Yanks turned down K-Rod, not in on Beltran

With the Yanks’ crosstown rivals looking to free up money to keep Jose Reyes while attempting to restock their financially depleted system, a few Mets have flitted across the Yanks’ radar. The Flushing Nine delivered an All Star surprise when they shipped K-Rod to the Brewers last night, but they didn’t send away their high-priced closer before checking in with the Yankees.

According to numerous sources (Olney, Klapisch), the Yankees could have gotten K-Rod for simply money as well but opted against the move. As we noted in last night’s post on the trade, I was nominally in support of a move to acquire K-Rod, but the Yanks’ rationale for turning down the Mets’ offer seemingly rests on two grounds, one sounder than the other.

The first, I have to assume, concerns the dollars. K-Rod is owed around $5 million this year and with a $3.5 million buyout. Even with the Mets’ picking up some salary, that’s a hefty amount to pay to a late-inning guy for two and a half months. The Yanks were willing to pick up Kerry Wood’s hefty salary last year because they needed set-up help. This year, their pitching dollars are likely allocated to any potential starter or lefty relievers who may become available. Plus, Brian Cashman should know by now that sinking dollars into replaceable late-inning set-up men isn’t a good use of resources.

The other reason seems to concern the bullpen composition itself. Joel Sherman reported that, had the Yanks acquired K-Rod, either he or Soriano would have manned the 7th while the other secured the 8th. The team, he said, thought that “would be a problem with [the] emotional duo.” Both are used to closing; both would be in reduced roles. It’s worth remembering too that K-Rod’s demotion to the 7th or 8th will likely cost him a hefty 2012 salary. Valid reason for giving up the chance to upgrade the bullpen for only dollars, albeit a lot of them? Perhaps so.

In other Yankee/Met news, Buster Olney says that the Yanks are not interested in Carlos Beltran. The Mets have more leverage with regards to Beltran than they did with K-Rod and will ask for a steep package for the outfielder who would make a fine AL DH. I believe he could have a role on the Yanks as a DH/OF, but that would involve marginalizing Jorge Posada. As Beltran is the best bat available, the Yanks are sending signals that want to spend on starting pitching.

Comparing the Yankees to their peers: The starters

So far, in examining the Yankees offense, we’ve learned that the infield is pretty good and that the outfield is phenomenal. It all adds up to the second-best offense in the league (though the most high-powered one). Yet it’s the pitching staff that has impressed the most this year. Thought to be one of the team’s weak points heading into the season, the pitchers have stepped up and have allowed just 3.80 runs per game, which ranks fourth in the AL. Let’s see how the starters stack up.

Comparing pitchers is a bit trickier than comparing hitters. Defense consists of two aspects: pitching and fielding. Both have an effect on run-scoring, and so when I say that the Yankees pitchers’ have held opponents to 3.80 runs per game, I really mean that the Yankees pitchers and fielders have done that. Sticking with the three-point comparisons, we’ll go with ERA, which includes both pitching and fielding, FIP, which isolates pitcher-specific events, and WAR.

NOTE: There are 113 qualified pitchers.

CC Sabathia

(Paul Sancya/AP)

Coming into the season, Sabathia was the one pitcher on whom the Yankees could rely. With only Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett as surefire rotation candidates behind him, the Yankees needed Sabathia to step up and again be the ace they signed to the most expensive contract for a pitcher in MLB history. He’s done that and more, turning in a superb first half.

ERA: 2.72, 14th. In years prior, a 2.72 ERA would certainly rank higher than 14th in the majors. But in this reduced run-scoring environment it’s a degree lower. Still, plenty of teams don’t have a player with an ERA nearly this low. It’s a great mark, even if it’s not top-10 in teh league.

FIP: 2.50, 5th. Now we’re talking. Thanks to a low walk rate and an even lower home run rate, Sabathia’s fielding-independent stats rank far higher than most of his peers. His strikeout rate has been rising, too, especially in his last few starts.

WAR: 4.8, 2nd. This is what happens when you have the second most innings pitched in baseball. Sabathia provides major value this way. He not only pitches quality innings, but he pitches a lot of them. There aren’t many workhorses left, and that’s one reason that Sabathia is the richest pitcher in baseball.

Bartolo Colon

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Who would have thought that Colon would even make the team out of spring training, never mind turn into their second best pitcher? Bart has been a pleasant surprise of the greatest kind. Not only has he been effective in the first half, but he’s been a joy to watch. That two-seamer is a thing of beauty, and we can only hope beyond hope that he remains healthy in the second half.

ERA: 3.20, 35th. Big Bart has done a great job keeping runs off the board in his 90 innings. His season is so far bookended by two tough appearances, meaning all the appearances in between were that much better. He certainly does take advantage of the defense, though he does have a decent strikeout rate.

FIP: 3.54, 42nd. Colon’s success might seem like luck, in large part, but he’s actually pitched well in fielding-independent terms. This is because he doens’t walk many batters, a 2.20 BB/9. That, combined with a slightly below average BABIP, means he has fewer runners on base when he allows home runs — he’s given up 11 in 90 innings. This does give some hope for the second half.

WAR: 1.6, 50th. Such are the perils of starting the year in the pen and then spending a few weeks on the DL. Colon would be higher if he had pitched more than 90 innings, but hey, he’s got fewer innings pitched than the other pitchers who are around the 1.6 WAR mark. Again, it bodes well for the second half — if he stays healthy.

A.J. Burnett

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

This is a big year for Burnett. He slid considerably in 2010, and the Yankees needed him to step up in a rebound effort. If he didn’t, who knows what they’d have to do. It’s not easy to deal with a guy who has that much money remaining on his contract. He’s been decent, at best, but it could obviously be a lot worse. It’s not acceptable really, but it’s reality at this point.

ERA: 4.15, 77th. Honestly, this could be a lot worse. It’s certainly below average, but it’s not nearly as bad as last year. The main difference is that he’s so far avoided his June, 2010-like implosion month. His strikeout rate is acceptable and his walk rate is predictably high, but Burnett has managed to get the job done.

FIP: 4.54, 96th. What happens when you give up a lot of homers and walk too many batters? Usually it will lead to an inflated ERA, but in the case of Burnett it has only inflated his fielding-independent stats. A .242 BABIP helps keep men off base, thus reducing the effect of the homers. I just fear that the magic wears off in the second half. On the other hand, xFIP, which normalizes home run rate based on fly balls allowed, has Burnett several degrees better, at a 3.85 mark.

WAR: 0.9, 83rd. Burnett has pitched 119.1 innings, so that’s not the issue with his WAR. Rather, it’s his 4.54 FIP. It would be a shame to see the Yankees get less than two wins over replacement for their $17.5 million, but that was the risk with Burnett. Of course, the original risk was that he’d get hurt and not pitch enough innings to eclipse 2 WAR. I don’t think anyone figured him to pitch this poorly.

Freddy Garcia

(Frank Franklin II/AP)

Garcia hasn’t been a surprise on the level of Colon, in that he doesn’t dazzle with his stuff. But he has been far more effective than anyone could have wished. When the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal it made sense, since they had recently heard of Andy Pettitte‘s retirement. At that point I thought he’d fill in for a month or two and then be back on the scrap heap. But he’s been a big part of the rotation’s success so far.

ERA: 3.13, 32nd. This is the biggest surprise of all. Who would have thought that Garcia would have the second-lowest ERA on the team through the first half? I’m guessing it’s only slightly larger than the number of people who thought he’d be here, period. Garcia has used smoke and mirrors to work his way through lineups, but hey, the Yanks will take it at this point.

FIP: 3.97, 72nd. While Colon has put up solid fielding independent numbers, Garcia has been a bit less than that. Again, it’s to be expected. He’s kept the ball in the park despite a low ground ball rate, but he has an embarrassingly low strikeout rate. Still, even if he regresses to his FIP in the second half, he’ll still be only slightly below average. Again, I’m pretty sure everyone would have taken that from Freddy when he signed this winter.

WAR: 1.3, 71st. As with Colon, this is largely a product of innings, just 92. Since FanGraphs WAR is based on FIP, Garcia gets dinged a bit here. Again, the idea is not to show what should have happened. Rather, it’s to give the pitcher credit for only things that he, and not the defense, did.

The Yankees have also gotten 22 starts out of Ivan Nova, Brian Gordon, and Phil Hughes. While I’d love to put them into the comparison, Nova is in AAA and the other two have combined for 25.2 innings. Nova would rank just ahead of Burnett in the ERA and FIP categories while falling 0.1 WAR behind (on account of innings pitched). Overall it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the starting staff. It might not be pretty, but they’ve gotten the job done.

Past Trade Review: Tyler Clippard

(From Flickr user MissChatter via Creative Commons license.)

Last year, as he continued his ascension as one of the league’s better setup men, Tyler Clippard earned a reputation. He cruised through the first half of the season with a remarkably low ERA, but he had a knack for allowing inherited runners to score. The Nationals’ offense also had a knack for scoring runs just after Clippard had blown a lead. That led to an 11-win season for a guy who pitched just 91 innings, all in relief and mostly in late relief. It begat the term, clipping a win, in which a reliever blows a lead but the offense gives him the win anyway. Last night he was at it again, facing one batter in the All-Star game and allowing a single, but benefitting when Hunter Pence gunned down Jose Bautista at the plate to end the inning. Prince Fielder homered in the bottom half of the inning, and so Clippard was awarded the W.

Only the youngest of fans doesn’t remember Clippard’s time with the Yankees. He was a 9th round draftee in 2003, and he quickly established himself by striking out a batter per inning or more through his first four seasons in the minors. His stuff wasn’t overpowering, but he mixed pitched and employed enough deception to fool minor league hitters. In 2006 he even tossed a no-hitter, which elicited this juvenile response from some amateur hack. Baseball America rated him the Yanks No. 7 prospect before 2007, right behind Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. It was during the 2007 that he got his first taste of the show.

The Yankees had plenty of pitching problems that year, and by mid-May they absolutely needed a starter. Clippard was struggling in the upper minors — he had a 4.50 ERA between AA and AAA that year — but a need is a need. Clippard came up to start a Sunday night game against the Mets, and he got through it as well as anyone could have hoped: six innings of one-run ball, including six strikeouts. That earned him a longer look, though his next few starts didn’t go as well. After a failure in his repeat performance against the Mets — 3.1 IP, 5 R — the Yankees sent him back down to the minors. About six months later, he was no longer on the team.

That September the Nationals put on display one of their lesser regarded pitching prospects, Jonathan Albaladejo. He made a quick impression, striking out three in 1.2 innings in his debut appearance. He pitched very well that month, allowing just three runs while striking out 12 and walking just two in 14.1 innings. This came after he tore through AAA in a mid-season promotion. The Yankees, wanting to cash in while they could on Clippard, thought they could get a quality major league reliever in Albaladejo, and so made the swap that December.

Albaladejo definitely impressed the Yankees brass, as he broke camp with the team in both 2008 and 2009. There were circumstances involved in both instances, and he was soon after optioned to the minors. But they still liked his stuff, especially his sinking fastball. But with the results not coming, they had little choice but to stash him in the minors. Even in 2010, as he dominated as Scranton Wilkes-Barre’s closer, they hesitated to call him up. When they finally did they saw more of the same: not enough strikeouts, too many walks. After the season they released him and allowed him to sign with a Japanese team. His final tally as a Yankee: 59.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 5.21 FIP, -0.2 WAR.

After the trade Clippard had his own set of struggles. He returned to AAA for the Nationals in 2008, and in 26 starts he produced a 4.66 ERA, which was in part because he walked far too many batters. This was a problem he faced in 2007 as well, making it seem like a longer-term issue. It didn’t help that he walked seven in 10.1 innings (two starts) during a brief call-up. He still had some promise, but things didn’t look optimistic. He was a guy with average, at best, stuff, and he couldn’t control it.

After the season the Nationals shifted him to the bullpen, and that’s where he began to shine. He pitched 39 innings in AAA in 2009, allowing just four earned runs while striking out 42 and walking 15. Something had apparently clicked. In late June they called him up to the big league club, and he never looked back. He continued to walk a ton of batters, but he compensated by striking out more than a batter per inning. A .197 BABIP helped get him through 2009, but in 2010 that went up to .284 and he was still reasonably effective: 3.07 ERA and 3.18 FIP in 91 innings. This year he’s been even better, lowering his walk rate by nearly a batter per nine while maintaining an 11 per nine strikeout rate. His 1.75 ERA is aided by his .184 BABIP and an astounding 99.4 percent strand rate, but by all means he has gotten the job done.

In the excellent interview with NoMaas, Yankees VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman said of Clippard, “The mistake we made was not seeing what [he] looked like in the pen.” It’s an understandable mistake, but it’s one that the Yankees probably won’t make again. Even the Nationals continued to view him as a starter for another year following the trade. It wasn’t until he had completely disappointed everyone in that role that they tried him as a reliever. Sometimes, that type of move sticks. The Yankees absolutely lost out on this trade, even though it seemed like a minor one at the time.

Poll: Greatest game at New Yankee Stadium

The last few days have been pretty good for Yankees fans, starting with Derek Jeter‘s 3,000th hit and 5-for-5 game on Saturday. After the Cap’n went deep for the milestone hit, I declared that game the best in the history of the New Yankee Stadium. Many disagreed and offered alternatives, so what follows is only natural: a poll. Let’s relive seven of the most memorable games in New Stadium history, then vote for our favorite at the end…

August 7th, 2009: A-Rod‘s 15th inning walk-off against Boston (box) (video) (RAB recap)

The Red Sox mopped the floor with the Yankees early in 2009, winning the first eight games they played. New York got into the win column on August 6th, but it wasn’t until the next night that it felt like they were over the hump. Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett dueled for seven-plus scoreless innings, then the bullpens squared off for seven more scoreless innings. Rookie Junichi Tazawa was on the mound for Boston by time the 15th inning rolled around, his big league debut. Jeter singled to lead off the inning, but the Yankees looked liked they were about to blow another opportunity after Johnny Damon popped up a bunt and Mark Teixiera struck out. Alex Rodriguez took matters into his own hands, ending the game by clobbering a 2-1 curveball into the visitor’s bullpen for the walk-off win.

October 9th, 2009: ALDS Game Two (box) (video) (RAB recap)

They called it Yankee Stadium, but the park needed some postseason magic before it felt like home. That magic moment came in bottom of the ninth inning of Game Two of the 2009 ALDS, when the Twins were nursing a 3-1 lead with ubercloser Joe Nathan on the mound. Teixeira dunked a single into right to lead off the inning, and then Nathan made the mistake of falling behind A-Rod. His 3-1 fastball caught a little too much of the plate, and Alex did not miss it. I’ll never forget the moment of silence immediately after contact. It was almost like everyone in the building was gasping for air in disbelief. The place exploded it was clear the ball was heading over the fence for a game-tying two-run homer. It was … indescribable. David Robertson‘s greatest escape job ever and Tex’s walk-off homer two innings later were almost secondary, A-Rod’s brought the house down with his ninth inning homer. There was no more looking back, the new Stadium was home now.

October 29th, 2009: World Series Game Two (box) (video) (RAB recap)

You can make a pretty strong case that this was the most important game in the history of the New Stadium. The Yankees got manhandled by Cliff Lee in Game One of the Fall Classic, and if they dropped Game Two they were going to Philadelphia for three games down two games to none in the best-of-seven series. A.J. Burnett did his part, shutting down the Phillies down for seven innings after giving up an early run. Pedro Martinez was on his game in the first few innings, but Tex tied things up with a solo homer in the fourth. Hideki Matsui gave the Yankees a one-run lead with a solo homer in the sixth, then Jorge Posada plated an insurance run in the seventh. Burnett struck out nine in his seven innings, handing the ball off to Mariano Rivera for the two-out save. Just like that, the Yankees were right back in the series.

November 4th, 2009: World Series Game Six (box) (video) (RAB recap)

The Yankees have opened every one of their new stadiums with a World Championship, and the current version is no different. Matsui drove in four runs before the end of the third inning and six total on the night, leading to his World Series MVP trophy. Andy Pettitte gave up three runs in 5.2 IP on three days rest, Joba Chamberlain chipped in a scoreless inning, Damaso Marte pitched out of the Phillies’ last threat by striking out Chase Utley on three pitches, and Mo recorded the final five outs to clinch the franchise’s 27th title. It was glorious.

May 17th, 2010: Marcus Thames walk-off against Boston (box) (video) (RAB recap)

Unlike the other games in the post, I was actually in attendance for this one. The Yankees jumped out to a 5-0 zip off Daisuke Matsuzaka in the first inning, but the Red Sox slowly chipped away and a back-to-back homers by Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez off Chan Ho Park in the eighth inning gave them a 9-7 lead. Boston had a chance to add on a few more when they had the bases loaded in the ninth, but Javy Vazquez came out of the bullpen to strike out Youkilis to end the inning. Brett Gardner led off the bottom of the ninth with a double into left and Tex nearly tied things up with a ball to deep center one batter later. A-Rod did tie the game, launching a homer into the visitor’s bullpen for two runs, but the Yankees weren’t done. Robinson Cano hit a ball to deep center like Teixeira for out number two, but Frankie Cervelli extended the inning by taking a fastball to the ribs. Mighty Marcus Thames stepped to plate hunting a first pitch fastball and he got it, hitting a walk-off two-run homer into the left field stands.

July 16th, 2010: Walk-off win in first game after George Steinbrenner‘s death (box) (video) (RAB recap)

The Boss’ health had been declining but his death still caught us all off guard. I still remember feeling sick after hearing the news of his emergency trip to the hospital soon after waking up that morning. The Yankees were off for the All-Star break at the time, so they didn’t return home to honor their late owner until a few days later. Much like Bobby Murcer following Thurman Munson’s death in 1979, one player seemingly carried the Yankees to victory on this date. The Rays grabbed a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning on a Ben Zobrist RBI ground out, but Nick Swisher got that run back with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the eighth. A ninth inning rally ignited by a Curtis Granderson leadoff walk and capped off by Swisher’s walk-off single through the right side sent the Yankees home victorious, the first game of the post-George era. Swisher had also driven in a run earlier in the game, and his +0.745 WPA is the largest by any player in a single game at New Yankee Stadium.

July 9th, 2011: Jeter’s 3,000th hit (box) (video) (RAB recap)

It wasn’t just when or where, it was how. Jeter’s milestone hit a no-doubt homerun into the left field bleachers, arguably his hardest hit ball of the season. Teammates met him at the plate and the celebration lasted several minutes on the field, but Derek wasn’t done yet. He had his third career 5-for-5 game, and the fifth hit drove in the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth. It was one of those moments that make this game beautiful, when an aging star steals a day from his prime and reminds us of their past greatness.

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I think these seven games are the best candidates, but if you disagree and think another was the greatest in New Stadium history, then tell us about it in the comments. Thanks in advance for voting.

Which is the greatest game in New Yankee Stadium history?
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Hughes getting back to basics for Sunday’s start

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

There has been something lacking from Phil Hughes‘s game lately. The focus for the past couple of years has been on his changeup, a perpetually in-development pitch, but the problem is greater than that. I’ll refer you back to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2007, which featured Hughes on the cover and rated him the Yankees No. 1 prospect (and, later, the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball):

Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. It’s a true power breaking ball that sits in the low 80s with 1-to-7 break. Club officials call it the best in the system because Hughes can throw it for quality strikes or bury it out of the zone, and because he uses the same arm slot and release point he uses for his fastball.

The last time we saw anything that resembled a knockout curve from Hughes was back in May, 2007, when he was working on a no-hitter against Texas. With two strikes on Mark Teixeira, Hughes reached back and tried to bury one of those curveballs, but he flubbed the landing. The ball sailed inside, and Hughes limped around the mound. He hasn’t been the same since.

One of the bigger changes Hughes implemented since then was a new grip on his curveball. Instead of the 1-to-7 power curve, he employed a knuckle grip, a la Mike Mussina and A.J. Burnett. It has worked from time to time, but overall it hasn’t been anything close to the knockout pitch that he displayed while mowing down the minors in 2006. In today’s New York Post, Mark Hale helps shed light on the issue.

Essentially, Hughes finally realized what everyone else had seen: the knuckle grip just wasn’t working. He tried to make it work, by speeding up his arm, but no matter what he did the pitch was average at best, and it although I’m not a scout I’m fairly certain that a good number would call it below average. He did throw it both for strikes and in the dirt, but in the zone it seemed a bit flat, and in the dirt it didn’t fool anyone — “It never looks like a strike,” Hughes said. And so, on Sunday he will likely re-implement the original grip. “It’s a lot more like a power curveball now,” said Hughes.

Another interesting change Hughes has worked on this week: changing his mechanics. We often hear about changes in mechanics, and most times it means nothing. But when it comes to his plant leg, eyebrows raise. That’s the hamstring he pulled on that night in Texas, the night he showed so much promise. Hughes acknowledges that the issues could stem from that incident, too. “I just felt like over the years, basically starting from my hamstring injury, I’ve kind of formed a couple of bad habits,” he said. That he’s consciously working to correct these bad habits is certainly encouraging.

This type of story is usually reserved for spring training, a time of hopes and dreams for the upcoming season. To see it in the middle of the season is somewhat odd, but inspiring at the same time. Essentially, Hughes is admitting that many of his issues stem from the injury that cost him most of the 2007 season. If he can get back to the pitcher he was before that, with both his mechanics and his curveball, he could yet turn into the pitcher who, according to Baseball America, had the “combination of stuff, feel and command to profile as a No. 1 starter.”