Weighing Wade LeBlanc

On Friday morning, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Yankees had considered a bevy of left-handed trade targets. The list ranged from ugly (Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir) to mildly intriguing (Wade LeBlanc, Clayton Richard and Gio Gonzalez). Yesterday I examined Clayton Richard; today the target is Richard’s teammate Wade LeBlanc.

Wade LeBlanc has always been a Padre, drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Alabama. Like Clayton Richard, LeBlanc spent a half season in A ball after being drafted, averaging an ERA of 3.02, a strikeout rate of 7.9/9 and a walk rate of 2.7/9. The following year he opened at High A Lake Elsinore. Over 92 innings he put together a very impressive stat line: 2.64 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 5.29 K/BB ratio. The Padres responded by moving him to Double A, where his ERA bumped up to 3.45 over 57.1 innings. His strikeout rate stayed high (8.6/9), but his walk rate was elevated slightly to 3.0 BB/9. All told, LeBlanc’s first full season as a minor league starter was very successful.

In 2008 LeBlanc was promoted to AAA and saw a divergence of results and peripherals. On one hand, his ERA ballooned to 5.32 over 138.2 innings. However, LeBlanc also managed to bolster his strikeout rate to 9.02/9 and maintain a very good walk rate of 2.73 BB/9. The obvious culprit to explain his high ERA is his BABIP, but his mark was only .304. Perhaps a below average strand rate (64.3%) was part of the reason. Regardless, the Padres promoted LeBlanc to the bigs as a September callup and he made five starts before the end of the year. The results weren’t pretty, but LeBlanc was really just getting his feet wet for the first time.

The following year LeBlanc returned to AAA. He posted a 3.87 ERA over 121 innings, but his strike rate was far lower than it was in 2008 at 7.07 K/9, but he did keep his walk rate low at 2.31 BB/9. LeBlanc saw some midseason action at the MLB level, but it wasn’t until September again of that year that he got consistent time in the Padres’ rotation. He put together a total of 46.1 innings of 3.85 ERA ball, and finished the year strong with a 7 inning, 2 hit, 1 walk, 0 run and 8 strikeout performance against the San Francisco Giants.

Last year LeBlanc spent all but 10 innings in the Padres’ rotation, hurling 146 innings of 4.25 ERA ball in 25 starts. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story: LeBlanc’s FIP was 4.80 and his peripherals were worse than his minor league pedigree: 6.78 K/9, 3.14 BB/9. This performance was worth precisely 0.0 fWAR for the Padres; fortunately for them, he was making close to the league minimum.

LeBlanc is a soft-tossing lefty. Over the course of his career his fastball has averaged 86.1 mph. In 2010 this mark was 86.6 mph, good for 8th slowest amongst pitchers with at least 140 innings on the year. LeBlanc’s ability to succeed at the major league level is no doubt related to his quality changeup, a pitch he threw over 27% of the time in 2010. He does throw a cutter and a curveball with less regularity, but his changeup is obviously his best pitch. According to Texas Leagers, he got a swing and a miss on 17.7% of his changeups, the highest mark of all his pitches.

Any discussion of Wade LeBlanc would be incomplete if it did not examine his drastic home/away splits, data which will no doubt put the nail in the coffin of his desirability as a trade target for most Yankees fans. In his career, he’s made 18 starts in Petco and has a K/BB ratio of 2.24. Opponents OPS .695 against him. He’s made 22 starts away from Petco, and the numbers are drastically different: a 1.47 K/BB ratio and an incredible 0.922 OPS against. In Petco, Wade LeBlanc turns opponents into a bunch of Jorge Cantus and Yuniesky Betancourts. Away from Petco, opponents turn into a bunch of Matt Hollidays and Jayson Werths. It is a very drastic difference, and while it is a relatively small sample of data it is nevertheless a red flag.

Like with Clayton Richard, the Padres have no particular reason to part with Wade LeBlanc unless the Yankees were to offer them something of value. LeBlanc isn’t eligible for arbitration until the 2013 season, and is under team control through the 2016 year. He’s abundantly cheap, and a good back-end option in the rotation for the Padres. For the Yankees LeBlanc may have more strikeout upside than Richards, but his fly-ball tendencies and soft-tossing ways make him a tentative fit. There seems to be no good reason to give up any premium prospect to acquire LeBlanc from the Padres, and without quality in return the Padres seem likely to just hang on to him. Count this another trade target DOA.

Open Thread: Mike Lamb

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Aaron Boone’s knee injury during the 2003-2004 offseason had a major impact on the Yankees, most notably because it opened the door for Alex Rodriguez‘s arrival in New York. It also had an impact on Mike Lamb. Not long after Boone’s injury, the Yanks swung a deal with the Rangers to acquire Lamb, an up-and-down third baseman stuck behind then All-Star Hank Blalock. He was set to be the team’s everyday guy at the hot corner in 2004, but less than two weeks later he was again a man without a position following the A-Rod trade.

The Yankees acquired Lamb seven years ago today, then traded him to the Astros just a month later. He never played a game for the Yankees outside of Spring Training, but that year he posted a .365 wOBA in 312 plate appearances for Houston. Lamb spent four pretty productive years with the Astros (.342 wOBA in 1,436 PA, 5.3 WAR), but he’s nothing more than an afterthought in Yankee history*.

Here’s the open thread for the evening. The Islanders are the only local team in action, so yeah, go out and have fun.

* Just for the sake of completeness, the prospect the Yankees sent to Texas (RHP Jose Garcia) never made it out of Double-A, and the prospect they received from Houston (RHP Juan DeLeon) never made it out of Single-A.

So…Would You? (Part I)

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Imagine this:

It’s March 27th, three days before the official end of Spring Training, and after a turbulent offseason, the atmosphere around Steinbrenner Field has been mercifully uneventful – even a shade optimistic. Save for some minor scrapes and bruises, everyone on the 25-man has, at some point over the past four weeks, uttered a  version of being in the best shape of his life to a herd of restive beat writers. Only this time, it’s not merely a cliché: Alex is healthy and spry; Jeter, who gives his best blue steel on the cover of S.I.’s new Baseball Preview alongside the headline “Something to Prove,” has streamlined his swing; Gardner’s wrist is pain-free and is proving to be a non-issue at bat and in the field.

There are other encouraging signs. Robbie Cano is emerging as a polished, poised, vocal leader; and Rafael Soriano claims he doesn’t care about amassing saves or basking in adulation because what he’s always wanted most was to a.) play for the New York Yankees and b.) win a World Series ring. Even Bartolo Colon appears rejuvenated: Without the benefit of slimming in-season pinstripes, Colon has nevertheless looked svelte and focused in limited appearances, and has even caught on video sharing a post-intra-squad sprint with Mo Rivera. Cleveland will enjoy having him back.

Still, as the Yankees prepare to head north, the back end of the starting rotation remains stubbornly in flux. As unsettled as it was in early February, Colon, Sergio Mitre, and Freddy Garcia have proven to be exactly who we thought they were. Unless a major move happens within the next week, the Yankees will start the 2011 season with their worst rotation since the days when Live Strong bracelets and Sidney Ponson jokes were all the fashion.

Yet Cashman seems to be holding firm to his maddeningly Buddhist mantra of “wait and see.” The market, he says, will “develop” during the season. It’s frustrating from a fan’s perspective but also the most prudent stratagem at the moment. With the Pettitte retirement creating a back-end of the rotation that rivals the Pirates in cumulative WAR and star appeal, competing G.M.’s can smell angst sweat wafting from Tampa. Cash is right: now’s not the time to mortgage the farm for the Brian Moehlers and Miguel Batistas of the world.

But then the text comes:

Cash, it’s Sabean. You need a horse, I need a Cano. Cain for Robbie, straight-up.

What about Freddy Sanchez?

Let me worry about Freddy. He’s a survivor.

And there you’d have it: what we’ve been clamoring for ever since Cliff Lee took his decoys and double-barrels with him to Philly. Finally, a young, polished, durable number two to slot right between C.C. and Hughes for at least the next two seasons.

Just as we had halfway convinced ourselves that there were worse things in this world than a straight-as-a-string 84 MPH Freddie Garcia fastball (there aren’t), just as we were preparing to settle for the likes of Joe Blanton or the loping cadaver of Kevin Millwood, Brian Sabean swoops in to rescue us from The Summer of Meat. But like any trade that benefits both teams, it will burn like acid. The Yankees would be acquiring the 26-year-old Cain at the expense of losing arguably their most potent offensive force in the prime of his career.

So here’s the question: If he were granted the autonomy to do so (and there’s no guarantee of that), would Brian Cashman go through with this deal? Moreover, should he? Refusing to close on a Johan Santana trade in the winter of ’08 put into full relief Cashman’s dogma of “not paying twice” for a desired player, regardless of how good he is. But that was before Cliff Lee became available last July, mid-pennant-race – and before the Yankees had a single trade chip that could yield a pitcher of Lee’s caliber.

On the one hand, Matt Cain is a bona fide stopper. Arguably among the top 20 pitchers in the game, he’s the definitive workhorse, averaging 210 IP since his rookie campaign in 2006 and topping out at 223.1 this past season. This is no small feat, considering how rarely young pitchers are given opportunities to pitch through late-inning, high leverage conditions. And yet, Cain doesn’t seem to show any of the telltale signatures of the Verducci effect. In fact, he turned in yet another superb all-around season in 2010, posting a 130 ERA+, 7.3 H/9 and a Halladay-like 1.084 WHIP. Which makes him better than Joe Saunders.

As good as Cain is, he has yet to enter the pantheon of excellence occupied by the game’s truly dominant aces. A close look at Cain’s career stats reveals some minor eyebrow-raisers among his peripherals: above-average fly ball tendencies – always a concern in Yankee Stadium – and a curiously elevated xFIP, that was recently challenged in a fascinating piece over at Paapfly.com.

Still, there are no major warning signals that color Cain’s long-term performance outlook. He’s just not elite, which is fine. Not being a shutdown ace is the one quality that could render him even remotely attainable on the trade market. Trade market untouchables Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, and Sabathia are all superior to Cain – though not by much. In fact, Cain’s career 126 ERA+ ranks him ninth among all active pitchers, ahead of Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, and Zack Greinke. Also, it bears repeating: Cain’s still only 26. His most productive years may be yet to come.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll turn my attention to Robbie Cano and his overall value before attempting to determine whether or not the Yankees would benefit from such a trade. In the meantime, if you were Cashman, would you?

Considering Clayton Richard

Now that Andy Pettitte has made his retirement official, the Yankees are going to be linked with starting pitcher free agents and trade targets from now until conceivably the end of August. For rumor-junkies this is the only pleasant thing about the Yankee rotation being the baseball version of Two and a Half Men. On Friday morning, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Yankees had considered a bevy of left-handed trade targets. The list ranged from ugly (Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir) to mildly intriguing (Wade LeBlanc, Clayton Richard and Gio Gonzalez). We’ll start with Richard.

Clayton Richard was an eighth-round pick by the White Sox in the 2005 draft. After spending a half-season in A ball he spent his first full season in 2006 by splitting time between Low A and High A. The results were modest: he threw 119 innings of 3.85 ERA ball with a low strikeout rate (5.0/9) and an average walk rate (2.6/9). The most interesting aspect to his 06 season was how hittable he was, as he yielded over 11 hits per nine innings. In 2007 he repeated his season in High A ball. He lowered his ERA slightly to 3.63 and his hit rate to 8.9/9. However, his strikeout rate stayed stuck in the Joe Saunders zone (5.0/9) and his walk rate actually got worse, rising to 3.3/9.  The best takeaway from the season was his high innings total, 161.1 innings.

In 2008 Richard was promoted to AA and responded positively. The best sign was improved control, and as he lowered his rate to 1.7 BB/9. His hit rate again dropped, but this might be related to an unusually low BABIP of .238. Richard was promoted midseason to AAA and found the environment to his liking. Here he was able to drop his walk rate again, to a microscopic 0.8 BB/9, while while bumping his strikeout rate to 6.8/9. It was a small sample (44 innings), and Richard was 24 years old at the time, but his 2.45 ERA and 8.25 K/BB ratio were impressive nonetheless.

The White Sox promoted Richard to the major league team in 2008 and the results were very similar to his 2006 season in A ball: very hittable (11.5 H/9) with modest peripherals (5.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9). Richard appeared three times in relief and started eight times, and ended the year with an ERA of 6.04 and a FIP of 4.07. Richard only pitched 15 innings more than he had in 2007, but it’s still at least possible that he was fatigued after a long season.

2009 represented Richard’s first full-season major league debut, with mixed results. He began the season pitching out the bullpen for the White Sox. He totaled 16 innings in 12 appearances, striking out 10 and walking 5, good for a 4.41 FIP. On May 12 he transitioned to the rotation and got pretty similar results: 72 innings of 4.73 ERA ball, a 6.99 K/9 and a 3.99 BB/9. Richard was then traded to the Padres as a part of the Jake Peavy deal, and found the confines of Petco Park to be a bit more hospitable. He pitched 64 innings of 4.08 ERA ball with 48 strikeouts and 38 walks. If you remove two blowups on August 27 against the Braves and September 7 against the Giants (combined 6.1 innings and 12 ER), the numbers are even better: 65.1 innings of 3.58 ERA ball with a 6.5 K/9 and a 5.2 BB/9. It’s worth noting though that the lion’s share of these starts came in September, meaning that the opposing lineups may not have been their strongest. It also shows that even when getting decent results, Richard was still struggling with control. His walk rate was simply too high.

Richard entered 2010 with a spot in the rotation for the rebuilding San Diego Padres. By conventional measures his season was a success: he went 14-9 with a 3.75 ERA. There were plenty of positive signs about Richard’s year: he pitched over 200 innings for the first time in his career, and he managed to keep his strikeout rate relatively high by his standards (6.8) while attempting to keep the walks at bay (3.5 BB/9). His year was worth 2.3 fWAR to the Padres.

Richard is a big lefty, standing in a 6’5″ and 240 pounds. He generates a decent amount of groundballs but it would be inaccurate to describe him as a groundball artist. He features a fastball in the low-90s and leans on it heavily, mixing in sliders and changeups as his two complementary offspeed pitches and occasionally dropping a show-me curveball. Richard used to pitch with a low 3/4 arm angle when he was with the White Sox. At some point he altered it and now pitches more over the top, but it’s difficult to locate some hard information on when exactly he made the change, which would enable us to track whether the alteration resulted in an improvement in results. For what it’s worth, Keith Law was more bullish on Richard now that he made the change.

All said, Richard’s greatest asset isn’t the fact that he throws left-handed, gets a fair amount of groundballs and has an acceptable K/BB ratio. His greatest asset is his cost. Richard will make a little over $420,000 in 2011, and should see a bump into the $1-2M range in 2012, meaning that he won’t be “expensive” for the Padres until 2013 at the earliest. For this reason, it seems unlikely that San Diego would be interested in moving him. The Padres are in the midst of rebuilding, having dealt Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for Pedro Clemens and other prospects, kicking the contention can down the road several years. If they were to deal Richard now they’d probably be looking for prospects who could make an impact in 2012 or 2013.

The easiest matches for the Yankees in the trade market are going to be with teams looking to cut cost. While Richard would be useful as a back of the rotation option for the Yankees, he has good value to the Padres for the next three years. A match between the two teams seems unlikely. Richard might be attractive if the Padres were giving him away in a salary dump, but the idea of giving up decent prospects in return for him is simply unappealing. Now if the Padres want to discuss Mat Latos, that’s a different story.

Friends & Enemies: Andy Pettitte Splits

Generic Andy Photo. My last generic Andy photo ever? Sob. (AP Photo/Andy King)

Your critical analysis will have to wait another few hours, because I am personally still in mourning over Andy Pettitte. Yes, I know he’s not dead, but the man has been pitching since I was seven years old. When I was eight, he was the best pitcher in baseball, period. This was confirmed by something better than a statistic: my grandma told me so. Anyway, it’s kind of a stupid emotional thing for me. Instead, I thought I’d focus on the batters who are glad to see Andy go and some who would have liked him to stick around instead. It’s hard to say why hitters do well against specific pitchers. If you can hit one soft-tossing lefty, why not all the other ones in the league? Oh well. Baseball, being hard to predict, I guess.

Sad to See Him Go

Manny Ramirez

There’s no two ways about it: Manny had Andy’s number. Those years in Boston gave him lots of plate appearances to do as much damage as he possibly could, too. In 104 PAs, Manny hit .391/.452/.652, with an OPS of 1.104. He leads all hitters in damage against Andy Pettitte in three categories: hits (36), doubles (9) and RBIs (23), while striking out only eight times. He follows only Carlos Peña in home runs (5, to Peña’s 6), and only Frank Thomas in walks (10 to Thomas’ 11). He was intentionally walked twice. With his declining power, he needs a little more Andy Pettitte in his life. But if we have to suffer without him, so do you, Manny.

AP Photo/Ted Warren

Magglio Ordoñez

Despite a smaller sample size attributed to his AL Central habitat plus injuries, Ordoñez did fine for himself against our crafty lefty. In 42 plate appearances, he whipped up an impressive 1.050 SLG complete with two homers, six RBIs, and a triple. His best year against Pettitte was 2000, in which he tacked up a double, a triple, and two walks (one intentional).

Carlos Peña

It always surprises me when I hear people who bat .196 sign for $10M. Perhaps the Cubs are signing him specifically for interleague? Peña tops the Pettitte home run list with six, as well as holding the record for highest SLG (an impressive .875) and fourth in OPS (1.301). On top of this, man is tied with three others for the triples-against-Pettitte champion crown with two. In 2007, Peña went 4-for-8 with two home runs, which probably explains the 2.100 OPS. Don’t you just love the absurd numbers a tiny sample size can create?

The San Francisco Giants

Congratulations Giants, you are the only major league team that Pettitte has never beaten. In three games, Pettitte gave up a grand total of 11 ER and had a WHIP of 1.582, going 0-3. Most of his bad Giants numbers stem from one particularly nasty start during his Astros tenure, in which he pitched a little over five innings and gave up six runs and eleven hits.

On the other hand…

Happy to See Him Go

Alex Gonzalez

In 62 appearances, Gonzalez only managed a downright pathetic OPS of .404. This might have something to do with the fact he struck out fifteen times (24%) and hit into four double plays. He did manage a home run and four RBIs, but generally, going 8-for-58 is not advised if you’re actually trying to win anything. If you’re trying to make Andy Pettitte look good, of course, then these numbers’ll do rather well. Not sure if this was Gonzales’ intention, though.

Darin Erstad

.184/.184/.204 with a .388 OPS, combined 16 strikeouts and no walks in 49 appearances. Ow.

The Baltimore Orioles

"So what if he beat me in one stupid game?" (AP Photo/Erik Lesser)

Admittedly, the Orioles have been making everyone look good for the past ten years except themselves, so it’s not that much of a surprise that Andy is 27-6 against them for his career. He’s maintained a career 3.52 ERA against them and racked up nearly 150 strikeouts in about 250 innings, good for a 5 k/9 and a 1.64 K/BB. Not spectacular, but it did well for him, for sure. That’s our Andy.

John Smoltz

We will not have to listen to another postseason of Smoltz biting the inside of his mouth as he talks about Pettitte’s playoff prowess. You’d think the guy took a hard playoff loss to Andy at some point in his career. Jeez.