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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Yankees’ Postseason Fate Closely Tied To A.J. Burnett’s Performance

September 12, 2009

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Over the last year or so, I’ve realized that my ardent commitment to statistical analysis in sports has come at the cost of my youthful fandom. I remain a dedicated supporter of my teams, but some of the unadulterated enthusiasm has faded away. For example, when Robinson Cano rips a double on the first pitch of an at-bat, I can’t help but shake my head at his impatience instead of applauding his play. When Joba Chamberlain pitches a good game, I’m not only happy because he’s given the Yankees a quality performance, but also because this means I’m one small step closer to being right about his proper role in the major leagues. In short, I’m rooting more for me to be right than for the athletic displays themselves. It’s a bit of a somber realization, but I’ve come to accept its permanence.

Until recently, this change had all but done away with age-old question “who’s your favorite baseball player?” Ten years ago, I would have said Derek Jeter. Five years ago, it would have been Gary Sheffield. If you asked me in the last year, I would have blinked at you quizzically and named the Yankee with the highest WARP, because he would have contributed the most to my favorite team. But now, strangely enough, I have an answer to that question, and it’s largely without a statistical bent. A.J. Burnett is my favorite baseball player and he is, to my great trepidation, the key to the Yankees’ postseason chances. Read the rest of this entry »


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back For YES Booth

July 26, 2009
Michael Kay and Al Leiter are two-thirds of YES' most energetic booth

Michael Kay and Al Leiter are two-thirds of YES' most energetic booth

It’s taken me until late July, but I’ve finally realized that the liveliest combination of the Yankees’ broadcasters consists of Michael Kay, Al Leiter, and Paul O’Neill. That doesn’t mean that this group is the best group; even if O’Neill were capable of focusing on one subject, he wouldn’t be able to communicate his thoughts clearly. For better or worse, however, these three provide bountiful banter, occasional insight, and the rare wisecrack.

The trio was at it again in this afternoon’s game against the Oakland Athletics, producing three exchanges that I found particularly interesting. The first came during Hideki Matsui’s first inning at-bat against Dallas Braden. With two outs and runners on first and third, Matsui hit the ball to the opposite field, scoring Derek Jeter. After the moment had passed, Paul O’Neill and Al Leiter (a former pitcher) had this (paraphrased) exchange:

O’Neill: Al, how aggravating is that to see, as a pitcher? You’ve got two outs, you make a good pitch, and he just fights it off into the opposite field. Now a run scored and you’ve got to get after it all over again. Just a tough break for the pitcher.

Leiter: He didn’t make a good pitch though. He hung it over the middle of the plate. [Kurt] Suzuki set up outside, and Braden left it right over the middle. That was a mistake.

Leiter’s contribution was impressive in two ways. First and foremost, he broke the mold by not accepting an easy and banal explanation as a valid piece of analysis. Broadcasters have made a habit out of regurgitating analytical platitudes instead of taking the time to examine something on its own terms. Leiter rejected this notion and, in turn, provided the viewer with a helpful bit of insight. Less importantly, Leiter’s ability to see that before the overhead replay was even shown was awfully cool. Sure enough, the footage confirmed that Braden missed inside by a good six inches, leaving Matsui a very hittable pitch right over the plate.

Later in the game, discussion shifted towards the day’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. As a natural consequence, the booth began debating the worthiness of several controversial players. Michael Kay eventually whipped himself up into a justified outrage over some voters’ stubborn insistence on not voting for any player during their first attempt at induction, no matter their qualifications. Kay explained to us that some voters do this because they believe no player should ever be elected unanimously, since inclusion is an incredible honor. Eventually, Kay called this practice “stupid,” and said that it reflected poorly on the voters. I was heartened to hear this. I’ve known Kay to be passionately stodgy about a variety of baseball issues, so I awaited his agreement with these voters’ ridiculous exercise. Agreement never came, and for that, I am happy.

Of course, Kay almost instantly lost any fictional Kevin Points he may have won mere seconds earlier. He rightfully wondered how Greg Maddux’s impending candidacy would go, since Maddux is – by any measure, newfangled or old-fashioned – one of the very best pitchers in the history of baseball. He then had this exchange with himself:

Kay: Greg Maddux is one of the best pitchers of all time, and should be inducted unanimously. But Tom Seaver wasn’t unanimous, and Tom Seaver was better than Greg Maddux.

My father and I furrowed our respective brows, because we were both pretty sure that this isn’t true. A quick look at some key statistics validated our suspicions:

  • Seaver: 4,782 IP, 311 W, 2.86 ERA, 127 ERA+, 1.12 WHIP, 2.62 K/BB
  • Maddux: 5,008 IP, 355 W, 3.16 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1.14 WHIP, 3.37 K/BB

It’s not a landslide, but Maddux was a better pitcher than Seaver. He threw more innings, had a better ERA relative to his peers, and had superior control. Kay’s dismissing of Maddux’s credentials wasn’t a huge slight, but it wasn’t exactly measured either.

That’s it. Here’s to a 2.5 game lead over the Red Sox and a 7.04 ERA from uber-bargain John Smoltz.


Two Bullpen-Related Notes From Tonight’s Rays-Yankees Game

June 8, 2009

In an attempt to distract myself from Joe Girardi’s perplexing decision to remove Phil Hughes in favor of Phil Coke, I would like to share two bullpen-related thoughts gleaned from this game. Because, let’s be honest, I just don’t write enough about bullpens.

Yankees’ broadcasters Michael Kay and David Cone have spent much of the night criticizing the Rays’ bullpen for systemic ineptitude. Kay in particular has continually referred to the lack of clear-cut roles given to Rays relievers, citing their general ineffectiveness as preventing such a delegation. Because there is no “7th inning guy” or “8th inning guy” – as Kay phrases it – manager Joe Maddon’s job is made much more difficult.

I have two problems with this, the first of which is factual. Despite their purported maladies, the Rays’ bullpen hasn’t been bad so far. Its 4.14 ERA ranks 14th in baseball. Opponents have posted a .322 OBP and .396 SLG against Rays relievers, ranking 7th and 19th, respectively. Their 1.84 K/BB ranks 14th. These numbers all reveal an average bullpen – not one deserving of incessant criticism. Perhaps this seems like nitpicking, but I found Kay and Cone’s comments a little disingenuous, especially when they’ve also been praising the Yankees’ poor bullpen for its flexibility and dynamism. Yes, that Yankees bullpen.

My second quarrel is more philosophical. Mainstream analysts are of the uniform opinion that not having clearly defined roles for relievers significantly hinders a team. We are told that not having that “7th inning guy” or “8th inning guy” makes a manager’s life miserable, necessitating the painstaking “piecing together” of a game’s final 9-12 outs. The implication is that clearly defined relief roles – thereby enabling push-button management – allows for the more effective deployment of relievers and a better chance of winning baseball games.

I disagree with this implication. Too often, managers create static roles for their relievers as a means of avoiding criticism. For example, if Team A is up 4-3 in the 8th inning, that team will deploy its “8th inning guy” to protect the slim lead. If the reliever relinquishes the advantage, the manager faces little questioning because, well, he used his “8th inning guy” in the 8th inning. This rigid assignment of roles does more to protect a manager from criticism than it does to win games. It’s unimaginative, lazy, and timid management. Alternatively, it seems likely to me that “piecing together” the final outs of a game can present tactically advantageous opportunities – if the manager is willing to put in the work. I hope that a manager will take that risk some day soon.


Michael Kay vs. Context, Part 2

March 3, 2009

I’m mostly posting just to provide a visual break between the 2009 All-Overrated College Basketball Team and the forthcoming All-Underrated version, but also to share another example of what is fast becoming Michael Kay’s signature quirk

Kay was going through the Twins’ batting order before the game, as is his wont. After reading outfielder Delmon Young’s name, Kay added:

“Young has a .297 average against the Yankees, so you can see he’s always had good success against them.”

Delmon Young’s career batting average is .292. His performance against the Yankees is almost identical to his against everyone else he’s ever hit against in his major league career. 

Back later with more basketball.


It Must Be Baseball Season!

February 26, 2009

I’m going to keep this short, because for the first time in four long months, I can turn on the television and watch baseball being played instead of imagining it in my head. Celebrating imaginary home runs is a great way to clear a subway car, I’ve discovered. Anyway, about two minutes into today’s Rays-Yankees Spring Training game, Yankees’ play-by-play man Michael Kay showed us that his new year’s resolution was not “provide context when remarking on a statistic.” Kay:

“Batting second is Yankee-killer Carl Crawford, who always owns the Bombers – you see his .296 batting average against them.”

Carl Crawford’s career batting average is .293.

Happy baseball season!

UPDATE: Derek Jeter just grounded weakly to short. It really must be baseball season.


Michael Kay Did Not Look This Up

August 19, 2008

During tonight’s Yankees-Blue Jays game, the YES Network flashes the Red Sox-Orioles score. Michael Kay mentions Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 14-2 record this year, but calls it “shaky.”

I agree. This is good.

Kay then explains it is shaky because Matsuzaka “walks six batters a game.”

Having looked at precisely zero statistics and without the advantage of preparation, I am 100% positive this is wrong.

Daisuke Matsuzaka has pitched 121 2/3 innings this year, in which he has allowed 72 walks. Basic number-crunching reveals that he allows 0.59 walks per inning, and 5.31 per 9 innings. Mind you, 5.31 BB/9 does not mean Matsuzaka walks 5.32 per game, which would be somewhat close to what Michael Kay is saying. It just means that if he were to regularly pitch a complete game, he would allow 5.31 walks.

Kay is arguing that Matsuzaka allows six walks per start. Matsuzaka has started 21 games this season, which means on average he pitches 5.79 innings per start. This means that he allows 3.41 walks per start, which means that Michael Kay is wrong.

I am going to dance on Kay’s grave a little bit more. Let’s ignore the fact that every reputable baseball website shows that Matsuzaka’s BB/9 is less than six, rendering Kay’s statement mathematically impossible. Let’s focus more on the fact that spending 30 seconds looking at Matsuzaka’s game log shows that he has walked six batters or more in three starts this season. Therefore, Kay’s statement has been true 14.28% of the time this season.