July 2011

Ubaldo: Have You Got Any More In The Back?

I have told before the story of the argument of the man who built the Yankees’ last twenty years of success, Gene “Stick” Michael, on making a big trade for a star pitcher. Still a consultant when New York was offered Johan Santana for Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera, and a minor league body, Michael said he would leave the finance and the health to others. But in terms of baseball, he pointed out that whether through injury or under-performance, 50 percent of all pitching prospects don’t even approach their highest ceiling.

Thus, he said, you have to consider the two pitchers as one: Hughnedy, or Kenughes. And suddenly you’re seeing the trade for what it was: one pitcher with 13 so-so major league starts and a proclivity to injury under his belt, for Johan Santana. He said you’d make that deal every day of the week.

And yet the Yankees didn’t make the trade. The money issue is now clear: the only thing the Mets gave up for Santana that has yet to pan out is Philip Humber, and that wasn’t until this year and it wasn’t in Minnesota. The Mets wound up tying up a huge amount of cash in Santana and got one great season, two fair ones, and this one that might see him back from serious surgery to make six or seven starts this year.

Still, the Yankees could’ve afforded that from Santana. As a major league General Manager explained it to me, the reason they didn’t make it was that they must have seen signs that the Twins weren’t certain about Santana’s health.  Was he getting extra time between starts? Had his pitch count been limited? Were his innings per-start level, or coming down?

In fact, Santana’s innings per-start had dropped by 0.15% from 2005 to 2006, then another 0.13% from 2006 to 2007, meaning he was coming out of every game roughly one batter sooner in 2007 than he had been in 2005. This other statistic is a little looser as an indicator, but the total number of batters Santana faced in 2007 was 45 fewer than he had in 2006. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but it suggests that the ‘torch factor’ – the exact number of pitches at which you go from being a guy who gets batters out, to a guy who gets torched. For whatever reason, Santana was coming out of games six or seven pitches earlier. That’s a red flag.

All of which brings us to Ubaldo Jimenez. Why wouldn’t you trade for a man who shined the way he did the first half of last year? Why, he was 15-1, and he was still 17-2 and the consensus Cy Young Winner before he got “tired.” He’s a solid citizen, and judging by that ‘bicycle license plate’ commercial, a very funny, grounded man. Heck, he’s got an Emmy Award for narrating a special for the regional cable network in Denver (I don’t have an Emmy Award). Well, in the year since he reached that 15-1 mark, he’s 10-16. And if that number is too obvious for you, let’s go back to the tip-off the Yanks evidently used on Santana. In 2010, Jimenez lasted 6.71 innings per start. This year, he’s lasted 5.86.

That number suggests if he’s not hurt, he’s going to be.

So what did the Indians give up for this? A pitcher in Alex White who had successfully stepped into their rotation before a serious but hardly chronic finger injury knocked him out. He’s just beginning rehab and should be starting for Colorado within a couple of weeks, and he’s a sinkerballer going to the thin air of Denver. Then there’s Joe Gardner, a pitcher who’s struggled in AA, but another sinkerballer. And then there’s Drew Pomeranz, that rarest of pitchers, the lefthanded flamethrower. There’s a high-risk throw-in, an ex-catcher named Matt McBride.

All of this for a Jekyll-and-Hyde starter who is showing early signs that a serious injury is in his immediate future. Or, if it isn’t, that he reached a peak of efficiency last July and has been heading downhill ever since. I’m confident that this is a trade the Indians will regret next year. I think they may regret it next month.

Stuff I Found While Looking For Other Stuff

It never fails. Go looking for anything – from your comb to your Jamie Roseboro 1990 Bowman Glossy Baseball Card, and invariably you’ll stumble across something else. Which explains this card of Robinson Cano’s father, Jose. You may have seen him throwing (and rather successfully) to his son at the Home Run Hitting Contest before the All-Star Game. But the elder Cano actually became associated with the Yankees a quarter century before his son made the team. He signed with them as an 18-year old free agent out of the Dominican in 1980, but lasted just three games with their rookie league team before going home. Little Robby was born two years later, and then Dad returned to this country – and the minors – in ’83 in the Braves system, and made it to the majors in ’89 with the Astros. He pitched only six games, but started three of them, and actually pitched a pretty neat looking seven-hit complete game win over the Reds on the penultimate day of the 1989 season. That would be his last big league appearance, though he did get on two cards in ’90, and this is one of them.

The next thing to fall out of the fast pile of stuff that is “the collection” is nothing less than a 1977 TCMA card of a career minor league infielder who would only play 88 games higher than A-ball, and then branch off into another field. Yes, that’s the same Scott Boras, agent to the stars and scourge of general managers and owners everywhere. Boras spent a little more than two seasons with the St. Petersburg Cardinals of the Florida State League, and would actually hit .346 in 22 games during the season in which the card was made before moving up to AA and then winding up in the Cubs’ system. His knees gave up on him, and he went to pursue an alternative career – as a pharmacist. He got that degree and then one in law, and then wound up representing his high school teammate, former big league infielder Mike Fischlin – and the rest was a history of gnashed teeth. Mostly a second baseman and third baseman, Boras actually has some good company in that ’77 set: later Cards’ second base hero Tommy Herr, current Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage, and other future major leaguers like Benny Joe Edelen, John Fulgham, John Littlefield, Danny O’Brien, Kelly Paris.

But my favorite rediscovered find is a (slightly) mislabeled 1968 Yankees’ scorecard. The reason I’m showing the cover will be explained below.

The nine-and-a-half-year-old me has marked “September 18″ (because that’s the date of the stats inside, as you’ll see below) on the scorecard with the then-state-of-the-art sequence of Mickey Mantle photos. But the game was actually played on the night of September 20, 1968. I remember it vividly, but not for the reason I should. For some reason I can neither recall nor locate, they turned out the lights at Yankee Stadium for the national anthem, and either there was just a light on the singer or band that played it, or people held up lights, or something bizarre. But check out my scorecard – particularly the third inning:

Yep. In the third inning, against Boston’s Jim Lonborg, Mantle – as the four horizontal lines suggest – homered.

It was the 536th – and final – home run of his career.

I saw Mantle’s last homer. But I remember the darkened Stadium much more clearly.

If you’re wondering, this isn’t a bad scorecard for a nine-year old kid. I’ve already got the concept of marking runs batted in (the asterisks) although I was still dabbling with the backwards “K” for a walk. It was popular at the time.

I only became a baseball fan in 1967 so I didn’t get to see very much Mantlean glory. But in addition to the farewell blast (which was also his next-to-last hit; he singled on September 25 versus Cleveland, costing Luis Tiant a no-hitter), earlier in 1968 I saw him hit a homer in the same game as a brash young kid from Oakland hit one. Fella was named Reggie Jackson.

 

Eduardo Nunez Of The Above

As I watched the replay of Eduardo Nunez’s 127th fielding chance of the season turn into his 11th error of the season (and open up the gates of hell for five unearned Toronto runs in the New York Yankees’ defensive inning of the second half), I was reminded of two virtually identical sentences about Nunez that were spoken, months apart, by two different Major League General Managers.

“As near as I can tell,” the first told me, “there are only two clubs who believe Nunez is anything more than a glorified utility infielder – the Yankees and Seattle.” The other said “I believe only two teams believe Nunez is more than a utilityman – maybe a Wilson Betemit. Seattle and the Yankees. And I’m not sure the Yankees really believe it.”

Both of these GM’s believed, but could not offer evidence about, the story that the Yankees and Mariners had agreed on a deal last summer of Cliff Lee for Jesus Montero and somebody, and then when M’s GM Jack Zduriencik demanded that the somebody be Nunez, Brian Cashman bailed out.

So if you’re Seattle, sometimes your best deals are indeed the ones the other GM isn’t sharp enough to take you up on, and take you to the cleaners with.

Nunez is not a major league infielder. There was a joke going around the Yankees earlier this year that he was on the roster entirely to make Derek Jeter look like a defensive all-star. Now the joke is, the Yankees feel they can trust all those whistling liners towards left that A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and Sergio (“Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here?”) Mitre will surrender in the second half, to Eduardo Nunez and what was his .920 fielding average before #11 dribbled away tonight.

The GM who doubted that the Yankees really thought highly of Nunez said if I could see his scouting reports on Yank prospects and compare them to New York’s own I would assume there were 50 or so Yankee farmhands who had the same names as other, far lesser players. It is not atypical for teams to hype prospects – the trade market is now largely based on prospects – but it is awfully unusual to see a team actually begin to believe its inflated opinion of a minor leaguer.

Nunez already disproved theories that he might be a big league shortstop (91 chances, 9 errors). Now he’s working on third base. They’ve only experimented with him in the outfield and there might yet to be salvation there. He seems to have a viable bat, with a little pop, and a propensity to get very hot for very short periods of time. But if this is all he’s going to be, and they didn’t trade him and Montero for Cliff Lee, the Yankee front office is sillier than it seems even from the outside.

My goodness, as I was finishing this up, he just fumbled another one and just barely got the ball to second for the force (on a high throw). Which makes this headline laugh-out-loud funny.

Why Ryan Vogelsong Isn’t An All-Star

I rocketed past this point in this morning’s post because I thought it was so obvious. But the blowback on Twitter from some Giants fans was as if I had said Tim Lincecum didn’t belong on the NL All-Star team (he probably doesn’t, either, but there’s an argument to be made for previous performance counting).

“What about overcoming the odds?,” I was asked. “Wins are the poorest metric of a pitcher’s performance,” I was told. “Ever read Moneyball, idiot?,” I was hit with (yeah, and Moneyball has yet to produce a league champion, let alone a World Champion). When I argued that Vogelsong shouldn’t have even been considered because he had been tested so much less that he had not yet thrown enough innings to be considered for the ERA leadership, I was told that he would achieve that in his next start. The point was missed: in his “season” he is about where all the other starters were three weeks ago. If he were to give up five runs in five innings in his next start that sparkling ERA to which his supporters point, would balloon to 2.52. Remember that number.

But these guys love them some Ryan Vogelsong.

Trust me, I’ve got nothing against him. Great story, wonderful to see him make his way back (although I don’t recall many Giants fans saying the same thing about Colby Lewis during the World Series last year). He’s pitched well, although you could argue he’s been no better than the 14th or 15th top starter in the National League this season.

Actually, the explanation for the heading “Why Ryan Vogelsong Isn’t An All-Star” takes just two words: Tommy Hanson. Opponents are hitting .222 off Vogelsong. They are hitting .192 off Hanson. Vogelsong has averaged 7.26 strikeouts per nine innings. Hanson has averaged 9.62 of them. Vogelsong’s WHIP is 1.15. Hanson’s is 1.04. Vogelsong has won 6 of 13 starts. Hanson has won 10 of 16. In one category and one category alone does Vogelsong best the Braves’ righthander. His ERA is 2.13 and Hanson’s is 2.52 – exactly where Vogelsong could wind up with a five earnies in five innings performance next time out.

I think it’s open and shut right there. Individual metrics are all in Hanson’s favor, and the results – and some day we will shake off the Felix Hernandez foolishness of last year and recognize that, yes, a win or a loss is at least somewhat a starting pitcher’s responsibility – the results are decidedly in Hanson’s favor.

His interiors aren’t that impressive, but the idea that Kevin Correia has won 11 games with what is still a dicey Pirates’ line-up, is extraordinary. A 3.74 ERA and a .260 opponents’ BA give me the willies. But wins and losses do count for something.

But there are several other pitchers – and for our purposes here these are pitchers drawn only from the same Cinderella category to which Vogelsong belongs – whose statistics and results are slightly better or just slightly worse than Vogelsong’s. It’s easiest to look at them in column form:

PITCHER                           W-L        ERA       WHIP       OBA       SO/9

Ryan Vogelsong                 6-1         2.13         1.15          .222        7.26

Dillon Gee                           8-3        3.47         1.20         .222        6.29

Jeff Karstens                      7-4         2.55         1.07         .240        5.29

Ian Kennedy                       8-3        3.38         1.14         .236         7.58

Shawn Marcum                 7-3         3.32         1.15         .221          8.26

Jordan Zimmermann       5-7         2.82        1.10         .240         6.29

The crazy thing here, of course, is that our hypothetical five innings, five earned start for Vogelsong not only gives Hanson a shutout on the stat board, but it also turns the Giant into only a slightly shinier version of Jeff Karstens.

But I have heretofore left out the favorite meme of the Vogelsongians: he pitches for the Giants therefore he must be better because the Giants never score runs and every game is torture and blah blah blah, blah blah.

Sorry.

Correia and Gee, you can dismiss on this point. The Buccos are scoring Correia 7.17 runs per game; the Mets 6.94 for Gee. But all the other pitchers mentioned here are getting, at most, half a run more per outing than is Vogelsong, who gets 5.44 (Marcum 5.96, Kennedy 5.81, Hanson 5.70, Karstens 5.56 – and poor Jordan Zimmermann is struggling along at 4.80). If you want a macro view of where a 5.44 run support should get you, Cole Hamels was getting a 5.37 and Jair Jurrjens a 4.88 before their starts tonight. And somehow in the American League, Michael Pineda is doing what he’s doing with an RS of 4.42, Jered Weaver’s getting 4.04, and poor Dan Haren, 3.87. That’s lack of support.

This is a good point to mention my all-time favorite season of any pitcher in professional history. It’s amazingly instructive about the true value of interior statistics. At first blush, this looks like a pretty good year, in AA ball, for a 22-year old pitcher in 1967: 2.81 ERA (that’s two earned runs in each of his 20 starts, 1.39 WHIP (he was a little wild), 5.3 K/9, only 7 homers allowed all year. His name was Dick Such, his team was the 1967 York White Roses, they were no-hit four times that year, and Such finished the season 0-16. That’s right: no wins, 16 losses. Rather remarkably, he not only didn’t quit the sport, but made it to the majors as a pitcher and, for 19 years as a pitching coach (16-1/2 with the Twins).

There’s one more deeply disturbing aspect to Vogelsong’s selection by his manager Bruce Bochy that was explained on MLB Tonight by Jerry Manuel. To paraphrase him, he said he’d love to be getting the criticism Bochy is getting for picking three of his own starting pitchers, because it meant – no duh – that he had won the pennant last year instead of getting fired.

But more importantly, Manuel observed, it would mean that he had done right by “his guys” – that given the choice between a completely neutral decision about the eight best starters in the league this season, and not offending his own starters, he’d take not offending his own starters, every time.

Jerry’s never been given credit either for his acumen or his honesty. But his point is honest, and damning, and explains why now the time has come to take the defending pennant-winning manager (and all the managers) out of a decisive role in selecting All-Stars. If it has devolved into a popularity contest – as in, I want to stay popular with my own players – then it must be discontinued immediately. And the selection of Vogelsong over Hanson (to say nothing of the other Cinderellas) suggests it has.

Dee Is For Dodgers And Other Notes

The Dodgers have enough to worry about, but the construction in which Rafael Furcal is healthy, Dee Gordon has the makings of a lighter-hitting Jose Reyes, and Jamey Carroll actually has trade value – and they send Gordon back to Albuquerque - is nuts…you trade Carroll before he turns back into a pumpkin, shift the willing Furcal to second and thus reduce some of the wear and tear on his body, and let Gordon run wild and free at the major league level. Anything else suggests the Dodgers are operating under a delusion bigger than any of Frank McCourt’s – that the team is competitive this year….

A lot of leeway has to be given to All-Star managers about selecting pitching staffs, especially members from their own team, but the only man I’ve ever met with a bigger head than my own, Bruce Bochy, swung and missed, twice. One could stretch a point and say Tim Lincecum deserved a trip to Phoenix based on his Cy Young yields and post-season work last year and goofy popularity, but it’s still stretching a point. But Ryan Vogelsong? Helluva story, but not an All-Star. Not even close. Desperate homerism, pathetic, embarrassing. He was an All-Star, and you guys sent him back to AAA in the spring?

Just amazing to see that my Derek Jeter Injury Conspiracy Theory has played out almost exactly as I had written it. As I compose this we are still a few hours away from seeing the line-ups for the last game of the Yankees’ series in Cleveland, but Joe Girardi had already set up Part 2 of the theory by saying Jeter might not play all the games against the Indians. The true test of the theory is if Jeter does not cross the 3,000 hit plateau at home against Tampa Bay, and suddenly has a relapse that takes him out of the team’s subsequent road trip after the All-Star Break.

It may be academic since they may not have any more save situations this year, but if Mark Melancon keeps giving up runs in carload lots, the next youngster to get an audition as Astros’ closer could easily be young David Carpenter. He’s the ex-catcher they got last year from St. Louis for Pedro Feliz. His scoreless streak and minor league domination is obviated a little bit by the fact that he did it in A-ball at ages 24 and 25, but there is some leeway given to the fact that he only moved to the mound full-time in 2009. His demeanor and the strength of his fastball and top breaking pitch seem to make him an ideal candidate, or, at minimum, a suitable set-up man.

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