Yanks’ battery leads the way to 4-1 victory

With the Yankees 4-1 win over the Orioles last night they’ve secured yet another series triumph. Their one series loss balances out with their one sweep, meaning that even if they lose tomorrow they’ll still have a .667 win percentage. They do have a good chance to sweep, too, as the pitching matchup favors them. Then again, it seems like the pitching matchup favors them every game these days.

Chalk up this win to Burnett and Cervelli. The former brought his best stuff and flummoxed Orioles hitters for 7.1 innings. The latter not only played some excellent defense, including an incredible catch while falling into the dugout, but also had a 3-3 night at the plate. Even when he made an out it was a sacrifice that led to a run.

Biggest HitBunt: Pena’s sacrifice

In case we haven’t made it lear, we use Win Probability Added (WPA) to determine the biggest moments of the game. You can click on the WPA link to read a full explanation of the stat. If you’re really interested in WPA and its applications, read this thread on The Book Blog. (And if you’re really hardcore, read the comments.) This is a long way of saying that I don’t think Pena was responsible for the biggest WPA swing of the game. He happen to be the guy who got the carousel started, though.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Through four innings Orioles starter Brian Matusz got through the Yankees’ lineup with few troubles. His only earned run came on Francisco Cervelli‘s triple, but even that wasn’t totally his fault. Most of the blame goes to Adam Jones, who dove for a ball that only he thought he could catch. A web gem it was not, and the Yanks took advantage a batter later when Pena grounded one to short. That was in the third. Two innings later, Matusz would again run into the buzzsaw that is the bottom of the Yanks order.

Matusz started the inning in the worst possible way, by walking Brett Gardner. That can cause problems. Cervelli then continued his good luck ways, blooping one into right. With runners on first and second with none out, and with the top of the order due up, sacrificing Pena was a pretty obvious choice. After popping one up and having it roll foul, he successfully laid down a good one. It went to the left side for Matusz to field. What followed made me think of the opening lines of this song. (Pardon the Fred Durst cameo; it was 1998, after all.)

Just as A.J. Burnett had done in the third, Matusz threw it past the second baseman covering first. That was more than enough leeway for Brett Gardner to score, breaking the 1-1 tie. Four batters and two walks later, the Yankees added another run to that tally. It would be enough to topple the Orioles.

Biggest Pitch: Burnett’s blunder

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Through the first two innings it looked like Burnett had stuff that would baffle the Orioles all night long. Garrett Atkins opened the inning with a single, but no problem, right? Burnett has actually been inducing grounders, so the double play was an actual possibility. But instead he walked Rhyne Hughes, bringing up Cesar Izturis in an obvious sacrifice situation. He laid it down and Burnett fielded, but he threw it too far to Cano’s glove side. The ball got past him, which allowed Atkins to score and give the Orioles their first lead of the game.

Though first two batters were reversed (hit-walk for the O’s and walk-hit for the Yanks), the two botched bunt situations were pretty much identical. The 7-8 hitters got on, setting up a sacrifice for the No. 9 guy, with the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters waiting to break open the game. Both pitchers threw the ball away, allowing the lead runner to score. The difference, of course, was that Burnett struck out the next three hitters, while Matusz recorded two outs before walking two straight to force in a run.

The dominance of Allen James

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Heading into last night’s start, we saw a bit of a different look from Burnett. Last year he was a high-strikeout, high-walk, high-flyball guy. This season, however, he’s struck out far fewer batters, just 5.40 per nine, compared to 8.48 per nine last year. His walks, though, are also down, 2.43 per nine to 4.22 last year. Meanwhile, his ground ball rate rose from 42.8 percent to 48.5 percent. It’s still early, and there’s no telling if these peripherals will hold up. Watching him deal, though, it sure looks like he knows what he’s doing.

Burnett allowed just one run last night, though because it scored on an error it was unearned. How a pitcher can skate by with an unearned run on his own error is beyond me, but then again I dislike the entire concept of earned runs. This time, though, he had his strikeout stuff, sitting down eight Orioles. Even better, three of them came with a runner on third and less than two outs. In fact, in every runner on third, less than two outs situation Burnett recorded a strikeout.

As if the return of his strikeouts wasn’t good enough, Burnett also recorded eight outs on the ground. With 7.1 innings pitched, Burnett recorded 22 outs. Sixteen of them were a strikeout or a groundout. There was nothing unimpressive about this start.

Can’t forget Cervelli

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

No one wants Jorge Posada‘s bat out of the lineup. He’s one of the top offensive catchers in the league, one of the few that can hit for power. Thanks to Francisco Cervelli’s torrid start, the Yanks aren’t missing Posada as much as they could. He was one of the heroes last night, involving himself in nearly every scoring situation.

In the third his leadoff triple led to the tying run. In the fifth his single put the Yankees in a favorable position. He even scored the run when A-Rod walked with the bases loaded. Then in the eighth his sacrifice put Brett Gardner on third with one out, which set up the Pena sacrifice fly.

That doesn’t even cover what he did while donning the tools of ignorance. The kid looks like a natural behind the plate. He blocks pitches well, using his glove and chest protector to keep the ball in front of him. He showed excellent tracking skills when he ran down that fly ball that was about to land in the Yankees dugout. There’s not much more you can ask of a backup catcher.

Joys

All accounted for above.

Annoyances

All accounted for above. Which is to say that errant throw in the third, but even that lasted all of a minute. Hard to stay annoyed when Burnett comes back and strikes out the next three guys.

WPA Graph

I would like to take this WPA graph behind the middle school and get it pregnant.

Next Up

It’s a getaway day for the Orioles, as they’ll play a 1 p.m. game tomorrow. David Hernandez against Andy Pettitte. And then the Red Sox.

Romine goes deep again in Trenton loss

Triple-A Scranton (12-4 loss to Norfolk)
Kevin Russo, CF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 2 BB – played center for the first time in his life … there’s no true CF on the roster now that Golson’s in the bigs & Curtis is on the DL, so I guess he’s the guy for the foreseeable future
Reegie Corona, 2B: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 BB, 1 K
Eduardo Nunez, SS, David Winfree, RF & Chad Huffman, LF: all 0 for 4 – Nunez drove in a run & K’ed twice
Juan Miranda, 1B: 0 for 3, 1 K, 1 HB, 1 E (throwing)
Jon Weber, DH: 1 for 4, 1 2B
Robby Hammock, 3B-C: 0 for 2, 1 R, 2 BB
Chad Moeller, C: 1 for 3, 1 R – not sure why he left the game in the 9th … probably just because it was a blowout … if they were going to call him up, he wouldn’t even have played considering the risk of injury
Matt Cusick, 3B:  0 for 1
Zach McAllister: 3 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1-4 GB/FB, 1 E (throwing) – 41 of his 58 pitches were strikes (70.7%) … 28 baserunners (4 HR) & 14 ER allowed in his last 15.1 IP
Amaury Sanit: 2 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 WP, 3-0 GB/FB – 25 of 37 pitches were strikes (67.6%)
Zack Segovia: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 HB, 2-1 GB/FB – 18 of 26 pitches were strikes (69.3%) … three baserunners & zero runs allowed in his last 5.2 IP after putting 19 men on base & allowing ten runs in his previous six innings
Tim Norton: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 12 of his 20 pitches were strikes (60%)

[Read more…]

Game 26: Good A.J., or Bad A.J.?

Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP

Between Phil Hughes‘ dominance and Javy Vazquez‘s suckiness and Andy Pettitte‘s awesome April and CC Sabathia just being the man, it seems like A.J. Burnett has been the forgotten man in the rotation. Hard to imagine when there’s only six pitchers in the game making more money than him, but that’s what’s going on.

Burnett has been pretty damn good in his first five starts, posting a 2.43 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 4.33 xFIP in 33.1 innings. His strikeout rate is way down at 5.40 K/9, but so is his walk rate at 2.43 BB/9. Burnett’s ground ball rate is back up to 48.5%, his pre-2009 levels. The strikeouts (and sadly, the walks too) will regress back to the mean and he’ll finish with close to one an inning as he always does, but right now A.J. seems to be flying under the radar.

Here’s the lineup, which will face Brian Matusz and thins about pretty quickly after the five-spot…

Jeter, DH
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Thames, LF
Gardner, CF
Cervelli, C
Pena, SS

And on the mound, Allen James Burnett.

Despite some afternoon drizzle, the weather looks fine for tonight. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and will be broadcast on YES. Enjoy the game.

2010 Draft: MLB announces draft coverage

Via Conor Glassey, MLB has announced it’s official plans for coverage of the 2010 Draft. The event will again span three days, from Monday June 7th to Wednesday the 9th, though Day One will only feature the first and supplemental rounds. Day Two will run through round 30, and Day Three will wrap up the remaining 50 rounds. MLB Network will air a draft preview show at 6pm ET on Day One before broadcasting the draft when it starts an hour later. Days Two and Three will not be broadcast on television, but the conference call audio will be available online as always.

Unlike last year, the Yankees are off during Day One of the draft, so we can actually devote our full attention to it.

Record low attendance at last night’s game

Via Ross, last night’s game against the Orioles was seen by just 41,571 fans, a record low for the New Stadium. The rain earlier in the day probably had a little to do with it, and I can’t imagine many Orioles’ fans made the trip up to see their 7-19 club either. The previous low was set last April, when just 42,065 fans watched the Yanks beat the A’s.

Ticket sales for the 2010 season are ahead of last year’s pace, so last night’s game was probably just a blip on the radar.

The unnecessariness of a 12-man bullpen

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Before the Yankees called up Greg Golson this afternoon they boasted a 13-man pitching staff. Granted, it was in reaction to a free roster spot and a slightly short bullpen, but that doesn’t make it any more necessary. The staff is now down to 12 men, but even that seems like a bit much when considering the Yanks’ starters. While I understood the necessity of a 12-man bullpen through the mid-00s, I just don’t get why they’re doing it this year.

The staff has pitched 217 innings this year, 158 of which have been handled by the starters. That’s good for fourth in the AL, though the Yankees have played fewer games than most of the teams surrounding them. They also had that rain shortened game, which deprived them of up to three starter innings. The staff ERA sits at 3.36, third best in the AL. These stats also include Javy Vazquez, which further illustrates just how dominant CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes have been this year.

Unsurprisingly, Yankee relievers have pitched the fewest innings in the AL. Even further to the point, the Yanks have seen CC Sabathia negate the need for the bullpen in two games, so the bullpen innings per game drops even further. In the Yankees 25 games the bullpen has thrown 59 innings, just over 2.1 innings per game. This means that the late-inning relievers, Joba Chamberlain most prominently, eat up most of the remaining innings. He leads the team with 12 appearances.

One of Joe Girardi‘s strengths is his ability to spread the work among all the pitchers in his bullpen. Yet with the team’s starters pitching out of their minds, he’s had few chances to deploy many of his bullpen weapons. David Robertson, for instance, has alternately struggled and thrived this season, but he’s never gotten a real chance to get into a groove. He has lasted just 5.2 innings in eight appearances. With more consistent work perhaps his results would start to reflect his excellent peripherals: 8 K and 2 BB.

This might seem like a good problem to have, and for the most part that is the case. I’ve long said that the best way to build an effective bullpen is to assemble a top-flight starting staff, and the Yankees have done just that. In fact, it makes me further wonder what this situation would look like if Vazquez had some semblance of a fastball. Would Sergio Mitre have ever gotten into a game? He’d have maybe an inning or two in a Yanks blowout, but not much more than that.

Might the Yankees be better off carrying just 11 pitchers? The 12th pitcher is, in essence, an insurance guy. He’s there in case the starter flops. The Yankees starters, though, haven’t been known for flops. Javy accounts for almost all of the rotation’s poor performances, meaning Mitre is only necessary on those days. If Javy ends up pitching well, he might not even be needed then. True, one of the top four is likely to throw a stinker at some point, but Al Aceves can cover multiple innings if necessary.

For now, we likely won’t see the Yankees stray from their 12-man staff. This is not only because it has become standard operating procedure to carry 12 pitchers, but also because the added spot on the bench doesn’t seem necessary. Does having Greg Golson or Kevin Russo on the bench present a more valuable option for the Yanks than a 12th pitcher? At this point probably not. Later in the season, however, perhaps the Yankees can use that flexibility to pick up a bat off the bench and eschew the 12th pitcher. Hell, if the Braves continue to founder maybe they can even get back Eric Hinske.

Because the team doesn’t have much need for a 12th pitcher, and because it has even less a need for a long man in non-Javy starts, maybe Girardi will start trying Mitre as a short reliever. He’s not going to sustain his current hit rate, just 2.1 hits per nine, but with consistent work maybe he can prove a serviceable part of the bridge to Mo. If Girardi keeps Mitre and Aceves on different schedules he can then keep one free for long man duty if need be. That ability increases even more once Chan Ho Park returns.

The Yankees essentially have a free 25th roster spot. They don’t need it for a 12th pitcher, and they don’t really need another player to hit off the bench. It does allow them flexibility, something Cashman has preached for years. At this point, though, it seems more like a dormant spot that is waiting for a need to arise. We haven’t quite seen one yet, and considering how well this first month has gone I think I’d be fine if one never did.

The two sides of making contact

Over the winter we showed that it was essential for pitchers to strike batters out if they want to be successful long-term, but that batters could get away with high strikeout rates because they could make up for it in other ways. A pitcher with a low strikeout rate is at the mercy of his defense and the BABIP gods, while hitters with high strikeout rates can hit the ball with power and get on base in exchange. None of us like watching a Yankee strike out, but it happens.

At the root of strikeout rates are contact rates. The more contact a hitter makes, the less they’ll strike out. It’s that simple. For some batters, the speedy guys that can’t threaten a pitcher with power, it’s imperative to put the ball in play to make stuff happen. For others, the kinds of players that trade strikeouts for extra base hits, the need to make consistent contact is a bit more relaxed.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

One of the surprises in the first month of the season has been Brett Gardner, who woke up this morning sporting a .415 wOBA and eleven steals, good for second in all the land. The reason Gardner has been so successful is simple: he’s putting the ball in play on the ground more than he ever has before, and is using his top of the line speed to turn bouncers into hits. We all saw that game against the Rangers a few weeks ago when he beat out three infield hits and nearly a fourth. It’s not something Yankee fans are used to.

Despite that moonshot off Mark Buehrle, Gardner’s not ever going to hit for power and needs to play the slash-and-dash game. His minor league career featured a particularly high 19.8 K%, but he made up for it by hitting ground balls 55% of the time and taking advantage of neophyte minor league defenders. Gardner continued to strike out once he got the big leagues (23.6% in 2008, 16.1% in 2009), but he wasn’t hitting the ball on the ground as frequently (47.9% in ’08, 49% in ’09). You can see the slight upward trend, and that’s something that has continued into this season.

Through 25 games, Gardner has struck out in just 12% of his at-bats and put the ball on the ground 56.9% of the time. He’s not striking out as much because he’s simply making much more contact. Believe it or not, Gardner has yet to swing and miss at the pitch in the strike zone this season, and he’s the only player in the game that can make that claim. Marco Scutaro is second in baseball with a 99.1% contact rate in the zone. If the ball was over the plate and Gardner hacked at it, he’s gotten at least a piece of the ball every single time. His overall contact rate is 91.7% (73.5% contact rate on pitches out of the zone), which is tied with Ichiro for the tenth best in the game. A player like Gardner can’t make up for strikeouts by hitting for power, so he needs to slap the ball around the infield to be successful. So far this year, he’s done exactly that.

Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP

On the other side of the coin you have Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is off to a slow (.334 wOBA) start even though he’s made more contact than he ever has before. After making contact on about 75% of his swings from 2002-2009, Alex is up to 86.5% this year thanks to a 97.5% contact rate on pitches in the zone, well above the ~83% he posted from ’02-’09. It’s not like he swinging at more pitches either, actually quite the opposite. A-Rod offered at close to 44% of the pitches he saw from ’02-’09, but this year that’s down to 40.9%.

For a guy like Alex, you’d think the more contact the better because of what usually happens when he connects with a pitch. However, his batted ball rates are a little off kilter this season, particularly his line drive (17.3% in ’10 vs. 18.2% career) and fly ball (37% in ’10 vs. 40% career) percentages. The more balls he sends to the outfield, the better. Those LD and FB decreases have resulted in more ground balls (45.7% in ’10 vs. 41.8% career), and Alex isn’t a speedy guy like Gardner, who thrives on that stuff.

Is it possible A-Rod is making too much contact? He’s offering at a few more pitches off the plate than he usually does (22.7% in ’10 vs. 20.5% career), but because he’s putting the bat on the ball more than usual, it’s resulting in more weak contact. That would explain the uptick in groundballs. It might also have something to do with his newfound knee issue: perhaps it’s preventing him from really driving through the ball with his lower half. Either way, A-Rod’s not going to maintain a 6.7% HR/FB rate all year (23.4% career), and at some point (hopefully soon) he’ll go on a Mike Stanton-esque binge and club ten homers in ten games.

So far this year we’ve seen two Yankees making a whole lot of contact with the ball at the plate, but they’ve gotten different results. Their vastly different skill sets are the primary reason why it’s working for Gardner and not A-Rod, but there’s no cause for concern. Brett the Jet can keep it up for as long as he wants, and Alex is too talented to hit .258-.336-.430 over 162 games.