27 April 2010

What's Wrong With Javy Vazquez?

There are probably fewer things more frustrating to a sports fan than watching an expensive, recently imported veteran player repeatedly fail in his efforts to help the team. The more prior success he's had, the more money he's making, the more you had to give up to get him...well, that all just makes it worse.

And then there's Javy Vazquez.

Vazquez had all of those things against him:

  • He was probably one of the five best pitchers in the Senior Circuit last year,
  • He's guaranteed $23 million combined this year and next, and
  • The Yankees traded their young centerfielder, inexplicable fan favorite Melky Cabrera, plus two pitching prospects and half a million dollars to get him.

In addition, Vazquez had the ghost of his former, unsuccessful stint in the Big Apple looming over his head. Despite high hopes for him last time he came to New York, and an impressive first half, Javy Vazquez left New York in ignominy having walked five batters and surrendered two home runs to some bearded, homeless hippie, making the Yankees the first team in over a hundred years of professional baseball playoffs to ever lose a series they had led three games to none.

Granted, Kevin Brown gave up five runs all by his lonesome, and the Yankees only scored three all day, so it's not like Vazquez really made things much worse, but his efforts out there put the game ostensibly out of reach, and that's what everyone remembers.

Still, in the intervening time, he's been nothing if not consistent. Heck, "consistency" is Vazquez' calling card. He's the only pitcher in baseball who's provided his teams with at least 32 starts, 190 innings and double digit wins every season since Y2K, the very definition of LAIM. Granted, his ERA has fluctuated by more than two whole runs from year to year, but the innings are there and he's occasionally been something close to brilliant.

This is, perhaps, what many Yankees fans thought they were getting when the Vazquez trade was completed this winter, but the Yankees had no right to expect that. They've now bought high twice on Javier Vazquez - he set personal career bests in ERA, adjusted ERA, and virtually every rate stat last year - but at least this time they didn't give up the kinds of prospects you usually have to surrender for an ace.

They only really need him to be a good #4 (or perhaps #3) starter, since the heavy lifting is supposed to be done by CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and perhaps Andy Pettitte or Phil Hughes, if he comes into his own. The trouble is that Vazquez has been, in three of his four starts, anyway, God-awful. In the other one he was just bad.

There is some hope in that Vazquez seemingly has hit into some poor luck so far this year. He is still striking batters out at just about his career rate, a little over eight batters per nine innings. Also, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, something over which pitchers have little if any control) is .345 this year, compared to a career average of .302 and a major league average that is perennially about the same as that. Both of these facts are encouraging, but that's about all the encouragement you can get out of his performance so far this year.

Still though, he's only had 58 at-bats where the ball has been put in play this year, so the difference between .345 and .302 is generously speaking, three hits. That, my friends, is not the difference between Vazquez's current 9.00 ERA and the expert projections, which generally put him in the range of about 3.50 to 3.75 or so.

What's more worrying is that much of the stuff he can control is also way off his career rates. He's allowed five homers in only 20 innings of work, after taking more than twice as long to allow his 5th homer last season. He's also walked a good number of batters - 11 of them in only 20 innings - so that both his homer and walk rates are more than double their 2009 levels.

He has faced pretty stiff competition - two games against the defending NL West champion LAnahfornia Angels, one against the first place Tampa Bay Rays and one against the upstart Oakland A's, also in first place right now. Still, though, part of a pitcher's job, especially on the Yankees, is to be able to beat teams they might face in the playoffs, and so far Javy has shown little ability to do that.

The change to the generally higher quality batters of the American League probably isn't helping either. KFFL.com reports that Vazquez' record against the NL since 2008 is 16-10 with a 3.28 ERA, but that against the Junior Circuit he's just 12-19, 4.71. Even that, however, is a far cry from how terrible he's been to this point in 2010.

The most troubling part is that there seems to be a real, tangible reason for the lack of success so far this year. According to FanGraphs, Vazquez' fastball is almost two and a half miles per hour slower this year than last, an average of 88.8 mph, compared to 91.1 last year, and 91.3 mph in his career.

He's only pitched 20 inning so far this year, but he's thrown just about 400 pitches, and about half of them have been fastballs, so we have a decent idea of what he can do. The percentages of each pitch thrown (slider, curve and changeup) are about the same as usual, so it doesn't seem like he's favoring one of his offspeed pitches to compensate for what he's lost on his fastball, just that his fastball isn't what it used to be.

I don't think it's simply that he's still building arm strength, as he had about 19 innings of official work in spring training, about the same as Sabathia, and Burnett both of whom are generally pitching well. And their fastballs are within 0.9 mph of last year's averages.

Joe Girardi says that Javy's issues are mechanical, that he "gets under the ball", whatever that means. You would imagine that a guy who has thrown nearly 35,000 pitches in major league games in the last decade, more than anybody this side of Livan Hernandez, would have a pretty good idea of his mechanics by now. But still, maybe there's something to that. Maybe there's a way to tell if Vazquez is messing up his delivery somehow.

If he were "getting under the ball" you would imagine it would show up somewhere. Or if "getting under the ball" were so terrible for a pitcher, you would imagine it would be tough to pitch a complete game against a major league team and allow them only one run on three hits, while striking out seven and walking one right? Yes, even the Nationals.

For what it's worth, the game charts for this past Sunday's lousy start against the Angels do not show any appreciable difference in release point when compared with a start from late last year, a one-run complete game against the Washington Nationals.

20 April 2010, Javy Vazquez vs. Angels

25 September 2009, Javy Vazquez vs. Nationals

One potential explanation to consider is that Vazquez is having trouble with his two-seam fastball. The main page of FanGraphs lumps his fastballs all together, but when you go to the Pitch f/x pages, they separate his regular four-seam from a supposed two-seam fastball, which he only started throwing last year (4.6% of the time). This year he's throwing it 10.8% of the time, more than twice as often as he did in 2009.

Here's where it gets really sketchy and speculative, because we don't know much about this alleged two-seam fastball, including whether it even exists (more on this later).

It's possible that...
  • ...having lost his feel for the pitch, he's trying to throw it more to regain that feel.
  • ...having lost confidence in his "stuff", he feels a need to throw the 2-seamer more often to keep batters honest.
  • ...he's experimenting with a new grip on the two-seamer and hasn't quite got it yet.
But it's just as possible that what Pitch f/x thinks is a two-seam fastball is just his normal fastball, with a couple of mph lost. The Pitch f/x technology can't always tell what the type of pitch is. It just makes an assessment of the pitch based on velocity and movement, but isn't always correct, as we found while trying to sort out Chien-Ming Wang's problems last year.

In any case, while I think four starts is a little too soon to start giving up on Vazquez - he has, after all, had similarly poor streaks in the past, but has always bounced back - the drop in velocity is somewhat troubling. Part of Joe Girardi's job is to keep the peace and to protect his players, so naturally, he's not going to lay into his pitcher whenever the beat writers are looking for an explanation. Naturally, he's going to say it's a mechanical glitch and that they're working on it and that he'll be fine.

But if there's something wrong, like really, physically wrong with Vazquez already, of if the mechanical glitch that's causing the drop in velocity is also causing stress on his arm that could lead to an injury, well, then we've got a real problem. My best guess is that within the next two or three starts, if we don't see some real improvement, Vazquez may end up on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

UPDATE: Curt Schilling (of course) has an opinion on the matter too. Silly me, it's not his fastball slowing down or a possible injury. It's Vazquez not being "equipped" to get outs in the American League. My bad.

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23 April 2010

An Open Letter to Oakland A's Pitcher Dallas Braden

Dear Mr. Braden,

Congratulations on beating the Yankees Thursday afternoon and ending their winning streak at six games.

Now shut up.

You sound like a fool.

When you yelled at Alex Rodriguez for taking a shortcut (not a "detour") across the diamond, back to first base after a long foul ball by Robinson Cano in the top of the 6th inning yesterday, well, you intimidated exactly nobody. Alex Rodriguez was already the best player in the major leagues when you were still growing hair in awkward places of your anatomy. He doesn't care what you think.

The Yankees don't care what you think. The fans don't really care what you think. Frankly, I doubt that your teammates are buying this crap about how you own the mound, but they're contractually obligated to back you up even if you start pontificating about how aliens from the planet Snorg are responsible for everything from the Kennedy assassination to the fact that the cost of postage stamps seems to rise every 20 minutes. (Whoops, there they go again! Damn Snorgians!)

Nobody has ever heard of this rule before except you. Well, not nobody, exactly, but nobody seems to take it quite as seriously as you do. I have seen lots of quotes from you about how A-Rod should go out to the bullpen if he wants to run across a pitcher's mound. You do understand that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? Rodriguez was trying to save time, as he doesn't want to piss off another umpiring crew. Well, maybe not.

You also argued that you, "don’t go over there and run laps at third base." You are an American League pitcher. You almost never have any reason to be at third base, so the point is moot. You also said,

"I don’t care if I’m Cy Young or the 25th man on the roster, if I’ve got the ball in my hand and I’m on that mound, that’s my mound."

Fair enough. The rules should be the same for everybody, but of course this rule is largely new to many of us. ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew, including Rick Sutcliffe, who spent 18 seasons in the major leagues and won a Cy Young award before you were potty trained, and has spent much of the last 15 years as either a major league coach or a TV commentator, had never heard of it. You'd think a guy like that would know, right?

Or maybe there's something about this issue in writing somewhere. I have a book, given to me for Christmas, called The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and its Ignore-At-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct. It's not a very good book, honestly. Most of what I've read so far has been a lot of anecdotes about how hitters shouldn't show up pitchers and pitchers shouldn't show up hitters and you have to pitch inside but don't hit a batter in the head and expect to get hit if one of their guys got hit and blah, blah, blah. Seriously, it goes on and on like that for almost 300 pages.

But nowhere in those pages does it say a single word about how nobody is allowed on the pitcher's mound during an inning or during a game. Other than, you know, the dozens of people from both teams who come out there during mound conferences and pitching changes, plus the umpires and the grounds crew and what not. But definitely NOT Alex Rodriguez, under any circumstances.

When asked where you picked up this particular tidbit of baseball etiquette, you mentioned American Legion Ball, and that your coach told you that, as the pitcher, you are (I am not making this up) "the center of the universe" when you're out there on the mound. Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds? Everybody knows that Rickey Henderson is the center of the universe. Duh.

Seriously, though, we all know you need to be a little arrogant to make it in your business. Nice Guys Finish Last and all that. But even if you actually think you're the center of the universe, you don't say so out loud. You sound like an idiot.

My two year old son is just now learning that he's not the center of the universe, and it's a painful lesson at times. You should have figured it out a long time ago, and that silly tantrum you threw on the way back to the dugout just reinforced the fact that you need to grow up. If your mommy was watching, she would have given you a timeout, mister.

The only argument I've heard that actually makes much sense of this bizarre incident was Rob Neyer's as he rightly pointed out that when you were cursing at Rodriguez on national television, the mound was, in fact, NOT yours. Not any longer. The inning was over, and the mound therefore belonged to CC Sabathia. Apparently, CC Sabathia is the center of the universe, and given the gravitational pull a guy that size must have, that's not so hard to believe.

But you, with your 17 career wins, are most certainly not it.

Mostly, I get that you think your team deserves a little more respect. You guys did, in fact, finish last (nice guys or not) in 2009, so if saying stuff like this helps get your teammates fired up, then so be it:
“Maybe it doesn’t come across his mind to do that to the Oakland A’s, but maybe it does enter his mind to not do it against the Boston Red Sox, or to not do it against another team. So what I did was, I aided him with that. I don’t throw 95, so the point might not get across from me, but any kind of disrespect like that…it’s got to be handled."

But you know what really works? You know what will really inspire your teammates?


Build on that 3-0 record you've compiled so far this year. Help the Oaklands to a division title and, oh, I dunno, maybe a playoff series victory for once. That, and only that, will get you and your teammates the respect that your fragile little ego apparently needs.

In the mean time: Shut up and pitch.

Yours truly,

Travis M. Nelson,
The Boy of Summer

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19 April 2010

Yankees Winning a Team Effort

Well, it's fun being a Yankee fan these days.

The Yankees are currently 9-3, sitting atop the American League East division (albeit tied with the Tampa Bay Rays), with a nice five-game lead over the despised Red Sox and their small fiefdom. Their 69 runs scored and +25 run differential are both best in the AL, though not the best in baseball. Over in the Senior Circuit, the Phillies have scored a whopping 78 runs and both they and the Giants (??!?!) have a slightly better differential than the Yanks, though both are "only" 8-4.

The Yankees have not had a start this good since 2003, when they went 18-3 in the first three weeks of the season and finished the year with 103 wins and an American League pennant. Given that six of the team's next nine games come against the last-place Baltimore Orioles (2-11) and the other three are at home against the last place White Sox (4-9), achieving that 18-3 mark doesn't seem so far out of reach. Not that your April record wins you anything, unless your MLB betting regimen goes month-to-month.

The Yanks aren't exactly hitting on all cylinders, but those who are hitting are doing so well enough to more than make up for those who are struggling. Mark Teixeira, for example, is a notoriously slow starter, and is hitting only .114 at the moment. Indeed, his career .239 batting average in April is about 40 points lower than in any other month. however, he did hit his first homer of the season yesterday, so perhaps that's a harbinger of better days.

Nick Johnson has struggled, too the tune of a .158 batting average, though his league-leading 14 walks give him a more than respectable .404 OBP. But Jeter and Posada are both hitting about .380 and have three homers to their credit. Robinson Cano leads the team with four bombs and his hitting .340 in his own right. He had a hit in every game before Saturday's contest against the Rangers. New CF Curtis Granderson is hitting .311 with a couple of homers and four steals in four tries, and Alex Rodriguez had a .938 OPS, thanks largely to his team leading five doubles.

Nick Swisher's hitting only .200 at the moment, though he generally...well, Swisher doesn't generally do anything, except hit 20+ homers. In the five more or less full years he's been in the majors, he's only had one season in which his final OPS differed by less than 90 points from the previous seasons. Sure, he'll probably end up around .250 with 25 homers and an OPS around .825 or so, but he could just as easily hit .220 as .260, for all we know.

The real oddity is Brett Gardner. I had my doubts about him last year, and frankly the odds were and still are against him becoming a good everyday player, but he's certainly done his job so far this year. He's played in 10 of the team's 12 games, hitting .333, scoring nine runs and stealing seven bases.

His current "pace" would have him scoring 144 runs and stealing 112 bases despite never hitting the ball hard enough to get an extra base under his own power. Since the record for runs scored without an extra base hit is just 29 - and that was only accomplished by a former sprinter who was recruited as a designated base stealer by wacko A's owner Charlie Finley in the 1970's - well, I wouldn't bet on anything like that happening. More likely, Gardner will finish with something like a .280 batting average and 80 runs scored, with 40 or 50 steals at a high success rate. If he continues to slap singles, take walks and steal bases, he'll certainly earn his pay.

One of the biggest surprises so far this year has been the resurgence of Andy Pettitte. At 38 years old, you could hardly have expected him to improve on the level he's set for himself the last three years. That's about 15 Wins and an ERA slightly over 4.00, which is solid, if not Hall of fame material. But he's got a 1.35 ERA in a team leading 20 innings, having just quieted the Rangers' formidable bats for eight innings on Sunday. He's due to regress, of course, but if he can somehow win another 15 games this year, he would move into the top 50 in career wins. While the chance to tie Amos Rusie and Iron Man Joe McGinnity may not sell a lot of baseball tickets, it sure would like nice on his resume, don't you think?

Not that CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have been slouching, mind you. Both are 2-0, like Pettitte, and both have an ERA comfortably under 3.00, though not as low as Andy's. Phil Hughes was far from sharp in his only start, walking five batters in as many innings, but at least he managed a Win.

Javy Vazquez has been awful in his two starts, surrendering 12 earned runs (14 total) in eleven innings. Granted, it a little early to start booing him, but at some point the guy who finished 4th in the 2009 NL Cy Young voting had better start pitching like the 15-game winner the Yankees thought they were getting when they dumped off traded Melky Cabrera to the Braves.

The bullpen has had its ups and downs, but the like the starting lineup, the good parts (Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Damaso Marte) have more than compensated for the bad (David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves). Sergio Mitre has defied all the odds simply by getting through about two innings of work without allowing a run. Don't bet on that to continue.

Chan Ho Park has had his ups and downs, including a well-documented case of the runs, which he had and then allowed to the Red Sox on Opening Day. He deserves credit for taking the blame himself and not putting Joe Girardi in an awkward position (why would he use a pitcher who was weak and dehydrated from the flu? On opening day? Against the Red Sox?) but of course good character doesn't get that home run ball back.

In any case, though there a few guys over-performing, there are also several who have yet to hit their stride, and there's little reason to think that the Yankees can't continue to wreak havoc on the American League.

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