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Mailbag: Cy Young Award, Mo, White, Rasmus

Another week, another edition of the RAB Mailbag. This week we’re going to cover the Cy Young Award debate, Mariano Rivera benefiting from his reputation, Pat White, and a potential Colby Rasmus trade. If you ever want to submit a question, just use the Submit a Tip box under The Montero Watch in the sidebar.

Andreas asks: During the recent Cy Young discussions I asked myself if the run support (and therefore maybe the wins of a pitcher) changes the whole stats of pitcher: Take CC Sabathia for example, who normally gets a good run support (or just for the sake of the argument we assume that he gets it). Isn’t this changing the way he is pitching? For example trying to throw a lot more strikes, trying to avoid the big inning, getting lifted after 6 or 7 innings to keep his workload down, etc. Where on the other hand pitchers like Greinke who have to be perfect all time to grind out a one run victory for their team have a different approach pitching? At least in the later innings? So the question is: Do you think that the different approaches of pitching with a big lead compared to a close game affects a pitcher’s statistics?

This is the “pitching to the score” argument, which I’ve always found silly (that’s not directed at Andreas, just saying in general). Theoretically, a pitcher should always pitch the same way and try to give up as few runs as possible, but we know that doesn’t happen all the time. Like you said, guys will change their approach depending on what kind of lead they’re working with, and that will absolutely impact their statistics in some form. The question is how much, and I’m not sure that’s something we can quantify. For all we know, it might be completely negligible.

Let’s use Sabathia and Felix Hernandez as examples, since they seem to be the front runners for this year’s Cy. The Yankees have scored a total of 173 runs in Sabathia’s 30 starts, but the Mariners have scored just 95 runs in Felix Hernandez’s 30 starts. CC has gotten more starts with 6+ runs of support (14) than Felix has with 4+ runs of support (13). Just six times have the Yanks scored two or fewer runs for their ace, but the Mariners did it seven times in a row to Felix from mid-July to mid-August, and 13 times overall. Clearly, CC has had some more wiggle room to work with, enabling him to just throw strike after strike and not worry that every little baserunner might cost him the game.

So to answer the question, yes, I do think “pitching to the score” affects a pitcher’s statistics, though I just don’t know how much. If we can’t measure it, I don’t see the benefit of guessing at it’s impact and letting it affect judgments about awards, Hall of Fame votes, etc.

Anonymous asks: Does Mo benefit from his reputation these days when facing younger hitters? Obviously he still has great stuff so it’s not like he needs the help, but I was watching him against Travis Snider (the other day)  and I thought that Snider must be thinking “I’m facing Mariano frickin’ Rivera, I have no chance here!”. How much does a pitchers reputation come in to play during at-bats?

Oh sure, a guy’s reputation definitely comes into play. Aside from the intimidation factor, there’s also pretty strong evidence that a guy like Mariano Rivera will get the benefit of the doubt on borderline strikes. Umpires favor the veterans for whatever reason, that’s why guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were able to work with a 22-inch plate later in their careers. It does work both ways though, if Barry Bonds didn’t swing at a pitch late in his career, then it was a ball dang it, because Barry knew the strike zone better than anyone including the umpire.

I’m not saying it’s fair, because it’s obviously not, but that’s the way it goes.

Matt asks: Hey just wondering if the Yankees still own the rights to Pat White? The Dolphins cut him :) if not, would he be a baseball free agent or enter the draft again? Also, what position does he play? Got a scouting report and upside?

The Yanks drafted White in the 48th round of the 2009 draft and it was a bit of a surprise because he hadn’t played baseball in so long. White was a big time prospect coming out of high school, but instead went the football route and never played baseball at West Virginia. It’s hard to argue with his decision, he got a deal worth $4.5M with $2.4M guaranteed from the Dolphins when they made him a second round pick two years ago. White wouldn’t see $2.4M in baseball until he reached the big leagues and probably hit arbitration for the first time.

Anyway, the Yanks do not still own his rights. Because he was out of college eligibility, they held his rights for a full year after drafting him, but they lost those rights at this year’s draft. White is now a free agent, able to sign with any team. He’s been away from baseball so long that it’s tough to imagine him making a successful comeback, but stranger things have happened. Here’s a snippet of Baseball America’s scouting report from 2004, when White was coming out of high school…

He has emerged this spring as the best athlete in the prep class. White is an explosive runner whose quick hands at the plate and power potential evoke Devon White comparisons, and his power/speed combination is unmatched in the state. He hit .487-12-48 with 26 stolen bases this spring. To see White’s power, scouts have to watch him take batting practice; his approach means it’s usually absent during games. He’s shown more polish than expected in center field, and may not make it out of the third round.

I’m sure that’s changed a whole bunch over the years, but that gives you an idea of what he once was.

Pablo and many, many more asked: I’d be interested to know how much you’d give up for Colby Rasmus, if you would trade for him at all. Personally, I would give the Cardinals the option of picking any three of Betances, Banuelos, Brackman, Romine, Heathcott. Is that too much in your view?

A dozen people must have sent this question or some variation of it in this week, and understandably so. Rasmus is one of the best young players in all of baseball, and that’s before you consider last night’s 4-for-4, two homer game that raised his season batting line to .276/.360/.514 (.370 wOBA). He and Tony LaRussa apparently had some kind of falling out that led to Rasmus requesting a trade and getting called out by Albert Pujols. Imagine if Alex Rodriguez did something like that. But I digress.

It looks like the two sides are headed for a divorce in one way or another. LaRussa and Pujols might not appreciate Rasmus’ abilities, but I’m sure GM John Mozeliak and the rest of the front office do, so I don’t expect them to just give him away to resolve the clubhouse conflict. The only absolute negatives in his game at the moment are his strikeout rate (32.3%, fourth highest in baseball) and his platoon split (.386 wOBA vs. RHP, .327 vs. LHP). It’s worth noting that Rasmus’ strikeout rate in the minors (22.6%) was tolerable, and that he showed a much less pronounced platoon split (.860 OPS vs. RHP, .826 vs. LHP). His struggles in those departments probably have more to do with him being a 24-year-old in the big leagues than anything else.

I’m not sure letting them pick any three of those five prospects would work, because I know I’d want a more established player in return for a guy like Rasmus. Would I do it? Yes, though I might ask them to take two pitchers tops, just for depth reasons. A Jesus Montero for Rasmus trade doesn’t appear to make sense for the Cards since they have Yadier Molina at the plate and Pujols at first, though maybe they go for it if they don’t believe they can re-sign Pujols after next season. That seems extremely unlikely though.

Both Erik Manning and Peter Hjort, people much smarter than I, ran some numbers on Rasmus, and came up with trade values of $40.6M and $48.1M, respectively. Let’s split the difference and call it $44.4M for simplicity’s sake. In terms of prospects, that’s equivalent to a boatload according to Victor Wang’s research, basically three players ranked on the back half of a top 100 list. So yes, the proposed three of five package does fit the bill, but like I said, I’d want established players, not unproven prospects for a guy like Rasmus.

Let’s start a package around Brett Gardner, since the Yanks would need to displace an outfielder if they acquired Rasmus and because he seems like a LaRussa kind of guy. I pegged his trade value at $53.3M a few weeks ago, but I was using different dollar values than Manning and Hjort. They used roughly $4.5M per win, mine was closer to $4.8. I probably overshot Gardner’s value a bit (in fact, I know I did), but just looking at it subjectively, you have two outstanding defenders in center (by reputation, UZR isn’t a fan of Rasmus in a relatively small sample) that both profile as high OBP lefthanded hitters. The difference is that one player uses his speed to steal bases, the other hits homeruns. Homers are far, far more valuable than stolen bases.

Frankly, if Gardner’s the starting point for a Rasmus deal and the Cards are open to it, I don’t see how the Yanks could pass. Rasmus is three full years younger than Gardner, and how much room for growth is there in Brett’s game? It’s very possible that what he is right now is what he’ll be for the next five years, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s easy to see how a player with Rasmus’ ability can be more valuable down the road. Even if they have to include someone like Ivan Nova, that’s a fine deal. He’s expendable the Yanks given their upper level pitching depth.

I will qualify this answer by saying that I fully expect this year’s outfield to return next season, and that Rasmus will be traded somewhere, just not to the Yanks. If I had to put money on it, I’d guess either the Red Sox or Rays get in on the action. We can still dream, though.

Searching for a left fielder and finding one

Credit: AP Images, Julie Jacobson

When the 2010 season draws to a close, Robinson Cano‘s name will be in the mix for the AL Most Valuable Player award, and he’s certainly deserved it. Playing a stellar second base, Robbie is hitting .318/.380/.542 with career highs in home runs (26) and walks (50). After showing little patience during his first five big league seasons, his .062 IsoD is a pleasant and welcome surprise. But in one sense of the phrase, he hasn’t been the team’s most valuable player.

Enter Brett Gardner. Of the Yankees’ starting nine, Gardner is the little guy. He’s only the player in the team’s Lance Berkman-approved playoff lineup who has never been an All Star, and he’s the only player in the starting nine making less than $500,000 (or $5.5 million, for that matter). Yet, he’s second on the team in WAR and is now pushing nearly five wins above replacement level. While Cano’s emergence as a power-and-patience player has been a pleasure to watch, Brett Gardner is a true surprise.

On the season, Garnder is now at .284/.390/.384 through 504 plate appearances. He’s seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, ninth in walks with 70 and fourth in steals with 40. As a defender, too, his numbers are steller. His left field UZR is 16.9, and his arm is 5.3 runs above average. His eight outfield assists are second in the American League, and opposing teams have stopped running on his arm. Have I mentioned he’s making just $452,000 this year?

Last year, we watched in frustration as Melky Cabrera dominated the outfield playing time at the expense of Brett Gardner. He suffered through a poor debut in 2008 and couldn’t get into a groove in 2009. Penciled in as the stop-gap everyday left fielder until Carl Crawford hit the open market after 2010, Gardner was expected to man the nine hole, platoon in left field with Randy Winn and Marcus Thames and, hopefully, get on base 35 percent of the time. He’s been even better than that.

Lately, the Yanks have struggled to figure out how best to deploy Brett Gardner. He’s spent the bulk of the season at the bottom of the order, but his numbers in the nine hole are far worse than his numbers in leadoff spot. As the last guy up 199 times, he’s been on base just 35.1 percent of the time. Contrast that with his leadoff OBP of .440 in just under 100 plate appearances, and it’s a wonder anyone else ever gets to bat first. With his speed and patience, Gardner is a throwback to the feisty leadoff hitter of old.

Yet, with Gardner, there’s still a sense that this will all come crashing down. During the first half of the season, he hit .309/.396/.415 with 25 stolen bases in 31 attempts over 81 games. Since the All Star break, he’s hitting .236 with a very respectable .377 on-base percentage but his slugging has dropped to .324. He has successfully stolen in 15 of his 16 attempts over his previous 51 games. His BABIP has fallen from .360 in the first half to .315 in the second half, and his strike-out rate has shrunk from once every 6.4 plate appearances to once every 4.87 times at bat. Maybe the grind of his first full season in a few years is wearing on him; maybe the league is catching up. It’s worth it to note that, over his last 107 plate appearances, he’s hitting an impressive .301/.443/.410.

For the Yankees, then, they have a choice to make with Gardner and left field after the year is up. He’s clearly capable of putting up above-average Major League numbers and being an exceptional player. He’s also still under team control for a few more years: He won’t hit arbitration until 2012, and free agency won’t come to Brett until 2015. So does the team look to upgrade to a power-hitting free agent this year?

A month ago, I wasn’t so sure, but right now, I doubt anyone other than Gardner will start in left field next year. His presence on the team gives the Yanks flexibility in spending because they’re not pouring millions into that corner outfield position and are in fact getting $20 million worth of production out of their $452,00 investment. Even if he’s not a five-win player again next year, he’ll easily be in the 2.5-4 win range. Plus, his patience and ability to get on base — arguably his biggest assets at the bat — have not diminished as his hitting has slumped during the second half. I’d love to see Brett Gardner hit more doubles and a few more line drives, but as the Yanks enter a stretch of the season where every run is sacred, Gardner will have his role to play yet.

A visible difference from Swisher

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Nick Swisher is like a different hitter this year. In 2009 he was the same old Swisher, taking pitch after pitch in hopes of either running into one or drawing a walk. It worked out well, as he produced a career year. But he wasn’t satisfied with that. During the winter he worked with Kevin Long, which apparently resulted in a new stance and a new approach. Swisher is no longer the guy who finds himself with multiple full counts per game.

This year Swisher’s walk rate is a career low 9.3 percent after it was a career high 16 percent last season. Yet this doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily swinging earlier in the count. He has still seen 4.04 pitches per plate appearance this year, which, while worse than his 4.26 P/PA last year, still ranks 19th in the AL. The difference, it seems, is that Swisher is taking fewer pitches inside the zone, as evidenced by his 26 percent strike-looking rate, easily the lowest of his career. That means he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone, which are presumably better pitches.

You can see this in his strike zone plots. For 2009 I stopped at September 10 so we’d have a similar number of plots on each. Here’s 2009:

And 2010:

There’s a lot more white inside the zone this year. Most of his takes come around the edges, which is the way it should be. Last year he let a lot of hittable pitches pass him by. This year he’s taking advantage of those opportunities.

The result, by most measures, has been a smashing success. Swisher’s batting average currently sits at .292, even after a mild slump. He has never hit higher than .262 in any season. His wOBA is at a career high .383, thanks to a career-high .521 SLG. He’s hitting breaking balls much better than he has in the past as well. This has led to a much evener batted ball distribution. Here’s his 2009 spray chart:

And 2010:

There are more plots on the 2010 chart because he’s clearly put more balls in play this season. But the 2010 chart looks fuller, too. Swish has hit the ball to every part of the ballpark, while in 2009 he tended to put the ball into left field. He has used the right field line much more in 2010 and his doubles total, 31, just four fewer than last year, thanks him for it.

We’ve seen a new Nick Swisher in 2010, and it’s one that I think we can get used to. It’s amusing to recall that shortly after the Yankees acquired him that he was designated as fourth outfielder. Now he’s the right fielder of the forseeable future. Given the year he’s putting together, I think that’s something we can live with.

Rivera’s walk-off blast gives Trenton 2-0 series lead

Here’s Keith Law’s write-up about his scouting trip to see last night’s Double-A Trenton game (sub. req’d). “(Dellin Betances) is just 22, has good arm strength and has a workhorse, top-of-the-rotation body,” said KLaw, “but the poor command and secondary stuff put him far from any kind of high-end starter ceiling.” He also mentioned that Austin Romine looks straight up tired, and that Pat Venditte is basically throwing junk from the left side. Nothing new there.

Also, J.B. Cox was suspended following last night’s tantrum, and I suspect he’ll soon be released. Insubordination is bad enough, but there’s no need for the organization to tolerate that from a non-prospect. Especially when it’s not his first incident of the season.

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 win over Columbus in 10 innings) the best-of-five series is now tied at one … they beat up on an old friend in this one before blowing the lead late … The Ghost of Kei Igawa gets the ball in Game Three tomorrow
Reid Gorecki, CF: 0 for 3, 1 R, 2 BB, 3 SB
Kevin Russo, 2B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 SB, 1 CS – singled in the go-ahead run after Gorecki got himself into scoring position with a steal
Juan Miranda, 1B & Brandon Laird, 3B: both 0 for 4 – Miranda walked and struck out
Jorge Vazquez:  0 for 5, 5 K – aside from the game tying homer in the ninth inning yesterday, he’s 0-for-8 with seven punchouts in the series … he’s got to do better than that with Jesus Montero out
Chad Huffman, RF: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 K
Eric Bruntlett, SS: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI – check out the no-hit middle infielder getting in on the action
Justin Christian, LF: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI – he’s absolutely killing it of late … the hit streak is now up to 21 games
P.J. Pilittere, C: 1 for 3, 1 BB – who needs Montero? … I keed, I keed
David Phelps: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 6-7 GB/FB – 63 of 111 pitches were strikes (56.8%) … not his greatest effort, but good enough to win nonetheless
Royce Ring: 0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-0 GB/FB – just two of his six pitches were strikes
Zach Segovia: 0.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K – ten of his 15 pitches went for strikes
George Kontos: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K – just 12 of his 25 pitches were strikes (48%)
Kevin Whelan: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 17 of 32 pitches were strikes (53.1%) … walked in the tying run in the bottom of the eighth … I’m sure Dave Miley really misses Jon Albaladejo right about now … actually, wait, Miley was ejected in the third inning for arguing a force play at second
John Van Benschoten: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1-1 GB/FB – just 11 of his 23 pitches were strikes (47.8%) … look at how many freaking guys the bullpen walked in this one, awful

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Open Thread: Off to Texas

Almost. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Yankees are off today, prepping for a flight to Texas to take on the slumping Rangers. Josh Hamilton and Cliff Lee are both banged up, and they’ve won just three of their last ten games. Of course that means very little, because Texas still has enough firepower and good enough pitching to beat anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

As the Yanks get ready for that matchup, use this for your open thread. The NFL season starts tonight, with the Saints taking on the Vikings in an NFC Championship Game rematch at 8:30pm ET on NBC. Baseball-wise, either the Cardinals-Braves or Rangers-Blue Jays will be on MLB Network depending on where you live. Chat about whatever you want, just be cool.

Yankees claim Steve Garrison, remove DeLaRosa from 40-man roster

Via Mike Ashmore, the Yankees appear to be claiming lefthander Steve Garrison off waivers from the Padres. The move comes at the expense of Wilkin DeLaRosa, who was removed from the 40-man roster to make room for Garrison. Much like the Chad Huffman claim back in April, this move has Kevin Towers’ fingerprints all over it.

Garrison, 24 this weekend, is a local kid from Trenton. Almost exclusively a starter in the minors, he works in the upper-80’s/low-90’s with his fastball, and also features both a curveball and a slider. Apparently he also throws a changeup as well. Garrison has battled injuries and ineffectiveness over the last two years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yanks shifted him to the bullpen full-time. Remember, the claim is not yet official, though the WDLR cut is.