Changin’ It Up

I’m off to a running start this week, with new stuff up at Baseball Prospectus and Pinstriped Bible today. The BP piece assembles a bunch of take-home points from the three games I spent at Yankee Stadium over the past week, watching the Yanks duke it out with the Rays and Red Sox. I’ve got notes about the Yankees’ chances at making the playoffs (99.93 percent) and winning the division title (22 percent), the rotation struggles of all three teams, the fine work of Phil Hughes on Sunday night, and the odd season arcs of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. But the single most important point I tried to make comes from a piece I did a year ago:

While there are reasons to be concerned about the specific circumstances of any playoff-bound team’s late-season struggles—particularly with regards to injury availability—there’s virtually no correlation between a team’s September performance and their playoff fate.

Bless Joe Sheehan for reminding me that I’d written this piece a year ago. With the help of Eric Seidman, I examined the September/October performances of all the playoff teams in the wild card era, 112 in all. For each team, we recorded their record over the final seven, 14, and 21 games, as well for all of September and whatever fragment of October remained. The result was, as I termed it then, “a whole lot of nothing.” None of the correlations between September interval performance and first-round series outcomes even reached .05 in either direction, and six of the eight were actually negative.

Looking beyond the first round, the correlations between those September performances and series won or “playoff success points” (doubling the value of the LCS and quadrupling the value of the World Series such that the same number of points were awarded each round) only got as high as .137, and they were negative at that. If anything, there’s an ever-so slight inverse relationship between success in the final weeks and in the postseason, perhaps because some playoff-bound teams rest their regulars more often, or simply regress to the mean after a summer of beating up on opponents.

Furthermore, I went back and looked at performance over four-week intervals during the regular season, using not only actual record but also our suite of ordered Pythagenpat records from our Adjusted Standings page and found only minimal correlations between those performances and those of the next “month.” Using actual or projected records, the correlation between the four-week splits and the following month were always smaller than if we’d used year-to-date records to project the following month’s performance; roughly speaking, the correlations were around .2 and .3, respectively.

The bottom line is that short-term performance intervals don’t tell you anything reliably useful from a predictive standpoint. As the great Earl Weaver liked to say, momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi reiterated Weaver’s point at Saturday’s postgame press conference:

“We haven’t gotten a whole lot of distance out of our starters,” he said after Saturday’s game. “One [Burnett’s outing against Tampa Bay last Wednesday] was due to a rain delay, and there’s not a whole lot that you can do about that. And we’ve gotten behind in games, which always changes the complexion of the game… We’ve always talked about how momentum starts with your starting pitching. And sometimes when one facet of the team is struggling, the other guys have to pick ‘em up. Sometimes the offense is struggling and they’ll shut the other team down, and vice versa… The bullpen, you use one way if you have a lead and you get distance from the starter. And when you don’t, you use it a different way.”

As for Hughes, he initially wasn’t supposed to start Sunday night’s game, but Girardi changed his mind. The kid rewarded that faith. From PB:

As I joked first on Twitter and then in this morning’s column at Baseball Prospectus, I was initially willing to fake my own death to avoid watching the potentially plodding Sunday night matchup between Dustin Moseley and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Luckily, Joe Girardi decided the best way to shake the Yankees out of their 6-13 September doldrums and their second four-game losing streak in a fortnight was by starting Phil Hughes instead of Moseley. Matched against a suddenly stellar Matsuzaka, who hadn’t delivered a quality start since August 5, the kid gave the Yankees his best outing in more than a month.

…He’s now delivered two quality starts in a row for the first time since mid-August, and he owes it in large part to the fact that he’s finally integrating the changeup which helped him win the fifth-starter job back in the spring — but which may as well have spent the summer in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

According to the PITCHf/x data at TexasLeaguers.com, Hughes threw his changeup just 3.8 percent of the time against lefties (and just once to righties) from the beginning of the season through his September 5 start. In his three starts and one relief appearance since then, he’s thrown it 12.1 percent of the time against lefties (and not at all against righties). He’s throwing the pitch early in the count — 80 percent of the changeups come on 0-1, 1-0 or 1-1 counts according to the data at Joe Lefkowitz’s PITCHf/x Tool — and while those batters are taking the pitch about three-quarters of the time, using it to change speeds has borne positive results on his overall outcomes against lefties:

vs. LHB       PA  HR  UIBB%   K%     AVG/OBP/SLG   BABIP
Through 9/5  332  14   9.6   20.9  .249/.320/.431  .278
Since         54   3  13.0   14.3  .149/.259/.340  .111
vs. RHB       PA  HR  UIBB%   K%     AVG/OBP/SLG   BABIP
Through 9/5  315   8   5.1   18.7  .255/.293/.391  .294
Since         26   0   7.8   30.8  .250/.308/.292  .375

As noted in the writeup, those are small enough sample sizes that they may be a fluke, particularly given how Hughes’ recent success is founded in an unsustainably low BABIP while his strikeout and walk rates move in the wrong direction. If so, it’s been a timely fluke, as the Rays and Red Sox have stacked their lineups with lefties, and as Hughes has generated more swings and misses with his fastball and cutter against righties.

As for Ortiz, while he’s cut his strikeout rate since I buried him back in May, and while his overall numbers are his best since 2007, his performance against lefties has collapsed (.217/.270/.320, 29.1 K%), leading to a failure to deliver in high-leverage situations (.196/.304/.454). The Sox hold a $12.5 million option for 2011 on an aging, corpulent one-way slugger whose declining abilities may be masked by the sentimentality Red Sox Nation feels towards him — a combustible combination which could lead to a bad decision on Boston’s part. Ortiz has already begun agitating for an extension; how about a three-year deal?

As for A-Rod, I noted prior to Saturday’s game that since returning from the disabled list, he was already having his best month of the season since May. Since then he’s delivered two more homers, including the pivotal two-run shot on Sunday night which got them on the board against Matsuzaka and briefly gave them the lead. He’s hitting .333/.415/.710 with eight homers in September, more than any other month despite his abbreviated time in the lineup. The 2010 Yankees needed him as much as they ever have on Sunday night, and he came up big.

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