Series Preview: Yankees @ Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

I was in college during the Yankees-Brewers series in June 2005, and I will never forget the intensity of that series. Despite the fact that the Brewers were in the middle of a rebuilding stretch, there was some sense that the series against the Yankees would be some type of barometer of the distance the Brewers had to the big stage. The Brewers won the series before the Yankees blew out the Milwaukee Nine on getaway day. Doug Davis beat Randy Johnson in the first game, and he forced a groundball double-play against Jason Giambi to end a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning; Junior Spivey delivered the knockout on a home run in the sixth. The next day, Ben Sheets worked a masterful / total guts performance, producing seven scoreless innings despite walking five Yankees batters. There was a perception among some fans at the time that Sheets would fold under pressure, or that he racked up obscene strikeout stats without the will to win. I remember this because I was a true Sheets apologist at the time, and frequently defended the ace. The morning after his Yankees start, my mentor said something to the effect of, “Sheets pitched himself a ballgame,” indicating that the Brewers righty won over Milwaukee fans. Indeed, it was perhaps this start even more than the 18-strikeout game against the Braves that earned Sheets respect from the Brewers faithful.

This series victory nearly nine years ago provided enough ammunition for optimism about the Brewers’ rebuilding process, and indeed the 2005 Brewers delivered Milwaukee their first non-losing season in more than a decade. Similarly, this coming series against the Yankees feels like a test among two franchises that are clinging to contending hopes, albeit from completely different poles. The Yankees need to re-establish their winning brand as their generation of iconic stars make their last rounds through the Junior Circuit; on the other hand, the Brewers face an ambivalent fanbase, as some clamor for a rebuild or retool of organizational depth by focusing on young controllable talent instead of big-contract free agents. In the market context of the MLB, the Yankees’ quest may be more urgent, as the big networks have to endure a small-market renaissance as clubs from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York falter. If the Yankees represent the evil empire to small markets, they are the saving grace for the TV networks. The Brewers’ redemption does nothing for ESPN or FOX when they already must endure clubs like Tampa, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Thus, the 2014 Brewers may receive their best stage to make a statement during this series.

Yankees (33 G): 141 RS / 152 RA
Brewers (35 G): 139 RS / 126 RA

Last Series:
Yankees: Series Victory @ Anaheim
Brewers: Series Loss vs. Diamondbacks

Previous Performances:
2013 Yankees: 85-77 (650 RS / 671 RA)
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)

2011-2013 Yankees: 277-209 (2321 RS / 1996 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)

Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Alfonso Soriano.

These five players exhaust the Brewers’ payroll resources. If you feel like the Yankees visiting Miller Park is a big deal, it is: this is a quintessential clash between large and small market. Surely, the Brewers will face other grand markets in the National League, and one could argue that a club like the Dodgers is even more “evil” than the old Evil Empire Yankees; the Yankees now seem like the elder-statesmen of evil following the retirements of their iconic late-1990s / early-2000s stars. Those Yankees stood for big money, big stars, big Championships, dynasty; these new Yankees just don’t have the same flair to accompany their gigantic payroll. This club is McMansion, as opposed to a regal lake shore estate.

It is absolutely worth demonstrating market discrepancies in baseball, and this is just the series to do it. Of course, payroll does not always mean that a team is guaranteed to win; but, it doesn’t hurt a club to have the means to purchase reserve rights to more than one star each offseason (while absorbing contracts of aging, unwanted players from other clubs). The Yankees’ highest paid players at the moment reflect two separate offseason spending sprees, as well as an “exile” trade involving a high-paid veteran at the end of his contract.

By contrast, the Brewers’ bigtime extension to Ryan Braun signifies a once-in-a-decade type of move for the ball club. Aside from Braun, Milwaukee’s other highest paid players are “second tier” free agents (Aramis Ramirez, Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse) or players serving time at the end of reasonable, arbitration buyout deals (Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, Carlos Gomez). This is not a complaint — I love watching these guys play, and I think that these players represent solid, valuable deals for the Brewers. It is simply worth noting that even in the MLB’s improved revenue sharing and luxury tax environment, some clubs can only sign $20 million stars as a once-in-a-decade occurrence, while others can boast full cycles purchasing the top stars.

Ironically, several of the Yankees’ highest paid players are now demonstrating some of the hazards associated with extremely long, lucrative contracts. Sabathia is a shell of his former self on the mound, and Texeira is battling injuries. There is an argument to be made that free agent contracts are not worthwhile, given the risks associated with allocating high dollar amounts to aging players. However, given the new free-agency-centered CBA, as well as the overflowing TV money coffers, big-money is the name of the game for the MLB now. It would simply be nice for Milwaukee to at least have the opportunity to pretend that their “refusal” to sign players like Tanaka or Ellsbury is philosophical, rather than economical.

Masahiro Tanaka (3-0, 35.7 IP, 10 R (43 K / 6 BB / 6 HR; 15 FIPR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Yovani Gallardo (0-1, 31 IP, 12 R (19 K / 9 BB / 3 HR; 15 FIPR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)

I don’t know about you, but I love reading the speculative scouting reports every time a new Japanese pitcher comes to the MLB.

(1) How will the internet discuss the pitcher’s potential “phantom” pitch that has yet to be seen at the MLB level? “Masahiro Tanaka throws a submarine knuckleball, which allows him to change the batter’s eye level with a baffling rising flutter ball.”

(2) How will the internet incorporate the “shuuto” into the report? “Masahiro Tanaka not only throws the traditional Japanese shuuto, but he does so from every arm angle, including a rumored “behind-the-back” shuuto. In addition to his secret shuuto, he also changes speeds on his shuuto, and pitches a shuuto-like secondary fastball.”

(3) Which reminds me, how many fastballs will the pitcher throw? “Masahiro Tanaka will throw fastballs from every potential grip, including the four-seam, two-seam, cut, split, specialist sinker, and ’dry spitter.’ Additionally, Tanaka will throw his shuuto-like secondary fastball, as well as shuuto-variations of each of the aforementioned fastballs.”

(4) How will the internet account for pitches that have yet to be scouted, but may be thrown by the hurler? “In addition to these pitches, Tanaka is rumored to use old-fashioned palm ball and forkball grips, a softer Fosh Ball change, and the Freddie Fitzsimmons knuckleball.”

(5) What will his velocity range be? “Scouts have Masahiro Tanaka topping the radar gun at 99 MPH, but the righty is also comfortable settling in the 94-96 and 89-91 ranges.”

(6) Does he throw more pitches than Yu Darvish? “Despite this vast array of pitches, Masahiro Tanaka’s arsenal is not as large as that of Yu Darvish.” (Nobody throws more pitches than Darvish).

(7) How good will he be? “Masahiro Tanaka is poised to become the first MLB pitcher to never allow a run. Furthermore, his durability is so uncanny, the Yankees are allegedly entertaining Tanaka as a replacement to Mariano Rivera when he’s not starting.” Tanaka could be the first 30-win, 30-save pitcher of the 21st century.

Voila! We have ourselves a scouting report with 14 different pitches listed, and we haven’t even discussed Tanaka’s breaking pitches. If you followed Tanaka’s offseason reports, you have probably already read some variation of the above scouting report, which means that I’m only reporting old news.

After a series of extremely successful starts, Franchise Pitcher Yovani Gallardo encountered his first road bump in 2014. Certainly, a four run outing is not terrible every now and then, and if it represents the low-point of Gallardo’s 2014 campaign thus far, it’s a welcome statement of his improvement compared to 2013. In Cincinnati, Gallardo stayed with his recipe of sinkers, but he also added a healthy dose of primary fastballs, resulting in 70% fastball selection for the day. This is a notable increase over his March and April fastball selection, and it’s worth noting that Gallardo threw his fastballs harder in Cincinnati (one wonders if this is a park effect or a true measurement). Anyway, as Gallardo finds confidence in his sinker, adding in his four-seamer could give him another weapon alongside his slider. As Gallardo adjusts throughout 2014, his identity could waver between sinker-slider and sinker-fastball preferencces, ultimately giving him room to adjust against opposing clubs.

CC Sabathia (2-3, 28.7 IP, 17 R (32 K / 8 BB / 4 HR; 12 FIPR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS) @ Kyle Lohse (3-0, 34.3 IP, 11 R (30 K / 5 BB / 2 HR; 11 FIPR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS)

For the love of everything good in the universe, please give Mr. Sabathia a standing ovation when he takes the mound this series.

When CC Sabathia “refinanced” with the Yankees during his opt-out phase in the Bronx, he was the poster boy for a valuable, high-paid ace. In the first three years of his $161 million deal, Sabathia worked 705 innings with a 140 ERA+, which is quite solid compared to his 686.7 IP, 146 ERA+ performance in his three years before his big contract. His current five-year, $122 million deal adds one year and a potential option to his original Yankees contract, but this investment tells a different story about Sabathia. To date, Sabathia has worked 451.7 innings since his new deal, with a 97 ERA+ despite 416 strike outs against 118 walks and 57 homers. While Sabathia’s strike outs improved to his excellent 2006-2008 level, his walk rate remains higher than his glory years, and his home run and hit rates exploded.

Sabathia K/9 BB/9 HR/9 H/9
2012-present 8.3 2.4 1.1 9.1
2009-2011 8.0 2.6 0.7 8.1
2006-2008 8.3 1.8 0.7 8.4

Years ago, I remember watching someone on ESPN that theorized, “Every person has a set number of throws in their arm.” It’s quite a radical idea, and I especially think about that type of theory when I see Sabathia’s player card — according to Brooks Baseball, Sabathia has thrown nearly 23,700 pitches since 2007. That’s an awful lot of pitches, and more than 5,800 of them are sweeping sliders from the southpaw. When Sabathia was with the Brewers, his change up reigned supreme — he selected that offspeed offering nearly as frequently as his slider. In the meantime, he only threw his 94-95 MPH fastballs 52% of his deliveries. It’s easy to remember that Sabathia threw gas in Milwaukee, but it’s more helpful to remember that he really served as an offspeed master, as well.

Now, those fastballs are between 89 and 90 MPH, and Sabathia apparently throws a secondary fastball much more frequently than his four-seamer. One wonders when a velocity dip is natural, and when it is mechanical. For instance, even though Sabathia’s fastballs have declined 5-6 MPH over the years, his slider and change have almost exactly the same velocity. This leads me to believe that Sabathia’s natural fastball velocity is simply changing, while his mechanical delivery remains similar enough to deliver those offspeed pitches in the same range as his early seasons.

As an aside, I would absolutely love to see Sabathia get a statue in his post-Cubs-celebration pose. Someone ought to enshrine the memory of one of the greatest midseason acquisitions ever for future Brewers generations. Sabathia’s contract is also a model for how the MLB and MLBPA could level the playing field for smaller markets: by establishing mutual opt-out clauses after three years on any multi-year deal signed, both players and organizations could have the chance to renegotiate or reassess contracts. Smaller markets could bet on elite free agents without extremely long-term commitments, and players stuck on underperforming teams (or ready to test the market again) would also have a way out. A mutual third year opt-out would be win-win for players and owners alike.

Until his last start, the worst bullpen support Kyle Lohse received was “junk-inning” deficit runs allowed during the second game of the season. Despite working into the 7th and allowing only two runs, the Brewers bullpen could not hang on for Lohse. In an effort that foreshadowed the Diamondbacks series, Brandon Kintzler allowed a game-tying home run to Brandon Phillips, which forced a stretched Brewers bullpen to work into extras once again. Kintzler was also the bullpen culprit two days later, as he allowed the game-tying single to Miguel Montero (and the deciding homer to Aaron Hill). With a sudden series of injuries, ineffectiveness, and extra innings affairs (three in 10 days), the armor of a strong bullpen has shattered into a set of question marks. Hold your breath; there will be other series of games like this during a 162 game season, and one can only hope that this stretch is nearing its end.

In his start against Cincinnati, Lohse threw his slider more than any other pitch, and his combination of 60 sliders and curveballs occupied the vast majority of his offerings. Although Lohse is throwing his sinker as his favorite pitch for the season, this off-speed trend has been developing over the last couple of weeks. Recently, Lohse favors his slider and curve, making him a bender-specialist against opposing bats. One wonders if this trend can continue against a solid Yankees offense, which presumably deserves a return to that sinking fastball. However, with Lohse’s ability to locate, one could argue that any series of pitches is worthwhile.

Many Brewers fans, including myself, wonder “what could have been?” if the Brewers signed CC Sabathia. One thing is certain: the Brewers probably would not have been able to make trades for both Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke in 2011, or even sign a mid-level pitcher like Lohse (especially if a star like Ryan Braun still received his extension; such an extension would be questionable if the club landed Sabathia, too). One could make an argument against long-term contracts (like Sabathia’s) in favor of short-term deals (like Lohse), for career trends can be isolated and analyzed for a short period of time. In this case, Lohse has the opposite career trajectory as Sabathia:

Lohse W-L IP ERA+ K / BB / HR H/9
2002-2007 59-67 1073.7 IP 96 ERA+ 670 K / 336 BB / 141 HR 10.1 H/9
2008-2013 66-45 1007.7 IP 103 ERA+ 629 K / 236 BB / 104 HR 9.2 H/9

One can argue that a pitcher like Lohse will never be as valuable as a pitcher like Sabathia, for a pitcher like Sabathia has that high-powered elite ceiling. Yet, what happens when that elite pitcher enters his twilight years? A production drop is much more damaging in a case like Sabathia’s, where the Yankees suddenly need to account for below-average trajectory where they once had elite performances. On the other hand, Lohse’s transformation into a sinkerball pitcher completely reversed his previous level of performance. Even if Lohse never has quite the elite ceiling of a pitcher such as Sabathia, that drop-off is also not as damaging to his club as Sabathia’s. In any case, through plain dumb luck (or restrictive market circumstances), the Brewers have the upward-trending pitcher on the mound for this game, and the Yankees have the downward-trending pitcher.

David Phelps (0-0, 3 holds, 10.7 IP, 4 R (10 K / 5 BB / 0 HR; 4 FIPR), 0 quality starts in last 5 G) @ Matt Garza (2-2, 28 IP, 20 R (24 K / 11 BB / 3 HR; 14 FIPR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Meet David Phelps. The 27-year old righty has served as a swingman for the Yankees over the last two seasons, and he has seven quality starts in that role. Like many swingmen, Phelps serves in a strange nether region of bullpen roles when he’s not working as a starter, which explains why he has so few holds or saves prior to this season. This should be intuitive; MLB clubs now use their absolute best bullpen arms to hold and save leads, and they typically use their very best arms in their organization to start. Swingmen fall between both categories, to be saved for that roster depth emergency. Phelps doubly struck gold with the 2014 Yankees. In the power vacuum to close games in the post-Mariano Rivera era, Phelps already received six opportunities to convert leads in 2014 (he’s 6-for-6). With Hiroki Kuroda and Sabathia struggling thus far, the Yankees are now looking to Phelps to add some rotational stability.In these circumstances, Phelps could serve in the rare high-leverage-reliever/swingman role.

Rebirth by Fire would be the title of the feature-length made-for-TV movie about Matt Garza’s epic recovery against the Diamondbacks. Garza’s tale for redemption began with an unforeseen battle, as the league’s worst club cuffed him around for three runs in three innings. The Arizona Nine also ran up Garza’s pitch count in those early innings, making a deep outing or quality start seem unlikely. Cue the gritty veteran Garza, who went back to the well for eight fastballs in an extremely efficient fourth inning, spurring an adjustment with his bigtime pitch.

Garza vs. ARI Fastballs Sliders “Curve”
1-3 44 20 1
4-6 22 9 1

One wonders if Garza enacted a mechanical adjustment, for his fastballs were much slower in innings 4-to-6, but also much more effective. In the first three innings, Garza threw 18 93 MPH fastballs and 14 92 MPH fastballs; in his last three innings, Garza threw nine 92 MPH fastballs and three 93 MPH pitches. 18% of his early-innings fastballs were between 90-91 MPH, while 45% of his late innings fastballs were 90-91 MPH, but Garza also recorded five of his last nine outs with one of those “slower” fastballs. This could simply be a coincidence, it could be a sign of Garza wearing down after three inefficient early innings, or it could be a conscience mechanical adjustment; maybe Garza was too wild with his hard fastballs, and slowed things up. Definitely keep an eye on the radar gun for this outing, as Garza could conceivably carry over any mechanical successes to his next start.

BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Brewers Radio Network. WTMJ 620. WTMJ / Journal Broadcasting Gorup, 2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP. 2014.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2014.

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