Friday, April 10, 2015

Defensive shifts hurting Yankees’ defense too

The New York Yankees lost 6-3 to the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday, as a four-run second inning by the visitors proved too much to overcome. CC Sabathia pitched in his first game since last May and while the score indicates otherwise, his performance leaves me with some optimism for the remainder of the season where it concerns the big lefty.

What’s troubling, besides an anemic offense which we’ll get to later, is the Yankees unrelenting and unhelpful deployment of the defensive shift. We’ve seen firsthand how the shift can eliminate plenty of hits with Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann drilling ball after ball into it. However, when the Yankees put the shift on it doesn’t seem to work as often as it's beaten.

There are a number of reasons why this could be the case. One, it could be fluky, where the number of data points are still too small to pass complete judgment. Another possibility is the Yankees infielders are not exactly in the right position for the batter. The analytics provide teams a spotted view of where most of the player’s batted balls land, but there has to be someone showing the fielder where it is best to play and more importantly the player has to be in the right position knowing his range. Finally, the potential exists that the Yankees are employing the shift against too many players.

While there is plenty of data available for the batters and where they hit the ball, there doesn’t seem to be anything publically available which shows when defenses are burned by the shift. I would hope that there is such empirical evidence available to the team, even if it is an intern jotting the number of times down on a piece of paper as to when the shift is beaten by the opposing batter. Let’s assume the Yankees do have this evidence.

That tells me that the fielders are in the wrong position and/or the pitchers are not locating pitches where they need to be with the shift on. It’s hard to tell which it is (or if it is both), but there is certainly something wrong when the Yankees are getting burned by it more often than it being successful. It leads me to believe the Yanks need to fine-tune their use of the shift and determine which players have a higher probability than others to succumb to it.

CC was better than numbers suggest

I might be in the minority where it concerns Sabathia, and that’s typically true for someone who tries desperately to stay away from the narrative. Sabathia is not the same pitcher he was in 2009. We all know this. He knows this. However, allowing eight singles, two or three of which might have been hit hard, is not getting “rocked” as one beat writer put in his headline.

Sabathia was victimized by two shifts gone awry, and he got a glove on what could have been a double-play grounder which continued an inning that might have been stalled at a couple of runs. Throughout the game he was pretty much locating his pitches where he wanted. His fastball topped out at 90-mph and hovered in the 88-90 mph range. It could improve another tick or two over the course of the season. His fastball is not the issue; it is what it is.

What stood out to me was that Sabathia was doing a good job of mixing his pitches and he had a number of batters off balance. He struck out eight hitters and got 15 swing and miss strikes, which is a good number for someone not throwing in the mid-90s or faster. Also, Sabathia displayed the ability to keep a healthy disparity in velocity points between his fastball and off-speed pitches. Some of his changeups were coming in at 78-mph which can be quite deceptive when it’s 12-mph slower than the fastball.

Sabathia is no longer a power pitcher. Anyone expecting that can simply forget it; he already has. Sabathia is a work in progress. Think about pitchers like Greg Maddux and Andy Pettitte who threw into their 40s because they figured out how to mix pitches and hit their spots on a regular basis. Sabathia can be that pitcher. At least I believe he can.

Not coming through with runners in scoring position

As I have mentioned numerous times, the offense is the biggest question mark surrounding this team outside of its health. The Yankees bashed back-to-back home runs Thursday, courtesy of Alex Rodriguez and Teixeira, but the team went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position (RISP). That brought their total for the three-game series to 3-for-21.

The Yankees have a slew of comeback candidates (Rodriguez, Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Stephen Drew and McCann in no particular order) and need a good deal of them to pan out if they want to succeed this season.

Maybe the hits with RISP will begin to even out, but it’s a constant problem the club has faced each of the last two seasons. Small sample sizes are not great in and of themselves, but combined with data from two seasons prior, they do show the trend is continuing.

The rotation has had two bad innings this season. I feel they will figure things out, but I’m reluctant to suggest the offense will come around until I see sustained improvement. We will see how they look this weekend against their rival Boston Red Sox.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer. Besides his work here, Christopher is a correspondent for FantasyPros, where he writes a weekly column covering the closer/bullpen situations around Major League Baseball. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.