On slow starts and small sample sizes

Last night, after he failed to record a hit, reporters pestered David Ortiz with questions about his slow start, and the embattled Red Sox DH erupted in the greatest example of Mad Libs ever. “You guys wait ’til [expletive] happens, then you can talk [expletive]. Two [expletive] games, and already you [expletives] are going crazy,” he said. “What’s up with that, man? [Expletive]. [Expletive] 160 games left. That’s a [expletive]. One of you [expletives] got to go ahead and hit for me.”

Earlier today, Fack Youk, in a post that fills in the graphic-language blanks, takes on the topic of small sample sizes and the early goings. We know that slow starts don’t mean much in the grand scheme of a 162-game season. We know that players will eventually regress to the means, get their hits, hit their home runs. We know that we can’t judge Ortiz on eight plate appearances and can’t proclaim the return of Joba based on two strike outs. Yet, so many people — from players to fans to reporters — do so. Anyway, check out what Matt had to say at Fack Youk, and remember that there are “[expletive] 160 games left.”

The importance of taking a pitch

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

In a fairly routine 6-4 win last night, the Yankees saw 185 pitches over 43 plate appearances. The winning run scored on a walk, and their six and seven hitters saw a combined 53 pitches over nine plate appearances. The Yanks’ offense made the Red Sox hurlers work their way through a nine-inning game, and in the truest sense of the baseball cliche, they grinded out a win.

For the Yankees, taking pitches, working the count and upping opposing pitchers’ pitch counts isn’t a new story. Brian Cashman and, before him, Gene Michael have built teams based upon patience since 1994 when the Yanks led the league in on-base percentage and were second in pitches seen and third in pitches per plate appearance. In fact, the Yanks have been one of the AL’s top three on-base teams in all but two of the past 16 seasons.

All of this patience pays off. Last year, for instance, the Yankees led the AL in pitches seen with 25,049. They averaged 3.88 pitchers per plate appearance, good for fifth in the Junior Circuit, and the team’s hitters worked the count to 3-1 709 times, well above the league average of 583. In just 24 percent of plate appearances, Yankee hitters swung at the first pitch. Only the Red Sox and Angels swung at fewer first pitches. By taking so many pitches, the Yanks drew an AL-leading 663 walks and scored 915 runs.

Already this year, in two games, we’ve seen some similar trends. Over their first two games, the Yanks have seen 341 pitches and have made the Red Sox pitchers work for their strikes and for their outs. They’ve drawn 11 walks and have an overall OBP of .395. They’re already averaging 6.5 runs per game.

So why then does it matter? Last night we saw it matter when Nick Johnson stood at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. He took a few close pitches, earned himself a few nice calls and walked away with the game-winning RBI. Overall, the team can use this patience and willingness to take pitches to tire out pitchers to their advantage. At 3.88 pitches per plate appearance, starting pitchers will reach the 100-pitch mark after approximately 25 or 26 batters. Managers will have to turn to their bullpens for around 9-12 outs, and the Yanks will see more outs secured by lesser pitchers.

In a sense, the need for patience goes without saying. Of course, the more a starting pitcher throws early on, the sooner he’ll be out of the ballgame. The more a pitcher throws, the more likely he is to make a mistake. The more pitches the Yanks see, the more likely they are to get on base. They more they’re on base, the more they score. On the other hand, though, enough teams overlook it that the Yanks’ attention to patience can become a significant advantage.

So as Nick Johnson puts up a .000/.500/.000 line over this first two games and as two hitters in the bottom half of the Yanks’ order sees a combined 53 pitches in one night, the team will put on a clinic in getting on base. Before Moneyball came around, the Yankees knew the importance of taking pitches, and the team still excels at it.

Yankees claim Chad Huffman from San Diego

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees have claimed outfielder/first baseman Chad Huffman from the Padres. He was designated for assignment earlier this week to make room on their roster for Matt Stairs. The 24-year-old righty hitter was ranked as San Diego’s 21st best prospect coming into the season by Baseball America, who noted his ability to murder fastballs and his susceptibility to offspeed stuff. Limited to first base or left field, Huffman’s just an okay defensive player who won’t steal any bases. In other words, this is purely a Triple-A depth move.

The Yankees had an open spot on their 40-man roster following the release of Chad Gaudin, so there’s no other move coming. Remember, former Padres’ GM Kevin Towers is now a special adviser for the Yanks, so I’m certain he had some input on this move.

Minor League Roundtable

The fourth – and final – installment of the nine person roundtable discussion of the Yankees’ minor league system has been posted at Pending Pinstripes, a place I once called home. The first three parts can be found here, here, and here. Today’s topics focus a little more on the big league team, like which traded player they’ll miss the most, and who has the chance to be this year’s Ramiro Pena. Make sure you check it out, it’s always great to get different perspectives.

A stylish Stadium sponsorship from DKNY

Yankee Stadium is getting more stylish this summer as Donna Karan and the Yanks have announced a three-year sponsorship deal for the DKNY line. The New York lifestyle line will become the team’s first fashion sponsor, and the deal will include in-stadium signage, sponsorship of the right field Dugout Lounge and an outfield billboard, according to SportsProMedia.com.

“Donna Karan created DKNY to capture the spirit of New York and the people who live here, including the most successful baseball team in history: the Yankees,” DKNY Chair and CEO Mark Weber said.” This unique sponsorship gives DKNY a direct way to reach the consumer and also provides enormous visibility among the loyal, passionate audience, and the millions of fans who visit Yankee Stadium each year, and the many millions who watch Yankees games on television.”

Terms of the deal have not been announced, but it is believed to be in the seven-figure range and will run through the 2013 season.

Photo above courtesy of DKNY.

Burnett’s reaction after surrendering a homer

Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

Last night was not one of A.J. Burnett‘s finest starts. He lasted just five innings, throwing 94 pitches along the way. He managed to limit the Red Sox to one walk, but he also allowed four runs, three earned, through those five innings, including a game-tying double just after the Yankees had given him the lead in the fifth. It took some excellent pitching by the Yankees’ bullpen to set up the late-inning win.

One thing did stand out to me about Burnett’s outing. Perhaps it’s a narrative infused by the media, but I was impressed that Burnett came back to get the next two batters after surrendering a two-run homer to Victor Martinez in the third. As the storyline goes, Burnett can’t let go of bad pitches and he lets it affect him going forward. If that is, or was, indeed, the case, then he did a good job of bucking the trend last night, as he followed the home run with an excellent sequence to Kevin Youkilis, freezing him on a two-strike curveball, before getting David Ortiz to ground out for the second time.

Has this really been a problem for Burnett? Or has it been a narrative created because of a few notably frustrating situations in which Burnett fell apart after surrendering a long fly? Since I’m no good at database work, I did what I could, which was go through his 2009 game logs and record what happened after each home run. The results are a mixed bag of sorts.

Part of the problem is Burnett’s performances against the Red Sox. In 2009 he surrendered five home runs against them, which is frustrating enough to begin with. After three of those home runs he allowed more runs to score in the inning. After the two biggest home runs, though, a three-run shot on August 22 and a grand slam on April 25, Burnett retired the very next batter to end the inning. It was of little consolation at that point, though, considering the damage, so perhaps that’s why it gets glossed over.

It looks like Burnett had the most trouble after surrendering a home run with none or one out. He allowed 10 home runs with two outs in the inning and in six of those instances he retired the next batter to end the inning. Again, small consolation, and we tend to forget when he does something like that because of the home run’s effect. He had the most trouble with leadoff home runs. He allowed eight of them, and then allowed 16 runners to reach base later in those innings.

What I’m not sure of is how Burnett compares to his peers in this regard. Surely a home run will frustrate any pitcher. Does it get to Burnett to a greater degree than other pitchers? I’m not sure. He did a good job of recovering from two-out home runs in 2009, and struggled after allowing a leadoff home run. Last night was a nice change of pace, as he recorded two quick outs, one in impressive fashion, after allowing a go-ahead two-run home run with one out. There are plenty of things that Burnett has to improve upon in 2010. His walks and his recovery from home runs rank among them, and he got off to a good start on both fronts.

The 2010 RAB Pledge Drive reminder

In case you missed it, we’ve announced our plans for out 2010 Pledge Drive benefiting Curtis Granderson‘s Grand Kids Foundation. Details can be found by clinking on the link. We’ve already raised $12.30 through two games, and are on pace for close to $1,000 this season. It’s never to late to get in on the action, and we can make your pledge retroactive to the start of the season, or effective today. We’re pretty flexible. Thanks in advance.