Negative storylines from the 2010 season

Last Wednesday we took a look at some of the positive storylines that emerged from the Yankees’ 2010 season. Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and while we’ll try to refrain from being too morose, any analysis of the Yankee season wouldn’t be complete without harping on some of the team’s shortcomings.

Negative storylines from 2010

After a hot start, Phil Hughes struggled a bit in his first full season in the rotation. While the overall takeaway from Phil Franchise’s first full year in the starting rotation should ultimately be colored in optimism, as discussed in the aforelinked post, Phil’s performance began to tail off pretty significantly after getting off to as hot a start as anyone in baseball. Through his first 11 starts, Phil pitched to a sterling 2.70 ERA (while holding batters to a .577 OPS), an outstanding mark any way you slice it, but a number particularly impressive in the battlezone known as the American League East. Unfortunately after a six-inning, three-run stint against Baltimore on June 8, the wheels began to come off a bit on Phil’s season. From June 13 against Houston through July 30 at Tampa — a span of eight starts — Phil pitched to a 6.04 ERA while getting lit up to the tune of an .873 OPS.

Thankfully he was able to (mostly) right his ship for the remainder of the year, throwing to a 4.42 ERA (.705 OPS against) over his last 10 starts of the season, including some very important games against the Red Sox on August 9 (a tough-luck loss against Jon Lester in which Hughes went 6 innings and gave up two runs); the September 21 game at home against the Rays, with 6 1/3 innings of three-run ball; and of course, the September 26 match against the Sox in which he tossed six innings of one-run ball.

Hughes went on to throw a gem in his first career postseason start against the Twins in the ALDS before getting torched in two playoff starts in Arlington against Texas, ultimately losing twice, including the decisive Game 6 of the 2010 ALCS. Despite Hughes’ disappointing end to the season, we can take solace in the fact that he just completed his first full season in the Yankee rotation at a slightly above-average level (102 ERA+) while pitching more innings than he ever has before. While it’s probably a stretch to expect Hughes to become the amazing pitcher that the aforementioned Lester developed into (144 ERA+ as a 24-year-old in his first full season in the Sox’s rotation, along with a 3.21 ERA over 210 1/3 innings), only an extreme pessimist would be anything but encouraged by what Phil was able to do in 2010.

Going forward, the keys to Phil’s success remain pitch sequencing, further mixing in of the change, cutting down on the number of gopher balls yielded at Yankee Stadium (at a 1.28 rate, Hughes had the sixth-worst HR/9 mark in the league; that rate ballooned to 1.69 at home) and putting guys away with two strikes. Hughes led the league in foul ball strike percentage, and was sixth in the league in 0-2 count %, but only threw a strike in an 0-2 count 52% of the time, compared with 63% for Cliff Lee, who led the league in 0-2 counts seen. Phil has to be more aggressive — not to mention deceptive — with two strikes if he’s going to continue developing into a frontline pitcher.

The continued mishandling of Joba Chamberlain. Matt talked about the Joba Chamberlain fiasco at length the other day, and the Pinstriped Bible’s Jay Jaffe has done yeoman’s work in his analysis of the Joba situation, but it bears repeating here.

I’ve been in the “Joba should start” camp since day one, despite his electric performance out of the bullpen in late 2007. Given that he was a starter in college, was drafted by the Yankees as a starter and tore up the Yankees’ minor league system as a starter made it seem like his ultimate destination would in fact be as a member of the starting rotation. After all, why waste a guy with four good pitches in the bullpen? Unfortunately Joba’s 2007 fireworks led many to believe he’d be best suited as a reliever, and though the Yankees did wise up and give Chamberlain a try in the rotation in 2008 — a season in which everyone seems to forget he pitched quite well (2.76 ERA over 10 starts before the injury in Texas, including those 7 wonderful shutout innings against Boston on July 25, a game I’ll always cling to) — and 2009 (a rougher campaign, to be sure), the team has never really seemed 100% sold on Joba’s ability to be an effective starting pitcher.

Which is really a shame, as the Yankees know more than anyone else how valuable a commodity young starting pitching is in Major League Baseball, and how critical developing young starters can be to a franchise’s long-term success. Look no further than your National League champion San Francisco Giants and their unreal homegrown quartet of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner.

Despite the supposed “contest” last spring for the fifth rotation slot, Joba’s fate as a Yankee has apparently been sealed as a reliever, which just seems like a massive waste of resources. Relievers are a dime-a-dozen, and considering Joba didn’t even fare as well as one might’ve hoped in the ‘pen in 2010, it would’ve been nice to have seen him get one more crack at a starting rotation slot. Had the team been willing to get a bit more creative this past season, perhaps they could’ve tried to stretch him out in late July when it became apparent they’d need another arm, instead of relying on the likes of Sergio Mitre and Dustin Moseley. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

The expectation now is that the team will listen to offers and try to move Joba, although unless they’re blown away it seems silly to sell at a point in time when his value is probably at its lowest. Perhaps the Yankees can shake a decent package out of a team who views him as rotation fodder, but I’d imagine the days of trading Joba for a potential frontline starter have already passed.

A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez put up legendarily bad seasons while pitching in the same rotation. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which a team makes the playoffs despite featuring two starters combining to pitch to a 5.28 ERA over 59 starts, but the 2010 Yankees managed to do just that, no thanks to A.J. Burnett and Javy Vazquez. You’ve undoubtedly heard about how historically bad Burnett’s year was, but we’re going to beat it further into the ground: Burnett was flat-out atrocious this season, posting a career-worst 5.26 ERA over 186.2 innings — “good” for an 81 ERA+ — and gave the Yankees almost no chance to win in the majority of his outings.

We know Burnett’s always been a roll of the dice, but that was never more apparent this season, as literally no one had any clue what kind of outing Burnett was going to turn in any given day. Considering that he’s signed for three more seasons, Yankee fans have to hope and pray that he can rediscover what made him such a dangerous pitcher for most of his career. Even if he can’t get back to the 114 ERA+ A.J. of 2009 vintage, I’d happily take a league average year from him at this point, considering he’ll be heading up the back end of the rotation. If Yankee fans want to take any consolation, Burnett wasn’t awful in his Game 4 start in the ALCS, and in fact we’d have been saluting his effort had Girardi not left him in one batter too long. Hopefully A.J. can build on the positivity and return with a vengeance next season.

As for Home Run Javy, we’re all familiar with that particular tale of woe. On paper acquiring the pitcher with the second-best FIP in the NL in 2009 — not to mention a proven workhorse, something the Yankees desperately needed in a fourth starter after riding their three-man rotation to the 2009 World Series crown — for the utterly useless Melky Cabrera seemed like a slam dunk. That Vazquez went from arguably one of the top five pitchers in the NL one year, to literally the worst pitcher in the American League the next (his 5.56 FIP is dead last by more than half a run among pitchers who threw 150 or more innings in 2010) was foreseeable by no one.

The Yankees had little choice but to milk these two for all they were worth (which turned out to be almost nothing), given that Burnett still has three years and a trillion dollars left on his deal, while Javy needed to eat innings, or at least try to, but man, Burnett and Vazquez were extremely hard to watch pitch this season.

Mark Teixeira took a step back. That Tex slumped for a second straight April wasn’t much of a story, even if he did post the worst month of his career with a wretched .136/.300/.259 (.270 wOBA) line. That he continued to slump well into June was a big deal, and had many questioning whether Joe Girardi might even give Tex a Giambi-esque kick in the pants by dropping him down in the order. Don’t let Tex’s .365 May wOBA fool you — thought he hit .333/.405/.621 from May 1 through May 17, he slumped back to .237/.341/.401 from May 18 through June 30, a span of 39 games.

Tex finally flipped the switch in July, posting a mammoth .488 wOBA, good for 4th-best in the AL that month. He kept up his torrid hitting in August, posting a .411 wOBA, but then completely fell apart in September, heroically playing through both a broken toe (I’m still not quite sure how) and thumb bruise, which limited him to a .312 wOBA. With the Yankees playing for their playoff lives in September, Tex wasn’t able to get the rest that he needed, and though he hit a huge go-ahead bomb in Game 1 of the ALDS, he wound up being a non-factor in the postseason for the second straight year (.271 postseason wOBA in 2009; .240 in 2010) before ending his season with a pulled hamstring in Game 4 of the ALCS.

The good news is that we know Tex is better than the .256/.365/.481 line he turned in this year. His .367 wOBA was his lowest mark since the first season of his career, and likely would’ve been higher had he not been playing through injuries during the last month of the season. Given his relative health and age, Tex is as good a bet as any to bounce back next year, and I’d expect him to turn in a season at least on par with his career .388 wOBA, if not better. If Tex can finally start contributing right out of the box for the first time in his Yankee career, we could be in for a special season.

Alex Rodriguez started showing his age while Derek Jeter fell off a cliff. Ah, A-Rod. I probably spent more time worrying about Alex’s lack of power than anything else relating to the Yankees this year, and after tallying a scant (for him) 14 home runs through his first 359 plate appearances (1 every 26 at-bats), he went and smacked 16 over his final 236 (1 every 15 at-bats), including nine over his final 112 PAs (1 every 12 at-bats), putting up a team-leading .411 wOBA in the final month of the season and winning September Player of the Month honors.

However, unlike in his legendary 2009 postseason, A-Rod promptly vanished this past October, putting up a .290 wOBA with only two doubles. Still, next year I think we’re more likely to see the Alex of September 2010 than the one who put up a career-low (since becoming a full-time player) .363 wOBA on the season. At least, we better be, as I don’t think I can take another .270/.341/.506 (that OBP was a full-season career-low) y

ear from our cleanup hitter.

As for Derek, I’ll probably save most of my analysis/venting for a future post since we’ll undoubtedly be gnashing our teeth with regards to the insane contract he’s going to be receiving, but needless to say I was so underwhelmed with our shortstop’s career-low .340 OBP (out of the leadoff slot, no less) and his penchant for first-pitch swinging (doing so in 102 of his 739 plate appearances — or a rather mind-boggling 14% of his at-bats — and hitting .292/.327/.375 compared to a league average of .331/.337/.528 on the first pitch) and grounding out to the shortstop (posting a league-leading 65.7 GB%) seemingly every time he did so that I would have zero problem with Derek Jeter signing elsewhere if it weren’t for the fact that the Yankees don’t have anybody to replace him.

Shockingly, in a year were Derek managed a meager .321 wOBA, that mark was still somehow good enough for second-best in the AL after Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez. Unfortunately, Troy Tulowitzki is still under contract for three more seasons (plus a team option for a fourth), but if the Yankees end up locking Derek in for what I expect will be a four-year contract, the end of Derek’s deal will coincide perfectly with Tulowitzki’s impending free agency, so at least there’s something positive to be gleaned from this mess.

Nick Johnson predictably turned into a pumpkin. We’ve been through this many times on this site, and while I loved the Nick the Stick signing at the time (and still support it, even though it didn’t work out), no one was surprised when he hit the shelf for good in early May. Unfortunately Nick wasn’t doing much with the Stick anyway at the time of his season-ending injury aside from his primary skill of getting on base, but as much as I love OBP, a .167/.388/.306 line is putrid. Like Vazquez, Stick’s second go-round with the Yankees was far worse than the first iteration, and while a small part of me hopes that Nick could re-sign with the Yanks for cheap as a bench option, I doubt the team will be willing to gamble for a second straight year.

Getting owned by soft-tossers, guys they’ve never seen before and rookies. Ah, the holy trinity of 2010 Yankee Kryptonite™/bugaboos: Pitchers who throw below 90mph and have devastating change-ups, pitchers they’ve never faced before and rookies making their Major League debuts.

Though I ended up dispelling some of my preconceived notions regarding the Yankees’ issues with soft-tossers, the Yankees’ season numbers do lend credence to this notion, as according to B-Ref (and The Pinstriped Bible) the team hit .263/.337/.421 (.758 OPS) against Finesse pitchers, defined as those in the bottom third of the league in strikeouts plus walks per nine. Brett Cecil, Hisanori Takahashi and Dallas Braden were the three Finesse pitchers who gave the Yankees the most trouble this season, and Cecil in particular had arguably the second-best year of any pitcher against the Yankees after Felix Hernandez, throwing 33 2/3 innings of 2.71 ERA ball. If I’m Kevin Long one of my top priorities this offseason is trying to figure this guy out, as the Yankees are likely to see him another four to five times next season.

As for Getting Owned by Pitchers They’ve Never Seen Before, this surfaced perhaps most notably during the regular season in August against Bryan Bullington and Max Scherzer, but was dramatically underscored in the ALCS, where Colby Lewis schooled the team not once, but twice, completely shutting the Yankees down in his series-clinching Game 6 victory. Again, I don’t know why the Yankees struggle the way they do against guys they’ve never seen before — it’s not like they don’t have videotape to prep, and it seems like other teams never seem to struggle when the Yankees throw a pitcher that the opposition has never seen before — and this needs to be item #2 on K-Long’s offseason to-do list.

And finally we have Getting Owned by Rookies Making their MLB debuts, which is just flat-out embarrassing. As I discovered back in July, since 2001 the Yankees are 2-6 against starters making their debuts, which is of course a small sample but still incredibly bizarre. As I noted in that post, the Yankees haven’t actually beaten a rookie making his MLB debut since 2004. This research was inspired by Josh Tomlin, who authored the most dominating start (per WPA) by a pitcher making his Major League debut against the Yankees in the last 10 years.

As I joked numerous times throughout the 2010 season, if a team really wanted to beat the Yankees in the postseason, they should fill out their rotation by calling up four rookies to make their Major League debuts, none of whom throw harder than 90mph and each of whom are capable of at least a 12mph delta between their fastball and changeup. You think the Yankees’ performance aga

inst the Rangers was bad; this would result in four straight complete-game shutouts.

The great RISP Fail and Stranded Baserunner Saga of September 2010. In 2010, the Yankees hit .267/.357/.441 with men on base, and .258/.363/.420 with runners in scoring position, or slightly worse than they did with the bases empty (.267/.343/.432). While the .020 extra points of OBP in the RISP line are nice, it helps underscore the fact that the Yankees seemed to struggle to come through with the big hit while stranding inordinate amounts of baserunners. Per B-Ref, the Yankees had a league-leading 4,357 baserunners, more than 200 more than the second-best team, and scored 15% of them, compared to a league average of 14%.

That in and of itself doesn’t sound terrible, but considering the Yankees had so many more chances to score than the second-best team and only converted 15% of their chances, it’s somewhat frustrating to think about how many more runs the team could’ve scored had they converted, say, 16% of their chances, like Minnesota (who hit .285/.363/.417 with RISP) did. Of course, I suppose it’s all relative, as the average American League team hit .258/.342/.397 with RISP, which tells us that the Yankees did hit for above-average patience and power in these situations.

So while the Yankees were still a slightly above-average team with runners in scoring position for much of the season, their ability to hit with runners in scoring position took a severe beating in the last month of the season, as they put up a putrid .225/.350/.331 (.681 OPS) in 338 plate appearances. That’s dreadful, not to mention eerily reminiscent of the pitiful overall batting line they mustered against Texas in the ALCS. While many things went wrong for the team in September, the stranding of more baserunners than grains of sand on the earth was just as if not more culpable than any of the other issues that caused the Yankees to go 25-25 over their last 50 games and ultimately have to settle for the Wild Card.