On attendance, temperatures and April games

As I sat in the Terrace section of Yankee Stadium three weeks ago, I pondered the scene around me. For the second year in a row, I nabbed some tickets to the home opener, and while last year’s crowd celebrated the World Series ring ceremony on a sunny day in early spring, this year’s sparse crowd seemed more focused on huddling together to stay warm. With rain falling and highs reaching only 43 degrees, the weather seemed better suited to football than Opening Day.

Now, over the years, I’ve spent many a cold night at Yankee Stadium. I’ve sat through blistering winds in early May and chilly but crisp nights in late October. I’ve seen snow fall early in the season and have worn more layers than I care to count to the stadium. But on Opening Day, sitting there in three shirts, a sweater, a winter jacket and with a wool hat and gloves on, I said to myself, “No more.” Unless it’s Opening Day, I’d rather just wait until the weather is warmer.

Yet, last Friday and Saturday, when game-time temperatures were in the upper 40s, I again found myself at Yankee Stadium, bundled up to brave the cold. By the time the Yanks had won Saturday afternoon’s affair against the Rangers, I had spent around seven of the previous 22 hours in the cold at Yankee Stadium. I realize that was my choice, but it was a tough one. By the end of the second game, my friend Jay who also went to both games said he wasn’t sure he could keep going to these freezing games. It’s impossible to deny that the dog days of summer are much, much better for baseball than the rainy days of early April.

Somehow, though, the Yankees were scheduled for home games throughout April. Already, they’ve had 13 home games scheduled. Two have been rained out, and for two others, the team has offered to give fans make-goods for a future date because the weather was just that miserable. They end the month with six month home games, and luckily, temperatures may actually be in the upper 50s or low 60s then.

Meanwhile, baseball has been wringing its collective hands over attendance woes. CNBC’s Darren Rovell noted this week that attendance was down slightly across the board, but that a few teams — including the Yankees — had seen steep declines. Even though the Yanks are third in home attendance in the Majors right now, the current average — 41,685 — is nine percent lower than 2010’s per-game average.

The Yankees are blaming the weather, and I’m inclined to agree, at least in part. “The fact that we’ve had this early April schedule has hurt us,” Randy Levine said to ESPN New York. “Over the course of the season, we expect everything to equalize. But early on, the fact that the weather has been so bad [and] we’ve had so many games in April has hurt.”

On the other hand, though, a good number of partial season ticket holders have dropped their plans. The Yankees either cut benefits and postseason access from the plans or the costs became too high. The attendance issues too are reflected on the secondary market. It’s now possible to buy reasonably good seasons for well under $10 a pop. With markdowns so far below face value, supply is outstripping demand.

As we can’t yet draw too many statistical conclusions from the Yanks’ play, it’s also early to condemn the attendance numbers. But I’m comfortable saying the Yanks shouldn’t have 19 home games — or nearly 25 percent of their home slate scheduled — for before May 1. It’s not a secret that spring is a cold, wet time in the northeast, and baseball has plenty of warm-weather teams and domed stadiums to play host to most April games.

Despite my promises to myself, I’ll keep going to games, and I’ll keep bringing layers and gloves. I know we’ll be complaining about the heat in New York come mid-July, but these early April home games are a bit brutal. I don’t blame anyone for staying home. It’s much warmer on my couch, after all.

The Pitching Waves

Millwood's on his way. Uh ... yay? (Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore)

Sixteen games into the 2011 season, two things are very clear about the Yankees: they have a great offense, and boy does their starting pitching stink. They’re second in the majors with a .357 wOBA but first with a 126 wRC+, hitting at least six more homers than every other team. Just wait until their .260 BABIP (third lowest in baseball) starts to correct. At the same time, the Yankees’ rotation has the worst ERA (5.06) and third worst FIP (4.38) in the American League, and their average of 5.32 innings per start is the worst in baseball.

Obviously that has to change, we’ve known that since the last September. Even if the Yankees had landed Cliff Lee, they’d still be in need of starting pitching right now, that’s how bad it’s been. That’s another post for another time, I suppose. The offense and some timely bullpen work have helped the team overcome its starting pitching problems during the first 16 games of the season, but obviously this isn’t a sustainable approach to securing a playoff berth. Some pitching help is on the way though, just not the kind of help a contender wants to rely on.

At the moment, both Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have done a bang up job of turning the clock back, at least temporarily. Who knows how long it’ll last. Kevin Millwood will make a second minor league start for Triple-A Scranton this weekend, and there’s ten days until his opt-out clause kicks in. The Yankees will have two more looks at him before deciding what do, though you’d have to imagine that if he shows anything that looks like it could get big league batters out, he’ll be called to join the team. Millwood represents the next wave of pitching help, as unappealing as it sounds.

Behind him lies Carlos Silva, who apparently showed up to Extended Spring Training slightly less fat than the Yankees expected. He isn’t doing anything more than conditioning drills last we heard, but you have to figure he’s not far off from climbing on a mound. He did pitch with the Cubs in camp just a few weeks ago. If he goes on the Millwood plan, meaning some starts in ExST and two or three appearances with the full season minor league affiliates, then we have to figure he’s about four weeks away, at the very least. Silva, as unspectacular as he is, is the second wave of pitching help.

By the time he comes up, if he does at all, we’re talking early-June or so, which is the start of trading season. The Yankees are surely mining the pitching market at the moment, but it’s not often that teams will commit to selling off valuable pieces this early in the season. If the Twins keep tanking, maybe Francisco Liriano becomes available sooner than expected. Maybe the struggling Astros make someone available, maybe MLB’s takeover of the Dodgers put someone on the market, who knows. A lot will change over the next few weeks and the Yankees are simply going to have to bide their time until it does. For all intents and purposes, the trade market is the third wave of pitching help.

Although Millwood and Silva are the obvious guys on the way, there is also one constant: the farm system. If the Yankees need to plug hole in-between some of these veteran scrap heapers, there’s always a Hector Noesi or an Adam Warren a phone call away. Best of all, those guys are already in game shape, there’s no need to wait. The first round of pitching help, essentially Garcia and Colon, has worked out well so far, but it’s just been one turn through the rotation for both of those guys. How long it will last is anyone’s guess. Millwood and Silva will offer some alternatives (not necessarily help, but at least alternatives) in the coming weeks before the trade market heats up, plus there’s always the farm system. Until the rotation gets settled, the offense is really going to have to carry to load, and it’s certainly good enough to do that.

The RAB Radio Show: April 21, 2011

Bart Colon showed the Yankees something last night with his marvelous 6.2-inning performance. That enabled the Yankees to split the series, a nice consolation after blowing the game on Tuesday. Mike and I talk about the game, from the dominance of Colon to the awesomeness of Granderson to the fundamental execution by Teixeira.

Podcast run time 30:07

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

Colon vs. The Jays: Righties vs. Lefties

No one makes mountains out of molehills quite like baseball fans, so you can be sure that I’m going to write entirely too much about Bartolo Colon’s start against the Blue Jays. However, instead of writing one big post and stuffing it all in there, I’m going to break it up into a few smaller posts this morning just so there’s no information overload and the discussion can remain focused. We’ve already talked about Colon’s velocity, and how he attacked Jose Bautista, but now let’s separate the right-handed batters from the lefties…

Pitching away has long been one of baseball’s old fall-backs. We see pitcher after pitcher pound guys away in an effort to prevent the batter from pulling the ball with authority. Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone and current Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan have been preaching this for years, especially the down-and-away pitch. It’s a style conducive to ground balls more than anything, and while those tend to go for hits more often that balls hit in the air, the rarely go for extra base hits.

Against the Jays last night, Colon threw pitch after pitch away from right-handed batters, almost to the extreme. Check out the strike zone plot above. That’s nothing new either, click here and you’ll see that Bartolo’s been attacking righties almost exclusively by pitching to the outer third of the plate this season. Although just five of the ten balls put into play by Toronto righties batters last night were on the ground, same-side batters have a 52% ground ball rate against Colon this year, which is a pretty big number. Balls hit on the ground on outside pitches will (theoretically) go towards the right side of the infield, which works for the Yankees since Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira will get a chance to field them instead of the two mid-30-something guys on the left side.

It was a bit of a different story against left-handed batters though…

Obviously it’s a small amount of data, but Colon appears to have thrown a greater percentage of pitches inside to lefties than he did righties. A look at his season graph supports this even further. We’ve all seen him throw the Greg Maddux pitch a bunch of times, the two-seamer that starts inside to lefties and darts back over the plate for a called strike after the batter has bailed out, and that’s what the majority of the inside pitches to lefties have been. Maybe Colon is just more comfortable throwing that two-seamer to his glove side, maybe he commands it better, who knows. But it’s definitely a trend to batters of both hands.

Left-handed batters have done a much better job of not just putting the ball in the air against Bartolo (22.7% ground ball rate), but they’re making hard contact (40.9% line drive rate). Regression is going to come one way or the other; he simply won’t keep giving up that many line drives to lefties and watch them maintain a .261 BABIP. It’s probably correct both ways actually, the line drive rate will come down and the BABIP will still go up. The approach though – pitching away from righties and slightly in on lefties – has worked so far and if it’s what Colon is comfortable with, then by all means he should continue doing that.

Strike zone plots via Texas Leaguers.

Colon vs. Bautista: Strength vs. Strength

No one makes mountains out of molehills quite like baseball fans, so you can be sure that I’m going to write entirely too much about Bartolo Colon’s start against the Blue Jays. However, instead of writing one big post and stuffing it all in there, I’m going to break it up into a few smaller posts this morning just so there’s no information overload and the discussion can remain focused. Earlier we talked about Colon’s velocity, now we’re going to look at how he attacked Jose Bautista…

Bautista’s superman act has been going on for more than 200 games now. He hit ten homeruns in his final 26 games of 2009, 54 homers in 161 games last year, and he’s already knocked four balls out of the park in 15 games this season. That’s 68 homers over the last 20 months. The Yankees’ certainly haven’t solved him; Bautista is hitting .271/.463/.686 with nine homers in 20 games against New York during that time. Heck, he took A.J. Burnett deep in his first at-bat of the season series on Tuesday. Colon shut the Jays’ slugger down on Wednesday night by pitching to his strength, even though it just so happened to be Bautista’s strength as well.

The three Gameday screen grabs above show Bautista’s three at-bats against Colon from last night’s game. The first encounter is all the way on the left, the third all the way on the right. I recommend clicking the image to open a larger and far more easier to read view. As you can see, there’s twelve pitches total, and ten of them of them are fastballs up in the zone. Ten! We’ve seen enough of the guy over the last year and change to know that he usually parks those pitches over the fence. If you don’t believe me though, here is Bautista’s strike zone breakdown against fastballs from right-handed pitchers in 2010…

The guy crushes the high cheese. We’re talking ISO’s ranging between .450 and .720 on fastballs in the upper third of the zone and ISO’s well north of .360 on fastballs in the middle third. And yet, despite all that, here comes 37-year-old Bartolo Colon challenging the reigning homerun champ with low-to-mid-90’s gas up in the zone. After trying to steal strike one with a first pitch slider in the first at-bat, Colon threw four straight fastballs up in the zone before Bautista hacked one of them into the turf for a ground out. The second at-bat was the exact opposite, first came the four high fastballs before the swing-and-miss on the down-and-away slider for the strikeout. Bautista popped up a high fastball two pitches into his third at-bat for an air out that went backwards; Russell Martin caught it in foul territory.

Simple, right? All you have to do is pound Bautista with high fastballs and you’re golden. Well, no, of course it’s not that easy. Executing those high fastballs is much easier said than done, but Colon did it perfectly last night. The Yankees’ right-hander threw the ball with conviction when one mistake would have resulted in instant offense for Toronto, so give him props for that. You definitely can’t say that about about everyone on the staff when Bautista’s at the dish.

Bautista’s strike zone report via Joe Lefkowitz’s site.