Pitch F/X myth-busting: Mark Teixeira Edition

Hello readers, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception.  It is truly an honor and a privilege to write for such a passionate, dedicated group of fans, on a blog that I have been reading since its inception (not to mention reading Mike, Ben, and Joe prior to that).  It’s also fantastic to be reunited with my former partners-in-crime Moshe, Larry, Matt, and (briefly) Stephen.  I look forward to getting to share my thoughts on my beloved Yankees, and will likely write on a wide variety of topics.  My goal while writing here is not only to produce quality content, but also to interact with the RAB commentariat, so feel free to leave comments on this or any other piece I write here.  I can’t promise I will get to reply to every one (other commenters can likely answer certain questions better than I could), but I will try to get to as many as I can.  Also, feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@Eric_J_S) where I talk baseball, and a variety of other topics.  And away we go…

Mark Teixeira swinging 2011
Flickr photo (by Keith Allison)

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What made CC so effective last night?

Last night, CC Sabathia showed the Yankees and their fans exactly what he was capable of. After a month of starts that were nothing more than adequete, Sabathia shutout the Orioles in impressive fashion, retiring twenty-three of twenty-four at one point. He recorded the final three outs in the ninth on strikeouts, then followed it up with a roar that announced to everyone that the real CC Sabathia had finally arrived.

But what made Sabathia so much more effective last night than his Opening Day assignment? Since both starts were in Baltimore, we can take a look at Sabathia’s stuff through Pitch f/x without having to worry about slight differences in the PFX cameras. Let’s start off with Sabathia’s pitch selection (remember to click on any graph in this post for a larger view):

Pitch Selection

The two outings are similar, except that Sabathia broke out the changeup more often last night. Back in April he was basically a two pitch pitcher, throwing either his fastball or slider 87% of the time. That dropped to 80.3% last night. Half of Sabathia’s eight strikesouts came on changeups, evidence that the pitch was keeping O’s hitters off balance.

After the jump, we’ll take a quick look at Sabathia’s individual pitches.

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A look at Phil Hughes’ start with Pitch f/x

Riding the heels of a four game losing streak that included some downright embarrassing losses, Phil Hughes delivered everything the Yanks needed from him last night and then some. He twirled six shutout innings against the fourth best offense in the league, allowing just two hits and two walks against six strikeouts. Even though Hughes returned to the team last September with two strong starts, the horrors of last April are still firmly engrained in everyone’s head, and there was a still a sense of skepticism when he took to the mound last night. He made good on his promise for at least one night, earning himself a second turn in the rotation.

Instead of just taking a look at Hughes’ performance last night, I wanted to compare his stuff last night to his stuff last April. We’ll start off with the good ol’ number one, the fastball. Remember to click each graph for a larger, easy to read view. There’s lots of colorful graphs and stuff in this post, so I’m going to hide it behind the jump to keep the server gods happy. Enjoy.

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The Hammer of God in Pitch f/x form

When I started posting these Pitch f/x breakdowns three weeks ago, I received lots and lots of requests for a Mariano Rivera post. I wanted to have enough of a data sample from this year to look at, so I held off for a few weeks until Mo threw his 100th pitch of the season, which he did Friday night. Now, finally, we can take a look at The Sandman.

We all know that the cutter is Mo’s bread and butter, and that’s not an understatement at all. Of the 127 pitches he’s thrown this year, 117 were cutters, or 92.1%. Nine other pitches were four-seam fastballs, and there was one two-seamer mixed in for good measure. Mo has no need for an offspeed pitch. Let’s take a look at how the pitches actually move. Remember to click for a larger view.

Bird's Eye View

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A Pitch f/x look at Bugs Bunny

Thanks to a trio of abysmal Chien-Ming Wang starts, the Yankees’ bullpen has thrown 46.2 innings this year, fourth most in the AL. Edwar Ramirez has bit the bullet twice in relief of Wang, throwing a then-career high 51 pitches on the 13th before establishing another career high with 58 pitches on the 18th. All of that extra work gave us a meaningful enough sample of pitches that we can use to take a closer look at Edwar’s one trick pony act.

Let’s get it started with the usual, the pitch trajectories. I’m only going to look at Edwar’s fastball and changeup, but he does through the occasional slider and it’s clearly his third offering. In fact, he’s thrown just eight this year according to Pitch f/x’s classifications, and that’s out of 162 total pitches. As with all of our Pitch f/x graphs, you can click these for a larger view. Let’s start with the bird’s eye view:

Bird's Eye View

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The Wang Elevation

Chien-Ming Wang Pitch Elevation(click graph for a larger view)

We’ve already taken in-depth looks at how much different Chien-Ming Wang’s stuff and release points are this year compared to last year, but I wanted to take a look something Wang usually excels at: keeping the ball down. The above graph shows what percentage of Wang’s sinkers (sinkers only since that’s his break and butter) ended up in five different sections of the strike zone (data from Pitch f/x). Pitches marked “High” and “Low” are out of the zone, while the actual strike zone is cut up into equal thirds dubbed “Up,” “Middle,” and “Down.” The thick black lines denote the top and bottom of the strike zone, if it wasn’t obvious enough.

It’s easy to see what made Wang so effective last year; 41.4% of his pitches were in the bottom third of the strike zone or lower, and 68.9% of his pitches were in the middle third or lower. This year though, it’s a much different story. Just 32.3% of his pitches are in the bottom third or lower, and only 57.5% were at or below the middle third of the strike zone. Even more troubling is that 28.4% of Wang’s pitches this year are in the upper third of the zone, and that means that those pitches are belt high based on how umpires call the game these days.

When you’ve lost movement and velocity from your sinker over the winter and groove more than a quarter of your pitchers into the hitter’s happy zone, you’re going to get pounded like Wang has. He’s allowed 29 base runners and 23 earned runs in just six (!!!) innings pitched this season. The dude’s rocking a 34.50 ERA and a 4.83 WHIP for chrissakes. It would take five consecutive complete game shutouts for the Wanger to lower his ERA to a respectable 4.06, and two consecutive perfect games to get his WHIP back around to his career average.

As Ben mentioned earlier, the Yanks have the option of skipping Wang’s next start on Thursday thanks to the off day, and letting him work on whatever he needs to during the ten day break. In fact, I’ll say that it’s more than likely that the Yanks will go that route. If Wang doesn’t get himself sorted out in that time, then they need to start looking for other solutions, especially since everyone claims he’s not hurt. It won’t stay April forever.

What’s wrong with Chien-Ming Wang?

The Yanks are buried 2.5 games back of the first place Blue Jays with only 155 games left to play (/hyperbole), but perhaps the biggest problem facing them right now is Chien-Ming Wang. The incumbent ace has been absolutely brutal in his two starts this year, allowing (gulp) 21 baserunners and 15 earned runs in just four and two-third innings pitched. That makes Sidney Ponson look like Roy frickin’ Halladay. The more troubling part is how Wang just doesn’t look like himself at all; his pitches are all up in the zone, his velocity is down, and his sinker isn’t sinking.

This might not be something that just started last week either. Wang had a 1.56 WHIP and a 6.00 ERA in his previous six starts before lisfrancing his foot last summer, suggesting that something might have been wrong going back as far as last year. Of course that ten month layoff doesn’t help any, but we can still look at the data to see if we can find anything. Wang did have a good but not great Spring Training (21.2 IP, 25 H, 16 R, 10 ER, 4 BB, 10 K, 3 HR), however no one in their right mind would use Spring Training stats to evaluate anything, especially for a player with a signficant track record.

Let’s compare three versions of Chien-Ming Wang using Pitch f/x:

  1. Pre-May 18th, 2008: This was the light’s out CMW last year, when he had a 2.90 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP through his first nine starts and 59 IP.
  2. Post-May 18th, 2008: Wang had his first of a series of clunkers on May 18th last year, which marks the point of that 6.00 ERA/1.56 WHIP era I mentioned earlier. I fail at labeling, but this version includes his May 18th start.
  3. 2009: This year’s pair of starts, i.e. the really, really crappy version of CMW.

I’m going to focus on Wang’s two main pitches in this analysis: his sinking fastball and slider. He’s also been known to throw changeups, splitters, and even the occasional curveball, but because he throws them so rarely it’s not worth the time and effort to take a deeper look at them. I’m going to start with the pitch trajectories as always, and to make life easier I gave fastballs and sliders their own individual graphs. Make sure you remember to click each graph for a larger, squinting at a computer screen has to be bad for your eyes.

Fun starts after the jump.

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