How A-Rod became the Yankees’ best hitter

Goodbye, baseball. (Photo credit: Kim Klement/Reuters)
Goodbye, baseball. (Photo credit: Kim Klement/Reuters)

There are few people who could have predicted Alex Rodriguez would be the leader or co-leader on the Yankees in batting average, on-base percentage, Wins Above Replacement, OPS, runs, RBI and homers – and arguably the team MVP – after the first two weeks of the season (yes, despite his 0-fer on Monday). Heck, six months ago it seemed like everyone was trying to figure out how the team could release him and recover part of the $61 million he’s still owed over the next three seasons.

Sure, it’s an incredibly small sample. The guy is also almost 40 years old while playing on two surgically-repaired hips, so he’s very likely not going to sustain this incredible pace.

But this scorching hot start is still very real, and nearly unprecedented even in the context of A-Rod‘s career. The last time he had this many homers, RBI and hits in the team’s first 13 games was 2007, the same year he won the AL MVP award.

We know that only a few years ago he was an elite third baseman and his natural hitting skills are off the charts, but these eye-popping numbers are still somewhat shocking for a player that was out of the game for a year and was pretty mediocre the last time we saw him in a baseball uniform.

So what has been the key to A-Rod’s early-season performance? And how much of it can he sustain going forward?

Going, going, going…gone!
One of the reasons to be optimistic about his numbers is the fact that he’s absolutely crushing the ball. We’re talking mammoth, tape-measure homers and really solid bat-to-ball contact — power that few could have predicted at the start of spring training.

His average batted ball distance of 246 feet leads all major league players and his average batted ball velocity of 99.3 mph is the second-highest in MLB (min. 5 at-bats). He also ranks among the top 20 of all players in hard-hit rate – the percentage of at-bats ending in a hard-hit ball, based on video review – according to ESPN’s stat guru Mark Simon.

A-Rod owns the longest home run hit by anybody this season – a 477-foot shot on Friday night – and is the only player with three “no doubt” homers, according to hittrackeronline.com. (A no-doubt homer means the ball cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence.)

A-Rod home run chart

Can he handle the heat?
A key question heading into the season is whether A-Rod’s bat would be able to catch up to fastballs. Pitchers haven’t been shy about challenging A-Rod with the heater, and he’s done a good job so far answering his critics by going 6-for-15 with four homers and a double in at-bats ending in four-seamers.

Of the 11 four-seasm fastballs he’s put into play so far, only one has been a ground ball and four have been classified as line drives. Need more proof? No player has a higher slugging percentage or hit more homers against four-seam fastballs this season than Alex.

Patience is a virtue
Another encouraging sign is the strong place discipline numbers that Rodriguez is showing so far. His walk rate of 18 percent would be a career-high and swing rate at pitches out of the zone (26 percent) is better than the current league average. He clearly has done a good job of working counts and waiting for pitches in his sweetspot, while laying off pitches he can’t demolish.

If there’s one big weakness in his approach at the plate, though, it is his high whiff rate. His contact (63 percent) and strikeout percentages (31 percent) would both be career-worsts and are well-below-average. Pitchers have really exposed A-Rod’s propensity to swing and miss at off-speed and breaking pitches, especially down in the zone, as detailed in the heat map below:

ARod Whiffs per swing

While this lack of contact and tendency to chase soft stuff could be a concern going forward, it’s impact is probably lessened by his patience and good batting eye. As long as he can continue to get ahead in the count, take his walks and force pitchers to throw him hittable pitches, A-Rod should be able to keep up a high on-base percentage and give the Yankees a solid power bat on a consistent basis.

We know that A-Rod is probably not going to hit 40 homers and likely won’t finish with a near-.500 OBP at the end of the season. He is going to regress, but based on what he’s shown in these first few weeks, there is a good chance that he’ll be at least capable of providing above-average production for a team that could really use his power and patience in the lineup.

Silver Lining: CC Sabathia shows he still has something left in loss to Tigers

Changeup! (Presswire)
Changeup! (Presswire)

The Yankees dropped last night’s series opener to the Tigers in a pretty annoying way — they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, didn’t build on it, then watched as Detroit used some less than well struck balls to rally for two runs in seventh. An annoying loss, no doubt, but it’s still just one loss. Before you know it that game will fade from memory and blend into the glob of baseball we forget each season.

The loss did come with a silver lining, however, and that of course was CC Sabathia‘s complete game performance. He allowed those two runs on seven singles and three walks, and it wasn’t until that seventh inning that the high-powered Tigers had a runner reach second base. Sabathia struck out five, threw 62 of 98 pitches for strikes (63%), got nine swings and misses, and 12 of the 21 balls put in play against the big lefty were on the ground. Solid performance all around.

Unlike his first two starts, when his velocity gradually faded as the game progressed (first start, second start), Sabathia held his velocity all night last night despite the cold, windy, rainy conditions. He hit 90.7 mph in the first at-bat of the game and 91.7 mph in the last. There was no drop-off. Here’s the velocity graph via Brooks Baseball:

CC Sabathia Tigers velocity

Most pitchers lose a little something in the later innings, it’s normal, but for a guy who’s lost noticeable fastball oomph with age, sustaining velocity all night was a very encouraging sign for Sabathia. His margin for error is relatively small as it is, and if he’s able to avoid having that margin for error get even smaller when his pitch count climbs north of, say, 70 pitches, the more effective he’ll be overall.

I thought Tigers manager Brad Ausmus did Sabathia a bit of a favor by loading his lineup with right-handed hitters — all nine players in his lineup were righties — because it allowed him to stick with the same approach all night: fastballs to both sides of the plate and changeups down and away. He threw only eleven sliders out of 98 pitches (11%) after throwing 28% sliders in his first two starts. The lack of a lefty hitter allowed Sabathia to get in a rhythm and stick with one approach all night.

That’s a luxury Sabathia won’t have every start but teams do still stack their lineups with righties again him — only six of the 53 batters he faced in his first two starts were lefties, and even last season only 31 of 209 batters faced were lefties (15%). Sabathia’s changeup is super important because he always faces a ton of right-handed batters and last night was an opportunity to really dig in and work on that pitch, which was an issue in his first two starts (opponents hit .308 against it).

Coming into the season, we really had no idea what to expect from Sabathia following knee surgery and 257 pretty ugly innings from 2012-13 (4.87 ERA and 4.22 FIP). His three starts have gotten progressively better — five runs in 5.2 innings, four runs in seven innings, two runs in eight innings — and there are other positive signs as well, including the way he held his velocity and used his changeup last night. The loss stunk, that’s baseball, but the Sabathia we saw last night can be an effective pitcher. CC is trending in the right direction earlier this season, for sure.

DotF: Wade, Snyder, and Davis lead Tampa to blowout win

Both RHP David Palladino and LHP Fred Lewis have been placed on the DL, according to Matt Eddy. Not sure what’s wrong with either.

Triple-A Scranton (4-3 win over Lehigh Valley in 15 innings, walk-off style) 15 innings!

  • CF Slade Heathcott: 0-6, 1 BB, 2 K
  • DH Ramon Flores: 2-6, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K — keeps mashing
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 3-7, 1 2B, 1 K — gets his average up to .262
  • 1B Kyle Roller: 1-1, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 BB
  • RF Tyler Austin: 1-7, 3 K — got picked off first
  • C Austin Romine: 0-6, 1 BB, 1 K
  • SS Nick Noonan: 1-5, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — walk-off single
  • RHP Jaron Long: 5.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 5/5 GB/FB — 56 of 96 pitches were strikes (58%)
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 0/2 GB/FB — 14 of 20 pitches were strikes (70%)
  • RHP Jose Ramirez: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 0/2 GB/FB — 18 of 28 pitches were strikes (64%) … ten strikeouts and three walks in 8.1 innings and one of the walks was intentional
  • LHP Tyler Webb: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 3/2 GB/FB — 25 of 31 pitches were strikes (81%) … efficient!
  • RHP Danny Burawa: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2/0 GB/FB — nine pitches, five strikes

[Read more…]

CC pitches a big one but offense can’t support him as the Yanks fall 2-1 in Detroit

Well, that was disappointing. I was hoping that Yankees would either hold on to a 1-0 lead or score more insurance runs. But the Tigers scored two in the bottom of seventh and held on to that lead. The offense couldn’t show up and the winning streak got cut short at three. For shame.

(Source: Getty)

I CC-you, Sabathia

The hefty lefty didn’t necessarily have a great first two starts, but, as many mentioned, he had the peripherals that suggested he’s pitching better than his ERA suggested.

Tonight, Sabathia delivered easily the best outing of the young 2015 season. He tossed eight innings, allowed two runs (only one ER), seven hits, three walks and struck out five. He kept inducing ground balls (50% GB rate) and his season rate remains a high 61.4 %. Even though his fastball was around 89~91 miles per hour range, CC dominated the hot Tigers lineup (lead AL in wRC+ prior to tonight’s game with 136) and did what he could do to deserve a win.

Besides the result, I think tonight’s performance also affirmed that CC’s new ground ball-happy approach can get him nice outings. Sure, we all miss the old overpowering Sabathia but when you don’t have the heat anymore, but baseball doesn’t adjust to you – you have to adjust to baseball. I remember Mike Mussina saw his effectiveness decline after his average fastball velocity went down from 88.6 mph in 2006 to 87.1 mph in 2007. Then in 2008, he managed to turn in his first-ever 20-win season “…observers noticed him pitching down and in more effectively, changing speeds like a master.”  If CC can have that kind of renaissance for the remaining portion of contract, sign me up.

Anyways, good game, CC. But life ain’t a box of chocolate, nor a bed of roses…

The 7th Inning Wretch 

CC. was chugging along up to the seventh inning. In fact, he could have gotten out of it unscathed. Rajai Davis led off with a base hit but CC got the next two big hitters – Kinsler and Cabrera – out.

With two outs and the runner on first, the Yanks decided to intentionally walk Victor Martinez. Even though Martinez was 0-for-2 at the time, he tattooed the ball in each previous at-bats – Gardner robbed him of an XBH in the second inning and Ellsbury did the same in the fifth. Also, he’s got a pedigree of, you know, being a dangerous hitter so they decided to pitch to the next hitter, J.D. Martinez.

Now, I thought it was interesting that Yanks chose to pitch to J.D. rather than Victor. I assume it was based a lot on how CC fared against them. As I mentioned, Victor hit the ball hard twice against Sabathia while J.D. struck out and, well, lined out to center. I guess it came down to that New York felt more comfortable having Sabathia pitch to J.D..

On the third pitch of the at-bat, Martinez hit a hard liner towards Didi Gregorius and it deflected off the shortstop’s glove and trickled down slowly to left field, allowing Davis to score. Ugh. That just adds to Didi’s “replacing the Jeets” saga, doesn’t it? I know, I really wish Didi would’ve been able to handle that but again, that was a very hard-hit ball – the bottom line is that Yanks got the short end of the BABIP dragon’s favor. That could have gone either way. Hopefully Didi makes that play in the future.

The next hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, squeaked a grounder through the middle to drive in another run. CC did his job inducing a grounder but it just didn’t go to his ideal way. J.D. Martinez was caught in a rundown between second and third base for the final out of the inning but the damage has been done – the Tigers took a 2-1 lead and the score didn’t change again.

WOOSH (Source: Getty)

Offense Comes Up Short

I don’t feel like making another pun so I’m going with an uncreative section title here but… it’s true. Tigers’ starting pitcher, Alfredo Simon, is no scrub honestly. I know ERA is not a perfect stat but since 2012, in 358.1 IP, the man has a 3.11 ERA (121 ERA+). But with Sabathia delivering his best start in long while, I really wish the offense had given more support.

Leading off the second inning, Mark Teixeira hit a diving 84 miles per hour splitter for a solo homer. He had to reach way down to drive it and, honestly, on the first glance, I didn’t know it was going to be anywhere close to the seats. It’s also his first left-handed homer of the season so that’s that. Tex hitting a homer like that makes me feel that his power’s come back but… that was pretty much the only bright spot in offense.

After the Tex homer, Simon held the Yankees scoreless. Yanks weren’t particularly successful in driving the ball as they grounded out a whopping 11 times and only McCann managed for another XBH with a second-inning double.

Oh and this one hurt. In the eighth inning with one out, Gregorius, who hasn’t had the best time with his bat, hit a single to knock Simon out of the game. Detroit brought in the former Yankee prodigy pitcher Joba Chamberlain to face Jacoby Ellsbury. The speedy center fielder grounded into a rally-killing double play to end the threat. Womp.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

Here’s the boxscore and updated standings. And, of course, the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Oh, and if there’s any more positive from tonight’s game, the bullpen arms got to rest thanks to CC’s complete game. Everyone should be ready to go tomorrow. Hope Nathan Eovaldi can go longer than five innings this time though.

Up Next

Tomorrow the Yanks are back at it again at the same time, same place. Two young pitchers – Nathan Eovaldi and Kyle Lobstein – will be facing off. Better luck tomorrow, start a new win streak, etc.

Game 13: Streakin’

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have two nice little streaks going right now. One, they’ve won three straight games for the first time this season. Two, they’ve scored at least five runs in four straight games. The first streak is cool but not exactly rare. Even last year’s team managed eleven winning streaks of at least three games. It’s a very long season. Three-game winning streaks happen.

The 5+ runs thing is bit more uncommon. In fact, the Yankees never once scored at least five runs in four straight games last season. Not once. They did it in three straight games on four different occasions, but never once in four consecutive games. You have to go back to September 2013 for the last time New York put up five or more runs in four straight games. The Yankees are in Detroit tonight looking to extended both streaks. Here is the Tigers’ lineup and the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. C Brian McCann
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    LHP CC Sabathia

It has been raining in Detroit pretty much all afternoon but it is supposed to clear out in time for tonight’s game. The game is scheduled to begin at 7:08p ET and you can watch live on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

2015 MLB Draft: Ian Happ

Ian Happ | OF

Background
Happ, 20, is a Pittsburgh kid who went undrafted out of high school in 2012. He stepped right into the starting lineup as a freshman for Cincinnati and hit .322/.446/.489 with 26 doubles, eleven homers, 79 walks, 67 strikeouts, and 44 steals in 54 attempts in 107 games his first two years on campus. Happ went into the weekend hitting .386/.509/.693 with nine doubles, ten homers, 34 walks, 34 strikeouts, and five steals in eleven attempts in 37 games this spring. (No relation to J.A. Happ as far as I can tell.)

Scouting Report
Listed at 6-foot-0 and 205 lbs., Happ is a switch-hitter who is more refined from the left side but has a quick bat and line drive stroke from the both sides of the plate. He has an advanced knowledge of the strike zone and good power potential that is starting to blossom this spring. Happ is just an okay runner despite his impressive stolen base totals as a freshman and sophomore, and he’s still learning the nuances of the outfield after playing second base earlier in his college career. It’ll be interesting to see if whichever team drafts him decides to give Happ another try on the infield in pro ball. He’s an aggressive, high energy player who will earn the “gritty” label in a hurry.

Miscellany
Keith Law (subs. req’d), MLB.com, and Baseball America ranked Happ as the sixth, 15th, and 17th best player in the draft class in their latest rankings, respectively. This draft is really light on bats though and, as a college hitter with big stats, I wouldn’t be surprised if Happ came off the board earlier than projected. (The Yankees pick 16th overall.) As a switch-hitter with plate discipline and promising power, Happ seems like the kind of player the Yankees always try to have in their lineup. That he excelled in the Cape Cod League — Happ hit .329/.433/.503 with 12 doubles and four homers in 43 games with the Harwich Mariners last summer and was ranked as the sixth best prospect in the circuit by Baseball America — only makes him more of a target for New York.

4/20 to 4/23 Series Preview: Detroit Tigers

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

The Yankees have won four of the first six games of this ten-game road trip, but the last four games figure to be the toughest. They’re in Detroit tonight to start a four-game series against a Tigers team that has been the best in baseball in the early going this year. And in case you’re wondering, no, the Yankees will not face Shane Greene this series. He started yesterday.

What Have The Tigers Done Lately?

Like I said, the Tigers have been the best team in baseball so far this year. They just took two of three from the White Sox — losing only to Chris Sale — and are 10-2 on the young season. Manager Brad Ausmus’ club has the best record and the best run differential (+33) in baseball right now. It’s super early of course, but no team in all of MLB has been better than the four-time defending AL Central champs.

Offense & Defense

Yesterday afternoon’s game was the sixth time in 12 games this year the Tigers scored at least seven runs. Six times in 12 games! They’re averaging 5.67 runs per game with a team 138 wRC+. That’s pretty damn good. It helps to be healthy on offense — Detroit doesn’t have a single position player on the DL or even listed as day-to-day.

Miggy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Miggy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

As always, Ausmus’ lineup revolves around the incredible 1B Miguel Cabrera (220 wRC+), who is simply the best hitter of his generation. OF J.D. Martinez (129 wRC+) and OF Yoenis Cespedes (152 wRC+) provide some complementary right-handed pop and the switch-hitting DH Victor Martinez (108 wRC+) is off to a nice start as well. SS Jose Iglesias (188 wRC+) is living the good BABIP life right now (.459).

OF Rajai Davis (118 wRC+) and OF Anthony Gose (190 wRC+) platoon in center field and 3B Nick Castellanos (125 wRC+) is the former top prospect trying to build on an okay rookie year. C Alex Avila (119 wRC+) is still the starting catcher and 2B Ian Kinsler (112 wRC+) is seemingly the “weak spot” on offense right now. IF Andrew Romine, IF Hernan Perez, and C James McCann round out the rarely used bench.

Defensively, the Tigers are strongest up the middle thanks mostly to Gose, Kinsler, and Iglesias. Davis isn’t as rangy as you’d expect someone with his speed to be and Avila is just an okay pitch-framer. Castellanos and Cabrera are comfortably below-average on the infield corners and Martinez is in right field because of his bat, not his glove. Cespedes is an above-average defender thanks mostly to his arm, not his range. That said, the Tigers are much better defensively than they have been these last few years.

Pitching Matchups

The Yankees have been talking about possibly using a spot sixth starter this week (Chase Whitley? Kyle Davies?) to give everyone in the rotation an extra day of rest, but the forecast for Detroit the next few days isn’t pretty. The rotation might get that extra day of rest thanks to a rainout rather than a sixth starter. We’ll see.

Monday: LHP CC Sabathia (Career vs. DET) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (Career vs. NYY)
The Simon trade was one of the weirder trades of the offseason because he seemed like such an obvious fluke last season — Simon had a 2.70 ERA (4.33 FIP) with a .232 BABIP in 116.2 innings in the first half last year, went to the All-Star Game, then had a 4.52 ERA (4.34 FIP) with a .309 BABIP in 79.2 innings in the second half. Still, the Tigers traded for him, and it’s worked out so far. The 33-year-old Simon has allowed three runs in 13.1 innings across two starts, though he’s only struck out three. His strikeout rate has fallen from 19.3% in 2012 to 17.6% in 2013 to 15.5% in 2014 to 10.2% in the super early going this year. (To be fair, he moved from the bullpen to the rotation in 2014.) Simon is basically a four-pitch pitcher but it’s not the usual fastball/slider/changeup/curveball mix. He throws a low-90s two-seamer, a mid-80s cutter, a low-80s splitter, and a mid-70s curve. Lefties have traditionally given him a much harder time than righties despite the splitter.

Lobstein. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Lobstein. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Tuesday: RHP Nathan Eovaldi (Career vs. DET) vs. LHP Kyle Lobstein (Career vs. NYY)
The 25-year-old Lobstein is in Detroit’s rotation thanks to the first DL trip of Justin Verlander’s career — he suffered a triceps injury late in Spring Training and is slowly working his way back. Verlander’s still several weeks away from returning. Lobstein, a former Rule 5 Draft pick, got a cup of coffee last season (4.35 ERA and 3.82 FIP in 39.1 innings) and has made one start this year, allowing three runs on eight hits and two walks in five innings against the Indians. Last season in Triple-A he had a 4.07 ERA (3.45 FIP) with 19.9 K% and 6.6 BB% in 146 innings. Lobstein is the quintessential finesse lefty — he sits 86-89 mph with his fastball and uses low-80s cutters and changeups to keep hitters off balance. Every once in a while he’ll flip a low-80s curveball just to keep everyone honest. Lobstein is the opposite of overpowering and the Yankees will have to make sure they lay off his soft stuff just off the plate.

Wednesday: RHP Adam Warren (Career vs. DET) vs. LHP David Price (Career vs. NYY)
The Yankees get stuck facing Price this series, but you know what? It’s better than facing him six times a year like they did when he was in Tampa. Price, 29, is off to an incredible start, allowing just one earned run in 22.1 innings across three starts. He’s struck out 20, walked five, and allowed only 13 hits. Last season was arguably the best of his career — which is really saying something considering he won the Cy Young Award a few years ago — thanks to a 3.26 ERA (2.78 FIP) in an MLB leading 248.1 innings. His strikeout (26.9 K%) and walk (3.8 BB%) rates were off the charts. Price is the ultimate combination of power and precision. He still sits mid-90s with both his two and four-seamers and can paint the corners of both sides of the plate with both pitches. His mid-80s slider gradually morphed into an upper-80s cutter these last few years and Price will also throw a handful of mid-80s changeups and upper-70s curveballs per start. He throws the two-seamer, four-seamer, and cutter a combined ~80% of the time. There’s no messing around here. Price dares hitters to hit his fastball and it no one has been able to do it consistently for years now.

Thursday: RHP Masahiro Tanaka (Career vs. DET) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (Career vs. NYY)
Sanchez has been a personal favorite for a few years now but he’s off to a rough start this season, allowing 14 runs on 20 hits in 16.1 innings. Seventeen strikeouts and four walks are nice, five homers allowed is not. (He allowed four homers in 126 innings in 2014.) Sanchez, 31, had a 3.43 ERA (2.71 FIP) with 19.8 K% and 5.8 BB% last season and put up similar numbers for several years now. He’s a deep arsenal guy, using low-90s four-seamers, low-90s sinkers low-90s cutters, mid-80s splitters, mid-80s sliders, and upper-70s curveballs fairly regularly. He’ll throw just about anything in any count too. Sanchez is off to a slow start this year but he’s real tough most days.

Avila and Soria. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
Avila and Soria. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)

Bullpen Status
The bullpen is always an issue for Detroit, isn’t it? This year their relief crew has a 3.00 ERA (2.33 FIP) overall, which actually has them among the best in MLB, but it’s still early. They are without closer RHP Joe Nathan, who is on the DL with an elbow issue. RHP Joakim Soria (1.58 FIP) has stepped in as closer and given Nathan’s big time struggles since the start of last season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Soria keep the job the rest of the season.

Among those setting up Soria are RHP Al Alburquerque (2.99 FIP), LHP Tom Gorzelanny (1.36 FIP), and RHP Joba Chamberlain (0.59 FIP). LHP Ian Krol (2.09 FIP) will see matchup duty against lefties and the last two bullpen spots belong to LHP Blaine Hardy (4.61 FIP) and RHP Angel Nesbitt (2.56 FIP). Despite their early season success, this non-Soria group of relievers isn’t the steadiest in the world. Get the starter out early enough and you can take advantage. Check out our Bullpen Workload page for the status of New York’s bullpen and then check out Bless You Boys for everything you need to know about the Tigers heading into the series.