Open Thread: World Series Game Six

A classy stroll across the field. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

So, does it all end tonight? I hope not, I’m ready for a Game Seven. Do you know we haven’t had one of those since the Rays and Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS? The last World Series Game Seven was way back in 2002. I know the idea of an entire baseball season coming down to one game is kind of absurd, but no one ever said it isn’t fun.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. In addition to Game Six (Garcia vs. Lewis, 8pm ET on FOX), you’ve also got the Devils and (hockey) Rangers (home opener finally!) in action. Talk about anything here, it’s all fair game.

Report: Beltran’s name came up in team meetings

Via Wally Matthews, Carlos Beltran‘s name came up as a potential right field target during this week’s organization meetings in Tampa. “He’s on our list,” said one team official. “But we have to make a decision on [Nick Swisher] first.” The Yankees are very likely to exercise Swisher’s $10.25M option for next season, even if it’s so they can trade him.

Beltran, 35 in April, just enjoyed his best season since 2008 (.389 wOBA, 4.7 fWAR), which coincidentally is the last time he stayed healthy enough to play in more than 81 games. Matthews says that Scott Boras is shopping Beltran hard even though he can’t officially negotiate with any team other than the Giants until six days after the end of the World Series. This is the time of year when the Yankees consider every player available on the market, so it’s hard to take this report seriously. It’s likely due diligence more than anything.

What Went Right: Noesi, Wade, and Ayala

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

We’ve seen it every year of the Joe Girardi era. The Yankees finish the season with a bullpen that looks a whole lot different than the one they started the year with, and 2011 was no exception. Injuries and poor performance always play a part in that, but it’s also a two-way street. The guys that do the replacing have to perform well enough to stick around. Let’s look at three surprise contributors to the team’s bullpen this past season…

Hector Noesi

The Yankees rotation was a bit of a mess early in the season, leaving the bullpen to pick up a lot of slack. Guys like Amaury Sanit and Buddy Carlyle came and went, but when the Yankees first called up Noesi on April 13th, he didn’t pitch. He sat around in the bullpen until being sent back down nine days later. Noesi re-emerged from the minors on May 13th, and this time he got his chance. His first appearance came five days later,and he responded by throwing four scoreless frames in extra innings against the Orioles to earn his first big league win.

Noesi continued to get looks in long relief, including a six inning, two-run outing against the Red Sox on June 7th, and he even worked some one inning, higher leveraged spots from time to time. Two late season starts while the Yankees were lining up their playoff rotation didn’t go so well, but he made a strong impression by posting a 4.09 FIP in 56.1 IP overall. His swing and miss rate (9.4%) was strong enough to forecast improvement to his 7.19 K/9 going forward, no matter what role he’s given. The Yankees have Noesi on a strict pitch count in winter ball as he makes up for all the innings he lost while pitching out of the bullpen.

Cory Wade

(Elsa/Getty Images)

Signed to a minor league pact after being released by the Rays in mid-June, Wade made just a single appearance for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate before being summoned to the big leagues. He made a great first impression by retiring the first 12 men he faced in pinstripes, and with both Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano on the shelf with elbow injuries, Wade quickly stepped into the seventh inning role.

All told, Wade pitched to a 2.04 ERA with a 3.76 FIP in 39.2 IP for the Yankees. He was true to form with a low strikeout rate (6.81 K/9), low walk rate (1.82 BB/9), a high homerun rate (1.13 HR/9), getting by with dead fish changeups and lazy fly balls. Wade had a rough finish to the season, allowing back-to-back walk off hits to the Mariners and Blue Jays in mid-September before surrendering Dan Johnson’s game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth inning of a final game of the season, but that’s not enough to erase all the good. Wade is still under team control for another four years, including at the league minimum in 2012, so the Yankees did a fine job of plucking a solid middle relief option off the scrap heap.

Luis Ayala

One of many players the Yankees brought to camp on minor league contracts, Ayala had a strong showing in Spring Training (one run, nine strikeouts, zero walks in 11.1 IP) and earned one of the last Opening Day roster spots. A mid-April lat strain sent him to the DL, but Ayala returned in early-May and was arguably the best last-guy-in-the-bullpen in baseball. He racked up a 2.09 ERA (4.19 FIP) in 56 IP, relying on his 50% ground ball rate to survive.

We joked all year about how Ayala was the worst sub-2.00 ERA pitcher in history (he had a sub-2.00 ERA until the last game of the season), but he truly was a solid pitcher given how he was used. His 0.89 gmLI (Leverage Index when entering games) ranked 117th out of the 134 qualified relievers, meaning he did most of his work in low-leverage, blowout situations. Someone has to throw those innings though, and Ayala did a fine job when called upon. It would be a surprise if he returned next season (this is exactly the kind of guy you get rid of a year too soon rather than a year too late), but Ayala was a positive contributor to the 2011 Yankees.

Report: Boras looking to rework Cano’s contract

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

According to George King of the New York Post, Scott Boras has recently tried to get in touch with Brian Cashman about seeing the Yankees drop Cano’s two options for 2012 and 2013 (worth $14M and $15M, respectively) and work out a new contract at market value. For their part, the Yankees have indicated that they’re very, very unlikely to rework their deal. Boras likely knew this would happen, which is why it’s just a little bit odd to see him publicly request it anyway. It’s also why, perversely, a deal might be possible.

On one hand it isn’t odd. As Mike noted earlier this morning, Boras only gets paid vis-à-vis his relationship with Cano when Cano signs a new contract. On the other hand, Boras knows that the Yankees have little incentive to pay Cano more now and that Cano has little leverage to force them to do so. A market value contract for Robbie is likely a non-starter for the Yankees. While $29M over two years isn’t exactly a Longoria-esque bargain, the organization simply has no incentive to replace his current salary with a much higher salary right this instant.  Cano’s salary demand won’t likely be any higher a year from now than it is right now, even if he has another monster year in 2012.

As such, Boras could simply be saber-rattling and letting the Yankees know he expects a big payday for Cano any time between now and two years from now. Boras also could be hoping that the Yankees would be silly enough to tear up Cano’s current deal and pay him at market value. After all, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Alternatively, he could be amenable to working out something in the middle, slightly below market value rate, right now. This would certainly represent a departure from Team Boras’ modus operandi. Boras has typically been known for pursuing a very aggressive year-to-year strategy with clients under contract and then pushing them to the biggest payday possible in the unrestricted free agent market. Look no further than Prince Fielder for an example. This could simply be posturing for a new deal two years from now, but if it isn’t and his demand for a new deal represents a negotiating strategy designed to get Cano a new deal this offseason, it would be advantageous to see the Yankees pursue a deal.

Meeting Boras halfway and working out a long-term extension solves a lot of problems at once. It provides Cano the long-term stability and big-time payday he’s looking for, and gives Boras his new contract commission, not that the latter is anyone’s concern. From the Yankees’ perspective, it allows them to lock Robbie up through his prime and into his mid-30s at a slightly below market rate. A reasonable guess as to a new extension for Cano might be replacing his 2012 and 2013 options with a six-year, $100M deal. This would pay Cano $16.67M per year through the 2017 season. Mike threw around the idea of a six-year, $120M deal back in August, an average of $20M per season.

If the Yankees have designs of keeping Cano around for the next half-decade, it would make sense to pursue this sort of deal now. It’s better to own Cano from 2012 through 2017 at $16 million per year than it is to own Cano from 2012 and 2013 at $14 and $15 million per year, respectively, and then from 2014 through 2019 at $20 million per year, assuming he can get that on the unrestricted free agent market.  Not only do they Yankees get a slight discount on the salary, but they also avoid paying him into his late-30s. It hardly even needs to be said that it’s dangerous to guarantee double-digit salaries to players throughout the inevitable decline that occurs as they enter their late thirties. If the Yankees can avoid that with Cano by paying him now and figuring out what happens after 2017 later, then they’re in a better and more flexible position than they would be if they signed him to the same deal two years later.

There’s risk, of course. Cano could regress back to the player we saw in his 2008 campaign and prove to be a poor value for the money, but it’s hard to find anyone who expects that to happen. Cano is among the very best players in the game, and he’s easily one of the best players on the Yankees.  Working out a deal now might be best for all parties. Something tells me it won’t happen, though. Boras is good at getting his clients the very best of paydays, and he may advise Cano to sit tight and wait until the terminus of the 2013 season if the Yankees aren’t interested in paying market value right now. They shouldn’t, of course, and they won’t. Brian Cashman wasn’t born yesterday.

What Went Right: Russell Martin

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

For a short time last winter it appeared that Jesus Montero would start the season behind the plate for the Yankees. Brian Cashman had announced the end of Jorge Posada‘s days behind the plate, and the only catcher who appeared ready was Montero. But it didn’t take long for the Yankees to get involved on a free agent catcher.

A few years ago it appeared that Russell Martin would be the Dodgers’ catcher of the future. After a solid 2006 season he broke out with a .368 wOBA in 2007, and followed that up with a .351 wOBA in 2008. He knew how to take a walk, hit for a solid average, and played excellent defense. But in 2009 things started to fall apart. He lost power and saw his batting average drop significantly. In 2010 things got even worse. Not only did he produce similar numbers, but he suffered a hip injury that limited him to just 476 PA. Rather than give him a raise over his $5.05 million 2010 salary, the Dodgers non-tendered him.

It came as little surprise that the Yankees showed immediate interest in Martin. While Montero generated plenty of buzz, there were still concerns about his ability to handle the catcher position in the big leagues. The safe bet, then, was to pursue a veteran catcher and try to ease Montero into the the role. They did just that in signing Martin. Amid some competition from AL East rivals they came in with the winning bid, a $4 million contract that included plenty of playing time bonuses. He earned every one of those incentives in 2011, bringing his total 2011 salary to $5.375 million.

To be sure, Martin was worth every penny of his incentivized salary. In April it looked as though he’d be an absolute steal, as he hit .293/.376/.587, including six homers. But once the calendar flipped to May his offensive production dropped off considerably. In his 391 post-April PA he hit .225/.313/.368 with 12 home runs. That did amount to 3.6 runs above average, though, which ranked 11th in the majors among catchers with at least 400 PA. That looks even better when considering Martin’s total value, the bulk of which comes from his defense.

Catcher defense has long been an elusive element of analysis. A catcher is responsible for so many aspects of the game, and it’s difficult to quantify many of them. But with so many sharp minds and increasingly accurate data, it was only a matter of time before someone, or someones, figured out a way. At this year’s Pitch f/x Summit Max Marchi presented his findings, in which he stated that catcher framing can mean a swing of 40 runs at the extremes (i.e., the best catcher can add 20 runs while the worst can cost 20 runs). Baseball Prospectus’s Mike Fast put together his own study of catcher framing, while The Hardball Times’s Bojan Koprivica studied catcher blocking. These elements both favor Martin greatly.

According to Fast’s study, Martin has been one of the best framers in the league over the last four years. He ranked second in the majors in total runs saved during that four-year period — to Jose Molina, of all people. Martin is also near the top of the league in runs saved per 120 games caught, but he also has far more playing time than those close to him. In the blocking study Martin came out even. Koprivica did provide us a great service, though, by combining Fast’s study with his own, and further with the FanGraphs data on catcher arms, to create an adjusted WAR leaderboard for 2011. Martin gains a win and a half when considering these factors, and ranks sixth among all catchers in baseball. All for that cool $5.3 million.

While we can’t attribute an improved Yankees pitching staff to Martin solely, he’s tough to ignore in that regard. This year the Yankees staff produced a 3.73 ERA, which ranked 11th in baseball, and a 3.87 FIP, which ranked 13th. Last year they had a 4.06 ERA (15th) and 4.34 FIP (25th). Considering how well Martin graded out in the catcher defense studies, it stands to reason that he played a significant role in that improvement.

There are two things a team can do to win ballgames: score runs and prevent them. Martin didn’t do much in the way of scoring runs, though he did produce above-average numbers, which is no small accomplishment from the catcher position. His greatest contribution, however, came on defense. He’s one of the best in the game, and that benefits the Yankees in many ways. It’s also a joyful sight to see, after watching Jorge Posada, one of the game’s worst defensive catchers, for the past decade-plus. That’s no slight on Jorge, given his offensive contributions. It’s just that Martin was just as valuable, but in a different way.

What Went Right: Ivan Nova

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

It’s hard to believe that given all the uncertainty surrounding the Yankees rotation coming into the season, things were actually worse down the stretch in 2010. Andy Pettitte was on the shelf, Phil Hughes was fading, and both Javy Vazquez and A.J. Burnett were disasters. Dustin Moseley drew some spot starts, as did the young Ivan Nova, a kid the Yankees left exposed in the Rule 5 Draft just one year prior. He pitched well (but not great) last September, enough to earn him a long look in Spring Training this season.

It was going to take a lot for Nova to pitch his way out of the rotation in camp, and he did no such thing by allowing just eleven hits and four runs in 20 IP across four starts and one relief appearance. Much like the end of 2010, Nova struggled to get through a lineup multiple times in April, completing five innings just once in his first three starts of 2011. A rather pointless extra innings relief appearance against the Blue Jays on April 19th seems to mark the end of his problem with retiring matters the second and third times around.

Nova allowed a total of four runs (three earned) in his next three starts, keeping the White Sox, Jays, and Rangers in check for 20 IP. The Royals roughed him up for eight runs in three innings on May 12th, but he rebounded and allowed no more than three runs in four of his next five starts. His best start of the season came on June 20th in Cincinnati, when he held the Reds to one run on four hits and no walks in eight innings, striking out seven. Nova was sporting a 4.12 ERA with rather mediocre peripherals (5.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 with ~55% ground balls) on July 1st, a performance that earned him a trip to the minors when Phil Hughes was ready to come off the DL.

(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

The Yankees wanted Nova to focus on improving his slider in Triple-A, promising him a return trip to the bigs at some point. He made just three starts in the minors, allowing six runs in 16 IP, but the important thing is that he struck out 18 and walked just two. A line drive to the ankle put him on the shelf for about a week, but Nova returned to the Major League rotation at the end of July and looked like a change man. He dominated the Orioles and ChiSox in his first two starts back, allowing just three runs and one walk against 16 strikeouts in 14.2 IP. The Yankees planned to send him back to minors after the start against Chicago, but he pitched so well they just couldn’t do it. Nova allowed more than three runs just twice in eleven starts after coming back up, pitching to a 3.18 ERA with 5.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and ~52% grounders.

That post-demotion performance earned Nova the Game Two assignment in the ALDS, though some rain shenanigans meant he was technically coming out of the bullpen in relief of CC Sabathia in Game One. He held the Tigers to two runs in 6.1 IP in the win, and both runs were inherited runners that came around to score while he sat in the dugout. Nova’s season did end on a bit of a sour note, as he allowed two homers in two innings of work in the deciding Game Five, leaving the game with a tight forearm. An MRI revealed a Grade I flexor strain, an injury that is expected to heal during the offseason and have him ready in time for Spring Training.

Nova will get some serious consideration for Rookie of the Year after going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, the most wins by a Yankees rookie since Stan Bahnsen won 17 games in 1968. Only two rookies have won more games this century (CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander with 17 apiece), and his season-ending stretch of 16 straight starts without a loss was the longest by a rookie in at least 25 years. Nova was a touch better than league average with a 4.01 FIP thanks to his 0.71 HR/9, the 23rd lowest among the 94 starters that qualified for the ERA title. Thank his 52.7% ground ball rate for that. All 13 of the homers he allowed were solo shots, and only three came at homer-happy Yankee Stadium.

It goes without saying that Nova was one of biggest bright spots for the 2011 Yankees, and he will be counted on for much more going forward. His confidence was through the roof late in the season, and that slider the brain trust wanted him to work on improved to the point where it was his go-to pitch by the end of the season. The flexor strain is a bit of a concern, but it’s the first arm-related injury of his entire career and he’s got all winter to rest. The hard part comes now, and that’s doing it again for a second year in a row. I’m sure Nova knows this and is ready for the challenge.

Chavez would “deeply consider” a return to the Yankees in 2012

A few weeks ago we heard that Eric Chavez was “heavily leaning” towards retirement, but his agent Scott Leventhal told Jerry Crasnick today that no decision has been made yet, just that it will come “at some point” this winter. “He truly enjoyed playing for the Yankees,” said Leventhal. “If he decides to return next season, he would deeply consider a return to New York if there is a fit.”

Alex Rodriguez isn’t getting any younger, so the Yankees figure to add some kind of third base insurance this winter. Chavez did a fine job last season (when he wasn’t injured), and although I’m sure the Yankees would welcome him back, they can’t wait around forever for him to make up his mind. I’d like to see him back, but he’s not that important to the team’s success. Here’s the review of Chavez’s season I wrote just yesterday.