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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Why A Sixth Grader From Brooklyn Should Manage Your Baseball Team

May 29, 2010

Early last week, three of my sixth graders and I played a game of Apples to Apples. One of them, whom I shall call “Freddy,” had to pick which red card matched up best with the green card featuring the word “best.” I forget what all three red card submissions were, but one of them was “home runs.” After some careful thought, Freddy chose the “home runs” card, which predictably incited a small riot amongst his peers (baseball is not their favorite sport). The riot soon died down, but my curiosity endured. “Why did you think ‘home runs’ went with ‘best’?” I asked.

“Because hitting a home run is the best thing you can do to help your team,” said Freddy.

Quite honestly, I was stunned by the intelligence of his response. Not that Freddy isn’t a smart kid, because he is. But given that all of my students had a minimal or non-existent interest in baseball, it was a remarkably incisive and – most importantly – accurate assessment. Despite what you might hear from current and former players, analysts and reporters, home runs are not “rally killers” or in any way less valuable than walks or a series of base hits. They are the single best thing a hitter can do, and conversely, the single worst thing a pitcher can allow. That may seem obvious to you or me or even Freddy, but it’s not always obvious to mainstream media and fans.

I’m telling you this because I find that Freddy’s intuition stands in stark contrast to the popular beliefs and practices present within baseball today. This kid is more or less totally cut off from the game of baseball. He doesn’t watch it, doesn’t play it, doesn’t have any interest whatsoever in it. But what he is interested in is winning. Most of my kids are ferociously competitive, and Freddy is no different. He couldn’t care less about the actual or unwritten rules of the competition, but he sure as hell wants to win it. And because of that desire and because he’s generally a smart cookie, he understands the value of things like home runs. To Freddy, they are a key to victory, which is the ultimate goal.

When you compare Freddy’s outlook to that of major league managers, it paints a pretty bleak picture for the latter group. Managers will uniformly tell you that they want to win today’s game. Maybe not at all costs, because they do have a difficult job in that they must balance the importance of present and future victories. But they say they want to do whatever they can to win today’s game because, after all, tomorrow it might rain. That’s what they say.

But if actions are any indicator of true intent, then it’s pretty clear that someone like Freddy is more serious about winning than a major league manager. Take today’s game between the Indians and the Yankees. The Yankees had a 10-5 lead in the top of the 7th inning with David Robertson entering to pitch. He gave up a run, making it 10-6 Yankees. Not a huge cause for alarm just yet. Then, after a trainwreck of managing by Joe Girardi that I’m not even going to try to describe, Joba Chamberlain enters the game with the score still 10-6. He clearly had nothing, and the score is soon 10-7 with plenty of runners on base. Now Michael Kay is wondering how the Yankees bullpen is going to get to Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning, since the unit is currently decimated by injuries and recent use. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how the Yankees are going to get out of this situation right now (three-run lead, bases loaded, ineffective reliever on the mound).

It is at this juncture in the game when I would rather have Freddy managing my team than literally any manager in baseball. Freddy, in his oversized baseball uniform because he’s 12 years old, would turn to Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland and say “who is our best reliever?” Eiland would surely reply “Mariano Rivera,” and Freddy would equally surely say “put him in the game.” And if Eiland questioned him, Freddy would probably tell him to shut up because he’s the boss. Conversely, every other manager in baseball would look to their pitching coach and ask “who is the best reliever to use right now, excluding our absolute best reliever, because it’s not yet the 9th inning?” And the pitching coach would offer his suggestion, which would be someone other than the team’s best reliever, because we all know that that reliever doesn’t pitch unless the team has a relatively small lead in the 9th inning. But Freddy wouldn’t care about this, because Freddy just wants to win the ballgame and go home and play Xbox.

Whimsical example aside, I am entirely serious about this. In-game management has evolved to a point where winning the game more than occasionally becomes secondary to preserving roles and appeasing egos. Managers can’t see this, because they’re in too deep at this point. They are the ones brushing shoulders with the players whose roles they are trying to cement and whose egos they’re trying to leave undisturbed. And the result is often similar to the result of the Indians-Yankees contest, where a struggling second-tier reliever is left in the game to protect a small lead in a hugely important situation simply because “the book” says that the best relievers don’t pitch until the 9th inning. In this particular example, Chamberlain was left in until the score was 12-10 Indians. Now, with the highest-leverage moment over and the lead totally relinquished, there is virtually no chance that Rivera will be seeing any action. This situation happens every day in baseball, and it is gross mismanagement that reflects little seriousness about the goal of winning the game.

Freddy may have no idea what a double-switch is, or how to call for a pitchout, but at least he knows what factors contribute to wins and losses.


I Understand So Little

October 23, 2009

I could write four thousand words about the Yankees’ 7-6 loss to the Angels last night. In virtually every respect, it was a gut-wrenching game to watch. Bad A.J. showed up. There was more suspect umpiring. There were real rallies and near rallies. Many runners were left on base. The bullpen management (like I can go two consecutive posts without mentioning this) was terrible. It was just a long and hard game to watch, the sort of game that I’m pretty sure cut ten or fifteen minutes off my life.

Another cranky manifesto seems masochistic to me, so I’ll just pose all the questions that were running through my head throughout the game. Maybe one of you can shed some light on the answer, because I understand very little of the following:

  • Why must the Yankees continue to start Jose Molina when A.J. Burnett pitches? And, given that they’re intent on doing this, why let Molina even hit in the top of the 3rd inning, when you’re already down 4-0? The Yankees reaped no benefits from his allegedly strong relationship with Burnett, and then let him hit. What’s the point?
  • On the heels of an incredible six-run rally, why send Burnett out for the bottom of the 7th inning? And, given that they did that, why warm up Damaso Marte and Joba Chamberlain as your backup plan? If Burnett is out, that means he allowed baserunners, and Marte (terrible) and Chamberlain (trouble throwing strikes) are not reliever you want to deploy with runners on base.
  • Where is David Robertson? Why not send Robertson out for the 7th inning? It could go Robertson (7th), Phil Hughes (8th), Mariano Rivera (9th), with each reliever fitting neatly into the stupid but conventional role system that managers love so much. Of course, the right move was to send out Rivera for the 7th and 8th, but it’s clear at this point that that’s asking too much.
  • I’m still not done with this Robertson thing. Why are Hughes and Chamberlain both so clearly ahead of Robertson on Joe Girardi’s Totem Pole of Trust? Is it because Girardi thinks Robertson is a kid and not ready for the big moment? He got out of that bases loaded, nobody out jam against the Twins. He’s also older than Hughes and Chamberlain. Is it because Girardi thinks Robertson is worse than them? Chamberlain had a 4.75 ERA this season in 157 innings; Hughes had a 3.03 in 86. Look at Robertson’s numbers and tell me that he isn’t worthy of a shot. Is it because Robertson – through no fault of his own – has never before been branded as a baseball team’s set-up man (as Hughes and Chamberlain have), making him an unrealistic option with a late lead? I fear that’s exactly what it is.
  • Why use Rivera when down 7-6 in the 8th, but not when tied 6-6 in the 7th? Is it because the number in the innings column is “7” and not “8” or “9”? I fear that’s exactly what it is.
  • Down one run with two outs in the top of the 9th, why pinch-run for Alex Rodriguez at first, and then not send the runner? Once again, Girardi did something just because he could, and not because it was the right move.

I just don’t get this game sometimes.


Mike Francesa & Chad Ford Again Avoid Accountability

June 2, 2009

One of my most endearing characteristics is my total willingness to latch on to an assessment that I think is erroneous or unfounded and doggedly attempt to disprove it, even if it means jeopardizing my friends’ desire to discuss sports with me. Perhaps you have noticed this trait in perusing this blog. If so, you and my friends will have something to talk about should your paths ever cross. Anyway, since I take a somewhat masochistic pleasure in being insatiably cranky, you can imagine my excitement for the simultaneous events of one o’clock this afternoon: Mike Francesa’s radio show and Chad Ford’s chat. Two of my favorite vignettes – Francesa’s Joba-to-the-bullpen meme and Ford’s curious aspersions against Terrence Williams – were about to develop further.

As of 3:03 PM, Francesa has predictably engaged in nothing but the relentless application of qualifiers to Joba’s recent performance. His caveats vary in type but are uniform in stupidity:

  • Joba pitched “okay,” but not “great” last night. Of course, he said this minutes after proclaiming Jeremy Sowers’ 5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 5 BB, 3 K performance “good.” 
  • This “okay” pitching performance came against the Cleveland Indians, a “last place team” (true) that “can’t hit” (false). 
  • Joba has pitched better as a reliever than as a starting pitcher. Other pitchers that would have lower ERAs as a reliever include: CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, and every other good starting pitcher. 
  • Jorge Posada thinks Joba should be a reliever, and because Posada has won World Series before, he knows what he’s talking about. Unfortunately for Francesa, Posada admitted he was wrong seven months later and – as far as we know – believes Joba should be a starter. 
  • Joba has to have “six or seven straight eight-inning performances” to justify the Yankees’ choice. As far as I can tell, the last pitcher to have done this was Roy Halladay from August 14th-September 10th, 2007. So, the developing, 23-year-old Chamberlain must do something that only arguably the best pitcher in baseball did two years ago for the decision to be a good one. That makes sense.

Ford’s chat was equally disappointing, to whatever extent the realization of a totally expected outcome can be labeled as such. Once again, I asked him to elaborate specifically on Terrence Williams’ off-court problems. This time, however, I asked quite firmly and without the self-deprecating “maybe I missed something” (that’ll show him!) My question was ignored. 

Like a jilted lover, I ran to Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton, who was holding a chat of his own. Beleaguered and defeated, I asked Pelton a version of the same question I’ve been asking Ford for weeks. I was pleasantly surprised when Pelton chose to respond:

Kevin (New York, NY): I keep seeing certain draft experts citing Terrence Williams’ off-court issues as a major reason for GMs avoiding him on draft day. Do you have any idea what these issues are? I can’t think of a damn thing.

Kevin Pelton (Basketball): No clue. He’s both a Seattle guy and apparently following me on Twitter (@kpelton), so I’m totally positive on Williams.

Unless Ford has an incredibly low tolerance for what constitutes off-court problems and believes Twitter usage warrants public consternation, Terrence Williams’ off-court problems remain a mystery even to Ford’s peers. Really, at this point, I can report no change in my feelings towards Ford and his apparent disregard for his journalistic obligations. It’s just a shame that Williams’ name is being dragged through the mud – however subtly – while his accuser exercises complete control over the process by which the public can hold him accountable for his reporting. 



Joba Makes Diving Catch, Media Calls For His Transition To Late-Inning Defensive Substitute

June 2, 2009

Just kidding. But wow, what a catch:

Great game for Joba: 8 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, and 15 groundouts against a very good offense. Not only did he pitch the pivotal 8th inning, but he got through the previous and less important seven as well. I will be listening to Mike Francesa with great interest this afternoon.


There’s A Lesson In Mike Francesa’s Joba-Induced Meltdown

May 29, 2009

I thought long and hard about posting this clip of Mike Francesa’s meltdown from Wednesday’s show. On one hand, I want Fan Interference to be a place free of vacuous mockery. There’s a place for such things on the Internet, but I just don’t want it to be here. On the other hand, I am human, which makes me capable of finding both humor and lessons in high-profile meltdowns.

Ultimately, I decided to post the video because I think it’s a good example of what sports analysis should not be. It should not be two people screaming at each other, equating volume with validity and forcefulness with finality. It should not be hysterical, haughty, and hyperbolic. Most of all, it should not be done with total ignorance of the facts. Different interpretations of facts are expected and necessary for intelligent discussion, but a total failure to acknowledge the facts themselves dooms an argument to a fate like the one seen below. 

My feelings on Joba Chamberlain’s role have been well-chronicled, so obviously I disagree with Francesa on this matter. But for now, my focus isn’t about which side of the argument is right or wrong. Instead, I want to call attention to the perversion of the rules of engagement. When two sides approach an argument in this way – without even the pretense of respect, patience, or consideration – they produce nothing but poisonous animosity. This isn’t limited to sports debates either; it’s no less deleterious when arguing with friends, family, and significant others. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m convinced that making progress and screaming at each other are mutually exclusive undertakings. And that belief is not up for debate.


The National Sports Media Can Feel Free To Recognize That Jonathan Papelbon Is Kind Of A Jerk

May 25, 2009

 

jonathan_papelbon

My suspicions of national anti-Yankees media bias have mellowed with age, but with the reporting of this small but telling story, I do wonder why we never hear the talking heads blast Jonathan Papelbon for this sort of stuff. Perhaps it’s because the Red Sox were anointed the label of “playing the game the right way” several years ago, and as we know, these perceptions die hard. Still, it took but one fist pump for the national media to come down on Joba Chamberlain’s histrionics. Papelbon acts like a five-year-old each and every time he “saves” a game, yet he escapes consternation. 

I think I’ve generally been pretty clear about my total indifference towards celebrations. As long as they’re in good taste, I don’t care. But I really like consistency, and it would be wonderful if someone outside the New York City area would get on Papelbon’s case for regularly behaving like a total dope.