Counterpoints to starting Burnett tonight

(David J. Phillip/AP)

Let me start by saying that I support the Yankees’ decision to start A.J. Burnett this evening. That was the plan, and the Yankees are sticking to it. The circumstances might seem dire, but the Yankees knew this scenario was a possibility. They also know that no matter how well or poorly Burnett pitches, they’ll play tomorrow and have their ace on the mound. That sounds a bit better than having Burnett pitching a potential elimination game.

Still, I can’t help but examine the other side of the issue. Going down 3-1 and having to face the Rangers’ three best pitchers doesn’t exactly seem like an ideal scenario. CC Sabathia undoubtedly gives the Yankees a better chance to even the series, so there has to be something to the argument that favors him taking the ball on short rest. Let’s examine that case.

This morning Craig Calcaterra laid out the argument for starting Burnett tonight. Within he makes two main points and one side point. The first is that starting Sabathia tonight would only delay the inevitable, since Burnett has to pitch in this series one way or another. The second is that Burnett matches up better against Tommy Hunter than he does C.J. Wilson. The side point is that pitchers going on short rest generally have poorer numbers than their normally rested counterparts.

To counter:

1) Yes, Burnett will pitch in this series no matter what, but that doesn’t mean that pitching him in Game 4 is the same as pitching him in Game 5. In Game 4 the Yankees will either enter an elimination scenario or they will avoid it. No one wants to enter that elimination scenario, and so I can understand going to the ace in order to keep the team alive for at least two more games. If things go according to plan and Sabathia wins tonight, Burnett could still pitch the Yankees into an elimination game. But being down 3-2 is quite different than being down 3-1.

Of course, CC is guaranteed nothing and could lose the game tonight. I’d still rather lose with my best on the mound than with my fourth best.

2) Burnett matches up well against Hunter, apparently, because Hunter is not only the least of the Rangers’ pitchers, but he has fared poorly against the Yankees. Yet we know that Hunter’s regular season performance against the Yankees means exactly zero right now. This is one game. Anything can happen in this microcosm. If we’ve learned anything from the endless previews for each playoff game, it’s that there is no way to get a good idea of what will happen based on past performance.

What we do know is that the Yankees’ offense has been horrible this series. Can we expect them to turn it around against Hunter? Maybe. Again, anything can happen in any given game. If the offense doesn’t show up I’d trust CC to hold down the Rangers far more than I would trust Burnett.

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

3) Looking at the data from the past five years, yes, pitchers throwing on three days’ rest fare worse than those throwing on four, five, or six-plus days. The problem is that those starts on three days’ rest count for just 1.2 percent of all starts. In addition, a number of those starts on three days’ rest don’t follow other starts. For example, Javier Vazquez has one start on three days’ rest this season; it came after he faced one batter in relief. That certainly calls into question some of the data.

For his part, Sabathia has been superb when pitching on three days’ rest. He has done it during the regular season four times in his career, accumulating 26.2 innings and allowing just seven runs, three earned. That also comes with 26 strikeouts to just six walks. In last year’s postseason he added another two starts and 14.2 innings with three days’ rest. His overall line:

41.1 IP, 28 H, 11 R, 7 ER, 11 BB, 37 K

The walks is the most interesting part. The overall numbers for pitchers going on three days’ rest indicates that control is the biggest problem. On four days’ rest pitchers have walked 7.8 percent of hitters. On three days’ rest they have walked 94 percent. I’m not sure how much of that is the noise of a comparatively small sample, but it does appear to be a significant difference. Home run rates do favor four days’ rest pitchers, but not nearly to the degree of walks. Strikeout rates are very close. Sabathia’s walk rate on three days’ rest is 6.8 percent, while his rate on four days’ rest (not counting the postseason) is 7.1 percent.

How would the Yankees manage the rotation if they went with Sabathia on three days’ rest? That would push Burnett to Game 5, Phil Hughes to Game 6, and then either Andy Pettitte on normal rest or Sabathia on short rest in Game 7. I’d go with Pettitte, having Sabathia ready in the bullpen. It’s almost exactly the same as the current scenario, except Sabathia would have on extra day of rest for a relief appearance in a potential Game 7.

The overall point of using Sabathia tonight is to give the team the best chance of prolonging the series. No matter the match-up, Sabathia gives the team a better chance to win this evening. That means at least two more games. Since the Yankees are down two games to one, prolonging the series should be their foremost thought.

Again, I’m not sure if I buy this argument myself. I do think Burnett matches up best with Hunter, and I do trust Sabathia in an elimination game against Wilson. The Yankees have said that they’re not starting Sabathia on short rest, so I assume that they have reasons for not doing so. But there is certainly something to the argument for starting Sabathia tonight and Burnett tomorrow. Thankfully, in both scenarios there will be a tomorrow.

Cubs name Mike Quade manager

Via MLBTR, the Cubs have named Mike Quade their new manager, signing him to a two year deal plus an option. The Cubs went 24-13 under his watch after he replaced Lou Piniella on an interim basis this season.

Of course this now means that Joe Girardi will not be leaving the Yankees to manage his hometown Cubs next season. He might still leave to go somewhere else, sure, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better situation than the one the Yankees offer. They’ve got resources, an ownership committed to winning, a new park, the works. The only reason he was ever really linked to Chicago in the first place was the hometown thing. Well, at least this story can be put to bed.

Hoping that Hunter can help wake up the offense

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Last night’s Game Three loss wasn’t just an ass-whoppin’, it was a historical ass-whoppin’. It was the worst shutout loss in Yankee postseason history, and the three baserunners were the fewest they’ve ever had in a playoff game. Cliff Lee was already one of just five pitchers to strike out ten-plus Yankees in a playoff game (the other four are or will be in the Hall of Fame), but yesterday he became the first man to do it twice. There’s no shame in losing to a pitcher of Lee’s caliber, but it’s not as if the Yankee offense set the world on fire in the first two games of the series either. Therein lies the real problem.

Brett Gardner‘s second half crash back to Earth (.232 AVG since the All Star break despite a .311 BABIP) has predictably continued into the postseason, except now he can’t rely on mediocre pitchers to walk him once every six trips to the plate to remain productive. He also seems to have resorted to the desperate act of sliding into first now, even though it’s been scientifically proven to slow you down. Derek Jeter has struck out in five of his last six plate appearances, including three straight on swings-and-misses at fastballs up in the zone yesterday. Mark Teixeira … I don’t even want to talk about him. His second straight terrible postseason is again propped up by one big homer against the Twins, par for the course during the worse non-rookie season of his career. Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada are a combined 5-for-34 with three walks in the series. Outside of Robbie Cano and Curtis Granderson, the offense simply isn’t getting it done this postseason.

The good news is that if there’s one pitcher on the Rangers’ staff that can help ignite an offense, it’s Tommy Hunter. The burly righthander pitches to contact (his 5.8% swinging strike rate ranked 133rd out of 146 pitchers with at least 100 IP this year) and gives up lots of homers (1.48 HR/9, ranking 136th), two things the Yankees need a little help with right now. They’ve faced Hunter a few times in the past but just once this season, getting to him for two runs in five innings of work. They’ll need more than that tonight, I can assure you.

Tonight’s Game Four isn’t a must win, but the Yanks have to play with that kind of sense of urgency just to get themselves out of this funk. Perhaps the lineup changes – Lance Berkman in at DH, Curtis Granderson up to the two-spot – that come with facing a righty will help, but those changes are really nothing more than cosmetic. The starting nine they trot out there on a given day is more than enough to win, but right now very few are playing up to their abilities. Several players just look straight up old to be quite honest, and that’s a bad thing, because reversing age-related decline is pretty much impossible.

Cliff Lee was brilliant last night, let’s not take anything away from him, but the Yankees haven’t hit at all in this series save for one inning in Game One. If they lose tonight, A.J. Burnett will almost undoubtedly be the goat, but if the offense can’t muster anything off Tommy Hunter, then I’m not sure they deserve to win anyway. They Yanks are set up for a breakout offensive game, and championship caliber clubs have to find ways to win pitching matchups like this, especially at home.

Sometimes, you gotta go to Mo

The Yankees entered the ninth inning of Game 3 of the tied American League Championship Series at home down 2-0, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

Joe Girardi gave the ball to Boone Logan because a lefty was leading off the inning, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

It wasn’t just any lefty though; it was Josh Hamilton, the potential AL MVP, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

After Hamilton laced a double into the gap and the Rangers had a huge third run 180 feet from home, Joe Girardi went to the mound, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

David Robertson and Sergio Mitre put this game away for Texas, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

* * *

You see where I’m going with this. The Yankees had a deficit that they had to maintain late in the game. They weren’t going to enjoy a save situation, and they have the best postseason reliever in the history of the game in the bullpen. Yet, Joe Girardi did what he always does: He went with the match-ups. It was a decision with which I did not agree then and do not agree in hindsight.

To me, the idea is a simple one. In high leverage situations, the ideal way to manage involves bringing in the best. To keep the game at 2-0, a large but not insurmountable deficit with Cliff Lee on the mound, Joe Girardi needed his bullpen to be perfect. It was, as we saw, far from it. David Robertson didn’t have his best stuff, and the Rangers kept finding holes. They went first-to-third a few times, knocked out a few big hits and suddenly found themselves with a blowout on their hands. It all went wrong in a hurry.

In reality though, it went wrong when the inning started with Boone Logan on the mound. Going with Logan to face Hamilton isn’t an indefensible move. After all, Logan was death on lefties this year, and Hamilton OPS’d over .300 points lower against southpaws than he did right-handers. That Hamilton’s only hits of the ALCS have come against lefties is just one of those flukes of the postseason.

Still, as I watched the ninth unfold, I had a nagging suspicion that it should have been Mariano’s inning. It was absolutely incumbent upon the Yankees to keep the game at 2-0, and that’s the job for Mariano. Yesterday afternoon, I praised Joe Girardi for making the right decisions, but I think this one was the wrong one.

It’s interesting to me to watch Girardi manage a postseason series in which the Yankees are simply getting outplayed. They’re being out-pitched, out-hit and even out-managed. They haven’t mounted a rally since the eighth inning of Game 1, and they’ve trailed in 25 of 27 innings so far. It’s been a lesson in total domination.

Yet, I see hesitancy from Girardi that is at least worth questioning. This ALCS is the first time in the postseason that Girardi has had to coax results from the team, and he hasn’t pressed the right buttons. He let Phil Hughes throw into the fifth on Saturday and allowed him to surrender seven runs in a playoff game. He didn’t go to Mo last night. During the regular season, those moves might work out, but they don’t fit in a short series.

As Hughes’ disastrous outing unfolded, I kept thinking back to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Granted, Game 7 has a bit more urgency than Game 2, but there, Joe Torre cut his losses quickly. When Roger Clemens threatened to bury the Yankees with his poor pitching, in came Mike Mussina with runners on first and third and no one out. The Yankees couldn’t afford to slip further behind, and it was time for a stopper. A starting pitcher can’t be allowed to dig a big hole in do-or-die situations.

Over the years, Joe Torre’s bugaboo became his unwillingness to use Mariano in a non-save situation on the road. In the 2003 World Series, he went with Jeff Weaver while Mo waited for a save situation that never came. Last night, the circumstances were different because the save situation wasn’t ever going to come, but still the Yanks’ future Hall of Fame closer just sat there. Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

Lee holds down Yanks, gives Rangers series edge

That's all it took (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Nine times the Yankees came to the plate needing at least two runs. Nine times they failed to produced even one. Josh Hamilton’s first-inning home run held up through the next eight and a half, and the Rangers took Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. They now lead the series two games to one.

Andy Pettitte did his part to keep the game close. After the Hamilton home run Pettitte pitched 6.2 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and walking none. He left with the score 2-0. So did Kerry Wood. David Robertson did not. He let the game get out of hand in the ninth, removing any chance for a mystique and aura guided comeback.

It felt as though the Yanks were slowly making progress against Cliff Lee. Very slowly. But progress nonetheless. By the fourth they had earned a walk. In the fifth it was a hit. In the sixth they put a runner into scoring position — to third, even. But that was as far as they’d get. Lee cruised through the order one last time, concluding his night with his 13th strikeout. It was his third straight postseason start in which he recorded at least 10 strikeouts, and his fifth in his last six.

I wish this were a mid-June start rather than a postseason one. Not because the loss would have been essentially meaningless to the Yankees, though that does help. But because I wanted to more fully appreciate Lee’s performance. He worked into a few un-Cliff-Lee-like deep counts, but only one time did he lose a hitter. Some of that has to be attributable to the Yanks’ offense, but that doesn’t really matter. The mythical Cliff Lee showed up. You have to score a runner from second with none out if you want even the remotest shot of besting mythical Cliff Lee.

The Yanks can only hope now that mythical A.J. Burnett follows mythical Cliff Lee’s act. The Yanks are down 2-1 and need the win to ensure the return trip to Texas. Right now it doesn’t matter how comfortable anyone is with Burnett pitching Game 4. It’s all in his, and the offense’s, hands.