Checking in on Austin Jackson

Photo Credit: Duane Burleson, AP

Twelve months ago, outfielder Austin Jackson was the lone impact position player prospect the Yankees had above A-ball. Jesus Montero and Austin Romine had about 200 plate appearances combined above the Low-A level, and Eduardo Nunez was coming off a three year stretch in which he hit .243-.286-.329. Now, Jackson is starring for the Detroit Tigers following the offseason trade for Curtis Granderson. Granderson was off to a .314 wOBA start in 91 plate appearances before landing on the disabled list with Grade II groin strain over the weekend while the player they gave up was busy wOBA’ing .411 in 119 plate appearances for Tigers, so we’ve already seen plenty of second guessing about the trade. It’s only natural, but one month is hardly any kind of sample from which to draw conclusions from.

Jackson, still just 23-years-old despite being around for what feels like forever, is second in the American League with a .367 batting average which you no doubt already know is fueled by the mother of all BABIP’s: .527. For comparison’s sake, Robbie Cano‘s league leading .387 batting average is backed by a .365 BABIP, which is high for him considering his .322 career BABIP, but it’s not completely insane at this time of year. Ichiro had a .399 BABIP the year he broke the all-time single season hit record with 262. That gives you can idea of how absurd Jackson’s luck has been. Outside of Little League, there’s just no way a player can sustain having more than 50% of the balls he hits between the lines drop in for a hit. There’s just no way.

Using Derek Carty’s expected BABIP calculator (xBABIP), we find that Jackson would be expected to have a .350 BABIP based on the kind of balls he’s put in play (line drives, ground balls, etc). So we’re talking a 177 point difference here, which translates into 19 13 (!!!) extra hits that the former Yanks’ farmhand has already picked up this season that he normally wouldn’t have been expected to. Assuming those 19 13 extra hits were all singles, he would be hitting just .190-.258-.318 (.257 wOBA) .248-.311-.367 (.305 wOBA) if lady luck weren’t on his side. Jackson’s minor league BABIP is .366 in close to 2,500 plate appearances, so that’s essentially his baseline. The .350 xBABIP is reasonable considering that he’s now in the big boy’s league.

All those extra hits are one piece of the puzzle, there’s also all those strikeouts as well. Jackson leads the league with 34 strikeouts, or 31.2% of his at-bats. Just eight players struck out in at least three out of every ten at-bats last season, and they were all three true outcome sluggers (Mark Reynolds, Jack Cust, Carlos Pena, Russell Branyan, etc), not gap-to-gap hitters like A-Jax. As you would expect, the root of those strikeouts stems from Jackson’s plate discipline, which has never been his strong suit.

So far this season, he’s offered at 27.4% of pitches out of the strike zone, a touch more than the league average of 26.9%. Jackson isn’t just swinging at more pitches out of the zone than the rest of the league, he’s also making contact on fewer, just 60.3% (64.6% lg avg). that’s no doubt due to a 9.7% swinging strike rate (8.3% lg avg), which is pretty high. Swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone is a deadly combination. The strikeouts also impact BABIP, since fewer balls are in play. Jackson was always able to swing and miss with the best of them, but his immense production has masked this deficiency so far.

At the moment, pitchers are throwing Jackson a fastball 67.5% of the time, which is partly due to the league making the rookie prove he can hit the cheese before adjusting. Just nine batters has seen a higher percentage of fastballs this year, and they’re all basically no-power slap hitters (David Eckstein, Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik, Luis Castillo, and of course Brett Gardner). As the season progresses and the league gets two or three or more looks at Jackson, he’ll start getting fed more and more offspeed stuff, which was always his weakness in the bush leagues.

The Tigers are getting a tremendous amount of production out of their new centerfielder so far this season, which is great for both the team and Jackson. I hope Detroit uses the hot start to jump in and sign him to an eight year deal and sets him up for life, I really do. However, it’s still far too early to accept this as Jackson’s true talent level, and it’s definitely way too early to start second guessing the deal. We’ve been preaching patience since the first day of RAB’s existence, and there’s no reason we would change that approach now.

Vazquez might be bad, but alternatives not much better

Once Andy Pettitte re-signed for the 2010 season, the Yankees sought just one more pitcher to fill the rotation. That would leave only the No. 5 spot vacant, ripe for a competition, in name at least, between Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. An additional veteran would afford the Yanks a bit more flexibility in the rotation. They would have a solid top four even if the No. 5 winner flopped, and would have depth in case of injury.

Photo credit: Nathan Denette/AP

A few names of interest appeared on the free agent market. Ben Sheets, who missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his throwing elbow, topped the list because of his ace potential. Justin Duchscherer, who also missed all of 2009 recovering from an injury, represented another interesting name. He made a successful transition to the rotation in 2008 before suffering his injury, and his ground ball stuff figured to play well at Yankee Stadium.

Finally, Joel Piniero, who found success by inducing ground balls in 2009, hit the market. While he had a leg up on Sheets and Duchscherer, he also had a far spottier past. After two and a half excellent seasons with Seattle in the early 00s, Pineiro fell off a cliff. From 2004 through 2006 he pitched 495.1 innings to a 5.60 ERA. His strikeout rate dropped precipitously during that period, going from 7.1 per nine in 2004 to 5.1 in 2005, and finally to 4.7 in 2006. The Red Sox, under the advice of Allard Baird, signed him to close games in 2007, but that didn’t work out too well. It wasn’t until last season, his second full season under Dave Duncan’s tutelage, that Pineiro showed a consistent ability to record outs.

Yet the Yankees opted to avoid the free agent market. The decision was understandable. The three pitchers who would have best fit the Yankees’ need, at a reasonable salary, all carried considerable question marks. Instead they turned to the trade market and acquired Javy Vazquez from the Braves. The cost wasn’t high in Yankees terms. They swapped Melky Cabrera, along with his eventual $3 million salary, and high-upside prospect Arodys Vizcaino for Vazquez. It seemed to complete the Yankees rotation, giving them a bunch of top-three guys in the first four spots.

As we’ve seen through his first five starts, Vazquez hasn’t worked out to this point. At the same time, neither have any of the other choices. While Sheets and Pineiro haven’t performed quite as badly as Vazquez, they’ve struggled in their own ways. Duchscherer shined after struggling in his first start. He allowed just two runs in 19 innings during his next three starts. During his last start against Toronto, however, he left the game with pain in his hip. He described it as similar to the problem that kept him out for 2009. That was certainly one of the concerns with signing him during the winter.

Photo credit: Lori Schepler/AP

Pineiro actually started off the season strong, allowing just four runs in his first 20.1 innings. He actually struck out a decent number of batters 13, nearly 16 percent of all batters he faced. For comparison, last year he struck out 12 percent of all batters faced. All the while he kept his walk rate low, 3.7 percent of batters faced, against 3.1 percent last season. It hurt even more that one of those excellent performances came against the Yankees with Vazquez on the mound. Yet things went south pretty quickly.

In his last two starts Pineiro has lasted just 9.1 innings and has allowed 16 runs, 15 earned. Opponents have hit a home run as often as they have struck out. While Pineiro has kept his walk rate characteristically low, just two of 51 batters faced, he has seen his strikeout rate tank, just 6 percent of batters faced. Thankfully, the first such poor start came against the Yankees, who lit him up for six runs on 11 hits, none of which were home runs, in 6 IP. The Tigers, another team Pineiro dominated earlier in April, smacked him around on Friday, scoring 10 runs on 10 hits, including three homers, in just 3.1 innings.

Ben Sheets’s most recent start almost mirrors Pineiro’s last effort. In 3.1 innings against the Blue Jays he allowed nine runs on 10 hits and two walks, including three home runs. After striking out 20.4 percent of all batters faced during his years in Milwaukee, Sheets has struck out just 11.3 percent this season. Meanwhile his walk rate is through the roof, equalling his strikeout rate. He has more than doubled his walk percentage this season, 11.3 percent from 5.3 percent in Milwaukee. He claims he’s having trouble with his breaking ball, an unsurprising development considering his absence in 2009.

Photo credit: Christine Cotter/AP

Again, Vazquez’s struggles at this point are a bit more severe than those of Sheets and Pineiro. Yet I feel that Vazquez has a better chance of turning it around than the others. Sheets is further removed from his surgery every day, but it doesn’t seem that his his control, or his fastball velocity, is close to being back. Pineiro impressed last season and showed that he can get through tough lineups, but how much of that can we depend on in the future. After all, before last season he hand’t been good since 2003. If all three are struggling, I’d choose Javy over the other two.

There has been nothing encouraging about Javy’s 2010 season to date. He has no idea where his fastball is going, and isn’t getting as much speed on it as he has in the past. If he somehow gets that under control, he can recover and be the pitcher the Yankees thought they were acquiring in December. If not, we’ll see a lot of second guessing. As we’ve seen, though, there weren’t many better options on the free agent market. Despite his struggles, I still believe that trading for Javy was a better call than signing Duchscherer, Sheets, or Pineiro.

Fan Confidence Poll: May 3rd, 2010

Record Last Week: 4-2 (40 RS, 22 RA)
Season Record: 16-8 (136 RS, 89 RA, 17-7 Pythag. record), 1.5 games back
Opponents This Week: vs. Orioles (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, @ Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Hughes dominates Sox in 12-3 victory

I hope to write the same headline again later this week.

The offense might seem the focal point in a 12-3 win, and the Yanks’ hitters certainly put on a display. The story, though, was Phil Hughes and his continued dominance of the American League. He threw 99 pitches in seven innings, and might have come out for the eighth if not for a 10-batter, five-run bottom of the seventh. Everything looked good, from his strikeouts to his lack of walks, and especially to his lack of hits allowed. I can’t wait to see him face the Red Sox this weekend.

Biggest Hit: Cano ices it

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

From the couch, this game felt pretty well in control from the beginning. The Yanks put together a run in the second, and then nearly struck it big in the third. With the bases loaded and two outs Mark Buehrle threw a changeup that caught a bit too much of the plate. Jorge Posada hit it on a line, but right to Juan Pierre. Still, it seemed like they were on the brink of getting to Buehrle.

They confirmed that in the fifth inning. For the second time in the game Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher hit back-to-back singles to set up Robinson Cano. While Buehrle pitched around him the first time, he went at him with fastballs in the fifth. Cano fouled off the first and swung through the second, putting himself in an 0-2 hole. The next pitch, a changeup, was in a good location, low and away, but Cano adjusted and got his bat head on the ball. About a second later it collided with the right field stands, and the Yankees took a 5-0 lead.

With his 2 for 4 day Cano improves his triple slash to .387/.433/.763. He came into the day trailing Justin Morneau, who went 2 for 6 with two doubles, in wOBA. Will the homer and the walk make up the difference? We’ll see in the morning.

Honorable Mention: Gardner’s no doubter

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Coming into the game Brett Gardner had seen 4.17 pitches per plate appearances, third in the AL. (Curtis Granderson was fourth. Never would have guessed.) He saw only two during his first at-bat, but he made them count. The second time up, though, Gardner worked up his average. Buehrle worked him mostly away, mixing his four-seamer and cutter. Gardner didn’t deign to swing, and five pitches later the count was full.

Buehrle tried to blow an 86 mph fastball by Gardner, but he squared up the high pitch and absolutely crushed it over the right field wall. It ended up in the first row of the bleachers, so it wasn’t some cheapie. That’s not Gardner’s game, of course. His game is more like what he did in the first. Still, the Yanks will take it any time. He’s really taken to his starting role so far, hitting .342/.410/.438 in 83 PA.

Biggest Pitch: Kotsay’s leadoff single

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The sign of a truly dominant start: the hit that made the biggest dent in the WPA is a hit to lead off the game. That raised Chicago’s chances of winning by 3.4 percent. Seriously. That’s as big a dent they made in the game. Hughes completely shut them down, and then the Yankees’ offense pounced. The White Sox had a couple of similar positive WPA swings in the third and fourth innings, but they were more of the same. Hughes quickly rendered them moot.

While his four-seamer remains his weapon of choice, Hughes threw 22 cutters yesterday, generating five swings and misses. He also threw it for a strike 18 times, quite the ratio. He worked in a good number of changeups, including one on a strikeout of Mark Teahen in the fourth. (Note: pitch f/x classified it a fastball for some reason.) Everything seems to be in place for Hughes. Again, he’ll get his biggest test to date over the weekend.

Slump busting

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Both Nick Johnson and Mark Teixeira have started the season slow, hitting under .200 for the first month. While Johnson’s struggles continue, he did double during the five-run seventh. He’s still hitting .141, but with Curtis Granderson’s bat out of the lineup it’s doubtful that Girardi platoons him with Thames. Maybe he’ll get back into a groove this week.

Mark Teixeira presents the more exciting case. He entered the series hitting .139/.292/.266, but after going 6 for 11 with a double he raised that to .188/.336/.311. He broke out of his slump around this time last year. He’ll get a chance to feast on some Orioles pitching to keep it going.


Gardner’s homer. That thing was just a shot. Not what we expect from him at all.

Robinson Cano. Because damn, he just keeps hitting.

Phil Hughes. It’s like picking a winner in the Derby.

Seeing Mark Melancon get into a game. Even if he did give up the Konerko homer, I’d still like to see more of him while he’s up. Though that might not be for much longer.


None to register. This game was an absolute joy.

WPA Graph

Behold, my latest invention!

Next Up

The Orioles just swept the Red Sox, and now they’re headed up to New York to face the Yankees for three games. The Yanks will send their best to the mound, while the O’s will send…Jeremy Guthrie. Body armor up.

Previewing the Sox with Fenway West

For those of who idling away your last hours of Sunday evening, mosey on over to Fenway West for a podcast appearance by yours truly. I’ll be on the Talking Sox Show with Matt O’Donnell and Craig Leger, and we’ll be previewing next weekend’s highly-anticipated Fenway showdown between the Yankees and the Red Sox and discussing Tampa Bay’s hot start. You can listen live right here starting at 10 p.m., and I’ll be on at 10:15 for approximately 15 minutes.

Open Thread: Another series, another win

"See what happens when you swing?" (Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP)

I needed a game like that after yesterday’s frustrationfest – just pound their brains in. No mercy. The Yankees have now played eight series so far this year, and they’ve lost only one of them: last weekend’s set in Anaheim. Keep winning series, and everything will sort itself out in the end. Tampa Bay has to slump eventually, right? Right?!?

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. The Mets and Phillies (Johan Santana vs. Jamie Moyer) are your ESPN Sunday Night Game, plus you’ve also got the Red Wings and Sharks in NHL playoff action. You know the routine, so have at it.

Hirsh strong again in Scranton win

Tim Norton joined his third team in two days today. Yesterday he was sent from Tampa to Staten Island to make room for Andrew Brackman (paper move), and today he was sent from Staten Island to Scranton to take Mark Melancon‘s place.

Triple-A Scranton (4-1 win over Norfolk)
Kevin Russo, 3B: 3 for 5, 1 R, 1 3B, 1 CS – 16 for his last 40 (.400)
Reegie Corona, 2B: 1 for 2, 1 R, 3 BB, 1 SB – brings that OPS up over .500
Eduardo Nunez, SS, David Winfree, RF & Greg Golson, CF: all 0 for 4 – Nunez scored a run, committed a fielding error & K’ed … Winfree drove in a run & K’ed
Juan Miranda, 1B, Jesus Montero, C & Chad Huffman, LF: all 0 for 3, 1 BB – Miranda drove in a run, scored another & K’ed … Montero K’ed & is just 5 for his last 35 (.143) … Huffman K’ed twice
Jon Weber, DH: 2 for 4, 2 RBI, 1 K
Jason Hirsh: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 1 HB, 7-8 GB/FB – 54 of 94 pitches were strikes (57.5%) … two hits allowed over his last 14.2 IP
Royce Ring: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 11 of 12 pitches were strikes
Amaury Sanit: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2-1 GB/FB – 8 of his 13 pitches were strikes (61.5%)

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