Al, what makes CC so good?

Photo by alexabboud on Flickr/ licensed through Creative Commons.

For Thursday’s Red Sox game, Michael Kay, Al Leiter, and Paul O’Neill were in the booth and Kay asked Leiter the title question. One of the things I love about the ever-changing Yankees booth is that you get a  lot of different opinions and views on the game from the various ex-players that cycle through. I’m sure you all have your opinions on the best booth (I think Cone-Singleton wins it. Was Leiter there too?) but I love all the ex-player stories, and I love even more listening to how retired players view current ones. We get on certain announcers basing their opinions on players on intangibles, weak stats, and clutchness, but Leiter managed to avoid basically all of these things as he explained why Sabathia is such a great pitcher. He was insightful, comprehensive, and interesting. I want to see if he’s right. I’ll blockquote his words words here:

Yeah, you start with stuff…I think his ability to pound the zone, get ahead. He is somewhat unpredictable. He’s got the ability to have control on both side of the plate He’s aggressive. Delivery-wise, he stays closed….He’s a big man. He has good trajectory or downward plane, has an idea.

And now, for fact checking:

Sabathia pounds the zone: True. For his career, Sabathia has thrown 52.3% of all his pitches inside the zone, and 64% for strikes. In 2011, he’s right on the money with 65% strike percentage and 46.6% being in the zone. This also includes a career 60.4% first-pitch strike and a 59% in 2011.

Sabathia gets ahead in the count: Partially true. For his career, 3085 hitters have taken hacks when they’re behind to CC, and they’ve batted a worse-than-Jorge .190/.197/.276. Only 3027 hitters have hit when they’re ahead, and their .275/.441/.441 is decent at best. But the majority of hits and outs have been made with an even  count. 3116 have done it, and they’ve hit .278/.283/.417. The first pitch strike lends to being ahead, though it doesn’t always work out that way.

He is unpredictable: True. Sabathia throws a fastball, a slider and a changeup. While the slider is usually his out pitch, everything looks the same coming out of his hand, and for his career he throws the same percentage of sliders and changeups (15.9%). Should you be looking for a changeup that averages around 85 MPH or a 80 MPH slider in the dirt? Good luck figuring that one out. You’ll need it.

He controls both sides of the plate. True. While Sabathia prefers to throw the fastball away to righties, he has absolutely no problem throwing it inside or throwing it for a strike. He also can throw it high or low for strikes, too. Here’s a heat map of Sabathia’s fastball vs righties in 2010 to prove it, with a more yellow area meaning more pitches were thrown to that area:

He’s aggressive: True. Aggressiveness is really a combination of a number of the other stats above. Sabathia throws strikes. A lot of strikes. He isn’t afraid to blow a pitch over the plate (just look at all that yellow in the middle!) and overwhelm a hitter. He usually doesn’t throw around batters, either.

Delivery-wise, he stays closed: Plausible. Without a stat to back this one up, we’re finally left to depend in our eyeballs. That Leiter started with the numbers things and moved slowly into observational notes was very cool to me. From what I know about studying a pitcher’s delivery (absolutely nothing), Sabathia’s always had a relatively simple delivery. He keeps it close to his chest. His release points stay the same. It’s not complex, it’s not violent, just a big man throwing a baseball.

He’s a big man: True. No comment.

He has good trajectory or downward plane: True.  Considering the fact that CC is 6’7, I’d say he’s throwing down off the mound, yeah. Plus, his release is nice and high.

Has an idea: Plausible. What does this mean? I think it might have something to do with  that Sabathia knows what pitches he’s going to throw. He has a plan about how each at-bat is going to go, or at least, knows how to change his approach based on the game, the hitter, and so forth. He’s reached that point in his career where he knows what’s good and what’s bad.

Like your baseball players, you don’t choose your announcers. Unfortunately, when your announcers are really bad, you can’t bench them or DFA them or anything. You’re stuck with them. Now, Kay isn’t the greatest announcer the world has ever known, but having Cone, Leiter, Singleton and Flaherty rotating up with him makes him a lot more bearable. And when the guy in the booth actually knows what they’re talking about, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m willing to bet Al Leiter knows just a little about what makes a good pitcher, and he totally nailed it here. Hooray for him.

Bartolo Colon leaves game with strained left hamstring

Update (3:26pm): It’s a strained left hamstring, his landing leg. That’s bad, Bartolo’s probably headed to the disabled list even if it’s just a minor strain.

Original Post (3:02pm): Bartolo Colon left this afternoon’s game with an apparent leg injury after covering first base in the seventh inning. David Robertson replaced him on the mound. Out of shape pitchers and wet grass don’t mix well. Stay tuned for updates.

Game 62: Back for more

Fake Obama digs it.

The Yankees needed last night’s game to remind everyone that they’re still one of the best teams in baseball, capable of laying beatdowns on any team at any time, regardless of how awful they looked a few days ago. The bullpen needs work, the offense is still inconsistent, the starting pitching can still be hit or miss, but you know what? Show me a team without similar problems and I’ll show you my two bridges for sale. Here’s the lineup that will hopefully continue the onslaught against Indians’ pitching…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixiera, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Brett Gardner, LF
Frankie Cervelli, C

Bartolo Colon, SP

The weather isn’t great, but it looks like there will be enough of a window to get this game in (eventually). First pitch is scheduled for 1:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Injury News: Eric Chavez has started some light hitting drills, but he has not started to run yet. That’s kinda important … There’s a chance Rafael Soriano will begin throwing this week, but nothing is set in stone. Obviously, they need him.

The switch-hitter’s split

As the offense sputtered against Boston last week the calls for the Yankees to add another bat to the lineup got louder. Carlos Beltran is the current cause celebre among some fans. The hope in picking up someone like Beltran is that he’ll fill in the spots in the lineup where the offense has been dragging, especially in the corner outfield and designated hitter slots, and give the team another solid offensive bat. As a long-time Beltran fan, it would certainly be exciting to see the Yankees add him. However the team may be getting a Beltran-esque level of production going forward from one of their own hitters, Nick Swisher. Swisher has had a rather ugly start of to the year. For the first two months of the season he hit .213/.335/.314, a mouth-vomit-inducing line of mediocrity. Those first two months are gone now. They’re lost. He can’t go back and recover those days of 0-fer and cause those groundballs to squeak through and line drives to fall in, and his end-of-year stat line is going to bear the imprint of his slow start no matter how well he hits for the remainder of the year. But what’s done is done, and the question is what we should expect from him going forward. If he’ll simply go back to hitting as he has in the past, specifically as a left-handed hitter, then the team will benefit and the need for offensive reinforcement will be lessened a bit.

When understanding why Swisher has done so poorly this year so far, and he now stands at .216/.343/.345 with a .311 wOBA and 5 home runs, it’s important to focus in on his platoon split. He’s always fared better from the right side of the plate than from the left side of the plate. In almost 1200 plate appearances batting righty against left-handed pitchers he has hit .264 with a .400 on-base percentage with a .441 slugging percentage, a superb record of plate discipline and a decent mark of power. When hitting from the left side the results are a bit worse. Swisher has hit .245 with a .338 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage. It’s a bit more power, yes, but it’s a far worse mark in on-base skill.

There’s value in treating Swisher the right-handed batter and Swisher the left-handed batter as two discrete and separate hitters. Swisher from the left and Swisher from the right have their own separate power, on-base, power and BIP data. We don’t usually like to treat them separately, and this is mostly because of impatience. By June we’re ready to treat the data we have as reliable and trustworthy. After all, we’ve been watching for two months, and we’d like to think that we know, thank you very much, what Swisher’s deal is. It’s his approach, it’s his “at-bats”, it’s just not working. Sure, it’s all of those things, even if saying his at-bats have been bad is kind of another way of saying he’s not getting hits. But in order to avoid falling down a rabbit hole of tautological and self-referential logic, of confirmation and recency bias, we have independent evaluative methods, measures that don’t depend on our mood or emotion or our own two eyes, as keen as the latter might be.

Here’s the main issue: Swisher has hit right-handed at a healthy rate, as always. From the right side, he’s hit hit .327/.412/.491 from the right side in 68 plate appearances. He’s hit two home runs, and his batting average on balls in play is .356. He’s been the man as a righty. As bad as Swisher’s overall numbers look right now, if he hadn’t been killing the ball as a righty his season would look even worse. The culprit is his line from the left side of the plate, where he currently resembles the love child of Alcides Escobar and Yuniesky Betancourt. It’s been horrific. In 166 plate appearances he’s hitting .175/.313/.292. His batting average on balls in play is .210, well below any mark considered reasonable for a major league hitter unless there’s some reason to believe that Swisher’s skillset has deteriorated to the point where he’s no longer a major league caliber hitter. If that’s the case, it’s probably time for him to abandon switch-hitting entirely.

Considering he’s in the midst of his physical prime, this doesn’t seem like the smartest course of action. This is especially true because all his peripheral split stats as a left-handed hitter are exactly where we’d hope they’d be. His career walk rate is 11.8%, and this year it is 16.4%. His strikeout rate this year is 25.2% versus a career mark of 27.5%. He’s hitting line drives around 2% more often than he has historically. His ground ball and fly ball rates are nearly identical to his career marks. He has a career 15.8% home run to fly ball ratio, but this year it’s only 6.4%, a likely candidate for regression. Smart money is on Swisher bouncing back from the left side and seeing better results in average and power.

The fact is that we don’t really learn a whole lot from 68 plate appearances from the right side of the plate and 166 plate appearances from the left side of the plate. Virtually anything can happen in a small sample size, and that’s not hyperbole. So it doesn’t matter if we’re in June, a small sample is a small sample. We can find value in examining this sample, then, when we contextualize it properly in the hitter’s historical profile. Swisher hasn’t been the best from the left side throughout his career, but he’s been far better than a .600 OPS hitter. It boils down to a simple question. Do we believe in the 2788 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter throughout Swisher’s career, or the 166 plate appearances as a lefty in 2011? Do we trust the advanced split data, cool our jets and wait this thing out, or just assume that Swisher’s ability as a left-handed hitter has completely abandoned itself and argue that he should bat strictly from the right-side? My preference is to stick with the larger sample size and give Swisher some more runway.

They say that time heals all wounds. In baseball, the time needed to heal all wounds is generally a weekend sweep. Should the Yankees hammer the Indians all weekend the calls to trade Swisher for Beltran, an actual proposal I saw, to DO SOMETHING, will likely subside some as the frustration of losing dissipates and confidence returns. Yet this doesn’t mean the decision-makers on this team should stand pat their attempt to make this club better, any more than they should panic after a losing streak. And so even while there is optimism for and upside in Nick Swisher there will still be some opportunities to improve and turn this team into a real juggernaut. I’ll get to one of those opportunities tomorrow morning.

Yankees pound Tribe, get back to winning

I think we all needed this. It’s been a brutal few days in Yankeeland, and a simple win wasn’t going to suffice. An 11-7 depantsing of the Indians that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates certainly helped ease the pain.

Hip hip.

Fausto Carmo-nope-a

The Yankees needed to come out of the gate strong following the ass-whoopin’ they took from the Red Sox, and Fausto Carmona was happy to oblige. The first four batters he faced failed to make contact … and three reached base. Derek Jeter walked on four pitches ahead of a Curtis Granderson strikeout, then Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez drew walks to load the bases. Fifteen of Carmona’s first 20 pitches were balls. Fifteen!

Thankfully, Robinson Cano did not swing at the first pitch*, instead fouling off four pitches before singling in a run. Nick Swisher drove in the second run with a sac fly, and Jorge Posada plated another with a single. By the time Brett Gardner grounded out to end the inning, the Yankees were up by three and Carmona had thrown 40 pitches. They were patient, letting the Indians’ starter work himself into trouble before jumping all over hittable pitches that essentially had to be over the plate. Those are the kind of innings we’re expecting from this team, and they never looked back.

Pretty much the only thing this bullpen's good for.

Fight!

Things got a little testy in the second inning. Granderson whacked a solo homer with two outs (his 19th) to make it four-zip Yankees, then Carmona hit Teixeira with the very next pitch. It was high-ish, hit Tex in the back/shoulder and only because he ducked away. I think it would have been a high rib or shoulder shot if he didn’t move. Anyway, Tex got up, starting yelling at Fausto to “throw the ball over the plate,” and then the bench cleared. And so did the bullpens. And then the managers got in each other’s faces. It was pretty awesome. No punches were thrown, but it was still pretty cool. The plunking was clearly intentional, no doubt about it.

Tex’s Revenge

The Yankees scored runs in the first, second, third, fourth, and sixth innings, then had the bases loaded with one out in the seventh. Carmona was long gone at this point, but Teixeira still got some revenge by clearing the bases with a three run double into the right-center field gap. That gave the Yankees a 10-2 lead, and believe it or not, that was Tex’s first double in 33 days.

Oh, And How About Ivan Nova?

This was a pretty big start for Nova, whose rotation spot is very much in doubt these days. The offense staked him to a big early lead and he did exactly what he needed to do, throw strikes and not dick around, which is why he retired a dozen of the first 14 men on faced. The Tribe pushed across a run in the fifth on some walks, a single, and a ground out, and Nova ultimately allowed a pair of runs in seven innings of work. He struck out six, a season high. The Indians aren’t exactly a powerhouse offense, but lesser offenses were smacking Ivan around in his previous starts. Good job by him.

Death By Bullpen

Joe Girardi used four relievers to get the final six outs really because he had too, not because he wanted to. Kevin Whelan walked four of the six men he faced in his big league debut (more on that later), Amaury Sanit allowed four singles to the six men he faced, Lance Pendleton walked the one man he faced, and then Mariano Rivera cleaned up the mess by recording two outs in the ninth. Nine of the 13 men that the law firm of Whelan, Sanit & Pendleton faced reached base, which is pretty awful when they’ve got a nine run lead. Rivera shouldn’t have to pitch in a game like this, but he hadn’t pitched since Sunday in Anaheim. It’s not the end of the world, but it would have been nice to have given him another day off. Oh well.

That A-Bomb went a looong way.

Leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that Whelan was overthrowing, just about everything was up and out of the zone. It was a less than ideal debut, but sometimes these things happen. Mike Dunn walked a million guys in his debut and now he’s one of the best relievers in the NL. Give the kid more time, it’s not like the alternatives are all that great anyway. He did show a very nice split though, it’s just a matter of throwing strikes with the fastball for Whelan.

Speaking of the alternative, I’m not sure Sanit is even a Triple-A caliber pitcher. It was surprising when they called him up in the first place, and he hasn’t done anything to justify the team’s faith in him. There’s no reason to carry eight relievers when he’s going to be number eight. Get another position player up here, stat.

A-Rod hit one of the longest homeruns in Yankee Stadium history in the fourth inning, a solo shot into the left field bleachers just to the side of the restaurant. It would have hit the windows if it was another foot or two towards dead center. T’was an absolute bomb.

Jeter singled doubled, his 2,991st career hit. He’s got six games left in the homestand to get nine hits. Granderson had two hits and a walk, Tex a hit and two walks, A-Rod two hits and a walk, Cano three hits and a walk, Posada three hits, Gardner two hits, and Frankie Cervelli one hit. The only guy without a hit was Swisher, who had two walks. It as a total team effort on offense, and they even stole five bases (two by Gardner, one each for Jeter, Grandy, and Tex).

Jorge’s three hits raised his season average to .215, which is still terrible but at least he’s off the interstate. Since that ugly little incident when he pulled himself out of the lineup, he’s hitting .326/.421/.429 in 57 plate appearances. That’s … not bad at all. Posada also has ten hits in his last 17 at-bats over the last four games.

WPA Graph & Box Score

What’s the WPA of the brawl? I demand answers! MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs has the rest.

Up Next

Quick turn around, as these two clubs will play game two of this four game set at 1pm ET on Saturday. Bartolo Colon takes on Mitch Talbot and the rest of his former team.

* Seriously, I would have gone up to the Bronx and … let Robbie know I was very very disappointed.

Marshall kills worms in losing effort

Jairo Heredia was ranked as the 13th hottest prospect in the minors in this week’s Prospect Hot Sheet, which is pretty cool. Josh Schmidt was promoted to Triple-A Scranton to replace the promoted Kevin Whelan, and apparently the Yankees have signed Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier. He’s a second baseman, and here’s all I could find on him in my limited search time.

Triple-A Scranton (6-3 loss to Charlotte)
Austin Krum, LF, Ramiro Pena, SS, Jesus Montero, C, & Jorge Vazquez, 1B: all 0 for 4 – JoVa struck out thrice, Montero and Krum once each … this was Montero’s first game back after missing four with that eye infection … Krum threw a runner out at the dish
Brandon Laird, 3B & Dan Brewer, DH: both 0 for 3 – Laird walked, struck out, and scored a run … Brewer struck out a pair
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 3, 1 R
Kevin Russo, 2B & Jordan Parraz, RF: both 2 for 3 – Russo drove in a run, scored another, and struck out … Parraz doubled, got caught stealing, drove in a pair, and threw a runner out at third
Buddy Carlyle, RHP: 3.2 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 6-1 GB/FB – 37 of 59 pitches were strikes (62.7%)
George Kontos, RHP: 2.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 0-2 GB/FB – 22 of 37 pitches were strikes (59.5%) … 36-13 K/BB in 33 IP
Randy Flores, LHP: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 12 of 17 pitches were strikes (70.8%)
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 3-0 GB/FB – 14 of 17 pitches were strikes (82.3%)

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