Russell Martin ‘still not 100 percent’

Via Erik Boland and Brian Costello, new catcher Russell Martin told reporters after today’s pre-camp workout that he’s still not 100% recovered from the hip injury that ended his 2010 season in August, though he hopes to catch tomorrow and is expected to be ready by Opening Day. Martin suffered a hairline fracture in his right hip when he stepped on home plate awkwardly, however there was no damage to his labrum and he did not need surgery. He also told reporters that he’s shed 15 lbs. this offseason doing MMA training, which has helped his endurance. I know nothing of MMA or the kind of training it requires, but I imagine the hip is recovering well if doctors cleared him to do that.

The RAB Radio Show: February 8, 2011

We might have missed a couple of days, but we haven’t skipped a beat. The latest development for the Yankees involves two new competitors for the 25th roster spot. Eric Chavez and Ronnie Belliard are coming to camp on minor league deals. We love the kids and all, but Mike and I discuss why this is a prudent move.

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Once again, Yanks among the best at working pitchers

Probably looked at one too many that time. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Just like they did in 2009, the Yankees led baseball in team on-base percentage last year and it’s not particularly close. Only one team was within ten points of their .350 mark, and that was the Twins at .341. Quite the gap there. Unsurprisingly, the Yankees also led baseball in runs scored last year, again by a considerable margin. They put 859 runs on the board, and the Red Sox were the distant second at 818. The Rays (808) were the only other club over 800. Leading the league in OBP and runs scored is not a coincidence, folks.

As a group, Yankees batters saw 25,026 pitches last season, second only to the Red Sox (25,540). That works out to 3.92 pitches per plate appearance, fourth most behind the Sox (4.02), the Diamondbacks (4.01), and the Rays (3.94). Yankees batters reached base by something other than a hit (meaning an unintentional walk or a hit-by-pitch) a whopping 699 times, tied with Tampa for the most in the game. The only other team over 600 was the Braves at 635. If you want to add in intentional walks, since those are real baserunners that contribute to real runs being scored, the Yankees are in sole possession of first at 735 non-hit times on base (Tampa’s at 729).

If you’re reading this site, then you’re no doubt aware that the Yankees have long built their offense around high-OBP batters that take pitches and make pitchers work for every out. Last year was no different, and 2011 will certainly be no different. Sixty-two players spent 2010 with one team and saw at least four pitches per plate appearance (min. 400 PA), and five of them were Yankees. Boston and Arizona each had four such players, and a handful of clubs each had three, but no one besides New York had five. That doesn’t include Austin Kearns (4.03 P/PA) or Lance Berkman (4.00), who spent some time in pinstripes. If we drop our criteria to 3.90 P/PA, the Yankees still lead the way with seven players not counting Kearns and Puma.

The table on the right lists each 2010 Yankee who came to the plate at least 400 times, and the number of pitches they saw per plate appearance. I added in their 2008-2010 P/PA and 2010 MLB rank just for comparison purposes. Brett Gardner led the league in P/PA last season and by a wide margin. Daric Barton was second with 4.40 P/PA, so we’re talking about a difference of one extra pitch every 4.76 PA. That doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of 600 PA, it’s an extra 126 pitches. That a full start by a pitcher.

Curtis Granderson also ranks high up there, and his 2010 performance in this department was right in line with what he’s done the past few years. Jorge Posada has always worked the count well, so it’s not a surprise that he’s over four. Nick Swisher‘s another guy that has always walked a lot, but he saw 0.25 fewer pitches per plate appearance last season than he had in the past, basically one fewer pitch per game. Swish’s walk rate fell from about ~13% for his career to 9.1%, though he did trade some of those walks for hits. His OBP just about matched his career mark (.359 vs. .358) but fell from his 2010 mark (.373). Despite that, his wOBA went up two points (the league average wOBA dropped eight points from 2009 to 2010, so those two extra points are bigger than they appear) because of the extra power. If Swish can get back to his previous walk rates while maintaining his 2010 contact and hit rate, awesome, but if not, I’ll take the hits every day of the week as long as OBP stays around .360. The next walk that goes for an extra bases or over the fence will be the first.

Swisher’s drop was the most significant, though that’s relative to the rest of his career. Seeing more than four pitches per plate appearance is damn good. Derek Jeter‘s drop was considerable at 0.09 P/PA, though his 8.5% walk rate is better than the 7.8% he posted in both 2007 and 2008, when he had .388 and .363 OBP’s, respectively. It’s all about the base hits with the Cap’n, his eye and ability to get on base in other ways is still fine. Robbie Cano‘s always going to be well down there on the P/PA leaderboard (186th out of 205 qualified players in 2010), in part because he makes contact so easily. His 11.0% strikeout rate and contact rate are the 15th lowest and 13th highest in baseball since 2008, respectively. Robbie’s not going to change, he is who he is and that’s perfectly fine when you hit like he does.

All of those guys in the chart are coming back next year, and the one new face will be Russell Martin. He didn’t reach my arbitrary 400 PA minimum (387 PA before the hip injury), though he saw a healthy 3.84 P/PA in 2010, down a touch from his 3.90 mark over the last few years. He’s essentially taking the place of Frankie Cervelli, who saw 1,160 pitches in 317 PA last summer (3.66 P/PA). Martin was brought in for his defense, but if he even comes close to repeating that 3.84 P/PA mark this coming season, it’ll make the lineup that much tougher to go through.

Remember, seeing a ton of pitches isn’t just about drawing walks, though that’s certainly a benefit, but it also helps get guys into hitter’s counts and find a pitch to drive. Feasting on middle relief, often the weak underbelly of a club, is another Yankees trademark that stems from working the count. It can be a boring strategy at times, especially for fans who watch pitch after pitch go by, but it’s a devastating approach that has led to fantastic results for New York. I wouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Yanks offense can overcome the pitching problems

One of the few pleasant memories of April 2007. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Every time we post about a position player, there is one inevitable response. Commenter Yanks the Frank provided it in the Michael Young thread. “Can he pitch?” The Yankees’ pitching problems have taken center stage this winter, highlighted by the retread pitchers they’ve invited to camp. There will be opportunities to acquire another pitcher or two as the season progresses, but until then they have to find a way to stay close to the Rays and the Sox. As has been the case in years past, the offense provides the key.

If we look back to 2007 we can see a Yankees team that faced massive pitching problems early in the season. They had brought back Andy Pettitte that winter, but as a whole the staff appeared weak at worst, fragile at best. Carl Pavano actually started Opening Day that year, because Andy Petitte’s back had disrupted his spring training schedule. Pavano, Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Jeff Karstens, and Kei Igawa composed the rotation to open the season, while Chien-Ming Wang sat on the DL with a hamstring problem. That cast of characters, plus a shaky bullpen, led to a 5.02 ERA and 5.34 FIP. The former was the fourth worst in the majors, the latter the second worst. The starters, as expected, took the brunt of the beating, to the tune of a 5.94 ERA, third worst in the majors.

A high-powered offense as the Yankees can overcome such pitching ineptitude. But in April 2007 they failed to overpower opposing pitching staffs. Their .339 wOBA ranked seventh in the majors, but it was also their worst month of the year. Numbers are typically down across the board in April, but as the Yankees showed throughout the year, their offense was far better than seventh in the league — the team’s .362 season wOBA ranked first in the majors by a decent margin. If they had produced the best offense numbers in April maybe they would have scored more than 131 runs and won more than nine games. Instead, it was Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter producing numbers. No other Yankee had a wOBA over .330 in April 2007.

Offensive struggles continued in May, too. In fact, the team scored fewer runs per game in May than they did in April. That month the team .344 wOBA ranked fifth, but again it was a small handful of players producing, while others, such as Bobby Abreu, batting in the three spot, fell off. The pitching had actually improved, but with the offense stalling again, the Yanks couldn’t get much going. And so they stumbled again, finishing 13-15 on the month and owning a cumulative 21-29 record on the season. It was only then that the offense really kicked in.

Once the offense started producing everything started to come together. Adding Roger Clemens and, eventually, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy to the staff helped further solidify run prevention unit. But even as the team’s pitching improved after April — the team ERA went to 4.28 in May and 4.05 in June — the team didn’t really start rattling off the wins until everyone in the offense started hitting to his ability. This could be a familiar situation for the Yankees in 2011.

While 2007 stands out as a team that stood out offensively and faced pitching challenges, 2008 is perhaps a better example. The team again struggled out of the gate, and again it was mostly related to the offense. The staff was bad, a 4.56 ERA in April, seventh worst in the majors, but the offense couldn’t get anything done. Their April wOBA was .322, which was middle of the pack. The team, despite injuries and down years, finished with a .338 wOBA, seventh in the majors. Had they produced the 7th best wOBA in April, maybe they would have overcome the poor pitching. But they didn’t, and everything went downhill from there.

This year the Yankees’ staff could produce Aprils as bad as 2007 and 2008. It’s the reality they face with the current construction of the pitching staff. But the results need not be similar. If the Yankees can open the season in a similar manner to last year — .362 wOBA in April, best in the majors — they can overcome the back end of the pitching staff and keep pace with division foes. That should buy them time until they can improve on the staff. The situation might appear bleak, and it’s tough to ignore the pitching issues. But the Yankees have an offense that temporarily overcome poor pitching. If they can perform at a level they couldn’t in 2007 and 2008, they should be able to weather the storm until more pitching becomes available.

The World Series Hangover Effect

Mark Buehrle knows what I'm talking about. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The World Series hangover effect is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in terms of public awareness given all the innings limits and pitch count stuff going on these days. I’m sure it’s been around a while, but it hasn’t gotten much publicity until recently. And no, I’m not talking about players celebrating too much during the offseason or anything like that, I mean pitchers seeing their performance suffer the year after a World Series appearance because of the increased workload.

Both Tim Kurkjian and Tracy Ringolsby recently penned articles focusing on the Giants and how their pitching staff will try to rebound after such a long and stressful season, each citing examples of pitchers who’ve seen their production decline the year after a World Series berth. They used things like wins and losses and ERA to prove their points, but we have better tools. So what I did was compile innings pitched, FIP, and fWAR data for every pitcher to start a World Series game in the Wild Card era, a sample consisting of 78 different pitchers and 111 individual pitching seasons. I looked at the two years leading up the World Series berth plus the two years after for comparison.

I should mention that I stopped at 2008; I didn’t include the 2009 and 2010 pitchers because it hasn’t been two years since their World Series appearances. The FIP and WAR are weighted averages based on innings pitched, and the innings is just a straight average. There’s a drop-off but not a huge one when you go from the World Series season to the following year or two, less than one-tenth of a run in terms of FIP and about four-tenths of a win. Nine innings is a lot, but not a complete red flag. Against, it’s certainly a drop-off, but not an extreme one.

However, as I was compiling the data, I noticed something: the same pitchers were in the World Series pretty much every year in the late-90’s. Blame that on the Yankees dynasty and the Braves thrice making it to the Fall Classic. As you know, those rosters featured some all-time greats like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, etc.  Those guys were remarkable for their consistency from year-to-year, rarely seeing a significant change in production whether they pitched in the World Series or not.

So yeah, those guys were skewing the data, or last it appeared that they could be, so I went ahead and eliminated them from the sample. I instead looked at pitchers who started a World Series game from 2002 through 2008, eliminating all the Yankee repeats, the Braves guys, as well as the two freaks of nature Arizona featured in 2001 (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling). None of those guys are normal pitchers, not in any way, so we shouldn’t lump them in with everyone else. Here’s what I get for the mere mortals…

Now we’re talking. Two-tenths of a run in FIP and almost a full win is a considerable drop-off, as is the 24 inning (!!!) decrease. The declines were evident in both veteran pitchers and young guys as well. Mark Buehrle went from a 3.42 FIP and 6.3 fWAR in 2005 to 5.27 and 1.9 in 2006, respectively. Mike Mussina went from a 3.09 FIP and 6.4 fWAR in 2003 to 3.95 and 3.3 in 2004, respectively. He experienced a similar drop from 2001 to 2002 as well. Young guys like Jeff Francis and Jeremy Bonderman went from career years and a World Series appearance to the disabled list and eventually the surgeon’s table within a year or two. The examples go on and on.

There are certainly exceptions, of course. Some pitchers never feel the consequences of the high workload and continue to pitch well, others actually got better the next year. These guys aren’t all created equal, but as a whole they experienced a decline from a World Series year to the next. Also keep in mind that it’s not just the increased workload that effects the pitcher, it’s the smaller recovery time. Reaching the World Series extends your season by a full month, which means their offseason is that much shorter.

One thing I found interesting was how performance peaked during the World Series year. You need a lot of things to go right to win a World Championship, especially on the pitching side, and this supports that theory. Sometimes a Jeff Weaver or a Jeff Suppan or a Josh Fogg or a Brandon Backe has to turn into an ace for a few weeks to make these things happen. And then they quite often turn back into Weaver or Suppan or Fogg or Backe the next year. It’s not as simple as compiling the best staff on paper and running them out there, performance isn’t guaranteed.

Joe already looked A.J. Burnett‘s workload in recent years and how that may have effected him in 2010, and the 2009 World Series appearance certainly factors into that equation. Pettitte had been through the whole World Series thing a bunch of times before and he showed no ill effects last year. Joba Chamberlain went from starter to reliever while Phil Hughes did the opposite, so it’s tough to get a read on if/how the long ’09 season effected them. CC Sabathia is a freak, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. He’s big, strong, fat, and absurdly durable, and even if the World Series dragged him down last year, it was hardly noticeable.

Obviously this doesn’t really tie into the 2011 Yankees at all, other than Hughes’ considerable increase in innings (which would have been true even if they missed the playoffs), but I’ve been meaning to look into this for a while and figured it was about time to do. It shows you why the Yankees were eager to acquire Javy Vazquez last winter (protect against injury), and why it’s so damn hard to repeat these days.