28 July 2009

Giants Trade for Ryan Garko

Well, you can't say the Giants aren't trying.

Yesterday, as reigning Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum made perhaps the best start of his young career, the Giants front office was completing a trade for the Cleveland Indians' Ryan Garko, a 28-year old firstbaseman who bats right handed and has a 906 career OPS against left handed pitching (960 this year). The trade allows the Tribe to give rejuvenated prospect Andy Marte a long look at first base for the rest of the year.

The Indians get 21-year old LHP Scott Barnes, who was ranked by Baseball America as the Giants' 9th best prospect this year. Nothing he's done since then has tarnished that reputation, as he's fanned 99 batters in 98 innings in High A ball this season, going 12-3 with a 2.85 ERA for San Jose.

Garko's eligible for arbitration after this year and is expected to be a part of the team in 2010, but then as Rob Neyer points out, so was A.J. Pierzynski. In talking up the trade, Giants GM Brian Sabean had this to say about Garko:

"Professional hitter, really punishes left-handed pitching. [The trade] complements what we're trying to do to develop Ishikawa. The timing was right. He can drive in a run. He can hit a three-run homer."
I know what Sabean's trying to say here, and though it's hitting below the belt a bit, I would just like to point out the following: Ryan Garko has hit a three run homer twice already this year. Travis Ishikawa has done it three times. So there.

"Professional Hitter" usually means "a firstbaseman who hits like a shortstop" (CF: Greg Colbrunn) but Garko's better than that. Baseball Reference says that the 750 OPS he posted in Cleveland last year (his worst in the majors) would have been more like 771 playing in San Francisco, and that's just a park factor and league run scoring adjustment, not a league quality adjustment.

If there were a way to factor that in, Garko might have posted something like an 800 ops, which isn't very good for a first baseman, but it's better than most of the "hitters" on the Giants' current roster. His current line of .285/.362/.464 would be more like .296/.373/.473 in SF, according to baseball reference's adjustments. Since the Giants have 4th worst OPS in the majors against LHP, I can see where they feel like Garko can help. Unfortunately, they also have the 2nd worst OPS in the majors against right handed pitching, of which there is a great deal more, and Garko doesn't do much for them there.

Garko is a somewhat better hitter than Ishikawa, it seems, if only because he has more experience in the majors. But Ishikawa debuted in the majors two years before Garko did, landed a starting job two years before Garko did, and his season at AAA blows Garko's best out of the water. Garko posted an 882 OPS in Buffalo in 2005, compared to Ishikawa's 1107 OPS in Fresno last year. Both players were 24 years old in those years, though it's worth noting that garko regressed the next year in AAA while Ishikawa is holding his own in the majors this year.

So over the long haul, Ishikawa is probably going to be the better player and the better value, as he's almost three years younger, apparently more talented, and significantly less expensive than Garko. But for now, the Giants get a platoon partner who can mash lefties and doesn't embarass himself against righties, while Ishikawa...well...he gets the shaft. For now.

Regarding the pitching prospect the Giants sent to Cleveland, Sabean said,

"The pitcher we gave up is probably going to pitch in the big leagues. I think it was good for both clubs."
Again, not to pick nits, but lots of guys have "pitched in the big leagues". He means that they expect Barnes to have some success in the majors, but of course his sentence would still be true if they thought it would take ten years for Barnes to make it to the Show and that he would immediately wash out.

Barnes was picked in the 8th round of last year's amatuer draft after spending three years pitching for St. Johns in New York. Against the Big East competition, he went a combined 17-7 with a 3.39 ERA and 263 strikeouts in 250 innings. He also walked quite a few batters, 114 of them, but almost never allowed a homer -only about one every 25 innings - no small feat in a league with aluminum bats, which kept his ERA down.

The Giants took it easy with him, giving him a couple of relief outings in Rookie ball Class A Short Season before sending him to the Sally League (single A) for the rest of the year. He compiled a 2.06 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 44 innings of work at the three levels. This year he's been nearly as good at High-A San Jose, and even more encouraging is the fact that he's cut his walk rate down from over 4/9IP in college to just a shade under 2.5/9IP in High A.

Sounds like a pretty good prospect, right? I couldn't figure why the Giants would give up a prospect as good as Barnes for Ryan Garko. But then a scouting report I read said that he only throws in the high 80's, and guys like that, even lefties, take a long time to learn to pitch in the majors, if they ever do at all, so that kind of explains it. Right?

Wrong. Two other scouting reports suggest that he throws consistently in the low 90's, with improved mechanics, that he's developing his curve and has a change up that's already near MLB quality. So what gives?

I don't know. I'd like to look at the fact that Sabean once traded next to nothing for the likes of Ellis Burks, Robb Nen, Jeff Kent, Jason Schmidt and Livan Hernandez (when they were good) and think that he knows what he's doing, but I have my doubts.

Sabean was also on the losing end of the White Flag Trade in 1997, gave up Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and a #1 draft pick for one year of A.J. Pierzynski, spent big money on Barry Zito, and seemingly has a soft spot for aging veteran free agents. Some of those work out (Moises Alou) but most do not (Edgar Renteria, Dustin Hermanson, Brett Tomko).

Sabean finally seemed to have figured that out and started developing his own players in the last few years, but then he goes and does something like this, and it makes me wonder. If Garko hits well and the Giants get into the playoffs, nobody will mind if Scott Barnes turns out to be a pretty good major league pitcher a couple of years from now.

The Giants are one game behind the Rockies in the NL Wild Card race, and almost half (26 of 63) of their remaining games will be against Colorado, Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Chicago, the best teams in the Senior Circuit, so they've got their work cut out for them. Garko might only be worth one or two wins more than Ishikawa over the rest of the season, but that just might make a difference in a race this close.

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23 July 2009

Free Phil Hughes!

I detailed a few weeks ago, when Chien Ming Wang went back on the DL, how I thought that Joe Girardi had dropped the ball with regard to managing his bullpen. I explained how I thought Girardi could have used Phil Hughes more liberally, for longer outings, to keep him closer to being ready for a job as a starting pitcher, should the need arise.

At the time, Alfredo Aceves was being called upon as a spot starter, though without any intention of him being the long-term solution. Aceves gave up four runs (three earned) in 3.1 innings and promptly returned to the bullpen. The Yankees won that game, as they seemingly always do against Minnesota, so nobody got too bent out of shape about the poor start.

The next time the Yankees needed a #5 starter, they called upon AAA re-tread Sergio Mitre, who's 28 years old and whose last good season was, well, never. He spent four years bouncing up and down from AAA to the majors with the Cubs and later the Marlins from 2003-2006, never pitching more than 60 innings and never posting an ERA below 5.37. His best year came in 2007 when he pitched 149 innings with a 4.65 ERA and went 5-8.

Hardly awe inspiring. He then missed all of 2008 following Tommy John surgery and has pitched well in the minors this year, but is nobody's idea of a long-term rotation solution for a team trying to win a World Series. Well, maybe his own, but nobody else's.

True to form, Mitre pitched 5.2 innings and gave up four runs (three earned), but he got the win, which of course is the point. It's possible that he's going to improve as he gets more experience, that he might even be a better pitcher than he was before the surgery, not that this is saying much, but of course it's more likely that he'll continue to pitch 5 innings and give up four runs more often than not, which is not acceptable.

In the meantime, Girardi still hasn't figured out that the solution to his problem is right there, under his nose, in the Yankee bullpen: Phil Hughes.

Following Wang's return to the DL on July 6th, Hughes was used for just 12 pitches on the 8th, 19 pitches on the 9th, and then 26 pitches on the 12th, just before the All-Star break. After the break, Hughes pitched two innings on July 17th, throwing 40 pitches in relief of A.J. Burnett against the Tigers, and got the Win.

At this point Hughes seemed to be on track to become a starter again. He had increased his pitch count in each of his last four outings, and was now up to a little less than half of what would be expected of him as a starter. But then Girardi inexplicably pulled back the reins.

Two days later, he brought Hughes into the 8th inning of a 2-1 game against Detroit and allowed him to retire the side before bringing in Mariano Rivera for the Save, even though Mo had pitched two days in a row already. That's OK for Rivera, who's certainly capable of that, but there's no reason that Mo has to get the Save, is there? Other than tradition?

Hughes has been as good as Mariano Rivera or any other reliever in baseball for the past two months, having allowed only two runs in 22 innings of work, including 28 strikeouts and five walks. He was perfectly capable of Saving that game for Joba Chamberlain. Still, I can understand Girardi's thought process here a little, as Joba has only one Win at home this year, and he wanted to make sure he did everything by the book, lest the lead be blown and Joba take yet another hit in the press (and another shot to his ego) for not getting the job done at New Yankee Stadium.

On the 21st, when Mitre started and went less than 6 innings, Hughes would have been the logical choice to relieve, had he not just pitched an inning two days earlier. With three days' rest in between his 40-pitch outing and this one, he might have been able to throw the last three innings and work his pitch count up to 50 or 60. Instead, since Hughes had tossed an inning on the 19th, Girardi brought in Aceves, Coke and Mariano Rivera, who did their jobs admirably, I must admit.

But the usage of Hughes last night was truly inexplicable and inexcusable.

With the Yankees riding a five-game winning streak and staked to a four-run lead against the lowly Baltimore Orioles, Hughes came in to relieve Burnett yet again. A.J. had allowed only two runs in seven innings, but was over the 100-pitch mark and not likely to finish the game, so Hughes was the logical choice.

He made quick work of the Birds in the 8th, allowing only a single to Gregg Zaun (whose homepage is incongruously awesome, by the way) but promptly erasing said awesome backup catcher on a double play. Nifty work - 16 pitches - piece of cake, right? Four run lead, non-Save situation, so you leave him in, right?

Wrong. Apparently, if you're Joe Girardi, you send Hughes to the showers and you bring in Brian "Feast or Famine" Bruney, who entered the game with a 4.86 ERA for the season and who had allowed six earned runs in his last seven outings. Bruney struck out the first two batters he faced, then allowed homers to the next two, suddenly making the four-run lead a two run lead, and making the game a Save situation, which necessitated bringing in Mariano Rivera to get the final out, which he did.

This, it seemed to me, was an obvious chance to continue grooming Hughes for a life as a starter. he could have pitched an extra inning, and even if he got into a little trouble, there was some wiggle room with a four run lead and the best closer on the planet in the bullpen.

With the Yankees currently sitting in first place, there's no question that Girardi has a good team, probably good enough to make the postseason as they are. There's little question that he knows how to do in-game strategy. Heck, it isn't rocket science:

1) Use expensive and talented hitters to get a lead
2) Use inexpensive but talented relievers to protect lead
3) Use expensive and talented closer to finish game.

The trouble of course comes not with the in-game issues, as any eight year old could follow the above instructions to manage this team. the problem is that part of a manager's job is to keep winning all season, to keep his players playing well, and to manage their strengths and weaknesses. Keeping Phil Hughes locked up in the Yankee bullpen, using him only for an inning at a time when he so clearly is capable of much more than that, suggests that Girardi can't do that second thing, and it will cost the Yankees in the long run.

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17 July 2009

Pirates Re-Signing Wilson and Sanchez? Not So Fast...

From the Iron City comes this bit of disturbing news:

The Pittsburgh Pirates aim to keep shortstop Jack Wilson and second baseman Freddy Sanchez.

With Major League Baseball's July 31 trade deadline looming, the middle infielders were approached recently by the Pirates about multiyear contract extensions, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Via ESPN.com, the story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is that the Pirates are trying to re-sign its double play combo, which is a particular challenge because neither player will reportedly agree to a deal unless he's sure that the other will, too.

It's only natural that the few fans left in Pittsburgh would be wondering about the Pirates, who have already traded away Nyjer Morgan, Sean Burnett, Eric Hinske and most notably Nate McLouth this year and Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte last year, among others. There was a lot of coverage of the frustration of the fans and especially the players, including Wilson himself, when the second trade was made last month, though Wilson later apologized for that.

As a fan, or even player, it's understandable why people might be put off by these moves. After all, these are the players you've been watching for years, in some cases, players you know, players who may have done good things in your favorite team's uniform, and from whom you always hoped for more. Nate McLouth was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove! Bay was the Pirates' franchise player! Nady was hitting .330 at the time! Nyjer Morgan was...I dunno...decent!?

But being trades, you have to examine what the Bucs got in return for all their trouble. The Nady trade got them four prospects, including 20-year old Jose Tabata, who could still be a very good player, a current member of their starting rotation in Ross Ohlendorf and a bullpen cog in Jeff Karstens. The Jason Bay trade netted them thirdbaseman Andy LaRoche, who's got a solid minor league record and is only 25, plus three other prospects.

Nate McLouth, who was overrated, about to get expensive and blocking top prospect Andrew McCutchen (who's been very good, by the way) got them three more prospects. And none of the guys traded away, other than Bay, is a star or is likely to become one. For that matter, even Bay hardly qualifies as a "star", but he's closer than the rest were.

This is a team that has not had a winning record since 1992, that has not finished higher than 4th place in its division in a decade, that has averaged 95 losses for the last three years and is again on a pace to finish last in the NL Central. They do not need to be paying millions of dollars to guys like McLouth and Nady, who in their career years only improve the club by about 4-5 wins compared to a replacement level guy.

So what do they want with Wilson and Sanchez, who appear to be 1-2 win players, at best?

Jack Wilson is one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball, I'll give you that. John Dewan's +/- metric regularly rates him between 10 and 30 plays better than an average shortstop, and he's +20 this year in just over half a season.

But he's a below average hitter, even for a shortstop. The MLB average for shortstops this year is .266/.322/.383 while Wilson is hitting .270/.302/.402. The OPSs are almost exactly the same, and would suggest that Wilson is at least mediocre, until you take into account that OBP is more important than slugging percentage. Recognize, too, that Wilson is already 31 years old, past his prime as a hitter, and likely only to plateau or decline from here on out.

The Pirates have him under contract for $7.4 million, making him the highest paid player on the team. They have an $8.4 million option for 2010 with a $600,000 buyout, which would seem to be the smart route, but GM Neal Huntington is talking about signing Wilson to a contract extension. Unless that extension includes voiding the 2010 option and paying Wilson something like $2 million a year, I don't see how the Pirates benefit from any such deal.

Sanchez is sort of the anti-Wilson, as he's an above average hitter for a secondbaseman but a poor defender. The MLB average for second basemen this year is .270/.335/.413, for a 748 OPS. Sanchez is hitting .316/.356/.478, slightly but not incredibly above his career average. Depending on whose numbers you want to use, he's either dreadful or just bad.

His Zone Rating is 19th among MLB secondbasemen this year. Baseball Prospectus measures him as -1 FRAA this year, after a -6 mark last season. The Hardball Times ranks him 8th in RZR. Fangraphs ranks him 7th in UZR/150. Bill James Online has him as -6 plays, and -2 runs, i.e. below average, but not severely so. His bat makes up for that, but because so much of his value as a hitter is tied up in his batting average, which tends to be a volatile commodity, if he slips to being a .285 hitter instead of a .315 hitter, suddenly he's below average overall.

Don't forget, too, that Sanchez is also in the plateau/decline phase of his career as a hitter, being only a week older than Wilson is. And given that much more of his value as a player is tied up in his hitting abilities, the erosion of those abilities will affect his value that much more significantly.

So these two guys, two players who are just slightly above average and likely to soon slip even from that modest pedastal, these are the guys that Neal Huntington is talking about locking up for years to come.

Or is he? The story out of the Pittsburgh newspaper is that they're trying to extend the two players, but when you look at the quotes attributed to Huntington, they don't necessarily imply what the Post Gazette reporter Dejan Kovacevic suggests.
"I think it [trading Wilson and/or Sanchez] would be less than an ideal situation. Jack, obviously, is playing great defense. Freddy is an All-Star on both sides of the ball. It would be tough to replace both, no question."
Well, that sure sounds like a guy who doesn't want to lose these players, right? But wait, there's more.
"But, as an organization, we can't be held hostage to fear of replacing. We like our ability to be creative. We feel like we could go out and find adequate replacements."
Adequate. Replacements.

Given that these two are just barely more than adequate as slightly above replacement level at their respective positions, his words seem particularly apt, don't you think? And then, Huntington said this:
"Obviously, the easiest thing would be to keep them here. If we can't do that and we get the right trade, it's something we have to do."
The easiest thing, but not necessarily the best, or even the thing they'll actually do. Sure, the easiest thing is to keep driving that car you already have instead of going to shop for another one. You know its quirks, it's a known commodity for a known cost. Granted, it's not terribly confortable and it's got some issues, like the smelly upholstery and the rusty gas tank, but it's mostly reliable.

Still, it's bound to break down one of these days, but car shopping is a pain in the butt, and you'd rather just deal with what you've got. It's easier that way. But in the back of your mind you know that eventually you're going to need another car, and it would be better to get some trade-in value (see what I did there?) for what you have before you run it into the ground.

Kovacevic goes on to say that both players may be willing to restructure the options on their current deals and even to take less money to stay together in Pittsburgh than they would get on the open market, and that this might help their chances of being given a contract extension.

I'll grant that Kovacevic was (presumably) there talking to Huntington in person, whereas I was not, and that perhaps therefore he has a better sense of the intent of Huntington's words than I do, just reading them off the internet. But it seems to me that a man smart enough to trade Nady and McLouth and Marte and bay at their peaks, or at least before they started to experience significant decline, is smart enough not to re-sign Wilson and/or Sanchez to some ridiculous contract.

Knowing that his team was going nowhere any time soon, he got value for other players via trade rather than either ponying up millions in arbitration dollars or losing them to free agency, and I fully expect that he'll do much the same thing with these two. Neither is a star, but neither is an organizational millstone yet, either. They're both decent enough players to serve a useful role on a team vying for a playoff spot, but if these two guys are the best paid players on the roster, then something is horribly, horribly wrong.

Both could have value for a contender, like the Giants or the Angels, who are each contending for a playoff berth but have gotten next to nothing from their secondbasemen. Or the Red Sox, who just designated Julio Lugo for assignment, and cannot be expected to fend off the Yankees while running Nick Green out to shortstop everyday.

Nick. Green.

Think about that.

Maybe Kovacevic is right, and they're planning on keeping these guys around for years to come.

Or maybe, he's being played, and Huntington is just talking up the value of these two so he can get a little more for them in the trade he's been planning to pull off all along anyway.

Or maybe, just maybe, Huntington plans to sign each of them to a more modest deal, without a no-trade clause, and then flip them to some contender, who would be able to use them for a couple of years instead of just a couple of months.

Stranger things have happened.

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14 July 2009

Notes and Observations at the 2009 All-Star Break: National League

While the pause in official games for the mid-summer classic is not exactly the half-way point of the season (most teams have played 86-88 games) it's a convenient place to stop and take a look around, seeing what's happened up to now. More important, it's also a good time to try to figure out what the first half means for the second half of the season, if anything at all.

Last year, the Phillies, Dodgers, Cubs and Brewers made it to the postseason, and three of those four teams are in the thick of the pennant race once again. before the season, if you'd asked me which of the four would not be in the mix, I'd have guessed that Milwaukee, having lost CC Sabathia to the Yankees, would have slipped. The Brewers have slipped of course, but not as much as I expected.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have completely fallen apart. They went from winning 97 games last year to a mediocre 43-43 at the Break, and the reasons are obvious. The pitching is almost exactly as good this year as last, but the hitting has fallen off a cliff. Last year the Cubs led the National League with 855 runs scored, whil they rank second to last in runs this year. Carlos Zambrano, a pitcher who's had only 41 plate appearances, has more homers (3) than the entire team's second base corps (2), in 344 plate appearances.

In their place, the St. Louis Cardinals sit atop the NL Central, with a 2.5 game lead over the Brewers. They won 86 games last year, and though their offense has slipped a bit, the pitching has more than made up for it. Chris Carpenter, four years removed from his Cy Young season and two years from Tommy John surgery, is both healthy and effective, but Joel Piniero has to be the real surprise.

After both the Mariners and Red Sox gave up on him, the Cardinals gave him a chance in 2007, and the results have been mixed. Last year's performance, a 5.15 ERA in 148 innings, did not seem to suggest that he'd found whatever had made him a winner in Seattle once upon a time. but this year he leads the National League in the fewest walks and fewest homers per nine innings, as well as complete games (3) and shutouts(2).

Oh, and losses (9), but this is because he gets the 6th worst run support in the major leagues (among pitchers with at least 80 innings). Albert Pujols is having perhaps the best season of his already amazing career, and he's practically carrying the offense. Ryan Ludwick, whicle still solid, has dropped off considerably from last year's performance. Rick Ankiel is hitting just .215 and has lost his job to rookie Colby Rasmus, who has held his own.

Troy Glaus, who drove in 99 runs last year, is injured and his replacements have been horrendous, combining to hit .214 with six homers. Cardinals' left fielders, mostly Chris Duncan, have been just as bad, but at least Glaus is expected back at the end of July. The team's last effort to improve at these positions, Mark Derosa, got hurt in the middle of his third game with the team and is done for the year.

The team may look to upgrade again, but more likely they'll just wait for Glaus to return and try to hold onto their lead. The soft NL Central division seems winnable for this team, especially if Piniero keeps pitching like he has been. Nobody else appears poised to make a run at the Cardinals, though with five teams within five games of the division lead, anything could happen.

Another surprise this year has been the San Francisco Giants' ability to contend. Currently they, not the Cubs, Brewers, or Mets, lead the NL Wild Card race, with a 49-39 record. They're not likely to catch the Dodgers, who have the best record in MLB, but their pitching (both the starters and the relief corps) is the best in the league and has helped them to compensate for an offense that ranks near the bottom of the Senior Circuit.

Defending NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum leads the staff with 10 wins, 149 K's and a 2.33 ERA, but Matt Cain is 10-2 as well, with a 2.38 ERA. Randy Johnson and Barry Zito are not what they once were, but each is capable of pitching a decent game on occasion. The Big Unit is 5-2 with a 3.18 ERA in his last nine starts and perhaps is poised for a big second half, now that all the hoopla surrounding his 300th career Win is in the past.

Jonathan Sanchez just pitched a no-hitter, hinting perhaps that the lanky lefty may be turning a corner of sorts. His minor league numbers (333 strikeouts and only 12 homers allowed in 253 innings) suggest that he can be very good.

In the non-surprise category, Barry Zito, has been maddeningly inconsistent, pitching eight shutout inning in one game and following that up by allowing nine runs in four-plus innings in his very next outing. And this kind of thing has been going on all year. He was so bad in his first two starts in April that he got himself banished to the bullpen, though he never actually pitched in relief. He came back from that and pitched seven shutout innings to start off a 9-game stretch in which he posted a 2.91 ERA. But in the last month he's posted an ERA of 7.04 in 38 innings over seven starts.

Well there's your problem.  You're supposed to pitch standing up!

Never mind all the money he's making. If the Giants are going to make it to the playoffs, they need to know which Barry Zito is going to show up for the second half of the season, and so far nobody's been able to figure that out.

The offense, such as it is, ranks just 4th from the bottom of th NL, tied with Houston at 4.18 Runs per game, though given that the Giants play in a pitcher-friendly park and the Astros play in a bandbox, they're probably a little better than they seem at first glance. Second base has been a black hole for the team, hitting just .238/.294/.314, though Juan Uribe is bringing those numbers up. Shortstop and left field haven't been much better, and as much as I like his name, Travis Ishikawa is a firstbaseman who hits like a shortstop.

The only players who have been above average for their positions are Aaron Rowand and Pablo Sandoval. the Giants bought high with Rowand, signing him to a big multi-year contract right after he hit 27 homers for the Phillies, and they've never really seen that form, though his .288/.348/.458 line is respectable enough for a center fielder. Of course, you expect to get more than "respectably" when you shell out ten million dollars for a player, but that's beside the point. Rowand is not the problem.

And neither is Sandoval. Kung Fu Panda (aptly nicknamed for his *ahem* physique and for some in-game acrobatics last season) is hitting .333, a notch better than Albert Pujols, and with 15 homers to boot. last year he hit.350/.394/.578 combined at High A and AA and then hit .345 in a late-season cup of coffee with San Francisco.

He absolutely raked in spring training and basically hasn't stopped. His OPS is 7th in the NL right now, better than Lance Berkman, Adam Dunn, Carlos Beltran, Chipper Jones and dozens of other household names making 20 times what Pandoval earns. He's the feel-good story of the Bay Area, and he was passed over for the All Star game so that Charlie Manuel could take his favorite toy to the game with him. Ryan Howard, with his .257 batting average, will be one of five Phillies on the roster.

But that's one game. The Giants get Pandoval and his bat for the rest of the year, and if he can get some help, any help at all, the Giants will win the NL Wild Card easily. But if the pitching slips at all, and you would think it will have to slip a little, the Giants will have a tough time holding that lead.

On the bottom end of the National League standings are most of the usual suspects: the Pirates, Padres, and especially the Washington Nationals. This isn't exactly a surprise, at least not that they would be a poor team, but some people saw the acquisitions of Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen, adding them to a core that included Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, and two high-upside talents like Lastings Millege and Elijah Dukes, and thought the Nationals might not be so terrible this year.

Some of those hitters have hit, but Dukes has not and Millege wore out his welcome and found himself sent off to Pittsburgh. And the terrible pitching and defense (they lead the majors in errors) have more than compensated for any quality the batters may display.

The Nats' bats have been decent enough, ranking 8th in the NL in runs per game, but the pitching has been atrocious. Washington has allowed an average of 5.62 runs per game, with an adjusted ERA 17% worse than the NL average. Only San Diego, who allows over five runs per game despite playing half their games in the best pitchers' park in the majors, is worse, at 20% below average.

The Nationals have improved just a bit in the last few months, improving from "historically bad" to "god-awful" and are currently on a pace to lose 114 games. Their runs scored/against ratio suggests a 34-win team rather thana 26-win team, so they may improve over the second half, but they could do that and still lose 100+ games. I hope they can afford another #1 draft pick next year after breaking the bank for Stephen Strasburg.

They just fired their manager, Manny Acta, and replaced him with Jim Riggleman, who's an experienced manager if not a good one. Acta's .385 career winning percentage in the majors is the 10th worst all-time amongst the 291 of them with at least two full seasons worth of games under their belts. Interestingly, two of the nine guys with worse records than Acta also managed teams in Washington. Joe Cantillon went 158-297 from 1907-09 for the old Washington Senators and never managed again in the majors. Then starting in 1961 Mickey Vernon went 135-227 and was mercifully fired a third of the way into the 1963 season for the new Washington Senators. Of the bottom 25 managers on that list, only Vernon got a shorter leash than Acta, 363 games compared to 410.

Both of those Senators teams eventually left town for greener pastures (or in the case of the ones who went to Minnesota, greener carpet) and you have to wonder how long they can keep this kind of ineptitude going before these Washingtons have to leave town, too.

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08 July 2009

Joe Girardi's Mismanagement of the Yankees Bullpen

Just when I thought I knew what was wrong with Chien-Ming Wang, suddenly it no longer matters. Whether the problem before was is slider failing to slide or his sinker failing to sink, the real problem now is his anything doing anything, or rather the lack thereof.

Wang was put on the DL this past weekend after leaving a start early with tightness in his shoulder, which turned out to be a shoulder strain and bursitis, keeping him out for at least two weeks, maybe longer. The really bad news here, for those of you who may not know, is that Wang is no stranger to shoulder problems. According to Baseball Prospectus, he had, "...shoulder surgery in 2001, and recurring shoulder problems in 2003 and 2005." Here's hoping that this is not a recurrence of the same, but I'm fearing the worst.

Of course, even before Wang was hurt, he was lousy. Granted, his ERA had dropped by over 60% since coming off the DL (with a hip injury) in May, but when you can allow four runs in 5.1 innings of work and your ERA drops by almost half a run, well, I'd say you've been pretty awful.

But in spite of that, there was reason to be hopeful, as Wang had thrown more pitches and more innings, was getting "stretched out" and looking like he might be back to his normal self some time soon. And then the other cleat dropped.

So now the Yankees are left with a conundrum: Who starts Thursday?

The answer, it turns out, is a strange one: Alfredo Aceves.

Aceves has been a crucial part of the Yankees' bullpen this season, vulturing five wins and posting a 2.02 ERA in 40 innings of work, with impressive K/W rates. Most recently he pitched four innings of near-perfect ball against the Blue Jays, who would probably be a first place team id they played anywhere but here.

That outing, however, was only 43 pitches, which is about as many as he's thrown in any outing in the last two months, though he's capable of more. In AAA in April he threw 80+ pitches four times, topping out at 91. But he's thrown more than 50 pitches only once since getting called up in early May, and that was in his first game. Accordingly, the Yankees have set a 65-pitch count limit for him today, which, if we're lucky, will get us into the 4th inning.

This, of course, severely taxes the bullpen, which will inevitably be called upon to pitch at least four or five innings tonight, maybe more if Aceves gets knocked around. It makes you wonder why, when they put Wang on the DL last week, they called up Jonathan Albaladejo, a reliever (and one of the Spelling Bee All-Stars!) instead of another starter.

It's not as though they don't have any other starters at AAA. Take a look at the three-year record of this guy, for example:

 W   L   ERA   IP   H   HR  BB   SO
26 13 3.56 316 299 39 83 255

A solid winning record, decent hit, strikeout and walk rates, allows a homer only once per eight innings...not bad right? And consistency, too. His ERAs over the last three seasons: 3.69, 3.45, 3.65, all at AAA. So why isn't he getting the shot today? Is he hurt? Is he old? Has he been lousy of late?

Nope. It's worse than that: He's Kei Igawa.

Yep, he of the $26 million posting fee and $20 million contract, the Yankees' answer to Daisuke Matsuzaka, with a 2-4 record in MLB and a 6.66 ERA.

Igawa probably could be a decent #4 starter in the majors if they'd give him a chance, but his signing and subsequent career have been a public relations disaster. So much so, that the Yankees seem to feel it's better to leave him in the International League during what will probably turn out to be his best years, effectively paying nine million dollars a year for a player in AAA, than to bring him up. Why chance another meltdown, another 4-inning, 6-run outing, another chorus of boos and round of newspaper stories about what an awful idea it was to sign him? I don't agree with that, but the facts seem to speak for themselves.

Ian Kennedy is hurt. So is George Kontos. Josh Towers is 32 and his fastball wouldn't impress Jamie Moyer. Sergio Mitre has done well as a starter in Scranton and has some major league experience, but his major league record (10-23, 5.36) is fairly unimpressive. Jason Johnson is 35 and continues to be, well, Jason Johnson. Nobody else particularly stands out.


What about Phil Hughes? Shouldn't Hughes be the obvious choice to replace Wang in the rotation? He's supposed to be the Yankees' best prospect, their blue-chip young pitcher, the reason they didn't trade for Johan Santana two winters ago, right? So why is he still in the bullpen while a free agent they picked up from the Mexican League starts tonight?

Because Joe Girardi screwed up. That's why.

Hughes had started the year in AAA and did well enough to get called up at the end of April, when Wang went on the DL the first time. His results at the major league level were mixed, only lasting more than five innings twice in seven starts and compiling a 5.45 ERA. So, even though he'd been better of late, he was the logical choice to return to the bullpen when Wang returned from the DL.

At the time, most of us assumed that Hughes would pitch long relief, keeping himself ready for a potential return to the rotation in case Wang or another starter faltered. It's not like the Yankees' rotation is a bastion of health and consistency.

Joba Chamberlain was on the DL last August. A.J. Burnett has never pitched two consecutive, healthy seasons in his entire career. Andy Pettitte, despite being the very picture of health for the last four years, is 37 years old and it wouldn't be such a surprise if he broke down. Wang was just on the DL a month ago and looked like he may have needed to be replaced at any minute.

Prudence and preparedness dictated that the Yankees needed to keep someone waiting in the wings like this in case of just such a scenario. You know the old saying: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of not having to explain why an obscure nobody is starting instead of your best prospect." Or something like that.

It's not many teams that can afford to keep six or seven starting pitchers on its major league roster, but if you've got them, you've got to use them, and Girardi didn't.

  • Hughes' first outing wasn't for over a week after his last start, and when he was used, he came in to pitch the seventh inning of a game that Andy Pettitte was winning 4-3, got three outs on 11 pitches, and was gone. Phil Coke pitched the 8th and Mariano Rivera got the Save in the 9th. Hughes presumably could have been left in for at least one more inning, and Mo still could have gotten his Save.
  • Two days later he tossed 3.2 innings against the Red Sox after Wang was chased in the third. he threw 63 pitches and allowed 2 runs in a game the Yankees lost, but it was a good, long outing, keeping his stamina up.
  • His next outing, four days later, was only one inning, 21 pitches, mop-up duty in the 9th inning of a 15-0 game against the Mets. He could have been brought in to pitch the 8th, instead of David Robertson, and finish the game if Girardi had been thinking ahead more. Another missed opportunity.
  • Three days after that, Wang started and was taken out after five innings, having allowed three runs and throwing 91 pitches, so Hughes started the sixth and allowed only one hit and no runs in two innings of work, using only 24 pitches. Phil Coke and Aceves got the last six outs, but again, Hughes could have gone longer.
  • Three days later, another single inning of work, with just 11 pitches this time, finishing the 8th inning in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins in Florida. If the Yankees had scored another run or two, Hughes might have gotten to pitch longer, but then if there was a game to save, Mariano would likely have been called upon anyway.
  • Another three days pass. Another losing effort. Another mediocre start by Wang, who allowed three runs in five innings but was lifted for a pinch hitter having thrown only 62 pitches. Hughes started the 6th and pitched two perfect innings, throwing 27 pitches, but was relieved by Robertson (not a pinch hitter) in the 8th. Another missed opportunity.
  • Five days later Hughes pitched again, this time for only 1.1 innings, but it was in a clse game against the Mets at Citi Field, and he was brought in during a double swith and taken out of the game for a pinch hitter, so it's hard to argue with his usage there. Still, he threw only 16 pitches, further reducing his stamina.
  • Two days after that, perhaps the best example of Hughes' misuse occurred at home against Seattle. Joba Chamberlain left after 5.1 innings with the score tied at 3 and Phil Coke got the last two outs in the 6th. Hughes then retired the three batters he faced in the 7th on nine pitches and stood to pick up the Win when Alex Rodriguez hit a 2-run jack in the bottom of the inning. For his effort, Hughes was rewarded with a trip to the showers, whereupon Brian Bruney was brought in, promptly blew the lead but held on long enough to get the win when the Yankees came back in the bottom of the 8th.
  • Three days later it was another short outing, two outs, 15 pitches in the 8th, and then getting out of the way for Mariano Rivera.
  • And the day after that, when Wang got hurt and left in the 6th, instead of bringing in Hughges in long relief, Girardi first used Robertson, then Bruney, then Hughes for only one inning (eight pitches?!) and then Mariano Rivera, this time in a tied game in the 9th inning.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for using your closer wherever it seems most prudent instead of at some predetermined time just to pick up a Save. But Hughes had been as good a relief pitcher as anybody in baseball for the past month, including Mariano Rivera, his light workload notwithstanding, and the Yankees could have easily justified leaving him in there for the 9th.

As it happened, that game went to the 12th inning and the Yankees eventually won it, but they needed to rely on Phil Coke for two innings (only the third time in 39 appearances he was asked to get six outs) and Brett Tomko and his 5.19 ERA to do it, as Girardi had already burned through the rest of the bullpen. The better choice might have been to let Hughes pitch two or three innings, knowing that Wang was hurt and that they might need someone to take his spot in the rotation very soon.

Instead, due to regular work of only an inning or two at a time instead of periodic work of three or four innings, Hughes is now unprepared for the role of starting, the role he's been groomed for, the role he's expected to eventually fill. Girardi's justification for leaving him in the bullpen sounds remarkably like the justification once used for keeping Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen instead of the rotation, that he's

A) "not stretched out"


2) too important a part of the bullpen to put him back in the rotation.

The first of those, as we've already seen, is nobody's fault but Girardi's, and the second...well, the second just doesn't make any sense. Unless you don't think that Hughes can't be an effective starter, and Girardi certainly has never said that, why would you sacrifice the possibility of him giving you six or seven innings every 5th day so that he can give you one inning every two or three days?

In short, the Yankees are in a pickle here, and it's Girardi's fault. I realize that Girardi has more to think about than how best to keep Phil Hughes "stretched out", that he's got to try to win games, too, but it seems to me that the two goals don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Girardi could have used Hughes more liberally, letting him pitch two or three innings or more several times, allowing him to throw 40 or 50 pitches and then have three days off. This, in turn, would have freed up the rest of the bullpen, Coke and Bruney and Robertson and Aceves and others, making them more available for times when Joba or Wang or another starter failed to give them six or seven innings.

Hughes might not have been able to go eight innings, but he could have made the jump from 50 to 80 pitches without much trouble, and would have been poised to fill that role indefinitely, should the need arrive. As it is, now the Yankees' best starting pitching prospect is still going to be throwing 10-15 pitches at a time out of the bullpen instead of building up his stamina as a starter.

And Girardi has nobody to blame but himself for it.

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07 July 2009

Marc Rzepczynski and the Spelling Bee All-Star Team

What's "Rzepczynski" spelled backwards, if it isn't already?

The Blue Jays are starting a young lefty named Marc Rzepczynski today against the Tampa Bay Rays, one of many starters in the Jays' patchwork rotation this year. He's 23 and his career minor league stats to date (21-11, 2.76 ERA, 277 K's in 254 innings) suggest that he can become a solid major leaguer.

But that's not why I'm writing.

I'm writing about him because , boy, that name is a doozy, isn't it? I mean, I for one am glad that we no longer live in a world where Aloys Szymanski feels compelled to change his name to "Al Simmons", or Joannes Pajkos feels that he won't be accepted without changing his name to Jack Quinn. But it sure makes for some messy lineup cards.

So, in honor of other guys who've succeeded in spite of the fact that their elementary school teachers probably couldn't spell their names correctly, I came up with the

Spelling Bee All-Star Team


C. Jarrod Saltalamacchia - Not a good hitter to begin with, ("Salt-a-MATCH-ee-a", I think) is having an even worse year than normal at the plate, but makes the list on the merits of his 14-letter last name. Besides, Casper Asbjornson has been dead for almost 40 years.

1B: Teixeira, Mark - I was tempted to go with Doug Mientczwkyzch Mint-KAY-vich, but Teixiera can actually hit and play defense, and isn't all but unemployed at the moment. While his name's not that long, there's no apparent reason why it should be pronounced "Te-SHARE-a", so he gets the nod.

2B: Mark Grudzielanek would be the easy choice here if he weren't retired, but then who am I gonna pick, Omar Quintanilla? He's a pinch hitter with a 565 OPS. Grudz (about whom that sentence above was originally uttered, by Harry Caray) is the obvious choice. he can come out of retirement to play the All-Star game. Heck, Magic Johnson did it once, right?

3B: Edwin Encarnacion - Granted, he's been both lousy and injured this year, but there really isn't any other thirdbaseman in the majors right now whose name is all that tough to either spell or pronounce. "en-car-NASS-ee-on" never struck me as a particularly tough name to pronounce, but people insist on saying "en-car-nation" or something like that, so Edwin gets a shot.

SS: Troy Tulowitzki - Not a terribly challenging name, but remembering not to put a "t" in front of the "l" in his last name might be a challenge for some. Nomar Garciaparra, whose first name actually IS spelled backwards, would have been an obvious pick ten years ago, but he hasn't been a shortstop in a long time.

LF: Wladimir Balentien - Can't hit his way out of a paper bag, but with that "l" crammed into the beginning of his first name and an "ie" (or is it "ei"?) in his last, we've unquestionably got our left fielder.

CF: Kosuke Fukudome - Japanese names tend not to be all that difficult to pronounce, since any consonant is always followed by a vowel, but this guy's actually playing and hitting a bit, his name is a bit of a mouthful, and if you pronounce it wrong in mixed company you're probably going to get slapped. So he makes the team.

RF: Bronson Sardinha - What? Why do we have a player who hasn't played in MLB in almost two years on our team? A player who's not playing professionally anywhere this year? A player with a total of 10 MLB at-bats? For that matter, a player whose first and last names are not particularly difficult to spell or say? Why?

Because his middle name is almost 20 letters long: Kiheimahanaomauikeo

And that's all I have to say about that.

Starting Pitchers

LHP: Marc Rzepczynski - pronounced...who knows? Has lots of potential, which is to say he hasn't done anything yet. (Honorable mention: Mark Buehrle.)

RHP: Zach Greinke - Not a long or tough to pronounce name, but he disobeys the "i before e except after C" rule, so that's something. It should be noted, however, that he obeys the "If you're the best pitcher in baseball, spell your name however you damn well please" rule, which was admittedly just instituted this year.

Honorable Mention:
Justin Duchscherer - pronounced "DUKE-shur", not "do-SHARE-er" or "Dutch-sher-er" was actually having a pretty good year, with a 2.54 ERA in 2008 before getting injured, and he hasn't pitched since.

Relief Pitchers

Jonathan Albaladejo - pronounced "All-ball-a-DAY-ho" threw a too many balls, all day-o, and got sent back to the minors for it but was recently recalled when Wang's shoulder landed him on the DL.

Chris Jakubauskas - This 30-year old rookie was horrible as a starter (2-5, 6.64), but solid in 22 relief innings, Chris "JAK-u-boss-kus" is probably our closer.

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23 June 2009

Buster's Questionable "Olnalysis" of Rockies' Huston Street

ESPN's Buster Olney writes, at the beginning of a 2,800-word "blog post", that Rockies closer Huston Street has experienced dramatic improvement due to the smallest of changes:

...Bob Apodaca, the Colorado pitching coach, approached him and told him he wanted to make a rather major alteration. "We'd like you to move to a different part of the [pitching] rubber," Apodaca said.

Street didn't buy it. Not then, anyway. But after a mediocre spring training, and after he allowed four runs in his first four relief appearances in the regular season, Street had an open mind. He shifted from the left side to the right side of the rubber, and after he had done it for a short time and saw what the change did for him, he couldn't even imagine moving back to the left. "I don't know why things work out the way that they do," Street mused Sunday, "but they do."

Since those first four outings, Street has excelled, posting a 2.33* ERA, converting saves in 15 of 16 chances. He is 8-for-8 this month as the Rockies have made their push back from deep in the NL West standings to over .500, capped by Street's picking up the save Sunday, closing out the Pirates.

*Editor's note: Actually it was 2.22. I'm just sayin'.

Articles like this one always make me laugh, about how changing from one side of the pitching rubber to the other made someone a better pitcher, or how an offseason training regimen or starting to jog everyday or eat more granola or something made some former star a better player again. Usually it's just normal statistical fluctuation, but of course sportwriters can't write about that because

A) it's boring and

2) ZZZZZzzzzzzz......

So they talk to the pitcher, who probably has never taken a statistics class, or a physiology class or a physics class, for that matter, and he explains to them that this and that is the reason for his sudden success. This is much more interesting, or at least less sleep-inducing, than Chi-square distributions and bell curves and standard deviations and all that rot, and anyway, by next week nobody will remember what he said or what Buster wrote because they'll have moved on.

Olney's explanation for the improvement is as follows:

When throwing on the left side of the rubber, Street could throw strikes against left-handed batters by running a fastball over the outside corner, no matter how flat it was -- and the ball would have to travel a longer distance from his hand to the corner. But once Street was on the right-hand part of the rubber, it forced him to be more disciplined in his mechanics. He'd have to get on top of the ball properly to throw it for strikes to the outside corner to lefties, and inside to right-handers. If he didn't throw the ball correctly, it would drift off the plate.

"I've got more of the sinking action than the running action," Street said.

In case you're wondering, the difference in the distance to one side of the plate from one side of the pitching rubber or the other is, at most, about 0.4".

Four-tenths of one inch.

Or, as they say in France, "almost nothing".

It's a simple geometry problem, with a right triangle, 60.5 feet on one side and two feet (the width of the pitching rubber) on the other. The hypotenuse of that triangle is therefore 60.53 feet, or 60 feet, 6.4 inches. That 0.4" difference represents an increase of 0.7% compared to throwing from the other side of the rubber. No wonder Street's been so fatigued!

Street really was quite terrible in those first four games of the season, or at least in three of them. In mid-April, having pitched only four times in the team's first eight games, Street had an 0-1 record with one Save and a 13.50 ERA. Then he supposedly made this change, and over the next four games he was...

...still pretty lousy.

No Wins or Losses, but no Saves either and only one Hold, to go with a 5.79 ERA in those games, though he struck out six and walked none in 4.2 innings. The real improvement followed that. From April 26th to June 21st, he had 15 Saves, two wins and no losses, 27 K's and eight walks in 23.2 innings, to go with a sparkling 1.52 ERA.

The real improvement was not in the walks, as Olney's "analysis" (or shall we say, "Olnalysis"?) suggests it would be. In the first eight games of the season, Street issued only one walk in 7.1 innings. After that, Street's walk rate more than doubled, from 1.23 per nine innings to 3.08 per nine.

The real problem was that he allowed three homers and three doubles in those first seven innings and change, while in the 23.2 innings after that he allowed three extra base hits total (two homers and a double).

Technically, if he's getting more sink on the ball, this would be one result, and so maybe it is helping. But if so, it's because he's being more consistent with his mechanics, not because of which side of the rubber he stands on before he winds up to throw. He could have done this from either side of the rubber if he'd just been diligent about his mechanics.

Looking at this from the other perspective, if Street now has to force himself to "get on top of the ball" more because he can't throw a strike to the outside corner otherwise, shouldn't he now be susceptible to having the ball run back over the middle of the plate when he's trying to throw inside to lefties? If he gets lazy or fatigued and doesn't get the proper sink on the ball, now he's susceptible to allowing doubles and homers, rather than walks. And yet, just the opposite has happened, he's allowed fewer extra base hits, but more walks.

It still comes down to making sure his mechanics are maintained properly, which he can (theoretically) do from either side of the rubber. The real reason for his marked improvement, I think, is that the Rockies' level of competition has changed drastically from that first three weeks of the season. Street faced the Dodgers and Phillies, ranked #1 and #2 in the National League in Run scoring, in six of his first nine games, and his ERA took a beating for it.

Of the 24 games since, 12 have come against teams in the bottom half of the majors in run scoring, and among those, San Diego, Houston, and Seattle are three of the five worst teams in baseball at scoring runs. To me that makes a lot more sense than four tenths of an inch difference causing Huston Street to finally get his mechanics straightened out, and this after having been pretty darned successful in the first 247 games of his major league career.

Olney closes that portion of the blog post this way:
Street cited something that Troy Tulowitzki said recently -- that the Rockies are beginning to expect good things to happen. "You don't know whether success creates that mentality, or whether that mentality creates success," Street said. "I think it's a little bit of both."
Look, pal, that's just plain lazy.

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time studying the Bible with friends from my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group, using something they called the "inductive method" of study, which essentially seeks to determine what the original author meant to convey to his or her original audience. In a group of 10 or 15 students or more, we would discuss one small section at a time, say, 10-15 verses of the Gospel of Mark, and inevitably, at least once per session, we would come to some kind of impasse.

One student would suggest that Mark was trying to say this, and another would suggest he was trying to say that, the interpretations being mutually exclusive, of course. And after a while, someone would suggest that, "Maybe it's a little bit of both!" This happened so often and so consistently that we coined a term for it: "The Relativistic Third Option." Sometimes, it might have been the best way to interpret something, as certain passages can be interpreted in several ways, none of which is inherently inconsistent with the rest of scripture.

But usually we were just being lazy. It's often hard work to figure out which of two mutually exclusive options is the correct one, and in this world of post-modern ideas and tolerance and relativism, people are too often satisfied with wuss-out explanations like, "It's a little bit of both."

Either your "winning mentality" put you in a position to help make good things happen, or you got lucky, started to win and then tried to think about what else you could do to help the team win more. There is no such thing as "a little bit of both" in this case.

Why doesn't anybody ever just say, "I don't have any idea"?

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12 June 2009

What's Wrong With Wang?

On the heels of yet another loss to the hated Red Sox, and entering a crucial series with the hated Mets, the New York Yankees have some 'splainin to do. Namely, they have a pretty tall order explaining the continued presence of one Chien Ming Wang in their starting rotation, given that he seems, statistically, at least, to be no closer to returning to the form that twice amassed 19 wins for them.

Those storied* times, the salad days of 2006 and 2007, seemed much farther than two years away as I watched Wang unravel yet again on Wednesday night against the Red Sox, allowing four runs, including six hits and three walks in less than three innings of work. Believe it or not, that start actually constituted an improvement for him, lowering his ERA ever so slightly from 14.46 to 14.34. Oh goody.

*Not steroid.

Much of the talk about Wang has centered around his heavy sinking fastball, and the idea that he somehow needs to either get his velocity back or his mechanics straightened out so this pitch can again be the grounder-inducing menace that so frustrated the American League in 2006 and 2007. The trouble with this, however, is that he's got all his velocity back, averaging 91-92 mph and often hitting 95 mph on the radar gun with his 4-seam fastball.

The problem isn't his fastball. It's the lack of anything else.

According to FanGraphs.com, between 2005 and 2008, Wang threw his fastballs (including the 4-seam and the sinker) 76.5% of the time, with a velocity averaging between 91.8 and 93.1 mph. This year, while his velocity is just as good (91.7 mph average), he's throwing one or the other of his fastballs 84.7% of the time, a significant difference from his usual modus operandi.

Moreover, most of the extra fastballs are coming at the expense of his slider. Previously he threw the slider about 15% of the time on average, ranging from 12.9% in 2005 to 17.1% last season. This year he's used it only 11% of the time, meaning that there are about half a dozen pitches or more per start that used to be sliders but are now fastballs. And of course, Wang has been getting tattooed all year, so we have to wonder if this is somehow related, right?

This in itself may not be significant, but it got me to wondering why Wang (or his catchers) would be so reluctant to use the slider this season, when he seemed to use it more often and with greater success in the past. Looking at the MLB Gameday data for his last two starts and comparing them to a good start from last year gave me a possible answer:

The slider isn't, well, sliding.

Last year, Wang pitched a complete game, 1-run 2-hitter against the Red Sox in April, no small accomplishment given that those Red Sox finished second in the AL in Runs Scored in 2008 and eventually won the Wild Card. During that game he threw 93 pitches, and according to MLB Gameday, 20 of them were sliders. In addition to the speed of each pitch at release, Gameday provides two measures of the pitch movement, "Break" and "Pitch F/X".

According to MLB.com, Break is

"a measurement of the greatest distance between the trajectory of the pitch at any point between the release point and the front of home plate, and the straight line path from the release point and the front of home plate."
That is, I think, the Break is a measure of the difference between where the ball actually ends up and where the batter might think it would end up if gravity and/or spin were not factors.

By contrast, Pitch F/X "is the measurement of the distance between the location of the actual pitch thrown over the plate, and the calculated location of a ball thrown by the pitcher in the same way, with no spin..."

That leaves the method of that calculation as an open question, of course, but assuming that these guys have some idea what they're doing, this seems the more relevant number for our purposes. The batter will assume that the pitch is going to "break" down, if only due to gravity. Even Daniel Bard's fastball, clocked between 98 and 100 mph on Tuesday night, showed a "Break" of three to five inches.

For the record, Wang's fastball/sinker seems largely unchanged, showing a Break of 5-8" and a Pitch F/X of 10-14 " in that complete game against the Red Sox last April. This year, in his most recent start, the fastball was just as fast, showed a typical Break of 5-8" and a typical PFX of 10-13 inches.

But Wang's slider? Last year its PFX averaged 4.05" (with a range of 2-7), but in his two most recent starts, it's averaged just 2.3 inches, almost half of what it once was, and often only zero or one inch. No wonder Posada doesn't want to call for the slider. It isn't fooling anyone because it doesn't do anything, having almost the same trajectory as a pitch thrown without any spin at all, according to MLB Gameday and Pitch F/X. For batters, this is a win-win situation. Either they swing at the occasional slider, which has hardly any spin on it, or they wait on the fastball, which is Wang's only other quality pitch.

The slider is a subtle pitch, so much so that Pitch F/X often has trouble distinguishing it from a cut-fastball and/or even a changeup. It's thrown with a sideways spin that causes it to drift laterally, across the strikzone, in the opposite direction of the pitcher's throwing arm. Because it gets no assist from gravity, the slider doesn't break as much as a curveball does, but it does ehough that it ends up several inches from where you'd expect, either out on the end of the bat or in on your hands, depending on what kind of hitter you are.

The best sliders in baseball (Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Chad Billingsley) usually break only 5 to 8 inches or so, but there are plenty of pitchers whose sliders sit in the 4-inch range. But two inches (and often one or none) simply isn't enough to fool major league hitters, who are so well trained that they make mid-swing adjustments in hundredths of a second, and so strong that they can hit a ball out of the park while breaking the bat.

Whether this is a physical problem for Wang or not, I don't know, but I doubt it. Perhaps his foot still hurts, and he's somehow favoring it, throwing the slider less often because it bothers him physically. This is unlikely, as any difference in his delivery due to throwing the slider would be tantamount to "tipping" his pitches, and batters would have picked up on it long ago.

Perhaps he's still rusty, having missed some time due to the foot injury, and doesn't yet have the "feel" for the slider. This seems very likely to me, as pitchers often talk about how difficult it is to get a feel for their sinker, slider or cutter, and how much practice this takes. Having missed more than half of last year, and having thrown only about 21 innings so far this year in the majors (plus 13 scoreless innings in AAA) Wang's a little behind on his usual regimen.

Maybe this means that with a bit more practice, he'll get that feel for the slider - and with it, his confidence in the pitch - very soon, enabling him to keep hitters a bit more honest and not so frequently serve them the heater they already expect. I just wish the "practice" didn't have to come in Yankee Stadium, and against the damn Mets.

Admittedly, I have not looked over all the available data. Wang has thrown hundreds of pitches this year and thousands in his career, and I simply don't have the time to examine every one, but this hopefully gives us an idea of where to look for answers the next time Wang takes the mound.

UPDATE: My apologies for the false information, but it turns out that Wnag's next start is scheduled for Wednesday, against the Nationals, not Sunday. That was Burnett's regular spot, and he pitched well for once. Wang should have been scheduled for Today, Monday, which is an off day and (it would seem) a perfect opportunity to skip Wang in the rotation.

Instead, for some reason Joe Girardi has chosen to start him on six days' rest and push the rest of the rotation (other than Sabathia) back a day against the Washington Nationals. Maybe Joe agrees with my assessment that Wng just needs more work, and figures that if there's any team he can beat, it's the Nats (16-45).

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10 June 2009

Yankees Need to Step It Up Against Red Sox

Well, it's been a whole month, so I guess we were due to resume the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. As you'll no doubt recall, when last we met our heroes - or, at least the last time the Red Sox met them - they were a sad sack of a team, hovering about the .500 mark. Xavier Nady, Brian Bruney and Alex Rodriguez were all on the Disabled List, and the ineffective Chien Ming Wang would soon join them, as would Jorge Posada.

To make things worse, none of their big name free agent acquisitions seemed to be panning out. Mark Teixiera was hovering around the Mendoza Line, while CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett both had ERAs around 5.00. Additionally, the patchwork bullpen, put together mostly on the cheap from the Yankee farm system, had failed them miserably, allowing a composite ERA of almost 8.00 in their first five games against Boston, though they'd done mostly respectable work against the rest of the league.

That team lost all five of its early season contests against the Red Sox, with the starting pitching largely to blame, as they got only one Quality Start in those five games. That performance - Andy Pettitte's 6-inning, 4-run (3 earned) outing on April 26th - met those requirements in name only, and anyway the Yankees could do nothing with Justin masterson that day.

The third inning of that game, when the Yankees had a 1-0 lead, marked the last time the Yankees have led the Red Sox in their season series, including last night's 7-0 loss. The Sawx scored a run in the bottom of that inning and then three more in the 5th (including Jacoby Ellsbury's infamous steal of home plate) and have had no reason to look back since. Indeed, the Yankees have given them no reason to glance over their shoulder.

So, with the season series resuming Tuesday night, the Yankees had good reason to be in high spirits. They had Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada back, and Chien Ming Wang slated to start the second game of the series. Mark Teixiera had found his stroke since A-Rod came off the DL, and several Yankees (Damon, Jeter, Cano, Cabrera) were hitting around .300, many of them with power. They sat atop the AL East, with the best record in the league coming into the game....

...and then they lost miserably.

A.J. Burnett, the big name pitcher who came up so very small against the the Yankees' biggest rival in April, managed to lower the bar for himself even more last night, allowing five runs (three earned) without escaping the third inning. Granted, he's faced the toughest slate of hitters in MLB this year to date, but still, more is expected of a man who's earning more money than the gross domestic products of some small island nations.

Burnett's fastball was plenty fast, usually in the 95-96 mph range, but he seemed to have little idea (or interest) in where it would end up. Working quickly, as if to get it over with rather than to get batters out, Burnett threw 84 pitches - less than half of them for strikes - with his curve proving to be especially erratic. He threw only five of 16 curveballs for strikes, and one of those was a single by Kevin Youkilis anyway.

With the curve clearly not working, the Red Sox could just sit on the fastball and wait for him to throw a rare strike. And when he did throw strikes, they were belt high, out over the plate, which is why the struggling David Ortiz was able to hit one of them 420 feet into the stands in center field, only his third homer of the season.

What's more, it seems from looking at the pitches on MLB Gameday that Burnett all but refused to pitch anyone inside, perhaps out of fear of another suspension for not actually hitting someone. JD Drew's 2-run double in the second inning, on an 0-2 pitch, was hit off a 96 mph fastball that was supposed to be inside (based on where Posada had set up behind the plate) but ended up on the outside corner. Nobody's fastball is good enough to leave it out there and expect to get batters out.

The relief, such as it was, did better but was hardly impressive. Neither Brett Tomko nor Jose Veras threw even half of their pitches for strikes, and though David Robertson was OK, and the group as a whole allowed only two more runs in over five innings of work, the Yankees' hitters couldn't touch Boston's pitching, getting only two hits off them all night.

Tonight Wang takes the hill against Tim Wakefield, who's 7-3 this year but is only 10-17 with a 5.03 ERA against the Yankees in his career, so those who do baseball handicapping would presumably say that the game is up for grabs. Wang, for his part, has been dreadful as a starter this year, 0-3 with a 23.62 ERA, but perhaps he's on the mend and can give the Yankees six solid innings for a change. If not Phil Hughes will be available out of the bullpen, but by then it may be too late.

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29 May 2009

Even the Los Angeles Dodgers' Pitchers Can Improve

Rob Neyer commented yesterday on the Dodgers' pitching staff and their general manager's efforts to improve on the (apparently) un-improvable:

The Dodgers could cruise to 90 wins and the division title without making a single move the rest of the season. They're that good and the rest of the division is that bad. But right now they've got one ace (Billingsley), two guys who are pretty good (Kershaw and Wolf) and a bunch of guys you wouldn't want within six miles of a postseason start. Not the way they're pitching lately, anyway. (I still have high hopes for McDonald, and Kuroda was solid last year.)
This was in response to an L.A. Times piece about Ned Colletti looking for pitching. Neyer's probably right about the Dodgers' quality relative to the rest of their sad division, though I'm as sure as Rob, and fortunately I have my own Sports Blog from which to pontificate.

For one thing, I'm not convinced that either the Padres or Diamondbacks' hitters can't get their act together and make this an interesting race. Both teams have several guys who are woefully underperforming for no obvious reason, and some of them are bound to find their stroke and bounce back.

Neither am I convinced that Casey Blake, Juan Pierre and Orlando Hudson will continue to hit anything like what they've done so far. Granted, Rafael Furcal and, to a lesser degree, Russel martin have been disappointing with the bats this year, but otherwise, the Dodgers are mostly flush with over-achievers. Yet again, the odds are not in their favor for that to continue.

But the most tenuous threads holding the Dodger fabric together weave through the pitching staff, especially the starters. In particular, counting on Randy Wolf to continue to be healthy and/or good for the rest of the year is a fairly dubious enterprise. He hasn't pitched 200 innings in a season since 2003, and from 2004-07 he averaged just 94 innings and 17 starts, with a combined record of 24-18, 4.62 ERA.

He managed to toss 190 innings in 2008, though his ERA in Houston and San Diego (4.30 combined) was a lot closer to his career mark (4.20) than this year's performance to date. The 2.84 ERA he's posted so far would be not only a run and a half below his career average (at age 32) but also almost half a run below his career best of 3.20, posted in 2002. Somehow that seems unlikely.

The reason for Wolf's unprecedented success is obvious. His BABIP this season is a ridiculously low .247, fully 50 points below the league average, and something over which Wolf has little if any control. So he's bound to regress some, and probably soon. That will leave the Dodgers with ONE pretty good option (Billingsley) and a lot of question marks:
  • Two talented but erratic youngsters (Clayton Kershaw and John McDonald),
  • a decent but injured veteran (Hiroki Kuroda),
  • three 30-something re-treads (Eric Milton, Jeff Weaver and Wolf, when he falters),
  • and an organizational soldier pressed into everyday service (Eric Stults).
I don't blame Colletti for trying to improve his pitching staff. Smart general managers can look at a team that's winning and see how it could be even better or might need improvement down the line. Guys like the White Sox' Ken Williams don't recognize good fortune when they see it, leave the roster alone, and end up in third place instead of first.

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22 May 2009

Projecting the Next 300 Game Winner(s)

In light of the Big Unit's chase for his 300th win, Joe Posnaski had a recent co-column for Sports Illustrated with Bill James and has just blogged his own piece on the nature (and unpredictability of) 300-game winners. Both are great stuff, full of well-written insights and clever commentary that most of us only dream of being able to produce. His point, in both cases, can be summed up in the one word that Joaquin Andujar gave us: Youneverknow.

More specifically, Joe says the one thing you can't know is whether a guy will win 300 games based on what he does in his 20's, and I have to agree with him there. We've seen too many guys who were just awesome in their 20's (Bert Blyleven, Jim Palmer, Robin Roberts) who didn't quite made it to 300, and others (Doc Gooden, Sandy Koufax, Dizzy Dean, Don Drysdale) who never got close.

Joe says you can tell better by what they do in their 30's, especially their late 30's, and illustrates the point with the careers of several pitchers who were great after their mid 30's:

So, it’s really impossible to predict. Randy Johnson only had 99 victories at age 31. Phil Niekro only had 97 victories at age 33. Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, Early Wynn … these guys did not look like great bets for 300 when they reached their mid-30s. But they won a lot of games late in their careers. Niekro, as a knuckleballer, just kept going and going and going. Perry had a late career renaissance — he won 21 games as a 39-year-old and 47 more after that. Warren Spahn won 20-games or more seven times after he turned 35. Randy Johnson was probably at his very best from age 35 to 40. And so on.
He's got a point, but I disagree that Ryan and Perry and Spahn and Wynn weren't good bets to make it to 300 by their mid 30's though. Each of them had about 200 wins by the end of their age 35 seasons, and all were above average workhorses, if not spectacular. That turns out to be a pretty good bet, actually.

If you look at the 17 pitchers (including Randy) who've won 300+ games since 1900, 14 of them (82%) had about 200 wins (Perry had 198) and an ERA+ of 110 or better by the end of their age 35 seasons. The other three are Johnson and Niekro, two guys who had to take half a career to learn how to pitch, and the ironically named Early Wynn, who got his 300th and final Win in July of his age 43 season.

  • Johnson had so much potential, so he was always going to get his chances. Lefties who throw 100 mph don't grow on trees, you know. But he also had so many control problems that he didn't have his first decent season until 1990, when he was already 26.

  • Niekro, a knuckleballer, did not make it to the majors until he was 25, and did not have a productive season until he was 28, again because of control problems, although obviously for different reasons.

  • Wynn was basically a better than average innings eater who lucked into playing for the Indians in the 50's and later the White Sox, both during their peaks. Good teams will get a lot of wins for a pitcher who provides a lot of innings.

  • These three are the exceptions, though, not the rules. You can certainly look at Wynn and Randy and Niekro and say "Youneverknow", and that's true, but it doesn't give us any kind of hint at what we might know, down the line. For that, you have to look at correlations. What do the guys who win 300 games have in common, earlier in their careers, and how likely are they to go on to win 300 games?

    As I mentioned, excluding the guys who thrived in the late 1800's, there are 17 pitchers who have won or will win 300+ games. As of their mid 30's, i.e. after their age 35 season, 14 of these had at least 195 Wins and an adjusted ERA at least 10% better than the league. Eighty-two percent is a pretty high correlation, though it should be noted that 41 pitchers meet those requirements, and only 14 of those have made the 300 mark. Still, 14 out of 41 is 34%, better than one in three odds.

    At the moment, Andy Pettitte is the only pitcher in baseball who meets these criteria, and giving him one in three odds to win 300 games sounds just about right to me. That may be a little too generous, given that he probably can't survive long if he loses any more off his fastball.

    Andy had 201 Wins and a 118 ERA+ after that age-35 season, i.e. 2007, and currently has 219 Wins and an ERA+ of 116, though the trend is of course not in his favor there. But it's not out of the question for him to keep posting approximately 200-inning seasons with a roughly league average ERA, winning about 15 games per year, since the Yankees will always have good hitters.

    The next step down would be Roys Halladay and Oswalt, plus Mark Buehrle, each of whom had or has at least 125 Wins and an ERA+ of 120 or better through (or in) their age 31 seasons. The Chicago White Sox Schedule is filled with themlikes of the Royals and Tigers, so Buehrle especially should get his shot at racking up the necessary wins. Tim Hudson also met those criteria, but his injury will hamper his chances severely. Johan Santana, only 30 and with 114 Wins already, will likely join them by the end of 2009, as will C.C. Sabathia, who needs only 4 wins to reach 125 and is only 28.

    Eight of the 17 pitchers to win 300 games since 1900 met those criteria at one point, though so did 29 other pitchers who never got to 300. Eight in 40 is 5-to-1 odds, so there's a decent chance that one of the six (C.C., Buehrle, Hudson, Santana and the two Roys) will eventually make the 300 mark. None of them has better than a 20% chance, but as a group there's a good chance that one of them is the next 300-game winner. We just don't know which one, yet.

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    19 May 2009

    Why the Yankees Dominate the Minnesota Twins

    The Yankees completed a four game home sweep of the Minnesota Twins last night, stretching their current winning streak to six games, four of which were won by only one run. This improves the Yankees' overall record to 21-17, bringing the team within 4.5 games of the Blue Jays for first place in the American League East division.

    A brief look back at the four games:

    Friday - Yankees 5, Twins 4: In a game started by two youngsters of whom much is expected, Phil Hughes and Felipe Liriano were both gone by the end of the sixth inning, leaving the game to be decided by the bullpens. Justin Morneau hit two homers and Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer each hit one, as did the scrappy Brett Gardner, his second in two days. This one was an inside-the-park job, though, more his game than the one he hit in Toronto the night before.

    Down 4-1 in the 6th, the Yankees scored a run in the 7th and then three more in the bottom of the ninth, the last two on a walk-off, bases-loaded, two-out single by Melky Cabrera, who's gone a long way toward redeeming himself from both his horrid 2008 season and my skepticism of his value to the team. Twins closer Joe Nathan took the loss, while the Yankees' best reliever never left the bullpen, which came in handy for...

    Saturday - Yankees 6, Twins 4
    (11 innings): Nick Blackburn and Joba Chamberlain started, and each pitched reasonably well, but again the bullpens would decide matters in the end. Morneau and Mauer each homered off Joba, and Mark Teixeira hit a three-run jack in the third, his 8th of the year and drove in his 4th run of the game with a game-tying single in the bottom of the 8th to make it 4-4.

    Bucking standard closer procedure, manager Joe Girardi brought in a well rested Mariano Rivera in the tied 9th inning, and he threw two scoreless innings to keep the game going. Without their own closer (who had thrown 27 pitches the night before, his fourth consecutive day of work) the Twins were forced to turn the ball over to journeyman lefty Craig Breslow, who walked Teixeira and then allowed a walk-off homer to Alex Rodriguez, his first hit in the new Yankee Stadium.

    Sunday - Yankees 3, Twins 2: On the anniversary of David Wells' perfect game against the Twins in 1998, this game was appropriately a pitching duel that remained scoreless until the 7th inning. Twins' starter Kevin Slowey provided the best pitching line of the day, going 7.2 innings with eight strikeouts, no walks, and only two runs allowed. Yankees' starter A.J. Burnett walked six and needed 123 pitches to get through 6.2 innings, again leaving the game in the bullpen's capable hands.

    Alex Rodriguez hit another homer, a solo shot off Slowey in the 7th. A double and two sacrifices tied the game at 2-2. Jonathan Albaladejo pitched out of trouble in the 7th and then back into it in the 8th, whereupon journeyman batting practice pitcher Brett Tomko rose up from the ashes to get two outs with the bases loaded and preserve the tie.

    Girardi brought in Rivera in the tied 9th inning again, and was not disappointed as he pitched a scoreless inning. Alfredo Aceves kept the Twins at bay in the top of the 10th, which allowed Johnny Damon's one-out solo homer in the bottom half of the inning, for the Yankees' third straight walk-off win.

    Monday - Yankees 7, Twins 6: Andy Pettitte pitched 6.2 innings allowing 12 hits, one walk and four earned runs in the only game of the series in which either starting pitcher got a decision. Twins starter Glen Perkins got only two outs and allowed six earned runs in the worst start of his career, and has not had a Quality Start since April 19th. On the plus side, R.A. Dickey provided 4.1 innings of scoreless relief as he continues his comeback as a knuckleballer.

    Mark Teixiera homered from both sides of the plate and A-Rod smacked his third bomb in three games, back-to-back with Teixiera in the first. Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span each homered for the Twins, the latter coming in the 8th off Edwar Ramirez. He and Phil Coke made the game interesting in the late innings, allowing the Twins to come within a run before finally capping the game and the sweep with a grounder to second base.

    Overall, the Yankees were not exactly dominant in the series, winning the four games by a total of five runs, three of them in their last at bat. But their starters were mostly solid, the offense scored just enough and the bullpen posted a 3.07 ERA in almost 15 innings of work.

    Winning close games in your last at-bat is not a recipe for long-term success, however, as anyone who knows anything about sports odds will tell you. The Yankees have actually been outscored over the season despite their winning record. Most of that is die to the 22-4 drubbing they received at the hands of the Tribe last month, but even removing that game puts them only slightly in the black.

    Amazingly, the Yankees have dominated the Twins in this millennium, winning 40 out of 58 contests in the regular season, plus six of eight in the postseason, for an overall record of 46-20 since 2001. This is the second best winning percentage they have against any team in the AL in that span, behind only the dismal Kansas City Royals.

    They do have higher winning percentages against some NL teams in Interleague play, though these are only in a handful of games. Oddly enough the Yankees' worst winning percentage is against the Reds, to whom they have dropped four of six contests. Fortunately they only occasionaly play a series in the Cincinnati Reds schedule.

    Regardless, the Yankees' continued success against the Twins is quite remarkable. You'd expect that the team with the best overall record in this century would do well against the lowly Royals, who have been the worst team of the 2000's, who have had only one winning record (83-79) in the last decade and a half. No surprise there.

    But the Twins? They've got the 7th best record in all of baseball in that time, a .543 winning percentage in spite of their small payroll. They've had four playoff appearances in the last eight years, two Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a catcher who wins batting titles, a continuing influx of young pitching talent...so how are they so terrible against the Yankees?

    At Yankee Stadium (either of them) it's even worse. At the Metrodome the Twins are actually somewhat respectable, with only a 13-16 record agains tthe Yankees, but in New York? The Yankees are 24-5 at home against the Twins since their last World Series victory, including a current stretch of eight in a row going back to July 2007. The Twins have not won a series against the Yankees in New York since 2001, and in one stretch went two whole seasons (2002-2003) without winning any games at all against the Yankees, losing 13 straight.

    And there really isn't any explanation for it. The Yankees have generally been a better team than the Twins in the last eight seasons and change, but that much better? No, of course not. The Yankees tend to play better at home, just like most teams, but again, not that much better. Maybe it's just a combination of being slightly overmatched and slightly intimidated by the big crowds in New York.

    Maybe it's the Yankees' propensity for hitting homers combined with the Twins' inability to prevent them. In the last eight years, the Yankees have never finished worse than 4th in the AL in home runs hit, while the Twins have only once finished better than 8th in the AL in homers allowed. Interestingly, they usually do much better than that in ERA, finishing no worse than 7th each of the last eight seasons, with an average of less than 5th.

    But it seems they have kept the team ERA down mostly by avoiding walks, and therefore extra baserunners when they allow all those home runs. The Twins have finished in the first or second in fewest walks allowed each of the last eight years, with the exception of 2002, when they were 3rd. The Yankees, however, generally have fairly patient hitters, having been in the top three in drawing walks seven of the last nine seasons, including 2009. That puts a damper on the Twins' strategy perhaps, and lets the Yankees in the door. And so when the inevitable homers are allowed, the Yankees get more bang for their buck than most other teams do, since they tend to have more runners on base.

    But it's really the homers that are killing the Twins. Indeed, the Twins have allowed 90 home runs to the Yankees in the 58 games they've played since 2001, a rate of 1.55 HR/game, slightly above the Yankees' overall rate of 1.34/game in the past eight years and change. Twins pitchers, accustomed to allowing about 1.1 homers per game, must find the Yankees quite a shock. Too bad for the Yankees they only get to play them a few times a year.

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