Series Preview | Yankees vs. Athletics I: A 16-3 record over the last two seasons says the Yanks can stomp all over your mound as much as they please

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Hope you’re all enjoying the Memorial Day holiday! Though you may be off from work, the Yankees are not, as they continue their first West Coast swing of the year with a three-game set against the A’s. For a broader overview of what the A’s have been doing, please refer to my Series Preview on the Mariners from this past Friday. The two teams have been very similar this season, sporting world-class rotations (that both happen to pitch in two of the larger parks in the American League) and mediocre offensive attacks.

As noted in the title of this post, the Yankees have basically owned the Athletics during the last two seasons, putting up a 16-3 record during that timeframe. While the A’s boast some of the best pitchers in the American League — rotation stalwarts Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez all rank among the top 20 pitchers in the AL in terms of fWAR, and former reliever Brandon McCarthy actually leads them all, with 2.0 fWAR (5th-best in the AL) — for whatever reason, despite often struggling against premier pitching, the Yankees haven’t seemed to have all that much difficulty getting the best of the A’s top pitchers in recent years. They ripped Cahill for 14 runs over 10 innings in two starts last year, and while Anderson fared much better in his lone start against the Yanks in 2010 — 6 innings of one-run ball — the Yanks still managed eight hits and two walks, so clearly there was some serious Hitting-With-Men-On-Fail going on there. They also haven’t really had a problem with Gonzalez, hanging 10 runs on the lefty across 8.1 innings in two starts last year.

Now obviously past performance is not indicative of future results, but given that the Yankees often seem to struggle against elite young hurlers, knowing that the team has gotten to several of the A’s’ top starters in the past certainly gives me more confidence than I might ordinarily have heading into a series like this.

It’s funny; given that Anderson (avg. fastball 90.8mph) and Cahill (avg. fastball 89.2mph) are both relative slow-throwers, my initial reaction would be to head for the hills, given the Yankees’ anecdotal difficulty with this variety of pitcher (plus, Anderson is a lefty!) — even though my own research has largely disproved this theory, I still shudder when the team has to face guys who can’t break 90mph with their fastball. Gonzalez is the hardest-throwing member of the staff, which probably partially explains why the Yankees tend to fare better against him than anyone else on the A’s. Of course, the one slow-throwing A’s pitcher they did struggle with last season (at least until finally breaking through against him last August) was good ol’ “Get off my mound” Dallas Braden, who is on the shelf for the season.

In fact, the A’s’ pitching staff has been hit quite hard with the injury bug, making the fact that their starters still have the best collective ERA in the AL that much more impressive. With Braden out, the team had given Tyson Ross his slot, and Ross has filled in quite well (2.61 ERA/3.03 FIP) in six starts. However, Ross went down last week at almost the exact same time as the aforementioned Brandon McCarthy, leading the team to plug their spots in with Josh Outman — who made his first start since 2009 last Monday — and rookie Guillermo Moscoso. Is anyone surprised that these two combined for 13 innings of one-run ball in their first two starts? However, the Yankees will be missing both Outman and Moscoso in this series, which, given their tendency to vanish against Pitchers They’ve Never Seen Before (last Wednesday’s game being the exception), is probably a good thing.

ANYWAY, here are the pitching matchups:

In this afternoon’s 4:05pm start, the A’s will send Cahill (2.02 ERA/3.52 FIP/3.19 xFIP) to the mound against Bartolo Colon (3.77 ERA/3.61 FIP/2.93 xFIP). Bartolo was done in by one bad inning against Toronto on Monday, but has still been everything the Yankees could have asked for. Even better for Yankee fans, Colon is due for some HR/9 regression, as his xFIP is 2.93. If there was ever a ballpark to help regress one’s home run rate, “ Coliseum” would probably be it.

Cahill is up to his usual shenanigans, outpitching his FIP by one of the widest margins in the league (3rd-biggest negative delta in the AL) — a year after finishing second in the league in that category — on the strength of an outrageous 86.7% strand rate (tied for 3rd in the league). His BABIP isn’t even super-low, so it’s not like its entirely luck-fueled, but when you’re getting a groundball 57% of the time, you’re going to strand a lot of baserunners. The key to Cahill’s continued success this season — in addition to the GB% — has been an impressive uptick in K/9, from 5.40 last year to 7.07 in 2011, and both aspects of his game are set up by a rather deadly sinker (8.3 runs above average, 8th-best wFB in the AL)-changeup (4.3 runs above average, also 8th-best in the AL) combo. That all being said, as noted earlier in the post, the Yanks have hit Cahill pretty hard previously; hopefully they continue to do so.

In the second game (10pm start time), it’s Brett Anderson (3.18 ERA/3.12 FIP/2.99 xFIP) against Freddy Garcia (3.14 ERA/4.44 FIP/4.05 xFIP). Garcia, like Colon, has continued to be a pleasant surprise, mostly limiting the damage while eating his fair share of innings. Freddy actually has the second-best ERA on the Yankee staff, so it might be time to start having a little more confidence in his starts than expecting him to blow up every time out. Also, the A’s hit like feeble little girls (.293 team wOBA on the season), but they won’t necessarily get themselves out (third-lowest Swing% in the AL and second-lowest O-Swing%), which could work against Freddy’s contact-friendly gameplan.

Anderson, like the majority of the A’s stuff, isn’t a big-time strikeout pitcher (a very good, but not elite 7.20 K/9) but also limits his walks (2.35 BB/9), and is the most extreme groundballer on the staff, with a Major League-leading 63% GB%. However, luck has not been quite as kind to Mr. Anderson as it has Mr. Cahill, as Brett has been on the receiving end of a .304 BABIP, leading to a slightly more pedestrian 75.6% strand rate. Despite being the leading ground-ball pitcher in the league, Anderson does it with one of the nastiest sliders in the league (6.9 runs above average, 4th-best in the AL) instead of the traditional sinker. Fortunately none of Anderson’s other pitches rate all that effectively, but he’s still been the A’s’ second-best pitcher by fWAR, so he’ll likely be a handful.

And in the finale on Wednesday (3:35pm start time), it’ll be Gonzalez (2.20 ERA/3.22 FIP/3.33 xFIP) against A.J. Burnett (4.02 ERA/4.50 FIP/3.94 xFIP). As usual, Gio is getting his strikeouts (8.79 K/9, 5th-highest mark in the league), and has lowered his walk rate for the third season in a row. A walk rate above 4.00 had been keeping him from becoming a truly elite pitcher, and if he can continue to limit the walks, he’s going to be very dangerous as a strikeout pitcher with a a near-50% GB%. Burnett’s been kind of “whatever” this season, with a couple of great starts mixed in with a few middling ones, though outside of his 6th-inning blowup in Tampa two weeks ago he really hasn’t been wretched.

Here’s who’s hot coming into this series (per wOBA over the last 14 days, through games of Thursday, May 26):

Russell Martin – .421
Alex Rodriguez – .418
Curtis Granderson – .413
Jorge Posada – .385

David DeJesus – .475
Coco Crisp – .371

And here’s who’s been cold:

Nick Swisher – .253
Derek Jeter – .264
Robinson Cano – .300

Kevin Kouzmanoff – .205
Hideki Matsui – .216
Daric Barton – .230
Pretty much everyone else on the A’s

The Yankee offense as a whole has been the second-best in the AL over the last two weeks (.340 wOBA, though way behind Boston’s absurd .381 during that time period), while the A’s have been the second-worst, hitting at a .293 wOBA clip.

Of course, the A’s’ pitching staff has been its usual excellent self the  last two weeks, posting a 3.21 ERA/3.32 FIP/3.58 xFIP as a unit (2.40/3.23/3.62 from the starters; a much less-impressive 4.85/3.49/3.51 from the bullpen); while the Yankees have managed a 3.78/3.98/3.87 aggregate line (4.43/4.23/3.81 by the starters; 2.38/3.43/4.01 by the bullpen).

While the A’s have a lot of similarities to the Mariners, they also don’t have a Felix or Pineda, and I think the Yankees have an edge here, as they generally seem to play well at Oakland and also have a far better offensive squad on paper. Additionally, for all the A’s’ starting pitching, their bullpen, while good, hasn’t been quite as lock-down, so hopefully the Yankees can scratch out some late runs against the relievers if they get shutdown by an Oakland starter.

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