2008 is a big year for Melky Cabrera… and the Yankees.

This guest post is by Jim Johnson, formerly of Bronx Block.

Let’s look at the road Melky Cabrera has taken in his young career.

  • In 2005, he was brought up for a bit and embarrassed himself.
  • In 2006, he filled some holes when some injuries hit the team and out-performed expectations while playing most of the year.
  • In 2007, he became the starting center fielder early in the season. However, he did not take a major step forward in his development as one would have hoped.
  • As of 2008, Melky has made center field his own and his performance is fairly positive.

2007 was a troubling year for Melky. While playing in 20 more games and collecting 85 more at-bats than in 2006, his average dropped 7 points, his slugging remained the same, and his on-base percentage dropped a hefty 33 points. He stuck out more and walked less. This is not what anyone in the Yankee organization wanted to see. Melky has drawn comparisons to Bernie Williams and Carlos Beltran at the same point in their careers. Now, I don’t think that anyone truly believes that Melky can match Williams or Beltran in terms of talent, but the comparisons are there.

2008 is going to be a very important year for both Melky Cabrera and the Yankees. How Melky performs this year could set events in motion that could reverberate thought the entire Yankee organization. There are two possible scenarios. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the below come true.

  • Brett Gardner continues to develop as hoped and is ready to become the 4th outfielder on the Major League club in 2009.
  • Austin Jackson continues to develop as hoped and is ready to contribute to the Major League club mid-2009 and be the starting center fielder in 2010.
  • Jose Tabata continues to develop as hoped and is ready to contribute to the Major League club mid-2010 and be a starting corner outfielder in 2011.

If we assume that those 3 prospects work out as planned (which may or may not be a stretch), there are two ways this could all play out:

Scenario 1

Melky Cabrera improves on his plate discipline in 2008, increases his power numbers, and finishes with a batting average over .300. The Yankees decides that his potential is legit and decide that he has a long-term role with the team. With RF open due to the departing of Bobby Abreu, the Yankees decide to slide either Cabrera or Brett Garnder to RF until Austin Jackson is ready to make the jump to the majors. From then on, Gardner can slide into the role of 4th outfielder and pinch runner. The organization continues to develop Tabata and will decide which corner of the outfield to slot him into.

Backtrack to 2009. With Bobby Abreu departing and Melky moving to RF, there will be a heavy offensive drop-off. The Yankees will see an offensive reduction from C, SS, CF, RF, and potentially LF and DH. By losing their 3rd place hitter and replacing him with a bottom-of-the-order hitter, the Yankees will probably go out and sign Mark Teixeira to a hefty 7-year deal. Teixeira will be 29 at the start of the 2009 season and is a switch hitting first baseman with a .290 Avg / 30 HR / 100 RBI bat. He’s a two-time Gold Glove winner and two-time Silver Slugger winner.

With the need for offense, Teixeria will be able to name his price. By the end of the contract, much as we see with Jason Giambi, Yankee fans may be grumbling that they have better 1B options sitting on the bench because of the money the starting guy makes. Also, the deal with probably keep Jorge Posada behind the plate for an extra year than he would have otherwise. I see Posada as a C/1B/DH in year 3 of 4 and a DH in year 4 of 4. Teixeira’s signing will block 1B for Posada, possible Jesus Montero and, of course, Derek Jeter. With a full outfield and 1B tied up for the foreseeable future, Jeter may not have a place to move in 2011 when he signs his new deal. He’ll either have to remain at shortstop (yikes) or take up the very valuable DH position.

Montero might even be dangled as trade bait if one or more of the trio of young starts the Yankees have do not work out. With the signing of Teixeira, the Yankees may not be willing to shell out the kind of money that C.C. Sabathia will be commanding, no stadium or not.

Shelley Duncan will have no place on this team, either.

Scenario 2

Melky Cabrera puts up another 2007 and looks more like a back-of-the-order bat instead of a front-of-the-order bat. The decision will be made to overpay Bobby Abreu to re-sign for 2 years instead of the 3 that he could get elsewhere. Melky will remain the starting CF in 2009 but will split a little time with new 4th outfielder Brett Garnder. There is little doubt that Melky is keeping the spot warm for Austin Jackon. Once Jackson gets called up later in the season, Melky will begin to get moved around the outfield a bit. In 2010, the Yankees decide to go with their center fielder of the future and Melky becomes expendable.

There are several ways the Yankees could go after this. With Bobby still with the team, the Yankees may not be so eager to sign Teixeira to big bucks. They may prefer to hand the role to Shelley Ducan and/or Juan Miranda with an occasional start by Posada or even Damon. The future of 1B could fall in the lap of Derek Jeter or Jesus Montero.

The success of Hughes/Joba/Kennedy coupled with Cashman’s salesmanship and the status of whatever Hank had for dinner last night will have a factor on whether or not the Yankees will make a play for C.C. Sabathia. Actually, I think the biggest factor in this decision may be how Joba the Starter looks in late 2008 vs. how Joba the Reliever looked in early 2008/late 2007. Everyone in their right mind wants him in the rotation, but the combination of him shortening games, Mariano’s aging, the availability of a big-time lefty starter the sudden abundance of available money may swing this decision in the other direction.

If Melky does not take a significant step forward in 2008, I see him being shipped off to another franchise within 2 years. The Yankees have 2 star-caliber outfield prospects coming up and another who is a perfect 4th outfielder or bottom-of-the-order hitter. Granted, these decisions could be affected by the 2008 performances of Tabata and Jackson nearly as much, but for the time being, Melky’s destiny rests in his own hands. A significant part of the Yankee roster going forward could be shaped by how much improvement the Yankees see in their 9th place hitter in 2008.

Melky image from flickr user phillenium1979 under a Creative Commons license.

Wang: The Sultan of Sink?

This is a guest post by Adam Bernfeld. He is trained as an engineer and likes to apply his analytical nature to baseball to differentiate “what seems” vs. “what is”. His interests include PITCHf/x, DIPS, the concept of clutch, and Laura Posada.

“Statistics are like women: mirrors of purest virtue and truth, or like whores to use as one pleases.”
-Theodor Billroth

It is true that in a vacuum, statistics are almost entirely useless. One can manipulate the numbers to prove any side of an argument. They can however provide illumination in instances where what seems may differ from what is. For example, a few years ago before John Dewan wrote the Fielding Bible, a lot of Yankee fans truly did believe that Derek Jeter was a good defensive shortstop because he both seemed like a good fielder, and our broadcasters told us that he was a good fielder. Similarly, watching a Yankee game, one could be led to believe that Chien-Ming Wang possesses the best sinker in all of baseball. After all, it is 94 miles-per-hour and looks like it is dropping off a cliff. Surely no one’s could be better, right? Well, using PITCHf/x data, I hope to crown the true “Sultan of Sink.”

For those new to PITCHf/x, it is a system developed by Sportsvision in use by Major League Baseball that uses two cameras to measure the position of the baseball between the pitcher’s hand and home plate, which can be used to determine various parameters about each pitch including velocity and break (for a more thorough introduction to PITCHf/x, refer here and here).

Using PITHf/x data compiled by Josh Kalk of The Hardball Times, detailed pitch information can be seen for individual players or in a searchable database. For this study, I will compare the speed, horizontal break and vertical break of the average signature pitch of baseball’s prominent sinkerballers from the 2007 season. Based on reputation and ground ball rates, I have chosen a test group that includes: Chien-Ming Wang, Fausto Carmona, Aaron Cook, Roy Halladay, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Sergio Mitre, Brandon Webb and Jake Westbrook.

Note in the chart above that the values for break represent the number of inches that the pitch moves compared to a pitch thrown without spin, or, compared to a straight pitch under only the influence of gravity. The negative numbers for horizontal break indicate that the pitch moves inside to right-handed hitters. The positive values for vertical break indicate that the pitch crosses the plate higher than a pitch without spin would have. This may seem counterintuitive as we are talking about sinkers, but in reality sinkers are thrown with backspin and do rise (resist dropping actually), albeit much less than a 4-seam fastball, so they do in fact appear to sink. A 4-seam fastball is gripped across the seams resulting in more backspin than a sinker (or 2-seam fastball) which is gripped along the seams; the more backspin, the larger the positive vertical break. For comparison, Joba Chamberlain‘s fastball has a vertical break of 11.42 inches, compared to the average vertical break of 4.66 for our sinkerballer group.

The chart above can be shown graphically by plotting horizontal break on the x-axis and vertical break on the y-axis with pitch speed represented by dot size. In this graph, the lower right hand corner, the point (0,0), represents a pitch thrown without spin.

In hopes to build some sort of consensus as to who possesses the best sinker, I used the three PITCHf/x values (speed, horizontal break, vertical break) to create a z-score (also called a “standard score”) which is a statistical quantity used to combine multiple values measured on different scales. I then ordered the average z-score of each pitcher from high to low to rank the pitcher with the best combination of speed and break. Think of this as an index of the “stuff” on the pitcher’s sinker, or a “sinker-stuff index”. This value appears on the chart below alongside each pitcher’s groundball to flyball ratio (GB/FB), swing and miss (S&M) percentage, fair ball (FB) hit percentage, and fair ball extra base hit (XBH) percentage. All of these values are for sinkers only, except GB/FB which is the rate for all pitches thrown regardless of type.

The results of this study are interesting. While throwing one of the harder sinkers in the league (second only to Fausto Carmona), Chien-Ming Wang’s sinker actually sinks less than any other member of the test group. This is certainly a surprising observation. In fact, his sinker also has the lowest horizontal break, causing his sinker to rank 8th out of 9 in my sinker-stuff index. This certainly manifests itself in his below average groundball to flyball ratio and sinker swing and miss percentage. Remarkably however, compared to the test group Wang has the lowest percentage of hits off of sinkers, and by far the lowest percentage of extra base hits off of sinkers.

While some may chalk these low hit percentages up to luck, it appears that something deeper may be happening here. Finally though, the stats are pointing towards something that we already believed to be true. What seems agrees with what is, and that is the fact that Chien-Ming Wang rarely allows a hard hit ball off of his sinker. Why then, is his sinker so successful in spite of the fact that it moves so much less than those of his peers? Maybe my methods are all wrong (I hope not). Maybe pitch speed is more significant than pitch break (possibly). Maybe the ease of his delivery, which also includes a pronounced, varied hesitation, has a great effect on hitters’ timing (possible). Maybe Wang’s defense is better at turning batted balls into outs than the others on this list (unlikely). Maybe the DIPS people are right and hit percentages are no more than statistical variations (possibly, although I believe that DIPS applies more loosely to sinkerballers). Maybe it is a combination of all of these factors or even something that I have not thought of (likely), so please feel free to throw out explanations of your own.

Regardless of the reasons, I am glad that Wang is a Yankee as he gives us a very good chance to win once every five days. While his low ranking in my sinker index does not correlate with his outstanding results, at the end of the day I’ll always take the results over the “stuff”. Though after much machination, I have not definitively proved where Wang’s sinker ranks amongst his brethren, but I hope that this was interesting and informative, and maybe allows you to view the game and the sinker in a different light the next time the Wanger takes the hill.

Where have you gone, Larry Bowa?

This is the first in the guest column series. It is written by Dan Forti. You can check him out at Boulevard NYC, “an ongoing collaborative effort that strives to bring anyone with a creative vision together.”

Having been a die-hard Yankees fan since 1996, not too much surprised me during the 2007 off-season. Posada, Rivera, and A-Rod all threatening to leave, but then re-sign? It didn’t catch me off guard. I was even prepared for Joe Torre’s surprise departure, feeling that it was time for an amicable end to the great Torre Dynasty. However, the one move that I am still surprised about, and upset over, is the loss of our former third base coach, Larry Bowa.

Before his stint with the Yankees, the average fan knew Bowa as the eccentric manager of the Philadelphia Phillies from 2001-04. While his teams had strong players such as Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Jim Thome, and Jimmy Rollins, each year they underperformed. Bowa’s fiery personality and in-your-face style of coaching wore down many of his players halfway through each season, and in 2004 Bowa was let go.

In comparison, Bowa’s playing career was very successful: He won two Gold Gloves, led the NL in fielding percentages in six different seasons, and shared the left side of the infield with Hall of Famer Mike Schdmit. Every person who played with Bowa respected him for his passion for the game, as well as his dedication to his craft.

During the 2005 season, Bowa’s knowledge for the game became apparent through his daily TV appearances on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. Bowa always provided objective and concise analysis, while adding a little bit of his own flare to each show. When Bowa jumped from BBTN to the Bronx, many wondered how his personality would fit in with Torre’s calm regime.

I could never have imagined the impact that Bowa would have on this team. He was the best third base coach the Yankees ever had during the Torre Dynasty. Fans who are watching on television usually have a good idea of whether a runner at third should be sent home (various camera angles and instant scouting reports help). During Bowa’s stay at third, there was not one play that I disagreed with his decision (compare that to Luis Sojo’s miserable performance in the same capacity). He helped the Yankees get those extra runs, which we’ve always needed with our unreliable pitching.

Bowa’s impact could not only be seen during each game, but also during the course of the entire season. Within days of being hired by the Yankees, Bowa reached out to the team’s young second baseman, offering to be a mentor of sorts and to help him reach his untapped potential and abilities. Three weeks later, at 7:30 AM on a Tuesday morning, Bowa was hitting ground balls to Robinson Cano on an infield in the Tampa Complex. Each morning, for over an hour, Bowa would have one-on-one sessions with Cano, working on fielding groundballs, turning double plays, and mastering footwork. Bowa saw the player Cano could be, and recognized that a little of his ‘tough love’ could work wonders for the Dominican kid.

Two years later, Cano has evolved into an All-Star. He is one of the top hitting second basemen in the league, and is an underrated fielder (few others can turn a DP like Cano). Some critics believe that Cano’s early-season slump is so bad because Bowa isn’t there to keep the second baseman’s head straight. Early in his career, Yankee fans have noticed that Cano is prone to mental lapses. But Bowa found a great young man in Cano, and I am confident that the two are constantly on the phone, discussing game situations and methods to endure the mental wear of a 162 game season.

Although Bobby Meachem seems to be an adequate replacement as third base coach, I’m confident that the Yankees miss Bowa’s presence in the clubhouse. Joe Girardi has more intensity than Torre, but will always play second fiddle to Bowa and his ability to fire up a team. His coaching style may never be conducive to be a manager, but the Los Angeles Dodgers have one of the best coaches in baseball.

Photo by Al Lerner