2011 Season Preview: Derek Jeter

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Mark Humphrey/AP)

When, at age 36, a player produces career lows in basically every offensive statistic, one word comes to mind. There is a real possibility that Derek Jeter has entered an irreversible decline. Yankees fans don’t want to admit this. The 2010 season was just a down year, and everyone experiences down years. Considering Jeter’s previous low came during his sophomore season, he was due. Right?

If we’ve learned one thing about Jeter during his 15 years with the club, it’s that he won’t simply accept declining numbers. This off-season he signed a contract that rewards him handsomely for his contribution to a championship team, and he’s going to take that seriously. He already has, as we’ve read frequently this off-season. A new, shorter stride is supposed to help him stay in front of the ball, so that he’s not hitting dinky grounders to second every other at-bat. But will this one change lead to a more productive 2011?

Best Case

Those are some good looking swing mechanics (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In seasons past, pegging Jeter’s ceiling was pretty easy. Lately the answer has been simple: 2006. That year, riding a near-.400 BABIP, Jeter hit .343/.416/.483 (.399 wOBA) and nearly won the AL MVP Award. In 2009 he came close to those numbers, .334/.406/.465, so in 2010 that appeared to be his ceiling. Instead we got what was in essence his floor. At a younger age we could probably reset his ceiling to that 2006/2009 level. But at age 37 I’m not sure we can do that.

Maybe Jeter’s shortened stride will indeed allow him to get his bat around faster. Maybe, as we’ve heard reported this spring, that he’ll also pull the ball with a bit more authority this year. And maybe that turns into a BABIP around .360, which would put him well above the .300 batting average mark. Since we’re talking best case, that could be in the cards. It’s also possible that, with a bit more reaction time, he can again eclipse a 10 percent walk rate, which would put his OBP around .400. He could also pop a few cheapie homers over the right field porch.

In that way, there is a chance that Jeter could hit somewhere around .330/.400/.450. I wouldn’t call it a good chance. If he did that, he’d essentially be Honus Wagner exactly a century later. In 1911, his age-37 season, Wagner hit a league-leading .334, with a .423 OBP and .507 SLG. The only other shortstop, aged 37 or older, who qualified for the batting title with a .300 or greater average is Luke Appling. Jeter, in other words, is either in decline or in elite company. His best case is pretty clear, given his and baseball’s history.

Worst Case

(Charles Krupa/AP)

This is the part that no one wants to discuss. What if Jeter’s bat slows even more? What if the stride doesn’t help him get out in front of the ball and he ends up hitting a deluge of grounders to second? What if — gulp — he performs even more poorly than last year?

When we discuss worst case scenarios for players, we’re usually talking about an injury or a string of horrible luck. For Jeter, neither of these is the worst case. The worst case is that he hits poorly and looks old doing it. The worst case is that he plays an even more noticeably poor shortstop. The worst case is that he keeps saying he can get himself out of it and delays his drop from the top of the lineup. These might all be worse than an injury. At least with an injury he has something to blame.

It’s tough to imagine just how bad matters could get for Jeter, and I don’t think there’s a reasonably accurate floor for him right now. Could he hit worst than .250? Could he lose even more power? Could his fielding decline further? The answer to these questions has to be certain degrees of yes. In terms of overall worst case, I imagine it involves him hitting ninth by season’s end. Imagine how bad things would have to go for him to hit that mark.

What’s Likely To Happen

If we’re going siding with baseball history, it’s most likely that Jeter hits somewhere around his 2010 level, with perhaps a slightly lower average. If we’re going with Derek Jeter as a generational talent hellbent on improving on his previous season, it’s likely he hits .300 again. This makes pegging the actual likely scenario as tough as, if not tougher than, pegging his worst case.

A week ago Joe Posnanski wrote about two aging superstars: Jeter and Tiger Woods. In it he described both players’ efforts to stave off the effects by aging by making mechanical adjustments. This he dubs Carlton’s Law, after Steve Carlton:

We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.

But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.

Maybe Jeter can turn it around for one more season. Maybe the mechanical adjustment will combine with a bit better luck and create something of a last hurrah for Jeter. But given the number of players who have played shortstop and hit at an elite level at Jeter’s age, it’s tough to bank on it.

In order to keep emotions out of this, I’ll turn to a post I did last week on projected stats for Jeter, Teixeira, and A-Rod. The various projection systems view Jeter differently, but their aggregated conclusion — .286/.353/.399 — sounds good. If we’re able to peg Jeter’s most likely scenario, this is probably it.

No one wants to witness Derek Jeter’s decline. He was a beloved Yankee from his first year with the team, and he has proven during his 15-year career that he is one of the greatest shortstops to play the game. Yet even the best decline. We know what Jeter can do, and we know that he’s working to reverse last year’s results. We just don’t know whether that’s physically possible.

2011 Season Preview: Robbie Cano

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have been waiting for Robbie Cano to step up and become a cornerstone player rather than the really, really good complementary piece he was earlier in his career for a few seasons now. Cano took that step forward last year. He was a legitimate MVP candidate, finishing third in the voting thanks to a .389 wOBA and 6.4 fWAR, the sixth highest among AL position players. Just one Yankee position player was within two wins of his production. By all methods of evaluation, he was the team’s best player in 2010.

And now comes the hard part. The Yankees are expecting their still 28-year-old second baseman to maintain that production in 2011, counting on him to be that cornerstone player as the roster turns over. His offense is no longer an added bonus at the bottom third of the lineup, it’s being counted on in the middle of the order. With no fewer than 159 games played in each of the last four seasons, he’s the only player on the infield to not experience some kind of injury or age-related setback recently, and that durability is part of what makes Robbie so important to the team. Everyone knows he’ll be there day-in and day-out.

What does 2011 have in store for the young superstar? Let’s take a look…

Best Case

In the prime of his career, last season was just a jumping off point for Cano. His power stroke is propped up by what is now a five-year trend of increasing fly ball rates, steadily climbing from 28.2% in 2006 to 36.5% last year. Cano’s line drive rate has stabilized at a little over 19% in the last three years while his ground ball rate continues to fall. Lots of fly balls and line drives is a recipe for extra base hits, and with a little help from Yankee Stadium, Robbie eclipses the 30 homerun plateau for the first time in his career, chipping in his usual 40+ doubles.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Chicks did increases in power output, but Cano’s bread-and-butter is still his uncanny ability to hit for average. A .320 and .319 hitter in the last two seasons, respectively, Robbie again matches that mark and picks up 200 hits for the third straight season. The improved batting eye he showed off in 2010 continues to get better, and his 8.2% walk rate (6.3% removing intentionals) climbs into double digits, pushing his on-base percentage north of .400 for the first time in his career.

On the other side of the ball, the advanced defensive metrics finally recognize what we’ve all known for the last few years: Cano is a Gold Glove caliber defender at second. His range to his right somewhat compensates for Derek Jeter‘s perpetually declining range to his left, saving the pitching staff a couple extra runs during the course of the season. Put it all together and you’ve got the game’s best offensive second baseman and one of its best defensive second baseman, resulting in a pace that threatens, if not flat out exceeds 7.0 fWAR.

Worst Case

Aside from the obvious (injury, etc.), the worst thing that could happen to Cano is that the league finally figures out a way to get him out consistently. So far that hasn’t happened; Cano’s always been a guy that’s fallen into slumps because of his bad habits, not because pitchers have exploited a weakness. He can be prone to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, probably his biggest drawback, but so far he’s mitigated the damage with his exceptional contact skills (just 6.2% swings and misses in his career, 5.7% since 2008).

As a guy that makes so much contact, Cano’s offensive production will always be closely tied to his BABIP. It’s been in the .320’s in three of the last four years, and the one year it wasn’t was 2008. That’s the year he hit .271/.305/.410 with a .307 wOBA (.283 BABIP), resulting in a total worth of just 0.7 fWAR. The unpredictability of the BABIP beast will be Robbie’s enemy just as much as the opposing pitcher, perhaps moreso. Randomness can be a bitch.

With 30 homers now within react, Cano could start selling out for power to the pull side. He might hit a few more dingers, but his average and on-base percentage will take hits, possibly considerable ones. Barring a complete breakdown either physically or mechanically, the worst case scenario for Cano has him returning to those 2008 levels of production, which would be almost a six win drop-off for the Yankees.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

In all likelihood, 2010 was a career year for Robbie, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean he’s going to tail off and turn into a glorified version of Juan Uribe this season, but the performance might be merely very good instead of MVP caliber. Cano set career highs in homers (29), walks (57), unintentional walks (43), on-base percentage (.381), slugging percentage (.534), and isolated power (.214) last season, so it’ll be tough for him to top that performance. It’s possible, but unlikely.

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

If I had to lay out some odds, I’d say there’s a 50% chance that Cano repeats his 2009 performance this season, a 35% chance he repeats his 2010 performance, a 14% chance he exceeds his 2010 performance, and a 1% chance that he falls off a cliff. Robbie’s floor is very high in 2011, a .370 wOBA and 4.0 fWAR seem to be the bare minimums here.

2011 Season Preview: Mark Teixeira

What up, Mark? (Mike Carleson/AP)

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

It started in 1985. Don Mattingly, coming off his first full season in the bigs, during which he led the league in hits and won the batting title, got his first start at first base on Opening Day. In the two years before that, Ken Griffey opened the season at first. Dave Revering, Bob Watson, and Chris Chambliss held the honors in the years before that. But from 1985 through 1995, it was Mattingly who manned first on Opening Day. It was the start of a tradition.

When Mattingly retired after the 95 season he passed the torch to Tino Martinez, who started at first on Opening Day from 1996 through 2001. The honors then went to Jason Giambi, who was supposed to start at first on Opening Day from 2002 through at least 2008. Only Josh Phelps starting at first on Opening Day 2007 broke that streak. Now Mark Teixeira is the man at first, and in 2011 he will open his third pinstriped season there. Save for that one anomalous Opening Day, the Yankees have had four men man first base on Opening Day since 1985. It is a tradition, once maligned, that we all hope continues through 2016, when Teixeira perhaps passes the torch to the next great Yankees first baseman.

For now we can enjoy the current first baseman in his prime. While Teixeira had his second worst, and certainly most disappointing, season in 2010, he’s still a world class athlete in the prime of his career. Despite the down year the expectations range high.

Best Case

Game changer. (Charles Krupa/AP)

By the time a player reaches age 30, we usually have a good idea of his true talent. This appears to be the case with Teixeira, who produced a wOBA between .402 and .410 from 2007 through 2009, peaking at .410 in 2008. Since he’s 31 and unlikely to dramatically improve, we can safely peg his peak value at 2008, when, on the strength of his best offensive season and a particularly impressive defensive one, he produced 7.3 WAR.

That would make his best case section pretty boring. That’s not going to fly. As I examined earlier this week, a hot start could make a big difference for Teixeira. In that quick and dirty analysis I substituted Teixeira’s second-worst month for his worst one. It made something of a difference in his season numbers, particularly in batting average and slugging. But what if Teixeira were to have an otherworldly April, and then go on to have a season similar to 2009?

The last season in which Teixeira produced good numbers in April was 2006, when he hit .293/.391/.495 in 115 April PA. If we simply substitute those numbers for Teixeira’s April 2009 numbers — .200/.367/.371 in 90 PA — this is what we’d come up with:

.303/.387/.575

And yet, in 2007 Teixeira hit .306/.400/.563, so this isn’t really out of line at all out of line with what Teixeira can do. Yet it’s a bit better than his 2009. The best case for Teixiera, then, is an MVP.

Worst Case

No one wants to see this again in 2011. (Paul Battaglia/AP)

Most of us don’t want to acknowledge the worst case scenario for any player. Not at this point in the year. It involves injury, of course, and with Teixeira that possibility is a bit more real than it was at this time last year. While he didn’t spend any time on the DL, the year was marked by a series of injuries that hampered his production, and which culminated in a hamstring strain during the ALCS.

Baseball Injury Tool notes four different instances in 2010 when Teixeira was listed as day-to-day. There was the foul ball he took off his foot at the end of May, but the real litany came towards the end of the season. He missed a game at the end of August with a thumb contusion, an injury that probably lingered the rest of the season; he had a cortizone shot sometime at the end of September. Then, towards the middle of September, it was revealed that he had a toe fracture — which he suffered at the end of August. Then came the hamstring strain.

Most of these injuries, it appears, stemmed from fluke things such as getting hit by pitches. That’s good news going forward, since it doesn’t portend a repeat in 2011. Still, we know that small injuries, especially the thumb one, can seriously hamper Teixeira’s production. Repeating any part of his 2011 injury wise would probably bring on the worst case scenario.

The other part of the worst case is that Teixeira’s production truly has declined. Again, it’s easy to look at the injuries as an explanation. He did produce two stellar months in July and August, and those were two months where he was a month removed from any day-to-day injuries. Still, we have no idea the degree to which that link is causal. There have been first baseman who have produced similarly to Teixeira early in their careers, only to decline around age 30. The worst case, then, would be a facsimile of his 2010 season, but perhaps without the torrid July and August production.

What’s Likely To Happen

Given the injuries that slowed his 2010 season and his focus on getting off to a decent start in 2011, I think that Teixeira’s most likely case involves a compromise between his 2008 and 2009 seasons. That is, an OBP close to, but not quite at, .400, and a SLG that ranges around .550 rather than .565. That would still provide tremendous production for the Yankees, and would put him among the best first basemen in the American League.

Despite Teixeira’s best efforts, it’s tough to envision anything but a slow start. This is now a four-year trend, and to predict a reversal is to bet blindly on optimism. As long as his start doesn’t resemble 2010, which was his worst April ever, the Yanks can weather the extra outs from the No. 3 spot.

Thankfully, along with the trend of slow starts comes the trend of torrid production later in the season. Even in his down year last season he crushed the ball during the summer months. If it is blind optimism to predict a hot start, it is equally blind pessimism to predict a drop-off in summer numbers. When healthy Teixeira is a proven second half hitter, and that will help the Yankees tremendously heading into a September pennant race.

As Mark Teixeira goes, so will the Yankees. He occupies a key spot in the lineup, and the Yankees rely on his production to help lead their league-best offense. While 2010 represented a down year, it was also one marked by injuries. If he remains healthy in 2011, it’s hard to expect anything but another elite season.

2011 Season Preview: Russell Martin

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

For the first time since 1999, the Yankees will have someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day. Former Dodger Russell Martin was inked to a one-year, $4M contract in the offseason, pushing Posada to designated hitter and (presumably) Frankie Cervelli to the backup role. The move was made not in hopes that Martin would recapture his 2007 magic (though that would be welcome), but that he would simply solidify the defense behind the plate.

The Yankees assumed risk in this move (just like all them), though perhaps more than usual. Martin is on steady decline offensively, particularly in the power department. He missed the end of the 2010 season after suffering a hairline fracture in his hip when he stepped on home plate awkwardly, though the good news is that he did not damage the labrum. His pre-signing physical revealed a partially torn meniscus that required minor surgery. The Dodgers know Martin better than anyone, and they chose to walk away from an expected salary around $7M in 2011 plus another year of control in 2012 (via arbitration-eligibility) by non-tendering him.

That said, Martin just turned 28 years old, so he’s theoretically in prime baseball playing age. Things could go well, things could go poorly, or it could end up being a mix of the two. Let’s explore…

Best Case

There is no more demanding position in the game than catcher. The physical abuse from squatting behind the plate, foul tips, and miscellaneous bumps and bruises often lead to short peaks, and Martin’s workloads over the last three seasons have been excessive. He started no fewer than 133 games behind the plate every year from 2007 through 2009, and he was on pace to start another 135 in 2010 before the hip injury ended his season in August.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A winter of rest and a manager willing to play his backup catcher twice a week helps rejuvenate Martin’s career, and he gets back on the path that he appeared to be on after 2007. Hitting coach Kevin Long makes some minor tweaks that bring back Martin’s power stroke (.095 ISO over the last three years), along with an assist from Yankee Stadium. Coupled with 11.4% walks (his rate over the last three seasons, removing intentional walks), the 2007 All-Star resurfaces, and Martin gets on base more than 37% of the time and pops close to 20 homers with double-digit steals out of the eighth and ninth spots of the lineup.

With the hip and knee fully healed, Martin’s mobility behind the plate is a non-issue, and he’s blocking A.J. Burnett breaking balls in the dirt and framing Phil Hughes cutters on the corners with aplomb. His 33.9% success rate at throwing out basestealers over the last two years proves to be no fluke, and Martin posts the best throw-out rate by a Yankees starting catcher since before the Posada era. The entire package adds up to a four or five WAR pace and a player in high demand at the trade deadline.

Worst Case

That heavy workload has taken just too much of a toll on Martin’s body. His power is completely gone and Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines are no help despite his tendency to go the other way into right field. The downward trend of his contact skills (6.4% swinging strikes in 2008, 6.8% in 2009, 7.1% in 2010) not only continue, but are exacerbated by battle tested AL East pitching staffs. Without the pitcher hitting behind him, Martin is finding walks harder to come by.

The hip and knee issues sap agility and quickness behind the plate, rendering Martin a slightly better version of Posada when it comes to blocking balls and moving around. Elite burners like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rajai Davis, and Jacoby Ellsbury expose Martin’s throwing arm, showing that anyone can appear to be good at gunning down base stealers when the biggest speed threats in your division are Chris Young, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Dexter Fowler.

With little defensive value and offense that makes fans pine for Cervelli’s .315 wOBA of a year ago, Martin barely keeps his head above replacement level and ends up in the pile of cast-offs with Kelly Stinnett and Todd Pratt and Chris Widger after the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s clear that Martin is no longer the budding superstar that he appeared to be in 2007, when he hit .293/.374/.469 (.368 wOBA) with 19 homers and 21 steals while piling up 5.8 fWAR, but the Yankees don’t need him to be. He was brought in to solidify the defense behind the plate and be something more than an automatic out at the bottom of the lineup, rather modest expectations. The knee and hip injuries are a legitimate concern, though Martin has already done catching drills in camp and so far all is well.

Offensively, Martin should benefit from a move into Yankee Stadium. He does a solid job of going the other way towards right field, and about 74.4% of his balls-in-play in that direction are non-grounders (about 55% pure fly balls). He’ll definitely hit a cheapie homer or five this season. The walk rate has consistently been in double-digits throughout his career, peaking over the last three seasons, and it’s not like he’s been facing crappy pitching in the NL West. The intentional walks won’t be there to inflate Martin’s on-base percentage, but anything over .335-ish with solid defense is an upgrade for New York.

Ultimately, Martin is just a role player for the Yankees. He’ll hit in the bottom third of the lineup and be asked to shut down the opponent’s running game first and foremost. It’s a dirt cheap contract and the Yankees have the ability to retain him in 2012 as an arbitration-eligible player, so if Martin proves useful, they’ll have plenty of option with regards to his future. Quality catching is at a premium around the league, so teams will come calling if he’s just decent.

Food For Thought: Derek Jeter

Hitting coach Kevin Long spoke yesterday about the changes he and Derek Jeter are making to the Captain’s swing, specifically with regards to the inside pitch. “The issue with the stride foot is when it crosses over and goes [toward the plate] and the ball is coming inside, you don’t have a path to get to that pitch,” said Long. “So he’s going to try to [keep his hands and body inside] and try to stay into it … Now, by staying square and going up on his toe and going [inside with the swing], he’s creating an avenue for his hips to get through and to become square to the baseball.”

The two heat graphs above show Jeter’s foul balls over the last two years, with 2009 on the left and 2010 on the right. They come courtesy of Dave Pinto at Baseball Analytics, and allow us to see that the inside pitch was giving the Cap’n a hard time last year. Instead of putting those balls in play like we’re so used to seeing, he was just fouling them off. Assuming the adjustments work, the bulk of the foul balls should come on pitches on the outer half in 2011.

Food For Thought: Cervelli & Posada

There’s no better PitchFX analyst than Mike Fast, and today he used to the data to look not at pitchers, but catchers. The graph above shows Javy Vazquez‘s called balls and strikes from last season when Frankie Cervelli was catching. It’s not terribly exciting by itself, but it is when you compare it to this graph that shows the same thing with Jorge Posada behind the plate (here’s a gif for easy comparison). Yeah, big difference. Jorge’s pitch-framing abilities have long been in question, but now we’ve got some hard evidence showing just how questionable they were.

Of course, we are looking at a small sample size of data, let’s keep that in mind. Cervelli caught 110.2 of Javy’s innings last year, Posada just 44.2. And we also have to remember that umpires tend to make mistakes, especially when they’re looking over the catcher’s shoulder and the ball is on the corner of the other side of the plate. I’m not making excuses for Jorge, because he’s bad at pretty much everything behind the plate these days, just making sure you’re aware of what’s going on. Anyway, Posada’s not going to do much catching this season, so it’s no longer a concern.

My favorite graph from the post was this one, showing pitch location (horizontally) by age. The older the pitcher, the further away from the middle of the plate they pitch (denoted as 0). If only they knew then what they knew now, eh?

The article does not appear to require a Baseball Prospectus subscription, so now you really have no reason to check it out. Great stuff from Mike.

Food For Thought: Brett Gardner

That up there comes from Baseball Analytics, and shows how often Brett Gardner swung at a pitch by location. It was no better than 50-50 that he would swing at a pitch right down the middle last year, but it was basically a one-in-five chance that he’d swing at something on the corners or at the knees. They also have graphs for 2008 and 2009, which allows you to see his plate discipline progression. Here’s a gif of the three, maybe that’s easier to compare. It’s pretty obvious that he’s gotten better and better at laying off stuff out of the zone, always a plus, but Gardner can be pretty infuriating when he lets a something hittable go by in a hitter’s count.