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.

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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.