The Most Clutch Hits of 2011

As the “too many homers” myth carried on through the season, it seemed like there were two things that this narrative suggested: the Yankees were a) unable to hit with runners in scoring position and b) the Yankees could only score was via home run (also c) that scoring via the dinger doesn’t work in the playoffs, but that’s an argument for another day). Now, the great thing about the season being wrapped up is that we have the entire season to look back on. We can compare predictions to what actually happened, we can figure out how certain moves worked out, and we can talk about the highlights of the season.

Like a good nerd living in my mom’s basement, I can’t simply be satisfied by separating the statistical highlights by WPA. That would be boring. Instead, I decided to separate the top five plays by leverage. For a quick and dirty definition, the leverage is how “clutch” the play is and is independent of the outcome; the WPA measure how valuable the hit or out was within the game. Therefore, a home run with two on and two out in the ninth has a much higher value/WPA than a single with two on and two out in the ninth, but the at-bat has the same leverage. This is also a interesting stat to measure the intensity of the situations relievers end up in (see my article on David Robertson earlier in the year), but that’s another story, maybe for tomorrow. I present to you, the top five highest-leveraged hits of the year. For reference, anything about 1.5 is considered “high leverage,” and anything above 3.0 is considered “very high leverage.” You can calculate your own leverage situations here.

T-1: May 11: Curtis Granderson’s RBI single in the bottom tenth off Joakim Soria: 6.05.

AJ Burnett went seven, er, strong innings, allowing only one run while walking six (!) and striking out five. David Robertson gave up a run (!!) in 0.2 IP, though he also struck out two. The game was tied going into the top of the tenth when Buddy Carlyle came in. A walk, a wild pitch, and a Frenchy double later, the Royals had the lead going into the bottom tenth. Ned Yost sent out Joakim Soria to close it out, but a walk and TWO!! bunts later, Russell Martin was standing at third looking to re-tie the game. Curtis Granderson, the man himself, drove him in, as a man with 100 RBIs and having the year that Grandy is having is wont to do. That retied the game.

Unfortunately, the Yankees lost the game in the eleventh thanks to an Eric Hosmer sacrifice fly. Bummer.

T-1: May 24: Curtis Granderson’s RBI single in the bottom ninth off Frank Francisco: 6.05

If I didn’t know better, I would say Curtis Granderson knows how to come up in a big spot.

CC Sabathia was busy throwing himself a complete game on a mere 103 pitches, but the 4 runs he had given up were just one more than the three from the combination of Rickey Romero (7 IP), Casey Janssen, and Marc Rzepczynski. Luckily, the Blue Jays decided for some absurd reason that the pretty crappy Frank Francisco was going to be their closer, and so it was up to him to protect a one run lead in the ninth. Jorge Posada banged a pinch-hit double, and Chris Dickerson ran for him. Jeter moved him to third with two outs and the Grandyman coming up. And, like clockwork, Granderson singled up the hole between first and second to tie the game up. I am personally all right with him coming up in important spots.

The Yankees then promptly won when Granderson stole second and Teixeira singled him home. By the way, the Jays weren’t playing the shift on Tex, and they might not have lost if they were.

3. July 18: Brett Gardner’s RBI single in the top of the eighth off Kyle Farnsworth: 5.41

Though the Yankees had taken an early lead, the ever, er, reliable AJ Burnett dug the Yankees into an early hole against the Rays’ rookie Alex Cobb. Luckily, Cobb came out in the fifth to be replaced by Joel Peralta and Cesar Ramos. Peralta started off the inning giving up a single to Cano and a walk to Swisher followed by an out to the pinch-hitting Andruw Jones, so Maddon pulled him for his closer, Kyle Farnsworth. With the Rays up 4-2, it was a save situation for the man who Yankees fans remembered extremely unkindly. With Tampa, however, Farnsworth had so far posted an impressive 1.86 ERA.

Lucky for the Yankees, Farnsworth had flashbacks to his Yankees years and allowed two straight singles, the first to Russell Martin to load the bases with one out, and the second to Brett Gardner, a clean single through the shortstop hole opened up by the bases being loaded. This brought the score up to 4-3.

The Yankees would tie the game on Eduardo Nunez’s groundout to short (which was only not a double play due to Gardner’s tough slide) and then win the game on a bases loaded walk from Alex Torres.

4. September 21: Jorge Posada’s RBI single in the bottom off the eighth off Brandon Gomes: 5.29

Here’s one everyone will remember. After struggling through a year in which he was relegated to DH, platooned, then benched, Joe Girardi gave Jorge Posada the chance to clinch the AL East title by pinch hitting him for Jesus Montero with the bases loaded. The game had been tied 2-2 up until this point, though Jake McGee had worked himself into a little jam with first and second and one out. Robbie was intentionally walked to load the bases and Maddon brought in Gomes.

Posada, of course, ripped a solid single into right, clinched the AL East, and proved that he is the most amazing no-catch all-hit super slow catcher/DH of all time. Yay for Jorge.

5. April 24: Russell Martin’s RBI single in the top of the eleventh off Jason Berken: 5.21

Jake Arrieta had allowed two runs in the first and a run in the fifth while Freddy Garcia through six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and two walks (and we all assumed it was just because it was the Orioles). Joba Chamberlain came in, gave up two runs, making it 3-2, and Mo blew the save while the Orioles bullpen held the Yankees scoreless (!). To extras!

Jason Berken came in in the eleventh inning and allowed a Cano double, and a Cano stolen base before striking out Swisher and intentionally walking Chavez. This brought Russell Martin to the plate. Keep in mind that, at this point in the season, Martin was batting .328 with an OPS of 1.099. In this particular game, he had four at-bats with only a walk to show for it. On his fifth at-bat, he lined a ball to Robert Andino, who airmailed a throw to Brian Roberts at second, letting the Yankees take the lead. This was very generously scored a hit, to say the least. Either way, Martin gets credit for the high-leverage hit, and the Yankees beat up on Berken a little more to win the game 6-3.

Leverage is the closest thing to measuring clutch that we have to measure: high leverage hits are more “clutch” than low-leverage ones. The problem is that part of leverage factors in the inning, and it seems like you should be able to be clutch in the second inning as much as you can in the eighth.

The Return of Big Bad Bartolo?

And the pitch.... (Photo used under Creative Commons License, by Flikr user dbfoto)

Seemingly lost in the fact that the Yankees lost last night – whether that’s due to an anemic offense against one of the better pitchers in the game or bad bullpen management – was the fact that Bartolo Colon went out there pitched his sizable butt off. Sadly, Jered Weaver also pitched his butt off, and it seems like success is based on percentage of butt pitched off, rather than objective size of butt. If objective butt size was the case, Weaver probably would have lost pretty badly to Bartolo. Regardless of butt proportion, this is probably the best start we’ve seen out of Colon since he pulled his hamstring on June 11th vs. Cleveland.

The pitching line tells the beginning of the story quite clearly: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. It’s an extremely good start, with the only blemish being Derek Jeter’s error and the lone walk to Bobby Abreu. During a long roadtrip, getting length like that is invaluable. To get a little nerdier, this game gave Colon his second-best game score since his hamstring injury (67), though his best game score post-injury (68) was against the Mets, so it shouldn’t really count at all. Another thing that it seemed Colon had remastered was his efficiency: in his outing, only three batters had at bats where they saw six pitches or more (two of them being hits), and the most pitches any hitter saw against Colon was seven (Mark Trumbo, who flew out). On the other side, Colon was able to deliver at-bats with three pitches or less to 17 of the 28 batters he faced. This allowed a man who hasn’t thrown this many innings since 2008 to get through seven complete frames on only 99 pitches, touching 90 twice in his last inning of work.

One of Colon’s biggest keys for success has been his two-seam fastball and its sharp movement that he uses to gather up called strikes. His previous start in Toronto, he threw 42 two-seam fastballs, which was the only pitch that he had a negative linear weight on during that game (-1.38). Yesterday in Anaheim, he threw 50 of them for a linear weight of -1.08, which while it was slightly less impressive than his previous start, it has been and continues to be significantly better than all his other pitches. A few starts ago when he bombed against Oakland, he threw only a handful of two-seamers, in contrast to how he usually uses the pitch as his bread-and-butter. It seems that, between yesterday and his start in Toronto, whatever confidence he may or may not have had in the pitch has certainly been replenished.

An additional reason for Colon’s success has been the massive amounts of called strikes that he’s gotten. His 27% called strike percentage is easily the highest in the league – behind him is Carlos Marmol with 23% and Kyle Lohse at 22%. Over the season, batters have began to try to adjust to this by at least taking hacks at his pitches and hoping they get something out of it or fouling them off in a two-strike count. Last night Colon’s five strikeouts skewed in the looking direction, but not heavily: three called verses two looking. However, even though batters are trying to get a handle on the sides of the zone, Colon is still beating them, especially on the inside to lefties/outside to righties:

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Check that out. There’s 9 called strikes on that side of the plate, one hit, a few fouls and an out. On the other side, there’s three called strikes, mostly outs and a few foul balls as well. While Colon can still throw some considerable heat (especially considering his age, physical condition, and innings pitched), it’s location and precision that has made him into the successful pitcher he was last night.

While there are obviously concerns about Colon: innings, called strikes, his somewhat rotund form – these kinds of outings are the ones that settle those doubts in my mind. Regardless of the actual outcome of the game, there’s no denying that Colon put up a stellar start against an offense that, while not the most impressive, can certainly do some damage if they’re feeling up to it. It’s just bad luck on his part that he was matched up against Weaver, who dominated everyone except for one measly right-handed twenty-one year old. What’s that kid’s name? Oh, he’s probably not that important anyway. Either way, no matter what kind of opposition is planted in front of Bartolo Colon, it seems like when he’s getting his calls and his stuff is on, he can roll right on through them. With his pitches, I mean.

Breaking Down Curtis Granderson

Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

What makes Curtis Granderson so grand? I’ve broken it down below.

1. Struggling and overcoming constant cognitive dissonance that comes with “not being a home run hitter” verses either leading or being in second place in major league homers.

2. Eyes on the prize, whether it’s a homer, home plate, or a spelling bee championship.

3. Keeping himself healthy with a nutritious breakfast.

4. Comforted by knowing that even when he strikes out, he still is extremely fashionably accessorized.

5. New and improved swing, including Kevin Long’s No-Slip Grippy Glue on his hand.

6. Muscles, tendons and ligaments fortified and strengthened by rainbows.

7. Heart at least six sizes above a replacement baseball player’s heart.

8. Dirty uniform, which is a sign of true grit.

9. Fills his belly with comfort food with Martha Stewart (you can read all about this on Roar of the Tigers, a great Tigers blog).

10. Keeps his legs in shape by herding his blessing (which is a group) of unicorns.

11. High socks.

12. Invisible wings on his cleats for super fielding and super running. He gives them a break when he hits the dingers, though.

The Complete Team

Team Necessities. (Photo copyright Amanda Rykoff, on flckr)

Over the course of the season, we’ve seen that this Yankees team really has strong components, even if they don’t all work at the same time. They pitch pretty damn well, they hit just fine, they’re pretty strong defensively, and they have an amazing bullpen. And while the stats may back this up, what’s more important is that the Yankees have players that embody the concepts that make a team great. You can have a great FIP or wOBA, but who cares if your team isn’t filled with true ballplayers? Let’s break down the team and make sure that, along with the best run differential, the third best bullpen ERA, and the sixth best ERA as a team, the Yankees know how to play baseball.

A Team Leader

One of the most important parts of a team is having a leader that can accurately explain what your team is going through at any given time, push their own problems and accomplishments by the wayside, and really encompass what a team is all about. Luckily, the Yankees have been gifted in this area of team chemistry for a long time with Derek Jeter at the helm. Three thousand hits? Winning is more important. Horrible, ground ball-induced slump? Small stance changes. Red-hot streak? Trying to help the team. Even before his anointment as captain in 2003, Jeter has always lead the team. The other important thing is that Jeter bats leadoff. The only places a true leader can bat are leadoff and cleanup, which helps noble fans distinguish who is a real leader and who is faking it. You don’t want to be mislead by fake leaders such as Jason Varitek (bats 8th) or Chipper Jones (bats sixth). But Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia….those players can really carry a team to victory.

A Professional Hitter

Sure, some hitters can get on base, hit homers, see a lot of pitches or take walks. Sure, some hitters can spray hits everywhere or beat out infield singles. While these are moderately important traits for a hitter, the most important tool is the professional at-bat. You want a guy who goes up there, spits on his hands, kicks the dirt, and really gets into a batting stance. In that case, there’s only one player that really qualifies: Andruw Jones. You can tell, from his massive biceps to his amused smile, that he knows how to hit. He goes up there with his doctorate degree in “sitting dead-red,” and he swings the bat. And he really swings the bat! He is never cheated out of hits, which is one of the most important parts of being a professional hitter. Also, only a man who truly knew how to swing the bat could do this. I don’t see Brett Gardner putting homers in the third deck, all right?

A Proven Veteran

Six hundred plate appearances is a lot. That’s a lot of time to practice something you have to be good at. Multiply that by ten or fifteen years, and you’re talking about thousands and thousands of plate appearances. While some people might just have a knack for baseball the minute they hit the bigs, the more important thing is having a player who’s had more plate appearances than you can even count. You don’t even have to hit in most of them. The experience is all that counts, and the Yankees have plenty of experience. The most experienced member of the Yankees? Jorge Posada.

I’m not talking about this in number of actual plate appearances, even if he has the most (I’m not checking because this article isn’t about numbers), but in the way Posada has had almost an unfair amount of experience at the plate. Blowouts both ways, playoffs galore, every possible situation leverage-wise that you could think of – the man’s done it all in style. He’s the kind of guy who can share his knowledge on how to get hits in the clutch with the young core of the team. It’s insane to think he might be cut or left off the playoff roster. A resume like Posada’s is a necessity.

Getting dirty. Just the way he likes it. (Photo copyright Amanda Rykoff, on flickr)

A Gritty Grinder

You know what’s coming with this one, right? In every baseball game, there are times where nothing is more important than hustle and grit. A player with a lot of grit can make close plays, dive headfirst into first base, and isn’t afraid to get their uniform dirty with a steal. A grinder goes out there and plays every day, every inning, every at-bat as hard as they can, with an almost indescribable amount of ferocity.

It’s true that no player on the Yankees can match up to the absolute grittiness of Dustin Pedroia. There is no one better than him at playing every inning as hard as he can. Even those jumps before each play – what does that say about him? He’s ready. He’s ready for the line drive that jumps up on him, the diving catch and the dramatic double-play. There is no one in the history of baseball more ready than Pedroia.

That being said, the Yankees will have to settle for a fairly gritty man themselves: Brett Gardner. Even though his outfield station takes away from some of his grittiness, the way he plays practically makes it all back. Gardner makes every play interesting, from his on-the-run catches to his crazy dives. His real hustle, however, comes from the basepaths. THere is something to be said for the way he busts his ass to first base. There is even more to be said about his constant first base sliding. Why, only a person who really knew how to play the game would dive into first base. Additional speed? Momentum? Pfft! These are all things Gardner knows are less important than his incredible grittiness. His dirty uniform says it all: I move. I move fast. I play every inning as hard as I can. I am truly gritty.

I’m glad to see that this team has just as much (if not more) heart and soul than it has power numbers. From Posada’s sagedom to Jones’ at bats and Gardner’s hustle, there’s nothing we have to worry about in terms of the product on the field. Sure you could talk about the numbers – Granderson’s home runs, Cano’s batting average- but anyone could do that stuff. What’s valuable is our team plays the game the right way – and they certainly do.

The Forgotten Reliever

Jeter, Teixeira...... Wade, Nunez. (copyright Amanda Rykoff)

There are lots of cool things about Yankees pitching, AJ Burnett’s terrible hair notwithstanding. Mariano Rivera. Bartolo Colon. CC Sabathia. But you know what? These are all pretty big names in the scale of baseball, and especially when talking about general Yankee successes. When you consider the good fortune that Yankees pitching has had so far, there also needs to be some consideration given to some slightly smaller pitching names as well. I’m not even talking about strikeout/leverage machine (and 2011 All-Star) David Robertson or never-a-top-100 prospect (but 10-game winner) Ivan Nova.

How about Cory Wade? On the scale of successful ballplayers on the Yankees that no one talks about, he’s gotta be up at the top or near it. Wade was drafted in the 10th round by the Dodgers in 2004 and pitched a full reliever’s season in 2008 in the bigs, posting a pretty 2.27 ERA in 71 IP. However, after a slightly less impressive 2009, he spent the year bouncing between the Dodgers (where he posted a 5.53 ERA in 27.2 IP) and AAA Albuquerque. He was granted free agency after that and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays in November of last year, then was assigned to AAA Durham. There, he worked in relief, posting a sparkling 1.23 ERA and a pretty nice 3.34 FIP, to go alone with a K/BB ratio over 5. He did all of this in about 40 innings, and then used a clause in his contract to opt out on July 11th. This is where it gets good.

Let me set the scene for you. Rafael Soriano has just gone on the DL with elbow soreness and is not expected back until the All-Star Break. Joba Chamberlain has just gone on the DL two days before, with a strained flexor. Currently taking their places are the ever famous Jeff Marquez (minor league ERA: 3.97, FIP: 4.37) who has just been claimed off waivers from the White Sox, and Amauri Sanit (ERA: 5.21, FIP: 4.73) from AAA. Meanwhile, you are Brian Cashman, and your arch-enemies, the Rays, have just released a really good reliever from their system. That’s exactly what you need! Excellent! The Yankees signed Wade two days later, had him pitch 1.2 innings in SWB and then called him up to the big leagues.

Since then, Wade’s been nothing short of awesome. He’s a perfectly solid middle-reliever and has handled both high-leverage situations and garbage time equally well. In fact, out of his 21 appearances, he’s only posted a negative WPA in 4 of them, and has gone 2-0. His other numbers are similarly impressive, albeit the small sample of only 23.1 IP is worth nothing: 2.31 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 3.32 xFIP, 6 ER, 18 Ks. His 1.5 BB/9 and 6.9 K/9 are good for a healthy 4.5 K/BB ratio. His 79.2 LOB% is a bit high, but certainly within reason, and his .254 BABIP is the highest he’s ever had. 40.6% groundballs contributes.

Part of it is mental: as a Yankees fan, I feel comfortable watching Cory Wade pitch the sixth or the seventh in a one-run game. I feel like he is a safe guy to give the ball to despite the fact that I’ve never heard his name before this. But part of it is in the numbers: those are legitimately strong stats. He’s racked up about half a win in fWAR, which is nice to have in only 23 innings. He’s given up only six earned runs in that span. Plus, he’s not yet valuable enough to where Girardi is considering him a one-inning guy only: he’s had three outings where he threw two innings, and one more outing when he threw three. He also isn’t constrained to a particular role, such as an eight-inning guy or a closer. In a way, his namelessness contributes even more to his success.

As has been mentioned before, the Yankees have been extremely successful and extremely lucky when it comes to pitching this year, and this makes for endless words for us bloggers looking for something to talk about. As the season winds down, we’ll see more and more of how these players shape up come September and eventual October/playoff baseball. Cool thing is, your name doesn’t have any correlation to have could you can be. Throw strikes, get batters out, win. It all works the same no matter who you are: Mariano, Sabathia, or a castoff from the Rays.

(Yankees Baseball Daily helped me think this up. Check it out.)