Friday, June 03, 2005

Tanyon, Oh Tanyon

Once again, I’m going to opt to not comment about the past three, or even five games. Yes, they were embarrassing, but the quicker we put them behind us, the better off we’re going to be. Unfortunately, conveniently forgetting events to the caliber of being swept by the worst team in the game is a daunting task in New York. And accordingly, the Yanks have been ripped to pieces, being called “Royal Clowns” and “Jesters.”

I know I said I don’t read what the papers have to say about the Yanks before I write for the day. But since I knew I wasn’t writing about the past three or five games, I gave the New York Post (which I don’t enjoy much) and the Daily News (which I enjoy very much) a glance.

Quick to stick with the A-Rod bashing bandwagon when he looks remotely human, the Post points out that A-Rod “was 0-for-10 and a big reason the Yankees hit .200 (33-for-165) in the three losses and .133 (4-for-30) with runners in scoring position.” Sure, 0-for-10 isn’t commendable by any means, but to blame A-Rod for the Yanks dismal hitting, particularly with runners in scoring position, is completely out of line.

How about Bernie and Matsui, who both grounded into untimely double plays – Matsui’s followed by a double by Sheff. How about Sierra blowing a Giambi double by hitting a grounder to the left side of the infield, leaving him dead at third? Or Womack nearly avoiding a DP, only to be picked off in the next at bat, making the situations equivalent? I’d mention Derek Jeter’s dismal plate performance, but it appears that the media has forgiven his 0-for-8 mark during the first two games, where he went 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position, and struck out in each game’s ninth inning.

But that’s all for the New York media to nit-pick. I’d rather talk about a more positive subject, something that Yankees fans should be excited about this year. His name is Tanyon Sturtze, and you may have noticed him this season. Hell, if you were able to sit through the game last night, you might have noticed that it took him a total of nine pitches to retire five Royals. Too bad Pavano was in the shower instead of taking notes.

Let’s graze over his vitals for this year before really starting to look into them. He has become this year’s Paul Quantrill, the seventh inning man in Joe Torre’s three-headed monster scheme. Obviously, this is just a bit more stressful a role than his last year, the long man in the bullpen. But Sturtze has come out with a fire that he started to build after last year’s all-star break, posting a 2.81 ERA that fits very well with his .97 WHIP. And in the statistic that I covet most, bases on balls, Sturtze has allowed a mere two over the course of 25.2 innings. He gave out 33 free passes in 77.1 innings a year ago, which means he has gone from 3.85 BB/9 to .7 BB/9. That equates to a 550 percent decrease from last year. No biggie.

It’s not even like Sturtze is such a big deal because his improvement from last year. The guy comes in and gets the job done much, much more than not, and that’s the kind of stability in the bullpen needed for any successful team.

Then again, his improvement is more than worth noting. It’s not a commonplace statistic, but Sturtze had sat on a 1.5 strikeouts to walks ratio just about every year of his career. This year, it’s EIGHT. Yes, he has struck out eight guys for every one he has walked. His hitting line (against) this year is .235/.257/.296. Is that stellar or what? As a comparison, Fransisco Cordero, the AL saves leader with 16, has a line of .253/.344/.367, and a Ks to BB ratio of 2.64 (while boasting 11.52 Ks per nine, compared with Tanyon’s 5.61).

I remember at some point in August last year, ESPN.com funnyman Bill Simmons cracked a joke about hearing “now warming in the Yankees bullpen, Tanyon Sturtze” and performing hari-kari (my words, not Simmons’s, since ESPN.com thought it would be profitable to charge for Sports Guy’s archives). Funny now, since Foulke is putting up a 6.48 ERA to go with his 1.48 WHIP. Oh, and his line goes a little like this: .273/.351/.535, with a Ks to BB ratio of 1.6 and a Ks per nine of 5.76.

I could go on to embolden Sturtze’s improvement from years past, but why not take that space up with more stuff from this year? He has allowed a total of eight earned runs this year. Yes, that’s great for the 25.2 innings he’s logged, but against teams not named the Baltimore Orioles, Sturtze has allowed ONE RUN in 21.1 innings – an 0.43 ERA. This also is not to mention his April 9th outing against Baltimore, where he worked an inning, fanned two and picked up his only win of the season.

The guy hasn’t allowed a home run all year, a statistic that’s not given enough weight among relievers. Hitters don’t have the luxury they have with starters, where they have ample time to try and figure out what the guy is doing on the mound and react accordingly. More time than not, a guy will only see a reliever once a game, and he’ll only go one inning, so it’s tougher to pass the knowledge of your at bat to teammates. Home runs, therefore, are key against guys in relief. Most of the time, a dinger is the result of a pitcher’s mistake. I’m not saying that Tanyon hasn’t made any mistakes on the mound this year by any means. I’m just saying that he’s avoided making the worst mistake of them all, a mistake that costs at least one run and some confidence to boot.

So with Sturtze solidly covering the seventh inning and having Gordon and Mariano back in form, the Yanks bullpen doesn’t look like as much of a liability as was thought in early April. Beyond those guys, though, it doesn’t look overly impressive, with the likes of Buddy Groom, Mike Stanton and Paul Quantrill out there. This is my plea to management: please, for the love of everything that is right in baseball, release Stanton when Felix Rodriguez comes back from the DL. Please oh please oh please.

If there’s anything to look forward to in the upcoming Twins series, it’s that we didn’t draw Santana or Radke. Yes, that’s what we have to look forward to, that we were lucky enough to draw the bottom three in the rotation. Sounds promising, right?

Update: Three other "we had nothing to do with this, but will benefit from it" items. Justin Morneau, Nick Punto, and Joe Mauer might not play this series.

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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

I Have Such A Headache (It's Not A Tumor!)

Consistency is a wonderful thing. Consistency is winning 16 of 18. Inconsistency is dropping the 19th by 16 runs. Inconsistency is coming out the next night and looking terribly flat, save for two guys putting up early in the game.

Mixing consistency with inconsistency is like multiplying a positive and a negative: you get the negative. This season’s incarnation of the Yankees are most certainly inconsistent, dropping 19 of their first 30, followed by winning 16 of 18, and rounding out the first 50 by two embarrassing losses. This, my friends, is a sure recipe for a migraine.

This migraine may turn out to be a chronic one, as the losses at the hands of the enemy this weekend surely have sent a message to the Boss, which is that this pitching staff just isn’t going to cut it. And, in a way, that’s an accurate message. When four out of your five starters are supposed to be aces, but are putting up nothing more than mediocrity, the alarm should be sounding, and the front office should be busy figuring out if something can be done here.

This is fine if your front office isn’t working for George Steinbrenner, the antithesis of rationality. Don’t get me wrong, I am a George fan and I appreciate what he has done to keep the team in the thick of things on a yearly basis. What I don’t appreciate are moves that mortgage the team’s future, such as the near two decade old move where he acquired Ken Phelps (just imagine Frank Costanza here, “How could you trade Jay Buhner?!?”).

To think that Robbie Cano is an expendable commodity is a brush with insanity at this point. Most teams covet a 22-year-old second baseman who hits the ball hard and has shown that he can hit on the major league level. And in case no one has noticed yet, the Yanks hitting coach is Don Mattingly, who has done a stellar job this year of honing everyone’s plate discipline. Take A-Rod for example, who is on pace for 100 walks, something he hasn’t done since his contract year in 2000. He’s also on pace for 117 strikeouts, down from 131 last year. Or Derek Jeter, who needs only 21 more walks to match his 46 from last year.

And in case you haven’t read a paper/watched TV/listened to sports radio for the past two months, Chieng-Ming Wang is the other name being tossed around in trade rumors. Yes, that’s right, folks, we’re showcasing a 25-year-old pitcher who has shown poise at the major league level. Oh, and he’s currently pitching as well if not better than anyone else on the Yanks staff.

It’s one thing to trade prospects, but it’s another to trade guys that are helping you out in the present. Yes, Cano’s average is sitting at .250, and he has walked merely twice so far, but he’s only 22 games into his major league career. If this kid stays with the team, he’ll surely be in the running for Rookie of the Year. And who was the last Yanks ROY? I think I’ll keep that rhetorical.

So the Yanks potentially could trade a 22-year-old and a 25-year-old for a 42-year-old. Makes sense, right? I mean, after all, 22 plus 25 is 47, so we’re making out on the deal. Well, actually, George might want to think long and hard about this move instead of acting on his first impulse. There are three guys in the starting rotation now, and one on the DL, who have come from the National League in the last two years. And there are three guys in the starting rotation now, and one on the DL, who aren’t performing nearly to expectations.

Pitching Enemy #1, Kevin Brown, has seen the worst of this epidemic, going from a 2.39 ERA with the Dodgers in 2003 to a 4.09 with the Yanks in ’04, and 5.14 so far this year – though he has shown signs of life of late. In fact, in six seasons in the NL, Brown has had ERAs of 1.89, 2.69, 2.38, 3.00, 2.58, 2.65, 4.81, and 2.39. In the AL his best ERA was 3.32, in ’92 with Texas.

Carl Pavano is a more delicate case, since he really doesn’t have much backing to him. He’s a lifetime National Leaguer, hurling for the Expos from ’98 until mid-season ’02, and then onto Florida before his arrival in the Bronx. It’s also more difficult to gauge him, since he didn’t average more than 5.5 innings a start until the World Series year in ’03, when he was a lights out 12-13 with a 4.30 ERA. But come contract year, he was a man on a mission, knocking opponents out with an 18-8 mark with a 3.00 ERA.

A quick note on Pavano and why he’s not enjoying the success that was expected of him. His style of pitching is to let the opponents put the ball in play, but not allow them to make solid contact. This is evidenced by his current pace for around 33 walks for the season. The glaring problem here is the Yanks lack of defense. He has allowed 13 unearned runs thus far, more than double his total from last season. Yes, he still has a problem with those 30 earned ones this season (on pace for circa 90), but until the guys in the field start making plays behind him, he’s going to find himself on the back page of the Post every few starts.

And who could forget the winter blockbuster, Randy Johnson? Now, I’m not going to go over his performance by the years in each league, but I will point out that his career ERA in the AL is 3.42 while his NL ERA is a laudable 2.65. In 10 years in the AL, he has struck out 2162 (216.2, duh, per year), and in the equivalent of seven full seasons in the NL (his half season with Houston in ’98 and his 11 starts with Montreal in the first two years of his career) he has rung up 1999 – 285.5 per season. Do you see what I’m getting at?

So here we are, pondering the possibility of bringing Roger Clemens back for one more stint with the Bronx, one more flirtation with a World Series championship that he’ll never see in Houston. Last time I checked, though, Houston was in the National League. Yes, Roger is a lifetime American League pitcher, but it is common knowledge that his Cy Young award last year was aided by having an automatic out in the nine slot. And if you don’t believe me, just check out his 2.98 ERA last year, a full half point better than even his best season in New York.

So instead of importing another pitcher from the more pitcher-friendly league, why don’t we try and beef up our team in other areas of concern, like the outfield? Why not make a play for a Mark Kotsay or a Mike Cameron (though the Mets would be as insane as the Boss to give him up) who can come in and give the team some more range in the outfield. I’m sure Mr. Pavano would be grateful for such a move. Why not then shop Womack to an NL contender and Jaret Wright – considering he successfully recovers from this injury – to a team in dire need of pitching, like those on-the-brink Texas Rangers?

But Lord, oh Lord, please don’t bring in another ringer from the NL. Because as the Yankees have proven, dominance in the National League can easily translate to mediocrity in the DH League.