A Savior Named Rasner?

It is an acute irony that Darrell Rasner, who improved to 3-0 with seven shutout innings in New York’s 8-0 win over Baltimore Wednesday night, has the best ERA among the team’s starting staff. Plugged into the rotation due to injury (Philip Hughes), ineffectiveness (Ian Kennedy) and incompetence (Kei Igawa), Rasner, a relative unknown, has responded with the type of pitching the Yankees hoped for from their heralded young starters.

Both Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were first-round draft picks by the Yankees; New York claimed Rasner off of waivers after pitching-starved Washington released him in 2005. Yet it is Rasner who sports the 1.89 season ERA, with Kennedy at 7.27 after last night’s game, and Hughes at an even 9.00.

The catch, before anyone gets too excited about Rasner as a permanent solution to the team’s rotation problems, is that he is essentially a two-pitch pitcher—he mostly relies on a cutter and a curve—and neither one is great. Rasner will need to be near-perfect if he is to avoid suffering the fate of other Yankee starters who initially impressed but subsequently faltered, such as Aaron Small, who came out of nowhere to post a 10-0 record and 3.20 ERA in 2005. Like Shelley Duncan, the folk hero turned Kevin Maas clone, Rasner is likely another Small—the success rate of pitchers with such a limited margin for error is extremely low.

In each of Rasner’s starts, he has deployed a fastball of varying velocities. At no point did the heater reach 90 miles per hour. Only rarely did it get to 88-89, usually sitting at 85-87.

That is a compound problem for Rasner. Aside from the obvious issue that the below-average fastball is easier to catch up to, he has no apparent change-up to affect the timing of hitters on any pitch other than the curveball. MLB.com’s Gameday lists some of his 82 mph pitches as change-ups—but even if intended to be, the similarity in velocity makes it not a change-up, but a meatball.

Rasner’s curveball is an adequate pitch, but it is also compromised by his limited fastball and lack of change-up. With the relatively small difference between the two pitches in terms of velocity, it is easier for hitters to adjust. And without the change-up, hitters need to adjust either eye level or bat speed—but not both at once.

Rasner’s cutter has been his strikeout pitch most of the time in his first three starts. But the success of a cutter depends so much on the pitch getting in on a batter’s hands before he can get around on it. With a cutter that tends to hover around 85-87 miles per hour—and no change-up to mess with hitters’ timing—it is hard to see that pitch as a strikeout pitch once Rasner gets around the league.

Rasner also has a show-me slider—even in his three successful starts, he has had trouble locating the pitch.

What’s more, in those, Rasner has been turning in the performances of a lifetime, posting a 1.89 ERA through his first 19 innings. Though he has struck out just 11 batters, he’s walked only two and allowed 14 hits, limiting the amount of trouble he needed to navigate.

But there is nothing in Rasner’s major or minor league record to indicate that he has the ability to maintain a walk rate of 0.95 walks per nine innings. In his previous 52 1/3 major league innings, his walk rate was a respectable 2.6 per nine. That is good, though likely not good enough given Rasner’s pedestrian 4.3 strikeouts per nine.

In Rasner’s 566 1/3 minor league innings, he hasn’t approached that elite level of control, either. Rasner walked 149 in those innings—good enough for 2.4 walks per nine innings. It is expected that his rate would increase, at least somewhat, against more discriminating major league hitters. For him to reduce it by two-thirds, as he has in his first two starts, probably isn’t feasible.

And Rasner has profited from a low batting average against on balls in play, which stood at .194 entering his third start. That is not only well below his career major league mark of .256, it is more than 100 points below the typical BABIP of around .300. It won’t always be so.

Perhaps the Yankees, as they did with Aaron Small in 2005, can get just enough out of Rasner to survive their pitching shortage again in 2008. But more likely, Rasner will suffer Small’s 2006 fate. Small’s BABIP jumped nearly 50 points, his ERA rose to 8.47, and the Yankees quickly dispatched him to triple A.

But for now, the Yankees will take starting pitching anywhere they can find it. And with Hughes hurt and Kennedy struggling, Rasner will get plenty of opportunity to prove that he is, or isn’t, the real thing.

A Savior Named Rasner?