Pitching to Contact in the Bronx?

Javier Vazquez‘s problems this year have been well documented – his velocity is down, his performance isn’t good, and he’s been less than what New York hoped when they acquired him. However, hidden by the downturn of their newest starter is the fact that two other Yankee starters have also seen pretty dramatic drops in their strikeout rates this year, and are also different pitchers now than they were when the Yankees acquired them – CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

Take a look at the three graphs below.

From top to bottom, those are the K/9 rates for Burnett, Sabathia, and Vazquez. If you’re not sure when they joined the Yankees, just look for the year in which their strikeout rate tumbles. In all three cases, the players have become far more contact oriented upon arriving in New York, and for Burnett and Sabathia, its continued on for a second year.

This isn’t to say all three are the same. Sabathia has traded strikeouts for groundballs, as he’s posting the best GB% of his career, so his overall effectiveness hasn’t changed much. While he’s a different pitcher this year, he’s not demonstrably worse. The same cannot be said of Burnett or Vazquez, who have both failed to adjust to their inability to miss bats, and are having seasons far worse than their most recent ones.

There is one commonality between them, though – all three are using their fastball a little bit more often than last year. Sabathia has gone from 61.6% to 64.5%, Burnett from 65.9% to 70.7%, and Vazquez from 49.9% to 53.4%. These are not major changes, but they’re different enough across the board that, combined with the lack of strikeouts from all three, it may be time for the Yankees front office to sit down with their pitching coaches and say “hey, what exactly are you telling these guys?”

It could just be a coincidence. It might not have anything to do with what these guys are being taught. But if I worked for the Yankees, I’d certainly want to make sure that there wasn’t something going on at the field level that was changing all these high priced pitchers that we kept bringing in, and in several cases, making them worse.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

35 Responses to “Pitching to Contact in the Bronx?”

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  1. Dave says:

    Might it been moving to the AL EAST?

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  2. bob says:

    wouldn’t sabathia be the prototype for the transition verlanders should take per the article where u compare halladay to him where halladay eschews strikouts for groundballs to not tax his arm. but sabathia in fact has not increased his IP/GS without any significant PIT/GS change so who know i am trying to use joe lefkowitz’s sight to see how sabathia changes his usage for the newfound groundballs but i don’t know how it works that well.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      Getting ground balls instead of strikeouts isn’t exactly a conscious choice – one needs the repertoire for it. I don’t know if Verlander has that.

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  3. yankee82093 says:

    I don’t know about Sabathia and Burnett, but with Vazquez I think the increase in fastball usage could be explained as follows:

    Vazquez has likely experienced a drop in command this year. His BB/9 has soared (more than you would expect from just the league change) and his plate discipline numbers are worse. If his command is worse, it would also likely mean he is behind in the count more often, forcing him to throw the fastball more often. So I doubt this is more a change in approach and more an artifact of him performing much worse this year in a tougher league.

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    • Justin Smoak says:


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      • Seattlepi says:

        now watch all the groupies rush to his defence despite Cameron never even attempting to defend his absurd ranking

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      • Dick Whitman says:

        Groupies? No. I’m a Yankees fan. I don’t know Dave, I probably never will. Is everything he’s ever written here accurate? No. Is it 99% of the time well reasoned and well argued? I’d say so.

        It has nothing to do with being a groupie, a fan of Dave, etc. I read Joe Pawl’s blog every day, do I always agree with his reasons, no. Do they always come to fruition? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Do I sit on his blog and rail on him every time he isn’t correct about something, no. That’s immature and pathetic.

        E-mail Dave instead of flooding his posts with garbage. If he answers you, consider yourself lucky. I wouldn’t give you the time of day if I were him.

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      • “despite Cameron never even attempting to defend his absurd ranking”

        I’ve said this before elsewhere, but I’ll repeat it here:

        “If you want to troll, try trolling with something that’s actually true. It works better.”

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      • Omar says:

        “now watch all the groupies rush to his defence despite Cameron never even attempting to defend his absurd ranking”

        Not gonna defend Dave, but it’s fucking stupid to talk about during a Yankee conversation…wanna bitch about how the Ms fell flat based on an optimistic ranking of Jack Z’s abilities in an Ms article? Fine, leave that shit out of articles about other teams.

        “Groupies? No. I’m a Yankees fan. I don’t know Dave, I probably never will. Is everything he’s ever written here accurate? No. Is it 99% of the time well reasoned and well argued? I’d say so.”

        Ehhh…I wouldn’t say 99%; he writes probably five or six daily articles and when you produce that much content you’re bound to be wrong on a lot of things. It’s the way things go. If you were to predict every upcomming NFL game even if you get 70% right you’ll still be big time wrong on lots of games. Nature of the beast. Should Dave talk about that ranking? Absolutely. Should he do it now? Absolutely not, he should wait until the end of the year and perhaps next year’s organizational rankings (they garner too much traffic NOT to do) and discuss it then.

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  4. Dick Whitman says:

    As far as Burnett is concerned, he didn’t have any feel for his curveball for a significant portion of the beginning of the season, which may explain the uptick in fastball%.

    Hughes is throwing more fastballs as well, at the detriment of his primary off speed offering, the curve, which isn’t as effective as it was when he first came up (more hard spike now, less loop).

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  5. USSMariner says:

    Dave, can we please get a real explanation or defence for that #6org ranking?

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    Sabathia has traded strikeouts for groundballs, as he’s posting the best GB% of his career,

    The term “trade” implies (possibly) a willingness on part of the pitcher.

    It could very well be that CC’s stuff isn’t as good as it used to be, or a combination of scouting, etc. He could be trying to K guys, but that they are able to make contact instead of swinging and missing. As long as they’re ground balls, as you stated, he’ll still be effective. But, it is something to watch … if those ground balls turn into harder hit types, such as liners, then he will lose effectiveness (duh).

    CC is not a finesse pitcher or pitch to contact along the lines of Joel Pineiro. For him to lose K rate, is something that demands further discussion/insight. One of my concerns for CC is his weight. The bigger a guy gets, especially in the middle (and combined with aging), and then pitcher has reduced ability to “follow through” in his motion the same way he did at a lighter weight and younger age … which could affect movement and location.

    If you have pitchers that strike out a lot of guys, you don’t “teach” them to give up more contact. If you have guys that don’t strike out many folks, then you DO try and teach them how to get the “right” kind of contact, and have them develop pitches that move late (i.e., higher velocity), and try to get batters to hit the top half og the ball, and get a lot of grounders.

    We often assume that LOTS of guys can do this, when (IMO) not many can. You have to be able to throw the ball where you want, and with the desired movement. When guys are successful, we hear about it. When they’re not, they’re out of ML and we don’t even notice. For all we know, 5% of guys that try an approach change are successful with it.

    It’s not easy to get good hitters (MLB hitters) out with marginal stuff. The guys that are the “groundball machines” are often “strike machines” as well. Throwing the ball where you want is an under-represented skill at the ML level. We’d like to think that pitchers at that level can throw the ball where they want the bulk of the time, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.

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    • DT says:

      trust me CC’s stuff hasn’t diminished. Last night he was throwing 96-99 mph and had very good control yet he only struck out 4 (?)…according to the Yankees CC has been throwing his sinker more in situations which might lead to more weak contact and ground balls. not sure but looking at his velocity chart nothing has dropped. maybe its the hitter’s approach that has changed. guys more willing to swing early vs CC rather get to those 2 strike counts for K’s. but stuff wise CC has not changed

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        When I say “stuff”, I am generally referring to “location + movement”.

        Velocity, outside of injury, generally stays consistent.

        For example a “reduction in stuff” could be (to me, at least) throwing the cutter to the 4 and 6 zones (using keypad as a numbering reference) instead of the 1 and 3 zones.

        I do not watch the NYY and CC often, but saw him plenty when he was with MIL (saw him too much … as a cardinals fan). Even in the playoffs last year, he seemed to have trouble locating his cutter on occasion (especially down the middle to Chase Utley), and I did not see him do that at all in MIL. His cutter looked like an inside fastball and and broke down and right, and batters swung over it quite a bit.

        It is possible that CC has made a conscious effort to get weak contact when the situation calls for it. If that is the case then I give him credit for developing as a pitcher and recognizing situations and exploiting them to his advantage. My question/concern was that we don’t usually see high K pitchers trade K’s for ground balls (not by their choosing anyway).

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      • DT says:

        yeah i get what you mean. but CC’s K hasn’t exactly fallen off the maps. its at 6.9 which is not amazing but his career numbers has him at 7.52 k/9. So if his pitching to contact has not been that huge of a trade off.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        ts at 6.9 which is not amazing but his career numbers has him at 7.52 k/9.

        Yep. I would not expect drastic reductions for any situation outside of injury … nor do I expect him to pitch like he did for MIL, every year.

        If the trend continues, I would be concerned. By that I don;t mean if his K-rate stays at 6.9 for the next few years … but if it decreases by 0.7 each successive year (so that his K-Rate would be 6.2 in ’11, 5.5 in ’12, etc).

        I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a pitcher of CC’s combination of height/bulk. It may turn out that he remains very durable and dominant.

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    • Jon says:

      At one point during the 2009 season, CC said he wanted to start incorporating a 4-pitch arsenal to prolong his life as a pitcher, and become more of a complete pitcher instead of a strike-out pitcher.

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      • Mike says:

        He started using a “sinker” more appropriately, a two-seam fastball, towards the end of the season, heavily in the ALCS, particularly cause the angels are right/switchhanded heavy. Unfortunately he did not read that two seam fastballs have large platoon splits.

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  7. sw says:

    For whatever reason, maybe at the behest of the Yankees to protect his arm, CC doesn’t throw his slider as much as he did in the three years prior to signing with them. When you move away from an out pitch of that magnitude (+33.9 in 2008), a K rate decline is not unpredictable. Seems like the change up is his most effective pitch now, it’s one of the best there is, but not quite the weapon his slider used to be.

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  8. Steve Balboni says:

    Does the new stadium depress strikeouts compared to where they came from? I imagine angle of sun during normal start times (which varies over the summer), color of background, etc. an impact although I don’t know how much.

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    • philosofool says:

      According to Statcorner.com, the park slightly increases Ks and BBs, and increases home runs a lot (15% for LHB, 7% for RHB), but I don’t know how their numbers are generated, so I can’t swear by them. (Most people agree that park factors need a couple years of data before they’re reliable, and statcorner may use single season data–I don’t know.)

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  9. phoenix says:

    burnett’s lost Ks can be found mostly in lost command. falling behind means he has to go to his fastball and he can’t throw his curveball for strikes like he used to so he’s not getting the swings on it that he used to.

    vasquez is losing velocity and command, which leads to more fastballs and more hittable ones due to the velocity.

    CC is harder to guage… he is throwing with the same velocity, but perhaps less of a slider or pitching for a double play in certain situations instead of going for the 1 out K? perhaps he is throwing strikes in a pitcher’s count instead of nibling around the edges? what ever it is, i don’t think that he is losing “stuff,” but rather that he is doing something different consciously in those situations.

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  10. Tony Green says:

    Dave knows I’m a Yankees fan, so as long as they keep winning, I really don’t care too much about their strike out ratios! But the decreases are well noted.

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  11. skippyballer486 says:

    I know I’m quite late here, but it seems to me the anomaly on Sabathia’s graph is 2008. 2009 is basically equal to 2007, and while his K’s are down this year compared to 05-07 and 09, they’re at least close. 2008, he spent some time in Milwaukee getting to face pitchers. If you control for that, I bet his strikeout rates are pretty consistent with a slight downturn this year.

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