Yankee designated hitter production of recent vintage, and a look at 2012

One of the bitterest pills to swallow in the aftermath of the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade was the fact that the Yankees were removing what many expected to be a substantial cog in the offensive machine, not only in 2012 but for years to come. Prior to being traded, Montero’s average projected wOBA for 2012 was .360 (his revised projections as a Mariner average out to a .347 wOBA, or .272/.334/.461), which was the fifth-best projected wOBA of the projected starting Yankee nine.

Interestingly, for all of Brian Cashman‘s skill at building an incredibly talented roster on the offensive side of the equation, getting robust production out of the DH slot in the lineup has never really seemed to be a primary interest. To wit (as always, click to embiggen):

Of the 14 Yankee teams Cash has presided over, they have received below-league average production (sOPS+) out of the DH slot five times. That may not seem like a lot, but it is a tad eyebrow-raising given how robust the Yankee offense has been with Cash at the helm. Only four times has the team received DH production 10% better than league average in the last 14 seasons, which seems like a fairly large waste of resources when considering we’re talking about a lineup slot solely extant to produce offense.

Cashman’s high-water mark DH season was 2009, the year in which Hideki Matsui had primary designated hitter duties and responded with a DH campaign 19% better than the league. The Yankees also got a surprising amount of production out of the 2008 DH, which was mostly filled by Jason Giambi, along with Matsui and Johnny Damon. The only other really standout year for DH production above was 1998, which saw Darryl Strawberry, Rock Raines and Chili Davis collaborate on a .276/.378/.493 line.

That .360 projected wOBA for a Montero as a Yankee worked out to roughly a .270/.360/.470 triple slash, mighty fine production out of a 21-year-old, not to mention a line that would’ve been among the better performances the Yankees received from the DH during the last 14 seasons. However, for all the hullabaloo about the Yankees wanting to fill Montero’s vacated production, it appears they’ll have a pretty good shot at doing just that with the platoon of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez.

In 2011, Andruw Jones put up the following slash against LHP  in 146 PAs: .286/.384/.540, .400 wOBA.
In 2011, Raul Ibanez put up the following slash against RHP in 437 PAs: .256/.307/.440, .322 wOBA.

If you average those lines (and obviously this is exceptionally rough math, as the PAs are not even close to comparable), you get a .271/.346/.490, .361 wOBA hitter. Docking for the fact that PAs against RHP are roughly double those against LHP and you’re probably close to a .340 wOBA hitter, which is right around the average of SG’s 2012 CAIRO-projected platoon splits for Jones (.337 vs. LHP) and Ibanez (.349 vs. RHP).

While Jones probably won’t produce a .400 wOBA against LHP again, on the flip side Ibanez seems like a fairly reasonable bet to outdo a .322 wOBA against RHP with 81 games at Yankee Stadium, and taken together I don’t think it’s terribly unrealistic to expect the duo to combine for somewhere in the neighborhood of a .350 wOBA. While that may not quite be Jesus Montero territory, it should be enough for the Yankee offense to not miss much of a beat, especially when considering the ~.309 wOBA received from Jorge Posada in the majority of DH plate appearances in 2011.

No-hitters in Yankee history

Inspired by the advance copy I received of former Yankee PR director Marty Appel’s outstanding “Pinstripe Empire” — which, as far as I can tell, is the definitive and authoritative history of The New York Yankees franchise, and an absolute must-read for die-hards and casual fans alike — I was inspired to do some no-hitter research.

By my count, there have been 117 no-hitters in the AL (including postseason play), per MLB.com, and 133 in the senior circuit, though of course the NL also has more than a quarter-century of additional history over the junior circuit. Of those 117 AL no-nos, only 12 have been perfect games, and three of those 12 have been authored by Yankees. The National League, believe it or not, has only recorded eight perfect games in its 125-plus year history.

I was also curious to see how many seasons it had been since each team in baseball had been no-hit:

In pulling together this research I was actually pretty surprised at how many teams in baseball haven’t been no-hit in more than a decade. The Cubs are the current MLB leader, going on 46 seasons of not being no-hit. Oddly, the Pirates are right behind them, having not been no-hit in 40 seasons. The AL team with the longest no no-hit streak is Oakland, at 20 years. The Red Sox are right behind them, with their last no-hitter-against coming all the way back on April 22, 1993, against Chris Bosio. Even the Mets, for all of their laughable hijinks, have been able to avoid being no-hit since 1993. Of course, on the flip side, the Mets remain one of two MLB franchises (the other being the Padres) to never have had a pitcher author a no-no. For a list of all-time franchise no-hitters for and against, make sure to check out nonohitters.com.

Yankees

The Yankees have thrown 11 no-hitters (including the three perfect games) in franchise history, with 10 coming during the regular season. The franchise’s first-ever no-no was thrown by George Mogridge on April 24, 1917, against the Red Sox (being 1917 this game is not captured by B-Ref’s Play Index). Here are the remaining 9 regular season no-hitters in Yankee history:

Rk Player Date ? Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit GSc WPA
1 David Cone 1999-07-18 MON W 6-0 9.0 0 0 0 0 10 0 88 97 0.259
2 David Wells 1998-05-17 MIN W 4-0 9.0 0 0 0 0 11 0 120 98 0.477
3 Dwight Gooden 1996-05-14 SEA W 2-0 9.0 0 0 0 6 5 0 134 86 0.644
4 Jim Abbott 1993-09-04 CLE W 4-0 9.0 0 0 0 5 3 0 119 85 0.351
5 Dave Righetti 1983-07-04 BOS W 4-0 9.0 0 0 0 4 9 0 92 0.509
6 Allie Reynolds 1951-09-28 (1) BOS W 8-0 9.0 0 0 0 4 9 0 92 0.235
7 Allie Reynolds 1951-07-12 CLE W 1-0 9.0 0 0 0 3 4 0 88 0.796
8 Monte Pearson 1938-08-27 (2) CLE W 13-0 9.0 0 0 0 2 7 0 92
9 Sad Sam Jones 1923-09-04 PHA W 2-0 9.0 0 0 0 1 0 0 86
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/29/2012.

Interestingly, nearly half of the team’s no-hitters came during the 1990s. Since their last no-hitter on July 18, 1999, there have been 25 no-hitters thrown in MLB, four by the Red Sox and three by the Phillies. The Yankees have also been on the receiving end of a no-no during that time, the unforgettable six-pitcher debacle on June 11, 2003, which I had the bad fortune of attending. However, to even it out, I was also in attendance for Doc’s no-no in 1996.

Rather impressively, despite more than 100 years of history, the Yankees have apparently only suffered a complete-game no-hit shutout a mere five times since 1919 (and one was a rain-shortened six-inning affair). The last time the Yankees were no-hit for nine innings prior to the 2003 Astro debacle was on September 20, 1958, against Hoyt Wilhelm. The last time the Yankees were no-hit for nine innings at home pre-Astros was August 25, 1952.

All of this no-hit talk got me thinking that the Yankees seem somewhat due to no-hit another club, although clearly they’ve gone through much longer droughts than 11 seasons. As a Yankee, CC Sabathia has 15 starts of 7 or more innings and 3 or fewer hits:

Rk Date Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H ? R ER BB SO HR Pit GSc WPA
1 2010-04-10 TBR W 10-0 GS-8 ,W 7.2 1 0 0 2 5 0 111 80 0.314
2 2010-09-02 OAK W 5-0 GS-8 ,W 8.0 1 0 0 3 5 0 95 82 0.470
3 2009-09-26 BOS W 3-0 GS-7 ,W 7.0 1 0 0 2 8 0 96 81 0.475
4 2011-07-26 SEA W 4-1 GS-7 ,W 7.0 1 1 1 3 14 0 102 82 0.167
5 2011-04-05 MIN L 4-5 GS-7 7.0 2 0 0 1 6 0 104 78 0.278
6 2009-08-08 BOS W 5-0 GS-8 ,W 7.2 2 0 0 2 9 0 123 82 0.503
7 2010-09-13 TBR L 0-1 GS-8 8.0 2 0 0 2 9 0 119 85 0.537
8 2009-07-07 MIN W 10-2 GS-7 ,W 7.0 3 1 1 1 3 1 100 69 0.167
9 2009-05-19 BAL W 9-1 GS-7 ,W 7.0 3 1 1 1 7 0 105 73 0.393
10 2010-06-03 BAL W 6-3 GS-7 ,W 7.0 3 3 3 1 7 2 94 65 0.135
11 2009-06-26 NYM W 9-1 GS-7 ,W 7.0 3 1 1 0 8 1 99 75 0.249
12 2010-09-28 TOR W 6-1 GS-9 ,W 8.1 3 1 1 2 8 1 111 79 0.358
13 2011-07-16 TOR W 4-1 GS-8 ,W 8.0 3 1 1 3 8 0 110 77 0.339
14 2009-08-13 SEA W 11-1 GS-8 ,W 8.0 3 1 1 2 10 1 105 80 0.178
15 2009-09-07 (1) TBR W 4-1 GS-7 7.0 3 1 1 4 10 1 118 73 0.371
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/29/2012.

Sabathia may have come closest to his first career no-hitter this past summer, when he was absolutely cruising against the punchless Mariners before multiple rain delays ruined what could have been the latest chapter in team history (not to mention seemed to derail what had been an utterly glorious run of pitching).

Still, this year’s team may be as poised as ever to take a run at a no-hitter, given the strikeout-heavy tandem of CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda.

New and improved PITCHf/x data

A couple of Fridays ago a bomb was dropped on the analytical baseball community. However, in this case, it was perhaps the greatest bomb ever deployed. You see my friends, Dan Brooks of the renowned Brooks Baseball announced with zero fanfare that Brooks — a terrific asset as far as individual game data goes, but lagging behind TexasLeaguers.com and JoeLefkowitz.com in multi-seasonal data — would not only now be carrying Player Cards featuring seasonal data, but that the PITCHf/x data dating back to 2007 (the first year data became available) had been manually reclassified by PITCHf/x gods Lucas Apostoleris and Harry Pavlidis.

That’s right; somehow, someway, Lucas and Harry sifted through three-and-a-half-million pitches worth of PITCHf/x data, so that amateur analysts like myself would have the most accurate data possible to play with.

Why is this important? Well, for starters, pretty much any time I’ve talked about Ivan Nova over the last six months, it came with the caveat that we knew his second-half success was due in part to increased deployment of his slider, but I didn’t have the data to back this assertion up, as the PITCHf/x system stubbornly insisted that Nova only threw a slider 3.9% of the time. Now we know the truth.

Check out the following table, showing Nova’s non-reclassified 2011 PITCHf/x data, against Lucas and Harry’s reclassified 2011 PITCHf/x data:

The four-seam classification was pretty much on the money, as was the curveball, but the rest of Nova’s repertoire was pretty butchered by PITCHf/x. As you can see, Nova actually threw his slider 13% of the time instead of 3.9%, while the reclassification also determined that Nova threw a sinker, not a two-seamer. He also threw about half as many changeups as the un-reclassified data said he did, and he doesn’t actually have a cutter at all.

However, Lucas and Harry could’ve called it a project and we would’ve been plenty happy simply having accurate PITCHf/x data. But no, they decided to go even further, providing pitch and sabermetric outcome breakdowns by pitch type, and while some of these categories have been available at T-Leaguers and Lefkowitz, never before has all of this data been available in one place. In particular, the Whiff/Swing% on an individual pitch level is simply astounding, and something that’s never been freely available. Check out the remainder of Nova’s 2011 stats:

Now, we had a pretty good idea that Nova’s new-and-improved slider was nasty, but I don’t think anyone realized it was 43.1% Whiff-per-Swings-Taken nasty! As a frame of reference, CC Sabathia, who boasts one of the top sliders in the game, recorded a Whiff/Swing of 40.9% last season (though in fairness, he also threw it 27% of the time).

In the aftermath of this insane treasure trove of new data, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they’d be adding league average data (helpful as an additional reference point), and also if we could expect to have manually reclassified data for the upcoming 2012 season, as it’d be quite helpful to have the full spectrum of accurate data when looking at a given pitcher’s offerings across multiple seasons. Incredibly, both Lucas and Harry confirmed via e-mail that they do indeed plan to reclassify pitches on an ongoing basis throughout the season.

This is probably one of the most important sabermetric projects undertaken in the last 10 years. It’s incredible that not only have they devoted their time and energy into delivering a product any of us can access free of charge, but that they’ve also committed to maintaining an accurate set of data on a go-forward basis is just mind-blowingly awesome.

The best pitches in the Yankee bullpen

(Mo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty; Soriano by Gregory Shamus/Getty; D-Rob by Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Several of you asked for a bullpen version of the “best pitches in the rotation” post, and so here you go. Instead of just the 2011 season I’ve gone back and corralled the last two seasons worth of data for this post. 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 that pitch type for every 100 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. I’ve ranked 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.

(Note: This post was researched and written prior to the release of the reclassified PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball — which I’ll be chiming in on next weekand the numbers are from TexasLeaguers.com and Fangraphs. Given that relievers typically have less variation in their repertoires than starters, I feel comfortable that the data presented below is mostly accurate.)

Four-Seamer

Rafael Soriano‘s generated the highest whiff percentage on the four-seamer out of the six primary members of the Yankee bullpen, though that is probably partially propped up by his excellent 2010. As far as pitch type linear weights go, David Robertson‘s four-seamer has been the most effective at 12 runs above average, while Cory Wade‘s was most effective on a per-100-pitch basis, at 2.17 runs above average.

Cutter

Without looking at the numbers I’d have assumed that Mariano Rivera would easily lead in cutter Whiff%, but he actually lags both Soriano and D-Rob. Of course, having even an 8.1% whiff rate on a pitch you throw 86% of the time is still absurd.

Slider

For all the crap Boone Logan gets, his slider’s actually pretty outstanding, generating a whiff nearly one out of every four times he throws it. Joba Chamberlain also has a big-boy slider, though at times (cough cough full count cough) he’s fallen a bit too in love with it, occasionally making it painfully predictable.

Curveball

David Robertson has the best curveball in the ‘pen by a pretty substantial margin, though Cory Wade’s isn’t terrible. Joba’s had a decent amount of success with his curve though he throws it pretty infrequently.

Changeup

It’s Cory Wade by a landslide here, though he wins by default as no one else in the ‘pen really throws a changeup. It hasn’t been an outstanding pitch by linear weights, but it was his bread-and-butter in a terrific season for the Yankees in 2011.

Looking ahead to 2013: The Bossman cometh?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty)

I need to preface this post by saying that I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m a huge Nick Swisher fan, and assuming he turns in a fourth straight 120-plus wRC+ offensive campaign in pinstripes this coming season, I’d expect the Yankees to look to retain the pending free agent’s services on a multi-year deal. So long as his contract requirements remain within reason, anyway.

By “within reason,” I’d say anywhere from the three-year, $21 million ($7M average annual value) deal personal favorite Josh Willingham signed with the Twins this winter (which still seems like the steal of the offseason) to Michael Cuddyer’s three-year, $31.5 million deal ($10.5 million AAV) with the Rockies. However, since breaking into the league in 2004, Swish has been the superior all-around player by a not insignificant margin, and being that he’ll be two years younger than Cuddyer was this past offseason he definitely has a case for a bigger deal than Cuddyer’s, and a strong case for a bigger contract than Willingham’s sweetheart deal. Between his apparent superiority to these similar players and the fact that this will be his first foray into free agency, I’d expect him to start out at the very least looking for something that will pay him $13 million a year.

Given the incredible value the Yankees have gotten out of Swisher thus far — since 2009, Swish has been paid $21.2 million for his services by the Yankees, and according to FanGraphs’ $/WAR calculation, has been worth $47.6 million — $13 million seems like an eminently reasonable ask; however, at the end of the day I’d expect length to be a bigger sticking point than AAV. As an outfielder coming off his age 31 season next winter, one has to think Swish will be looking for enough financial security to take him as close to the end of his career as possible. I could see his initial ask starting at five years, but I don’t see the Yankees being interested in committing any more than three years to their switch-hitting right fielder. Maybe they’d go to four, but I’m not sure I’d expect the Yankees to hand out a four-plus-year contract to an outfielder on the wrong side of 30 that isn’t named Curtis Granderson, who — barring an unforeseen precipitous decline in production — the team will be looking to re-sign after 2013.

So, in the event that the Yankees and Nick Swisher can’t arrive at a happy medium next winter, the Bombers may in fact be finding themselves in the market for a right fielder. Enter B.J. Upton, slated to be a free agent for the first time in his career next offseason. As an outside observer, it seems as though the Rays have been waiting for Upton — the second overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft — to become the superstar many predicted he’d blossom into forever.

I asked noted Rays fan Jason Collette, of Baseball Prospectus and DRaysBay fame, for some color on this notion, and he was kind enough to respond with the following:

BJ will always leave a portion of this fanbase wanting. There’s a portion of this fanbase that finds Upton to be an unmotivated and lazy waste of talent that the Rays need to move. There’s a portion that is disappointed with him but are holding out hope that 2012 is a lot like 2007. There’s a portion that appreciates him for what he is rather than what he is not. I think he could go 30/30 in Yankee Stadium given his best swings are when he goes the other way, but he is never hitting .300 again without some serious BABIP help. He goes through hot streaks that are really hot and then slumps for long periods at a time while tinkering with his swing. He made some changes with his legkick late in the season over the final 6 weeks that yielded positive results, so it bears watching. There is a level of A.J. Burnett hate with him with a portion of this fanbase that sees nothing wrong with booing him after a strikeout or when he’s thrown out on the basepaths. However, there is a larger portion that will miss him when he leaves and hopes that he does not hang around the American League to blossom as it is tough enough to watch Carl Crawford do the same for Boston. In the end, he always leaves fans wanting something; the degree of that want comes from each fans attitude toward Upton.

Upton was drafted as a shortstop back in ’02, but was an unmitigated disaster at the position, and despite posting a respectable .323 wOBA as a 19-year-old in 177 plate appearances in 2004, his defensive woes helped demote him to AAA Durham for the entirety of the 2005 season. Upton didn’t make it back to the bigs until August 1, 2006, but he struggled mightily (.275 wOBA in 189 PAs) while playing third base, a position he’d never played professionally prior to that season.

At the outset of the 2007 season, Upton was shifted to second base to start the season, with the idea that he could play anywhere from second to short to third to the outfield on any given day. Upton responded to his first camp-breaking with the Rays by exploding out of the gate, posting a .471 wOBA in April 2007, and ultimately finishing the year with a career-high .387 wOBA (138 wRC+), shifting into center field full-time and seemingly finally establishing himself as the offensive force everyone had been waiting for. Only it didn’t last.

Upton followed his monster 2007 with a good (.354 wOBA, 118 wRC+), but disappointing 2008, given the new baseline he’d established the year prior. Upton’s OBP was still monstrous (.383, after .386 in 2007), but his power mysteriously vanished, and his slugging dropped over 100 points to .401. Upton continued his slide in 2009, falling to a below-average .310 wOBA (88 wRC+), which was easily his worst full season in the bigs. Upton has since recovered a decent amount of his value, posting near-identical 2010 (.337 wOBA, 113 wRC+) and 2011 (.337 wOBA, 115 wRC+) campaigns while providing above-average defense in center, though his erratic performances these last several seasons have rendered Upton’s true talent level something of an enigma.

One aspect of Upton’s game that would undoubtedly be very appealing to the Yankees is his ability to draw walks. Upton has a career 11.2% walk rate, well above league average. His career OBP is a respectable .342; however, the reason it’s not higher is because Upton also has a propensity to strike out. A lot. Upton’s career K% is 24.8%, and his 25.2% K% was the fifth-worst in the AL last season. His strikeouts have dramatically suppressed a batting average (career .258) that one would expect to be a good bit higher for someone with a carer BABIP of .327. Upton also has a career 11.3% HR/FB%, also an above-average rate, and the high BABIP and HR/FB% show that when Upton does put a bat on the ball, good things tend to happen. Unfortunately this isn’t as common as an occurrence as one would hope. Perhaps there’s something in Upton’s swing that Kevin Long can fix?

Upton would also probably be the best defensive right fielder the Yankees would hypothetically have fielded since perhaps Raul Mondesi, and an outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Upton seems like it would be hands-down the finest defensive outfield in the game. The dropoff in offensive production from Swisher to Upton would be fairly substantial, but not massive (Swish is a 117 career wRC+ hitter; Upton 110), while Upton would make a lot of the difference up in fielding.

Upton’s patient/hacker dichotomy — his 3.86 pitches seen per plate appearance (P/PA) ranked 31st in the AL last season, ahead of the likes of Derek Jeter, Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez, among others, while his swinging strike percentage of 20% that was the 4th-highest in the league, and well above the 15% league average — is somewhat reminiscent of Curtis Granderson’s, although Grandy led the league in P/PA in 2011 and recorded a 16% swinging strike percentage.

Given his abilities I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the 27-year-old Upton’s (turning 28 in August) best-case-scenario is blossoming into modern-day Curtis Granderson — if you compare the first five years of each player’s career, the results are remarkably similar, with one elite season early on followed by some good — though not great — subsequent campaigns. Upton’s got the edge in OBP, though Granderson certainly has the edge in power. Some may argue that Upton’s running out of time to get there, but his 2007 shows that it’s not crazy to envision him finally putting it all together on a consistent basis as he enters the prime of his career, similar to the way Granderson turned in a career year in his age 30 season.

The parallels between Granderson and Upton become even more apparent when you look at their WAR graphs:


Source: FanGraphsCurtis Granderson, B.J. Upton

And cumulative by age:


Source: FanGraphsCurtis Granderson, B.J. Upton

Also, for those curious about the righty Upton’s splits, while he unsurprisingly hits lefties better (career 118 wRC+), he’s playable against righties (101 wRC+).

So after all of this analysis, we haven’t even answered perhaps the most important question — how much will Upton be looking for, and what can he reasonably expect to be offered? Unfortunately for B.J., as a career .339 wOBA hitter, it seems unlikely he’d see anything close to the mega-deal his former teammate Carl Crawford signed prior to the 2011 season, as Carl has been the superior player (not to mention a massive disappointment one year into his monster Boston contract); although to play devil’s advocate, Carl’s career wOBA was only .008 points higher than Upton’s at the time of his free agency, so perhaps I’m selling Upton a bit short. Upton is making $7 million in his final year as a Ray, and will obviously look to exceed that on an annual basis.

With teams seemingly increasingly shy to commit mega dollars and years to anyone outside of elite talent, it seems like a stretch to see anyone signing Upton for longer than five years, and given his erratic offensive play, I’m not sure he’s worth more than $10-$12 million a year (although FanGraphs’ $/WAR valuation has him worth an average of $17.3 million over the last five years).

Upton will probably start out asking for something like seven years and $105 million ($15M AAV), but I’d ultimately expect him to end up signing for something closer to five years, $60 million — which, if the Yanks can’t agree to terms with Swish, should very seriously consider Upton if his price does fall to this range — unless he has another year like 2007 in him in 2012. In that case, all bets are off.

Guest Post: The Legend of Pascual Perez, Ghost-Pitcher

Perez’s 1990 Topps card

The following is a guest post by my dear friend David Meadvin, with some assistance from me on the statistical/research front. Dave previously contributed to TYA as an occasional guest poster, and is probably the world’s biggest Pascual Perez fan. We’re talking about someone who, as a nine-year-old, literally filled three nine-card binder sheets up with nothing but the same exact 1990 Topps Pascual Perez card seen at the right (that’s twenty-seven (!) identical cards) for reasons that remain unclear to this day.

On a warm Dominican spring morning in 1957, Pascual Gross Perez came into this world – and Major League Baseball would never be the same.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not an advanced stats kind of guy. I’ve never been that interested about baseball on paper; I love the game because it’s unpredictable in a way that stats can never fully capture. When Larry and I were growing up dodging beer bottles at Yankee Stadium and trading Topps cards, I was never a huge fan of the big stars. Sure, I loved Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry (I know he was a Met, but good God what a swing) – but my heart was always with the oddballs. And there have been few odder balls in MLB history that Pascual “I-285” Perez.

One of the many strange things about Perez is that his Minor League performance was mediocre at best. Signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1976, Perez spent five years in Pittsburgh’s minor league system putting stats that hardly screamed “I’m ready for The Show.” In 1979, at AAA, he threw 103 innings of 5.50 ERA ball with an ugly 4.5 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9. He improved considerably the following season at AAA, throwing 160 innings of 4.05 ERA ball with a 5.9 K.9 and 2.7 BB/9, and he made his MLB debut on May 7, firing six innings of three-run ball, then getting sent right back down for his troubles. At the age of 24, Perez started the 1981 season at AAA for the third consecutive year. Today, it’s hard to imagine a pitcher with his minor league stat line ever seeing the bigs, but with a staff that was fronted by John Candelaria, a struggling Rick Rhoden, an ancient Luis Tiant and no one else anyone’s ever heard of, the Pirates were clearly desperate for pitching.

As a result, despite a 4.94 ERA and a worse walk rate (4.1 per nine) than strikeout rate (a paltry 3.2), Perez earned a Mid-May call-up. At the Major League-level, Perez actually pitched slightly better than his MiLB number might have indicated, but still, he was hardly a star. He tossed 86.1 innings of 3.96 ERA/3.57 FIP ball — numbers that few would frown upon from a middle-of-the-rotation starter these days, but back in 1981 were 10% and 1% worse than league average, respectively. Not to mention the fact that Perez still wasn’t striking anyone out, with a 4.8 K/9. Unimpressed, the Pirates demoted Perez back to AAA for the start of the 1982 season, which prompted the Dominican to consider leaving Major League Baseball and returning to the Caribbean League. Fortunately for all of us, the Atlanta Braves decided to take a chance on him and acquired him in a trade for Larry McWilliams, who had pitched to a putrid 6.21 ERA/1.91 WHIP the season before, but somehow managed to put up two solid years for the Pirates in 1983 and 1984.

The Braves may not have known exactly what they were getting in the rail-thin Perez, but it didn’t take long to find out. On August 19, 1982, Perez was scheduled to make his debut start in Atlanta. As game time approached, Perez was nowhere to be found. When Perez finally showed up – well after the game began – he explained that he drove around I-285 three times looking for the ballpark before finally running out of gas. Here’s how the story was reported in Sports Illustrated:

“When I get lost, I been in Atlanta for four days,” says Perez. “I rent a car and get my driving permit that morning, and I leave for the stadium very early, but I forget where to make a turn right.”

Thus handicapped, Perez made an afternoon-long ordeal out of what is normally a 15-minute ride. Circling helplessly, he finally pulled off the freeway at about 7:10 p.m., well north of Atlanta and running on fumes, and using gestures and his minimal English, persuaded a gas-station attendant to pump $10 worth of free gas for him. “I forgot my wallet, too,” says Perez.

The incident earned Perez the nickname “I-285,” which he proudly wore on the back of his warmup jacket. As Yankees fans are well aware, the Braves’ manager at the time, Joe Torre, is not known for treating rookies kindly – much less rookies who miss their first start. In fact, a famed poster commemorating the incident is described as including a mural of Torre, looking baffled, staring at his wristwatch. If anyone owns this poster or can unearth even a JPEG of it, please let us know [UPDATE: We finally secured a copy of this poster during the summer of 2012].

Surprisingly, Torre stuck with the enigmatic righthander. Incomprehensibly, Perez’s mishap lit a fire under the Braves. Heading into his Braves debut, the team was mired in a 2-19 slump. Yet, according to Sports Illustrated, the team “found the mishap so hilarious that they laughed their way into a 13-2 winning streak and then went on to win the National League West, thereby making Perez’s ride more familiar to Atlanta schoolchildren than Paul Revere’s.” The title run was also helped by Perez’ 79.1 innings of 82 ERA-/89 FIP ball for the Braves that season despite a K/9 of just 3.3(!).

Perez also began establishing a reputation around Major League Baseball that season for on-field antics that included shooting batters with an imaginary finger-gun, peering through his legs to see what kinds of leads baserunners were taking, regular beanings and threats, an occasional eephus pitch (which would come to be known as the “Pascual Pitch” in certain circles), and of course his gleaming curly locks. As one opposing manager proclaimed, “there’s not enough mustard in the State of Georgia for Mr. Perez.” Perez’s response? “Everybody mad at me because they think I try to hit somebody, but I don’t try to hit nobody. The coaches tell me, ‘Don’t be afraid sometimes to pitch inside,’ so I do it.”

Coming into the 1983 season, the Braves saw Perez as an emerging star, and he lived up to their expectations, posting the best season of his career. He threw 215.1 innings of 3.43 ERA (90 ERA-)/3.39 FIP (87 FIP-) ball, with a 6.0 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9, worth 4.1 fWAR. Sadly, Perez found himself jailed in the Dominican Republic in the offseason on drug charges. After his release, he returned to the Braves in May 1984 and proceeded to win 14 games the remainder of the season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that if not for his jail time, Perez would have been a 20 game winner in the ’84 season.

In 1985, everything fell apart. Perez served three stints on the disabled list with shoulder pain before earning a team suspension in July for disappearing somewhere between New York and Montreal. After finishing the year with a heinous 1-13 record, Perez, who just a year earlier was seen as an emerging ace and probably would have been unanimously elected mayor of Atlanta, was released by the Braves.

1986 is a complete mystery. There is no record of Perez throwing a single pitch in any organized baseball league, or even what he did with his time.

Fortunately, the Pascual Perez story was not over. Prior to the 1987 season, the Montreal Expos managed to track him down and signed him to a minor league contract. Visa problems kept him from entering the United States until May, but after several months of minor league ball, Perez made his return on August 22, 1987, throwing five innings of three-run ball against the Giants. He finished the year a perfect 7-0. This time, Perez appeared to have finally figured it out with Montreal, enjoying the finest three-year stretch of his career as he threw 456.2 innings of 2.80 ERA (80 ERA-)/3.05 FIP (85 FIP-) ball, upping his K/9 6.7 and walking almost no one, with a 2.1 BB/9. In 1988, he pitched a rain-shortened, five inning no-hitter.

After an uninspired 1989 season, the Yankees came calling. Coming off two straight fifth-place seasons and utterly desperate for starting pitching (their starters pitched to an MLB-worst 121 ERA- from 1988-1989), the Yankees decided to invest 3 years and $5.7 million in Perez.

The big-bucks investment didn’t exactly pay off. Prior to throwing a single pitch for the Yankees he arrived seven days late to spring training with what the Yankees described as yet more “visa problems,” prompting then-Expos manager Buck Rodgers to describe Perez as “a time bomb that the Yankees will have to monitor closely.” In his third start that season, Perez departed with an ailing arm that required rotator-cuff surgery that August.  He also could have invested in a datebook or personal assistant, as Pascual showed up 10 days late to spring training in 1991, and five days late in 1992.

The thing is, when Perez actually took the mound he was effective, putting up a 2.87 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 1990 and 1991. But he only pitched a total of 87.2 innings spread out over two seasons. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t stay healthy (or present) for long stretches during his time in pinstripes. It all came crashing down in 1992 — the third and final year of Perez’s big contract – when he was suspended by MLB violating the league’s drug policy. This forced him to forfeit the remaining $1.9 million left on his contract.

Despite these myriad setbacks, the Yankees were actually interested in retaining Perez’s services. The New York Times reported that general manager Gene Michael placed about 60 calls to him over the offseason, but never heard back. Perez, who once referred to himself as “one of five twin brothers,” (one of those five, Melido, of course also pitched for the Yankees, and gave the Bombers quite a bit more than Pascual ever did, posting a 4.06 ERA/3.84 FIP over 631.1 innings from 1992-1995) had fallen deep into the Dominican Republic, far from the grasp of Major League Baseball.

Despite the Yankees’ best efforts, to this day, Pascual Perez has never been found. He may be gone, but his legacy lives on in the hearts of fans everywhere who consider him a hall-of-famer in baseball’s theater of the absurd.

An ode to The Bull

(photo by Otto Greule/Allsport)

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.

–snip–

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.