The Bottom Line: Inconsistency Hurts

Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown have been dominant, Mike Mussina is finally coming around and Jon Lieber has looked serviceable after returning from surgery. Things for the Yankees' rotation are looking good, except for that pesky last spot. Jose Contreras has been anywhere between lights-out and don't-turn-the-lights-on this season, and his inconsistency is going to cost the Yankees.

After Contreras' start against Boston on April 23, the Yankees tried to do something new with the big right-hander.  He didn't make it out of the fourth inning in that start and allowed five runs as the Yankees lost big.  So rather than let Contreras spiral out of control, the Yanks - or rather Jorge Posada - took charge. 

"I told him to let me call the game," Posada said. "I'll call everything you want to throw."

In his next start, Contreras simply listened to whatever Posada called for.  That, coupled with fixing what the Yankees thought was the problem with his delivery - inconsistent arm speed tipping his pitches - helped Contreras pull off the only Quality Start of his 2004 season.  He beat the A's with six innings of one-run ball at the Stadium on April 28. 

So things were all well and good, until his last start on May 4, when he got lit up, again.  This time however, instead of looking for solutions right then and there, Contreras was sent down to single-A Tampa to work with "pitching guru" Billy Connors.  Contreras is going to make at least one start in AAA Columbus before coming back to New York, but will the time he spent with Connors really fix what's wrong?

After joining the rotation last season, Contreras was as good as gold.  He went 6-1 as a starter with a 2.34 ERA in nine starts down the stretch.  He held opponents to a .184 batting average and struck out 57 hitters in just 57.2 innings.  Overall, he finished the season with a 3.30 ERA and 72 whiffs in 71 innings.  Dominant-looking stats, eh?

Well, looks - and statistics - can be deceiving.

 Let's take a closer look at those numbers.  Contreras started nine times total, twice against the Tigers and the Devil Rays, and once each against Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnatti and Toronto.  If you look carefully, you'll notice that exactly one of those teams made the playoffs, Boston. 

How did Contreras fare in that start against Boston?  He game up seven runs in just three innings of work.  He also had a relief appearance against the Sox, in which he lasted an inning and a third and managed to give up five runs, blow a save and earn the loss.  Good for a 24.92 ERA against the Red Sox for the season.

Fast forward to 2004, where Contreras has already faced the Red Sox twice and has allowed eight runs in a span of 5.2 innings.  He has walked seven and struck out six.  How has Contreras done against his non-Boston opponents this year?  There was a messy start against Chicago, his last terrible one against Oakland and a gem against the A's.

What does it all add up to?  Contreras is inconsistent.  Or maybe Contreras is very consistent, because time and time again he gets shelled by teams that can hit, and particularly teams that have patience at the plate.  Boston is currently second in the AL (to the Yankees) in walks, the A's are tied with Cleveland for third and the White Sox aren't far behind at seventh.  Last year, Boston was second (again to the Yankees) in the AL in walks.

So what's the bottom line you ask?  Simple, Contreras' ineffectiveness against quality teams is going to hurt the Yankees at some point this season - if it hasn't already.  Anyone can go out and pitch well against the 2003 Tigers or Devil Rays, and I won't be surprised when Contreras looks sharp against similar bottom-feeders, like whoever he faces in his AAA start, or a free-swinging team like this seasons' Blue Jays.  But teams like the Tigers, Rays and Jays aren't going to matter come October, when they're all eliminated from the playoffs.

Contreras needs to learn how to pitch effectively against quality teams.  Otherwise, what are the Yankees paying him for?

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