The Mythical #2 Starter

I don't think CC could beat the chilies. But Burnett was a Cy Young winner back in Toronto, so.... (photo by Stefano A, used under a Creative Commons license)

A few days ago, Mike made some great points about A.J. Burnett’s performance up until now. Even including his total meltdown on Wednesday, he argues that Burnett been a decent back-end option for the strange and wonderful lineup that is the pitching rotation of 2011, and I agree. Yet, it seems there’s no end to the masses of people who have a serious bone to pick with him. Because I’m a really nice person, I will gladly stand up in his defense. And hey, everyone hates me anyway, so why not?

Observe, this frequent complaint which I see posted over comments, threads, chats, tweets, and so forth. I would like to say I hear this in the streets, but I live in the bay, and their failed pitcher, Barry Zito, is making way more than ours. At least A.J.’s not Zito!

Anyway, figure A: A.J. Burnett does not perform up to the standards of a number two starter.

Can I just ask what the hell a number two starter is?

If all you have to do is pitch after CC, then these are the people who have been number two starters this year: A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. If all that it takes to be “a number two starter” is that you start after the number one starter, then everyone is a number two starter. Burnett is perfectly capable of starting the day after CC. And I’m sure if you asked Hector Noesi, Brian Gordon (when he was in the States) or Manny Banuelos to start after CC, they would have the stuff to be a number two starter as well. If all you have to do to be a number two starter is start the second game of the season, here are some other number twos: Daniel Hudson, Edwin Jackson, Brad Penny, and Paul Maholm. Being or not being a number two starter is a stupid insult. You might as well say A.J. Burnett has bad shirts (which, but he way, he does).

The other option for qualifying as a “number two starter” is that you have to keep certain numbers and Burnett hasn’t done it. Keep in mind other number two starters, such as Jeff Francis and Chris Tillman, would also have to stick to these numbers. If that’s the case, he’s just not a number two starter anymore. That’s okay! Closers get demoted when they struggle, and it can happen to starters too. It’s okay to think that Burnett isn’t as good as we thought he’d be (were you expecting he’d keep the career high in strikeouts?), and it’s okay to demote him mentally based on that. But it seems like there’s a whole lot of extra angst over this fact.

Basically, “a number two starter” means absolutely nothing. The baseball schedule gets crazy enough that starting after CC Sabathia, while it’s cool because the bullpen is usually rested, is something that will happen to everyone. There are pitchers better than Burnett on this staff, I know. If you want to call Colon or Garcia or even Ivan Nova the number two starter, fine, whatever. But it’s a stupid role to assign to anyone. There’s aces like CC, Verlander, Weaver, and so on – and then there’s everyone else. If you’re pitching every five (or six?) days, it shouldn’t matter when. Is Burnett second best? Obviously not. Is he better than last year and a dependable back-of-the-rotation arm? Absolutely. Burnett isn’t going to be winning any Cy Young Awards out there, but he keeps the Yankees in the game most of the time, and that’s what’s important.

Personally, I don’t think he needs anymore hate. Suggesting Burnett is in the same category as Pavano, calling him a total waste, or saying that he should be released immediately seems a bit extreme to me.

Feel free to get on him for terrible outfits though.

For This Fan, a Homecoming

(Photo by Kwong Yee Cheng from flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.)

Last Friday was my first visit to the new Yankee Stadium. The first year the place was built, I was in South Jersey, actually doing work in college. The next year I moved across the country, which is where I’ve been until I got the chance to take a vacation back to see my family on the East Coast. Making the pilgrimage to the House that Jeter Built was one of the things on the must-do list. Keep in mind that my home stadium, so to speak, is the Coliseum, so my baseball stadium expectations are set almost embarrassingly low. Disclaimer: I sound like a slack-jawed tourist. Because I was.

To start, there’s the view from outside of the place. Here are the things that surrounded the Coliseum: a storage yard filled with overused freight train cars, a mysterious BBQ place that looks like a hole in the wall filled with disease, and some kind of chemical plant. There’s also a train station and a somewhat-disgusting looking river. Then, of course, there’s the facade of the Coliseum, which might remind one of a bomb shelter more than anything else. Aside from the banners promoting the various records by the A’s and A’s players (lowest ERA, World Series Champions, their 20-game winning streak, and so on…), it’s fairly unremarkable cement. Very safe place to be if you’re thinking about a major earthquake, I suspect, but not exactly the prettiest thing in the world. To approach Yankee Stadium, rising with all its grace out of the Bronx, all arches and flags, was breathtaking. Every inch of the surrounding area has been thought out and decorated, to Babe Ruth Plaza to the huge gate numbers to the giant NY set into the ground. I basically had to consciously think about keeping my mouth shut so I didn’t walk around with it gaping open in awe.

Then there’s actually being inside. First off, being a somewhat crazy Yankees fan (you might have suspected this already), being in the park was like arriving at the scene of one’s pilgrimage. Make no mistake, Yankee Stadium is a cathedral just as much as it is a ballpark. From the archways to the monstrous banners in the Great Hall and from the entrances to the giant screens in center field, everything is a testament to how good the Yankees are and have been. Yes, it might go slightly into the realm of ostentatious and even a bit noveau riche, but as a tourist I loved how obvious Yankee Stadium made itself. This was not a place for losers. You came here, you played baseball, and you won, and that’s the way things were. It is impossible to be in Yankee Stadium for more than two seconds without realizing that you’re in the home park of an almost-too-successful sports team filled with superstars. For an opposing fan or team, I could see how it might be intimidating and oppressive: there’s nowhere to go, especially when the home team is winning on the field, to escape the perennial success of the New York Yankees. To me, it felt a little like being home in that fan way where other fans of your team are like brothers and sisters, and filled me with all kinds of crazy emotions, mostly joy that I was raised to feel like a part of that history. (Of course, I wasn’t alive for most of it, but fan psychology is a discussion for another day.)

Usually, I see people talking about how the stadium doesn’t have the same soul or it’s too commercial or the tourists have taken over or something along these lines. And while I could understand where those people are coming from, given the extreme number of shops with their too-expensive fan merchandise and the ads placed over most of the available space, I didn’t mind it one bit. Maybe this vibe sets in when you’ve been to the park a couple of times, but I found the ads a great splash of color added everywhere, especially considering the change from the mostly-cement coliseum where many of the signs were hung from the walls (to avoid drilling into concrete), and seat indicators were spraypainted onto plastic between aisles. And the shops were, again, just another relentless indication of what the Yankees were and how they did what they did. Call the team greedy and the place overly-commercialized if you want (certainly a legitimate argument), but remember that that poster being bought for $40 is helping to pay Mark Teixiera’s salary. Those tourists buying $120 seats are helping to pay the team just as much as you are, and maybe more.

And then there was the game itself. Oakland possesses two color screens that I suspect were both smaller than the giant ads in center field, and they’re not easy to see or watch. The rest of the screens are black and white. Just the sheer amount of information displayed in New York practically confused me: total bases, OBP, SLG, and the random miscellany that was displayed made me stare. It was like taking a starving Ethiopian child and putting him in front of a souped-up computer and telling him he could have anything he want. I gaped. Even past the actual information, there were the graphics, which were in color shocking, brilliant color: Russell’s mountie hat, Wrestler Brett, Swishalicious – these kind of things simply wouldn’t be possible in the Coliseum. There were different graphics to display the next batter up! Every player had a witty related graphic! Guess the Baby Bomber! The Subway Race! Not only were the screens themselves huge and the information so bright and colorful, but people were paid to make those designs and run them, and there ain’t no one on the Coliseum’s payroll doing that.

All-in-all, it was in every way an experience for me. To see my team at home again was really only the beginning of the visit: the stadium in itself was a whole different animal. There’s a way that I love the Coliseum in that it’s where I routinely see baseball – and extremely cheap baseball at that ($12 bleachers) – but it obviously doesn’t hold a candle to what Yankee Stadium is. The ballpark in the Bronx is a temple that worships the Yankees far more than it is a place where baseball is played. This might be obvious, but going from the Coliseum to Yankee Stadium was walking into a freezing room on a boiling day. Everything about it – the giant ads everywhere, the shops, the confused people who didn’t care about the game, the $15 margaritas – was wonderful. Don’t take it for granted, you lucky people in the city. You could be attached to the Oakland-Alameda Overstock.com O.com Coliseum like I am.

The Biggest Ball

I just wanted to use this.

Congratulations! You’ve just caught Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit! It was a home run into the left field stands and despite your slightly drunken coordination and hysteria, you got your hands around it. You fought off that ugly chick next to you and the nerdy-looking guy typing on his smuggled iPad (he muttered something about a war…) to keep it. It’s got a shiny hologram and looks slightly used and everything. There’s no question that, for a Yankees fan, there are fewer greater souvenirs. And given Jeter’s reputation, that ball is worth quite a bit of money.
You’ve got Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit. What do you do with it?

I guess you can break it down into two categories. You can either keep it, which I’ll get to in a bit, or give it back to the Yankees. Personally, I would give it back to the Yankees. It would be cool to have, but something like that – well, wouldn’t you want someone to give you back your 3000th hit? I’d be pretty annoyed if some jerk kept it in his bookcase. So, you’ve decided to give it back to the Yankees. What do you ask for? Are you as noble as Christian Lopez, the guy who actually caught the ball, and ask for nothing? Tickets? Signed memorabilia? Dinner with the captain himself? Tickets? Legends seats all year, or two or three years, would be pretty good. I don’t think asking for straight cash is a good idea. If you were looking for only money, you could probably get way more cash on eBay.

Maybe you don’t want to give it to the Yankees, or you have an entirely unreasonable demand. You demand that in order to give the ball back, the Yankees have to fire Girardi, release A.J. Burnett, and trade for Barry Zito. You refuse to give the ball to anyone else until you see Barry Zito out there on the mound in the Bronx in pinstripes. I’m pretty sure, at that point, they’ll just let you keep it. Do you keep the ball on your mantle forever? What do you do with it with you die? Donate it to Cooperstown? Your kid(s)? To Derek? Would it just mysteriously remain in your estate?

Do you sell it? Admittedly, I think if you sell Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit than you’re not the best fan you could be. An item like that baseball is worth more than money. That baseball is worth yours (or my) childhood. All those moments you that you watched TV under the covers and yelled at Brett Gardner for running like an idiot and threw your remote at the wall and put your foot through the TV – that’s what that baseball means. I suppose you could sell the ball (rumored to be worth approximately $140,000) and then use the money for tickets or a jersey or two or something, but I still think that’s a stretch. Do you sell it on eBay? Craigslist? Really?

Obviously, I don’t fall into most usual girl stereotypes, but I’m pretty sure this decision would basically tear me apart. And you have to make it during the game! While the game was going on! With Hal Steinbrenner on the phone near you! Maybe if you’ve been a Yankees fan for the past 50 years, this is a smaller moment and the baseball means less, but my first year of Yankee-dom was 1995, so Derek Jeter is pretty closely wound into my childhood. I think what would happen is that I would probably keep it for the game, but feel bad and call Yankee Stadium back and try to figure out what to get for it. Legends tickets and a whole bunch of memorabilia sounds cool.

Anyway. Go Derek Jeter. Yay.

Pitching Probables

Pitching’s a crazy thing, isn’t it? Seems like we haven’t worried about anything besides it since day one aside from a few spots of sputtering offense. That, we know’ll improve. But this whole pitching thing has been crazy since forever. Good for writers. Bad for the team. And for fans. I wish we could have ace pitching and a crappy backup catcher to complain about. Wait….

Anyway, it’s looking like, for the first time in a while, the Yankees may eventually have more starters than they have rotation spots. This is a blissful change from the norm, where it usually seems like the question du jour is ‘who the hell is going to pitch tomorrow?’ On the bright side, it’s nice to have so many alternatives. On the downside, the decision isn’t an easy one. We’re not choosing between Justin Verlander and Aaron Cook here. To put it lightly, there’s going to be a pretty serious bottleneck if all the injured Yankees starters come back healthy. Which ones are more likely to stay in the rotation?

Phil Hughes – 90%

We see you too, Phil. (Photo by dbphoto on flickr. Licensed under creative commons. )

Since going down with mysterious arm weakness on April 16th, Hughes has been in and out of the public consciousness. While he’s basically guaranteed to scoop back up his rotation spot when he returns from the DL, the concern should be that both fans have the team have no idea what kind of Phil Hughes is going to come back. Remember that Hughes didn’t even start off the season right: his velocity never where it was supposed to be, even in Spring Training, and none of his three starts were passable. While It’s nice to see that his fastball is above 90 in his first two rehab starts, no one’s exactly sounded thrilled by what he’s showing so far. Throwing seventy pitches in 3 innings is closer to the kind of stuff he showed in late 2010, with an inability get guys out and each batter hitting approximately 203984039 foul balls – and that not the best pitcher Phil can be. My personal concern is not if he will get his spot back, because that seems obvious, but rather how long he can keep it, and what he can do to maximize his own effectiveness. Everyone knows that Hughes has all-star stuff, it’s just a matter of finding it again, and it’s impossible to say whether he will. If Hughes’ dead arm makes it hard for him to reacquire the stuff he had in early 2010, it’s hard to say where he’ll project long term. A 4/5 starter would be a possibility, or maybe even a disappointing move to the bullpen, continuing the Yankees’ general weirdness (in lieu of other words) with developing pitching.

Bartolo Colon – 85%

Who can say enough about Big Bad Bartolo? Fans (and probably the team) came into the year expecting absolutely nothing from Colon, who’d had a mysterious stem cell treatment on his arm during 2010 and hadn’t pitched all during the season. Here was a guy who the Indians wouldn’t sign due to his, err, quite obviously poor conditioning routine. Said routine (or lack thereof) has done absolutely nothing to hinder the fact that Colon was, up until his hamstring injury, the second-most effective pitcher on the staff and probably the one the Yankees were getting the most bang for their buck from. He was even good enough to get the steroid whispers started, which seems to be a compliment nowadays. It’s nice that the injury is in his leg and not his arm, and he seems to be on track for a relatively speedy return. His rehab has gone well and he’s scheduled to throw a simulated game on Monday, which would line up him to be back in the rotation over Brian Gordon if they use the off day (also Monday) to skip him. His injury wasn’t am related and he’s, uh, surprisingly agile on the mound, so here’s hoping we get the same Bartolo back that left. Because I don’t think I need to say this, but that Bartolo was really, really good. I blame that two-seamer. Am I allowed to say that pitch is sexy? If there was such thing as a sexy pitch, Bartolo Colon’s two-seamer would qualify.

Freddy Garcia – 50%

Here’s where it gets tricky. Out of the three rotation spots, the only one truly in question is the fifth starter, and it probably comes down the chief or the supernova. Personally, I would prefer to see Ivan Nova (I’ve always been a Nova supporter), but honestly, my gut is that it will be Freddy. Why? First of all, his stats appear a bit better (3.30 ERA/4.14 FIP, vs Nova’s 4.13 ERA/4.13 FIP), and second of all, the pitching plan has always seemed to be put the prospects in the bullpen first (Hughes, Noesi, Nova). While Freddy, like Colon, has exceeded most expectations of him, both his problem and his success can be very easily summarized: he is junkballing people to death. It’s certainly entertaining to watch batters be frustrated by his slow (87 MPH fastball), slower (80 MPH splitter), and slowest (70 MPH curveball) routine, but two utter takedowns by the Boston offense has shown that it’s not likely to work on a power team. That being said, Garcia’s proved he’s capable at least, and his veteran presence shoring up the back of the rotation may be the tipping point in the decision on the fifth starter.

Ivan Nova – 45%

Nova’s results this year have been, to say the least, interesting. What usually happens is that someone on the internet writes a scathing report of how bad he is and how he needs to be kicked out of the rotation, and then he goes out there and just tears up whatever team in question he’s facing. Nova’s biggest weakness is his inability to miss bats: his swinging strike percentage last year was 6.4%, with this year’s being a mere 4.8%, while he’s on pace for only only about 5 strikeouts per nine innings, just below his average from last year. While both years are a pretty small sample, the evidence is clear pretty clear that he’s no David Robertson. He makes up for this with decent ground ball rate (55%) that’s improved from last year’s few starts (51%). The reasons I think Nova should be in the rotation are as follows: first off, he’s young, and has showed improvement from last year to this year and continues to improve, even against high-powered offenses such as the Rangers and the Reds, and secondly, he clearly has the stuff to start in the bigs, and stashing him in the pen or demoting him won’t improve that stuff. The problem is, his stuff certainly would work better out of the pen than Garcia’s, given his slick little fastball-curveball combination and the jump we’d see in his speed if he was only throwing 20 pitches a night. Like I said earlier, though, putting young pitchers in the bullpen is an extremely frustrating part of this team: don’t do it to poor Nova.

Brian Gordon – 5%

Unless Brian Gordon goes out there and throws a perfect game, there’s little possibility that we’ll see him in the big league rotation after people start coming off the DL. While he was serviceable in his first start and has a really great story, there’s an obvious reason why he spent so much time being a minor leaguer. While Gordon is decent filler material while the Yankees deal with their injuries, he doesn’t appear to have the stuff he needs to keep his big league job with this team, at least. He’ll most likely be the first one to go – probably cut, given the excess of pitchers in Scranton and Trenton, but possibly demoted. Either way, Gordon’s been a placeholder for Colon until he gets back, and while he’s fine for a couple of spot starts, there’s really no way this guy is going to take a rotation spot over any of the options listed.

For the first time in what seems like a long time, the Yankees have too many pitchers fighting for a spot. What this comes down too, really, is Garcia vs. Nova, and it’s not an easy one to pick when you take all the factors into the debate. That being said, I personally think this is still a better problem to have than worrying about who the heck is gonna pitch tomorrow. Go Nova!

Game 75: Big Stoppa

Photo © Samara Pearlstein

The Yankees are nursing a baby two-game losing streak, so it’s up to the big man to step in and show everyone who’s boss. He’s won six of his last seven and is looking to become the first pitcher to rack up 10 hyper-important W’s in 2011. To stop him, the Rockies send out Aaron Cook (4.67 ERA/3.36 FIP). Meanwhile, I continue on my nefarious weekend writer plot to take over the entire website. Muahahaha. Nothing to see here, folks, just the lineup…

Brett Gardner, LF
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Eduardo Nunez, SS
Francisco Cervelli, C

CC Sabathia, P

You can catch the game on YES at 1:05 pm. Woo.