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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

What's Wrong, Part II: Role Players

In Part Deux of my What’s Wrong?????????? series, I’m going to examine the media-popular role players situation. So before I get to the meat of the column, let’s discuss role players and what they mean to a team.

You know the situation: the game is in the late innings, the score is tied, and your leadoff guy just drew a crucial walk. Textbook baseball says you pinch run for this guy (if he possess average MLB speed) and bunt him over to second. But what if you don’t have any legs off the bench? And worse yet, what if the guy coming up hasn’t laid down a bunt in a few seasons, and you don’t have any such guys on the bench?

Or how about this one: bottom of the eighth, and you’re up by one. But an oafish, Giambi-esque player is patrolling first base. A defensive substitution is in the cards, but what if there’s no one off the bench who can fulfill that role? What if your next best option is just as uncoordinated as the guy you have out there already? And what if a situation comes up where the guy has to scoop a tough throw out of the dirt?

These are two of countless situations in which a team needs guys to step up and play a role in order for the team to win. Role players aren’t solely for late game situations, either. Guys like the Mets’ Dougie Eye-Chart are there to play specific defensive roles. Guys like (and I can’t believe I’m bringing him up) the Padres’ Dave Roberts is in there for his speed. Both guys don’t have big bats to brag about, but they add to the team in other areas.

Not everyone can be a superstar, so role players are integral pieces to any championship team. Just ask Larry Brown and Greg Popovich about that one. Both have built NBA championship teams around a few superstars and a ton of role players. Do you think Brown would have won the title last year with a team of Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, LeBron James, Jermaine O’Neal and Yao Ming? Sure, it looks like as close to a sure thing as you’re going to get in sports, but don’t let the names fool you. Aside from LeBron, how many of these guys make everyone else on their team better? How many of them know what to do when they don’t have the ball? How many can be effective when they’re not scoring? And how dismal would the bench be?

The Yankees this year are a bit short on role players, a category they were rich in during the 1996-2000 dynasty. This year, we’ve got:

1- Jeter: Captain, moral leader, guy who just flat out hits the ball
2- Tony Womack: speed and bunting
3- Gary Sheffield: heavy-hitting superstar
4- A-Rod: heavy-hitting superstar
5- Matsui: all-around hitter
6- Posada: switch-hitter
7- Tino: mostly defensive
8- Cano: solid hitter, still in his “feeling out” stage
9- Bern: switch-hitter

So they’re not very diverse in their roles as starters. And when you look at the bench, things look even bleaker. Ruben Sierra, Rey Sanchez, Russ Johnson, Jason Giambi, John Flaherty. Does anyone else want to place a call to see if Tim Raines wants to play another year?

Seriously, if you’re Torre and you need someone to pinch-hit late in the game, who can you trust beyond Ruben? If you said any of the names that follow him on the above list, you are wrong.

Let’s look at the starters first and determine their roles. Oh, look, Womack is one of two guys who doesn’t have the word “hitter” in his role. Great, right? Speed and the ability to lay one down are crucial to a team, but there’s a catch. To utilize your speed, you have to actually get on base; Womack’s OBP is .289. And popping up a bunt to the pitcher isn’t exactly the best way to prove your ability to slide one down the third base line late in the game.

Tino actually has a useful role in his defense. He may not be the best defensive first baseman in the league, but he can hold his own out there, having committed only three errors this season. His hitting has certainly slipped, especially of late, but if he’s helping the team avoid sloppy play, his role is performed. This role is emboldened when your other first baseman is Jason Giambi, who is perhaps the worst fielding first baseman in the league (David Ortiz may be worse, but the Sox figured out pretty quickly not to play him there).

Another interesting role listed above is switch-hitter, held by Jorge and Bern. I think it’s rather sad that with all those guys have contributed to the team in the past, the best I can come up with for them is “switch-hitter.” I mean, can they really be depended on for much more than changing the way they bat depending on the pitcher? Sure, Jorge has been a bit hotter over the last week or so, but for the season as a whole, he can’t be depended on to smack a double to knock in runners. The guy is hitting a mere .231 with runners in scoring position, with two doubles and two dingers. Bern is hitting .273 with ducks on the pond, but with only one homer and ZERO doubles.

How many guys, bench and starters, can you count on to lay down a bunt? If you answered one – Jeter – you’re right. Maybe Russ Johnson and Sanchez are privy on how to lay one down, but can you really depend on them to do so? Could you depend on Tim Raines or Luis Sojo to back in ’96? Surely.

The solution to this problem is a bit simpler than yesterday’s solution. Instead of looking for a big bat or a fireball arm before the trade deadline, why not look for a guy or guys who can play these crucial roles. It’s not like Rey Sanchez is an indispensable player. Relegating Tony Womack to benchwarmer would help this cause as well, since he could be brought in as a pinch runner in late innings. This would do much more justice to his talents than batting him number two in the order does.

Monday, June 13, 2005

What's Wrong, Part I: Reacting to Adversity

Following a 12-game road trip that was well below the line of mediocrity, everyone is asking the same question in one way or another: what the hell is wrong with this team? Sure, there are positives to look at as well, but when you’re two games under .500 with 100 games to play, the negatives are going to be scrutinized more heavily than the positives are lauded. But instead of complaining on talk radio shows about A-Rod or the pitching staff, I’m going to dedicate this week to figuring out these Bombers.

We’ll start today with a theme that isn’t brought up much in popular media, but something I’ve touched on in the past: the lack of reaction. When a problem strikes this team, they don’t seem to let it phase them, which is a problem. Sure, you don’t want to let a tough loss linger for too long, but to let it pass with a stone face isn’t the answer either.

The key to success in the big leagues is to win series. If you consistently take two of three from teams not only will you be setting yourself up for a .667 winning percentage, you’re avoiding losing streaks. And as this incarnation of the Yankees know, a few losing streaks can pile up and put you in quite a hole in the pennant race. Thankfully, Baltimore and Boston have had trouble of late stringing together wins as well, so the Yanks, at 30-32, certainly aren’t out of the immediate picture. But they can’t continue to rely on the failures of their division foes. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to hit a 13 of 15 stretch or two in order to solidify themselves as contenders.

One facet of team reaction is how they play following a blowout (here defined as their opponent scoring 10 or more runs while losing by at least five). In 1996 the team was 9-4 in such games. In ’98, 5-1. 4-1 in ’99. The numbers skew in ’00, as they posted a 5-7 record in such games, but that was partly due to the seven game slide in which they lost blowout games to the Tigers, Devil Rays and Orioles.

This year, they’re 2-2. Not terrible, but the fact that they’ve already been in four such situations is cause for alarm. And it’s worth noting that in games following their reaction game, they’re 1-3.

Losing games does more than drop your team in the standings; it frustrates players and dampens the mood in the clubhouse, and it becomes cyclical from there. This is the exact reason why a strong pitching performance is key following a loss. Normally, you have the same eight guys going out in the field every day, and when they all go cold at once, there’s not much you can do to turn them all around. That is, except go out there and pitch on helluva game.

Let’s take a look at that magical 1996 team for a comparison. For starters, their longest losing streak was five games, which happened only once, and the next longest was three, which happened five times, two of which were in April. Already this year, the Yanks have had a six game losing streak, two four-gamers, and two threes. That’s 20 losses off streaks thus far, while the ’96 version had 20 through 162 (a streak being three games or more).

What’s more, the ’96 5-game losing streak came in late August, when a hot team tends to tire out at least a little bit. And that streak was broken by a 6-2 win over the Angels – on the west coast. The season-high six game losing streak this year was broken by squeezing out a game in – as Michael Kay says – bonus cantos. Oh, and we followed that with another three-game losing streak. The ’96 team ended their longest slide by not allowing another three game streak for the rest of the season.

The solution to this problem isn’t simple, and it surely can’t be solved by myself or any of the loons that call into sports radio shows. This is a problem from within the players, something that only they can work out. The only way a personnel change will affect this facet of the team’s shortcomings this year is if somebody or somebodies (cough cough, Giambi and Womack) is/are chronically afflicted.

So to dig into my bag of sports cliches, the Yanks have to take a look deep inside themselves and see if they can still personify winning like they did from ’96 to 2000. I’m sure it’s there, it’s just a matter of them finding and sustaining it.

So the schedule for this week is going to look like this: tomorrow I’ll investigate the lack of role players and what exactly it means to this team. Wednesday will be dedicated to the pitching woes, aptly followed by hitting woes on Thursday. Friday is going to be a surprise, more of an “I want to write this” kind of piece about what I think are the crucial elements to this year’s team.