Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Case for Mike Mussina

A few days ago, Steve Lombardi labeled Mike Mussina "old, unreliable and pedestrian." With the Yankees' rotation in shambles, starting pitching is clearly the priority this offseason. It follows, then, that the first thing the Yankees have to figure out is what to do with their impending free agent starters: Mussina and Jaret Wright.

We're not going to bother with discussing Wright. Even if he returns, he's the fifth starter and how many teams go with the same fifth starter all year long anyway?

Mussina, on the other hand, is vital to this team's success. Last year, the Yankees had only two starters who were even remotely reliable: Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang. It would be a disaster to let one of them go.

That we're even discussing this is foolish. Consider Mussina's AL rankings in 2006:

ERA: 3.51 (4th)
FIP: 3.56 (5th)
xFIP: 3.95 (7th)
ERA+: 126 (4th)
K/G: 8.2 (6th)
BB/G: 1.7 (4th)
K:BB: 4.9 (2nd)

By any measure, Mussina was clearly one of the best pitchers in the league last year. Calling him "pedestrian" is patently ridiculous.

But wait, you say. What about 2004 and 2005? Well, what about them? Yes, his ERAs those years were 4.59 and 4.41. But ERA is hardly a perfect tool, and it's been shown that FIP is a better predictor of future ERA. Quick summary:

Pitchers who underperformed their FIP:

2004 ERA: 5.29
2004 FIP: 4.61
2005 ERA: 4.58

Pitchers who overperformed their FIP:

2004 ERA: 3.93
2004 FIP: 4.75
2005 ERA: 4.88

It should be obvious that FIP is much more useful than ERA. Mussina's FIP in 2004 and 2005: 4.03 each year.

His K:BB ratio the last three years: 3.3, 3.0, 4.9. Think 2006 is a fluke? Fine. But 3 strikeouts for every walk is still outstanding. In fact, Mussina's K:BB ratio hasn't been below 3 since 1996. And in his worst year (1994) he was still a staggering 46% better than average. The dude can still pitch.

A simple Marcel projection using Mussina's FIP would place his 2007 ERA at ~3.80. That would again make him the best pitcher on the Yankees.

But he'll be 38! Bollocks that. Pitchers don't follow any sort of aging pattern. According to Dan Szymborski, who has studied pitchers' aging patterns, "there's no real aging "curve" with pitchers until the strikeout rates start eroding too quickly or the pitcher gets injured. But this happens at young ages, too - pitchers in the late 20s with scary drops in K rate age just as poorly as those in the late 30s with similar drops in K rate."

Mussina's K-rate is, in fact, improving, by 15% in 2006. That goes along with a 29% drop in his already excellent walk rate.

Bottom line: there is no reason to expect Mussina to fall off a cliff. He is a very good bet to post another sub-4 ERA while throwing around 200 innings. In addition, he pretty much became Philip Hughes's mentor last spring. And when your best starter is also your Future's teacher...well, re-signing him is a no-brainer.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


1. Albert Pujols
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Carlos Beltran
4. Ryan Howard
5. Lance Berkman
6. Brandon Webb
7. Roy Oswalt
8. Brian McCann
9. Chase Utley
10. Chris Carpenter

Pujols quite simply had the best numbers of any player in the NL. He was third in average (to Freddy Sanhez and Cabrera), second in OBP (to Barry Bonds), first in slugging and first in OPS. On top of that, he's the best fielding first baseman in the league and a very good baserunner. To me, this is an easy choice.

Cabrera gets overlooked, but the dude hit .339/.430/.568 in a tough hitter's park. Incidentally, he has increased his average, OBP & SLG each year of his career, has missed just 10 games the past three years, and is still only 23. Superstar.

Beltran doesn't have the numbers that Howard has, but there are three important differences: 1) Beltran is a centerfielder; 2) Beltran is a very good fielder whereas Howard is terrible; and 3) Beltran is an excellent baserunner whereas Howard is not quite as bad as David Ortiz. You can fawn over Howard's home run total, but Beltran is the better all-around player.

There's a dropoff after those four. Berkman is the dominant slugger who slots in nicely in front of the pitchers.

Speaking of, there's not much difference between Webb, Oswalt and Carpenter. You can put the bottom half of my list in any order and it won't much matter.

Utley and McCann are another illustration of my preference for players at premium defensive positions. Utley hit .309/.379/.527 while playing a good second base. McCann actually just missed out on qualifying for the batting title by 10 PA, but he still hit .333/.388/.572. Even with all that missed time, he still knocked 34 doubles, 24 homers and 93 RBI. That's huge production from a catcher. Huge.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


1. Johan Santana
2. Joe Mauer
3. Derek Jeter
4. Grady Sizemore
5. Miguel Tejada
6. Travis Hafner
7. Manny Ramirez
8. Jermaine Dye
9. Carlos Guillen
10. Roy Halladay

I'm totally cool with the idea that two players from the same team can be the two most valuable in the league. Minnesota is so top-heavy--only St. Louis is more reliant on its handful of stars--that they needed multiple MVP performances to make the playoffs. If you replace Santana, Mauer, Liriano, Morneau and Nathan with average players, the Twins would be lucky to win 70 games. This is a team, after all, whose rotation was AWFUL after Santana & Liriano, and gave the bulk of its DH time to Rondell White and Jason freaking Tyner.

The top 3 are close: you can reorder them in any way and I won't much complain. Santana is the most dominant player in the league; Mauer is a catcher who led the majors in batting, picked up over 600 PA, and played great D behind the plate; Jeter managed a .340+ average while playing everyday at shortstop. Those are special accomplishments all around.

Sizemore is the new Jim Edmonds. He put up fantastic numbers and played a solid centerfield. Nobody seems to notice that he knocked 92 extra base hits while scoring 134 runs, both tops in the majors.

Travis Hafner was the best offensive player in the AL. He gets the spot everyone wanted to award to Ortiz. Speaking of, you notice Manny Ramirez is in my top 10, but not Ortiz. That's no oversight; Manny changes that lineup completely. If they ever flipped those two, Manny would be the one getting all the love.

Tejada and Guillen are two more shortstops having great offensive value. People seem to take Tejada's superstardom for granted, but also not acknowledge Guillen's achievements at all.

Dye is a big-time corner slugger, not as good as Manny but better than Morneau. Halladay is the AL's second-best pitcher. He warrants a down-ballot vote.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Season in Review

What went right?

Jorge Posada was excellent; nobody cared about his option kicking in anymore...Derek Jeter had his best year since 1999...Robinson Cano busted out in a big way...Jason Giambi's revival continued...Melky Cabrera emerged as the team's best defensive player while also hitting pretty well...Cashman orchestrated the brilliant trade for Bobby Abreu...Chien-Ming Wang stepped up...Mike Mussina had his best year since 2003...Scott Proctor filled in a big void in the bullpen...the addition of Johnny Damon (along with Melky) greatly improved the team defense.

What went wrong?

Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield were injured most of the year...Randy Johnson stunk...Shawn Chacon fell apart...Kyle Farnsworth was erratic...the bench was a net zero most of the year...Carl Pavano never pitched...Scott Erickson and Terrence Long actually played in games that counted...the lineup inexplicably bombed the last three games of the year.

Where do they go from here?

The rotation will be remade. Barry Zito, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jason Schmidt will be discussed to no end...Philip Hughes will be involved somehow...Sheffield is almost assuredly gone...the Alex Rodriguez saga will never go away...Torre should be back assuming Cashman really is in charge.

What will 2007 be like?

The Red Sox have even more problems than the Yankees, and the Blue Jays don't have the horses to compete. Winning the AL East should be very doable, and the postseason will be a crapshoot, as always.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

ALDS Preview


Is there anything to debate here? The Tigers have a terrible lineup (Sean Casey is batting third!), a tired rotation, and not much of a bullpen beyond Zumaya. Meanwhile, the Yankees' worst hitter (umm, Posada?) is better than anyone the Tigers have except Carlos Guillen. Yikes.

Yes, Detroit has a great defense. Yes, Verlander and Bonderman are capable of being lights-out, and even Nate Robertson can be dangerous. But an awful lot has to go right for them to pull off the upset. Anything can happen in a short series, but this seems academic.

Yankees in 3.


This is the main event. Not only are these teams evenly-matched, but they're both great clubs who had hot second halves. This is virtually guaranteed to be the highlight of the first round.

Both offenses are mediocre, but better of late. Frank Thomas and Justin Morneau are virtually identical: both had terrible forst quarters of the season and have been unstoppable since. Joe Mauer bests anyone else the A's have, but Oakland's secondary guys--Bradley, Chavez, Swisher--appear to be healthy and improved. Neither lineup will scare you, and neither really has an advantage over the other. Call it even.

Defensively, I'd give Oakland a slight edge. Chavez and Mark Ellis are supeior glovemen. So is Mark Kotsay, though his back is clearly affecting his play. Still, when they run Jay Payton out there, he combines with Kotsay and Bradley to form a fantastic outfield.

For Minnesota, the infield defense is not particularly good, and Torii Hunter is a lot like Kotsay, limited by injury, but without the same quality cornermen to help out. Mauer is fantastic behind the plate, far better than Kendall, but the A's don't run to begin with. Advantage Oakland.

The bullpens are actually close. Oakland runs out a great back-end with Street, Calero, Duchscherer and Kennedy. But that Minnesota group--Nathan, Neshek, Rincon, Reyes--is staggeringly great. Those are shutdown guys right there. Both teams have interesting longmen: Blanton for the A's and Garza for the Twins, as it appears they're going with Carlos Silva as their fourth starter. Great as the A's pen is, this is clearly an advantage for the Twins.

And now the big question: rotation. It's easier to go by game...

Game 1: Santana v. Zito - Twins by a mile
Game 2: Boof v. Loaiza - Interesting, but gotta give it to the A's
Game 3: Radke v. Haren - Easily A's
Game 4: Silva v. Harden - This is just funny
Game 5: Santana v. Zito - See Game 1

Johan Santana rules the day; he changes the complexion of the series entirely. As good as Zito is, Minnesota has to be a huge favorite in Games 1 & 5.

The flip side is that Oakland has equally huge advantages in Games 3 & 4. The loss of Liriano is colossal. With him, the Twins are arguably World Series frontrunners. Without him, they run a legitimate chance of being ousted by Frank Thomas & the Seven Dwarfs.

Game 2 is where this series will be decided. Boof Bonser has the potential to step it up while Estaban Loaiza can always regress to April form. Whoever wins that game wins the series.

I don't know which direction to go. Either way, I think the series goes five games. If Minnesota wins behind Boof, they probably lose Games 3 & 4 and ride Santana to the ALCS. But if Oakland takes the critical game and goes up 2-1, I think Santana pitches Game 4. The Twins can force a fifth game then, but look at the resulting pitching matchup: Zito v. Silva. Oakland has to love that possibility.

It's extremely close...let's say 51/49...but I'll give the nod in Game 2 to the home-field advantage that is the Metrodome. Boof pitches well and the bullpen closes things down.

Twins in 5.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Rookies of the Year

With the regular season over, it's time to look at awards. Well, maybe not, but I feel like it. So the rest of this week, I'll make myself write about all the awards and the postseason. Today we start with the most meaningless: rookie of the year.

In the AL, it's all about pitching. Kenji Johjima had a great introduction to American baseball, but he is a distant fifth to the four pitchers: Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver.

Liriano: 121 IP, 2.16 ERA, 89 H, 144 K, 32 BB, 9 HR, 50.5 VORP
Papelbon: 68.1 IP, 0.92 ERA, 40 H, 75 K, 13 BB, 3 HR, 38.2 VORP
Verlander: 186 IP, 3.63 ERA, 187 H, 124 K, 60 BB, 21 HR, 46.2 VORP
Weaver: 123 IP, 2.56 ERA, 94 H, 105 K, 33 BB, 15 HR, 46.1 VORP

Verlander's numbers look downright pedestrian in comparison to the others. He was very good, to be sure, but something less than dominant. Verlander also had the benefit of pitching in a great pitcher's park with the best defense in the league behind him. A lot of his low ERA can be attributed to Brandon Inge & Co.

Choosing between Liriano and Weaver is easy. In almost the same number of innings, Liriano has a lower ERA, more strikeouts, fewer hits, fewer walks, and fewer home runs. There's no debate here.

Papelbon makes things interesting. He was lights-out as a closer this year; as dominant as anyone. The essential question is, does the added importance of a closer push him ahead of Liriano? It's a matter of taste, but I say no. So, my ballot would be:

1. Liriano
2. Papelbon
3. Weaver
Meanwhile, over in the NL...

There were some fine rookie pitchers in the 4-A league. Matt Cain, Josh Johnson, Clay Hensley, Anibal Sanchez, etc. But I think the top 3 rookies were all position players: Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Ryan Zimmerman.

Ramirez: .292/.353/.480, 51 SB, 15 CS, 55.9 VORP
Uggla: .282/.339/.480, 6 SB, 6 CS, 40.0 VORP
Zimmerman: .287/.351/.471, 11 SB, 8 CS, 28.3 VORP

That seems pretty open-and-shut, no? They all have similar numbers at the plate, so they get ranked by position: SS, then 2B, then 3B. Ramirez also gets a big boost from his work on the basepaths.

Of course, things can't be that simple. Defense counts and Zimmerman has it in spades. He's arguably the NL's top third baseman (though I'm sure Rolen will get the hardware again) and clearly the class of the rookies with the leather. There isn't a doubt in my mind that his defense is good enough to vault him past Uggla and near Ramirez.

With their numbers being near identical, the debate is really what's more valuable: a below-average defensive shortstop with oodles of stolen bases, or a great defensive third baseman?

That VORP difference is huge, but I have to go with the glove on this one. Zimmerman is so far superior in the field that no amount of stolen bases can overcome it. So, we have:

1. Zimmerman
2. Ramirez
3. Uggla

Tomorrow: playoff preview and predictions.