CC Sabathia’s better than expected changeup

When the Yankees signed CC Sabathia last offseason, everyone pretty much knew what he was. He was a dominant, hard throwing lefthander that put you away with his hard slider. However, as the 2009 season went on, something became very apparent about the big guy: he had a damn good changeup. We saw many a righthanded batter flail at the low-and-away change last season, and there’s perhaps no better example of this than Jayson Werth in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the World Series. With runners on first and second in a two-run game, CC threw Werth five changeups in a seven pitch at-bat, getting two swings and misses, the last for an inning ending strikeout.

FanGraphs’ pitch values say that Sabathia’s change was worth 3.59 runs above average per 100 pitches in 2009, which was the best mark in the American League. And not by a small margin, either. Felix Hernandez’s changeup was second at 2.63 runs above average, almost a full run difference. This isn’t a one time fluke thing either. CC had one of the game’s 15 best changeups in 2006 (1.33), 2007 (1.65), and 2008 (2.30) as well. In case you didn’t already notice, his changeup has gotten more and more effective in each of the last four (really five) seasons.

I was completely oblivious Sabathia’s changeup before he wore pinstripes, so I asked Keith Law if it was always a good pitch for him. “Yes, but he didn’t use it much,” said KLaw, and he’s right. Over the last three seasons, CC has thrown his changeup approximately 19% of the time. During the five seasons prior to that, he threw it just ~13% of the time. All those extra changeups came the expense of his curveball, which went from being used 15.5% of the time in 2005 to so little that it registered with FanGraphs as being used 0.0% of the time last year. I know he threw at least a handful in 2009, I remember seeing them.

I’ve always felt that a knockout changeup was the most dominant pitch in baseball. If you could throw it with identical arm speed to your fastball and keep the separation between the two pitches to around 10 mph or so, then forget it, batters had no chance no matter how hard you throw because they’re unable to tell the two pitches apart until it’s too late. Just look at Trevor Hoffman, or Tom Glavine, or Johan Santana, or Pedro in his prime. All dominant changeup guys. I’m not suggesting that CC can be like that, but he has a clear cut weapon against righty batters now, and that makes him even more dangerous than he already is.

Over the course of his career, Sabathia has evolved from a dominant power guy that relied on a fastball-slider-curve combo to get by, though like most young pitchers he had trouble with the free pass (4.22 BB/9 in his first two seasons). Now he’s a fastball-changeup-slider pitcher that is stingy with walks (2.03 BB/9 over the last four years) and baserunners in general. He’s not just a meathead thrower folks, CC’s a pitcher, as the old schoolers are wont to say.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Extracting value from Kei Igawa

Since 2006, when George Steinbrenner granted him autonomy over baseball operations, Brian Cashman has signed four free agent pitchers: Andy Pettitte, Kei Igawa, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Three out of four represents an excellent mark, especially considering the crop of free agent pitchers the team signed in the few years before ’06. Still, the one stings a bit. The Yankees bid $27 million when the Hanshin Tigers posted him, and it seemed like overpayment at the time. That fee, plus his five-year, $20 million contract, add up to quite the blunder. But can the Yankees salvage something in deal’s final two years?

If Igawa plays any role for the 2010 or 2011 Yankes, he’ll do it from the bullpen. The Yankees have built plenty of rotation depth, leaving Igawa somewhere around sixth or seventh in line for an open rotation spot. Even if the Yankees suffered six separate misfortunes, of which there’s an outside chance, they might not turn to Igawa. There’s little in his track record which suggests an ability to get through a major league order multiple times with limited damage. But perhaps he can prove of value pitching in short bursts out of the bullpen.

At The Hardball Times today, Jeff Sackmann examines minor league starters who might make quality major league bullpen candidates. After all, since many, if not most, relievers were starters who failed, a number of these middling starters will eventually make the move. Identifying them now can perhaps expedite the process. The Yankees, as we know, prefer to develop their young arms as starters, but we also know that they will move a starter to the bullpen if the need arises. With Igawa, it might be the only way to extract even a modicum of value.

Sackmann identified three qualities which might suggest an easy bullpen transition. First, that they pitch well the first time through the order. Or, as I’ll examine, that they pitch well in their first inning of work. Second, they have a large platoon differential. This goes hand in hand with the short bursts, and matters much more for a lefty like Igawa. If he’s only coming in for a few batters, chances are that more than half will be lefties. And third, he pitches well out of the stretch. So how does our K-man stack up?

The only area where Igawa doesn’t rate well is in his FIP the first time through the order. In lefty-lefty situations last year Igawa posted a 2.54 FIP, inducing 40 percent ground balls. He strikes out more lefties, but more importantly he walks far fewer — just four over 169 lefties faced last season, while he walked 38 out of 491 righties. Predictably, he allows far more home runs against righties as well. With men on base Igawa actually pitches a bit better than with none on, with a FIP of more than a run lower. This is mostly attributable to his home run rate with runners on, an important factor for a reliever. Of the 260 batters he faced with men on, he allowed just five home runs, while 17 of 400 batters with the bases empty took him out of the park.

Using Igawa’s minor league splits, there is evidence that he can pitch well in short bursts as well. While Sackmann rated him 3 on a 5-point scale in that category, he based it on the pitcher’s first time through the order. But most relievers won’t face nine hitters. In Igawa’s first inning of work he boasts a 4.08 FIP, his best mark of any inning in which he faced more than 100 batters in 2009. He induces more ground balls and fewer line drives, and allows fewer home runs. He also showed this tendency during his brief major league stint in 2007, performing far better in the first inning than in any other.

These numbers, of course, provide no guarantee that Igawa could succeed even in a limited role. They do, however, suggest that the Yankees could do worse than giving him a shot. As it stands Boone Logan is the second lefty out of the pen, but the Yanks could cut him loose if he pitches like he has over the last couple of years. At that point they might stick with Damaso Marte as the sole lefty bullpen arm, but they could certainly give Igawa a shot. There’s little harm in it. They have just 38 men on the 40-man roster, and could have up to three open spots if they end up returning Jamie Hoffman to the Dodgers. It doesn’t look like they’d have to make much of a sacrifice to get Igawa on the roster.

Most of us have a set opinion of Igawa, based on his 2007 performance. It’s pretty clear that he won’t work out as a major league starter. The Yankees, however, probably want to get any value out of him that they can at this point, and there are numbers that suggest he could capably fill a bullpen role. With open 40-man spots, why not give him the chance? Worst case he sucks and they send him back to AAA. If they need to remove him from the 40-man at that point, I don’t think they’ll mind letting him walk as a free agent. But before it comes to that, I’d like to see him get his shot.

Credit: AP Photo/Duane Burleson

What, exactly, does Johnny Damon think he’ll get?

Fans who want to see Johnny Damon back in pinstripes got a bit of good news last night. In a radio interview, new Padre Jerry Hairston Jr. said that the Yankees didn’t make him an offer because they’re “waiting on Damon’s price to come down.” Brian Cashman quickly refuted the report, but that’s to be expected. After hearing the interview a number of reporters surely placed phone calls, and Cashman is under no obligation to divulge the team’s strategies. While Cashman went into deny mode, I don’t think Hairston’s comment was inaccurate.

As we’ve heard ever since the Javy Vazquez trade, the Yankees plan to wait out the market and find the best value in another outfielder. As one Yankee official said in late December, “We’ll sign an outfielder between now and spring training.” The market for the Yankees’ target players hasn’t moved much since then, hence the lull in activity. Had teams started to make serious plays for guys like Reed Johnson and Xavier Nady, perhaps the Yankees would have made a move by now. But as the market lies dormant, so should the Yankees.

The advantage of waiting in this situation is that they can continue to monitor their presumed top target, Johnny Damon. He’s the best player left on the market, and surely the Yankees would rather bring him back than sign one of the other remaining outfielders. But, as Hairston’s quote suggests, Damon is still asking too much. My question to that: what, exactly, does Johnny think he can get in this market? And, furthermore, what team will pay it?

The teams interested in Damon’s services have dwindled in the past month. The Giants signed Mark DeRosa, Aubrey Huff, and Bengie Molina, and are likely tapped out. The Braves might be interested, but they might not, depending on who you ask. The Tigers have denied interest, and with good cause. They already have DHs at their corner outfield spots — Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen — and so with Damon would have three corner outfielders who play poor defense, surrounding a rookie center fielder. The Mariners have $10 million, but also have two set-in-stone outfielders, plus Milton Bradley and Ken Griffey, Jr.

As Dave Pinto noted yesterday, “a team with a hole in leftfield or designated hitter could do a lot worse than offering Damon $7 to 9 million for a year of his services.” True, they could do worse than Damon as a player, but at that price he’s not nearly as appealing. With so few teams actively interested in his services, $7 to $9 million, in a pure market environment, appears too steep. But, since Damon doesn’t want to take a pay cut, he’ll continue to wait. It might be a while before he gets anything close to what he thinks he’s worth.

So where does that leave Damon? Tyler Kepner wrote an excellent article comparing Damon to two players who found themselves in similar situations: Kenny Lofton and Kenny Rogers. Funny, too, because they’re both former, reviled Yankees. Lofton abruptly retired after the 2007 season when he didn’t receive an offer he deemed worthy. Rogers turned down a two-year, $10 million offer from the Rangers, eventually signing on for $2 million with the Twins after another former Yankee, Eric Milton, got hurt.

Reports circulated yesterday that Damon was contemplating retirement, but that’s bull. In fact, there was no direct quote attributed to it, never mind the dubious source, a “friend” of Damon. Plus, as Kepner notes, Damon himself said that he wants to play. So that leaves him with Rogers’s situation, waiting until something pops up in spring training. That might cause a team to overpay a bit, but I doubt it would land him a multiyear contract. That ship, it appears, sailed when he turned down the Yankees’ two-year, $14 million offer.

As the last big-name free agent left on the market, Damon will garner much attention in the weeks between now and spring training. We’re bound to hear conflicting reports, and much of that will be pure noise. What we do know, however, is that the Yankees feel no urgency to act, and that puts them in a position to bring back Damon on their terms. Whether they will remains to be seen. But I do think that the more time passes, the better chance Damon re-signs with the Yanks.

Credit: AP Photo/Peter Morgan

Report: Yanks waiting for Damon’s price to come down

Update (9:45pm): Cashmoney shot this report down, yo.

8:37pm: Old buddy Jerry Hairston Jr. was on Jim Bowden’s radio show on XM 175 earlier this evening, and said that the Yankees never made him an offer for a very specific reason. “Brian Cashman‘s going to get mad at me,” said Jerry, “but Yanks didn’t make me offer because he’s waiting on (Johnny) Damon’s price to come down.” Yes Jerry, you’re going to make Cash angry, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

It’s still possible that Joel Sherman’s report of the team only having $2M left to spend on left field is accurate, and they’re just hoping for Damon to accept an 85% paycut, or it could have been a negotiating ploy. I can hear the conversation now: “Well, we’ve only got $2M left to spend, but if you want $5M, then fine, you win. Our hands … are tied.”

Open Thread: Mobile app survey

Ben, Joe, and myself are constantly looking for ways to improve the RAB experience for our readers, and one of the things we’re discussing is a mobile application. Before we move forward with actually having it developed, we need to see what kind of interest you guys have in one.

The survey below is a whopping six questions long and should take you all of one minute to fill out, but it’ll be a tremendous help giving us an idea of whether or not putting an app together is worth it. You guys aren’t stupid, I’m sure you realize that if we don’t think we could made some money off it, we probably won’t go ahead with it. We’re not looking to get rich (not that we’re opposed to it), but the more we have to offset our perpetually increasing hosting costs, the better.

You won’t have to input any personal information and we wouldn’t share it anyway, as per our privacy policy. We just want to add up all the survey information and use that to determine whether or not we move forward with a mobile app. At that point perhaps we can boost our revenue and justify spending even more of our time on the site. I think that’s works to everyone’s benefit.

Take the RAB Mobile App survey.

Thanks in advance, we greatly appreciate it.

Anyway, now that that’s taken care of, use this puppy as your open thread for the night. The Devils and Nets are the only local teams in action tonight, but American Idols auditions are on and those are usually good for a laugh. Anything goes, just be nice.

Nine Innings with yours truly

Jesse Spector, the scribe behind the Daily News’ Touching Bases blog, has been interviewing writers from around the Internet as part of his Nine Innings series. The format is simple: Jesse asks nine questions, and those of us who volunteer to answer do so. This week, Spector and I exchanged e-mails, and you can check out my answers to his nine questions right here. We talk about the Hot Stove League, the YES Network and the most over- and under-rated Yankees. Check it out.

Can Derek Jeter aim his hits?

If ballplayers could aim their hits with any consistency, perhaps we’d have seen a few more .400 hitters in baseball history. But, as we’ve learned through years of studying the game, it’s not that easy. Hitters have little reaction time between when the pitcher releases the ball and when the ball crosses the plate. During that time a batter must decide where the ball will cross the plate, the velocity of the pitch, the break of the pitch, and then finally of whether he will swing. And then it’s a matter of hitting a sphere with a cylinder. But you know all this, and you know it makes it difficult for a batter to aim his hit to a particular portion of the field.

A hitter can help his case, of course, by generally going with the pitch. Some hitters seem to do this better than others, and over the past 14 years we’ve had the pleasure of watching Derek Jeter slap outside pitches to right field. When pitchers try to work Jeter inside, he can turn around and pull a ball down the left field line, just to keep them honest. In fact, before 2009 he hit more ground balls and line drives down the left field line than the right.

Today at FanGraphs, Dave Allen examines Jeter’s hit tendencies, specifically ground balls and line drives — the batted ball types that generate the most hits. He uses the following field slices to describe where Jeter hits his ground balls and line drives. The number represents the percentage of all GB and LD hit to that field slice, and the shading represents slugging percentage on those hits, the lighter the lower.

Allen makes a few notations about the difference in 2009:

The worst places to hit a grounder are straight at the second basemen or shortstop, those are the grayest slices and in 2009 Jeter cut down the the percentage of his hits to those two slices by 4% (2B) and 2% (SS). He had more hits right up the middle (25% versus 21%), which are singles and doubles more often than outs.

Again, the improvement comes in Jeter’s bread and butter areas, up the middle and to right field. While Allen noted his up the middle increase, Jeter also increased the percentage of GB and LD he hit between the first and second baseman. This probably played a large part in Jeter’s high BABIP, .369.

Allen follows the above block quote with the following: “I don’t think this is a shift in true talent: I don’t think Jeter is any better at ‘aiming’ his grounders.” I’m not as sure. There isn’t a real way to prove this, so for now all we can do is guess. Jeter did, however, display a more discerning eye in 2009 than he had in the two previous years, increasing his pitches seen per plate appearance. Does a keen batting eye allow a player to better aim his hits?

To the average Yankees fan, with the heavy bias that comes with watching a single team so frequently, Jeter does seem better at aiming his hits than other hitters. In 2009 he seemed exceptional, often jumping on the first pitch of the game and depositing it in the shallow outfield. No, he can’t hit a baseball anywhere at will. But it does appear he embodies the Wee Willie Keeler mantra of “hit it where they ain’t.”