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Rotation Deliberation: The Evil of Two Lessers

In my Thursday morning post, I told you that one of the following two pitchers is a lock to be in the Yankees' postseason rotation. Care to guess which one?

Pitcher A: 5.15 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.83 K/BB, 10-13
Pitcher B: 5.01 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 1.98 K/BB, 10-9

This gets easier if I add in this information: Pitcher A has hit 14 batters and uncorked 14 wild pitches; Pitcher B has allowed 1.8 home runs per nine innings, or 29 taters in 143 2/3 innings.

Yes, the two pitchers above are A: A.J. Burnett and B: Javier Vazquez, which means there's a solid chance that both will be in the postseason rotation, but I'm very confident that, baring injury, Burnett, who despite his struggles hasn't been taken out of rotation all year (save for being pushed back three days once due to back spasms) will be one of the Yankees' starting four.

Given that, it's pretty surprising that Burnett's season line is so clearly inferior to Vazquez's, though that comes with some caveats, Vazquez's home run rate being one. Also, whether you credit Burnett or blame Yankee management, A.J. has made every one of his starts this season and thus leads Vazquez by four starts and 20 2/3 innings. Burnett has also gone deeper into his starts, averaging 5.87 innings per start to Vazquez's 5.59.

Here's another revealing comparison. Here are the worst stretches of each pitcher's season:

Burnett: 5 GS, 11.35 ERA, 2.26 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 6.7 BB/9, 1.12 K/BB, .356 BABIP, 4.6 IP/GS, 0-5
Vazquez: 5 GS, 9.78 ERA, 2.04 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 5.7 BB/9, 1.33 K/BB, .353 BABIP, 4.6 IP/GS, 1-3

Again, Vazquez is the lesser evil here. In his one win over that season-opening stretch, he held the A's to three runs over 5 1/3 innings. Burnett's best start in his ugly June saw him hold the Orioles to four runs over 6 2/3 innings.

Now the best stretches of each season:

Burnett: 6 GS, 1.99 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 2.54 K/BB, .294 BABIP, 6.78 IP/GS, 5-1
Vazquez: 8 GS, 2.55 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 2.75 K/BB, .190 BABIP, 6.63 IP/GS, 4-2

Vazquez's eight-start run was uninterrupted. He actually posted a 3.11 ERA over 13 starts from May 12 to July 26, but the first of those came on ten day's rest and the second came seven days later with a one-hitter relief appearance in between. Nonetheless, the thing that leaps out of those numbers is Vazquez's BABIP. With those eight starts forming the heart of that larger run of 13, it's clear that when Vazquez's luck changed mid-season it was literally because his luck changed. Once a pitchers' opponents' batting average on balls in play dips below, say, .280, he's crossing into "he's been lucky" territory. When it dips below .200, he's gotten to a point at which he can walk into traffic without getting injured. That's not recommended, and neither is putting any sort of stock in a pitching performance based on a BABIP that low. Also discouraging is the fact that Vazquez's opponents in those eight starts were the Orioles, Blue Jays, Astros, Mets, Diamondbacks, Mariners twice, and A's. Of those seven teams, only the Jays and Diamondbacks rank above 24th in the majors in runs scored per game this season.

So that's the Yankees' choice, they can roll the dice on a pitcher who has been a coin flip since early May (Burnett has made eight quality starts in his last 22 turns, albeit with a few near-misses and strong rain-shortened outings mixed in), or they can play the lottery with a pitcher whose best pitching this season has owed a lot to an absurd amount of luck on balls in play and some patsy opponents and whose last quality start came on July 26 against the rebuilding Indians.

Here's hoping the Yankees hit a lot this postseason.