Sabathia’s Strikeout Surge

The decline in CC Sabathia‘s strikeout rate was noticeable earlier this year. His 6.63 K/9 through his first 16 starts was his lowest since 2003 and marked the third straight year of decline. That’s not to say Sabathia was struggling, he certainly wasn’t, but strikeouts are a pretty good indicator of future success and no team wants to see its ace trending in the wrong direction. Three starts and 33 whiffs in 22.2 IP later, suddenly CC’s strikeout rate sits at 7.70 K/9, better than last year’s rate and identical to his 2009 showing.

Where have all these strikeouts come from? I don’t think there’s one thing we can to point to, but we might as well start with his fastball. After sitting comfortably in the low-90’s (somewhere around 92-94) all season, Sabathia has averaged 95 mph over his last three starts, topping out at high as 97-98. Here’s the velocity plot with a very noticeable spike …

His last three starts have been played in two different parks, so that decreases the chances of a PitchFX glitch somewhat. Sabathia chalks the increased velocity up to the heat, saying after last night’s game that “I’ve been able to stay loose … That’s a big thing for me. In between innings trying to stay loose and make sure I can keep sweating, and I think that’s a big part of my velocity.” Dave Pinto mused that it might have to do with his offseason knee surgery and weight loss; maybe it just took him some time to get used to his new body and now he’s finding his groove. His pitch selection tells another story…

Sabathia’s been fastball-slider heavy these last three starts, which is not a total surprise when you consider that the other teams rolled out lineups with an usual amount of left-handed batters. Three of the nine opposing starters in each game were lefty bats, and three pinch-hitters also swung from that side of the plate. Usually Sabathia will see about 21% left-handed batters, but it’s been more than one-third over the last two weeks. That plays right to his strengths.

It’s also worth noting that two of those last three starts came against National League teams in Yankee Stadium, the Rockies and Brewers. Both teams strike out more than the average club, a little more than once for every five at-bats. Add in one strikeout prone (Jason Giambi) and one rookie (Mat Gamel) designated hitter, and that strikeout rate probably goes up a notch. The Indians are the fifth most strikeout happy team in baseball at 22.6%. At risk of jinxing it, I’m going to note that Sabathia will face the Rays on Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Tampa has the second most strikeouts against left-handed pitchers in the AL despite the third fewest plate appearances.

“Milwaukee is still my best,” said Sabathia after last night’s game, referring to the most dominant stretch of his career. “I don’t even know what happened. It was just one of those things … That was two and a half months. This has been three or four starts.” It has been just three starts, three very fun starts against teams that can reasonably be called contenders. Sabathia is known to go on some major runs in the second half of the season, and it looks like 2011’s streak is just beginning.

Sabathia, Grandy get Yanks back in win column

It’s amazing how quickly a dominant pitching performance can make you forget about two disappointing losses. Add in a tremendous individual offensive effort, and those losses get even further away in the rear-view mirror. That’s what happened on Tuesday night, when the Yankees bludgeoned the Indians and put a quick end to their two-game losing streak.

Cured x2

Turning The Tables

The last time the Yankees faced Carlos Carrasco, he wiggled out of a bases loaded jam and some other trouble early on, but settled down and fired seven shutout innings in a Cleveland win. This time around the Yankees made him pay in the second inning, jumping all over the young righty for five runs. The big blows were Derek Jeter‘s two-run double (a legit shot into the left-center field gap) and Curtis Granderson‘s two-run homer (just inside the right foul pole). Those were the big hits, but the rally was set up by something the Indians did not do rather than something the Yankees did do.

Just like Monday night, when the Yankees let a foul-pop drop in to extend the seventh inning, Cleveland failed to record the third out of the second inning on a defensive play that should have been made. Nick Swisher (single), Jorge Posada (walk), and Brett Gardner (walk) were all on base for Frankie Cervelli with one out, who grounded what should have been an inning-ending double play ball to short. The out was made at second, but Cord Phelps’ relay to first took one hop and handcuffed catcher-turned-first baseman Carlos Santana, who dropped the ball and allowed Cervelli to reach. Swisher scored on the play for the game’s first run.

It’s a play that has to be made, and the blame probably goes to Santana’s inexperience at the position. This was just his 28th career appearance at first base and his 26th of the season. It’s not the most difficult of positions, but hops like that are tough to handle with so little practice. A regular, full-time first baseman would be expected to make that play, and I don’t even mean a stud defender like Mark Teixeira. Jason Giambi scoops that ball (don’t laugh, Giambi had no trouble scooping, he just had no range and couldn’t throw). It’s not an error because of the stupid “can’t assume the double play rule,” but the bottom line is that it was a play that had to be made. It wasn’t and it resulted in the inning staying alive and five runs scoring.

He pitches with his eyes closed just to make it a challenge.

CC Sabathia, Not An All-Star

This guy is on some kind of roll right now, probably his best as a Yankee. Sabathia fired seven shutout innings against his former team, striking out eleven and walking just two with 100 pitches on the nose. He struck out the side in three different innings, and in their seven at-bats with men in scoring position against CC, the Indians struck out … seven times. It’s the second time in his career he’s had back-to-back double digit strikeout games, and he’s the first Yankee to do it since Roger Clemens in 2002. Two words: Beast Mode.

Over his last three starts, the Yankees’ ace has struck out 33 and walked just five in 22.2 IP, raising his season strikeout rate from 6.64 K/9 to 7.70 K/9. By my calculation, his WAR has climbed from 3.0 to 4.5, which is simply ridiculous. And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with Sabathia not going to the All-Star Game next week. He’s obviously very deserving, but let him go home or on vacation and rest up for the second half. He’s earned it.

Cured

The season is just 84 games old, and Curtis Granderson has already hit the second most homers of his career. He hit numbers 24 and 25 in this game, eclipsing last year’s total (24) and bringing him to within five of his career high set in 2009. Did I mention the season is only 84 games old? The Grandyman’s season line sits at a gaudy .278/.370/.597 following the three-hit effort, and he’s just nine walks behind last year’s total in 161 fewer plate appearances.

Into the gap.

Leftovers

Jeter picked up his first two hits since coming off the disabled list, the first a dinky little infield single that the third baseman was unable to make a play on, the second that booming double into the gap. He’s now four hits away from 3,000, and for selfish reasons I hope he gets it Friday night, when I’ll be at the game. Either way, seems like a pretty safe bet that he’ll get the milestone hit at home during the Rays series.

Every single member of the lineup had multiple hits … except Cervelli, who went 0-for-5. Grandy, Swisher (two hits and a walk), Posada (two hits and a walk), and Gardner (also two hits and a walk) all reached base three times while Jeter, Teixiera, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano all had two hits. Gardner stole two bases, and he’s been successful in 17 of his last 21 attempts dating back to mid-May. His season success rate (22-for-32, 68.8%) is slowing inching back towards the break-even point.

As if there was any doubt, Lance Pendleton assured us that he’ll be going down to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the roster for Phil Hughes tomorrow. He allowed two runs on two hits and two walks in his two innings of mop-up duty, throwing 44 pitches. It’s been real, Pants Lendleton. See you in September and hopefully no sooner. Nothing personal.

The Indians have a very nickname-able pitching staff, I’m pretty jealous. We saw Frank “Pee Wee” Herrmann and Josh “The Judge” Judy in this game alone. Then again, I like good pitching staffs, so I’ll trade lame nicknames for pitching ability any day of the week.

Apparently David Cone’s mother texted him during the game to say that he and Michael Kay were talking about too much nonsense and not focusing on the game enough. Love it.

WPA Graph & Box Score

MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs the other stuff.

Up Next

The finale and rubber game of this three-game series will be played Wednesday night, when Hughes makes his (hopefully triumphant) return to the rotation against Justin Masterson. RAB Tickets can get you in the park if you happen to be in Cleveland.

Trenton drops both ends of a doubleheader

Cito Culver made it into this week’s Ten Pack (subs. req’d), in which Kevin Goldstein says…

Sometimes it seems like Culver was written off before he had a chance to prove anyone wrong … He’s a smooth shortstop with a rocket arm, and at least an average runner, so now we have to figure out if he can hit … Culver has made clear progress this summer, recovering from an ugly start to go 9-for-18 over the weekend and lift his season averages to .288/.346/.356 in 17 games. I’m not saying he’s the next big thing as much as I’m saying it’s very easy to make quick reactions, and that’s fine as long as you are willing to keep an open mind.

As for Kevin Whelan, I still have no idea what’s wrong with him, but whatever it is, it’s going to keep him out until after the All-Star break. Sucks.

Triple-A Scranton (5-2 loss to Lehigh Valley) no Jesus Montero for a second straight day, that sore back/side is probably still bothering
Greg Golson, CF: 3 for 5, 1 3B, 1 RBI, 1 K, 1 CS – 12 for his last 32 (.375)
Austin Krum, LF, Terry Tiffee, DH & Jorge Vazquez, 1B: all 0 for 4 – JoVa whiffed once, Tiffee twice, Krum thrice
Jordan Parraz, RF, Brandon Laird, 3B, Gus Molina, C & Doug Bernier, SS: all 1 for 4 – Parraz struck out … Laird hit a solo jack, struck out twice, and committed a fielding error … Gus doubled … Bernier scored a run and struck out twice
Luis Nunez, 3B: 3 for 4, 1 2B
Brian Gordon, RHP: 5 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 3-4 GB/FB – 50 of 72 pitches were strikes (69.4%) … he was probably on a pitch count after not pitching in two weeks
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K 2-0 GB/FB – 19 of 33 pitches were strikes (57.6%)
Randy Flores, LHP: 2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 3-1 GB/FB – 21 of 31 pitches were strikes (67.7%)

[Read more…]

Eric Chavez suffers (another) setback

Via Bryan Hoch, Eric Chavez suffered his second setback in as many weeks, this time involving his abdomen. He’s on his way to New York to get checked out. Last week’s setback involved his back. The original injury involved his foot, remember. Chavez is sure doing a fine job of filling Nick Johnson‘s shoes, and I have to figure the Yankees will be on the lookout for a left-handed bat for the bench at the deadline.

Game 84: Big Stoppa

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Jay?? via Creative Commons license)

CC Sabathia has played the role of stopper before, many times for the Yankees. In his two-and-a-half years in New York, Sabathia has started 34 games following a Yankees’ loss, and he’s helped his team to a win 23 times. That’s a pretty good way to stop a losing streak before it even starts. The Yankees have dropped the last two in very winnable fashion, so let’s hope their ace gets them back in the win column tonight. Here’s the lineup…

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

The game begins a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Mariano Rivera Update: Mo told Bryan Hoch that his sore triceps/elbow feels better, but they’re go to stay away from him again tonight. He’s only available in an extreme emergency.

For DJ3K, a TiqIQ contest

As Derek Jeter slowly inches his way toward his inevitable 3000th hit, River Ave. Blues and our partner TiqIQ are hosting a contest to celebrate the milestone. The winner will get two tickets to a sporting event of their choice courtesy of TiqIQ.

So how to enter: First, readers will have to head on over to Facebook and “like” RAB Tickets. Then, post on the RAB Tickets Facebook wall a guess for Jeter’s 3000th hit that includes the date, the inning and the count of the at-bat on which Jeter will reach that milestone. If more than one person guesses correctly, winner will be decided by a pitch count tiebreaker. If there is still a tie, winner will be picked based on order of submission.

If you’d like to get a sense of how the secondary ticket market is responding to Jeter’s quest, take a look at this graphic. It looks like most buyers think Jeter will reach 3000 at home this weekend on either Friday or Saturday. Personally, I’m betting on Friday, but that’s because Joe, Mike and I are all going to be at the stadium that evening.

Alex Rodriguez’s problem with lefties

Blue = vs. LHP, Red = vs. RHP, Green = vs. ALL

The decline of Alex Rodriguez has been greatly exaggerated, though you’d be foolish to say it’s not happening. Long gone are the days of .300/.390/.550+ with a guaranteed 30+ homers and 150+ games played every single year, but it’s not like he’s turned into a .260 singles hitter. A-Rod is hitting .295/.369/.493 this year, a .378 wOBA that is third best among all third baseman (four points from being first). His 4.0 fWAR is a full win better than the next best third baseman in the game (Adrian Beltre at 2.9).

Alex’s decline is most obvious against left-handed pitchers, and the graph above shows that. His production against southpaws, a demographic he once routinely demolished at near-historic levels, has cratered to the point where he’s been basically league average against them since the start of 2010. There’s usually nothing wrong with league average, but there is when it comes to a player of A-Rod’s caliber. His batted ball profile (right) shows that he’s been hitting more and more balls on the ground against lefties over the last four years, and that’s a pretty good explanation of why his production has dropped. Hard for a ground ball to go over the fence. Furthermore, let’s look at the spray charts against lefties (via Texas Leaguers) …

Here’s a gif of the four spray charts together, might make it easier to see. I’ve taken the liberty of circling left field since that’s what really stands out; A-Rod has simply stopped pulling the ball against left-handed pitchers. Maybe that’s a conscious decision, maybe he’s sitting back more and waiting to drive pitches to the opposite field to take advantage of the short porch in right. Pitchers aren’t pitching him any differently (LHP fastball rate from 2008-2011: 63.4%, 59.8%, 63.6%, 63.6%) and other than a spike in 2009 (which coincides with the drop one-year drop is fastball rate), Alex’s strikeout rate against southpaws has remained pretty constant. If it’s a conscious decision to go the other way, it’s not working and he should definitely get back to pulling the ball, even though Yankee Stadium isn’t as kind when you hit the ball in that direction.

On the other hand, A-Rod will be turning 36 later this month, and it could just be age-related decline. His bat is slowing and he might not be able to get around on the heat anymore, but then why doesn’t he have a similar problem against righties? Perhaps it’s a sample size thing, in that there are so many more righties than lefties that he’s gotten enough reps against them to figure out how to approach them as his bat slows. I don’t know, I’m just spit-balling here. For whatever reason, Alex isn’t pulling the ball against left-handers anymore, and it’s draining his overall production. With guys like David Price, Ricky Romero, and Jon Lester in the division, it’s a problem.