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The Real Reason for Mark Teixeira’s Decline

When the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira to an 8-year, $180 million contract in the 2008-2009 offseason, they knew fully well that they were getting a hitter who liked to pull the ball. Like Jason Giambi, his predecessor at first base, it was believed that his superb power would make up for a batting average that was likely to decline throughout the deal, especially with the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium. However, Teixeira’s 2014 line of .215/.305/.413 against righties was probably not what they had in mind for their switch-hitting first baseman.

Naturally, many have jumped to blame Teixeira’s woes on the drastic defensive shift that is employed when he hits left-handed. But the shift was there in 2009, when Teixeira finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting with a .292/.383/.565 line and 39 home runs. The fact is Mark Teixeira, spray chart included, was once good enough of a hitter to earn a $180 million contract. Defenses could basically know where he was going to hit the ball and still shook in their boots when he came up to bat.

However, one factor has not remained constant: Teixeira’s production against fastballs. In his prime, Teixeira wasn’t just good against heaters: from 2003-2012, his wFB/C of 1.70 ranks 16th among qualified hitters. But his numbers against fastballs has consistently diminished during his Yankee years. Brooks Baseball gives some additional information (note: wFB/C is from FanGraphs and is not against RHP only):

Mark Teixeira vs. RHP
Year Whiff/Swing GB/BIP% wFB/C
2009 9.74% 30.56% 2.22
2010 11.55% 25.00% 1.29
2011 11.64% 25.23% 1.43
2012 11.80% 29.41% 1.47
2014 14.52% 34.58% -0.14

2014 saw Teixeira whiffing on more fastballs then ever before and hitting more grounders when he did make contact. Even more alarming is the fact that his wFB/C is negative, suggesting that he was a liability against what was once his favorite pitch. Baseball Savant shows a similar downward trend against righties throwing four seam fastballs, two seam fastballs, cutters, or sinkers:

Mark Teixeira v. RHP
2009 0.314 0.661
2010 0.291 0.526
2011 0.258 0.512
2012 0.271 0.476
2014 0.195 0.381

Teixeira’s decreasing offensive value makes sense when one considers the fact that what was once his greatest strength as a hitter is now a weakness. And considering the fact that FanGraphs has had pitchers throwing 57.8% fastballs to Teixeira throughout his career, it is definitely not a problem that can be avoided by trying to do damage against other pitches. However, this trend also suggests that Teixeira, who put up wRC+’s of 142, 128, 124, and 116 in the first 4 years of his deal, can become a force on offense again if he can start hitting heaters like he used to.

Unfortunately, I have very little no expertise that can assuredly help Teixeira regain his prowess against fastballs. The only “shot in the dark” idea I have for Teixeira is for him to level out his notorious uppercut swing. The fact that Teixiera is whiffing on more fastballs and hitting more groundballs suggests that his ability to make solid contact has diminished with age and injury. Straightening the path of his swing would give him more of a margin for error.

He could maintain his power by guessing on more pitches, which is what I believe fellow Yankee Brett Gardner did in 2014, when he hit 17 of his 40 career home runs. According to Baseball Savant, 15 of his 17 home runs came from four seam fastballs, two seam fastballs, sinkers or cutters. The fact that all of them were pulled to right field, despite greater velocity, leads me to believe that Gardner was sitting on them more often than not.

Alternatively Teixeira’s lingering wrist injury (which is why I left his 15-game 2013 season off the tables above) might be making it harder for him to turn on pitches with high velocity. Conversely, Teixeira could be correct in suggesting that a full offseason workout program could allow him to return to form. In any case, Teixeira needs to regain his ability to destroy fastballs if he has any hope of being a force on offense again.

We Might’ve Met NYY’s Next Great Reliever

2014 wasn’t a good year to be a starting pitcher on the New York Yankees. With injuries to CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and David Phelps, jokes about Andy Pettitte coming back from retirement again started to find “but really though” tacked on at the end. Out of the rotation vacuum emerged Shane Greene, an unlikely success story from Daytona Beach Community College. If the Yankees manage to put together a healthy starting rotation for opening day, Greene will likely be shifted to the bullpen, where I believe he will flourish.

In 78.1 IP as a starter, he posted a 3.79 ERA, a 3.64 FIP, a WHIP of 1.37, and K/9 and BB/9 rates of 9.19 and 2.99 respectively. His WHIP would lead many to think he overachieved, but aside from that and his walk rate, he was an above average pitcher.

What stands out specifically about Greene is his 2-seam fastball. To make a long story short, Pitch f/x would suggest that it is very hard to hit:

Pitcher vSI vFT h-movSI v-movSI h-movFT v-movFT
League Average 90.7 91.5 -4.6 4.9 -1.9 6.4
Shane Greene 93.9 92.7 -7.7 5 -8.5 6.3

Note that while his scouting report does not specifically mention him as throwing a sinker, Pitch f/x occasionally registered his 2-seamer as one. While this is pretty common (Kelvin Herrera’s 90 mph changeup routinely registers as a 4-seamer), I believe that it is a telling sign when it comes to the life on Greene’s fastball.

Unsurprisingly, his fastball is harder to hit with increasing velocity. Hitters put up a mere .136 BA and SLG% in an admittedly small sample size against Greene’s 2-seamers above 94 mph. Those slower than 94 mph were hit to the tune of a .340 BA and a .447 SLG%. It is well known that pitchers experience an increase in velocity after a starting rotation to bullpen transition. Greene’s 2-seam fastball, which averaged at 92.8 mph, could easily creep up to the mid 90’s if he were put in the bullpen.

Of course, one reason why he might not ever succeed out of the bullpen is because he could remain a starter. He showed flashes of dominance in 2014, the most noteworthy being his shutout of the potent Tigers lineup. But even if the Yankees do pencil Greene into the 5th spot of their rotation, something will have to give when Ivan Nova comes back from Tommy John surgery.

Like Joba Chamberlain when he became a starter in 2009, those few extra miles per hour on his fastball could make a huge impact on Greene’s numbers. As a fan, I appreciate David Robertson both as an excellent pitcher and a superb role model. But if the Yankees do not want to pay him the closer money he will deservedly get on the free agent market, Greene might be a cost-effective late-inning option.

Note: Stats not taken from FanGraphs are from

Why Is Brandon Finnegan So Unique?

On September 30, Royals 2014 1st Round Draft Pick Brandon Finnegan was brought into the AL Wild Card Game against the Oakland A’s just under 4 months after being drafted out of Texas Christian University. Manager Ned Yost had little choice but to take a leap of faith with the rookie Finnegan, having used pitchers like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland already. Finnegan pitched very well, allowing 2 baserunners in 2.1 innings and striking out 3 Oakland batters. He was removed with a runner on base and was charged a run when the runner scored, but otherwise had a great outing.

I found it ironic and puzzling that the only team to utilize this approach of drafting a college pitcher, rushing him up the farm system, and giving him a shot at the postseason was the team that already had the likes of Herrera, Davis and Holland. After all, it seems like every playoff team could use some help out of the bullpen. When compared to other positions, predicting a relief pitcher’s success in the big leagues really doesn’t seem too hard either.

In 2014, 12 relievers pitched more than 60 innings with an FIP under 2.50. Aside from the sinker-oriented Steve Cishek and Pat Neshek, all of them averaged at least 92.5 mph on their fastballs. Everyone except Cishek generated swinging strikes at least 11% of the time, almost 2% more than the 9.4% league average. Simply put, pitchers with high velocity are safe bets when it comes to building a bullpen.

I can understand why a team might be stingy with its first-round draft pick. The first rounder is supposed to be the future of the franchise, the one who fans envision 25 years older, making his Hall of Fame induction speech. But looking at the 93 2nd round draft picks from 2006-2008 (an arbitrary time period which I felt gave players sufficient time to reach the big leagues), it is clear that players selected this late in the draft are no sure thing.

48 picks have yet to make their major league debut, and another 21 have career WAR’s equal to or less than 0*. There are exceptions like Giancarlo Stanton, Jordan Zimmermann and Freddie Freeman, but the data looks even worse after the 15th pick of the second round. Of the 48 picks in the 16-32 slots, only 8 players have career WAR’s greater than 0*. 29 have yet to make their MLB debut.

Since 2011, 10 relievers have posted FIP’s under 2.50 with at least 100 innings pitched. Of those drafted in the American amateur draft, only Sean Doolittle was picked before the 3rd round. He was drafted in the first round as a first baseman. While overpaying for an elite reliever can be appealing for teams like the Angels or Tigers, both teams in win-now mode, a possible fall back option is taking a chance on the best reliever available in the draft with the second-round pick. Chances are, that pitcher will still be on the board.

Of course, there are major-league relievers who can throw hard but still do not succeed at the big-league level. Also, stats like average fastball velocity and swinging strike rates might not be available for college players. The prior is virtually impossible without Pitch F/X. If this is the case, GMs can consider reverting to the eye test to determine how hard a pitcher throws and what his command and movement look like. Generally accepted measures of command such as K-BB% can be derived from box scores.

For traditional fans who still value the human element of baseball, there are ways to gauge an NCAA pitcher’s ability to pitch in the spotlight. Stats like opposing batting average with runners on base and inherited runners stranded can be determined by simply looking at play-by-play recaps. Both measure a pitcher’s ability to perform under pressure, even if only in a limited sample size. I do not know what kinds of information are given to baseball operations teams, but I would be surprised if a college pitcher’s WPA in high-leverage situations was available.

If I was Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski or Angels GM Jerry Dipoto circa July, I would make the trade for Joakim Soria or Huston Street without hesitation. Both teams, one could argue, were a bullpen arm away from being World Series favorites. But for teams who don’t have the resources Detroit and Los Angeles have or don’t want to give up too many prospects, the best mid season bullpen pickup might not have even thrown his first professional pitch yet.

*I had to use rWAR, not fWAR in the interest of time. Baseball Reference has the draft results with career WAR readily available. Of course, data not from FanGraphs was taken from

The Rays, Drew Smyly, and the Changeup

In 2013, Baseball Prospectus chronicled the Rays’ “changeup revolution,” explaining how the Rays’ pitching development has succeeded in part because they teach pretty much everyone to offer a plus changeup in unusual situations. But while successful small market teams have thrived off using analytics to find market dislocations on players, the Rays’ changeup prowess has actually allowed them to create them.

Recently, the Rays were ridiculed for giving up David Price for a package whose most proven player was Tigers’ 5th starter Drew Smyly. At the time of the trade, Smyly had a 3.93 ERA and 4.08 FIP. In other words, he was an average starter. But looking closely, one can see that he pitches to a drastic LHH/RHH split, with opposing wOBA’s of .196/.355, respectively. The reason behind his inability to get righties out could very well be the lack of a good secondary pitch to use on them. For his career, his most effective pitch has been his slider, with hitters putting up a meager .226 wOBA against it. His worst pitch was none other than his changeup, which has been crushed to the tune of a .488 wOBA.

Knowing that his organization specializes in teaching the changeup, I don’t believe for a second that Rays GM Andrew Friedman gave up their ace without thinking that Smyly was essentially a good changeup away from being a potent starter. A free agent in 2019 at the earliest, Smyly should easily provide more long-term value than Price will over the next 1.5 seasons. (Obviously, the Tigers will try to extend Price, but the Rays did not have that option.)

The key takeaway here is that to most teams, Drew Smyly was probably viewed as a league-average pitcher without a secondary pitch that could put righties away. But to a team like the Rays, who have proven to be adept at implementing a changeup, Smyly’s ceiling can appear to be much more feasible. So far with Tampa (small sample size warning), Smyly has thrown 36 innings in 5 starts with an ERA/FIP/WHIP of 1.50/2.82/0.69. He will certainly come back down to earth, but a valuable lesson can be derived from this trade that appeared to be a blatant ripoff. By having an organization’s pitching development specialize so much, the Rays actually manufacture their own list of “buy low” pitchers, many of whom may have plateaued in the minds of other teams.

When they traded Matt Garza, they got current front-end starter Chris Archer in return. From Prospect Instinct’s 2011 scouting report:

The Rays got a haul for Matt Garza from the Cubs and Archer was considered the Cubs top pitching prospect. He has a plus fastball and above average slider, but he still has a lot of work to do before he becomes MLB ready. His changeup is lacking and his command has been erratic. But with enough time he does have #3+ upside.

With a Tampa Bay Rays changeup in his arsenal (.198 wOBA against it in 2014), Archer has done very well for a 3 starter, with a 3.15 ERA and 3.49 FIP over 286 innings since 2013.

Many have noted that Yankees’ starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has experienced so much success because he is one of the few pitchers who regularly throws a splitter in the MLB. Perhaps an organization can do what the Rays have done with the changeup and make the splitter a cornerstone of their pitching development. Obviously, such a plan comes with inherent risk. Making the splitter a more commonly offered pitch could take away some of its unfamiliarity-related effectiveness. Also, the splitter is believed to be very taxing on the elbow, a definite red flag given the recent wave of Tommy John surgeries. However, doing what the Rays did with the splitter could make it so that pitchers who are one additional plus pitch away from reaching their ceilings are safer to bet on.