The first half of the Yankee season has been overshadowed by Derek Jeter and his boatload of hits. Rightly so. As much fun as it is to watch the Yanks play well and win 60% of their games, that happens almost every year. Celebrating 3000 is not only appropriate, it’s necessary. For me, anyway. It helps realign my fandom to the primal things that sustain the relationship.
However, apart from Jeter’s heroic game on Saturday, he’s had little to do with the wins and losses thus far. For that, we have to thank a host of usual contributors including CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. But their production was banked on from the day Texas ended their 2010 season. The door to such lofty success hinged on Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova.
And therefore, the first half hinged on Brian Cashman. The moment the Cliff Lee trade fell through last July, I openly fretted about the 2011 starting rotation. But the rotation did not implode; it thrived. I don’t think Cashman expected anywhere near this level of performance, but he was smart enough to know that there was little difference between what these guys could do and what was available for big money after Cliff Lee chose Philadelphia. I’d still love to have Dan Haren in the rotation, but he now represents a pleasant upgrade rather than a savior.
And though he gets little attention in the press and is often the first to go when things turn sour, I think the pitching coach must have something to do with a success on this scale. Whether it’s creating a comfortable environment where pitchers can harness confidence and learn from mistakes or isolating successful pitches and honing them into weapons, I bet Larry Rothschild has been an asset.
But since their work is mostly behind the scenes, let’s focus on the guys holding the the ball.
Colon’s restructured arm and waves of flesh propel a lively fastball with impeccable accuracy. He’s got the best strikeout-to-walk ratio on the team outside of Mariano Rivera. And when he’s on, he can churn through innings like platters of ribs. Just give him a bib and don’t put your hands near his mouth.
It defies all expectations considering where he was before this season. And looking at him just makes it harder to believe. But watching him throw, all doubt is squashed by the harsh reality of the four-seamer and the horizontal shenanigans of the two-seamer.
Freddy Garcia has a different story. Cashman also found him on the scrap heap, but he doesn’t have the new arm, the big belly, nor the gaudy stats. He’s just kept the ball in the park and the runs off the board. His fastball might make him a number two starter on a high-school team with aspirations, but his change-up and breaking stuff float in at those tricky hitting speeds. Like Mike Mussina in his final year.
While Colon throws his heaters over 80% of the time, Garcia only shows his every fourth pitch or so. The other three are dipping, darting and diving as they inch towards the plate. Perhaps Rothschild deserves credit for refining their pitch selection, but these guys are veterans and I’m sure they can feel what’s working for them.
There are serious doubts about both of these guys as we look ahead. Colon has already had a trip to the DL and doesn’t look like he’s skipping any second breakfasts. Despite Garcia’s trickery, he’s not striking out enough guys to keep that ERA looking so spiffy. But they’ve earned a very long leash in the second half. And should either of them falter badly, well there’s a good young arm in AAA named Ivan Nova.
Ivan Nova looked excellent almost every time he pitched in 2010. But he also looked awful almost every time he pitched in 2010. The second time through the order, he could no longer get anybody out. The first few games of 2011 held the same pattern. But Cashman, Girardi and Rothschild were very patient. Where a pessimist would see disaster waiting to happen, they believed in his stuff and start by start, the results improved.
He resembles Chien-Ming Wang to me, and they have their sinkers and their ERAs in common. There are differences between the two, but like Van Gogh and Gauguin, their work shares the same foundation. They paint with hard sinkers, sometimes touching the mid-90s, grazing bat-barrel-bottoms and inducing grounders. Nova throws a curve often enough to be the stand out difference between the two. He strikes out and walks one more hitter per nine than Wang did, and considering the amount of balls in play, that extra base-runner is probably not a tradeoff that benefits Nova.
Chien-Ming Wang was the Yankee ace for two playoff years. I’m comparing him to the sixth starter on the current squad.
The Yankees are 27-16 in the 43 games started by these three pitchers. That edge has them neck and neck with an excellent Boston squad and securely ahead of the game Rays. And if you tried to tell me this might happen in the winter on an adjacent barstool, I would have laughed in your face or cried in my beer.
Pitch FX data from FanGraphs