Yankees series preview

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 22, 2011 at 10:45 PM

The series

The A's, fresh off a home series against Toronto, traveled today to New York.1 They'll spend the next three days in New York, like so:

  • Tuesday, 8/23, 4:05 pm
  • Wednesday, 8/24, 4:05 pm
  • Thursday, 8/25, 10:05 am

All times Pacific as usual.

Thursday is getaway day, as the Yankees take the short trip down to Baltimore and the A's head the opposite direction, going for a weekend set in Boston.

The Yankees lately

The Yankee dreadnought has smashed right through the American League again this year, compiling a 77-48 record, the second-best in baseball (Philadelphia) and the best in the AL, up by half a game on the aforementioned Red Sox. They lose no luster in the Baseball Prospectus team and playoff reports: their third-order winning percentage is actually higher than their already sky-high .616 mark, and they're virtual locks for the postseason, coming in at 99.3% to get to the October tourney. I'm not sure how the rounding comes out, but the Sox and the Yankees are each given a 50% shot at the division, with Tampa taking an 0.1% stake in the proceedings as well. Obviously that doesn't add up, but I don't think we can quibble too much about tenths of a percent in this case -- the Yankees will play in the playoffs, and whether they face the Tigers at home or the Rangers on the road in the first round will likely be determined by the slimmest of margins against Boston.

The team had a soft week, taking two of three in Kansas City and then three of four in Minnesota. With their next seven being these three at home against Oakland and then four in Baltimore, that's a pretty cushy fourteen game (fifteen day) stretch. This all comes after an eight-game winning streak from July 30th to August 5th saw them go from two games behind Boston to one up. (Unfortunately for them, August 6th and 7th brought losses in Beantown.)

Past matches

New York visited Oakland early in the year and took a sweep, outscoring the A's 19-5, including a 10-3 win over Brett Anderson and a 5-0 victory that showed A's fans just how weirdly good Bartolo Colon was going to be this season.

The A's got one in New York on July 23rd, but it was sandwiched by a 7-5 loss and a 17-7 smooshing, the latter coming thanks to Trevor Cahill and Michael Wuertz giving up 14 runs while retiring nine Yankee hitters.

One can hope for better results this time, but the knowledge that the A's appear to be facing Bartolo Colon, CC Sabathia, and Phil Hughes (missing A.J. Burnett) leads me to think that the A's will likely crawl out of New York with their tail between their legs.

Pitching matchups

Bartolo Colon, who faces Brandon McCarthy on Tuesday, is a fat right-hander. You know why I can call him fat? Because he is, and it doesn't even matter. Colon, after not even pitching in 2010, has managed a 3.72 FIP, his best mark since 2002 (Montreal) and his second-best career performance overall (assuming it holds up, anyway). He's struck out over 20% of the men he's faced on the season (league average is 18.4) and walked just 6.5% (league: 8.1). His homer rate is a tad high, but you may be surprised to learn that this is apparently not fueled by NuYankee Stadium -- he's giving up 1.2 HR/9 on the road and 0.94 at home.

Colon is mainly bringing a couple of fastballs: over 1500 of the 1900 pitches he's thrown this year are fastballs. He'll bring a slider 10-15% of the time, working to the low/outside corner to both lefties and righties. In general, he works away-away-away as most pitchers do, but he appears to keep his four-seamer further outside against righties, while the two-seamer can come back more toward the middle of the plate. Against lefties, same story on the four-seam fastball, but the two-seamer winds up in the middle of the plate with some frequency. The results don't really show much, though: in near-identical batters faced from either side (267-254), he's walked the same number (exactly: 17 apiece) and struck out very nearly the same number (52-55). The homer difference is large in percentage terms, but nine allowed to lefties against six to righties isn't big enough in absolute figures to jump out.

CC Sabathia? Also fat, also good, although on both counts, it's not really fair to compare him to Colon. Where Colon has puffed up to rather spherical proportions late in his car, Sabathia's simply a large human being; and where Colon has had an unexpectedly good year, CC Sabathia has a top-ten FIP in the major leagues.2 Sabathia strikes out batters by the bushel (22.7%), doesn't walk anyone (5.8%, a far cry from his early semi-wild years with the Indians, though in keeping with his career from 2006 on), and doesn't give up homers (just 13 allowed in very near 200 innings). He is, in other words, not a Brandon Morrow (super strikeouts, solid walks) or a Zack Greinke (crazy strikeouts, weirdly high homers) or a Brandon McCarthy (no whiffs, freakishly low walks). Eyeballing the component stats, take the average of Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, and that's CC Sabathia.

I'm not sure I even want to get into his pitches, but I do my duty: two fastballs (one classified as a sinker) at 90-96, a change at 85-88, and a slider from 77-85. Notable: his velocity-per-game chart here shows a notable upward trend -- his fastballs are averaging very close to 95 now when they were more like 92 early in the season. The changeup and the slider have ticked up a tad as well. Here's another view of the fastball velocity over time. I'm sure you're all excited to hear that the A's are coming in to face a CC Sabathia who's apparently getting stronger as the year wears on.

The four-seamer is Sabathia's main pitch, of course. Righties see it 40% of the time, with the other 60% divided nearly evenly between the other three pitches. Lefties, though, will see basically fastball/slider -- why do more if you can strike out more than 30% of your lefties faced with just those two pitches?

Sabathia buries a lot of sliders low and away to lefties, but he'll leave a certain percentage of them over the plate as well. With the fastball, though, he's not terribly careful -- he basically blazes them in right down the middle, and in the upper half of the zone. He works away more than in to lefties, but he puts a significant percentage of fastballs right in the hitting zone, and against righties, the "away more than in" phrase is only slightly applicable (by the naked eye applied to PITCHf/x graphs, anyway). Again, though, it's one thing for Brandon Allen (say) to know that he's going to get a fastball right down the pipe and another altogether to actually catch up to it.

Let's just move on. Though I implied above that Phil Hughes was one to watch out for, he's had a rough year. He lost nearly half the season with a right shoulder injury and has put up just a 4.90 FIP in the ~50 innings he has managed. His walks and homers are not crazy compared to his past, but his strikeouts are way off -- from 20% of his PAs ending in whiffs last year, he's fallen to just 12.2% this season, substantially below league average.

That said, Hughes's velocity does appear to be recovering, so perhaps there are still happy times ahead for the big righty. The assortment: fastball (88-94), cutter (85-89), curve (70-79) to righties and fastball, curve, cutter, change (80-85) to lefties. The curve is a swing-and-miss pitch, so both hands will see it with two strikes, but Hughes throws the fastball for strikeouts as well.

Hughes works up in (and out of) the zone with the fastball, while the cutter, predictably stays on the outer half and tends much lower, frequently hitting the low-outside corner to righties and just as frequently missing off the plate and/or low. Lefties get the cutter on the inner half, but very rarely missing in, the change and curve toward the outside, and the four-seamer all over the map, but focused, again, up.

New York's bullpen

You've heard of this Mariano Rivera guy. He's pretty good. The A's don't want to see him. David Robertson sets up as the 8th inning man, and his 1.61 FIP (no homers in fifty innings) shows that getting to him isn't going to be easy, either. Ralfy Soriano, though he hasn't been needed since the 16th -- it looks like the seventh inning is his.

Cory Wade and Luis Ayala pitch in other situations, but they're no slouches, with a 3.01 and 3.20 FIP, respectively, this season. Boone Logan's a lefty with 31.2 innings pitched in 46 games -- you know what that means. Finally, Hector Noesi has 42 innings in 21 games, and you also know what that means.3

This has been a good crew this season, and it's a crew that, in the important details (Robertson, Soriano, Rivera), PECOTA expects to continue to do good work (though of course no projection system worth its salt would ever say someone was going to register a sub-two FIP).

New York's offense

Derek Jeter has been leading off against lefties, but the A's aren't throwing Gio Gonzalez in this series, so they likely will not see the all-time great digging in first. Instead, expect to see something like this:

  1. Brett Gardner, LF, .261 (PECOTA rest-of-season True Average)
  2. Derek Jeter, SS, .264
  3. Curtis Granderson, CF, .279
  4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, .306
  5. Mark Teixeira, 1B, .303
  6. Robbie Cano, 2B, .287
  7. Nick Swisher, RF, .284
  8. Jorge Posada, DH, .276
  9. Russell Martin, C, .265

There's been some upheaval in the Yankee lineup lately, with Alex Rodriguez recently returning from injury. Andruw Jones (.266) also draws starts at DH, but only against lefties. Eric Chavez (.240) started at third against righties in Rodriguez's absence, but I'm not sure what his role is now -- lefty pinch-hitter for Russell Martin, I suppose. Eduardo Nunez (.236) is also on the squad and recently played short while Derek Jeter got a half day off at DH, so that's another possibility. Francisco Cervelli (.244) is the backup catcher, and he's terrible at baseball.

Anyway, this all adds up to something pretty scary -- there's simply not enough below-average talent in the lineup for a pitcher to have any safe haven. The much-maligned Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have been much better lately than you might realize. This series might not be pretty.

Required reading

At the risk of being an ass, I'm going to leave off listing all the tremendous Yankee tweeters out there, even the ones who have inexplicable taste in food, and instead skip straight to the blogs I read, in alphabetical order:

  • Lucas Apostoleris has Don't Bring in the Lefty, which is PITCHf/x heavy and has pretty graphs, but is not, I believe, his main posting location, so don't expect daily recaps or anything like that.

  • It's About the Money, Stupid is the Yankee SweetSpot blog, is run by a group, and does recaps, farm reports, etc.

  • Pinstriped Bible is Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe, Cliff Corcoran, and Stephani Bee, which is a very talented and writerly kind of group -- I mean that in a good way.

  • River Ave. Blues, part of the YES Network, is run by the excellent Benjamin Kabak (All-Palindrome Team), Joe Pawlikowski (keeping the "baseball writers named Joe P[olish Name]" going for another generation), and Mike Axisa (he has freaking "Ax" in his name, c'mon). They've been kind enough to link here before, so you'll just have to believe me when I tell you that I'm not returning a favor that they don't need (their readership dwarfs mine by orders of magnitude) -- it's good stuff going on over there.

  • Finally, The Yankee Analysts, which has a huge roster of writers that includes Certified Internet Bro Moshe Mandel.

  1. The A's themselves weren't the only ones traveling. Check out Amanda McCarthy's Twitter timeline for her air-travel travails, including a rude fellow passenger, much drinking, a low computer battery, and a near bathroom-related incident. 

  2. With perhaps eight starts to go this season, Sabathia is sitting on 17 wins, so topping his total of 21 from last year is not out of the question. Justin Verlander has been slightly better in slightly more innings, also plays for a contender, and has actually managed 18 wins himself, so Sabathia's probably S.O.L. for hardware this season. He should be proud of a deserving second, though. 

  3. Because I don't respect you, the reader, at all, I'll tell you: Logan is a lefty specialist, a LOOGY, and Noesi is the long man.