The way to use Rafael Soriano

Yankee fans who came of age during the past four years could be forgiven if they don’t understand the concept of leverage situations for bullpen pitchers. Since the Yankees rushed a young Joba Chamberlain up to the Bronx in 2007 to fill the set-up role and had to force Joe Torre to use him carefully, the team has had a seemingly unhealthy obsession with The Eighth Inning™. Rafael Soriano‘s presence on the Yanks should change that.

The idea behind leverage differs a bit from the concept of a set-up man as the eighth inning pitcher. Major League managers will never get to the point of using their closers in high-leverage situations well before the ninth inning. Ideally, though, the best relievers will be used in the best situations. For instance, if the home team has a two-run lead in the 6th inning but their opponents have bases loaded and one man out with the top of their order up, the pitcher is facing a high-leverage situation. That’s not when a manager should call upon his third- or fourth-best pitcher even if the inning dictates it.

Often, though, we’ve seen Major League managers adhere too closely to the time of the game. Even if it’s not the eighth inning, the seventh inning middle relievers must pitch. If it’s not the ninth inning, the eighth inning guy but not the closer will make an appearance. Oftentimes, closers end up pitching in lower leverage situations than the lesser pitchers behind them on bullpen depth charts. Sometimes, those lesser pitchers blow the game, and the closers never even see action. Losing with the best pitcher sitting on the bench can be a frustrating experience indeed. Ask any Yankee fan who had to sit through Chad Gaudin pitching before Mariano Rivera last year.

For 2011, the Yankees can do something different with the bullpen. While I’m not enamored with the Rafael Soriano signing, he certainly makes the bullpen better and deeper. Now, we just have to hope Joe Girardi uses him correctly.

With Soriano around, the Yankees have two closers: one for the ninth inning and one for appropriate high leverage situations that pop up late in close games. Earlier today at The Yankee U, E.J. Fagan explored Soriano as a fireman. Instead of the traditional eighth-inning only set-up guy, the Yanks should use Soriano to put out fires. Fagan proposes the following three rules to guide Soriano’s appearances:

  1. In a close game, Soriano comes into innings 5-7 in any situation with the starter out (or gassed) with less than 2 outs, a runner on second or third base and a right-hander coming up to the plate.
  2. If no situation presents itself by the 8th inning, Soriano pitches the 8th inning.
  3. Against top lefty hitters with runners on base in a close game, Feliciano or Logan relieve Soriano. He stays with no runners on base and against most lefty hitters.

These rules may be too rigid. I’d amend the first one by urging the Yanks to use Soriano at any point during innings 5-7 when the pitcher — starter or reliever — is getting into trouble, and the Yanks need to get out of a typical jam. If the team is losing by a run and needs to keep the score close, Soriano should pitch as well. If the Yankees are in a position where a path to a victory requires one of their top relievers to get a few outs, Rafael Soriano is now the clear leader in the non-Mariano category of bullpen pitchers.

Rafael Soriano is, in a certain sense, an unnecessary luxury for the Yankees, and they might only have him for one year. But his presence on the team can help shorten games in a way we haven’t seen since 1996 when a young Rivera would hand the ball to John Wetteland over and over again. As Fagan wrote, “If they use Soriano the wrong way, they’re going to do a very good job taking a lead that they had at the beginning of the 8th inning and transferring it into a win. If they do it the way I am arguing for, they will do a much better job of taking a lead in the 6th inning and holding on for a win. That’s really what shortening a game is about.”

Open Thread: Taking care of business

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees don’t have much more business left to take care of this offseason, aside from that whole starting pitcher thing of course. They signed their last three arbitration-eligible players today, and eventually the pre-arbitration guys will have their contracts renewed at something close to the league minimum. The Rafael Soriano signing is now official (according to a press release), and it seems like Andruw Jones will be in the fold soon enough. Otherwise, that’s pretty much it. They might look at some utility infielders, but I wouldn’t expect any major moves at all, even on the starting pitching side. All that’s left of the offseason is to just ride it out, sit around and wait for pitchers and catchers to report in about four weeks. The dog days of January are no fun.

Anyways, here is your open thread for the evening. Not one of the local hockey or basketball teams are playing tonight, which pretty much sucks. Talk about whatever your heart desires.

Joba Update: Joba Joba Joba

The trickle down effect of this Rafael Soriano signing is that now everyone’s talking about Joba Chamberlain and what his role should be going forward. We’re blogging like it’s 2008. Anyway, on Friday we found out that the Yankees are willing to trade Joba but only as part of a package for a “viable starter,” which I assume means someone better than Joe Blanton or Armando Galarraga. Of course most of us are wondering why they won’t just try him as a starter if they’re willing to trade him (as part of a package!) for one. Does not compute.

If the Yankees did want to give Joba another go in the rotation, they could send him down to Triple-A so that he could properly stretch out. He would need to pass through optional waivers to do that because of his service time situation (explained them here), but Keith Law spoke to a front office person who confirmed that players are never plucked off those kinds of waivers. They’re completely revocable, so even if some team did place a claim in on Joba, the Yankees could pull him right back. The point is that if they want to turn him back into a starter, they have several ways to go about it. Now it’s just a matter of deciding to actually do it.

The RAB Radio Show: January 18, 2010

The Yankees agreed to contracts with three arbitration-eligible players today. Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes are all under contract for 2011 at reasonable rates. Mike and I talk a bit about that, and a bit more about how the arbitration process affects the team.

Also, I’m sure we’ll find a day where we don’t talk about Rafael Soriano. Today is not that day.

Podcast run time 24:26

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

Five biggest outs of the 2010 season

Earlier today we went back and looked at the five biggest hits of the Yankees’ season using WPA, so now we’re going to go back and look at the five biggest outs/defensive plays of the campaign. You’re not going to see the same kind of huge win probability swings just because it’s very difficult for one defensive play to increase a team’s chances of winning that much. Sometimes though, getting that one out can be a whole lot more stressful than getting that one big hit. I hate to ruin the surprise, but the greatest closer of all team will be featured prominently…

(AP Photo/Andy King)

May 26th: Mo gets Denard Span to bang into a double play
Things weren’t going so well for the Yankees in late-May. Their inaugural trip to Target Field was coming on the heels of five losses in six games, and the team was struggling to score runs. Although this game started on the 25th, it was actually completed on the 26th because of a rain-induced suspension of play in the fifth inning. The Yankees were leading one-zip on a Derek Jeter solo homer when Mariano Rivera came to the mound in the ninth. He sat down J.J. Hardy to lead off the inning, but then walked pinch hitter Jim Thome, who was immediately replaced by pinch runner Alexi Casilla. Denard Span was at the plate as the winning run, but Casilla never attempted to steal second and get himself into scoring position. Mo got Span to ground the ball to second, resulting in a game ending 4-6-3 double play. The WPA of this play was 0.22.

August 11th: Mo gets Josh Hamilton (video)
The state of Texas was not kind to the Yankees in 2010, and in fact this game took place after David Murphy’s walk-off single the night before. With the Yankees up by a run to start the ninth, Elvis Andrus gave the Rangers some hope with a leadoff triple, putting the tying run 90 feet away with the heart of the order coming up. Michael Young popped up the first pitch of his at-bat to shallow right, too shallow for Andrus to score. Texas would have still been able to tie the game by making an out at this point, and they had the eventual MVP coming to the plate. To make matters worse, Rivera fell behind Hamilton 2-0. Mo gave him his trademark cutter, but Hamilton tapped the ball back to the pitcher, again keeping Andrus anchored to third. Because it took the opportunity to score a run on an out away, the WPA swing of Hamilton’s at-bat was 0.25. Vlad Guerrero grounded out to end the game two pitches later, but Hamilton’s out was key.

May 26th: Andy gets Joe Mauer to bounce into a twin killing (video)
A few hours after Span grounded into his twin killing, Andy Pettitte got the reigning MVP to do the same. The score was tied at two in the eighth inning, but Andy was still out there since his pitch count was barely over 80 (83 to be exact). Backup catcher Drew Butera led the inning off with a double, and he then moved over to third to when Alex Rodriguez botched a Span sacrifice bunt attempt. Runners were at the corners with no outs, and the meat of Minnesota’s lineup was coming to the dish. Orlando Hudson lined a pitch back to Andy for the first out, but like I said, it was just the first out. Pettitte fell behind in the count to Mauer, putting him one ball away from a bases loaded situation. Instead, Mauer made weak contact on a slider away, resulting in a garden variety 6-4-3 double and one amazing fist pump from the old man. Mauer’s GIDP resulted in a WPA swing of 0.25.

Oh yeah, and he got an at-bat. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

June 23rd: Mariano’s Mona Lisa (video)
Okay, I confess, this isn’t just one out, it’s three consecutive outs. But they all happened in the same inning, and they each resulted in one of the highest individual defensive WPA swings of the season. I figured it was only right to lump them together, since together they represent the mastery of Mariano Rivera.

The Yankees were in Arizona and up a run in the tenth inning after Curtis Granderson‘s solo homer, but things started to get tenuous rather quickly. Stephen Drew led off the inning with a single, then ended up at third after The Justin Upton doubled. With the winning run at second and a base open, Mo intentionally walked Miguel Montero (2-for-3 in the game and 13-for-33 with five doubles and two homers in his previous eight games) to create the force at any base with still no outs. This is when the master went to work.

The first out of the inning was completely harmless as Chris Young popped up a 1-1 pitch behind the plate, with Frankie Cervelli making the catch. Adam LaRoche followed Young, and after another 1-1 count, the first baseman popped the pitch up to third base, invoking the infield fly rule. Two men down, but the bases were still loaded. Mark Reynolds ended 54.7% of his plate appearances with a walk, a homer, or a strikeout in 2010, but only two of those would have been helped him in this spot. Instead, he went with door number three. Rivera got Reynolds swinging at a pitch off the plate, stranding all three runners and preserving the win. The WPA swings were rather remarkable: 0.20 (Young), 0.27 (LaRoche), and 0.28 (Reynolds). The last two were the third and second biggest outs of the season, respectively, and they came back-to-back. Oh, and that was Mo’s second inning of work on the night. Insanity.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Sept. 14th: Mo to Golson to A-Rod (video)
Despite all of his success, Mo needed a little help in making the biggest defensive play of the 2010 season. Jorge Posada had given the Yankees a one run lead with a long solo homer in the top of the tenth, but Carl Crawford led off the bottom half with a single. As expected, he stole second base but only after Evan Longoria flew out to deep center. The tying run was in scoring position, and a blown lead would have been rather demoralizing since the Yanks were coming off four straight losses and seven in their last eight games.

Matt Joyce had proven to be a thorn in New York’s side earlier in the season, and this time all he needed was a little bloop or a seeing eye single to knot things up. Rivera ran the count full, and on the sixth pitch of the encounter Joyce lifted a routine fly ball to Greg Golson in right. Crawford tagged up and once the ball settled into Golson’s glove, he took off for third. Unfortunately for him, the outfielder decided to give everyone a free look at the gun show. He threw Crawford out the third, ending the game in perhaps the most unexpected way possible. The combination of the fly out and throw out at third resulted in a WPA swing of 0.29. That throw still amazes me.

Hughes, Joba, Logan all agree to one year deals

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have avoided arbitration with both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. The former gets $2.7M, the latter $1.4M. I had Hughes getting around $3.5M and Joba about $1.8M, so I clearly need to sharpen my arb skills. Both players were eligible for arbitration for the first time, and they’re still pretty underpaid compared to what they’d get on the open market.

Update: Boone Logan signed for $1.2M according to Heyman. I pegged him for a $1M salary or so. Unlike Hughes and Joba, it was Logan’s second time up for arbitration, though he’s a Super Two and gets four cracks at the process.

These three plus Sergio Mitre were the only Yankees eligible for arbitration this winter. Mitre signed back in December, so it all got taken care of without a hearing(s). Good stuff.

So it has come to this: Kevin Millwood as a rotation option

Just one more pitcher. Sure, the Yanks could use two more quality arms, but at this point in the off-season they’ll have to settle for one mediocre one. The only question remaining is of which mediocre starter will fill that fifth, or even fourth, slot. In his column yesterday SI’s Jon Heyman brings up a name that we’ve heard uttered before, but until this point none of us wanted to think about him too deeply: Kevin Millwood.

A glance at Millwood’s numbers, especially the ones he produced last year in the AL East, might not inspire confidence, but remember the situation the Yankees face. As it currently stands they have fairly unattractive options for the final two spots in the rotation. Sergio Mitre is nothing more than a placeholder. Ivan Nova, though he has potential, has completed six innings just once in seven career starts. Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and the other AAA guys might present options down the road, but it would be quite the leap to start the season with them in the rotation. Considering this mess, Millwood might actually represent an upgrade.

One thing Millwood can give is innings. In five of the last six years he has made at least 31 starts. In the year he fell short he started 29. That immediately gives him a leg up on Mitre, who has topped 120 innings just once in his career. Having a pitcher at the back of the rotation who can give you six or seven innings a start, even if he’s giving up three or four runs on average, has value. It’s not ideal, especially for a first division team such as the Yankees. But at this point it’s better than someone who has pitched six innings just once in the past three years.

Of course, just because he can provide innings doesn’t mean they’ll be quality innings. Just once in the past five years has Millwood finished with an ERA below 4.50. That came in 2009 with the Rangers, and his peripherals were all well above that. It was a welcome change, of course, since his peripherals in the preceding three seasons were all considerably worse than his results. Last year he returned to 2007-2008 form. His high home run rate is also cause for concern, especially as a righty at Yankee Stadium. But there are at least a few mitigating factors.

First, pitching in Texas can absolutely kill a pitcher’s ERA. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league. Then, when he moved to the AL East last year, an injury might have made his overall season numbers look worse. At the beginning of the season he actually pitched quite well, but then he hit a rough patch that started with one game against Toronto and two against the Yankees. After this poor stretch he hit the DL with forearm soreness, and returned to pitch pretty well: 83 IP, 88 H, 41 R, 39 ER, 30 BB, 48 K, 10 HR — 4.23 ERA and 4.60 FIP. Again, they aren’t great, but they’re — wait for it — better than you’d expect from Mitre.

That’s the gold standard right now. If there is a pitcher out there who can pitch more innings and provide better results than Sergio Mitre, the Yankees have to at least kick the tires. Many of us wish that Joba Chamberlain would be the answer here, and maybe there’s still hope. If the Yankees do indeed move Joba to the rotation I wouldn’t at all advocate for Millwood. But if they don’t, then I will. It really has come to that. The Yankees need reliability and depth right now, and Millwood brings some degree of both. He’s not ideal, and I really wish I didn’t have to write this. But considering the situation, he’s far from the worst option.