The inevitable A.J. Burnett start

Hope for Good A.J., not Hide The Women And Children A.J. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

What everyone assumed was made official yesterday: the Yankees are going to use a four man rotation in the ALCS, and the fourth starter will be A.J. Burnett. It’s not clear which game he’ll start, but the smart money’s on either Game Four or Five. The schedule actually allows them to use only three starters if they’re willing to start CC Sabathia on short rest twice and both Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes on short rest once. Given Andy’s recent groin and back issues plus Hughes’ career high workload, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t go this route.

So that leaves us with Burnett. As a whole his regular season was awful; he set new career worsts in ERA (5.26), FIP (4.83), xFIP (4.66), K/9 (6.99), AVG against (.279), WHIP (1.51), swinging strike rate (7.9%), contact rate (81.8%) … the list goes on and on. It was the worst season of his career by a considerable margin, and according to bWAR he was below replacement level (-0.1). Burnett did have some stretches of brilliance during the season (1.99 ERA in his first six starts, 2.00 during July) as he tends to do, but he finished the year with a 6.61 ERA in his last dozen starts. Opponents hit .300/.380/.494 off of him during that stretch, which is hard to believe.

And yet the Yankees are giving the ball to Burnett for a few reasons, but one that sticks out more than the others: the simply don’t have a better option. Javy Vazquez, the guy that was supposed to be the fourth starter back in April, was been even worse than Burnett in 2010 and was left off the ALDS roster entirely. Dustin Moseley did an admirable job filling in while Pettitte was hurt, but he’s not a realistic option because he doesn’t strike anyone out and had a 5.29 ERA in his nine starts. Ivan Nova had his moments in September, but he struggled big time with men on base and was prone to that one big inning, a recipe for disaster in the postseason.

For all his warts, Burnett gives you something Moseley and Nova do not: the potential to dominate. Sure, it’s unlikely given his performance this year, but the ability is still tucked in there somewhere, and when you’re picking between three mediocre (or worse) options, go with the one that at least offers some upside. Anything can happen in one game, the regular season goes right out the window in October.

A.J. had a 5.27 ERA in his five postseason starts last year but he was dominant in his three home starts, allowing just ten hits and five runs while striking out 19 in 19.1 innings. He was also better at home this year, posting a 4.59 ERA (4.56 FIP) with 7.51 K/9 and 3.70 BB/9 in 80.1 innings (14 starts). Burnett was better at home last season too. His 2010 ALDS start will come at home regardless if he pitches in Game Four or Five, so at least he has that going in his favor. If he starts Game Four it’s likely to come against the other team’s fourth starter, another thing that’ll make A.J.’s life a little easier.

No one feels comfortable starting the 2010 version of A.J. Burnett in a playoff game, but it’s a necessary evil at this point. They don’t need him to be excellent, just good enough to keep them in the game and hand the ball over to the four main setup guys. Admittedly, that’s not something he was able to do on a consistent basis this season. Burnett is going to start next round, and while you don’t have to like it, you’d be foolish not to at least root for him.

Mailbag: Lining up the aces

I don’t get why Lee/Price not pitching until game 3 is such a big advantage for the Yanks. Assuming TB/TX weren’t planning on pitching anyone on 3 days rest, which they probably weren’t, each pitcher, in a 7 game series, will go the same number of times as they would have gone had they lined up their aces for game 1.

This question raises a good point about playoff rotations. Let’s assume that the Rays win today. If Price sticks with normal rest — and considering the situation this weekend I’d say he certainly will throughout the playoffs — he’d line up for a start on Sunday. Unfortunately for the Rays, there is no game on Sunday. That lines him up for a start in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Monday. He could then come back for a potential Game 7 on normal rest. Wouldn’t that, then, give the Rays something of an advantage? Should the series go seven games, they would have their ace back on the hill.

If that were the case, though, would’t every team just line up its ace in Game 3, as to be available for a Game 7? Of course not. The advantage you gain in a potential game is an advantage lost in required games. No matter what happens, they will play the first four games of this series. Because the Yankees have plenty of time off, they can use their three best pitchers in those games. In the first two games, then, it will be the Yankees best vs. the Rays second best, and the Yanks second best vs. the Rays third best.

The Rays would then have an advantage in Game 3, since they’d have Price on the mound against Phil Hughes. Then in Game 4 the Rays go back to their fourth worst, while the Yankees will in all likelihood turn to CC Sabathia on three days’ rest. In Game 5 the Yankees will turn Burnett loose, but then in Game 6 they can turn back to Pettitte, lining up CC for another short rest start in Game 7. In that scenario, the Yankees will have their ace going as well.

The situation changes, of course, if Maddon decides to throw Price on three days’ rest in Game 2. But that doesn’t appear likely. If he intended to use Price on short rest, he would have done it on Sunday when the Rays faced elimination. There will be no elimination concern in Game 3, so I doubt that he’d change tactics at that point. Though managers have certainly made more baffling moves.

I think that a big part of the Yankees’ advantage is the potential to use their ace three times in a seven-game series. The Rangers don’t appear willing to do that, nor do the Rays. Not only would they be at a disadvantage in the first two games, but they also wouldn’t have any distinct advantage in Game 7. That’s the beauty of the Yankees sweeping and the Rays/Rangers going to five.

Mailbag: Traded Prospects

Here’s a special one-question edition of the RAB Mailbag, but don’t worry, we’ll definitely get to some more throughout the course of the week.

Hey! Since many, many moves were made both prior to the season and during the season concerning movement of prospects, it doesn’t seem to have affected the farm system too much. Contrary to this, the farm system as a whole seems to have taken a giant leap forward, especially with the development of our young pitching corps. But I still wonder, how much better (in terms of subjective quality or actual ‘ranking’) would our farm system be if we still had all the players pre Javy-trade.

The Yankees have made several trades involving prospects over the last twelve months, most notably for Curtis Granderson, Javy Vazquez, Boone Logan, Lance Berkman, and Austin Kearns. As far as we know right now, the Kerry Wood trade only involves money. Here are the prospects that were dealt away in those moves, in no particular order: Austin Jackson, Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Dunn, Mark Melancon, Jimmy Paredes, and Zach McAllister. Ian Kennedy surpassed the rookie limit of 50 big league innings back in 2008, so technically he wasn’t a prospect at the time of the trade.

The best overall prospect with the highest long-term value traded away is Vizcaino, who posted a 2.22 FIP (2.74 ERA) in 85.1 innings split between Low-A and High-A this season before being shut down with a small ligament tear in his elbow that did not require Tommy John surgery. During one stretch from early-May to mid-June, he went 44 innings between issuing a walk. Baseball America ranked him the sixth best prospect in the South Atlantic League two weeks ago, saying he “shows a 92-94 mph fastball that touches 96, a hammer curveball and excellent control … [h]is changeup continues to improve and could give him a third plus pitch.” It’s a frontline starter package, for sure. If he was still with the Yanks, he’d almost certainly be their top pitching prospect if healthy, but I’d probably dock him a bit for the injury and the uncertainty it brings. For sure, The Killer B’s (Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman) would have another running mate, so perhaps we’d be calling them The Killer B’s Plus V.

The best immediate impact guy they traded was Jackson by far. He had a 3.6 fWAR season for the Tigers thanks to a slightly above average .333 wOBA combined with a strong +4.2 UZR in center. I have a hard time believing that Jackson would have made the Yanks out of Spring Training had the trade never gone down, simply because a starting outfield of Jackson, Brett Gardner, and Nick Swisher would have been very questionable back in April. He likely would have returned to Triple-A for at least a few weeks, and the Yanks would have brought in another outfielder, probably Johnny Damon now that I think about it. If he was still a Yankee prospect, he’d be their second best position player prospect behind Jesus Montero, but he’d only be in the middle of their top ten prospects behind Montero and The Killer B’s.

The other four guys were all second tier prospects with similar value. Melancon isĀ  the best of the bunch as an MLB-ready strikeout reliever, and sure enough he pitched to a 3.19 FIP (3.12 ERA) with 9.87 K/9 and 4.15 BB/9 in 17.1 innings for Houston after the trade, good for 0.3 fWAR. Dunn spent most of the season in Triple-A but came up late in the year to post a 3.60 FIP (1.89 ERA) in 19 innings for the Braves, though his impressive 12.79 K/9 came with a hideous 8.05 BB/9. Paredes was one of the system’s better sleepers, a slick fielding middle infielder with some pop (.130 ISO this year) and lots of speed (50 steals, 82.0% success rate).

McAllister took a big step back before the trade, getting surpassed by several of the higher upside arms in the system throughout the summer. Before the trade he posted a 4.73 FIP (5.03) in 132.1 Triple-A innings after never having an FIP higher than 3.26 at any level in any season of his career. He also become exceptionally homer prone, giving up 19 in 24 starts after surrendering just 17 in the first 74 outings of his career. The numbers after the trade are from too small a sample to draw any conclusions from (4.08 FIP, 6.88 ERA, 17 IP).

There’s no question that the Yanks’ system would be considerably stronger had all of those trades never gone down, and that’s mostly thanks to Jackson and Vizcaino. Melancon and Dunn are solid depth pieces, Paredes and interesting low-level guy, but frankly McAllister had no place on a team like the Yankees and trade bait was almost certainly his ultimate future one way or the other. The Yanks certainly have a top ten system right now, but if you add a high upside arm like Arodys and a solid everyday centerfielder in Jackson (thanks to the benefit of hindsight, of course), it jumps into the top five, maybe even top three. Their depth would be improved greatly, and the cache of arms would be even deeper. For fun, here’s a rough top list of the ten best Yankee prospects had those trades never gone down…

  1. Jesus Montero
  2. Arodys Vizcaino
  3. Manny Banuelos
  4. Andrew Brackman
  5. Dellin Betances
  6. Austin Jackson
  7. Gary Sanchez
  8. Austin Romine
  9. Slade Heathcott
  10. Hector Noesi

Quibble about the order if you want, but the names are generally correct. No matter how you slice it, that’s a monster top ten.

Remember, prospects serve two purposes: the plug into the big league roster and trades. They were able to trade Vizcaino because of all the other high-upside arms they had in-house, and the reason they were able to acquire a power hitting centerfield with top notch defense like Granderson is because they had someone like Jackson to deal away. The other guys are just the cost of doing business, potentially useful pieces for almost certainly useful pieces. The farm system would be stronger with them, no doubt, but the big league team is stronger because they traded away, and that’s what matters.

Photo Credits: Jackson with the Honolulu Sharks of Hawaii Winter Baseball in 2007 via Kyle Galdeira, Jackson with the Tigers in 2010 via Mark Duncan, AP.

Open Thread: Another day off

This picture makes me laugh. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Sheesh, life without Yankee baseball stinks, doesn’t it? These six days off are going to suck, I don’t know what to do with myself. My nightly routine is all out of whack. Anyway, it’s for the best. The players get to rest, the coaches get to game plan, yadda yadda yadda. Just a few more days and they’ll be back at it.

For now, here’s your open thread. The Braves are sending Derek Lowe to the mound on three day’s rest to try to save their season at 7:37pm ET (TBS), the Giants are countering with young Madison Bumgarner. Brooks Conrad is not starting the game, if you’re wondering. Can’t say I’m surprised by that. Meanwhile, the Jets are playing Vikings at 8:30pm (ESPN), which should be fun. You guys know what to do, so have at it.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s the MoneyBart episode of The Simpsons from last night. Bill James and Mike SciosciaFace make cameos.

Yankees will play simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday

Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees will play a pair of simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday once they reconvene from their two day break tomorrow. It will consist of basically every non-Mariano Rivera reliever (Kerry Wood, Boone Logan, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Mitre, Dustin Moseley) throwing to the four non-designated hitter platoon bench players (Frankie Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Austin Kearns, Greg Golson).

There is no announced plan for the regulars and the four starting pitchers, but they’ll assuredly throw bullpens and take batting practice to stay sharp. The relievers need regular work given the nature of the job, hence the simulated games. A.J. Burnett hasn’t pitched since starting on October 2nd, so you have to figure he’ll do plenty of work in advance of his ALCS start.

Clutch Yanks pitching, unclutch Twins hitting key to the ALDS

(Peter Morgan/AP)

There are always two ways to frame a baseball argument. Since a run scored is also a run surrendered, we can frame it as the offense succeeding or the defense failing. Bias usually determines how we view it; if the Yankees go 2 for 15 with RISP, we normally assign the offense blame rather than crediting the opponent’s pitchers. In the ALDS it wasn’t the Yankees failing with runners in scoring position. It was the Twins. However it unfolded, the Yankees pitchers put on their best performances with runners on base (with one notable exception), while the Twins just couldn’t bring home their runners.

In the series’ three games the Twins had 29 hits and walks, but managed to score just seven of them. More than half of those runs came in the first game. Yet even when the Twins did score four runs on 13 base runners, they still failed when they had chances to tack on. They went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position. The Yankees, on the other hand, made the most of their chances. They had 12 base runners and brought six around to score, which included going 3 for 11 with runners in scoring position. That’s not stellar, but it’s far better than they were performing in September.

In Game 2 the Twins were short on chances thanks to some excellent work by Andy Pettitte. They put just seven men on base all game, and had two of them erased by double plays. That left them just three at-bats with runners in scoring position; they failed each time. In Game 3 they had a few more chances, with nine base runners, and they actually had eight at-bats with runners in scoring position. But they succeeded just twice, one of which didn’t even plate a run. They ended up leaving seven stranded on base.

For the series the Twins went just 2 for 18 with runners in scoring position — and again, one of those hits didn’t even bring in a run. That’s a stark change from the regular season, where the Twins’ .285 average with RISP led the American League . The Yankees’ pitching staff ranked near the middle of the pack with runners in scoring position, allowing a .261 batting average against. On offense the Yankees ranked seventh in the AL with runners in scoring position, .258, but went 9 for 25 (.360) in the series. This is just another example of why situational stats aren’t predictive, especially when applied to a short series.

What’s also odd about the Twins’ numbers with runners in scoring position is that they didn’t have more of them. Six times in the series they had a decent runner on base (Span, Hudson, Repko) with second base open. In none of those situations did they attempt to steal. Instead they once sacrificed and twice grounded into a double play. In an additional six instances they had a non-stealing runner (Mauer, Thome, Young) in that situation. Jorge Posada‘s arm is a known problem, but Gardenhire and the Twins chose not to exploit it. Doing so would have given them more chances with runners in scoring position. Going 1 for 9 instead of 0 for 7 in Game 1 would have made a huge difference.

Were the Yankees pitchers clutch? Did the Twins choke? You can spin the narrative either way, but I’d lean towards the Twins failing. They had the best average in the league with RISP during the season, but couldn’t deliver when it counted. They also weren’t aggressive when on base, which cost them a few RISP opportunities. Other issue helped bury them — it’s tough to win when your Games 2 and 3 starters combine for 9.1 innings and nine runs — but failure with RISP was a big part of it.

A.J. to start in ALCS as Yanks go with 4-man staff

The Yankees will go with a four-man rotation in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, and A.J. Burnett will be the team’s fourth starter, GM Brian Cashman said today. Burnett, 10-15 with a 5.26, had a disappointing regular season and did not make an appearance during the ALDS. Outside of Game 1 starter CC Sabathia, the Yanks have not said in which order Phil Hughes or Andy Pettitte will follow him or what game Burnett will start. The Yanks could have Sabathia throw Games 1, 4 and 7 all on three days’ rest with Burnett tossing Game 5 or the club could opt to hold Pettitte back until Game 3 so that the lefty is lined up for a potential Game 7 start. Either way, the Bombers won’t be facing David Price or Cliff Lee in Game on Friday as those two pitchers are set to go tomorrow in Game 5 of the ALDS.

In other expected news, the Yankees are shutting down Damaso Marte. His shoulder is not strong enough for him to pitch in the playoffs, and Cashman says the reliever probably needs surgery. Boone Logan will just have to continue throwing strikes and getting lefties out.