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August 12, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

WWWMW (What's Wrong With Mariano Week)

by Jay Jaffe

One pitch was all it took to know that the story wasn't going to die. Summoned into Thursday afternoon's game between the Yankees and the Angels with two on, one out, and a four-run lead in the ninth inning, Mariano Rivera caught a bit too much of the inside part of the strike zone with his first offering, a 91 mph cutter. That was the opening that pinch-hitter Russell Branyan needed. Despite having not swung a bat in a game situation since July 23, the slugger smashed Rivera's meatball into the right-center field stands with his signature uppercut for a three-run homer.

The blast didn't cost the Yankees the game, or even the lead; Rivera recovered to get the final two outs to preserve a 6-5 win and notch his 30th save of the season. Nonetheless, it marked the third straight appearance in which he had surrendered at least one run. On Sunday he had blown a save against the Red Sox when Marco Scutaro doubled off the Green Monster and then scored following a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. On Tuesday he took the loss after giving up a two-run ninth-inning homer to Bobby Abreu. And now this.

Since assuming the closer duties in 1997, Rivera has had just seven stretches in which he's allowed a run in three straight games, roughly one every two seasons. However, three of those stretches have come since the middle of last May; he also yielded runs in back-to-back appearances in late April, something that on average he's done less than twice per year during his reign over the ninth inning. Prior to this, he had allowed homers in back-to-back games only two other times, first in August 2003 and then in April 2009.

The two home runs have tripled Rivera's season total in a matter of days, but even now, he has allowed only 0.6 homers per nine, a click higher than his career mark of 0.5 per nine. The rest of his numbers still suggest he's more than a little dominant. While his strikeout rate (7.8 per nine) isn't what it used to be, it's a full K higher than last season's mark, and not appreciably different from the 8.4 per nine he averaged from 2002-2010. Meanwhile, he's walking exactly one hitter per nine—that's half his already microscopic career rate—and his strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio of 9.8 (39 to 4) is the best among any pitcher with 40 innings this season, not to mention his best since 2008. As for his five blown saves, he averaged more than six a year from 1997 through 2003, and still managed to help the Yankees win five pennants and three world championships. When the money's on the table, he's still the man you want.

No matter how short the slump or how rare his meltdowns may be, Rivera's every hiccup tends to set off a panic as well as a frenzy of overanalysis: This must be the beginning of the end. He's 41 years old, a surefire Hall of Famer, the greatest closer and perhaps even the greatest post-season performer of all time, but in a role where three bad outings in a row often costs a less heralded pitcher a job, his run has to end sometime, right? His velocity is down. He's struggling against lefties. He's fatter and balder than he was 10 years ago, with more surgical scars. He's a mere mortal; if his cutter doesn't cut, he bleeds. It's WWWMW (What's Wrong With Mariano Week) again, practically a rite of summer

Understandably, Rivera is frustrated with his recent performance. "Nobody likes this," he said after Thursday's game. "Nobody wants to go out there and give up the game and throw pitches that turn into home runs, but still you have to fight. You have to find a way to get it going, to get it done."

He took little solace when reminded that he had reached the 30 save plateau for the 14th time, tying Trevor Hoffman, the only man with more saves. "It's longevity and endurance and being healthy and being blessed," he said. "But I could care less about that [statistical] stuff. As long as I can do my job, that's what I want. Lately, I haven't done it. I'm not happy."

At the beginning of July after blowing his fourth save of the season, Rivera missed five games due to soreness in his triceps, but he says that right now he feels healthy and isn't worried about his velocity readings. "I don't go by velocity," he explained. "I'm a pitcher that puts the ball basically where I want to, and if I don't get there, I won't get the result that I wanted to get."

For a moment, he sounded more than a little bit like a teammate who's spent far more time at this end of the frustration spectrum, A.J. Burnett. "It's not that I've been missing and missing and missing and missing. It's just one pitch. It happens. We always have this conversation."

Asked at what point he'd become concerned with Rivera, manager Joe Girardi laughed, "If it happened for a month. I've seen Mo have three or four bad days and then run off a long streak, so I don't think that all of the sudden Mo's forgotten how to pitch. He's in a little blip in the radar screen. He'll get back on track… The thing that I've noticed is that he's missed his location. As much as we want to think that this guy is as close to the perfect closer as we've ever seen, he's not perfect, and it's gonna happen from time to time. It's happening right now, fortunately it didn't cost us today, and we move on."

The irony is that Rivera's struggles come at a time when the rest of the Yankees' bullpen is rounding into shape. David Robertson is whiffing a mind-boggling 14 hitters per nine while carrying a 1.38 ERA. Rafael Soriano has thrown six shutout innings since coming off the disabled list, striking out five while allowing just one baserunner; Thursday marked the first time since returning that he had appeared in back-to-back games. Cory Wade has climbed off the scrap heap to give the Yankees 21 1/3 innings with a 17/4 K/BB ratio since mid-June, just after Joba Chamberlain was lost for the season. Lefty Boone Logan has been dominant since lowering his arm angle in late June. In all, the Yankee bullpen began the day with the AL's lowest ERA (3.08), second-best strikeout rate (8.1 per nine), and fourth-best strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio (2.7). The unit has allowed just 24.1 percent of inherited runners to score, the league’s second-best mark. The Yankees are 60-6 (.909) when leading after six innings, 2.5 wins better than the average AL team under such circumstances.

---

At 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, Bartolo Colon buzzed around the Yankee clubhouse. Dressed in a loose t-shirt and baggy workout shorts, rhythmically drumming his hands on his thighs, he looked like a man headed for a day at the beach. When he struck out the first two Angels he faced 90 minutes later, he still looked that way, even though he'd changed into pinstripes.

The rest of Colon's afternoon wasn't quite so easy. He put runners on base in four of his other five innings, surrendering five hits and two walks while stranding five baserunners—three in the second, two in the third. He yielded only two runs, both coming on a fifth-inning homer by Alberto Callaspo, and while he struck out just one other hitter, he generated a season-high five popups. He threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the first 17 hitters he faced, and 17 out of 25 in all. True to form, he did so primarily while alternating his four- and two-seam fastballs; 78 of his 90 pitches were either one or the other, including his first 26. Not once did he throw back-to-back off-speed pitches.

Though Colon took the hill to start the seventh, he was instantly pulled in favor of Soriano, and received his well-earned ovation from the crowd of 47,431. The Yankees had tied the game in the bottom of the sixth via Curtis Granderson's two-run homer off Angels starter Tyler Chatwood, and put two other baserunners on while manager Mike Scioscia changed pitchers twice. The lengthy inning led Girardi to pull his starter. The next inning would be even longer, as the Yankees broke open the game on a Robinson Cano grand slam off Scott Downs, a shot set up by a two-out Maicer Izturis error.

While the Yankees are in the midst of sorting out how they'll fit six healthy starters into five rotation slots, Colon's spot hasn't been in doubt, but his start was reassuring nonetheless. Though it marked the fourth straight outing in which he had surrendered just two runs, his previous two had lasted just 4 2/3 innings (against Boston) and five innings (against Baltimore), making this his first quality start since July 24. For a pitcher who spent the previous five years wandering in the post-injury desert, his numbers are still staggering: a 3.31 ERA, 7.8 strikeouts per nine, a 3.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and the league's highest percentage of strikeouts looking; 54 percent of his K's have been of the backward variety, 10 percentage points ahead of Erik Bedard and 14 ahead of the third-ranked pitcher, Phil Coke. Still, the 119 1/3 innings he has thrown this year are his highest big-league total since his Cy Young-wining 2005. He's 4 2/3 innings shy of his 2007 total split between the majors and the minors, and nearly 40 ahead of the number he threw split between the big time and the bushes in 2009.

Prior to the game, Girardi announced his intention to pare the Yankees' rotation back to five following Sunday's game against the Rays. With CC Sabathia pitching Friday, followed by Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, that means Burnett has already made his best pitch for the rotation; typically, it went awry at just the wrong moment. After five scoreless innings against the Angels on Tuesday night, he was torched for four runs in the sixth, making it his seventh consecutive non-quality start. From July 1, the point at which Ivan Nova made his last start before being exiled to the minors to accommodate Colon's return from the disabled list—soon followed by Hughes' return—he has been the team's worst starter:

 

GS

IP

HR/9

BB/9

K/9

ERA

FIP

CC Sabathia

7

53.0

0.5

2.4

10.5

2.21

2.39

Ivan Nova

4

25.7

0.7

2.1

6.7

2.45

3.43

Freddy Garcia

6

37.3

0.0

2.4

6.0

2.89

2.66

Bartolo Colon

8

42.3

0.8

3.1

7.1

3.61

3.96

Phil Hughes

5

27.7

0.3

3.3

5.5

4.55

3.53

A.J. Burnett

7

42.0

1.7

4.5

9.4

6.00

5.08

Given Nova's strong work since returning, the decision for the final spot appears to pit Burnett and Hughes, who after throwing his strongest outing of the season—six shutout innings against the White Sox on August 2—was forced to skip a turn because he was used out of the bullpen after Rivera's blown save. The timing of the decision, the size of the former's contract, the latter's experience coming out of the bullpen in 2009, the missed turn—no matter what bromides the manager offers, it's tough not to conclude that this decision is already made. As they were for Chamberlain before him, the skids have been greased for Hughes' return a relief role, and who's to say they're not going to use his early-season shoulder weakness against him when plotting his future course? Those who forget the past are doomed to something something something…

---

Granderson's homer, his 32nd of the season, and his fourth in his last three games, seemed only fitting. August 11 marked the one-year anniversary of the end of his two-game benching to retool his swing with the help of hitting coach Kevin Long. At the time, he was hitting a meager .239/.306/.415, and struggling along at a .206/.243/.275 clip against lefties, making the three-way trade that had sent center-field prospect Austin Jackson to Detroit (where he was then hitting .304/.352/.406) and Ian Kennedy to Arizona was seen largely as a dud on the Yankees end, a so-called everyday player revealing himself as platoon material.

Three hundred and sixty-five days later, well, It Was A Very Good Year for Granderson. In that span he's tallied 46 home runs—14 from August 12 through the end of the season, plus this year's total; only Jose Bautista has hit more, with 52. Granderson has done this while hitting .271/.364/.577 overall, and .278/.357/.567 with 14 homers against lefties, one shy of the major-league high in that span. In 161 games played, he's got eye-popping numbers: 131 runs, 127 RBI, 24 doubles, 10 triples, 24 steals. Knock his 165 strikeouts, but if you want to make an omelet, you've got to break a few eggs.

 Coming into Thursday, Granderson ranked fifth in the league with 4.6 WARP, nearly a full win below fellow center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, whose torrid July (.382/.430/.700) pulled him ahead. With Bautista and no fewer than three Red Sox candidates—Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez—also in the MVP picture, and the WARP rankings, Granderson has his work cut out to walk off with any hardware, but he’s left little doubt as to who been the most valuable Yankee hitter this season.  

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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