If you asked Nolan Ryan – both as a pitcher and as president of the Rangers – he would most likely say it’s a BS-number to look at, but to just about everyone else around the game of baseball these days, pitch count has become something like the National debt. As Yankee fans we need look no further than the ever-present YES scoreboard box. This, in the minds of the television brass, is where the most pertinent data is displayed on the screen. Back in the day, this just provided the score. Later, the count and the outs were added; then the runners on base and the speed of the last pitch: clearly the information we have deemed crucial.
But these days, the YES box always has the pitch count; the same information is now displayed prominently at most ballparks’ scoreboards. And the adherence to this number has become something of a “cover your ass” statistic for most managers and pitching coaches everywhere. If a reporter asks why a starter was taken out despite how well he was pitching, the reply these days is more often than not something along the lines of, “Well, he was over one-hundred pitches, so…” The same works for leaving a guy in too long: “He was only at eighty-seven pitches, so…”
And this is an area that the Yankee line-up has exploited for many seasons. Forget about adherence to all the tenets of “Moneyball,” but seeing a load of pitches is, in my estimation, about as crucial a tactic a line-up can take against just about any other team’s rotation. If there is a weak underbelly to any staff, it’s those guys who are called in early. Not the starter with good stuff, not the set-up guys or closers, but if you’re going to make traction and score “put away” runs, your best bet is nearly always going to be against those pitchers who come in from the third to the sixth.
Obviously, the season ending injuries to the seemingly indispensible Mariano Rivera and the disappointment of having to wait ‘til next year on Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain have taken their toll; hopefully Robertson will be back soon. But I don’t feel like I am going out on a limb when I say the loss of Brett Gardner has possibly been more disadvantageous to the team on a whole than any other. A team is a puzzle and the loss of certain pieces can have something of a “domino effect.”
The numbers bear this out. In 2010, Brett Gardner led all of the American League by seeing an average of 4.61 pitches per AB. That season, the Yankees had four guys in the regular starting line-up in the top twenty-five in pitches seen: Gardy, Granderson, Swisher and Texeira seeing an average of over four pitches per AB. In 2011, the Yankee line-up was even more impressive as those same regulars comprised four of the top eleven spots in the AL in pitches seen per AB with Curtis Granderson leading the way with 4.44.
But in looking at the qualifying batters for this season, only Curtis Granderson (at number six with a 4.26 pitchers per AB) ranks in the top twenty five in the AL. Swisher, in his contract year and seemingly trying to impress with power over his batting eye, still has a representative 4.02, but his walks are down significantly. I had to look way down the list to find Tex at 53rd (3.76) and A-Rod at 55th (3.74). I then went to check on the guys who have been “replacing” Brett Gardner in the line-up, but guess what? I couldn’t find the names of Nunez, Jones, Nix or Ibanez anywhere on the list of tops in the statistic of pitches seen per AB although the ESPN list “only” went down eighty four spots.
Yes, the Yankees have started to hit more like the Bronx Bombers over the last few games, but I don’t think the line-up – and by extension, the whole jigsaw puzzle of a team – will start performing to heightened expectations until that little spark-plug of a pesky number nine hitter, Brett Gardner, is back playing every game, seeing so many pitches that it helps his teammates get into the other team’s bullpen early and driving the engine that has made this Yankee line-up fire on all cylinders.