Prior to last night’s game against the White Sox, hitting coach Kevin Long told Marc Carig that pitchers have been throwing the Yankees a ton of offspeed pitches lately, and in fact just one of Gavin Floyd’s final 32 pitches on Tuesday was a fastball. As Long said, pitchers are going to keep throwing the Yankees soft stuff until they prove they can hit it. We know from watching the games that Jorge Posada is helpless against anything that breaks and that Mark Teixeira is the king of swinging over top of changeups, but what about the team as a whole?
Thankfully we can look at this using something more than our eyes. That’s not to say observation is meaningless, it obviously isn’t, but getting some cold hard facts about how players have performed against certain pitches is the way to go. I’m going to use the pitch type run values at FanGraphs, which essentially tells you how much offense a player created on a given pitch. Here’s a list of run values for each event, though that might be a little out-dated by now. Tex hits a fastball for a single? That 0.47 runs. Flies out a curveball next time up? That’s -0.28 runs, he just hurt the team. Simple enough.
The table on the right shows the Yankees’ run values per 100 pitches (as a team) against certain pitches this season. Zero is league average. I also listed their rank against the other American League teams (the NL is different because of pitchers batting and stuff, so let’s leave those teams out). So far this year the Yankees are either the best or second best team in baseball against fastballs, cutters, sliders, and changeups, but they’re dead last against curveballs. It’s not really close either, the Twins are the next worst at -1.51 runs per 100 pitches against the yakker. It’s obvious the Yankees are susceptible against the curve, at least they have been during the first 20 games of the season. That’s just one kind of offspeed pitch though, there’s also sliders and changeups, and the Yanks have been very good against those offerings.
What about an individual level? Let’s look at how the eight regulars (sorry Brett Gardner, but platooning with Andruw Jones leaves you on the outside looking in) have performed against fastballs and offspeed pitches both this year and over the three previous years.
“Fastballs” is a combination of regular old fastballs and cutters. “Offspeed” is basically everything else, curves, sliders, and changeups. I left splitters and knuckle balls out because those pitches are thrown less than three percent of the time around the league.
A few players (Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Russell Martin) have been positive performers against both the heat and offspeed while Derek Jeter is the only guy negative against both. Everyone else has been good against one but not the either. “FB-OFF” is the fastball run value minus the offspeed run value, and that essentially tells us how “balanced” a player is. Zero is ideal, that means they perform just as well against slow stuff as they do hard stuff. A positive number means they feast on fastballs, negative means they’ve done better against offspeed. The further from zero, the more extreme it is.
Posada, holy schnikees, he’s all about the fastball, but you knew that already. Same with A-Rod, Cano, and Martin, just to a lesser extent. Only three of the eight have performed better against offspeed than fastballs (Jeter, Tex, Nick Swisher) so far this season, and that supports the claim that the team as a whole is at a disadvantage against pitches that break. Look at the data for 2008-2010 though, it’s much more balanced. A-Rod, Cano, Posada, and Martin all performed better against offspeed pitches in that time, and both Curtis Granderson and Tex had FB-OFF dangerously close to zero, so it’s not a huge split for them. Based on recent history, the Yankees have an offense that does well against both fastballs and offspeed, but for whatever reason that has no held true in 2011.
So now the question becomes this: are other teams exploiting this weakness against offspeed pitches? The table on the right shows the rate at which the Yankees have seen each pitch this year, as well as the league average and their AL rank. So far this year the Yankees have seen basically an average amount of fastballs and sliders and a slightly below average amount of changeups and cutters, but look at those curveballs. Only the Blue Jays at 13.0% have seen more curves than New York, so yeah, the other clubs are trying to exploit that weakness against the hook when they take on the Yankees.
Why are the Yankees having this trouble against curveballs and offspeed pitches in general? Damned if it know, that’s for K-Long to figure out. Could be a small sample size, could be that some players have seen their skills decline, could be something else entirely. When you’re talking about a team doing something as a whole, there’s bound to be more than one factor in play. Given the disparities between the 2011 and 2008-2010 data for the individual players, I suspect this is something that will start to even out as the season progresses and we’ll see the team perform more in line with their norms. Even with the deficiencies against the curveball, the Yankees still have a great offense. There’s just a little weakness at the moment.