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January 12, 2004

The New Face of Evil, Part Two
by Larry Mahnken

As they say, pitching wins championships. It doesn’t--not anymore than hitting does--but someone said it long ago, it seems somewhat true, and people have just repeated it unthinkingly ever since. We statheads often do the same thing, but we’re really condescending about it.

That being said, having good pitching is crucial for a team that wants to contend for a title. Not great pitching, just good pitching. But just good pitching is hard enough to find in and of itself, and because of that, teams will often pay a premium for an unexceptional pitcher, because they simply can’t afford the alternative.

The Yankees have long had the reputation of being sluggers--the Bronx Bombers. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi. Their great teams have been built around great hitters, but they’ve also been built around great pitching. Not always the best pitchers, but collectively they’ve had one of the best staffs in baseball when they’ve won their titles. They haven’t won 26 titles because they hit well, they haven’t won because they pitched well, they’ve won because they did both well.

In 2003 the Yankees hit and pitched well, and it won them a pennant. Their lineup wasn’t as good as Boston’s, but their pitching staff was again one of the best in the league, despite a dreadful bullpen for most of the season, and one of the very worst defenses in all of baseball. Indeed, taking that defense into account, the Yankees probably had not only the best pitching staff in baseball, but one of the truly great rotations of all time.

Starting Rotation:

RHP Mike Mussina (214.2 IP, 3.18 dERA)
LHP Andy Pettitte (208.1 IP, 3.50 dERA)
RHP Roger Clemens (211.2 IP, 3.71 dERA)
LHP David Wells (213 IP, 4.16 dERA)
RHP Jeff Weaver (159.1 IP, 4.33 dERA)

2004: (3-year averages)
RHP Mike Mussina (219.2 IP, 3.27 dERA)
RHP Kevin Brown (130 IP, 3.34 dERA)
RHP Javier Vazquez (228 IP, 3.34 dERA)
RHP Jose Contreras (71 IP, 3.37 dERA)
RHP Jon Lieber (124.1 IP, 3.77 dERA)

Unfortunately, outstanding as last season’s rotation was, change had to happen, if not to the degree that it actually did. Roger Clemens spent the entire season professing his desire to retire (HA!), and Jeff Weaver had pitched so poorly that the Yankees were eager to send him to any team that would take him. The Yankees claimed that Andy Pettitte was their #1 priority in the offseason, but made feeble efforts to resign him, and he ultimately left for Houston. David Wells had back surgery earlier in the offseason, had struggled in midseason with back problems, and had to leave the most important game he pitched all season after one inning because of back pain. When the Yankees demanded that he condition himself better, he went home to San Diego.

That left Mike Mussina, Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber.

Mussina is one of the top 10 or 15 pitchers in baseball, but he doesn’t quite seem like it. He’s got a good fastball, but not a great one. He’s got good breaking stuff, but nothing knee-buckling. He’s got good control, but not pinpoint. He strikes batters out, but not a tremendously large number. He’s never won 20 games, never won a Cy Young Award, never Won a World Series. Never thrown a no-hitter, though he’s come close multiple times. He’s a great pitcher who isn’t great at anything, and has never done anything particularly great. He’s just really good, almost every time out. A few more quality seasons and Mussina will be assured of a place in Cooperstown, where he’ll deliver the most boring induction speech ever.

The only other starter left from last season is Jose Contreras. The Yankees signed Contreras out from under the Red Sox for less money last offseason, provoking the famous “Evil Empire” remark from Larry Lucchino. At the time it seemed like overkill, even to me, but in hindsight it seems clear that the Yankees were acting with 2004 in mind, using 2003 to see what they had in Contreras, and what they’d need to do this offseason.

They still don’t know what they’ve got. Contreras struggled with his control early in the season, was sent down to Columbus to work things out, was plugged into the rotation to replace the struggling Jeff Weaver, had a couple of strong starts, and then got hurt. After missing over two months, he came back to the rotation, had a brilliant start against Baltimore, a horrible start against Boston, and was then untouchable for the rest of the regular season.

But in that last month, he had only two starts against quality lineups, and as excellent as they were, they’re still just two starts. As a reliever in the postseason, he seemed untouchable at times, but when hitters became familiar with him, he became more hittable. Can Contreras become an ace? That’s not a question that can be answered yet. He’s got a good fastball and splitter, but not very good movement on his fastball or control of his splitter. I’d guess that he’ll be much like he was last season, brilliant at times, frustrating at others. If he was the Yankees’ second starter, that would be a problem, but as the fourth starter, who’ll get three postseason starts at most, he’s more than good enough.

Jon Lieber is the other pitcher the Yankees signed last offseason with 2004 in mind. Coming off of Tommy John Surgery in 2002, there’s no way to know what the Yankees will be getting out of Lieber. Before surgery, he was a control pitcher, not a power pitcher. If his control isn’t back this year, he’s going to get pounded, and we’ll all be getting familiar with Mr. DePaula, but if he’s hitting spots and getting good movement on his breaking pitches, he could be the best #5 starter in baseball.

To fill out the rotation, the Yankees had to get a little creative. There were quality pitchers available on the market, but both Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood have better reputations than what they’ve done on the mound, and with the Red Sox bringing in Curt Schilling, the Yankees had to make a bold move.

That move was trading for Javier Vazquez. The Yankees had to give up one of their best hitters for Vazquez, Nick Johnson, as well as Juan Rivera and Randy Choate, but in return they got one of the very best pitchers in baseball, though one of the least known, and he’s just entered his prime.

Vazquez is a strikeout pitcher with good control, and in the past couple of seasons he’s turned into an extreme flyball pitcher, which should minimize the impact of the Yankees’ middle infield on his numbers. There are concerns about his health, not because he’s missed time, but because he is considered to have poor mechanics, and has had heavy workloads in his career. On the Yankees, he’s unlikely to pitch much more than 200 innings, so some of those concerns may be alleviated by the end of the 2004 season.

In Nick Johnson, the Yankees may have had one of the best hitters in baseball, though he had injury concerns of his own. But Johnson played a position filled by another great hitter who couldn’t be moved, and by moving him the Yankees were able to improve their defense, and they replaced his offense with Gary Sheffield. The trade of Johnson didn’t hurt the Yankees’ offense seriously, if at all, and the acquisition of Vazquez gives the Yankees another pitcher who ranks among the best 15 in the game, and who is now locked up through his prime years, at what seems to be a very good price. I can’t see how that trade was anything but a positive for the Yankees, even if Nick Johnson becomes a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.

Had the Yankees resigned Andy Pettitte, that would have made for a fine rotation, maybe one of the best or the best rotation. But on December 11th, Pettitte signed with the Astros, and the Yankees were forced to either find another starter, or face another season with Jeff Weaver in the rotation.

Now, Jeff Weaver is not a bad pitcher. Towelie actually pitched quite well early in 2003, but wasn’t supported by his offense or his bullpen, and not being a strikeout pitcher, was very poorly served by the Yankees’ defense. As the season wore on, his luck got worse, and frustrated by his inability to get batters out, Weaver started to pitch poorly. By season’s end, there was no reason for him to pitch another inning for the Yankees. But he was brought in to lose a game in Chicago, and in October, was brought in to lose a game in Florida. Weaver wasn’t as bad as he looked, but when Alex Gonzalez’s ball flew over the wall, it was fairly obvious that Jeff Weaver had thrown his last pitch as a Yankee.

There aren’t many front offices in baseball that truly appreciate Voros McCracken’s theories about a pitcher’s ability to prevent hits on balls in play (essentially, it’s not worth trying to measure), and rather than seeing a pitcher who had pitched with a bad defense and bad luck, who could be quite good with better luck and a better defense, teams saw a pitcher with an ERA one hundredth of a point below 6.00, a pitcher with a bad attitude, and a pitcher with a bad contract. The Yankees should have considered themselves lucky to find someone willing to give up a B-level prospect for Weaver.

But trades in baseball aren’t only about the players being traded, and the Yankees were able to find value for Weaver because one team saw the possibility of saving over $17 million by trading for him. That team was the Dodgers, and the player they sent over was Kevin Brown, one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball.

In some ways, Brown is a great fit on the Yankees, and in others, he’s a poor one. He strikes out a lot of batters, doesn’t walk a lot, doesn’t give up many HRs--he keeps the ball away from the defense. However, when he does put the ball in play, he gives up a LOT of ground balls, playing right into the Yankees’ weak spot. The shift from the National League to the American League, Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium, and Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora to Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano could--rather, likely will--cause his ERA to rise considerably. However, his ERA could rise 1.61 runs per nine innings and still be lower than that of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells last season. As significant as the changes Brown will be experiencing are, the quality of his performance is not a question for the Yankees: he’ll either be good or he’ll be great.

The question about Brown is whether he’ll be healthy. Brown is the guy in the red shirt on Star Trek, he’s the one who’s going down first. He has a very violent pitching motion that over the years has taken it’s toll, causing injuries to his elbow and injuries to his back. Now that he’s 38, he becomes even more of a risk, as everyday injuries will take longer to heal, and nagging injuries that will cause him to miss a start or two will become more common. The Yankees had two middle-aged pitchers in their rotation last season, but Kevin Brown has neither Roger Clemens’ conditioning, build or mechanics, and if you’re going to compare a pitcher’s health to David Wells, you’re already in trouble. Brown may well stay healthy all season, he may throw another 200 innings. Really, what the Yankees need from him is to be healthy in October, when the games count, and a pitcher like Kevin Brown can, and in the past has made a difference.

That’s a fine rotation, the best rotation in baseball if healthy. As a whole, there is a concern about the lack of a lefty pitcher in the rotation, something the Yankees have not won without since 1947. But then, the Red Sox don’t have any lefty starters, and got only 16 starts from lefties last season, and none in October. You don’t hear anything about that, do you?

Well, that’s because Fenway Park has a deeper right-field fence than Yankee Stadium, and Yankee Stadium has a deeper left-center field fence than Fenway Park (though a shorter wall out there). But right field at Yankee Stadium isn’t as short as it used to be, and left-center isn’t as deep as it used to be, so many of the beliefs about what type of player will succeed at The Stadium are outdated. A lefty is at an advantage over a righty there, but not so much so that the Yankees should pass up a superior righty for a mediocre lefty.

Where having an all-righty rotation will hurt the Yankees and the Red Sox is in matchups. There are several strong lefty batters on contending teams that are not only superior against right-handed pitching, but so mediocre against lefties that they’ll sit against even average ones. I’m looking at you, Trot Nixon. Getting a player like that out of the game can in some cases be a significant enough advantage that it is worthwhile to start the lefty over a superior righty.

The Yankees had good reasons for cutting ties with Andy Pettitte; they didn’t want to overpay him, and he’s had a poor health history. But they cast him aside a bit too hastily, and it does put them in a tricky spot. The need for a lefty has been overplayed in the media, but one thing it does do is put a lot of pressure on the two weakest links in the bullpen, Gabe White and Felix Heredia. If they can get lefties out consistently, then it won’t matter quite as much that the Yankees don’t have a lefty starter, they’ll be able to take those lefties out of the game in the late innings.

Incidentally, Brandon Claussen is a lefty. That Boone trade is the gift that keeps on giving, ain’t it?


RHP Mariano Rivera (70.2 IP, 2.57 dERA)
RHP Jeff Nelson (55.1 IP, 3.03 dERA)
RHP Jose Contreras (71 IP, 3.37 dERA)
RHP Antonio Osuna (50.2 IP, 3.29 dERA)
LHP Chris Hammond (63. IP, 3.28 dERA)
LHP Gabe White (46.2 IP, 4.16 dERA)
LHP Felix Heredia (87 IP, 4.61 dERA)

2004: (3-year averages)
RHP Mariano Rivera (65.2 IP, 2.54 dERA)
RHP Steve Karsay (58.2 IP, 3.07 dERA)
RHP Tom Gordon (54 IP, 2.73 dERA)
RHP Paul Quantrill (79 IP, 3.10 dERA)
LHP Gabe White (56.1 IP, 4.33 dERA)
LHP Felix Heredia (58 IP, 4.75 dERA)

One of the great strengths of the late 90’s Yankees teams was the bullpen. Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson would come into a close game, shut down the opponent, and more often than not, Mariano Rivera would come in to close the door, and would almost always dispatch the opponent quickly and efficiently. Free agency, age and injuries gradually chipped away at that dominance, and at the beginning of last season, with Rivera and Steve Karsay on the DL, nobody in the pen struck fear into the heart of opposing hitters. When Rivera came back, he was his typical dominating self, but the loss of Karsay for the entire season was felt acutely, and by mid-June, “Acevedo” was a swear word.

All season, the Yankees worked to rebuild the pen, trading for Armando Benitez, then trading him to Seattle to bring back Jeff Nelson. They even brought in the 2000-year-old man, Jesse Orosco, to walk lefty batters for a couple of weeks. Finally, in late summer, they brought in a couple of useful lefties from Cincinnati, Gabe White and Felix Heredia. Neither was anything special, and Torre took a liking to the lesser of the two, Heredia, but if they were unspectacular, at least they weren’t Acevedish. By season’s end, and with the move into the pen by Jose Contreras for the postseason, the Yankees had a strong bullpen.

Or so it seemed. Things were going quite well for the pen until Game 6 of the ALCS, when the bullpen wasn’t able to hold the lead against the Red Sox, and Game Five of the World Series, when they weren’t able to hold the Marlins close enough for the Yankees’ late comeback attempt to succeed. Some of the problems were from overwork, some were from underwork, but rather than go into 2004 with the same basic pen with a few minor changes, the Yankees decided to overhaul, and assembled the most expensive bullpen ever.

Did the Yankees get their money’s worth? No, they overpaid for both Quantrill and Gordon, just as they overpaid for Karsay two years ago. It won’t be the best bullpen ever, probably won’t be the best bullpen in baseball, but it should be much stronger and more reliable than last year’s pen.

The cornerstone of the Yankees’ bullpen is, at it has been for the better part of the last decade, Mariano Rivera. While the election of Dennis Eckersley to the Hall of Fame is somewhat questionable, especially with the exclusion of Goose Gossage, and it’s likely that some of the top closers of this era will be kept out of Cooperstown, Mariano Rivera is almost certain to be inducted, probably on the first ballot. Not only has Rivera been the most dominant reliever in postseason history, he’s possibly the most dominant pitcher in postseason history, and can make a claim at being one of the more dominating players in postseason history. But he has also been excellent in the regular season. He perhaps has never been the best relief pitcher or closer in the game in any season, but he is always one of the very best, year after year.

Joe Torre has never been keen on young players, usually waiting way too long to accept that they can contribute significantly to the team, and is especially wary of young relievers. He’s been given a lot of credit for turning Mariano Rivera into a relief ace in 1996, but doing so was not out of character. Torre is usually willing to use a young relief pitcher soon after getting him, usually in a meaningless situation. As soon as the pitcher fails, however, Torre loses faith in him and uses him sparingly, and never in a crucial situation. With Rivera, Torre never got the chance to bury him. He never failed. He didn’t even get in trouble, he came into the game and got everybody out. By the time Mo was giving up the occasional run, Torre was sold, because it was apparent not only that Rivera was good, but that he was special. Ever since then, Torre has had absolute faith in Rivera, perhaps to the detriment of the team in recent seasons. Whenever there’s a save situation, Torre brings in Rivera. If the Yankees have a 3 run lead going into the ninth, in comes Rivera, almost every single time. If they have a six-run lead with the bases loaded and two outs, in comes Rivera. There are plenty of pitchers who can get three outs without giving up three runs, you don’t need to use your best pitcher in those situations. But Torre only trusts Rivera to get the save, and if Rivera’s available, in comes Rivera, wasting his arm.

But that’s Torre. As for Rivera, you know what you’re going to get. Broken bat, grounder to second. Thanks for playing, please come again.

It’s Rivera’s job to finish the games, it’s up to everyone else to get it to Rivera. The primary setup man in 2004 looks to be Tom Gordon, who served as closer for the White Sox at the end of last season. Gordon’s been around for a decade and a half, but still has one of the very best curveballs in the game. Just like any righty with a dominant breaking pitch, Gordon owns righties, holding them to a .202 GPA over the past three seasons, but he also does very well against lefties, with a .228 GPA against.

Of course, all those curve balls take a toll on a pitchers’ arm, and Gordon has long been susceptible to injuries. He had Tommy John surgery in ’99, and missed the first half of the 2002 season with a shoulder injury. Healthy, he’s a dominant reliever.

The other free agent reliever the Yankees grabbed was Paul Quantrill. Like Gordon, Quantrill has a great breaking pitch which he dominates righties with (.206 GPA in last three seasons), but Quantrill strikes out fewer men and walks fewer men than Gordon, and is less effective against lefties (.252 GPA). He also gives up a lot of ground balls, always a dangerous habit for a Yankees pitcher, but he may be the pitcher to bring in when there’s a runner on first and less than two outs--the old Ramiro Mendoza role.

Steve Karsay will hopefully be back and healthy this season, and will probably pitch the 7th and 8th innings with Tom Gordon, and do pretty much just as good a job. Karsay has good stuff and good command of it, and like Quantrill makes batters pound the ball into the ground. When he last pitched with the Yankees in 2002, he started to struggle late in the season, something that seems to have been a trend with him. If Gordon and Quantrill are as effective as the Yankees hope they will be, Torre might give Karsay some time off in mid-summer, keeping him effective for the stretch drive and playoffs.

The other two holdovers are the lefties, Gabe White and Felix Heredia. Neither is a dominant lefty, Heredia is barely average against them, and Quantrill is the only Yankees’ reliever who has been less effective against lefties in the past three season than Heredia. White will likely settle into the role of lefty specialist, having held them to a .229 GPA in the past three seasons, while Heredia should be the long reliever, coming in to face lefties when White is tired, or eating innings when a starter gets bombed.

I could talk about the Yankees’ options in Columbus if someone gets injured (and someone certainly will), but other than Jorge DePaula, nobody in the Yankees’ farm system is likely to see significant time filling in for a regular. The Yankees are more likely to trade for overpriced veteran mediocrities to fill holes, players who aren’t likely to do much better than the mediocre players in AAA.

There’s very good reason to be optimistic about the Yankees’ World Series chances in 2004. The AL East has improved, but the Yankees and Red Sox should still finish comfortably ahead of the pack--the Orioles have likely been spending their money in vain, buying their way into a slightly better fourth place. The Blue Jays’ pitching is better, and their lineup is excellent, but they’re not quite ready to run with the lead pack, though they’ll be ready to pass either team if they slip. The AL Central is almost certain to be a non-factor in the Wild Card race, leaving the second place team in the AL West to contend with for the last playoff spot if Boston wins the division, likely Anaheim or Oakland. The Yankees are better off playing the Devil Rays than the Angels and A’s are playing the Rangers, so a playoff berth seems certain.

If they do make the playoffs, they have three, potentially four starters capable of shutting down any lineup, and a lineup capable of scoring as many runs as any other lineup. They’ll have four excellent relief pitchers, and an improved outfield defense, too. If they get to the World Series, they can adjust to the NL games without taking a significant offensive hit, and will likely be better than any team coming out of the NL.

If they stay healthy, that is.

If they’re healthy, I don’t see any team other than Boston being able to stop them, and I expect that’s what the season will come down to once again, an ALCS vs. Boston. I know that for fans of every other team it’s incredibly frustrating to see these two great teams making themselves better while everyone else scrambles to keep up, let alone catch up, but it really has to be this way. Boston improved their rotation, they improved their bullpen, they had the best lineup in all of baseball last season. They finally have the team they’ve wanted to end 86 years of broken dreams. And standing in the way of that are the Yankees, with a team just as strong, ready to break Boston’s dreams once again, as it seems they always do. It's what makes the Yankees evil, and what make the Yankees good. They’re relentless.