Ever since losing out on Cliff Lee, panicked Yankee fans have spent the remainder of the winter looking for alternatives to Sergio Mitre in the starting rotation. In fact, over at RAB, the only qualification a pitcher needs to have to be worth kicking the tires on is being better than Mitre. And with just cause, as Mitre’s essentially the very definition of a replacement-level player, with a career ERA+ of 83, 5.27 ERA, 5.38 K/9, 14.5% HR/FB ratio and a rather horrifying 4.72 FIP.
However, there’s one career number that sticks out like a sore thumb and leads me to believe that it’s possible we haven’t yet seen the real Sergio Mitre, the one that should finally be fully healed from Tommy John surgery: his career GB% of 58.7%. Now I’m not suggesting that Mitre’s ability to generate groundballs at a significantly above league average rate alone is going to be enough for him to be an acceptable 5th starter on a team with playoff aspirations — GB% means nothing if the fly balls you do give up leave the park as frequently as Mitre’s do and you can’t strike anyone out — only that perhaps there’s more to Mitre than meets the eye. The Yankees clearly saw something in Mitre for them to be willing to take a chance on the rehabbing righty, and sure enough, his 2007 — while clearly a career outlier — was actually pretty good (at least, for Sergio Mitre): A 3.98 FIP, minuscule 0.54 HR/9 and a 59.7% GB% (which would’ve been the sixth-best mark in the Majors that season had he had enough innings to qualify). Naysayers will point to the bloated 4.65 ERA, but that appears to have been fueled at least in part by what would have been the fifth-worst BABIP in the league (.328) and a rather heinous strand rate (65.5%), although unfortunately the strand rate wasn’t exactly an aberration (career LOB% of 66.3%). Still, his 149 innings in 2007 were worth 2.6 fWAR. I think we’d all do cartwheels if Mitre were to provide even two wins in 2011.
So who exactly is Sergio Mitre? Oddly enough, most of the projection systems aren’t overly harsh on him (though most of his projections are as a reliever). As Jay Jaffe noted, he actually looks like the Yankees’ best choice for the back end of the rotation among the presumed candidates. CAIRO sees 72 innings of 4.63 ERA/4.69 FIP ball (52.5% GB%) worth 0.2 WAR (this would be an an improvement over the 0 fWAR he gave the Yankees last season); PECOTA projects 94 innings of 4.67 ERA ball (50% GB%) worth 1.0 WARP; Marcel has Mitre at 66 innings of 4.30 ERA/4.41 FIP ball; while Oliver is the biggest Mitre fan of them all, rather incredulously projecting Mitre at 145 innings of 4.09 ERA ball with a 2.0 BB/9, worth 2.1 WAR. This seems impossible, especially considering Mitre’s career BB/9 of 3.0, but if he did shave a walk per nine off his ledger, then I suppose this projection makes some sense. How he’d actually do this remains to be seen.
However, before writing Mitre off entirely, let’s delve into the numbers to see if there’s anything we’re missing on the surface that might support the idea that he could be moderately effective.
Bizarrely enough, Mitre actually fell apart against same-handed batters last season, while holding his own against lefties. We are of course looking at some exceptionally small sample sizes, but it’s still interesting to note. There’s almost no chance Mitre walks four righties per nine next season, so there’s a minor positive to be gleaned. And if Mitre’s surrenders one-and-half bombs per nine to same-handed batters again he certainly won’t be allowed to do it for very long. The Mitre of 2007 managed to give up less home runs to lefties –despite pitching more innings against them — and had a Brandon Webb-esque 63.1% GB% rate vs. lefties in that magical (for Mitre) season.
Somewhat surprisingly, none of Mitre’s pitches rated as below average in 2010, per Fangraphs. Of course, none of them rated as particularly above-average, either. He saw quite a bit of improvement in his weighted fastball, as it went from being worth -13.2 runs above average in 2009 to 2.6 in 2010. This occurred despite Mitre throwing it on average 1.3 mph slower. However, he was able to get his movement under control, losing more than three inches of height and adding more than three inches of vertical break. His fastball should remain semi-effective as long as it continues to tail around seven inches away from righties (as the heat maps at JoeLefkowitz.com show, righties hit .143 against Mitre’s fastball in the outer-middle quadrant and .167 outer-bottom) and concurrently seven inches inside on lefties.
The slider is Mitre’s other primary weapon, and he achieved reasonable results with it last season, throwing it nearly 4mph slower than the average MLB slider, with an inch les horizontal break and about three inches further inside (to righties).
None of this data is particularly convincing one way or another, although I think it helps illustrate that perhaps Sergio Mitre isn’t quite as much of a lost cause as we all automatically assume. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not advocating for Mitre in the rotation, and like many of you would rather jab a fork in my eye than have to watch him pitch every fifth day, but if he can locate his fastball and slider he should be much, much better against righties this season — although on the flip side it’s highly unlikely he’ll be as good against lefties as he was in 2010. Still, they say it can take up to two full years for guys to recover from TJS, and if Mitre shows up and starts recording more than 55% of his outs on the ground, he could make Joe Girardi‘s decisions for the back end of the rotation that much tougher.
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