Strength Up The Middle

The late-1990’s Yankees dynasty was built on strong up-the-middle players. Bernie Williams was a center fielder that hit like a corner outfielder. Derek Jeter was so far better than the league average shortstop it wasn’t even funny. Chuck Knoblauch had his throwing issues, sure, but he got on base 37.4% of time from 1998-2000 while manning second. A young and sprightly Jorge Posada posted an on-base percentage similar to Knoblauch’s (.376, to be exact) while chipping in double-digit homers on an annual basis from behind the plate. That’s the kind of production team’s dream of getting from those spots.

Given the nature of those positions, the offensive expectations are much lower relative to the corner spots. The increased awareness of the value of defense has lowered those expectations even more in recent years. The Yankees have gotten tremendous production from those four positions so far this season, which is part of the season why they’re in first place and have been for the better part of a month.

It all starts with Curtis Granderson, who’s been the best hitter on the team this year and one of the best in the game. Yankees’ center fielders have produced 11.2 batting runs this season (Brett Gardner did have some spot starts, so he gets some credit), 11.1 runs better than the AL average. They’ve also been more than a run-and-a-half better than average defensively. To be a combined 12.7 runs better than average at one position at this point of the season is insane. The catchers (8.5 batting runs better than the AL avg) and second basemen (7.8) have been far above-average as well, with most of the credit going to Russell Martin and Robinson Cano, respectively. Derek Jeter’s been bad overall, but he’s helped Yankees’ shortstops contribute 1.5 more batting runs that the average AL shortstop. I wish I knew what that was before Sunday, but oh well.

Although the Yankees have been slightly below-average defensively at short, second, and behind the plate, the difference is more than made up by the offense. Combine the offensive and defensive contributions across the four positions, and the Yankees have been 28.2 runs better than the league average at the all-important up-the-middle spots. That’s essentially three wins, just 32 games into the season. Almost a run a game. Crazy. The graph above shows the individual breakdowns, so make sure you click it for a larger view. Now the Yankees just need to work on improving the other up-the-middle position, and that’s the guys on the mound.

The RAB Radio Show: May 10, 2011

The Royals come to town this week, and it won’t be just another Royals series. They’ve actually been good in the early going, and they have a crop of young players who are helping fuel the run. Mike and I talk about how they’re playing and how they’ll play the Yankees.

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Not too many homers, too many double plays

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Home runs produce runs. Double plays prevent them. This the story of the Yankees first 32 games this season. They have hit 54 home runs, 13 more than the next closest team, despite having played only 32 games, fewest in the league. At the same time they have grounded into 41 double plays, which is second most in the league. The only team ahead of them, the Cardinals, have played three more games (and have grounded into three more double plays). Anyone can see that cutting the latter will do wonders for the offense, but I’m far more interested in the why. Why are the Yankees grounding into so many double plays?

The most obvious explanation is that they simply find themselves in more double play situations than other teams. We know the Yankees as a team that gets on base at a healthy clip; they have led the league in OBP the last two seasons. This year they’re second, and first in the AL. Their 265 hits and 130 walks (leading the league) in 1210 PA make it more likely that they’ll have have a man on first with zero or one outs. But we can rule out this explanation right away. If you go to Baseball Prospectus and check out their Balls In Play data, you can see that the Yankees are fourth in the league with a double play in 17.6% of their situations. That is, the Yankees might get into more of those situations, but they still ground into double plays more often than the others, too.

Are they hitting the ball on the ground more, then? That would go some way in explaining why they’re hitting into so many double plays. This year they’ve hit the ball on the ground 46.4 percent of the time, which ranks 11th in the majors. This is slightly higher than last year, when they were at 44.9 percent (14th) and 2009, when they were at 43.1 percent (19th). Yet the Yankees hit ground balls less frequently with runners on base. That rate is only 44.7 percent, which ranks 19th in the league. So while their ground ball rate is a bit higher, the increase comes mostly with the bases empty.

At The Yankee Analysts yesterday, William made an interesting observation: perhaps it’s the teams lack of willingness to run that is causing their double play totals to flourish. To quote: “In order to maximize home runs, the team has stopped running, which in turn has led to more double plays that have left fewer chances to hit a home run.” This is certainly plausible, but I’m not sure it works out. The Yankees have attempted 26 steals this season in 32 games, or 131.6 per 162 games. They attempted 133 last year and in 2009 they attempted 149. That’s not to rule out the possibility, since there is more detail to be examined here. But it’s a pretty quick way of showing that it probably isn’t the main reason.

What is it, then? What is causing the Yankees to hit ground balls to infielders in those precise situations when a ground ball hurts the most? Much as I hate to say it, luck has to play a predominant role here. Just as the Yankees are getting lucky in some regards with their 17.3 percent home run to fly ball ratio, they’re getting unlucky with their double play rate. As one evens out I expect the other will, too. Which is perfectly fine. They’re not in 1:1 proportion, but as they slow down creating runs via the homer, so they will create more runs via double play avoidance. That’s good news for a team that leads the league in runs per game.

Once again, Yanks are tops at working the count

(AP Photo/Matt Strasen)

It’s been kind of a weird season for the Yankees offensively, in that they’ve often looked sluggish and still have the best statistical performance around. They’re first in the game with 5.31 runs per game, and they lead baseball in OPS (.800) and wOBA (.352). Their .252 team batting average is being held back by a .266 BABIP, something that should correct itself as the season progresses, but they still lead the league in OBP (.339) thanks to a gaudy 10.7% walk rate, the best in all the land. They’re a power and patience club, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they swing at the fewest pitches out of the zone (23.7%) and have the largest ISO (.209) in the game. Once that BABIP gets back to normal, it’ll be glorious.

As a team, the Yankees have seen 3.92 pitchers per plate appearance, the third most in the AL. Curtis Granderson has seen the second most pitches per plate appearances in the game (4.51, behind only Carlos Santana at 4.53), and Brett Gardner isn’t too far behind him at 4.30. Nick Swisher (4.22) and Mark Teixeira (4.09) are also over four pitches per trip to the plate, then you’ve got Russell Martin (3.93), Alex Rodriguez (3.90), and Jorge Posada (3.90) right behind them. Considering that the league average is 3.83 pitches per plate appearance, that’s pretty good. Robinson Cano is the only real eye sore on the team, he’s seeing just 3.20 P/PA. That ranks 193rd out of the 194 batters that qualify for the batting title (only Orlando Cabrera is worse at 3.07). I believe the word is: Yikes.

The concept of working the count isn’t just about drawing walks or getting the starting pitcher out of the game early. The point of the game is to score runs, and the easiest way to score runs is by getting hits. Batters that take pitches are waiting for a good pitch to hit before pouncing, essentially trying to get themselves into hitter’s count (2-0, 3-1). The more pitches they see, the better the chance of getting their pitch, i.e. a mistake. Walks are just a byproduct, or they should be, anyway. Of the Yankees’ 1,210 team plate appearances this year, 503 of them have ended when the batter was ahead in the count, or 41.6%. The other 13 AL teams average 35.8%. They’ve ended a plate appearance in a pitcher’s count 305 times (25.2%, 31.0% lg avg) and the other 402 times when the count was even (33.2%, exactly lg avg). It’s not a coincidence that the Yankees lead the league in offense and are the best at getting into hitter’s counts.

That graph (click for larger) shows the team’s wOBA by pitch of the plate appearance vs. the league average. The big difference comes on the third pitch of the at-bat, which has a lot to do with the Yankees working themselves into a 2-0 count 4.13% of the time, far greater than the league average (2.87%). They’ve also been surprisingly productive in 0-2 counts, hitting .243 with a .122 ISO compared to .157 and .063 for the AL as a whole, respectively. That will probably even out as we get deeper into the season though. The dips on the third and fourth pitches have to do with players simply taking pitches in 3-0 and 3-1 counts more than anything else. The old saying is that the longer the at-bat, the more it swings into the hitter’s favor, and judging by the performance of the both the Yankees and the league on the 6th+ pitch of the encounter, that certainly holds true.

The last two weeks haven’t always been pretty offensively, but that has more to do with some drastic slumps (Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada in particular) than the team being flawed as a whole. They’re not going to hit .242/.336/.453 with men in scoring position all season (that, by the way, is 18% better than league average) just because a .242 BABIP in those spots is pretty unsustainable. The Yankees just have to stick with their game plan of taking pitches and getting into the good hitter’s counts, and the rest will take care of itself.

Ticketmaster now allows fans to pick their own seats

On a tip via Twitter from Ross at NYY Stadium Insider comes some intriguing news about purchasing Yankee tickets online. As seats have become plentiful this spring and the secondary market already allowing fans to select their seats down to the row, Ticketmaster has unveiled an interactive seat map on Yankees.com that allows fans to pick out specific seats for games they want to attend. The screenshot above features a glimpse at seats in Sec. 417 available for tonight’s game against the Royals.

While this technology is new for fans turning to the team’s official site to pick out tickets, Ticketmaster has long been able to use it to sell seats for a variety of other events including concerts and other sporting events. It is, in my opinion, a change to the baseball ticket buying landscape that is long overdue. For years now, we’ve been able to choose our rows on StubHub, and allowing fans the opportunity to select seats makes the process more personal.

“This is a really important step in drawing people back in from the secondary market,” Ross said via Twitter this evening. “Having full control of seat choice is important.”

It’s interesting to take a scan around the ballpark with the new technology as well. As we can see from the overview below, numerous sections — those shaded in darker blue — have plenty of seats available.

Meanwhile, as the shine of the new park wears off, the Yanks are finding that thousands of seats — including some very expensive ones — remain open as game time approaches. Take a look at this screenshot from the Mohegan Sun seats and the batter’s eye tickets, both of which run upwards of $100 a pop.

Pricing aside, I’d say this is a very welcome addition to the way we can buy Yankee tickets online.