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August 11, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Since starting this weblog way back in May, there have been three reoccouring themes:

1) Alfonso Soriano
2) The Yankees' Bullpen
3) My continuing battle with a crippling addiction to rageahol

Perhaps there are others, as well (feel free to point them out), but these three come to mind, particularly as they are all somewhat relevant lately. Right now, the last theme is very much connected to the first two, though it is tempered by the fact that I am recently returned from a week-long vacation to North Carolina, and was not as, ah, irritated by yesterday's defeat as I might otherwise have been. My furniture is safe. For now.

The Yankees entered the season with a bullpen significantly different than the ones featured by previous teams. Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza, who had gotten many big outs in past postseasons, had move on to Shea and Fenway, respectively. Steve Karsay missed the start of the season injured, but the return date of him kept getting pushed back; from mid-May, to mid-season, to out for the season. To fill the innings between the starters and Rivera (who missed the first month himself), the Yankees brought in, as I previously called it, "a motley mix of crappy pitchers". In a move designed to get rid of Orlando Hernandez while keeping Bartolo Colon away from the Red Sox, they brought in White Sox reliever Antonio Osuna, and hoped he would fill the Mendoza role. Chris Hammond, who before posting a 0.95 ERA out of the Braves' bullpen last season had not pitched since 1998, was paid a couple of million to play the part of Mike Stanton. Juan Acevedo was brought in on a minor league contract, but after being annointed the temporary closer in Mariano Rivera's absence, was given a much larger role in the fortunes of the team, a decision the Yankees would pay for. Sterling Hitchcock would be used to keep the Yankees' roster at 24 men, as per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and a promising young right-handed reliever, Jason Anderson would round out the pen. The results were unpromising right from the start, as the bullpen made blowout games close and close games losses. Since then the Yankees have made several moves in hopes of upgrading their bullpen, but in recent games, particularly yesterday, they were unable to get the job done, costing the Yankees some important wins, wins that could have ended the pennant race.

Going forward, which is what really counts at this point, have the Yankees done a good enough job reconstructing their bullpen? At the start of the season, it appeared that the bullpen was capable of costing the team a shot at the title, and while that no longer seems likely, will the new and improved pen make them more likely to win the World Series? Well, lets take a look at the pitchers that constitute the current pen:

Sterling Hitchcock: Well, he looked nice for a couple of weeks, but I guess that just serves as another affirmation of Voros' Law. He's pretty useless at this point as anything more than a mopup reliever, and isn't even used as an emergency starter. The Yankees would do well to cut him loose at this point and eat the contract, rather than leaving him out there for Torre to use in games he really shouldn't be coming in to. But he's probably here for the rest of the year. If the Yankees make the postseason, he'll probably get left off the roster in favor of the next guy.

Jose Contreras: At this point, who knows what you're going to get out of him? He pitched awful at the start of the season, then he was sent down, pitched well when he came back, got a shot at a starting slot and pitched well, then got hurt. He's got good stuff, so there's hope that he can be a dominant relief pitcher. A solid long reliever would be enough, but you really don't know.

Jesse Orosco: He's so old, Satchel Paige used to call him "Pops". But he's still a good enough LOOGY, if not an automatic. It's good to have him on the team to face a tough lefty, and it could pay off in a big spot this postseason.

Antonio Osuna: Brought in to replace Ramiro Mendoza, Osuna has done a good job, especially in comparison to Mendoza's awful performance to date in Boston. He's a good relief pitcher, and was never part of the problem in the old, crappy bullpen. In the new bullpen he's pushed back into more of a supporting role, and he's not likely to pitch many crucial innings in the postseason. But he'll help the Yankees the rest of the way, and is not likely to lose them any games in October.

Chris Hammond: In the offseason, rather than negotiate with free agent Mike Stanton, the Yankees offered him, Mark Guthrie and Chris Hammond the same contract...and gave them 15 minutes to accept it, and whoever called back first got it. Not surprisingly, Chris Hammond called back, and Mike Stanton did not. At the time, it seemed like a foolish move by the Yankees, Chris Hammond had been out of MLB for three years before returning to put up dominant numbers with the Braves last season, and much of his success was due to luck and defense, two things he couldn't count on in the Bronx. But to date, Hammond has pitched better than Stanton, leading one to think that the changeup that Hammond developed had even more to do with his resurrection than luck did. His strikeout rate has dropped slightly, but he's cut his unintentional walk rate in half, and with one notable exception, he's done an excellent job of keeping the ball in the park. Take away that one appearance, and his DIPS numbers look about the same as last year's. As long as Torre doesn't leave him to rot in the pen for a week again, he should do well for them in the postseason.

The only major knock against Hammond is that he's tough on righties, and struggles against lefties, which somewhat eliminates the advantage he has of being a left-handed pitcher. Torre realized early on that he's not a matchup left-hander, and with the accquisition of Gabe White at the trade deadline, they accquired a reliever more suited to filling the Stanton role.

Gabe White: I've never seen him pitch, so I can't say with any certainty what they Yankees have in White, but it looks like they got exactly what they wanted, a lefty who can get righties out, will give them solid outings and at times be dominant. Unfortunately, White is out with a groin injury, so the Yankees haven't been able to test him out yet. Hopefully, he'll be healthy in plenty of time to get some work in before the playoffs, and will pitch in big innings for them.

Jeff Nelson: When the Yankees accquired Armando Benitez from the Mets, people screamed that the Yankees were buying a championship. When they traded him to Seattle for Jeff Nelson, people screamed that the Yankees were buying a championship. People did it when they traded for Ruben Sierra and Aaron Boone, too. It's an automatic reaction. If the Yankees get someone, he's automatically better than the guy they gave up, and always better than what they had before. Bill Simmons called sabermetrics "robojournalism", but it's this kind of knee-jerk reaction to anything the Yankees do that is the real problem. Do some actual fucking analysis, people, which means not taking money out of your pocket and throwing it at the guy next to you, or complaining about how the economics of the game are screwed up when even Bud has stopped yapping about it. Try looking at the actual players, and asking if the Yankees made a good move. You find that a lot of the times...*GASP!*...the Yankees DIDN'T make a good move! The horror!

When they sent Jason Anderson and two nothing minor leaguers to the Mets for Benitez, I felt it was a good move, if only for the draft picks Benitez could get for the Yankees after the season. Now that Benitez is a Mariner, much of the goodness of that trade is gone. The Yankees didn't improve themselves by trading for Nelson, but they did bring in a relief pitcher that Torre is more likely to use in a tight spot, and more importantly, has known long enough that he knows how to use him. With Benitez, it was generally well known that you didn't use him in back-to-back games, but Torre paid no attention to that information, and after pitching him two innings in his first appearance, brought him right back in the next day. He pitched all three games in Boston, losing the second game and giving up a run in the third. After pitching 1.2 innings in Anaheim on the 31st, Torre sent him right back out in a tight spot the next day in Oakland, and he helped the Yankees blow that game. From that point on, it was likely that Torre was not going to hand Benitez the ball in a crucial spot again, because he had set him up to fail, and he did. Nelson is a pitcher that Torre is less likely to lose faith in, and that fact alone should help the Yankees.

Much has been made about Nelson's performance in Adjusted Runs Prevented, and how that indicates that Nelson is not as good a reliever as Benitez, particularly because his ARP has been so poor this season. This is an example of misuse of statistics. ARP is a statistic that measure value, not skill, and shows not HOW he pitched, but what the effect of his pitching was--the context it happened in. Dan Werr showed Nelson's splits this season, and in past seasons, show that his OPS against is lower with the bases empty than with runners on or in scoring position. However, 1) it's a small sample, 2) Intentional walks usually happen with runners on, and especially in scoring position, and raises OBP, and 3) Sac Flies only happen with runners in scoring position, and don't count as ABs, keeping SLG higher. So the slight differences in the numbers may not really be different at all, and do not indicate a change in performance. Besides, who wants to argue that a pitcher can't get the job done in the clutch? Do we really want to go down that road?

No, ARP, like Win Shares, is great for looking back, not forward. If you want to give someone an award, or induct them in the Hall of Fame, ARP will tell you the value of what they did, but there are better indicators of how they will do going forward--statistics that take context out of the equation, and do a much better job of measuring DIPS. Nelson's DIPS the last two seasons are 3.75 and 2.97, while Benitez's are 3.57, and 3.61. The difference between these two pitchers is not great, and Nelson might be a little bit better. But Nelson has many of the same problems as Benitez, particuarly a loss of control when he gets frustrated (which showed itself yesterday). Both pitchers can dominate, both can meltdown. I don't prefer either of them.

Mariano Rivera: Is Mariano Rivera overrated? Maybe, but if he is, he's been taken from the category of "exceptional" to "legendary". DIPS has usually rated Rivera as being worse than his ERA, but his DIPS has never been bad, and has almost always been excellent. Tom Tippett's recent study would lead one to believe that Rivera is underrated by DIPS, as his BABIP has been .242 since 1998, when he started featuring the cutter--which is generally believed to decrease a batter's hits on balls in play and cut down on extra base hits (Rivera has given up only 117 XBH in his career, and 24 of those were in his first year, when he struggled as a starter).

No matter. Overrated or underrated, Mariano Rivera is one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time, and if the Hall of Fame ever gets around to inducting the great relief pitchers, Rivera will probably be one of them. He's still great, and while DIPS has underrated him in the past, it shows him as right now having his best season since 1996. He blew a few important games in recent weeks, but his performance in most of those games was not bad, just less than perfect. It's somewhat true that Yankees fans are so spoiled by Rivera's dominance that a blown save comes as a shock, but when you hear Enter Sandman blaring at the Stadium you know that more often than not, the game's over. This is one area that the Yankees do not have to worry about at all.

So, recent games aside, the Yankees have done a very good job of patching together a bullpen, certainly a better job than they did in 2001, when they brought in Jay Witasick and Mark Wohlers, neither of whom helped the Yankees do anything. Is the pen as good as Boston's? Maybe, but Boston has done a great job themselves. If the guys the Yankees brought in don't help, I for one will be surprised, and if they don't win the World Series, I don't think it will be because of the bullpen. They gave up too much for Boone and White (come on, it was really one deal), but overall...good job, Cashman.

* * *

Now it's time to rip Raul Mondesi (you suck, Mondesi) a new one. This guy has serious issues. On Friday, Mondesi bespoketh this idiocy:
"Soriano was in a slump for four or five days, and he was hitting eighth," Mondesi said. "Soriano! C'mon! He's the best player they got. They're never going to get another player like Soriano. They'll have to wait 100 years to get another player like that.

"Why to us? Why to Soriano and me? Where are we from? The Dominican Republic. Why didn't they do that to Giambi when he was hitting like .120? He was there, batting third, third, third. He found his way and now he's fine."
Ah ha ha. That's pretty funny.

Well, first of all, Giambi's Batting Average bottomed out at .180, not "like .120" (that's akin to saying a .300 hitter is batting "like .240"), and when his BA was that low, his On-Base Percentage was still .367. His OPS was only .711, but he was getting on base, he still had value. Raul's OBP was .322 in May, .277 in June, and .259 in July. Oh yeah, Giambi was also MVP in 2000, should have been in 2001, and was a legitimate candidate last season. Raul Mondesi finished 15th in the 1997 NL MVP voting. I think Giambi deserved a little more benefit of the doubt than Raul.

As for Soriano, is it not obvious now that the statheads were right? He hasn't been in a slump for "four or five days", he's been in a slump since April. Since July 12th, his OPS is .499. FOUR NINETY NINE! HIS OPS!!!! His On-Base Percentage since that time has been .207. TWO-OH-SEVEN!!!! This is not a guy in a slump, this is...this is...Clay Bellinger. And where does Torre put this out machine? You got it, right at the top of the lineup, where he gets more plate appearances than anyone! Sure, Torre dropped him down to the bottom of the lineup for a while, but after a few games where he showed little to indicate that he was out of his slide...he puts him right back in the leadoff slot! Brilliant!

I can't believe it, but I've actually moved ahead on the pace for all three of my wagers, as Soriano's projected RC has dropped since mid-June from 132 to under 109. I don't like that at all, and considering the penchant that things happening the opposite of the way I say they will, I am going to say this: There is no chance that I will lose that Runs Created Wager now.

But seriously, Raul (you suck), Soriano is the best player the Yankees have, after Giambi, Nick Johnson, Jeter, Posada, Bernie, Clemens, Mussina and Rivera. And maybe Godzilla, Pettitte and Wells. But after those guys, he's definitely the best player they've got. They'll have to wait 100 years to get a player like him, unless they can get their hands on one of the five second baseman with a higher EqA than him...or one of the 16 2B with a higher OBP. But of course, if they do...well, they're just buying a championship then.

You suck, Mondesi.