Wednesday, May 27, 2009


"What's the difference between Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman? When I talk to the Red Sox GM, I know I'm speaking to someone smarter than me; when I talk to his Yankees counterpart, I worry I'm not." --anonymous colleague of Selena Roberts

Brian Cashman, the GM only a Steinbrenner could love or a personality cult, revere. For every conspicuous eclat there corresponds the inexplicable and exasperating folly.

Witness the last year alone. He steals from Pirates but seizes the wrong bounty, returning with Nady and Marte instead of Bay. Meanwhile, the money he saves by replacing Abreu with Nady, he squanders on 3-years for Marte. He nets Swisher with ground bait. Yet to hook AJ Burnett, he goes ice fishing, wearing leaden boots and carrying golden lures. He scavenges amid the dross of Berroa and Tomko but won't spend a farthing for Ty Wigginton or Juan Cruz. He courts and seduces Sabathia and snares Teixiera by outflanking his eternal rival. Yet he relinquishes draft picks he could have retained had he offered Abreu the arbitration the ex-Yankee later confessed he would have refused. In 2006, his first two draft picks yield Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain; in 2008, they yield, quite literally, nothing-- Cole, a pitcher he can't sign and Bittle, a pitcher he doesn't want to.

The contradictions, half-measures, and lapses proliferate. To begin the 2009 season, Cashman's roster includes not a single long-reliever. 6 weeks later, it boasts three. One of whom just so happens to have been the orangization's best starter the previous three seasons. Raising, as such, the question: how do either the Yankees or Chien Ming Wang gain by interning him in the bullpen?

The team, certainly, doesn't. Because just as using Joba as a reliever wastes his talent -- and Cashman, despite the critics, is right; you don't waste pitchers with Chamberlain's potential and repertoire in the bullpen -- Chien Ming-Wang, by the same logic, doesn't belong there either. In fact, because Wang averages 4.0 K's/9 and 1.3 WHIP, in any role beyond mop-up, he may even pose a liability.

Yet Wang doesn't stand to benefit much from the role either. Again, witness the contradiction. If, as Girardi contends, pitching more, following his surgery, is necessary to strengthen Mariano's arm and bolster his velocity, then why would Chien Ming-Wang, recuperating from an injury that, likewise, has sapped his fastball and attenuated his sinker, profit from a long-reliever's role that, by definiton, consigns him to pitch less, to appear more sporadically if not also less frequently, and to compete for innings with two other pitchers who fulfill the identical role, Aceves and Tomko?

Why? Because in August 2007, when 39-year-old Mike Mussina was reeling, having suffered three consecutive batterings to the tune of a 19.00 ERA, a month's mental and physical respite partially restored him? Of course, a major injury and 9-month hiatus didn't account for Mussina's woes either. Moreover, Mussina never regained his velocity. He simply learned to pitch without it, slowing his breaking pitches and changeup to compensate. If the Yankees think Wang can emulate him, remake himself, and morph into a finesse pitcher, they're seriously deluding themselves.


Observe what the Red Sox did with Dice-K, by contrast, under circumstances similar, if not identical, to those the Yankees confronted with Wang. The difference, as usual, is instructive.

If you recall, Dice-K returned from the WBC with a "dead arm" after the Japanese team abused him. As a consequence, after his first two starts in April, he'd posted a 12.79 ERA and his fastball, which had averaged between 92mph and 94mph a start in '07 and '08, fell below 90. So, the Red Sox disabled him in mid-April and sent him for rehabilitation in AAA Pawtucket. In the meantime, they returned Masterson to the rotation and called up another starter, Michael Bowden, to replace Masterson's spot in the bullpen.

Then, they waited. They waited, patiently, for Dice-K's arm to recover, intent on exhausting every one of the 30 days available to them (the limit for major league players on minor league rehabilitation assignments.) After 3 starts in Pawtucket, Dice-K's velocity returned to its customary range in the mid-low 90's and the Red Sox activated him. He hardly has dominated since returning, but in his two starts since he certainly has fared better than he did in April. More importantly, his arm has recovered, and he's returned to the Red Sox rotation, where he only stands to improve.

Compare Wang's trajectory. Like the Red Sox, the Yankees disable their pitcher after hitters bludgeon him in consecutive outing. On April 18th, they send Wang to the DL and dispatch him to Tampa for medical testing and rehabilitation. Three weeks later, they start him in Scranton. Yet in neither of his two starts, on May 12 and May 17, according to Chad Jennings, beat reporter for the Scranton Yankees did Wang's fastball or his sinker match their traditional speed, break, or potency. (Cashman's subsequent report concurred with Jennings' observation.)

Yet the Yankees, in a rash, myopic, and inexplicable blunder, promote Wang anyway before determining whether or not they need him. Scheduled to start in Scranton on May 21st, the Yankees cancel his start in AAA, recall him to New York, sqaunder the 10-15 days and 2-3 more starts the rehabilitation clock allowed, and assign him to the Yankees bullpen to wait for an emergency start that never materializes.


The Yankees Front-Office insists, nonetheless, that they didn't want to foreclose Wang from starting in Scranton. Cashman claims circumstance left no alternative. That after a blow to the knee sidelined Chamberlain in the 1st inning on May 21st and Aceves pitched 3.3 innings in relief, the organization had to cancel Wang's scheduled May 22nd start in Scranton, to activate him from the disabled list, and to prepare him to start on May 26th in case Chamberlain couldn't.

The Front-Office's logic here is so tortured, their reasoning, so porous, I don't know what's worse: asking us to believe their cant or entertaining the possibility that they do. Who, you ask, would start on May 26th then if Chamberlain could not? Is not the answer obvious? Aceves. He was a starter, after all, in Scranton. Moreover, after pitching 3.3 innings on May 21st in relief of Joba, Aceves wasn't available anyway until May 25th (when Girardi wasted him in the 9th inning of a blow out.) Ironically, Aceves ended up pitching on May 26th anyway, as a reliever, true, but in a game he just as easily could have started.

The Yankees didn't need Wang in the interim. Against the Phillies, Tomko already offered the Yankees the security of a long-reliever for outings like May 22nd, where Girardi used Wang for three innings instead. Once recalled, Robertson or Melancon, meanwhile, could have filled Tomko's role. (The other Bruney, once they disabled him.)

Alternatively, if the Yankees concluded over the weekend that Joba couldn't start on May 26th, they could have enlisted any number of starters from Scranton or Trenton-- Igawa, Fossum, Johnson, McCallister, or Kontos--for an single, isolated start. Instead, they've activated Wang, consuming a roster spot and consigning their fallen ace to languish and to atrophy in the bullpen-- of help neither to his team nor to himself.

To recap Wang's season thus far. In his first three outings, the Yankees' erstwhile ace surrendered 23 earned runs and lasted a sum total of 6 innings.

  • April 8th vs. Baltimore -- 3.67 innings, 7 earned runs

  • April 13th vs. Tampa -- 1 inning, 8 earned runs

  • April 18th vs. Cleveland- 1.33 innings, 8 earned runs

  • Total = 6.0 IPs, 34.50 ERA, 4.83 WHIP

  • The woeful performance speaks for itself. Rarely does an established major league pitcher falter so abjectly, let alone a starter of Wang's caliber and accomplishments. What's especially remarkable about Wang unraveling is that while even great major league pitchers suffer the occasional beating or struggle through a period of the season, Wang, throughout his career, seemed immune from both the wretched outing or the prolonged rut.

    Whatever cliched stereotype captures the exact opposite of the "little-girl with the curl" personified Wang instead. Not when she's bad, she's very bad; when he's bad, he apologizes and quickly atones.

    Indeed, from 2005 and 2008, Wang made 95 starts for the Yankees. He yielded 7 or more runs in a sum total of 5 outings. FIVE! To compare, over the identical period, the Great Halliday yielded seven or more runs in THREE starts and Josh Beckett faltered as badly EIGHT times.

    Wang also rebounded each time in the next start. Not did he repeat the ignominy in consecutive outings. (The sole exception, of course, occurred when Cashman and Torre decided to pitch Wang on three days rest in Game 4 of the 2007 ALDS.)

    Wang has accrued a chorus of detractors over the years, nonetheless, because unlike the traditional ace, his career strikeout ratio per 9 innings is 4.0, on the low side. Furthermore, Wang stirs the doubters because he relies so greatly on a single, above average pitch, his sinker, otherwise known as the two-seam fastball (although minor variations differentiate the two).

    True, Wang probably qualifies as a sinkerball pitcher. Nonethless, Wang differs from the traditional prototype because his velocity exceeds theirs-- a distinction (in both senses) that explains much of the success he's enjoyed.

    Compare Wang's to the classic sinkerball pitcher, for example. As defined by the league's best Groundball to Flyball ratio from 2005 to 2008, Brandon Webb (3.24) and Derek Lowe (2.99) probably rank as the league's two foremost sinkerball specialists. (Wang's GO/AO ratio over the same period, by contrast, is 2.54 and has fallen, progressively, each season.)

    Wang throws considerably harder than both of them. Albeit, not in the manner you might expect. It's the speed of Wang's four-seam fastball, oddly, where the Yankee pitcher excels. To illustrate, I compare below the average velocity for Wang, Webb, and Lowe's sinker and their four-seam (regular) fastball, as Fangraph reports the figures for 2007 through 2009.

  • Wang sinker - 90.0 mph; fb-- 92.3 mph

  • Webb sinker - 88.9mph; fb-- 88.5 mph

  • Lowe sinker - 89.7 mph; fb-- 89.2 mph

    The additional 3-4 mph on Wang's four-seamer makes a big difference, especially when opposing hitters have to contend with his sinker as well. Which may explain, in addition, why Wang also throws his four-seam fastball with much greater frequency than either Webb or Lowe. According to fangraphs, between '07-'09, four-seamers account for 71% of Wang's total. By contrast, Webb and Lowe, respectively, throw their four-seamers 60% and 57% of the time.

    From the figures cited above, one would surmise that if the velocity of Wang's four-seam fastball-- i.e., 71% of the pitches he throws-- fell precipitously it would impact his performance adversely. And as fate would have it, through Wang's first 3 starts in 2009, this is precisely what transpired. Below is a velocity graph from which charts both the velocity range and average speed of Wang's four-seam fastball during given starts over the last three years.

    (Note: the graphic below only depicts starts for which Pitch Fx readings were available. Each gray line indicates a distinct start; its end points marks the velocity range; the dot in the middle shows the average speed for all four-seamers thrown.)

    The chart illustrates both (i) the prominent deficit in velocity in the pitcher's first three starts and (ii) the marked contrast it counterposes to Wang's starts in 2oo7 and 2008.

  • Three distinct indices underscore the shortfall. In those first three gray lines of 2009, the velocity range narrows, its high point falls, and in each, his average velocity hovers at the low point to which it had dropped in any discrete, isolated start over the previous two seasons.

    Of course, the good news is the fourth line. It registers Wang's relief outing on May 22, 2008 against the Phillies. Here, the nadir to which his fastball's velocity plunges actuallly exceeds the average registered in each of his three 2009 starts.

    The flip side to which is an obvious caveat and a tacit qualification. Though Wang's three innings in relief almost match, in duration, his longest outing, thus far, as a starter, he entered in the 6th inning and consciously, in the role of reliever. Perhaps, his velocity rose merely because entering the game in the 7th inning, he could "air it out", as they say, knowing his appearance wouldn't exceed 3 innings. (A tie game would have enlisted Mo.)

    The qualification, actually, is two-fold. First, in his outing in relief, Wang yielded 2 earned runs, while his WHIP was a woeful 2.33, and only a remarkable Cano play behind 2nd base in the 8th inning to start a double play prevented Wang from yielidng more than a run. Second, and more ominous, is the danger that the improved velocity and performance will prompt the GM to conclude that Wang somehow stands to improve as his innings in relief rise. Not likely. If he's not used with greater frequency than twice a week, the likelihood only diminishes.

    All of which only further serves to remind me how much I'd like to trust in Brian Cashman's judgment but don't.


    William said...

    Terrific analysis and a well written piece.

    There is no secret that the Red Sox have out "smarted" the Yankees for the past nine years, so the Wang/Dice-K comparison fits nicely with that pattern.

    Mike said...

    This is all you need to know about the organizations pitching failures:

    Cashman, Eiland, Connors, Contrares, innings counts and pitch counts.

    Nolan Rayan has eliminated the use of pitch and innings counts through out the entire Rangers organization.

    The "Joba Rules" theory is a failure.

    If you cant pitch 200 innings at 22,23 and 24...When can you?

    I disagree with about half of what you wrote, but I respect the opinions, well thought out.

    Anonymous said...

    analysis and a good know secret written piece.

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