Carl Pavano, man of destiny

Who could have predicted the series of events that would begin to unfold just a week ago, when Andy Pettitte experienced back spasms following a workout? Chien-Ming Wang injuring his hamstring while running isn’t exactly something we fans were worried about; if there was any concern at all, it was for his shoulder. Then Jeff Karstens, who was actually in consideration for the Opening Day starter gig, left yesterday’s game in the second with elbow stiffness. Turns out that logjam at AAA may not be as much of a problem as once thought over the season’s first month.

The timing of Wang’s injury — on a day Mussina pitched — leaves very open the matter of who starts on Opening Day. Pettitte is just returning to the mound today, preparing for a final exhibition start on Friday, which puts him right out of consideration. Since Mussina pitched Saturday, he’ll pitch Thursday, which also renders him out of bounds — there is no need to start a guy on three days rest before the season even begins.

Speculated over the weekend has been the real possibility that Carl Pavano ends up taking the ball Opening Day. At this point, it’s between him, Darrell Rasner, and Kei Igawa, meaning that any choice will likely leave the Yankees with the worst Opening Day starter in the league. Pavano rises to the top of that crop because 1) he’s the most recognizable name, 2) in theory, he is the best of the three, and 3) he gets paid the most money. To be honest, I’d be hard pressed to come up with three worse reasons for starting a guy on Opening Day.

Technically, though, it’s still spring, and spring means that hope and faith are still in abundance. So instead of lamenting how disgusting it is that Carl Pavano will start on April 2, let’s see if there’s any positive spin to put on this. Let’s see…Pavano has been injured for the past season and a half, and Opening Day will be his first MLB start in 643 days. As far as we know, he’s healthy now while his teammates ail. He hasn’t looked necessarily good this spring, but he hasn’t been tattooed. I got it!

It is Carl Pavano’s destiny to pitch a no-hitter on Opening Day. Am I stretching a bit? Sure. But think about this: how perfectly did these events unfold in Pavano’s favor? When pitchers and catchers reported, the only way that he would have even had a shot to pitch Opening Day was if Pettitte, Wang, and Mussina succumbed to injury, Jeff Karstens looked flat, and Kei Igawa didn’t adjust quickly. Of course, all five of those happening is an enormous long shot. A week and a day ago, only the Igawa scenario looked like it was happening.

But then we had the Pettitte incident on the same day Karstens got roughed up. Wang’s hammy lined up with Mussina’s start, leaving the team’s collective hands tied. If Pettitte had been hurt lifting that Friday and not Monday, if Wang got hurt earlier and the Yanks were able to juggle Moose’s rotation turn, then there would have been another answer on Opening Day. But now we’re stuck with Carl Pavano, and he could provide the kind of Opening Day magic we only hear about in tales told by 70-year-old men.

Or he could tire after five innings and get shelled by the D-Rays. I suppose that’s the more likely scenario. But, once again, we’re in the season of dreams, when anything is still possible because nothing to this point has counted.

Of course, I jest about Pavano’s destiny. However, I maintain a degree of seriousness when I ask: why not Phil Hughes? True, there’s a level of pressure to pitch well in that scenario, but Yankee Stadium would be absolutely electric, and that would definitely get the 20-year-old’s adrenaline pumping. I think a guy like Hughes would feed off it rather than be scared by it.

Plus, just think about it; who would you rather have start Opening Day, Phil Hughes or Carl Pavano? Seems like a no-brainer, right?

How to handle Phil Hughes

As we all know, the Yankees are taking a very conservative approach to handling Phil Hughes. He’s the top pitching prospect in baseball, and the last thing the team wants is to let him loose and risk an injury. To an extent, this makes sense; there have been studies that demonstrate the negative effects of increasing a young pitcher’s workload by more than 30 innings a year. True, you have to throw more to get stronger, but the Yankees are just trying to moderate how much more Hughes throws.

At what point, though, do the Yankees cut bait and let him pitch as many innings as he can handle? He’ll be limited to around 180 innings this year, 30 more than he threw in 2006. Are they going to impose a 210-inning limit in 2008?

Perhaps we’re not asking the best questions here. After all, 180 innings for Phil Hughes is much different than 180 innings for Chien-Ming Wang. The typical reaction here is to revert to pitch count, which has been the trend as of late. But does pitch count even give us an adequate idea of a pitcher’s workload?

For a quick rundown of the Pitch Count Phenomenon, check out Tom Verducci’s article from this week’s SI (I don’t know why I still subscribe to the magazine if they make everything available online). Yeah yeah, I know some Yanks fans still have a sour taste in their mouth from Verucci’s recent article bemoaning the Yankees philosophy, but the Matsuzaka/pitch count article is a good read.

Now, head over to CBS Sportsline and check out the article about how the Mariners are handling King Felix. Most of the article is fluff, but there are some interesting tidbits in there, including:

As for Hernandez’s workload, the Mariners still will monitor him closely. But if it’s the seventh inning and Hernandez is dominating, you probably won’t see him automatically yanked from the game like he was so often last year.

Instead of simply counting innings, manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Rafael Chaves will place more emphasis this year on total pitches thrown and, particularly, on the stress of those pitches and innings.

If Hernandez is sailing, his delivery is in sync and everything is smooth, the green light will remain in place.

I couldn’t possibly react to that revelation better than Jeff at Lookout Landing, who pointed out the CBS article:

That’s not stupid – that’s perfect. It’s exactly how a young pitcher should be treated. Counting innings is what’s silly; 200 frames for Gil Meche are way different than 200 frames for, say, Roy Halladay, and the total barely even gives you an approximation of workload and stress level. It’s something of a barometer, since a guy with 100 innings will generally have less wear and tear than someone with twice as many, but it’s incredibly inefficient, to the point where it’s not even worth monitoring when there are better alternatives available. Which there are.

Innings sometimes provide a ballpark estimate, but pitch context and mechanical consistency tell you much much more. If Pitcher A throws 90 pitches and allows ten baserunners in five innings, while Pitcher B throws 110 pitches and allows six baserunners in seven innings, Pitcher A’s going to be doing more damage to himself, since he’s working in more stressful situations. That’s what wears a guy out and puts him at risk for injury – having to focus on every individual pitch with men on is way more tiring than cruising through the bottom of the order with the bases empty. That much we know. So why not account for it when you’re keeping track of a young pitcher’s progress?

If coaches and front offices are going to be so mindful of a pitcher’s workload, does it not make more sense to try to get as micro a view as possible of said workload? The more you generalize, the more vague your findings are going to be.

If Hughes dominates AAA, there seems little reason to keep innings limits on him. Then, once he gets to the majors, you can monitor him in the same way. This will provide a better view of his workload and possibly clear him to work beyond the 180-inning limit imposed on him. You never know, the Yankees may need some extra innings from him down the stretch.

Mike, I know you’ve got two cents about this.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

How did Igawa do last night?

Last week, it sounded like I was going to jump off a bridge following Kei Igawa’s unimpressive start. A few commenters talked me off the ledge, but I remain skeptical of his ability to hold down even a back of the rotation job in the majors.

Furthering my obsession with Igawa, I decided to detail his outing last night. I was going to go pitch-by-pitch and describe what I thought of each, but that seems a little too overboard. Maybe I’ll do that for a regular season game once, but not for a Spring Training start.

Keep in mind that he’s kept the ball up in the zone all spring, which is going to turn into an enormous problem sooner or later (and likely sooner). Let’s see if he made any adjustments this time around.

[Read more…]

Farnsworth developing not one, but TWO new pitches

Possibly lost among the “Moose had a good outing” and “Giambi is ready for the season” fodder is an interesting article in the Daily News regarding Kyle Farnsworth’s expanding repertoire.

Farnsworth, one of the Yankees’ setup men, is working on a changeup and a sinker, hoping that pitches in the mid-80s can keep hitters from sitting on his fastball. It’s something that pitching coach Ron Guidry suggested at the end of last season.

I’m a bit puzzled by this. First, how effectively is he going to be able to work in two new pitches? The article mentions that he spent most of the winter resting his troublesome back, so in essence he began developing them this spring. I’m just unsure that a guy entering his 13th year in the league can develop two new and effective pitches in a little over a month.

Second, if he’s adding these two, is he removing the slider? As frustrated as we were last year with his using it in inappropriate situations — not to mention hanging it far too often — does anyone feel better with him using new and untested pitches rather than one he’s used throughout his relief career? I mean, if he can work in a splitter and changeup effectively, then yeah, I can live without the slider. It once again comes back to the skepticism about his ability to throw these pitches.

In theory, I’d love Farnsworth to throw a splitter and a change. With his devastating heat, they seem like the perfect complement pithes. I just wish he’d have come to this realization earlier, when he’d be better able to develop them, rather than rushing in.

My official prediction: he’ll stick with the fastball and slider this season.

Photo: Matthew J. Lee / Boston Globe

Can Igawa Adjust?

It’s still early, and I know a lot of you are going to rip me for being too negative at this juncture, but I’m very concerned about Kei Igawa. Concerned to the point where I’m hoping that he’s the next Kaz Ishii. Okay, so maybe I exaggerate a little…but only a little. I can only think, he’ll be fine, he’s just making adjustments for so long while staring at his 9.00 BB/9.

Being a stat nut, I’m obviously enamored with his 15.43 K/9, but I realize that he’s not going to sustain that number. Once hitters figure him out, he’ll be lucky to post half that rate. Unfortunately, his walk rate isn’t guaranteed to drop along with it. That would place him right along with Ishii’s peripherals.

Then again, Ishii was a very high-strikeout, high-walk pitcher in Japan, while Igawa was a pretty high-strikeout, moderately low-walk version. What scares me is that Ishii’s strikeouts dropped and his walks rose in America, both significantly. Obviously, Igawa can’t afford to have that happen to his numbers (no pitcher can).

It is unfair to only compare/contrast Igawa to one other Japanese import, so I’ll cease at this point. I’m just trying to make some sense of him, and it’s not working. Emma Span of The Village Voice feels the same way. The only things we have to go on now are 1) his numbers and 2) the knowledge that hitters are going to figure him out and that he’ll need to make adjustments.

Well, we know his numbers aren’t so hot. A 12:7 strikeout to walk ratio seems generous when you see that he’s thrown 142 pitches this spring (over 20 per inning) and only 78 for strikes (55 percent). Soon enough, hitters are going to make their adjustments, and they’ll swing at fewer and fewer pitches out of the zone, meaning fewer strikes for Igawa. He has to adjust, and for my own sanity I’d like to see some degree of adjustment in his next start.

Here’s where the problem gets stickier: the Yanks don’t have many options if he fails to adjust quickly. They’ve invested $46 million into him, so he’s going to be with the big league squad. If he can’t hack it as a starter, the logical step would be to stick him in the bullpen, but the bullpen is a terrible place for a pitcher with control problems. Would they send him to Scranton? Could they, even if they wanted to?

Of course, he could make my ramblings moot if he settles down and quits walking guys. Based on his first three games, though, I’m not so optimistic about that. In fact, I’m trying real hard to resist the temptation to jump on the Jeff Karstens bandwagon. He’s also in the small sample size range, so I don’t want to get too excited. Another solid outing by him and another shaky one by Igawa, though, and I may just take that plunge.

Photo: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

The Karstens conundrum

Jeff Karstens wasn’t supposed to do this. He wasn’t an All Star in Japan; he doesn’t have an onerous four-year, $39.95 million contract. Karstens, a 19th-round draft pick in 2003, is 24 and doesn’t even make a dent on the Yankees top prospect list.

But Jeff Karstens is making things very difficult for the Yankees this Spring Training. It is a difficulty that many teams would love to have.

In three appearances – two starts, one relief showing – Karstens in 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA. He’s thrown 9 innings of 5-hit baseball racking up 9 strike outs and walking no one. And after an off-season of tough condition, Karstens is hitting his spots with a fastball in the 90s. Last night, during a one-hit, four-inning effort against the Twins, he was flashing two effective off-speed pitches as well.

For the Yanks, their rotation – while shaky – is seemingly filled. Some combination of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina will fill out the top three slots, and the expensive duo of Kei Igawa and Carl Pavano are slated for the last three slots. But Karstens has shown better poise and better stuff this Spring than Pavano and Igawa.

While Spring Training stats are by and large meaningless, some numbers are telling. Karstens’ zero walks shows he’s not afraid to pound the strike zone and that his control has been stellar so far. Meanwhile, Pavano has looked merely pedestrian in two trips to the Hill, and Igawa hasn’t shown any control even if his strike out rate is high in few innings.

Of course, none of this pitchers has thrown anything close to a significant number of innings. But Karstens looks strong out of the gate. He’s throwing, as Newsday’s new beat reporter Kat O’Brien noted, with a purpose, and he seems comfortable in Big League camp. He doesn’t need to earn his teammates’ trust or the fans’ belief that he can be good. We saw him last year; we know that he can throw.

As Peter Abraham noted, all eyes will be on Kei Igawa this evening. If he can’t show some command and effectiveness today, the Yanks may consider long and hard giving Karstens a rotation spot. He’s certainly earned it.

If nothing else, Karstens is yet another reminder that the Yankees don’t need to and shouldn’t be spending obscene amounts of money on fringe pitchers. Their signing of Igawa was a knee-jerk reaction to the Matsuzaka bidding war, but they have an ample number of candidates to fill out that five slot in the rotation. I hope money and that so-called veteran presence that Joe Torre seems to favor doesn’t trump ability.

Based on cash considerations, the Yankees have invested a lot in Pavano and Igawa. Based on Spring Training performance – indeed an unreliable indicator – Karstens deserves that rotation spot.

Image of Jeff Karstens pitching during the 2006 season courtesy of MLB.com.

Which Farnsworth are we getting?

Thankfully for Kyle Farnsworth, Carl Pavano has dominated the “he needs to earn his keep” talk this winter and spring. But sooner or later, Farnsworth will return to the spotlight; it’s kind of inevitable when you’re being paid $17 million to pitch 65 or 70 innings per season. What we’re all wondering is whether there’s a chance that the Kyle Farnsworth of 2005 will appear this season, or if we’re stuck with v2006.

Because relief pitchers work with such small samples per season, they are prone to violent swings of luck. Farnsworth is a perfect example of this. His ERAs since 2000, when he switched to full-time relief: 6.43, 2.74, 7.33, 3.30, 4.73, 2.32, 4.36. What the hell caused such fluctuation, particularly between the 2.32 and the 4.36 (what we paid for vs. what we got)?

We can scan the statistics all you want. Yes, his strikeouts per nine was slightly below his norm (10.23 in ’06 vs. north of 11 in his better years), he allowed an above-average .314 batting average on balls in play, and he displayed extreme flyball tendencies (0.78, which is alarmingly bad).

Anyone who watched him pitch, though, can give you the underlying reason for these trends: he hung the crap out of his slider. As if that wasn’t enough, he also chose to throw said hanging slider far too often, especially for a guy who throws 98 m.p.h. with ease, 101 when he needs a little something extra.

Perhaps to compensate for a pitch he didn’t control well last year, Farns is reportedly working on a changeup this spring. He probably hasn’t broken that out since his days as a starter, so I can’t imagine it being much more effective than his slider, which can only improve from last year. According to the man himself, it may not even be an issue this year:

“I think the main thing is that I was trying to be too perfect,” said Farnsworth, who went 3-6 with a 4.36 ERA in his first year with the Yankees. “A lot of times I found myself trying to be a pitcher instead of just doing what I do best.”

What he doesn’t do best is throw a changeup. Keeping the fastball low (and hence induce more groundballs) and throwing a few sliders to keep hitters honest will be the keys to Farnsworth’s return to form in 2007. And he’s right: he’s not a pitcher. He’s a thrower, so throw the freakin’ heat.

Unfortunately, the team is somewhat dependent on him. He’s at the back of the bullpen, but at this point I feel uncomfortable with him there. He of course has a chance at redemption — some people take a while to adjust in New York. I’m just very concerned that we’re stuck Farnsworth v2006 for the next two years.

Photo: SI.com