Andy Pettitte and stolen base attempts

Ah the pickoff. There’s nothing in baseball quite like it. When one of the good guys catches a runner napping and picks him off, there’s that rush of excitement that comes with stealing an out. At the same time, there’s almost nothing in the game more frustrating than watching one of your guys get picked off. I wanted to take a look at how often opponents were swiping bases (or tried to, anyway) against Yankee pitchers last year, but frankly the data was pretty boring and consistent with past seasons for everyone on the team who accumulated a usable sample of innings. Except for one guy, that is: Andy Pettitte.

In terms of stolen base attempts, Andy is a unique case. He’s a lefty, which has its own built-in advantage, and of course he has that great pickoff move. If you’re any kind of Yankee fan, you know that Pettitte’s move to first is world class, and if it’s not the best in the game, then it’s definitely in consideration for it. Pickoffs serve two purposes, the first obviously is trying to steal an out when a guy is napping. But throws to first also serve to hold runners close, muting the running game.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect way to measure a pitcher’s ability to hold runners … well, maybe there is and I’m just not aware of it. Anyway, because of this I’ll stick to the basics and look at how often opponents have attempted to steal bases off Andy throughout his career. We generally break stats down in terms of innings pitched for pitchers (K/9, BB/9, WHIP, etc); however, for this exercise I broke the data down using baserunners because all innings are not created equal. You can’t steal a base unless you first reach base, so looking at it any other way just wouldn’t make sense. The bigger the number the better, since that means more runners have to reach base before someone attempts to steal a bag. Here’s the raw data table (the second BR/SBA column is the league average, I forgot to label it), and the plot is below. Click to enlarge.

First off, elephant in the room, that 2000 season. I double checked the data, and for whatever reason baserunners just did not attempt to steal against Pettitte that season. Just eight (!!!) stolen base attempts by 303 baserunners in over 200 innings, and that includes the three guys he picked off. It wasn’t even one of Pettitte’s best years either. Yeah, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting on the strength of 19 wins, but he had a 4.35 ERA (4.22 FIP) and a below average 1.56 K/BB ratio. Statistical outlier, I suppose.

As for the rest of the data, it passes the sniff test. Baserunners attempted to steal bases at a slightly lower than league average rate for the first four years of Pettitte’s career, and after that crazy 2000 spike they attempted to swipe bags at an even lower rate. Once Andy got to Houston (’04-’06), it’s like they just stopped trying. We’re talking more than 20 baserunners for every one stolen base attempt. However, things changed once Pettitte returned to the Bronx.

Since coming back to the Yankees in 2007, opponents have been far more liberal on the bases against Pettitte than at any other time in his career. In fact, they’re the only three years of his 15-year career in which runners tried to steal bases at a rate higher than league average against the big lefty. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the throwing and defensive deficiencies of Jorge Posada, but note that baserunners attempted steals at the highest rate of Pettitte’s career in 2008, when Posada was hurt and caught less than 25% of his innings.

I have no idea what is causing this, and I don’t have the tools to find out, either. It’s more than a matter of just looking at some numbers given the uniqueness of stolen bases and holding runners. Maybe after a dozen years in the bigs, the league finally caught on to Andy’s pickoff move and runners have learned when to pick their spots. Maybe it’s advancements in technology and scouting. Maybe it is Posada’s arm, who knows. For whatever reason, baserunners who reach base against Pettitte are trying to steal bases more often than ever before. Any theories?

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Yankees hitters against ground ball pitchers

We all know the baseball cliché that good pitching beats good hitting. The Yankees experienced it in the mid-00s, pairing a powerhouse offense with mediocre pitching. Over a 162-game season, often facing mediocre pitching, that worked out well. But in the playoffs, with the weak teams eliminated, good pitching shut down the Yankees. It comes as no surprise, then, that the year the front office focused on the pitching staff was the year that the team returned to the World Series for the first time since 2003.

On his blog at WEEI, Lou Merloni notes that the top starters in the AL did a good job of holding down the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Nos. 1 and 3 offenses in the American League. Again, this comes as no surprise. It did make me wonder, though, how the Yankees hitters fared against different types of pitchers. Was there a certain type that caused them fits? Today we’ll look at the best ground ball pitchers in the AL and see how they fared against the 2009 Yankees.

Only five American League pitchers recorded a ground ball rate of 50 percent or higher: Rick Porcello, Ricky Romero, Felix Hernandez, Brett Anderson, and Roy Halladay. Another eight had a ground ball rate of 45 percent or higher: Trevor Cahill, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Joe Saunders, Scott Feldman, Nick Blackburn, Mark Buehrle, and John Lackey. Here’s how they fared:

In general, the Yankees killed ground ball pitchers. The exceptions are, for the most part, the best pitchers in the game. There’s no shame in getting shut down by Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez. Scott Feldman also stands out, but like many pitchers on this list his sample against the Yankees includes just one start. That’s the real trouble with making any determinations from this chart. Anything can happen in a single game. The Yankees especially beat up on the rookies — Romero, Porcello, and Anderson — which further skews the sample.

The further problem with looking at ground ball pitchers is that other traits might better define the pitcher. Jon Lester, for example, recorded the second highest strikeout rate in the AL in 2009. Beckett, Hernandez, Halladay, and Anderson were all in the top 10. Halladay, Blackburn, Buehrle, Anderson, and Beckett all ranked in the top 10 in walk rate (with Lackey finishing 11th). In order to get a better grasp of what pitcher type the Yankees hit better, we’ll probably need to account for these other factors. Digging back further, we should probably also examine how individual hitters on the Yankees hit these pitchers in previous years.

Still, on the whole, the pitchers who induced the most ground balls in 2009 did not fare well against the Yankees. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that they hit ground ball pitchers especially well, it does give us an idea of what to look for when evaluating the Yankees vs. pitchers. We’ll see soon how they fare against fly ball, high-strikeout, low-walk, and low-HR pitchers.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 1st, 2010

2009 Season Record: 103-59 (915 RS, 753 RA), won AL East by 8 games, finished with the best record in MLB by 6 games, won 27th World Series

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The visual analytical tools of Bloomberg Sports

On a blustery, cold January day amidst a dry sports weekend, I spent my afternoon on the seventh floor of the Bloomberg News offices in midtown. With many familiar bloggers — the guys from Fack Youk, Jason from It’s All About the Money, numerous others — we were dazzled by the latest offering from the financial information giant. It is, as The Times reported a few months ago, a foray into the world of fantasy sports and baseball numbers.

The nitty-gritty is pretty straight forward. For $19.95, fantasy players can buy access to a pre-draft tool, and for $24.95, fans can access the in-season toolkit. For $31.95, a consumer gets both products, and all three options come with access to Bloomberg’s exclusive content headed by Jonah Keri and a team of writers to be announced later. But what are these tools?

For the most part, the subscription gives a fantasy baseball player access to a wealth of stats and rankings and a supposed leg up. The Bloomberg suits who spoke to us said they want this to become the “most compelling sports analysis tool around.”

The basic selling point is league integration along with statistical visualization. Take, for example, the image on the right. This chart takes Bloomberg’s typical demand vs. scarcity presentation and graphs it onto a chart showing MLB Tier vs. average draft position. For pre-draft analysis, information such as this is very helpful.

Beyond that, what we saw doesn’t offer up much original material right now. Bloomberg is using a proprietary B-Rank tool to establish player rankings, and it’s not yet clear how much this differs from anything Yahoo! Sports or ESPN put forward. The visuals look great, and the information — such as it appears this spider chart — is great for fantasy sports but lacking for other analytical abilities.

Where the product really excels, however, is in the pro version. David Appelman has photos from the presentation, and the spray charts, strike zone info and Pitch F/X analysis are where this tool emerges as something drool-worthy. On Fangraphs, take a look at the third photo of a pie chart. It’s Bloomberg’s traditional market returns chart grafted onto pitchers. The inner band features Chris Carpenter’s first pitch, and the outer bands show the progression of pitches. It enables us to see, for example, the odds of a slider after a first-pitch fastball.

Unfortunately, this pro tool — great for bloggers — is only available for teams. It’s part of the relationship between MLB.com and Bloomberg, and right now, Bloomberg is selling it so that only the 30 clubs can buy it. Authentication requires a Bloomberg terminal with the ability to read a biometric scanner. Maybe one day, the rest of us will have access to the parts that promise to be a gold mine of information.

In a few weeks, Joe and I will get our complimentary subscription to the fantasy tools, and we’ll have a more in-depth look at the offerings. For now, Bloomberg has developed a flashy — and Flash-based application — that can help fantasy owners in their drafts. If it can move beyond that initial offering to become the game-changer Dan Doctoroff and others told us about today, the financial giant stands to become a major player in the world of sports analysis. And, oh yeah, they give out sweet t-shirts.

For more images from the product, check out this gallery. I’m happy to answer any other questions about the screenshots anyone may have.

Open Thread: Higashioka gets the call

Well, kinda. Robert Pimpsner of Baseball Digest tweets that the Yankees have invited 19-year-old catching prospect Kyle Higashioka to Major League Spring Training. I’m sure the Yanks’ 7th round pick in the 2008 Draft is excited for the opportunity, but this isn’t a sign that the organization has big expectations or anything like that. I’m sure they do, but this move is more along the lines of “we have more than a dozen mounds in the Tampa complex, and we need people to catch.” No shame in that.

Higashioka hit .253-.333-.332 in 247 plate appearances for the Short Season Staten Island Yanks last season, but he’s got some killer bat skills (only 31 strikeouts). He’ll get an invite with the intent of giving him a chance to show off his skills soon enough. For now, he should just soak it all up.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Devils, Rangers, and Knicks are all in action, plus the Pro Bowl is on ESPN. Nothing like watching the 6th or 7th best QB in the league get some playing time. Enjoy the thread.

Report: Joba’s going to show up early to camp

Via Mike Puma, fifth starter candidate Joba Chamberlain will show up to Tampa to begin workouts next week, about two weeks before pitchers and catchers are required to show up. Joe Girardi indicated that Joba, as well as Phil Hughes, Al Aceves, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre will compete for the fifth starter’s spot in Spring Training (though I suspect Mitre was lumped in as a courtesy), so it’s good to see Joba put the extra work in.

“I’m going to go in and understand a lot of guys are fighting for that spot,” said the righty. “Nothing is guaranteed.” That’s certainly nice to hear, at times Joba seemed a little too comfortable with his spot on the team last year.

Report: Dodgers close to deal with Reed Johnson

Via MLBTR, the Dodgers are closing in on a deal with free agent outfielder Reed Johnson. Johnson was considered a candidate for the Yanks’ left field job until they signed Randy Winn, and it’ll be interesting to see what his contract looks like.  If you’re curious, Johnson has been worth 1.7 WAR over the last two seasons with the Cubs. Winn was worth that in his down 2009 season alone.