RAB Fantasy Baseball League(s)

Just a heads up, our master relegation plan will not be put into place this year, but from what I understand there are still a few spots open in the various leagues. If you’re a commissioner of one of those leagues and need some people, post your league info in the comments so people can sign up. Also include your draft date, just so everyone knows what’s up. Thanks.

The settings are the same as last year, so you can see them here.

The Ruben Rivera Trade Tree

On of my new favorite sites (or Tumblrs, I think that’s what they’re called) is MLB Trade Trees, which is exactly what you think it is. They’re graphics of MLB trades, like the one you see of Ruben Rivera above. Of course that one could be continued, since Robin Ventura turned into Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor, then Scott Proctor turned into Wilson Betemit, then Betemit and two throw-in prospects turned into Nick Swisher. The Gary Sheffield tree is pretty cool too, amazing how much it impacted the Brewers. Anyone, I recommend adding the site to your bookmarks or RSS feed or whatever, this kind of stuff is always fun.

(Just a reminder: Craig Robinson of Flip Flop Fly Ball did a killer Swisher trade graphic for us not too long ago)

What’s the deal with all these oblique injuries?

As you’ve probably noticed, the Yankees have been dealing with an abnormal amount of oblique injuries this year. Curtis Granderson is the latest casualty, but Joba Chamberlain, Greg Golson, and Sergio Mitre have also been hit at some point. Dan Barbarisi spoke to Dr. Jonathan Glashow, the co-chair of sports medicine at Mt. Sinai, who indicated that the rash of oblique issues could be tied to imbalanced training. “There’s been a rash of focus on core strengthening, the generic core,” said Glashow. “But it’s not so simple. If you strengthen part of the core more than another part of the core, it creates an imbalance and leads to these oblique injuries.”

Essentially, players might be working their abs and back too much during the offseason (or, more likely, their obliques not enough), creating muscles that are more developed than the connecting tissue. I’m no doctor, but I’m guessing you can think of it like a chain, meaning the core muscles are only as strong as the weakest link. Whatever’s going on, hopefully it stops soon and everyone heals up in a timely manner.

The RAB Radio Show: March 24, 2011

Time is running down in spring training, and the Yankees have a few decisions to make. With the pitching staff they’ll be taking on a few risky players, which could blow up on them early in the season. Mike and I talk about possible targets if they need a pitcher sometime early in the season.

Podcast run time 31:59

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

The one-two hitter platoon

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

We know the Yankees and Joe Girardi have been tinkering with the lineup during the last few days of Spring Training, but there’s only so much tinkering that can be done. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Robbie Cano are going to going to hit in the middle of the order no matter what, and it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, and Russell Martin will follow them at some point. The only thing left to toy with is the top two spots of the order, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Brett Gardner, the team leader in on-base percentage last year, has been getting reps at leadoff over the last week or so while Derek Jeter slid down to second (in the lineup, not the position). It makes perfect sense; if Gardner’s going to get on base that often, he should do it ahead of the power hitters. But Brett is presumably going give way to Andruw Jones against lefties at least some of the time and rightfully so. He’s no world-beater against southpaws (.316 wOBA in his career, albeit in a relatively small sample) whereas Jones tore them to shreds last season (.402 wOBA). That makes for a sticky situation, because Andruw won’t be hitting leadoff against lefties (or ever), so Girardi will need to employ two lineups.

Last night’s game featured a familiar arrangement, with Jeter leading off and Nick Swisher hitting second, of course against lefty Jo-Jo Reyes. The rumblings of a platoon that features Gardner-Jeter versus righties and Jeter-Swisher versus lefties have been popular for about a week now, but is it the best setup? I think we can all agree that Jeter-Swisher is the best arrangement against lefties since the Cap’n absolutely destroyed southpaws last season (.382) and has for the last few years (.396 wOBA vs. LHP from 2007-2009 as well), but is Gardner-Jeter really better than Gardner-Swisher against righties?

The answer, as you probably suspect, is no. Jeter hit just .246/.315/.317 (.286 wOBA) against righties last year while Swisher tagged them to the tune of .285/.330/.547 (.376 wOBA). Over the last three seasons, it’s .285/.350/.383 for Jeter and .255/.337/.492 for Swish. If you want to do a 5-3-2 weighting system, where 2010 counts for 50%, 2009 counts for 30%, and 2008 counts for 20% (so the most recent season counts the most), you get .276/.340/.368 for the Cap’n and .265/.335/.513 for Swish. By pretty much any measure, the Yankees’ right fielder has the advantage because his big time edge in power output trumps the shortstop’s slight edge in on-base ability.

Of course you probably knew that already, plus the Yankees aren’t exactly in a rush to move Jeter down in the lineup anyway. He’s built up quite the bit of leeway and has plenty of rope so to speak, so it’ll take a total offensive collapse to see him moved down towards the bottom third of the order. But yeah, batting him first or second against right-handed pitchers is hurting the team to an extent, though it’s not a huge difference even over the course of a 162-game season. The Yankees faced a right-handed starter about two-thirds of the time over the last few years, which is a pretty normal percentage, so batting Jeter second against them instead of Swisher will probably cost the team something like five runs next year. It’s not ideal, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

Hughes reintroduces a slider

(Kathy Willens/AP)

The fastball has always been Phil Hughes‘s best pitch. Even when the Yankees drafted him out of high school in 2004 they liked it for a number of reasons: the velocity, the late life, and the way Hughes commanded it. Through years of development, both in the minors and majors, the fastball has been the only consistent part of Hughes’s repertoire. All of his other pitches have been in flux.

In his breakout 2006 season he featured a curveball that projected to be a plus pitch. It’s a testament to Hughes’s talent, since he had added the pitch after turning pro. But by the time he hit the majors full-time in 2009 he had changed his grip on the curve, utilizing the same knuckle grip that served Mike Mussina well throughout his 18-year career. Hughes also changed his secondary fastball, from a two-seamer in the minors to a cutter in the bigs. Yet even that is changing.

For his entire career Hughes has worked to add a serviceable changeup to his repertoire. As we’ve seen, that project hasn’t progressed particularly well. Before the 2005 season Baseball America said that Hughes had good arm action on the change and that it projected to be at least an average pitch. There was similar optimism in 2006. But by 2007, when Hughes was the No. 4 prospect in baseball, Baseball America had lost faith in the pitch’s development. We’ve seen Hughes emphasis his work on the changeup during the last two spring trainings, but we’ve yet to see him implement it effectively. Chances are it won’t play a prominent role in his 2011 repertoire.

Still, Hughes isn’t headed into the season with the same four-seamer, cutter, knuckle curve arsenal that he featured in 2010. Last night The Star-Ledger’s Marc Carig noted that Hughes changed the grip on his cutter, and that it now breaks more like a slider. “Slower, but more break,” wrote Carig. That appears to be an additional weapon against righties, who hit .253/.292/.381 against him last year. This is nothing new for Hughes. In fact, his slider was once thought to be his best complimentary pitch.

Baseball America provides a telling timeline. We can look at their profiles of Hughes from the year he was drafted through the year they ranked him the No. 4 prospect in the game to see how his slider developed — or, in this case, declined. In its 2005 Yankees prospects list, BA had this to say about the slider:

“Hughes changes a hitter’s sightline with a slider that at times has good bite and depth.”

I’ve heard more glowing reports of that slider, including the one from MLB.com’s draft tracker, which read: “Flashes major league slider w/ late bite, good down plane.”

Hughes came into his own in 2005, dominating Low-A Charleston and heading up to High-A Tampa before an injury ended his season. It was the first time many Yanks fans heard the name Hughes, as he had been connected to many teams in trade rumors (the most prominent of which I remember being Mark Kotsay). After the season, BA made another note about his slider:

“He has a hard, late-biting slider that the Yankees wouldn’t let him throw in last year, but he likes it better than his curveball and has the go-ahead to use it again in 2006. … As he reintroduces his slider, he should become a starter with well-above-average control and above-average command who throws three plus pitches for strikes.”

Only that reintroduction didn’t happen in 2006. Not that it mattered. Hughes steamrolled both High-A Tampa and AA Trenton, earning him accolades from nearly every scouting source. And he did it all without his slider. From BA 2007:

“Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. … While his slider is still a good pitch, he rarely throws it in games anymore.”

We haven’t really seen the pitch since. It was a bit of a disappointment to see him scrap an above-average — or at least potentially above-average — offering, especially has the effectiveness of his curveball has ostensibly faded. One thing I’d hoped to see from Hughes this year was a change back to his straight-grip curve, rather than the knuckle grip. But perhaps altering his cutter grip to more resemble a slider can produce a similar effect.

The change will undoubtedly improve his performance against righties. Against lefties he’ll still feature the cutter, which he can throw inside, a la Mariano Rivera. But unless he starts throwing his curve for strikes, he’s going to struggle to put away lefties. There will be days when he’s feeling strong and his fastball will be enough to dominate them; we saw that in the ALDS when he tore through the Twins’ tough lefties. But on days when his fastball isn’t at 100 percent he’ll need that other offering. So while the development of his slider can be seen as a positive, it still doesn’t address his most glaring flaw: an out pitch against lefties.

Don’t be surprised to see Hughes go to the slider fairly often against right-handed hitters this season. The pitch is an old friend, one of the weapons that put him high on draft boards in 2004. It should prove an effective addition and help Hughes improve during his second full season as a starter. Lefties might still pose a problem, but the slider will go a long way in making him a more complete pitcher.