Open Thread: Morgan Ensberg

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Long before the days of the Mark Teixeira, the Yankees used a number of stopgap first baseman during the end of the Jason Giambi era. There was Doug Mientkiewicz, Josh Phelps, Andy Phillips, and even Morgan Ensberg. Ensberg had some huge years in Houston (.391 wOBA in 2003, .395 wOBA and a fourth place finish in the MVP voting in 2005), but he signed with the Yanks three years ago today after an ugly 2007 season (.318 wOBA) with the ‘Stros and Padres. He was supposed to be a righty hitting option of the bench that could fill-in at the infield corners, but that never materialized. Ensberg had just a .228 wOBA in 80 plate appearances for New York before being designated for assignment on June 1st. He finished out the year in Cleveland’s minor league system, and was out of baseball for good by Spring Training of the following season. Ensberg is now on Twitter and runs a fantastic blog, but like many before him and what will surely be many after him, his Yankees career was completely forgettable.

Anywho, here is the night’s open thread. The Nets are the only local team in action tonight, so you’re on your own when it comes to entertainment. You all know what to do, so go bananas.

Freddy Garcia wants to pitch in New York

Via MLBTR, free agent right-hander Freddy Garcia recently told a Venezuelan newspaper that he wants to pitch for the Yankees in 2011. “My preference is to be with the New York Yankees, and it’s not unreasonable to have that in mind, because I’ve demonstrated that I can be useful,” said Fred. “A team like New York would be ideal for my age, [as would] playing in a successful, media-heavy, demanding division. Without doubt it would be an inspiration.”

I’m glad he’s inspired by playing in New York, because his 5.10 K/9 and 1.32 HR/9 from a year ago doesn’t inspire any confidence in me. I have a feeling Bartolo Colon might be the only free agent pitching signing for the time being, but once Spring Training starts and the season gets away, it’ll be open season on the trade market.

The last of a dying breed

Chances are it didn’t register as anything more than a blip on your radar, but 42-year-old reliever Russ Springer announced his retirement over the weekend. Why should you care? Because as Cliff Corcoran explains, Springer was the last active player to have suited up for a losing Yankees team. He appeared in 14 games as a rookie for the 1992 Yankees, a team that went 76-86 and finished fourth in what was then a seven-team AL East. Springer’s career in pinstripes lasted only those 14 games (6.19 ERA in 16 IP); he was traded to the Angels after the season as part of the package for Jim Abbott.

The Yankees have finished over .500 every year since then, and they own the major’s longest streak of consecutive winning seasons. The Red Sox and Phillies are the only other clubs to have not had at least one losing season since 2006 2007. That blows my mind.

The RAB Radio Show: January 31, 2011

RAB took a field trip to Foley’s on Saturday for SABR day, sponsored by Baseball Prospectus. They ran four discussion panels, and they were all of note in some way or another. Mike and I break them down.

There’s some great stuff in there about Hit F/X and Field F/X, off-field value, prospect evaluation, and more.

Podcast run time 33:43

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Mariano’s 2010 dip against lefties

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

By the results, there was nothing out of the ordinary with Mariano Rivera‘s 2010 season. He hit a couple of rough patches, including a period early in the season where his ribs prevented him from pitching in games, but at the end he had delivered his customary sub-2.00 ERA. His peripherals also came close to his 2009 numbers. The biggest difference was in his strikeouts, down to 6.75 per nine. While we typically regard Mo as immortal around these parts, I wouldn’t blame anyone for asking whether this forecasts some trouble for 2011.

While Mo’s strikeout numbers were down across the board, the biggest difference came against left-handed hitters. He still struck out 31 of the 120 righties he faced, 8.90 K/9, but he struck out only 14 of 110 lefties, 4.40 K/9. In 2009 he struck out 35 of 130 lefties faced, or 9.45 per nine. Mo has always been particularly tough against lefties, getting them to hit dinky grounders and humpback liners in addition to the swings and misses. Might this decreased effectiveness against lefties affect his 2011 performance?

In order to determine the answer we have to find the reason why Mo was less effective in striking out left-handed hitters in 2010. Unfortunately, this is not a question which we are readily equipped to answer. It’s more of a scouting issue, and while we’ve learned plenty by watching hundreds of games every year, this is still a question that is better directed towards a trained scout. In fact, it would probably be best answered by multiple scouts, since the differences can be so subtle and nuanced that different people might see it in different ways. But we do have one tool at our immediate disposal: FanGraphs heat maps.

This morning FanGraphs proprietor David Appelman introduced a customizable heat map tool that will make for many pretty visualizations. In his initial post he used Mo as an example. Yet he uses the red-to-yellow heat scheme, and hasn’t set the intensity particularly high. When examining Mariano’s cutter against lefties in 2009 and 2010 I turned the intensity all the way to 100, and changed the format to display more colors. That should give us a better visual idea of what he did in those two years.

The most noticeable difference comes on the pitches slightly out of the zone. In 2009 he spotted the cutter just out of the zone to lefties. It’s harder to hit a ball out of the zone, and we know that lefties have a hard time when Rivera throws his cutter inside. In 2010 you see a concentration of cutters up and in to lefties, but there isn’t that same concentration of balls that run just out of the zone — inside pitches to lefties. We can’t say for sure that this is the sole cause, but it certainly appears to be part of the answer.

Another neat little feature of these heat maps is that it provides pitch type splits. Check out Mo’s four-seamer. He used it effectively against lefties in 2009 when he wanted to pitch them away. In 2010, though, he hardly touched the pitch against lefties. That also might be part of the answer. Perhaps Mo needs to use that fastball to keep lefties guessing.

Again, these heat maps don’t provide us with answers. Instead they put data into a format that we can easily see. Maybe Mo’s lack of strikeouts against lefties had nothing to do with where he spotted his cutter. But more than likely I expect it played a part. That’s his bread and butter, and he just wasn’t ramming the cutter down lefties’ throats as he has in the past. I suspect that he’ll get back to that in 2011.

Building depth using the middle and late rounds of the draft

The best 17th round pick in Yankees history, and it's not even close. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

First round draft picks and high profile international signings garner most of our attention and make us excited for the future, as they should. These players are the best of the best, at least when it comes to the amateur ranks. They’re drafted early and signed to seven-figure contracts because teams expect them to be above-average contributors at the Major League level, if not franchise cornerstones. The Yankees have one of the better farm systems in baseball right now, and although first round picks and international bonus babies contribute a great deal to that, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and his staff have done an exceptional job of finding talent in the middle and lower rounds of the draft.

Of the 20 drafted players among the Yankees’ top 30 prospects according to Baseball America, nine were selected after the fifth round. Seven of those nine were selected in a double digit round, and four of those seven signed for no more than $150,000. This isn’t just a case of the Yankees throwing money at top amateurs who’ve fallen for whatever reason, though they’ve certainly done that aplenty (Dellin Betances and Austin Jackson come to mind). They’ve legitimately drafted and developed quite a few middle round talents into actual prospects.

Depending on who you ask, the best of the middle-to-late round crop is Brandon Laird, a 27th round pick that signed for just $120,000. It could also be David Phelps (14th round and $150,000) or maybe even D.J. Mitchell (10th round and $450,000), but that’s just players still with the organization. Late round picks Casey Erickson (10th round) and Dan McCutchen (13th round) were flipped for help at the big league level, as were middle rounders Mitch Hilligoss and Chase Weems (both sixth round picks). Two recent fifth round picksĀ  – Zach Kroenke and George Kontos – have been selected in the Rule 5 Draft (Kroenke twice), so it’s clear other clubs value them.

Oppenheimer has been at the helm for six drafts now, and he’s had a total of ten players reach the big leagues (only counting players the Yankees actually signed, so they don’t credit for Doug Fister, Justin Turner, and Drew Storen). That doesn’t seem like a lot, but remember, the last few drafts are still a work in progress. Of those ten players, just three (Brett Gardner, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain) were drafted before the fifth round. Of the remaining eight, five were taken no earlier than the eighth round. David Robertson highlights this group, a completely unheralded 17th round pick that signed for $200,000 and has turned into a strikeout heavy setup reliever.

Of course, it’s important to keep our expectations realistic. We’re not talking about stars here; getting Albert Pujols in the 13th round or Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round or Jorge Posada in the 24th round or Mike Piazza in the 62nd round is a once in a lifetime event. Most of the middle-to-late round players project to be back-end starters or role players or extraneous relievers, but that has value. For every D-Rob the team develops, that’s one less Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier they have to sign as free agents. Each Colin Curtis or Kevin Russo is one less Randy Winn or Miguel Cairo. The Yankees are getting away from that reliance on veterans in this miscellaneous roles, which saves payroll and allows for greater roster flexibility.

The Yankees will surely need to rely on some of these non-top draft picks this season, especially given the current state of their rotation. Whether that means throwing Phelps or Mitchell to the AL East wolves or using them in trades for an established starter remains to be seen, but they’re an important cog in the pinstriped machine going forward.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 31st, 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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