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Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Why do Yankees lose to debutantes?


From Virginia, Chris writes: "After [Josh] Tomlin kept the Yankees in check, it reminded me of a question I've had for a while. The Yankees seem to lose much more often when they face a rookie for the first time or a guy making his major-league debut. Is there a way to find out about this: the Yanks' OPS, BA, and W-L in these games?"

Chris, my general take on questions like these is that we tend to remember the games in which the kid does well, and forget the rest. Confirmation bias. But I'm always happy to look at the numbers. Fortunately, we've got them. From The Captain's Blog just this morning:
Last night, the Yankees lost to a pitcher making his major league debut, an all too common occurrence as any Yankee fan can attest. In fact, the sight of a pitcher making his first start against the Yankees is enough to make those who follow the team let out with an audible groan. Based on the results that often follow, one wonders if those in the lineup do the same.

Sometimes, perceived trends emerge in baseball, but in reality, they are really myths. For example, the idea that Miguel Cairo is a clutch hitter who always comes up big can gain a life of its own. Despite evidence to the contrary, what sticks out in most people’s minds are events that defy expectations, so when a poor hitter like Cairo comes through, it becomes indelible. Similarly, the notion that the Yankees never hit new pitchers is prone to the same effect. Everyone expects the Yankees to pound the wide-eyed rookie, so when he turns in a strong outing, we all remember. The only problem with that theory is the evidence actually supports the myth, at least with regard to pitchers making their major league debut.

I won't run the whole chart here, but we find that from 2001 through last night, starting pitchers making their debuts against the Yankees have a 2.32 ERA ... and the Yankees are just 3-8 in those games. Meanwhile, over that same span, rookie starters making their debuts against non-Yankee teams have a 5.29 ERA.

Myth, indeed.

The explanation for that 2.32 ERA? We've got two candidates. Again, The Captain's Blog:
One of the theories advanced for this strange phenomenon is the Yankees are a veteran team that is used to using their familiarity with a pitcher to out think him while at the plate. Another reason put forth is the Yankees’ resources allow them to accumulate an inordinate amount of scouting materials, but that advantage becomes mitigated when their isn’t as much history upon which to draw.

Duly noted. I've got two more candidates, though. Sort of. They're caveats, really.

Caveat No. 1: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. All those rookie starters who have fared so well against the Yankees? There are 11 of them.*

* Or 10. Kansas City's immortal Eduardo Villacis, in his first and only major league appearance, got hammered. None of the other 10 guys gave up more than three earned runs in their debut.

I'm sorry, but 11 outings (and 66 innings) in 11 seasons simply isn't enough outings to merit more than a sideways glance. I mean, seriously ... We're going to draw some grand conclusions based on 66 innings? On seven innings per season? You can. I won't.

Caveat No. 2: They didn't pitch as well as you think. The data's in the chart, but the Captain's Blog ignored it. In those 66 innings, the rookies gave up only 46 hits, while walking 26 batters and striking out 34. They gave up two home runs. You know what I think? I think they were (naturally) afraid to throw the ball over the plate and were hit-lucky and were homer-lucky and probably strand-lucky. In six of the 10 non-Villacis games, the rookie struck out two or fewer Yankees.

Is that really good or really lucky?

It would be a lot of fun if the Yankees' $100 million lineup really was vulnerable to the fuzzy-cheeked kid just up from the Lickskillet League. But the numbers -- not to mention every ounce of common sense I can summon -- suggest that they're not, really.