Not getting owned by starters they’ve never faced before

Shut down the Yanks, win a trip to Japan! (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

Last week I looked at how the 2011 Yankees turned one of the 2010 team’s more vexing issues — a seeming inability to hit with runners in scoring position — around, and ended up as the top-hitting team with RISP in the AL compared to the league (though in fairness, they weren’t a bad team with RISP in 2010, just not as good as they’d been in other recent seasons).

Today we’ll take a look at the 2010 team’s other major bugaboo, one that longtime TYA/Yankeeist readers have been beaten over the head by and that I’m probably unhealthily obsessed with — getting owned by Starters-They’ve-Never-Seen-Before™ — and see how the 2011 team fared against this subset of pitchers and whether they were able to shake this particular shortcoming.

While RISP Fail wound up being the result of confirmation bias more than anything else, the 2010 team’s struggles against the notorious Pitchers-They’ve-Never-Seen-Before demographic were very real, as seen in this Jay Jaffe piece from this past June. Per Jaffe, the 2010 team faced 14 pitchers for the first time, and went 5-9 in those contests while those starters pitched to a collective 3.29 ERA/3.68 FIP over 82 innings (though it should also be noted that some of this success was probably partially luck-induced, as the pitchers also collectively recorded a miniscule .216 BABIP).

Even more vexing was that this group of first-timers wasn’t exactly a who’s-who of the league’s top pitchers — save perhaps Clayton Kershaw and new Yankee-killer Max Scherzer — and included names like Hisanori Takahashi, Kyle Kendrick, Sean O’Sullivan, Bryan Bullington (pictured above) and Josh Tomlin. For me, the Tomlin game was a breaking point, and really made it seem as though whoever might face the Yankees in the postseason — assuming they got there — could guarantee themselves of a sweep by simply calling up their four greenest Triple-A pitchers and starting them against the Bombers.

Jaffe followed the aforelinked Baseball Prospectus piece up with another important read at the Pinstriped Bible, and found the following:

“It’s worth noting that others have taken a look at fresh faces against the Yankees and gotten different results using different criteria. William J. at the Captain’s Blog found that if you’re looking at relatively inexperienced pitchers facing them — those with 60 or fewer starts in their career — the Yankees have actually beaten them pretty handily over the past decade. Meanwhile Sean Forman (the founder) wrote at the New York Times about how pitchers facing the Yankees for their major league debuts — as Josh Tomlin had then just done — had enjoyed an inordinate amount of success from 2000-2010. So it depends on how you frame the question, and what you focus upon. In my study, the Yankees have struggled against the newcomers, in large part because those pitchers have gotten exceptional, unsustainable support from their defenses.”

William also had previously posted two excellent pieces regarding this phenomenon in his own inimitably comprehensive fashion, If at First You Don’t Succeed: A Look at the Yankees’ Performance Against “First-Timers”, posted on August 17, 2010, following the Bullington game; and In Coming! It’s Duck and Cover for the Yanks When Facing a Debutant, posted on July 28, 2010, after the Tomlin game. All of these pieces are well worth your time.

In any event, that brings us to the 2011 season. I culled the below table from Baseball-Reference, containing all of the starting pitchers the Yankees faced in 2011 that they had never previously seen (as a starter), and sorted by Game Score. The column all the way on the left denotes where that starter’s game ranked among all 162 outings against the Yankees.

Rk Player Date Tm Rslt IP H ER BB SO HR GSc WPA
7 Philip Humber 2011-04-25 CHW W 2-0 7.0 1 0 2 5 0 78 0.509
14 Carlos Carrasco 2011-06-13 CLE W 1-0 7.0 5 0 3 7 0 71 0.508
15 Matt Moore 2011-09-22 TBR W 15-8 5.0 4 0 1 11 0 69 0.102
25 Jeremy Hellickson 2011-07-19 TBR W 3-2 7.0 5 2 1 7 1 65 0.080
29 Ubaldo Jimenez 2011-06-24 COL W 4-2 7.0 4 2 4 7 0 64 0.253
32 Zach Britton 2011-05-18 BAL L 1-4 7.0 6 0 3 4 0 64 0.239
35 Carlos Villanueva 2011-05-23 TOR W 7-3 5.0 2 1 1 5 0 63 0.175
42 Alex Cobb 2011-07-18 TBR L 4-5 6.0 3 1 4 3 0 59 0.104
54 Brian Duensing 2011-04-05 MIN W 5-4 7.0 6 4 2 7 2 54 -0.182
64 Dillon Gee 2011-07-02 NYM L 2-5 7.0 7 4 3 7 1 51 -0.144
71 Travis Wood 2011-06-20 CIN L 3-5 7.0 8 4 1 6 0 50 -0.172
73 Michael Pineda 2011-05-27 SEA W 4-3 5.0 3 3 5 5 1 49 -0.104
75 Mike Leake 2011-06-22 CIN L 2-4 6.0 5 4 1 4 1 49 -0.274
77 Charlie Furbush 2011-09-13 SEA L 2-3 5.1 7 3 0 6 1 48 -0.136
82 Jonathon Niese 2011-07-01 NYM L 1-5 6.0 9 3 2 7 0 47 -0.095
92 Randy Wells 2011-06-19 CHC L 4-10 6.0 5 4 4 3 1 45 -0.127
95 Juan Nicasio 2011-06-26 COL L 4-6 5.0 4 4 1 2 2 44 -0.213
102 Tyler Chatwood 2011-08-11 LAA L 5-6 5.1 8 2 2 1 1 43 -0.063
107 Alexi Ogando 2011-04-17 TEX L 5-6 6.1 6 5 1 1 3 41 -0.395
124 Henderson Alvarez 2011-09-17 TOR L 6-7 6.0 9 5 1 1 1 34 -0.065
126 Felipe Paulino 2011-08-15 KCR L 4-7 5.1 8 5 5 4 0 31 -0.489
128 Garrett Richards 2011-08-10 LAA L 3-9 5.0 6 6 2 2 2 31 -0.260
136 Jo-Jo Reyes 2011-05-25 TOR L 3-7 3.0 5 5 2 0 2 27 -0.262
145 Aaron Cook 2011-06-25 COL L 3-8 5.2 12 5 1 1 0 23 -0.250
150 Scott Diamond 2011-09-19 MIN L 4-6 4.0 10 5 3 1 1 20 -0.247
158 Danny Duffy 2011-08-16 KCR L 7-9 3.0 8 8 2 3 1 12 -0.741
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/3/2011.

Phil Humber wound up being the 2011 version of Josh Tomlin, throwing the seventh-best start against the Yankees all season. However, that’s about where the similarities to 2010 end. We’re dealing with a significantly larger sample here — 26 games to 14 — which would seem to favor the hitting team. And while Carlos Carrasco, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Ubaldo Jimenez turned in memorable debut performances against the Yankees, the overall results of this group of tyros is a far cry from how Pitchers-They’ve-Never-Faced fared in 2010.

After going 5-9 in 2010, the 2011 Yankees went 18-8 in the 26 games started by newbies, and by my calculations, the 2011 group threw 149 innings of 5.13 ERA ball. That’s quite the turnaround from 3.29 in 2010, and far, far more like it.

Mailbag: Volstad, Stetter, Hannahan, Harang

This week’s mailbag is five questions long, four of them focusing on pitching. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions throughout the week.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Mark asks: Chris Volstad could be non-tendered. Still young, great pitcher’s body, may have hit ceiling though. Any interest?

The cat is pretty much out of the bag, the Marlins didn’t even bother to invite Volstad to the unveiling of their new uniforms. So yeah, one way or the other, he’s probably a goner this winter. You’re right about the great pitcher’s body, the kid is listed at 6-foot-8 and 230 lbs. on Florida’s official site. He’s still very young (just turned 25 in September), young enough that he still has some of that top prospect shine left.

Volstad has struggled in 584 big league innings (102 starts and one relief appearance), pitching to a 4.59 ERA with a 4.52 FIP. He’s a sinkerballer, getting a ground ball 50.4% of the time, and I think part of his problem has been the Marlins’ shaky infield defense over the last few years. A low-90’s sinker is his bread-and-butter, but he’ll also work with a changeup and slider, both in the mid-80’s. Volstad doesn’t miss many bats (5.83 K/9 and 7.0% swings-and-misses) and he’s just okay at preventing walks (3.14 BB/9).

I have a feeling Volstad will draw a lot of attention if/when he’s non-tendered, simply because he’s still so young and has three more years of team control remaining. He’s not great, but I think he could be serviceable in kind of a swingman/spot starter role, but another team will guarantee him a rotation spot and that’s where he’ll head. I like the idea, but it might not be practical.

Ed asks: What’s your opinion on Mitch Stetter as a possible second lefty for the Yanks? He just elected free agency after being outrighted by the Brewers. In his career, he held lefties to a .194/.310/.335 line. Consider 2010 & 2011 as his lost years, Stetter could be a “low risk-high reward” piece for the bullpen.

Before this post, all I knew about Stetter was that he had a funky delivery (seen here) and Jack Moore of Disciplines of Uecker hated him. The 30-year-old is a free agent as you said, and his big league numbers against left-handers are pretty good: a .297 wOBA against with 63 strikeouts and 23 walks in 202 plate appearances. He’s got similar numbers in the minors and like most lefty specialists, he’s atrocious against righties. Completely unusable.

Stetter’s problem is an utter lack of ground balls, we’re talking just 26.9% grounders against lefties. That’s quite extreme, and part of the reason why he can run into a little homer trouble. He’s also an extreme slider guy, I mean 80.2% of his career pitches in the big leagues were a low-80’s slide piece. His mid-80’s fastball is basically a show-me pitch. I’d sign almost anyone to a minor league contract, they’re zero-risk deals, but Stetter has little margin for error. Doesn’t mean he can’t get hot and pay dividends for a month or two though.

Nick asks: What happened to Tim Norton and should/will the AAA guys get Joba Chamberlain‘s spot until he comes back?

Norton had yet another shoulder problem, which is a shame because he flat out dominated last season (44 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 IP) and was on the verge of a call-up at the time of his injury. I have no idea if he’ll be back next year, either Opening Day or at another point.

I expect next season’s bullpen will look a lot like the one the Yankees ended this season with, meaning Mariano Rivera in the ninth with David Robertson, Boone Logan, Rafael Soriano, and Cory Wade backing him up. The last two spots could go to someone like George Kontos or Hector Noesi, or maybe they sign someone. I would be surprised if it was David Phelps or Adam Warren, those guys have to be stretched out as starters in case they need to make spot starts. That really should be the case with Noesi as well.

"Wow Jack, have you been working out?" (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Marks asks: Jack Hannahan worth pursuing as Eric Chavez 2.0?

I know Joe’s a bit of a Hannahan fan, or at least he’s mentioned him as a potential bench option at various points over the last few seasons. The 31-year-old infielder does two things very well, and that’s play defense and draw walks. Regardless of what metric you choose, they all rate Hannahan as a stud at the hot corner, and his walks rates have consistently been over 10% throughout his career (10.8% career).

The problem is that he just can’t hit, we’re talking a .231 AVG and a .127 ISO in nearly 1,350 career plate appearances. He also doesn’t steal bases or offer much defensive versatility (just 13 career innings at the middle infield spots and 213 at first base). Hannahan, a left-handed batter, has consistently been a one-win player over the last four years despite sporadic playing time because he’s a high-end defender and will work just enough free passes to be better than useless at the plate. It sounds like the Indians are planning to keep him next season, but he’s a nice bench guy because he does at least one thing really well. Just don’t expect him to come off the bench and get that big pinch-hit.

Moot asks: What do you think about Aaron Harang being a Yankee? He pitched well at times with the Reds and they have a homer friendly park just like the Yanks.

Harang is another one of Joe’s guys, but I think he’s closing in on his expiration date. He did pitch in a hitter’s park in Cincinnati, and sure enough he gave up a ton of homers as a Red (1.2 HR/9). The homers were tolerable because Harang used to be a strikeout fiend and was stingy with the walks, but both his strikeout rate and walk rate have been heading in the wrong directions of late. Click the links for some graphs that really drive the point home.

All those big workloads earlier in his career (and under Dusty Baker) have cost Harang about two miles an hour off his fastball, and he’s mostly 89-90 with a low-80’s slider these days. He’s always been a big fly ball guy (career 38.2% grounders), hence all the homers allowed. In some ways, he’s a lot like Freddy Garcia, at least in terms of his peripheral stats. They just go about it in very different ways. Freddy knows he’s not what he once was, so he’s adapted and relies on trickery. Harang is still pitching the same way he did five years ago. I’d probably steer clear of him, but after Garcia this past season, who the hell knows.

In Bartolo and Freddy we trust?

All is quiet on the Yankee front these days, and it isn’t one of Brian Cashman‘s stealth-quiet periods that turns into a surprise signing of Mark Teixeira. Rather, the Yankees are waiting to see what comes to them. They’re rightly cool on C.J. Wilson but have to fill some starting pitching holes. What’s a $200 million team to do?

Last year, when the Yanks found themselves in a similar situation following Cliff Lee’s departure to Philadelphia and Andy Pettitte‘s retirement, Brian Cashman turned to the scrap heap. For a few million dollars, his coaching staff coaxed 51 starts and over 300 innings from Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. It was the biggest surprise of the Yankee season, and now, early yet in the Hot Stove League, the Yanks’ GM is, at least publicly, wondering if he can capture lightning in bottle again.

In comments yesterday to ESPN New York, both Cashman and his boss Hal Steinbrenner talked about bringing back Big Bart and Sweaty Freddy. “I have an interest in both Freddy and Bartolo,” Cashman said. “Those guys all did a good job for us, a really good job.” Echoed Steinbrenner, “Absolutely, that’s something we’d consider. It worked out pretty well last year.”

That it sure did, Hal. That it sure did.

In its coverage of these statements, ESPN New York turns this into some sort of money issue. The pair made around $2.6 million combined before incentives and both would like a raise. That’s not a problem. The Yanks have rotation holes to fill and money to spend. Garcia may be itching for a multi-year deal, and that is a potential hurdle. Yet there’s a larger question at play: Should the Yanks even be considering these two?

If we play the not-so-arbitrary endpoint game, it’s very easy to make a case against Bartolo Colon. Through his first 78.1 innings, he had a 3.10 ERA and a K rate topping 8 per 9 IP. He wasn’t walking many guys and was thriving mainly on a fastball. After suffering a hamstring injury and returning in early July, he had a 4.81 ERA over 86 innings and saw his walk rate climb while his strike outs dipped by over 1.5 per 9 innings.

As expected, his velocity fell off by year’s end, and he wasn’t nearly as efficient with his pitches. Colon will turn 39 in May, and no one is sure how much more his surgically repaired shoulder can take. At a low cost and with little riding on it, the Yanks could bring him back to camp, but if they’re counting on him for another 164 innings, I hope they have a good back-up plan.

Meanwhile, Garcia, who didn’t reach the 150-inning mark due to some mysterious cut on his finger, also struggled post-injury. In his first 20 games, he sported a 3.22 ERA and decent peripherals over 117.1 innings. Thanks to one disastrous outing vs. the Orioles and a bad start against the Angels, his post-injury numbers were ugly. He walked 11 while striking out 16 and giving up seven home runs in 29.1 innings. It’s tough though to put much stock in 29.1 innings.

For Garcia, the questions concern durability. He has thrown over 300 innings since the start of 2009 but he threw just 129 over the three prior years. He did a good job keeping the ball in the park this year, and that’s what fueled his success as his walk rate was higher in 2011 than in 2010. He turned 35 during the ALDS and giving him more than a season might be inviting trouble.

To me, Colon and Garcia represent the Yanks’ last resorts. What they did in 2011 made from some great stories and fun games. They defied age and expectations to help lead the Yanks to a championship title. To expect them to do it again may be putting blind faith into pitchers who don’t deserve, and the Yanks would be better served looking elsewhere for some upgrades.

Phelps finishes AzFL strong

This isn’t directly related to the Yankees, but former farmhand Breland Brown got busted trying to scam his way into the Australian Baseball League this winter. The Yankees signed him last offseason, but released him during Spring Training. Pretty crazy.

Hard-throwing Grant Duff has re-signed with the Yankees after becoming a minor league free agent at the end of the season. He’s been battling arm injuries for a few years ago. Also, David Phelps was named the Arizona Fall League Pitcher of the Week last week.

AzFL Phoenix (5-0 loss to Surprise) Monday’s Game
Corban Joseph, 2B: 0 for 4, 2 K
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 1 for 3, 1 K
Rob Segedin, LF: 0 for 3, 1 K

AzFL Phoenix (12-8 win over Surprise) Tuesday’s Game
Rob Segedin, DH: 0 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB, 2 K
Dan Burawa, RHP: 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 17 of 25 pitches were strikes (68%) … he’s had a tough time out here, good to see him finish on a high note

DWL Licey (10-9 win over Toros)
Hector Noesi, RHP: 1.2 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2-2 GB/FB – a dud after three straight stellar starts

AzFL Phoenix (12-7 win over Salt River) Wednesday’s Game
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 HBP
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI
Corban Joseph, 2B: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 SB – finished with a crappy .227/.287/.371 batting line
Chase Whitley, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 4-1 GB/FB – 11 of 19 pitches were strikes (57.9%)

AzFL Phoenix (2-2 tie with Peoria in seven innings) Thursday’s Game … that’s it for them, the season is over
Ronnie Mustelier, DH: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K – finished at .344/.354/.516
Rob Segedin, LF: 0 for 3, 1 K – hit .250/.367/.407, which kinda sucks in this league
David Phelps, RHP: 5 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 6 K, 5-3 GB/FB – 47 of 64 pitches were strikes (73.4%) … 20 strikeouts and just three walks in his final five starts (23.1 IP)

Open Thread: Name the 2011 Yankees

Spoiler: He’s one of the answers to the quiz. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Nothing terribly interesting has happened on this date in Yankees history, so instead I’ll leave you with this Sporcle quiz. All you have to do is name every player that played for the 2011 Yankees in ten minutes or less. Easy enough, right? Well, you’ll be surprised. I missed four players, but I thought only one of those four was obvious. Give a try, post your scores in the comments.

After you’ve done that, use this as your open thread. There is a football game tonight, the Jets are playing the Broncos in Denver at 8:20pm ET. The game will be on the NFL Network nationally and on WPIX 11 locally. The Islanders are also playing. Talk about whatever you like here, it’s all fair game.

The changing face of Major League Baseball

Baseball’s GM meetings wrapped up today, and at the end MLB announced a few things that we knew were coming down the pike. First, they approved the Astros’ sale to Jim Crane. That comes with a game-altering change: the Astros will move to the American League West division in 2013, thereby creating two 15-team leagues. Second, MLB announced the addition of one Wild Card team from each league, expanding the total playoff pool to 10 of 30 teams. Both of these announcements will have far-reaching effects on the future of the sport.

Balanced Leagues

Given baseball’s current arrangement, having unbalanced leagues makes sense. It might create an odd-looking arrangement, with the AL West housing four teams while the NL Central has six, but it makes life much easier. With 14 teams in the AL and 16 teams in the NL, baseball was able to continue its tradition of keeping the leagues separate, or at least mostly separate, until they finally meet in the World Series. But with 15 teams in each league, having an interleague game every day becomes necessary.

More frequent interleague creates a greater urgency for a uniform set of rules. It’s unfair to ask AL teams to regularly play without their DH, just as it’s unfair to ask an NL team to find a DH among its string of bench players. But at the same time, changing the DH rule in either league would come under much heavier fire than any of the recently announced changes. The DH rule, as Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra has said, is akin to religion. We all have our beliefs, and no amount of argument, no matter how vehement and logical, will sway the other side.

Thankfully, it appears that the rules need not change. The Daily News’ Mark Feinsand notes that the number of interleague games will not change. That means they will essentially take those two weeks of interleague in June, plus the stale rivalry weekend, and spread them throughout the season. That does appear to be the best compromise for the time being. It means both leagues can retain their DH identities, and it keeps minimal contact between the leagues during the season. If MLB did feel the need to balance the leagues, they at least got this part right.

Added Wild Card

While moving the Astros to the AL creates little controversy, minus the DH discussion, adding a Wild Card team to each league inspires heavy opinions from all angles. From the few details we know, each league will now have two Wild Card teams, and they will meet each other for a one-game playoff. That will determine who plays the No. 1 seed in the LDS (or the No. 2 seed, depending on the standard divisional issues). As with most changes, this has both upsides and downsides.

On the upside is an incentive to win the division. In years past we’ve heard loud criticism that some teams have been able to go into cruise control in September, because they had such a big lead on a playoff spot. The Yankees were in such a situation the last three seasons. They could afford to ease up in September, because even if they lost the division they still had a comfortable cushion in the Wild Card race. The new system forces them to keep a foot on the accelerator, lest they get forced into that all-or-nothing playoff game. The other, obvious, upside is that more teams get a chance to make the big dance.

Still, this seems like an odd way to approach adding a second Wild Card team. One-game playoffs in baseball exist out of necessity, for the rare instance where two teams finish with the same record and there is a playoff spot on the line. That is, Game 163 just creates a situation where one team must have a better regular season record than the other. The new system turns that into an actual playoff game. The participants needn’t have equal records; in fact, in most years they will not. Instead they’ll face each other for a single game, with the entire season on the line, no matter how much better one team played than the other during a whole 162-game season.

That, to me, marginalizes the marathon that is the April through September baseball season. It penalizes a team that played better in 162 games, just to squeeze in another playoff team. And it all occurs in a single game, where all sorts of randomness can damn an otherwise deserving team. You can say that the Wild Card in general creates the same effect, and I’d agree. But this new system makes the situation that much worse.

When the time comes, there will be few complaints about the system. There might be a cry of foul here and there, especially when a team with a superior record loses the Wild Card game. But it almost certainly won’t turn interest away from baseball. In fact, keeping the added team in the playoff hunt, and putting a greater emphasis on the division (to the chagrin of the 4th-best team) could create a higher level of interest. It doesn’t have a universal seal of approval from fans, but these are the new realities of Major League Baseball.