Open Thread: Redesigning the uniform

The Yankees have been wearing the same classic uniforms for basically ever. The white with blue pinstripes look at home is one of the most recognizable uni’s in all of sports, and the gray road get-ups are simple but effective. In the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine, New York-native Tommy Hilfiger redesigned four classic uniforms, including those of our beloved Bombers. I dig the old-timey collar and stirrups, but other than that … eh. I’m old school when it comes to this stuff though, so maybe it’s just me. A hat tip goes out to Andrew Testa for the heads up and graphic.

Here’s your open thread for the night. The Rangers are playing the Islanders, plus the Knicks are in action as well. Talk about whatever, go nuts.

March 15th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Yankees don’t have an official Grapefruit League game to play today, but some players still got their regularly scheduled work in. Let’s briefly recap…

  • CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon faced off in a simulated game, pitching to a total of four minor leaguers (two righties, two lefties). CC threw 82 pitches (51 strikes) and struck out four with two walks in 6.1 “innings” while Colon threw 79 pitches (56 strikes) and struck out seven in six frames. Nothing crazy, just getting some work in and staying on schedule. (Yankees PR Dept.)
  • Joe Girardi said he expects Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman, and Dellin Betances to make at least one more pitching appearance each before being sent to minor league camp. Kyle Higashioka was sent down today. (Chad Jennings)
  • Mark Prior’s sick and will probably be away from the team for a day or two. Hopefully it’s not his arm that’s sick. (Jennings)

GQ profiles Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter has long been many things, chief among them a star-caliber baseball player and a private person. Can’t say I blame him since celebrities of his caliber are prone to (often fabricated) controversies. Jeter opened up just a bit for noted Red Sox fan Seth Mnookin, who profiled the Cap’n for GQ. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ground-breaking in there, but it’s interesting read that shows us the lengths Jeter goes to to keep his personal life private, as well as some stuff about his contract negotiations and what not. Give it a look.

Why would the Yankees release Mitre now?

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

On his blog today, Joel Sherman discusses the pitching battles in camp. While the bulk of the post focuses on Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, there is mention towards the bottom of Sergio Mitre. For the past two years the Yankees have staged a fifth starter battle in camp, and while Mitre has competed in both he seemed more a novelty than a serious candidate. But even though he probably won’t pitch out of the rotation, he appears ticketed for the long man role in the bullpen. At least, that’s the way it appears from the outside.

Leading off the final section of his post, Sherman writes, “There are scouts saying that they are convinced the Yankees are going to release Sergio Mitre.” The evidence: Mitre just happened to suffer a vague injury just before a spotlight start against the Red Sox, and was seeming fine just a day later to the point where he could pitch again on Thursday. I’m not sure what one has to do with the other. Maybe the Yankees really wanted to start Banuelos against the Sox, but I don’t see why that says anything about Mitre’s status.

While the Yankees lack bona fides for the fourth and fifth rotation spot, they do possess depth. If they break camp with Colon and Garcia in those spots, they have Ivan Nova a phone call away at Scranton. Andrew Brackman could be right behind him. Even though they were sent to minor league camp, Hector Noesi and David Phelps could be options with a little more AAA seasoning. And, as we’ve heard from numerous scouts and scouting types this winter, the Yankees could, if they were so inclined, call on Manny Banuelos. Even Mitre himself could make starts if the Yankees aren’t comfortable with any of their minor leaguers.

Given this rich depth, chances are Mitre won’t make it through the entire season on the 25-man roster. The team will pursue starting pitching as the season progresses, and they’ll look at relief options from the farm system. It’s likely that at some point in the season they’re comfortable with 12 pitchers who are better than Mitre. But things rarely work out as planned. Mitre is no one’s idea of a mid-rotation starter, or even a viable setup man. His value is that he’s a slightly above-replacement pitcher who can fill the long-man spot in the bullpen and make a spot start if necessary. I’m not sure why the Yankees would throw that away.

If the Yankees did take Colon, Garcia, and Nova to the Bronx, they’d be down one arm on the carousel. If Colon then gets bombed, or, more likely, gets hurt, they’d move Nova into the rotation and summon a bullpen arm from AAA. But whom? Wouldn’t it be better to have Nova in that spot? Mitre would remain in the bullpen while the Yankees made that quick swap. Then, if Garcia, or even Nova, falters, they could move onto Brackman. But without Mitre they’d have to add a long man and a starter. I don’t see how that helps the team.

Maybe the Yankees really do want Nova to start the season in the major league bullpen. The sentiment is certainly understandable. But I don’t see the sense if it means releasing a guy who can provide depth. Having Mitre around, especially in a low-level bullpen role, helps the Yankees hedge against injuries or ineffectiveness from Garcia and Colon. To remove him is to bump each pitcher up a rung, which means a quicker path to a, gulp, Sidney Ponson-type retread. That’s just not something the Yanks need right now. Depth is the name of their game, and Mitre provides just that for now.

Joba’s oblique strain “a little worse than expected”

Yesterday it didn’t appear to be that big a deal. After we learned that Sergio Mitre would miss his start with an oblique strain, we learned that Joba Chamberlain suffered a similar injury. Word was then that he would miss just a few days before getting back on the mound. Today Dan Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal reports that Joba had an MRI yesterday, and that the results are a little worse than first indicated.

At this point we don’t know exactly how much time he’ll miss. He’s not scheduled for any kind of activity in the next few days, so it appears the Yankees will play it safe. The team does have some options in the bullpen, so if for some reason Joba needs to miss the start of the season they should still be in good shape.

Update: Zach Berman of the Star Ledger spoke to Girardi, who said that Joba is “functionally” fine. I’m not sure what that means, but it certainly makes the situation sound a bit better.

2011 Season Preview: Rafael Soriano

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I think it’s fair to say that the three-year, $35M contract the Yankees gave Rafael Soriano was the most controversial signing of this past offseason. Hal Steinbrenner and his upper upper upper management buddies over-ruled Brian Cashman because they weren’t in love with the idea of using David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain as Mariano Rivera‘s primary setup men in 2010, plus the team had some of the money earmarked for Cliff Lee burning a whole in their pocket. The stars aligned just right for Soriano and Scott Boras.

Cashman came out and said he didn’t think forfeiting a first round pick and spending that kind of money on a relief pitcher was the best way to use resources (at Soriano’s introductory press conference no less), and he’s right. Multi-year free agent contracts for relievers almost never work out, with the only real exception in recent years being Rivera. For the one they call MFIKY to earn his money, he’ll have to not just repeat last year’s effort, but improve upon it.

Best Case

Relief pitchers can only be so valuable in the real world, even the great Rivera. The last two years of Soriano’s career are about as good as it gets for relievers; he’s racked up 3.6 fWAR total (1.6 in 2010, 2.0 in 2009), good for eighth best among all relief pitchers. He’s just a win-and-a-half away from the reliever fWAR leader (Brian Wilson), but he’s also just half-a-win better than guys like Rafael Betancourt and Darren Oliver. I don’t love WAR for pitchers, so if we use FIP, Soriano ranks tenth among all relievers at 2.66 over the last two seasons.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Soriano has nasty stuff, regularly using three pitches to attack hitters. His bread-and-butter is a 92-95 mph fastball and low-80’s slider combo, pitches that rated as nine and 7.4 runs better than average last year. A pitcher is usually lucky to have one offering that good, Soriano’s one of the few with two. His third pitch is a hard cutter that he throws mostly to left-handers, helping him solve those guys last season after a few years without answers. Hitters have swung and missed at Soriano’s pitches more than 12% of the time in his career, and missing bats is the name of the game when it comes to late-inning relief work.

In a best case scenario, you’re looking at Soriano returning to his 2009 form, when he had a worse ERA than he did in 2009 (2.97 to 1.73) but better peripherals (2.54 FIP, 2.99 xFIP vs. 2.81 and 3.81). A 2.50 FIP reliever throwing 70 innings of higher leveraged work (LI of around 1.60-1.70) is a two-and-a-half win player, and Soriano is capable of that if some things break his way. A three win season as a setup man is very hard to do, but not impossible.

Worst Case

Unfortunately, we’ve lived this nightmare before and know just how ugly multi-year contracts for relievers can get. There’s Steve Karsay (four years, $22.5M), Kyle Farnsworth (three years, $17M), Paul Quantrill (two years, $6.8M), and Damaso Marte (three years, $12M), all of whom inked their deals within the last ten years and all of whom ended (or will end) their Yankee tenures on the business end of the chopping block. History is not on Soriano’s side, and there are some warning flags.

Despite the high swinging strike rate, Soriano struck out just 8.23 men per nine innings last year, down nearly four full strikeouts from 2009 and about a K-and-a-half from his career average. Yes, there’s the NL-to-AL East switch to consider, but remember, as an eighth and ninth inning guy with the Braves, Soriano wasn’t facing opposing pitchers, he was getting pinch-hitters. His fly ball rate is also extreme at 49.8% over the last two years, a rate he’s maintained throughout his career. Despite the improvement against lefties last season, yet still has a ways to go before proving that platoon split (LHB had a .313 wOBA off him prior to 2010) is a thing of the past. That .199 BABIP last year? Don’t expect that to sustain itself either.

Oh, and then there’s the injuries. Soriano has never stayed healthy for three consecutive seasons in his entire career, and he’ll be shooting for that milestone in 2011. A history of elbow trouble (two surgeries, one of which was Tommy John) and shoulder issues resideĀ  in the cons column. The worst case scenario is pretty much Farnsworth’s tenure in pinstripes, a homer prone faux-setup man that will strike out enough guys to remain useful, but not really qualified for late-inning, leveraged work. During his two-and-a-half years in New York, Farnsy was worth just half-a-win total.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

This part is very tricky, because you want to believe that Soriano is different from everyone else, that he’s not one of those flaky late-inning guys because he’s “proved himself” with the AL East winning Rays last summer. We’ve thought that before though, and I refuse to get caught in that trap again. There’s no denying that Soriano improves the team’s bullpen on paper though, there’s just no argument against that, especially when you consider the chaining effect that pushes the whiff-happy Robertson and Chamberlain into the middle innings, where oh so many games are won and lost.

Performance-wise, I don’t believe Soriano will be as good as he was last year again in 2011. The move from Tropicana Field into homer-happy Yankee Stadium will have a very real impact on his performance, and the dip in strikeouts is concerning. Ditto the super-low BABIP and historical struggles against left-handers. All told, if Soriano manages to stay healthy all year and puts up a 3.00 FIP in 70 innings, I’d take it in a heartbeat. The Yankees won 80 of 87 games when leading after seven innings last year, and three of those losses are attributed to Mo in one way or another. Soriano won’t be that big of an upgrade at the end-game, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.

We can’t ignore the contract either. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the Yankees gave Soriano the ability to opt out of his contract after each of the first two years. He and agent Scott Boras are the ones in control here. With any luck, he’ll have a monster year and opt out in hopes of landing a huge payday as a closer somewhere. That should allow the Yankees to recoup the lost draft pick, assuming they offer him arbitration and the compensation rules aren’t changed in the upcoming Collective Bargaining agreement. Best case scenario: Soriano’s awesome in 2011 and heads elsewhere as a free agent after the season. Worst case: he gets hurt and the Yankees are stuck paying him for the next three years. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to envision this signing turning into a disaster than it is a masterstroke. It’s not fair, but Randy Levine & Co. made their own bed.

Shifting against Adrian

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Although he has yet to sign a long-term contract extension, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Adrian Gonzalez will be a Boston Red Sox (Sock?) for a very long time. That’s bad news for Yankees fans, because we’re going to be stuck seeing one of the game’s very best hitters 18+ times a year for the better part of the next decade. I don’t think he’ll be the next David Ortiz (a.k.a. a stone-cold Yankees killer), but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he turns into that guy.

Gonzalez has a reputation as an opposite field hitter and deservedly so. He’s hit 48 homers to the opposite field over the last three seasons, six more than anyone else in baseball. His .535 wOBA to the opposite field is second only to Ryan Howard’s (.606) during that time. Of course Gonzalez can certainly pull the ball as well, posting a .374 wOBA on balls hit in that direction since 2008. He’s just more productive when he’s driving the ball the other way.

The chart to the right shows the percentage of ground balls Gonzalez has hit to each field over the last three seasons. This is slightly different than the data found on FanGraphs’ splits page because their stuff is expressed as a percentage of the balls hit to that specific field. My rates are based on all balls put in play, regardless of field. Capisce? Capisce.

Anyway, the chart shows that nearly one out of every four balls Adrian has put in play since 2008 has been a grounder to the right side. Another 13.2% have been grounders back up-the-middle, so that’s more than 36% of his balls in play being hit on the ground between the shortstop’s approximate location and first base. For every 25 balls he’s put in play, just one is a grounder to the opposite field. Those are some drastic percentages, something the Yankees can exploit by using an infield shift.

On the flip side, here’s similar data for Gonzalez’s fly balls. Almost two out of every ten balls in play over the last three years has been a fly ball to left, plus another 13.1% to center. That means 31.1% of his balls in play have been a fly ball to left-center-ish field. Between that and the ground ball tendencies mentioned in the last paragraph, two out of every three balls Adrian puts in play are either a fly ball to left/center or a grounder to the right side/up-the-middle. Pretty good odds.

I’m not sure how teams have been playing Gonzalez over the last few seasons, but there appears to be a very real advantage to be gained by employing some … let’s call it “optimized positioning.” Based on Adrian’s batted ball tendencies outlined above, I’d align my fielders like so when he’s at the plate…

Obviously this isn’t terribly precise, so don’t kill me over the artwork. Rather, it’s just a general defensive alignment based on what Adrian is likely to do on a given ball in play. The brown splotches are non-catcher fielders by the way, and the original spray chart comes from Texas Leaguers. The quick-and-dirty explanation is that I would shade the center fielder over towards left-center while employing the full-blown infield shift. That means the second baseman on the right field grass, the shortstop playing where the second baseman usually is, and the third baseman playing short. If a ball is squibbed down the third base line, so be it. It’ll happen every so often, but you’re trading that occasional extra hit for (theoretically) several additional outs elsewhere.

The Yankees do have a nice advantage in the outfield when it comes to combating Gonzalez’s opposite field tendencies because Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson can flat out get after balls. Nick Swisher, the least rangy of the outfield trio, will see the fewest fly balls off Adrian’s bat come his way. Perhaps Grandy’s and Gardy’s speed means they won’t have the shade towards left so dramatically.

Would the Yankees do something like this? Who the hell knows. I would expect to see the infield shift employed before the outfield shift, though I suppose there’s a chance they’d do both simultaneously. The important thing is that the pitcher keeps the ball down in the zone. If he doesn’t and ends up elevating a ball to Gonzalez, it’s not going to matter where the fielders are positioned.