Mailbag: Lui, Zhang, Sabathia, A-Rod, Payroll

Wow, I asked for questions last night in the open thread, and you guys responded big time. Over 20 questions hit the inbox, so don’t feel bad if yours isn’t featured below. We’re actually going to post another mailbag or two today just because there were so many good submissions and we want to get to them all. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box whenever you want to send in a mailbag question in the future.

Ed asks: What is the current status of the Chinese players the Yankees signed 3 or4 years ago?

He’s talking out lefty pitcher Kai Lui and catcher Zhenwang Zhang, who the Yanks signed back in June of 2007. Both were 19 when they signed, and obviously they have not yet come to the United States to begin their pro careers. They did however play for China in the World Baseball Classic last spring, with Lui getting lit up in two relief appearances (1.1 IP, 3 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 HB … so what’s that, a 16.7% strand rate?) and Zhang failing to reach base in six plate appearances while striking out three times.

Wikipedia says both players were released at some point, and we all know wiki is never wrong. Neither Lui or Zhang was much of a prospect anyway, but they were instead the Yanks first venture into the completely untapped baseball market of China. It was a way to get some positive press in the most populated country in the world, and really just the first step in the process. At some point the Yanks will sign another player from China, then another, and after a while one of them will actually be pretty decent and come to the States. It’ll be a slow a process, but a process that started three years ago.

Vinny asks: When C.C. made his start against Toronto the other day, people began to worry that he wouldn’t be in great shape for the post-season because he would be pitching with 8 days rest. I’ve always found these kind of things to be stupid. I once pitched, for my high school team, and I would throw about every 6-7-8 days. Granted, I’m no C.C. and I only threw 65 mph, I feel that it’s not reasonable to think that C.C. wouldn’t be prepared. Whenever I made starts with many days of rest in between, I always felt stronger than ever and the results were pretty good….obviously not good enough, as I currently live with my parents. Awkward. What are your thoughts?

More than anything, I’m just worried about Sabathia’s command coming off the eight day rest. I’m sure he’ll be fine physically, if not stronger than usual, but if he’s having trouble locating his pitches it won’t matter. The last thing the Yankees need is for the other team to work him hard early in and force him out after five or six innings. I’ll admit though, my concerns about the rest are probably overblown.

Planks asks: If A-Rod hadn’t opted out of his contract in 2007, he would be a free agent this year. What kind of contract could he expect to sign?

That’s a mighty fine question. Given his age and the fact that his performance has dropped off a bit this year (.366 wOBA after no worse than .385 since 1998), not to mention the hip issues and PED stigma, you’d have to think that he’d get a smaller deal than Adrian Beltre. That said, power is at a premium these days, and Alex has proven that he can still hit the ball very very far very very often. Maybe he wouldn’t get $20M+ annually, but I bet he’d find something like $13-15M a season for three years on the market. For the record, Joe thinks that’s a little light on the salary.

I’d like to hear from the commentors on this one, because I really don’t feel like I have a hold on A-Rod’s market value at all. I just don’t see too many obvious fits for him, besides maybe the Tigers or Angels.

Mark in VT asks: What is the breakdown for next year’s salaries? I’m concerned that the Yanks won’t be able to “afford” Cliff Lee if they are serious about keeping payroll around $200 million. Also, are you worried with Lee’s workload and recent struggles (small but noticeable)? Is he going to pull a Santana? Thanks.

I broke down the money that’s coming off the books in the very first RAB Mailbag, and for the most part those figures still hold true because none of the trade deadline pickups will be back next season. Back then we narrowed it down to about $50M coming off, with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera still having to be re-signed. Add in Lee and you’ve probably blown the $50M right there. Good thing they’ve got a bunch of cheap options to fill out the bullpen and bench. Cot’s has an in-depth breakdown that shows the Yanks’ payroll situation through 2014, so I recommend checking it out.

The Yanks were willing to go over their reported $200M budget at the deadline this year, and I suspect they’ll be willing to do so next year for a guy like Lee. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they drag the Jeter and/or Rivera negotiations out a bit. It would be a lot easier for Brian Cashman to go to the Steinbrenners in December and say “hey, I need more money to re-sign Derek/Mo” than it would be to say “can I have some more to sign Cliff?”

As for the concerns about Lee’s workload, yeah sure there’s a chance he breaks down at some point, in fact it’s likely just given the nature of pitching. Saying a pitcher is going to get hurt is the safest bet in sports. Lee’s not a terribly big guy (listed at 6-foot-3, 190 lbs.) and his workload over the last three years has been considerable (700.2 innings since Opening Day 2007 not including what he throws this postseason), but he has no history of arm troubles. I mean, yes it’s a concern, but no more than with any other pitcher.

Cano losing the WAR in the MVP voting

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Something seemed to click with Robinson Cano this year. After a poor 2008 season he rebounded for a solid 2009, his best overall season since 2007. Then this year, charged with a prime lineup spot, he put it all together. In April he hit .400/.436/.765 and immediately stirred a “could this be Cano’s year?” narrative. It was an enjoyable one, and while he has dropped off a bit in the second half he still finds himself in the MVP conversation. Credit that to Josh Hamilton missing the final month. Given the current circumstances, where exactly does Cano stand in the MVP picture?

In late August I wrote about the MVP race and where Robbie ranked among his peers. At that time the race looked like Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, and then everyone else. That didn’t mean Cano was out of the conversation, but rather than he would have to post some stellar numbers in September to get his name atop the list. That Josh Hamilton ended up missing time should have helped his case. But Cano did himself no favors, hitting just .262/.304/.346 during the month, easily his worst of the season.

When looking at a season-long award like MVP, I like to start with an all inclusive stat. For our purposes that means WAR. It doesn’t end the conversation, but it can be a productive beginning. Here are the current AL WAR leaders:

AL War Leaders

Player fWAR bWAR
Josh Hamilton 8.0 5.8
Adrian Beltre 7.2 6.3
Carl Crawford 7.0 4.7
Jose Bautista 6.7 5.4
Evan Longoria 6.5 7.6
Miguel Cabrera 6.4 7.0
Robinson Cano 6.3 5.5
Shin-Soo Choo 5.9 7.1
Joe Mauer 5.8 5.4
Brett Gardner 4.9 3.7

FanGraphs’ version of WAR, which uses UZR for defense and linear weights for offense, still rates Hamilton the highest despite his missing September. Cano there ranks seventh. Evan Longoria actually leads the bWAR pack, while Cano again ranks seventh, tied with CC Sabathia. Baseball-Reference’s WAR, remember, uses Base Runs on offense and Total Zone on defense. The framework is the same, but the components are different. This helps give us different perspectives on player value.

The all-in-one stat, then, does not at all favor Cano for the MVP. Both implementations rank him as the seventh most valuable player, and while that’s not the be-all, end-all, it does suggest that there have been better players this year. Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, and Miguel Cabrera have all produced 6 or more WAR using both formulas, and Hamilton’s fWAR is off the charts. I think that those guys will get the most consideration. But because we’re talking about Cano let’s dive a bit deeper into his offensive and defensive numbers.

To measure offensive output I prefer wOBA, because it assigns a value to each outcome for the hitter. That is, a single is worth more than a walk, but a walk is far more valuable than an out. Doubles, triples, and homers also have values that are more closely tied to run scoring than the traditional 2 = double, 3 = triple, 4 = home run formula we see in SLG. Here are the AL wOBA leaders.

AL wOBA Leaders

Player wOBA
Josh Hamilton .449
Miguel Cabrera .428
Jose Bautista .421
Paul Konerko .412
Adrian Beltre .391
Shin-Soo Choo .386
Luke Scott .385
Robinson Cano .383
Carl Crawford .378
David Ortiz .378

Again, Cano ranks in the top 10, but he’s not quite near the top. He and Adrian Beltre are the only infielders on the list, which should give them an advantage. But is it enough to overcome all the players that sit ahead of him?

wOBA, of course, is a rate stat, which gives it many advantages. It can help scale players regardless of playing time. Yet playing time is important. The counting stat associated with wOBA is wRC — weighted runs created.

AL wRC Leaders

Player wRC
Miguel Cabrera 130.5
Jose Bautista 130.2
Josh Hamilton 121.9
Paul Konerko 116.7
Robinson Cano 112.1
Adrian Beltre 109.4
Mark Teixeira 107.4
Shin-Shoo Choo 106.5
Evan Longoria 105.3
Carl Crawford 103.8

Cano fares a bit better here. As the highest ranked infielder on the list he does have a better case with the counting stat than he does the rate one. I’m not sure I’d give Cano the MVP even based only on this list, but it’s certainly the best point in his favor so far.

If linear weights aren’t your thing, we can take a look at OPS+. In case you’re not familiar, OPS+ basically takes the two components of OPS — on base percentage and slugging percentage — weighs them a bit towards OBP, since the SLG scale is 4.000 and the OBP scale is 1.000, and then adjusts for park factors. It is rated on a scale where 100 is the league average, and higher numbers are better. Here are the AL leaders.

AL OPS+ Leaders

Player OPS+
Miguel Cabrera 180
Josh Hamilton 175
Jose Bautista 166
Paul Konerko 156
Shin-Soo Choo 146
Adrian Beltre 143
Luke Scott 142
Evan Longoria 142
Joe Mauer 137
Robinson Cano 137

Let’s just say that if you’re trying to argue for Cano’s MVP case, OPS+ is not the stat you’d want to cite.

We can see that on offense Cano ranks among the league’s best, but he’s not quite at the top. He does make up for that by playing an up-the-middle position, though, and he seemingly plays it well. We’ve seen him make a number of stellar plays this season, ranging to both sides and making throws that perhaps no other second baseman can make. But fielding is included in both WAR formulas, as is his position, so Cano’s performance on defense seemingly hasn’t vaulted him ahead of the competition. Here is how the three major defensive stats rate Cano.

Robinson Cano Fielding

TZ UZR DRS
0 1.5 7


Where TZ = fielding runs above average per Total Zone, and DRS = defensive runs saved per John Dewan’s +/- system.

While Total Zone and UZR rate Cano around league average, defensive runs saved ranks him near the top. If we were to substitute Cano’s DRS for his UZR in the fWAR formula, he would come out at 6.8 or 6.9 rather than 6.3. That would vault him to fourth in the AL immediately. If we swapped Carl Crawford’s 22 UZR for his 14 DRS he’d end up around 6.1, 6.2 WAR. That would put Cano in third, just barely behind Beltre (whose UZR and DRS figures are nearly identical). Evan Longoria would get a slight bump, though, perhaps reaching Cano’s level. Still, that certainly does strengthen Cano’s case.

Cano’s defensive ratings might appear confusing, since we watch the games and he looks so solid out there. We had a question regarding that just tonight:

Why does Cano get no love from advance defensive metrics?  His errors are way down plus he has great range and turns the double play extremely well. It doesn’t compute.

The answer is that we remember the excellent plays and forget the balls that he simply didn’t get to. In fact, since we don’t watch every second baseman in the league it’s tough to make an accurate comparison between Cano and his peers just by watching the Yankees games. Twins fans, I’m sure, rave about Orlando Hudson’s defense, while Boston fans rave about Dustin Pedroia’s and A’s fans rave about Mark Ellis’s. Cano is certainly good, and we can see that. It appears his weakness is in range — that is, the balls he just doesn’t get that other second basemen do. It’s tough to see that on a day-to-day basis, since 1) he’s not getting to the ball and therefore we might not make a mental note of it, and 2) we don’t see the other second basemen in the league frequently enough. I’m not saying that UZR perfectly captures Cano’s defensive value, but rather explaining why his rating might be so low when we think so highly of it.

(What might also contribute to this is that Cano has the best error runs above average among AL second basemen and the fifth highest in the league. So when he does get to balls he makes the plays. Which is valuable. But not as valuable as all those balls he doesn’t get to in the first place. By the by, Derek Jeter ranks third and Alex Rodriguez ranks fourth in error runs above average.)

Yet there are a few reasons why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Cano could sneak in with the 2010 AL MVP.

1) Some writers will downgrade Hamilton because he missed September.

2) It seems like the consensus is not only that Cano plays stellar defense, but that he has improved greatly this year.

3) Cano is one of few players in the conversation headed for the playoffs.

4) There doesn’t seem to be an odds-on favorite, as Joe Mauer was last year.

Given a vote, I wouldn’t place him any higher than third. Hamilton added so much value to his team in the first five months that missing September isn’t that big a knock on him. I also think that Adrian Beltre put up an MVP-worthy season, and that Evan Longoria should factor into the conversation. This is a similar situation to the 2008 season, where there was no clear-cut winner. The second baseman could certainly take it home again.

Pettitte’s stiff back a ‘low-level red flag’

When news of Andy Pettitte’s sore back broke late last night, we held our collective breaths. Pettitte will be key to the Yanks’ run through October, and another injury to him this late in the year would be devastating. All we know was that Pettitte felt his back stiffen up during his start against the Red Sox last Friday, but the Yanks were not too concerned. Tonight, we learn that the Yankees are guardedly optimistic that Pettitte’s soreness is a one-time event.

ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews spoke with the Yankee brass today, and they downplayed Pettitte’s injury. GM Brian Cashman said that Pettitte would have started on Wednesday had the Yanks not clinched but admitted that the team is going to reevaluate him after his start tomorrow. “Right now, we consider it a low-level red flag,” he said. “If it happens again it will be a higher-level red flag. We’ll find out Friday.”

Open Thread: All about A-Rod

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Let’s talk about Alex Rodriguez a little bit. He hit his 30th homerun of the season last night, a total most of us thought he had no chance of reaching just two weeks ago. A five homeruns in six days binge helped get him there, and he’s now posted the most consecutive 30+ HR, 100+ RBI seasons in baseball history (13, and 14 overall). Alex has only been with the Yankees for seven years now, not much in the grand scheme of things, but let’s see how he stacks up in the team’s record books…

bWAR: 40.9, should jump into the top ten sometime in 2012
OBP: .394, outside the top ten by .001
SLG: .560, fourth best behind Babe Ruth (.711), Lou Gehrig (.632), and Joe DiMaggio (.579)
OPS: .954, fifth best behind Ruth (1.195), Gehrig (1.080), DiMaggio (.977), and Mickey Mantle (.977)
HR: 268, seventh best but could finish as high as third behind Ruth (659) and Mantle (536)
K: 838, sixth most with everyone above him well over 1,000
OPS+: 147, one point behind Reggie Jackson for sixth best
HBP: 80, fifth most and he should eventually settle in behind Derek Jeter (152) for second most all-time
AB per HR: 14.3, second best behind Ruth (11.0) and … wait for it … Jason Giambi (14.0)
WPA: +26.0, fifth best and within shouting distance of Yogi Berra (+32.4) for second
WPA/LI: +28.3, third most behind Mantle (+94.4 (!!!)) and Jeter (+32.7)

At $168,389,252 in salary, I’m willing to bet A-Rod‘s second only to Derek in that department as well. Here’s the link to the full leaderboards if you’re interested. It’s pretty amazing to see where he ranks among the all-time great Yankees despite being in pinstripes for just seven years. I’m glad he got to 30 bombs this season, but I’d be even happier if he manages to find those 40 missing points of on-base percentage next season.

* * *

Anyway, here’s your open thread for this wet, rainy evening in the Tri-State Area. The Mets are playing the Brewers, and according to my guide there will be another game on the MLB Network, but the teams are TBA. With any luck it’ll be the Padres-Cubs, the only game going on tonight with any playoff implications. I suppose it could be Royals-Rays, which would obviously impact the Yankees, but meh. Chat about whatever, just don’t be a dick.

Oh, and I need some mailbag questions, so send them in using the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar. I’ve gotten one so far this week, and it’s not even about the Yankees.

For the right price, earlier World Series starting times

For years, baseball fans have urged Fox to start the World Series earlier, and the network has mainly turned a deaf ear to those calls. This year, though, Fox has finally agreed to push back the start of the Fall Classic to times more conducive to East Coast viewing because they have the money to do so.

The network announced today new start times for the World Series. The schedule looks a little something like this:

Game Date Host First Pitch
1 Wed. 10/27 NL 7:57 p.m.
2 Thur. 10/28 NL 7:57 p.m.
3 Sat. 10/30 AL 6:57 p.m.
4 Sun. 10/31 AL 8:20 p.m.
5 Mon. 11/1 AL 7:57 p.m.
6 Tue. 11/3 NL 7:57 p.m.
7 Wed. 11/4 NL 7:57 p.m.

Only one game — the Sunday night match-up — will air at 8:20 while most will start just before 8 p.m. and one begins at the perfectly reasonable hour of 7 p.m. That Game 3 start time is the earliest first pitch since Game 6 of 1987 World Series.

So why the early start time? Well, last year, baseball tried the 7:57 p.m. starts and found they not-so-shockingly increased viewership. “The changes we made with Fox last year to start the World Series games earlier helped increase viewership including more young fans, and we are optimistic that the earlier start time for Saturday’s Game Three will keep us moving in the same direction,” Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner, said.

Fox execs had another reason behind the switch. Fox Sports President Eric Shanks explained: “We’ve said over the years that if advertisers were willing to support earlier starts at prime time levels, we’d be able to begin games earlier.”

We’re not blind to the fact that baseball is a business and that Fox and MLB want to cash on the game’s jewel event at the end of the season. Make no mistake about it though: This timeshift, while better for fans, is all the money.

Requiem for a risky trade

Javy wasn't having too many nice days in pinstripes this year. (Photo by Amanda Rykoff)

Yankee fans went to sleep on the night of December 21, 2009 with rumors swirling. We knew that the Yanks were on the verge of acquiring a starting pitcher, but we didn’t know, until the next morning at least, that Javier Vazquez would return to the Bronx. Even though our last meeting with Vazquez was an infamous one and we knew Brian Cashman was rolling the dice on a risky trade, we liked the deal.

And how could we not? For Melky Cabrera, an overrated player on the verge of making more money than he’s worth, the replaceable Michael Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino, a live arm years away from making his Major League debut, the Yanks landed a lefty reliever and one of the top National League hurlers. Lest we forget with the bad taste of 2010 still in our mouths, Javier Vazquez won 15 games with a 2.87 ERA in 2009 with a 9.8 K/9 IP, a 1.8 BB/9 IP and just 20 home runs allowed in 219.1 innings. He deservedly finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

What a difference a year makes. If last night was Javier Vazquez’s final appearance as a member of the New York Yankees, his season totals are abysmal. He’s 10-10 with a 5.32 ERA and a FIP even higher than that. In 157.1 innings, he struck out 121, walked 65 and gave up 32 home runs. His home run rate more than doubled over 2009 while he lost over three strike outs and walked two more batters over nine innings. He hasn’t won a start since July 26.

Vazquez couldn’t have been much worse for the Yanks, and few pitchers have. In two seasons six years apart, Vazquez has gone 24-20 with a 5.09 ERA. His rate stats — strike outs, walks and home runs per 9 innings pitched — than compared with his career totals, and he again seems to have lost the ability to get men out. No pitcher in Yankee history has made as many starts as Vazquez while being so prolific at giving up the long ball, and only Sterling Hitchcock, Tim Leary and Andy Hawkins have as many innings pitched with higher ERAs than Javy.

For a brief spell in the middle of the season, it appeared as though Javy had figured it all out. After starting the season 1-4 with an 8.10 ERA in his first six games, Javy went 8-5 over his next 16 games with a 3.39 ERA. He allowed just 13 home runs over those 95.2 innings and kept runners off base. His last 10 appearances though have seen him allow 11 home runs in 38.2 innings while opponents are hitting a Robinson Cano-like .302/.387/.549 against him while walking 4.5 times per nine innings. Somewhere it all went wrong.

Maybe it’s Javy’s head or maybe it’s something else. Maybe he can’t pitch in New York as many would have you believe or maybe he’s just not physically up to the task any longer. It’s not unheard of for 34-year-olds with 2500 innings under their belt to fall off a clip, and I think Javy’s problem can be summed up in graph form.

His velocity, as we can see, has dipped significantly this year. During his time with the Braves, he threw in the low-to-mid 90s; with the Yankees, he’s barely cracked 89, let alone 90. He stopped being able to blow hitters away, and he stopped being able to mix his pitches effectively. It was a long hard fall.

So as Javy has likely thrown his last pitch in a Yankee uniform, Joel Sherman threw an obvious pitch into the mix this morning. The Yankees, he says, will not offer Javy arbitration. The Yanks swallowed hard and traded Arodys Vizcaino last winter because they hoped to turn Javy into a first-round draft pick. Now that Javy’s been worth below replacement level according to Fangraphs’ WAR, the team won’t be offering him and his $11.5 million salary arbitration, and they won’t recoup some of the cost it took to acquire him.

The inevitable question then concerns the trade. Was it a good one? Without the luxury of hindsight or a crystal ball, there’s no way to know that Javier Vazquez’s 2010 would be this bad, and the cost to acquire him is high only if Arodys pans out. I can’t fault the Yanks for trying in December, but no one should whitewash Javy’s poor finish. One thing is certain: I’ll be calling this the Boone Logan trade from now on.

Could Cervelli’s playing time be a good thing?

(AP Photo/Ralph Lauer)

For much of the summer, we lamented every time Frankie Cervelli‘s name was written into the lineup. He started the season off in glorious fashion, hitting .354/.426/.451 in his first hundred or so plate appearances through mid-May. As Jorge Posada‘s backup it was fantastic, but then things started to go south once Cervelli received more and more playing time. From May 23rd through August 25th, a period during which Posada missed time due to a broken foot, a bruised ring finger, a sore knee, and a sore shoulder, Cervelli hit just .174/.248/.208 in 164 plate appearances.

Production at the bottom of the order was compromised, and oftentimes it was painful to watch. No one really expected Frankie to hit much this year, so it wasn’t his impotent bat that bothered people (okay, yes it was), it was all the playing time he received. When Posada wasn’t injured he often started at designated hitter, giving Cervelli even more at-bats. In fact, his 714.2 innings caught this year are the most on the team, about six games more than Posada’s total of 660.1. Of course that gap closed significantly down the stretch in September, but it still may have some impact down the road.

At 39-years-old, Posada remains a catching marvel. He’s hitting .253/.361/.464 in between all those nagging injuries this year, a .361 wOBA that ranks ahead of Victor Martinez and is bested only by Joe Mauer’s .376 mark among AL catchers. Sure, his defense is as bad as ever, but Cervelli hasn’t exactly made anyone forget Jose Molina. Posada is clearly the best catcher on the team and should start behind the plate every day in the postseason, and the lessened workload during the season just might help him do it.

Aside from 2008, when Jorge missed most of the season with a major shoulder injury, the 660.1 innings in 2010 are the fewest he’s caught in a single season since 1999. He was well over 1,000 innings caught annually from 2000-2007, and it wasn’t until injuries set in later in his career that Posada’s workload started to decrease. Of course all that extra rest this summer hasn’t helped lately; he’s hitting just .179/.304/.282 since September 10th, but we’re not going to get worked up over 46 plate appearances, especially during a period when the entire team struggled offensively.

This is completely subjective obviously, as there’s no concrete way to determine whether or not the decreased workload during the hot summer months will help keep Posada fresh for the playoffs. It sounds logical, but I’m constantly amazed at how often logic loses out. A productive Jorge Posada is the best thing for the Yankees, and if all of those plate appearances wasted on Cervelli this season help Posada remain productive when the games really man something, then I take back all of the bad things I ever said about Frankie. Well, not all of it, but some of it.

Aside: Remember when there was that big debate last season/postseason about Cervelli being a better game caller and better with the pitchers and what not? Well this year Yankee pitchers have a 4.03 ERA and a .252/.325/.397 batting line against with Frankie behind the dish and a 4.06 ERA with a .246/.317/.399 line against with Posada. The whole thing seems silly now, doesn’t it?