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(Mike Stobe/Getty)

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Last night’s come from ahead loss to the Astros dropped the Yankees to four games back of the second wildcard spot with 39 games to play. Insurmountable? Of course not. Long shot? It sure feels like it. FanGraphs puts the team’s postseason odds at 6.3% while Baseball Prospectus has them at 5.4%. ESPN has them at 3.3%, if you want another measure. Point is, New York’s chances of playing in October are growing smaller by the day.

The series opening loss to Houston was the third time the Yankees lost to the Astros in four meetings this year. We’re talking about an opponent that has lost at least 106 games in each of the last three years, a level of performance so pathetic that this year’s 94-loss pace represents a 17-win improvement (!) from 2013. And yet, the Yankees are 1-3 against the Astros in 2014. Four games tell us nothing about the talent level of these two teams, but they do count in the standings and they’ve hurt the Bombers.

Obviously, this is baseball and any team can beat any team on any given day. We all know that. But if you’re a team like the Yankees, one with plans of contending, then you’ve got to rack up some wins against bad teams like the Astros. Especially at home. They failed to do that last night and lost even more ground in the standings. Unfortunately, this extends beyond Houston. Here’s how the Yankees have fared against the teams with the ten worst winning percentages in baseball this year:

  • Mets: 2-2
  • White Sox: 2-2
  • Red Sox: 8-5
  • Twins: 4-3
  • Cubs: 3-1
  • Astros: 1-3
  • Rangers: 4-3

(They have not and will not play the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Rockies this season.)

That works out to 24-19, or a .558 winning percentage. That’s a 90-win pace over a full season. Pretty good, right? Well, not really. The rest of the league has a .573 winning percentage against bottom ten teams. The AL East leading Orioles have a .629 winning percentage against bottom ten teams. The Tigers and Mariners are essentially tied for the second wildcard spot and they have .565 and .500 winning percentages against bottom ten teams, respectively, which is why they’re battling for the second wildcard and aren’t higher in the standings, same as the Yankees.

The old adage says you’re supposed to hold your own against the good teams and beat the snot out of the bad teams, but baseball’s changed. Every team is a bad team these days, or at least it feels that way. There are two or three very good teams (zero truly great teams, though) and I’d say five or six awful teams. Every other club is scrunched together in the middle, beating up on each other. Those games against bad teams are a separator. Whoever does the best job of actually getting wins against the teams “you’re supposed to beat” will have a leg up on the competition. The Yankees haven’t done that this year and it’s hurt them in the standings.

A lot has gone wrong for the Yankees this year, mostly pitching injuries and some really bad offensive performances. It seems like they’ve been playing catch up all season. One thing goes right, two things go wrong. Dropping three of four to Astros stings. So does splitting four games with the Mets and winning only four of seven against both the amazingly terrible Twins and Rangers. There is no such thing as an easy win in baseball, but the Yankees have let some very winnable games against bad teams slip away (like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and last night) and that’s part of the reason why they’re facing such a big deficit in the race for a postseason spot.

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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

From 2009-13, no team in baseball had more wins (258) or a better winning percentage (.637) in their home ballpark than the Yankees. They dominated in Yankee Stadium, outscoring their opponents by more than one full run per game (1.002 runs per game, to be exact) in the Bronx over that five-year stretch. The team had a home field advantage and knew out to use it.

That home field advantage has not existed in 2014. The Yankees came into the All-Star break at a mediocre 47-47 overall due in part to their inability to win consistently at Yankee Stadium — they are 18-23 at home and have been outscored 192-147 in the process. That’s an average of 1.10 runs per game. They have the fifth lowest home winning percentage (.439) in baseball and they’ve also been out-homered 58-47 on their own turf. That’s just not something that should happen. A team should be built for its home park.

Earlier this week, Buster Olney (subs. req’d) subjectively ranked the remaining schedules of each contender, putting the Yankees tenth out of 17 teams. (Tenth most difficult remaining schedule, seventh easiest, that is.) That ranking is based primarily on the New York’s 41 remaining home games, the most in baseball. Here is Olney’s blurb:

10. New York Yankees
Home/away: A whopping 41 games at home (including the first 10 games after the All-Star break); 27 on the road.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better: 34
Schedule notes: The Yankees’ rotation injuries will hurt them, but if playing many games at home provides any kind of an advantage, manager Joe Girardi‘s team will certainly have it. The Yankees also have six games left in July against Texas, and three in August against the Houston Astros.
Big finish: After a seven-game homestand against the Jays and Orioles, the Yankees close out their regular season in Boston.

Beyond the Box Score says the Yankees have the second easiest remaining schedule among AL teams in terms of opponent’s winning percentage. If you prefer a more analytical approach, Jeff Sullivan used projected WAR to analyze the remaining schedule and found the Yankees have the toughest second half schedule in the AL. Not by much, but the toughest based on his method nonetheless. That’s not reassuring.

Anyway, it should be obvious where I’m going with this: the Yankees need to play better at home in the second half. It’s a must if they want to at least challenge for a postseason berth and not throw in the towel on Derek Jeter‘s final season. The schedule works in their favor in that they have so many remaining home games, so the opportunity will be there. Now they have to hold up their end of the bargain and capitalize.

Now, it’s not just one reason why the Yankees have struggled at home. They average only 3.56 runs per game with a team 94 wRC+ in Yankee Stadium, both below-average and middle of the pack. On the other hand, they allow 4.66 runs per game at home with a team 4.15 FIP, which is awful. Both are among the bottom five marks in the league. They’re not scoring enough runs and they’re allowing too many runs. Losing Baseball 101.

There are two problems here, the run creation and run prevention, which is true for the team overall. The offense actually seems like it’ll be easier to fix. A big part of that is getting both Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran going, something that has to happen if the team wants to contend anyway.  The pitching … well that’s a different matter. Masahiro Tanaka‘s injury is a devastating blow and there’s no way to replace him. Brandon McCarthy is a good fit for Yankee Stadium as an extreme ground ball pitcher, plus new rotation Shane Greene is a big ground baller as well. Another trade feels inevitable.

The Yankees have been hit hard by injuries (especially pitching injuries) this year and they were able to tread water through the first half. Continuing to tread water is not good enough though. If the Yankees want to push for a postseason berth — and there are no indications they will do anything but that right now — they have to starting playing better immediately. That starts at home in Yankee Stadium. Their first ten games after the All-Star break are in the Bronx and that is the perfect time to turn the home field disadvantage around.

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(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

As we discussed in our Midseason Grades post earlier today, Brian McCann has been a huge disappointment in his first half-season as a Yankee. He is hitting only .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) overall despite a strong road trip (13-for-39) heading into the All-Star break. The Yankees didn’t guarantee this guy $85M over five years to hit like that. They expected him to do damage and he has not done that.

In the middle of the road trip we learned McCann had made some changes to his stance and swing mechanics with the help of hitting coach Kevin Long. Minor changes, of course, no one is going to overhaul a seven-time All-Star after a bad half-season, but changes nonetheless. When you struggle for 80-something games, it’s time to start tinkering.

“I’m no longer toe-tapping,” explained McCann to Erik Boland last week. “I’ve gotten wider, I’ve gotten more into my base and basically I’ve been doing four or five unnecessary movements to get to the baseball.”

So, first things first, here is the side-by-side comparison of McCann with the toe-tap (left) and McCann without the toe-tap. I’m not the most tech savvy person, but I did my best to sync the GIFs at the moment his front foot hits the ground:


The toe-tap is pretty noticeable. It also looks like his stance is a little more closed and he isn’t jerking his hands towards his body before his swing, but I’m not sure if that’s something he’s worked to change or if it’s just something that happened on this one swing. The toe-tap is there on the left (game on June 20th) and gone on the right (July 2nd) though, that’s clear and McCann confirmed it was intentional.

Thanks to the magic of MLB.tv, I went back through the archives and found that McCann’s first game without the toe-tap was June 27th, the first game of the home series against the Red Sox, when Vidal Nuno unexpectedly pulled 5.2 scoreless innings out of his behind. McCann did not play on the 26th (team off-day) and he did not play on the 25th either (personal off-day), so he had two consecutive days off and was probably working with Long on these mechanical changes.

“I made some big changes in my swing,” added McCann while talking to Jorge Castillo yesterday. “I just broke down film. I finally got to the point where things that I’ve been doing in the past weren’t working. Long kind of hit the reset button and basically broke down my swing and showed me what I was doing wrong, and I’ve been simplifying my swing.”

McCann actually went 2-for-4 with a double on June 24th, but he went into that game in an 0-for-9 and 4-for-27 (.148) slump. His batting line sat at .223/.284/.360 (76 wRC+) through 268 plate appearances following that game, he took the next two days off, and has hit .310/.339/.448 (115 wRC+) in 68 plate appearances without the toe-tap since. That’s the guy the Yankees thought they were signing, more or less.

Now, courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here are McCann’s spray chart heat maps with (left) and without (right) the toe-tap:

McCann Spray Charts

He’s pulling the ball more! Well, kinda. I know everyone wants McCann to hit the ball the other way because it’s aesthetically pleasing and it beats the shift — McCann already has 20 opposite field hits this year, more than he did in each of the last three seasons — but he’s much more effective when he pulls the ball. He was losing hits to the shift even when he was focused on going the opposite field anyway. Might as well just stick to his strengths and try to yank the ball down the line to right. That’s who he is. Embrace it.

I don’t really know how the toe-tap helps McCann but I assume it’s a timing thing. Get your front foot down earlier and you’ll be better able to see the ball and have a better base underneath you for you swing. That sounds like something that might be right, right? Who knows. All I know is that McCann and Long worked to eliminate that toe-tap and he’s been much more productive since. It might be anything more than a coincidence. I hope it’s not. McCann was very good on the road trip and getting him back to being the guy he was all those years in Atlanta would be the best possible offensive upgrade the Yankees could make in the second half.

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The Yankees officially wrapped up the first half of the 2014 season last night with a 4-3 extra innings loss to the Rays. They currently own a decidedly mediocre 41-40 record with an awful -33 run differential that ranks ninth worst in the game. It feels like this team loses nothing but blowouts and wins nothing but close games, last night notwithstanding. Nothing comes easy.

Now that the season is halfway complete, I want to look back and compare the team’s current position to where they were last year at this point. Last year’s squad, as you know, was decimated by injuries (especially on the position player side) and only the second Yankees team to miss the postseason in 19 years. Here is a quick nuts and bolts comparison of the last three half-seasons:

W-L RS RA Run Diff. AVG OBP SLG ERA FIP Def. Efficiency
’13 1st Half 42-39 310 326 -16 .239 .302 .379 3.87 3.68 0.692
’13 2nd Half 43-38 340 345 -5 .246 .312 .372 4.00 3.90 0.692
’14 1st Half 41-40 326 359 -33 .252 .316 .382 4.00 3.82 0.697

Right now, this year’s club is marginally better than the team the Yankees trotted out there in the second half last season despite a worse record. They’ve performed slightly better at the plate — the difference is basically a few points of batting average, which hasn’t translated to more runs — and in the field and almost identically on the mound. The first half of this year has gone much better offensively and much worse run prevention-wise than the first half of last season.

The difference between this season’s team and the one that closed out last season is very small, which is a big problem. The 2013 Yankees were hit hard by injuries and scrambled for replacements all summer. This year’s team added over $500M worth of contracts to the roster and have not benefited from them in the standings at all. Masahiro Tanaka‘s been outstanding, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s been very good, and just about every other offseason addition has been terrible. Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have truly been $30M+ worth of dead weight through 81 games.

The problem is two-fold. Not only is like, half the roster underperforming, but now the Yankees are locked into even more big money contracts with even less roster flexibility. They drew a lot of criticism for having an old, expensive, declining, veteran-based roster a year ago, yet they doubled down on that over the winter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. It only looks really bad when those guys underperform, which is something young players are certainly capable of doing as well. The Yankees needed better players this past offseason, not necessarily younger players. That got neither (in terms of actual, on-field performance).

The Yankees are only 2.5 games out of a playoff spot with half-a-season to play and I think the best thing that can happen to them right now is some kind of streak. Either win a whole bunch of games or lose a whole bunch of games. They have 13 games remaining before the All-Star break and either winning or losing about eleven of them would provide some clarity before the trade deadline. The standings say this team is still in contention, but man, watching them day after day does not inspire confidence. Going on some kind of run, either good or bad, puts the front office in a better position to make decisions before July 31st.

Of course, I fully expect the Yankees to go about 7-6 in these next 13 games and be in just about the same position they are right now. That’s what they’ve been doing all season. Whenever they’ve had a chance to beat up on some direct competition or take advantage of a soft part of the schedule, they’ve broken even. If they continue to do that, they’ll look to add pieces at the deadline, perhaps aggressively so because missing the postseason a second straight year will really take a bite out of the bottom line. There is bound to be some desperation setting in and I have a hard time seeing how that can be good.

The Yankees have been wholly underwhelming this season and the numbers bear that out, especially compared to last year. Outside of about five players (Tanaka, Gardner, Ellsbury, Dellin Betances, David Robertson), I don’t find this team to be particularly enjoyable to watch either. That’s just my opinion. They took steps to improve on last year’s performance over the winter and by and large those moves have backfired. The shape of the production may be different, but overall the team is simply not any better than last year’s mess.

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(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

The Yankees just wrapped up a nine-game road trip through two time zones and return home this week with five wins in the bank. It was a good trip, not a great trip. Stealing one of those last two games from the Athletics would have been awesome, but they are the best team in baseball. What are you going to do? Considering the injury-riddled rotation and mostly sputtering offense, winning five of nine works fine for me.

The road trip was not at all good for infielder Yangervis Solarte, who had four total hits in the nine games. All four came in back-to-back games in Kansas City. Solarte went hitless in his final 19 at-bats on the trip, though his recent slump extends further back than that — over the last calendar month he’s hitting only .208/.269/.313 (60 wRC+) in 105 plate appearances. That’s just bad. That’s what you’d expect from … well, a journeyman infielder who signed a minor league contract.

Despite the slump, Solarte is still hitting .274/.347/.420 (113 wRC+) on the season, which is a reminder of just how excellent he was a few weeks ago. I don’t think anyone realistically thought he could maintain the 144 wRC+ he posted through April or even the 131 wRC+ he posted through May. That’s Josh Donaldson/Hanley Ramirez production. I’ll be more than thrilled if Solarte manages to produce at a 113 wRC+ clip from here on out.

Sort through his day-by-day graphs page on FanGraphs and you can see Solarte’s gradual return to Earth pretty clearly. The AVG, OBP, SLG, BABIP, and wOBA graphs are all moving in the wrong direction, the walk rate slightly less so. The strikeout, K/BB, and ISO graphs show little change. They’ve held steady even through this slump and that’s encouraging. The one graph that stood out to me was the batted balls. Check it out:

Solarte Batted Balls

The green line is ground balls, the blue is fly balls, and the red is line drives. Solarte’s ground ball and fly ball rates have been moving in opposite directions, which is sorta weird because his ISO has held steady. Usually when a hitter stops hitting the ball in the air, he stops hitting for extra bases. Maybe it’s just a small sample thing. Solarte isn’t fast and won’t beat out many infield singles (he has three infield hits all season, including this one), so it makes sense that the increase in ground balls has led to decreased production overall.

One thing that has impressed me about Solarte — really more than anything — is his approach. His 11.6% strikeout rate is much better than the league average (20.3%) and his 9.6% walk rate is a touch better than average (8.0%) as well. He has swung at only 27.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, a tick below the 29.3% average. Has that changed at all during the slump? Here are Solarte’s plate discipline stats broken down into ten-game chunks because ten is a nice round number:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Games 1-10 27.1% 59.2% 78.3% 95.2% 45.5%
Games 11-20 34.4% 56.3% 74.2% 93.3% 47.1%
Games 21-30 21.8% 66.7% 73.7% 95.7% 44.2%
Games 31-40 20.9% 52.2% 66.7% 97.2% 44.5%
Games 41-50 29.3% 53.3% 82.4% 95.0% 56.4%
Games 51-62 33.7% 52.3% 83.9% 97.8% 48.9%

Solarte has gradually swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone as the season has progressed, and lately he’s offered at more pitches out of the zone as well. That’s not really a good combination. Swing at strikes and lay off balls is a pretty good rule of thumb. Furthermore, Solarte has not only swung at more pitches out of the zone these last 22 games, but he’s made more contact with those pitches as well. Unless you’re a total freak like Vlad Guerrero, it’s really tough to made hard contact with a pitch out of the zone. Usually the hitter is reaching and either grounding out weakly or popping the ball up.

As Joe wrote two weeks ago, it is very rare for a player to make his MLB debut at age 26 and stick around for a few years. At least rare among non-Cuban players. Dan Uggla and David Eckstein have both done it, and Solarte is more Eckstein than Uggla in terms of his high-contact, low-power playing style. Every little slump makes you wonder if this is the end — for what it’s worth, Solarte has hit much better at Yankee Stadium, so coming back home this week could help jump start his bat — but Solarte has rebounded each previous time. A little less hacking at pitchers’ pitches would help get him back in line this time. That might not be his only problem right now, but it is part of it.

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(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Through the first month or so of the season, I’m not sure anyone on the roster has been more disappointing than Brian McCann. The backstop has started his Yankees career with a 56 wRC+ in the first five-ish weeks, which ranks 177th out of 188 qualified hitters and dead last out of 15 qualified catchers. Chris Stewart had a 58 wRC+ last season, remember. The Yankees basically swapped Stewart for a balder, more expensive version in McCann. He’s been that bad so far.

As the fine broadcasters at the YES Network are wont to remind us day after day, inning after inning, the infield shift is widespread throughout baseball these days and McCann is one of its most popular targets. He was one of the most shifted against hitters in baseball last season and the same is true again so far this year. That was to be expected. Other teams weren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he was wearing a new uniform.

The shift has taken more than a few hits away from McCann this season and again, that is expected. Teams wouldn’t shift if they didn’t work. His .204 BABIP is a career low, especially when compared to his other healthy seasons (.234 before shoulder surgery in 2012), and down quite a bit from last season’s .261 BABIP. This isn’t all because of the shift — 8.3% of his plate appearances have ended with an infield pop-up this year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. Infield pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs and death to BABIP. His career pop-up rate prior to 2014 was only 4.0%, so this is way out of the norm.

Between the increased pop-up rate, the career low (by far) 3.5% walk rate, the career high (by far) 34.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone*, and the ol’ eye test, I’m pretty comfortable saying McCann is pressing like hell at the plate. He’s trying to squeeze sap out of the bat. It happens. New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.

* McCann’s strikeout rate (11.3%) is far below the league average and his best since 2008, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting the ball in play.

Getting back on track, other clubs have been shifting against McCann quite a bit this season and lately it seems like he’s making an effort to go the other way. He’s always been a dead pull power hitter and that’s a big reason why he was so attractive to the Yankees, but lately I feel like we’ve seen more attempts to go to the opposite field. It doesn’t always work, but the attempt is there. Remember this?

McCann had three hits in that game and all three were to left field. I remember he ripped a line drive foul ball in that direction as well. Obviously a double to the wall is an extreme example of beating the shift by going the other way, but McCann did attempt a simple bunt towards third base to beat the shift on Monday. Here’s the play if you didn’t stay up late for the West Coast game:


The bunt went foul — it’s not easy to bunt Major League pitching, you know — but McCann made the attempt. He tried to beat the shift in the most basic way possible: by rolling the ball to where the defenders aren’t standing. That’s all a bunt is.

I didn’t watch enough of McCann during his time with the Braves to know whether these attempts to beat the shift are new or something he’s been trying for years. I would greatly prefer the former and hope this is a new development. Thankfully, we can check that. With an assist to the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant, here are some numbers on McCann’s tendencies to pull the ball or hit it the other way over the last few seasons. The table doesn’t include last night’s game because stupid West Coast:

Total Pitches Pulled Away Pitches Pulled Total Pitches Other Way Away Pitches Other Way
2014 7.7% 5.6% 7.3% 8.5%
2013 9.6% 8.4% 4.7% 4.4%
2012 9.7% 8.6% 5.0% 4.5%
2011 8.9% 7.3% 4.5% 4.7%

First, some explanations are in order:

  • Total Pitches Pulled: Percentage of all pitches pulled to the right side of the infield or to right field. McCann saw 452 pitches prior to last night and he pulled 35 of them to the right side of the field, or 7.7%.
  • Away Pitches Pulled: Percentage of pitches on the outer third or off the plate away that were pulled to the right side. McCann saw 270 pitches in those locations and pulled 15 of them to the right side, or 5.6%.
  • Total Pitches Other Way and Away Pitches Other Way are the same thing, only with pitches that were hit towards the left side of the infield or left field. Got it? Easy enough.

This season, either consciously or through the mirage of small sample size, McCann has been pulling fewer pitches to the right side of the field. He’s going the other way more often and that is especially true with pitches away from him, the ones you’re supposed to serve to the opposite field for a Nice Piece of Hitting. More than a few players (coughMarkTeixeiracough) will still try to pull those pitches and wind up rolling over on them, hitting a weak grounder right into the teeth of the shift.

We’ve seen McCann roll over on outside pitches this year, everyone does it, but he is doing it less often than he had the last few years. He’s taking those pitches to left field nearly twice as often as he had from 2011-12. I’m not going to bother looking at inside pitches because inside pitches are supposed to be pulled and pulled for power. Not everyone is Derek Jeter, who is going to the Hall of Fame because of his ability to pull his hands in and drive those pitches the other way. You want McCann to pull inside pitches because that’s how he can do some real damage.

Anyway, this is good! I think. We still need to wait a few more weeks to make sure this newfound tendency to go the other way is not just sample size noise, which is always possible. The data matches what my eyes were telling me though. McCann is indeed trying to hit the ball the other way more often. That could absolutely be contributing to his early season slump too. It’s a change in approach and sometimes those changes take time. McCann’s been hitting one way his entire life and now he appears to be changing it up. Of course there are going to be some bumps in the road.

Are teams going to stop shifting McCann because he’s hitting the ball the other way more often? Nope. Here are his spray charts. He still a pull-first hitter who yanks a ton of ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field and teams will stack their defense accordingly. McCann does appear to be making an attempt to go the other way more, particularly with pitches on the outer third of the plate. That will change how teams pitch him more than the defensive alignment. The most important thing is that he is hitting more balls away from the shift. The first few weeks of McCann’s tenure in New York have been ugly, no doubt about it, but there seems to be some serious work going on behind the scenes, and that could have positive results in time.

Categories : Analysis, Offense
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May
05

Masahiro Tanaka’s Extra Gear

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(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

I’ve been at this for a little while now, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a friggin’ ton of bad information out there. The bad information outnumbers the good information by like, a factor of a hundred at this point. It’s terrible. Sorting through the nonsense is exhausting. It really is. What are you going to do though? It’s all in the game.

International players in particular fall victim to bad information because there isn’t much information out there to begin with. Even in this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we still don’t know a whole lot about non-MLB players. The tiny little bit of information we have gets extrapolated out and before you know it, Yoenis Cespedes is a five-tool superstar when he’s more like a solid, two-tool everyday outfielder. It happens all the time.

To date, I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of Masahiro Tanaka that we didn’t hear about in the weeks and months leading up to his free agency. Actually, I guess I should say we haven’t seen Tanaka not do something he was said to be able to do in the weeks and months leading up to free agency. That make sense? We’re not waiting to see the gyroball or anything like that. Tanaka has been as advertised.

One thing that stood out to me before the Yankees signed Tanaka was this statement by Darrell Rasner, the former Yankee who was Tanaka’s teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles the last few years. Here’s what Rasner told Sweeny Murti back in January:

SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?

DR: I’m talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I’ll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It’s just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.

This sounds like a something that could be totally made up, right? We hear about guys cranking it up a notch in big situations quite a bit but it seems like few actually do it.

Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen Tanaka reach back and bring something extra in important spots during his first six starts, but this is 2014. Anecdotal evidence is for suckers. We can test this stuff. First, let’s keep it simple and look at Tanaka’s results. Here is how he’s fared in situations with varying degrees of pressure:

BF AVG OBP SLG BABIP wOBA K% BB% GB% FIP
Bases Empty 109 .262 .275 .514 .318 .341 25.7% 1.8% 40.8% 4.20
Men On 59 .130 .203 .185 .250 .186 39.0% 6.8% 71.0% 2.30
RISP 32 .103 .188 .207 .143 .188 53.1% 6.3% 75.0% 1.75

First things first: take a second to soak in those numbers with runners in scoring position. Hitters had an 0-for-17 stretch against Tanaka in those spots until Ryan Hanigan slapped a ground ball off Kelly Johnson‘s glove on Saturday. When it comes to runners in scoring position, Tanaka is the Yankees’ offense of pitchers. I don’t even care that the performance came in a super small sample — the reason I didn’t use low/medium/high-leverage stats instead is because Tanaka has faced only nine batters in high-leverage spots — it happened and it’s amazing.

Anyway, Tanaka has performed much better with runners on base than he has with the bases empty to date. That isn’t proof that he kicks it into another gear in big spots, but it does support the theory. At least somewhat. Obviously Tanaka isn’t going to sustain a 53.1% strikeout rate and a 75.0% ground ball rate with men in scoring position (lol) because no one does that. I would expect him to be less effective in those spots going forward only because he couldn’t possibly be any better.

The results have been excellent, but when I think of a pitcher reaching back for something extra in big spots, I think of increased velocity. That’s what everything thinks, right? Rasner’s claim that Tanaka can reach back for “an extra 10!” is completely far-fetched — if a pitcher could really do that, he’s probably doing his team and himself a disservice by not doing it more often — but the idea that he throws harder when he really needs an out is not. There are a few guys around the league who can do it, with Justin Verlander jumping to mind.

Courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here is Tanaka’s pitch selection and average velocities in those same three situations:

FB% FBv SNK% SNKv SPL% SPLv SLD% SLDv
Bases Empty 26.3% 91.4 23.0% 90.2 17.9% 86.1 18.1% 83.3
Men On 20.5% 92.2 23.0% 90.5 29.3% 86.3 19.2% 84.0
RISP
25.4% 92.6 14.3% 91.1 38.9% 86.9 21.2% 85.3

Those percentages do not add up to 100% simply because Tanaka throws too many different pitches and I didn’t include them all. PitchFX has recorded eight different pitches from Tanaka this season, though the four-seamer, sinker, splitter, and slider are his four main offerings. The others (cutter, two-seamer, changeup, curve) aren’t used nearly as often, so I’m leaving them out. It’s just too much information.

Across the board we see that Tanaka has indeed thrown harder with guys on base, especially when they’re in scoring position. The increase in the average velocity of his four-seamer, sinker, and splitter is roughly one mile an hour with men in scoring position while the slider jumps two full miles an hour. The increases with men on base in general are smaller but they still exist, especially with the fastball and slider. The average fastball velocity increase with men on base is only 0.2 mph across the league. It’s 0.4 mph with runners in scoring position. Tanaka’s fastball has jumped +0.8 mph with men on and +1.2 mph with men in scoring position. The other pitches have shown even smaller velocity increases around the league, so Tanaka is very much unique.

Tanaka has thrown ten pitches at 94+ mph this year and eight have come with men on base. The two exceptions were a pair of 2-2 fastballs to Brock Holt (95.2 mph) and Grady Sizemore (94.7 mph). Both were fouled off and they were Tanaka’s fastest and fourth fastest pitches of the season, respectively. Here’s the fun part: the pitch to Holt was in the seventh inning (96th pitch), the pitch to Sizemore in the eighth (103rd). Tanaka was really amped up in Boston — ten of his 12 fastest pitches of the season came against the Red Sox — and he was throwing his hardest when his pitch count was approaching or over 100. That qualifies as a guy who ramps it up in big spots to me.

Through his first six starts, Tanaka has shown signs of having that “extra gear” we heard so much about before he joined the Yankees. It is just six starts though, his first six in the big leagues. He admitted to being excited and nervous before both his first overall start and first home start, and I’m sure he felt a little something before his other four starts as well. If Tanaka continues to reach back for more in big situations later in the season, after he has some more innings under is belt and has had more time to adjust to the five-man rotation, then I think we’ll know this is a skill he actually possesses and not just a piece of bad misinformation we heard before Tanaka came over to MLB.

Categories : Analysis, Pitching
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The mailbag is our Friday staple, but this week we received a question worth its own post.

(Elsa/Getty)

(Elsa/Getty)

Jonathan asks: Hey Mike, have you noticed any change in Mark Teixeira‘s stance so far? He’s standing up much more straight with less of a crouch and his hands are starting in a lower position.

I hadn’t noticed anything different until I read Jonathan’s question the other day, so I paid extra attention during Tuesday night’s game against the Mariners. Sure enough, it looks like Teixeira has changed his setup at the plate. To the action GIFs:


That is 2013 on the left and 2014 on the right, both homerun swings (not that the outcome matters much, but just in case) and both at Yankee Stadium so the camera angle is the same. I’m not much when it comes to media editing and all that, but I did my best to sync the two GIFs at the moment his front foot hits the ground.

There are definitely some differences between last year and this year, as Jonathan pointed out. Four that I see, in fact.

  1. Closed Stance: Teixeira’s front foot was further away from the plate than his back foot last season. He’d been like his entire career. The same is still true this year, but it isn’t nearly as exaggerated.
  2. More Upright: Look at his knees. He was in a bit more of a crouch last season. This year he’s standing close to straight up.
  3. Lower Hands: They wind up in the same place once he starts to load his swing, but Teixeira has brought his hands out in front of his body before the pitch is delivered. Before they were almost behind his head.
  4. Follow-Through: Last year Teixeira still had his big one-handed follow-through. This year it’s a more compact two-handed follow-through.

Do those adjustments sound familiar? They should. You’re a bad fan if they don’t. (Not really.) Those are the same exact adjustments Curtis Granderson made when he revamped his batting stance in August 2010 and turned into one of the game’s premier power hitters almost literally overnight. Here’s a pair of screen caps from a post I wrote about Granderson’s overhaul back in the day:

Granderson, April vs August

Granderson’s very first at-bat of the 2010 season is on the left (homer off Josh Beckett!) and an at-bat from August 2010 is on the right. It’s from the series immediately after he went through his crash course with hitting coach Kevin Long, so right after Curtis went through the overhaul.

The camera angle isn’t the same but you can see Granderson closed his stance and dropped his hands, pretty drastically too. Much more than Teixeira. (Lower hands is a classic adjustment players make in an effort to get their bat moving quicker.) He is not standing more upright, though he did replace his one-handed follow-through with a two-handed follow-through. I’m not going to make a GIF of that; I trust you remember Grandy following through with two hands these last few years.

Alright, back to Teixeira. Here’s a snippet of a relevant Mark Feinsand article from late in Spring Training, just before the Yankees traveled to Houston to open the season:

Kevin Long noticed that Teixeira had been letting the bat go early when he hit lefty, protecting his right wrist in the process. Teixeira said he fell into that habit last year when he tried to play through the injury, but until Long picked it up on video earlier in the week, he didn’t realize it was still happening.

“Lefthanded, mentally I have to continue to remember that it’s healthy now and even though it might be a little bit tight, and every now and then it’s a little bit sore, I can still take that full swing,” Teixeira said. “It was unbelievable how early I was letting go of my (left) hand to protect the (right) wrist. Just really a bad mechanical thing.”

Long and Teixeira worked on the adjustment in the cage and during batting practice, but it wasn’t until Thursday’s game against the Pirates in Bradenton that the first baseman truly felt he let loose during his lefthanded at-bats.

“It looked like a whole different animal,” Long said. “The problem is it wasn’t allowing him to drive the ball and he was cutting his swing off. I can’t tell you how positive the Bradenton game was for him and for us.

That’s the kinda thing I read in Spring Training and completely ignore. We hear that sorta stuff everyday and most of it means nothing, both short and long-term. Teixeira has noticeably revamped his stance though, and both he and the hitting coach talked about making adjustments back in camp. The early returns are positive too: .231/.375/.487 (140 wRC+) with three homers in 48 plate appearances this season, including two homers in his last two games. Suddenly that little blurb from March seems more meaningful.

Teixeira is a switch-hitter, but his left-handed swing has been the concern in recent years. I didn’t bother to look to see if he changed his righty stance as well. He never stopped mashing lefties (144 wRC+ from 2011-13), so there was never a reason to worry about him from that side of the plate. Teixeira’s production against righties took a hit though (104 wRC+ from 2011-13), plus a right wrist injury is more worrisome for a lefty hitter. The front arm is the power arm, so if any part of that is compromised, it’s tough to drive the ball. Teixeira has hit those two homers off righty pitchers the last two games, which is encouraging.

Will the adjustments Teixeira made this year be as effective as the ones Granderson made in 2010? Man that would be so cool. It is the same basic stuff, after all. Closed stance, lower hands, two-handed follow-through, etc. That said, no. Probably not. Granderson’s fix was 95th percentile stuff. Turning into a 40+ homer guy with a few mechanical tweaks is damn near the best case scenario. I wouldn’t expect the same results from Teixeira just because they made the same adjustments. They are two different players at two different points of their careers.

Still, can this new stance help Teixeira regain some of his lost production as a left-handed batter? It’s possible and I hope so. There’s really no way of knowing at this point though. Teixeira wasn’t bad in his last full, healthy season (116 wRC+), he just wasn’t as good as he had been during his prime. The easiest way for him to improve his overall production is to improve against righties, and these recent changes could help him do just that. Hopefully this recent power surge is a sign of things to come and an indication Teixeira’s new batting stance is paying real dividends.

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(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Thanks to Friday night’s beatdown at the hands of the Angels, Hiroki Kuroda is sitting on an unsightly 5.28 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 29 innings through five starts this year. Obviously one disaster outing like that one will skew numbers this early in the season, but Kuroda did go into that start with a 4.07 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 24.1 innings. The runs allowed are a bit higher than what we’re used to seeing from the right-hander, the fielding independent stuff right in line with past years.

Kuroda faced 25 Angels on Friday night and ten had hits, including six in two-strike counts. He allowed just seven two-strike hits total in his first four starts. Kuroda was having problems with his offspeed stuff in his previous start against the Rays, but he worked through that and turned in a representative outing (three runs in 5.2 innings). He had the same issue against the Angels but couldn’t limit the damage.

“Overall my command was bad and all my pitches weren’t good,” said Kuroda to Brian Heyman following Friday’s game. “Right now, there are certain pitches that are inconsistent. I need to make an adjustment and get them back. The biggest thing is to improve the quality of my breaking ball.”

Kuroda does throw the occasional curveball but his slider is his go-to breaking ball. Has been for years. He uses the pitch mostly against righties (duh) while relying on his splitter against lefties (also duh), so it makes sense the righty-heavy Angels smacked him around on Friday. Same-side hitters have tagged Kuroda for a .351 wOBA in the early going this year, up from .266 last season. When the finish pitch isn’t there, it’s tough to put batters away. Same applies to every pitcher ever.

Here are the details on Kuroda’s slider:

% Thrown % In Zone % Swings % Whiffs Horiz. Mvmt Vert. Mvmt mph
2012 30.0% 33.6% 45.4% 16.5% 1.3 in. 3.2 in. 84.3
2013 25.1% 33.2% 46.0% 16.1% 0.5 in. 3.3 in. 84.5
2014 14.0% 36.9% 40.0% 13.9% 1.3 in. 3.3 in. 84.1

The movement and velocity of Kuroda’s slider is right in line with his first two seasons as a Yankee — the 0.5 inches of horizontal movement last season is the outlier compared to the rest of his career, according to Brooks Baseball — but he’s throwing considerably fewer of them this year, which suggests a lack of faith in the pitch. Kuroda admitted his slider hasn’t been good and pitchers tend to shelve pitches they are struggling to execute. When he has thrown it, he’s catching more of the plate and hitters aren’t swinging and missing.

Kuroda is not overpowering and he uses his slider as a chase pitch, both to get swings and misses and weak contact. He outperformed his FIP and posted a below league-average BABIP every year from 2011-13, classic signs of a guy who generates weak contact. Kuroda is a unique pitcher in more ways that one. Now that his slider isn’t behaving as it normally does, he isn’t getting those whiffs and certainly isn’t getting weak contact. When he’s been hit, he’s been hit hard.

The question now is why is his slider being so fickle? It could be any number of reasons and there’s no way we could possible know from where we sit. Could be mechanics, could be the cold weather, could be something else. Age is an obvious concern — “I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve been 39,” he quipped to Andrew Marchand when asked if he’s getting to be over the hill — but Kuroda’s stuff doesn’t appear to be diminished at all. His velocity and movement are fine, he’s just not executing and locating. When he struggled late last year, Kuroda was making his pitches and still getting beat. He just isn’t making his pitches right now, especially with the slider.

Kuroda doesn’t lack a good fastball but he is definitely more of a crafty pitcher than a power pitcher. He needs all three of his fastball, slider, and splitter to be effective, and when one or more of those pitches doesn’t behave, he’s in for a real grind. The inability to locate his slider juuust off the plate to righties has left him without one of three primary weapons, and that’s no way to succeed in the AL East. Kuroda has to make an adjustment — it’s entirely possible he won’t be able to make that adjustment at his age, but I’m not going to say that is the case after five starts — and get back to being a true three-pitch pitcher, otherwise he’s in for more rough outings.

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Apr
21

The Reinvention of CC Sabathia

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(Scott Halleran/Getty)

(Scott Halleran/Getty)

As you know, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. By a lot. He was legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game after being no worse than comfortably above-average for the better part of a decade. Sabathia’s ability to bounce back — not necessarily to an ace, just to something better than terrible — is pretty important to the team’s chances to contend this summer, even with Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda throwing so well early on.

Sabathia’s first four starts this year have been a mixed bag but they have gotten progressively better: six runs in six innings, four runs in six innings, four runs in seven innings, and two runs in seven innings. He has pitched very well early in his last three starts before allowing some runs in the later innings. There have definitely been multi-inning stretches where he was in total control, but we’ve yet to see an entire start like that. Hopefully it’s coming soon.

Unsurprisingly, Sabathia’s oft-discussed velocity did not bounce back this year. It never does. Once velocity goes it tends to stay gone. His four-seam fastball has averaged only 89.6 mph in his first four starts, down from 91.3 mph last year. I suspect that will tick up a little bit in the summer months as it usually does. How has Sabathia attempted to compensate for his missing heater? By simply throwing it less. He has de-emphasized his four-seamer. Look at his pitch selection courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Four-Seamer Sinker Slider Changeup Cutter
2009 44.5% 16.8% 19.9% 18.9% 0.0%
2010 45.1% 15.7% 22.2% 17.0% 0.0%
2011 45.3% 13.4% 27.2% 14.1% 0.0%
2012 39.4% 14.8% 32.1% 13.7% 0.0%
2013 42.3% 14.9% 27.5% 15.2% 0.0%
2014 30.1% 27.4% 24.0% 16.4% 2.2%

Sabathia has incorporated a cutter this season but he rarely uses it, only a handful of times per game. He is throwing slightly fewer sliders and slightly more changeups, but nothing crazy. That’s probably a function of the small sample size more than anything. The big difference comes with the fastballs. Sabathia is throwing way fewer four-seamers than at any other time with the Yankees and he’s throwing a ton more sinkers, basically twice as many as he threw from 2011-13. That’s a big difference.

Sabathia is not necessarily using fastballs less, but now he is cutting them and especially sinking them more often. That doesn’t make him unique either. Not even close. That is an adjustment most veteran pitchers will make later in their careers. From Chris Cwik:

The added movement is likely one of the reasons we’ve seen veteran pitchers start using the sinker more often, according to PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis. “As you lose velocity you need to add something,” says Pavlidis. “Movement is a good choice. So you’ll have older pitchers who lose velocity and adjust, or guys who are fringy and realize they can get a new edge, even if their velocity is still intact.”

Former major-league pitcher Brian Bannister agrees. “As pitchers lose the capability to throw powerful four-seam fastballs they have to compensate somehow,” Bannister said. “If you look at most of the pitchers who are still around as they get older, they are throwing sinking fastballs and not power fastballs because it matches up with how their body feels.”

Sort through the list of pitchers who have used the sinker the most since 2011 and they are almost all veterans in the second half of their career. Jake Westbrook, Derek Lowe, Jason Marquis, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, guys like that. Sabathia isn’t throwing his sinker as much as those guys just yet, but don’t be surprised if he creeps closer and closer to the top of that list in the coming years. It only makes sense to shelve the straight four-seamer in favor of the sinking sinker as the radar gun readings become less impressive.

Emphasizing the sinker is not the only adjustment Sabathia has made early this year. He is also pitching inside more often. According to the truly amazing Baseball Savant, Sabathia has come inside to right-handed batters with 29.5% of his pitches this year. That is up from 25.8% last year and 24.2% from 2011-13. (He’s only faced 12 lefty batters this year so I won’t even bother with those numbers.) I remember Mike Mussina (or maybe it was David Cone) saying that you have to pitch inside more when you start to lose velocity, and Sabathia has done early in 2014.

Between the increased reliance on his sinker and busting righties inside more often, CC has changed his pitching style in a tangible way so far this year. He had to after last season. The velocity isn’t coming back and adjustments had to be made. I’m guessing this is just the start of those adjustments too. We might see more sinkers, more cutters, and more pitches inside as the season continues and he gets more comfortable. The progressively better starts might be an indication of that.

Because of who he is and his importance to the Yankees, everything Sabathia does this season will be watched closely. At least by me. I’m somewhat fascinated by the way pitchers age in general, going from hard-throwing youngsters with big stuff to savvy veterans who rely on their brains as much as their arms. Sabathia was not a “thrower” these last few years, the guy knows how to pitch, but that doesn’t mean adjusting to reduced velocity is easy. Throwing more sinkers (and cutters) and pitching inside appear to be tangible changes to his approach this year, changes he needs to make at this point of his career.

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