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April 26, 2006

by SG

In 1999 at the age of 25, Derek Jeter put forth an incredible season, hitting .349/.438/.552 and ending up at an OPS+ of 161. Defensive metrics disagree on how good or bad he was defensively, but his offensive value made him an MVP candidate. If Jeter was that good at 25, how good would he be as he peaked?

Unfortunately, Jeter did not get any better. He regressed to an OPS+ of 123 the following season, and has not topped 127 since. 6 years later, Jeter is off to an exceptional start. When he attempted a bunt in the first inning, I was livid. Thankfully, it went foul, and he proceeded to crank an opposite field HR off Scott Kazmir that gave the Yankees all the runs they would need in an impressive 9-1 win. Mike Mussina continued his outstanding pitching. He was only throwing 89-91 with his fastball most of the game, but did a brilliant job setting hitters up with his breaking pitches and his changeup, messing up their timing, and fanned 7, many on 89 mph fastballs right down the middle. Mussina's K+ is 143, which is a fancy way of saying he is striking out batters at a rate 43% above average. He's combining this with a walk rate 82% better than the league average. At this point, I am more comfortable with Moose than any other starter on the Yankees. Let's hope it continues. A poster from Bronx Banter posted a very interesting link to an article by Tom Verducci regarding Moose.

I walked up to Mike Mussina recently and told him he looked like Greg Maddux last week while shutting down a hot-hitting Toronto team.

"Maddux?'' Mussina said. "He's got about a hundred more wins than I do."

"Yes," I told him, "but you looked like Maddux because when hitters thought you'd throw something hard, you went softer. Over and over again."

"That's right," Mussina said. "I've figured something out."

Mussina then began to tell me a story that helped explain not only why he dominated the Blue Jays in that game but also why the oldest pitchers in baseball are still among the best pitchers in baseball.
"I threw in an intrasquad game in spring training,'' Mussina said. "People were like, 'Why are you pitching in an intrasquad game?' Really, the only reason why I did was that you back everything up from the start of the season, counting five days between starts, and five days before my first spring training start happened to be a day when we had an intrasquad game.

"So I'm pitching in this intrasquad game and [Jorge] Posada is up. The count is 3 and 2 and I throw a changeup. Now for some reason, Posada is right on the pitch and he smokes it. Hits it on a line. We got him out, but I was surprised that he would be right on a 3-and-2 change.

"So after the game I asked him, 'How could you be right on that changeup I threw you?' He said, 'I saw your fingers on top of the ball as it was coming out of your hand. I could tell it was a changeup.'"

What Posada saw were Mussina's index, middle and ring fingers splayed across the top of the baseball, a grip that makes it impossible for a pitcher to throw anything but an off-speed pitch. (Only two fingers, the index and middle, top the ball for a fastball.) Posada saw the dead giveaway, kept his hands and weight back and timed the changeup perfectly.

Mussina is 37 years old and has been pitching in the major leagues since 1991. No one had ever told him what Posada told him. So Mussina decided to change his grip. He slid his index finger more to the side of the ball than the top of the ball -- not quite the grip for a circle changeup, in which the thumb and index finger form a circle on the side of the ball, but a modified version of it.

The pitch worked perfectly. Not only was Mussina able to disguise the pitch, but he also was able to throw it slower and generate better downward movement on it. "It doesn't so much run,'' Mussina said, referring to the sideways motion some pitchers get from their changeup, "but it just kind of dies at the end. It tumbles under the hitter's bat. And to think if I didn't bother pitching in an intrasquad game, none of this would have happened."

Back to Jeter, who I felt was the real story of the game. His 3 for 5 game has him hitting .391/.494/.681, which translates to an OPS+ of 207, which ranks 7th in the AL. However, if you compare his OPS+ to that of other shortstops, it's 230, far and away the highest in the league. Jeter's offensive value so far this season is 12 runs above the average shortstop. Unfortunately, he's given back 4 of those runs back on defense so far. Still, his offense has been key in what has been a great start by the Yankee offense.

Tonight, we'll see if Chien-Ming Wang can keep the recent string of good starts by the Yanks alive, facing off against Seth McClung. Wang had all kinds of issues with Tampa last season, going 1-3 with a 6.94 ERA against them. Let's hope the trend does not continue. Buck Martinez raised an interesting point about Wang's struggles against Baltimore last time, and how he was a different pitcher in the stretch vs. the windup. A quick look at his career situational splits seems to bear this out.

With no runners on, Wang walks 6% of the batters he faces and strikes out 11.5%. With runners on, he walks 9% and strikes out 10.6%. I'm not sure how much different this is than other pitchers, but Ron Guidry supposedly worked with Wang on this issue over the past week, so we'll see if it changes.