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Mudville: February 23, 2024 9:30 am PDT

What the xwOBA?!

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Let the celebration begin.

When is the parade down the Canyon of Heroes?

You might have missed the news but Baseball America celebrated the fact that “the Yankees stand out for their broad based performance across all pitching metrics.’’

Good for the Yankees organization and Brian Cashman really would have let it loose in the desert at the GM meetings if he’d had this additional “BA’’ information.

–        2nd in overall in-zone whiff rate

–        2nd in overall chase rate

–        3rd in xwOBA

Baseball America goes on to tell us the Yankees are “the only team to rank within the top three across all performance metrics.’’

And to top it off “the Yankees rank #3 in Pitching System according to Statcast data.’’

Great, now bring some talent to the Bronx that will win more than 82 games in a watered down MLB. Maybe use some of those pitching chips in the trade market for Juan Soto.

Again, I truly don’t know enough about xwOBA to break it down but the Yankees need to come out of their analytical cocoon and blossom into a baseball team. The Rangers did it the right way, spending money to bring in superstar talent like shortstop and World Series MVP Corey Seager and pitcher Nathan Eovaldi. They swung and missed too with Jacob deGrom.

Now Chris Young has to clean up the Rangers’ farm system, and the Rangers’ system has to get much better, so that someday his organization might be 3rd in xwOBA.

The point here is that the Yankees and so many other teams have lost sight of what’s really important, like winning, and have been lost in a sea of confusing data in the Statcast Era. I remember not too long ago having a deep conversation with a POBO (that’s president of baseball operations) and how excited this man was because his team was putting a new eye in the sky metric reading system in all their minor league parks and he thought that would translate into overall team success at the major league level.

That team hasn’t won squat since having that conversation.

“The world is upside down,’’ one top evaluator told BallNine this week about what’s viewed as important in the game these days, and who is making the command decisions for teams, and the info used to make those decisions.

Once again, he nailed it.

It’s not the metrics, it’s the men playing and teaching the game. That is the greatest way to get ahead. Sign big talent, have a big-head like Bruce Bochy manage them and that is how you win a championship. It’s also having the scouts who find out all the little tips to help your players succeed.

Cole, 33, has gone old school and has figured out how to stay in games longer and the beauty of a well-placed fastball – and is getting better with age. So the Yankees have their ace. Now they just need to get him some help.

One of the interesting things I heard this week makes perfect sense: in the World Series the Rangers saw that Arizona closer Paul Sewald was tipping his pitches. That’s great information, the kind of information that the Yankees used to get from their scouts during their run in the Joe Torre years when they won championships in 1996, ’98, ’99 and 2000 and came oh so close in 2001.

Information that players like Derek Jeter used to feast on in October. The story goes that when Torre would have his October breakdown meetings, and yes there were some Nerds around even back then, when the meeting was over he would tell one of his most trusted scouts to stay behind as everyone left the room.

Torre would then say basically, “Okay, what do we really need to do?’’

That scout, of course, is no longer with the Yankees.

Like Jeter has said on multiple occasions, you want all the information you can gather, even xwOBA, but then you have to see how the humans playing the game can best utilize that information. That is the beauty of baseball, and that is what most POBOs don’t really understand these days because they are giving too much weight to analytics.

It’s really that simple.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that for the most part in this xwOBA world we live in, teams have pretty much forgotten how to teach pitchers to go the distance. Now the Yankees are lucky, they made the smart signing to bring Gerrit Cole to the Bronx as a free agent after coming up short on the trade route for Cole, letting him slip away to the Astros, of all teams.

Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees celebrates pitching a complete game shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on September 27, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Cole, 33, has gone old school and has figured out how to stay in games longer and the beauty of a well-placed fastball – and is getting better with age. So the Yankees have their ace. Now they just need to get him some help. The American League is lucky that Cole is around too. If not, the Cy Young might have gone to Sonny Gray. The writers did a great job giving Cole all 30 first place votes, but imagine if he had a bad year or was in the NL. Gray finished second in the balloting.

I know wins and losses don’t mean anything anymore to much of this new baseball generation, just like batting average doesn’t mean anything; but a Cy Young winner with an 8-8 record isn’t exactly excellence so Cole saved the AL from that embarrassment, although Nerds are never embarrassed.

Again, good for Cole being a Yankee and shame on the Pirates for letting him get away to the Astros. In the trade made Jan. 13, 2018, the Pirates received Michael Feliz, Jason Martin, Colin Moran, and Joe Musgrove, a pitcher they traded after 2020. Good job Pirates, that’s why you stink every year.

Certainly the Yankees can put together a package that will excite the Padres, who will sell off some players. That shoe has to drop later this off-season. Cole is kind of a dying breed. Today’s pitchers developed by MLB teams don’t have much endurance. It’s a five and fly, if you’re lucky.

That’s why free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto is such a prize this off-season. Whoever gets him gets a W. Simply because Yamamoto was not influenced in any way by the way the MLB Nerds “teach’’ pitching to their young pitchers; which is essentially, worry only about sequencing, throw the ball as hard as you can on every pitch, and don’t be concerned about learning the art of pitching. And don’t worry, you won’t be around to face hitters the third time around in the batting order. We have a bunch of other pitchers who are not getting paid nearly as much as you to handle that situation.

Makes a lot of sense.

Without a doubt, Yamamoto learned to pitch in a system where it’s still important to stay in games and it’s important to win.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes salutes fans after the team's 5-1 victory in the Japan Series Game Six at Kyocera Dome Osaka on November 4, 2023 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

As a wise scout told me this week: “I think MLB clubs will look to sign Japanese starters more and more, since we simply are ignoring the development of starting pitchers in our systems.’’

What a great point and it was that quote that put me on the Yamamoto Train. The Nerd US system stinks, so import as many starting pitchers as you can from other nations. Let other countries do the heavy lifting and actually teach the ABCs of pitching while you play with all your fancy numbers and metric reading systems in the good old USA.

Just make sure you have some excellent Pacific Rim scouts.

Sign pitchers that you haven’t had the chance to screw up yet. Brilliant. No wonder Cashman went over to see him pitch in Japan and Yamamoto delivered with the second no-hitter of his career, back in early September.

If Cash also went over with any members of his oh so tiny analytic department, I’m sure the minute the last out of the no-hitter was recorded Cashman might have asked “What was his xwOBA?’’

I know Omar Minaya was there as well. I don’t think Omar was talking obtuse numbers, but I could be wrong. The Yamamoto Train threw 102 pitches that day, somehow finding the strength to get over 100.

Now the Yankees and everyone else must figure out if that plays in MLB and for the Yankees, in the Bronx. That has to be figured out and Yamamoto will not make a decision on what team he will sign with until after the Winter Meetings, December 4-7. Research has to be done on both sides of the aisle.

When it comes to Yamamoto, don’t go down the rabbit hole of analytics too deeply – that would be my advice. Consider these interesting words from Derek Jeter, who knows something about winning championships.

(L-R) Harold Reynolds, Albert Pujols, Aaron Judge, Derek Jeter, and David Ortiz meet during a press conference announcing Judge as the winner of the 2023 Roberto Clemente Award before Game Three of the World Series between the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on October 30, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

“It’s all analytics,’’ Jeter said on the New York Sports Show podcast earlier this month. “Analytics have taken over the game. I always think any time you make a decision, you want to have as much information as you possibly can. If you say no to that, then you are not doing your job. But I also think you can’t measure everything. Mr. Torre, Joe Torre used to always say you can’t measure a person’s heartbeat. People have heartbeats. You can’t necessarily just take a player from Milwaukee and plug him into New York and think the same thing is going to happen, there’s more pressures. You have to get to know people. So analytics can’t measure everything and I think the game has gotten very, very analytical.’’

Bet your xwOBA it has. That’s fine but make sure you have people like Chris Young and Bruce Bochy and scouts in your organization that can dig through all the BS and come up with baseball answers.

As for Sewald, the ex-Met, he dominated the Phillies in the NLCS, pitching in four games with two saves and a win and not allowing a hit over six innings.

The Rangers were clearly onto something, though, because in the two games the veteran right-hander faced Texas, he pitched two innings and allowed six hits and six runs; so it sure looks like the Rangers picked up on that Sewald was tipping his pitches.

This is such a precarious off-season for the Yankees because the Rangers have already shown they are not afraid to spend big money. They have a manager everyone wants to play for and they have a baseball boss who actually played baseball in the majors and who understands the game from that perspective – and they are coming off their first World Series victory.

This is also a huge off-season for the Mets, who have won only two World Series in their existence, the last coming in 1986. Steve Cohen has talked the biggest game in baseball since buying the Mets, with the smallest results. He must change the narrative. The pressure is on. It’s a funny thing in the New York area. For some reason a lot of Mets fans are also Jets fans; must have something to do with the similar names.

Yankee fans have been moaning since 2009, the last time the Yankees spent big free agent money and it paid off in a World Championship – but imagine being the dreaded Mets-Jets fan. The Jets continue to be a laughingstock under owner Woody Johnson and now have the Butt Fumble and the Hail Mary INT TD added to their resume.  The Jets have won one Super Bowl back in 1969 with Broadway Joe Namath running the show.

What a harsh, cruel world for Mets-Jets fans and they must also be crushed that Baseball America dropped all those xwOBA accolades on the Yankees organization. How much can one fan base take?

My final piece of advice to all young players is forget all the measurements. Go out there and play baseball and have fun. It was sad to see the empty ballfield that BallNine’s EIC Chris Vitali posted on X. Vitali lives in a warm weather area, so please don’t drop the “it’s late November’’ on me.

The love of the game has been replaced by the love of analytics in the USA and that is one sad happening.

Play the game whenever you can even if it’s just you and a couple of buddies jumping on a field to hit some ground balls, play Three Flies Up – or just throw a bucket of baseballs over home plate to work on your command with no radar gun in sight.

Love the game and not the numbers.

Don’t fall prey into making it work.

And when you can, play the game with no parents around to get in the way.

Remember what Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon said many years ago: “Baseball is a kid’s game that grownups only tend to screw up.’’

And finally, never, ever worry about your xwOBA.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Brian Hennigan

    Great article. Look forward reading your commentary about a great game.

    November 30, 2023
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