Alex Rodriguez, Fastball Destroyer

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you’re well aware that Alex Rodriguez was hitting the snot out of the ball before being shelved by a back/oblique issue over the weekend. He was (and still is, really) hitting .385/.500/.821 with four homers, nine walks, and just four strikeouts in 50 plate appearances before the injury, a .541 wOBA that rank behind only the currently super-human Matt Kemp in all of baseball. After a substandard 2010 season and his 35th birthday, there was reason to be skeptical about A-Rod coming into the season. That skepticism has been answered in a big way.

Finally cleared to resume full baseball training following his 2009 hip surgery, Alex showed up to camp this year noticeably slimmer (he claimed that he shed ten pounds and 3% body fat over the winter) and lighter on his feet. That appears to have quickened A-Rod’s bat as well, because the guy is straight up annihilating fastballs so far this year…

There’s no denying that there were times during the previous two seasons when Alex would swing through what appeared to be hittable fastballs, I’m talking 90, 91, 92 mph offerings in the happy zone right out over the plate. We’re used to seeing him park those pitches either over the fence or off the wall or in the gap somewhere. It’s obviously still very early, but missing those hittable fastballs has not been an issue in 2011. A-Rod is making pitchers pay for mistakes, back to being the hitter that gave the guys on the mound zero margin for error.

As you can see from the table, Alex is doing quite a bit differently against fastballs this year. For one, he’s not swinging at nearly as many. That goes for all pitch types as well, his swing rate is down to just 34.7% this year after sitting north of 42% every year of the FanGraphs era. Secondly, when A-Rod does offer at a fastball, he’s not a) swinging and missing, or b) fouling pitches off. Whenever he’s swung at a fastball this year, there’s less than a 8.5% chance that he’d foul it off or miss the pitch entirely, which means he’s putting it into play on more than nine out of every ten swings. Over the last two years it had been three out of every four swings. When a guy as strong as A-Rod puts a fastball in play, good things happen.

The run value is off the charts so far. Alex has been worth 7.73 runs above-average per 100 fastballs seen this season, which is easily the best mark in baseball. Kemp is the only other guy over six-and-a-quarter. As Dave Pinto showed (via heat map!) at Baseball Analysts yesterday, all four of A-Rod’s homers in 2011 have come on fastballs either up in the zone or inside. That is the exact opposite of what you’d expect out of a guy that’s supposed to be on the decline.

With any luck, A-Rod’s back/oblique is nothing major and won’t keep him on the shelf any longer than it has already. The MRI came back clean, but I would not at all be surprised if he sat tonight and/or tomorrow night since the turf in Toronto can be unforgiving. Regardless of what happens against the Blue Jays, Alex has been the team’s best player in the early going, playing at a 1.1 fWAR pace and bringing us back to the days when he was a perennial MVP threat. The success against fastballs has been a huge part of his rebound, though it all stems from health.

Big ups to Texas Leaguers for the fastball percentages used in the table.

Jesus Montero’s reverse split

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As Jesus Montero gets closer to the big leagues, more and more words are being written about him on a daily basis and it’s not always good. I looked at the ups-and-downs of his stock within the last three (!!!) months alone not too long ago, which just goes to show how every little thing gets over-analyzed. We all know about the immense offensive potential and the poor defense behind the plate, but there’s one aspect of Montero’s game that no one has mentioned: the guy has a pretty pronounced reverse platoon split. Here look…

The data comes from Driveline Baseball’s minor league splits database and is park adjusted, which is important because the ballparks in Charleston, Tampa, Trenton, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre are all pitcher-friendly, some to the extreme (coughTrentoncough). Obviously 430 plate appearances against lefties isn’t the biggest of sample sizes, but the ~70% to ~30% PA ratio is in line with the big league ratio of RHP to LHP. The walk rate is not adjusted for intentional walks since we just don’t have that splits data, but Montero has only been intentionally walked six times in his career. If we assume they all came from lefties, his walk rate drops to 8.7% after cutting them out.

Part of what makes Montero so impressive is his opposite field power, which is something we can’t verify with spray charts and will instead just have to trust the scouting reports (from Baseball America’s top ten write-up in December (subs. req’d): “[Montero] has well above-average power, particularly to the opposite field, making him well-suited for Yankee Stadium.”). Power the other way has long been one of the best indicators of future power potential in prospects because it requires big-time physical strength and an advanced approach, and Montero certainly has it. If the reverse platoon split is a true talent (which is could very easily not be), well then he’s a hitter well suited for a league dominated by right-handed pitchers and a ballpark with a short porch in right.

Montero, still just 21, is off to a scorching hot start in Triple-A this year, picking up right where he left off in 2011. He went hitless for the first time on Sunday, but still has a ~.440 wOBA and has struck just five times in 42 plate appearances. I honestly think the zero walks has more to do with a) sample size, and b) Montero being too good for the level than it does with a flaw in his approach, because he’s shown in the past that he’ll take walks when he doesn’t get anything to hit. Almost every other team would have this guy in the big leagues already, and pretty soon it won’t matter who the Yankees are paying to play where, Montero will force his way into the lineup and eventually blossom into an impact bat.

JoVa goes deep again in Scranton win

Update: Scranton’s second game is over, so the post has been updated.

Jorge Vazquez is your Triple-A International League Offensive Player of the Week, which is usually what happens when you hit five homers in seven days. Dellin Betances made 50 throws from flat ground today and had no trouble with his blistered finger. He told Mike Ashmore that he’ll be pitching again “hopefully by next week.” Manny Banuelos will start tomorrow, his first outing following his blister.

Both Carmen Angelini and Jairo Heredia were placed on High-A Tampa’s disabled list for unknown reasons. Remember, Jairo left his start after just an inning the other night, so clearly something’s up. Mike Gipson was placed on Charleston’s disabled list as well.

Triple-A Scranton Game One (6-4 win over Lehigh Valley in seven innings) makeup of the April 8th rain out
Greg Golson, RF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 K – threw a runner out at third
Ramiro Pena, SS & Brandon Laird, 3B: both 0 for 3 – Pena drew a walk
Jesus Montero, C: 3 for 4, 1 R – he’s now hitting .452, yawn
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 2 for 3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 E (missed catch) – takes over the minor league lead with his seventh homer
Chris Dickerson, CF: 2 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 K – got picked off first
Jordan Parraz, DH: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 3B, 1 RBI – second straight game with a triple, his third of the year … he has the same number of triples as he does doubles and homers combined
Justin Maxwell, LF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 K – second straight game with a bomb
Kevin Russo, 2B: 1 for 3, 1 K – gets his average over .100 with that hit (.108)
Andrew Brackman, RHP: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 2 HB, 4-3 GB/FB – 50 of 86 pitches were strikes (58.1%) … nightmare first inning went HB, SB, HB, single (runner thrown out at third), ground out, homer, homer, single, fly out … he retired 11 of the next 15 men after that, so it wasn’t a total disaster start
Andy Sisco, LHP: 0.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K – 11 of 18 pitches were strikes (61.1%)
Kevin Whelan, RHP: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2 WP, 2-1 GB/FB – 17 of 27 pitches were strikes (63%)

[Read more…]

Off Day Open Thread

Yeah, another off day Robbie. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Yankee are enjoying the first of two off days this week, though I’m not entirely sure why they needed Thursday off when they’re traveling from Toronto to Baltimore. Oh well, I guess enjoy it now, because off days don’t seem to come often enough during the middle of the summer. Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. ESPN is carrying the Phillies and Brewers at 7pm ET, plus there’s plenty of NBA and NHL playoff action going on. Talk about whatever your heart desires, go nuts.

Site News: Just a heads up, I added a fancy new graph to the Fan Confidence Poll page this afternoon. It’s interactive, so you can zoom in and stuff, plus notable events were added to explain the peaks and value. I’m a nerd, it was fun. Enjoy.

Feliciano advised to start shoulder rehab program

Via Bryan Hoch, left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano was advised by Dr. James Andrews to begin a conservative treatment program for his torn shoulder capsule. It’s a six-week shoulder strengthening program that Feliciano will begin immediately, and he’ll remain with the team throughout the process. Feliciano went to Andrews for a second opinion today, and that he didn’t recommend surgery is the first bit of good news the Yankees have received regarding the lefty in quite some time. I guess not all hope is lost for a return this summer.

In praise of the 87.5 mph heat

(Frank Franklin II/AP)

What can a man do with a mid-80s fastball? Not much, if recent history is any guide. A few pitchers have sat in that range — Jamie Moyer most prominently — but few have experienced success. The hope with Freddy Garcia was that he could get his fastball into the upper 80s. Early in spring training he said that he was effective when his fastball was around 88, but got hit around when it dipped below that. And so it might not have seemed like a good sign that his fastest pitch on Saturday was 87.5 mph.

Yet we know that he pitched as well as he did in any start last season, allowing no runs on just two hits and a walk while facing one of the league’s most potent offenses. His fastball averaged just under 86 mph, and he hit that 87.5 speed maybe three times all game. Garcia went to his heat 35 times and generated no swings and misses, yet it still represented his best linear weights score, per Brooks Baseball (just combine the top two rows). Yes, that’s 35 fastballs, 24 strikes. He complemented that by mixing in 24 changeups, 16 sliders, 6 curves, and something that PitchFX classified as a splitter. It all made for a nice mix of pitches and speeds.

This is exactly how Garcia will need to approach every start if he’s going to succeed for the Yankees. Fastballs in pitchers’ counts, off-speed stuff in hitters’ counts — overall, a near-random selection of pitches that will keep hitters guessing. That’s how Garcia can succeed while throwing in the mid 80s.

It’s early still, and there’s a chance that Garcia’s fastball ramps up as the weather warms, but that’ no guarantee. Last year he averaged 88.5 mph on his fastball in April, but then just 87.5 mph the rest of the way. He did adjust then, though, leaning on his changeup far more often than his fastball, and mixing in the slider more prominently. I can see similar changes this year, especially if his velocity follows a similar trend.

Today on the podcast I asked Mike whether he believed that Garcia could continue getting hitters out with the general slop he threw on Saturday. He gave the answer that I’ve been wrestling with: heart says yes, head says no. How can anyone succeed throwing mostly off-speed junk? I’m not sure, but we not only saw Garcia do it on Saturday, but we saw him do it against one of the league’s best offenses — one that tagged up his rotation mates Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia.

Chances are Garcia can’t sustain this. But that’s not my concern right now. All I want to do is heap a little praise on a guy who, without any semblance of a major league fastball, spun, tilted, and palmed his way through a tough lineup. It was an impressive debut, and an important one, too. With Hughes on the DL, CC getting off to a slow start, and Nova struggling, the Yanks needed that from Garcia.

Has Cano’s plate discipline taken a step back?

See ball, hit ball. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

It’s not often that you can look at a player hitting .310/.322/.621 (.403 wOBA) and feel like his performance has stepped back from last year. Maybe it’s just me and/or maybe Robinson Cano has spoiled us all, but there’s one part of the second baseman’s game that has taken a nose dive during the first 14 games of the season: his plate discipline. At least superficially anyway; Cano has drawn just one walk this season and his 3.14 pitches per plate appearance ranks 197th out of 200 qualified big leaguers. The only three below him are noted hackers Orlando Cabrera (3.10), Miguel Tejada (2.97), and Vlad Guerrero (2.97).

Cano set career highs in walks (57), unintentional walks (43), walk rate (8.2%), and unintentional walk rate (6.2%) last season, but he did so while swinging at 36.5% of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone. That was also a career high, and ranked 184th out of the 205 players with 400 or more plate appearances. So given Robinson’s utter lack of walks this year, you’d think that he’s swinging at even more pitches out of the zone, right? Wrong.

The table above is taken right from Cano’s player page on FanGraphs, and you can click for a larger (and easier to read) view. Cano is actually swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone this year, albeit but a very small amount, but the real change comes on pitches in the zone. He’s hacking at four out of every five pitches over the plate, and making contact at his usual (and absurdly high) rate. This suggests that he simply isn’t getting into many deep counts, and the data backs it up.

Baseball-Reference shows that Cano has not worked a single 3-0 count this season, not once in his 59 plate appearances. Furthermore, he’s only been in two 3-1 counts and two full counts. Two (each)! That’s four three-ball counts all year, or 6.8% of his plate appearances. Last season Robinson worked a three-ball count 113 times (that’s removing the 14 intentional walks), or in 16.6% of his 682 plate appearances. In 2005 and 2006, his first two years as a big leaguer, it was 9.2%. It hasn’t dipped below 11.8% since, so clearly this is completely out of the norm for Cano.

So you know what that tells me? That this utter lack of working the count is just an unsustainably bad pace for Robinson. It’s more of a small sample size issue than a definitive regression in his plate discipline. I haven’t seen anything in his at-bats to suggest otherwise, he’s still very productive and hasn’t turned into an easy out. Cano has established himself as a .320 BABIP guy over the last few seasons, so he’s got a tiny little bit of a rebound coming there (he’s at .304 at the moment) plus what should be a huge correction in his walk rate. A .322 OBP is not good by any stretch of the imagination, at least not for a middle-of-the-order guy, but Cano is underperforming his career norms and looks poised to bounce back into the .350+ OBP range once we get a little deeper into the season.