As we near the end of Retro Week at RAB, I thought I’d take a look at one of the unsung heroes of the early-90s Yankee teams, a man who seemed to go entirely underappreciated despite putting up several very strong pinstriped campaigns: the immortal Danny Tartabull.
Tartabull, born to Cuban parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the third round of the 1980 amateur draft. He turned in two productive seasons in Rookie and A-ball, but struggled a bit after being promoted to the Reds’ AA affiliate. Following the 1982 season, he was selected by the Mariners as a free agent compensation pick, according to Baseball-Reference. Apparently teams could do that back in the day.
However, “struggled” is probably a bit unfair — he only really struggled by virtue of the fact that he managed a .774 OPS at AA after a .954 the year prior in Single-A. Additionally, it should be noted that Tartabull walked eighty-nine times in 126 games at AA and had an IsoD of .139, so even though his BA and SLG declined rather precipitously, his batting eye was outstanding and remained that way throughout his career.
He spent the 1983 season rediscovering his power stroke, and finally got a taste of the show in 1984, receiving 24 plate appearances for Seattle at age 21 at the end of the season. It all seemed to come together for Tartabull the following year, as he spent the 1985 season utterly annihilating AAA to the tune of a .300/.385/.615 line over 546 PAs, during which time he clubbed forty-three home runs and won the Pacific Coast League MVP. Tartabull was rewarded with a September call-up for a second-straight year and hit to a Jesus Montero-esque .413 wOBA over 69 PAs.
Tartabull stayed in the bigs for good, breaking camp with the Mariners in 1986 and posting a robust .361 wOBA during his first full season in the Majors. After the season the M’s shipped Tartabull (along with reliever Rick Luecken) to Kansas City for starter Scott Bankhead, outfielder Mike Kingery and reliever Steve Shields. Shields only lasted one season in Seattle and was out of baseball after 1989; Kingery posted an exactly league average year in 1987 but was a decidedly below-average hitter for the majority of the remainder of his career; while Bankhead turned in two strong seasons and two injury-shortened campaigns in Seattle before leaving as a free agent in 1991.
Unfortunately for Seattle, Tartabull absolutely killed it in Kansas City, turning in a .392 wOBA (145 wRC+) from 1987-1991, which was the fifth-highest wOBA in all of baseball during that five-year period. The Bull parlayed his outstanding production into a big-time contract with the Yankees, who signed the then-29-year-old to a five-year, $25.5 million deal which made him the fifth-highest-paid player in baseball at the time.
Interestingly, the Yankee 1991-1992 offseason apparently bore some striking similarities to this past winter’s. From YES’s own Jack Curry in a January 7, 1992, story in The New York Times:
After two months of offseason lethargy and front-office chaos, the New York Yankees emerged Monday with a $25.5 million free-agent outfielder and a suddenly voracious appetite for the trade market.
In a quick move that surprised fans and baseball people alike and reminded many people of George Steinbrenner`s previous spending sprees, the Yankees signed slugger Danny Tartabull to a $25.5 million contract just after midnight on Monday.
But by making a splash in the free-agent market and promising Monday that more roster changes were imminent, the Yankees indicated that their club philosophy had been altered and additional transactions are expected before spring training.
Now that Tartabull is signed, the Yankees have a surplus of outfielders, and Michael will almost certainly try to peddle Jesse Barfield for a pitcher or a third baseman.
Michael is reluctant to trade Roberto Kelly, who is very marketable. Mel Hall is a left-handed hitter, and that makes him valuable at Yankee Stadium, especially if the Yankees get a right-handed-hitting third baseman, such as Montreal`s Tim Wallach.
The Yankees ended up holding onto Barfield, who played one more season in pinstripes (putting up a heinous 21 OPS+ in 105 PAs) before retiring, and Curry wound up being a year early on Kelly, who of course was famously traded after the 1992 season for Paul O’Neill.
For his part, Tartabull lived up to his contract during his first two years in the Bronx, posting an outstanding .397 wOBA in 1992 — 4th-best in the American League that season — and a very good .376 in 1993. His production dipped some in the strike-shortened 1994 — a .358 wOBA in 470 PAs — but he really fell off in 1995, hitting to a paltry .321 wOBA through 59 games before the Yankees shipped him out to the A’s for Ruben Sierra.
All in all, Danny Tartabull was a pretty solid Yankee, posting a .370 wOBA (127 wRC+) during his three-and-a-half seasons in pinstripes. However, he was arguably only the third-best hitter on the team during that time frame, despite getting paid as if he were the best, and this — along with his precipitous decline from 1994-1995 — is presumably why he’s seemingly never been all that fondly reminisced by Yankee fans. Well, except for my brother, who is very likely the only person in the world with a customized “TARTABULL 45″ name-and-number tee. (Yankee fans familiar with the all-time SNES classic, 1994′s Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, also likely have warm memories of Tartabull, who was an absolute BEAST in that 16-bit classic).
Still, a closer look at his pinstriped career reveals a player who was pretty much the ideal Yankee — Danny Tartabull got on base with the best of them, posting a terrific 16% BB% (he finished his 14-year career with a 13.1% BB%; for reference Alex Rodriguez has an 11% career BB%, though he’s also played four more seasons) that helped fuel an excellent .372 OBP; and he hit for power, posting a .221 ISO and .473 SLG. So in essence, Tartabull was basically Nick Swisher, with even more walks and a touch less power.
Tartabull was traded to the White Sox for the 1996 season and had a reasonable bounceback year with a .353 wOBA, which he then parlayed into a one-year deal with the Phillies. Tartabull played in all of three games for the Phils in April of 1997 before fouling a ball off his toe which somehow caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Tartabull retired after the season, culminating a largely underrated career in which he swatted 266 bombs and posted a very respectable .377 wOBA and 132 wRC+.
Despite the apparent mutual dislike between Tartabull and the Bronx — he was quoted as saying “I feel like I’ve been released from jail” following being traded for Sierra — the statistician in me is happy to have had him on the Yankees, especially as the team began to emerge from the darkest period in franchise history.
Among the many wonderful things about being a baseball fan are the bizarre attachments one tends to form — generally as a youngster — toward relatively obscure players who don’t end up doing anything noteworthy. Yet because you were seven years old and had their baseball card, they’re indelibly seared in your mind.
As a young Yankee fan whose earliest memories of the team begin around the 1988 season, I had to not only contend with scores of my Met-fan peers deriding me (it seems crazy now, but the Mets actually did at one time rule the baseball landscape in New York City), but also grow fond of an incredibly uninspiring and lackluster group of players. The franchise’s nadir (the 1990 squad is among the worst in team history, with the third-most losses of any Yankee team; and the 1989 through 1992 seasons represents arguably the worst consecutive four-year stretch in franchise history) coincided with my burgeoning obsession with the team.
Now, not everyone who played for the Yankees during the dark years was terrible. Like most Yankee fans my age, Don Mattingly was my favorite player growing up, and we were also treated to…um…hmm…well, at least we had Donnie Baseball. Rickey Henderson actually posted several incredible years for the Yanks (from 1985-1988 he was actually better than D. Baseball, with a .405 wOBA, 154 wRC+ and 28.4 fWAR across nearly 2,500 plate appearances), though given his non-homegrown-ness I don’t recall ever truly warming up to ol’ Rickey. Willie Randolph showed impressive plate discipline before walks were even in vogue, but no pop at all; while Dave Winfield, though offensively robust, seemed aloof and unrelatable. Outside of these stalwarts, the talent level of the Yankee offensive corps around this time ranged from reasonable (Jack Clark, Andy Stankiewicz, Jesse Barfield) to wholly unacceptable (Alvaro Espinoza, Pat Kelly, Randy Velarde, Bob Geren).
At some point within that 1989-1992 four-year period my dad took me to a Yankees-Mets exhibition game at Yankee Stadium. Back in the day the Yankees and Mets played an annual set of exhibition games under several different banners (among them “Big Apple Series,” “Mayor’s Trophy Game” and “Mayor’s Challenge”), and being that the Mets were the superior team at the time I remember thinking that these contests were a pretty big deal. Given how poor the Yankees’ plight was at the time, something as silly as bragging rights based on the outcome of a couple of exhibition games actually held some meaning. I have tried in vain to locate the actual date and boxscore of the game I attended, but as this was pre-internet there doesn’t seem to be anything definitive regarding the Yankees’ old spring training schedules out there. (Note: The Yankees and Mets are actually playing each other this spring on April 3rd and 4th, marking the first time the teams will have met in spring training since 1996).
The one thing I can tell you is that I distinctly remember being beyond excited to get to see Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens play in person. At the time I seem to recall Meulens — signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent in 1985 — was being hyped as the Yankees’ next big homegrown power bat, in case you couldn’t tell by the fact that his nickname was “Bam Bam.” Based on Meulens’ 1990 season, in which he obliterated AAA to the tune of a .285/.376/.510 line over 559 PAs and earned him a September call-up (not to mention the International League MVP) that saw him hit a slightly more modest-but-still-reasonable .241/.337/.434 (115 OPS+) in 95 PAs, I’m almost certain the Yankee-Met game I attended would have been held in the spring of 1991, on the heels of Meulens’ breakout year. Otherwise I have no idea how I’d have even been aware of him.
Anyway, the only thing I remember from the game is that Meulens did in fact hit a home run (I think the Yankees won, but again, we’re talking over 20 years ago), seemingly cementing his status — along with, of course, Kevin Maas, who also broke out in the latter half of 1990 — as the next big homegrown Yankee player.
Unfortunately for Meulens (and Yankee fans), his first full season in pinstripes was a disaster. After breaking camp with the team, Meulens stayed in the bigs the entire year, but his wretched .222/.276/.319 (65 OPS+) line across 313 PAs limited him to action in only 96 team games (in a move right out of the Joe Torre managing handbook, the right-handed Meulens’ struggles against right-handed pitching — which apparently dominated the American League in 1991 — opened the door for more playing time for veteran Mel Hall). Meulens was demoted to Columbus for the 1992 season and, despite hitting .275/.352/.481 in 603 AAA plate appearances, stayed in the minors the entire year save two late September games in the Bronx. I suppose the team was pleased with Charlie Hayes’ .257/.297/.409 line (97 OPS+) at the hot corner that season, although Meulens must have really fallen out of favor to have languished in AAA the entire year.
Meulens never recovered. In 1993 he again began the year at AAA, got called to the Bronx in late May, hit .170/.279/.340 over 61 PAs, and was demoted again two months later. Meulens finished the 1993 season at AAA Columbus, ultimately posting the weakest line of his min0r-league career. The Yankees released him in November of 1993, and he played in Japan from 1994-1996. Meulens headed back to the U.S. prior to the 1997 season, signing with the Braves, who released him during spring training, and then latching on with the Expos.
Meulens again spent most of the 1997 season at AAA, putting up a fine .274/.369/.501 line, and did the most he could with very limited playing time in another September call-up (.292/.379/.583 in 29 PAs), but was released at the end of the year. He spent most of the 1998 season with the Diamondbacks’ AAA squad before being traded to the White Sox at the 1998 trade deadline. However, for reasons I can’t sort out, he only played in two games for Chicago’s AAA affiliate after the trade, so presumably he was injured for the majority of the remainder of the season.
Hensley Meulens never stepped to the plate in the Major Leagues again after May 14, 1998, thus closing the book on the MLB career of a man whose power was supposed to have been legend but who ultimately only swatted 15 big league home runs. Per Wikipedia, Meulens subsequently spent time with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League in 1999; made one last stop in Asia, playing 14 games with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization and batting only .196; then headed to the Mexican League with the Saraperos de Saltillo in 2001; and finally retired, in 2002, after a mid-season injury while playing with the Pericos de Puebla. In the ensuing years Meulens has since carved out a successful career as a Minor and Major League coach, and currently serves as the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, with whom he won a ring in 2010.
Happily, Meulens seems to be at peace with his place as a hitter in a baseball history. Last July he was quoted in the aforelinked Wall Street Journal story:
Meulens, meanwhile, met a similar fate. A native of Curacao, he was nicknamed “Bam Bam” for the staggering power that produced—legend has it—500-foot home runs in varied minor-league towns. “That’s no exaggeration,” says Ralph Kraus, Meulens’s teammate at Class A Prince William in 1987. “I’d never seen anyone hit balls as far as he did.”
Yet for all his oomph, Meulens never adjusted to major-league pitching. In 288 at-bats in 1991, he hit six home runs while striking out 97 times. “It was my fault,” says Meulens, who now works—somewhat ironically—as the San Francisco Giants’ hitting coach. “I was a highly touted prospect who never figured it all out. That’s on me.” Like (Kevin) Maas, he was eventually released.
Not that you ever want to see anyone fail, but it’s refreshing to see Meulens own up to his struggles, and I’m glad he’s found his calling back in the big leagues.
About a year ago I took a look at Mark Teixeira’s curveball problem. While anyone who watched Tex hit in 2010 didn’t need an elaborate post telling them he struggled against the curve, it bore watching as he had posted above-average run values versus the curveball in his two seasons prior. 2010 was also a down year for Tex against the fastball, as he posted a five-year low (a mere 7.3 runs above average) against a pitch he punished to the tune of 38.8 runs above average a mere two years earlier.
Tex found himself back in Yankee fans’ crosshairs again last week, after suggesting that he might try bunting from the left side of the plate this coming season in a misguided attempt to beat the shift. Brien Jackson at IIATMS noted that the shift isn’t the real problem, William Juliano published a typically comprehensive look at Tex’s offensive numbers from both sides of the plate hitting to different fields, and TYA’s Michael Eder pondered whether Tex bunting would actually work.
Today I thought I’d take a slightly different tack and dive into how pitchers are attacking Mark Teixeira, left-handed hitter. The good news for Tex is that he improved his performance against the fastball this season (although wFF numbers are cumulative from both sides of the plate), fininishing the year at 12.3 runs above average. Still, this is a far cry from the heady days of wFF numbers in the high-20s. Unfortunately for Tex, his woes against the curveball continued in 2011, and he actually tied for the 9th-worst wCU/100 mark in the American League. So what’s going on with Tex against the curve? The below chart shows various outcomes for Tex against the curveball when hitting from the left side of the plate (data c/o both TexasLeaguers.com and JoeLefkowitz.com):
Following the curve’s whopping success against left-handed Tex in 2010, righties slightly increased the number of hooks they threw the Yankee slugger last season, from 11.2% to 11.8%. Now obviously we’re talking about a pretty small rise, but with Tex also seeing significantly fewer four-seamers than he did in 2009 (46.4% down to 38.1%), the minimal increase carries a bit more weight.
Right-handers threw the curve less frequently for strikes in 2011, but Tex still swung at them with essentially the same frequency as the previous year. He hit them in the air more frequently than he had previously as a Yankee (no surprise given his predilection for popping out to the infield), fouled them off slightly more frequently, hit fewer on the ground, and to his credit, actually whiffed less frequently than the previous two years. However, he also stopped hitting the curve for as much power, following a 1.3% HR% in 2009 with two straight seasons of 0.4%.
Given the curveball’s continued effectiveness against Tex, I was curious to see whether its deployment increased depending on the count. The below chart shows curveball frequency when the pitcher is ahead (I’m considering 0-0 as the pitcher being ahead in this case, because anecdotally it seems like Tex never swings first pitch, even though B-Ref says he did at least 56 times last year):
I was a bit surprised to see the curve being most frequently deployed on 0-2 and 1-2 in 2009, but perhaps the most telling component of this graph is that pitchers have significantly increased their likelihood of trying to get ahead of Tex at the start of his at-bats, dropping a curve in on the first pitch 13.9% of the time last season, a three-year high.
And what’s been happening when Tex does make contact?
His LD BABIP spiked back up last season after a woeful .250 in 2010, but was still nearly 200 points below its 2009 high of .833. His FB BABIP on the curve unsurprisingly fell to a three-year low, and his GB BABIP basically remained constant.
Now, in fairness to Tex, part of the curveball issue is that he has to face some outstanding curveball-throwing pitchers. Out of the 233 curveballs he saw from righties in 2011, 79, or 34%, were thrown by Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander, James Shields, Felix Hernandez, Jeremy Hellickson and John Lackey (pitchers he had 10 at-bats or more against each). Outside of Lackey, those hurlers are among the best in in the league, and so Tex probably needs to be cut some slack.
However, he’s shown that he’s not completely useless against the curveball in the past, and it would bode well for the 2012 Yankees if he can recognize that right-handed pitchers are probably going to attack him earlier in the count with curveballs and ideally hold off from swinging at said curves unless he actually is able to revise his approach from the left side with Kevin Long.
For those of you sick of A.J. Burnett analysis, you have my sympathies, and please feel free to skip this post. For the masochists in the audience, I was inspired to take another spin down the Burnett freeway by our pal Brad Vietrogoski, who wrote a thought-provoking piece about everyone’s least-favorite Yankee on Tuesday. The following statement in particular caught my attention:
It’s not so much the two nasty curveballs that they swing and miss at in the at-bat that matter any more; it’s the fastball A.J. grooves with 2 strikes that they’re squaring up on and driving for power.
Having written about Burnett’s splits last month, I was curious to see whether the idea that Burnett was just laying it in there with two strikes held water.
A.J.’s tOPS+ (his performance relative to how he performs in all situations, with 100 being average and anything lower representing above-average for the pitcher) with two strikes last year was 36, while his tOPS+ while ahead in the count was 16, which means A.J. performed far better than normal in those situations. His sOPS+in each of those categories was 108 and 81, respectively, which means he was slightly worse than league average with two strikes in the count but almost 20% better when ahead. Essentially this tells me that it’s safe to say that A.J.’s issues last season weren’t necessarily grooving a fastball with two strikes.
However, he probably does have a sequencing issue, as evinced by his 208 tOPS+ when the batter is ahead in the count, and 157 sOPS+. While the 208 isn’t as crazy as it might initially seem, as we’d expect a pitcher to perform worse in favorable counts for the batter (for reference, CC Sabathia‘s tOPS+ was a near-identical 206); the 57% worse than league average part is a bit more damning (CC’s was 111 in those situations).
So what is A.J. throwing when falling behind in the count? The following splits are taken from Fangraphs — it’s important to note that these are BIS classifications and not PITCHf/x, and may not be exact, but they should be close enough for our purposes.
In 2011, A.J. Burnett decreased the percentage of fastballs he threw while upping his changeup percentage in every favorable hitter’s count. This unsurprisingly resulted in A.J. throwing more changeups overall last season than at any point in his three-year Yankee career (these are PITCHf/x classifications):
Why would he do this? Well, for starters, if you had the least-effective fastball in the American League, you’d probably stay away from it too. We’re all painfully aware of the diminished effectiveness of A.J.’s once-dominating heater.
Despite the drop in velocity, A.J.’s 2011 fastball still ranked as tied for the 15th-fastest in the game. Of course, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw if (a) you’re not getting any movement on it, (b) you don’t offer enough different looks to keep hitters guessing, and (c) all of the above. As far as (b) goes, to A.J.’s credit it appears he was toying with something of a cutter this past season, although it wasn’t exactly effective. He also appeared to have significantly cut back on sinker usage in favor of the change in 2011, though he barely threw either pitch in 2009.
While I commend A.J.’s appearing to be willing to try new things to right his ship, it’s pretty clear the change isn’t the answer for him, as its ineffectiveness (12th-worst in the AL) is likely tied in part to the fact that there’s just not enough separation in velocity from his heater. In 2009 the delta between his four-seamer and change was 7.2 miles per hour. In 2010 that shrunk to 5.3, and this past season it fell even further to 4.7.
So essentially in 2011, Burnett began turning to his changeup more frequently due in part to the decreased velocity on his fastball — this is not a terrible idea in theory; Mike Mussina for one had to reinvent himself as a pitcher as his velocity decreased near the end of his career — however, an inability to concurrently decrease the speed on his change resulted in what at times probably just looked like a slow, eminently hittable fastball. With hitters knowing full well that the likelihood of seeing a curve in a hitters’ count was slim to none, it’s sadly no surprise they teed off on Burnett’s changeup.
Inspired by the excellent Red Sox blog Over the Monster, today I’m going to take a look at which Yankees starting pitchers throws the “best” pitch among each pitch category. As there are a variety of factors involved in determining a given pitch’s overall effectiveness, “best” in this instance is going to be subjective. In the interest of simplicity, I’m ranking the hurlers by their respective Whiff rates, as the ability to generate a swing-and-miss is probably the most transparent indication of pure stuff.
All of the data in the tables you’ll see below is from the 2011 season, and should be mostly self-explanatory. I’ll be the first to admit that a one-year sample is less-than-ideal, but I tried to run a three-year search and TexasLeaguers.com didn’t take to that request too kindly. The columns headed by “w” and “w/100″ are the pitch type’s linear weights (representing the total runs that a pitcher has saved using that pitch) and linear weights per 100 pitches (the amount of runs that pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown), which provide some level of insight into a pitch’s relative level of effectiveness but should not be analyzed in isolation, as they are subject to the whims of both sequencing and BABIP.
And right off the bat we have a prime example of the problems one can encounter with pitch type linear weights. If you sorted this table by wFF, Phil Hughes would come out on top. How on earth is that possible, you are likely asking yourself. I’m not entirely sure myself, as I don’t think anyone that saw Hughes pitch last year thought much of his fastball. However, he did get some people out, and presumably the vast majority of those outs came via his four-seamer, because, as you’ll see later on in this post, everything else he threw last season was pretty awful, at least by pitch type linear weights. Lending further credence to this notion is the fact that Hughes yielded a .282 BABIP on ground balls on his heater, compared to a .360 BABIP on ground balls on the curve, .444 on the cutter and .556 on his changeup.
As far as Whiff% goes, it should be quite heartening to see that the Yankees’ two newest rotation acquisitions outperformed everyone else in the rotation by a rather substantial margin. While both will likely see a decrease in their Whiff rates with the move to the AL East, at least they’re starting from a high baseline.
We know Ivan Nova threw a slider more than 3.9% of the time last season and so this table is a bit misleading. However, the pitch did become one of the keys to his improved second-half performance, and so there may be a case to be made for Nova having one of the better sliders on the team. Of course, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia might have something to say about that. In any event, the Yankees’ front four in the rotation all boast pretty big-time sliders; bad news for opposing lineups.
While Pineda probably threw some two-seamers last season, I’d surmise that some of his four-seamers may have been misclassified, as a 10.6% Whiff% rate on a two-seamer/sinker is pretty damn high when you consider league average is 5.0%-5.4%. Not to mention the fact that the player with the best wFT/100 in MLB last season (Doug Fister), had a 5.4% Whiff% on his two-seamer. Sabathia probably has the best sinker on the team, although Kuroda is in that conversation as well if he can get his GB% back above 45%.
It should surprise no one that Sweaty Freddy had the best changeup on the team given his slow-slower-slowest approach, although Sabathia’s is also pretty great. No one else in the rotation has a particularly effective one, although Burnett’s did generate a slightly above-average Whiff% last year. Surprisingly, despite a rather diverse arsenal, Hiroki Kuroda is the only starter on the team that doesn’t throw a change at all. However, in his case he presumably partially makes up for it with his splitter, which can function like a hard change.
No surprises here; Burnett’s curve is the only thing keeping him away from the glue factory, but as everyone knows you can’t get very far with one working pitch. Nova’s curve is probably best described as a work-in-progress; while there were times in the second half that Phil Hughes looked like he was employing a harder (and more effective) curve and other times where his curve looked terrible. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about Hughes needing to improve his curveball to become an effective Major League starter.
The splitter is a fun pitch that Yankee fans don’t get to see too often, and this coming season we may have two members of the rotation featuring one (albeit in very different forms). Prior to Freddy Garcia, the last Yankee starter I can think of off the top of my head that threw one is Roger Clemens (Ed. Note: Jose Contreras threw a forkball, which is kinda like a splitter but slower). Per linear weights, neither Freddy nor Kuroda fared all that well with their splitters last season, but they still generated plenty of whiffs with the pitch.
So who boasts the best pitch in the Yankee rotation? Probably either Sabathia, with his heater or slider, or Pineda and his heater. I certainly wouldn’t argue against any of those three.
Throughout the 2011-2012 Hot Stove season we have frequently looked ahead to next offseason, with its presumed bumper crop of studly free agent pitchers, including (at the moment) Cole Hamels (age 29), Matt Cain (28), Zack Greinke (28), Francisco Liriano (29), Shaun Marcum (31), Brandon McCarthy (29), Anibal Sanchez (29), and Jonathan Sanchez (30). A handful of attractive names — James Shields (31), Gavin Floyd (30), Dan Haren (32) and Ervin Santana (30) — have club options, but said options are mostly reasonably priced and it seems unlikely that any of that quartet would be bought out.
Prior to the Big Trade, it was generally expected that the Yankees would be all over Hamels should he make it to free agency, and rightly so, as it’s not every offseason an elite left-hander makes it to the open market. The case for Hamels is a no-brainer: Since breaking into the league in 2006, Hamels is tied for the 13th-most valuable pitcher in all of baseball, producing a stellar 3.39 ERA/3.63 FIP/3.42 xFIP line over 1,161.1 innings with a beautiful 8.45 K/9 and 2.26 BB/9. The only left-handers ahead of him on that list are CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
So unless Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro somehow convinces Hamels to take a way-below market extension a la Jered Weaver — and it’s extremely difficult to envision this happening, as the numbers suggest Hamels could very well be in line for a $161 million CC Sabathia-type deal — or is able to convince Phillie ownership that they can indeed afford another $100 million-plus pitcher, next offseason’s pursuit of Hamels will likely rival both last winter’s Lee sweepstakes and the 2008-2009 Sabathia drama as one of the craziest ever. However, in the aftermath of the Montero-Pineda deal, an additional wrinkle has been thrown into the mix, namely whether the Yankees determine they can afford to add Hamels in light of all the talk of an austerity budget.
While I personally feel the Yankees would be nuts not to do whatever it takes to land Hamels, if they do decide the lefty is too pricey or doesn’t even end up becoming available, there’s another, arguably slightly better, younger (and perhaps most importantly, presumably slightly cheaper) option that seems an even surer bet to reach free agency next winter, and that’s former Cy-Young-award-winner Zack Greinke. While the lefty Hamels has commanded much of the attention, Greinke’s future availability seems to have gone somewhat overlooked, and so I thought I’d point out why he should be just as much of a Yankee target as Hamels, if not moreso.
For one, on that aforelinked list of most valuable pitchers since 2006, Greinke is above Hamels, checking in at 7th with a 3.41/3.14/3.39 pitcher triple slash in more than 200 fewer innings than Hamels along with a sterling 8.68 K/9 and equally drool-worthy 2.33 BB/9. Of those top 30 pitchers, the only hurlers with a higher K/9 are Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Jake Peavy, and the latter hasn’t been at that level since 2009. The only ones with superior FIPs are Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson.
This past season, Greinke — always a strikeout-heavy pitcher — upped his game to levels of even more ridiculousness, leading all of MLB with a career-high 10.54 K/9. His 2.98 FIP was 9th in the league, while his 2.56 xFIP was first. These are big boy numbers, and the only reason you likely didn’t hear more about Greinke’s huge year was because he started the season injured and was also betrayed by his defense, as his 3.83 ERA was fueled in part by the second-highest BABIP (.318) of his career that helped fuel the third-lowest strand rate (a below-league-average 69.8%) of his career.
The following chart helps underscore just how good Greinke has been since breaking into the league full-time in 2004 (as always, click to enlarge):
An increase in K/9 every season save one? That’ll do nicely. As he’s matured as a pitcher, Greinke also brought his GB% rate up from the mid-30%s to a career-high (and above-league-average) 47.3% in 2011. Given Greinke’s dramatic improvements on what had already been several very good pitching performances, I was also curious to take a look at his stuff:
Greinke has three legitimate weapons against righties in his four-seamer, slider and curveball, each of which generate above-average Whiff rates. Somewhat unexpectedly, Greinke’s heater has lost about 1.5mph since 2009, although this hasn’t seemed to hinder its effectiveness, as his Strike% and Whiff rate has improved in each successive year, while his In-Play% is on a three-year decline. It’s helpful to know that Greinke doesn’t need to be routinely dialing it up to 94mph to be successful with the heat, although it’ll be important to keep an eye on that velocity this coming season to see whether it takes another dip.
Greinke doesn’t really throw his change to righties, and per the PITCHf/x data he appears to have added a two-seamer in 2010, although again, given the myriad classification issues that frequently arise when analyzing this data, it’s possible there are some four-seamers being misclassified. Although the extremely low Whiff rates on the two-seamer would seem to indicate that this pitch is indeed a sinker. He went from throwing it nearly 30% of the time to batters on both sides of the plate in 2010, to under 10% of the time last season — I’m not sure what to attribute the decrease to, as the sinker appears to have helped him generate more grounders, but perhaps it’s as simple as Greinke wanting to further diversify his arsenal.
As you might expect, Greinke’s Whiff rates aren’t quite as robust against lefties, though they’re still plenty high. What he’s missing in four-seamer Whiff% he more than makes up for in Changeup Whiff%.
In sum, we have a pitcher who misses a ton of bats, has a knockout slider to complement his blazing fastball, and who also appears to have added a two-seamer/sinker to his repertoire to help spike his ground-ball rate. So essentially, Zack Greinke is a right-handed, younger version of CC Sabathia. I think we’d all happily sign up for that.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Greinke’s social anxiety disorder. I’m not a psychologist nor do I have any way of quantifying how his mental state might impact his performance, though it’s been speculated by many that Greinke may not have the intestinal fortitude to flourish under the microscope on the biggest stage in the world in the Bronx. Brian Cashman essentially echoed that sentiment during last offseason as the Yankees passed on acquiring Greinke via trade, despite the pitcher’s apparent protestations that he was indeed cut out for and eager to pitch in New York.
Even if the Yankees — and presumably, other teams — have concerns over Greinke’s head, the fact that the cost of acquiring him is just money and not prospects should help ease some of the worry. It also may help knock his price down. While the numbers indicate Greinke should probably be paid as though he were CC Sabathia, the questions about his make-up may hinder him from reaching that financial plateau. If Greinke can be had for, say, $108 million over six years ($18 million per is probably a conservative estimate) however, his market could end up depressed if GMs are afraid to pay him like an elite pitcher due to any lingering fears about SAD. Per FanGraphs’ much-derided $/WAR calculation he’s been worth an average of $25.6M per season since 2008), I don’t see any rational reason for the Yankees not to run with that deal all the way to the bank.
Note: This post was initially written prior to the Big Trade. With the Yankee rotation depth chart now seven deep at the Major League level, the likelihood of seeing David Phelps starting for the big league club at any point in 2012 has probably shrunk to nonexistent. Though in Phelps’ favor, with the recent departure of Hector Noesi he and rotationmate Adam Warren have become the de facto “next in line” at AAA should the Yankees indeed simultaneously lose three starting pitchers to injury.
Last winter, most of the non-”Killer Bs” buzz regarding Yankee prospects surrounded Ivan Nova and Hector Noesi, both of whom acquitted themselves rather well during their first full seasons in the big leagues. With Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances both expected to need further seasoning in AAA before getting the call to contribute at the MLB level full time, the two pitchers that we started hearing a fair amount about last offseason and who now appear to be next in line in the rotation pecking order when one of the Yankees’ presumed starting five inevitably goes down with an injury are David Phelps (who Mike profiled a little over a year ago) and Adam Warren (Axisa profile). Today I’m going to take a look at what the Yankees might reasonably expect out of the former.
I found myself intrigued by the now-24-year-old right-hander — who most prospect mavens have pegged as a back-end-of-the-rotation guy at best — after seeing John Sickels recently rank him aggressively at #7 on his list of top 20 Yankee prospects, saying the following:
“I like (Phelps) more than most people do. Has developed the secondary pitches needed to off-set the fastball, and was one of the few pitchers who didn’t get killed in the Arizona Fall League. Could be a fourth starter if given a chance.”
While “fourth-starter-upside” isn’t anything to get terribly excited over — and from what I gather, I get the sense that people aren’t terribly enamored of Sickels’ evaluations as it is — I don’t know that I’d automatically thumb my nose at a guy who could hypothetically settle in as a #4 starter in an MLB rotation.
Phelps was drafted by the Yankees out of Notre Dame in the 14th round of the 2008 draft, and was immediately put to work in short season Staten Island. Here’s a chart of his progression:
While I don’t think Phelps is expected to generate an overwhelming number of strikeouts should he make it to the bigs, it’s still decently impressive that he’s managed to sustain a 7.00+ K/9 ever since moving up to Charleston, while never allowing his walk rate to rise above 3 men per nine. Reasonable strikeout and walk rates combined with a HR/9 that’s never eclipsed 1.0 — even this past fall in the notoriously hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League — has helped Phelps keep his FIP below 4.00 every season. Based solely on his raw numbers, there’s a fair amount to like from this picture.
The other reason I wanted to examine Phelps is that, by virtue of playing in the aforementioned AzFL, we have access (albeit limited) to PITCHf/x data, which is installed in two of the league’s six parks. Poring through the data, I found the two games on the Phoenix Dirt Dogs’ schedule that had them playing in Peoria and Surprise and also coincided with two of Phelps’ eight starts.
On November 7 Phelps threw 5 innings of two-run, three-hit ball with three strikeouts, one walk and one home run. On November 17 Phelps threw 5 innings of two-run, five-hit ball with six strikeouts, no walks and no home runs.
Here’s a breakdown of the 134 pitches he threw:
So based on this data Phelps is a fastball-slider righty, who also won’t shy away from throwing a changeup ~8mph slower than his fastball, or dropping in a curve. In Mike’s profile from December 2010, he noted the following about Phelps:
“Once a scrawny kid that would sit in the low-90′s on a good day, Phelps has filled out his 6-foot-3 frame (190 lbs.) and now throws his fastball at 93-95 mph consistently. Minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras made some minor adjustments soon after Phelps signed, leading to the improved velocity. He also throws a two-seam fastball right around 90 mph, a good curveball, and both a below average slider and changeup. The curve is the closest thing Phelps has to a strikeout pitch, but it still needs some more improvement. At the moment he’s a ground ball pitcher, but that can change if one of the offspeed pitches takes that step forward.”
I saw a lot of 89-91mph fastballs in the PITCHf/x data, and so I’m guessing Phelps’ arm was somewhat tired by the time he got to the AFL after throwing roughly 114 innings in 2011 in both rehab and Scranton (Ed. Note: Phelps missed close to three months this summer with shoulder fatigue, so that could have contributed to the diminished velocity as well). If Phelps actually does usually sit at ~93mph with his fastball, a strong early showing at AAA could make him a valuable trade chip come July. Ultimately, I don’t know that anything about Phelps screams dominance, but it also doesn’t seem crazy to think that he could contribute as a starting pitcher at a league-average level in MLB.
As we all know by now, the Yankees are telling people they are hoping to fill their vacancy at DH via trade (which would presumably include dealing either A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes) first, and should that fail, scour the remaining free-agent market as a fallback option.
The following is a short-list of potential designated hitter candidates (ideally of the left-handed hitting variety, to create a platoon with Andruw Jones) that could make some sense as trade targets for the Yankees. It should be noted that none of these players are likely on the trading block — three of four are penciled in as starters — but what better to stoke the Hot Stove fires with than irresponsible rumormongerng?
Garrett Jones, Pirates. Prior to embarking on research for this post I’d never even heard of Jones, but he hit righties fairly well last season, posting a .351 wOBA/122 wRC+ in 406 PAs, including an 11.3 BB%. Combined with Jones ideally putting together something reasonably comparable to the .400 wOBA/151 wRC+ he compiled against LHP from last season, and that’d not only make for one of the more productive DHs in the league, but also perhaps the first-ever all-Jones platoon in baseball history. Garrett also carries a career .360 wOBA against RHP along with a 125 wRC+ and 11.3 BB% in more than 1,000 PAs — the man knows how to hit right-handed pitching.
At 30, he’s also no spring chicken, and I can’t envision the cost in players being all that considerable, although as Joe noted to me, “He’s one of their only decent bats, so I’m not sure they’d let him go cheaply. Considering his age and must-platoon status, I’m not sure there’s a good match there.” A late bloomer, Jones is also under team control for three more years, so that would likely impede a hypothetical deal further. Still, Brian Cashman and Neal Huntington do seem to like each other as trading partners, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Cash figure something creative out given the team’s current glut of pitching.
Nolan Reimold, Orioles. Despite the fact that the Yankees and Orioles have hooked up for just one player-for-player trade in the 19 years since Peter Angelos bought the Orioles franchise, Ken Rosenthal yesterday posited that the birds could be a logical trade partner for Burnett. While a deal involving anyone seems highly unlikely, earlier this offseason I wrote about Reimold potentially being a useful bench piece. Unfortunately he doesn’t meet the left-handed-hitting component of our criteria, but he actually can hit righties, tagging them with a .360 wOBA/124 wRC+ (10.1 BB%) in 201 PAs last season, and he’s evinced a slight reverse platoon split during his career, with a .345 mark against righties compared to .332 against lefties. He’s also not currently projected to start for Baltimore, perhaps making him a bit more expendable. Still, file this under not bloody likely.
Lucas Duda, Mets. This is even less likely than a deal with the O’s, as the Mets would presumably have to be blown away to trade a player that is arguably their second-best hitter and one who also happens to be cost-controlled. After all, the CitiField faithful are going to need something to get excited about given the bleak outlook of the next few years. Still, with the Yankees’ excess of arms, perhaps a deal involving Phil Hughes and one of the fourth-starter types at AAA (who would probably fare quite a bit better both in the NL and at the cavernous ballpark in Queens than in the Bronx) or some sort of package of minor leaguers would be compelling enough to evoke a rare crosstown trade for the left-handed Duda, who obliterated righties to the tune of a .380 wOBA/145 wRC+. Though Duda projects to be the Mets’ starting right fielder, the 26-year-old hasn’t shown much of an ability to hit portsiders to this point (in an admittedly small sample of 86 PAs, Duda has a .282 wOBA), so perhaps the cost wouldn’t be excessive given the need to platoon. (h/t to YankeeSource for inspiring this idea following his musing on Daniel Murphy).
David DeJesus, Cubs. The long-linked-to-the-Yankees local product DeJesus is a no-go at the present moment, having signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Cubbies at the end of November. However; should Chicago fall out of contention come July — and at the present moment, it’s not clear that they’re better than roughly a 3rd-place team on paper — DeJesus will likely be an attractive trade candidate. Though he had a tough year in Oakland last season, he still hit righties well (.347 wOBA/120 wRC+), and owns a career .356 wOBA/116 wRC+ against northpaws.
Again, with Jones and Duda projected to hit 5th for their respective teams, the Pirates and Mets would likely look for more than the Yankees would feel comfortable dishing, despite both franchises having basically already been eliminated from 2012 playoff contention. The unfortunate O’s are also a lock for last in the AL East yet again, though that still won’t be enough for Angelos to attempt to improve his team via dealing with the Yankees. If the Yankees do decide to go into the season addressing their DH needs in-house, DeJesus will likely be a name that will once again come up frequently should the Cubs falter, and would seem to be the most probable to be dealt out of this quartet.
One of the commenters in my post about Nick Swisher last month suggested that Swish’s struggles in the postseason were due in part to the fact that hitters are facing their opponents’ best pitchers, or something to that effect. While it’s probably true that an offensive bludgeoning is less likely to occur during a postseason game than, say, in August, I also think it’s a convenient excuse for teams that aren’t hitting. We’ve frequently seen the Yankee bats run the gamut from laser-hot to ice-cold during the postseason, though we tend to remember the games in which the bats didn’t show up more often than not, given how accustomed we’ve become to fielding a powerhouse offense.
Unfortunately one of the primary issues when judging both a player’s and team’s postseason performances is that the samples are almost always too small, and the very nature of baseball dictates that any player, no matter how good, is going to suffer through a slump at one point or another. That’s not to minimize the impact of facing elite pitching in the postseason; but on the flipside not even pitchers are infallible and even the best ones have less-than-great days. CC Sabathia had a 6.23 ERA in 8.2 innings in the 2011 ALDS; Justin Verlander a 5.00 in 9.0 IP.
The point of all this is that, based on what we know of Nick Swisher’s offensive abilities over the course of a 162-game season, it’s crazy to to assert that he “can’t hit in the postseason.” Unless Swisher has actually demonstrated a distinct inability to hit so-called “good” pitching, the only explanation that really makes sense as far as his struggles have gone is the recurrence of several ill-timed slumps.
Prior to embarking on this post I’d initially hoped to be able to segment batches of “good” (which I would have defined as being 10% better than league average) and “bad” pitchers, and then tally Swisher’s stats against them in an effort to see how exactly he performed against these pitcher types, but B-Ref won’t allow me to export Play Index results to Excel, and there was no way I was going to manually re-enter all of the data.
Instead, below is a table showing all of the starting pitchers Swisher has faced during his three-year Yankee career (including the postseason), minimum 10 PAs. While 10-plus PAs isn’t anywhere near a large-enough sample, if we’re going to castigate Swish for small-sample failure in the playoffs, we also have to accord him respect for small-sample success.
David Price and Jon Lester are two of the best pitchers in the American League. Swisher has killed ‘em both. Cliff Lee? .852 OPS against. Matt Garza doesn’t stand a chance against Swisher. Gio Gonzalez, arguably the most-sought-after pitcher on the trade market, may as well be throwing Swish batting practice. Same with Trevor Cahill and Ervin Santana. RAB favorite John Danks? Swish has hit him to the tune of a .930 OPS in 13 PAs.
The naysayers in the audience will undoubtedly point out Swish’s struggles against Josh Beckett and James Shields (though among the Yankees that’s far from a Swisher-only issue), but on the whole, I’m not sure one could reasonably conclude that Nick Swisher routinely struggles against good pitching.
(Ed. Note: Keep in mind that while .641 OPS against Felix over the last three seasons looks bad, Hernandez has held all hitters to a .616 OPS during that time. We’re referencing a very different baseline when talking about top pitchers. Context is everything.)
For the folks who want to pin his postseason struggles on something tangible, there really is no better explanation than Swish happening to slump on three separate occasions, with each unfortunately coming at one of the worst possible times for the Yankees. This doesn’t make his regular season contributions — which have helped the team get to the playoffs in each of his three pinstriped years — any less valuable, nor does it mean that he is forever doomed to postseason failure (see Rodriguez, Alex).
There has been no lack of Michael Pineda PITCHf/x analysis in the aftermath of the Big Trade, and if you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out Lucas Apostoleris here, Whelk at DRays Bay here and our pal Matt Imbrogno here. With these fine fellows having already done some of the legwork I was planning on doing, I thought I’d shift my focus to a compelling comp:
Feel free to guess in the comments, or find out what we’re looking at after the jump.