Sorting out the Yankees starting pitching needs

Contrary to what we thought and saw earlier in the season, the Yankees pitching staff has held its own in the first half. Even with an injury to one of the expected starters they’ve pulled through and currently have one of the better staffs in the league. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the starters as a unit stand among their peers.

(Just to be clear, the last two are innings pitched per game by the starter, and WAR per 81 games. I did these because the Yankees have played fewer games than most other teams due to rain outs.)

These might not be standout numbers, but they’re very good nonetheless. Most surprising is the high innings pitch per games started. At the start of the season, even after the first turn through, it seemed that Girardi wielded a hasty hook at six innings. But lately he’s been more hands off, and it has allowed the starters to go deeper into games. Since I’m fond of the adage that the best bullpen consists of a strong starting staff, this comes as a pleasant development. But what has worked in the first half might not work as well in the second. Let’s take a look at one primary, and probably unchanging, reason why the staff has succeeded, and then look at ways they can continue their success in the second half.

Pitching + Fielding = Defense

The recent rise of, and interest in, defensive statistics comes from our understanding that the pitcher does not control everything that happens when a team is on defense. A defense consists of the pitcher and the fielders behind him, and those fielders can make a huge difference in how many runs a team prevents. By most measures the Yankees defense has performed superbly behind its pitchers this year. UZR actually ranks them the best at 7.5 UZR/150. This comes mostly from the outfield, which dominates with 21.9 UZR and 13.6 UZR/150, both well ahead of the rest of the league. The Yankees also rate well in turning batted balls into outs. They rank ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.

Defense, like hitting, can go into streaks and slumps, so we don’t know yet if the Yankees were abnormally good in the first half. But it does appear that they are solid fielders. A-Rod appears rejuvenated at third base, and while he’ll miss a month Eduardo Nunez, if he can throw the ball, will be an adequate replacement. Nick Swisher, the weakest link among the outfielders, has shown a deftness absent from his game in 2009 and 2010. Russell Martin continues to wow behind the plate, and there is always Robinson Cano, who, by the eye tests as well as the stats, had a below expectations first half. If the Yankees can maintain their solid fielding, they will make life a lot easier for the pitching staff. That helps solve problems right off the bat.

How far can the current staff go?

Few, if any, people thought Freddy Garcia would still be on the roster today, never mind have the second lowest ERA among starters. Bartolo Colon furthers our surprise with every outing. Even A.J. Burnett has been pleasant to watch, at least compared to 2010. Yet even though the staff has experienced much success in the first half, it’s hard to shed the feeling that they’re due for regression in the second half. Maybe Garcia and Colon cruised through the first half, but what are the chances they continue that?

The Yankees have options, both internal and external, to help shore up the staff. It might not appear necessary right at this moment, but as we’ve seen so many times, what they have now is not necessarily what they’ll have in August, never mind October. In 2009 they had four strong starters at this point, but then Joba Chamberlain fell apart. Last year people suggested that since the Yankees had five quality starters that they did not need Cliff Lee. Yet by August Javier Vazquez had declined significantly, while Phil Hughes struggled, Andy Pettitte got hurt, and A.J. Burnett continued his plod through the season. The Yankees would be fools to nix a deal because they think Garcia and Colon will hold up for the next three and a half months.

Internal options

The Yankees do have a number of arms they can call on, but none of them provides any semblance of security. Ivan Nova will be the first called up, but he had his ups and downs in the first half. He can capably fill the back end of the rotation, but the Yankees can’t expect much more from him. Beyond that they have Hector Noesi, who, like Phil Hughes before him, appears bound to the bullpen for the season. You can add in Adam Warren to that list, since they’re similar pitchers in terms of ceiling. David Phelps is another option, though he’s a bit less exciting then even the other three. Chances are the Yankees won’t need to look any deeper than these four if they seek internal help.

The problem is that these are all guys who would fill the four and five spots in the rotation, if they were to succeed at all. But if something happens with Garcia or Colon, the Yankees will need more than that. They’ve both pitched like No. 2 or No. 3 starters so far, at least in terms of results. If one or both of them declines in performance in the second half, the Yankees will be in a bind. They can replace from within, but then they risk having an ace followed by a bunch of four and five starters (since we can’t expect much more from Hughes). The internal options just won’t give the Yankees anywhere near the performance they realized earlier in the year from Garcia and Colon.

There are higher end arms in AA, but it’s clear that the Yankees don’t plan to bring them up. As Mark Newman said, they’re in AA because the team can control their workload. They’re still both working on their first full, 140-inning seasons, and so likely will remain in the minors all season. It might be upsetting to see these high ceiling guys in the minors when the majors could use help, but they’re still young and developing, each entering the season with roughly 200 innings of professional experience. They’ll be up in due time, but it appears that they’ll finish out the year at AA.

Trade options

Here’s where things get tricky. We’ve looked at tons of starting pitchers that the Yankees could target in the next few weeks, but that does not mean they will become available. But there certainly will be something available, and likely something that the Yankees can viably use in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot. Whether that’s a potential ace, such as Ubaldo Jimenez, or a 2/3 type such as Ryan Dempster or Hiroki Kuroda (or a mystery pitcher I’ll be writing up shortly after the break). Make no mistake, though: the search for a top of the rotation starter will loom large in the coming weeks.

If the Yankees want to finish the season strong and enter October with a formidable staff, I’d consider the trade route a necessity. I’m all for giving the youngsters a shot, but given the Yankees needs they’d be simply seeking lightning in a bottle. That doesn’t always happen. None of the four prospects mentioned above has a ceiling above that of a No. 4, or maybe a No. 3 at absolute best. But the Yankees need something better. Not only that, they need someone proven. That means trading for a higher end starter. That will necessarily hurt, as proven No. 2 starters don’t come cheap. It could mean the loss of Betances, Banuelos, or Jesus Montero. But unless the Yankees want to continue pressing their luck and going with Sabathia and a group of unknowns and unreliables, they’ll have to look outside the organization for help.

Such is the balance of winning now and winning in the future. If the Yankees were trailing the Red Sox significantly and were battling for the Wild Card, they might not be able to justify sending top prospects in hopes that another starter could boost their chances. But with only a game separating them from the Red Sox, and with a five game lead on the Wild Card, they owe it to the organization and fans to go for it. We might not like the cost, but it’s all part of the game the Yankees play.

Curtis Granderson and left-handed pitchers

And boom goes the Grandymite.

One of the biggest stories of the Yankees’ first half has been Curtis Granderson‘s emergence as not just an import piece of the offense, but as a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s currently at 4.7 fWAR and 3.6 bWAR, the sixth and 12th best in baseball, respectively. An important part of his success has been the complete 180 he’s done against lefties, tagging them for a .394 wOBA this season after producing just a .264 wOBA against southpaws from 2007-2010. Grandy’s nine homers are the most by a left-handed batter off left-handed pitchers in baseball, three ahead of Jay Bruce and at least four more than everyone else.

As weird as this sounds, it’s been a while since Curtis took a lefty deep. This shot off Brett Anderson on May 31st was his last homerun off a southpaw, a span of 35 team games. Through May 31st, Granderson was hitting .323/.373/.823 off lefties, but since then just .162/.256/.216. His strikeout rate against southpaws went from 25.8% to 43.2%. Now before you freak out, remember we’re talking about an extremely small sample here. Curtis has just 112 plate appearances against lefties this year, and just 37 have come since that homer off Anderson. That’s nothing. I’m not concerned that Grandy has reverted back to his pre-August 2010 form against lefties, but I do want to see if same-side hurlers have been pitching him differently of late.

The table on the right shows the pitch selection left-handers had been using against Granderson before that homer off Anderson and what they’ve been throwing him since. He’s still seeing the same number off fastballs, though the distribution of offspeed pitches is a little different. Curtis is seeing way more sliders and curveballs than before, but also way fewer changeups. Because of the small sample, this could mean anything. It could mean that lefties have stopped throwing him changeups, or it could just mean they haven’t faced many left-handed changeup pitchers. The important thing is that the ratio of fastballs-to-offspeed pitches is the basically the same. If they’d stopped throwing him hard stuff all together, well that would be a problem.

With some help from Texas Leaguers, let’s look at where pitchers had been attacking Granderson from the start of the season through that May 31st game we keep referencing …

That’s from the catcher’s view, so there’s a huge gaping hole down and in. Just about everything is down and away, which is not uncommon in left-on-left matchups. Granderson took just four pitches total down and in (and in the strike zone) during the first two months of the season, and there’s a pretty good chance they weren’t even supposed to be thrown there in the first place. Now let’s look at the strike zone plot since June 1st…

There’s still a bit of a hole down and in, but it’s not nearly as big. Granderson does hang out over the plate a little bit, so it could be that lefties are trying to get in on him to keep him from extended his hands. This is the called strike zone, so it could also be that Curtis is simply taking more of those down and in pitches from lefties. The swing plots do back that up a bit, though there just isn’t enough data to say anything definitive right now.

Granderson has struggled against left-handers of late, the first time he’s done so since the fix The Fix™ last August. The Yankees are going to see a bunch of lefties in the coming weeks, with series against the Blue Jays (Ricky Romero, Jo-Jo Reyes), Rays (David Price), Athletics (Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman), and Mariners (Jason Vargas, possibly Erik Bedard) coming up. That’ll give us a chance to see Curtis take some more hacks against same-side pitchers, which will hopefully give us a better idea of whether this latest slump is just a fluke, or if the early season success was the outlier.

With CBS radio deal up, broadcast changes loom

The reported coverage for each station in the Yankees Radio Network based on the MC Conductivity Map. (Via Bostonography)

On Friday, New York City’s terrestrial radio dial will lose its modern rock station. Ennis Communications is selling WRXP 101.9 to Merlin Media, and tomorrow, Merlin will take over programming. Eventually, the station will move to a news/talk format, but the sale requires federal approval which won’t arrive until the fall.

Now, why, you must be wondering, am I writing about an FM radio station format flip and sale on a Yankees site? Well, with the end of WCBS-AM’s five-year, $65-million contract looming at the end of the season, the Yankees and their radio broadcasts will be one of the most lucrative baseball free agents this winter, and Merlin, by many accounts, will attempt to play a role in the bidding.

Tied in with the fate of the Yankee radio rights are the futures of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Bob Raissman had more on this story recently:

If WCBS radio re-ups with the Yankees, Sterling and Waldman will be retained. Despite all the blunderful calls and uncomfortable moments, the suits there have never complained about Ma and Pa’s performance.

The voices would likely be on the ropes if ESPN-1050 gets the rights. Considering the station’s weak signal (two Dixie cups attached by a string) that’s a longshot. Still, money changes everything. If ESPN brass is willing to pay silly dough for the Yankees it could land them, thus greatly improving its chances of finally toppling The Sports Pope Radio Network. If ESPN does acquire the rights, it would select its own voices. Yet one well-embedded 1050 mole said ESPN would consider keeping Pa but probably dump Ma.

The other possible player could be WRXP-FM. Merlin Media recently purchased a majority stake in the station from Emmis Communications. Already, there is speculation that WRXP, 101.9 FM (rock and alternative) will change its format to a conglomeration of news, talk and sports. What better way to get instant recognition than to have the Yankees, a mega-marquee property, as WRXP’s anchor tenant. The familiar sound of Sterling and Waldman would be a plus in a new format launch.

There’s always the possibility – and it’s a strong one – that in any new deal Yankees suits will demand the right to select the radio broadcasters or, at least, the right to approve the voices. This would be a positive development for Sterling and Waldman.

Raissman, decidedly not a fan of the duo he has termed Ma and Pa Pinstripe, has been speculating on their ousters for a while, but it seems as though the team is married to the pair. Waldman has blazed a trail as the first female in the radio broadcast booth, and jettisoning her could be a costly move. Sterling and his histrionics are popular (although CBS-AM’s ratings are dropping despite the popularity of the Yanks). I do like Raissman’s suggestion that the Yanks add some younger blood to the broadcast booth to spell John and Suzyn, but the two seem to miss games only for religious holidays and rarely anything else.

The bigger issue, as I mentioned in February, will concern the strength of the Yanks’ radio broadcast signal no matter where it moves. ESPN 1050 has a very weak signal compared to WCBS’ powerful booster, and sticking the Yanks on FM would lead to clear sound but a significantly smaller broadcast radio. In the car, for instance, I can tune into 101.9 only as far north as Miller Hill Road in Hopewell Junction on the Taconic but can get 880 AM loud and clear in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.

To visualize the potential signal change, take a look at this post on Bostonography. The typographically-oriented site recently compared the Yanks’ and Red Sox’s relative broadcast coverage, and it’s clear just how strong the Yanks’ AM radio affiliates are as compared with their FM counterparts. A frequency switch could spell bad news indeed for fans accustomed to WCBS AM’s signal.’s radio package might just look more appealing come 2012.

Williams’ big night helps Staten Island to a win

It’s been a long day, so I’m cutting some corners tonight…

  • Triple-A Scranton is off until tomorrow for the All-Star Game. Adam Warren allowed a hit and struck out one in two scoreless innings. No other Yankees farmhand played in the game, which is still ongoing.
  • Double-A Trenton is off until tomorrow for the All-Star Game. Corban Joseph singled twice in three at-bats while Austin Romine had one hit in two trips to the plate. Both came off the bench as reserves.Manny Banuelos struck out the side in his inning of work (13 pitches), and Dellin Betances threw just seven pitches in his scoreless inning (no baserunners, one whiff).
  • High-A Tampa (win). J.R. Murphy and Rob Segedin each singled once, Zoilo Almonte twice, and Neil Medchill homered. Kramer Sneed gave up three runs in four innings in what was an otherwise uninteresting game.
  • Low-A Charleston (loss). Eduardo Sosa had four singles, and both Ramon Flores and Kelvin DeLeon went deep. Scottie Allen’s disaster season continued with seven runs in four innings, and Tommy Kahnle also got rocked(three hits, three walks, four runs, one out).
  • Short Season Staten Island (win). Mason Williams went 4-for-5 with a triple. Cito Culver singled once, Angelo Gumbs did twice. Zach Wilson homered. Absolutely nothing interesting happened on the mound.
  • Rookie GCL Yankees (win). Claudio Custodio and Dante Bichette Jr. each had two hits while Tyler Austin had three. All three doubled. Mark Prior (!!!) made a rehab start, allowing one unearned run in two innings. Taylor Morton followed him up with five innings of one run ball.

Soriano faces hitters in Tampa; Feliciano and Marte continue throwing

Via the AP, Rafael Soriano threw 25 pitches to hitters in live batting practice today, his second live BP session. I can’t imagine a minor league rehab stint will be far behind, and that’s good news. Pedro Feliciano, meanwhile, resumed a throwing program after being shutdown for a week with soreness in his injured left shoulder. Damaso Marte continues to throw bullpen sessions as well. Good news all around, though the last two are still long shots to contribute this year.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

Which Yankee would do the best on Jeopardy? Who on the Bombers is the snazziest dresser? Loudest on the plane? Biggest card shark? Behold these answers and more in Dan Barbarisi excellent glimpse at the life of the Yankees. The Wall Street Journal scribe surveyed 18 Yankees on a variety of topics, and for once, we learn a little bit more about our favorite players. Of course, Nick Swisher and Joba Chamberlain are the most boisterous on team flights, and of course, Francisco Cervelli takes the longest to get cleaned up after games. But Mark Teixeira, brainiac? That surprised me.

The funniest part involved Jorge Posada. Named the slowest Yankee by his teammates, the DH did not take too kindly to it. “I’m not the slowest runner here. I’m just telling you right now,” he growled at Barbarisi. Plus, if you read it, you’ll find out why the Yankees reacquired Sergio Mitre and which outfielder could be a future politician. While we wait for baseball games to return, it’s a fun read.

Open Thread: 2011 Triple-A All-Star Game

Last night it was the big leaguers, now it’s the guys one notch below them. The Triple-A All-Star Game is being played in Salt Lake City tonight, and former Yankees farmhand Zach McAllister is making the start for the International League. Z-Mac made his big league debut last week in case you missed it, allowing three runs in four innings against the Blue Jays. He’s the eighth player from the Yankees’ 2006 draft class to reach the show, joining Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Colin Curtis, Mark Melancon, Dan McCutchen, David Robertson, and Kevin Russo. Dellin Betances and George Kontos have a chance to make it ten, which would be pretty amazing.

Anyway, here are the lineups for the International League and the Pacific Coast League. Yes, we have a Cody Ransom sighting. The only Yankee there is Adam Warren, and I imagine he’ll get an inning in at some point. Jesus Montero, Jorge Vazquez, and Kevin Whelan all withdrew due to injury. The game starts at 9pm ET and can be seen on the MLB Network, so use this thread to talk about that or whatever else your heart desires. You all know what to do by now, so go nuts.