Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On Bullpen Help

Whether there was actual news to report on the subject or not, our friends at the Daily News have decided that they must run a Matsui negotiations piece in each issue. Normally, I wouldn’t read such an article because I spend my day reloading ESPN.com and surely check it before bed, so I’ll know if there are any developments or snags in the proceedings.

Today, however, the teaser drew me in like a college student to a keg. Not only was there mention that the Matsui deal will get done today (yawn) and most likely will be in the neighborhood of 4 for $50 (zzzzzz). But then this tidbit woke me from my slumber:

Assuming they get a deal with Matsui done, the Yankees already have their next moves in mind. They have been in contact with the agents for B.J. Ryan, Tom Gordon and Brian Giles, and want to have those three as their lefty setup man, righty setup man and center fielder.

Of course, this isn’t breaking news. Ryan is believed to be a higher priority than Giles, as dominant lefty relief hurlers are harder to come by than a guy like, oh say, Tanyon Sturtze. Problem is, there have been rumors circulating (and I don’t know if they have any base or not) that Ryan may command up to $9 million, which would be $1.5 million less than Marino earns. In fact, Mo didn’t rake in $9 mil until 2001, and by then he was considered the best closer in the game if not of all time.

As much as I’d love to have Ryan in the pen, he’s no $9 million guy. Maybe, just maybe he’s worth $5 million, and I wouldn’t outbid anyone who ponied up five and a half. I guess a backloading situation would make sense here, since Ryan would be Mo’s heir apparent. It would make me feel a ton better, though, if everyone else on the team didn’t have a backloaded deal.

And then there’s Tom Gordon, the guy who wants to go somewhere else and close. In a way, I don’t blame him, seeing as he’s aging and would do well to parlay the two best years of his career into a big money deal to close out his career. Couple of problems here, though.

First off, Gordon may have pitched a helluva year in terms of ERA, but one of his defense independent pitching statistics, strikeouts per nine, drastically dropped, going from 9.64 in ’04 to 7.70 in ’05. At first glance, I thought to myself, “well, Flash had a terrible April, so maybe the drop-off is attributable to that.” But, being the curious stathead that I am, I had to check the game logs. Here’s what I found:

            Apr       May       Jun       Jul       Aug       Sep
IP         11         13.1         14         14.1       13.1       14
ER         6           3             4             5           1           3
SO         9           13           17           11         10         8
BB         5           6             6             7           4           1

His strikeout rate resembles a dilapidated bell curve, peaking in the middle and lower at each end. But we know that Gordon started off slow, so his low strikeout rate is forgivable for April. But July, August, and September? What gives? Was his arm giving out as the season wore on? If so, his strikeout rate is the only indication, since his earned run and walk rates dropped for August and September.

The other problem Gordon faces is his lack of real success as a closer. Now, my logic on this one may be a bit shaky, since he ostensibly spent a few quality years closing for Kansas City, both sides of Chicago, and Boston. And to be quite honest, I didn’t really follow the career of Tom Gordon during those years, though I did let out an, “oh crap!” when he landed with Boston (baseball cards had given me the idea that Gordon was a dominant force). I also don’t ever remember the Yankees being dominated by Gordon while he was on the Red Sox.

Bill Simmons has a few tidbits to offer about Gordon in his book, Now I Can Die In Peace, none of which paint him in a favorable light. In fact, Derek Lowe deposed Gordon as the closer due to Gordon’s inability to consistently close games. Once again, this is Simmons talking (paraphrased) here, so I’m relying on him for information on Gordon as a closer. But I think we can suffice it to say that he’s never been a Tervor Hoffman/Troy Percival/Rob Nen/Mariano Rivera.

So say Gordon decides that the possibility of winning a World Championship is more realistic in the Bronx than, say, Philly or Flushing. He signs back on, along with B.J. Ryan, creating Joe Torre’s coveted “Three Headed Monster.” It’s a great concept, though Torre always seems to mismanage it. Once again, I’m going to refer back to the ideas in Moneyball to describe Torre’s mismanagement of the pen.

The Yankees had this problem in 2005 with their starters not making it through the sixth inning. And, aside from May when Sturtze was hot, had no one to bridge the gap to the eighth, when Tom Gordon would do his thing, followed by lights out in the ninth. But what if there was a big spot in the sixth when they absolutely needed an out? Torre would go to Scott Proctor or, earlier in the season, Buddy Groom. Problem is, neither of those guys is the guy I want in a big spot. I want Mo. But Mo is the closer, reserved for the ninth when the lead is three or less. Okay, I’m fine with that.

Barring Mo in that situation, I want Gordon. Why wait until the eighth for Gordon, when a blown opportunity in the sixth could cost the Yanks the lead? Does Gordon pitch in the eighth inning of a game where the Yanks are down two? No, not usually. So having a loaded back end of the bullpen means little if there’s no one to bridge the gap.

Mike Scocia did a great job of bullpen management in the ALDS. Remember seeing Scot Shields in the sixth and seventh innings of a few games? You know why? Because the Angels were in a bind, and needed their best guy out there to do the dirty work. They knew they had another quality arm, Kelvim Escobar, in addition to the closer, Francisco Rodriguez. So instead of going with Brendan Donnelly, Scocia went with the guy he thought would get the job done so that Escobar and Rodriguez could do their job.

Having two reliable arms in Gordon and Ryan could be a boon to the Yankees, or could be a bane like the Quantrill experiment, for the exact same reasons. In order for this bullpen scheme to work, not only is Joe going to have to use either Gordon or Ryan in the sixth – and even fifth – sometimes, but he’s going to have to trust the other guys out there to get the job done. Aaron Small, Scott Proctor, and possibly Jaret Wright will be the guys out there, and if Torre is afraid to use any of them in the seventh, we may be in store for the same old, same old concerning the bullpen.

If, however, Torre is confident enough in his guys to use Gordon for a tough spot in the sixth and then not hesitate to bring in Small for the seventh, this bullpen could carry the team throughout the season. It also wouldn’t hurt if the starters could hurl seven a few times a week.

Rivera, Ryan, Gordon, Small, Proctor, Wright. Best bullpen in the majors, should it be managed efficiently.