joe Girardi either lacks the creativity or the guts to risk making him a starter and presumably weaken the team at two positions.

On the other hand, how you could do worse than a starting "pitcher" with an 8.20 ERA is beyond me.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

In a pinch they tried Alfredo Aceves, but only for one start. He wasn't very good, and they didn't do that agian. Instead they gave the ball to Sergio Mitre, a one-time starter for the Cubs and Marlins who had not pitched in the majors since 2007, but who was mowing them down in the International League.

He was not very good either, but he wasn't completely awful, and they won the game, so they gave him another start. This time he was worse. Fewer innings, more earned runs, but again the Yankees won. His third start, against the White Sox, was a 3-inning, 5-run affair that the Yankees lost, but this did not get him sent back to Scranton either. They gave him another start, and, true to form, he sucked, but the Yankees won anyway.

To date, Mitre has pitched more than five innings just once, has allowed 38 base runners and 15 earned runs in 18 innings, and by all rights should have used up whatever slack he had in his leash. But the obvious answer, or so I thought, Phil Hughes, has not been groomed to replace him. Hughes hasn't thrown more than 40 pitches in any of his relief outings, and he usually doesn't throw more than 30, so Girardi is clearly still not intending to use Hughes as a starter.

It turns out that the obvious answer, according to the Yankee Brass, was Chad Gaudin.

I can't believe I didn't think of it before. I mean, here I was, thinking that maybe the answer was the 23-year old hotshot with the 95 mph fastball, knee-buckling curve and perfect mechanics. Or that maybe the answer was the AAA pitcher on our own who's being paid millions of dollars to make fools out of International league batters. But never in a million years would I have guessed that the answer was a journeyman pitcher who can't keep his ERA under 5.00 despite pitching in the worst hitter's park in the majors.

Gaudin has been with the Padres this season, and the Yankees will make his sixth different organization in his seven-year major league career. Joel Sherman thinks he'll either replace Mitre in the rotation (yes, please!) or help to limit Joba Chamberlain's innings down the stretch (BOO!). In either case, even if he posts an ERA of 6.27 (as baseball-reference.com's league and park adjustments suggest) he'll be better than the guys they've been throwing out there, if only nominally better.

I'm looking at Gaudin's record and I'm trying to find something good to say about him. The best I've come up with so far is, "He doesn't have that ridiculous goatee anymore," which is admittedly pretty pathetic.

Nothing in his numbers is even remotely as interesting as his facial hair used to be, and nothing is very encouraging either. He's your standard 3-pitch guy - fastball, slider, change - none of which is very remarkable. His fastball averages about 90 mph, his chamge up 85, his slider 80, according to Fangraphs.com.

He's managed to strike out a batter per inning this season, but that's a rate well above his career mark and unlikely to continue, especially since he moving to the much tougher AL East. He's walked nearly five batters per nine innings this year, a little more than his usual rate, but has only allowed seven homers in 105 innings. Petco Park surely has helped with that, as only two of those seven were surrendered at home.

Other than the lack of homers, though, he's been horribly unlucky pitching in San Diego, allowing a .441 BABIP in 40 innings there, so perhaps that bad luck will even out in new York. Even if it does, he's more likely to give up home runs in the New Yankee Stadium, so he's not likely to be much better than anyone else we've seen in that role this year, but perhaps he won't be any worse.

With that said, it may not matter much. If the Yankees use their off days wisely - and they have plenty of them over the last two months of the season - they'll only have seven more starts to give to Mitre/Gaudin/Whatever.

The difference between the kinds of performances they've gotten in this rotation spot and a replacement level starter is probably about negative one win over those remaining seven games. Slotting in Phil Hughes as the #5 starter is probably worth one or two wins above replacement level, so that's a +3 difference, though a little of that may be lost in the bullpen.

This assumes that they use the off days to skip the 5th starter in the rotation, which is what you should do, instead of giving everybody an extra day off, which is what managers actually do most of the time.

The Yankees have enough offense to win some of those games anyway, and with the expanded rosters in September, will have some extra pitching, too, but they don't have a lot of room for error. The Red Sox are 3.5 games back, but that's hardly an insurmountable lead, especially in early August. And two games behind them are the defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays, who are far from dead.

Furthermore, the Red Sox will not continue to make the mistake of running John Smoltz out there every five days. He's made eight outings in a month and a half and, despite his two wins, has yet to pitch a Quality Start in any of them. He had a couple of short outings in which he somehow allowed only one run, but usually it was something like five innings and fove or six runs, and this despite having been given relatively easy assignments.

Before facing the Yankees last night, Smoltz had faced only one decent offensive team, the Texas Rangers, and had given up six runs in 5.2 innings against them. His other six starts had come against the Orioles (3), A's and Royal, who are 11th, 12th and 14th in the AL in runs per game, and the Washington National, who are a decent hitting team by NL standards, but would be ranked 4th from the bottom in the AL.

The best thing you could say about his 37 innings of work before last night's game against New York was that he had only walked five batters. This is like saying that one nice thing about the Ford Pinto is that even though they sold two million of them, they only killed 27 people. Of course, Smoltz walked four batters in 3.1 innings last night, so there goes that.

Anyway, the Red Sox are bound to send Smoltz to the bullpen. He's held opponents to a .228 batting average in the first two innings, but they've hit .397(!) after that. Clearly, he can still pitch, just not more than two innings at a time. The Red Sox are too smart not to realize this.

And when they do, and they give his starts to Michael Bowden or Junichi Tazawa or Tim Wakefield (when he comes off the DL), the Red Sox will be a better team. Not a lot better, but better. Smoltz has been worth about a win below replacement in his eight starts, so assuming that he doesn't get any better for his last seven or eight starts, the difference between him and some replacement-level schmo is about one win.

But if the Red Sox make a move and the Yankees don't, or if the Yankees's move (Gaudin) doesn't work out and the Red Sox move does, then one win might be all it will take to wrest the division from the hands of the Evil Empire.

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