Our long national nightmare Edwin Jackson’s free agency is finally over. The Nationals have reportedly agreed to sign the right-hander to a one-year contract worth somewhere around $10M, and now they’re trying to trade John Lannan (and his $5M salary) to balance the books. It’s a great deal for the Nationals, who suddenly have a pretty stacked rotation with Jackson, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Chien-Ming Wang. Gotta think there are a lot of teams out there right now wondering why they couldn’t get this guy at that price, maybe even the Yankees (though I’m perfectly happy with Hiroki Kuroda).
Following Larry’s examination of the best pitches in the Yankees’ rotation, we received an email from a reader who asked an excellent question.
I was wondering if you guys could do some kind of guide to what pitches each of our pitchers throw and how often.
Thanks to FanGraphs, identifying these pitches and frequencies becomes much easier. Previously, to identify a pitcher’s entire arsenal would require quite a bit of video watching, and would likely also require an outside resource. Frequency was out of the question, unless you had a paid subscription to a service such as Baseball Info Solutions. Now FanGraphs aggregates all of that data.
Today we’ll look into what the Yankees’ seven starters throw, and how frequently they throw it. But before we do, a few disclaimers. First, we’re going by Pitch f/x data here, since it’s captured on high-speed cameras. The Baseball Info Solutions data, also available on FanGraphs, gets recorded, from videos, by stringers. There’s much more room for human error there. Also, the Pitch f/x data includes more pitches, so there’s a more accurate breakdown.
At the same time, Pitch f/x isn’t error-free. It often misclassifies pitches, and consistently. For example, before 2010 it didn’t do a good job of separating different types of fastballs. I’ll try to combine personal knowledge of arsenals with the Pitch f/x data in order to provide a clearer look at each pitcher’s repertoire. Remember, too, that you can look into this yourself; the data is available on every FanGraphs player page.
A few weeks ago, Brian Cashman indicated that trading for a DH-type bat was preferable to signing a free agent, though there aren’t many of those guys out there to be had right now. We’ve talked about Jason Bay, Garrett Jones, Nolan Reimond, Lucas Duda, David Wright, Kyle Blanks, and Brandon Allen among others but one guy we haven’t discussed is Andre Ethier of the Dodgers. That’s mostly because the soon-to-be 30-year-old Dodgers star isn’t actually on the market, though that’s never stopped us before.
Jim Bowden kinda got the ball rolling with this ESPN piece (Insider req’d) earlier this week, suggesting the Yankees trade Dellin Betances and Austin Romine to Los Angeles for Ethier. I’ve been pretty hard on the Dodgers’ right fielder in our weekly chats over the last year or so, but mostly because he’s not much of an outfielder and not the upgrade over Nick Swisher the MSM would lead you to believe. As far as the DH spot goes though, he’s nearly a perfect fit.
The Yankees are looking for a left-handed bat to platoon with Andruw Jones, and the 30-year-old Ethier is very much qualified for the job. He’s hit .313/.398/.537 against pitchers of the opposite hand over the last three years, a 151 wRC+ that is the eighth best in baseball during that time. Ethier is miserable against lefties — .215/.279/.329 and a 65 wRC+ over the last three years, fourth worst in baseball — but the Yankees wouldn’t be asking him to stand in against southpaws. That will be up to Andruw on most days. Yankee Stadium will help him out a bit more than Dodger Stadium, though he would have to adjust to a new league and new pitchers.
Ethier doesn’t do anything other than hit righties, which is why he should be considered nothing more than a DH candidate. His defensive numbers — -24.6 UZR, -11 DRS, -21.8 TZ, and -9.3 FRAA — rate him as one of the five or so worst outfielders in the game over the last three seasons, grouping him in with Raul Ibanez, Delmon Young, and Ryan Braun. So yeah, it’s bad. Ethier also has knee problems, having surgery in September to remove loose bodies and repair cartilage in his right knee. Getting him out of the outfield should help with that, in theory. He doesn’t steal bases or take the extra base very often either. Ethier is what he is, and that’s a righty mashing DH-type. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, he’d fit right into this Yankees lineup.
The problem is that the cost to acquire him is probably very high right now. The season hasn’t started yet, and the Dodgers didn’t spend over $44M on free agents this winter to sell off their third best player before pitchers and catchers report. He’s also slated to make close to $11M in 2012, which is about six times what the Yankees have said they have to spend on a DH. I’m looking at Ethier more as a trade deadline target, once the Dodgers fall out of the race and the Yankees have had a chance to evaluate their in-house options. I don’t know what the cost would be, but I have to imagine there will be competition for his services (the Red Sox, Rangers, Braves, and Nationals could all use a corner outfielder). This doesn’t figure to be a salary dump situation.
Ethier isn’t the kind of guy you lock into a multi-year contract when he hits free agency after the season, but he’s a damn fine rental player. The Yankees have the prospects to get a deal done — Bowden’s suggested proposal isn’t insane, but the Yankees need the catching depth and I’d hold onto Romine — and figure to have the need come late-July, so there’s a natural fit here. They can get some extra input on his personality and makeup from former teammates Russell Martin and Hiroki Kuroda, and then make a decision based on their needs and the cost. A doubt a trade will happen anytime soon, but expect to see the Yankees connected to Ethier quite a bit this summer if they can’t solve their DH issue on the cheap.
In perhaps the most extreme case of overreaction in baseball history, the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214M contract two weeks ago after learning that Victor Martinez would miss the season with a knee problem. It’s the fourth largest contract in baseball history, and like many of you, I couldn’t help but think that Mark Teixeira eight-year, $180M contract suddenly looked a whole lot better by comparison. Fielder is the better player at the moment, but Teixeira didn’t get his contract at the moment. He signed it three years ago.
Given the enormous outlays, let’s compare the two players and their contracts. To do this, we’re going to go back in time a bit and look at the player Teixeira was when he signed his contract, because that’s more applicable when comparing these massive deals. He was 28 years old when the Yankees signed him prior to 2009, a year older than Fielder is right now. Both guys are Scott Boras clients, so that makes the comparison a little easier. With all due respect, no agent is as successful as Boras when it comes to getting top dollar.
We’re going to break the comparison into four sections: offense, baserunning, defense, and durability. The first three are self-explanatory, and durability is quite underappreciated in my opinion. If you’re giving out contracts like these, you want to be damn sure the player can stay on the field. Let’s start with the money-makers, the bats…
Both players are well above average offensively, both in terms of getting on-base and launched baseballs into orbit. Teixeira was approximately 40% better than league average back in the day while Fielder is roughly 50% better than league average today, so Prince is the better hitter by a not small margin. It is worth noting that Teixeira is a switch-hitter, and back then he had a relatively small platoon split (134 wRC+ vs. RHP and 148 vs. LHP from ’06-’08). Fielder is a lefty and has shown a somewhat significant split throughout over the last three years (168 wRC vs. RHP but 119 vs. LHP). He’s the better hitter, but the switch-hitting thing is a definite plus for Tex.
Baserunning is an important part of the game, but it really doesn’t have as much impact as you might think. The different between the best and worst baserunners in a given season will be something like 30 runs, and we’re talking Michael Bourn vs. Jorge Posada type of stuff. Most players are within five runs of league average (one way or the other) with few outliers.
He’s slow and he makes funny faces when he runs, but Teixeira was a pretty good baserunner once upon a time. He took the extra base 40% of the time from 2006-2008 (meaning he went first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, etc.), ever so slightly above the league average (39%). Fielder is well below average on the bases, taking the extra roughly half as often as the average player (league average is 41% these days). In terms of runs created on the bases (that’s BsR), Tex was essentially league average again while Fielder was well below. We’re talking a 15 or so run difference between the two players over a three-year span, or five runs a year. None a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless.
Just ignore the stolen base stuff, neither of these guys are asked to do much of that.
Advanced fielding metrics aren’t perfect, especially for first baseman. They are useful over large samples though, especially in conjunction with the ol’ eye test. Teixeira is a great fielder and always has been by reputation, and the numbers back that up. Fielder is the opposite, a poor defender with the reputation to match. You can quibble with the exact numbers if you want, but they pass the sniff test. A 30 or so run gap is significant, even when talking about a three-year stretch.
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Durability is a skill to a certain extent, and like I said earlier, I think it’s underappreciated. Fielder is arguably the most durable position player in the sport right now, appearing in all but one game over the last three years and starting all but five of them. That’s pretty amazing. Teixeira missed more than five weeks with a quad strain in 2007, but otherwise he appeared in 162 and 157 games in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
This is a pretty good spot to talk about the body types, because they are important. Teixeira’s got the prototypical robot baseball player build, meaning 6-foot-3 and 220 lbs., with less body fat than I have in my left thigh. Fielder’s a portly little guy, listed on the Tigers official site at 5-foot-11 and 275 lbs. That doesn’t mean he’s out of shape — there’s a difference between being fat and being out of shape — but his body is absolutely a concern going forward. All that extra weight can lead to knee and back problems later in his career. Three years ago (and even today), no one had any reason to be concerned about Teixeira physically.
Adding up the WARs
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference between 14.5 and 14.1 WAR. The various WAR models just aren’t accurate enough to get worked up over a four run difference. All this tells us is that Teixeira’s fielding and baserunning closed the gap between his offense and Fielder’s, nothing more. This is how each player performed in the three years leading up to their free agency, not an indication of how they’re likely to perform going forward. It might give you an idea of what to expect in the future, but make that assumption at your own risk.
At the end of the day, we have two very similar players in 2006-2008 Teixeira and 2009-2011 Fielder. Both guys were top ten draft picks once upon a time, both play the same position, both are young and very much in the primes of their careers, and both have provided the same amount of value in the three years leading up to their free agency. They’re both $100M+ players, no doubt about that. Going forward though, wouldn’t you rather have the switch-hitter than provides better defense and has the better body? I know I would.
In many ways, Fielder’s contract is one of Boras’ best. He got Teixeira 8/180 when both the Yankees and Red Sox were heavily involved in the bidding, but then three years later he got Fielder 9/214 with almost no big money teams in the market for the first baseman. Convincing the Tigers to sign Prince to that contract when they already had a better player with his own nine-figure contract at the same position is nothing short of player representation genius in my book.
As far as Spring Training position battles go, the Yanks have few, and those they have aren’t very compelling. The pitching staff has the non-problem of having three hurlers — A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes — for one rotation spot, and barring an injury, the starting lineup is set in stone. It will be, then, business in Tampa as the Yanks will use March to fine-tune the team for the regular season.
Yet, the club will have to make some decisions, and it may come down to those who are out of options. As I see it now, the Yanks have 23 guys with their tickets punched to the 25-man roster. It goes a little something like this:
This array of players leaves us with few noticeable holes. With Jones set to DH against southpaws, they could use another bat who can handle right-handers and serve as a weapon off the bench. They also could carry another infielder, as they did for much of last year. The in-house options include Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird while Eric Chavez remains a free agent. We’ve heard Bill Hall’s name bandied about, but he hasn’t yet received his non-roster invitation to Spring Training yet.
For the empty outfield/DH spot, the Yanks could still look to the free agent market for help. Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez and Hideki Matsui have all been linked, one way or another, to the Yanks this winter. It’s possible one of them could take spot No. 24 or 25. The Yanks though will let those players’ prices drop before making any sort of move. If one happens, it will be on our terms, and not yours, the Yanks’ brain trust has telegraphed.
The in-house options are Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, and they’ll either break camp with the Yanks or on some other team. The two of them — along with Boone Logan, the only lefty on the 40-man with Major League experience — are out of options. The Yanks will have to take Dickerson and Maxwell with them north if they want to keep them or else the two players will have to clear waivers to remain in the Yanks’ system.
Throughout the winter, Mike has examined these two players in depth. He looked at Dickerson’s possible role earlier this month and Maxwell’s potential in December. Of the two of them, Dickerson seems to hit right-handers far better than Maxwell has, and that’s a need the Yanks have right now. The club may also be able to flip Maxwell for something reasonably useful as he’s a few years younger than Dickerson.
Complicating the roster dance are Brad Meyers, a right-hander, and Cesar Cabral, a lefty. The Yanks grabbed these two guys during the Rule 5 draft. Meyers would have to go back to the Nationals if the Yanks opt to exclude him from the 25-man, and Cabral could pick free agency as he’s a two-time Rule 5er. Cabral also would give the Yanks more bullpen options and pitched exceptionally well in Winter Ball this year. As Logan is out of options, he won’t bump Boone, but a solid spring could make the Yanks think twice about a second southpaw in the pen.
So for the Yankees, the big battles are all but over. We have to pick a fifth starter from a group of three guys who are all flawed for various reasons, and the last two guys on the team have to earn that trip to the Bronx. The guys without options have the inside track, but even then, they’re expendable AAAA types. With two weeks until pitchers and catchers, that’s not a bad problem to have.
Every GM has a “the one that got away” story if they’ve been on the job long enough, and Mike Lowell is that guy for Brian Cashman. It was the 1998-1999 offseason and the Yankees had just won 114 games and their second World Championship in three years, but more importantly Scott Brosius just wrapped up a .300/.371/.472 inaugural campaign in pinstripes. He signed a fat new three-year contract after the season, rendering Lowell useless. Thirteen years ago today, Cashman traded the 24-year-old third baseman to the Marlins for a trio of pitching prospects: Todd Noel, Mark Johnson, and Ed Yarnall.
Noel was the 17th overall pick in the 1996 draft and had been traded to the Marlins for Felix Heredia (hah!) at the 1998 trade deadline. He started the 1999 season with High-A Tampa, then blew out his arm and was never heard from again. Johnson was the 19th overall pick in the 1996 draft, and had been traded to Florida before the 1998 season as part of the package for Moises Alou. He opened the 1999 season in Double-A, got hurt, then got drafted by the Tigers in the Rule 5 Draft after the season. He threw 24 ineffective innings for Detroit in 2000, got released after the season, then bounced around the minors until 2005.
Yarnall was the real prize in the trade, or at least he was supposed to be. The Mets drafted him in the third round of the 1996 draft, then traded him to the Marlins in May of 1998 as part of the package for Mike Piazza. Baseball America had rated him the 60th best prospect in the game before the season. Yarnall spent most of the 1999 season in Triple-A, though he did get called in July and then again in September. Baseball America again ranked him as one of the 100 best prospects in the game before the 2000 season (55th overall). He opened that year in Triple-A, went up-and-down a few times, then was traded to the Reds as part of the package for Denny Beagle in July. Yarnall pitched in Japan in 2001 and 2002, then spent a few years bouncing around in Triple-A before calling it quits after 2007. All 20 of his big league innings came in pinstripes.
As you know, Lowell went on to have a long and very productive career, helping the Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series and then winning another ring with the 2007 Red Sox. All told, he hit .279/.342/.464 with 223 homers in his 13 big league seasons, with all but eight of his 1,601 career games being played in something other than a Yankees uniform (he went 4-for-15 during a September call-up in 1998). Cashman routinely calls it his worst trade, and it’s hard to disagree considering how much value Lowell produced and how little they got back from Yarnall, Johnson, and Noel.
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Here’s your open thread for the night. The Rangers and Nets are both playing, but talk about whatever you like. Enjoy.
Via Anthony McCarron, the Yankees have outrighted Kevin Whelan to Triple-A Scranton.. He was designated for assignment last week to make room on the 40-man roster for Hiroki Kuroda, but no team claimed him off waivers. Whelan will remain in the organization, and at the moment I have him penciled in as SWB’s closer, the job he held last year. As you probably know, he’s the last remaining piece of the Gary Sheffield trade from way back when.