The Development of Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera is the most successful one-trick pony in baseball history, throwing cutter after cutter and mowing down big leaguers for the last decade and a half like no one else. David Laurila of FanGraphs recently spoke to Mariano and a few others about the cutter and his success, and the most interesting part to me was what they had to say about Rivera’s development as a pitcher over the years.

“The game alone will teach you a lot,” said Mo. “I’ve learned from a lot of people, but I’ve especially learned from situations, You won’t have a person who can sit with you and tell you what to do or what not to do. The best teacher is the game itself. When you go through tough times, and tough years, that will teach you. It will guide you in the right way … Earlier in my career, I threw the ball and it moved inside to lefties and away from righties. That’s how I thought about it. I didn’t use it as effectively as I could have. Now I vary [the break] and throw it in different areas.”

Laurila also spoke to Jorge Posada, who mentioned that Rivera uses both a tight and a big-breaking cutter depending on the situation these days. I think we’ve all kinda assumed that Rivera was a thinking man’s pitcher, using his years of knowledge and his historically great command to overwhelm hitters despite his advanced age, so this isn’t much of a surprise. It’s still interesting to read though. Just about all of Laurila’s interviews are great, and this one is no exception. Click the link and check it out, it gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

The Price for Matt Garza

With Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and John Danks now off the board, the trade focus has shifted to Jair Jurrjens and Matt Garza. The former is a no-no in my eyes, but the latter’s a pretty damn good fit for the Yankees. David Kaplan reported yesterday that talks involving Garza are heating up, with the Yankees and two other clubs involved. The price is “incredibly high” though, and Jon Heyman says the Cubs are prioritizing young pitching in return.

The Yankees have plenty of pitching at the upper levels, enough that they could trade three young arms and still have enough depth in Triple-A to support the big league team this summer. They appear to be a match in that regard, it’s just a question of whether or not the two sides can find a middle ground. I’m guessing no, because the price of pitching is ridiculously high right now and the Cubs hold all the cards. Once upon a time two top prospects and miscellaneous pieces got you Dan Haren or Cliff Lee. Now it gets you Gio Gonzalez.

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Yankee relief pitching over the years: A graphical look

In the comments of my graphical look at Yankee starters’ ERAs over the last several years, reader Mike Myers asked if I could do a headshot graph for the Yankee relievers or bench players. Well, in the spirit of the holiday, ask and ye shall receive, and as a follow up to our graphical look at the Yankee benches from earlier this week, today comes a graphical look at the primary players the Yankees have employed as members of their bullpens since the 2003 season.

However, before we get to the headshots, here’s an updated chart showing how the Yankee relief corps have fared since the advent of divisional play:

With a 3.12 ERA, the 2011 relief corps was the best the Yankees have fielded in at least a decade, and represented the 8th-lowest lowest bullpen ERA a Yankee team has put up since 1969. The lowest? The strike-shortened 1981 team’s absurd 2.26, though that was of course compiled in only 107 games. The lowest full-season relief ERA since 1969 was the 1970 team’s 2.34 mark. However, this is extremely weird when you consider that the very next season the Yankees recorded both their worst ERA- and FIP- of all 43 teams surveyed here. I don’t know if they either blew the bullpen up following 1970 or all of the holdovers simply forgot how to pitch come 1971, but that is a pretty crazy one-year increase.

The next-best relief corps of the last 20 Yankee seasons was the 2001 ‘pen, which put up a 3.42 ERA, and they don’t check in until 18th on the list, which really drives home just how great the 2011 Yankee bullpen was. In terms of ERA relative to the league, the 2011 team checked in tied for 5th, with a 74 ERA-, with the 1981 and 1970 teams again at the top. In terms of FIP, the 2011 team fared a bit less impressively, with its 3.65 mark coming in at 18th-best (1972 led this list with a 2.85 FIP, which further begs the question what on earth was going on with the Yankee bullpens from 1970 through 1972? One year they’re incredible, the following year atrocious, then back to incredible), though its FIP relative to the league (88 FIP-) was tied for 10th-best, with 1982 topping the list with a 76 FIP-.

Now on to the individuals who comprised recent Yankee bullpens. In order to define who made the cut, seeing as how the Yankees can go through up to 30 pitchers (or more) over the course of the season between cuts, trades and September call-ups, I initially used 30 innings pitched as a benchmark. While I mostly stuck to that parameter, I did end up getting a bit lenient so that I could include some memorable names that perhaps didn’t quite reach that threshold, but came close enough. I did not end up using anyone below 20 IPs, so this should at least be a fairly representative sample of the primary players the Yankees utilized in relief during their respective seasons.

As for how I graded them out, I decided to go with FIP-, as neither ERA nor WAR are particularly great at telling us how effective relievers were. Focusing solely on what the pitcher was responsible for and comparing it against the league seemed like the most intuitive way to show just how good (or bad) the Yankee relief corps have been over the years.

(click to enlarge)

A few observations:

  • The Yankees, like every team in baseball, have had a lot of crappy relievers.
  • My primary memory of Juan Acevedo was of him botching one of Roger Clemens’ 8,000 attempts at getting his 300th win in a blown save against the Cubs on June 7, 2003.
  • Remember Felix “Run Fairy” Heredia, Felix Rodriguez and Luis Vizcaino?
  • I still hate Phil Coke, even though the 38 FIP- he put up in 14.2 innings in 2008 tops the list. Even though his ’08 season didn’t make the 30-IP innings cutoff, his 2009 season obviously did, and I wanted to show how bad he actually was in comparison.
  • The Yankees had a lot of crappy relievers in the middle of the aughts. Between bad pitching and awful defense, it still amazes me that the 2004-2007 teams still made the playoffs every year.
  • If you lower the innings cutoff to 20, Joba Chamberlain‘s 42 FIP- in 2007 is the second-best FIP- on this chart after Phil Hughes‘ 41 in 2009. In fact, those two are the third- and second-best relief seasons in all of Yankee history (going all the way back to 1871) in terms of FIP-. The best? Why, Mariano Rivera‘s 1996, in which he put up a 40 FIP- in 107.2 innings.
  • David Robertson‘s 2011 FIP- was the 5th-best relief season in all of Yankee history on the aforementioned list of 258 relief seasons of 20 innings pitched or more.

Mailbag: Josh Hamilton, Part Deux

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Mike asks: What kind of contract Josh Hamilton could get when he’s a free agent next year?

I wrote about Hamilton last year right around the holidays, so this is a good chance to go back for an update. The now 30-year-old outfielder followed up his 2010 MVP campaign by having the second worst year of his career, at least offensively. That’s relative to his lofty standards of course, because in no world is a .371 wOBA and a 129 wRC+ bad. He hit .290+ with 30+ doubles and 25+ homers for the third time in four years, and continues to be rated as a strong outfield defender by the advanced metrics.

The other thing Hamilton did in 2011 was get hurt, yet again. He missed more than a month early in the season after breaking his arm sliding into home plate, and he played through a sports hernia in the playoffs before having surgery after the season. Hamilton has been on the DL five times since resurfacing in 2007, including at least once in each of the last three seasons. Ailments include gasteroenteritis (2007), a wrist sprain (2007), fractured ribs (2009), a sports hernia (2009), more fractured ribs (2010), and then the broken arm and second sports hernia this year. He’s also been day-to-day with various leg problems (hamstring, knee, Achilles) about a dozen times since coming back into the league. Only once in his five-year career has he managed to play more than 135 games in a season, only twice more than 125 games.

Hamilton’s past is well known, and it’s fair to question how he’ll age after all he’s put his body through. This isn’t just an injury prone player now on the wrong side of 30, it’s an injury prone player with years of drug and alcohol abuse taking a toll on his body now on the wrong side of 30. The risk level is astronomical. Hamilton’s a great, great player on both sides of the ball, but he’s unable to maximize his talent because he can’t stay on the field all season. I know his left-handed pop would look great in Yankee Stadium, but signing a player like this would be a classic old Yankees move, if you catch my drift. Anyway, that wasn’t the question.

I think a nine-figure contract is out of the question for Hamilton next winter, even though his raw production probably warrants a payday like that. The Jayson Werth (seven years, $126M) and Carl Crawford (seven years, $142M) contracts seem excessive, but the Josh Willingham (three years, $27M) and Michael Cuddyer (three years, $31.5M) contracts seem too light. Perhaps the Jason Bay (four years, $66M) and Torii Hunter (five years, $90M) deals serve as a decent middle ground, four or five years and something like $16-18M per season. Sounds somewhat reasonable, no?

I don’t know what the Yankees are going to do in right field after next season, when Nick Swisher becomes a free agent with no obvious in-house candidate to replace him, but I sure hope Hamilton isn’t on the short list of solutions. Him and Andre Ethier, who will also be a free agent, are two guys I’m very much against signing. I’m sure the Yankees can fashion a platoon that’s as reasonably productive as those two guys over 162 games for a third of the cost on a one-year commitment. Hamilton’s a great hitter, but it’s a safe bet that his best years will be behind when by the time he hits the open market next winter. You don’t want to be the one on the hook when his body finally goes overboard and completely breaks down.