Thursday, June 16, 2005

What's Wrong, Part III: Pitching

How fitting that I’m writing about the Yankees pitching woes the day after a Kevin Brown start. Actually, it was originally supposed to be yesterday, the day OF a Kevin Brown start, but you know how things can get. But it’s still timely, considering he’s at the top of the list of the pitching malfunctions.

I was actually semi-excited about Kevin Brown last year. Not particularly when we acquired him, due to the circumstances (bringing him in because of Pettite’s departure). But as the season approached, I really started to take a liking to him and his 32-start, 2.39 ERA from 2003. Sure, it was a National League ERA, but surely a stint in the AL wouldn’t cause a 1.70 point rise. Right?

The story of the 2004 Kevin Brown can be summed up like this: he pitched in 10 less games, 79 less innings, and allowed four more earned runs than 2003. The only way Brown could have been worse last year is if he went down in April for the season. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but it’s not too far off point. But, let’s examine the logic behind bringing in Brown.

The guy’s positives are right up there with the best in the Bigs. He, along with Livan Hernandez, aced the 1997 Florida Marlins World Series staff, and he followed it up with another Series appearance the following year with San Diego (but we all know what happened that year). In the year spanning from his arrival in Florida in ’96 though the 2000 season with the Dodgers, he had no serious stints on the DL, which enabled him to hit peak form.

Here’s Kevin Brown by the years during that stint:
1996: 32 starts, 233.0 IP, 17-11, 1.89 ERA, 159 Ks
1997: 33 starts, 237.1 IP, 16-8, 2.69 ERA, 205 Ks
1998: 35 starts, 257.0 IP, 18-7, 2.38 ERA, 257 Ks
1999: 35 starts, 252.1 IP, 18-9, 3.00 ERA, 221 Ks
2000: 33 starts, 230.0 IP, 13-6, 2.58 ERA, 216 Ks

His 2001 season was cut short by injury, but he still managed 19 starts, went 10-4 with a 2.65 ERA and 104 strikeouts (8.1 per nine innings). Then came 2002 and another long stint on the DL. This time it took a toll, skyrocketing his ERA to 4.81 as he managed just 63.2 innings in 10 starts and seven relief appearances.

But then he has that above-mentioned injury-free 2003 season. Yet, the Dodgers are willing – nay, eager to rid themselves of him, and I’m sure it wasn’t performance related. Just something about a guy with a bad back. A guy with a bad back that has had two bad seasons since his 1992, 21-11 breakout season with the Texas Rangers, both years in which he spent extended time on the DL. A guy with a bad back who was 39 years old.

Acquiring Brown was quite a risk. It was basically a gamble on two things: 1) his staying injury-free and 2) his adaptation to the hitter-friendly American League. Neither paid off. He started 22 games, and actually had seven excellent performances, one “pretty damn good” start (not excellent because he only went five innings and ended up losing the game having given up zero earned runs), and four additional “quality” starts – that whole six innings, three or less earned runs dealy that I think is deceptive at best. That leaves 10 starts in which he just absolutely bombed, not to mention his ALCS debacle.

And did anyone honestly think he might be able to rebound this year the way he did in ’03? If anyone did, I have the number of a good shrink they might want to see. When you combine his injury-shortened, mediocre at best season last year with his lost confidence and another year ticked off his life, it’s a sure recipe for an even worse season. And if his early-season DL stint wasn’t an omen, I don’t know what is.

Thankfully, he’s the only consistently bad starter on the roster at this point. I’m sure he’d have company in Jaret Wright, but Wright has hooked up with his old pal the DL once again and doesn’t look to be coming back this year. You might hear otherwise in the media, but seriously, this guy went and did it with his shoulder this time. Who in their right mind, after three shoulder surgeries and stints on the DL nearly every year of his career, ignores a popping in their shoulder in the second inning of a game and tries to pitch it off, only to have it tear four innings later? My friends and I have a term for jokers like Wright: mo-mo, or just mo for short. He actually may be helping us more by being on the DL than he would in the rotation, and that’s no exaggeration.

For the rest of the starters -- Randy, Pavano, Wang, and Mussina – the problem has been consistency, though not as much with Wang as the other three. Sure, Wang hasn’t been dominant by any definition of the word, but he’s been consistent at least. He’s given up two and three runs three times each, and four and five runs once each, which certainly isn’t ace material, but is great for a fourth/fifth starter. And there’s no reason Wang should have to step in to the top of the rotation as a 25-year-old rookie.

The good news is that the three I just fingered for inconsistency are all coming off strong outings. Randy was Randy on Saturday against St. Louis, and he’s expected to put up the same kind of performance against Pittsburgh tonight. If I have confidence in him (I’m starting to), it’s for one reason: he’s out of excuses. The season is more than 1/3 over, so there go the “give me time to get in the swing of things” and the “getting acclimated to the AL” excuses. The weather has warmed significantly, so he’s lost his cold weather excuse. And now that he shut down the hot-hitting Cardinals, he can no longer deny that he’s in midseason form. So tonight will be a true test of what Randy is going to do for us in the long run this season.

Mussina is troubling me less and less lately, and I’m not just saying that because of his shutout on Tuesday night. He’s only really had three terrible starts amidst two mediocre, six pretty good to solid, and three stellar starts. His walks are also pleasantly low, having only walked more than two batters twice this season, both in April. His WHIP (1.34) and batting average against (.283) are deceptive, as he tends to scatter hits. However, that gives him little margin for error and could be the cause of a few of his losses.

Pavano is a unique story, mainly because his numbers are inflated. This is in part due to his 13 unearned runs this season, which is already seven more than his 31-start total from last year. In starts in which he had two or more unearned runs, he’s 1-2 (one no decision) with a 4.82 ERA. Signs point away from this trend continuing, since those two losses came on April 10th and 15th.

Then there are his last two starts, in which he’s 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA. Both were six-inning outings in which he allowed two and one runs respectively (none unearned).

What this subtly says is that in the beginning the defense wasn’t behind him, and now the offense isn’t giving him the support he needs. Sure, he’s beaten himself up, too, having given up five or more earned runs four times this season. But there’s enough evidence (i.e. his 10.50 ERA in such starts as opposed to a 2.53 ERA in his others) to show that he’s more than capable of being the number two or three guy in this rotation. And thanks to Mussina’s season thus far, Pavano is definitely sitting in the three spot in the rotation. Carl, all we want to see is a bit more consistency; is that too much to ask?

And what would any pitching discussion be without bullpen talk? Just like last year, there are three guys in the bullpen who are carrying the weight for the rest of the freeloaders out there. Last year it was Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera, and this year Sturtze has done a more than efficient job in the 7th inning role. The problem is that beyond those three, there is absolutely no one out there who Joe can trust. There is nothing that makes me lose faith in the team quicker than seeing Buddy Groom, Paul Quantrill, and especially Mike Stanton warming up.

To show how the ‘pen is a parallel universe in and of itself, one has to look no further than the ERAs of the guys out there. Rivera, Gordon and Sturtze are 1.90, 2.70, and 3.74, respectively. Perfect for your 7th, 8th, and 9th inning guys, right? But what about when they need a guy to come and and just get one out, or when a starter falters? Enter Groom, Stanton, and Quantrill, who sport ERAs of 5.09, 6.94, and 7.11, respectively.

The problem here is that there aren’t many place to look for bullpen help. Jason Anderson, from AAA Columbus, is an option, as he’s having a quality year down there. But beyond that, there’s not much to pick from. Scott Proctor had a terrible stint with the team last year, and the consensus is that Colter Bean and Alex Graman aren’t going to be very effective at the Major League level. And since ‘pen help is so crucial to a pennant race, there is a definite shortage of relief pitchers on the trade block. This is especially true for lefties, of which the Yanks are in dire need.

Felix Rodriguez should be back relatively soon, but he wasn’t much of a help before he hit the DL. His problem, like most of the team, is with consistency. In his 11 appearances, he’s done his job – getting outs and not giving up runs for a short span – seven times, allowing just three hits and two walks in such appearances. Regardless, he’s a better option than any of the other three guys out there.

Then again, how faith can you invest in a guy who tore the medial meniscus in his knee while getting out of the shower? Though, that’s not quite as bad as investing trust in a guy who broke his hand punching a wall.

There’s really not much else the Yanks can do with the starting rotation other than attempt to acquire a guy to take Brown’s spot. He’s in the last year of his contract, so there are worse things in the world than releasing him and eating the remainder of his contract – like paying Jason Giambi $13 mil this year to have nine extra base hits to go along with a .243 average (just wait until that back-ended contract kicks in and we’re paying him over $20 mil to hit .220 in his waning years).

If – and that’s a Ron Jeremy sized “if” – Jaret Wright returns, he might be able to provide some relief in the ‘pen, but no one is really counting on that. So it looks like we’re going to have to look elsewhere for relief. Houston is reportedly listening to offers for closer Brad Lidge, but I can’t envision the Yanks acquiring him at any semblance of a bargain rate. In fact, he may wear a similar price tag to Clemens, and that kind of move just doesn’t make any sense at this point.

So at this point, the Yanks pre-trade deadline shopping list should look something like this (in order of importance):
1) Bullpen help
2) Role players for the bench
3) Outfielder/First Baseman (i.e. Mark Kotsay or Lyle Overbay)
4) Starting pitcher

As Yankees fans, all we can pray for is that the team turns it around on this homestand so George doesn’t get an itchy trigger finger and swing a deal that is not only detrimental to the future of the team, but to the team this year.