Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Breaking Down the Yankees for the Second Half--The Rotation

So the All Star Game is officially over--and we can thus consider ourselves in the second half.

This is where it gets fun.

All of those days players got rested in the first half? Well, now they have to play. Now the pennant races start to heat up, and every move a team makes, be it a trade, a free agent signing or simply bringing someone up from AAA has even more added meaning.

What do we expect from the Yankees?

I'm going to do a series of posts addressing this, because there's so much to say that having it all in one post would a) kill your eyes and mine, and b) give me carpal tunnel at the age of 23.

So for now, I'm going to start with the starting rotation, because everything depends on the success and/or failure of these guys.

The Rotation

This is the biggest problem area for the Yankees, which is strange to say given how much was spent in the off-season to improve it.

The truth is, however, that outside of AJ Burnett's most recent string of domination, no one has emerged as an ace in the way that Mike Mussina did last year.

CC Sabathia and Burnett have been fairly reliable--although Sabathia's peripherals, the worst they've been since 2005 are a source of concern--but Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain have been inefficient at best and the fifth starter is, right now, non-existent.

CC Sabathia

Last time out, in Anaheim, Sabathia's ridiculously low road BABIP (batting average on balls in play) caught up to him. If you look here, you'll see that his strikeouts are down, walks are up and K/BB ratio is the worst it's been since 2005.

In the second half the Yankees, theoretically, should have enough starting pitching depth that Sabathia doesn't have to pull a stunt like he did with Milwaukee at the end of 2008, but he will have to be better. The peripheral stats are something that more and more seem to be noticing, and the Yankees will need to decide how much of it has to do with moving to the AL East and how much has some other, undiagnosed cause, and thus, how concerned they need to be.

Sabathia is the biggest pitching investment the Yankees have made since, well, Pavano and Igawa, so expect that the Yankees will do everything possible to make sure he is right.

AJ Burnett

Burnett got off to a very rocky start, and found no love from the fans after, well, you-know-what-ing the bed in two starts in Boston. He was in desperate need of a decent start against Johan Santana of the Mets, and it is entirely possible that his ultimate turning point in the season came when he had the bases loaded, none out, and got out of the inning without giving up a run.

Since then, AJ has really been the Yankee ace. He has faced the Mets, Marlins, Mets, Jays and Twins in that time span and has not given up more than 2 ER in any of those starts.

His last pre-break start, however, was not so much dominant as it was getting lucky and delivering the right pitch to escape jam after jam. In the words of, I think, the Associated Press, he had nothing, but still found a way to win.

If there's one thing the Yankees would probably ask a genie to do, if such genies existed, it would be to reduce Burnett's walk total--which leads the league.

Against teams with weak offenses, like the Mets, the walks don't hurt as much because no one ever makes you pay, but against stronger offenses, like Boston, the walks are killer. Burnett's always had control issues--he walked nine when he pitched a no-hitter for the Florida Marlins--but the Yankees aren't paying him $88 million over five years so that he can dazzle you with spectacularly wild pitches.

Andy Pettitte

Here's where things begin to get dicey. While Sabathia and Burnett have some issues, they are, for the most part, giving the Yankees enough length to keep the team in the game and not overexpose the bullpen.

Pettitte and Chamberlain? It's a little different.

Pettitte actually started the season strong, pitching into the sixth inning (and often beyond) in each of his first nine starts. That efficiency hasn't lasted, and his ERA has jumped from under 3.00 at the end of April to nearly 5.00 now.

The easiest way to explain it is that it looks as though Pettitte's body is having trouble keeping up with the grind of pitching every five days--as is what happens when most pitchers not named Moyer or Paige reach their later 30s.

Pettitte's first start after the break will be very telling--if the extra rest seems to have helped him, the Yankees could possibly consider skipping a start or two of his down the stretch to give him some extra breathing room (but somehow I doubt they will). If, however, he still continues to struggle in his next two or three starts, the Yankees will need to address whether or not it really is beneficial to the team to have him pitching in the rotation. If the Yankees, by some miracle, acquire someone like Halladay (see my previous post), or if Chien Ming Wang miraculously regains his form (also unlikely), then Pettitte's trending ineffectiveness is easier to bear.

Joba Chamberlain

Ah. Well. Here we go. The Wunderkind of 2007 and pre-injury 2008 has struggled in 2009.

Everyone's trying to figure out the root cause of the struggle, if it's psychological or physical or mechanical, and watching everyone go at it like a rat race would be incredibly amusing if the consequences weren't so large.

Each cause of his struggle has different results: if it's mechanical, this would be the easiest to fix--the Yankees could try to fix him up here or send him to AAA to sort it out, and if Joba's as good a pitcher as he's supposed to be, he'll be a quick study. If, however, it was as simple as this one would have seen improvement already.

The real answer is that the root cause is probably more complex, a combination of perhaps a nagging shoulder, an inexplicable fear of strike three, and maybe, since we're making this like a soup here, you can throw in some could-be-conditioned-better for extra spice. Like paprika.

Anyway, what the Yankees need, and need almost immediately, is to see if there's any indication that they can get Joba right, or at least that they can get Joba to pitch past the fifth inning. If they can, great. If they can't, the argument to turn him into a Canadian becomes all that stronger.

I think--and this is just opinion here--that the Yankees still see quite a bit of potential in Chamberlain. He is, after all, only 23, and he has shown that, when right, he can touch triple digits in the seventh inning.

The talent's there. The Yankees have to figure out how to access it.

The Fifth Starter

At this point, you just feel bad for Chien Ming Wang. He wasn't quite right in Spring Training, but it went ignored (because hey, it's Spring Training), and he imploded in the beginning of the year. He had a long and largely inefficient road back, but finally, finally looked something like the Chien Ming Wang of old while dueling Roy Halladay on July 4th--before he promptly strained his shoulder.

I don't believe in coincidences, so the fact that Wang got hurt while Halladay was starting for the Jays has to be considered some sort of divine sign, no?


There are those that would prefer to see Hughes or Aceves take the fifth spot, instead of Sergio Mitre and whomever the Yankees end up trading for (and they probably will), but there are problems with each.

Hughes, first of all, is not stretched out, and as I detailed in a recent post, the process of stretching him out, at this point in the season, might simply just take too long and create more problems for the Yankees and their bullpen than the ones it solves.

Aceves could be a perfectly competent starter, but when he's removed from the bullpen, the bullpen seems to fall apart. I'm not sure it's him, personally--although you have to consider the eerie similarity between his numbers and Mariano's of 1996 (his ERA has risen from 2.49 from 2.02 after his spot start, but if he stays in the bullpen it will likely come down again)--but I think there's a case to be made that his value lies in since he can pitch so many innings, the short relievers pitch less. The less the non-Mo short relievers pitch, the more they remain hidden, and the more they become a strength.

All we really know about this spot is that the next time it comes round it's probably Sergio Mitre's shot--but after that, who knows?

Obviously, the sooner the Yankees figure something out for the long term, the better, but don't be surprised if one good Mitre start spells another, and the Yankees try to recapture the ghost of Aaron Small circa late summer 2005.