(Note: As of this writing it’s possible Dan Haren may be scratched from his start on Saturday. That being said, I spent a lot of time writing about him below, and everything I mentioned still applies, so please make sure you read it all).
As several have noted, the Yankees’ current west coast swing has pitted them against many of the top pitchers in the America League, and, rather incredibly, the best have been yet to come. At least until this weekend, as the Yankees face arguably their most annoying foe, the Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels are currently in second place in the AL West, and despite a weaker offensive attack than we’re used to seeing from the Halos, the reason they’ve outperformed expectations thus far is due to the outrageous performances of two pitchers: Jered Weaver and summer-2010-Yankee-trade-target Dan Haren, both of whom are currently tied atop the AL starting pitcher leaderboard, with 2.7 fWAR apiece, and both of whom the Yankees get to face this weekend.
Weaver’s doing it with the second-lowest ERA in the league (2.10, behind Josh Beckett‘s absurd 1.80), second-best FIP (2.47, behind Brandon McCarthy), 12th-best K/9 in the league (an impressive 8.09, though down from his career-high 9.35 from last year), and essentially the same BB/9 he posted last season, but the key difference is he’s allowed far fewer balls to leave the park (4th-lowest HR/9 in the AL). Weaver’s probably due for a home-run correction (his xFIP is 3.26), but he’s still putting up a season for the ages. Weaver’s fastball has been the 8th-best in the AL, at 8.3 runs above average; while his changeup has been the third-best in the league (8.0), behind only Felix Hernandez and James Shields. Not bad company.
Haren’s doing it with the 5th-lowest ERA in the AL (2.29), 3rd-lowest FIP (2.52) and with slightly less strikeouts than usual, but by walking fewer men than he ever has before and also posting a career-low HR/9, he’s significantly limited the damage. He also has the fifth-lowest xFIP in the league, at 3.06. Unlike Weaver, Haren’s wFB (in his case, comprised of four-seamers and two-seamers) has been decidedly average (0.3 runs above average); his cutter is the reason why he’s been destroying the league, with an MLB-best 14.9 runs above average. To put that in perspective, Roy Halladay‘s wCT ranks second in baseball, at 11 runs above average.
In addition to throwing the cutter more frequently than he ever has in his career (42% of the time), Haren’s throwing it an inch further off the plate to righties (or more inside to lefties), with 2011 average H-break of 2.72 compared to 1.70 in 2010, with about an inch less rise — average V-break of 4.00 in 2011 compared to 4.91 — which likely makes it appear more hittable. It’s also surprisingly slower than it’s ever been before, with an average velocity of 84.9 compared to 86.3 for his career. Interestingly, with his fastball at 89mph, Haren’s cutter appears to essentially be functioning as an off-speed pitch, which perhaps explains why he’s been so successful this season throwing a cutter significantly below league-average velocity-wise (88.5mph).
Given these relatively low velocities, I shot a tweet over to friend-of-the-blog and pitchFX guru Lucas Apostoleris pointing this out, as anecdotally I couldn’t recall too many instances whereby a pitcher was able to dominate with such a slow cutter. Lucas responded by noting that Haren’s cutter is more slider-like (similar to our own Phil Hughes‘ cutter), and so the slower velocity doesn’t necessarily hurt it, especially when paired with his splitter, which, per Lucas, “is the same speed and breaks the other way.” Few pitchers in MLB even throw the splitter (only nine qualified starters appear on Fangraphs’ leaderboard for wSF), and Haren’s currently checks in 1.7 runs above average, or third-best, and so it’s probably not a stretch to say that Haren’s cutter wouldn’t be quite as effective if he wasn’t also keeping hitters honest with a pitch they rarely see in the splitter.
After Lucas mentioned Hughes, I immediately looked up his avg. velocity numbers to confirm my suspicions, and lo and behold, Hughes’ avg. FB (89.3) and avg. CT (85.3) this season are nearly identical to Haren’s velocity-wise. Of course, the key difference is location. Haren’s command, control and ability to locate are clearly among the best in MLB given his results, while Hughes — who admitted as much after his struggles — doesn’t have enough command or control to get by with less-overpowering stuff, which is a shame. While we all want him to get that fastball back up to where it once was, it’s too bad he isn’t capable of surviving and thriving with lesser stuff. Unfortunately for Phil, even if he does get his velocity back, he may have to reinvent himself as a finesse pitcher sooner rather than later, and he’d do well to study whatever the heck Dan Haren has been doing.
Anyway, hopefully you’re still with me after all that. The aforementioned Weaver will be opposed by Ivan Nova (4.67 ERA/4.39 FIP/4.58 xFIP) in tonight’s contest (game time is 10:05pm EDT), who was terrible in his last start against one of the weakest offenses in the American League. There was some speculation that Nova might get bumped from the rotation due to the fact that, despite the Yankees winning the majority of his starts, Nova’s been skating by on quite a bit of luck and a prayer. Additionally, as noted by many others, Nova has the lowest swinging strike % in the league, and one of the lowest K/9. While it’s possible to be successful in MLB without striking out the world so long as you’re getting the majority of your outs on the ground — which Nova is doing — you negate a lot of that advantage by walking 4 men per nine. I don’t think Nova is so far gone as to be a lost cause, but as Jay Jaffe noted in the aforelinked post, Nova’s only going to go so far being a two-pitch pitcher (once again shades of Phil Hughes are haunting this post), and if he doesn’t develop a reliable third offering he’s going to get crushed more often than not when he doesn’t have his fastball.
The Yankees actually didn’t see Weaver last year, although historically they haven’t seemed to have a tremendous amount of difficulty with him, as they tagged him for 12 earned runs across 19 1/3 innings over three starts in 2009. Of course, the 2011 vintage of Weaver is apparently quite a different animal, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Yanks fare after a relatively long layoff from Jered.
CC Sabathia (2.98 ERA/2.95 FIP/3.41 xFIP) opposes Haren in Saturday night’s affair, which mercifully starts at 9:05pm instead of the usual hour later. For all the time I’ve spent in this preview talking about Weaver and Haren, Sabathia has been nearly as good, currently tied for 2nd-best fWAR in the AL with King Felix. It’s funny; as I noted yesterday, Sabathia seems to be having one of the quietest excellent seasons in recent memory, which is probably the result of the team’s offensive inconsistencies and the relative shortcomings of several of the other members of the rotation more than anything else. Though his K/9 is currently the lowest it’s been during his time in pinstripes (and if it stays at 7.12 it would mark the third straight year of decline), his BB/9 is slightly lower than last season and he’s allowed far fewer home runs than he has in the past.
It seems like every season preview I’ve done has featured starters with significantly lower HR/9 than they’ve previously recorded, and I don’t know if that’s a function of the fact that we’re only one-third of the way through the season and a lot of these hurlers are due for regression, or that offense is simply down (which it is). I imagine it’s some sort of combination of both.
Anyway, Sabathia actually missed the Angels last season, but was hit fairly hard by the 2009 version of that team (at least in the regular season), giving up 9 earned runs over two starts. Of course, in the 2009 ALCS he was straight-up gangsta against the Halos, chucking dual eight-inning, one-run affairs. Haren saw the Yankees once last year as a member of the D-Backs, and authored an unsurprisingly strong seven-inning, three-earned-run, eight-strikeout performance. This will probably be the best pitching matchup of the weekend, although Sunday afternoon’s starters might have something to say about that.
As for said starters, Ervin Santana (4.34 ERA/3.80 FIP/3.68 xFIP) and former Angel Bartolo Colon (3.26 ERA/3.35 FIP/2.91 xFIP) square off in the Sunday afternoon matinee (3:35pm). Though Weaver and Haren have gotten all the hype, Santana hasn’t exactly been a slouch himself, featuring his best K/9 and lowest BB/9 since 2008, and checking in at 1.1 fWAR (22nd-best in the AL; but the 10th-best mark overall counting ties). The reason Santana hasn’t joined his rotationmates in the next stratosphere is due to his HR/9, which, at 1.17, is pretty much exactly at his career average (1.16). Santana’s fastball-slider combo make him a pretty extreme flyball pitcher (his 45.5% FB% is the 5th-highest in the AL), and while he’s got strikeout stuff, he’s going to let his share of balls clear the fences. That’s good news for the fastball-feasting-on (MLB-leading wFB of 23.7 runs above average), home-run hitting Yankees. Santana saw the Yankees twice last year and gave up nine runs over 11 2/3 innings, and has generally been hit pretty hard by the Bombers, who own a career .288/.371/.511 line over 268 plate appearances against Santana. That’s a pretty representative sample, and while Santana is a good pitcher, the Yankees should be able to beat him.
As for Colon, he continues to defy all odds by being the Yankees’ second-most valuable starter after Sabathia. In fact, Colon’s 1.3 fWAR is the 17th-best mark in the American League (or 8th-best if you count ties), and he’s currently rocking the 7th-best K/9 (8.41) in the league. Not only that, but he’s also barely walking anyone, and has a 4.13 K/BB, good for 4th-best in the league. As you know by now, Bartolo’s gotten it done with a four-seamer that seems to regularly hit 94, and a downright filthy two-seamer that tails back over the plate that has just been death on lefties. As noted by Ken Singleton and David Cone on last Monday’s YES telecast, Bartolo leads the AL in Strikeouts Looking by far, with a whopping 55% of his Ks coming on called strike three. We all keep waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to Colon, but we’re now eight starts in and he’s really only been bad in two of ‘em. I sure hope Colon can keep this magic carpet ride going, as he continues to be an absolute joy to watch work.
Here’s who’s hot coming into this series (per wOBA over the last 14 days):
And here’s who’s been cold:
The Yankee offense has really picked things up of late, and is hitting at a .360 wOBA clip over the last two weeks; while the Angels have been hitting right around where they’ve been all season, compiling a middling .315 wOBA.
Interestingly, the Yankees’ and Angels’ pitching staffs are currently #1 and #2 in FIP, respectively, in the American League over the last 14 days. The Yankee bullpen has been ridiculous, with a 1.84 ERA/1.95 FIP over that timeframe. The Angels’ ‘pen has also bee quite good, at 2.97/3.33.
After dispatching of the limp offensive attacks of the Mariners and A’s with relative ease, the Halos could very well look like the 2003 Red Sox this weekend in comparison.
We know the Angels not only always play the Yankees hard, but are also very tough on the Yankees in Anaheim, and given the incredible starting pitching they’ve been the beneficiary of, this looks to be a pretty tough weekend. If Haren is in fact scratched from his start, that could go a long way in tilting the series in the Yankees’ favor, but as of now it’s probably going to be pretty hard for the Bombers to take 2 of 3 from the Halos on the road.
Still, the Yankees are in the midst of perhaps their best stretch of the season, and if they continue playing as well as they’re capable of playing, this could, for once, end up being a pretty tough weekend for Mike Scioscia‘s squad.
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