26 July 2011

Yankees Don't Need King Felix

The New York Yankees have the second best record in the American League, currently 60-40, a season high 20 games above the .500 level. They have the best run differential in MLB, +135, and they have the best ERA+ (adjusted for ballpark factors and such) in the Junior Circuit as well, 19% better than the league average, trailing only the Phillies, who have a 123 mark in the slightly less challenging National League.

So why does ESPN's Yankees feature writer Andrew Marchand think they need pitching help? I'll let him tell you in his own words:

"[Felix] Hernandez, just 25, is the type of guy the Yankees dream about. They need a starter to team with CC Sabathia to get them through October.

Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have pitched well enough to get the Yankees to October, but can they keep it up for three more months?

Colon might be able to miss bats in the late fall, but Garcia's mid-to-high 80s stuff usually doesn't translate then."
Really?  He states that last part as though it's a foregone conclusion, a well-known fact, like that water is wet, snow is cold and that The Pentaverate meets tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado known as, "The Meadows."

But even shadier than the assertion that The Colonel puts an addictive chemical in his chicken is the notion that soft-tossers can't win in October.  A brief scan of the career postseason Wins leaders reveals several names known more for their control and smarts than for their blazing speed: Andy Pettitte (19 Wins), Tom Glavine (14), Greg Maddux (11), David Wells (10) and Orlando Hernandez (9) comprise about half of the top ten or 11 postseason winners, and none of them had a fastball that averaged more than 90 mph for most of their careers.

Granted, Wells, Pettitte and El Duque could all get into the low 90's sometimes, but they all lived around 88 mph or so most of the time and got batters out with offspeed stuff, wits and experience.  You could argue - and you'd be right, of course, smart-guy - that these "Wins" were largely attributable to the fact that these guys all pitched mostly for the Yankees and Braves of the last decade and a half, very good teams that would be expected to produce pitchers who win, even if they didn't pitch all that well.

But that's not the case here.  Pettitte's ERA in the postseason was 3.83.  Wells had a career postseason ERA of 3.17, and El Duque's was 2.55, all three better than their overall career ERA's.  Glavine and Maddux were 3.30 and 3.27, respectively, though they both had losing postseason records because Braves hitters are contractually not obligated to hit in October. True story.

And besides those guys, the annals of baseball are practically filled with the names of starting pitchers who got outs in the postseason without necessarily lighting up the radar gun.  Derek LoweBarry Zito.  Clem Labine.  Jimmy Key.     

And while Garcia doesn't have as much experience in the October limelight as Pettitte or Glavine, he's not exactly some starry-eyed kid just up from the farm, either.  He just turned 35 years old last month, and has more than 2,000 career innings in the major leagues.  More to the point, Garcia has done just fine in the postseason, with a 6-2 record and a 3.11 ERA that's nearly a full run below his career mark in the regular season.  Granted, his three postseasons occurred in 2000, 2001 and 2005, when (according to FanGraphs.com) Garcia was still throwing fastballs in the low 90's, but even that was not an overpowering arsenal by any stretch of the imagination.

Besides, Garcia's prowess as a pitcher has always been linked directly to the movement on his pitches, not necessarily their speed.  In his younger days, he tended to walk more batters than he does now, a supposed result of trying too hard to steer pitches into the catcher's mitt rather than allow their natural movement to make them tough to hit.  His walk rates dropped considerably when he went to the White Sox, and whether that was due to a superior pitching coach, change of scenery, or simple maturity, the change has mostly stuck.  
Regardless of past experiences, this Freddy Garcia certainly seems to know how to retire hitters.  Granted, he's had a rough time with the Red Sox this year, but then, who hasn't?  His record of 0-2 with an ERA of s10.13 against them is terrible, bet then the 0-1, 5.40 record Hernandez has posted is not exactly something you'd want engraved on your Hall of Fame plaque either.  Against other possible playoff contenders, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Detroit and Texas, he's 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 33 innings of work this season.  Hard to complain about that, and certainly hard to justify saying that he can't somehow get the same batters out in October that he owned in May, June and July.  

Overall, his 3.23 ERA is 14th among the 49 qualified AL pitchers, comfortably within the top 30%, and his 128 adjusted ERA is 12th in the American League.  For the record, King Felix, whom Andrew Marchand is convinced would be a huge upgrade over Garcia, is currently 22nd on that list. Garcia has given the Yankees a Quality Start in 72% of his outings compared to just 64% for Hernandez, despite all the help he theoretically gets from Safeco Field. 

Perhaps Marchand somehow perceives that Garcia is something less than he is because of his lackluster Win-Loss record.  Though he's generally gotten excellent run support, Garcia has taken two "Tough Losses" this season, i.e. losses in Quality Starts, which is why his record is 9-7 instead of 11-5, as perhaps it rightly should be.  A record of 11-5 might reassure everyone that Garcia is part of the solution, not part of the problem in the Yankees' starting rotation - which has allowed the 4th fewest runs per game in the AL this year, by the way.  At the very least, it might stop people from writing articles like the one Marchand penned for ESPN.

On the other hand, Marchand specifically mentions the issue of run support when he brings another darling of the trade fodder discussions into the fray:

"If the Yankees were to deal for the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda, he might be a postseason upgrade. Kuroda has a National League-worst 12 losses, but that is due to 2.85 runs of support per game, the lowest average in the league. His ERA is barely over 3.00."

So, clearly, he understands that Wins and Losses are not entirely indicative of a pitcher's quality.  (It's perhaps worth noting that Kuroda, despite his solid career ERA of 3.53, is singularly ineffective in games against the Junior Circuit, going just 3-8 with a 4.33 ERA in InterLeague games.  Maybe he wouldn't be such an upgrade.  Unless they could hide him in the bullpen through the first two rounds of the playoffs, anyway.)

Marchand seems to know that Hernandez isn't going anywhere anyway, as he repeatedly refers to how young (25) and how good (really, really) Hernandez is, and that this is exactly the type of pitcher that a franchise would want to use as the foundation of a half decade or so of playoff runs.  Also, that the Yankees would have to give up the farm to get him, that he's signed at reasonable salaries through 2014 and...what was it?...something else...

Oh yeah: The Yankees don't need him. 

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