Open Thread: CC goes home

The Yankees are in the Bay Area, so that means CC Sabathia is back in his old stomping grounds. The Yanks’ ace threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the first night game in the history of North Vallejo Little League’s Thurman Field on Monday night, which he helped rebuild. This certainly isn’t the first time Sabathia has gone back to his hometown and helped out, just Google “CC Sabathia Vallejo” and look at what comes up. He’s clearly a world class athlete that gets it.

Anyway, here’s the open thread to hold you over until tonight’s game, which starts at 10pm ET. The Cubs and Mets are back at it, plus the Phillies and Braves are on the MLB Network. You’ve also got a ton of NBA and NHL playoff action. Enjoy.

Twelve games in, All Star balloting opens

It never fails to amaze me that Major League Baseball’s All Star Game counts for something. Voting is but a popularity contest, and a glorified exhibition game determines home field advantage in the World Series. I shouldn’t complain because the AL has a dominant lock on the Mid-Summer Classic these days, but it rankles me nonetheless. To that end, it seems absurd that, on April 20, nine games into the season, we can now vote for the 2010 All Star team. Perhaps we should Scott Podsednik to the Small Sample Size All Star team for hitting .457 over 46 ABs or Vernon Wells for bashing six dingers in the early goings, but I don’t want either of them anywhere near the AL All Star team come mid-July.

Derek’s Odd Start

Today at ESPN’s TMI blog, I looked at Kosuke Fukudome’s hot starts. During his first two seasons in America he has set a high bar for himself in April, but then has failed to live up to those lofty marks. Part of the reason relates to his ground ball percentage. In his two (now three) Aprils he holds a 41 percent ground ball rate, while that jumps to 50 percent from May through September. To show why this was a problem I cited some ground ball and fly ball numbers for the National League. Rather than quote, I’ll look at those numbers for American League hitters.

We often hear, and sometimes repeat, the adage that ground balls go for hits more frequently than fly balls. While that is true, the difference isn’t as pronounced as you might think. In 2009 the American League as a whole hit .239 on ground balls. That mark dropped to just .224 on fly balls. Fly balls, of course, bring many more advantages, including a much higher slugging percentage. To wit, the slugging percentage on ground balls was .259, while it was .821 on fly balls. Furthermore, keeping the ball on the ground also precludes line drives, the best of all hit types. AL hitters batted .739 with a 1.015 SLG when hitting the ball on a line.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

During the season’s first dozen games, it seems as though Derek Jeter has hit a ground ball to shortstop in nearly every at-bat — that is, except the two doubles and three homers he has hit so far. Whether it’s a single up the middle or just a routine grounder to the left side, it seems like he’s always hitting it there. His groundball rate does bear this out. Of the 45 balls he has put in play so far, 33 have been on the ground. Yet, despite this high ground ball rate, Jeter’s ISO sits at .220, which rates higher than any full year of his career. Unsurprisingly, so does his 73.3 percent ground ball rate.

As we learned last night, these numbers do not hold predictive value for Jeter at their current sample sizes. He has come to the plate just 52 times, so the only statistic that might have stabilized is his Swing% — and even then I expect it will come down from its 54.6 percent rate, which would rank by far the highest in Jeter’s career. We can’t expect his ground ball rate to tell us anything for another 150 PA, and you can forget about his ISO until August. These stats have a tendency to fluctuate in small samples, and that’s just what we’re seeing right now.

Most of the discrepancy in Jeter’s numbers comes from extremely good luck on his fly balls and liners. Of the five balls he has hit on a line, four have gone for hits, including one of his three home runs. Of the seven balls he has lifted enough to be considered flies, he has collected another four hits, including two doubles and the other two home runs. In other words, when Jeter lifts the ball he’s hitting .667 with a 1.333 SLG. This will not remain consistent throughout 2010, of course, but it’s quite a nice start. Even as Jeter hasn’t looked his best at the plate he has still produced excellent results.

2010 Draft: College Targets

Yesterday we looked at some high school players that could interest the Yankees, so let’s switch it up and go with college players today. In his five drafts as scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer has selected 192 college players and just 58 high schoolers, so a little more than three-fourths have come from the college ranks. Those 192 college players are broken down into 153 from a four-year schools and 39 from two-year junior colleges. Clearly, Oppenheimer favors guys who a little further along in their development.

Personal fave Brandon Workman has seen his stock take a hit not because he hasn’t performed (2.89 ERA, 56-12 K/BB ratio in 62.1 IP), but because he hasn’t sustained the mid-90’s velocity and knockout breaking ball he flashed last season and in the Cape Cod League. He’s still considered a top 50 draft prospect, but now he’s more towards the back of that list. Here’s four other players to keep an eye on…

Photo Credit: UT-Arlington

Michael Choice, OF, Texas-Arlington
One of those always fun late bloomers, Choice started the year as a 3rd-5th round kind of player, but he’s slugging his way into first round consideration. He’s hitting an absurd .395-.563-.758 with 12 homers and a 31-47 K/BB ratio in 124 at-bats, and he’s running down everything in centerfield.

Choice has the tools to back up the performance, but he’s already big at 6-foot-0, 215 lbs, so a move to a corner outfield spot is probably in the cards. He’s big but athletic, so it’s not like he’s going to become a detriment defensively. Choice definitely takes advantage of the metal bat, which is what he should do, but with wood he’s more likely to be a doubles machine than a homerun hitter. The Yankees are unlikely to have a chance to land him because Choice is a great candidate for the Tony Sanchez Plan; a high probability college player that could go early because he’ll sign quickly for at-or-below slot money.

Bryan Morgado, LHP, Tennessee
The name might sound familiar, and that’s because Morgado was a highly touted prospect for last year’s draft that the White Sox were unable to sign in the third round. The draft eligible sophomore returned to Tennessee and has continued to same trend that has plagued him throughout his career: less than stellar stats (5.88 ERA, 60-28 K/BB ratio in 52 IP) but premium stuff.

Morgado’s fastball sits in the low-90’s but he’s run it up as high as 97 in the past, and his power slider is a put-away pitch at times. In a way, he’s very similar to Caleb Cotham, the Yanks’ fifth rounder last season. Like Cotham, Morgado has a chance to start long-term, but more than likely he’ll end up in the bullpen. A lefthander with that kind of stuff is more than a specialist, though not a first round pick. If he falls into the third round again, then you’ve got yourself good value.

Photo Credit: Flickr user dbadair

LeVon Washington, OF, Chipola JC (Fl.)
Like Morgado, the Washington was a highly touted prospect in last year’s draft, but the Rays were unable to sign him out of high school as the 30th overall pick. By attending perennial junior college power Chipola, he’s again eligible for this year’s draft.

Washington has dealt with a wrist injury this season after a labrum issue in 2008 that basically sapped all of his arm strength. He’s athletic enough to play centerfield on an every day basis, but we’re talking about a Johnny Damon/Bernie Williams kind of arm. His swing is good and the ball comes off his bat well, so Washington can definitely hit, and his foot speed gives him the potential to be an exciting power-speed guy down the road. He’s still pretty raw, so whoever drafts him is going to have to be patient.

Again like Morgado, he’s unlikely to be a first round pick. The second or third round is much more likely, though he’d be wise to sign since his stock has dropped slightly since last year because of the injury troubles. Tampa Bay’s scouting and player development program is as good as it gets, so if they were willing to take Washington in the first round, that tells us there’s some serious potential here.

Austin Wates, 1B/OF, Virginia Tech
Wates is one of the most intriguing players in this entire draft class. He’s hitting .412-.500-.632 with 12 doubles and 13 steals in 14 attempts, but what makes him so interesting is that he’s athletic enough to handle centerfield, which he’s done on the Cape. For now, his coach has him playing first because he claims Wates is the team’s best defensive player at the position. That doesn’t make one bit of sense, but it is what it is.

More of a gap-to-gap line drive hitter, Wates’ game offers a lot of patience and a lot of speed. He’s one of the best baserunners in the class, and he’s got more than enough bat to keep pitchers honest. Whoever drafts Wates will (should) immediately stick him in center, but even if he can’t hack it there he should be able to handle right, which is still a more valuable position than first base. If he was playing center everyday, he’d be a surefire first round pick, but because he’s stuck at first he’s sliding down draft boards. The talent is there, it’s just not being showcased properly.

Approaching and exceeding 100 pitches

As Andy Pettitte worked into the 8th inning on Sunday afternoon against the Rangers, his pitch count started to creep up toward the century mark, and Michael Kay and John Flaherty turned their attention to Joe Girardi’s decision to keep Pettitte in the game. From pitch 96 through 107 — the last Pettitte would throw — Kay and Flaherty continued to mention the pitch count.

After striking out Michael Young, Pettitte had thrown 104 pitches, and Josh Hamilton, a lefty, came to the plate. Three pitches later, Pettitte had retired Hamilton on a foul pop, and after 107 pitches, his day was done. That century mark, though, had been a big moment for Pettitte. In his two previous starts, he had thrown 94 pitches and then 100, but this time, Girardi unleashed him.

During the pitch count discussion, Kay mentioned a conversation he had with Girardi following A.J. Burnett‘s start. When Burnett’s pitch count started to creep up, the guys in the booth again wondered when Girardi would turn to his bullpen, and that time, Girardi allowed Burnett to throw 111 pitches. He had previously thrown 92 and 94 in his two starts. Girardi said he wanted to get his starters stretched out, and in both games, the Yanks had leads large enough to allow the team some leeway. Pettitte could throw 107 pitches without endangering the lead; Burnett could toss 111 low-stress pitches to build up arm strength. It was, in a sense, an extension of Spring Training.

Yet what struck me most was how rigidly Kay and Flaherty were adhering to the 100-pitch mark. It seemed as though the team just had to remove their starters after 100 pitches because of some magically point in the game when the hurlers tire. Should we care that much though about 100 pitches?

In a recent piece on how teams on a budget should treat their cost-controlled arms, R.J. Anderson mused on pitch counts over at Maddon’s Mission. He discussed the Rangers’ approach toward pitch count. The Rangers, he said, are “implementing better conditioning with the ideology that pitch counts won’t matter because their pitchers will be more able to survive higher workloads.” Why, he wondered, do we care about the round number of 100 pitches?

For young pitchers, the prevailing philosophy seems to be go hard or go easy but ne’er the twain shall meet. Work your kids until they can’t throw anymore and get the most of their cost-controlled years — see, for example, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito — or keep their pitch counts under the microscope — see, for example, Joba Chamberlain. But what of the old guys? The Yanks could do well to let them push the envelope.

Last year, Joe Girardi allowed his pitchers to exceed 100 pitches 78 times. Opposing batters hit .237/.332/.316 in those 208 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size but not one that indicates we should be too worried when a starter reaches the century mark. In fact, in the AL as a whole, pitchers threw more than 100 pitches 978 times last year, and opponents hit .258/.335/.399. That’s an sOPS+ of 106, indicating that pitchers who exceeded 100 pitches generally performed better at that point in the game than pitchers overall had earlier. On the surface, that makes sense because if a pitcher is still in at that point, clearly, he’s throwing well.

So far this year, the Yanks have put together a solid bullpen and a nice run of starts from their rotation. Last year, CC Sabathia led the way with 25 starts of more than 100 pitches, and A.J. and Andy threw 23 and 22 respectively. The team can push the envelope, and their starting horses are in good enough pitching shape to go more than 100 pitches every five days. Until the results say otherwise, let them throw.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

A good chance for Vazquez to get back on track

It’s no secret that Javy Vazquez has underwhelmed in his first two starts this season. Not only has he allowed 12 runs in 11 innings, but he’s only thrown 58.8% first pitch strikes and has gotten just 7.6% swinging strikes, both well below his career averages. Javy will make his third start of the season tonight, and the good news is that there’s going to be a lot working in his favor.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

The A’s have started the season well with a 9-5 record and +15 run differential, though they’ve spent a lot of time beating up on the punchless Mariners and awful Orioles. As a team they hit a fair amount of fly balls (37.2%) despite not really having any homerun threats in the lineup, and they make contact on 84.1% of the swings they take, one of the best rates in the league. Their offense is built a lot like the Yankees in that they make a ton of contact and hit lots of balls in the air, but they don’t put as many men on base (8.7 BB%) and they certainly don’t have the same kind of power.

Oakland’s home park is rather spacious with an infamous amount of foul territory. Over the last three years it’s suppressed homers and doubles to about 91% of the league average, though it’ll certainly beef up the number of triples hit. Three-baggers are kind of a special case anyway, because they usually require an exceptionally fast runner and/or an outfielder misplaying a ball to happen. Anyway, Javy’s going to have the advantage of facing a team without much power in a park that already suppresses extra-base hits, something you couldn’t say about his last two starts.

Some of his struggles have been attributed to mechanical issues, but there’s bound to be some confidence issues here as well. How could there not be after getting smacked around in two starts and getting booed off the mound at home? A strong outing and a win could go a long way just toward restoring an measure of normalcy to Javy’s baseball life, which could have a big effect going forward.

No one expected Vazquez to come in and be the pitcher he was last year in Atlanta, but we all certainly expected him to be better than he has been thus far this season. That said, it’s still just two starts. If he put two outing like that together in the middle of June, no one would care, but because they happened in his first two starts of the year, well it’s the worst thing in the world. April has this strange way of magnifying things. The matchup tonight features an impatient and power deficient lineup in a pitcher’s park, so everything’s working in Vazquez’s favor.  It’s a good opportunity for him to go out, toss up some zeroes, and walk away with a win and a boost his confidence.

And you know what? If he doesn’t, that’s not the end of the world either. His season will be just nine percent or so complete by this time tomorrow. There’s lots of time left.

Can Jorge possibly keep up his contact and swing rates?

Like all teams, the Yankees faced a number of questions heading into the 2010 season. Could they continue to perform in the face of even loftier expectations? Would their new acquisitions adequately replace the departed? Can the veterans keep up their production? This last question concerned me most, particularly at two positions, shortstop and catcher. The Yankees have enjoyed advantages at those two spots over the past decade-plus. To see production erode there would run down the lineup. Thankfully, both Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have opened the season with strong performances.

Photo credit: Charles Krupa/AP

Of the two, Posada concerned me a bit more. Catchers typically slow down at Posada’s age, and while he’s done a good job of staving off Father Time to this point we know that can’t last forever. Early in the off-season, Bill James ran a study that examined the likelihood of a player’s performance declining in 2010. Of all players who accumulated 400 plate appearances in 2009, Jorge ranked as the most likely to decline. While age did play a factor, a number of performance issues did, too. For instance, Posada’s BB/K ratio was his lowest since 2001.

Thankfully, Posada has temporarily stopped these questions with his early season surge. In his 43 PA so far he has hit .378/.465/.730, a ridiculous .505 wOBA. Clearly he cannot maintain that throughout 2010. It does provide a positive sign, though, that he can continue producing at an elite level. Not only are his production numbers up, but so are his peripherals. His contact rate and walk rates are up, while his strikeout rate is down considerably. Even if these numbers come down (or up) a bit over the next five and a half months, Posada can still carve out an impressive season at age 38.

As we know, though, drawing conclusions form a sample as small as 43 PA can prove misleading. Anything can happen in two weeks, so we tend to back off on analysis of the first few weeks. Still, there are certain things we can glean from a sample only slightly larger than Jorge’s. From the Sabermetrics Library, we can start to see certain stats normalize at as few as 50 PA. Here’s the entire list:

  • 50 PA: Swing%
  • 100 PA: Contact Rate
  • 150 PA: Strikeout Rate, Line Drive Rate, Pitches/PA
  • 200 PA: Walk Rate, Ground Ball Rate, GB/FB
  • 250 PA: Fly Ball Rate
  • 300 PA: Home Run Rate, HR/FB
  • 500 PA: OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B Rate, Popup Rate
  • 550 PA: ISO

Posada’s Swing% currently sits at 42 percent, which more resembles his 2008 and 2009 seasons than his stellar 2007, when he was at 38.3 percent. That number could come down over his next seven PA, I suppose. Still, it seems odd to think that anyone’s Swing% would stabilize in as few as 50 PA. There’s research to back up the claim, but I’m still skeptical. I’d still expect Posada’s Swing% to resemble his 2002-2009 rate of 40.6 percent.

Two of Posada’s discipline stats which stand out are his Z-Contact and overall Contact rates. Z-Contact refers to pitches within the strike zone. Posada has yet to miss one of those pitches. He surely will, of course. Those numbers, according to Russell Carleton’s studies (linked at Sabermetrics Library), stabilize at 100 PA. Another two and a half weeks should give us a better indicator of whether Jorge will make contact at a rate closer to his 2007 mark of 82.5 percent, or more like his 2009 mark of 79.5 percent.

What I’ll really be looking at is where Jorge stands at around 200 PA. That’s when we’ll get a real idea of his strikeout and walk rates for the season. Again, Posada’s ranking in the Bill James study came in large part because his strikeout rate represented a seven-year high and his walk rate represented an eight-year low. So far in 2010 he has walked in 14 percent of his PA and has struck out in just 10.8 percent. Again, while we should expect these numbers to regress towards his career totals, they could still forecast a strong season.

As is quoted in the Sabermetics Library post, “In small sample sizes, a good scout is always better than stats.” I don’t think any scout, though, could find much to criticize in Jorge’s hot start. He won’t end the season with the numbers he has now — a .730 SLG is quite impossible for him. But it has been quite encouraging to see him get off to a hot start. If nothing else it set aside, at least temporarily, questions about his age. At best it forecasts yet another quality season from the seemingly ageless catcher.