Sunday, March 28, 2010

CAN THE YANKEES DEVELOP STARTING PITCHING?

"Cashman didn't want Lily. He preferred Igawa... Billy Eppler, an assistant to Cashman, had raved about Igawa..." -- The Yankee Years

As so often in the repetitive and trite debates that dominate the media’s sports coverage, the dispute about how Joba Chamberlain best serves his team has obscured a series of far more important questions the young pitcher’s career raises about his franchise and its future. Now that management has consigned to the bullpen the most promising young phenom New York has witnessed since Dwight Gooden, fans, again, need to ask whether the Yankees front-office is capable of identifying, nurturing, and developing starting pitching.

Following the 2005 season, after all, Cashman’s ascendance and the Boss’ retreat was to have marked a seismic change in this regard. Perhaps, for the first time in the Steinbrenner era, the organization acknowledged the importance of cultivating its own starters. Cashman revamped his amateur and pro scouting departments, and within a few short years, the Yankees started to tout the wealth of young pitching prospects their farm system boasted. Hughes, Chamberlain, and Kennedy and just a few steps behind them, Russ Ohlendorf, Humberto Sanchez, Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez, Daniel McCutchen, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances-- altogether, they supposedly, heralded a new era. No longer would the Yankees have to depend on the inefficient free-agent market and improvident trades to build a rotation.

With a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Vasquez set to open the 2010 season, it appears very little has changed in the Bronx however. Hughes’ expected start on April 15 may comfort some, but it’s been 3 years since his first start in the major leagues and he has yet to complete more than 72 innings in that capacity. While Andy Pettitte, pitching perhaps in his final season, perfectly symbolizes the ongoing problem.

For not since Pettitte himself burst into the 1995 rotation has the Yankees’ farm system produced one of those hardy, mettlesome, 26-and-under rotation staples that organizations depend upon each season for 200 or more quality innings as their front-office milks him through four to six years of non-negotiable offers, niggling arbitrations, and below-market contracts. No Halladay. No Lester or Beckett. No Bedard. No James Shields. No Verlander. No Buehrle. No Sabathia. No Santana. No Lackey. No King Felix. No Zito, Mulder, or Hudson. The Yankees amateur draft hasn’t selected Him. Their international scouts haven’t signed Him. And the GM’s office hasn’t traded for Him. Through the Bronx a procession of stunted prospects, fragile arms, tantalizing impostors, and discarded talent has come and gone instead: Milton, Westbrook, Lily, Irabu, Weaver, Kennedy, and Wang. And neither Chamberlain nor Hughes has shown, to date, he won’t follow right behind them.

During the era’s first decade, one needn’t look beyond the owner’s box to find an explanation for the futility. The Boss had sacked, demoted, or marginalized his most discerning evaluators and had elevated toadying underlings. Until 2005, Brian Cashman occupied the GM’s office but possessed it in name alone. He was hardly a figurehead however. To the contrary, the nominal GM orchestrated the trade of the only two young prospects among the lot who burgeoned into, if not aces, then certainly fixtures of their teams’ rotation, Westbrook in Cleveland and Lily in Oakland and Toronto. True, Cashman’s gamble on recruiting Sabathia and Burnett with money, generous compliments, and solicitous reassurance— an underappreciated skill in a GM however large the wallet he wields – instead of trading Hughes for Santana rewarded him with a World Series.

Nonetheless, the Yankees fifteen-year-long failure to accomplish what every other AL franchise, save perhaps the Texas Ranger, has achieved in the interim-- to acquire or to develop that young stalwart who can anchor their rotation at negligible cost for years to come-- blights this franchise and imperils its future. As Joel Sherman recently observed, in 2013, four Yankees, 33 and older, will consume $90 million in payroll—Sabathia, Burnett, A-Rod, Teixeira and that still excludes the approximately $20 million Jeter, in addition, will earn. Relying on the free-agent market to fill a rotation ultimately exacts a toll. The question is only when it accrues. And for the cost and its consequence, Cashman should not escape responsibility.

Unfortunately, the yellow journalism that colors practically all sports coverage these days from print to radio to television conceives the world in two dimensions and projects it in black-and-white. Winners are geniuses. Losers are fools. The 2008 Cashman whose season ended in September became the petulant, blinkered little drone who’d assigned two rookies to his rotation and then whined when the press blamed him for the consequences. The 2010 Cashman whose team won the World Series became the astute, shrewd visionary because he obtained a starter with a lifetime 4.45 ERA in the American League. Of course, Cashman is neither prodigy nor fool. At some duties he excels. Notably, at bargaining and at recruiting. Rival GMs can’t fleece the Yankees anymore. (Where the Boss mortgaged the future for the likes of Phelps, Rhoden, Barfield, and Henderson; Cashman forbears.) Likewise, he deals well with agents, his recent contretemps with Boras over Damon notwithstanding. In signing Sabathia and snaring Teixeira, he shone. In player development, however, his office ranks somewhere between mediocre and wanting. The ongoing failure to harvest major league starters offsets its success in cultivating middle-relievers and in procuring supplemental bench players and some promising hitting and catching prospects.

The failure reaches far beyond the identifying, drafting, and signing of amateur talent. The problem may not even implicate the selection process at all. No, Joba’s fate and Chien-Ming Wang before him raises questions about the Yankees’ nurturing and development process. It hardly seems coincidental that abrupt and mysterious velocity deficits, suddenly, befell both Wang and Chamberlain as starters. And in each instance, Cashman continued to start them notwithstanding. In Wang’s case, they promoted a pitcher with one rotator cuff surgery already in his pedigree after a mere three minor league starts. Three starts, as it happens, in none of which Wang’s velocity had recovered its earlier heights. Cashman still assigned Wang to the bullpen and then moved him into the rotation. Two months and six starts later, still languishing at 91-92 mph instead of his usual 95-96, the Taiwanese Wunderkind tore the rotator cuff yet again. And the career of the Yankees’ most prodigious home-grown starter in a decade came to an unceremonious end after a mere two seasons in which he’d completed 200 innings. (Compare, by contrast, the Red Sox’s handling of Matsuzaka under similar circumstances; see “Free Wang, Curb Cashman,” Yankees Republic, May 27, 2009)

A similar fate, more recently, has afflicted Joba Chamberlain. The oft-repeated cliché ascribes his diminished fastball to deficiencies of character and/or stamina. Joba feeds on adrenaline he can’t sustain over six or seven innings. Hence, he belongs in the bullpen. Premise and conclusion conveniently ignore Chamberlain’s twelve starts in 2008 in the major leagues and his starts in the minor leagues in 2007. To illustrate just how spectacular Chamberlain was in 2008, compare his 12 starts in 2008 to Hughes’ 13 starts in 2007.

  • Joba - 2008 - 12GS, 65.33 IPs, 2.76 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 10.2 K/9
  • Hughes - 2007- 13 GS, 72.66 IPs, 4.46 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.2 K/9
A quick glance at FanGraphs explains why. Contrary to the received wisdom, as a starter in 2008, Chamberlain threw a 95-97 mph fastball from his first pitch to his last. Merely recall his start in Boston in late July 2008 when Joba threw 7 shut-out innings and struck out 9 Red Sox hitters and carried the Yankees to a 1-0 victory over Josh Beckett.

Then, injury befell Chamberlain in Texas in August, and by September, his absence all but eliminated the Yankees from playoff competition. Yet as with Wang, Cashman re-assigned his pitcher to the bullpen. And even though Joba’s velocity hadn’t returned, Cashman let Girardi pitch him the entire month as a reliever. To this day, the pitcher and his fastball haven’t recuperated. FanGraphs shows Chamberlain's average fastball velocity fell from 95.0 in 2008 to 92.5 in 2009.

The oddity is how the seeming indifference to their young virtuouso's diminished velocity comports with the organization's meticulous, near neurotic, enforcement of his innings limits and his pitch counts. Stranger still, if no physical ailment currently hampers Joba Chamberlain and if temperament and/or mechanics account for the velocity deficit, why have the Yankees relegated him to the bullpen for the foreseeable future now- now at the very moment when the two-year training program designed to prepare him to throw 200 major league innings finally has concluded. Could the Yankees, actually, have rendered such a momentous decision for their future (and Joba's) on 3 or 4 Spring Training starts?

The example of Justin Verlander would counsel against deciding matters of such consequence on so little evidence. Recall that after flourishing in 2006 and 2007, Verlander suffered a dramatic setback in 2008. His ERA rose from 3.64 to 4.84. His fastball's average velocity fell from a high of 95.1 in 2006 to 93.6 in 2008.

The Yankees have derived their formulas for innings limits and pitch counts from statistical evidence that shows how increasing the workload of 26-and-younger pitchers by more than 30 innings from season to season exposes them to injury. Tom Verducci and Will Carroll's anecdotal evidence certainly persuaded me. What I wonder is whether the Yankees have studied the long-term consequences shuttling a Chamberlain or Hughes back from the rotation to the bullpen to the rotation will have on their health and development. The disruption and irregularity alone seems to belie logic that animates innings caps and pitch counts-- slow, gradual conditioning and regimentation in a violent, unnatural motion.

All of which leave too many unanswered questions for anyone to extol the Yankees' front-office. At the end of 2010, Andy Pettitte, by all accounts, will retire; Javier Vasquez's contract will expire; and the Yankees will have to find, at least, two more starters to replace them. Worse, with Joba installed in the bullpen, no internal options currently commend themselves. Can this franchise continue to pay a premium for starting pitching to compensate for inadequacy below?

Cliff Lee and his agent, no doubt, already have begun to ask the same question.

11 comments:

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Tom said...

Great stuff, Matthew. You raise questions that continue to haunt, even as the Yankees flirt with an .800 winning percentage.
And I hope to see you tackle another Yankee topic sometime soon.
All the best!

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