What Went Wrong: Postseason Offense

Over the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time reviewing the entire 2012 season, which featured another division title and unfortunately another disappointing playoff exit.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

There is still baseball being played but the Yankees are not involved in any of it. They were bounced from the postseason in an embarrassing four-game sweep by the Tigers in the ALCS last week, a very one-sided series that featured little offense by New York. They scored six runs in the four games and never once held a lead, which is unthinkable for an offense that led the AL in homers (245), ISO (.188), OBP (.337), SLG (.453), OPS (.790), wOBA (.342), and wRC+ (113). Everything that could have gone wrong offensively did.

All told, the Yankees hit just .188/.254/.303 in their nine postseason games, the lowest batting average in history by a team who played at least seven playoff games. It wasn’t just the ALCS either, they had a hard time scoring in the ALDS even though they won the series. The so-called Bombers scored just 22 runs in the nine games, and nine of those runs came in two innings — five in the ninth inning of ALDS Game One and four in the ninth inning of ALCS Game One. After scoring those four runs off Jose Valverde in Game One last Saturday, the Yankees scored just two runs on ten hits in the final 30.1 innings of their season.

Offensive ineptitude of this caliber requires a total team effort. Ichiro Suzuki was a singles machine in the postseason and Derek Jeter did is part before going down with a fractured ankle in ALCS Game One, plus Raul Ibanez hit enough jaw-droppingly clutch homers to avoid any criticism. The rest of the lineup? Not so much.

Robinson Cano
Of all the offensive failure, Cano’s miserable postseason was by far the most surprising. He was once again the team’s best hitter during the year and he finished the regular season on an insane hot streak (24-for-39, .615), but he was invisible in the playoffs. Cano doubled in two runs in that big ninth inning off Jim Johnson in ALDS Game One and he doubled in a run in the first inning of ALDS Game Two, and that was pretty much it. He fell into a hideous 0-for-29 slide that featured weak grounder after weak grounder, and it wasn’t until the ninth inning of ALCS Game Three that he got off the schneid with a line drive single to left.

Robbie reached base four times in 41 postseason plate appearances, adding an intentional walk to those two ALDS doubles and ALCS single. His .098 OBP is the lowest in playoff history (min. 35 PA) while his .075 AVG is the fourth lowest. Cano has had an up-and-down playoff career but this kind of ineffectiveness was unthinkable. He was, by far, the biggest drain on the team’s offense. There’s no doubt about it.

(Alex Trautwig/Getty)

Alex Rodriguez & Eric Chavez
I’m going to lump these two together because they shared third base duties during the postseason. A-Rod struggled after coming off the DL in September and it carried over into the postseason, as he went 1-for 12 with seven strikeouts in the first three games of the ALDS. Things got so bad that Joe Girardi famously lifted Alex for a pinch-hitter in ALDS Game Three, leading to two of those memorable Ibanez homers (first the game-tying shot, then the game-winner in extra innings).

A-Rod did not start the decisive Game Five of the ALDS and did not start the final two games of the ALCS. He started six of nine playoff games but did not finish three, instead being lifted for pinch-hitters against right-handed pitchers late and for good reason — Alex went 0-for-18 with a dozen strikeouts against same-side hitters in the postseason. All told, he had three singles and two walks against those 12 strikeouts in 27 playoff appearances.

The decision to lift A-Rod for pinch-hitters or outright bench him against righties was completely justifiable due to his performance, but Chavez didn’t exactly force the issue. He failed to reach base in 17 playoff plate appearances, striking out nine times. All told, the Yankees received an .086/.135/.086 batting line out of their third basemen in 37 postseason plate appearances. A-Rod drew the boos and got all the media attention,  but he wasn’t even the worst performer at his own position.

Nick Swisher
Unfortunately poor postseasons became a routine during Swisher’s stint in New York, a stint that will almost surely end after four years this winter. He opened these playoffs with a very productive ALDS Game One, drawing two walks to go along with a single and a sacrifice fly. After that, he went 2-for-28 (.071) with a walk and nine strikeouts the rest of the way. One of those hits was a run-scoring double in ALCS Game Four, which had zero impact in the grand scheme of things. Swisher hit .167/.235/.233 in the team’s nine playoff games and will likely leave the Yankees with a .162/.252/.308 batting line in 148 postseason plate appearances with the club.

Curtis Granderson
Granderson came into the year as a postseason monster, with a .267/.375/.535 overall playoff batting line and a .313/.459/.583 playoff line with the Yankees. He was instead a non-factor this year, going just 3-for-30 (.100) with one homer and three walks (one intentional) in the nine postseason games. Two of those hits came in consecutive at-bats in ALDS Game Five. Like Swisher, he was benched for one ALCS game in favor of Brett Gardner. Curtis struck out an insane 16 times in 33 playoff plate appearances, so basically half the time. It’s impossible to be productive when you don’t put the ball in play, and Granderson’s strikeout issues became extreme in October.

Russell Martin
Unlike the other guys in the post, Martin at least had a signature moment this postseason. He hit the go-ahead homer off Johnson in the ninth inning of ALDS Game One, a hugely clutch shot that gets forgotten because the Yankees went on score another four runs in the inning to turn the game into a laugher. It was a big homer, don’t forget it. That said, Martin went just 5-for-31 (.161) with the homer, a double, and three walks in the postseason (.235 OBP). He reached base twice in the ALCS and three times in the team’s final six playoff games. Martin was up and down all season (mostly down), and outside of the homer he was contributed little to a postseason offense that needed substantially more from these six players.

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Key to Game 3: Kuroda & Martin vs. Flaherty

The Yankees and Orioles have played three very tight games in the ALDS so far, and last night Raul Ibanez took matters into his own hands by hitting both a game-tying and game-winning solo homer after coming off the bench in the ninth inning. His insanely clutch performance will get a ton of attention today and rightfully so, but one man can not win a baseball game by himself no matter how many homers he hits.

Before Ibanez worked his magic, starter Hiroki Kuroda gave the Yankees more than eight innings of two-run ball. He allowed solo homers to the eight- and nine-hole hitters, but otherwise he held Baltimore in check and especially in the late innings. Kuroda did run into trouble in the fourth though, as some shoddy defense, a hit, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases with two outs. Ryan Flaherty, who hit the first solo homer, was at the plate with a chance to break things open when Kuroda started him with a first pitch inside two-seamer for a called strike. Here is the second pitch of the at-bat…

(Click to embiggen)

I wrote briefly about the benefit of pitch framing yesterday, and that’s a perfect example of a borderline pitch getting called a strike with some help from Russell Martin‘s nifty glovework. PitchFX does have the pitch off the plate but not wildly so, enough that it could have been called either way.

Now the at-bat didn’t even end with that pitch, but it did turn a potential 1-1 count into an 0-2 count. An 0-2 count is the worst possible count a hitter can face, and the difference between those two counts was over .200 OPS points in the AL this season. It’s a massive shift in the game situation, changing everything from how Kuroda and Martin pitch to Flaherty’s approach to possibly even where the defense sets up. Flaherty grounded out weakly on the next pitch, a jam shot fastball up-and-in that may have been intended to set up a splitter on the next pitch more than actually get an out.

Kuroda really had to battle in the early innings last night, and Martin did a good job nursing through his early command issues. Flaherty isn’t a world burner, but he went deep one inning prior and had a really great power stretch just a few weeks ago. I don’t want to say the game was on the line in that fourth inning at-bat, but a hit there to score even one more run changes the complexion of the entire game. Stealing that strike two on the borderline pitch was an important part of the chess match that got Kuroda and the Yankees through the inning and kept the game manageable.

Estimated 2012 runs saved due to pitch framing

Quite a stir was made last offseason when former Baseball Prospectus-er and current Astros employee Mike Fast published a study quantifying the number of runs catchers saved with his pitch framing skills. That is making a borderline pitch look like a strike to the umpire and getting the call. Russell Martin rated very well in Fast’s study, as in second only to Jose Molina. Here’s a great example of Russ stealing a strike for CC Sabathia in ALDS Game One on Sunday…

At FanGraphs yesterday, Jeff Sullivan used PitchFX data to estimate how many extra strikes each team enjoyed this season, and the Yankees placed fourth in baseball (and first in the AL) at +5 strikes per 1,000 pitches. The league average is actually -5 strikes, not zero. Blame the umps. New York’s pitching staff threw 23,181 total pitches this season, so the pitching staff received approximately 232 more strikes than the league average. That doesn’t sound like much across 162 games, but it is. Past studies have calculated the difference in value between a called ball and a called strike at 0.13 runs, so Martin’s (and Chris Stewart‘s) pitch framing helped save the team a touch more than 30 runs this season. Roughly 9.5 runs equaled a win in 2012’s scoring environment, so those extra strikes were (theoretically) the difference between an AL East title and a wildcard play-in game.

It’s important to note that Sullivan’s estimations ares just that, estimations. Fast’s study was much more precise and comprehensive, and we shouldn’t attribute every single extra strike to the catcher and his pitch framing anyway. Sometimes the umpire was going to the call the pitch a strike without the catcher’s help. Even if that 30 runs saved number is off by as much as 50%, it’s still a lot of runs to save with a simple skill. Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, but analysts have gotten better at it and pitch framing is one of those things that seems to impact the game much more than originally expected.

Mailbag: Phelps, Wildcard, Catchers, Cano

Got five questions this week but two of them got short answers, so it’s more like 4.5 questions this week. Please use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send up mailbag questions, links, or anything else.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Rich asks: I have an irrational love for David Phelps. To me he’s been both durable and productive. From what I see, it seems like a lot of the damage done against him in starts is during the first inning (perhaps rookie jitters?). Any way you can find out his line in starts less that dreaded 1st? I really think he will go on to do great things for the team.

This question was sent in a few days ago, and sure enough Phelps went on to allow two runs in the first inning of Tuesday’s start before settling down and firing off zeroes the rest of the way. Here are his inning by inning splits…

Split G IP ERA PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS HBP BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
1st inning 11 11.0 8.18 53 10 13 2 0 2 7 9 .295 .396 .477 .873 1 .324 156 131
2nd inning 11 11.0 4.09 46 5 8 1 0 3 5 13 .211 .333 .474 .807 2 .227 135 126
3rd inning 13 12.2 1.42 49 3 9 0 0 0 1 14 .205 .265 .205 .470 3 .290 41 34
4th inning 16 15.2 2.87 61 5 11 2 0 3 6 14 .204 .283 .407 .691 0 .216 101 80
5th inning 15 13.0 4.85 55 7 10 3 1 4 7 8 .213 .315 .574 .889 0 .171 156 136
6th inning 16 11.0 2.45 47 6 13 1 0 1 3 13 .302 .348 .395 .743 0 .414 119 101
7th inning 14 11.0 2.45 50 3 9 1 0 1 6 8 .205 .300 .295 .595 0 .229 77 71
8th inning 11 9.1 0.00 34 1 4 0 0 0 3 10 .133 .206 .133 .339 0 .190 3 1
9th inning 5 3.1 5.40 14 1 4 2 0 0 0 4 .286 .286 .429 .714 0 .400 108 112
Ext inning 1 1.2 0.00 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 .000 -100 -100
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/4/2012.

Phelps completed six innings of work only three times in those eleven starts, due in part to pitch limits as he bounced between the rotation and bullpen. Joe Girardi also seemed to have a quick hook at times as well. Opponents did hit Phelps harder during the first inning than every inning other than the fifth, which has a lot to do with him tiring later in starts as well as some sketchy relief appearances. This is the quick and dirty method — I just don’t have the time to go through the game logs manually to pull up his stats as a starter by inning — but it does provide some evidence suggesting that the first inning is usually his worst.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t all that uncommon. More runs are scored in the first inning than any other throughout the league because it’s the inning in which the best hitters are guaranteed to bat. The fifth inning results in the second most offense league-wide as the starter begins to tire and mediocre middle relievers take over. Here is the AL inning-by-inning splits data for reference. Phelps is not unique when it comes to first inning struggles.

Tarik asks: This isn’t strictly a Yankees question, but doesn’t the extra wildcard team really highlight the problem of awarding postseason berths on winning the division? The Orioles and Rangers have better records than the Tigers, yet they have to play a one game wildcard play-in game. Not to mention the fact that the Rays and Angels have better records than the Tigers and they’re going home.

Yeah, that’s one big problem with the current playoff system. We had the same problem with the other system as well, but it really seems to stick out this year because the Tigers clinched the division so early despite having the worst record among all (AL and NL) playoff teams. The only way to completely eliminate this is by balancing the schedule and giving the teams with the top three records a “bye” to the ALDS while the clubs with the fourth and fifth best records meet in the wildcard play-in game. That isn’t practical due to travel and some other stuff, unfortunately. Hopefully the results and seeding are a little more fair going forward, because Detroit got a free pass thanks to the rest of their division being terrible.

Winter asks: What’s the catching situation looking like for next year? Russell Martin asking for too much doesn’t seem like as much of an issue anymore. Also will Chris Stewart be re-signed?

Despite being 30, Stewart is still in his pre-arbitration years and will remain under team control through 2016 (!) unless the Yankees decide to non-tender him at some point. They seem to like him, so I expect Stewart to return as the backup next season. He’ll only be paid something close to the league minimum as well.

Martin played his way out of the team’s 2013 plans … unless he played his way back into them in the second half. I still don’t think he’ll get anything close to the three-year, $24M-ish contract he turned down before the season, but re-signing with the Yankees seems more and more likely by the day. Maybe a one-year deal at $7-8M works? Two years at $15M? It’s a weird and unpredictable situation because we know the team loves him, yet for most of the season he didn’t perform at all.

(Al Bello/Getty)

Chip asks: How is Robinson Cano not getting any mention in the MVP race? He’s put up a nearly 150 wRC+ (148 to be exact) as a second baseman with outstanding defense. Is it just the lack of RBIs?

Yeah, probably. That and the fact that he kinda disappeared for a few weeks in April and August, I think. Plus Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera were so insanely good this year that they’re stealing all of the attention, so some of it isn’t even Robbie’s fault. Cano will definitely get MVP votes though, he was the team’s best player this year after all, though I suspect he’ll finish behind Derek Jeter on the ballot. I’d have him no lower than fourth behind Trout, Miggy, and Adrian Beltre if I had a vote, and you can very easily make an argument that Robbie should be third. He was absolutely one of the best players in the league this year, there’s no question.

Daniel asks: Since we all know he’s going to cost a fortune, what fictional trade would be acceptable for the Yankees to trade Robinson Cano?

We’re talking about the best second baseman in the world right smack in the prime of his career, so obviously a lot. The problem is that Cano will be a free agent after next season, so his trade value is somewhat limited by his contract status. The number of true cornerstone-type players who are traded one year prior to free agency is unsurprisingly small, so we don’t have many deals to reference.

The best recent comparable trade is probably the one that sent Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres to the Red Sox two years ago. Cano is a better player now than Gonzalez was then, plus he plays a more premium position, but this is the best comparison we’ve got. Boston forked over a pair of Baseball America top 100 prospects in Casey Kelly (#31) and Anthony Rizzo (#75), plus their first round pick from one year prior in Reymond Fuentes. Two high-end prospects plus a solid third piece seem to be going rate for one year of a superstar.

If the Yankees were to trade Cano, they would almost certainly seek a big league ready outfielder in return. That’s a glaring need. Pitching is always on the agenda as well. I don’t think the Cardinals would give up Oscar Taveras for Cano, which would sorta be the best case scenario for New York. Taveras is a left-handed hitting outfielder and arguably the best offensive prospect in the game, plus he should be ready for the show by like, next May. St. Louis has had trade interest in Robbie in the past, but that was a long time ago. Taveras plus RHP Trevor Rosenthal plus a throw-in? That’s what I would ask for and along the lines of what it should take to pry Cano from pinstripes.

The Russell Martin Resurgence

(Alex Trautwig/Getty)

In more ways than one, the second half of this season has been the polar opposite of the first half. The Yankees were winning games left and right before the All-Star break, but recently they’ve been struggling to string wins together. The pitching staff carried the club for lengths of time back in May and June, but August and September haven’t featured the same kind of effectiveness. A deep and productive lineup carried a weak-hitting Russell Martin early on, but lately it’s been Martin who’s done the carrying.

Martin, 29, had the big blow in yesterday’s 6-4 win over Tampa, a three-run opposite field blast off the hard-throwing Matt Moore. The at-bat was as impressive as the outcome, as Russ battled back from an 0-2 count to work it full before going deep. It was his third homer in his last nine starts and part of a second half surge that has seen him hit .246/.324/.437 with nine homers in 51 games (46 starts). Joe Girardi has been batting his starting catcher higher in the batting order — including fifth against left-handers — and it is not undeserved.

The first half of the season was not kind to Martin, who hit just .179/.300/.348 with eight homers in the club’s first 85 games. He struck out in 20.2% and walked in 12.3% of his plate appearances prior to the All-Star break, rock solid plate discipline numbers. His batting average on balls in play was abysmal though, an unsustainably low .193. Obviously luck plays a major part in any BABIP south of the Mendoza line, but not all of it was undeserved. Here is his day-by-day batted ball profile…

Green = grounders | Blue = fly balls | Red = line drives

Martin was beating the ball into the ground in the first half of the season, and if you watched the games, you know that most of those grounders were weakly hit to the left side of the infield. Smart teams played a bit of a shift on him, exacerbating the BABIP problem.

The second half has been a different story however, as the ground ball issue evened out and his batted ball profile normalized with last year, when he hit .237/.324/.408 overall. That looks quite a bit like his .246/.324/.437 line from the second half of this year, just with a little less power. His strikeout rate (17.0%) also began to approach his career average (14.7%) as well. Martin’s average on balls in play has jumped up to .254 in the second half, which is low for most hitters but probably right in line with his true talent level at this point. He is still prone to the weak ground ball and does hit a lot of pop-ups (especially on the infield), a combination that will forever keep his average in the dumps. There’s no away around that, his days of hitting .280+ like he did in 2006-2008 are undoubtedly in the rear-view mirror.

One thing we’ve learned during Martin’s time in New York is that he’s crazy streaky. He can carry an offense when he gets hot and he’ll turn into an out machine at the bottom of the order when things aren’t going his way. The lows are more frequent than the highs, but the Yankees needed him to perform better in the second half and he’s done that so far. It’s unfortunate that they’ve fallen back to the AL East pack and they’re relying on his production so much, but that isn’t really Martin’s fault. He’s hitting for some more power and a few more hits are starting to fall in, and lately they’ve come at the exact right time.