Igawa family OK as pitcher heads home

Kei Igawa has had a rough go of it in the United States. Signed in December of 2006 as the Yanks’ response to Daisuke Matsuzaka, the lefty never emerged as a viable Major Leaguer. He made just 14 appearances in 2007 and two in 2008 before landing in Scranton as a perennial AAA starter. His 6.66 ERA, 1.758 WHIP and 1.43 K/BB ratio are testament to his struggles.

But while Igawa, frustratingly for him and the Yanks, toils away as a $4 million minor league arm, none of that matters when it comes to family. Igawa hails from Oarai which is in the the Ibaraki Prefecture, and his hometown was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami earlier this week. On Friday, as Major League Baseball began working on its own aid efforts, Igawa could not get a hold of his family.

Luckily, Igawa reached his family on Saturday, and everyone is OK. The left-hander is leaving camp to attend to his family and will be returning to Japan for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to dismiss Igawa. He’s been a huge bust, representative of the way the Yanks went about building a starting rotation in the mid-2000s and hadn’t even made a Spring Training appearance this year. He’ll play out the last year of this contract exclusively at Scranton before returning to Japan to pick up the pieces of his baseball career. But when tragedy strikes, it doesn’t matter. No one should have to live through the uncertainty of the devastation of an earthquake, and it’s a relief to all involved that the Igawas are alive and as well as can be.

The Yankees as a club have given $100,000 to the Red Cross and Salvation Army as part of the relief efforts, and I’m sure the club will do more in the coming weeks. They have a deep presence in the Pacific and strong ties to Japanese baseball. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the terrible earthquake in Japan,” Hal Steinbrenner said yesterday. “We hope that the international community does everything in its power to support and assist the Japanese people in their time of need.”

The deterioration of Burnett’s hook

A.J. Burnett has hopes up this spring. He’s turned in solid performances on the mound, and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild has helped him make some mechanical changes. As a result, many are cautiously optimistic that Burnett will bounce back in 2011 after a horrific 2010 campaign. The Yankees could use an effective Burnett, that’s for certain. Yet, fans would have to be forgiven for not holding their breath. Like a zit, Bad A.J. seems to show up whenever he pleases, with no warning, often at a rather inconvenient time.

So what are the signs that Burnett is turning over a new leaf this year? What are the indications that Burnett’s improvement is the result of changes he’s made, and not luck on batted balls in play or because he’s facing a weak lineup? Part of the answer lies in the quality of Burnett’s moneymaker: his curveball. When Burnett has his curveball working in tandem with his fastball, he becomes a very difficult pitcher for batters to handle. It’s why he’s so tantalizing and it’s why people refer to his “electric stuff” (as annoying as that gets) and say that he has the ability to throw a no-hitter every time he steps on the mound. When he’s on he is on, and vaya con Dios to the opposing team: you’ll need it.

There’s been a wealth of Burnett analysis amongst Yankee blogs in the past few weeks. Jason at IIATMS analyzed his fastball velocity and heat maps in different counts, concluding that Burnett becomes more ineffective in two-strike counts. Larry Koestler over at Yankee Analysts used Pitch F(x) to analyze Burnett’s repetoire on a month-by-month basis, concluding that Burnett’s curveball command completely abandoned him in 2010. Finally, Mike previewed Burnett last week, and said that he was cautiously optimistic and expected better results with the curveball. He also noted that Burnett’s curveball went from the best in the game (using Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Values) to a below-average pitch in one offseason. While the Pitch Type Values metric has clear limitations, most observers would likely agree that Burnett’s typically deadly curveball was subpar in 2010. Utilizing Fangraphs’ awesome Heat Map tool, we can see just how different it really was, and learn what to look for this year.

Curveball to lefties

The first thing to keep in mind is that these charts are from the perspective of the catcher. So left-handed batters are on your right, and right-handed batters are on your left. It’s confusing, so simply think of yourself as Jesus Montero back there. Feel better?

Yeah, son. Burnett's 2008 curveballs to left-handed batters.

Burnett had a fantastic 2008, throwing 221.1 innings of 3.40 FIP ball with a 9.39 K/9 and a 3.50 BB/9. This graph shows us a real gathering around two different locations. Burnett was dropping his curveball on the outer half of the plate in the strikezone, and was burying it on the inside corner low and out of the strike zone. These are really two different kinds of curveballs in terms of their function. The former is a pitch Burnett drops in the zone for a strike. Anecdotally, it seems to me that this is a pitch batters usually take for a strike, rather than swing through. The latter is a pitch Burnett likes to bury outside of the zone, sometimes burying it in the middle of the plate down in the dirt, and other times seeming aiming it at the batter’s back (left) foot. The latter pitch often has more horizontal break, meaning it’s moving right to left. You can see the former pitch in action in this video at the 0:48 mark, and the later at the 1:21 mark. In sum, the above chart is what AJ Burnett’s curveball chart should look like.

Burnett's 2009 curveballs to left-handed batters.

In 2009 we see less of the “down and in” curveball and more of the curveball placed on the outer half of the plate. The 2008 and 2009 charts are fairly similar visually, although the 2009 scatter is more stretched out horizontally. The 2008 chart is more clustered around the strikezone.

That got out of hand quickly. Burnett's 2010 curveballs to left-handed batters.

In 2010 it’s easy to see a distinct lack of command of the curveball to lefties, a real failure to keep it in the strikezone. He doesn’t show the same ability to center the pitch on the lower outer half of the plate, and he’s throwing what seems to be just as many curveballs out of the zone as he is inside the zone. If a pitcher can’t convince you that the next pitch is going to be a strike, then you’re not going to swing. It’s very simple. Further it seems, again anecdotally, that when Burnett would miss with his curveball he would miss badly. The red dot at the very bottom of the image would confirm this observation.

Curveballs to righties

Burnett's 2008 curveballs to righties.

Very simply, this is a deadly pitch. By and large, Burnett’s was throwing his curveball in 2008 nearly exclusively on the lower, outer edge of the plate. The largest red spot straddles the strike zone line, meaning that it was a 50/50 proposition as to whether the pitch would be called for a strike and making it very difficult for batters to lay off. Burnett also dropped a fair amount of curves in the middle of the zone, and then further out of the zone and down and away. The important thing was being able to command it in the zone, and also having the ability to leave it out of the zone in the attempt to get batters to chase the pitch.

Burnett's 2009 curveballs to righties.

There’s a distinct difference in the 2009 heat map from the 2008 heat map. In this year, Burnett threw far more curveballs in the middle of the plate, but in the lower half of the zone. He also continued his trend of dropping them in on the lower outer edge of the plate and throwing some lower and out of the zone, but the trend in 2009 seemed to be to throw more curveballs towards the center of the strike zone.

Burnett's 2010 curveballs to righties.

To righties in 2010 we see Burnett leaving a good amount in the lower inner quadrant, as well as directly in the middle of the plate.Burnett is dispersing these curveballs throughout the zone, but clearly shows a problem commanding them in the strikezone. Like curveballs to lefties in 2010, Burnett’s ability to throw the pitch for a strike seemed to abandon him in 2010.

Like many analysts, I’m optimistic that Burnett can bounce back in 2010. There are good reasons to hope for a bounceback, reasons not based solely on the irrational optimism that Spring Training brings to most fans (myself included). Burnett has a new pitching coach, and the new mechanical changes appear to simplify his delivery. If he’s able to recover command of his curveball, Burnett could be a much improved pitcher in 2011. Given the state of the Yankee rotation and the $49.5M he’s due over the next three years, this would surely be a welcome development.

A Push for Nova to the Rotation

See you in the bigs, Supernova. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

I think Ivan Nova should be in the rotation. At the beginning of Spring Training, I was just sort of hoping for him because of the prospect hugger in me (though I would trade ManBan for Felix, for the record!), but the more I see of him, the more I like the notion of him breaking camp as the fourth or fifth starter. Anyone notice that during the offseason, all we talk about is being excited about not having to talk about pitching, and then we just keep talking about it? What can you say, it’s a hot-button issue. Joe reviewed the fourth and fifth starters yesterday, but I’d like to talk specifically about Nova and why the rotation is right for him.

First off, it’s important to note that Nova still has two remaining minor league options, so even if he starts with the big club, it’s easy as pie to ship him over to Scranton to work on his stuff. If Nova goes up and down more than once in a season, it still only uses up one option. If he stinks in April and we send him down, and then we need him in June, that’s not a problem at all. Additionally, if our rotation problem resolves itself somewhere between the 2011 and the 2012 seasons, the options are there if we need to move Nova around to rework the back end of our rotation. Maybe it’s a bit early for projections, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a Ryan Dempster-Manny Banuelos  combination for 4-5 in 2012 and Nova as the longman or stewing in Triple-A in case of injury. Excuse me while I get a little ahead of myself.

Another thing is, out of the three possibilities (I refuse to believe Mitre will get the job with everyone doing this well), Nova’s token problem can be patched the easiest. That’s not to say that fixing Nova’s issues will be easy, but between Colon’s diminished stuff, Garcia’s injury history, and Nova’s inability to get through a lineup twice, I’d take Nova’s problem. This decision is even easier to make based on the extremely high potential of our bullpen. Needing the bullpen to go five innings every five days isn’t something you want, of course, but in the worst-cast scenario, it’s hardly the most terrible thing that could happen. If Nova goes out there and gives us 120 pretty good IP (30 starts at 4 innings a piece), it’s still better than Garcia pitching in four games and blowing out his shoulder again, or Colon doing his best Sidney Ponson imitation.

Now, a lot of these things could be covered just as well by Nova working out of the bullpen as a longman or other relief role. By sticking him in the bullpen, we minimize the damage he could potentially cause, we give him major league experience, and we take advantage of his major league stuff. While I can see the good side of this, I personally don’t think it’s the way to go. There’s no way to say if shifting a pitcher between the bullpen and the rotation actually messes with them, but I’d rather not take that chance. I’d be more comfortable with Nova in the bullpen if I knew that the Yankees had absolutely tried as hard as they could to fit him into the rotation. Some players, obviously, are going to be relievers all their lives. Some players are just not cut out for the rotation. But Nova’s proven that he at least has starter potential, and I don’t know if his seven starts in 2010 count as ‘tried as hard as they could.’ For Nova to not be in the rotation right off the bat should only be the result of a bad Spring Training (not happening) or a total meltdown, rather than the general mediocrity we saw out of him in his first year.

Additionally, Nova pitching those starting innings might give other clubs some (more) ideas about him; the Nova-as-a-trade-chip angle is not a new one. I’m pretty sure that no one is interested for trading for Bartolo Colon, though perhaps signing him to a bloated contract will catch Tony Reagins’ eye. Garcia is equally unappealing for other clubs. If the Yankees pump Nova up as a starter, his trade value could pull in a better haul than if he’s performing as a longman. The hype machine is obviously not as important as winning, but if Nova is just as good as Garcia or Colon, there’s no reason not to use him, if nothing else than to pump up his trade value.

This decision would be easier if, straight out of the Spring Training gate, two pitchers had performed stunningly and one had fallen by the wayside. This isn’t the case, so we’re left looking at all our options and trying to figure out the pros and cons of each one. In the end, my Yankees rotation has Nova and Garcia, with Colon in the bullpen in case one of our actual starters goes down with an injury. If nothing else, it gives us a reason to keep an eye on Spring Training games besides all our awesome prospects and Jorge Posada turning double plays at first base.

Friday night open thread

The Yanks lost a pair today as both Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova weren’t sharp. That’s pretty much the headline today.

In baseball news, Chuck Greenberg is out as CEO of the Rangers. Strange happenings there. Apparently he and Nolan Ryan weren’t getting along. I guess violence and apathy don’t go hand-in-hand these days.

In more serious Yankee news, Kei Igawa cannot reach his family in Japan following last night’s tsunami. The club has donated $100,000 to the early relief aid, and the Igawa family is in our thoughts right now.

2010 Amateur Spending

The draft and international budgets are largely unknown to us lowly fans, and many of us ask why the Yankees don’t just blow everyone out of the water and sign every decent player around. It doesn’t work like that of course, since one team’s decent player is another team’s can’t miss superstar and another team’s non-prospect. And besides, there’s  point of diminishing returns even with prospects.

Baseball America provided a list of each team’s draft spending from 2008 through 2010 last summer, and more recently published a list of each club’s spending on the international market. When we add the two together, we see that the Yankees spent a total of $11.92M on amateur players last year, the seventh most in baseball. The Pirates ($16.9M) and Blue Jays ($15.77M) were far and away the biggest spenders, followed by the Nationals ($12.78M), Astros ($12.41M), Red Sox ($12.3M), and Rangers ($12.06M). The Indians, Mariners, and Orioles were the only other clubs to spend eight-figures on amateurs, and the league average was just over $9M. They’re not blowing everyone out of the water, but the Yankees were far from cheap when it came to amateur talent in 2010.

If you want to see a chart with all this info broken down and tallied up, click here. All told, the 30 clubs combined to spend just north of $270M on amateur players last season.