The two sides of making contact

Over the winter we showed that it was essential for pitchers to strike batters out if they want to be successful long-term, but that batters could get away with high strikeout rates because they could make up for it in other ways. A pitcher with a low strikeout rate is at the mercy of his defense and the BABIP gods, while hitters with high strikeout rates can hit the ball with power and get on base in exchange. None of us like watching a Yankee strike out, but it happens.

At the root of strikeout rates are contact rates. The more contact a hitter makes, the less they’ll strike out. It’s that simple. For some batters, the speedy guys that can’t threaten a pitcher with power, it’s imperative to put the ball in play to make stuff happen. For others, the kinds of players that trade strikeouts for extra base hits, the need to make consistent contact is a bit more relaxed.

Photo Credit: Gail Burton, AP

One of the surprises in the first month of the season has been Brett Gardner, who woke up this morning sporting a .415 wOBA and eleven steals, good for second in all the land. The reason Gardner has been so successful is simple: he’s putting the ball in play on the ground more than he ever has before, and is using his top of the line speed to turn bouncers into hits. We all saw that game against the Rangers a few weeks ago when he beat out three infield hits and nearly a fourth. It’s not something Yankee fans are used to.

Despite that moonshot off Mark Buehrle, Gardner’s not ever going to hit for power and needs to play the slash-and-dash game. His minor league career featured a particularly high 19.8 K%, but he made up for it by hitting ground balls 55% of the time and taking advantage of neophyte minor league defenders. Gardner continued to strike out once he got the big leagues (23.6% in 2008, 16.1% in 2009), but he wasn’t hitting the ball on the ground as frequently (47.9% in ’08, 49% in ’09). You can see the slight upward trend, and that’s something that has continued into this season.

Through 25 games, Gardner has struck out in just 12% of his at-bats and put the ball on the ground 56.9% of the time. He’s not striking out as much because he’s simply making much more contact. Believe it or not, Gardner has yet to swing and miss at the pitch in the strike zone this season, and he’s the only player in the game that can make that claim. Marco Scutaro is second in baseball with a 99.1% contact rate in the zone. If the ball was over the plate and Gardner hacked at it, he’s gotten at least a piece of the ball every single time. His overall contact rate is 91.7% (73.5% contact rate on pitches out of the zone), which is tied with Ichiro for the tenth best in the game. A player like Gardner can’t make up for strikeouts by hitting for power, so he needs to slap the ball around the infield to be successful. So far this year, he’s done exactly that.

Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP

On the other side of the coin you have Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod is off to a slow (.334 wOBA) start even though he’s made more contact than he ever has before. After making contact on about 75% of his swings from 2002-2009, Alex is up to 86.5% this year thanks to a 97.5% contact rate on pitches in the zone, well above the ~83% he posted from ’02-’09. It’s not like he swinging at more pitches either, actually quite the opposite. A-Rod offered at close to 44% of the pitches he saw from ’02-’09, but this year that’s down to 40.9%.

For a guy like Alex, you’d think the more contact the better because of what usually happens when he connects with a pitch. However, his batted ball rates are a little off kilter this season, particularly his line drive (17.3% in ’10 vs. 18.2% career) and fly ball (37% in ’10 vs. 40% career) percentages. The more balls he sends to the outfield, the better. Those LD and FB decreases have resulted in more ground balls (45.7% in ’10 vs. 41.8% career), and Alex isn’t a speedy guy like Gardner, who thrives on that stuff.

Is it possible A-Rod is making too much contact? He’s offering at a few more pitches off the plate than he usually does (22.7% in ’10 vs. 20.5% career), but because he’s putting the bat on the ball more than usual, it’s resulting in more weak contact. That would explain the uptick in groundballs. It might also have something to do with his newfound knee issue: perhaps it’s preventing him from really driving through the ball with his lower half. Either way, A-Rod’s not going to maintain a 6.7% HR/FB rate all year (23.4% career), and at some point (hopefully soon) he’ll go on a Mike Stanton-esque binge and club ten homers in ten games.

So far this year we’ve seen two Yankees making a whole lot of contact with the ball at the plate, but they’ve gotten different results. Their vastly different skill sets are the primary reason why it’s working for Gardner and not A-Rod, but there’s no cause for concern. Brett the Jet can keep it up for as long as he wants, and Alex is too talented to hit .258-.336-.430 over 162 games.

Hughes dominates Sox in 12-3 victory

I hope to write the same headline again later this week.

The offense might seem the focal point in a 12-3 win, and the Yanks’ hitters certainly put on a display. The story, though, was Phil Hughes and his continued dominance of the American League. He threw 99 pitches in seven innings, and might have come out for the eighth if not for a 10-batter, five-run bottom of the seventh. Everything looked good, from his strikeouts to his lack of walks, and especially to his lack of hits allowed. I can’t wait to see him face the Red Sox this weekend.

Biggest Hit: Cano ices it

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

From the couch, this game felt pretty well in control from the beginning. The Yanks put together a run in the second, and then nearly struck it big in the third. With the bases loaded and two outs Mark Buehrle threw a changeup that caught a bit too much of the plate. Jorge Posada hit it on a line, but right to Juan Pierre. Still, it seemed like they were on the brink of getting to Buehrle.

They confirmed that in the fifth inning. For the second time in the game Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher hit back-to-back singles to set up Robinson Cano. While Buehrle pitched around him the first time, he went at him with fastballs in the fifth. Cano fouled off the first and swung through the second, putting himself in an 0-2 hole. The next pitch, a changeup, was in a good location, low and away, but Cano adjusted and got his bat head on the ball. About a second later it collided with the right field stands, and the Yankees took a 5-0 lead.

With his 2 for 4 day Cano improves his triple slash to .387/.433/.763. He came into the day trailing Justin Morneau, who went 2 for 6 with two doubles, in wOBA. Will the homer and the walk make up the difference? We’ll see in the morning.

Honorable Mention: Gardner’s no doubter

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Coming into the game Brett Gardner had seen 4.17 pitches per plate appearances, third in the AL. (Curtis Granderson was fourth. Never would have guessed.) He saw only two during his first at-bat, but he made them count. The second time up, though, Gardner worked up his average. Buehrle worked him mostly away, mixing his four-seamer and cutter. Gardner didn’t deign to swing, and five pitches later the count was full.

Buehrle tried to blow an 86 mph fastball by Gardner, but he squared up the high pitch and absolutely crushed it over the right field wall. It ended up in the first row of the bleachers, so it wasn’t some cheapie. That’s not Gardner’s game, of course. His game is more like what he did in the first. Still, the Yanks will take it any time. He’s really taken to his starting role so far, hitting .342/.410/.438 in 83 PA.

Biggest Pitch: Kotsay’s leadoff single

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The sign of a truly dominant start: the hit that made the biggest dent in the WPA is a hit to lead off the game. That raised Chicago’s chances of winning by 3.4 percent. Seriously. That’s as big a dent they made in the game. Hughes completely shut them down, and then the Yankees’ offense pounced. The White Sox had a couple of similar positive WPA swings in the third and fourth innings, but they were more of the same. Hughes quickly rendered them moot.

While his four-seamer remains his weapon of choice, Hughes threw 22 cutters yesterday, generating five swings and misses. He also threw it for a strike 18 times, quite the ratio. He worked in a good number of changeups, including one on a strikeout of Mark Teahen in the fourth. (Note: pitch f/x classified it a fastball for some reason.) Everything seems to be in place for Hughes. Again, he’ll get his biggest test to date over the weekend.

Slump busting

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Both Nick Johnson and Mark Teixeira have started the season slow, hitting under .200 for the first month. While Johnson’s struggles continue, he did double during the five-run seventh. He’s still hitting .141, but with Curtis Granderson’s bat out of the lineup it’s doubtful that Girardi platoons him with Thames. Maybe he’ll get back into a groove this week.

Mark Teixeira presents the more exciting case. He entered the series hitting .139/.292/.266, but after going 6 for 11 with a double he raised that to .188/.336/.311. He broke out of his slump around this time last year. He’ll get a chance to feast on some Orioles pitching to keep it going.

Joys

Gardner’s homer. That thing was just a shot. Not what we expect from him at all.

Robinson Cano. Because damn, he just keeps hitting.

Phil Hughes. It’s like picking a winner in the Derby.

Seeing Mark Melancon get into a game. Even if he did give up the Konerko homer, I’d still like to see more of him while he’s up. Though that might not be for much longer.

Annoyances

None to register. This game was an absolute joy.

WPA Graph

Behold, my latest invention!

Next Up

The Orioles just swept the Red Sox, and now they’re headed up to New York to face the Yankees for three games. The Yanks will send their best to the mound, while the O’s will send…Jeremy Guthrie. Body armor up.

Yanks complete sweep with win over Rangers

Taking two of three always represents a favorable outcome. That works out to a 108-win season, excellent by any standard. But when the opportunity to sweep a team arises, I always find myself a bit disappointed if they don’t deliver. For instance, not sweeping the first three series was fine because each featured a rubber game. In this weekend’s series, however, the Yankees had a chance to walk away perfect. They delivered in their first opportunity, defeating the Rangers 5-2.

Biggest Hit: Ramiro Pena‘s two-run single

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Rangers’ starter Rich Harden lived up to his reputation yesterday, showing good stuff and poor control. The Yankees took advantage, working the pitch count an driving Harden from the game in the fourth inning. The greatest damage came in the third, when eight Yankees came to the plate and saw 35 pitches. They also erased their only deficit of the game in quick, impeccable fashion.

Walks to A-Rod and Curtis Granderson, sandwiching a Jorge Posada single, set the Yanks up with bases loaded and one out. Nick Swisher failed in his attempt to capture the lead, striking out on three pitches. That left the inning up to Ramiro Pena. Harden started the at-bat with a low changeup, which Pena swung over. He came back with a fastball, slightly off the plate inside, but Pena kept his hands in and got a good part of the bat on the ball, sending it over Ryan Garko’s head for a single.

With Andy Pettitte dealing, the Yanks didn’t need any more than this. They got more, which is always appreciated, but they didn’t need it. The pitching has just been that good this season.

Honorable Mention: Teixeira’s jack

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

For the second straight season Mark Teixeira has started the season in a slump. It seems like he’s just missing some of these pitches, which is both encouraging and frustrating. Encouraging because it means that he’ll surely be in mid-season form before long. Frustrating because he’s so close to making an impact. Yesterday he took a step forward, hitting his first home run of the season and tying the game after the Rangers had taken the lead in the top of the inning.

Harden did not come out throwing gas in the third. His first pitch registered only 86 mph, and while it looked like a fastball PitchFX classified it as a changeup. The next pitch was similar in speed, just 1 mph faster, and break, but it was classified a fastball. In any case, neither of them were particularly impressive, and they both ran right down the middle. Teixeira jacked the second one, about thigh high, into the second deck in right.

Tex didn’t pick up a hit the rest of the afternoon, and it’s quite possible that his slump continues a bit longer. Still, it was nothing but encouraging to see him tie the game with his first homer of the year.

Biggest Pitch: Andrus and Young give Texas the lead (tie)

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

While Pettitte pitched well for most of the game, he still ran into a bit of trouble in the third. Matt Treanor opened the inning with a single, and after a sacrifice bunt found himself on second with one out. On a 1-2 count, Pettitte threw a cutter inside to Elvis Andrus, and the latter hit one sharply down the line for an RBI single. It wasn’t a bad pitch by any means. The pitch was in on Andrus’s hands, but he reacted quickly enough. It was much like Pena did in the bottom of the inning, though Pettitte’s pitch had a bit more movement than Harden’s.

Pettitte then delivered three fastballs off the plate outside to the next hitter, Michael Young. After a fastball strike on the outside corner, Pettitte again went away with the fastball, this time catching a bit of the plate. Young lined it to right, which all but assuredly would score Andrus. Swisher, possibly overestimating his own arm strength, gave it the ol’ college try, but all it did was allow Young to advance to second.

The situation nearly got worse when the next batter, Josh Hamilton, smoked one toward right field. Mark Teixeira made a leaping catch, though, and nearly got Young going back to second. One batter later, Vlad Guerrero popped one up to the infield, leaving the Rangers with their one-run lead.

Cano’s impatience can be frustrating

We’ve gone out of our way to praise Robinson Cano, the new fifth hitter, for his hot start. At times he’s seemed a bit more selective at the plate, even if he drew only his second walk today. During other at-bats, though, he still seems like the hacking kid who came up in 2005. This is what his at-bat in the third felt like.

After Teixeira’s game-tying homer, Harden lost control a bit. He walked A-Rod on five pitches, the four balls all high pitches. What does Cano do to follow-up? He swings at the first three pitches he sees. Harden went down the well, starting Cano with a fastball low in the zone, which the latter fouled away. He fouled the next pitch, a changeup that fell below the zone. The final pitch, a changeup in the dirt, drew a futile swing.

Cano will do this from time to time. The key, I think, is that these incidents are spread further apart than in the past. So far we’ve seen that, an encouraging sign. It’s tough to not be frustrated after watching that at-bat, though.

Happy thoughts

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Andy’s continued April brilliance. It seems like he’s been excellent to start the year since returning in 2007. He ran into a bit of rough patch early in 2008, but other than that he’s been money in the early goings. He’s not going to pitch like this every time out, but it’s nothing but encouraging to see Pettitte at the top of his game in April.

Brett Gardner’s big day. As Mike said, this isn’t going to be a regular occurrence, but it’s a nice reminder of what Gardner adds to the team when he gets on base. At very worst, his willingness to take pitches works right with the Yankees’ M.O.

The Yanks continue to work opposing pitchers like few other teams. Not only did they force Harden to throw 94 pitches in his 3.2 innings, but they also put a dent in the Rangers’ bullpen. Dustin Nippert threw 40 pitches in 2.1 innings, though Darren Oliver used just 23 to complete the final two. I wonder, though, if by the time Oliver came in everyone was just racing to the finish.

Jorge’s home run was a think of beauty. Nippert opened the AB with two curveballs that missed, and then went exclusively to the fastball. He reached back for something extra on the 3-2, hurling it at 94 after sitting mostly 91-92. It caught all of the plate, though, and Jorge sent it on a line over the right field wall.

Annoyances

Other than Cano’s three-pitch strikeout after A-Rod’s walk, I had few complaints about this one. I had few complaints about the series in general, and seeing how it resulted in a sweep I think I’ll back off the annoyances section for now.

WPA Graph

It dips and rallies.

You can check out the player breakdowns at FanGraphs.

Up Next

The Yanks take the day off today as they travel to start a six-game tour of the AL West. Thankfully, only half of those games start at 10 p.m., with the schedulers cutting us a break on Wednesday with a rare road getaway game. The A’s are up first, 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

Nothing new to Gardner’s approach so far

On the afternoon of Opening Day, we linked to a profile of Brett Gardner, who would get the start in left field that evening. In it Gardner spoke about his place in the Yankees’ lineup and what it means for his approach at the plate. “The last thing [opposing pitchers] want to do is put me on base for those guys. So I’m going to get pitches to hit. It’s just a matter of being consistent with my swing, being consistent with my approach and going up there and having good at-bats.” I thought this signaled that Gardner would become a bit more aggressive, knowing he’d see a good number of strikes. We have yet to see such an adjustment.

A glance at the Plate Discipline section of Gardner’s FanGraphs page shows similar results as last year. He has actually swung at fewer pitches than he did last year while seeing more pitches in the zone, especially on the first pitch. He has made contact with more of the pitches he has actually swung at, but we’re talking about a pretty low percentage at this point. In 27 plate appearances he has seen 121 pitches, an excellent 4.48 rate. That has led to four walks, which will help. But what’s the cost?

We often caution against analyzing events based on small samples, and Gardner’s 27 PA certainly qualifies as such. This is just a gander at the results. In other words, this is what we’ve seen so far from Gardner. Basically, it’s the same as it ever was. Gardner continues to take pitches regardless of location. Sometimes this results in a walk, a hugely positive result for Gardner. Other times he’ll fall behind in the count quickly and have to react. Then again, he hasn’t done poorly in those situations so far, going 3 for 6 in plate appearances that started 0-2. That will obviously change as the season goes along. But it appears that so far, despite his low average over the first few games, he’s made the most of his approach.

This might actually be the best thing for Gardner. In recapping the Marliners’ blowout of the Tigers last night, Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing makes an interesting point about pitchers and the ability to throw strikes.

Chone Figgins drew three walks. He’s now up to nine in 48 trips to the plate. He saw 20 pitches tonight and swung at four. I’m beginning to think that if you go up to the plate and just stand there – seriously just stand there – you can Michelangelo’s David your way to a .360 OBP, because pitchers are that bad. Pitchers are so bad at throwing strikes against even the most punchless batters that they need the batters to help get themselves out, and if they don’t, it just turns into a walk-fest. Look at Felix in the seventh. Felix had an 11-2 lead. There was no point in messing around and doing anything other than throw the ball down the middle. And even one of the best pitchers in the league still threw 12 of 22 pitches for balls. Pitchers suck at throwing strikes, and for some reason it takes a hitter like Figgins or Reggie Willits, with a startling lack of true hitting ability, to recognize this and exploit it. Must be an ego thing.

I wouldn’t lump Figgins into the “lack of true hitting ability” category, but Sullivan does make a good point about Willits. He and Gardner appear to be comparable players. While Willits doesn’t get a ton of playing time he does make the most of his. In 808 career plate appearances he has seen 3553, or 4.40 per trip to the plate. He also owns a career .366 OBP, which make some wonder why he doesn’t get more playing time. After all, a player who gets on base that often and who has Willits’s speed can provide immense value, especially from the bottom of the lineup.

I do hope Gardner gets more chances to play. The Yankees feature a powerhouse lineup that has Nick Swisher in the eighth spot. They can afford to have someone like Gardner hitting ninth, taking pitches and getting on base at a decent clip ahead of the big hitters. With all the strike he sees maybe he’d benefit from swinging more, but we can’t be sure of that until he does change his approach. That appears not to be happening. If Gardner can stand there and build a .340 OBP from seeing tons of pitches and taking walks, doesn’t it make sense for him to keep the bat on his shoulders?

How long will the Gardner-Thames platoon last?

It’s tough to find controversy when a team goes 4-2 in its first two series, defeating both of its toughest division rivals. It becomes even tougher when the team scores 36 runs in those six games and has won convincingly in the two latest contests. Still, there is one issue that seems to have some Yanks fans wondering. It’s a minor issue, but an issue nonetheless. It appears, at least for the time being, that Joe Girardi will platoon Brett Gardner and Marcus Thames.

When we heard about the possibility earlier this month I didn’t think much of it. Why, I wondered, would the Yankees sacrifice so much on defense just to get Thames’s bat into the lineup? Yet when they faced their first lefty of the season, Jon Lester on Tuesday evening, Thames’s name was on the lineup card. It appeared again on Friday night when David Price took the mound for the Rays. The decision came back to bite them that evening, as Thames couldn’t run down a Jason Bartlett liner to center, which allowed two more Rays to score in an abhorrent fourth inning.

So will the Yankees continue to employ this platoon?

For now, I imagine the team wants to see if they can get anything out of Thames. The only way to do that, so they think, is to play up Thames’s skills. Well, we can really make that singular, since Thames has one skill, power, and he flashes it most proficiently against left-handed pitching. If Thames, then, is going to be of any use to this team, he’s going to have to hit against lefties. Hence the early season trial. I suspect, however, that it won’t last too long.

I don’t love the math in Greg Fertel’s analysis. It uses MLE stats, which don’t necessarily correlate to major league numbers, and it uses defensive projections. While these are better methods than pulling numbers out of thin air, they also leave plenty of room for error. Those issues aside, I think Greg has a good overall point, and one that I tried to make in Friday’s recap. Thames would have to hit a ton off lefties in order to justify his playing time.

Gardner saves runs with his glove, many more than Thames. He will also produce a non-zero average against lefties. Thames will allow many more balls to drop, balls which Gardner would catch. At the plate he might produce better, but in order to determine his value we have to look at his production over Gardner’s, and then look at his production under Gardner’s in the field. Without running through projection numbers, I’m fairly certain that the runs Gardner saves will be worth more than the runs Thames creates, even if Thames actually starts hitting lefties.

Still, Thames figures to get a few more shots against lefties. It’s tough to just on just a few plate appearances, especially early in the year. I understand where the Yankees are coming from in wanting to see if Thames can provide value to the team. The ultimate answer, I believe, will involve Thames being reduced to a pinch-hitting role — and an eventual ouster from the team once they can find a more productive player for his roster spot.

Gardner’s just a regular guy

Photo credit: Julie Jacobson/AP

On the morn of his second Opening Day start for the Yankees, Brett Gardner must feel on top of the world. Last season he started in center field, beating out Melky Cabrera in spring training. This year the left field job was all but his, and while he hit only .200 this spring his competition actually fared worse. We don’t know how long a leash the Yankees will have with Gardner, but it will likely be longer than last year’s.

Thomas Grant of the Times and Democrat profiles Gardner and his rise to the majors. A third round drat pick in 2005, Gardner was initially denied a place on the College of Charleston baseball team. It took plenty of effort not only by Gardner himself, but by his father, to secure a place on the team. They didn’t regret it, of course, as Gardner broke the school record for runs scored, among other achievements.

Gardner answered the call by rushing through the minors. He showed a pattern from AA through the majors, struggling during his first stint but excelling in the second. In 2007, with 207 PA in Scranton, Gardner hit .260/.343/.331, but upon his return trip he hit .296/.414/.422. Similarly, he hit .228/.283/.299 during his first 141 PA in the majors, but came back last season to hit .270/.345/.379 in 284 PA. There’s hope for the undersized Gardner to succeed at the majors. After all, he did post a .389 career minor league OBP despite initial struggles at higher levels. He knows, though, that the same approach might not work in the majors.

“With the Yankees, obviously, I was probably the weakest bat in the lineup,” Gardner said. “The last thing guys are going to do is be careful around me and pitch around me and wanting to put me on base for (Derek) Jeter and Nick Johnson and those guys on the top of the order like Alex (Rodriguez) and Tex (Mark Teixeira). Those guys can drive in runs. The last thing they want to do is put me on base for those guys. So I’m going to get pitches to hit. It’s just a matter of being consistent with my swing, being consistent with my approach and going up there and having good at-bats.”

He’ll get his chance starting tonight. Yesterday Sucka Got No Juice wrote that the Yankees “could be in the market for outfield help quickly” if Gardner gets off to a slow start. I’m not so sure, though. They know that their problem amounts to the No. 9 spot in the lineup, so perhaps they’ll extend Gardner more leeway than last year. In fact, I’m almost certain they will. If Gardner, Winn, and Thames don’t produce the team will surely look for an alternative, but I wouldn’t expect any such movement until June at the earliest.

Long: I expect big things from Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner won’t be patrolling centerfield this season, but hitting coach Kevin Long didn’t let that stop him from comparing the Yanks’ speedster to another former Yank, Kenny Lofton. “If I seem overly excited about him, I am,” said Long “Kenny was a bigger, more physical player, or [physical] looking player. But Gardy could do what Kenny Lofton did. I wouldn’t see why he couldn’t,” Long told The Post. “That would be a good comparison.”

In case you only view the world through Yankee goggles, Lofton was an absolutely tremendous player for more than 15 years. At his peak, he was a .316-.390-.443 (.374 wOBA) hitter who averaged 52 steals and 44 extra base hits a season. Long also mentioned Juan Pierre when talking about Gardner, which seems a bit more realistic.