Friday, August 05, 2005

Escape from Coors

The Giam-BEE-no! Leave it to the hottest hitter in baseball to pick up the Yanks when they really need it. Not to take anything away from Alexander the Great, whose home run tied the game and made it possible for Giambi to see the pitch that won the game.

There’s plenty to yap about following this game: the win in a must win, Giambi continuing to look like an MVP (and earning his paycheck), A-Rod coming through in the clutch (though, according to my brother, it wasn’t clutch because there weren’t two outs), Tom Gordon not having two days in a row off since July 18th and 19th…but I’m going to write about the issue I’m concerned about: Shawn Chacon.

We need only one look at Chacon’s money pitch, his sharp hook, to explain his failure in Colorado. How many curveball pitchers have thrived there? How about Mike Hampton, who was 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA for the World Series losing Mets in 2000? He goes to Colorado, and amasses a 14-13 record with a 5.41 ERA. Two and a quarter points over his previous year. And it’s not like he eloped to the AL or anything.

Or what about Darryl Kile (R.I.P.), who was a lights-out 19-7 with a 2.57 ERA for the Astros in ’97. His 1998 debut with the Rockies: 13-17 with a 5.20 ERA, to be followed by a 8-13, 6.61 season. You could even count in Shawn Estes, who had his worst year (5.84 ERA) in Colorado – though he doesn’t exactly have a track record of quality seasons (’97 with a 3.18 ERA in San Fran).

Funny thing about Hampton, Kile and Estes: they all had career highs in home runs allowed during their respective tenures in Colorado. Hampton had 31 in ’01 and 24 in ’02, compared to his previous career high of 18 with Houston in ’98. In fact, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian wrote an article recently about Hampton and his escape from Coors.

Kile gave up 28 and 33 homers during his two years in Colorado, though his trend continued subsequent to his escape to St. Louis (but his ERA dipped back to top of the rotation levels). Estes allowed 30 dingers in ’04, besting his career high by nine.

Last year, Joe Kennedy made Rockies history by becoming the first pitcher to start over 20 games and have an ERA below four (Armando Reynoso had a 4.00 ERA in 30 starts in their inaugural year, ’93, and Marvin Freeman had a 2.80 ERA in 19 starts in ’94).

No, Coors Field is no pitcher’s park. It can actually be construed as some kind of pitcher’s purgatory, where they are sent to pay for all those hanging breaking balls. Because when you hang one out in Colorado, well, it keeps hanging all the way to the seats.

In his early years, Chacon looked like he would fall victim to the perils of Coors Field. He debuted in ’01, going 6-10 with a 5.06 ERA in 160 innings. He allowed 26 long balls that year to go along with 157 hits and a monstrous 87 (!!) walks (1.53 WHIP). However, he did manage 134 strikeouts, which would be great, except that it meant that when the ball was being put in play, it was falling in for base hits.

It was downhill in ’02, as Chacon started less games (27 in ’01, 21 in ’02), hurled less innings (119.1), worsened his strikeout to walk ratio (67 Ks, 60 BBs), and maintained his 1.53 WHIP. Oh, and he allowed 25 homers, only one less than the previous season.

Then came ’03, where he started off the year as the hottest pitcher in the majors, going 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA in April. And while he had subsequent months of mediocrity, he entered the All-Star break making the team with an 11-4 record and a 4.27 ERA. Too bad he didn’t win a game for the rest of the year, starting only six games after the All-Star break and amassing a 5.63 ERA. Good news: he only allowed 12 homers that year over 137 innings.

2004 wouldn’t help Chacon’s status in Colorado, as he made a move into the closer role. He managed to save 35 games, but blew nine, and had an ERA over seven. He had as many strikeouts as walks (52), and allowed a homer ever five and a quarter at bats. Oh, and that whole more hits than innings pitched thing (1.95 WHIP) didn’t help him any.

So it came as no surprise that there were plenty of cynics when Chacon donned the pinstripes. See, in New York, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing household names out on the mound, even if they’re replacements (read: Al Leiter). So when a guy like Chacon comes over, there isn’t going to be anyone that’s overly enthused about him.

Count me as one of the minority. I remember it hazily: coming home after seeing Devil’s Rejects, my buddy Andy called and asked who we gave up in the trade. I immediately shut him up, saying that I didn’t know who we got, and I didn’t want to know until I got home.

When I saw it was Chacon, I cracked a smile. When I saw that we gave up nobodies, it was from ear to ear. Ever since his name was mentioned in trade rumors, I’ve been high on Chacon. Maybe not mile-high, but pretty high. This is a guy who flashed his ability earlier in his career, but was gobbled up by the Coors monster. I just figured that a jump to a pitcher’s park would be the boost he needs to become a No. 3 starter.

And that he just might be. True, he’s only had two starts, but they’ve been two relatively effective starts. He’s pitched six in both, and allowed only two runs total (both last night). There’s just one thing troubling me about Chacon…

He still has allowed as many hits as innings pitched (12), and he’s walked five. Now, the hits don’t bother me too much, as long as they’re scattered. Actually, it’s the walks that concern me more. Chacon is no strikeout pitcher, but he’s going to have to improve upon his strikeouts to walks ratio. If he’s going to be a fly ball pitcher like he was in Colorado (which is a sure recipe for disaster out there), he’s going to have to let other guys put the ball in play. Play your strengths – not allowing guys to make solid contact – and downplay your weaknesses – overpowering guys for strikeouts.

Because if Chacon keeps nibbling, he’s going to issue a lot more free passes, and enough walks will move any pitcher into Bronx Meltdown mode. I’d like to see this 27-year-old kid hurling in the years to come, and it looks like that could become a reality. But, he still has some way to go before he can become a facet in next year’s rotation.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Doesn't Make Sense

What in tarnation happened to Mike Mussina last night? It just doesn’t make sense.

Ladies and gentlemen this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk, but Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now, think about that. That does not make sense! Why would a Wookiee—an eight foot tall Wookiee—want to live on Endor with a bunch of two foot tall Ewoks? That does not make sense!

But more important, you have to ask yourself, what does this have to do with Mike Mussina? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with Moose! It does not make sense!

Look at me, I'm a writer writing about the Yankees, and I'm talkin' about Chewbacca. Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense. None of this makes sense!

Usually when a pitcher hurls four strong innings and seemingly has his stuff, he doesn’t get rocked for six runs in the fifth. Mussina was placing his pitches well in innings one through four, and his curveball had the Indians back on their heels.

Another perplexing thought: he had only given up two runs by the time he got two outs. And he couldn’t retire one more guy before four more runs were plated. Wonderful.

Pardon me for sounding utterly confused at this point. It’s just uber frustrating having your ace on the mound, handing him a four run lead, watching him pitch well enough that you’re confident in a win, leaving for a friend’s place, and finally turning on the radio to find that he blew it. Then, of course, it’s a race back home to find out exactly what happened.

So Moose blows a game that we should have won, leaving the Yanks four and half back of the Red Sox for the division, three behind Oakland and only a half game up on Cleveland for the Wild Card. And now Shawn Chacon has to face the sophomore jinx tonight in a game that the Yanks really need to win.

Who am I kidding? We need to go 39-16 for the rest of the season just to get to 95 wins. Thankfully, it may only take 90 to win the division. Unfortunately, we really don’t have a pitching staff that’s capable of even 90 wins. Even when Pavano returns, the rotation still looks as shaky as it did in the early months of the season.

Now, if the Yanks can even out this boat, get Pavano rolling, and get Wang back in September at full strength (not holding my breath), then we can start talking. But by then, the Yanks may have already played themselves out of the playoffs.

And what makes the pitching woes worse is a blurb in the Daily News about the Yanks picking up Aaron Sele, which is funny because the first comment out of my mouth when I saw that he was DFA’d was, “Hey, Sam [my brother], you think we should pick up Sele?” It’s kind of sad that the Yanks are throwing out a welcome mat for other teams’ rejects.

Since 2001, Sele’s ERA hasn’t dipped below four, and he hasn’t registered 10 wins, or even managed 30 starts. In short, signing Sele would be a downgrade over (under?) Al Leiter, if that’s possible.

Further enraging me is a blurb I read in a local paper, in which it is reported that Cashman is looking at signing Singo Takatsu, which would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has a brain aneurysm. Sure, he had a good year last year, but has anyone ever heard of a fluke? Because he’s the definition, to a T. After a stellar season last year, he has allowed more hits than innings pitched, and has allowed just ten less runs and five less walks than last season…in half the innings.

I think – and some may consider this a stretch – that if we’re desperate enough to sign Takatsu and/or Sele, we just might be better off thinking about next season. And for that reason, all eyes should be on Chacon tonight, because if he can provide any amount of consistency for the remainder of the year, he could surely have a spot in next year’s rotation.

But in all likelihood, he’ll pull a Leiter. Don’t you love post-loss cynicism?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

2.0 IP, 5 ER, 5 BB, 78 Pitches

Thanks, Al. I go around, even after your mediocre at best starts following the Boston game, and defend you. I tell everyone that we made a great move by bringing you in; that you were having intangible problems down in Florida that caused you to statistically be the worst pitcher in baseball. And you did well, Al, by pitching your best game of the season in a tight spot for a team with a struggling (and that’s being generous) pitching staff.

But then you went out and had a shaky start (at best) against the Angels, a short but productive start vs. the Twinkies (which we lost, consarnit), and then last night’s game, where you had a harder time finding the plate than Kate Moss. What gives?

Signing Leiter was a breath of fresh air because 1) he came over for pennies, 2) he’s experienced, 3) he’s another left-handed starter, which we haven’t exactly had an abundance of in the recent past. And regardless of his poor performance in Florida this year, he’s still Al Leiter, and he did come over at a time when we were hurting for someone.

But now Leiter suffers from one of two ailments. Either he is lacking the confidence to throw strikes or he just lacks the ability to throw them. But regardless of the rationalization, Leiter’s deficiency is amplified a hundred times by this Yankees team. Allow me to explain.

Leiter leads the majors in pitches per plate appearance (thanks, SportsCenter). This will translate into an inordinate number of walks. And with runners on base, Leiter is under more pressure to throw strikes. But, as we’ve established, he just has trouble doing that. Hitters are catching on to this, and are taking more and more pitches. Even if they take a strike, hitters know that another strike may not come for the rest of the at bat. So then Leiter either puts the guy on for free, or he lays a meatball over the plate and the guy goes Ronnie Belliard on it.

So is Leiter running on fumes? At 39 years of age, it’s an obvious possibility – we’re seeing much of the same with Randy Johnson (his decline, not the complete lack of control). But remember, Leiter posted a 3.21 ERA last year, which makes this situation even more perplexing.

I’ve been backing the guy since he was released by the Marlins, and I’m going to continue to stand behind him. However, the guy shouldn’t get a start beyond his next one if these problems continue. So yes, I advocate starting the guy one more time, especially with the pitching staff as thin as it is. Hopefully Pavano will be ready to return after Leiter’s next start, so the Yankees can better assess the situation at that point.

But just as Leiter’s performance caused inanimate objects to be abused, Scott Proctor’s performance may have saved many a couch from being stabbed. In fact, I’m even granting him some amnesty, considering I called him worse than the much hated (by me) Jaret Wright. He pitched four solid innings, which is certainly impressive for a guy who normally can’t work one effectively. His only gaffe was a solo homer, which I always believe is an acceptable aberration. Hey, it’s one bad pitch, and it was to Victor Martinez. All is forgiven.

Of course, after an uncharacteristic performance by Proctor, speculation is going to be, “is this a sign of things to come, or just a pleasant surprise on a night we needed it?” Unfortunately, I just don’t see this continuing. I appreciate Proctor’s 97 m.p.h. heater, but as has been duly noted, it’s as straight as an arrow. Without ample movement on his pitches, he’s just not going to find consistent success. Normally, a pitching coach would help a relative youngster out with such troubles, but when your pitching coach is Mel…

Another positive sign is another scoreless inning by Felix Rodriguez. Slowly, he’s going to earn Joe’s trust, and will certainly bolster the back end of this bullpen by the end of the season. Sure, he’s going to allow runs here and there, but that’s acceptable. Can we really expect him to be Mo-esque every time out? But if he can pitch the way Tanyon pitched earlier in the year, Joe will have four guys he can trust. All the sudden, the bullpen is looking a bit stronger.

Next up: Alan Embree. He’ll surely get in the game at least once between now and Sunday, and we’ll have a better chance to assess his ability to contribute. But, for Embree to add to this pitching staff, Mel and Joe have to put his performances into perspective. The guy is able to get one, maybe two outs at a time, so he should be used like Graeme Lloyd in ’96. Throw him more than an inning, though, and the result is typically runs for the opponents. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Pressure is on Moose right now; we don’t want to drop two of three (or ::gulp:: get swept) to start this 16-game, five team stretch. Quick note to Mussina: eating up innings would be wonderful right now. Proctor won’t be available for the next few days, and we all know that Gordon just can’t work three days in a row now. Seven, eight strong and Joe can turn the game over to Sturtze and/or Mo. One can only hope.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Road Ahead

Screw Raffy. Screw Barry. There, I’m done with that.

Another trial awaits the Yankees in the coming weeks, as they head out to Cleveland for a trio this week, north of the border for a weekend series at Sky Dome, and then back home for a set with the White Sox and four against the Rangers.

Oh yeah, that’s all followed – sans a day off – by three with the Devil Rays. Under normal circumstances, it might be some slight consolation to have the Devil Rays at the end of a 16-game stretch, rather than having a team like, oh, the White Sox at the end of the beaten path. But the Yanks have dropped seven of 10 to those mighty D-Rays this season, which is a worse mark than they have against any of the other teams in this stretch.

Cleveland doesn’t worry me too much, especially as I glance at the pitching match ups, which seem to favor us. Leiter goes tonight against Scott Elarton, Moose is up against Cliff Lee Wednesday (the game I think the Injuns have the best chance of winning), and Chacon (hey, it’s only one start, but you gotta love that 0.00 ERA) against Kevin Millwood on Thursday.

So yes, as I may have implied in the above paragraph, I believe we should take at least two of three from Tribe, and a sweep should be in the hands of Mussina. Maybe I’m expecting too much of Chacon; maybe I’m underestimating Kevin Millwood. Maybe, just maybe I’m placing the bar a bit high for Leiter, who is notorious for his inability to eat up innings (which would mean I’m also overestimating our bullpen). I just think that with the match ups in the series and the Injuns current slide, we should be able to gain some ground during these three games.

Toronto may pose a threat, seeing as how they’ve been playing well since the All-Star break and are actually ahead of Baltimore at this point. And now that Vernon Wells has found his swing, the Blue Jays would be poised to make a run at the Wild Card…if not for Roy Halladay being sidelined for the foreseeable future.

Luckily for the Jays, they have some young talent that can help them next year in a serious playoff run. Luckily for the Yanks, they don’t seem to have the pieces together this year. But they have a lot of integral pieces to a playoff team: a solid ace in Roy Halladay, a crafty lefty in Ted Lilly (despite his disappointing season), a young arm in Gustavo Chacin, a big bat in Vernon Wells, a solid middle infield in O-Dawg Hudson and Rookie of the Year candidate Aaron Hill. Next year, Jays, next year.

The Rangers worry me just because of their bats. These guys can hit, but then again, I don’t remember the Yanks having problems scoring runs themselves. Pitching is always the difference against the Rangers, and surprisingly, we actually have a better staff than them. Without going into detailed analysis of the match ups we’re going to be facing when Texas comes into town for four, I think we certainly hold the upper hand on them and can out-slug them for three out of four, split at the very worst.

Then again, I think we hold the upper hand on most teams in the AL at this point, with our ability to score six runs a game and all. Well, “most teams” certainly does not include the White Sox, who come into Yankee Stadium next week for the first contest between the teams this season. I’ve written about the Other Sox before, but I just can’t get enough of this team. They just do everything right, from their starters giving them six to seven quality innings game in and game out, followed by their bullpen finishing the job. Their bats aren’t bad, either, combining Ozzie Guillen’s small ball philosophy with power from the bats of Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, Carl Everett and A.J. Pierzynski.

They split with Boston last month, which means the Yanks have to keep a similar pace. You never want to accept losing two of three, but with these White Sox, would that be acceptable? To drop games to Garland and Beuhrle? It’s rarely acceptable to lose a series, but these White Sox are steam rolling AL team after AL team.

Problem is, the Yanks need momentum at this point. They’ve been winning games since the All-Star break, but not at a pace great enough to overtake the Red Sox for the division or the hotter than hot A’s for the Wild Card (though we may be chasing those blasted Angels for the Wild Card in a few weeks). What better way to gather momentum than to take two of three from the best team in the AL?

And, as has been said in the past and certainly will be said just about every day from here until October, there is no way to stop either of the Sox without some quality arms. Thankfully, Brian Cashman has taken the path less traveled with the Yanks and assembled a group of low-priced alternative pitchers, rather than overpaying for over-hyped, mediocre arms.

I may be going out on a limb saying this, but the Yanks very well may be better off with Leiter, Chacon, and Small – all acquired for nothing or next to nothing – than shipping off prospects for Jason Schmidt or A.J. Burnett. As we all know from the recent past, importing high profile arms – especially from the National League – is risky business that comes with no guarantees.

By starting the three aforementioned guys, the Yanks are also sending a message to the league. “We’re not a retirement home for your overpaid vets.” Instead, we’re amassing lower-priced alternatives that very well may perform just as well as the high profile guys we import (see: Jeff Weaver, Kenny Rogers, Javier Vazquez).

So can a staff of a diminished Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Al Leiter, Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small, and if we’re really lucky Chien-Ming Wang combine forces, overcomes various injuries and pitch well enough to land the Yanks a playoff spot?

Surely, considering the way the team has pulverized the ball in the recent past. If we can get all of these guys healthy, our bullpen could be bolstered as well. With Carl Pavano expected back in the near future, either Leiter, Chacon or Small will be relegated to bullpen duty, and if Jaret Wright actually does make it back, he’ll join them. This obviously could be a significant upgrade over our current pen.

And if all of these guys do recover (and I’m not even going to count Wang at this point, even though the report on his rotator cuff is favorable at this point), we’ll actually have too many pitchers, an ailment we’ve had in the past. But with the revolving door that has been the pitching staff this year, I don’t think it will present much of a problem. When it comes down to having Scott Proctor or Jaret Wright in your bullpen, it seems an obvious choice – and this is coming from a guy who down right despises Jaret Wright.

Just remember: with the way the team is hitting this year, we just need a consistent pitching staff at this point, not a staff full of aces. True, we’ll drop games because the team can’t be expected to go balls out every night with the bats, but consistent pitching will allow us to keep taking two of three from teams. And if you keep taking two of three, you’re in some quality shape come the end of September.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Randy Just Being Randy

I got a lot of crap from some people – well, my buddy Andy at least – when I wrote a piece criticizing Randy after his dominant performance against the Twins. It’s not like he was in a funk or anything; quite to the contrary, he was 4-0 over five decisions with a 2.97 ERA after that game.

The brightest spot of Randy’s newfound consistency: it came at a time when the team mentality is, “we have to win every game Randy and Mussina pitch.” With the pitching staff in arrears, those two are the only guys who can really be expected to win anything. The rest of the staff is experimental at best, with the bulk of our opening day crew on the DL.

But Randy wasn’t in top form yesterday, which hasn’t been uncommon this season, surrendering six runs over seven and a third and leaving the game down 5-2, and it was quickly 6-2 after a Juan Rivera sac fly allowed Orlando Cabrera, Johnson’s runner, to score.

And to think I was just about to grant Randy some amnesty. It did seem like he may have been finding his form. Maybe not his old form, because it should be a foregone conclusion at this point that the Randy of old only exists in spurts.

Then he goes and pitches another questionable game. True, it wasn’t the debacle that his July 1st start was (seven runs over five innings), but Randy did himself no favors yesterday despite going seven and a third.

It’s not like this is news or anything. Randy has lost a step, and there’s little evidence to argue against that point. I know there are plenty of Yankees die hards out there who are still in denial, that still think Randy has enough gas in the tank to lead us to a World Series triumph. I just don’t understand how that thinking can still hold up, considering his performance through four months.

I do realize that the last person I counted out was Jason Giambi. And I do realize that my foot was lodged snugly my mouth for quite some time during his recent surge. This isn’t quite the same situation, however. Randy didn’t have a parasite sharing his meals and a benign tumor last year. Actually, Randy was 16-14 with a 2.60 ERA for the worst team in the majors last year, both in terms of wins (51) and runs scored (615).

It’s fruitless at this point to dwell on Randy’s shortcomings, since I’ve done so in the recent past. What I will say, however, is that he better have most of these six and seven runs out of his system. It’s August, and the Yanks are actually behind in the division, and what we need most is starting pitching (a more obvious statement has never been made).

With 59 games remaining, Randy should have about 12 starts left, considering the Yanks go with him every fifth game, not day. I’d say we need him to be 8-2, 7-3, or something in that vicinity, but I just don’t see that happening. He’ll probably finish out the season at 16-9 with an ERA in the high threes, which isn’t terrible by any measure. WARNING: oncoming cliché. It’s just not the Randy we’re paying $16 million for.

What’s worse than his performance is his explanations/excuses following each of his poor starts. It started with the weather, followed by his rhythm being off. Then it was the acclimation back to the American League. But, come the end of May, Randy found himself out of excuses, so his statements to the media were along the lines of, “I don’t want to be pitching this poorly,” and “Obviously I don’t want to be allowing so many home runs.” No shit, Sherlock.

But there are glimmers of light in the Yankees pitching rotation. Al Leiter has been much improved over his performance with the Marlins, and isn’t a half-bad facet in our rotation. Shawn Chacon pitched six quality innings before goofing during his warm up tosses in the seventh. His only gaffe was walking three, which is forgivable at this point. Aaron Small has been the most pleasant surprise thus far, providing the Yanks two quality starts in a row. And as I’ve said in previous posts, I’ll take six or seven innings with three runs any day of the week at this point, especially if he can fit in the five hole.

Carl Pavano is on his way back, and depending on the report you read, he could be back as early as this week. I know that expecting Pavs to pick things up and finish the season strong is nothing more than wishful thinking, but maybe his time on the DL has given him time to get his head on straight. He proved last year that he has the stuff to thrive as a money pitcher, but has yet to demonstrate that to the bloodthirsty fans in the Bronx.

With a rotation of Johnson, Mussina, Pavano, and a combination of Leiter, Chacon and Small, the Yanks are in at least decent shape as far as starting pitching goes. The one thing we’re lacking is a dominant ace, which places us in a boat similar to last season, when our hitting just couldn’t finish the job.

The Yanks have proven that they’re capable of scoring six runs a game, which is phenomenal. But they certainly can’t score six runs in each and every game they play. The pitching has to step up and keep them in a game where they only put up two or three runs. Otherwise, failure down the stretch is certain. And whether he looks like the Randy of old or the Randy of new, he’s where the pitching staff begins.

Thankfully, it still ends with Mo.