Link dump: catching depth, Nardi and Markie, former Yankees, AJ

Marc Hulet of Fangraphs took a look at the catching depth in the minors for two teams, the Yankees and Blue Jays. The conclusion? Toronto has a slight advantage over the Bombers with “solid prospects at five different levels,” whereas the Yankees, according to Hulet, have three. Definitely worth a read.

Trenton Thunder beat writer Mike Ashmore spoke with Mark Newman for a few minutes. Any large decision taking place with Yankee affiliates goes through Newman, who serves as the team’s Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations. Mark discusses the possibility of moving 3B prospect Brandon Laird around the diamond a bit to create “positional flexibility,” and also talks about what he’s seen with Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman and a few other topics. A must-read.

It’s looking like a good day for Mashmore. He’s got another excellent link to check out. Mike this time sat down with Yankee pitching guru Nardi Contreras. Contreras discusses the mechanics of Brackman, the progress of George Kontos, Noesi and pitch counts, Venditte’s “novelty act,” and where Contreras would like to see Dellin and Graham Stoneburner finish out the season.

Steve S. at TYU has been keeping up with how former Yankees have been doing. Aroyds Vizcaino has done well enough to earn a promotion to Hi-A, though he’s struggled in his first get go. Take a look at that list and remember what some had been saying about keeping certain players. Not all the off-season moves have panned out, but some of the other options haven’t lit up the sky, either.

The Yankees have no plans to skip AJ in the rotation as they did when Javier Vazquez struggled, LoHud’s Chad Jennings is reporting. “I don’t think he’s necessarily going to benefit from it right now,” Girardi said.

Low-A prospects: a status report

Charleston lacks the pitching prowess of Tampa’s sparkling rotation, but they certainly have quite a few promising players in their own right. Charleston features the top draft picks of ’09 — center fielder Slade Heathcott and catcher J.R. Murphy — and arguably the top pitching prospect in the organization, right-handed Jose Ramirez. As we’ve done for AAA, AA and Hi-A, let’s take a longer look at some of the top players’ overall seasons and how they’ve performed of late.

Pitchers:

Jose Ramirez, SP:

Jose Ramirez.

Low-A Season: 33.0 IP, 4.36 ERA, 37 hits, 21 runs, 8 BB, 26 K, 1.38 GO/AO

Last three starts: 14.2 IP, 6.75 ERA, 14 hits, 11 runs, 10 BB, 10 K

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, Ramirez made his professional debut in 2009, where all he did was earn Pitcher of the Year honors out of the GCL. Yeah, his stock definitely rose. Armed with a fastball known to hit 96 and a very developed changeup, Ramirez has again largely impressed, if a bit inconsistent. The one thing that jumps out at you is that he has yet to give up a home run this year. Like, not even one. His K/BB rate is quite nice at 2.83 and the K/9 is close to 9. As I mentioned, consistency is key. He’s really struggled in June, posting an ERA of 6.75 with 14 hits and 10 walks in a shade under 15 innings. I’m not all that concerned, but it sure would be nice to see him hit his early season performance and possibly hit Tampa later in the year.

Jairo Heredia, SP

Low-A Season: 70.2 IP, 3.44 ERA, 61 hits, 33 runs, 23 BB, 65 K, 0.86 GO/AO

Last three starts: 16.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 10 hits, 4 runs, 3 BB, 16 K

Heredia has the talent. There’s no doubt about that. The question is his durability and how he progresses given his setbacks. He probably hung out a lot with Christian Garcia in the Yankee Minor League Infirmary over the past few years. He’s had shoulder injuries galore, losing large chunks of the 2007 and 2009 season. But when healthy he suffocates hitters with a heavy fastball, a very good curveball and a pretty decent changeup as a third offering. Development of the changeup stalled with 2009’s dead year and he struggled at Tampa in his brief time there. 2010 again was looking bleak. He’d been brutalized in Tampa, getting lit up for an ERA of 6.93 and 37 hits in 24 innings with only 14 strikeouts. Ouch.

He was demoted to Charleston again in May and he’s looked better, though he hasn’t wowed. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel for Jairo. His GB rate is almost 50% in Charleston, he’s giving up less line drives and walking half as many batters. He’s still fairly young at just 20 years of age, has an advanced feel and despite his obstacles, has shut out the opposition in his last two starts.

Hitters:

Slade Heathcott, CF

Slade Heathcott.

Low-A Season: .313/.384/.391

Last ten games: .275/.348/.325, 2 XBH, 5 steals

Heathcott oozes tools. While his power isn’t developed per se, he has a muscular frame (look at his ams!) and surprising agility with a plus-arm in center field. Few have such raw athleticism. Heathcott spent three games in the GCL last year and was given the green light to jump to Charleston in 2010. Outside of Jesus Montero, this is the most exciting prospect in the system, so expectations are high.

How’s he done so far? Well, good and bad. Hard not to get excited about a guy who’s gotten a hit in all but one of his 15 games on the season. On the other hand, 15 strikeouts in 64 appearances is a bit much, though six walks isn’t too bad. Slade’s been largely –at least according to MiL Splits– hitting ground balls, at clip of 49%. His line drives are a bit low at 9.8%. Still, I’m not going to complain about an 19-year-old in A-ball hitting .313/.384/.391. Hopefully he’ll show some signs of better discipline and a flash of power, but there’s no reason to rush it. It’s only been 15 games. He’s also added six steals to the pot of goodies.

J.R. Murphy, C

Low-A Season: .242/.296/.309

Last ten games: .275/.348/.300, 1 XBH, 1:1 BB/SO rate

The other of the toolsy top picks of 2009, Murphy was touted as a a pure hitter with the athleticism and feel to be a catcher down the road. I haven’t seen reports on how his defense has progressed, but his bat was slow in May down in historic Charleston. The catcher from Florida hit .222/.259/.315 that month. The beginning of June wasn’t terribly peachy either, but he’s turned it on of late, hitting a nicer .275 with a 1:1 SO/BB ratio. He’s really struggled against southpaws, hitting .231/.244/.308 against them. Again, as with Slade, there’s no concern at this point in the year. Neither were considered super-polished players that would jump the levels. It’s going to require patience but both are players with nice potential.

Zoilo Almonte, OF

Low-A season: .278/.343/.491

Last ten games: .333/.415/.722 with 4 home runs and a 1:1 SO/BB rate.

You don’t hear much talk about Zoilo on the Yankee prospect chatter, but he’s quietly putting up a really nice season in South Carolina. Maybe people are jaded that he’s underperformed until last year, despite being a switch-hitter with seemingly good tools. I figured it was a fluke myself, but he might be putting himself in the picture as a legit prospect. He might be partially aided by a BABip of .351, but it’s hard to argue with the power emerging (10 home runs in 57 games). So while his batting average is likely inflated, the parks have bellied a bit of his power (neutralizing park and luck factors show a line of .260/.327/.507 with 13 home runs). The strikeouts are still concerning (65 in 224 AB’s – a 29% rate) and his overall on-base skills seem worse than last year, but there’s a lot to like about Zolio’s season. A guy with power/speed tools are worth watching. Hopefully he doesn’t hang out with Melky Mesa during his time in the Yankee farm system. Don’t want that rubbing off on you.

Kyle Higashioka, C

Low-A season: .192/.277/.291

Last ten games: .179/.256/.231, 2 XBH

Often thought of a Japanese import (at least to me anyway, due to the name), the man known as “Higgy” is actually a young catcher drafted by the Yankees for an over-the-slot bonus in 2008 out of California. Supposedly, he’s American and a solid defensive catcher. Anyway, he disappointed a bit with the bat in 2009, hitting .253/.333/.332 in Staten Island. On the other hand, he had a pretty good batting eye, striking out 31 times and walking 26 times in 217 PA’s. It’s rare to see such a young player with such a good approach. Still, it didn’t translate into results in 2009 and it hasn’t yet in 2010. He’s hitting below the Mendoza line, getting on base less than 28% of the time and hitting for Ramiro Pena-like power. With a glut of catchers up and down the ladder – from Montero to Romine to Murphy to Sanchez – Higgy may get lost in the shuffle pretty quickly if he can’t show some measure of progress. Worse yet, he’s striking out more and walking less. It may be he just hasn’t gotten into a rhythm yet.

Carmen Angelini, SS

Low-A season: N/A

Carmen Angelini is currently hitting .354/.442/.549 for my team in MLB The Show 2010, largely because deluding myself into thinking that is better than the outrageously high expectations I had for him, only to see him mimic my baseball aptitude as a Little Leaguer. Anyway, Angelini is on the DL roster of the Charleston Riverdogs. Hitting a cool .200 with trouble in the field will sour pretty much anyone on you, especially if you do it for a few years consecutive (don’t tell the Royals – they seem to actively seek players like that) so the expectations for Angelini are at an all-time low. I, for one, am really, really excited to see him. Please succeed, Carmen!

Other guys of note:

Rob Lyerly, 3B is hitting .314/.367/.411 with 1 home run. The errors are high, as are the strikeouts. The power, on the other hand, is low.

Luke Murton, 1B is hitting .291/.375/.498 with 8 homers. Murton is a bit old for the level (he’s 24), but he’s throwing together a nice season.

Taylor Grote, OF has posted a line of .242/.342/.387. His batting eye seems to have improved, but he’s still struggling in his third professional season. His power has improved, though.

DeAngelo Mack, OF has some good tools, but is like an NBA tweener. Probably not athletic enough to play CF, but lacks the strength and bat to play the corners. He’s disappointed this year, hitting .243/.340/.390 with four home runs, mostly playing right field.

Sean Black, SP likely a relief pitcher, Black, out of Seton Hall, has power stuff but erratic results. Not much has changed, as on the year he’s actually limited walks (good) but been hit around the park (not good), especially by right-handers, who have torched him for an ERA over 6.00. On the other hand, he’s kept lefties in check for the most part.

A modest proposal

With legitimate concerns regarding Teix (is he possibly turning the corner or just showing a “hot flash”?), the health of A-Rod and Posada, and the volatility of the bullpen, it seems silly to harp on an under-performing bench. Make no mistake, like all teams, the 2010 New York Yankees aren’t going to be sending up world-beaters off the bench. They’re bench players for a reason. Any tinkering will ultimately have minimal impact on the team and its win-loss record.

Nevertheless, a few changes to bring in some fresh blood may yield some positive dividends for the team. This doesn’t mean promoting Jesus Montero or Austin Romine to the big leagues – that would be foolish. It means taking a hard look at Kevin Russo, Chad Huffman, Ramiro Pena and some of the weaker links in the bullpen. In short, the guys that haven’t “earned the right” to keep their spot when they aren’t performing and better options may be looming. On this beautiful morning, we’ll focus on the hitters.

I’ll admit I’ve never been a true believer of AAA SS Eduardo Nunez. He walked less than Stephen Hawking, was reported to have poor defense, had a BABip 60 points higher than anything he’d been at in his previous two levels (Charleston, Tampa) and I wasn’t sold on his power being more than a fluke. Yet he still threw up a combined line of .313/.343/.421 in just under 500 PA’s between Trenton and Scranton in 2009, so he couldn’t be entirely ignored, either. This year he’s largely shut me up. Offensively, at least. On the year in Scranton he’s posting a line of .320/.359/.410. That’s damn good. He’s hitting more line drives this year (up six percentage points to 17.6%) and his HR/FB rate is crazy low at roughly 2.5%, suggesting power should rebound a bit. (Last year’s rate was 8/150 – around 5%.) While I don’t know much about his defense, Nunez, 23, might just be ready for a cup of coffee in the big leagues.

As of now Ramiro Pena is the backup shortstop and the team (appropriately) seems to value his glove’s versatility. He can capably man all of the infield positions and can also play the outfield in a pinch. Herein lies the problem – for a guy hitting .190/.235/.210 (and little indication he’ll ever be even an average hitter), he really hasn’t been very good with the glove this year. Granted, it’s an extremely small sample, but even the eye test seems to indicate Pena’s been fairly pedestrian with the leather. Per UZR at Fangraphs, he’s negative at all positions thus far. Using B-Ref’s metrics, he’s also been underwhelming. On the year, Pena’s RAR is -4.8, his WAR -0.5 and he’s had a negative WPA in almost half of his games (12 out of 30).

Do I think he’s a poor fielder? No, not at all. But when as a player you’re all-glove, no bat, playing in limited bench time, it’s important that you reach defensive expectations. That hasn’t happened and given that he has options, I can’t think of many reasons to keep him around. Yes, he’s been victimized by an extremely low BABip of .220 and his defense should be better, but how much can he reasonably contribute? Nunez contributing average offense and below-average defense in limited time would be more valuable to the team than above-average defense and well below-average offense from Pena.

You’ll probably get poor defense with Nunez. I’ve heard a few Nunez fans say he’s much improved with his glove this year. He has good tools (and a great arm) but it’s never quite come together. Maybe he has; I’ve yet to hear anything myself, but it’s totally possible. He does, however, lead SWB with 7 errors. Even if his defense is poor, I think it’s reasonable to expect he could give you .270/.300/.350 in the big leagues. Of course, I also thought that Russo would provide that, so perhaps that expectation is unreasonable. Still, if nothing else, with Russo and Cervelli often in the lineup due to apprehension to push Posada and A-Rod (justifiably so), having a Nunez at least provides a better shot that there won’t have a complete black hole when an infielder needs a rest. Because I have no doubt Pena will always be a black hole in the lineup.

While Kevin Russo was a fan favorite early on for his “clutch hits,” he’s been dreadful offensively for the team. For the Bombers Russo is “hitting” .196/.260/.239 and even worse in June, checking in at a paltry .136/.240/.136. The good news is he’s been really hurt (like Pena) by a BABip of .225, has what appears to be solid hitting skills (if the minors are any indication), has been good with the glove and there’s really no one in the high minors that can play a utility role like he. There aren’t better options available in house. With Pena, I think there are.

As I’ve said, the difference between Pena and Nunez in the grand scheme of things –as a backup infielder getting spot duty– is likely to be small. This doesn’t mean you stand pat. If the move is made and Nunez is the inverse of Pena (average hitting, unbelievably poor defense), you probably end the experiment and return to the previous set-up. There’s really not much downside to a switch. With both players having options, the bottom of the lineup very often being an automatic out with injuries and necessary rest for starters, and Nunez potentially having some value to the Yankees (or another team via trade) in the future,it’s a move I think needs investigating.

Hi-A prospects: Tampa

This is the third installment of our four-part What’s going on with some of my favorite minor leaguers? series. Today, we head down south to Tampa, Florida, where the Hi-A Tampa Yankees might actually be the most popular baseball team in town, which is really actually kind of sad. (I know the Trop sucks and it’s a hassle to go to, but c’mon Tampa fans, please watch your team play baseball. They’re really good. /unrelated rant)

Tampa features the most intriguing pitching staff in the Yankee farm with Adam Warren, Andrew Brackman, Graham Stoneburner and fan-favorite Pat Venditte. Among hitters, only Bradley Suttle and Corban Joseph really stick out at you, although Melky Mesa is also a fairly well-known name. I know he’s a fun novelty item, but I just don’t see Venditte (or Mesa) as a real prospect, so the list will only include Warren, Brackman, Stoneburner, Suttle and Joseph. We’ll start with the hitters.

Hitters:

Bradley Suttle, 3B

Drafted as an above-slot bonus baby in the 4th round of the 2007 MLB draft, Suttle was known for two things – 1) He had a fantastic hit tool, maybe the best in that entire draft; and 2) he also happens to be this man in disguise:

Suttle, before practice in 2010.

Suttle has Type-1 diabetes. Since coming into the system, he’s been pretty up and down and his time has been largely marred by injury. In 2008 at Charleston he put up a line of .272/.345/.457. I wouldn’t call it a bad season, but it’s not eye-catching either. You’d ideally like a bit more out of a guy considered by many to be the best pure hitter in college coming out of the draft, but he didn’t totally struggle either. Still, it seems odd that a guy known for great plate discipline would notch 91 strikeouts and only 42 walks in 372 plate appearances.

But where Suttle really struggled was against southpaws – he hit .219/.323/.324 against them while at Charleston. For a guy without a great defensive reputation, with average power and mediocre athleticism, that sort of thing isn’t what moves you up the levels. Still, all things considered, Suttle had a fairly decent season.

But ut-oh! 2009 was entirely missed due to multiple shoulder injuries, including labrum surgery. Not great for a guy that might not have profiled as a 3B anyway. Arm strength is kind of critical. So we fast forward to 2010. On the year, Suttle is hitting .242/.306/.327. As you can see, he’s not hitting for any power but he’s also hitting 46% of balls into the ground. If you don’t have very good speed, you’re not going to see a lot of those fall in for hits. He’s also struck out 44 times in 165 AB’s and walked 16 times. That approach will get you nowhere if you don’t at least make solid contact when you do hit the ball. As I’ve said, he doesn’t. But there are some bright spots. He’s hitting left-handers better this year at .317/.344/.362 but that’s also aided by a BABip of .404. Considering his age at the level, the injury issues and the regression in on-base skills, it’s hard to see Suttle going much further. Hopefully he’s still feeling the ill-effects of surgery and will bounce back and at least show off great hitting skills.

2010 season at Hi-A: .242/.306/.327

Last ten games: .206/.293/.206

Corban Joseph, 2B:

Corban Joseph Multi-Pass was the Yankees’ fourth-round pick of the 2008 draft. Originally drafted as a shorstop, it seems most people didn’t believe he could stay there, including the Yankees, who moved him to second base. He also rated negatively (per Total Zone on B-Ref) at Charleston in a limited sample, but he it’s unlikely he’d develop the power to play at a corner, so 2nd would likely be a position he’ll have to pick up to move up and be a big-league player at some point. But he was solid at the hot corner, so maybe the team would direct him along the path of Kevin Russo. Who knows.

Now, that said, CoJo can hit. Last year in Charleston he was one of the more consistent hitters, throwing a line up of .300/.381/.418. He had a line drive rate of 25% and was pretty even with his strikeouts to walks ratio (61/49). He did have a crazy-high BABip over the last few months which made up for early season struggles, so it really was a tale of two seasons. So what has 2010 looked like for the Tennessee native?

He’s again one of the better hitters on the team and still a young player at 21. He’s hitting .303/.354/.415 and has two home runs on the year. I don’t know how his defense has been on the season, but his stick has again been very solid. He’s really the only hitter I can see on the Tampa team realistically continuing to move up with a real shot in the show. At this rate anyway. Still, the defense will have to really improve.

2010 season at Hi-A: .300/.381/.418

Last ten games: .343/.425/.371

Pitchers

Adam Warren, SP

What can I say about Adam Warren that hasn’t already been said? The dude has just been straight rolling though Hi-A hitters. It’s not even fair. Selected out of the University of North Carolina (go Heels!) in the 4th round of the 2009 draft, Warren should be a guy that advances quickly. He was a polished college senior, had an uptick of velocity (hitting 96) and has the potential to impact the big club possibly as early as 2011. Last year at Staten Island he ran over New York Penn League hitters, holding them with an ERA of 1.43 and solid peripherals.

In Tampa, he’s thrown 54 innings with just 14 walks and has registered 40 strikeouts. Batters are hitting .235 against him, which jumped considerably due to a poor outing on Friday. Per MILBSPLITS, Warren has gotten tons of groundballs (60%) and has kept the ball in the park (3% HR/FB ratio). I’m not sold that will look the same in Trenton, but there’s nothing it seems Warren needs to learn here at Hi-A. Expect to see him in lovely Trenton very shortly. If anyone knows how his velocity has been and the look of his secondary pitches this year, please let me know. As you can see by his last two starts, he finally ran into some trouble this year. Hey, it happens. He was lopped for 5 runs in less than three innings before exiting the game. No biggie. He’ll be fine.

2010 season at Hi-A: 54 IP, 2.67 ERA, 48 hits, 18 runs, 40 K, 14 BB, 2.43 GB/AA

Last two starts: 7.2 IP, 7.83 ERA, 8 hits, 6 Runs, 3 K, 0BB

Andrew Brackman.

Andrew Brackman, SP

Maybe one of the more hated prospects in the Yankee system, Andrew Brackman has had a strange season thus far. Signed as a classic bust/boom player as the Yankees’ 1st round pick in 2007, I don’t think anyone really expected what they saw out of him last year. Plagued with wildness and diminished stuff last season, he needed to show some positive signs of development this year. And he has. Brackmonster started the season off as we saw him in the throes of last year: 20 runs in 16.2 innings. Still, despite the crazy amount of runs, he walked one batter in that time frame. I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievable that is.

And check this out: he’s gotten much, much better since that bad stretch. Brackman has had only one start since then in which he’s given up more than one run. The walks are still minuscule at 5(!) in 38 innings and he’s notched 29 strikeouts this year. That’s pretty good. But the weird thing is it hasn’t fallen in with his scouting report. Kevin Goldstein reported that he’s been in the low-90’s (touching 94) with bad breaking balls. I don’t quite know how someone is able to put numbers up like this with two bad breaking balls and a fastball in the low 90’s, so I’m thinking maybe Goldstein saw him earlier in the season when he was getting bombed.

In May, which sandwiched a few rough starts with the rest of his good starts, Brackmonster has gotten hitters to ground out in 58% of at bats, his FIP is a crisp 3.24 and he wasn’t getting battered by a BABip of .455 like he did in April. Yeah, .455. Wow! I’m not going to say he pitched very well in April, but that’s an unbelievably high BABip, even in the minors. His FIP in April, after all, was only 4.20. He really wasn’t as bad as the box score would indicate.

The stuff is perhaps more important than the results. If Brackman is hitting 96 with his nasty hammer curve (two pitches that once hit 80 on the scale), I’d rather have that than weak stuff but solid results. Andrew Brackman just isn’t a prospect without a great fastball and breaking ball. At best he becomes John Rausch, who while a productive baseball player with similar size, relies on control. Andrew Brackman has never featured that. It’s totally possible he could, but I wonder how far he could get without great stuff. I’m hoping he’ll regain that velocity and feel for his curve. If Brackman does develop (a huge if), that’s easily the best pitcher in the system in terms of talent. Definitely my favorite guy to watch not named Jesus.

2010 Hi-A season:

38 IP, 5.92 ERA, 48 hits, 28 runs, 29 K, 5BB

Last two starts: 12 IP, 0.83 ERA, 9 hits, 1 run, 9 K, 2 BB

Graham Stoneburner, SP

One of the overslot signings of the 2009 draft, Stoneburner, featuring a plus-name and a lot of potential, has unequivocally been one of the best pitchers in the Yankee farm this season. You may remember he started the year in Charleston, where he stole batters’ lunch money and did donuts in the faculty parking lot. He brutalized them until being promoted in mid-May. How’s he looked in his promotion?

Well, there’s such a thing as a free lunch still in Tampa. Stoneburner, in 22 innings, has an ERA of 3.68 and has struck out 24. He does have 10 walks and had two very sharp starts and two rocky outings, so the consistency is not quite completely there at Tampa. In Charleston he was able to use his heavy sinking fastball to register a GB% of 55% and it’s particularly high against righties. Lefties seem to fare better against Stoneburner. In Tampa they’ve racked up 7 runs in 9.2 innings and 8 walks. That’ll need to improve but there’s a lot to like about Stoneburner’s hot start this year. He has a great arm and he continues to rack up strikeouts and limit walks. Spare a couple poor outings, Stoneburner’s been unreal this season. He might end up a reliever if his breaking balls don’t fully develop, but even in that role, he could be a good one. And one that rises quickly.

2010 Hi-A season:

22 IP, 3.68 ERA, 11 hits, 9 runs, 24 K, 10 BB

Last two starts: 12 IP, 2.50 ERA, 6 hits, 3 runs, 13 K, 4 BB

Ok folks, that’s all from Tampa. When I get back from vacation we’ll do Charleston. You can check out some of my other work at http://www.mystiqueandaura.com/

What’s up, ZZ?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Remember when the year started? We began in Boston with Yankee ace Sabathia throwing the first game. Well, CC didn’t do so hot. He was bludgeoned with 5 runs in only 5 1/3 innings. We saw him struggle to start the year in 2009 as well. No reason to panic, right? By the end of April, fans and sportswriters were calling for Sabathia’s head on a pike. Well, as you may also remember, after the Boston series, Hey ZZ did fairly well, blowing out the Rays in April with an oh-so-close no-hitter that wasn’t. He followed it up with a gem of a game against the Rangers with nine strikeouts in 7 2/3rds of 3-hit ball. Things were looking good. And then the outings started to drop a bit. Oakland saw him issue six walks, Baltimore hit him 11 times and each successive game seemed to feature Sabathia “gritting” out a victory but not looking too sharp, or getting tagged for 5 runs in 5 or 6 innings. Over his last five starts, Sabathia has only had a positive WPA in one of them (the start against Boston on the 18th).

Let’s take a look at CC’s peripherals and see if we can figure out what’s at least changed, even if there’s nothing to worry about. What exactly has gone wrong?

The first thing you’ll probably notice with CC’s year thus far is his strikeouts and walks. He’s striking out less than seven batters per game (6.81 k/9) while giving up more walks than we’ve seen since 2004 (2.90 BB/9). His groundball rate is an oddly high 49% on the year, up 7 percentage points from 2009. Still, he threw up a GB% of 49.5 in 2004, so it’s not completely unheard of. And we’ll get to more of that later. He’s also benefited from fairly good defense and luck. His BABip is .272, which is the lowest it’s been at any point in his big league career.

CC's K/BB ratio taken from Fangraphs.com

He’s currently outperforming his peripherals with his ERA, which comes in at 4.16 on the season. His FIP in 2010 is a decidedly un-CC-like 4.46. The rub here though is his xFIP, which basically normalizes home runs and adjusts the FIP. Here we see CC fall in line closer with his ERA, notching a 4.11 xFIP. Why would this be? Well, his HR/FB rate is a wacky 13%, easily a career high by a fairly wide margin. This is not to say CC’s pitched like the guy we know he can, but he’s definitely been burned by the home run, and trends suggest it likely won’t continue at such a rate.

But here’s where it gets weird: you know how we talk about pitchers using all of their pitches effectively and mixing up counts to stymie hitters? Sure you do! Generally we say it about Hughes and his proclivity to  go fastball-cutter-fastball-cutter. Or Joba and the guess-what-3-2 slider. Well, Sabathia hasn’t fallen down that path. No, he’s gone the other way. Generally a guy known to throw his potent four-seamer 60% of the time, Sabathia has been throwing it 48% of the time this year. Instead, he’s been relying on his two-seam fastball 18% of the time, up from 3% last year. Unfortunately, no data is available (that I’m aware of) to suggest a trend or an outlier, but whatever the case, it’s clear that CC isn’t as comfortable with his primary fastball this year, unlike that of the recent past. Could it be that he’s feeling some tiredness due to his extreme workload the past few seasons?

On the year his velocity has been down by about 1 mph on the fastball. We’re only on the doorstop of June so as the weather heats up, we should expect it to rise in line with what we’ve seen in the past. Take a look at his average velocity through this point last year and in the two previous seasons. He’s been consistently higher in velocity, even in his first 10 starts of the season (where we’d expect the weather to be of similar natures). But it hasn’t been by concerning numbers. Remember, we’re talking about 1-2 mph and many pitchers go through periods of variation. Luckily, CC doesn’t seem to have much issue with velocity. He was consistently hitting 95-96 yesterday, though many of them were fouled off and the pitch count ran high. So the velocity issue may be overblown.

From March to June in ’08, Sabathia averaged 93.4 on the fastball, threw it 60% of the time and saw hitters swing at the pitch 45% of the time, whiffing 5% of swings. He had great movement, too. His fastball had 9.11 inches of vertical rise and it moved horizontally 6.66 inches. In ’09 in the same time period Sabathia averaged 93.9 on the fastball, threw it in 57% of the time, saw hitters swing 46% of the time and miss 5.3% of the time. He averaged 9.41 inches of vertical movement and 5.45 horizontally.

In 2010, he’s averaging 93.1 on the fastball, throwing it for less strikes and getting less whiffs on the pitch, down to 4.6%. The movement has registered at 9.28 inches vertically and only 3.81 horizontally. Slower and less movement.

So according to this, his fastball hasn’t been what it should be, even when only looking at the colder beginning months of the last two seasons (where PitchFX data is available). And I think he knows it, which is why he’s throwing it less often. Well, what about other data points we can get by the pitches themselves? Fangraphs has a nifty little pitch values chart, which essentially rates how effective pitchers are with their offerings and how hitters fare against them. His fastball this year rates as a negative pitch (-1.8) while his slider and changeup both rate as positives (3.2 and 3.5 respectively). So what about that two-seamer he’s been so fond of lately? Well, I believe that’s included in the overall fastball rate. Per Texas Leaguer’s Pitch FX data, it seems like it’s been effective for him. He’s getting 8% whiffs on it, has thrown it for strikes and often elicits groundballs.

The two-seamer seems to explain the uptick in groundballs, now approaching 50% on the year, as I previously mentioned. We know that pitchers need to evolve as they get older, so getting more groundball outs could be a way for CC to put less strain on his arm and adjust to hitters that see him many times over the years. Or it could be that he’s thrown it in the past but they haven’t classified the pitch as a two-seamer (or in TX Leaguers, a sinker). Hard to say.

Another odd point in the year is that lefties are hitting an extraordinary line against the big Californian, known to be death to lefties. A career .236/.297/.358 against southpaws, he’s been lit up for a line of .283/.377/.472. That absolutely cannot continue for the big fella to be a successful ace in New York. That’s almost Gaudin-ian.

Lastly, the plate discipline. CC isn’t getting batters to chase as many pitches he’s thrown but they’ve made contact at higher rates than we’ve seen in a while, checking in at a 79% contact percentage. His swinging strike percentage is also down to 8.5% – he’s usually in the double digits.

Now this could all be nothing. Again, when he got off to a poor start last year, people echoed similar concerns. “He’s thrown too many innings,” “stuff just isn’t the same” and the like.  But it’s too early to say anything is awry. Sure, we haven’t seen his struggles extend so far into the season yet, but CC has never been known as a 1st half pitcher. Maybe he just needs an extra month (like Teixiera?) to get hot and he’ll start looking like the CC we saw last year. The home runs will come down, the velocity should move up and it looks like he’s now relying on a pitch more to get grounball outs. How he approaches left-handers and the look of his four-seam fastball should be large factors in how CC does moving forward. He needs to be the ace on this staff.