2010 Season Preview: Can Swish do it again?

About a month before the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira to the fourth largest contract in baseball history, GM Brian Cashman fooled White Sox GM Kenny Williams into giving him outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher in exchange for three of the sparest of spare parts. Swisher was slated to begin the season as the every day first baseman, but once Teixeira signed on the dotted line, Swish was moved into an outfield platoon role with Xavier Nady. He was a man without a position, but he ultimately became a very important part of the 2009 Yankees.

Swisher took over rightfield on an every day basis after Nady tore an elbow ligament barely more than a week into the season, and went on to enjoy his finest season in the big leagues. He hit .249-.371-.498 with a career high .375 wOBA while batting mostly out of the six-seven-eight spots in the lineup. His 29 homers were the third most on the team behind Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and his 97 walks were second in the league. A weak postseason performance (.128-.255-.234, .282 wOBA) left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, but he basically carried the offense in April (.312-.430-.714, .473 wOBA) while Tex slumped and A-Rod was on the DL.

We know Swish is a valuable offensive player, but most fans are in disagreement about his defense. He makes the occasional goofy play in the outfield for sure, but his three-year UZR of +3.0 is rock solid. The components that make up UZR (range, errors, arm) tell us that Swisher has no problem getting to balls (+11.7 range runs), but that his arm (-6.6 arm runs) dragged him down. His 2009 UZR (+3.5 range, -1.1 arm) bears out that relationship as well. This is completely subjective on my part, but Swisher’s throwing appeared to improve considerably after working with pitching coach Dave Eiland and the since departed Phil Coke last summer, so I’m hopefully he continues that progress and the defensive metrics are a little kinder to the Yanks’ rightfielder in 2010. Either way, Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections have Swish as perfectly average defensively at right next season (meaning a UZR of zero), so let’s roll with that.

Baserunning is another aspect of the game that Swisher can make interesting. He’s not a basestealer, just seven successful steals in 15 attempts during his career, and EqBRR says he was worth -0.9 runs on the bases last year. Believe it or not, that’s the first time Swisher has been below average on the bases since 2006, though even in a best case scenario, we should be happy if he’s just league average. Brett Gardner, he is not.

So now let’s turn to offense, and the question is can he repeat what he did last season? The quick answer is yes because his 2009 performance was in line with his 2005-2007 performance, and also because he’s in the prime of his career at 29-years-old. However, there’s evidence out there that suggests Swisher might be in for a bit of a step back offensively.

Greg Rybarczyk’s great site Hit Tracker Online keeps track of every homerun hit in the big leagues going back to 2006, and sticks each one into one of three categories. “Just Enough” homers are those that cleared the fence by less than ten feet vertically or that landed past the wall by less than the fence height (so if it’s an eight foot wall, it landed no more than eight feet deep). “No Doubters” are those that cleared the fence by at least 20 feet vertically and landed at least 50 feet deep, the true monster shots. Everything else goes in the “Plenty” category.

As you can imagine, Just Enough homers are the most volatile year-to-year because they’re so close to the fence. As Rybarczyk chronicled at ESPN’s TMI blog, players who’ve hit 30 total homers in a season with at least 40% of them qualifying as Just Enoughs have seen their homer totals fall 23% on average the next season. That’s a problem for Swisher and the Yankees, because he led the American League with 14 Just Enough homers, 48.3% of his total big flies.

This isn’t the first time Swisher has been in the Just Enough danger zone either. His 14 Just Enoughs were second in the league back in 2006, exactly 40% of the career-high 35 homers he hit for the A’s. What happened in 2007? Swish regressed back to just six Just Enoughs and 22 total homers, a 37.1% drop. This isn’t to say Swisher is guaranteed to see a drop off in his homerun – and thus overall offensive – production in 2010, but it’s not looking good. Let’s see what the various projection systems say…

So yeah, the five freely available projection systems do see a slight regression for Swish, back basically to his career average with a .358 wOBA. The homer total is plenty respectable, and represents just a 13.8% decline from his 2009 total. If Swisher were to suffer the average 23% drop, he’d instead hit just 22 homers, which would further reduce his projected batting line to .236-.355-.430 with a .349 wOBA assuming those three missing homers became outs. A .349 wOBA hitter is still above average, but a far cry from what Swisher provided the Yanks with in 2009.

Okay, so combining that projected .358 wOBA with +0.0 runs defensively and say -1.0 runs on the bases, and Swisher would be a 2.6 WAR player next season, a decline of exactly one win. If we use the further reduced .349 wOBA projection, he would be a 2.1 WAR player. Those three extra homers are worth half-a-win to the Yanks.

In a way, Swisher’s 2009 season was the best case scenario for the Yankees. He provided a ton of pop and on-base skills near the bottom of the lineup, and he played basically every single day. He’s likely to improve after famously struggling at home last year (.226-.382-.394, .349 wOBA), though chances are his road performance (.268-.361-.585, .399 wOBA) will come back down to Earth as well. I like Swisher as much as the next guy, but I’m not going to be surprised if his performance declines a bit next season. You’ll see lots of people play it off as Swisher getting complacent or whatever, but now you know there’s a real baseball reason for it. Dude straight up got lucky with some homers last season.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

2010 Season Preview: Sacrificing offense for defense in left

Every so often we see an organization get stuck looking to fill one position for an extended period of time. The Red Sox have been searching for a shortstop ever since they traded away Nomar Garciaparra, and the Twins are still trying to find a solid third baseman to replace Corey Koskie. For a while the Yankees had their own positional problem, using a different Opening Day leftfielder every season from 1994 to 2003. That problem was solved when Hideki Matsui came aboard in ’03, and in recent years Johnny Damon had taken over the position, but with both of those stalwarts now playing elsewhere, the Yankees once again are left searching for a long-term leftfield solution.

Typically considered a power position, the Yanks have instead decided to focus on defense in left. The tremendous offensive production they receive from the four up-the-middle positions allows them to take a bit of a hit in one of the corner outfield spot. With the speedy Brett Gardner already in-house, the team opted to complement him with free agent signing Randy Winn, who managed to be close to a two win player in 2009 despite a .302 wOBA because of his superlative defense. Add in Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann, and it’s clear the Yankees made a conscious effort to improve their defense when replacing Damon in left.

Gardner played nothing but centerfield last year, saving 7.2 runs in 628.2 defensive innings. Winn, on the other hand, saved 16.6 runs in just under 1,200 defensive innings for the Giants. Unlike Gardner, he shifted around and spent time at all three outfield spots. Looking at three-year UZR, we’re talking about 55.2 runs saved in just over 4,700 defensive innings combined between these two, so clearly the defensive ability is there. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg Winn as a +2.0 UZR defender in left next year, and Brett Gardner as perfectly average at the position. Both players project to be better defenders at different positions (Winn in right, Gardner in center), but the Yankees aren’t about to shift Curtis Granderson and/or Nick Swisher around for marginal improvements with the glove. These projections seem a little light, but let’s roll with them.

Aside from defense, the other aspect of the game where these guys excel is on the bases. Gardner stole 26 bases last year (83.9% success rate), and according to EqBRR he was worth 4.9 runs in all baserunning situations, 11th best in baseball despite being a part-time player. Believe it or not, Winn is just as much of a threat on the basepaths, having stolen 16 bases with an 88.9% success rate in 2009, and his 4.8 EqBRR was a tenth of a run behind Gardner for the 12th best in the game. No matter which player the Yankees have patrolling leftfield next season, they’re guaranteed of getting solid (or better) defense with top of the line baserunning.

Offensively, we have a different story. Let’s review some projections, starting with Gardner…

After posting a .270-.345-.379 batting line with a slightly above average .337 wOBA in 2009, the five freely available projection systems see Gardner basically repeating that performance. It’s slightly above league average overall but generally below average for a corner outfielder. Combine the offense with the +0.0 UZR projection and say another +5.0 runs on the bases, and Gardner’s looking at a 1.4 WAR season. The shift from center to left decreases Gardner’s value more than anything. It wouldn’t take much to get him over the two win plateau, just a slightly better than league average UZR and another 50 or so plate appearances of similar production.

Now for the grizzled vet…

Winn’s offense doesn’t project to be as good as Gardner’s because of a 20 point difference in on-base percentage, but the good news is that they see an improvement over his .262-.318-.353 (.302 wOBA) performance from last year. Granted, the .316 wOBA projection is nothing to brag about, and when combined with a +2.0 UZR and say +5.0 runs on the bases, you get a one win player. Nothing to get excited over, but not a bad return on a minimal investment ($1.1M) at all.

Of course, figuring out the actual production the Yanks will get out of leftfield is slightly more complicated because Gardner and Winn will presumably split playing time. If Gardner gets say, two-thirds of the playing time, Joe Girardi‘s club is probably looking at two wins total for the position, which for all intents and purposes is league average. That doesn’t account for Marcus Thames and/or Jamie Hoffmann, both of whom are trying to state their case for a job this spring. Since both players are projected to perform at replacement level next year, we really don’t have to worry about them. Anything the Yanks get from either is gravy.

For the most part, whoever the Yankees send out to leftfield on a given day will be their weakest player on the field. However, given their strength up-the-middle and two .400 wOBA corner infielders, they can afford to add another to dimension to the team in the form of strong defense and elite baserunning. I don’t expect them to have nine different Opening Day leftfielders in the next nine years like they did a decade ago, but what the Yankees have right now isn’t anything more than a stopgap.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

2010 Season Preview: Can Jeter keep it up?

It’s really not as easy as Derek Jeter makes it look. Last season, the Yankees became the first team in baseball history to win the World Series with a 35-year-old shortstop, though you wouldn’t have been able to tell Jeter was that old by his .344-.432-.563 postseason batting line. The Captain has spoiled us for more than a decade, though history tells us that the end may be coming sooner than we expect.

Since baseball’s expansion era began in 1961, just six players age-35 or older have managed to post better than a 100 OPS+ while playing at least 100 games at the shortstop position. The best individual season of that group came just last year, when Jeter hit .334-.406-.465 with a .390 wOBA (132 OPS+) in 150 games at the position. The next best season was Barry Larkin’s .338 wOBA/118 OPS+ campaign in 2000, when he played just 102 games, so you can see just how absurdly historic Jeter’s season was for an older shortstop. The historical data gets even grimmer when you look at shortstops age-36 or older, because just three players in the last half-century have managed to be above average offensively while playing the position for at least 100 games.

Those three players, like Jeter, are all either in the Hall of Fame or will be very soon. The careers of Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio are defined by their outstanding defense, and even though Larkin was the complete package of offense and defense, he battled injuries throughout his entire 19-year career that limited him to just seven seasons of 140 or more games played. Larkin’s age-36 season, that .338 wOBA/118 OPS+ one I mentioned in the last paragraph, was the last time he was an above average every day player. Roberto Alomar, another great all-around middle infielder, was a shell of himself by the time he was Jeter’s age. History clearly does not portend good things for the Yankees’ captain.

Older players are generally unable to provide the level of quickness and athleticism required at the shortstop position, yet amazingly Jeter has managed to improve his defense despite entering his mid-30’s. After bottoming out at -16.0 range runs in 2007 (-16.7 UZR), Jeter improved to -3.2 range runs in 2008 (-0.7 UZR) and +3.7 range runs in 2009 (+8.4 UZR). All of that progress was made after GM Brian Cashman told the Captain that he wanted him to improve his defense over dinner. Because they’re weighted over the last three season, Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections see Jeter regressing back down to a -2.0 UZR defender next season. It’s almost impossible to see Jeter repeating last year’s defensive excellence, though hopefully he doesn’t crash that hard.

Always a threat on the bases, Jeter’s a high percentage basestealer (85.7% success rate last year, 79.% last year) that’s good for anywhere from 10-30 steals per season. He’s been consistently worth about one run above average when you consider all aspects of baserunning (advancing on sacrifice flies, moving up on grounders, etc), so there’s no reason to suspect him to be any worse than that next year. Sure, he’ll probably lose a step or two, but running the bases is more about smarts than pure speed.

Moving ahead to offense, let’s see what the five freely available projection systems have in store for the Yanks’ captain. Remember to click for a larger view.

After posting a .390 wOBA for the fourth time in his career last season, the projections have Jeter dropping off to a .359 wOBA in 2010. While that doesn’t match the career low .343 wOBA he put up in 2008, it would be his second worst offensive output since 1998. While an 8% decline in offense is significant, keep in mind that only three non-Jeter shortstops bested a .359 wOBA in 2009. Jeter’s offensive production would continue to be very good for the position, but no longer elite.

Rounding it all up, we have the various projections calling for the Cap’n to put up a .359 wOBA in 660 plate appearances, -2.0 UZR on defense, and let’s call it another +1.0 run on the bases. The works out to 4.3 WAR, about a three win drop off from Jeter’s ungodly 2009 campaign. If he’s a +3.2 UZR defender (halfway between his 2009 mark his 2010 projection), then it bumps him up another half-win to 4.8 WAR. Given the historical suckiness of 36-year-old shortstops, the Yankees should be ecstatic if they get a four-plus win season in 2010.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Jeter’s expiring contract. History has shown that the Yankees should avoid doing anything but going year-to-year with Jeter from here on out, but that’s just not feasible. He’s the face of the franchise, and if he has the kind of season he’s projected to have in 2010, it’ll be near-impossible for the team to sign him on favorable terms. Either way, the contract is going to take both sides into uncharted territory regarding shortstops Jeter’s age.

Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP

2010 Season Preview: Early Season Alex

In three of the last five seasons the Yankees have performed poorly in April. In 2005, fresh off their ALCS collapse, they went 10-14. In 2007 they went 9-14. While in those seasons they fought back to make the playoffs, 2008 went a bit differently. They didn’t start as poorly, at 14-15, but also didn’t have the same mid-season surge that lead to their 2005 and 2007 comebacks. Another difference: they didn’t have Alex Rodriguez pummeling baseballs.

Photo credit: Julie Jacobson/AP

Over his career, A-Rod has been a standout April performer. In 1,311 plate appearances he has hit .311/.391/.611. The only month in which he has performed better is August. Those early season displays and late-season surges have helped the Yankees out of a few jams. For instance, can you imagine the 2007 team without A-Rod’s April heroics? They easily could have gone 6-17 and found themselves in a much tougher situation to start May.

The 2009 Yankees did not have the benefit of A-Rod’s hot early season bat and suffered because of it. While he wouldn’t have made a difference in two of Chien-Ming Wang‘s starts, which caused the team to allow more runs than it scored in April despite 12-10 record, A-Rod could have made a difference in a number of games. For instance, his added offense might have rendered the bullpen meltdown on April 12 moot. Maybe his added offense on April 24 gives the Yankees a win against the Sox.

Even beyond these close games, A-Rod’s presence in the lineup has a cumulative effect on the hitters behind him. Instead of facing Teixeira-Rodriguez-Matsui in the middle of the order, in April pitchers had Teixeira-Matsui-Posada. The effect trickled down the lineup to the end, where pitchers faced Swisher-Gardner/Melky-Ransom, rather than Cano-Swisher-Melky. That makes the lineup a bit easier to navigate. Starting pitchers could get through the lineup with fewer pitches, leaving lesser pitchers sitting in the bullpen. The Yankees are known for working up pitch counts, and without A-Rod that strategy was weakened.

How many runs would a healthy A-Rod have added in April? His collective replacement — Cody Ransom, Ramiro Pena, and Angel Berroa — hit .214/.283/.310 over 92 plate appearances. According to linear weights, that amounts to just under seven runs created. To be nice, let’s round up to that. First, for the extreme, let’s insert A-Rod’s 2007 April, in which he hit 14 home runs. That year he would have been worth 28.6 runs. In other words, if we subtract the seven runs generated by his replacement and add in his runs, that’s 149 runs scored in April. In his other MVP season, 2005, he created 19.6 runs in April, which would have brought the Yankees’ total to 140. Even if we use his even-worse April 2008 he created 14.5 runs, double his 2009 replacements.

For the Yankees, getting off to a hot start now is more important than ever. While they were able to recover from a stagnant start last year, there’s no guarantee that they can do so in a similar manner this season. Even if they do, it won’t be like 2005 and 2007, when the Red Sox were the only team standing in their way. This year the Rays figure to be a formidable opponent, as they were in 2008 and 2009. The Rays, by many indications, hit a streak of bad luck early on. They scored 110 runs and allowed 103 in April, yet finished the month with a 9-14 record. If they catch a few breaks this season, the division could be a three-horse race to the end. In that situation, there isn’t much room for teams who start slow.

How does A-Rod break down among the various projection systems?

Click for a larger view.

While his BA projects a bit lower than career average and his OBP hits his exact career mark, the systems are bearish on his power and his ability to play a whole season. This is understandable, of course. Rodriguez has missed 54 days over the past two seasons with injuries, so leaving room in a projection for a 15-day DL stint makes sense. If fully healthy, though, I expect A-Rod will outperform these projections, probably to the tune of .300/.400/.580.

Even better, if his monthly stats break down along his career lines, he’ll be a big help early in the season. Perhaps his production can offset Mark Teixeira’s presumed slow start. Thankfully, Alex’s other big month is August, when the Yankees should again be working to gain comfortable control of the AL East. Early season and mid-summer surges could push the Yanks over the top in 2010, even as they’re faced with increasingly tough competition in the Sox and Rays.

2010 Season Preview: Will the real Robinson Cano please stand up?

On a team full of superstars, it’s easy to overlook the production of Robinson Cano. The youngest full-time player in the lineup, the Yanks’ second baseman is coming off a bounceback 2009 season just as he enters the prime years of his career. Yet despite hitting at least .306 with at least a .182 IsoP in three of the last four years, not everyone is sure what to expect out of the enigmatic Cano next season.

When Cano first arrived in the big leagues, it was amidst a full blown crisis in May of 2005. His game was a breath of fresh air to a team desperately in need of one. He was young player on an old club, and he produced enough with the bat to finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting. After posting a pair of fine seasons in 2006 and 2007, Cano slumped to .271-.305-.410 with a .307 wOBA in 2008, career lows across the board. Thankfully the one year decline in production lasted just that long, one year. He rebounded to hit .320-.352-.520 with a .370 wOBA last season, and the great Chase Utley was the only full-time second baseman to provide more with the stick.

At 27-years-old, Cano is hitting what should be the best years of his career. To take that next step towards greatness, however, he’ll need to improve his performance with runners in scoring position. To date, Cano has been just a .256-.291-.398 (.290 wOBA) hitter with men on second and/or third, though last year he dropped all the way down to .207-.242-.332 (.251) in those spots. Luck (.267 BABIP with RISP career, .210 in 2009) only has so much to do with it, and it’s up to Cano to make the necessary adjustments to become more of a traditional run producing threat. As the offensive core of the team ages, the Yankees are going to need Cano to step into the middle of their order pretty soon.

In the field, we all know Robbie’s capable of making awe-inspiring plays, yet advanced metrics haven’t been too kind to him in recent years. His three year UZR is essentially league average at -0.6, dragged down by relatively high error totals. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg Cano as a -2.0 run defender next season, though it’s easy to envision a scenario in which he wows with the leather and actually plays well-above average defense. I’ve already touched on his baserunning earlier in the winter, and the progress is encouraging. With some more experience and improvement in 2010, Cano should add a run or two to the Yanks’ ledger with his legs.

So what should we expect from Cano offensively next season? Let’s turn to some projections for an answer. Remember to click for a larger view.

As these things tend to do, the five freely available projection systems average out to something extremely close to Cano’s career output. The projected .358 wOBA is exactly what he posted in 2007, and a touch down from his 2009 output. Just two full-time second baseman besides Cano hit for a wOBA that high last season, so we’re still talking about top tier production from the premium position. Combine that with a -2.0 UZR and +1.0 baserunning runs, and we’re looking at 3.6 WAR player.

That projection is almost a full win off Cano’s 2009 pace, though he could easily outperform it as he enters his age-27 season. Slated to earn $9M in 2010, Cano is no longer cheap. In fact, he’ll be the third highest paid second baseman in the game this season, so the training wheels are off. It’s time to the Yanks’ second baseman to get over that hump and go from being a very good complementary player to a true centerpiece. Improving with runners in scoring position would go a really long way towards helping him do that.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall, AP

2010 Season Preview: Robo-Tex

Centerfield and catcher have historically been the two positions of strength for the Yankees, but first base hasn’t been too shabby either. Long after Lou Gehrig and his .474 career wOBA (!!!) called it quits, we had Don Mattingly winning an MVP in the 80’s, Tino Martinez winning World Championships in the 90’s, and Jason Giambi posting .400+ on-base percentages like nobody’s business in the 00’s. Until last season, Mattingly, Martinez, and Giambi were the only three regular first baseman the Yanks had since 1983.

Mark Teixeira figures to be the regular first baseman well into the 2010’s after signing an eight year, $180M contract last offseason. His first season in pinstripes could not have gone more according to plan; he led the American League in HR (39), RBI (122), and total bases (344) while posting a .402 wOBA, his third consecutive season north of .400. He also solidified the infield defense, making spectacular stops on balls in the hole and saving teammates countless errors by scooping up errant throws around the bag. And, of course, the Yankees won the World Series.

Now that Year One in the Bronx is complete, what does Year Two hold for Big Tex? Well, hopefully more of the same, that’s for sure.

In typical Mark Teixeira fashion, he’s likely to come out of the gate slow. Last season he hit .182-.354-.338 with just six extra base hits and a puny .317 wOBA through his first 99 plate appearances. For his career, Tex is a .249-.349-.433 hitter (.342 wOBA) in March/April, and there’s no reason to expect 2010 to be different. During his introductory press conference, Tex said it takes him longer to get going because he has two swings to work on in Spring Training (one from each side of the plate), which makes sense. With one year in pinstripes under his belt, hopefully the April swoon won’t be so dramatic this season, something more along the lines of his career performance in March/April than last year’s.

Teixeira will turn 30 exactly one week after Opening Day in Boston, so he’s still comfortably in the prime of his career. Since turning 27-years-old, Teixeira has hit .309-.398-.560 with a .403 wOBA for (amazingly) four different teams, and he’s improved his contact rate every year (78.4% in ’07, 83.0% in ’08, 83.5% in ’09) which in turn has helped reduce his strikeout rate to just 11.5%, a phenomenal mark for a power hitter. On top of all of that, Tex has been supremely durable since breaking his ankle at Georgia Tech in 2001, coming to plate at least 575 times every season of his big league career.

We know he’s a stud defensively, and UZR backs that up. Even though he posted a -3.7 UZR in 2009 (which raised some eyebrows), Tex’s three-year UZR is +2.6, much more in line with his real ability (imagine that, a better answer when looking at a larger sample). Anyway, age-adjusted UZR projections peg Teixeira as a one UZR defender in 2010, which is probably a little light. Regardless, we all known how fantastic he is with the leather, and at his age, there’s no reason to expect a defensive decline.

Despite being one of the best all-around players in the game today, one area where Tex really drags the team down is with his baserunning. It’s not that he’s gets caught trying to steal often – he’s been successful in all four stolen base attempts he’s made in the last three years – he’s just generally awful rounding the bases on balls in play. Last year he cost the Yankees 2.67 runs on the bases according to EqBRR, which essentially negated all of the good things Brett Gardner did with his legs. This isn’t a one-year fluke either. He’s been consistently bad throughout his career whenever he’s not holding a bat or wearing a glove, so this is something that’s sure to continue (if not get worse) in 2010. Thankfully, if Tex is going to be bad at something, he picked the part of the game that has the smallest impact in the grand scheme of things.

For such a tremendous player, Teixeira is pretty boring guy to preview. He’s a robot; a player in his prime that’s great at pretty much everything, and there’s every reason in the world to expect another elite season of production out of him in 2010. Let’s see what the projection systems are saying. Remember to click for a larger view.

After posting a .403 wOBA over the last three seasons, the five freely available projection systems (sorry, PECOTA fans) see Teixeira “dropping off” to a .401 wOBA in 2010. Even though the aggregate triple-slash projection is a slight step down from last year, it’s right in line with Tex’s career performance. I suspect his power numbers will be better than the projections think, simply because he’ll come to plate as a lefty in the New Stadium so many times that he’s bound to pick up a few cheapie homers during the course of the season.

So let’s round it all up. If we’re projecting Tex at .401 wOBA, +1 UZR, and -2.5 EqBRR over 654 plate appearances, he’ll essentially be a five win player in 2010 (4.8 WAR, to be exact). It would be a small drop from last season’s 5.2 WAR, but would still be among the best in the game. As I’ve been saying all along, there’s every reason to expect the Yankees’ first baseman to continue to be extremely productive in the coming season.

Photo Credit: Julie Jacobson, AP

2010 Season Preview: Will Posada continue to defy age?

Catching is hell on the knees. For over 120 pitches in most games the catcher squats behind the plate, receiving pitches with varying speed and break and coming in at all different locations. That’s over an hour a game in the squat position. Life then becomes harder with runners on base, when the catcher has to put himself in a position to throw out a would-be base stealer and block a potential ball in the dirt. It’s no wonder that many catchers see their production decline by their early- to mid-thirties, and that most are out of the game by the time they’re Jorge Posada‘s age. Yet the 38-year-old catcher posted one of his finest seasons in 2009, though he did catch only 100 games. Can he hold up again in 2010?

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Since 1901, only 11 catchers reach 400 plate appearances at age 37. Only 16 got into 100 or more games. At age 38 that dropped off even more, with only three reaching the 400 PA plateau, and eight getting into 100 or more games. Even worse, the catchers who did survive over 100 games in their age-38 season did not play because of their offensive contributions. Of the 21 age-38 catchers with more than 200 PA, only seven posted an OPS over .700 — and five of those did it before 1950. None posted an OPS of .800.

At age-37, however, some catchers still played often and hit big. Of the 11 with more than 400 plate appearances, four posted an OPS over .800 and another two were above .750. Only Ernie Lombardi played his age-38 season before 1950. The rest played in 1985 or later. None of the .800 OPS catchers came to bat even 300 times the following season (though Posada is one of the four), and among the .750 OPS players only Benito Santiago continued playing and hitting in his age-38 season. The odds, then, seem to be against Posada posting a repeat of his 2009 campaign.

Both Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza hit well in their age-37 seasons. Fisk came to bat 620 times that year, 1985, and hit .238/.320/.488, which translates to a .345 wOBA and a 115 OPS+. Of the 153 games he played, 130 were at catcher. Yet in his age-38 season he saw start drop-offs in production and catching time. He did play in 125 games that year, but only 71 as a catcher. Even if he had made the age-38 list, he wouldn’t have fared well, as his numbers dropped to .221/.263/.337, a .264 wOBA and a 60 OPS+. While it appeared at the time that Fisk was finished, he did come back to post five more average or better seasons, including two stellar years, 1989 and 1990, at ages 41 and 42.

Piazza realized a resurgence of sorts in 2006, his age-37 season, after he signed with the Padres. After hitting .251/.326/.452 in his final season for the Mets, Piazza rebounded to hit .283/.342/.501, despite accumulating about half of his plate appearances at PETCO Park. He did play his age-38 season, though the stint with Oakland did not go too well. He didn’t catch a single inning and posted a meager .275/.313/.414 line in a season shortened by injury. Unlike Fisk, there would be no late-career revival for Piazza. He hasn’t played since his final game with Oakland in 2007.

The stories of Fisk and Piazza might appear to bode poorly for Posada, but as with any player-to-player comparison it never tells the whole story. All three catchers traveled different paths to their age-38 seasons. Fisk was a highly touted prospect, the No. 4 overall pick of the 1967 draft, who came up in 1972, at age 24, and hit right out of the gate. While Piazza broke out at the same age, he was not nearly as highly regarded. The Dodgers took him in the 62nd round, apparently as a favor to Tommy Lasorda. Yet he killed the ball when the Dodgers handed him the starting gig at age-24.

Posada, however, did not break into the league until age 25, and at that point he was a part-time player. Over the next two seasons he saw more playing time, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he truly took over as the full-time catcher, at age 28. He also didn’t convert to catcher until age 20, when he played behind the plate for just 41 games. Entering his age-38 season he has started 1,793 games behind the plate between the majors and minors. Piazza had 1,898 at that age, though Fisk, because he caught under 100 games in four different seasons, had 1,782.

Through his age-37 season, Posada has defied age. His .885 OPS in 2009 ranks best for catchers with more than 200 PA in their age-37 seasons. Even if he does decline drastically and produces only 80 percent of that, .702, for the 2010 season, he’d still rank among the top catchers at age-38. The Yankees, however, are not so much concerned with how Posada stacks up with his historical comparables as they are how he fits into the lineup. While the .702 OPS might stand out in the former sense, it would be a huge burden in the latter.

These represent five of the freely available projection systems. After mashing them together, they think that Jorge will see only five percent fewer plate appearances than in 2009, though ZiPS accounts for most of the drop-off. All the others expect right around the same playing time, while Bill James is overly optimistic — though his article on players declining is a bit more pessimistic. In terms of production the systems forecast a 2.5 percent reduction in OBP, modest enough, but a nearly 14 percent reduction in power. Perhaps the short porch at the Stadium would inflate those projections.

While all aging catchers warrant concern, Posada presents an interesting case. He’s had an odd career path, switching to catcher in the minors and not taking a full-time role until age-28. The following 10 years were excellent, though, as Jorge became one of the game’s premier catchers, and perhaps the best hitting catcher over the past decade. He enters his age-38 season with few comparables, and unfavorable ones among those that exist. Still, Jorge has given us little reason to expect a drastic drop-off.