Via Mark Feinsand: The Yankees have agreed to terms on a new contract with pitching coach Larry Rothschild. We first heard a new deal was in the works last week and an official announcement is expected shortly. Terms of the contract are unknown, but Rothschild signed a three-year deal when he first joined the team. There is “nothing to report” about the status of the rest of the coaching staff, according to Brian Cashman. The coaches’ contracts all expire on October 31st.
The Yankees re-signed Joe Girardi to a new four-year contract worth $16M yesterday, but there are still some other coaching staff and front office situations to address. Here’s the latest from George King, Andy Martino, and Andrew Marchand.
- Pitching coach Larry Rothschild is close to signing a new contract extension. Brian Cashman recently said the team hoped to bring him back, but they needed to get the manager’s spot settled first. All of the coaches’ contracts expire on October 31st.
- The Mariners have internally discussed the possibility of pursuing Yankees third base coach Rob Thomson for their managerial opening. They have not yet asked New York for permission to interview Thomson or any of their coaches, however.
- The Phillies named Pete Mackanin their new third base coach earlier this week. He spent this past year as a Major League scout with the Yankees. Mackanin is very highly regarded within the game and was reportedly on the team’s short list of managerial candidates if Girardi left.
- The Yankees will not bring back Charlie Wonsowicz, who has been an advance scout/video coordinator for the last five years. The position has being eliminated for whatever reason. Wonsowicz had been in the organization for 21 years.
- Lastly, former Yankee and current YES broadcaster Paul O’Neill has some interest in replacing the since-fired Dusty Baker in Cincinnati. However, Reds GM Walt Jocketty confirmed the team has “not reached out to Paul regarding our managerial vacancy.”
Via Andy Martino: Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees hope to re-sign pitching coach Larry Rothschild after the season. “I think he is an excellent pitching coach,” said the GM. “I would like to have him back. I would like to have [Joe Girardi] back … I would think that Larry wouldn’t want to work with just any manager, so first and foremost we have to deal with that.”
Rothschild, 59, signed a three-year contract when he replaced Dave Eiland following the 2010 season. The staff has a 3.97 ERA and 3.92 FIP in three seasons under his watch — obviously that isn’t all attributable to him — both of which rank in the middle of the AL pack. Rothschild came to the Yankees with a reputation for improving strikeout and walks rates, and he’s done that for the most part. I think his future is tied to Girardi’s — if Girardi comes back, Rothschild comes back. If not, the team will be looking for both a new manager and a new pitching coach.
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.
When the Yankees somewhat surprisingly* hired pitching coach Larry Rothschild last offseason, we heard that he had a reputation for helping his pitchers increase their strikeout rates and decrease their unintentional walk rates. Guys like Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Tom Gorzelanny saw improvement in both categories after joining the Cubs, and those are only three of the most notable examples. The Yankees brought Rothschild aboard hoping he’d coax a few more whiffs out of their pitching staff while reducing the number of free passes.
During the 2009 and 2010 seasons (under Dave Eiland), Yankees’ pitchers struck out 19.65% of the batters they faced and unintentionally walked 8.54%. Those numbers improved to 19.80% and 7.52% under Rothschild in 2011, respectively. The strikeout improvement from just 2010 to 2011 was a bit more substantial, as you can see in the table to the right. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise; the Javy Vazquez and Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley types were placed with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Rafael Soriano. Offense around the league continued to drop as well.
On an individual level, a number of Yankees’ pitchers improved their underlying performance under Rothschild this past season. You can see those players in the table to the right, though I left out guys who dealt with significant injury problems (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Cory Wade, Colon, Soriano) and those that bounced between the rotation and bullpen (Joba and Hughes) since the start of 2009. With the exception of relatively small increases in Garcia’s and David Robertson’s walk rates, all of these guys showed improvement in their strikeout and unintentional walk rates. Some of them, like CC Sabathia (+2.66% strikeouts and -0.94% walks) and A.J. Burnett (+0.99% strikeouts), showed significant improvement. Those two aren’t young kids coming into their own, their veteran guys with long track records.
So that’s great, they’re striking out more batters while walking fewer, but how are they doing it? In an effort to explain, let’s look at the individual pitch breakdown for those fellas…
The fastballs in the table references all kinds of fastballs, so two-seamers, four-seamers, cutters, sinkers, etc. Breaking balls are both curveballs and sliders. I didn’t want to get too nuts with the breakdown of individual pitches because all I wanted to see was the usage of hard stuff compared to the usage of soft stuff. I also left Mariano Rivera out of this because he takes pity on the rest of the league and does not throw any kind of breaking ball.
With the exception of Robertson, all of those guys threw significantly more breaking balls in 2011 than they did from 2009-2010 according to PitchFX (via Texas Leaguers). We’re talking an increase of around four percentage points, in some cases more. Data from Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) says the Yankees went from 69.2% fastballs and 22.6% breaking balls as a team from 2009-2010 to 66.1% and 26.2% in 2011, respectively. Two different tracking systems, but we’re seeing a similar increase in breaking ball usage, roughly four percentage points.
You can play connects the dots here and say that the increase in breaking balls contributed to the increase in strikeouts, it definitely passes the sniff test. I’m not sure how throwing more breaking balls would decrease unintentional walks though, since many breaking balls are intentionally thrown out of the strike zone. We’d have to look at when the extra breaking balls are being thrown, which sadly is well beyond my PitchFX capabilities. I suspect many of those extra sliders and curveballs are being thrown early in the count rather than later, which has allowed the Yankees’ pitchers to get ahead in the count more often. Sure enough, the Yankees had the highest first pitch strike percentage (61.8%) in MLB this season, up from 58.1% from 2009-2010. That will certainly help explain more strikeouts and fewer walks.
Now obviously correlation does not equal causation. One year of data doesn’t tell us much of anything, whereas the studies linked in the first paragraph cover years of data and thousands of batters faced. The Yankees’ pitching staff showed traits consistent with Rothschild’s track record during his first year at the helm, possibly because they threw more offspeed stuff earlier in the count. We’ll never really know what improvement (or decline) the pitching coach is responsible for and what he isn’t from where we sit, but Rothschild has been doing this for quite some time, and the improved strikeout and walks rates seem to have followed him from team to team.
* Surprising only because we hadn’t heard his name mentioned as a candidate. It really was out of left field.
For anyone looking for the latest on Phil Hughes throwing a baseball, Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York has a tidbit on his first throwing session. According to Larry Rothschild, relayed through Joe Girardi, Hughes “had some life on the ball when he was long tossing.” I’m not sure exactly how one shows life during long tosses, and the PR skeptic in me thinks this is just Rothschild saying what people want to hear. He probably could have said, “It’s tough to tell anything from one long toss session,” but that’s not going to sate anyone’s hunger for updates on the situation.
If you’re a Baseball Prospectus subscriber, you can get a further glimpse into Rothschild’s personality in his Q&A with David Laurila. He comes off as a humble man, but he also clearly watches his words with the media. That only further plays into my skepticism of his report on Hughes. He also makes some general statements on how stats have affected his job, which is probably the most interesting part of the interview.
Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.
Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.
Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…
In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.
On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.
All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones’ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.
Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”
Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.
His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.
By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.