Pitching problem? Don’t let the fielders off that easily

While the Yankees’ offense has gotten off to a roaring start, the starting pitching has yet to catch up. They’re allowing far too many hits to drop in, and then they’re allowing home runs on top of those hits. The result is an ERA, 5.72, that ranks third-worst in the majors. Their peripherals look a bit better, thanks to the third highest strikeout rate and a bottom-third walk rate, but they’re still getting plenty of runs dropped on them. Yet it might not be all their fault.

One pitching aspect that stands out is the starters’ BABIP. At .355 its not only worst in the league, but worst by more than 20 points. As I noted in this morning’s post on Freddy Garcia, the BABIP issue is not simply a matter of pure luck. There are other factors that play into this. While poor command is the likely culprit in Garcia’s high BABIP, that’s not necessarily true for the staff as a whole. In fact, part of that huge BABIP number isn’t the pitchers at all.

A quick look at Baseball Prospectus’s team defensive efficiency bears this out in a different way. The Yankees’ fielders in general fare worst in the majors in converting balls in play into outs. When BP adjusts for park effects and converts defensive efficiency into runs, the Yankees have allowed a half run more on defense than the next worst team. They are nearly 14 runs behind league-leading Toronto.

As you might imagine by this point, the infield plays a large role in in this defensive inadequacy. To wit, on ground balls Yankees pitchers have allowed a .309 BABIP against an AL average of .225. That’s not to say they’re any great shakes against fly balls. Against those they have a .196 BABIP vs. the league average of .136. The defensive woes stretch across the entire field. And it’s killing the pitching staff.

No, poor fielding isn’t the only culprit in these inflated BABIP numbers. As with Freddy, command in general is an issue. We saw CC Sabathia with little command of his fastball in his first two outings. Phil Hughes has left many hittable pitches right over the plate. Hiroki Kuroda struggled with his command in his last start against Minnesota. And there’s Garcia himself, of course. So some of the high BABIP is due to the pitchers leaving hittable pitches over the plate. After all, the bullpen BABIP is much lower, at .307, but that’s still well above league average.

(Other evidence for poor defense killing the Yankees includes a league-worst UZR and a fourth-worst DRS.)

The pitching staff has been rightly criticized through the season’s first month. The starters simply haven’t put it together yet. Unfortunately, their fielders are doing them no favors. Both the infielders and the outfielders are not converting balls in play into outs at an acceptable rate. Getting Brett Gardner back will help the outfield, but in the infield it’s tough to fathom a huge improvement. That could be something to watch as the staff regains its form. Can they overcome these fielding inadequacies?

NOTE: Say what you will about Nunez; I expect plenty of “infield defense will improve if they don’t play Nunez” comments. But the Yankees’ problem isn’t necessarily errors. In fact, according to UZR they’re actually in the positive in terms of errors. It’s in the range department that they’re getting killed.

An appreciation of Jeter’s return to MVP form

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Like I’m sure many of you, I thought Derek Jeter was getting dangerously close to being done last summer. He had not hit much since the start of 2010 and it was obvious watching him everyday that his hitting skills had deteriorated. Jeter was taking ugly swings at breaking balls, indicating that he was starting his bat early to catch up to the fastball. He wasn’t working the count like he had in the past; it just wasn’t the same guy. At his age, decline is normal. Boy was I wrong though.

Jeter has been, by far, the Yankees’ best player this season and one of their three or four best hitters since coming off the DL last Independence Day. He worked with Gary Denbo — currently a scout for the Yankees after spending years coaching in the minor league system and even one year of service as the big league hitting coach — to correct some mechanical flaws while away from the team. Denbo and Jeter go way back, and he was able to get the Cap’n to just stay back on the ball a bit better. Just wait a bit more before swinging. The adjustment brought that sweet inside-out swing back as well as Jeter’s historically great offensive production (relative to position).

Everyone loves to use the 3,000th hit game as a starting point for Jeter’s turn-around because it makes for a great story, but his resurgence started right when he came off the DL last summer. He had doubles in three straight games leading up the 3,000th hit game after hitting just nine doubles in his first 63 games of the season, and overall he’s hit .347/.394/.487 in 393 PA since coming off the DL. That isn’t too far off from his .334/.406/.465 effort in 2009, when he finished third in the MVP voting and was the team’s best player. The Jeter of old is back, it’s not just old Jeter.

Despite his struggles in 2010 and early-2011, Derek never did stop mashing left-handers. He tagged them for a .315/.396/.462 batting line in 318 PA during that time compared to just .246/.309/.311 in 714 PA against righties. The dominance of left-handers hasn’t stopped, so most of his improvement has come against same-side pitchers. Since coming off the DL, Jeter has hit .302/.358/.396 in 276 PA against righties. The power output hasn’t really been there, but that was never his forte anyway. With some help from Texas Leaguers, let’s compare Jeter’s spray charts against right-handers leading up to the DL stint and since the DL stint. Here’s Derek against righties in the year and half leading up to the calf problem…

Most of Jeter’s damage was done the other way with lots of dinky little ground balls hit to the left side of the infield. Depending on your definition of deep, there’s anywhere from 8-12 balls hit deep to left and center fields. That’s out of 548 balls in play against righties. Now let’s look at Jeter’s spray chart against right-handers since coming off the DL last June…

Again, depending on what you consider a ball hit deep to the outfield, there are something like 6-10 balls hit to deep left and center fields out of 254 balls in play. The exact number doesn’t matter, just the fact that Jeter has been driving the ball with authority to left side of the field more than he had before getting hurt. That’s because he’s waiting just a tiny bit longer before swinging thanks to Denbo. Compared to the previous chart where most hits went to shallow center and shallow right, the hits here look a little more uniformly distributed to all fields as well. Jeter always has been and will continue to be an opposite field hitter, but that doesn’t mean pulling the ball is a bad thing.

Anyway, Jeter’s biggest problem before going on the DL was his extreme ground ball rate. I’m talking 66.5% grounders against righties from the start of 2010 until he hit the shelf. It’s impossible to hit for any kind of power when you’re beating the ball into the ground like that. Derek still hits the ball on the ground a ton, he always has, but since coming off the DL he’s done a better job of getting the ball in the air and hitting it on a line…

Green is grounders, red is line drives, fly is fly balls.

Jeter’s ground ball rate was literally off the charts for a while. It was pretty bad. He calls last year’s DL trip a “blessing in disguise” and it absolutely was. Maybe it’s hyperbole, but the work he did with Denbo in Tampa while coming back from the calf problem probably saved his career, at least in terms of being a well above average offensive player. The Yankees have an MLB-best 132 wRC+ this year thanks in large part to their captain and leadoff hitter. Jeter has been setting the stage since last July and at age-37, he looks to be nowhere close to done.

Freddy’s men on base problem

Last year it felt as though Freddy Garcia possessed a remarkable ability to pitch his way out of a jam. When the going got tough, Freddy got going, amping up his arsenal and cutting down hitters when the situations mattered the most. It was through his performances with runners on base, with runners in scoring position, and in high-leverage situations that allowed him to keep his ERA shiny — and keep the Yanks out of trouble.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how Freddy fared in various situations.

K% BB% HR/9 BABIP
Bases Empty 13.7% 6.7% 1.04 .310
Men on Base 17.5% 6%* 0.92 .266
RISP 18%  7.2%* 0.64 .205
High Leverage 12.5% 4.2% 0.00 .100

*Unintentional walk rate

While the above data shows us why Garcia was able to maintain a 3.62 ERA against a 4.12 FIP and 4.36 xFIP, it also screams something to the SABR-influenced crowd: regression. Garcia’s performances when runs were at stake might have made his 2011 numbers look nice, but surely that’s not sustainable. Right? When we’re trying to project a pitcher’s numbers we should be looking for skills and not fluke performances. And so the Yankees’ decision to re-sign Garcia might appear a foolish one. How could they be so fooled by these fluky numbers?

Garcia’s situation presents one reason why you see less statistic-heavy work on RAB than you might have in the past. That is to say, there are many flaws in the SABR doctrine. A SABR-inclined analyst might come to the above conclusion, that Freddy got so incredibly lucky in specific situations last year that it simply could not last. Yet such analysis would be woefully incomplete without a reference point. Might it be that Garcia has excelled in these situations throughout his career? Turns out, that is exactly the case. Here are the same numbers, taken from Garcia’s 14-year career.

K% BB% HR/9 BABIP
Bases Empty 17.2% 6.4% 1.36 .290
Men on Base 16.1% 6.3%* 0.96 .284
RISP 17.6% 7.7%* 0.71 .265
High Leverage 19.6% 5.6% 0.94 .248

*Unintentional walk rate

Despite Garcia being a completely different pitcher today than he was in 2001, he still follows these trends. During the course of his entire career, comprising 8,861 batters faced, he has shown a knack for working out of jams. In fact, one of the only seasons in which he did not display these trends, 2010, was his first full season after undergoing labrum and rotator cuff surgeries. Once he familiarized himself with his new limitations, he went right back to his old trends. (That’s my narrative, and I’m sticking to it.)

This year Garcia is demonstrating similar, though not altogether the same, trends. He’s striking out more hitters with men on base than he is with the bases empty. He’s walking fewer. Both of his two home runs allowed have come with the bases empty. The killer, however, is BABIP. He’s allowed a .524 BABIP with men on base, and .471 with men in scoring position. He has a mere 47.2 percent strand rate. Absolutely nothing is going Freddy’s way this season.

While we should expect Freddy’s BABIP numbers to fall, it’s not because he’s merely getting unlucky. In his three starts Garcia has displayed a marked lack of command. It’s not as bad as his debut, in which he let loose five wild pitches. But his command is nowhere near the level it was last year. For Garcia, 35, that should be something he finds soon enough. And when he does, his performances will significantly improve. As long as nothing is wrong physically, it should just be a matter of patience.

Chances are Garcia has already pitched himself out of the rotation with these first three starts. Hell, he might have been out of a spot since the day Andy Pettitte announced his comeback. Until then, though, the Yankees can display some patience with Garcia. Unless something physical is hampering his command, he should be able to trot out there every five days and turn in quality performances, as he did in 2011.

Jeter, A-Rod, and Sabathia lead Yankees to win over Rangers

New Yorkers needed one Rangers team to win and another Rangers team to lose on Monday night. They got exactly what they wanted. The New York Rangers won Game Six of their first round playoff series to force a Game Seven while the Texas Rangers lost to the Yankees.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Carsten Charles In Charge

CC Sabathia won’t get a quality start for his performance against the Rangers, which has more to do with the flaws in the stat than his actual performance. Sabathia allowed a first inning run on two singles and a ground ball double play, but he then retired 14* of the next 17 batters he faced before Josh Hamilton hit a solo homer with two outs in the sixth. Texas scored a pair of runs when ground balls hugged the lines for doubles in the seventh, but CC rebounded by retiring the heart of the Rangers’ order on five pitches in the eighth.

* One of the three guys he didn’t retire during that stretch reached bases on a throwing error, so Sabathia did his part. The defense let him down on that one play.

During his first three starts of the season, it was obvious that fastball command was CC’s biggest issue. He was going to his changeup and slider whenever he needed a strike because those pitches were a-okay, but the fastball was all over the place. The fastball command came around in this start, as Sabathia threw his heater to both sides of the plate and up high to change eye lines. Thirty-one of his 51 fastballs were strikes (60.8%), and he threw the pitch anywhere from 91.98 mph to 94.00 mph according to PitchFX. Sabathia threw a first pitch slider to 16 of 32 batters, including 13 for strikes. Twenty-five of 32 sliders were strikes — seven swings and misses — overall, an absurd rate.

The starting rotation has clearly been the Yankees’ weak point this season, but Sabathia stepped up and gave his team eight high-quality innings against the best hitting team in the AL not based in New York. Four runs in eight innings really doesn’t tell the whole story. Sabathia was in control of the game all night.

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

The Captain

We’re running out of things to say about Derek Jeter. The Cap’n has been the Yankees’ best player since Day One and one of the very best in the league. He added to his way-too-early MVP case by going 4-for-5 against the Rangers, starting a rally in the first and extending rallies in the fifth and sixth innings. His first three hits were singles, the fourth an opposite double over Nelson Cruz’s head to plate a run. David Freese-ian, if I do say so myself.

Derek raised his overall season batting line to .411/.436/.644 and his season batting line against left-handers to .630/.607/.926. I’m not kidding, that’s a real triple-slash line. If the Cap’n goes hitless in his next 27 at-bats, he’ll still be a .300 hitter overall. That’s pretty awesome. “It’s like 1999 again,” said Alex Rodriguez after the game. “Three hits every day.”

Damage

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

The Yankees scored two runs in the first on Curtis Granderson‘s two-strike bloop single and another run on Nick Swisher‘s sacrifice fly in the fifth, but the biggest blow came two batters later when A-Rod connected for a three-run homer off the poorly mustachioed Derek Holland. He drew a pair of walks in his first two trips to the plate but also swung through a pair of inside fastballs, and that’s the pitch Holland tried to execute on the homer. He left it a little too far out over the plate and Alex launched a no-doubt shot into the left-center field stands.

Weirdly enough, the homer was A-Rod’s first hit against a left-hander this season, breaking an 0-for-17 streak. The three-run shot turned a 3-1 game into a 6-1 game, giving the Yankees some breathing room. It’s been a sluggish start to the season for the third baseman, but Alex now has five hits in his last 15 at-bats with two homers and and three walks. That dates back to the start of the Red Sox series. It’s worth noting that he also drove another ball right to the wall in this game, so he’s making hard contact.

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Leftovers

How about Chris Stewart? The rarely seen backup catcher drew a walk and hit a booming double to dead center in four trips to the plate, even taking second base on a poor pickoff throw by Holland. To be fair, he was dead to rights until Elvis Andrus dropped the relay throw at second. It’s not going to last, but give Stewart some credit for putting together tough at-bats — 17 pitches seen in his four plate appearances — and actually contributing offensively in the early going.

The Rangers allowed more than four runs for just the second time all season. Jeter and A-Rod did most of the heavy lifting, but Granderson had the two-run single and Swisher the sacrifice fly. Robinson Cano also had two hits and believe it or not, that’s it. Swisher, Mark Teixeira, Andruw Jones, and Eduardo Nunez went a combined 0-for-16 with three strikeouts. It’s all about timely hitting I suppose, the Yankees went 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position as a team.

After Sabathia’s eight strong innings, Mariano Rivera came in and took care of business in the ninth inning on 13 pitches. The final eight Rangers were retired in order on just 24 pitches. That’s a great way to wrap up a win, with zero late-inning stress.

This probably isn’t worth mentioning, but I thought Andruw make a couple of real nice catches on non-routine balls in play throughout the game. Some were line drives hit to left, others fly balls lifted high and into the Texas sun. I don’t want to think about how many would have fallen in for hits had Raul Ibanez been out there.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score, and ESPN the updated standings.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

Game two of this three-game series will be played on Tuesday night, when Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish meet in just the seventh matchup between Japanese-born starting pitchers in MLB history. That game starts at 8pm due to the time zone difference, an hour later than usual.

Segedin goes deep again in Tampa loss

Based on his Twitter feed, Slade Heathcott swung a bat today for the first time since having his second left shoulder surgery last year. He’s scheduled to return in June.

High-A Tampa (5-3 loss to Dunedin)
CF Eduardo Sosa: 1-4, 2 K
2B Kelvin Castro, RF Shane Brown & SS Jose Mojica: all 0-4 — Castro struck out once, Mojica twice
3B Rob Segedin: 2-4, 2 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI — six for his last 11 with a double and two homers, his second straight day with a jack
1B Kyle Roller: 2-4, 1 R
C J.R. Murphy & DH Tyson Blaser: both 1-3, 1 BB
LF Ramon Flores: 1-4, 1 RBI, 1 K
RHP Shane Greene: 5 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 5 BB, 5 K, 4/5 GB/FB
LHP Aaron Dott: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 3/0 GB/FB
LHP Kramer Sneed: 0.1 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1/0 GB/FB — dude just made a spot start on Friday, though he didn’t make it out of the second inning
RHP Branden Pinder: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K — 17/3 K/BB in 12.1 IP … 55/8 K/BB in 43.1 career innings

Triple-A Empire State was snowed out. Yes, snowed. There’s going to play a doubleheader at some point in the future. Both Double-A Trenton and Low-Charleston has scheduled days off.

Game 16: Messin’ with Texas

No high fives for you. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Maybe it’s the 2010 ALCS, maybe it’s terrible articles like this, maybe it’s something else entirely. I just want the Yankees to pound the Rangers this week. Just completely wreck them on offense and dominate them on the mound. It’s unlikely to happen because Texas is really, really good, but I want it to. I want the Yankees to crush them so bad that come Thursday, the Red Sox will look at the Rangers and say “damn, glad we’re not them.” That bad. Here’s the starting nine…

SS Derek Jeter
RF Nick Swisher
2B Robinson Cano
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Curtis Granderson
LF Andruw Jones
DH Eduardo Nunezhe’ll still make an error
C  Chris Stewart

LHP CC Sabathia

Tonight’s game starts a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on My9 locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy.