Yanks offense can overcome the pitching problems

One of the few pleasant memories of April 2007. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Every time we post about a position player, there is one inevitable response. Commenter Yanks the Frank provided it in the Michael Young thread. “Can he pitch?” The Yankees’ pitching problems have taken center stage this winter, highlighted by the retread pitchers they’ve invited to camp. There will be opportunities to acquire another pitcher or two as the season progresses, but until then they have to find a way to stay close to the Rays and the Sox. As has been the case in years past, the offense provides the key.

If we look back to 2007 we can see a Yankees team that faced massive pitching problems early in the season. They had brought back Andy Pettitte that winter, but as a whole the staff appeared weak at worst, fragile at best. Carl Pavano actually started Opening Day that year, because Andy Petitte’s back had disrupted his spring training schedule. Pavano, Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Jeff Karstens, and Kei Igawa composed the rotation to open the season, while Chien-Ming Wang sat on the DL with a hamstring problem. That cast of characters, plus a shaky bullpen, led to a 5.02 ERA and 5.34 FIP. The former was the fourth worst in the majors, the latter the second worst. The starters, as expected, took the brunt of the beating, to the tune of a 5.94 ERA, third worst in the majors.

A high-powered offense as the Yankees can overcome such pitching ineptitude. But in April 2007 they failed to overpower opposing pitching staffs. Their .339 wOBA ranked seventh in the majors, but it was also their worst month of the year. Numbers are typically down across the board in April, but as the Yankees showed throughout the year, their offense was far better than seventh in the league — the team’s .362 season wOBA ranked first in the majors by a decent margin. If they had produced the best offense numbers in April maybe they would have scored more than 131 runs and won more than nine games. Instead, it was Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter producing numbers. No other Yankee had a wOBA over .330 in April 2007.

Offensive struggles continued in May, too. In fact, the team scored fewer runs per game in May than they did in April. That month the team .344 wOBA ranked fifth, but again it was a small handful of players producing, while others, such as Bobby Abreu, batting in the three spot, fell off. The pitching had actually improved, but with the offense stalling again, the Yanks couldn’t get much going. And so they stumbled again, finishing 13-15 on the month and owning a cumulative 21-29 record on the season. It was only then that the offense really kicked in.

Once the offense started producing everything started to come together. Adding Roger Clemens and, eventually, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy to the staff helped further solidify run prevention unit. But even as the team’s pitching improved after April — the team ERA went to 4.28 in May and 4.05 in June — the team didn’t really start rattling off the wins until everyone in the offense started hitting to his ability. This could be a familiar situation for the Yankees in 2011.

While 2007 stands out as a team that stood out offensively and faced pitching challenges, 2008 is perhaps a better example. The team again struggled out of the gate, and again it was mostly related to the offense. The staff was bad, a 4.56 ERA in April, seventh worst in the majors, but the offense couldn’t get anything done. Their April wOBA was .322, which was middle of the pack. The team, despite injuries and down years, finished with a .338 wOBA, seventh in the majors. Had they produced the 7th best wOBA in April, maybe they would have overcome the poor pitching. But they didn’t, and everything went downhill from there.

This year the Yankees’ staff could produce Aprils as bad as 2007 and 2008. It’s the reality they face with the current construction of the pitching staff. But the results need not be similar. If the Yankees can open the season in a similar manner to last year — .362 wOBA in April, best in the majors — they can overcome the back end of the pitching staff and keep pace with division foes. That should buy them time until they can improve on the staff. The situation might appear bleak, and it’s tough to ignore the pitching issues. But the Yankees have an offense that temporarily overcome poor pitching. If they can perform at a level they couldn’t in 2007 and 2008, they should be able to weather the storm until more pitching becomes available.

The World Series Hangover Effect

Mark Buehrle knows what I'm talking about. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The World Series hangover effect is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in terms of public awareness given all the innings limits and pitch count stuff going on these days. I’m sure it’s been around a while, but it hasn’t gotten much publicity until recently. And no, I’m not talking about players celebrating too much during the offseason or anything like that, I mean pitchers seeing their performance suffer the year after a World Series appearance because of the increased workload.

Both Tim Kurkjian and Tracy Ringolsby recently penned articles focusing on the Giants and how their pitching staff will try to rebound after such a long and stressful season, each citing examples of pitchers who’ve seen their production decline the year after a World Series berth. They used things like wins and losses and ERA to prove their points, but we have better tools. So what I did was compile innings pitched, FIP, and fWAR data for every pitcher to start a World Series game in the Wild Card era, a sample consisting of 78 different pitchers and 111 individual pitching seasons. I looked at the two years leading up the World Series berth plus the two years after for comparison.

I should mention that I stopped at 2008; I didn’t include the 2009 and 2010 pitchers because it hasn’t been two years since their World Series appearances. The FIP and WAR are weighted averages based on innings pitched, and the innings is just a straight average. There’s a drop-off but not a huge one when you go from the World Series season to the following year or two, less than one-tenth of a run in terms of FIP and about four-tenths of a win. Nine innings is a lot, but not a complete red flag. Against, it’s certainly a drop-off, but not an extreme one.

However, as I was compiling the data, I noticed something: the same pitchers were in the World Series pretty much every year in the late-90’s. Blame that on the Yankees dynasty and the Braves thrice making it to the Fall Classic. As you know, those rosters featured some all-time greats like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, etc.  Those guys were remarkable for their consistency from year-to-year, rarely seeing a significant change in production whether they pitched in the World Series or not.

So yeah, those guys were skewing the data, or last it appeared that they could be, so I went ahead and eliminated them from the sample. I instead looked at pitchers who started a World Series game from 2002 through 2008, eliminating all the Yankee repeats, the Braves guys, as well as the two freaks of nature Arizona featured in 2001 (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling). None of those guys are normal pitchers, not in any way, so we shouldn’t lump them in with everyone else. Here’s what I get for the mere mortals…

Now we’re talking. Two-tenths of a run in FIP and almost a full win is a considerable drop-off, as is the 24 inning (!!!) decrease. The declines were evident in both veteran pitchers and young guys as well. Mark Buehrle went from a 3.42 FIP and 6.3 fWAR in 2005 to 5.27 and 1.9 in 2006, respectively. Mike Mussina went from a 3.09 FIP and 6.4 fWAR in 2003 to 3.95 and 3.3 in 2004, respectively. He experienced a similar drop from 2001 to 2002 as well. Young guys like Jeff Francis and Jeremy Bonderman went from career years and a World Series appearance to the disabled list and eventually the surgeon’s table within a year or two. The examples go on and on.

There are certainly exceptions, of course. Some pitchers never feel the consequences of the high workload and continue to pitch well, others actually got better the next year. These guys aren’t all created equal, but as a whole they experienced a decline from a World Series year to the next. Also keep in mind that it’s not just the increased workload that effects the pitcher, it’s the smaller recovery time. Reaching the World Series extends your season by a full month, which means their offseason is that much shorter.

One thing I found interesting was how performance peaked during the World Series year. You need a lot of things to go right to win a World Championship, especially on the pitching side, and this supports that theory. Sometimes a Jeff Weaver or a Jeff Suppan or a Josh Fogg or a Brandon Backe has to turn into an ace for a few weeks to make these things happen. And then they quite often turn back into Weaver or Suppan or Fogg or Backe the next year. It’s not as simple as compiling the best staff on paper and running them out there, performance isn’t guaranteed.

Joe already looked A.J. Burnett‘s workload in recent years and how that may have effected him in 2010, and the 2009 World Series appearance certainly factors into that equation. Pettitte had been through the whole World Series thing a bunch of times before and he showed no ill effects last year. Joba Chamberlain went from starter to reliever while Phil Hughes did the opposite, so it’s tough to get a read on if/how the long ’09 season effected them. CC Sabathia is a freak, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. He’s big, strong, fat, and absurdly durable, and even if the World Series dragged him down last year, it was hardly noticeable.

Obviously this doesn’t really tie into the 2011 Yankees at all, other than Hughes’ considerable increase in innings (which would have been true even if they missed the playoffs), but I’ve been meaning to look into this for a while and figured it was about time to do. It shows you why the Yankees were eager to acquire Javy Vazquez last winter (protect against injury), and why it’s so damn hard to repeat these days.

500 words on Michael Young

Nobody puts Michael Young in the corner. At least, that’s what the soon-to-be former Texas Ranger is saying.

In an explosive interview with Ken Rosenthal that hit FoxSports.com around an hour ago, the longest tenured Ranger said he believes a break up is all but inevitable, and he’s ready to burn his bridges in the process. Earlier this winter, the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre to a six-year, $96-million contract, thus unseating Young. The Texas braintrust seemingly agreed to hand Young their starting DH spot, but with Mike Napoli on board, Young saw his playing time disappear.

“To suggest that there was just a couple of weeks off and I had a change of heart in terms of what position I wanted to play is inaccurate,” Young said. “I’ll be the first to admit that I was not particularly keen on the idea of being a DH. But I did agree to do it. I wanted to put the team first. I wanted to be a Ranger. But in light of events that happened in the process, I got pushed into a corner one too many times. I couldn’t take it any more.”

Young, according to MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan, has a list of eight acceptable trade destinations. Although Colorado appears to be the leading landing spot, the Yankees are on the list. So should they augment their collection of 2003 All Stars with one who made the team every year from 2004-2009?

In a vacuum, Young would make sense for the Yanks. Despite the team’s fiscal edge, GM Brian Cashman has struggled to build a viable bench over the past few years. As the club gears up for Spring Training, Ronnie Belliard and the always-injured Eric Chavez will have a chance to win a roster spot. Young is a clear upgrade over anyone else in camp. Furthermore, the Yanks have the financial ability to take on some of Young’s contract. That he is owed $48 million over the next three years is an impediment but not an impossibility.

On the field, it’s tough to tell what sort of season Young will deliver. After hitting .284/.330/.444 with 21 home runs last year, Young may be starting a decline. PECOTA pegs him at .283/.336/.419 for 2011. His defense, meanwhile, has gone from bad to worse, and he’s a well below average defender at any infield position. He wouldn’t be a late-inning defensive replacement, and his ceiling is probably as an average bat off the bench who could spell Alex Rodriguez or Robinson Cano in case of emergency. With that contract, who needs it?

Furthermore, Young obviously wants to go somewhere else due to playing time. He seems to want his 600 at-bats as a DH or infielder, and the Yanks are all stocked up there. Furthermore, the Rangers and Yankees, not exactly on the best of terms these days, would likely have a tough time matching up in trade talks if either party is willing to return the other’s calls.

Until Young is dealt, the Yanks will hover around the periphery of this ensuing drama. I don’t expect a match, though, and I don’t think we want that match to be made either.

Open Thread: Notes from early camp

This is last year's picture and haircut. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Spring Training doesn’t officially start for a few days, but of course some guys are already down in Tampa working out and whatnot. Phil Hughes and Derek Jeter were among those at the complex today, unsurprising since they both live in the area. Erik Boland and Brian Costello were there and brought a tiny shred of news…

  • Hughes was the first one in this morning and threw a bullpen session in front of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. He later said that not throwing his changeup in the first half hurt him in the second half, because the pitch “wasn’t there when I needed it.” That’s easily the biggest item on the agenda for Phil this year, use that changeup more to help neutralize left-handed batters. The whole pitch efficiency thing, throwing fewer pitches per batter, will follow.
  • The Cap’n was there was well, and he just took some batting practice. He worked with Kevin Long earlier this offseason, so hopefully whatever they did helps him find those 45 lost points of OBP. Jeter then shot down questions about a potential position change and being angry over his contract negotiations, as you’d expect.

Nothing exciting but hey, it’s baseball. I’m sure you’d rather read that than be reminded that today is the seventh anniversary of the Donovan Osborne signing. Anyway, here’s the open thread for the night. The Rangers are the only local team in action, and they’ve lost four in a row, so yeah. Anything goes, have at it.

NoMaas interviews John Manuel

NoMaas posted an interview with Baseball America’s John Manuel today, the man who’s been compiling the Yankees’ top 30 prospects list for the last I dunno, five, six, seven years or so. It’s been a while, he knows the system fairly well and spills the beans about Jesus Montero‘s ability to catch, some reasoning behind the Cito Culver pick, the non-Killer B pitching prospects, Rafael DePaula, plus a ton more. So yeah, go check it out.

Also, just as a heads up, I plan on posting my top 30 prospects list this Friday. Forgot to mention it in the chat last week.

Cool Pic Du Jour: ’74 Shea Stadium Seating Plan

(click for larger)

As you probably know, the Yankees played in Shea Stadium during the 1974 and 1975 seasons while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. Field level seats ran just four bucks, and although I wasn’t alive back then, that still strikes me as pretty cheap. Anyway, thanks to Craig Robinson of Flip Flop Fly Ballin’ to sharing.

What’s sustainable and what’s not from Curtis Granderson

(Jim Mone/AP)

We can all find the date on his Baseball Reference game log. On August 10 Curtis Granderson, then hitting .240/.307/.417, started working with hitting instructor Kevin Long in order to improve on what had been a disappointing season. Granderson didn’t start either game in Texas, though he made appearances in both. When he returned to the starting lineup on August 13 in Kansas City, he appeared to be a more confident hitter.

For the rest of the season Granderson hit .261/.356/.564 in 192 PA, which improved his season stats to .247/.324/.468. That was just about in line with his 2009 numbers, with a little added power. The Yanks hoped they were getting something closer to the .280/.365/.494 Granderson of 2008. In 2011 they’ll again hope he can show signs of improvement. There are some indicators that might be the case. Let’s take a look at a few improvements Granderson made, and whether they’re sustainable.

Walk rate. Before his work with Long, Granderson drew 29 walks in 335 PA, or 8.7 percent. This harkened back to his breakout 2007 season, except without the batting average and power. It made for a pretty miserable OBP.

After the work with Long, Granderson walked 24 times in 192 PA, or 12.5 percent. This is more like his previous two years, in which he walked more than 10 percent of the time. I’m not sure if he can sustain that exact rate, but it is noteworthy that none of these walks was intentional. He earned them fair and square. It was enough to bring his season average up to 10 percent, which is right in line with 2009, but a bit below 2008.

We have seen a few projection systems try to peg down Granderson, but few of them see him getting much above that 10 percent marker: Both PECOTA and Marcel have him at 9.9 percent. Yet I can certainly envision him finishing with a walk rate between 11 and 12 percent. If he’s hitting ahead of, say, Russell Martin, pitchers might be a bit more careful with him. This is one of his improvements I think he can sustain.

Power. One of Granderson’s saving graces in the first part of the season was his power. In those 335 PA he hit 10 homers, 11 doubles, and six triples, which amounted to a .417 SLG (.177 ISO). While that’s good for a center fielder, it’s not quite up to the standard Granderson had set in the previous three years, when his lowest ISO was .204. And so he and Long went to work.

In the season’s final month and a half Granderson hit 14 homers, or one every 13.7 PA. That was good for a .564 SLG and .303 ISO. Clearly he’s not going to sustain that over a full 600 PA. Only one hitter crossed the .300 ISO barrier in 2010, and that was the home run champ, Jose Bautista. Only one other player came within 10 points of it. Granderson will not slug .550 on the season in 2011.

Still, the improvement does give me confidence that he can return to a SLG around .500. It will depend on his batting average, for sure, but he’s displayed some pretty impressive power in the past. I’d probably peg him at a .220 to .230 ISO, which is around where he landed last year. Spread over an entire season that will be immensely valuable, especially for a center fielder.

Fact: Only four center fielders finished with a better ISO than Granderson in 2010. Two of them, Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez, primarily played the corner positions. One of the others, Colby Rasmus, finished one measly point ahead. Make no mistake: Granderson can rake.

Batting average. This has kind of been Granderson’s boon in the past two seasons. In 2007 he hit .302 and in 2008 he hit .280, but those were on the backs of some pretty high BABIP numbers. When his BABIP dropped in 2009 and 2010, so did his average. Yet he did recover a bit after his work with Long.

Before August 9 Granderson had a .240 BA on a .284 BABIP. After the work he had a .261 BA on a .264 BABIP. Obviously the change in approach had something to do with the fluctuating numbers. He walked more and hit more homers, hence fewer balls in play. But I still wonder if he has room to improve that BABIP. If so, he could see a slight increase in his average.

For a quick look, here’s how some of the popular projection engines see Granderson’s 2011.

Bill James: .264/.341/.471
Marcel: .253/.329/.448
PECOTA: .257/.333/.460

The current projection engines don’t make much of Granderson’s in-season improvement. Nor should they. They’re not there to filter out the nuance of how a season progresses. They’re taking the long view. And in the long view, there’s not much that suggests an improvement from Granderson. But our exacting view just might hold merit. After all, he did change something, and he did notice improved results after that.

Given what we know about Granderson and what we saw from him in August and September, here’s my admittedly biased projection for his 2011 season:

.275/.365/.490

Is that really so bold?