Opening Day rotation order taking shape

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

There are few things in baseball more talked about and less important than the order of the Opening Day rotation. Everyone wants to know who the number two starter behind CC Sabathia will be, but ultimately it doesn’t matter in April. It matters in October. Seniority and salaries and stuff like that has more to do with determining the Opening Day rotation order than expected production, which is why A.J. Burnett got the ball in the second game of 2011.

We all know Sabathia is going to start Opening Day for the fourth time as a Yankee and the ninth time overall in 2012, but that all-important number two starter spot is still a mystery. It could be Ivan Nova, who was the number two come playoff time last season. It could also be new import Michael Pineda, who the Yankees have touted as a future ace assuming he figures out a usable changeup. Hiroki Kuroda has a strong case as well as a veteran arm coming off four very good seasons with the Dodgers. He was their Opening Day starter in 2009, and his $10M price tag doesn’t hurt his chances. Heck, you can even make an argument for Freddy Garcia. He pitched well last year, gives some Grade-A veteran presents, and has a trio of Opening Day starts to his credit (Mariners, 2001-2003).

Based on the current Spring Training rotation order, it looks as though Kuroda will get the ball after Sabathia to open the season while Nova following as the number three. CC pitches today against the Pirates, Kuroda tomorrow against the Rays, and then Nova on Thursday against the Blue Jays. According to Chad Jennings, Joe Girardi said the order will remain the same the next time through the rotation as well, taking us into mid-March. At that point the starters will have increased their workload to four innings or so, making it a bit more difficult to rearrange things just for the heck of it. Pineda and either Garcia or Phil Hughes will follow as the four and five in some order.

The Yankees start the season with three games in Tampa and three games in Baltimore before their first scheduled day off, so they will need all five starters right out of the chute. If they really want to get cute, they can use a six-man rotation the first time through the rotation, allowing Sabathia to start the home opener after that first off-day. I don’t like it and really hope they don’t do it, but the Yankees did employ a six-man rotation for way too long last season. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if they did it again. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

Anyway, it appears as though Kuroda and Nova will follow Sabathia in the rotation to open the season. I had a feeling things would line up this way after the Pineda and Kuroda pickups; the Yankees have talked about easing the former into things, and frankly I think the latter is going to be the club’s best pitcher not named Sabathia in 2012. Like I said though, the order of the rotation on Opening Day means very little. Weather and off days and injuries will change things drastically during the course of the 162-game schedule, but come late-September and early-October, that’s when this stuff will really start to matter.

2012 Season Preview: Regression Candidates

He smiled! (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Yesterday we took at look some Yankees who are candidates to see their performances take a step back in 2012, and now it’s time to flip the coin and look at some players with the potential to improve. That’s the neat thing about the term “regress,” it can work both ways even though it’s somehow developed this negative connotation. The Yankees had a few players under-perform last year, some with good reason and others just because.

Boone Logan
On the surface, Logan had some killer stats last season. He struck out 9.94 batters per nine (24.9 K%) while walking 2.81 per nine (7.0 BB%) with a decent 42.4 GB%. Of course lefty specialists usually aren’t judged by their overall numbers, they’re on the roster to get left-handed batters out. That was a problem for Logan last year, who allowed same-side hitters to tag him for a .260/.328/.462 batting line in 118 plate appearances. He gave up three times as many extra-base hits to lefties as David Robertson despite facing 24 fewer hitters.

Logan’s strikeout (11.20 K/9 and 28.8 K%) and walk (2.30 BB/9 and 5.9 BB%) rates against southpaws were insanely good, but his problem was the long ball. His 40.6 GB% resulted in a 13.3% HR/FB ratio, though Hit Tracker says that three of the four homers he surrendered to lefties were Just Enoughs. That means they cleared the fence by less than ten vertical feet or landed less than one fence height beyond the wall. Two of the four homers would have remained in play in the other 29 parks according to their data. Just Enoughs are the most volatile type of homer given their definition, as they’re very prone to the weather and wind and ballpark. The homer issue may not be much of one, so if Boone can maintain those strikeout and walk rates, he should do just fine against left-handed batters going forward.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
We all know the story by now. Martin started last season ridiculously hot — .270/.367/.511 in his first 158 PA — before dragging himself across the finish line — .221/.303/.357 in his final 318 PA. The end result was a .237/.324/.408 batting line in 476 PA, or a .325 wOBA and a perfectly league average 100 wRC+. The average catcher produced a .309 wOBA and a 91 wRC+ last season, so Martin was an above average hitter relative to his position.

Like most players, Russ was a more productive hitter at Yankee Stadium (.345 wOBA and 114 wRC+) than on the road (.307 and 88). The easy answer is the short porch and more homers, but that’s not the case. Martin went deep eight times with a .175 ISO and a 15.4% HR/FB ratio at home last year, but clubbed ten homers with a .166 ISO and a 16.4% HR/FB ratio away from the Bronx. His walk and strikeout rates were essentially identical both home and away as was his batted ball profile, but his road batting average (.217 with a .220 BABIP) paled in comparison to his home rate (.260 and .288).

Martin is likely to see his home performance suffer a bit next year and his road performance improve a bit. In terms of process stats — the strikeouts, walks, batted ball types — he was the same hitter regardless of venue in 2011, he just got different results. Given the advantages of Yankee Stadium, the short porch and the fact that pretty much every hitter performs better at home, his home performance may not decline as much as his road performance improves. Martin will never be the guy he was in 2007 again, but a little more love on the road will boost his overall numbers and value to the team. Some more rest will only help further.

Nick Swisher
Swisher was basically the anti-Martin last year. He was dreadful to start the season — .206/.321/.288 in his first 193 PA — but a monster thereafter — .284/.397/.519 in his final 442 PA. Overall, Swisher finished with a .260/.374/.449 batting line (.358 wOBA and 122 wRC+), his worst performance as a Yankee and the second worst season full season of his career. His 23 homers were his fewest in five years thanks to the early-season slump.

Although he’ll never be a high-contact guy, Swisher has slightly improved his strikeout rate as his career has progressed while maintaining his high walk rate. He’ll never hit for a high average but that’s fine, he’s asked to provide power and patience. That power was missing early in the season, though his 14.3% HR/FB ratio in 2011 was right in line with his career average (14.9%). He just didn’t hit as many fly balls has he had in the past…

Green is GB, blue is FB, red is LD. (via FanGraphs)

Swisher’s performance against right-handed pitchers last year was by far his worst as a Yankee, going from .375+ wOBAs to just .335. Again, it had to do with the lack of fly balls, a 41.4 GB% compared to 35.9% from 2004-2010. He’s still relatively young (turned 31 in November) and healthy, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect the fly balls to return in 2012. It’s not like we’re asking an injury-prone guy in his late-30’s to perform miracles here. More fly balls will lead to more homers, hopefully getting Swish back around 28-30 and making him more dangerous against northpaws.

Alex Rodriguez
It’s easy to forget just how stellar A-Rod was before his knee started giving him problems. He carried a .301/.377/.509 batting line (in 318 PA) into July before getting hurt, which is still excellent even if it’s not on par with his lofty standards. Alex was never the same after that (.191/.345/.353 in his final 84 PA), and the story is the same heading into 2012. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I think everyone knows the deal. If healthy, A-Rod will produce big numbers even if they aren’t quite as big as they used to be. Whether or not he can actually stay on the field for 140 games or so is a total mystery, experimental knee procedures and new training methods be damned.

Rafael Soriano
Baseball’s highest paid setup man didn’t have a great first year in pinstripes, particularly early on. Most realized that his fly ball ways (just 35.2 GB% in 2011 and 31.4% career) were a bad fit for Yankee Stadium, so the big jump in homer rate (0.92 HR/9 and 8.3% HR/FB were nearly double his 2010 totals) wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was his walk rate, which jumped from 2.69 BB/9 and 7.5 BB% coming into the season to 4.12 and 10.0 in 2011, respectively.

Most of the walk damage came before Soriano hit the DL with an elbow problem. That makes sense, since elbow injuries have historically resulted in a loss of control while shoulder injuries have resulted in loss of velocity. Soriano walked 11 of 69 batters (15.9%) before hitting the DL but only seven of 95 batters (7.4%) after getting healthy. His strikeout (14.5 K% per-injury but 27.4 K% after) rate improved as well. Unfortunately, health is a going to remain a question going forward given his career-long battle with his elbow, but a healthy Soriano should be a very good reliever for the Yankees.

Nothing to complain about from the right side. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira’s performance problems are all self-inflicted. He readily admits that he’s changed his left-handed swing over the last three years in an effort to take advantage of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium, and says he’s working hard to correct the problem. He’s even talked about laying down bunts to beat the shift, which might be going a little too far. That’s another argument for another time.

With his massive power (.246 ISO and 17.1% HR/FB in 2011 vs. .250 ISO and 18.2% career), strong walk rate (11.1 BB% in 2011 vs. 11.5% career), relatively low strikeout rate (16.1 K% in 2011 vs. 17.2% career), and right-handed production (.410 wOBA vs. LHP in 2011 vs. .400 career) still intact, it’s all about Teixeira getting that batting average as a left-handed hitter (.224 in 2011) back up to his career norm (.277 coming into 2011). If he does that, his overall batting average (.248 in 2011) and OBP (.341) will also return to their previous levels (.286 and .377 coming into 2011, respectively).

Fixing the problem is much easier said than done. The uppercut Teixeira has added to his swing has resulted in a ton of fly balls (48.3% in each of the last two years) against righties, and fly balls will do a number on the ol’ BABIP (just .222 last year) since they’re generally easy to field. Eliminating the uppercut and returning to the level, all-fields approach that made him one of the game’s very best hitters will be tough because that’s a lot of muscle memory to undo. It won’t happen overnight, but it can be done. It will cost Teixeira some homers, but he’s a good enough hitter that he’ll be able to provide average, on-base skills, and 30+ homers at the same time. It doesn’t have to be one of the other.

Yankee designated hitter production of recent vintage, and a look at 2012

One of the bitterest pills to swallow in the aftermath of the Michael PinedaJesus Montero trade was the fact that the Yankees were removing what many expected to be a substantial cog in the offensive machine, not only in 2012 but for years to come. Prior to being traded, Montero’s average projected wOBA for 2012 was .360 (his revised projections as a Mariner average out to a .347 wOBA, or .272/.334/.461), which was the fifth-best projected wOBA of the projected starting Yankee nine.

Interestingly, for all of Brian Cashman‘s skill at building an incredibly talented roster on the offensive side of the equation, getting robust production out of the DH slot in the lineup has never really seemed to be a primary interest. To wit (as always, click to embiggen):

Of the 14 Yankee teams Cash has presided over, they have received below-league average production (sOPS+) out of the DH slot five times. That may not seem like a lot, but it is a tad eyebrow-raising given how robust the Yankee offense has been with Cash at the helm. Only four times has the team received DH production 10% better than league average in the last 14 seasons, which seems like a fairly large waste of resources when considering we’re talking about a lineup slot solely extant to produce offense.

Cashman’s high-water mark DH season was 2009, the year in which Hideki Matsui had primary designated hitter duties and responded with a DH campaign 19% better than the league. The Yankees also got a surprising amount of production out of the 2008 DH, which was mostly filled by Jason Giambi, along with Matsui and Johnny Damon. The only other really standout year for DH production above was 1998, which saw Darryl Strawberry, Rock Raines and Chili Davis collaborate on a .276/.378/.493 line.

That .360 projected wOBA for a Montero as a Yankee worked out to roughly a .270/.360/.470 triple slash, mighty fine production out of a 21-year-old, not to mention a line that would’ve been among the better performances the Yankees received from the DH during the last 14 seasons. However, for all the hullabaloo about the Yankees wanting to fill Montero’s vacated production, it appears they’ll have a pretty good shot at doing just that with the platoon of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez.

In 2011, Andruw Jones put up the following slash against LHP  in 146 PAs: .286/.384/.540, .400 wOBA.
In 2011, Raul Ibanez put up the following slash against RHP in 437 PAs: .256/.307/.440, .322 wOBA.

If you average those lines (and obviously this is exceptionally rough math, as the PAs are not even close to comparable), you get a .271/.346/.490, .361 wOBA hitter. Docking for the fact that PAs against RHP are roughly double those against LHP and you’re probably close to a .340 wOBA hitter, which is right around the average of SG’s 2012 CAIRO-projected platoon splits for Jones (.337 vs. LHP) and Ibanez (.349 vs. RHP).

While Jones probably won’t produce a .400 wOBA against LHP again, on the flip side Ibanez seems like a fairly reasonable bet to outdo a .322 wOBA against RHP with 81 games at Yankee Stadium, and taken together I don’t think it’s terribly unrealistic to expect the duo to combine for somewhere in the neighborhood of a .350 wOBA. While that may not quite be Jesus Montero territory, it should be enough for the Yankee offense to not miss much of a beat, especially when considering the ~.309 wOBA received from Jorge Posada in the majority of DH plate appearances in 2011.

Open Thread: 3/5 Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The dream of an undefeated season is over. The Yankees lost their first game of the spring today, falling to the Phillies 9-3. Michael Pineda started and threw two scoreless innings (video), allowing a ten-hop single back up the middle to the first batter before retiring the next six. He struck out two: Shane Victorino on a changeup in the dirt and Jim Thome on a fastball up high. Afterwards, Pineda told Jack Curry that he threw about five changeups, including the one whiff from Victorino. Marc Carig spoke to a scout who said he was 89-92 with a flat slider. Typical first outing of camp.

David Robertson allowed a run in his inning, but things really got out of hand in the sixth. Adam Miller allowed five runs on six baserunners with his only out coming on a caught stealing. Juan Cedeno (three runs in one inning) did him no favors by allowing all three inherited runs to score. Gus Molina was the offensive star by going 2-for-2 and Zoilo Almonte continued his perfect spring by going 1-for-1. He’s now 5-for-5 across three games. Brett Gardner hit an inside-the-park homer that was really a fly ball followed by a comedy of errors. Here’s the box score, and here’s the rest from Tampa…

Here is your open thread for the night. None of the basketball or hockey locals are in action, but the Mets are playing (on SNY) and MLB Network will be carrying various games all night. Talk about whatever you like here, enjoy.

Freddy down with bullpen duty

Via George King, Freddy Garcia is cool with pitching out of the bullpen if that’s what the team asks him to do. “I have never pitched in the bullpen, but I feel fine [with] whatever happens,” said Freddy yesterday. “I will be ready for anything. It’s the manager’s decision and I have to do my job and go from there.”

Garcia did say that he would prefer to remain in the rotation, but that’s to be expected. He really doesn’t have a choice though, since he’s under contract and signed up for whatever the team wants him to do. The competition for the fifth starter’s job is apparently rigged in favor of Phil Hughes, but I’m sure Freddy will make some starts this year. It’s inevitable. Glad to see he’s okay with bullpen duty though, veterans accepting new roles isn’t always a given.

Nunez leaves game with right hand contusion

5:08pm: X-rays were negative, the team announced. Just a bruise and Nunez will get a few days off.

2:47pm: Eduardo Nunez left this afternoon’s game with a right hand contusion after getting hit by a pitch in the fifth inning. He was lifted for pinch-runner Ramiro Pena right away. He is going to go for precautionary x-rays. Sounds like it’s just a bruise, but we’ll let you know if it’s anything more serious.

The perils of being a prospect in New York

Michael Pineda might not be a prospect, but that doesn’t stop people from treating him like one. In a way that’s unfair, since he did pitch a full major league season in 2011, and put up good numbers in the campaign. But in another way it is fair, since he still has plenty to prove. Any pitcher at his age and experience does. Of course, having something to prove in Seattle is quite different than having something to prove in New York. The media, unsurprisingly, is already on top of Pineda.

This morning a couple if infamous New York media scribes published articles on Pineda. Unsurprisingly, they focused on the negative. It’s not that these cases are without merit; again, Pineda is a work in progress. The problem is that they homed in on the negative while ignoring the adjacent positives.

On Pineda’s weight

Michael Pineda is a big dude. He stands at six feet and seven inches tall (or six-foot-eight, depending on who’s publishing the information). At that size, it’s hard to determine a normal weight. There are so many variables in body composition that it’s tough to determine if he’s carrying too much fat, or if he’s just a bulky dude. Still, playing weight is a hot-button issue in the media. Pineda did not help his case by showing up to camp at 280 pounds and saying that he’d like to be at 270. To the media, that translates to being 10 pounds overweight.

It’s hard to determine Pineda’s ideal weight. Maybe it really is 280. Maybe it’s 270, which is what he says he weighed at the end of 2011. Maybe it’s even lower than that. To criticize him for being 280 when he says he wants to be 270, then, is a bit much. This isn’t like you or me being 10 pounds overweight. This is a six-foot-seven athlete coming in 10 pounds heavier than he was at the end of last season. It’s less than 4 percent of his overall bodyweight. To conclude from these 10 pounds that he has exercise or nutrition problems is a blind and poor judgment.

Might he have these problems? Absolutely. But the 10 pound weight gain is not necessarily a signal of that. He’s still just 23, and still has to learn how to operate inside an enormous frame. It’s not easy. Even so, Pineda has already addressed the issue. As Jack Curry reported after Pineda’s performance today: “Pineda said he has lost 7 or 8 pounds. Wants to lose a few more.” So there you go. He’s been in camp for three weeks and has already dropped more than half of his goal weight. This should not be an issue.

On Pineda’s changeup

Immediately after the Yankees acquired Pineda, they addressed his repertoire. Brian Cashman said that if Pineda doesn’t develop a changeup and become an ace, he’ll have made a mistake in trading Jesus Montero for him. It seems that Pineda’s name can’t come up now without a reference to his changeup.

There is no doubt that eventually developing a changeup is important. That probably won’t come this year. The changeup can be a difficult pitch to master. It took CC Sabathia years and years before he successfully implemented one. There is a chance that Pineda could follow a similar development path. He could still get by with the fastball and slider while working the changeup in more regularly. But this is not an issue that will be decided this year.

Still, from all accounts Pineda has put a lot of work into his changeup this spring. That’s something he can afford, thanks to his already electric fastball and slider offerings.

On the Montero comparisons

Another constant when writing about Pineda: mentioning that the Yankees took a big risk in trading Montero for him. This is undoubtedly true. Montero is a hugely hyped prospect who could hit in the middle of the order. Yet the NY media didn’t quite see it that way previously. While Montero was with the team he came under fire for attitude issues. Writers constantly questioned his defensive ability. He was treated, in other words, as a prospect.

But now that the Yankees traded him he’s apparently the second coming of Babe Ruth. It’s quite unsettling to see the turnaround on him. Would the writers have been this lavish in their praise if Montero were still with the Yankees? (Somehow I doubt it.)

There is no denying that Michael Pineda has a lot of work to do. He does need to develop a changeup eventually. He does need to maintain a healthy weight. Unfortunately for us, these are not one-time issues. They both take time. He’ll have to work constantly to keep himself in shape, and he’ll have to work even harder on getting a feel for his changeup. There is no quick fix. Does this mean that we’ll hear about the changeup and the weight with every poor start? Probably. Just keep that in mind, though, when you run across an article or column critical of him. While the criticism is probably valid in some ways, there are equally positive points right next door.