Graphically charting the Yanks’ rotation

Courtesy of Craig Robinson/Flip Flop Fly Ball

Earlier this week, Craig Robinson at Flip Flop Fly Ball posted a chart of the Mariners’ 2010 rotation, and I fell in love. The Flip Flop Fly Ball artist broke out the months of baseball schedule into five-calendar-day rows, and he used color coding to show when each pitcher had the ball. He also produced a similar chart for the 1971 Orioles’ four-man rotation.

In one sense, the idea behind the chart is simple: If a team maximizes its best pitchers, their color should show up once per row. So if the 2010 Mariners wanted to get the most of Felix Hernandez and, in the early going, Cliff Lee, the light blue and dark purple would appear every week.

Click to enlarge.

I asked Craig to do the same for the Yankees last year, and he produced the chart excerpted above. You can view the entire thing by clicking on the image at right. I find this chart to be mesmerizing, and from it, we can draw a guarded conclusions. Had the Yankees stuck with a strict rest schedule for CC Sabathia, they could have coaxed three additional starts out of their ace last year. Because of off days and the desire to keep every other pitcher on target, CC “missed” his starts during the five days beginning May 24, August 2 and October 1.

Of course, that raises another question: Should the Yankees disrupt their other pitchers to make sure their ace gets as many innings as possible? On the one hand, I’m tempted to say yes. After all, Sabathia is that much better than the other Yankee hurlers, and he’s a workhorse. He can shoulder the innings, and he’s happy to take the ball. The AL East last year came down to one game, and it’s not a stretch to say that an additional three Sabathia starts could have given the Yanks the division crown.

On the other hand, these players need their rest. Sabathia could have made a total of 37 starts last year, but in today’s age of pitch counts and innings caps, that is probably an excessive number. If the Yankees want him fresh for the playoffs, they’re willing to give him a few extra days as the schedule dictates. That’s just the way the game is played.

Anyway, I found this chart to be a wonderful way to understand the way the pitching rotation shakes down over the course of the year. After Opening Day and before the playoffs, labeling pitchers based on their spots in the rotation is largely meaningless. When you’re done pouring over this one, check out Craig’s site. His infographics will soon be available as a book, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that one.

Feliciano has torn shoulder capsule

Update (4/14/11, 3:51pm): Via Ben Shpigel, Feliciano has a torn shoulder capsule and is deciding whether or not he wants to try to rehab it or have season-ending surgery. Those of you with good memories will remember that Chien-Ming Wang had the exact same injury in 2009, and of course he still hasn’t come back. Ken Davidoff says Feliciano is heading to see Dr. Andrews for a second opinion next week, but there’s only so many ways you can say “yep, it’s shredded.”

Original Post (4/13/11, 10:23pm): Via Ben Shpigel, Joe Girardi said after tonight’s game that the MRI on Pedro Feliciano’s shoulder was not good, simply calling it a “damaged shoulder.” It sounds like surgery is a possibility, which would presumably end his season before it even had a chance to began. Hopefully that’s not the case, but they have to brace for the worst. If only someone had warned them about the dangers of signing an over-worked, 30-something reliever to a multi-year deal. Maybe they’ll finally take the hint.

Bad Process vs. Bad Results

"You okay, Pedro?" "Si, si ... no." (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Baseball is a game of failure, whether you’re a hitter or a pitcher or a coach or a scout or a general manager. Everyone’s going to make mistakes, it’s part of life and it’s part of the game. Some make more than others, and if you’re the Yankees, you make more high-profile mistakes more than others. That’s what happens when you play in the deep end of the pool. The team got some bad news last night following Pedro Feliciano’s MRI, as the left-hander has (what we can infer is) significant damage in his throwing shoulder and may need surgery. Depending on the severity of the injury, he could miss the entire year and possibly even the start of the next season.

Unfortunately an injured lefty reliever is nothing new for the Yankees. The reason they signed Feliciano in the first place was because Damaso Marte is going to miss a significant chunk of the season after having shoulder surgery himself. Since signing his three-year, $12M contract before the 2009 season, Marte has thrown a total of 35 innings for New York, and that’s regular season plus playoffs. The team clearly hasn’t gotten its money’s worth.

When the previously ultra-durable Feliciano hit the disabled list to start the season, Brian Cashman lashed out at the lefty’s previous employer by saying flatly “he was abused.” That was a head-scratcher simply because any dunce with access to Baseball-Reference could tell you that Feliciano had been overworked by the Mets in recent years, but the real head-scratcher is why they still signed him if they knew he was abused. The “limited market” for left-handed relievers was used as an the excuse, but that doesn’t really pass the sniff test. There were no fewer than 13 big league caliber LOOGY’s on the free agent market this offseason, and six of them were still on the board when the Yankees pulled the trigger on Feliciano. Plus, they’re the Yankees, there’s no such thing as a limited market for them.

Failure in baseball comes in two forms: results failure and process failure. Results failure is when you do everything right and it still doesn’t work out, something we see every day. A batter squares a ball up but hits it right at a fielder. A pitcher buries the changeup down and away but the hitter just throws the bat head out and bloops a single the other way. The relief ace enters the game in the right spot but still blows the lead. That’s life, and it’s part of what makes baseball so great, the unpredictability.

Process failure is another matter entirely. That’s when the decisions leading up poor results were bad. Stacking the lineup with lefty batters against Randy Johnson. Leaving the LOOGY in to face an elite right-handed batter. Sacrifice bunting a runner up a base when he’s already in scoring position. That’s the kind of stuff that qualifies as a process failure, the straight up bad decisions. Hey, sometimes they do work it, but more often than not they don’t. Signing Feliciano to a market rate and multi-year deal when the team was obviously aware of the risk and there were viable alternatives on the market, that’s a process failure.

Let’s just ignore the multi-year contract aspect of it. We know those are generally bad ideas in the first place, and the Yankees have seen first hand over and over and over again. The whole idea that they knew Feliciano was at heightened risk of injury (remember, he’s already 34, he’s no spring chicken) and still gave him a market value contract just seems like a good old fashioned swing and a miss. Either they didn’t evaluate him properly, they didn’t evaluate the alternatives properly, or they got too caught up in the name value. Maybe it was all three.

Yes, swallowing Feliciano’s $4M salary is no big deal for the Yankees this year. That barely makes a dent in their bottom line. But being able to do that shouldn’t necessarily be a reason to take on added risk, not in the situation like this. He’s a lefty reliever, Feliciano’s impact would have been minimal even if he was perfectly healthy. Maybe they take on that risk for a front-end starter or a power bat, but a LOOGY? Now they’re stuck with no Feliciano, a budget missing $4M (more when you count the luxury tax), and a real limited market. All the free agents are gone and no one’s ready to make a trade yet, certainly not when it comes to left-handed relievers anyway.

Feliciano won’t be anything more than a footnote in the history of the 2011 Yankees, but his signing will hopefully serve as lesson like Marte, Kyle Farnsworth, and Steve Karsay apparently didn’t. Giving multi-year contracts to non-Mariano Rivera relievers is a terrible idea, especially when there are obvious physical concerns with the player. Luckily the Yankees can absorb the mistake and move on like nothing happened, but they definitely goofed on this one.

Betances to miss a start due to blister

Via Mike Ashmore and Josh Norris, Double-A Trenton has placed right-hander Dellin Betances on the disabled list with a blister on his pitching hand. VP of Baseball Operations Mark Newman confirmed the injury and said he expects him to miss “a start.” Betances is no stranger to the DL of course; he’s missed time in all four of his full professional seasons with injuries, sometimes an elbow, sometimes a shoulder, but in this case it was just a blister. I guess he’s just got to break out the pickle juice a little more often.

The RAB Radio Show: April 14, 2011

Two days without baseball during the season feels like an eternity, especially when your team got shut out the game before. But the Yanks came back with a vengeance last night. Mike and I talk about the encouraging signs from the game, including bits from A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira.

Podcast run time 20:07

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

Did you go to last night’s game? You’ve got a free ticket coming to you

If you braved the rain mist and sat through the Yankees and Orioles game last night, the Yankees have announced that you are entitled to a free Grandstand or Terrace level ticket for a future game this season (excluding Old Timer’s Day and series against the Mets or Red Sox). Obviously the tickets are subject to availability, and you have to bring your valid ticket from last night’s game to the ticket windows at the Stadium to redeem the offer. That’s one way to get people in the park, eh?

Burnett’s new, old toy

Changeup! (AP Photo)

A.J. Burnett was a big time question mark for the Yankees coming into the season, but through his first three starts, there are some encouraging signs that suggest he might be getting himself on track. His strikeout rate is back over eight men per nine innings pitched (8.31 K/9, to be exact) after dipping below seven in 2010, and his swinging strike rate is back above league average (8.8% this year, 8.5% lg avg) for the first time since 2008. Of course we’re talking about a sample size of three starts (just 74 batters faced) and he we’re still a ways off from those numbers becoming meaningful, but given Burnett’s struggles last year, we’ll take anything that appears to be improvement.

During last night’s game against the Orioles, a start that really was better than the line score indicates, we saw Burnett do something we really hadn’t seen him do much of in the past: he used his changeup. Like, legitimately used it as a third pitch, not as just some show-me offering once or twice or three times through the course of the night. PitchFX classified 14 of his 109 pitches as changeups (he says it was 16), or 12.8% of the total. Compare that to recent years, when he never used the changeup more than four-percent of the time in any of the last four seasons. It’s not a one start thing either, Burnett threw six changeups in his first start (7.0%) and a dozen in his second (12.1%).

The table to the right shows A.J.’s usage of the changeup in each of this three starts this year and compares it to the first two years of his Yankees career. He’s already thrown 32 changeups this year, and assuming he makes 33 starts the year (which he’s done in each of the last three years), he’s already thrown more than 40% of the changeups he threw in each of the previous two seasons in just nine-percent of the starts. Not only that, but he’s also throwing the pitch for strikes, both called and swinging.

As you’d imagine, he’s using the pitch to help combat left-handed batters, who tagged him for a .367 wOBA last year. Although that number isn’t any better this season (LHB have a .385 wOBA against so far), that’s more of a sample size issue (just 42 PA) than anything else. Those two garbage time homers he gave up last night were to lefties; if those end up being routine fly balls instead of over the fence, it drops to a .328 wOBA against. Of course it doesn’t work like that, those homers count, but it just shows you how volatile these numbers are so early in the season.

Burnett’s been a two-pitch pitcher pretty much his entire career and you know what?It has worked for him. The guy has a career 107 ERA+ and 21.1 bWAR, a career most pitchers would kill to have. His fastball velocity is definitely trending downward, which tends to happen as a pitcher approaches his mid-30’s, but 92-94 is still more than enough to get batters out. Burnett doesn’t need that changeup to be a legit out pitch (though the movement on the pitch suggests it might be able to become that, but lets not get ahead of ourselves), it just has to be a usable third offering that he can mix in from time to time to keep batters honest. It’ll help make that 93 mph fastball look more like 96.

Credit Burnett, credit new pitching Larry Rothschild, credit Russell Martin, credit whoever you want with making A.J. actually use his changeup this year. It’s given him another weapon to use which is always a plus, especially for a guy that struggled so much last season. The season is still very young, and the real test will come not when Burnett has that inevitable meltdown inning/start (it’s coming, trust me, every pitcher has them over the course of the season), but when batters start looking for the changeup. Three starts in though, it’s tough not to be even a little optimistic about how the Yankees’ de facto number two starter is pitching.