Thursday, February 5, 2009

Historical Bronx Trend: Burnett and Sabathia Could Start Slow

The pressures and expectations of playing baseball in New York are as embedded in the fabric of Yankees jerseys as the pinstripes that line them. If nameplates were a part of Yankee history, some acquisitions might as well have had ‘JESUS’ or ‘MOSES’ written across their backs.

Superstars are depended on to be saviors in the Bronx before ever stepping foot between the foul lines. The weight on their shoulders is often too much to carry in the opening months of their first seasons, and it leads to a statistical drop off while they grow accustomed to playing in New York.

Slow starts in the Bronx are generally more associated with position players, similar to what Sheffield, Tino, and Giambi experienced. Hitters can be placed under a media microscope day after day in order to magnify their struggles, as well as constantly feed into a players’ intensifying frustration.

However, recent trends have shown that the Yankee adjustment period has also harmed the pitching staff.

Mike Mussina started 1-3 with a 4.78 ERA through the end of April 2001, his first Yankee season. He finished an impressive 17-11 with a 3.15 ERA.

Roger Clemens had a 4.60 ERA in his first Yankee season, the highest at any point of his career. Roger was coming off of back to back Cy Young seasons, which truly shows how much the Bronx affected him. Clemens’ second season resulted in a much lower 3.70 ERA, and he went on to win another Cy Young in his third year.

David Wells produced a 4.21 ERA in his first year. He battled for a Cy Young with an 18-4 record and 3.39 ERA in his second season.

The interesting thing to point out here is that Clemens, Wells, and Mussina all arrived in the Bronx via leaving another AL East franchise. Clemens and Mussina spent their entire pre-Yankees careers pitching in the AL East, and the majority of Wells’ seasons were spent pitching in Toronto.

Regardless of their familiarity with the division, the lineups, and the stadium environments, these three established and successful starters were unable to get out of the starting blocks cleanly.

David Cone had a 3.80 ERA in his first half season after being traded to the Yanks, and had an excellent 2.80 ERA in his second year in pinstripes. Cone was accustomed to media pressures and what it takes to succeed in New York from his time with the Mets. He also arrived in New York as a proud owner of a World Series ring, yet still needed time to adjust to the Bronx.

You would have to go back to Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez in 2000 or Jimmy Key in 1993 to find pitching acquisitions that began their Yankee careers white hot. Hernandez was aided by his unorthodox pitching style, as well as the benefit of no AL hitters ever having seen his stuff before.

However, this analysis does not necessarily mean that CC and Burnett will have poor first seasons in the Bronx. Mussina proved that a hot start is not necessary to put up tremendous numbers in season one. Yankees supporters can agree that performing at high levels in August-October is much more important than April-May anyway.

You never know…Burnett may be able to use his past dominance in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park as a stepping stone toward a confident and smooth transition into pinstripes.

Aside from a terrible start to the 2008 season while with the Indians, CC Sabathia does not have a history of slow starts. Perhaps the stresses of a contract year and the uncertainties regarding his future were to blame for the early season hiccup.

The lesson learned here is not to automatically expect the worst if either or both pitchers start off 2009 a tad chillier than you had hoped. Even the best pitchers felt a wobble in their knees when they toed the rubber for the first few times as a Yankee.

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