Friday, February 5, 2010

Lackey And Vazquez

Even before John Lackey signed with the Red Sox for a deal nearly identical to the 5 year, $82.5M one that the Yankees gave A.J. Burnett a year prior, many saw the two as being very similar. Both pitchers are right handed, oft-injured about six and a half feet tall and around 30 years old with intimidating on-the-mound demeanors. Today, however, I wanted to compare Lackey to Javer Vazquez given their parallel entrance to the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry and their disparate reputations in regards to handling pressure.

Lackey has been in the league since 2002 and has averaged 188 innings per season since then. Over that same time period, Vazquez has averaged 215. Lackey's ERA is about a quarter of a run lower over stretch, but that's essentially erased by having to fill in those extra 27 innings a year with a replacement level pitcher.

In general, when John Lackey is healthy, he's a better pitcher than Javy Vazquez. But he's also the Red Sox highest paid player ($18M this year) and is expected to contribute to the top of their rotation. The Yankees are paying Vazquez only about 2/3 as much and hoping that he slots in as their number four.

But what about their reputations under pressure? The idea for that comparison between the two comes from fellow LoHud pinch hitter and editor at the Harvard Crimson, Yair Rosenberg. On Sunday, Yair dropped me an email with the following suggestion/request:
I think the more productive comparison for AL East purposes would not be to Pettitte or Glavine, but to Lackey, whose reputation is that of a big game pitcher, and who is essentially the corresponding addition to this year's Red Sox as Vasquez is to the Yankees. It would be really interesting to see if the stats bear out Lackey's clutch rep - and might go a long way towards predicting the key factors in the coming Yankees-Red Sox race. I'd love to see a post on that.
So here we go. Fighting in the red corner, we have John "Big Game" Lackey, the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and supposed consummate clutch performer as anointed by his former manager. In the blue corner is Javier "Can't Handle New York" Vazquez, the man responsible for one of the more infamous home runs in Yankee history, who was called out publicly by Ozzie Guillen for not stepping up when it counts.

There is no question as to who has the better postseason resume. Lackey was thrust into the spotlight at an early age, his team reaching the playoffs in his first season in the majors and asking him to start Game 7 of the World Series only four days after his 24th birthday. Since then, he's been back to the postseason 5 times and pitched a total of 78 innings to a 3.12 ERA.

Vazquez, on the other hand, was trapped on bad Expos teams (no offense, Jonah) for the first six years of his career, and didn't pitch during October until 2004. His performance in the postseason has been pretty dreadful (10.34 ERA), but he's only had a chance to throw 15 2/3 innings in the playoffs.

Do these reputations carry over into the regular season? Do their postseason resumes line up with how they handle pressure during games throughout the year? We know the answer to that question when it comes to Vazquez, as we have assessed his clutch reputation at length here and in other places.

That first and more in-depth inquiry into Vazquez's purported lack of clutchiferousness began with his FIP/ERA differential. Coincidentally, Lackey and Vazquez have identical 3.83 career FIPs. However, Lackey's career ERA is 3.81 while Vazquez's is 4.19. Leaving aside team defense - which would be very difficult to quantify over multiple years and teams - it's helpful to look at situational and leverage statistics when trying to explain FIP/ERA differentials.

There are some notable similarities between the Vazquez and Lackey in the chart to the right. Both pitch better with the bases empty than with runners on. They have similar tOPS+ distributions when the score of the game is within 4 runs.

Naturally, the biggest differences come in the smallest sample sizes. Lackey has done much better with the bases loaded than Vazquez and far worse when the game is out of hand.

Both Lackey's distributions are optimal and both are significant. If you could choose a situation to pitch your best in, it would be when the bases were loaded. If you had to give up runs, you would prefer to allow them when the margin of the game was greater than four runs. But there is a limit to how much these numbers can tell us. Lackey has only 141 plate appearances with the bases loaded while Vazquez has 163.

The sample sizes are larger for when the margin is greater than four (394 for Lackey, 811 for Vazquez) but those at bats are by definition less important. Lackey is obviously better in those situations, but not likely by as much as the numbers indicate.

What about the leverage index, though? While Lackey's numbers don't tell a coherent, progressive story like Vazquez's do, it's still clear that he pitches his worst in high leverage situations. Again, high leverage is based on the smallest sample size among the three levels, but each pitcher has over 1000 plate appearances to draw upon. So perhaps Lackey can't simply summon his best performances when the stakes increase.

If there was something about Lackey's internal constitution that gave him to ability to elevate his performance under pressure, wouldn't it show up in the leverage index? Shouldn't he be able to sense when the game is on the line and reach back for a little extra?

This contradiction begins to chip away not at Lackey's resume in particular but at the manufactured archetype of the "big game pitcher". It's one thing to have had good results in the postseason but it's another entirely to universally improve as the leverage increases. You can argue that the playoff results are more important, but Lackey has only faced 328 batters in postseason play. I think the regular season numbers tell us more.

While it may be convenient to label certain pitchers as big time performers and others as choke artists, they rarely fall neatly into one category or another. More correctly, there are players who have performed well in certain situations and others who have not.

As far as this season goes, it will be interesting to see who is better, Lackey or Vazquez. It's very likely that Lackey will have a lower ERA than Vazquez but based on their respective histories, Vazquez should be the better bet to throw more than 200 innings. However, perhaps this is the year that Vazquez's heroic workload over the past decade-plus catches up with him and it's also the first time in 3 years Lackey makes more than 30 starts.

Time will tell, but remember that the Yankees only need to get 2/3 the performance out of Vazquez to get as much value as the Sox do out of Lackey.

12 Days Until Spring Training: Gil McDougald

In his twelve years as Yankee manager, Casey Stengel won ten AL pennants and seven World Series. While having all time greats like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and White Ford at his disposal certainly helped, much of Stengel's success stemmed from his ability to coax worthwhile contributions from virtually his entire roster. Stengel was one the first managers to popularize a platoon system, and he was a master at it.

The Old Perfessor had an ever rotating cast of good players that he moved in and out of the line up around his cornerstones. First basemen like Joe Collins, Tommy Henrich, Johnny Mize, and Moose Skowron. Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Bobby Brown, Billy Johnson, Billy Hunter, and Andy Carey in the infield. Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Cliff Mapes, Jackie Jensen, Johnny Lindell, Bob Cerv, Irv Noren, Elston Howard, Enos Slaughter, Norm Siebern, and Hector Lopez in the outfield. And a seemingly limitless cast of pitchers shuffling between the bullpen and starting, without anything resembling a regular starting rotation. But perhaps no player was a better fit in the Stengel system than Gil McDougald.

The San Francisco born McDougald signed with the Yankees in early 1948. He spent three years in the minors, hitting .340 and slugging .510 through three different levels. In Spring Training in 1951, Stengel asked the career second baseman to learn each infield position. It would be a career altering decision. Despite never having played in AAA, McDougald broke camp with the big club. Mickey Mantle was far and away the most heralded rookie on the club, but come season's end it was the .306/.396/488 (142 OPS+) batting line of McDougald that earned Rookie of the Year honors and a ninth place finish in the MVP voting. He also became the first rookie to hit a grand slam in the World Series, as the Yankees captured the third of their record five consecutive championships.

In the field, McDougald split his time between second and third base. Through 1955 he would continue to split time between the two positions, spending two seasons as the team's primary third baseman, two as the primary second baseman, and making at least seventeen appearances at his secondary position each year. Throughout, McDougald continued to produce on offense, posting OPS+ ranging from 101 to 117 during these years.

1956 saw McDougald take up a new spot on the diamond. At 39 years old, Phil Rizzuto just couldn't cut it as the everyday shortstop any longer, with both his offense and defense slipping below acceptable standards. As such, Stengel shifted the trusty McDougald to the most important defensive spot on the field. Gil had a remarkable season as the shortstop, playing above average defense, posting his best offensive season since his rookie year, finishing seventh in the MVP voting, and still managing to see time at second and third.

McDougald remained at shortstop in 1957, when a horrific event nearly caused him to quit the game. In Cleveland on May 7th, the Tribe sent Herb Score to the mound. Score had been outstanding through his first two years in the league, winning Rookie of the Year and leading the AL in strikeouts both seasons, and in shutouts and ERA+ in 1956. With no one out in the top of the first and Hank Bauer on first, McDougald stepped to the plate. He lined Score's offering right back up the middle, striking the pitcher square in the eye. The ball caromed on the fly to third baseman Al Smith, who threw to first to double up Bauer. Score lay on the mound in a pool of his own blood. His season was over; his promising career would never be the same. McDougald vowed to retire if Score lost sight in the eye.

Score didn't lose sight, and McDougald stayed on through the 1960 season. Tony Kubek's arrival usurped McDougald as the everyday shortstop, but he continued to be a valuable member of the roster, playing well all over the infield and producing offensively. Just 32 at the end of the 1960 season, McDougald was to be left unprotected by the Yankees for the expansion draft that would fill the rosters of the Angels and Senators.

Projected to be a top pick, McDougald instead elected to retire, in order to remain close to his large family and their New Jersey home as well as to tend to his growing maintenance business. In his ten year career, McDougald played on eight pennant winners, five World Series winners, and five All-Star teams. He posted a career 111 OPS+, had three top ten MVP finishes, and won the Rookie of the Year, while making 284 appearances at shortstop, 508 at third base, and 599 at second base.

Unfortunately, an injury suffered during his playing days began to alter McDougald's life. In 1955, while picking up a ball during batting practice, McDougald was struck above the left ear by a line drive. Diagnosed with a concussion, he was back on the field in days. But the blow had fractured McDougald's skull and damaged his inner ear. He lost hearing in his left ear after some time, and then gradually in his right as well, causing to him to resign from his post as Fordham University baseball coach in 1976. He was left deaf until a cochlear implant restored his hearing in 1994. He's spent the past 15 years as an advocate for the hearing impaired.

(Photos from LIFE photo archive)

Yet Another Joba To The Bullpen Post

Good morning Fackers. As our Spring Training countdown will remind you later on today, it's just twelve more days until pitchers and catchers report. It's been a pretty interesting off-season all things considered, but every year, the flow of transactions and real news invariably slows to a drip. That leaves us prone to rumor and conjecture, and apparently "us" includes "real journalists" as well.

Wednesday, Joel Sherman dipped into the trusty old Joba-to-the-bullpen bag to conjure up a story with a new twist, proposing that the Yankees lean on their on their one through four starters, wave the white flag on the fifth spot, and place both Chamberlain and Hughes in the pen to create a lockdown relief corps.

I was willing to just let it slide for what it was - a baseless hypothetical proposal during the dead days of the off-season - but as with any Joba-to-the-bullpen story it inevitably had legs. Even at that, I was willing to the let the usual arguments - make-up, potential, the eight inning, the succesor to Mo, etc. - play out and let the story die.

But then Dave Pinto put forth an interesting and unorthodox proposal that I thought brought something new to the table: let both pitch out of the bullpen, but utilize them much like pre-LaRussian firemen, pitching multiple innings at a time. Theoretically, not only would it allow both to pitch enough innings in 2010 to leave them well positioned for starting roles in 2011, but it would give the Yankees a highly effective bullpen while allowing them to carry fewer relief pitchers. As a result, they would conceivably be able to have a better bench, whether it be with a third catcher, another utility infielder, a pinch running specialist, etc.

Pinto's proposal intrigued me for a few reasons. Firstly, I like these type of "outside the box" ideas that challenge prevailing roster construction ideas. Secondly, I love any realistic plan that results in an eleven - or even better a ten - man pitching staff. Thirdly, it reminded me of something I proposed two years ago, as to how the Yankees should best deploy Chamberlain for the 2008 season when 40% of the rotation figured to be Hughes and Ian Kennedy and all three had fairly restrictive innings limits.

That said, interesting as Pinto's proposal is, I don't think that 2010 is the time to try it with Chamberlain. The Yankees have handled him very carefully for the past three seasons to have him in the position he is now. He's primed to enter 2010 with no restrictions, capable of being a fully vetted starting pitcher for the entirety of the season. As such, the intrigue and potential fringe benefits of Pinto's proposal aren't enough to punt on the opportunity to just let Joba pitch this year. Yes, he was frustrating to watch for much of last year, but that's typical of any 23 year old pitcher, let alone one who's had Joba's hype and expectations heaped upon him. Let's see what he can do this year before we give up on the Joba starter project.

Hughes, on the other hand, presents a difficult case. Because of the way he was used last year, he will likely have a 2010 innings limit that proves restrictive. It almost assuredly wouldn't permit him to be a starter all season long, and there's no guarantee that there's a rotation spot for him anyway. But, if the Yankees utilize him strictly as a traditional set up man again in 2010, Hughes will be ill-prepared to assume a starting role in 2011. The organization has to find a way to get Hughes an appropriate amount of innings this year, and in his case Pinto's suggestion may have some merit.

In the end, Pinto's proposal won't happen. While I would like an extra position player or two on the bench, Dave Cameron had an excellent look Tuesday as to how filling the fringe of the roster with pitchers rather than position players is probably the better move. Further, in light of the recent extensions signed by Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander, both Rob Abruzzese at Bronx Baseball Daily and Joe Pawlikowski at RAB note the importance of the Yankees developing Chamberlain and Hughes as top flight starters of their own. Pawlikowski further notes that it's unlikely for a contending team like the Yankees to experiment with such a non-traditional technique. And if that's not enough water thrown on the fire, a "high level source" told Baseball Prospectus' Will Carrol there's "no bleeping way" both pitchers wind up in the pen.

Well, that killed two more days of the off-season. Just twelve more until we can move on to real news like who's "in the best shape of his life" and who's been on fire through two dozen at bats against replacement level competition despite years worth of sucking in the Major Leauges. It's not much, but it beats speculating about Joba to the pen or where Damon will land.

*No dead horses were harmed during the writing of this post