The two sides of making contact

Over the winter we showed that it was essential for pitchers to strike batters out if they want to be successful long-term, but that batters could get away with high strikeout rates because they could make up for it in other ways. A pitcher with a low strikeout rate is at the mercy of his defense and the BABIP gods, while hitters with high strikeout rates can hit the ball with power and get on base in exchange. None of us like watching a Yankee strike out, but it happens.

At the root of strikeout rates are contact rates. The more contact a hitter makes, the less they’ll strike out. It’s that simple. For some batters, the speedy guys that can’t threaten a pitcher with power, it’s imperative to put the ball in play to make stuff happen. For others, the kinds of players that trade strikeouts for extra base hits, the need to make consistent contact is a bit more relaxed.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

One of the surprises in the first month of the season has been Brett Gardner, who woke up this morning sporting a .415 wOBA and eleven steals, good for second in all the land. The reason Gardner has been so successful is simple: he’s putting the ball in play on the ground more than he ever has before, and is using his top of the line speed to turn bouncers into hits. We all saw that game against the Rangers a few weeks ago when he beat out three infield hits and nearly a fourth. It’s not something Yankee fans are used to.

Despite that moonshot off Mark Buehrle, Gardner’s not ever going to hit for power and needs to play the slash-and-dash game. His minor league career featured a particularly high 19.8 K%, but he made up for it by hitting ground balls 55% of the time and taking advantage of neophyte minor league defenders. Gardner continued to strike out once he got the big leagues (23.6% in 2008, 16.1% in 2009), but he wasn’t hitting the ball on the ground as frequently (47.9% in ’08, 49% in ’09). You can see the slight upward trend, and that’s something that has continued into this season.

Through 25 games, Gardner has struck out in just 12% of his at-bats and put the ball on the ground 56.9% of the time. He’s not striking out as much because he’s simply making much more contact. Believe it or not, Gardner has yet to swing and miss at the pitch in the strike zone this season, and he’s the only player in the game that can make that claim. Marco Scutaro is second in baseball with a 99.1% contact rate in the zone. If the ball was over the plate and Gardner hacked at it, he’s gotten at least a piece of the ball every single time. His overall contact rate is 91.7% (73.5% contact rate on pitches out of the zone), which is tied with Ichiro for the tenth best in the game. A player like Gardner can’t make up for strikeouts by hitting for power, so he needs to slap the ball around the infield to be successful. So far this year, he’s done exactly that.

Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP

On the other side of the coin you have Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is off to a slow (.334 wOBA) start even though he’s made more contact than he ever has before. After making contact on about 75% of his swings from 2002-2009, Alex is up to 86.5% this year thanks to a 97.5% contact rate on pitches in the zone, well above the ~83% he posted from ’02-’09. It’s not like he swinging at more pitches either, actually quite the opposite. A-Rod offered at close to 44% of the pitches he saw from ’02-’09, but this year that’s down to 40.9%.

For a guy like Alex, you’d think the more contact the better because of what usually happens when he connects with a pitch. However, his batted ball rates are a little off kilter this season, particularly his line drive (17.3% in ’10 vs. 18.2% career) and fly ball (37% in ’10 vs. 40% career) percentages. The more balls he sends to the outfield, the better. Those LD and FB decreases have resulted in more ground balls (45.7% in ’10 vs. 41.8% career), and Alex isn’t a speedy guy like Gardner, who thrives on that stuff.

Is it possible A-Rod is making too much contact? He’s offering at a few more pitches off the plate than he usually does (22.7% in ’10 vs. 20.5% career), but because he’s putting the bat on the ball more than usual, it’s resulting in more weak contact. That would explain the uptick in groundballs. It might also have something to do with his newfound knee issue: perhaps it’s preventing him from really driving through the ball with his lower half. Either way, A-Rod’s not going to maintain a 6.7% HR/FB rate all year (23.4% career), and at some point (hopefully soon) he’ll go on a Mike Stanton-esque binge and club ten homers in ten games.

So far this year we’ve seen two Yankees making a whole lot of contact with the ball at the plate, but they’ve gotten different results. Their vastly different skill sets are the primary reason why it’s working for Gardner and not A-Rod, but there’s no cause for concern. Brett the Jet can keep it up for as long as he wants, and Alex is too talented to hit .258-.336-.430 over 162 games.

Yankees recall Golson, option Melancon

Update (6:01pm): Melancon has indeed been sent to Triple-A.

12:46pm: Via Donnie Collins, the Yankees are expected to call up outfielder Greg Golson (who is already in New York) today to replace the injured Curtis Granderson. Mark Melancon will likely be the 25-man roster casualty following Sunday’s two inning, 27-pitch outing. Golson’s call up is an unsurprising move not just because we heard it was coming over the weekend, but because the Yanks don’t have another true centerfielder on their roster beyond Brett Gardner.

The 24-year-old Golson is crazy fast and a defensive whiz, but he’s not much with the stick. In 21 Triple-A games this season, he’s hitting .253-.289-.430 with twelve strikeouts, four steals, and just three walks. He won’t be used for much more than pinch running and late-game defense.

Link Dump: Javy, Cano, Romine, Draft

We have links, and not the sucky kind either…

What’s wrong with Javy Vazquez?

It’s the question everyone’s trying to answer these days, though there’s only one guy who can truly answer it. That’s not going to stop us, though. Tommy Rancel at Bloomberg Sports looked at the numbers, and while there’s definitely some unsustainably high rate stats working against Vazquez (3.13 HR/9 (!!!)) so far, the root of the problem might be his fastball. Not so much that the lost velocity means he’s afraid to throw it, but that the lost velocity has closed the gap between his heater and changeup. Instead of one pitching losing effectiveness, it’s two pitches.

Also, make sure you check out this Baseball Prospectus piece by Jay Jaffe’s mustache on the same topic (subs. req’d). He notes that Javy’s strikeout rate drops with men on base, which is bad news for a fly ball pitcher. The Yanks are skipping their Opening Day fourth starter this turn through the rotation, so hopefully he can iron some things out during the break.

Is Cano’s hot start for real?

Well, it’s hard to imagine Robbie Cano maintaining his current production over the remaining 137 games, he is on a 58 homer pace after all. Dougbies at Beyond The Box Score went deeper into Cano’s start, and while the Yanks’ second baseman has certainly enjoyed some good luck early on, none of it is out of world insane like Austin Jackson’s BABIP (up to .532!). Long story short, Cano is legitimately having the best season of his already very good career, which really isn’t all that uncommon for a player in his age-27 season.

Love for Austin Romine

While Jesus Montero has scuffled a bit in his first 100 Triple-A plate appearances or so, the Yanks’ other elite catching prospect has been hitting the snot out of the ball in Double-A. Romine is up to .351-.429-.554 (.418 wOBA) following last night’s 2-for-5 effort. In his Daily Futures piece at ESPN (Insider req’d), Kevin Goldstein mentions that Romine is probably the Yanks’ catcher of the future, because “his overall tools are well above-average for a backstop and scouts project him as an above-average defender down the line.”

It’s great to see him off to such a fast start, but the key is for Romine to maintain it all season. Catching is a grueling job, and this is the first time in his career he’ll be a full-time starting catcher from wire-to-wire.

Top draft picks by round

In the latest Ask BA, Jim Callis digs through the first 25 rounds of every draft over the last five years to find which player was the best pick in that round. Unsurprisingly, Tim Lincecum took the 1st round honors, but three Yankees’ picks joined him on the list: Joba Chamberlain (sandwich round), Austin Jackson (8th round), and Graham Stoneburner (14th round). The Yanks have done a nice job of turning late round picks into useful players, even if they’re just relievers like David Robertson (17th), Phil Coke (26th), and Mike Dunn (33rd). Those guys developed into far more than what their round usually produces.

Johnson still trying to find a groove

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Despite his early struggles, Nick Johnson remains an on-base machine. He hasn’t fared well on balls in play, as just nine of 44 have dropped in for hits. That amounts to a .182 BABIP, an unsustainably low mark. That’s part of the good news. The bad news is that while his BABIP projects much higher, it appears as though he’ll have to make a few adjustments in order to recover. There appears to be a bit more at play than mere bad luck on balls in play.

From 2001 through 2006 Johnson put the ball in play in 62 percent of his plate appearances. He then missed all of 2007 and most of 2008. When he came back in 2009 he put the ball in play 64 percent of the time. This season he has managed to make fair contact in just 48 percent of his plate appearances. He’s putting many of those in the air, 19 fly balls to 16 ground balls and 10 line drives. Two of those 19 have been infield pop ups. Previously in his career Johnson has put more balls on the ground.

On batted ball types, though, we have a pretty small sample. Again, he’s put the ball in play just 44 times in 91 PA. What does he do the rest of the time? Walk and strike out. Both rates are at the highest they’ve ever been in his career. In 24.2 percent of his plate appearances Johnson has drawn a walk, a mark that has helped him avoid making outs while slumping. If Mark Teixeira didn’t slump throughout April and Alex Rodriguez wasn’t going through a mini slump himself, perhaps Johnson would have scored more than 10 runs so far.

His strikeout rate presents a bit of a concern. It sits at 32.8 percent*, the highest mark in the AL. He hasn’t been within 10 percent of that mark since 2004. What strikes me here isn’t the high strikeout rate so much as the breakdown. Of his 22 strikeouts, 15 have been looking. It’s not as if he’s overmatched and can’t get his bat around, or else is fooled by the pitcher. He’s just being extremely selective with two strikes and is paying the price. The latter seems more correctable, so that’s a positive sign. Still, he’s not helping the team by looking at so many strike threes.

*Note: FanGraphs bases K% on AB and BB% on PA. Not sure why, but that’s what I’m working with right now.

Looking at his swing data, we see more troubling signs. He has seen fewer pitches in the zone than at any point in his career, which shows up in his walk rate. Yet his walk rate could actually be higher. He has swung at 18.9 percent of pitches outside the zone, again a high water mark for his career. He’s making contact with these pitches at an unprecedented rate as well, which usually translates to bad contact. That likely factors into his BABIP. He’s swinging at fewer pitches inside the zone, too, though he’s making excellent contact when he does swing at those. Finally, he’s seen by far more first-pitch strikes this year, so perhaps pitchers are taking advantage of his selective nature. He’s either seen an 0-1 count or put the ball in play in 53 of his 91 PA.

It’s tough to put this all together, since there’s so much going on. He’s seeing more strikes than ever before, but is swinging at fewer of them, leading to a high strikeout rate based on strike threes looking. He’s chasing more pitches outside the zone and making more contact on them, which in all likelihood leads to bad outcomes. I’m willing to bet that his slightly increased fly ball rate results from the out-of-zone swinging. His saving grace is that he’s taking walks and therefore not making outs as frequently as others hitting under .200. He ranks 29th in the AL in OBP, and has the lowest average among the top 35 by more than .100.

We can look at Johnson’s BABIP and say he’s due for a correction, and in a way that’s true. In this case, however, there are many more factors to consider. Kevin Long talked about helping Johnson make adjustments, especially on the inside pitch. Is Johnson just taking time to get into a groove? Or is there something going on that just doesn’t work for him? He’s getting on base enough to justify a spot in the lineup, so perhaps he’ll settle in and work things out. Perhaps a move downward wouldn’t be the worst idea at this point.

Winn powers Yanks to win over O’s in series opener

With the bitter taste of Saturday’s loss out of their mouths, the Yankees came back to work on Monday night, ready to feast on bottom-feeding Baltimore. The Orioles were coming off a three game sweep of the Red Sox, but New York had their ace on the bump. Almost everything went according to plan. It was a fairly clean win for a Yankee team that is rolling, but injuries to two important players put a damper on it.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Biggest Hit: Welcome to New York, Randy Winn

Over the first four weeks of the season, fifth outfielder Randy Winn looked nothing but overmatched. He was 1-for-13 at the plate with a -57 OPS+ (yes, -57), and other than the occasional late-inning defensive assignment, he was mostly the forgotten man on the roster.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Needless to say, you can imagine the surprise when Winn came up with the biggest hit of the night. It wasn’t some dinky single to the opposite field either; he turned around a 91 mph Jeremy Guthrie fastball up in the zone and sent it about 410 feet to right-center, beyond the fence and into the Yankee bullpen. Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner had been on base thanks to a pair of singles. So Winn’s bomb turned a tightly-contested (and tied) game into a much more comfortable three-run Yankee lead.

It was Winn’s first homer in 491 at-bats, dating back to last April when he took Max Scherzer yard. He might never do anything more productive in pinstripes, but for one night, Randy Winn was the hero.

Biggest Out: Nolan Reimold makes two outs on one swing

Much like his start last week, CC Sabathia wasn’t his usual dominant self on Monday, but he was more than effective into the late innings. With that three-run lead still intact, Garrett Atkins led off the top of the 7th with a single to center. With CC’s pitch count approaching 90, the bullpen started to stir.

Instead, Reimold did the Yankees a favor, hacking at Sabathia’s first pitch, a 92-mph heater on the outer half that probably would have been called a ball. The grounder bounced down to Derek Jeter at short, who took it to the bag himself to start the 6-3 double play. Instead of having the tying run on deck with one out, all of a sudden Baltimore had that potential fourth run in the hole with two outs. It wasn’t a big play to end a rally; it was a big play to prevent the rally from even starting.

All CC, All The Time

The Yankee ace was good but not great last time out, when he faced these same Orioles at Camden Yards. Sabathia improved upon that performance on Monday, firing eight innings with just one blemish – a solo homer to Matt Wieters and his facts. Using a variety of two-seamers and changeups, CC pounded the bottom of the zone and induced 16 groundballs to just six in the air. The strike zone was a tad inconsistent, but that’s something everyone will have to deal with at some point during the season.

It was a relatively uneventful outing for Sabathia, which for him means eight innings of one run ball while battling his control at times. The guy is a machine.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Posada Exits Early

The Yankees have experienced a mini-rash of injuries over the last few days, losing Curtis Granderson to a Grade II calf strain and Alex Rodriguez to some knee pain. Another important Yank went down on Monday night, as Jorge Posada had to exit the game in the 5th inning with tightness in his right calf. He went off to get an MRI, and is day-to-day with a calf strain.

Enduring the loss of Granderson will be hard enough, but if the Yankees lose Posada for any length of time … well, just look at what happened in 2008.

Mowhere To Be Found

The last three or four games have been especially taxing on the Yanks’ bullpen, but two guys who hadn’t worked all that much were Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera. Neither had pitched since Friday, so they were well rested and ready to record the last six outs should the Yankees have the lead.

With Sabathia going eight strong, only one of the Yanks’ end-game arms was going to be needed. With a three run lead in the 9th, everyone expects to hear Enter Sandman. Instead, Mo was nowhere to be found, and it was Joba who trotted out to the mound for the save opportunity. He pitched a scoreless and uneventful frame, but no one seemed to care. Everyone wanted to know what was going on with the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived.

After the game, Joe Girardi revealed that Rivera had been dealing with a sore non-throwing side, which was further described as a twinge in his flank. He said it was something Mo first experienced after his appearance on Friday, and at the moment we don’t really know when he’ll be available again. Could be tomorrow, but Girardi said he’d like to give him another day. It’s just one injury after another lately.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Happy Moments

How about this Nick Swisher character? The dude went 3-for-3 in this game, and is now eight for his last 12 with a couple of doubles and a couple of homers. The Yanks have only played ten games at home, but it appears Swish’s massive home-road split from 2009 has stayed in 2009.

Brett Gardner reached base two more times, bumping his on-base percentage up to .424, the best on the team. In fact, the bottom three hitters in the order combined to go 5-for-8 with a walk, three runs scored, and all four runs driven in. Gotta love that circular lineup.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Annoying Moments

I sure hope Joe West was watching this game. Home plate ump Bill Hohn was certainly in no rush to signal balls and strikes back there. Furthermore, CC Sabathia had some trouble with Hohn’s strike zone, verbally sparring with him in the 7th inning. Not often you see the big guy do that.

I mentioned that the bottom of the lineup did some major damage already, but the one through six hitters combined to go just 1-for-23 with a walk and three strikeouts. On most nights, the Yankees lose when that happens.

WPA Graph

Individual player breakdowns are available at FanGraphs’ box score.

Up Next

Same two teams tomorrow night; rematch of last week’s A.J. Burnett vs. Brian Matusz duel.

Posada day-to-day with calf strain

(Update 11:09pm): Posada is day-to-day with a mild calf strain, which isn’t all that bad. He’s probably not going to be available to catch until Friday at the earliest, in which case the Yankees would need to call up an extra catcher. Chad Moeller, come on down!

9:04pm: Posada left the game with tightness in his right calf, and is at the hospital getting an MRI. Not good.

8:50pm: Starting catcher Jorge Posada was lifted from tonight’s game in the 5th inning for an unknown reason. Obviously, he was replaced behind the plate by Frankie Cervelli. We’ll update this post with more info as it comes in, though it’s worth noting that Posada recently missed a few games with a sore knee after getting hit by a pitch last week.

Montero breaks out of slump in SWB win

The Dominican Prospect League site has some more info on Erik Olivo, who the Yankees signed for $300,000 last week, while Blogging About Baseball has a first-hand report from Jose Ramirez‘s. Also, Mike Ashmore has a little Q&A with Austin Romine, and they spoke about calling pitches and improving his plate discipline. And finally, Sean at Pending Pinstripes rounded up how each of the Yanks’ top 30 prospects are doing so far this season.

Walt Ibarra, Francisco Rondon, and Taylor Grote are all on the disabled list with who knows what.

Triple-A Scranton (6-3 win over Norfolk)
Kevin Russo, 3B: 1 for 5, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 K, 1 E (fielding)
Reegie Corona, 2B: 0 for 5, 1 K
Eduardo Nunez, SS & Chad Huffman, LF: both 2 for 4, 1 BB – Nunez scored a run … Huffman drove in two, K’ed & threw a runner out at third
Juan Miranda, 1B & Jon Weber, DH: both 2 for 5, 1 K – Weber scored a run & drove one in
David Winfree, RF: 3 for 51 R, 1 2B
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 5, 2 R, 2 2B, 1 RBI – breaks out of his little 5-for-35 slump … thankfully
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 2, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding) – he should be up with the big league team soon, they don’t really have a backup centerfielder
Ivan Nova: 7 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 10-4 GB/FB – 59 of 92 pitches were strikes (64.1%) … nice rebound outing after getting hit around in front of Arodis Chapman last week
The Ghost of Kei Igawa: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 10 of his 13 pitches were strikes … first time he’s pitched since April 21st … I wonder what’s up with that
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 15 of his 20 pitches were strikes (75%)

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