It all keeps coming back to Cliff Lee. A year ago, the Yankees were on the precipice of acquiring Lee from the Mariners, a feat which would have given them one of the best rotations in baseball. They failed, and a short time later were bounced from the playoffs by a team led by Cliff Lee. Soon after, they saw Cliff Lee spurn the them for the Phillies in free agency. By my count, that’s three separate instances of Cliff Lee-induced pain. When Andy Pettitte retired a few months after Lee went to Philadelphia, Cashman pivoted. In a manner reminiscent of the Red Sox in 2009, the Yankees decided to build the rotation on the cheap, allowing Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova to battle it out for the two remaining rotation slots (the other three being occupied by Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes). Once Hughes went down with an injury, Colon took his spot and performed admirably. Garcia has been fantastic too. Yet all along it’s seemed as if plan for the Yankees’ rotation was to run with these guys until a better option arose on the trade market. Freddy Garcia’s nice and all, but shouldn’t the Yankees go into battle in October with a serious complement to Sabathia? Yet here we stand a mere week or so away from the trade deadline and there seems to be no complement available? Where are the pitchers? Where are the targets? Where are the potential upgrades?
A few big names have arisen, to be sure. Ubaldo Jimenez was the target last week, but it doesn’t seem that Colorado is serious about trading him. Some have suggested that they were simply recognizing that the market was very weak and seeing if some team (like the Yankees) would be willing to panic and overpay for their lanky and affordable ace. In the absence of that a deal seems unlikely. James Shields has also been rumored to be available, but not to the Yankees. If Tampa decides to move the putative ace it won’t likely be an intra-divisional move. Hiroki Kuroda would be a potential option, one for whom I’ve long advocated, but his no-trade clause puts him in the driver’s seat and means that he’ll determine whether he gets traded and to where he gets traded. John Danks would be a nice upgrade, but there’s no indication that the White Sox are looking to move a starter and the teams don’t even match up particularly well for a trade anyway. Who’s left, Jason Marquis?
A year ago the Yankees came close to having a very good rotation and no Jesus Montero when they offered Seattle Montero for Lee. That deal fell through. A few months later, they came close to having a very good rotation and Jesus Montero when they tried to get Cliff Lee for nothing more than money. That deal fell through. The plus side is that the Yankees still have Montero, of course. Whether they really want him is another question. They don’t seem to have any interest in calling him up any time soon, and Cashman has gone out of his way to make it clear that Montero is available in trades. Yet there is no Cliff Lee on the market this year, no pitcher for whom Montero would be a suitable return. Right now the effort to swap Montero for a pitcher looks a day late and a buck short.
There is serious downside risk in relying on the trade market. Sometimes the targets don’t materialize and other times your assets don’t matchup with the best available targets. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of Cashman. No one that I’m aware of predicted that the Yankees would whiff on Lee twice, lose Pettitte to retirement, and then find themselves unable to upgrade the rotation via the trade market at all. It sounds like a worst-case scenario dreamt up on a Red Sox message board. Yet, as of July 23rd that’s exactly what’s happened. The best pitcher truly on the market seems to be Kuroda, a pitcher with a no-trade clause and a disinclination to leave Los Angeles. It’s not the situation the Yankees hoped to be in at this point.
The old saying is that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You can always hope that better opportunities arise later, but your risk goes up the further away you are from the acquisition target. This entire market could change very quickly, and that’s what makes the trade deadline so exciting. Yet, as of today it looks like the Yankees are dancing alone. The most realistic option at this point seems very unlikely, but I suppose there’s no harm in continuing to beat the drum once more, until the deadline passes. Help us, Hiroki. You’re our only hope!
One of the biggest ironies of the new stat age is that the development of sophisticated and nuanced analytical tools like WAR provide the reader with a shortcut and enable the same type of lazy, simplistic analysis the tools were created to avoid. One doesn’t need to travel very far to find instances of this sort: see the use of single-season fWAR to settle debates on All-Star selections/snubs or MVP ballots. For the uninitiated, this is “doing it wrong”. WAR is comprised of many components: baserunning, fielding, and offense, among others. When it comes to fielding, a large sample of data is required in order to ensure reliability. In fact, many say that 3 seasons of UZR data is a good sample size. But single-season fWAR considers only the UZR data in that given year. This doesn’t mean that single-season fWAR is useless, just that some caution and editorial discretion is required in its application.
This isn’t the fault of WAR’s framework, although one can be forgiven for wishing there was some sort of warning sign attached to it on the Fangraphs’ leaderboards with a blinking light and a flashing message: “BEWARE! Small sample sizes still apply! Especially with the defensive component!”. Rather, the misuse of the framework is more user error than anything else. Drivers are responsible for knowing how to properly operate a car; analysts are responsible for knowing how to use WAR. They’re also responsible for not intentionally misuing WAR, or any other stat, to serve a preexisting agenda.
This gets us to a simple point, which is this: it’s the duty of the analyst to use the tools and frameworks wisely, with humility and honesty, and to create a margin of space which allows for tolerance and ambiguity. This is decidedly antithetical to the approach found so often in many popular forums: assert a controversial opinion, get pageviews, profit. But it’s a better approach. It’s not easy, and it requires far more work than making a few clicks on Fangraphs and spouting off an opinion on “Who’s better this year”, but it’s the way to circumvent the dogmatism and unsophisticated analysis we find so distasteful when we see it anywhere else.
One of the most hair-raising parts of George Orwell’s book Animal Farm is when the animals look through the window and find that the faces of the pigs have become indistinguishable from the faces of the humans that they all worked together to overthrow. The symbolism is unmistakeable: once they achieved their goals they became what they hated. The message is of course a political one, but it has bearing in the world of baseball analysis. This movement – call it a SABR movement, a stat movement, a mouth-breathing basement-dwelling movement, whatever you like – is only gathering more and more steam. WAR is on Baseball Tonight. David Cone broadcasts the virtues of FIP to the entire YES Network audience. It’s only getting bigger and stronger.
As the movement expands it will become easier to develop a more rigid orthodoxy. This isn’t necessarily bad. In a religious sense orthodoxy maintains the purity of a belief system, prevents false doctrines from gaining root amongst believers, and roots out heretics. In the world of baseball analysis it is far less coherent, systematic or discursive. But there’s still orthodoxy. There’s still a set of rules, however loose, analysts are playing by. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but the risk is that orthodoxy can turn into dogmatism, which will stifle the innovative and free-thinking spirit which animated the movement in the beginning. Then the movement will stop growing, and it will be dead and boring. Consider this a call to keep that spirit alive, to keep hustling and thinking outside the box, to not use single-season WAR in an irresponsible way and to be ready to set aside WAR and any other metric, state or framework as inferior when the next innovation comes along.
This post originally ran Saturday morning but quickly got buried by the news of Alex Rodriguez‘s torn meniscus, so we’re bumping back up because it’s really good and you should read it. Enjoy.
Recently Patrick Sullivan of Over the Monster and Baseball Analysts fame ignited a debate when he said the following: “You know who’s not as good as Dustin Pedroia? Like, not at all? Robinson Cano“. Them’s fightin’ words, pal. Sullivan later said that he dug in so stridently for fun on Twitter, but there’s an honest debate to be had here over the value of the two players. Is he right? Who is better, Cano or Pedroia? In order to answer the question, we need to evaluate all aspects to each player’s game: offense, base running and defense. We’ll run through each category, then examine the each player’s fWAR. We’ll also introduce a variation on WAR which I’ve lovingly dubbed RABWAR. Let’s get to it.
Offense: light tower power vs. the little on-base machine that could
Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia are both elite offensive forces at the plate. They just go about their business in differ manners. Cano is impatient. He rarely takes a base on balls, preferring to attack early in the count. As a result, he averages a walk rate of about 5% every year, a subpar showing. He makes up for this by hitting for average and for power. He’s a lifetime .308 hitter with a career slugging percentage of .492. The latter mark belies his true power skill, though. His power has been far more substantial in the past three years, and he’s slugged .520, .534 and .526 (including 2011).
For a second baseman, Cano’s power is superlative. Since 2009 his slugging percentage is .526, the highest in baseball among second baseman. The next closest is Chase Utley at .478. Cano also has the highest batting average among second baseman since 2009. Cano is the owner of a career .358 wOBA. Like his slugging, this mark is well below his totals in the past three years: .370, .389 and .375. It’s true that using 2009 as a start point is both arbitrary and favorable to Cano, but it’s also worth noting that he’s entering his physical prime. As a matter of true talent and future expectations, his 2009-2011 data would seem to be more relevant than what he did in his early 20s. This is the book on Cano: an elite hitter with poor on-base skills but who hits for average and power better than nearly anyone at his position.
Dustin Pedroia is a different animal. Like Cano, Pedroia hits for average (career .301 hitter). He’s also shown a decent amount of power with a .455 career slugging percentage, although this is well below Cano. Where he really sets himself apart is his on-base ability. Pedroia’s career walk rate is almost 10%, and this year he’s notched a 15% mark. He’s very patient at the plate and is extremely difficult to strike out, although he’s struck out more recently. Over the past 3 years, Pedroia has an on-base percentage of .376, a mark second only to Chase Utley’s .391. Overall, Pedroia has a career wOBA of .366, .08 points higher than Robinson Cano. Unlike Cano, Pedroia does not benefit from using a sample of only the past three years. His wOBA from 2009 to 2011 is .366, identical to his career average. Who’s the better overall hitter then?
As you can see, Cano has edged Pedroia out in wOBA since the start of 2009, but Pedroia has been more consistent since 2007. It’s also worth noting that Pedroia outperforms Cano slightly in wRC+, which is like a wOBA-based version of OPS+. Pedroia has a career mark of 120, and Cano’s career wRC+ is 118. In the past three years, Pedroia’s respective wRC+ marks are 113, 132 and 129. Cano’s are 121, 142 and 137. In terms of overall offensive production, the two are very, very close. I’d like to give the category to Cano because of his tremendous upside, but his lack of a respectable walk rate means that his overall production is more likely to be the victim of the capricious whim of the BABIP dragons. This one’s a tossup.
Base running: don’t even think about it vs. the constant threat
Yankees fans know that Robinson Cano should never try to steal a base. He still tries though, and manages to swipe about 5 bases a year, giving him a career total of 26 stolen bases. He’s been caught a staggering 24 times though, meaning that his success rate is just over 50%. Pedroia is far better at stealing bases. He’s stolen 72 bases in his career and averages around 20 a year when he’s healthy. Unlike Cano, he hasn’t gotten thrown out that often – his total caught stealing mark is 15, giving him a success rate of around 83%.
There’s more to base running than just stealing bases, though. For that we can turn to two very good base running stats, both of which attempt to quantify how many runs are contributed by a player’s advancement on the bases by considering ground, air and hit advancements. Baseball Prospectus’ version is EqBRR, short for Equivalent Base Running Runs. In addition to ground, air and hit advancements it also includes stolen bases and other advancements like wild pitches. Fangraphs’ version does not include these considerations. According to EqBRR, Robinson Cano has been worth only 1.2 runs on the base paths for his entire career, while Dustin Pedroia has been worth 7.5 runs. This is despite the fact that Cano has played in over three hundred more games than Pedroia. It’s worth noting that Cano’s mark was negative prior to this season; he’s only in the black because he’s been worth 1.5 runs on the basepaths in 2011, bolstered by very high scores on ground and air advancement. In sum, by Baseball Prospectus’ measure Pedroia’s been worth about a half a win more than Cano on the bases.
Fangraphs’ base running stat is UBR, or Ultimate Base Running, and you can read about here. This metric grades Cano out much better than Pedroia, a surprising result. By UBR’s reckoning, Cano has been worth 4.1 runs on the base paths, while Pedroia has been worth -0.4. As mentioned, UBR does not include stolen bases, and we know that there’s a gigantic discrepancy between the two players when it comes to this factor. As such, EqBRR is probably a better indicator of base running value here, which means Pedroia gets the nod in this category.
Defense: depends on who you ask
It’d be really easy to provide the relevant UZR scores for each player and call it a day. It would also be incomplete. Astute readers know that there are some serious difficulties present in UZR and other defensive metrics. Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers has been cleaning the glass like Dennis Rodman on the topic for quite some time now and has proposed an alternative, FRAA. For a primer on the issue, see this piece on the serious problems with most defensive metrics, this piece which summarizes the park-scorer and range biases problems and proposes a way forward, and this piece which examines FRAA against UZR on the topic of Derek Jeter. Colin Wyers summarizes FRAA accordingly:
Simply put, we count how many plays a player made, as well as expected plays for the average player at that position based upon a pitcher’s estimated ground-ball tendencies and the handedness of the batter. There are also adjustments for park and the base-out situations; depending on whether there are runners on base, as well as the number of outs, the shortstop may position himself differently, and we account for that in the average baselines.
The other metrics use other data to come to their estimate of expected outs—in the cases of UZR and DRS, it’s batted-ball and hit location data measured by BIS video scouts. In the cases of TZ and FRAA, it’s data collected by press box stringers working for MLB’s Gameday product.
So we have two different metrics both attempting to quantify defensive value, just in different ways. How do the two second-baseman, Cano and Pedroia, stack up against each other using UZR and FRAA? We’ll start with Cano:
Wowza. UZR hates Cano’s performance with the white hot intensity of a supernova, grading him out at -39.3 runs above average at second base. It’s given him a negative value for every year but 2007, although the worst scores came early in his career. The overwhelming majority of Cano’s poor UZR mark comes from his range. He grades out at nearly average in terms of double play and error runs above average, but has a -36.4 runs above average mark for range. Unlike UZR, FRAA is a huge fan, grading him at 31.2 runs above average. This is a difference of over 70 runs and clearly raises big questions. Other defensive metrics aren’t as harsh on Cano as UZR is, but none are as positive as FRAA. Where you come down on Cano’s defense, then, is likely informed by your own subjective evaluation from watching him. I’d split the difference. Cano certainly doesn’t strike me as a lousy defender, he gets to plenty of balls and turns a double play smoother than anyone. At the same time, I wouldn’t call him an elite defender. He simply doesn’t strike me as being cut from the same elite defensive cloth as someone like Adrian Beltre or Mark Ellis.
Like Cano, UZR and FRAA also see Pedroia differently. He grades out superbly by UZR’s standards, clocking in at 32.5 runs above average for his career, but looks far worse according to FRAA, scoring -1.2 runs above average. From a subjective standpoint, I’d argue that Pedroia is a very good defender. Whether he’s as good as UZR purports him to be is difficult to say. There are serious issues surrounding defensive metrics, so declaring a winner in this category is difficult. In this situation it’s wise to follow the advice of Tom Tango, who recommends we assume that all sides have something to add and take the midpoint. In that case, this category goes to Pedroia if only because of how poorly UZR grades Cano.
Conclusion: the final countdown
“What WAR gives us is a systematic, consistent framework to value the accomplishments of players. The good thing about a framework is that each person is free to create his own implementation. Not all houses are built the same, but they all follow the same principle. That’s what WAR gives us.” – Tom Tango.
Fangraphs’ WAR, which uses UBR for baserunning and UZR for defense, grades the two players accordingly:
By this standard, Pedroia is the clear winner. Give Pedroia some 1200 more plate appearances, and he would lead Cano by a wide margin. But as we know, fWAR relies on Fangraphs’ UBR and UZR. So let’s swap out UBR and UZR for Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR and FRAA, respectively. We’ll call this little SABR-demon spawn RABWAR.
Here Cano is the clear winner, thanks largely to the difference in the way their defense is scored. So who is better: Cano or Pedroia? The offense is a tossup, the base running goes to Pedroia and the defense is a toss-up leaning towards Pedroia. At the end of the day, whether you pick Pedroia or Cano will likely hinge on which defensive metric you prefer, or which team you prefer. Cano and Pedroia are both incredibly talented second baseman and it’s tough to see any daylight between their two respective statistical profiles. In this sense, the claim that Cano is not “nearly as good” as Pedroia simply doesn’t ring true. If I was forced to pick between the two and was able to erase their prior team affiliations from my mind I’d likely go with Pedroia, in no small part because of my preference for his approach at the plate. It’s a very difficult choice though, unless I’m allowed to pick from the other division rival and take Ben Zobrist. Now there’s a second baseman.
Special thanks to Joe Pawlikowski and Moshe Mandel for their contributions to this piece.
As weird as it seems now, Bartolo Colon began the season in the bullpen after losing the 5th starter battle to Freddy Garcia back in March. While Colon had out-pitched Garcia in Spring Training, and while his stuff looked fantastic, there were serious questions about his durability. This wasn’t exactly an unfounded concern – Colon is 38 years old, didn’t pitch at all in the majors last season, and last topped 100 innings back in 2005. “Eater” is a word that comes to mind when one thinks of Bartolo, but it’s in connection with food, not innings.
So thank goodness, in a sense, for Phil Hughes‘ dead arm. As it turned out, Hughes’ injury opened the door for Colon and allowed the Yankees to see what they really had in him. Despite a rough outing last time out, he has really come up in spades for the team. Aided by a shoulder rejuvenated by a controversial stem-cell procedure, Colon has been the second-best starter on the 2011 Yankees. As comeback stories go, this one is almost a bit too good to be true. Indeed, this veteran and two-time All Star is having the best season of his length career, even better than when he beat out Johan Santana for the Cy Young in 2005.
In 2005 Colon pitched 222.2 innings of 3.48 ERA ball for the Angels. His W-L record was sterling, 21-8, and was no doubt the driving force behind him winning the Cy Young. Colon’s K rate was 6.35/9, not exactly the highest strikeout rate of Cy Young winners, but he only handed out 1.74 walks per nine innings. His FIP on the year was 3.75, and his xFIP was 3.91. This year he’s doing even better. He’s struck out 7.90 batters per nine innings so far in 2011 while maintaining his typically low walk rate of 2.20/9. His BABIP is a touch lower than his career norm (and his last outing certainly helped bring it closer to average), but other than that there’s there’s no indication that Colon has benefited from anything unsustainable or odd. By all measures, this is a career year for Bartolo Colon, and he looks fantastic. His two-seam fastball is a jaw-dropper when it’s on. You can see it here at 0:54.
A lot of analysts have been expecting the Yankees to be in the market for front-line pitching. By all indications, they are. But a lot of the preseason speculation on the topic was predicated on the notion that either A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes represented the Yankees #2 starter, and that Garcia/Colon/Nova were simply back-end guys designed to soak up innings to be moved out when the reinforcements arrived. No one expected Colon to become that #2 starter for the team. But that’s what he is, and it’s not a mirage. He has the 11th lowest SIERA of any AL pitcher, better than Jon Lester, CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett, albeit in fewer innings.
It’s hard to imagine that a story on the New York Yankees would go relatively underreported, but it seems as if that’s what’s happened with Bartolo. A fair amount of attention has been given to his surgery, but not enough has been given to the fact that he’s having a career season at the ripe old age of 38. There is concern about his durability – the last time he cracked even 100 innings was 2005 – and perhaps the Yankees would be wise to monitor his workload down the stretch. But the fact remains that as of today he represents a viable #2 starter behind CC Sabathia, giving the Yankees flexibility as they head into the trade deadline. These 90 innings from Bartolo and ~1.6 fWAR are no small reason the Yankees are tied with Boston in the loss column for first place in July.
The chapter on this season’s New York Yankees isn’t written yet. It’s barely halfway through. No matter what happens with this club – whether they miss the playoffs, get knocked out, or cruise down the Canyon of Heroes in November through a shower of praise and confetti – there’s no doubt that Bartolo Colon has contributed in a large way to the success of this team. Something Girardi said back in Spring Training now rings true, not only for Spring Training but also as an epitapth for the season at its midpoint: “Bartolo was the wild card in all of this”.
Over at The Process Report, Chris St. John recently examined a few select offensive statistics for the Tampa Bay Rays. In particular St. John keyed in on strikeout rate, line drive rate, and pitches per plate appearance. He contrasted each player’s current 2011 numbers with their career numbers (and didn’t include the 2011 numbers in the career numbers). This is a worthy exercise as we’re at a point in the season where plenty of statistics find a large enough sample size to stabilize. I’ve followed his lead using two basic plate approach statistics: walk rate and strikeout rate. Like St. John, I’ve excluded the 2011 numbers from career totals. I’ve also calculated strikeout rate using plate appearances, rather than at-bats, as the denominator. Fangraphs uses at-bats, but plate appearances is a more helpful and logical choice. Data is current through Friday morning, and we’ll kick it off with walk rate.
The two big movers up are Granderson and Swisher. Swisher in particular is notable given his slow start. Despite a low BABIP and poor power numbers, particularly from the left side, Swisher is currently posting the best walk rate and on-base percentage of his entire career. As a result, he’s assembled offensive numbers well above league average, albeit in a depressed offensive environment league-wide. This is good to see. Swisher has had a rough go of it this year, a year which in essence represents a contract year, and even though he’s found himself on the short end of the stick luck-wise he’s still been able to maintain his patience at the plate. Plate discipline is both talent and skill, and Nick Swisher has both.
On the down side is Jorge Posada. It’s not terribly hard to read the between the lines on this one. As he gets older and his bat slows down it would seem logical that Posada would find more pitchers challenging him in the zone. His slow start, no matter how much it was founded on ill-fortune, likely did nothing to discourage this. Despite the dip, it’s worthy to note that his walk rate is still above league average.
Don’t be confused by the color scheme change. Green is still good, and red is still bad. Here we see Jeter, Teixeira and Swisher lopping off a decent amount of strikeouts against their historical averages. The cynic would argue that Jeter is striking out less because he’s grounding out to second on the first pitch more. Jeter is actually seeing more pitches per plate appearance this year than in years past, but perhaps more work in this area is required to draw conclusions. It’s also nice to see Swisher reduce his strikeout rate. Peripherals-wise he’s having a very respectable year. It’ll be easier to believe it as the results continue to follow.
On the other side, Martin and Cano are striking out more than they have in the past. Granderson is also striking out more, but no one’s complaining about his year whatsoever. Ultimately, these guys are only halfway through their season and have plenty of time to sort things out at the plate. There’s nothing extremely problematic here, aside from the burr in the saddle that is Robinson Cano‘s plate discipline, and in one respect (Nick Swisher) this data is tremendously encouraging. Will this data hold, or regress to career norms? Time will tell.
One way to define an outlier is one observation that deviates in a notable manner from the other observations in a sample. Here’s a graph of Robinson Cano‘s on-base percentage throughout his career graphed alongside league average on-base percentage. See if you can spot the outlier(s):
The league average sits right below .350 in this sample. For Cano, the outliers here appear to be 2008, a year in which he posted a typically low walk rate and an abnormally low BABIP, and last year, a year in which he doubled his career walk rate and posted a relatively normal BABIP by his standards. To cut down on the effect BABIP can have on on-base percentage, here’s a graph over time of his walk rate. Again, see if you can spot the outlier(s):
This one’s even easier to pick out: the outlier is 2010. Unfortunately, the purple line here is league average walk rate and the green line is Cano’s walk rate. As mentioned above, Cano doubled his walk rate last year en route to a .319/.381/.534 line. At the time it looked like a big step forward for a young developing player entering his prime. This year it’s right back where it always has been, below 5%.
Many times it’s common to hear fans or announcers get frustrated with pitchers who can’t throw strikes and struggle with command. “Just throw strikes” is a common refrain, as if control and command were mere switches one simply flips on or off depending on concentration. For some this may be the case, for others it’s a question of ability. Certain pitchers, for whatever reason, aren’t good (by MLB standards) at directing the ball where they want it to go.
It’s similar with batters, and with Robinson Cano. Pitch recognition and plate discipline are things that one can get better at, true. Kevin Long seemed to attempt to infuse Cano with plate discipline earlier in the year by instructing him to stop swinging at the first pitch, advice which Cano disregarded. This is a frustrating state of affairs, but perhaps some of the frustration can be ameliorated by simply accepting that Robinson Cano isn’t very good at showing discipline at the plate.
Cano is 28 years old and he’ll turn 29 this October. A 5% walk rate is the norm for Cano at this point in his career; the 8.2% mark in 2010 appears to be the outlier. Barring him developing new skills, it appears that Cano’s on-base percentage will fluctuate between .330 and .380 as his BABIP fluctuates. It sure would be nice if he would develop some patience to complement his incredible power; it likely make him the best second baseman in the game. Yet it doesn’t seem likely to happen and that’s a shame, because it does represent a hole in his game. But hey, there are worse things in the world than having Robinson Cano as your second baseman, walk rate and all.
You could almost taste it. Cliff Lee was going to sign, Andy was going to come back, Hughes would take a step forward, the bullpen would stay healthy and the Yankees would have one of the most dominant pitching staffs in baseball and march towards a 100-win season. It sounds idealistic in retrospect, but at certain junctures this winter it didn’t seem all that far off. Of course, it didn’t quite play out that way. Cliff Lee signed up for the inferior transit system and culture of Philadelphia, Andy retired, and Hughes got hurt and took half of the bullpen with him. And then something funny happened. Brian Cashman made a bunch of little moves, earning screams from the haters, and a lot of them actually worked. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but in 2011 the new market inefficiency has been whatever Cashman says it is.
In the bullpen, Cashman picked up Luis Ayala on a minor-league deal, and while Ayala did make a brief trip to the disabled list in April he’s pitched very well out of the pen. He’s given the Yankees 22.2 innings, giving up 19 hits, 8 walks and striking out 18. He’s getting groundballs at a very nice rate, almost 50%, and he has an ERA of 1.25. Even though his BABIP is relatively normal he has a super-high strand rate and a lower HR/FB ratio, which means his xFIP of 3.77 is likely more predictive of his future performance than his ERA. Regardless, he’s been a useful cog for the team so far nonetheless. The other surprising reliever has been Cory Wade, profiled extensively by Mike here. As Mike noted, he has obvious limitations but he’s a very nice minor league depth move at this time of the year. He’s found his way to the major league roster and he’s pitched perfectly so far, allowing no hits over 3 innings and striking out 3.
In the rotation the hot story right now is Brian Gordon, who pitched 5.1 innings of two run ball against Texas on Thursday, walking three and striking out three. Some wanted Hector Noesi to take this spot, but the organization didn’t feel that he was able to provide the necessary length for a starter given that he has been pitching in relief. Others wanted one of David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell or Adam Warren didn’t get the opportunity to start the major league level. In a piece reviewing Gordon’s performance at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe quoted his fellow Pinstriped Bible author Steven Goldman as getting quite upset about this, saying, “The only possible message is that they will never be good enough, that the Yankees are so deeply suspicious of their own prospects that they would rather take someone else’s trash over their own treasure.” Yet as Jaffe so aptly noted, this isn’t the only possible message the organization is sending the young bucks:
The glass-half-full take on Gordon’s addition is that at no cost, Cashman alertly added another arm to the organizational larder at a time when the Yankees have two starters and two key relievers on the disabled list, with zero guarantee that Colon, Phil Hughes, and Rafael Soriano will be effective and bulletproof the rest of the way
The other two scrap heap rotation pickups are obvious. The first is Freddy Garcia. Despite the fact that he always seems on the verge of getting lit up, Freddy Garcia has been an entirely serviceable fifth starter for the Yankees this year. He has a strikeout rate of 6.38/9 and a walk rate of 3.25/9 to go along with his ERA of 3.63. He doesn’t get a lot of fly balls, and so he lives and dies by his ability to command the ball well and command it low in the zone. He’s managed to throw 72 innings for the Yankees so far this year, and he threw 157 for the White Sox last year, so Sweaty Freddy may be able to keep chugging along all summer long.
And of course there’s Bartolo Colon, arguably the best pitcher on the Yankees until he got hurt. That isn’t meant as disrespect to staff ace CC Sabathia, but it’s remarkable how similar their lines have been. Sabathia has a 3.28 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 3.50 xFIP, a 2.89 K/BB ratio and a 47.3 GB%, whereas Colon has a 3.10 ERA, a 3.34 FIP, a 2.99 xFIP, a 4.00 K/BB ratio and a 47.3 GB%. Colon has struck out more than a batter per nine innings more than Sabathia, but Sabathia has an obvious edge on innings over Colon. But whether or not he compares favorably to Sabathia only demonstrates how spectacular Colon has been on the year. For $900,000 the Yankees have gotten some of the best pitching in baseball this year. To say that he’s exceeded expectations is an understatement. He’s been the $2 scratch-off ticket that wins you a cool grand.
After an offseason that saw the Yankees throw yet another gigantic contract at yet another highly regarded free agent, only to see him go elsewhere, Brian Cashman has shown a remarkable ability to create and preserve depth in the rotation and the bullpen by picking up starters on the cheap and snatching other extraneous pitchers off the lower rungs of the depth charts of other teams. 2011 is a season in which a lot could have gone wrong so far. At times it feels like this team is walking a high wire. But it’s also a season in which a lot of what Brian Cashman has touched has turned to gold. It’s true that you don’t count on these things lasting forever. Is Cory Wade really a shutdown reliever? Is Brian Gordon anything but an organizational arm capable of filling in for a few starts? Will Sweaty Freddy’s stream of junkballs really baffle hitters for another hundred and forty innings? It doesn’t seem likely, and that’s why it’s good to hear that the front office isn’t resting on its laurels and counting on the current crew to take them into October. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that the contributions of the cast-offs have proven vital to this team’s early season success.
Relievers are tricky little buggers. Their appearances are by nature short and frequent, and they accrue statistics in drips and drabs. As a result, even the most overused relievers typically have statistically insignificant samples of data by this point in the season, and within those samples of data sometimes we see a little bit of crazy. That’s what’s going on with David Robertson so far in 2011. Four things in particular stand out:
6.2 BB/9 rate, 87% LOB rate, 0.0 HR/FB%, .368 BABIP
Regression is a word that gets tossed around quite a bit, but it’s reasonable to expect Robertson to experience some regression in each of these areas. Some of this will work in Robertson’s favor, and some will not. Let’s start with the good.
6.2 BB/9 rate. Robertson’s control hasn’t always been the best at the major league level, but in the minors he averaged 3.6 BB/9. This is a good mark, although he was an advanced college arm when he came into the system, so perhaps the most relevant marks are his 4.4 BB/9 and 3.7 BB/9 in his two final years at Scranton. David has struggled with his command in the big leagues, averaging about 5 batters walked per nine innings throughout his career. For most relievers this would be intolerable, but David frequently makes up for it by preventing subsequent batters from putting the ball in play by striking them out. Regardless, Robertson probably isn’t a 6.2 BB/9 guy going forward unless something’s wrong with him. We can probably expect him to cut down on the walks just a bit, which is always a plus.
.368 BABIP. Most people are familiar with BIP theory so we won’t go through the primer. A .368 BABIP is not normal, and there’s no good reason to expect Robertson to sustain a batting average on balls in play this high. The Yankees defense isn’t horrific – it’s rather good in the outfield – and Robertson is clearly a major league pitcher capable of getting guys out. Robertson can’t be a pitcher good enough to sustain a very high strikeout rate, which he clearly is, and simultaneously be so hittable so as to render his BABIP of .368 normal.
Batted ball profile aside (and it checks out just fine), I ran a Play Index query seeking single season totals for pitchers with over 100 IP, a K/9 of over 9 and a BABIP of over .350 from 1919 to 2011 and came up with two pitchers: Darryl Kile in 1996 and Randy Johnson in 2003. If you set the parameters for just relievers and a lower the minimum IP require to 50, you net 50 pitchers with a strikeout rate of over 9 and a BABIP higher than .350. In other words, it’s very rare, the stuff of flukes, and likely to sort itself out over time if given a long enough runway. Robertson has always been a high BABIP guy, but .368 is a touch too high, even for him. Figure that fewer balls in play will be converting to hits, and figure that Robertson will get better results in this regard. Count this one as a plus.
Not enough home runs: 0% HR/FB, 0 HR/9, 0 HRs, however you’d like to put it. Robertson’s isn’t a particularly ground-ball heavy pitcher as it is, which means a fair amount of batted balls are going into the air when he’s pitching. Eventually, these fly balls are going to leave the park. From time to time pitchers have been known to go a long time without yielding home runs. In fact, since 1901 33 pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings in relief without yielding a single home run. This sounds like a decent number until you realize that in that time frame there have been 3,835 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings in relief. Those 33 pitchers are well into the 99th percentile of home run rates, and only 1 of those pitchers ever repeated his feat (Greg Minton, who didn’t allow a single home run between 1979-1981 pitching as multi-inning reliever for the San Francisco Giants).
Robertson has given up roughly 8 home runs for every 100 fly balls throughout his career, which means he should have given up at least one by now (1.44 to be exact). Spitballing it, he’s likely due for 3 or 4 HRs by the time the season concludes if his HR/FB ratio regresses to normal and he continues getting FBs at a 35% rate. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it likely will happen and it likely will happen with inherited runners on base, given that that’s usually when he’s brought in. Count this one as a minus.
Strand rate: 87.2%. In his career Robertson has been a 77% strand rate pitcher, meaning he’s stranding about 10% more this year than in the past. Relievers don’t normally maintain strand rates north of 85%. It’s very rare. Mariano Rivera comes in around 80%, as do Joe Nathan, Billy Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez. Plenty of pitchers sit lower.
Robertson is a very good pitcher with the ability to get loads of strikeouts, so his ability to maintain a high strand rate is in some sense believable. At the same time, he’s not likely to maintain this high of a rate for the remainder of the season or the entirety of his career. Could he? Sure. Anything could happen. Robertson could also throw another 25 innings with a BB/9 over 6, a K/9 over 14 with a BABIP of .350, even though only one other pitcher in baseball history has managed to pull that off before (Kenley Jensen, this year) and no pitcher in baseball history has ever done it over 50 innings. But in the absence of some intervening explanation as to why we should expect this to happen, I’m far more comfortable going forward with a reasonable expectation of regression based on probability.
Yesterday I examined Nick Swisher‘s unfortunate results from the left side of the plate and argued that he’s a likely candidate to do better in the coming year. I also mentioned that Carlos Beltran was a fan favorite as a trade target. You don’t need me to explain why he’s a favorite as a trade target, but I’ll do it anyway. Beltran has always played excellent defense, he’s a switch-hitter, and he hits for power. He’s the lifetime owner of a .371 wOBA, a .282/.359/.495 batting line, and 289 home runs. This year he’s doing a touch better with a .284/.371/.512 line, a .382 wOBA. He’s showing a bit more power despite coming off a serious knee injury and hitting half his games at Citi Field. As trade targets go, you really can’t do too much better than Carlos Beltran. He’s a free agent after this season and he’s doing his best to set himself up for another nice payday. It’s not like he exactly needs another payday, having pulled in $119M from the Mets over the past seven years, but hey, I’ve lived in New York. Life ain’t cheap.
Plenty of teams will be in on Beltran this summer. Plenty of teams could use a half-season rental of a switch-hitting, power-hitting good defender. The primary deterrent to acquiring Beltran is likely his steep salary, but the Mets have indicated that they’re willing to absorb some of that salary in exchange for better prospects. Now, this could simply be posturing to get more teams involved and extract more from interested parties, but it’s hard to know for sure. The Mets may have more financial flexibility now that they partnered with David Einhorn. They may not be an East Coast version of the Los Angeles Dodgers anymore – they may be able to eat some of his contract.
This is a long way of saying that this confluence of factors – Beltran’s skillset and the Mets’ flexibility of demands – may mean that another team snatches Beltran from Queens before the Yankees can get their sticky little fingers all over him. But the Yankees could find a decent replacement in Twins outfielder Jason Kubel.
All the stars are lining up for Kubel to get traded this summer: he’s on a losing team, he has a decent in-demand skillset, and he has an expiring contract after this year. Twins’ blog The Bat Shatters makes the case for keeping Kubel, and summarizes the arc of his career nicely:
Kubel destroyed Minor League pitching for 4 years before getting a shot at the bigs in 2004. He didn’t disappoint, hitting .300/.358/.433 as a 22-year-old in 23 games with the Twins. That fall, he endured a serious knee injury which kept him out of baseball for the entire 2005 season, and while he re-emerged with the Twins in 2006, the results were nothing like before. Kubel struggled for a couple of seasons in 2006 and 2007 before putting it all together in 2008. In ’08, he hit .272/.335/.471 with 20HRs and 78RBIs while seeing part-time action in the outfield. In 2009, he had his ‘breakout’ hitting .300/.369/.539 with 28HRs and 103 RBIs. In a contract-year last season, he only managed a .249 batting-average, but did surpass the 20 homerun plateau for the 3rd straight season while driving in 92 runs…
Over the last three years, Kubel has the 11th highest OPS (.883), the 11th highest batting average and the 8th most HRs against right-handers…among all of the outfielders in baseball. You won’t find his name on the WAR leaderboards, but that’s because his defense is so atrocious. If he was strictly in a DH role, his value would increase. Without Thome next year, the Twins will likely have an opening at DH, a role Kubel is familiar with and could probably excel in.
I’m not trying to make it sound like Kubel is a superstar player. He’s not. What I am trying to say is that Kubel, as a left-handed hitter with power, possesses an offensive skill-set that is not all that common in MLB, and is not easily replaceable if they trade him or let him go.
As Krueger notes, Kubel hits right-handed pitchers well, the type against whom Nick Swisher has struggled lately. Kubel is the owner of a career .286/.345/.499 line against right-handed pitchers. By way of comparison, Beltran is a career .293/.364/.529 hitter against right-handed pitchers. Kubel is playing for a paltry $5.25M this year, a far cry from Beltran’s hefty salary, and he’ll be a free agent when the season is done. He isn’t as good against left-handed pitchers (.664 OPS against), but if he’s deployed properly he could do some damage in the Yankee lineup and bop a few fly balls over that short porch in right.
Kubel may cost less than Beltran for an acquiring team (depending on how much money the Mets eat), and this is for good reason. He’s not as good in the field as Beltran, and he’s not capable of hitting left-handed pitchers nearly as well as Beltran can. But he’s not a scrub: he has a solid bat, he’s cheap, and he’s a free agent at the end of the year. He currently profiles as a Type B free agent, so the Yankees could offer him arbitration and pocket the picks if he declines. If he accepts it’s not the end of the world – he only makes $5.25M in 2011, and the Yankees could always trade him elsewhere.
As it stands right now the Yankees have the corner outfield and DH spots manned by capable hitters, and I’m not sold that the team needs to do anything in the trade market to bolster the offense. I’d far rather see them call up that kid in Scranton that everyone won’t shut up about. But if something changes – if Posada, Gardner or Swisher get injured, or if Montero is traded – then Kubel might be a good fit. If the Yankees are looking for another outfielder-DH-bench bat type with thump and don’t want to pay the high price likely commanded by the Mets for Beltran, they could do worse than Kubel.
As the offense sputtered against Boston last week the calls for the Yankees to add another bat to the lineup got louder. Carlos Beltran is the current cause celebre among some fans. The hope in picking up someone like Beltran is that he’ll fill in the spots in the lineup where the offense has been dragging, especially in the corner outfield and designated hitter slots, and give the team another solid offensive bat. As a long-time Beltran fan, it would certainly be exciting to see the Yankees add him. However the team may be getting a Beltran-esque level of production going forward from one of their own hitters, Nick Swisher. Swisher has had a rather ugly start of to the year. For the first two months of the season he hit .213/.335/.314, a mouth-vomit-inducing line of mediocrity. Those first two months are gone now. They’re lost. He can’t go back and recover those days of 0-fer and cause those groundballs to squeak through and line drives to fall in, and his end-of-year stat line is going to bear the imprint of his slow start no matter how well he hits for the remainder of the year. But what’s done is done, and the question is what we should expect from him going forward. If he’ll simply go back to hitting as he has in the past, specifically as a left-handed hitter, then the team will benefit and the need for offensive reinforcement will be lessened a bit.
When understanding why Swisher has done so poorly this year so far, and he now stands at .216/.343/.345 with a .311 wOBA and 5 home runs, it’s important to focus in on his platoon split. He’s always fared better from the right side of the plate than from the left side of the plate. In almost 1200 plate appearances batting righty against left-handed pitchers he has hit .264 with a .400 on-base percentage with a .441 slugging percentage, a superb record of plate discipline and a decent mark of power. When hitting from the left side the results are a bit worse. Swisher has hit .245 with a .338 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage. It’s a bit more power, yes, but it’s a far worse mark in on-base skill.
There’s value in treating Swisher the right-handed batter and Swisher the left-handed batter as two discrete and separate hitters. Swisher from the left and Swisher from the right have their own separate power, on-base, power and BIP data. We don’t usually like to treat them separately, and this is mostly because of impatience. By June we’re ready to treat the data we have as reliable and trustworthy. After all, we’ve been watching for two months, and we’d like to think that we know, thank you very much, what Swisher’s deal is. It’s his approach, it’s his “at-bats”, it’s just not working. Sure, it’s all of those things, even if saying his at-bats have been bad is kind of another way of saying he’s not getting hits. But in order to avoid falling down a rabbit hole of tautological and self-referential logic, of confirmation and recency bias, we have independent evaluative methods, measures that don’t depend on our mood or emotion or our own two eyes, as keen as the latter might be.
Here’s the main issue: Swisher has hit right-handed at a healthy rate, as always. From the right side, he’s hit hit .327/.412/.491 from the right side in 68 plate appearances. He’s hit two home runs, and his batting average on balls in play is .356. He’s been the man as a righty. As bad as Swisher’s overall numbers look right now, if he hadn’t been killing the ball as a righty his season would look even worse. The culprit is his line from the left side of the plate, where he currently resembles the love child of Alcides Escobar and Yuniesky Betancourt. It’s been horrific. In 166 plate appearances he’s hitting .175/.313/.292. His batting average on balls in play is .210, well below any mark considered reasonable for a major league hitter unless there’s some reason to believe that Swisher’s skillset has deteriorated to the point where he’s no longer a major league caliber hitter. If that’s the case, it’s probably time for him to abandon switch-hitting entirely.
Considering he’s in the midst of his physical prime, this doesn’t seem like the smartest course of action. This is especially true because all his peripheral split stats as a left-handed hitter are exactly where we’d hope they’d be. His career walk rate is 11.8%, and this year it is 16.4%. His strikeout rate this year is 25.2% versus a career mark of 27.5%. He’s hitting line drives around 2% more often than he has historically. His ground ball and fly ball rates are nearly identical to his career marks. He has a career 15.8% home run to fly ball ratio, but this year it’s only 6.4%, a likely candidate for regression. Smart money is on Swisher bouncing back from the left side and seeing better results in average and power.
The fact is that we don’t really learn a whole lot from 68 plate appearances from the right side of the plate and 166 plate appearances from the left side of the plate. Virtually anything can happen in a small sample size, and that’s not hyperbole. So it doesn’t matter if we’re in June, a small sample is a small sample. We can find value in examining this sample, then, when we contextualize it properly in the hitter’s historical profile. Swisher hasn’t been the best from the left side throughout his career, but he’s been far better than a .600 OPS hitter. It boils down to a simple question. Do we believe in the 2788 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter throughout Swisher’s career, or the 166 plate appearances as a lefty in 2011? Do we trust the advanced split data, cool our jets and wait this thing out, or just assume that Swisher’s ability as a left-handed hitter has completely abandoned itself and argue that he should bat strictly from the right-side? My preference is to stick with the larger sample size and give Swisher some more runway.
They say that time heals all wounds. In baseball, the time needed to heal all wounds is generally a weekend sweep. Should the Yankees hammer the Indians all weekend the calls to trade Swisher for Beltran, an actual proposal I saw, to DO SOMETHING, will likely subside some as the frustration of losing dissipates and confidence returns. Yet this doesn’t mean the decision-makers on this team should stand pat their attempt to make this club better, any more than they should panic after a losing streak. And so even while there is optimism for and upside in Nick Swisher there will still be some opportunities to improve and turn this team into a real juggernaut. I’ll get to one of those opportunities tomorrow morning.