The Return of Big Bad Bartolo?

And the pitch.... (Photo used under Creative Commons License, by Flikr user dbfoto)

Seemingly lost in the fact that the Yankees lost last night – whether that’s due to an anemic offense against one of the better pitchers in the game or bad bullpen management – was the fact that Bartolo Colon went out there pitched his sizable butt off. Sadly, Jered Weaver also pitched his butt off, and it seems like success is based on percentage of butt pitched off, rather than objective size of butt. If objective butt size was the case, Weaver probably would have lost pretty badly to Bartolo. Regardless of butt proportion, this is probably the best start we’ve seen out of Colon since he pulled his hamstring on June 11th vs. Cleveland.

The pitching line tells the beginning of the story quite clearly: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. It’s an extremely good start, with the only blemish being Derek Jeter’s error and the lone walk to Bobby Abreu. During a long roadtrip, getting length like that is invaluable. To get a little nerdier, this game gave Colon his second-best game score since his hamstring injury (67), though his best game score post-injury (68) was against the Mets, so it shouldn’t really count at all. Another thing that it seemed Colon had remastered was his efficiency: in his outing, only three batters had at bats where they saw six pitches or more (two of them being hits), and the most pitches any hitter saw against Colon was seven (Mark Trumbo, who flew out). On the other side, Colon was able to deliver at-bats with three pitches or less to 17 of the 28 batters he faced. This allowed a man who hasn’t thrown this many innings since 2008 to get through seven complete frames on only 99 pitches, touching 90 twice in his last inning of work.

One of Colon’s biggest keys for success has been his two-seam fastball and its sharp movement that he uses to gather up called strikes. His previous start in Toronto, he threw 42 two-seam fastballs, which was the only pitch that he had a negative linear weight on during that game (-1.38). Yesterday in Anaheim, he threw 50 of them for a linear weight of -1.08, which while it was slightly less impressive than his previous start, it has been and continues to be significantly better than all his other pitches. A few starts ago when he bombed against Oakland, he threw only a handful of two-seamers, in contrast to how he usually uses the pitch as his bread-and-butter. It seems that, between yesterday and his start in Toronto, whatever confidence he may or may not have had in the pitch has certainly been replenished.

An additional reason for Colon’s success has been the massive amounts of called strikes that he’s gotten. His 27% called strike percentage is easily the highest in the league – behind him is Carlos Marmol with 23% and Kyle Lohse at 22%. Over the season, batters have began to try to adjust to this by at least taking hacks at his pitches and hoping they get something out of it or fouling them off in a two-strike count. Last night Colon’s five strikeouts skewed in the looking direction, but not heavily: three called verses two looking. However, even though batters are trying to get a handle on the sides of the zone, Colon is still beating them, especially on the inside to lefties/outside to righties:

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Check that out. There’s 9 called strikes on that side of the plate, one hit, a few fouls and an out. On the other side, there’s three called strikes, mostly outs and a few foul balls as well. While Colon can still throw some considerable heat (especially considering his age, physical condition, and innings pitched), it’s location and precision that has made him into the successful pitcher he was last night.

While there are obviously concerns about Colon: innings, called strikes, his somewhat rotund form – these kinds of outings are the ones that settle those doubts in my mind. Regardless of the actual outcome of the game, there’s no denying that Colon put up a stellar start against an offense that, while not the most impressive, can certainly do some damage if they’re feeling up to it. It’s just bad luck on his part that he was matched up against Weaver, who dominated everyone except for one measly right-handed twenty-one year old. What’s that kid’s name? Oh, he’s probably not that important anyway. Either way, no matter what kind of opposition is planted in front of Bartolo Colon, it seems like when he’s getting his calls and his stuff is on, he can roll right on through them. With his pitches, I mean.

How 9/11 impacted baseball travel

Dan Barbarisi has a great article up in the Wall Street Journal today, looking at how baseball teams travel these days compared to the pre-9/11 days. Back then, they didn’t even go through security. They’d walk right from the bus to the plane without being screened, but now they go through the security process like everyone else, just in a slightly different way. They go through the security check at the stadium (going through the terminal would present a whole other set of problems), then ride screened buses with security right onto the tarmac. Give it a read, some pretty interesting stuff.

A catcher debate: Russell Martin vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Those of us in Connecticut know all to well about the “great divide.” That is to say, half our state (the foolish half) is comprised of ravenous Red Sox fans. The other half of the population is comprised of the Yankee faithful (well, technically we have small portion of Mets fans too, but they don’t really count, right?). We get bombarded day in and day out with Yanks/Sox themed bar nights, rivalry lottery ticket contests, and just about everything else in between – which is honestly to be expected as we are literally in-between the two cities.

Mostly, what I find myself getting though is debatable points sent my direction. For example, just the other day, my friend Gregg, argued that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is having a better season than Russell Martin.  My initial reaction was one of defiance as I instinctively rebuked the thought.  The more I contemplated it however, the less outrageous the assertion seemed.  So in the spirit of adding fuel to the fire, I decided to take a deeper look to see if the claim had any merit.

In terms of offense, I think both guys have their strengths. Both players have hit a respectable number of long balls – which is great considering their position. As to be expected, both have solid ISO marks (especially Salty, flashing some serious power at .224). Both have comparable batting averages, and wRC+ (runs per plate appearance — scaled where 100 is average, league/park adjusted and based off wOBA). And, of course, both have similar wOBAs. In terms of conventional stats, Jarrod has a significant advantage in slugging while Martin is about 20 points higher in on base percentage. One point that does work in Saltalamacchia’s favor though (at least for certain stats), is that he’s had almost 100 fewer plate appearances to work with.

What I found rather curious though was each player’s BABIP. Jarrod is sitting at a comfortable .315 on the season which is fairly close to his career norm of .326. Martin on the other hand is at .255 which is well below his career average of .296. This isn’t to say that Martin’s been victimized by astronomically poor lucky necessarily, but it does show that his batting average has taken a bit of a dive for reasons that may have been somewhat out of his control. I suspect some of those weakly hit infield shots could have been resultant of some of the nagging injuries Martin experienced earlier on in the season.

For what it’s worth, I think one could certainly make a case, though, that Martin’s been a substantially more disciplined batter. His walk rate is a good deal higher and K/9% is also substantially less. Moreover, when considering O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches swung at that are outside the strike zone), Jarrod has a 35.4% compared to Martin’s 23.8%. While perhaps neither guy qualifies as an offensively “elite” catcher (I mean honestly, it’s not like they’re a dime a dozen to begin with), both clearly have some pop and are capable with the bat. Neither is likely to bat fourth in the lineup, but neither is the black hole that is typically associated with the position by any means either.

"Don't test me foo!" (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

In terms of base running, I initially thought the hands down favorite was Martin. In terms of stolen bases, Martin has eight to Jarrod’s one. Martin has also had seasons in the past where he’s accumulated double digit steals (he actually had 21 in 2007 and 18 in 2008). As we all know though, stealing bases is only one part of dominating the base paths. Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR stat tries to account for this (it includes stolen bases, advancement from various types of hits, along with wild pitches) shows that once again, the catchers have a lot in common. Martin’s scores a -1.0 (for a point of reference, Jorge’s earned a -4.4 this year) while Salty’s rates as -1.1. Neither is Juan Pierre on the base baths (11.6) by any stretch of the imagination, but as far as catchers go, neither is terrible.

Defense always makes for a tricky conversation, and doubly so when it comes to catchers in my opinion. Territory behind the plate can vary greatly which makes gauging a catcher’s range more challenging. Particular pitchers (i.e. A.J. Burnett) can be harder to handle which makes things like passed balls and wild pitches harder to decipher. The catcher’s ability to inspire confidence within the pitcher from smart pitch selections is inherently difficult to quantify. Moreover, if a particular guy has a reputation for being especially capable of throwing out a base stealer, runners in general may not be as aggressive against him in terms of overall quantity of attempts. Those who do attempt to steal though may be premiere base stealers, which could then consequently skew the caught stealing percentage. And…end rant.

Anecdotally speaking, people often criticize Salty for not having the most accurate arm in the world — just think back his time with Texas when the pitcher’s mound was evidently floating all over the infield — while Martin is generally viewed as a defensively savvy backstop. At 3.0, Salty’s UZR score is noticeable “better” than Martin’s 0.5. Of course, by design, this stat loses much of it’s credibility in one year samplings as you all know. On the other hand, FRAA (Baseball Prospectus’ defensive metric measuring fielded runs above average) scores Martin a -0.4 while Salty garners a -2.4.  For what it’s worth, Hardball Times also made a fairly compelling case that Martin was one of the best catchers in terms of framing pitches while Saltalamacchia wasn’t really even in the discussion. Long story short, when it comes to defense in terms of this particular comparison, I guess it really depends on who you ask and whether or not you trust what your eyes tell you.

When we turn to our trusted pal, fWAR, Martin has the slight edge (although part of that score was certainly inflated by Martin’s super hot start along with more opportunities thus far in general). I think it’s fair to say that given the fact that both catchers were somewhat risky investments at season’s start, the return surely has been a rather pleasant surprise for both teams. Overall, I still prefer Martin personally, but I am willing to admit that there is less separating these two players (at least this season) than I initially expected.  Much to my chagrin, this also means that my friend, Gregg, may not be entirely crazy all of the time.

Give the man what he wants

In recent comments which I’ve been unable to locate, CC Sabathia mentioned a desire to win the division, which means home field advantage. Contrasting the 2009 campaign with the 2010 campaign, Sabathia mentioned a certain fondness for starting the postseason at home, noting that he felt more comfortable. There’s been plenty of research done demonstrating that home field advantage doesn’t yield a sizeable benefit for the team. There’s not a whole lot that can be said to dispute these facts, and you’re likely to have the opinion thrown at you in earnest over the coming weeks. It will likely get old.

At Baseball Prospectus recently, R.J. Anderson took a different approach. He noted that winning the Wild Card likely results in more games played at home for the Wild Card team in the League Championship Series and World Series. Anderson’s argument is particularly compelling, in that he doesn’t dispense with the logic of wanting home field advantage, he simply notes that you may have more of it by winning the Wild Card. And yet, there’s still a part of me that would like to set this aside and root for Sabathia to get what he wants.

There has to be something to be gained by listening to players. Sure, a lot of times they get things wrong. You wouldn’t to make personnel moves strictly on the basis of clubhouse opinion. But leaving aside the issue that home field advantage typically yields no sizeable benefit for the team, I wonder if there’s really anything all that bad about rooting for the players to get what they want anyway. If CC Sabathia likes to play with his kids, eat dinner in front of his surely gigantic TV, sleep in his own bed and drive in his own car to the Stadium for Game 1 of the ALDS, then I’d like for him to have that luxury. If he thinks it yields a psychological benefit, I can’t see telling him it doesn’t.

Most people operate under similar rigueurs of habit, even if they don’t admit it. Most people have very circumscribed patterns of behavior, rituals and routines that they hold to tightly every day. If something gets thrown off-kilter, they can get flustered and feel disorganized. My early morning routine and walk to my train is nearly identical every day of the week, and it’s likely that way for most people. It’s why experts recommend you lay out your clothes and have your pencils and water and snack ready the night before a big standardized test: you don’t want any unexpected variable messing with your head. You’ll need all the focus you can get and you don’t want to burn energy, mental or physical, on dumb stuff. Maybe it’s the same for the $161 million dollar ace.

This is dangerous territory, because the argument about home field advantage and hoping the team gets what it wants isn’t really that much different from believing a player who tells you he needs to change his gum every half inning to play better. At the end of the day, this is really about endorsing something that yields at best a psychological benefit to the players. You can even call it an endorsement of superstition. It can’t be quantified.

I’m comfortable with that. As long as it doesn’t come at the expense of known, quantifiable factors like resting key players sufficiently, then I’ll be rooting for the Yankees to get that home field advantage, and for CC to be able to eat Captain Crunch on his couch before Game 1 of the ALDS this year. Come on, you don’t think he really quit the Captain, do you?

Offense still MIA in walk-off loss to Angels

On the bright side, at least they didn’t lose in extra innings this time. To the bullet points…

  • The Yankees have scored exactly one run in their last 16 innings, and that was Jesus Montero‘s solo homer off Jered Weaver in the third, a bomb over both bullpens to left. I honestly can’t remember the last time they had two runners on base at the same time, the whole offense is just stagnant. Perhaps it’s fatigue, given how ridiculous the last few days have been. Better to be slumping now than in three weeks, I guess.
  • Know what the sad part is? Bartolo Colon was pretty damn good.  The only blemish on his line came when he had to get four outs in the fifth inning because Derek Jeter rushed a throw with the slow-footed Jeff Mathis plodding down the line. The error extended the inning and eventually led to the tying run. The defense has been pretty awful over the last few games as well, so is that another fatigue thing? Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, Colon struck out five and walked just one in seven innings, getting five strikeouts and eight grounders.
  • After another dominant eighth inning from David Robertson, Joe Girardi ran up the white flag in the ninth with Aaron Laffey (ground ball single) and Luis Ayala (line drove single, hit batter, walk-off sac fly). The bullpen was short yet again (how can a bullpen be short with 19 pitchers on the active roster?), but you know what? One earned run in nine innings is good enough to win. The blame goes to the offense in this one.
  • The Rays beat the Red Sox, so the lead in the division remains at 2.5 games while the lead in the wildcard shrunk to eight. Gotta hope Tampa sweeps that series, just so they close the gap on Boston and make them sweat a little down the stretch. The magic number to clinch a playoff spot stays stuck on 12. Anyway, here’s the box score, the FanGraphs stuff, and the standings.

Girardi said after the game that Nick Swisher had an MRI on his injured left elbow, but he didn’t have the results yet. I’m sure we’ll hear more tomorrow. These same two teams will give it a go on Saturday, when Dan Haren gets the ball against CC Sabathia. That’s another night game, starting at 9:05pm ET.

Game 143: Swishaliciousless

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After spending half of Thursday’s game flexing his left arm/hand, Nick Swisher is out of tonight’s lineup with a sore elbow and it could be a couple of days before he returns. He said his elbow has been bugging him for a while, but yesterday he felt a sharp pain after making a throw. He hopes to get it checked out by a doctor today. At this point of the season, there’s no reason for the Yankees to push it with anyone if they feel anything more than normal soreness; they should be focused on surviving the regular season and going into the postseason at full strength. Here’s the starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Andruw Jones, RF
Jesus Montero, DH – first start against a righty
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Bartolo Colon, SP

It’s a 10:05pm ET start, and the game can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Yanks sending Burawa, Whitley, and Claiborne to the Arizona Fall League

The Yankees announced (well, I guess the league announced) today that right-handed relievers Dan Burawa, Chase Whitley, and Preston Claiborne have been assigned to the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League. Corban Joseph, David Phelps, Rob Segedin, and Ronnie Mustelier were already set to go to the desert. All three righties had fine seasons in 201 and will look to build on that success in the fall.