Starting Rotation Disabled List Projections

u ok cc? (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Yankees starting rotation is quite the popular topic these days and for all the wrong reasons. After failing to sign Cliff Lee, who would have simultaneously filled three rotation spots all by himself, the Yanks are now stuck scraping the bottom of the barrel for some kind of innings eater. While they have a number of young and interesting prospects, I’m sure a team that strives to win the World Series every year would rather not trust two-fifths of it’s rotation to untested kids. Performance is not the only uncertainty though, so is health.

Jeff Zimmerman recently completed a great two-part series at FanGraphs where he projected the odds of each starting pitcher in the game (min. 20 starts and 120 IP) hitting the disabled list in 2011. His methodology isn’t terribly complex, so check out his two posts (part one, part two) for an explanation. He essentially based the projection on age and the pitcher’s health history over the last three seasons. The average odds of a DL trip is something like 39.0%, which initially struck me as high but really isn’t. For all intents and purposes, it means two members of an average five man rotation will hit the shelf at some point during the season, and that doesn’t sound crazy at all.

The front of New York’s rotation is anchored by one of the game’s premier workhorses, but everyone beyond him has had injury concerns of varying significance in the not too distant past. Let’s take a look at what might be in store in 2011…

CC Sabathia
Opening Day Age: 30 years, 8 months
DL Odds: 34.2%
Expected Number of DL Trips: Zero

Sabathia, who’s thrown 1034 innings over the last four seasons (including playoffs), has the best odds of avoiding the disabled of any pitcher age 30 or older in Jeff’s study. Dan Haren is next at 34.4%, and both Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland are a touch over 35%. Of course the study doesn’t count for his recent knee surgery, but that’s supposedly just a minor thing. CC’s been on the disabled list just twice in his career, missing 23 days in 2005 and 29 days in 2006, both with a right oblique strain. There’s no reason not to expect Sabathia to be a 33 start, 220 inning workhorse next year. Very few in the game can match this guy’s durability.

A.J. Burnett
Opening Day Age: 34 years, 3 months
DL Odds: 38.0%
Expected Number of DL Trips: Zero

When the Yankees signed Burnett, many were skeptical about his ability to stay on the field and justifiably so. From 2001 through 2007, Burnett hit the 15-day disabled list six times and the 60-day disabled list three times. Aside from a foot fracture way back in 2001, every one of the DL trips were elbow or shoulder related as well. Aside from having a trio of starts pushed back a few days this past season because of a sore foot (hit by a comebacker), a lacerated hand (slammed a door), and sore lower back, Burnett has been perfectly healthy with the Yankees. His 615 regular season innings over the last three seasons are the 18th most in baseball. Of course they haven’t always been quality innings, but staying on the field is extremely important and absolutely counts for something.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Phil Hughes
Opening Day Age: 24 years, 9 months
DL Odds: 37.7%
Expected Number of DL Trips: One

Of the 24 pitchers age 25 and under in Jeff’s study, only six (Mike Leake, Brad Bergesen, Bud Norris, Wade Davis, Yovani Gallardo, and Jonathan Niese) are more likely to hit the disabled list in 2011 than Hughes. He missed considerable time in both the 2007 (hamstring, 94 days) and 2008 (stress fracture in his rib cage, 136 days) seasons, and his minor league career featured time missed due to a stubbed toe, shoulder fatigue, and shoulder tendinitis. In fact, 2009-2010 is the first time Hughes has not gotten hurt in two consecutive seasons in his career. He’s also coming off a career high workload (191.2 IP, including postseason) that exceeds his previous career (146 IP in 2006) by more than 30%. I don’t think we needed Jeff’s study to tell us that Hughes is at risk of missing time next season.

Andy Pettitte
Opening Day Age: 38 years, 9 months
DL Odds: 56.5%
Expected Number of DL Trips: Two

No, he has not yet announced if he’s going to return for 2011 or retire, but I figured I would include Andy in the post anyway. Of the 116 pitchers that qualified for the study, none are more likely to hit the disabled list next season than Pettitte. That’s what happens when you’re that age and have missed 102 totals days due to various injuries (groin strain, elbow inflammation, shoulder fatigue, back spasms) over the last three seasons. Pettitte was a physical mess at the end of the season, battling back and hamstring issues that hampered him throughout the playoffs. If he were to retire, he’d instantly go from an old and injury prone starter to the most physically fit 38 year old in Texas.

* * *

Don’t take these DL projections to heart obviously, it’s a relatively simply method based on age and recent injury history that Zimmerman admits is still a work in progress. What it does help emphasize is the Yankees’ need for some kind of innings eater for the back of the rotation even if Pettitte does return. They’ll be fine with Sabathia and should be okay with the surprisingly durable Burnett, but after that it’s hit-or-miss, and I’m not just talking about DL potential.

My Aaron Heilman Nightmare

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now that most of the big name free agents are off the board, we’re left digging through the list of second and third tier players that could potentially fill a hole on the Yankees’ roster until a better alternative comes along. With Pedro Feliciano on board, the back-end of the bullpen is pretty much set. In a perfect world they’d bring in someone for that oh so important eighth inning role just to bump David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain back to the sixth and seventh inning fireman roles, but that guy just isn’t available for the right price right now.

So as I was looking through this list of underwhelming free agent relievers over the weekend, something horrible hit me: Aaron Heilman will be a New York Yankee in 2011. I have nothing to base this on other than my gut feeling, but I still don’t like it for obvious reasons. It’s Aaron frickin’ Heilman man, we all watched him pitch across town for all those years. Everyone remembers Yadier Molina in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS, and that was just the highest profile meltdown in a career full of them, which is why Mets fan despise the guy. And yet there I was, momentarily convinced that he’ll pitch for the Yankees next season. Since he’s on my mind, we might as well take look and see if Heilman would be of any actual use to the Yankees in 2011.

Now 32, the right-hander never has gotten the opportunity to start after all those years of complaining about it. Heilman spent this past season in the dreadful Diamondbacks bullpen, where he was one of only two relievers to be above replacement level (0.1 fWAR) while throwing at least 40 innings (Blaine Boyer was the other). That tells you how atrocious their ‘pen was, holy cow. It was also the second worst full season of Heilman’s career, evidenced by a 6.88 K/9 and 4.47 FIP that were (yep) the second worst of his career. He actually had a drastic reverse platoon split, holding lefties to a .276 wOBA while righties tagged him for a .367 wOBA. It’s also the second straight year he’s had that problem as well, which is pretty odd.

A fastball-changeup pitcher, Heilman’s fastball velocity is still there, comfortably 92-93. He still maintains the 10 mph separation with his changeup and PitchFX says it’s still moving as much as it always was, so his stuff is fine from what we can tell. Despite that, his swinging strike rate has dropped for two consecutive seasons now (though still above average at 9.7%) and he generated fewer groundballs than ever (35.6% in 2010, a career low by more 5%). It’s worth noting that Heilman has reincorporated his slider back into his repertoire over the last three years after shelving it for a few seasons, so perhaps he needs to scrap it and do with his two best offerings exclusively. Perhaps that will help with the platoon issues. When he’s at his best, Heilman is striking out lefties and getting righties to beat the ball into the ground, but over the last two years the strikeouts against southpaws just haven’t been there.

Heilman is what he is at this point, but over the last several seasons he’s been pigeon-holed into high leverage, late inning work even though he wasn’t really qualified to handle it. Maybe a move into the middle innings will help him be more successful, which is the only role the Yankees should even consider him for. Maybe his groundball rate will recover and the platoon issue will correct itself by taking away the slider. It’s all guesswork at this point and banking on any of it to actually happen would be foolish.

The Yanks are likely to add a right-handed reliever before pitchers and catchers report, but the current crop of free agents offers little late inning help. Rafael Soriano will require a hefty contract and a draft pick, Grant Balfour just a pick, Jon Rauch is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and Kyle Farnsworth is Kyle Farnsworth. Heilman’s only good season in the last three came under current Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild with the Cubs in 2009, so maybe he holds the secret for turning Heilman into a usable middle reliever. For now, I’ll just hope the Yankees come up with a better alternative and we can go back to laughing at Heilman’s misfortunes from afar.

Open Thread: Wade Boggs

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

My signature Wade Boggs moment isn’t a hit or a homer or a defensive play or anything, it’s that right up there. Him riding around the Stadium on the NYPD horse after the Yankees won the 1996 World Series. How could it not be? It was my first World Championship as a fan, and there he was towering over everyone else. It’s a scene I’ll never ever ever forget.

Boggs did make four All Star teams in five seasons with the Yankees, but he was never anywhere close to the player he was with the Red Sox and understandably so. Did you know that in 1988, Boggs drew 125 walks and struck out just 34 times? That’s insane. From 1985 through 1989, he hit .357/.454/.496 with 538 walks and 238 strikeouts. In New York, he hit “just” .313/.396/.407 with 324 walks and 198 strikeouts, but of course he picked up his only World Series ring, so we win. Boggs finished his career back home with the Devil Rays, becoming the only player in baseball history to record his 3,000th hit on a homerun. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term.

Here is your open thread for the evening. The MNF pits the Bears at the Vikings, and that’s it. None of the hockey or basketball locals are in action. Use this thread as you see fit, have at it.

Pettitte still leaning towards retirement

Via Marc Carig, a person close to Andy Pettitte said the chances of the big lefty returning for the 2011 season are roughly 30%. “There is a very real possibility that he will retire,” said this person, and I think we all understood that from the get go. I certainly respect that Pettitte is making a major life decision here, but I would really like to see a resolution sometime soon. The wait is killing me, yo.

Cashman: Yankees might start season with current pitching staff

Via Wally Matthews, Brian Cashman acknowledged that the Yankees might begin the season sporting the same starting rotation they do right now, meaning CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, and Sergio Mitre. “I’m not saying I want to do it,” said Cash, “but I may have to do it. Could I go out and get a starter? Yes, I could. But there’s just not much out there … I have March, April, May, June and July, really, to come up with someone.” The GM also said that he’s operating under the assumption that Andy Pettitte will not return, which is the right thing to do.

In other news, Bubba Crosby will be the starting centerfielder and Jesus Montero will be the starting catcher. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The RAB Radio Show: December 20, 2010

The Zack Greinke trade happened over the weekend, and we know the Yanks were at least somewhat involved. Mike and I have differing views of this, so we talk about the merits of each.

More interestingly, Brian Cashman said that he might have to go into the season with the current troops. That would make for an interesting pitching staff, but not interesting in the “they might be awesome” kind of way. It’s interesting in a hold-onto-your-butts kind of way.

Really, though, who could they get? That’s a perpetual point of conversation, and we’re definitely in on it.

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Looking at some Astros pitchers

Late last week we heard that the Yankees had spoken to the Astros about infielder Jeff Keppinger, prompting Joe and I discussed the possibility of expanding a trade to include a starting pitcher in that day’s podcast. It was only natural with the Yankees in perpetual pursuit-of-pitching mode, and I figured it was worth exploring in greater detail.

Before we dive in, we have to eliminate some candidates. The Astros just signed Ryan Rowland-Smith so he’s not an option, not that he should be anyway. Houston also picked up Aneury Rodriguez and former Yankee farmhand Lance Pendleton in the Rule 5 Draft less than two weeks ago, so it’s unlikely either one of those guys will be available. J.A. Happ was one of the centerpieces of this summer’s Roy Oswalt trade, and Bud Norris is their version of Phil Hughes, so for all intents and purposes we can cross those two off the list as well. That leaves a pair of veterans, which is really what the Yankees need. An experienced arm that will give them some predicable innings. Let’s break ’em down…

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Wandy Rodriguez

After missing close to six weeks with a groin strain early in the 2008 season, Wandy has been one of the games least-heralded great starters. He’s pitched to a 3.55 FIP in 538 innings since then, better than guys like Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Andy Pettitte, and John Danks, just to name a few. In fact, just a dozen pitchers with that many innings since 2008 can top that FIP.

Wandy’s a strikeout artist (8.40 K/9 over those last three years) that doesn’t walk many batters (2.93 BB/9) and gets a good amount of grounders (44.8%), so the basics are there. His big breaking curveball has been the second best yakker in baseball over the last two seasons at 23 runs above average, trailing only Adam Wainwright’s legendary curve (45.7 runs above average, absurd). He does have a platoon split, but it’s not out of control; 4.18 FIP vs. RHB in his career compared to 3.58 vs. LHB. Over the last three seasons, those numbers drop to 3.80 and 2.47, respectively.

The Astros only have Rodriguez under contract for one more season. He’ll earn something like $8M in 2011, his final season of arbitration-eligibility. He should easily top the two-year, $21.5M guarantee Jorge De La Rosa received as a free agent when he hits the market next winter, a price that might not jive with Houston’s budget during their rebuilding effort. Even if GM Ed Wade decides to hold onto Wandy for now, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll become available at some point during the season.

Brett Myers

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Ever so quietly, Myers was the best free agent signing of the 2009-2010 offseason. After agreeing to a one-year deal that paid him just $3.1M in 2010, Myers pitched to a 3.56 FIP in 223.2 innings for the Astros, racking up 4.0 fWAR. Not only did he make 33 starts, his most since 2005, but Myers also went at least six innings in every single start except his very last one, when he only mustered 5.2 IP. After having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip in 2009 and dealing with elbow trouble in 2007, this season was a brilliant rebound for the 30-year-old.

There’s really nothing that stands out about Myers. His fastball averages almost exactly 90 mph (I’m guessing he tired late in the year after being hurt in 2009), and he backs it up with a curveball and slider. He has almost no platoon split (3.54 FIP vs. LHB, 3.57 vs. RHB in 2010, 4.24 vs. 4.50 career), a good but not great strikeout rate (7.24 K/9 in 2010, 7.46 career), a good but not great walk rate (2.66 BB/9 in 2010, 3.04 career), and a very solid groundball rate (48.7% in 2010, 47.5% career). The one thing that stands out from last season is his homer rate, which dropped off quite a bit last season and should creep back up next year. That said, Myers is a rock solid starter, capable of 30 or more starts that should be no worse than league average.

Myers was sure to decline his part of an $8M mutual option for 2011 after the season he had, but Wade (who had Myers in Philadelphia) was proactive. He signed the righty to a two-year contract extension with a third year club option worth no less than $23M. Myers would make a lot of sense for the Yankees, but I just can’t imagine the Astros would be willing to trade him less than five months after giving him the extension.

* * *

I don’t like Myers because he is a wife-beater, so I’m happy that he’s the unlikely trade target. Rodriguez simply makes far more sense for the Yankees and their current needs. He’s left-handed, can strike people out, and is on a short-term commitment. The Javy Vazquez trade could be a good comp in terms of prospect package required since both guys were coming off strong seasons with just one year left on their deals, so that means an average or worse big leaguer, a lower level pitching prospect, and a fungible relief prospect. Feel free to fill in the blanks, but just know that it won’t take Jesus Montero or someone like Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances to land him. Wandy definitely makes some sense for the Yanks, so I hope they’ve at least brought up the idea of acquiring him during the Keppinger talks.