Cervelli’s throwing stands out early in camp


The Yankees have a history of fake Spring Training competitions — the 2010 fifth starter’s competition stands out the most — though this spring’s catching competition both is and isn’t legit. Austin Romine has almost no chance of making the team because both Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli are out of options, so in that sense the competition is fraudulent. Neither Stewart nor Cervelli has a first grasp on the starting job though, and those two are in a real competition for playing time.

We don’t learn much after just ten Grapefruit League games, but one thing is very obvious so far this year: Cervelli’s throwing has been demonstrably better than it was from 2010-2011. He threw out 36.4% of attempted base-stealers as a minor leaguer from 2005-2008, then he threw out 43.5% of attempted base-stealers during his big league time in 2009. Something changed though, and that number dropped to just 14.1% in the show from 2010-2011. That defensive decline is a big reason why the Yankees traded for Stewart at the end of camp last year and surprisingly demoted Cervelli to Triple-A.

“It made my mind stronger,” said Cervelli to Mark Feinsand about the demotion. “I kept learning that nothing comes easy … Right now, I look at the past and I think it was the best. Maybe last year, the first two months in Triple-A was bad. The frustration, you don’t understand it in the moment, but when you have a little time and you think a little fresh, you realize things happen for a reason – and always a positive reason.”

Cervelli credited his parents — who spent a lot of time with him last summer — for helping him get over the disappointment of being demoted and focusing on the things the Yankees wanted to improve, including his throwing*. Frankie has thrown out five of six (!) attempted base-stealers during his five games behind the plate so far this spring. Obviously that is an unsustainable pace, but his throws have been strong and right on the bag at second as opposed to short-hopping the infielder or winding up in center field as they had in recent years. The improvement is noticeable.

“Rushing,” said Cervelli to Chad Jennings when asked what he was doing wrong before. “I tried to throw the ball too hard and I tried to get the ball before it was in my glove. Now I work relaxed behind the plate. Same energy, but I just try to be more relaxed and let my body go … The past few years in the big leagues, I had bad habits. Maybe frustration, or if you don’t play every day, you want to do things perfect. I was a little young, too. You’re a little desperate sometimes. When you get more mature and have more experience, play every day like last year, you start to get that feeling.”

Cervelli threw out 30.0% of attempted base-stealers with Triple-A last year — on par with his 2005-2008 performance — then went to winter ball and threw out nine of 14 attempted base-stealers (64.3%) in his 21 games. No one will ever confuse him with Yadier Molina, but Cervelli had a track record of throwing runners out at a better than average rate before falling to some bad habits (to use his words) in recent years. His performance these last ten months or so suggest he’s back to where he needs to be.

“I just think he worked hard at it,” said Girardi to Feinsand about Cervelli’s throwing. “He had a chance last year to catch every day. He also went to winter ball, and I think he worked really hard at it. As I said, I think he got a little out of whack from maybe rushing or trying to do too much, and he was able to go down there and really get it back together like he had when he first came up for us throwing the baseball. It’s shown up.”

Cervelli will turn 27 later this week, and among the team’s catching options, he has (by far) the best chance to contribute offensively this summer. That doesn’t mean he’ll be above-average or anything, just less below-average than Stewart or Romine. If his throwing and defensive improvements are real and not just a small sample/early-Spring Training fluke, his value to the team could be much greater than anticipated. We need to see more before we can say he’s over those bad habits for certain, but the early returns are very encouraging.

* Brian Cashman spoke more about the things the Yankees wanted Cervelli to improve during an on-air interview this weekend, which you can watch here. Apparently Frankie will no longer go into a Tony Pena-esque crouch as he had in the past. I thought that was interesting.

Curtis Granderson taking fly balls in left field today

12:57pm: Brian Cashman confirmed to Curry that both Gardner and Granderson will play left this spring as the team evaluates its options.

12:00pm: Via Jack Curry: Curtis Granderson is taking fly balls in left field during today’s workout in Tampa. This is obviously a precursor to the long-rumored position switch with Brett Gardner, which would put the better defender in the more premium position. Just to be clear, this isn’t a guarantee the switch will happen, but it does show the Yankees are seriously considering it. Expect them to try out the new alignment in numerous Grapefruit League games before making anything final.

Granderson hopes to remain a Yankee beyond 2013, open to extension

Via Erik Boland & Anthony McCarron: Curtis Granderson told reporters today that he hopes to remain with the Yankees beyond next season and is open to a contract extension. “I’d be a fool not to … I’m so excited about this fourth season (with the team) and hopefully this isn’t the last one,” he said. Granderson, 32 next month, is due to become a free agent next offseason, but team policy says no contract talks until the current deal is up.

In other news, Curtis told Bryan Hoch that he is open to playing left field in deference to Brett Gardner. The team has yet to approach him about such a move, however. Granderson also said he changed up his offseason routine after talking to Ichiro Suzuki, specifically by starting to hit earlier than usual. If that gets him back to 2011/first half 2012 form, it’ll probably be Ichiro‘s biggest contribution to the Yankees.

Yankees still considering moving Gardner to center field

Via Bryan Hoch: The Yankees are still considering moving Brett Gardner to center field with Curtis Granderson sliding over into left. “We haven’t made any changes,” said Joe Girardi. “When you start talking about moving one guy, you’re really moving two guys … Gardy has become pretty good at playing left field, so those are the things that you have to look at.”

We first heard the team was considering a switch back in November, so it’s good to see they’re still considering it. Granderson is a below-average defender in center — I don’t believe he’s a -18 (!) defender as UZR suggests, his -10 DRS seems much more reasonable to me — while Gardner is elite in left and presumably above-average in center. The net gain is probably along the lines of a win or so, maybe less, but the Yankees are right smack in the part of the win curve where every additional win greatly improves their chances of making the playoffs.

Believing in Austin Romine’s defense

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Not long before the Rangers signed A.J. Pierzynski, Jon Heyman said the Yankees were still unable to get excited about the long-time White Sox backstop. Despite their need for catching help, the 35-year-old who hit 27 homers last season just wasn’t doing it for them. Instead, Heyman says the Yankees are “looking to go” with Austin Romine behind the plate next year, the youngest of their four (don’t forget Bobby Wilson!) internal catching solutions.

Romine, 24, has had some of the blush come off his prospect rose these last two seasons due to back injuries. He’s appeared in just 111 games since 2011 with only 97 starts behind the plate. That’s a lot of development time lost at a crucial age, yet the Yankees are apparently open to using him as their primary big league backstop in 2013 because of his defense. Defense from the catcher position is something the team has become obsessed with in recent years, basically since they were able move Jorge Posada to DH full-time two years ago.

“He’s a plus, plus defender … He can really play the position,” said VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman to Chad Jennings last week. You have to take quotes like that with a huge grain of salt because of course an organization is going to speak highly of its prospects. There’s nothing to be gained by doing otherwise. Romine could be a terrible defender (he’s not according to various scouting reports) and the Yankees could be well aware of it, but they’d never admit it. Remember how they insisted Jesus Montero could catch in the show and then did everything in their power to avoid using him behind the plate in September 2011? Kinda like that. Actions speak louder than words.

The Yankees are unlikely to make a meaningful catching addition before Spring Training just because the market is barren at the moment, both free agency and trades. That could change in an instant if some team decides to unload some salary, but I wouldn’t count on it. Sending Romine to Triple-A for everyday reps while Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli handle big league duties would be the easiest solution for the club and possibly the best both in the short- and long-term. However, if they do take Romine north out of camp and use him as the primary backstop at the outset of the season, it would speak volumes about their true feelings of his defense. It would be a massive vote of confidence.

A look at the Yanks’ outfield defense from ’03-’12

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Two weeks ago I looked at the Yankees’ infield defense over the last decade using a real simple BABIP-based analysis. The club was a well-below-average defensive team against ground balls in six of the last ten years, including each of the last three years and four of the last five. With an aging Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield, the poor infield defense wasn’t a surprise.

Today I’m going to shift to the outfield and look at how the Yankees have done when it comes to converting fly balls into outs. Not counting infield pop-ups because they’re in their own little analytical world, fly balls turn into outs far more often than ground balls and line drives. It’s worth noting that available batted ball data, which reliably dates back to 2003, is not perfect. Baseball Info. Solutions records the data with human stringers who watch each game and classify each batted ball. Ground balls are pretty straight forward, but one person’s fly ball is another’s line drive. There is some scorer bias involved. We’re going to stick to regular old fly balls today. Here’s the data, and apologies in advance for the cluttered table…

#FB NYY BABIP AL BABIP xOuts aOuts dOuts Primary Outfield
2012 1,339 0.133 0.128 1,168 1,161 -7 Ibanez, Grandy, Swisher
2011 1,414 0.124 0.137 1,220 1,239 19 Gardner, Grandy, Swisher
2010 1,456 0.118 0.139 1,254 1,284 30 Gardner, Grandy, Swisher
2009 1,418 0.118 0.136 1,225 1,251 26 Damon, Melky, Swisher
2008 1,358 0.137 0.138 1,171 1,172 1 Damon, Melky, Abreu
2007 1,542 0.130 0.137 1,331 1,342 11 Matsui, Melky, Abreu
2006 1,591 0.140 0.141 1,367 1,368 1 Melky, Damon, Abreu
2005 1,499 0.154 0.133 1,300 1,268 -32 Matsui, Bernie, Sheff
2004 1,619 0.153 0.133 1,404 1,371 -33 Matsui, Bernie, Sheff
2003 1,559 0.150 0.128 1,359 1,325 -34 Matsui, Bernie, Mondesi

xOuts: Expected number of outs based on the league BABIP.
: Actual number of outs recorded.

: The difference between actual and expected outs, so aOuts – xOuts.

Just to be clear, homeruns are not counted in the fly ball total because they aren’t a ball in play. A ball isn’t in play if the defender doesn’t have a chance to catch it, which they can’t do when it sails over the fence.

As you probably remember, the Yankees had some miserable defensive teams in early-to-mid-aughts. The Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams-anchored outfields from 2003-2005 were good for 30+ fewer outs converted than the league average, which is an enormous number. Adding Melky Cabrera and (to a lesser extent) Johnny Damon to the mix improved things greatly in 2006, though the Yankees were still league-average. Bobby Abreu was a defensive nightmare who prevented the unit from being above-average.

The 2009 season is when things really improved. Abreu’s wall-fearing ways were replaced by Nick Swisher, who is a solid defender and far better than his predecessor. Brett Gardner also started to earn more playing time. The 2009-2011 outfields were well-above-average as the Matsuis and Damons and Abreus were replaced, though the 2012 defense took a hit when Raul Ibanez handled left field in the wake of Gardner’s injury. The Yankees have boasted an average or better outfield defense (with regards to fly balls) in six of the last seven years, and in several of those seasons they were much better than the league average.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, ground balls are relatively harmless. They usually go for singles when they sneak through the infield and that’s the end of it. Fly balls, even the ones that don’t go over the fence for homers, are much more dangerous. Misplayed fly balls often turn into extra-base hits, which can be a nightmare for the pitcher. It’s one thing to have a man on first after a ground ball finds a hole, but it’s another when a fly ball dunks in and a man is instantly on second or third. The Yankees have done an excellent job of turning their outfield ranks over in recent years while improving the fly ball catching ability without sacrificing offense.

A look at the Yanks’ infield defense from ’03-’12

Pastalunging. (Alex Trautwig/Getty)

The Yankees will never be mistaken for a pitching and defense team, especially over the last 10-15 years. They’ve fielded some stellar individual defensive players during that time, but as a whole they’ve been consistently below*average. Heck, the 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history. That club was brutal.

The additions of Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner have improved the defensive situation in recent years, but not enough to bring the Yankees to league average, nevermind above-average. Today I want to look at the team’s infield defense over the last ten years, which is as far back as reliable batted ball data goes. Rather than use UZR or DRS or FRAA or some other complicated defensive metric, I’m going to use regular old BABIP. It tells us how many balls in play were converted into outs, which is exactly what we’re looking for here. We don’t care about who has the most range or the strongest arm, just the number of batted balls the defense turned into outs.

Infield defense is pretty complicated because there are all sorts of plays that need to be made. Ground balls are the most common, but there are also line drives, pop-ups, the double play pivot, and in the case of first baseman, receiving throws from other infielders. I’m going to keep this simple and stick to ground balls exclusively. Apologies for the tight and busy table, but here’s the data…

xOuts aOuts dOuts Primary Infield
1,917 0.250 0.238 1,461 1,438 -23 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex
’11 1,962 0.250 0.238 1,495 1,472 -24 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex
’10 1,885 0.246 0.231 1,450 1,421 -28 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex
’09 1,844 0.230 0.238 1,405 1,420 15 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tex
’08 2,029 0.256 0.240 1,542 1,510 -32 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Giambi
’07 1,981 0.244 0.245 1,496 1,498 2 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Phillips
’06 2,003 0.240 0.245 1,512 1,522 10 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Giambi
’05 2,152 0.246 0.239 1,638 1,623 -15 A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, Tino
’04 1,998 0.238 0.245 1,508 1,522 14 A-Rod, Jeter, Cairo, Clark
’03 2,037 0.256 0.236 1,556 1,516 -41 Ventura, Jeter, Soriano, Giambi

xOuts: Expected number of outs based on the league BABIP.
: Actual number of outs recorded.

: The difference between actual and expected outs, so aOuts – xOuts.

The Yankees have converted fewer ground balls into outs than expected in six of the last ten years, and we’re talking big (red) numbers too — an average of 25 fewer outs than expected per year over the last three seasons plus two other seasons of 30+ fewer outs. It doesn’t seem like a lot — 25 fewer outs than average is one extra ground ball squeaking through every six or seven games — but it is a lot when you consider that fielding ground balls is just one aspect of defense. Combine the missed ground balls with a poor outfield defense (missed fly balls) and botched double plays and all that, and it adds up in a hurry.

Derek Jeter is the one constant in our sample and we all know he’s a below-average defender at short. The ground ball problems aren’t all on him though. Jason Giambi had a huge hand in it for a long time, as did Alfonso Soriano (to a lesser extent). Alex Rodriguez was a defensive liability both early in his Yankees career (learning a new position) and in recent years (breaking down and losing mobility). Below-average defense isn’t an isolated event; turning fewer batted balls into outs results into more pitches for the pitcher, more wear and tear on the bullpen throughout the season, and so on. It’s a continually compounding problem.

The good news is that ground balls are generally harmless. The vast majority of grounders that get through the infield turn into singles, but a few will result in doubles and triples if they’re hit hard enough and down the line. The next ground ball homer I see will be my first. The Yankees have compensated for their defensive woes in recent years by targeting high strikeout pitchers — seriously, look at the staff strikeout rate the last few seasons — who tend to take non-catcher fielders right out of the equation. I think the Yankees have a truly elite defense on the right side of the infield, but they’re very much lacking on the left side. There isn’t much they can do about it now outside of moving Jeter or A-Rod to DH full-time, so they’ll have to continue targeting pitchers who can miss bats and record outs by themselves.