Archive for What Went Right
As we wrap up our seemingly never-ending review of the 2012 season, it’s time to look back on the last handful of pitchers. These are the guys who spend some time on the big league roster this year but not much, ultimately contributing little in the grand scheme of things.
After losing the long man competition to David Phelps in Spring Training, the 25-year-old Warren got his big league shot when both CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte hit the DL in late-June. He made a spot start against the White Sox and got absolutely pounded, surrendering six runs on eight hits (two homers, one double, five singles) in 2.1 innings. Warren walked two and struck out one. He spent the rest of the regular season back in Triple-A but did get recalled when rosters expanded in September, though he did not appear in a game.
Acquired from the Phillies in early-July, the 34-year-old Qualls appeared in eight games with the Yankees. He allowed five runs and ten hits in 7.1 innings with more walks (three) than strikeouts (two), though he did generate a bunch of ground balls (51.9%). His most notable moment in pinstripes was probably retiring the only two men he faced (Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo) on July 13th, keeping the deficit at three and allowing the Yankees to mount a late-innings comeback. The Yankees traded Qualls to the Pirates for Casey McGehee at the deadline.
Plucked off waivers from the Red Sox early-May, the 28-year-old Thomas spent the rest of the summer in Triple-A before getting the call when rosters expanded in September. The left-hander appeared in four games, allowing three runs in three innings. To his credit, Thomas did retire six of seven left-handed batters he faced with New York (two strikeouts). The Yankees designated him for assignment to clear room on the roster for David Aardsma late in the season, and Thomas has since moved on as a minor league free agent.
Mitchell, 25, also lost the long man competition to Phelps in camp. He went down to Triple-A for a few weeks before resurfacing when the Yankees needed an arm in early-May and then again in mid-July. He made four appearances total — two in each big league stint — and allow two runs on seven hits in 4.2 innings. Like Qualls, he walked more batters (three) than he struck out (two) but generated a healthy number of grounders (57.9%). Mitchell was traded to the Mariners as part of the Ichiro Suzuki and spent the rest of the year in the minors.
Igarashi, 33, was claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in late-May and managed to appear in two games with the Yankees. He allowed one run in one inning against the Mets on June 8th and three runs in two innings against the Blue Jays on August 12th. Both stints in the big leagues were very temporary, as he was sent down right away in favor of a fresh arm. It’s worth noting that Igarashi was a monster down in Triple-A, pitching to a 2.45 ERA (2.11 FIP) with 13.50 K/9 (34.4 K%) in 36.2 innings as the team’s closer. The Yankees dropped him from the 40-man roster in August and he signed a new deal with a team in Japan earlier this offseason.
The Yankees signed the 30-year-old Aardsma to a one-year, $500k contract in late-February knowing he was unlikely to contribute much this year since he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The right-hander suffered a setback in June which delayed his rehab, but he progressed far enough that the team adding him to the active roster in late-September. He appeared in just one game before the end of the season, allowing a solo homer in an inning of work. After the season the Yankees exercised Aardsma’s $500k option for 2013 and will have the former Mariners closer in the bullpen to open next season.
As we wrap up our seemingly never-ending review of the 2012 season, it’s time to look back on the last handful of position players. These are the guys who spend some time on the big league roster this year but not much, ultimately contributing little in the grand scheme of things.
He was sparingly used during his three months on the roster, but the 34-year-old Wise hit .262/.286/.492 (106 wRC+) in 63 plate appearances for the Yankees. He also retired both batters he faced while pitching in a blowout loss. The team originally recalled him to fill Brett Gardner‘s roster spot before cutting him loose following the Ichiro Suzuki trade. Wise went 9-for-18 with a double, a triple, and three homers during an eight-game stretch in late-June/early-July, but his greatest contribution to the club — besides the bunt that turned the season around — was his non-catch against Indians in late-June.
Had the 30-year-old Dickerson not been on the minor league DL early in the season, chances are he would have been recalled to take Gardner’s spot instead of Wise. He instead had to wait until rosters expanded in September, and he went 4-for-14 (.286) with two homers and three steals in his limited playing time. Most of his action came as a defensive replacement in the late innings. I like Dickerson more than most and think he can be a useful left-handed platoon outfielder who also provides speed and defense, but it’s obvious the Yankees aren’t interested in giving him an opportunity. For shame.
Mesa, 25, was the team’s only true rookie position player this year. He came up when rosters expanded in September and only appeared in three games — one as a pinch-runner and two as a late-innings replacement in blowouts. Mesa did pick up his first career hit and RBI in his first big league plate appearance, singling on a ground ball back up the middle. His most notable play was a base-running blunder, when he missed the bag while rounding third base on an Alex Rodriguez single in extra-innings against the Athletics. Mesa would have scored the game-winning run, but alas. Rookie mistake.
The Yankees got a little cute prior to the All-Star break, claimed the right-handed hitting McDonald off waivers from the Red Sox before heading up to Fenway for a four-game set. The Sox were set to throw three left-handed starters in the four games, so the 34-year-old figured to see some playing time against his former team. McDonald instead received just four plate appearances, made outs in all of them, and collided with Curtis Granderson in center field. A run scored on the play. Embedded Red Sox? Embedded Red Sox.
Rakin’ Ramiro was on the roster for less than a week this season. The Yankees called him up after Alex Rodriguez had his hand broken by Felix Hernandez in late-July, but he was sent back down following the Casey McGehee trade a few days later. In between, the 27-year-old infielder singled once in four plate appearances and got into two other games as a pinch-runner. Pena became a minor league free agent after the season, ending his seven-year stint with the organization.
Just as with the manager and coaching staff, it’s difficult to evaluate a front office from the outside. Yes we can see the moves they make and speculate on moves they didn’t make, but we’ll never know the inner workings and all of the factors involved. Things like opportunity cost and the club’s internal evaluation of players are beyond our scope. Remember, a move can both make perfect sense at the time and be laughably bad in hindsight.
The Yankees started the year by making a series of front office changes in January, most notably hiring former Cubs GM Jim Hendry as a special assignment scout and promoting pro scouting director Billy Eppler to assistant GM. I’m a fan of having multiple voices in the front office and Hendry is well-regarded within the game, so I liked his hiring just as I liked the Kevin Towers hiring back in 2010. The Eppler promotion was significant because for the first time since Brian Cashman took over as GM, an obvious line of succession had been established. Eppler was the runner-up to Jerry Dipoto for the Angels GM job last winter and now appears to be in line to replace Cashman down the road.
On the field, the Yankees made a number of great, good, okay, poor, and disastrous moves like every other team. Signing Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year contract was a masterstroke while the Jesus Montero-Michael Pineda trade went sour in less than three months. Low-cost, one-year stopgap solutions like Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and Clay Rapada worked out well while others like Chris Stewart and Andruw Jones did not. Minor league free agent signings like Jayson Nix and Dewayne Wise contributed while midseason pickups like Chad Qualls, Casey McGehee, and Steve Pearce were non-factors. Derek Lowe worked out fine after being plucked off the scrap heap in August.
The Yankees made one significant midseason move, acquiring Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners for two young arms. The 39-year-old agreed to a set of conditions prior to joining the team, specifically that he would move over to left field, bat towards the bottom of the order, and sit against tough lefties. Ichiro performed so well (.322/.340/.454, 114 wRC+) that he forced his way into regular playing time and a higher spot in the lineup by the end of the season. Even Ichiro’s biggest detractors (i.e. me) have to admit he gave the team a big shot in the arm down the stretch.
At the same time, I do feel the Yankees dragged their fit a bit making in-season upgrades. Obviously Brett Gardner‘s three setbacks contributed to that, but the team also didn’t act swiftly when it was obvious bullpen help was needed. Both Mariano Rivera and David Robertson went down with injuries in May, then a few weeks later Cory Wade completely imploded. The only help they brought in before the deadline was Qualls, who predictably stunk. It appeared as though the Yankees were counting on Joba Chamberlain‘s return from elbow and ankle surgery to shore up the bullpen, whether that was actually the case or not.
The Yankees intend to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014, and the front office has major work to do these next 15 months or so to make that happen. The Pineda trade was, by far, the team’s most long-term move this year and so far the worst case scenario has played out. The right-hander’s ability to rebound following shoulder surgery may be the biggest factor in getting under the luxury tax threshold. The Kuroda signing and Ichiro trade worked out marvelously this year, but fair or not, the performance of the front office going forward will be heavily influenced by the results of that swap with the Mariners.
Evaluating a manager and his coaching staff is a very difficult thing for outsiders. The vast majority of their work takes place behind the scenes, so we’re left looking for clues in places they might not be. That pitcher learned a changeup? Great job by the pitching coach! That hitter is only hitting .250 when he usually hits .280? Fire the hitting coach! We have no idea what clues we dig up are actually attributable to the coaching staff, so we end up guessing.
Because of that, I don’t want to review Joe Girardi and his coaching staff in our typical “What Went Right/What Went Wrong” format. This review is almost entirely subjective and we can’t really pin anything (good or bad) on the coaching staff specifically. We know Curtis Granderson essentially revived his career after working with Kevin Long two summers ago, but having a specific example like that is very rare. Instead, we’ll have to take a broader approach.
I think 2012 was Girardi’s worst year as Yankees’ manager. Every manager makes questionable in-game moves during the season, but I felt Girardi made more this year than he had in any year since 2008, and it all started in the very first inning on Opening Day with the intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez. That still bugs me.
Girardi has long been considered a strong bullpen manager given his ability to spread the workload around and squeeze water out of scrap heap rocks, but this year he leaned very heavily on Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Rafael Soriano. Working Soriano hard wasn’t a huge deal because he was expected to leave after the season, but Logan made more appearances in 2012 (80) than any other reliever under Girardi, including his time with the Marlins. Robertson appeared in 65 games despite missing a month with an oblique injury. Part of it was a lack of alternatives (blame the front office for that) and the tight race, but this was something that started before the Yankees blew their ten-game lead.
Girardi also had two notable meltdowns (for lack of a better term), lashing out at a fan following a loss in Chicago and then getting into a shouting match with Joel Sherman after calling him into his office. Maybe my conduct standards are too high, but that kind of stuff is a major no-no in my book. It stems from pure frustration and there is zero good to come from it. Girardi didn’t have a bad year as manager, he did a fine job guiding the team despite an overwhelming about of injuries, but I feel that he’s had better years in the past.
Larry Rothschild & Kevin Long
When the Yankees hired Rothschild as pitching coach two years ago, he came to the club with a reputation of improving both strikeout and walk rates. That is exactly what has happened overall, and we can see it specifically with someone like CC Sabathia (strikeouts, walks). Obviously the personnel has changed over the last few years, but the Yankees managed to get productive seasons from scrap heap pickups like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia last year while getting better than expected production from Hiroki Kuroda and even Andy Pettitte this year. We don’t know how much of a role Rothschild played in all of this, but the team’s pitching staff has exceeded expectations the last two years.
Long, on the other hand, came under big-time scrutiny following the club’s offensively-inept postseason showing and Mark Teixeira‘s continued decline from elite all-around hitter to pull-happy, one-dimensional slugger. At same time, he remade Granderson and helped Robinson Cano go from good to great. Long does preach pulling the ball for power and apparently that contributed to the team’s poor postseason, but the roster overall is built around guys who pull the ball for power. Outside of Cano and Derek Jeter (and later on, Ichiro Suzuki), the Yankees lacked hitters who could hit to the opposite field. Like Rothschild, we don’t know how much a role Long has played in all of this, and I’m not even convinced preaching power these days is a bad thing given the decline in offense around the league.
Tony Pena, Mike Harkey, Rob Thomson & Mick Kelleher
Not really much to add here. Thomson, the third base coach, does have a knack for being a little overly-aggressive with his sends in tight games while at other times he will hold guys who would have clearly been safe, but every third base coach does that. The Yankees have had an above-average stolen base success rate in recent years (77-79%), so I guess Kelleher is doing a fine job of reading moves and relaying that info over at first base. Other than that, we have very little basis for which to judge these guys on. Despite the whole “everyone should be fired because there are obviously better coaches available!” mentality than can fester following an embarrassing playoff loss, all indications are the entire staff will return fully intact next year.
I can’t believe I’m actually writing a season review post for Andy Pettitte. The 40-year-old left-hander was retired a little more than ten months ago, having thrown what we thought was his final big league pitch in Game Three of the 2010 ALCS against the Rangers. He spent all of last season at home and showed up to camp as a guest instructor this year, which is pretty routine for notable former players. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes.
While in Spring Training as an instructor, Pettitte threw a bullpen session for Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, the whole nine. The two sides actually discussed a substantial contract ($10-12M range) during the offseason, but Andy told the team to proceed without him because he wasn’t sure he wanted to make a comeback. That money went to Hiroki Kuroda, then in camp Andy again broached the subject of coming back to pitch. On March 16th, halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule, he signed a one-year minor league contract worth $2.5M.
Pettitte was obviously behind the rest of the pitching staff, so his comeback attempt started in the minor leagues. He made one appearance at the end of Spring Training then progressively climbed the minor league ladder. First came three innings with High-A Tampa, then four innings with High-A Tampa, then five innings with Double-A Trenton, then another five innings with Triple-A Scranton. He was ready to go by early-May and the Yankees needed him — Michael Pineda just had shoulder surgery, Phil Hughes had a dreadful April, and Freddy Garcia was so bad that David Phelps took his spot in the rotation.
Andy’s first start back came at home against the Mariners on May 13th. He allowed two two-run homers in 6.1 innings in the loss, but he looked like the Andy Pettitte of old. He was cutting his fastball, sweeping his slider, and inducing double plays at just the right time. Five days later he struck out nine Cincinnati Reds in eight shutout innings, officially putting an exclamation point on his comeback attempt. Through the end of June, his first nine starts back, Pettitte pitched to a 3.22 ERA (3.37 FIP) in 58.2 innings with ungodly peripherals: 9.05 K/9 (25.2 K%), 2.30 BB/9 (6.4 BB%), and 58.3% grounders. He wasn’t just a solid veteran starter, he was pitching like an ace.
The comeback came to screeching halt in the fifth inning of a start against the Indians on June 27th, when a Casey Kotchman hard-hit ground ball clanked off Pettitte’s left ankle. He went after the ball but crumbled to the ground, then was lifted one pitch later. Andy talked the training staff into leaving him in the game after some warm-up tosses, but it was obvious something was wrong. The diagnosis came down after the game: Pettitte had fractured his left ankle and would be out six weeks.
Those six weeks became seven weeks when Andy pushed his rehab a little too hard and suffered a setback, so he didn’t return to the team until mid-September. He did all of his prep work in simulated games — no minor league rehab games at all — and returned to the rotation against the Blue Jays on September 19th. Limited to 75 pitches, Pettitte threw five scoreless innings and followed up with six scoreless innings on 88 pitches against the Twins five days later. Rain threw a wrench in the late-September plan, limiting Andy three starts instead of four. The Yankees lost both of Pettitte’s playoff starts but they weren’t hit fault — he allowed five total runs in 13.2 innings.
Andy’s comeback featured a 2.87 ERA (3.48 FIP) in 75.1 innings across a dozen starts, plus some of the best peripherals of his career: 8.24 K/9 (22.8 K%), 2.51 BB/9 (6.9 BB%), and 56.3% grounders. There was legitimate concern about how the year-long layoff would impact Pettitte, but I joked that maybe it did his body good and gave him ample time to rest and heal up. That’s exactly what appeared to happen, funny enough. Pettitte looked as good as ever when he was on the mound, though the ankle injury obviously took a little blush off the rose. Either way, the Yankees came into the season expecting to get literally nothing out of Andy, but he made a successful comeback and became a valuable and important member of the rotation.
The Yankees have developed a knack for finding value on the scrap heap, consistently turning other team’s discards into useful pieces. It’s a wonderful skill for a front office to have regardless of payroll size. As expected, the Yankees dug up two useful veterans who wound up taking on bigger than expected roles this season.
One of the team’s very first moves last offseason was to sign the 30-year-old Nix to a minor league contract. He had some pop in his bat and was very versatile, with experience at all three non-first base infield spots as well as the outfield corners. Nix showed the team what he could do in Spring Training, but ultimately he was sent down to Triple-A to open the season.
A minor (and unknown) injury delayed the start of his minor league season by two weeks, but he was playing in Triple-A before long. When Eric Chavez dove for a ball and had to be placed on the 7-day concussion DL in early-May, the Yankees recalled Nix to take his spot on the roster. When Eduardo Nunez‘s defensive troubles became an unavoidable issue, he was sent down to Triple-A while Nix took over as the primary utility infielder.
All told, Nix hit .243/.306/.384 (88 wRC+) with four homers and six steals in 202 plate appearances for New York while starting at least nine games at second, third, short, and left field. He produced a 97 wRC+ against left-handers, a 142 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium, and a 163 wRC+ with men in scoring position. His defense was adequate at worst as well. Nix missed time with a hip flexor strain at the end of the season and played sparingly in the playoffs, but overall he was a rock solid bench piece for a team increasingly in need of quality bench help.
The Braves ate a whole bunch of money when they traded Lowe to the Indians last offseason, and before long it was easy to see why. The 39-year-old right-hander pitched to a 5.52 ERA (4.49 FIP) with Cleveland and was released in early-August. The Yankees pounced a few days later when CC Sabathia‘s elbow forced him to the DL and the pitching staff needed help, signing the former Red Sox through the end of the season.
Lowe agreed to pitch in relief and rewarded the team’s faith in him immediately. His first appearance in pinstripes was a four-inning save against Rangers in relief of David Phelps, who had replaced Sabathia in the rotation. Lowe appeared in several low-leverage situations but had worked his way up the bullpen totem pole by mid-September. Joe Girardi was using him regularly as a stabilizing force in the middle innings by the end of the regular season, effectively deploying him as a setup man to the setup men. He was 2009 Al Aceves-esque for a few weeks.
Lowe pitched to a 3.04 ERA (3.77 FIP) in 23.2 innings for the Yankees down the stretch, though he did get hit around in his three postseason appearances. Considering his dreadful performance with the Indians, it was easy to have very low expectations for Lowe. He instead proved his worth as a battle-tested and versatile veteran arm, adding depth to the bullpen down the stretch by essentially replacing Cory Wade as Girardi’s go-to middle reliever.
If there’s one thing the Yankees do consistently well, it’s mine the scrap heap for useful players. They hit the jackpot with Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez, et al a year ago, but in 2012 the contributions were a little more subtle. The Bombers added a pair of funky, side-winding relievers during Spring Training, both of whom would up spending the majority of the season on the active roster and contributing more than expected.
The Yankees claimed Eppley off waivers from the Rangers in early-April, and pretty much the only reason why fans may have recognized his name was because he served up this grand slam to Frankie Cervelli a year ago. The 27-year-old was a nondescript relief prospect, but New York needed to replenish depth after dealing George Kontos for Chris Stewart. It was a typical end-of-camp transaction.
Eppley started the year in Triple-A and was recalled for the first time after Brett Gardner was placed on the DL with his elbow injury. That move was temporary — 13-man pitching staffs are far from ideal, but the Yankees needed bullpen help at the time — as he was sent down roughly a week later. Eppley was recalled for good in early-May, after Mariano Rivera blew out his knee. It was hardly the way the Yankees wanted to give the low-slot right-hander a chance, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled.
After being used primarily as a low-leverage arm in blowout situations, Eppley eventually climbed the bullpen totem pole and saw his fair share of important innings during the summer. He threw 46 innings across 59 appearances for New York this year, missing more bats than I expected (6.26 K/9 and 16.5%) while generating a ton of ground balls (60.3%). As you’d expect given his arm slot, Eppley was death on righties, holding them to a .262 wOBA with a 61.9% ground ball rate.
Although he was left off the ALDS roster, Eppley took Eduardo Nunez‘s ALCS roster spot (Nunez was later re-added when Derek Jeter got hurt) and threw 3.2 scoreless innings against the Tigers while appearing in all four games. He also had a 27-appearance (20.1 innings) stretch from mid-May through mid-July in which he pitched to a 1.77 ERA (3.34 FIP). By no means did Eppley save the bullpen or anything like that, but he produced more than expected and helped the Yankees a bunch after Rivera went down.
The Yankees have wasted a ton of money in their never-ending pursuit of left-handed relief, yet they stumbled across a solid southpaw option early in Spring Training. The Orioles had released the 31-year-old Rapada right before the start of camp and that’s when the Bombers pounced, inking him to a minor league contract. He pitched well during the Grapefruit League schedule and won the second lefty reliever job after Cesar Cabral fractured his elbow.
Rapada stayed on the big league roster all season, appearing in 70 games but throwing only 38.1 innings in true LOOGY form. He pitched to a 2.82 ERA (3.20 FIP) overall, but we can’t judge him by his overall results. Rapada was on the roster for one reason and one reason only, and that was to neutralize the other club’s left-handed hitters. He excelled in that role, holding same-side hitters to a .238 wOBA with a 28.7% strikeout rate and a 44.9% strikeout rate thanks to his funky side-arm delivery. Only five lefty relievers were more effective against same-side hitters in terms of wOBA against this year (min. 100 lefties faced).
Rapada retired five of six lefties faced in the postseason, with a walk to Prince Fielder being the lone exception. He set a new (and ultimately irrelevant) franchise record this year by facing exactly one batter in eight consecutive appearances, breaking Mike Myers’ old record of seven straight. After all the money given to Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano, it was Rapada who gave the Yankees the type of reliable left-handed relief they’ve been searching for, and he did it while earning close to the league minimum.
Even after unloading A.J. Burnett on the Pirates, the Yankees went into Spring Training with six starters for five spots plus an all-prospect rotation slated for Triple-A. They had more pitching depth than they’ve had at any other point in recent years, but as we know, these things tend to work themselves out. Michael Pineda hurt his shoulder in camp, which pushed Freddy Garcia into the rotation and left the long reliever gig up for grabs.
The Yankees had three viable candidates for the job in right-handers Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, and David Phelps. The three competed for the spot in camp but Warren (eight runs in 15 innings) quickly fell out of contention. Mitchell kept runs off the board (2.60 ERA) but he also walked (nine) nearly as many as he struck out (13). Phelps was the only one of the three to really stand out (2.08 ERA with 14/4 K/BB in 17.1 innings), plus he was showing newfound velocity, so he was rewarded by breaking camp with the team as the last guy out of the bullpen.
The 26-year-old Phelps made his big league debut in the team’s third game of the season, as Joe Girardi brought him out of the bullpen with men on first and second with one out in the eighth inning of a three-run game. He struck out the first man he faced (Elliot Johnson) on four pitches, then completed the escape job by coaxing a two-pitch ground out from Reid Brignac. Not exactly the toughest competition, but it was an impressive showing for a kid making his first career appearance as a Major Leaguer.
Phelps threw 2.1 scoreless and hitless innings of relief against the Orioles two days later, then tossed 5.1 innings of one-run and one-hit ball against the Angels in his Yankee Stadium debut four days later. The first run he allowed in the show was a Vernon Wells solo homer. Phelps pitched to a 3.57 ERA (5.64 FIP) in 17.2 innings across six April relief outings, but the Yankees needed him in the rotation because Garcia had been brutal. In his first career start on May 3rd, the day Mariano Rivera blew out his knee, Phelps allowed two runs in four innings against the Royals while being held to a strict pitch count.
His next start six days later went much better (4.2 shutout innings against the Rays), but Andy Pettitte had been deemed ready and Phelps was sent back to the bullpen. He allowed two earned runs in 7.1 innings across his next five appearances, then was optioned all the way down to High-A Tampa when David Robertson came off the DL in early-June. The Yankees wanted to stretch Phelps back out into a starter, but he made only two minor league appearances before being recalled later in the month. They needed him to be the long man behind Warren, who was scheduled to make his big league debut in place of an injured CC Sabathia.
Phelps piggy-backed with Warren against the White Sox on June 29th then made a start against the Athletics five days later (one run in 4.1 innings). The Yankees sent him down to Double-A after that to stretch back out, and he made two dominant minor league starts (no runs with 18 strikeouts in 13.1 innings) before rejoining the big league squad for good in mid-July. He threw 10.2 scoreless innings in his seven appearances then moved back into the rotation when Ivan Nova hit the DL with a bum shoulder. Phelps made seven starts (four good, three not good) before moving back into the bullpen in mid-September.
His final appearance of the regular season came in Game 161, when the Yankees were still fighting with the Orioles for the AL East crown. They entrusted him with the start over the ineffective Nova, and he held the post-blockbuster Red Sox to two runs in 5.2 innings in the eventual win. Phelps was, by far, the team’s worst pitcher in the postseason, allowing at least one run in each of his three outings. He took the extra-innings loss in both ALDS Game Four and ALCS Game One, then allowed the Tigers to score an insurance run that turned out to the be the margin of victory in ALCS Game Three. It was a bitter end to an otherwise strong season.
All told, Phelps pitched to a 3.34 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 99.2 big league innings spread across eleven starts and 22 relief appearances this year. He showed that he could miss bats (8.67 K/9 and 23.2 K%) at the big league level even as a starter (8.48 K/9 and 22.4 K%). The walk rate wasn’t great (3.43 BB/9 and 9.2 BB%) and he was homer prone (1.26 HR/9 and 13.6% HR/FB), but that’s not completely unexpected for a rookie in the AL East. Phelps became just the fifth Yankees pitcher to throw at least 80 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA in his first full season since Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte in 1996*, joining 2006 Chien-Ming Wang, 2008 Joba Chamberlain, 2009 Al Aceves, and 2011 Nova.
Pineda blew out his shoulder and Nova took a step back while Mitchell was traded, Manny Banuelos blew out his elbow, Dellin Betances couldn’t find the strike zone, and Warren seemed to pitch his way out of the team’s plans with that one disastrous start against the ChiSox. Phelps was the team’s only young, upper-level pitcher to actually improve his stock in 2012, which he did by mixing four (really five) pitches, missing bats, and proving his versatility by bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. He stepped up and was an important swingman for the Yankees this summer, setting himself up to assume some more responsibility going forward.
* Not counting 1998 Orlando Hernandez. He was a long-time Cuban vet and was (supposedly) 32 when he made his debut that year. I don’t count him as a kid in this instance.
Coming into the 2012 season, CC Sabathia was one of baseball’s few guarantees. Everyone knew he was going to throw a ton of high-quality innings just like he has every year for the last half-decade or so. Although this season was certainly a little rockier than Sabathia’s first three in pinstripes, the end result was the same. The big man again threw a ton of high-quality innings for his team.
The season started with a slow month of April, which isn’t completely out of character for Sabathia. He surrendered five runs in six innings to the Rays on Opening Day, and after four starts he owned 5.27 ERA (3.57 FIP) in 27.1 innings. CC turned things around in his fifth, sixth, and seventh starts, allowing two runs in eight innings each time. He held the Braves to two runs in a complete-game win in mid-June, completing a ten start stretch in which he pitched to a 2.92 ERA (3.02 FIP) in 72 innings.
Sabathia allowed five runs (one earned) in 5.2 innings against the Mets next time out, and soon after the start he was placed on the DL for the first time in six years. A minor left groin problem was the culprit, though both Sabathia and team insisted he would still be pitching if it was later in the season or in the playoffs. The DL stint was sandwiched around the All-Star break, so CC only missed two starts with the injury. He was activated on the first day eligible and returned with six shutout innings against the Blue Jays.
Sabathia made five starts after coming off the DL and didn’t seem right even though he wasn’t pitching terribly (3.89 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 34.2 innings). After allowing five runs (three earned) to the Tigers on August 8th, the Yankees placed their ace on the DL for the second time of the summer. Left elbow inflammation did him in this time, and it was the first arm-related DL stint of his career. The Yankees again insisted it was minor and Sabathia again spent the minimum 15 days on the sidelines. He threw 7.1 innings of one-run ball against the Indians in his first start back and everything seemed fine.
The next four starts were rough (4.67 ERA and 4.47 FIP in 27 innings) but Sabathia insisted his elbow was fine, or at least “good enough to pitch,” to use his words. With only three starts left in the year, CC owned a 3.63 ERA (3.41 FIP) in 176 innings and was in danger of throwing fewer than 200 innings in a season for the first time in six years. Instead, Sabathia ran off three straight dominant starts of exactly eight innings each to close out the year, finishing with exactly 200 innings. He struck out 28 in those three starts, allowing four runs on four walks, eleven singles, one double, and one homer.
Sabathia was able to carry that dominance into the ALDS against the Orioles, holding Baltimore to two runs in 8.2 innings in the Game One win. Only a two-out, ninth inning double by Lew Ford prevented him from finishing the game, though CC did get the complete-game win in the decisive Game Five. He allowed just one run on two walks and four singles in the series clincher, pitching out of a bases loaded, one-out jam in the eighth to preserve the two-run lead. His 17.2 total innings set a new ALDS record. Sabathia got rocked in Game Four of the ALCS (six runs in 3.2 innings) to end his (and the Yankees) season on a very sour note.
Obviously CC’s season did not go as smoothly as his first three in pinstripes given the two DL stints and his mid-season stretch of substandard pitching, but those are things we’re going to discuss a little later today. For now, we’re just going to focus on the fact that Sabathia again pitched to a near-3.00 ERA (3.38 to be exact) with stellar peripherals (3.33 FIP) in exactly 200 innings in what is generally considered a down year for him. That’s a career year for most pitchers. He showed a few kinks in the armor but otherwise gave the team exactly what it needed: tons of high-quality innings.
The American League East is not for every pitcher. The division features four hitter’s parks and four powerful lineups, and over the last five years it’s produced a dozen of baseball’s 40 90-win teams (30%). A pitcher needs to be outstanding at something to pitch there. Outstanding stuff, outstanding command, outstanding know-how, something. Guys with less than stellar stuff who can’t locate well or set hitters up usually don’t last long in this division.
When the Yankees agreed to sign Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year contract worth $10M in January, no one was really sure what he brought to the table. We knew they needed pitching help and we looked at the stats and watched the MLB.com highlights clips, but what made the 37-year-old Kuroda different than all of the other career NL pitchers who failed in the AL East? What was the outstanding trait that he brought to the table? As it turned out, it was pretty much everything.
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When Spring Training opened, eyes seemed to be on everyone but Kuroda. Michael Pineda — who was acquired about an hour before the news of Kuroda’s signing broke — grabbed headlines with his missing velocity. Phil Hughes garnered attention for being in better shape and pitching better than anyone else in camp. CC Sabathia was coming off knee surgery and Andy Pettitte stole headlines by un-retiring. Heck, even former Yankee A.J. Burnett drew more attention than Kuroda after bunting a ball off his face in Pirates camp. Kuroda went about his business and was just kind of there.
The regular season opened and Joe Girardi tabbed Kuroda as his number two starter behind Sabathia, replacing the departed Burnett. His first start in pinstripes didn’t go well at all — he allowed six runs (four earned) in 5.2 innings against the Rays in the eventual loss. Six days later he started the team’s home opener and was brilliant, dominating the Angels with eight shutout innings. Considering all the preseason hype surrounding the Halos, that start was huge. Five days after that, the Twins hung ten hits and six runs on Kuroda in just 4.1 innings. Three starts into his Yankees career, Kuroda was dubbed “inconsistent.”
The tag stuck for a few weeks has Kuroda pitched well (two runs in 6.2 innings) but was outdone by countryman Yu Darvish in his fourth start, then didn’t make it out of the fifth inning against the Royals in his sixth start. Two starts later he allowed seven runs in five innings to the Blue Jays. After his first nine starts, Kuroda owned a 4.53 ERA (4.39 FIP) and was averaging fewer than six innings per start with a sub-2.0 K/BB. He showed outstanding staff at times, outstanding command at times, and outstanding know-how pretty much at all times, but things had yet to really come together for him. Start number ten was when it all started to click.
The Yankees were out on the West Coast in Oakland, the same venue where they started their turn-around and run to the division title in 2011. They took the first two games against the Athletics and Kuroda was brilliant in the finale, twirling eight shutout innings while allowing just four singles and a walk. Five days later he held the Tigers to two runs in seven innings and six days after that he one-hit the Mets across seven scoreless innings. The stuff, command, and know-how had all come together. From late-May through mid-August, a span of 16 starts, Kuroda pitched to a 2.22 ERA (2.77 FIP) in 113.2 innings.
During that 16-start stretch, Kuroda struck out eleven White Sox in seven scoreless innings, threw a complete-game two-hit shutout against the Rangers, and held the pre-blockbuster Red Sox to one run on four hits in eight innings. He allowed one run or less nine times in those 16 starts and allowed three or more runs just four times. Only once did he fail to complete at least six innings and 12 times he threw at least seven full. Following his run of dominance, Kuroda owned a 2.96 ERA (3.61 FIP) in his first 25 starts and 167 inning as a Yankee. He had taken over the role of staff ace as CC Sabathia battled groin and elbow injuries and Andy Pettitte went down with a fractured leg.
Despite Kuroda’s pitching brilliance, the Yankees were stuck in a tight race with the Orioles for the division title in the season’s final month. The workload — Kuroda threw 183.2 innings before the calendar turned to September, more then he’d thrown in two of his four years with the Dodgers overall — started to take a toll on him and his performance suffered. The Rays tagged him for four runs in six innings twice in the season’s final month and the Athletics got him for five runs in 5.2 innings. He held the Blue Jays to just two runs in 5.2 innings in his second-to-last start of the year, but they had ten hits off him.
In seven late-season starts following that great run, Kuroda pitched to a 4.73 ERA (4.43 FIP) in 45.2 innings. He stopped throwing his usual between-starts bullpen session in an effort to stay fresh in September, but the fatigue still effected him. It didn’t show up in his velocity as you’d expect (he actually threw harder at the end of the season), it was in his command. He’d miss out over the plate and get pounded. Kuroda curtained some concern with a strong effort in Game 162, when he held the post-blockbuster Red Sox to two runs in seven innings, but the Yankees still decided to use him as their number three starter in the postseason just to give him two extra days of rest.
The decision worked out very well. Kuroda held the Orioles to two solo homers in 8.1 innings in Game Three, which was good enough to keep the struggling offense in the game long enough for Raul Ibanez to come out of the phone booth wearing his Superman cape to save the day in the eventual win. The Yankees decided to roll the dice and started Kuroda on three days’ rest in Game Two of the ALCS because the playoff schedule was wacky and the only other alternative was to pull David Phelps out of the bullpen and start him. Kuroda responded by striking out eleven Tigers while allowing three runs in 7.2 innings, though it would have been eight innings of one-run ball had second base umpire Jeff Nelson not blown a call. That would have been the final out of the inning and Boone Logan/Joba Chamberlain tag-team never would have allowed the two inherited runners to score.
The season came to an end when Detroit swept the Yankees out of the ALCS, but 2012 was still a smashing success for Kuroda. He logged a career-high 219.2 innings (sixth most in baseball) and pitched to a 3.32 ERA (3.86 FIP). He posted his best walk rate (2.09 BB/9 and 5.7 BB%) in three seasons and saw his ground ball rate jump back over 50% (52.3% to be exact). The strikeout rate (6.84 K/9 and 18.7 K%) dropped just a touch from 2010-2011 (7.23 K/9 and 19.4 K%) and is easily explained by not facing being able to face a pitcher two or three times a game anymore. Perhaps being reunited with former Dodgers batterymate Russell Martin, who got Kuroda to throw more sinkers and sliders and fewer four-seamers as the season progressed, explains the improved walk and ground ball rates despite moving to the tougher league.
Kuroda won’t win the award but we’ll likely learn that he has received a handful of Cy Young votes when the awards are announced tonight. He might even grab a few down-ballot MVP votes. At 3.9 fWAR and 5.2 bWAR, Kuroda was the Yankees best non-Sabathia pitcher since either 2008 Mike Mussina (5.3 fWAR) or 2005 Randy Johnson (5.5 bWAR). Take your pick. He was a stabilizing presence in the rotation from mid-May through the end of the season and regardless of whether he comes back in 2013 — the Yankees made Kuroda a qualifying offer that he rejected, so he will bring draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere — that one-year, $10M pact will go down as one of the best one-year contracts in Yankees history.