One on One: Mariano & Costas

Mariano Rivera spoke to Bob Costas and his great hair prior to last night’s game against the Red Sox, and the two discussed a wide range of topics including retirement, a desire to play center field, and a whole lot more. Check it out.

A Burden Lifted: The Kei Igawa Story

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Yesterday was a rather hectic day in Yankeeland, so I’m sure a few of you didn’t notice that Kei Igawa was put on Double-A Trenton’s disabled list. The minor league season ends on Monday, so for all intents and purposes, the DL stint ends his season and also his time with the Yankees. Five years after joining the organization, Igawa’s contract will expire in a few weeks and the Yankees will be free of the scarlet letter they’ve worn since 2007.

* * *

It all started with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the next great Japanese pitcher that was going to take MLB by storm. The Yankees bid handsomely for his services after the 2006 season, somewhere between $32-33M, but the Red Sox blew everyone out of the water with a $51.1M submission. Off to Boston went Dice-K, leaving the Yankees still in need of another arm. That’s where Igawa came in, and he had all the credentials. He was a two-time strikeout champ with the Hanshin Tigers, a former league MVP, a former Eiji Sawamura Award winner (Cy Young equivalent), left-handed, and just 27 years old. It was a fit for a team in need of an arm.

The Yankees won the rights to negotiate a contract with Igawa with a $26,000,194 bid in November 2006, the last $194 an ode to his strikeout total from the previous season. “We have been following Kei Igawa’s very successful and accomplished career in Japan,” said Brian Cashman after the winning bid was announced. “We are excited about the opportunity to begin the negotiating process with him.”  Then-Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine offered a more ominous statement after the news broke, saying: “The first time I saw him, I thought he was a lot better. Four years ago, he was a lot better than he is now. But he’s still good.”

Twenty-eight days after winning the bid, the Yankees inked Igawa to a five-year contract worth $20M that would pay him exactly $4M every year from 2007 through 2011. He started the ’07 season as the number four starter behind Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and Carl Pavano, and his first start could not have gone any worse. The first batter he faced, Brian Roberts of the Orioles, hit a fly ball to the warning track in dead center, and two batters later Nick Markakis welcomed Igawa to the States with a solo homer. Baltimore tacked on four more runs in the second inning thanks to a bases loaded walk and a Melvin Mora double, and then two innings later Mora went deep for a two-run homer. Igawa’s first start consisted of eight hits, three walks, seven runs, 17 fly balls, three line drives, two strikeouts, and three ground balls.

His next two starts went much better, three runs in 5.1 IP against the Athletics and two runs in six innings against the Indians. After the then-Devil Rays hung seven runs on him in 4.1 IP in his fourth start, the Yankees took advantage of an off day to skip Igawa’s turn in the rotation. His best outing as a Yankee came five days after the disaster in Tampa, when he tossed six scoreless innings against the Red Sox in relief in Jeff Karstens, who had his leg broken by a line drive in the first inning. I was actually at that game, and I remember Igawa pitching exclusively from the stretch and me thinking that maybe that would help get him on the right track mechanically. Alas, it did not.

Igawa made seven more starts after his relief outing against the Sox, allowing 29 runs and 47 hits in 35.2 IP. He did strike out 32, but he had walked 19 and given up ten (ten!) homeruns. The Yankees pulled the plug in early-August and sent Igawa to the minors, but not to Triple-A. They send him to their minor league complex in Tampa, where the pitching instructors were waiting for him. “That didn’t work out too well,” said Igawa years later, after the Yankees tried to overhaul his mechanics by changing everything from his arm action to his leg kick to where he stood on the rubber.

(Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

He made 13 minor league starts after the demotion, pitching to a 3.49 ERA with a 77-18 K/BB in 77.1 IP. The Padres claimed Igawa off trade waivers in August, and rather than work out a deal or simply foist his entire contract contract onto San Diego, the Yankees kept him because “ownership was not willing to let him go yet.” Igawa rejoined the team in September, making one one-out appearance in relief and one five-inning start in game 157, when the Yankees were more concerned about lining up their playoff rotation than winning.

The Yankees sent Igawa back to the minors to start the 2008 season, though they did call him up for an early-May spot start against the Tigers. It was a disaster, an eleven-hit, six-run effort in three innings. A return trip to the minors followed, then Igawa resurfaced in late-June as bullpen depth for a doubleheader against the Mets. June 27th, 2008 would be Igawa’s final appearance in the Major Leagues, a one-inning outing in which he allowed singles to Fernando Tatis and Jose Reyes in the ninth inning of a game the Yankees won 9-0. He was designated for assignment after the game, removed from the 40-man roster less than two-years after the Yankees invested more than $46M in him.

It’s been more than three full years since that happened, and Igawa has toiled away in the team’s minor league system ever since. He’s set the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise record for career wins (29), and is in the all-time top ten in career losses (ninth), starts (fifth), innings (fifth), hits allowed (sixth), runs allowed (tenth), homeruns allowed (second), and strikeouts (second). That’s going back to when SWB was the Phillies’ affiliate as well. When the Yankees didn’t have a place for Igawa in Triple-A this year, they sent him to Double-A Trenton. He moved between the two levels whenever a spare arm was needed, missed several weeks with an elbow injury, came back briefly, and was just placed on the DL again. Unceremoniously, his Yankees’ career ended with a devilish 6.66 ERA in 71.2 big league innings and a 3.83 ERA in 533 minor league innings.

* * *

Bill Pennington of The New York Times profiled Igawa back in July, an article that painted the Yankees in an unfavorable light, perhaps intentionally. Igawa, quiet, prideful and marching to the beat of his own drum, lived in his East Side apartment during the entire length of his contract, commuting to games in Scranton or Trenton or wherever with his translator Subaru Takeshita. He had trouble with the cultural transition and being away from his family for seven months a year, but he refused to go home to pitch in Japan. Cashman twice worked out a deal that would have sent Igawa to a Japanese club, but the now 32-year-old declined each time. It was made clear to him that he would not be returning the majors. The Yankees simply had no interest in seeing him wear their uniform again.

Igawa’s tenure in pinstripes exemplifies the team’s pitching failures over the last eight years or so. They paid top dollar for a less than elite talent, but because they are the Yankees, they were able to bury him in the minors and essentially eat the contract. Pitching up in the zone with a fastball that often failed to crack 90 mph was no recipe for success in the AL East, and the fly balls he produced often went over the fence and to the wall for extra bases. The Yankees received next to nothing for their investment, and will be free of the burden in the coming weeks. “It was a disaster,” said Cashman recently. “We failed.”

The RAB Radio Show: September 2, 2011

It’s been a while, so we might be rough around the edges. But there’s plenty of Yankee baseball on the plate.

  • Red Sox series: long as usual, but with the excitement of a playoff game.

  • Jesus Montero: How much playing time will he get? Will he catch? What does he have to do to prove himself?
  • Playoff race: The Yanks are out in front by a lot. How does that affect their final month?
  • And plenty of more typical Mike and Joe banter.

Podcast run time 42:09

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

RAB Live Chat

Series Preview: Blue Jays at Yankees

For the fifth time this year the Yanks and Blue Jays will lock horns. It always seems to be a tough series with them, even though they’re a .500 team. For whatever reason their bats come alive and their pitchers bear down. Despite the Yankees’ 14-game lead over the Jays, they’re just 7-5 against them on the season.

What Have the Jays Done Lately?

This week the Blue Jays took two of three from the Orioles. After losing the first game in extra innings they dropped the O’s 13-0 on Wednday before taking the finale yesterday. Before that they dropped two straight series, losing three of four to the Rays and two of three to the Royals.

Blue Jays on Offense

Despite their flat play overall, the Blue Jays do have a quality offense. Their 103 wRC+ ranks fifth in the AL, behind only the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, and Tigers (and the Tigers by just one point). While their team on base average ranks well enough, sixth in the AL, they excel with their power. At a .169 ISO they’re fourth in the AL, just one point behind the Rangers.

It doesn’t take a blogger to tell you that Jose Bautista has led the way all season. His .453 wOBA leads the majors by 20 points and leads the AL by 33. He’s one up on Curtis Granderson for the MLB home run lead and has walked more often than any other player in the league. Against the Yanks this year he’s hit three homers and drawn nine walks in 38 PA. Last year he was absolute menace, too, hitting six homers and walking 19 times in 81 PA.

Behind Bautista the Blue Jays have a trio of excellent hitters. Yunel Escobar has stepped up in his first full season as a Blue Jay, producing a .367 OBP from the leadoff spot. Edwin Encarnacion, too, has stepped up after a tumultuous 2010 season in Toronto. He has produced a .350 wOBA, mostly as the team’s DH. He’s been a pest against the Yankees, going 12 for 40 with four doubles this season. Brett Lawrie has stormed onto the scene since his mid-season call-up, hitting .340/.392/.713, producing 12.9 runs above average despite having just 102 PA. His ISO is actually higher than Bautista’s at the moment.

One player to watch is Kelly Johnson, recently acquired from the Diamondbacks. He’s gone on a tear in his first eight games north of the border. He actually has hit lefties better than righties in his career, despite batting from the left side. Eric Thames has provided some offense as well, a .345 wOBA in 293 PA. Otherwise the Jays are either average or below. So while they do have a core of quality producers, they’re not nearly as deep as other offenses.

Another player to watch is Adam Lind. He started off on fire, producing a 1.017 OPS through his first 198 PA. It looked like a real bounceback season for him, but since then he’s been as cold as they come. Since June 19th he’s come to the plate 274 times and has hit .198/.241/.315. That brings his wOBA down to league average, which is not exactly what the Jays expected. If he continues like this his bounceback season could turn into one as bad as last year, when he hit .237/.287/.425.

Blue Jays on the Mound

While the Jays do have a quality offense, their pitching staff falls short. They rank 11th in the AL with a 4.22 ERA and 4.23 FIP.

Friday: RHP Brandon Morrow vs. Ivan Nova. Morrow has always possessed good stuff, and he seemed to harness it this year. His 10.35 K/9, 3.41 BB/9, and 0.95 HR/9 add up to a 3.38 FIP, but his results have provided a 4.79 ERA. That’s in large part because of his low strand rate, something that should correct itself over time. He’s had a rough go in five of his last seven starts, though he did strike out 11 in seven innings against Texas about a month ago. Since then he’s had just one good outing, and that came against Seattle. Last two times out he allowed 11 runs in 10 innings against the Royals and Rays. Against the Yankees he has a 4.68 ERA in 50 career innings, though he did toss 6.2 innings of one-run ball against them earlier this year.

Saturday: LHP Ricky Romero vs. Bartolo Colon. On Saturday the Yanks run into Toronto’s best starter in Romero. He’s had something of an odd year, putting up peripherals inferior to Morrow, but besting him in ERA by nearly two full runs. His walk rate hasn’t been great, but he’s held opponents to a .245 BABIP, which explains the divide between his FIP and ERA. Still, it has made him one of the more effective starters in the league. In August he threw 44 innings and allowed just 10 runs, a 2.05 ERA. Opponents hit just .160 off him. The Yanks got to him last time out, scoring four times in five innings. Before that he tossed seven-innings of one-run ball, and six innings of two-run ball against them.

Sunday: LHP Brett Cecil vs. Freddy Garcia (probably). Cecil got off to a horrible start, allowing 16 runs in his first four starts, including five in five innings against the Yankees on April 20th. The Blue Jays demoted him after that, and in his first start back, on June 30th, he allowed six runs in 6.1 innings. It all appeared to be going downhill at that point, but Cecil has turned it around to a degree. Since the beginning of July he’s produced a 3.54 ERA in 76.1 innings, striking out 50 to 22 walks. The 11 homers, though, can be a problem. He has, however, allowed nine runs combined in his last two starts. It might seem as though Cecil has owned the Yanks, especially in 2010. But in his 46.2 career innings against them he has a 4.82 ERA.

Bullpen: The Jays do have a decent bullpen, ranking seventh in the AL in ERA and sixth in FIP. Casey Janssen in particular has stepped up, keeping the ball in the park while striking out many and walking few. That’s a perfect combination for any pitcher. Two of their more effective relievers, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Frasor, are no longer with the team.

Recommended Jays Reading: The always entertaining Drunk Jays Fans and the slightly more analytical Ghost Runner On First.

Tickets

It appears that you can get into this series relatively cheaply.