A roster move on the horizon?

Here’s a hint of what we might see this afternoon. Josh Norris of the Trentionian tweets that the the SWB Yankees have activated catcher PJ. Pilittere from the disabled list. With Jesus Montero and Chad Moeller already on the roster, that gives SWB three catchers. That could signal a major league roster move, which would be Moeller heading to Boston to back up Francisco Cervelli. The Yanks would have to find a free 25-man roster spot, and would also have to first call up Chris Garcia and place him on the 60-day DL. We’ll keep an eye out this afternoon to see if anything comes of this.

Bullpen shutdowns and meltdowns

In David Appelman’s never-ending quest to take over the (baseball statistical) world, FanGraphs introduced two new metrics yesterday called Shutdowns and Meltdowns. It’s a simple idea involving relievers and win probability. A Shutdown (SD) is when a reliever accumulates at least 0.06 WPA in an outing, while a Meltdown (MD) is when he accumulates no more than -0.06 WPA. In English, they refer to when a guy comes out of the bullpen and increases or decreases his team’s chances of winning by at least six percent. Got it? Simple enough.

Last season, the Yankees’ bullpen recorded 141 SD, the third most in the game behind only the Mariners (159) and Dodgers (155). The chart to the right has the breakdown by pitcher; the missing ten belong to guys like Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, and Brett Tomko, who weren’t worth the time to include. I went with the core guys only. On the flip side, they had the sixth fewest MD with 62, and their +79 SD-MD differential was second only to Seattle, who had a staggering +90 mark. I don’t think it’s possible to win 103 games with a shaky bullpen, so these numbers really aren’t much of a surprise.

Fast-forward to this season, and we see something a little different. Yankee relievers have racked up just 17 SD (tied for 21st) but only eight MD (tied for the fewest), good for a +9 SD-MD differential that’s tied for the 12th best in the game. The chart down and to the left has the full breakdown. This might make it sound like the Yankee bullpen hasn’t been getting the job done, and while that’s true to a certain extent, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

In the 28 games they’ve played, the starting pitcher has completed at least six innings 17 times (60.7%) and at least seven innings a dozen times (42.9%). That’s a ton. Add in the fact that ten of their 19 wins came by at least four runs, and you’re talking about very few really high leverage spots where a reliever could generate as much a 0.06 WPA without throwing multiple innings. Just as an example, let’s look at Wednesday’s game.

Sergio Mitre had just surrendered a two-run homer to Ty Wigginton in the 8th inning to bring the Orioles to within three runs. Damaso Marte was summoned to face the lefty Nick Markakis with one out, and at the time the Yankees had a 94.6% chance of winning the game. Five pitches later, Markakis had struck out, increasing the Yanks’ chances of victory to 96.2%. Marte gets credit for that 1.6% increase, or 0.016 WPA. It was the late innings and technically a save situation, but Marte could only muster about a quarter of a SD. That’s what’s going on this year with Yankee relievers, the opportunity for Shutdown appearances just haven’t been there. Frankly, I like it this way.

I don’t believe SD and MD have any analytical value because they lack context, meaning how the guy actually went about increasing or decreasing his team’s chances of winning. If you’re an end results kind of person that doesn’t worry too much about the process, then this is for you. For me, SD and MD just serve as nice reference stats, giving us an idea of who’s generally gotten the job done and who hasn’t.

Demoting David

One of the biggest reasons why the Yankees turned their season around in 2009 was the complete overhaul of the bullpen that took place in late-May/early-June. Gone were the ineffective Jose Veras, Jon Albaladejo and Edwar Ramirez, and in came some new blood in the form of Al Aceves, Phil Hughes, and David Robertson. Robertson famously went on to post a 3.20 xFIP with an American League leading 12.98 K/9, but this year has been a much different story for the righthander.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Through the team’s first 27 games, his xFIP (3.91), K/9 (11.37) and BB/9 (2.84) are all more than respectable, but the end result generally hasn’t reflected it. Robertson has allowed at least one run to score in six of his nine appearances (including inherited runners), and the three homers he’s allowed are just one behind last year’s total. Ever since I penned this gem, K-Rob has allowed six runs and seven baserunners while recording just five outs spread across three appearances. Making me look like a fool is the one thing Robertson has done right this year.

There’s definitely some bad luck behind with Robertson’s early-season struggles — see Fack Youk for more on that — but a bigger problem is that he’s missing his spots. We’re not just talking about throwing balls instead of throwing strikes (52.4% of his pitches were in the zone last year, 52.1% this year), we’re talking about locating pitches within the strike zone. Let’s look at the two homers he surrendered Wednesday afternoon, starting with the first by Matt Wieters…

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As you can see, Frankie Cervelli set up down and away, but instead the pitch ended up thigh high and on the inner half, i.e. the wheelhouse.  Wieters did exactly what he was supposed to do with that pitch, depositing it into the second deck. The next batter was Nolan Reimold, and we run into the exact same problem…

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Cervelli sets up down and away, Robertson delivers it thigh high and on the inner half, and Reimold sends it into the people. Both homers came on 3-2 counts after Robertson overthrew a 2-2 fastball that Cervelli practically had to stand up to catch. Both times, to both batters. If he’s overthrowing, he’s overthinking, instead of just executing. By no means is Robertson beyond repair, he’s just scuffling a little bit and will eventually work his way out of it. His peripherals are obviously excellent, so with a little regression his overall performance will look better*. Ideally, the process of working his way out of it would take place in Triple-A Scranton, away from meaningful games.

* Although a 14.21 ERA is difficult for a reliever to shake. He’ll have to throw 16.1 consecutive scoreless innings from here on out to get it under 4.00. If he throws another 40 IP in 2010 at the same 3.30 ERA clip as last year, he’ll finish the season with a 4.86 ERA.

The problem with sending Robertson down right now is that the Yankees are experiencing a bit of a roster crunch. You may have heard about their recent rash of injuries, which is going to leave the bullpen a man short while Sergio Mitre fills in for Andy Pettitte. Mark Melancon can’t be recalled for another seven days (unless Pettitte goes on the disabled list), and the only other realistic pitching options on the 40-man roster are Albaladejo (3.83 FIP in 14.1 IP in Triple-A, but it’s Jonathan frickin’ Albaladejo) and Romulo Sanchez (4.68 FIP in 25 IP as a starter). Hardly awe-inspiring. They might not be able to demote him until Chan Ho Park returns from the DL, if ever. For better or worse, Robertson might be the team’s best option right now.

Joe Girardi could always demote him to lower leverage spots, but that’s exactly what Wednesday’s outing was. He entered the game with the leverage index sitting at 0.29, better known as miniscule. Even last year his average LI when entering the game was 0.72, which is below average. Girardi has thrown him into some bigger spots this year (average LI when he enters a game is 1.29), but so far he hasn’t gotten the job done.

Robertson could probably use some time in Scranton to get his act together, but oddly enough, Andy Pettitte’s injury might keep him in the big leagues. As long as Girardi realizes that Aceves and Joba Chamberlain should get the ball in high leverage, non-LOOGY situations, he should be in the clear. Hopefully Robertson figures out his command sooner rather than later, so he can go back to racking up strikeouts and owning the middle innings.

Vazquez’s recovery now key for rotation

The schedule seems to have worked in the Yankees favor. The off-day today allows them to not only skip the struggling Javy Vazquez‘s turn in the rotation, but also allows them to line up their three best to face Boston over the weekend. The extra rest can’t hurt Vazquez, who has allowed 32 hits and has walked 15 during 23 innings in his five starts. It really doesn’t matter who the Yankees face this weekend; Vazquez likely would have been skipped regardless.

Yet when they fly to Detroit on Monday for a four-game set, they’ll face quite a test. While Hughes and Sabathia will pitch the final two games of the series, the first two games don’t look too pretty. Vazquez will get his chance in the opener, and odds are Sergio Mitre will take the ball on Tuesday. That’s not set in stone, though it appears unlikely that Pettitte will make the start. The only other option is Ivan Nova, and I think that for one start the Yanks would rather use someone already on the major league roster.

Brian Cashman seems optimistic that Pettitte will only need a short rest. “Right now the DL is not something that’s being considered,” he said. A DL trip would keep Pettitte out until May 21, which would cause him to miss two to three starts. It’s still a possibility — you can never be sure with arm injuries — but Cashman’s confidence makes it sound like we’ll have one showing of the Sergio Mitre Experience before a Pettitte return.

If Pettitte does miss time, though, Javy Vazquez’s recovery becomes much more important. Sabathia, Burnett, and Hughes have three of five days covered. They’ve combined for 16 starts, pitching 108.1 innings (more than 6.2 IP per start) and have allowed just 29 runs, 26 earned (2.16 ERA). After that, though, the Yanks have two questionable spots. They can fill them temporarily, but to fill them on a long-term basis would present quite a problem.

Sergio Mitre has pitched well in relief so far, but as he showed on Wednesday he might not have a starter’s endurance right now. Ty Wigginton’s home run came on a second straight sinker up in the zone, and that’s not going to get the job done. The Yankees have few other options for Tuesday, so either he or Aceves will have to do. A recovery by Vazquez, though, could help mask Pettitte’s absence, either short- or long-term.

Joe Girardi was encouraged by Vazquez’s bullpen on Tuesday, though I doubt he’d say otherwise, even if he wasn’t impressed. As Marc Carig describes it:

Vazquez hit his spots during the 20-minute session, in which pitching coach Dave Eiland worked to tweak small details about Vazquez’s motion. Much of the work focused on ensuring that Vazquez’s body was going in the right direction while delivering pitches.

Anything to get his fastball going will get the job done. Even if it comes across at 89-90, he’ll be much better off if he can locate it. One of his biggest problems so far has been that he’s missed the mitt by plenty with his fastballs. If he hits those spots he can probably pitch like the No. 3, No. 4 pitcher the Yanks thought they were acquiring.

Right now the Yankees face their biggest test of the season. While they have their best for the next series, they have two big question marks coming up early next week. Vazquez is the key to this. If he rounds back into form the Yankees can weather Pettitte’s absence should it be an extended one. If not, they will have some problems in May.

Montero’s bat continues to wake up

A few people have emailed this in, but I haven’t seen any confirmation. Apparently Abe Almonte had surgery to repair a torn labrum and is done for the season. For shame, if true.

Mike Ashmore posted the second part of his Q&A with Austin Romine, and it’s a must read. I can’t wait to see the kid show off his speed. Oh, and in case you missed it, Kevin Goldstein had a glowing report of Graham Stoneburner.

Triple-A Scranton (13-8 loss to Durham)
Kevin Russo, CF & Eduardo Nunez, SS: both 3 for 6 – Russo scored a run, drove in two & K’ed twice … Nunez doubled, drove in three & K’ed
Reegie Corona, 2B: 1 for 6, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 K
David Winfree, 1B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 K
Jesus Montero, C & Jon Weber, RF: both 2 for 5, 1 RBI – Weber doubled, scored a run & K’ed … Montero’s threw out an attempted basestealer … he’s now four for his last ten, so he’s starting to come around
Chad Huffman, LF: 0 for 3, 1 BB, 1 HBP
Robby Hammock, 3B: 0 for 1, 3 R, 4 BB – six walks & five hits on the year
Matt Cusick, DH: 1 for 2, 1 R, 3 BB – I guess it’s a good thing when the 7-8-9 hitters combine to reach base ten times
Dustin Moseley: 5 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 Balk, 7-3 GB/FB – 51 of his 87 pitches were strikes (58.6%)
John Van Benschoten: 0.1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K - eight of his 15 pitches were strikes (53.3%)
Mark Melancon: 2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 2-1 GB/FB – 24 of 37 pitches were strikes (64.9%) … very unlike him
Jon Albaladejo: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2-0 GB/FB – seven of his eight pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Open Thread: Off to Bahston

"AAAAAAAAHHHHH!!! Oh wait, that's just my reflection." (Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP)

Is it just me, or has today been particularly hectic for a Thursday? There’s nothing more I want to do right now than just sit back, relax, and watch some Parks & Rec and what not. The Yankees are presumably already in Boston, ready to start this week’s FOX and ESPN broadcast filled weekend. I can’t wait.

Use this sucker as your open thread for the night. If you feel like doing some advanced scouting of the Red Sox, they’ll be taking on the Angels in an MLB Network broadcast game. Otherwise you’ve got NHL and NBA playoff action, plus about a million other things. Have at it.

The goods on Stoneburner

Despite his all-out assault on the Low-A South Atlantic League, the reports coming out on Graham Stoneburner might be even better than the stats. In today’s Minor League Update, Kevin Goldstein mentions that the righty from Clemson has “broken out a much-improved slider this year, along with well-above average command.” Back when I profiled Stoneburner during the offseason, reports indicated that he had an average at best slider and command that came and went, so obviously he’s taken a huge step forward early in his career. Whatever tweaks the Yankees had him make, well bravo.

The 22-year-old Stoneburner has a 2.78 FIP with a 43-9 K/BB ratio and a 2.30 GB/FB ratio in 38 IP (six starts), and he struck out 11 in seven innings of work last night. It’s only a matter of time before he gets the bump up to High-A Tampa. The Yanks signed him for just $675,000 as their 14th round pick last year.