Archive for Analysis
The Yankees are trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold by 2014 and are therefore fixated on signing free agents to one-year contracts this offseason. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte will have to be replaced next winter, and so will Phil Hughes. The 26-year-old right-hander is due to hit free agency next offseason, when he’ll be the only starting pitcher on the market on the right side of 30. If he has a good (not even great) walk year, Hughes will get paid handsomely on the open market.
As you know, team policy is to not negotiate a new contract until the current one expires. The Yankees broke that policy to sign Robinson Cano long-term back in 2008, and they were willing to break it again last offseason by offering Russell Martin a three-year pact. Hughes, who has been inconsistent and hurt and homer-prone during his time as a big league starter, doesn’t jump out as someone the club could look to extend before he hits the open market. Given the uncertain futures of Michael Pineda (shoulder) and Ivan Nova (terrible 2012) and Phil’s relative youth, perhaps they should.
Most starting pitchers who get to within one year of free agency do not sign contract extensions. The most notable exceptions are high-end pitchers like Cole Hamels (six years, $144M) and Jered Weaver (five years, $85M) or older guys who just had their first taste of success like Ryan Vogelsong (two years, $8.3M) and R.A. Dickey (two years, $7.5M). Hughes is somewhere in the middle, which leaves us short on contract comparables. With some help from MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, here are the only two starters remotely comparable to Hughes who have recently signed extensions one year prior to qualifying for free agency.
|Joe Blanton||Wandy Rodriguez||Hughes|
|Previous Three Years fWAR||9.7||10.3||5.0|
|Previous Three Years bWAR||2.5||8.5||3.1|
|Previous Three Years RA9||10.6||10||5.3|
|Platform Year fWAR||2.0||3.7||1.9|
|Platform Year bWAR||2.4||2.3||1.5|
|Platform Year RA9||3.5||2.1||2.2|
WAR is far from perfect but I’m going to use it here just as quick tool for comparison. I prefer bWAR and RA9 (more on that here) myself because they are runs allowed-based and not peripheral-based like fWAR. Ultimately I think a pitcher should be judged by how well he keeps runs off the board regardless of how he does it. We can then use things like strikeout and ground ball rates to look at how sustainable a performance is in a separate analysis. A pitcher is only as valuable as the runs he prevents. Anyway, all three WAR versions are presented here.
The current version of Hughes lags behind Blanton and Wandy at the time of their extensions mostly because of his lost season in 2011. Had he managed a full healthy season, his numbers would be much more comparable but probably still a little short. The necessary adjustments for ballpark and league and all that are built into the stats, so Phil shouldn’t get any extra credit for pitching in the AL East. He doesn’t have any 200+ inning seasons to his credit, but he is younger than those two at the time of their contracts (several years younger than Wandy).
Blanton signed his deal prior to 2010 while Wandy signed his prior to 2011, so we do have to consider inflation. The spending caps applied to the draft and international markets basically force teams to put money into the big league roster, and as a result free agent prices have climbed this winter. Not necessarily salaries, but everyone seems to be getting that one extra year. Hughes is in a unique spot given his age in that he probably wouldn’t want a long-term contract. A shorter term deal, like the three years Blanton and Wandy received, would still allow him to still hit free agency before his 30th birthday.
My concern about signing Hughes long-term is the homers. He pitched to a 1.6 HR/9 this year and 1.3 HR/9 over the last three years, which is astronomical in these offense-suppressed times. Since we’re talking about locking him up for another three years, here’s the list of pitchers to post both a 1.3 HR/9 and an above-average ERA during their age 27-29 seasons over the last 25 years.
There are a handful of pitchers within five percentage points of a league average ERA (Sterling Hitchcock and Javy Vazquez being the most notable), but that’s the list. Obviously we should ignore Wakefield because he’s a knuckleballer, but the rest of those guys were nondescript mid-rotation arms who were more about bulk innings than high-quality innings. They were all considered top pitching prospects once upon a time as well (all made at least one Baseball America Top 100 Prospects List), so Hughes isn’t unique in that regard.
Can Hughes improve his homer-prone ways? Of course, but it would be a very risky assumption. The Blanton and Wandy contracts suggest he would be in line for a three-year deal worth $24-30M if he signed an extension this offseason, an $8-10M average annual value for luxury tax purposes. Hughes is projected to earn $5.7M through arbitration this winter, so he’d be signing away two free agent years for a guaranteed $18.3-24.3M. Assuming Phil repeats his 2012 season in 2013, I don’t think an AL East proven 27-year-old starter would have much trouble fetching $9M+ annually on the open market. Shouldn’t have much trouble at all.
The Yankees are projected to have something like $80-90M coming off the books next offseason, but only $50-60M of that will be reinvested in the team given the 2014 payroll plan. A big chunk of that money is going to Robinson Cano, so it’s really like $30M or so address the rest of the team, including potentially three rotation spots. Pineda recovering well from shoulder surgery and Nova putting together a strong season would make life a lot easier, but those are far from guarantees. Committing $8-10M in 2014 dollars to Hughes right now isn’t the smartest move with regards to the payroll plan, but the Yankees would always have the option of trading him down the line.
The contract is still pending a physical (hardly a slam dunk given his recent back problems), but the Yankees agreed to sign Kevin Youkilis to a one-year contract worth $12M yesterday. The deal shores up the third base position in the wake of Alex Rodriguez‘s new hip injury, and it also gives the team some lineup balance after losing the right-handed hitting Russell Martin and switch-hitting Nick Swisher. Youkilis has been trending in the wrong direction the last few years, but he is just one year removed from a 126 wRC+ season.
As a right-handed batter, there’s no doubt Youkilis benefited from playing in Fenway Park all those years. In fact, during his peak years from 2008-2010 (.308/.404/.560, 150 wRC+), no hitter was more productive when it came to pulling the ball. Youkilis hit .478/.476/.959 (280 wRC+) (!!!) when he pulled the ball during that three-year stretch, thanks in very large part to the Green Monster. As a right-handed batter, all he had to do was take aim for that sucker and watch routine fly balls go for doubles.
Youkilis won’t have that luxury in Yankee Stadium. It’s a good park for left-handed hitters thanks to the short right field porch, but left field and left-center field in particular are a different story. The park is almost exact league average when it comes to surrendering doubles and homers to right-handers according to the park factors at StatCorner, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means righties don’t get the same ballpark boost as lefties. Youkilis remains a pull hitter, with 47% of his balls in play going to left field this season and only 22% going the other way to right. Here’s his spray chart for the season (courtesy of Texas Leaguers)…
Most of his hits came to the pull side, but Youkilis did hit for some power to right field (.239 ISO) and that’s what you’re looking for in Yankee Stadium. His natural stroke isn’t to the opposite field like say, Martin’s and Derek Jeter‘s, but there’s enough opposite field ability to allow Youkilis to take advantage of the short porch on occasion. He’s a pull hitter, but not an Andruw Jones-esque dead pull hitter who couldn’t go the other way if his life depended on it.
As friend of RAB Patrick Sullivan pointed out yesterday, Youkilis hit just .158/.248/.237 (!) in his 242 plate appearances outside of hitter-friendly Fenway Park and U.S. Cellular Field last season. It’s not a huge sample but it is definitely a little worrisome to see a road performance that poor, especially when a guy is outside of two parks tailor-made for his swing and approach. There’s some evidence that Youkilis can take advantage of the short right field porch, but for the most part Yankee Stadium will not help his offense much this season. It’s not an ideal fit, but the options were limited.
Two weeks ago I looked at the Yankees’ infield defense over the last decade using a real simple BABIP-based analysis. The club was a well-below-average defensive team against ground balls in six of the last ten years, including each of the last three years and four of the last five. With an aging Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield, the poor infield defense wasn’t a surprise.
Today I’m going to shift to the outfield and look at how the Yankees have done when it comes to converting fly balls into outs. Not counting infield pop-ups because they’re in their own little analytical world, fly balls turn into outs far more often than ground balls and line drives. It’s worth noting that available batted ball data, which reliably dates back to 2003, is not perfect. Baseball Info. Solutions records the data with human stringers who watch each game and classify each batted ball. Ground balls are pretty straight forward, but one person’s fly ball is another’s line drive. There is some scorer bias involved. We’re going to stick to regular old fly balls today. Here’s the data, and apologies in advance for the cluttered table…
|#FB||NYY BABIP||AL BABIP||xOuts||aOuts||dOuts||Primary Outfield|
|2012||1,339||0.133||0.128||1,168||1,161||-7||Ibanez, Grandy, Swisher|
|2011||1,414||0.124||0.137||1,220||1,239||19||Gardner, Grandy, Swisher|
|2010||1,456||0.118||0.139||1,254||1,284||30||Gardner, Grandy, Swisher|
|2009||1,418||0.118||0.136||1,225||1,251||26||Damon, Melky, Swisher|
|2008||1,358||0.137||0.138||1,171||1,172||1||Damon, Melky, Abreu|
|2007||1,542||0.130||0.137||1,331||1,342||11||Matsui, Melky, Abreu|
|2006||1,591||0.140||0.141||1,367||1,368||1||Melky, Damon, Abreu|
|2005||1,499||0.154||0.133||1,300||1,268||-32||Matsui, Bernie, Sheff|
|2004||1,619||0.153||0.133||1,404||1,371||-33||Matsui, Bernie, Sheff|
|2003||1,559||0.150||0.128||1,359||1,325||-34||Matsui, Bernie, Mondesi|
xOuts: Expected number of outs based on the league BABIP.
aOuts: Actual number of outs recorded.
dOuts: The difference between actual and expected outs, so aOuts – xOuts.
Just to be clear, homeruns are not counted in the fly ball total because they aren’t a ball in play. A ball isn’t in play if the defender doesn’t have a chance to catch it, which they can’t do when it sails over the fence.
As you probably remember, the Yankees had some miserable defensive teams in early-to-mid-aughts. The Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams-anchored outfields from 2003-2005 were good for 30+ fewer outs converted than the league average, which is an enormous number. Adding Melky Cabrera and (to a lesser extent) Johnny Damon to the mix improved things greatly in 2006, though the Yankees were still league-average. Bobby Abreu was a defensive nightmare who prevented the unit from being above-average.
The 2009 season is when things really improved. Abreu’s wall-fearing ways were replaced by Nick Swisher, who is a solid defender and far better than his predecessor. Brett Gardner also started to earn more playing time. The 2009-2011 outfields were well-above-average as the Matsuis and Damons and Abreus were replaced, though the 2012 defense took a hit when Raul Ibanez handled left field in the wake of Gardner’s injury. The Yankees have boasted an average or better outfield defense (with regards to fly balls) in six of the last seven years, and in several of those seasons they were much better than the league average.
As I mentioned two weeks ago, ground balls are relatively harmless. They usually go for singles when they sneak through the infield and that’s the end of it. Fly balls, even the ones that don’t go over the fence for homers, are much more dangerous. Misplayed fly balls often turn into extra-base hits, which can be a nightmare for the pitcher. It’s one thing to have a man on first after a ground ball finds a hole, but it’s another when a fly ball dunks in and a man is instantly on second or third. The Yankees have done an excellent job of turning their outfield ranks over in recent years while improving the fly ball catching ability without sacrificing offense.
This is probably something I should have pieced together last week, prior to the Winter Meetings, but better late than never I suppose. Here’s a breakdown of the Yankees’ current payroll situation for 2013…
- Existing Contracts ($121M): Alex Rodriguez ($28M), CC Sabathia ($23M), Mark Teixeira ($22.5M), Derek Jeter ($17M), Robinson Cano ($15M), Curtis Granderson ($15M), David Aardsma ($500k)
- Players Signed In Offseason ($37M): Hiroki Kuroda ($15M), Andy Pettitte ($12M), Mariano Rivera ($10M)
- Projected Arbitration Salaries ($15.8M): Phil Hughes ($5.7M), Boone Logan ($2.8M), Brett Gardner ($2.8M), David Robertson ($2.7M), Joba Chamberlain ($1.8M)
- Buyouts & Dead Money ($8.75M): A.J. Burnett ($8.5M), Pedro Feliciano ($250k)
That adds up to $182.55M for only 15 40-man rosters spots, and that’s real dollars being spent. It’s not average annual value for luxury tax purposes. The 15 players who are on the 40-man roster but not on the 25-man active roster will earn the league minimum ($480k-ish), so let’s just estimate them at $7.5M total ($500k each). That brings us up to $190.05M with ten roster spots to fill.
The Yankees have started each of the last five seasons with an Opening Day payroll between $200-214M (again, real dollars), and I assume they’re willing to spend that much again this year. We know they’re trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold for 2014, but they’re theoretically in the clear for 2013. Opening next season with a similar payroll means they have anywhere from $10-24M to spend during the remainder of the offseason, and their holes include a right fielder, a catcher, a good utility infielder, and bench pieces. League minimum guys like Chris Stewart, Eduardo Nunez, David Phelps, Ivan Nova, and Clay Rapada mean it’s really $7.5-21.5M for five roster spots.
Barring an unexpected trade, it’s tough to see the Yankees spending much money on a backstop given the available options and their reported disinterest in A.J. Pierzynski. Even a (very unlikely) trade for Carlos Santana wouldn’t put a big dent in the budget because he’s due just $550k next season as part of his long-term contract. A right fielder could range anywhere from dirt cheap (Nate Schierholtz at $2M?) to pretty pricey (Justin Upton at $9.75M?). Jeff Keppinger could wind up with $4-6M annually while Asdrubal Cabrera is owed $6.5M. I guess that’s the going rate for a replacement third baseman/high-end utility infielder.
As frustrating as it is to watch the Yankees sit on the sidelines so far this week, I do think there’s some good to come from it. Some of the recently-signed free agent contracts have struck me as big overpays, talking specifically talking about guys like Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, and Shane Victorino. All nice players in their own way, but they got more money and one more year than I expected. Avoiding an overpay like that is a good thing for New York for obvious reasons, 2014 payroll plan or not. Either way, hopefully they’re planning to spend on the high end of that $7.5-21.5M range over so they can make one more serious run before scaling back payroll.
In a series of Insider-only posts at ESPN, Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS projection system to break down the six division races using current rosters. Here are the links for the AL East, AL Central, AL West, NL East, NL Central, and NL West. No projection system is perfect or even close to it, but ZiPS has been consistently solid the last few years and is typically my go-to system. Standard disclaimer: Projections are not predictions, they’re an attempt to measure a player’s true talent level at the moment.
Anyway, the current Yankees roster is pretty bad. They don’t have Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, an established closer, a legitimate starting catcher, a right fielder, or a bench. Plugging those holes internally means going with unproven youngsters and retread veterans, not the guys you expect to find playing everyday for the Yankees. Here are the projections…
The projections for Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, and Curtis Granderson pass the sniff test. Derek Jeter‘s might be a little light following his huge year, but it wouldn’t be a shock if his offense took a step back at his age. I like Chris Dickerson more than most, but that line is about right if he doesn’t have a platoon partner. Obviously the Yankees won’t carry three catchers, but that’s a function of the whole “current roster” thing.
On the pitching side, I would be pretty pleased with that performance from Pineda in his first year out of shoulder surgery. Over 100 innings with solid strikeout (7.7 K/9) and walk (3.3 BB/9) rates right after a major procedure like that? Yeah that would work. Obviously that’s not what the Yankees were hoping for when they made the trade, but the dynamic has changed in a big way since then. Accumulating some innings and showing flashes of his 2011 form are what I’m looking for out of Pineda next year. Nothing more.
ZiPS has that roster winning 85 games next year, good for second place in the AL East behind the 86-win Rays. The Orioles are a distant third at 80 wins, then the Blue Jays (78 wins) and Red Sox (76 wins) bring up the rear. The current incarnations of the Rangers, Nationals, and Braves project to finish with the most wins in baseball at 89 apiece. They have fewer holes to fill, especially compared to the Yankees. The fact that ZiPS still thinks New York can win 85 games with no real right fielder, no catcher, no number two or three starter, and a five-man bullpen is pretty neat. Too bad 85 wins would be a ten-win drop-off.
The Yankees intend to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold by 2014, and they’re going to have to starting taking action this offseason to make sure that happens. Throughout the winter we’ll check in on the club’s payroll situation as they make roster moves to see how they’re setup for 2013 and potentially 2014 as well. Free agency will open sometime soon depending on the length of the World Series (it’ll start no later than ten days from now no matter what), so let’s first look at the money the Yankees have coming off the books this winter. It’s not a small amount.
- Pending Free Agents ($76.14M): Mariano Rivera ($15M), Rafael Soriano ($14M), Nick Swisher ($10.25M), Hiroki Kuroda ($10M), Russell Martin ($7.5M), Freddy Garcia ($4M), Pedro Feliciano ($3.75M), Andruw Jones ($2.54M), Andy Pettitte ($2.5M), Raul Ibanez ($2.5M), Ichiro Suzuki ($2.25M), Eric Chavez ($1.85M)
- Scheduled Raises ($3M): Curtis Granderson (+$5M), Robinson Cano (+$1M), Derek Jeter ($+1M), Alex Rodriguez (-$1M), A.J. Burnett (-$3M)
- Buyouts ($0.50M): Feliciano ($0.50M)
I’m assuming Soriano will opt-out of his contract, which seems likely. The Yankees will pay $8.5M of Burnett’s salary next year after paying $11.5M last year, so that’s cool. Feliciano has a $500k buyout coming to him as well. Put it all together — (Pending Free Agents) minus (Scheduled Raises) minus (Dead Money & Buyouts) — and the club will have approximately $72.64M coming off the books this offseason. I’m ignoring minimum salary pickups like Derek Lowe, because who cares about guys making the minimum.
Anyway, I count nine arbitration-eligible players this offseason: Phil Hughes, Brett Gardner, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Jayson Nix, Casey McGehee, Frankie Cervelli, and Chris Dickerson. Dickerson and Cervelli are on the Super Two bubble, so they might fall short. McGehee seems like a safe bet to either be non-tendered or traded, clearing his salary. Hughes, Robertson, and Logan are due considerable raises (relative to last year’s salary) while Joba and Gardner will get slightly smaller raised due to their injuries. This will be expensive class though, probably an increase of $10M or so compared to last year. Suddenly that $72.64M becomes $62.64M. Once MLBTR posts their salary projections we’ll have a much better idea of the arbitration situation.
With that money, the Yankees will need to find a catcher, a right fielder, a DH, a late-inning reliever, at least one starting pitcher (preferably two), a bench, and miscellaneous depth players. That’s assuming they’re willing to spend as much in 2013 as they did in 2012. It is more than enough money, but Brian Cashman & Co. will need to find payroll-friendly solutions if they’re going to stick to this 2014 payroll plan. Either that or they’re going to be signing a bunch of players to one-year contracts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d love to see both Kuroda and Pettitte on one-year pacts, that would be my ideal starting pitching solution.
As the offseason progresses and players to start to sign — both free agents and arbitration guys — we’ll have a better idea of what the Yankees will spend in 2013 compared to 2012. I think this will be the team’s busiest offseason since 2008-2009 (it probably won’t even be all that close when it’s all said and done), but it’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees plug those holes given what appears to be an utter lack of viable alternatives. This might be a winter heavy on trades and not free agent signings.
The Yankees and Orioles have played three very tight games in the ALDS so far, and last night Raul Ibanez took matters into his own hands by hitting both a game-tying and game-winning solo homer after coming off the bench in the ninth inning. His insanely clutch performance will get a ton of attention today and rightfully so, but one man can not win a baseball game by himself no matter how many homers he hits.
Before Ibanez worked his magic, starter Hiroki Kuroda gave the Yankees more than eight innings of two-run ball. He allowed solo homers to the eight- and nine-hole hitters, but otherwise he held Baltimore in check and especially in the late innings. Kuroda did run into trouble in the fourth though, as some shoddy defense, a hit, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases with two outs. Ryan Flaherty, who hit the first solo homer, was at the plate with a chance to break things open when Kuroda started him with a first pitch inside two-seamer for a called strike. Here is the second pitch of the at-bat…
(Click to embiggen)
I wrote briefly about the benefit of pitch framing yesterday, and that’s a perfect example of a borderline pitch getting called a strike with some help from Russell Martin‘s nifty glovework. PitchFX does have the pitch off the plate but not wildly so, enough that it could have been called either way.
Now the at-bat didn’t even end with that pitch, but it did turn a potential 1-1 count into an 0-2 count. An 0-2 count is the worst possible count a hitter can face, and the difference between those two counts was over .200 OPS points in the AL this season. It’s a massive shift in the game situation, changing everything from how Kuroda and Martin pitch to Flaherty’s approach to possibly even where the defense sets up. Flaherty grounded out weakly on the next pitch, a jam shot fastball up-and-in that may have been intended to set up a splitter on the next pitch more than actually get an out.
Kuroda really had to battle in the early innings last night, and Martin did a good job nursing through his early command issues. Flaherty isn’t a world burner, but he went deep one inning prior and had a really great power stretch just a few weeks ago. I don’t want to say the game was on the line in that fourth inning at-bat, but a hit there to score even one more run changes the complexion of the entire game. Stealing that strike two on the borderline pitch was an important part of the chess match that got Kuroda and the Yankees through the inning and kept the game manageable.
Quite a stir was made last offseason when former Baseball Prospectus-er and current Astros employee Mike Fast published a study quantifying the number of runs catchers saved with his pitch framing skills. That is making a borderline pitch look like a strike to the umpire and getting the call. Russell Martin rated very well in Fast’s study, as in second only to Jose Molina. Here’s a great example of Russ stealing a strike for CC Sabathia in ALDS Game One on Sunday…
At FanGraphs yesterday, Jeff Sullivan used PitchFX data to estimate how many extra strikes each team enjoyed this season, and the Yankees placed fourth in baseball (and first in the AL) at +5 strikes per 1,000 pitches. The league average is actually -5 strikes, not zero. Blame the umps. New York’s pitching staff threw 23,181 total pitches this season, so the pitching staff received approximately 232 more strikes than the league average. That doesn’t sound like much across 162 games, but it is. Past studies have calculated the difference in value between a called ball and a called strike at 0.13 runs, so Martin’s (and Chris Stewart‘s) pitch framing helped save the team a touch more than 30 runs this season. Roughly 9.5 runs equaled a win in 2012′s scoring environment, so those extra strikes were (theoretically) the difference between an AL East title and a wildcard play-in game.
It’s important to note that Sullivan’s estimations ares just that, estimations. Fast’s study was much more precise and comprehensive, and we shouldn’t attribute every single extra strike to the catcher and his pitch framing anyway. Sometimes the umpire was going to the call the pitch a strike without the catcher’s help. Even if that 30 runs saved number is off by as much as 50%, it’s still a lot of runs to save with a simple skill. Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, but analysts have gotten better at it and pitch framing is one of those things that seems to impact the game much more than originally expected.
The Yankees and Orioles will open their best-of-five ALDS matchup tomorrow night in Camden Yards, which will be the first playoff game in the ballpark since 1997. The two teams split the season series 9-9 with the O’s scoring two more runs overall (92-90). They finished two games apart in the standings and were locked in a tight division race right down to the final game of the season. It should be a blowout on paper, but Baltimore has continued to exceed expectations all summer.
When the series opens Sunday night, left-hander CC Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees. It’s unclear who the opposing starter will be at the moment, but we’ll find out soon enough. Sabathia closed the regular season out with three dominant starts, allowing four runs total on 13 hits and four walks in 24 innings while striking out 28. He went exactly eight innings in all three starts. Sabathia made just three starts against Baltimore this season, allowing four runs in six innings twice (once in April, once in May) and five runs in 6.1 innings once (in September). He has dominated the Orioles throughout his career, pitching to a 3.12 ERA (~3.40 FIP) in 25 starts and 176 innings. These aren’t your older brother’s Orioles anymore though.
One of the biggest keys to Game One for Sabathia and the Yankees is stopping Adam Jones, Baltimore’s 32-homer center fielder. Stopping the other team’s best player is like, Captain Obvious stuff, but this is a little deeper than that. Jones is one of just six active players with at least 30 career plate appearances and an OPS over 1.000 against Sabathia, so he’s given him some problems in recent years. One of the remaining five players in Sabathia’s teammate, and only one other is on a postseason team…
Those three homers have come in each of the last three years. Jones took Sabathia deep this past May (solo shot in a 1-0 count), last April (three-run shot in a 2-1 count), and two Junes ago (solo shot in a 0-1 count). Notice the strikeout and walks totals, just six whiffs (13.3%) and four free passes (8.9%). They’re far better than Jones’ career rates (19.3 K% and 4.8 BB%) in the admittedly tiny sample size. Let’s take a look at a strike zone breakdown of where the Baltimore center fielder does his damage and where he struggles against southpaws, courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz’s site…
You can click the link for a larger view, but the gist of it is that Jones murders fastballs on the inner half and up in the zone. Catch too much of the plate with an offspeed pitch and he’ll crush that too, though most big league hitters will make pitchers pay for a hanger. The Baseball Prospectus Matchup Page shows us how Sabathia has pitched Jones in their 45 career matchups, and it’s pretty basic Sabathia stuff. Sliders down-and-in, changeups down-and-away, fastballs to both sides of the plate.
Given Jones’ strengths within the strike zone, Sabathia and the Yankees are better off pounding him away with fastballs before coming down-and-in with the slider (or burying a changeup). His spray chart against lefties over the last two years (via Texas Leaguers) suggests that Jones will reach out and poke outside pitches to right for a base hit, but he doesn’t hit for much power to the opposite field…
That career walk rate I mentioned earlier (4.8%) is an indication that Jones is not the most patient of hitters. Even this year, the best year of his career (to date), his walk rate was just 4.9%. Jones will help pitchers get him out, and in fact he’s swung at 40.4% of the pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone in each of the last two seasons. That’s the fourth highest rate in the game among qualified hitters, behind noted hackers Vlad Guerrero, Delmon Young, and A.J. Pierzynski. He will get himself out at times, but Jones isn’t an idiot. He’ll sit on the pitch if the Yankees keep throwing fastballs away, so expanding the zone and intentionally throwing some off the plate, especially later in the count, will be important.
Outside of Jones, two of the Orioles most productive hitters in the last month are left-handed — Chris Davis (190 wRC+) and Nate McLouth (125 wRC+). Sabathia should be able to handle both guys thanks to the left-on-left matchup and his vicious slider, but stopping Jones (and switch-hitter Matt Wieters for that matter) won’t be so simple. Sabathia has had some trouble with him throughout his career, and Jones’ tendencies suggest that staying away with the fastball before coming inside with the slider is the way to approach him tomorrow night. Much easier said than done obviously, location will be very important.
In more ways than one, the second half of this season has been the polar opposite of the first half. The Yankees were winning games left and right before the All-Star break, but recently they’ve been struggling to string wins together. The pitching staff carried the club for lengths of time back in May and June, but August and September haven’t featured the same kind of effectiveness. A deep and productive lineup carried a weak-hitting Russell Martin early on, but lately it’s been Martin who’s done the carrying.
Martin, 29, had the big blow in yesterday’s 6-4 win over Tampa, a three-run opposite field blast off the hard-throwing Matt Moore. The at-bat was as impressive as the outcome, as Russ battled back from an 0-2 count to work it full before going deep. It was his third homer in his last nine starts and part of a second half surge that has seen him hit .246/.324/.437 with nine homers in 51 games (46 starts). Joe Girardi has been batting his starting catcher higher in the batting order — including fifth against left-handers — and it is not undeserved.
The first half of the season was not kind to Martin, who hit just .179/.300/.348 with eight homers in the club’s first 85 games. He struck out in 20.2% and walked in 12.3% of his plate appearances prior to the All-Star break, rock solid plate discipline numbers. His batting average on balls in play was abysmal though, an unsustainably low .193. Obviously luck plays a major part in any BABIP south of the Mendoza line, but not all of it was undeserved. Here is his day-by-day batted ball profile…
Martin was beating the ball into the ground in the first half of the season, and if you watched the games, you know that most of those grounders were weakly hit to the left side of the infield. Smart teams played a bit of a shift on him, exacerbating the BABIP problem.
The second half has been a different story however, as the ground ball issue evened out and his batted ball profile normalized with last year, when he hit .237/.324/.408 overall. That looks quite a bit like his .246/.324/.437 line from the second half of this year, just with a little less power. His strikeout rate (17.0%) also began to approach his career average (14.7%) as well. Martin’s average on balls in play has jumped up to .254 in the second half, which is low for most hitters but probably right in line with his true talent level at this point. He is still prone to the weak ground ball and does hit a lot of pop-ups (especially on the infield), a combination that will forever keep his average in the dumps. There’s no away around that, his days of hitting .280+ like he did in 2006-2008 are undoubtedly in the rear-view mirror.
One thing we’ve learned during Martin’s time in New York is that he’s crazy streaky. He can carry an offense when he gets hot and he’ll turn into an out machine at the bottom of the order when things aren’t going his way. The lows are more frequent than the highs, but the Yankees needed him to perform better in the second half and he’s done that so far. It’s unfortunate that they’ve fallen back to the AL East pack and they’re relying on his production so much, but that isn’t really Martin’s fault. He’s hitting for some more power and a few more hits are starting to fall in, and lately they’ve come at the exact right time.