Archive for What Went Wrong
After two mortifyingly slow Aprils to start his Yankees career, Mark Teixeira wanted to start on the right foot in 2011. In that regard he was a smashing success. In 102 April PA he hit .256/.392/.549, which represented the best April of his career. That made for an optimistic 2011 outlook. If Teixeira had produced those numbers in April 2010, his numbers would have been much more in line with his 2009 performance. In May he came back with a .375 wOBA, which, while not as good as his April, was still cause for encouragement.
And then the wheels came off.
In June Teixeira didn’t record many hits, just 20 in 94 AB, but he did send 13 of those hits for extra bases, including nine homers. While he did pick up more hits in July, 28 in 106 AB, he produced only nine extra base hits. That absolutely killed his overall production, since his early-season value came almost exclusively from his power numbers. In August he rebounded some, but not much, and for the second straight year he closed with a slow September. The end result: .248/.341/.494, a .361 wOBA and 124 wRC+. The latter, which relates Teixeira’s numbers to the league average, represents his lowest mark since 2006, though it was pretty much in line with his 2010.
During that horrible July, Mike and I took a hard look at Teixeira’s production. Mike likened him to an expensive Tino Martinez. After that I looked at some of his plate discipline issues, or really, lack thereof. It did seem that he was getting unlucky in many ways, hitting right into the shift at times when he might have gone the opposite way in 2009. That brought on a rough analysis of Teixeira’s stance at the plate. He opened up his stance considerably from 2009 through 2011, likely because he aimed to pull the ball every time up. He even admitted as such in Spring Training. “If you hit a lot of home runs and you see that short porch, you tend to come around the ball a little bit and try to hook it. I got into that a little too much last year and it ended up hurting me.” It again ended up hurting him in 2011.
The good news is that Teixeira realizes that there is a problem in his approach. He mentioned this as the season came to an end, saying he’d work with Kevin Long during the off-season to better balance his swing. We saw some tangible evidence of this later in the season; during the playoffs Teixeira noticeably stood upright, mirroring his 2009 stance. In Game 1 against the Tigers it appeared that he had figured out something, as his leadoff double led to the big inning that sealed the Yanks’ victory. But apparently closing his stance didn’t correct the problem; Teixeira had a poor series overall and received much of the blame during the fallout.
What went wrong with Teixeira? He tried to pull everything from the left side, and he far too often hit weak grounders and pop-ups. It comes as absolutely no surprise that he had a .222 BABIP as a left-handed hitter. From the right side he was a great deal better, producing a .410 wOBA (compared to .338 from the left side). That’s easy enough to define. The difficult part is finding the fix. Teixeira is far too expensive — and valuable on defense — to become a platoon player, especially when his strong side accounts for less than a third of his season’s plate appearances. If he can’t reconfigure his left-handed swing, the Yankees have a long five years ahead of them.
For now we can rest a bit easier knowing that he is actively addressing the problem. Teixeira has been the consummate professional during his time in New York, and it stands to reason that he’ll do everything he can to correct the flaws that have hampered his last two seasons. That’s all we can really ask at this point. Given Teixeira’s pedigree and work ethic I think we can remain optimistic at the moment. But if he continues his pull-happy ways in 2012, it will be much harder to remain optimistic for the remainder of his contract.
Like every non-CC Sabathia member of the rotation, A.J. Burnett was a giant question mark heading into the season. He was coming off one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in Yankees’ history, the first player to wear pinstripes and throw 180+ IP with an over-5.00 ERA, but his team needed him. Unlike the other non-Sabathia members of the rotation, Burnett was making huge money with multiple years left on his contract, and that was undoubtedly a factor why he was being given such a long leash.
A.J.’s season started with reports of a mid-winter sit down with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and sure enough he came to Spring Training with some revamped mechanics. Nothing major, they just cut short the turn in his delivery to help keep him more on line with the plate. Like last season, Burnett’s 2011 actually started out pretty well. He used those new mechanics to carry a 3.38 ERA through his first eight starts, culminating with seven one-hit, one-run innings against the Royals on May 11th. The peripheral stats did not agree with the ERA though; A.J. had a ~4.25 FIP through those eight starts.
The Rays tagged Burnett for six runs in 5.2 IP on May 16th, then a couple starts later the Red Sox hung eight runs on him in 5.2 IP. That 3.38 ERA ballooned to 4.37 in the span of five starts, though a handful of appearances against NL teams in interleague play helped knock that down to 4.05 heading into early-July. Burnett had thrown at least five innings in all 17 starts up to that point, so he was at least sparing the bullpen and generally keeping the Yankees in the game. Not exactly what you want from a guy making that kind of money, but after the disaster of 2010, expectations had been lowered.
Burnett barely held his own (18 runs in 31.2 IP) in five July starts, then the wheels really came off. He allowed seven or more runs three times in five August starts, including once each to the punchless White Sox and even punchlesser Twins. After getting knocked out of the game in the second inning by Minnesota on August 20th, A.J.’s ERA sat at 4.96 and he appeared to have words with Joe Girardi while walking off the mound. The two (along with catcher Russell Martin) maintained that he was talking to the home plate umpire, and although it created some headlines that week, the situation was diffused rather quickly.
After throwing 7.2 IP of two-run ball against the collapsing Red Sox on September 25th, Burnett’s final start of the season, his ERA sat at 5.16, lower than last season but not enough to be meaningful. He’s basically repeated his 2010 performance, his second straight season of 180+ IP with an over-5.00 ERA and the second in franchise history. A one-batter relief appearance in the final game of the season served as a tune-up in what was supposed to be a relief role in the ALDS, but the weather forced him into a Game Four start with the season on the line. Burnett pitched well in that game, not great, but good enough to help the team win. He held the Tigers to one run on four hits and four walks in 5.1 IP, though Curtis Granderson saved his bacon with a pair of nice defensive plays.
On the bright side, Burnett’s curveball was much better in 2011 than it was in 2010, helping him post his highest swing-and-miss rate as a Yankee (10.0%) and return to the days of at least eight strikeouts per nine innings (8.18 K/9 to be exact, 11th highest in the league). His 49.2% ground ball rate was his best since 2007 as well, but that’s pretty much the end of the good news. At 1.47 HR/9, A.J. was the second most homer prone pitcher in the AL and third most in all of baseball, trailing only Colby Lewis (1.57) and Bronson Arroyo (2.08). His 3.92 BB/9 was the second highest in the AL (behind Gio Gonzalez) and sixth highest in all of baseball. Burnett’s fastball velocity continued to decline into his mid-30′s, sitting more 92-93 than 94-95, and his 4.77 FIP was actually worse than his 4.83 FIP in 2010 when compared to the league average (112 FIP- last year vs. 114 FIP- this year). It all added up to 1.5 fWAR and 1.1 bWAR, both of which rank 78th among the 94 starters that qualified for the ERA title.
Burnett’s awfullness was generally more spread out this season; last year it was really three horrific months (July, August, and September) that did him in. This year it was one horrible month (August) and five mediocre ones. Despite the now infamous “objective pipe” comment from Brian Cashman, there is no trade market for Burnett, so the Yankees are stuck with him whether they like it or not. Unless the team manages to import four very good starters this offseason, A.J. will be back in the rotation in 2012. Expecting improvement would be foolish at this point.
For more than six months Yankees fans looked forward to July. After missing out on Cliff Lee* the plan was clear: make due with the roster until a pitching upgrade materialized at the trade deadline. But July came and went without the Yankees making a single move. Yet that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Circumstances always color this type of evaluation, and the circumstances certainly weren’t favorable in the weeks preceding the deadline.
* I can’t count the number of times I’ve written that exact phrase, and I promise that it’s the last time you’ll ever see it under my byline.
How it went wrong
The Yankees staff put together an unexpectedly solid first half. Both Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia realized their best case scenarios, holding down rotation spots for the first three to four months. That bought the Yankees enough time to search for alternatives on the trade market. But when the time came to make those upgrades, they declined to do so. Again, circumstance colored this decision. But that doesn’t completely excuse it.
We saw a similar situation last year. In early July, when the Yankees thought they had a deal worked out for Lee, the Yankees already have five starting pitchers. Phil Hughes, while slumping, still had the luster of his excellent first few months. Javy Vazquez had recovered and was pitching better than any non-CC member of the rotation. Andy Pettitte was Andy Petttite. A.J. Burnett, despite a disastrous June, was not a candidate to leave the rotation. And so it didn’t hurt so badly when the Yankees lost out on Lee.
In the second half everything changed. Vazquez quickly declined. Burnett produced a 5.95 ERA in the second half. Pettitte hurt himself and suffered a costly setback. Hughes continued to decline and produced a 4.90 ERA in the second half. That left the Yankees with precious few pitching options. When the playoffs rolled around they had to rely on a still-injured Pettitte and a shaky Hughes. The lack of pitching absolutely killed them in the ALCS.
This year the Yankees again had five starting pitchers around deadline time, six if you count Ivan Nova, who was in the minors in the weeks prior. In a way that made it easier for them to get through the trade deadline period without making a rash move. But in another way they were setting themselves up for a repeat of 2010. Sure enough: Phil Hughes continued his mediocre pitching, Freddy Garcia got hurt and then lost some of his sharpness, Bartolo Colon’s magic wore off, and Burnett’s production dropped off considerably. For the second straight year the Yankees had few solid options beyond CC Sabathia for their playoff rotation.
How it went right
It’s tough to deal for a quality starting pitcher when there aren’t many available. As July approached it seemed as though few teams would make available a useful starter. Throughout the month the market continued to appear weak. Some teams remained in denial about their chances. Others asked for far too much in exchange for their pitchers. It led to a real dearth of opportunities for the Yankees.
Only a few mid- to high-range pitchers moved in July, and the Yankees had good reason to not pursue any of them.
Ubaldo Jimenez: The Rockies wanted the moon for a pitcher who just didn’t look the same as he did in the first half of 2010. He might have made a nice addition, but at the price Cleveland eventually paid — their two top pitching prospects plus two other prospects — he likely wasn’t worth the effort. Had the price come down he would have made a good deal more sense, but at that point why would Colorado trade him?
Doug Fister: After a decent full-season debut in 2010, Fister was rolling along at a similar pace for the Mariners in 2011. Problem was, he didn’t miss bats, and his home run rate was a bit low — it’s usually a warning sign when a pitcher in a large ballpark has a big FIP-xFIP difference. I’m typically scared of that type of pitcher with the Yanks, since it can lead to a lot of home runs. Even in the pitcher-friendly Comerica Park his home run rate increased. But so did his strikeout rate, which isn’t something you normally see. There’s no “should of” in this for the Yanks, but the Tigers got an absolute steal.
Erik Bedard: After throwing about 80 innings in each of 2008 and 2009, Bedard missed the entire 2010 season. As always, he was the guy with a lot of potential who couldn’t stay on the mound. So it came as no surprise that, after a very good start to the 2011 season, he got hurt at the end of June. He made one poor appearance upon his return, at which point the Mariners immediately traded him. He went to Boston and did pitch well there — until he got hurt in September.
Edwin Jackson: This actually might have been a nice move for the Yanks. Jackson had produced good numbers for the White Sox in the first half, and was clearly on the trading block. The Blue Jays ended up getting him for the minuscule price of Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart. The only catch was that the Jays took on the remainder of Mark Teahen’s contract. Again, with the Yankees’ monetary advantage they could have done that and just released Teahen if they were so inclined. Yet Jackson put his inconsistency back on display with his move to the NL, as his strikeout rate dipped considerably in the second half. At the time we couldn’t have seen that, though, and for the cost Jackson might have been a quality upgrade.
Other pitchers might have been made available, but with the slim market chances are they would have cost too much. For instance, the Astros and Yankees had a brief conversation about Wandy Rodriguez that ended when Houston declined to pick up roughly half of Rodriguez’s salary. The Yankees clearly did not intend to overpay at the deadline, and in many ways that helps them now and in the future. But that’s going to happen when there is only one pitcher on the market who stands to help you for ar easonable price.
It was hard to call the Yankees losers at the deadline given their needs. The position players and bench were well in place, as was the bullpen. The only needs existed in the starting rotation and the market was thin, filled with flawed and overpriced players. At the same time, they did need an upgrade in pitching. It didn’t cost them the division, and it really didn’t even cost them in the ALDS (the offense was to blame there). But in the ALCS it could have hurt a lot. The trade deadline didn’t go wrong, really, but it didn’t go right, either.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.
Spring Training can be deceiving. Every year we see players put up huge numbers in camp before having miserable regular seasons, and we also see players with terrible exhibition stats before raising hell in games that count. It’s the nature of the beast, the small sample, the questionable competition (minor league players, etc.), all sorts of stuff. We fall for it every year, looking for meaning in meaningless games.
When Alex Rodriguez came to Spring Training this year, he was ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat smaller than he was in 2010. Not that he was fat before or anything like that, but he was noticeably slimmer and seemed much lighter on his feet. A-Rod then proceeded the hit the snot out of the ball for six weeks (.388/.444/.898), and before you knew it, people were predicting an MVP award and a return to the glory days of pre-2008.
For a while, Alex was on that MVP pace. He came out of the gate like a madman in April, with five homers, eleven walks, six strikeouts, and a .370/.483/.826 batting line in the team’s first 17 games of the season. A-Rod fell into a slump after that, hitting just .171/.236/.232 with no homers over the next three weeks or so. He righted the ship with a two-homer day against the Rays on May 17th, and hit well enough over the next few weeks to carry a .301/.377/.509 batting line into July 1st.
Although he played in 80 of the team’s first 86 games, Rodriguez clearly wasn’t 100% physically. Joe Girardi said A-Rod was playing through a sore left shoulder in mid-June, and a few days later we learned that he was playing through a sore right knee, an injury he apparently suffered during the series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He was voted as a AL’s starting third baseman in the All-Star Game (and he actually deserved the honor), but he had to skip the event when that sore right knee turned into a slightly torn meniscus. After a second opinion, the decision was made to have surgery.
The procedure was supposed to keep him on the shelf for four-to-six weeks, and it ended up being more like seven. Not really a big deal. After a pair of rehab games with Triple-A Scranton, A-Rod returned to the lineup on August 21st and promptly went 0-for-5. He did pick up two hits next time out, then homered in his third game back, but he was playing with a new injury, a sprained left thumb. It was a fluke injury more than anything, he jammed the digit will making a play at third base in his first game back against the Twins. He missed time in early-September then even more in the middle of the month when the injury lingered.
After coming back from the knee injury, Alex played in just 19 of the team’s final 37 games. He hit .191/.345/.353 in 84 plate appearances during that time, but at least he walked more than he struck out (15 BB, 13 K). The crummy performance carried over into the ALDS, when Alex contributed to the punchless 4-5-6 hitters with a 2-for-18 showing in the five games against Detroit. Despite the sluggish performance with the bat, I though A-Rod looked very good on defense later in the season and in the playoffs, but that’s hardly a consolation prize.
All told, the now 36-year-old Rodriguez had his worst season since he was a 21-year-old kid with the Mariners in 1997. He hit .276/.362/.461 overall, a not terrible .361 wOBA that placed seventh among the 28 third baseman with at least 400 plate appearances this year. His power production declined considerably, evidenced by a .185 ISO that was his first sub-.225 ISO since that 1997 season. For the second year in a row, he struggled to hit lefties (.277/.367/.383), a demographic a right-handed cleanup hitter should crush.
The decline in production isn’t really a huge problem though, the Yankees can live with an overpaid .350-.360 wOBA third baseman. The real problem is the injuries. A-Rod has been on the disabled list every year since signing his new ten-year, $275M contract, and this year he failed to play 100 games for the first time ever. It’s been four years since he last played in more than 140 games. That’s a whole lot of at-bats for Eduardo Nunez types. Once again, we’re left heading into the offseason hoping that a winter of rest will help Alex stay on the field for a full season next year, but that looks more and more like a pipe dream.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.
After more than a decade behind the plate, the Yankees decided that Jorge Posada‘s days as a catcher were done last offseason. They signed Russell Martin in December, making Posada’s transition to DH official. The Yankees had concerns not just about his defense, which had deteriorated to unacceptable levels, but also his long-term health. Jorge scored poorly in two of the three ImPACT tests he took in 2010, the result of countless foul tips to the head over the years.
Everyone knew the statistics, or at least it seemed that way. Posada was just a .223/.336/.358 career hitter in 350 career plate appearances as a DH coming into the season, a performance that foretold certain doom for 2011. Maybe that’s a little overdramatic, but it wasn’t promising even if 350 plate appearances spread across 14 years isn’t much of a sample. However, it stood to reason that fewer time spent behind the plate would help keep Jorge fresh and therefore make him more productive at the plate. There were two sides to narrative.
Posada did not get a hit in the first game of the season, but he did reach base three times (a single and two walks) in the second. All was right in the world when Jorge hit two homers in the third game of the season, then another in the fourth game. After a four-game, 15-at-bat hitless streak (eight strikeouts), Posada went deep in each game of a two-game set against the Orioles in mid-April. He homered again nine days later, but that was basically the end of Posada as an effective hitter.
An 0-for-17 stretch followed the two homers against Baltimore, and it took 18 games for Jorge to record his next ten hits. With his batting line sitting at .165/.272/.349 on the morning of May 14th, Joe Girardi penciled Posada in as the number nine hitter against the Red Sox. Insulted by the move, Jorge pulled himself from the lineup and originally covered by saying his back was stiff. He told the Yankees he wanted out out of frustration, but later apologized for the incident. The team never discussed releasing him even though he was in breach of contract.
Posada returned to the starting lineup three days later, and promptly went 2-for-3 with a double against the Rays. Another double followed the next day, and Jorge went on a little mini-tear that saw him hit .330/.392/.426 with three homers in 102 plate appearances immediately following the benching. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. He reached base just ten times in his next 56 plate appearances, and with Eric Chavez coming off the DL, Posada lost playing time. From August 1st through the end of the season, a span of 55 team games, he batted just 88 times.
Jorge finished the season with a .235/.315/.398 batting line and 14 homers, easily the worst full season of his career. His .309 wOBA ranked 14th out of the 16 DH’s that came to the plate at least 300 times. Posada did not go down without a fight though, he was the Yankees best hitter in the ALDS (6-for-14 with four walks in five games against the Tigers), the last hurrah for a great Yankee. He threw a base stealer out while catching six emergency innings in a September game against the Angels, and he even played an inning at his original position, second base. Ironically enough, defense was the highlight of his season.
Despite the awful overall performance, Posada did hit right-handed pitchers well, to the tune of .269/.348/.466 in 316 plate appearances. He was completely unusable against southpaws though, hitting .092/.169/.108 in 71 plate appearances. That’s the only reason why he was in the lineup against the Tigers in the ALDS, they started four righties. The Yankees managed to get an almost exactly league average performance out of their DH’s in 2011 (.249/.329/.427), but that’s because Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Jesus Montero helped pick up the slack. Posada, an all-time great Yankee, was part of the problem this past season, almost assuredly his last in pinstripes. The end is almost always painful, and Jorge will be no exception.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.
The 2010 season was something of a breakout for Phil Hughes. The right-hander stayed healthy all year and performed just a touch better than league average in terms of ERA (4.19), FIP (4.25), and xFIP (4.13) across 176.1 IP, and the Yankees counted on him to solidify a patchwork rotation coming out of Spring Training a few months ago. The problem was that his velocity had vanished in March, and it never did pick up as the team expected it would after a few starts.
Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the Tigers smacked Hughes around for five runs in four innings in his first start of the season, in what would eventually become the Yankees first loss of 2011. The Red Sox battered him for six runs in two innings five days later, and through two starts, Phil had generated just three swings and misses out of 137 pitches. He had walked four and struck out just one, and the fastball was sitting in the danger zone of 87-88 mph.
The Yankees finally pulled the plug after Hughes’ third start, in which the Orioles hung five runs on him in 4.1 IP. They put him on the disabled list with what was termed a “dead arm” after originally planning to send him to the minors, and they starting pumping him with anti-inflammatories. “After 30 pitches, there was nothing there,” said Hughes. “I felt like a reliever who had thrown four straight days. Something had to be done. My velocity’s just not there. My arm feels dead. This will able me to build arm strength and get this right.”
The plan was to put Hughes on a throwing program after a few days of rest, and things went well at first. He was ready to start a minor league rehab assignment about two weeks after his start against the Orioles, but the team cut short a bullpen session after just a dozen pitches and called it a “setback.” Hughes was sent for an MRI the next day, and after some concerns about low-level thoracic outlet syndrome, it was announced that he’d miss another six-to-eight weeks with shoulder inflammation that was bad enough to require a cortisone shot. While all that was going on, a report came out that Hughes showed up to camp out of shape, leading to speculation about how it may have contributed to his arm troubles.
More rest and more rehab followed. The Yankees put their right-hander on a Spring Training-esque throwing program, which stretched him out over an extended period of time. A simulated inning soon followed, and then a few more after that. After throwing 49 pitches in one of those simulated games, Hughes was deemed ready for a minor league rehab assignment. He made a total of three rehab starts, striking out eight and holding his velocity deep into the game the final time out. Ready to return to the rotation, the team made the decision to demote Ivan Nova to Triple-A in favor of Hughes in early-July.
The first start back was okay at best; Phil allowed two runs in five innings against the Indians, striking out two and getting just a pair of swings and misses out of 87 pitches. He looked better in his next start (two runs in six innings against the Jays) eleven days later (with the All-Star break in between), then got completely shellacked by the punchless Athletics next time out (seven runs in 4.1 IP). Hughes’ velocity had returned to the 91-92 range, and he rattled off four straight quality starts after that (five runs in 25.2 IP), but Oakland again hit him around in late-August (six runs in 2.2 IP) and the Red Sox did the same a few days later (six runs in 5.2 IP).
Hughes started September with a pair of strong starts against the Orioles and Mariners (three runs in 12 IP), but back inflammation flared up and kept him out of action for two weeks (rain contributed to that a bit as well). The Yankees brought him back strictly as a reliever and kept him in that role through the postseason. In four relief outings at the end of September and in the ALDS, Phil did not allow a run in five innings (three hits, three walks, six strikeouts). As expected, his velocity jumped into the 94-95 range in relief, and he generated eleven swings and misses with 90 pitches.
All told, Hughes pitched to 5.79 ERA with a 4.58 FIP in 74.2 IP in 2011. Even if you disregard his first three starts, when he clearly wasn’t right, he still had a 4.48 ERA with a ~3.90 ERA in 64.1 post-DL innings. His strikeout and swing and miss rates dipped to 5.67 K/9 and 6.2%, respectively, well-below-average and down considerably from 2010. Was the decline the result of poor conditioning? Poor mechanics? The 80.1 IP jump from 2009 to 2010? All of the above? Something else all together? We all have our theories, but the only thing we know for sure is that Hughes heads into the 2012 season as a giant question mark.
For the fourth year in a row, the Yankees relief corps was a strength in 2011. Joe Girardi‘s bullpen machinations helped keep everyone fresh and effective, including journeymen like Luis Ayala and Cory Wade. It also helps when you have three power arms that can pass as relief aces for most teams, but not everything went right with those guys. In fact, in the case, of Joba Chamberlain, this season went about as wrong as possible.
With big money signee Rafael Soriano taking over eighth inning duties to start the season, Joba was pushed back to the seventh inning. No big deal, he was still responsible for three outs either way. He allowed seven runs in his first eleven appearances before settling down and firing off six straight scoreless outings, then took over the eighth when Soriano came down with some elbow issues in mid-May. Joba continued to pitch well, allowing just one run across eight innings before needing 35 pitches to record five outs against the Angels on June 5th. It was his highest pitch count of the season (by seven pitches) and his most since since September of 2009, when he was a starter.
Three days later, the Yankees announced that Joba had been placed on the disabled list with a strained flexor muscle in his right elbow after feeling soreness for weeks. He would not throw for ten days, and was expected back in about three weeks. One day later, the news was much more grim. Chamberlain’s strained flexor muscle turned into a torn elbow ligament, and he would ultimately require Tommy John surgery. He hadn’t shown any of the usual symptoms or experienced any of the usual pain associated with a torn ligament, so the diagnosis was a bot of a surprise.
The elbow reconstruction was performed in mid-June, and while on the shelf, Joba required another surgery for an appendectomy. Not long after that, he needed another surgery to clean out an infection that developed during said appendectomy. Despite all that, Joba started his throwing program late last month, about two weeks ahead of schedule (unofficially). Tommy John rehab is a long and arduous process, and even the most optimistic of time tables have him returning in late-April. June would be the much more reasonable expectation.
Joba’s fastball velocity was perfectly fine this year, but that’s not really an indicator of elbow trouble. Velocity is more indicative of shoulder issues. Elbow problems general show in control, or lack thereof. Joba threw 45.3% of his pitches in the strike zone this year, which is actually perfectly league average, but it is down from his 48.4% from 2008-2010. Although his swing and miss rate (10.3%) was his best since 2008, his strikeout rate (7.53 K/9) was a career low and down more than two full strikeouts from last year. The strikeouts had been replaced by ground balls (59.7%), either intentionally or unintentionally.
The Yankees were able to survive Joba’s season-ending injury because of their bullpen depth, and they’re going to have to get by without him early next year as well. It would make sense for the team to have him stretch out and rehab as a starter, but we all know it won’t happen. They should be able to ease him back into late-inning work thanks for Soriano and David Robertson, but command is usually the last thing to come back after elbow surgery. It’s very possible that we won’t see the real Joba again until Opening Day 2013.
There’s no denying that 2010 was a down season for Derek Jeter. Just one year removed from a .334/.406/.465 batting line (.390 wOBA) during the Yankees run to the World Series, the Cap’n hit a punchless .270/.340/.370 (.320 wOBA) last season. His ground ball rate (65.7%) was the highest by a non-Luis Castillo hitter since the data started being recorded in 2002, and most of those grounders were weak, as you know. At 36-years-old, it was fair to wonder if this was the beginning of the end of one of the greatest Yankees ever, and early this season, it certainly looked like it was.
Jeter picked up just two hits through the team’s first four games, and just two extra-base hits (both doubles) through the season’s first month. His ground ball rate sat at a sky high 72.3% though April, explaining the utter lack of power. And yet, because he’s Derek Jeter, he remained atop the lineup despite a paltry .303 OBP in his first 211 plate appearances, essentially the first third of the season.
Every once in a while there would be a flash of the old Jeter, like the four-hit game against the Orioles on April 24th or the two-homer game against the Rangers on May 8th, but he was never able to build on it. That two-homer game in Texas was followed by a .247/.321/.301 batting line through the end of the month, and yet he continued to lead off. Joe Girardi stood by the Captain through it all, saying they would wait 150 at-bats, 250 at-bats, 350 at-bats, whatever it took until Jeter was right. Problem was, those arbitrary at-bat milestones kept passing by without improvement.
On the morning of June 13th, Derek was hitting .259/.324/.324 through 64 team games. The Yankees had one of the best offenses in baseball and were scoring boatloads of runs in spite of his presence as leadoff hitter, not because of it. That night, Jeter tapped a harmless fly ball to right to lead off the fifth inning in a game against the Indians, and appeared to have a little hitch in his step as he ran down to first. Eduardo Nunez took over at shortstop in the next half inning, indicating that the Cap’n did have some kind of physical problem.
The injury was announced as a sore right calf after the game, and an MRI confirmed a Grade I calf strain. The Yankees waited a day before placing Jeter on the disabled list, a move he strongly opposed. It’s not a big deal for the team to play a man short he said, but the team couldn’t afford to play short-handed with the NL leg of interleague play coming up. An injury that was supposed to take ten days to heal wound up taking three weeks.
At the time of the injury, Jeter was hitting a lowly .260/.324/.324, a well-below-average .295 wOBA. For a defensive whiz, that would be tolerable production at short. Derek is no defensive whiz though, and his age made his already shaky defense play even worse. The Yankees had one of the worst regulars in baseball not just suiting up for them every night, but also getting more plate appearances than everyone else on the team while playing a key position. In a way, the injury was a relief, almost like it put him (and us) out of his (and our) misery, at least temporarily. A little later today we’ll look at the other side of the Jeter coin, his resurgence following his return from the disabled list, but for now there’s no way around admitting that pre-injury Jeter went very, very wrong.
The Yankees somewhat surprisingly won 97 games during the regular season and finished with the best record in the American League, but they lost three of five to the Tigers in the ALDS to end their season. They outscored Detroit 28-17 during the five-game set, showing that when faced with a small sample, it’s not about how many runs you score, but when you score them. The Yankees posted the lowest ERA (3.27) among the eight teams during the LDS round, but they lost the three games by a total of four runs.
A number of things will typically go wrong whenever a team loses a playoff series, but nothing went more wrong for the Yankees than their supposed heart of the order. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, otherwise known as the 4-5-6 hitters, went a combined 9-for-55 with two doubles, one homer, seven walks, and 16 strikeouts. That works out to a .164/.266/.255 batting line and a .243 wOBA. All the other Yankees in the series combined to hit .305/.386/.466, roughly a .378 wOBA. It seemed like every time the Yankees had something cooking on offense, these three would come to the plate and almost immediately put out the fire for Detroit.
To get an idea of how awful A-Rod, Tex, and Swish were during the ALDS, just look at the players around them. Robinson Cano, who hit third in front of them, reached base nine times in the five games but scored just two runs, when he drove himself in on a pair of homeruns. Jorge Posada, who hit seventh behind them, had a monster ALDS (six hits and four walks), but he drove in a total of zero runs because no one was on base in front of him. The 4-5-6 hitters went a combined 1-for-13 with two walks and five strikeouts with runners in scoring position, and the most damning instance of their RISPFAIL came in the seventh inning of Game Five. With the bases loaded and one out, A-Rod struck out, Teixeira walks, and Swisher struck out to end the threat. It was the last time the Yankees would make any kind of sustained rally on the season.
The Yankees didn’t lose to the Tigers in the ALDS solely because of A-Rod, Teixeira, and Swisher, but they were certainly a significant contributor to the series loss. When your third, fourth, and fifth best hitters in the regular season (by wOBA) combine to hit like the corpse of Chone Figgins in the postseason, it’s going to be really tough to advance. Quality pitching, which the Yankees generally received in the ALDS, can only take you so far.
Over the past four seasons, few Yankees have inspired as much analysis, hand-wringing and debate than Joba Chamberlain. He seems to embody both the impossibly high expectations the Yankees and their fans place on young players and the ways in which the organization seemingly cannot get out of its own way when it comes to developing young pitchers. In that latter sense, then, Joba’s 2010 campaign is a microcosm of his career. Joba made 73 appearances, and the results should have been better than they were.
By now we know the Joba story. Drafted out of Nebraska in 2006, Joba rocketed through the system in 2007 as a starter and made his Yankee debut in August of that year as a reliever when Kyle Farnsworth could not be trusted. Limited by the Joba Rules, Chamberlain dazzled out of the pen, and his initial success set himself up for inevitable failure. Transitioned into the starting rotation in 2008, he was excellent until a shoulder injury in Texas derailed his season, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in 2009, he didn’t regain his velocity. When the team again instituted a variety of rules at the end of last year, the Yanks seemed to consider him a lost soul at the ripe old age of 24.
Heading into Spring Training in February, the Yankees had reportedly planned to host a competition for the fifth starter spot, but it was an unfair one from the start. Before camp began, Joel Sherman reported that the rotation spot was Phil Hughes‘ to lose, and Joba stumbled through Grapefruit League play. Destined for the bullpen, Joba inherited the eighth inning role and seemed to excel.
Through mid-May, Joba was as good as we could have hoped. He struck out 21 over his first 16.2 innings and allowed just four runs on 12 hits and five walks. But after giving up a combined seven earned runs in back-to-back appearances on May 16 and 18, the wheels fell off. From May 16-July 25, Joba pitched to an 8.42 ERA as opponents hit .348/.408/.500. Stick Joba on the mound, and everyone became Albert Pujols.
Over that span of 26 appearances, Joba gave up runs in 11 of them, and he did so in spectacular fashion. He allowed four runs to Boston in the 8th inning of a game the Yanks were winning and then choked away a six-run lead against the hapless Indians two weeks later. His nadir came on July 10 when he came in with a 1-0 lead and gave up a grand slam to Jose Lopez.
But through it all, the numbers just didn’t add up. Over those 25.2 innings, Joba had a FIP of 3.49, a mark nearly 5 runs per 9 innings lower than his actual results. He was still striking out more than a batter an inning, and the home run to Lopez was just the second he had surrendered all season. We were waiting for the market correction to come, and it finally did in late July.
Over the final two months of the season, Joba returned to form. In 29.1 innings, he struck out 30, walked just five and gave up seven earned runs on 20 hits for a nifty 2.15 ERA and a FIP — 2.89 — nearly to match. Joba saw limited playoff action in 2010 but gave up just a run in 3.3 innings against the Rangers.
So what do we make of this? On the one hand, Joba’s 9.7 K/9 IP was his best mark since 2008; his 2.8 BB/9 IP was his lowest since his debut season in 2007; and he showed a marked improvement in keeping the ball in the park. On the other hand, at times, he just didn’t have the confidence in his stuff. He threw too many 3-2 sliders and seemed tentative. Even though his velocity seemed to return to pre-shoulder injury levels and improved as the season wore on, he went through stretches where he fooled no one.
The numbers too bear out these struggles. Fewer than half of his pitches were inside the strike zone, and only 9.4 percent of his strikes were of the swinging variety. In 2007, he notched an impressive 16.7 percent mark in that category. His fastball, a whopping negative 20 runs below average last year, rebounded to 2.8 runs above average while the slider dipped from 7.6 runs above average to just 3.6. Perhaps the league has caught on to Joba’s approach and his stuff. Perhaps he’ll never be as consistently good as he was for a few months in 2007.
Going forward, the Yankees seem intent on keeping Joba in the bullpen. “We consider him a bullpen guy in the back end of the bullpen,” Joe Girardi said last month. Even though Joba’s stuff seems to be rebounding, even though he can gets the outs and could be a more valuable member of the pitching staff, the Yanks like his stuff in the pen and clearly view him as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera if he can keep his head in the game.
And so I’m left without a word to put into the blank. Did Joba’s season go wrong because of his mid-summer struggles? Did it go right because it validated the Yanks’ decision to put him in the pen and saw his strike out abilities return? Whatever the answer, Joba remains an enigma who just might not be as good as we all hoped and dreamed he would be.