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.


Revisiting Derek Jeter’s Performance

July 6, 2010

On May 13th, I wrote a fairly brief but cautionary piece on Derek Jeter’s poor start to the season. My concluding paragraph:

I hope I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before (cough Brett Gardner cough), and I’ll be wrong again. But once the dust settles, and [Javy] Vazquez is pitching acceptably well, and [Curtis] Granderson is back, and [Mark] Teixeira has settled in, and all that stuff, I think Jeter’s performance will be the lingering but unmentioned issue. This certainly bears monitoring, particularly with Jeter’s contract expiring at the end of the season.

To my total surprise, that finishing comment might actually have been somewhat prescient. We’re one week into July, and the Yankees are in first place in the AL East. After a strong June and early July, Javy Vazquez’s ERA sits at an acceptable 4.81. Granderson is back and playing well (unless he’s being asked to do something he simply cannot do, which is hit lefties). Teixeira’s numbers are creeping back up to his lofty standards; he’s hitting .280/.377/.517 since June 1st. Generally speaking, things are pretty rosy for the Yankees right now.

Of course, this leaves us with “the lingering but unmentioned issue,” which is Jeter’s still-uninspiring performance. Before continuing, I want you to know that I know that Jeter is a 36-year-old middle infielder with tons of extra games on his odometer. My intent is not to beat up on a guy who has (a) performed at an incredibly high level for nearly 15 years or (b) cannot reasonably be expected to continue at that level at an advanced age. What I am trying to do, however, is point out that Jeter is unquestionably declining, and that his upcoming contract negotiations with Brian Cashman are going to be awfully interesting. Despite some chronic bad habits (neglecting the bench, overpaying for veteran relievers) and some high-profile busts (Kei Igawa), Cashman is not an idiot. He understands the aging curve and is familiar with emerging and non-traditional metrics. He knows that whatever the Yankees ultimately pay Jeter, it will be more for what he’s done than what he will do. And believe or not, I would probably do the same thing. But if the following numbers are any indicator, it’s going to be a long and often painful end to the Derek Jeter era.

On May 13th, Jeter:

  • was hitting .269/.314/.407
  • was walking in 4.6% of his PAs (by far the lowest number in his career)
  • was swinging at 33.2% of pitches outside the strike zone (by far the highest number in his career)
  • was swinging at 52.4% of all pitches (highest in career)
  • was seeing 3.54 pitches per plate appearance (fewest since 2004)
  • had a GB/FB of 3.83 (highest in career)
  • was hitting 12.6% of batted balls for line drives (lowest in career)
  • was seeing the most fastballs he’s seen since 2006

Today, Jeter:

  • is hitting .281/.347/.404
  • is walking in 8.2% of his PAs
  • is swinging at 28.7% of pitches outside the strike zone (still by far a career-high)
  • is swinging at 48.6% of all pitches (in line with career norms)
  • is still seeing 3.54 P/PA
  • has a 4.15 GB/FB (far and away a career high)
  • is hitting 17.7% of batted balls for line drives (still a career-low)
  • is still seeing the most fastballs he’s seen since 2006

The data paint a pretty clear picture: Jeter isn’t hitting the ball hard anymore. Even with a flukey (and career-high) HR/FB, he’s still only slugging .404. And all the batted-ball data (GB%, LD%, etc.) indicate that he’s simply not making solid contact. Unfortunately, this isn’t an instance of data not matching up with what our eyes see. Jeter is hitting more weak grounders than ever before in my 15 years of consistent Yankees-watching. Luckily, he has regained some measure of his plate discipline and the standard for AL shortstops this year is painfully low, so Jeter’s performance is still a competitive advantage. But the 2011-2016 Yankees can’t count on Jeter’s peers continuing to play so poorly, making his upcoming re-signing particularly onerous.

You certainly won’t hear anyone whose checks are signed by George Steinbrenner mention this objective data or make subjective comments about Jeter’s declining play. The most you’re likely to get is Michael Kay saying something like “Jeter had a tough June, hitting only .243.” But I think it’s pretty clear at this point that 2010 is the beginning of the end of All-Star-caliber performances from the Yankee shortstop. We are not, however, anywhere near the end of his Yankee career.


Derek Jeter’s Bad Start

May 13, 2010

As is always the case here in New York, there is no shortage of discussion about the Yankees. For better or worse, 2010 has been an eventful season so far, affording reporters, analysts, and fans an abundance of topics to tackle. Here are the ten issues (in no particular order) that the fans and media are focusing on:

  1. Javier Vazquez’s woes
  2. Mark Teixeira’s annual slow start
  3. Phil Hughes’ emergence
  4. Robinson Cano’s breakout season
  5. Francisco Cervelli’s energy and surprisingly good offense
  6. Andy Pettitte’s elbow
  7. Curtis Granderson’s injury
  8. Alex Rodriguez’s low power output
  9. Mariano Rivera’s injury and infrequent use
  10. Brett Gardner’s unforeseen emergence as a genuine offensive threat

There is one potentially enormous development that is not on this list, and one that has begun to trouble me greatly. Simply put, there is a good chance we are seeing the beginning of Derek Jeter‘s decline. I think there are three reasons this has gone underreported. First, he’s Derek Jeter and this is New York. No one will suggest he’s declining until it becomes painfully obvious. Secondly, he’s hitting .270 and it’s May, so most will (wrongly) point to his still-solid batting average and (rightly) state that it’s still early, and conclude that he’ll snap out of it. Finally, the Yankees have too many other issues right now to warrant scrutinizing Jeter’s performance to death. Jeter’s play isn’t the most pressing issue right now, and I understand that.

But beneath the superficial “he’s still hitting .270 and it’s early” counter-argument, there are plenty of disturbing figures that suggest Jeter might be slowing down:

  • His walk rate sits at 4.6% – by far the lowest number of his career.
  • He’s swinging at 33.2% of pitches outside the strike zone – by far the highest number of his career.
  • He’s swinging at 52.4% of total pitches – the highest number of his career.
  • He’s seeing 3.54 pitches per plate appearance – his lowest number since 2004.
  • He’s making contact with 87.7% of total pitches – the highest number of his career (more on why this might not be a good thing in a minute)
  • He’s seeing the most fastballs since 2006 and the most cutters since he’s been in the majors (both fast pitches).
  • He’s hitting nearly four times as many ground balls as fly balls (3.83 GB/FB)
  • His line drive percentage (LD%) is 12.6% – by far the lowest number of his career.

The culmination of all these factors creates a narrative that isn’t all that difficult to imagine. It’s quite possible that pitchers have picked up on something – declining bat speed? – and are simply challenging Jeter with more hard stuff (fastballs, cutters) than in recent years. And while Jeter is making more contact than ever, the vast majority of the balls he has put into play have been grounders. When you add his inexplicably collapsing plate discipline with an inability to catch up to a steady diet of fastballs and cutters, well, you get a pretty dramatic decline in production.

Of course, I realize it’s May. But it’s also not too early for certain skills and data to be reliable predictors of future performance. I stumbled upon this bit of research a few months ago, and it’s pretty awesome. It’s quick summary of a much, much nerdier project that studied when sample sizes become reliable for certain statistics. According to the study, Swing%, Contact%, strikeout rate (K%), LD%, and P/PA all stabilize at or around 150 plate appearances. Jeter has 151 plate appearances. Walk rate (BB%), ground ball rate (GB%), and GB/FB tend to stabilize at 200 plate appearance, a benchmark that is right around the corner. So, it’s not too early to be concerned. At all.

I hope I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before (cough Brett Gardner cough), and I’ll be wrong again. But once the dust settles, and Vazquez is pitching acceptably well, and Granderson is back, and Teixeira has settled in, and all that stuff, I think Jeter’s performance will be the lingering but unmentioned issue. This certainly bears monitoring, particularly with Jeter’s contract expiring at the end of the season.


Kevin Youkilis’ Strange Absence From AL MVP Consideration

August 17, 2009
Although currently undeserving, Kevin Youkilis has been strangely absent from the AL MVP discussion.

Although currently undeserving, Kevin Youkilis has been strangely absent from the AL MVP discussion.

I had a wild Saturday night this past weekend. Around 10:30, I tuned the radio to the Yankees-Mariners game. Then, I got into bed and fell asleep. At some point between 11 o’clock and midnight, however, I woke up to the soothing sounds of a good, old-fashioned debate about who deserved the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Broadcasters John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman invited the Daily News’ Mark Feinsand into the booth to discuss the candidates. Even in a sleepy daze, it was easy to tell that the three were collaborating in starting the “Mark Teixeira for MVP” meme. Sterling gushed about Teixeira’s unparalleled defense, Waldman about his knack for getting the big hit, and Feinsand about anything that his hosts missed. At the end of the inning, the three concluded that Teixeira is the frontrunner, with Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (not enough RBIs) and Minnesota’s Joe Mauer (on a bad team) next in line.

Before making my surprising suggestion, I want to be clear about the fact that Joe Mauer has clearly been the American League’s MVP so far this season. Mauer – a catcher – has a .377/.444/.626 line this season, including 22 home runs and only 46 strikeouts. He’s an exceptional hitter at home (1.166 OPS), and merely excellent on the road (.983). In fact, Mauer is having the single best offensive season by a catcher in baseball history (186 OPS+), just ahead of Mike Piazza’s 1997 season. If the season ended today, Mauer should be the league’s MVP, and it’s not even close.

Given that Sterling, Waldman, and Feinsand were intent on ignoring Mauer’s historic greatness, I wondered to myself (and to you, now) why Kevin Youkilis was not mentioned. Certainly, I find the Red Sox first baseman whiny, hyperemotional, and generally unlikeable, but he’s having a superb season. His .311/.424/.564 line trumps Teixeira’s .285/.382/.557, and his home/away split isn’t nearly as comical as his counterpart on the Yankees’. Furthermore – and you will most likely get shot here in New York for saying this – Youkilis’ defense has been better than Teixeira’s. Finally, Youkilis is on a winning team and has that fiery, scrappy, team leader-y (read: he’s white and looks like he’s trying hard) thing down pat, which MVP voters absolutely love. As you can see, Youkilis has satisfied the historically important criteria for MVP consideration, and yet his name remains conspicuously absent from any preliminary lists.

Again, the AL MVP award should be Joe Mauer’s to lose. But for now, I just wanted to help beat back the idea that Mark Teixeira is clearly the frontrunner. After all, he isn’t even the most valuable Yankee.


Fan Interference’s 2009 MLB All-Stars: American League

July 8, 2009

American_League1

Ever since the end of my childhood (this occurred around 2000), I’ve watched Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game with less awe and more conviction. My interest in the game has become more self-righteous as I root for the game’s more overrated players to fail and the under-appreciated stars to succeed; or, in last year’s case, I root for the game to end. Not all inclinations are based on my ongoing quest for the accurate evaluation and perception of players. Yankees receive cheers no matter what, Red Sox remain vilified – that goes for any Met not named Carlos Beltran, too.

I find the All-Star selection process much more interesting than the game itself. Fans, players, and managers contribute to varying degrees in setting the 33-man roster. Each group – much like any group – has its idiots, its intelligent voters, and a group that falls somewhere between the two. Ultimately, the final rosters provide a useful glimpse into which players embody the intersection of popularity and skill. As you might expect, I prefer that the selectors look at the latter almost to the total exclusion of the former. More difficult is the question of which player is more deserving: the one-half wonder, or the (probably) more talented player with a consistent track record? I lean more towards the established player, although certain cases allow for the rewarding of an incredible first half, even if it is unlikely or unsustainable. There’s a fair argument on both sides.

Now that I’ve bored you with my philosophical musings, I’d like to share my picks for the American League’s 33-man roster. The actual roster can be found here, although they do not yet include the winner of the Final Vote. I’m loosely following the prescribed format: eight starting position players, 13 pitchers (distributed arbitrarily between starters and relievers), and 12 bench players (with a backup at each position). The National League will follow in the coming days. Here we go: Read the rest of this entry »


For The Record

October 8, 2007

During this year’s ALDS against the Indians:

  • Derek Jeter: 3-17, 5 K, 3 GIDP – .176/.176/.176 (created 20 out of his team’s 108 outs in 4 games – 18%)
  • Alex Rodriguez: 4-15, 6 K, 2 BB, 1 HR – .266/.353/.466

If I read one thing about how A-Rod choked and how Jeter is clutch and awesome…