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Bullpen can be a strong force

Steven Goldman takes back the negative comments about the 2008 bullpen
01/25/2008 4:35 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

LaTroy Hawkins (left) is a new addition to the Yankees' bullpen.(AP)
ALL THAT REMAINS IS ALCHEMY
I felt a little guilty the other day when I wrote about the potential shape of the 2008 pen, because I took a little shortcut. Normally when I do these things I give a capsule review of each candidate, but when I considered the possibilities, I found that I was mentally dividing it into "Guys with no experience who might or might not work out" (like Ross Ohlendorf or Jon Albaladejo) and "Guys with lots of experience but most of it bad" (like NRIs Scott Strickland and Billy Traber) and quickly lost my enthusiasm for the project. Thus did I come to give the brief, throwaway description that I did.

All that remains is alchemy. While the aspirants are uninspiring, Joe Girardi and pals can, with some perspicacious pickin' and some luck, forge a strong unit. I don't know if anyone has done a systematic study along the lines of "Twenty Great Bullpens and How They Grew," but if such a study were to be conducted, you would find that a disproportionate number of contributors were found talent-that is, relievers who didn't have any real pedigree, but suddenly blossomed. If the study then was extended into a new chapter, "Twenty Great Bullpens and How They Died," you'd find that more than one in three of those pitchers had collapsed by the next year.

After that, you could do a series of children's books, like "Twenty Great Bullpens Go to the Beach," "Twenty Great Bullpens and the Icky, Sticky Congressman," and "Twenty Great Bullpens Meet Elvis Posthumously."

The trick for the Yankees will be, as I suggested in the earlier bullpen commentary, to embrace bold, persistent, and continual experimentation (that's a rough Franklin Roosevelt paraphrase, I think), to look on failure as a chance to try something new and not as a reason to trade Jose Tabata for Ryan Franklin. The real danger in having anything unsettled around the Yankees is a reversion to their historic reaction to adversity-panic, followed by an ill-considered move that simultaneously fails to accomplish much in the short term and damages the franchise in the long run, such that fans spent the next ten years watching an iteration of Doug Mientkiewicz when they could be watching a Fred McGriff sequel.

...It would take me an hour to find the actual quote, so forgive me for taking the liberty of a mild paraphrase: Back in the day Don Mattingly was asked to react to the team's long history of self-mutilating trades during his career. "They weren't all bad," Mattingly bristled.

"How about Fred McGriff?" his interrogator asked.

"How about him?" Mattingly responded. "We didn't do too badly there. What did we get?"

"Dale Murray," was the answer.

"Oh," Mattingly said.

Earlier this week, when discussing career issues with a friend of mine, I said that one shouldn't barter the Willie McGee of his talent for the Bob Sykes of remuneration. He didn't get it, but it's true.

On that note, I hope you have a Jay Buhner of a weekend and not a Ken Phelps, though Phelps wouldn't be bad either. I'll be back with an attempt at Doug Drabek column instead of a Rick Rhoden on Monday, barring something like a Santana deal coming down over the weekend. Let's hope that's not the case.

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THURSDAY, January 24: Posted at 3:25 p.m. ET

MORE EVIDENCE OF REGIME CHANGE
Ken Rosenthal of Fox reported today that the Yankees are working up a four-year contract that will buy Robinson Cano out of his arbitration years, and perhaps even a year or two of free agency. This kind of deal originated with John Hart and the Cleveland Indians back when that team was cranking out young stars like Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez.

It's a very good way of controlling your costs at low risk for everyone. The player takes a smaller payday than if he had gone through a couple of years of arbitration and free agency, but he gets to be filthy rich earlier. The team might pay a little more earlier, but they pay less on the back end of the deal, they don't have to gamble on getting killed in arbitration, and is protected from salary inflation. The main risk to the deal is that you've misjudged the 23-year-old on whom you're heaping the cash, but in Cano's case the Yankees have three years of evidence to work with.

Back in the late 1990s, Derek Jeter reached the same point in his career. Cleveland's practice of signing youngsters to long-term contracts was well established in the game, but the Yankees would not protect themselves with Jeter. George Steinbrenner refused to consider that kind of contract. Things have clearly changed. I suppose that's not news at this point, but I continue to marvel at the passage of time and the changes it brings.

TO THE MATS WITH THE READER MAIL

1: KNOBLAUCH! A NEW MUSICAL
Man, I would sign up to write that in a minute. It would be sung through, like an opera:

KNOBLAUCH:
Umpire, sir, I must protest,
Your call at first has got me vexed
That Fryman guy was out at first
The call, dear sir, must be reversed.
The fans did boo, George might sue
And I'll tell you, mister, even Torre's sister,
Yes, even the nun did curse!

TINO
Throw the ball, Chuck!
Throw the ball, Chuck!
Throw the ball, throw the ball,
Throw
The damned ball,
Chuck!

ALL
Throw the ball, Chuck!
Throw the ball, Chuck!
Throw the ball, throw the ball,
Throw
The damned ball,
Chuck!

Where the heck was I? Oh yeah... Reader mail.

I'm curious about the selectivity of Congress on the players that were called on. Three current or former players have been "invited". Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte I get. They were possibly the most explosive names in the Mitchell witch hunt, I mean report.

Chuck Knoblauch?

The Mitchell "report" was condemned in conspiracy theorist circles to be anti-Yankee. I'm not naïve enough to believe that although the very fact that such allegations can be made illustrates that a director of the Red Sox was an exceptionally poor choice to conduct such an investigation(see: witch hunt) in the first place.

I get that the Yankees took a very large hit because the bulk of the names came from two east coast federal witnesses (Did Mitchell actually investigate ANYTHING or did he just sit on his hands and wait for someone to hand him something?). But now that Congress is getting involved again (something that Mitchell was hired to avoid in the first place), why is there very Yankee-centric approach to who has to answer on the players' side that was named, and why isn't anyone else asking this question?

Again, with Pettitte and Clemens I understand. But of all the names that were listed, why is Congress choosing to drag a guy who besides not having touched a Major League game in five years, is a strong argument for steroids NOT being performance enhancing based on the time period in which he is accused of using them?

Hope your convalescence is a short one and remember that Kyle Farnsworth was actually a quality reliever last September when he began pitching from the windup rather than the stretch. There's still hope.
- B.

Farnsworth... Pitched nine times in September, throwing eight innings. Six of the nine appearances were scoreless. He got lit up in two of the other three appearances. Maybe you have something there, but when I hold six good innings against the whole of the man's career, I find I'm not yet ready to convert.

The basic idea behind Knoblauch is that if, like Andy Pettitte, he confirms what Brian McNamee said about him then the Mitchell Report becomes that much more credible. McNamee testified that he injected Knoblauch "seven to nine times with human growth hormone." Now, one thing. Remember when I said that thinking that Congress has better things to do than look at PEDs in sports is a misreading of the Constitution and Congress's historic busybody role? In this one instance, I'm ready to agree with that crowd. The overarching issue might be of interest to the Government. Substantiating one witness's charges against one pitcher, no matter how iconic that pitcher, seems like micromanagement. On the other hand, if it keeps them too busy to pass the retroactive telecom bill, I'm all for it.

2: OOPS
You Wrote:

Want to measure the difference between Derek Jeter and a good glove at short like Troy Tulowitzki? Last year, right-handed batters hit .097 when they pulled a grounder to the left side off of Hawkins. By comparison, Chien-Ming Wang allowed an average of .163 on grounders to the right side. It doesn't sound like much, but we're talking about a lot of extra runs.

How do grounders to the left side for Hawkins compare to grounders to the right for Wang? Wouldn't this be more of a criticism of Cano's fielding, not Jeter's? I don't understand the point you are trying to make here. Perhaps you could clarify?
- Thanks, Al

Al, I think I still have some anesthesia in my system. In both cases, the stats cited were for grounders headed towards the left side of the infield. Roughly 40 percent of baserunners score. Defenders have as much to do with keeping them in the dugout as the pitcher on the mound, and as Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, there ain't nothin' like a dame. It's important we keep our priorities straight.

3: I KNEW THAT
Hope your recovery is going well. Sorry about the shaving problems. If it's any consolation, I've been growing what amounts to a homeless man's beard for the past 6 months, so at worst, your the second most poorly groomed Yankee fan. Unfortunately, Shelley Duncan can't grow a solidarity neck beard for you due to the Yankees long standing facial hair policy, which excludes everything that's not a mustache trimmed at the lip (Munson protest beards and Mattingly's sideburns notwithstanding). Big Stein temporarily lifted the ban in 1995 so that newly acquried Jack McDowell could keep his trademark goatee. Soon half the team (Mattingly, Boggs, Leyritz and others) were sporting goats. When the team got off to a slow start, Steinbrenner re-enacted the policy. Mattingly and Boggs went back to the stache, Leyritz and Black Jack went baby-faced. But I digress.-Matt

You can bet I know about the Yankees' hair policy, including the parts you left out, like the famous story when Lou Piniella, protesting the rules, told the owner, "Jesus had long hair," and George pointed him towards a nearby swimming pool and said, "Tell you what, Lou, if you can walk across that water, you don't have to get your hair cut." I figured that if I said you'd be jeering Kevin Youkilis in the World Series, the Yankextremists out there would accuse me of defeatism. I get enough of that just for telling the truth.

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MONDAY, January 21: Posted at 12:21 p.m. ET

JOBA, AGAIN
When we left off last week, a reader had asked the Joba Question and I had my head in a sling to keep it from divorcing my neck. Both still obtain, and though I can't do much about the latter but wait, I can bat around the former a bit. Gingerly.

As always, the Joba Question is, "Will he really be more valuable in the starting rotation than in the bullpen?" I imagine none of us are up to heavy math this early in the day, and I haven't been up to math of any kind since the seventh grade, so let's see if we can illustrate with some impressionistic numbers that won't get those of you with actual calculator skills in an uproar.

Last season, the average American League starter allowed 4.98 runs per nine innings. That's earned runs, unearned runs, everything. If offensive levels in 2008 are consistent, then pitchers will stratify themselves in roughly this way according to their level of ability:

PITCHER
INNINGS
RA
+/-AVG
Cy Young Candidate18066+34
All-Star Pitcher18077+23
Above-Average18085+15
Mr. Average Guy180100-
Below Average Guy180110-10
Merde180120-20

Figure the Yankees pick up an extra win for every 10 runs saved above. We don't know where Joba will slot in the list. We also don't know how the alternative would do if he wasn't there, but it becomes pretty obvious that if he's in the top half and the replacement would be in the lower half, the swing becomes pretty dramatic.

Now, it's certainly possible that a reliever can have a similar impact to a top starter, but there are a great many outside variables at work. Let's take one of last season's better set-up men, Heath Bell of the Padres. He pitched 93.2 innings and allowed just 21 runs. If you merely double that number, you can see that over 180 innings he far outpaces our Cy Young candidate above. Of course, he can't go those extra 86.1 innings, so we already have a problem, as inferior pitchers are going to make up those innings.

The second issue is how the reliever is to be used. If Joe Girardi deploys his top setup man in the sixth inning of tie games, that pitcher is going to have more value than if he's restricted to pitching the eighth inning with a two- or three-run lead. In other words, you can have a great relief season, but if your manager uses you the wrong way, that value can be muted. Consider Carlos Marmol of the Cubs, who struck out 96 in 69.1 innings and allowed just 1.43 runs per nine innings. He wasn't the setup man and he wasn't the closer. For whatever reason, Lou Piniella didn't deploy him in the clinches. We don't know how Girardi will perform in this area, but the simple truth is if Joba is in the pen, he's more likely to be thrown away by being used correctly according to the conventional wisdom than he would be in the starting rotation.

Conversely, if the reliever is used at an optimal level, pitching in the tough spots and shutting down the opposition, those outs may have extra value that should cause them to be weighted more heavily than the same outs gotten by the starter. I don't really know if that's true or not — an out is an out — but let's say that it is.

So there is the brief. The Yankees think that Joba can be an above-average starter, and it seems to me that given the outs that get absorbed in that role, that would be more valuable than limiting him to 80 innings in relief no matter how strong. The Yankees would be left with a deficit of 100 innings in the starting rotation that are likely to be filled by someone else, someone of lesser ability: Mike Mussina or an Ian Kennedy who has been figured out by the league. In a close race, those innings will make a great difference to the outcome.

In Tuesday's Pinstriped Bible we'll talk more about the bullpen, the candidates for 2008, and again measure Joba in and Joba out.

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Blog appears daily on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel, and "Mind Game," the story of the Red Sox' 2004 championship, and "Baseball Between the Numbers," from the authors of Baseball Prospectus, are now available at Amazon.com. More Steve is available on YESNetwork.com in the Pinstriped Bible, and the Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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