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What Went Wrong: Teixeira’s Down Year

Over the next week or two or three, we’re going to recap the season that was by looking at what went right as well as what went wrong for the 2010 Yankees.

Teixeira's season did not start or end well (Charles Krupa/AP)

April struggles are no stranger to Mark Teixeira. In his career he has a .329 wOBA in April, easily his worst month of the year. He makes up for it in the following five months, producing at an elite level. We saw him do that in 2009, which left us with faith that he would do the same in 2010. Unfortunately, his season did not unfold in a similar manner.

For all that’s made of Teixeira’s early season woes, it is actually something that developed fairly recently. In 2004 he had a .422 wOBA in April, but then dipped in May to .323. In 2005 his .347 April wOBA surged to .416 in May and .419 in June. The next year he posted a .375 wOBA in April. Even in 2008 he had a .341 wOBA in April — not up to his normal standard, but certainly better than what we’ve seen lately.

Teixeira’s first April in New York actually didn’t go that poorly, or at least not as poorly as it felt at the time. While a .330 wOBA is low for him, it’s not terrible. His problem, unsurprisingly, was the inability to hit the ball on a line. He had a mere 11.9 percent line drive rate and a 57.6 fly ball rate. That poor contact led to a .196 BABIP. But after he got into a groove he started to hit the ball much better, raising both his line drive and ground ball rates. That led to more hits and more power.

When Tex again struggled in April 2010, it was easy to write it off as a repeat of 2009. In fact, there were indicators that he might make an even better recovery. While his numbers were worse — an abysmal .270 wOBA — his hit tendencies were a bit better. He hit 19 percent of balls in play on a line and just 39.7 percent in the air, but still had a .148 BABIP. Yet that recovery took a while. And once it did kick in, Tex hit further troubles.

May started with a bang. Teixeira went 6 for 9 with a double in the first two days. A few days later he hit three home runs in a game against Boston (though one, to be fair, was off non-pitcher Jonathan Van Every). But the slump resumed shortly thereafter. After he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in a game against the Mets reporters flooded to his locker and asked what was wrong. Tex took it as well as he possibly could have, but his struggles were undeniable. He didn’t help his case with another good, but not to Teixeira standards, month of June.

Recovery was in the cards, but it would be short lived. Teixeira went berserk in July, 33 for 96 (.344) with 20 walks (.462 OBP) and 18 extra base hits (.698 SLG). August was another quality month, .289/.355/.629 (.411 wOBA). The team streaked towards the end of the month, and it appeared as though they would soar to another AL East title. But then the injuries happened.

At the end of August he missed a day with a thumb injury; the team admitted that he wouldn’t fully heal until the off-season. Then in mid-month he fractured his little toe. That caused him to overcompensate, which led to knee inflammation. It’s unclear whether that was a big factor in his season-ending hamstring strain, but the cascade does make sense. Teixeira, for his part, produced a mere .312 wOBA in September, his power noticeably absent. In the playoffs he did hit a big home run in Game 1 of the ALDS, but after that he went just 2 for 22, both singles.

Even the best players have down years. It’s unfortunate that the Yankees experienced them from their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, but that will sometimes happen. The good news is that one down year does not render a player useless in the future. After an off-season of recovery and reflection Teixeira will be back in 2011, and I expect he’ll return to his normal production. And who knows: maybe he’ll produce in April as he did in 2004 and put together a career year.

Mailbag: Montero, Swisher, LOOGY, Blue Jays

Time for another edition of the RAB Mailbag. I’m not keeping track, but it’s pretty safe to say that there have been more questions asked about Jesus Montero than any other single player in the history of the mailbag. And it’s not a small margin either, you should see what comes in that I don’t answer. You guys freaking love talking about the kid. Can’t say I blame you.

Anyway, if you want to submit a question, you know what to do. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar, and if it’s something I can answer intelligently without a week’s worth of research, I’ll answer it. On to the questions …

Josh asks: In short, what do you think the Yanks should do with Jesus?  Moreover, what do you think they will do?

I chopped out a bunch of the question for the sake of space, but essentially Josh goes on to ask about his defense and his chances to improve and what not.

My thoughts about what to do with Montero are pretty simple. Let him come to Spring Training next year and compete for a job, and unless he absolutely destroys the Grapefruit League and makes strides on defense, send him back to Triple-A to start the season. When the time comes, in May or June or whatever, call him up and let him split catching and designated hitter duties with Jorge Posada. But he has to play every day, they can’t let him go stale by playing just two or three times a week. Let Tony Pena go to town with him defensively in the interim.

It doesn’t end there though. If a trade opportunity comes along this winter that could significantly improve the big league team, I’d have no hesitation about trading Montero. The Yankees have shown a willingness to deal him, but only for super-elite guys like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. That’s what I’m talking about, a bonafide impact player in his prime.

Now, what do I think they’ll do? I think they’ll do something pretty similar, actually. I think they’ll be more open to giving him a job right out of Spring Training than I would, but otherwise it’s the same basic idea. Either use him to land a monster piece in a trade, or have him tag team with Posada when the time is right.

Update: It appears that the Yankees plan to make Montero the most-of-the-time starter in 2011.

Ellis asks: I’m not sure any of us have fully stopped to appreciate how awesome Nick Swisher was this year. .288 with 29 HRs, highest slugging pct of his career (.511). Why isn’t Swish considered one of the best outfielders in the game?

Yeah, there’s way too many people focusing on his postseason performances (.269 wOBA in 94 plate appearances, less than a month’s worth) and not his overall body of work. His wOBA increased by two points this season even though the league average dropped by eight, and his defense remained roughly average. Not great, but certainly not a liability. He traded some walks for base hits, something you take every day of the week, and all told Swish was worth 4.1 fWAR this season, seventh best among AL outfielders.

Swisher doesn’t qualify as an elite outfielder, but he’s definitely in that next tier. If he maintains his newfound ability to hit for average (.288 AVG this year was a career high by 26 points) and gets his walk rate back up previous levels (9.1 BB% in 2010 after no worse than 13.9% from 2006-2009), Swish is probably close to a five win player. If people are going to discount that because of four bad postseason series (he was awesome in this year’s ALDS), then so be it. Their loss.

Mike asks: With Marte not being able to throw til the All Star break, we need another left hander in the bullpen. Internally there are close to no options (Kei Igawa, no thanks) so this will sound crazy but how about Jamie Moyer. At 47 he still can start let alone pitch. If he takes a significant pay cut, would he be a potential left hander?

I thought about this myself before the question was sent in, but after looking into it more deeply … hell no. Moyer doesn’t have much of a platoon split (.309 wOBA against vs. RHB, .335 vs. LHB in 2010), and over the last three years lefties have gotten to him to the tune of a .319 wOBA. That’s almost league average, which simply isn’t good enough for lefty specialist work. Boone Logan, for example, held lefties to a .242 wOBA this season. As a whole, AL lefties had a .304 wOBA against southpaws this season, and I suspect it would be even higher if we looked at just the AL East.

Even beyond the splits, Moyer doesn’t have a knockout breaking ball, instead relying more on his deadfish changeup to get chases out of the zone. He just doesn’t strike out enough batters (5.4 K/9 since 200) for high or even medium leverage work. And of course there’s the age (48 next month) and injury issues (131 days on the disabled list over the last two years). Moyer’s just not dependable enough. I’d pass, though I like the creativity.

Jerome asks: How close are the Blue Jays to being really competitive in the AL East? With the Rays losing some key pieces next year, I was hoping for 2011 to be a good old two-horse race between the Yankees and the Red Sox. But then it occurred to me: The Jays obviously have a powerful lineup, and some pretty decent young arms in Marcum, Romero, Cecil and Morrow and others. It seems like only a few tweaks would make this team a force to be reckoned with. Are they a threat in 2011?

The Jays are on the right track, but there’s still a ton of work to do. Their offense was far too reliant on the homerun last season (first in HR + 26th in OBP = just 9th in runs), and they really need Adam Lind (.309 wOBA) and Aaron Hill (.291) to rebound to their 2009 levels (.394 and .357, respectively). Jose Bautista won’t hit like he did last year again (even if something did click, that was an unsustainable pace), and the team needs steps forward from Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia, and Yunel Escobar. That’s quite a bit to ask for.

The pitching staff is good, but neither Ricky Romero or Shaun Marcum is an elite guy. Both are very good, just not fantastic. Brandon Morrow has the potential to be that guy, as does Kyle Drabek, but they’re not there yet. So yeah, Toronto’s headed in the right direction, but they’re at the very least a year away, and that’s if everything starts to go right in 2011. A 2013 breakout seems more likely.

A parable: From riches to Rags

Dave Righetti amidst his July 4, 1983 no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Once upon a time, the Yankees pulled off a coup. In November of 1978, the Yankees traded Mike Heath, Sparky Lyle, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and some cash to the Texas Rangers for Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, Greg Jemison and former first round draft pick Dave Righetti. When the Yanks signed Goose Gossage, incumbent closer Sparky Lyle wanted out, and the Bombers, as Murray Chass wrote, “salivated over Righetti.”

“All of the reports on him are super,” team president Al Rosen said. “He might be the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues. [Scout] Jerry Walker thinks we have another Guidry, but I don’t think that’s possible.”

Righetti, then just 20, made his debut as a September call-up in 1979. He started three times that fall and went 0-1 but with a 3.63 ERA. He walked 10 in 17.1 innings — six in his Major League debut — and struck out 13. But in 1980, he hit a roadblock. Expected to make the team out of Spring Training, he struggled during the Grapefruit League and spent the year at AAA Columbus. Faced with what his pitching coach called “unreasonable expectations,” Righetti struggled to find consistency and would not return to the Majors until 1981 when he stuck around for good.

On May 23, Righetti came up to take a spot in the rotation vacated by a trade. The hard-throwing lefty dazzled. He had the command that had eluded him throughout 1980, and the Yanks stuck with him. In 105 innings spanning 15 starts, he went 8-4 with a 2.05 ERA, struck out 89 with a league-best 7.6 K/9 IP and walked 38. He beat Milwaukee twice in the ALDS and Oakland once in the ALCS before succumbing to the Dodgers in the World Series.

In 1982, his control eluded him a bit. He went 11-10 with a 3.79 ERA and struck out 163 in 183 innings, but he also walked 108. It was a down year, and one he would out-pitch in 1983. That year, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game, and he did it on George Steinbrenner‘s birthday as well. He 14-8 with a 3.44 ERA in 217 innings, and the Yanks were well on their way to developing an ace.

Yet, after a 2.1-inning start against the Indians on September 18, 1983, Dave Righetti would not make another Major League start until 1992 when he was with the Giants, pitching 3000 miles away from the mercurial Yankees. The Yankees, you see, decide — or rather George Steinbrenner unilaterally decided — that, with the departure of Gossage, Dave Righetti would become the closer. And he would pitch only in the 9th inning, as the Boss made perfectly clear year after year.

“He is going to be the closer,” Steinbrenner said in a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile on Rags. “He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I’m the only one who knows how to use him. I’ve told my manager and coaches, ‘If you reach for him too early, you’ll be reaching for the next train home.'”

Six years before that proclamation though, the drama played out in the pages of the newspaper. Righetti found out that he would be closing when his brother read a report in the paper, and the Yanks’ explanation for it was quixotic at best. As Steve Aschburner wrote:

How smart is [Steinbrenner]? According to him, Righetti is a natural to replace Gossage. He breaks out the numbers: In the first two innings, Righetti had a 1.90 earned-run average. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than 4-1. Opponents batted just .190 in those innings. By contrast, Righetti’s ERA after his first two innings jumped to 4.06, his strikeout-walk ratio dropped to 2-1 and opponents averaged .255. If Righetti could do so well in the first two innings, Steinbrenner reasoned, he could do it in the last two.

And so a closer was born. Instead of finding another reliever to take over the ninth inning spot, George went with the hard-throwing left-hander who had enjoyed success as a closer. It was a typical George Steinbrenner Mid-1980s move.

Over the next few years, the Yankees would toy with the idea of moving Righetti back into the rotation. The team could never quite find the starting pitcher they needed to overcome years of missing the playoffs, but the Boss always wanted to keep Righetti in that ever-important closer role. He never wanted to be a reliever. “David didn’t want to become a reliever. He was worried he would fail and be out of baseball. He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money,” Righetti confidant Bill Goodstein said to Sports Illustrated.

Yet, as 210 other players wore pinstripes throughout his tenure as a Yankee reliever, Righetti bore the brunt of Spring Training rumors. Will he or won’t he start? “People always ask me how I can keep so quiet,” Righetti said. “Well, sooner or later, you cause yourself more problems by talking.”

But by 1990, he was clearly fed up with it, and after the season, he jumped to the Giants as a free agent. A Yankee fan by birth, he left behind the pinstripes. “I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They’ve never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I’ve never complained, they think I don’t stand up for myself. They think I’m a patsy,” he said a few months before leaving.

Righetti’s Yanks finished second twice as he closed, but then they slipped down in the standings. By 1990, they were a seventh place team with their homegrown closer and erstwhile starter logging just 53 innings on a staff that put together a league-worst 4.21 ERA.

This year, Righetti triumphed. He won the World Series as the pitching coach of the Giants, and he captured the ring that had eluded him while a member of the Yankees. He did so with four homegrown starters pitching on a staff modeled after Guidry. They lead the NL in ERA and strike outs and allowed the second-most walks in the NL. The Yankees of the 1980s meanwhile always had to grapple with a harsh reality: Perhaps moving a hard-throwing left-handed starter to the bullpen to fill a role that didn’t need filling by such a promising young arm was not the best move for a franchise always searching for homegrown pitching.

Open Thread: One Year Ago Today

(AP Photo)

That was a good day, wasn’t it? If you want to re-live the magic, here’s our World Champions thread. If you want to go back even further, here’s the Game Thread. We needed seven freakin’ spillovers that night. To be quite honest I don’t remember much of the game itself. I certainly remember Hideki Matsui‘s two-run homer to open the scoring, Damaso Marte striking out Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on six total pitches, and of course the final out. I remember some other stuff (Matsui’s double to right-center, Howard’s homer), but that’s what jumps to mind immediately. What about you?

Once you’re done reminiscing, use this as your open thread. The Rangers, Islanders, and Knicks are all playing, so at list there’s some decent local sports action on the tube. Talk about whatever, just be cool.

Says Joe: You all have an assignment for the open thread. You are to watch this video:

And then tell us which commenter Carl most resembles.

How big a role will income tax play in Cliff Lee’s decision?

We’ve heard about this one before, and we’ll surely hear plenty about it in the next month-plus. Residents of Texas pay no income tax to the state. The Rangers, therefore, have a competitive advantage. They can offer a player slightly less money than a rival and still have a better overall offer, since the player will not have to deduct those taxes from his paycheck. CNBC’s Darren Rovell breaks down the issue for what certainly won’t be the last time.

Normally this is where I’d blockquote a relevant portion of text and then elaborate, but I’m not sure that’s appropriate here. Rovell gets something wrong early in the article: “So assuming Lee moves residency from Arkansas, which has a top individaul tax rate of seven percent, to somewhere in Texas, he’d save a significant amount of money over living in New York.” The problem with that statement is that baseball players are not taxed based on residency. They are taxed on the location at which they earned their salaries. That doesn’t just include the home state, but all the states they visit throughout the season. It does change the situation a little bit.

Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times covered the issue last spring in regards to then-Angels pitcher Darren Oliver.

If opening day is the best day of the year for professional athletes, then April 15 — tax day — is probably the worst. Especially now that 20 of the 24 states with franchises in at least one of the four major pro leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball — have laws that require visiting athletes to pay state income tax for each game they play there.

Lee would still pay a lower state income tax as a Texas Ranger, but it’s not to the level Rovells suggests, which is $15.13 million over a five-year span. That changes the result of Rovell’s analysis, which has the Rangers needing to offer $107.2 million against a New York offer of $120 million.

I’m also surprised that Rovell didn’t bring up the endorsement difference. I’m not sure what that difference would be, but I would assume that there are more, and more lucrative, endorsement opportunities in New York. As we saw with Sabathia and Subway, there doesn’t seem to be a waiting period. If a name as big as Lee signs in New York, he’ll probably make endorsement dollars fairly quickly. Endorsements, however, are where residency comes into play. Those are taxed based on your state of residence. But there are a number of states that don’t require residents to pay income tax — including Florida, where Derek Jeter has established residency.

During the negotiations, though, this matter probably won’t matter much. A 2007 study notes that, “Unlike the pre-tax salaries reported in the media, MLB players compare after-tax salaries when considering offers, according to the authors.” In other words, this issue will be out in the open as Lee negotiates with potential suitors. It won’t be something that the Yankees leave out or anything like that.

Given all that we know and have read about this situation, it doesn’t appear as though there is an enormous advantage to living in tax-free Texas. While Lee would pay no state taxes for 81 games, he’d still pay other states’ income taxes for road games. The added endorsement opportunities in New York, then, could cover some, if not all, of the difference. And whatever is not covered will be by the New York checkbook.

I wouldn’t give this issue much more thought going forward.

Baseball America’s Top Ten Yankee Prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The gang at Baseball America is currently in the process of posting their individual top ten prospects lists for each team, and so far they’ve covered the Orioles and Red Sox. The Yankees’ list is scheduled to go live on their website next Wednesday (it was supposed to be this Friday, but they re-arranged the schedule), but the print edition of the magazine already contains the list. I got my hands on it with some help from reader Avi, so here it is with a tiny little snippet from the scouting report…

  1. Jesus Montero, C: “may be the best all-around hitter in the minors, capable of hitting .300 with 30-plus homers annually … best-case scenario is that he develops into the second coming of Mike Piazza”
  2. Gary Sanchez, C: “has a higher ceiling than anyone in the organization, including Jesus Montero”
  3. Dellin Betances, RHP: “If Betances can build on the progress he made last season, he’ll be a frontline starter for New York … he still could wind up in the mix to eventually replace Mariano Rivera
  4. Manny Banuelos, LHP: “has the poise to move quickly, and now he has frontline stuff”
  5. Andrew Brackman, RHP: “For some scouts, Brackman’s whole is less than the sum of his parts, earning comparisons to A.J. Burnett and Kyle Farnsworth”
  6. Austin Romine, C: “Montero has more star potential with his bat, Romine is a more well-rounded player … may become trade bait”
  7. Hector Noesi, RHP: “lacks the breaking ball to pitch near the front of a rotation, but his fastball command should allow him to be a No. 4 or 5 starter”
  8. Eduardo Nunez, SS: “Yankees see him in the Chone Figgins mold as a utility player”
  9. Slade Heathcott, CF: “physically resembles Brett Gardner and has some similarities to New York’s left fielder, but Heathcott should develop  more power and has a stronger arm”
  10. Brandon Laird, 3B: “profiles as a third baseman in the Kevin Kouzmanoff mode … could become trade fodder”

Montero’s a no-brainer at the top spot, and really the next four guys are interchangeable in my eyes. You could have pulled their names out of a hat and ranked them two through four that way and I wouldn’t have made much of an argument. At that point you’re splitting hairs and going by personal preference, and I prefer the three Double-A arms to the kid that has yet to appear in a full season league. That’s just me though.

Romine’s a natural fit at six, and after that you could go in any number of directions. I prefer Heathcott in that spot because of the upside, but there’s nothing wrong with Noesi, who’s a surefire big leaguer in some capacity. You all know how I feel about Nunez, so I don’t think I need to comment on him. Laird had a huge year and made some improvements defensively, so it’s not a surprise to see him jump into the top ten.

Just think, the Yanks have three pitchers in Adam Warren (2.66 FIP), David Phelps (2.65), and Ivan Nova (3.54 in Triple-A) who had great years and are knocking on the door of the big leagues, but couldn’t even crack their top ten. Then there’s Graham Stoneburner (2.73 FIP) and J.R. Murphy (.320 wOBA in Low-A as a 19 year old). The farm system is in very good shape these days;  the Yanks plenty of depth to trade from and use to plug holes at the big league level.