Walks a concern for Burnett, but so are ground balls

While A.J. Burnett‘s first season in pinstripes was in many ways a success, he left some room for improvement. He knows it, too. As he said the other day, he needs to, “Not walk as many people and go deeper into games.” In 2009 Burnett posted his highest walk rate since 2000 and the lowest innings per start of his career (both discounting his injury shortened 2003). He would clearly benefit from improvements in both, though I do think that he left out one important aspect: his ground ball rate.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Burnett has never been known as a control pitcher. In some years, such as 2006 and 2004, he’s posted BB/9 rates below 3.00, which is a good mark for a starter. Yet his career rate is 3.78, meaning he’s had many years above that mark. He also sat below the mark in years where he failed to reach 140 IP. Chances are, Burnett won’t miraculously stop issuing free passes in 2010. Instead, I imagine he’ll fall back somewhere in the range of his last five years, which is 3.52 walks per nine.

What Burnett could do to help his case is to start inducing more ground balls. Or, rather, to induce ground balls like he did before 2009. Last season he posted the lowest ground ball rate of his career, 42.8 percent. Over his career he’s kept nearly 50 percent of balls in play on the ground, which helps a pitcher who hands out free passes. Unsurprisingly, Burnett induced more double plays in 2005, when his ground ball rate was 58.4 percent, than at any other point in his career. In 2009 he induced one double play for, roughly, every 60 batters faced. Prior to 2008, when he saw his ground ball rate drop below 50 percent for the first time his career, he was around one every 38 batters. In 2008 he was at one in every 50 batters.

Keeping the ball on the ground can also help Burnett reach his second stated goal, to go deeper into ballgames. While walking fewer hitters will undoubtedly help, so will inducing ground balls. In his best ground ball years, Burnett kept his hits per nine rate below 8.0. With a decent infield behind him, Burnett shouldn’t have problems with too many ground balls finding holes. Perhaps if this was the 2005 Yankees defense it would be an issue, but it’s not as much in 2010.

At FanGraphs, Matthew Carruth examines ground ball rates and what they mean for pitchers. In terms of the big picture, pitchers with higher ground ball rates saw lower FIP and runs allowed rates. That’s not to say that every pitcher follows this guideline, but Burnett seems to. In the last five years his highest ground ball rates have come in 2005 and 2007, which also happen to be the years he’s posted his lowest ERAs.

We’d all like Burnett to cut down on his walks and pitch deeper into games. The first, in fact, begets the second. Part of the problem with walks, however, is that Burnett has never been a low walks guy. But he has been a ground ball guy. If he can get back to that, and bring his walk rate back to career norms, he should not only pitch deeper into ballgames, but also pitch more effectively overall.

Cashman: Granderson is the center fielder

Braaaaaaaains. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The latest motif out of Tampa has been the Yankees’ quiet Spring Training. Without a new manager or A-Rod‘s PED revelations to rile up New York’s sports media world, most commentators and reporters don’t know what to do in this new controversy-free post-World Series era in which we live.

Of course, with no big stories to dwell, we simply overanalyze the little ones. This winter, we spent more time than we wish to count pondering who might play left field and what Johnny Damon‘s future might hold. Now that this saga has ended, we can move on the next great debate: should Curtis Granderson play left or center field? What about Brett Gardner? In the grand scheme of the Yankees’ 2010 season, it won’t matter too much, but Spring Training is the time to find out.

Yesterday, though, an in appearance on Sirius XM’s MLB Home Plate Jody McDonald and Jim Bowden spoke to Brian Cashman about the Granderson position debate, and the Yanks’ GM virtually ended the discussion before it could drag on throughout March. “He’s our center fielder,” he said. “We traded for him to be our center fielder.” Cashman continued on for some time:

I think that what’s taken place is when you’re asked questions like ‘Is there a possibility of Gardner playing center?’ I’m like, well, if we feel Gardner makes us our best team with Gardner at center because we’re blessed to have two above average center fielders patrolling Yankee Stadium’s outfield out of the three man alignment. So we have [Nick] Swisher in right, Granderson in center and Gardner, assuming he holds it down and wins it, will be in left.

But Granderson’s our center fielder. He’s an above average center fielder and that’s why we acquired him. But to be quite honest if somebody asked, ‘Hey, but is it possible Brett Gardner might be a better center fielder?’ Our defensive metrics on Brett Gardner made him one of the elite center fielders in the game. I’m not saying he’s the top but he’s close to it.

So in fairness we acknowledge that but does that mean it’s the right thing to do to move Curtis Granderson over to left? I’m not saying that but I’m also open minded to say, alright, we’ve got a new player. We’re gonna see how our team fits and we’ll make decisions accordingly as we see things playing out. But Granderson’s our center fielder.”

It seems that the Yankees’ defensive metrics line up nicely with the argument I put forth last week when I suggested that the Yanks use Granderson in left and Gardner in center. Still, the team can’t be faulted for going with the career center fielder instead of the still-young Gardner. The tandem will cover a lot of ground in the outfield, and Granderson’s bat plays well in center.

Cashman’s discussion here also could be read as a tacit admission that Gardner is not a long-term solution to an outfield position on the Yanks. The team has been rumored to be interested in Carl Crawford, and the Yanks would rather not move Granderson from center to left and back to center again over the span of one or two seasons. He has a good enough glove to do it, but teams prefer consistency and predictability over the course of 162 games.

Meanwhile, during the same interview, Cashman cleared up another Spring Training mystery of sorts. He also told Bowden that Nick Johnson would bat second for the Yanks. Sticking a guy with an on-base percentage over .400 in front of Mark Teixeira and A-Rod is a recipe for runs, runs and more runs.

And so here we are, just under 40 days away from Opening Day, and the 2010 Yankees are coming into view. The team features a solid core of athletic players, some top pitchers and some heavy hitters to complement the best closer in all of baseball. Bring on the baseball.

Salvaging a bad investment

In an effort to get any sort of value out of one of the Yanks’ worst investments of the last decade, the team is going to try out Kei Igawa as a left-handed reliever only, Joel Sherman reported today. The winningest pitcher in Scranton history has two more seasons left with the Yankee organization, and the team has so far received nothing out of him. He is 2-4 with a devilish 6.66 ERA in 72.1 forgettable Major League innings.

For Igawa, this isn’t the first time his name has come up as a relief candidate. Joe explored the idea in late January. In AAA last year, he both struck out 7.44 lefties per 9 IP while his mark against righties was just 6.44. His walk splits — 0.80 per 9 IP vs. lefties against 3.10 BB per 9 IP vs. righties — are more pronounced. While his career splits are not as drastic as his 2009 splits were, he has more success vs. lefties than righties throughout his years in Scranton. Either way, Igawa isn’t on the 40-man roster, and the Yanks are in no rush to put him there. I don’t expect much to come of this.

Open Thread: Boone calls it a career

Ex-Yankee Aaron Boone called it a career today, retiring at age-36 and a year after having open heart surgery. He’ll join ESPN as a television analyst, and for his sake I hope he does better than Tino Martinez did.

Boone came to the Yankees at the 2003 trade deadline in exchange for prospects Brandon Claussen and Charlie Manning, plus some cash. The aging Robin Ventura was hitting just .251-.355-.392 with a .326 wOBA at the time of the trade, though the in-his-prime Boone didn’t improve on those numbers at all, hitting .254-.302-.418 with a .322 wOBA in pinstripes. By the time the ALCS rolled around, Boone found himself on the bench regularly while Enrique Wilson started at third. Despite all that, he made his mark in pinstripes, and will forever be remembered in Yankee lore for that one special moment.

After Boone tore up his knee in a pickup basketball game during the offseason, the Yankees went ahead and acquired Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers. Boone’s time in pinstripes was brief, but it certainly did not lack impact. I wonder how long it’ll be before we see him at Old Timer’s Day.

* * *

Here’s your open thread for tonight. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, plus there’s the Olympics. You know what to do, so have it.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP

YES adds Curry to on-air staff

In early December, long-time New York Times baseball writer Jack Curry took a buyout offer and departed from the Gray Lady. Today, we learn that Curry will join the YES Network as a Yankees studio analyst, YES program contributor and website columnist. “I look forward to this new chapter of my career, and am eager to contribute to YES on air and online,” Curry said in a statement. “I’m eager to provide insight and information to our television viewers and Web readers.”

Curry started at The Times in 1987 and began covering the Yanks in 1991. In 1998, he took over as the paper’s national baseball writer, and over the last 18 years, he has appeared on TV during Yankee pre-game shows on both MSG and the YES Network. Now, he’ll serve as Bob Lorenz’s sidekick. “He will be a tremendous addition to our Emmy Award-winning multi-platform Yankees coverage,” John Filippelli, YES’ president of production and programming said, “and will complement Bob Lorenz, our pre- and post-game host, extremely well in the studio.”

Learning from history with Don Mattingly

Buck Showalter, George Steinbrenner and Don Mattingly in 1993. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As the Yankees spent Spring Training in 1990 in Fort Lauderdale, Don Mattingly found himself getting ready to play out the final season of a three-year contract. He was a month away from his 29th birthday and over the last six years had hit .327/.372/.530 with 161 home runs. He had made six straight All Star appearances and had earned himself five Golden Gloves and an MVP award. While his seasonal numbers had declined from his gaudy totals he put up in 1985 and 1986, he was one of the league’s top first baseman and the Yanks’ biggest superstar. He would, in other words, earn his money.

That spring, a year before Mattingly was to hit free agency, the Yankees made the point moot. They signed him to a five-year extension worth $19.3 million, and until Jose Canseco topped that total a few months later, Mattingly’s $3.86 million annual salary was the highest in baseball. Donnie Baseball would be the Yanks’ marquee name for years to come.

But for Mattingly, disaster struck. Number 23 had injured his back in a clubhouse incident in 1987, and in 1990, his back problems would flare up again. He played just 102 games and hit .256/.308/.335 with five home runs. While he recovered some of his health, over the duration of that five-year contract, Mattingly was a shell of his former self. From 1991 until his retirement in 1995, he hit .291/.350/.416 with just 53 home runs. His playing time dipped from 153 games per season to 134, and he went from a superstar with top power to an above-average hitter with recurrent health problems and little power.

Over the weekend, Steve Lombardi at WasWatching highlighted the Mattingly saga. With much attention on the Yanks’ decision not to extend Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter right now, Lombardi focused on how Steinbrenner used to operate his club. He wouldn’t let his star players approach free agency and treated them well. “Don’t tell Jeter this is how the Yankees used to roll,” he said in the headline.

To me, though, Mattingly’s contract status and his subsequent decline serve as a warning to the Yankees in 2010. When George Steinbrenner jumped the gun and overextended Mattingly, the team paid a high price. The club knew that Mattingly’s back problems sapped him of his power in 1988 and 1989. They could have waited out 1990 to see how he fared. Had he duplicated his 1990 season, there’s no way the Yanks would have extended him that $19.3 million offer.

Today, Rivera and Jeter find themselves in similar situations. The two are in the latter stages of Hall of Fame careers and both are still very productive players. The Yankees will, as Hank Steinbrenner has noted, take care of these guys when the season ends. There is no reason to do it a day sooner. What happens if age catches up to Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera this year? The Yanks can’t reward these two for the past if the future doesn’t hold similar levels of productivity.

As always, baseball is a business, and putting money into a risky investment before the investment requires it is rarely a good idea. The Yankees didn’t wait with Don Mattingly twenty years ago, but they will wait with Jeter and Rivera today. Both players know and accept that they’ll get their dollars when the time is right, and the Yankees know to be careful when the big bucks are concerned. That’s just smart baseball.

Will Edwar ever get another shot?

Once the Yankees officially announce that they’ve signed Chan Ho Park, they’ll have to remove a player from the 40-man roster. Looking at the list, two names stand out: Christian Garcia and Edwar Ramirez. Once designated for assignment, the team has 10 days to trade the player or place him on waivers. If claimed, the player has a new team, complete with 40-man roster spot. If not, the Yankees can outright either one to AAA. Since Garcia, despite his spate of injuries, still retains significant upside, chances are the Yankees will take their chances with Edwar. With the various relievers, including Kiko Calero, still looking for jobs, I think Edwar will pass through without issue. So he’d remain a Yankee, but will not take up a 40-man spot.

(We might get a better idea once we find out what happens to Casey Fein, who was DFA’d to make room for Johnny Damon. Fein posted numbers similar to Edwar at AAA last year.)

Anyone who followed the minor leagues in 2007 has to love Edwar. He absolutely dominated, striking out nearly two Eastern League hitters per inning before a quick promotion to AAA. His strikeout rate fell at the higher level, but not by much. Of the 153 AAA batters he faced that season, he fanned 69 of them, or 45 percent. The International League hitters were so helpless against him, in fact, that they mustered just 20 hits in Edwar’s 40 IP. His performance through the end of June was so convincing that he earned a big league cal-up, but fell out of Torre’s circle of trust pretty quickly.

After starting the season in the minors in 2008, Edwar earned a quick call-up by striking out 13 of 31 batters faced, walking just one. He didn’t allow a run in his first 13 appearances, and by the All-Star break he was one of the best relievers in baseball, allowing just 10 runs over 33 innings and striking out 36 of 132 batters faced. His second half didn’t go as well, though that’s due almost exclusively to the Angels, who scored 11 runs over 1.2 innings, spanning three appearances. At the end of the season Edwar’s ERA, 3.90, nearly matched his FIP, 3.96. The Yankees thought they found their guy, though concerns about his flat fastball, a necessary compliment to his devastating changeup, still seemed a bit flat.

Something went terribly wrong at the beginning of 2009, forcing the Yankees to option Edwar in mid-May. He’d thrown just 17.1 innings and did strike out 16, but he also surrendered six home runs and walked 15 hitters. That made for a monstrous 8.45 FIP, and the Yankees really had no other choice at that point. Thankfully, Al Aceves had come up to help quell the bullpen situation. At AAA, Edwar brought his walk rate back down, though his strikeout rate didn’t reach the levels it had in 2007, or even during his short stay in 2008. Another good sign: his home run rate dropped, though it was still higher than in 2007 and 2008 — a given, really, since he allowed no AAA home runs in those seasons.

Once the Yankees DFA Edwar, chances are he won’t return to the Bronx. They’d have to make another roster move to bring him up, and considering his disaster of a 2009 I’m not sure they’d be inclined to do so. He’ll probably continue pitching well at AAA, and at some point people will call for his promotion if one of the bullpen cogs isn’t working out. But unless he really impresses not only with numbers, but with an improved fastball at AAA this season, I think we might have seen the last of the lanky kid. I’m going to miss him.

Photo credit: Pat Sullivan/AP