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(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

If the Yankees are serious about successfully completing the Hail Mary pass that is their playoff hopes, they’ll need to win for the remainder of the season. For the first time all season, they’ve had a roster that resembles something competitive, despite still not being at full strength. Last week, Joe discussed a couple ways the team could improve their chances as it pertains to the pitching staff.

Today, I’m here to discuss another idea that seems to be gaining popularity — specifically, upgrading the lineup from within. It’s time for Joe Girardi to give Austin Romine more opportunities. This doesn’t necessarily mean Romine has to be the full-time catcher after this year; if the team wants to pursue the likes of Brian McCann, by all means, they should. We’re talking right now.

Let’s start with Chris Stewart. Through 277 plate appearances this season, he’s batted .231/.305/.302 (.276 wOBA, 68 wRC+). He’s managed four home runs all season (.070 ISO) and has been valued at 0.8 fWAR. He doesn’t walk a ton and doesn’t strike out a ton, but he also doesn’t really get on base. I’m not claiming he’s a bad catcher, but I don’t think he’s cut out to be the main guy.

It seems pretty clear by this point that the team values his defensive contributions. In terms of fielding metrics, FanGraphs lists him at 4.3 Fld (based on UZR) which is good but not great. Even though I personal question the legitimacy of fielding metrics in general, particularly as they pertain to catchers, I’m willing to concede that Stewart is probably a capable catcher defensively in general (though he has only thrown out 28% of base runners which is slightly below average, and it seems like he’s bobbled more pitches than one would expect out of a defensive-oriented guy).

What’s interesting though about Stewart is that he’s basically been utilized far more this season than he ever has throughout his career at the MLB level. In 2011, he started 67 games with the Giants (183 plate appearances), which was significantly more than he had prior with any of his former teams (the Padres, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox). This year, he’s already played in 86 games (and counting), and has already accumulated about 100 more plate appearances (and counting). Anecdotally, Stewart has looked gassed at times. If this theory is indeed true, it would make sense that he would be struggling by this point in the season. After all, he does play a very demanding position.

Interestingly enough, Stewart’s splits seem to support this theory to some degree. Through the first half of the year, Stewart produced a .283 wOBA (73 wRC+). While the first half of the season wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, the second half of the year (at least thus far), by comparison, has been considerably worse (.260 wOBA, 57 wRC+). Although Stewart has picked up his production in August, his July was completely abysmal (.200 wOBA, 16 wRC+). Hilariously, his lone home run this month was the first one he hit since May. Although August has been better for Stewart (.316 wOBA, 96 wRC+), he’s also had several more breathers.

On the other hand, Romine is young, healthy, available and has shown increasing value of late. Of course it’s a gamble; I’m sure the fact that he was awful early on in the season hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence in Girardi either. I think the team is in a position though where it has to take risks that could pay off if they’re serious about remaining in the hunt – even if those risks only provide incremental benefit.

Admittedly, Romine’s overall season stats aren’t exactly inspiring (.227/.271/.327, .265 wOBA, 61 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). He’s hit one home run, walks very little (5.0 BB%), strikes out at a fair pace (25.6 K%) and has been graded as below average defensively (-0.2 Fld), though the same caveats about defensive metrics apply to Romine as well, in addition to the small sample size disclaimer (23% caught stealing rate for what that’s worth).

So what’s the draw you may ask? It’s simple; Romine is the hot bat and has been for a while. If he cools off, fine, sub him out without blinking. But for now, take advantage of him and get offense from a position traditionally void of offensive production. During Romine’s eight games started in July, he produced a .385 wOBA (143 wRC+). In August, through eight games he’s improved further (.395 wOBA, 150 wRC+). Am I claiming Romine is the next Posada? Of course not, nor do I have those expectations. I’m just saying give the kid’s bat a chance with more frequency as Stewart really hasn’t giving the team any incentive not too.

Of course, the small sample size disclaimer applies to Romine’s offensive contributions as well. But isn’t it worth considering the idea at this point? At the very least, if Girardi wants to approach this matter conservatively, he could always just level out the playing time between the two catchers rather than giving Romine the starting gig altogether. It may not be desirable for those two players on am emotional level, but it may be what’s best for the team. Changing the roles of Stewart and Romine probably won’t be the ultimate factor that decides the fate of the season, but if it could help, the team should consider it. Unfortunately, it seems like Girardi isn’t quite as sold on the idea.

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Outside of a major arm injury, I’m not sure things could be going any worse for CC Sabathia this year. The big left-hander is sitting on a yucky 4.73 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 160 innings across 24 starts, thanks in large part to a sudden Hughesian affinity for the long ball — Sabathia has already allowed a career-high 25 homeruns (1.41 HR/9 and 14.5% HR/FB) this year, and that includes a 1.63 HR/9 (16.9% HR/FB) away from homer happy Yankee Stadium. In the second season of his five-year extension, CC is having the worst year of his 13-year-career.

Early on, back in April, fastball velocity was believed to be the root cause of his problems. Sabathia came out of the gate sitting in the 88-89 mph range, occasionally hitting 91 or 92, but his heater has picked up some oomph as the weather warmed up and the season progressed. Here, look:

Sabathia velocity

Sabathia’s fastball isn’t what it was even two years ago, but it has been trending upward in recent months. In his most recent start, he averaged 92.6 mph and topped out at 94.0 mph. That’s plenty. Velocity, the pure radar gun reading, is not the reason the Yankees nominal ace has been pitching like a number five starter.

One possible (and suddenly popular) explanation has been his weight loss. Sabathia is a big dude with broad shoulders and a big ass, he’s built to carry a lot of weight, but he’s shed upwards of 30 pounds in each of the last two offseasons. Losing weight is a good thing, especially when you’re talking about a pitcher with a twice surgically repairing landing knee. That doesn’t mean pitching with fewer pounds is easy though, it requires an adjustment.

“The weight loss has created a balance problem for him,“ said one evaluator to Nick Cafardo recently. “He’s all over the place. He’s learning how to pitch in that body, a body he’s really never had. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him other than that. Sometimes you pitch at a certain weight all your life and then someone has the brilliant idea that you should lose weight because it’s putting stress on your knees, you do it, and then you’re dealing with something else.”

According to PitchFX, Sabathia’s average release point has dropped 1.68 inches from 2012 to 2013 after dropping 2.04 inches from 2011 to 2012. His release point has also drifted an additional 1.8 inches towards first base from last year to this year. Think about the hands on a clock; his release point was sitting at one o’clock last year but has slid down and further out towards two o’clock. That slight change in arm slot seems small but it can make a huge difference, especially when you’re talking about the bite on a slider or the ability to drive a fastball downhill.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

“The consistent problem is the command,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Andy McCullough two weeks ago. “Even though his strike percentages are okay, it’s what’s going on in the strike zone. A lot of his fastballs and changeups are cutting. Which is a major problem for him.”

That cutting action hasn’t really shown up in PitchFX — Sabathia’s fastball has an extra half-inch or so of horizontal movement this year, which is nothing — but is something Rothschild has mentioned as a problem for several weeks now. It also seems like something that could be attributed to the lower release point. Dropping the arm creates more movement, it’s just the physics of this whole pitching thing. That’s why sidearmers and submariners always have those ridiculous fall off the table sinkers and frisbee sliders.

So the question now is why has his release point (and his arm slot) dropped? Is it because of the weight loss? Is it the toll of over 2,800 career regular season and postseason innings? Is it the result of his offseason elbow surgery? Is Sabathia muscling up in an effort to create the velocity he’s lost over the years? I don’t know. It could be none of those things or it could be all of those things. Pitching mechanics and deliveries are weird like that. They’re these fine-tuned yet never quite perfect unnatural acts, and sometimes stuff goes wrong for no apparent reason.

If the problem is Sabathia’s recent weight loss, then it’s probably a good thing because it should be easily correctable. I’m not talking about gaining the weight back, that’s kinda silly. The weight loss is healthy and he should keep it off. It’s a good thing because it’s something he can adjust to and iron out with enough reps. It’s been a challenge so far, but no one said it would be easy. I suspect Sabathia’s career workload and offseason elbow surgery are playing a part in his awful season though, and although I have faith in the big guy to figure it out, I can’t say for certain that he will.

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Mariano Rivera has accomplished an awful lot in his Hall of Fame career, but one thing he had never done prior to these last few days was blow three consecutive save opportunities. I guess that’s not really much of an accomplishment. Anyway, Rivera blew a one-run lead against the White Sox on Wednesday before squandering two-run leads against the Tigers on Friday and Sunday. The Yankees managed to come back to win the two games against Detroit.

“There’s always going to be a first time. I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” said Rivera to Chad Jennings when asked about the three straight blown saves. “It’s not surprising. You’re talking about professional hitters. At the same time, I’m not putting the ball where I want it.”

PitchFX confirms Rivera has not had a dip in velocity recently nor has his trademark cutter lost any bite — the pitch is still sitting in the low-90s with roughly 2-4 inches of horizontal break. Nothing out of the ordinary there. As Rivera indicated, it’s all about location. Here is the game-tying hit he surrendered to Adam Dunn on Wednesday:

Rivera vs. Dunn

(92.5 mph with 2.8 inches of break)

Notice where Austin Romine wanted the pitch — down and on the outside corner — compared to where it actually ended up. Thigh high and right down the middle, pretty much. That was an 0-2 pitch, and you probably remember the first two strikes were called on borderline outside cutters. Maybe even pitches that were off the plate. Romine and Rivera went back to that well a third time but Mo didn’t execute.

Dunn slapping a ball the other way for a single is a rarity. That just isn’t his game. Miguel Cabrera hitting homeruns is not; it’s just what he does. Over the weekend, the reigning AL MVP took Rivera deep not once, but twice in the blown saves. Here’s his two-run shot from Friday, which tied the game:

Rivera vs. Cabrera Friday

(93.9 mph and 4.8 inches of break)

That was a pretty epic at-bat, as you probably remember. Cabrera fouled two balls off his leg and was hobbling around badly between pitches — at one point he was using his bat like a cane — yet he managed to remain in the game. The game-tying homer came in a 2-2 count after Rivera busted him inside repeatedly, hence the two foul balls of the leg. Chris Stewart set up inside one more time but Rivera again missed his spot, this time knee-high and out over the plate. That’s a pitch great hitters like Miggy will crush, and in this instance it left the park.

The homerun Cabrera hit on Sunday did not tie the game, but it did turn a two-run lead into the one-run lead for the Yankees. Again, Rivera missed his spot in a bad way:

Rivera vs. Cabrera Sunday

(92.5 mph and 3.5 inches of break)

Stewart and Rivera mixed things up in this at-bat after getting beat on Friday, pitching to both sides of the plate rather than pounding Cabrera inside. The 2-2 pitch was supposed to be down and away — you can even argue Stewart was set up too far over the plate — and Mo simply missed up. The pitch was on the outer half as intended, but rather than come in at the knees it came in at the belt. Cabrera took advantage of the short porch and drove it out the other way.

The third homer of the weekend, the one that actually tied Sunday’s game and clinched that third blown save, was more good hitting than bad pitching. Unlike the last three pitches in this post, Rivera didn’t miss his spot by all that much:

Rivera vs. Martinez

(91.1 mph and 3.2 inches of break)

Stewart wanted the 0-1 pitch up towards the top of the zone and inside, and Rivera wound up coming up-and-in even more than desired. That’s not a bad thing, up-and-in pitches are a great way to induce weak contact. Mo has been breaking left-handed hitter’s bats with that pitch for nearly two decades now. Martinez just pulled his hands in and yanked the ball to right for the game-tying solo homer. Rivera missed his spot but not necessarily in a bad way. This pitch didn’t leak back out into the hitting zone like the others. Martinez is just a really smart hitter.

Missing location is not something we see Mo do all that often. We’re not just talking about a pitcher with great command here. We’re talking about a pitcher with historically great command. That Rivera is blowing these saves because he’s missing his spots rather than losing velocity or movement off his cutter is actually somewhat encouraging because you would expect him to work out the location problems. It’s hard to imagine Mo will struggle with his command for an extended period of time. It’s possible, sure, but tough to expect. If his stuff was disappearing, it would be a much bigger problem.

The weird thing about Rivera’s recent struggles is that they really don’t matter all that much. The Yankees’ odds of making the postseason are microscopic — 2.3% according to Baseball Prospectus, and they’re seven games back with four teams ahead of them — so a blown save here or there isn’t the end of the world regarding the club’s 2013 outlook. Rivera is also retiring after this year, so the long-term concern is nil. Still, no one wants to see him finish his career on a down note, so hopefully Mo will right the ship and soon. Since it’s just a command problem, I’m extremely confident he’ll get things sorted out very quickly.

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Aug
07

2014 Payroll Breakdown: Part Two

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Hooray for being (kinda) free next year? (Andy Marlin/Getty)

Hooray for being (kinda) free next year? (Andy Marlin/Getty)

For the last 18 months or so, almost every move the Yankees have made has been geared towards getting under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. They’ve gravitated towards short-term contracts, in some cases choosing future financial flexibility over roster quality. It’s cost them on the field, but they are better positioned to get under the tax threshold.

The luxury tax, if you don’t know by now, is based on the average annual value of contracts on the 40-man roster. Players who are added to the 40-man late (called up, trade, etc.) or taken off early (released, traded, etc.) have their “tax hits” pro-rated. Performance bonuses count against the tax as well, as does each team’s portion of the league’s player benefits. The benefits are expected to jump from $10.8M to about $12M for 2014. Just like that, the $189M threshold is really $177M.

This post is Part Two because I actually did a Part One once upon a time, but that was all the way back in January. Obviously a lot has changed since then and the payroll situation is worth revisiting. Let’s start by looking at the 2014 contract status of every player currently on the 40-man roster. The salaries listed are “tax hit” numbers, not their actual take-home salary. That doesn’t matter for the luxury tax calculation.

Some fancy accounting at the time of the trades brought Soriano’s and Wells’ tax hits way down. Wells is actually free, and had MLB allowed it, the Yankees would have actually received a $2M credit against the luxury tax because of the way the money was structured. That won’t happen though, he just counts as zero dollars against the tax.

Given his self-proclaimed “nightmare” season, I have to think Jeter will exercise that player option. It’s very tough to see him opting out and getting more after looking very much like a 39-year-old shortstop whose body is broken down this summer. He could try it and maybe the Steinbrenners will cave, but it would surprise me. Also, that extra $7.5M in bonuses is really $7M because he won’t trigger any incentives this year. All told, Jeter’s current contract can realistically only max out at $16.5M next year.

According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that player option year is treated as a one-year contract if exercised. It does not get lumped together with the first three guaranteed years of Jeter’s contract and averaged out. The bonuses are reachable but some ($4M for AL MVP) are more reachable than others ($500k for Silver Slugger). They’re in the contract though, and the Yankees have to account for them. Could you imagine barely staying under the threshold all year only to have Jeter blow it up by winning the MVP or something? That would be hilarious.

Anyway, adding Jeter to the “under contract” guys gives us a guaranteed $94.4M for seven players, or $101.4M when accounting for the $7M in bonuses. That leaves the team $75.6M under the $177M “real” threshold to fill 33 40-man roster spots. Fifteen of those spots will go to the extra guys stashed in the minors, where they make much less than the big league minimum. I’ve seen those spots estimated anywhere from $2-5M total, so let’s stick with the high-end and be conservative. Now the Yankees are at $70.6M to fill 18 big league roster spots.

Barring something completely unexpected, a big chunk of that money will go to Cano. His tax hit could end up in the $20-25M range. Suddenly we go from $70.6M for 18 spots to $45.6M for 17 spots. If the Yankees trust Pineda in the rotation and go with Stewvelli behind the plate again, they could fill eight of those 17 spots on the cheap with the arbitration-eligible guys. Gardner, Robertson, and Nova will be the highest paid arb guys, but none will get more than $6M or so and Gardner’s the only one who will realistically approach $5M. That trio could pull in $15M total on the high end, the other five guys about $7-8M total, just spit-balling. That brings us to $22.6M for nine remaining roster spots.

To use his words, the pink elephant in the room here is A-Rod. If his suspension is overturned, he and his $27.5M tax hit — he’s only 13 homers away from his first $6M bonus, so the team would really have to prepared for a $33.5M tax hit — will be on the roster and splitting time between third base and DH. If his suspension is upheld and he misses the entire year (believed to be the most likely scenario, but who really knows?), suddenly the team has an extra $27.5M to play with. They will need a replacement third baseman, however. The difference between a suspension and no suspension is $22.6M for nine roster spots or $56.1M for ten roster spots. It’s the difference between digging through second tier free agents or going on a nice little free agent shopping spree in the winter.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the team re-signs Cano, Jeter picks up his option, and A-Rod does indeed wind up missing the entire season due to suspension. This is the roster they’d be looking at based on the guys they have under contract/control:

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Cervelli 1B Teixeira CF Gardner Sabathia Robertson
Stewart 2B Cano RF Ichiro Nova Kelley
SS Jeter LF Wells/Soriano Phelps Claiborne
3B Nix OF Mesa or Almonte Pineda Nuno/Warren
Designated Hitter IF Nunez Nuno/Warren Betances
Wells/Soriano IF Adams or Cruz ?
?

There’s plenty of room for improvement with that roster, so having that $56M-ish to spend is more necessity than luxury. A legitimate starting catcher, a starting third baseman, an outfielder better than Ichiro/Wells/Soriano, a veteran starting pitcher or two, and a handful of relievers would be on the offseason shopping list. If A-Rod is not suspended, they still need all of that stuff (except for a third baseman), but will have only half the money to spend.

The Yankees have an awful lot of cash coming off the books this offseason, which is a very good thing as far as the payroll plan is concerned. The downside to having that money free is all the holes they have to fill. There’s a reason all that money is available — a whole bunch of important, centerpiece-type players are becoming free agents. The offseason should be fun because there figures to be busy with lots of moves, but make no mistake: the Yankees are not in a good position to get under that luxury tax threshold and remain competitive if A-Rod misses anything less than the entire season.

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Jun
06

The importance of Mark Teixeira

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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees made a huge splash in the free-agent market back in 2009, landing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher (via a trade), and A.J. Burnett. Each player contributed in a huge way and helped the team bring the 27th World Series Championship back to New York. Teixeira, specifically, had a monster year in 2009 as he batted .292/.383/.565 (.402 wOBA, 142 wRC+) with 39 home runs. FanGraphs valued him at 4.9 WAR (trailing only Miguel Cabrera and Kevin Youkilis among AL first baseman).

Since then, Yankee fans have watched Teixeira steadily decline. Over the past few seasons he’s become increasingly one-dimensional offensively even though his defense has remained very reliable. He’s been far more prone to hitting the ball down the first base line (presumably aiming for that enticing short porch), which in turn, has made him increasingly more susceptible to the defensive shift. Consequently, his batting average has ticked downward by about 40 points from where he has historically hovered prior to coming to New York. Discouragingly, we’ve also seen Tex struggle against right handers the past few seasons as well (last season he batted .239 as LH batter verse righties, .224 in 2011, .244 in 2010, and .282 in 2009), and then show an unwillingness to adapt his approach.

Fortunately for the Yankees, they haven’t exactly been hurting for offense for the last decade or so. During Tex’s tenure in pinstripes alone, the Yankees have been among the top three teams in all of baseball in terms of wOBA and wRC+. At least until now; 2013 is a new animal altogether. For the first time in what seems like forever, the offense is most certainly not the strength of the team. The Yankees rank 21st in AVG, 19th in wOBA, 24th in wRC+, 19th in K%, and 19th in BB%. Ironically, the only offensive category that the Yankees favorably crack the top 10 in this season so far is in home runs (68 in total, eighth best in MLB — so much for the #toomanyhomers meme).

This is where Tex steps in, and where I personally think he could play a huge role if he can rebound a bit. Immediately, he (and Youkilis) will provide some additional patience to the lineup. As of now, the Yankees have averaged 3.79 pitches per plate appearances – for perspective, 2012′s squad averaged 3.89 Pit/PA, 3.92 in 2011, 3.92 in 2010, and 3.88 in 2009. Power and patience. That’s the Yankees model. It works, and Tex knows how to do it.

With Vernon Wells cooling off and Travis Hafner always one step away from injury, Robinson Cano has been forced to shoulder much of the load in the power department. Home runs are always a good thing and one part of Tex’s game that has always been solid is deep out-of-the-park hits. With a little luck, it may help stem the tide a bit further until the rest of the Walking Wounded return. A few consecutive singles are nice. They’re even nicer when a 4o0-foot blast brings them home.

Additionally, Cano, Lyle Overbay, Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson and Hafner are really all the Yankees have for left-handed threats. Gardner’s been better of late with the bat, but he’s not the guy who’ll be driving in runs nor is that his role. Given Ichiro‘s struggles, Granderson’s injury, and Hafner’s durability concerns, it’ll be very nice to add another guy capable of batting left-handed. Even if Tex’s splits this season are similar to his last few, he’ll also still likely be an offensive upgrade over Overbay (despite the fact that Overbay is having a great year by his standards thus far). Moreover, having another switch-hitter available provides that much more lineup flexibility for Girardi.

Defensively, Tex provides some options too. As we’ve seen the last few days, Overbay could get some opportunities in right field, which will help mitigate Ichiro’s exposure. When Overbay is at first, Tex can give Pronk a spell at DH which provides him rest and aligns him closer to the situational hitting role he was originally hired for. This also limits the need for Youkilis at first on the depth chart, which can only help given his injury tendencies. Third base and shortstop are still points of concern, but that was basically always the case. At least with Tex at first, you know some of those inevitable throwing errors to first may have a chance of being erased.

The Yankees have done a fantastic job of not just staying alive, but staying competitive with role players while some of their headliner names have been side-lined. However, some of these role players (i.e. Jayson Nix, David Adams, Wells, Overbay) are clearly playing above their norms, or in some cases, have already begun to be exposed. Who knows how long the team can continue to win with these guys starting all the time. Now that some of the marquee players are beginning to return from their various injuries, it’s time for them to step up and contribute. Hopefully they’ll be able to sustain the success, and be a lot less likely to falter down the road. I hope Tex gets the ball the rolling.

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(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

The Yankees 2013 offseason was “interesting,” to say the least.  It involved a couple big names departing to greener pastures Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and several apparent retreads joining the NY ranks in their stead.

Among these acquired castoffs was Vernon Wells, who the Yankees – in seeming desperation – elected to pay $13.9M over the course of the next two seasons (though the bulk of the money owed was front-loaded to 2013).  This was despite Vernon’s rash of injuries and meager .258 on-base percentage over the prior two seasons (apparently his 2011 .248 OBP was the lowest among all outfielders with at least 500 plate appearances since 1904 … so there’s that).  To put it mildly, most of us had our doubts about the deal on a lot of levels.

However, as John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman vehemently claim, “You simply cannot predict baseball!”  Wells had recovered from his varying ailments (a torn ligament in his right thumb most notably), he focused on improving his offensive production by applying a shorter, more direct swing — all of which would presumably be enhanced by the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

By mid-April, Vernon was batting in the heart of the order to the tune of .300/.366/.544 with six home runs.  He was looking like a rejuvenated version of his former self and an early Comeback Player of the Year candidate — all while inadvertently making Cashman look less like a ninja and more like a genius.

May has been somewhat of a different story though.  Consider the grid below, compliments of Baseball-Reference.

Split G GS AB R H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS GDP BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
2013 Totals 49 46 186 24 49 6 0 10 4 2 14 29 .263 .313 .457 .770 4 .264 100 112
Last 7 days 5 5 22 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .091 .091 .091 .182 1 .111 -51 -49
Last 14 days 11 10 43 3 6 2 0 0 0 1 1 9 .140 .159 .186 .345 1 .176 -8 -4
Last 28 days 24 22 92 10 21 2 0 4 2 2 4 14 .228 .260 .380 .641 2 .230 66 76
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/29/2013.

The numbers aren’t pretty, which is particularly hard to stomach considering he’s the guy often times backing up Robinson Cano in the lineup.  A quick glance at Vernon’s April and May spray charts (provided by Texas Leaguers) confirms what our eyes have witnessed these past few weeks: he’s been hitting into far more ground outs in May (23%) then he did in April (12.87%).  There have been far more ground outs hit towards the second baseman as well than there were last month - so it’s not like he is getting overly pull happy either (not that that would necessarily help him in NY).

vw spray chart aprvw spray chart

In terms of the ground outs, it’s possible some of his May struggles have been exasperated by an atrocious BAbip  (considering his career norm is .279).  I’m leery of over-simplifying BAbip to the term “luck,” but regardless of how one wants to define the stat, Vernon has certainly not been the benefactor.  Even if his stats do regress to what we’ve seen over the past few seasons from him, Vernon’s BAbip would still qualify as unusually low.  Eventually, some of these balls should get through the defense.  And considering that his recent struggles are by very definition inherently limited in sample size, it wouldn’t take much to get those numbers moving back in the right direction.

For what it’s worth, Texas Leaguers shows us that opposing pitchers will have thrown approximately the same amount of fastballs (fastballs including both two and four-seamers, cut fastballs, and split-fingered fastballs) by month’s end as they did in April.  As to be expected, the vast majority of the fastballs seen were four seamers, and in that particular category he’s been proportionately only a few percentage points less effective at putting the ball in play in May (24.5%) than he was in April (29.6% in play) — nothing super drastic – though it is worth noting that opposing pitchers have been throwing more for strikes this month than last.  The problem is the balls he is making contact with are simply not being hit well.

Anecdotally, there is also the possibility that his stance has opened up a bit again, thus resulting in longer swings.  This would result in less time to see (and swing at) the pitch, which could explain the uptick in weaker ground outs. Perhaps he needs to re-explore the adjustments he made in the offseason.  If he’s not seeing the pitches as well, it’d make sense that he’d be hitting the ball with less conviction more often.  This could be the kind of  “quick fix” solution that resolves itself overnight.  Unfortunately, that’s also the type of mechanical flaw that I’m sure both he and Kevin Long are constantly watching for and are proactively trying to prevent.  It also strikes me as weird that he could go suddenly to different ends of the spectrum against a certain type of pitch.

So where does this leave us?  Has Vernon turned back into the pumpkin (or worse) that most of us expected from day one, or is this just an unfortunate slump (that is being brought to attention a bit more than it probably should be given the team’s overall offensive struggles of late)?  Frankly, it’s too soon to make any meaningful conclusion.  At this juncture, this is merely an observation that’s worth keeping an eye on.  If we find ourselves watching a still-struggling Wells come the All Star break, we’ll probably know where things are heading though.  In the meantime, let’s hope get can keep it together at least until Curtis Granderson‘s able to return.

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(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Robinson Cano‘s impending free agency is going to be the rain cloud hovering over the Yankees’ heads this season. Sorta like CC Sabathia‘s opt-out clause two seasons ago, how it was always looming in the back of everyone’s mind. The club’s situation is much less dire two years ago though. We all knew the Yankees were going to go all-out to re-sign their ace when he did use — or in reality, threatened to use — the opt-out. If Sabathia signed elsewhere, it would not have been due to a lack of effort on the team’s part.

The calculus has changed quite a bit in those two years. The Collective Bargaining Agreement put in place last winter offers (substantial) rewards for staying under the luxury tax and the Yankees are doing all they can to take advantage, even though it harms their ability to contend. Hal Steinbrenner has a knack for saying they will continue to field a championship-caliber team, but actions speak louder than words. The current catching situation is not championship-caliber. The bench is not championship-caliber. Wilfully slashing payroll for the sake of maximizing profit is not something someone committed to fielding a championship-caliber team does.

Anyway, that desire to spend less on the team will impact the Yankees’ ability to retain Cano next offseason. Robbie hired Scott Boras two years ago and players do not hire Boras that close to free agency unless they’re looking for a huge payday. Cano is a star and he will want to be paid like one. It’s only fair. With the free-spending Dodgers looming and other contenders like the Tigers and Cardinals potentially in need of second base help, Boras shouldn’t have much trouble finding suitors for his client.

The Yankees know as well as anyone that long-term contracts to players on the wrong side of 30 have a tendency to go sour in a hurry. All they have to do is look at Alex Rodriguez for the worst case scenario, but Jason Giambi — who was more productive in pinstripes than he gets credit for — is a cautionary tale as well. Just look around the league and you’ll see scary long-term commitments to 30-somethings either going wrong or on the verge of going wrong. Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Alfonso Soriano … those clubs would like a do-over on every one of those contracts.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

Cano, who turned 30 in October, is theoretically at even greater risk of sharp decline because of his position. Second baseman take a pounding at the bag due to the blind double play pivot, something that “is even reflected in the number of uniforms their clubs have to buy for them” according to former Dodgers GM Dan Evans. To Cano’s credit, he has been extremely durable, playing in no fewer than 159 games in each of the last six seasons. We have to remember that A-Rod was once just as durable, playing in 154+ games in seven straight years before starting to break down in 2008.

According to bWAR, Robbie has been not only the most valuable position player in baseball over the last three years, but also the most valuable player period, including pitchers. His career 34.8 bWAR is the tenth highest in history among second basemen through their age 29 season. He’s been brilliant these last few years, no doubt about it, but his next contract won’t be paying him for past performance. It’ll be paying him for expected future performance, and that’s where it gets tricky.

There have been a total of 20 non-first base infielders to post between 30-40 bWAR through their age 29 season. There are 13 40+ bWAR guys and they’re all all-time greats (A-Rod, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, etc.), but I want to look at players similar to Cano. Two of those 30-40 bWAR guys (Dustin Pedroia and David Wright) are too young to tell us anything, but here are how the others performed before their age 30 season, during their age 30 season, and then after their age 30s season.

<30 WAR Age 30 WAR 31+ WAR
Rod Carew 39.8 6.5 30.3
Nomar Garciaparra 39.7 1.1 1.2
Chuck Knoblauch 38.9 3.3 -0.2
Bobby Grich 38.8 5.7 22.8
Derek Jeter 38.7 4.1 26.5
Adrian Beltre 38.4 3.0 19.7
Lou Whitaker 37.3 3.5 30.6
Willie Randolph 37.2 3.8 22.0
Chipper Jones 36.9 5.5 39.1
Ryne Sandberg 36.0 6.9 22.0
Sal Brado 35.6 4.5 17.0
Barry Larkin 33.5 3.8 29.8
Chase Utley 33.0 8.0 12.3
Eric Chavez 32.9 0.1 1.0
Rico Petrocelli 32.6 2.3 0.8
Jimmy Rollins 32.0 1.6 6.7
Robin Ventura 31.4 5.5 15.4

The majority of those guys actually held their value well beyond their age 30 season. There will always been some decline, that’s inevitable, but for the most part they’ve been solid. There are some complete collapses — Nomar, Knoblauch, Chavez, and Petrocelli — in there to serve as the harsh reminder of what could happen as well.

Looking specifically at the second baseman, Carew had begun the transition to first base during his age 29 season and was playing there full-time by 30. Knoblauch was done as a second baseman at 31. Grich, Whitaker, Randolph, and Sandberg all stayed at the position full-time until the end of their careers. Utley, 33, is breaking down but still a full-time second baseman. Roberto Alomar, who was slightly above my arbitrary 40 bWAR cutoff point, was a star up until age 33 before completely cratering. He was a full-time second baseman the entire time.

There is nothing we can to do to predict how Cano will age. We can look at aging curves and compare him to similar players and all sorts of stuff, but there’s just no way to know. He could prosper (Whitaker), he could turn into a pumpkin (Knoblauch), he could do something in the middle (Randolph), or he could do something else entirely. Cano’s durability is reassuring … until you consider all the wear-and-tear could manifest itself in an instant. The uncertainty is what makes a potential long-term deal so scary.

Back in August 2011, I spit-balled the idea of a six-year, $120M-ish contract extension that covered the 2012-2017 seasons, or Robbie’s age 29-34 seasons. I have a hard time seeing Cano and Boras accepting those terms right now. The new CBA changed the marketplace, specifically by limiting spending on amateur players and therefore pumping more money in the big league marketplace. Add in the Dodgers factor and Robbie could be looking at Prince Fielder money (nine years, $214M) with a 2013 season that resembles his 2010-2012 efforts. That is a scary thought.

Cano is an elite player and he will be paid accordingly next winter. That’s not much of a question. The real question is how long will he remain an elite player? How long will he stay at second? One more season? Two? Four? No one knows. The Yankees already have two big albatross contracts on their hands in A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, and it’s likely only a matter of time before Sabathia joins them. Adding a fourth albatross could be crippling, especially if ownership won’t budge from their plan to stay under the luxury tax threshold. I have no reason to believe they will.

As great as Cano is right now, the Yankees need to avoid repeating history and shooting themselves in the foot with another big contract for a declining player on the wrong side of 30. The Cardinals are doing just fine without Pujols, just like the Rays are doing just fine without Carl Crawford. Texas doesn’t miss Teixeira at all. There is a price at which the Yankees should be willing to keep Cano — four years, $100M? five years, $130M? — but in this new age of “fiscal responsibility,” the Yankees can’t act like they used too. Hard and potentially unpopular decisions will have to be made.

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Feb
04

2013 Yankees ZiPS Projections

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2013 NYY ZiPS

Dan Szymborski released his 2013 Yankees ZiPS projections this morning, and the graphic above shows rounded WAR projections for the team’s key players. You can click the image for a larger view, but the smaller version seems legible enough to me and my eyes are terrible. Either way, the option is there for you.

Anywho, the totals in the graphic add up to 40 WAR, putting the team’s projected finish somewhere in the 87-89 win range. That definitely passes the sniff test and seems very reasonable to me, but unfortunately it’s probably not enough to qualify for the postseason (even as the second wildcard). In case you’re wondering, ZiPS projected the Yankees as a 95-win team last season and they wound up winning … 95 games. How about that.

You can click the link to look at the projected stat lines (and player comparisons!) for everyone on the roster as well as more than a handful of prospects. ZiPS believes Gary Sanchez could manage a .230/.277/.411 (.298 wOBA) batting line (nice ISO!) if the Yankees stuck him in the big leagues right now, which is the best projected offense from the team’s catchers, sadly. The system has Austin Romine (.289 wOBA), Bobby Wilson (.279), Chris Stewart (.278), and Frankie Cervelli (.274) as well-below-average producers. Yikes.

Brett Gardner has been worth roughly 5 WAR per 150 games in his career thanks to his defense, and the 2 WAR projection has more to do with playing time (342 plate appearances) than performance decline (.259/.355/.362, .327 wOBA). If he manages to stay healthy all year — something that is not a given, obviously — he could get the team from 88 wins to 90 wins all by himself. ZiPS sees the starting outfield combining for 46 total homers, or three more than Curtis Granderson hit by himself last summer. Juan Rivera has the best projection (.307 wOBA) of the complementary right-handed bat options.

The Yankees added only two new position players this winter, Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner. ZiPS has Youkilis at .256/.360/.464 (.355 wOBA) with 20 homers in 475 plate appearances while Pronk checks in at .258/.351/.452 (.342 wOBA) with 13 homers in 322 plate appearances. I’d be very happy with those slash lines for both players, but my fingers will be crossed in hopes of keeping them healthy. Dan Johnson is a little further behind at .235/.332/.409 (.320 wOBA).

On the pitching side, only CC Sabathia (202.1) and Hiroki Kuroda (186) project to throw more than 170 innings. Sabathia is the only starter with a projected sub-4.00 ERA at 3.60, but Andy Pettitte comes pretty close (4.08 ERA). ZiPS doesn’t see Phil Hughes having a big contract year (4.73 ERA in 156 IP) nor does it see a big rebound from Ivan Nova (4.86 ERA in 167 IP). The system has Michael Pineda pegged for a 4.43 ERA (4.29 FIP) in 120 post-shoulder surgery innings, which is just a touch worse than league average. I’d be pretty encouraged by that kind of performance heading into 2014.

I guess I should stick the standard disclaimer here: projections are not predictions, they’re an attempt to measure a player’s true talent level. ZiPS is not saying Robinson Cano will post a .368 wOBA next year, just that he’s capable of doing so. Injury, good or bad luck, all sorts of stuff will impact his actual performance. The Blue Jays currently project for 92-94 wins while the Rays are at 88-90 wins, so the Yankees are looking at a fight for second place at the moment. Red Sox and Orioles projections are forthcoming. That said, I do think the division will be a lot tighter than expected. The ugly ALCS exit seems to have everyone way down on the Yankees.

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(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

By OPS+, Curtis Granderson had the seventh-worst 40+ homer season in baseball history last year. That’s kind of a silly thing to say because a 116 OPS+ is still really good, but it was well-below the 142 OPS+ he managed one season ago. The performance drop was most notable in the second half, when Granderson hit .212/.278/.480 (98 wRC+) with a 31.8% strikeout after managing a 130 wRC+ (25.9 K%) in the first half. His postseason performance, as you know, was abysmal (-9 wRC+ and 48.5 K%).

Granderson will turn 32 in March and he’s right on the prime years bubble — you would expect his performance to start to slip naturally due to age, but you wouldn’t expect it to completely crater yet either. I know he’s done it two years in row now, but I have a hard time expecting Granderson to hit 40+ homers against this coming season. He certainly has the ballpark going for him and it’s not like his power (.260 ISO) was a concern last year, but hitting 40+ homers in a season is a very tough thing to do. Doing it three times in a row, regardless of age, is damn near impossible. He seems like a lock for 30+ if he stays healthy, however.

Despite his age and the unlikelihood of another 40+ dinger season, there are some reasons to expect Granderson’s overall performance to rebound a bit next season. The big one is his .260 BABIP, which was a career-worst and well-below his career .305 mark despite a career-high line drive rate and his lowest fly ball rate in five years. Batted ball data is fickle and one man’s line drive is another’s fly ball, but the important thing is that he was not hitting the ball in the air more than he had previously in 2012. Balls hit in the air turn into outs relatively easily, yet Granderson had no significant change in his batted ball profile.

Now, it’s worth nothing that the career .305 BABIP number probably isn’t a great frame of reference. Granderson, as you know, overhauled his swing mechanics with Kevin Long in August 2010 and from that point through the end of the 2011 season, he managed a .292 BABIP. It’s not a huge difference but it’s a difference nonetheless. I’m more comfortable using the .292 as his baseline BABIP rather than the .305. Either way, there will hopefully be a little correction coming in 2013. It won’t be a ton, but getting the BABIP back up to .290 or so should be enough to get his average out of the .230s and back into the .250s and .260s. Add in his typically high walk rate (11.0% in 2012) and that should get his OBP back into the .350-ish range.

Another thing worth noting is that Granderson was behind in the count more than usual last season as pitchers threw him a first pitch strike 55.7% of the time, his highest mark as a Yankee. The difference in expected outcomes between falling behind 0-1 and jumping ahead 1-0 is enormous for all players, Curtis included. Granderson always works deep counts — his 4.27 pitches per plate appearance rate was the fifth highest in baseball last year — and he tends to take the first pitch, so it might be worth it to get a little aggressive this year and jump on a few first pitch fastballs in 2013. That obviously isn’t something that will just happen on its own like BABIP magic, Granderson (with some help from Long) will have to work on it.

Since he’s due to become a free agent next offseason, it would behoove Curtis to have a really strong season in 2013. His power will get him paid regardless, but getting those batting average and on-base numbers back to their pre-2012 levels could be the difference between a Cody Ross contract (three years, $26M) and a Nick Swisher contract (four years, $56M), for example. I do think that if Granderson had been with another club last year or the last two years or whatever, we’d be talking about him as a bounceback candidate the Yankees should look to acquire in a trade. The Yankees are going to need the power production this summer after losing Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, but if I could get greedy for a moment, it would be really awesome if Curtis put together a huge walk year overall as well.

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(Tasos Katopodis/Getty)

Kevin Youkilis is famous for many reasons, including his rather unique batting stance. He bounces around with his hands separated and high above his head … it’s not something you would teach to kids in little league. Let’s put it that way. It worked for him so it stuck, but that’s going to change next season. With his production declining, Youkilis and hitting coach Kevin Long have examined some old tape and worked on a new setup this offseason.

“We looked at old film and compared it to 2012,” said Long to Dan Martin earlier this month. “We saw some considerable differences, mainly in his stance and it looked like the adjustments had an impact … I think we can get him back to being an all-star caliber player.”

Jack Curry followed up by reporting that the specific adjustments include a wider base and deeper crouch at the plate, as well as a lower hand position. Dropping hands is a classic adjustment made by older players losing bat speed because it helps get them into the hitting position sooner. Rather than having to bring his hands down and then start to load the swing, Youkilis’ hands will already be down and require less movement to begin his load. Make sense? It cuts out a step. The wider stance, on the other hand, creates a bigger base and helps balance. Albert Pujols has a very wide base at the plate, for example.

Since Youkilis has continued to annihilate left-handed pitching in recent years, I assume these changes are geared towards helping him hang in better against right-handers. With some help from the indispensable Baseball Heat Maps, here are Youk’s heat maps against right-handed hitters over the last three seasons…

I highly recommend clicking the image for a larger view, but from left to right that’s 2010, 2011, and 2012. The red is good (above average production on pitches in those spots), the blue is bad (below average), and the green is about neutral (average). Youkilis has always been a dead pull hitter, so it’s not a surprise that he’s had the least success on outside pitches these last three years. You can kinda see the blue spots gradually drop within the strike zone over the years, which makes sense given the position of his hands and the assumed loss of bat speed. He simply has a long way to go to reach those pitches and can’t do it as well as he once did.

Here’s the thing though: Youkilis never was and most likely never will be someone who can consistently take that outside pitch the other way. He’ll do it on occasion, no doubt about it, but given his struggles against down-and-away pitches last year, the goal is more along the lines of “well at least now he has a chance.” If Long and Youkilis can do enough that those down-and-away pitches become something other than automatic swings and misses, it should help him get better pitches to hit because we know he has the eye to lay off stuff out of the zone and can still do an okay job against pitches on the inner half.

The Yankees were painted into a bit of a corner a few weeks ago when news of Alex Rodriguez‘s hip injury broke, as the free agent third base options included Youkilis, Mark Reynolds, and a bunch of utility infielders. They opted for the most accomplished of the bunch, but unfortunately they’re not acquiring the Youkilis of 2008-2010. He’s still a serviceable hitter though, especially against left-handers, and it’s good to see he and Long are putting in work this offseason in an attempt to improve his overall production. Long as helped turn Curtis Granderson into one of the game’s best power hitters and Robinson Cano into an elite all-around hitter, now all he has to do is get Youkilis back to being himself.

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