Yanks’ prospects shine in AzFL opener

The Arizona Fall League kicked off it’s two month (or so) long season today, and as usual the Yanks sent a bunch of prospects. It’s an extreme hitter’s league, so don’t get too excited by great offensive lines or discouraged by poor pitching lines. Anyway, the updates will appear every night around this time, kinda like … DotF!

AzFL Surprise (17-4 win over the Peoria Javelinas) Mike Dunn is the only Yanks farmhand on the Surprise roster that didn’t get into the game
Austin Romine: 1 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – caught six innings before being replaced
Brandon Laird: 4 for 6, 2 R, 3 RBI, 1 K
Colin Curtis: 3 for 6, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K – that’s his first three hit game since July 20th
Ian Kennedy: 4 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 5-3 GB/FB – 37 of 53 pitches were strikes (69.8%) … I should also mention that starters are capped at 5 innings in the Fall League … oh, and AzFL FX!
Zack Kroenke: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – just 12 of 25 pitches were strikes (48%)
Grant Duff: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 0-3 GB/FB - 13 of 18 pitches were strikes (72.2%)

Both the Mexican Pacific League and Venezuelan Winter League started their seasons last week, but because those stats are a bitch to get to, I only update them once a week, on Sundays. Here’s the winter ball assignments we know of:

Mexican Pacific League
Naranjeros de Hermosillo: RHP Danny Gil, IF Walt Ibarra

Venezuelan Winter League
Aguilas de Zulia: RHP Josh Schmidt, IF Luis Nunez
Cardenales de Lara: IF Carlos Mendoza, OF Edwar Gonzalez
Caribes de Anzoategui: LHP Juan Marcano, C Jose Gil, IF Emerson Landoni, OF Eduardo Sosa
Leones del Caracas: RHP Romulo Sanchez
Navegantes del Magallanes: C Jesus Montero, IF Reegie Corona, IF Marcos Vechionacci

We’re still waiting for Dominican Winter League and Puerto Rican League rosters. The DWL season is supposed to start Friday, so we should get rosters pretty soon. The PRL doesn’t start until November.

Quick Hits: Peterson on pitching, roster decisions and the ALCS sked

Interesting stuff, no?

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As we await the weekend start to the ALCS, the Yankees are busy attempting to put together a 25-man team best suited to take on the rival Angels. Brian Costa of The Star-Ledger says the roster won’t change much for the ALCS, but he does highlight a few questions the Yanks are attempting to answer.

First, Costa notes that the Jose Molina/A.J. Burnett/Jorge Posada love triangle has yet to be resolved. Girardi liked what he saw when Burnett threw to Molina on Friday, and the two could be battery-mates again this Saturday. If the Yanks pair up Jose and A.J., Francisco Cervelli will be on the roster. Otherwise, the speedy Freddy Guzman could earn a spot on the team.

Next, Costa takes on Damaso Marte. The lefty couldn’t get out the only two lefties he had to face against the Twins, and since the Angels are a right-hand heavy team, Marte may find himself sitting this round out. In his place, the Yanks would take Brian Bruney instead. For what it’s worth, the Angels’ team platoon splits were incredibly consistent. They hit .285/.353/.440 against righties and .286/.342/.446 against lefties. Bruney, who has been throwing in Tampa to stay ready, is probably the better choice for this round.

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Finally, we have a full ALCS schedule, and the game’s start times are, well, odd. Take a look. All times are Eastern, and all games are on FOX:

Game 1 (Friday, Oct. 16 @NYY): 7:57 p.m.
Game 2 (Saturday, Oct. 17 @NYY): 7:57 p.m.
Game 3 (Monday, Oct. 19 @LAA): 4:13 p.m.
Game 4 (Tuesday, Oct. 20 @LAA): 7:57 p.m.
Game 5* (Thursday, Oct. 22 @LAA): 7:57 p.m.
Game 6* (Saturday, Oct. 24 @NYY): 4:13 p.m.
Game 7* (Sunday, Oct. 25@NYY): 8:20 p.m.

* If necessary

Those of us who work will miss a good chunk of Monday’s game, and if the Yanks and Angels need six games, the Saturday afternoon affair will start amidst shadows in the Bronx. That’s the power of high-priced TV deals for you.

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Here’s your open thread for the night. There’s no baseball until Thursday, plus all the local hockey teams are off tonight. The only local sports on tonight are the Nets and Knicks on YES and MSG, respectively. Hopefully you have dinner plans, or at least some stuff on the DVR to catch up on. Chat about whatever you like here, just follow the guidelines and be excellent to each other.

Almost a Yankee: Jack Morris

When the Yankees were in Minnesota, albeit briefly this weekend, Jack Curry tracked down Jack Morris to catch up on old times. The two Jacks talked about 1996 when Jack Morris was almost a Yankee but backed out of the deal at the last minute. Morris, 41 at the time, now says he regrets that decision because he probably would have helped win himself a fourth World Series ring.

I don’t remember the dealings for 1996, and so I thought I’d dig up some archival materials on the dealings between Morris and the Yanks. When the 1996 season rolled around, Morris had been out of baseball for a year. He had a career record of 254-186 with a 3.90 ERA but had flamed out in Toronto and Cleveland in 1993 and 1994 respectively.

At the age of 41, Morris went to the St. Paul Saints to pitch in the independent league. On July 15, 1996, Currey reported that the Yanks were scouting Morris. At the time, the right-hander was 5-1 with a 2.17 ERA, and with David Cone out and Dwight Gooden aching, the Yankees were looking for some back-end help for the starting rotation. “That’s a real long shot,” GM Bob Watson said of landing Morris.

Over the next few days, the Morris rumors increased. On July 20, Morris and the Yankees appeared to be headed for a deal. The financials of the deal were in place, but Morris and the Yankees were haggling over Minor League starts. The veteran wanted to make just one Minor League start before being activated while the Yanks wanted him to make two.

“Jack feels he’s pitched in front of the Yankees for the last 20 years,” Morris’ agent Jim Barrons said. “Either the Yankees feel he can do it or he can’t. He doesn’t think pitching at Columbus will help that.”

The next day, Curry reported that the deal had fallen apart. According to Curry, Watson said “he was not thrilled with Morris’s fastball or his location on pitches.” Barrons claimed that then-Assistant GM Brian Cashman spoke about the dispute over the Minor League stint and not Morris’ fastball velocity which at the time was just 89.

In the end, Morris never made it back to the Big Leagues. The 1996 Yankees acquired Dave Weathers and Cecil Fielder at the deadline and managed to patch together a World Series-winning rotation anyway. No wonder Morris now regrets his decision to push for just one Minor League start.

Starter? Reliever? How about pitcher?

When it comes to young pitchers, uncertainty abounds. Teams draft pitchers with an idea of their talent level and potential, but neither brings any guarantees once the pitcher begins his professional career. Sometimes the talent doesn’t correlate to the results. When it does, the pitcher then has to face increasing levels of competition until he reaches the majors, the most difficult challenge of anyone’s career. Along the way anything can go wrong, leaving a once promising career in a shambles. Even as teams employ better measures of a player’s true ability level, they cannot erase the uncertainty that comes with pitching prospects — or, as TINSTAPP would say, inexperienced pitchers.

In recent years we’ve seen another level of uncertainty, that of a pitcher’s role. No one embodies this uncertainty like Joba Chamberlain. A 2006 draftee, Chamberlain dominated the minors as a starter in 2007, moving through both A+ and AA levels. He possessed such electric stuff that the Yankees thought they could use Chamberlain at the major league level in 2007. The only hitch was that he’d pitch out of the bullpen. The reasons were twofold. First, the Yankees desperately needed another reliable option to set up Mariano Rivera. Second, finishing the season in the bullpen would keep Chamberlain’s innings in check, a concern for all young pitchers but especially for Chamberlain, who had not only limited professional experience, but only about 210 innings in college.

Chamberlain continued his dominance in the major league bullpen, allowing just one earned run, a solo homer, over 24 innings. It begat one of the winter’s two debates: should Joba be a starter or reliever? The two sides took firm stances. The reliever crowd had seen enough. Joba’s performance over those 24 innings fully convinced them that his proper role was in the bullpen. The starter crowed wanted to see if he could fulfill his top-end starter potential. In that role he’d be more valuable than a relief pitcher, even a top closer. The debate raged in 2008, as Chamberlain started lights out in the pen (though not as lights out as his small 2007 sample) and then pitched well in the rotation.

While the debate over Phil Hughes hasn’t been as heated and didn’t divide the fan base as much, there are still questions as to Hughes’s proper role. For the most part, Hughes has been a mediocre starter in the majors and a lights out setup man. With that visual evidence in place, some think that he’s better suited for the bullpen. Others think that the move to the bullpen was the confidence booster Hughes needed to fulfill his potential as a starter. After all, it was in the bullpen that Hughes started to resemble his scouting report. If he can take that back to the rotation, the Yankees could have the ace they envisioned when they drafted him in 2004.

But why are fans so intent on knowing each pitcher’s role — definitively and right now? Both sides of the debate are guilty of this. The starter side wants to see both Hughes and Joba in the bullpen until they prove they can’t handle it. The reliever side wants to see them put in their proper place as soon as possible, so they can maximize their values. If the Yankees are smart, they’ll ignore the calls to take a side and continue developing both Joba and Hughes as pitchers, rather than as starters or relievers.

There was a time in baseball when pitchers bounced back and forth between the bullpen and rotation. This was based on team need and performance. Earl Weaver is often cited for employing this philosophy. He thought that pitchers should break into majors as relievers, and only move to the rotation when they proved they could handle the bigs and the team needed them in that spot. This meant some bouncing around between the rotation and the bullpen, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, these guys are pitchers. One of my favorite bits of advice for writers is that writers write. In the same way, pitchers pitch. Forget roles; just pitch.

The idea is older than me, but it seems that teams have put more of an emphasis on roles in recent years. There are a few reasons for this, but neither seems provable or particularly valid to me. First is that bouncing a guy between the rotation and the bullpen can cause injury. That notion was reinforced for the Yankees last August when Joba Chamberlain injured his shoulder after transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation. That, however, represents just one instance of correlation to the theory. There is certainly no causation present, and to my knowledge there isn’t even a study which posits a greater correlation. The idea that pitchers are put at risk to injury when moving between the bullpen and rotation is anecdotal at best, and downright wrong at worst.

The second concern relates to roles themselves. From comments Phil Coke made earlier in the season, the guys in the bullpen prefer having a defined role. That’s fine, but since when do baseball teams make decisions based on the players’ wishes? Again, pitchers pitch. If a guy can’t mentally prepare for any role, then he’s not as versatile as a pitcher who can take the ball whenever called, whether to start the game, as a mop-up man in a blowout, or in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. But, because teams — or, at least, the Yankees — are so obsessed with roles, we sometimes don’t get to see a pitcher’s true potential.

Because the nature of pitching is so volatile, it’s tough to define a pitcher’s role early in his career. Obviously, starters provide more value than relievers, but what if a pitcher is better suited to late-inning relief work? That raises the further question of whether the pitcher should be put in his best possible role, or in the role that provides the team with the most overall value. In the case of unnecessarily pigeonholing relievers, we might not get to see where a pitcher thrives, because he’s kept from that role. So instead of setting a player’s role, perhaps teams should be more flexible — and train their pitchers to be more flexible as well.

Pitchers pitch, and not all pitchers are the same. Those are two key ideas in the starter vs. reliever debate. Good starters provide more value than top relievers, but some pitchers are better suited to relief work. The results should bear that out. The best way, then, to determine a pitcher’s fate is to try him out in all types of roles while keeping his ultimate rule undetermined. Over time, a pitcher’s performance should indicate the answer. If more teams employed this philosophy, maybe we wouldn’t get totally moronic, whiney columns from national baseball writers who have nothing better to write about. But more importantly, we’d see pitchers defining their own roles, rather than having the team define the role for them.

ALCS Preview: The starters

For the third time in the last eight years, the Yankees and Angels will lockup in a postseason series. This time they’re meeting in the American League Championship Series, so a trip to the World Series is directly on the line. Much will be made about how the Angels have handled the Yanks in recent years (53-38 head-to-head in the Scioscia Era), but these are different teams with different players kicking off a brand new series tied at zero.

We’ve already taken a look at the managers, so let’s move on to the guys that will set the tone each game, the starting pitchers.

Game One: CC Sabathia vs. John Lackey
Prior to 2009, Sabathia’s postseason career was nothing to look at. Lackey, on the other hand, has a pretty impressive playoff record. As a rookie, he won Game Seven of the 2002 World Series on three day’s rest, and in total he’s made 10 postseason starts (and two relief appearances) with a 3.02 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP, both considerably lower than his regular season stats. However, Lackey missed parts of the last two seasons with arm injuries, and he’s walking more batters while striking out fewer now than he did in his heyday. Against the lifeless Red Sox in the ALDS, Lackey threw 7.1 scoreless innings.

Sabathia, on the other hand, is no chump. He’ll start Game One with 236.2 innings already on his arm, which is what he’d thrown through Sept. 20th last year. He settled down very nicely after a rocky first three innings against the Twins in the ALDS, temporarily shaking that postseason choker tag. Regardless of that nonsense, Sabathia has similar walk, strikeout, and homerun rates as Lackey, but he’s much tougher to hit, holding opponents to a .233 batting average against. The Angels struggle against quality fastballs, so Sabathia is the ideal guys to kick off the series.

Game Two: A.J. Burnett vs. Jered Weaver
Weaver, like Lackey, feasted on the punchless Red Sox in the ALDS, tossing 7.1 innings of two-hit, one-run ball. His walk, strikeout, homer, and hit rates are all similar to Lackey’s, but he’s already 39.2 IP over his previous career high set last year, so fatigue could end up being a factor. He also struggles against lefties, who’ve got close to a .200 point OPS advantage off Weaver than righties. The Yankees have also proven to be a tough assignment throughout his career, hitting him up for a .263-.341-.558 batting line, resulting in a 5.88 ERA in seven career starts.

With his personal catcher behind the plate, Burnett walked a tightrope in his first career playoff start last week. Giving away free passes at a rate of five every six innings isn’t going to cut it, especially since an Angels team that will run wild on the basepaths and hits extremely well with men in scoring position. However, Burnett has the same advantage as Sabathia in that he’s a power pitcher, though he had one good and one bad start against the Halos this year. This one might be a wash.

Game Three: Andy Pettitte vs. Scott Kazmir
It’s amazing to think that because of Tampa Bay’s run to the Fall Classic last year, Scott Kazmir had made as many postseason starts (6) as CC Sabathia. His postseason track record mirrors his regular season struggles over the last two years, however Kazmir has rediscovered some of the velocity that made him so highly touted a few years ago, and you know that all those years in the brutal AL East means he won’t crap his pants when the Bombers roll into town. Pettitte, well there’s not much to say about his postseason track record that hasn’t already been said a million times over. You have to favor the Yanks here.

Given the schedule of the ALCS, both teams could deploy their top starter on three day’s rest in Game Four, then again on full rest in Game Seven. It makes sense for both clubs to do that regardless of how the first three games play out, because they both sport inferior fourth starter options.

The Yankees used Chad Gaudin and Joba Chamberlain as their number four and five starters down the stretch, though Joba was effective in short stints out of the bullpen in the ALDS, and you get the feeling that Joe Girardi likes having that extra power arm available late in the game. That makes it likely the team would turn to Gaudin for a potential Game Four start.

Despite his success in September (3.54 ERA, team was 5-0 in his five starts), Gaudin’s weakness is that he has trouble getting lefthanders out because he’s so fastball-slider heavy. On the year, he’s held righties to a .224-.293-.380 batting line, but lefties rocked him to the tune of .296-.408-.415. On any given day the Angels can run pencil six lefties into their lineup (well, Bobby Abreu plus five switch hitters), obviously not a good matchup for Gaudin. Regardless of how effective Chad was down the stretch, CC Sabathia on three day’s rest is better than anything else the Yankees have.

As for the Angels, they could go with southpaw Joe Saunders in Game Four, but he’s just as shaky an option as Gaudin. After his breakout 2008 season, Saunders allowed 15 more hits, 8 more homers, and 11 more unintentional walks in 12 fewer innings in 2009. He also battled a shoulder injury, putting up a 2.55 ERA in eight starts against weak competition to finish the year after coming off the DL. Like Gaudin, Saunders has a significant platoon split, holding lefties to a .696 OPS while righties pound him for a .829 OPS. Unlike Gaudin, Saunders doesn’t strike anyone out (4.9 K/9), which plays right into the Yankees strength because they struck out less than all but three teams this season (one stupid little strikeout away from that being just two teams). Again, John Lackey on three day’s rest is a superior option.

It’s entirely possible one of the two managers will try to get cute with a 3-0 or 2-1 series lead and go to their fourth starter, but in a potential seven game series against one of the three best teams in the league? I want my ace taking the ball as much as possible. Assuming the the Yanks go with Sabathia in Game Four, you have to give the Yanks the edge when it comes to the rotation because of the ability to trot out premium hard throwers in five of the seven possible games.

Where did Phil Hughes’ curveball go?

Like most (all?) of you guys, I spent my Sunday evening watching Phil Hughes pitch part of the 8th inning in the Yankees’ series clinching win over the Twins. And also like most of you, I was waiting for Hughes to throw either Denard Span or Orlando Cabrera a curveball, a curveball that ultimately never came. In fact, just 3 (3!) of the 59 pitches Hughes threw in the ALDS were curveballs, that’s it. This wasn’t the first time I found myself wondering if St. Phil was ever going to break out Uncle Charlie, and it seemed like I was waiting for it more and more as the season progressed.

Since your memory can deceive you (“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts,” said the guy in Memento), I decided to turn to good ol’ PitchFX and dig up the facts. First things first, let’s take a look at Hughes’ pitch selection this season. Remember to click any chart in this, or pretty much any RAB post, for a larger view.

Phil Hughes' Pitch Selection, 2009

As you probably expected, Hughes went fastball heavy once he shifted to the bullpen, as he should. There’s no point messing around with your third or fourth best pitch as a reliever, and you can clearly see that his velocity spiked after the move. As for how much he was throwing each pitch as the season progressed, well that graph comes after the jump.

[Read more…]

ALCS Preview: A tale of two managers

When the Yankees and the Angels begin their ALCS series on Friday, the coverage on FOX is sure to center around the two men leading these teams. Mike Scioscia and Joe Girardi have a lot in common. They were both defensive-minded catchers known for playing hard and coming prepared. As managers, they both sport identical .556 winning percentages although the Angels’ skipper has compiled his over ten seasons while Girardi has just three years of experience in the dugout.

The Angels, as we all know, play the Yankees hard. Including the post-season, the Angels are 53-38 against the Yanks since Scioscia assumed the managerial duties from Terry Collins and Joe Maddon after a fourth-place finish in 1999. As Ken Davidoff writes today, Scioscia is not intimidated by the Yankees. But what Major League manager would be intimidated by any of his opponents?

This year, Scioscia led his team to 97 victories, good for second best in the Major Leagues and six shy of the Yanks’ mark. When these two teams faced off, they played to a draw. The Angels won four of the first six contest, and the Yanks won three of the last four. Yet, despite their respective successes, Mike Scioscia and Joe Girardi approach the game differently. We can see it in the way the Yankees draw more walks, hit more home runs and rely less on the small base approach embodied in bunting, stealing and hitting-and-running than the Angels do.

Offensively, the Angels’ differing approach is clear from the get-go. The Yankees hit a franchise-record 244 home runs this year and slugged .478 as a team. The Angels hit 71 fewer home runs and slugged .441. Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins both drew more than 90 walks, but only one other player on the team had an on-base percentage above .360. Of the Yanks’ starting nine, only Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano sported OBPs below that .360 mark. The Angels like to swing and run; the Yankees like to wait and mash.

Strategically, Scioscia takes advantage of his team’s speed. He attempted 171 stolen bases this year, and his runners were successful 127 times good for a 74.2 percent success rate. Joe Girardi’s Yankees meanwhile were better base runners but more cautious for it. The Yanks attempted 124 steals and were successful 101 times or 81.5 percent of the time. The Angels went 9 for 11 in double-steal situations while the Yanks were a perfect 4-for-4. Expect the Angels to test Jorge Posada when he is behind the dish during the series.

Scioscia will also play small ball far more often than the Yanks do. Joe Girardi asked his players to sacrifice 49 times this season, and 21 of those sac bunt attempts came with the pitcher batting during Interleague play. The Angels, meanwhile, tried to sacrifice 64 times with non-pitchers trying 41 times. Percentage-wise, 57 percent of Yankee bunts were by non-pitchers while 64 percent of Angels’ bunt attempts were by non-pitchers. Scioscia will, in other words, play for one run.

Where this series may very well be decided, though, is in the bullpen. Joe Girardi made 461 pitching changes as compared to Scioscia’s 434, and the Yankees got better results for it. Yankee relievers did not allow runs to score in 301 of those appearances or 65 percent of the time. The Angels, meanwhile, did not allow runs 62 percent of the time. While that pure difference is seemingly small, the Yanks’ pen went 40-17 with a 3.91 ERA while the Angels’ relievers were 27-23 with a 4.49 ERA. As Mike noted last night, the Anaheim pen is definitely a weakness.

And so those are the ALCS managers. Can Scioscia exploit the Angels’ speed and small ball approach? Can Joe Girardi use his superior bullpen to leverage late-inning situations better than the Angels can? Can the Yanks’ skipper win his chess game? These two men will take center stage over the next week, and we’ll find out just whose strategy works best.