When the Babe was a postseason failure

As the Yankees opened up their new stadium in 1923, all eyes were on the Babe.

For Babe Ruth, 1922 was decidedly not a banner year. Despite hitting .315 with a .434 on-base percentage and an AL-leading .672 slugging, the Babe had a down year. With an OPS+ of 182, it was, in fact, the only year between 1919 and 1924 that Ruth’s mark dipped below 219. To make matters worse, Ruth matched that down year with an injury-plagued season and a suspension from Commissioner Kennsaw Mountain Landis due to an off-season barnstorming trip that wasn’t approved by Major League Baseball. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

For his Yankees, 1922 was supposed to be a year of redemption. After losing to the Giants in the 1921 World Series, the 1922 Yanks went 94-60 as they beat out the St. Louis Browns to reach the World Series. For Ruth, the Fall Classic was a disaster. The Giants swept the Yankees, and the high-paid Ruth was the goat. He went just 2 for 17 with one extra-base hit and one run batted in. The press coverage after the world’s series, as it was then called, was brutal.

On October 10, 1922, two days after the end of the Series, The Times eviscerated Ruth:

Opinion was almost unanimous that Ruth has reached the lowest ebb of his career. His failing box office value makes the fat three-year contract which the Yanks gave him last Spring look like a dubious bit of business. The Babe’s failure in the world’s series, it was predicated, will work heavily against him next year.

As Associated Press report that appeared throughout the country predicted Ruth’s departure from the Bronx via a trade. “He was almost a total failure in the world’s series,” the nation learned.

Other sources, as Robert Weintraub notes in his recent book The House That Ruth Built, were equally as brutal. One writer from Baseball Magazine claimed that it was “almost certain Ruth can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of the fans.” Ruth was well on his way toward becoming “a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.” Tough words for a tough time.

I recently read Weintraub’s book. It’s on the season that followed Babe’s failures as the Yankees opened an expansive and expensive new ballpark in the Bronx and Ruth tried to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans. (Spoiler Alert: He does, and the Yanks win the 1923 World Series.) For me, though, the book was more of an eye-opener about popular attitudes toward Ruth than it was on the history of Yankee Stadium. Like many fans of the Bombers, I know about the battles between the Giants and Yankees over the Polo Grounds and the history behind the now-demolished old stadium.

Ruth, though, remains today even a mystery. With popular biographies and Hollywood movies, his shadow stretches over the game, and his accomplishments are tremendous. At a time when few players hit home runs, he launched 714 of them. With both his pitching arm and prodigious power, he captured seven World Series rings and reached the Fall Classic 10 times. He forever revolutionized the game.

Yet, the Babe was a controversial figure. He was a philanderer in an age when the press was far more forgiving; he drank a lot; he ate a lot. But to many traditionalists, Ruth was ruining the game. With Ruth’s home runs, the game became a brutalist display of power. Forget the finesse of a slap hitter, the speedy guy who could bunt for a base hit and create a run or the strategies behind scratching across just enough to subdue your opponent. In 1914, when Ruth made his debut, no team in the AL had more than 29 home runs. In 1920, he hit 54 by himself. It’s hard to comprehend just great change.

While reading Weintraub’s book this fall a few weeks after the Yanks’ season ended unceremoniously by the upstart Detroit Tigers, I couldn’t help but think of Alex Rodriguez. The Yanks’ superstar, aging and perhaps faded, was pilloried by the press for striking out in two key situations in Game 5 of the ALDS, and although many Yanks failed to hit during the series, A-Rod drew the brunt of the criticism. He who makes the make money, stands the tallest, is the biggest star attracts the harshest critics.

After the ALDS, the 2011 equivalent of the 1922 baseball press called A-Rod a liability to the Yanks. Has he reached the lowest ebb of his career? Will his failures work against him in the 2012 season? Babe had another 517 home runs left in him, but he was also, in 1922, eight years younger than A-Rod was in 2011.

The baseball press and the game’s fans have always been fickle. What have you done for me lately is our motto, and nothing about it is a new phenomenon. From the Babe to A-Rod with countless others in between, the failures we remember are always only the most recent ones until that big moment — for the Babe, it was his 1923 campaign with an MVP and a ring — makes us forget. And that’s the rebirth of baseball for you. Ain’t it grand?

Report: Yankees held private workout for Yoenis Cespedes

Update (Nov, 8th): Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees had some serious heat watching Cespedes in the Dominican Republic, including pro scouting director Billy Eppler, VP of baseball ops Mark Newman, special assistant Gordon Blakely, and scouts Gary Denbo and Donny Rowand. That doesn’t strike me as a routine scouting trip.

Original Post (Nov. 7th): Earlier today the world was introduced to Yoenis Cespedes, the next big thing out of Cuba who will be so over-hyped that it’ll be nearly impossible for him to meet expectations. Tonight, Baseball America’s Ben Badler reports that the Yankees held a private workout for the supposed 26-year-old outfielder on Monday, a clear indication that they have at least some interest in signing him. As far as we know, Cespedes has yet to declared a free agent by MLB, but that is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks.

Open Thread: Jorge Posada

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

I’m going to remember Jorge Posada for a lot of things. He battled through slump after slump in 2011, but he was an MVP caliber hitter in 2000, 2003, and 2007, and was no worse than above-average pretty much every other season of his career. Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have yet to contact Jorge yet this offseason, but I have to believe they’ll touch base at some point. Even if the team plans to turn the page and move on, which I assume they will, I can’t imagine they’ll just give Jorge the cold shoulder. Posada is an all-time great Yankee, a borderline Hall of Famer in my book, but all good things must come to an end. I just hope it isn’t an ugly divorce, not that I expect it will be.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils are the only local hockey team in action, so you’re pretty much stuck finding a way to entertain yourself. Talk about whatever you want here, go nuts.

Today In Pitching Rumors: Buehrle & Sanchez

Via Ken Rosenthal and Mark Feinsand, the Yankees are among a number of teams interested in free agent southpaw Mark Buehrle. Brian Cashman has at least put a call into Buehrle’s agent, just like he as with Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson, and Roy Oswalt, but the GM confirmed that no offers have been made to anyone yet. The lefty’s value in his durability, we’re talking eleven straight years of 30+ starts and 200+ innings. The Yankees can use some reliability, but these soft-tossing, no strikeout guys scare the crap out of me.

In other news, Jon Heyman says the Yankees were disappointed to see Jonathan Sanchez get trading to the Royals simply because they felt they had more to offer in a trade. I’m not sure why the Yankees would be interested in Sanchez … I mean yeah he strikes out a ton of guys, but he also walks more batters than anyone else, gives up a ton of fly balls, and is in the middle of a three-year velocity decline. All that for the low, low price of about $6M next season. Consider this a bullet dodged.

Scouting the Trade Market: Zack Greinke

In his RAB debut, Moshe wrote about the difficulties of trading for an ace. Issues such as service time remaining, rarity of elite talent, and fan perception play a role in these negotiations, and often render them fruitless. But, as he notes at the end, there is some hope for the Yankees to find a pitching upgrade on the trade market: “there [is] a bevy of second-tier pitchers nearing the end of their contracts, all of whom could likely be had for the right price.” Today, however, we’ll start with one such pitcher who has been, and still could be, an ace. That’s Zach Greinke of the Milwaukee Brewers.

A year ago the Royals put Greinke on the market after he requested a trade. Apparently he could no longer stand the constant losing in Kansas City and wished to pitch for a contender. That made the Yankees instant suitors, but they never made a serious play. Milwaukee swooped in and grabbed him, and the move paid off wonderfully. He produced a season that in many ways resembled his 2009 season, during which he won the AL Cy Young Award. Without an early-season injury (only 171.2 IP), and with a little more help from his defense (highest BABIP since 2005) and some better results on fly balls (highest HR/FB ratio of his career), his season might have looked a lot better than his 3.83 ERA might indicate.

When the Brewers acquired Greinke last season they were in the process of assembling a winner for 2011. With Prince Fielder just a year away from free agency they decided to go for it, trading many premium prospects for Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and then Francisco Rodriguez mid-season. Fielder is now a free agent, and while I think the Brewers could still retain him it’s far from a certainty. There’s a decent chance that they’re shut out of the top free agents, which could leave them in a bind. Both Greinke and Marcum hit free agency after the season, so if they don’t think they stand a good chance to contend in 2012 they could use one, or both, to further stock the farm system and reload for 2013.

While I consider these chance slim, the Yankees would certainly have to look into Greinke if Milwaukee made him available. In fact, late last week Vizzini at NoMaas made a case that the Yankees should make a run at Greinke. While I’m not totally on board with the idea — Nova starting the conversation — that’s mainly because of my “your trade proposal sucks” mentality. Really, the Yankees have a few chips, Nova included, who could provide the Brewers with steady value for five to six seasons. The Yankees would cash in that long-term value for a quick burst of Greinke, who could be worth six to eight wins in 2012.

Before hitting the pros and cons, I want to make clear that I do not see this happening. When I predicted the top 50 free agents I not only had Fielder returning, but also Aramis Ramirez coming over to play third base. That is, I think the Brewers make a splash again this off-season, with Greinke and Marcum approaching free agency, and then use their farm system to reload for 2013 and beyond. But if they do lose fielder and decide to begin that reloading process a year early, the Yankees should absolutely be in on Greinke.

Pros

  • He is absolutely an elite pitcher. While he disappointed in some ways following his 2009 AL Cy Young Award, he still put up peripherals better than most of his peers. Since 2009 he ranks fourth in the majors in FIP, fourth in xFIP, and, despite missing more than a month in 2011, sixth in WAR. The only place he falls short is ERA, but he’s had to deal with some poor defenses the last few years.
  • He misses bats, which is something the Yankees could use. In his career he has averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings, and in the last three years he has struck out a batter per inning.
  • He doesn’t walk guys. His 2.19 BB/9 since 2009 ranks 12th among all qualified starters. That’s even better than CC Sabathia, who ranks 30th with 2.58 BB/9. The Yankees would then have two high-strikeout, low-walk pitchers heading their rotation.
  • Last year, when seeking a way out of Kansas City, he reached out to the Yankees and expressed a desire to pitch in New York. That runs counter to one of the Cons listed below, but it’s pretty clear that the guy values winning above all else.
  • He’s durable. He pitched at least 200 innings from 2008 through 2010, and only missed the mark this year because of an injury suffered while playing basketball. If he can stay off the court, he appears capable of staying on the mound.
  • His disdain for the media can provide some interesting quotes and situations. It means zero for his on-field value, but it can provide some entertaining moments — a la Mike Mussina, perhaps.

Cons

  • It had to come up at some point, so let’s lead the Cons section with Greinke’s social anxiety disorder. It’s a well-known issue, though it’s tough to see how it has affected his performance since he returned to the mound in 2007. There will always be a faction of fans who think that his SAD will prevent him from pitching under the bright lights at Yankee Stadium, but that’s mostly armchair psychology. Only Greinke, and perhaps his doctor, knows if he can handle it.
  • For two straight years he’s had an ERA significantly higher than his FIP. There can be a number of reasons for this, but his strand rate stands out. He produced his two worst marks in 2010 and 2011. This probably isn’t a problem going forward — remember, he had some crappy defenses behind him — but it’s a red flag nonetheless.
  • Normally a bullet list should contain three points, but it’s hard to find negatives about Greinke. Maybe he continues to have a homer problem in Yankee Stadium after experiencing issues in Milwaukee. I dunno, if you want to crucify him for 16.2 playoff innings there’s that. But then again he pitches well against the Red Sox, in more career innings, so what are ya gonna do?

Chances are Milwaukee hangs onto Greinke and does battle again in the NL Central. After all, it’s not the strongest of divisions even if the World Champions play in it. But if they do lose Fielder and don’t sign an adequate replacement, they could look to move Greinke in advance of his free agency. If he does hit the market he could be a perfect fit for the Yankees.

Scouting The Trade Market: The A’s Rotation

Yesterday I took a look at Gio Gonzalez, the Athletics left-hander that might be on the trade market and of interest to the Yankees. Today I’m going to follow up and look at some other members of Oakland’s rotation, since apparently everyone on their roster other than Jemile Weeks is available. I am leaving Dallas Braden out of this post because a) he’s insufferable, b) he’s rehabbing from major shoulder surgery, and c) he’s a soft-tossing, fly ball machine. Not exactly an ideal fit for Yankee Stadium. Here are three other guys in Oaktown’s starting staff…

Brett Anderson

In terms of raw talent and upside, Anderson is best pitcher on the Athletics’ roster. Unfortunately, he just can’t stay on the field. He missed half of the 2010 season due to a flexor strain and inflammation in his left elbow, then hit the DL with more inflammation this past June before eventually having Tommy John surgery in mid-July. He’s expected back at midsummer, but since control is the last thing to come back after elbow reconstruction, he’s unlikely to be 100% back to normal until Opening Day 2013.

When right, the 23-year-old southpaw (24 in February) can throw strikes (2.23 BB/9) and generate a ton of ground balls (career 53.5%) with a pair of low-90’s fastballs (two- and four-seamer) while missing bats with a devastating low-80’s slider. His strikeout rate (6.94 K/9 with 6.9% swings-and-misses) in 371 big league innings isn’t great, but his minor league numbers (9.6 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9) and raw stuff suggest he could improve with better health and more experience. Anderson is locked up through 2013 at a reasonable price ($8.5M plus club options for 2014 and 2015), but he’s very risky. The upside is considerable though.

Trevor Cahill

Cahill, 24 in March, broke out in 2010 thanks in part to a .236 BABIP-fueled 2.97 ERA across 196.2 IP. His 4.19 FIP told a much more accurate story, and sure enough, the righty pitched to a 4.10 FIP in 2011 and saw his ERA climb to 4.16 thanks to a much more normal .302 BABIP. He still got a ton of grounders (56% in 2010, 55.9% in 2011), though his strikeout and walk rates climbed more than one full event per nine innings to 6.37 K/9 and 3.55 BB/9 this past season.

A sinkerball specialist, Cahill gets opponents to beat the ball into the ground with a two-seamer right around 90 mph. He backs it up with a low-80’s changeup and a high-70’s curve, and will occasionally mix in a slider. Cahill is signed through 2015 ($28.7M) with club options for 2016 and 2017, so his contract situation is favorable. He has the potential to beef up his strikeout rate (9.9 K/9 in the minors), but he doesn’t really have that go-to offspeed pitch and instead relies on that two-seamer to get outs, one way or the other.

Brandon McCarthy

Do you know who led the American League in FIP in 2011? It wasn’t CC Sabathia (2nd) or Justin Verlander (4th). It was McCarthy. The 28-year-old right-hander returned to the big leagues with the A’s after missing most of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with stress fractures in his throwing shoulder. Sure enough, he spent about seven weeks on the shelf this summer with another stress fracture in that shoulder, though he still made it to the mound for 170.2 stellar innings.

McCarthy spoke to FanGraphs’ Ryan Campbell (part one, part two) recently about how he’s reinvented himself following his injuries, specifically by lowering his arm slot, scrapping his curveball, and adding a two-seamer and cutter to go along with a four-seamer and slider. It really is a must read; I can’t recommend it enough. McCarthy misses a few more bats (6.49 K/9 and 7.7% swings-and-miss) with his new approach, and he drastically improved his ground ball (46.7% after years around 35%) and walk (1.32 BB/9 after years north of 3.00) rates. That helped cut down on the homers (as did Oakland’s park) and prolonged at-bats, allowing him to throw fewer pitches per inning and more innings per start.

MLBTR projects a bargain bin salary of $2.6M for McCarthy in 2012, his fourth and final time through arbitration as a Super Two player. He’s risky just because the healthy of his shoulder is such a gigantic question mark, but the cost shouldn’t be exorbitant since you’re only trading for one year of him. I’m a fan, much more than I am of Gonzalez, Anderson, and Cahill in terms of expected production vs. cost (both salary and acquisition). As an added bonus, McCarthy is must-follow on Twitter, one of the few interesting baseball players out there.

Mining The Minor League Free Agents

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Yankees owe a lot of their 2011 success to minor league contracts. They turned some of those low risk deals into solid production from spare parts like Luis Ayala and Eric Chavez. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia were more than just role players after inking their minor league deals, and Cory Wade was another fine pickup at midseason. Hopefully the Yankees won’t have to rely on players signed to minor league pacts that much next season, but those guys certainly helped them to the AL’s best record this summer.

Late last week, Baseball America published this year’s list of minor league free agents, all 537 of them (here are the Yankees’ losses). Some of those guys are former top prospects (Lastings Milledge, Adam Miller) and others are players with a significant amount of big league time to their credit (Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliz), but most of them are players you’ve never heard. Some of those guys can be useful though; here’s three that could help the Yankees improve the margins of their roster, or just add depth at Triple-A.

Justin Hampson, LHP

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

A 31-year-old has-been never-was, Hampson hasn’t appeared in the big leagues since 2008. He spent last season pitching for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, and the year before that he had to rebuild his value with two independent league teams after missing most of 2009 with shoulder problems. Hampson has generic stuff (high-80’s fastball with a sweepy low-80’s slider) but had spectacular results in 2011. He held the 104 left-handed batters he faced this summer to a .216/.262/.309 batting line with 28 strikeouts and just three walks. During his pre-shoulder injury heyday (2007-2008), he held big league lefties to a .229/.267/.321 line.

Hampson doesn’t offer much upside, but then again neither do most lefty specialists. All you’re looking for is the chance at a few good months of production, that’s it. The Yankees lost both Steve Garrison and Josh Romanski to minor league free agency, so the Triple-A Scranton bullpen definitely has an opening for a southpaw or two next season.

Manny Corpas, RHP

It’s hard to believe it’s been five seasons already, but Corpas was closing games as a rookie during the Rockies’ march to the 2007 World Series. He settled in as a ground ball heavy (51.4%) and walk adverse (2.33 BB/9) late-inning arm through the 2009 season, but he arm eventually gave out towards the end of last season after throwing 62.1 IP during the team’s first 126 games. Colorado released him last November even though he still had $3.75M left on his contract, and he spent the 2011 season in the Rangers’ system rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Now 14 or so months out from surgery, the 28-year-old Corpas (29 in December) should be ready to go for Opening Day in April. Unless he’s one of those rare guys that never gets his stuff back after elbow reconstruction, the righty can offer his turbo-sinker and late-inning experience to the highest bidder. As an added bonus, he would continue to be under team control in 2013 as an arbitration-eligible player.

(Keith Gary/The Express-Times)

Drew Sutton, UTIL

A personal fave, Sutton has bounced from team to team over the last three years or so, and has hit everywhere he’s been thanks to some help from the guy that turned Ben Zobrist into an All-Star. A .275/.380/.425 hitter in 838 plate appearances at Triple-A (.258/.322/.403 in 178 big league plate appearances), Sutton has gap power and a discerning eye to go along with his trademark versatility. The 28-year-old switch-hitter has played every position other than pitcher, catcher, and center field at both the minor league and major league levels.

Sutton is essentially the player Kevin Russo could have been; a bench guy with strong enough on-base skills and just enough pop to keep pitchers honest while being able to play pretty much anywhere the team puts him. Not a bad guy to stash away in the minors.

* * *

I have a feeling that Corpas will get his fair share of offers, just because teams are eager to throw money at brand name. There’s a non-zero chance that he gets a guaranteed big league contract. Hampson and Sutton are exclusively minor league deal guys though, and as with every such contract, there’s no risk involved. They wouldn’t be blocking anyone at Triple-A (except maybe Reegie Corona) and both have traits that could make them useful big leaguers in small doses.