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Entries in New York Yankees (126)

Wednesday
Jan292014

Mark Reynolds Getting Beat on Inside Stuff

Since he clubbed his way to the majors in 2007, Mark Reynolds has been a one-tool player. He's got an iron glove, costing his team more runs (76) compared to an average defender than every infielder not named Michael Young, Yuniesky Betancourt or Derek Jeter. And his D looks pretty good compared to his contact skills: Reynolds has struck out 1,276 times, second-most among hitters since '07 (Adam Dunn is first). But Reynolds' one tool -- pure, unadulterated pull power -- is special enough for teams to hold their noses and focus on his epic blasts.

Or, at least it used to be. Reynolds' home run total has dipped from 37 in 2011 to 23 in 2012 and 21 this past season, with his slugging percentage tumbling by nearly 100 points (.483 in '11, .429 in '12, and .393 in '13). Considering how often he punches out, Reynolds needs to maul the ball when he does connect. With elite power, he's a pretty good hitter (his park-and-league adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage was 16 percent above average in 2011). With average pop, he's a liability (his OPS was four percent below average in 2013).

The 30-year-old recently signed a minor league deal with the Brewers, though he's expected to make the opening day roster either as the club's primary first baseman or the short half of a platoon with Juan Francisco. Granted, even a diminished Reynolds would be better than the balsa wood-toting brigade that Milwaukee featured at the position last season (a combined .370 slugging percentage). But if he plans on giving Bernie Brewer a workout on Miller Park's homer slide, he'll have to reverse a three-year decline against inner-half pitches.

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2011

 

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2012

 

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2013

            

Reynolds was a beast versus pitches thrown to the inner half of the plate in 2011, posting the eighth-best slugging percentage (.659) among qualified batters. But that figure declined to .575 in 2012, and just .398 this past season. Here's another way of looking at it: Reynolds crushed inside pitches like Jose Bautista and David Ortiz back in '11. In 2013, though? He barely outslugged waterbug shortstops Elvis Andrus and Erick Aybar.

Reynolds simply doesn't have the sort of well-rounded skill set that allows him to hit for good-not-great power. He's either jacking 30-plus homers, or he's riding the bus in Triple-A. Short of a return to elite slugger status, he could be looking at a succession of minor league deals in the years to come.

Wednesday
Jan222014

Hiroki Kuroda and Throwing in the Strike Zone 

Hiroki Kuroda cashed in $15 million last season for the New York Yankees, which was the second-most of any starter on the roster (save for C.C. Sabathia's monster $24 million salary). At the end of July, it seemed as though the 38-year-old righty would easily live up to his lofty billing, having posted a 2.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP (sixth and tenth-best, respectively, among qualified starters up to that juncture) over 22 starts.

And then August happened.

Starting the month by allowing just three earned runs over his first two starts, Kuroda proceeded to allow 15 earned runs in his subsequent three starts (16.2 innings) to finish out the month. His struggles continued from that point on as he posted a 5.70 ERA over five September starts -- enough to raise his 2.38 ERA over the first four months of the season to 3.31, which was only slightly better than the 3.51 league average for qualified starters by the end of the regular season.

The reason for Kuroda's ERA spike? He stopped throwing in the strike zone.

Comparing Kuroda's Pitch Frequencies over both spans

Notice the shift in command toward the "inside" corner on right-handed hitters.To be fair, Kuroda has never been one to pound the strike zone at a high frequency. Since his rookie 2008 campaign, his zone% (pitches in the strike zone / total pitches) stands at just 44.7% -- including this past season -- which ranks as the seventh-lowest rate among qualified starters. This is over four percent lower than the 49% league average since 2008, and a whopping 13.8% lower than Cliff Lee, whose 58.5% zone rate since 2008 is easily the highest mark in baseball over that span.

Most of Kuroda's plate discipline numbers remained relatively steady over both spans last season. And in some cases, they actually improved -- his miss rate jumped to 23.5% from August to September and his chase followed a similar trend, increasing to 32.7%. The same cannot be said about opponents in-play average (increasing nearly .100 points) and home-run-to-fly-ball rate, which nearly doubled from August on.

From the beginning of last season to the end of July, 45.2% of Kuroda's pitches fell in the strike zone (somewhat close to the 49.8% league mark over that span). That number dropped to 38.1% from that point to the end of the season, which was the lowest mark of any qualified starter and a whole 5.3% lower than the guy with the next-lowest mark (Francisco Liriano's 43.4%). Consequently, Kuroda's zone% shrinkage directly affected opponents' increase in BABIP.

How he stacked up with the league...

...from April to July...

...and from August to September.

As we see, there seems to be a correlation between zone% and opponents BABIP last season -- when you throw less pitches in the strike zone, batters tend to have more success at finding holes in defenses. When Kuroda's zone% remained near his career average from April to July last season, his opponent BABIP (.255) was low. But when he deviated away from that mark by throwing only 38.1% of his offerings in the zone from August on, batters had much more success at finding holes in Joe Girardi's defense. Normally, you would think throwing more pitches in the zone would give batters a better opportunity to square up pitches and thus have a higher BABIP, but this clearly isn't the case.

My advice to Kuroda: Throw more pitches in the strike zone. 

Tuesday
Jan072014

Mike Mussina: King of the Called Third Strike

Mike Mussina seems like the type of pitcher whose brilliance may get lost in the translation between traditional, back-of-the-baseball-card stats and sabermetrics. He falls thirty wins shy of the revered 300 club, and his career ERA (3.68) is way above that of the average Hall of Fame inductee (2.96). Some voters will take a cursory look at Mussina's candidacy and dismiss him as a good, but hardly dominant pitcher. Former Hall of Fame research associate and Cooperstown swami Bill Deane projects that Mussina will receive just seven percent of the vote -- precariously close to the five percent minimum required to stay on the ballot the following year.

But Mussina's bubble gum card stats ignore context -- the long-time Oriole and Yankee pitched in a high-scoring era, against lineups filled with sluggers in the cut-throat AL East division. Once you adjust for park factors and the go-go run-scoring environment of the 90s and early 2000s, Mussina easily clears the bar for enshrinement. His adjusted ERA is 23 percent above average, which ranks 13th all-time among starting pitchers logging at least 3,500 innings pitched. With 82.7 career Wins Above Replacement, Moose trumps the average Hall of Famer (69 WAR) and resides in the same neighborhood as Fergie Jenkins (82.7 WAR) and Bob Gibson (81.9 WAR).

Mussina managed to vanquish AL East hitters up until the end, recording one of his finest seasons in 2008 at age 39. He topped 200 innings and had a 131 ERA+, good for sixth among AL starters. Talk about finishing strong -- Mussina had the highest WAR total (5.2) among starters during his final major league season this side of Sandy Koufax (who had to retire at 30 due to a bum elbow) and Win Mercer (who committed suicide at age 28).

Highest WAR totals for SP in last MLB season

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

So, how did Mussina turn in arguably the finest season ever for a pitcher voluntarily calling it quits? He was the best in the game at freezing hitters in two-strike counts. Moose got the most strikeouts looking in the majors in 2008:

Called third strike leaders among starters, 2008

Mussina got the vast majority of those looking Ks with his fastball (36) and slider (20), and most of them (56 percent) came on pitches thrown just outside of the rule book-defined strike zone:

Location of Mussina's called third strikes, 2008

Hopefully, Hall of Fame voters study Mussina's pitching as thoroughly as these batters did. This guy deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.