Game 38, Mariners at Yankees
King Felix Hernandez vs. CC Sabathia, 4:05pm
It’s nice to be back after a short vacation break, and it’s nice to get back into baseball with a pitching match-up like this one. Both are Cy Young winners, both have been exceedingly durable and successful, and both were, at one time, the owner of the richest contract ever handed out to a pitcher. There’s another similarity as well: just as last year, Felix’s missing velocity in April was a big story, so too is Sabathia’s sudden drop. Felix’s velo had been slipping for years, and while it was down substantially in April of 2012, he soon recovered much of that missing zip, and his fastball velocity by August looked pretty much exactly like his fastball velocity in the previous year. CC’s velocity decline has been more rapid and more severe. From 2008-2011, Sabathia’s average four-seam fastball velocity *for April only* was 94mph (the range goes from 93.7-94.4). That dipped in 2012, to 92.5 mph. This year? 90.7. That’s a drop of over 3 MPH in two years, with a particularly large drop-off this season.
Now, as with Felix in 2012, this big drop hasn’t really manifested itself in poor results. His K% is down from 2011-12, but it’s right about where it was in 2010. The same goes for O-Sw%, or contact rate. From what we can tell, CC’s largely (heh) the same pitcher he’s been for the best part of a decade. It’s just he’s not blowing FB by anyone anymore. That said, there’s a reason why people get nervous about velo drops: they are often harbingers of injury*. Again, I’m *less* likely to worry about this type of thing in the short to medium term now because the Felix experience of 2012 is so fresh. You all remember everyone talking about how he was going to need surgery, or his time as an ace was over. People tut-tutted about his workload or about his his breaking balls, and then Felix kept on Felixing and the declinists shut up. That could happen here, too. But it’s just stunning to see CC Sabathia’s average velocity come in behind Hyun-Jin Ryu’s, Mike Leake’s, Wade Miley’s and Jose Quintana’s.
Of course, the one thing that CC’s always been able to do (and is still quite capable of doing) is detonate left-handed hitters. His best pitch is a hard slider at 84mph, and while he throws it to lefties and righties alike, it’s absolute death on lefties. Lefties are slugging .229 on the pitch since 2007, and they’re 2-14 with 10 Ks this year. When an at-bat ends with a slider, lefties have 87 hits and 18 walks compared to *329* strikeouts. Lefties own a career wOBA of .281 off of him, or the career wOBA of Matt Treanor. You probably know where this is going, don’t you?
Eric Wedge has tapped veteran leader Raul Ibanez to be his designated hitter today, matching the wily veteran against the left-handed Sabathia. Sure, the platoon splits here are staggering, but grit doesn’t slump. Snark aside, like many of Wedge’s moves, there’s the kernel of a recognizable, logical argument in there somewhere. It’s just hard to see past the 800lb gorilla that’s waving its arms and singing Pat Benetar tunes. Most of us would focus on the anomalous sight – the gorilla with a penchant for 80s rock. Wedge may be applying his laser-like focus to Ibanez’s 2012 home/road splits. Ibanez famously had a late-career resurgence by targeting new Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. He hit 14 HRs there in less than 200 at-bats, good for an OPS near .900 and a free-agent contract with the M’s. Indeed, this park is great for lefties, and Mike Saunders and Kyle Seager have to like their chances. But the other part of Ibanez’s great season last year was that he was strictly platooned. 85% of his PAs came against righties. How many of his 14 home HRs came off lefties? Well, none of them. That’s not to say he couldn’t hit one tonight. But if you’re making a line-up to give your team its best chance to win, it’s exceedingly hard to argue that Ibanez should DH against CC Sabathia as opposed to, say, Jesus Montero.
1: Saunders, CF
2: Bay, LF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Morse, RF
6: Shoppach, C
7: Ibanez, DH
8: Andino, 2B
9: Ryan, SS
SP: King Felix
Happy Felix day, everyone.
Yes, yes: the M’s have scored fewer runs than their overall wRC+ or total batting line would predict. This has led to a focus on sequencing and, taking things a step further, luck (or lack thereof). But look at the bottom of that line-up and ask yourself how odd it is that the M’s have fewer runs than you’d expect given their total number of hits and walks. Ibanez/Andino/Ryan, versus CC Sabathia. There’s luck, and then there’s a line-up with a dead spot in it – a bottom of the line-up that seems scientifically designed to strand baserunners. Now sure, Ryan and Andino will most likely regress towards the mean a bit, and Ibanez may too. But it stings a bit to see Felix out there in Yankee Stadium with a chance to knock-off the bombers AND CC Sabathia…and to see the bottom of that line-up.
So I’ve been gone, and I’m just catching up on baseball again. Jeff’s articles below are great, and I wanted to take a look at the claim that Morse and Morales aren’t swinging at more pitches (which seems to possibly be a proxy for “pressing” in coachspeak). I like to use the Brooks Baseball data to help account for pitch-fx oddities and pitch type algorithm screw-ups, so let’s take a look at his hitting profile. In his career, his swing rate’s fairly high, and it’s noticeably higher low in the zone and low OUT of the zone. Normalizing for all right-handed hitters, the pattern’s the same, just more extreme. Morse *really* likes low pitches. Selecting just 2013, the pattern’s essentially unchanged. Same for Morales. Here’s the career swing rate by zone, and here’s 2013. There are occasional differences, as there would be with so few pitches in 2013, but the overall picture is clear: Morales like to swing at pitches, and he has continued liking to swing at pitches in 2013.
Aaaah, Dustin Ackley. I’ve been a bit more pessimistic on our erstwhile prospect/franchise player, but that doesn’t mean watching him struggle (and get benched to let Robert freaking Andino start at 2B) is any fun. It pretty much would be unprecedented for a guy with such good contact skills to flame out as completely as Ackley’s doing this year, but it’s also really, really hard to succeed if you can’t draw walks or hit for power. At this point, Ackley isn’t drawing any walks because he’s incapable of punishing pitchers for living in the strike zone. That can’t change unless he fundamentally alters his approach (take fewer pitches) or taps into a lot more power than we’ve seen. Essentially, both require him to be something completely different. That’s not impossible, of course. Michael Saunders was completely, thoroughly terrible for a few years, and needed to become a completely new, non-crappy baseball player, and lo and behold, he seems to have done it. It’s just really rare. He’s 25, the age Saunders was when he figured things out. You don’t want to turn 26 without figuring things out (sorry, Justin Smoak).
There’s a potentially interesting debate over WAR (no, seriously) brought up by Jon Heyman’s twitter queries going on. Colin Wyers has a piece at BP arguing that Heyman’s essentially right to point out some of the…oddities in early-season WAR, and argues that WAR should regress fielding metrics to account for their greater volatility (they tell us less about a player’s true defensive talent). You should read it. There are things to quibble with all around, and I think sabermetrics has been better about responding to critiques from sportswriters than Wyers intimates here (see the harmonizing of replacement level by Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference). But the overall point seems solid – too often, we (raises hand sheepishly here) attack a decent question because it comes from the “wrong” kind of fan/observer/reporter. This really *can* turn neutrals off, as they see these frameworks as closed boxes that no one’s allowed to tweak or question. And it’s a shame, because while I actually agree that a regression of in-season defensive numbers would be awesome, I firmly believe that the defensive run numbers are a relatively small component of the actual arguments about WAR. They are in Heyman’s example, and improving the metrics we have sounds great to me. But that just highlights that WAR *can be* a really useful way to think about player valuation, and a great way to hone in on exactly how different people value different skills. Or it can be a totem, a sacred cow that we either rally to defend, no matter what, or mock and disdain without looking into it. Just personally, I run into a lot more of the latter than the former in my day to day life, but that doesn’t mean “they started it” arguments work here.
I was looking at the standings today, and noting how freakishly similar things stand to the way they were a year ago. One year ago today, the M’s were a bit under .500 and sitting in 3rd place behind the Rangers and the roughly.500 Oakland A’s. The Angels were really struggling, and sat quite a ways back in fourth. Today? Yeah, all of that still applies. Sure, the division’s been child-proofed by having a new floor installed made of soft, non-toxic Astros, but other than that, 2013 looks a hell of a lot like 2012.
* Not that pitchers really need harbingers of injuries. The act of pitching puts someone at greater risk of injury, so we’re just arguing about degrees of risk here.