Thursday Morning Musings

Well the Yankees have officially put that bad stretch in the rearview after completing the sweep on Cleveland last night.  As someone who's a firm believer in the "it really takes 3 to make it a streak" theory, cheers to the new winning streak!  While the team's catching some shuteye out in Seattle, let's take a few minutes to just bask in the aura of victory and talk about some random Yankee stuff. - That 2-run HR stains the ERA a bit, but CC has looked plenty good in his last 2 starts.  19/1 K/BB ratio is always going to get it done and he's been far less hittable than he was, giving up 13 in 16.1 IP.  The fastball looks livelier, the slider has been great; it looks like the big guy is starting to put things together.

- Did it bother anybody yesterday, or has it bothered anybody at all this season that Joe always seems to ride CC harder than he probably has to?  Sabathia has thrown 100+ pitches in every start, and while yesterday's outing wasn't all that stressful and the bullpen needed rest, does he need to be out there for that long all the time?  I would have been happy seeing him pulled after 80-ish pitches in that bad Tampa start.  No sense wasting wear and tear on his body when he doesn't have it.

- Lyle Overbay in the outfield has to be looked at as another nail in Ichiro's coffin.  It hasn't gotten talked about much because C-Grand is back out, but Ichiro still isn't doing anything with the stick.  .266/.303/.348 (.270 wOBA) in 198 PA and one of the lower LD rates of his career (18.0%).  If Wells hand't fallen off the map, I don't think we'd be seeing much of Ichiro right now.

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First Winning Streak Of The Year! Yankees Crush Indians 11-6

The Yankees played in their third home opener of the year this afternoon, a duel between Hiroki Kuroda and Ubaldo Jimenez. Both pitchers came into the game with their own concerns. Last week, Kuroda took a linedrive to his middle finger and was pronounced day-to-day. Meanwhile, Jimenez was coming off a strong outing in Toronto after an awful 2012 season. The pitching worries were a big part of the first half of today's game. Jimenez opened up the first inning with an 84 mph fastball, after averaging 96 mph just a few years ago in Colorado. After walking Robinson Cano and allowing a single to Kevin Youkilis, hometown hero Travis Hafner launched a 3-run home run to dead center.

Kuroda lacked control in the first inning, and immediately walked Michael Bourn. What followed was a series of unfortunate events for the right-handed pitcher. There were three ground balls that could have easily been double play balls, but they just happened to bounce off bags and gloves for infield singles. Kuroda's pitches had the right movement, but defense, bad luck, and wildness helped the Indians tie the game up by the end of the first.

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Briefly Discussing Joba's Value

Over the last few days, there's been a little bit of trade discussion surrounding Yankee reliever Joba Chamberlain. Mike touched on this yesterday and I'd like to expand on his value as a trade piece and to the team. If the Yankees really could get Mike Olt or someone of his ilk for Joba Chamberlain, then there is absolutely no excuse for not executing the trade. But, that is not likely the case. For the Yankees to fetch someone of that caliber, they'd need to give up a lot more than just Joba. The thing is, that's just not going to happen. As a reliever entering his contract year, he's none too desirable, at least not right now. If the Yankees fall far out of contention at some point later in the year, say around the trade deadline, maybe they can flip him to a team that needs that one last guy to get it over the hump. Wouldn't that be something for Joba? Come up in 2007 and help push the Yankees into the playoffs as a reliever, then do the same for another team in 2013? The chances of that happening, though, seem slim. Despite all their supposed and real flaws, the Yankees still have a good shot at making the playoffs. As such, Joba is more important to the team as a pitcher than he is as a trade piece.

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Who Could The Yankees Want From The Rangers?

Earlier today, George A King of the NY Post reported that the Rangers have been following and scouting Joba Chamberlain. With the type of relief depth the Yankees have, and the offensive needs, it's no surprise that they'd make Chamberlain available. The question here is what the Yankees want back. The team has some obvious needs offensively. The Yankees are down an outfielder until May and a corner infielder for even longer. If the organization is looking to find an outfielder, they'd likely target a right-hander to compliment the three lefties. They also may be looking younger, as Curtis Granderson will become a free agent in 2014, and Ichiro Suzuki the year after. The problem with acquiring an outfielder from the Rangers is their own needs in replacing Josh Hamilton.

If a corner infielder is what they want, the team is best suited to go with a younger player that can provide depth at third base while Alex Rodriguez' hips continue to be minced into pulp. The Rangers have a few corner infield options that could make some players expendable.

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Mike Olt- There's a bit of hype surrounding the Rangers' third base prospect, but he's still a very good player that fits the Yankees' needs. Both Baseball America and Jonathon Mayo's ranked Olt the 22nd best prospect in baseball. At 23 years old, the right-handed hitter batted .288/.398/.579 in Double-A Frisco, hitting 28 home runs. The Rangers gave Olt a chance in the Majors at the end of last season, where he only had 5 hits and 5 walks in 40 plate appearances.

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A Dog Chasing Cars

During the day (and night thanks to a certain "media personality") Tuesday, Joba Chamberlain made some small waves with his comments about his ability to be a starting pitcher; not surprisingly, he still thinks he can start. Obviously, this isn't going to happen for the Yankees. Joba will be a free agent after this year (time sure flies) and presumably, he'll look for some team that will let him start. The last thing you need this afternoon is another beating of this long dead horse, but I can't help it; this situation is still a thorn in my side. Call me an apologist. Call me an optimist. Call me naive. Whatever you call me, I don't believe Joba Chamberlain failed as a starter. He never even had the chance to fail. Joba was not great by any means. Though he flashed brilliance in 2008, he did get away with some shaky in-zone command. In 2009, he was inconsistent. However, the wider judgement across baseball and definitely across the Yankee organization, was that if he couldn't do it then, he'd never be able to do it. A fairly irrational absolutism pervaded the discussion of Joba's role. The attitude seemed to be 'Well, Joba can't do it now, he'll never be able to do it, so he's not a starter anymore.' For whatever reason, he was expected to be a finished product despite a dearth of professional experience.

Certainly, the absolution didn't reside on just one side of this debate. Of course Joba was going to be a front line starter. There was no doubt! However, he wasn't given the chance. Joba may never have become the ace pitcher some of us envisioned him becoming. He could've been ineffective. He could've gotten hurt to the point where it would've been impossible for him to throw 180-200 innings a year. The latter sort of happened, but they never quite tested him out again. Because he never got a chance to fail (or succeed for long periods of time), his career as a starter remains an open book in my mind. Regardless of all that, though, he didn't pan out as a starter. Some of the blame definitely lies with him as he didn't exactly make it easy for people who defended him as a starter, given his up-and-down performances in 2009. But, the organization's impatience with a young 20's pitcher in the league's toughest division still irks me.

If we take a step back from Joba and look at the pitchers with whom he's most frequently associated--Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes--we see something concerning. We can argue that of the "Big Three," Kennedy has been the most successful. What's concerning about that is that Kennedy had to leave the organization to reach (surpass?) his ceiling. There were other mitigating factors regarding Kennedy's departure (it was a trade, after all), but by fans, analysts, and evaluators alike, Kennedy was considered to have the "worst" stuff and the lowest ceiling with the smallest upside. Yet he's made himself into a successful starter in Arizona while Joba works as a reliever and Hughes still battles inconsistency. The Yankees definitely kept the two pitchers who were better at the time of the trade. What's more, it's possible (probable) that Kennedy--a pitcher whose possible 2010 role was unknown--would not have performed as well in New York as he has in Arizona. Still, the race was handicapped in the Yankees' favor and they somehow came up short.

Joba's comments don't bother me and any he makes in the future won't bother me either. I don't think he gets enough credit for not complaining about and commenting on the way the organization jerked him around, though he's certainly had right and reason to do so. The idea of Joba-as-Yankee starter is obviously over and done with, but it's a situation that will always bother me. The situation was, for lack of a better term, completely and totally mind boggling.

Looking back, it reminds me of the Joker's line from "The Dark Knight" about being a dog chasing cars and not knowing what to do if he caught one. The Yankees were long searching for high-end talent and when they got it, they didn't have the slightest clue as to how to handle it. To a lesser degree, it extended to Phil Hughes's situation and it makes me nervous for the future of not just Yankee starting pitching prospects--Manny Banuelos, Brett Marshall, Jose Campos, Jose Ramirez, Rafael DePaula, Ty Hensley, etc--but also the quartet of Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin, and Mason Williams. The Yankees have been without premier position-player talent for a long time and when they did have a player who could be identified as such, they traded him away for thus far questionable returns. Until they prove otherwise, when it comes to prospects, the Yankees will be a dog chasing cars.

The Importance Of Joba & Aardsma This Season

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

I've made reference multiple times recently to the Yankees having another strong bullpen in 2013, and I strongly believe that's going to be the case.  They've got the greatest closer of all time back for another shot at a last go-round, arguably the best setup man and one of the best pressure relief pitchers in baseball ahead of him, 2 strong lefty specialists to play the late-inning matchup game, what will be a more than serviceable long man in whoever loses the 5th starter competition between Ivan Nova and David Phelps, and 2 veteran power arms to work the middle relief innings in Joba Chamberlain in David Aardsma.  But it is worth pointing out that the overall depth created by the loss of Rafael Soriano is slightly less than it was in 2012, when depth became a really important issue for obvious reasons.

Keeping that "anything can happen" experience from last season in mind, Joba and Aardsma could have more important roles to fill this season than people first realize.

When Mo went down with his knee injury last year, the Yankees barely missed a beat in the 'pen because they had Soriano and D-Rob there to fill the void and pick up the slack.  Boone Logan was effective early as a middle reliever, they got their usual collection of strong contributions from the Wades, Eppleys, and Phelpses of the world, and everything was fine.  With Soriano now in D.C., that role of slack picker-upper is going to fall on Joba and/or Aardsma if and when the time comes.  Mo could get hurt again, and D-Rob did have some injury hiccups early in the season last year.  It's not at all far-fetched to think that Joba or Aardsma could have to step into a setup or even a closer role for a period of time.

Normally this wouldn't be a big deal.  Joba first made his name as a flame-throwing rookie setup guy and has pitched in his fair share of big spots, and Aardsma has closing experience from his 2 years in Seattle.  They've each proven that they're capable of handling high-leverage innings and high-leverage roles if the situation calls for them to.  But they're also both coming off short 2012 campaigns spent mostly recovering from Tommy John Surgery.  Joba got much more Major League work in than DA, pitching 20.2 innings of 4.35/4.01/3.55 ball and getting a few appearances in the postseason in.  Aardsma appeared in 1 Major League game towards the end of the regular season, and has only pitched a total of 11.2 innings in the last 2 years.

We saw Joba struggle with his command early upon his return to in-game action, a staple of almost every TJS comeback, before starting to find the feel for his slider and pitching lights out down the stretch.  I would expect something similar from Aardsma in the first few months of this season based on his walks in his limited work in 2012, and could certainly live with a month or 2 of him working to get his groove back.  Where things could get sketchy is if both guys struggle to re-adjust to a regular workload.  If they show diminished velocity and inconsistent command, suddenly the Yankees' 'pen depth gets a little more shallow and suddenly the Yankees are at risk of being exposed if Mo or D-Rob goes down.  Joba and Aardsma are basically combining to be what Soriano was for the Yanks last season, and if they aren't up to the task the Yankees' most consistent source of strength could take a step back.

The fact that both Joba and DA were able to get through their rehab work without major issue and get back into game action at the end of 2012 was huge for them.  Now they'll have time to follow a normal offseason workout and throwing routine and should get to go through a normal Spring Training to prepare themselves for the regular season.  In a perfect world, Joba's velocity will be back to mid-90s and he'll still have his slider working, and Aardsma will work out most of his command kinks in ST.  If that happens, the 'pen should be in good shape and able to overcome any more unforeseen injuries.  If not, then hopefully the injury bug stays away.

2012 Statistical Trends: Joba's Comeback

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

2012 was a rough year for Joba Chamberlain.  After being shut down in 2011 and undergoing Tommy John Surgery, he was in the process of working himself back to full strength to make a summer 2012 return when he suffered his now infamous trampoline accident that resulted in a dislocated ankle.  When reports first came out on that injury, it sounded potentially career-threatening, but follow-up examinations and surgery made it much less so and Joba was able to return to a Major League mound in August.  Joba pitched to a 4.35/4.01/3.55 slash line in 20.2 innings pitched this past season, a small sample size to be sure.  But within that small sample size there are some interesting splits and trends that could point to a very strong 2013 campaign for Joba.

The first thing worth mentioning is Joba's velocity, simply because it's always been looked at as a barometer for how well he's pitching and it's more important to Joba's success than say D-Rob's or Mo's because he doesn't throw a fastball with movement like theirs.  Joba's velocity was also creating buzz when he made his 7 prehab appearances in the Minors, regularly sitting in the mid-90s and hitting 97-98 on more than one occasion.  There was talk that the "old Joba" was going to be back, and while that didn't come to total fruitition, his velocity was a positive in his 20.2 Major League innings.

PITCHf/x had Joba's fastball at 94.7 MPH, the fastest it's registered since '08, and also had his slider (87.0 MPH) and curveball (80.7) at the fastet they've ever been.  According to Texas Leaguers, there was an uptick in velocity in both the fastball and slider from August to September as Joba got more work and less rest between starts, a sign that he was healthy and had his stuff intact.  As a power relief pitcher who had watched his velocity slip since his debut, and who had worked through problems with various injuries and role changes, it was reassuring to see that this latest serious injury hadn't sapped Joba of any more of his stuff.  Because let's be honest, the guy still has plus stuff when he's commanding it.

And as it is with any pitcher who tip-toes on the line between average and good, and good and great, command was the name of the game for Joba in 2012.  It's common knowledge that command is the last thing a pitcher finds when he's coming back from TJS and Joba was no exception to the rule.  He pitched to an 8.59/7.73 slash in August after making his return, with just 6.14 K/9 and 4.91 BB/9.  Joba got beat up on his fastball, which he couldn't locate consistently within the strike zone.  Despite throwing it 77 times that month, more than any of his other offerings, Joba registered just a 1.4% whiff rate on the pitch.  If hitters are making contact with your fastball all the time, eventually they're going to square it up and put it in play.  And the more balls they put in play, the more hits they're going to get.  It also didn't help that Joba didn't quite have the bite to his slider that he usually does:

You can see the general path of the pitch's movement reflected in that plot, but the problem is there are way too many sliders catching the strike zone.  73.2% of Joba's sliders thrown in August were strikes, which is too high a rate for a pitch typically thrown as a swing-and-miss out pitch with 2 strikes.  Joba did get a 23.2% whiff rate on the 56 sliders he threw in August, but it was the inconsistency with his location and catching too much of the strike zone with the pitch that hurt him.  And it was the improvement on those problems with the slider that keyed Joba's turnaround in September.

That's Joba's slider plot from September through the end of the regular season.  It has the same general pitch location distribution as in August, but it's almost as if August's plot was shifted down and to the right, a sign that Joba commanded the slider better in September and threw it where he wanted.  There are more pitches on or near the lower corners of the strike zone and more pitches falling out of the strike zone that resulted in swings and misses.  Joba threw his slider 39.5% of the time in the final 5 weeks of the season, and despite registering a swing rate lower than what he did in August he registered a 31.6% whiff rate.  For the sake of comparison, David Robertson's curveball had a 19.8% whiff rate in 2012.  So Joba's slider in September was a big time out pitch.

Not surprisingly, Joba's fastball location also improved in the final month of the regular season, and with the help of that nasty slider combined to drastically change the rest of his peripherals for the better.  After a dreadful 7.1 innings in August, Joba pitched 13.1 more in September/October and posted a 2.03 ERA/1.97 FIP, 11.48 K/9, and 1.35 BB/9.  His velocity trended up, his command of his pitches trended up, and Joba's overall performance and appearance on the mound in the season's final month did bring back memories of his 2007 debut.

Looking forward to next season, it's difficult to draw conclusions or make predictions with as much confidence as I did when looking at Robbie Cano or Ivan Nova's 2012 trends based on the much smaller sample size.  But knowing what we know about pitchers coming back from TJS, and seeing how Joba trended in his 2 short months of work, there is reason to be optimistic and even excited about what 2013 could hold for him.  He had to work himself back into the best shape he's been in in years to get back on the mound this season, and did it while putting far less mileage on his arm because of the injury.

If Joba stays in shape in the offseason he should come into spring camp well rested and ready to go, and can spend more time focusing on his pitches rather than his conditioning to prepare himself for the season.  With Soriano gone, Joba moves up a rung on the bullpen ladder behind Mo next year, and if he can pick up where he left off at the end of 2012 the Yankee bullpen might not even miss old Sour Puss.

(All pitch charts and percentages courtesy of Texas Leaguers)