Yu Got the Right One, Baby, Uh Huh

The last time the Yankees turned their attention east for a starting pitcher, the club got burned pretty badly. In the wake of the Red Sox’s inking of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Yanks bid $26 million for Kei Igawa, a lefty with good strike out numbers in Japan, and paid him another $20 million over five years. He lasted all of 16 Major League games and was removed from the 40-man roster in 2008, never to return to the Bronx.

For Brian Cashman and the Yanks’ baseball brain trust, Igawa was the mistake that wouldn’t go away. The Yanks never traded him in order to avoid paying luxury taxes on his salary, and Igawa refused to quit or head back to Japan. He toiled away in the minor leagues as the Yanks moved him around based on roster needs before he eventually became the winningest pitcher in Scranton history. That’s some dubious achievement.

This year, the hype over a Japanese pitcher has returned in the form of Yu Darvish. The groundswell of hype hasn’t been this constant or loud since Matsuzaka made the jump, and in fact, we’ve heard about Darvish for years. We know how great he is in Japan, and we’ve heard varying degrees of success predicted for him in the States. He’s different, they say. His goal has been to pitch in the Majors. He knows what it takes. He will not flame-out.

Meanwhile, hesitation rules the air. American baseball fans have seen Japanese pitchers come over with so much hype and fail to meet expectations. Hideki Irabu was the Japanese Nolan Ryan. Daisuke Matsuzaka and his famed gyroball were to be unhittable. Even Hideo Nomo turned into an average-to-below-average pitcher after his first two stellar seasons in the States.

Yet, these past failures (or successes, as in the case of Hiroki Kuroda) tell us nothing about Darvish’s potential, and the Yankees, burned by their desire to snatch up Igawa, seem to recognize this. While speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Hal Steinbrenner spoke about the club’s process. “Every person is different, every player is different,” the Yanks’ Managing General Partner said. “We’re going to look at every single one, we’re going to look at every single option and we’re going to analyze it. We look at each person as an individual, and that” — previously failures with Japanese pitchers — “is not going to be a factor, at least not with me.”

As The Times and others have noted, the Yankees do not figure to be front-runners for Darvish. That status belongs to the Angels and Rangers, two teams engaged in an AL West arms race. But the Yankees will hover on the periphery, aware of what Darvish can do and not afraid of him because of past failures. That’s the kind of process a team that is looking to spend smartly should follow, and it’s a good sign for the long-term future of the club.

Last week, I explored how the Yankees should take aggressive risks with their dollars this year. Even though we still don’t know if Darvish will be posted this year, the Yanks should plan to be among the leaders for his services. They have laid the foundation for a competitive bid, and they have the money to spend. Armed with the right knowledge, it’s a risk worth taking, and the process should tell them as much.

Thanks as always to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic. You can find him on Twitter right here.

Eric Chavez intends to play in 2012

Via Mark Feinsand and Pete Caldera, Eric Chavez‘s agent informed Brian Cashman that his client intends to play next season. Chavez was reportedly giving retirement serious consideration, but he also indicated a willingness to return to New York should he not hang up the spikes.

“I loved everything about him,” said Cashman, who also hedged his bets a bit by saying he wasn’t sure if there was a match between the two sides. The Yankees are going to need a caddy for Alex Rodriguez next season and it’d be nice to have a left-handed bat off the bench, two birds that could be killed with one Chavez stone. I don’t think there will be much a rush here though, I would be surprised if there’s a high demand for his services.

Open Thread: Cole Hamels

(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Joe wrote about the idea of trading for Cole Hamels yesterday, and explained why it’s extremely unlikely to happen. The Phillies are in win-now mode, and keeping Hamels in their rotation will help them a lot more than a fistful of prospects and mediocre big leaguers who plug holes. Kevin Goldstein wasn’t having any of that though (or at least his editors weren’t), so today we put together some trade packages that could pry the lefty away from Philadelphia.

He suggested the Phillies look for four pieces in return: a starter to replace Hamels in the rotation, bullpen help, middle infield help, and a low-level prospect with upside. You can read the article at either ESPN or Baseball Prospectus, but you’re going to need a subscription either way. Here is his suggested Yankees trade package….

New York Yankees: Manny Banuelos, LHP; Hector Noesi, RHP; Austin Romine, C; Mason Williams, OF.

Banuelos is one of the best left-handed prospects in the game and, like Hamels, his best pitch is a changeup, but Banuelos has plenty of other offerings. He should be ready at some point in the 2012 season, while Noesi can start or relieve right now. Williams is exactly the kind of young, athletic outfielder the Phillies covet, and Romine could develop into a replacement for Carlos Ruiz. “The Phillies need a long-term catcher, and their top catching prospect, Sebastian Valle, is not a sure thing,” said the executive.

So what do you think; too much, too little, just right? I’d prefer to swap out Banuelos and Noesi for Dellin Betances and either David Phelps, Adam Warren, or D.J. Mitchell, but that’s just me. The Yankees have catching depth and can afford to give up Romine, and I don’t really sweat losing kids in short season leagues, not even ones as good as Williams. He’s so far away, so much could go wrong. Yeah, it’s a lot to give up for one year of a pitcher, but Hamels is one of the best out there and he’s in his prime. Joe explained it yesterday, he’s basically another CC Sabathia, just four years younger.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils are the only local hockey team in action, so you’re going to be stuck entertaining yourselves tonight. Have fun, talk about anything here.

Need Help: Brian McElhinny, who runs the great Pirates’ blog Raise The Jolly Roger, is up for a scholarship and needs some votes. Please just take a second (it literally takes about three seconds) to go here and vote, it’ll be a big help. The poll closes one week from today. Thanks.

Report: New CBA to include hard cap for international signings

Via Melissa Segura, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will include both a hard cap and floor for international free agent signings. It’s unclear when this would be put into place. I have to think veterans from Japan would be excluded since MLB has traditionally treated those players like big league free agents, not amateurs.

The hard cap is very bad news for the Yankees, who are annually among the top spenders in Latin America and really build the backbone of their farm system through international free agency. I also have no idea how MLB intends to promote the game internationally by imposing what amounts to a salary cap for players outside of the United States. Just doesn’t make sense to me, but I guess that’s why I’m not the one calling the shots.

Report: Type-B Free Agent Compensation Likely To Be Eliminated

Update (4:30pm on 11/16/11): Sherman corrected himself today, and there will in fact be Type-B free agent compensation this offseason. It’s almost certainly going to be eliminated going forward, but the rules will not change this winter. The Yankees will still received a supplemental first round pick for Freddy Garcia if they offer him arbitration and he signs elsewhere.



Original (4:30pm on 11/15/11):
Via Joel Sherman, baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement is likely to eliminate Type-B free agent compensation this offseason according to a pair of executives familiar with the negotiations. Type-A compensation will be unchanged for top tier free agents (Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder, etc.), though some tinkering may be done to help the lower ranked players (Octavio Dotel, Kelly Johnson, etc.).

Freddy Garcia is a Type-B free agent, so the Yankees will lose out on a draft pick if the system is indeed changed and he signs elsewhere. On the bright side, they wouldn’t have to offer him arbitration to secure the potential pick, so there’s no worry about him possibly accepting and receiving a salary they club would be uncomfortable with next season. The new CBA has not yet been announced, but the clubs have been kept abreast of potential free agent compensation changes so they move forward with their offseason plans. The current deal expires on December 11th, but the new one should be wrapped up before the end of November.

Under the current system, clubs receive the signing team’s first round pick plus a supplemental first rounder in exchange for losing a Type-A. Type-B’s return just the supplemental first rounder. The up-to-date 2012 draft order can be found here.

The Larry Rothschild Effect

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

When the Yankees somewhat surprisingly* hired pitching coach Larry Rothschild last offseason, we heard that he had a reputation for helping his pitchers increase their strikeout rates and decrease their unintentional walk rates. Guys like Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Tom Gorzelanny saw improvement in both categories after joining the Cubs, and those are only three of the most notable examples. The Yankees brought Rothschild aboard hoping he’d coax a few more whiffs out of their pitching staff while reducing the number of free passes.

During the 2009 and 2010 seasons (under Dave Eiland), Yankees’ pitchers struck out 19.65% of the batters they faced and unintentionally walked 8.54%. Those numbers improved to 19.80% and 7.52% under Rothschild in 2011, respectively. The strikeout improvement from just 2010 to 2011 was a bit more substantial, as you can see in the table to the right. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise; the Javy Vazquez and Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley types were placed with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Rafael Soriano. Offense around the league continued to drop as well.

On an individual level, a number of Yankees’ pitchers improved their underlying performance under Rothschild this past season. You can see those players in the table to the right, though I left out guys who dealt with significant injury problems (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Cory Wade, Colon, Soriano) and those that bounced between the rotation and bullpen (Joba and Hughes) since the start of 2009. With the exception of relatively small increases in Garcia’s and David Robertson‘s walk rates, all of these guys showed improvement in their strikeout and unintentional walk rates. Some of them, like CC Sabathia (+2.66% strikeouts and -0.94% walks) and A.J. Burnett (+0.99% strikeouts), showed significant improvement. Those two aren’t young kids coming into their own, their veteran guys with long track records.

So that’s great, they’re striking out more batters while walking fewer, but how are they doing it? In an effort to explain, let’s look at the individual pitch breakdown for those fellas…

The fastballs in the table references all kinds of fastballs, so two-seamers, four-seamers, cutters, sinkers, etc. Breaking balls are both curveballs and sliders. I didn’t want to get too nuts with the breakdown of individual pitches because all I wanted to see was the usage of hard stuff compared to the usage of soft stuff. I also left Mariano Rivera out of this because he takes pity on the rest of the league and does not throw any kind of breaking ball.

With the exception of Robertson, all of those guys threw significantly more breaking balls in 2011 than they did from 2009-2010 according to PitchFX (via Texas Leaguers). We’re talking an increase of around four percentage points, in some cases more. Data from Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) says the Yankees went from 69.2% fastballs and 22.6% breaking balls as a team from 2009-2010 to 66.1% and 26.2% in 2011, respectively. Two different tracking systems, but we’re seeing a similar increase in breaking ball usage, roughly four percentage points.

You can play connects the dots here and say that the increase in breaking balls contributed to the increase in strikeouts, it definitely passes the sniff test. I’m not sure how throwing more breaking balls would decrease unintentional walks though, since many breaking balls are intentionally thrown out of the strike zone. We’d have to look at when the extra breaking balls are being thrown, which sadly is well beyond my PitchFX capabilities. I suspect many of those extra sliders and curveballs are being thrown early in the count rather than later, which has allowed the Yankees’ pitchers to get ahead in the count more often. Sure enough, the Yankees had the highest first pitch strike percentage (61.8%) in MLB this season, up from 58.1% from 2009-2010. That will certainly help explain more strikeouts and fewer walks.

Now obviously correlation does not equal causation. One year of data doesn’t tell us much of anything, whereas the studies linked in the first paragraph cover years of data and thousands of batters faced. The Yankees’ pitching staff showed traits consistent with Rothschild’s track record during his first year at the helm, possibly because they threw more offspeed stuff earlier in the count. We’ll never really know what improvement (or decline) the pitching coach is responsible for and what he isn’t from where we sit, but Rothschild has been doing this for quite some time, and the improved strikeout and walks rates seem to have followed him from team to team.

* Surprising only because we hadn’t heard his name mentioned as a candidate. It really was out of left field.

Girardi finishes fifth in AL Manager of the Year voting

After leading his team to one of the most improbable late-season comebacks in baseball history, Rays skipper Joe Maddon was named the AL Manager of the Year for the second time today. He received 26 of 28 first place votes, and was somehow left off one ballot entirely. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson took home the NL Award.

Joe Girardi finished fifth in the voting, receiving three second place votes and five third place votes. He finished sixth in the voting last season and third in 2009. Jim Leyland, Ron Washington, and Manny Acta all finished ahead of the Yankees skipper. The full results can be found on the BBWAA’s site. The NL Cy Young Award will be announced tomorrow, with the AL MVP to follow on Monday.