The Hard Choices of the Offseason

(AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel)

The offseason is the worst.

Not just for the total lack of baseball, though that’s a pretty big chunk of it. Not just the lesser sports which we are all forced to tolerate while we wait for our gentleman’s game to come back. There’s also that the decisions made during the cold winter months are a lot more permanent than the year-to-year fluctuations players have with their numbers. You can excuse away a bad year, especially if you’re trying really hard, but it’s not as easy to do so with a whopper of a trade or a big signing. Rationalizing a low average with caught line drives or a low OBP with a large strike zone against is one thing, but there’s no such protections with a big roster moves.

When the season starts, all — or many of — the numbers are influenced by randomness and factors that neither the players nor the ownerships/front office can control. That makes it easy for a fan looking for upside to feel better about his or her self. Every particular at-bat and game has so much go into it that, in most cases, there’s a bright side. Maybe the team was robbed of some stellar line drives. Maybe it was a display of warning track power. Maybe you were no-hit, but the opposing pitcher was so dominant it wasn’t even fair. Game-to-game stuff like a win or a loss can be rationalized.

Players, too. The perfect example for this is, of course, Adam Dunn. I don’t think anyone expects Adam Dunn to be as legitimately downright vomit awful as he was in 2011. That’s impossible, right? It could happen, I guess, but I (and many experts, and I assume Kenny Williams) don’t think so. Having a year like that means everything goes wrong all at once. So White Sox fans can comfort themselves knowing things will probably get better, even if Dunn isn’t the hitter he used to be. Yankees fans can have plenty of optimism in this area as well: maybe Derek Jeter stays that second-half monster he became after his injury. Maybe Alex Rodriguez stays healthy with his experimental knee surgery and his still-impressive power. Maybe Eduardo Nunez learns to field. Maybe Mark Teixeira stops hitting so many pop-ups. But even if they don’t, there’s lots of statistical noise here we can use to rationalize it. A.J. Burnett is a victim of a high HR/FB rate, for example. He’s going to be bad. But he could be slightly better.*

During the offseason, there’s nothing you can do after or during a trade. You’re stuck with the players your GM picked pick up, so here’s hoping they’re good ones. There’s no statistical noise in ‘Jesus Montero was just traded for Michael Pineda.’ You just have to hope that Brian Cashman knows what he’s doing (I personally do), and that everything will work out. It’s not like next year, Cashman gets to try again and see if he can get more for Montero, or if Montero has a massive year and Pineda’s awful, he gets to tweak the trade like a player’s mechanics to make it better. Once a trade or signing is done, that’s it. So long, thanks for all the fish. Hope everything turns out well for your team. Maybe it won’t! Of course, maybe you’ve traded Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit.

There’s no going back. Not being able to go back is scary. All you’ve got left is this new guy, looking around at his new environment and staring at the hole he’s expected to fill from the guy you kicked out. And that’s on top of hoping that the GM wasn’t emotional about this, either: having your top prospect being traded for peanuts because he hates your bunt-loving manager sounds pretty damn awful to me. You’re not gonna be able to blame that on a torn muscle.

I don’t know how I feel about the Montero/Pineda trade. It could be great. It could be awful. It makes perfect sense in my head, what with New York needing arms and Seattle needing a bat (especially considering Cashman has been trying to give Montero to Seattle for a while now), but that’s a different statement than if I I like it. I guess it’s hard to make a decision because whether I like it or not, that’s the way it is. Even if I hate it, I don’t hate it enough to stop being a Yankees fan – Pineda’s an exciting possibility, he’s shown he’s capable, and he’s got a hell of a slider. Of course, like all Yankees fans, I loved Jesus Montero like you love a baseball player — that screaming power, the youth, the team control, all the potential and none of the inevitable disappointment. I’m sure I’ll either grow to love Pineda (in a good ending), or have bitter, hateful thoughts at Montero getting AL MVP and decide the world is a joyless, terrible place (in a bad ending). That’s just how being a fan is. The fact is, of these players will be subject to the random variation that comes with the long baseball season, and we’ll be justifying what they do no matter what. But we’re stuck with who we got, and all we can do is hope it all works out. (For us, not for them. Sorry, Jesus.)

* I get some kind of sick masochistic joy out of defending A.J. Burnett. I don’t know either.
** For other views on the Montero/Pineda trade, I, like Mike, strongly advise Lookout Landing, The Best Mariners Blog.
*** Sorry I’ve been absent for a while. You will now be subject to me on a more regular basis.

A Little Bit of Luck

AP/Bill Koustron

I’m not ready to give up on A.J. Burnett.

I know, it’s stupid. I know the numbers. I know the depressing reality. I am quite sure he is going to be in the rotation next season (at least for the majority of the year), and while in the rotation he will give up a lot of dingers and a lot of walks and make Russell Martin earn whatever he’s paid. He will also make the collective fanbase want to strangle him on multiple occasions. I’m ready for it.

I know the blogosphere is going to roll their collective eyes at this, but I think Burnett could be looking at year where he brings his numbers down again. He’ll probably never live up to that $16.5M that being paid, but the continued starter crunch means that if the guy you’re paying like a starting pitcher can at least put up mediocre innings (and not outright bad ones like Burnett has a tendency to do), that would be pretty nice.

Aside from a misplaced surplus of hope, the real reason I think Burnett can improve is that many of his peripherals did increase last year. He trended upwards in ground balls for the third year in a row, dragged himself back to his normal k/9 rate of around 8, and just managed to keep his walk rate under 4/9ip. In hindsight, he was better than he was in 2010, but that wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to do. There is one number that sticks out to me, though. Maybe, like many players, Burnett was a victim of random, year-long fluctuations that make him seem worse than he actually was. I’m not saying that a little luck is going to turn him a Cy Young winner, just that there’s a possibility of a slightly less depressing year.

That is this: in 2011, 17% of all fly balls A.J. Burnett gave up turned into home runs, which lead major league baseball. That’s absurd, and obviously much higher than the MLB average of 10%. It lead to his 1.47 HR/9 ratio (third-highest in baseball behind Colby Lewis and Bronson Arroyo), and combined with his usual walk rate, had a pretty horrible effect on his numbers. Burnett gave up 109 ER this year, and 49 of them – almost half! – came from the longball. Even with his vastly improved ground ball rate, he gave up the exact same amount of earned runs as he did in 2010, and actually fewer runs if you count the unearned ones. In this trend, his infield fly ball percentage also dropped below his career average this year, which could also be part of the problem.

In 2010, Burnett gave up 215 fly balls and 25 home runs, which is a fairly average 11.6% HR/FB. In 2011, Burnett gave up 185 fly balls and 31 home runs, causing this massive spike. Curiously enough, Burnett has been trending downwards in fly balls for all three years of his Yankees contract, while his homer rate is going up for the past four years, starting back in Toronto in 2008. Some of that massive 17% is coming from depressing A.J. Burnett statistics: dropping fastball velocity, missed location, age-related decline, that sort of depressing junk. Perhaps ballplayers are simply sizing him better. Some of it might come from the fact he spends plenty of time in the homer-happy AL East. But the enormous uptick makes me want to believe that some of it is simply part of year-to-year randomness, and that while A.J. is far from an ace, a few less dingers would go a long way to helping him and the team. Even if we keep his HR/FB rate above average at 14%, that means he gives up five fewer homers, which could do a lot for the man – especially if people were on-base at those particular times.

Like I said, I don’t think that a few less dingers is going to turn A.J. Burnett into an immensely valuable asset. But considering that the Yankees are probably not going to be able to find someone to take Burnett and Brian Cashman insists that the man is going to spend most of the year – if not all of it – in the rotation, it’s these small quirks that we have to try and rely on to improve his performance. In this case, the Yankees could use a little luck when it comes to Burnett, or even just the scales tipping even again.

Predicting the 2012 Bullpen

Pretty sure I know when he's coming in.
(Photo Credit: Flickr user BrainNY08 via Creative Commons license)

I know, it’s early. But considering the internet is buzzing with excitement over Jamey Carroll, let’s talk about the Bombers.

One of the strengths of the 2011 Yankees was the bullpen. Even though the team signed a big-name, big-money arm to help in the later innings, the ‘pen in March was quite different from the way it ended up being in September and/or August. Baseball nerds talk a lot about the volatility of relievers, but it seemed that New York was extremely capable of figuring out how to put the pieces together in just the right way. The ERA of the bullpen in 2011 was 3.12, good for fourth in baseball, and topped by only hitting-depleted National League teams (Atlanta, San Diego, and San Francisco). They held opponents to a .239/.319/.358 with a 2.32 K/BB ratio. Last year’s bullpen craziness only prove the futility of predicting baseball, but I am going to do it anyway.

Helping me on this is knowing Girardi loves a good bullpen role. I can’t hold it against the guy: it makes for a great excuse when something goes wrong and eliminates most of the questions be asked about bringing in Robertson into a high-leverage situation in the fourth inning. Let’s say Girardi goes with a six-man bullpen broken up as follows: Closer, eighth inning guy (EIG), seventh inning guy (SIG), one LOOGY, a fireman, and a mop-up man/long reliever/spot starter.

I don’t think we need to discuss who comes in for the ninth inning, but it’s fun to talk about, so there’s this: Rivera continued to make time and opposing batters his bitches, putting up his usual ERA under two (1.91) for the fourth year in a row with a WHIP under one (third year in a row). He walked 8 unintentionally in 61 IP while striking out 60 with a FIP of 2.19. In the meantime, he broke the all-time saves record, cured the sick and opened the eyes of the blind. Just your usual year for the ERA+ leader min. 1000 IP.

It’s in the eighth inning that we begin to see a logjam. Even if we only talk about who will be on the 25-man to begin with, there’s still a conflict between Rafael Soriano and David Robertson. Soriano is being paid the money of a closer ($11M in 2012) but he’s stuck as eighth inning guy for obvious reasons. Despite that, he put up his weakest year since 2002 with Seattle and was on the 60-day DL with shoulder soreness to boot. His career numbers are still great, even with his awful 2011, and he’s certainly capable of EIG duties.

Our other alternative is David Robertson. The man faces arbitration this offseason for the first time, but he’ll still be making relative peanuts ($1M-1.3M) to an organization like NYY. For every depressing note in Soriano’s year, there’s an amazing one for Robertson: His ERA+ for the season was 410, he struck out 100 in 66.2 IP, he gave up 8 ER all season, and he managed a k/9 of over 13. In 19 bases-loaded PA, he allowed one hit. In 127 high leverage PAs, he held hitters to a .129/.236/.171 slash line. He wears amazing high socks too.

If the bullpen is a year-to-year meritocracy, then Robertson obviously wins the EIG spot, of which he occupied for most of 2011 after Joba and Soriano went down. He was clearly the better of the two, despite his lack of closer experience, younger age and super cheap price tag. That being said, my gut feeling is that Soriano will probably start the year as the EIG simply because that is what he was signed to be. Robertson’s best role is probably high-leverage fireman, so it’s probably better for both of them if the eighth becomes Soriano’s.

If Soriano becomes EIG and Robertson takes the fireman spot, then that leaves Cory Wade (team control and not up for arbitration untll 2012-13 offseason) or Phil Hughes (if he doesn’t make the rotation) to man the seventh inning.

Having both a fireman and a seventh inning guy in a six-man bullpen means you’re probably going to only have one lefty, and everyone knows it’s gonna be Boone Logan. Despite generally being not that great – at times he was actually better against righties than lefties even though he’s considered a LOOGY – number 58 seems to show up at random times for match-ups. This is the reason he’ll show up in 2012: the lefty reliever free agent list. This is it: Darren Oliver, George Sherrill, Mike Gonzalez, J.C. Romero, Horacio Ramirez, Trevor Miller, John Grabow, Arthur Rhodes, and Damaso Marte. Thrilling, I know. Not only that, but the Yankees are a little empty in the farm for lefty relievers. Unless they’re making Banuelos a LOOGY (which would make me tear my ponytail out), the only vaguely prospect-ish possibility is Steve Garrison, who we saw briefly in pinstripes, or maybe even Shaeffer Hall. Though only having one lefty is risky, it gives Girardi the flexibility to have a fireman with his eighth and seventh inning guys, allowing Robertson to slot into his true role and letting the binder have a man for every inning.

The last spot left to be assigned in our hypothetical bullpen is the longman/mop-up guy. Last year, Hector Noesi was here, though it seems like there’s a definite possibility he will be in the rotation come 2012. AJ Burnett is a possibility, but given Cashman’s repeated statements that the man will be in the rotation, it’s unlikely. If Noesi does make the rotation, he might be taking Phil Hughes’ job, but I don’t the Yankees organization has given up on Hughes so much that they make him the mop-up guy.

The problem with being the mop-up guy is that the work is generally inconsistent and not good for a prospect. This is why Noesi occupied the spot rather than anyone else. Due to this, it’s hard to say exactly who could end up here. If Cashman wants to build from within (probably safer, given the inflated reliever market), he could pick out any of the AAA guys like Whelan, Kontos, or DJ Mitchell. There’s also the infinitely useful minor league deal to one of the hundreds of minor league free agents. Mitchell threw 161 IP of 3.18 ERA ball in Scranton, so he gets the spot for now.

Here are some possible combinations.

Hughes makes the rotation and Noesi doesn’t.
Closer: Rivera
EIG: Soriano
SIG: Wade
Fireman: Robertson
LOOGY: Logan
Mop-up: Noesi

Neither Hughes nor Noesi make the rotation.
Rivera
Soriano
Hughes
Robertson
Logan
Noesi

Hughes doesn’t make the rotation but Noesi does.
Rivera
Soriano
Hughes
Robertson
Logan
Mitchell

Both Hughes and Noesi make the rotation.
Rivera
Soriano
Wade
Robertson
Logan
Mitchell

As I said earlier, the thing abut bullpens is that they’re extremely chaotic. We know that Joba will be coming back soon, though we don’t know when, and we don’t whose job he’s taking. Alternately, Soriano could get injured, giving Joba his spot. Or, anyone else could get injured. That’s what relievers do. They get hurt and are randomly unpredictable. Besides Mo. Mo will be the best and unhurt forever and ever.

The Day After

Blowout Incoming....

Personally, a good blowout always gave me confidence. When you look at a team that absolutely goes to town on another team, it brings to mind the messiest intangible: momentum. In a sport where play goes uninterrupted during a game, like hockey or basketball, momentum makes a little more sense. But in baseball, pauses are routine, and what we may think of as momentum still has a lots of empty space. Even in a quicker sport, it’s hard to think momentum might work when a day goes by in between one game and the next.

When the Yankees gave the Tigers a proper whooping in game 4, there was a good feeling: the bats were alive. The hitters had their eyes on the ball. AJ Burnett had actually pitched a pretty decent game against a relatively decent lineup! The bullpen had done pretty well! How could anything go wrong? But then, a small part of me crept into my brain, thinking about a blowout the Yankees had given to Oakland, where they’d hit a record three grand slams. The next day was a seven-run loss to Baltimore. This got me thinking: was there a hangover effect involved in these blowout games? The Yankees have always been a heavy-slugging team, but maybe their collective arms (and bats) got tired after all those runs in one night. As I’d feared, the Yankees’ bats got quiet, and then went without much of a run-related peep into the dark night of the offseason.

For this experiment, we’ll assume that a “blowout” entails winning by 7+ runs. I’m using 7+ as my measure over Baseball Reference’s 5+, just because I feel like saying the Yankees blow the team out almost 20% of the time is a little absurd. I’ll ratchet up the amount of runs needed for a blowout to see if there is a certain amount of good pitching and hitting that makes a team tired for the next day. If you don’t like it, feel free to talk about how much you hate me in the comments.

Anyway, by the 7+ measure, the Yankees had 17 blowouts, the biggest being the Grand Slamorama against the A’s (22-9) and the smallest being an August game against Minnesota (8-1). After a blowout, the Yankees went 11-6, which says that even when the Yankees weren’t scoring a lot of runs, the pitchers were at least helping out. In the blowout games, the Yankees banged out 216 runs (average of 12.7 R/G), but in the game-afters, they only managed 84. I don’t think this is because they were tired, actually, but rather that it’s just really hard to score a lot of runs, even against a crappy team. The Yankees only managed to score 10+ runs in back-to-back games once, and both were blowouts. It was against the (sigh) AL Champion Texas Rangers on June 14th and 15th. Curiously enough, 84 runs over 17 games is about 4.8 runs/game, and Yankees averaged about 5.4 runs/game, and Yankees averaged about 5.5 runs/game over the 162 game season, so it is a little under, but not by much. On the hitting side, over an 162 game season, the Yankees had a 3.63 ERA (which is good for fourth in the AL, by the way). During blowouts, the pitching staff’s ERA actually went down (3.23), so there wasn’t any pitching to the score going on, at least in this sample. The hangover-over blowout effect looks just like another great example of confirmation bias and selective memory. We remember unusual events even if they’re uncommon, like blowing a team out and losing the next day, which the Yankees only did six times in an 162 game season.

Let’s bump it up. Let’s say it that you have to score 8 runs to have a blowout. In this case, the Yankees only had eleven blowouts. They scored 159 runs over these 11 games, bumping their average R/G up to 14.4 (!). After blowouts of 8 R+, they went 7-4, an almost identical win percentage to 7+. The Yankees pitching picked up a 3.81 ERA (all the runs were earned), slightly higher than their season norm. We’ll bump it up just one more, to 9+ runs equaling a blowout. This lowers the sample to seven games, and the Yankees scored 114 runs and averaged 16.2 runs per game, which is pretty awesome (even if it’s only a seven game sample). The pitching staff held opponents with a 4.71 ERA, which is significantly higher. Although you could argue there’s a pitching-to-the-score argument here with these two consecutive raises, I don’t think it’s that the score caused the bad pitching, I think it’s because you have to score a lot of runs to have that high an ERA and still lose. In other words, the bad score doesn’t cause the pitching, but the massive offense causes the bad pitching to be included in the winning numbers.

To keep the sample marginally sized, we’ll return to blowout = 7+ and throw down some more stats from that. The Yankees had all 17 of their 7+ run blowouts verses 10 teams, six of which were under .500 (MIN, SEA, CWS, BAL, OAK, and CLE). The Indians, Mariners, Twins and Rays were blown out by only 7 runs and were all blown out once. Not surprisingly, they had the most blowouts verses Baltimore (4) and (amusingly) the second-most vs Texas (3). The Yankees also blew out 3 other playoff teams (TBR, MIL, & TEX), and, to put the icing on the cake, Boston.

In conclusion, the Yankees score a lot of runs. I think we had a really good offensive club here, guys.

Did the Short Porch Sink the Yankees?

Amount of parks this is a home run in: 1.

The “too many homers” narrative was one of the most common ones to the plague the Yankees this year, staring from game 1 (home runs from Granderson and Teixeira) and dragging all the way through the season. The Yankees eventually finished first in home runs with 222 and second in total runs with 867, meaning that roughly 25% of all the runs the Yankees scored were via the longball. While this seems like a lot, the fightin’ Baltimore Showalters had 191 home runs and 708 runs, pulling almost 30% of their runs from dingers. I guess that’s what happens when you employ Mark Reynolds. Yankees fans have spent most of the year making fun of this narrative and defending the team from it.

However, it was the long ball that both carried and sunk the Yankees in this short series. The right field short porch that has been so constantly vilified (but only when the Yankees hit homers in there), allowed Delmon Young, Miguel Cabrera, and Don Kelly to launch it out of the park. Two of those homers, Kelly’s in game 5 and Cabrera’s in game 2 would help sink the Bombers entirely. According to Hit Tracker Online, Delmon Young’s homer in the first part of game 1 would have been a homer in only one park: you guessed it, New Yankee Stadium. Cabrera’s was a homer in only two, while Don Kelly’s would have gone out in five different stadiums. Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson (Game 2) both would have left the park in seven different stadiums, while Delmon Young (a la game 5), and Robinson Cano (both times) hit it big enough to go out in every park.

It would have been nice if the Yankees could have take advantage of their own homer-friendly park (and Derek Jeter certainly tried), but in lieu of that, a clutch hit would have helped, in either Comerica or New York. Could the Yankees not get the hits with runners in scoring position at the most unfortunate time this year?

Game 1

Yankees: 2-for-12 w/ RISP, one homer (Cano)
Tigers: 4-for-7 w/RISP, one homer (Young)

Yankee Stadium Specials: one (Detroit)
Yankee hits w/ RISP that weren’t homers: (2: Cano, Gardner)

Game 2

Yankees: 0-for-7 w/ RISP, two homers (Swisher, Granderson)
Tigers: 3-for-10 w/ RISP, one homer (Cabrera)

Yankee Stadium Specials: one (Detroit)
Yankee hits /w RISP that weren’t homers: 0

Game 5

Yankees: 2-for-9 w/ RISP, one homer Cano)
Tigers: 1-for-9 w/ RISP, two homers (Kelly, Young)

Yankee Stadium Specials: 0 (You could argue Don Kelly’s was, but I’m going to say no.)
Yankees hits with RISP that weren’t homers: 1 (Cano, though this did not score a run)

It’s morbidly entertaining to me to see that another team can take advantage of a stadium feature that the team was constructed to use for their advantage, and then use it to thoroughly beat the Yankees. I’m not complaining about the short porch, just saying that it helps and harms in equal measure. The two runs Cabrera scored in game 2 were all that decided the game, and the tentative YS Special of Don Kelly’s dinger decided the series in the end. Plus, in Yankee Stadium, the Yankees went a total of 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position with a bases loaded walk, with only one of those hits being a home run (Cano), and one of them not scoring a hit at all. That really says it all.


PS: Does anyone have an official qualifier for what makes a Yankee Stadium Special? Footage? Exact row?