Tonight’s Recap: A Preview

1.       The Yankees have been scoring a lot of runs (most per game in baseball), putting a lot of men on base (second best on base percentage in the American League), without getting a lot of hits (9th best team batting average in the American League). How have they done this? One key is those league-leading 88 team home runs.  But to score runs (and of course, to score more than one run when a home run is hit), a team still needs baserunners, and the only way to put guys on base without getting hits (absent a boatload of hits by pitches, passed ball third strikes and opposing team errors) is to draw a lot of walks … which the Yankees have done. The Yankees’ team walk percentage is 10.2%, or 3.9 walks a game, highest in baseball. If the Yankees have an advantage going into tonight’s game, is that they’re good at drawing walks and Jon Lester is prone to give them up. Lester has allowed 3.7 walks per nine innings so far this year, which is 7th highest among qualifying American League starting pitchers.

So, let’s make this game factor no. 1: how many walks do the Yankees draw? If the Yanks can get more than their average 4 walks per game, that would be a big positive for the Bombers. If the Yanks draw three or fewer walks, we’d figure the Yanks would struggle.

2.       Speaking of runners on base, the Red Sox lead the American League in team runners left on base, with 451, or 7.6 a game. This may sound like a bad thing, but the correct long view is that runners left on base are a good thing. The more runners on base, the more opportunities to score.  Oddly, the Yankees’ team runners left on base total is only 373, the second lowest in baseball, behind Cleveland.  Since the Red Sox and Yankees have had similarly successful seasons at the plate so far in 2011, let’s jump to the unsupportable conclusion that the Red Sox need those extra LOBs to keep up with the Yankees.

Hence my game factor no. 2: the Red Sox will need a couple more men left on base than the Yankees to win tonight’s game. Of course, this factor will be meaningless if one team dominates. But if it’s a close game, let’s see if the outcome coincides with the teams’ comparative left on base totals.

3.       Here’s another odd offensive discrepancy between the BoSox and the Yanks: the Yankees have the lowest batting average on balls in play (BABiP) in baseball, at .270. The Red Sox have the highest BABiP in the American League, at .306. How do we account for the difference? Well, some part of the difference is all those Yankee home runs – if a few of those home runs bounced off the top of a few outfield walls instead of going over them, then the Yankees’ BABiP would be higher. But it’s not like the Red Sox are exactly playing small ball – they have the third highest home run total in the American League, tied with the Blue Jays.

Could the BABiP difference be due to luck? For my game factor no. 3, I’m going to keep track of “lucky hits” – seeing-eye ground balls, Texas league singles and the like.  Of course, this is going to be a subjective tally. But if the luck holds relatively even on both sides, this should be a positive factor for the Yankees.

4.       Let’s get pitching involved in our discussion. According to FanGraphs Pitch Value statistics, the Yankees are the best fastball-hitting team in the American League, the best splitter-hitting team in the American League, and the best slider-hitting team in all of baseball. The Yankees as a team are not good at the following: hitting cutters (10th in the A.L.), curve balls (second from the bottom in the A.L), change-ups (8th in the A.L.) … and let’s not even discuss the knuckleball.  This poses a match-up problem for the Yanks against the Red Sox, because the Red Sox throw the smallest combined percentage of fastballs, splitters and sliders in all of baseball. This is due in part to the presence of knuckle-baller Tim Wakefield in the BoSox rotation, but even if we exclude knuckleballs from this calculation, the Red Sox throw the second-fewest number of fastballs, splitters and sliders in all of baseball, at about 63% (compared to a rough league average of 75%, the Yankees’ 76% and the Marlins’ league-leading 83%.

To make life worse, Jon Lester throws the smallest percentage of fastballs of any Red Sox starter, at 47.3%. Lester does not throw a splitter or a slider. He throws a lot of cutters, at 28.9%, and FanGraphs reports that the cutter is by far Lester’s best pitch.  In fact, FanGraphs reports that Lester’s cutter is one of the best in the American League, trailing only Dan Haren and perhaps C.J. Wilson.

So, one key for the Yankees tonight is to avoid Lester’s cutter, and get Lester to throw more fast balls. Terry Francona has said that Lester needs to “establish” the fastball, changeup and curve ball, then use the cutter to put people away.  Lester’s fastball is only a so-so pitch. The Yankees need to recognize those fastballs, and punish them, in order to have the best chance to win.

OK. This is enough esoterica for one post.  The game will probably be decided by things I never considered, but it’s always fun to try and call your shot.

7 thoughts on “Tonight’s Recap: A Preview

  1. Thanks! For this piece, I was looking for odd stuff that may not mean much. I'm largely convinced it's 95% Small Sample Size Theatre, but rather than ranting after the fact over some Girardi pitching change or decision to bunt, it seemed more honest to look at things in advance. Also, I wanted this to be a lighter piece than the "OMG can Posada hit lefties" sorts of ruminaitons that (I think) ought to be accompanied by Wagnerian opera scores.

    Probably. #4 is the closest thing up there to serious analysis, and even there it's hard to know what to make of it. It's an uncomfortable fact that the Red Sox tend to throw what the Yankees tend not to hit. But looked at a different way, you can say that the stuff the Yankees like to hit is the stuff the Red Sox don't throw well. Coincidence is fun, causation is hard.

  2. Wow. I expected tongue in cheek whimsy or sarcasm, but there was good info in there. Nice work.

    • This was intended to be sort of whimsical. I was looking for information that put the two teams onto opposite poles in a way that wouldn't be the same old same old, and I was willing to risk being trivial if need be. Truly, the two teams are very much alike these days, and the game is mostly going to be decided by which pitcher makes his pitches and hits his spots. But what fun is it to say that?

      I hadn't thought about writing a sarcastic piece. THAT could be a fun thing to try someday. You know, that the key to winning tonight's game is to score more runs than the other guys, which will happen if our guys play well and the other time kind of sucks. I'm pretty sure I could find statistics that correlate outscoring the other team with winning the game.

  3. Larry…Just a thought about the Sox BABIP. Do you think the elevated BABIP could be due to park effects like the Green Monster? A lot of balls that would be outs in most ballparks become hits at Fenway. Just a thought. Great piece as always.

    • There may be something to what you say. Boston's team BABiP was nothing remarkable in 2009 and 2010, .299 and .301. But in 2007 and 2008, the BoSox team BABiP was .315, tied for 4th in the AL in 2007 and 3rd best in the AL in 2008. In 2004 and 2005, the team's BABiP was .310, and that was AL best in 2004. These numbers are by no means off the charts, but they are on the high side.

  4. Well – at least you have your story line next time Garcia starts – you can just call the under on how many innings he will last.

    (and all this talk about juggling the lineup for Boston – isn't it a shame he couldn't keep Garcia hidden – Freddy ain't bad against teams that can't hit.)