A-Rod swinging less, making contact more

Photo credit: Duane Burleson/AP

It appears that a number of Yankees hitters have changed their approaches this season. A week ago I looked at the changes with Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. They seem to be on opposite tracks. Gardner has become even more selective, while Swisher has shown a bit more aggression. Both have seen early returns. Alex Rodriguez has also changed his approach a bit, though the results haven’t quite been there for him yet. If he keeps this up, though, they very well might.

A quick look at A-Rod’s stats makes a few things clear. First, he’s striking out less — a lot less. From his cup of coffee in 1994 through 2009 his low water mark for strikeout percentage was 16.9 percent, achieved in 1997. That also happens to be the worst year of his career, 1995 notwithstanding. This year he has struck out in 14.9 percent of his at-bats, so something has changed, at least in the first 33 games.

A look at his discipline statistics makes the difference clear. His swing rate sits at an all-time low of 40.9 percent, while his contact rate is at an all-time high, by far, of 86.4 percent. His swinging strike rate is also way down, 5.7 percent. His previous low came last season, 9.1 percent. A couple of other all-time lows, though not by as drastic a percentage: pitches seen in the zone, 43.9 percent, and first-pitch strikes. 52.5 percent.

The decrease in swing percentage comes mostly on balls inside the strike zone. A-Rod has swung at just 63.7 percent of those pitches, whereas his previous career low came in 2007, 66.3 percent. On the flip side, he’s making plenty of contact with the pitches he does swing at inside the zone, 96.7 percent, more than 10 percentage points higher than any year of his career. He’s also making more contact with pitches outside the zone, an increase even over last year, which was the highest mark of his career.

Intuitively, I would think that these numbers forecast a high-power year for A-Rod. He’s being selective with pitches inside the zone, so presumably he’s only swinging at the ones he likes. On those pitches he’s making plenty of contact, too, so I’d guess that he’s hitting more line drives. Yet none of that is true. His line drive rate is nearly identical to last year. He’s hitting more ground balls, and hitting fewer balls in the air. Worst of all, he’s not hitting those balls in the air particularly well, as only three have left the park, or 8.1 percent of his fly balls. He hasn’t been below the 20 percent mark in HR/FB since 2004. His power is way down, too. A .174 ISO represents by far the lowest mark of his career.

This issue can go two ways. First, it could signal that this approach simply doesn’t work for A-Rod. He has been a certain type of hitter his entire career, and changing now doesn’t make much sense. If he’s going to have success, he’ll have to get back to that longer swing that leads to more strikeouts, but also leads to harder hit baseballs. Second, it could mean that he’s in an adjustment period. He’s in his mid-30s now, a time when many ballplayers start to decline. A change in approach might help stave off the normal effects of aging, allowing him to continue playing until a much later age. Both of these cases have merit, and I’m not at all sure which case this is. It could be something completely different, too, I suppose.

Encouragingly, A-Rod’s defense has improved according to both major defensive metrics. John Dewan’s +/- system has A-Rod at 4 defensive runs saved, third among his peers, while UZR has him at 1.6, fourth among AL third basemen. He’s still hitting well compared to other AL third basemen, ranking third in wOBA. Nos. 2 and 4, Alberto Callaspo and Jose Bautista, don’t figure to be around for long, either. Also, while he’s not hitting home runs at nearly the pace he has in years past, he is actually slapping his share of doubles. He has eight already, after hitting just 17 all of last year. Even if he doesn’t get to the 30 homer mark this season, a 35-40 doubles season will certainly add to his value.

The most important thing about all this data is that it’s tough to make much of it. We’re dealing with 121 PA here, so it’s not a huge sample. Yet these are the results. This is what he has done so far. It might be coincidental, but with numbers this far off from his career marks make me wonder whether the change is deliberate. He raves about his work with Kevin Long, so I can definitely understand if they changed his approach this year. If they have made some adjustments, it’s too early to write them off. If they haven’t made adjustments, I really wonder why his plate discipline numbers have changed so drastically.

It’s been a tough year so far without A-Rod producing his normal power numbers out of the No. 4 spot. Remember, though, that at this point last year, heading into Game 34, that A-Rod had played in just five contests and was hitting .188. Once he heats up — and I have nothing but confidence that he will — we could be in for an experience similar to last year. I’d take his 2009 numbers any time.

Two days and two chats? How can that beeee?

Mike did a game chat yesterday, but I figured that we could keep up the Friday tradition as well. I have a FanGraphs post due at 1 p.m., so I’ll give you guys a chance to read that before we kick off the chat at 1:30.

Welcome Home (Sanatarium)

The Yankees have to be glad to wake up in their own beds this morning. Their mini road trip did not go quite as expected, 3-4 after kicking it off with two wins over the Red Sox. While they did get two particularly poor pitching performances, Burnett on Sunday and Sabathia yesterday, the starters did their jobs in every other outing. That includes Sergio Mitre, who didn’t pitch well by most measures but who stepped in and did what was expected of him.

When an offense can’t get to a starting pitcher, they tend not to score many runs. Most bullpens feature weak middle relief corps, but plenty of teams, especially winning teams like Detroit, have a quality endgame. If a starter can hand the ball straight to the primary setup man, it represents a success. That’s what happened to the Yankees in their four losses from Friday through Thursday. They couldn’t get to the starter, and then the back of the bullpen did its job.

On Sunday night Jon Lester continued to make up for his poor start. He threw 107 pithes in seven innings, striking out seven Yankees and holding them to just two runs. His offense took care of the rest, blasting A.J. Burnett for nine runs and putting the game out of reach pretty early. The only rally they managed came off Manny Delcarmen in the eighth, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Lester had held them, though it didn’t much matter with Burnett’s performance. Still, taking two out of three from the Sox at Fenway for the second time this season felt good.

Monday was essentially a bullpen game for the Tigers, so the Yanks didn’t have the chance to get shut down by a starter. Instead, Eddie Bonine stepped in and held the Yankees to two hits through 2.1 innings, handing the ball to Joel Zumaya in the sixth. Zumaya had some troubles, but pitched well enough to get out of it. It was disappointing to see the Yankees fail to capitalize off two pitchers not good enough to crack the Tigers’ rotation, but everyone has off-days. Plus, the Yanks would get Rick Porcello next, who had gotten off to a horrible start in 2010.

Of course, the game didn’t go as planned. Porcello threw 91 pitches through seven innings, allowing just four hits and walking three. The Yankees got nothing going at all, and stranded six — the last one erased by a Ramiro Pena double play. It was the first time the Yankees had been shut out this season. It wouldn’t be long until it happened for a second time.

In the nightcap the Yankees faced another struggling starter, Jeremy Bonderman, but still couldn’t hit him. He allowed five hits through seven innings, walking just one. They manufacture a couple of runs, which was all they’d need. Phil Hughes took care of that one. The final score, 8-0, looks that way because Phil Coke and Alfredo Figaro let the game get out of hand in the ninth. Before that, though, the Yankees’ offense looked rather tame.

After scoring runs late on Wedneday night I thought they might come back with some offense against Justin Verlander on Thursday. I couldn’t have been any more wrong. Derek Jeter managed a leadoff hit off Justin Verlander, but it was just one of four the Yankees got yesterday. Jorge Posada was responsible for two of them, and Brett Gardner the other. The rest of the lineup pulled a collective 0-for, despite drawing four walks off Verlander.

Thankfully, the team is headed home, where it has hit much better this season. In 873 road plate appearances this year the team is hitting a collective .260/.355/.387. Part of that stems from the absence of Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson, but it’s also because of poor hitting from the middle of the lineup. At home, though, the Yankees have hit .292/.384/.494, though in just 456 PA. If there’s one saving grace to their poor road numbers it’s that they’ve played an inordinate number of games on the road so far. That means more games at home this summer, when hopefully the team has heated up.

NOTE: I am totally cramping Fack Youk’s style here.

Yanks drop finale to Detroit 6-0

There was little to like about this game. In fact, had it not been for Ivan Nova‘s two scoreless innings I could have removed the word “little” from the above paragraph. The game was all around ugly, from the Yankees’ hitters flailing to the Tigers’ hitters squaring up tons of pitches, especially in the sixth. The Yanks drop just their second series of the year. Too bad that came in a four-game set.

Biggest Hit: Jeter leads off with a single

This photo sums up the game | Paul Sancya/AP

How you know your team played a horrible game: the biggest positive WPA swing came when the first batter of the game singled. That’s the most the Yankees got. It increased their chances of winning by 3.5 percent, a modest little boost but nothing that would last. After Brett Gardner traded places with Jeter and then took second on an errant pickoff throw, Justin Verlander struck out Mark Teixeira looking on a cuveball, and then got A-Rod to pop out to first on a 98 mph fastball.

The second highest WPA swing of the game also involved Jeter. That would be when Verlander hit him with a pitch in the fifth. That came with one out and, with the score just 3-0 at the time, raised the Yankees’ chances of winning by 2.6 percent. Both Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira made outs behind him, though, so the Yanks couldn’t bring home the run. Story of their day. Of their week, really.

Biggest Pitch: Cabrera crushes CC

Photo credit: Paul Sancya/AP

The Tigers struck first in the second, when Gerald Laird blooped one over Juan Miranda‘s head. That brought home Brennan Boesch. One run, though, usually doesn’t phase the Yankees. They had just been shut out the previous day, and considering it was the first time that happened all season we couldn’t have expected it to happen again. Things just sometimes work out that way…

In any case, the Tigers opened up the game in the fourth when Miguel Cabrera absolutely hammered a 2-1 fastball into the right field stands. It was a solo shot, and Cabrera can do that against any pitcher. That made it 2-0. One batter later Boesch reached out and slammed a slider the same way, just clearing the right field fence. While Cabrera’s homer was a bit more valuable, when Boesch hit his it was the first time in the game where I seriously doubted the Yanks’ ability to win it.

CC in the sixth

Photo credit: Duane Burleson/AP

Heading into the sixth inning CC Sabathia had allowed three runs. It’s not ideal, especially from the ace, but again, an offense like the Yankees’ should be able to stay in a game like this. One more inning and CC would have had the arbitrary quality start, and since he was at just 54 pitches he might have been able to go all eight. A 25-pitch, 3-run sixth ended that.

When we’re watching the game live, any pitch that ends with a bad result is going to look bad. If CC had thrown an on-target changeup low and away to Brandon Laird in the sixth and he hit a double off it, the initial reaction is almost always going to point to a bad pitch. CC didn’t spot the changeup perfectly as it turns out — it was around the knees but caught a bit too much of the plate — but upon further review it didn’t look like a bad pitch. Not a great pitch, no. Maybe not even a good pitch. It was decent at worst, though. Laird just happen to hit it squarely.

Just to extrapolate the point, mostly because there’s not much to talk about in this recap, a well-struck ball is not always the pitcher’s fault. Good hitters, like Miguel Cabrera, can square up pitches that others cannot. Young and vigorous hitters, like Brennan Boesch, can take advantage of the lack of a scouting report on them. Bad hitters, like Laird, get lucky, too.

That’s not to excuse Sabathia’s outing. It just seemed like he pitched better than the results indicated. That’s going to happen from time to time with an ace.

Annoyances

Can I just say “the whole game” and get it out of the way?

The best hitters in the lineup just aren’t hitting, and there’s nothing more frustrating than that. I can’t help but think that if the game was tied heading into the sixth that CC would have finished the game with a much better line. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but I think that the lack of run scoring has to affect the pitchers, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Hitters like Gerald Laird driving in multiple runs. Guy was hitting .157/.263/.257 heading into the game, and he drove home two of the Tigers’ runs, including their first? You gotta be kidding me. The first was an excuse me hit, which makes it that much more frustrating. It’s right up there with walking the 9 hitter.

Joys

There was no joy in Detroit today…except that Sabathia didn’t walk anyone.

Nor did Ivan Nova, who made his major league debut. Chances of him starting the game Sunday are slim to none, but I think he should get a shot. Might as well keep Mitre around for long relief and let the actual starting prospect get a chance.

WPA Graphs and box score

I’m only posting this graph because we do it every game. If I had my druthers I’d give it the Trey Hillman treatment.

Box score here.

Up Next

Home again! The Yanks start a three-game set with Minnesota tomorrow night at the Stadium. It’ll be a tough one, with A.J. Burnett going against Francisco Liriano.

Stoneburner flirts with perfection in Tampa debut, but Ramirez steals the show

Here’s all the player movement from today. Meanwhile, Mike Ashmore had a great piece on Alan Horne and his rehab from a torn rotator cuff. Don’t miss it.

Triple-A Scranton (7-3 win over Columbus) faced the guy that perfect game’d Double-A Trenton last year
Reegie Corona, 2B & Reid Gorecki, CF: both 1 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – Corona hit a solo jack
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 SB – up to .323-.377-.402 … Baseball America had a little puff piece on him today (subs. req’d)
David Winfree, 1B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 RBI
Jon Weber, RF: 2 for 2, 2 R, 2 BB
Jesus Montero, DH: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB – he pulled an A-Rod
Chad Huffman, LF: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 3 RBI – 10 for his last 17 (.588)
Robby Hammock, C: 0 for 3, 1 BB
Matt Cusick, 3B: 0 for 4, 1 E (fielding)
Jason Hirsh: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 6-6 GB/FB – 60 of 99 pitches were strikes (60.6%) … just 26 hits allowed in 43.2 IP
Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB - 11 of his 20 pitches were strikes
Zack Segovia: 2 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 2-2 GB/FB – 23 of his 34 pitches were strikes (67.6%)

[Read more…]

Open Thread: Coming back home

"I hope they're showing Avatar on the flight home." (Photo Credit: Duane Burleson, AP)

Well, I’m glad that little trip is over with. The Yankees have played only 12 of their 34 games at home this season, the fewest in the majors. Hopefully being back in the Boogie Down will get some people healthy and get some bats going. The series in Detroit was ugly, but they only gave up 13 runs in four games. That’s nothing.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. The Mets and Marlins are on SNY and MLB Network, plus what could potentially be LeBron James’ last game as a Cavalier will be played as well. Also, Game Seven between Bruins-Flyers is on; Boston led that series 3-0 at one point. Nevermind, it’s tomorrow. Anything goes, so have fun.

Yankee Stadium to host Jay-Z/Eminem twin bill

Supposedly, Jay-Z makes a Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can. Although I don’t believe that claim for a minute, he will be making Yankee history this September as he and Eminem will be the first two artists to play a concert at the new Yankee Stadium. The hip hop duo announced last night their plans to play in Detroit at Comerica Park on September 2 and at Yankee Stadium on September 13. Jay-Z will headline in New York while Eminem will carry top billing in his native town.

Jay-Z, who performed “Empire State of Mind” at Yankee Stadium prior to Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, issued a statement about the date: “These shows are like a dream come true. I’ve always hoped that hip-hop could play any stadium like other genres of music. How perfect is it that Eminem and I get to play our hometowns and show how far the live rap experience has come? Fun and historic — a great combination all around the board.”