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Scouting Pitchers: A Closer Look at the Yankees' Arms

James Benkard

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Let’s take a look at the staff of the reigning World Champions, who have the best record in baseball.

CC Sabathia became the majors’ first 20-game winner with seven strong innings in Baltimore on September 18. He is first one this decade, and there have only been an average of 35 twenty-game winners each of the past three decades. It is the first time in Sabathia’s career he has won 20. He won 19 in 2007 and in 2009.

Sabathia has what I termed a couple of columns ago a “high school athlete’s” delivery. It isn’t textbook - an NCAA Division I pitching coach might have overhauled it. Sabathia cocks and wraps his arm around his body quickly and in stages. It isn’t an unbroken motion, and his arm trails behind his body as he comes through. Sabathia has been very durable, giving credence to the argument that there is no one delivery that will shield pitchers from injury. Of course, it helps if a pitcher is as athletic and hard-working as Sabathia.

Sabathia doesn’t throw 95-97 anymore, which I attribute to his unorthodox delivery and his 2,100 innings. He will throw his 91-95 mph fastball, 76-81 mph curve, and 83-87 mph changeup all over the strike zone. Sabathia is able to throw more off-speed strikes than just about any power pitcher. His curve has a slider’s bite, and he throws his changeup so hard that hitters start to swing at it before identifying it correctly.

Sabathia works ahead in the count and induces weak contact. His 2010 total of 15.0 P/IP is one of the best in the league. His delivery gives his pitches late movement, and hitters have less time to react. There aren’t many situations in which Sabathia has struggled this year. Hitters have been successful against him on the first pitch (.362), but that’s not an unusual number. More disciplined hitters are able to work walks by laying off Sabathia’s high fastballs, High-average hitters can have success against him by hitting the ball where it is pitched. The Yankees’ infield defense has some holes, so Sabathia could use some improvement there.

I scouted Phil Hughes in 2009 as he was becoming Mariano Rivera’s setup man. He has refined his repertoire and won 16 games this year as a starter. Hughes works hitters inside with his 92-95 mph fastball and uses his excellent 72-76 mph curve to both left- and right-handers. Hughes’ fastball command is very good for a young pitcher. Because of his coiled delivery, his fastball doesn’t sink or run, but he hits his spots with it. Like a veteran, Hughes can jump ahead in the count with a curveball.

Hughes has polished his high-80s cut fastball. It has a slider’s velocity, but breaks less and later. The cutter has recently surged in popularity. Some scouts believe pitchers such as Brett Myers and Chad Billingsley have lost velocity on their four-seamers by throwing too many cutters. Hughes and the Yankees are playing it smart by not over-using the pitch. Hughes also throws a mediocre 83-86 mph changeup. It doesn’t move, but to his credit, he throws it for strikes and gets some outs with it.
Hughes’ statistical indicators are decent, but can use some improvement. He is a flyball pitcher (0.54 G/F, 24 homers allowed in 163 innings) and is toward the inefficient end of the spectrum (17.0 P/IP). Hughes’ efficiency will improve. He breezes through low-pitch innings before his pitch count is blown up by an inning with shaky command. I’d like to be optimistic about Hughes improving his G/F, but he looks like a flyball and strikeout pitcher. The Yankees are limiting Hughes’ innings heading into October, when he has the potential to jump onto the national stage. Despite his second-half struggles, he is the club’s second-best starter
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After missing two months with a groin strain, Andy Pettitte came off the DL on September 19 to limit the Orioles to one run over six innings. Pettitte looked stiff early on, but loosened up to hit his usual 89-91 with his fastball. His mid-70s curveball and low-80s changeup are still effective, and he works his usual inside-outside game with aplomb. Pettitte’s game is greater than the sum of its parts. He is the all-time leader in post-season innings (249) and wins (18), and ranks third in strikeouts (164). People have counted Pettitte out for years, but come October, he will deliver six quality innings per start.

A.J. Burnett has battled major command and delivery problems (10-13, 5.08). MLB.com’s John Smoltz broke down some of Burnett’s troubles earlier this month. Burnett has always had a loose-limbed motion that gave his pitches snap but caused wildness. He is still hitting 94-95, and his mid-80s curveball has a great movement. Yet Burnett has been all over the place. He has hit 16 batters, most in the AL, and thrown 15 wild pitches. Burnett’s strikeout rate has also dropped.
Burnett did post a 2.00 ERA in July, and had some good second-half games. He has a neutral G/F ratio (0.87) but has generated 23 double plays. Despite his difficulties, Burnett’s efficiency (16.6 P/IP) is on his career norm. He is reportedly healthy. Still, it’s hard to forecast Burnett returning to his former success. The Yankees might stabilize him for the playoffs, but I think he is done as a premier starter.

I have the same reservations about Javier Vazquez, whose stuff has declined markedly. He is barely cracking 90 mph, and seems to be pushing the ball to the plate. Vazquez’s slider velocity is still in the low-80s, and he has a 76-79 mph curve and low-80s changeup. Yet in a game where late movement is everything, Vazquez’s stuff has flattened out. Hitters can identify the pitches early, and too often are either taking or hammering them. Vazquez was effective from June to July (6-2, 3.30 ERA), so he may still regain some consistency. If he makes the playoff roster, he’ll be the long man out of the bullpen.

I can’t contribute more than you already know about Mariano Rivera. Despite being down to 91-93 mph with his legendary cut fastball, Rivera is having one of his best years, with 31 saves and a 0.80 WHIP in 50 games. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote an excellent piece on Rivera in 2009. Rivera’s game hasn’t changed much: he still comes inside on everyone with the cutter, breaking bat after bat. Once hitters have backed off, Rivera will go away. Rivera has a 0.74 ERA in 133 postseason innings - the lowest of all-time.

It’s not clear who Rivera’s heir apparent will be. After Joba Chamberlain was moved to the bullpen, he seemed a logical choice. Yet he has been inconsistent, with a 4.45 ERA. Chamberlain’s stuff remains good – a 94-96 mph fastball and an 83-87 mph slider. His problem has been inconsistent command. Hitters seem too comfortable against him. As I have noted before, Chamberlain has sped up his delivery since he came to the majors, and this seems to be a negative development.

Kerry Wood has allowed just one run in 20 innings, striking out 24, to help bridge the gap to Rivera. I’ve been impressed by how many curves and sliders Wood is throwing, and how well he is commanding them. David Robertson is another solid, live arm. He throws in the low 90s with a hard 80-84 mph curveball and a mid-80s changeup. Robertson’s efficiency numbers are way in the wrong direction (19.3 P/IP), which I hope a reader can explain to me. His control doesn’t seem that bad.

With Damaso Marte likely gone for the year, the Yankees will be relying on Boone Logan to be their primary left-handed specialist. Logan throws harder than one might expect of someone in that role (92-93), and he has a low-80s slider. Chad Gaudin is a serviceable mop-up man, as he throws up to 93 mph with a high-80s split-finger and 75-78 mph curveball.

Heading into the playoffs, the Yankees have the best offense in the major leagues, the probable Cy Young winner, and two of the best post-season pitchers of all time. While the starters besides Sabathia have had their struggles, the Yankees have a lot of moving pieces they can throw at the opposition. They have an NL-style manager who is aggressive at taking out a pitcher when he is struggling to find the best matchup.

That said, the club doesn’t have a young pitcher who has come up and made an impact. There isn’t a higher-level pitching prospect in their system with nearly the upside of catcher Jesus Montero. Still, many clubs would love to have the Yankees’ problems. If Texas or Tampa Bay is going to make it to the World Series, they will need the karma and energy of youth to carry the day over the on-base machine that is the Yankees' offense.