Is it possible that Mitre really is the best option?

They should let him grow facial hair. Maybe that'll work. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Wanna play a game? Let’s play a game…

Pitcher A: 4.61 K/9, 3.12 uIBB/9, 1.31 HR/9, 37.3% GB, 5.44 xFIP

Pitcher B: 4.83 K/9, 2.67 uIBB/9, 1.17 HR/9, 50.9% GB, 4.34 xFIP

Pitcher C: 5.89 K/9, 3.11 uIBB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 44.7% GB, 4.74 xFIP

Pitcher D: 5.10 K/9, 2.29 uIBB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 40.7% GB, 4.59 xFIP

Four pitchers, all of whom have been connected to the Yankees this offseason at one point or another. Pitcher C probably looks the most enticing since he has the highest strikeout rate and the second highest ground ball rate, but he also has the highest walk rate (for all intents and purposes anyway, a 0.01 uIBB/9 difference is one walk every 900 IP) and second highest xFIP. Pitcher A looks like a guy you’d avoid at all costs, and Pitcher D is interesting enough, but only when compared to the other three guys listed. Pitcher B boasts the best ground ball (by far) and xFIP, plus a mighty fine walk rate. The strikeout rate is ugly, but at least he makes up for it somewhat with his performance in the other categories.

You’ve probably figured it out by now, but Pitcher B is Sergio Mitre. Pitcher A is Armando Galarraga, Pitcher C is Jeremy Bonderman, and Pitcher D is Freddy Garcia. Those are 2010 stats and yes Mitre was used primarily in relief last season, but none of those other guys pitched in the AL East. The point of his largely irrelevant exercise is to show that all of these guys suck just as much as the others, but Mitre has one thing on all of them: the dude gets ground balls.

Strikeouts are without a doubt the preferred method of retiring batters, but if you can’t do that consistently the next best skill is the ability to generate ground balls. Grounders never turn into homeruns (without defensive miscues, anyway), and in fact big league hitters managed just a .241 wOBA (.020 ISO) on ground balls last season. Compare that to a .329 wOBA (.361 ISO) on fly balls and a .737 wOBA (.248 ISO) on line drives. Mitre has been a sinkerballer his entire career, and last year’s 50.9% ground ball rate is actually well below his career mark of 58.7%. Since 2003 (his first season), that 58.7% ground ball rate is the seventh best in baseball (min. 400 IP), trailing only noted sinkerball specialists Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, Chien-Ming Wang, Tim Hudson, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook. Chad Qualls is a full percentage point behind Serg for eighth place.

And since I know you’re wondering, Mitre has a 16.5% line drive rate in his career (17.0% in 2010), which (believe it not) is the fourth lowest in baseball over the last seven seasons (again, min. 400 IP). The only guys ahead of him are Carmona, J.C. Romero, and some guy named Mariano Rivera. A ton of ground balls and a limited number of line drives are two traits you want in any pitcher, and you know what? Mitre has them, moreso than most other pitchers, and perhaps those traits will be even more prevalent as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery.

I’m not trying to defend Mitre as the fifth starter, because I certainly don’t want to see him out there 25+ times next season, but he simply might be the best option compared to the other dreck that’s out there. I still want the Yankees to bring in another pitcher (preferably Kevin Millwood at this point) just to have someone else that can compete for the job and for added depth, but with any luck the fifth starter won’t be needed much early in the season anyway. Sergio’s ground balls might be more helpful than chasing random free agent pitchers for one extra strikeout for every 10 or so innings pitched.

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The difference between Pettitte and Mitre

Which one looks better to you?

CC Sabathia CC Sabathia
Phil Hughes Phil Hughes
Andy Pettitte A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett Ivan Nova
Ivan Nova Sergio Mitre

There is no questioning that the one on the left is the preferable option. The only unknown is of how big a difference exists between Pettitte and Mitre. An initial reaction might have the difference pegged at a few wins, but I’m not sure it’s that wide a gap. In fact, given each pitcher’s limitations I think we’re talking about a single win, maybe even less.

The assumptions

As Mike did yesterday, I won’t count on Pettitte for a full season’s worth of starts. In the same way, I won’t count on Mitre for that, either, since the last time he started more than 10 games was in 2007. I also assumed 6.1 IP per start for Pettitte and 5.2 per start for Mitre. That leaves Pettitte with 126.2 IP and Mitre with 113.1. That’s just 13.1 additional bullpen innings, which we’ll have to factor in somehow.

The tougher part of this exercise is projecting ERAs. Bill James forecasts Pettitte at 3.86 and Mitre at 4.57, but I think both of those are a bit aggressive. But let’s keep them in the bank, just in case. As a rough estimate of ERA, I’d peg Pettitte at 4.00 and Mitre at his career ERA, 5.27. Let’s see how the differences work out.

The results

If we go with the James projections, Pettitte works out to 54 earned runs, or 2.7 ER/GS. Mitre works out to 58 ER, or 2.9 ER/GS. In 20 starts that amounts to a whopping four runs. Even if we go with the more conservative 4.00 and 5.27 estimates, we get Pettitte at 56 ER, or 2.8 ER/GS, and Mitre at 66 ER, or 3.3 ER/GS. That’s a 10-run difference — or roughly a single win. Now that we’ve put it in the simplest possible terms, it doesn’t seem like that big a difference, does it? We can adjust up or down, but I don’t think you’ll get an exceedingly different answer unless you think Mitre will produce something like a 7 ERA. I don’t think that particularly likely.

The bullpen

Where we actually get the biggest difference is with the bullpen. Those are just 13.1 innings, but they’re 13.1 innings that are already accounted for with Pettitte. This obviously can fluctuate wildly. If we have those innings filled by 2010 Chan Ho Park, that’s another 8 ER. If they’re thrown by David Robertson it’s 6 ER; with Boone Logan it’s 4 ER; with Mo it’s 3. I’d say 5 ER is a decent compromise.

That brings our difference between Mitre and Pettitte — accounting for earned runs and innings pitched — to somewhere between 9 and 15 ER over 20 starts, or between .45 and .75 runs per start. That’s going to cost the Yankees a couple of those 20 games. But the key term is a couple. It’s hard to argue that the difference would amount to much more than that.

Bringing back Petitte will clearly make the Yankees rotation better. There is no reliable measure that can say otherwise. But given both Pettitte’s and Mitre’s limitations, the difference might not be as great as we imagine. In the AL East two wins will matter plenty. But the difference between Pettitte and Mitre is not the difference between a .500 team and a 92-win team. Unfortunately, the small difference that does exist could play a large role in determining the 2011 postseason.

The Experience returns for 2011

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Late last night we learned that the Yankees had re-signed Sergio Mitre to a one-year contract worth just $900,000 guaranteed with another $200,000 available in unspecified performance bonuses. Mitre was arbitration-eligible for the third and final time, and the Yankees had to at least offer him a contract by midnight tonight to retain his rights. They took it one step further and actually got the contract done before the deadline, giving him a very modest (in baseball terms) $50,000 raise. The move almost certainly spells the end of Dustin Moseley’s tenure in pinstripes, but I don’t think too many will complain about that.

Now we know who the Yanks’ swingman will be in 2011 and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Mitre was clearly the best of the group that included him, Moseley, and the already departed Chad Gaudin, posting the best ERA (3.33), WHIP (1.09), FIP (4.69), xFIP (4.34), tRA (4.97), WPA (-0.38), and fWAR (0.0) of the trio. By just about every measure – old school or advanced – he was the guy for the job just by being replacement level. Remember, Mitre finished this season extremely well, allowing 20 baserunners and just five runs in his final 20.1 innings after August 3rd, good for a 2.21 ERA and a .278 wOBA. We just didn’t see very much of him because the Yanks were trying to force feed Gaudin a playoff roster spot.

Most fans aren’t fond of the move because Mitre certainly isn’t great, and they believe the Yanks can find someone better. Well, like who? The list of free agents and potential non-tenders doesn’t offer much, maybe Kyle Davies or John Maine or Brian Bannister or Brian Moehler could do the job, but they all have significant warts of their own. The concept of a “huge upside long reliever” is a fallacy (unless you’re using a top prospect in that role), those guys are getting more important jobs. There’s also the price issue, the Yanks are paying Mitre very little in the grand scheme of things, and there’s no guarantee that any of the alternatives would a) sign for a similar price, and/or b) pitch better.

The other set of alternatives are in-house, guys stashed in Triple-A like Romulo Sanchez or Hector Noesi or D.J. Mitchell. Those options remain in play though, Mitre’s not going to block them just as he didn’t block Ivan Nova in 2010. All they did when they re-signed Serg is add a piece to the inventory, a known commodity at a reasonable price to fill out the fringes of the big league roster. That’s all, nothing major. Every team has guys like that because they’re a necessary evil.

I’m not saying you should jump for joy over Mitre re-signing, but when you consider the alternatives, there’s no reason to hate it. It’s a low consequence move; the Yankees need someone they can throw to the wolves and soak up innings every once in a while, and Mitre’s that guy. Better him than an actual prospect (that could have his development stunted) or a free agent being paid seven figures. If when/he stinks, they’ll find someone else to do the job and move on. That’s all you can do with everyone. I mean, yeah, if it was a multi-year deal then it would be an atrocity, but it’s not, so no harm no foul. It’s just another horse for the stable, that’s all.

Yanks re-up with Mitre again

The New York Yankees just cannot quit Sergio Mitre. A non-tender candidate as tomorrow’s midnight deadline approaches, Mitre instead was tendered a contract by the Yanks and will sign for a $900,000 base salary. He can earn another $200,000 in incentives, Jerry Crasnick reported this evening. At that price, Mitre is a fine notch on the depth chart, but he was used sparingly in 2010. He made 27 appearances and threw 54 innings with a decent 3.33 ERA but just a 4.81 K/9 IP and a 2.7 BB/9 IP. He shouldn’t be anything more than the team’s seventh starter and should be among the first to go if they need a roster spot.

Now that Mitre is back in the fold, the Yanks’ only remaining non-tender candidate is Dustin Moseley. Unless the team again wants to stock up on redundant players, there’s absolutely no need to bring back both Moseley and Mitre. Recent history would tell us the Yanks choose otherwise though. We’ll find out soon.

What Went Wrong: Chad Ho Moseley

Every team has a few of them every single season; replacement level relievers, or worse. Most of the time these guys are buried in the back of the bullpen, throwing low-leverage innings once or twice a week when his team had a big lead or a big deficit. The Yankees were (un)lucky enough to have three guys like that this year, and they even came with a cheesy nickname: Chad Ho Moseley. Let’s review…

(AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

Chad Gaudin

After a solid job as the Yankees’ makeshift fifth starter down the stretch last season, Gaudin was rewarded by being released in Spring Training. He ended up back in his old stomping grounds in Oakland, at least until they released him after 17.1 innings of 5.91 FIP pitching. The Yanks brought him back in late-May for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum and stuck him in their bullpen as a mop-up guy.

That’s pretty much exactly what Gaudin was, because opponents mopped the floor with him during his second tenure in pinstripes. He was somehow even worse with the Yanks than he was with the A’s (6.25 FIP), and a late season audition for a playoff spot which featured the Yanks forcing him into some high-leverage spot went predictably awful. All told, Gaudin put a -0.8 fWAR in 48 IP just with the Bombers in 2010 (-1.1 overall). Yuck.

Chan Ho Park

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Park was a late addition in the offseason, signing a low-risk one-year, $1.2M contract after pitchers and catchers had already reported in February. His relief stint with the Phillies in 2009 was excellent (53-15 K/uIBB ratio and 0 HR in exactly 50 IP), good enough that even with normal age-related decline (he was 36 when they signed him, after all) and the AL-to-NL transition that there were still reasons to expect him to be a serviceable relief arm.

As it turned out, CHoP was anything but serviceable. He made three appearances in April, taking the loss in the first game of the season, before hitting the disabled list for a month with a bad hamstring. That bought him some more time. CHoP returned in mid-May and allowed at least one run in four straight outings and in five of six, earning himself a demotion to mop-up duty. After five scoreless outings in June, CHoP pretty much fell apart. He was designated for assignment after the Yanks acquired Kerry Wood at the trade deadline, finishing his Yankee career with a 5.60 ERA and more than one homer allowed for every 16 outs recorded.

It was a worthwhile gamble that completely blew up in the Yankees’ faces; Park was worth -0.2 fWAR in pinstripes. That the Pirates claimed him off waivers and saved New York the final $400,000 of his salary was nothing more than a minor miracle.

Dustin Moseley

The Yanks brought in the former Reds’ first round pick on a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training, and he pitched well enough in Triple-A (3.67 FIP in a dozen starts) that he forced the Yankees’ hand when his opt-out clause kicked in in late-June. Pitching in a mop-up role initially, Moseley moved into the rotation once Andy Pettitte‘s groin landed him on the disabled list.

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Moseley wasn’t terrible at first, giving the team two quality starts in his first three outings. It all kinda went downhill from there (6.41 ERA, .932 OPS against) as his inability to miss bats (13 BB, 11 K) manifested itself in his next four starts. Somehow the Yankees still managed to win three of those games, but Moseley found himself back in the bullpen with rookie Ivan Nova usurping him in the rotation.

In the end, the 28-year-old righty finished the season with with a 5.99 FIP and -0.4 fWAR in 65.1 innings for the big league team. He slightly redeemed himself with two scoreless innings in Game One of the ALCS, paving the way for the eighth inning comeback, but meh. Dustin’s effort was admirable, yet completely forgettable.

* * *

It’s unfair to toss Sergio Mitre into this mix because at least he managed to be replacement level this season (exactly 0.0 fWAR), but we have to mention him somewhere. He allowed just seven runs in his final 24.2 innings (2.55 ERA), so unlikely the Chad Ho Moseley monster he at least finished strong.

A trio of sub-replacement level long relievers (total damage: -1.4 fWAR, 148.2 IP, or 10.3% of the team’s total innings) didn’t sink the Yankees season by any means, but it sure was painful to watch.