Rafael Soriano ‘not quite there’ in his rehab

Via Brian Heyman, Rafael Soriano played catch on Tuesday but has not yet been cleared to continue a throwing program. “He’s close, but he’s not quite there,” said Joe Girardi in his pregame press conference, adding that the righty will continue to get treatment and try throwing again next week. Joba Chamberlain‘s injury has suddenly made Soriano very important, though it sounds like the chances of him returning before the All-Star break are dwindling.

This is not normal: the David Robertson edition

Relievers are tricky little buggers. Their appearances are by nature short and frequent, and they accrue statistics in drips and drabs. As a result, even the most overused relievers typically have statistically insignificant samples of data by this point in the season, and within those samples of data sometimes we see a little bit of crazy. That’s what’s going on with David Robertson so far in 2011. Four things in particular stand out:

6.2 BB/9 rate, 87% LOB rate, 0.0 HR/FB%, .368 BABIP

Regression is a word that gets tossed around quite a bit, but it’s reasonable to expect Robertson to experience some regression in each of these areas. Some of this will work in Robertson’s favor, and some will not. Let’s start with the good.

“Good” Regression

6.2 BB/9 rate. Robertson’s control hasn’t always been the best at the major league level, but in the minors he averaged 3.6 BB/9. This is a good mark, although he was an advanced college arm when he came into the system, so perhaps the most relevant marks are his 4.4 BB/9 and 3.7 BB/9 in his two final years at Scranton. David has struggled with his command in the big leagues, averaging about 5 batters walked per nine innings throughout his career. For most relievers this would be intolerable, but David frequently makes up for it by preventing subsequent batters from putting the ball in play by striking them out. Regardless, Robertson probably isn’t a 6.2 BB/9 guy going forward unless something’s wrong with him. We can probably expect him to cut down on the walks just a bit, which is always a plus.

.368 BABIP. Most people are familiar with BIP theory so we won’t go through the primer. A .368 BABIP is not normal, and there’s no good reason to expect Robertson to sustain a batting average on balls in play this high. The Yankees defense isn’t horrific – it’s rather good in the outfield – and Robertson is clearly a major league pitcher capable of getting guys out. Robertson can’t be a pitcher good enough to sustain a very high strikeout rate, which he clearly is, and simultaneously be so hittable so as to render his BABIP of .368 normal.

Batted ball profile aside (and it checks out just fine), I ran a Play Index query seeking single season totals for pitchers with over 100 IP, a K/9 of over 9 and a BABIP of over .350 from 1919 to 2011 and came up with two pitchers: Darryl Kile in 1996 and Randy Johnson in 2003. If you set the parameters for just relievers and a lower the minimum IP require to 50, you net 50 pitchers with a strikeout rate of over 9 and a BABIP higher than .350. In other words, it’s very rare, the stuff of flukes, and likely to sort itself out over time if given a long enough runway. Robertson has always been a high BABIP guy, but .368 is a touch too high, even for him. Figure that fewer balls in play will be converting to hits, and figure that Robertson will get better results in this regard. Count this one as a plus.

“Bad” Regression

Not enough home runs: 0% HR/FB, 0 HR/9, 0 HRs, however you’d like to put it. Robertson’s isn’t a particularly ground-ball heavy pitcher as it is, which means a fair amount of batted balls are going into the air when he’s pitching. Eventually, these fly balls are going to leave the park. From time to time pitchers have been known to go a long time without yielding home runs. In fact, since 1901 33 pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings in relief without yielding a single home run. This sounds like a decent number until you realize that in that time frame there have been 3,835 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings in relief. Those 33 pitchers are well into the 99th percentile of home run rates, and only 1 of those pitchers ever repeated his feat (Greg Minton, who didn’t allow a single home run between 1979-1981 pitching as multi-inning reliever for the San Francisco Giants).

Robertson has given up roughly 8 home runs for every 100 fly balls throughout his career, which means he should have given up at least one by now (1.44 to be exact). Spitballing it, he’s likely due for 3 or 4 HRs by the time the season concludes if his HR/FB ratio regresses to normal and he continues getting FBs at a 35% rate. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it likely will happen and it likely will happen with inherited runners on base, given that that’s usually when he’s brought in. Count this one as a minus.

Strand rate: 87.2%. In his career Robertson has been a 77% strand rate pitcher, meaning he’s stranding about 10% more this year than in the past. Relievers don’t normally maintain strand rates north of 85%. It’s very rare. Mariano Rivera comes in around 80%, as do Joe Nathan, Billy Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez. Plenty of pitchers sit lower.

Robertson is a very good pitcher with the ability to get loads of strikeouts, so his ability to maintain a high strand rate is in some sense believable. At the same time, he’s not likely to maintain this high of a rate for the remainder of the season or the entirety of his career. Could he? Sure. Anything could happen. Robertson could also throw another 25 innings with a BB/9 over 6, a K/9 over 14 with a BABIP of .350, even though only one other pitcher in baseball history has managed to pull that off before (Kenley Jensen, this year) and no pitcher in baseball history has ever done it over 50 innings. But in the absence of some intervening explanation as to why we should expect this to happen, I’m far more comfortable going forward with a reasonable expectation of regression based on probability.

Scouting The Trade Market: Erik Bedard

Early on in the offseason, I declared Erick Bedard one of four players the Yankees shouldn’t even think about signing over the winter. It had nothing to do with Bedard as a pitcher because there’s simply no denying his performance, instead it had everything to do with his health. He had two shoulder surgeries in 2008 and made just 30 starts total from 2008 through 2010, including zero last season. There was every reason to be skeptical this past winter.

Through the first two and a half months of the season, Bedard hasn’t just stayed healthy, he’s stayed healthy and performed well. His 3.80 FIP is almost exactly league average, and he’s striking out 8.36 men per nine innings while walking just 2.96 per nine, the same kind of numbers he put up in his prime. Given the Yankees perpetual need for pitching, it’s worth seeing if Bedard would be a fit in the Bronx…

The Pros

  • When you’re talking about a strikeout heavy lefty, the upside is obvious. Bedard’s strikeout rate has been north of eight per nine for years now, covering both healthy seasons and those impacted by injury.
  • He misses bats with one of the game’s best curveballs, a pitch that drops more than ten vertical inches and sits in the high-70’s. Bedard’s fastball velocity is surprisingly good given the shoulder issue, sitting right around 90 mph with both his two and four-seamer. A changeup and cutter rounds out a solid repertoire, though that last pitch is just a show-me offering.
  • Bedard has a slight platoon split but nothing crazy: righties have a .323 wOBA off him this season, lefties .290. The good news is that Yankee Stadium is tougher on right-handed hitters, and Bedard’s split plays right into that.
  • Not only is Bedard’s salary dirt cheap (just $1M), the extra $6.35M he could earn in incentives is reasonable as well.

The Cons

  • I already talked about the big one, the injuries. One of those two shoulder surgeries repaired a debridement and removed a cyst, the other took care of a torn labrum. Bedard also missed time with a quad strain (2009), hip inflammation (2008), an oblique strain (2007), a knee strain (2005), and Tommy John surgery (2002). All but the quad required a DL stint. That’s some serious stuff.
  • Bedard was a ground ball guy once upon a time, but over the last few years he’s around 42% ground balls. That’s not awful, but it does lead to a lot of homeruns. He’s given up nine in 70 IP this year (1.16 HR/9) and 26 in 234 IP as a Mariner (exactly one per nine). Remember, Safeco Field is not exactly hitter friendly.
  • Bedard has a reputation of being very rude and standoffish when dealing with the media, occasionally blowing them off entirely, something that absolutely won’t fly in New York. He’s also made it no secret that he prefers to play in smaller markets after growing up in the small town of Navan, Ontario (outside of Ottawa).

The wrench here is that the Mariners are actually within striking distance of the AL West crown. They’re just two games back of the Rangers in the loss column and have won 16 of their last 25 games. Justin Smoak has developed into a strong hitter, Dustin Ackley’s promotion is right around the corner, Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda are fronting the rotation … there’s a non-zero chance Seattle hangs around long enough and goes for it rather than sell off parts.

Otherwise, there’s plenty of stuff to like and dislike about Bedard. He’s shown ace caliber performance in the past but his medical file would make Carl Pavano blush. He doesn’t like big cities but he also carved up the AL East when he was with the Orioles. He’s left-handed and matches up well particularly well against the Red Sox but he’s also homer prone. The money cost is low but I can’t imagine the prospect cost will be given his overall performance. I try to just present the facts for discussion purposes and not give a definitive yes or no in these posts, but I’m breaking my own rule and saying “no” to Bedard. That health track record is scary, I’d much prefer a surer thing (if one exists when it comes to pitchers) even if the potential performance isn’t as exciting.

The Front Office Post

During the chaos of last week’s amateur draft, two tweets from Baseball America’s Conor Glassey made the rounds, but I have yet to address them. Here’s what they said…

@rwolfe09 Not coincidentally, the Red Sox and Blue Jays have two of the biggest scouting staffs. Yankees? One of the smallest.

@JoeRo23 By my count, they have 23 scouts. Blue Jays have 70. Red Sox have 71.

I don’t know how the topic came up or how the rest of the conversation went, and frankly I don’t really care. I also don’t want to challenge Glassey’s info or anything, I’m sure his numbers are correct (or are at least in the ballpark). Either way, again I don’t really care. I think we’re all smart enough to understand that the more scouts a team employs, the better off they’ll be. It’s not rocket science. I just want to use these two tweets as a jumping off point about the Yankees and their front office. Forgive me in advance, I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this.

Brian Cashman has been the Yankees GM for the long time, an eternity compared to his peers. The only GMs who have been at it longer than him are Brian Sabean of the Giants and Billy Beane of the A’s. Cashman’s been at the helm since February of 1998, Sabean since September of 1996, and Beane since October of 1997. The other 27 teams have (unofficially) combined for 79 (!!!) different full-time GMs since Cashman took over, which puts the average life span of a big league GM at 4.44 years or so. Obviously the successful ones will last longer, and it’s hard to argue with the success the Yankees have had during Cashman’s tenure.

When I look at the Yankees front office, one thing really stands out to me: there’s no obvious, in-house candidate to replace Cashman. I’m guessing that’s by design, because why would Cashman want competition from the inside? He’s made himself that much more valuable to the franchise by making sure no one emerges as a potential replacement. From a business perspective, it’s brilliant. Assistant GM Jean Afterman reportedly specializes in contracts and negotiations, not necessarily baseball operations. Scouting directors Billy Eppler (pro) and Damon Oppenheimer (amateur) don’t have any kind of GM’ing experience, even at the assistant level. The closest thing the Yankees have had to a potential in-house GM alternative during Cashman’s tenure (at least recently) was Kevin Towers, who served as a special advisor in 2010 before taking the Diamondbacks GM job over the winter.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because when you look around the league, this is something pretty unique to the Yankees. Just to use the Red Sox as an example (since apparently they’re the measuring stick for everything the Yankees do), their official site lists something like eight assistants (with various titles) to GM Theo Epstein, including one former GM in Allard Baird (Royals). If Epstein leaves for whatever reason, AGM Ben Cherington could step in and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, he and current Padres GM Jed Hoyer served as co-GMs when Epstein briefly left the club in December of 2005, and the duo actually brokered the Hanley Ramirez-Josh Beckett trade in Epstein’s short absence. I just don’t see how that kind of seamless transition would occur with the Yankees.

Of course Cashman has advisors, namely former GM Gene Michael. I don’t want to make it sound like he’s calling all the shots on his own, because no GM does. Remember, the title is general manager; Cashman manages people. He makes decisions based on input from Michael, Eppler, and a ton of other people we don’t even know exist. From the outside looking in, it just seems like there are fewer people with input than there are elsewhere in the league. But then again, what do I know? I could be completely off base. There is such a thing as too many voices in the room, no doubt about it, but there’s certainly a ton of value in having others to make suggestions, challenge ideas, etc. Ten people in a room agreeing with each other is not necessarily a good thing, not when it comes to multi-million dollar baseball decisions and things like that.

Cashman’s contract is up after the season, and I do want him to return. Aside from the usual GM’ing duties, I also think he’s the perfect “bad guy,” so to speak, as these legacy players start to hit the end of the line. Need to move Derek Jeter off shortstop? Cashman will be the bad guy. Need to release Jorge Posada? Cashman’s the bad guy. Let Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui walk? Blame Cashman. He handles the role well. I also think his relationship with ownership is extremely, extremely important. I really can’t emphasize that enough. A meddlesome ownership can be a franchise killer, and Cash clearly has the respect of the Steinbrenners. That’s important.

Although I do want Cashman to return, I can definitely see the benefit to bringing in a new GM, if that’s the way the team goes. Thirteen years is a long time man … fresh opinions, fresh evaluations, fresh perspective, and fresh ideas can obviously provide a great deal of good. However there’s no clear candidate to take over, at least not internally. I think I said that already. If someone from the outside is brought in, then you’ve got to worry about them adjusting to New York and all the things that come along with it. The media coverage*, the huge payroll**, the fans, ownership, the stadium, literally everything involved with the job. The ideal candidate would be someone with GM experience, the kind of person that will walk into the office on day one and already be respected. Someone that’s been there before, been through getting hired and getting fired, been through winning and losing and dealing with expectations. New Mets GM Sandy Alderson fits the bill, just for example.

Now if Cashman does remain the GM beyond this year, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything should stay the same, at least in my opinion. I would like to see some level of front office restructuring, including the addition of some more traditional assistants and advisors, people with different backgrounds and varying levels of experience just to … freshen things up. I guess that’s the best way to put it. After doing things one way for so long, a little change can go a long way. That’s just the way this game is. You’ve got to constantly adapt, though the Yankees play with a much bigger safety net.

So after all that, it’s probably a good time to mention that I think Cashman’s return is more in question now than ever before. This has nothing to do with the team’s performance on the field, I don’t think they’re going to fire him or anything, it has more to do with his uncharacteristic outspokenness during the winter (that has continued into the season). I actually find the honesty refreshing, but it’s just that we’re not used to seeing it from Cash. He’s mastered the art of saying many words while saying nothing (of substance) at the same time, but this was the exact opposite. Very blunt and straight forward, “you asked a question, here’s your answer, are we done?” style. That outspokenness makes me wonder if he’s going to make/has made the decision to leave on his own terms. Maybe he’s burnt out. Maybe ownership went over his head too many times and he’s fed up. Maybe he wants a new challenge or to prove that can win with a small payroll. Who knows. The “why” isn’t important***, the “if” is.

How I got here from a pair of tweets about the number of amateur scouts the team employs … I have no idea. I guess they tie back into the stuff about having more input. It’s better to have three different sets of eyes watch a prospect than just two, which is better than just one. Information is a powerful thing, and the more you have the better the decision you’ll make. Regardless of what happens with Cashman after the season, I’d welcome some change to brain trust just to improve decision making as whole. It’s super cliche but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s: these are the Yankees. They should dominate the sport with their resources, and that includes having the best front office personnel. The Rays and Red Sox and every other team survives only because the Yankees make mistakes, so why not take some steps to reduce them?

* That includes amateur know-it-all schmucks like me.
** Big payrolls lead to bigger mistakes. It’s just the way it goes.
*** I suppose if the “why” has to do with some major internal dysfunction that pushes Cashman away, then yeah, that’s important. Important in that it needs to be addressed.

What’s a Brian Gordon?

(milb.com)

Word got out last night that the Yankees not only agreed to sign some 32-year-old right-hander named Brian Gordon, but they agreed to sign him to a big league contract and have put him in the mix to start against the Rangers on Thursday. Yeah, this move came completely out of nowhere, so let’s take some time to introduce you to the newest member of the Yankees’ rotation, or potential member anyway.

Originally selected in the seventh round of the 1997 draft by the Diamondbacks, Gordon was an outfielder when he came out of Round Rock High School in Texas. He steadily climbed the minor league ladder with Arizona, making it all the way to Triple-A before becoming a minor league free agent after the 2003 season. In over 2,900 plate appearances in the D’Backs system, Gordon hit a very respectable .280/.323/.446 with 63 homers and a 22.8% strikeout rate. He hooked on with the Astros the next year, hitting a serviceable .241/.310/.488 with 16 homers in just 340 plate appearances for their Triple-A team. That was the end of Gordon’s career as a position player; he went to Houston and suggested he give pitching a whirl rather than retire. He’s been doing that ever since.

Gordon, 28 at the time, made his pitching debut with the Astros’ Double-A affiliate in 2007. He struck out 51 and walked just 14 unintentionally in 61 IP (39 appearances) in his pitching debut, posting a fine 3.25 ERA. He made one appearance with Houston’s Double-A affiliate in 2008 before they released him in early-April. Gordon caught on with the Rangers, pitched to a 3.51 ERA in 95 relief innings for their Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, then earned his first and only big league call-up that September. He gave up a single to the first batter he faced as a Major Leaguer (Dusty Ryan), retired the second (Curtis Granderson), and then finished the season with four scoreless innings for Texas.

Another solid season for the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate in 2009 (3.49 ERA in 77.1 IP) was following by a fine season for the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate in 2010 (3.46 ERA in 78 IP), but not another taste of the big leagues. Gordon returned to Philadelphia’s top farm team in his usual relief role this season, but when injuries to the big league rotation sent Vance Worley to the show, Gordon told the Triple-A Lehigh Valley coaching staff that he wanted the opportunity to work as a starter. Since moving into the rotation in April, he’s struck out 53 against just five walks in 51.1 IP with a 1.23 ERA. Over his last three starts, Gordon has whiffed 31 of 72 batters he’s faced (43.1%) with no fewer than nine strikeouts each time out. He had an opt-out clause in his contract that was contingent on him finding a big league job elsewhere, which is what the Yankees are giving him. Since he made his last start on Saturday, the newest Yankee lines up perfectly for Thursday’s game.

As for the scouting report, Gordon told Jack Curry lasts night that he’s a six pitch pitcher that relies on command more than overpowering stuff. PitchFX data from 2008 says that his three fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter) sit in the high-80’s and occasionally touch the low-90’s while his slider will run in low-80’s, his curve in the low-70’s, and his splitter in low-80’s. His swing and miss rate has climbed from 9.3% in 2009 to 10.1% in 2010 to 11.6% in 2011, though his ground ball rate has sat below 40% for the last few years. That could be problematic in Yankee Stadium, although he hasn’t demonstrated much of a platoon split in his relatively brief career as a pitcher.

The Yankees have had some luck with scrap heap pickups like this over the last few years, and I get why they made this move. Gordon’s having a fine year and he adds depth, plus starting him on Thursday will allow them to keep one of the kids (Hector Noesi, David Phelps, whoever) away from a powerhouse Texas Rangers’ offense. Given his bullpen experience, he could easily slide back into that role if Noesi steps up or if Bartolo Colon and/or Phil Hughes start getting healthy. They could certainly use the help there, if nothing else. And heck, with interleague play coming up, his position player experience might allow him to serve as an extra pinch hitter in NL parks (.275/.321/.460 career in more than 4,100 minor league plate appearances). Gordon’s not going to save the Yankees’ pitching staff, not by any means, but he’s an upgrade over Lance Pendleton and Jeff Marquez on the margins of the roster, and every little bit helps.

Note: Mark Feinsand is reporting that the Gordon signing can not become official until 6pm ET time today. If one of the Phillies’ starters gets hurt between now and then, they could still call him up and the deal with the Yankees is off. Since Cole Hamels’ back tightened up last night, there’s a non-zero chance I may have written this post prematurely.