Are the Yankees any good at developing pitchers?

Kennedy has, indeed, very quietly matured into an Ace.  He leads his contending team in wins, innings, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.  Unfortunately, that team is the Arizona Diamondbacks.

For the Yankees, in 2008, Kennedy imploded in dramatic fashion.  He missed most of 2009 and by 2010 was little more than a toss-in in a trade headlined by Curtis Granderson, Max Scherzer, and Austin Jackson.

Chamberlain, still a Yankee, is four seasons deep in his major-league career.  His numbers are humble, made moreso by the fact it now appears unlikely he’ll ever pitch his way out of the bullpen.  Following major surgery, the Yankees will get maybe one more healthy season out of him before he hits free agency.  Perhaps the biggest contribution Joba has made to the game is affixing his name to a debate about innings limitations and the development process for young pitchers.  The “Joba Rules” are viewed by many as par exemplar of what not to do.

Hughes’s young career, meanwhile, is a synthesis of the other two.  He imploded in the early months of ’08, bounced back an forth between the bullpen, the rotation, and the minor leagues, seemed to have reached his potential when he made the All-Star team in 2010, but has since experienced a progressive downward spiral, featuring mysterious injuries, psychological meltdowns, declining velocity, and spotty command.  As with Joba, as his salary increases, his production diminishes.

Pitching is, of course, a famously volatile commodity.  Nobody has a perfect record developing blue-chip arms into top-flight major-leaguers.  Even the Giants, with their outstanding reputation for drafting and developing pitching, have some notable misses (Noah Lowry, Kevin Correia, David Aardsma, etc.).  However, as excitement mounts over the ascendency of Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances, I think it is important to ask: During the incredibly successful fourteen-season administration of Brian Cashman, where has all the pitching come from?

Chamberlain, Hughes, and Kennedy are just the most recent in a long line pitching prospects who have failed to live up to the front office’s expectations.  Remember Andy Brown, Dave Walling, and Jon Skaggs?  No reason why you should.  They are first-rounders who flamed out long before they got within sniffing distance of the major leagues.  How about Jeff Karstens?  He, like Kennedy, improved dramatically after leaving the Yankee organization.  To a slightly lesser extent, the same is true of Ted Lilly, Randy Choate, and Tyler Clippard.  And then there’s the disastrous signing of high-profile international free agent, Kei Igawa, who seems to have gotten worse in each of the five seasons he’s spent in the Yankee farm system.

In truth, in the last fourteen seasons, the only homegrown pitchers I can come up with who lived to expectations are Chien-Ming Wang, Scott Proctor, and David Robertson (and, to be fair, with Proctor and Robertson the expectations were pretty low).  Three pitchers in fourteen years.

The unraveling of 2007 first-rounder, Andrew Brackman, at AAA, is the latest bad omen.

It’s a pretty paltry record.  What are the possible causes?

1.) Bad Luck

I don’t like to chalk a decade’s worth of data up to the whim of fortune, but it certainly isn’t beyond a reasonable doubt.  Pitching is a volatile commodity.  Yada, yada, yada.

2.) New York is Unkind

The leap from the high minors to the big leagues is physically and psychologically taxing to begin with.  Growing pains are inevitable.  Young pitchers need to learn how to respond to adversity.  They need the patience and forgiveness of teammates, coaches, fans, and front office.  Many would argue that this is less forthcoming in New York.  Certainly, if one looks hard enough, one can always find a vicious critic in the Big Apple.  On top of that, the AL East offers the toughest competition in the majors, the ballpark isn’t always forgiving, and the defense, if we’re honest, hasn’t been consistently stellar during the years in question.  These factors could combine not only to erode the confidence of a young pitcher, but even cause fatigue and injury.

3.) Developing Pitching is Not Cashman’s Strength

Every GM has a weakness.  Jim Hendry has about two dozen.  One could look at the track record of Yankee pitching prospects and conclude that, while Cashman and his staff have been pretty successful identifying “live arms,” they have perhaps been remiss in their evaluation of durability and psychology.  The Cashman Era has been, for the most part, joyous for Yankee supporters.  One can forgive him this peccadillo.

If you are prone to believing that either or both of the latter two explanations are relevant, than I think this track record should be taken into account when the Yankees are sizing up their trade options.  Self-awareness is a virtue.  Banuelos and Betances may actually be more valuable to another team than they would be to the Yankees, because the chances of them reaching their full potential might be higher.  If both teams can recognize the existence of that disparity, than it is an opportunity for both to improve.

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

26 thoughts on “Are the Yankees any good at developing pitchers?

  1. jerry q

    I have thought this for a long time. That is why they are always desperate for a top level pitcher almost every year!

  2. BrienJackson

    I think I would quibble a bit with the way you describe the Big 3. Hughes was a success, and now something is wrong with his arm. He may adjust, he may not, but through basically no fault of anyone he's having physical issues. That's just a fact of life with pitching. With Kennedy, maybe they gave up on him too early, but I don't think that's really fair to say. Far from a throw in, I don't think Arizona agrees to the trade without getting him, so in that case he's a key cog in the deal that gets Granderson. I'd like to have ole' IPK back right now, but at the expense of not having Granderson? Probably not.

    No argument at all on Joba though. For whatever reason, they just flat out gave up on him after just about a year. Inexplicably stupid.

    • Maybe Kennedy was crucial to the deal, but at the time, he was viewed as less integral than Grandy, Scherzer, or either Jackson, and was probably neck-and-neck with Coke.

      It was, in fact, exactly the kind of trade I'm endorsing, where Kennedy was way more valuable to Arizona than he was to New York, and both teams benefitted from the swap. During his first several months with Arizona, Kennedy still showed a propensity for nibbling, got behind in counts, and made himself more susceptible to homers and big innings. In New York, this might have been even worse and he might've been sent down again or worse, turned into a reliever. In Arizona, there was little pressure and he was able to pitche through his mistakes, make adjustments over the course of the season, and become what I think we all thought he was capable of being, eventually, a top-of-the-rotation type starter.

      As for Hughes, sure, there's still time to right the ship, but he's now entering arbitration and the Yankees have basically gotten two good half seasons out of him, one as a reliever (a total of 6 WAR on his career). When you look at the other top prospects from '07/'08, I don't think you can deny that he's been a disappointment thusfar.

      • BrienJackson

        I meant to say that IPK was crucial for Arizona. Sure he might have seemed like an after thought to the Yankees, but Arizona doesn't agree to that deal without getting him and E-Jax. And for Hughes, I didn't mean to say that his value was great, just that I don't necessarily think the Yankees screwed anything up per se.

  3. BrienJackson

    Also, Karstens didn't really improve, he's just getting fabulously lucky so far this year.

    • I won't dispute that. Although, I would argue, it's a bit of both.

  4. MIke

    I'm just confused about Hughes in general right now. I've read everything here and everywhere else but what on earth is actually wrong with him? All the explanations don't deal with what I see and that's he's been pitching flat out terrible and lost his stuff. I'd like to think pitching skills don't just up and leave one day but nothing makes sense how someone so talented could end up so awful when they're still relatively young. Especially after last year when he proved his ceiling

    • I don't have a strong answer for you, Mike, but I can't help but feel that this is relevant:

      '06: 146 IP
      '07: 111IP
      '08: 70 IP
      '09: 105 IP (largely in relief)
      '10: 176 IP

      Needless to say, when you set out to build a pitcher's strength and workload, this is not an ideal strategy. The Yankees, obviously, can't control everything that caused it to work out this way, but it has been pretty well established that a 70 inning spike is hard on a young arm.

  5. hugh

    Thanks for a nice, considered article. I guess Brackman doesn't quite fit the hypothesis, having not reached the majors before struggling. Or are you suggesting a franchise-wide problem in the way the pitchers get coached?…

    Still on pitching, and not wanting to hijack the thread, but has anyone else thought it might be worth spelling Bart from time to time between now and October in order to stop his arm falling off before the postseason? Right now, he's the no.2 guy we're looking for in a trade, is he not? If we can keep him fit.

    Noesi/ Nova taking one in, say, four of his starts between now and then. How about it?

    • If there is a problem of developmental philosophy, it probably is not confined to the major-league level.

      On the other front, I can't see the harm in giving Colon an extra day here and there, especially in September, when you have the luxury of the expanded roster.

      I would caution, however, one of the things the Yankees seem to do more frequently than any franchise except the Cubs is move pitchers back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation. They are already doing this with Noesi and seem prepared to consider it with Nova. I'm not sure I'm a big fan of this strategy. There are some great precendents. Johan Santana got his feet wet in the Minnesota bullpen, for instance, as did Adam Wainwright, but Joba, Hughes, Liriano, Petit, and Correia give us reason for pause.

  6. Kurt

    I vote for #3. Cashman has a deplorable record when it comes to both developing and acquiring pitching. He's had some recent success with Sabathia, Garcia and Colon that deserves credit but when you examine his entire record of signing free agent pitchers, he has flushed about $200 million of the Steinbrenners' money down the toilet. Igawa, Burnett, Wright, Pavano, Feliciano, Farnsworth, Veras, Weaver, Neagle, Witasick, Hawkins. Just to mention the ones I can think of at the moment.

    • That list is cringe-worthy…though I would guess we could assemble a similar one for a lot of GMs. The biggest problem with not developing young pitching is that it forces you to spend in free agency, where it's a crapshoot for just about everybody.

      Take Sabean, for instance, who gets lots of credit for drafting and developing pitchers like Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, Sanchez, Wilson, etc. The Giants must be pitching experts, right?

      Sabean's also handed out some pretty ridiculous contracts. Zito is the obvious one, but also Kirk Reuter, Armando Benitez, etc. Even the best GMs are going to get burned on 30-40% of their pitching contracts, especially the multiyear deals.

  7. CS Yankee

    Good article

    I would diagree with the following however;
    1) IPK was the center-piece for Arizona…Coke was the only throw-in. Arizona wanted him big time after the Fall league. They parted with Scherzer (who was highly touted). Most felt Detroit did the best and the NYY gave the most (I was in the corner of having a solid CF that could reach 40 dingers per year).
    2) Joba was jerked around however he was drafted injured as was Brackman. This is extreme high reward/high risk.

    I think #1 & 2 are valid but #3 would be quite hard to confirm. Lilly was quite good when he left for Oakland but it seems they mostly draft and develop solid "middle guys" (C, 2B, SS & CF) and that has been the focus (less the last 4-5 years).

  8. Great post. I actually wrote a very similar piece back in April — http://www.yankeeanalysts.com/2011/04/do-the-yank

    Also, one nit — Proctor isn't/wasn't homegrown — he came over from the Dodgers in 2003 in the Robin Ventura trade.

    • Thanks, Larry. I gave the Yanks credit for Proctor because he did spent much of '04 and '05 with them in the minors, and didn't get an MLB experience with LA, but you're right, he's not "homegrown" in the sense that they got him as an amateur.

      It would appear, upon reading your piece from April and the comments, that what has happened with Hughes and Joba in the last few months has made people a little less reactionary to such critiques.

  9. forged

    So beyond considering this fact for its implications as far as trades go, how does the Yankees organization improve their ability to home-grow picthers?

    • I think Tom is speaking to this question below, with a pretty strong case. Impatience would be the best diagnosis I could level. As soon as a top prospect gets on the radar, there is an urgency to seek a contribution from him in the majors, often times as a fill-in starter or reliever. Once he's there, he is forced to become "results-oriented," which will preclude the development of secondary pitches, makes it less likely he'll get experience pitching in a wide variety of situations, more likely he'll overreact to bad outings, etc., etc. Not that I think the solution is clear cut, but here are some things I'd like to see the Yankees try:

      1.) Moving a pitcher under the age of 25 who was drafted as a starter to the bullpen is a matter of last resort. Relievers are acquirable by a wide variety of means. Starters are not. Give the kids every chance to prove their worth in the rotation and don't confuse them by altering their routines and their repertoires as stop-gap major-leaguers.

      2.) No high-profile prospect who's never thrown 120 innings in the minors gets inserted into the rotation and no pitcher under the age of 25 gets their workload upped by more than 30-40 innings in a given season. It won't eliminate injuries, but it's a start.

      3.) You don't make it a policy to throw a B or C-level pitching prospects into every trade. Those are the guys who become your relievers and fill-in starters. Don't treat them as utterly expendable. Phil Coke, Michael Dunn, Jeff Marquez, Mark Melancon, etc. If you have them available as stop-gaps and middle relievers you are a.) less likely to splurge on silliness like Rafael Soriano or trade for two months of Kerry Wood and b.) less likely to promote Manny Banuelos to pitch the sixth inning.

      • forged

        Thanks for the post and the response. Good food for thought.

  10. tom

    The Yankees don't develop pitchers, they graduate them. And now they've kicked it up a notch sticking top guys in the pen where you reinforce the thrower mentality. Hughes slider? Gone. Changeup? Don't need it in the pen Cutter? plays well in the pen, especially when the fastball has a little extra giddyup and you sit next to a guy whose made a career out of that 1 pitch. Is an 80% 4seam/cutter mix going to work long term as a starter?

    You don't see guys with any polish when they come up through the Yankees system – I don't expect them to be finished products but who was the last prospect you heard something like "he'll throw that pitch at any point in any count"? (other than a fastball).

    I don't watch much minor league action but at the higher levels I get the feeling that the top prospects focus on the strong pitches and trying to dominate hitters and the secondary stuff is just not worked on (those 3rd or 4th below average/fringy pitches). I'd rather see them sacrifice the ERA or K:BB ratio for a few months to work on pitches and develop them. Instead most of the focus seems to be on how any people did they walk, how many K's and what's the ERA (or FIP/xFIP).

  11. Jon

    There has been some speculation out there that Joba injured his shoulder during that game where he fell and landed on his bottom. This article (http://riveraveblues.com/2011/01/what-future-for-jobas-past-shoulder-injury-41935/) shows a change in velocity after that incident. It might also have contributed to his elbow injury, as a lack of shoulder stability could translate more force into the elbow.

    Just something to consider, doesn't mean the "Joba rules" didn't screw him up, but a freak injury could derail anybody.

    • Art Vandelay

      I agree with this. It's always been pretty clear that Joba was never the same pitcher after he had that shoulder injury. The dip in velocity was too great for it to be a coincidence. What I've always wondered is why. A few possible explanations: a) did Joba do some sort of permanent damage to his shoulder?; (b) did Joba decide that he needed to be less aggressive with his fastball in order to handle the workload of a starter? (seems doubtful given that he never regained his velocity, even as a reliever); or (c) did the Yanks make some mechanical adjustments so that Joba could handle a starter workload? I remember reading when Joba was younger that his mechanics might lead to arm trouble, which ended up being right. My totally subjective observation is that guys who throw that hard often end up being TJ candidates (e.g. Strasburg).

      Anyway, the point is that while I suspect the constant bouncing around did not help, there's a strong case to be made that Joba was either injury prone to begin with, suffered a freak permanent injury, or maybe both.

  12. Jacques

    Great post. I believe reason #2 is a crucial one. B/c we are a contending team every year as well as contending in the AL East, the team does not seem to have the patience to let their prospects to pitch without any pressure for every start. Few bad starts, they are either demoted or moved to 'pen.

    In the beginning of 2008, the Yankees seem to test that by inserting two rookies (later third w/ Joba) in the rotation. Unfortunately, Hughes and Kennedy did not stay healthy, while Joba had innings- issues. I suppose not every thing works out even when the rights buttons are pushed once in a while.

  13. prince hal

    The problem with the Yanks is that they are OK with developing sp however they are poor to identify which ones should be promoted.

    For instance, this season, Nova and Noesi are the real ones to look at, but they push the B and B guys.

    Just like petitte and Wand snuck in there, so has Nova and Noesi….but do they realize this?

  14. prince hal

    that is petitte and Wang

  15. Former O's Fan

    Many teams draft live arms – who may win and invariably have high Ks and BB in the minors – but never pan out in the majors because they don't have the necessary control. I guess we can blame Cashman as the guy in charge of it all, but is he really the organizational guy responsible for teaching an organizational philosophy for pitcher development in the minor leagues? I thought Minnesota was always credited for having pitchers who could spot a fastball and throw a change-up. That seems like a reasonable requirement to me for a major league pitcher rather than a good W-L in AAA.

    The biggest problem the Yanks have in prospect development is that they are the only team in baseball that is expected to win the pennant or make the playoffs each and every year, which makes it very difficult to hand the ball to a young 5th starter, no matter how much potential he has, and learn the hard way like the A's with Gio Gonzalez.

  16. Patrick

    Kennedy's been good, but it's the NL…in interleague play over the last two seasons, he's allowed 29 runs in 45.1 innings. I know it's an absurdly small sample size but given his struggles with the Yankees, it's sort of hard to imagine he'd be 12-3, 3.22 in the AL East

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