Archive for Offense
Back in January, the Yankees signed a nondescript journeyman named Yangervis Solarte to a minor league contract. It was reported that he would compete with guys like Eduardo Nunez and Dean Anna for a bench spot in Spring Training, but come on. Yangervis Solarte? When I posted the news of the signing, I wrote “he’s likely at the very bottom of the infield depth chart.” You know why I wrote that? Because he was.
Then, in Spring Training, Solarte became that guy. The random player no one knew anything about who had a huge spring. Solarte hit .429/.489/.571 with two homers in 47 plate appearances during Grapefruit League play, and most years that would mean nothing. The Yankees tend to have very few roster spots up for grabs in camp. This year was different though, and Solarte played his way into consideration for a bench job –Brendan Ryan‘s injury certainly helped — a bench job he eventually won. He didn’t just take Nunez’s job, he took his 40-man roster spot and uniform number. Scorched earth.
Solarte made his Yankees debut as a pinch-hitter in the team’s second game of the season, banging into a rally killing double play in his first at-bat. He got the start the next day and went 3-for-3 with a double. He went 2-for-5 with two doubles the next day. Then 2-for-3 the next day. Then 1-for-3 with a double the next day and 1-for-3 with a walk the day after that. Yesterday, Solarte went 2-for-4 with two doubles. He got into the lineup and he hasn’t given Joe Girardi a reason to take him out.
So, now that the hot spring has turned into a hot start to the season, we’re sitting here wondering if Weird Al Yangervis (h/t @rxmeister28) is legit. And who knows, really? I don’t know, you don’t know, the Yankees don’t know, no one knows. I mean, obviously Solarte will not continue to hit .458/.519/.708 (248 wRC+) all season because no one does that. I’d be happy with literally half that production (124 wRC+). But, eventually balls like this …
… will not find a hole on the infield. Balls like this …
… will not drop in for a base hit. Balls like this …
… will not plop out of the outfielder’s glove. Let’s not kid ourselves here. Solarte has definitely been lucky these first eight games, and yes, it’s luck. That word is thrown around way too often to explain random events in baseball, but a pop-up falling between a bunch of infielders? Luck. A soft line drive clanking out of a Gold Glove right fielder’s mitt? Luck. Let’s call it what it is.
At the same time, Solarte’s MLB-leading (!) six doubles are not luck. Five of the six have either clanked off the wall or landed on the warning track. The other was a bloop that a diving outfielder just missed. Solarte has a little bit of pop in his bat — I’m not sure how much harder he can hit a ball than five doubles, it looked like he got a hold of each one — and he can turn on a mistake pitch. Some of the singles have been lucky. The doubles? Not so much.
Solarte, who is only 26 and had never played in the big leagues before this season, did not make the team just because of his hot spring. He made the team because he’s a switch-hitter who makes a lot of contact (one strikeout in 27 plate appearances so far) and can play reliable defense at second base, third base, and in left field. He can even fill in at shortstop in a pinch. Is he a great defender? No. But he is adequate, something you could not say about the man he replaced.
How long will Solarte’s hot start last? Who knows. It could end today, it could end next week, it could end in July. I’m not ready to declare him a long-term piece for the Yankees but he is playing very well right now and the production is in the bank. It happened and it helped the team win games while Mark Teixeira has been hurt and the middle of the order has gotten off to a slow start. He’s been just what the team needed.
Solarte should play everyday until he stops hitting, and moving him up a spot or three in the lineup isn’t a bad idea either. Even if he turns into a pumpkin tomorrow, the club has already gotten more out of him than they could have reasonably expected, and he’s been a huge boost early in the season.
The start of the season has a way of magnifying things. We can’t help it. We’ve been baseball starved for months and while Spring Training is fun in its own way, it can’t compare to meaningful games. Once the season starts and we see new faces in new uniforms, we get excited and look at things a little too deeply. I did it just this morning. If that CC Sabathia start happens any other day of the year, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it.
That same idea applies to the offense. The Yankees haven’t hit a lick these last two days, especially against Astros starters Scott Feldman and Jarred Cosart (combined 11.2 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K). New York’s offense went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position last night and 2-for-8 in those spots on Opening Day. Few things are are frustrating as stranding runners. The much-hyped outfield is hitting a combined .103 with a .212 OBP while the oft-criticized infield has hit .278 with a .350 OBP. Up is down, black is white, nothing makes sense anymore.
That’s because the season is two games old. The Yankees as a team have had 73 plate appearances so far. That’s a small amount for a single player, nevermind an entire team. If these last two games happened in the middle of June — and trust me, they’ll stop hitting for a few games several times this year, that’s baseball — we’d notice but not think much about it. Because it’s the start of the season, it’s a Really Big Deal.
“We’re going to be fine, man. We haven’t been able to put anything together offensively, but we have what it takes to play better and win ballgames. We don’t need to worry about it,” said Carlos Beltran to Mark Feinsand after last night’s game. “That’s part of when a team is cold. Sometimes you put a few guys in scoring position and you have difficulties getting those guys in. It’s just the second game of the season. It’s important to win and every win counts, but we’ve had good pitching from them, so you have to give credit for what they’ve been doing.”
I mean, of course there’s a chance the Yankees really do stink offensively despite all the new additions. That’s always possibility but I find it very hard to believe. Jacoby Ellsbury (calf) and Alfonso Soriano (flu, shoulder) were behind the other position players in camp because of injuries, Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Derek Jeter (legs) are coming back from lost seasons, so it’s no surprise they look rusty. The offense has positively stunk these last two games, but it has been just that, two games. It’s annoying but hardly a cause for concern at this point.
Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.
Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.
The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.
Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.
Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.
The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.
Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.
As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.
Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.
Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.
Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.
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Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.
It has been an easy to overlook part of their game, but the Yankees have been one of the most prolific base-stealing teams in baseball over the last decade. They’ve swiped 100+ bases in seven of the last eight seasons and their 1,117 steals since 2004 are the fourth most in the game. No one thinks of the Yankees as a base-stealing team but they’ve been among the best in recent years.
Of course, there is more to base-running than bulk stolen base totals. A lot more, really. Advancing on a ground ball, scoring from first on a double, going first-to-third on a single, all of that is important as well. Players don’t even need to be fast to be good base-runners, though speed sure does help. Between the incumbents and the players brought in over the winter, New York has a number of guys who can make plays on the bases if not flat-out cause chaos.
When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that massive $153M contract back in December, they added arguably the best base-runner in the world to their roster. He led baseball with 52 steals last year and was only caught four (!) times, a 93% success rate that was easily the best among players who attempted at least 25 steals. Ellsbury has one 70 steal season (2009) and two other 50+ steal seasons (2008, 2013) to his credit. His career success rate is 84%, well above the current break-even point of 66-68%.
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 49% of the time, which again is well above the 39-40% league-average. It’s worth noting that he took the extra base only 42% of the time last season, his lowest rate in five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury is slowing down or anything like that, we’re talking about a sample of 74 extra-base opportunities. The difference between 42% and 49% is five extra bases, that’s all. Ellsbury just turned 30 in September and there is little reason to think he will be anything but a base-running monster in 2014. If he stays healthy, 40+ steals and tons of extra bases taken feels like a lock.
I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed in Gardner’s stolen base total last summer. After stealing 96 bases (81% success rate) during his previous two healthy seasons from 2010-11, he dropped down to only 24 steals (75% success rate) in 2013. My hypothesis is that because their offense was so weak, the Yankees gave Gardner the red light a bunch of times last year in an effort to make sure there were runners on base for Robinson Cano. Maybe I’m crazy, who knows.
Gardner’s rate of taking the extra base is very similar to Ellsbury’s: 45% in 2013 and 48% from 2011-13. I think the thing that has kept both guys from being truly elite extra-base takers like Mike Trout (career 61%) has been their ballparks. Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are small parks, so the outfielders can play a little shallower and get to balls hit in front of them a little quicker. It doesn’t take much to stop a guy from taking those extra 90 feet on a base hit.
Anyway, Gardner turned 30 about two weeks before Ellsbury, so he’s still relatively young and should continue to be a threat on the bases in 2014. Hopefully he gets back to being a 40+ steal guy because that’s when he’s at his best. Only once in their history have the Yankees had two 40+ stolen base players in one season (Steve Sax and Roberto Kelly in 1990), but Gardner and Ellsbury have a very real chance of doing it this summer.
Man, remember how exciting Soriano was when he first came up? He was this wiry little guy who hit for power and ran like the wind, hitting 95 homers and stealing 119 bases from 2001-03, his three full years with the Yankees. That was a baseball lifetime ago and 40+ steals are a thing of the past, but Soriano can still do some damage on the bases.
After swiping a total of 22 bases from 2009-12, Soriano rebounded to steal 18 bags last season, including eight in 58 games with New York. He wasn’t terribly efficient though, getting caught nine times total and four times in pinstripes. That 67% success rate is right on the break-even point. Soriano has also taken the extra base 38% of the time the last three years (41% in 2013), so he’s basically league average in that regard.
I’m not exactly sure what we can expect from the 38-year-old Soriano on the bases this coming season. Could he steal 10-15 bases with a 67% success rate while taking the extra base a league average amount of time? That seems very possible but I’m not sure he could do much better without a huge contract year push. I’d bet against one at his age. Soriano isn’t a Gardner/Ellsbury level base-runner, but he can steal the occasional bag and score from first on the occasional double.
Ichiro, 40, stole 20 bases in 24 attempts last year, second most on the team behind Gardner. His bulk stolen base total has gradually declined over the years but he remains highly efficient, with an 83% success rate both last year and over the last three years. He took the extra base 38% of the time last season and 40% over the last three seasons, so more or less league average.
The additions of Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have pushed Ichiro into a fifth outfielder’s role, but he should still get plenty of chances to have an impact on the bases as a pinch-runner/spot starter. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape and even though he has clearly lost a step over the years, Ichiro is still a smart base-runner who picks his spots well. I think experience can be very valuable for a bench player and when it comes to running the bases in the late innings of a close game, few would be a better option than Ichiro. Running the bases is something he still does very well, it’s just a question of how often he’ll get to do it.
In the past, the Yankees could always count on their captain for stolen bases and smart base-running decisions, but following last season’s leg injury filled nightmare, it’s unclear if he’ll be of any value on the bases in 2014. Even when he was healthy in 2012, Jeter only stole nine base (in 13 attempts) while taking the extra base 38% of the time. What will he be able to do on the heels of a twice-fractured ankle and various leg muscle problems? The smart money is on not much.
It would be awesome is Jeter got back to being a threat on the bases this summer, but that should be the very least of his and the team’s concerns. He should focus on staying healthy and being productive at the plate, first and foremost. Those are the most important things in his final season. Any base-running value Jeter gives the team this year is icing on the cake. It just isn’t much of a priority at this point of his career.
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Kelly Johnson has stolen 37 bases over the last three years but he only went 7-for-11 (64%) last season, and he took the extra base at a well-below-average 29% over the last three years. He might steal 10-15 bases this summer, but his history suggests he won’t be all that efficient on the bases. Beltran’s knees don’t allow him to run much anymore but Eduardo Nunez is always good for double-digit steals, even as a part-timer, and he took the extra bag at a league average rate from 2011-13.
Gardner and Ellsbury will clearly be the stars of the Yankees’ base-running show this season, and they have some nice support in Ichiro, Soriano, Nunez, and maybe Jeter. It feels like a foregone conclusion that they’ll again top 100+ stolen bases as a team this year and they should improve on their overall extra-base taken rate, which was the second worst in the game at only 35% last year.
Over the last three months, the Yankees have committed 12 contract years and $210.6M in guaranteed money to Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. That’s a lot of cash and a lot of years for a pair of defense-first outfielders who will steal a bunch of bases but not hit for much power. Years ago, these two guys wouldn’t sniff that kind of money, but teams now better understand and value players who contribute in less obvious ways.
Having both Ellsbury and Gardner signed for at least the next five years impacts the Yankees in a lot of ways. First and foremost, they don’t have to worry about fly balls all that much because those two will track down almost anything. They also don’t need to sweat finding a leadoff man in the post-Derek Jeter era because they now have two of them. Having two-thirds of the starting outfield signed long-term makes life a bit easier, no doubt about it.
On the other hand, having both Ellsbury and Gardner signed for the next half-decade also creates some problems. Well, not to much problem. Just things to consider. They are two very similar players and that makes them somewhat redundant, especially offensively. Don’t get me wrong, guys who get on base and steal bases can be very dangerous, but there also needs to be some diversity to the lineup. The power is going to have to come from somewhere, and with two outfielders signed long-term, it will have to come from the infield.
The good news is that the Yankees have a clean slate on the infield, or close to one anyway. Mark Teixeira is signed to play first base for another three years but Derek Jeter is retiring after the season and both Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts are on one-year contracts. The team has a lot of flexibility when it comes to building their future infield, and that’s great. At the same time, holy crap they need to build three-fourths of an infield next winter. That’s a big deal and it’s a lot of work.
The Yankees’ best infield prospects (Eric Jagielo, Abi Avelino, etc.) are still years away from the big leagues and future free agent classes are pretty terrible. Next year’s class will get even worse as players sign extensions, most notably Hanley Ramirez. He recently said he wants to spend the rest of his career with the Dodgers and they have the money to keep him around that long. Hanley would be a great fit as a power-hitting infielder, though others like J.J. Hardy, Chase Headley, and Pablo Sandoval would make sense as well.
There aren’t many power-hitting infielders out there — only 13 non-first base infielders have had at least 40 extra-base hits in each of the last three seasons — so finding two or three of them won’t be easy in the coming years. The Yankees are going to have to dig up a few guys like that though, that is unless they plan on becoming a speed-first team despite playing in a tiny ballpark in the AL East. The Gardner and Ellsbury deals mean New York will have to target some infielders who can rake for the coming years.
Three offseasons ago, just weeks after winning the World Series, the Cardinals let Albert Pujols walk as a free agent. They made a substantial offer but reportedly held the line at five years, so it was no surprise that he left when another club blew that offer out of the water. The Cardinals wanted Pujols back but on their terms and their terms only.
This past offseason, just weeks after missing the postseason for only the second time in the last 19 years, the Yankees let Robinson Cano walk as a free agent. Like St. Louis with Pujols, the Yankees made Cano a substantial offer but held firm, topping out at seven years and $175 million. When another team blew that offer out of the water, Robbie was gone. New York wanted him back, but again, only on their terms.
The Cardinals’ situation with Pujols and the Yankees’ situation with Cano were very similar and in more ways than the ones I just laid out. Not only did the two teams hold a hard line during talks with their homegrown star, but when that homegrown star left, both clubs turned to the same player to replace the lost offense: Carlos Beltran. St. Louis signed Beltran soon after Pujols left and plopped him in the middle of their order. The Yankees signed Beltran hours after Cano left and are counting on him to anchor their rebuilt lineup.
Beltran, who will turn 37 in April, is certainly no stranger to New York. He spent parts of seven seasons across town with the Mets and he has flirted with the Yankees on numerous occasions. Beltran famously offered to sign with the Bombers at a discount during the 2004-05 offseason, and he also gave them a chance to match the Cardinals’ offer three winters ago. The Yankees passed both times but decided now, with his best years almost certainly in the past, was the time to bring him. Cano’s departure was a big reason why.
With Brian McCann, the Yankees addressed a very specific short and long-term need behind the plate. Jacoby Ellsbury was signed mostly because he was the best non-Cano free agent on the market, but he gives the team a dynamic leadoff hitter who has been through the AL East wars and knows all about playing in a huge market. Beltran is sorta like a combination of the two. He’s a middle of the order bat like McCann but he’s also familiar with playing in an intense market with big expectations.
At the same time, Beltran is nearing the end of his career, so it’s tough to know exactly what to expect at this point. His defense has already declined to the point where he needs a late-inning replacement and his production against lefties has slipped as well, so these next three years will be interesting. I’ve said before that the signing gives me a Randy Johnson vibe, that the Yankees acquired the right player only nine years too late. I really hope that isn’t the case and considering how much money they sunk into him, the team is confident Beltran will remain a very good hitter for another few seasons.
“I look at the team, I look at our situation, the players we have and we have a pretty good chance,” said Beltran to Dan Martin yesterday. “Last year, I experienced being in the World Series with the Cardinals and it was a great feeling. Once you play there, you want to go there every year … Hopefully we can help this team win a championship. I know [Derek Jeter] has a lot of championships, but I don’t have [any]. Hopefully, I can win one.”
During his two years with the Cardinals, Beltran essentially matched Pujols’ offensive output with the Halos (128 vs. 130 OPS+) while doing a better job of staying on the field (296 vs. 252 games). I would be very surprised if Beltran hits anything like Cano these next few years, nevermind play a similar number of games. The Yankees don’t need him to do that though. They improved several lineup spots this winter and should have a deeper lineup overall. Beltran doesn’t have to be The Man for New York the way Cano was, but he does replace him as the team’s best all-around hitter and likely number three hitter. That’s a role Beltran is very familiar with.
The Yankees spent an awful lot of money this winter to improve an offense that was their worst in two decades last year. They committed nearly $300M to a new leadoff man and two middle of the order bats, not to mention some complementary pieces for the bottom third of the lineup. A full season of Alfonso Soriano should help as well. They were pricey moves but also very necessary moves.
“I think we have a collection of very good hitters this year,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand last week. “I think our lineup is much deeper than it was last year from top to bottom. There’s more balance with some of the switch-hitters … I think there’s much more balance in our lineup. But as far as having that one guy that maybe you center the lineup around, I would say no.”
That last part about “having that one guy” to build a lineup around refers to the departed Robinson Cano. Girardi could fill out his lineup any number of ways this year but the team does lack an offensive centerpiece. That’s okay though. They lost one superstar but did upgrade at several other positions, so the overall result should be an improved lineup. They were never going to be able to replace Cano anyway. He’s the best second baseman in the game and that means he is irreplaceable by definition.
“Yeah, I think the great thing is, look at our lineup. We’re back to being the Yankees again,” said Mark Teixeira to Bryan Hoch yesterday. “Last year, we weren’t the Yankees. We had so many injuries and we had so many guys that should have been in there to be lots of anchors. That’s back. There’s not one guy that has to carry this team, but absolutely I expect to hit in the middle of the order, hit 30 homeruns and drive in 100 runs. That’s going to take pressure off everybody and help us win games.”
Teixeira, who will turn 34 shortly after Opening Day, is currently working his way back from right wrist surgery and will help further improve the offense. Lyle Overbay did an admirable job filling at first base last season but he’s no Teixeira and the Yankees will be better off at the position this year. No, we don’t know what to expect from Teixeira given the nature of his injury, but it shouldn’t be tough to improve upon the .229/.292/.397 (78 OPS+) the team got from the position last summer.
Now, even though the Yankees added some free agents and are getting some players back from injury, their lineup still isn’t as deep as it was as recently as two years ago. Kelly Johnson is a solid player but nothing more while Brian Roberts hasn’t been even an average hitter in three seasons. Derek Jeter is pushing 40 and coming off major leg injuries, so he is even more of an unknown than Teixeira. The bottom third of the lineup will be better than last season but still not very good.
Teixeira’s rebound is important simply to lengthen the lineup and give the team six above-average hitters rather than five. He’ll also be counted on to add some power to a team that still doesn’t have all that much and create matchup headaches by being a switch-hitter. Soriano, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann are expected to anchor the middle of the order, but adding even 2012 Teixeira level production (24 HR and 115 OPS+) could be the difference between a league average attack and an above-average one.
“I’d be lying if there wasn’t [lingering doubt about the wrist],” added Teixeira. “I said it this winter, everyone can go out after major surgery and go, ‘I’m fine, I’m going to be good as ever,’ but you don’t really know that until you go out there. For me, it’s just kind of two steps: make sure I’m healthy and that means taking full swings at a 95 mph fastball in a Spring Training game. And we have six weeks to figure that out. If that’s the case and I’m healthy and I can do that for a week straight, then it’s all about production.”
This will be Teixeira’s sixth year in pinstripes and he has gradually declined from offensive centerpiece to complementary player. He was still a really good hitter in his last healthy season — I think Teixeira’s decline is generally overstated, and I’m guilty of that — just not the hitter he was during his first year in New York. His importance to the lineup and the Yankees in general is easy to overlook, but he was missed last summer and that will again be the case if he and his surgically repaired wrist doesn’t rebound well this summer.
Of the $483 million the Yankees spent this winter, just $22 million went to the infield – just 4.5 percent of the total. More than half of that $22 million went to a player who might not physically be able to hold down a position all year. The situation looks bleak indeed.
How bleak? Last year the Yankees ranked 26th in the league in infield OPS+ — and that was with Robinson Cano, who ranked 10th in the majors in OPS+. Even adding Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter won’t offset the loss of Cano. The downgrade at second base is just too severe. If Brian Roberts gets hurt, the downgrade tumbles further.
From there the Yankees turn to Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, Corban Joseph, and Jose Pirela. Maybe one of them steps in and performs like an average 2B or 3B. But of them only Nunez is battle tested, and he hasn’t shined much when given opportunities. It has become pretty clear that the Yankees have moved on from Nunez as a primary option.
What the Yankees have in the infield is a pile of potentially decent players. Maybe Jeter comes back and hits enough to compensate for his defense. Maybe a finally healthy Teixeira can bolster the crew. Would you take either of those bets, let alone both of them?
At this point there is little the Yankees can do. Maybe they’ve talked trades and think they have a potential match that will materialize later. It’s not as though they’ll find any solutions on the free agent market. They could sure use Stephen Drew, but have said that they will not sign him.
Will the Yankees really go into the season, having spent a half billion in the off-season, with an infield as uncertain as the current one? Right now it seems that way. With not much time left, and few players who can actually help, it appears they’ll try the smorgasbord method.
Unless they know something we don’t…
Last summer, Joe Girardi was forced to fill out his lineup card by putting the hottest hitters around Robinson Cano on a daily basis. That’s how guys like Thomas Neal, Ben Francisco, David Adams, Brennan Boesch, and Zoilo Almonte wound up starting games as high as fifth in the order. Alfonso Soriano settled things down late in the season, but for the most part the lineup was subject to change drastically each and every day.
This coming season figures to be different. Cano is gone, but the Yankees added two middle of the order bats to Soriano in Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. I expect those three to hit 3-4-5 in whatever order most days, or maybe we should add Mark Teixeira and make it 3-4-5-6. That seems very likely. The team didn’t give Jaocby Ellsbury over $20M a year not to leadoff, so he’ll displace Brett Gardner atop the lineup. Girardi’s biggest lineup question this year might be who the number two hitter behind Ellsbury and ahead of that 3-4-5(-6) group will be.
Traditionally, the number two hitter is someone who can handle the bat and bunt all do all that nonsense. For the Yankees, a team built around power hitters who play in a tiny home ballpark in a division full of tiny ballparks, the number two hitter should function as a second leadoff guy trying to get on base for the middle of the order. Furthermore, given Ellsbury’s speed, the two-hole hitter should also be someone who is patient and gives him a chance to run. If you’re not going to do that, it defeats the point of paying a premium to add an elite base-stealer. Ellsbury has to steal to really have an impact.
The Yankees have two obvious number two hitter candidates in Gardner and Derek Jeter. Jeter has been batting second almost his entire career and I suspect that as long as he’s healthy, he’ll open the season behind Ellsbury in the lineup. That’s fine. Jeter was very good in his last full season and he’s earned the opportunity to show whether he can do that again despite his age and the lost 2013 season. The Cap’n isn’t especially patient (3.78 pitches per plate appearance from 2011-13) and is very double play prone (GIDP’d in 19% of opportunities from 2011-13), two traits that aren’t ideal for the second spot in the lineup. That’s never stopped him from hitting there before though.
Gardner, on the other hand, is very patient (4.21 P/PA from 2011-13) and he rarely grounds into double plays (7 GIDP% from 2011-13) thanks to his speed. He’s a much better fit for the two-hole in that sense, at least against right-handers. Jeter has destroyed lefties his entire career and if he continues to do that in 2014, he’ll deserve a prominent lineup spot against southpaws. A Gardner vs. righties/Jeter vs. lefties platoon in the second spot behind Ellsbury seems ideal if Jeter struggles against same-side hitters.
The question is how long should the Yankees give Derek to prove he can still be a productive hitter given his age and recent injuries? A month? Six weeks? Half a season? I don’t know the answer and it probably depends on how Jeter looks during games. If he’s completely overmatched and unable to lift the ball — sorta like how he looked during his limited time last year — the team will have to pull the plug on him as a number two hitter sooner rather than later. At least against righties. It won’t be a pleasant move to make but it may be necessary at some point rather soon.
There has been a ton of research showing the two-hole is the most important lineup spot and thus your best hitter should bat second, but that only applies over a full season, and even then the impact is relatively small. Optimizing your lineup in such a way that it makes a meaningful difference across 162 games isn’t all that practical. Guys get hurt, need days off, get hot and cold, etc. The lineup can make a big difference in an individual game though; I remember at least two instances in which Cano was left on deck while the final out of a close game was recorded last summer (one, two). The Yankees have many reasons to emphasize pure patience and on-base ability from the two-hole this year and if that means Gardner, not Jeter is the best man of the job, so be it. The race for a postseason spot will be too tight to stick with an unproductive hitter near the top of the lineup for so long.
Thanks to the magic of free agency, the Yankees completely overhauled their offense this offseason. Brett Gardner is the only player from the 2013 Opening Day starting lineup who projects to be in the 2014 Opening Day starting lineup, but there’s still a chance he will be traded in the coming weeks. All that turnover isn’t a bad thing, of course. The Yankees had their worst offense since the early-1990s last year and they needed the overhaul.
As I mentioned last week, all the lineup turnover should lead to longer at-bats and more walks this summer. The Yankees were a pretty impatient club in 2013, especially by the team’s usual standards. Patience and plate discipline aren’t the only things that will change though. All the new faces will impact the team’s running game as well. No one thinks of New York as a running team, but they’ve stolen at least 100 bases in seven of the last eight seasons (including last season) and have had a positive base-running value (per FanGraphs) in three of the last four years. Last year was the exception.
The 2013 Yankees ranked fifth in the league with 115 stolen bases and third with a 79% success rate. Only the Red Sox (87%) and Royals (83%) were better. Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki both topped 20+ steals while Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix were also in double-digits. Curtis Granderson and Alfonso Soriano managed eight steals apiece in their limited time. The team really lagged at taking the extra base, meaning going first-to-third on a single or scoring from first on a double. Stuff like that. They successfully took that extra base in only 35% of their opportunities, second lowest in the league (Tigers at 33%) and well-below the 39% league average. Here’s how the regular lineup (using the guys with the most playing time at each position) fared on the bases:
|Players||2013 SBA%||2013 SB%||2013 XBT%|
|C Chris Stewart||4%||100%||19%|
|1B Lyle Overbay||1%||100%||23%|
|2B Robinson Cano||3%||88%||38%|
|SS Eduardo Nunez||10%||77%||40%|
|3B Jayson Nix||11%||93%||36%|
|LF Vernon Wells||7%||70%||39%|
|CF Brett Gardner||14%||75%||45%|
|RF Ichiro Suzuki||10%||83%||38%|
|DH Travis Hafner||2%||100%||32%|
First things first, some definitions are in order:
- SBA% or Stolen Base Attempt Rate: This is how often a player attempted to steal a base when presented with a stolen base opportunity. That is whenever they were standing on first or second base with no runner on the next base. The league average was 6%.
- SB% or Stolen Base Success Rate: Pretty straight forward. How many times did you try to steal a base and how many times were you successful? The league average was 74%.
- XBT% or Extra Base Taken Rate: I mentioned this above. It’s the rate of which a player successfully took the extra base on a hit, meaning first-to-third on a single, etc. The league average, as I said, was 39%.
Simple enough, right? Last year’s regular lineup attempted about an average number of steals relative to their opportunities, and they were usually successful. Nix was caught only once in 14 attempts and Ichiro was caught only four times in 24 attempts. Gardner was not nearly as prolific or successful stealing bases last year as he has been in the past, and my theory is that he often put on the brakes to make sure there was someone on base for Cano. When you struggle to score like the Yankees did, having men on for your best hitter is a necessity.
The slow guys like Stewart, Overbay, and Hafner managed to go a combined eight-for-eight in stolen bases attempts but those are anomalies. Usually when someone like that steals a base, it’s on the back-end of a double-steal or because the pitcher completely stopped paying attention to them. The core base-stealers, the guys you expect to run like Nunez, Nix, Gardner, and Ichiro, were average or better on the bases in the three categories above. They carried the lineup to those strong overall marks, but most of those players are gone now. Either gone as in off the roster or gone as in relegated to a bench role.
Obviously, the club’s biggest base-running addition this winter was Jacoby Ellsbury. He led baseball in both stolen bases (52) and FanGraphs’ base-running value (+11.4 runs) in 2013, and those 52 steals came with only four (!) caught stealings. The guys was an animal on the bases. Ellsbury has three 50+ stolen base seasons to his credit and he’s been successful in 84% of his career attempts. I don’t think it’s crazy to think he will be the Yankees’ most dangerous base-running threat since Rickey Henderson way back in the day. Here’s how the rest of the projected lineup has done on the bases these last three seasons:
|Players||2011-13 SBO%||2011-13 SB%||2011-13 XBT%|
|C Brian McCann||2%||67%||16%|
|1B Mark Teixeira||2%||75%||28%|
|2B Brian Roberts||7%||77%||42%|
|SS Derek Jeter||5%||71%||33%|
|3B Kelly Johnson||8%||76%||29%|
|LF Brett Gardner||21%||77%||48%|
|CF Jacoby Ellsbury||19%||83%||49%|
|RF Carlos Beltran||4%||68%||37%|
|DH Alfonso Soriano||8%||68%||38%|
Teixeira and McCann are two of the very worst base-runners in baseball. Teixeira has never been fast and McCann has nearly 9,000 innings worth of squatting behind the plate on his legs. Amazingly, they might be downgrades from Overbay and Stewart on the bases, respectively. Thankfully they do almost literally everything else on a baseball field better.
Roberts and Jeter are almost complete unknowns due to injury. Roberts has barely played the last few years and Jeter missed almost all of last season due to a variety of leg and ankle problems. He wasn’t a particularly good base-runner before that, as the table shows, but there’s a chance he’ll be Teixeira-esque on the bases this coming season due to his age and injuries. Roberts has been effective when healthy — a touch better than league average across the board in the table — but he’s day-to-day at all times.
It’s interesting that Beltran and Soriano had nearly identical success rates for stealing bases and taking the extra base from 2011-13, but the latter attempted twice as many stolen bases. Of course, Beltran’s knees are a disaster while Soriano is perfectly healthy. That’s a bit factor. Regardless of who is in right and who is at DH on a given day, they’ll be a downgrade from Ichiro but an upgrade over Hafner. Ellsbury effectively replaces Wells and that’s a huge upgrade. Johnson is solid on the bases — moreso while stealing bases than taking the extra base — but a downgrade from Nix.
The Yankees have a lot of age in their starting lineup (putting it lightly), so I think they’re more likely to underperform on the bases compared to recent years than maintain the status quo. At least guys like Roberts, Beltran, Soriano, and Jeter. Ellsbury, Johnson, and Gardner should be fine, and in fact I think Gardner might go nuts and try to steal 50+ bases in his contract year. I would. Overall, given their rates these few years, the Yankees’ rebuilt starting lineup may wind up stealing (substantially) more total bases in 2014 than 2013, but they may do so with less efficency and without doing a better job of taking the extra base on hits.