Yankees Hot Stove: Extreme ground ball pitchers on the free agent market

Kevin C. Cox

What do the Yankees do if they don't sign Tanaka? Sign a ground ball pitcher!

The Yankees have a lot of question marks in their rotation right now and the solutions are many. They have CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova pencilled in, with people like Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and Adam Warren around who could compete for spots in spring training. Right now the Yankees are also bidding on Masahiro Tanaka, and though we have until Friday to find out who will get to sign him, New York needs to be prepared in case they miss out.

If the Japanese right-hander ends up elsewhere, the Yankees might simply go with their internal options and stick to plan 189. They could also try to find someone cheap off the free agent pile, like they have done at third base. If they go that route, the Yankees will have to figure out what kind of pitcher they'll be looking for.

I think they could look for a ground ball pitcher if they miss out on Tanaka. Given Yankee Stadium's dimensions, specifically the short right field porch, ground ball pitchers are valuable for the Yankees. Over the last five seasons, the team has employed three of the top 30 ground ball pitchers in the league (A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Derek Lowe) and have shown interest in acquiring two others (Brett Anderson, Justin Masterson), so it's clear that the Yankees already know what qualities to look for.

If the Yankees want to sign a ground ball pitcher to fill a rotation spot, there are a few that rank among the best in the league. Some of the most extreme ground ball pitchers over the last five years that are available include Jake Westbrook (57.8% - 3rd best), Jason Marquis (54.1% - 16th best), Paul Maholm (51.1% - 20th best), and Clayton Richard (49.7% - 30th best).

Take a look at each of their batted ball rates since 2009:

Pitcher GB% FB% HR/9
Jake Westbrook 57.8 23.5 0.72
Jason Marquis 54.1 26.8 1.05
Paul Maholm 51.1 28.3 0.78
Clayton Richard 49.7 31.3 1.06

As you can see, Westbrook and Maholm are the masters of keeping the ball out of the air and in the ballpark. Marquis and Richard might be good at keeping the ball down, but they also have a tendency to give up home runs when someone gets a hold of one.

Just because they have the ability to get ground balls doesn't mean it served them any good. Most of them had a rough go in 2013, ensuring that they wouldn't cost much if the Yankees took an interest in them.

Pitcher IP ERA FIP WAR
Paul Maholm 153 4.41 4.24 0.7
Jake Westbrrok 116.2 4.63 4.62 -0.2
Clayton Richard 52.2 7.01 6.54 -1.2
Jason Marquis 117.2 4.05 5.65 -1.6

Maholm, probably the best overall pitcher of them all, had the worst season of his career this year, but he still managed to bring more value than the others. Westbrook had a below-average season, but it was Marquis and Richard that had it worst.

Marquis needed Tommy John surgery in July and is not likely to be ready until the second half of 2014. After overcoming an illness in the early part of the year, Richard needed surgery to correct an impingement in his shoulder and was lost for the season by the end of June. The 30-year-old lefty is supposed to be ready for spring training, but the injury will likely limit him to a minor league deal. Only Maholm can really expect a major league contract in 2014, and a one-year deal is really all he'll be looking at.

While the Yankees could take a chance and sign Marquis or Richard to a minor league contract and hope one of them gives them something in 2014, it's probably between Maholm and Westbrook if the team wants a major league option right out of spring training.

To figure out which will make the better signing, I averaged their 2014 Oliver and Steamer projections to find a middle ground between the two.

Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Paul Maholm 5.84 2.65 0.88 4.09 4.07 1.1
Jake Westbrook 4.54 3.26 0.71 4.46 4.30 0.9
Clayton Richard 4.82 2.42 1.06 4.36 4.39 -0.1
Jason Marquis 5.61 3.75 1.07 4.75 4.71 -0.3

For a major league deal, I would absolutely go with Paul Maholm and hope he outperforms his projections, which is entirely possible. I would then try to sign Jake Westbrook to a minor league deal as well and let him compete for the fifth starter spot in spring training. If Pineda or Phelps don't look overly impressive, Westbrook can keep the seat warm until someone can outperform him. Otherwise, I would try to lock up Clayton Richard and stick him in the minors and hope he can provide solid depth in 2014. After all, he does have the potential to throw 200+ innings. Jason Marquis is the only player I would let go since the Yankees probably have better options to begin the season, and even if he can return he isn't going to offer much.

Even if Maholm isn't the absolute best ground ball pitcher on the market, he's the best chance the Yankees have at finding an effective alternative to Masahiro Tanaka. Let's just hope it doesn't come to that.

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