Looking At The Yankees’ Sac Bunts

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Baseball is a game without an official clock. In its stead, the 27 outs each team receives serve as the timekeeper, pushing each game to an inevitable conclusion. Avoiding those outs has become the name of the game over the last ten years, and one of the strategic moves that has come under fire due to this philosophy is the bunt. The sacrifice bunt draws a team one out closer to the end of the game without greatly increasing the chances of a run scoring. A look at run expectancy tables, which tell us how many runs are expected given a particular situation, confirms that bunting usually decreases the number of runs expected to score. While there are a few situations where a bunt is actually the statistically prudent move, on balance it is seen as the misused weapon of weaker, backwards-thinking managers, and is the hobgoblin of sabermetricians everywhere.

All that said, there is at least one study that suggests that managers tend to outperform run expectancy tables when it comes to bunting. This means that on average, managers have a reasonably good sense of the moment and of context, and they bunt in situations where it will produce more runs than one might expect given the post-bunt base/out status. While the numbers still suggest that these bunts decrease run expectancy, it is illuminating and encouraging to see that managers are utilizing the bunt reasonably efficiently.

All of this brings us to the manager of the local nine. One of the most common complaints about Joe Girardi‘s managing is that he bunts too frequently, playing for one run with an offense that can put up a crooked number in a hurry. I thought it would be instructive to look at every Yankee sacrifice bunt in 2011 to see how many runs Girardi actually cost his club with his small ball sensibilities. I broke the bunts down by player and then calculated three numbers:

  1. Expected runs before the bunt. This number tells us how many runs were expected to score given the base/out situation prior to Girardi working his managerial magic.
  2. Expected runs after the bunt. This tells us how many theoretical runs the bunt “cost” the club.
  3. Actual runs. This should tell us how Girardi’s move actually worked out.

Now, a few caveats.

  • Run expectancy is not perfect. It does not account for the score or the quality of offense or opponent, nor does it account for the skills of the hitter at the plate. However, it is a reasonable estimate of how the game has been impacted by a move, and I’ve broken things down by hitter so you can mentally adjust your evaluation based on the quality of the batter.
  • This study does not include the attempted bunts that failed and caused batters to fall behind in the count. However, it also does not include bunt singles or bunts in which the batter reached on a fielder’s choice or error, which help to greatly increase run expectancy (I also excluded Nick Swisher‘s bunt against Boston where he lost track of the number of outs and bunted on his own). The analysis is limited to successful sacrifice bunts. I’ve also removed all bunts by pitchers, as I think most of us can agree that bunting with an American League pitcher is almost always the correct move.
  • We cannot calculate what would have happened if Girardi had chosen not to bunt. To provide an example of why this is an issue, imagine an inning where Brett Gardner bunts a runner over and then Curtis Granderson homers. While we can figure out the run expectancy before and after the bunt and can observe actual runs scored, we can’t know what would have happened if Gardner had not bunted. So if one run was expected and two actual runs were scored, there is still the possibility that without the bunt, three runs would have scored (because Gardner could have reached prior to the home run). If we assume that everything would have been different and Granderson may not have homered had Gardner reached, the expected runs v. actual runs analysis is relevant. As such, this study is making the assumption that the bunt changes the entire inning, such that whatever happened afterward is connected to (but not necessarily caused by) the base/out state created by the bunt. Discarding that assumption does not make the conclusions irrelevant, but it does sap them of some of their power.

Keeping all that in mind, let’s take a look at the sac bunts Girardi called for in 2011.

Brett Gardner

# of sac bunts: 8

Expected runs, before the bunts: 7.0173

Expected runs, after the bunts: 5.4602

Actual runs: 11

Loss of run expectancy: 1.5571

Actual impact: Gain of 3.9827 runs over expected runs

(To be fair to Girardi and his predilection for bunting with Gardner, it is important to note that all of Gardner’s bunts but one came in the late innings of a tight game, when playing for one run is acceptable. The lone exception came against Justin Verlander, which represents another understandable, if not entirely defensible, use of the bunt.)

Eduardo Nunez

# of sac bunts: 6

Expected runs, before the bunts: 5.5296

Expected runs, after the bunts: 4.4064

Actual runs: 3

Loss of run expectancy: 1.1232

Actual impact: Loss of 2.5296 runs under expected runs

Derek Jeter

# of sac bunts: 4

Expected runs, before the bunts: 4.1974

Expected runs, after the bunts: 3.4954

Actual runs: 2

Loss of run expectancy: 0.702

Actual impact: Loss of 2.1974 runs under expected runs

Curtis Granderson

# of sac bunts: 3

Expected runs, before the bunts: 3.7157

Expected runs, after the bunts: 3.2358

Actual runs: 6

Loss of run expectancy: .4799

Actual impact: Gain of 2.2843 runs over expected runs

Ramiro Pena

# of sac bunts: 2

Expected runs, before the bunts: 1.701

Expected runs, after the bunts: 1.3028

Actual runs: 1

Loss of run expectancy: 0.3982

Actual impact: Loss of 0.701 runs under expected runs

One each for Russell Martin, Frankie Cervelli, Chris Dickerson, and Brandon Laird

# of sac bunts: 4

Expected runs, before the bunts: 3.402

Expected runs, after the bunts: 2.6056

Actual runs: 1

Loss of run expectancy: 0.7964

Actual impact: Loss of 2.402 runs under expected runs

Conclusion

# of sac bunts: 27

Expected runs, before the bunts: 25.563

Expected runs, after the bunts: 20.5062

Actual runs: 24

Loss of run expectancy: 5.0568

Actual impact: Loss of 1.563 runs under expected runs

Regarding that actual impact number, I am uncomfortable concluding that the bunts were always directly responsible for what happened after them. For example, I do not think Granderson’s lone “successful” bunt actually caused all 6 runs that subsequently scored in the inning. That said, I think it is fair to conclude that Girardi’s proclivity for bunting did not hurt the Yankees much in 2011. In terms of run expectancy, all of the bunts over the course of the season only cost the Yankees five runs, and that ignores the fact that many of them came in situations where playing for one run at the expense of a big inning is actually the right thing to do. Furthermore, the team outperformed the “runs expected after the bunts,” suggesting that Girardi may have utilized the strategy in optimal situations. Taking into account the fact that the actual runs scored was about the same as the number of runs expected, it seems clear that Joe Girardi’s bunting problem was not much of an detriment to the Yankees in 2011.

Update (12:28 p.m.): I am new to play index, but I just figured out how to get bunt singles and bunt outs listed properly(still no foul bunts, however). Here are the results for the 18 sac bunt attempts that ended without a sac bunt:

10 runners reached base
8 made force outs or popouts

On the outs:

RE before the bunts: 7.5994
RE after the bunts: 4.431
Actual: 7
Loss of RE: 3.1684
Actual impact: 0.5994

On the hits:

RE before the bunts: 9.9545
RE after the bunts: 16.1122
Actual: 17
Loss of RE: Gain of 6.1577
Actual impact: Gain of 7.0455

New total:

RE before the bunts: 43.1169
RE after the bunts: 41.0494
Actual: 48
Loss of RE: Loss of 2.0675 runs
Actual impact: Gain of 4.8831

Locking Up Russell Martin

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Over the last few months, the sabermetric community has made a number of advances in the area of catcher defense. Studies by Max Marchi and Mike Fast on pitch framing and a study from Bojan Koprivica on pitch blocking have begun the process of quantifying the more difficult to measure elements of a backstop’s defense. While these studies are still in their infancy and are likely to be tweaked and altered in the coming months and years, they do provide us with one reasonable concrete lesson: Good defense from a catcher is likely more important than we had previously thought when trying to measure catcher value.

In the past, catchers tended to be put into one of two groups: good defender or weak defender. Sure, you had one or two Gold Glovers at the top and a handful of guys who were execrable enough to be known as terrible at the bottom, but the vast majority of catchers were placed into those two groups. Without any way to truly quantify defense, these broad categories had to suffice, and this resulted in most people evaluating catchers based on their offense. Catcher defense was thrown in at the end of conversations as an aside, possibly with caught stealing numbers and some passed ball data, but little tangible data that would shift an evaluation in either direction. Only those known as excellent catchers would get any sort of boost from their perceived defensive value.

Now, with these new studies, we can begin to quantify catcher defense, and use that to reevaluate the worth of a catcher who performs well behind the dish. As I noted above, one lesson that can be taken from these studies is that defense behind the dish is quite important. Let’s use Russell Martin as an illustration.

While I am far from the biggest proponent of WAR, these new metrics are expressed in terms of runs saved, making WAR a convenient way to weigh the impact of Martin’s defense. Before considering defense, Russell Martin was worth 3.1 wins last season (FanGraphs). However, once you add 1.5 runs saved by controlling the running game, 0.1 runs saved blocking pitches, and 15 runs saved by being among the best at framing pitches (Fast’s research consistently places Martin near the top of the league in this area), you suddenly have an incredibly valuable 4.6 win player. While the first instinct of many is to flinch at the idea that the “unmeasurable” aspects of catcher defense can add that much value, it is important to note that the very best defenders gained at most two wins due to their gloves. That is not much different than the value added defensively by the best at other positions, and catchers are involved on almost every pitch.

The suggestion here is not that Russell Martin is a 4-5 win player, but that he is a very good defender and that has definite value exceeding what some of the value metrics would suggest. Accepting that hypothesis leads me to my point: If the Yankees do not believe that Jesus Montero is their catcher of the future, it would make sense for them to offer Russell Martin a 2-3 year contract extension, either now or at the end of the 2012 season.

While he certainly showed improvement relative to 2009-2010, Martin had a decent but unspectacular season offensively, such that his value is probably not incredibly high at this point. Although he has a reputation as a solid defender, he is not known as one of the best in the sport, which makes it unlikely that he would get a major salary bump on the open market due to his glove. Essentially, if he was a free agent at this moment, he could market himself as a adequate offensive catcher with a solid glove, which is relatively unsexy and would not bring him a major financial windfall.

Being that the market almost certainly will not value his defense quite as much as it should, the Yankees could have the opportunity to lock Russell up at a reasonable rate relative to his value. They could wait until after the 2012 season to sign him, although they might want to avoid the possibility that his price goes up either because 1) he bounces back to 2006-2008 levels offensively, or 2) teams begin to see him as a great defensive catcher. While the latter seems like a long shot, another season of the Yankees getting good performances out of retread pitchers could shine a light on the work that Martin does behind the plate.

Of course, there are downsides to signing Martin to an extension a year early, such as a major injury or a significant decline with the bat that would turn the contract into an albatross. Couple those risks with the fact that the team rarely hands out extensions, and I would bet on the Yankees waiting until after this season to address Martin’s contract. That said, once he does sign on for a few more years, he should provide enough defensive value to help any contract avoid disaster status. Russell’s glove is undervalued, and unless the Yankees believe they already have their catcher of the future knocking on the door, he would serve as an good option to fill the position for the next few seasons.

(Thanks to @jaydestro for inspiring this post)

The Danks-Pettitte Comparison

Over the last 14 months or so, the Yankees have had a fairly questionable rotation, with a number of slots they could improve via the trade market or free agency. This has led to a million and one trade proposals from fans that have touched on every decent pitcher in the sport. Other than Felix Hernandez, who is Moby Dick to this fanbase’s Ahab, the most frequently raised name has probably been that of John Danks. In the course of various online discussions about Danks, a number of Yankees fans, myself included, have compared him to former Yankee Andy Pettitte. Whether it’s the fact that both are lefties from Texas, the nature of their repertoires, or their established levels of performance, there is something about these two pitchers that connects them in the minds of some fans. Let’s take a closer look at the two men to evaluate whether the comparison has merit.

Scouting

While Pettitte was actually born in Louisiana, he played his high school ball in Texas like Danks. Pettitte has a larger frame than Danks (6’5/235 v. 6’1/215), but both are reasonably large lefties with durable frames. The real similarity comes in their repertoires, particularly when comparing Danks to the Pettitte who returned to the Yankees in 2007. Both work off a fastball that sits around 90-92 MPH, and use the fastball to set up their breaking pitches. Most notably, they use their cutters more than 20% of the time and experience great success with the pitch. They each round out their arsenals with a curveball and a changeup, although Danks focuses more on the changeup while Pettitte was significantly more dependent on his hook.

Performance

Danks has been in the majors for five seasons, so it would be useful to compare his first five seasons to the first five from Pettitte. In his first five years, Andy Pettitte pitched 1044.1 innings with a 3.92 ERA, for an ERA+ of 119. Danks did not come out of the gate quite as hot as Andy did, with a 5.50 ERA in 2007 resulting in a slightly worse overall line of 917 innings to a 4.03 ERA (111 ERA+). However, when it comes to peripheral statistics, Danks actually comes out slightly ahead, with a better K/9 (7.0 to 6.1), BB/9 (2.9 to 3.2), and H/9 (8.8 to 9.4). Danks allowed a .727 OPS against to Pettitte’s .730, but Pettitte was superior at coaxing double plays (15% to 12%), which was due to his significantly greater penchant for drawing grounders (1.07 GB/FB to .76). Pettitte was better at suppressing home runs (0.7 to 1.1 HR/9), and it is important to note that the peripherals are not adjusted for era, which is important considering that Pettitte was pitching at the height of the steroid era. Overall, this comparison seems fairly close, and it is reasonable to say that these two pitchers performed at a similar level.

Another interesting comparison can be made between Danks and Pettitte’s last five years, which may be the years that are causing people to make the connection between these two hurlers. In his last five seasons, Andy threw 957 innings to the tune of a 4.11 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 109. His peripherals during this period actually look a lot like those of Danks, with a 6.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, and a H/9 of 9.6, and the two players notched these numbers while playing in the same league at the same time. Again, it seems that a reasonable person could conclude that these two pitchers were of similar ability.

While some will surely raise postseason success as a defining element of Pettitte’s career and something Danks lacks, it is hard to blame him for not being on a club that makes the postseason every year. For what it is worth, his one postseason start was quintessential Pettitte, as he allowed a bevy of baserunners (10) but limited the damage to 3 runs in 6.2 innings and notched the win.

Editor’s Note: Danks did throw an absolute gem in Game 163 against the Twins in 2008, allowing just two hits and zero runs in eight shutout innings. It’s technically a regular season start, but we all that know that’s a playoff game.

Conclusion

While the parallels between the two are not perfect, they are close enough to explain why Danks is somewhat reminiscent of Andy Pettitte. Both are lefties from Texas who thrive on a fastball-cutter mix, and both were likely miscast as aces when they performed more like good #2 starters. Neither was much of a power pitcher, succeeding by allowing plenty of baserunners but finding a way to limit the damage and give their teams a chance to win. If Danks ever does end up in New York, Yankees fans might find that he brings back memories of a certain dimple-chinned fan favorite from the South.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Ryan Doumit

(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

While free agency has just started and few players have inked contracts, the Yankees’ offense seems to be fairly close to complete. There are not many areas of their offense they can upgrade in a cost effective manner, with DH the only position that is technically open. Jesus Montero is available to fill that role. Instead, the bulk of the work on the Yankees’ offense will come on the bench, as Brian Cashman attempts to supplement an aging lineup with a versatile and powerful group of reserves. They will likely look for a player in the Andruw Jones/Marcus Thames mold, a righty bat who can mash lefties and can play corner outfield. Assuming Eduardo Nunez remains in the utility role, the Yankees are also likely to bring in a replacement for Eric Chavez, a market that has a number of available options (I discussed this in greater detail last week).

If the Yankees carry 14 position players, that leaves two more slots available for bench players, one of which might be filled by a pinch runner/defensive replacement from the Chris Dickerson/Greg Golson family. The other slot should go to a third catcher, who is made necessary by the fact that the backup catcher (Montero) is also the regular DH. The problem with this plan is that carrying a guy like Gustavo Molina practically wastes a roster spot, as he would never be used in any context other than to catch a few innings if Martin has been pinch-run or hit for and Montero is in the game at DH. This seems like a fairly inefficient use of roster space for a team that could afford a more creative alternative. Enter Ryan Doumit.

Pros

  • In terms of the roster inefficiency I mentioned above, Doumit gives you many more options than a traditional backup catcher might. He can play first base and right field as well, which would allow Joe Girardi to use him occasionally to rest Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira.
  • Most importantly, he does not hit like a catcher. Doumit is a switch hitter with a .336 wOBA for his career, and his numbers have been dragged down by some injury plagued seasons. When healthy, he provides a strong bat for someone who would be a part-time player.
  • Considering that their other two catchers and their other back-up outfielder are all going to be righties, it helps that Doumit is a switch-hitter who hits better from the left side. He is not unusable against lefties, with a .315 career wOBA against them, but he hits righties to the tune of a .344 wOBA and most of his power comes from that side.
  • Doumit played in just 71 games last season due to an ankle injury that came in late May, but did hit .303/.353/.477 for a 129 wRC+.
  • Doumit is just 30 years old, so he should have a few effective seasons left in his bat.

Cons

  • Doumit can play a number of positions, but he does not play any of them particularly well. He is adequate in right field, poor at first base, and atrocious behind the plate, which is a problem considering that his primary defensive role is as the extra catcher.
  • Ryan is frequently injured, spending time on the DL in every season since 2005.
  • As I mentioned above, he is not a great hitter against lefties.

Personally, I think Doumit is a perfect fit for this Yankees’ roster. He would serve as the extra catcher, but brings other skills to the table that would allow him to accumulate a reasonable number of at-bats.  He could be the primary pinch-hitter against righties, and would allow Joe Girardi more flexibility in terms of how he uses Russell Martin and Jesus Montero, as well as when he rests Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira. For an illustration of the sort of situations in which an extra catcher who can hit lefties well would be useful, see Russell Martin’s at-bats against tough righties in big spots in the ALDS. He could also be a hedge against injuries at a number of positions, and the Yankees would not be hurt too badly if he was forced into regular duty. Furthermore, while he does have flaws, those can be mitigated by the role he would play on the Yankees. He would not be counted on to play catcher for any extended period of time, and his brittle nature could be offset by being used less frequently. If the Yankees could get him on a short-term deal with an AAV of $4-5 million dollars, he would be a strong addition to the club and would represent excellent and efficient use of a roster spot.

All that said, the reasons that I like Doumit are the same reasons that other clubs might offer him good money to start for them. There is supposedly a healthy market for his services, and he might find a club willing to take a chance on his health or his defense and offer him something more than the 250 or so at-bats the Yankees could guarantee. If so, he is unlikely to take a bench role and would end up being too expensive for the Yankees anyhow.

Fans & Role Models: Learning From Penn State

Sports are supposed to be fun. We invest ourselves in our teams, live vicariously through the players, and generally enjoy our experience as fans. But every so often, a watershed moment comes along that snaps us out of the fantasy world that we construct around our favorite sports. These moments make us reevaluate how we connect with the athletes that we follow and how we view them as people. For many baseball fans, the day Sports Illustrated released the first huge expose on steroids was one such moment, a revelation that caused many to reevaluate the players that they had come to admire. The events at Penn State over the last 10 days, and truly over the last 15 years, serve as another clarion call to sports fans around the world, begging us to pause and take stock of how we lionize those who play or run the games we love.

Jerry Sandusky was a pillar of the Penn State community. A defensive coach who was once the heir apparent to Joe Paterno, he was the driving force behind Linebacker U, an identity that defined Penn State football for a long time. He also ran a large charity for children and young adults, dedicating countless hours to providing disadvantaged children with important services. Sandusky was well respected in the community and was widely regarded as an integral member of the Penn State family. Meanwhile, Joe Paterno was practically God at State College. When a number of school officials showed up at his door and asked him to retire in 2004, he respectfully refused, showed them out, and kept coaching. A local institution who has been at Penn State for 60 years, he was very much a benevolent ruler who was loved by most in that little slice of Pennsylvania. He was well know for being a good man, a strong educator, and a fierce competitor.

These are some, but not all, of the men at the center of the most heinous sports scandal of our time. Sandusky is alleged to have molested or raped at least eight children, with rumors suggesting the actual number is likely closer to 20. Later, Paterno was informed by underlings that something untoward was occurring, and he allowed the whole issue to be swept under the rug on his watch. While Paterno’s was clearly a much lesser offense, it showed a startling lack of judgment and fortitude from a man who was revered as being a pillar of integrity. These are terrible and despicable actions taken by individuals who many assumed to be excellent citizens and fine leaders of men. The question I am left with as a sports fan is, how do we connect with players and leaders in the future? How can we observe this atrocity and just return to lionizing players as being courageous or moral when we really know little about them? How can we watch the Penn State fanbase have the rug pulled out from under them and then just get right back on that rug ourselves?

It’s an obvious lesson that we can take from this atrocious story: we don’t really know athletes and coaches at all. We view them through the prism of the media, sitting a distance while journalists try to coax illuminating answers from largely unwilling subjects. We watch them answer a few questions and then think we can understand what motivates them. But there is a large distance between our couches and their minds, and our picture of their personal attributes is flawed and incomplete at best.

The first instinct upon coming to this realization is to swear off connecting with athletes at all, to treat them as automatons who perform athletic feats to entertain us. But that approach steals some of the joy from sports as well. Our love for stories built around heroes and villains is an integral thread in the tapestry of sports, and distancing ourselves from making character judgments of players would eviscerate that element of fandom.

Instead, there’s an important line we can draw between admiring someone for what he does and making a full scale character judgment as to what kind of person he is. Everyone is entitled to have their sports heroes, but it’s important not to diminish or neglect that “sports” qualifier and simply revere people we barely know as true heroes. We can admire actions that they take, venerate their performance on the field and their charitable acts, but as the PSU scandal illustrates, it is dangerous to lionize them. When we do, we can end up being duped into thinking they can do no wrong, and may find ourselves defending them for actions that have no justification. As fans, true hero worship will often end up with us get burned, because athletes and coaches are human beings, subject to the same flaws and weaknesses that we all have. Holding up a man as a paragon of greatness and then finding out that it was all an illusion saps the joy from fandom, destroying the happiness that sports should be about. It might just be better to avoid holding them up as role models to begin with.

Finding A Caddy For Alex Rodriguez

When the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to a ten-year contract following the 2007 season, one of the points often raised in his favor was his durability. Alex had played in at least 146 games and batted at least 638 times in every season but one from 1996 through 2007. Sure, ten years was much too long and the deal was likely to look ugly before its conclusion, but at least Alex could be counted on to play every day. However, starting with a quad strain that caused him to play in just 138 contests in 2008, our preconceived notions about Alex’s health began to fall apart and their lack of logic was exposed.

When it comes to players on the wrong side of 30, injury problems can often crop up suddenly and linger for years, and Alex has proven to be no exception. In the four seasons since signing that contract in 2008, Alex has played in 138, 124, 137, and 99 games respectively, and has spent much of his “healthy” time battling various nagging ailments. It is fair to expect Alex to miss 25+ games per season moving forward, as he is not getting any younger and has a chronic issue with his hip that crops up every so often.

Being that Alex has become injury prone but remains an important part of the Yankees offense, it would behoove Joe Girardi to treat him very gingerly in 2012. He should be given frequent days off, and should occasionally be used as the DH to keep his bat in the lineup while allowing him to avoid the rigors of playing defense. This plan requires the Yankees to have a caddy on hand for Alex, someone who can be counted on to provide 50 games or so of adequate performance with the stick and to avoid total embarrassment with the leather. There are a number of players who loosely fit this description, so let’s take a quick look at them, RAB style:

Eric Chavez

Pros: He is a strong defensive third baseman, and he showed flashes of his old self at the plate in 2011. If clutch ability is your thing, he came through in some big spots for the Yankees last season.
Cons: Eric finished with a 79 wRC+, as his hot start was overshadowed by a very weak finish to the season with the lumber. Chavez cannot be counted upon to stay healthy, so you end up needing a caddy for your caddy. When Eduardo Nunez is that player and is throwing the ball all over the yard, you have a problem.

Wilson Betemit

Pros: Betemit can hit, with a 107 wRC+ for his career, and he does it as a switch hitter.
Cons: Switch-hitting is not quite as valuable as it first seems when his 79 wRC+ as a RHB is considered. Furthermore, while he can technically stand with a glove at all of the infield spots, he is not good at any of them, and third base may be his worst position.

Ty Wigginton

Pros: Wigginton is a league average hitter who can provide solid power off the bench. He has experience at every defensive position except CF and C.
Cons: Hitting for power is about all he can do with the bat, and he is poor defensively no matter the position. Also, he’s not a free agent, so the Yankees would have to swing a trade with the Rockies to get him.

Mark DeRosa

Pros: DeRosa, when healthy, is a league average hitter who can actually do a decent job in the infield and the outfield.
Cons: DeRosa has been hurt for most of the last two seasons, and when he did make it onto the field in 2011, it seemed that his power had abandoned him at a gas station somewhere between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Casey Blake

Pros: Blake is one of the more consistent hitters on this list, with a 105 wRC+ for his career and no season under 95 wRC+ since 2004. He is a solid defensive 3rd baseman, and has had success in right field as well.
Cons: The usually durable Blake battled a number of injuries in 2011, and was limited to 63 games played. He will turn 39 during the 2012 season.

Jamey Carroll

Pros: Carroll gets on base, with a very solid .356 OBP for his career. He is a good infielder and can fake the outfield as well.
Cons: Carroll has little power, which probably makes him more of a utility infielder and a redundancy with Eduardo Nunez on board.

Jerry Hairston Jr.

Pros: Hairston is wildly inconsistent with the bat, but when he is on, he makes a good backup infielder who can field a number of positions.
Cons: Much like Carroll, Jerry is more of a utility infielder type. The Yankees believe they already have their Hairston in Eduardo Nunez. They need to find the 2012 version of 2009 Eric Hinske, and Hairston just does not fit the mold.

Carlos Guillen

Pros: When healthy, he is a switch hitter who can hit both righties and lefties, with a particular aptitude for hitting right-handed pitching.
Cons: He has not been healthy since 2007, and is weak defensively at every infield position. Much like Chavez was coming into 2011, Guillen is a total wild card and is not someone who can be relied upon to stay on the field.

Martin Prado

Pros: Prado is quite easily the best hitter on this list, with a wRC+ of 117 or more in 3 of the last 4 seasons. He is also a very solid defensive third baseman.
Cons: Prado had a rough 2011, dealing with nagging injuries that resulted in a 85 wRC+. More importantly, he is not a free agent, but the Braves have made it known that they would like to shed his salary and have made him available.

Conclusion: Most of these candidates are fairly similar in terms of overall value, and the one player who is likely a cut above (Prado) is not a free agent. The Yankees could stay inside the organization and go with Brandon Laird, which would likely be the cheapest move, but he has yet to hit well above AA and is not great defensively. Brian Cashman might find himself in an Eduardo Nunez-induced coma if Laird flops and Rodriguez subsequently hits the DL.

Among the free agents, Casey Blake seems to be the safest bet to perform adequately offensively and defensively, as he should provide strong defense at third and could contribute close to league-average offense as well. That said, there are certainly sound arguments against signing a 38 year old who spent much of 2011 injured, and a reasonable case could be made for any of the listed players. Brian Cashman has a large group of candidates to sift through, and hopefully he finds one who can allow Joe Girardi to feel comfortable resting A-Rod on a regular basis.

Don’t Expect A Trade For An Ace

Late last week, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports both suggested that the San Francisco Giants should consider improving their club by trading ace Tim Lincecum. Cameron roped the Yankees into his argument by suggesting a swap of Lincecum and Aubrey Huff to the Bombers for a package of Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez. He argued that the deal would clear plenty of salary, thus allowing the Giants to improve their offense with free agents as well as through contributions from Montero and Nunez, and would provide the Giants more long-term value that Lincecum’s two remaining contract years would. While the idea sounds interesting in theory and certainly caught the eyes of many Yankees fans, a look at the incentives and motivations involved when trading an ace for a package of highly regarded prospects suggests that this proposed trade, as well as others like it, is extremely unlikely.

The Incentives

One extremely important factor to look at when evaluating the trade value of an ace pitcher is service time. A pitcher that has more than 2 years of team control remaining obviously has more value than one with 2 or fewer relatively cheap seasons remaining, but quantifying that value in terms of prospects can be quite tricky. This issue makes it very difficult for teams to agree upon fair value in an ace-for-prospects trade. A general manager holding a pitcher with a lot of service time remaining is unlikely to accept fair market value for him, because there are a number of factors that incentivize him to hold onto his pitcher unless he is offered a massive package of prospects in return. For example, the ace is often the face of the franchise, and trading him can lead to disillusionment in the fanbase. Regarding a young star in particular, the fans have just enjoyed watching the pitcher bloom into ace-hood, and would react poorly to seeing him dealt. Take a look at Giants blogger Grant Brisbee’s reaction to Cameron’s suggestion:

How about instead of trading him to afford other good players, how about you just buy the other good players? In the short-term, it might put them overbudget, but when the wretched contracts come off the books in the next two years, the Giants will look for ways to spend that money. Spend it now while Lincecum’s here, and hope that they’re all still effective in the future when you have to stick to the budget.

Or don’t. Subsist on the David DeJesuses and Coco Crispix of the world because of a self-imposed budget. Whatever. But don’t trade Lincecum to chase after an extra win or two, especially if all it would take is money to get those wins. That’s an easy way to make some disillusioned fans.

The thread continues for about 1000 comments that largely agree with Grant, and is illustrative of the sort of reaction that comes with trading homegrown aces. Trading Lincecum, or pitchers like Lincecum, come with an added cost of upsetting the fanbase, which makes getting an enormous return an imperative.

Additionally, while the ace pitcher’s performance is reasonably predictable (assuming he is not an extreme injury risk), prospects are significantly more volatile. As such, there is always the risk that a number of the acquired prospects bust while the ace is winning regularly for the other club, which might look incredibly bad for the general manager as it plays out over a number of seasons. Again, this incentivizes the general manager to push for as many high-end prospects as possible in the deal, even if the prospects sought exceed “fair market value,” so as to increase to the probability that he has something of value to show from the trade.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the general manager holding a pitcher with plenty of service time remaining does not have to make a deal at all. Those pitchers are relatively cheap, and the GM can usually afford to sit back and allow the pitcher to rack up wins while he waits for an above market deal to come along. Unless the team is in serious financial trouble, they have little reason to even consider trading a young ace.

Taking all of these factors together suggests that a trade for an ace with more than two seasons of control remaining would usually require the acquiring team to “blow away” the trading club, making such deals fairly unlikely. In fact, the only two trades over the last 5 seasons that meet the criteria are those of Erik Bedard to the Mariners and Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks (the second Haren trade occurred when he had a 4.60 ERA and was not perceived as an ace on the market), and both of those trades were perceived in the baseball world as overpayments by the acquiring clubs. These trades do not happen because GM’s are incentivized to avoid them, and the only way to complete one is by emptying your farm system to allow the trading GM a perceived “win.”

Conversely, as a player drops below two seasons of contract time remaining, the incentives swing in the other direction. The trading GM can tell his fanbase that he needs to trade the pitcher before he reaches free agency, thus freeing the GM to make a deal without quite the same backlash as he would encounter under different circumstances. He is now incentivized to move his player rather than lose him for nothing, and is willing to accept a “fair” deal. However, as the player inches closer to free agency, the acquiring team has competing incentives that can often impact what sort of deal gets made.

On one hand, the GM does not want to relinquish top level prospects while only getting a few months of the star in return. There is little that looks worse for a GM than giving up a major prospect for a few months of a player, the player not carrying the club to any sort of success, and then seeing the prospect star in another city. Furthermore, the acquiring club knows that the other club is desperate to receive some sort of return from the player before he hits free agency, which further pushes them to refrain from giving up their best prospects. On the other hand, clubs that seem to be on the cusp of winning are often desperate in their own right, and that could lead to them setting aside the factors mentioned above and bringing a fair offer to the table. This sort of trade happens more frequently (I counted 8 over the last 5 seasons, and the return tends to be a mixed bag), but is fairly unpredictable and requires a very specific set of circumstances.

The Conclusion

This brings us back to Lincecum and the Yankees. Lincecum, as a pitcher who has exactly two seasons of contract time remaining, could go into either category, but probably belongs in the first because the Giants have no real desperate need to move him. As such, the only way the Yankees could acquire him is to blow the Giants away, and that is simply not how Brian Cashman operates. He would likely offer Montero and Nunez for Lincecum, but it is doubtful that he would add more top prospects, and this trade is unlikely to happen without them. Any similar trade would likely run into the same problem, as Cashman’s unwillingness to include multiple top prospects in a single trade would prevent him from constructing a “blow me away” package.

This leaves those clamoring for another top arm looking to the second category of pitcher, those aces with two or fewer seasons of contract time remaining who are on teams that are motivated to move them. The problem is that unlike in past seasons, when pitchers such as Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Cliff Lee fit into that category, there is no obvious candidate to target. As I noted above, a very specific set of circumstances is required to make such a deal, and the first of those is that such a pitcher has to actually be made available. At this point, none are on the market, and it does not seem like any are on the horizon either. The only possibility seems to be Zack Greinke, and the Yankees have already shown an unwillingness to part with a representative package for him in the past.

The Upshot

All of this is a long way of saying that it is unlikely that the Yankees make a deal for an ace this offseason. However, there are a bevy of second-tier pitchers nearing the end of their contracts, all of whom could likely be had for the right price. Such pitchers make for fantastic trade speculation, because most of the incentives discussed above diminish greatly when shifted to a lower quality pitcher. Teams are more willing to relinquish such arms, and the lower cost makes them more attractive to acquiring general managers. The Giants actually have one such pitcher, with Matt Cain being a year closer to free agency than Lincecum and not quite as talented as Timmy is. John Danks and Francisco Liriano fit into this category as well, as do a handful of other pitchers who could become available in the coming months. Over the next few weeks, RAB will profile a number of these pitchers in a series that will look at trade targets who are 1) not quite aces but are still talented pitchers and 2) are in the final year of their contracts.