Archive for Analysis
The Yankees split four games with the second-place Orioles this weekend, and other than homers and high-scoring affairs, all four games had one thing in common: Baltimore did an awful lot of damage in two-strike counts. Thirteen of their 31 hits during the series came in two-strike counts, including four doubles and three homers. You can add two hit batsman on top of that, which bother me just as much as hits in two-strike situations. Maybe even more since the batter didn’t really earn it, so to speak.
Anecdotally, it feels as though the Yankees have given up a lot of baserunners in two-strike counts all season, at least relatively speaking. As you’ll see, the league as a whole does a poor job of reaching base when the pitcher is one pitch away from a strikeout. Here is a quick breakdown of the pitching staff’s performance in various two-strike counts this season…
sOPS+ is the opposing hitter’s OPS+ relative to the league average in these counts, so while holding hitters to a .164/.171/.261 batting line in 0-2 counts looks fantastic, it’s actually 27% worse than the .150/.158/.220 AL average. That’s the glaring problem here, 0-2 counts. The Yankees do fairly well in 1-2 and 2-2 counts (and in two-strike counts overall), but they really give it up in what is supposed to be the worst possible count for a batter.
The biggest culprit, by far, has been Phil Hughes. Hitters have tagged the right-hander for a .239/.239/.406 batting line in 0-2 counts, an unfathomable 234 sOPS+. In two-strike counts overall, it’s a .188/.241/.309 batting line (111 sOPS+). Ten of the league-worst 33 homers he’s surrendered have come in two-strike counts, including two in 0-2 counts. Hughes does strike hitters out at an essentially league average rate (7.57 K/9 and 19.8 K%), but he’s gotten clobbered when unable to miss bats with two strikes.
The rest of the starting staff has done fairly well in two-strike counts. Ivan Nova is the worst of the rest of the bunch with a 143 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts and a 90 sOPS+ with two strikes overall. CC Sabathia has struggled a bit in 0-2 counts (104 sOPS+) but otherwise shuts hitters down in two-strike counts overall (64 sOPS+). Hiroki Kuroda is the opposite, burying hitters in 0-2 counts (39 sOPS+) but performing at about the league average rate with two strikes overall (99 sOPS+). Andy Pettitte was fantastic in two-strike counts before getting hurt, holding hitters to a 14 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts and a 47 sOPS+ in two-strike counts overall.
The Yankees’ pitching staff has the third best strikeout rate in the league this year (8.16 K/9 and 21.5 K%), and that holds true both for the starters (7.82 K/9 and 20.6 K%) and relievers (8.96 K/9 and 23.7 K%). The Rays are the only club with better strikeout rates as both starters and relievers this season. So yeah, the Yankees have done a very good job of missing bats and recording outs without the help of the defense, but otherwise haven’t done a great job of retiring hitters in these situations overall. Whether it’s poor pitch-calling/planning or poor execution (likely both), the Yankees aren’t haven’t stood out for their ability to put hitters away in two-strike counts this season and it was really noticeable this past weekend.
Not so long ago, I wrote an uncharacteristically pessimistic post that was admittedly a bit trollish in its conception: exploring the problems and challenges that could face a Yankee team that at the time enjoyed a comfortable six-game lead over its division rivals. While the Yankees had several hurdles to overcome, I concluded that the division lead along with the talent gap between the Yankees and their pursuers should allow the Yankees to cruise to a division title and playoff berth.
I still believe that to be the case, but the events of the last few weeks have increased the likelihood of an different outcome. The combination of poor play by the Yankees and strong performances from the Rays and Orioles have whittled the Yankees’ division lead down to one game. In Wild Card race, the Oakland A’s have gone on a tear, and currently hold the same record as the Bombers. Suddenly the possibility of the Yankees losing the division or even missing the playoffs doesn’t seem so remote. The specter of a monumental collapse a la Boston in 2011 looms over the collective psyche of nervous Yankee fans, who fear karmic payback for their schadenfreude of yesteryear.
Since the folks here are mostly rational, I thought it would make sense to analyze which contributors to the Yankees’ struggles seem likely to persist, and which ones may be resolved going forward. I’ll take a look at some reasons for why Yankee fans should be concerned, as well as some reasons why things are still looking promising. Feel free to add your own to the list if I leave anything out.
Reasons to panic
Death by bullpen: Outside of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson (who have had their occasional slip-ups), the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been unreliable of late. This has at times caused Joe Girardi to make multiple pitching changes in a single inning, delighting binder-joke aficionados worldwide. It has also made keeping leads in the middle innings a difficult task. Cody Eppley in particular seems less effective than he was earlier in the season, Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily since returning from the DL, and Derek Lowe has been awful since the Yankees acquired him. Boone Logan has continued to hold down the fort, but his heavy usage could take a toll on him.
Injuries: Although Alex Rodriguez just returned, the Yankees are still suffering injuries to several important contributors. Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched a rehab outing yet, Curtis Granderson has been hampered by hamstring tendinitis, Mark Teixeira is still out, and Robinson Cano may have tweaked something in his hip while going after a ground ball in the 9th inning yesterday. These injuries have forced the Yankees to rely heavily on their bench. While some bench players (Eric Chavez in particular) have been up to the task, others (I’m looking at you Andruw Jones) have struggled mightily. The Yankees have gotten by so far in 2012 with solid contributions from their bench, but their recent offensive woes (wRC+ of 74 the past 2 weeks) show the effect that losing several middle of the order contributors can have on overall offensive production.
Reasons to relax
Help is on the way: Alex Rodriguez’s return instantly lengthens the Yankee lineup, adding some desperately needed right-handed power to a team that has been punchless of late. Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova are on the road to recovery, and could provide some much needed depth to an anemic lineup and struggling rotation respectively.
Slumpbusters: Of late, the Yankee lineup has struggled offensively. Only three members of the Yankee lineup have posted above league-average production over the last 2 weeks: Robinson Cano (146 wRC+), Derek Jeter (137 wRC+), and Nick Swisher (128 wRC+). While this trio has been carrying the offense, the rest of the offense has been putrid. This includes (skip this section if you have a weak stomach) Russell Martin (56 wRC+), Curtis Granderson (36 wRC+), Eric Chavez (40 wRC+), Ichiro (10 wRC+), Andruw Jones (-8 wRC+), and Raul Ibanez (-25 wRC+).
With only one third of the lineup performing anywhere above the league average or near their career norms, there is no wonder that the Yankee lineup has had trouble scoring runs of late. It seems improbable that this horrific stretch can continue, and eventually some of these guys can turn things around. While several of these guys have been horrible all season, there is enough talent there for a few of them to get things going again.
Look at the schedule: While the Yankees’ schedule for the beginning of September is tough (two more games against the Rays and four against the Orioles), things soften up for the Bombers after the big rivalry games. There is one more three-game series against the Rays, but otherwise, the Yankees’ opponents include the Twins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. A few years ago this would have been a formidable slate, but at a collective 51 games under .500, the Yankees shouldn’t have too much to worry about. This is especially true if the Yankees get some of their starters back and contributing by then. Baltimore also has a light schedule (though a three-game series against the suddenly-good A’s could prove challenging), while the Rays have some tougher matchups remaining, including the White Sox and the Rangers. If the Yankees can survive the games against Baltimore and Tampa with their lead intact, they should be able to hold their ground against some weaker opponents down the stretch.
Overall, the Yankees do have some real concerns to address down the stretch. Getting some injured players back could help, but the fact of the matter is that this team has looked lifeless over the past few weeks. A combination of crappy hitting, sloppy fielding, and poorly-timed pitching meltdowns has resulted in some frustrating losses recently. Two thirds of the lineup needs to either get healthy or remember how to hit, and the Yankees will need to get some big performances from their starters to prevent the bullpen from getting overexposed. I still think this team has too much talent, especially when compared to Baltimore and Tampa, to lose this division. The favorable schedule also helps in that regard. But as they say, these games aren’t played on paper. A number of players will have to start living up to the numbers on the back of their baseball card if the Yankees are going to make a run into October.
The Yankees still sit atop the AL East and own the second best overall record in the league, but they’ve scuffled to a 20-19 record in the second half and a 14-18 record since heading out to Oakland a few weeks ago. They did win seven of nine about a week ago but have since lost five of seven. No team plays roughly .500-ball for more than a month by alternating wins and losses, there’s a few hot and cold streaks mixed in there.
On a macro level, the club’s performance on the road is responsible for their second half slide. The Yankees have won just six of 17 games away from Yankee Stadium since the All-Star break, including that four-game sweep at the hand of the Athletics and this week’s three-game sweep in Chicago. At home, they’re 14-8 in the second half. Here’s a real quick breakdown of the team’s basic home/road splits…
|Home Record||Home RS/G||Home RA/G||Road Record||Road RS/G||Road RA/G|
|First Half||25-16 (.610)||4.6||4.0||27-17 (.614)||5.0||4.2|
|Second Half||14-8 (.636)||5.4||3.8||6-11 (.353)||4.5||4.6|
The Yankees have only been outscored by three total runs on the road in the second half (76 to 79), which tends to happen when six of the eleven losses were by one run. The club is scoring roughly half-a-run fewer run per game on average away from the Bronx though, and their overall road batting line sits at .263/.320/.411 since the All-Star break. It was .263/.340/.453 in the first half. With a .263/.334/.441 overall road line on the season (108 wRC+), the Yankees have been the second best hitting team in baseball away from their home park this year (Angels, 113 wRC+).
Given the small sample, I think the second half drop in OBP and power production is tied directly to the four games in the pitcher friendly Coliseum in Oakland (ten total runs in the four games) as well as Curtis Granderson‘s mega-slump. He’s typically a major source of on-base skills and especially power. Robinson Cano‘s smaller and more recent slump factors in as well, plus the Raul Ibanez-Andruw Jones platoon hasn’t done much since the break either. The increase in runs allowed per game (also roughly half-a-run) has an awful lot to do with Phil Hughes throwing duds in Detroit and Toronto as well as the sketchy middle relief.
Twenty of the club’s final 38 games are on the road, including the upcoming three-game series in Cleveland. After that it’s nothing but AL East parks and a quick three games in Target Field. The Yankees haven’t forgotten to play on the road or anything, they’ve just lost an inordinate number of close games away from the Bronx since the All-Star break. I don’t think these road struggles are a big concern going forward, but those losses are already in the bank and they do count in the standings. Taking care of business against the Indians would be a real good (and necessary!) step twards fixing these second half road issues.
While the middle relief has been a bit of an ongoing problem, the Yankees and their fans have to feel pretty confident when they head into the eighth inning with a lead. Rafael Soriano has been absolute money as the full-in closer, and David Robertson continues to be one of the game’s best setup relievers. He hasn’t been as outright dominant as he was a year ago, but that was to be expected to a certain extent. It’s very tough to repeat a season like that.
Robertson, 27, has pitched to a 2.45 ERA (2.55 FIP) with his usual sky-high strikeout rate (12.50 K/9 and 33.7 K%) in 40.1 innings this season while dealing with an oblique injury. His walk rate (3.79 BB/9 and 10.2 BB%) is a career-low, his ground ball rate (50.5%) a career-high, and his homer rate (0.67 HR/9 and 9.4% HR/FB) the second best of his career. Robertson’s been quiet excellent in the late innings this year, a worthy complement to Soriano.
All of that is why I think it’s pretty interesting that Robertson has basically stopped throwing his curveball in recent weeks. He’s thrown nothing but fastballs in each of his last three appearances, though one of those was a one-pitch appearance (the double play against the Blue Jays). Robertson threw three straight curveballs to start out an at-bat against Edwin Encarnacion on August 10th and he hasn’t thrown a breaking ball since, a span of 12 batters faced and 39 pitches.
According to PitchFX, David has thrown 33.2% four-seamers, 48.6% cutters, and 17.0% curves this year. Those are two career-lows sandwiched around a career-high. Last season it was 49.6% four-seamers, 26.5% cutters, and 20.4% curves. With some help from Texas Leaguers, here’s a quick little month-by-month breakdown of his pitch usage this year…
We’re dealing with a reliever here, so the sample sizes are going to be inherently small. Add in the oblique injury a few months ago, and the samples get even smaller. There isn’t much of a trend here, other than a slight increase in cutter usage and a slight decrease in four-seamer usage as the season has progressed, assuming we kinda gloss over the oblique problem in May and June. The curveball usage is down in August but not insanely so, though that 16.8% stems from heavy usage earlier in the month and not so much recently.
Robertson has only struck out just seven of the last 38 batters he’s faced (18.4%), a span of 9.2 innings dating back to late last month. That’s roughly a league average rate, which means below average for Robertson. It seems more coincidental than anything at this point, even though the curveball is a premium strikeout pitch. He did whiff two Texas Rangers in one inning last week using nothing but the fastball, after all. Outside of the infield single and ground ball single fest in Detroit two weeks ago, Robertson has been fantastic of late and lack of curveball usage isn’t much of a concern. If his performance starts to suffer or we find out that he’s covering an injury, that’s when it’ll be a red flag.
The Yankees went through a pretty rough slump a few weeks ago, starting out on the West Coast in Oakland and carrying over into the last homestand. They have started to get their mojo back though, most notably battling back to split a four-game series with the Tigers in Detroit after losing the first two games. They’ve won nine of their last 13 games overall, and two of those four losses came at the hands of Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander. That will happen from time to time.
One player who has most certainly not gotten his mojo back is Curtis Granderson. The 31-year-old outfielder is stuck in a 1-for-18 rut at the moment, but this is something that goes back much further than the last week. Granderson is hitting just .205/.266/.419 since the All-Star break and .215/.306/.415 in his last 281 plate appearances (!) overall. That dates back to early-June, so we’re creeping farther and farther away from small sample size territory. After hitting a robust .262/.364/.552 (146 wRC+) last year, Grandy is down to just .236/.330/.480 (116 wRC+) with roughly six weeks to go this year.
I’ve noticed two things about Curtis during this slide that may or may not be meaningful in terms of the root cause for this slump. For one, he’s just flat out missing hittable pitches. We all know about the strikeout issues — 28.2 K% on the year and 30.6 K% during this 281 PA sample — but I’m talking specifically about pitches out over the plate that he’s either fouling off, putting into play weakly, or just whiffing on. Here is a look at Granderson’s strike zone plot during his 281 PA slump, courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz’s site…
There’s an awful lot going on here and a whole bunch of clutter, but just focus on the blue — those are the swings and misses. There’s a whole bunch in the dirt from breaking balls and whatnot, but there’s also a bunch right out over the plate. This isn’t any kind of definitive proof that he’s missing hittable pitches, but it certainly jives with the theory. Granderson has always swung and missed a bunch, that’s just who he is, but some of those pitches — particularly the fastballs, the blue +’s — he should be hitting hard somewhere.
Secondly, Curtis doesn’t seem to be pulling the ball as much as usual. Vince Mercogliano made the same observation last night, so at least I know my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. Last season, Granderson pulled 53.6% of his balls in play to right field while 30.1% went back up the middle and and just 16.2% went the other way to left. As you’d expect, he did most of his damage yanking the ball to right — 304 wRC+ pull, 120 wRC+ center, 26 wRC+ left. This season he’s at 50.4% pulled (196 wRC+), 30.0% center (63 wRC+), and 19.5% opposite (64 wRC+). Not much of a difference in terms of quantity, but he isn’t getting the same kind of results on balls back up the middle. Here’s a look at his spray chart during this 281 PA slide, courtesy of Texas Leaguers…
That is a pretty evenly distributed spray chart, especially for a guy who is — or at least should be — a dead pull hitter. Earlier this season I noted that Granderson was hitting some more line drive singles to shallow left, but I don’t think this is a case of a guy making a conscious decision to try to go the other way without getting the results, a la Mark Teixeira back in April and May. Granderson just seems to be fouled up, either physically, mechanically, mentally, whatever. He certainly isn’t getting the results he has been getting for the last two calendar years, and you can see that something is off by watching him everyday. You don’t need to be a hitting guru to see when someone isn’t right, but you do need to be one to fix it.
Granderson’s slump is something that predates his ill-fated stint as a leadoff hitter, and is something he and hitting coach Kevin Long need to figure out relatively soon. The work they did in August 2010 was almost literally an overnight fix; he went from being a straight platoon guy to an MVP-caliber hitter in the span of like, 36 hours. That isn’t the norm though, these things tend to take some time. The Yankees are scheduled to face three real tough lefties — Derek Holland, Franklin Morales, and Jon Lester — from Thursday through Saturday, so that might be a good time to give Curtis some time off just to recharge the batteries. He can get off his feet (he’s played the field a ton this year due to Brett Gardner‘s injury, so maybe he’s just worn out), clear his head a bit, and hit the cages hard in an effort to get back to being the impact hitter he’s expected to be. Right now, he’s close to a dead spot in the lineup.
Last night’s win over the Rangers was headlined by Nick Swisher‘s grand slam and David Phelps‘ impressive return to the rotation, but new pickup Derek Lowe capped things off with a four-inning save to spare his bullpen mates. The veteran right-hander was flat out released by the Indians last week after two disastrous months — seriously, look how bad they were — but he made a strong first impression on the Yankees’ faithful with his sinker, changeup, and slider in the four scoreless frames. It was his first save since 2001.
As much as we want to think that a simple change of scenery can lead to improved performance, that almost never is the case. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes, and prior to yesterday’s game Lowe spoke about the work he did during the 12 days between being designated for assignment by Cleveland and signing with the Yankees. I trimmed some of the fat out of quotes, but otherwise they come courtesy of Chad Jennings and Brad Lewis …
“(Getting designated for assignment) was actually a blessing in a way to be able to go back down to Fort Myers and work with the guy I normally always work with and get straightened out. I called (agent Scott Boras) last Wednesday and said, ‘I feel good enough to be able to go back and pitch the way I should.’
“When you lose your deception, you’re in a world of hurt. I had to get back to hiding the ball better … I’m a huge tinkerer. I have done it my whole career. I try to fix things mechanically, and one little tinker turns into two, turns in to — basically, you almost get lost. I’ve done it my whole career. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t … I literally said, ‘I need a repeatable delivery.’ There were some obvious glaring things I even knew that I was doing, that (since-fired Indians pitching coach) Scott Radinsky knew I was doing, but the side sessions weren’t long enough to fix it … It was great to be able to spend two or three hours really understanding what you were doing wrong and how to correct it … I’ve always been a tinkerer, so it doesn’t take a long time. It takes a good two or three days of hard work getting back right, looking at video and realizing what you have to do.”
Lowe pounded the zone last night, throwing first pitch strikes to 11 of the 14 batters he faced (79%) and a strike with 33 of his 44 pitches (75%). Only thrice did he get into a two-ball count and only once a three-ball count. Throwing strikes was a bit of a problem during his two-month slump with the Indians (only 60% strikes during the 60.1 IP sample, league average is around 67%), though that’s a chicken or the egg thing. Was he getting hit because he wasn’t locating well, or was he not throwing strikes because he was getting hit? Either way, Lowe didn’t run into that problem last night.
Thanks to the magic of PitchFX, we can take a quick look at where Lowe was locating the ball at various points this season. Here are his first nine starts with Cleveland, during which time he pitched to a 2.15 ERA (3.95 FIP) in 58.2 IP…
I wouldn’t get too caught up in the various pitch types and whatnot, right now I just want to focus on the location. Even the balls that were hit are relatively down in the zone and away from lefties, the kind of pitch very few hitters can really drive. During these nine starts, Lowe allowed just two homers and 13 doubles for a .084 ISO against. Here are his next dozen starts, that 8.80 ERA (4.87 FIP) disaster period…
Again, just looking at the location, Lowe left way more pitches up in the zone and towards the middle of the plate. He allowed six homers and 21 doubles during these 60.1 IP, good for a .151 ISO against. When you’re throwing a high-80s sinker that doesn’t sink, the pitch gets clobbered. Lowe was still a little up in the zone last night, but he did a better job of staying out of the middle of the plate.
Now obviously one four-inning appearance doesn’t mean much of anything, but it was certainly more encouraging than it would have been had he went out and gotten hammered again. Perhaps those adjustments last week helped him out, maybe it was being reunited with his former Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, or maybe it was just dumb luck and sample size noise. Either way, the Derek Lowe who was out there last night sure had the look of a potentially useful bullpen piece, the kind of guy who can soak up a few innings to spare the other relievers without letting the game get out of control.
PitchFX plots via Joe Lefkowitz’s site.
The Yankees apparently had very real interest in acquiring Ryan Dempster prior to yesterday’s trade deadline (according to Joel Sherman), but they instead walked away having made just one minor move, sending Chad Qualls to the Pirates for corner infielder Casey McGehee. Considering that Qualls was on his way out once Joba Chamberlain was ready to come off the DL, give Brian Cashman credit for turning a completely disposable piece into a potentially useful one. Alex Rodriguez‘s hand injury created a need for some infield depth, and that’s exactly what they got.
McGehee, 29, is a classic right-handed platoon bat who can hold down both first and third base. He’s hitting .250/.344/.463 (119 wRC+) against southpaws this season and owns a .259/.327/.427 (100 wRC+) line for his career against pitchers of the opposite hand. McGehee had an excellent rookie campaign as a part-time player in 2009 (124 wRC+) and was solid in full-time duty in 2010 (114 wRC+), but he started to get exposed a bit with more playing time these last two seasons…
|162 Game Avg.||162||607||143||29||2||18||47||104||.260||.316||.419||.735||97||18||2||3|
The Yankees aren’t going to ask McGehee to play regularly, not unless something goes horribly wrong or he just hits the snot out of the ball and forces his way into the lineup. They acquired him specifically to combat lefties and provide some right-handed pop while A-Rod is on the shelf, presumably from the bottom third of the order. Don’t count on him being a savior.
One thing that McGehee really has going for him is his opposite field stroke (here’s some video), something he’s maintained even during his two subpar seasons. During his career he’s hit .336 with a .199 ISO on balls hit to right field, good for a 128 wRC+. The numbers since the start of 2011 are essentially identical, a .328 average with a .199 ISO and a 128 wRC+ that ranks 17th out of all right-handed batters with at least 100 balls in play to the opposite field. The 16 guys ahead of him are basically the best right-handed hitters in the world, I’m talking Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera … pretty great hitters. McGehee’s opposite field production is a notch below those guys but still very good.
Thanks to the magic of Texas Leaguers, we can take a quick look at his spray chart over these last two seasons…
Remember, the dots show where the ball was fielded by the defender, not where it landed. McGehee has hit 21 homers since the start of 2011 and I unofficially count 15 that have been hit out to right and right-center. Given the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium, he has a chance to be surprisingly productive if he just maintains his natural stroke and is platooned properly. Only half of that is under his control, it’s up to Joe Girardi to take care of the other half.
Once Mark Teixeira‘s wrist heals up and he’s back at first base full-time, I suspect we’ll see McGehee play third base against southpaws regularly while Andruw Jones starts at DH and Jayson Nix roams left field. He could make his Yankees debut as soon as this afternoon with the left-handed Zach Britton on the mound, though that depends on his travel schedule and what not. The Yankees aren’t going to be able to replace all that A-Rod gives them but they do have some solid substitutes. McGehee might work out or he might not (when the cost is Chad Qualls, the team is playing with house money), but he has the skillset to be productive in the role he’s being asked to fill.
If you didn’t stay up late enough to catch the end of the game last night, the Yankees suffered a walk-off loss to Athletics when Brandon Moss singled off Cody Eppley with runners on first and second in the bottom of the ninth. Yoenis Cespedes scored the winning run and started the rally with a solid line drive single to center, his fourth hit of the game. He also hit a two-run homer off Freddy Garcia in the series opener and so far has gone 6-for-8 during these two games.
Cespedes has been molten hot since coming out of the All-Star break, going 17-for-29 (.586) with two doubles and three homers in the seven games. He’s been terrorizing everyone lately, not just New York. I do want to make a point about how the Yankees have been pitching to him these last two days, however. With some help from Texas Leaguers, here’s a look at the location of the pitches he’s swung at during this series (all plots are from the catcher’s perspective)…
That’s an awful lot of pitches — I unofficially count eight — right out over the plate and down the middle. You don’t need to know much about baseball to understand why he’s mashed against the Yankees when you see where these pitches have been. Furthermore, here are the pitches he didn’t offer at and instead took for a called strike (or ball)…
More pitches in the happy zone, he just didn’t bother to swing at these. Cespedes has seen 31 pitches in his nine plate appearances against the Yankees and approximately a dozen of them have been over the heart of the plate, at the middle of the zone and below. If you’re unconvinced this is a problem, check out his run value heat map courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps…
You can read the nuts and bolts of what this graphic means right here, but in English the heat map shows that compared to the league average batter, Cespedes does most of his damage on pitches … wait for it … over the heart of the plate and at the middle of the zone and below. The darker the green (or red), the more damage he does on pitches in that location. Up-and-away is another happy zone. Combine this hitter with the pitches he’s been getting and well, you get a guy who’s gone 6-for-8 in the first two games of a four-game set.
Now I don’t think the Yankees have been intentionally pitching Cespedes over the plate like this; both Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova were pretty shaky with their command these last two nights. Eppley lives down in the zone with his sidearm sinker and he just caught too much of the plate. These guys just have to do a better — much better, really — job of pitching the A’s slugger on the edges of the zone or even outside of it. Cespedes has swung at exactly one-third of the pitches he’s seen outside of the zone this year, the 43rd highest rate among the 203 hitters with 240 plate appearances. He’s a bit of a hacker and will expand the zone, but so far the Yankees haven’t given him anything to chase this series.
The problem now is just the team’s pitching staff and timing. Phil Hughes is pitching tonight and he’s a fastball-curveball guy, not someone who can run a slider away from a righty. Maybe that new 11-to-5 curveball can do the trick. CC Sabathia is starting tomorrow and he’ll have to rely on changeups away to Cespedes. Hiroki Kuroda is probably best equipped to deal with a guy like this, but he’s not scheduled to start this series. Garcia and Nova can bust out sliders to right-handers but they didn’t do a very good job of it in the first two games. Even if the Yankees can’t get Cespedes to chase those breaking balls off the plate, they have to get the ball out of the middle of the zone. They’ve given him entirely too many good pitches to hit.
Hello readers, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception. It is truly an honor and a privilege to write for such a passionate, dedicated group of fans, on a blog that I have been reading since its inception (not to mention reading Mike, Ben, and Joe prior to that). It’s also fantastic to be reunited with my former partners-in-crime Moshe, Larry, Matt, and (briefly) Stephen. I look forward to getting to share my thoughts on my beloved Yankees, and will likely write on a wide variety of topics. My goal while writing here is not only to produce quality content, but also to interact with the RAB commentariat, so feel free to leave comments on this or any other piece I write here. I can’t promise I will get to reply to every one (other commenters can likely answer certain questions better than I could), but I will try to get to as many as I can. Also, feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@Eric_J_S) where I talk baseball, and a variety of other topics. And away we go…
Yesterday I wrote about the Yankees and their increasingly impatient offense, showing that they haven’t been working the count this season like we’ve seen in the past. It’s unlikely that seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance is the root cause of the team’s recent offensive woes, but I do think it’s a contributing factor. Not getting in favorable counts and swinging at the pitches pitchers want you to swing at will drag down anyone’s numbers.
Plate discipline isn’t just swinging at strikes and laying off balls though, it’s also about swinging at quality strikes. Not every strike is one you can drive. Here’s a PitchFX breakdown of the team’s plate discipline tendencies — swing and contact rates on pitches both in and out of the strike zone — over the last four seasons…
Notice the in-zone stats I’ve highlighted in yellow. Starting with 2009, the Yankees have swung at more pitches in the strike zone each season but have made less contact. We’re talking about a three percentage point difference in each category over a four-year span so it’s not a huge change, but it is a change for the worse. The Yankees have become more aggressive within the strike zone in recent years but have less to show for it. Simply put, their swing-and-miss rate within the zone is climbing.
As a whole, pitchers around the league have not changed their overall approach against the Yankees since 2009…
Other than the expected year-to-year fluctuations, the Yankees have seen the same percentage of fastballs and offspeed pitches over the last few years. They’ve also seen the exact same number of first pitch strikes, so it’s not like they’re falling behind in the count more often. Pitchers may be pitching them differently in different counts and in specific situations (men on base, etc.), but that’s beyond my PitchFX capabilities at the moment. That would help explain the in-zone plate discipline issues, however.
The Yankees are anything but an offensive powerhouse these days and there are many reasons why. Missing more hittable pitches in the strike zone could be one of those reasons, though the little bit of data above hardly confirms that. The team is trending in the wrong direction when it comes to making contact on pitches in the strike zone, and some of those misses very likely came on pitches they should have hit hard somewhere.