28 August 2012

Phillies are Disappointing-est of All

ESPN's David Schoenfield had a bit Monday morning about how the LAnahfornia Angels are baseball's biggest disappointment, not, he says, the Boston Red Sox*.  Well, the headline says that, though I don't think that's what he actually means.  Editors often go with pith and punch over, say, correctness.

What I think Shoenfield means to say is that the disappointment created by the Angels' collective failure to live up to this year's expectations should have gotten a lot more media attention than it has, and the Red Sox' clubhouse soap operas and losing record ought to be less surprising and hence less thoroughly covered by the mainstream media than it is.  But then the Red Sox are the Ratings Sox, and that's just how it is. 

*For me, the biggest disappointment was the Red Sox, but not for the reason you'd think.  I finally got to a game at Fenway Park a few weeks ago.  Being a lifelong and avid baseball fan (albeit of the Yankees) I was quite excited to finally get to see this old cathedral of baseball, and even more so when I noticed that reigning MVP/Cy Young Justin Verlander would be toeing the rubber against Sawx ace Josh BeckettSports betting sites were probably giving fairly even odds for what should have been a tight, well-played game.  What more could you ask, right?  

Well, it turns out that you could ask for seats that would allow you to, say, actually have knees.  You could ask for Verlander not to give up 4 runs in 5 innings (it was his shortest regular season start since August of 2010).  Or for Beckett not to pitch lackadaisically for two innings and then leave the game with back spasms.  Or for it not to rain all night, forcing the game to be called in the 6th and forcing my friends and me to get drenched on the way back to our hotels. But I digress... 

Also, you could ask them to expunge this logo - which I think is a worried, strawberry flavored  condom with a billy club - from their nostalgia wall. 
Anyway, while Schoenfield's piece is decidedly lacking in hard evidence to support his editor's contention that we should all be more disappointed in the Angels than the Red Sox, Schoenfield does a capable job of describing why we all aren't more aware of what a bummer of a season this is turning out to be for Anaheim.

But the truly surprising thing to me about the article isn't its lack of statistical evaluations or insightful analysis, but rather the absence of one word:


I mean, seriously, when we're talking disappointment, Philadelphia has got the market more or less cornered.  Phillies Phans think they're the center of the universe, and their news media just plays into it*.  When rumblings happen in the sports world, Philadelphia fans think their world is ending.  And when a true athletic earthquake happens, Philadelphia imagines it is at the epicenter.  The Phillies' beat writers, sports anchors and bloggers step right in to cover the carnage and the aftermath as though their team is the only one that matters, and the only one that could possibly ever suffer in this way.

*Fifteen years ago, when the Florida Marlins were making their first surprising run at a World Series title, I saw a Philly newscast in which the anchor said people were referring to the Marlins as "Phillies South" because of the presence of Darren Daulton and Jim Eisenreich on the roster.  

Jim Eisenreich, for crying out loud.  

Around that same time, the next March perhaps, I saw a column, I think by Bill Conlin, lamenting the fact that the Blue Jays had been forced to cancel a split squad game with the Phillies on short notice due to some unforeseen circumstances.  The fist line of the column was "First Joe Carter, and now this." 

Because this is exactly like cancelling a Spring Training game.

But melodrama aside, the Phillies and their fans have every right be be disappointed this year.  The team kept together the core that had won five straight division titles, re-signing Jimmy Rollins and with discussions of keeping Cole Hamels in a Phillies uniPhorm Phor the Phoreseeable Phuture.  (Sorry, I'll stop that.)

They had recently added Hunter Pence to an already potent offense (they scored the second most runs in the NL in the second half of 2011, after getting Chase Utley back) and were expecting continued development from young outfielders Dominic Brown and John Mayberry.  They hoped that they could compensate for the loss of Ryan Howard, who tore his Achilles tendon in the last game of the 2011 season, with a decent platoon at first base and a remarkable pitching corps of Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Vance Worley, who had gone 11-3 in 2011. 

And just to be sure, after they jettisoned Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, they spent $50 million on Jonathan Papelbon, to help make sure all those quality starts wouldn't go for naught when the back of the bullpen faltered.

But it turned out that while Howard was perhaps not that hard to replace, he couldn't just be replaced with literally the worst player in the National League, not if you wanted the Phillies to contend.  You also couldn't stomach the losses of both Howard and Utley, whose presence essentially turned the 2011 Phillies season around, for half a year.  Not when Placido Polanco, John Mayberry and Yul Brynner Shane Victorino  were all losing between 50 and 150 OPS points from their 2011 performances.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

In fact, with a few noted exceptions, the Phillies' entire offense more or less went in the tank this year.  Research has been done to show that "protection" in a lineup is either overrated or perhaps very difficult to measure, and while that may be true of any one batter, the loss of the two best hitters in the lineup seemed to have a trickle down effect on the Phillies hitters.

In years past, during and even before their stretch of division titles, the Phils always managed to score a good number of runs, largely because they always took their walks.  Since 2003, during a nine-year stretch of winning seasons, they ranked lower than 5th in the NL in walks only once, and this in 2009, when they led the league in homers and runs and won the NL pennant, so they could afford to only be 7th in walks that year.   

But without Utley and Howard to light the way, the rest of the team sunk from 5th to 14th in walks, and without Victorino or Pence on the roster, they're likely to sink even further.  Well, probably not past the Astros. The absence of Howard and the death of whatever remained of Polanco's "bat" meant that the Phillies got next to nothing out of their corner infield spots this year.  They ranked 11th and 15th out of 16 NL teams in OPS at those respective positions.

Second base has been a hole too, despite ranking 6th in OPS in the NL, because this is an awful year for second basemen.  Phillie shortstops (mostly Rollins) and all three outfield spots rank in the bottom half of the NL in OPS.  The only bright spot in the lineup is the catcher, and clearly that's not going to do it.

The starting rotation, though sometimes injured or not as spectacular as in the past, has been good enough to complete, but the bullpen (other than Papelbon) has been sub-par, ranking 12th out of 16 NL teams in ERA and allowing 34% of inherited runners to score, very nearly the worst mark in baseball.  Papelbon may have 29 Saves and a 2.70 ERA, but he's saving games that don't mean anything, and being paid a fortune to do it.

The worst part about all of this is that it was all eminently preventable.  Ryan Howard's ankle didn't hurt itself on Opening Day or in the middle of spring training, forcing the Phillies to scramble to find someone.  It happened on October 7th, exactly as the Phillies' 2011 season ended.  General manager Ruben Amaro had six months to find a suitable replacement.

Instead he signed Jim Thome in November, even though Thome had not played a game at first base since 2007 and had not spent significant time there since 2005.  Then, three weeks later, he traded the proverbial Mr. ToBeNamedLater to the Rockies for Ty Wigginton, who in 2011 had somehow managed to hit just .242 despite playing half his games at Coors Field (including .216 with two homers in the second half).  Wigginton hadn't had a decent season with the bat since 2008 and, it could be argued, had never had a decent season with the glove, so Amaro's presentation of him as a potential answer to the missing Howard was a cloudy proposition, at best.

Meanwhile folks like Lew Ford and Dan Johnson and Steve Pearce and Brad Eldred could have been had for a song, and could reasonably have been expected to produce at least as much as Wigginton.  Granted, he hit over .300 in April, but has barely cracked the Mendoza Line since, and clearly does not belong in the lineup of a major league team anymore.

After watching Wigginton hit .213 between early May and the All-Star Break, manager Charlie Manuel probably thanked his lucky stars to have Howard back.  He's relegated Wigginton mostly to pinch hitting duty since then, and he's no better suited to that job: He's hit .156 in 45 at-bats.  Unfortunately, Howard is almost exactly as bad as Wiggy was - with an OPS just 20 points higher in roughly the same number of at-bats - as he tries to regain his form after missing the first half of the season.

The Phillies of 2012 have also suffered from a somewhat difficult schedule and particularly tough losses, at least in terms of which teams fate decided to allow to beat them.  The scheduling gods deemed that the 2012 Phillies should play against most of the AL East, generally regarded as the toughest division in baseball, though they also faced Minnesota and took two out of three from the woeful Twins.  But they lost two of three each to Baltimore, Boston, and Tampa and then got swept by the Blue Jays ("First Joe Carter...")

And the Phillies played particularly badly against their own division, losing key games against crucial opponents.  They have won only five of 12 games against the lowly Marlins, four of 12 against the sputtering Mets, and - most damning of all - only three of 12 against Atlanta.  If they had just managed to split the games they've played to date against the NL East they might at least be hovering around .500 and not have had to jettison Jim Thome, Joe Blanton, Pence and Victorino, and might have even picked up some third base help for the stretch.  Kevin Youkilis might be mashing for the Phightin's instead of the Pale Hose.

But it was not to be, and of course no amount of hoping by the Philly-centric Phans will help them surmount the 10-game deficit and hurdle four or five teams to make the playoffs.  And that, for a team that started the year with three Cy Young Awards (Halladay has two) and two former MVPs on its roster, with a $175 million payroll that is second only to the Yankees, is an extraordinary disappointment.

For once, Philadelphia actually has a legitimate gripe.

OK, two.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

23 July 2012

The Oakland A's Swept the Yankees, Still Won't Make Playoffs

I'm not sure whether I was more surprised to see that the Yankees suffered a 4-game sweep by the Oakland A's this weekend or that they still have the best record in baseball after four straight losses.

In case you weren't paying attention, the Yankees had been firing on all cylinders for most of the last two months.  Since the season's nadir on May 21st, when they lost badly (6-0) to the lowly Kansas City Royals and stood 5.5 games behind the Orioles (!) at 21-21, the Yankees had won nearly three out of every four games (36-13) coming into this four game series in the Oakland Mausoleum.  They had scored 5.3 runs per game in that span, owing largely to having hit 85 of their MLB-leading 150 home runs in those 49 games.  And the injured Brett Gardner never even took a swing in pinstripes. 

The team ERA was a sparkling 3.31 during that stretch, with Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova picking up half a dozen Wins each and Phil Hughes and CC Sabathia (despite a 2-week stint on the DL) adding five more apiece.  All of that too, without Mariano Rivera, without Joba Chamberlain, and much of it without Andy Pettitte, who's been on the DL with a cracked fibula for most of the last month.

In that time, the Yankees had swept three game sets against the Indians, Blue Jays, Mets, Braves, Nationals and yes, even the Athletics, had taken three out of four from the Red Sox in Boston, and had lost more than two consecutive contests only once.  They could do nearly no wrong. 

Of course, none of that mattered once they got to Oakland.  

They started the long series on Thursday night with Freddy Garcia, who had been stellar since giving up two runs in mop-up duty in that May 21st loss to the Royals.  Since then, he was 4-0 with a 2.52 ERA, including wins against Boston and the LAnahfornia Angels in his previous two starts.

No matter.  Garcia surrendered nine hits, two walks and four runs, including a homer to Yoenis Cespedes (who maybe isn't such a waste of money after all) and left without finishing the sixth inning.  The Yankees could do little except slap a few singles off someone named A.J. Griffin, who allowed only two runs in six innings for his second major league win.  I'm beginning to think the Yankees should just steer clear of pitchers named "A.J." all together.  

Fortunately, rookie David Phelps showed some mettle by pitching 2.1 perfect innings of relief to keep them in the game.  Unfortunately the Yankees managed to get only one man on base the rest of the game - and that only briefly - as Nick Swisher hit a round tripper in the ninth to bring the Bombers within one, where the score would remain.

Friday's game was more tense and dramatic, but the net result was the same.  The Yankees had been 38-9 when they hit two or more homers in a game in 2012.  In this case, however, the two bombs were both solo shots, one by Robinson Cano and the other by Russell Martin, who's hitting just .180 despite the double digit jacks (Rob Deer, eat your heart out).

More important, perhaps, was that for the second game in a row, the Yankees did not draw a walk.  That marked only the 6th time all year in which the Yanks didn't get a single free pass, and the only time it's happened on consecutive days. 

The Yankees' other six hits were all singles, and never more than two happened in the same inning.  Still, after Martin hit that homer in the top of the 8th inning they were down only one run, thanks to another solid showing from Ivan Nova (6.2 IP, 2 ER). David Robertson did a little Houdini act, escaping the bottom of the inning without allowing any runs, despite a triple and a walk. 

Then Robby led off the ninth with a solo homer to tie the game at 2-2, and things were looking up, but the Yankee Retread Corps (Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez) could not muster another hit, so Joe Girardi was forced to bring in his closer, Rafael Soriano, to try to maintain the tie and hope the Yankees could score in the tenth.

No, wait, Girardi brought in lefty Clay Rapada.  Well, with the A's only major lefty power threat coming up in Josh Reddick, I guess that made sense.  Rapada had been pretty terrible with four different teams before the Yankees signed him in the offseason and essentially decided not to let him face right handed pitching anymore (he had allowed a .359 batting average to righties in the majors before coming to New York), and he's generally been just what they wanted this year.  True to LOOGy form, he struck out Reddick on five pitches and then went to take a shower, another 10-minutes day's work in the books. 

That allowed Girardi to bring in Soriano to hold off the A's and maintain the- no, wait, Girardi instead brought in Cody Eppley, who admittedly has been pretty good this year as well, but who promptly allowed three straight singles to lose the game, 3-2.  Joe was apparently saving his closer for a Save situation that never happened, which is a crappy way to lose a game. 

Saturday's game was much better, as Phil Hughes gave up only two runs in nearly eight innings - his 7th Quality Start in his last nine outings - and, wait, he took the loss anyway?  Hughes allowed only two walks and four hits, but two of those hits were home runs - another by the definitely-not-a-waste-of-$36 million Yoenis Cespedes and one by Brandon Inge, whose 1-for-3 showing brought him right up to the Mendoza Line for the year (eat your heart out, Russell Martin).

The Yankee bats remained uncharacteristically silent once again, as they could do little more than slap singles, and not even many of those.  A leadoff singly by Derek Jeter in the first went for naught, as did base knocks by Teixeira and Chavez in the third.  Singles by Alex Rodriguez and Raul Ibanez - sandwiched around two groundouts - brought the Yankees' only run home in the 4th.

Curtis Granderson did show a little patience and draw a walk to lead off the 6th - the Yankees' first base on balls since the 4th inning against the Blue Jays on Wednesday - but A-Rod, Cano and Tex all failed to bring him home.

The Yankees would not get another hit until the top of the ninth, when Rodriguez singled off someone named Sean Doolittle, who did a lot by striking out Cano, Teixeira and Andruw Jones to end the game and pick up his first career Save.  He threw only two pitches that were not fastballs among his 21 offerings, but since the rest were 93-95 mph heaters from the port side, he evidently didn't feel much need for another pitch.

On Sunday, the Yankee bats finally showed a little life, this against their former teammate Bartolo Colon, as they smacked eight hits (including their only non-homer extra base hit of the four game set, when A-Rod hit a 2-run double off Colon in the third) and scored four runs in six innings and change.  But the A's bullpen stymied the Yanks, allowing five baserunners in the next five-plus innings, but none of them past second base.  
Soriano finally saw his first action of the series, this time to protect a one-run lead in the ninth.  Having not pitched since Tuesday, he may have been a little rusty but even if not, he still blew the Save.  Seth Smith smacked a hanging slider over the center field fence to tie the game at 4-4, and the two bullpens exchanged zeros for a few innings until the A's again had the pleasure of facing Cody Eppley with the game on the line in the 12th.  A single, a bunt to advance the runner and then Coco hit one crisply to right field to bring home the winning run and give the A's the sweep.

As heartbreaking as it is to get swept like this, especially to lose three of the four games in the 8th inning or later, it's not as though the Yankees were thoroughly schooled or severely beaten.  With a smidgeon of luck, they could have won any or all of those four games.  They just didn't.

And none of that is to say that the A's don't deserve credit for their wins or that the Yankees shouldn't be blamed for failing to come through in the clutch, or be patient at the plate, or whatever.  But it does mean that the Yankees and their fans shouldn't be deluded into thinking that the team is somehow horribly flawed, that this series uncovered some glaring weaknesses or that the sky is falling down on the Yankees.

Nor does this happy moment for the small market A's and their fans mean that they are in any way something other than also-rans in the American League playoff hunt.  Sure, the A's are 51-44, but they're also behind the Angels and the Rangers in their own division, both of which can much more readily afford to fill a gap at the trade deadline if needed than Oakland can.

Additionally, the fact that the A's have 48 of their remaining 67 games against teams with winning records means that the hardest part is yet to come.  While they have played well against such teams (33-25 to date) it's unlikely that they'll be able to continue that pace.

Their 16-12 record in one run games is very good, the result of some good luck and good relief pitching, and their 10-5 record in such contests since mid-June has been a big part of why they went from nine games under .500 to seven games over in just five weeks.  Additionally, their 7-2 record in extra innings and their major league best 11 walk-off wins are much of the reason for their apparent ability to contend this late into the season.  This kind of "skill" rarely propels a team through an entire season.

More likely they'll regress to the mean and start losing a few of these close contests.  An "offense" that carries three regulars hitting below the Mendoza line isn't likely to blow out many of its opponents, so they'll come back to the pack.  More important, perhaps, is that the A's would have to fight off not just the Angels but also best the Rays, the White Sox, the Orioles and even the Red Sox, who have a much better run differential than the A's despite their relative positions in the standings.

The Orioles, though they have the same record as Oakland at the moment, are only there because of extraordinary luck (they're 19-6 in one-run games, 32-38 otherwise) and are therefore not likely to stay there, all other things being equal.  Still, they already have 51 wins in the books, and money is not a problem for the O's.  A few astute trades could turn them into the team their record suggests they already are.

The Blue Jays might have had a shot but now without Jose Bautista for a while and missing essentially an entire pitching staff due to injuries, they're bound to fade.  That leaves six teams for two playoff spots, and I have a hard time imagining that Boston, LA or Chicago won't go and get what they need to make a push for that other spot, or that Oakland's hot streak will prove to be just that: A Streak.

And streaks always have an end.



Stumble Upon Toolbar

26 April 2012

Yu Darvish and a Look at Early Dominant Pitching

Question: What do Tim Fortugno, Mariano Rivera, Bob Milacki, Tim Wakefield, Dennis Ribant and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal have in common?  

Answer: Whatever it is, Yu Darvish does too.  

Yu Darvish crossed the Pacific a few months ago at great expense to the Texas Rangers and bringing great expectations from his old fans in Japan, not to mention those in Texas and much of the baseball-loving public.
His record in Japan - 76-28 with a 1.72 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning over five seasons - was impeccable, literally.  There was nothing that could be found wrong with it.  His K/W ratio was nearly 5/1.  He allowed only 39 home runs in over 1000 Japan League innings.  He was remarkably healthy,durable, and effective, making at least 23 starts and averaging 15 Wins and 10 complete games per season.

So naturally he wanted to prove himself in the US, and who could blame him?  His Spring training stats - admittedly in just a handful of games - were largely more of the same: 22 strikeouts in 15 innings, and a 3.60 ERA.  But then the season started and some of the polish appeared to be missing form his game.

Though he was credited with a Win in his first start, he allowed five walks and 5 runs, all earned, in just 5.2 innings, and this against the woefully inept Seattle Mariners, a team that walks somewhat less often than Stephen Hawking and gets runs only slightly more often than a pair of Kevlar panty hose.

His next two starts, against the Twins and Tigers, were better (two earned runs in 12 total innings) but he still walked nine batters.  So it was fair to wonder what the Yankees - a team that can actually, you know, hit - would do when they faced him on Tuesday night.

Not much, it turns out.

Faced with the best offense in the majors in 2012, a team averaging nearly six runs per contest, Darvish delivered an array of pitches, none of which proved terribly appealing for the Yankees' bats.

Hard to blame them.  Darvish exhibited a fastball that averaged 93 mph and touched 96, but also threw a cutter, a slider, a splitter and a curve, all of which were responsible for at least one of his 10 strikeouts over 8.1 innings.  He also walked only two batters and though he allowed seven hits, nobody managed to score.

This of course begs the question of how much might we expect out of Darvish for the rest of his career.  Given that in just his 4th MLB appearance he nearly managed a 10-K shutout of the best offense in the majors, should we expect more of the same? Or is this a fluke?  

Getting back to my initial question, what does Yu Darvish have in common with that otherwise seemingly random and varied array of current and former major league pitchers?

Real Answer: They are among a group of 23 pitchers who, in one of their first five career appearances, racked up at least eight shutout innings with 10 or more strikeouts.  The full list:

Player            WAR    IP    Yrs
Juan Marichal      64   3507    16
Luis Tiant         60   3486    19
Mariano  Rivera    56   1218    17
Tim  Wakefield     32   3226    19
Pedro  Astacio     26   2197    15
Kerry  Wood        25   1374    14
J. Vander Meer     23   2105    13
Rudy May           20   2622    16
Jose DeLeon        16   1897    13
Connie Johnson     10    716     5
Dick Selma         10    841    10
Bob Shirley         9   1432    11
Dennis Rasmussen    9   1461    12
Dennis Bennett      8    863     7
Johnny Broaca       5    674     5
Bob Milacki         5    796     8
Dennis Ribant       4    519     6
Steve  Woodard      3    667     7
Dave Morehead       3    819     8
Wade  Davis         2    396     4
Karl Spooner        2    117     2
Tim Fortugno        0    110     3

The pitchers are ranked by career WAR, Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com's formula.  Clearly, the list shows some incredible talent and value, topped off by an actual Hall of Famer (Marichal) and a future one (Rivera), albeit one who is no longer a starting pitcher.  Luis Tiant was also a great pitcher for a long time and might have been in Cooperstown himself if a few things had broken differently (or not broken, like his scapula in 1970) in his career. 

Though the quality level drops off quite a bit after that, lots of guys would kill to have had the careers of Tim Wakefield (200 major league Wins, two World Series rings, one dramatic walk-off homer to Aaron Boone) or even Pedro Astacio, who held a bunch of Rockies pitching records before Ubaldo Jiminez came along.  Kerry Wood won the 1998 Rookie of the Year award, and though he had some injury troubles and only briefly became the pitcher everyone anticipated, pitching in the major leagues for a decade and a half is nothing to sneeze at.

Other notables on the list include Johnny Vander Meer, who is the only pitcher in MLB history to throw consecutive no-hitters, and led the NL in strikeouts for three consecutive years.  Rudy May was a quintessential LAIM for most of his career, though he did win an ERA title in 1980 with the Yankees.  Ditto for DeLeon, who led the league in strikeouts once, but also losses twice.

What's left is a baker's dozen worth of pitchers offering almost every sort of disappointment imaginable.  Connie Johnson pitched a decade in the Negro Leagues and fought in WWII for before making it to the majors, at which point his best years were already behind him.  Dick Selma got the first win in Padres history, a 12-K shutout on opening day in 1969, but otherwise had a fairly nondescript career as a swingman for a decade that ended when he was just 30 years old.

Bob Shirley is probably less famous for anything he ever did on a pitching mound than he is for the June 1987 clubhouse wrestling match that landed Donnie Baseball on the disabled list with two bulging disks in his back - an injury that would sap his power and probably cost him his shot at the Hall of Fame.  (Mattingly averaged .337 with 30 homers for the four previous years but just .292 with 12 homers for the rest of his career.) Shirley was released just days later, even though the report of the scuffle was denied by both the Yankees and the players.  He tossed only seven more innings in the majors.

Rasmussen was another LAIM, though not as good as May or DeLeon.  Bennett was a nondescript swingman/spot starter whose baseball career ended before he was 30.  Coincidentally, he died almost exactly a month ago.  Milacki racked up 243 innings in his first full season (1989) and never had another full, healthy year.  (The Orioles in those days burned through young pitchers' arms like a disturbed kid with a magnifying glass and an ant farm: Milacki, Pete Harnish, Jeff Ballard, Ben McDonald...Curt Schilling and Joe Table should thank their lucky stars they got out of there when they did.  Mike Mussina managed to get through his injuries in 1993, but he seems to be the exception to the rule.)

Morehead, Fortugno, and Woodard were true flukes, never again showing anything like the kind of talent they exhibited in their early dominant outing.  Ribant was rumored to have used a spitball, which may explain his occasional ability to baffle opposing batters (including a perfect game in the minors).  Wade Davis is still pitching and still young, but probably trade bait for the Rays, who desperately need bats.

Karl Spooner is the only one to appear on the list twice, tossing consecutive complete game shutouts in his first two major league games, allowing only seven hits and six walks with 27 K's in 18 innings.  He looked like the Next Big Thing, but he failed to properly warm up in a game the following spring, hurt his arm, and was never the same.

Johnny Broaca might be the oddest, bitterest case of all.  He was a useful member of the rotation for some pretty good Yankees teams in the 1930's, but jumped ship in his fourth season over apparent marital troubles.  He attempted an unsuccessful comeback with Cleveland a few years later, but to no avail, and apparently spent the rest of his days as a reclusive day laborer in a little town in Massachusetts, lest his ex-wife should get any money out of him.  Weird.  And sad.

But not likely the fate of Yu Darvish, which after all, was the point of this post.

And while I'm not sure we're really any closer to having the answer to that question now as opposed to when we started this inquiry, I'm awfully fascinated by some of the results.  I don't expect Darvish to end up in the Hall of Fame some day, but neither do I think that he will hurt his arm and spend his retirement shoveling coal to spite his former spouse.  Heck, I'm not even sure if he's married!

What this shows us, if anything, is that Darvish seems to be capable of a career that could last 10-15 years in the majors.  Flashes of brilliance like his performance against the Yankees on Tuesday night, particularly at such an early stage in his major league career, suggest a pitcher capable of great things, and if not that, at least a decade or so of usefulness and value in the majors. 

The Rangers are fortunate to have him early in his career, before the league has a chance to figure him out.  Of course, if you can throw a fastball at 95 mph - and have four other pitches you can not only throw for strikes but also use to whiff major league hitters - well, there's not much likelihood that a tour around the AL is going to tell hitters anything other than that this guy is really, really good.


Stumble Upon Toolbar

15 February 2012

Yoenis Cespedes: Why the A's Just Threw Away $36M

The normally frugal Oakland A's this week signed outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, the latest Cuban defector, who is expected to be...well, nobody knows exactly what to expect from him. Oakland paid $36 million for him for four years, but it's likely that the small market club doled out a good deal more than any of his other suitors were offering, if only because they actually signed him and the others did not.

Additionally, you would imagine that to entice such a prospective talent to come to a team as abysmal as the A's, you would have to offer significantly more than the competition. Consider also that the Marlins, his most oft-mentioned suitor before the actual signing, play in a state that has no state income tax, and that California's is 10.3% for people making over a million per year. With both factors in play, you would indeed have to assume a formidable gap between the respective teams' offers. His agent, Adam Katz, would surely have advised him of these considerations, even if he was unfamiliar with them, having just gotten off the boat, so to speak.

But those issues ultimately pale in comparison to the question of how good Cespedes really is. Projections range all over, and while he apparently has great tools (and a bold and unconventional marketing department) it's literally anybody's guess what he's going to be capable of on a major league field, 1000-lb squat presses notwithstanding.

The history of Cuban prospects, particularly those who have broken in as free agents after defecting, is frankly abysmal. Since 1960, when Cuba became communist and the United States essentially severed economic ties with it, there have been 45 Cuban born players in MLB.

When you weed out the pitchers, you're left with 20 players, and most of them came through the draft after having gone to high school in Miami or something like that. Of those 20, 13 have played 100 or more games in the majors,though several are young enough to yet have a significant career in the majors. 

Only seven Cuban born players have produced more than one WAR for their careers, according to baseball-reference.com, though several others had careers of considerable length, even with out a substantially positive career WAR total.  Even that isn't worthless, we must realize, as those players had to have good seasons sprinkled in with the bad ones in order to achieve a net result of about zero. 

Normally, if you wanted an analysis of what Cespedes would do, you would perhaps take an average of what has been accomplished by all players like him, while controlling for as many factors as you can (age, handedness, defensive position, body type, etc.).  The trouble is that we have so few players to use for such an analysis that it would be moot. So instead I'll look at each player more or less individually, and we'll see if there's anything to be learned.

First of all, let's look at the players who were born in Cuba but drafted in the US, typically because they were children when their parents defected from Cuba.

Jose Canseco - Drafted out of high school in the 15th round in 1982, won 1986 AL RoY, 1988 AL MVP, the first "40 HR - 40 SB" player in history, "better living through chemistry" and all that rot. Clearly talented, but we'll never know what he's have been if he wasn't Juiced.

Rafael Palmeiro - Drafted out of college in the 1st round in 1985, one of a handful of players with 3000 hits and 500 homers, will never get into the Hall of Fame because of a failed drug test and the ensuing scandal that ended his career.

*For the record, Jose and Raffy own about half of all the at-bats and hits and almost 3/4 of all major league homers by Cuban players born in the last half century.

Ozzie Canseco - Jose's twin brother, drafted as a pitcher a year later than Jose, by the Yankees in the 2nd round. After a few unremarkable years pitching in the minors, the Yanks tried to turn him into a hitter on the assumption that he couldn't be that much worse than his MVP brother. But he was.

Orestes Destrade - Though the slugging firstbaseman was signed originally as an undrafted free agent, it wasn't for a lack of effort. The Angels tried to draft him in 1980 but he didn't sign, and the Yanks got him a year later. He had some power but little else and never made a mark in the majors in the 80's, then went to Japan for a few years before signing with the expansion Marlins in 1993. He went back to Japan after the 1994 season for a year and has been doing broadcasting ever since.

Eli Marrero - Third round draft pick by the Cards in 1993, Marrero played parts of 10 seasons with seven different teams in the majors, rarely getting into more than half of his team's games. You can do worse than to have a career as a major league reserve/platoon catcher, but clearly he was no star.

Alex Sanchez - This 5th round 1996 draft pick is the type of player who should have "Run, Don't Walk" tattooed on his person somewhere.  Sanchez spent parts of five seasons in the majors with four different teams. He had speed, but no patience or power and did not particularly steal bases well (122 steals, but 58 times caught) or play good defense. He was notably the first major league player ever suspended under the new MLB drug testing program.

Nelson Santovenia - Another first round draft pick, 19th overall in 1982, this catcher played parts of seven seasons with three different teams, and his best season involved hitting .236 with 8 homers.

Yunel Escobar - Currently with his second MLB team, the starting short stop for the Blue Jays, this 2nd round draft pick has decent patience and bat control, hits for modest average and power and plays good defense. He'll never be a star, but is worth a couple of wins per year over a replacement level player.

To date, only four free agent Cuban defectors have had significant careers: Rey Ordonez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Alexei Ramirez and Kendrys Morales. Ordonez, of course was thought to be the second coming of Ozzie Smith, and while he had considerable talents as a defensive shortstop - he won three Gold Gloves and probably deserved at least two of them - he had neither the modest offensive skills nor the longevity of the Wizard, and was out of the majors at age 33, his ninth season in the bigs.

Several others have defected in the last decade or so, and most of them are still around somewhere. These players are of particular interest because they were free agents and therefore able to negotiate deals on the open market, unlike drafted players or those won in a lottery, like Ordonez.

Brayan Pena - A true backup catcher, Pena is now 30 years old and unlikely to make an impact on the major leagues, but with parts of seven major league seasons under his belt, including the last three as the Royals backup backstop. He was signed for an undisclosed amount by the Braves in 2000 and got a few cups of coffee with them before going to KC. Again, no star, but good enough to stick on most major league benches.

Juan Diaz - Signed for an undisclosed amount by the Dodgers in 1996, Diaz hit with some pop in the minors but got only a 2002 cup of coffee with Boston in MLB and has basically been out of the system since 2006. He's now thrilling the crowds in places like Joliet and Winnipeg in the Northern League, never having really made it to the show.

Michel Hernandez - Signed by the Yankees as a free agent in 1998, he's your basic catch and throw guy behind the plate, which is to say he'll never hit enough to get a job in the majors, especially given that he's now 33. He's gotten a handful of at bats with the Yanks and later the Rays, but will probably never see a major league field again unless he buys a ticket.

Barbaro Canizares - Free agent signed by the Braves in 2006, he's hit for decent averages with patience and doubles power in the high minors, but was allowed to go to the Mexican Leagues last year because the Braves had an even better prospect, Freddie Freeman, who hit even more and is only 21. Canizares hit .396 in Mexico in 2011, which is notorious for inflating offense but hey, three-ninety six?!??!! Give the guy a shot, right? Anyway, he's 32, so probably not.

Now we're getting into the handful of known commodities, at least in terms of their actual contracts.

Juan Miranda - Miranda defected in 2004, at the age of 21, and signed with the Yankees for about $2 million over four years in 2006. He's hit for modest numbers in the minors (.282/.373/.477 over four seasons in AAA) and has gotten a few at-bats in the majors, but isn't likely to be an impact player. When he was signed, a Yankee official said, "Miranda is projected to hit over 20 home runs and hit .280. He doesn't swing at bad pitches." Presumably the official meant that he would be able to do that in the majors, not at AAA, but we haven't seen it yet, and at almost 29 years old, time is running out. Presumably if the Yankees thought he was likely to do that, they'd have offered him more than a shade over the major league minimum salary for those four seasons.

Dayan Viciedo - Defected in 2008 at age 19 and was signed by the White Sox for four years and $10 million. His numbers were all with the Cuban junior circuit, but they were impressive enough to merit that contract, and he has not disappointed so far. He's improved in each year in the minors and spent parts of the last two seasons with the ChiSox as an occasional RF, DH or firstbaseman. He's projected as the starting RF for the Pale Hose in 2012, now that Carlos Quentin is gone, but he's a DH waiting to happen, if Adam Dunn doesn't bounce back from his miserable 2011 campaign.

Jose Iglesias - Signed to a four year, $8.2 million contract by the Red Sox in 2009, he was regarded as their best prospect before the 2011 season, but then hit just .235 with one homer for Pawtucket last year. He's only 22 and his defense is his calling card, but if he can't hit a little, he'll never get to play it.

Leonys Martin - Signed a 5-year, $15.5 million contract with the Rangers before last season, and hit a combined .295/.362/.421 at three minor league levels last year. That's buttressed largely by the .348 he hit in 29 games at Frisco in the AA Texas League, where .300 batting averages practically fall out of the sky like manna. (Someone named Wes Timmons hit .365 there last year, while non-prospects such as Drew Locke, Jordan Parraz and Paul McAnulty have hit .330 or better there in the last several years.) Viciedo has potential to be a useful major leaguer for a few years, like Ordonez was.  Like Iglesias, Martin will need to hit in the majors if he wants to stick around. He'll be 24 in March, so he's got time to make good on that contract, but clearly still needs to prove himself at AAA (where he hit .263 with no homers in almost 200 plate appearances).

So there you have them: all of the position players born in Cuba in the last five decades who ever saw any MLB service time. The list is not encouraging. The numbers are better for the drafted players, because of course the teams signing them have better information on them before doing so and hence we would expect more of them to pan out, or they wouldn't have been drafted.

But the free agents are almost all busts, or marginal major leaguers at best. Viciedo has the potential to be a useful major league for a few years, maybe even have a few really good seasons in the middle of a 10-year career, but the rest look like organizational soldiers or guys with one skill (power, defense) but no others, and hence not MLB material.

It's worth noting that Cuban pitchers have fared better than this, with the likes of Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez, Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, Rolando Arrojo, and now Aroldis Chapman. Even Ariel Prieto had 3.0 WAR for his disappointing career and Vladimir Nunez pitched for almost a decade in the majors, albeit rarely all that well.

The reason for this, I think, is obvious: You can tell right away whether a pitching prospect can throw hard and straight, which is most of what pitching entails. Determining whether a prospect will be able to hit such pitches - not to mention curves and sliders and change ups and the like - is a much more complex and drawn out task.

And as for Cespedes, well, don't be surprised if he takes a little while to get acclimated and even longer to become the star people seem to think he'll be.

Or if he never does.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

07 February 2012

Yankees Search for Lefty DH

Rumors this morning indicate, not surprisingly, that the Yankees are looking to add a lefty bat to their roster and that the candidates for said position include Former Yankees Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, as well as Raul Ibanez.


OK, so Damon's not terrible. He hit .261/.326/.418 last year, including 29 doubles and 19 steals. Though not the youngest of the trio, he clearly has the youngest legs. Ibanez has not stolen more than four bases in a season since 2005 and Matsui has only 13 steals in his nine-year MLB career. Which means that Damon stands the best chance of being a useful bat next year, especially given the struggles of the other two in 2011.

Matsui hit a paltry .251/.321/.375 last year with only a dozen homers, though it's worth noting that some of that was the result of the Oakland Mausoleum. Baseball-Reference.com's park factor adjustment tool suggests that he'd have hit .271/.343/.403 in Yankee Stadium, making his 2011 numbers slightly more palatable, of not actually any more valuable. According to B-R, he was worth exactly ZERO Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last year and while mediocrity isn't useless on a baseball field, it's hardly something for a team competing for a championship to aspire to. Besides that, he's 37 years old now and hasn't played a full, healthy season since 2005.

Ibanez was signed by the Phillies as a free agent before the 2009 season for three years and $30 million, which resulted in significant amounts of laughing and mockery of the Phillies front office by almost anyone with a computer and an internet connection. But then something funny happened: Ibanez was awesome.

Well, he was awesome for two months, anyway. Despite having a career slash line of .286/.346/.472, Ibanez started his age-37 season hitting .312/.371/.656 with 22 homers in 62 games. Then he sustained a groin injury and when he came back he was a shell of his former self, sputtering to a .232 average with only 12 homers after the All-Star break. In fact, his overall performance in almost 400 games since mid-2009 has been .255/.321/.435 with 21 homers per 162 games, well-below his career averages and not likely to improve significantly as he approaches his fourth decade on Earth.

While not as injury-riddled as Matsui has been, Ibanez was frequently benched last year due to ineffectiveness and so only played about 140 games. The Yankees wouldn't need him to start every day, since he can't hit lefties at all anymore (.211/.232/.353 against them in 2011), but even his line against right-handers last year (.256/.307/.440) was uninspiring. Overall, expecting a full, productive year out of Ibanez seems foolish. 

And any thoughts of him spelling Nick Swisher or Brett Gardner at the outfield corners once in a while are misguided at best. Ibanez was a terrible defensive left fielder last year, 1.2 wins below a replacement level player, according to B-R, and this at perhaps the easiest defensive position on the field. That's what Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson are for. Even Andruw Jones (+0.4 defensive WAR in limited playing time) is a better option than Ibanez would be.

The trouble with Damon, apparently, is that he wants five million dollars, and the Yankees aren't comfortable with that. Hard to blame them, given that Damon himself is already 38 years old and has no defensive value at all, having not played more than a couple of dozen games in the field since 2009. And of course, if those legs of his give out, he'll be the next thing to worthless. 

The irony in all of this is that if the Yankees weren't The Yankees, they would have their pick of younger, cheaper options to fill this void. The Indians, for example, recently picked up the 2011 MVP of the International League, Russ Canzler, for "cash considerations" which is to say, almost nothing. No players, just money, and not very much of it, we presume. Maybe a million. Pocket change to a major league GM, even one from Tampa.

Canzler hit .314 with 18 homers and a .401 OBP for Durham last year, and will make the MLB minimum. He'll be 26 just after Opening Day, so he should be entering his prime as a hitter, and while it's possible that he's a "Quadruple-A" player, who can mash in the high minors but will get swallowed up by major league pitching, it's also possible that he'll be the next Erubiel Durazo or Brian Daubach, a minor league journeyman who just needed enough of a chance at the major league level to prove he could contribute.

The high minors are full of guys like Canzler. Aaron Bates, for example, was signed by the Twins to a minor league contract last year as roster filler, and promptly hit .316/.408/.439 for Rochester. He doesn't have a lot of power, but if he can produce like that in the majors he's an asset, even as a first baseman.

Cleveland's own AAA team featured OF Jerad Head, who hit .284 with 24 homers last season. Journeyman Dallas McPherson hit .283 with 20 homers for Charlotte in 2011. Jeremy Hermida hit .319 with 17 homers for Louisville last year, is 28 years old, is patient, a left handed hitter, and will come cheaply. John Bowker hit .306 with 15 homers for Indianapolis and also hits from the left side. Even the Yankees themselves have such a player: Jorge Vazquez, an almost 30-year old corner infielder who hit 32 homers for Scranton Wilkes-Barre last year, albeit with only 30 walks and 166 whiffs.

None of these guys is on their major league affiliates' depth charts, according to ESPN, and presumably any of them can be had for a song. One of them may give as much value or more to a major league team than the likes of Matsui and Ibanez, at this point in their careers, though they'll be no favorites of the sports betting types. The Yankees, however, rarely go in for the economically sound option, preferring instead the low-risk, known quantity types for such roles.

They can afford to spend a little more cash on a known entity like Damon or Ibanez and then, if they flop, just write them off and trade for someone else in July. Especially when considering that whomever they bring in for this role will only need to play one position for two-thirds of the season (against righties) and won't be expected to be a long term solution to this problem, it would seem that the Yanks have little reason to break from their usual patterns.

But it sure would be nice to see some Cinderella story make a dent in the Bronx this year.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

14 September 2011

Wakefield, Rivera Milestones Very Different; Notes on AJ Burnett's "Improvement"

Some interesting milestones were reached last night in games across the AL East, at least.

  • Though it came in a crushing loss to the woeful Orioles, Tampa Bay's Johnny Damon became just the 9th player in MLB history with 200+ homers and 400 or more steals.  Four of the nine (Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan) are already in the Hall of Fame and by rights, Craig Biggio will be someday soon.  Barry Bonds and his dad, Bobby Bonds, are both on that list, as is Marquis Grissom.  
  • The Ageless Wonder (as in "I Wonder why he's still pitching in the majors"), Tim Wakefield finally won his 200th career game.  A somewhat less exclusive club than Damon's, Wake is the one hundred and eleventieth pitcher since 1871 to reach that milestone, and he has the highest career ERA in that club, though with adjustments for ballparks and time frame, he's only 16th worst.  
  • And Mariano Rivera, a truly ageless wonder, notched his 600th career Save, being only the second man to do that.  Trevor Hoffman was the first, and he's no longer adding to his 601 career Saves, so Rivera will likely lead the pack before the year is out.  
I'll be the first to grant you that Saves are mostly a junk stat, a self fulfilling prophecy, overrated at best and at worst truly misleading.  But holy cow, 600 of anything in baseball is kind of a lot, don't you think?

Even so, we don't need that stat to say how good Mariano Rivera has been in his career.  There are 126 pitchers who have amassed at least 100 career Saves, and Rivera has the lowest ERA (2.22) of any of them. 

His 2.22 career ERA is the best among active pitchers, and has been for four years running.  (This isn't terribly unusual for a relief pitcher, as they tend to have lower ERAs in general, and if they stick around long enough, eventually amass 1000 or more innings.  Lee Smith, John Franco, Kent Tekulve and Hoyt Wilhelm have all held this honor for multiple years.)
He also has the best winning percentage among pitchers with at least 300 career Saves, which is certainly a testament to the fact that he;s always pitched for good teams, but is also a sign that he manages to hold on more often than he chokes.  You know, in case the 600 Saves weren't enough for you in that vein.

His 205 adjusted ERA is the best of all time for pitchers with at least 1000 innings under their belts, and that's one category in which he's not likely to be caught any time soon.  No starting pitcher will ever do it, as they simply throw too many innings to ever be that good at relative run prevention for a whole career.  For reference, Pedro Martinez is the next man on the all-time career list, and he had a career mark of 154.

Zach Grienke had a 205 in 2009, when he won the Cy Young award.  Roger Clemens won seven of those - two more than anyone else in the history of MLB - and his mark is 143.  Among active pitchers, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana each have two Cy Young Awards, but are all around the 140 mark, and are unlikely to somehow significantly improve as they age.

The only remote possibility of anyone passing him is Jonathan Papelbon, who has a 201 ERA+ in 422 career innings.  But he'll need to actually improve, to be as good as he was from 2006-09, and that for another whole decade, to knock Mo off that hill.

If you'd like to compare him to  other elite relief pitchers, we can do that.  Dennis Eckersley won a Cy Young Award and an MVP in 1992, pitching 80 innings and striking out 93, with a 1.91 ERA and 51 Saves.  That performance was worth 3.0 WAR, according to baseball-reference.com.  Mariano Rivera has had 12 years that were about that good or better.  That's basically his whole career since 1996, excepting 2002, when he was hurt for part of the year, and 2007, when we was merely very good. 

Or, to put it another way, if you add up the Cy Young year performances of every reliever to ever win the award, (Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Gagne, Eck, Mark Davis, Willie Hernandez, Sparky Lyle, Steve Bedrosian and Mike Marshall) you get a 67-39 record, 334 Saves and a 2.03 ERA (201 ERA+) in 1009 innings.  Rivera, for his career, has a better adjusted ERA than that conglomerate, a better WHIP, better walk rate, better K rate, and therefore a better K/W.  He also has an additional 198 innings with 14 walks, 216 strikeouts and a 3.18 ERA, or essentially two and a half more seasons worth of Cy-worthy relief efforts.   

If you prefer modern metrics, Rivera's WPA of 56 is the best of anyone with at least 100 career Saves, far ahead of John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley, both around 40.   His WAR of 55.9 is behind only those two, though they both had a lot of starts to help in that department.  Roy Halladay is only slightly ahead at 59 WAR, which should give you an idea of how valuable Rivera has been to the Yankees.

No active relief pitcher is even close to him, as Frankie Rodriguez has only about 22 WAR in his career.  Among pitchers with fewer than 100 career starts, Rivera's 55.9 WAR are far and away the most, almost 50% more than Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage, both at about 40.

Anyway, congratulations to Mo the Yankees, one of the greatest of all time.


On a separate note, and of more immediate importance, AJ Burnett seemingly pitched quite well last night, allowing two runs in six innings, with mercifully only two walks and 11 strikeouts.  But before we go crazy saying that he's "turned a corner" or "found himself" or "doesn't suck", let's look at the facts:

  • The mariners are the worst hitting team in the American League.  They have averaged a paltry 3.41 runs per game this year.  So, in Burnett's six innings, they would have been expected to score 2.27 runs.  
  • They actually scored two runs, so Burnett saved about one quarter of one run better than an average AL pitcher. 
  • Actually, it's worse than that.  Because SafeCo Field is so tough on hitters, they've averaged only 3.23 runs/game at home.  So Burnett saved 0.16 runs.  Whoopee.  
How bad are the Mariners' hitters?  Well, not as bad as last year, when they averaged just 3.17 runs per game, the lowest mark by any MLB club since before the institution of the Designated Hitter rule.  In fact, they're the first American League team since 1971-72 to average fewer than 3.5 runs per game for two consecutive years as well.  At that time, however, about a third of the league averaged 3.5 runs per game or less, so clearly these Mariners are much worse, relative to their context.

There have been teams this bad for a year, on occasion, during the last three decades, but they always find a way to improve the next year.  The Mariners are the first team not to make a significant improvement after such a terrible year, improving just three tenths of a run since 2011.  Maybe 2012 will be their year to go from "atrocious" to just "bad". 

But, in any case, let's not get too excited about Burnett's apparent improvement until he faces real major league hitters, OK?

Stumble Upon Toolbar

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. 

Stumble Upon Toolbar

30 June 2011

Posada's Resurgence, Royals' Rotation, and the Tribe's Return to Earth

We're about halfway through the 2011 baseball season, which seems like a good time to recap some of the more interesting developments in the major leagues this year.  There is, of course, no shortage of such stories to consider, but a few of them that caught my eye are...

Jorge Posada:

Yankees' DH Jorge Posada, after infamously taking himself out of the lineup (he was hitting .165/.272/.349 at the time), has gone on an absolute tear, as I suggested he might.  Since that day off and the media circus that followed it, Posada has hit .330/.398/.516.  More important, perhaps, is that his BABiP skyrocketed from .164 to .375.

He had hit half a dozen homers in the first three weeks of the season, and perhaps fell in love a bit with his longball stroke, to the detriment of the rest of his approach.  He had no doubles to that point in the season and managed only two of them - and no homers - in the next three weeks before Bench-gate.  In any case, he's got eight doubles in the 103 plate appearances since then, plus three homers, so clearly he seems to be hitting with authority again.

Of course, Posada has only hit like this for a full season once in his life, and that was in 2007, at which time he was a spry young hatchling (catchling?) of 35, not a creaky, 39-year old DH.  That required him to hit about 60 points above his career BABiP for the whole year, which just isn't likely to happen again, but Posada should be able to finish this streaky season with somewhat respectable numbers.

The Royals' ...umm..."Pitching" Rotation

The Kansas City Royals announced recently that they would be going to a 6-man starting pitching rotation, at least until the All-Star Break.  Royals Authority makes a decent point in that such an arrangement should theoretically reduce the number of innings on the fragile, young arm of Danny Duffy, the one starting pitching on this team who has the potential a few years from now to be something more than "older".

At first glance, this seemed to me rather like making up for the fact that your only cars are a rusty old Ford Pinto and an AMC Pacer by also buying a Trabant.  Sure, that car's a piece of crap, too, but at least dispersing the load between three cars (or, you know, six) reduces the chances of your bursting into flames when someone rear-ends your Pinto, right?  The distinction, of course, is that someday Duffy might develop into a Camaro, or at least a Camry, while Kyle Davies is likely to always be a Chevette.

Still, this seems like a problem with a more conventional solution to me: Put Davies in the bullpen.  He's been terrible in just about any situation this season - you don't amass a 7.46 ERA by being good once in a while - but for his career he's slightly better in the first couple of innings than he is during the later ones.  Make him a long reliever.  Let him focus on his low 90's fastball and curve and use his change up and slider/cutter only sparingly, and maybe he'll surprise you by being useful.

Lots of sub-mediocre starters have proven to be effective relievers, a list too long to bother naming.  Kyle Davies is 27 years old and has a career adjusted ERA 23% worse than the leagues in which he's pitched.  He's only pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title once and only once finished a season with an ERA that wasn't awful, i.e. with 10% below average.  What exactly do they have to lose?

Pushing this guy out there every six days may save a couple of starts on Duffy's arm, but it also means that the bullpen and/or the bench are that much more shorthanded.  Given that most of the rest of the rotation is pretty terrible too, they're going to need bullpen arms more than they need a 6th starter.  Lets' not forget that the birth of the 5-man rotation was mostly because the Dodgers of the early 1970's actually had five good starters (Claude Osteen, Bill Singer, Don Sutton, Al Downing and Tommy John), not because they couldn't decide which of the five lousy ones was lousy enough to earn a demotion.  The 2011 Royals have no such conundrum: Davies ought to go grab some pine.

Whither the Tribe?

Hey!  Remember those heady days of Early May when the Cleveland Indians looked like they were young, hungry upstarts with surprising talent, running away with the AL Central Division title?  They were 20-8, had a 4.5 game lead on their closest competition - the Royals, heady days indeed - and everyone was talking about how this might be their year to surprise everyone.

Granted, they're still in 1st place two months later, but now tied with the Tigers, they've gone just 22-29 since that hot start, with their offense as the main culprit.  Having scored about 5.4 runs per game in the first month or so of the season, they've averaged just 3.7 runs per contest since then.  They've got some decent pitching talent (Masterson, Carrasco, maybe Tomlin), but until they get Shin Soo Choo back or they get the kinds of performances they anticipated from the likes of Grady Sizemore or Carlos Santana, the Tribe can expect little more than to be overtaken by the Tigers.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

19 May 2011

Yankees' Jorge Posada Poised for Improvement

The benching heard round the world on Saturday - Jorge Posada's choice to remove himself from the lineup rather than bat 9th - may have been just what he needs to get his terrible season turned around.  The Yankees decided in the offseason that Posada's 39 year old knees and popgun arm were not going to serve them well as a catcher for a team making a run at a 28th world championship.

So they moved him to DH, except that he hasn't been doing much H'ing this year at all.  He was hitting only .165/.272/.349 before Yankees manager Joe Girardi tried dropping him to the bottom of the order against Boston on Saturday night.  Posada apologized for his part in the spat and everybody made nice and what-not, but the real question is whether it's reasonable to expect Posada to markedly improve over the rest of the season.

Part of the answer to that question relates to the $11.1 million Posada will earn this year and what his legacy will be as a player and a Yankee.  But really, money is not a huge problem for the Yankees and we all know that the guy who caught two perfect games and served as the primary backstop for four of the five championship teams since the 1990's is going to have his number 20 retired when he hangs up his spikes, even if he hits a buck fifty this year.  Nobody really gets on Carlton Fisk's case for hitting only .220 in a smattering of action over his last two seasons, right? 

No, the real problem is the one they had last winter.  The Yankees want to win, and just as they knew they couldn't do that with a catcher who was not a threat to ever catch a base stealer, neither can they do so with a DH who gets a hit only about once every three games.  Posada pinch hit a drew a walk the next night in a loss, then went 2-for-3 in a big win against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, and is currently 1-for-3 with a double and two walks against Baltimore as I write this, but that's not the reason I think he might be poised for a turnaround.

Curiously, for a guy who's been such a good hitter for such a long time, Posada's awful start in 2011 is not wholly unprecedented.  Twice before - oddly enough, six years ago, and six years before that - Posada found himself mired in a terrible slump after the first month or so of the season, got benched for a game but came through as a pinch hitter, and then reverted to his usual form for the rest of the year.  Take a look:

Timespan       PA    BA   OBP   SLG  HR  RBI  BB 
thru 5/14/99   87  .176  .299  .311   3   10  12
rest of 1999  349  .260  .350  .421   9   47  41
thru 4/29/05   87  .244  .322  .333   1   10   9
rest of 2005  458  .265  .356  .449  18   61  56
thru 5/13/11  125  .165  .272  .349   6   15  15
rest of 2011   ?     ?     ?     ?    ?    ?   ?

I am not so naive as to think that this constitutes clear evidence that happy days are here again for Posada and the Yankees, but I am inclined to wonder whether maybe Posada just needed a chance to clear his head, get outside of himself a little or something, and be reminded that he can still play this game.  A man who thinks of himself as a champion and finds his batting average starting with a "1" in the middle of May has got to have a lot of stress, you know?

Stumble Upon Toolbar

05 May 2011

How Are the Yankees Doing It??

As I write this, the Yankees are beating the Tigers in Detroit, 2-1 in the 5th inning.  A.J. Burnett has continued to pitch well this year, and this game is something of a microcosm of his season.  He's somehow managed to surrender a run without giving up a hit, or - and this is the real surprise in Burnett's case - a walk.  (EDIT: There goes the no-no: Single to right by Ramon Santiago to start the 6th.) If they manage to win this game they'll rise to 18-11, tops in the AL East and 2nd only to the upstart Cleveland Indians in the American League overall.

But how are they doing it?  How is this team, without Andy Pettitte, with three terrible outings from Phil Hughes and now possibly two months without their #3 starter at all, with four of its starting nine hitters flirting with the Mendoza line for most of the season, still managing to win?

Well, the short and obvious answer is that everyone else is overcompensating.  Pettitte and Hughes may be non-factors, but Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, picked up on the cheap in the off-season as insurance policies, have delivered handsomely, combining for a modest 3-3 record but for a 2.95 ERA in 58 total innings, which means that they've essentially provided the team with an opportunity to win almost every time they've taken the ball.  Nobody expected that either of these guys could be this good, much less both of them.

Additionally, Burnett has been quite good, posting a 4-1 record and a 3.93 ERA.  That's largely due to lowering both his walk and hit rates by about one from what they were last year, without losing any strikeouts or increasing his homers allowed.  This may not be wholly sustainable, since FanGraphs says that Burnett's getting a lot more swings at pitches outside the strike zone than he ever has in the past, but the real Burnett isn't necessarily far below this one.  (EDIT: On the other hand, Burnett gave up a run in the 6th and currently has the bases loaded with nobody out in the 7th, so maybe I wrote too soon...)

The hitters have been the really bizarre part of the Yankees' success this far in 2011.  Though Derek Jeter is hitting only .250 with no power and no steals, Nick Swisher is hitting .223 with only one homer, and the speedy, plucky Brett Gardner is hitting just .213 with four times caught stealing in eight attempts, somehow the Yankees are still near the league leaders in runs scored.  This is because they lead the league in homers by a healthy margin over the Texas Rangers, 46-38.  Jorge Posada's bat has been feast or famine all year, with an average of just .161, but also six home runs.

Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson are all hitting about .250 to .260, but all have slugging percentages above .500, and Robinson Cano leads the team in the Triple Crown stats, despite having only three walks in 27 games.  New catcher Russell Martin, after hitting a combined .249/.350/.330 and smacking only 12 homers in his last two years (240 games) with the Dodgers, has already hit six of them in just 25 games with the Yankees.  Even the bench (Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Eduardo Nunez, mostly) has combined to hit a respectable .276/.343/.395, getting a few key hits here and there to spark a rally or win a game. 

The bullpen has been another key to the success, amassing an MLB-leading 12 Saves to go with a 3.26 ERA, which is only about the middle of the AL pack.  Fortunately the starters have lasted long enough that they're also only about the middle of the pack in innings pitched, which hopefully means the relievers won't get burnt out by the end of the year.

But the real question is whether or not the Yankees can sustain this, and I'm not sure they can.  I know Burnett is capable of pitching this well (EDIT: Maybe not: he allowed three more runs in the 7th - one earned - before finally escaping the inning.) and that CC Sabathia is every bit capable of finishing the season with something like his current 2.68 ERA.  I can see Garcia and Colon being useful, if not quite this good for most of the year, and I can see rookie starter Ivan Nova racking up 10-12 wins and an ERA of about 4.50, but I'm not sure I can see all of them happening at the same time.

Similarly, while I don't think the Yankees will finish the year with four starters hitting .250 or worse, neither do I think they will finish the season with five starters slugging .500 or better.  While the Yankees are first in homers, they're 4th from the bottom in doubles, which means perhaps that some of those homers are due to stay in the park and that therefore some of those runs will have to wait for another hit if they expect to score.

With Derek Jeter ineffective (and now perhaps injured) and without any real help from Gardner or Swisher, the Yankees are going to have a hard time remaining competitive, much less keeping its hold on the AL East.  And if Jorge Posada doesn't start going from a designated misser to a real DH (he now hitting .154 after an 0-for-4 day)  there's no way that the rest of the lineup can compensate.

We see these bizarre splits early in the year all the time, and it's really not that unusual for someone like Colon to bounce back or for Posada to just fall apart, but for all of the odd happenings on the Yankees to keep pace all year would be unprecedented.  The Yankees may continue to win, but their MLB playoff odds will drop significantly without some help from the other half of the lineup.

Stumble Upon Toolbar