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February 3, 2011

The BP Broadside

In Which Mr. Brown Does Not Make a Comeback

by Steven Goldman

Staring at a rack of Dr. Seuss books recently, it occurred to me that whereas Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? likely serves a useful purpose in having small children practice basic speech, a tome more likely to prepare one for the harshness of this world, and certainly the high degree of failure endemic to baseball, would be called, Mr. Brown Can Moo, and YOU CAN’T! Sorry, kid: you’re going to have to learn to accept your limitations, so we might as well start while you’re still in diapers.

I can whistle, but I can’t trill like Bing Crosby did. I can play the guitar, but I can’t solo for my life. When I had vision in both eyes, I could go to a batting cage and occasionally make contact with a baseball, but not so as it would really go anywhere. Mr. Brown, Mr. Browns, plural, can do those things. In at least two of the three cases, I never will; those items are just not in my skill set. Juan Pierre doesn’t hit home runs, Steven Goldman doesn’t play guitar solos. If squirrels have Mr. Browns, then somewhere there is a blind squirrel who does not find a few nuts.

It was this blind squirrel, doomed in a Darwinian sense because he’s wandered into a minefield thinking it’s a grove of peanut plants, that I was thinking of yesterday when I wrote (over at the Pinstriped Bible) about the Yankees signing Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, in the apparent hope that they could squeeze enough blood out of these lemons (pardon a mixed metaphor that seems entirely appropriate) to forestall the possibility that the non-CC Sabathia portion of their starting rotation provides no certainty at all.

Having failed in their effort to gift Cliff Lee with enough money for him to produce a couple of Avatar sequels out of his own pocket, and with the quantum states of active/retired Andy Pettitte having yet to collapse and cohere, après Carsten Charles, le deluge. There's A.J. Burnett, inconsistent last year to the point of being unpitchable, and then Phil Hughes, lights-out for the first six weeks, and then a 5.00 ERA pitcher the rest of the way. Go deeper, and you find rookie Ivan Nova, a mid-range prospect who couldn’t quite make it through five frames without getting pounded, and Sergio Mitre, the stuff of which Joe Girardi’s dreams are made, and everyone else’s nightmares. Anything, even Mitre, to avoid trying one of the team’s 10 or so ready or nearly ready pitching prospects.

Referring to Garcia, I wrote that he is a “comeback candidate,” but:

I say “comeback candidate” guardedly, because as I sit here scratching the cat and trying to bring examples to mind, I can’t locate too many 36-year-old pitchers who crawl back onto the horse and deliver a quality performance in a starring role. That goes double for Bartolo Colon, who won a Cy Young Award (in a year in which the voters confused leading the league in wins with leading the league in quality) and then vanished in a cloud of cellulite, an appropriately zaftig 5.18 ERA accumulated over four seasons of poor health accompanying him out of the league after the 2009 season.

That is the crux of choice here. The Yankees want to catch old lightning in a bottle, but what are the chances that these scarred vets can outperform the team’s highly-qualified youngsters, especially when the bar can’t realistically be set higher than a 4.50 ERA?

The answer, if the recent past is any guide, is that it’s not bloody likely. With the assistance of Jay Jaffe, I looked for big-league Lazarus acts since 1995. Only 11 pitchers age 34 and older have been allowed to pitch as many as 162 innings in a season with an ERA+ of 85 or lower — most of them get cut off before they qualify for an ERA title. Most of them, such as Kevin Millwood, Shane Reynolds, Kenny Rogers, Livan Hernandez, and Doug Drabek had some excellent seasons in their portfolios, the latter even winning a Cy Young award in 1990. However, once they were done, they were done. The group’s aggregate RA9 in their nadir year was 5.87, in a little over 2000 innings. Their year-after results must necessarily eliminate Millwood and Rodrigo Lopez (good luck, Braves), both of whom qualified for the list in 2010, but the remainder made a small improvement to a 5.25 RA9, though in just 650 innings, as most of the group members were cordially invited never to pitch again.

The big success stories of the year after group was Livan Hernandez. Coming off of a 5.44 ERA-season in 2009, not to mention three prior seasons ranging from mediocrity to Is This Start Really Necessary?, Hernandez registered a 3.66 ERA for the Washington Nationals last year. Two other tales of semi-redemption, those of Mark Leiter, and, belatedly, Jose Contreras, involved shifts to the bullpen. Another member of the group, Braden Looper, sat out the 2010 season after leading the National League in runs allowed in 2009; this spring he will attempt to catch on with the Cubs, but will almost certainly pitch in relief if he does.

You can also consider this issue from the reverse angle, casting about for pitchers who had at least a league-average ERA+ mark in 162 innings the year after having had a below-average adjusted ERA and less than 100 innings the year before. We found just three pitchers who answered this description in the same 1995-present time period: Danny Darwin, who went from a 7.45 ERA in 99 innings in 1995 to a 3.77 ERA in 164 2/3 innings in 1996; Fernando Valenzuela, who in those same two seasons slimmed his ERA from 4.98 in 90 1/2 innings to 3.62 in 171 2/3; and Kevin Brown, who rebounded from a 4.81 ERA in 63 2/3 innings in 2002 to a fine 2.39 ERA in 211 innings the year after. That is three comebacks out of a group of pitchers that numbered well over 100. It’s one thing to want depth, and another to gamble money on lottery-like odds. The real certainty here is the certainty of failure.

Sure, we could lower our expectations, and say, “Hey, what if you look for pitchers who weren’t league average, but came within five percent of average, or ten?” We could do that, and undoubtedly we would find more, but to do becomes ludicrous if one believes that the performance indicators of the Yankees’ top Double- and Triple-A pitching prospects of last year (Nova, David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, Hector Noesi, Andrew Brackman, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Adan Warren) are even remotely accurate, because they should be able to exceed the handicap offered to the veterans. If, in order to justify the oldsters’ presence, you must pardon them for a 5.00 ERA while simultaneously admitting that the kids could surely do better, than what real purpose to the veterans serve?

As I conceded yesterday, it is understandable that the Yankees try to hedge their bets, but if the chances of success are low—and with Colon and Garcia sub-par strikeout pitchers with fly-ball problems heading into the Yankee Stadium missile range (something also true of Millwood, should the team decide to go for the hat trick of hopelessness) success is even further away than if, say, the A’s or the Padres were trying this trick — a quick release and a switch of priorities to a David Phelps or D.J. Mitchell is preferable to a drawn-out farewell with two or three last-chance encores. After all, there is an opportunity cost even to spring training auditions: every turn on the big-league mound the retreads get is one less chance for a newcomer to establish his bona fides in front of the coaching staff.

In not giving the benefit of the doubt to their own prospects, the Yankees have cast themselves in the role of that blind squirrel, foraging at Chernobyl. Some things simply can’t be done. Mr. Brown can moo and you can’t. He can also whistle, play the guitar like Clapton, and build a really tight paper airplane, but there is one thing neither of you can do, and that’s pick starting pitchers off the scrapheap, because the redeemed pitcher is a myth. This brings to mind another potential book, this one not for children but for adults: Mr. Brown Used to Moo (But That’s All Over Now).

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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