Believe it or not, the Yankees have already played over 14% of their 2011 schedule. It feels like the season just started. Despite that feeling, we’re quickly getting to the point where data and statistics can start to prove enlightening. Caution is required, though, as we’re still dealing with small sample sizes. We do know that all small sample sizes are not created equally. Some samples become statistically relevant very quickly. Others, like BABIP or UZR, take a very long time to stabilize. The distinction is important, because this is the time of the year at which you’ll be tempted to believe that an unreliably small sample size is indicative of future performance. In a lot of cases, it likely won’t be.
Part of the reason that this temptation is so strong is because it confirms what our eyes have seen. This is particularly the case when a player looks terrible, either at the plate or in the field: “Carl Crawford may bounce back, but have you seen how badly he’s flailing at offspeed stuff in the dirt? Will he ever be able to hit a curve from a lefty?” This is where it gets tricky. Part of what Crawford may be dealing with is a temporary deterioration of skill, a slump. He looks bad, so we aren’t surprised to see him get bad results. There’s a flip side, though. Crawford is getting bad results, which makes us more likely to focus on how badly he looks. It’s a self-reinforcing mechanism, and the only way it stops is for Crawford to stop looking bad, or get better results, or both.
This is a roundabout way of addressing Jorge Posada and his horrific start. Heading into the weekend Posada was batting .130/.231/.391 with only nine hits and eight walks in 78 plate appearances. The only reason Posada’s slugging percentage is so high is because six of his nine hits have been home runs. It’s really been an all or nothing sort of year for Jorge. Some have argued that his slow start is indicative of a larger trend and predictive of future performance. Some have even called for Posada to get the Old Yeller treatment, so to speak. These calls may be premature.
So far, Posada’s approach at the plate isn’t much different than it’s always been. He’s swinging at the same amount of pitches he always has, both in and out of the zone (the latter is slightly elevated). His contact rates are slightly lower than they’ve been in the past but not significantly so, and he hasn’t accrued enough plate appearances for his contact rates to be considered statistically significant anyway. What seems to be happening is simply that Posada is getting some bad luck on balls in play. Posada’s career BABIP of .316. It currently stands at .070. For Posada or for any major leaguer, a BABIP of .070 is simply unsustainable. No matter how badly he’s looked at the plate, particularly against off speed pitches, there is simply no reason to expect him to maintain a BABIP that low.
He has looked bad against off speed pitches. As Mike noted on Thursday, Posada has always excelled primarily against fastballs. But this year he hasn’t been as bad against off speed pitches as our eyes may have told us. From 2009 to 2010, Posada saw 457 sliders and whiffed on 17.1% of them. This year he’s seen 33 sliders and whiffed on only 6.1% of them. In 2009-2010, Posada saw 597 changeups and whiffed on 10.2% of them. In 2011 he’s seen 44 changeups and whiffed on 11.4% of them. From 2009-2010 Posada saw 464 curveballs and whiffed on 14% of them. This year he’s seen 37 curveballs and whiffed on 16.2%. The “biggest” increase is the curveball. Posada has whiffed on 2.2% more curveballs in 2011 than he has in the past two years. This increase in whiff rate amounts to exactly one more curveball whiffed this year than he would have in the past two years. One.
Others might point to his batted ball data as an indication of his decline. His line drive percentage is down to 12.2%, off from a career average of 20%. His ground ball percentage is right in line with past norms; the line drives have essentially turned into fly balls this year. One way to frame this would be to say that Posada’s line drive percentage is currently half of his career average. This sounds rather ominous. Another way would be to look at the actual granular data. Posada has 21 groundballs, 22 fly balls and 6 line drives in 2011. If his line drives were in line with career numbers (20.1%) he would have hit a grand total of 10 line drives this year, rather than 6. A difference of 4 line drives hardly seems worth getting worked up over. If in July Posada is still hitting line drives at a 10% clip then perhaps it is time to worry. At this point it’s simply too small of a sample, and too small a difference, to merit concern.
Posada very well could be undergoing a serious age-related decline. He’s 39 and he’ll turn 40 in August. He’s spent 15 years as a catcher in the majors and has a lot of wear and tear on his frame. But right now Jorge Posada’s biggest problem seems to be that he’s gotten shortchanged in the luck department for the first month of the year. Soon the organization will deem Jesus Montero ready for the show and Montero begin to push Posada towards the proverbial exit. But until then there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why Posada, a potential Hall of Fame catcher and face of the Yankees for the past decade, shouldn’t be given plenty of time at the plate to see if his luck will turn around.
Note: Stats don’t include yesterday’s game.