ALCS Preview: The InfieldsBy
With plenty of time between the end of play Sunday and the start of the ALCS on Friday evening, we’ll take our time previewing the series. We’ve already done the managers and the starters. Now to the infielders.
Offensively, the Yankees have the best infield in baseball in 2009. Their weakest link, Robinson Cano, had a .370 wOBA and a 126 OPS+, absolutely insane numbers for the worst of a five-player group. The Angels also have a strong infield, made stronger by a second half Howie Kendrick surge. So let’s see how the two teams match up, head to head.
Catcher: Mike Napoli/Jeff Mathis vs. Jorge Posada/Jose Molina
Former catchers manage both teams, and both teams have chosen to use their backup catchers in the playoffs, an uncommon move. In both cases the backup is the superior defender, but they are also atrocious hitters. That’s to be expected of a backup catcher. At least in this series the disadvantage should even out — perhaps even favor the Yankees, because Scioscia tends to use Mathis more than Girardi uses Molina.
Both starters are below average defensively by anecdotal measures. A recent study in catcher defense, while imperfect, corroborates. It ranks Napoli dead last in the majors, of 114 qualified catchers, and ranks Jorge 109th. Jorge has a slightly better caught stealing percentage, 28 percent to 22, but that’s also an imperfect measure of throwing proficiency (i.e., it counts pickoffs).
Thankfully for their teams, they can both mash. Thankfully for the Yankees, Jorge mashes more. His .378 wOBA was second among catchers with at least 400 PA, to the mighty Joe Mauer. While Napoli and Jorge have comparable raw power — Jorge has a .237 Iso and Napoli is at .220 — Jorge gets on base at better clip and hits for a better average.
Edge: Yanks. The backups are about even, and Jorge edges out Napoli.
First base: Kendry Morales vs. Mark Teixeira
Kendry Morales was always one of Anaheim’s most hyped prospects. They gave him a $3 million bonus as an amateur free agent in December 2004 after he defected from Cuba in June. Per Kevin Goldstein, he was “considered the best position player to ever defect from Cuba.” Morales mashed in the minors, putting up a slash line of .332/.373/.528 from 2005 through 2008. He got 407 major league plate appearances between 2006 and 08, but posted a pedestrian .249/.302/.408 line. As we know, he broke out in 2009.
The Angels were disappointed when they found out Teixeira was leaving, but Morales has done his part to replace the production from first base. It didn’t quite match Tex’s numbers, but it was close enough — and they have him signed cheaply enough — that the Angels have to be more than satisfied. That UZR says he plays good defense (and I haven’t heard any major knocks on his D) is an even bigger plus.
Teixeira had a slightly better year at the plate, and has the more favorable platoon splits. He had a .373 OBP and .576 SLG as a lefty vs. righties and a .400 OBP and .511 SLG as a righty against lefties. Morales has a much more pronounced split, a .366 OBP and .596 SLG as a lefty vs. righties and a .319 OBP and .481 SLG as a righty against lefties. If the series goes seven games the Angels will face a lefty five times, which does not bode well for Morales. It also might mean Damaso Marte stays in the bullpen.
Both players had better second halves than first, and both have pronounced home/road splits favoring the home end. Morales has a bigger difference, though, a 1.042 OPS at home vs. .814 on the road, while Teixeira has a 1.013 OPS at home vs. .882 on the road. Morales has the advantage in defense, but Tex still seems the better bet all around.
Second base: Howie Kendrick vs. Robinson Cano
Over the past few years, we’ve seen many comparisons of Cano and Kendrick. Both are young second basemen, and both are free swinging contact hitters. The comparisons seem to end there, though, as Kendrick falls short of Cano in power and durability.
Kendrick started off poorly in 2009, limited his playing time. Even though he spent plenty of time on the bench in the first half, he still set a personal best with 400 plate appearances. He also set a career high in walks…with 20. That’s one walk ever 20 plate appearances. That’s bad. Really bad, even. But then take a look at Cano, who walked 30 times in 674 plate appearances, or one every 22.5 plate appearances.
In terms of aggregate results, the two aren’t particularly close. Cano had better rate stats over about 60 percent more plate appearances. Our favorite counting stat, WAR (read about its awesomeness), has Cano destroying Kendrick, 4.3 to 2.1. Unfortunately, we’re not looking for season aggregates. We’re looking for who should play better in the ALCS.
Kendrick came on stronger in the second half, though he still didn’t play full time — or at least as full-time as Cano, who had 122 more plate appearances from the All-Star Break on. Kendrick edged out Cano in second half OPS, .948 to .922, but again, it was in far less playing time. It’s also a pretty small sample for Kendrick, who put up a .644 OPS in the first half over 226 PA.
Cano has an advantage in that he has no real platoon split. He gets on base a bit better against righties, but has better power against lefties, evening out his OPS. Kendrick gets on base about the same, but his power is greatly sapped against lefties, causing a nearly .090 discrepancy in OPS. Kendrick also features a .846 OPS at home vs. a .714 mark on the road, while Cano’s splits are just .912 at home vs. .832 on the road.
Edge: Yankees. Kendrick has come on strong, but Cano is still the better hitter, even though his defense measures a bit worse.
Third base: Chone Figgins vs. Alex Rodriguez
In terms of pure hitting, this isn’t even close. Then again, beyond Evan Longoria there aren’t many third basemen who can match rate and counting stats with A-Rod. Figgins might have an edge in batting average, but everything else is A-Rod. But, just for the fun of it, let’s take at the things that Figgins did really well and compare those to A-Rod.
Figgins had 729 plate appearances this season, 194 more than A-Rod, who missed the season’s first month and sat on the bench a bit more than he would normally. This helped give Figgins the edge in WAR, 5.9 to 4.6. Part of this has to do with Figgins’s 42 stolen bases(also defense), tied for third in the MLB. But on the flipside, he led the league in caught stealing with 17, leaving him with a 29 percent caught stealing rate. A-Rod stole only 14 bases this season but was caught just twice. So while Figgins swipes more bases, Alex is far more efficient in doing so.
Figgins also led the league in walks with 101, though Alex wasn’t far behind with 80. With Figgins’s 729 plate appearances, that means he walked once every 7.2 plate appearances. A-Rod walked once every 6.7 plate appearances. So in the two areas that Figgins excels, steals and walks, A-Rod is more efficient. Combine that with far superior power numbers and even Figgins’s defensive prowess can’t bridge the gap. And, as I’ve posited a number of times already, A-Rod’s defense has improved greatly from May and June, further closing the gap in that aspect.
Shortstop: Erik Aybar vs. Derek Jeter
Erik Aybar is a useful player. He had a good year at the plate this year and has a slick glove. If I were building a team, I wouldn’t mind having Aybar as my shortstop. But he doesn’t come close to Derek Jeter’s production. It’s not even worth diving further than the surface stats. Jeter has a better batting average, OBP, slugging, and wOBA. He stole more bases and was more successful in doing so. He also did it over 160 more plate appearances.
Aybar has a slight edge in defense, but it only goes a short way in bringing him close to Jeter. In some cases, like Teixeira vs. Morales, it’s worth going deep into the matter. Not in this. It’s Jeter in a landslide.
Angels still have a defensive edge
While the Yankees have the superior offense across all the infield positions, the Angels edge them out in defense across the board. That ranges from small differences, like Aybar over Jeter, to huge gaps, like Figgins over A-Rod. While defense is important, I’m not sure that it compensates for the vast difference in offensive production from the infields.
The Angels infield defense is good, yes, but the Yankees are generally a fly ball hitting team. The Angels are more of a groundball team, setting up an interesting dynamic. The Angels have a great infield defense, but it might not factor in as much because the Yankees hit the ball to the outfield. The Yankees have a below average infield defense, and that could be exposed because the Angels hit the ball on the ground. Thankfully for the Yankees, they have a fly ball tilt on their pitching staff, which could help even out the differences.
While the infield match-up is closer than the offensive stats would indicate, the Yankees still have an edge. They have a powerful offensive attack from their infield, something the Angels just cannot reproduce.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the outfield, which gives a bit more of an advantage to the Angels.