The reaction to the Pineda-Montero trade is unanimous: Everybody seems to believe it was a hugely significant deal, but a ripoff of biblical proportions. Unfortunately, I have yet to read consecutive analyses saying who did the ripping.
My concern is the other part. Ever the contrarian, I am not convinced this is an epic trade, nor a rip-off. I’m not convinced by either of these guys.
I suppose the confusion originates with the similarly disparate conclusions about Montero’s ability to survive on the major league level. Before he hit the Bronx last September there was no middle about him. He was either the next great slugger and at least a sufficient catcher, or an overrated stumblebum whose ceiling might be Jake Fox.
I don’t think September cleared things up for us. He drove in a dozen runs and slugged .590 in 61 at bats, and showed the kind of jaw-dropping opposite field power off the middle-to-high fastball that seems to appear only once per decade. But as the Yankees cruised towards the division title amid the Red Sox collapse and a Rays surge that could never have threatened them, they trusted Montero to start exactly one game behind the plate. He wound up catching thirteen more innings in two other games and four of five baserunners stole off him. He did not impress defensively.
Nevertheless, the real question mark should be how New York used him – or didn’t use him – in its post-season cameo. Yes, Jorge Posada got on base eleven times in 19 plate appearances (five singles, four walks, a hit batsman, and a triple) but he didn’t drive in a single run and six of his eight outs were whiffs. It is intriguing that only one of the hits, only one of the walks, and the lone HBP came in the two Yankee wins (9-3 and 10-1 wins no less). Posada’s fireworks were mostly empty calories. Montero, meanwhile, appeared only in the rout portion of the latter and went 2-2 with an RBI.
The Yankees also just traded a bat when the forecast for their 2012 production is not optimistic. Alex Rodriguez slowed to a crawl last year, Curtis Granderson vanished in late August and Russell Martin long before that, Nick Swisher was all over the place, and there is only one Robinson Cano. I realize Joe Girardi envisions the DH spot as a place to park the fading Rodriguez or the beaten-up Swisher on a given day but this “keep ’em fresh” use of the DH implies that the batters you’re going to use there are still of value. To me, the Yankee batting order got almost spasmodic in the second half of last season and a great young power-hitting bat in its middle would be far more useful than another young starting pitcher.
That is, if the Yankees really believed Montero was a great young power bat. I’m convinced that for all of Brian Cashman’s comparisons of Jesus Montero to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Piazza, he has decided that there is some grave flaw not just in his glove but in his bat. Cash was reportedly ready to trade Montero to Seattle for Cliff Lee in 2010 but balked at trading Montero and Eduardo Nunez (this was confirmed for me last summer by another Major League GM). Cashman has been surprisingly willing to trade this supposed blue chip prospect for whatever the drooling Mariners would surrender. It was suggestive enough that he seemed to value Nunez more highly than Montero. And now, if he just traded a Cabrera or a Piazza for a Michael Pineda, he’s an idiot – and I don’t think he’s an idiot.
And I’m giving Pineda the benefit of the doubt here. I was first astonished by this guy’s potential during a throwaway appearance at the end of a televised Mariners’ game late in spring training 2010. His spectacular start to 2011 was no real surprise to me, and I’m assuming even though they cuffed him up for three earned on five walks and three hits in five innings at Seattle on May 27th, the impression was left on New York brass that this was one of the coming mound stars of the game. After all, before that start at Safeco, Pineda had been 6-2, with 61 K’s in 58-1/3 innings. He’d only given up 46 hits and only twice had walked more than two men in a game.
Pineda went 3-8 thereafter.
He was still good in June, and what followed could very easily have been exhaustion – except he had managed 139 innings pitched in the minors in 2010 and 138 two years before that. This was not totally foreign territory. And yet he collapsed at the All-Star Break:
GS IP ER BB K HR W L ERA WHIP G/A OA
Before 18 113 38 36 113 10 8 6 3.03 1.04 0.84 .198
After 10 58 33 19 60 8 1 4 5.12 1.38 1.38 .236
Look, a 1.38 WHIP is not going to kill you, not with the Yankees. Consider that for all the disappointment the second half tacked on to his rookie season, Pineda got run support of 5.16 for the season (Derek Lowe/Dan Haren/Chris Carpenter territory). The Yankees gave all of their guys a lot more help: Ivan Nova 8.82, Freddy Garcia 7.49, A.J. Burnett 7.19, CC Sabatha 6.98, and Bartolo Colon 6.41.
But there is another disappointing set of splits to consider. Pineda not only did better in the pitcher’s paradise that is Safeco, but he did better in a supremely bizarre way.
Michael Pineda’s home-road splits:
GS IP ER BB K 2B 3B HR W L ERA WHIP G/A OA
Home 12 77 25 28 82 3 0 9 5 4 2.92 1.01 0.92 .182
Away 16 94 46 27 91 21 2 9 3 4 4.40 1.17 1.05 .234
Do you see it?
Michael Pineda surrendered only 12 extra-base hits at home, exactly one a game. On the road, he gave up 32 of them, exactly two a game. The homers are the same but the doubles helped to kill him.
Another stat to throw at you. His BABIP (for the un-SABRized, the opponents’ Batting Average on Balls hit In Play) was .258. That was the ninth lowest in the majors last year, and while having the ninth lowest opponents’ batting average on anything would intuitively be a good thing, in this case it ain’t. The BABIP for all pitchers combined was .291, which implies that on as much as thirteen percent of the outs Pineda got on balls the hitters hit, Pineda was lucky they were outs. Low BABIPs (or high ones) tend to correct themselves over the course of a season, or from one season to another, which is as good an explanation for his opponents’ actual batting average to jump by .038 after the All-Star Break as is “he got tired at 113 innings.”
There are a lot of numbers in here, but between Pineda’s second half (and road) woes, and the Yankees’ remarkable unwillingness to put Montero on the spot in the playoffs, I infer that this wasn’t a rip-off, and it wasn’t a trade of future Hall of Famers – that it might have just been the trade of a couple of high-ceiling but deeply flawed ballplayers.
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.
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.