Game Thread: Sunday, September 1st, Orioles versus Yankees

Now we're talking! The Yankees have won the first two against the Orioles and moved in front of them in the standings. Even better, the Bombers currently sit just 3.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. ESPN still has their playoff odds at under 15%, but things are getting interesting! But the team will have to keep winning. Andy Pettitte takes the mound today in the Bronx, while the O's will counter with Wei-Yin Chen. Use this as your game thread. Enjoy!

Pettitte's "Floating" Release Point

After Andy Pettitte's start on 4/29, the left-hander complained about release point issues. He explained that problems in his release point and the inefficiency of his cutter were causing him to struggle. After Sunday's start on 5/5, Pettitte ran into the same issues. He had this to say after the game. “It’s a struggle,” Pettitte said. “The issue is everything. Everything I’ve got to do as a starting pitcher, I’m not able to do right now. … My release point is floating around a little bit. … It’s been a long, long time since I haven’t had a feeling for my pitches.”

Yesterday, Brad covered his cutter, and today I want to take a look at his release points.

Instead, I'd like to just present Pettitte's release points from his six 2013 starts.

(click “view full post” to continue reading)

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Cutter Problems Killing Andy Lately

Pettitte vs OAK

(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

After allowing just 7 ER in his first 4 starts of the season, and going at least 6 innings in each of those starts, Andy Pettitte has struggled mightily in his last 2 outings, the second of which came yesterday Sunday against Oakland.  In 9.1 IP over both starts, Pettitte has allowed 10 ER on 14 H and 5 BB, with just 5 K to show for his effort.  According to Andy, his cutter has been the source of his struggles in the last week.  He just hasn't had any kind of control over the pitch let alone command, and a quick look at the pitch location plot is proof of that:

Pettitte Cutter Location Last 2 Starts

That's pretty brutal right there.  Either in the good middle part of the hitting zone or so far off the edges of the zone that it doesn't even warrant a swing.  The cutter is Andy's groundball pitch, the one he uses to keep his pitch count down and get quick outs when he needs them.  Without command of the pitch, it's no surprise to see that his GB rate in each of his last 2 starts has been below 40%.  It also doesn't help that his 2-seamer command hasn't been that great either:

Pettitte 2-Seamer Location Last 2 Starts

Normally that's a pitch that Andy will throw to both sides of the plate and throw for strikes pretty consistently.  In these last 2 starts he's only been able to throw it to one side of the plate and with a similar "good to hit or not even close" distribution as his cutter, cutting his strike % down from near 67% to 58.6%. When you're working with lower velocity like Andy is at this stage in his career, your command needs to be on point.  Andy's was earlier in the season when he was cruising through his first 4 starts.  He's hit a snag here in the last week and he needs to find that command to get himself right again.

It'd be easy and not unfair to question Andy's health and how that may be affecting his performance.  He did skip a start and miss over a week with back tightness last month, and we know back problems tend to linger.  Andy's ability to pitch through back problems at age 40 is surely not what it was at age 30, and to a certain degree it would be understandable that he struggle if the back is giving him trouble.  Andy himself swears that's not the problem right now, though, and I'm willing to believe him.  If this trend with the cutter continues over another start or two, that feeling might change.

(Pitch plots courtesy of Texas Leaguers.  Pettitte photo courtesy of the AP)

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Staying Realistic On Pettitte

Andy Pettitte's performance in 2012 was short and sweet. For a 39 year old pitcher turning 40, short was expected, but the 2.87 ERA and 3.48 FIP were a shocker after a year on the retirement shelf. The lefty has continued his success in his 3 starts so far, giving the Yankees 22.1 innings, allowing just 5 earned runs. Since returning from retirement, Pettitte has now pitched 97.2 innings and he's looked less like a number three pitcher in the rotation, and more like a 1b. His 2.67 ERA over the last 2 years has been stunning, and the Yankees have to be thrilled with the results.

With the injury weaknesses and back of the rotation struggles this April, Pettitte has stood out and carried the team with dominate performances over three games. His importance in the early part of 2013 continues to be key for the team, but there are some signs that the south paw's results could be due for some regression.

No one expects Pettitte to continue pitching to a 2.01 ERA, but he's shown some odd tendencies thus far. His K% has dropped to just 14.1%. The most glaring pitch has been the changeup, which he uses to neutralize right-handed batters. In 2012, the changeup drew a 13.3% whiff rate, and he thus held right-handers to a .242/.308/.372 tripleslash. In 2013, the whiff rate has fallen to just 6.7%, and right-handers are batting .290/.323/.452.

While there is small sample size occurring in the early numbers this year, the 75.1 regular season innings that Pettitte pitched in 2012 were also limited enough to question. At this point, the left-hander is drawing much fewer strikeouts in the early going, and is only holding onto his low ERA by allowing a ridiculously and unsustainable low 10.4% line drive rate. This after allowing another well-below career average 14.9% line drive rate in 2012. His left on base rate has likewise sky rocketed, and in 2013 it's way up to 89.6%.

This doesn't mean that Pettitte is doomed, especially not with just 3 starts to his name, but with his start tonight, I will now stay mindful of the low strike out rates and signs of struggle against opposite handed hitters. With back spasms already complicating his season, relying on Pettitte is asking for trouble, both in terms of his health and probable regression. This isn't to say that he'll collapse, but relying on him for 7+ quality innings every start is hard to imagine, and the Yankees will soon need for the back of the rotation to pick up some of the slack. Phil Hughes' last two starts were promising, but Ivan Nova (or his replacement) will need to carry some of the load with the 40 year old Pettitte adjusting to his aging body.

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The Shallow Depths

Though the season hasn't even started, the Yankees have already had their depth tested in two positions. Curtis Granderson's injury has opened up a spot in the outfield, and the catching situation has been much maligned since the Yankees declined to re-sign Russell Martin and passed on signing A.J. Pierzynski. And with Derek Jeter's ankle injury, we'll see the infield depth tested as Eduardo Nunez and/or Jayson Nix get some time at short to spell the Captain.  On the other hand, the pitching seems to be fairly deep. The bullpen is well-stocked and some pitchers (think Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley) will not last the year on the 25-man roster. Likewise, though not quite as widely, the starting rotation is considered to be an area of strength. It's certainly a talented rotation featuring CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda. But is it as deep as we think?

Phil Hughes has already suffered an injury. Andy Pettitte is coming off an injury (granted it was a freak, batted ball thing). Kuroda, though he showed few (if any) signs of injury last year, is coming off a career high in innings pitched. Sabathia, godly though he may be is coming off of (relatively minor) elbow surgery. It's easy to imagine one or more of them missing time over the course of the season. If (when) that happens, where can the Yankees turn?

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Can Pettitte Continue His Success In 2013?

It's been nearly a year since Andy Pettitte unretired. As shocking as his return to baseball was, no one expected him to pitch like did. Through 12 starts in 2012, Pettitte finished the season with a 22.8 K%, a 6.9 BB%, and a 3.48 FIP. Though his fluke injury limited him to only 75.1 innings, he held a 2.87 ERA, and continued to post numbers in the range of CC Sabathia. The left-hander will be 41 years old this season, and with only 12 major league starts under his belt since the end of 2010 season, his ability to succeed is one of the few remaining questions in this year's rotation. 

Pettitte's 2012 consisted of a relatively high number of strikeouts and ground balls based on his career numbers. From 2010 to 2012, his K% jumped 4 points, and his ground ball rate increased by nearly 13%. So how did he achieve these results?

Despite a slight loss in velocity, Pettitte's fastballs had better movement in 2012. Both his four-seam fastball and cutter had around 2 inches of additional vertical "rising" action, compared to 2010, while his sinker gained an additional inch of rise and horizontal movement towards left-handed hitters. The improved movement on the four-seam and cutter correlates with some additional strikeouts, a higher foul rate, and a higher called strike rate. Additionally, his fly ball rates slightly increased, while the line drive rates decreased. The sinker saw the most improvement, as its ground ball rate increased from around 14% to 18%, and he only allowed 3 total fly balls on the sinker the entire year.

The response from his breaking pitches were similar. Overall, the slider, curveball, and changeup all saw around 2 inches of additional rising action, while they maintained the same horizontal movement. The slider continued to be his most dependable out pitch, which he used around a quarter of the time. It achieved almost a 22% whiff rate, a 1% increase from 2010. The curveball and changeup saw the best improvement, as the curveball's whiff rate jumped from 7% to 9%, and the changeup increased from 10% to 14%. With a better changeup, Pettitte was able to decrease his platoon split from a .343 wOBA against righties in 2010, to a .301 in 2012.

All of Pettitte's pitches saw an increase in vertical movement, likely because he was able to increase the spin rate on all six pitches. Though you'd expect higher fly ball rates from an overall increase in rising action, the overall movement on the sinker and a bump in usage caused a dramatic increase in his ground ball rates. The four-seam fastball and cutter also became set up pitches that had more control and were harder for hitters to square up. While the slider remained close to the same, the curveball and changeup saw increased movement that likely contributed to more strikeouts, and thus a better a better platoon advantage.

In the end, Pettitte's 2012 results look very real, despite the small sample size. Assuming he can continue to put the higher spin rate on his pitches, he should have no problem replicating the results of his strikeouts and walks. I'm less certain about the batted ball rates, since there is such an extreme difference between 2010 and 2012, though the PITCHf/x numbers indicate that there was nothing out of the ordinary in 2012. In terms of luck, we'll likely  see his left on base rate decrease, and with a weaker left side defense on the infield, he'll probably see his ERA much closer to his 2012 3.48 FIP, rather than his 2.87 ERA.

Projecting Andy Pettitte

Count me among the Yankee fans who were thrilled when Andy Pettitte came back in 2012. One of the low points of my Yankee fan career was watching Pettitte put on an Astros uniform from 2004 through 2006. I was certain Pettitte was one of the Yankees who would play his entire career in pinstripes. I never blamed him for leaving. I was thrilled when he came back. For similar reasons I was shocked when Andy temporarily retired after 2010. He had something left in the tank. It just didn't make sense for him to call it quits. Andy came back in 2012, and showed that he could still pitch, that only his ability to stay healthy would keep him in check. Now that he's signed up for 2013, at the age of 41, what does Andy have left?

The answer is that it is unclear. Using just the eye test, Andy looks as dominant as ever. He put up an impressive slash line of 2.87/3.48/3.27 in 2012. He appears to have overcome his diminished velocity (Pitch FX says he averaged just 87.8 mph on his fastball last year) by mixing his pitches well to get batters out. The real question doesn't appear to be an ability to find a way to get batters out with a diminished arsenal, but an ability to stay healthy. Pettitte has been injured each of his past two seasons in the big leagues. Time isn't on his side.

Pettitte's age comparisons don't bode well for durability either. Baseball Reference says that for his career he is most similar to David Wells, Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown. Mussina and Brown never saw an age 41 season (although Mussina left at the top of his game). Of the three, only Wells played an age 41 season. For what it's worth, that season was pretty good. Wells pitched 195.2 innings with a 3.73 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. I would take that from Andy in a heartbeat.

For my part, I believe that if Andy is healthy he'll be productive, but with a wide range of possible outcomes (anything from a sub 3 FIP to just above 4). Since 2006 Andy has seen his fastball diminish as a weapon, and he has responded by using his cutter and curveball more effectively. Those are pitches that can get batters out without requiring a lot of velocity, meaning that they will age better than a pure fastball. In that respect Andy should still be able to get big league hitters out. The question is health. Pettitte is an old baseball player, and while it is fair to argue that his 2012 injury was a fluke, it is also fair to point out that a younger player may have gotten out of the way or may not have suffered as severe an injury.

Older players are an injury risk. Success for Pettitte has to be defined in those terms. It is safe to predict that he will wind up on the DL at least once during the 2013 season. The question is what puts him there. I'm willing to predict that a prepared Andy, one who is not trying to come back mid-season, can limit his injuries to something manageable. In that regard, 150-165 innings of about a 3.85 FIP season seem justified as a forecast. It wouldn't be the Andy of old, but it would still be a valuable contribution.

Yankees Finding Undervalued Pieces In Old Players

In Moneyball, Billy Beane uses a number of advanced statistics to find undervalued players on the market. His rival, the New York Yankees, don't need Sabermetrics, since they have wagons full of cash. While that's partially true, (the part about all the money) the Yankees were one of the first organizations to implement advanced statistics, well before the story took place in 2002. Now that the Yankees have a budget, we're starting to see them take a step forward in finding undervalued players. Most recently, the Yankees have signed Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Kevin Youkilis, and Ichiro Suzuki. The average age of these players is 39 years old, and for a team that just finished 2012 with the oldest average age in baseball, fans are worried about regression. That doesn't bother Brian Cashman.

Two months ago, I took a look at the age of teams in comparison to their overall fWAR. While teams like the Nationals represented a young team that played well, older teams were much more likely to outperform younger teams. I explained a few scenarios to why this is, for instance the Astros are forced to use young players who belong in the minor leagues. You'll see that the top 10 teams in age were far more competitive than the bottom 10 teams. 6 of these teams made the playoffs, while only 2 of the bottom 10 teams made it, the Athletics and the Nationals.

While it doesn't necessarily mean that old is good, my interpretation was that fans may have an exaggerated perception of player decline. After all, it seems that you're more likely to read an article about how terrible the Alex Rodriguez contract is, rather than a piece on Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, or Torii Hunter overcoming age regression.

It's important to note that the Yankees aren't just targeting any old players that are willing to sign one-year deals, a lot of these players appear to sport peripherals that say they're drop off in numbers wasn't regression, rather it was a matter of small sample size. Kuroda, Pettitte, Rivera, and Suzuki have long track records of consistency and athleticism, while Kevin Youkilis has the quintessential old player skills. Yesterday, Ichiro Suzuki signed with the Yankees, and he had this to say about the organization's perception of age.

"I believe the Yankees organization appreciates that there is a difference between a 39-year-old who has played relying only on talent, and a 39-year-old who has prepared, practiced and thought thoroughly through many experiences for their craft," Ichiro said. "I am very thankful, and I will do my best to deliver on their expectations."

It may look like Ichiro regressed in his previous two years, but other numbers indicate that the drop off in production was a side effect of small sample size. You could say the same for Kevin Youkilis.

With the success of aging teams of late, the aging player looks to be the new undervalued commodity. The Yankees would obviously be no stranger to this concept. Now that the budget is in sight, they've stacked the team with five players that own an old age tag, and it's not even Christmas yet.