Thursday, February 02, 2006

Question No. 4: Will Villone and Farnsworth Outperform Sturtze/Quantrill and Gordon?

I didn’t want to get into him again this off-season, but I guess it was inevitable that I’d re-visit the most hotly contested Yankees signing this winter, Kyle Farnsworth. For a self-proclaimed detailed breakdown of Farny, Kyle’s Mom Is A Bitch may be an ample read. But that’s not the issue at hand today. What I would like to discuss is the primary set-up role and whether the new tandem of Farnsworth and Ron Villone can outshine the guys from years past, namely Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, and Tanyon Sturtze.

Note first that I’m reasonably assuming that Villone will be placed in Torre’s coveted 7th inning role, one I have disliked more and more with each passing year. If Torre has enough trust in a player to pitch the seventh inning, he might as well use him in critical spots and not limit him to that one frame. But this is Joe’s system, and if it means burning the hell out of a pitcher (see: Quantrill, Paul and Gordon, Tom), it’s his decision. I just hope that the over-stuffed bullpen in 2006 leads Joe to think outside the box.

While Joe has been using the 7th inning role for quite some time now, the position was glorified in the winter of 2003-2004 when the Yankees signed Paul Quantrill for the role. The inherent problem here was that the Yankees had lost 3/5 of their starting rotation to free agency. And when those names are Pettitte, Clemens, and Wells, you know you’re going to be placing some extra strain on your bullpen. What further complicated the issue was that the Yankees just didn’t have a very deep bullpen beyond Quantrill. Translation: more innings for Mo, Tommy, and Pauley.

Unfortunately, Pauley wasn’t ready for the workload placed upon him. He wound up throwing 95.1 innings in 2004, a 20 percent hike from his previous two (wildly successful) years in Chavez Ravine. This is quite significant for a 35-year-old who hadn’t started a game since 1996. As such, Paul began struggling mightily in August before capping the season with a September ERA of 10.50. His notable decline began on August 15th, when he entered the game with 74 innings, right around his number from the two previous years. It’s also of note that he left that August 15th game with 74 innings, though he let up three runs (and did the same thing in his next appearance).

The most notable difference between Quantrill v2003 and Quantrill v2004 was his groundball/flyball ratio, which saw a 24 percent decline. He also let a staggering number of inherited runners to score – 43 percent. Ultimately, Pauley slipped and fell further than anyone would have predicted. So what does this mean for Villone?

Could be trouble: While Villone has routinely thrown 90+ innings per year (every year from ’99 through ’04), he tossed a six-year low 64 innings in 2005. And, disappointingly, he pitched like an uninspired man during his rent an arm stint in Florida, posting a 6.85 ERA.

Might not be all that bad: he still posted quality peripherals. 11.02 strikeouts per nine, 4.56 walks per nine – a 2.41 ratio – and .75 home runs per nine mean that he still has some gas left in the tank. A .333 batting average on balls put in play points to a string of bad luck. This is strengthened when looking at his game log and seeing that he only let up runs in consecutive appearances twice, and never did he give consecutive multi-run performances.

I think it’s safe to say that Villone still has the capacity to perform his job as a Major League reliever (more than we can say for Quantrill at this point). It’s tough to comment on the effect of his lesser workload last year, since different bodies react to strain in their own unique manner. Maybe he’ll be more rested and ready to pitch 120 innings. Maybe he’ll be out of rhythm and not able to spot start or pitch multiple innings. Thankfully, there will be plenty of guys ready and eager for a shot at that 7th inning role.

Torre plays a large factor in all this reliever nonsense. We all know how he only trusts certain guys, and how a bad performance or two could lead to a permanent hook (see Rodriguez, Felix). If Villone struggles early, Joe has to be patient. We all know relievers are prone to bad stretches, and to overreact to someone struggling early can hurt the team in the long-term. Likewise, he can’t be fooled by one amazing stretch when it’s surrounded by crap (see Sturtze, Tanyon). The key is balance, a concept obviously foreign to Torre. I know it will never happen, but maybe just maybe he can rest our 36-year-old closer when we have a 3-run lead in the ninth.

Here’s a good rule to follow with relievers: barring injury, never drastically increase or decrease their workload from the previous year. We already saw the effect on Quantrill, but now let’s take Tom Gordon for example. His workload increased by 17.5 percent between 2003 and 2004, and while he got better results (3.16 ERA to a 2.12), he had every Yankees fan worried that his arm was going to fall off in August. And come playoffs, well, we all know what he did in the playoffs.

This theory doesn’t bode well for Farnsworth, who tossed 70 innings last year. Then again, he tossed 82 in his breakout season, so who knows. This is why I could never work with PECOTA stats; there is absolutely no way to predict how a guy – especially a relief pitcher – is going to perform year to year.

Anyway, the question was, will Farnsworth and Villone outperform Gordon and Sturtze/Quantrill. Since no one I know is a soothsayer, I can’t accurately comment on what will happen. But, I think that with this year’s deep bullpen, Joe can afford to rest his big money guys a bit more, allowing them less tax on the old pitching arm. Translation: better rested pitching staff better able to serve in September and beyond.

As always, no one will listen.