Is it possible that Mitre really is the best option?

They should let him grow facial hair. Maybe that'll work. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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.

Mailbag: Scott Kazmir

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Tucker, Tom, and Kevin write, paraphrased: Is there any chance the Yanks try and acquire Scott Kazmir?

The idea of acquiring Scott Kazmir is nothing new. Mike and I talked about Kazmir at length on the radio show this month. But, since many of you don’t listen to the RAB Radio Show (we won’t hold it against you), it might be time to present this on the main page. After all, we received these three emails between the times when I went to bed last night and I woke up this morning, so it’s a decently hot issue.

The Angels made a splash this weekend when they traded Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells and his contract. The Angels will receive just $5 million in salary relief from the Blue Jays, meaning their payroll became bloated pretty quickly. It already stands at almost $130 million, and that’s without Jered Weaver’s arbitration figure. Might the Angels, then, want to offset some of the salary they took on by trading one of their more outrageous contracts?

Per the extension he signed with the Rays in 2008, Kazmir is slated to earn $12 million this year, with a $13.5 million club option for 2012. Any club would decline that option and pay the $2.5 million buyout, so to trade for Kazmir would be to take on $14.5 million for one season. The Yankees might make a business out of taking on bad contracts, but I don’t think even they would pay Kazmir nearly $15 million for one season. If the Angels were to trade him, then, they’d have to pick up a part of the tab.

In some ways, Kazmir has progressed similarly to Johan Santana, though he wasn’t nearly as good at his peak, and his been much worse trough his decline. His peak came in 2007, when he struck out 10.41 per nine and had a 3.48 ERA against a 3.45 FIP and 3.79 xFIP. It all lined up. He wasn’t a groundball machine, but kept his rate over 40 percent. This helped him limit home runs, which helped him a lot, because he doesn’t have a pristine walk rate. But then in 2008 his strikeout rate dipped, his walk and home run rates spiked, and his ground ball rate dropped all the way to 30 percent. His ERA still looked nice, 3.49, but his FIP and xFIP figures both jumped over 4.00. His FIP was the most troubling, at 4.37.

Since then his peripherals have caught up to him. He began the 2009 season in horrific fashion, a 7.69 ERA and just 45.2 IP in nine starts. A thigh strain landed him on the DL. While he was better upon his return, he still wasn’t very good: a 4.68 ERA in his next 11 starts, though he pitched nearly six innings per start, nearly an inning more than he had pitched in his first nine starts. The Rays then cut their losses and traded him to the Angels, where he performed quite a bit better in his final six starts. But even then, his strikeout totals were low.

Last year, for the third straight season, Kazmir finished with around 150 IP (he hit it on the head last year). Yet it was even worse than 2009. His strikeout rate dropped to 5.58 per nine, his walk rate jumped to 4.74 per nine, and he allowed 1.5 homers per nine. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all closer to 6.00 than 5.00. There wasn’t a saving grace period, either, as there was in 2009. Kazmir was terrible or injured wire-to-wire. To the injuries, he hit the DL twice, missing a total of 42 days with shoulder issues. After his return his ERA was a bit better, 4.37, but he struck out just 33 in 57.2 innings while walking 30.

For parts of four seasons Kazmir worked through the AL East with aplomb. He had shiny strikeout rates, low ERAs, and decent innings totals. But by 2008 he was showing signs of decline, and in the past two seasons they’ve come to pass. He’ll always be an attractive name because of his past success, but that recalls a pitcher who, by nearly every indication, no longer exists. Sure, as a flier — a mid-level prospect for Kazmir and salary relief — he might be worth a sniff. But after taking on Vernon Wells’s contract, I fail to see why the Angels would pay Kazmir to pitch elsewhere. They’re better off keeping him and seeing if he can help them. It’s not as though they’re going to get anything useful in return.

So far today we’ve hit on two scrap-heap trade candidates. At 1:30 Mike will wrap it up.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 23rd, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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Mailbag: Johan Santana

(AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr)

Darl asks: Any chance Johan Santana goes on the trading block? 31 year old with some injury trouble making $20MM. Mets likely will get blasted in NL East. New management will want to rebuild. He is under contact through 2014.

I think you answered your own question. A 31-year-old with injury trouble making $20M a year is ALWAYS on the trade block. The problem is that no one is going to bite. Remember, Santana is currently rehabbing from major shoulder surgery and isn’t expected to be ready until midseason. And it’s not just the shoulder either. His 2009 season came to an end in August because he had elbow surgery, so that’s two arm operations in as many years. In fact, Johan has not finished even one of his three seasons with the Mets healthy. In ’08 it was his knee.

We were adamantly against trading for Johan three years ago, and that’s when he was healthy and on the top of the game. Now that he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has been dealing with some serious injury issues, we’re even more against it, regardless of his availability and the cost. The injury concerns are very real, and are even more troubling since the last two involve his prized left arm.

Not only would the Yankees have to worry about injury-related decline, but at age 31 (32 in March), age-related decline becomes an issue as well. A case could be made that a healthy Johan Santana won’t be worth his contract for the next four years, especially since his peripheral stats have been declining since before he won his second Cy Young Award…

The injuries are just the most obvious of the red flags. Johan’s fastball velocity has been declining while his changeup velo remains unchanged, so it’s not much of a surprise that the latter’s effectiveness has slipped in recent years. There’s not the same kind of separation on the pitch anymore. His swinging strike rate has been falling for about four years now, and he’s gone from a guy that gets 40%+ ground balls to the mid-30’s. Naturally, his homerun rate has shot up despite the move to the easier league.

Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees definitely need pitching and there’s nothing wrong with taking fliers on injury rehab starters, but there’s a limit. It’s okay to go after those guys on cheap one-year deals when they’re free agents, but absorbing four years and $80-something million of a contract and giving up talent for that kind of guy is a backwards move, regardless of how talented the pitcher is. Johan is drawing ever closer to the cliff, and no one should want the Yankees to be on the hook for his contract whenever he decides to tumble off.

Anyway, it’s not going to happen, but I figured it was worth addressing since quite a few people ask each week. Santana was a devastating pitcher at his peak, a high-strikeout lefty that walked next to no one, but he’s no fewer than two seasons removed from that peak. He’s more name than production and reliability now, and that’s exactly the opposite of what the Yankees need.

Open Thread: AFC Title Game

Santonio's ready to face the team that traded him for a fifth rounder. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Following last week’s thrilling win over the Patriots, the Jets march into Heinz Field to take on the Steelers. They’ve already beaten Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this postseason, and if they complete the trifecta against Ben Roethlisberger tonight, well then mark your calendars for Gang Green’s Super Bowl date. This game start at 6:30pm ET, hence the slightly early open thread, and can be seen on CBS. Enjoy the game, everyone.

“Brett Favre’s f@%d it up for everybody.”

It’s natural to want to compare athletes. In a world where success means being the absolute best – just look at the things we’ve forgiven professional athletes for – you really can’t avoid it. When a professional athlete begins to stand out, be it for their numbers or personality, they become easy targets for comparison. How many closers have been compared to Mariano Rivera? How many prospects might grow up to be Babe Ruth or Albert Pujols?

But there is no “next Mariano Rivera.” It’s not Jonathan Papelbon. It’s not Carlos Marmol. It’s not Jenrry Meija. Some comparisons just don’t work. Maybe it’s a matter of statistics. Maybe it’s a matter of personality. Maybe it’s both. No one is “the next Mariano Rivera,” because no one has dominated some of the toughest batters in baseball with one pitch for 15 (fifteen!) years. It might also have something to do with the fact that you could probably be crushed to death by Rivera’s postseason records.  But the whole Mariano Rivera comparison fails especially badly in the case of Jonathan Papelbon, who is not only not as good at closing and lacks Rivera’s longevity, but is also a total brat.

Another common, terrible comparison which seems to have reared its absolutely hideous head as of late: Andy Pettitte is not Brett Favre. Andy Pettitte is nothing like Brett Favre. Their positions in their respective sports are totally different. Their public personalities are totally different. The way they go about trying to decide if they’re going to retire is totally different. Can we please stop insulting Andy Pettitte by suggesting he is even remotely like Brett Favre?

Admittedly, I’m totally biased on the matter. I grew up in the 90’s, near New York, and Andy Pettitte was a huge part of my childhood. I watched him grow into the pitcher he is today while figuring out who I wanted to be. I cheered for his successes and winced at his losses. I nearly cried when he went to Houston and rejoiced when he returned. Meanwhile, I honestly do not care about Brett Favre. I’m the last thing from a football fan. I watched a grand total of two football games this season, both in the postseason. I had to ask someone what Mark Sanchez’s first name was.

Yes, I know Brian Cashman recently referenced Favre in regards to Pettitte. But it sounded like to me he didn’t want Pettitte to be like Favre, not he actually thought Pettitte was acting like Favre.

Let’s start with the sport and background: from my understanding of football, teams are built around the quarterback. You basically have to figure out what you’re doing with your quarterback before you can make any other moves. The type of quarterback decides what kind of passing game you’re going to play, what kind of running game you’re going to play, and what kind of offensive linemen you need. He’s the leader of the team.

Fourth starters are significantly less important. Even third starters aren’t as big as quarterbacks. Heck, baseball is a very compartmentalized sport: not even your Opening Day starter changes most of your team! Let’s face it, Andy Pettitte isn’t the ace of the Yankees rotation even if he does return. His decision affects absolutely no part of the Yankees lineup besides the starting rotation and where Sergio Mitre starts, maybe if we go after another pitcher or not. It’s not as if Pettitte’s return changes the plan for outfield or helps out in the catching/DH jumble. Cashman has been forging ahead regardless of Pettitte’s decision, and that’s just what he should do. Meanwhile, Favre basically holds up the whole team while he sits on his hands.

Secondly, has anyone noticed that Andy Pettitte has, at no point in time, actually said that he is going to retire? Sure we get that he’s 75% leaning towards retirement, or that he’s not showing up for Spring Training, but the fact of the matter is this: Pettitte hasn’t come out and said he’s retiring. He might retire, yes. He’s considering it. He has a family he wants to spend time with, and he’s admitted he’s not exactly a baseball spring chicken. On the other side, he’s keeping in shape. But I think everything that has been said about Pettitte’s retirement ignores the fact we honestly do not know if he’s going to retire. There is no ‘Yes, I’m retiring.’ It’s not like Pettitte said after this year (or ’09, or ’08), that he’s retiring. He certainly did not hold a press conference to announce his retirement following a tearful post-game interview like Favre did in 2008.

Also, comparing these two totally different athletes does more than talk about their different retirement strategies. One of these players sent pictures of his, uh, nether regions to a reporter and, if you believe what you read on the internet, harassed plenty of other women too, all while being married. He’s a guy who’s been addicted to both Vicodin and alcohol at different points in time. The other one of these guys publicly admitted to and apologized for messing up even in the heat of the steroid drama.

Let’s say tomorrow Andy has a tearful press conference in which he says he’s going to retire and hang up the pinstripes. We all have a good cry about it, but we move on. Then, Pettitte decides he’s actually going to pitch this year, and he ends up starting for the Tigers. Shortly after, we discover Pettitte said some lewd things to Kim Jones and had some lovely ladies over at his house. Then this comparison is a legitimate one. Until then, it’s totally wrong. Andy Pettitte is Brett Favre and Jonathan Papelbon is Mariano Rivera.

I’m going to guess that most of the people reading this blog are probably Yankee fans. Why would you insult someone as wonderful as Andy Pettitte by comparing him to Brett Favre? Come on. Really?

*Quote in the title is from Billy Wagner, who appears to actually be retiring when he said he’s retiring.

NFC Title Game Open Thread

The NFC Game pits the Packers against the Bears this afternoon, and you’ll be able to see the game at 3pm ET on FOX. Chat about it here if you so desire.