Approaching and exceeding 100 pitches

As Andy Pettitte worked into the 8th inning on Sunday afternoon against the Rangers, his pitch count started to creep up toward the century mark, and Michael Kay and John Flaherty turned their attention to Joe Girardi’s decision to keep Pettitte in the game. From pitch 96 through 107 — the last Pettitte would throw — Kay and Flaherty continued to mention the pitch count.

After striking out Michael Young, Pettitte had thrown 104 pitches, and Josh Hamilton, a lefty, came to the plate. Three pitches later, Pettitte had retired Hamilton on a foul pop, and after 107 pitches, his day was done. That century mark, though, had been a big moment for Pettitte. In his two previous starts, he had thrown 94 pitches and then 100, but this time, Girardi unleashed him.

During the pitch count discussion, Kay mentioned a conversation he had with Girardi following A.J. Burnett‘s start. When Burnett’s pitch count started to creep up, the guys in the booth again wondered when Girardi would turn to his bullpen, and that time, Girardi allowed Burnett to throw 111 pitches. He had previously thrown 92 and 94 in his two starts. Girardi said he wanted to get his starters stretched out, and in both games, the Yanks had leads large enough to allow the team some leeway. Pettitte could throw 107 pitches without endangering the lead; Burnett could toss 111 low-stress pitches to build up arm strength. It was, in a sense, an extension of Spring Training.

Yet what struck me most was how rigidly Kay and Flaherty were adhering to the 100-pitch mark. It seemed as though the team just had to remove their starters after 100 pitches because of some magically point in the game when the hurlers tire. Should we care that much though about 100 pitches?

In a recent piece on how teams on a budget should treat their cost-controlled arms, R.J. Anderson mused on pitch counts over at Maddon’s Mission. He discussed the Rangers’ approach toward pitch count. The Rangers, he said, are “implementing better conditioning with the ideology that pitch counts won’t matter because their pitchers will be more able to survive higher workloads.” Why, he wondered, do we care about the round number of 100 pitches?

For young pitchers, the prevailing philosophy seems to be go hard or go easy but ne’er the twain shall meet. Work your kids until they can’t throw anymore and get the most of their cost-controlled years — see, for example, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito — or keep their pitch counts under the microscope — see, for example, Joba Chamberlain. But what of the old guys? The Yanks could do well to let them push the envelope.

Last year, Joe Girardi allowed his pitchers to exceed 100 pitches 78 times. Opposing batters hit .237/.332/.316 in those 208 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size but not one that indicates we should be too worried when a starter reaches the century mark. In fact, in the AL as a whole, pitchers threw more than 100 pitches 978 times last year, and opponents hit .258/.335/.399. That’s an sOPS+ of 106, indicating that pitchers who exceeded 100 pitches generally performed better at that point in the game than pitchers overall had earlier. On the surface, that makes sense because if a pitcher is still in at that point, clearly, he’s throwing well.

So far this year, the Yanks have put together a solid bullpen and a nice run of starts from their rotation. Last year, CC Sabathia led the way with 25 starts of more than 100 pitches, and A.J. and Andy threw 23 and 22 respectively. The team can push the envelope, and their starting horses are in good enough pitching shape to go more than 100 pitches every five days. Until the results say otherwise, let them throw.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

A good chance for Vazquez to get back on track

It’s no secret that Javy Vazquez has underwhelmed in his first two starts this season. Not only has he allowed 12 runs in 11 innings, but he’s only thrown 58.8% first pitch strikes and has gotten just 7.6% swinging strikes, both well below his career averages. Javy will make his third start of the season tonight, and the good news is that there’s going to be a lot working in his favor.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

The A’s have started the season well with a 9-5 record and +15 run differential, though they’ve spent a lot of time beating up on the punchless Mariners and awful Orioles. As a team they hit a fair amount of fly balls (37.2%) despite not really having any homerun threats in the lineup, and they make contact on 84.1% of the swings they take, one of the best rates in the league. Their offense is built a lot like the Yankees in that they make a ton of contact and hit lots of balls in the air, but they don’t put as many men on base (8.7 BB%) and they certainly don’t have the same kind of power.

Oakland’s home park is rather spacious with an infamous amount of foul territory. Over the last three years it’s suppressed homers and doubles to about 91% of the league average, though it’ll certainly beef up the number of triples hit. Three-baggers are kind of a special case anyway, because they usually require an exceptionally fast runner and/or an outfielder misplaying a ball to happen. Anyway, Javy’s going to have the advantage of facing a team without much power in a park that already suppresses extra-base hits, something you couldn’t say about his last two starts.

Some of his struggles have been attributed to mechanical issues, but there’s bound to be some confidence issues here as well. How could there not be after getting smacked around in two starts and getting booed off the mound at home? A strong outing and a win could go a long way just toward restoring an measure of normalcy to Javy’s baseball life, which could have a big effect going forward.

No one expected Vazquez to come in and be the pitcher he was last year in Atlanta, but we all certainly expected him to be better than he has been thus far this season. That said, it’s still just two starts. If he put two outing like that together in the middle of June, no one would care, but because they happened in his first two starts of the year, well it’s the worst thing in the world. April has this strange way of magnifying things. The matchup tonight features an impatient and power deficient lineup in a pitcher’s park, so everything’s working in Vazquez’s favor.  It’s a good opportunity for him to go out, toss up some zeroes, and walk away with a win and a boost his confidence.

And you know what? If he doesn’t, that’s not the end of the world either. His season will be just nine percent or so complete by this time tomorrow. There’s lots of time left.

Can Jorge possibly keep up his contact and swing rates?

Like all teams, the Yankees faced a number of questions heading into the 2010 season. Could they continue to perform in the face of even loftier expectations? Would their new acquisitions adequately replace the departed? Can the veterans keep up their production? This last question concerned me most, particularly at two positions, shortstop and catcher. The Yankees have enjoyed advantages at those two spots over the past decade-plus. To see production erode there would run down the lineup. Thankfully, both Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have opened the season with strong performances.

Photo credit: Charles Krupa/AP

Of the two, Posada concerned me a bit more. Catchers typically slow down at Posada’s age, and while he’s done a good job of staving off Father Time to this point we know that can’t last forever. Early in the off-season, Bill James ran a study that examined the likelihood of a player’s performance declining in 2010. Of all players who accumulated 400 plate appearances in 2009, Jorge ranked as the most likely to decline. While age did play a factor, a number of performance issues did, too. For instance, Posada’s BB/K ratio was his lowest since 2001.

Thankfully, Posada has temporarily stopped these questions with his early season surge. In his 43 PA so far he has hit .378/.465/.730, a ridiculous .505 wOBA. Clearly he cannot maintain that throughout 2010. It does provide a positive sign, though, that he can continue producing at an elite level. Not only are his production numbers up, but so are his peripherals. His contact rate and walk rates are up, while his strikeout rate is down considerably. Even if these numbers come down (or up) a bit over the next five and a half months, Posada can still carve out an impressive season at age 38.

As we know, though, drawing conclusions form a sample as small as 43 PA can prove misleading. Anything can happen in two weeks, so we tend to back off on analysis of the first few weeks. Still, there are certain things we can glean from a sample only slightly larger than Jorge’s. From the Sabermetrics Library, we can start to see certain stats normalize at as few as 50 PA. Here’s the entire list:

  • 50 PA: Swing%
  • 100 PA: Contact Rate
  • 150 PA: Strikeout Rate, Line Drive Rate, Pitches/PA
  • 200 PA: Walk Rate, Ground Ball Rate, GB/FB
  • 250 PA: Fly Ball Rate
  • 300 PA: Home Run Rate, HR/FB
  • 500 PA: OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B Rate, Popup Rate
  • 550 PA: ISO

Posada’s Swing% currently sits at 42 percent, which more resembles his 2008 and 2009 seasons than his stellar 2007, when he was at 38.3 percent. That number could come down over his next seven PA, I suppose. Still, it seems odd to think that anyone’s Swing% would stabilize in as few as 50 PA. There’s research to back up the claim, but I’m still skeptical. I’d still expect Posada’s Swing% to resemble his 2002-2009 rate of 40.6 percent.

Two of Posada’s discipline stats which stand out are his Z-Contact and overall Contact rates. Z-Contact refers to pitches within the strike zone. Posada has yet to miss one of those pitches. He surely will, of course. Those numbers, according to Russell Carleton’s studies (linked at Sabermetrics Library), stabilize at 100 PA. Another two and a half weeks should give us a better indicator of whether Jorge will make contact at a rate closer to his 2007 mark of 82.5 percent, or more like his 2009 mark of 79.5 percent.

What I’ll really be looking at is where Jorge stands at around 200 PA. That’s when we’ll get a real idea of his strikeout and walk rates for the season. Again, Posada’s ranking in the Bill James study came in large part because his strikeout rate represented a seven-year high and his walk rate represented an eight-year low. So far in 2010 he has walked in 14 percent of his PA and has struck out in just 10.8 percent. Again, while we should expect these numbers to regress towards his career totals, they could still forecast a strong season.

As is quoted in the Sabermetics Library post, “In small sample sizes, a good scout is always better than stats.” I don’t think any scout, though, could find much to criticize in Jorge’s hot start. He won’t end the season with the numbers he has now — a .730 SLG is quite impossible for him. But it has been quite encouraging to see him get off to a hot start. If nothing else it set aside, at least temporarily, questions about his age. At best it forecasts yet another quality season from the seemingly ageless catcher.

Montero goes deep in Scranton win

Andrew Brackman is on the 7-day disabled for an unknown reason, though it’s worth noting that a lot of guys go through dead arm periods this time of the season. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.

I never made note of this, but Manny Banuelos is out for a while after an appendectomy. Not a terribly serious issue, but somewhat time consuming. Also, John Van Benschoten was promoted to Triple-A Scranton to take Boone Logan‘s spot, and Cary Arbiso was activated from the DL to take JVB’s spot with Double-A Trenton.

And finally, I beefed up The Montero Watch a bit, adding his full triple-slash line per multiple requests.

Triple-A Scranton (7-2 win over Buffalo)
Greg Golson, CF: 3 for 4, 2 R, 1 3B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 SB – dude’s 10 for his last 23 (.435)
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 1 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Juan Miranda, 1B: 2 for 4, 1 RBI, 2 K, 1 HBP
David Winfree, LF: 1 for 3, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 E (fielding)
Jon Weber, DH & Reegie Corona, 2B: both 0 for 4 – Weber drew a walk & scored … Corona K’ed
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 HR 1 RBI, 1 PB, 1 E (catcher’s interference) – first Triple-A jack came off a knuckleballer … he hit it in an 0-2 count as well
Colin Curtis, RF & Robby Hammock, 3B: both 0 for 3 – Curtis drew a walk, scored & threw a runner out at third
Zach McAllister: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 5-10 GB/FB – 67 of 99 pitches were strikes … he’s more than holding his own, but his groundball rate is in the tank (~0.54 GB/FB) … it’s only been three starts though, that could change very quickly
Amaury Sanit: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1-1 GB/FB - 12 of 17 pitches were strikes (70.6%)
Royce Ring: 0.1 IP, zeroes, 1-0 GB/FB – two of his four pitches were strikes … oh to be a Triple-A LOOGY
Mark Melancon: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB - just 10 of 21 pitches were strikes (47.6%) … very un-Melancon like

[Read more…]

Open Thread: Goin’ goin’, back back, to Cali Cali

Gaudin's got a 1.43 xFIP and a 16.88 K/9 in 2010. (Photo Credit: Jeff Chiu, AP)

I’m pretty sure I’ve used that post title before, but so be it.

The Yankees are probably already in the Bay Area in advance of their series against old buddy Chad Gaudin and the A’s, otherwise they’re probably en route. I wonder if they’ll present Gaudin with this World Series ring there, or if he’ll have to wait for the Fed-Ex guy. I’d like to see Joe Girardi & Co. hand it off, would be a nice thing to do.

Anyway, here’s the open thread for the night. There’s NBA and NHL playoff action, and the Cubs are visiting Ike Davis and the Mets. Talk about whatever you want, but enjoy.

So far, the bandbox is gone

Prior to the start of the 2010 season, Joe pondered if the new Yankee Stadium would still be as home run-friendly as it was last April. Noting that “perception of Yankee Stadium as a bandbox started in April and was based mostly on a game where Cleveland hit six home runs,” he wondered if the stadium would play truer to its late-2009 trends or its early-season long-ball tendencies.

Well, with the first homestand of the season behind us, the Yanks and their opponents hit 13 home runs or just over two round-trippers a game. Opponents hit four of those in 210 plate appearances, good for a home run rate of one long ball every 52.5 plate appearances. The Yankees hit nine of those or one every 24.89 plate appearances. If those figures look awfully similar to the 2009 rates, well, that’s because they are. The Yanks are still very good at hitting home runs at home, and through six games, the team’s pitchers have been even stingier with the long ball than they were last year.

This long-standing home run reality, though, hasn’t stopped writers from proclaiming a slow-down in the home run rate. Take a peek at this AP article from Ronald Blum. He alleges that the stadium “no longer is playing like a bandbox.” Never mind the fact that it hasn’t since last May. It’s time to play Let’s Create a Meme, and this year’s winner is the opposite of a bandbox.

In the article, Blum alleges that because there were two homerless games already this season, something must be different, but the Yankees are having none of it. “Guys have been making good pitches and going about their business the right way. I don’t think I’ve noticed any difference at all,” Joba Chamberlain said. “I guess at the end of the season we’ll see how everything compares, but I don’t think it’s any different.”

Andy Pettitte was one of the stadium’s early critics, and he had trouble at the start of 2009 trusting his stuff in the new park. Since then, he’s grown accustomed to it. “Last year it was just early, we had winds that were ripping straight out, and now what we’ve got is we’ve got winds that are going dead in.” Pettitte said. “So it’s definitely to left field I believe has played a lot different on this homestand than it did on the first couple of homestands last year. Toward the end of the season last year, I felt like it really started playing pretty fair. Right field is short. That’s all there is to it. But the rest of the ballpark plays actually pretty big.”

Therein lies the rub. The stadium was slightly home run-happy last year, but that’s because the Yankees had a home run-happy lineup of left-handed sluggers. The team is primed to exploit that advantage again this year, but otherwise, the stadium has suppressed non-home run extra-base hits. It plays, in other words, like a fair baseball stadium, and those who criticized its home runs have been notably silent since early last spring.

Yankees visiting the White House next Monday

Buried at the bottom of this column about the Yankees’ awesomeness, Joel Sherman mentions that the team will visit the White House next Monday where President Obama will honor the World Champions. The team is off that day, and they’ll be in the D.C. area after flying east from the West Coast en route to a date with the Orioles. Traditionally, the team being honored will give the Commander-in-Chief a jersey featuring the number that corresponds to his presidency, but 44 is already taken in Yankeeland. It would be pretty funny if Reggie made a big stink about the team’s giving away a jersey with his retired number and to a noted White Sox fan no less.