Wanna play a game? Let’s play a game…
Pitcher A: 4.61 K/9, 3.12 uIBB/9, 1.31 HR/9, 37.3% GB, 5.44 xFIP
Pitcher B: 4.83 K/9, 2.67 uIBB/9, 1.17 HR/9, 50.9% GB, 4.34 xFIP
Pitcher C: 5.89 K/9, 3.11 uIBB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 44.7% GB, 4.74 xFIP
Pitcher D: 5.10 K/9, 2.29 uIBB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 40.7% GB, 4.59 xFIP
Four pitchers, all of whom have been connected to the Yankees this offseason at one point or another. Pitcher C probably looks the most enticing since he has the highest strikeout rate and the second highest ground ball rate, but he also has the highest walk rate (for all intents and purposes anyway, a 0.01 uIBB/9 difference is one walk every 900 IP) and second highest xFIP. Pitcher A looks like a guy you’d avoid at all costs, and Pitcher D is interesting enough, but only when compared to the other three guys listed. Pitcher B boasts the best ground ball (by far) and xFIP, plus a mighty fine walk rate. The strikeout rate is ugly, but at least he makes up for it somewhat with his performance in the other categories.
You’ve probably figured it out by now, but Pitcher B is Sergio Mitre. Pitcher A is Armando Galarraga, Pitcher C is Jeremy Bonderman, and Pitcher D is Freddy Garcia. Those are 2010 stats and yes Mitre was used primarily in relief last season, but none of those other guys pitched in the AL East. The point of his largely irrelevant exercise is to show that all of these guys suck just as much as the others, but Mitre has one thing on all of them: the dude gets ground balls.
Strikeouts are without a doubt the preferred method of retiring batters, but if you can’t do that consistently the next best skill is the ability to generate ground balls. Grounders never turn into homeruns (without defensive miscues, anyway), and in fact big league hitters managed just a .241 wOBA (.020 ISO) on ground balls last season. Compare that to a .329 wOBA (.361 ISO) on fly balls and a .737 wOBA (.248 ISO) on line drives. Mitre has been a sinkerballer his entire career, and last year’s 50.9% ground ball rate is actually well below his career mark of 58.7%. Since 2003 (his first season), that 58.7% ground ball rate is the seventh best in baseball (min. 400 IP), trailing only noted sinkerball specialists Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, Chien-Ming Wang, Tim Hudson, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook. Chad Qualls is a full percentage point behind Serg for eighth place.
And since I know you’re wondering, Mitre has a 16.5% line drive rate in his career (17.0% in 2010), which (believe it not) is the fourth lowest in baseball over the last seven seasons (again, min. 400 IP). The only guys ahead of him are Carmona, J.C. Romero, and some guy named Mariano Rivera. A ton of ground balls and a limited number of line drives are two traits you want in any pitcher, and you know what? Mitre has them, moreso than most other pitchers, and perhaps those traits will be even more prevalent as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery.
I’m not trying to defend Mitre as the fifth starter, because I certainly don’t want to see him out there 25+ times next season, but he simply might be the best option compared to the other dreck that’s out there. I still want the Yankees to bring in another pitcher (preferably Kevin Millwood at this point) just to have someone else that can compete for the job and for added depth, but with any luck the fifth starter won’t be needed much early in the season anyway. Sergio’s ground balls might be more helpful than chasing random free agent pitchers for one extra strikeout for every 10 or so innings pitched.