First-year jitters?

On the whole, pitchers have statistically been worse in their first seasons after joining the Yankees.

Originally Published: April 8, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I keep hearing variations on the following theme ... "Javier Vazquez is a great pitcher, but we don't know how he'll do with the Yankees because pitching in that spotlight is so different."

Pardon me for the lack of poetry there; David Justice said it better this afternoon on ESPN, but I didn't have my VCR running. Anyway, this notion that Vazquez might suddenly become a mediocre pitcher because he's wearing a different uniform has been repeated so often that it's almost gone beyond the point of Common Wisdom, and become Universal Wisdom.

But is it even wise at all? It's obviously true that we don't know anything before it actually happens. The question, though, is whether or not we should expect Vazquez to become a different pitcher now that he's wearing the famous pinstripes.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens' worst season with the Yankees arguably came in his first year with the club in 1999.

As a first step toward answering that question, I made a list of quality major league starters who joined the Yankees, usually as well-paid free agents, following a good season or (more often) multiple seasons. I started with 1976, because that's when Catfish Hunter joined the Yankees as a free agent, and I wound up with 20 pitchers. Next, I punched in each pitcher's before-and-after wins, losses, innings, and earned runs allowed.

Fourteen of the 20 pitchers posted higher (worse) ERA's after joining the Yankees. We would expect something like this, because these pitchers were attractive to the Yankees in large part because they'd just been performing at the upper limits of their abilities. If you run a similar study of the best free-agent hitters you'll find the same thing for the same reason.

We would also expect a balancing factor: better support, from both the hitters and the bullpen, because for most of the last three decades the Yankees have generally been very good (or better). And this is born out by the wins and losses. Before joining the Yankees, the 20 pitchers won 268 games (and lost 184); after joining the Yankees, the 20 pitchers won 268 games (and lost 179).

If we (loosely) define "Disaster" as any pitcher whose ERA jumped by more than 50 percent after joining the Yankees, there have been seven disasters among the 20 pitchers. Here are those seven, before and after:

                  Before         After
Mike Torrez     16-12, 2.50   14-12, 3.82
D. Alexander    11- 7, 2.89    1- 7, 6.08
Ed Whitson      14- 8, 3.24   10- 8, 4.88
Jim Abbott       7-15, 2.77   11-14, 4.37
T. Mulholland   12- 9, 3.25    6- 7, 6.49
Roger Clemens   20- 6, 2.65   14-10, 4.60
Denny Neagle     8- 2, 3.52    7- 7, 5.81

I wouldn't blame you for quibbling with my definition of disaster, as three of these guys actually posted winning records. It's especially strange to see Roger Clemens here, but his ERA did increase by 74 percent in his first season with the Yankees. In fact, in terms of ERA relative to the league average, that 1999 season -- for which he was paid $8.25 million -- ranks as the worst of his career. (I should also mention here that Denny Neagle joined the Yankees in the middle of the 2000 season.)

The largest group is the eight pitchers whose ERA's didn't really change, either way, more than 20 percent from the season before. I won't run another table because the numbers aren't all that interesting, but here are the pitchers: Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Tommy John, Scott Sanderson, Jimmy Key, Jack McDowell, David Cone (mid-season switch) and Mike Mussina.

That leaves five pitchers, three of whom suffered ERA declines between 20 and 50 percent (Rick Rhoden, Andy Hawkins, Kenny Rogers), two of whom improved their ERA's between 20 and 50 percent (Phil Niekro, John Candelaria).

How does all of this relate to Javier Vazquez (and for that matter, Kevin Brown)? I'm not sure that it does. I was surprised to find how many quality starters struggled immediately after joining the Yankees. But on the other hand, did Ed Whitson and Terry Mulholland have Vazquez's track record before joining the Yankees? (Rick Rhoden and Andy Hawkins certainly didn't.)

This is a cautionary tale, though. As a group, the 20 pitchers' ERA jumped nearly 20 percent, from 3.25 to 3.89. I don't know that it says anything about Vazquez or the Yankees, but it probably does suggest you don't always get what you think you're getting.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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