Throw Another Log on the Fire?

Is it too late to add Javier Vazquez to the pile of Yankee starting pitchers who have gone sour under Mel Stottlemyre’s not-so-watchful eye? All signs point to “no”. The biggest trade the Yankees made over the winter, one designed to inject some fresh blood into their pitching staff, appears to have flopped. Not that it worked out so well for the other guys (whom I’ll get to momentarily). It may be the result of several years of heavy usage (902.2 innings over the last four seasons) catching up with him or even an undiagnosed injury rather than anything he’s changed since coming to the Yanks, but right now, he stinks like a carcass rotting in the desert sun.

Since the All-Star break, Vazquez has put up a 7.95 ERA over 10 starts, and on Friday he was bombed for the second time in three starts (the first being that 22-0 debacle) and failed to make it out of the third inning. His ERA for the season now sits at an ugly 4.94, but even more worrisome are his other trends.

Vazquez’s strikeout rate has declined sharply, from 9.4 per 9 innings last year to 6.8 this year, well below his career mark of 7.87 coming into 2004. Even more troubling, it’s continuing to drop, down to 6.1 since the break. His walk rate has risen slightly over last year, from 2.22 to 2.55. His real problem, like that of Carl Spackler is gophers: 1.5 per nine innings, up from 1.1 last year. He hasn’t been especially unlucky on balls in play; the batting average on balls in play against him has been a reasonable .276.

Using the quick-and-dirty Fielding Independent Pitching formula ((13*HR + 3*BB – 2*K)/IP + 3.20) to approximate what his ERA should be based on those peripherals, we can see how these negative trends pile up for Javy:

         2002  2003  2004

ERA 3.91 3.24 4.94
FIP ERA 3.86 3.43 4.70

OK, so he’s been a little unlucky overall this year according to FIP, whereas he was a bit lucky last year (though his BABIP of .285 was again quite reasonable). The evening out of his luck is hinting that his past two seasons are a bit closer together in quality than they might appear, with a 1.27 run difference in FIP ERA as opposed to a 1.7 run difference in actual ERA. Still, rising gophers and falling K rates do not project well for a pitcher who the Yanks signed for four years and $45 million beyond this season. Like the detectives in the Big Lebowski looking for The Dude’s Creedence tapes, one can only hope that Mel Stottlemyre has more than a whole department trying to solve Vazquez’s woes.

If you want to talk about luck, however, or the lack of same, look no further than how the Expos fared in the Vazquez deal. Coming off of a .284/.422/.472 performance in 2003 (his Age 24 season), Nick Johnson looked for all intents and purposes like a stud in the making. But back woes kept him out for the season’s first seven weeks, he came back to hit a meager .251/.359/.398 with seven homers and 33 RBI, and his year ended ended three weeks ago, when he fractured his cheekbone on a ball that took a bad hop. In light of his mediocre performance, arbitration-eligible status and the Expos ridiculous ownership situation, Will Carroll has suggested that Johnson may be a non-tender candidate. Hmmmm… meanwhile the other position player the Yanks gave up, outfielder Juan Rivera, has put up a .286/.341/.422 line that’s essentially below par as well, somewhere between the 40th and 50th percentiles of his PECOTA projection, though with a slightly different shape of his performance (more OBP, less SLG).

Speaking of Carroll, I did dig up something I wrote back when the Vazquez deal went down:

The concern is his usage. He was second only to Kerry Wood in Pitcher Abuse Points this season. I spoke to Will Carroll about him last night and he says that Vazquez is a guy who doesn’t have a great build for a pitcher and that he tends to develop minor injuries (such as a calf strain or a blister) or fatigue and requires occasional extra rest, but that the good news is that he responds well. Will writes today that Vazquez is a “bright yellow light,” which is a bit alarming, but adds that the Yanks know how to deal with fragile pitchers. Furthermore:
Over the last four seasons, he has been able to pitch over 200 innings with effectiveness. Given he started that streak at age 22, one could look at Vazquez’s history as a ticking time bomb or as proof that we have a new member of the Abuse Sponge Club (Livan Hernandez, Proprietor). Vazquez is also the poster child for V-Loss. After any long rest, his velocity and movement on his fastball recover quickly, pointing to fatigue, not injury, as the culprit in his occasional lapses.

As Will notes, the Yanks won’t push him as hard as the Expos did. While Vazquez threw 231 innings for the Expos, no Yankee starter threw more than Mussina’s 215 — roughly an inning less for every two starts. The Yanks have more incentive to protect such a valuable commodity — both for the postseason and for a longer-term deal, should they choose to pursue one. And since the deal wasn’t contingent on the two parties agreeng to an extension, the Yanks have a chance to wait and see what develops. The trade will look like a disaster if Vazquez comes up lame in 2004, but it will look even worse if they sign him to a $40 million deal and he develops rotator cuff or elbow trouble a year down the road.

Vazquez is nowhere near as high up on this year’s Pitcher Abuse Point charts — 59th, in fact — but the bottom line is that the Yanks had better hope what hes showing right now is fatigue or they’re going to be up the creek very soon. Here’s hoping they can get him ironed out over the next few weeks.

• • •

I won’t let this day pass without noting the tragic events which happened three years ago, but neither do I wish to dwell on them for very long. I don’t keep this space to write about my politics and I know you don’t come hear to read about them either (so caveat emptor when it comes to the rest of today’s entry). The current presidential campaign has politicized September 11 in an absolutely abhorrent manner; returning to NYC after the Republican National Convention I feel as though my fair city had been submerged under a billion gallons of raw sewage while I was away, and the stench will continue to linger as the election approaches.

I can’t help but feel that so long as the current regime is in office and continues to infuriate the rest of the world with its bullying and isolationist policies, our country’s risk of being attacked will remain much higher than if we put George W. Bush out on his ear in November. If you though September 11 was a scary thing to watch on TV, just know that it was that much more terrifying and heartbreaking for it to happen in the city you call home. I don’t ever want to go through that again, but I have zero confidence that Bush and his henchmen are making the world a safer place where such a tragedy can be prevented.

Enough politics. It’s with great sadness that I reflect on the men and women who lost their lives that fateful day and their grieving families as well. I’m truly a lucky guy, and despite the cynicism apparent in the two paragraphs above, I count my blessings every single day.

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