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 MiLB.com 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.

The Danks-Pettitte Comparison

Over the last 14 months or so, the Yankees have had a fairly questionable rotation, with a number of slots they could improve via the trade market or free agency. This has led to a million and one trade proposals from fans that have touched on every decent pitcher in the sport. Other than Felix Hernandez, who is Moby Dick to this fanbase’s Ahab, the most frequently raised name has probably been that of John Danks. In the course of various online discussions about Danks, a number of Yankees fans, myself included, have compared him to former Yankee Andy Pettitte. Whether it’s the fact that both are lefties from Texas, the nature of their repertoires, or their established levels of performance, there is something about these two pitchers that connects them in the minds of some fans. Let’s take a closer look at the two men to evaluate whether the comparison has merit.

Scouting

While Pettitte was actually born in Louisiana, he played his high school ball in Texas like Danks. Pettitte has a larger frame than Danks (6’5/235 v. 6’1/215), but both are reasonably large lefties with durable frames. The real similarity comes in their repertoires, particularly when comparing Danks to the Pettitte who returned to the Yankees in 2007. Both work off a fastball that sits around 90-92 MPH, and use the fastball to set up their breaking pitches. Most notably, they use their cutters more than 20% of the time and experience great success with the pitch. They each round out their arsenals with a curveball and a changeup, although Danks focuses more on the changeup while Pettitte was significantly more dependent on his hook.

Performance

Danks has been in the majors for five seasons, so it would be useful to compare his first five seasons to the first five from Pettitte. In his first five years, Andy Pettitte pitched 1044.1 innings with a 3.92 ERA, for an ERA+ of 119. Danks did not come out of the gate quite as hot as Andy did, with a 5.50 ERA in 2007 resulting in a slightly worse overall line of 917 innings to a 4.03 ERA (111 ERA+). However, when it comes to peripheral statistics, Danks actually comes out slightly ahead, with a better K/9 (7.0 to 6.1), BB/9 (2.9 to 3.2), and H/9 (8.8 to 9.4). Danks allowed a .727 OPS against to Pettitte’s .730, but Pettitte was superior at coaxing double plays (15% to 12%), which was due to his significantly greater penchant for drawing grounders (1.07 GB/FB to .76). Pettitte was better at suppressing home runs (0.7 to 1.1 HR/9), and it is important to note that the peripherals are not adjusted for era, which is important considering that Pettitte was pitching at the height of the steroid era. Overall, this comparison seems fairly close, and it is reasonable to say that these two pitchers performed at a similar level.

Another interesting comparison can be made between Danks and Pettitte’s last five years, which may be the years that are causing people to make the connection between these two hurlers. In his last five seasons, Andy threw 957 innings to the tune of a 4.11 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 109. His peripherals during this period actually look a lot like those of Danks, with a 6.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, and a H/9 of 9.6, and the two players notched these numbers while playing in the same league at the same time. Again, it seems that a reasonable person could conclude that these two pitchers were of similar ability.

While some will surely raise postseason success as a defining element of Pettitte’s career and something Danks lacks, it is hard to blame him for not being on a club that makes the postseason every year. For what it is worth, his one postseason start was quintessential Pettitte, as he allowed a bevy of baserunners (10) but limited the damage to 3 runs in 6.2 innings and notched the win.

Editor’s Note: Danks did throw an absolute gem in Game 163 against the Twins in 2008, allowing just two hits and zero runs in eight shutout innings. It’s technically a regular season start, but we all that know that’s a playoff game.

Conclusion

While the parallels between the two are not perfect, they are close enough to explain why Danks is somewhat reminiscent of Andy Pettitte. Both are lefties from Texas who thrive on a fastball-cutter mix, and both were likely miscast as aces when they performed more like good #2 starters. Neither was much of a power pitcher, succeeding by allowing plenty of baserunners but finding a way to limit the damage and give their teams a chance to win. If Danks ever does end up in New York, Yankees fans might find that he brings back memories of a certain dimple-chinned fan favorite from the South.

Mailbag: Chone Figgins as UTIL?

Patrick writes: Recently the Mariners have said that they would throw in cash in a deal that would rid them of Chone Figgins. Because he can play second, third, and some outfield, is Figgins worth anything at all or even a look at this point?

As the Yankee off-season progresses and their needs — few and far between — come into view, it’s clear that Brian Cashman will look to rebuild a bench that has been a source of strength for the Yanks lately. The club has Eduardo Nunez and his amusingly inept defense penciled in as well as Francisco Cervelli, but every spot is up for the grabs. The Yanks could use a power bat, another infielder, someone with thump, someone with speed.

Enter the idea of Chone Figgins. Once upon a time, Figgins was a semi-decent player for the Angels whose production never matched his reputation. In two playoff series against the Yanks, he was terrible, going just 6 for 44, but during the regular season, he managed to hit a respectable .298/.365/.393 against the Bombers in his career. Before departing Anaheim for northern climes, he was a versatile defender who spent time at third, second and in the outfield.

Yet after posting a 99 OPS+ in eight seasons with the Angels and signing a front-loaded four-year, $36-million contract with the Mariners, things have utterly fallen apart. In two years spanning over 1000 plate appearances, Figgins has hit .236/.309/.285 with a sub-par 71 percent stole base rate and 95 walks over two seasons. He hit it big after posting over 100 bases on balls in 2009, the first and only time he reached that plateau, and the Mariners were foolish enough to grant him an outsized deal for his ages 32-35 seasons.

In Seattle, Figgins is essentially persona non grata. Fans of the team have given up on him, and Seattle management has as well. According to a recent report, the Mariners would offer cash to any team willing to take Figgins, the two years and the $17 million he is owed off their hands. Get yer spare washed-up one-time middle infielders here! Just $5 million a season! It’s a bargain.

Of course, the problem with Figgins as a potential solution for any team is his recent sheer lack of success. He’s been flat-out awful lately, and while his 2011 was marred by a .214 BABIP, he wasn’t particularly good in 2010 with a .314 BABIP. It’s not unexpected to see guys of his offensive profile out of the game by their age 34 season; it’s happened to players better than him. So he enters the final two years of the contract with a giant question mark surrounding his status. The Mariners must pay him, but can they turn him into anything useful?

For the Yanks to even take a chance on Figgins, the price would essentially have to be nothing. The Mariners could pay half his money and offer him up as a potential reclamation project. For just $4 million a year, try to tease something useful out of the ghost of Chone Figgins. To make it worthwhile, the Yanks would have to be satisfied with the answer to one question: Is Figgins $3.5 million better than Eduardo Nunez?

As much as I am skeptical of Nunez’s long-term viability, the answer is likely not. Nunez hit a lackluster .265/.313/.385 in far too many plate appearances — 338 to be exact — and he made 27 errors at short, second and third. But Nunez has youth and money on his side. He’ll be playing his age 25 season in 2012 and will make under $500,000. The Yanks once thought highly enough of him to keep him out of some high-profile trade talks so the club won’t just throw in the towel. Unless someone truly superior lands in the Yanks’ lap, Nunez, with his versatile as shaky as it may be, will be their guy.

As a non-roster invitee searching for a team, Figgins could be worth a look. But until the Mariners decide to cut their losses, he’s just a shell of a player who would have been a fine super utility guy four or five years ago. His days are likely over.

Report: Yankees invite Wilson’s agent to New York for meeting Wilson, agent ask to visit Yankees in New York

Update (10:48pm): Via Joel Sherman, apparently Wilson and his agent are the ones that requested the meeting in New York. They asked for it to take place sometime before the Winter Meetings (Dec. 5-8th), and the Yankees are considering the request.

Original (9:08pm): Via Marc Carig, the Yankees have invited C.J. Wilson’s agent, Bob Garber, to New York for a meet with the team’s decision makers. Brian Cashman met with Garber today, and the meeting in New York will reportedly involve Cashman, Hal Steinbrenner, and pro scouting director Billy Eppler.

“I think it was very productive,” said Garber, referring to today’s meeting. “I think Brian is in a situation where he doesn’t want what happened to Cliff Lee to happen again. We have a lot of teams we have to narrow down. I think the Yankees are a team that we’ve narrowed down as a team we want to spend a little time with.” Garber said there are still six or seven teams seriously interested in his client, a list that includes the Angels. Cashman confirmed to Carig that he hasn’t made any free agent offers yet, so they’re still just talking. Doesn’t hurt to do that.

Open Thread: Darrell Rasner

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

From waiver wire fodder to rotation regular, Darrell Rasner is little more than a footnote in Yankees history. He made a total of 29 starts and seven relief appearances for New York from 2006-2008 (most coming in 2008), pitching to a 5.06 ERA and a 4.70 FIP in 158.1 IP. His best career start came on May 21st of his final season in pinstripes, when he held the Orioles scoreless over seven innings.

Three years ago today, the Yankees sold Rasner to the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League at his request. They received a million bucks in return, and Rasner received a new two-year contract and some financial security for his family. He pitched to a 5.09 ERA in 233.2 IP during the life of the contract, then inked another one-year deal with an option last winter. I don’t know what happened this season, but Rasner appeared in just one game (three shutout innings with five strikeouts) for Rakuten. Perhaps he got hurt? I don’t really know. No decision has been made on his option yet (their season is still being played), but hopefully he lands back on his feet.

* * *

Here is your open thread for the night. All three hockey locals are in action (the Rangers and Islanders against each other), but you can use this thread to talk about anything you want. Have at it.

Yankees will follow-up on preliminary talks with Freddy Garcia

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees intend to have follow-up discussions with Freddy Garcia and his agent about a contract for next season. The two sides expressed mutual interest in a reunion earlier this month, and it’s a pretty safe bet that Garcia’s side did not ask for anything unreasonable if the team is willing to continue talks so early in the offseason. I like Freddy as a back-end starter, but really nothing more. I don’t think masquerading him as a number three guy will work all that well again.