Yankeemetrics: April 6-9 (Blue Jays)

First win of the season! (Photo credit: NY Daily News)
First win of the season! (Photo credit: NY Daily News)

[For those of you new to these Yankeemetrics posts, what I try to do is recap each game in the series using interesting, fun and sometimes quirky statistical notes. Hope you enjoy it.]

Marathon, not a sprint
Opening Day did not go exactly as planned, to put it mildly. The Yankees lost 6-1 to the Blue Jay on Monday afternoon, extending their streak of Opening Day losses to four. That’s the longest such streak for the franchise since 1982-85. The Elias Sports Bureau also notes that for the first time in team history, the Yankees have lost three straight season openers by a margin of at least three runs.

The Yankees also failed to score more than two runs for the third Opening Day in a row, just the third time the Bronx Bombers have done that in the last 100 years. The other seasons were in 1978-80 and 1935-37.

Masahiro Tanaka, who was the youngest righty to start on Opening Day for Yankees since Doc Medich in 1975, allowed five runs in four innings and made every Yankee beat writer hit the panic button. It was the shortest Opening Day start by any Yankee since Phil Niekro in 1985 vs. Red Sox.

While a ton of the focus was on Tanaka’s poor outing, the Yankee bats certainly didn’t help him out with just one run on three hits. The last time the Yankees scored no more than one run and had three or fewer hits in the season’s first game was 1968 (yes, the so-called Year of the Pitcher).

So you’re saying there’s a chance…
Phew. The Yankees got back to .500 with a 4-3 win on Wednesday, avoiding what would have been a franchise-record fourth straight 0-2 start. Down 3-1 entering the eighth frame, the Yankees pulled off what has to be one of the more improbable rallies in recent memory.

They tied the score when Brian McCann was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. The last time the Yankees had a game-tying HBP after the seventh inning was when Reggie Jackson was plunked in 1978 against the Brewers.

Chase Headley had the game-winning RBI in the next at-bat when his ground ball up the middle bounced off Blue Jays pitcher Brett Cecil and squirted into the outfield. It was Headley’s third go-ahead hit in the eighth inning or later with the team, the most such hits by any Yankee since he arrived in the Bronx on July 22 last year.

Michael Pineda may not have made his case to be the Yankees ace, but he had strong performance in his 2015 debut (ND, 6 IP, 2 R, 6 K, 1 BB). This was the fifth time in his Yankee career he’s given up two runs or fewer in at least six innings pitched without getting the win –- and three of those games have now come vs. Toronto.

Second to none
CC Sabathia‘s first regular season start in nearly a year was ruined by a disaster second inning when he gave up four runs on five singles; he allowed just three hits and one run in the other 4 2/3 innings he pitched. Of the 17 outs he recorded in the game, 16 were either by strikeout (8) or groundout (8). That’s pretty darn good…except for the five runs he allowed on the night. Oops.

So the Yankees ended up losing the rubber game, 6-3, and Sabathia lost his fourth straight home start, his longest such losing streak in pinstripes. The only Yankee left-handers to lose more than four starts in a row at Yankee Stadium are Whitey Ford (5, 1965-66) and Sam McDowell (6, 1973-74).

Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira tried to rally the Yankees when they hit homers in the sixth inning to make it 5-3. For A-Rod, it was his 57th homer vs. Toronto, the most by any player against the Blue Jays franchise. Of course it was also his 655th career home run, five away from tying Willie Mays and earning a cool $6 million bonus.

How Pineda can become the next Yankees ace

(Presswire)
Is the next Yankees ace on the mound tonight? (Presswire)

Michael Pineda may be the No. 2 starter according to Joe Girardi‘s binder, but after Masahiro Tanaka‘s unimpressive Opening Day performance and lingering concerns about his UCL injury, could Pineda jump up to the front of the rotation?

Based on his outstanding spring and last year’s record-setting performance, the answer just might be yes. Pineda last season became the first Yankees starting pitcher to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA (min. 10 starts) since Ron Guidry in 1978, and his .200 batting average allowed was the lowest by a Yankee starter (min. 75 innings) since Dave Righetti in 1981.

Perhaps the most impressive number was 8.43, his strikeout-to-walk ratio. That was the best single-season mark by any Yankee in franchise history with at least 75 innings pitched.

Yet, it’s important to remember that those numbers came in a very small sample size (13 starts, 76 1/3 innings) and there’s still a few holes in his “ace” resume. So before we put the crown on Pineda – and as we await his first start of 2015 – let’s take a look at one key thing the 26-year-old needs to do in order to take the next step during his second year in pinstripes.

***

Although there’s no consensus definition of an ace, it usually is a pitcher that you can count on to go deep in games, a true workhorse who can give the bullpen a rest for the night and turn over the opposing lineup multiple times.

Pineda last season averaged fewer than six innings and just 87 pitches per start, a mark that ranked 80th out of 91 AL pitchers with at least 75 innings pitched in 2014. He recorded an out in the seventh inning or later in just five of his 13 outings, and only twice threw at least 100 pitches in a game.

Those averages are slightly skewed because of his April 23 appearance when he was ejected in the second inning for using pine tar, but it doesn’t hide the fact that Pineda didn’t give the Yankees length as a starter and Girardi rarely felt comfortable extending him beyond the sixth frame.

While some of that might be due to the fact he was coming off major shoulder surgery at the start of the season and then spent two-plus months on the disabled list with a back injury, there’s also evidence that he wasn’t as effective in the later innings and when facing hitters multiple times through the order.

Pineda held hitters to a .185 batting average with 48 strikeouts and four walks the first two times through the order. The average MLB starter allowed a batting average of .250 in those situations, so it was clear that Pineda was dominant early in games.

But when the lineup turned over a third time, those batters tagged him for a .246/.281/.443 line in 64 plate appearances. Frankly, those numbers more resemble an average major-league pitcher (.268/.327/.421) than an ace. Most of that damage was done by lefties, who slugged .543 and had a line drive rate of 23 percent when seeing him for the third or fourth time in a game.

Most concerning might be that his signature slider became increasing ineffective as he faced hitters a second and third time during a game:

MICHAEL PINEDA SLIDER BY TIMES THROUGH ORDER IN 2014

BA Slug pct ISO
1st 0.135 0.212 0.077
2nd 0.200 0.314 0.114
3rd+ 0.240 0.480 0.240

Pineda also inevitably was hit hard when he pitched beyond the sixth inning. Four of the 16 earned runs he gave up in 2014 came in the seventh frame or later, across only 4 1/3 innings pitched. That’s an 8.31 ERA for those counting at home.

Batters were 8-for-21 with three doubles and two homers against Pineda after the sixth inning (.381/.435/.810), and it should be no surprise that he failed to hold his velocity on his four-seamer as he went deeper into games:

Pineda velo by inning

There is little doubt that Pineda has shown a ton of promise during his short stint as a Yankee, and appears to be on the cusp of being the next Yankees ace. However, the 26-year-old still has a ways to go before he can be viewed as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Not only must Pineda prove that he can remain healthy for an entire season, he has to develop the stamina to give the Yankees length on a consistent basis and learn to pitch effectively in the later innings after batters have seen his stuff during a game.