Comparing the Yankees to their peers: The starters

So far, in examining the Yankees offense, we’ve learned that the infield is pretty good and that the outfield is phenomenal. It all adds up to the second-best offense in the league (though the most high-powered one). Yet it’s the pitching staff that has impressed the most this year. Thought to be one of the team’s weak points heading into the season, the pitchers have stepped up and have allowed just 3.80 runs per game, which ranks fourth in the AL. Let’s see how the starters stack up.

Comparing pitchers is a bit trickier than comparing hitters. Defense consists of two aspects: pitching and fielding. Both have an effect on run-scoring, and so when I say that the Yankees pitchers’ have held opponents to 3.80 runs per game, I really mean that the Yankees pitchers and fielders have done that. Sticking with the three-point comparisons, we’ll go with ERA, which includes both pitching and fielding, FIP, which isolates pitcher-specific events, and WAR.

NOTE: There are 113 qualified pitchers.

CC Sabathia

(Paul Sancya/AP)

Coming into the season, Sabathia was the one pitcher on whom the Yankees could rely. With only Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett as surefire rotation candidates behind him, the Yankees needed Sabathia to step up and again be the ace they signed to the most expensive contract for a pitcher in MLB history. He’s done that and more, turning in a superb first half.

ERA: 2.72, 14th. In years prior, a 2.72 ERA would certainly rank higher than 14th in the majors. But in this reduced run-scoring environment it’s a degree lower. Still, plenty of teams don’t have a player with an ERA nearly this low. It’s a great mark, even if it’s not top-10 in teh league.

FIP: 2.50, 5th. Now we’re talking. Thanks to a low walk rate and an even lower home run rate, Sabathia’s fielding-independent stats rank far higher than most of his peers. His strikeout rate has been rising, too, especially in his last few starts.

WAR: 4.8, 2nd. This is what happens when you have the second most innings pitched in baseball. Sabathia provides major value this way. He not only pitches quality innings, but he pitches a lot of them. There aren’t many workhorses left, and that’s one reason that Sabathia is the richest pitcher in baseball.

Bartolo Colon

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Who would have thought that Colon would even make the team out of spring training, never mind turn into their second best pitcher? Bart has been a pleasant surprise of the greatest kind. Not only has he been effective in the first half, but he’s been a joy to watch. That two-seamer is a thing of beauty, and we can only hope beyond hope that he remains healthy in the second half.

ERA: 3.20, 35th. Big Bart has done a great job keeping runs off the board in his 90 innings. His season is so far bookended by two tough appearances, meaning all the appearances in between were that much better. He certainly does take advantage of the defense, though he does have a decent strikeout rate.

FIP: 3.54, 42nd. Colon’s success might seem like luck, in large part, but he’s actually pitched well in fielding-independent terms. This is because he doens’t walk many batters, a 2.20 BB/9. That, combined with a slightly below average BABIP, means he has fewer runners on base when he allows home runs — he’s given up 11 in 90 innings. This does give some hope for the second half.

WAR: 1.6, 50th. Such are the perils of starting the year in the pen and then spending a few weeks on the DL. Colon would be higher if he had pitched more than 90 innings, but hey, he’s got fewer innings pitched than the other pitchers who are around the 1.6 WAR mark. Again, it bodes well for the second half — if he stays healthy.

A.J. Burnett

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

This is a big year for Burnett. He slid considerably in 2010, and the Yankees needed him to step up in a rebound effort. If he didn’t, who knows what they’d have to do. It’s not easy to deal with a guy who has that much money remaining on his contract. He’s been decent, at best, but it could obviously be a lot worse. It’s not acceptable really, but it’s reality at this point.

ERA: 4.15, 77th. Honestly, this could be a lot worse. It’s certainly below average, but it’s not nearly as bad as last year. The main difference is that he’s so far avoided his June, 2010-like implosion month. His strikeout rate is acceptable and his walk rate is predictably high, but Burnett has managed to get the job done.

FIP: 4.54, 96th. What happens when you give up a lot of homers and walk too many batters? Usually it will lead to an inflated ERA, but in the case of Burnett it has only inflated his fielding-independent stats. A .242 BABIP helps keep men off base, thus reducing the effect of the homers. I just fear that the magic wears off in the second half. On the other hand, xFIP, which normalizes home run rate based on fly balls allowed, has Burnett several degrees better, at a 3.85 mark.

WAR: 0.9, 83rd. Burnett has pitched 119.1 innings, so that’s not the issue with his WAR. Rather, it’s his 4.54 FIP. It would be a shame to see the Yankees get less than two wins over replacement for their $17.5 million, but that was the risk with Burnett. Of course, the original risk was that he’d get hurt and not pitch enough innings to eclipse 2 WAR. I don’t think anyone figured him to pitch this poorly.

Freddy Garcia

(Frank Franklin II/AP)

Garcia hasn’t been a surprise on the level of Colon, in that he doesn’t dazzle with his stuff. But he has been far more effective than anyone could have wished. When the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal it made sense, since they had recently heard of Andy Pettitte‘s retirement. At that point I thought he’d fill in for a month or two and then be back on the scrap heap. But he’s been a big part of the rotation’s success so far.

ERA: 3.13, 32nd. This is the biggest surprise of all. Who would have thought that Garcia would have the second-lowest ERA on the team through the first half? I’m guessing it’s only slightly larger than the number of people who thought he’d be here, period. Garcia has used smoke and mirrors to work his way through lineups, but hey, the Yanks will take it at this point.

FIP: 3.97, 72nd. While Colon has put up solid fielding independent numbers, Garcia has been a bit less than that. Again, it’s to be expected. He’s kept the ball in the park despite a low ground ball rate, but he has an embarrassingly low strikeout rate. Still, even if he regresses to his FIP in the second half, he’ll still be only slightly below average. Again, I’m pretty sure everyone would have taken that from Freddy when he signed this winter.

WAR: 1.3, 71st. As with Colon, this is largely a product of innings, just 92. Since FanGraphs WAR is based on FIP, Garcia gets dinged a bit here. Again, the idea is not to show what should have happened. Rather, it’s to give the pitcher credit for only things that he, and not the defense, did.

The Yankees have also gotten 22 starts out of Ivan Nova, Brian Gordon, and Phil Hughes. While I’d love to put them into the comparison, Nova is in AAA and the other two have combined for 25.2 innings. Nova would rank just ahead of Burnett in the ERA and FIP categories while falling 0.1 WAR behind (on account of innings pitched). Overall it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the starting staff. It might not be pretty, but they’ve gotten the job done.

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Bartolo’s Indian Summer

“None of us can predict what’s gonna happen” – Joe Girardi, March 22, 2011 on the decision to begin the season with Bartolo Colon in the bullpen

As weird as it seems now, Bartolo Colon began the season in the bullpen after losing the 5th starter battle to Freddy Garcia back in March. While Colon had out-pitched Garcia in Spring Training, and while his stuff looked fantastic, there were serious questions about his durability. This wasn’t exactly an unfounded concern – Colon is 38 years old, didn’t pitch at all in the majors last season, and last topped 100 innings back in 2005. “Eater” is a word that comes to mind when one thinks of Bartolo, but it’s in connection with food, not innings.

So thank goodness, in a sense, for Phil Hughes‘ dead arm. As it turned out, Hughes’ injury opened the door for Colon and allowed the Yankees to see what they really had in him. Despite a rough outing last time out, he has really come up in spades for the team. Aided by a shoulder rejuvenated by a controversial stem-cell procedure, Colon has been the second-best starter on the 2011 Yankees. As comeback stories go, this one is almost a bit too good to be true. Indeed, this veteran and two-time All Star is having the best season of his length career, even better than when he beat out Johan Santana for the Cy Young in 2005.

In 2005 Colon pitched 222.2 innings of 3.48 ERA ball for the Angels. His W-L record was sterling, 21-8, and was no doubt the driving force behind him winning the Cy Young. Colon’s K rate was 6.35/9, not exactly the highest strikeout rate of Cy Young winners, but he only handed out 1.74 walks per nine innings. His FIP on the year was 3.75, and his xFIP was 3.91. This year he’s doing even better. He’s struck out 7.90 batters per nine innings so far in 2011 while maintaining his typically low walk rate of 2.20/9. His BABIP is a touch lower than his career norm (and his last outing certainly helped bring it closer to average), but other than that there’s┬áthere’s no indication that Colon has benefited from anything unsustainable or odd. By all measures, this is a career year for Bartolo Colon, and he looks fantastic. His two-seam fastball is a jaw-dropper when it’s on. You can see it here at 0:54.

A lot of analysts have been expecting the Yankees to be in the market for front-line pitching. By all indications, they are. But a lot of the preseason speculation on the topic was predicated on the notion that either A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes represented the Yankees #2 starter, and that Garcia/Colon/Nova were simply back-end guys designed to soak up innings to be moved out when the reinforcements arrived. No one expected Colon to become that #2 starter for the team. But that’s what he is, and it’s not a mirage. He has the 11th lowest SIERA of any AL pitcher, better than Jon Lester, CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett, albeit in fewer innings.

It’s hard to imagine that a story on the New York Yankees would go relatively underreported, but it seems as if that’s what’s happened with Bartolo. A fair amount of attention has been given to his surgery, but not enough has been given to the fact that he’s having a career season at the ripe old age of 38. There is concern about his durability – the last time he cracked even 100 innings was 2005 – and perhaps the Yankees would be wise to monitor his workload down the stretch. But the fact remains that as of today he represents a viable #2 starter behind CC Sabathia, giving the Yankees flexibility as they head into the trade deadline. These 90 innings from Bartolo and ~1.6 fWAR are no small reason the Yankees are tied with Boston in the loss column for first place in July.

The chapter on this season’s New York Yankees isn’t written yet. It’s barely halfway through. No matter what happens with this club – whether they miss the playoffs, get knocked out, or cruise down the Canyon of Heroes in November through a shower of praise and confetti – there’s no doubt that Bartolo Colon has contributed in a large way to the success of this team. Something Girardi said back in Spring Training now rings true, not only for Spring Training but also as an epitapth for the season at its midpoint: “Bartolo was the wild card in all of this”.

Pregame Notes: Rain and a Nunez-less lineup

First things first, no I have no idea if the start of the game will be delayed, but Joel Sherman heard from the Mets that the rain will keep up until 2:30pm ET or so. So yeah, there figures to be some kind of delay at some point. The tarp has been on the field all morning and the players did all their pregame stuff indoors.

Secondly, Eduardo Nunez will not play today because his hamstring tightened up yesterday as he ran out his first double. Joe Girardi doesn’t believe it’s anything serious, especially since he continued to hit the snot out of the ball after first feeling it, and there are no tests scheduled. He just doesn’t want to play him on the wet grass, so Ramiro Pena will get the start at shortstop. There was a late report today, so Girardi’s still waiting to talk to everyone to make sure they’re okay before settling on a lineup. No reason to believe anyone besides Nunez is hurt, just standard operating procedure.

  • Bartolo Colon felt fine after yesterday’s start, so that’s good news. Day-after soreness is always the concern when a guy comes back from an injury. Bart told Girardi he could start today, but not tomorrow. Love him.
  • Girardi did not talk to Derek Jeter last night, but he heard everything went well in his first rehab game with Double-A Trenton. He’ll talk to him today to see how he feels. There’s no plan in place for Jeter should Trenton get rained out today, that’s something they’ll discuss if it comes to it. Girardi said he doesn’t expect to alter Derek’s rest schedule once he does come back, and he has no issue with him playing in the All-Star Game if he’s healthy.
  • There’s still no plan in place for the starting rotation beyond tomorrow’s game, which A.J. Burnett will definitely start. Phil Hughes lines up to pitch tomorrow, but they still haven’t decided if they’ll activate him or have him make one more rehab start. The All-Star break is a consideration in that if they activate him this week, he’ll have to sit for another ten days almost immediately, but Girardi said that’s not necessarily a bad thing because Hughes has been rehabbing pretty hard. They’re likely to get this allsorted out by the end of the day, but no promises.
  • Part of the reason why they’ve waited so long to make the decision is a) these things tend to take care of themselves (i.e. injury), and b) everyone is pitching well. Girardi feels there is no wrong decision to be made for that reason, everyone’s performing well, especially of late.
  • As for Jose Reyes, he is having his MRI this morning and Terry Collins did not have an update during his pregame press conference. They’ll have one soon, but for now Angel Pagan takes over as leadoff hitter. Reyes won’t play again until he’s 100% healthy though, hamstrings are tricky and the last thing they want him to do is re-aggravate the injury and kill his trade value miss more time.

Update: Lance Pendleton just walked into the clubhouse. His name and 25 others are listed on the roster sheet, so there’s a move coming. Also, same lineup as yesterday, just Pena in for Nunez.

Postgame Notes: “Derek’s our shortstop”

Two topics dominated Joe Girardi‘s postgame press conference: Eduardo Nunez and Bartolo Colon. The Yankees’ temporary shortstop went 3-for-4 with three extra base hits this afternoon (the one out was a rocket that Justin Turner caught on a dive), leading to questions about his role with the team after Derek Jeter comes off the disabled list on Monday. “Derek’s our shortstop,” said Girardi, who rattled off cliche after cliche about how Jeter’s done it for them before and he makes the team better when he does the things he can do, so on and so forth.

It’s clear Jeter will get back his job on Monday, leaving Nunez and limbo. Girardi acknowledged that he’s been impressive when pressed into everyday duty (.339/.369/.525 with four walks and four strikeouts in 65 plate appearances since taking over), and they’re going to look for ways to get him more at-bats in the second half. The skipper mentioned giving Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez a little more rest than usual, be it days off or half games at designated hitter. Basically whatever they have to do to keep him going. The July and August weather figures to be hot and they have some extended stretches with no days, plus they have a few doubleheaders to get through. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if Jeter comes back and continues to hit poorly (.260/.324/.324 before the injury), because Nunez has certainly given everyone something to think about. This long-time nonbeliever included.

  • “[That’s] as good as I’ve seen [Bartolo], and I’ve seen him really good.” That wasn’t Joe Girardi, that was Mets manager Terry Collins. Girardi called this afternoon’s performance “vintage Bart,” emphasizing the movement on his two-seamer that resulted in five called strike threes out of six total strikeouts. They’re going to see how he feels tomorrow, see if there’s soreness in the hamstring before deciding whether or not to give him an extra day off before his next start.
  • Still no word about what happens to the rotation when Phil Hughes is ready to be activated, though that ties into the previous bullet point. Girardi didn’t promise he’d have an answer tomorrow either.
  • Girardi credited Dillon Gee’s changeup for keeping the Yankees off balance for the first five innings, but that’s as obvious as it gets.
  • Since this was Game 81, the season is officially halfway over. The Yankees have won 50 games already and Girardi just repeated what he said before the game: he’s pleased with his team and likes the way they’ve rebounded after tough games and series.
  • As for Jose Reyes, his hamstring tightening up running out his first inning infield single, but he didn’t say anything until he came off the field between the top and bottom halves of the second inning. He’s going for an MRI tomorrow and they’ll know more about how serious the injury is then. Reyes has dealt with hamstring issues in the past, but apparently this is the other hamstring. Collins stressed that they took him out as a precaution, Reyes didn’t ask to be lifted.

The win guaranteed that the Yankees will go a perfect 6-0 in interleague series this year. They’re on one of those rolls when they look unstoppable, and right now they are. The offense is clicking, the starting pitching has been great, and the misfit relievers behind David Robertson and Mariano Rivera have been a pleasant surprise.

Pregame Notes: All About Derek

The hot topic during Joe Girardi‘s pregame press conference today was Derek Jeter, who will begin a two-game rehab assignment with Double-A Trenton tonight. The skipper isn’t sure how much he’ll play tonight (Mike Ashmore says it’ll likely be six innings), but in a perfect world Girardi would like to see the Cap’n get three at-bats and play six or seven innings in the field. He hopes they’re short innings too, he doesn’t want Jeter standing out there for a while. Craig Heyer is the scheduled starter for Trenton and he typically works quickly and pounds the zone, so that’s good.

Girardi will call Jeter after the game (Trenton plays at 7pm ET) just to see how he feels, then the team will figure out a plan of attack for the next week. Derek won’t play nine consecutive games before the All-Star break (two rehab games plus seven straight games with the big league team), so he’ll get a day off somewhere in there. Girardi said it would be nice for Jeter to get his 3,000th hit at home, but winning is priority number one. After three games in Cleveland, the Yankees will be home for four straight against Tampa. My guess is he plays Monday and Tuesday, sits Wednesday, then plays all four at home. Unless Jeter goes bananas in those first two games against the Indians, he’ll get the milestone hit in the Bronx.

  • Bartolo Colon told Girardi that he’ll pitch all nine innings today, but they’re going to limit him to 80-85 pitches after he threw 61 in Monday’s simulated game. Colon’s hamstring is healthy and they’re not concerned about his ability to field his position when the the Mets inevitably test him with bunts. They’re more concerned about the fatigue related with fielding the bunts and running the bases, not him re-injuring the hammy.
  • Girardi praised a) Russell Martin and Larry Rothschild for the job they’ve done learning a new pitching staff so quickly, and b) all the bullpen guys they’ve called up this year due to injury, specifically mentioning Cody Wade, Luis Ayala, and Hector Noesi. At the halfway point of the season (today is Game 81), Girardi is pleased with where his team is, particularly the way they “bounced back after some difficult losses and difficult series.”
  • Speaking of Noesi, he is still with the team. Brian Gordon was sent down to make room on the roster for Colon, in case you missed it. They were concerned that Gordon was rusty after not pitching in eleven days. Girardi said another roster move is coming soon, and I assume he was talking about Phil Hughes. No hint about what that move may be, but we heard they’re thinking about sending down Ivan Nova.
  • The Yankees haven’t figured out how they’ll address their sudden abundance of starters, but they’re going to discuss it soon. They’re not against using a six-man rotation, but they also don’t want to give CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett too much rest between starts. Since the All-Star break is a week away, I figure they could get away with a six-man rotation this time around then sort things out after the break.
  • “Robbie is deserving, I believe,” responded Girardi when asked if he felt David Robertson should go to the All-Star Game. After being in the position of picking the AL squad last season, he understands that it’s tough to get a guy like Robertson on the roster since the Yankees figure to have so many other All-Stars and the need for every team to be represented.
  • In case you were wondering, Nick Swisher was walking around the clubhouse just fine, so that foul ball off his foot last night doesn’t appear to be a problem. He’s in the lineup today, which you can see here. It’s the standard lineup.

Gordon optioned down for Colon

Surprise! It’s not Hector Noesi going down for Bartolo Colon, it’s Brian Gordon. Gordon will start for Triple-A Scranton, and Joe Girardi said during his pregame presser that they were concerned about him being rusty after not pitching for 11 days. I would have much rather seen Noesi go down so he could pitch regularly as a starter, but that’s just me.