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.

Yankees sign lefty reliever Mike O’Connor

If the Yankees insist on finding another left-handed reliever for the 2012 bullpen, I hope it’s along the lines of the player they acquired earlier today. Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have signed LHP Mike O’Connor, presumably to a minor league deal*. He might not have the name value of Damaso Marte or Pedro Feliciano — in fact, I’m sure that most readers hadn’t even heard of him — but that’s the whole point. Identifying a few under-the-radar players could be just as effective as signing a name brand to a multiyear deal.

* Editor’s Note: Joel Sherman confirmed that it is in fact a minor league deal.

Those who do know O’Connor likely caught one of his nine appearances for the Mets in 2011. They called him up in early May, and he served them generally well. Only two runs scored on his watch, and they came in his final two appearances of the year. After allowing a run against the Pirates the Mets optioned him back to AAA, eventually designating him for assignment.

Most of O’Connor’s big league experience came in 2006, when he threw 105 innings in 20 starts and one relief appearance for the Nationals. His 4.80 ERA and 5.37 FIP left plenty to be desired. By 2009 it had become apparent that his low-strikeout ways just weren’t cutting it as a starter, even in the minor leagues. That year he spent time with three different organizations, and by the end was pitching almost exclusively in relief.

In 2010 he caught on with the Mets and made zero starts for the AAA Buffalo Bisons, and his numbers spiked. His strikeout rate jumped to almost a batter per inning while his walk rate remained low. It amounted to a 2.67 ERA and 2.95 FIP in 70.2 innings over 51 outings. The longball gave him something of a problem in 2010, but he still struck out plenty, 9.85 per nine, while walking under three per nine. He struck out eight of the 29 batters he faced in the majors.

As expected, O’Connor was death on lefties in the minors. During his 2010 campaign he still sported a 51.4 percent ground ball rate, 2.03 FIP, and 2.41 xFIP against lefties, striking out 31 in 29.3 innings. While Driveline’s MiLB splits doesn’t have 2011 figures, his page shows a similarly dominant story: 2.70 ERA, 2.09 GB/FB, 30 strikeouts in 23.1 innings vs. LHB. That doesn’t guarantee major league success, but it does demonstrate that he has a leg up when facing same-handed batters.

This signing won’t bowl over anyone. Chances are we’ll never see O’Connor in the Bronx. But he’s an interesting option if the Yankees don’t want to spend big on yet another lefty reliever. They’ve been burned before by that method — even righties on multiyear deals have burned them. O’Connor is an under the radar option who could perhaps step in and complement Boone Logan in the pen. If he doesn’t, there’s no harm done. I sincerely hope the Yankees try to find more bench and bullpen solutions along the lines of O’Connor this winter.

Breaking Burnett

(Carlos Osorio/AP)

At this point you’ve no doubt read countless exasperated summaries of A.J. Burnett‘s second straight terrible season in pinstripes, but rather than dwell on how historically bad A.J.’s been, I wanted to dig a bit further into the numbers to see if we might actually be able to glean any positives from his 2011 season and whether we can expect at least a slightly better performance going forward. Especially in light of the fact that if he does stay on the Yankees they’re basically stuck with him for ~65 more starts.

In case you weren’t paying close attention, Burnett actually wasn’t that bad for most of the first half of the season. Following seven innings of two-run ball against the Brewers on June 29, his ERA sat at 4.05 through 17 starts. He only gave up more than three runs in five of those 17 outings, and only failed to complete six innings six times. He did turn in a couple of classic A.J. stinkers — the May 16 game against Tampa Bay (brilliant through five innings before completely unraveling in the sixth) and June 8 game against Boston (just awful from the get-go) — but after his “performance” in 2010, any Yankee fan had to be thrilled with the results through the first three months of the season.

Of course, the wheels came off once the calendar flipped to July. He actually wasn’t terrible in his July 4 start at Cleveland; you may recall he kept the Indians scoreless through six, and took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the 7th, until a pair of former Yankees — Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns — combined to knock in four runs before A.J. could get out of the inning. If Burnett keeps things at 2-1 in the 7th — the Kearns three-run jack came with two outs — who knows, maybe A.J. doesn’t end throwing to an 8.18 ERA over his next nine outings. There’s no way of knowing, and of course baseball doesn’t work that way, but that Kearns home run wound up being a fairly big turning point in A.J.’s season.

Anyway, over those aforementioned following nine starts, A.J. only managed to pitch into the 6th inning twice, and really was just generally horrendous. Things seemed to come to something of a head on August 20 at Minnesota, as A.J. couldn’t even get through two innings against the league’s worst offense. He followed that up with what was probably his worst outing of the season against the Orioles, and with his next start slated to come at Fenway Park, pretty much every fan in Yankeeville was expecting the absolute worst-case scenario to occur.

Except then something incredibly strange and completely unexpected happened: A.J. Burnett threw a pretty good game. Against the Red Sox. In Boston. Including that September 1 outing, A.J. finished the season throwing to a 4.34 ERA over his final five starts. Still not great, but much, much better than what we’d become accustomed to expect. Anecdotally it seemed like A.J.’s curve had quite a bit more bite to it, and in fact he did rack up quite a few Ks, boasting an 11.2 K/9 on the month.

So given these three chunks of the season — pretty good A.J. (April through June), utterly horrendous A.J. (July and August) and good enough A.J. (September), here’s a look at the breakouts for each of his pitches:

We often think of A.J. as a two-pitch pitcher — and he obviously doesn’t stray too far off of the fastball-curve combo — but he actually does have some secondary stuff, although none of it’s all that great.

It looks like one of the main differences between A.J.’s April-June and July-August was vertical fastball location. During the first three months he averaged 9.36 inches of v-break, but that number fell to 8.51 in July-August. He also went from throwing it 43% of the time to 36%, and basically replaced those fastballs with curves (which rose from 30% to 36%). This was likely problematic as his curve broke 1.5 inches on average closer to the strike zone vertically, which means his curve was that much more hittable. Though he more or less maintained his above-average Whiff%, his Swing%, Foul% and In Play% all went up on the curve.

Once the curve started diving again (from -4.50 to -5.84) over his last five starts, his numbers picked back up, and he posted a ridiculous 24.6% Whiff% with the curve, well above the 11.6% league average. Also worth noting is that he mixed in a sinker nearly 12% of the time during September, and managed to post an impressive 15.8% Whiff% (against 5.4% league average), and he even got a 21.7% Whiff% on his change — which has never been anyone’s idea of a good A.J. Burnett pitch — against a 12.6% league average.

Granted, the September results are comprised of a mere five starts, but I’d rather look at it on the bright side and be encouraged. Maybe A.J. did indeed find something during the season’s last month. You’ll recall that he saved the team’s season in the ALDS, pitching well enough to help the Yanks live to fight another day. Also, if you take out that awful nine-start stretch, A.J. threw to a 4.11 ERA over 135.2 innings. That doesn’t erase his struggles from the ledger, but it perhaps places them in a slightly different light.

I don’t know that the answer to the A.J. conundrum is as simple as “he needs to locate his curveball;” even if that does seem to have a disproportionate effect on his success/failures. I do know that A.J. Burnett has been and can be better than 5.00-plus ERA pitcher — we saw him turn in an above-average season two years ago — and if he’s still a Yankee come the 2012 season, he’ll have to figure out how to escape what’s become an annual rut and turn in a full season of league average pitching, at the very least.