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May 19, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Yankees, Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus


NEW YORK YANKEES
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On Tuesday, the Yanks made one of their biggest comebacks in team history, digging themselves out of a 9-0 hole, followed by comebacks at 12-11 and 13-12 on their way to ultimately winning the game, 14-13. Prospectus Poet Laureate Keith Woolner found that out of 381 games since 1960 in which a team had an eight run lead in the second inning (the Yanks scored a run in the bottom of the second to make the score 9-1) only fifteen games resulted in a loss. Here's the list, which excludes Tuesday's game:

GAMEDATE     BAT R_B   PIT R_P  WIN   R_W LOSE  R_L
2002-05-12   CIN   8   SLN   0  SLN   10   CIN    8
2001-09-27   SDN   8   COL   0  COL   13   SDN    9
1999-07-03   KCA   8   CLE   0  CLE    9   KCA    8
1996-05-12   CHA   8   NYA   0  NYA    9   CHA    8
1994-07-15   HOU   8   PIT   0  PIT   11   HOU    8
1993-07-25   CAL   8   NYA   0  NYA    9   CAL    8
1993-06-18   KCA   8   OAK   0  OAK   10   KCA    9
1989-06-08   PIT  10   PHI   2  PHI   15   PIT   11
1986-05-20   CLE   8   MIL   0  MIL   12   CLE    9
1985-05-13   MIN   8   NYA   0  NYA    9   MIN    8
1978-06-13   CLE   8   CHA   0  CHA   10   CLE    9
1976-08-11   CHN   8   CIN   0  CIN   13   CHN   10
1970-04-14   ATL   8   SFN   0  SFN   15   ATL   11
1970-05-23   SFN   8   SDN   0  SDN   17   SFN   16
One of the great things about baseball is how numbers can bring us back to moments in time, and talk to us about the game's history. Seeing that this list includes three games won by the Bronx Bombers, we hope you'll indulge us on a small trip down memory lane.

  • May 12, 1996, New York at Chicago

    The Sacrificial Lamb: One thing you know, whenever a team's down eight runs in the second inning, is that (in the words of Mrs. Prospectus) somebody is not doing their job. In this game, "somebody" was Scott Kamieniecki.

    Kamieniecki allowed a homer to Frank Thomas in the first inning, and then lost the strike zone in the second inning. With two outs and a man on, the White Sox went on to score seven runs in the frame, getting three walks--one intentional--and a hit against Kamieniecki, two hits by lefthanders against lefty Paul Gibson, and an RBI single against Jim Mecir.

    Kamieniecki had elbow surgery during the previous off-season to remove bone chips, and was never truly healthy in 1996. Less than two weeks after this beating, he would be sent down to the minors; two months later, he'd go under the knife, and his Yankee career would be over.

    The Tourniquet: In every one of these games, in order for the winning team to come back, some reliever had to stop (or at least slow) the bleeding. Then-new Yankee manager Joe Torre used five relievers to back up Kamieniecki, and the most effective was Mariano Rivera, excelling in the setup role he occupied in '96. Mariano came on with a man on in the sixth inning, and the Yankees leading, 9-8; he kept the White Sox scoreless through the end of the eighth, when the baton would be passed to closer John Wetteland.

    The Turning of the Worm: After the White Sox took their big lead, the Yankees faced the unenviable task of trying to come back against one of the best starters in the American League. Alex Fernandez was one of the top 20 pitchers in baseball, by VORP, from 1993-1995. Fernandez finished the 1996 season as the second-best pitcher in the AL, behind Pat Hentgen, with an 8.3 SNLVAR and an 80.8 VORP.

    However, on this day the Yanks scratched their way back against him, scoring a couple of runs in the fourth on sacrifice flies, and a couple more in the fifth on a Tino Martinez home run. In the sixth, a fielding error by Frank Thomas opened the inning, and the floodgates along with it. A couple of one-out singles produced a run and chased Fernandez from the game, Fernandez's relievers, Larry Thomas and Bill Simas, finished the job.

  • July 25, 1993, California at New York

    The Sacrificial Lamb: Melido Perez had his best season in 1992 with the Yankees, leading the team's starters with a 2.87 ERA and 258 innings pitched. He finished 9th in the majors in VORP (51.5)…and also in Pitcher Abuse Points. Perez started 1993 late because of a hip injury sustained in Spring Training, but pitched well in the early going, carrying a 3.44 ERA into June.

    But June and particularly July were not kind to Perez. On the date of the game in question, Perez actually pitched an effective first inning, allowing only a single to Stan Javier. Perez had already allowed four hits and two runs in the second inning when Javier came to the plate again, and reached base on an error by middle infield swingman Mike Gallego. A Tim Salmon homer chased Perez from the game, and reliever (and current Yankee roving pitching instructor) Rich Monteleone was greeted with a Chili Davis homer. Three singles later, the score was 8-0.

    Perez went on to get shelled in his next start (an inning and a third, six earned runs, this time) and went on to post a 6.67 ERA in August, before being shut down in September. Perez would wind up having surgery on his pitching shoulder.

    The Tourniquet: After allowing those two runs in the second inning, Monteleone pitched four shutout frames. Monteleone was backed by Paul Gibson, who'd been released by the Mets and signed by the Yankees a month earlier.

    The Turning of the Worm: The Yanks chipped away against Angels starter Hilly Hathaway and reliever Gene Nelson, but still came into the final inning trailing, 8-7. After a leadoff walk to Danny Tartabull, the Angel defense broke down. Mike Stanley, who homered earlier in the game, reached base on an error by Gary DiSarcina, which was followed by a passed ball by backup catcher Ron Tingley, who'd just come into the game. This led to a Paul O'Neill sacrifice fly which tied the game, and ultimately Pat Kelly's walk-off single.

  • May 13, 1985, Minnesota at New York

    The Sacrificial Lamb: Ed Whitson's five-year, $4.75 million contract with the Yankees, signed prior to the 1985 season, doesn't seem like much money today. To put things in context, back in 1985 he was the second-highest paid pitcher on the Yankees ballclub, behind current Yankee pitching coach Ron Guidry, earning just $100,000 less than Guidry's $900,000 salary.

    Even before Whitson became the poster boy for pitchers being unable to perform in the Big Apple, the signing wasn't a good idea. The Yankees signed Whitson at the baseball age of 30, after Whitson's best season in five years. Although Whitson's 14-8, 3.24 ERA performance in 1984 was superficially attractive, Whitson was only good enough to rank 40th in the league in VORP that season, and 35th in SNLVAR. His strikeout rates were poor, and his BABIP was below league average.

    In 1985, Whitson had a particular problem with the Twins. In three starts against the Twins that year, Whitson never saw the third inning. In his last start prior to May 13, the Twins had bashed him for five runs in an inning and two thirds, in the Metrodome.

    On May 13, The Twins opened up with four singles and two runs in the first inning, and Whitson was removed after being unable to retire the first three batters in the second inning. Journeyman Don Cooper relieved Whitson, and allowed both of his inherited runners to score, as well as allowing three of his own runs, on a home run by Randy Bush. Three weeks later, Cooper was out of baseball.

    The Tourniquet: Joe Cowley, who'd been scheduled as the next day's starter, picked up the game in the top of the third, and pitched brilliantly, scattering five hits the rest of the way.

    The Turning of the Worm: The Yankees had gotten back in the game with a five-run sixth inning, keyed by a Butch Wynegar three-run homer. The game was 8-6 in the bottom of the ninth, and the Yankees managed to get two runners on for Don Mattingly, with two outs. Mattingly, who was mired in a 3-24 slump coming into the game, hit a three-run walk-off shot, to cap the comeback.

--Derek Jacques

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
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As we reach the quarter mark of the season the Phillies are on a pace to win 89 games, one more than last year's total. Given the strong overlap between the roster at the start of this year and the one that battled the Astros for the wild card down the stretch last year, that would seem fairly unsurprising at first glance. What is surprising is that how they're doing it is very different from last year.

One of the biggest surprises is the collapse of the team's fielding. At the end of last season the Phillies were third in the National League in Defensive Efficiency, turning a very respectible 71% of balls in play into outs. So far this year they are next to last in the league, with their rate down to 67.8%. Essentially that's one extra ball per game falling in. If there had been substantial overhaul in the lineup this might not be much of a surprise, but of the regular lineup the only change from the second half of last season is replacing the center field platoon of Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels with Aaron Rowand. While the platoon was far more effective than they were given credit for, changing one position can not account for that much difference--especially since Rowand (and his injury replacement Shane Victorino) has been quite respectible out there.

Another area that has dropped off, albeit not as substantially, is the hitting. Last year's .267 EqA was good for third in the league, but this year they're down at 10th with a .261 EQA. When doing year-to-year comparisons of individual players, however, the only player significantly underperforming is Jimmy Rollins, so this could reasonably be written off as early season fluctuations.

With those areas down, what has kept the Phillies on pace so far this year has been the pitching--in particular, the bullpen, long the Achilles heel of the team. Tom Gordon has rapidly made Philadelphia fans forget Billy Wagner, Rheal Cormier appears to have once again risen from the ashes to become an effective pitcher, and they have managed to avoid some of the utter disasters than plagued the bullpen in previous years.

Given how they got here, what are the main questions for the Phillies to worry about for the rest of the season? Here are four questions which will be key to the team's success the rest of the way.

1) Which version of Jimmy Rollins will show up?

Lost in all the fuss over his hitting streak at the end of last season was the fact that Rollins' year was very much a tale of two halves. His offensive numbers in the first half call up memories of former Phillies such as Ivan DeJesus and Steve Jeltz, while after the All-Star break he added 50 points of OBP and 70 points of slugging, turning his anemic bat into an asset down the stretch. So far this year he's performing even worse than he did in the first half of last season. The Phillies need him to at least come close to what he did in 2004 and the second half of 2005 or they will have another substantial hole in a lineup that's already carrying the weak-hitting David Bell.

2) Can the bullpen hold up?

In recent years key members of the Phillies' bullpen have faded from overwork, with last year's main victim Ryan Madson continuing to struggle this year. Juggling the staff to avoid such a late season fade should be one of Charlie Manuel's main priorities right now, but some of the signs are not good on that front. Ryan Franklin has pitched in half of the team's games so far, which is unlikely to be sustainable over the full season. Tom Gordon has appeared in almost as many, including a stretch of 9 out of 14 games. Manuel has been quoted as saying that he likes to use his closer in the 9th inning even with a 4 run lead. If he follows through on that, he likely won't have an effective closer for 1 run leads in September.

3) Can they avoid key injuries?

While the Phillies have some excellent talent in the regular starting lineup, it covers the fact that the organization is very thin in some other areas. At the moment the outfield is somewhat deeper with Victorino doing an excellent job both off the bench and filling in as a starter while Rowand recovers from his discovery that outfield fences tend to be immovable objects. In addition, David Delucci is likely to be a credible short term replacement if needed.

The infield is another story altogether. So far infield reserves Abraham Nunez and Alex Gonzalez have been disastrous and their past record outside of last season does not inspire any confidence of their producing at anything other than replacement level. The farm system is pretty much bare of any serious infield prospects in the higher levels. If either Chase Utley or Ryan Howard goes down for any significant length of time the Phillies are looking at a gigantic drop in production.

4) How good is Cole Hamels?

Phillies fans have been salivating over the prospect of Hamels in the rotation since a dominant spring training outing against the Yankees two years ago, and he arrived in the majors a week ago. His performance in Triple-A did nothing to dampen expectations, as he allowed only 1 run in 23 innings with a ludicrous K/9 rate over 14. There is absolutely no question that he has tremendous raw talent, and speculation that he could do for the 2006 Phillies what Dontrelle Willis did for the 2003 Marlins is not at all unrealistic.

That being said, there are some real concerns about Hamels, and the biggest is whether he can stay healthy. Every professional season he's pitched has been interrupted at some point by injury. Many of those injuries--such as the stress reaction in his back last year--are not directly related to pitching, so there's less concern about lingering effects to his arm, but you have to wonder if he is injury prone. Even if he stays healthy, stamina may well be an issue. The maximum number of innings he's thrown in a professional season is 101 which came back in 2003, and he threw a total of 51 innings in 2004 and 2005. Asking for 180 or more innings out of him this year may be unrealistic. Finally, his limited playing time has meant that he has rarely faced a team multiple times within a season, and so it's unclear how much opportunity teams have had to adjust to his pitching. They will have that opportunity now, and it's an open question as to how well he will counter those adjustments.

In recent years the Phillies have been a team that could be very good if everything went their way, with very little margin for error. This year's edition shows signs of being similar. In this decade they've fallen just short of the playoffs several times; time will tell if this year's team can take that additional step.

--Jeff Hildebrand


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