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Chase Whitley vs. Jacob deGrom? Maybe, in Durham, North Carolina for the 2014 Triple-A All Star Game, but certainly not New York City during the Subway Series. Guess again. Thanks to their early season success and a spate of injuries suffered by the Yankees and Mets, the two young right handers were diverted from Tobacco Road to Broadway, and each pitcher did more than enough to earn an encore.

Whitley and deGrom weren’t on the Yankees’ or Mets’ radar this season, so each’s promotion from the minors to the spotlight of the Subway Series is remarkable in its own right. That the two pitchers wound up facing each other as starters makes the matchup historic. Since 1914, debuting starters had faced off in only 14 major league games, and for the Yankees, it was the first such occurrence since 1908, according to Elias.

Double Debuts: Matchups Between Starters Making First Big League Appearance
Double Debuts
Note: On 5/13/2004, Daniel Cabrera and Felix Diaz made their debuts in different games of a doubleheader between the Orioles and White Sox.
Source: baseball-reference.com

Whitley and deGrom did more than just toe the rubber last night. Thanks to their efforts, the Yankees and Mets played the first 1-0 game in Subway Series history. Whitley, who was lifted in the fifth before surrendering a run, and deGrom, who limited the Yankees to one run over seven full innings (and broke the Mets’ pitchers’ equally historic stretch of hitless at bats with a single), combined to record a game score of 131, the second highest total among the aforementioned 15 games featuring debuting starters. Separately, deGrom’s game score of 69 and Whitley’s 62 were better than 90% and 78% of all major league debuts, respectively. It clearly wasn’t the script the Yankees and Mets had in mind entering the series, but it proved to be a noteworthy finale.

Aggregate Performance of All Starters Making MLB Debut, 1914-Current
DEBUT AGGREGATES
Source: baseball-reference.com

Whitley and deGrom will likely earn an additional start or two as the Yankees and Mets lick their wounds, but will the two pitchers ever face each other again? It seems fanciful to think that what started as a novelty could become an annual Subway Series tradition, but even if the two righties never cross paths in the future, they’ll always have New York, which is a bit more glamorous than Durham.

What you think of the Yankees’ pitching staff probably depends on the statistic used for evaluation. By traditional measures, the Bronx Bombers’ pitchers are decidedly mediocre, while more advanced metrics place them among the best in the league. What explains this divergence? And what does the variance portend?

In terms of runs allowed per game, the Yankees rank fifth from the bottom, with an average rate that is one-quarter run higher than the rest of the league. Earned run average is a little kinder. The Yankees’ ERA of 4.31 is also below average, but when adjusted to ballpark, the resultant ERA+ of 99 suggests a pitching staff more in line with the mean. When it comes to fielding independent pitching (FIP) stats, however, the Bronx Bombers’ pitchers start to standout. The Yankees’ FIP of 3.78 ranks in the top half of the American League, while the adjusted version of that metric (xFIP) moves the Bronx Bombers to the head of the class. If only the Yankees could figure out how get the strength of their pitchers’ peripheral performance to match what is reflected on the scoreboard.

Yankees’ Pitchers vs. American League
YanksvsALpitchstats

 

Note: BABIP multiplied by 100 for scaling purposes.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

The Yankees’ pitching staff has had two glaring problems this season: it has allowed the most home runs per nine innings in the majors and suffered the fourth highest BABIP. That’s why the team’s pitchers rate much better when using FIP statistics, which assume the normalization of home runs allowed and batting average on balls in play. If the theory holds, the Yankees can expect improved aggregate performance from their pitching staff. However, when it comes to BABIP, there is reason to believe the team’s inflated rate isn’t about to level off anytime soon. Continue Reading »

The Yankees have one of the worst run differentials in the major leagues, but still sit atop their division after 30 games. This unique juxtaposition is the result of some good luck and a very mediocre A.L. East. Can the Yankees count on these trends continuing throughout the year, or, will the division turn itself around if the Bronx Bombers are unable to do the same?

The Yankees were a very lucky team in 2013. By exceeding their expected win-loss record by six games, the Bronx Bombers were able to disguise a difficult season in a cloak of respectability. So, maybe they can beat the odds again this year? If so, they’ll have to overcome historical precedent in order to qualify for the playoffs. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, run differential over the first 30 games of the season has been a pretty good barometer for who plays in October, and teams that have been outscored like the 2014 Yankees usually find themselves watching the postseason at home.

30-Game Run Differential Distribution for Playoff Teams, 1995 to 2013
Playoff run diff 30 games
Source: Baseball-reference.com

Since 1995, 156 playoff teams have scored an average of 20 more runs than their opponents in the first 30 games of the season. Of that total, nearly 80% had a positive run differential, and over 90% had a better margin than the Yankees’ current 16-run deficit. What about teams in the same boat as the Bronx Bombers?  Since 1995, 39 teams had a negative run differential between 10 and 16, and they combined for a winning percentage of .484 over the entire season. Based on these daunting figures, it appears as if the 2014 Yankees have their work cut out for them. Continue Reading »

The Yankees, that's who.

The Yankees, that’s who.

Who needs Robinson Cano? Apparently not the Yankees, who, at 15-10, will welcome their former All Star second baseman back to the Bronx as co-owners of the best record in the American League. The team’s early success has allowed many to overlook the absence of Cano, but a more careful inspection suggests the Yankees still need to fill the void he left behind.

The Yankees’ league leading record has come in spite of one of the lowest run differentials in the majors. On both sides of the ball, the Yankees have lagged the league average, but the team’s pitching has actually been a relative strength in most games. In fact, almost half (54 of 113) of the runs allowed by Yankees’ pitchers were surrendered in only four games. In 17 of the other 21, the team’s staff has kept the opposition to four or fewer runs, giving the Yankees a chance to win almost every night.

Yankees’ Percentage of Games Scoring 4 or Fewer Runs, 1901 – Present
rate of 4 or fewer
Source: Baseball-reference.com

The Yankees’ stingy pitching has helped the team thrive despite an early season offensive malaise. To be fair, the team’s bats have been about average based on metrics like OPS+, wRC+ and even runs per game, but as with the pitching, the aggregate numbers skew the daily reality. In 16 of 25 games, or 64% of the time, the Yankees have scored 4 or fewer runs. If pro-rated over the full schedule, that percentage would rate among the franchise’s worst offensive seasons. However, unlike year’s past, the Yankees have managed to win more than their fair share of low scoring games. In fact, the team’s 8-8 record when scoring four or fewer runs would rank as the third highest winning percentage among all American League teams since the end of the dead ball era. Good pitching is to thank for that, but will the rotation and bullpen be able to carry the load all season? A better question is why should they have to? Continue Reading »

The baseball world went more than 24 hours without a Tommy John surgery, but this morning, Yankees’ prospect Jose Campos helped reset the clock, joining a list that has grown to epidemic proportions.

Tommy John with Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon who pioneered the surgery that has become so prevalent today.

Tommy John with Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon who pioneered the surgery that has become so prevalent today.

Tommy John was prominent during his day, but, with the recent spate of arm injuries, his name has never been more popular. In this era of science and specialization, we should expect injuries of all types to be on the decline, but the number of elbow ligament surgeries continues to rise. It’s almost as if the Tommy John procedure has become part of a pitcher’s development, like learning to throw a breaking pitch or getting accustomed to a major league strike zone. However, despite the success rate of the surgery, the 18-month minimum layoff is still no joke. So, what gives? Why is Tommy John baseball’s new poster boy?

One explanation gaining steam places the blame on youth and amateur baseball programs. Those who work with Dr. James Andrews, a noted practitioner of the procedure, and John himself seem to subscribe to this theory, which argues that the increased stress levels on young arms are manifesting themselves in the professional ranks. However, if that were true, shouldn’t we expect Tommy John surgery to be prevalent among Japanese pitchers (see here for a translated list of Japanese pitchers who have undergone the procedure), whose baseball culture is notorious for high pitch counts at young ages (see here and here)? Also, are we really to believe that youth baseball coaches are more reckless than in the past, especially considering the greater scrutiny that exists today? These seeming contradictions don’t completely exonerate youth baseball, but they do suggest that some blame shifting might be involved. After all, it’s easy to pass the buck to the nameless, faceless coaches at lower levels than take responsibility for the problem at the big league level.

Instead of looking back to a pitcher’s childhood, maybe the reason for the Tommy John outbreak exists in the present. If so, what about the game today is much different from five or 10 years ago? The most obvious answer is PEDs, or the lack thereof. Maybe the elimination of steroids, hormones and amphetamines have created a physical vulnerability from a pitching population in collective withdrawal? It’s impossible to dismiss that claim, but logic would dictate a return to pre-steroid era injury levels, not an acceleration to epidemic proportions. Continue Reading »

Yankees starter Michael Pineda was ejected for having pine tar on his neck, but the finger of shame should be pointed at MLB.

Yankees starter Michael Pineda was ejected for having pine tar on his neck, but the finger of shame should be pointed at MLB.

Michael Pineda put himself and the Yankees in a sticky situation when he took the mound in the second inning of last night’s game wearing a very noticeable swath of pine tar on his neck. The glistening goop was so noticeable, the big right hander would have been better off stealing the pine tar rag from the on-deck circle and tying it around his forehead like a bandana. After all, every good comedy thrives on absurdity.

Michael Pineda’s crime wasn’t that he cheated. He just didn’t do it very well. If only Pineda had studied the video tape of Clay Buchholz, he might have been able to get away with the deception. At the very least, he probably would have satisfied Red Sox’ manager John Farrell, who, in postgame comments, stated that the Yankees’ righty compelled him to blow the whistle by so blatantly doing what otherwise is universally accepted, including within his own clubhouse. Because at least a couple of his pitchers are notorious users of foreign substances, the last thing Farrell wanted to do was squeal. However, if Pineda had shut down his team once again, the Red Sox manager would have had a hard time explaining his inaction to the media, the team’s fan base and, most importantly, his bosses. In a sense, Pineda’s sticky situation put Farrell in one as well.

Everyone interviewed after the game pretty much offered the same commentary as Farrell. Pineda’s use of pine tar would have been acceptable if only he hadn’t flaunted it in the face of the opposition. Who knew conventional wisdom could be so stupid? And yet, that’s how everyone in the game seems to think. Apparently, in baseball, the means justifies the end.

Michael Pineda broke a rule. He did so blatantly…and for the second time in two weeks against the same team. For such brazenness, he deserved to be ejected. However, neither he nor the Yankees need to apologize. If anything, major league baseball is the one that should be offering a mea culpa. By ignoring the portion of rule 8.02 that prohibits pitchers from using a foreign substance, baseball’s lax enforcement has created a culture within the game that tacitly accepts and promotes a clear violation of the rules.

Bud Selig has two choices. The first option is to implement a zero tolerance policy for violations of rule 8.02, in which case ejections and suspensions would likely become epidemic, creating an even more embarrassing situation than the one Pineda finds himself in this morning. That isn’t the Pandora’s Box Farrell or anyone else in the game wants opened, so the second option is probably more realistic. Just like hitters have a pine-tar rag, pitchers should also be given an approved substance to apply to their hands at pre-determined times. It’s a simple choice and there shouldn’t be any further delay in making it.

While baseball mulls over a possible rule change, there’s still the issue of a pending suspension for Pineda. Although the rule suggest a 10-game ban, the length is left up to MLB’s discretion. In 1983, American League president Lee MacPhail ruled that although George Brett’s use of excessive pine tar was prohibited, his actions did not violate the spirit of the rule. Hopefully, when Joe Torre reviews Pineda’s actions, he will come to the same conclusion. Otherwise, the message will be loud and clear: “Baseball is OK with cheating…just try not to get caught”.

Sound familiar?

Jacoby Ellsbury’s return to Fenway Park wasn’t exactly a hero’s reception. Although the Red Sox properly honored their former centerfielder with a video montage before the game, the fans weren’t as generous. Most favored status in Red Sox Nation can be fleeting, especially when you return in the road grays of New York, but the lack of appreciation for a player who had been so instrumental in Boston’s recent success seemed a little ungrateful.

Who knows, maybe the Fenway faithful simply forgot about all the great things Ellsbury did for their team. If so, it didn’t take long for the speedy lefty to offer a few reminders. Before some in the crowd even had a chance to take their seats at the old ballpark, Ellsbury had already tripled to lead off the game and then robbed Grady Sizemore of an extra base hit with a sliding catch in center. It was just like old times, except now the Yankees were the team having all the fun.

Ellsbury isn’t the first home grown Red Sox All Star to return to Fenway wearing a different uniform. Over the years, Boston has regularly bid a premature farewell to some of their biggest stars, but the centerfielder’s return certainly ranks among the most triumphant, at least from a performance standpoint. From a fan perspective, Ellsbury’s Fenway reunion was underwhelming compared to other recent Red Sox refugees. Listed below are the results of some prominent Fenway returns along with the crowd reaction to each player.

Fenway Park Reunions

Player Team Date Results
Babe Ruth Yankees 4/19/1920 2-4, 2B
Carlton Fisk White Sox 4/10/1981 2-4, HR, 1R, 3 RBI
Fred Lynn Angels 8/31/1981 0-4
Wade Boggs Yankees 5/21/1993 4-4, BB
Roger Clemens Blue Jays 7/12/1997 8IP, 4H, 1R, 16K, W
Mo Vaughn Angels 5/7/1999 0-4
Nomar Garciaparra Athletics 7/6/2009 2-4, RBI
Kevin Youkilis White Sox 7/16/2012 3-4, 1R, 2 2B
Jonathan Papelbon Phillies 5/28/2013 1IP, 1K, Save
Jacoby Ellsbury Yankees 4/22/2014 2-5, 2R, 2RBI, 2B, 3B

Note: Includes select home grown players who left the Red Sox in close proximity to their prime years.
Source: baseball-reference.com
Continue Reading »

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