Sunday, July 21, 2013

BioGenesis, Baseball Fans, and the Love of the Game

As the news continues to come out about Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Biogenesis clinic, it occurred to me how much baseball fans have lost because of this scandal. As most sports which struggle with cheating, banned substances, and fair play, baseball has to get it right. Baseball fans hold Major League records in the highest regard – think about the excitement generated by the breaking of home run records, or from watching imminent perfect games and no-hitters on TV – and those accomplishments have to be credible. Baseball’s credibility that has come under attack, fairly or unfairly, and Major League Baseball must restore it.

 What we know is that Biogenesis is a company which produces nutritional supplements, and that they are alleged to supply banned performance-enhancing drugs to baseball players. Anthony Bosch, who runs the clinic, has allegedly provided a client list which includes many baseball players – most notably Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. In a bid to clean up the sport they are preparing to take some kind of action against the players on the list, which probably means fines and/or suspensions. While they may succeed in removing the rule-breakers from the sport, I believe the damage is done with the fans and that it will be a long time before the good faith of the fans in the sport can be restored.

This past January, I had the pleasure of attending SABR's annual NYC chapter meeting in midtown Manhattan. The speakers were very good, and there were many great things going on. One of the sessions was covering the steroid issue, presented by T. J. Quinn  of ESPN. I expected the usual stuff that we read regularly in the news and on various websites. I was actually surprised at what T. J. had to say. One of the biggest losses that we have suffered in this era, he pointed out, was having lost the "awe" we had for our sports heroes. My childhood friends and I were in awe of what Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle accomplished in their respective baseball careers. If they did today what they did in their day, would anyone believe that they didn't use PED's?

T.J. raised a good point. It got me thinking. When I was a kid, Reggie Jackson and Ron Guidry were heroes to me. I collected their baseball cards, and I still have them. I tried to emulate their stances and wind-ups. Ironically, they are both left-handed and I am a righty, so I learned how to mirror them. At the plate, my hands were just above waist-high and my bat was straight up, parallel to my right arm, just like Reggie. When I pitched, I tucked in my knee to my waist before reaching back and firing, just like Gator. I loved seeing Reggie bars and Baby Ruth’s at the candy store, even though I was not allowed to eat them (I am diabetic). Whatever they were into, I was there. When the Yankees released Reggie at the end of the 1981 season, I was crushed. I actually stopped watching baseball for a while. Then came another set of heroes - Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, to name two. These stand-up athletes played their hearts out and understood their responsibility to the community at large. I do not know what I would have done if they had been talked about in stories like the ones we hear about today's athletes.

I feel bad for all of the kids that watch what is going on in baseball today. These stories are terrible. I cannot help believe that this is having some influence on them. It is heartbreaking to read about 10-year olds throwing away their baseball cards because their hero is now under investigation (read here). Worse, I fear that the next generation of baseball fans will grow up thinking that this kind of behavior is acceptable. Back in my younger days, I had heard about steroids and how athletes used them to build muscle and get stronger. I was not exactly the biggest kid on the block, and other kids would bully me often. I remember thinking that if I could just pop a pill and develop muscle, I would have taken it faster than you can imagine. Honestly, the ONLY reason I did not take steroids as a teenager was that I could not get my hands on them. So today we have athletes who are reputed to have rubbed a cream on themselves or mixed some powder into a milkshake and they become bathing champions. They become home run champions. They go to All-Star games. They win World Series rings. They become filthy stinking rich. Yet somehow, we are supposed to teach our kids about integrity, honor, hard work, and values that make a person respected and successful.

It is painful to watch the media circus that has become of MLB’s investigation into Biogenesis. It hurts to see athletes that we cheered for and loved turn out to be associated with cheating. It is hard to grasp that they might be a dull shadow of who we thought they were. Therefore, MLB has to get this right. They have to clean this up, using whatever means necessary. They cannot get involved in blanket purges that sweep away the innocent with the guilty. At the same time, they must leave the guilty by no means unpunished. Then, maybe, we can get back to the game we all love.

Also posted on Bleeding Yankee Blue

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Pineda Recovery Continues

The Yankees got some great news from the Trenton Thunder as Michael Pineda’s road to the Bronx passed another test with flying colors. In his first start at the AA level, facing the Erie Seawolves, Pineda threw 6 innings of scoreless baseball. He allowed only four baserunners, two on base hits, and two on walks. Known for his high velocity pitches and strikeout totals, he struck out four over that span. This performance follows two rehab starts at Class A Tampa, where he struck out seven over 8 1/3 innings and held opposing batters to a .280 average.

Bleeding Yankee Blue correspondent Chris Carbonaro (@carbs_), who happens to be the son of BYB writer Suzie Pinstripe, was in attendance for this start. He reports that Pineda “throws gas and he had a shutout through five but I still don't think he's 100% yet, he's still working his way back. He's fun to watch, it's always fun to watch a guy who throws that hard. His innings were quick there wasn't a time when he was in a jam.” That news could not be better. While the numbers look good, if he’s really controlling the game well enough to never be in a jam over 6 innings, he could be the element of calm and dominant control that the Yankees rotation needs right now.

Projections are that Pineda will start for the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees on Saturday. Assuming that his performance and recovery continue on their current track, the Yankees could activate him soon after that (read here). For all the hope that we had in this guy, it would be great to see him finally on the mound at Yankee Stadium.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

What The Hell Did You Trade Jay Buhner For???


We have all lived through it. A roster change made by our team which made us scream, cringe, or just plain feel sick to our stomach. Maybe you felt it when we didn’t re-sign Nick Swisher or Raul Ibanez, or maybe it was when we signed Jason Giambi and let Tino Martinez go to the Cardinals. But if you’re going to talk about a Hall of Shame for Yankees trades, you have to talk about the Jay Buhner trade for Ken Phelps.

For those of us who were watching at the time, the Yankees lived under the illusion that they were one trade away from a World Series team. It was the era of George Steinbrenner, a time when he would make a trade without the consultation of his front office or management. George loved hitting. He loved home runs. He especially loved trading his farm system for the proverbial missing piece which would bring him an immediate World Series win.

Jay Buhner was tearing up AAA ball in 1987 and 1988. He developed a reputation as an excellent power hitter, hitting 31 home runs in 1987 and another 8 over 38 games in 1988. Having been promoted to the majors, his success was not so striking. His grand total is three home runs in the majors for the Yankees, over 32 games spanning the 87-88 seasons. I’m sure the Boss’ need for instant gratification turned to major disappointment at the lack of home runs and his paltry .188 average.

Then he saw Ken Phelps. Phelps had 14 homers – about one every 16 at-bats. Phelps had a batting average about a hundred points higher than Buhner. He couldn’t really field – he was a career DH, never playing an inning in the field - but who cares about hitting? We want homers! So on July 20 1988, with the Yankees just a game out of first place and missing just one piece in the championship puzzle, the Yankees traded the 23-year old Buhner for the 34-year old Phelps. For those of us who knew the implications of this trade, our feelings were forever immortalized by Frank Costanza – “What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?!? You don’t know what the hell you’re doing!!!”

Unfortunately, we were right to be mad. The deal didn’t work out the way George hoped. Phelps’ average dropped about 20 points before the season ended. The Yankees went 32-38 after the trade, dropping to 5th place. Phelps had only two more seasons left in him, being traded to Oakland the following year. Ironically, he won a World Series title with Oakland that year, though only contributing a double over two at-bats in postseason play.

Jay Buhner went on to a stellar career. He recorded 310 career home runs, with his biggest years happening between 1995 and 1997. He had a rifle for an arm, and a great power swing. He was selected to the All-Star team in 1996, the same year he won his Gold Glove. We remember his most for his success against the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS, where he hit .458 against them. Personally, I remember thinking that had he stayed with the Yankees, he would have been the missing piece that year for a World Series run. Funny how that worked out.

Originally posted to Bleeding Yankee Blue on 6/23/2013.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Is Joba's Time Finally Up?

As the trade deadline begins to approach, the Yankees will undoubtedly get offers for Chamberlain. It's always a touch decision when it comes to young pitchers, whether or not it's time to let them go. It's especially true of the ones who came up through the system and have already received a lot of investment from the team. He is 27 years old, and has demonstrated some success in the past with the Yankees. The question is, is he going to blossom into the pitcher we've all hoped for, or is he the guy that never quite had what it takes to succeed.

This is his 7th season in the major leagues, and the best phrase to describe his performance has been "up and down". He exploded on the scene in 2007, with "Joba Rules", limiting his pitch count and his rest time. He looked fantastic in the regular season, giving up only one earned run in two months of play, but then collapsed in the postseason, giving up runs in each of his two appearances. In 2008 the starter experiment started, and he looked good at times and he looked terrible in others. The next few years seemed to repeat the pattern - a month of being untouchable, and then a month of being very hittable. This season is no different - after his first two appearances of the season, he didn't allow a run for the rest of April. Then, after returning from the DL, he has given up 6 runs in 6+ innings.

Here are the reasons why time might be up on the Joba project. First, his inconsistency is a serious liability to the team. Look, no pitcher goes an entire season without giving up runs. Even the great Mariano Rivera gives up a run every once in a while. The problem with Joba is that these incidents come in bunches. This season alone, in 16 appearances he's given up runs in 5 of those games. That's almost 1 in 3. Relievers who give up runs 1 time out of every 3 appearances are not usually considered untouchable in trade talks.

Second, we may be able to get some good talent in return for him. Included as part of a deal, Joba may be very valuable to some team who thinks they can straighten him out. There's no question that he's got the physical ability to pitch well. We've all seen it. Sometimes it just seems that he's not exercising good judgment. Could someone out there think that, with some proper guidance and mentorship, Joba could be a dominant pitcher? Absolutely. They might even be right. But if the Yankees hold on to him too long and he doesn't straighten out, he'll start to look like the modern version of Kevin Maas - great potential talent that never panned out.

Finally, I think there's a real problem with his personal judgment. If you remember his DUI arrest a few years ago, you might have thought that it was poor judgment exercised by someone young and immature. Then you look at his target practice with Kevin Youkilis. When Youkilis joined the Yankees, he still didn't handle it right. Finally, I still have a problem with his exchange with Mariano Rivera last month. I know this is old news, but after a while, you have to see a pattern here. This is someone who is a headline waiting to happen, and you hope it's not one that you have to hold a press conference to explain.

As always, there is nothing but love and support for a guy who wears the pinstripes and goes out and does his best. But the best move for the Yankees might be to cash out.

Posted to Bleeding Yankee Blue on 6/20/2013.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dennis Rasumussen - A Yankee Hero of the 80's.

Watching the Yankees playing in the 80’s was both thrilling and exasperating. The lineup was just a hitting machine, with the likes of Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph, and on and on. At the same time, our pitching was generally awful. When the starting rotation would stabilize, the bullpen would give away games, and vice-versa. One of the bright spots of the rotation was a guy named Dennis Rasmussen. As a teenager, I felt like he was part of the starting five for something like forever. In reality, it was for about four years. Both for those years, especially in 1986, he was a bright spot on an otherwise terrible pitching staff, and gave Yankee fans hope for a successful year.

It is hard to imagine this scenario, but Rasmussen was the only Yankees pitcher in 1986 with double-digits in wins. Ron Guidry, the only other pitcher who even came close to him, in terms of productivity, was in the twilight of his career, and the Yankees were in need of a new ace. Rasmussen, who was 27 years old at the time, ended up winning 18 games for the Yankees and looked like the next big thing. Between 1982 and 1992, only three times did a Yankee get 18 wins or more – Rasmussen in 1986, Guidry in 1985 (22), and Guidry in 1983 (21). Given Guidry’s age, you can imagine why we all looked to Rasmussen as the next man to lead the charge back to the playoffs.

Despite his pitching success with the Yankees, they never really valued his skills. Rasmussen played for a management structure that valued power hitting and home runs far more than good, solid pitching. For those that remember baseball at that time, you know that when I say management structure, I mean George Steinbrenner. Opposing batters hit .217 against him in 1986, and he allowed no more than three runners or less in five of his last six starts as a Yankee.

Nevertheless, despite all of that, we traded him to the Reds for barely-mediocre starter Bill Gullickson (read here). The best comparison I can think of is if the Yankees were to trade C.C. Sabathia to Oakland for Jarrod Parker. I was one of many fans who were in shock and disgust at this news. The only explanation I could think of was that perhaps because he had lost his last start several days earlier, and that George had lost patience, so he had to make move. Nevertheless, the record speaks for itself. On the day of the trade, the Yankees held a 71-55 record, in third place, and were four games out of first. They went 18-18 the rest of the way and finished the season in fourth place and nine games out.

Though Dennis Rasmussen did not compile huge Yankees statistics, for the time that he pitched here, he was cause for hope. The 1980’s was the decade when Yankee fans learned that hitting looks good on highlight reels, but pitching wins championships. On a team where top-shelf pitching was scarce, Dennis Rasmussen was a pitcher that stood out and represented the hope that we had something to build on. He was fun to watch, he was sorely missed when he was traded, and for those of us who remember watching him pitch, he is one of the key players I look forward to seeing on Old Timers’ Day.

Posted on Bleeding Yankee Blue on 6/16/2013.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mark Montgomery: The Next Big Thing

Could Mark Montgomery be the next big thing to come out of the Yankee farm system? The Yankees management certainly hopes so, as Montgomery has been turning heads lately. Not to mention the fact that with all the injuries hitting the team now, every bit of talent helps. For those that do not know, the Yankees drafted this 22-year old kid in the 2011 Amateur draft, and he is already being compared to David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain. He has a really nasty slider, and fastball that hits the low 90s to complement it.

Despite having pitched only 2 years in the minors, his numbers so far are outstanding. In his 92+ innings over 72 games at various levels of the minors, he has allowed only one home run. In 2012, he pitched in the Florida State League and Eastern League, and he has demonstrated excellent control. Over that time, he has a WHIP of .886 (.780 if you take out intentional walks) and 3.1 walks per nine innings (2.7 without the intentional walks). Translation - he does not allow many baserunners, and he does not give out free passes. Then there is that slider. He has been able to get that over for strikes, and making batters miss it a lot. In his current minor league career, as of this writing, he is recording 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Not surprisingly, in 2012, his ERA was 1.54 and he only had two losses recorded against him.

(Photo: YES Network)

Granted the minor league stats, are not always good indicators of success at the major league level, as the caliber of hitting goes way up. However, let's compare those numbers to Joba Chamberlain's in 2007 when he went through the same leagues. His WHIP was 1.008, he recorded 2.8 walks per 9 innings, and 13.8 strikeouts per 9 innings. While Chamberlain gave out walks at a lower rate, he allowed more baserunners than Montgomery has. Joba's ERA of 2.45 is almost a full run higher. That is not to say that his number looks bad, it is just to illustrate how good Montgomery has been. Joba's strikeout rate of 13.8 over nine innings is a little lower, which would indicate the Montgomery has a higher propensity to strike a guy out. When you are looking for a pitcher to close out a game, or get the team out of a tight spot, this guy could prove to be worth his weight in gold.

I compare him to Joba because the Yankees brought up Joba in the middle of his first year in the minors. The team thought that highly of him. When he made it up, he was tremendous, and he lit up opposing batters and created excitement in the Yankee bullpen. However, they were very careful with him, and they should have been wiser in managing him in his second year. It makes sense that the Yankees have their eye on him, and it would not surprise any of us if he made an appearance somewhere late in the summer. If the Yankees are careful and take care of him, this kid could pay huge dividends. Personally, I cannot wait to see what he can do in the majors.

Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. This article is republished at Bleeding Yankee Blue.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What If Mariano Rivera Falters?

Mariano Rivera's return to camp this spring was a moment that brought joy to the hearts of many Yankee fans. We all feared the worst - that it was all over - last May when he went down with a torn ACL. At his age, many wondered if he would have the wherewithal to come back from an injury like that. Now he is throwing simulated games in spring training and showing that he is on track for an Opening Day return. What many of us may not have considered - and this may be denial on our part - is that his return may not be as perfect as we are imagining it will be. The definition of denial is "an unconscious defense mechanism in which emotional conflict and anxiety are avoided by refusal to acknowledge those thoughts, feelings, desires, impulses, or facts that are consciously intolerable". Many of us refuse to acknowledge the fact that Mariano Rivera is 43 years old, that he is recovering from a major injury, and that he will not pitch forever. Responsible leadership must acknowledge the risks that come with these circumstances and must have an adequate backup plan. Mind you, I am not saying that we can easily replace someone like Mariano Rivera, but we need to have a plan as to what happens if, at some point in the season, he can no longer pitch well. What happens then?

The way I see it, there are four pitchers on the current roster that the Yankees should consider to fill the closer role. Since we know that eventually Mariano will have to retire, these guys should be under consideration for successor to Rivera.

David Robertson was the first person the Joe Girardi went to when Rivera was injured. He pitched in three games before suffering a strained oblique muscle that knocked him out and allowed Rafael Soriano to take over as closer. In those three games, he got a save on a very shaky performance, he blew the save on the next night, and he got the last two outs in a non-save situation in the third game. Personally, I do not think those three games paint the whole picture on his capabilities as a potential closer. Over the last two seasons, he has an ERA of 1.78 and an opposing batting average of .177. His 2012 postseason ERA was 0.93. These stats are the hallmarks of a good closer. Besides, who could forget his performance in Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS against the Angels, holding them down in extra innings, to earn the win? He should get some serious consideration.

Then there is Joba Chamberlain. Personally, this one is my favorite option, having been very impressed by his mindset when he first came up. Before the failed "convert to starter" experiment, Joba was a dominant member of the bullpen. In 2012, he suffered a serious leg injury that knocked him out until August 1. Then, for the first month after that, he was bad. However, starting September 9, he did not surrender an earned run. Not even in his four appearances in the postseason. He reminds me a lot of Rafael Soriano - a pitcher who does well under pressure but poorly otherwise. You don't believe me? In 2012, in games decided by three runs or fewer, Joba's ERA was 0.79. In games decided by four or more runs, it was 8.71. If you have watched closers for any length of time, you know that they do not do as well in non-save situations. The theory is that their head is not in the game if the game is not on the line. In 2007, Joba always came in with the idea that the game was on the line and he consistently nailed it down. Here is another stat, if you are not already convinced. A loss for a reliever is when they come in with a lead or a tie score and the opposition takes the lead on their watch, followed by an eventual loss to their team. Joba has not had one since July 10, 2010 - that's 83 consecutive regular-season appearances. A blown save is when you have a lead and you give up the lead, regardless of the outcome. He has not had one of those since April 17, 2011. Granted, none of those appearances was as a closer, but it should make you at least curious as to whether or not he can close.

(Photo by John Munson/The Star-Ledger)
David Aardsma was an offseason pickup last year this time, having just recovered from Tommy John surgery. The thought was that he could recover in time to be a 2013 option out of the bullpen, and one that was reasonably priced. Well, it is 2013 and now would be the time for the Yankees to cash in on the investment. He had two respectable seasons as the closer for the Seattle Mariners in 2009 and 2010. In those two years, he converted 69 out of 78 save opportunities, to the tune of a 2.90 ERA. He was not an All-Star, but he was not terrible. In a pinch, I think we could have something worthwhile in him. If nothing else, he has extensive experience pitching the ninth, which no other Yankee pitcher besides Rivera has.

One other option, which may have escaped the notice of many, is David Phelps. Okay, I know what you're thinking. He is supposed to be training to be a starter. You're probably right, that he is on track to be a starter and that we should not mess with him. There are just a couple of things that stand out, though. Seven times he came into a game in 2012 on 3 days rest or less (which is typical for closers), and he did not surrender a single run. All of those games were close (six were decided by two runs or less, one by 3 runs). In those games, opposing batters hit .071. That is noteworthy. Remember, Mariano Rivera first came up as a starter before they converted him to a setup man in the bullpen. It is something to think about.

None of us wants to think about Mariano Rivera not pitching well or that he is mortal and that he will one day have to call it quits. Nevertheless, the Yankees have to think about the future, and may even have to think about the present. It pays to have a backup plan, and it looks like the Yankees may have options.

This article is republished at Bleeding Yankee Blue.