Miscellaneous Yankees Thoughts, Part I

My first rendition of this paragraph was little more than a long-winded attempt to justify what I’m about to write, which is more or less part one of a garbage dump. The length of the “Blog Ideas” memo on my phone has spiraled totally out of control, and I needed to pick and write about a handful of these topics before the shame became too much to bear. So here is the Yankees component of the seven subjects that have been on my mind recently, none of which really deserves a full post, but all of which will fit nicely into a series of blurbs.

A.J. BURNETT’S STRUGGLES

A.J. Burnett’s long season continued last night, as the struggling starter allowed eight earned runs in 4.2 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. His season ERA now sits at 4.93. In recent weeks, it has become popular here in New York (where the Yankee Propaganda Machine is strong) to use Burnett’s performance in July as evidence that he has turned the corner. Certainly, he did pitch well last month, allowing six runs in 27 innings. But his opponents in July were the Blue Jays, the Athletics, the Rays, the Royals, and the Indians. These teams currently rank 4th, 11th, 8th, 9th, and 12th in the AL in OPS, respectively. You can’t take away what Burnett did. Good pitchers are supposed to shut down bad lineups. But you also can’t ignore context in any sort of serious analysis, and the quality of the offenses Burnett faced in July was decidedly mediocre.

As is always the case with Burnett, the issue is expectations. For years now, fans, broadcasters, and some analysts have seen Burnett’s violent fastball, hammer curveball, and tattooed body and say “man, that guy should be a dominant starter.” That opinion persists today. I know this because during each and every one of Burnett’s starts, Michael Kay will say something like “it’s just a matter of time for A.J.” or “you’ve got to wonder when he’ll put it all together.” You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Burnett is 33 years old. The vast majority of 33-year-old athletes sort of are what they are at that point. From age 24 to 30, he was a somewhat fragile but objectively good starting pitcher. Since 2008, he’s settled in as a durable, league-average starter – no more, no less. He’s a fourth starter on a good team, and a fifth starter on a great team. It’s unfortunate that most people still can’t see past his stuff, his look, and his contract and accept him for what he is. Because if you’re expecting the guy to suddenly become consistently unhittable at age 33, you’re going to be disappointed every time out.

CURTIS GRANDERSON FOLLOW-UP

My father, ever-cognizant of my crusades, sent me this bit of Granderson-related analysis this morning. Using park factors and other statistics that I wholeheartedly approve of (BB%, LD%, GB%, etc.), the author – who calls himself Lord Duggan – delves into what exactly is hindering Granderson this season. Duggan correctly observes that Granderson’s fundamental skill set is unchanged, that he’s hitting the ball about as hard, walking about as much, and striking out about as much as he did in 2007, which was his best season. Furthermore, he believes that Granderson’s poor performance can be attributed to the smaller confines of Yankee Stadium, which have detracted from his ability to hit doubles and triples. This conclusion is sound and likely touches on part of the problem, but I think it’s incomplete.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the main issue that Granderson is regularly being asked to hit left-handed pitching. Just over one-third of Granderson’s PAs in 2010 have been against lefties, which is by far the highest percentage of his career. Not coincidentally, Granderson is now having the worst season of his career. Look at the following numbers. The first is the percentage of his PAs that have been against lefties, and the second is his OPS:

  • 2006: 24.1%, .773
  • 2007: 19.6%, .913
  • 2008: 25.2%, .858
  • 2009: 28%, .780
  • 2010: 33.5%, .739

I repeat, it is not a coincidence that Granderson is having his worst season while his PAs against lefties are peaking. It’s also not a coincidence that his best season happened when he faced the fewest lefties. Additionally, Granderson’s line against righties in 2010 is .261/.343/.500. The important number there is the .500, which is his slugging percentage. If asked to only hit righties, that number would not only be the second-highest of his career, but would also take place in a ballpark (Yankee Stadium) that Duggan believes has sapped Granderson’s extra-base power. This tells me that the issue isn’t so much the change in ballpark, but the increase in how often Granderson is being asked to do something that he simply cannot do. If Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman kept Granderson’s PAs against lefties under, say, 10% for the rest of the season, I bet he would suddenly “snap out of his funk” while both media and fans wonder what on earth changed.

JOBA

Here in New York, it is simply understood that Joba Chamberlain is having a bad season. I mean, look at his ERA. It’s 5.48. He’s had seven outings in which he has allowed multiple runs to score. He hasn’t been the bridge to Mariano. He’s a head case. His performance is the reason the Yankees traded for Kerry Wood. What is going on with Joba?

Well, nothing, really. To know this, one must understand xFIP. For those of you unfamiliar with this statistic, xFIP stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. The statistic takes the results for which a pitcher is specifically responsible (walks, strikeouts, homers), normalizes defensive performance and home run rate, and scales the result to a normal ERA number. So, a pitcher with an xFIP of 5.50 is pitching as poorly as we would assume a pitcher with an ERA of 5.50 is pitching. xFIP is a wonderful predictive tool. Take the Yankees’ own Javier Vazquez, for example. During his horrendous start, Vazquez’s xFIP was consistently in the high 4s. This suggested that his underlying performance was still solid, and that he was mostly the victim of some bad lack. Sure enough, Vazquez’s ERA now sits at 4.61 and his xFIP is 4.63.

This brings us back to Joba. As I mentioned, his raw ERA is an unsightly 5.48, but his xFIP is 3.33 – more than two runs lower. This begs the question: why does xFIP think (because all newfangled statistics are obviously sentient entities with scary plans to take over the sports media landscape) that Joba is, you know, still good? It’s pretty basic, really. His strikeout and walk rates are almost exactly the same as they were during his dominant period. His home run rate is slightly higher, but not substantially so. He’s still inducing lots of ground balls. Really, there are two culprits for his inflated ERA: his stand rate (LOB%) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Joba is currently leaving only 61.7% of inherited runners on base, which is low compared to the league average of 72%. Why are all these inherited runners scoring? Because opponents are hitting .382 on balls in play against Joba, which is an obscenely high and unlucky figure. Batters aren’t hitting the ball any harder against him than they did before, but the ball is consistently finding holes in the defense. That’s really it. Everything else is, for lack of a better word, normal.

Keep the faith. Yes, Joba will never be as good as he was in 2007, but how many relievers do you know that can maintain a 0.38 ERA? Joba is fine.

AND OF COURSE… DEREK JETER

During Sunday’s game against the Rays, John Flaherty and Michael Kay discussed B.J. Upton’s disappointing season. They agreed that by August 1st, most players are what their numbers say they are, that there isn’t a whole lot of “turning around” that happens this late in season.

At the risk of suffocating snarkiness, I wonder if and when these fine gentlemen will start applying that logic towards Derek Jeter? He continues to murder the Yankees by hitting .275/.336/.386 out of the lead-off spot and by hitting over four times as many grounders as fly balls.

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