The Yankees’ ever-so-slight decline against righthanded pitching

The Yankees were, once again, a superb offensive team in 2011. It can be easy to take the team’s offense for granted considering how good Yankee fans have had it over the last decade. To wit (MLB rank in parentheses):

2011 .346 (3) 113 (2)
2010 .347 (1) 112 (1)
2009 .366 (1) 117 (1)
2008 .338 (6) 104 (6)
2007 .362 (1) 120 (1)
2006 .358 (1) 115 (1)
2005 .350 (2) 116 (1)
2004 .350 (2) 113 (2)
2003 .352 (3) 115 (2)
2002 .352 (1) 116 (1)

This table is absurd. The Yankees have been the best offensive team in all of baseball in terms of wOBA in five of the past 10 seasons, and after adjusting for park and league they come out on top in six of the past 10 years. Those numbers appeared poised to rise to six and seven years, respectively, as they led the AL in both wOBA and wRC+ as late as August 23, but a quiet offensive September combined with a lightning-hot Texas offense saw the team fall to third overall by season’s end. Still, in the few years they didn’t field the very best offense in baseball, they finished in the top three every season save one — 2008, when they finished 6th.

So yes, clearly we Yankee fans have been spoiled on the offensive front. I consider myself a pretty reasonable fan regarding most aspects of the game, although given the team’s embarrassment of offensive riches the one area in which I do occasionally veer into irrational territory is when they do things like get shutdown by Jeremy Guthrie. But that’s just me.

The point of this preamble is to acknowledge that trying to poke holes in the Yankees’ robust offensive attack is nit-picking at its best, but being the offseason and all I still find it interesting to compare and contrast how the team fared in a variety of splits. In the case of facing right-handed pitching — and especially in the aftermath of the Yankees’ ALDS loss to the Tigers, in which they saw zero left-handed starters — I thought it might useful to try to find out why the 2011 Yankees posted the team’s worst numbers against RHP in the last five seasons.

(click to enlarge)

As you can see in the above chart, the 2007 and 2009 teams annihilated right-handed pitching, outhitting the league by 24% and 22%, respectively. The RHP decline began in 2010, and continued into 2011, as the team posted five-year lows in all three triple-slash categories vs. RHP as well as sOPS+.

They did continue to outhit the league, this time by 14%, so it’s not as if they were anemic vs. right-handers, but the platoon split is quite a bit more dramatic when you look at how they’ve fared against left-handers of recent vintage:

The Yankees utterly destroyed left-handed pitching in 2011, leading the Majors in both OBP and SLG vs. portsiders, and posting five-year highs in both sOPS+ and tOPS+, outhitting the league by a whopping 28%.

Culprit #1: The Offense

So why the slight drop-off against righties? Perusing the lineup’s splits, it’s not too hard to see why, as Mark Teixeira put up a .337 wOBA against northpaws (including a meager .323 OBP), Nick Swisher a .335 mark, Brett Gardner a .328 and Derek Jeter a .298 wOBA, though in fairness, Tex, Swish and Gardner were all above league average. Still, given that Tex and Swish are going to get the majority of their PAs against RHP, they have to be better than ~108 wRC+ players. Swish seems a decent-enough bet to bounce back, and he’s only a year removed from putting up a 132 wRC+ against righties.

I’m a little less sure about Tex, who’s on a three-year decline against righties, and, as the entire Yankosphere has noted in every way, shape or form, has to figure out how to fix his woes from the left side of the plate. Being that Gardner’s bat is invisible against lefties (75 wRC+), you’d ideally like him to be a bit better than average (101 wRC+) against righties, but I suppose you take what you can get from Brett. As for Derek, while it didn’t really end up negatively affecting the team — especially after his second-half renaissance — if Derek continues to struggle against righties the Yankees may actually be hurting themselves if Girardi refuses to move Jeter out of the one-hole against right-handed pitchers, as .277/.329/.338 is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want out of your leadoff hitter.

Culprit #2: Opposing Pitching

For as much as certain members of the offense are culpable, we also do need to give some credit to the pitchers the team faced. The Yankees had 4,434 plate appearances against right-handed pitching in 2011. Josh Beckett accounted for 136 of those, and threw 34 innings of 1.85 ERA ball against the Yanks. The Yankees had 150 PAs against James Shields, who pitched to a 2.33 ERA against the Yanks over 38.2 innings. Brandon Morrow faced 80 Yankees, and threw to a 1.74 ERA over 20.2 innings. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren combined for 113 PAs against the Yankees, with the former throwing 15 innings of 1.80 ball and the latter 15 2/3 innings of 2.30 ball. Heck, R.A. Dickey’s 1.64 was the lowest ERA against the Yankees (min. 2 starts) in 2011, and he accounted for 46 PAs. And of course, the enigmatic Phil Humber managed a 2.70 ERA over 13.1 innings and 50 PAs.

Those seven pitchers represented 13% of the Yankees plate appearances against right-handed pitching, and while that’s obviously only a small portion of the overall universe of right-handers faced, that these righties combined for an insane 2.06 ERA over their148.1 collective innings certainly had some impact on the team’s overall numbers against right-handers.

Fun (if highly unlikely) Solutions

Using Baseball Musings’ Lineup Analysis tool, if you plug in the 2011 team’s most-frequently-used versus-right-handers lineup with their vs. right-handed pitching OBPs and SLGs, you get a lineup averaging 5.277 runs per game. If you use the team’s most-oft-used versus-left-handers lineup, and their vs. left-handed pitching splits, you get a lineup averaging an absurd 6.131 runs per game.

Now if we do the same exercise for the 2012 team, swapping Jesus Montero in for Jorge Posada/Andruw Jones, use the Major League Equivalencies for Montero’s 2011 AAA splits (using his actual September 2011 MLB splits isn’t helpful, given how insane his numbers were), and also sort the lineups by highest OBP to lowest, we get the following:

Curtis Granderson .258 .372 .531
Alex Rodriguez .276 .361 .487
Robinson Cano .296 .347 .537
Brett Gardner .265 .345 .393
Nick Swisher .232 .343 .420
Derek Jeter .277 .329 .338
Russell Martin .248 .327 .422
Mark Teixeira .223 .323 .450
Jesus Montero .236 .285 .336
Nick Swisher .327 .442 .516
Derek Jeter .349 .423 .523
Mark Teixeira .302 .380 .587
Alex Rodriguez .277 .367 .383
Robinson Cano .314 .354 .525
Curtis Granderson .272 .347 .597
Brett Gardner .233 .344 .272
Jesus Montero .282 .339 .532
Russell Martin .211 .316 .368

That above  lineup vs. right-handers would only score 4.958 runs per game, while the “best” version of that lineup would score 5.135 runs per game. However, if you want to swap Montero’s actual AAA split against RHP (.272/.330/.399) you get 5.106 runs per game, with the “best” version — featuring Gardner leading off, followed by Grandy, Swish, Cano, A-Rod, Tex, Martin, Montero and Jeter — at 5.258 runs per game, or basically what the 2011 version did against RHP. That’s actually a pretty reasonable lineup deployment, and if you factor in presumed improved seasons from Tex and Swish I’d expect a superior 2012 team performance against righties.

While the lineup probably doesn’t need any tweaking against southpaws, just for fun, the above lineup vs. left-handers averages an insane 6.002 runs per game, and the “best” iteration comes in at 6.285 R/PG. If you swap in Montero’s actual AAA split against LHP ( .328/.392/.647), you get 6.160 runs per game, with a “best” version pounding out 6.526 runs per game, and featuring Montero at cleanup! If things go as planned, we may actually be closer to experiencing that particular bit of awesomeness than previously thought.

The Obligatory Yoenis Cespedes Post

Warning: The music in the video is totally NSFW.

If you were sleeping, you missed it. Cuban-defector Yoenis Cespedes became an overnight sensation last night, after Kevin Goldstein linked to the above video and provided a massive breakdown of the outfielder’s talent. It’s a Baseball Prospectus column, but you do not need a subscription to read it. Shortly thereafter, Jeff Passan reported that MLB and the Office of Foreign Assets Control is expected to declare Cespedes eligible for free agency in the next few weeks, adding that the Yankees are “particularly hot” for him. It’s like high school all over again.

The video is over 20 minutes long but between the opening monologue and closing credits, it’s about 15 minutes of Cespedes actually strutting his stuff. It’s more of a promo for a Michael Bay flick than a traditional scouting video, highlighting the purported 26-year-old’s insane athletic ability and the opposite field power that allowed him to hit 33 homeruns last season, a new single-season record in Cuba. We get to see him catch fly balls behind his back, run through a series of vertical jumps that put Cody Ransom to shame, roast a pig, and showcase an 80 hot dog tool as he admires his majestic homers.

Cespedes has a little bit of Sidd Finch in him at this point, that “shiny new toy” and “too good to be true” syndrome. Goldstein calls him “arguably the best all-around player to come out of Cuba in a generation … a legitimate center fielder with plus power and speed and is in his prime.” I have no reason to doubt him, but we don’t have the whole picture from where we sit. We don’t know if he can handle high-end velocity, sit back on offspeed stuff, actually take a ball (something many Cuban hitters refuse to do), so on and so forth. I don’t mean to rain on the parade, the kid is exciting, but a little dose of reality is needed here.

Passan says Cespedes is looking for a contract in line with Aroldis Chapman‘s, which means six years and about $30M. His agent, Andy Katz of the Wasserman Media Group (who also represents several other Cuban defectors, including Yunel Escobar and former Yankee Juan Miranda), has him working out for teams in the Dominican Republic. Adam Kilgore says the Nationals watched him recently while Juan C. Rodriguez reports that the Marlins are the early favorite to sign him. I suspect pretty much every team in the league will have interest in Cespedes at some point, just like the Chapman sweepstakes.

The Yankees are no stranger to the Cuban talent pool, paying millions of dollars to sign Miranda ($2M), Adrian Hernandez ($4M), Orlando Hernandez ($6.6M), and Jose Contreras ($32M) in the last 15 years alone. That doesn’t include the $54M they reportedly offered Chapman, though Brian Cashman shot that report down rather quickly. We’re going to hear a lot more of Cespedes in the coming weeks, I’m sure of it, and that’s a good thing because we really don’t know all that much about him. Money talks, and the offers he gets will tell us what teams think of him.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 7th, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


Don’t Expect A Trade For An Ace

Late last week, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports both suggested that the San Francisco Giants should consider improving their club by trading ace Tim Lincecum. Cameron roped the Yankees into his argument by suggesting a swap of Lincecum and Aubrey Huff to the Bombers for a package of Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez. He argued that the deal would clear plenty of salary, thus allowing the Giants to improve their offense with free agents as well as through contributions from Montero and Nunez, and would provide the Giants more long-term value that Lincecum’s two remaining contract years would. While the idea sounds interesting in theory and certainly caught the eyes of many Yankees fans, a look at the incentives and motivations involved when trading an ace for a package of highly regarded prospects suggests that this proposed trade, as well as others like it, is extremely unlikely.

The Incentives

One extremely important factor to look at when evaluating the trade value of an ace pitcher is service time. A pitcher that has more than 2 years of team control remaining obviously has more value than one with 2 or fewer relatively cheap seasons remaining, but quantifying that value in terms of prospects can be quite tricky. This issue makes it very difficult for teams to agree upon fair value in an ace-for-prospects trade. A general manager holding a pitcher with a lot of service time remaining is unlikely to accept fair market value for him, because there are a number of factors that incentivize him to hold onto his pitcher unless he is offered a massive package of prospects in return. For example, the ace is often the face of the franchise, and trading him can lead to disillusionment in the fanbase. Regarding a young star in particular, the fans have just enjoyed watching the pitcher bloom into ace-hood, and would react poorly to seeing him dealt. Take a look at Giants blogger Grant Brisbee’s reaction to Cameron’s suggestion:

How about instead of trading him to afford other good players, how about you just buy the other good players? In the short-term, it might put them overbudget, but when the wretched contracts come off the books in the next two years, the Giants will look for ways to spend that money. Spend it now while Lincecum’s here, and hope that they’re all still effective in the future when you have to stick to the budget.

Or don’t. Subsist on the David DeJesuses and Coco Crispix of the world because of a self-imposed budget. Whatever. But don’t trade Lincecum to chase after an extra win or two, especially if all it would take is money to get those wins. That’s an easy way to make some disillusioned fans.

The thread continues for about 1000 comments that largely agree with Grant, and is illustrative of the sort of reaction that comes with trading homegrown aces. Trading Lincecum, or pitchers like Lincecum, come with an added cost of upsetting the fanbase, which makes getting an enormous return an imperative.

Additionally, while the ace pitcher’s performance is reasonably predictable (assuming he is not an extreme injury risk), prospects are significantly more volatile. As such, there is always the risk that a number of the acquired prospects bust while the ace is winning regularly for the other club, which might look incredibly bad for the general manager as it plays out over a number of seasons. Again, this incentivizes the general manager to push for as many high-end prospects as possible in the deal, even if the prospects sought exceed “fair market value,” so as to increase to the probability that he has something of value to show from the trade.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the general manager holding a pitcher with plenty of service time remaining does not have to make a deal at all. Those pitchers are relatively cheap, and the GM can usually afford to sit back and allow the pitcher to rack up wins while he waits for an above market deal to come along. Unless the team is in serious financial trouble, they have little reason to even consider trading a young ace.

Taking all of these factors together suggests that a trade for an ace with more than two seasons of control remaining would usually require the acquiring team to “blow away” the trading club, making such deals fairly unlikely. In fact, the only two trades over the last 5 seasons that meet the criteria are those of Erik Bedard to the Mariners and Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks (the second Haren trade occurred when he had a 4.60 ERA and was not perceived as an ace on the market), and both of those trades were perceived in the baseball world as overpayments by the acquiring clubs. These trades do not happen because GM’s are incentivized to avoid them, and the only way to complete one is by emptying your farm system to allow the trading GM a perceived “win.”

Conversely, as a player drops below two seasons of contract time remaining, the incentives swing in the other direction. The trading GM can tell his fanbase that he needs to trade the pitcher before he reaches free agency, thus freeing the GM to make a deal without quite the same backlash as he would encounter under different circumstances. He is now incentivized to move his player rather than lose him for nothing, and is willing to accept a “fair” deal. However, as the player inches closer to free agency, the acquiring team has competing incentives that can often impact what sort of deal gets made.

On one hand, the GM does not want to relinquish top level prospects while only getting a few months of the star in return. There is little that looks worse for a GM than giving up a major prospect for a few months of a player, the player not carrying the club to any sort of success, and then seeing the prospect star in another city. Furthermore, the acquiring club knows that the other club is desperate to receive some sort of return from the player before he hits free agency, which further pushes them to refrain from giving up their best prospects. On the other hand, clubs that seem to be on the cusp of winning are often desperate in their own right, and that could lead to them setting aside the factors mentioned above and bringing a fair offer to the table. This sort of trade happens more frequently (I counted 8 over the last 5 seasons, and the return tends to be a mixed bag), but is fairly unpredictable and requires a very specific set of circumstances.

The Conclusion

This brings us back to Lincecum and the Yankees. Lincecum, as a pitcher who has exactly two seasons of contract time remaining, could go into either category, but probably belongs in the first because the Giants have no real desperate need to move him. As such, the only way the Yankees could acquire him is to blow the Giants away, and that is simply not how Brian Cashman operates. He would likely offer Montero and Nunez for Lincecum, but it is doubtful that he would add more top prospects, and this trade is unlikely to happen without them. Any similar trade would likely run into the same problem, as Cashman’s unwillingness to include multiple top prospects in a single trade would prevent him from constructing a “blow me away” package.

This leaves those clamoring for another top arm looking to the second category of pitcher, those aces with two or fewer seasons of contract time remaining who are on teams that are motivated to move them. The problem is that unlike in past seasons, when pitchers such as Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Cliff Lee fit into that category, there is no obvious candidate to target. As I noted above, a very specific set of circumstances is required to make such a deal, and the first of those is that such a pitcher has to actually be made available. At this point, none are on the market, and it does not seem like any are on the horizon either. The only possibility seems to be Zack Greinke, and the Yankees have already shown an unwillingness to part with a representative package for him in the past.

The Upshot

All of this is a long way of saying that it is unlikely that the Yankees make a deal for an ace this offseason. However, there are a bevy of second-tier pitchers nearing the end of their contracts, all of whom could likely be had for the right price. Such pitchers make for fantastic trade speculation, because most of the incentives discussed above diminish greatly when shifted to a lower quality pitcher. Teams are more willing to relinquish such arms, and the lower cost makes them more attractive to acquiring general managers. The Giants actually have one such pitcher, with Matt Cain being a year closer to free agency than Lincecum and not quite as talented as Timmy is. John Danks and Francisco Liriano fit into this category as well, as do a handful of other pitchers who could become available in the coming months. Over the next few weeks, RAB will profile a number of these pitchers in a series that will look at trade targets who are 1) not quite aces but are still talented pitchers and 2) are in the final year of their contracts.

Sunday Night Open Thread

Back to the grind tomorrow, eh? While you get your last bit of weekend relaxation in, you’ve got an array of things to entertain yourself with tonight. The finale of the Taiwan All-Star Series will be broadcast on MLB Network at 9pm ET, and here’s the game recap if you want to know what happened ahead of time (the video above is from the first game of the series). Spoiler: old buddy Chien-Ming Wang started for the Chinese Taipei team. Other than that, you’ve also the late football game (Ravens at Steelers, 8:20pm ET on NBC) and the Rangers in action. All you The Walking Dead fans get a new episode as well. Use this thread to talk about anything you want, it’s all fair game.

Discussion Question: After a starting pitcher or two, what is the Yankees biggest need this offseason?

Curtis returns to action in Venezuela

DWL Licey (9-6 win over Toros)
Hector Noesi, RHP: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 8-1 GB/FB – nice start, and he celebrated the only way you can celebrate: he got married!

AzFL Phoenix (9-2 loss to Scottdale) Friday’s game
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 5
Corban Joseph, 2B: 0 for 4, 2 K – down to .221/.262/.364 in 19 games out here
Chase Whitley, RHP: 1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – 18 of 30 pitches were strikes (60%)

No Yankees farmhands played in yesterday’s AzFL Rising Stars Showcase, but here’s the box score anyway.

Dominican Winter League
Abe Almonte, OF: 13 G, 3 for 16, 2 R, 1 BB, 1 SB (.188/.235/.188)
Zoilo Almonte, OF: 5 G, 2 for 12, 3 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB, 3 K (.167/.286/.167)
Melky Mesa, OF: 5 G, 3 for 8, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 K, 1 SB, 1 HBP (.375/.444/.500)
Hector Noesi, RHP: 4 G, 4 GS, 15.2 IP, 17 H, 9 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 10 K, 1 WP (2.30 ERA, 1.34 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League
Walt Ibarra, IF: 7 G, 3 for 25, 2 R, 8 K (.120/.120/.120)
Ramiro Pena, IF: 4 G, 5 for 12, 3 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 SB (.417/.500/.750)
Jorge Vazquez, 1B/DH: 22 G, 27 for 86, 13 R, 2 2B, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 11 BB, 27 K (.314/.388/.547)
Pat Venditte, SwP: 12 G, 0 GS, 13 IP, 10 R, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 1 WP (4.15 ERA, 0.85 WHIP)

Puerto Rican League
Ray Kruml, OF: 2 G, 3 for 7, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 SB (.429/.426/.571)

Venezuelan Winter League
Colin Curtis, OF: 1 G, 0 for 3, 1 K – first game of the year after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Spring Training
Jose Gil, 1B/C: 13 G, 10 for 39, 8 R, 2 2B, 1 3B, 5 RBI, 4 BB, 5 K (.256/.326/.359)
Luis Nunez, IF: 19 G, 17 for 64, 10 R, 4 2B, 2 HR, 16 RBI, 6 BB, 9 K, 5 SB, 2 CS, 1 HBP (.266/.329/.422)
Jose Pirela, SS: 20 G, 32 for 81, 7 G, 1 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR, 14 RIB, 2 BB, 6 K, 2 SB, 1 CS, 2 HBP (.395/.424/.494)
Rich Martinez, RHP: 1 G, 0 GS, 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 2 K (0.00 ER, 2.50 WHIP)
Josh Schmidt, RHP: 4 G, 4 GS, 21.2 IP, 15 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 11 BB, 24 K, 3 WP (1.66 ERA, 1.20 WHIP)

Matt Duran, Jorge Posada, Pedro Feliciano, and Kruml are among the players on Puerto Rican League rosters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will play though, and in Feliciano’s case, we’re certain he’s not going to play because he’s recovering from September shoulder surgery.

Report: Yankees in touch with Oswalt, Wilson, and others

Via Marc Carig, Brian Cashman has already had preliminary talks with the agent for Roy Oswalt and C.J. Wilson. “I’m in the process of talking with everybody,” said Cash, who indicated yesterday that he would get in touch with Wilson’s people at some point. “That’s the way the routine works.” The Yankees are reportedly concerned about the two degenerative discs in Oswalt’s back, but there’s no harm in making a phone call. Oswalt and Wilson share the same agent, Bob Garber.

In other news, Cashman confirmed that he’s already talked to Freddy Garcia’s agent about a possible return, and he plans to do the same with Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Bartolo Colon. Chavez would supposedly welcome a return to New York if he doesn’t retire.