The Larry Rothschild Effect

Girardi finishes fifth in AL Manager of the Year voting
Report: Type-B Free Agent Compensation Likely To Be Eliminated
(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

When the Yankees somewhat surprisingly* hired pitching coach Larry Rothschild last offseason, we heard that he had a reputation for helping his pitchers increase their strikeout rates and decrease their unintentional walk rates. Guys like Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Tom Gorzelanny saw improvement in both categories after joining the Cubs, and those are only three of the most notable examples. The Yankees brought Rothschild aboard hoping he’d coax a few more whiffs out of their pitching staff while reducing the number of free passes.

During the 2009 and 2010 seasons (under Dave Eiland), Yankees’ pitchers struck out 19.65% of the batters they faced and unintentionally walked 8.54%. Those numbers improved to 19.80% and 7.52% under Rothschild in 2011, respectively. The strikeout improvement from just 2010 to 2011 was a bit more substantial, as you can see in the table to the right. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise; the Javy Vazquez and Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley types were placed with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Rafael Soriano. Offense around the league continued to drop as well.

On an individual level, a number of Yankees’ pitchers improved their underlying performance under Rothschild this past season. You can see those players in the table to the right, though I left out guys who dealt with significant injury problems (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Cory Wade, Colon, Soriano) and those that bounced between the rotation and bullpen (Joba and Hughes) since the start of 2009. With the exception of relatively small increases in Garcia’s and David Robertson‘s walk rates, all of these guys showed improvement in their strikeout and unintentional walk rates. Some of them, like CC Sabathia (+2.66% strikeouts and -0.94% walks) and A.J. Burnett (+0.99% strikeouts), showed significant improvement. Those two aren’t young kids coming into their own, their veteran guys with long track records.

So that’s great, they’re striking out more batters while walking fewer, but how are they doing it? In an effort to explain, let’s look at the individual pitch breakdown for those fellas…

The fastballs in the table references all kinds of fastballs, so two-seamers, four-seamers, cutters, sinkers, etc. Breaking balls are both curveballs and sliders. I didn’t want to get too nuts with the breakdown of individual pitches because all I wanted to see was the usage of hard stuff compared to the usage of soft stuff. I also left Mariano Rivera out of this because he takes pity on the rest of the league and does not throw any kind of breaking ball.

With the exception of Robertson, all of those guys threw significantly more breaking balls in 2011 than they did from 2009-2010 according to PitchFX (via Texas Leaguers). We’re talking an increase of around four percentage points, in some cases more. Data from Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) says the Yankees went from 69.2% fastballs and 22.6% breaking balls as a team from 2009-2010 to 66.1% and 26.2% in 2011, respectively. Two different tracking systems, but we’re seeing a similar increase in breaking ball usage, roughly four percentage points.

You can play connects the dots here and say that the increase in breaking balls contributed to the increase in strikeouts, it definitely passes the sniff test. I’m not sure how throwing more breaking balls would decrease unintentional walks though, since many breaking balls are intentionally thrown out of the strike zone. We’d have to look at when the extra breaking balls are being thrown, which sadly is well beyond my PitchFX capabilities. I suspect many of those extra sliders and curveballs are being thrown early in the count rather than later, which has allowed the Yankees’ pitchers to get ahead in the count more often. Sure enough, the Yankees had the highest first pitch strike percentage (61.8%) in MLB this season, up from 58.1% from 2009-2010. That will certainly help explain more strikeouts and fewer walks.

Now obviously correlation does not equal causation. One year of data doesn’t tell us much of anything, whereas the studies linked in the first paragraph cover years of data and thousands of batters faced. The Yankees’ pitching staff showed traits consistent with Rothschild’s track record during his first year at the helm, possibly because they threw more offspeed stuff earlier in the count. We’ll never really know what improvement (or decline) the pitching coach is responsible for and what he isn’t from where we sit, but Rothschild has been doing this for quite some time, and the improved strikeout and walks rates seem to have followed him from team to team.

* Surprising only because we hadn’t heard his name mentioned as a candidate. It really was out of left field.

Girardi finishes fifth in AL Manager of the Year voting
Report: Type-B Free Agent Compensation Likely To Be Eliminated
  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    The pitching improvement did not come out of the air or by mere coincidence. Larry Rothschild has been for a long time one of the best pitching coaches in baseball. I’ll bet he can tweak out a little more from Nova and Hughes next season.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Robertson ups that changeup %age to 5 and he is even more……


  • Craig Maduro

    This is one of the reasons why I’m intrigued by the idea of the Yankees checking in on Edwin Jackson. He’s got the goods, but he just needs to put it all together. Could Larry Rothschild be the one to finally help him reach his ceiling? It would only cost money to find out.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    Too bad his real name isn’t Alan Parsons…’cause that would make for a great headline.

    There are two reasons why the Yanks staff improved from top to bottom. This cat Rothschild is one…and Martin is the other.

    • RetroRob

      The Martin effect should not be overlooked, especially with the success of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. If we’re to believe the recent catchers’ study, Martin was rated the third best catcher in the game at framing pitches to help expand the strikezone for his pitcher.

      Both Rothschild and Martin we’re learning the Yankee pitchers last year, so I’m hoping for even better results in 2012, led by the re-emergence of Phil Hughes who seems like the perfect candidate for Rothschild.

    • the Other Steve S.

      Excellent point. I really hadn’t realized how bad Jorge had gotten back there until Martin showed up and really starred.

      • Foghorn Leghorn

        you got that right. At the start of last year EVERYONE was laughing at the bottom of that rotation.

        I always liked Jorge and he was a great Yankee, but he was a terrible catcher. Martin may be less of an offensive player, but he more than makes up for that with his ability to play defense.

  • Matt

    No one is going to give Russel Martin any credit for this? For shame.

  • Matt

    NM, I guess they are..

  • michael

    It would be nice to see statistical tests performed to evaluate the differences here. My guess is that the variance of these measurements on any given year far outweighs the minor differences here.

    If there are significant differences, there still are a number of confounding factors (Russell Martin, changes in league averages, batters faced).