Game 28: No Curveballs

(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

It’s no secret that the Yankees have been having trouble against curveballs this year, hell I’ve written two posts about it in the last week. Thankfully they don’t have to worry about that tonight since Tigers’ starter Max Scherzer is a pure fastball-changeup-slider pitcher that has never thrown anything remotely resembling a curve. So be happy for that. Scherzer’s season has been a mixed bag of really really good starts and really really bad ones. Hopefully he’s due for the later. Here’s your starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Brett Gardner, LF
Frankie Cervelli, C – second game in four days, it’s already begun…

Freddy Garcia, SP

Tonight’s game will air on YES at 7:05pm ET, but if you’re in the city, come hang out with Ben and I (and plenty of others) at Foley’s (33rd St. between 5th & 6th Ave.) to bitch about the game and what not. Enjoy.

Look for Swisher to break out in the coming weeks

More of this, coming soon. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

It appears as though Mark Teixeira didn’t simply buck his trend of slow Aprils. Instead, he might have handed them off to Nick Swisher. Through the team’s first 27 games Swisher is hitting .231/.348/.297, with just one home run among his 17 hits. This isn’t anything new, really. Swisher finished last April at .250/.345/.434, hitting only two home runs and four doubles in the month. What’s the difference, then, between .250 and .231 at this point in the season? Probably two measly hits. And we all know how Swisher turned it around last year.

Amid the weak outs, there are signs of encouragement from Swisher. For instance, he has 17 walks already, which is nearly a third of his total from last season. That’s in large part because he’s laying off more pitches out of the zone, both compared to last year and compared to the league average (which is important, because the league average spiked last year). That allows him to remain somewhat productive when he’s not hitting, and it will come in much more handy when he is hitting.

On area where Swisher has lagged this season is in his performance against fastballs. Even during his horrible 2008 season he produced a positive pitch type value score on fastballs. In the last two years he has been at 25.3 and 21.9 runs. This year, though, he’s a -4.2. It could be, then, that this is just a timing issue. He has also hit a disproportionate number of infield pops, which further points to a timing issue. He’s just missing on some pitches, and it’s hurting his line. There’s little reason to think this will continue, given his career numbers.

You know what else stands to improve? His BABIP. It is currently at .267, which doesn’t seem all that out of line for Swish. He did, after all, finish 2009 with a .272 BABIP. But in order to get a grasp of BABIP we need a baseline for comparison. Swisher’s current xBABIP is .309, which is far ahead of his current pace. This could again be tied to the timing issue, where he’s just making poorer contact on pitches he’d otherwise drive. It’s frustrating for now, but it’s not likely that it will continue for much longer.

We know that Swisher, like many other players, is prone to slumps. Yet he has always seemed to rally after them and put up big numbers. This year his slump is a bit more noticeable because it started early and has lasted a few weeks. Last year he had a similarly slow start, and then broke out in a big way. In a span of eight games in early May he went 14 for 32 with a double and five homers. Maybe his breakout this year won’t be quite as dramatic, but it will happen. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s that far off.

The Unlucky Offense

Band-aid power? (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have the best offense in the league (and second best in all of baseball) thanks to a .352 wOBA, but they’ve actually been pretty unlucky through the first 27 games of the season. Their .272 BABIP is well below the ~.300 league average, so they’ve been robbed of some hits along the way. Of course it’s not that simple, they’ve hit a lot of homeruns and those don’t count as balls in play (since the fielder doesn’t have a chance to make a play on them), but we can find out just how unlucky the offense has been using xBABIP, or expected BABIP. I’ve introduced you to xBABIP before.

The table above shows the team’s actual performance as well as expected performance using xBABIP. I calculated the same for some other situations, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Right now the Yankees have a .321 xBABIP, 49 points higher than the actual number. They’ve managed to lose 43 hits somewhere along the way, and if we assume all 43 are singles, their team wOBA would jump from .355 to .392. That’s pretty nuts.

Now about those homers. The Yankees lead the league in homerun-to-fly ball ratio at 17.4%, far ahead of second place Texas (just 11.4%). That’s not a sustainable pace, even in Yankee Stadium with a lineup built to hit the ball out of the park. The other 13 teams in the AL have an 8.4% HR/FB, and the second row of numbers in the table assumes the Yankees were hitting homers at that pace instead of their current one. They’d lose 19 (!!!) homers if they were hitting them at the league average pace, which is just insane. It’s almost half their season total. They would lose 17 homers if they hit them at 9.1% HR/FB rate of the other 29 MLB teams. Either way, they’re still missing over 40-something hits according to xBABIP, even adjusting for the extra homers.

Of course the Yankees aren’t an average team; their ballpark is conducive to homers as is their regular lineup. Using last year’s pace of 12.1% HR/FB, they’d lose just 11 homers overall. That’s still a ton, just not as much as before. I also ran the numbers assuming that the nine Just Enough homers they’ve hit this year according to Hit Tracker were outs (a Just Enough homer is one that clears the fence by less than ten feet). Those numbers come eerily close to the numbers generated using last year’s HR/FB%. So maybe the difference between this year and last year is just some homerun luck. Maybe the weather has helped so far, maybe playing so many home games did the trick. It’s probably both, plus other factors.

Two things to note: First, all those homeruns that disappeared in each data set? They don’t automatically become outs. Fly balls have a .223 BABIP this year, so in each situation they would have lost 10+ homers but gained about four (theoretical) singles. It’s not much, but it changes the BABIP and xBABIP numbers slightly. Secondly, ten homeruns have come on line drives this year, and those stay put. Our sample of fly ball homers is 36, that’s the number that has been changed.

Now that you’re sufficiently confused, all you need to know is that the Yankees have been screwed out of 40 base hits this year. Don’t ask me how, but based on their batted ball tendencies, they should have a much higher BABIP than what they do now. Even adjusting for the absurd homerun rate, they’re still missing a ton of hits. Regressing to the expected results isn’t a given for an individual player, but at a team level, when you’re talking thousands of plate appearances and balls in play over the course of a season, it’s almost inevitable. The Yankees’ offense has been really good so far, but it should have been better. That’s good news for us and the Yankees, bad news for everyone else.

Event Reminder: Watch with RAB and Jonah Keri at Foley’s

Update (1:55 p.m.): Just a brief reminder about our event tonight: RAB and Jonah Keri, author of The Extra Two Percent and Canadian extraordinaire, will be at Foley’s in Midtown tonight to watch the Yankees take on the Tigers and chat baseball. Due to a last-minute cancellation, we still have three seats left for our 5:30 p.m. discussion on American League baseball with Keri. For more info or to reserve a ticket, head on over to the Eventbrite listing. If you can’t make the early talk, you can join us at the bar at 7 to watch Freddy Garcia and Max Scherzer square off in Detroit. Foley’s is at 18 West 33rd St. between 5th and 6th Ave.

The RAB Radio Show: May 4, 2011

It was just a sloppy game last night, but those can lead to productive conversations, too. Mike and I talk about things you can do to make things happen with runners on base, the idea of giving away outs (and why baserunning mistakes are even more costly), and other managerial gadgets.

Podcast run time 18:54

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.