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Warning signs

Faulty starting pitching could cripple Yankees' World Series hopes

Updated: Wednesday September 1, 2004 10:58AM
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The Mighty Have Fallen
Starting pitching has let down the Yankees.
Year W-L PCT ERA Rank* IP/GS Rank*
2003 83-42 .664 4.02 3 6.6 1
2004 57-36 .612 4.95 8 5.9 8
* AL

The Yankees have a serious problem, and it's not just the hot breath of the Red Sox on the back of their necks.

New York doesn't have starting pitchers who can get them deep into games on a consistent basis. They have not had such pitchers all year, and now they hope three pitchers, none younger than 35 and all coming back from injuries, can suddenly find that kind of form in the last month of the season. The likelihood that Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina and Orlando Hernandez all will be reliable October starters is remote. If the rotation's five-month form holds into October, New York is a first-round knockout waiting to happen.

"What we need is length out of our starting pitchers," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Moose probably needs another start or two before he gets there. El Duque is still developing arm strength. The one thing we've always stressed here during our success is the role of the starting pitchers. That's where it all begins for us."

The Yankees took an old rotation into the 2003 postseason, but the group had performed well and proved durable all season. In addition, Mussina, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells were battle-hardened, having pitched well under the duress of postseason games for the Yankees. They did not disappoint, even though New York came up two wins short of a world championship. The foursome combined for 13 quality starts in 17 postseason games. (The Marlins had eight in 17 games.) The New York starters pitched into the seventh inning 12 times.

Pettitte and Wells departed as free agents and Clemens into retirement, albeit briefly, before joining Pettitte in Houston. New York traded for Brown and Javier Vazquez and gave Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber spots in the rotation with them. Five months later, Contreras is gone and only Vazquez has been close to reliable -- and he's never pitched in a big game. Like many pitchers who switch from the NL to the AL, Vazquez has had trouble with the deeper lineups. He often abandons his fastball, with mixed results. His ERA (4.32) is marginally better than the league average, a trait you won't find in the baseball dictionary under "ace."

Hernandez, signed as a free agent in March despite questions about his arm strength, has been such a revelation that Torre was asked if Hernandez could be a Game 1 starter in the postseason. Torre didn't discount the notion, though he clearly has more pressing concerns.

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The Yankees' great rotation turnover has not worked out well. (For a comparison between New York's starters in 2003 and 2004, see chart, above.)

In short, the Yankees' rotation has been about a full run worse this year. What was the most reliable staff in the league has degenerated into mediocrity. The difference between the Yankees' rotation and the Detroit Tigers', for instance, is negligible. New York's starters have given their team exactly three more innings over 130 games.

The Yankees' starters just don't pitch deep enough into games, which is wearing down relievers Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon. Other warning signs for the Yankees include:

• one complete game all season, threatening the franchise low of three in 1991;

• three shutouts, threatening the franchise low of four in 1988 and 1926 (excluding strike years);

• a streak of 15 games in which Yankees starters have given up at least four runs and lost six of seven decisions.

There is this feeling around the Yankees that Brown and Mussina suddenly will become their old, dominating selves any day now. Such thinking ignores the reality that they haven't pitched to that level all season. The two of them have combined for only 14 quality starts in 40 tries. Since June 9, Brown and Mussina are a combined 4-6 with a 5.95 ERA in 14 starts, with many others missed because of time on the disabled list.

Brown, bothered by back trouble, occasionally disappears from the club to be put back together physically like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. His stuff is several degrees below what it was in his prime. Mussina, recovering from elbow pain, has lasted at least six innings with no more than three earned runs only five times in 21 starts. When Torre tried to push him into the seventh inning Sunday in Toronto, the Blue Jays surged ahead to hand Mussina and the Yankees a defeat.

Mussina's health and ineffectiveness reminded me of a conversation I had with him in spring training. The camp buzz was that Brown and Contreras were the x-factors of the team. Brown, 39, was a start-by-start pitcher, meaning he was always an injury waiting to happen. But if healthy, Brown could be a big winner -- though he hadn't been a 15-game winner in four years. Contreras had the stuff to make him a big winner, also, though he seemed fragile and he could just as easily be a bust.

When I mentioned those choices to Mussina, the only holdover from the 2003 rotation, he replied, "What about me? What if something happens to me? People are taking me as a given because I'm the one guy who's back." I conceded that he was right. The one "given" in the rotation was more important than all these other pitchers who may or may not work out.

The Yankees were prepared to deal with contingencies with Brown, Contreras, Lieber and, to a much lesser extent, Vazquez. But Mussina they never worried about -- until they had to.

It's officially time to worry. September is here and the Yankees have no starting pitcher they can trust to take them through the seventh inning of a big game. Last year they had four who could play such a role. Hernandez? Not there yet with the arm strength. Vazquez? He's in new territory. Lieber? His stuff is too ordinary, especially against left-handed hitters. Did I mention Esteban Loaiza? No, and neither does anybody around the Yankees.

Brown and Mussina are they keys to what becomes of the Yankees. They each have about six starts left in the regular season. How the Yankees feel about themselves in October will be riding on their shoulders.

The September Comeback Myth

The Florida Marlins have a mathematical shot at the wild card, but if they are going to earn a chance to defend their World Series championship, they'll have to overcome history to get into the postseason.

Comeback Kids
Teams that overcame September deficits
Year Team Deficit Result
2003 Cubs 2.5 Lost NLCS
2003 Twins 1.5 Lost ALDS
2003 Red Sox 1.5 Lost ALCS
2002 Giants 1 Lost WS
2001 Cards 2 Lost NLDS
2000 A's 2 Lost ALDS
1998 Rangers 2.5 Lost ALDS
1997 Giants 2.5 Lost NLDS
1996 Cards 2.5 Lost NLCS
1995 Yankees 2 Lost ALDS

While a four-game deficit in the wild card to start September doesn't sound like much, it's huge. Big September comebacks are a myth, at least in the wild-card era. No team in the history of the wild card (since 1995) has ever reached the playoffs after starting September more than 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.

What about the 1995 Mariners? Yes, they did make up a 7 1/2 game deficit on the Angels in the AL West, but Seattle actually started that September tied for the wild-card lead with Texas.

You have to go all the way back to the 1993 Braves to find a postseason team that came back from more than 2 1/2 games out of playoff spot in September. In the Last Great Race, Atlanta caught San Francisco that year after starting September 3 1/2 games behind the Giants in the pre-wild card NL West.

The standings don't change all that much in September. Of the 72 postseason teams in the wild-card era, 62 of them, or 86 percent, began September either n the lead or tied for a playoff spot. In the nine-year history of the wild card, only 10 clubs came back to make the playoffs, including three teams who made it last year (see chart, right). None of the 10 teams stayed hot enough to win the World Series. They are a combined 5-10 in postseason series.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.