Food for thought: Cano’s on-base skills

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.

The year of magical pitching

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.

This is not normal: the David Robertson edition

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.

“Good” Regression

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.

“Bad” Regression

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.

The poor man’s Beltran

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.

 

The switch-hitter’s split

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.

Considering Capps

As it stands, the Minnesota Twins’ odds of making the postseason currently stand around 1%. If you’re an astute student of baseball, mathematics and/or statistics, you might deduce that this is not good. Despite winning three games in a row, the Twins still sit at 20-37, 13.5 games back of the division leading Indians. Their fall from grace has been surprising. Virtually everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for this team. You want the litany? I’ll give you the litany. Their best pitcher, Francisco Liriano, has been horrific all year and has shoulder soreness now; their best player, Joe Mauer, has been on the disabled list for weeks; their star first baseman, Justin Morneau, has struggled out of the gate after missing half of 2010 with a concussion; their former closer, Joe Nathan, isn’t quite right after undergoing Tommy John surgery last spring and lost his job as closer; Delmon Young is hurt; several key prospects have struggled or gotten hurt; they demoted one of their best pitchers to the bullpen after some not-so-private feuding, and he is currently injured; their new second baseman had his leg broken on a slide by Nick Swisher; Jason Kubel is hurt; Jim Thome is hurt; it’s already the first week in June, and they just won their first series.

It’s been bad. Really, at this point, they should be looking to unload some of their assets and rebuild. While some have focused on some of their starting pitchers as trade targets, it might be interesting to key in on reliever Matt Capps as a trade target.

Capps was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the seventh round  of the 2002 draft and was a starter until 2005 when the Pirates converted him to the bullpen. Once he became a reliever he moved quickly through Pittsburgh’s system, going from A ball all the way to Triple A in one season, and even earning a September callup to the Pirates that year. Capps pitched a full year out of the Pirates pen in 2006, as a 22 year old, and did quite well. Rather than go through his performance year by year since then, I’ve created a little graph listing some relevant statistics that paint a good picture of the type of pitcher he is. These numbers are current through Friday.

Instead of focusing on fluctuations year to year, it’s probably wiser to take all 369.2 innings he’s thrown as a whole. He has a decent ERA and it’s backed up by strong DIPS numbers. He strikes out around 7 batters per 9 innings, not exactly elite for a reliever, but he doesn’t hand out many free passes at all. His K/BB ratio is excellent. Despite his 2010 mark he isn’t exactly a ground ball pitcher, a trait that would play well in Minnesota but perhaps less well in New York. Capps hasn’t had the best year so far in 2011. He’s blown a few games and his strikeout rate has dipped below 6. But it’s also worth noting that it’s only been 25 innings of work, hardly a meaningful sample size, and that his strand rate is well below what would be reasonable to expect going forward.

Capps is signed this year for $7.15 million and he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. By the time he’s traded he won’t cost the acquiring team more than a few million dollars in salary. The Yankees should kick the tires on him and consider bringing him aboard if the price isn’t too steep. Capps wouldn’t necessarily need to handle high leverage spots – Robertson and Chamberlain are doing fantastically – but he’d be the perfect type of reliever to soak up some of those lower-leverage appearances in which we see Robertson so frequently. Girardi has been good about keeping his guys fresh for October, but it would be nice to give him another quality arm to use in the dog days of the summer.

The amazing incredible durable A.J. Burnett

We’re all very busy people so I won’t bury the lede: when the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett there were significant concerns about his injury history, but he has defied those concerns to become a veritable innings-eater. Given how much roster variance and injury risk the recent squads have exhibited, and despite the decline in his performance relative to his gold-standard 2008 campaign, the signing has to be deemed a mild to moderate success nearly halfway through the life of the deal if only for the fact that he has stayed healthy.

The principal worry about A.J was his extensive injury history. Prior to signing with the Yankees, A.J. had topped 200 innings only three times in his career, two of which were contract years. He had already had Tommy John surgery, and he had battled shoulder problems as well. As a result, many Yankee blogs greeted the news of Burnett’s union with the Yankees with disdain. Some were humorous – I specifically recall a delightful NoMaas photoshop of Brian Cashman as the Heath Ledger Joker lighting a pyramid of money on fire. Others had no use for humor and went straight to the gallows. Cliff Corcoran sounded like a man on the brink:

I cannot help but react emotionally to this signing. It is an inexplicably awful, irresponsible, wrong-headed move. I hate hate hate it. It makes me physically sick. Combined with the New Stadium, it is enough for me to question my allegiance to this team. I cannot be consoled. I assume many of you feel the same way.

Hang in there, Cliff! Overall at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe questioned whether this move represented a gigantic step back for Brian Cashman as general manager:

Burnett’s combination of fragility and perceived squeamishness calls to mind the darkest chapter of Yankee GM Brian Cashman’s tenure, the two deals he inked at the 2004 Winter Meetings with a pair of injury-riddled pitchers coming off rare healthy, effective seasons, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright.

I wasn’t writing in 2008 – I didn’t even have a Twitter account – so I’m thankful that no one can blockquote my reaction to the signing at the time, a reaction that would no doubt have been similarly angry. R.J. Anderson’s reaction in retrospect was a bit more measured, more calculated:

Kudos to Dave for nailing the years/money here. A.J. Burnett is a 3 WAR starter, and he’s being paid as one. This is a buyers market, and the Yankees are absolutely thriving in it. A lot can be said for spending money and a lot more should be said for Brian Cashman and the Yankees paying these free agents exactly what they’re worth. Of course, the Yankees are one of the few teams who can pay what they’re worth, but that might be a market inefficiency within itself.

Sadly, A.J. Burnett has not been a 3 fWAR pitcher since coming to New York. He was a 3.4 fWAR pitcher in 2009 and a 1.3 fWAR pitcher in 2010, and he’s currently on pace for 1.6 fWAR in 2011.This adds up to about 7 fWAR in 2011, 2 shy of his projection. Assuming a straight-line valuation of $5.0M per win, his performance will have been worthy roughly $35M to the Yankees at the end of this year. This is a little over $14M shy of the amount the Yankees have paid him for his services. Of course, we know the value of those 7 fWAR isn’t necessarily best calculated on a straight-line method. We know that the marginal value of a win as the Yankees approach 90 wins goes up a great deal. We also know that the Yankees won the World Series in one of those years, and that they have so much money that they can afford to pay A.J. Burnett more than what he ends up being worth.

So A.J.’s performance has missed the mark a bit so far, and it’s fallen well short of any expectation set by his superb 2008 campaign in Toronto. At the same time, the fears that Burnett would be Carl Pavano 2.0, while well-founded, have not come to fruition. Since the start of the 2009 season Burnett has thrown 468.1 innings, a few shy of John Danks and Zack Greinke and ahead of Matt Garza and Chad Billingsley. Here’s a more relevant fact: since he signed with New York he’s made 78 starts. Only eleven pitchers have made more, and the most anyone has made is 81. In other words, Burnett has made just about as many starts as anyone in the game. He may not be the most efficient pitcher in the game, as evidenced by the fact that Sabathia has thrown over 100 innings more than him over that time period despite making only 2 more starts, but he’s been there.

Woody Allen said that 80% of success is just showing up. Like most aphorisms, there’s a kernel of truth there. How you perform once you arrive matters too, and A.J.’s performance hasn’t always been what we’ve wanted. There has been more than enough Bad A.J., more than enough meltdowns, more than enough “Oh good Lord, A.J.” moments. But he’s more or less gotten the first 80% right, which is more than you can say about Daisuke Matsuzaka or John Lackey over the course of their contracts so far. Burnett has shown up. When one examines what the expectations were – not worst-case scenarios, actual expectations – and realize how low the bar was set for Burnett, this is not nothing.

It was axiomatic that A.J. Burnett was an injury risk; it was a given that he would disappoint and hurt himself. Things usually become axiomatic for a reason. They acquire discursive weight and momentum because of something – an observation, a stereotype, good or bad data, a presumption, a reasonable expectation. All of the observations about Burnett’s health risk were mostly accurate, if not a bit histrionic. And yet there’s a lesson here that past performance is no guarantee of future results, that you can’t predict baseball, that sometimes your 50% weighted mean forecast doesn’t turn out to be what actually happens. We know this, or at least we tell ourselves that we do, but sometimes we don’t always act that way when put on the spot. This doesn’t mean that we should start expecting the outlier, but it’s a good reminder that once in awhile this game tosses you a pleasant surprise. And who doesn’t love a pleasant surprise?