A catching debate for the Yankees?

During the 2012 season, not only has Russell Martin struggled mightily at the plate (last night notwithstanding), but the pitching staff was floundering. Enter Chris Stewart who was obtained on the last day of Spring Training in a sudden spin of events that landed Francisco Cervelli in Triple-A. We were all kind of stunned at the event. And then C.C. Sabathia sort of fell in love with Stewart and whether Joe Girardi admits it or not, Stewart is Sabathia’s personal catcher. And then Stewart caught Andy Pettitte, who threw eight scoreless innings. Anjd then Chris Stewart caught Hiroki Kuroda, who threw eight scoreless innings and suddenly we have a debate to talk about. Stewart, who is even less capable offensively than Martin, is suddenly the darling of many for his catching skills. But is it a proper debate?

The numbers are so peripheral that they do not even make sense to talk about. Yes, the Yankees are 8-3 when Stewart catches. And yes, Stewart’s CERA (catcher ERA) is 2.80 compared to Martin’s 4.53. And yes, Stewart’s CERA with the Giants last year of 2.72 was lower than that team’s ERA of 3.30 last season. But we are talking about such small sample sizes and the fact that most of Stewart’s starts have come when receiving the Yankees’ best pitcher. In his one game receiving Phil Hughes, Stewart did not get much better out of the struggling pitcher than Martin has.

Two things have led us to this point. First, Russell Martin has put himself in the bulls-eye due to his terrible offensive start to the 2012 season. Secondly, the pitching staff outside of Sabathia and Pettitte has struggled to the point where it is a constant focal point of the team. When those two things happen, the natural human tendency is to look for quick fixes and lightning in a bottle. Chris Stewart has offered that with the success he has had catching during his thirteen games thus far this season. Those two things just pointed out have led those who follow the Yankees to start questioning the pitches Martin is calling and everything else. Maybe the pitching woes are Russell Martin’s fault.

All the talk becomes like trying to whistle with a mouth full of saltine crackers. Joe Girardi has been insistent that Russell Martin is his starting catcher. Russell Martin will hit better than he has in April and most of May. Perhaps last night was the start of better things offensively for the catcher. Instead, let us all just calm down a little bit and be thankful that the Yankees have two very good defensive options behind the plate. Stewart will not do anything great as a batter, but if the big guy of the Yankees’ pitching staff is more comfortable with him behind the plate, great. The Yankees currently have two superior defensive options behind the plate and that is a good thing.

Russell Martin is the starting catcher and will remain so unless he gets hurt or something. Chris Stewart is the backup and Sabathia’s caddy. No problem. It is up to the rest of the rotation to sort itself out and find a groove that can lead to the Yankees usual spot at the top of the division. There is no catching debate. There are simply two good defensive guys. One is the starter and the other is the backup.

Sabathia’s Control Problems Graphed

Starting off this season, CC Sabathia had issues maintaining regular sink on his fastballs. In the span of 5 starts from April 17 to May 10th, the lefty corrected his problems by “getting on top of the pitch”, going 5-0 with a 2.52 ERA, an 8.69 K/9, a 1.14 BB/9, and a 6.68 H/9 in 39.1 IP. Despite pitching against some weak offenses in his 3 starts from May 15th to May 26th, he has gone 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 4.95 BB/9, and a 9.45 H/9 in 20.0 IP. Strikeouts have been falling while walks and hits have been increasing in a very un-Sabathia-like fashion. I wouldn’t call his recent starts bad, but he hasn’t produced as an ace should, and there are some key issues haunting the southpaw.

As I mentioned above, the struggle in his first couple of starts this year were largely due to an inability to replicate the spin on his sinker and four-seam fastball. In his most recent starts, he’s shown similar tendencies with his four-seam fastball. Again, it appears as if Sabathia is pulling the fastball instead of getting on top of it, which is creating greater horizontal movement into left handed hitters. In the 5 start range of 4/17 to 5/10, his four-seam had a spin angle of 160 degrees and a spin rate of 2,040 RPM. From 5/11 to 5/26, the spin angle has dropped 6 degrees to 154, and the spin rate is up 100 RPM. While this doesn’t individually suggest a troubled fastball, the graphs below show the slight difference in how the pitch is moving.

In the two graphs above, the trajectory of Sabathia’s four-seam fastball is plotted from the pitcher’s mound on the right to homeplate on the left. I apologize for the lack of contrasting color; they were pretty brilliant until the file was converted. If you zoom in, you can see that two different trajectories exist, one in red tracing the average four-seam from 4/17 to 5/10, and the blue one tracking the four-seam from 5/11 to 5/26. The bottom image shows the vertical movement, or the “sink” or “rising” action of the pitch, and you can see the lines are nearly identical. Instead, focus on the top image, which is a bird’s eye view of the horizontal movement. As you can see, the pitch break varies by a couple of inches.

Here we have the movement of the pitch based on a catcher’s perspective, with the origin of the graph being a no-spin pitch conforming to gravity. Again the red pitches are from his successful 5 starts (4/17 to 5/10) and the blue are from his recent 3 starts (5/11 to 5/26). While both data sets of movement have similar vertical ranges, the horizontal is quite different. The pitches in red more often fall closer to the y-axis, around an inch to 5 inches, while the blue pitches are around 3 to 7 inches away. The average difference is more than an inch more movement into left handed hitters in his recent starts, the difference between 3.47 inches in his successful 5 starts, and 4.79 inches into lefties in his recent 3 starts.

A couple of inches are enough to miss your spots, and indeed Sabathia has been doing a lot of that lately. Not only are his walk numbers up, 11 walks in his 20.0 IP, but he’s given up 4 homeruns in that same time period. Two of the homeruns came on the four-seam, and the other two came on the sinker, which is showing very similar control problem. Hopefully he can fix his erratic movement by getting on top of the fastball as he did in mid-April, and thus maintain the correct spin angle.

Unlike the increase in walks, the decrease in strikeouts appears to be a slider issue.

Here we have the trajectory of the slider traced in green for his 5 successful starts from 4/17 to 5/10, and traced in red for his 3 most recent starts from 5/11 to 5/26. In the top image, a bird’s eye view, the slider from his more successful starts has considerably more break away from left handed hitters, especially in the last 20 feet from the plate. We see the opposite scenario in the bottom image, which shows the slider having slightly more vertical break starting around 30 feet from the plate, where the two lines begin to matchup.

The difference is even more clear using pitch movement, which has the 4/17-5/10 slider moving anywhere from 2 to 7 inches away from left handed hitters, and the 5/11 to 5/26 slider moving in a much larger spread horizontally. Vertically, the slider in red sees up to 5 inches of sink at times compared to the no-spin pitch. The slider from his 5 successful starts never dropped below the x-axis. While more vertical movement doesn’t necessarily mean less success, he is trading the impressive horizontal movement for a straighter pitch that sinks more. The 4/17 to 5/10 slider averages 1.25 inches of vertical movement above the no-spin pitch, and 3.19 inches away from left handed hitters, compared to the 5/11 to 5/26 slider averages 0.15 inches of vertical movement and only an additional 1.79 inches of horizontal movement away from lefties.

Again, the difference between movements comes from the spin angle and rate, which was much more uniform in his more successful starts. The difference of spin angle for a slider is more complicated than a fastball, although Sabathia seems to have his most successful one between 240 to 300 degrees. The slider from his most recent starts have ranged all around the spectrum, sometimes throwing the pitch with the high angles associated with curveballs for southpaws. Along with spin angle, the spin rate dropped around 130 RPM in his most recent starts, which lowered the Magnus effect on the ball, and thus decreased the pitches’ movement.

While Sabathia can fix the fastball with some delivery technique’s he’s already had success with, the slider will probably continue to vary. The current problems have cut the whiff rate on the slider in half, but perhaps he’s best left to solve these issues now, rather than September or October.

Death by the tiered bullpen is the most agonizing death of all

So here’s last night’s situation: two outs, bottom of the sixth, Angels have the bases loaded with a 6-5 lead and Kendrys Morales at the plate. Morales is a very dangerous hitter, to be sure, but he’s also got a pretty severe platoon split, and is much weaker from the right side of the plate than the left, boasting a career wRC+ of 73 against southpaws, compared to 129 against right-handed pitchers. Joe Girardi had called on right handed specialist Cody Eppley to pitch to the top of the Angels’ lineup three batters prior and, after retiring Mike Trout, Eppley allowed a two out infield single by Maicer Izturis before walking Albert Pujols to load the bases for Morales. Sensibly not wanting Eppley to face a left-handed batting Morales in that situation, and looking dead in the eye of a spot seemingly tailor made for his best left-handed reliever, Girardi called on…David Phelps to pitch to Morales. Predictably enough Morales doubled in a couple of insurance runs to push the Angels lead to 8-5, a fact that would prove incredibly consequential when the Yankees scored three runs in the next inning.

So, you ask, what was Girardi’s logic in going against the binder in that situation? ““If I was going to turn him around I was going to do it with Boonie, and Boonie’s one of the guys I use in the seventh and the eighth now,” is honest-to-goodness how Girardi explained it. “So I just felt it was too early.” Thankfully, he did find occasion to use Logan against Morales eventually; with two outs and no one on in the eighth inning. Logan struck Morales out on a slider to record the only out he’d be asked to get on the night, just before Cory Wade gave up Mark Trumbo‘s walk off home run to lead off the ninth.But hey, the Yankees did hold the Angels scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings which completely negated the two runs that scored in the sixth inning, right?

Whoops, I promised myself I wouldn’t be snarky or sarcastic in this post. Oh well, I don’t have the patience for earnest commentary on this topic anymore. If someone can’t understand why you don’t want the other team to come out ahead in the game’s biggest moments because you’re more worried about making sure your best reliever is available to pitch a relatively meaningless out two innings later, I honestly don’t know what to do other than make fun of them. If that person happens to be the manager of a Major League Baseball franchise, then his team deserves to lose, and he deserves all of the second guessing he gets after the fact (and just think, I haven’t even mentioned the runs you could arguably attribute to Girardi’s decision to squeeze as many innings as possible out of Phil Hughes even after it was obvious that the starter didn’t have his stuff last night). I can understand, appreciate even, that relievers like to have some defined sense of what their role is, but defining that role on the basis of what inning it happens to be is senseless, especially where left-handed relievers are concerned.

Bottom line, the Yankees lost a game they should have won last night, and a completely indefensible decision by the manager stands as one of the most direct reasons why. You can draw the conclusions you want to draw from that.

*Girardi’s decision to make Eric Chavez an everyday player against right-handed starters with Brett Gardner still on the disabled list, even though it means making Raul Ibanez a regular outfielder, has proved to be pretty close to inspired, as Chavez is hitting well and Ibanez isn’t threatening the existence of the game itself in the field. It would have been easy to take the path of least resistance and stick Dewayne Wise out there in place of Gardner, but Girardi instead has found what’s probably his ideal lineup at the moment. Kudos.



Wondering About David Phelps’ Role

Courtesy of The AP

(The original version of this post was published at An A-Blog for A-Rod last week.  This version has been updated to reflect Phelps’ most recent outing)

The late-spring injuries helped, but David Phelps definitely earned his spot on the Yankee 25-man roster with the job he did in Spring Training, and quickly made people take notice of him after his first few successful appearances out of the ‘pen. Since then, he’s had a couple of rough outings, made a pair of spot starts, and been used in a variety of different scenarios as the pitching portion of the Yankee roster continued to change due to injuries. The roster has been relatively stable since D-Rob hit the DL, and it seems like a good time to talk about just how, and where, Phelps fits in the bullpen hierarchy moving forward.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag season for Phelps.  In looking at his overall statistial profile, there are plenty of things that stand out both on the good side and the bad.  His 2.70 ERA, 7.83 K/9, 88.9% strand rate, and 46.3% GB rate are all solid, but his 3.51 BB/9, 4.47 FIP, and 14.3% HR/FB rate aren’t as encouraging.  With the majority of the damage done against him coming in back-to-back late-April appearances against Boston and Texas, Phelps’ xFIP of 4.01 is probably the most accurate representation of the job he has done this year.  He’s eaten up a lot of innings in games where the Yankees have gotten poor starting pitching, saving the back end of the bullpen from overwork, and has almost always given his team a chance to win the game.

An overall good job like the one Phelps has done should theoretically have earned him a bigger role in this adjusted bullpen pecking order, but so far he hasn’t really been given more high-leverage work.  After getting 2 days of rest following his 2 innings of work against the Reds on May 19th, Phelps remained on the bench Monday the 21st while Joe mixed and matched with Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada to get through the 8th inning in a 1-run game.  Last Wednesday, with the Yankees up by 6, Girardi went to Phelps to relieve Andy Pettitte and close out the eventual 8-3 Yankee win.  It seems to me that the pitchers used in those 2 situations should have been reversed, and I wonder if Joe only sees Phelps as his long man/garbage time game finisher or if he even knows how he sees Phelps.

Last night, in his first work since his mop-up outing last Wednesday, Girardi went to Phelps in a high-leverage fireman situation after Eppley loaded the bases in the 6th relieving Phil Hughes.  While the runs didn’t get charged to his ledger, it was a very poorly-located curveball thrown to Kendrys Morales that led to 2 more runs being scored.  As auditions go, it wasn’t the best first impression that Phelps could have made on his manager, but he rebounded after the Morales double to throw 2 scoreless innings, his outing punctuated by a swinging strikeout of Albert Pujols.  It was another mixed bag outing for Phelps, but there were enough good signs to suggest that he could handle a higher-leverage role, and the outcome of that 6th inning could have been very different if Girardi went straight to Phelps instead of Eppley.

With the way the bullpen is currently constructed, I’d be reserving the Wednesday night mop-up roles for Eppley, Rapada, and Freddy Garcia, but that’s just me.  Phelps is younger, and probably better, than his other back end bullpen mates, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to see what he’s capable of and exactly where his ceiling lies as a reliable Major League pitcher.  When D-Rob does come off the DL, he’s going to bump everybody back down a slot.  Before that happens, I’d like to see what Phelps can do pitching in the 6th or 7th inning of a close game and I’d like to see him get an opportunity to start those innings.  He could be another late-inning weapon that the Yankees didn’t even know they had, but it will be difficult to find that out for sure if Joe continues to use Phelps in such a seemingly random manner.

What’s behind Teixeira’s surge?

It’s hard to tell in retrospect how much of Teixeira’s early season struggles were due to his own approach/failings at the plate and how much were attributable to his physical condition, but whatever the case, Joe Girardi finally decided to give his ailing slugger a rest last weekend against Cincinnati. Tex basically say out the entire series, making just one appearance as a pinch hitter in the final game of the set, before returning to the lineup against Kansas City in the seventh spot in the lineup. Teixeira responded with an okay performance against the Royals, going 2-9 with three walks and a double, before getting another day to rest thanks to the team’s scheduled off day last Thursday.

Since the Yankees began their current road trip, however, Tex has legitimately been on fire. In the four games played so far, Teixeira is 10-16 with three walks, three doubles, and four home runs. His overall season line is all the way up to .263/.330/.491, which is pretty remarkable for its respectability, and his wOBA/wRC+ are up to .351 and 120 respectively, which are both right in line with where he was at the end of last season. So what’s behind this turn around? Given the amount of attention his struggles with opposing defenses shifting against him received, he must be doing a much better job of shortening up and going the other way, right? Actually, not so much. Here’s all of his balls put in play over the past four games:

The chart doesn’t differentiate between his left-handed and right-handed at bats, but you can still see that there are more squares on his left-handed pull side than the other way, including most of his home runs. It’s not exactly the most profound bit of insight I could offer, but the biggest difference in Teixeira right now is simply that he’s hitting the ball much harder and, as such, is getting better results from the balls he puts in play. For all of the attention his problems with the shift got last year, it was somewhat under reported that, as a left-haned batter, his line drive, infield fly, and HR/FB rates were all worse than his career average, while the total number of fly balls he hit from the left side of the plate climbed to just under 50% of all his batted balls.

Then again, tales of Teixeira’s demise were always somewhat exaggerated. In terms of wRC+, he was the fifth best hitting first baseman in the A.L. in 2011, behind Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko, and (by one point) Casey Kotchman. In terms of fWAR, he was the American League’s third most valuable first bagger at a very respectable 4.2 wins above replacement. As for 2012, entering play Tuesday Tex currently has the league’s sixth best wRC+ at first (behind Konerko, Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Prince Fielder, and Chris Davis), and is essentially locked in a four way tie with Dunn, Encarcion, and Fielder behind Konerko in terms of total value at the position. That’s not to say he hasn’t been a black hole in the lineup at times (or for 95% of this season, for that matter), but he is still a very talented and productive player relative to his peers, and certainly not the lost cause plenty of people thought he was three weeks ago.

Trumbo, Angels walk off in a see-saw game

Memorial Day clearly meant “offense” to the Yankees and Angels, as they combined for 17 runs, 25 hits, and four errors in a back-and-forth game that ended on a walk-off homer from Anaheim’s Mark Trumbo as the ninth inning started.

The game started off crazily enough, with the Yankees plating three against the Angels and Jeff Weaver leaving the game with an injury before the Angels even had a chance to bat, thanks to an error by Erick Aybar, a Raul Ibanez sac-fly, and another error by reliever Bobby Cassevah. Phil Hughes, though, was kindly enough to give runs right back to the Angels, as he allowed four in the first on a Kendrys Morales single (1), a Mark Trumbo ground-rule double (1), and (of course) a Howie Kendrick single (2). Curtis Granderson, however, didn’t allow the tie to last for long. As the second batter of the second inning, he homered to right off of Cassevah and tied the game. No one scored again until the third…

…when Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher collided in right field on a ball hit by Mark Trumbo that ended up going for a triple. The next batter (again, of course) was Kendrick and he brought Trumbo home with a sac-fly, and the Angels re-took the lead at 5-4. A one-out error in the top of the fourth by Albert Pujols put Derek Jeter on first, but he would be stranded on second base after Hisanori Takahashi came into the game. Though Alex Rodriguez singled, Takahashi struck out the batter before him (Granderson) and the batter after him (Robinson Cano) and the Yanks were turned away in the fourth. In their next two at-bats, the teams traded homers with Mike Trout hitting his fifth in the bottom of the fourth and Mark Teixeria staying hot by belting his ninth in the top of fifth

In the bottom of the sixth, the Angels got three hits (two of the infield variety) and one walk. The only non-infield hit of the inning was a double by Kendrys Morales that plated Peter Bourjous to make it 8-5Angels. The Yankees were able to answer in the top of the seventh inning as Robinson Cano hit his 18th double to lead off the inning. Tex followed with a walk, and Jason Isringhausen entered the game. He promptly gave up a single to Raul Ibanez to load the bases. Isringhausen did record his first out of the game on Nick Swisher, but unfortunately for the pitcher, it was a sacrifice fly and the Yankees pulled to within two. After an Eric Chavez grounder moved the runners over, Russell Martin worked a full count against Izzy before slapping a double and tying the game at 8.

The Yankees did have a scoring chance in the top of the ninth, having loaded the bases, albeit with two outs. Derek Jeter, however, grounded out to end the inning and the Angels won the game on the aforementioned Trumbo homer.

If we’re going for silver linings, hooray offense. Otherwise, this was a game to forget.


Phil Hughes gave up a career high 11 hits.

Despite scoring 17 combined runs, the teams also combined to leave 19 (11 NYY, 8 LA) runners on base. In that vein, every Yankee but Mark Teixeira left at least two runners on base.

Every starter for both teams, except Nick Swisher, reached base.

Trumbo’s walk-off bomb sinks Yankees, 9-8

Hughes hung in there for five and a third innings, but the Angels roughed him up for eleven hits and seven runs. Hughes struck out three and did not walk a batter, but could not keep his fastball out of the sweet spots in the hitting zone and he paid for every one of his mistakes. Even the outs he recorded were hit to the warning track. Those kinds of outings happen once in a while and Hughes will just have to take the ball the next time out and have a better outing.

Bobby Cassevah relieved Weaver and pitched three and a third innings and besides allowing one of Weaver’s base runners to score in the first, kept the Angels in the game. Cassevah did allow a solo homer to Curtis Granderson (his fifteenth of the season) that tied the game and he walked three, but Cassevah probably saved the Angels this ballgame.

Hughes gave up single runs in the third and fourth. The run in the third was not totally his fault. Mark Trumbo hit a deep drive to right-center. Both Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson called for the ball and Swisher got there first. He had the ball in his glove but Granderson ran into him and jarred the ball loose. Trumbo was credited with a triple and would score on a sacrifice fly. Mike Trout, he had a great game, hit a homer to deep left off of Hughes in the fourth.

Mark Teixeira, who had another great night at the plate with two hits and three walks, hit a booming homer to left in the top of the fifth to tighten the game to 6-5. The Angels would lengthen that lead out to three runs as Cody Eppley had an ineffective relief outing and gave up a hit and a walk  in the bottom of the sixth. David Phelps could not keep the runners from scoring and the Angels took an 8-5 lead.

The Yankees would roar back to tie the score in the top of the seventh as they scored three runs on a Nick Swisher sacrifice fly. While Swisher got the run home, he could not get the big hit with the bases loaded and nobody out. But Russell Martin came up big with a two-out double that plated two runs to tie up the game at eight runs each.

David Phelps pitched two solid innings after allowing Eppley’s runners to score. His outing included a nasty slider to strike out Albert Pujols in a big spot. Boone Logan did the LOOGY thing and struck out the only batter he faced to give the Yankees a chance to win the game in the top of the ninth. And they would make a run at it.

Mark Teixeira led off the top of the ninth with a single, but was still on first with two outs. Eric Chavez walked to put runners on first and second. Russell Martin came through again with a single up the middle. But Erick Aybar perhaps saved the game by ranging way behind second base to keep the Martin single from scoring Teixeira. That loaded the bases, but Derek Jeter bounced meekly to Pujols at first to end the threat.

Mark Trumbo, of course, ended the game in the bottom of the ninth and there was no doubt about his homer. People have been saying how the resurgence of Albert Pujols is the reason the Angels are playing that much better these days than they were earlier in the season. But after watching this game, the real difference is Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo playing in place of Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells. Including that homer, Trumbo went three for five with three runs scored and two RBIs. Mike Trout went two for five including a homer and made a superb play on a Raul Ibanez drive to left-center.

The loss keeps the Yankees the same distance from the division leading Orioles and Rays, who both lost today.

Angel Halos:

Mark Teixeira: The man is extremely hot right now. He had a great game.

Russell Martin: Martin came through twice tonight and both of his hits were big.

Curtis Granderson: Granderson hit a homer and made some fine running catches in the outfield.

Angels with dirty faces:

Phil Hughes: Let’s home this was a blip on what had been a nice run of games for him. He simply got beat tonight.

Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano: They both left a combined eight runners on base and killed rallies.

Cody Eppley: Not a good outing for him.

Next Up:

The Yankees and Angels will play the middle game of their three-game series Andy Pettitte and Dan Haren. The game will start on Tuesday at 10:05 PM