The Larry Rothschild Effect

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

When the Yankees somewhat surprisingly* hired pitching coach Larry Rothschild last offseason, we heard that he had a reputation for helping his pitchers increase their strikeout rates and decrease their unintentional walk rates. Guys like Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Tom Gorzelanny saw improvement in both categories after joining the Cubs, and those are only three of the most notable examples. The Yankees brought Rothschild aboard hoping he’d coax a few more whiffs out of their pitching staff while reducing the number of free passes.

During the 2009 and 2010 seasons (under Dave Eiland), Yankees’ pitchers struck out 19.65% of the batters they faced and unintentionally walked 8.54%. Those numbers improved to 19.80% and 7.52% under Rothschild in 2011, respectively. The strikeout improvement from just 2010 to 2011 was a bit more substantial, as you can see in the table to the right. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise; the Javy Vazquez and Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley types were placed with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Rafael Soriano. Offense around the league continued to drop as well.

On an individual level, a number of Yankees’ pitchers improved their underlying performance under Rothschild this past season. You can see those players in the table to the right, though I left out guys who dealt with significant injury problems (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Cory Wade, Colon, Soriano) and those that bounced between the rotation and bullpen (Joba and Hughes) since the start of 2009. With the exception of relatively small increases in Garcia’s and David Robertson‘s walk rates, all of these guys showed improvement in their strikeout and unintentional walk rates. Some of them, like CC Sabathia (+2.66% strikeouts and -0.94% walks) and A.J. Burnett (+0.99% strikeouts), showed significant improvement. Those two aren’t young kids coming into their own, their veteran guys with long track records.

So that’s great, they’re striking out more batters while walking fewer, but how are they doing it? In an effort to explain, let’s look at the individual pitch breakdown for those fellas…

The fastballs in the table references all kinds of fastballs, so two-seamers, four-seamers, cutters, sinkers, etc. Breaking balls are both curveballs and sliders. I didn’t want to get too nuts with the breakdown of individual pitches because all I wanted to see was the usage of hard stuff compared to the usage of soft stuff. I also left Mariano Rivera out of this because he takes pity on the rest of the league and does not throw any kind of breaking ball.

With the exception of Robertson, all of those guys threw significantly more breaking balls in 2011 than they did from 2009-2010 according to PitchFX (via Texas Leaguers). We’re talking an increase of around four percentage points, in some cases more. Data from Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) says the Yankees went from 69.2% fastballs and 22.6% breaking balls as a team from 2009-2010 to 66.1% and 26.2% in 2011, respectively. Two different tracking systems, but we’re seeing a similar increase in breaking ball usage, roughly four percentage points.

You can play connects the dots here and say that the increase in breaking balls contributed to the increase in strikeouts, it definitely passes the sniff test. I’m not sure how throwing more breaking balls would decrease unintentional walks though, since many breaking balls are intentionally thrown out of the strike zone. We’d have to look at when the extra breaking balls are being thrown, which sadly is well beyond my PitchFX capabilities. I suspect many of those extra sliders and curveballs are being thrown early in the count rather than later, which has allowed the Yankees’ pitchers to get ahead in the count more often. Sure enough, the Yankees had the highest first pitch strike percentage (61.8%) in MLB this season, up from 58.1% from 2009-2010. That will certainly help explain more strikeouts and fewer walks.

Now obviously correlation does not equal causation. One year of data doesn’t tell us much of anything, whereas the studies linked in the first paragraph cover years of data and thousands of batters faced. The Yankees’ pitching staff showed traits consistent with Rothschild’s track record during his first year at the helm, possibly because they threw more offspeed stuff earlier in the count. We’ll never really know what improvement (or decline) the pitching coach is responsible for and what he isn’t from where we sit, but Rothschild has been doing this for quite some time, and the improved strikeout and walks rates seem to have followed him from team to team.

* Surprising only because we hadn’t heard his name mentioned as a candidate. It really was out of left field.

email

Positive report from Hughes’s first workout

For anyone looking for the latest on Phil Hughes throwing a baseball, Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York has a tidbit on his first throwing session. According to Larry Rothschild, relayed through Joe Girardi, Hughes “had some life on the ball when he was long tossing.” I’m not sure exactly how one shows life during long tosses, and the PR skeptic in me thinks this is just Rothschild saying what people want to hear. He probably could have said, “It’s tough to tell anything from one long toss session,” but that’s not going to sate anyone’s hunger for updates on the situation.

If you’re a Baseball Prospectus subscriber, you can get a further glimpse into Rothschild’s personality in his Q&A with David Laurila. He comes off as a humble man, but he also clearly watches his words with the media. That only further plays into my skepticism of his report on Hughes. He also makes some general statements on how stats have affected his job, which is probably the most interesting part of the interview.

2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

Rothschild to meet with Burnett in coming weeks

Via Buster Olney, new pitching coach Larry Rothschild is expected to fly down to Maryland to visit with A.J. Burnett in the coming weeks. A.J. called Rothschild as soon as he was hired, and the two are expected to talk about mechanics and whatnot at the upcoming pow-wow. I’m sure the cynics among us will say this should have happened weeks ago, but these guys can’t focus on baseball all year long. It’s 162 games plus Spring Training plus the playoffs, and everyone needs time to unwind and clear their head.

Larry Rothschild’s effect on pitchers

When the Yankees hired Larry Rothschild away from the Cubs to be their new pitching coach yesterday, Ben noted that his staffs tend to boast high strikeout rates. Earlier this summer a poster on the FanGraphs Community blog looked at exactly that, and found out that pitchers did in fact improve their strikeout rates with Rothschild, close to 2.5% as a group. But what about walks? Another Cubs Blog tackled that a few days later and found that yep, pitchers improved their unintentional walk rate with Rothschild as well. More strikeouts and fewer walks is a great recipe for success.

The Yanks as a group struck out 0.62 fewer batters and walked 0.19 more (per nine innings pitched) in 2010 than in 2009, with CC Sabathia‘s rates taking a hit in particular. With any luck, Rothschild will help get the staff back into strikeout mode, which would be a tremendous help.