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2006 Post Mortem: Starting Pitchers

You can find the outfielders here.

Chien-Ming Wang 3.63 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 1.46 K/BB, 33 GS

Although Mike Mussina actually pitched better over the course of the full season, Chien-Ming Wang emerged as the Yankees default ace in 2006, winning 19 games, and fulfilling all of the promise of his strong rookie season. Looking at Wang’s monthly splits, he decreased his ERA in each of the first four months of the season, topping out with a 3.03 mark in his five July starts and following that up with eight scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on August 2.

That August 2 start was the later part of a run of 19 consecutive scoreless innings, a streak that was broken when the White Sox scored in Wang’s 158th inning of the season. Though somewhat coincidental, that number is not insignificant. In 2005, Chien-MingWang set a career high by throwing 157 innings between triple-A, the majors, and the postseason. Over his first 157 innings of 2006, Wang posted a 3.55 ERA and allowed exactly one base hit per inning and a 1.25 WHIP. Over the remainder of his season and the postseason, Wang posted a 3.80 ERA and allowed 1.24 hits per inning and a 1.44 WHIP.

Curiously, Wang also increased his strike out rate by more than a K per game and dropped his walk rate below 2 per 9 innings after that 157th inning. But then Chien-Ming Wang’s strikeout rate is one of the more perplexing statistics in baseball at the moment. For all of his success in 2006, Wang actually experienced a decrease in his already alarmingly low strikeout rate from the year before. In fact, Wang’s rate of 3.18 K/9 was the lowest by a 19-game winner since 1980.

That year two men, the A’s Rick Langford and another Yankee sinkerballer you may have heard of named Tommy John, won 19 games while striking out 3.17 and 2.65 men per nine innings respectively. Each of these men resembles Wang differently. John was a Yankee hurler adept at inducing groundballs, getting 2.36* grounders for every fly in 1980. Langford, though also a sinkerballer, was less adept at the grounder, getting just 1.11* grounders for every fly that season and an only slightly higher ratio of ground balls in the surrounding seasons. Instead, Langford’s success in 1980 had more to do with his good fortune on balls in play (.259 BABIP).

As far as the reasons for his success, Wang is more John than Langford, as he had a fairly typical .293 BABIP in 2006, but boasted the major league’s third most extreme groundball rate (3.06 GB/FB). Rather, where Langford resembled Wang was in his relative youth (Langford was 28 in 1980, John was 37) and the sharp increase in the innings he pitched that season. In his first season as A’s manager, former Yankee skipper Billy Martin allowed Langford to throw 290 innings in 1980, an increase of nearly a third over his previous career high of 218 2/3 from the year before. Wang’s increase in 2006 was even greater, a whopping 43 percent more innings than he’d ever thrown before in a single season (including the postseason, Wang pitched 224 2/3 innings in 2006).

Langford managed to replicate his success in the strike-shortened 1981 season and suffered only a modest drop off in 1982. But despite the strike and his own less-stellar pitching saving him from cracking the 240 innings mark yet again, Langford’s elbow went under the knife after the 1982 season and he never again pitched a full season. While some might be tempted to use Wang’s extreme efficiency (only Greg Maddux and Roy Halladay threw fewer pitches per inning in 2006) to quell concerns over his workload, it won’t work. Wang was as even more efficient in 2005. Given Wang’s history of shoulder problems (labrum surgery in 2001 and his DL scare late last season), the Yankees should have been more cautious with his workload this past year.

If Wang’s shoulder remains intact in 2007, what should the Yankees expect from their young star? Consider the three other pitchers who induced more than three times as many ground balls as flies in 2006:

  • Brandon Webb won the NL Cy Young in 2006, but he also has an above-average strike-out rate (6.82 K/9 in 2006 and 7.24 career) and his groundball rate was an otherworldly 4.06 GB/FB. Webb resembles the pitcher Wang could be should he return his K rate to it’s minor league levels (7.06 K/9) while maintaining his extreme ground ball rate (think also of the Kevin Brown of the late ’90s), but otherwise the comparison is of little value.
  • Derek Lowe won 21 games in 2002, his first full season as a starter, with a 3.46 GB/FB and a 5.20 K/9, both figures better than Wang’s, the strikeout rate meaningfully so. Lowe, who was 29 that year, also saw a huge jump in innings pitched that season, throwing 219 2/3 after a previous career high of 170 that came nearly six years earlier in the minors. In 2003, Lowe saw his ERA increase by 1.89 runs despite an increase in his groundball rate and a drop in his walk rate. The reason was that Lowe’s 2002 season was largely the result of an absurdly low BABIP of .238, a number that reverted to a more typical .298 in 2003. As Wang succeeded this year with a more typical BABIP (league average was .306 vs. .296 in 2002), this comparison doesn’t really work either.
  • Jake Westbrook’s first full season as a starter came in 2004 when he was 26, Wang’s age this past season. Westbrook posted a 3.38 ERA, a 2.72 GB/FB and a 4.84 K/9 that season. He also threw 215 2/3 innings after a previous career high of 173 2/3 four years prior in the minors. In 2005, Westbrook increased his ground ball and strikeout rates, but saw his ERA inflate by 1.11 runs. The difference in Westbrook’s seasons was also somewhat the result of BABIP (.277 in 2004 vs. .291 in 2005), though here the comp is better, as there’s no reason that Wang’s BABIP couldn’t shoot a similar amount above league average in 2007, though there’s little reason to expect it.

Curiously, Westbrook’s BABIP did just that this past season, soaring to .323 in 2006, but his ERA actually dropped, despite his groundball and strikeout rates doing the same. The only explanation I can find for that is a small drop in Westbrook’s home run rate. Which brings us to the final secret to Wang’s success. While it’s simple common sense that ground ball pitchers don’t give up many home runs, Wang’s 12 homers allowed were easily the least by any qualified pitcher in 2006, as was his rate of one home run per 18.17 innings pitched. Wang was also second in the majors to Westbrook in number of double plays induced.

So, while Chien-Ming Wang didn’t strike out very many men in 2006, he did just about everything else right. He kept the ball in the park, worked efficiently and deep into games, kept his walks down, induced a tremendous number of double plays, and succeeded without the benefit of an unusually low BABIP. All of which is eminently repeatable in 2007, provided there’s no injury fallout from his increased workload, which was far greater than either Lowe or Westbrook’s, both of whom have remained healthy in the years since.

There is one trick Chien-Ming Wang pulled in 2006 that he’s unlikely to repeat in 2007, however. In addition to being the 19-game winner with the lowest K/9 in 26 years, he was also the first 19-game winner since his teammate Randy Johnson in 1993 to also record a save.

A-

*1980 ground ball rates courtesy of Baseball Prospectus

Mike Mussina 3.51 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 4.91 K/BB, 32 GS

After struggling through a pair of disappointing seasons in 2004 and 2005, Mike Mussina stumbled upon a potentially career-saving pitch in spring training. After pitching to Jorge Posada in an intra-squad game, Mike Mussina asked the Yankee catcher how he was able to identify and subsequently demolish a 3-2 changeup. Posada explained that Moose’s < a href="http://bronxbanter.baseballtoaster.com/archives/359255.html">grip betrayed the pitch. When Mussina corrected his grip accordingly, he was not only able to disguise the pitch, but could throw it slower and with a better break. The result was a 70-mile-an-hour Bugs Bunny changeup that helped Mussina become the best pitcher in the AL for the season’s first two months.

With nearly twenty miles per hour difference between his fastball and change, plus his famous knuckle-curve, Mussina soared to a 7-1 record with a 2.53 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, a staggering 5.38 K/BB ratio in April and May, averaging 6.8 innings per start. Mussina capped off his great two months with a complete game in Detroit in which he shouted Joe Torre back into the dugout after giving up the game’s first run with two outs in the ninth, then struck out Carlos Guillen to end the game.

Then, out of nowhere, he reverted to his 2004-2005 form. Over his remaining 20 starts, Mussina averaged less than six innings per game, posted a 4.28 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, took a late-August trip to the 15-day DL with a reoccurring groin injury, and generally looked like the aging ace who posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.35 WHIP and twice missed time with elbow soreness during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

Still, there were signs of improvement even over those final twenty starts. In addition to the slight improvements in WHIP and ERA as compared to his two prior seasons, he maintained improvements strikeout, walk, and home run rates. From the already solid 7.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.15 K/BB, and less encouraging 1.18 HR/9 in 2004 and 2005, he improved to 7.9 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 4.64 K/BB and 1.01 HR/9 during the final four months of 2006. What’s more, his DL stay had nothing to do with the elbow soreness he suffered in the previous two seasons. Taking that into account along with the lack of affordable alternatives on the marker this winter, the Yankees were wise to re-sign the soon-to-be 38-year-old Mussina for the 2007 and 2008 seasons at what works out to $12 million per year (a two-year, $22.5 million contract plus the $1.5 million buyout on his $17 million option for 2007).

B

Randy Johnson 5.00 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.87 K/BB, 33 GS

When the Yankees traded for Randy Johnson, the Big Unit was coming off a season in which he was clearly the best pitcher in the National League and rivaled Johan Santana as the best starter in the major leagues. Looking over his final few seasons with the Diamondbacks, it appeared to me at the time that, if one were to toss out his 2003 season, which was shortened by knee surgery, Johnson had shown no signs of losing that dominance.

Looking at Johnson’s performance since 2003 in the wake of his first two seasons with the Yankees, the statistics tell another story. It’s not the injury-shortened 2003 which stands out as an aberration, but that last gasp of dominance in 2004. Dig:

Year ERA ERA+ WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2003 4.26 110 1.33 9.87 2.13 1.26
2004 2.60 171 0.90 10.62 1.61 0.66
2005 3.79 117 1.13 8.42 1.87 1.28
2006 5.00 88 1.24 7.55 2.63 1.23

Toss out 2004 and what leaps off the page is a steady decline in strikeout rate and a consistently high home run rate, both of which are consistent with the decreased velocity on his fastball and inconsistent command of his slider which have turned one of the all-time greats into a disappointingly average pitcher.

In 2005, Johnson had his moments of brilliance and caught fire down the stretch, posting a 2.08 ERA and a 2004-like home run rate of 0.62 HR/9 over his final seven starts (this despite a start in Toronto in the middle of that run in which he was ejected in the second inning after allowing a three-run homer in the first). But 2006 was Johnson’s worst professional season since he was a twenty-something Seattle Mariner with severe control problems. That was nearly 15 years ago.

That said, he did pitch predominantly well over ten starts from mid-June to early September. In fact, a quicker hook from Joe Torre could have turned a 7 1/3-inning/four-run outing against Cleveland on July 6 into a 7-inning/one-run outing, and an 8-plus-inning/four-run outing against the Tigers at the end of August into an 8-inning/two-run outing. Still, even without those four late-game runs, Johnson’s ERA over that stretch would have merely matched his full-season mark from 2005 at 3.79. That’s because that stretch also included eight runs in six innings against the Mets on July 1, and nine runs (six earned) against the Devil Rays in 3 1/3 innings at the end of the month.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, opposing hitters and analysts from all sides speculated about Johnson’s health, particularly regarding his history of back and knee problems, but Johnson repeatedly insisted he was feeling fine, despite his decreased effectiveness. Then, with the Yankees enjoying a comfortable lead in the AL East, the Yankees skipped Johnson’s last regular season start, at which point the newly 43-year-old pitcher was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his lower back. Given an epidural, Johnson made his scheduled ALDS start but, for the second year in a row, punted the crucial third game of the series, contributing mightily to the Yankees’ eventual first-round loss.

Johnson underwent successful surgery on October 26 to repair the disk and is expected to be ready for opening day, though according to Brian Cashman, even without a setback, the 43-year-old will be slightly behind schedule during spring training. With Johnson in the final year of his contract and just 20 wins away from a career total of 300, one assumes the hypercompetitive hurler will do everything he can to get back on time, but the range of possible outcomes for a 6’10″ 43-year-old coming off back surgery is alarming.

C+

Jaret Wright 4.49 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 1.47 K/BB, 27 GS

When the Yankees signed Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano to expensive multi-year contracts in the winter following the 2004 season, the deals were almost universally panned by Yankee fans and analysts alike. Still, while everyone seemed to realize that the Yankees had made a mistake by signing the two largely unproven and injury prone pitchers, most assumed that Pavano would at least pitch moderately well, even if he was unlikely to be worth the 4-year/$40-plus million deal the Yankees gave him. On the other hand, the $21 million they dropped on Wright seemed like an utter waste, particularly in light of the fact that Wright failed a physical before the contract was finalized, and Jon Lieber, a pitcher the Yankees had hoped to retain, had just signed with Philadelphia for the same amount ($21/3).

Early in 2005, that was the way it went, Pavano was a roughly league average starter over the first three months of the season, while Wright’s shoulder went kablooey after just four starts and he hit the DL with a 9.15 ERA. Then things changed. Pavano skipped an early July start with soreness in his right shoulder, then another, then landed on the DL and never returned. Wright, meanwhile, returned to action in late August and posted a 4.70 ERA over nine starts down the stretch. Named the Yankees’ fifth starter out of camp in 2006, Wright surprised everyone by not only taking each of his scheduled turns, but also posting an ERA just a tick below league average along the way, eventually moving up to fourth in the rotation’s depth chart ahead of Shawn Chacon and company.

The big knock on Wright in 2006 was that he was a five-inning pitcher, and that, even when he pitched well, he forced Joe Torre to get too many innings out of his bullpen. Indeed, Wright averaged almost exactly five innings per start in 2006 (5.05 if you must know) and threw a pitch in the seventh inning of a game he had started just twice all year, both times leaving with one out in the seventh, and the first of those coming on August 31. Still, the Yankees would happily have had a similar performance from Pavano in place of the mess they got from Chacon, Aaron Small, Kris Wilson, Sidney Ponson and Cory Lidle. What’s more, there’s reason to believe that Wright could have gone farther in several starts, but the Yankees were holding him back to protect his fragile right shoulder. Wright pitched six full innings ten times, each time wrapping up his night with three or fewer runs allowed. In six of those games he threw fewer than 92 pitches. On none of those six occasions was he brought back out to start the seventh inning.

Because of the time he spent on the DL in 2005, the third year of Wright’s contract became a $7 million option with a $4 million buyout. The Yankees picked up that option last week and traded Wright to Baltimore with the $4 million for reliever Chris Britton. Here’s the final tally for Wright and Pavano after two seasons:

Carl Pavano: 17 GS, 100 IP, 4.77 ERA, 4-6
Jaret Wright: 40 GS, 204 IP, 4.99 ERA, 16-12

And for yucks:

Jon Lieber: 62 GS, 386 1/3 IP, 4.52 ERA, 26-24

C-

The Rest:

Cory Lidle 5.16 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 1.68 K/BB, 9 GS

When the Yankees acquired Lidle in the Bobby Abreu deal at the trading deadline, Brian Cashman let it be known that the inclusion of Lidle was essential to the completion of the deal. Indeed, before Lidle joined the team, the Yankees had not gotten a quality start from the fifth spot in their rotation since Shawn Chacon’s May 6 start in Texas. Lidle fixed that in his very first outing as a Yankee, holding the Blue Jays to one run on four hits in six innings. He would then add four more quality starts down the stretch, nearly tripling the total the Yankees had gotten from that spot in the rotation over the season’s first four months.

However, Lidle’s history of stepping up his game down the stretch didn’t repeat itself, as his aggregate numbers as a Yankee were actually worse than what he had done before the trade. Lidle’s final appearance came in the deciding fourth game of the ALDS. Relieving Jaret Wright in the bottom of the third with two outs, men on the corners, and the Yankees already down 4-0, he struck out Craig Monroe to end the inning. He then pitched a perfect fourth only to run into trouble in the fifth, allowing four hits to start the inning before getting the hook, the last an RBI double by Carlos Guillen to run the score to 6-0 Tigers.

Four days later, Lidle and his flight instructor were killed when his Cirrus SR20 crashed into the 30th floor of a building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side after failing to execute a turn over the East River.

Shawn Chacon 7.00 ERA, 1.79, WHIP, 0.97 K/BB, 11 GS

One of the big questions for the Yankees entering 2006 was what to expect from Shawn Chacon. Had the Yankees indeed rescued Chacon and his curveball from the thin air of Colorado, as it appeared when he posted a 7-3 record and a 2.85 ERA as a Yankee over the final two months of 2005, before winning his first-ever postseason start with his team down two-games to one at home in the ALDS? Was it true that Chacon was the rare flyball pitcher who could consistently suppress his opponent’s batting average on balls in play?

After he started the season with a couple of rough outings and two equally poor turns out of the bullpen, Chacon looked to be on his way to recapturing that magic. Over four starts from April 22 to May 11, Chacon allowed just four runs on 18 hits, none of them homers, in 24 1/3 innings despite a typically poor 13:14 K/BB ratio. Unfortunately, in that May 11 game, the same game that saw Hideki Matsui snap his radius, a Mark Loretta comebacker hit Chacon in the shin of his landing leg. Unable to complete his delivery properly, he got lit up in his next start and was promptly placed on the DL. After being reactivated he continued to struggle, and when another disaster start set in motion a 19-1 humiliation in Cleveland on George Steinbrenner’s birthday, he was exiled to the bullpen in favor of Kris Wilson and Sidney Ponson. Chacon made four more appearances out of the pen, posting a 8.68 ERA, before Brian Cashman miraculously flipped him to Pittsburgh for the highly touted Craig Wilson at the deadline, while simultaneously filling the fifth spot in the rotation with Cory Lidle.

Jeffrey Karstens 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 1.45 K/BB, 6 GS

Karstens began the 2006 season by struggling in his first crack at triple-A, but after a quick stint back in double-A set him on course, he cruised through the International League on his second attempt and became a surprise spot starter for the big club when Mike Mussina went down with a groin injury in late August. Karstens acquited himself well with the Yankees, missing a quality start by one out in his debut, then turning the trick officially in his next two starts. Though Karstens exhibited an alarmingly low strikeout rate (especially compared to his solid minor league career rate of 7.43 K/9) and a disconcerting propensity for fly balls, he managed to go a minimum of five innings in seven of his eight major league outings (six starts, one long relief appearance) while allowing as many as four earned runs in just one of those appearances. His one short outing was a perfect inning of relief on his 24th birthday. He should be allowed to compete with Darrell Rasner for the fifth spot in the rotation next spring.

Darrell Rasner 4.43 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 2.20 K/BB, 3 GS

Claimed off waivers from the Nationals back in February, the 25-year-old Rasner excelled with the Clippers and looked sharp in his first relief appearance for the big club on June 1. Then, out of nowhere, he landed on the 60-day DL with discomfort in his pitching shoulder. Rasner recovered in time to join the club after rosters expanded in September, however, and made two quality starts and one scoreless long relief apperance before ending the season with a clunker of a start against the Orioles. Currently pitching similarly in the Arizona Fall League (a clunker followed by four scoreless outings and another clunker), Rasner hopes to compete with Karstens for the fifth spot in the Yankee rotation in the spring.

Sidney Ponson 10.47 ERA, 2.02 WHIP, 2.14 K/BB, 3 GS

A desperation signing made just before the trading deadline, Ponson came to the Yankees having pitched his way out of St. Louis. After two starts and a 10.00 ERA, he lost his rotation spot to deadline acquisition Cory Lidle. After two relief appearances and a disaster start in the double-header that opened the Yankees’ five-game sweep of the Red Sox in mid-August (the Yanks won the game 14-11), Ponson and his 10.47 ERA were sent packing.

Aaron Small 8.46 ERA, 1.95 WHIP, 1.00 K/BB, 3 GS

After a miracle 10-1 season in 2005, this 34-year-old minor league journeyman cashed in with a $1.2 million arbitration settlement last winter. That was the end of this particular fairy tale. Small started 2006 on the 15-day DL with a hamstring injury. Activated at the end of April, he struggled in five appearances out of the pen (8.71 ERA) before replacing the injured Shawn Chacon in the rotation. After Small performed even worse in three starts (10.50 ERA), Chacon returned to reclaim his spot. After three more appearances out of the pen, Small was designated for assignment and finished the year pitching poorly for Columbus. A six-year minor league free agent, Small has thrown his last pitch in a Yankee uniform.

Carl Pavano 60-day DL

Who?

Seriously, Carl Pavano did throw a few competitive pitches in 2006. He pitched one inning in spring training, gave up a home run, and landed (literally) on the DL with a tender tuchus. He later made seven rehab starts between Tampa, Trenton and Columbus. I think he even left one or two of them without complaining of arm pain. Along the way he got into a shouting match with a fan and broke a pair of ribs in a car accident he failed to report to the team. Having run out of ways to avoid both active duty and the knife, Pavano eventually opted for the later and had some bone chips removed from his elbow. Given his hijinx in 2006, it wouldn’t surprise me if Pavano’s plans for 2007 involve high heals, opera gloves, and his continuing quest for a Section 8. Hey, maybe the Yanks can trade him back home to the Mud Hens.

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