Joba Chamberlain and the first pitch

You’ve probably noticed that Joba Chamberlain looks a bit different this season. No, I don’t mean his new mechanics (hands at the waist) or his weight (nyuck nyuck), I’m talking about the way he’s using his pitches. Joba’s scaled back his fastball usage from last year, down to 56% from 65.3%, and is using his curveball exactly twice as often (10.6% after 5.3%). Throwing some more breaking balls is one thing, but it’s when he’s throwing them that’s really interesting.

The graph above, cut right from Joba’s various splits pages on FanGraphs, shows how much he’s used each offering as the first pitch of an at-bat. In his first full season as a reliever in 2010, Chamberlain threw a first pitch fastball more than seven out of ten times. He’s scaled it back a bit this year, instead mixing in some more first pitch sliders and curveballs. Joba’s first pitch strike percentage is essentially the same (58.1% in 2011 after 58.4% in 2010), so he’s not “stealing strikes” with this approach nor is he getting batters to swing at the first pitch more than he did last year (9.7% in 2011 after 11.8% in 2010).

Essentially all Joba has been doing is giving hitters a different look. First pitch offspeed stuff is just a friendly reminder that the pitcher is comfortable throwing any pitch at any time, which makes life that much harder on the hitter*. It’s probably not a coincidence that batters are swinging at 36.6% of the pitches Joba’s thrown them out of the strike zone, the highest rate of his career (it was 35.1% in 2007) and a top 15 mark among all relievers (Mariano Rivera is actually first at 44.2%).

Joba’s ERA is a full run better than it was last season because he’s walking fewer guys (1.85 BB/9 after 2.76) and getting way more ground balls (62.1% after 45.6%) than he did in 2010, making up for a decline in strikeout rate (7.40 K/9 after 9.67). A 17.6% HR/FB ratio is unusually high, so that will correct and help bring his ERA even closer to his 2.80 xFIP. How (or even if) the first pitch breaking balls are contributing to the overall improvement is not something I can definitively say, but Chamberlain’s pitching sequences and overall performance have been noticeably different.

* I remember hearing Al Leiter say that he threw a curveball on the first pitch of Game Seven of the 1997 World Series for that very reason, to show the Indians that he was going to make them guess all game long.

The problems with runners in scoring position

For stretches this year, the Yankees have played frustrating baseball. They do lead the league in many offensive categories, including SLG and wOBA, but there have been times when it appears that they simply cannot bring home the men they’ve put on base. Sure, they’ll crack more than their share of homers, which helps the issue. But if they’re not hitting for power, it can seem as though they’re not hitting at all. It appears to be the biggest problem with the offense this year.

Yet, it’s not actually that big a problem. And where it is a problem, it is somewhat solvable. Let’s start with the last part first. Here’s the Yankees’ most common starting lineup, with their respective OBPs listed.

The problem at the start is having four guys in the lineup who have a .321 or lower OBP. That’s not something we typically see from the Yankees. There are mitigating and damning circumstances around these numbers — they don’t necessarily reflect recent slumps and streaks, for example. But for the most part the guys with the ultra low OBPs aren’t doing much.

While that’s a problem itself, the further problem arises when we take into consideration their positioning. Derek Jeter‘s .310 OBP atop the lineup doesn’t help one bit. It means that the high-on-base guys behind him aren’t hitting with as many men on base. Then we get to the five spot, after three guys with high OBPs. Robinson Cano makes a lot of outs, and therefore kills rallies in the process. After him comes a high OBP guy, followed by two low-OBP guys, followed by a high OBP guy — and then back to low again. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Yankees have trouble sometimes getting a rally started.

The solution, of course, is to keep the high-OBP guys bunched together. Lead off with Gardner and move Martin up to fifth. That way they might be able to get something of a rally going. It creates a crater at the back end of the lineup, but that’s a better situation than having them littered throughout the lineup, ready to kill a rally with their out-making ways.

There is another question to ask, though. Are the Yankees actually bad with runners in scoring position? The answer might seem like an obvious yes, but we can’t answer that question without first examining the environment. That is, run scoring and power are down this year. Every team has seen a downturn in offensive output. Something has changed in the game, and we have to adjust our expectations.

The Yankees are actually 14th in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position. That’s not nearly as bad as it feels. While we expect them to be better than average, I’d say that the perception is that they’re below average. This is simply not the case. And, because the Yankees put more runners on base than most other teams, they benefit more from that average hit rate with runners in scoring position. For a quick illustration, the Orioles are second in the league with a .295 average with RISP, but they are 18th in OBP. They might hit home the guys they have, but they don’t have many guys in scoring position in general. I’d much rather be in the Yanks’ position than the Orioles’.

Another point in the Yankees’ favor is their ability to cash in their base runners. They have had 1,130 runners this year, and 173 of them have scored. That’s good for a 15 percent rate, which ties them for second in the league. Cleveland is first at 17 percent, and Minnesota is last with 12 percent. When viewed from a league-wide lens, the Yankees are better than their opponents at bringing runners home. In a game that pits teams against each other directly, that’s clearly an advantage.

There’s a good chance we see the Yankees improve on their performances with runners in scoring position. For that we turn to trusty friend BABIP. The Yankees have a .260 BABIP with runners in scoring position, which ranks 25th in the league. Of course, not everyone will finish with a league-average BABIP. Regression doesn’t work that way. But regression does tend to work out and eliminate outliers in the long term. A team with an offense as potent as the Yankees simply should not have one of the worst BABIPs with runners in scoring position. Even a modest level of regression to the mean will pay off big for the Yankees.

The level of frustration with the Yankees’ offense has, at times, risen high this season. The six-game losing streak in particular seemed like a low point for the offense. But throughout the season they’ve remained one of the best offensive clubs in the league. Even with runners in scoring position they’ve been no worse than average. Given their lower than expected BABIP, we should see that performance improve in the coming weeks and months. It makes the true potential of the Yankees’ offense difficult to imagine. Run scoring is down, yet the Yankees are nearly matching their output from last year. It’s scary to think what they could do if they hit even slightly better with runners in scoring position.

The RAB Radio Show: May 26, 2011

It was a successful series against Toronto. Mike and I talk about the highlights as well as the lowlights. It’s onto Seattle next, where the Yanks will run into three excellent pitchers. It’s not as bad as it seems, though.

Podcast run time 26:42

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

The In-House Midseason Pickups

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Yankees are always one of baseball’s most active teams at the trade deadline, and that’s because they’re always in contention and looking to add. Last year it was the trio of Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood, and Austin Kearns. Two years ago it was Jerry Hairston Jr., Eric Hinske, and Chad Gaudin. Three years ago we welcomed Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, and Ivan Rodriguez to the Bronx. Sometimes these moves work out, sometimes they don’t, that’s just the way baseball works.

You can be sure the Yanks won’t be content with what they have this year and will again be shopping at midseason, but they’ve already got two pretty big midseason pickups coming their way. They’re still a ways off from contributing, but how many other clubs will be adding two pitchers the caliber of Rafael Soriano and Phil Hughes to their roster six or eight or ten weeks from now? It sounds kinda silly at the moment, but those two could be very significant additions for the Yankees if they come back healthy and reasonably approximate their true selves on the mound. Hell, even if just one of them comes back it’ll be an upgrade.

For all the negativity surrounding Soriano, from his contract to his performance to his injury, the guy is a better pitcher than what he’s shown us over the first 48 games of 2011. Who knows how long the elbow has been bothering him, but his true talent level is not a 4.84 FIP with more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) in 15 IP. Soriano’s worst non-rookie season was 2007, when he put together a 4.17 FIP setting up for the Braves. Even that guy is an upgrade over the Lance Pendletons and Luis Ayalas of the world (no offense guys).

Hughes is a much bigger question mark but he might offer a bigger reward as well. If he’s healthy (and believe me, that’s a huge if) the Yankees could use him either in the rotation or in the bullpen, wherever they need him more. Given all this time off, imagine how much of a help it’ll be if Phil is just league average but getting into midseason form when others are fading in August in September. He doesn’t have to be a star to help, just better than the 12th man on the staff.

Soriano and Hughes are two total wild cards this year given the nature of their injuries, and the Yankees really shouldn’t count on them to contribute anything the rest of the way. Whatever they give is gravy but you know what? There’s a non-zero chance that one or both comes back healthy and gives the team a boost down the stretch. Not many clubs add those kinds of arms for the stretch run, and New York could end up making two upgrades to the pitching staff without the hassle of making a trade with another team.

Update: This is a complete oversight on my part, but we could also lump Pedro Feliciano into this group as well.

The Toughest Stretch Of The Season

Hopefully he's still smiling in three weeks. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

The Yankees just wrapped up a successful homestand against the Mets and Blue Jays, winning four of six games after taking three in row in Tampa and Baltimore. The team finally gets a day off today after playing 16 games in 16 days and 32 games in 33 days, but they’re going to need this rest. The nine-game West Coast swing that begins tonight will undoubtedly be the toughest stretch of baseball for the Yankees to date this season, and possibly all year. Why? Check this out…

May 27: Michael Pineda
May 28: Felix Hernandez
May 29: Jason Vargas
May 30: Trevor Cahill
May 31: Brett Anderson
June 1: Gio Gonzalez
June 2: OFF
June 3: Jered Weaver
June 4: Dan Haren
June 5: Ervin Santana

Those are the starting pitchers the Yankees are (tentatively) going to face on this trip. The worst of the bunch has been Vargas, who has a 3.69 FIP and has gone 7+ IP with no more than one run allowed in three of his last four starts. His performance in 2011 is on par with guys like Ricky Romero and Matt Cain, for perspective. It’s like the Mariners, Athletics, and Angels all conspired to line up their best starters for this trip just to make life miserable for New York.

Because those nine games aren’t tough enough, the Yankees will come home from the road trip, take a day off, then play three straight series (nine games in nine days) against the Red Sox, Indians, and Rangers. Those three clubs are a combined 83-63 with a +91 run differential to date, though with any luck the Tribe will have cooled off by the time they come to town. Even if they do, it’s still obvious that these next 18 games are going to be absolute hell for New York.

If there’s any good news to be found in all this, it’s that it will still be early-June by the time this stretch is over. Every game counts the same, absolutely, but it’s a whole lot better to run through this gauntlet when you have about a hundred games left in the season as opposed to say, 30. There’s just that much more time to dig out of a potential hole, that’s all. Plus it’s not like the Mariners and Athletics are unbeatable, those starters are good but the rest of the team isn’t.

Every team in baseball is going to run into a stretch like this, and as cliche as it sounds, stretches like this help separate the contenders from the pretenders. For all their flaws – the RISPFAIL, two starters with arms held together by duct tape and stem cells, a LOOGY that is more like a LNOGY, etc. – the Yankees still have the second best winning percentage (.563) and run differential (+51) in the league by a pretty comfortable margin (Tampa is third with a +21 run diff.). The M’s, A’s, and Halos aren’t looking forward to seeing the Yankees this week, you can be sure of it. So enjoy the off day folks, the next few weeks are going to make you wonder what you did to anger the baseball gods.

Jones homers twice and Mo makes history as Yankees wrap up homestand with a win

Freddy Garcia set the tone with the very first pitch, which Yunel Escobar promptly drove into the left-center field gap for a leadoff triple. I think we all accepted that that run was going to score, but Garcia used the Blue Jays’ aggressiveness against them to strand Yunel at third and escape the inning unscathed. The game was all Yankees from that point on.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Mr. Jones

It’s funny how much things can change in the span of 24 hours. Andruw Jones came into this game hitting just .191/.240/.340 in 50 plate appearances, and he had been resigned to platoon DH duty with Jorge Posada since both Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner haven proven adept at handling southpaws early on. Jones was in an awkward spot, and more than a few people wondered if his roster spot could be better used on someone else.

Fast forward to Wednesday, when the Yankees’ fourth outfielder contributed four runs with a pair of two-run homers against the Jays, tacking on a single for good measure. The first homer, which pushed New York’s lead to 3-0, came off a hanging changeup from Jo-Jo Reyes and was hit deep into the visitor’s bullpen. The second homer made it 7-1 in the sixth, and this one was a first pitch fastball from lefty Luis Perez. That one landed in Monument Park. Andruw raised his season batting line to .240/.283/.500 in the span of four pitches today, a helpful reminder that it’s still too soon to judge him.

This was Jones’ first two-homer game since May 1st of last season and his first three-hit game since last August 28th. The Yankees were the victims each time, so it’s nice to see him doing it for the good guys for once.

The Chief

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The box score line isn’t anything special (6.1 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K), but Garcia was pretty awesome in this game before seemingly tiring a bit in the seventh. He followed that Escobar triple by retiring nine of the next ten batters and 13 of the next 15.  Only three of the 27 batters he faced saw a three-ball count, and two of those came within the first six batters of the game. The Jays are a hacky team, swinging at the second most pitches out of the strike zone (31.0%) among AL teams, and Garcia used that to his advantage by keeping his junk just off the plate and generating plenty of weak grounders and pop-ups. Only twice did he throw more than 13 pitches in an inning.

The Sweaty Freddy experiment is now eight starts old, and he actually has the second best ERA (3.26) on the starting staff. His starts have followed a pattern though, patient teams give him a tough time while undisciplined offenses play right to his strengths. There’s nothing wrong with that, Garcia is giving the Yankees valuable innings right now, but at the end of the day he’s still just a placeholder until someone better comes along.

My Man C-Grand

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Remember Sunday’s recap, when I said that I wish Granderson would beef up his then .328 OBP? Well Grandy followed that up by reaching base ten times (six hits, three walks, one hit-by-pitch) in 14 plate appearances during the three games with Toronto. His OBP now sits at .353. I didn’t realize the Yankees actually listened to me, so in that case: Derek Jeter (.255/.310/.321) and Nick Swisher (.204/.321/.289) need to step it up.

Grandy had two hits in four at-bats on Wednesday, the first of which was a double into right that scored Jeter and gave the Yankees a one-zip lead two batters into the game. The second hit was another double that led off the third, and was followed by a Mark Teixeira homer to make it a 5-0 game. The Grandyman is at the center of everything these days, and he’s clearly been the Yankees’ best player this season. Just can’t say enough about how awesome he’s been.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)


Speaking of Swisher, how awful does he look? Man, the guy is lucky the Yankees don’t have to make a decision on his option until after the season, because right now he looks like a guy that would have trouble finding a minor league deal somewhere. There’s still 118 games left to go, so there’s plenty of time for him to turn things around. But damn, sooner would be preferable to later, Nick.

Under-rated moment of the game: Eduardo Nunez catching Rajai Davis in a run down between third and home in the seventh inning. He could have simply gotten the out at first on Escobar’s routine ground ball and no one would complain, but he made a very heads up play that cut down what would have been Toronto’s fourth run. He played it perfectly too, running into the baseline to cut Davis off from third, then forcing him down the line before throwing to Russell Martin for the out. Textbook run down, only one throw involved and no other runners advanced. Just a smart and well-executed play by the Yankees’ utility infielder.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Martin drew a pair of walks in four trips to the plate and get this: Russ has walked 11 times against just eight strikeouts in his last 15 games (64 plate appearances). That’s pretty awesome. Nunez was the only starter that failed to reach base today, but he made up for it with the run down. Wasn’t it kind of odd when Chris Dickerson replaced Jones in the outfield in the seventh? It’s not like Andruw needs a defensive replacement, so maybe he felt dehydrated or something. He spoke to reporters after the game and nothing was (obviously) wrong, so that’s good. Just struck me as a weird move though.

Last, but certainly not least, give it up to Mariano Rivera for throwing a scoreless ninth, which just so happened to be his 1,000th career appearance. He’s just the 15th man in big league history to do that, but the first to do it all with one team. Mo could easily jump into the top eight by the end of the season (he’s 35 appearances away from that), but breaking Jesse Orosco’s record (1,252) at some point might be tough. Regardless, congrats to him for a long and marvelous career.

WPA Graph & Box Score has your box score and video highlights, FanGraphs everything else.

Up Next

The Yankees are off on Thursday and are already in/on their way to Seattle for their first of two west coast trips this season. A.J. Burnett will kick the nine game trip off against rookie right-hander Michael Pineda on Friday. The team flew out after Wednesday’s game, so they’ll spend the off day in the great northwest fighting off the jet lag.

Dellin deals in Trenton win

A report from Scouting The Sally last night indicated that Gary Sanchez was demoted back to Extended Spring Training because of various “makeup” issues, however that is not the case. VP of baseball ops Mark Newman told Josh Norris that Sanchez has a “sore back,” and the league transactions confirm that he was placed on the disabled list and not demoted to ExST.

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off day.

Double-A Trenton (4-3 win over Reading in ten innings)
Ray Kruml, RF: 3 for 4, 1 2B, 1 BB – he’s been played pretty well since moving to the leadoff spot
Jose Pirela, SS: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 K
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 K
Jose Gil, 1B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 K – 13 for his last 34 (.383) with six doubles and a homer
Cody Johnson, DH: 1 for 5, 1 K
Melky Mesa, CF: 0 for 5, 1 RBI, 2 K
Corban Joseph, 2B: 0 for 4, 1 K
Addison Maruszak, 3B: 1 for 4, 1 2B – today it’s third, tomorrow it’ll be catcher, the next day it’ll be first, and on it goes
Damon Sublett, LF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI
Dellin Betances, RHP: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 10 K, 5-3 GB/FB – the strikeouts are cool, but the lack of walks is most important … he’d been struggling with his control big time over his previous three starts (13 BB in 15.2 IP), so it’s good to see him get that straightened out
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K
Tim Norton, RHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2-0 GB/FB
Wilkins Arias, LHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB
Fernando Hernandez, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB

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