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September 27, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
When the pitching matchup for Sunday night's Yankees-Red Sox game was initially announced, I joked that I would fake my own death to avoid watching the potentially plodding affair of New York's Dustin Moseley facing off against Daisuke Matsuzaka. As it turns out, the joke was on me, because even having attended three games at Yankee Stadium over the past week (two in the press box, one in the cheap seats) while watching the Yankees duke it out with the American League East's other two heavyweights, I somehow managed to miss out on the best one. With the Yankees riding their second four-game losing streak in a two-week span coming into Sunday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi went to the whip and started Phil Hughes—who was set to be skipped in accordance with efforts to manage his innings total—in Moseley's place. Hughes gave the Yankees his best outing in more than a month, and the same can be said for Matsuzaka. The result was a taut 10-inning thriller worthy of the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball hype.
In front of a tense crowd of 49,199 gathered for the Yankees' final home game of the regular season, Hughes and Matsuzaka both renewed their acquaintance with the strike zone, and the Red Sox led 1-0 going into the seventh inning before the Yankees pulled ahead via an Alex Rodriguez homer. Both brand-name closers proceeded to blow saves in the ninth inning. First Mariano Rivera surrendering two runs as two Red Sox not named Jacoby Ellsbury ran wild on the basepaths, each stealing second and third base on a hapless Jorge Posada before being plated. Then Jonathan Papelbon obliged by surrendering a run himself when Robinson Cano singled in pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez, who himself had brazenly stolen third with one out, men on on first and second, and Rodriguez at the plate again. The Yankees finally won it in the bottom of the 10th against Hideki Okajima, thanks in large part to a perfect Brett Gardner bunt down the first base line; Victor Martinez's wild throw deflected off a possibly interfering Gardner just as he reached first base, and as the ball bounded away, lead runner Curtis Granderson took third. An intentional walk and a fielder's choice later, rookie Juan Miranda worked the count in his favor and drew a bases-loaded walk to force home the winning run. The win assured the Yankees of at least a game 163 play-in for the wild card; one more win or Boston loss will assure them of a playoff berth.
In any event, I've got a fistful of take-home notes on the three AL East contenders accumulated from the past week, some of which are a touch less relevant following the Yankees' much-needed win.
The Yankees' shot at a division title is a longshot at best.
On Thursday night against the Rays, the Yanks had top starter CC Sabathia on the mound protecting a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning. Had he and the bullpen been able to bring home the win, the Yankees would have finished the series with a 2 1/2-game lead over Tampa Bay with nine games left to play. Instead, the big man got a couple of bad breaks in the form of infield singles by Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, and proceeded to surrender another hit and two walks to cough up the lead and load the bases. Joba Chamberlain came on and yielded a long ground-rule double on his third pitch, ultimately allowing all three inherited runners to score. By the time the dust settled it was 8-3 Rays.
The next inning saw Javier Vazquez tie a record by hitting three straight batters and allowing a couple more runs, but that was merely a sideshow. The damage was done, and while the Yanks finished their four-game series up ½ game in the standings, their chances at winning the division had essentially slipped away. They can thank the schedule fairy, who dealt them a huge disadvantage in terms of the two teams' quality of remaining opponents: .538 for the Yankees (six games against Boston and three against Toronto), .401 for the Rays (three apiece against the Mariners and Orioles, four against the Royals). Two Yankees losses and two Rays wins later, Tampa Bay held an almost 90 chance of winning the division going into Sunday night; the Yanks' win still leaves them with just a 22 chance of winning the division, and that's without considering the fact that Tampa Bay holds the tiebreaker by dint of having won the season series 10-8.
That said, the Yankees' shot at a playoff is virtually assured.
This means less than it did a day ago, but going into Sunday night's game, the Prospectus Playoff Odds still gave the Yankees a 99.87 percent chance at making the playoffs, and their magic number remained at three. Looking at it one way, beating Boston in one of their remaining four head-to-head games and picking up either a win or a Boston loss elsewhere would be sufficient. Even if they had gone 0-7 the rest of the way, the Red Sox would have needed to go 6-2 to beat them out. Now the doomsday scenario requires the Yankees to go 0-6 while the Sox go 7-0.
While there are reasons to be concerned about the specific circumstances of any playoff-bound team's late-season struggles—particularly with regards to injury availability—there's virtually no correlation between a team's September performance and their playoff fate.
Bless Joe Sheehan for reminding me that I'd written this piece a year ago. With the help of Eric Seidman, I examined the September/October performances of all the playoff teams in the wild card era, 112 in all. For each team, we recorded their record over the final seven, 14, and 21 games, as well for all of September and whatever fragment of October remained. The result was, as I termed it then, "a whole lot of nothing." None of the correlations between September interval performance and first-round series outcomes even reached .05 in either direction, and six of the eight were actually negative.
Looking beyond the first round, the correlations between those September performances and series won or "playoff success points" (doubling the value of the LCS and quadrupling the value of the World Series such that the same number of points were awarded each round) only got as high as .137, and they were negative at that. If anything, there's an ever-so slight inverse relationship between success in the final weeks and in the postseason, perhaps because some playoff-bound teams rest their regulars more often, or simply regress to the mean after a summer of beating up on opponents.
Furthermore, I went back and looked at performance over four-week intervals during the regular season, using not only actual record but also our suite of ordered Pythagenpat records from our Adjusted Standings page and found only minimal correlations between those performances and those of the next "month." Using actual or projected records, the correlation between the four-week splits and the following month were always smaller than if we'd used year-to-date records to project the following month's performance; roughly speaking, the correlations were around .2 and .3, respectively.
The bottom line is that short-term performance intervals don't tell you anything reliably useful from a predictive standpoint. As the great Earl Weaver liked to say, momentum is the next day's starting pitcher. Speaking of which...
The Yankees' main problem is the lack of depth in their rotation.
Forget Derek Jeter's decline, or the nagging injuries to Nick Swisher and Gardner. Nothing threatens the Bronx Bombers' chances of repeating as world champions the way their rotation woes do. Between the All-Star break and Sunday night, Yankees starters had put up a 5.15 ERA while averaging 5.7 innings per start, well off their first-half clip of a 3.68 ERA and 6.3 innings per start. Take away Sabathia, and the second-half numbers get even uglier: 5.73 ERA, 5.3 innings per start. Andy Pettitte, the only other Yankees starter with a Support Neutral Winning Percentage above .500, has made just two starts since leaving his July 18 outing with a groin strain, one good, the other lousy, and he maxed out at 79 pitches. Neither Vazquez (5.07 ERA, .440 SNWP) nor A.J. Burnett (5.05 ERA, .461 SNWP) are pitching at all like guys earning eight-figure deals, though at least the latter's September (4.26 ERA, 8.7 K/9) offers a glimmer of hope. Going into Sunday night's surprise start, Hughes had given the Yankees one quality start out of his last five, and a 5.27 ERA and 1.9 HR/9 in 94 innings since the team first skipped his turn in an effort to manage his innings total back in mid-June. On Saturday against the Red Sox, the Ivan Nova post-season start bandwagon went over a cliff when the 23-year-old rookie failed to get out of the fifth inning for the third time in five starts, helping to send the Yankees to their fourth straight defeat and a 6-13 record for the month.
Amid the Yankees' latest slump, the dominant theme of Girardi's recent press conferences has been that the team's recent problems stem from inconsistent starting pitching. "We haven't gotten a whole lot of distance out of our starters," he said after Saturday's game. "One [Burnett's outing against Tampa Bay last Wednesday] was due to a rain delay, and there's not a whole lot that you can do about that. And we've gotten behind in games, which always changes the complexion of the game ... We've always talked about how momentum starts with your starting pitching. And sometimes when one facet of the team is struggling, the other guys have to pick 'em up. Sometimes the offense is struggling and they'll shut the other team down, and vice versa... The bullpen, you use one way if you have a lead and you get distance from the starter. And when you don't, you use it a different way."
Hughes' results are improving as he integrates his changeup into his repertoire.
Back in spring training, one of the key factors in Hughes beating out Chamberlain for the fifth starter job was the progress of his changeup, but the pitch may as well have spent the summer in the Federal Witness Protection Program. From the beginning of the season through his September 5 start, Hughes threw the changeup just 2.0 percent of the time according to the PITCHf/x data at TexasLeaguers.com. In his three starts since then, he's thrown it 8.4 percent of the time, almost exclusively against lefties. While batters take it more often than not, the changing speeds seems to help; lefties are just 7-for-47 (.149/.259/.340) against him in that span, compared to .249/.320/.431 prior, and Hughes has managed two quality starts out of three.
The Rays are having trouble with their rotation as well.
David Price has begun living up to the promise that pushed him to the No. 2 spot on our 2009 Top 100 Prospects list, and rookie Wade Davis has put up a 3.26 ERA in the second half while showing no ill effects from an August disabled list stint due to shoulder woes. The rest of the starting five is cause for great concern, however. Matt Garza has an 8.24 ERA, 3.2 HR/9, and 0.8 K/BB ratio this month after three consecutive disaster starts at the hands of the Red Sox and Yankees. Jeff Niemann, who went on the disabled list at the same time as Davis in August, has a 14.43 ERA, 7.0 BB/9 and 2.8 HR/9 over five starts since returning, while averaging less than four innings per turn. James Shields has been anything but Big Game James; he's got a 5.04 ERA and .429 SNWP while leading the majors in home runs allowed (34); he cost himself Sunday's game when he surrendered a three-run homer to Josh Freakin' Wilson, just his second homer of the year in 361 plate appearances. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson, who sparkled in his first four starts and who will have one of these men's jobs next year, is pitching out of the bullpen right now because he's up against his own innings cap. There's always the possibility the Rays could pull an October surprise and give him a post-season start, but nobody's banking upon it.
While we're on the subject, the Red Sox would still have a real chance in this AL East race were it not for their own rotation woes.
Forget the season-ending injuries to Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Cameron and Ellsbury, not to mention the other ailments which have felled Sox hitters. If only the Sox had gotten some help from the rest of the rotation beyond Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, this weekend's series would have meant something more than a chance at playing spoiler or hoping that their 384-to-1 odds came in. Lester was absolutely phenomenal on Saturday, taking advantage of the late-afternoon shadows to strike out six of the first 12 Yankees he faced and to carry a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He's now fourth in the league in ERA (2.96) and third in strikeouts (220), while Buchholz is second in ERA (2.39), thanks in part to a .266 BABIP.
As for the rest of the crew, John Lackey (4.51 ERA, .470 SNWP) is pitching as though the minor arm woes he experienced during his final two years in Anaheim have taken their toll; his strikeout rate (6.3 per nine) is the lowest since his 2002 rookie season. Josh Beckett (5.77 ERA, .401 SNWP) and Matsuzaka (4.72, .476 SNWP) have both missed time due to injuries, combining for just 44 starts; Sunday night's turn marked the latter's first quality start since August 5. What's particularly disconcerting about the trio's performances is that they're under contract for a collective $149 million, with Matsuzaka's pact running through 2012 and the other two through 2014. And you thought the Burnett contract looked bad.
I was at least somewhat wrong when I buried David Ortiz earlier this year.
Ortiz played a big part in Boston's first two wins over New York over the weekend, going 4-for-9 with a walk, a double, two runs and two RBI. Back in May, I wrote of the Sox DH's inflated strikeout rate (34.9 percent at the time), and his flagging production overall. He came into Sunday night with 31 homers and a .301 True Average, both his highest marks since 2007, but his strikeout rate, while lower than it was in May, is still the highest of his career:
Alas, Ortiz's performance has collapsed against southpaws (.217/.270/.320, 29.1 K%), and the result is that he's doing most of his damage in low- and medium-leverage situations while still struggling mightily in high-leverage situations, where he's more apt to face a situational lefty late in the game:
The Red Sox hold a $12.5 million option on Ortiz for 2011; if they tempt fate and bring him back as a 35-year-old DH/cult hero, they absolutely need to concede that he requires a platoon partner, and if they're going to do that, they'd be much better off rejecting the option and offering him a significant pay cut.
Alex Rodriguez is having his best month of the season.
I pointed this out at Pinstriped Bible prior to Saturday's contest, and since then Rodriguez has added two more home runs to his total. Since returning to the lineup on September 6 following a stint on the disabled list for a calf strain, he's enjoyed not only his best month but his first good one since May:
From June 1-August 20, when he went to the DL, Rodriguez hit a hacktastic .242/.298/.479 with 14 homers in 265 plate appearances. He was a mess, with an unintentional walk rate (7.5 percent) well below his career mark (10.1 percent), and a .237 BABIP, due to a minimal line drive rate (10.5 percent according to the data at Fangraphs). Lefties particularly bedeviled him (.130/.215/.261 in 79 PA) during that stretch, and in fact he’s still headed towards an uncharacteristically Grandersonesque showing against southpaws this year (.213/.315/.426 in 165 PA, with a .211 BABIP) after punishing them about as frequently as he has righties over the course of his career. Whether the reasons are physical (he's been dogged by a litany of leg problems all year) or mental (he's Alex Rodriguez, after all, and the wait for his 600th homer was interminable) isn't clear. But he’s suddenly looking like the guy in the catalog again, the one making $32 million this year, at a time when the Yankees need him most.