Food For Thought: First League Average Season

After breaking down Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists by determining the value of each spot, Scott McKinney of Beyond The Box Score looked at how long it took prospects to have their first league average season (defined at 2+ WAR) in the majors. The majority of both pitchers and position players have that first average season in their sophomore campaigns, though a significant amount of players (27.3%) reach that level in their third season, and another 27.7% reach it in their fourth season or later.

The average call-up age for both position players and pitchers is just 22.7 years of age, which surprised me. I thought it would be a little higher, maybe 23-24. It turns out that age isn’t an important variable either, a player will still have his first league average season two years after he debuts regardless of how old he was when he got to the show. Unsurprisingly, high-end prospects (ranked 1-40 on BA’s lists) tend to contribute a little earlier than lesser guys, but not by a whole lot.

The Yankees have a few high-end prospects on the cusp of the big leagues, most notably Jesus Montero. Recent history suggests that his coming out party might not occur until 2012 though, and I can’t help but wonder how many Yankees fans are willing to be that patient. My guess: fewer than you think.

Baseball America’s Top 20 Latin Summer League Prospects

I’m not one to spend much time researching Dominican Summer League and international prospects because the information on those guys is extremely unreliable (to put it nicely), so I just wait until they reach the states and go from there. Today, however, Baseball America’s Ben Badler put together a list of the 20 best prospects that played in Latin America last summer (subs. req’d), and two Yankees farmhands made the cut: Yeicok Calderon and Ravel Santana. It’s not a ranked list, Badler just listed the guys alphabetically.

Calderon, a 19-year-old Dominican outfielder, hit .339/.439/.551 with 16 doubles and eight homers in the DSL last year, leading the league in SLG while finishing third in OBP, fifth in AVG, and second in homers. “Calderon’s bat is advanced, he controls the strike zone well and he has above-average power,” said Badler. “His defense was crude after his first season in the DSL, but he made some progress last year with his routes and reads off the bat in right field. His bat, though, is what will have to carry him.” The 2008 international signee ($650,000 bonus) is expected to join the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2010.

Santana, a Dominican outfielder like Calderon but a year younger, hit .332/.440/.533 with a league leading ten homers plus 22 steals. “He’s an advanced hitter for his age, has good plate discipline and shows above-average power,” adds Badler. “He has above-average speed and could play center or right field. Even with as much success as he had at the plate, Santana’s best tool is his plus-plus arm.” Santana signed for just $145,000 in 2009, and could debut in the U.S. this summer.

The RAB Radio Show: March 17, 2011

Just when it appeared that the Yanks would go with Garcia and Colon in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, Ivan Nova made them think again. True, we can’t read too much into his six no-hit innings from last night, just as we can’t look too much into the previous start, when he got shelled.

There are more pitching matters, too, including the recent wave of cuts that sent Andrew Brackman to minor league camp.

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In which we honor Sabathia’s workhorse-ability

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

CC Sabathia has been many things since signing with the Yankees two offseasons ago. An ace, a Cy Young contender, a playoff hero, and more than anything else, amazingly durable. Seriously, the guy has thrown 467.2 innings over the last two years and 961.2 innings over the last four years, and that’s just the regular season. Roy Halladay is the only other pitcher within 50 innings of that total, and Dan Haren is the third and final member of the 900+ IP club going back to 2007. It’s an exclusive club.

Joe lovingly called Sabathia a freak in his season preview, and we mean that in the nicest way possible. CC is literally the largest left-handed pitcher in baseball history, in terms of combined height (6-foot-7) and weight (295 lbs.). Randy Johnson was listed at 6-foot-10 but only 225 lbs., and Mark Hendrickson stands 6-foot-9, 240 lbs. The only other pitcher to be at least CC’s height and weigh over 270 is another guy in Yankees camp, Andy Sisco (6-foot-10 lbs., 270 lbs.). Marlins lefty Sean West is the only other guy in history to stand at least 6-foot-5 and weight at least 250 lbs. That’s it, just those three; Sabathia, Sisco, and West. One of these things is not like a way better pitcher than the other things.

The table to the right tallies up Sabathia’s starts as a Yankee, broken down by the number of innings thrown. He’s thrown at least eight full innings in exactly one-fourth (17) of his 68 starts over the last two years. That’s pretty amazing. Another 30 starts lasted at least seven full innings, so that’s no fewer than 21 outs recorded in 69.1% of his starts, essentially seven out of ten. Just think about that for a second. Seven innings in seven out of ten starts. That’s not even video game stuff; my starters have a tough time completing seven innings in The Show. Sabathia is that good.

(Just to be clear, 8+ refers to starts longer than eight innings. 7+ is starts between 7 and 7.2 innings, 6+ is starts between 6 and 6.2 IP, so on and so forth.)

In terms of pitches thrown (table to the right), only 16 times (23.6%) has CC failed to top the century mark. Furthermore, two of those 16 starts ended with his pitch count at 99. That 110-120 pitch range seems to be the comfort zone, but Sabathia has certainly proven to be capable of 120+ pitches if needed. His single game high with New York is 123 pitches, done three times.

Amazingly enough, Sabathia only has one nine-inning complete game with the Yankees. That came on May 8th of 2009, when he threw a shutout and four hit the Orioles in what was pretty much his “welcome to New York” moment. That has more to do with having the greatest reliever in the history of the universe available to close out games than it does Sabathia’s inability to get 27 outs in a start. CC has also thrown three other complete games in pinstripes, but two were eight-inning loses and the other was a six inning, rain-shortened game.

Both of the starts in which Sabathia failed to complete three innings came in 2009. The first was in late-June, when he left a start against the Marlins after recording just four outs due to stiffness in his biceps. He was back on the mound five days later, holding the Mets to one run in seven innings. The other short start was his final one of that season, when the Rays rocked him for nine runs in just 2.2 IP. Five days later, he beat the Twins in Game One of the ALDS. As for the two other starts that were less than five innings, the first came in his very first start with the Yankees, and the other was that 4.2 IP start against the Red Sox last summer that got hit with a rain delay. If it hadn’t been for Mother Nature, he surely would have completed the inning. When Joe Girardi hands the ball to Sabathia, he’s getting at least five innings out of him, more than nine times out of ten. That level of reliability is impressive and incredibly valuable.

The term “innings-eater” is usually reserved for guys like Joe Blanton and Jon Garland, and all it really means is that the pitcher is capable of sucking for six or seven innings instead of four or five. Guys like Sabathia, who combine quality pitching with bulk innings are true workhorses, and you can count the number of pitchers like that on one hand. I didn’t think it would be possible for a pitcher to exceed the expectations associated with a $161M contract, but so far Sabathia has done that for the Yankees.

2011 Season Preview: Feliciano and Logan

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Throughout the 2000s the Yankees could not find a suitable lefty reliever. They went through such middling arms as Felix Heredia, Gabe White, C.J. Nitkowski, Buddy Groom, Wayne Franklin, Alan Embree, Ron Villone, and Mike Myers. It wasn’t until they acquired Damaso Marte in 2008 that they had a quality lefty in the pen, but even that was short-lived. Assuming he misses the whole season, he’ll have pitched just 53.1 innings for the Yankees, though that does include his masterful World Series innings. This year, for what feels like the first time in forever, the Yankees will open the season with two lefties in the pen, Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano. Can they be better than the clown car of lefties the team has employed in the past eight years?

Best Case

Lefties make my arm hurt. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

While neither Logan nor Feliciano screams lockdown lefty, each has considerable upside. We saw that in effect last year with Logan, at least following his mid-July recall. From that point on he pitched 21.2 innings while striking out 25 and walking eight, leading to a 2.08 ERA against a 3.16 FIP. It might have been the most successful stretch of baseball in his major league career.

In the best case scenario Logan becomes a lefty who can pitch a full inning. That is, he can take both the lefties and the righties in the lineup with aplomb. That necessarily means relying more on his changeup, since the slider carries a large platoon split. But best case, Logan feels more comfortable throwing the changeup to righties, which makes his 93 mph fastball a bit more effective.

Logan’s ability to take on a setup role would allow Pedro Feliciano to match up against lefties only, which is likely his optimal role at this point. Even in his best years Feliciano hasn’t handled righties particularly well. Now that he’s 34 there’s little chance that he suddenly develops the skill. He has, of course, thoroughly dominated lefties. Even in 2008, his worst season since returning from Japan, he struck out 34 of 119 lefties faced while walking only eight. He might be good for only a batter, or two with an intentionally walked righty in between, but if he can shut down the league’s best lefty hitters the Yankees will have a quality return on their $8 million investment.

Worst Case

This is where things get ugly. While Logan impressed in the second half, his first half left plenty to be desired. At that point he looked like the Logan who had spend most of 2009 in AAA. He walked 12 in 18.1 IP while striking out just 13. Since the success we’ve seen from Logan comes in a very small sample, it’s entirely possible that he reverts to his walk-happy, homer-happy ways. That would leave the Yanks in a bind, since he’s out of options. Do they wait around for his stuff to return to second-half 2010 levels? Or do they cut bait and start the Scranton bullpen shuttle?

With Feliciano the worst case is a bit tougher. If he’s healthy it’s tough to see him performing poorly against lefties, since he has thoroughly dominated them. Instead, his worst case involves the Yankees paying the price for the Mets’ heavy usage. Who leads the majors in appearances during the last three years? That’s Feliciano, with 28 more innings than the next closest reliever, Carlos Marmol. In fact, there are only three other relievers within 50 appearances of Feliciano’s three-year total. While he ranks 49th during that span in terms of batters faced, he still warmed up and got into all those games. That has to take a toll on the arm.

Feliciano has developed a reputation as a guy with a rubber arm, but we’ve seen some of those guys go down in recent years. Scot Shields provides the most prominent example. That is to say that arms of rubber do eventually break. Feliciano is getting to an age where that might become a concern. While injury is a legitimate risk for every pitcher, it seems to be a greater risk for a 34-year-old pitcher who has appeared in at least 86 games in each of the last three seasons.

What’s Likely To Happen

If both Logan and Feliciano stay healthy they’ll likely both provide options against the tough lefties in the lineup. Maybe the lesser of the two can take two lefties, separated by a righty, towards the bottom of the order, while the greater takes the Adrian Gonzalez or the Travis Snider (he’s going to have a big year) of the lineup.

It’s not likely that Logan figures out righties, both because of his fastball-slider repertoire and his history of abysmal performances against them. His fastball can make you dream about him mowing down Carl Crawford, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez 1-2-3, but his history does not suggest it. Chances are he and Feliciano would go about it similarly: pitch to Crawford, pitch around Pedroia, and attack Gonzalez inside.

While the Yankees do have two quality lefties in the bullpen to open the season, they are still LOOGYs. That limits bullpen flexibility. The Yankees do have four solid righties behind them, which helps, but it still doesn’t make Logan or Feliciano any more effective against righties. The Yankees figure to get plenty of use out of them, but don’t expect them to pitch full shutdown innings. Nothing to see here: they’re just here for the lefties.

RAB Bracket Busters

Just a heads up, I’ve started a Tourney Pick ‘Em group over at Yahoo! that everyone is free to join. Just go here and join Group ID #169695 with the password “riveraveblues.” There are no prizes (though you can win up to a million bucks through Yahoo), just bragging rights over your fellow RABers. I’ve got UConn over BYU with Notre Dame and UNC also in the Final Four. Don’t as me why, my college basketball knowledge is seriously lacking this spring.

Update: You have until 12:15pm ET today (Thursday) to sign up and submit your brackets, so get on it if you haven’t already.

Ivan Nova’s New Toy

Slider! (AP Photo)

It’s only Spring Training, but we were treated to a pitching gem last night. Ivan Nova, the youngest member of the fourth/fifth starter’s competition, threw six hitless innings against the Orioles, allowing only two baserunners (one hit-by-pitch, one error). Eleven of the 14 balls put in play off of him were grounders, and four other outs came on strike three. Nova threw just 59 pitches (41 strikes), so he had to head to the bullpen to throw another 15 after leaving the game just to reach his pitch limit.

After the game, Nova told Marc Carig that he’s working on a new pitch at the behest of pitching coordinator Billy Connors, a pitch he broke out last night. “My slider is like a new toy,” said the right-hander. “I have to start playing with it some time, not too much, but I feel comfortable with all my pitches.” Connors and Nova were originally trying to add a cutter, but the ball just kept moving too much. So they kept it, called it a slider, and here we are. Three of Nova’s four strikeouts came on the pitch, and as you’d expect, he’s going to keep using it in the future.

Nova’s scouting report has been the same basically his entire career. He’s a fastball-curveball-changeup guy, usually sitting 92-94 with the heat (though last year we saw some unexpected 97’s). Although the two offspeed pitches are solid offerings, neither is a legit swing-and-miss pitch right now, which is why his ceiling has always been limited to that of a back-end starter. Adding a put-away pitch in the form of that cutter/slider would be a major development for Nova, boosting his stock and future projection a great deal. Having a go-to pitch is a surprisingly rare luxury.

Although he says he’s going to focus on the changeup next time out, it’ll be interesting to see if the pitch takes a backseat to this new slider. It wouldn’t be ideal, but if Nova has to sacrifice one solid pitch for one above-average pitch, then so be it. You make that trade every day of the week. Joe did some quick research last night and found a few pitchers that rely on both a slider and curveball (at least 12% of the time each) but not a changeup (less than 10%), and came up with a nice mix: Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd, Tommy Hanson, and both Cardinals’ aces, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. That doesn’t tell us anything about Nova of course, but it gives us some examples of pitchers that survive (and thrive) with two breaking balls and a nascent changeup.

“Working on a new pitch” is the pitcher’s equivalent of “the best shape of his life,” so take this report of Nova’s slider with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to though, so definitely keep an eye on if/when/how he uses the pitch during what should be his final two Spring Training outings.