2010 Season Preview: Burnett and Sabathia could be even better in ’10

When the Yankees signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett a year ago, they believed they were getting, at best, a pair of aces or, at worst, a No. 1 and a No. 2. In year one they got the latter. Sabathia pitched as well as anyone could have expected, tossing 230 innings at a 3.37 ERA, fourth lowest in the AL. Burnett might not have been a second ace, but he pitched capably behind Sabathia, posting the fourth best strikeout rate in the AL. Both could make improvements and perform even better in 2010.


Photo credit: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese

There are concerns that career highs in innings pitched could adversely affect Burnett and Sabathia. Neither set career highs during the regular season. In fact, both had set that mark in 2008, when Sabathia pitched 253 innings and Burnett pitched 221.1. In 2009 the Yankees had leeway later in the season to give them a rest, and it led to Burnett pitching 14 fewer innings, while Sabathia, not pitching every fourth day in a tight pennant race, managed 23 fewer innings. The playoffs, of course, pushed them both above their career highs. Sabathia threw 36.1 innings in the playoffs for a total of 266.1, 9.2 innings over his career high. Burnett threw 27.1 playoff innings for a total of 234.1, 13 more than his career high.

Put this way, it doesn’t appear either pitcher worked much harder than in 2009. In fact, they might have put less stress on their arms. Sabathia’s 2008 season started on March 31 and ended on October 2, 186 days. That works out to 6.9 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 6 and ended on November 1, 210 days. That works out to just about 6 1/3 innings every five days. Burnett’s 2008 season started on April 2 and ended on September 24, 176 days, or just under 6 1/3 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 9 and ended on November 2, 208 days, or just under 5 2/3 innings every five days. Both of their workloads, spread over time, were lower in 2009 than in 2008.


Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The sheer number of innings each pitched still causes concern, of course, and the Yankees have taken steps to mitigate that this spring. They’ve exercised caution with all three of their postseason workhorses, and will likely use the sparse April schedule to spread out their early starts. The idea, of course, is to have them pitching like normal as the season moves on, rather than like a pair of pitchers fatigued by the added workload of a postseason run. If this works out as planned, both Sabathia and Burnett could make improvements that could help them realize the Yankees’ goal of having a pair of aces atop the rotation.

Burnett knows that he walked way too many batters in 2009, and he has made it his goal to improve that rate in 2010. That plays into his other goal of pitching deeper into games. What could further help him in that second goal is inducing ground balls at his career rate. In 2009 Burnett induced a career low 42.8 percent ground balls. His career rate is 49.5 percent. More ground balls typically means a higher BABIP, since ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls. Burnett could mitigate this increase by improving his walk-rate. That works out better than a wash, since ground balls can also lead to double plays, which can erase some of those walked batters.

Another area where Burnett could see a return to his career marks is his performance against right-handed hitters. He struck out just 7.09 righties per nine innings, well below his marks from previous seasons. He was as high as 8.91 per nine in 2008. His walk rate against righties also shot up to 4.34 per nine, more than a full walk per nine more than 2008, and his .284 batting average against represents the worst of his career. Perhaps adding a changeup to his arsenal will help in this regard. Even if he doesn’t, a simple return to his career norms would represent a big improvement over 2009.

Like Burnett, Sabathia also saw his groundballs dip. While he had hovered around 45 percent over the previous three seasons, he dropped to about 43 percent in 2009. That’s not a huge change, but it hurts when combined with his increased fly ball rate, 37.3 percent. That’s not much above his pre-2008 norm, though, and it’s doubtful he’d get that number as low as the 31.7 mark he posted in 2008. Still, a few more groundballs can never hurt. Sabathia’s walks were also up a bit, 2.62 per nine, but not significantly so. It led to his four-year high in FIP, but even then he was at 3.39.

In terms of the small stuff, Sabathia saw a few changes in 2009. His strikeout rate dipped and his walk rate spiked with men on base. His strikeout rate with men on base, 6.70 per nine, looks a bit worse because of his outstanding 8.12 mark in 2008, though it still sits a bit below the ~7.00 rate he posted in 2006 and 2007. His walk rate, 3.30 per nine with men on base, is over his career norms and way over his totals over the previous three years. In his Cy Young season, 2007, he walked just 1.08 per nine with men on base. He also saw a dip in his K/9 against lefties, to 9.94. He had been around 12 per nine from 2006 through 2008.

Yet even as they both slipped in some areas, both Sabathia and Burnett performed to expectations in 2009. If they improve on any of those aspects in 2010, they could easily exceed expectations. Chances are the projection systems won’t see it that way, but we’ll check them anyway.

Sabathia:

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So, in other words, when we average out the forecasts we get a near replica of CC’s 2009 season.

Burnett:

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Sabathia and Burnett were a big part of Brian Cashman‘s plan to bring the Yankees back to the World Series, and obviously that worked out pretty well. They both performed well during their debut seasons in the Bronx, and could see improvement in their second. There is certainly some concern from their having exceeding previous innings highs, but not only did they spread those innings over more time, but they also only modestly increased over their 2008 marks. With those two heading the rotation, the Yankees finally have that dominant feel. Not only can they mash, but they can win the 2-1 games, too.

The sixth – and hopefully final – RAB Fantasy Baseball League

We’ve got one more league going, so in case you missed out on the first five, here’s (yet another) chance to get in on the action. This is just an early warning post, the sign up info will posted at 3pm ET today. Don’t miss it, so set your alarm or mark your calendar or do whatever else you need to do.

The “leader” of the fifth starter competition

Just a week ago, Sergio Mitre apparently led the fifth starter competition. But then Al Aceves pitched well, so he was the story. Last night Phil Hughes pitched well, so Wednesday’s stories revolve around how he has stepped up in the fifth starter competition. That, and how this is Joba’s last chance — ever, according to many scribes — to audition for the rotation. The way we’ve seen this story portrayed makes the Yankees’ braintrust seem rather fickle.

I’m not really buying any of it. Maybe the team had a fifth starter picked out before they even came to camp. Maybe they’ve already made a decision based on what they’ve seen. I doubt, however, that they’re anxiously awaiting the results of exhibition games in order to determine the winner. These games are played under completely different circumstances than normal games, and I’m not sure the Yankees can make their decision based on those results.

That isn’t to say that the games are meaningless. The staff can observe the pitchers and see if they’re doing the right things — mixing pitches, throwing strikes, challenging hitters, etc. The results, though, shouldn’t much matter. As we’ve been saying all spring, there’s just too much going on.

Take Phil Hughes’s appearance last night for example. The results show that he pitched very well: 4 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 2 K, 59 pitches. Yet he faced mostly substitutes. Not only substitutes, but substitutes from the NL’s worst offense. Can the Yankees really trust the results in this case? Of course not. But they can observe other aspects of Hughes during the start and make determinations. That, I think, is what this competition is based on — if it’s really a competition at all.

Today Joba starts against Philadelphia, the NL’s best offense. If he goes his four innings, but allows five hits, two runs, and walks one, will that really be judged as worse than Hughes’s outing? The discrepancy in talent there is immense, the reserves on a terrible offense against the starters on the best offense. In fact, if Joba pitches well we should all be encouraged, since he did it against tougher competition.

This is all a rant to say that these stories in the newspaper don’t necessarily reflect the actual decision-making process. They’re stories based on the results of the game and conversations with staff. Maybe they give us a little insight into the team’s thought process, but maybe they don’t. Again, maybe the team is keeping its true intentions under wraps. We don’t know. What we do know, though, is that trusting the straight results of these spring training appearances won’t help us better guess the competition. There are just too many variables involved.

Can Mitre succeed in the bullpen?

Sergio Mitre doesn’t stand much of a chance to break camp as the Yankees’ fifth starter. After pitching well in his first few outings he came back to earth in his latest, quelling the story he had created a few weeks ago. He is once again an afterthought, a pitcher not totally taken seriously as a starting candidate for the Yankees. But, since he’s out of options, chances are he’ll head to Boston as a member of the bullpen.

Over the winter I wondered whether Kei Igawa would profile as a reliever. The idea came from The Hardball Times’s Jeff Sackmann, who identified key traits of quality relievers. These include pitching well the first time through the order (and also in the first inning of work), pitching well out of the stretch, and, less important for a righty like Mitre, strong platoon splits. If Mitre fares well in these aspects, perhaps he can survive as a short reliever. Otherwise, it’s difficult to determine his value to the team.

Mitre has a 5.56 career ERA, spanning 362.1 innings, so he’s already a prime candidate for bullpen conversion. As we often note, if you look through major league bullpens you’ll see a bevy of failed starters. That covers 90 games, 61 of which were starts. His relief numbers are actually worse than his starting numbers, a 6.44 ERA, though we can’t project much from a 36.1 inning sample. Still, perhaps there’s something in the numbers that provide an indicator.

Like most pitchers, Mitre is more effective when facing a batter for the first time. Opponents hit .260/.321/.393 off him initially, but as expected they get a bit better the second time, to the tune of .311/.367/.455. The second line is pretty horrible, and the first line doesn’t really stand out. In his 2007 season, however, Mitre did show better numbers the first time through the order. His OPS against the second and third time through were right around his career averages, but the first time through opponents hit .240/.286/.299. Unfortunately, we’re again dealing with a small sample, just 242 PA. To demonstrate what can happen in small samples, opponents hit .344/.373/.510 against Mitre the first time through in 2009, while they managed just .235/.297/.469 the second time through.

On pitches one through 25 for his career, opponents have hit .274/.337/.411 off Mitre, still not an eye-opening number. Again, he did a bit better in 2007, .248/.300/.309, but in that similarly short sample. In other words, over the only meaningful sample Mitre provides, his career numbers, he hasn’t fared too well in short bursts. Perhaps he’d change his style when relegated to the pen full-time, but that’s not something a team like the Yankees can bank on.

Worse yet, Mitre does not react well to having men on base. Pitching out of the stretch during his career he has allowed opponents to hit .323/.383/.472 over 759 PA. That is not a pitcher I want in with men in scoring position. His only saving grace in that regard is that he keeps the ball on the ground. Then again, that’s not a trait particular to having men on. He generally keeps the ball on the ground 60 percent of the time, which is the entire reason he continues to get a chance. It’s tough to ignore someone with that type of ground ball rate.

I do think that Mitre is better than he showed last season. Then he had just finished rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and surely wasn’t at his strongest. He also didn’t keep the ball on the ground quite to the rate he had earlier in his career. Given the chance I think he could be a decent fill-in starter. He pitched well in 2007 before getting hurt, and if he can rediscover that form he might provide value. I do not think, however, that it will be for the Yankees.

As I mentioned last night, the Yankees have one too many pitchers. Their choices involve optioning a good young pitcher, trading one, or designating one for assignment. The first doesn’t make much sense — unless the Yankees want to keep one pitcher stretched out at AAA (that could even be Aceves, I suppose). The second is an option for sure, but not one a team can rely on. That leaves the third. I think, though, that the Yankees would trade Mitre for peanuts before they released him. Again, he can fill a back of the rotation spot for a team in need. But given his track record, and given the construction of the Yanks roster, I don’t think it will be for them. There are just too many pitchers better than him who deserve the spot more.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Open Thread: Blacked out

The Yankees are playing the Astros tonight, but we’re all left in the dark because it won’t be on TV. They’re trotting out the A-lineup tonight, and Mariano Rivera is making his spring debut. Would have been a good game to watch, but alas.

So here’s your open thread for the evening. Oh, and before I forget, a friend’s sister is in a contest, and needs as many clicks on her YouTube video as possible. The friend is James Varghese, who you may recognize as a contributor at the now defunct YanksBlog.com. He was the first person to ever link to one of my posts, way back in early 2006, so I’m forever in debt. You never forget that first link. So make sure you click through and do James (and I) a solid. Enjoy the thread.

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco, AP

Single-game tickets on sale this Friday

One of the questions most frequently asked of us concerns the Yanks’ single-game ticket sales. “When will it be?” fans wonder from December until nearly Opening Day. Well, the wait is over, As the Yankees announced via Twitter this afternoon, a limited number of single-game tickets will go on sale this Friday at noon via Yankees.com and Ticketmaster by phone. Next Wednesday, March 24, tickets will be available at the Yankee Stadium ticket windows, Ticketmaster outlets and Yankee Clubhouse Stores. The team hasn’t said how many tickets are available, but based on the number of season ticket packages sold, it won’t be many.

Spring Training Trade Review: Rondell White

After an off-season spent assembling a roster, teams get a month-long look at players during spring training. Plenty can change during this time. Players step up and players get hurt. This can change a team’s season outlook. If, for instance, a key player succumbs to an injury the team might be more inclined to trade for a replacement. Yet we typically don’t see many inter-team transactions in March. Since he took over in 1998 Brian Cashman has made only a handful himself, and none was particularly significant. A couple do stand out, though.

In Spring Training 2003 the Yankees had a logjam of sorts. For years they had sought a stable left fielder. In the winter of 2001 they pursued Moises Alou, but by the Winter Meetings had given up. Instead, Cashman signed Rondell White to a two-year, $10 million contract. The team had apparently been interested in White for years, but when the opportunity to trade for him two years prior, in the summer of 2000, they shied away because of the time White had missed over the past few seasons with knee injuries. He ended up missing all of September that year.

The Yankees still had high hopes for White heading into the 2002 season, despite his having played only 95 games in 2000. Early word, upon his signing, was that he could have hit as high as fourth, with Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and recently signed Jason Giambi hitting ahead of him. Yet things did not go well for White, who started off by hitting .232/.287/.404 in April and never really recovered. His slugging actually went down as the season progressed, and he ended the season with a .240/.288/.378 line over 494 plate appearances. He did pick up one hit that postseason, a home run in the Yankees’ Game 1 victory over Anaheim. He didn’t get into another game.

During the following off-season the Yankees signed Hideki Matsui to a three-year, $21 million contract. While Matsui had played center field in Japan, he figured to play left in the majors. This left White seemingly without position. Cashman tried to trade him early in the off-season, but found no takers. Unwilling to send White away for nothing, the Yankees went into Spring Training 2003 with two players for one position. But as March wound down, Cashman hooked up with an old buddy on a trade.

In his fifth transaction with Padres general manager Kevin Towers, Cashman traded White for outfielder Bubba Trammell and left-handed pitching prospect Mark Phillips, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2000 draft. Surprisingly, cash didn’t trade hands between the teams. Trammell had two years and $7.25 million left on his contract, while White had just one year and $5 million. The money evened out, in the Yankees’ eyes, because the Padres had paid Phillips a $2.25 million signing bonus upon signing him.

White did make a recovery in the final year of his contract, hitting .278/.330/.465 in 449 plate appearances before the Padres traded him, in August, to Kansas City, where he hit the cover off the ball for 85 plate appearances. Trammell made just 61 plate appearances through June 22, hitting a paltry .200/.279/.291. At that point he left the team without permission, forcing the Yankees to place him on the restricted list. He said he was depressed, but that didn’t stop the Yankees from releasing him and filing a grievance to recover a portion of his salary. He signed with the Dodgers that off-season and then, after being cut, signed with the Rays, but he never made another major league appearance.

The main aspect of the trade from the Yankees’ end was Phillips. Control had been a problem for him at Class-A Advanced Lake Elsinore in 2002, but he still managed to strike out more than a batter per inning while allowing only 9 home runs through 148.1 innings. This made him the No. 84 prospect in baseball heading into the 2003 season. His Yankees career didn’t go so well, though, lasting just 13 starts spanning 70.1 innings. His strikeout rate dipped, his walk rate rose, and while he still kept the ball in the park it didn’t much matter. I’m not sure what happened to him after that, but he didn’t play at all from 2004 through 2006, making a 32.2 inning comeback with Newark of the Independent League before hanging them up for good.

In terms of results, the White trade didn’t go so well. The Yankees got a busted prospect and a bench player who hit poorly even by those standards. It’s a shame what happened to Trammell, though it’s tough to blame the Yankees for placing him on the restricted list. The key to the trade, Phillips, didn’t work out, making the deal look a little worse. But from the Yankees’ perspective, they were trading a spare part for a potentially useful player. It’s not every day that a team can trade a player who had a .666 OPS the previous season for the No. 84 prospect in baseball. Sometimes these things just don’t work out.

Photo credit: Osamu Honda/AP