For Once, Conventional Pitching Wisdom Actually Right

Originally, this article was going to be about comparing the projected starters for 2011 to some of our past rotations and general pitching staffs. This involved finding out who started, how many starts they made, and so on. I was then going to take the 2011 season projections for our current group of starters and compare them. Then I’d insert Millwood, Garcia, and Duchscherer to see how it changed. I’d probably slot in Lee and Pettitte just to make myself sad, too. With this in mind, I sat down in front of my computer and, like any baseball nerd, opened my Excel spreadsheets. I plugged in the numbers and took a sort of weird, futuristic glee in having my computer calculate stuff for me.

The more I went into this, the more I also realized that a successful pitching staff is almost stupidly formulaic. For once, it’s just like they say: healthy, good starting pitching wins ballgames. Wins championships, even.

In an ideal world, you have five guys who make thirty-something starts a piece, and they all go six to seven innings, and you have a bullpen with just the right combination of righties and lefties, a LOOGY or two, a longman, and a closer. But let’s be honest, that’s impossible. It’s never going to happen. Pitchers are going to get injured. They are going to suck. Sometimes, these things might be related (looking at you, Jeff Niemann!). Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you need to pick up an innings-eater who is, at best, an okay pitcher, and sometimes a midseason trade is going to leave you struggling to figure out what you’re going to do with your rotation at all. An anonymous source tells me you can’t predict baseball.

The closest the Yankees ever got to this ideal pitching staff in the modern dynasty era was (no surprise here) 1998.

In 1998, Cone won 20 games and threw 200+ IP. The perfect game had not yet arrived. (AP Images/Elise Amendola)

It’s beating a dead horse to talk about how amazing the 1998 New York Yankees were, but on just the pitching side of things, they rocked it: the five starters (Pettitte, Wells, Cone, Irabu, and El Duque) started 142 games. 14 of the 20 games they didn’t pitch in were thrown Ramiro Mendoza, who had a 3.87 ERA in games he started. Mendoza threw an amazing 130 IP that year, including a complete game; three out of the five starters (Cone, Pettitte, and Wells) threw over 200 IP. Mo picked up 36 saves. The Yanks won 114 games and the World Series. It was a good year to be a Yankees fan.

In more recent history, the 2009 Yankees did pretty good on this formula too. Four starters threw 30+ games for an ERA in the rotation of 4.08. The 32 games that were not thrown by starters were picked up by five other guys – Mitre, Wang, Aceves, Gaudin, and Phil Hughes. They used these opportunities to show us why they weren’t starters themselves (or not yet starters, as the case may be), and why we needed healthy starting pitching. Aceves threw one game (4IP, 3ER), and Wang posting an amazingly terrible 11.38 ERA and a 2.176 WHIP in games where he started, giving up 6 homers. The best ERA between those five? Chad Gaudin. Gaudin posted a 4.76 ERA in six starts; Hughes had a 5.45 in seven. Funny that Gaudin spent the next year being thrown into what seemed like every September game to the great distaste of many Yankee fans, and Hughes was an All-Star starter.

That’s not to say the Yankees haven’t gotten this one wrong, too. The last thing you want is too many pitchers throwing starts. In 2008, 13 different pitchers started games. These were included but not limited to: a 2IP rain-delay started by Brian Bruney (who posted an ERA of 0.00 as a starter that year!), a start by Kei Igawa (3 IP, 6 ER) and 9 starts by Ian Kennedy, who posted an 8.35 ERA in the rotation. Only Pettitte and Mussina made over 25 starts that year; the next person down was Darrell Rasner, who made 20. Three different pitchers made between 10 and 15 starts. How can a team win when there’s no real consistency about who’s going to take the mound and how well they’re going to do? Needless to say, other teams capitalized on the Yanks’ disadvantage. Four out of the five 2008 Red Sox Starters made 25 starts or above: only Buchholz missed the cut with 16. Four out of the six 2008 World Series Champion Phillies starters made 25 starts or more, and their rotation started 158 games.

No surprises here: get a lot of production out of your starters and you’ll go far. But more than just production, you need the decent numbers, too. The 2010 Yankees, for example, used only 8 starters. Every man in the rotation hit 20 starts, and only Andy’s injury kept him from breaking 25 with the rest of them. Seems like after a few years we’ve finally figured out how to consistently put a guy on the mound in the Bronx: now if only we could find someone better than Sergio Mitre.

Rays land Damon … and Manny

Via Jon Heyman, the Rays have agreed to terms with both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Damon gets $5.25M and some incentives, Manny gets just $2M. That’s the steal of the offseason right there. Tampa gets some much needed punch, even if both guys are well into their decline phases. Not even $8M for the pair? Unbelievable.

The Blue Jays traded Vernon Wells earlier tonight, freeing up a ton of cash in the future. Yeah, the AL East is not gonna be fun.

Open Thread: 10-0

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I think we all remember Aaron Small and the job he did for the 2005 Yankees, but here’s the interesting thing about that season: he won ten games, but only made nine starts. He didn’t strike anyone out (4.38 K/9), but he kept the walks down (2.84 uIBB/9) so his FIP was rock solid at 3.88 (3.20 ERA). Small did benefit from some major homerun luck though, since his ground ball rate wasn’t spectacular (43..9%) but his 4.5% HR/FB ratio was. His 4.79 xFIP was far more indicative of his true talent level, which he demonstrated in the 2006 season. The Yankees signed Small to a minor league contract six years ago today, and I think it’s safe to say they had no idea how important he would end up being. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we’re thankful for his service.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Isles, Knicks, and Nets are all in action tonight, but it’s Friday. Go out an live a little. Enjoy.

Vernon Wells headed to LAnaheim

Update (9:37pm): The Angels aren’t getting any cash in the deal, they’re talking on the full $86M. Unreal.

Update (7:16pm): Ken Rosenthal says it’s Wells for Napoli and former Yankee Juan Rivera. Toronto is paying part of Vernon’s salary, but it’s unclear how much.

Via MLBTR, the Blue Jays have traded Vernon Wells to the Angels for Mike Napoli. This is not a joke. The Angels really took Wells and the four years and $86M left on his deal for Napoli, who’s still in his arbitration years and has out wOBA’d Wells .361 to .342 over the last three years. I don’t know what the hell the HaLOLos are doing, but it’s tough not to love the job Alex Anthopoulos has done so far in Toronto.

Given the Angels current state of apparent dismay, I think an Alex Rodriguez for Jered Weaver and Dan Haren offer is in order.

Long on tune-ups for Tex

Tom Verducci caught up with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long recently, and the two spoke about a few things that Mark Teixeira has to tighten up offensively moving forward. One is his chronic slow starts, but the other two involve collapsing on his back leg and using the whole field. Verducci throws out a Jason Giambi comparison as a scare tactic, but the Giambino had a .396 OBP and a .249 ISO in his last five years with the Yankees. Give me that with Tex’s defense, and the last thing I’ll do is complain. Either way, it’s a short and interesting read, so check it out.

The RAB Radio Show: January 21, 2011

With everything pretty settled for the Yankees — we’ve talked enough about Andruw Jones at this point that it’s not worth revisiting — Mike and I take the show down a different path today. ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark wrote an article detailing the most underrated player by position. Mike and I don’t agree with a lot of them, so we run down our own lists.

Podcast run time 37:19

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Mailbag: Albert Pujols

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Dave asks: Now that Pujols has given the Cards an ultimatum regarding his contract, can we start imagining him with NYY? Who’s a better 1B – he or Teix? Didn’t he used to play other positions? Couldn’t he handle one of the outfield corners, or perhaps share 3B/DH with A-Rod (keeping both fresher)?

We’ve already gotten a swarm of emails about the possibility of Albert Pujols joining the Yankees in the next year or so, and those emails don’t figure to stop anytime soon. This post is going to serve as our default answer to that question barring any significant changes to the situation, so I suggest bookmarking it.

The idea of Pujols in pinstripes is drool-worthy. He’s the best player in the game and the most devastating hitter on the planet, and he’ll hit the free agent market at essentially age 32 (his birthday was a week or two ago, so at the start of the 2012 season he’ll be 32). He should still have a few seasons of super-elite production ahead of him, and even once he starts to slip, Pujols will still be one of the game’s best. But we’ve seen this movie before.

Three seasons ago a 32-year-old Alex Rodriguez hit the free agent market after opting out of his contract. He was coming off an MVP-winning 2007 season, when he hit 54 homers with a .449 wOBA in 158 games. He owned a .416 wOBA and two MVP awards in his first four years as a Yankee, playing in no fewer than 154 games in each season. That production and his relatively young age led to the mammoth ten-year, $275M contract.

That contract is now the mother of all albatrosses. A-Rod hasn’t played in more than 138 games in any of the three seasons since signing it, and his production, while still fantastic, has slipped down to a .393 wOBA since then, including .363 in 2010. He needed hip surgery barely 18 months after signing the contract, an issue severe enough that it will need to be monitored for at least the next few seasons, if not the rest of his career. With seven-years and no less than $184M left on the contract, the Yankees need to hope that their third baseman avoids injury and remains productive to at least break even on the deal. Getting surplus value is pretty much out of the question now.

This is nothing against Alex, he’s a great player, it just goes to show the risk associated with giving gigantic contracts to 30-somethings. He had played in 154+ games every year from 2001 through 2006, but he’s visited this disabled list in each of the three seasons since, and that doesn’t include all the added rest needed for his hip. It just goes to show that no matter how durable a guy is, things can change quickly once they start to get up there in age.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Pujols is no different, and in fact he’s been battling an elbow issue for the last few years. He finally had surgery to correct it during the 2009-2010 offseason, but it still gave him trouble this past September. He might not get an A-Rod deal, but at the very least he’ll get Mark Teixeira‘s contract, and probably more since he’s just straight up better than Tex. Giving out another humongous contract to a guy in his 30’s is pretty much the last thing the Yanks need right now, especially if he’s not a pitcher.

And that’s the other thing too, what happens with Tex if you sign Pujols? You can’t trade him because a) he’s got a full no-trade clause, b) no other team is taking on that contract, and c) eating like, half the money left on it just for the sake of moving him is a terrible idea and a massive waste of resources. I guess you could use one guy at first and DH the other, but you’re then wasting one guy’s defensive skills, which the team is paying for and are excellent. You can’t move Tex back to third (moving A-Rod to DH) because he hasn’t played the position since 2003 and has a grand total of 99.2 big league innings there. Pujols has the elbow problems and has been a full-time first baseman since 2004, so moving him isn’t much of an option either.

I’d love love love to see Pujols in the middle of the Yankee lineup, with Robbie Cano batting ahead of him and A-Rod and Tex behind him, but it’s the definition of overkill. You’re going to compromise roster flexibility well into the future, tying up about $90M annually in THREE players (all corner infielders in their 30’s, too), and all for what amounts to a DH upgrade. I fully expect the Cardinals to re-sign Pujols at some point this calendar year, but even so I can’t imagine the Yankees getting involved. I’m certain his agent will bring them up just to drive up the price, but there’s just no fit. The Yankees can afford it, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s the wisest idea.