Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Why The Run Will End
By Ben Valentine

The Yankees will not make the playoffs this year.

I called that a couple of weeks back in my AL East preview. Because it was a preview I didn’t really go in depth as to why I thought so. The short answer was the pitching stinks. Now I’ve come to back up that statement.

Last year the Yankees overcame a sluggish start with a hot second half to make the postseason by a couple of games. It was a fight to the end. Remember, up until the last weekend of the season the Yankees were not assured of a playoff spot.

In 2005, Shawn Chacon, Chien Mein Wang and Aaron Small proved to be life savers. Though Randy Johnson was unquestionably the Yankees’ best starter; those three managed to fill in quite nicely behind him, racking up wins and pitching to respectable ERAs. It allowed the Bombers to overcome the decline of Mike Mussina along with the injuries and general ineffectiveness of Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to make the postseason. However, this was in fact a mixed blessing for the team.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, but very fortunately for Yankee haters, it lured the organization and its fans into in a false sense of security with this starting rotation. Ask around the New York area and they’ll tell you Chacon and especially Wang are reliable starters for the team. The truth is far from it.

I’ve written before how lucky Small and Wang were last season, but it bears repeating. Wang struck out a pathetic 3.64 batters per nine last year while posting a poor 1.46 K/BB ratio. (The exact same K/BB as another favorite of mine, Victor Zambrano) He induces a lot of ground balls, but regardless, Wang is relying on a Yankee defense which is not very good, especially along the infield. Alex Rodriguez is by all accounts an average third baseman at best, while Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Jason Giambi are all below average defenders. Cano and Giambi can be outright butchers in the field at times. The reality is Wang was very lucky last season; this season he will not be as fortunate relying on such a poor defense. More of those ground balls will go for base hits and he will struggle. If it wasn’t for the fact the Yankees are absolutely desperate to show they have some young talent to trade, he’d be my candidate to get booted from the rotation first. However, they’ll probably want to showcase him, in hopes some GM who doesn’t pay attention to K rates will bite. And someone probably will too.

Small and Chacon are in similar boats. Chacon posted a better K/9 than Wang, 4.69, but as you can see it isn’t much better. However his K/BB was worse, 1.20 overall. The idea that Chacon can be an effective pitcher outside of Coors is nothing more than a wild fantasy, unless he can somehow show better control. At his age, 29, it doesn’t appear likely. Meanwhile Small, a 34 year old journey man went 9-1 for the Yankees last year. But he only struck out 4.38 batters per nine last year and while having a poor 1.54 K/BB ratio. Look at the serviceable pitchers in baseball, year in and year out. They don’t produce K/9 and K/BB so low.

The reason is simple; if your strike outs per nine is drifting in the 4.00s and below, you have mediocre stuff which doesn’t fool hitters. As a result, balls are going to be put in play against you often, and many times they are going to be hit hard. It’s only natural, since you’re not fooling anyone. So unless you walk next to no one, you’re going to have problems. And even if you do that, there are going to be times where either your stuff gets smacked around, your defense doesn’t field, or you’re just unlucky and things fall in where fielders aren’t.

For comparative sake, the Blue Jays’ fourth starter, Josh Towers, posted a 4.83 K/9 last season while having a very good 3.86 K/BB ratio. Quiz most people on him and they’d tell you he’s a mediocre backend starter. Yet he’s got better numbers than Chacon, Small or Wang. What makes those three so special? It must be they’re Yankees, because that’s the only difference I see. Oh that Towers’ much better control.

The Yankee organization and their fans can delude themselves all they like with these pitchers. The truth is that starters who post this low a K/9 along with that miserable a K/BB ratio struggle to be serviceable major league pitchers. On the Yankees, their defense will not be giving them any help. We’ve already seen that in starts early this year. Wang was hurt by a Jeter error in Oakland. He did not have the stuff to pitch out of it, and he was done before the end of the fifth inning.

The Indians are better. Their young hitters are improving. Their pitching, while not as dominant as Johnson at the top, is better 2-5 than the Yankees. The Red Sox are as good or better. The Jays are better. The A’s might be the best team top to bottom in the AL and certainly have the best starting staff. The White Sox are as good if not slightly better in the rotation. (Javy Vasquez is an improvement over El Duque, no matter what anyone in New York says)

The Yankees are not better. Their offense is fine, but the rotation is old, declining and the smart money says lightning won’t strike twice.

This is the year the run will end. Count on it.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude.. you're crazy... A-Rod is better than an "average" 3B... and Jeter is a fantastic SS. Granted, Cano and Giambino are below average at best defensively.

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think any article about pitching that doesn't mention opponent's batting average or ERA is really just trying to be cute and not really helping anyone. Maybe I'm old fashioned. And Wang induces an inordinate number of ground balls, which, I'm sorry, are routine for major leaguers. Even sub-par fielders like Jeter and Cano (another item that could have used something to back it up). Ground balls can't go over the fence, which is kind of a big deal in the American League. Further, why can't small have his coming-out party at 34? Not enough strikeouts? I'm not buying it. No, he probably won't have such a great winning percentage, but since when is that not "serviceable." There are plenty of pitchers who have come into their own and put together a good season later in their careers.

You know what will go over the fence? Balls hit by the Yankee lineup, which doesn't get much attention in this post despite being possibly one of the most dangerous in history.

I read this article as a Red Sox fan eager to hear that the Death Star was finally going to explode, but it really doesn't live up to the bold headline. See you in September when they're still right in the hunt.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Anonymous 1: A couple of points: First, talking about defense is always difficult: no one, whether traditionalists, sabrmetricians, or otherwise has one stat that they love. But when you look at a wide array (fielding percentage, range factor, etc.), you see that Jeter is at best slightly above league average at shortstop, while Rodriguez is league average or worse. Of course, A-Rod is a very good defensive shortstop, but they rarely play him there. Jeter may make a handful of spectacular plays each season, but his range (never fantastic) had declined as he's aged (remember, he'll be 32 this season).

As for Cano, his fielding percentage was below league average, which negates the fact that his range is above average. Plus (and this is based purely on watching, not on stats), he doesn't seem to react properly on some plays (perhaps from a lack of experience at second base). Giambi is a butcher, there's a reason they only played him part-time at first base.

As a whole, the Yankee defense was below-average, ranking 10th in the AL in defensive efficiency.

Anonymous 2: First of all, Wang's OPP BA was .256, which isn't exactly spectacular (the league average was .268). Beyond that, it's been fairly well established that pitchers who don't strike many batters out show greater fluctuation in their performance than those who strike guys out...because once the ball is put in play, the pitcher no longer can control their outcome.

Wang's GB/FB ratio is encouraging (for Yankee fans), since as you pointed out, ground balls tend to do less damage than fly balls. But no matter what, when they put the ball in play, you can give up runs...especially when you walk 2.5 guys per nine innings (and only strike out about 3.5). I'm not gonna give a long dissertation as to why this is so, but it's been fairly well demonstrated.

As for Small: well, besides the fact that I'm not sure you can name any pitcher who "broke out" at age 34, he's just not any good. He walks over 3 batters per game. He only strikes out about 4.5. His GB/FB is 0.96. Opponents hit .272 against him. He's certainly not the answer for the Yankees.

Finally, I don't neccessarily agree with Ben that the Yankees can't make the playoffs. Their offense, and their weak (in my mind) division should put them in good position to at the very least challenge for a playoff spot. But we've seen for the last few years that this lineup struggles in the playoffs, and when you couple that with perhaps the weakest rotation the Yankees have had since the early 90s, I wouldn't start printing those World Series tickets quite yet.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Zach defended my argument pretty well. So I'll just add a few points.

Jeter's gold gloves prove nothing about his defensive ability. That award might be the most useless in baseball as it is often given by rep and offensive production. Case and point; Rafael Palmerio won it one year after DHing most of the season. Defense is a murky area to judge, but outside of New York, Jeter's defense is not considered good. I still remember the Sporting News predicting he'd be at 3B by now because of his diminishing range. To be fair, he should be.

For the record anonymous II, I am not a Red Sox fan, though admittedly as a Mets fan, it might be as bad. The Yankees offense isn't the problem, the point was the pitching isn't good. Despite having a great offense last year and they barely made the postseason.

Batting average against usually flucuates for all pitchers, but it does more so with guys who don't strike out a ton of batters. In this specific post, BA isn't that helpful in predicting what they will do because of that and the fact Wang only has one year to go on. Chacon's opp BA would be in Coors, so that wouldn't be a good tell.

As for the ground balls, that's great when you are missing bats and not walking a ton of people. But Wang doesn't do that. Kirk Saarloos also had a very high GB/FB ratio last year, 2.34, and a solid ERA at 4.17. But he's not even the Oakland rotation because they realized the odds of him repeating last season where his K/BB ratio was 1:1 is next to impossible. Or you can look at the case of Ramiro Mendoza, since I figure you're a Yankee fan. He's a guy who always got lots of GB outs but was never a particulary effective pitcher because his K/9 was usually low. (And his was higher than Wang's)

You said it with Small; there are plenty of guys who come around late in their careers and put up a good season. But two? Not likely. Also for the record, Small's GB/FB ratio was 1.11 last year. Chacon's was .90. They will not be much good to the Yankees this year.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Speaking of Chacon, today, against the mighty Royals:

6 IP, 7 H, 5 K, 2 BB, 5 ER.

Again, against the Royals. Yes, the Yankees scored 12 runs, and won...but all I can say is that if I were a Yankee fan, I'd be worried that 4/5ths of my rotation isn't very good.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Lara Marie said...

Aaron Small went 10-0 last season, not 9-1. Not a big difference, no, but that completely ruined your credibility in my eyes because that "Cinderella story" was so well-documented last season.

And have you ever watched a Yankee game? I mean, more than the "FOX Game of the Week" and the occassional ESPN affair? Defensively, the only Yankee infielder you pegged correctly was Giambi, who is as big a liability as anyone in the game today. I whole-heartedly agree with you there. However, both Jeter and Rodriguez are at least above-average fielders- A-Rod plays third likes he's been there his whole career, and Jeter has excellent range to his glove side and incredible instincts. And give me a break on the Cano bashing- He's 23 years old and if you did watch the Yanks last season you'd know that nearly every defensive mistake he made was due to the fact that he got lazy or just made a rookie mistake. He worked all spring with Larry Bowa and I wouldn't be surprised to see him improve drastically in '06 because of his excellent range. How many rookies enter the big leagues in Gold Glove-form?

You make some interesting points in your post, but a lot of it is misleading and/or irrelevant. Spouting off K/BB ratios about a rookie pitcher like Wang will never convince me of anything.

You forgot to mention the intangibles that come along with playing in New York and under the brightest spotlight in baseball. Wang, Chacon, and Small all proved themselves last season, being thrown into the middle of a pennant race and performing better than anyone could have hoped for. And as another commenter mentioned, it's extremely foolish to disregard the Yankees offense, which has the potential to go down as one of the most potent lineups ever.

You'll need to do a whole lot better to convince me that the playoff run is over. Who is stealing the division from the Yanks, then? Are you going with the trendy Blue Jays pick, or will Beckett and the BoSox reign supreme in September?

As far as I'm concerned, you can never count the New York Yankees out of it. I guess last season taught you nothing.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Lara Marie: First, Ben and I both live in New York. So yeah, we see plenty of Yankees baseball. And to be honest, I'm gonna trust the numbers (and the opinions of professional scouts), and not the word of an 18-year-old college student (not that there's anything wrong with that, I was there not very long ago) when it comes to judging the defensive ability of A-Rod and Jeter.

As for Cano, how does saying that he "got lazy" or "made rookie mistakes" change the fact that he was a bad second baseman? His working with Larry Bowa doesn't impress me (since Bowa played all of 4 games in his career at second) and neither does the (incorrect) assumption that rookies can't play good defense. There are too many rookies from last year who played good D for me to name. Is it possible he'll improve? Sure. But I'm not going to say he has until he shows it.

I understand there's a rift in baseball fans between those who believe that something like K/BB ratio indicates whether a player will be good, or the folks who stick to ERA and wins. But you're not gonna impress me by dismissing a stat like K/BB, not when it's proven time and time again to be a valuable predictive tool.

Additionally, "playing under pressure," and "coming through late in the season" mean nothing. There's never been any proof that such a thing as clutch hitting or pitching exists. Certainly, one season from a handful of guys won't prove anything.

But I do agree with you on one thing. I'm not counting the Yankees out of the AL East race. Their offense is too good (and the division is too weak) for me to do otherwise. But the flaws in their rotation are gonna be exploited sooner or later.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

My mistake with Aaron Small in terms of wins. I was looking at the wrong line and 9-1 sounded about right. No excuse for that mistake however, and I apologize.

A-Rod gets loads of praise from me here. If you check out our archives I've defended the guy from the misconception that he's a choker and supported the notion he was MVP over David Ortiz. But A-Rod is not a good defensive third baseman. If you don't want to take my word for it, look around the national media outside of NY. I'm not the only one who's said it.

Jeter is a very good offensive player. But defensively his range isn't great and his throwing arm is mediocre for a SS. And I don't know how Cano's laziness constitutes a defense. Cano really reminds me of Alfonso Soriano in the field and the latter is still a butcher at second. That's why he's in left field now. He might improve, but the early indications this season do not suggest he will.

Back when I was a freshman in college, I didn't think K/9 was important either. However over the last four years my mindset has changed substantially thanks to following prospects and playing fantasy baseball. If you want a good example that might convince you of its importance, check out Zack Grienke. Great 2004, horrific 2005. The main difference: his opp BA jumped along with his walk rate. Because he never struck out a lot of guys, he got lit up like a Christmas tree last season.

Pitching well for a half a season in New York proves nothing except they pitched well in a half season. Glendon Rusch was great for the Mets in 2000, awful in 2001. He's another great example of a pitcher who never K'd anyone and saw a huge flucuation in effectiveness as a result.

I picked the Red Sox in my AL East preview, which you can check out if you click the link in the story. Their pitching is as good if not better and their offense isn't too shabby either. Now that Jon Papelbon has settled into the closer role, that team really looks like a world beater. I think the Indians will win the Central, the A's the West and the White Sox will take the Wild Card. All of them I see as 95 win teams.

I never said the Yankees won't be in it. Their offense will make them close to a 90 win team. But my prediction is that it won't be enough. Could I be wrong? Sure. But the point of the article was to show how fluky the Yankees' pitching success was last year. That will catch up with them this year. The A's and Angels proved you can't score 10 runs every game. You only get to smack around Royals pitching six times out of 162.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regardless of what you think of the yankees starting rotation. How much better can you say the Red Sox rotation really is? Other than their front two (who could breakdown at any point) they dont have much else. Wells has become totally unreliable, Wakefield has slipped considerably in the last year, and Clement while he may improve this year didnt win many fans last year with his performance. Beyond that, other than Papelbon much of their bullpen is suspect as well. While I agree the yanks pitching could be their achillies heel this year, I think that the shortcomings of their opponents must be considered as well.

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems kind of weird to be talking about three pitchers in the same rotation all being flukes. You can point to numbers (and numbers of arguable importance when you're basically talking about only strike out numbers at that) and try to explain why it shouldn't have happeneded but until you come up with a reasonable explanation about why it did happen, then there isn't much of a argument for why it won't again. In case you haven't checked, the defense is exactly the same as last year, with the exception being Damon in centerfield (who has more range than Bernie clearly). I don't know what numbers or scounts you're reading, but the consenus that I have heard and that consistent watching of Yankees games supports is that ARod is getting very close to being one of the best defensvie 3Bs in the league. Basically, this article is based on a subjective and selective reading of the numbers.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Last anonymous: The reason it happened is because in any given season, or half a season (as was the case with Chacon, Wang, and Small), anything can happen.

As a Mariner fan, let me illustrate:

In 2003, Ryan Franklin posted a 3.57 ERA, and an ERA+ of 124. In other words, he was significantly better than league average. His career numbers are 4.34 and 100, or exactly league average. It happened despite him posting a 4.2 K/9, a 1.6 K/BB, and a .76 GB/FB. For one season, Franklin got lucky. No one (except the Mariners) thought he was really gonna pitch to a 3.57 ERA consistantly.

Similarly, in 2001, Paul Abbott went 17-4. He got a one-season dip in his OPP BA, and he had the fortune of playing on a 116-win team. Again, no one thought he was gonna win anywhere near that many again.

As for the Yankees defense being the same as last year, I'm not sure how that helps your point. It was mediocre (at best) last year, and while Damon might catch a few more fly balls (though that doesn't help Wang much), Sheffield and Matsui are each a year older (and are poor outfielders anyhow). Plus, Damon is 32...he's not gonna cover a ton of ground.

Finally, you can question the value of things like K/9, K/BB, GB/FB, and other numbers as a predictive/analytical tool. But you're gonna have to give some evidence beyond "there's more to pitching than strikeouts." Of course there is. But the problem for the pitcher is, once you let the batter hit the ball, you rely on your defenders to get him out. And there's more variance in that then in not letting him hit the ball at all.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Sometimes teams and players get lucky. At one point last season, the Washington Nationals were in first place despite allowing more runs than they scored. 99 out of 100 times, that team is going to be below .500 for the whole season. For whatever reason, the Nationals were tremendously lucky last season and were above that mark for the whole year.

People always say there's more to pitching than strike outs. But check most scouting reports on pitchers and the first thing people usually check are K/9. Declining ones are often an indication of a declining pitcher. That is because his stuff is becoming more hittable.

A baseball field is a large area. The difference between an out and a basehit can be a couple of feet or in some cases, a couple of inches. In other words, when the ball is put in play, some luck is involved. Is it odd that three pitchers out performed what they should have done last year? Sure. But I'm using tangible tools like K/9 and K:BB, things that scouts use to judge pitching performance. The reasoning "Well all three pitched well for half a season" is based off nothing tangible.

Johnny Damon IS Bernie Williams in centerfield. Great speed, negative arm. The Yankees defense overall hasn't improved.

Finally, the Red Sox rotation: You're basing your evaluations off one or two starts. (Notice I mentioned nothing about Chacon and Wang's poor performance to start the year) It is too early to say whether Wells and Wakefield have fallen apart. I don't like Clement much, but what does it matter if the Sox fans didn't like him last year?

Furthermore, what makes the Yankee rotation any healthier than Boston's? Mussina, Pavano, Wright, Small and Wang all have had substantial injuries over the last year. Randy Johnson is over 40!

If I've got to have an injury risk rotation, I'll take Beckett, Schilling and Clement at the front end, rather than Johnson, Mussina and Chacon (or would you rather Pavano, Wang or Small?)

2:36 PM  

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