Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pitching Wins Ballgames

There are so many relevant topics to talk about now, which is a normality a team is winning. And the Yanks, well, they’re winning. And they keep winning. You can even say they’re playing to their potential for the first time this season. What a time they picked to do it.

Of course, the team has problems, and what team doesn’t? The reason the Yanks are winning, however, is that they are picking up for each other, spreading tinted cream over their blemishes.

Remember back when I analyzed the Yanks vital statistics and found that Slugging Percentage and WHIP seemed to be the indicating stats of the team’s success? Let’s take a quick look at those stats from August:

Slugging: .447 (6th)
WHIP: 1.28 (5th)

And the stats I kind of wrote off:

ERA: 3.75 (4th)
OBP: .349 (4th)

And their record, 18-9, is the second best in the AL for August, just behind those blasted Injuns.

So what does all this prove? Well, for starters, it proves that we’re going to need some solid, not even dominant, but just purely solid starts from Randy Johnson here on out. It also means that Mike Mussina can’t have starts like his last two. But both of those are givens at this point.

There are plenty of reasons for the dip in ERA and WHIP over the course of August, and most would agree that the newcomers, Chacon, Small, Leiter and Wright, can be handed most of the credit for this.

Most would be right. And while it’s easy to heap most of the credit on Chacon and his 1.80 ERA, but last night proved that another one of those newcomers may prove to be just as vital a part. Yes, I’m talking about Aaron Small.

I’ve been touting this guy since his second start (the seven inning, three run performance against the Twins), and he’s done very little to perturb me since his emergence earlier this month, save for that blown save against the D-Rays. Damn those D-Rays.

Oh yeah, and that small gaffe against the Royals this weekend. But that was following ten days off, which is what typically happens to bullpen pitchers when a team carries 12 hurlers. But now with Proctor down in Columbus, Small is sure to get his share of outings from the ‘pen.

The thing about Small is he’s so versatile. He can throw long relief out of the pen for damage control, he can obviously start a quality game, and he can even come in to get three guys out. This can be crucial down the stretch, and especially since we have a similar pitcher, Tanyon Sturtze, also in the ‘pen.

While Sturtze and Small are similar in their versatility (though I wouldn’t be counting on Tanyon to be starting a game anytime soon), they are stylistically different. Sturtze has an excellent fastball with a nasty splitter to complement it. Small is location, location, location, hardly breaking 90 on the gun, but hitting his spots to get guys out.

What does this mean for the Yankees bullpen? I know Torre won’t go for it, since he’s a set in his ways kinda guy, but how about abandoning the “three-headed monster” tactic? Sure, Flash and Mo will still be the 8-9 combo; that formula has worked for years for many teams.

But this three-headed thing seems to put all of the burdensome bullpen work on just those three guys, and as was proven last year, that becomes daunting. Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera were Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the league in appearances, and the effects of this burnout became evident down the stretch, when they lost ground to Boston in September and eventually collapsed. So why continue the same formula, knowing that the bullpen will have to stay ready and healthy for a successful stretch run?

This is why Small is so valuable: he’s another able arm in the bullpen, at least for now, who can eat up innings. I remember saying back when he was initially moved to the bullpen that he could be used to take up the last three innings of a game, successfully spelling Sturtze, Gordon, and Mo. But I think I’m singing a different tune now. Perhaps he can be used in place of Sturtze or Gordon. Or, on a day when the rest of the bullpen needs a day off, take Mo’s spot and finish off a game.

Hopefully Torre sees this and begins using Small a bit more frequently. Once again, with the pitching staff down to the normal 11 guys, he’s bound to find himself on the hill more frequently, as will Felix Rodriguez. The key is giving these guys some kind of consistency so they can get into a groove and become productive. They've shown that they can, and now it’s time to do it with consistency.

This is my plea to Joe Torre: mix things up. Don’t think that in a two-run game that Sturtze is a must in the 7th, because he’s not. Small can pitch the seventh, just as Felix Rodriguez can. Sure, you want to keep the consistency of Gordon-Rivera doing the 8th and 9th, but don’t think you have to overwork either of them. The bullpen is finally solidified, but will only be effective if used, well, effectively.

Let’s just hope this is recognized within the organization, and we don’t fall into the same rut we did last year, burning out the bullpen and consequently our chances at a 27th championship.