Thursday, June 02, 2005

Examining the Pitching Woes

I wanted to be focused today. I wanted to sit down and write something other than what’s filling the New York sports pages, something other than Randy Johnson keeping the Yanks in the game last night. In fact, I was going to take a look at the Yanks pitching staffs from 1996 to the present and point out exactly where and why we went wrong.

But two straight losses to the Royals are two straight losses to the Royals, and something has to be said. Not just about the losses in particular, but how the team is performing and where they’re headed.

Because when you come off two straight losses in one of the most high profile rivalries in sports history by dropping two to guys who haven’t won yet this season – who incidentally play for the worst team in baseball – you know there are problems beyond not hitting the ball.

So we start with the guy at the center of it all, even on days he’s not starting. I’ve heard him called The Big Mediocre, and today the New York Post has dubbed him the Big Disgrace, but no matter the moniker, he just hasn’t been the Big Unit this year. At all.

It’s only natural for a pitcher to begin to rely on control and movement as his career nears its end, since the body naturally atrophies, taking away from velocity. Johnson knows this, and has made it a point this year to try and pinpoint his slider, disabling hitters from making solid contact. The problem isn’t the slider itself, though. A low and away slider is near impossible to hit when you’ve seen two 98 mph fastballs on the inside half of the plate. But now that Johnson hits even 94 only once in a blue moon, that slider just isn’t as deadly, even if it has every bit the bite from last year.

The slider can work in it’s own right, however, and Johnson is really exploring that this season. The result is a lot of balls – particularly ground balls – in play that have a chance of finding a hole in the Yanks porous defense. And therein lies the problem, the same problem we had last year.

If a team’s defense is suspect, one way to correct the problem is to bring in strikeout guys for the starting rotation. So following the disappointment of the 2003 World Series loss, the Yanks decided that brining in guys who can get guys out without putting the ball in play may be advantageous for their particular style of ball. Enter Kevin Brown, who despite having had better ratios in the past, put up 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 2003 with LA. But what happens when Brown takes the mound in New York? He watches as his ratio dips to 5.65 per nine, and is seeing quite similar results this season (5.62/9).

Then there’s Javy Vazquez, who the Yanks were ecstatic about adding because of not only his youth, but because of his 9.43 strikeouts per nine innings. Javy must have been schmoozing with Brownie on the bench last season, as he also saw a dip, falling to 6.8 per nine – both were actually 72 percent reductions from the previous year.

It was known that Jon Lieber and Mike Mussina weren’t strikeout guys, and that Jose Contreras wasn’t good for much of anything, so the lack of strikeout production from the two new guys handicapped the team to the point that they could not fulfill the full potential of their then $180 million payroll.

So here comes the off-season, and it’s beyond common knowledge that the Yanks are going to search for more guys who rack up the Ks. But not only did the Yanks want a strikeout guy, but they wanted to add some youth to the aging squad. This created quite a conundrum concerning Pedro Martinez, who flashed an astounding 9.4 Ks per nine, in the American League no less. It remains to be seen if we could have actually landed Pedro, but he seemed like he would have helped fulfill George’s primary goal: win now.

Matt Clement carried a bit of hype with him during the off-season, carrying with him from Chicago a strikeouts per nine innings ratio equivalent to Pedro. But the word on the street with this guy was that he had no heart, no desire to go out and really win. The Yanks believed what they heard; Boston checked things out first hand and proved that Chuck D. was speaking the truth when he sang, “Don’t Believe The Hype.” Now Clement is 6-0 with a 3.06 ERA, though his strikeout ratio has dropped to just a hair under seven. Doesn’t seem to be hurting him all that much.

But the Yanks want none of that. Because who wants to get to know a guy before you sign him? All you have to do is look at what he has done in the immediate past to gauge how he’ll perform on your team. That’s why it made perfect sense that the Yanks picked up on Jaret Wright, a guy coming off his first season with ten or more starts since 1999. But he was 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA and 7.7 strikeouts per nine in 2004, so that obviously means we can just forget about the years from 2000 through 2003. And while we’re at it, we might as well have forgotten that he was 8-10 in ’99 with a 6.06 ERA. And that before ’04, he had never had an ERA below four. Or that he had been visiting the hospital at a Tim Taylor pace over the course of his career.

Free agency just wouldn’t be the same if the Yanks didn’t heavily pursue the cream of the crop – or at least the most hyped of the crop. So instead of making a play for Pedro or Clement, guys who seem to have fit the scheme the Yanks were looking for, they go out and expend their energy on signing Carl Pavano. Don’t get me wrong, I was an advocate of the Pavano signing, and I still think he’ll pan out for us, considering he’s not given the Javy Vazquez treatment.

He’s not the ace, and we know that. He’s not going to strike out one an inning, but we knew that before we inked him to a four year deal. It’s just that such great expectations were placed on him because of his free agency hype. So instead of being accepted as what he is, a two or three guy who lets the opponent put the ball in play and let the defense do the work, he’s still expected to be the lights out ace.

After those signings, the rotation sat at Mussina, Pavano, Vazquez, Brown and Wright. Two ground ball pitchers, two strikeout pitchers who weren’t able to accomplish that in ’04, and a pipe dream of a strikeout pitcher in the five hole. Solution: The Big Unit, of course. Hey, if you’re going to do something you might as well do it well. And what’s better than adding one of the most notorious and dominant strikeout pitchers of this era?

Alas, Randy is heading the way of Brown and Vazquez, witnessing his Ks per nine drop from 10.6 last year (!!) to 7.5 this year. Seven and a half strikeouts per nine innings isn’t bad, but when taken in context, it’s a 70 percent decrease from last year. Sound familiar?

I am not, in any way, pinning the Yankees woes solely on the defense. I’m just making a point that the front office had their hearts in the right place by trying to bring in some guys who can overpower opposing hitters, but their heads were in the commode.

The defense had better shore up for Pavano tonight if they want to avoid an uber embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Royals. And I don’t care if there’s an inordinate amount of pressure on him for a game in early June, but Pavano needs to step up tonight and earn his paycheck by stopping the bleeding. Just like Pettite did back in the day. Just like Mussina and Brown couldn’t do this week.

Randy gets a pass (accompanied by a scowl) for last night because really, he didn’t pitch terribly. He didn’t pitch like Randy, but it wasn’t bad by any means. And a 3-1 loss has to be at least partly the offense’s part in any context. But if he keeps giving up homers to the likes of Emil Brown, Johnsons passes will become fewer and far between, and he’ll sure be observing plenty of scowling countenances.

Update: I always try to write my own thing before reading the newspapers, so I didn't catch this until after I posted. I'm taking away Randy's free pass for last night. Yes, he finally played the "tough transition from NL to AL" card. "The Big Excuse." That should surely be a headline for the back page of the Post (though I think theirs today is "Big Disappointment"). How much longer before he finally plays the age card? Three, four more starts? Because he's already S.O.L. on the weather excuse, and his transitory excuse will only hold water for a few more weeks.