Here's a Thought: How Can a Pitcher Succeed Against the Yankees?
The Yankees lineup has lived up to its pre-season billing; the best in baseball.
With a .362 Weighted On Base Average and OPS of .831, the Yankees have been able to bail out their struggling pitchers night in and out, while striking fear in opposing ones.
With a playoff berth in reach, my question is simply: "How will you get these guys out?"
While there isn't much hope of completely shutting the Bronx juggernaut down, especially in their launching pad of a home park, there are ways to minimize the damage this lineup can inflict. But no one has found those ways out.
Once that strategy is determined, I'll look at what pitchers on the potential AL playoff teams may be able to perform against the formidable lineup.
The first thing to consider is platoon split, or how the team does against left-handed pitchers and right-handed pitchers.
This season, the Yankees have crushed lefties to the tune of .293/.377/.490 and hit righties at a .270/.350/.465 clip.
With right-handed hitters like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, and switch-hitters Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera and Mark Teixeira getting everyday at-bats, that's not too much of a surprise.
So righties are more likely to have success against New York than lefties, although the Yankees' OPS against RHPs (.815) is still higher than any other team's overall OPS.
But, for the sake of this argument, the ideal pitcher against New York is right-handed.
However, given the Yankees' high number of switch-hitters, the righty will need to be able to get lefties out.
Next, let's take a look at plate discipline.
The Yankees chase the fewest pitches outside the strike zone of any team in baseball (21.8 percent). They also swing at the second-fewest pitches overall (42.2 percent), just behind the Mets.
Because of their excellent plate discipline, the Yankees make contact on 83.7 percent of their swings, the third-highest rate in the majors.
From these numbers, it's clear that a pitcher needs to throw quality strikes against New York to succeed. While that seems extremely obvious, it's not the approach I'd advise taking against a team like the Giants, who chase 32 percent of pitches outside the zone.
With a team like that, pitchers who throw lots of chase pitches are likely to succeed. With New York, however, hitting the corners of the strike zone is imperative.
Since the Yankees make a lot of contact, it's preferable to pitch to contact against them. They aren't a particularly groundball-or-flyball-heavy team, but when they do hit the ball in the air, it goes a long way. 13.7 percent of the Yankees outfield flies clear the fences, easily the highest mark in the majors.
Some of that may be due to the hitters' park the Yankees play in, but a lot of it has to do with the power hitters in the lineup.
Because of the power threat, it's a big plus to be a groundball pitcher against the Yankees. If they can't lift the ball, no amount of raw strength or park effects can push it over the wall.
So thus far, it seems that a right-handed groundball pitcher with good command is best suited to face the Yankees.
The final aspect I'm going to look at is individual pitch types. Let's take a look at this quick table of the Yankees' rank against each pitch:
Pitch Fastball Slider Cutter Curveball Changeup Splitter
Yankees Rank 1 11 10 1 5 18
The Yankees are the best team in the majors at hitting fastballs and curveballs, and the only pitch they rank in the bottom half of teams in is the splitter.
Clearly, pitchers who throw lots of fastballs and curves are poor bets for success against New York.
So what we'd ideally like to see in a pitcher "born to beat the Yankees" is a righty with good command, groundball tendencies, and an excellent slider, cutter, or splitter. The pitcher can't overuse his fastball or curve though.
Now that we've got the ideal profile, let's see if there are any pitchers on AL contenders that meet it.
John Smoltz looks like a decent bet. He only throws his fastball about 40 percent of the time, and throws a good slider and splitter. He has pinpoint command, with only 1.23 walks per nine innings this year. He doesn't have the pronounced groundball tendencies one would like to see, but he's got an average GB/FB split.
Mark Buehrle throws a lot of cutters and changeups, has pinpoint command, and does a nice job keeping the ball on the ground, but he is a lefty.
Jose Contreras, the former Yankee, has a good slider and splitter that make up half of his pitch selection. He gets a good amount of grounders as well, and while he doesn't have pinpoint command, he throws enough strikes to get by.
Texas' Scott Feldman throws an excellent cutter, gets a good amount of grounders, and pitches to contact very nicely.
Those four look like the closest matches for the ideal pitcher to face New York. As you can see, there aren't many who really fit all the criteria to keep the Yankees' lineup in check.
As the statistics will tell you, it's not an easy task.
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