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Entries in New York Yankees (126)

Thursday
Dec192013

Missing: Matt Thornton's Fastball

Matt Thornton finally learned how to tame his upper-90s fastball in his thirties, emerging as one of the game's most lethal relievers after walking the yard in the minors and during his first few years in the majors with Seattle. The durable lefty dominated from 2008-11, posting the fifth-highest strikeout rate (10.7 per nine innings) and eighth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (59 percent above average) among qualified 'pen arms. Hitters knew what was coming -- Thronton threw his meal ticket fastball an MLB-high 86 percent over that time frame -- but that knowledge didn't help them look any less foolish at the dish.

The Yankees just signed the 37-year-old Thornton to a two-year, $7 million free agent deal, hoping he can serve as a lower-cost alternative to power lefty Boone Logan (now a Rockie after inking a three-year, $16.5 million contract). Unfortunately, Thornton seems to have misplaced his meal ticket. These days, Thronton's throwing his fastball slower -- and leaving it over the heart of the plate far too often.

Back in 2011, Thornton boasted the highest average fastball velocity (95.8 MPH) of any lefty reliever not named Aroldis Chapman. But his average heater declined to 95 MPH in 2012, and 94.2 MPH in 2013. As Thornton's fastball velocity dipped, hitters' contact rate against the pitch spiked:

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2012

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2013

 

Batters whiffed at Thornton's fastball 22 percent of the time that they swung in '11, well above the 18 percent average for relievers. However, that whiff rate dropped to 16.4 percent in '12 and just 13.9 percent this past year. For comparison's sake, J.P. Howell -- who throws 88 MPH gas on a breezy day -- got whiffs 13.6 percent of the time. Connecting much more frequently, opponents raised their batting average off Thornton's fastball from .256 to .275 to .298.

Thornton's fastball velocity isn't the only thing on the wane, though -- his command has also suffered. He has thrown more pitches over the vertical middle of the plate three years running (31 percent in '11, 36.3 percent in '12, and 36.8 percent in '13). When pitchers toss a belt-high fastball, hitters pretty much morph into Dustin Pedroia. They rarely whiff (a collective 14.2 percent miss rate in 2013), hit for average (.291) and drive the ball into the gaps (.464 slugging percentage). Poorly located fastballs lead to laser shows.

With diminished zip and command, Thornton's K rate has dipped from 9.5 per nine frames in 2011 to a career-worst 6.2 in 2013, when he couldn't crack the Red Sox playoff roster. It's not like the Yankees shelled out big bucks to bring him aboard, considering that $7 million now buys about a win on the free agent market. But, like many of his formerly elite teammates in the Bronx, Thornton has seen better days.

Tuesday
Dec172013

Phil Hughes Getting Lit Up in 2-Strike Counts

The Minnesota Twins' starting rotation has failed to put hitters away for years now. In 2013, Twinkies starters had the lowest strikeout rate (12.3 percent of batters faced) and allowed the highest two-strike slugging percentage (.355) in the majors. Minnesota signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes for a combined $73 million to add some Ks to a chronically underpowered staff, but the latter hurler might actually make the club's problem in finishing off opposing batters worse.

Hitters are typically toast by the time they get down to their last strike, slugging just .274 in such situations during the 2013 season. Not against Hughes, though. The erstwhile Yankee prodigy served up 10 home runs in two-strike counts (tied for seventh-most among starting pitchers) and surrendered a .399 slugging percentage. Among pitchers making at least 20 starts last year, only Roberto Hernandez (.405) and Joe Sauders (.404) let hitters do more two-strike damage. The two names directly following Hughes look depressingly familiar to Twins fans: Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia (both at .394).

Why has Hughes, a former top-five prospect who barely has a better career park-and-league-adjusted ERA (five percent below average) than the undrafted Diamond (eight percent below), been so hittable in two-strike counts? The 27-year-old tries to overpower batters, elevating his fastball and nearly scrapping his curveball in favor of a speedier slider. Unfortunately, hitters are making loud, frequent contact against Hughes' supposed put-away pitches.

In two-strike situations, Hughes relies almost exclusively on his fastball (thrown 51 percent of the time) and slider (40 percent). He goes for the kill with the fastball, throwing it harder with two strikes (92.7 MPH) than in other counts (92.2 MPH) and peppering the upper third of the strike zone. Hughes threw 56 percent of his two-strike fastballs high in the zone last year, far above than the 42.5 percent average for MLB starters. Pitchers tend to miss bats with elevated two-strike heaters, but Hughes allowed scads of contact.

Hughes' fastball contact rate in 2-strike counts, 2013 

 

       Average fastball contact rate in 2-strike counts, 2013 

 

Hitters came up empty a mere 13.9 percent of the time that they swung against a high Hughes fastball, compared to the 22 percent average for starters. Correia (14 percent) actually got as many whiffs when he climbed the ladder. It's probably not a good sign when your fastball can be described as Correia-esque.

Hughes' slider also suffers from a lack of swings and misses with two-strikes (27.1 percent, below the 30 percent average), largely because hitters don't chase the pitch outside of the strike zone. Check out opponents' swing rate on two-strike sliders thrown off the plate against Hughes, and then the MLB average.

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Hughes' two-strike sliders, 2013

 

MLB average swing rate by pitch location vs. two-strike sliders, 2013

 

Overall, hitters chased two-strike sliders out of the strike zone 43.5 percent of the time. But against Hughes? Just 35.6 percent. That's below both Mike Pelfrey (36.6 percent) and Correia (38.8 percent).

As the game's most fly ball-centric pitcher, Hughes will undoubtedly benefit in moving from Yankee Stadium (which has boosted home runs by 19 percent compared to a neutral park over the past three years, per The Bill James Handbook) to Target Field (which has suppressed homers by nine percent). But when it comes to burying hitters, he has far too much in common with his new teammates.

Wednesday
Dec112013

Carlos Beltran a Different Man at the Plate, Too

After nearly a decade of rumors fitting him for pinstripes, Carlos Beltran has officially become a Yankee by inking a three-year, $45 million contract. Beltran, entering his age 37 season, isn't the same all-around superstar who once complemented his big bat with high-percentage base thievery and gliding, Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield. The same can be said at the plate -- he's not the same hitter he used to be. But in this case, his production hasn't suffered much as a result.

Beltran has shown a keen eye during his big league career, posting a double-digit walk rate nine times in sixteen seasons. But as the switch-hitter has crossed his mid-30's, he has turned into more of a hacker: his unintentional walk rate dipped from 10.7 percent in 2011 to 8.1 percent in 2012 and 6.2 percent this past year. The last time Beltran drew so few walks was 1998, when he was a 21-year-old blue-chipper getting a late-September look with the Royals. Yet Beltran is still raking, putting up a park-and-league adjusted OPS 54 percent above average in '11, and 28 percent above average in both '12 and '13. What gives?

Turns out, the Yankees' latest mercenary replacement for Robinson Cano has expanded his strike zone against "soft" pitches -- curveballs, sliders and changeups -- while still doing damage against those offerings. Those extra chases haven't helped Beltran, but he has offset them by also becoming more aggressive on breaking and off-speed stuff thrown within the strike zone.

Here's Beltran's swing rate against soft pitches over the past three seasons. You'll note two key changes in Beltran's approach: he's chasing more curves, sliders and changeups thrown below the knees, but he's also letting it rip more often on soft stuff thrown high in the strike zone:

Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2011

Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2012

Beltran's swing rate vs. soft pitches, 2013

In 2011, Beltran's chase rate versus curves, sliders and changeups (29 percent) was comfortably below the major league average (32 percent). But he has lunged at more soft stuff in both 2012 (35 percent) and 2013 (38 percent). Bad things tend to happen when hitters swing at soft pitches thrown off the plate (they slugged a collective .197 on those offerings from 2011-13), and Beltran is no exception (his three-year slugging percentage is .235).

While Beltran has shown less patience on soft stuff thrown out of the zone, he has simultaneously become more discerning -- and deadly -- on piches tossed over the plate. Beltran's swing rate on in-zone breaking and off-speed pitches has climbed from around 71 percent in 2011 and '12 to 75 percent in 2013 (the MLB average is about 65 percent). Great things tend to happen when hitters swing at in-zone curves, sliders and changeups (.492 slugging percentage), and Beltran is once again no exception: he slugged .535 in 2011, .572 in 2012, and .582 in 2013.

Carlos Beltran has shown less ability to lay off breaking and off-speed pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, leading to more weakly hit grounders and fly balls. But he has become better at knowing when to take a cut at soft stuff thrown inside of the strike zone, leading to more drives that split the gaps or clear the fence. The result has basically been a wash. Beltran is a more aggressive hitter than he used to be, though not a worse hitter. He's just different.