What Went Right: The Spare Parts

Thanks to all the injuries, the Yankees used a franchise record 56 players this season. Fifteen of those 56 players appeared in no more than ten games, which isn’t much of a surprise. The last spots on the bench and in the bullpen were revolving doors all summer. A handful of those miscellaneous players were actually useful, but not nearly enough to push the Yankees into the postseason. Here are the best players to walk through those revolving doors.

Cabral. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Cabral. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Cesar Cabral
The 24-year-old Cabral nearly made the team out of Spring Training last season, but he broke his elbow towards the end of camp and did not get fully healthy until midseason this year. The Yankees added him to the 40-man roster in September — he would have been Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season anyway, they just sped up the process — and carried him as a second lefty reliever. When Boone Logan went down with a bone spur in his elbow, Cabral became the primary lefty. He appeared in eight games and faced nine left-handed batters total. Six of the nine struck out, one flew out to center (Kelly Johnson), and two reached base (David Ortiz singled and was hit by a pitch). Logan is almost certainly leaving as a free agent this winter, and, if nothing else, Cabral put himself in the mix for a bullpen job next season with his September showing.

Matt Daley
I’m pretty sure the Yankees like Daley more than we realize. They signed the 31-year-old from Queens to a minor league contract two years ago and rehabbed him from shoulder surgery, then re-signed him to a new deal last winter. He threw 53.1 very effective innings across three levels in the minors (2.02 ERA and 1.88 FIP) before getting the call as an extra arm in September. Daley made seven appearances and threw six scoreless innings for New York, allowing just two hits and one hit batsman while striking out eight. Given how the bullpen imploded in September, he might have been the team’s most effective non-Mariano Rivera reliever down the stretch. I would not at all be surprised if Daley was on the Opening Day roster in 2014.

Huff. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Huff. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

David Huff
Yes, a player with a 4.67 ERA and 4.95 FIP in 34.2 innings for the Yankees is in the What Went Right post. Huff, 29, gets some slack because outside of a disastrous spot start against the Red Sox (nine runs in 3.1 innings), he was pretty damn solid in a swingman role (2.37 ERA and 4.15 FIP in 30.1 innings). His eight long relief outings included four of at least three full innings (including two of at least five full innings) with no more than one run allowed. In his Game 162 spot start, he struck out seven Astros in five scoreless innings. If nothing else, Huff landed himself in the conversation for some kind of Spring Training competition, either long man or lefty reliever. He does scare me though. I get a very Shawn Chacon-esque vibe. Maybe Huff has truly turned the corner — he credits pitching coach Larry Rothschild for fixing his mechanics — but a fly ball-prone soft-tosser in a small ballpark with no track record of big league success has serious disaster potential. This past season though, he was a rather important arm down the stretch.

Melky Mesa
Cherry-picking at its finest: Mesa led all Yankees’ rookies (hitters and pitchers) with 0.3 fWAR in 2013. He did that in exactly 14 late-July plate appearances, during which he had three singles, two doubles, one walk, and two strikeouts. Plus he played a strong outfield defense in his limited time. The 26-year-old Mesa did not get a September call-up because he suffered a severe hamstring injury in Triple-A and was unavailable. The Yankees released him to clear a 40-man roster spot for J.R. Murphy. Definitely not the way Melky2.0 wanted to end his season, but he was productive during the short time he wore pinstripes this summer, something you can’t say about so many of these spare part players.

Vidal Nuno
Since signing with the Yankees out of an independent league in 2011, Nuno has done nothing but prove people wrong. He has a 2.48 ERA and 4.93 K/BB ratio in 269.2 minor league innings since signing, and that performance (along with a standout Spring Training) earned him his first taste of the big leagues in late-April. Nuno, 26, held the Indians scoreless for five innings during a spot start in the second game of a doubleheader and followed with back-to-back starts of six innings and two runs against the Rays and Mets. Between three starts and three long relief appearances, the southpaw had 2.25 ERA and 4.50 FIP in 20 innings. He suffered a season-ending groin injury in early-June and was a non-factor in the second half, which was unfortunate because a) the Yankees needed the pitching help, and b) it would have been a great opportunity to Nuno. Regardless, he helped the team when he was on the mound and put himself in a position to win some kind of big league job in Spring Training.

Reynolds. I swear. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Reynolds. I promise. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

Mark Reynolds
The Yankees showed interest in Reynolds last winter, after Alex Rodriguez‘s hip injury came to light, but they opted to sign the bigger name in Kevin Youkilis instead. Youkilis (predictably) went down with a back injury and New York scrambled for help at the hot corner for months. Eventually they were able to grab Reynolds off the scrap heap, after he’d been released by the Indians due to a dreadful June and July.

Initially expected to serve as a platoon partner for Lyle Overbay, the 30-year-old Reynolds soon took over the position on an everyday basis while mixing in a decent number of starts at third base. He even started a game at second when Robinson Cano needed a day to rest his hand following a hit-by-pitch. Reynolds hit a two-run homer in his first at-bat in pinstripes and a solo homer in his last, finishing his 36-game stint in pinstripes with six dingers and a .236/.300/.455 (105 wRC+) batting line in 120 plate appearances. It was exactly the kind of lift the bottom-third of the order needed. New York could re-sign Reynolds as a role player this winter — he’s open to returning — but so far they haven’t shown interest. As far as we know, anyway.

Brendan Ryan
It wasn’t until Derek Jeter‘s fourth DL stint that the Yankees found an adequate replacement. Ryan, 31, was acquired from the Mariners on September 10th, after it was clear the Cap’n would not be able to return from his latest leg injury. He started every game at shortstop the rest of the season, hitting an awful .220/.258/.305 (41 wRC+) in 62 plate appearances while playing elite defense. A few of the hits he did have were meaningful — leadoff single started a game-winning ninth inning rally in his second game with New York, and a day later he hit a solo homer against the Red Sox. Ryan was, without question, the team’s best shortstop this past season despite only playing 17 games in pinstripes thanks to his glove. That’s kinda sad. The Yankees have already agreed to re-sign him to a one-year deal worth $1-2M, protecting them in case Jeter has another injury-plagued season.

email

What Went Right: Robinson Cano, #KabakHat

On a cold day in February, I made a bet that I thought would be a sure thing. In a fit of Twitter arrogance, I threatened to eat my hat if Robinson Cano reached 80 walks. His previous career high had been 61.

How could things go wrong, I thought. The Yanks didn’t have a great lineup entering the season, but they seemed to be able to offer up Cano enough protection that he wouldn’t blow past his 2012 walk total. And the things went south in a hurry. Derek Jeter wasn’t ready to return really at all this year while Curtis Granderson suffered two freak accidents. Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner were total busts, and Cano was left holding the Yanks’ offense on his shoulders.

For a few months, things looked dicey. As Robbie emerged as the only real slugger in the Yanks’ lineup, his walk totals rose precipitously. After walking only 18 times in April and May combined, Robbie drew 18 free passes in June, and this four-walk affair at the hands of Joe Maddon and the Rays seemed to represent my nadir. Would I be able to eat an inedible item made of sponge and wire?

From May 24 through July 28 — a span of 59 games — Cano drew 39 free passes, ten of which were intentional. That’s a pace of over 100 in a 162-game season, and the hat seemed doomed. Even accounting for his slow start, Cano was on pace to draw 81 walks, and I figured all was lost. But then Alfonso Soriano arrived and Alex Rodriguez returned. It was all wine and roses from there.

From July 29 through the end of the season, Cano returned to his free-swinging ways. He drew just 13 walks while still hitting a robust .346/.391/.528. The intentional walk well fell dry as well since he now had protection in the lineup. Opposing mangers IBB’d Robbie just twice over the final two months of the season.

And so the hat was saved. Despite sweating out a tough summer, despite a short-lived Tumblr with hat recipes and an RAB Countdown, the hat has survived the winter. Robbie ended the year with 65 walks — a new career high but a far cry from the 80 he needed to achieve for us to see what happens when man eats toxic sponge. I’d say that’s a season that went very, very right.

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)
(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

Outside of the walks, though, Cano’s season was a bright spot. He hit .314/.383/.516 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs. He played a spectacular second base and seemed to be a leader in the clubhouse when the top veterans were injured. After hitting 21 dingers prior to the All Star Break, he launched only six more longballs all year but still hit .331/.379/.494. He appeared on his fifth All Star game and placed fifth in the AL MVP voting.

What comes next though is more important than what he did. We’ve followed the saga of Robbie very closely. He’s a premier offensive player who can man his position with the best of them. He’s Jay-Z’s first client and star in New York City. He’s also turned 31 a little over a month ago and wants a long-term commitment with lots of dollar signs attached. The Yanks can’t afford to let him go but may not want to pay. Yet for all the public posturing, they need Robinson Cano. I won’t say I’ll eat my hat if he doesn’t sign with the Yanks; I’ve learned my lesson there. But I’d be very, very surprised if the team’s best player in 2013 isn’t wearing his Yankee pinstripes come April.

What Went Right: Mariano Rivera

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

After 19 big league seasons, including the last 17 as closer, Mariano Rivera‘s Hall of Fame career is over. He announced his intention to retire during Spring Training, so this is no surprise. We all knew it was coming. Turns out the knee injury that wiped out almost his entire 2012 season extended his career by one year — Mo admitted he planned to retire last year before the injury. In a weird way, I’m thankful he got hurt.

As good as he was this past year, the 2013 season was actually a down year for Rivera. He blew more saves (seven) than he had in any season since 2001, including three in a row during one ugly early-August stretch. His 2.11 ERA was his highest in a full, healthy season since 2007 and second highest since 2002. His 1.05 WHIP was also his highest since 2007. Rivera allowed seven homers in 64 innings, the second highest total of his career since moving to the bullpen full-time. His 3.05 FIP was his highest since 2000.

Despite all of that, Rivera was still one of the best closers in baseball. Among relievers who saved at least 20 games, he ranked seventh in bWAR (2.4) and tenth in fWAR (1.5). That’s a down year. Forty-three-year-old Mariano Rivera coming off a serious knee injury was still better than two-thirds of everyone else out there. When the Yankees were making one last push towards the postseason, Mo threw multiple innings five times in September, more than he had in any full season since 2009. He did that despite pitching through what he called “tremendous soreness” in his arm. He left everything on the field for New York and was deservedly named the AL’s Comeback Player of the Year for his effort.

Throughout the season, teams around the league paid their respects to Rivera with gifts and donations to his charity. The Athletics gave him a surfboard, the Twins gave him a rocking chair made out of broken bats, the Red Sox gave him the never-again-needed #42 placard from the Green Monster scoreboard, the Rangers gave him cowboys boots and a hat, the Rays gave him … whatever the hell this is. During Mariano Rivera Day at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees enshrined their closer in Monument Park followed by a live rendition of Enter Sandman by Metallica. The farewell tour was one of the coolest sidebars of the season, hands down.

And yet, the thing I will remember most about the 2013 season was the goodbye. We all knew it was coming — Joe Girardi announced beforehand that Rivera would pitch in the final home game of the season no matter what — but it was still a surprise to see him exit before the end of the ninth inning. It was unscripted, it was incredibly emotional, and it was a moment Yankees fans won’t ever forget.

Rivera never did pitch in another game after that and he didn’t have to. It was the perfect send off, the perfect goodbye for a perfect Yankee. Mariano was more than the greatest reliever to ever live. He was a first class person who was kind and treated everyone with respect. He helped countless people through his charity work and always took the time to give some love back to the fans.

I am happy to have witnessed Mo’s career from start to finish and I will miss watching him pitch dearly. There is never going to be another like him. Not ever.

What Went Right: 2013 Draft

Katoh. (Jeff Gross/Getty)
Katoh. (Jeff Gross/Getty)

Coming into this past season, it was obvious the Yankees needed to add some young, impact talent to the organization. They had none at the big league level and very little in the minors following a down year in the farm system. When Baseball America published their list of the team’s top ten prospects over the winter, it was hard to ignore that six of the ten missed at least a month due to injury in 2012 while two others were still way down in Rookie Ball.

The Yankees had a chance to add talent this summer during the annual amateur draft in June, which is true of every year. This draft was different though — New York had two extra picks after Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher declined qualifying offers and signed with other teams as free agents. Add in their own first rounder and New York owned three of the first 33 selections. It was the first time they held even two of the first 33 picks since 1978. The opportunity to give the farm system a real shot in the arm was there, and, at this point, it appears the Yankees nailed it.

Three First Round Talents
Having three first round picks — it was really one first rounder and two supplemental first round picks, but whatever — doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get three first round talents. Let’s not kid ourselves here; the Yankees have made some questionable high picks in recent years and grabbing the best available talent was not a given. Rather than go off the board for a player they liked more than the consensus, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer & Co. went big and grabbed arguably the three best players on the board with each pick.

Jagielo. (Robert Pimpsner)
Jagielo. (Robert Pimpsner)

The first of the three was Notre Dame 3B Eric Jagielo, who was the club’s natural first rounder at #26 overall. He signed quickly for a straight slot $1.84M bonus and hit .264/.376/.451 (~152 wRC+) during his 221 plate appearance pro debut. Jagielo is a polished hitter and a good defender at a hard-to-fill position who should climb the ladder very quickly. The second pick was Fresno State OF Aaron Judge (#32), a monstrous (listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 lbs.) slugger with as much raw power as anyone in the draft. He took an above slot $1.8M bonus the day before the signing deadline. California HS LHP Ian Clarkin (#33), a power southpaw with an out-pitch curveball, was the third of the three first rounders.

In a normal year, landing one of those guys with a first round pick would have been a coup for the Yankees. Being able to draft all three — and being willing to exceed the draft pool to sign them, as they did by signing Judge to an over-slot bonus at the last minute — is a major win for a farm system in need of impact talent. All three of these guys are not going to work out, the odds are strongly against it because prospects are made to break hearts, but the more high-end talent they have, they better. These three first rounders were incredibly important given the state of the organization and the Yankees nailed ‘em.

Middle Infield Depth
The Yankees have been blessed with Robinson Cano and (especially) Derek Jeter for a long time, making it pretty easy to overlook just rare quality middle infielders are these days. I’m not even talking about stars, above-average guys are very hard and rather expensive to acquire. New York drafted two true middle infielders in the top four rounds in 2B Gosuke Katoh (2nd round) and SS Tyler Wade (4), both out of California high schools. Both play above-average defense at their positions and Katoh is just a strong arm away from being a shortstop. They both performed well in their pro debuts: Katoh managed 171 wRC+ (12.6 BB%) in 215 plate appearances while Wade had a 137 wRC+ (16.0 BB%) in 213 plate appearances. The performance is nice but the most important this is that both guys have the defensive chops to stay up the middle while also projecting to be something more than zeroes at the plate. These were two very strong picks after the first round.

Palladino. (Robert Pimpsner)
Palladino. (Robert Pimpsner)

Power Arms
Under Oppenheimer, the Yankees have used the middle and late rounds to draft power arms who could someday help out of the bullpen. With the new spending restrictions and Collective Bargaining Agreement all but eliminating the ability to give big money to players who fall due to bonus concerns, there’s not much more you can do late in the draft. Dig up some hard-throwers for the bullpen and focus on positions players with that one high-end tool. Not much more is available.

This summer’s crop of hard-throwers includes Texas JuCo RHP David Palladino (5), LSU RHP Nick Rumbelow (7), San Diego State RHP Phil Walby (12), and Oklahoma Christian RHP Cale Coshow (13). All four guys offer mid-90s heat while Palladino has good enough secondary pitches to start. Sam Houston State LHP Caleb Smith (14) has shown 94-95 in short outings. The Yankees have had trouble developing players overall the last few years, but they generally go a great job of unearthing these power arms and getting them far enough up the ladder that they at least serve as trade bait, if nothing else. These five guys are the newest members of the pipeline.

Late Round Gambles
The big money late-round picks don’t really exist anymore, but there is always going to be talent that slips into the late rounds. Not every “signability” guy will cost seven figures. New York paid over-slot for Georgia HS OF Dustin Fowler (18) and Missouri HS 3B Drew Bridges (20) after saving pool money by taking cheap college seniors in rounds six through ten. Fowler is the better prospect as an athletic outfielder with speed and a sweet lefty swing, but Bridges has some power potential and a knack for getting the fat part of the bat on the ball from the left side.

I think the Yankees had their best draft in several years this summer and that’s not only because of the extra first round picks, though those certainly helped. I’m talking about the quality of the players they landed with their picks. The added impact guys at the top of the draft, some important middle infield depth after that, and a lot of interesting late-round guys who could play roles down the road. This was a super important draft for New York and they did a bang-up job in my opinion.

What Went Right: Joe Girardi

When a team expects to win and fails, the players are typically at fault. They are, after all, the ones who take the field every day and therefore control the team’s fate. But as the old saying goes, you can’t fire all the players.* As an alternative, teams often opt to fire the manager. Leaders make for good scapegoats, even if they do not directly participate. It’s also easier to get rid of one man and one contract (coaches typically go year-to-year) than to publicly identify the players at fault and get rid of them.

* Unless you’re the Red Sox, who fired three highly paid players and the manager. It’s almost as if winning the World Series was a reward for that decision.

It would have been easy to blame the Yankees’ 2013 season on the manager. The team was expected to win and it did not. The Yankees could have walked away from Girardi cleanly, too, since his contract expired after the season. Instead they signed him to a new four-year deal that exceeds his previous three-year contract. It shows just what upper management thinks of the on-field boss. If anything, 2013 further solidified Girardi as one of the game’s top skippers.

Many fans disagree with that sentiment, but certain fans will always hate the manager for one reason or another. It’s just the nature of baseball. A few close friends of mine dislike Girardi.* They have their criticisms, and while I disagree they do deserve fair trial.

* One of them dislikes Girardi, but likes Big Bang Theory, so I think it’s fair to call his judgment into question.

They don’t like his bullpen management

Pardon me if I don’t pay this critique much credence. While there are managers who handle their bullpens poorly, it seems that vocal, if not large, groups of fans from every team bemoan the manager’s pitching changes. All managers could be wrong, and fans could be right, about bullpen management tactics — in theory. In theory Communism works. In theory.

Three main factors are at play here. First is the now-tired, but still relevant, trope that managers possess far more information than fans. Girardi, we learned early in his tenure, keeps track of not only when his relievers get into games, but also when they warm up in the pen. You might not have seen David Robertson for a few days, but if he pitched two days in a row and then warmed up in each of the next two, he might not be available. This information gap also extends to Girardi’s knowledge of the individual player. Perhaps he doesn’t feel a particular player, on a particular day, is well-suited for a particular situation. We can criticize that, but it doesn’t hold much water if we don’t know the players and the circumstances.

Second is negativity bias. We tend to remember the bad decisions, because they result in agita and, in many instances, losses. Losing sucks, so that feeling sticks in our craws far longer than, say, the time when Girardi brought in David Robertson in the third inning after Andy Pettitte, who left with an injury, put two on with one out and had three balls on the batter. We might not remember that Robertson got out of the bases loaded, one out situation unscathed, which kept the game close at hand for when the Yanks exploded for seven runs and won.

The third is general discontent with managers. Moe Szyslak aptly sums up the sentiment: “The only thing I know about strategy is that whatever the manager does, it’s wrong. Unless it works, in which case he’s a button pusher.”

They don’t like how he deals with the media

I find this gripe odd. Why do fans care if the manager gets testy when the media asks its typically dumb questions? In many instances it comes off as endearing. There are good reporters who ask thoughtful questions, and they certainly deserve a respectful answer. So far as I have seen, Girardi has done just that. There are other reporters who ask the same pointless questions, or cliched and meaningless questions, all the time.* There comes a point where it’s reasonable to lose patience with them. We saw Girardi get a little angry in those situations in 2013.

* At a game I was covering in 2010, Girardi was giving his pre-game press talk. Javy Vazquez had pitched the previous night, and Phil Hughes was on the mound that night. The reporter asked a random question about A.J. Burnett — something asinine, too, along the lines of, “how would you characterize your confidence in A.J. Burnett?”

Honestly, I appreciate it when players and personnel take an attitude with the media. Yes, the reporters are just doing their jobs, but the good ones recognize that asking dumb, repetitive questions don’t help their causes. I miss the days when Mike Mussina scoffed at reporters. In 2013 I missed Derek Jeter poking fun at Kim Jones’s generic questions. It sure beats hearing players give the same boring responses to the same boring questions.

They mock the binder

Heaven forbid the manager has material at hand to inform his decision. For some reason, the media started mocking Girardi for consulting this binder in 2008, and fans followed in kind. This I will never understand. You mock a guy who makes poor “gut” decisions, but also mock a guy who employs data when making those same decisions? It’s senseless, and it goes right back to what Moe said.

Friend of RAB R.J. Anderson wrote about this issue at the time of Girardi’s previous extension:

Pretend for a moment that Girardi’s binder contains information about platoon splits and the basic rundown of data that a manager should be equipped with for in-game decisions. Whether this is the case or not is unbeknown to outsiders, but just pretend. Is there any downside to a manager having the information on hand with which to consult? Perhaps if the information itself is trivial or useless (i.e. how batters fared versus lefties over the last week or on Sundays), then Girardi is hurting the club, otherwise it’s hard to think of a downside.

Assuming that is not the case, the mocking of Girardi’s binder highlights the weird juxtaposition of the media’s treatment toward baseball managers who use information and prep work and their football counterparts who absorb film and schemes. Using numbers does not make Girardi a great manager, but it also does not make him a nincompoop. If he acknowledges that his gut and experience in the game does not hold all of the game’s answers, then he might be more self-aware and conscious than quite a few of his managing counterparts.

The binder contains information that can help balance data and gut feelings. It can influence better decisions. I’m sure that if he kept all the data in an iPad (which, as far as I can tell, isn’t allowed in an MLB dugout), fans and media wouldn’t say a word.

There are, to be sure, a number of other reasons why fans dislike Girardi, and I encourage detractors to elaborate in the comments. For our current purposes, I’ll list the one reason, above all others, I like Joe Girardi and think that he’s a great fit for the Yankees:

He protects his players

When the media asks questions of his players, he refocuses the conversation to himself. In other contexts that might sound egotistical, but in the case of a baseball manager it’s a virtue. Fans lauded Joe Torre his ability to manage the media, and Girardi is in many ways growing into that role (though he’s quite a bit surlier than his predecessor). Girardi never speaks even a drop of ill about his players, even when they deserve it.

If you stick up for your players, you can earn their respect. It does seem that Girardi has the team’s respect, which is all you can really ask of a manager. What effect did that have on the team? Well, they did outperform their Pythagorean record by six wins and their third-order wins by more than 10. Not all of that was due to Girardi’s influence, but if even one of those wins stemmed from something intangible he brings to the table it speaks well of his clubhouse presence.

In terms of the 2013 season, Girardi took an impossible situation, which started with shaky roster construction and continued with key injuries, and did a good a job as you can expect from anyone in that position. What could he done to further tip the scales in his team’s favor? From this perspective, little to nothing. The four-year deal he just signed signals the Yankees feel the same way.

What Went Right: Andy Pettitte

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the up and down final season of an all-time Yankees great.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees coaxed Andy Pettitte out of retirement last season, it was supposed to be one last ride off into the sunset. Pettitte was going to come back, give whatever he had left, then walk away after the season. Again. Instead, a fluke injury robbed him of three months at midseason. The competitive juices were still flowing, so Andy decided to give it another go in 2013.

Unlike last summer, Pettitte was more than just a fun, feel-good story this year. He was an integral part of the team and he was paid as such — the Yankees re-signed him to a one-year pact worth a hefty $12M and penciled him in as their number three starter behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. This wasn’t “okay Andy, come back whenever you’re ready and do what you can.” This was “let’s go Andy, if we’re going to go anywhere you have to help carry us.”

Pettitte was baseball’s oldest starting pitcher come Opening Day and sometimes it was painfully obvious. Let’s break his season down into four separate acts.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Act I: Early Awesomeness
When he wasn’t hurt in 2012, Pettitte was pretty freakin’ awesome. He pitched to a 2.87 ERA and 3.48 FIP in 75.1 innings, posting his best strikeout (8.24 K/9 and 22.8 K%), walk (2.51 BB/9 and 6.9 BB%), and ground ball (56.3%) rates in years. It was amazing and much-needed considering how close the AL East race was down the stretch.

Early on this past season, that same Andy was on the mound. He pitched the team to their first win of the year with eight innings of one-run ball against the Red Sox in the third game of the season, and he followed up by allowing six runs total in his next three starts while throwing at least six innings each time. The Astros (of all teams) pounded him to close out the month (seven runs in 4.1 innings), but Pettitte got right back on the horse and pitched well in early-May. Following seven innings of two-run ball against the Royals on May 11th, he was sitting on a 3.83 ERA and 4.08 FIP in 44.1 innings through seven starts. Dandy.

Act II: Injuries & Ineffectiveness
On May 16th, Pettitte was forced from a start against the Mariners due to a sore trap muscle after only 4.2 innings. He had missed one start in April due to a stiff back, but the trap injury landed him on the DL for a touch more than two weeks. That was the risk of relying on a 40-year-old starter — a 40-year-old starter who had not thrown more than 130 innings since 2009 at that — injuries and physical setbacks figured to pop-up at some point.

Andy returned to the mound on June 3rd and clearly was not himself. He allowed at least four runs in eight of his next nine starts (including seven straight at one point), a nine-start stretch that featured a 5.04 ERA despite a 3.62 FIP. Opponents hit .295/.329/.436 against him in those nine games and the Pettitte trademark, the ability to wiggle out of jams, had deserted him. Pettitte looked old and washed up. I’m not sure there is another way to put it. He looked like a guy who should have stayed retired, frankly. The team didn’t have much of a chance to win on the days he pitched and through 17 starts, he had a 4.47 ERA and 3.78 FIP.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Act III: Empty The Tank
Something changed on June 24th. That ability to escape jams and keep the team in games had returned. Pettitte held the Rangers to two runs in six innings on that date, and five days later he held the Dodgers to two runs in seven innings. From June 24th through September 17th, a span of eleven starts, Andy allowed two earned runs or less eight times and only twice did he fail to complete six full innings of work. That works out to a 3.06 ERA and 3.54 FIP in 64.2 innings. He was back to being himself and not a moment too soon. The Yankees were fighting to stay in the playoff hunt and Pettitte had emerged as their best starter just as Kuroda began to fade.

Act IV: Blaze Of Glory
Following 6.1 innings of one-run ball against the Blue Jays on September 17th, Pettitte owned a 3.93 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 169.1 innings across 28 starts. Three days later, he announced his intention to retire (for the second time) after the season. “I’ve reached the point where I know that I’ve left everything I have out there on that field,” he said. “The time is right. I’ve exhausted myself, mentally and physically, and that’s exactly how I want to leave this game.”

Andy’s final start at Yankee Stadium came two days later, on Mariano Rivera Day. The Yankees honored Mo will a long and incredible pre-game ceremony before Pettitte took a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Giants. In that final home start, he surrendered two runs on two hits in seven innings against the defending World Champions. Andy walked off to the mound to a long and thunderous ovation after being removed from the game.

Four days later, Pettitte and long-time teammate Derek Jeter were sent out to the mound to remove Rivera from the final appearance of his career. Those few days were just unreal. Incredibly exciting and emotional and heartbreaking all at once. What a way to go out.

Andy made the final start of his season and career on September 28th, appropriately enough against the Astros in Houston, his hometown and the only other Major League team for which he played. Pettitte went out in style, allowing one run in the complete-game win. It was his first nine-inning complete-game since August 2006 and his first nine-inning complete-game for the Yankees since August 2003. It was the kind of start that seemed unthinkable as recently as mid-June, and yet, Andy did it. Remarkable.

* * *

All told, Pettitte pitched to a 3.74 ERA and 3.70 FIP in 185.1 innings this season, right in line with his career 3.85 ERA and 3.74 FIP. Same ol’ Andy, basically. Steady and reliable. Yeah, the 2013 campaign was shaky at times but that was to be expected at his age and with the long recent layoffs. When it was all said and done, Pettitte was an obvious positive for the 2013 squad. He retires as the greatest Yankees pitcher in history — an argument can certainly be made for Whitey Ford, but I think Andy just edges him out — and one of the most beloved players in team history. Few rank above him.

It is sad to see Andy go again, but I think it’s clear the time has come to call it a career. When he retired following the 2010 season, I thought it was obvious he still had something left in the tank and could continue pitching for another year or two. This time, I’m not so sure. He really labored for long stretches of time this summer and his usual start-to-start consistency just wasn’t there. The nagging injuries, stiff backs and strained lats and the like, became more frequent as well. Pettitte is one of my all-time favorites and the Yankees wouldn’t have hung around the postseason race as long as they did without him, but the tank looks to tapped out. Saying goodbye will be much easier for fans and Pettitte alike this time around.

What Went Right: Ivan Nova

Nova delivers a pitch during his first career complete game shutout. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Nova delivers a pitch during his first career complete game shutout. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Early in the 2013 season, it appeared that Ivan Nova would fall into the What Went Wrong category. Through his first three starts he allowed 10 runs in 14.2 IP and hadn’t recorded as much as a single out in the sixth inning. In the third inning of his fourth start, he exited with what appeared to be an elbow injury about fifteen seconds after trainer Steve Donohue came to check on him. His season had disaster written all over it.

Given how many young pitchers undergo the procedure every year, it would have surprised few if Nova required Tommy John surgery. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. The Yankees quickly assured us it was a triceps injury, abating some of the fear. About a month later he was back on the roster, pitching out of the bullpen. Apparently, something clicked for him between the injury and the return.

Able to air it out in shorter appearances, Nova let loose with fastballs that, for the only time in his career, consistently exceeded 95 mph. Even more impressive was how he kept the velocity up for a five-inning relief appearance against the Mets, allowing just one run while striking out six. Unfortunately, due to the returns of Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis, the Yankees had to option Nova. It seemed like poor timing for the move, given his resurgence.

Nova didn’t let the demotion get him down, and his persistence paid off. After about two weeks in the minors he got the call again to make a spot start against the Rays. It went well enough, as did his follow-up appearance, a 5.2-inning mop-up job against the Orioles. That earned him a spot in the rotation, wherein he produced one of the best second halves in the majors.

In 87.1 post-ASB innings Nova produced a 2.78 ERA, seventh best in the American League and good enough to bring his season-long ERA down to 3.10. His velocity had dipped back to normal levels, and actually took a further hit in his final four starts. And his peripherals looked a lot like his career numbers. So we must ask the question, was Nova actually good or did he merely get lucky?

Part of the answer is that Nova’s second half peripherals are a bit deceiving, in that they’re arbitrary end points. If you look at his peripherals from the time of his return from the DL, a bit less arbitrary in nature, his peripherals look a bit better. Then there’s the issue of peripherals not being a true measure of a pitcher’s ability. Some pitchers are better at inducing poor contact, meaning they’ll out-perform their peripherals. Other issues play roles, including focus and recovery.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s incredibly difficult to judge whether a pitcher is lucky or good based on a single season, never mind a portion of a season. Add in Nova’s inconsistent performances for the last few years, and he becomes even more of a mystery. We’ve seen him pitch like one of the best in the league, and we’ve seen him pitch like a guy who will scramble for minor league deals in his late 20s. How could we possibly know which Nova pitches for the Yankees in 2014?

We can leave that speculation for another time, when we’re bored in January and February. For now we can reflect on Nova’s 2013 and how his resurgence helped make the season enjoyable for that much longer. The pitching staff, considered a strength before the season, broke down as CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes got knocked around start after start. Nova stepped up mid-season and gave the Yankees quality innings every fifth day. Without him, they wouldn’t have remained in contention for as long as they had, and they could have been staring down their first losing season since 1992.

Instead Nova did answer the challenge, not only salvaging some respectability in 2013, but giving the team hope for 2014 and beyond. In a season when so many things went wrong, Nova was one of the bright spots.