Why Dallas Keuchel Should Fear Chris Young Most

Talking about matchups in a one-game playoff is an almost futile enterprise. Batter versus pitcher numbers have proven to be mostly useless, and other than a perusal of the platoon situations, a discussion of roster decisions around the edges, and some tinkering with the order in which you throw your pitchers, previewing Tuesday’s American League Wild Card game seems like heavy-breathing about the pre-game coin toss in football.

There is one way you can classify pitchers and hitters that may be meaningful to this game in particular, however. Because of the way swings work, there are matchup problems for certain hitters against certain pitchers. Most of the research says that extreme ground ball pitchers have problems with fly ball hitters — one study found fly ball hitters had better outcomes against ground-ball pitchers than any other matchup of batted ball mixes, and another found that this type of matchup produces the most line drives in baseball. And it makes sense, because fly ball hitters usually have ‘uppercut’ type swings that can reach down and produce power on the low pitch.

Dallas Keuchel has the second-best ground-ball rate in baseball. The Yankees should have Chris Young bat leadoff.

The right-handed Young should start the game, that much makes sense without going to the grounder/fly ball matchups. Fifty times, the Yankees have faced a lefty starter, and 47 of those times, Young started the game. That’s compared to 28 starts in the other 112 games. He’s a platoon guy who’s been 46% better against lefties than righties over his career. Even if you have to regress that split, he’s playing.

Only once has Young started a game in the leadoff position, and that was against Keuchel earlier in the season. That might be because Young is the most extreme fly ball hitter on the Yankees roster. Brian McCann beats him out this year, but that’s a recent thing for the lefty-swinging catcher.

Not even considering the platoon advantage, Young might be 47% more likely than Jacoby Ellsbury to get a line drive from the heavy grounder-inducing Keuchel. Then you add in the fact that Ellsbury is a lefty, and the decision at the top of the lineup should be easy.

Young does have to replace someone, and the inclination is to replace left-handed Brett Gardner, since that’s what happened most often this year when everyone was healthy. And that’s probably the right way to go, since Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez can both swing from the right side.

But it’s fair to wonder, since there is evidence that matchups based on batted ball mix can be predictive, it’s fair to wonder if we should look at how certain batters have done against the different types of pitchers out there.

Selected Yankees Against Ground-Ball Pitchers
vs GB Pitcher BA OBP SLG % Neutral OPS GB projected OPS
Alex Rodriguez 0.304 0.387 0.51 88% 0.673
Carlos Beltran 0.283 0.354 0.462 96% 0.737
Brett Gardner 0.27 0.349 0.391 97% 0.714
Chris Young 0.267 0.34 0.466 111% 0.804
Jacoby Ellsbury 0.298 0.346 0.437 99% 0.715
Career stats
% Neutral OPS = OPS vs ground-ball pitcher divided by OPS vs neutral pitchers
GB Projected OPS = projected OPS multiplied by past ground-ball performance split (no platoon split factor)

Of course, these are career numbers, and Gardner is much closer to his peak than the other two. He also plays better defense. And is a lefty. It might be tough to sit Alex Rodriguez with the season he’s having, but not only is he comparatively worse against ground-ball pitchers than anyone else in this mini-list, but he’s also been horrible against grounder pitchers this year, showing a .477 OPS that was 67% worse than league average in those situations according to Baseball Reference.

But looking at what actually has happened for these players in the past begins to fall victim to some of the problems that happen when you use batter vs pitcher numbers. Especially if you try to look how a righty has done against lefty ground-ball pitchers, in particular, you degrade your sample past the point of usefulness. Alex Rodriguez has had 94 plate appearances against pitchers considered ‘ground-ball pitchers’ this year by Baseball Reference.

Considering that Rodriguez is a righty, and Beltran leans towards the fly ball and can swing righty, you’ll probably see Gardner on the bench. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll be the most fearsome matchups for the ground-ball inducing Dallas Keuchel on Tuesday. That might be the righty with the third-most extreme fly ball swing in the major leagues over the last five years: Chris Young.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

Apologies if I’m misunderstanding something, but that table would seem to suggest sitting Gardner is exactly the correct decision. Gardner appears to be the least productive of the four hitters. Rodriguez is the most productive; having the lowest % Neutral OPS is testament to how incredibly strong he has been against neutral pitchers, not poor performance against groundball pitchers.

There is still an argument to be made based on A-Rod’s 2015 performance against groundballers specifically. However, “% Neutral OPS” is not particularly useful here – you want the best performers period, not the guys who are relatively better against groundballers regardless of how good they are overall. What good does it do to know that Players A and B have respective % Neutral OPS of 150% and 90% against groundballers if that means that Player A is increasing his OPS from .300 to .45 and Player B is decreasing his from 1.000 to .900?

8 years ago
Reply to  steex

The point of using % Neutral OPS is to indicate how much you should discount/boost the season numbers. The numbers in the table are career stats; despite having a good season, A-Rod is not having a career year at 40. In fact Gardner and Rodriguez have identical wRc+ (105) though A-Rod has an .842 OPS compared to .742 for Gardner. Scaling by %Neutral OPS gives you .741 for A-Rod and .720 for Gardner. With Gardner’s speed and defense, he is quite possibly the better pick.

8 years ago
Reply to  AMartin223

Also should’ve used splits, A-Rod is .926 versus LHP, Gardner is .761. wRc+ is 148-112 in A-Rod’s favour, so scaling those OPS numbers leaves you with a much stronger argument for ARod instead.

free-range turducken
8 years ago
Reply to  AMartin223

Groundball pitchers HATE him!!!

8 years ago
Reply to  AMartin223

*weird trick

8 years ago
Reply to  AMartin223

Thanks to you both for the clarification, that makes more sense. Somehow the nuance of the % Neutral OPS being used to increase sample over the actual in-season 2015 performance flew right over my head. My bad.