Prospect Profile: Dante Bichette Jr.

(Photo via The Orlando Sentinel)

Dante Bichette Jr. | 3B

Background
The son of former big leaguer Dante Bichette Sr., Dante Jr. first popped up on the radar in 2005, when he helped his Maitland, Florida team to the Little League World Series. He went on to star at Orangewood Christian High School just outside of Orlando, twice being named the All-Central Florida Baseball Player of the Year. He also led the Rams to the state tournament his junior and senior years.

Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Bichette as 15th best prospect in Florida and 108th best prospect overall heading into the 2011 draft, so it was somewhat surprising when the Yankees drafted him with their first selection, the 51st overall pick. They’d received that pick as compensation for the loss of Javy Vazquez to the Marlins. Bichette signed quickly for a $750k, passing on his commitment to Georgia for roughly $55k over slot.

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Behind Derek Jeter’s unexpected second-half resurgence

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

I’ve given Derek Jeter a considerably hard time since his offensive game started to fall off a cliff back in May 2010, and so it seemed appropriate to reverse course and give Derek proper due for the remarkable turnaround that saw him hit .327/.383/.428 in the second half of 2011 after a .270/.330/.353 first half and a .270/.340/.370 2010 season. Additionally, while many have acknowledged Derek’s resurgence, few (if any) have taken a look into the why, and so here’s a deeper dive into how Derek Got His Groove Back (and no, it has nothing to do with gift baskets).

The below chart (as always, click to enlarge) shows Derek’s plate discipline numbers graphed against his wOBA on a month-by-month basis, beginning in April 2010.

There’s obviously quite a bit going on here, and I was actually surprised to find that a lot of this data didn’t correlate the way I was expecting it to. I figured Jeter’s best months would feature low O-Swing% and O-Contact% rates; and yet his best month (August 2011’s .398 wOBA) featured his third-highest O-Contact% (77.6%) out of the 12 months shown here. For a player with a career 62.0% O-Contact%, I really have no idea what to make of that.

Fortunately his four best months of the last 12 — August 2011, April 2010’s .380 wOBA, July 2011’s .352 wOBA and September 2011’s .344 — were each among his top four Z-Swing% rates (though not in that exact order), lending some sense of order to the proceedings. Although only two of those four months — again, April 2010 and August 2011 — were among the top four Z-Contact% rates.

The other data type that correlated with Derek’s top monthly wOBAs was Swing%, as his three highest Swing% months were also his three best wOBA months. So based on this data it seems like Derek is at his best the more frequently he swings, which is also driven home by the below table:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% Sw-Strk%
2010 28.2% 67.2% 47.1% 69.2% 92.9% 85.5% 48.3% 6.7%
1H 2011 26.9% 66.8% 45.8% 73.1% 91.6% 85.9% 47.3% 6.4%
2H 2011 29.9% 71.7% 48.9% 71.5% 90.6% 84.3% 45.5% 7.5%

Although that probably isn’t terribly surprising news to anyone who’s watched Derek with any frequency of late. While Derek’s never been a notorious hacker (his career 8.9% BB% is certainly respectable) he has seemed less inclined to take ball four as he’s gotten older, and indeed, he’s only exceeded the league average BB% once in the last five seasons (though he did match it last year). This past season his walk rate was 7.6% against a league average of 8.1% — a five-year league-average low.

Of course, plate discipline only tells part of the story; we also need to see what Derek did with the balls he put into play.

Now this chart makes a little more sense. Derek’s worst month — April 2011 — also featured his highest GB% of the 12 months surveyed here, a ridiculous 72.3%. On the flip side, Derek’s best month, August 2011, saw the fewest ground balls (55.8%). His best LD% months were, unsurprisingly, August ’11 (31.6%) and September 2011 (26.2%). He’s only exceeded 20% line drives in a full season once in the last five seasons, so Derek really turned back the clock this past summer.

I also thought it’d be interesting to see how pitchers attacked Derek over the last two seasons. Instead of drilling down on each individual pitch type, I decided to borrow Mike’s binning of Fastballs (FB%=FF, FT, SI, FC, FA and FS), Breaking Balls (BrB%=SL, CU, KN) and Changeups (CH%).

First-half Derek saw a slight decrease in fastballs from 2010, an uptick in breaking balls and a very small decrease in changeups. However, pitchers on the whole seemed to start challenging Derek with more heat in the second-half, which is probably at least partially responsible for his offensive resurgence, as Derek’s been an above-average fastball hitter for all of the years in which we have data for.

Pitchers did continue to exploit his difficulty with the offspeed pitch, and in fact, 2011 was the worst season of Derek’s career in terms of pitch type linear weights for the changeup. Opposing teams undoubtedly know that you can beat Derek with the change, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that CH% rise even higher next season.

Lastly, I wanted to take a look at where Derek was hitting the ball. Here’s Derek’s first-half 2011 spray chart:

We all know Derek’s made his living going the other way, but Derek rarely pulled anything with power in the first half, hitting 11 balls to left field (though seven went for hits).

Here’s the second-half spray chart:

That’s a nice-looking spray chart. By my count Derek hit 22 balls to left field in the second half, and 21(!) of them went for hits. I’m not saying Derek needs to become a pull hitter or anything crazy like that, but it’s rather remarkable how much different the results were after he started using the entire field.

The one angle I was curious about but didn’t have the tools to dig too deeply into was whether the Yankees faced a disproportionate amount of lefthanded pitching in the second half, though unfortunately none of the usual suspects have the capability of showing platoon splits by half. However, the Yankees only faced (by my count) 21 lefthanded starters out of their 74 second-half games, so even if Derek did presumably continue to feast on southpaws, his numbers were likely also very good against righthanders in the second half as well, a subset whom he has really struggled against (81 wRC+ on the whole in 2011, and 71 wRC+ in 2010).

To summarize, it would appear that the keys to Derek’s second-half resurgence were, in part, as follows: swinging a lot more frequently than he had been doing (and more frequently than league average, but slightly less than league average on pitches out of the zone), hitting the ball in the air, getting a lot of fastballs and pulling the ball to left field. Of course, this begs the question whether any of this is sustainable for the 2012 season (and beyond, if we’re extremely lucky), or if Derek will regress back to being the groundout-to-the-shortstop-on-the-first-pitch machine that frustrated the heck out of Yankee fans for roughly a year-and-a-half’s worth of plate appearances.

Biz Round-Up: Sweet Lou returns, MLB rule changes

Report: Lou Piniella set to join YES Network team

An old familiar face is getting ready to return to the Yankee family. One-time Yankee player and manager Lou Piniella will be rejoining the Yankees as a spring training instructor and YES Network analyst, Bob Raissman of The Daily News reported yesterday. Piniella, who served as a San Francisco Giants’ consultant last year, wanted to stay in baseball but also wanted to be close to his home in Tampa. The Yanks were the perfect fit.

According to Raissman’s report, Piniella will do “a limited number of appearances” on YES. The News scribe expects the former skipper to be in the booth come Opening Day in the Trop, and he’ll do a handful of other series throughout the season. The Piniella deal isn’t final yet, but a YES Network spokesperson confirmed to Bryan Hoch that the two sides were working toward a contract. It’ll be good to hear Sweet Lou, who served in the MSG broadcast booth in 1989, back on TV.

Rule tweaks dominate new MLB Basic Agreement

Later this week, the MLB Owners will ratify the new Major League Baseball Basic Agreement, and as the Players Association approved it today, it will become the law of the baseball land. We’ve heard a lot about the changes to the luxury tax, the amateur draft and international spending. Now, courtesy of the Associated Press, we learn about the myriad minor rule changes as well.

Many of these rule changes are common-sense. The Yankees, who should have played the Wild Card Rays this year in the playoffs but did not, would under a rule that allows teams from the same division to meet in the Division Series. MLB, as was reported earlier this fall, will expand instant replay to include “trapped” catches and some more fair/foul calls. The All Star Break will now be four days, and the game may move to Wednesday beginning in 2013 as well.

For players, MLB has banned tattoos with corporate logos and obscene nicknames written on equipment that may be visible to fans at the stadium or at home. Furthermore, David Ortiz will no longer be allowed to whine about his RBI total as players are banned from requesting scoring changes from the official scorer. Only MLB may hear an appeal now.

My favorite new rule change concerns uniforms though. Here’s how the AP describes it:

Quick uniform number switches will be a thing of the past. Players must tell the commissioner’s office by July 31 of the preceding year if they want a new jersey. That is, unless “the player (or someone on his behalf) purchases the existing finished goods inventory of apparel containing the player’s jersey number.” As in, every replica jersey, jacket, T-shirt, mug and anything else with a number that’s anywhere in stock.

How utterly vindictive.

Finally, one popular team practice has been eliminated as well: Clubs may no longer summon Minor Leaguers to the Majors without activating them. In other words, no more will top prospects be allowed to watch the rest of the regular season unfold in late September from the bench. The Yanks have done this in the past with their youngsters ranging from Derek Jeter to Jesus Montero and beyond. All told, though, these rule changes seem fairly reasonable to me.

Open Thread: Kevin Brown

(Photo via The New York Times)

In many ways, Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown are the poster boys for the Yankees’ pitching failures in the mid-aughts. Javy bears most of the blame for the Game Seven loss in the 2004 ALCS, but of course he couldn’t have done it without the help of Brown, who was nice enough to load the bases on a single and two walks with one out in the second inning before Johnny Damon hit that grand slam. The Yankees acquired Brown from the Dodgers eight years ago today, sending Jeff Weaver, Brandon Weeden, and Yhency Brazoban to Los Angeles.

Brown, 38 at the time, was coming off a monster season with the Dodgers in 2003. He’d used his trademark sinker to generate a ground ball on 62.5% of the balls he allowed in play while striking out 7.89 batters per nine and walking just 2.39 per nine. Stretch that out over 32 starts and 211 IP, and you’ve got a 6.0 fWAR and 5.4 bWAR season. Of course Brown never replicated that success in pinstripes, though his 2004 regular season wasn’t as bad I remember: a 4.09 ERA (4.03 FIP) in 132 IP across 22 starts. The playoffs were a disaster, and he did miss time with a back strain and a broken left hand after infamously punching a clubhouse wall.

The 2005 season was a complete catastrophe. Back problems forced Brown onto the disabled list three different times, and when he was on the mound he couldn’t prevent runs from scoring. He allowed 57 runs in his 73.1 IP (13 starts), resulting in a 6.50 ERA. The peripherals were okay (3.61 FIP) but at that point, who cared? Brown wore out his welcome in New York and was essentially forced out of baseball after the season, an unceremonious end to a great career that should earn him Hall of Fame consideration.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, but talk about anything you want. Go nuts.

Yanks talking to Nakajima, but not close to deal

Via David Waldstein, Brian Cashman has said that he is currently negotiating with the agent for Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, but the two sides aren’t close to a deal yet. The Yankees won Nakajima’s negotiating rights with a $2.5M bid last week, and the 29-year-old is likely to sign. I suspect that talks won’t get serious until after the holidays, at which point they’ll have about two weeks to hammer out a deal.

In other Nakajima news, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system projects a .276/.322/.389 batting line for him next season (89 OPS+), adjusting for Yankee Stadium. That’s after he hit .306/.379/.478 with an average of 19.3 homers and 18.7 stolen bases over the last three seasons with the Seibu Lions. For comparison’s sake, Eduardo Nunez hit .265/.313/.385 with 22 stolen bases this past season. Like the Yankees have been saying, Nakajima’s a utility guy.

Five stages of grief over a $189 million payroll

Note: In case there was any confusion, I recognize that this is firmly in Spoiled Yankees Fan territory.

Reactions to news that the Yankees desire to trim payroll by 2014 have resembled the Kübler-Ross model. First came denial: no way the Yankees would actually do this. They’re just setting a smokescreen. Then came anger: how can the Yankees trim their payroll while they raise ticket prices? That leaves three stages remaining: bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Let’s see if we can run though these in short order, so that we can prepare ourselves in case the Yankees actually do intend to duck the luxury tax cap in order to lower their payments once they re-cross the threshold.

Bargaining

The biggest issue with trimming payroll is that the Yankees need players to fill key spots. While they have all of their position players under contract for 2012, they could still use another starting pitcher. Nick Swisher then becomes a free agent after the 2012 season, leaving a spot in right field that the Yankees would be hard pressed to fill internally. These things cost money to fill.

Yet we still want the shiny toys. We want Yu Darvish this year, and we want Cole Hamels next year. We want a big bat to take over for Swisher in right — it was Matt Kemp previously, but surely fan desire will turn to another worthy candidate in time. Again, these players come with big price tags. It’s hard enough to fit them into a $210 million payroll, let alone a $188 million one. But we can make this work, right?

According to Joel Sherman’s original article on the payroll issue, the Yankees already have about $85 million committed to the 2014 payroll, at least as it concerns luxury tax. That covers Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, plus “about a $10 million charge for benefits, such as pensions.” Then there’s another possible $6 million if A-Rod hits his 714th homer in 2014; if he’s anywhere near that mark at the end of 2013 they have to assume that $6 million charge. That could conceivably put them at $91 million for three players.

Want to sign Robinson Cano to a long-term deal? That’ll likely mean a contract with an average annual value between $22 and $24 million. Even then, they’re covered at 3B (optimistically), 1B, 2B, and one starting pitcher. Derek Jeter could exercise his player option for $8 million. Brett Gardner will still be around, but won’t be cheap in his third year of arbitration. Ditto David Robertson. Jesus Montero, thankfully, will still make about a half million, which will soothe the payroll a bit. Ivan Nova will just hit his first year of arbitration, giving them another relatively cheap producer. That still leaves them with voids to fill in center field, right field, the bullpen and rotation, catcher or DH, and maybe shortstop. It’s a long list.

So where does that leave us? At a conservative $15 million estimate for Gardner, Robertson, and Nova, $23 million for Cano, and $8 million for Jeter, that brings us to $137 million. OK. That doesn’t look too bad. Counting Montero, that’s nine players. Surely they can sign the remaining 14 players for $50 million, right? Well, that depends on how you want to fill the spots. Want Darvish? That’s probably a $10 million AAV. Want Cole Hamels next off-season? That could be another $22 million. See how quickly that money gets spent? Even if they go with just Darvish, that still leaves them just $40 million for 13 spots, including two in the outfield.

That leads us to…

Depression

It does appear that the Yankees will have to scale back on spending at some point if they do intend to get to $189 million. The biggest obstacle is the money already on the books. That $91 million for three players puts the Yankees at a great handicap, since it represents essentially half of their available payroll. That leaves them with the same amount of money to sign the entire rest of the roster. Needless to say, that’s not an easy proposition.

Again, looking at the above back of the napkin calculation, the Yanks have 14 spots to fill for $50 million — and that assumes that Montero is the real deal and can either catch, or can hit well enough to remain at DH. But there are still those holes in the outfield, in the starting rotation, and in the bullpen. Sure, on the bench and in the bullpen they can probably get away with five or six guys making the league minimum, so that gives us eight spots to fill for $47 million. But even one high-priced pitcher changes that equation drastically.

That’s still do-able, in a way. If the Yankees can make use of six or seven guys making the minimum — and that can be guys such as Mason Williams and Manny Banuelos as starters, or guys such as Adam Warren, Brandon Laird, and Dellin Betances as reserves and bullpen arms — they’ll have a bit more flexibility. In fact, if they score a few key hits from the minors they very well could fall into this payroll range. No, that’s not the depressing part. The depression comes from the players already under contract.

In 2014 A-Rod will be 38, and turn 39 in July. Jeter will be 40 that June. Less troublesome are Teixeira at 34 and Sabathia at 33. No, the depression comes from the spots and money essentially guaranteed Rodriguez and Jeter. Maybe Jeter retires, though that opens up yet another spot without a viable replacement in the system. A-Rod, though, will make $26 million in 2014. What’s worse, Yanks fans had better hope he makes $32 million. He has 85 homers to go until he triggers his second home run milestone bonus, at 714. If he’s not poised to hit that milestone in 2014 it’ll mean he’s averaging fewer than 30 homers per year. For the money they’re paying him, the Yanks need that kind of production from Rodriguez. Yet given his injuries lately, it seems a longshot to think he’ll live up to that standard.

Acceptance

Is it going to suck watching the Yankees scale back their spending in the name of circumventing luxury tax payments? Absolutely. Will it mean they miss the playoffs a year or two? With the added Wild Card they’ll have a better chance of making it, but the competition in the AL has increased. The only fun that will come of this will be the chances they give prospects. If they’re not committing big money to additional positions, then they pretty much have to give the kids a shot.

The only thing to do at this point is accept it. The Yankees have these three huge contracts on the books, and nothing they can do will reduce their current 2014 luxury tax level. If the Steinbrenners really do want to save the luxury tax money, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. They know the repercussions of putting a subpar product on the field, and they know the consequences of missing the playoffs. We can only trust that they’ll make decisions with that knowledge in mind.

Bonus: Denial Again!

But seriously. With the three-team scrum in the AL East, combined with the enormous incentive to win the division, the Yanks can’t be serious about trimming payroll, right?

Saving money on Sabathia’s extension

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

A few weeks ago, the Yankees and CC Sabathia came to an agreement on a new contract extension that will presumably keep him in pinstripes for the rest of his career, a deal that also prevented the lefty from opting out and becoming a free agent. For all intents and purposes, it’s a five-year contract worth $122M plus a sixth year vesting option worth $25M that depends on the health of his shoulder. Since he had four years and $92M left on his original deal, all the team did was tack another year and $30M on top of it.

Given how the last few weeks have unfolded around baseball, there’s a pretty good chance that one year and $30M represents a significant bargain for the Yankees. When the new extension was reported, we learned that the team originally offered Sabathia a five-year contract worth $120.5M with no option, so essentially what Cliff Lee took from the Phillies. The Yankees didn’t want him to opt out, so they upped their offer to include the vesting option and another $1.5M, good enough to keep him around. That’s the going rate for a 31-year-old ace on the open market, at least prior to this winter.

Before agreeing to a five-year, $77.5M contract with his hometown Angels, C.J. Wilson received a six-year offer from the Marlins that approached $100M. A few days prior to that, Miami signed Mark Buehrle — a bonafide workhorse, but also a slightly older and less effective version of Sabathia — to a four-year pact worth $58M. Albert Pujols managed to get ten years, Jose Reyes and his bum hamstrings got six years, and chances are Prince Fielder is going to get something insane as well. There was certainly a lot of money to be spent this offseason.

Had he actually hit the open market, Sabathia would have been the undisputed top pitcher available. Pujols and Fielder were the only other players on the market available capable of providing the kind of impact Sabathia can as well. We’ll never know for sure, but chances are the Marlins and Angels would have pursued him, perhaps the Nationals as well, and of course the Yankees would have been involved. That five-year, $122M with a vesting option contract extension could have turned into six guaranteed years pretty quick, maybe even as many as seven years. Five years and $122M was a fair deal at the time that sudden looks like a little bit of a steal for the team.

As expected, Sabathia has already started to shed some weight this offseason. He’s been using the same conditioning program as last winter, when he lost 30 lbs., and Ken Davidoff said he was noticeably slimmer at a recent charity event. “Just maintain it during the season,” said Sabathia, acknowledging that he did gain weight back during the summer. The Yankees re-invested heavily in their ace this offseason, but the contract damage could have been a lot worse if they didn’t up their initial offer to prevent him from hitting the open market.