What Went Right: Andy Pettitte

As we wrap up our What Went Right/What Went Wrong series, we look at one of the Yankees off-season decisions.

For the first year and a half of his return to the Bronx, Andy Pettitte was everything the Yankees could have expected. He wasn’t quite the pitcher that left after the 2003 season, but no one thought he would be. Instead, he was a reliable No. 3 starter, stepping up his game when the team needed him — notably in April 2007, when, in the first month of his return, he pitched twice in relief. Bringing back Pettitte for the 2008 season was a no-brainer, but the story was a bit different for the 2009 season.

It all started on July 31, 2008. After a tough start against Toronto earlier in the month, Pettitte came back with stellar performances against the A’s and the Red Sox, allowing just two earned runs while striking out 16 in 14 innings. He took the mound against the Angels that day with the Yankees just one game back of the Red Sox for the Wild Card. They’d just acquired Xavier Nady to help an unimposing offense, and Damaso Marte to shore up the bullpen. Things were looking bright for the Yankees, despite a prolonged early season slump.

Pettitte didn’t look good from the start, allowing four base runners in the first two innings. The game got out of hand in the third, when a pair of three-run home runs gave the Angels a big lead. Pettitte surrendered another run before Joe Girardi removed him with one out in the sixth, with the Yankees down 7-2. Chris Britton then allowed another three-run shot, and the game was all but over. The Yanks dropped to a game and a half back of the Wild Card, and never got that close again.

While the Yankees offense underperformed in 2008, they also suffered injuries to three of their top pitchers. Chien-Ming Wang injured his foot in June, Joba Chamberlain hurt his shoulder in August, and Andy Pettitte pitched with a bum shoulder for the second half of the season. From the Angels game on, that was evident, as he allowed 47 runs (45 earned) through 65 innings over 11 starts. Opponents racked up 87 hits over that period, good for a .323 BAA. The season ended with the Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons, leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouthes.

Pettitte, a consummate competitor, didn’t want to walk away that way. He made it known after the season that he wanted to come back for another season in pinstripes. The Yankees, however, weren’t so sure. They had big plans to overhaul the pitching staff in the off-season, and Pettitte didn’t necessarily factor into the strategy. Had he finished strong in 2008 he almost certainly would have, but his shoulder injury had the Yankees brass wondering if he’d be effective in 2009. After a few months of speculation, the Yankees and Pettitte finally agreed on an incentive laden deal, a $5.5 million base with incentives for innings pitched.

The deal worked out for all parties. Pettitte pitched 194.2 innings in 2009, missing just one start the whole way. His ERA, 4.16, was as good as the Yanks could have hoped. His WHIP was the lowest since his amazing 2005 campaign with the Astros. While he won only 14 games, that had more to do with the Yankees’ late inning surges than it did with Pettitte’s pitching. He did the job the Yankees had envisioned for him: keep the game close and let the Yankees offense take care of the rest.

The 2009 season changed when the Yankees rallied to open the second half. They went 10-2 after the break in July, and then went 21-7 in August, putting themselves comfortably ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. Pettitte was a big part of that run. He pitched 59.2 innings from July 20, his first post-break start, through August 31, starting nine games in which the Yankees went 7-2. He allowed just 17 earned runs in that span, striking out 62 to 15 walks. His triple slash against was an ace-like .210/.260/.554. Plenty of players surged through that period, and Pettitte was a big part of it.

Heading into the season, Pettitte was the nominal fifth starter. CC Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, and A.J. Burnett were the veterans atop the rotation, and after Joba Chamberlain’s impressive run as a starter in 2008, he was penciled into the fourth spot. Andy Pettitte as a fifth starter is a luxury few teams can afford, and the Yankees are lucky to be one of those teams. When Chien-Ming Wang proved ineffective and eventually injured, and when Joba didn’t quite have the season the Yankees envisioned, Pettitte was there to step into the No. 3 starter role. Not many presumptive No. 5 starters can answer that call.

Not only did Pettitte answer the call, but he achieved an unprecedented feat. On September 27, Pettitte got the win in the AL East clinching game against the Red Sox. He then went on to clinch the ALDS against the Twins, the ALCS against the Angels, and the World Series against the Phillies. No one pitcher has ever closed out the division and all three rounds of the playoffs in the same season.

The Yankees and Pettitte now face a decision for the 2010 season. Pettitte has to decide whether he wants to pitch again, and the Yankees have to decide if they want him back. I don’t see any reason why the Yankees wouldn’t want him. The only starters penciled into the 2010 rotation are Sabathia and Burnett, and while we assume that both Chamberlain and Hughes can step into the rotation, the Yankees could still use another reliable arm. Any way the Yankees decide to fill out their 2010 rotation, Pettitte should be in the plans if he wants to pitch. As he showed last year, he can contribute to the club in big ways.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 23rd, 2009

2009 Season Record: 103-59 (915 RS, 753 RA), won AL East by 8 games, finished with the best record in MLB by 6 games, won 27th World Series

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Could Miranda be the full-time DH in 2010?

Juan Miranda reminding Kyle Farnsworth that he's Kyle FarnsworthThe Yankees have three main holes to fill this offseason: leftfield, designated hitter, and number three starter. Sure, they can – and probably will – look to upgrade some other positions as well, but the team is generally in good shape there. The Bombers seem pretty intent on bringing Johnny Damon back to play left, and I think everyone believes the Andy Pettitte situation will work itself out and solidify the rotation.

That leaves DH as the biggest question mark. It’ll be tough to replace Hideki Matsui‘s 2009 production, even if they bring Godzilla himself back. The popular thought is that the Yanks can use the DH spot to rest Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, etc. on a rotating basis, but I can’t see the team actually going through with that. If they did, that means more at-bats for the Ramiro Penas and Brett Gardners and Frankie Cervellis of the world, and that’s not a formula that will win the cut-throat AL East.

There are always more DH types available than DH spots open, so the Yanks certainly have options. However, the team is said to be looking to scale back the payroll a bit, and if they can’t retain Matsui on favorable terms, the team might be better off filling the DH spot from within rather than dropping seven figures on a guy in the decline phase of his career. I’m not talking about that silly rotating DH thing when I say filling the spot from within, I’m talking about Juan Miranda.

The Yanks signed Miranda back in 2006 after he defected from Cuba and gained citizenship in the Dominican. He signed a four year Major League contract worth $2M, and the idea was that he’d take over first base on an everyday basis near the end of Jason Giambi‘s tenure. After splitting 2007 between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Miranda’s spent the past two seasons with Triple-A Scranton. In 2008 he hit .287-.384-.449 with 12 homers, and his .371 wOBA ranked 14th in the league (min. 400 plate appearances). One problem was that Miranda couldn’t hit lefties, like at all. In 125 PA against southpaws, he hit just .200-.264-.287 with a grand total of six extra base hits. The second problem is that the Yanks brought in Mark Teixeira in the offseason, putting Miranda in baseball purgatory.

Sent back to Triple-A in 2009 because there was no spot on the big league roster for him, Miranda improved in almost every way. He hit for a higher average (.290) and more power (.498 SLG, IsoP jumped from .163 to .208) in his second stint in the International League, but most importantly, Miranda improved considerably against lefthanders. In 169 PA against southpaws, he hit .291-.367-.507 with 18 extra base hits. It’s an amazing turn around in just one year, but you have to be a little careful because it’s not a huge sample and it could very easily be a fluke. For what it’s worth, he was pretty bad against lefties in 2007 (.216-.293-.371, 12 XBH in 133 PA).

Even though he used his three option years in 2007-2009, Miranda qualifies for a fourth option because he still hasn’t played in his fifth pro season. Brian Cashman confirmed it. That means the Yanks could easily stash him away in Triple-A for a third straight year if they so choose, there won’t be any consequence. That also gives them some flexibility, because if Miranda starts the year in bigs but needs to be demoted because he isn’t performing, they can do it without worrying about losing him on waivers.

Not that the sample size is meaningful (23 PA), but Miranda’s actually hit big league pitching pretty well: .368-.435-.579. He collected a walk-off single off old buddy Kyle Farnsworth on Sept. 29th of this year, then three days later he took Dale Thayer way deep (someone he’s surely faced numerous times in Triple-A over the last two years) for his first career homer. In limited action, Miranda’s certainly been productive at the Major League level.

Using the wonderful MLE Calculator, we can see that Miranda’s Triple-A batting line this year would have translated to .249-.318-.412 with 15 homers in the big leagues, though I don’t think the MLEc has been updated to reflect the homer happy New Yankee Stadium yet. For the sake of context, that’s basically what Aaron Rowand hit this year. The same Aaron Rowand whose .323 wOBA ranked 68th among all outfielders with at least 400 PA in 2009. Need more context? Melky Cabrera was 63rd with a .331 wOBA. So yeah, it’s not very good.

Of course that’s just one look at it. Part of me is curious to see what Miranda could do with a full season of at-bats in the big leagues, but at the same time I don’t think the Yanks can afford to experiment at such a crucial offensive position. I don’t think his massive improvement against lefties is sustainable, nor do I think he’s as bad against them as he was in 2008. In reality, he’s probably somewhere in the middle, which means the Yanks would need to pair him with a righthanded caddy (tying up another roster spot) for all the lefty starters in the division (Lester, Price, Matusz, Cecil, Romero).

So, getting back to the original question about Miranda possibly being the full-time DH in 2010, I’m going to say no. Not for a team trying to win a championship. Lefty hitting first base/DH types that have historically struggled against lefthanders aren’t exactly a rare commodity, and given the Yanks’ current roster construction and needs, Miranda doesn’t really have a place. He’s a better fit for a rebuilding team or an NL club that can live with below average defense at first or needs a bat off the bench. With all due respect to Mr. Miranda, I hope the Yankees look elsewhere for a DH should Matsui move on.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Open Thread: Scott Boras listens to me

Here’s the latest from MLBTR:

Ken Rosenthal’s latest entry in the offseason blog at FOX Sports says that he believes Scott Boras will likely use Bobby Abreu‘s two-year, $19MM contract as a baseline for fellow 36-year-old outfielder Johnny Damon.

Here’s me from two-and-a-half weeks ago:

Yesterday afternoon, word got out that Bobby Abreu had agreed to a contract extension with the Angels, signing on for two more years in Anaheim. After having to wait until damn near Spring Training to find a job last year, Abreu jumped all over the $19M the Halos offered him. The deal even includes a vesting option for 2012 worth $9M, when Abreu will be 38. I mentioned this yesterday, but in two years I’m sure we’ll be hearing about ways the Angels can prevent that option from vesting.

Anyway, the entire reason I brought this up is because it indirectly affects the Yankees. Now we have a blueprint for what a new contract for Johnny Damon might look like, something we didn’t have before.

I am so smart. I am so smart. S-M-R-T. I mean S-M-A-R-T.

As you can tell, it’s a slow night, so use this as your open thread: The Knicks already lost today, so the Eagles and Bears are your only sports action of the night. Talk about whatever you want, just be cool.

Wrapping up the AzFL

The Arizona Fall League season ended yesterday, when the Peoria Javelinas beat the Phoenix Desert Dogs 5-4 in the Championship Game yesterday afternoon thanks to C.J. Retherford’s (White Sox) two-run homer in the bottom of the 8th inning. Phoenix had been the five-time defending champs. Dodgers prospect Russ Mitchell took home the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award.

Here’s a roundup of how the Yanks’ prospects performed out in the desert:

Colin Curtis: 20 G, 31 for 78 (.397), 19 R, 7 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 11 BB, 14 K, 3 SB, 2 CS – dude led the league with a 1.203 OPS, and not by a small margin either (44 pts)
Brandon Laird: 22 G, 30 for 90 (.333), 18 R, 9 2B, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 10 BB, 20 K, 1 CS – he finished seventh in the least with a 1.039 OPS
Austin Romine: 4 G, 6 for 15 (.400), 2 RBI, 1 BB, 4 K – left the league after suffering a minor finger injury … it’s nothing serious, he’ll be fine
Grant Duff: 10 G, 9.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 5 BB, 4 K – really? more BB than K?
Mike Dunn: 10 G, 10.1 IP, 11 H, 8 R, 5 ER, 10 BB, 20 K - love the K/9, but not the BB/9
Ian Kennedy: 7 G, 7 GS, 29.2 IP, 30 H, 16 R, 14 ER, 5 BB, 28 K - led the league in IP … 2.26 FIP is fantastic
Zach Kroenke: 11 G, 15.1 IP, 15 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 4 BB, 14 K

Here’s the rest of the winter ball wrap up:

Dominican Winter League
Abe Almonte: 10 G, 3 for 11 (.273), 6 R, 2 RBI, 4 BB, 3 K, 1 SB
Juan Miranda: 8 G, 15 for 28 (.536), 7 R, 4 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 SB – I’m starting to warm up to the idea of him being the everyday (or at least the LHB portion of a platoon) DH in 2010
Eduardo Nunez: 2 G, 1 for 4 (.250), 1 R, 1 BB
Wilkins Arias: 15 G, 12 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 12 K
Ivan Nova: 5 G, 4 GS, 25.2 IP, 17 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 17 K – love it
Jon Ortiz: 6 G, 4 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K

Mexican Pacific League
Walt Ibarra: 22 G, 12 for 41 (.293), 8 R, 1 2B, 4 RBI, 2 BB, 13 K, 1 SB
Jorge Vazquez: 9 G, 9 for 31 (.290), 4 R, 1 2B, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 5 BB, 8 K

Venezuelan Winter League
Frankie Cervelli: 4 G, 3 for 9 (.333), 3 R, 1 2B, 2 BB, 2 K – nice early showing
Reegie Corona: 21 G, 18 for 51 (.353), 14 R, 7 2B, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 10 BB, 11 K, 2 SB – late push for that 40-man spot
Jesus Montero: 9 G, 3 for 26 (.115), 2 R, 1 RBI, 3 BB, 4 K – hasn’t played in a month
Luis Nunez: 12 G, 9 for 36 (.250), 1 R, 1 2B, 6 RBI, 2 BB, 5 K
Romulo Sanchez: 16 G, 19 IP, 15 H, 14 R, 11 ER, 8 BB, 9 K
Josh Schmidt: 9 G, 7 GS, 33.1 IP, 35 H, 23 R, 16 ER, 11 BB, 28 K – he’s also plunked five batters
Pat Venditte: 7 G, 9.1 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 7 K
Eric Wordekemper: 4 G, 1 GS, 5.1 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 4 BB, 1 K

Puerto Rican League
Amaury Sanit: 3 G, 2 IP, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K

Football Open Thread

The Giants are taking on the Falcons at home at 1pm ET today, while the Jets are in New England later on at 4pm ET. Chat all you want about the games here, just make sure you keep your football comments in this thread. Thanks, enjoy the games.

A player’s view of free agency

In a piece for the Times, former big league outfielder Doug Glanville writes about the experience of free agency from a player’s point of view. Do you go for the money? consider your family’s wants? In reality, it’s a mix of both. It’s a great and interesting read, so check it out.