The Future of the Front Office

Billy Eppler shuns your camera lens. (Barton Silverman/The New York Times)

It barely registered as more than a blip on the radar, but the Yankees made a rather significant move yesterday. The club added former Cubs GM Jim Hendry as a special assignment scout, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Pro scouting director Billy Eppler was promoted to assistant GM, a move with some pretty significant long-term implications. Rather than explain why all over again, I’ll point you to what I wrote last June

When I look at the Yankees front office, one thing really stands out to me: there’s no obvious, in-house candidate to replace [GM Brian Cashman]. I’m guessing that’s by design, because why would Cashman want competition from the inside? He’s made himself that much more valuable to the franchise by making sure no one emerges as a potential replacement. From a business perspective, it’s brilliant. Assistant GM Jean Afterman reportedly specializes in contracts and negotiations, not necessarily baseball operations. Scouting directors Billy Eppler (pro) and Damon Oppenheimer (amateur) don’t have any kind of GM’ing experience, even at the assistant level. The closest thing the Yankees have had to a potential in-house GM alternative during Cashman’s tenure (at least recently) was Kevin Towers, who served as a special advisor in 2010 before taking the Diamondbacks GM job over the winter.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because when you look around the league, this is something pretty unique to the Yankees. Just to use the Red Sox as an example (since apparently they’re the measuring stick for everything the Yankees do), their official site lists something like eight assistants (with various titles) to GM Theo Epstein, including one former GM in Allard Baird (Royals). If Epstein leaves for whatever reason, AGM Ben Cherington could step in and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, he and current Padres GM Jed Hoyer served as co-GMs when Epstein briefly left the club in December of 2005, and the duo actually brokered the Hanley Ramirez-Josh Beckett trade in Epstein’s short absence. I just don’t see how that kind of seamless transition would occur with the Yankees.

Eppler has run the pro scouting department since Cashman created it in 2005, and prior to that he worked as a scout for the Yankees, Padres, and Rockies. He pitched at UConn once upon a time, but a shoulder injury ended his playing career before he had a chance to go pro. Joe Torre (and Tom Verducci) referred to him as a “stats guru” in The Yankee Years, but Eppler says that’s not the case.

“Is Billy a stats guy? No, and I joke with him about it,” said Bill Schmidt — the Rockies’ VP of Scouting — to Tyler Kepner in 2009. “But does he use it as a tool? We all do. Billy is a well-rounded scout, and any well-rounded scout is going to look at stats.”

Eppler’s promotion to assistant GM appears to be step one of creating the seamless transition that I talked about in June. He’s been in the mix for both the Padres’ and Angels’ GM positions in recent years, and reportedly was the runner-up to Jerry Dipoto for the job in Anaheim earlier this offseason. I’m sure other clubs have expressed interest in him in other capacities as well, we just don’t know about it. Cashman and former Yankees GM Gene Michael (currently an advisor to Cashman) have touted Eppler as a future GM in the past, and right now it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before some team hires him for that role. Yesterday’s promotion is an indication that that team may end up being the Yankees.

Cashman is about to enter his 14th year as GM of the Yankees, and tenures of that length are pretty unheard of when it comes to baseball executives. He signed his fourth straight three-year contract back in November, so he’ll be around for a 15th and 16th season as well. What happens after that? We really don’t know. Cashman is still relatively young (45 in July), so he has plenty of GM years left ahead of him, at least in theory. The Steinbrenners love him and the team continues to win, so that side of it doesn’t figure to be an issue. Maybe another three-year contract is in the cards, but I get the sense that the next three years will be spent grooming Eppler to take over following the 2014 season.

Now, I don’t think Cashman will be fired or shown the door at that time, though it’s certainly possible, of course. It does come with the territory. I think it’s more likely that he’ll be promoted, however, perhaps to some kind of chairperson/team president capacity with Eppler stepping in as GM. It’s pretty much the same thing the Indians did a year or two ago, when long-time GM Mark Shapiro became team president and long-time assistant GM Chris Antonetti replaced him. That was the plan for years, and the Yankees could be setting themselves up for a similar kind of transition. Nice and easy, we’ll barely even notice.

I don’t have any kind of hard evidence to back this up obviously, it’s just a thought more than anything. Cashman’s been doing this GM thing for a long time now, and a promotion to a higher position is the natural order of things. Eppler is a valuable asset that other teams clearly have interest in, and that interest only figures to increase over the next few years. Rather than lose him to another club (which could still happen), they Yankees have put him in a position to potentially succeed Cashman and become the next GM. For the first time in Cashman’s tenure, there’s something resembling a line of succession in place.

Prospect Profile: Zach Nuding

(Photo Credit: William Brooks via Examiner.com)

Zach Nuding | RHP

Background
A Texas kid from Haltom City — just outside of Dallas — Nuding wasn’t much of a pro prospect coming out of high school. He went undrafted after graduating in 2008, then joining the upstart baseball program at Weatherford College, a two-year school. Nuding served as the Coyotes closer as a freshman, then played in the Texas Collegiate League during the summer. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 37th round of the 2009 draft, but did not sign and returned to school for another year.

As a sophomore in 2010, Nuding established himself as the best pro prospect on the staff. He moved into the rotation and appeared in 16 games, striking out 65 with 35 walks in 78 IP. He led all starters with a 2.19 ERA, then again pitched in the Texas Collegiate League after the season. Baseball America (subs. req’d) considered Nuding the 37th best prospect in Texas prior to the 2010 draft, and the Yankees made him their 30th round pick, the 925th overall selection. He signed relatively late for $265k — after the Yankees got a longer look at him in summer ball — foregoing his commitment to Texas Tech.

[Read more…]

The best pitches in the Yankees rotation

(Sabathia by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty; Pineda by Leon Halip/Getty)

Inspired by the excellent Red Sox blog Over the Monster, today I’m going to take a look at which Yankees starting pitchers throws the “best” pitch among each pitch category. As there are a variety of factors involved in determining a given pitch’s overall effectiveness, “best” in this instance is going to be subjective. In the interest of simplicity, I’m ranking the hurlers by their respective Whiff rates, as the ability to generate a swing-and-miss is probably the most transparent indication of pure stuff.

All of the data in the tables you’ll see below is from the 2011 season, and should be mostly self-explanatory. I’ll be the first to admit that a one-year sample is less-than-ideal, but I tried to run a three-year search and TexasLeaguers.com didn’t take to that request too kindly. The columns headed by “w” and “w/100” are the pitch type’s linear weights (representing the total runs that a pitcher has saved using that pitch) and linear weights per 100 pitches (the amount of runs that pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown), which provide some level of insight into a pitch’s relative level of effectiveness but should not be analyzed in isolation, as they are subject to the whims of both sequencing and BABIP.

Four-Seam Fastball

And right off the bat we have a prime example of the problems one can encounter with pitch type linear weights. If you sorted this table by wFF, Phil Hughes would come out on top. How on earth is that possible, you are likely asking yourself. I’m not entirely sure myself, as I don’t think anyone that saw Hughes pitch last year thought much of his fastball. However, he did get some people out, and presumably the vast majority of those outs came via his four-seamer, because, as you’ll see later on in this post, everything else he threw last season was pretty awful, at least by pitch type linear weights. Lending further credence to this notion is the fact that Hughes yielded a .282 BABIP on ground balls on his heater, compared to a .360 BABIP on ground balls on the curve, .444 on the cutter and .556 on his changeup.

As far as Whiff% goes, it should be quite heartening to see that the Yankees’ two newest rotation acquisitions outperformed everyone else in the rotation by a rather substantial margin. While both will likely see a decrease in their Whiff rates with the move to the AL East, at least they’re starting from a high baseline.

Slider

We know Ivan Nova threw a slider more than 3.9% of the time last season and so this table is a bit misleading. However, the pitch did become one of the keys to his improved second-half performance, and so there may be a case to be made for Nova having one of the better sliders on the team. Of course, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia might have something to say about that. In any event, the Yankees’ front four in the rotation all boast pretty big-time sliders; bad news for opposing lineups.

Sinker/Two-Seam Fastball

While Pineda probably threw some two-seamers last season, I’d surmise that some of his four-seamers may have been misclassified, as a 10.6% Whiff% rate on a two-seamer/sinker is pretty damn high when you consider league average is 5.0%-5.4%. Not to mention the fact that the player with the best wFT/100 in MLB last season (Doug Fister), had a 5.4% Whiff% on his two-seamer. Sabathia probably has the best sinker on the team, although Kuroda is in that conversation as well if he can get his GB% back above 45%.

Changeup

It should surprise no one that Sweaty Freddy had the best changeup on the team given his slow-slower-slowest approach, although Sabathia’s is also pretty great. No one else in the rotation has a particularly effective one, although Burnett’s did generate a slightly above-average Whiff% last year. Surprisingly, despite a rather diverse arsenal, Hiroki Kuroda is the only starter on the team that doesn’t throw a change at all. However,  in his case he presumably partially makes up for it with his splitter, which can function like a hard change.

Curveball

No surprises here; Burnett’s curve is the only thing keeping him away from the glue factory, but as everyone knows you can’t get very far with one working pitch. Nova’s curve is probably best described as a work-in-progress; while there were times in the second half that Phil Hughes looked like he was employing a harder (and more effective) curve and other times where his curve looked terrible. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about Hughes needing to improve his curveball to become an effective Major League starter.

Cutter


Still not sure how Hughes’ cutter went from well above-average (11% Whiff% in 2009; 11.5% Whiff% in 2010) to nonexistent last season. No one on the team really employs the cutter with any regularity.

Split-Fingered Fastball

The splitter is a fun pitch that Yankee fans don’t get to see too often, and this coming season we may have two members of the rotation featuring one (albeit in very different forms). Prior to Freddy Garcia, the last Yankee starter I can think of off the top of my head that threw one is Roger Clemens (Ed. Note: Jose Contreras threw a forkball, which is kinda like a splitter but slower). Per linear weights, neither Freddy nor Kuroda fared all that well with their splitters last season, but they still generated plenty of whiffs with the pitch.

So who boasts the best pitch in the Yankee rotation? Probably either Sabathia, with his heater or slider, or Pineda and his heater. I certainly wouldn’t argue against any of those three.

Yanks’ slugger proposes bunting to beat the shift

By all accounts, Mark Teixeira had a disappointing 2011 for the Yankees. After a stellar 2009 when he hit .292/.383/.565, Teixeira had a down year in 2010 with a .256/.365/.481 line. His slugging rebounded slightly to .494 last year but he hit .248 with a .341 OBP. At age 31, in his offensive peak, Teixeira shouldn’t see his numbers declining so drastically.

To make matters worse, Teixeira exhibited some drastic splits. Against right-handed pitchers as a left-handed batter, Teixeira hit .224/.325/.453 in 464 plate appearances, and it seemed as though he had been programmed for pop-ups. In an effort seemingly to blast home runs over the short right field wall, Teixeira got under too many pitches. Watching him hit left-handed grew painful.

Over the course of the season, Yankee fans grew frustrated with Teixeira. Why would he keep batting lefty? Why wouldn’t he do something to change his approach? Why wouldn’t he — gasp — bunt against the shift?

Now, I can’t stand this idea. Mark Teixeira was brought in to hit home runs and play a solid first base. He wasn’t brought in to bunt, and the Yanks shouldn’t be messing with his swing after a disappointing season. Still, Teixeira is seemingly open to the idea. Pete Caldera was at the Thurman Munson Awards Dinner on Tuesday night when the Yanks’ $180 million man started talking.

“I’ve been so against it my entire career, [but] I might lay down some bunts. If I can lay down a few bunts, beat the shift a little more the other way, then I’m right where I need to be,” he said. “Maybe I’ll lay down 20 bunts in spring and see what happens. If I’m 1-for-20, maybe I’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

On the one hand, I like the idea of beating the shift now and then. On the other hand, the idea of Mark Teixeira bunting fills me with sheer unavoidable dread. In theory, it seems like a decent enough idea, but this is a baseball player who admitted he hadn’t bunted since high school, 14 years ago.

Teixeira had a .239 BABIP last year. That could indicate that he was largely unlucky or that could indicate that he was simply hitting too many ground balls or pop ups. He still blasted 39 home runs, and that’s why the Yanks have him. In January, it might be fun to suggest bunting. In April, he should be up there swinging away, in search of a more productive season. The bunting can stay at home.

Open Thread: 2000 ALCS Game Four

In the comments of last night’s open thread, a few people got to talking about Game Four of the 2000 ALCS, Roger Clemens’ shining moment in pinstripes. The Yankees were up two games to one in the series (for some reason I always think they were down two games to one), and … well … you know what happened next. If you don’t, watch the video. Andy Pettitte‘s masterpiece in Game Five of the 1996 World Series is still the gold standard for me as far as great playoff performances, but Rocket’s performance against the Mariners is right up there.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. All five hockey and basketball locals are in action, so there’s plenty of ways to occupy yourself tonight. Talk about whatever you like, anything goes.

Yanks hire former Cubs GM Jim Hendry, announce various promotions

The Yankees have hired former Cubs GM Jim Hendry as a special assignment scout, the team announced. Bruce Levine says he got a multi-year contract. Hendry ran the Cubs from 2002 through the middle of last summer before being fired, and he’s the second former GM the Yankees have hired in recent years. Former Padres GM and current Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers served as a special advisor to Brian Cashman in 2010.

Towers is known for his ability to evaluate pitchers, but I honestly don’t know much about Hendry. At least two people with more access than I (Kevin Goldstein & Mike Ferrin) have applauded the move, so there’s that. I do know that Hendry was fired in late-July this past season, but stayed on another month to help the team sign its draft picks. That speaks to his character, if nothing else. Hendry is well-respected within the game and has done it all during his career, spending time as a college coach (at Creighton), a minor league coach, farm director, scouting director, assistant GM, and of course GM. I’m all in favor of adding voices to the front office, so I approve.

The Yankees also announced a series of promotions. Long-time assistant trainer Steve Donohue has been promoted to head trainer, replacing the now-retired Gene Monahan. Minor league head trainer Mark Littlefield will now be his assistant. Assistant GM Jean Afterman was given the title of senior vice president as well. Bill Eppler was promoted to assistant GM, with his former assistant Will Kuntz taking over as pro scouting director. The Eppler promotion is significant; he was the runner-up to Jerry Dipoto for the Angels GM job earlier this winter, and for the first time in a long time, there is an obvious in-house successor to Cashman.

Chris Dickerson’s Possible Role

The search for a DH is essentially in wait-and-see mode at the moment, meaning the Yankees are waiting to see who drops their prices before getting serious about a move. I still think it’ll be Johnny Damon, but you’re welcome to disagree. If it’s not Damon (or anyone else) and the Yankees wind up going into Spring Training or even the regular season without a set DH, then Chris Dickerson’s chances of making the roster are pretty good. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

Dickerson, 30 in April, is actually Eric Dickerson’s cousin for all you NFL fans out there. He fell short of qualifying as a Super Two by a matter of days this offseason, and that might have saved his 40-man roster spot. Had he qualified as a Super Two and been arbitration-eligible, there’s a chance the Yankees would have non-tendered him rather than increase his salary by 200% or so. Anyway, he’s still on the team and is actually a useful player, albeit a limited one.

First, let’s talk about what Dickerson does well, starting with his athleticism and everything that comes with it. He has a reputation of being a strong defender in all three outfield spots, though he doesn’t have enough big league time for the advanced metrics to tell us anything meaningful. You’ll have to take my word for it.. Dickerson also has some speed and has been a highly efficient base-runner at the upper levels, swiping 24 bags in 30 tries in the majors (80%) and 75 bags in 92 tries at Triple-A over the years (81.6%). Defense and base-running are classic fourth outfielder traits, though Dickerson can hit a little, especially against right-handers.

More than 80% of his career plate appearances in the show have come against righties (490 of 582), and he’s tagged them for a .270/.355/.415 batting line, which works out to a .341 wOBA. Most of his power is into the gaps (21 doubles and seven triples) rather than over the fence (nine homers), and his 11.2% walk rate is very good. In 846 Triple-A plate appearances against righties, he’s hit .286/.387/.443 with 13.9% walks. That’s over 1,300 plate appearances at the two highest levels of baseball with better than average production against pitchers of the opposite hand. Against left-handers though, it’s a different story.

Dickerson hasn’t hit southpaws at all in the bigs (.292 wOBA in 92 plate appearances), and his 247 Triple-A plate appearances against lefties have resulted in a .246/.345/.339 batting line. The OBP looks solid enough, but it’s also inflated a bit by eight hit-by-pitches, six or which came more than three years ago. He’s a platoon player, and that’s fine since he’s on the dominant side of the platoon (unlike Justin Maxwell). Dickerson does strike out quite a bit, even against righties (26.3% in the bigs, 27.2% in Triple-A), though that can be partially explained by his walk rate. When you work deep counts, you’re going to strike out, it’s inevitable. That said, a whiff rate that high is a knock against him.

Aside from striking out a bit too much and not being able to hit lefties, Dickerson’s biggest drawback doesn’t even have anything to do with him as a player. He’s out of minor league options, meaning he can’t be sent back to Triple-A without first clearing waivers. Given his defense, base-running, and ability to not embarrass himself against righties, he’s also most certain to be claimed. An NL club (the Mets!) will gobble him right up for a bench spot. Being out of options alone shouldn’t be a reason to give him a spot on the 25-man roster, but it could serve as a tiebreaker if not one stands out from the crowd.

The Yankees do have two position player roster spots to fill at the moment: a DH and one on the bench (Eric Chavez‘s spot). If they end up carrying Dickerson on the roster to open the season, I assume he would take the DH spot and the Yankees would bring in another backup infielder/utility type (like Bill Hall). That doesn’t mean he has to DH though, and frankly it would be a waste of his defense. They could use him in right field against righties and let Nick Swisher DH those days, or they could let Swisher play first to give Mark Teixeira a day at DH. Point is, he’d give them more flexibility than a traditional DH-type like Damon, Raul Ibanez, or whoever else is out there to be had.

Dickerson has what amounts to one full big league season under his belt, though his 582 plate appearances are spread across four years. He did spend all of 2009 with the Reds as a platoon bat/fourth outfielder before an ankle injury effectively ended his season in late-August, but otherwise it’s been a bunch of up-and-down stuff. He could be a Quad-A hitter than will get exposed with regular at-bats, but his defense and speed figure to keep him valuable in some capacity, even if it’s not in New York. The Yankees have to figure out what they’re going to do with Dickerson one way or the other, and it’s not out of this world insane to think he might end up on the roster come Opening Day.