Sabathia’s minor changeup problem

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The season is still young, very young in fact, especially for starting pitchers who’ve made two, maybe three starts. CC Sabathia is one of the guys that has made three starts, and if there’s been one thing giving him trouble so far, it’s right-handed batters. Eight of 15 right-handed batters he faced last night reached base (three walks, five hits), and on the season, 18 of the 52 righties he’s faced have reached base, a .346 OBP. That’s noteworthy only because he held RHB to .295 OBP last year and .305 in 2009.

Sabathia relies on his changeup to combat batters of the opposite hand just like every other pitcher in the history of the universe. I don’t think many of us realized how good that pitch was for him until we starting seeing him pitch every five days, but there’s no denying it’s a quality offering. In fact, it’s been the third best changeup in baseball since the start of the 2009 season at 31.2 runs above average, trailing only Felix Hernandez (+35.3) and Tim Lincecum (+53.9, yikes). For whatever reason, the pitch hasn’t been cooperating with CC so far this season. To the heat maps!

(what the frack is a heat map?)

As you can see, the vast majority of Sabathia’s changeups were down-and-away from right-handers but in the strike zone last year. The handful of changeups he’s thrown this year are still down-and-away, but now they’re down below the zone and not strikes. That’s good to a certain extent because at least he’s not hanging them, but the entire point of a changeup is to get batters out in front thinking the pitch is a fastball. If it’s not a strike, they won’t swing no matter what kind of pitch is coming at them. At least good batters won’t, anyway.

Fortunately we have no reason to believe this is anything more than the normal randomness a pitcher will experience throughout the season. Pitches are like swings, they come and go every so often and are prone to slumps. Changeups are feel pitches according to the zillions of baseball announcers I’ve listened too over the years, and it’s tough to get a good feel for the ball when it’s been like, 40-degrees out as it has been early in the season. Right-handers won’t continue to get on base 34+% of the time against the Yankees’ ace, especially not once he gets back to commanding his changeup the way he has in the past.

The RAB Radio Show: April 11, 2011

It was another wild Yanks-Sox weekend that, unfortunately, found the Yanks on the wrong end of a 2-1 series loss. Mike and I look at the weekend that was, while peeking ahead to what could be a bumpy week ahead.

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The Problem Up Top

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

This isn’t about Josh Beckett. When a pitcher is throwing 94, 95, 96 with command to both sides of the plate and that curveball, no offense is going to muster anything off of him. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Yankees were two-hit (with a walk and a barely hit-by-pitch thrown in) last night. It’ll happen over the course of 162 games, just accept it and move on to the next game.

No, this about a problem the Yankees have had since the first game of the season: the guys at the top of the lineup aren’t getting on base. Yes, it’s only been nine games, but when the two worst hitters in the lineup are getting more plate appearances than everyone else, it’s not exactly the kind of problem they should sit around and wait for it to correct itself. Brett Gardner has a measly .265 OBP, and even that is propped up by his four on-base effort in Saturday’s game. In the other eight games of the season, he’s gotten on base less than 17% of the time. He’s also struck out nine times, five times looking. A guy that made contact on nearly 92% of his swings on pitches in the zone last year can’t be staring at strike three over the plate. They teach you that in little league; it’s okay to strike out, just do it swinging.

Derek Jeter, the number two hitter against righties and leadoff man against lefties, is another matter entirely. Four out of every five balls he’s put in play this year have been on the ground, and his spray chart is even more ominous…

(via Texas Leaguers)

There’s three balls hit moderately deep. Three out of 30 balls in play. That is a problem whether you think it’s just a small sample size slump or the death of Jeter’s career. He’s gotten on base 30% of the time in the early going, hardly top of the order production. At this point, Jeter’s spot in the batting order is determined by his iconic status and his reputation, not his ability to help the team score. It’s harsh, but that’s life yo.

Of course, it’s not just the Gardner and Jeter that are struggling. Mark Teixeira went 0-for-Boston and has gotten on base three times since last Tuesday (two walks and a hit-by-pitch against seven strikeouts in 18 plate appearances). Jorge Posada hasn’t gotten on base in any way since last Monday, striking out eight times in his 15 plate appearances since. Curtis Granderson has been basically homer-or-bust. Nick Swisher is the only non-Gardner/Jeter regular without a homer and has been on base just five times in his last 24 plate appearances. That’s a lot of slumping bats in the lineup at the same time.

The saving graces have been Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin on a micro level and the homers on a macro level. Some well-timed dingers have covered up for the lineup’s general ineptitude; two out of every three runs the team has scored this season has come on a homer. It’s great that they have the ability to do that, but it’s not a sustainable winning formula. The Yankees’ team .311 OBP is actually fifth worst in the league, and their .242 BABIP is second worst in all of baseball. The good news is that won’t last forever, there’s just too many talented players.

That’s something that’ll fix itself over the course of the season. In the here and now, the current arrangement with Gardner and Jeter coming to plate more often than everyone else is hurting the Yankees. It’s not my job to figure out the best solution, but you’d have to think getting Martin higher up (second?) would be one course of action. I don’t think Gardner will maintain a .238 BABIP all season, not with his speed, so at some point the hits will start dropping in. Jeter’s .233 mark probably is unsustainable as well, since ground balls go for hits more often than any other kind of ball in play other than line drives. Until those two wake up with the bat, they’re just hurting the team offensively by batting so high up.

Hughes working on mechanical changes

Via George King, Phil Hughes and Larry Rothschild recently looked at some video of the right-hander’s 2010 season, and believe they have identified a mechanical flaw that’s resulted in that missing velocity. “I couldn’t feel it, but I could see it,” said Hughes after working on incorporating his lower half more in the bullpen. “I was more aggressive driving toward the plate. Hopefully I will get better arm strength as well.” Yeah, hopefully.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have no plans to send Hughes for medical tests, which makes zero sense to me. They say that Hughes feels fine physically, but a) players lie, and b) it doesn’t have to hurt for there to be something wrong. You’d think they’d have him checked out just for their own peace of mind since he’s a rather important part of the team both this year and going forward. It seems like the they can’t get out of their own way when it comes to young pitchers sometimes.

Fan Confidence Poll: April 11th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-3 (27 RS, 28 RA)
Season Record: 5-4 (50 RS, 47 RA, 5-4 pythag. record), 1.0 game back
Opponents This Week: Monday OFF, vs. Orioles (three games, Tues. to Thurs.), vs. Rangers (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


In rare Fenway shutout, Yanks fall to Sox 4-0

On a chilly Sunday night with rain falling by the late innings, the Yanks’ bats fell silent at Fenway Park. For just the fourth time since Pedro Martinez arrived in Boston, the Yankees failed to score a run in Beantown as the Red Sox won the rubber match of the three-game set 4-0. While CC Sabathia, without his best stuff, held the Sox to just a run, Josh Beckett was absolutely masterful, and the Yanks will head back to the Bronx at 5-4 on the young season.

Kevin Youkilis scores a rather enthusiastic insurance run. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Beckett on the black

Yankee fans know what Josh Beckett can do. We remember the 2003 World Series, and those of us who could stomach it watched Beckett put on a pitching clinic during the 2007 playoffs as well. Every now and then, Beckett reminds baseball why his stuff once made him a guy with tremendous potential, and tonight was an every now and then.

With a fastball averaging over 93 miles per hour and touching 94 at times, Beckett pounded the edges of the strike zone as though he were threading a needle. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 27 batters he faced, and he issued just one free pass all game. The Yanks’ bat, struggling right now and particularly vulnerable with A-Rod on the bench, could do nothing about it. That’s just one of those days where you tip your cap to the opposing pitcher and move on to the next game.

For Beckett, this game places him in a unique position. Since 1998 when the Red Sox acquired Pedro, Beckett is the only Red Sox hurler to take part in two shutouts against the Yanks in Fenway Park. Brian Rose, Mark Guthrie and Jim Corsi did it on May 19, 1999; Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe struck out 15 combined en route to a 3-0 victory over Mike Mussina on May 30, 2001; and Josh Beckett, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard sent down the Yanks quietly on June 9, 2009. For what it’s worth, the Yanks reached the World Series in the three previous seasons in which they were shut out in Boston.

Key Moment: The wild pitch that wasn’t

The Yankees didn’t have many offensive chances tonight, and their third-inning rally that fell short proved to be a turning point. Eric Chavez singled with one out, and Russell Martin reached when a fastball grazed his jersey. During Brett Gardner‘s at-bat, a ball squirted behind Jason Varitek, but Chavez froze at second.

A few pitches later, Brett Gardner hit a grounder up the middle, and Dustin Pedroia, who had shaded up the middle, grabbed it, stepped on second and threw to first. Inning over; rally over. Had Chavez and Martin moved up on Varitek, not a strong defensive catcher, Gardner’s grounder either would have driven in a run or would have gone through as Pedroia would have been shading more toward the second base hole. The complexion of the game changed as Chavez stayed at second. It was a little moment but one with a large impact.

CC bears down

On the mound, CC Sabathia wasn’t sharp tonight. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 15 of the 30 batters he faced, and the Red Sox pounded grounders up the middle off of him all night. Yet, despite four walks and 14 base runners, he kept the Yanks in the game. He now has a 1.45 ERA on the season and is 0-1. That will begin to correct itself soon.

Random Notes
Joba Chamberlain, pitching on back-to-back days and for the third time in four days, wasn’t sharp. He came in to protect a 1-0 deficit and got pulled after the Sox plated a pair on a Marco Scuatro hit. In the 8th, Freddy Garcia made his Yankee debut and gave up a run on a David Ortiz double to deep center that would have been a home run three years ago. After the game, Joe Girardi spoke a bit about his late-inning bullpen usage. Had the Yanks’ relievers kept the game at 1-0, Rafael Soriano would have pitched the 8th. I wonder whether Soriano should have come in with a few runners on base and Joba in trouble. Soriano, a former closer, can be a fireman out of the pen, but in the early going, Girardi has deployed him in the 8th inning only and with a lead.

As Sweeny Murti noted, no Yankee starter had a 1-2-3 inning this weekend. The Red Sox’s slumping bats made this series look closer than it could have been, and it’s proof that, despite a 2-7 start, the Red Sox are far from out of it.

With A-Rod out of the lineup, only two starters ended the game with OBPs over .340. The Yankees are clearly struggling to get on base and have been able to mask that deficiency by hitting 18 home runs this season. Soon, the on-base percentage will climb, the homers will slow and the runs will come. It’s early yet.

WPA Graph and Box Score

ESPN has the box score while Fangraphs has the rest.

Up Next

The Yanks have Monday off as they travel back to the Bronx. The first-place Orioles come to down for a three-game set beginning Tuesday. A.J. Burnett will face Chris Tillman at 7:05 p.m., and you can get some (really cheap) seats on RAB Tickets.