Midseason Review: Meeting Expectations

During the next few days we’ll take some time to review the first half of the season and look at which Yankees are meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and falling short of expectations. What else is the All-Star break good for?

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

The Yankees head into the All-Star break with the best record in baseball at 52-33 despite having only played 14 games against teams with a losing record. I guess that’s what happens when all but three AL teams have a .500+ record, including every club in the AL East. Despite that win-loss record, the Yankees don’t seem to have clicked on all cylinders yet. The bullpen carried them in April, the rotation carried them in May and June, and the offense has shown flashes of being dominant but hasn’t really 100% clicked yet. That means there is still room for improvement. Here are the players who have been performing in line with preseason expectations…

Derek Jeter
At this time last year, the Cap’n was really just starting to get going. He hit a weak .270/.340/.370 in 2010 and was sitting on a .260/.324/.324 batting line when a calf injury forced him to the disabled list last June. The injury proved to be a blessing in disguise for Jeter, who worked with hitting coordinator Gary Denbo at staying back on the ball. He hit .331/.384/.447 after returning on Independence Day and he’s carried that success over into 2012.

Now, obviously the 38-year-old shortstop wasn’t going to hit that well all season, but Jeter has posted a rock solid .308/.354/.411 batting line in the first half this year. He had a huge April, a so-so May, and a poor June before picking things back up in early-July. Derek has already hit more homers this season (seven) than he did last season (six), and he’s on a similar stolen base pace (seven in nine chances so far). As you’d expect, most of his damage is coming against lefties (.381/.405/.552) but at least he’s putting up more of a fight against righties (.278/.333/.353) than he did in 2010 and the first half of 2011.

(AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Curtis Granderson & Robinson Cano
The Yankees two best offensive players last year have continued to be just that in 2012. Cano is right in the mix for the AL MVP award at this point thanks to his .313/.378/.578 line and 20 homers, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Robbie over the last few years. He’s unquestionably the best player on the best team in baseball and is in the middle of a career year, both at the plate and in the field. Despite a slow start in April, Cano continues to be brilliant.

Granderson has shown that last season’s power spike was no fluke, carrying a team leading 23 dingers into the break. He ranks fourth in the AL in long balls and is just a touch behind last season’s pace, when he went deep 25 times in the team’s first 85 games. Granderson’s .248/.352/.502 batting line is second only to Cano in its gaudiness, and he’s currently walking in a career best 13.1% of his plate appearances, the eighth best walk rate in the league. His strikeout rate (25.9%, eighth in the AL) is also a career high, but you take the bad with the good. When Curtis stops hitting the ball out of the park and getting on-base, the whiffs will become more of an issue.

CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda & Ivan Nova
Given the uncertainty surrounding Phil Hughes, these three came into the season as the guys Joe Girardi would rely on for quality outings once every five days. Sabathia has battled his fastball command all season long but he still carries a 3.45 ERA and 3.21 FIP into the All-Star break. His strikeout (8.83 K/9 and 23.1 K%), walk (2.44 BB/9 and 6.4 BB%), and ground ball (49.8%) rates are right in line with last season, his best in New York. A minor groin strain landed Sabathia on the DL for the first time in pinstripes but he’s expected back right after the break.

Kuroda got tagged with the inconsistent label early on but has been a rock since late-April, allowing no more than two earned runs in ten of his last 14 starts. His 3.50 ERA is the 13th best in the junior circuit and the peripherals are solid as well: 4.07 FIP, 6.92 K/9 (18.4 K%), 2.67 BB/9 (7.1 BB%), and 47.4% grounders. Kuroda’s given the team exactly the kind of stability they expected when they signed him to that one-year, $10M pact last offseason.

Following last night’s grind-it-out win, Nova has already struck out more batters this season (100) than he did a year ago (98) in 55.1 fewer innings (232 fewer batters faced). An early-season bout of homeritis — 12 homers in his first nine starts but just five in his last eight — has his ERA at 3.92 (4.32 FIP), but that has been coming down steadily over the last two months. Nova is missing bats (8.16 K/9 and ), limiting walks (2.69 BB/9 ), getting ground balls (48.3%), and soaking up innings (110.1 IP, 11th in the AL). He’s taken a nice big step forward in his second full season.

Have yourself a weekend, Andruw. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Andruw Jones, Jayson Nix & Chris Stewart
The Yankees aren’t usually known for their bench players, but this season they’ve gotten some fantastic work out of their reserves. No one is having a truly awful year off the bench, especially after Andruw Jones clubbed four homers in the two-day span this weekend. He’s hitting .244/.326/.535 with 11 homers overall, including .253/.305/.529 with seven homers against lefties.

Nix took over once Eduardo Nunez‘s defense landed him back in Triple-A, and although his .221/.284/.412 line is nothing to write home about, he’s done most of his damage against lefties .256/.293/.436 in sort of a platoon/rest the regulars role. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by his defense, particularly at short. He’s not great, but he’s not an embarrassment. Offensive expectations for Stewart were so low that his empty .256/.276/.293 batting line feels like a win. His defense hasn’t been as great as advertised but overall, he’s a solid backup that has probably gotten a little too much playing time in the first half (has started 30% of the team’s games).

David Robertson, Boone Logan & Clay Rapada
The bullpen has continued to be a strength for the Yankees, just as it has been for the last three or four years now. They’ve pitched to a 3.20 ERA (3.37 FIP) as a unit, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that Mariano Rivera threw only 8.1 innings before blowing out his knee shagging fly balls in May. Robertson missed a month with an oblique strain but his strikeout (14.59 K/9 and 38.1 K%) and walk (4.38 BB/9 and 11.4 BB%) rates have actually been better than his breakout campaign a year ago. He’s run into more trouble than usual lately, but he wasn’t going to sustain what he did last year anyway. Robertson remains highly effective and one of the game’s most dominant late-inning relievers.

Logan stepped up in a huge way when Robertson hit the DL and the workload has been catching up to him of late; he’s pitched in 43 of the team’s 85 games, the most appearances in baseball. His 3.77 ERA (3.55 FIP) is backed up by a sky-high strikeout rate (11.90 K/9 and 30.6 K%) and he’s held left-handed hitters to a .235/.293/.397 batting line. His lefty specialist counterpart has been effective since being plucked off the scrap heap, as Rapada has held same-side hitters to a .150/.246/.217 line that is essentially identical to his .152/.250/.219 career performance. If anything, you can probably make a strong argument that he’s exceeded expectations, same with Nova, Cano, and Kuroda (considering the league switch).

A quick look at Boone Logan’s slider

Boone Logan‘s work this season has been a huge lift to a bullpen that’s suffered two pretty significant injuries, and late last week Lucas Apostoleris of The Hardball Times looked at why the left-hander has been so effective: his slider. Simply put, Boone has been using the pitch much more frequently (48% of all pitches at the time of the writing) and is generating a ton of swings and misses (59% of all swings). Easy enough.

Logan has struck out 27 of the 76 batters he’s faced this season (35.5%) including 17 of 46 lefties (37.0%). I always worry about extreme breaking ball guys (like 50%+ of all pitches, not 25%) because anecdotally, they seem to break down or decline quickly — Brad Lidge, Carlos Marmol, Luke Gregerson being primary examples. Maybe I’m wasting my time worrying about relievers given their short shelf lives, who knows. Anyway, Boone’s been highly effective this season and I hope he continues to pitch this way going forward.

Logan could adopt new role amid injuries

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It might be Rafael Soriano‘s time to shine, but he’s not the only member of the Yankees bullpen whose role will change. With both Mariano Rivera and David Robertson on the shelf, the entire bullpen moves up two pegs. For Boone Logan, that could mean a change in roles from left-handed specialist to setup man.

When Logan debuted for the Yankees in 2010 he was essentially useless against right-handed batters. In 78 PA that season righties hit .279/.372/.471 against him, the virtual equivalent of Mark Teixeira that year. Yet his role was to get out lefties and he did that very well, holding them to 15 hits, and just one for extra bases, in 79 AB. Combined with a 3:1 K/BB ratio, he looked like a pretty solid lefty specialist.

In 2011, however, Logan found more success against righties than lefties. H held them to 16 hits, including just five doubles and no homers, in 61 AB, good for a .262/.328/.344 line — the virtual equivalent of Robert Andino. Lefties hit him a deal better in terms of power, socking 12 of 27 hits for extra bases. That led to the myth that Logan had somehow become better against righties than against lefties.

While Logan’s results against righties were better than those against lefties, his peripherals against lefties remained superior. That is to say, this year we could have reasonably expected him to come down to earth against righties. At the same time, we could have expected his extra base hits against lefties to regress as well, leaving Logan as mostly a lefty specialist.

As expected, this has mostly come true. He has held lefties to a .661 OPS, with a 5:1 K/BB ratio, while righties have a .824 OPS against him. Yet Logan still does have a 3:1 K/BB ratio against righties, and one of those walks was intentional. In fact, he has struck out 34.6 percent of righties faced, while striking out 35.7 percent of lefties. His unintentional walk rates are also similar. Perhaps, given more chances against righties, Logan’s numbers could even out a bit, giving the Yankees another viable late-inning option.

To date we’ve seen a big spike in Logan’s strike out rate — 35.3 percent, against a 20.6 percent career rate. While some of that is small sample noise, there are some indicators that he’s changing his approach. For instance, he’s throwing far more sliders than ever before: 48.9 percent against 32.8 percent for his career. It has clearly been his most effective pitch, fooling both righties and lefties into swinging wildly. He has also used a two-seamer, which breaks away from righties, with some success this year.

Having a lefty setup man does provide the Yankees with some advantages. Logan is still superior against lefties, so Joe Girardi could choose to deploy him in either the seventh or the eighth, when the opponent has two or three lefties due up in the next four batters. He could also, as we’ve seen a few times this season, deploy him to get outs at the end of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth. That allows Girardi to emphasize his strengths while using him to cover multiple batters in late innings. A LOOGY he is not.

It’s difficult to tell now what’s real and what’s just sample size noise. But given his results over the last season-plus, combined with the recent injuries, Logan seems in line for a much more significant role in 2012. He clearly has the weapons to succeed. If Girardi deploys him in a way that emphasizes his strengths, the Yankees just might have another late-inning reliever on their hands.

The two LOOGY problem

(Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

The season is only three games old, but we’ve already seen the Yankees get burned by letting a left-handed reliever face a right-handed batter on two occasions. Clay Rapada gave up a double to Evan Longoria (and a walk to switch-hitter Ben Zobrist) in Saturday’s game, then Boone Logan gave up a homer to Jeff Keppinger yesterday. Stuff like that will happen over the course of a season, but it’s still a reminder of how problematic a two-LOOGY bullpen can be.

“It’s 6-2 and you’re down,” said Joe Girardi after Saturday’s game. “It’s the [seventh] inning. We’ve got a lot of days early on. We have one day off in the first 16 or 17 days, so we can’t burn these guys out in the first two days.”

First of all, let’s just ignore that Girardi basically said he doesn’t think his team could come back from four runs down. That’s an asinine statement we could facepalm over at some point in the future. The important thing is that he doesn’t want to burn out his bullpen, which is obviously very good to hear. Managing the bullpen’s workload is Girardi’s best trait, and it’s not particularly close. The problem is that the bullpen isn’t well-suited for two lefty specialists.

The Yankees’ three best relievers are tied to very specific innings. Rafael Soriano is the seventh inning guy, David Robertson the eighth inning guy, and Mariano Rivera the closer. Those are their innings when the Yankees have a lead, the game is tied, or when they’re behind a run or maybe two. That’s it. David Phelps is a rookie and the mop-up man, so his appearances figure to be sporadic and generally low-leverage. That leaves Logan, Rapada, and Cory Wade for the middle innings. Unless Wade can magically re-enter games at opportune times, Girardi is going to forced to use the two lefties in spots he normally wouldn’t. That’s how Jeff friggin’ Keppinger winds up hitting a homer and reasonably close games become blowouts.

“I can’t use Mo, Robertson and Soriano every day, and when we’re losing, we try to get some innings out of some other guys down there,” said the skipper yesterday. Like I said, I understand not wanting to overwork guys and I commend Girardi for it, but Logan and Rapada should not be used against righties at all. Unfortunately, they will be unless Phelps takes on more responsibility or Girardi becomes a little more flexible with his end-game trio.

Update: MRI negative on Logan’s back

Update (2:11pm): Via Bryan Hoch and Carig, Brian Cashman said the MRI came back negative. It’s just back spasms and not a DL situation. Logan will be on the roster come Opening Day.

11:43am: Via Marc Carig, Logan is now headed for an MRI on his back. That can’t be good.

10:00am: Via Mark Feinsand, Boone Logan showed up to the ballpark with an achy back today and has been sent to the doctor. There’s no word on the extent the injury yet, but we’ll find out soon enough. Clay Rapada was a virtual lock for the roster anyway, but now there’s a chance he’ll end up the primary left-hander by default. Hopefully it’s nothing serious and the Yankees won’t have to dig up another reliever to start the season.

Injuries change Yanks bullpen outlook

(Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Coming into spring training, the Yankees had a pretty solid plan for their bullpen. With Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Boone Logan, and Corey Wade already in place, they needed to fill just two spots. Given the number of pitchers they brought to camp, finding worthy candidates didn’t seem like a difficult task — especially given that Freddy Garcia was a favorite to slide into a bullpen spot due to the starting pitching surplus. Yet as we see nearly every spring, injuries have altered the picture.

While a few relievers suffered injuries of varying degrees this spring, the staff remained mostly in tact and ready for Opening Day. That is, until last Friday. That’s when Michael Pineda revealed soreness in his shoulder that turned out to be tendinitis. It’s also the same day that Cesar Cabral suffered a stress fracture in his elbow, shelving him indefinitely. Today we learned of another bullpen casualty: Boone Logan will visit a doctor to examine his aching back. Backs ailments are never to be taken lightly. Losing Logan for an extended period could seriously alter the Yankees bullpen outlook.

Pineda’s injury already had the Yankees pulling from their pitching depth. Instead of having Garcia in the bullpen as the long man, it appears that they’ll now use David Phelps. Now with Logan’s injury they’ll have to choose yet another pitcher who they did not plan to carry. That could be George Kontos if Logan’s injury is serious enough to warrant a DL trip, but not serious enough to worry about long-term. If Logan will miss significant time, the Yanks might look at other lefty options — Mike Gonzalez is still unemployed, and has been working out for teams.

The Yankees, of course, will be just fine with however this situation plays out. They did, after all, survive a stretch last year in which they carried both Amaury Sanit and Pants Lendleton in the bullpen. But their outlook has certainly changed in the past week. The Logan injury could potentially cause a few significant roster changes. Thankfully, the Yankees have enough options to fill the void.

2012 Season Preview: Left-on-Left Production

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Only 10% of the population is left-handed, and I don’t think any industry rewards southpaw-ness more than baseball. Lefty hitters are typically at the platoon advantage 65-75% of the time while lefty pitchers will get chance after chance to contribute something, anything at the big league level. It’s good work if you can get it.

Given the short right field porch at both the old and new Yankee Stadium, the team’s history has been dominated by power left-handed bats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, and Don Mattingly. Left-handed pitchers are also at a premium to help prevent the other team from capitalizing on the right field dimensions, which is why the club’s all-time best pitchers are southpaws like Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Ron Guidry, and Andy Pettitte. The current incarnation of the Yankees is no different, with a group of left-handed guys who do their very best work against same-sided players.

Robinson Cano
The best hitter on the Yankees also happens to be one of the very best left-handed hitters against left-handed pitching in all of baseball. Since the start of the 2009 season, only Joey Votto (.402 wOBA) and Chase Utley (.390 wOBA) have outhit Cano (.371 wOBA) against same-side pitchers (min. 500 PA). His 31 homers against southpaws over the last three years are the third most in baseball among all hitters, regardless of hand. Only Albert Pujols (40) and Mark Teixeira (34) have more.

Cano’s ability to hang in against left-handed pitching stems from his freakish contact skills, which allows him to get the fat part of the bat on both fastballs in and breaking balls away. He uses the entire field and is basically un-matchup-able. That’s why he’s one of the game’s most dangerous hitters.

Curtis Granderson
Once upon a time, Granderson was completely useless against left-handed pitchers. From 2006 through mid-August 2010, Curtis hit just .208/.264/.326 with a 24.5% strikeout rate in 767 plate appearances against lefties. That all changed 20 months ago, when hitting coach Kevin Long revamped the center fielder’s setup and stroke. Since then, Granderson has hit .275/.354/.575 in 275 plate appearances against lefties, which is almost identical to his .255/.366/.545 line against right-handers.

No hitter — right-handed or left-handed — hit more homers off lefty pitchers in 2011 than Granderson, who had 16. Teixeira had 15 and no one else had more than a dozen. Jay Bruce had the next highest total by a left-handed hitter at 11, so none of those fellas was particularly close to Curtis. Granderson’s transformation from platoon player to MVP candidate has been just remarkable, and there are going to be a lot of opposing managers tricked into using inferior LOOGYs in the late innings when Grandy and Cano are hitting back-to-back in the 2-3 spots this season. It will be glorious.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

CC Sabathia
One of the two or three best left-handed pitchers on the planet, Sabathia has been tormenting same-side hitters with his fastball-slider combination for a decade now. He’s held lefty batters to a .221/.272/.322 batting line with a 30.3% strikeout rate in 692 plate appearances during his three years in New York, which looks a whole lot like the old version of Granderson. Only eleven of the 55 homers he’s given up since the start of 2009 have come off the bat of lefties.

Because of his dominance of left-handed hitters, opposing managers often stack their lineups with right-handers whenever Sabathia starts. Only 22.3% of the hitters he’s faced in pinstripes have been lefties, well below the ~50% league average*. Thankfully Sabathia is very effective against right-handed batters as well — .249/.308/.371 over the last three years — thanks to his knockout changeup. CC’s best work comes against his fellow southpaws though, and he’s one of the best in the business.

* The RH-LH split for pitchers is approximately 75-25, but it’s just about 50-50 for hitters when accounting for switch-hitters.

Andy Pettitte
Pettitte’s surprise return last week will give the Yankees a second left-handed starter assuming he comes through his preparation fine and wants to see this comeback thing through. He’s held lefty batters to a .246/.286/.352 batting line with a 25.5% strikeout rate during the New Stadium era, which obviously includes no data for 2011. Andy is a bit more saavy than Sabathia, relying on three different 80-something mile-an-hour fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, and cutter — and a curveball to neutralize same-side hitters. Whether or not he retains that effectiveness after a year-long hiatus remains to be seen.

Boone Logan
The Yankees only true lefty specialist at the moment, Boone’s performance against lefties last season wasn’t exactly special. They tagged him for a .260/.328/.462 batting line in 2011, far worse than his career performance coming into the year (.248/.322/.355). The good news is that his underlying performance was very strong, featuring a 28.8% strikeout rate, a 5.9% walk rate, and a 40.6% ground ball rate. That will typically lead to excellent results, so Logan really doesn’t have to chance much going forward. Keep missing bats and limiting walks, and the results should fall in line.

There are a number of second lefty reliever candidates in camp, highlighted by Clay Rapada at the moment. He’s stood out the most from a group that includes fellow non-roster invitee Mike O’Connor and Rule 5 Draft pick Cesar Cabral. With one bullpen spot up for grabs, Rapada is the favorite right now should the Yankees decide to take a second southpaw given their April schedule. Even if they take another righty, the Yankees will have plenty of left-on-left firepower in 2012.