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.

Yanks walk their way to first win of the season

With two days for the Opening Night loss to fester, the Yankees and their fans were champing at the bit for Tuesday’s matchup. The Yanks and Red Sox played one of those good old fashioned back-and-forth affairs, and it was a typical game between the two rivals: drawn out and mentally draining. Both teams had plenty of chances to blow the game open, but it wasn’t until one batter simply refused to make an on out that the decisive run was scored.

Photo Credit: Charles Krupa, AP

Biggest Hit: Nick Johnson‘s bases loaded walk

The biggest hit of the game wasn’t even a hit, it was a wimpy little walk. Nick Johnson – a.k.a. The OBP Jesus – stepped to the plate in the 8th inning with the bases loaded and two outs, sporting a .444 OBP on the young season but zero hits. He drew a pair of walks in five plate appearances on Sunday, then drew another walk and was hit by a pitch in his first four plate appearances on Tuesday. Hideki Okajima was already 27 pitches into his night when Johnson  dug in, so fatigue was starting to come into the picture.

After three straight balls, NJ took a called strike before Okajima missed inside with a pitch, putting Johnson on base for the fifth time of the season and simultaneously walking in the go ahead run. It was the biggest WPA swing of the game, and he didn’t even bother to take the bat off of his shoulders. Nick’s cool like that.

Biggest Out: Marco Scutaro’s double play

In terms of WPA, the four biggest outs record by Yankee pitchers were all three outs in the 8th inning and the first out in the 9th inning. I’m going to go back a little bit earlier for what I think was the biggest out of the game, Marco Scutaro’s inning ending double play in the 4th. The Yankees trailed 3-1 at the time, and the Red Sox were poised to tack on some more runs after Adrian Beltre singled (again) and Mike Cameron took a breaking ball to the ribs.

A.J. Burnett had been in battle mode all night, pitching out of the stretch for what seemed like the entire game. He painted the outside black for strike one to the former A’s utility man, then overthrew a fastball that was too high for a ball. His third pitch, a 95 mph two seamer down and in, tied Scutaro up, resulting in a harmless groundball to short that turned into an inning ending 6-4-3 double play. If Scutaro reaches base and turns the lineup over with less than two outs, things could have gotten out of hand quickly.

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola, AP

Pulling the starter an inning early

Second guessing calls to the bullpen comes with the territory of baseball blogging, and we saw a prime example of this Sunday night when CC Sabathia was left in even after he was visibly fatigued. Joe Girardi didn’t make the same mistake tonight, lifting Burnett after five innings and 94 pitches, but more importantly, before he had a chance to work himself into trouble in the 6th.

Burnett’s performance was okay – 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K – servicable, but nothing to write home about. He didn’t have a 1-2-3 inning all night, and he let the leadoff hitter reach base in the first four frames. Just two of those leadoff hitters came around to score, but starting 80% of your innings off with a baserunner isn’t exactly a recipe for success. Burnett finished strong by striking out both Kevin Youkilis and The Corpse of David Ortiz swinging, but given his generally shakiness, it was time to get him out of there.

The old saying is that it’s better to get rid of a player a year early than a year late, and that same concept applies to this game. Bravo to Girardi for getting Burnett out of there before he made another mess, one he may not have been able to wiggle out of.

Bullpen shenanigans

Once Burnett was out of the game, Girardi turned to old reliable, Al Aceves. The Mexican Gangster tossed up two perfect innings on just 23 pitches, but once the almighty 8th inning came around, Girardi went back into micromanaging mode. The same cast of characters that let the game get away on Sunday night were right back in there on Tuesday, though they escaped the inning unscathed after Joba Chamberlain struck out a pair and pumped his fists like drunken pledges on initiation night. It worked for this game, but the constant mixing and matching is painful to watch. The more relievers you use, the more likely it is that you’ll find someone having a bad night.

Things That Made Me Smile

Photo Credit: Charles Krupa, AP

Nick Johnson gets all the attention for his plate discipline skills, but the other Nick put on an absolute clinic tonight. Swisher’s first at-bat came with runners at first and second and one out, and he served a 94 mph fastball on the outer half into the rightfield corner for a game tying double. His plate appearance in the 4th lasted five pitches and ended when he took a curveball off his back foot. Leading off the 6th against Manny Delcarmen, Swisher took the first three pitches for a 2-1 count, then fouled a pitch off and took another off the plate to work it full. Two more foul balls later, he roped a double off the wall. In his final turn at the plate. Swish fouled off four 0-2 pitches and seven total (seven!) in an 11 pitch at-bat. The Yankees’ 7th place hitter saw 30 pitches by himself on Tuesday, seven more than anyone else on the field.

Considering how much attention his defense received after Sunday’s game, I suspect we won’t hear a damn thing about Jorge Posada‘s fine work behind the plate tonight. He blocked several curveballs in the dirt with guys on base, and even called for a 3-2 curve with a runner on third, knowing if it got away from him it would cost the team a run. Yeah, he threw the ball into center on Jacoby Ellsbury first inning stolen base, but he shouldn’t have been on base in the first place. He was though, and that’s because…

The Marcus Thames Experiment got off to an inauspicious start when he misread a fly ball that led to a run in the first, and then he later compounded the damage by striking out looking to end the fourth. Needless to say, I was glad to see Girardi give him the quick hook and pinch hit Brett Gardner in the 6th inning. Although they didn’t score in the inning, it was the right move. Thames has a very limited skill set, so getting a more useful player into the game once Jon Lester was out of there increased the team’s chances of winning.

Faced the challenge of hitting in the fifth spot on the lineup, Robbie Cano continues to smoke the ball. He singled in the 2nd, walked to lead off the 4th, drove in a run with a sac fly in the 5th, and pushed a big insurance run across the plate with a solo jack in the 9th. Cano’s hitting a cool .500 on the young season.

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola, AP

Joba Chamberlain’s fist pump. I still think he should be a starter, but man, those are always fun. Two batters faced, two swinging strikeouts. It was good to see someone slam the door in a sticky situation after Sunday’s debacle.

Annoying Moments

Even though they won, the Yankees squandered more than their fair share of opportunities. They leadoff man reached base in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th innings, yet they only scored runs in two of those innings. As a team, they went just 3-for-14 with men in scoring position, though that doesn’t include NJ’s bases loaded free pass. Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson went a combined 0-for-8 in those spots. That’s three guys in the span of four lineup spots leaving ducks on the pond.

It’s probably just a small sample size thing, but damn, Jeter’s hitting a ton of grounders to short so far. He had three of them in the first game (one got through for a hit), and then three more this game. The Captain’s calling card is serving the ball into right, but he has yet to put a ball in play to that field in this young season, instead hitting everything back up the middle, shaded towards the shortstop.

Damaso Marte throwing over to with Kevin Youkilis on first. The guy has 19 career steals in close to 700 games. How necessary was that? If that wasn’t bad enough, he threw a sinker and Tex couldn’t handle it, putting the tying run on second with no outs late in the game.

Next Up

These two teams are back at it tomorrow night for the final game of the series, with first pitch scheduled for 7:10pm ET. That one will be on YES and ESPN2.

WPA Graph

Who doesn’t love these things? You can check out the individual player breakdowns at FanGraphs’ box score.