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June 17, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

No Prospectin' Allowed

by Jay Jaffe

On Tuesday, Brian Gordon was a curiosity, a 32-year-old converted outfielder who had put up sterling numbers for the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate. One June 15 opt-out date, one well-timed rotation vacancy, and 5 innings of dogged labor later, he was the recipient of a well-earned standing ovation from a crowd of 47,487, and the newest member of the Yankees rotation. In the first major-league start of his career, the serendipitous starter held his own against a Rangers lineup that ranked fourth in the league in scoring, and while he left with the Yankees trailing 2-1, they ultimately won in 12 innings on a walk-off single by Brett Gardner, completing a sweep of the AL West leaders.

By now the story of Gordon's amazing journey into pinstripes has been told several times, but the short version is that after 10 seasons and 118 homers for four organizations, the former 1997 Diamondbacks draftee recognized that he had plateaued at Triple-A and decided to make a last-ditch bid for the majors by returning to his childhood love, pitching. Abetted by none other than Nolan Ryan—Gordon's mom was an employee with the Hall of Famer's Round Rock Express team, and Ryan himself—he was a quick study; after debuting as a pitcher in 2007, he wound up making three relief appearances for the 2008 Rangers. This season, Gordon had posted eye-popping numbers for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, going 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine and an 8.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

At the ballpark on Thursday, Brian Cashman admitted that the Yankees had not actually seen Gordon pitch in person prior to signing him, but when the Phillies informed teams of his pending availability, special advisor Gene Michael, manger Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild watched video of him and liked what they saw. Less inspiring was the illustrious company whom the general manager named as comparisons, namely Dustin Moseley, Darrell Rasner, and Aaron Small; on the Yankees fan warm fuzzy-meter, that's a one-for-three effort, at best.  

Watching Gordon's start on Thursday afternoon, it was easy to see what the Yankee brass found so compelling. Gordon pounded the strike zone using primarily an 88-91 mph fastball and a big-breaking 68-70 mph curveball, mixing in the occasional cutter, slider, and changeup. Though his line—seven hits, three walks (one intentional) and one hit batsman to go with three strikeouts—was hardly spotless, he worked quickly and stayed ahead of hitters. Through four innings, Gordon had surrendered four hits and no walks without allowing a run, throwing strikes on 37 of 49 pitches. He didn't go to a three-ball count against any Ranger until the top of the fifth inning; overall, he threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 26 hitters he faced.

That three-ball count came against Taylor Teagarden, whom Gordon walked to lead off the frame; predictably, that led to trouble. Via an infield single for Endy Chavez and a double for Ian Kinsler, Teagarden came around to score the game-tying run, and after Gordon recovered to strike out Elvis Andrus, Girardi made life more difficult by ordering an intentional walk of Josh Hamilton, who had struck out and grounded out in his first two plate appearances. Michael Young popped up, but Gordon plunked Adrian Beltre with a pitch, forcing in the go-ahead run. He escaped further damage with a fly out, but after surrendering consecutive singles to lead off the sixth, the first one erased by a caught stealing, Gordon gave way to Hector Noesi.

Noesi, who followed with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, was one of the Yankees' in-house options to take this start; the short list also included three-fifths of the team's Triple-A Scranton rotation, namely David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, and Adam Warren, the same slate Cashman cited as being candidates to join the team's bullpen in the wake of Joba Chamberlain's season-ending injury. The Yankees felt that Noesi—who has now made five relief appearances totaling 17 innings, including a six-inning effort last week against the Red Sox—could only give them a maximum of 75 pitches, and that Gordon offered a better chance of pitching deeper into the game. "I think he's been up to 98 pitches, in the 90s only one time," said Girardi after the game, referring to Gordon's final start for the Iron Pigs five days ago. "I thought on a hot day, to give us that many pitches and that length—outstanding."

Girardi wasn't stingy with his superlatives when it came to his new starter's effort. "Impressed!" was the first word out of his mouth at the postgame press conference, the skipper letting the word hang in the air for a moment. "We talked about how he was a strike-thrower. He's got outstanding command… He used his curveball really effectively, used his changeup, used his slider. I was impressed."

Girardi lauded Gordon's perseverance: "To be a position player as high as Triple-A and then decide that you want to try to pitch is pretty amazing… I don't imagine it's very easy. Fortunately he'd been in the big leagues, and probably had been in front of some big crowds before. But you're also facing a dangerous, dangerous lineup and to be able to keep them off balance and do the job that he did…" He finished the statement by shaking his head in wonderment.

Despite the fact that the game went 12 innings and nearly four hours on a getaway day, a crowd of reporters hung around Gordon's nameplate-less locker for over 20 minutes as he retold the story of his afternoon and his journey, a man who had been humbled by the game and who was determined to savor this moment. "There's been a lot of highs in my career, there's been a lot of lows. This has got to be at the top of all the highs, a very special day."

While Gordon described the previous 48 hours as "nuts" as he left one organization and was picked up by another, the move had actually been in the works for a few days. "With the out in the contract you just don't know what to expect. I knew we had five days to figure out what we wanted to do," he said. "I guess there was some interest, [but] a lot of this was kept on the down low from me. I was told to just concentrate on what I was doing on the field. My agent really coached me through it, [telling me] to focus on what you control on the field, and we'll take care of the rest."

Gordon says he owes his big leap forward to the recent addition of a cut fastball. "Every year I try to learn something new. Each year I look at the numbers and try to figure out why, you know, left-handers are hitting closer to .300," he explained. "I went to the drawing board and figured out I needed something to get the lefties. Although I didn't have a feel for it today, the cutter has really helped me." Gameday couldn't identify the cutter, but PITCHf/x expert Harry Pavlidis used his own classification system to spot five instances of the pitch, via which Gordon gave up one single, generated one pop out, and three takes, two for strikes.

The numbers support Gordon's assertion; last year, lefties hit .289/.329/.415 against him, a far cry from his .208/.257/.325 performance against righties. This year, he squelched lefties at a .176/.200/.253 clip, while righties hit .215/.250/.374. Rangers lefties Hamilton, Mitch Moreland, and David Murphy went a combined 3-for-8 against Gordon, but all three hits were singles; Hamilton, the most dangerous of the trio, was 0-for-2 with his intentional walk.

After making just 13 starts among his 156 appearances from 2007-2010, Gordon cited the different approach necessary as a starter as another reason for his success: "As a starter I'm able to come in and establish my fastball. That's one of my strengths, pitch location. I try not to get away from it too much."

Ironically, it was the Ryan himself—chronically wild early in his career—who instilled in Gordon the value of command: "The one thing he really preached over and over again was, 'For you to be successful at 28 years old, for this to work and for teams to take you seriously, you have to be able to command the ball. You have to be able to hit both sides of the plate with your fastball, down, and command three pitches.' That's something I took pride in. I really focused on commanding a lot of strikes."

As for his slow curveball, he learned the pitch when he was 12 or 13, and has always thrown it slowly. "It wasn't supposed to be that way," he said. "It was my go-to ever since I was a little kid, and it's still working. I can't explain it." Gordon had no fear of throwing it to major-league hitters. "The [minor-league] hitters gave me the feedback I needed to build that confidence. I noticed that hitters were having a tough time [against it], so I stuck with it."

Gordon will get at least one more chance to show major-league hitters his stuff. With the Yankees headed to Chicago and Cincinnati for interleague play, the ex-outfielder's resume holds some special appeal for his manager. "This is a guy that we know knows how to swing the bat. He made it as high as Triple-A as a hitter," said Girardi. "I told him today after he came out, 'Not to get too ahead of ourselves but have you taken any swings this year?'"

Over at Pinstriped Bible, our own Steven Goldman got rather exercised about the message the Yankees seem to be sending by deciding to bypass the organization's own products: "The only possible message is that they will never be good enough, that the Yankees are so deeply suspicious of their own prospects that they would rather take someone else’s trash over their own treasure." Had he been at the presser, poor Steve would have rolled his eyes as Girardi sidestepped a question along similar lines from the New York Post's Kevin Kernan, who asked Girardi, "What does it say about this guy coming up and throwing strikes and the importance of throwing strikes? We always hear about young guys with live arms and no command, and command guys don't seem to be getting the chance that they deserve." In a rather obfuscatory answer, Girardi cited Gordon's veteran experience and the determination he showed in his willingness to undertake a career change.

The glass-half-full take on Gordon's addition is that at no cost, Cashman alertly added another arm to the organizational larder* at a time when the Yankees have two starters and two key relievers on the disabled list, with zero guarantee that Colon, Phil Hughes, and Rafael Soriano will be effective and bulletproof the rest of the way. The same goes for Freddy Garcia, who has pitched his way back from the outskirts of oblivion, but who still owns just one season of more than 65 innings since 2006. None of the aforementioned Scrantonites is considered to be more than a second-tier prospect with back-of-the-rotation stuff, and while there's something to be said for taking a peek at what they can offer, their time may still come, and the price for adding Gordon was right. For one afternoon, Gordon gave the Yankees far more than their money's worth, and capped an epic journey with an unforgettable performance.

 *Two arms, even, given that on the same day Cashman picked up former Dodger reliever Cory Wade, who opted out of his minor-league deal with the Rays after putting up strong numbers at Triple-A Durham. Within 24 hours of being signed, Wade pitched three 1-2-3 innings—two more than Soriano thus far, which is why you don't spend $35 million on a reliever—and picked up Thursday's victory to boot.

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

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