The best pitches in the Yankees rotation

(Sabathia by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty; Pineda by Leon Halip/Getty)

Inspired by the excellent Red Sox blog Over the Monster, today I’m going to take a look at which Yankees starting pitchers throws the “best” pitch among each pitch category. As there are a variety of factors involved in determining a given pitch’s overall effectiveness, “best” in this instance is going to be subjective. In the interest of simplicity, I’m ranking the hurlers by their respective Whiff rates, as the ability to generate a swing-and-miss is probably the most transparent indication of pure stuff.

All of the data in the tables you’ll see below is from the 2011 season, and should be mostly self-explanatory. I’ll be the first to admit that a one-year sample is less-than-ideal, but I tried to run a three-year search and TexasLeaguers.com didn’t take to that request too kindly. The columns headed by “w” and “w/100” are the pitch type’s linear weights (representing the total runs that a pitcher has saved using that pitch) and linear weights per 100 pitches (the amount of runs that pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown), which provide some level of insight into a pitch’s relative level of effectiveness but should not be analyzed in isolation, as they are subject to the whims of both sequencing and BABIP.

Four-Seam Fastball

And right off the bat we have a prime example of the problems one can encounter with pitch type linear weights. If you sorted this table by wFF, Phil Hughes would come out on top. How on earth is that possible, you are likely asking yourself. I’m not entirely sure myself, as I don’t think anyone that saw Hughes pitch last year thought much of his fastball. However, he did get some people out, and presumably the vast majority of those outs came via his four-seamer, because, as you’ll see later on in this post, everything else he threw last season was pretty awful, at least by pitch type linear weights. Lending further credence to this notion is the fact that Hughes yielded a .282 BABIP on ground balls on his heater, compared to a .360 BABIP on ground balls on the curve, .444 on the cutter and .556 on his changeup.

As far as Whiff% goes, it should be quite heartening to see that the Yankees’ two newest rotation acquisitions outperformed everyone else in the rotation by a rather substantial margin. While both will likely see a decrease in their Whiff rates with the move to the AL East, at least they’re starting from a high baseline.

Slider

We know Ivan Nova threw a slider more than 3.9% of the time last season and so this table is a bit misleading. However, the pitch did become one of the keys to his improved second-half performance, and so there may be a case to be made for Nova having one of the better sliders on the team. Of course, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia might have something to say about that. In any event, the Yankees’ front four in the rotation all boast pretty big-time sliders; bad news for opposing lineups.

Sinker/Two-Seam Fastball

While Pineda probably threw some two-seamers last season, I’d surmise that some of his four-seamers may have been misclassified, as a 10.6% Whiff% rate on a two-seamer/sinker is pretty damn high when you consider league average is 5.0%-5.4%. Not to mention the fact that the player with the best wFT/100 in MLB last season (Doug Fister), had a 5.4% Whiff% on his two-seamer. Sabathia probably has the best sinker on the team, although Kuroda is in that conversation as well if he can get his GB% back above 45%.

Changeup

It should surprise no one that Sweaty Freddy had the best changeup on the team given his slow-slower-slowest approach, although Sabathia’s is also pretty great. No one else in the rotation has a particularly effective one, although Burnett’s did generate a slightly above-average Whiff% last year. Surprisingly, despite a rather diverse arsenal, Hiroki Kuroda is the only starter on the team that doesn’t throw a change at all. However,  in his case he presumably partially makes up for it with his splitter, which can function like a hard change.

Curveball

No surprises here; Burnett’s curve is the only thing keeping him away from the glue factory, but as everyone knows you can’t get very far with one working pitch. Nova’s curve is probably best described as a work-in-progress; while there were times in the second half that Phil Hughes looked like he was employing a harder (and more effective) curve and other times where his curve looked terrible. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about Hughes needing to improve his curveball to become an effective Major League starter.

Cutter


Still not sure how Hughes’ cutter went from well above-average (11% Whiff% in 2009; 11.5% Whiff% in 2010) to nonexistent last season. No one on the team really employs the cutter with any regularity.

Split-Fingered Fastball

The splitter is a fun pitch that Yankee fans don’t get to see too often, and this coming season we may have two members of the rotation featuring one (albeit in very different forms). Prior to Freddy Garcia, the last Yankee starter I can think of off the top of my head that threw one is Roger Clemens (Ed. Note: Jose Contreras threw a forkball, which is kinda like a splitter but slower). Per linear weights, neither Freddy nor Kuroda fared all that well with their splitters last season, but they still generated plenty of whiffs with the pitch.

So who boasts the best pitch in the Yankee rotation? Probably either Sabathia, with his heater or slider, or Pineda and his heater. I certainly wouldn’t argue against any of those three.

Yanks’ slugger proposes bunting to beat the shift

By all accounts, Mark Teixeira had a disappointing 2011 for the Yankees. After a stellar 2009 when he hit .292/.383/.565, Teixeira had a down year in 2010 with a .256/.365/.481 line. His slugging rebounded slightly to .494 last year but he hit .248 with a .341 OBP. At age 31, in his offensive peak, Teixeira shouldn’t see his numbers declining so drastically.

To make matters worse, Teixeira exhibited some drastic splits. Against right-handed pitchers as a left-handed batter, Teixeira hit .224/.325/.453 in 464 plate appearances, and it seemed as though he had been programmed for pop-ups. In an effort seemingly to blast home runs over the short right field wall, Teixeira got under too many pitches. Watching him hit left-handed grew painful.

Over the course of the season, Yankee fans grew frustrated with Teixeira. Why would he keep batting lefty? Why wouldn’t he do something to change his approach? Why wouldn’t he — gasp — bunt against the shift?

Now, I can’t stand this idea. Mark Teixeira was brought in to hit home runs and play a solid first base. He wasn’t brought in to bunt, and the Yanks shouldn’t be messing with his swing after a disappointing season. Still, Teixeira is seemingly open to the idea. Pete Caldera was at the Thurman Munson Awards Dinner on Tuesday night when the Yanks’ $180 million man started talking.

“I’ve been so against it my entire career, [but] I might lay down some bunts. If I can lay down a few bunts, beat the shift a little more the other way, then I’m right where I need to be,” he said. “Maybe I’ll lay down 20 bunts in spring and see what happens. If I’m 1-for-20, maybe I’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

On the one hand, I like the idea of beating the shift now and then. On the other hand, the idea of Mark Teixeira bunting fills me with sheer unavoidable dread. In theory, it seems like a decent enough idea, but this is a baseball player who admitted he hadn’t bunted since high school, 14 years ago.

Teixeira had a .239 BABIP last year. That could indicate that he was largely unlucky or that could indicate that he was simply hitting too many ground balls or pop ups. He still blasted 39 home runs, and that’s why the Yanks have him. In January, it might be fun to suggest bunting. In April, he should be up there swinging away, in search of a more productive season. The bunting can stay at home.

Open Thread: 2000 ALCS Game Four

In the comments of last night’s open thread, a few people got to talking about Game Four of the 2000 ALCS, Roger Clemens’ shining moment in pinstripes. The Yankees were up two games to one in the series (for some reason I always think they were down two games to one), and … well … you know what happened next. If you don’t, watch the video. Andy Pettitte‘s masterpiece in Game Five of the 1996 World Series is still the gold standard for me as far as great playoff performances, but Rocket’s performance against the Mariners is right up there.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. All five hockey and basketball locals are in action, so there’s plenty of ways to occupy yourself tonight. Talk about whatever you like, anything goes.

Yanks hire former Cubs GM Jim Hendry, announce various promotions

The Yankees have hired former Cubs GM Jim Hendry as a special assignment scout, the team announced. Bruce Levine says he got a multi-year contract. Hendry ran the Cubs from 2002 through the middle of last summer before being fired, and he’s the second former GM the Yankees have hired in recent years. Former Padres GM and current Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers served as a special advisor to Brian Cashman in 2010.

Towers is known for his ability to evaluate pitchers, but I honestly don’t know much about Hendry. At least two people with more access than I (Kevin Goldstein & Mike Ferrin) have applauded the move, so there’s that. I do know that Hendry was fired in late-July this past season, but stayed on another month to help the team sign its draft picks. That speaks to his character, if nothing else. Hendry is well-respected within the game and has done it all during his career, spending time as a college coach (at Creighton), a minor league coach, farm director, scouting director, assistant GM, and of course GM. I’m all in favor of adding voices to the front office, so I approve.

The Yankees also announced a series of promotions. Long-time assistant trainer Steve Donohue has been promoted to head trainer, replacing the now-retired Gene Monahan. Minor league head trainer Mark Littlefield will now be his assistant. Assistant GM Jean Afterman was given the title of senior vice president as well. Bill Eppler was promoted to assistant GM, with his former assistant Will Kuntz taking over as pro scouting director. The Eppler promotion is significant; he was the runner-up to Jerry Dipoto for the Angels GM job earlier this winter, and for the first time in a long time, there is an obvious in-house successor to Cashman.

Chris Dickerson’s Possible Role

The search for a DH is essentially in wait-and-see mode at the moment, meaning the Yankees are waiting to see who drops their prices before getting serious about a move. I still think it’ll be Johnny Damon, but you’re welcome to disagree. If it’s not Damon (or anyone else) and the Yankees wind up going into Spring Training or even the regular season without a set DH, then Chris Dickerson’s chances of making the roster are pretty good. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

Dickerson, 30 in April, is actually Eric Dickerson’s cousin for all you NFL fans out there. He fell short of qualifying as a Super Two by a matter of days this offseason, and that might have saved his 40-man roster spot. Had he qualified as a Super Two and been arbitration-eligible, there’s a chance the Yankees would have non-tendered him rather than increase his salary by 200% or so. Anyway, he’s still on the team and is actually a useful player, albeit a limited one.

First, let’s talk about what Dickerson does well, starting with his athleticism and everything that comes with it. He has a reputation of being a strong defender in all three outfield spots, though he doesn’t have enough big league time for the advanced metrics to tell us anything meaningful. You’ll have to take my word for it.. Dickerson also has some speed and has been a highly efficient base-runner at the upper levels, swiping 24 bags in 30 tries in the majors (80%) and 75 bags in 92 tries at Triple-A over the years (81.6%). Defense and base-running are classic fourth outfielder traits, though Dickerson can hit a little, especially against right-handers.

More than 80% of his career plate appearances in the show have come against righties (490 of 582), and he’s tagged them for a .270/.355/.415 batting line, which works out to a .341 wOBA. Most of his power is into the gaps (21 doubles and seven triples) rather than over the fence (nine homers), and his 11.2% walk rate is very good. In 846 Triple-A plate appearances against righties, he’s hit .286/.387/.443 with 13.9% walks. That’s over 1,300 plate appearances at the two highest levels of baseball with better than average production against pitchers of the opposite hand. Against left-handers though, it’s a different story.

Dickerson hasn’t hit southpaws at all in the bigs (.292 wOBA in 92 plate appearances), and his 247 Triple-A plate appearances against lefties have resulted in a .246/.345/.339 batting line. The OBP looks solid enough, but it’s also inflated a bit by eight hit-by-pitches, six or which came more than three years ago. He’s a platoon player, and that’s fine since he’s on the dominant side of the platoon (unlike Justin Maxwell). Dickerson does strike out quite a bit, even against righties (26.3% in the bigs, 27.2% in Triple-A), though that can be partially explained by his walk rate. When you work deep counts, you’re going to strike out, it’s inevitable. That said, a whiff rate that high is a knock against him.

Aside from striking out a bit too much and not being able to hit lefties, Dickerson’s biggest drawback doesn’t even have anything to do with him as a player. He’s out of minor league options, meaning he can’t be sent back to Triple-A without first clearing waivers. Given his defense, base-running, and ability to not embarrass himself against righties, he’s also most certain to be claimed. An NL club (the Mets!) will gobble him right up for a bench spot. Being out of options alone shouldn’t be a reason to give him a spot on the 25-man roster, but it could serve as a tiebreaker if not one stands out from the crowd.

The Yankees do have two position player roster spots to fill at the moment: a DH and one on the bench (Eric Chavez‘s spot). If they end up carrying Dickerson on the roster to open the season, I assume he would take the DH spot and the Yankees would bring in another backup infielder/utility type (like Bill Hall). That doesn’t mean he has to DH though, and frankly it would be a waste of his defense. They could use him in right field against righties and let Nick Swisher DH those days, or they could let Swisher play first to give Mark Teixeira a day at DH. Point is, he’d give them more flexibility than a traditional DH-type like Damon, Raul Ibanez, or whoever else is out there to be had.

Dickerson has what amounts to one full big league season under his belt, though his 582 plate appearances are spread across four years. He did spend all of 2009 with the Reds as a platoon bat/fourth outfielder before an ankle injury effectively ended his season in late-August, but otherwise it’s been a bunch of up-and-down stuff. He could be a Quad-A hitter than will get exposed with regular at-bats, but his defense and speed figure to keep him valuable in some capacity, even if it’s not in New York. The Yankees have to figure out what they’re going to do with Dickerson one way or the other, and it’s not out of this world insane to think he might end up on the roster come Opening Day.

What remains on the Yankees’ shopping list?

The answer to the headline question might seem obvious. For the past few weeks we’ve discussed the Yankees’ new situation, which mainly involves filling one starting role. Jesus Montero‘s departure and Jorge Posada‘s retirement left vacant the regular DH role for 2012. Yet it’s not that simple. While we’ve seen the Yankees enter the past five seasons, at least, with a regular presence at DH, that likely won’t be the case this year. They already have the makings of a part-time DH on the roster.

Andruw Jones represents the first component of the 2012 DH spot. While he’s typically seen as a platoon partner with Brett Gardner and, to a lesser extent, Curtis Granderson, that probably won’t be his only role this season. During the Winter Meetings, Joel Sherman reported that Jones sought a larger role. “The friend also revealed that following offseason knee surgery that Jones has said if he comes back to the Yankees, he is coming in the kind of shape with the idea of winning a corner outfield job, not just accepting a back-up position.” Additionally, ESPN NY’s Wally Matthews talked to a source who said that Jones “took less money to return to the Yankees.” That could mean he’s expecting an expanded role.

While Jones worked out well last season, he played less frequently than he had in the previous two seasons. With Texas in 2009 he came to the plate 331 times, and with Chicago in 2010 it was 328 PA. Last season he was limited to 222 PA. He could instantly pick up more PA by DHing when Gardner starts in LF against a left-handed pitcher. He might also pick up some at-bats at DH against righties. He didn’t hit them particularly well last year, batting .172/.303/.406 against them in 76 PA, but he did flash good power (.234 ISO, just .020 lower than his ISO against LHP), and he maintained a solid 14.5 percent walk rate. In the last three seasons, Jones has produced average numbers against right-handed pitching (101 wRC+). It won’t give him a full-time job, but he could pick up some at-bats vs. righties as the DH.

Alex Rodriguez could also pick up at-bats from the DH spot in 2012. While he’s still penciled in as the starting third baseman, it’s difficult to see him playing there every day all season long. He hasn’t reached the 140-game mark since 2007, and played in just 99 last season. While he could return to form following a platelet-spinning procedure, it’s not something the Yankees can count on. Additionally, the Yankees want to play Eduardo Nunez more often this season, so subbing him for Rodriguez, while the latter fills the DH role, remains a possibility.

It is conceivable, then, that Rodriguez and Jones play up to 60 games combined at DH. That leaves around 100 games for others, though there will certainly be days when Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and even Robinson Cano take a half-day off. These accommodations render the DH a part-time position. Additionally, since both Rodriguez and Jones could fill the spot against right-handed pitchers, and since the DH spot will be open when Jones plays the outfield in place of Gardner against left-handed pitchers, a strict platoon isn’t necessarily the answer.

The Yankees can approach this situation in one of two ways. The most likely route is filling their remaining bench spots with veterans who can handle a part-time role. They might need some versatility, especially if one of the two players doesn’t play a position (ahem, Raul Ibanez). This might be one reason the Yankees are pursuing Bill Hall; he can handle both the infield and the outfield, and is also best suited for reps against left-handed pitching. Ibanez, on the other hand, can take the remaining reps at DH against right-handed pitching. A combination such as this could fit the Yankees needs well.

The other option is to fill the empty spots with young or flawed players. We’ve heard Jorge Vazquez’s name bandied, and there’s a chance he could take those reps at DH against LHP when Jones is in the outfield. There’s also Justin Maxwell for a similar role, though he has the added benefit of playing the field as well. Chris Dickerson, as Mike will discuss in more detail later, could be another fit, playing right field against some right-handed pitchers while Nick Swisher occupies the DH spot. Alternatively, the Yankees could swing a trade for a more versatile player who can provide a role similar to Maxwell or Dickerson (or Hall or Ibanez).

Immediately following the Jesus Montero trade, it appeared the Yankees were in the market for a full-time DH in his stead. But given the way their roster breaks down, they need something less than that. If they were so inclined, they could have half a season’s worth of DH at-bats already on the roster. Given the slow-moving market, they are right in taking their time in finding the right players to fill those last two roster spots. They can go in a number of directions, with each one having its plusses and minuses.

Waiting For Montero

Oh, sorry. Did you think I was talking about someone else? (Greg Fiume/Getty)

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Yankees’ long-term catching situation, which now revolves around Russell Martin and Austin Romine following the trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners. Martin can become a free agent after the season, though Romine may not be ready to step on a full-time basis in 2013. At least not for a contending team anyway. Catchers always take a little longer to adjust to big league life, it’s a tough transition.

Those two aren’t the only potential long-term solutions behind the plate, however. I don’t think many of us seriously consider Frankie Cervelli an everyday guy, and the duo of J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez are still years away from serious consideration. There is always the free agent market though, and while we all know how stocked the free agent pitching pool will be next offseason, a gem of a catcher may also be available: Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks.

No relation to Jesus despite also being Venezuelan (or maybe they are related and we just don’t know it), Miguel turned 28 in July and produced a .282/.351/.469 batting line (.351 wOBA) with 18 homers in 553 plate appearances last year. A knee injury that required surgery kept him on the shelf for more than two months in 2010 (.333 wOBA in 331 plate appearances), but in 2009 he hit .294/.355/.478 (.357 wOBA) with 16 homers in 470 plate appearances. That looks an awful lot like his 2011 showing. Over the last three seasons, his .348 wOBA is sixth among all catchers (min. 1,000 plate appearances).

Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, though all indications are that Montero is a solid gloveman. He threw out a whopping 32 of 80 attempted base stealers last season (40.0%), a ridiculously good number that sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of his career (62-for-241, 25.7%). I would expect that to come down next year even if he has improved his throwing since 40.0% is pretty close to unsustainable. Mike Fast’s work on catcher framing says Montero saved the seventh most runs (33) with his pitch framing ability over the last five seasons, and Matt Klaassan’s catcher defense rankings say he saved the second most runs (7.8) in 2011 in terms of stolen bases, passed balls, wild pitches, etc. I don’t feel comfortable putting a number on a catcher’s defensive value, but all the evidence suggests that he’s not a butcher back there.

As a left-handed hitting catcher with patience, power, and some amount of defensive value, Montero is poised for a serious payday next winter if he stays healthy in 2012 and performs as he’s capable. Other than the knee injury (suffered running to first base) and the various dings and dents associated with catching, he’s been durable throughout his career, and that only heightens his value. Above average everyday catchers just do not hit free agency in the prime of their career, with only Martin and Ramon Hernandez able to make that claim over the last five or six years. Catchers have a high attrition rate, and whenever a team does get a hold of good young one, they have a tendency to lock them up long before free agency becomes an issue

An extension is obviously very possible for Montero and the Diamondbacks, though they agreed to terms on a contract for next season minutes before a scheduled arbitration hearing this morning. He filed for $6.8M and the team countered with $5.4M. That’s a relatively small gap, and you can make the argument that the two sides don’t really agree about his value if it took this long to split the difference. The D’Backs are contenders and figure to remain that way for the foreseeable future — plus they have no catching coming up through the farm system at all — so it would behoove them to figure out a multi-year contract with Montero at some point in the next nine months or so. If they don’t, the Yankees are in a position to pounce.

The timing works out perfectly as far as they’re concerned. Martin will be a free agent after the season, and while Romine could develop into the catcher of the future, he’s unlikely to turn into the player Montero is right now. The Yankees are all about winning now, and Montero fits their mold as a patient, left-handed bat with power. If Arizona winds up extending himm, then no big deal. The Yankees can stick with Martin for a few more years if they want, or go in another direction to help ease Romine into the bigs. If Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova establish themselves as above average starters next year, there will be less urgency to pursue a Cole Hamels-type after the season, freeing up some cash for a catching upgrade.

I have no idea what kind of contract Montero would require on the open market, but I have to think it would be significant. Something in the four years, $40-52M range seems not insane. A fifth guaranteed year might be what it takes to put someone over the top. Like I said, above average catchers don’t hit the open market often, so we don’t have many recent comparables. The Yankees have the money — especially if their young arms step up this coming season — and will presumably have a need, so it’s tough not to look ahead a bit. He’s not the Montero we’d all hoped to see behind the plate for the next few years, but Miguel is a worthy heir to the Montero throne.