Open Thread: New seat in the bullpen

So that thing’s new, eh? I noticed it for the first time two nights ago, but apparently the Yankees’ relievers have themselves a new elevated seat out in the bullpen. From what I remember, the guys just had to regular benches before that, not counting their little air-conditioned clubhouse in the back. This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the kind of hard-hitting analysis you’ve come to expect from RAB.

Anywho, here is tonight’s open thread. The Diamondbacks and Rockies (Micah Owings vs. Clayton Mortensen) will be on MLB Network, plus the Bulls and Heat will be on TNT a little bit later. Talk about whatever, go nuts.

Yankees shuffle rotation for west coast trip

The Yankees announced that they’re going to take advantage of today’s off day by flip-flopping CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon in the rotation. Sabathia will now start Sunday on regular rest while Colon goes Monday on six day’s rest (two extra days). Colon’s 38-year-old arm has been pitching every five days for about four weeks now, so it’ll be good to give him a little breather. Plus he’s pitched better on extra rest this year anyway. Joe Girardi indicated that Sabathia will get an extra day or two between starts at some point in the future. Counting today, the Yankees have three off days in the next week-and-a-half, so there could be more shuffling ahead.

2011 Draft: Tyler Goeddel

The draft is just 11 days away, so between now and then I’m going to highlight some players individually rather than lump a few together in one post.

(Photo Credit: Scott Kurtz, ESPN)

Tyler Goeddel | 3B, OF

The brother of Mets’ prospect Erik Goeddel and the son of a pioneer in the biotech industry, Tyler attends St. Francis High School just outside of San Jose in Mountain View, California. He missed part of the spring with mono, but Goeddel’s prospect status was cemented long before his senior year. Like his brother before him, he’s committed to UCLA.

Scouting Report
Long and lanky at 6-foot-4 and 170 lbs., Goeddel’s athleticism is most evident in the field. He’s an above-average runner with a strong arm, and he has to tools to play either third base or center field. Goeddel has good bat speed and bat control, consistently getting the barrel on the ball even though he doesn’t have much power to speak of at the moment. With a frame like that, it’s not all that hard to envision him growing into some. Goeddel has a great feel for a game and is very instinctive, and he has a history of playing well against top competition in showcase events. Here’s some video of him hitting and fielding.

The Yankees have been “heavily linked” to Goeddel this spring, and he fits the Damon Oppenheimer mold of athleticism, well-roundedness, and upside. The potential is there for him to be an impact player on both sides of the ball in center field, where he would provide the most value, though he could end up in right if he really fills out over the next few years. There’s no word on his asking price, but for what it’s worth, he’s a better prospect than his brother and Erik eventually got an above-slot deal from the Amazin’s.

Keith Law considers Goeddel the 35th best prospect in the draft, so he sees him as a borderline first rounder. Baseball America doesn’t like him quite that much, ranking him 89th overall. Either way, it sounds like he’s a guy that will be in the mix for the Yankees at number 51, their first selection.

Joba Chamberlain and the first pitch

You’ve probably noticed that Joba Chamberlain looks a bit different this season. No, I don’t mean his new mechanics (hands at the waist) or his weight (nyuck nyuck), I’m talking about the way he’s using his pitches. Joba’s scaled back his fastball usage from last year, down to 56% from 65.3%, and is using his curveball exactly twice as often (10.6% after 5.3%). Throwing some more breaking balls is one thing, but it’s when he’s throwing them that’s really interesting.

The graph above, cut right from Joba’s various splits pages on FanGraphs, shows how much he’s used each offering as the first pitch of an at-bat. In his first full season as a reliever in 2010, Chamberlain threw a first pitch fastball more than seven out of ten times. He’s scaled it back a bit this year, instead mixing in some more first pitch sliders and curveballs. Joba’s first pitch strike percentage is essentially the same (58.1% in 2011 after 58.4% in 2010), so he’s not “stealing strikes” with this approach nor is he getting batters to swing at the first pitch more than he did last year (9.7% in 2011 after 11.8% in 2010).

Essentially all Joba has been doing is giving hitters a different look. First pitch offspeed stuff is just a friendly reminder that the pitcher is comfortable throwing any pitch at any time, which makes life that much harder on the hitter*. It’s probably not a coincidence that batters are swinging at 36.6% of the pitches Joba’s thrown them out of the strike zone, the highest rate of his career (it was 35.1% in 2007) and a top 15 mark among all relievers (Mariano Rivera is actually first at 44.2%).

Joba’s ERA is a full run better than it was last season because he’s walking fewer guys (1.85 BB/9 after 2.76) and getting way more ground balls (62.1% after 45.6%) than he did in 2010, making up for a decline in strikeout rate (7.40 K/9 after 9.67). A 17.6% HR/FB ratio is unusually high, so that will correct and help bring his ERA even closer to his 2.80 xFIP. How (or even if) the first pitch breaking balls are contributing to the overall improvement is not something I can definitively say, but Chamberlain’s pitching sequences and overall performance have been noticeably different.

* I remember hearing Al Leiter say that he threw a curveball on the first pitch of Game Seven of the 1997 World Series for that very reason, to show the Indians that he was going to make them guess all game long.

The problems with runners in scoring position

For stretches this year, the Yankees have played frustrating baseball. They do lead the league in many offensive categories, including SLG and wOBA, but there have been times when it appears that they simply cannot bring home the men they’ve put on base. Sure, they’ll crack more than their share of homers, which helps the issue. But if they’re not hitting for power, it can seem as though they’re not hitting at all. It appears to be the biggest problem with the offense this year.

Yet, it’s not actually that big a problem. And where it is a problem, it is somewhat solvable. Let’s start with the last part first. Here’s the Yankees’ most common starting lineup, with their respective OBPs listed.

The problem at the start is having four guys in the lineup who have a .321 or lower OBP. That’s not something we typically see from the Yankees. There are mitigating and damning circumstances around these numbers — they don’t necessarily reflect recent slumps and streaks, for example. But for the most part the guys with the ultra low OBPs aren’t doing much.

While that’s a problem itself, the further problem arises when we take into consideration their positioning. Derek Jeter‘s .310 OBP atop the lineup doesn’t help one bit. It means that the high-on-base guys behind him aren’t hitting with as many men on base. Then we get to the five spot, after three guys with high OBPs. Robinson Cano makes a lot of outs, and therefore kills rallies in the process. After him comes a high OBP guy, followed by two low-OBP guys, followed by a high OBP guy — and then back to low again. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Yankees have trouble sometimes getting a rally started.

The solution, of course, is to keep the high-OBP guys bunched together. Lead off with Gardner and move Martin up to fifth. That way they might be able to get something of a rally going. It creates a crater at the back end of the lineup, but that’s a better situation than having them littered throughout the lineup, ready to kill a rally with their out-making ways.

There is another question to ask, though. Are the Yankees actually bad with runners in scoring position? The answer might seem like an obvious yes, but we can’t answer that question without first examining the environment. That is, run scoring and power are down this year. Every team has seen a downturn in offensive output. Something has changed in the game, and we have to adjust our expectations.

The Yankees are actually 14th in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position. That’s not nearly as bad as it feels. While we expect them to be better than average, I’d say that the perception is that they’re below average. This is simply not the case. And, because the Yankees put more runners on base than most other teams, they benefit more from that average hit rate with runners in scoring position. For a quick illustration, the Orioles are second in the league with a .295 average with RISP, but they are 18th in OBP. They might hit home the guys they have, but they don’t have many guys in scoring position in general. I’d much rather be in the Yanks’ position than the Orioles’.

Another point in the Yankees’ favor is their ability to cash in their base runners. They have had 1,130 runners this year, and 173 of them have scored. That’s good for a 15 percent rate, which ties them for second in the league. Cleveland is first at 17 percent, and Minnesota is last with 12 percent. When viewed from a league-wide lens, the Yankees are better than their opponents at bringing runners home. In a game that pits teams against each other directly, that’s clearly an advantage.

There’s a good chance we see the Yankees improve on their performances with runners in scoring position. For that we turn to trusty friend BABIP. The Yankees have a .260 BABIP with runners in scoring position, which ranks 25th in the league. Of course, not everyone will finish with a league-average BABIP. Regression doesn’t work that way. But regression does tend to work out and eliminate outliers in the long term. A team with an offense as potent as the Yankees simply should not have one of the worst BABIPs with runners in scoring position. Even a modest level of regression to the mean will pay off big for the Yankees.

The level of frustration with the Yankees’ offense has, at times, risen high this season. The six-game losing streak in particular seemed like a low point for the offense. But throughout the season they’ve remained one of the best offensive clubs in the league. Even with runners in scoring position they’ve been no worse than average. Given their lower than expected BABIP, we should see that performance improve in the coming weeks and months. It makes the true potential of the Yankees’ offense difficult to imagine. Run scoring is down, yet the Yankees are nearly matching their output from last year. It’s scary to think what they could do if they hit even slightly better with runners in scoring position.

The RAB Radio Show: May 26, 2011

It was a successful series against Toronto. Mike and I talk about the highlights as well as the lowlights. It’s onto Seattle next, where the Yanks will run into three excellent pitchers. It’s not as bad as it seems, though.

Podcast run time 26:42

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

The In-House Midseason Pickups

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Yankees are always one of baseball’s most active teams at the trade deadline, and that’s because they’re always in contention and looking to add. Last year it was the trio of Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood, and Austin Kearns. Two years ago it was Jerry Hairston Jr., Eric Hinske, and Chad Gaudin. Three years ago we welcomed Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, and Ivan Rodriguez to the Bronx. Sometimes these moves work out, sometimes they don’t, that’s just the way baseball works.

You can be sure the Yanks won’t be content with what they have this year and will again be shopping at midseason, but they’ve already got two pretty big midseason pickups coming their way. They’re still a ways off from contributing, but how many other clubs will be adding two pitchers the caliber of Rafael Soriano and Phil Hughes to their roster six or eight or ten weeks from now? It sounds kinda silly at the moment, but those two could be very significant additions for the Yankees if they come back healthy and reasonably approximate their true selves on the mound. Hell, even if just one of them comes back it’ll be an upgrade.

For all the negativity surrounding Soriano, from his contract to his performance to his injury, the guy is a better pitcher than what he’s shown us over the first 48 games of 2011. Who knows how long the elbow has been bothering him, but his true talent level is not a 4.84 FIP with more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) in 15 IP. Soriano’s worst non-rookie season was 2007, when he put together a 4.17 FIP setting up for the Braves. Even that guy is an upgrade over the Lance Pendletons and Luis Ayalas of the world (no offense guys).

Hughes is a much bigger question mark but he might offer a bigger reward as well. If he’s healthy (and believe me, that’s a huge if) the Yankees could use him either in the rotation or in the bullpen, wherever they need him more. Given all this time off, imagine how much of a help it’ll be if Phil is just league average but getting into midseason form when others are fading in August in September. He doesn’t have to be a star to help, just better than the 12th man on the staff.

Soriano and Hughes are two total wild cards this year given the nature of their injuries, and the Yankees really shouldn’t count on them to contribute anything the rest of the way. Whatever they give is gravy but you know what? There’s a non-zero chance that one or both comes back healthy and gives the team a boost down the stretch. Not many clubs add those kinds of arms for the stretch run, and New York could end up making two upgrades to the pitching staff without the hassle of making a trade with another team.

Update: This is a complete oversight on my part, but we could also lump Pedro Feliciano into this group as well.