Miscellaneous Yankees Thoughts, Part I

August 3, 2010

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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Defending Curtis Granderson

July 16, 2010

Having emerged unscathed from my first onslaught of grad school work, I’ve been trying to catch up on what’s been going on in the world of sports. For my Yankees updates, I checked with the wonderful LoHud Yankees Blog. This blog has always been a wonderful source of Yankees news and tidbits, but it’s really taken off since Chad Jennings and Sam Borden took the reins. It’s required reading for Yankees fans, so if you fall into that category, I strongly suggest you both check it out and bookmark it.

Anyway, I read Sam Borden’s post about Curtis Granderson’s performance so far. The conclusion:

To be fair, Granderson has had a few moments (he also battled an injury) yet ultimately it’s hard to call his first half with the Yankees much more than average. Most of the “grades” I’ve seen writers and bloggers do for the Yankees have Granderson in or around a “C” and I can’t really disagree. At the very least, Granderson has failed to show the improvement against lefties that he (and the team) was hoping for (.537 OPS).

Obviously the Yankees have been doing fine without Granderson’s typical impact but you know there will be some valleys during the course of the second half. Will Granderson step up and be the kind of star the Yankees imagined when they traded for him?

To be sure, I investigated Borden’s claim that most writers have been giving Granderson grades in the C-range. This turns out to be true. The Daily News gave him a C-, with this comment:

The biggest offensive acquisition last winter, Granderson has failed to live up to the hype with a .240 average – including a .207 mark against lefties. He missed a month with a groin injury.

ESPN New York gave him a C:

Granderson no doubt was slowed by the groin pull that cost him 23 games and most of May, but by just about any offensive yardstick has been a disappointment. His .240 average is 30 points below his career average, his OBP is down, his strikeouts are up and his struggles against left-handed pitching have been every bit as bad as advertised. Has played a good centerfield — covers a lot of ground and has a decent arm.

The New York Post gave him a D:

A few big hits are all that keep this grade from being an F. Brian Cashman’s big off-season splash has been a dud. You expected the .207 average against lefties, but he has not been that much better versus righties (.261). His defense is shaky, and could cost the Yankees at some point.

I’m not going to tiptoe around this: all of the criticism directed towards Granderson really bothers me. The criticism largely surrounds Granderson’s inability to hit left-handed pitching, which is a totally fair and accurate observation on its own terms. He is completely useless against lefties. But here’s the thing: he’s always been horrible against lefties. A refresher course:

  • 2006: .218/.277/.395
  • 2007: .160/.225/.269
  • 2008: .259/.310/.429
  • 2009: .183/.245/.239
  • 2010: .206/.250/.287

Given that Granderson’s career line against lefties (778 plate appearances) is .210/.267/.337, what exactly where the Yankees expecting him to do? Granderson has consistently demonstrated that he simply does not have the ability to produce against southpaws. This isn’t an indictment of his effort, work ethic, or character. In fact, by all accounts, he has worked extremely hard to improve this deficiency. And yet, he’s still hitting like a AAA middle infielder against them. He’s tried. He just can’t do it.

The onus falls on both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi for this one. I liked Cashman’s move at the time, and I still do, but the caveat remains unchanged: don’t put this guy in the lineup against left-handers. In this case, Cashman and Girardi are both guilty of wishful thinking. The former acquired Granderson with evidently no plans to platoon him, and the latter insists on sending Granderson out there as if he were an everyday player. Both believed that with some hard work and Kevin Long’s help, the Yankees could do what the Detroit Tigers couldn’t do in over five years, and that’s get Granderson to start hitting lefties at the age of 29. I guess we could toss in some hubris along with the wishful thinking.

Criticizing Granderson for not hitting lefties is unfair. If Stan Van Gundy asked Dwight Howard to bring the ball up the court 40% of the time (which is roughly how many of Granderson’s PAs have come against lefties), and Howard kept turning it over, would we slam Howard for it? If Sean Payton lined up Drew Brees as a left tackle 40% of the time, would we criticize Brees for all the sacks he allowed? No, we wouldn’t, because those are obvious instances of management asking a player to do something that he simply cannot do. That’s exactly what’s going on with the Yankees and Granderson, and not only is it unfair to the player, but it’s indicative of poor management.


You’re A Good Man, Carsten Charles

February 19, 2010

By all accounts, Yankees starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia is a great guy and a wonderful teammate. So it comes as no surprise that, when discussing new center fielder Curtis Granderson, Sabathia said the following:

“Hopefully [Granderson] will hit like 50 homers. He’s going to be a great ballplayer for us. He was always a tough out for me.”

Because I’m me and I hate fun and anything complimentary towards anyone, I cross-checked Sabathia’s memory with baseball-reference.com. And, much to my delight, I have learned that Granderson is 3 for 19 lifetime (all singles) against Sabathia with no walks and seven strikeouts – a .158/.158/.158 line.

But hey, maybe each and every one of Granderson’s plate appearances against Sabathia lasted over 10 pitches.


The Granderson Trade, And Other Thoughts On The Off-Season

December 15, 2009

I suppose it’s about time that I post something here. So much has changed since December 2nd. Tiger Woods’ life and reputation have been irreparably changed. Roy Halladay has been traded. In a move that will surely solve all of the franchise’s problems, the Knicks signed former lottery pick Jonathan Bender. And most importantly, I set a new personal record by riding eight separate trains (in order: 1, 3, 2, 5, R, V, D, C) in one day. It is truly a new world.

Other than my epic day of subway riding, the most pertinent development in the last thirteen days has been the New York Yankees trading for center fielder Curtis Granderson. I found out about this the way I usually find out about important sports news – by my phone buzzing incessantly while I’m at work (my phone darn near broke the day David Ortiz was outed as a steroid user). After personally assuring each and every one of my students that, yes, that is my phone that’s buzzing and yes, I’m aware that it’s a terrible injustice that I can have my phone in school and you can’t, I found a brief moment to read one of the six text messages sitting in my inbox. By chance, I happened to see the one co-founder Keesup sent me, which read something like “[Expletive] you. Seriously? Granderson?” He later sent me the details of the trade, and after much contemplation, I’ve decided that I approve of the Yankees’ decision. Read the rest of this entry »