Mailbag: The A.J. Auto-Loss Myth

So the Daily News already has an article up about how pitching AJ Burnett will end up costing the Yankees. I don’t understand why…if the Yankees are up or down 3-0, there’s not a chance Girardi doesn’t go with Sabathia in Game 4. Wouldn’t Sabathia pitch Game 4 anyways with AJ getting the ball in Game 5?

Here is said Daily News article. I suggest not reading it, I’ll instead summarize it with blah blah blah A.J. Burnett will cost them the series blah blah blah he stinks blah blah blah. There’s also some cliches in there and the typical doomsday scenario talk. Fresh and original, you know. Nothing but the best.

Anyway, back to reality.

Look, A.J. Burnett was awful this year. He gave the Yankees no chance to win in almost half his starts, and in half of the remaining half he was slightly better than bad. There’s no denying this, and there’s no going back in history to change things or any amount of anything that can make people feel more comfortable about his Game Four start. But guess what, he’s going to start that game, and anyone that thinks it’s an automatic loss needs to get a grip on reality.

Changeup! (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Burnett pitched to a 4.83 FIP over the course of the 162-game regular season, slightly better than the 4.99 FIP put up by Rangers’ Game Four starter Tommy Hunter. Over the last three months and change A.J. had a 4.71 FIP, Hunter 5.47. If there’s anyone in the Texas rotation that you want to start Burnett against, it’s Hunter because he is every bit as likely (if not more given the lineup he’ll be facing) to blow up in horrific fashion. You don’t start A.J. in Game Three against Cliff Lee with the mindset of “well they’ll probably lose to Lee and lose Burnett’s start, so they can kill two birds with one stone,” that completely defeats the purpose. The idea is to beat the Rangers and Cliff Lee, not make easy for them. If you’re willing to do that, then just go root for the Mets, it’s a loser mentality.

The Yankees already have the pitching advantage in Game One and it’s no worse than a push in Game Two. There’s nothing they can do about Lee, he’s going to pitch and chances are he’ll be awesome. It’s what the guy does. They don’t have to beat him though, they have to beat the Rangers. Texas had a five run lead against the Yanks in the sixth inning of this game with Lee on the mound, and you know what? They lost. You know why? Because the Yanks chipped away and then punished the Rangers’ bullpen once their ace lefty was out of the game. Andy Pettitte doesn’t have to beat Cliff Lee in Game Three, he just has to keep the Yankees within striking distance. Then it’s up to the offense to do their thing late in the game, just like they did in the ALDS. It’s doable.

Remember, the Yankee pitching staff is in better shape right now than it was last year in the playoffs, when they beat a Cliff Lee led team in the World Series (a team that was better overall than this Rangers’ club, by the way). There was no Phil Hughes then, and they had no choice but to start Burnett every five days (and once on short rest). The regular season is a marathon, but the playoffs are a relay race, a series of one game sprints where literally anything can happen. There’s no better embodiment of that “anything can happen in one start” phenomenon than Burnett, who on any given day can surrender eight runs in two innings or no runs in nine innings. He’s a roll of the dice every time he touches the mound, and that inconsistency is why he’s starting Game Four, not Game One or Two.

If the Yanks do lose the ALCS, it won’t be because of Burnett’s one start. He’s one of 25, and if they drop three of the other six (potential) games in the series, then a whole lot more went wrong than A.J. They’ll win as a team and lose as a team, as they should. No one shoulders the blame by themselves. It’s trendy to trash Burnett, just like it was trendy to trash Joe Girardi in September and say the Yanks would be one and done in the playoffs because of how horribly they struggled. Look how that turned out.

Anyway, there’s my rant for the night. As for the actual question, yeah, I’m pretty sure they’d start Sabathia in Game Four if they were down three games to none. They’d have no choice, and frankly they would have much bigger problems than worrying about Burnett in that situation.

Yankees announce ALCS roster and rotation

Via Bryan Hoch, the Yankees have announced their roster and rotation for the upcoming American League Championship Series. The roster is unchanged, it’ll be the same 25 guys they played with against the Twins, but the rotation is slightly different. CC Sabathia will of course go in Game One, but Phil Hughes will get the ball in Game Two, not Andy Pettitte. Pettitte and A.J. Burnett will then start Games Three and Four, respectively. I assume that the only way Sabathia will pitch on short rest in Game Four is if the Yanks are down three games to none in the series.

Hughes has superb numbers in Arlington for his career, but that covers about 15 innings spread across four seasons. I suspect that had little value when they put the rotation together, and it had more to do with lining up Pettitte for matchups with Cliff Lee.

Open Thread: Same old A.J.

Unhappy with being a platoon DH, Lance Berkman will now be performing the YMCA with the grounds crew after the sixth inning. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The big news from A.J. Burnett‘s simulated game this afternoon is not that he threw 80-plus pitches for the first time in close to two weeks, not that he felt great about his curveball and changeup, but that he plunked two batters. In a simulated game. He got Greg Golson with a two-seamer on his fifth pitch (after his first sailed to the backstop) before getting Austin Kearns with another two-seamer later on. It wouldn’t be an A.J. Burnett outing without erratic command so this is just par for the course. I can’t wait until those two pitches to Golson and Kearns are extrapolated into more #LowPitchingIQ articles and the like. It wouldn’t be the same old A.J. without ‘em.

Oh, and apparently Mark Teixeira has a black eye. He says he got it while messing around with his son. Whatever, as long as he keeps hitting bombs and catching everything hit within a time zone of first base, he can do whatever he wants off the field.

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The Knicks are playing the Celtics in preseason action (meh), and both the Isles and Devils are playing real games that mean something (not against each other). Yeah, it’s that kind of night. You guys and gals know what to do, so have at it.

For the ALCS, an expensive ticket and a promo

Our partners at TiqIQ have some graphs — and tickets — for the upcoming American League Championship Series. The above graph came out before Major League Baseball announced that Game 5 would be an afternoon affair, but as you can see, tickets start out expensive and get even more so as the series progresses. Notably, TiqIQ says that over the five days prior to Game 3 of the ALDS, ticket prices shot up by more than 60 percent. If it looks like the Yanks are going to clinch or if the series is tight, tickets will be in higher demand.

While the gist of the graph below is that bleacher seats are still cheaper than the rest of the park, even sitting behind the outfield walls will cost a pretty penny for the postseason. Average resale prices for the bleachers is in excess of $200 a seat, but it’s well worth the experience. I saw Game 2 of the 1998 ALCS from the bleachers at old Yankee Stadium, and the crowd erupted when Chuck Knoblauch’s mental error cost the Yanks the game.

As always, we have a wide array of tickets available for these games at RAB Tickets, and despite the high average prices, bleacher seats can be hard for around $100-$120 a pop right now. We’re also running a promo for the week. If you make a purchase of $500 or more on Ticket Network only — basically the equivalent of two tickets for one game — put in the code rab28 for a 5 percent discount. Finally, if you’re interested in tickets in Texas for Games 1 or 2, we have those available as well. You can find ALCS Game 1 seats right here and ALCS Game 2 seats here.

The need for good Thames against Texas

Mr. Thames to you. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Marcus Thames has been everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to be and then some. He was brought in to hit lefthanded pitching and has done just that (.300/.352/.454, .354 wOBA), but he’s also been much better than expected against righthanders (.268/.347/.549, .382 wOBA). He’s produced numerous big hits throughout the year, like this walk-off homer against the Red Sox, this walk-off single against the Blue Jays, this go-ahead homer against the Jays, and of course this go-ahead single against the same Rangers’ club that the Yanks will face in the ALCS starting Friday. As good as Thames has been this season, his team is going to need just a little bit more out of him against Texas.

Although neither team has officially released their ALCS rotation yet, the Rangers are expected to start the series with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis before giving the ball to Cliff Lee in Game Three. Tommy Hunter is your probable Game Four starter. It’s highly likely that each team will win at least one game at some point, meaning that Texas will be able to give the ball to a southpaw three times in the first five games of the series (Wilson twice, Lee once). These aren’t your everyday lefthanders either. Wilson annihilates batters of the same hand (lefthanded batters had just a .205 wOBA with just five doubles and no homers off him this season) and Lee … well … is Cliff Lee.

Even though Curtis Granderson has improved immensely against lefties since working with Kevin Long (.380 wOBA vs. LHP since the changes that, ironically, took place in Texas), his offensive ability is likely to be somewhat compromised during those three games. Ditto Brett Gardner, even though he was more than respectable against lefties this season (.332 wOBA, .351 vs. RHP). Alex Rodriguez was uncharacteristically awful against lefthanders this year (a solid .335 wOBA, but Alex is held to different standards than mere mortals) as well. That’s why they need Thames to be on top of his game, he’s got to pick up the seemingly inevitable slack.

The good news is that Marcus has already shown he can do that, albeit in a tiny sample. When Mark Teixeira was away with his birth-giving wife in early August, Thames not only stepped in as the three-hole hitter for two games, he basically replaced (or even improved upon) Tex’s production as well. He went 5-for-10 with a homer in the two games (started by Wilson and Lee of all people), with one of the hits being that go-ahead single linked above. He took Frank Francisco deep one inning before that to bring the Yanks to within one. Of course it was all or nothing for Marcus that series, because he struck out in the five plate appearances in which he didn’t get a hit. That’s the trade off you get with a guy like him though.

The Twins learned the hard way that the Yankee lineup is extremely deep with no easy out(s), especially their two lefties Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing. Thames was a big reason for that, as he has been all season, but the team still needs a little more out of him. They know that, he knows that, the other team knows it, everyone does. Thames has been worth every penny of his $900,000 salary so far this season, but the job isn’t done yet.

Aside: That’s easily my favorite picture of the season so far. So badass. Here’s that play, if you’re curious…Also, check out this Wall Street Journal piece on Thames. Mike Sielski spins a great tale of Thames’ friendship with former Yankee farmhands Jeff Nettles and Drew Henson as well as his time in Detroit.

Lining up the ALCS rotation

We know the who. But beyond Game 1, we don’t know the when. As in, when do Hughes, Pettitte, and Burnett pitch? It might seem like a straightforward situation, but it doesn’t have to be. The Yankees can exploit the schedule to give them the best possible rotation in the ALCS.

Starting Sabathia on three days’ rest

(Jim Mone/AP)

The first question the Yankees have to answer is whether they will start CC Sabathia on three days’ rest in Game 4. It worked last year, and since the Yankees face a pitching situation similar to last year’s, they will certainly consider it. If everything goes well, going with CC in Games 1, 4, and potentially 7 makes sense.

No one wants to wear down Sabathia. He is, after all, under contract for the next five seasons and figures prominently into the team’s plans during that time. But he also figures prominently into the team’s 2010 postseason plans. He’s clearly the team’s best starter, and the Yankees should use that to their advantage.

As was the case last year, Sabathia is well rested heading into the ALCS. After he pitches on Friday he’ll have made two starts in 17 days. This isn’t a situation akin to 2008, where he pitched on three days’ rest down the stretch and was worn out by the playoffs. We might worry about the long layoffs between his starts, but it has the potential to help the Yankees more than it does to hurt them.

Using Sabathia in Games 4 and 7 gives the Yankees a further advantage. Cliff Lee pitches in Game 3. If he dominates as he did last night, the Yankees can respond immediately with their stopper. Then, when Lee returns for a potential Game 7, he’ll have Sabathia opposing him. The hope, of course, is that things don’t even get that far.

Using Sabathia in Game 4 presents an additional advantage, as well.

Starting Burnett in Game 5

(Michael Dwyer/AP)

No one wants to see A.J. Burnett start in the ALCS. But the way the schedule works out this year, there isn’t much of a choice. Last year the schedule worked out so that only Sabathia would have to pitch on three days’ rest. This year, without the off-day between Games 4 and 5, every starter would have to go on short rest in order to cut out A.J. He’s necessary at this point.

The Yankees, though, can make him as unnecessary as possible. By going with Sabathia in Game 4, Burnett gets pushed to an if-necessary game. No one’s going to predict an ALCS sweep, but in this case I think it’s a real possibility. We’ll get to that in more depth as we continue previewing the series. If the Yanks can pull that off, it eliminates the need to use Burnett at all.

Who in Game 2?

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The last rotation issue involves the Game 2 starter. The smart money is on Andy Pettitte, since he filled that role in the ALDS despite throwing with the same arm as Sabathia. If the Yanks didn’t feel the need to start Hughes on the road in that series, I’m not sure they’d change course in the ALCS.

For his part, Hughes has pitched well in Arlington. We all remember the near-no-hitter back in 2007. He returned there in 2009 and threw his best game of the year, an eight-inning, zero run performance. This year he pitched a single inning there. That makes for some entertaining noise, but it doesn’t have much substance. The sample, for both its size and remoteness, is completely unpredictive.

What we do know is that the Rangers hit righty starters a bit better than lefty starters, especially in terms of power, and that they hit far better at home than on the road. Their righty hitters have also hit righties just about as well as they have hit lefties*, which further negates the 15.1 innings Hughes threw in Texas in the last four years. Andy Pettitte

*Rangers RHB vs. RHP: .268/.330/.404. Rangers RHB vs. LHP: .272/.332/.399.

The preferred ALCS rotation

If the Yankees want to take advantage of their situation, this is how they’ll lineup the ALCS rotation. I’ll also take a stab at the Rangers’ rotation just for fun.

Game 1: CC Sabathia vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 2: Andy Pettitte vs. Colby Lewis
Game 3: Phil Hughes vs. Cliff Lee
Game 4: CC Sabathia vs. Tommy Hunter
Game 5: A.J. Burnett vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 6: Andy Pettitte vs. Colby Lewis
Game 7: CC Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee

But since the Yankees might not start Sabathia on three days’ rest, it will likely line up like this.

Game 1: CC Sabathia vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 2: Phil Hughes vs. Colby Lewis
Game 3: Andy Pettitte vs. Cliff Lee
Game 4: A.J. Burnett vs. Tommy Hunter
Game 5: CC Sabathia vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 6: Phil Hughes vs. Colby Lewis
Game 7: Andy Pettitte vs. Cliff Lee

Mailbag: Next Year’s Bullpen

Seems that the big question mark for next season is whether we land Cliff Lee or not. But to me, going rather unnoticed is the question mark that will be our bullpen. If Joba starts and Aceves & Marte are still injured doesn’t that leave just Robertson, Logan and Mo (assuming he returns)? That leaves 4 spots open. Of course we have internal options like Nova, Mitre, Albaladejo & Romulo Sanchez but do you see us looking elsewhere to fill out the final roster spots? There are a lot of good free agent options this winter.

Although the team hasn’t confirmed anything yet, it’s all but certain that Al Aceves (back) and Damaso Marte (shoulder) will have surgery at some point this offseason. We have no idea what that’ll do for their availability next season, but you have to assume they’ll contribute nothing and treat whatever they do give you as a bonus. Kerry Wood is as good as gone after the season, there’s no way they’ll pick up his $11M option and he’ll probably bolt for a closer’s job elsewhere. Remember, saves = money in this game, no matter how you feel about the stat. It’s also unlikely that the Yanks will offer him a multi-year deal to set up Mariano Rivera, Wood’s just too much of a health risk.

Internally, Robertson and Logan are locks behind Mo. I’m not of the belief that Joba will even be considered for a starting job next year, never mind actually get a crack at one. I’ve given up hope on that front. Let’s assume he’ll be back in the bullpen next year as well. Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley are goners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sergio Mitre returns at all. He’s cheap enough ($850,000 this year) and arbitration eligible for the final time this offseason. Plus Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman seem to like him. So that’s five spots accounted for in the seven man bullpen.

Jon Albaladejo will be out of options next season (Logan too, but he’s not on the bubble), so he’ll have to either break camp with the team out of Spring Training or hit the waiver wire if they don’t trade him before then. He killed it in Triple-A this summer but the team never seemed to have interest in giving him an extended shot in the bigs, and you can’t really blame then for that. Romulo Sanchez could be another option, but his command isn’t good enough for any kind of high (or even medium) leverage work. Hector Noesi and David Phelps reached Triple-A as starters this year and could be given a shot in relief at some point. Then there’s Ivan Nova, who’s probably a lock for a long relief role if he doesn’t start the year as the fifth starter.

The free agent market is stacked with quality relievers as you said, with the most interesting (and reasonable) names beyond Wood and Rafael Soriano being Jason Frasor (Type-A), Scott Downs (A), Matt Guerrier (A), Frank Francisco (A), Grant Balfour (A), Joaquin Benoit (B), Jon Rauch (B), Chad Qualls (B), Jesse Crain (B), and Dan Wheeler (nothing). Cashman has shown little interest in signing relievers to multi-year deals since the Kyle Farnsworth and Steve Karsay debacles, and who could blame him? Bullpen guys are so volatile that you just can’t trust them to live up to the contract. Look at Marte; sure he helped them win the World Series, but aside from the playoffs last year that contract has been a disaster. There’s a big benefit to having flexibility and plenty of options in the bullpen, which is how they Yanks have done it for the last three years.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with adding relievers on cheap one year deals, similar to Chan Ho Park this season. If it works, great, if not then they cut the guy loose with no long-term obligation. I’d rule out the Type-A’s right off the bat simply because it’s not worth giving up a high draft pick for unpredictable relievers, regardless of what their track record looks like. Maybe if the Yanks go on a somewhat unexpected free agent binge and would only be giving up like, a third or fourth rounder, then maybe a Type-A becomes a more realistic option. Otherwise forget it.

Of the guys listed above, Benoit makes the most sense because he performed at an elite level in the AL East this season a year after major shoulder surgery, though I suspect the Rays will retain him on a two year deal or something to replace Soriano. Qualls was terrible in 2010 despite good peripherals, so maybe he’s an option on a late offseason CHoP-type flier. Crain and Rauch are solid options at the right price. Forget Wheeler, he’s a homerun factory before taking account Yankee Stadium.

There’s also the option of trading for a reliever(s), but I wouldn’t expect anything big. Something more along the lines of the Logan deal, a guy with good stuff and no spot in his current team’s bullpen as a throw-in to a bigger deal. As for targets … I dunno, your guess is as good as mine. Who has relievers to spare? Pretty much no one these days. If you’d have asked me this question last year, I never would have come up with Logan. That’s just the nature of the bullpen business.

So wrapping it all up, we’re looking at Mo, D-Rob, Logan, Joba and three relievers to be named later. Mitre and Nova/Albie are likely to get two of those spots, and a suspect a CHoPian free agent signing gets that last one with Romulo, Noesi, Phelps and others in Triple-A as backup plans. The important thing to remember is that the bullpen that starts the year is never the one that finishes it. They’ll start 2011 with one set of players and make changes as needed throughout the summer, like they always do.