What’s sustainable and what’s not from Curtis Granderson

(Jim Mone/AP)

We can all find the date on his Baseball Reference game log. On August 10 Curtis Granderson, then hitting .240/.307/.417, started working with hitting instructor Kevin Long in order to improve on what had been a disappointing season. Granderson didn’t start either game in Texas, though he made appearances in both. When he returned to the starting lineup on August 13 in Kansas City, he appeared to be a more confident hitter.

For the rest of the season Granderson hit .261/.356/.564 in 192 PA, which improved his season stats to .247/.324/.468. That was just about in line with his 2009 numbers, with a little added power. The Yanks hoped they were getting something closer to the .280/.365/.494 Granderson of 2008. In 2011 they’ll again hope he can show signs of improvement. There are some indicators that might be the case. Let’s take a look at a few improvements Granderson made, and whether they’re sustainable.

Walk rate. Before his work with Long, Granderson drew 29 walks in 335 PA, or 8.7 percent. This harkened back to his breakout 2007 season, except without the batting average and power. It made for a pretty miserable OBP.

After the work with Long, Granderson walked 24 times in 192 PA, or 12.5 percent. This is more like his previous two years, in which he walked more than 10 percent of the time. I’m not sure if he can sustain that exact rate, but it is noteworthy that none of these walks was intentional. He earned them fair and square. It was enough to bring his season average up to 10 percent, which is right in line with 2009, but a bit below 2008.

We have seen a few projection systems try to peg down Granderson, but few of them see him getting much above that 10 percent marker: Both PECOTA and Marcel have him at 9.9 percent. Yet I can certainly envision him finishing with a walk rate between 11 and 12 percent. If he’s hitting ahead of, say, Russell Martin, pitchers might be a bit more careful with him. This is one of his improvements I think he can sustain.

Power. One of Granderson’s saving graces in the first part of the season was his power. In those 335 PA he hit 10 homers, 11 doubles, and six triples, which amounted to a .417 SLG (.177 ISO). While that’s good for a center fielder, it’s not quite up to the standard Granderson had set in the previous three years, when his lowest ISO was .204. And so he and Long went to work.

In the season’s final month and a half Granderson hit 14 homers, or one every 13.7 PA. That was good for a .564 SLG and .303 ISO. Clearly he’s not going to sustain that over a full 600 PA. Only one hitter crossed the .300 ISO barrier in 2010, and that was the home run champ, Jose Bautista. Only one other player came within 10 points of it. Granderson will not slug .550 on the season in 2011.

Still, the improvement does give me confidence that he can return to a SLG around .500. It will depend on his batting average, for sure, but he’s displayed some pretty impressive power in the past. I’d probably peg him at a .220 to .230 ISO, which is around where he landed last year. Spread over an entire season that will be immensely valuable, especially for a center fielder.

Fact: Only four center fielders finished with a better ISO than Granderson in 2010. Two of them, Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez, primarily played the corner positions. One of the others, Colby Rasmus, finished one measly point ahead. Make no mistake: Granderson can rake.

Batting average. This has kind of been Granderson’s boon in the past two seasons. In 2007 he hit .302 and in 2008 he hit .280, but those were on the backs of some pretty high BABIP numbers. When his BABIP dropped in 2009 and 2010, so did his average. Yet he did recover a bit after his work with Long.

Before August 9 Granderson had a .240 BA on a .284 BABIP. After the work he had a .261 BA on a .264 BABIP. Obviously the change in approach had something to do with the fluctuating numbers. He walked more and hit more homers, hence fewer balls in play. But I still wonder if he has room to improve that BABIP. If so, he could see a slight increase in his average.

For a quick look, here’s how some of the popular projection engines see Granderson’s 2011.

Bill James: .264/.341/.471
Marcel: .253/.329/.448
PECOTA: .257/.333/.460

The current projection engines don’t make much of Granderson’s in-season improvement. Nor should they. They’re not there to filter out the nuance of how a season progresses. They’re taking the long view. And in the long view, there’s not much that suggests an improvement from Granderson. But our exacting view just might hold merit. After all, he did change something, and he did notice improved results after that.

Given what we know about Granderson and what we saw from him in August and September, here’s my admittedly biased projection for his 2011 season:

.275/.365/.490

Is that really so bold?

Sorting out the last bench spot

I can has bench job? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You know we’re getting down to the final few days of the offseason when we’re continually talking about the last spot on the bench. The Yankees have a few in-house options for that spot alongside Andruw Jones, Frankie Cervelli, and Eduamiro Penunez, so let’s sort them out…

Justin Maxwell
What He Offers: speed, power, walks, defense
What He Lacks: contact skills, durability

Probably the most physically gifted of the team’s fifth bench options, Maxwell’s relatively short big league career (260 PA) features a .178 ISO and 14.8% walks, exceptionally good numbers. For comparison’s sake, Jason Heyward had a .179 ISO with a 14.6% walk rate in his stellar rookie season last year. I could be a function of small sample size, though it’s worth noting that in exactly 900 PA at the Double and Triple-A levels, Maxwell owns a .222 ISO and an 11.6% walk rate. The underlying skills are there, which Baseball America noted when they named him Washington’s eighth best prospect before last season. He’s also a high-percentage basestealer (78.9% success rate in the minors) with a pair of 35 SB seasons under his belt in the high minors.

Guys with power, speed, the ability to draw walks and defend well in center are a rare breed, but what’s holding Maxwell back are some big time holes in his swing. He’s struck out in 37.9% of his big league at-bats, 26.6% in Double and Triple-A. He’s very similar to Andruw Jones in that you’ll get a low batting average, but he’ll still get on base at an okay clip and occasionally run into a few pitches. There’s also the injury bug. Maxwell is on his way back from Tommy John surgery right now (on his non-throwing elbow), but he’s also battled wrist and toe issues in the past.

Greg Golson
What He Offers: speed, defense, a tiny amount of power
What He Lacks: ability to draw walks, make consistent contact

Golson did a fine job as a late-inning defensive replacement and occasional pinch-runner last year, but he’s been around long enough that we know what he brings to the table offensively, and it’s just not much. In nearly 1,600 PA at Double and Triple-A, he owns a very good .161 ISO (though most of that is tied up in Double-A) but subpar walk (5.7%) and strikeout (34.1%) rates. Thankfully he can defend very well in three outfield spots and be a highly effective basestealer (78.9% success rate with no fewer than 20 SB in four of the last five years).

Limited by his lack of offensive ability, featuring not even one standout tool at the plate (power or getting on base or being able to make a ton of contact), means Golson’s speed and defense have to be that spectacular for him to hold down a roster spot.

Colin Curtis
What He Offers: a little of this, a little of that
What He Lacks: a standout tool

Lil' CC did a good. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The forgotten man, Curtis has one thing on both Maxwell and Golson: he’s a left-handed hitter, and the Yankees have zero of those on their bench right now. He’s a classic ‘tweener, doing just enough to get by but lacking a standout tool that can carry him. His offensive performance at Double and Triple-A is fine but nothing special (.118 ISO, 8.5% walks, 17.7% strikeouts) in a little more than 1,400 PA, and he’s never been much of a basestealer (just 25-for-42 in his career). Curtis can man the outfielder corners capably and play center in an emergency, but he’s not good enough to play their regularly.

* * *

Of course, the wildcards in all of this are are Kevin Russo, Eric Chavez, and Ronnie Belliard. Russo isn’t not great offensively (.093 ISO, 8.7% walks, 17.0% strikeouts in over 950 PA at the upper levels of the minors) or on the bases (55-for-77 in SB attempts in his career, 71.4%), but he does something none of those three guys above can do: play the infield. The Yankees have groomed him as a utility player basically his entire career, so he has experience playing the three non-first base infield spots as well as all three outfield spots (mostly left though). Since that last man on the bench doesn’t figure to see too many plate appearances, maybe they’ll decide to go with the versatile guy just to have at least two players on the bench capable of playing the infield (Russo and Penunez) and two capable of playing the outfield (Russo and Jones).

As for Chavez and Belliard … they’re the veterans on minor league deals. I have little faith in Chavez staying healthy or being productive through Spring Training, though it’s worth noting that his lefty bat would make sense for the bench. Belliard is probably the front-runner for a job given his versatility and occasionally productive bat, though he’s not going to swing the balance of power in the AL East.

If I’m picking out of those six, I’d probably go with Belliard for the time being. Maxwell is clearly the best player of the bunch, and that’s why he should spend the summer playing regularly and batting near the top of Triple-A Scranton’s order. He’s been banged up pretty bad in three of the last four years, so catching up on some at-bats wouldn’t be the end of the world. I think the chances of the Yankees carrying both Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena to start the year went down considerably once Belliard and Chavez came aboard, but I’m not sure how much that helps. Granted, it’s the 25th guy on the roster, but a little optimization never hurt.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 7th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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Preparing for the new season

In the early minutes of Super Bowl XLV, we caught a glimpse of Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez some popcorn in one of Cowboys Stadium’s luxury boxes*, a subtle reminder that baseball season is on the horizon. Football season is over while basketball and hockey are in their versions of the dogs days of summer, but equipment trucks across the country are now en route to Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona. Pitchers and catchers are due to report in just a week, position players a week after that.

Today, Monday, is the last Monday we’ll have to experience without some form of baseball until November. Pitchers and catchers reporting isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s comforting to know that the process of a new season is beginning. Photos of bullpen sessions and reports from batting practice will soon follow, and battles for the few open jobs on the Yankees’ roster will begin to take shape. Robbie Cano will rake and rake and rake, CC Sabathia will treat innings like Michael Cera’s character in Juno treated orange Tic-Tacs, and A-Rod will get caught doing something awkward on camera (he’s already one-for-one in 2011). Some young kid will step up and wow you in Spring Training while another falls back and disappoints. Those are the rites of baseball season, as is this final boring week before camp.

If you’re reading this site, then chances are the game consumes your daily routine nine months out of the year, if not more. This week is the last without baseball for a long time, so enjoy it.

* Don’t hate, you know you’d switch lives with him in a heartbeat.

Open Thread: Super Sunday

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

So, who do you all have today? I’m thinking the Steelers, though for no particular reason. Picking football games isn’t exactly my forte. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:29pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and be sure to chat about it here.

Pitching Options, Part 23094.5

One positive Saunders brings to New York: Phil Hughes hair. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

It’s seems like we’ve been doing this forever, looking at vaguely mediocre (sometimes downright bad) pitchers and trying to come up with legit reasons that these guys actually deserve a spot on the team. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m really, really getting tired of this. If Cashman (or anyone else on the Yankees) could just pull a fifth starter out of his closet right about now, I think we’d all really appreciate it. Personally, I wouldn’t even be mad at him for holding out this long. He was just waiting until he was sure he needed to break the emergency glass. So that’s what he meant about preaching patience.

Sadly, this doesn’t look like the case, so it’s back to the depressing reality that if you’re still on the market right now, you’re not very good at all. Rosenthal reported the Yankees are tossing around names of some possible lefties. Stephen’s already covered the Padres, so I thought I’d look beyond of the pitcher-friendly walls of Petco Park and see what else is out there. Luckily, I don’t have to move away from the west to find other possibilities.

Perhaps Joe Saunders? Saunders was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 1999 but didn’t sign, and the Angels nabbed him in 2002 as 12th overall pick. He did well in the minors, although he missed all of 2003 with a shoulder injury between his low A and high A stints. By 2005, he was pitching in AAA, and spent three years bouncing between AAA and the big club, making 13 starts for the Angels in 2006 and 18 in 2007. In 2008, he finally broke into the Opening Day Angels rotation and rewarded the Angels by throwing nearly 200 IP with a 3.41 ERA and a 4.36 FIP, along with a career-low 1.212 WHIP. His 2009, sadly, was not half as impressive, seeing an increase in his ERA, FIP, and BB/9, with a drop in strikeouts. When he performed at his 2009 and not 2008 levels in 2010, the Angels traded him to Arizona for Dan Haren. Saunders’ short stint in Arizona helped his numbers (especially his K/BB, which went from 1.45 to 2.63), but it’s hard to say how much of that was from a whole new crop of batters unfamiliar with him and how much was actual improvement on his part.

Even with Saunders’ All-Star 2008, his numbers have remained fairly consistent. He’s picked up between four and five strikeouts and two to three walks per nine IP each year. What concerns me is the 43.7% of groundballs he got in 2010, a huge decrease from his earlier numbers. Also, Saunders has been moving to progressively more and more hitter-friendly parks, so we’d be looking at an even bigger growth of his HR/FB% if the man was pitching in the bandboxes that the Yankees play most of their games in. The only thing Saunders gives us for sure besides these average-to-mediocre numbers is innings – since his shoulder injury in 2003, the lowest IP he’s thrown so far is 186.

Maybe there’s someone better floating around on the west coast?  Gio Gonzalez, for one, is perfectly accustomed to being moved around. He was drafted by the White Sox in the first round (38th overall), but was traded to the Phillies as a player to be named later when the ChiSox picked up Jim Thome. The Phillies than traded him back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia, and the Sox sent him away again, this time to the A’s with Ryan Sweeney for Nick Swisher.

As a Bay Area resident, I saw this guy throw a couple of games, and to my non-statistical eyes, he looked good. 2010 was Gonzo’s first full season, and he didn’t disappoint, starting over thirty games with an ERA of 3.23 and a FIP of 3.78. His problem is and has always been his walks: his career-low BB/9 is 4.1, which certainly isn’t anything to be happy about, and it came with his career-low K/9 of 7.7, a huge decrease from his 2009 total of 10 k/9. There’s also the problem of the cost: the A’s could conceivably ask for plenty for Gonzales, who has potential and many years of team control left even if he’s still trying to get a handle on throwing strikes at a major league level.

These guys both line up as solid ‘mehs,’ for the coveted position of fifth starter of the Yankees. They’re coming from weak divisions into the AL East, which is always a cause for concern. Not only that, but even assuming that both pitchers find their best stuff, there’s no denying the obvious: their stuff is just not that good. Baseball, please come back so we can stop writing about all these mediocre possibilities we don’t really want. Thank you.

Well…Would You? (The Cano Breakdown)

Yeah...I'm going to go ahead and take that number three spot now, um-kay?(AP Photo/John Heller)

Yesterday, I raised a hypothetical scenario in which a straight-up Matt Cain for Robinson Cano swap was offered to Brian Cashman by Giants G.M. Brian Sabean. In doing so, I ducked some flying tomatoes and analyzed Cain’s statistical body of work thus far, which reveals him to be an excellent National League pitcher and a prototypical workhorse – but not an elite hurler. On many Major League teams (I have it at 15), Cain’s an opening day starter. But on a team that boasts Timmy the Freak and two other pitchers with 133 and 136 ERA+, he’s just part of the machine. In a roundabout way, I also mentioned in yesterday’s post why I didn’t present a Cano for Lincecum, Cano for Josh Johnson, or Cano for Felix scenario. Simply put, those pitchers would likely require more than Robbie in exchange for a top-five-in-all-of-baseball ace. Then again, maybe not.

So far, the overwhelming consensus among RAB readers is that the Giants would need to give more to make a Cain for Cano trade even moderately feasible. Far more. Some even went as far as to insist that they wouldn’t trade Cano at this stage of his career for the best pitcher on the planet. Personally, I would trade my all-world 147 WAR mother for King Felix and, being a die-hard, lifelong Yankees fan raised in the Bronx, she would grudgingly approve. With an accumulated 24.2 WAR and outstanding peripherals for his first six seasons, Felix, at age 24, is presumed to be on the cusp of emerging as a once-in-a-generation pitcher. Is this hyperbole? I think so. But his trends portend inevitable greatness and the durability required to ultimately produce a Hall of Fame body of work.

In comparison, Robinson Cano is an elite middle-infielder and possibly the best second baseman in baseball right now. There’s obviously huge value in that. But some of his perceived inconsistencies also preclude him from being included among the collection of modern-era greats like Kent, Biggio, Alomar, Sandberg, Carew, and Morgan – which may or may not be fair. While it’s true that Cano’s already at least as good as Ryno and Biggio were at similar stages of their respective careers, longevity will determine whether or not he belongs in the bling-and-grit-encrusted penthouse of the all-time-all-world second basemen’s club.

Point being? Demanding Felix for Cano isn’t all that crazy after all.

But let’s slog ahead with the Cain-for-Cano proposal anyway and see if it would even remotely make sense from the Yankees’ standpoint. Which means this time, it’s Cano’s turn to go under the microscope.

First, to reiterate: A Matt Cain acquisition would change the entire complexion of the Yankees’ rotation, one that is in dire need of stability. Phil Hughes is coming off his most labor-intensive season to date, Sergio Mitre is replacement-level, Ivan Nova looks depressed about something, and A.J. Burnett is an enigma whom I’d argue could, in fact, be worse in 2011. With Cain, the starting five instantly goes from “C.C. and Phil and where are my pills?” to a rotation that can match blows with Boston, Tampa, Texas, Toronto, and the always annoying L.A. Angels. Again, Matty Cain’s not a shutdown, smackdown, show-pony ace. We know this. But did we know this?

In case you’ve misplaced your magnifying glass, Matt Cain’s purple line of consistent very goodness is not far removed from C.C. Sabathia’s crimson line of utter domination. In fact, take away Cain’s 2006, and you have very similar pitchers (at least in terms of ERA+). Looking at the graph, one could also deduce that the great Tim Lincecum is a spectacularly hot mess of inconsistency. Food for thought.

But, as many of you have already noted, giving up Cano at this stage of his career for a non-elite starting pitcher could very well be the height of insanity. At 27, Robbie posted career highs in wOBA (.389), OPS+ (142) and WAR (6.1), finishing third in the final AL MVP race. In 2010, he additionally posted an increased UZR of -0.6 (up from a Steve Saxian -11.2 in ’08) and an on-base-percentage of .381, further dispelling the schadenfreude brigade, who had seemingly taken perverse joy in his defensive ineptitude and lack of plate discipline. That Robbie also plays a premium defensive position (and elegantly so) that doesn’t historically generate impressive power numbers only adds to his overall value.

Dealing Cano also presents the obvious conundrum of trying to fill a void just created. The Yankees would have no in-house replacement for him, unless you consider replacement level (Ramiro Pena) adequate. Even with his auspicious debut at Double-A Trenton last year in which he posted a .900 OPS in limited time, David Adams won’t be ready for quite a while. And as for free agent second basemen, the best of the remaining crop is the consistently mediocre Willy Aybar, who nonetheless sputtered to an abysmal -.18 “meh” rating last year (82 OPS+ ).

If Cashman did accept the Sabean proposal, he’d be doing so with an eye on the 2012 free agent market, which will include premium second basemen Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks. Obviously, neither player would completely fill the void in production left by Cano, but Weeks’ 125 OPS+ and plus-defense would ease the pain and force me to buy his T-shirt.

The ability to acquire Weeks or Phillips for nothing more than big money and a top draft pick who may or may not spiral into a dark abyss in his third year of minor league ball underscores a critical trend: Position players and relievers – even elite ones – are viewed as largely fungible. As great as Robbie is, there will always be another second baseman around the bend who can at least approximate his level of production. In contrast, top-shelf free agent pitchers are going the way of Starry Night mouse pads. Cliff Lee’s mega-deal with the Phillies notwithstanding, the dearth of this past off-season’s starting pitcher options included league average slop-servers Jon Garland, Vincente Padilla, Javy Vazquez and Carl Pavano – any of whom would get chewed to bits in the AL East. Also, if you think you have a strong enough constitution, have a glance at the 2012 free agent list as further evidence of what the future of free agent starting pitching options looks like.

Finally, there’s one more thing to consider: As great a player as Robinson Cano has become, when plotted on a graph, his yearly offensive output in his first six seasons resembles a Charlie Brown T-shirt.

Extraplating from this, there’s a very real chance that Cano regresses to his mean in 2011, which would still provide outstanding output of around 120 OPS+ and 3 WAR. I suppose one could also make the case that his freakish 2011 campaign is merely the beginning of a path to other-worldly dominance, which I find possible and desirable but not bloody likely. Either way, I wouldn’t do the deal. Not for Matt Cain (whom I still find to be criminally undervalued) and perhaps not even for Lincecum. Cano is young, durable, and when in one of his grooves, utterly ferocious. Perhaps a year ago, I make this deal. But now that Robbie’s also mastered the art of plate discipline, he may be poised to seize the torch from both A-Rod and Teixeira as the most dangerous hitter on the team.

Still, if the Yankees plan on seriously competing for the playoffs in 2011, they simply cannot go without another stalwart arm in the rotation. Cashman knows this, which is why such an offering would give him more pause than most of us would like to think.