Top 10 starting pitchers against the Yankees by ERA since 2009

(photo: Rick Yeatts/Getty)

In the aftermath of yet another strong Jeff Niemann performance against the Yankees — whose seven-inning, one-run outing last night improved his career ERA against New York to 2.75 over six starts — I couldn’t help but wonder what Niemann’s overall numbers against the Bombers looked like in relation to other starters that have consistently had success when facing the team.

Going back to the beginning of 2009, here are the top 10 starters against the Yankees by lowest ERA (minimum three starts), courtesy of David Pinto’s wonderful day-by-day database:

Most of the names on this list would probably align with Yankee fans’ perceptions of pitchers the team typically struggles against — and frankly I was shocked that King Felix’s name didn’t top the list. His aberrant start last September slightly skewed his numbers, but prior to that completely out-of-character dud, no pitcher in baseball had had more success against the Yankees. Felix had thrown 40 innings of six-run ball (1.35 ERA) against the Yankees, including 24 innings of one-run ball (0.38 ERA!) at Yankee Stadium dating back to the beginning of 2010, and not having been saddled with a loss against the Bombers since May 3, 2008.

However, there are a couple of eye-openers — I can’t say I expected Carl Pavano to make the top 10, although I suppose that makes some sense given his unique brand of right-handed slop. And the other is Niemann, who, believe it or not, has the third-lowest ERA among all starters against the Yankees since the beginning of 2009, his first full season in the bigs. Now, I don’t mean to knock on Niemann, who clearly has the Yankees’ number, but it does seem a bit odd that a hurler who’s been a decidedly average — if not below-average — right-hander during his career (102 ERA-; 105 FIP-) would be so successful against the best offensive team in baseball during that timeframe.

For the most part, aside from Niemann and Pavano, almost everyone else in that group makes sense — hard-throwing, high-strikeout right-handers, but I was also curious to see whether there were any other similarities among this group that might uncover why they’ve routinely stymied the Bombers’ bats. Courtesy of Brooks’ Pitcher Cards, here’s what each pitcher in the top 10 throws and how hard they throw it:

Here’s where things get interesting. Four of the top five pitchers in this study throw a sinker more than 30% of the time, and the fifth — Niemann — just misses that cutoff, at 29% of the time. Additionally, both Pavano and Jake Arrieta are also sinker-heavy, which means that seven of the top 10 throw a sinker more than 25% of the time.

Of course, it’d be easy to say, “well maybe the Yankees just stink against sinkers,” but that’s not even remotely true, as they have the second-best wSI/C in baseball since 2009. Still, there’s something about this variety of sinkerballer — several of whom also prominently feature a curve (Hernandez, Niemann, Haren and Arrieta each go to the hook more than 10% of the time) — that seem to have the Yankees’ goose cooked.

April 2012 Monthly Wrap-Up

With one month officially in the books it’s time for this year’s inaugural edition of the Yankees Monthly Wrap-Up series. For those unfamiliar with my monthly rundowns, feel free to check previous editions out here.

At 13-9 (1.5 games out of first), April 2012 was a solid month overall for the Yanks despite some of the worst starting pitching any of us have seen from the team in quite some time. By comparison, a year ago the Yanks finished out April 15-9 and were 1.5 games up in first.

The Offense

The Yankee offense — and bullpen — were the reasons the team was able to compile a winning record in April. Not much to complain about here, as the Bombers had the second-highest wOBA in the AL after the Rangers, and the best offense in the game when adjusted for park and league. Interestingly, the Yankees’ .358 team wOBA in April was better than every monthly wOBA they put up in 2011 except for last August, when they annihilated the ball to the tune of a .378 wOBA. Out of the Yankees’ last 67 months’ worth of play (dating back to the beginning of the 2001 season), this was the team’s 21st-best monthly offensive performance by wOBA, and the 8th-best by wRC+.

The Yankees somewhat oddly hit a slightly-below-league average percentage of fly balls, but when they did put them in the air they cleared the fence at the best rate in the league. Less surprisingly they saw a below-league-average percentage of fastballs — I say less surprisingly because, as always, they hammered the fastball (top wFA/C in the league). They also saw the second-highest percentage of two-seamers.

On an individual basis, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher carried the day, and their significantly above-average performances helped pick up the disappointing months put up by notorious slow-starter Mark Teixeira (87 wRC+), and, more surprisingly, Robinson Cano (93 wRC+). I’m actually fairly surprised more hasn’t been made of Cano’s nonexistence at the plate thus far; he’s given the team almost nothing and it’s kind of crazy to think how good the offense could be if he were contributing. Russell Martin also had a forgettable month (88 wRC+), but he’s not expected to shoulder a significant portion of the offensive load. For those wondering, Jesus Montero hit .259/.271/.420 in April, while the Yankees have gotten .236/.304/.393 out of the players that have hit in the DH slot so far this season.

Starting Pitching

I more or less covered the Yankees’ wretched April starting pitching on Friday, but it’s worth nothing that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were able to help keep the Yankees from registering their worst month of starting pitching in 10 years, though at 5.80 they did secure their second-worst month of collective starters’ ERAs since 2002.

At varying points during April CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova each looked very good, but each also contributed some shaky starts. Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes were flat-out terrible. If he had enough innings to qualify Hughes’ horrendous 2.9 HR/9 would be second-worst in all of baseball.

Bullpen

The bullpen was insane in April, with a 2.00 ERA that was the team’s third-lowest monthly ERA of its last 61 months. While ERA is a flawed metric — even moreso for relief pitchers — that’s still pretty ridiculous. The only months the Yankees’ relief corps have pitched to a lower ERA since 2002 were August 2002 (1.57) and August 2010 (1.82). I hope you all enjoyed the Yankee bullpen relief performance in April, because we won’t be seeing it again for a while.

Any conversation about the bullpen has to start and end with David Robertson, who continued the stretch of dominance he kicked off a year ago by allowing no earned runs over 11 innings and striking out 14.73 men per nine in April. One of these days D-Rob might give up a run, but let’s hope it doesn’t happen again for a long, long time. David Phelps was the only member of the ‘pen who really registered a “poor” performance by the numbers, although his ability to mop up multiple innings while mostly still keeping the team close was certainly useful, and his ledger is partially skewed by a presumably unsustainable propensity for giving up the long ball (2.04 HR/9). If Phelps can throw to an ERA anywhere near what xFIP thinks he can (4.11), he’ll be a more-than-serviceable replacement for Sweaty Freddy as the fifth starter.

Yanks vying for worst monthly starters’ ERA in a decade

It’s no secret that the Yankees’ collective starting pitching has not lived up to expectations thus far on the young season. While there’s nowhere to go but up at this point, I was curious to see how the team’s woeful April performance — at 5.73, the Yankee starters have put up the second-worst collective ERA in MLB; the only team with a worse mark is Minnesota. Boston’s starters, after a week of beating up on the AL Central, brought their mark down to 5.71 — stacked up against previous Yankee teams, so I went back and collected the last 10 years worth of monthly Yankee starting pitching ERAs.

If the Yankee starters were to finish April out at their current 5.73 ERA, it would represent the second-worst mark the team has put up in a month in the last 10 seasons. The worst was April 2007’s 5.94, much of which was due to Kei Igawa being allowed to throw 20.2 innings of 7.84 ERA ball, although Chien-Ming Wang‘s 5.84 in 12.1 innings and Chase Wright’s 7.88 in 8 innings didn’t help things, either.

Now obviously ERA only tells a very small and flawed portion of the story. I was also curious to see how the team got to this point and whether they were doing anything substantially different, so I grabbed their PITCHf/x stats for April 2012, April 2011, and the MLB average.

The first thing that jumps out is the team’s deployment of the four-seamer appears to be way down from a year ago in favor of more sinkers and way more sliders. And this is problematic in that the rotation’s sinkers are collectively getting crushed to the tune of -5.3 runs above average and -1.91 per 100 pitches thrown. The latter figure is 92%(!) worse than league average. This appears to be due to location issues — the team is leaving its sinkers closer to the middle of the plate horizontally than the league, and its sinkers are rising nearly an inch-and-a-half higher. As always, we need to approach the classification algorithm with some wariness, but if this data is accurate it helps partially explain why the execution’s been so poor.

Somewhat surprisingly, one of the primary culprits for the poor sinker showing is CC Sabathia, who TYA’s Mike Eder noticed last week was leaving the pitch up during his first few innings against the Twins until correcting whatever flaw in his mechanics led to this happening. Given Sabathia’s improvement in the latter half of the Twins game and strong showing against the Rangers last Monday, I wouldn’t expect the sinker to be an issue going forward. Sweaty Freddy’s sinker has been the worst in baseball in the early going, though I have less confidence that he’ll be able to rectify his situation.

The other bizarre aspect relating to the Yankee starters’ performance this month is that their peripherals have been, for the most part, outstanding.

They’ve been striking a ton of men out — second-highest K/9 in the AL, behind Chicago by 0.01 — and walking almost no one. The team’s biggest bugaboo has been the home-run ball. Surprisingly the starters haven’t even given up the most total home runs in the AL, but on a rate basis they’ve been abysmal, with a second-worst-in-MLB 1.73 HR/9, and a 17.3% HR/FB% ranking third-worst. They also have the highest BABIP in the league by a not-small margin, and all three of these figures are way, way above league average.

Despite all of this starting ineptitude, at 10-8 the team is only two games behind where it was last year after 18 games, and two games better than the 2007 team and its decade-worst monthly ERA. Even better news for Yankee fans is that it would be almost impossible for the team’s starters to perform any worse than they have, and hopefully they start turning it around sooner rather than later.

4/20-4/22 Series Preview: Boston Red Sox

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

For the second straight season the Red Sox have gotten off to about as frustrating a start as both the team and fanbase could imagine, stumbling out to a 4-8 record due largely to some utterly abysmal pitching. Boston’s pitching staff — a significant question mark heading into the year — has been horrendous, and is currently dead last in MLB with a 6.20 ERA (an astoundingly bad 6.63 for the bullpen, and an equally poor 5.97 for the starters) and third-to-last with a 4.78 FIP. Somehow the Rays — remember them, the team that swept the Yankees during the first weekend of the season? — actually have a worse bullpen ERA than Boston, at 8.63. I suppose if it’s any consolation to the Fenway faithful, Boston was only 2-10 after its first dozen games in 2011, so it could be worse.

That the Sox have even won four games is a testament to what’s been an exceptionally hot-and-cold offense thus far — one game they’re pasting the opposition with 13 runs, the next getting shutout. The Sox currently rank fifth in the American League in wOBA (.328) and seventh in wRC+ (102), while the Yanks are second in both wOBA (.357) and wRC+ (123). The Sox offense is certainly better than they’ve shown thus far, and, like last April, a visit from their rivals to the south could very well be what helps restore order to the Red Sox.

Of course, the Yankees, at 7-6, have had some of their own issues in the early going as well. Their starting pitching has been nearly as bad as Boston’s, with a 5.59 ERA over 74 innings (for a frame of reference, the 2011 team had a 5.37 ERA over 67 innings through its first 13 games, and were 8-5); however, unlike the Sox, the Yankees feature a bullpen that has been virtually impossible to score on, boasting the lowest ERA in MLB (1.83) by a not-insignificant margin. Additionally, while the Yankee offense has certainly done its job, several key members of the Yankee lineup still have yet to really get going as well — I’m looking at you, Robbie, Alex and Russell — and a visit to one of the friendliest offensive parks in baseball could be just what the doctor ordered.

Today’s 3pm start marks the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, and as a result, both the Sox and Yanks will be wearing throwback jerseys. Per Marc Carig, this is the first time the Yankees have ever worn a throwback jersey (per that same article, the only time the Yankees have played an official game in uniforms other than their own was on a day to celebrate the Negro Leagues in 1996, when the team wore the uniforms of the New York Black Yankees while the Detroit Tigers donned the uniforms of the old Detroit Stars), and it’s quite cool of the franchise to acquiesce and ensure that Boston’s big day is properly recognized considering the history between the two teams.

The Pitching Match-Ups

Friday at 3pm: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Clay Buchholz
Today’s game features Ivan Nova (4.15 ERA/4.06 FIP, 10.4 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 41% GB%), making just his second career start at Fenway, against Clay Buchholz (9.82 ERA/4.45 FIP, 5.7 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 44.7% GB%).

Nova struggled (4.1 innings, 4 ER) in his first start at Boston a year ago — also in a matchup against Buchholz — but the offense bailed him out, in what would be the Yankees’ only win against the Red Sox in the first half of 2011. Nova’s been pretty sharp in his two starts thus far — with a presumably unsustainable K/9 and sub-2 walk rate — although his improved K rate appears to have come at the expense of his HR/9, which currently sits at an also-unsustainable 2.1. Though it’s only been two starts, Nova’s slider appears to not only be here to stay, but also the best weapon in his arsenal.

Buchholz has gotten pretty roughed up in his two starts on the young season, as he makes his way back from missing more than half the season last year. If Buchholz ever finally figures out how to consistently harness his stuff — and it looked like he was on his way to doing so after a masterful outing against the Yanks last May — he’s going to be extremely tough, as he features five pitches each thrown more than 10% of the time: a 94mph four-seamer, 94mph sinker, 81mph changeup, 91mph cutter and a 78mph curveball. However, his average fastball velocity is slightly down thus far (although this appears to a baseball-wide April trend), hasn’t really been striking anyone out and he’s also walking too many guys, so hopefully the Yankees can capitalize on what appears to be a still-rusty Buchholz.

Saturday at 4pm: RHP Freddy Garcia vs. LHP Felix Doubront
The 4pm FOX Saturday Afternoon Game of Deathâ„¢ features the ugliest matchup of the weekend, Freddy “Sweaty” Garcia (6.97 ERA/5.03 FIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 42.4% GB%), against southpaw Felix Doubront (5.40 ERA/2.80 FIP, 11.7 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 27.6% GB%).

Freddy had mixed success against Boston last year, although his one start at Fenway last August was about as good as one could have hoped for, as the Chief gutted out five innings of one-run ball in a game the Yanks really should have won.

Doubront has never started against the Yankees, and only has 4.2 career innings of relief work against the Bombers, holding them to a .188/.235/.275 line across a mere 17 PAs. Doubront’s a hard-throwing lefty with a 93mph heater that he complements with a 92mph sinker and 77mph curveball. He also features a changeup and a cutter. Though it’s quite early, Doubront’s been arguably Boston’s second-best starter behind Daniel Bard, and it’s also tough to predict how he’ll fare turning over a Yankee lineup multiple times. This one could get ugly, my friends.

Sunday at 8pm: LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Daniel Bard
And in the ESPN Sunday Night Marathon Heartbreakerâ„¢, guaranteed to end well past midnight or your money back, CC Sabathia (5.59 ERA/3.58 FIP, 10.2 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 36.4% GB%) faces the aforementioned set-up-man-turned-starter Bard (4.63 ERA/2.99 FIP, 10.0 K/9, 6.2 BB/9, 59.4% GB%).

CC finally looked like himself during his last go-round against the Twins, and despite the unsightly ERA, he’s striking out the world and limiting the walks. Once he gets his GB% back to the mid-40%s where it belongs, he’ll be his usual unstoppable self. After starting his Yankee career quite auspiciously against the Red Sox, with 28.1 innings of 2.22 ERA/2.21 FIP ball in 2009, Sabathia’s been a bit of a mixed-bag against the Olde Towne Team, falling to 3.96/5.00 over 25 innings in 2010, and getting torched by Boston through his first four starts against them last year, with a 7.20 ERA over 25 innings and losing all four games. Sabathia finally silenced Boston at Fenway last August 30 with a six-inning, two-run bulldog performance.

Bard’s been Boston’s best starter in the early going, racking up the Ks while yet to surrender a home run, although he’s also walking the ballpark (6.2 BB/9). The Yankees know Bard well, but they obviously don’t know him as a starter. As a reliever Bard’s fastball was routinely in the 97-98mph range, but it has understandably been dialed back to around 94mph as a starter. That still makes him one of the hardest-throwing starters in the game, and his slider is a real knockout pitch, coming in 13mph slower than his four-seamer. Bard also throws a sinker and an occasional change.

There had been some rumblings that the Sox might opt to start Jon Lester on Sunday night, as he would be on regular rest, but Bobby Valentine confirmed yesterday that Bard is still slated to start. Frankly, I’m a bit shocked that the Sox haven’t shuffled their rotation so that Josh Beckett and Lester aren’t somehow combining to start all three games, given how the Red Sox routinely bend themselves backwards to make sure their big two start as many contests as possible against the Yankees.

The Prediction

If you read my Red Sox season preview, then you know that the Yankees are 8-22 at Fenway Park during the month of April since 2001, and have only won their annual April set at Fenway against the Red Sox once (back in April 2010) in that 11-year span. Not only that, but prior to their April 2010 series win, the last time the Yankees had won an April set against Boston at Fenway was in 1975. For whatever reason, the Yankees just seem to play terrible ball at Fenway in the early going of any given season.

That said, if the Yanks were ever going to accomplish a rare April Fenway series win, this weekend would arguably be the time, with the Sox pitching staff reeling, neither Beckett nor Lester scheduled to make an appearance, and a bullpen missing its pre-season closer in Andrew Bailey and an 8th-inning guy that apparently can’t get anyone out and as a result was subsequently demoted to Pawtucket. Of course, even with the Sox not performing at their optimal level I still have a hard time envisioning the Yanks taking two of three at the-bandbox-where-no-lead-is-safe, and fully expect Dustin Pedroia — who hit .406/.463/.565 across 81 PAs against the Bombers last year, and has a career .392 OBP vs. the Yanks — to get on base during every plate appearance and help grit and grime Boston to multiple victories. Also, you can book David Ortiz for 18,000 bombs this weekend as well.

In my history of series predictions I seldom call for a Yanks series loss, but given the numbers the smart money here says Boston two out of three. On the flip side, the Twins just won two games in a series at Yankee Stadium for the first time since 2001, so who knows, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

4/9-4/11 Series Preview: Baltimore Orioles

(photo by J. Meric/Getty)

By now you’ve all read about the fact that the last time the Yankees went 0-3 to start a season was 1998, and we all of course know how that turned out; as well as the last time the Yankees were 0-3 and the Mets 3-0 1985; not to mention the last time both the Yankees and Red Sox started out 0-3 was 1966. This minutiae is important for your next trivia night at the bar, but for all intents and purposes, highly irrelevant.

Forget what you heard from the 2012 season’s first weekend. Three games are simply that — three games — and every team in baseball will lose three games in a row at some point during any given season. It just happens to be that much more magnified at the very start; no one like to see a zero in the win column for any longer than they have to. I happen to think the more interesting bit of trivia concerns when the Yankees last entered a set against the Orioles — currently 3-0 after feasting on the punchless Twins — trailing Baltimore by three games. As best I can tell the answers appear to be the morning of Monday, June 27, 2005, when Baltimore was in 2nd place (2.5 GB) and the Yankees were in third, four games behind the O’s.

In any event, the Yankees last saw Buck Showalter’s crew in early-September, finishing the season series off by playing a three-game set at Yankee Stadium (which the Yanks won, highlighted by Jesus Montero’s first career two-home-run game — and first two career home runs) and then a one-off back down in Camden Yards to make up for what many felt was a questionable postponement a week-and-a-half earlier. The Yankees played some pretty ugly baseball in losing both the game in Baltimore and the game prior by identical 5-4 scores in extra innings, though ultimately neither contest mattered much in the grand scheme of things.

On the whole, the Bombers have flat-out dominated Baltimore during the last decade-plus; since the advent of the unbalanced schedule, the Yankees have gone 135-67 (a .668 winning percentage) against the birds, which is just pure ownership. Of course, pretty much everyone in MLB has had their way with the O’s during this timeframe, who last finished above .500 fourteen seasons ago in 1997 and are coming off four-straight last-place finishes.

Last winter I thought Baltimore actually looked like a team on the rise, as the O’s appeared to have several promising young starting pitchers on the verge of breaking out and an offense that looked quite robust on paper. Alas, onetime-future-lefty-ace Brian Matusz took a massive step backwards; enigmatic-but-talented left-hander Zach Britton — currently on the shelf following plasma therapy and not expected to be ready to go until May at the earliest — got tarred and feathered before showing signs of starting to put it together near the end of the season; and Jake Arrieta had a rough year that saw him continue to feast on the Yankees but get eaten alive by everyone else. Incredibly ineffective starting pitching combined with a middling bullpen led the Orioles’ pitching staff to the worst collective ERA (4.92) and FIP (4.67) in the Majors last season. The offense also struggled, coming in at a below-league-average 97 wRC+.

Unfortunately for the O’s and their fans, things don’t appear to be getting much better for the franchise any time soon, as their very public search for a new general manager during the offseason saw them embarrassingly get turned down by qualified candidate after qualified candidate, until former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette agreed to take the reins after being out of professional baseball for nearly a decade. That the O’s had anywhere from a 0.5% to a 2.2% chance of making the postseason before they even played a single game in 2012 speaks volumes about where the franchise presently stands.

The lineup the 2012 O’s will send out against the Yankees features many of the same names as last year, with the only notable new faces coming in the person of former Bombers Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters make for a formidable one-two punch in the four-five slots while Mark Reynolds (2nd-highest HR/FB% in MLB last year) is always a home-run threat when he’s not busy striking out, but the remainder of the lineup is relatively uninspiring. J.J. Hardy had a nice season last year but needs to show he can do it again, while many have been waiting three years for Nick Markakis to replicate his breakout 2008 season to no avail. Still, while the O’s are a virtual lock for a fifth-straight last-place finish, this is still a team that’s going to score some runs and annoyingly win some ballgames it probably has no business winning.

Pitching Match-Ups

In tonight’s opener the Yankees will send Ivan Nova, fresh off an ugly spring, to the hill against the lefty Matusz, who had a better spring than Nova (3.65 ERA in 24.2 IP) but still has a fair amount to prove after the pasting he took last year. Matusz is pretty close to being a classic slop-throwing lefty, but his average fastball is just over 90mph, so he’s not quite in Jason Vargas territory. His bread-and-butter is his change, which comes in ~8mph slower than his fastball and is his only above-average Whiff/Swing pitch. Matusz will also mix in a sinker (15% of the time), curve (11%) and slider (8%). The slider took a step backwards last year — as did basically his entire repertoire — but has been one of his better pitches despite relatively infrequent deployment.

Tomorrow night’s game features Freddy Garcia vs. former Nippon Professional Baseball player and MLB rookie Wei-Yin Chen. Chen, a Taiwanese left-hander who the O’s signed to a three-year deal with a club option this past winter, won the fifth starter slot in the O’s rotation thanks in part to a strong spring (3.60 ERA in 20 IP). Chen apparently throws a low-90s fastball, slider, splitter/forkball and curve. I really have no idea what to expect from Chen in his stateside debut, although I can’t think of too many lefties off the top of my head that feature a splitter, so I’ll be interested to see when and how he deploys that pitch.

And the Wednesday evening finale sees both teams’ rotations turn over as CC Sabathia takes on the aforementioned Arrieta. The righty Arrieta wasn’t quite as good against the Yankees last season as I made him out to be several paragraphs above (4.24 ERA over three starts), but they never seem to blow him out of the water, either. Arrieta features a very live fastball (avg. vel. 93.5mph) that he complements with a sinker (26% of the time), slider (16%), curveball (14%) and occasional change (9%). Arrieta didn’t exactly have an amazing spring (6.14 ERA in 14.2 IP) but still got the opening day nod from Showalter — a strong vote of confidence from his skipper considering cases could have been made for either Tommy Hunter or Jason Hammel. As it so happens, Arrieta rewarded his manager’s faith with seven shutout innings on Opening Day against Minnesota.

Prediction

I know Mike and Joe historically haven’t offered predictions, but I’ve always enjoyed concluding my series previews with them. The easy call here is Yankees two out of three — I could see them losing one of the first two if Nova can’t shake off his rough spring or the Bombers decide its 2010 all over again and are unable to figure out the previously-unseen Chen, while Sabathia should make quick work of the O’s (who he’s gone 11-2 against as a Yankee) in the finale.